I am going to have to look up the history on that name. Everyone has heard of La Paz, but unless you are regularly into Spanish, you might miss the fact that this highest of capital cities is called "The Peace". That's kind of a cool name. You know, it's the kind of name bands give themselves when they want to personify normally non-human conceptual type nouns. For example, THE Doors, THE Rolling Stones, THE Clash, THE Cranberries - somehow the addition of that simple word "THE" ahead of the noun turns the word into something much more alive; something with much more of a story.
And that is the sort of city that La Paz is - an enigmatic sort of place cast into a great ravine at almost 4 km into the sky that reveals itself only slowly as you walk the market lined steep streets. It's an amazing place, especially on approach. From almost any direction, you get into La Paz by first passing through El Alto; literally "The High". El Alto sits on the edge of the ravine above La Paz and is currently South America's fastest growing slum/city. Thousands are moving there to be closer to where work might be found in the big city. Although La Paz is a city of 1.5 million, it doesn't feel that big, perhaps because all roads tumble violently into the central ravine that the city is built into. And man, things are steep. Just going for ice cream is a major work out when you combine the altitude with the steepness leading away from the centre.
Every day here this time of year, there are thunder showers in the mid afternoon and the streets turn to rushing rivers for brief periods, stopping everyone in their tracks. Street merchants routinely latch all the shutters and pull out the plastic covers. It's amazing to watch the proficiency with which they accomplish their mundane but necessary tasks. It's also fairly cold owing to the altitude. The weather is almost as though you are on a mountain, as it is changing every 5 minutes. The clouds are strange too. Mostly because they are so close. It is as though you could just reach out and grab a handful of cotton with the greatest of ease.
Yesterday we went out to Tiahuanaco - the site of the oldest civilization in South America. Although not as striking as the much later Inca empire, the Tiahuanaco site is special because it pre dates all other civilizations in South America and provides clues as to where the first indigenous peoples of the continent came from. Certainly there is much here to support the theory of the trans Aleutian crossing from central Asia, and certainly the indigenous people of the area bear strong resemblance to those from central Asia, in particular the Mongolians. Rose coloured wind blown cheeks are the norm. And curiously, just like in Mongolia, hats are very personal and important. One does not screw with another person's hat! Amazing when you think about the distances that are involved. Tiahuanaco also hints strongly toward the architecture to come, with strong pre Inca type construction involving massive stone blocks with carved reliefs and huge gateway type doors.
Once we were back in town, we ran smack dab into the middle of the Good Friday parade. It was really strange because here it is celebrated like a funeral - a rather literal interpretation I thought! Anyway, the marching bands play very sombre music, and the military is the main component of the parade, unfortunately. There are some religious floats, but they are minimized by all the uniformed men (yup, just men). Security is also very very tight, and there were soldiers everywhere carrying tear gas rifles as well as other paramilitary all over the place. Man, it must be tough to have fun here! The country does have a long history of civil protest, so perhaps the heavy handedness is a bit understandable, but it was sure hard to understand because the military personnel seemed to outnumber the regular folks!
We also went to a music museum that had some hands on stuff. It was mostly about the South American flutes and how the Spanish guitar became a strong instrument on the continent. Also interesting was the coca museum, although we didn't get to see it all because of a power outage. We did pick up a lot from the booklet provided. Coca of course is the main natural precursor to cocaine, and here in Bolivia, in spite of Geneva Convention restrictions, the plant is grown ubiquitously. Most winds up in the drug trade, but the cultural history of the plant here in Bolivia is not so dubious. Indeed, prior to the world's demand for the drug cocaine, the coca leaf was merely a cultural stimulant - nothing more. It took US consumption of cocaine to really cause problems. We learned that over 80% of the cocaine consumed in the world is in the US - no wonder farmers are willing to risk it here - the market is huge!
The Coca-Cola story is interesting as well. Did you know that the coca leaf was first used to fortify a wine in France? Exported, it became very successful in the US as well, and a US pharmacist decided to invent his own form of the wine using the cocoa leaf and something called a kola nut from Venezuela/Columbia, mixed with alcohol. When prohibition came around in the US, he had to modify his beverage away from wine, so he went with huge amounts of caffeine instead of alcohol, and voila, the infamous Coca-Kola (Coca-Cola) was born. Although there is no longer cocaine in Coca-Cola, they still do use extracts from the cocoa leaf for flavouring and have special permission to grow and harvest coca even still today. I found all that fascinating...
But I think I'll have to end this "histoire" here for today as I am very nearly out of breath. Even typing in La Paz starves you of Oxygen!!!