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Danger and Daring in La Paz

La Paz, Bolivia

sunny 23 °C

Dan, Andrew, and I arrived in La Paz at 4:30 AM on Monday morning. We looked out the bus window warily. I expected to see men in dark hoods walking menacingly around with machetes in hand, but alas, it was just a boring old bus station. Well darn it! We hopped off the bus and walked to the information desk, which was closed, and began sneaking around looking for some hostel brochures, at which point, two men in dark green uniforms that loudly proclaimed “Policia Turistica” approached us and asked us what we needed. I eyed them suspiciously. Were they real cops?? Good cops, bad cops?? Did one of them just wink at the other?? I briefly entertained the thought of kicking them in the groin and fleeing into the dark La Paz night but then I realized that half the taxistas would be in on the scam so I thought better of it. We reluctantly explained that we were looking for a hostel. They explained that they were the Policia Turistica and were here for OUR protection, given La Paz’ reputation, and they promptly put us in a safe cab, wrote down his license plate number, and sent us off to Solaris Hostel. The hostel was booked and thus began our one hour night ride quest for a bed through the dark and menacing La Paz streets, jumping in and out of the cab, ringing doorbells in vain. At 5:30, we ended up at Hotel Torino, where we were met at the door by a grunt and then led to a beautiful private room with hardwood floors and glorious, glorious hot water. This little slice of heaven was quickly cut short when I realized that I had forgotten my purse in the cab. Being that I am the luckiest person in the world, I had used my money wallet for the first time on this trip that morning, putting my passports and credit cards in it, but still….MY PURSE. After a 5 minute panic attack, the 101 Dalmations bed sheets got the better of me and sleep took over.

The next morning, while British Princesses Dan and Andrew got their beauty sleep, I set out to single-handedly prove wrong all those stories about La Paz that speak of corruption, theft, and generally bad people. That’s right. I, Silvana Joseph, was going to valiantly and dramatically get my purse back. I marched down to the bus station and walked up to the group of Policia Turistica, who were indeed living and working, every day, solely for MY protection. I explained the situation and described the police personnel who had placed me in the cab the previous night. After much internal struggle, the Policia Turistica came to the conclusion that Officers Miranda and Jerez were on duty on the fated night. UNFORTUNATELY, they weren’t working right now. Would you please, Senorita Joseph, come back tomorrow during their working hours. And please, Senorita Joseph, have faith in us Policia Turistica. You do have faith in us, do you not? Claro que si! I spent the rest of the day walking around the commercial center of La Paz, chaotic streets of juice and pastry vendors, CD vendors, crappy-junk-that-noone-wants vendors, and loud colectivos (mini busses) threatening to run over all of the above. Our hostel was actually placed in the thick of it all so that was exciting. That morning, I had run into Jazz (UK) who we had hung out with in Sucre along with Kiwi Charlie, two of the most fun people around, as well as two of the most hard-to-keep-up-with people around. I’m trying hard to not be so lame, but as you all know, it's a daily struggle. :) We all had lunch at a Thai restaurant and then I headed off to the general hospital to get my two-week cough checked out (I keep insisting it’s a miner’s cough but I get called a drama queen). I ended up at the military hospital by mistake and it took an hour to get sorted out that I have no affiliation with the Bolivian National Military. After that, it was off to the general hospital, whose visiting hours were over, so I got sent to the emergency room, where I felt like the biggest jerk ever saying “ahhhhhh” as the poor souls next to me were getting their stomachs pumped. At the end of the day, my very serious condition was prescribed some very serious medication: ibuprofen. That evening, we dined with Jazz, Charlie, Ryan, Kate and some lively others at a nice restaurant with sushi and pasta and other non Bolivian things (shhh…noone has to know…being “cultural” gets tiring).

The next day, I woke up in high spirits, resolved to see Bolivian justice served. I took a colectivo to the bus terminal and went in search of my Policia Turistica heroes. I found Officer Miranda eating soup down the street. I explained the situation to him. He seemed very interested in my case and told me that Officer Jerez, his partner "on the beat", had indeed written down the taxista’s information. UNFORTUNATELY, Officer Jerez was in bed with a terrible cold. I considered offering him some of my ibuprofen but then realized this might be considered bribery so I scraped the idea. Should have gone with that one. Officer Miranda took down my information and told me that he would contact me if there was any "break in the case". Before he sent me on my way, he looked at me in a very serious way and asked me if I have faith in him. Do I have faith that the water in my shower will suddenly turn cold halfway through? Do I have faith that I will fall over every time I put on my backpack? Claro que si! That day, I walked around the tourist market in La Paz, which has beautiful arrays of brightly colored blankets, llama sweaters, Andean jewelry, really gorgeous stuff. And the people who live here are great too, so very friendly, you wouldn’t expect it from a big city. I guess it’s the Bolivian way. I ran into Olivier, my good friend from Ushuaia, on the street and we visited the Coca Museum together. There, we learned that coca, as in the leaves chewed by Andean communities, has a great many health benefits especially at the high altitudes found here, while cocaine, the synthetic mixture that was first used by US and French pharmaceutical companies (like Merck), is obviously the deadly stuff. I won’t go into the politics of the US-South American coca drug trade. My blogs are boring enough.

When I got back to the hostel, I had an exciting telephone message from the Policia Turistica waiting for me. It said:

“Senorita Joseph is asked to come down to the station immediately. Over.” (Ok, I added that last part).

I took the first colectivo that didn’t try to run me over and rushed to the office. I explained the message I had received. Everyone looked confused. Someone went out to find Officer Miranda, who was having ice cream down the street. He looked a bit confused and then, after some internal struggle, he realized that he had indeed sent me a message. Well, what was the news? Apparently, the news was that Officer Jerez would be back in tomorrow. What a break! I think I smell a promotion… :)

The next day, I headed to the bus station early in the hopes that Officer Miranda wouldn’t be hungry yet and be eating something down the street. When I arrived, neither partner was there, but the girls at the office had an amazing piece of information for me…two possible license plate numbers! Someone had obviously worked through the night on the Joseph Lost Purse case. The girls then told me that I should call the cab companies and ask them for my purse. I explained that I, Senorita Turista, had no power over a cab company and the only answer I would get would be a ‘no’. I told them that only the powerful Policia Turistica wields power over the lowly taxistas. They seemed taken aback with my brilliant argument (do you blame them?) and, after much internal struggle, the girls decided what must be done. We marched over to the office of the Bolivian National Police. We entered the office and saluted the Head Chief, Captain Ruez (Dan pointed out that I didn’t actually salute but did more of an awkward nod but he can bite me.) He listened to my case intently and, as I eloquently told my story in perfect, perfect Spanish, he seemed to get angry. How dare this happen?? Not under my watch, god damn it!! He grabbed the piece of paper with the cab company information and decisively picked up the phone. My heart jumped. There is justicia in Bolivia! He spoke sharply to the cab operator and ordered the cabbie to appear before the National Police the next morning at 8:30 AM. The Bolivian National Police, damn straight people! He then slammed the phone down and nodded gravely at me. Tomorrow, Senorita Joseph, we will close this case. Will you be there? I nodded gravely at him, saluted (=waved awkwardly) and walked out in victory. And then walked back in because I forgot my scarf. And walked back out in victory.

That day, we rented a car and drove an hour and a half to Tiwanaku, a pre-Incan ruins site. Charlie drove and did a fine job of outmaneuvering the locals, swerving buses and vendors and random people carrying doors across highways (what the…) with the greatest of ease. It was really great to see the beautifully green countryside, women in long braids and huge poofy skirts working in the fields, against the snowy mountainous backdrop. We toured the Tiwanaku site for an hour. The Tiwanakus were a highly advanced pre-Incan civilization (400-1000 AD) who built a huge pyramid and various temples, set up a remarkable water sewer system for their network of villages (so large, considered a country) and who prayed to great monuments of their sun and moon gods. When the Spanish came, they put Christian crosses on the Tiwanakus’ statue deities and used the rocks from their sacred temples to build Christian churches. The Tiwanakus buried the big pyramid under great amounts of dirt to hide it from the Spanish and so these days, the locals are just starting to excavate the site. The prospect of what they will find is very exciting. It was getting dark so we drove back and stopped right before the city to look down at the beautiful lights of La Paz. It actually is a very pretty city, it’s a shame it has such a bad reputation. For pics of Tiwanaku, go here http://www.geocities.com/Yosemite/Gorge/3147

That night, we went out for Jazz’ birthday. We ate a fine dinner at Mango’s, blew up balloons for Jazz, and tried our best to hold our ground (and table) amidst the crowd of well over 200 people in a very small place. We had drinks until the wee hours of the morning and met Niki and Joto, two fun La Pazians who fed me too many Cuba Libres. I found out that many drinks can make many Brits dance.

We got home at 6 am, sadly bid Jazz and Charlie farewell, and two hours later, I woke up to see justice served for the first and only time in the Bus Terminal of La Paz. I arrived at the office of National Police to see Captain Ruez sadly shaking his head. The cabbie had not shown up. I too started shaking my head and suddenly the Captain had a sharp change of emotion, got very angry and hastily picked up the phone. He called the cab company and, amidst yells, threatened to confiscate the cabbie’s car. Damn. This was going too far…I really had only lost $30 and my $5 camera….I didn’t want to be responsible for someone losing their livelihood. I started arguing but Captain was resolved. I went home feeling like a jerk and two hours later, the taxista showed up with his wife and told me he didn’t have my purse. I thanked him for his time, called Captain Ruez on his cell phone to thank him for his efforts and went back to sleep. Over email, Niki pointed out that the reason I didn’t get my purse back was because I had never attempted to bribe anyone. Oops. Andrew and Dan pointed out that I had spent the majority of my time in La Paz at the bus station (even though they had spent their entire time buying futbol stickers and putting them into sticker books with our dear roommate Ryan…to each his own, people!). And anyway, now I have Captain Ruez’ cell phone number. Now that’s going to come in handy someday, you better believe it. Do you have the Bolivian National Police Chief’s cell phone number?? Thought so.

We left La Paz early in the morning, feeling woosy from the stomach pains Bolivian food mostly gives you, feeling special that we had seen llama fetuses in the local market (put over doorways for good luck!), and feeling proud that we had not been kidnapped. Andrew got it in his head to loudly yell “I’m an American, goddammit!” every five minutes for no particular reason so that entertained us for the 13 hour bus ride that headed straight for the lost city of the Incas, Cusco. Which is of course in Peru. But you already knew that, didn’t you… :)

Posted by syosef 19:44 Archived in Bolivia Tagged backpacking

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Great story....I like the fact that you moved away for the historical and local color stuff and got into a good little aside.
I also got your postcard. You're right, I do deserve this postcard (I'm going to address this postcard directly, as if it was you). Let me correct some misconceptions you have. I no longer work in radio. I quit after two weeks because the owner was really annoying and wouldn't let me eat dinner in peace (he kept calling me from his house while I was either in studio or out taking my one meal). I'm teaching GRE classes now (even though I've never taken the GRE, the type of thing you might do) and have gotten into doing stand up comedy again. I should back in NJ this fall, I'm going to try my hand at teaching english.

by aalap

Hey, I've been reading (read: scanning) this for a while, but I haven't posted because I am so jealous that you got to see Dinosaur tracks and I didn't. I'm going on my own Centroamerica adventure next month when I return to Guate - yikes! Wish me luck, and be safe yourself.

by comandante

whatever man, evo and I are o.g.'s way back.

you went to a thai restaurant in la paz? far out. you spotting any of my peeps? if so, hit 'em up with the o.g. sign.

by munj

wow, this page made me laugh. English is not my mother tongue but you write so well and funny! I will be in South America in 11 days! It is the final countdown like Europe sang in the 80's.
I wish I have fun and nobody steals from me. I speak spanish (Im from Spain) but too white for bolivians and with some accent after living 5 years in Chicago.

by mogova

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