Sunday, 30 March 2014

Sun gods & witchcraft: La Paz

Lake Titicaca is the birthplace of Inca beliefs. It houses the Isla del sol,  Isla del Lunar where the god of sun and moon resided, and is still home for a number of indigenous people.  It's the worlds biggest high altitude lake (c3900m), stretches 75km and crosses the border between Peru and Bolivia. The Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca is a bit rubbish. 

The lakeside town, Puno, is an ugly grubby place. Rather than base the hotels/retail/entertainment alongside the lake, they've gone for a stretch of road 30 mins away in the middle of town with no discernible plus points.  Despite being a 7 hour drive away from the Inca site, it has 3 takeaways called 'Machu Pizza'. Shoddy punmanship. 

We took the worlds slowest boat for a day trip two of the inhabited Islands - the first, Uros, is a series of 40+ floating Islands made of reeds where the people live a simple life making and selling crafts to tourists. Sort of interesting but mostly a wafer-thin ploy to avoid taxes and make money. We were told of the indigenous ways of life (locally elected presidents, marshall law, interbreeding etc) but when we questioned things like healthcare and education our guide admitted some of the villagers also own properties on the mainland and spend time their when it suits.  Next. 

Onto Taquila, a much more modern island with a town hall, town square and a building dedicated to 'the knitting men'. Men that knit. That was the highlight. 

Several hours v slow sailing back to Puno, we packed up and crossed the border into Bolivia where the same lake looked and felt so much more interesting.  Copacabana is the lake side town and unlike Puno recognised the benefits of being lakeside. We spent a few days there drinking cheap beer, singing the song,  and doing a bit more trekking on the Isla del sol. 

And with that it was time to say goodbye to Jan. We took the late bus to La Paz ensuring we arrived at seedy O'clock where everything and everyone looks ominous.  Found nowhere open to eat so our last meal together was an egg/hot dog sandwich from a street vendor near the bus stops. Never let it be said that we did not show Jan the highlights of backpacking. 

Saying goodbye at the airport was sad and made us both acutely aware of how far from friends and family we are, but on the plus side it was fantastic to spend 2 weeks together and we're very grateful Jan made the long journey out. And she bought us new knickers, swimwear and contact lenses - the mark of a true friend. 

So onto La Paz - the highest altitude capital city. It's small (1.7m people) but very hilly. It's hot in the day if you stand in the direct sunlight, otherwise it's cold and then gets a lot colder from about 5pm onwards.   

Bolivia has c90% indigenous population so unlike other countries where you only see traditional dress out in the sticks, La Paz has vast amounts of women in bowler hats,  waist-length plaits, bright multi-layered skirts ( the broader you make your silhouette here, the more attractive your are. Given these women rarely reach 5ft they're often as wide as they are tall) and leg warmers selling their wares. 

The markets go on for blocks and sell the usual fruit, knock off CDs, polyester fashions and potatoes (over 400 types here and don't think one women can't have all 400 varieties on her stall), but the most intriguing stands are the witches stands. 

Mutual hatred of the USA/the Spanish occupation/neighbouring countries has meant that the witches and the church haven't had time to fight each other.  Instead they've taken a synchronistic approach that means elements of pagan beliefs are present in the cathedral, and the witches sell crosses as part of their packages.  As such witches are recognised as holding genuine powers, and their spells are relied on for many occasions: 

When you move into a new house you must first do the 'new pad' ritual which involves burning a llama foetus (found on every witch stand) along with some other stuff your local witch provides ( sweets, blessed bits of twigs etc.)

If you're lonely you buy the 'follow me follow me' spell (dust) and blow it on your intended victim who will definitely fall in love with you. 

If that doesn't work entirely to plan you can buy the follow up 'come to me, come to me' spell (more dust) and that has to be thrown down your intendeds underwear. Again, will definitely work and not have you ostracised as a pervert. 

A more ominous spell that now has it's own public information advert playing on TV is for a super-stamina Viagra. After a glut of dead men were found, tests were done and the findings were less witchcraft and more equine husbandry. It's Viagra for horses, now with a street name of Die-agra and despite the corpses, still a best seller! 

Witches and dead llamas aside, the other thing La Paz has notoriety for is San Pedro prison. Mainly because of the book Marching Powder, but the macabre draw of the place is still going strong. 

Built to house 400 men, it currently has c2000 people in it. Right in the middle of the city it takes up a whole block behind a relatively low wall (with holes where attempts at escape have been made) and only 15 guards who patrol it from the outside.  Inside, the prisoners rule.  The rich live in furnished flats, the poor in tiny shared cells. The very poor have their family with them as they can't afford to live outside without the breadwinner- very Dickensian to see small children leaving the prison gates to attend the school opposite.

The prisoners make the purest cocaine you can buy in Bolivia and throw it through holes in the corrugated iron roofs where it's collected,cut & sold for them. The money then comes back in under the nose of the bribed guards: the wealthy stay wealthy and the men serving a drug related sentence stay profitably in the market.

The 'peace' is kept inside by various gangs who when not killing each other (riots aren't uncommon), are drowning paedophiles in the well (it's only purpose), and feeding new rapists to the incumbent rapist.  Maybe hard to care how a bunch of hardened criminals treat each other until you discover that you get sent to San Pedro as much for proximity to your home as for the severity of your crime. And that in Bolivia you are guilty until proven innocent.  First time suspected thieves are just as likely to end up here for months on end as their families scrape funds together for a defence as big time drug/people traffickers. 

Up until a few years ago it was quite easy to bribe a guard to let you in, where a prisoner would take you on a tour.  It's beyond me why a traveller would want to do this- not so much the macabre draw of the squalor (I get that bit but Channel 5 provides that several times a year under the thin veil of documentary), but because of the danger of putting yourself at the mercy of caged criminals.  The worst did happen recently when a couple of European women went in so it's now much more difficult to do, although not impossible and people around us were still chatting about the pros & cons of a visit! 

It just made us feel sad. Bolivia has so much going for it but the judicial system has a lot to catch up on.  Not so the celebration of brass music though where Bolivia is head and shoulders above the rest of the world. Nothing occurs in La Paz without a brass band accompanying it: a protest about litter in the streets, celebration of the navy (the only water they have is 1/3 of Lake Titicaca but they still have an active navy), a politicians birthday... Several times over the 5 days we were there the traffic drew to a halt and a marching band took over. People stood and sang the national anthem, fireworks were let off, dancers appeared and did their thing, then the band marched off somewhere else and it all went back to a normal manic city centre.  If it weren't so bloody cold I could really like La Paz. 

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