Tuesday, 2 June 2015

La Paz

Out of all the major cities we have visited, La Paz probably has the worst reputation. Lonely Planet writes "For years, we’ve been saying that crime in Bolivia is no worse than large US cities. Today, this is no longer true, and travelers should exercise caution while in La Paz" and warnings are abundant to backpackers entering the city to be careful of fake police and express taxi hijackings. A good piece of local advice to follow is 'camina lento, toma poco…y duerme solo’ or 'walk slowly, drink little…and sleep by your lonesome.'
Needless to say, by the time we had finished weaving our way through the chaotic central traffic and made it to our hostel, my nerves were a little jangled! However we had no time to dwell on this as we were whisked off to the Cholita Wrestling. 
Cholita, once a derogatory term now suggesting empowered, proud women of Bolivia, describes the women who wrestle in traditional dress, inspired by American WWF. Historically the wrestling is a way of releasing female frustrations in a male dominated world and also to provide an opportunity to earn for the cholitas who typically come from low-income broken homes. However as the spectacle, focused more on performance than skill, increases in popularity, the cholitas are becoming an icon in their own right complete with a devoted following from the crowd, who are encouraged to get as involved as possible; orange peel, popcorn and litter flies past our heads as the comedy sketches in the ring unfold before our eyes. Emerging into the ring dancing seductively in intricately designed traditional clothes of multilayered skirts, colorful shawls and bowler hats, this 'butter wouldnt melt' appearance is quickly lost as they pitch themselves against each other in the aim to be crowned winner. Whilst it is clear that no actual fighting is involved, the staged performance is a testament of their dedication to the cause. Aside from a few saches of fake blood, the cholitas come out of the ring apparently injury-free and infact can be seen once the evening is over collecting empty glasses and clearing rubbish; real 21st century women!
We chose watching the cholita wrestling over a home game for La Paz's team, The Strongest and it definitely was the right choice - a must see when in the governmental capital of Bolivia. 
The city itself can take your breath away; literally as it sits at a dizzying altitude of 3660m above sea level and visually as from the teleférico, cable car, a panoramic view shows how La Paz sits within a canyon with neighbourhoods clinging to the steep banks. In the centro, the hustle and bustle can be all-consuming as all your senses are assaulted by daily Bolivian life. It is worth taking the time to find the witches market located in the winding streets just off the main avenue - here you can find a whole host of wares including real silver jewellery and leather goods.
On our last day we had arranged to meet a man affectionately named 'Crazy Dave,' an ex convict of the notorious San Pedro prison in the centre of the city. Having spent 16 years inside for drug smuggling, Dave now educated tourists on the realities of life inside a prison which is essentially a community itself, complete with shops and restaurants and ironically, successful cocaine-producing laboratories. Prisoners have to buy their way through life including renting their own cell, some of which inmates convert to family houses as women and children will freely move in with their incarcerated loved ones. 
In Daves words, 'money walks and bullshit talks' explaining how some convicts are able to live a life so comfortable they have no interest in escaping, even when they are illegally allowed outside for 24 hours (after a healthy tip to the prison officers of course).  
The scars and permanent disfigurements he had was a sharp reminder of the dog-eat-dog world that is the norm behind the imposing walls of a prison that sits so oxymoronic with real city life. Typically on a free tour monetary donations are made to the guide - however Dave made only one request of toiletries and other necessities instead, on the basis that he was trying to kick his cocaine addiction that is inevitable in a prison notorious for drug offences.  
It was the first time I had ever come into contact and learnt from someone with life experiences from behind bars; it was a real pleasure meeting Dave and heart warming that after paying the price, he is cleaning up his act and finally straightening out his life.