Tag Archives: politics

Macabre La Paz

The overnight bus from Sucre to La Paz was far from comfortable, and we arrived early in the city exhausted, cold, and suffering from altitude sickness. Our first impression of La Paz was not helped by the fact that they had a public holiday the day before, and the previous night's revelry left the streets filthy, smelling like one giant toilet. Needless to say, we were not particularly inspired to go exploring, and instead went to bed feeling sorry for ourselves.

La Paz from El Alto.

The next day we decided to organise a city tour to see the highlights in one go, rather than trying to find the motivation to do it ourselves. This turned out to be the perfect solution! We found a cool guy called Ben who runs Banjo Tours around La Paz. There are free walking tours, but they only go around the central city, which we figured we could just do ourselves. This tour went off the beaten track, taking us through different areas of the city by walking, on local buses and in a private van. Highlights included a lesson on the dark history of the city, a visit to San Pedro Prison, being blessed by a shaman, wandering through the witch's market, having our fortunes told, and returning to the city for some traditional food and drink. It was a bizarre day, but totally worth paying for a guided tour to get that extra insight into such a crazy place!

Main Plaza with the buildings of Parliament to the left.

La Paz – not so peaceful!

We began our tour wandering through the old colonial streets of La Paz. There is a clear divide where the Spanish town stopped and the indigenous town started, which was exaggerated to the point that until recently, indigenous people in traditional dress were not even allowed in the main plaza. Things have progressed with the election of the country's first indigenous President Evo Morales in 2006, but La Paz has a dark history that is still in most people's recent memory.

Walking around the main plaza, our guide pointed out bullet holes in the buildings surrounding us. In 2003 the police went on strike in La Paz. This was dealt with by the military stepping in with orders to shoot anyone who resisted, including the police. Not something you would expect just ten years ago, but these things don't always get highlighted in international media in the same way that they would if something similar happened in a western country.

We also passed by several dilapidated buildings, which looked abandoned. While most people may have presumed that they were in fact empty, it was recently brought to light that these buildings are being used as “suicide houses”. Apparently, the idea is that anyone who has lost the will to live (mostly homeless people or drug and alcohol addicts) will go to one of these houses where they will be put in a room with a bucket of alcohol, which they drink until it kills them. Being practical, I asked what they do with the bodies without raising suspicions (given there is a police station right across the road)?

Good question. Apparently there is somewhat of a black market for human bodies (dead or unconscious) to be used as sacrifices in construction in a similar way to the llama foetuses that bring good luck to the foundations of building sites. While we were in La Paz we heard various people talking about stories that they had heard regarding this issue. Its all a bit hard to believe that is would really happen, but in a place like La Paz, you just never know.

Parliament House flies the indigenous flag alongside the flags of Bolivia and La Paz.

Bullet holes in the walls around the main plaza; security guards at Parliament House.

San Pedro Prison

We stopped by San Pedro prison, which was made famous in Rusty Young's book Marching Powder. The book follows the story of an Englishman arrested for trafficking cocaine in Bolivia, who spends several years in the unique social environment that is San Pedro prison. Our guide pointed out that there are security towers on each side of the block where the prison sits, however they are not manned as the prison is essentially independent of external guidance and security.

Prisoners buy and live in apartments in different areas of the prison, depending on how much money they have. Wealthy prisoners (mostly corrupt politicians and drug traffickers) have cable televison and all the comforts of home – including being allowed to have their families live with them. Until recently there were children living inside the prison with their parents, leaving the complex to go to school during the day and returning at night. An incident where a young girl was raped led to all the children being removed just a few weeks before we were there.

It was possible to go inside the prison on a tour until recently as well, however, another incident (where two tourists were separated from the group and raped) led to the authorities stepping in and stopping it from becoming a tourist circus. It is afterall a prison with convicted criminals inside. As such, we only saw it from the street, which was interesting enough after having read Marching Powder.

San Pedro Prison.

Shaman Blessing

We took a van up to a lookout over the whole city, with stunning views of the mountains in the distance. It was here that we were going to be blessed by a shaman in a commonly used change of luck ceremony. We were told to sit and wait while the shaman made a fashionably late entrance.

A women lit coals on a burner while he arranged various stones, small parcels of herbs wrapped in paper and little bottles of liquid. He gave out different things to people eg. one guy had a rock up his sleeve, another held a piece of rope. I was lucky enough to be chosen to have a parcel of herbs put into the front of my shirt (which he later retrieved and burnt).

The ceremony combined traditional indigenous customs with a Christian blessing. He used the bottles of liquid (alcohol) to create puffs of smoke and fire, touched us on the head, blessing us all with luck and well wishes for our family and for our travels, all the while repeating what sounded like a Christian Hail Mary.

A clash of cultures during a shaman blessing.

What made the shaman ceremony even more surreal was the guy in the background wearing a mexican wrestling mask, repeatedly yelling into the camera to make what we presumed was a promotional video. So random!
Witch's Market

We continued in the van to El Alto, which is a separate city from La Paz located on the steep surrounding mountain. It is one of the more dangerous places and not many tourists go here by themselves. Apparently it gets pretty violent at night, but during the day it seemed fine. The markets are the initial wholesale supply area for the city of La Paz, so they were packed with fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers, fish, meat, spices, nuts, popcorn, popped pasta and all sorts of other unidentifiable things.

Th infamous Witch's Market is also located in El Alto (a smaller touristy version can be found in the central city of La Paz). Here you can find all manner of spells, herbs, llama foetuses, llama babies, wax figurines, starfish, and armadillos, all to be burnt on fires for change of luck ceremonies and rituals. There are spells for everything. A truck driver might go in and buy a wax figure of a truck, with a selection of herbs and spices, to be burnt for safe travels. The dead llama babies and foetuses are used for good luck in construction, to be buried in the foundations, and are surprisingly expensive. But this is big business and people pay for it because they believe in it!

We wandered around the market stalls, looking in awe and horror at the selection of spells for sale. It was a really interesting insight into Bolivian culture, and definitely not something you see everyday!

Tiny llama.

Take your pick - make a spell show bag!

Choosing the right spells is serious business.

Fortune Teller

Our tour included having our fortune read by a local shaman. There were six of us in the group, and we all huddled inside a tiny room where the shaman sat at a desk with a human skull and dead armadillo sitting next to him on a shelf. He looked at us all, and rather than do a fortune for each of us, decided to do it collectively for the group. Before he began he explained how he had become a shaman after being struck by lightning and finding spiritual power.


The ritual began when the shaman scattered coca leaves over a cloth, picked a few up, and told us we would all have money in our futures (is that because we were all tourists who clearly had more money than the average Bolivian?). He also told us that one of us would be the victim of an envious person, but we could change our luck by buying one of the spells from the Witch's Market and having a shaman burn it while performing a ceremony (as we had experienced earlier in the day). There wasn't much more to it than that. We were all a little sceptical, and his legitimacy was not helped by the fact that he was clearly drunk and could barely speak coherently.

Despite the obvious business connection between buying spells and having shamans perform rituals, the local Bolivian people are really superstitious and they truly believe in all of this. There are shamans everywhere, and it is not a subject taken lightly. Many people have combined worship of saints and Christian holidays into their spells and rituals, but the missionaries did not succeed in changing the local beliefs entirely. The strength of the indigenous culture is really evident here.

We returned to the city as it was getting dark. Ben shouted us a giant Bolivian cheese empanada and some chicha, which is a thick, warm, purple corn drink. We said our farewells to the group and wandered off in search of dinner. Mark was cold so he bought a poncho, then we stumbled across more festivities for no apparent reason. There were people singing and dancing in traditional costumes out the front of the San Francisco Church. We stopped for a quick look, then went back to the hostel to contemplate what was one of the most bizarre days we have had in South America over a nice cold beer.

New poncho!




Casa de Ché

While we were in Córdoba we decided to go on a day trip to Alta Gracia. Apart from being a cute little town with Jesuit ruins, Alta Gracia's claim to fame is that it is where Che Guevara lived when he was a child.

Che's old house is now a museum, which hosts many photographs, letters and stories about Che growing up, his family, travels and political ideas. The museum also holds a motorbike the same as the one Che used to travel around South America (aka The Motorcycle Diaries), as well as a gift shop where you can find magnets, mugs, t-shirts and cigars with Che's face on them (commodification of a communist?).

Amongst the folders of letters in Che's house, there is a letter he wrote to his children on 15 February 1966, which gives a touching insight into his beliefs about 'the revolution':
Grow to become good revolutionaries. Study a lot so as to be able to dominate the technique, which allows you to dominate nature. Remember that the revolution is the most important thing, and that each and every one of us, alone, is worth nothing. Above all, always be able to feel in the deepest part of yourselves, any injustice committed to anyone in any part of the world. This is the most beautiful quality in a revolutionary.


São Paulo Street Art

We had read that Sao Paulo has a strong street art community so while we were there we tried to check it out. We made a beeline for Galeria Choque Cultural, a small gallery that promotes local street artists, in the hope of getting some advice on where to go. As it happens the gallery is near the centre of the action in Pinheiros.

The staff were very helpful. We scored a couple of free art mags which proved that the art community is alive in well in Sao Paulo. We also got a good steer on the local area – Batman Alley, the local football court and a map showing where Space Invader had left his tiles.

The street art was easily spotted, most notably around Batman Alley. Artists were out in broad daylight painting the streets. Apparently they have no fear of prosecution because the residents here support it.


At left is one of 51 space invader icons left by the famous French artist when he was invited by the art community to 'invade' Sao Paolo. We spotted two, but would have looked for more if we had more time.


A blog on Sao Paulo street art would not be complete without mentioning Pixação. We also talked to the gallery staff about this local form of graffiti, whic has grabbed international attention due to its rune like appearance and alleged political motivations. Despite the hype, the staff hilariously dismissed it as “dogs pissing on a wall.” Unfortunately we did not have time to dig into this further but the video below shares a different perspective.



One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure

Pay a visit to any of South America's cities and you will quickly be struck by the contrasts. In Buenos Aires you will see piles of rubbish at the feet of glass towers. In Rio de Janeiro, large favelas face towards multimillion dollar penthouse apartments. In Sao Paulo, Brazil's economic powerhouse, the super wealthy travel by helicopter, spending their working days in the sky while the unemployed struggle to survive on the streets.

During our stay in Sao Paulo we were inspired to try and understand what these contrasts mean for the people that live there. Specifically, we wanted to meet Sao Paulo's waste pickers, who make a living collecting rubbish and picking out the valuable material for sale.

Street art depicting a catadore, or waste picker.

We first learned about waste pickers, as they are called, through a documentary based in India. We were confronted by the health issues that people working in land fills or collecting on the streets must risk (infected cuts, respitory disease etc). Some waste pickers live and work on municipal dumps – as many as 20,000 people in Kolkata, India. Bear in mind that some of these landfills are massive (Rio closed the world's largest open landfill last year).

Plastic bottles.

We wanted to understand what working on the streets is like for Sao Paulo's poor and to also better understand if and how people are able to make a living from collecting waste.

Our friend Miranda kindly organised a meeting with the Pinheiros Collective, a small group of waste pickers that had a work space near where we were staying.

The Pinheiros Collective was formed by a small group of waste pickers who at the time were either living on the streets or in shared lodgings. Using carts that they pulled by hand, they would walk the streets at night, collecting trash that had been put on the streets by businesses and households. The trash would then be picked through to determine what was valuable and could be onsold.

In effect, the waste pickers provide an informal trash collection and recycling service. They make money by selling materials such as copper, aluminium cans, paper and plastic bottles to companies that can reuse them. We saw that in Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo they contributed to improved environmental sanitation by removing waste from urban areas unserved by municipal garbage collection.

After a chance community event, six waste pickers were inspired to combine their efforts and form a collective. Through a bit of lobbying they secured some council land and by pooling their resources, over time they saved enough money to purchase vehicles to collect rubbish.

The co-op now employs 21 staff. It has successfully sought registration with the government and has been awarded small grants from banks. Working conditions have steadily improved. The staff now use a compactor to compress materials into sellable bricks, where before they had to do it by hand. Work hours are now during the day thanks to the vehicles and a kitchen has been built to serve lunches for the staff.

Compacting equipment.

The impact on their quality of life is impressive. The members of the collective are now earning twice the minimum wage, around USD700 a month, enough to feed a family. They have all moved off the streets and are pooling funding to build humble apartments for their families. Fees are also collected from each member to provide accident/health insurance.

It is not all milk and honey though. Their work place is located under a bridge, which periodically floods and hosts a swarm of mosquitoes. The staff complain of a lingering prejudice against waste pickers and shared stories of bullying from the police. The collective is pushing to be recognised as a legitimate workforce that provides a valuable sevice but struggles to engage with the government.

The Pinheiros Collective is a good case study as it reflects similar group actions taking place across Brazil. Waste pickers are evolving into a politically mobilised and networked labour force. They have a national body that organises events to share success stories and lobby government to recognise their services and remove the social stigma that many waste pickers face.

The collective is an active member of the national catadore network.

It is inspiring stuff. Hope you enjoyed this post. We really appreciated the time given to us by the staff and enjoyed being able to share such a positive story. We think its an interesting model for service provision in poor communities, easily replicated with a bit of support. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

If you would like to learn more about waste pickers we recommend the following as a starting point:

Don't Waste People, a documentary by Julia Waterhouse (forthcoming)

Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising, Waste Pickers

Many thanks to Miranda for her patient translation and shared interest in our slightly unusual idea. We couldn't have managed it without you!

Thanks for reading.

A bit of street art helps lend some humour.


¡Chávez Not Dead!

So we saw this on sale and had to buy it. Apparently Chávez has taken over the corpse of Jim Morrison. Stranger things have happened.