Sunday, September 20, 2009

Wrestling with La Paz.

At over 3660 metres above sea level, La Paz is the highest capital city in the world. Now that was less than Copacabana and Isla del Sol but it was also a whole lot bigger which meant we would be huffing and puffing as we set out on foot to explore it today. We had hoped a big breakfast would help us out, but the hostel only provided bread and jam with coffee. Oh well, it was free so I shouldn’t complain too much. And we were able to add fresh squeezed orange and grapefruit juice to that just a few blocks away. For less than $1 we got two huge glasses from a street vendor who squeezed it while we waited. Yum. But we still weren’t ready to start our walking tour. We had to find a bank machine to replenish the funds we’d just about exhausted over the last 7 days, and preferably a bank machine that gave out more than $150 at a time to stop the bank fee bleeding we’d been suffering from lately. The best we could do was double that amount. It still wasn’t great but it would have to do. Now it was time to tackle the city.

Back in Copacabana I’d traced the walking tour from the hostel’s Bolivia guidebook into ours and the first stop was the San Francisco Church. Not part of the walking tour was the huge public health fare going on in the square out front. The government had set up dozens of booths to catch the locals on their way into church. So not only could they get a sermon, today they could also get their blood pressure checked, learn about food groups, and talk to a doctor if they needed to. It was a little weird to see at first but I realized that churches in Latin America are more popular than malls and probably the best way for the government to reach the largest amount of people. Since Sunday service was going on we skipped poking our noses in the church and instead decided to see the other half of the Bolivian religion in action at the witches’ market. That required a hike up and by hike I mean it felt like we were walking straight up. Of course when we got to the point on the map where the market was supposed to be, we discovered it had been replaced by a street of tourist stalls selling pan flutes, ponchos and Che Guevera t-shirts. We were disappointed, probably because our lungs were now burning but continued on with the walking tour nonetheless. As we turned up the next street we stumbled upon the new location of the witches’ market. The stalls were interesting but not as weird as I expected, perhaps because we’d seen many of the offerings (miniature objects, herbs, candy shaped like cars and houses) on sale on Calvary Hill in Copacabana, everything except for the gruesome llama fetuses that the market is famous for and which are considered the most special offering someone could burn or bury. After that we cut the tour short as it continued to take us up and into more markets rather than down to the city sights.

The other thing that La Paz (and Bolivia) is famous for is cocaine and La Paz has an entire museum dedicated to the Coca Plant it comes from. No, this is not some sort of druggie paradise. You see, coca is used everyday by almost all Bolivians. The leaves are chewed and consumed the same way North Americans drink coffee, as an appetite suppressant, a cure for altitude sickness and also to make tea. Unfortunately for Bolivians, the US doesn’t quite agree with the planting of Coca and had been trying to outlaw it – unable to separate the domestic use from the illegal production of cocaine. The museum was dedicated to educating folks about the thousand year old Bolivian tradition of consuming coca. But it was also closed that day. So our education was going to have to wait. Oh well. At least the building and the courtyard in front were pretty enough so it didn’t feel like a wasted journey.

On our way to the main square, we discovered the Museo del Arte and decided to pop in. It was well worth the $1.50 entrance fee. The buildings was a beautiful old colonial one and the collection of art was quite nice too, and included enough modern stuff to keep Adrian from getting bored. When we left, an old blind couple was sitting outside busking in the pedestrian mall. They were quite good and also very sweet so we listened to three of their songs and then put some money in their box. We once again headed to the Cathedral square only to be thwarted this time by a giant religious procession. Knights of Columbus, priests, altar boys and girls, women’s auxiliary, clouds of incense, and many virgins. And by virgins, I mean Virgins. Each group in the procession was holding a large statue of Virgin Mary over their heads. We couldn’t move any further so we watched it pass by the presidential palace where dignitaries (but not the president) paid their respects to the Virgins. When the process finally moved on into town and out of the square, Adrian rushed over to the palace and congress excited to see the bullet holes left over from a failed coup decades ago. However, either the Virgins or a handyman had miraculously patched them recently. But all was not lost. A quick search of the other buildings on the square turned up some still visible bullet holes, satisfying Adrian’s morbid curiosity. The square itself was the perfect place to stop for a break so we grabbed some saltenas (Bolivian empanadas). They were tasty and also about 50 cents each that made them even tastier. Then it was back to hostel for our afternoon tour which was either going to be one of the worst things we had ever done or the best. We were going to see some Bolivian wrestling.

In Latin America, wrestling is a favoured sport. You’ll find wrestlers painted on the side of buses or the pictures pinned up in local restaurants. If it’s on tv men, women and whole families will watch it, entranced. I am not a wrestling fan, in fact I kind of hate it. But having just watched The Wrestler while we were in Copacabana, I was kind of excited about seeing a match in action. And Adrian? While if it’s tacky, he wants to do it. And this wrestling looked like it was the tackiest thing we could do in town if not all of Bolivia. You see, this wasn’t just any wrestling, it was Cholita wresting and a Cholita is what they call any traditional Bolivian women, the women in the voluminous skirts and tiny little bowler hats. That’s right we had paid money to see women’s wrestling.

At the hostel we met up with 20 other tack-hunters and set off in the bus back up out of the canyon of La Paz and into the altiplano suburbs. The bus stopped at the top of the hill so we could take a panoramic picture of the city down below and then we were back on board for the short drive into the working class suburbs. Outside a small and rustic arena we were let off, given our entry tickets, vouchers for a snack and souvenir as well as our tourist bathroom tickets before being hustled inside. The ticket taker handed us a program and we were disappointed to find more men then women listed for today’s fight and no midgets (yup midgets are just as popular competitors as the Cholitas). We were shown to our VIP seats which were plastic chairs lined up at ringside. I wasn’t sure if that was so much a privilege or a punishment – but I guess we’d soon find out as just as we were all seated the announcer came out to introduce the first match. Judging by the group’s reaction to his rapid-fire Spanish, there was some trash talk of some of the competitors but none of us gringos was able to figure out what we were about to see not that it would have mattered because I don’t think any of us would have been able to translate “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle”. You see, the first involved a guy dressed up as one of the TMNT but no Cholitas. It set the pattern for the rest of the matches: the crowd favourite would get beat up by the bad guy with a little help from the dirty ref followed by a comeback from the edge of defeat.

There were about 5 matches in total, or about 2 too many, of varying degrees of entertainment. Our refreshments were just a small cup of pop and another small bag of too salty popcorn which most of the gringos preferred to throw at the bad guys. Only half of the fights involved a Cholita. I assumed the Cholita would automatically be the crowd favourites whenever they fought but one of them was definitely not their favourite (although she was mine). Jenniferwas a bad ass and not afraid to fight dirty. At one point she was thrown into the protective railing in front of the gringos before being whacked over the head with a real wooden crate. I remembered The Wrestler and imagined she’d probably bruised her ribs and gotten a lump on the head and felt more than a little sorry for her even if the crowd was happy that she was injured. Although the wrestling was fake the moves were definitely not. But in the end evil Jennifer won her match. Adrian’s favourite was Mr. Atlas, the old-timer. But because of the age of both him and his opponent, the moves weren’t as scary or exciting, so much so that I don’t remember much except Mr. Atlas won. By the second last match most of the gringos had disappeared and I wondered if we were supposed to have left as well. But rather than leave we stayed right until the end mostly because Adrian was totally into the event now while I worried how we were going to get back to the hostel. My anxiety wasn’t helped by the last match. It wasn’t so much a match as a way to clear everyone out of the building and involved a wrestler called La Mumia de Africa (the mummy of Africa). He was the ultimate bad guy and after beating up both his opponent and the ref, the other wrestlers came out to try to control him. not even Jennifer could conquer him and he soon turned on the crowd, throwing the metal grates and plastic chairs forcing everyone out of the arena. It was a good thing many in the audience had already left because it meant less of a crowd in the small parking lot outside. Out of the original 20 who had arrived on our bus only 5 (including us) stuck it out until the end – it was the same story with the other tours so it was easy to find our ride back. Good thing because it was now dark outside.

The bus took us back down into the city bowl stopping briefly so we could take another shot of La Paz all lit up this time before dropping us off at the hostel. It was definitely Adrian’s day because the hostel was serving up a proper Sunday dinner. He chortled with glee as he gobbled up his first beef, roast potatoes, carrots, beans, broccoli, peas and lashings of gravy in the last 6 months. He even threatened to call home and tell his mum it was better than hers until I told him she might cut him off in the future. After all the fighting we’d seen in the ring we didn’t need to start any fights back in England.

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