(No blog for a while as fallen behind due to Salmonella interference and numerous hospital visits along our way - all will be revealed in due course!...)
27.04.2010 - 01.05.2010 21 °C
We arrived in La Paz after a gruelling day-long bus journey, which involved repeated exposure to Pitbull's sleazy music videos and the Latino equivalent of Chucklevision (except not as funny). M15 should look into this as a form of torture. The hostel had double-booked the room we had confirmed. Reception tried to emotionally blackmail us into not being annoyed with them, by informing us with a pitying look, that the girl whose stuff was in our room had 'gone on a trip to Death Road and not come back'. They would not move her belongings despite hostel rules stating that they would, so much hassle ensued. The girl eventually turned up (alive and well) and we found out Reception had completely lied to us all and just double-booked - she hadn't been anywhere near Death Road and she wasn't expecting to find us in 'her' room.
Thankfully the room situation was resolved, as all we wanted to do was lie down - all three of us felt pretty ill here for various reasons. It's impossible to separate whether it's altitude sickness (very common here), antimalarial drugs, dodgy food, travel sickness or something else that's causing it. Probably a combination of everything.
La Paz is huge and very high up, a sprawling city set on a mountain side, but attractive. Unfortunately also not very safe, renowned for tourist muggings, luggage thefts and scams, and we had been warned about bogus taxis that actually just kidnap you and drive you to cash machines at gun point. It was sort of reassuring that there were armed Police guarding the tourists arriving at the bus station and seeing us into taxis, but we had also been warned about bogus Police as well so their presence wasn't as reassuring as you might think.
As well as not trusting the taxi drivers or the Police I didn't trust the food either, so I ended up eating in our hostel (Loki) most of the time as it seemed the safest bet... It also minimised the need to go out, which was a good thing as I struggled with my anxiety here anyway, not helped by all the crime warnings. Apparently a popular trick is for someone to spit on you to distract you and someone else pretends to help wipe it off whilst nicking your valuables. You have to be on constant guard re bag slashings or pick-pocketing so we took the usual precautions of wearing our rucksacks on our fronts, padlocked shut, with cards and passports in a money belt hidden under our clothes. Banks and cash machines are guarded by army men with massive guns. Scary.
We went to the Witches Market - a craft market with an array of llama wool knitted items, textiles, pottery - all the usual souvenirs - plus a few more gruesome additions unique to this area: shrivelled (mummified) llama foetuses! Apparently they are susperstitious talismans you are supposed to hang in your home for good luck. No gracias. Truly gross.
I also booked myself onto a horse riding tour, which was very brave of me seeing as I was scared of going out on my own and Naomi and Sophie didn't want to go. As I'm also scared of heights (are you getting the gist that I was pretty much scared of everything here?!) I was concerned La Paz would be a stupid place to go horseriding - lots of cliff edges, plummeting views etc. However the tour desk assured me it was in a wide valley with no dramatic edges, even showing me online video footage, so I booked. They lied. It was exactly as I feared, with my horse picking its way up the mountainside on a single dirt track with crumbling cliff edges. There was also a traumatic start to the tour as I´d been suspicious of the taxi driver who'd been sent to collect me and refused to go with him, thinking it seemed dodgy. I'd been waiting in reception to be collected by 'The tour' when a middle-aged, plain-clothed Bolivian man walked in a said something in Spanish to the room in general. When no one else came forward I asked him if he was here about the horseriding and despite looking blankly at me and my booking paperwork, he took my form and gestured for me to follow as he left the relative safety of the hostel and walked off down the road. The childhood warnings of 'not going off with strange men' and Lonely Planet warnings about bogus-taxi-driver-kidnappers kicked in, so I made him come back into the hostel to find a member of staff who spoke English who could translate to check if he was legitimate. Apparently he was, so I went, but it was still disconcerting to find I was the only person being driven up into the Bolivian mountains, and even more so on arriving at the stables, to discover that I was the only person on the tour. The leaflet promised an 'English-speaking guide' and 'head and leg protection' which translated into Bolivian terms as: no one at the stables spoke any English and I only got a helmet when i asked for one. Despite this I needn't have worried as the Cuban guy who took me out was really nice (we attempted conversation in a broken mix of Anglo-Espanol), the views were amazing, the rain held off and we ate a picnic lunch at 3700m above sea level, overlooking Muelo Del Diablo ("Devil's Tooth" Rock) and all of La Paz. Literally breathtaking (no seriously - the altitude was that high).
On the way back down we passed a remote village school (so remote I'm surprised it had any pupils), where the children came running out to wave at the horses as we rode by. I also noted the Bolivian equivalent of Neighbourhood Watch - a stuffed scarecrow with blood stains hanging from a lamp post with a sign saying "Thieves are killed by this community".
I spent the rest of my time in La Paz in internet cafes searching and applying for jobs for when I get back :-(