The Hassan's

Send Lawyers, Guns, and $$$ Tour

(Read Other First Person Travel Stories)


We left Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon and made our way to La Paz, arriving at 6:00 AM Sunday morning. It took three flights but at least there was no "jet lag" involved. There was one minor problem. When we went to check in with American Airlines (remember them for future reference) they noted that we were ticketed to fly into La Paz, Bolivia and fly out of Lima, Peru. They sold us the ticket so I know they knew that. Well they tell us that we have to buy a ticket from La Paz to Lima or they won't let us on the plane. They insisted that Bolivia would not let us into the country otherwise. No such info ever came from the Bolivian government on this matter nor did American Airlines ever mention it before we got to the airport. Short story is that we bought the tickets, no Bolivian authority ever mentioned them on arrival and nobody in Bolivia understands why this happened. There will certainly be more about this on return to the USA.

Landing at the La Paz Airport you are at 14,000 feet but the town is situated in a canyon at 12,500 feet. What an amazing place to build a city. The main part of the city is in the central ravine of the broad canyon and the houses of the people stretch straight up the canyon walls. Needless to say the poorest people (the Indian) live the furthest up these gnarly vertical streets. We haven't seen a bicycle yet. Small vans, buses and taxis are the only practical means out getting in and out of the center for the people. There are virtually no private vehicles and we have yet to see a woman driving. The altitude has confined us to the lower third of these hills but otherwise we haven't suffered any other side effects. We are taking Diamox which seems to be doing the job, though we do try and limit our exertions.

La Paz on Sunday was closed up as tight as Jerusalem on a Saturday. It was great for wandering the street but most everything was steel shuttered, except for - darn - McDONALD´s. We didn´t beat Mickey D to Bolivia - Burger King is here also, guess we should have come before they rousted all the Communist guerrillas out of here and Peru. We have however noticed more than a few "Che Vive" scrawled on walls around town - the tourists might be responsible though.

The weather has been quite unusual even for La Paz. It has varied from near 75 degrees to SNOW. Snow "rarely" falls in La Paz but we woke up on Monday to find it falling from the sky. Meanwhile as one peered up the vertical streets one could clearly see about six inches on the ground. We didn´t venture up to measure but all the vehicles that came down to town were piled high with it (more about that later).

Monday morning was nothing like Sunday, everything was open and the streets were choked with traffic and people. The Indian women come to town in the traditional multi-pleated skirts, shawls and bowler hats. The old city centers around Church of San Francisco that was built in 1549. It is one of the most beautiful churches you might find anywhere, though extremely simple in design. Sitting inside one reflects on the fact that this church was being used only a little more than fifty years after Columbus landed in the New World and nearly sixty years before Jamestown was founded. Seems fairly safe to assume that if the Spanish had found some gold in Florida,  we in North America most likely would be speaking Spanish as a ¨first¨ language today. Few of the other colonial buildings remain in La Paz but the Church is mighty impressive.

As we wandered the street looking at the bustling markets we found few Bolivians paying much attention to us. Only at the shops that sold a great variety of souvenir items did anyone even bother to notice us. Arriving on the main square we encountered a very strange sight. Here were hundreds of Indian women massed around a statue that honored the Native women who had died, at the hands of the Spanish, trying to bring some early semblance of rights for themselves. The purpose of this gathering was to launch a march to the Presidential Palace to protest the high interest rates being charged by the Banks. The women of Bolivia own and run nearly every stall and shop in the old city and they were out to beat the Banks.

Running off the square is a street that runs nearly vertically up the hill for a good quarter of a mile. That street was solid with the women entrepreneurs and they were waiting for the signal to come barreling down the hill into the center of town to bring their message and hopelessly snarl traffic. A burst of fireworks signaled the start and unnerved us. Now we get to the snowballs. The Indian women of Bolivia are renown for their extreme stoicism and lack of outward emotion. In an instant that was to change for us forever. As the march progressed these little old ladies began to hurl snowballs at bystanders. Whenever some happened to get hit the whole crowd erupted in laughter and cheers. They had concealed the snow in bags in their shawls and meant to have a good time.

We followed the march and it wasn´t long before they felt comfortable pelting the gringos. Every time I caught one they were deeply amused, but when one got past me they were really happy. It was all in such good humor that everyone totally enjoyed it. Passing a van which still had some snow on its roof some of the women decided to rearm themselves. A great opportunity for a photo, but also a great opportunity for them to get me with my guard down. Now a hail of snowballs would have been fun, but for one of the old ladies to run up and put snow down the back of my shirt was the far greater accomplishment. That was something that I won´t ever be able to forget.

Ventured outside of La Paz to see the ruins of Tiwanaku, which was on the high plain at over 14,000. This is the culture that developed at about the time of Christ and reached its peak just before the rise of the Inca. It was a marvelous culture that was based on the integration of over thirty different people in one administrative body. It never aggressively dealt with its neighbors and refined its arts and technology to a level that motivated Eric Van Daniken to allege that they had to have been assisted by visitors from outer space. The ruins are impressive in their simplicity, but an excellent small museum provides beautiful examples of the artistic and technical achievements. We had a guide, Renan, who is Indian and his knowledge and enthusiasm made the experience so much more memorable.

We are to leave La Paz tomorrow morning for Lake Titicaca, which translates ¨Puma Rock¨, for the pumas that the Incas found when first visiting that area. Next report hopefully will come from Puno, Peru as we don´t think that the Bolivian area around the Lake is developed enough for the Internet.

Goodbye until then.


© Copyright 1999 Lois and John Hassan

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