¿Quién defina…? (Bolivia Part II)

Sorry for the delay folks: between catching up on sleep from a whirlwind weekend, trying to stay on top of daylight savings time (it’s on a different day here), and getting a handle on classwork the week got away from me.

Saturday, after dropping my bag at the hostel I headed out to the Cemetario General to catch a bus out to Copacabana, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. The ticket runs between 15 and 20 bolivianos (2-3 USD) and the first bus heads out at 6 a.m. Since I was there a little early, I I bought breakfast (a hot apple drink fortified with oatmeal to keep you full throughout the day) and watched as various vendors set up their tables and laid out there wares, preparing for the onslaught of folks that would head up to the cemetery looking for transport later in the day. The difference from Santiago could not have been more striking.

In many ways, the women’s dress in La Paz reminded me of Ladysmith, South Africa–dresses with long skirts, flats, a thick blanket tied or pinned around the shoulders, and a hat. In South Africa, this was often a wool beanie but in La Paz the hats varied from the plain wool beanie to tall top-hats. The men were mostly dressed somewhat formally, but working-class clothes rather than suits. Given how cold it was, it was maybe the lack of coats that surprised me the most.

As we started driving up the crazy steep hills (think San Francisco, except in the Andes), I noticed a herd of burros walking down a parallel street. Finally! I thought, An authentic Latin American experience!! But as soon as the thought sipped through my head I stopped myself. What makes La Paz anymore “authentically” Latin American than Santiago? The fact that in it’s poverty it’s closer to the gringo stereotype of what Latin America is or should be? To be fair, riding the colorful 1960s-era buses around La Paz with salsa music blasting made me feel like I was in some Hollywood movie–scene: protagonist travels through unidentified poor Latin American nation, finds herself profoundly moved by the squalor and poverty (vital character development that will influence her decisions at a crucial moment later in the film)–but the reality is that Latin America has experienced (and still is experiencing) some pretty intense changes. More and more of the continent’s cities are like Santiago de Chile and would seem quite familiar to an American or European visitor (in that all-big-cities-kind-of-have-the-same-feel kind of way). A while plenty of Latin America would still be recognizable to a young, Motorcycle Diaries-era Che Guevara, we’ve got to break ourselves (myself quite obviously included) of the assumption that it’s all still that way.

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