Saturday, May 23, 2009

Vista de La Paz

World's highest golf course. Just for you, Dad!

"I claim this land for Spain."

Back of the Main Cathedral, in downtown La Paz.

View from my bathroom window

Street life in the market

1835 Catedral: The main entrance is 12m higher than it's base on the other street.

Catedral de San Miguel. I met up with my new friend Rachael here - she told me to get in a microbus and watch for a church that looks like an egg. I sort of laughed when I saw it. She was right, I knew it right away. Its pretty cool though, inside and out.

Life at 3700 metres (12,000 ft)

As promised, I have the much anticipated second installment of "I'm in Freaking Bolivia!" Now, just to bring you up to speed, we (as in, the royal 'we') have spent about three and a half days in La Paz, situated at 3660 m above seal level. It definitely felt like a week. Then we have journeyed up (in yet another plane) to go back down (much more down) to Santa Cruz, (416m above sea level). Now, much has happened in the Santa Cruz region - including, but not limited to, drinking honey shots with an Inter-American Development Bank (IBD) official, the consumption of more than 3 kilos of steak by one small party in about 40 minutes and the senseless and wonton killing of three large bugs in one day. However, I promised you La Paz and so La Paz you will have and we will tell Santa Cruz to simmer down for the time being.

I think the best plan of action, so as not to let you fall too far behind, is to organize a laundry list of highlights from my whirlwind tour of the city (because after two weeks, today is the first time that I've had the opportunity to do laundry, so its the theme of the day). Let's try to do this in an orderly fashion, shall we? So, I give you an abridged glossary of La Paz aspects, items and events.

1. Asociacion de Instituciones de Promocion y Educacion - this is one of the organizations involved in SFU's project with the Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar. It is a network of NGOs in Bolivia and the project (a certification in development for practitioners) is offered to its member organizations and their staff. I went and met with the director and the liason between the university on Friday and we started off talking about traffic in Managua versus Santa Cruz and then before I knew it we were discussing philosophy of development. Was I stoked?? You betcha. Good people there.

2. Economists - I was invited to go to a extra-cirricular lecture at the Universidad Nuestra Senora de La Paz. Now, normally at a Canadian institution such as oooh, let's say, Simon Fraser University, you have one of these lectures regularly during the evenings and a handful (maybe 30-40) dedicated and eager young minds (read: 'undergrads and their even keener graduate counterparts') will come out to hear a speaker flown in from probably New York (one of those REAL universities with the Ivy and stuff!). It is almost entirely students, with the sponsoring profs showing up and a few community members (read: 'retirees'). This lecture was a little different in terms of its demographic. In file about 15 or so middle-aged economists. Most wearing snazzy suits. Different demographic indeed. I was the only woman for the first 3/4ths of the event - oh wait, one of the speakers brought their wife, so I was one of two women. I was also the only person under hm, let's say 35 (and that might be generous). There was a young guy there my age, sitting behind me at first, but about 20 minutes in, I looked back and he must have "excused himself to the men's room." I am unsure if I was an item of interest for my demographic or the fact that I was Canadian (and the matieral being presented, I was informed, was of Canadian origin). Ah well, I should be used to the fact that as a redhead, I really stand out anywhere but Scotland.

3. Insulation - I know, I know, "no cultural judgments until I'm here 6 months" But allow me just one observation then: you think they'd have figured out insulation by now. It gets to about -1 at night, what with the altitude, and yet houses are just brick and stucco. On the bright side, there are plenty of trendy llama-hair legwarmers to be had. I acquired my own pair within the first 15 hrs of being there (and yes Susan, one for you too).

4. Mascots - also known by the long name of "Holy Chocolatey Inside and Hard Candy Shell Outside Batman!" I was sitting in Cafe Alexander, a trendy little place for which I particularly recommend the Quesadillas de Pollo, in Sopocachi (a trendy little barrio of La Paz), looking across at the Plaza Albaroa on the other side of the street, when what do I see, but all colours of M&Ms wandering through traffic trying to meet up with their logo-bedecked SUV. Yes, walking, talking M&Ms. Or at least, people dressed as M&Ms.
A little while later I look up and the M&Ms have vanished but in their stead are Superman, Wonderwoman, Batman, Batgirl and a man dressed as... a tree? SuperTree? Maybe an Ent? I don't really know but he's wearing an entire branch.
A few moments later and half way into my Quesadilla and coca tea, the superteam has vanished, ostensibly to the same meeting as the M&Ms. But what's that I see? Bam Bam!! It's BAM BAM!! I can now die content.
Wait- I spoke too soon! The entire Flinstone gang just rolled up in ... a car with a roadrunner on top...? A Duck? Maybe it belongs to the tree man, but its not entirely clear what cartoon it references. At any rate, they all fit into the equivalent of a Honda civic, Bam Bam's club to boot. What a day!
SWEET MOTHER, its Zorro and his trust horde of Bees!! (Best not to ask). Can this get any better?? The Plaza Albaroa, ladies and gentleman, where all kind of mascot may be spied by the careful mascot watcher.

5. Nomenclature - I really love the way they name things in Latin American countries. Maybe this is a silly point, because the Spanish language reverses the order of most things, so things are essentially "Supermarket Safeway" as opposed to "Safeway Supermarket." That's fine enough, but combine the names with the punctuation and you have to admit, for an english speaker it just tickles me pink: Reposteria "Nicole" and Fotocopias Snoopy are my too favourite so far (Reposteria = Bakery, cake shop). The quotation marks were included on the sign.

6. Mating Rituals - after the Lecture described in #2, I was milling around schmoozing with the best of them, when I was suddenly asked by one man (bald, 5'7, 50+) for my name and number in Santa Cruz. He quickly proceeds to tell me that since I was moving to Santa Cruz, he has a son there - soltero, single -muy importante - who would be happy to help show me around or really do anything I needed and was given his number and address quickly after. Now, I think its pretty well known that I don't generally know if a guy is making a pass at me unless it hits me in the face, but I caught on pretty quickly to this guy's ruse. So apparently I already have a date with the son of an economist whom I know nothing about. The thing is, when anyone figures out you are single in a foreign country, the immediate response is that you came here for the sole purpose of selecting one of their top-choice eligible young men:
Bolivian: "And Kiki, where did you leave your boyfriend?"
Kiki: "I don't know, I must have misplaced him somewhere!"
Bolivian: WINK "Ah! So you don't have one!? YOU MUST GET A BOLIVIANO!"
Obviously. What else would I do there in three months?

... on the other hand, I feel like pointing out that if I haven't gotten one after a few years in Canada, you think three months here is going to be super effective? Just asking...

7. Traffic Zebras - Perhaps the highlight, so let's end on this short note. In downtown La Paz, there are men dressed as Zebras (more mascots, this seems to be a theme). They stand on the side of narrow major boulevards and direct traffic. I KID YOU NOT. They tell people to slow down, merge nicely and wave at children in backseats. The more I think of it, I think it to be quite the slick trick. I mean, wouldn't you slow down for a Zebra in the middle of the road?

Overall, I quite enjoyed La Paz, even more than anticipated! I have to thank a few folks for their kind hospitality (Rachael - and Jessi for introducing us, and the Molinedo family). The city was something completely different than what I was expecting. I am not too sure where to go with its description, clearly it's not all mascots and marriage proposals. There were lots of tall buildings, even taller rock formations... and tallest of all, Illimani and the Andes. Hot sun and frigid shade, some very trendy people with some very traditional. Tree men and Economists. Some contrasts indeed.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Flight Insight

First stop: Dallaaassss Texaaassss! – Thank you William Shatner.
It´s midday and one flight of three down. I have little to offer other than the ramblings that sally forth from fatigue and a bloated stomach full of texas chicken-burger and a double side order when they messed up - ´no, really, that's ok, I just want one.’ Oh well, they tell me things are bigger in Texas, and as far as somethings go, it is not always good (´but I don't want a 68 oz cola... I really just want a small one… That can't possibly be your small´).

But I will tell you one thing that´s nice about the grand life of the lone star state: the bathroom stalls are fit for a truck. Do you know how awkward it is to get the carry-on and yourself, regardless of your size, into a normal Canadian sized stall?? Have we thought through how ridiculous this?? And another thing (why, oh why, do I always descend to pontificating on bathroom design? Doing it anyways!) another thing: American bathrooms ALWAYS have seat covers and toilet paper well-stocked. I just find that so civilized!

See here is the thing, and I've complained about this to a few people, but I really do not enjoy the solo travel gig. I mean it would be ok, if airport administration hadn't gone off the deep-end in the last decade. But I have to say, sometimes you just want someone who will watch your bag while you pee, because Lord knows that I am struck with guilt every time I hear that calm woman come over the intercom and inform me that my bags may be subject to destruction (she says that last word like she´s at a monster truck rally: DES-TRUCTION! TION! TION!) if left alone. Then she directs instructions to servicemen. Why do servicemen get special instructions? Don´t they know how to navigate airports too? More importantly – why are they here?? Should I be alarmed??

So I wander the halls of Dallas like a sad little waif buckling under the weight of her overstuffed carry-on (hey, you never know when the airline will lose your bags and you need provisions for those first few days). Then suddenly, they call my number and I´m running down the aisle to the cheers of Rod Roddy to get my seat on the plane to Miami. Now, once safely buckled in and with my airplane blanket carefully tucked around my legs (dare I eve ask how often those are washed?), we prepare for the next stage. Round two: Dallas to Miami.

Now here´s a thought for you: I would like to see just once, ONCE, someone on those airline safety instruction videos who is not bedecked in soothing pastels and carefully ironed slacks. I look around my plane and half of us are in pajayamas and the rest of us are wrinkled from the last three layovers. All of us have bags under our eyes and there is some not-so-carefully-disheveled hair littering the tops of the seats. Is that what I see on this "Important Safety Announcement?" No, they are carefully tinted versions of Martha Stewart to make sure we have an equal vision of women, men and your major minorities. And when their masks drop due to a change in cabin pressure or it is time to put on the life vest, I´d prefer they do it again, this time with feeling. Because , Lord knows that the ambiguously-washed airplane blankies don´t provide much warmth, but they can´t possibly be inflating those vests for extra warmth. I know that would probably be psychologically distressing to show the real emotions, but I´m just saying maybe if their slacks weren´t so neat I´d be able to take it…

And now for something a little different. I was thinking as we taxied out of the gate at Miami (a dangerous pastime I am sure). It is a funny perspective you get from an airplane porthole window. The backside of an airport never looks like the front where you drive in. I wonder if those who design airports take this into account. At any rate, airports are weird places floating out on a sea of cement – far from any city life. I´ve been through Texan airports several times and yet my frame of reference for life in that state still comes from watching Reba. It is hard to figure out if the city looks a certain way from the air. I do strangely, find myself counting swimming pools when we are coming in for a landing. Those nice aqua-coloured jellybeans make me unaccountably happy about a place. I just think that a city with lots of pools would be a nice place, as I do like swimming myself and that must be an indication that it is a relatively sunny life there.

Plane rides afford you a very different view and different views tend to make you question what had previously seemed irrelevant – or more, non-existent. Flying over what I assume to be was West Texas, and thinking of the oil legends of that place from reading the Prize, I was suddenly insatiably curious to know why there were crops cultivated in huge circles when the plots were quadrangular. They looked like big ol´pies from the sky, but clearly they were missing some land on the four corners, seems a rather inefficient waste of land to me. Waste of land, like time, is money according to my economics professor.

But then maybe there is more going on than one can see from so high. I thought as I flew over the gulf of Mexico, towards Florida, what a crazy bit of water this can be and yet…and yet I am looking out and the sun is setting out behind the starboard side of the plane, and the docile tufts of cloud beneath order themselves in neat little rows below, like simple strokes of a brush, mistaking the air for the sea and painting gentle waves that roll over and over one another and the blue below. It makes me want to resolve to study cloud formation – along with Texan agricultural practices (useful stuff, indeed), because, this cannot possibly be the birthplace of Katrina, Felix, Mitch and their horde of wretched siblings.

I am not entirely sure what I am doing on a plane to Bolivia at the moment. I´ve never had a desire to go there – but then Nicaragua was last draft pick on my list of places too, so maybe this is how I roll – maybe if I think about how much I´d hate to go to Spain or Hawaii I´ll get sent there next! And I am a bit of a basket-case when it comes to travelling (see above), but I do feel in this very moment very, very lucky to be watching the sunset over the gulf from the vantage point normally reserved for God and birds.

Well, enough of that nonsense. It is time for me to go catch a bus. Next up: after our descent from the air to La Paz, we have the adventures of Kiki at 13,000ft. Our La Paz notes will include lore of Zebra-men directing traffic and a date with the prof´s son. Hold your breath.