The highest capital city in the world

During the bus ride to Copacabana, I was blurring around the edges I was shaking so fast and Jeff had his thumb up his arse to avert disaster.

Really, we only stopped in Copacabana to see Lake Titicaca.

It was early morning when our bus first arrived, and all of me ached. The skin on my legs hurt to touch. Both of us, we collapsed into bed as soon as we could we were so sick. My immune system, I think the red rash of mosquito bites covering my legs picked up on the Inca Trail overwhelmed it.

I slipped into a coma for 22 hours. Jeff sat on the toilet. In the dark, Boxhead watched me sleep like a faithful dog, too afraid to go out on his own.

So much for seeing the lake.

When I did eventually muster the strength to stand, it was morning again.

The lake is more like a deep blue ocean – I can’t remember if there was land on the horizon.

We were supposed to have spent the night on one of the islands in the lake, but Jeff was only keeping it in with a promise by the time we rolled into Copacabana and we booked into the nearest available flop.

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Two hours later, the three of us are stood outside a bus with La Paz on its brow clutching tickets that we’d bought for £2. The three of us standing outside the bus, I’m thinking about staying another night. The breadbasket doesn’t feel too good, and I don’t like the thought of soiling myself on a bus much either.

The other two, now they’re looking at me through the bus window urging me to get on.

We have to cross the lake halfway into the journey. Getting on our ferry, this guy, he jumps on so heavy and two-footed that I’m surprised when he doesn’t drop like a brick right through the deck. The bus has its own ferry.

The crossing is only a matter of minutes but a woman is sea-sick.

We bump into Cheryl and Dave from the Inca Trail within minutes of moving into Wild Rover. Always the great pretender, how we straightaway appear popular pleases me. The bar manager looks like an overweight Tom Cruise. One of the hot bar maids reminds me of my little sister.

Our first day out, we stop at the Witches Market and Coca leaf museum. The market is just another market filled with tourist junk. Around us, people are looking at love potions and Llama foetuses you can bury under your porch for good luck.

The Lonely Planet says the market is a hotspot for thieves, so I’m squinting at everybody.

The little museum is just a small room filled with display boards of pictures and text. Arranged, so that you walk through the history of the coca leaf from start to end. Going in, we’re given encyclopaedias that explain everything.

Sigmund Freud was the first cocaine user in history. Thirty six countries including the US, UK, France and Germany can legally produce a small amount of cocaine a year.

Three weeks later, that’s about as much as I can remember.

I like the museum.

Another time, I learn that Fanta was invented by the Nazis. Coca-Cola was popular in Nazi Germany, but the trade embargoes forced on Germany at the time meant it couldn’t get hold of the syrup to make it. Thus, Fanta was invented. Interesting, huh?

Here’s another: Hugo Boss designed the Nazi SS uniforms.

Walking back, stepping off a bus are Ang and Ed. Also from the Inca Trail. Then at the hostel, Maria and Anine.

In La Paz somewhere, there is a series of small museums and shops on a quiet street away from the car horns and smell of exhaust. Makes me think of that street in Harry Potter where everybody goes to buy their school supplies.

Of course it’s in the Lonely Planet, otherwise we wouldn’t be there.

Swallowing cheese sandwiches in a cafe waiting for the museums to open, given to us by a friendly old senora.

We leave the cafe only half-starving. The old senora parks herself outside waiting for some more customers but it’s a quiet day and there aren’t many people about.

The museums open. A precious metals museum, revolutionary Pedro Domingo Murillo’s home Casa Murillo, and a musical instrument museum. I would recommend them.

P1010053So that we feel like ‘real’ travellers, we book a ticket to Santa Cruz at the bus station. Incidentally, the station was designed by Gustav Eiffel.

It’s more than time for lunch. We choose a place on a corner with a chaste exterior. Downstairs, the joint is dim and in my memory the light has an unreal blue colour. Set menu. We’ve made a big mistake coming here. What we are having we don’t know. Too polite to leave. Sticky white potato, not regular white potato, that looks mashed up and spat out and tastes of nothing but is raw and hard and cold is one of the dishes. (I have since learnt this abomination was probably white chuño, essentially a dish of washed frozen potato (…))

It’s nighttime in La Paz and we’re in the hostel bar generally having a good time.

Further immersing ourselves in Bolivian culture, a group of us, we move on to the Hard Rock Cafe and inhale some more cocktails.

It is amazing. Maybe the greatest couple of hours of my life.

Jeff wakes me up and I’m fully dressed and still pissed and cuddling a bottle of water. He woke me for the San Pedro prison tour we’re supposed to be going on. Mother of God I can’t remember anything and my entire body hurts.

My only memory is out of focus and smeared like I’m looking at it through translucent plastic. My only memory is, alone, outside the club with vomit hanging off my chin the taxi driver won’t let me in his car because I have spent all my money.

Stumbling and scrambling along the nighttime streets, I must have found my way back to the hostel by radar, in the same manner a junkie always finds his connection.

“Not this street, the next, right …now left”

We check out and wait outside Loki for our fixer. Maria and Anine think me slumped against the wall swallowing and swallowing and taking little half-breaths and trying not to be sick is the funniest thing in the world.

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Bolivian wiring

The fixer arrives and she says there are no tours today because government officials are visiting. In a place so corrupt, they probably know and don’t care and probably the tours are a nice little earner for them. But I guess they have to keep up appearances.

Later, because the Indian restaurant we’re going to is busy until nine, we stop for a drink in Oliver’s Travels (‘The worst cultural experience in La Paz’ – The Lonely Planet). You should try this says a bloke called Kass. A disgusting Bolivian concoction called Chuflay made using singani, a brandy-like spirit, and Sprite. Ed knocks back three. I have a cocktail to get the taste of it out of my mouth.

I feel even worse. So bad I can’t eat anything in the Indian restaurant. Hair of the dog my arse.

Oliver’s Travels is part of a little collection of restaurants and bars known as the Four Corners, which is coincidentally what Boxhead is sometimes known as. There is a Mexican restaurant there. Inside, a waiter so useless he will get your order completely wrong even when you order just three of the same item.

To try the prison tour again, we’re awake early again. Outside Loki, the fixer meets us and walks us to the prison which I didn’t realise was so central and close to the Four Quarters. Once there, we’re transferred to somebody else. Tell us to approach the prison in pairs. Maria turns around and walks away.

Read about the tour Prison break-in: San Pedro Prison.

Obviously they’re immoral, the tours. Since you’re handing money to murderers. The families of their victims, how about them? Bolivia is a poor country. Probably they’re struggling to get by.

Almost immediately afterwards we catch our bus to Santa Cruz. Lunch first though, in Oliver’s with our friends.

I like La Paz. It’s not a big city. In every direction, you can see houses clinging to the sides of the canyon it’s nestled in. Then at the canyon rim, the never-ending barrios of El Alto start, La Paz’s sister city, right on the altiplano.

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City limits

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