La Paz - What did I know of this place? The de-facto capital of Bolivia, one of South America's poorest countries. Nothing else. It's a late bus arrival, and slowly the dark city starts to form from the country. Odd buildings, then they get more frequent, broken roads, open drains. Few lights. As we find longer established areas, we see marching bands, costume shops, great piles of dirt in the middle of the street, litter, many people, a swift pace. It's a city with an edge. Full of people living brightly, but it brings a nervousness to both of us on the bus. It feels like life here is denser and more passionate.
Then we hit the edge. La Paz is built in a great canyon, where the Andean Plateau falls away, a 3 sided bowl, and we realise we've been in the over-spill above the city on the high plain for an hour. This place is HUGE. In darkness, we make out the contours of La Paz from the lights flowing towards the centre from side canyons, lower plateaus. Gaps where the geography has won, and nothing can possibly be built. A spider of lights, crammed into a series of deep crevices in the Andean plain. Even late at night, the city is hot with people, hot with stories, hot with expectation.
It will have to wait, as we're tired and the hostel is ready for us. Jess has two friends meeting us here. Anouk and Ben. We're teaming up to see Bolivia. We say hi, but I'm knackered, and more conversation will have to wait for tomorrow. We're in the 'Wild Rover' party hostel, but I will confess I've never been less ready for a party in my life, and somehow get 8 hours solid kip despite the noise and movement. The hostels are worth a piece in their own right, so I'll save that for later.
In the morning we head out to see what's there. Our day an expectant blank page, waiting to be filled. We're engulfed by the disorganised jumble of architecture, from magnificent colonial buildings to cheap slums, all overlapping, butting up, tight shouldered streets joined by overladen telegraph posts, wires beyond count in every direction, only just over bus height. Not an inch is wasted, above or across. This is a city both in miniature and endless. Bayoneted ceremonial guards in bright costume stand outside municipal buildings. Real guards, in fatigues, with automatic weapons loose by their sides are behind them, almost out of sight. When we reach junctions in these crowded roads, we suddenly get the smallest of glimpses of the wider city. Flowing up the huge walls of rock, terracotta coloured slums climbing to heaven, towering over the centre, and to the North, Mt Illimani, three peaked, snow crusted mountain, and the second highest point in Bolivia. It's hints of grandeur, peeping from behind faded colonial architecture.
President Evo Morales is with us everywhere we go. The first native Andean president, farmer, immense personality. This is his country and you're not allowed to forget it. Every wall has 'Evo, Si' graffitied on it, and his great new construction, personally endorsed with a splendid, healthy picture of the man himself on every surface, the cable car network, is going in rapidly. Getting around a city so physically sheer is slow, the one road out of town slowly winds up the rim of the cauldron, a perpetual crawl, and driving out takes hours. The cable car cuts all that out, and takes you to the rim in 10 minutes. We take the red line, that starts from one of La Paz's abandoned railway stations. A car every 20 seconds, with room for 8, this is mass transit as never before! We float up over the city, over the roads, over the immense mausoleum, and straight up the cliff. We're in a lens being drawn back, and the totality of the city emerges. It's silent, other than when the car passes through a pylon with a small click, and the four of us are moved to passionate silence ourselves, this great city focusing before us. As a bonus, Jess has forgotten her glasses, can't see the VW beetles in the streets below, and can't continue the 'Punch buggy' game.
The top is not what we're expecting. There should be cafes, galleries, arcades. It's an extraordinary spot, and tourists should be flooding here, each car unloading another crowd of thirsty travelers, eager to spend dollars and Bolivianos abundantly as they shake their heads dumbfounded at the magnificence. But in reality it is a slum, with few shops, and a tough life. Finding a spot to see the city is nearly impossible, like it hasn't occurred to the locals that there's anything special about this place, but we do find one. If there is a more attractive city to look at from outside, I want to know about it. Like mould growing on liquid sugar, wherever a foundation can be laid, a house has been built. Where the geography is too intense, the canyon wins. The city is a perfect fit for the bowl. From the tall towers of the city centre to the cheap brick houses, built at random all around the rim, it's true that the cheapest houses in the city also have the best views in the world. We sit and watch it for a quiet hour.
Back down in the city, we walk for miles down intense roads. There's the witch market, for those who practice such arts. Eye level, tourist stuff, idols, drums, toys. But look down and up instead. Under the tables, berries, dried starfish, leaves, beans, powders. Above, its dried llama fetuses hanging from the ceiling, graded by size. Two markets here, then. The formaldehyde smell is sweet. The ladies that run these shops don't try to sell you anything, but sit cross armed and weigh you up, small felt bowl hats pinned severely in place.
Further down the road are music shops. The main instrument here is a 'Charanga', a small bodied string instrument, with 5 courses of pairs of strings. I decide to book a lesson. For 30 bolivars, (about £3.50) I get an hour of basics. The teacher has no English, but I know what lessons are like, and by demonstration and whiteboard, he's able to impart much. It's bloody hard! I suddenly feel a moment of sympathy for my own fiddle students who I delight in pushing. My main learning point is the rhythms, which I record for future reference. My teacher is a fine musician, and finishes the lesson with a splendid party piece.
But time here is fleeting, and the night bus leaves now. I was only in La Paz for 20 hours, but it felt like much more. It is a city where life can be condensed and concentrated into a thick, sweet condiment of experience. I leave with a heavy heart. The night bus driver has continuous road rage. We pass a half built building, and on the top deck of the bus, I come face to face with a dog on the open floor. It wags. We move on. A man sells giant teddies from a stall on a dark road in a slum. There isn't another shop around. La Paz breaks up, and the country returns.
Returning 4 days later, the beast of the city has woken fully, and shows us its other side. Roadblocks force our bus down dirt-made side streets. Residents block our path, the atmosphere is tense. Suddenly, the bus pulls in, a lady gets on and shouts our names. We're half asleep, it's first thing in the morning. We have to get off, grab our bags, put shoes on. The lady is our travel agent's partner in La Paz, and somehow she's found us. What's going on? The centre of the city is paralysed by protest. We're now in a taxi across the edge of the city to catch the bus back to Cusco, which didn't leave yesterday and may not leave tomorrow. We catch the bus in a shower of bags and coins. This lady has done a job far above and beyond, saving us days in a protest filled, angry city. We hardly get chance to say thanks and we're off. As we relax into another mammoth bus journey, we reflect that we've had exactly the right amount of time in Bolivia. This is a tough country, poor, where many things barely work. Protest is common, roads are broken down and missing. It's the most beautiful country I've seen, but there's a dark streak under the surface. You can taste the anger, the frustration. It's been brilliant and exhausting. The people that live here are tough. I wish Bolivia well, but I fear for her.