Dancing Over the Cordillera

I never expected that the most happening thing I'd find in La Paz on a Saturday afternoon would be a full-blown K-Pop (Korean pop) dance competition. Troupe after troupe rose to the stage in full costume giving their all in elaborate urban choreographies while the teeming fan crowd went mad. For the majority of songs, dancers and audience even sang along, though I am not sure anyone had any actual knowledge of the language. At one point, the dancing was paused for a cosplay competition, you know, a battle of who's managed to better transform themselves into their favourite Japanese anime or manga character. Three girls in heavy makeup came on stage to flirtilly answer a few questions, strut and give a sword-wielding demonstration. Around the stage were stalls selling far-eastern pop culture goods from posters, CDs, DVDs, video games and club affiliations. Thankfully this event was free, but I came across another one on Sunday where teenagers dressed in dark colours were lining up to pay an entrance fee for another fair. Near sundown, a representative of the municipal culture office came on stage to announce that La Paz fully supports these activities and that these dance events were in the process of receiving 'urban tribe' funding status. This kind of cultural fusion phenomenon is fascinating, even if I can't say that I really get k-pop's power of attraction (though who would've waged a bet on the Spice Girls or Backstreet Boys either). I'd gotten a glimpse at an emerging Asian urban culture fascination in Lima (for kpop, jpop and Bollywood) but never imagined this level of fervour here.

Majestic Illimani mountain capturing the sun's last rays

I had originally planned on spending just two days in La Paz but on the Friday that I arrived, I stumbled upon a departmental fair where I met a sports doctor who offered me a free consultation for a recurring hip pain if I stuck around till Monday. He ended up being one of the head doctors of the Bolivian olympic and football teams, a true privilege! Thankfully, nothing bad turned up on the x-ray. The supplement I was prescribed turned my intestines inside out over the next few days though.

I enjoyed my days in La Paz much more than I anticipated. It has its quiet and busy moments, but the city is overall remarkably peaceful. I felt safe everywhere, throughout street markets and peripheral lower-income neighbourhoods and everyone I spoke with proved interested in pausing to exchange words and help me out. This all lends a pleasant added serenity to the breathtaking landscapes that peer at you from every angle there. It will seem paradoxical then that in the Plurinational State of Bolivia, you are also constantly made aware of politics, especially in the city where sits the government (the capital of Bolivia is still officially Sucre). Everyone has an opinion about Evo Morales' current administration, they know about strikes happening in other parts of the country and what people are standing for.

My bus-mate 'Bills' on president Evo Morales: "He's not bad but he also doesn't do it all well"

"Give us sincerity to not call cowardice prudence, to not call convenience conformism" - Bolivian poet and journalist Luis Espinal, a quote collected from an exposition at the National Museum of Art on revolutionary Latin America.

"I am ready to die for someone but not kill someone like you would! I don't have weapons but I have my hands!" yelled a woman at a police barricade in the centre.

In La Paz the big issue was the occupation of several blocks of the historical centre by indigenous peoples from the TIPNIS National Park (Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro-Secure) in the northeastern jungles of the Beni department. They had marched to La Paz to protest the construction of a highway through their territory and had been living in tents in the street for more than a month. One night I was stopped by two inebriated ex-workers from the Ministry of Economy who supposedly had been laid-off for questioning the motives behind road's construction. "There are diamonds in the TIPNIS, that explains it all!" I was told. The next day, an old Aymara woman with whom I shared a sidewalk lunch told me that the situation was "about to explode". She was selling refreshments in the same area as the tents and was hearing rumours that they were going to storm into the presidential palace in the next few days, breaking through police barricades using the 'flecha' (arrow) technique: three people run in a tight line into the barricade, two get caught and the third one makes it over. "Haven't you noticed how much free food and gear these people are getting? Where do you think it comes from? The opposition!".

Incredibly intricate Tarabuco weavings. Textiles change a lot between Andean regions, though it's taken me time to appreciate the differences. Interestingly these are produced by Quechua people in the south of Bolivia, on the other side of the Aymara altiplano area that begins in southern Peru around Lake Titicaca.

I've made it seem like the road to La Paz was a lot more direct than it was. Perhaps it's just because I have less photographs to show for it. I've at times fallen into the trap of obsessing over just moving on. From the border town of Villazón, I took a night bus to Potosí. I spent a morning there searching for signs of the town's past as the richest and most populous city in the world but found little. Nothing that really indicated its power to infuse Europe with currency and power for three centuries, of the millions of slaves and animals that perished in its mines, of the 15,000 llama caravans that took its smelted ore across the Atacama several times a year to be shipped from current day Chile up to Mexico. Only a few museums and ridiculous mine tours for tourists where you're encouraged to gift current day artisanal miners scraping remains out of the rock with coca leaves and booze. You are however conscious of constantly being under the eye of Cerro Rico (roughly, rich mountain), the mountain from which all the damned silver came from. In the afternoon I bussed down from the altiplano to the beautiful Bolivian capital of Sucre. With great spring-time weather, a large student population, white-washed and red-roofed low-story buildings, orderly streets and quaint plazas, it proved a very pleasant colonial idyl for 24 hours. Because of a roadblock by miners on the regular route to La Paz through Oruro, I had to take a longer, more expensive route out than planned. Only 18 hours instead of 12... I rather not think back to the flashing scenes of bouncing tires and sheer precipices outside of my window that I woke up to throughout the night.


Only one big transit was left after La Paz: Desaguadero, Puno, Cusco, Abancay, Andahuaylas through to Ayacucho (38 hours). I noticed the level of general energy increase the second I crossed back into Peru. People talked loudly about business or parties on the phone, the music blasted louder, you get hustled more at the bus stations. Nevertheless, I wouldn't say gone is the peace, but rather back is the spice! I have no images to show for it, I wanted to just clear my head for once, but Ayacucho is gorgeous, festive, the people are warm and alive, and everything is imbibed in community. I couldn't resist adding a picture of the protests which accompanied a nationwide strike by school-workers asking for higher wages though: it's been a political trip. Now I'm back in Lima, conducting research again. Yesterday I went surfing and will likely go back very soon. The goals and words nevertheless seem clearer these days than four months ago.

As you'll notice in the following pictures, things don't just get louder in Peru, they also get much BIGGER once you dip back down from the Bolivian plateau. I have an article on Andean agriculture planned for the near future to share some of what I've learnt from talking with farmers during these epic bus rides. Cheers from the Pacific!