Passage Note #73 - Part III: Bolivia - Cultural Extravaganza
Traveling from European-like Argentina, one of the wealthiest countries in South America, to Bolivia, one of the poorest, was a shockingly wonderful contrast. Not only because traveling was affordable again, but mainly because we were back in an untamed land dominated by indigenous people. Bolivia has the highest percentage of indigenous population (62%) of any country in South America and if there is one thing that “floats our boat” besides wonderful wildlife encounters, its exploring new and different cultures. Bolivia is culturally extraordinary.
The largest of Bolivia’s 36 ethnic groups are the Aymara, followed by the Quechua. There is a palpable sense of pride and feeling of empowerment among these groups as never before thanks to Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales (he is Aymara), who has enacted populist legislation and elevated the status of his people.
La Paz (population 1.4 million, elevation 12,007 feet)
Walking around the bustling and chaotic streets of La Paz, the world gets curiouser and curiouser - dancing zebras help you cross the streets, balaclava clad terrorist-looking guys tote shoe shine kits, clocks read backward, dead llamas dangle from shop awnings, human figures rappel down the side of a green high rise office building......
But perhaps the most intriguing sight, one which dominates the urban experience in La Paz is that of the “cholita”, an indigenous Aymara woman wearing her traditional dress.
So, what’s up with those smallish bowler hats anyhow? Black, brown, or grey, they sit balanced (not attached!) atop their shiny long black braids that are fastened at the ends with wool or beaded tassles; learn how to read the tilt of their “bombin” and you will know if she is married, single, widowed, or in a relationship that’s “complicated”. Here’s the story of the hat’s origin from our walking tour guide: In the 1920’s when a shipment from Europe bound for male rail workers in Bolivia were discovered to be too small, they were enterprisingly marketed to Aymara women as fertility enhancers and became a central component of their outfit. They were manufactured in Italy and called a borsalino but now are made in a factory here in Sucre.
The classic cholita dress also includes a heavy multilayered skirt (called a pollera) underlain by multiple colorful petticoats, worn high to make the backside look big, a shawl (manta) often held together by a brooch and ballet slipper type shoes. It is most common to see aguayos (multicolored traditional fabric) slung across their backs carrying babies, wares for entire businesses, and everything else. Our guide also tells us that the sexiest part of a cholita is considered her calf, that the heavy skirts make her enhanced volume attractive, and that wearing gold is a sign of status and wealth - from earrings to necklaces to teeth. A complete outfit can cost many hundreds of dollars and some cholitas even hire security guards when they wear their jewelry during big events. This certainly is a distinct standard of beauty - while not embraced by the Miss Bolivia Pageant it certainly is in the Miss Cholita Paceño contest which takes place at the Grand Poder festival every year.
Cholitas (the term once was derogatory but today has newly found dignity) are the real life blood of commerce in the La Paz streets. We pass by a market and are told that some of the stalls have been there for generations, a tradition passed on from a cholita to her daughter and that many of these women are indeed actually quite wealthy (from owning several business ventures) although they don’t look like successful entrepreneurs. There is a loyalty among customers; our guide’s mother bought fruit from one particular cholita as her grandmother did before her and just as she does and her daughter will.
One Sunday afternoon we rode the red cable car (La Paz has 3 such transit systems) from the historic center up to the Aymara center located on the high rim of the city, the plateau called the altiplano. Once a small indigenous enclave, El Alto is now a sprawling satellite city of its own, teeming with poor Aymara who are largely unemployed or “precariously” so (only earning a percentage of what they sell on the street), Lately some industry, such as the Bolivian computer chip factory has located there. Our first destination is to the massive public El Alto Market, so large that it is divided into sections - one for electronics (where you’ll likely find your cell phone if it’s gone missing), fruits and vegetables, bread, fish and meat, live animals, clothing, etc. We try to take it all in but it is vast.
We snacked on some Bolivian specialties - fried and puffed cheese pastels sprinkled with powdered sugar, little fried dough balls, salteñas (Bolivian empanadas), washed down with warm purple api (a thick nonalcoholic purple corn-based drink) or mocochinche (a sugary drink with a dehydrated peach). McDonalds famously failed in Bolivia in 2002 (not because of cultural rejection but because it was too expensive) but as the economy improves, fast food is becoming more successful; we tried a home-grown brand called Happi Api and had surprisingly good chicken. An interesting aside about food here: “The government has passed the ‘Law of Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well’ which bans the introduction, production, use, and release of genetically modified seeds in Bolivia. When it comes to native crops, GMOs are strictly prohibited. Animal raising does not involve factory farming but is free range by default, embedded in Andean cultural values”.
As the sun sets we leave the market and are off to watch the highly touted sport of Cholita Wrestling. Incongruous as it sounds, this version of the Mexican Lucha Libre is a popular attraction for both tourists and Bolivan locals alike. While the upper seating around the wresting ring was filled with Aymara families, the ringside seats were filled with tourists, mostly young backpackers in their jeans and alpaca sweaters. Male wrestlers wearing outrageous masks and costumes enter the ring and wait for their color-coordinated cholita opponent to arrive with great fanfare from the spectators. The match starts by the males throwing the luchadoras around, flipping them, standing on them, and pinning them to the ropes. Of course, the cholita always turns the match around, proves superior in cunning and strength, and ends up the victor to the roaring crowd’s great delight!
Evo vs. The Empire
It is an interesting time in Bolivia politically. It’s Evo’s time. Evo Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president and the ethnic majority is experiencing an unprecedented moment of power and influence for the first time in the country’s history. They are flexing their political muscles. As expected, Evo is extremely popular among his people and the lower classes - maybe not so much among the middle class mestizos.
His leanings are pronouncedly leftist, he crusades against imperialism influences (historical as well as contemporary), and boldly defies any pressure from The Empire (the U.S.). This has resulted in some famous clashes. Take the U.S.’s war on drugs: the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) mounted a military incursion into Bolivia to destroy coca leaf crops (to stop cocaine production). Not only has coca played a role in Andean societies for centuries, but Evo was a coca grower and president of the CocaGrowers Association. He expelled the DEA in 2008 as well as the US ambassador, Philip Goldberg. Today, its ritual use is recognized as a symbol of cultural identity. More recently, the U.S. embarrassingly forced Morales’ presidential plane to land and searched it, falsely suspecting that famous whistleblower Edward Snowden was aboard.
Morales has changed Bolivia from a “Republic” to a “Plurinational State” and adopted the colorful indigenous Wiphala flag, flying it proudly next to the colors of the old Bolivia. Although restricted to two terms as president by the republic’s old constitution, Evo won his third term (just a few weeks before our visit) under a reinterpretation of Plurinational governance. Indeed, the entire country seems to be his personal billboard with “Evo” emblazoned on every conceivable surface both in the cities and the countryside.
On Plaza Murillo, the governmental seat and center of political life, you’ll find the Legislative Palace with a backwards clock in the facade of the handsome ochre building. Erected last year, the symbolic timepiece is "a clear expression of the de-colonization of the people" meant to be a slap against colonialism and the Northern Hemisphere. The controversial clock, called “The Clock of the South”, has reversed numbers and hands that turn left to promote indigenous values and address the identity of those living in the Southern Hemisphere. This widdershins clock (great word! had to look it up!) does tell the correct time. Will this join the "universal corrective" maps of the world (upside down maps) published in Australia as an anti-North American-centric action? Is it regressive or encouraging? The debate continues.
One afternoon while Linda was poking around the city, she noticed a steady stream of cholitas entering the Vice-President’s office building. Curious, she followed them inside and discovered it was a meeting of an Aymara women’s human rights group called OMAK (Organizacion de Mujeres Aymaras del Kollasuyo) who were gathering to view a newly produced anti-discrimination video; yes, she would be welcome to join their meeting if she followed suit and signed in. Taking an inconspicuous position in the back of the room, she was able to observe this political activism and their latest headway in combatting the barriers of discrimination, as their banner stated, against sexism, racism, colonialism, class-ism, homophobia, and machismo.
Leaving La Paz
We remained in La Paz for 6 days - partly because of our fascination with the city but partly because we wanted to thoroughly acclimate to the altitude before exploring further afield. We stayed both in the center (Miraflores) and in the quieter area known as Sopocachi. Besides riding the cable cars, poking around historical Jaen Street, adding to Linda’s burgeoning textile collection at the Museum of Andean Textiles of Bolivia, visiting landmarks, markets, artists studios, museums, shopping streets, the Witch’s market, and doing the Death Road Bike Ride (PN #71), we made time to go to Tiwanaku, Bolivia’s most famous pre-Inca archeological site a couple of hours north of La Paz. Here on June 21, the Aymara celebrate Willkakuti, the winter solstice and New Year. There are large ceremonial platforms, carved monoliths (outside on site and protected in a museum structure), the Sun Arch, and the mysterious stones of Puma Punku.
We left La Paz and took a bus south to Oruru where we waited two days to catch the train to Tupiza in order to start our 4 day excursion into the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia’s unique Salt Flats. (PN #72) - a definite highlight. Afterwards we caught a 6 hour bus to Potosi, taking a stunning scenic route through the rugged Altiplano.
Potosi (population 145,000, elevation 4070 meters)
Potosi sits at a nosebleed elevation (said to be the highest city in the world) among some of the harshest, cold, and most barren landscape in Bolivia. It spreads out at the skirts of Cerro Rico (“Rich Hill”), the mountain that made Spain a wealthy colonial powerhouse. Potosi’s first coat of arms declares its former glory: “I am rich Potosi, the treasure of the world...and the envy of kings.”
It is said the amount of silver that was mined here for 400 years could have built a bridge from there to Spain and still had plenty left over. The human cost was immense - nearly 8 million people died working these mines between 1545 and 1825 - indigenous and imported African slaves. Potosi became a wealthy boom town.
Today, Potosi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site “in recognition of its rich and tragic history and its wealth of colonial architecture.” Potosi’s ornate historic buildings, especially the intricately carved stone church facades, attest to its affluent past before the mines became barren and the city’s economic decline and current impoverishment began. As expected, most churches have elaborate silverwork in their altars. The proud Casa de la Moneda, originally Bolivia’s national mint, was established to coin the silver in 1773 and is now a very fine museum. Walking through the center’s narrow hilly streets lined with colonial architecture is a delight and there always seemed to be a parade or band of some sort filling the air with music.
Tours of Potosi’s working mines are a continuing tourist attraction whereby visitors can see the dangerous and appalling conditions in which the miners work. As Lonely Planet writes about touring the “Job From Hell”: “A visit to the cooperative mines will almost certainly be one of the most memorable experiences you’ll have in Bolivia, providing an opportunity to witness working conditions that are among the most grueling imaginable. We urge you not to underestimate the dangers involved in going into the mines and to consider the voyeuristic factor involved in seeing other people’s suffering. You may be left stunned and/or ill”. We didn’t do the tour. (See PN # 72). As if that were not enough, for the “terminally curious”, you can add the risk involved in watching a tinku (violent ritualized hostilities between rural indigenous communities) if you are in the area in May.
Sucre (population 215,000, elevation 2750 meters)
“Proud, genteel Sucre is Bolivia’s most beautiful city and the symbolic heart of the nation; a real showpiece of Bolivia” exclaims Lonely Planet. It is after all, the birthplace of the nation and official capital city of the country according to the constitution (La Paz is the de facto capital with governmental and treasury functions but Sucre maintains the title and its judicial functions). It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.
The White City with its Grand Plaza (Plaza 25 de Mayo) and glistening white architecture is indeed elegant and charming enough to fall in love with; impressive museums, colonial buildings, ornate churches, and universities make Sucre a cultural mecca.
As luck would have it, we happened to be there on the Night of Culture, a monthly event where all the museums and cultural sites open their doors for free. They were all overflowing with locals taking advantage of this opportunity. The main plaza was packed with people and musicians, bands, and horseback riders entertained the crowd. Inside the Museo de Arte Indigena and Inca Pallay Artisan Center we watched weaving demonstrations in awe of the intricate and delicate designs these men and women created.
We were glad we included a few days here on our trip and wish we had more time to spend, especially to visit the outlying indigenous communities on market day. Bolivia’s textile heritage is renown and some of Linda’s favorite types (Jal’qa and Tarabuco) come from the Sucre countryside.
Always something for next time!
Although Bolivia wasn’t the easiest place to travel in, it was well worth the extra effort!