The snowcapped peaks to the east of La Paz glowed, backlit by a cool, crisp sunrise as the bus from Cochabamba rolled into town past drab political slogans on muddy brick walls, ascending the autopista ceja (literal translation: eyebrow highway) into the central city in all its steep, winding, stacked-on-top-of-itself wonder.
The city is built around the geologically intriguing Choqueyapu River canyon, which divides the metropolis. The filthy river essentially runs parallel to the eyebrow highway, plunging and disappearing periodically in and out of view. Its color calls to mind Charlie and the Chocolate factory, only more polluted, less appetizing.
Choqueyapu Riverkeeper Danitza Defilippis played host my last few days there, and told the sad story of the river. At a modest 24-hour cafe near the Plaza de Estudiantes she handed me a brochure which elaborated. At its glacial headwaters, the river starts out clean enough. But as the river flows downhill through the city, it absorbs the byproducts of an industrial paint company (including many heavy metals) and a mess of household waste. By the time the waters reach the bottom of the canyon past Zona Sur, where they are applied to crops, they are heavily polluted. I looked again at the menu and reconsidered the salad I was thinking of getting.
The next day we hired a cab driver to carry us down so I could see for myself, stopping in the unique Valle de Luna and finishing where a tractor in the middle of the channel moved earth and gravel beneath a bridge, while dump trucks shuttled back and forth across the riverbar downstream. It is clearly a river that has been pushed around quite a bit by human growth and development, an afterthought at best.
After an eye-opening day on the lower river, Danitza and I hailed a micro up the eyebrow highway into the central city in search of two things: cardboard boxes of the correct sizes to mail unneeded weight home, and agua de choclo (a seasonal corn soup of Bolivian origins and highly recommended by locals.) We had mixed results. The box mission took us to a supermarket’s basement parking garage, where I waded deep into a large cage of broken down boxes. The clandestine box hunt made me laugh as my mind’s eye stepped outside myself to survey the scene. With one out of two of the desired boxes we hiked up the hill in purauit of corn soup. After stopping at several places we suspected may have it, including the Api Happy, we were told that we wouldn’t find it in a restaurant, only in someone’s kitchen.
The next night I managed to connect with Tupac Mauricio Saavedra, a friend of a friend working on a film project entitled Little Prince of the Andes following troubled Bolivian teens as they engage in theater as a form of therapy to help them recover from abuse, addiction and trauma. Tupac and I met at the Hotel Europa. Their renowned sauna was closed so we passed a few hours at their bar over golden Paceñas (much better than any of the Paceña I had previously been exposed to.) Tupac is Bolivian, but spent much of his young adult life living in California after his father moved there, and he eventually attended UC Berkeley film school. With cultural roots in both places, his perspective is interesting. (Note: the name Tupac is a tribute to Tupac Katari, a revolutionary hero of Bolivia, who is also the namesake for a recently launched Bolivian satellite.) What’s really needed to move Tupac’s film project forward is financial backing, but since I don’t have much of that to offer, we talked about other ways I may be able to help, such as editing. I walked home up the hill instead of hailing another cab, despite the late hour. I took long strides and deep breaths, taking in and enjoying the fact that I could make the trip without being bothered.
The following day Cienna arrived from Seattle early in the morning, jet lagged and happy to be off airplanes for a bit. She tried to sleep it off, but was wary of sleeping all day and being up all night so we ventured out to local ATM, coffeeshop and markets. An afternoon deluge chased us indoors for a meal at the delicious Cuban restaurant up the street. I have to say that the ropa vieja and mojitos were better than most of what I had in Cuba, a country that lacks supplies and refrigeration.
I found that I wasn’t a big fan of many Bolivian dishes that I tried -too greasy- but I came to love and appreciate several forms of street food, especially a large empanada type thing with a hard cooked egg inside served with four or five different kinds of fresh salsa in squirt bottles, several involving mint. Humintas, cooked a la olla (steamed in a pot) or al horno (in the oven) are essentially slightly sweetened triangular tamales containing corn, cheese and sometimes currants, wrapped in banana leaves and typically served warm. They’re exceptionally tasty. In fact, pretty much all Bolivian preparations of corn were good in my experience. Corn is often served as a side dish in a style reminiscent of hominy – swollen, tender, pale yellow and meaty.
The next morning, Cienna and I hauled ourselves up to Mirador Kili Kili to look out over La Paz, 76 steps of incline we counted. On the way down, my cell phone rang. It was Danitza, inviting us to eat agua de choclo at her house for dinner. We accepted and arranged to go to her 9th floor apartment at 6 that night. Then we made our first of several failed attempts to find the feminist coffeeshop and restaurant open. In lieu of investigating inside, we took photos of the spectacular paint job outside the building.
Cienna and I hadn’t seen eachother in person since two summers ago, so we had much to catch up on. We laughed and talked and laughed some more. She and I occasionally talk on e-mail or the phone, but we’ve agreed that we’re both pretty bad at those modes of communication, and won’t let long silences from the other be a problem. But when we’re in the same place, it’s easy to remember why we became and stayed friends. We both like routines, and breaking with routines as needed. We run together, do wallsits together, swim together, walk to explore new and familiar places, play the card game casino and keep score up into the thousands, cook together and eat together. Those are routines we built in college shortly after we met, and they have persisted. Also, we look out for each other, and help keep each other’s attitudes in check, and we know we can count on the other for these things.
The lag was setting back in for Cienna by evening, but we went to Danitza’s, where we were stuffed full of warm, comforting corn soup, pollo milanesa (breaded and fried chicken fillets), a lightly pickled green bean and cucumber salad as well as sliced tomatoes. We sipped a bottle of coca licquor left behind by a friend of Danitza’s who had been afraid to try and take it through customs. We watched a video showing exquisitely costumed dance troupes petforming traditional dances of their regions in the famed carnaval parade of Oruro, where each year local lore about angels triumphing over the devil is played out in the streets. (The angel always wins in the end, of course.) The video was accompanied by numerous stories and details furnished by Danitza’s elderly mother.
She and her husband had lived in Potosí until recently, where he worked in the mining industry. They had moved to La Paz to cope with a respiratory/pulmonary condition of his, but it finally got the best of him last year. This made her a bit sad. I asked if the particulates miners inhale had something to do with his health problems. Maybe, she said. In the background her daughter nodded emphatically. Even further back, shuffling extremely slowly between a bedroom and the kitchen, Danitza’s grandmother appeared, oblivious to all of us. Next time I’m in Bolivia (hopefully there’s a next time?), I’ll be sure to try a simple Bolivian dessert of steamed corn with a touch of sugar and anise, we decided.
Worn out and saturated with food and cultural details, we excused ourselves and stumbled up the hill and into bed. The next day we would board a bus for Cuzco in Peru!