You need a certain spirit to travel, a certain gusto for the open road and the changing scenery. You agree?’
I did agree with Jose, a cultural ambassador for Peru that I met at the Cusco airport while waiting for my flight to La Paz. A clearly wise man, and an artist at heart, he recounted stories of his five round-the-world trips for me while stroking his Splinter-like beard. When I corrected his assumption of my being American, a smile of relief brought his beard to a perk – ‘Canada is very nice! I have been five times. Montreal in 85, Toronto in 93, Calgary in 02…’. His mind visibly wandered off as he tried hard to remember his other two visits but ultimately failed. ‘I sold lots of paintings in Calgary! They really like my style.’
After two months on the road, I arrived in Bolivia to empty streets and closed up storefronts. A few days earlier, I’d received an email from the Canadian consulate advising against travel on this day in Bolivia because of the national election that was taking place. All domestic flights cancelled. All road traffic and the sale of alcoholic beverages prohibited. International flights into La Paz airport and hotel shuttles would be allowed, it went on to say. A quick call to my hostel, Hostal Republica, to arrange for an official airport pickup and I was good to go, travel advisory or not. ‘The election is not for the president, only for governers and mayors’, the hostel told me on the phone. ‘We expect a very quiet, uneventful day in La Paz.’ Nevertheless, I was told the rate for a taxi to the hostel would be double the standard rate. Election Day…
I managed to split the fare though with Remco, a Dutch medical student, traveling south after completing an internship at a hospital in Nicaragua. He liked to tell the locals that his name was Lorenzo, a little easier for them to understand than Remco, he said. After attempting to shave a three-week beard with a disposable razor – a disaster that left me wandering the streets of La Paz with half a beard looking for any open store with more razors – we wandered the streets some more, looking for any open restaurant that served food. We finally found a pizza place, hidden on the second floor of a courtyard hidden from the street through a tunnel, where we discussed life and travelling, and watched the results of the election stream in. Throughout the city, the election results were all that mattered. On the way back to our eagerly awaiting beds, we witnessed hundreds of concerned citizens along Calle Commercio, La Paz’s main pedestrian street, watching the results stream in on window display TV’s while street vendors galore took advantage of the occasion to peddle their goods to the masses.
A quiet day indeed, not a riot or demonstration to be seen, a sharp contrast to the doomsday email from the Consulate. Just concerned citizens evoking their democratic right. The next day, we evoked our right to have fun, and jumped in a cab destined for the highest golf club in the world – only to find out it was closed on Mondays for maintenance. I wonder if Bolivians embraced the notion of productivity, they might be able to pull themselves out of the ditch and on to the list of first-world countries. Typical opening hours for a store in Bolivia – 10-12 and 2:30-5. That’s 4.5 work hours and a 2.5 hour lunch siesta as they like to call it.
With golfing out of the picture, I decided instead to visit the Museum of Musical Instruments. I know what you’re thinking…how could I have even considered going golfing in the first place when something as scintillating as the Museum of Musical Instruments beckons. Well, the museum turned out to be a pleasant surprise, with informative exhibits on things you might not expect like erotic instruments, and the petrified mummy in a glass case that to this day I cannot figure out why it was in this particular museum. Up next, when in La Paz, visit the Coca Museum, dedicated wholly to the Coca plant (shockingly not the national plant of Bolivia), whose leaves are both glorified and demonized by everyone in Bolivia. The museum itself was actually quite interesting, objective and even-handed with exhibits on the chemical properties of coca, studies conducted on its effects, the drug trade, addiction and of course it’s use in creating Coca-Cola. The day was topped off with a visit to the San Francisco Cathedral for a private guided tour in Spanish that took me all the way up to the bell tower and unique views of the city of peace (Paz is Spanish for peace).
On my last day in the city, I decided to take in some Bolivian artistry. First stop, the National Art Gallery, chock full of paintings from Bolivia’s most famous artist – Melchor Perez Holguin. As with most everything in South America, the overarching theme of the work in the museum was religion, as displayed on nearly 3/4 of the paintings in the museum. So it was a breath of fresh air when I arrived at the Museum of Contemporary Art and found nary a religious portrait in sight. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it was my favorite art gallery in South America. To finish off the day, I visited the hugely underwhelming Witches Market, which is one of the most commonly talked about things to do in La Paz. Aside from a couple of weird things here and there (did anyone want me to bring them home a dried llama fetus? – I wonder how Canada Customs would react to that one), the market looked and felt like every market in every village in Peru.
On to Sucre, the actual capital of Bolivia.