Tuesday, February 3, 2009

La Paz 25-01-09

There are certain days that can come into being only in exceptional circumstances during specific times. The 25th of January in La Paz was one such day for me. This specific day is exceptional because it was the day of the Bolivian referendum on adopting a new constitution, however this is not about politics, it is about my day.

The day starts like any other. I wake up, go to the bathroom, hock up a flem ball and notice that it's still blood red from some blood vessel I managed to rupture a few days ago. I consider being worried but apart from occasionally sneezing blood it isn't bothering me so much. I have my pancake breakfast and go gaze at the view for a while. One of my friends is writing an article about the elections for indymedia.org so I help with the English translation, from German, and fix some of his photos. After this we set out to town, this is where the day really begins.

La Paz is normally overly busy, traffic is usually a constant jam of micros (minibus taxis) and cabs trawling for passengers and fighting with private vehicles, the sidewalks are normally bustling with hawkers and walkers and balaclava'd shoeshine boys. This is the La Paz I know but today it was like a ghost town, no cars on the roads, no one selling anything, almost no one walking. The reason, of course, is that it is election day and by law everyone has to vote, in fact it is illegal for most people to work today, including all the taxis. The sight of an empty capital city is eerie, without people even the biggest city has the atmosphere of a small town.

With everything closed finding food becomes an obstacle, but strangely we bump into some old friends of my travel companions who point us towards a quaint, yet expensive, little tourist restuarant. The food is good, and on a happy full stomach we tryfinish off the meal with a version of hot chocolate. This type of drink is essentially hot milk with a whole stick of chocolate dropeed in so it slowly melts. Sounds delicious, well it is. Except that the chocolate is made with "manis". "Mani" is an important word to me, it in one of the first spansih words I learnt, it means "peanut", but to me it is a synonym for "Mortis" or death.

Remember how I said there were no cabs running, I meant it, nada. Compound this with Bolivian directions. Bolivians like to be helpful and make people happy, even if it means telling people the wrong information so as not to disappoint someone. Like telling them the hosital is two blocks past the stadium, not ten. Distances seem very large when one is considering dieing on the streets of La Paz. And taxi drivers seem very unreasonable when they cite the law as reason not to pick you up. Its a strange feeling to contemplate death while wandering down the streets of what seems like a ghost town. In the end I obviously found the hospital and got the medication I needed. Of course they didn't actually have the medicine at the hospital so my two German friends had to go to a pharmacy to buy it while I waited in the hospital ER. I was a bit worried about medical aid and stuff like that but in the end the bill for the medicine only came to BL3.5, about R5.

By the time I got out and started walking back, remember still no cabs, it was late evening. We went to go buy some ingredients at the market, where a few shops were open illegally. In one of the shops we saw Plaza Murillo on a TV. Plaza Murillo is the plaza with the presidential residence and various other government buildings. Apparently Evo Morales was about to claim victory in the referendum.

So just out of hospital I find myself in a massive crowd beneath the balcony of the presidents house. The crowd filled most of the plaza, but we were in the first 5 rows. Everyone was lively. Chants of Evo filled the air and after a while the presidential sound system started playing some local pop songs. A bunch of women arrived selling overpriced beer and some empanandas. The ever present large Argentinian groups started playing some music and passing around some harder liquor. Fireworks started going off in th each ground. In one hour the plaza went from empty to being a fiesta.

When Evo Morales eventually did come out he could hardly speak for the cheers he got. He was simply wearing a sports jacket, no suit, no tie, much like he had just gotten back from hanging out with some friends at a bar. After the national anthem which no one really seemed to know, because it seemed like almost everyone was Argentinian not Bolivian, Evo began his speech. It was short, good humoured, suitably full of quotable phrases, accentuated by fireworks and cheers, and rousing. Even I was drawn into the mood, I who am almost completely unaffected by the politics of Bolivia. When the speah ended the party started. A stage had been hastily set up and local bands as well as some from as far away as France began to play. The atmosphere became completely festive and for a while everyone was everyones friend.

When the bands finished the police politely informed everyone that it was time to go. I don't think they reaslly thought things through, trying to get a few thousand drunk people to do anything is never easy. So they resorted to the more direct measures, formed a barricade line and just started pushing the crowd towards the exits of the plaza. Normally this would incite a riot or something, but instead everyone seemed to just form this moving carnavale, with some drums and flutes and other instruments at the lead, playing some music while chants of "Evo! Amigo! el pueblo contigo!" (Evo! My Friend! The people are with you!) rang through the streets. We wound our way through the streets, this crowd of a few hundred now, we blocked traffic and jammed up highways. Rum was being sold and Cuba Libre's were flowing.

The crowd eventually stopped under the statue of Simon Bolivar, the namesake of the country and perhaps South America's greatest liberator. It felt a fitting place to stop, considering the magnitude of the change that had just taken place. I think by that stage we were the only gringos left, in a Bolivian crowd with a large splash of Argentinians. I looked up at Simon Bolivar sitting a top his horse and wandered what he would be thinking. After liberating most of South America, then dieing a pauper without even a shirt for his funeral, then slowly to become infinitely venerated across all of South America, and now to look over the drunken reverie of of a nation about to under go a massive change. We are told that before he died he said, "There have been 3 great fools in history; Jesus Christ, Don Quixote and I", I wonder if after all the history of South America that has since past he would still limit it to only 3 great fools.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Awesome, except for the near death bit.