La Paz has captured my heart. I’m not sure what it is about this place. In all reality it’s just another big city in South America but something about it has caught me and I love it. We’ve ended up hanging out here for about a week- and I really mean just hanging out. Yesterday we finally went to our frist museum- The Coca Museum. It was actually pretty interesting. Just one room with a winding and slightly tired display covering the orgins of coca leaf use to information about international cocaine abuse. We learned the nutritional and health benefits of the coca leaf (just the act of chewing it allows the user to absorb 90% of it’s value). We learned that the US (5% of the world’s population) consumes 50% of the world’s cocaine. We learned about the first cocaine users- it was used as an anesthetic and predessesor to modern drugs like lidocaine, bupivicaine, etc. Sigmund Freud was one of the first cocaine addicts in the world. Definitely the worth the $1.50 entrance fee- soemthing a little different than all the art and archeology museums we’ve been to over the last few months.
One of our favorite things about Bolivia so far is the street food. Cameron’s absolute favorite is the Salteňas for sale on every corner in the morning. Freshly baked, slightly sweet pastry dough filled with whatever you want- chicken, pork, cheese…Bolivians stick to a roll and a coffee for breakfast, but the midmorning salteňa snack is what really gets you through til lunch at 2 pm. It only took us one day to discover the main food market. Every morning I order myself a 50 cent smoothie of fresh fruit (anything you can think of!) and milk. Either that or I gulp down a big glass of fresh squeezed orange juice on the corner. For breakfast we stroll through the market. Cameron keeps his eyes out for salteňas or women selling chorizo sandwiches and I look for humintas (sweet corn masa stuffed with cheese and steamed in a banan leaf, similar to a tamale) or rellenas. Rellena literally means filled, and can either be a potato, a rice ball, or yuca, stuffed with ground beef and spices, deep fried, and covered with hot sauce or peanut sauce. Yum! By afternoon, the salteňa stands have closed and we move on to cuňapes, my absolute favorie yuca cheese bread, and fresh fruit. Right now it’s the season for plums, peaches, apples, figs, bananas, and of course, gigantic avocados. As evening falls, the streets start to sizzle with hot dog stands and meat on a stick. I’m not usually a big hot dog lover, but fresh dogs covered with grilled onions has become an irresistable dinner for me. After our delicious lunch today of chorizo sausage, pork tenderloin, and roasted chicken for $3 we are on a mission to find some vegetables for dinner- not an easy task.
Besides reading our books in the plaza and enjoying Bolivian food, we have managed to squeeze in a couple cultural activites. On Saturday night, after watching an amazing Seattle Seahawks football game at an overpriced but comfy British pub, we went to our first Peňa show. Peňas are bar/restaurants that center around a dinner show of local culture, music, and dance. We chose one of the cheaper ones, hoping to get a less touristy experience. Although there weren’t any locals in the crowd, it was mosty Argentinians, so at least not a Gringo show. We sipped on Chuflays (Singany– Bolivian grape brandy- mixed with Sprite) and watched traditional dancing and a wonderful Bolivian band playing music from around the world until 1 am.
But the most unique Bolivian experience we’ve had so far is the Cholita Wrestling match in El Alto. Let me explain. Chola is a word used to describe Bolivian women who live in the city but continue to dress in their traditional clothing rather than switching to Western style. Cholita is the diminutive form of the word- did I mention that Paceňos (folks from la Paz) speak Spanish almost 100% in the diminutive? Where as I’d normal request a glass of OJ and a piece of bread like this ‘Por favor, da me un vaso de jugo y un pan.” The Paceňos say, “Por favorcito, da me un vasito de jugo y un pancito.” Kind of annoying but mostly amusing. Anyway, back to wrestling. El Alto is a very interesting
neighborhood that has sprung up on the outskirts of La Paz. La Paz is shaped like a bowl, with the main downtown road the only flat area. Even one block off the main drag means climbing up the slopes of the bowl. When you get all the way to the lip of the bowl at the very top, you find El Alto. It started as an encampment for capesinos (country farmers) who were migrating to the city. It’s now home to 650,000 people and has a growth rate of 6% per year. That’s huge. It’s also known for being a strong community of revolutionaries and activists. The week before we arrived in Bolivia, la Paz broke out in protests because the president (Evo Morales) withdrew a fraction of the government gas subsidy, increasing the cost of gas. El Alto was the center of almost all the protests. Main road access to La Paz was blockaded, supply chains were cut, and after a few days Morales replaced the subsidy. So to get to Cholita wrestling, we took a bus that climbed the sloping walls of La Paz and arrived all the way in the middle of El Alto.
I was actually shocked at how many locals were at the wrestling, since it’s promoted as a major, albiet alternative, tourist attraction. Tourist tickets cost 50 Bolivianos ($7 usd) (That could buy us 5 good meals or a night in a hotel) and gave us a ringside seats in a throng of Gringos. Local’s only paid 20 Bolivianos ($2.50 usd)- good thing, or the locals would never have made it. We really had no idea what to expect. But when the “professional” wrestling began, it quickly became obvious that we might have well have been at a backyard meeting of a bunch of pro wrestling fanatics trying to put on a show. There was a lot of shit talking, some crazy costumes (one match was between the good guy dressed in red white and blue stars spangled spandex vs. the bad guy in guerilla army fatigues….hmmmm.), and a lot of bad choreography. Although the show is touted as “Cholita” westling, it started out with male wrestlers. Then we moved on to a match between a young pretty Cholita and a male wrestler. True to the story-line formula, the bad guy always starts to win, by cheating, but in the end the good guy makes a come back and shows them who is boss. When the bad guy started beating up on the young Cholita however, I found it hard to get into the game and continue the yelling and taunting. Something deep deep inside prohibited me from enjoying the (even horribly fake) bashing of a young woman by a big strong guy in tights. I was cringing and SO relieved when the match was over and we moved on to girl vs girl. The Cholitas were “sisters” but in the ring they were enemies. With braids and skirts flying they stomped, threw, and tore eachother apart without really any conclusion. Because the women were in full length layered skirts, the girl on girl sexy wrestling thing that usually makes me slightly uncofmrtable wasn’t there. This was just two kinda chubby and very strong women going at it. We accepted the cheesy-ness of it all and got into the show by throwing popcorn, shaking our fists at the bad guys, and cheering on the good guys. Overall, it was definitely not the “awesome” experience we had been led to believe, although it was defineitly unforgettable. Cam was especially dissapointed at the amateur moves after having been to professional quality lucha libre shows in Mexico. But, it was definitely something different- a new experience to add to our belt. I think next time we’ll leave the wrestling to the Mexicans though.
Tomorrow we are finally heading out of La Paz to visit some of the surrounded towns. Ina few days we will venture into the jungle for a multi day jungle tour. So far Bolivia gets thumbs up, although we still have a ton to do and see before we head into Argentina. Wish us luck as we throw ourselves into the middle of rainy season in the jungle!