New Zealand Herald
Tuesday, September 17, 2019 FETAL ATTRACTION
Eleanor Hughes discovers that in Bolivia’s capital city time runs backwards.
The dim, yellow glow of streetlights, shadowed streets and peeling posters on graffitied walls make me feel like I’ve stepped on to the deserted set of a sinister movie. It’s not just the cold that makes me shiver. It’s not somewhere I want to wander alone. Morning brings action — colour and people — and I discover La Paz with steep streets steeped in stories.
Meeting Marisol, our walking-tour guide, in leafy, green San Pedro Plaza, I wonder if the seediness seeps from behind the white concrete walls surrounding adjacent San Pedro Prison.
Marisol tells us it’s a city within the city, home to thousands — criminals and their families. They live in slum-like apartments, paid for with money that comes from businesses conducted inside the prison, one being cocaine production.
There are prison tours but Marisol recommends we don’t even think about it. Guides have disappeared, tourists have been stranded. And how would you prove you’re not an inmate?
It’s hard not to head uphill in La Paz. It sprawls across a valley floor and then rises to an altitude of around 3724m. At a distance the predominantly red-brick dwellings make the hills look like scorched earth. I slowly puff up Calle Rodriguez to Mercado Rodriguez, a large food market manned by cholitas, the indigenous Aymara and Quechuawomen. It’s the city’s supermarket and a hub for socialising, according to Marisol.
“Cholitas become like second mothers if you stay faithful and always purchase your produce from the same one. They listen to your problems and sometimes throw in free produce. But beware, those women gossip.”
We wander narrow passages between vegetable and fruit stalls, which spill out on to the street. On one corner women fillet fish caught in Lake Titicaca. Pavements are cluttered with sacks of potatoes; thousands of varieties are grown in Bolivia.
Marisol tells us the history behind the bowler hats perched atop the women’s plaited black hair. Produced for railway workers in the early 1900s, they were found to be too small, so were sold to Bolivian women as the latest European fashion. The hats have become part of traditional dress — which seems to be only worn by older women.
My heart thuds climbing Illampu St, past buildings where broken plaster exposes crumbling rock walls and cholitas who wear their brown or black hats straight, signifying they are married. If the hat is worn to the side they’re available, if it’s perched on the back of their head their relationship is complicated.
The voluminous skirts flounced out with petticoats worn just below their breasts make the women look the size of sumo wrestlers. Large is sexy. Their calves, hidden beneath skirts, are only shown if flirting. I see none as we weave between traffic in the clogged road. Business is not booming for some cholitas. They sit on the footpath, eyes closed, propped up among their produce.
A worn, cobbled thoroughfare is a welcome respite. It’s level. The vividly-coloured woven blankets, wall hangings, knitted ponchos and hats — many featuring llamas — hanging outside shopfronts are like an oasis in a desert. I’ve been looking forward to what’s around the corner, Mercado de las Brujas, the Witches’ Market. “Don’t take photos, the women might cast a spell on you,” Marisol warns.
The “witches” look like all the other cholitas. The market is disappointing, a few stalls and stores that are little more than narrow shopfronts, although it is an insight into age-old customs.
I associate witches with black but the only thing black is their hair and some llama fetuses. White fetuses are also available. Some hang by their necks from poles or are crammed into baskets. The smallest, barely the size of my hand, clutter up bowls. Burned as offerings to Pachamama, Mother Earth, and buried under homes or at construction sites for good luck or protection, we’re assured the fetuses have come only from llamas slaughtered for meat, or from miscarriages or stillbirths.
Yellow flowers sit in buckets, brown sticks in others, both used for spells or potions. Small plates of offerings — sugar lumps, lollies and walnuts nestled on straw and tinsel — are for Pachamama. Apparently she likes sweet things, alcohol and llama fetuses.
Alongside are boxes, the designs on them like something from the 1970s, of potions and powders. You can get some “Follow Me, Follow Me” dust to sprinkle on the back of the head of someone you fancy, or some “Come to Me” dust to put in your beloved’s underwear. Purchase drops to go into your darling’s beverage and you’ll have a slave for life. Potions to keep husbands from straying, for sex problems, menopause, Parkinson’s ... you name it, there’s probably a cure in the Witches’ Market.
We head down narrow, cobbled Calle Sagarnaga, which would rival the steepness of Dunedin’s Baldwin St, past souvenir shops and tour agents offering Death Road biking. Beneath these buildings are there sacrifices to Pachamama, I wonder? Human sacrifices that is. At one time the homeless were plied with alcohol until unconscious, then buried in the concrete footings of buildings. It brought luck — but not to the homeless.
At the bottom of Sagarnaga, the 18th century Iglesia de San Francisco is a surprise after the dingy streets. The imposing, creamy-coloured stone church is decorated with carved snakes, birds and indigenous figures. It towers above the plaza where green Ninja Turtles and a woolly mammoth are tethered to a sleigh in a bizarre Christmas scene.
Across traffic-jammed, car-honking, Avenida Mariscal Santa Cruz, I spot a shoeshine boy, a lustrabota, leaning against a lamppost, his wooden box at his feet, waiting for the next customer. He looks dangerous, his face covered by a balaclava, but it’s hidden only because shoe-shining is seen as shameful.
Plaza Murillo is a sparkling jewel. European in style, the Presidential Palace’s pinkish-orange upper storeys are festooned with red-ribboned, green Christmas wreaths. Guards in red tunics and white trousers standat the doors like tin soldiers.
The site of many bloody battles centuries ago and the hanging of a president from a lamppost, the plaza, dominated by a huge, red-ribboned Christmas tree, is now teeming with tourists, locals and pigeons — but with few vehicles it’s almost peaceful.
“Look at the clock.” Marisol points to the Palacio Legislativo. It runs anticlockwise — imitating the movement of a sundial’s shadow in the Southern Hemisphere.
It’s a fitting touch, in a city that seems to run at its own pace.