A winter month in La Paz

Jujuy, Argentina, 9/9/19

Since not having a proper keyboard I’ve noticed I put off and put off updating my blog. I can now dictate instead via my phone but it doesn’t feel as natural as typing yet. So, to stay more up-to-date I am going to try dictating shorter blogs than in the past. Laura says shorter is better anyway. Today my aim is four short blogs: La Paz, the Bolivian altiplano, first impressions of Argentina, and a post about the roads here.

If I’m honest, I sometimes enjoy periods ‘on the road’ more in retrospect than at the time. The Peru Great Divide being a case in point! If you ask me about my favourite chapters I’ll tend to focus on the interesting cities where I’ve spend a few weeks or months.

Cusco in Peru was not one of these (too touristy) but La Paz in Bolivia definitely was.

La Paz is set in a huge sloping canyon. Being slightly sheltered it isn’t as bitterly cold as its outskirts on the surrounding altiplano (plain) but it is still cold at night on account of being 3,600m above sea level. During the winter daytimes it was dry and sunny/warm. Though a big city it has quite a laid-back feel. It’s easy to get around on foot, in efficient little minibuses or via the amazing cable car system.

Like most urban Latin Americans I’ve come across people were helpful and polite, though not overly interested in me. That’s a big reason I prefer being in cities: I blend in more easily and feel less like an extra-terrestrial.

My main purpose for stopping for a month in La Paz was to try and crank my Spanish up a notch from where it had more or less plateaued since Medellín. To this end I had two hours of one-to-one conversation each weekday afternoon, mostly funded by birthday money from my kind parents. Note to self: 90 minutes per day would be better next time.

I gave my teacher, L, a list of all the grammatical elements I have been avoiding using, and asked that we try to incorporate these into our daily conversations. This approach worked quite well, I think. I have no interest in completing fill-in-the-blank exercises etcetera. As a result I now make the occasional attempt to use the subjunctive mood in my speech, as well as the multiple past tenses. I need to work more on the various conditionals and compound tenses. Interestingly, L said I do not have an ‘English’ accent. Apparently British and US American people tend to have the strongest accents when speaking Spanish.

I also got back into listening to various podcasts for Spanish learners, to discover that I can now follow intermediate and advanced level ones with no difficulty. Pity my production has not kept pace!

Thanks to L I learned quite a bit about the city, the country, the pros and cons of President Evo Morales, and how things have changed during her lifetime (she’s 29) for indigenous Bolivians. Indigenous folk, especially women dressed traditionally in huge skirts and bowler hats (‘cholitas’, which apparently is no longer considered a slur), are very visible in La Paz and seem to dominate street life, market life, etcetera. L (my main teacher) and my other teacher G told me their parents’ generation discouraged their children from speaking either of the two main indigenous languages, to avoid them being discriminated against, which means they don’t speak Aymara even though it is their mothers’ first language. Notwithstanding, L was the first in her family to go to university where she studied linguistics, so she’s extremely interested in variations of Spanish, and we had several interesting conversations about that.

Having my lessons to get out of the AirBnB for gave my days structure and was good for my mental health.

Something I found interesting in La Paz was the street where you can literally curb-crawl for a plumber, electrician, or builder. I spoke to one of them and he said he only gets one or two jobs a day.

Food-wise I tried a few new and interesting things but the most memorable were salteñas: Bolivia’s take on empanadas, quite similar to little Cornish pasties with the addition of chicken, egg and olives. L told me there are Facebook campaigns to remove the olives!!

Using Tinder led to a couple of memorable ‘lost in translation’ episodes. First I met a nice photographer of about my age who invited me to go as a volunteer to a women’s residential event in Sucre where she would be teaching. I agreed since it sounded an interesting new event to support and I hadn’t otherwise planned to visit Sucre. I postponed my planned solo trip to Coroico, travelled overnight on a bus (on my birthday!), and stayed three nights in Sucre, only to find there was absolutely nothing for me to do! Irritated doesn’t cover it! I think she assumed I’d enjoy just hanging about for three days, but this assumption was not communicated to me.

Second I was propositioned for a booty call by a cute and confident young biochemist. She came over, albeit about two hours late, and all was going swimmingly until my Airbnb host started hammering on the door and made me come out of my room for a furious dressing-down on the basis I was not allowed any guests! Considering my host was younger than me, an urban sophisticate whose boyfriend stays over several nights per week, this was a surreal experience to say the least. One cannot help but suspect homophobia.

All in all, however, a good and interesting month in La Paz.