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...two travellers in search of the world's wildlife

7 June 2011

La Paz

6th June 2011

Hurray for the little old women in the tiny bowler hats! They look splendid and lend yet more idiosyncrasy to this unexpected city. Llama foetuses, blue potatoes and bowler hats.

The predictable headache, shortness of breath and racing heartbeat resulted in a complete failure to sleep so we just decided to mooch around the city at random and see a bit of life á La Paz. Our hotel is right by the church of San Francisco, a grand piece of colonial masonry but with some peculiarly Andean faces carved on the front. This would have been an even finer view if the Plaza San Francisco in front of the church wasn’t an enormous building site at the moment.

Not far away is the “famous” Mercado de Brujeras, the Witches’ Market. As with all famous markets around the world, the stalls selling outlandish ritual paraphernalia to local people are gradually being replaced by stalls selling llama knitwear and Che Guevara t-shirts to tourists who have come to look at the stalls selling outlandish ritual paraphernalia. Nevertheless there were still a nice collection of talismans, dubious herbal remedies and dried llama foetuses. Or possibly baby llamas. They were cool, but being me I was much more delighted with the huge produce market we found later, full of unusual foodstuffs and piles of potatoes.

There’s a whole world of potatoes out there! Did you know that all the myriad “varieties” of potato we have in the UK are all descended from just one South American species, of which there are dozens and dozens more that we know nothing about? They have red ones, black ones, bone white ones, yellow-and-pink ones and long orange ones. We stopped to talk to a lady about her ‘taters and despite our crummy Spanish learned that some are sweet, some are good for roasting, and some aren’t… okay, we didn’t learn much. But she allowed us to photograph her ‘taters, although she was also very clear that we mustn’t photograph her.

This is something we’d read; it’s impolite to just poke a lens in people’s faces at the best of times, but these Andean natives have a vigorous dislike of it even if you ask nicely. I have to confess, the temptation to try and snap some of the tiny bowler hats was too great to resist and we developed cunning tactics for it. Maureen would pose for a photo that I didn’t take, and then when she came over to pretend to review the results with me I would happen to point the camera at my real target and cop a sneaky shot. I can hear you all tutting from here!

We stopped for lunch at a local restaurant. Our dinner last night was at a place recommended in the guidebook for “Bolivian cooking”. There were only tourists there, and the plates were generous in portion and utterly insipid in taste. The tiny restaurant we found at lunch today was packed with locals and we had to share a table and try hard with our feeble Espanol as no-one in the place had a word of English. The food was spicy, tasty, sensibly portioned and one quarter of the price. I guess there’s always some risk in a developing country if you choose to eat at a local place rather than a tourist joint “approved” by the guidebooks, but I don’t feel that I’ve met a country properly until I’ve eaten somewhere that local folk eat. And yes, thinking back, we’ve done so in every country on our itinerary. And not got sick. Yet!

Bah. Maureen has just reminded me of my one-day gut-rot following our last meal in Cambodia at a local eatery. One out of thirteen countries surely ain’t bad, and I’ve had gut-rot plenty of times back home.

Pedant’s postscript – so of course potatoes in myriad varieties occur all over the Andean nations, and in fact Amory at Chepu tells us that Chiloe island is the actual origin of the vegetable (though others dispute it). And of course the bowler hats are equally found across the Andean nations, although they are only worn by the indigenous women and Bolivia has a much higher percentage of indigenous folk than the other countries, especially in the capital.

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5 Responses to “La Paz”

  1. Eleanor Dennison says:

    I believe you are OK with your clandestine photo snaps, if you only got the subjects from the back. They don’t want their eyes in the picture. You see, it would steal their souls.

  2. Eleanor Dennison says:

    Of course, but THEY don’t know that … better safe than sorry.

  3. Jane says:

    I freaking LOVE potatoes! They are my favorite food and I DID know that they are all descendents of an originating species (dark PURPLE i think)… I seem to remember PERU as the source, but hey… 😀

    • shortclaws says:

      It’s one of those things like hummus where the actual origins are so lost in the mist of time that both countries claim them. Or in fact three countries: our guide in Bolivia claimed they were cultivated there first, Amory at Chepu in Chile claimed they came from Chiloe island first, and other sources state Peru as the origin. The widest variety I saw was in La Paz.

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