First Post of 2013: La Paz and Quiet in Bolivia

Yep, that's a cloud. At a night, from a distance, La Paz looks like it's lit by tiny candles. Up close, it looks like it's on fire.

Happy (belated) New Year! It’s been a while, but I have been sandboarding, trekking, climbing, sweating – in areas with limited Internet access. It’s refreshing to not have to check my phone furiously for updates. Now that I’m back in Philly, I suspect this will be the last time I can feel so… untethered. I had a brilliantly fun holiday, crossing things off my bucket list and getting to know four friends better… School’s starting today but I just wanted to jot down some thoughts about my adventures, starting with La Paz.

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[If you’re here for La Paz travel tips (restaurants, guides, etc), they’re right at the bottom!]

My 01-01-13 was disquietingly quiet – the entire city shut down, supposedly to recover from the previous night’s hangover. Apparently Bolivians drink a lot to usher in the New Year, and I was told by one tour company that they wouldn’t be operating their Salar de Uyuni tours because “some drivers might be drunk.” (We have since returned from hot, dusty Uyuni, safely.)

This year’s crossover was certainly more culturally-intuned than the previous’ (then, we were in a sketchy club in San Jose, Costa Rica). We had an amazing dinner at Villa Serena, recommended by our helpful Airbnb host Farina. At 8.30pm, it was empty save for one table – turns out Bolivianos eat the last meal of the year at home, and even then, eat very, very late. The restaurant got a little more crowded closer to midnight – and it was lovely. We were each given a packet of twelve green grapes by our smiley waitresses, one to represent a month of good luck in the upcoming year. And so we counted down in Spanish, clinked our complimentary glasses of champagne, and hoped “the best of 2012 would be the worst of 2013.” (Beautiful saying, Jo!)

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All of us in our Nice Clothes before dinner

Which I suppose is kinda funny given that half our party proceeded to throw up their dinner – altitude sickness at work? And later our efforts to locate nearby club Forum came to nought when we disappointingly found out it was closed. But still, it was an undeniably memorable start to the year.

Six days into 2013 have not relieved me of my apprehension or excitement towards what will mark a new chapter in my life: an interminable stretch of Employment, where adulthood is no longer broken up into manageable chunks of four or six years, or even Spring Breaks and other vacations. The scary thing is not knowing how to navigate this gigantic ocean where all you can see is horizon. I won’t know what this sort of life would be like till I’m way into it, but in the meantime, I’m looking forward to the weekend lunches and dinners I’ll have with my fellow working friends. And my senior spring courseload: Intro to Screenwriting, and Advanced Digital Photography!

BAMF Alan at Calle Jaen, La Paz's cobblestoned, colonial street

BAMF Alan at Calle Jaen, La Paz’s cobblestoned, colonial street

In the meantime, I am grateful for this Last Long Holiday Ever (well, maybe save for Grad Trip, but all plans are still up in the air). La Paz, especially, has been a place I wanted to visit ever since I read Juan de Recacoechea’s American Visa for my Transatlantic Literature class – if not for crossing “being in the  highest de facto capital in the world” off my checklist (Sucre is the official capital), then to experience the book’s debaucherous depictions of the city’s nightlife. While it looks like I’ll never get a glimpse of the latter, walking around over the course of 3-4 days has been rather interesting.

Like I said, the roads on 1 Jan were empty and quiet. Julia, Matt, Alan and I went off on a long search for our first meal of the year, finally arriving at Don Pollo’s (a KFC-esque chain) for some decent roasted chicken. We didn’t have much else to go for the rest of the day (many fine-dining establishments close for 2 weeks, like Chinese restaurants in Kuala Lumpur during Chinese New Year!), so we lazed around, and watched a bootleg copy of Bad Teacher we bought for 4 bolivianos (55 cents). After all the traveling and moving about that we did in Peru, it was a much-welcome, much-needed rest.

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The boys bought chicken from Don Pollo AND chicharones from a street vendor

2 Jan started off more touristy: we headed down to Calle Jaen, supposedly a whimsical, quaint cobble-stoned path lined with colonial architecture – or “Haji Lane”, as our homesick / trying-to-be-funny Singaporean boys said. Well, I’ll take Haji Lane anytime; Calle Jaen was rather underwhelming, filled with museums I didn’t have any interest in paying admission for, though there was an art-gallery-cum-bar that I wanted to go to (but it was closed – even Bolivians aren’t that hardcore).

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San Francisco Square / Church

After that we made for San Francisco Square, which was basically another church (after Prague I am suffering from church fatigue), and then… the Witches’ Market (Mercado de las Brujas). Apparently, these ladies are real witches (less Harry Potter, more medicinal doctor + some hocus pocus stuff) from rural Bolivia, peddling their wares of coca leaves, love potions and… mummified baby llamas (to bless the construction of a new house) to serious buyers (though I did see a tourist conferring with one witch earnestly).

Image from Burroakbobcats; you can see the mummified llamas in the background

Image from Burroakbobcats; you can see the mummified llamas in the background

One lady (half of her face was plastered in some white paste, which lent the whole affair an other-worldly touch) invited us into her shop. I took a quick look at all the colorful, plastic-wrapped boxes of (edible?) potions and spells: some had two naked bodies wrapped in an embrace, which I assumed was to guarantee sexy-time, others more macabre, with black skulls whose eyesockets were illuminated by a candle. After that I hightailed out of the shop, prayed, then tried to shake off my heebie-jeebies.

Thankfully the rest of the street offered more conventional items, and I walked away with a pretty pair of bronze leaf earrings, and Matt & Alan with alpaca scarves. After dinner, we returned to watch yet another bootleg copy of Lawless, which is essentially a movie about Shia LeBeouf playing a bravado-filled dumbass (as usual).

The boys trying out sweaters; who rocks purple better?

The boys trying out sweaters; who rocks purple better?

Day 3 in La Paz started off at Mirador Killi Killi, a spot where you can take in paranomic views of the city. It was under renovation, and workers had taped up the whole place with red “PELIGROSO” (or ‘dangerous’) tape, which we conveniently ignored to get to good phototaking spots. I felt a teensy weensy bit bad when one young worker (who couldn’t have been older than 18?) came by and told us we had to leave, and we all pretended not to understand Spanish (the only one in our group who can lay claim to that is Julia). Later our Airbnb host said the trespassing was fine – “This is Bolivia, after all.”

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We took one of those red open-top buses to the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna) in the southern part of La Paz, a terrain of rocky formations supposed to resemble the craters of the moon. From one of our vantage points, we could see houses, which our guide said was built over much opposition by the city’s richer citizens.

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Post-Valley, we milled around one of the malls near Isabela Catolica, and on a whim, decided to watch the final installment of Twilight… in Spanish. While I found the aural exercise semi-fruitful, Alan was both stupefied by the fast , sometimes unintelligible dubbing and, well, its dumb plot. Matt had to shake him awake a few times.

Julia and I mucking around the Hobbit stand as the two shortest people of the group. Has anybody made a movie about short gangstas yet?

Which brings us to Day 4. We returned to Mirador at 5.40 a.m. (we had a few hours to kill in between returning from Uyuni and getting to our apartment) and tried to catch the sunrise. It was cloudy, so the pictures didn’t come out super clear. But it was nice to see the entire city lit up, built in sloping ascension. Apparently, and unintuitively, the richest live at the bottom while the poorest, the top.

Yep, that's a cloud. At a night, from a distance, La Paz looks like it's lit by tiny candles. Up close, it looks like it's on fire.

Yep, that’s a cloud. At a night, from a distance, La Paz looks like it’s lit by tiny candles. Up close, it looks like it’s on fire.

After a quick nap, we made our way to Zona Sur, the backyard of the city’s wealthy. Shops were instantaneously recognizable: Radioshack, MTV apparel, Yogenfruz… We had lunch at a super crowded, mostly-expat German restaurant, Reineke Fuchs. It’s one of the best meals we had: all of us drank the French Onion soup, which was thick enough without being cloying, served with yummy onions and a delectable layer of cheese! Alan and I also shared Tierra y Mar (Land and Sea, or ‘Surf and Turf’). Let me introduce the food-eating competitors — and no prizes for guessing who won: Ravenous Athletes Matt & Jo, Mid-sized Eaters Rachel & Alan, or ‘Soup and Salad’ Sherlyn and Julia?

competition

We had intended to go on a food trail (so many good restaurants in Zona Sur!), but Reineke left us feeling rather full, and so we played Asshole Daidi, Bridge + Hearts at Alexander Coffee (an overhyped Starbucks-esque place which is nice to chill in) while the bible study group next to us gave us disdainful looks and tried to shush us. We ended our last meal of the trip at Cafe Beirut, and then returned to our place to pack and watch Margin Call. Which we all thought was an amazing action movie starring Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore (just to name a few); it was a moralizing, prescriptive account of the immediate 24 hours in the wake of the financial crisis. BORING!

Now that we’re back, I’m grateful for my adventures, but also to be home in a place where I can throw my toilet paper into the toilet… My tiny foray into South America has actually taught me of life lessons, important especially for this transitory stage of my life, which I’ll detail again in more posts to come. In the meantime, here’s my La Paz Lowdown.

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RACHEL’S LA PAZ LOWDOWN:

  • STAY: Lhamourai Living ($37 for 2, $10 per additional person)
  • EAT: Villa Serena (exquisite llama carpaccio paired with real passionfruit sauce; also has art gallery featuring women grabbing men’s penises) & Reineke Fuchs (French onion soup + signature beer + MEAT) & Pacena la Saltena (see above; Bolivian speciality – a curry puff / xiao long bao cross of meat and soup in a crispy pastry)
  • SEE: Mirador Killi Killi (paranomic views of La Paz; try to catch the sunrise), Witches’ Market (Mercado de las Brujas), Zona Sur (for Western comfort and good food, and apparently, the glitzy party scene)
  • SHOP: Nothing stands out in particular but alpaca sweaters + those obiang colorful pants seem to be much cheaper than those sold in Peru

And since I love lists so much… This year’s “resolutions” are simple (and hopefully less prone to disappointment)

  • Gym twice a week (or pay Jo + Matt $5 each per week)
  • Cook every fortnight
  • Find delight and wonder in the small things

HAVE A GOOD FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL PENN PEEPS

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