We arrived in La Paz in the evening and got a taxi to our hotel. We were amazed at how crowded and alive the city was, especially the traffic. Made us feel right at home. We found a great restaurant lit by candle filled with old antiques and we stuffed ourselves before crashing at our great hotel for the night. We woke up the next day and decided to try to wander to the witches market in the heart of the city. It used to be a legit witches market but today seems to have completely changed over into a tourist market, although you do see the random llama fetus, coca leaf reader and dried frogs that are used for remedies and traditions. We did get a few souvenirs and gifts, but we won't be coming home with any carcasses.
We wandered into the Coca museum which was created as an educational tool for locals and foreigners to gain a comprehensive understanding of the coca trade, agriculture, politics surrounding coca, drugs, traditional uses, and its history. They even had coca leaves for chewing while you wandered through the museum. Chewing of the coca leaves goes back to the Tiwanaku period as early as 600 B.C., as you can see from the bulge in the cheeks of statues created by the culture. It was also an important part of indigenous Bolivian culture, traditions, and even used as currency. When the Spanish colonized Bolivia and the area, they wanted to outlaw the chewing of coca leaves because people were so obsessed with it that the Church called the practice diabolical; they even had the it declared illegal and immoral. Until they realized that it gave the Bolivians energy to work longer and with less food, the King of Spain at the time asked for that law to be repealed and for the trade to be regulated and taxed at 10%. Then the Spanish even made it mandatory for the miners to chew coca every day, and they decided to control the agriculture and distribution of coca leaves which, in turn, let them control the people to a certain extent.
It wasn't until more modern times that it was used to create narcotics. The derivative of cocaine separates some chemical from the the coca leaf and was originally thought to be the most effective anesthesia during surgery (they were using local anesthetics long before Western medicine). Procaine became the famous anesthesia and now lidocaine is commonly used in dentistry. Both are derivative forms of cocaine. People also figured out ways to get cocaine into beverages as well (wine in France was enhanced with cocaine that made its way to the US). When prohibition hit the US, they wanted to come up with a drink that was non-alcoholic, but still contained the cocaine, and Voila! Coca-Cola was born.
Although Coca-Cola does not contain cocaine any longer, they still use coca leaves imported from Bolivia to give its flavor. Although drug use, production, and distribution are terrible problems, we cannot blame the coca leaves. 86% of Bolivians chew coca leaves for their nutritional value (of which there is a lot), the energy it gives (less health problems than a cup of coffee), and for cultural reasons. We have to look at our abuse of it instead. The population of the US is about 5% of the world's population, yet we consume approximately 50% of the world's cocaine. The final thing that we found so interesting about the coca museum was its description of the connection between coca leaves and the miners in Potosi. We had seen this quite a bit and it was explained first hand in the documentary, “The Devil's Miner” as well. Basically every single miner chews the coca leaves and will not work without them. They also pray to the devil, Tio, so that they will be protected from accidents in the harsh conditions of the mine and they shower Tio with offerings of coca leaves. We are both very curious to read more about coca leaves, particularly relating to international politics, when we return home.
That evening, we decided that this would be our last chance to go a football game and we both really wanted to go. When we bought our tickets, we saw tons of people selling boards of Styrofoam. We were very confused but told that they were for sitting on since the concrete stands were cold uncomfortable. Although our environmental morals hated us, we gave in and bought two, and boy were our tushes thankful! The game was fun, actually, it was a double feature. We first saw a game between La Paz Football Club and Real Morrere. La Paz won 5-0 and by the end of the game the visiting team could barely run; the altitude is that hard to deal with. There were not many people in the stadium for the first game, but it filled up by the second game. The second game was the higher professional class teams (we think). The home team was called Bolivar and the visitors were Blooming. The second game was more fun because the crowd was bigger and more into it. There was one section all dressed in baby blue (Bolivar's color) and they never stopped singing, jumping up and down, and banging their drums the whole time we were there. Definitely a fun affair. We got a bunch of snacks when we were there. There were vendors walking around the whole time selling sandwiches, popcorn, and coffee from gasoline containers. Most of the time the vendors just sat down and watched the game though. I watched this old vendor watch the game, and I think he forgot he was a vendor; he was sitting for nearly the whole first half! We got some snacks that we shared and an evil empanada that luckily Laurie refrained from eating. We left after halftime of the second game (scoreless) because we were getting cold and tired and we had been there a few hours already.
After the football game, I began getting a terrible headache that turned for the worse. It was awful. Projectile out of both ends throughout the whole night and the sorest of muscles. Not good. I ended up running a 103 fever and Laurie had to track down a doctor which turned out not to be that easy. The problem was that the next morning was May 1st, a national holiday comparable to Labor Day. There was a huge parade and no doctors were available and she called about ten of them, but they were all out of town or not working. Since the internet cafes were also closed, she called the US embassy for doctors and they didn't even pick up the phone with an out of office message. Resourcefully, she called the Canadian embassy and they were so helpful. They even called back later that day at our hotel to make sure I was OK. It's probably a good thing she didn't tell them we weren't Canadian, and they gave her some numbers but nobody was there. Distressed, she found help from the guy at the desk of our hotel and he brought her to a nearby clinic where she got a doctor to come see me in the hotel. The doctor helped out and prescribed some medication for all my ailments. The next day my fever broke and it took me a few days to get out of bed and back to normal. We are so thankful that we decided to get a hotel room with a private bathroom and cable television this time and not our normal budget beds!
While we were in La Paz, we ran into our friend, Andreas, from our Uyuni Jeep adventure. He told us that earlier in the week, two Jeeps had run into each other on the Salar (salt flat). Since the Jeeps carry their gasoline on the top of their roofs, both cars of tourists exploded killing five Japanese tourists, five Israeli tourists, and three Bolivian tour guides. We also heard that a bus full of tourists had gone over the edge of the World's Most Dangerous Road (that is its actual name) right outside of La Paz carrying fourteen tourists and took two bikers down with it. I think that when people travel, they act in ways that they might not at home and make decisions they would not make otherwise. These situations, however, were not due to the stupidity of the travelers, just bad accidents.
Since we spent most of our La Paz week in bed because of my ailments, we did not get to see as much of the La Paz area as we had planned. We had wanted to go to Tiwanaku to see the ancient Pre-Inca temple ruins, but we did not have time, so we decided to go to the Tiwanaku Archeology Museum instead. I don't think there was anything left at the ruins since the museum was so well stocked with fascinating artifacts. We had a great student guide who lead us around completely in Spanish and we were both impressed with how much we understood. There were tons of monoliths, lots of pottery, and even mummies of adults and children. We were extremely impressed with the breadth and advancement of their culture which ranged from 600 BC to 1200 AD. They almost make the Incas look like chumps actually. Surprisingly, the Incan empire only last about a hundred years before the Spanish came and conquered them. The Incas were around for longer than that, but the expansion of their empire (beginning with the 9th Incan emperor) lasted only about a hundred years. They covered a lot of ground in those hundred years—all the way from Cuzco, Peru to northern Argentina and Chile—, but they got a lot of their ideas from the Tiwanaku culture. There seemed to be a lot of similarities between the Tiwanaku and Ancient Egyptian cultures, even some similar artistic themes. Very interesting stuff.
Again, we had a great time in La Paz, well that is, when I wasn't sick. There are some great cafes and restaurants and we did our fair share of supporting the Bolivian economy with our souvenir shopping. We wish that we had more time in order to have the opportunity to see more of the city. It is a massive sprawling city of two million that is spread throughout the canyon in between the mountains. There is one mountain, Mount Illimani, that towers over the city at 6400 meters above sea level. La Paz itself is about 3660 meters above sea level. We were glad then it would not be difficult to acclimatize ourselves as we headed to Lake Titicaca.