Monthly Archives: May 2014

The salt of the earth


We headed south from La Paz for a dusty settlement in the middle of nowhere called Uyuni. Uyuni is distinguished by having the best pizza in Bolivia, and its proximity to Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt lake. In Uyuni we organised I three day jeep tour of Bolivia’s south west. The Salar turned out to be just one of many highlights as we toured as dramatic, majestic and elemental combination of landscapes as we’ve seen anywhere.

Many gazillions of years ago much of modern Bolivia was covered by oceans. As the lands changed, some of this sea area became lakes fed by rivers (like Lake Titicaca) but the Salar wasn’t connected to any fresh water sources. And so, as water evaporated it left a vast plain of salt. Every year the salt is replenished by a reaction with February rains, but otherwise it remains dry, and flat as a pancake.

The salt plains are pretty mesmerising. Walking on them gives the illusion of being in snow as the granules crunch under your feet and they’re very, very white. They were the first of many otherworldly landscapes we saw in three days.

Our drive across the seemingly limitless horizons of salt was interrupted only by a kind of ‘island’ in the middle. The Island is made of coral rock that survived the evaporation of the seas and is now covered in cacti. The absurdity of being about 4,000 metres high, crossing kilometers of salt and then climbing on a coral garden was not lost on us.

Rats of the sky


I hope that my disdain for pigeons is already known by many readers of this blog.* For those of you unaware, let me fill you in. They’re gross. They’re rats of the sky. You know why they call them carrier pigeons? Because they CARRY DISEASE.

My objectively correct view is evidently not widely shared among Bolivians. The Plaza by our hostel is teeming with pigeons whose presence is encouraged by many a bird feeder. There are so many pigeons that they actually climb atop each other in a massive pile up when competing for food. They are also encouraged to  climb on to the outstretched arms of children. Innocent children play in the middle of it all. All of this is unacceptable.

You know what is needed? Some cats. Among the pigeons.

* The sole exception is my sympathy for pigeons who want to drive the bus.

What we miss about home

We’ve been on the road for a shade less than five months. While there’s plenty we’re enjoying, and overall the chance to travel is a massive privilege, it’s also timely to acknowledge the things we miss. Here’s a collection ranging from the big and meaningful to the small and practical.

  • Friends and family. Obviously. People who have known you forever, or as good as, are very important. There aren’t many of those in Bolivia, it turns out. Friendships on the road tend to be superficial. Conversations with other travelers are as much a kind of trade and exchange about travel information as anything else.
  • A fridge, a pantry and a fruit bowl. Our food experiences traveling have ranged from sublime to stomach curdling. But no matter how good the food on offer it’s not the same as having control of your own eating destiny, accessing a well stocked kitchen. We miss being able to make a hot drink, or a sandwich, and knowing how it will taste before the first bite.
  • A week with a schedule. This is definitely a grass is always greener one but… Working full time has – in theory at least – a delineation between the time you are working and the time you aren’t. There’s a predetermined time for guilt free relaxation. We recall this pleasing realisation when we moved from studying to working. When we’re traveling we’re 100% in control of our own schedule and therefore need to make judgements about when to relax and when to really get out there and tourist. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether you should forgo that museum for an afternoon nap, or exactly how many House of Cards episodes it takes to recover from a night bus.
  • The news. At home it is easy to absorb the news – local, national, international – through osmosis. That’s probably because of how easy it is to browse news sites when blurring the theoretical work/relax distinction set out above. It’s much harder to dabble in news in this way on the road.
  • Drinking from the tap. Buying bottled water is annoying, costly and bad for the environment.
  • Brushing teeth after breakfast. Very often our morning routine involves checking out of where we’re staying and/or going to find somewhere to breakfast before starting our traveling day. Teeth brushing fits in before check out and before breakfast and is less satisfying this way.
  • Going away and coming home. Surely one of the most satisfying features of travel is the anticipation before the journey. And another is the feeling of homecoming – back to your own bed which feels exactly as it used to. Both these feelings are commonplace when we’re at home. There’s always a trip to be planned and talked of. And there are plenty of homecomings, even if just from a day trip to Auckland.

El Alto

El Alto – the name is as matter of factly descriptive as it is enigmatic. It literally means The High.


El Alto is a suburb turned city which sits about four hundred metres higher than La Paz’s valley floor. It now houses about a million people and a market that beggars belief. It sits on the edge of the altiplano or high plain, a bleak and desolate plateau that surrounds La Paz. A tongue of Gobi-like desert comes right out and licks at the edges of El Alto. Snow covered mountains loom as a constant reminder that you’re actually really high. Higher than Mt Cook high.

There’s a rule of thumb I’ve been told to use on ski fields which says you lose a degree of temperature for every 100m you ascend. That squares reasonably well with our experience today. If you need a jersey in La Paz you’ll probably need a jacket in El Alto. There was even a little hail to punctuate our stroll through the market. In fact El Alto’s climate is officially deemed to be ‘alpine’ because the temperature averages less than ten degrees every month of the year.


The market we visited was amongst the most comprehensive we’ve seen anywhere in the world. There was even a large amount of fresh produce though we’re yet to see much evidence of its use in Bolivian cuisine.

The cholitas were out in force, peddling their wares even if they didn’t have many wares to offer. We saw several vendors that only had three of four pairs of shoes to sell and other older women who only had a handful of candies. We were reminded by the Poor Economics analysis that talks about how it is hard for poor shop owners to scrape together enough capital to get a decent range of stock. On that, Bolivia is easily the poorest country we have visited so far. Things are silly cheap here and there are clearly a lot of people doing it tough.

In the coming months, following in the fine footsteps of Medellin, a cable car will open connecting El Alto with the commercial centre of La Paz below. It seems a great initiative to connect a significant and somewhat marginalised community with the country’s capital. But I’ve a feeling that the wild wind and landscapes of El Alto will help it maintain a rougher, tougher feel than the city below.

La Paz as an indigenous city

La Paz feels old, but not really European.
La Paz feels old, but not really European.

Throughout our time in Andean Latin America we’ve commented on how European the big cities can feel. They’ve many centuries of European history, after all, and developing middle and upper classes.

La Paz doesn’t quite fit this pattern.

Travelers and guide books alike comment on how La Paz feels like an indigenous city. Here’s a few reasons we agree:

  • Bolivia has an identifiable indigenous population which, by some measures, constitutes the majority. The Aymara, one of several different indigenous groups, are concentrated in La Paz.
  • There’s far less Western dress here; the cholitas with their distinctive dress are prominent and proud. You see indigenous dress in other parts of Latin America, but seldom in cities.
  • Supermarkets are few and far between. But there are markets that stretch for blocks and blocks. Shopping in markets seems to still be an important part of life.
  • There’s not much of a well preserved, old colonial district.

Shopping in markets and from vendors on the street is still a way of life.
Shopping in markets and from vendors on the street is still a way of life.

Witches be witchin’

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If you’re looking for some llama fetuses La Paz is the place to shop. 80% of the population of Bolivia identifies as Catholic. But the goods sold in the many witches markets here suggest the Catholic missionaries shouldn’t count Bolivia as an unqualified success.

That llama fetuses are used on auspicious occasions, for example breaking ground on a new building. They’re burnt along with sugar and sweet wine as a tribute to Pachamama the earth goddess. The larger the building, the more fetuses you’ll need. We don’t know where the fetuses come from, and we haven’t the gumption to ask. We have heard an urban legend that shamans entice homeless drunks and addicts to building sites then murder them as the ultimate sacrifice.

The meaning and use of some of the other stuff is harder to identify. Fiona tried asking one of the witches. “Are you going to buy it?” she asked, probably frustrated by gringo ignorance at her craft. “Um, no” Fiona replied. “I’ll tell you what it’s for if you buy it,” said the witch. Fiona politely exited from the conversation hoping there was no “if you don’t buy it I’ll put a curse on you” pretext.

The term witch probably isn’t quite right, though it is the common translation. They’re more like witch doctors, or homeopaths. They’re selling things which people believe will help them out though there’s surely no scientific proof that’s the case. To me the ultimate proof of their folly seems to be this: they peddle various things that are supposed to make you wealthier. But none seems to have consumed all their wealth increasing products and run away to live on the beach.

Obituary for a backpack


Backpack was finally laid to rest today after struggle with an intensive period of travel and following more than a decade of service to Fiona McAlister.

Like many of its brethren, backpack’s date of birth is unknown but, significantly, it joined its owner Fiona in her sixth form year, 2001. Bred from the MacPac stable, it was destined to be a day pack, sold adjoined to a larger traveling pack that survives it, but only as a place to store ski gear under the stairs. At this time we make no comment on MacPac’s claim of a ‘lifetime guarantee’.

Backpack’s first adventure was a year’s exchange in Spain. Displaying characteristic loyalty to its owner it made no efforts to notify authorities responsible for the exchange of illegal side trips taken throughout Europe and to Morocco.

In the following years backpack endured many a night train ride between Hamilton and Wellington, spent ten weeks being schlepped around Central America, ten more in South Asia and Tibet, more still in South East Asia including a daring ascent of Mt Kinabalu, and countless ski trips in between.

Its owner considered backpack a natural choice when setting out on an indefinite period of travel beginning shortly before New Year 2014. Some detractors were concerned it had an inadequate harness and may not be up for the rigors of ongoing travel. But overwhelming nostalgia won out and it boarded a plane for South America.

Though its fabric faded its functionality remained intact almost to the end. Only when medical tape and sticking plasters raided from the travel first aid kit were not enough to plug the holes in its fraying bottom was a replacement sought.

Backpack was laid to rest in La Paz, Bolivia. Local customs of burning llama fetuses purchased from the witches market were considered, but discounted, to recognise its demise. Instead the heart shaped map of Wellington pin sported by backpack in recent years will be ceremoniously adorned on its successor.

Backpack is survived by a Kathmandu travel-lite, a red Deuter women’s pack and a colourful Ecuadorian handbag.

Cholitas about town

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Out and about on the streets of La Paz are cholitas. The Spanish colonists used the word chola as a term for indigenous women. Many of those women took to wearing Spanish clothing. Today, the term chola is a little offensive, but in its diminutive form cholita it is a term of pride. The clothing that cholitas wore all those years ago has only changed a little too and similarly been adopted as an artifact of Bolivian culture. Characteristic items are big puffy skirts, colourful blankets used as shawls or to carry things and – most distinctively – bowler hats that seem too small and totally impractical.

The bowler hats are hard to explain, and there are a lot of theories. They weren’t really a feature of Spanish dress for women to imitate. But, as what was surely the inspiration for Facebook’s ‘relationship status’ categorisation, wearing them differently can denote whether you are married, single or widowed.

Certainly not all Bolivian women dress as cholitas and it’s probably a dwindling tradition. It’s culturally inappropriate to dress as a cholita if your mother didn’t. But its predominance certainly contributes to the more indigenous feel of La Paz. It’s also a source of cultural pride. La Paz has passed a law to formally recognise cholitas as part of its cultural tradition and there’s a Miss Cholita pageant each year.

Bolivia wants its coastline back, so it is sueing Chile

This statue, on the edge of Lake Titicaca uses the imperative: Bolivia, reclaim your access to the sea.
This statue, on the edge of Lake Titicaca uses the imperative: Bolivia, reclaim your access to the sea.

In the 1883 War of the Pacific Bolivia lost about 400km of Pacific coastline to Chile. It’s been landlocked ever since.This hasn’t stopped Bolivia – hopefully – maintaining a navy, however, or celebrating the Day of the Sea. In fact the idea of reclaiming sea access is a bit of a national obsession. Today we went to the National Museum for coastline. In the lobby, in big, gold embossed letters it said:

Bolivia has not lost and will never lose its right to claim its access to the sea as an indispensable attribute of life. The coast was and will be of Bolivia.

And now, as of April this year, they’re taking that claim off the wall of their museum and to the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

The case at the ICJ

I didn’t finish my law degree, and there are good reasons that’s the case. But my rough understanding of Bolivia’s case is this: Chile has an obligation under the Bogota Treaty to negotiate in good faith towards granting Bolivia sovereign access to the Pacific Coast and has breached that obligation by not agreeing to negotiate. States party to the Treaty agreed to prefer peaceful means to settle regional disputes and empowered the ICJ to adjudicate compliance.

Bolivia’s case has been described as reasonably strong and ridiculously weak. The major argument against  the case seems to be about admissibility. But there’s something else I don’t really get. It’s one thing for Bolivia to claim that Chile has an obligation to negotiate, if indeed that’s what the Bogota treaty obliges. But it seems another to say they have to negotiate towards an outcome which is favourable to Bolivia. Why could they not, for example, make a similar claim to Colombia’s coastline and oblige them to negotiate towards that end. Or for Chile to just turn the tables if Bolivia gets what it wants.

(It reminds me of an excellent Chasers War on Everything sketch parodying The Secret… Don’t worry Chile, just visualise the coastline back!)

The other thing that interests me is the apparent importance of “sovereign access”. There’s a difference between Bolivia really wanting access to Pacific ports (okay, I get why that’s important) and wanting to expand its borders. The latter seems to be out and out nationalism and a poor reason for Bolivia to get its way.


I had a feeling I could count on Daniel Jackson to offer a more correct legal analysis. Uplifted from his comment he says:

Bolivia is not basing its substantive claim on the Pact of Bogota – that is merely the basis for the Court’s jurisdiction. Rather Bolivia claims that “Chile has committed itself, more specifically through agreements, diplomatic practice and a series of declarations attributable to its highest-level representatives, to negotiate a sovereign access to the sea for Bolivia.” Thus Bolivia seems to be invoking two bases for the obligation: agreements between the countries and unilateral acts by Chile.

In terms of agreements between the parties, I assume Bolivia will rely on an exchange of notes between the Governments in 1950, in which they agreed to enter into negotiations on the issue. Exchanges of diplomatic notes certainly can constitute a binding international agreement, but whether the Court would find an intention to create legal obligations in this case is less clear. Unilateral acts can also create obligations in international law, but again the key question is likely to be whether the Court would infer an intention to be bound by the statements in question.


Free walking tours

Free walking tours of cities are a thing here in South America. We’ve been on three and they ranged from exceptional (Medellin) to pretty rubbish (Cusco). But the promise they provide of local insight into a city and its quirks will probably keep us walking on them when they’re offered.

They’re only nominally free. The guides work for tips and I suspect they end up being paid pretty well after they’ve been trailed round by twenty to twenty five grateful tourists for a couple of hours. The more charismatic the guide, and the more insight they can share, the more tips they can get. For us, the more the guide is able to weave in the history, politics and culture of the city into their narrative the better.

This has got me thinking in an unusually entrepreneurial fashion. Wellington too is a compact city with interesting stories that go untold to many a low budget tourist. It would be a great place – weather permitting – for a stroll of a couple of hours, narrated by someone who could give the lowdown from the government sector on through the quirks of Cuba Street. They could also go look at the remnants of sailing ship buried under the Old Bank Arcade. Did y’all know about that one?

If only, I thought, I knew some articulate, personable young people who might regularly have time in the middle of the day who might be able to make this work. Maybe if there were any such person/people they could get in touch and I could tell them more about the Latin American experience.

Ps. This will not work in Auckland, the city with this blog’s second largest readership. You’re too spread out ad uninspiring.