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Archive for December, 2009

(Mid-February 2009)

La Paz has a population of about 1.5 million and it’s the world’s highest capital at an altitude of 3660 metres. I arrived on February 13th, got a dorm room at the Hostal Republica, former residence of a former president, walked around a bit, took in the atmosphere at nearby Plaza Murillo and wondered why all the shoeshine boys and men wear masks.

The next day I started exploring. I visited the museum and took in the views from Iglesia de San Francisco and followed the Lonely Planet’s walking tour. I gawked at the llama foetuses and was enchanted with the charms in the Witch’s Market. While I was taking photos someone with a southern US accent repeatedly tried to get my attention and, mindful of my guidebook’s scam warnings, I ignored him and pretended not to speak English.

A couple of hours later, back in Plaza Murillo, I was subjected to another scam attempt. This time it caught me off guard. A woman sat down beside me and we started chatting. She said she was a tourist from Mexico and asked if I would take her picture in front of the cathedral. I looked over and was about to suggest she ask one of the many people on the steps but the conversation was pleasant so I said sure. Once at the cathedral, she wanted the picture taken inside and chose a dimly-lit section that provided no indication of being in a church. I was having trouble with her camera and no longer interested in helping her out. At this point a man approached me and flashed an ID badge stating that he was a tourist police officer – I realized I was the target of a scam.

He said taking photos in the cathedral is illegal and asked us for our passports. The “Mexican tourist” complied and I responded I wasn’t carrying mine, it was irrelevant as I had not yet taken a photo, and that I did not believe he was the police. They were not going to give up that easily. He insisted we go to my hostel to get my passport. I walked out of the church with them and approached the guards at the adjacent Legislative Palace. As I tried to explain to the guards that this couple were about to rob me, not knowing the Spanish words for “thief” or “robbery”, the fake police officer sped off in an awaiting car. The tourist just walked away. Unable to communicate my message to the guards I continued on my way. On the next block the tourist came up alongside of me. I told her I knew it was a scam and she feigned surprise. I asked her why she wasn’t the least bit upset about having someone drive off with her passport and again indicated I knew she was part of the scam. Then, the fake police officer drives up beside us, hands over her passport and says that he’ll just leave it at a warning this time! I wasn’t frightened by this encounter but I was astonished! I did feel a little uneasy later that day when I went to use an ATM – with guys lurking nearby I opted to wait another day.

The next day I ventured out again. I visited the Museo de la Coca. Andean people have been chewing coca leaves for about 4,500 years and the museum is an interesting place to learn about the social and political history of coca. For instance, the church banned the leaf believing it interfered with the conversion and conquest of the Indigenous people but then retracted the ban when it was realized the slave labour force were more productive when they were able to chew the leaf. In addition to relieving hunger, cold and altitude discomfort, the leaf has a spiritual meaning for Andean people. Wealthy nations used coca to develop cocaine.

I also headed over to the free Museo de Etnografia y Folklore. The museum has an eerily exhibited collection of masks and a good collection of textiles. I strolled along the colonial Calle Jaen and walked around Parque Laikakota. And, I caught a glimpse of Mt. Illamani early in the evening.  I had almost forgotten about it!

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