Malegria In La Paz

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Por la calle del desengaño
Esta mañana yo pasé
Con malegría otra vez

Bolivian River-crossing

Bolivian River-crossing

I’m cold, I’m tired, my clothes are dirty and I can barely breathe. One of these days I guess.

We arrived in La Paz from Copacabana. We left early, once again. Barely awake, we stored our bags in the bus and tried to make ourselves comfortable. Maybe even sleep a bit. But the bus was old, the seats dirty and small. As soon as we left, the driver set the radio at full volume. So much for sleep.

A couple of hours later, the bus stopped in front of a river. We took a small boat and our bus was driven onto another one. This is river-crossing in Bolivia. The ride made us feel slightly dizzy. Back on the bus. Only a few more hours to La Paz.

We climbed higher and higher in the mountains and eventually reached the capital. The first view is breathtaking. Nested in a valley, the highest capital in the world is best seen from above.

First View Of La Paz

First View Of La Paz

Soon enough, our bus was blocked by a demonstration. A common occurrence in Evo Morales´country apparently. We stayed stuck for a good hour before the driver finally gave up, parked the bus and let us go. Feng and I took a few minutes to read the map and figure out where we were (hint: in a dodgy neighbourhood). Meanwhile, one of the bus passengers, an old man, lowered his pants and started pissing behind the bus, in the middle of the street. What the fuck is wrong with Bolivian men? This wasn’t the first time I saw that. Earlier in Bolivia, I was queuing for the female bathroom at a bus station when a guy came around and pissed a few meters from us. Was it that difficult to open the bathroom door and do his business inside?

Demonstrating In La Paz

Demonstrating In La Paz

We eventually found our way and checked in a hostel for the night. We cleaned up a bit and decided to go eat.

We walked along a busy street. The sidewalk was tiny and already busy with vendors selling anything from hair clips to incense. It felt more crowded than in China. Meanwhile, cars, buses, trucks were driving at full speed, on the road, on the sidewalk, through red lights. It was already hard to breathe because of the altitude but the pollution made it worse.

The streets were a total chaos. Vendors, pedestrians, tourists, heavily armed military and police, cars, buses, trucks, bikes, bumping into each other, yelling, screaming, pushing. And meanwhile, not a single food place to be seen. Sure enough, there were a local market. A few food stalls along the busy road; ham covered with flies rotting in the sun, black bread supposed to be white, unidentified meat and dairy products. I will pass, really. I don’t think I’m too picky but I draw the line at fighting with insects to eat my food. Hygiene is not one of Bolivia’s strength… We eventually found a fast food and settled for it.

We had hoped to find a supermarket, or even a convenience store – i.e. not street food. Water is not drinkable in most of Latin America and we were used to buy bottled water, but in Bolivia, half of the time, even bottled water was not drinkable. We suspected that bottle were refilled, or left in the sun for too long. We walked quite far but did not find a supermarket. We came back to the hostel tired and somewhat frustrated.

I don’t understand people in Bolivia. Sure, I’m not fluent in Spanish, but I have always managed to talk with locals just fine. Most people love to chat. But not in Bolivia. We would ask directions and people would sight and not reply. The only time I saw people smile was when we were at the tourist market. Suddenly, people were very interested in us. Money talks I guess.

I realize I’m probably not fair. After all, I know very little of Bolivia and I have no right to judge the people. Maybe it’s a culture shock. I must admit I found it hard to see people sitting on the dirty roads selling stuffs, kids begging or working, older people looking sick and helpless. I have not seen this kind of poverty anywhere else for far in this trip. And somewhat, the harsh weather and the altitude seem to make poverty even worse in my eyes.

Or it might be another kind of culture shock. I grew up by the sea and I’m not an highland person. Life is different up there and maybe I just don’t get it.

Landscapes are amazing in Bolivia and it`s a colourful and interested country. I’m glad we travelled through. But La Paz… most chaotic capital ever.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Hi Zhu! Aside from Haiti, Bolivia is the poorest country in the Americas. Every attempt to improve their lot in life has been stymied by the oligarchy. Things seemed to be improving when Morales was elected, but the right-wing revolt in the richer areas has held everything back. I suspect you are seeing a lot of bitterness in the eyes of the Bolivian person-in-the street. But it was even worse once. Read Che’s “Motorcycle Diaries” on what it was like in 1950. Enjoying reading about your trip!

  2. Your narrative let me feel your rather unsetteling experience. It sounds like a rather sad and desparate place. As I read your post I am watching President Barack Obama dance with his beautiful first lady at a series of inaugural balls. Something of a contrast.

    By the way, Che’s book was made into an excellent movie, “Diarios de motocicleta” with Mexican actor Gael García Bernal.

  3. Zhu, I was in La Paz some 10 years ago and I recognized my memories in your words. Eventhough I’m from Argentina, not far away (talking about geography and development level) but it was a shock for me too and I had the same communication problem! being Spanish my mother tongue. I found quite difficult to make eye-contact with them, I didn’t know if it’s a matter of respect, fear or what. At the moment, a girl from La Paz is working for us in our house (Barcelona) and she has the same sad eyes…

  4. @Larry Gambone – It is probably bitterness indeed, and the country has a tough history. I found Perú improved a lot (last time I was there was 7 years ago), and of course, Chile is much more modern. Going to Bolivia is quite a contrast. I can´t even imagine what the people went through… But I like Morales, and I hope it will improve.

    @Tulsa Gentleman – I saw the movie 🙂 The Che seems to be much more popular in Mexico actually, I barely see any picture etc. him for some reason. Maybe in Argentina.

    @Nora – Yes, this is exactly how I felt! And I was very surprised, given that we usually have no problem communicating with locals, either in Central or South America. I do belive it´s a mixte of a tough history and maybe the highlands… life is hard in Bolivia and it broke my heart to see poverty like that. This is a harsh country weather/ geography wise too, even though it´s beautiful. Thanks for sharing your experience, makes me feel less loney in my Bolivian experience!

  5. Hahahaha… there are things that never change… as I told you I did approximately the same trip 30 years ago… and I recognize everything you said 🙂
    One morning I boarded the bus from Peru to La Paz. To be sure to have a seat in the bus I went there early… but once the bus opened its door it was a mad rush and of course I didn’t managed to get seated… so for hours I had to stand. Till someone left the bus… At the border between Peru and Bolivia I was the only one required to step out of the bus because I was the only foreigner and the police asked me to register my passport in a book. When I stepped back inside the bus my seat was taken by a Bolivian woman and five chickens… 😉 so I had to stand up again for the rest of the journey…
    But I enjoyed La Paz… especially the market where those old ladies are selling those herbs, potions and magical stones…
    Hehehe…and I was a “gringo” throughout my journey because I didn’t know a word of Spanish at that time… 🙁
    I could write a book about my adventures in Peru and Bolivia…

  6. I have to admit I am allergic to travel posts. It is a testimony to my madness and you writing skills that I can actually read one once in a while and even comment on that:).

    As far as the man taking a leak is concerned I have to say as a fellow man that:” When you have to go, you HAVE to go!” so all points to him for originality:).

    I guess car washes are extinct in Bolivia then…:).

    Take care and keep the fun reporting from your trip!

  7. wow, it’s a night and day difference between Metropolitan America and Bolivia. Great photos…I wish i wasn’t in a cubicle.

  8. Hi Zhu,

    Oh what a stressing trip, girl!
    Demonstrations follow you LOL…but it’s good, people are exercising their right to protest.

    An old man urinating behind you? Just like that? Man…..
    Like we would say in Portuguese: Eca!!!!! (to express disgust)

    I don’t think it is a cultural shock…you are depicting Bolivia just fine *nodding*. Squalor seems to be catching up with the population and that is why they can’t smile and be nice.

    Bolivia is going through a tough political moment, with its lefty president nationalising companies…there is nothing to laugh about, we all know where it will lead.

    Anyway, liked the pics…and let me tell you: you are brave, mon amie :D!

    What’s next?

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