The road from Peru meanders through a poetic landscape, along Lake Titicaca, up and over the mountains, past rivers and plains and glorious eruptions of wildflower. Then all at once you are in honking traffic in the apocalyptic satellite town of El Alto.
A smothering dust covers everything. Every building remains unfinished, and will forever, with rebar sprouting from the floors of notional upper storeys. Aymara ladies buy fruit through the bars on the doors of the shops. Legs protrude from old cars up on jacks on the pavement. Life-sized effigies hang from the lampposts with notices pinned to their chests reading, “This is what we do to thieves”. They do, as well. The 30 lynchings in the first 10 months of 2011 represented “a notable decrease,” according to an upbeat UN.
La Paz is picturesque in spite of itself. The first view from El Alto is a sea of ochre buildings embraced by high peaks, and there is a paradoxical beauty in what seems to be nothing but tower blocks. There is, as you see when you roll into town, more heritage than appears from above. The steep streets of sunken cobbles are lined with colonial buildings, crumbling, faded, covered with graffiti and torn fly-posters, but nonetheless photogenic.
There are numberless markets, but they can’t contain the Aymara vendors who spill out down the pavements and into the road. Stocky ladies in bowler hats kneel on sheets laid anywhere they find a space, selling fruit and veg, meat and fish, clothes and shoes, stolen electronics, herbs and potions, figurines and amulets, and llama foetuses to offer to Pachamama.
“Oh, thanks for that,” I imagine her saying, in the tone you use when your cat lays a mouse at your feet.
(c) Richard Senior 2014