Bolivia has been on my radar since I fell in love with this continent back in 2007. The prominence of the indigenous culture and the diversity of its land intrigued me to the max. So, when Teresa decided on a three week visit to my hemisphere, it was a perfect opportunity for me to make it there and for her to see a life 180 degrees from our own.
Over half of Bolivia’s population belongs to an indigenous community, which means that, in addition to Spanish, many people speak a native language as their primary language, traditional dress is seen everywhere, and coca leaves are in pretty much everyone’s pocket. Most people make their living through farming or a form of selling – be it fruits/veggies, handmade crafts, typical juices, or food in the plaza, on the streets, or from a restaurant out of their home.
Going in, I knew Bolivia would be an experience. Having backpacked for three months in 2010, I had met many backpackers on the buses and in the hostels that had already completed an exploration. While every story had tales of incredible land and interesting cultural insights, they all, too, shared experiences of broken buses, travel stopping strikes, and mixed reviews of personal treatment. Every traveler down here knows that, when going to Bolivia, you need to add an extra couple days to itinerary “just in case.”
The good news is, after 13 days, it didn’t let us down. (stories to come)
La Paz is a vertically sprawling city. Thousands of clay houses climbing high up into the mountains. It was quite striking to see the deep green mountains peeking out of more sparsely built upon areas. It’s a functionally chaotic place…. seemingly millions of extremely old cars zig-zagging through 7-8 way traffic. And, no, that’s not 7-8 lanes. That’s 2 (albeit relatively wide) lanes but absolutely no order to them. So, cars literally just zoom alongside, in front, through…. Whatever little space they see, they make it happen.
Sitting at 13,500 feet, walking up city streets puts quite the pressure on your chest. Occasional stops for coca tea relieved the daily headaches and altitude funkiness. Coca leaves have forever been used for nutritional, religion, and medical purposes. Back at Marquette, my final Spanish paper was around this controversial topic, discussing cultural practices and history compared to common misconceptions and stereotypes.
Indigenous women wearing beautifully colored skirts, long black braids, and tiny derby hats walk around the city, usually carrying extremely heavy loads (or babies!) in blankets tied onto their backs. It is difficult to imagine the hard life that many of these women live.
Teresa and my’s favorite snack was the rellena. Similiar to Chile’s empanada, it is a dough made out of either a) plantains, b) potatoes, or c) rice and then filled with raisins, potatoes, meat, and vegetables. The best part was opening it a bit and then adding the toppings: a spicy chile paste, a spicy peanut sauce, cabbage, and cucumbers. It was delicious (and, cost about $.75)!
The Witches Market
Naturally, as so many live off the Earth, Bolivians are very in touch with Mother Nature. In fact, her name is “Pacha Mama.” (I first learned of her in Peru, another more indigenously populated country). While there are various types of markets all over the city, the one of particular interest is the “Witches Market.”
Here, we found all types of statues and figures of higher-beings, salts and sweets to burn for Pacha Mama, medicinal herbs, and all sorts of interesting things. Being someone that feels very linked to this world around me, I have always been connected to the idea of Pacha Mama. I bought her statue, consisting of: 3 heads, the middle is Pacha Mama, the other 2 are family, the turtle represents good health, the frog wealth, and the snake protection. In all, it is the energy of this world. For me, she’s just a good reminder that I can’t control everything, that I am only one part of this incredible world, and that, in the end, I need to respect it and do what I can to make it what I want it to be.
Another interesting find was the thousands of bird-looking llama fetuses tied together and hanging, or sitting, in heaps. Wait… what?! Why, you might ask? When one of these llama fetuses is purchased, it is blessed by a Witch and wrapped in brightly colored llama wool. Then, it is taken home and buried for good omen and a watchful eye. This belief is deeply rooted in their culture – it’s estimated that 90%+ homes/buildings/lots have a “sullus”. Additionally, as I was told, many construction workers will not work on a property if it has not yet been blessed. Making sense, sulluses are also buried around the New Year in preparation for a healthy and prosperous next 365 days.
So, how do they get these fetuses? From what I was told, when a mother has her young, she will often have two and one won’t make it. When this happens, or in the case of miscarriages, these are given to the witches. So, while I’m sure there are some sacrifices, I’m hoping too many llamas aren’t being prematurely killed!
The woman from whom I bought my Pacha Mama was a witch (not everyone selling there is… there’s not that many actually). While I had seen the statue at many areas in the witches market, when this soft-spoken woman started talking to me, with the way she explained the Pacha Mama, I knew I wanted to buy from her. She seemed so wise and had such a warm presence. She told me about natural healing, uses for some of local Andean plants, and about some of the salts/sweets and when/how to use them.
For us in the USA, this concept of the Witches might seem strange. Or, against religion. Or, whatever else. But, in the end, these are women that are practicing customs that are thousands of years old. I’m not to say whether or not they have true powers to cure, give blessings, or see into your soul… but I am sure they are in touch with this world on a level we can’t even process… and that definitely gives them an insight we don’t have.
Ps. Our green “drink MKE” and “irish MKE” shirts were from our St. Patty’s pub crawl last year. Celebrating St. Patty’s this year in Bolivia, we wanted to bring a little bit of home :)