Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas in La Paz

First view of La Paz, Bolivia

10:15 p.m. Hotel Rosario

This isn't my hotel, but I'm sitting in the top floor bar and internet cafe. No one else around. In fact, the attendant handed me the key and asked me to turn out the lights and lock up when I'm done. He's evidently unaware that I'm not a guest here! Rooms in this hotel are $30. It's quite nice and comfortable.

My hotel, the "Italia", on the other hand, is costing 30 Bolivianos per night. That's one-eighth the price! But I don't get a TV or internet, or towel or toilet paper! (I'll just come over here to use the "loo".)


Loading up the bike this morning in Copacabana, I checked my tires and found the rear pressure very low. No obvious cause, but I hadn't checked them in ages, so I thought maybe this had developed gradually. An opportunity to use my electric pump for the first time. It took about 15 minutes to get the tire back up to 40 psi (perhaps due to the elevation here.) The tire will be replaced in La Paz, so I wasn't too concerned.

Anne and I decided to ride to La Paz together. Trying to navigate our way out of Copacabana, we encountered a huge festival in the town square. It appeared they were having a "blessing of the vehicles": everywhere, there were cars and trucks adorned with flowers.

The Bolivian town of Copacabana in the distance, on the shore of Lake Titicaca

About twenty miles east of Copacabana, there is a ferry crossing that one must take to continue on to La Paz. The flat-bottom boats look ancient, and rough-sawn planks are laid lengthwise across their ribs; only enough planks to provide a rail for the vehicle tires. We were directed aboard ("pull forward to the rocks") and then the young man piloting this ferry picked up a long pole and pushed us off from the shore.

This is what constitutes a ferry. Traveling from Copacabana to La Paz, you have to cross these straits.

Pushing off from shore. "Are you going to push us all the way across?" Then, I noticed the tiny outboard motor that was going to propel us across the straits.

Notice all the water in the bilge! We were fortunate that "seas" were calm this morning.

After clearing the shore, he fired up a tiny outboard motor (it said "Honda 50"). And we puttered along. There was clearly no hurry getting to the other side. Too late, we asked how much this costs. "30 Bolivianos (almost $4) each. "Too much!" I protested. "30 para dos!" Thirty for the two. But he wouldn't have it.

There was plenty of traffic on the water this morning

When we reached the opposite shore, we had to back the motorcycles off, which was a bit of a project, given the narrow planks and uphill slope to reach the bank. Anne negotiated a discount, and we paid 50 Bolivianos for the two bikes.

Quite a ways back, I referred to Highway 101 through Washington's Olympic Peninsula as a "Trail of Tears", because of all the clear-cutting. But today, from Copacabana to La Paz, Anne and I were on a different kind of "Trail of Tears." Perhaps because it’s Christmas, the hundred mile stretch between these cities was lined with literally thousands of peasants: standing, sitting, lying and kneeling alongside the highway, hands (or hats) outstretched for any kind of an offering.

Families camped on blankets and ate their meals along the road, the children beckoning at every passing vehicle. It was clearly a special day, as some vehicles stopped along the shoulder obviously bearing treats or gifts, and for hundreds of yards in all directions, children came running. They lined up patiently to receive their surprise.

From other passing vehicles gifts were tossed out the windows and the kids raced to pick up the little wrapped parcels, wrestling each other in the dust to capture the prize.

We slowed down to have a closer look, but I wouldn't even consider photographing these people, treating them as a spectacle. Bolivia is the poorest nation in South America, and from today's ride, the poverty was all too clear.

It's a pretty bleak landscape as well, this altiplano. Brick and concrete structures rising out of the earth, with little vegetation to soften the impression.

In La Paz, we stopped downtown to look up recommended hotels in Anne’s guide. She led us to "Hotel Italia" (I would have been lost, but she easily found it, geographer that she is!) At first, I was going to look for a nicer hotel, then decided “why make it hard on yourself.” And the price is right. They allowed us to park our motorcycles inside a gated drive.

We went out to lunch at “Pizzeria Italia”, which claims “the best pizza in town.” This was our Christmas dinner! (We passed on the $15 turkey dinner offered by the "Hotel Rosario".)

Afterwards, we took care of our internet responsibilities, checking in and answering e-mails. I tried calling Jessica, but only connected to voice mail.

Late in the afternoon, I wandered through some of the open air markets scattered through this hillside neighborhood. A sea of humanity! Fascinating. But just climbing a couple flights of stairs here can take your breath away. I had to take it easy. (And my calf was starting to cramp up, reminding me that I need to go slow.)


Genevieve said...

It appeared they were having a "blessing of the vehicles", everywhere, there were cars and tricks adorned with flowers.

The priest does indeed bless the vehicles and sprinkles holy water on them. I think it must work -- some of those vehicles must be running on faith alone.

timtraveler said...

You're right about those cars. They somehow keep them going many years after us northerners would have abandoned the cars.

Anonymous said...

2 comments (relocated here due to post consolidation):

Genevieve said...

Look at that awesome altiplano sky. Beautiful!

timtraveler said...

It looks like the land is pressed right up against the sky.