In one splendid day-trip from La Paz, we were able to see landscape befitting the moon and scenery fit for the Himalayas, less than three hours’ drive apart from each other. To the south of the city is the “Valley of the Moon” and, on the opposite side, a winding mountain road takes one to the 5,100 metre high Chalcaltaya lodge.
(Daily Times, 7 August 2013)
Border formalities completed at the small outpost of Yunguyo on the Peruvian-Bolivian border, we resumed our bus journey for the Bolivian town of Copacabana, less than an hour’s drive away, on the shore of Lake Titicaca. The road to Cobacabana is pretty bad, though it gets better from there to La Paz. No matter the quality of the road, the scenery is spectacular as the road hugs the shores of the great lake for much of the journey.
The entry into La Paz takes one’s breath away. While the bus negotiates the twists and turns as it climbs the hills, one can see houses painted in bright colours clinging to the hillsides for nearly the last hour or so of the journey. And because of the twists and turns, the view changes faster than one can say “wow”. As if in a game of hide and seek, even before one can quite focus on a view, it’s gone, its place taken by another, no less alluring than the one before!
La Paz is the world’s highest national capital, situated at an elevation of between 3,200 to 4,150 metres. The international airport is located at nearly half the cruising altitude of large aircraft in El Alto, a very large town but now practically an extension of La Paz. And due to the thin air, aircraft here need a longer run for take-off. Of the ten cities (with a population of over 100,000) of the world with the highest elevation, four are in Bolivia, four in neighbouring Peru and two in Tibet (China).
The official name of the country is “Plurinational Republic of Bolivia” to give recognition to the plurality of its population. It is named after Simon Bolivar, a Venezuelan who died in 1830. He was the hero of South American independence from Spain and the first president of an independent Latin American state, “Gran Colombia”.
The country which is named after a Latin American revolutionary has another association with the continent’s revolutionary history, but of the opposite kind. It was here that Bolivian troops and CIA operatives tracked down and killed an iconic figure of Latin American revolution. He was an Argentinian who had been alongside Fidel Castro during the Cuban revolution. His name: Ernesto Che Guevara. He was killed in 1967 but his handsome visage and piercing eyes still stare at us from many a T-shirt worn across the world.
Although Bolivia is very rural, La Paz has all the trappings of a large, sprawling city with traffic chaos, noise and pollution. Our travel book had warned us to beware of conmen and pickpockets, but our stay there was incident-free, which was not the case in two other cities, but of that later. It was our longing for some spicy desi food which caused us some grief in La Paz.
At our request, our hotel receptionist found the address of an Indian restaurant and directed a taxi driver to deliver us there. On arrival, I asked the receptionist if he was Indian. “No, I am Bolivian, but our cook is Hindu”, which I suppose distinguishes “Indian” Indians from the native Indians (Amerindians). After we sat at a table and ordered some Indian dishes from the menu, I asked to see the cook so I could make sure we got what we wanted. When I spoke to the “Hindu” cook in Hindi, he apologised, saying he did not understand Hindi, for he was Bolivian. “But I was told the cook is ‘Hindu’?” I said. “Yes, the Hindu cook is on leave. But he trained me.”
Either this was a complete lie, or the Hindu cook was a poor trainer, or the young Bolivian was a bad apprentice. The food was certainly not “Hindu”, utterly unpalatable and probably stale. It left a very bad taste in the mouth, both metaphorically and literally. And that was not all. Both my wife and I remained confined to our hotel room for the next 24 hours and earned many frequent visitor points from the toilet! I couldn’t, however, allow a bad cook to ruin my trip.
In one splendid day-trip from La Paz, we were able to see landscape befitting the moon and scenery fit for the Himalayas, less than three hours’ drive apart from each other. To the south of the city is the “Valley of the Moon”, so called because its eroded rocks have created a landscape that somewhat resembles the moon’s surface. On the opposite side of La Paz, a winding mountain road takes one to the 5,100 metre high Chalcaltaya lodge. Along the way, full of stunning views, one passes flocks of llamas and alpacas grazing on both sides of the road, besides large blocks of melting ice.
The Indigenous Aymara and Quechua people of Bolivia, who together constitute 55 percent of the population, with another 30 percent being of mixed ancestry (mestizo), live as they always have. Brightly dressed, with large colourful hats, sun-tanned skin and cheeks chapped by the icy Andean winds, they have poverty writ large on their faces and a kind of gloom in their eyes.
One such woman, I noticed, was breast-feeding her child while seated in a mini-bus during a lean time during her run as its conductor. How she managed to carry and care for the infant in the midst of all the pushing and shoving, while collecting the fare and minding the passengers, is beyond imagination.
Rather than keep the people distracted by nationalist propaganda about the coastline lost to Chile, the government of resource-rich Bolivia might do something about the poor women like her. And the countless others like her who barely eke out an existence in a very harsh physical environment. Like Chile next door, which is a success story. It was our next destination.
However, before leaving, I promised myself to return to Bolivia to see the amazing Uyuni Saltpan, the dried remains of ancient lakes, covering 9,000 square kilometres in the southwest of the country. In the dry season, heavy trucks travel over its surface, at the centre of which the salt is more than five meters deep!
By Razi Azmi