Pico Iyer Journeys

La Paz, Bolivia

The visitor to Bolivia who has time on his hands will likely fly down to Sucre in the south, a pretty, serene university town of white-walled houses and narrow streets, from which you can take a day-trip to the highest city in the world, Potosi, whose mountain of silver financed the Spanish Empire for more than two centuries. Backpackers go to Lake Titicaca, three hours from La Paz by bus, to while away the sunny afternoons in the quiet town of Copacabana, where the day’s main event may be the blessing of some Range-Rovers by a priest with holy water.

But for me La Paz itself is intoxication enough, its quirky charms intensified by the high, thin air that propels most visitors into a somewhat light-headed, almost hallucinatory state for their first few days (the prescription medicine Diamox is said to be excellent, in small doses, for counteracting altitude sickness). An unearthly collection of rock formations, the Valley of the Moon (more transporting to me than the Grand Canyon), can be found just twenty minutes by taxi from downtown. In the Indian center of town, one vast, brightly coloured marketplace swarms over all the streets and the attempt at order, and rural witches sell llama foetuses, magical spells and aphrodisiacs. Even the water here boils at eighty degrees centigrade, as if one were not quite on earth.

The very act of doing nothing is an achievement, and an art form, in La Paz, where whole afternoons can be spent watching the skies change above the city, cobalt in one part while they drop rain in another, 19000-feet peaks coming in and out of view through the clouds. And the area around Calle Sagarnaga that bangled Swedes and bearded Swiss have turned into a kind of mini-Kathmandu features coca bars, international cafes and a Museum of Coca you will not soon forget. The beauty of travelling to such a different place is that the most everyday things become transformed: a “cell phone” in Bolivia is an old-fashioned phone at a streetside kiosk that you can pick up and use for 7 p.; a bank is a large woman on a folding chair at a busy intersection, a huge wad of dollars in her hand.

The more international of Bolivia’s citizens will assure you that a new, globalised American future is coming up fast in Bolivia. Edmundo Paz Soldan, who teaches in New York state, and writes highly up-to-date novels set in his native La Paz, has made Bolivia a charter member of the McOndo school of Latin American writing, which reminds us that not all of the continent belongs to the sleepy, never-never world of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo. Much of it is a McSuburb, where realism is anything but magical. But what strikes a visitor here is everything that you would not see in any Global City (and even the McDonald’s, when I visited, had an enigmatic Seiko watch in a display-case near the counter, and an armed guard protecting diners who were paying prices higher than in the chic French cafe next door).

To travel, often, is to try to leave everyday logic behind and stumble into a world that expands one’s horizons by unsettling one’s assumptions. Bolivia shocks the visitor from an affluent country with unanswerable questions about poverty but, by the same sad token, allows you to fly from La Paz to Sucre and back, as I did this year, for 40 British pounds (a totemic souvenir at Tihuanaco cost me 30 pence). Even on New Year’s Eve, the number of foreigners at the country’s most remarkable archaeological site totaled no more than twenty. And when I wandered that evening into the center of the capital, it was to find a huge group of men assembled around a streetside restaurant that was screening “101 Dalmatians” and fifty others banging and laughing away at dozens of Foosball tables set out in the street.

I left Bolivia in January, but “Papa Noel” was still seated on a sleigh in the middle of the Prado then, life-size, papier-mache llamas waiting to whisk him off to his home in the other Bolivia known as the North Pole.

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