The Wonderful City Of La Paz
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
STRANGE FEATURES OF LIFE AND BUSINESS IN THE HEART OF BOLIVIA-THE INDIANS AND THE CHOLOS-MULES AND DONKEYS AS BEER-WAGGONS, BREAD-CARTS, AND HEARSES-A VISIT TO THE MARKETS-THE CURIOUS VEGETABLES AND FRUITS OF INTERIOR SOUTH AMERICA-FROZEN POTATOES-BEANS THAT TASTE LIKE ICE-CREAM, AND INDIAN CORN THAT MAKES FLOUR WITHOUT GRINDING.
THERE is no city in the world like La Paz. Away back from the Pacific ocean, beyond some of the highest mountains of our hemisphere, on one of the highest plateaus of the earth, it lies in a little basin surrounded by natural walls. I have seen the walls of Peking, of Jerusalem, and of Seoul, the capital of Korea. The greatest of them is not over fifty feet high. La Paz has walls a thousand feet high, and on one side of it towers the snow-capped peak of Illimani, one of the three highest of the Andes, which kisses the morning and evening suns at an altitude of about four miles above the sea. Man made the walls of other cities: God made the walls of La Paz. At La Paz the great Bolivian plateau, which stretches away to the north and south almost as level as the waters of Lake Titicaca, abruptly drops so as to form a great pit 1,000 feet deep. In this pit the city is built, its walls of green sloping almost precipitously upward on all sides but one, where the Andes, ragged and torn, rise in rocky grandeur in all the colours of the Grand Canon of the Colorado.
Coming to La Paz, on the stage from Lake Titicaca you ride for forty-five miles across a flat plain, by villages of mud huts, through little farms of barley, quinua, and potatoes. On your left is the mountain wall of the great Sorata range, the highest but one of the Andes. Away to the right are the hills of the coast range; in front is a seemingly endless plain. The team, of eight mules, is changed every three hours. If you sit with the driver, as I did, you look in vain through the clear air for the city. It is nowhere in sight. At last, on the brink of a precipice, the mules are pulled back on their haunches, the stage stops, and there below you lies La Paz. It is so far down that you can make out only the outlines. You see a plain covered with terra-cotta roofed houses, jumbled together along narrow streets. Here and there is a church; at one end is the big white penitentiary; and just under you is the cemetery, an enclosure walled with pigeon-holes, in which the dead La Pazites are stowed away at so much rent per year until their .descendants forget to pay, and the holes are wanted for another generation.
In getting down to the city the stage winds over a road that curves in and out in loops and figures of 8. You see parallel roads far below you, and at last, having left the heights, you gallop over the cobblestone pavements of La Paz. The town is one of hills and valleys. Its streets go up and down, seeming unusually steep because of the altitude, which so rarifies the air that you can walk only a very few steps without stopping to rest.
La Paz is a perpetual masquerade of bright colours and curious scenes. Even the houses seem more fitted for the stage than for real life. The terra-cotta roofs look so clean in the clear air that you can count the tiles of which they are made. The houses have walls of the most delicate tints of pink, sky-blue, lavender, yellow, cream, and green. They are of one and two stories, so open to the street that you can see much that goes on within. The colours worn by the people on the streets are even brighter than those of the houses. For every white man in the city there are at least five Indians, whose dresses are of the gayest reds, yellows, blues, and greens that aniline dyes combined with the Indian taste for the gaudy can make. The especially bright garment is the poncho, or blanket, with a hole in the centre for the neck, which every Indian man and boy wears. Ponchos are usually made in stripes, yellow, green, red, and black being the favorite colours. Every Indian has also a bright-coloured knit cap, with ear-flaps hanging down on each side of his face, and some-times in addition a black felt hat. He wears pantaloons cut full at the hips, so that the pockets stick wide out at each side. The legs of his trousers are full, and from the knee down at the back they are slit, showing what at first seem to be wide drawers which flop about the ankles. Closer investigation, however, shows that they are merely half legs of white cotton sewed fast to the inside of the legs of the trousers, in order that the wearer may more easily roll up the latter when in wet grass or crossing a stream. The Indian women wear queer-shaped felt hats, and their dresses are as gaudy as those of the men.
La Paz has about 62,000 people. It is the chief commercial city of Bolivia, but it has not a street-car, a cab, or a dray. I doubt if it has a dozen private carriages. It has no waggons of any sort, and in going about town everyone walks. All the heavy traffic is carried by mules, donkeys, llamas, or Indians. My trunks are taken from place to place on the backs of Indians at about eight cents a trunk. The bread-carrier of La Paz is a donkey, the skin boxes in which the bread is kept being slung across his back. The beer-waggon is a mule with a large case of bottles on each of its sides; and the furniture-movers, even if the thing moved be a piano, are Indians, who carry the articles on their backs, heads, or shoulders.
All manner of freight is brought into the city on mules, llamas, donkeys, and Indians. The fuel, as I have said, is llama manure. This comes in bags on the backs of llamas. Coca is brought in chiefly on donkeys, and Peruvian bark and rubber from the hot-ter lands lower down come the same way. I saw an odd load on a mule yesterday. It was a limp bundle about five and a-half feet long, and, perhaps, eighteen inches in diameter, thrown over a mule, so that the ends hung down at the same distance from the ground on each side. Beside it on another mule rode a policeman; and a crowd of Indian women came wailing behind. It was the dead body of a woman rolled up in a blanket. She had been murdered a few days before for about $50 which she was known to have saved, and the policeman was bringing in the corpse and the criminals.
Next to the Indians the most interesting characters in La Paz are the Cholos, or half-breeds, the offspring of the Indians and the whites. The men dress much like the whites, but the women are clad in all the hues of the rainbow. Some wear shawls of rose-red and skirts of sky-blue; others have skirts of sea-green; and not a few wear skirts as red as the sun at its setting. The skirts are propped out with hoops, and they reach only to the curve of the calf. The women wear shoes of white or yellow kid, with Parisian heels under the instep, and with high tops, which in some cases end in rose-coloured stockings, but more often in the rosy tint of healthy bare skin. They wear little felt hats of different colours, so that altogether they look very queer.
The Cholos do most of the business of La Paz. A few large stores are managed by Germans, but the smaller establishments are owned by Cholo men and women. The women do as much business as the men, all of the saloons belonging to them.
The average Cholo store is little more than a hole in the wall. Some of the tailor shops, dress-making establishments, and groceries are in rooms not more than ten feet square. Such stores have no windows. The light comes in through the doors, and as you walk by you can see the employer and his hands at their work. Nearly every merchant is also a manufacturer, and in some cases the store is so small that the men sit outside and work in the street.
Much of the business of La Paz is done in the streets. The Indians make most of their purchases in the markets, which are both under cover and scattered along the sidewalks. There is one market in the centre of the city where all the week long people are buying and selling, but where, as in all South American markets, the chief day is Sunday. On that day the streets for blocks about the market-house proper are taken up with Indian peddlers, and all the queer characters of La Paz and the surrounding country are buying and selling. The sight is worth seeing. Let us take a look at it. We walk from the Plaza in the centre of the city down the hill to where Market Street crosses our way at right angles, picking our steps in and out through three blocks of Bolivian humanity, until at last we stand in a living cross of all the hues of the rainbow made by the market people and their customers.
In front and behind, to right and left, the streets are filled with curious people moving to and fro in waving lines of kaleidoscopic colours such as you will see nowhere else in the world. We talk of the Oriental hues of Cairo and Calcutta. La Paz has a dozen different hues to Cairo's one, and the costumes of Calcutta would seem tame among these about us. Reds, yellows, blues, and greens are ever mixing, making new combinations every second. The most delicate tints of the Andean sunsets seem to have been robbed to furnish the dresses. Scores of Indian women are carrying bundles on their backs in striped blankets of red, blue, yellow, and green ; and Indian men and boys are wearing ponchos of the same gorgeous hues. There are ladies in black, with black crape shawls wound tightly about their olive-skinned faces, and with prayer-books and fur prayer-mats in their hands. They have stopped at the market on their way home from church, and some are accompanied by the men of their families dressed in tall black hats, black clothes, and black gloves.
How quiet it is! There is the hum of conversation, the chat-ter of gossip, and now and then the jangle of bargaining; but the crowd moves in and out without friction, and though there are thousands about us we hear but few footfalls. Take a look downward. Most of the feet about you are bare, and a large number of the Indians wear leather sandals, which make no sound as their owners pass over the streets.
What a lot of babies there are ! We have to pick our way about carefully to keep from treading upon them. Some lie on the cold streets and paw the cobbles or play with the merchandise their mothers are selling. Some are too young to crawl, and are tied up in shawls to the backs of their mothers, who go on with their business with apparent disregard of the precious freight. There is one now peeping out of that red shawl below us. Its face is as brown as a berry, and its little black eyes blink at us from under its yellow knit cap, the ear-laps standing out like horns on each side of its face. Another, a few months older, is being dandled on the knees of its Indian father; and on the other side of the street are two little tots taking their meals at their mothers' breasts. Most of the babies are laughing; one or two are crying; some are quite pretty, some are homely, but nearly all are dirty and lousy. There is one whose head is undergoing a search at the hands of its mother, who cracks and eats all that she finds. This business, however, is not confined to the heads of babies. It is common to both the Indians and the lower-class Cholos; and men, women, and children unite in the hunt and the feast, the rule being that the hunter is entitled to all .the - gaine he catches, no matter on whose hairy preserves he is pursuing the chase.
Let us stop a moment and notice some of the queer things sold all about us. The wares are spread on blankets or on the cobblestone streets. The vegetables and grains are divided into piles. There are no weights or measures. All things are sold by the eye. You pay so much for such a number of things, or so much a pile. The piles are exceedingly small, and things are bought in small quantities. Marketing is done only for the day. I doubt if there is a cellar in La Paz, and the average cooking-stove would hardly be big enough for a doll's playhouse in America. Think of carrying home half-a-dozen potatoes from market. That is the size of many of the potato piles offered for sale. Here is a brown-faced Indian girl who is selling some at our feet. I venture you never saw such small potatoes before. They are not larger than marbles, and she offers us eight for five cents.
What queer potatoes they are ! Some are of a bright violet colour, some are as pink as the toes of the baby who is playing among them, and some are as black as the feet of the Indian girl who is selling them. Potatoes will not grow large at the altitude of La Paz, and although there are large ones in the market, they come from the warmer lands lower down.
But the most curious potatoes are those known as chuno. These are sold in large quantities. We see piles of them at every step as we go through the market. Look at this woman before us. She has a large stock spread out on a blanket in front of her. The potatoes are as white as bleached bones. They are almost as hard, and when you break them apart you find them quite as tough. They are ordinary potatoes so frozen and dried that they can be kept for a year without spoiling. The method of preparation is to soak them in water and allow them to freeze night after night until they become soft. Then the skins are rubbed off by treading upon them with the bare feet, and the potatoes are thoroughly dried in the open air. After drying they are as white as snow and as hard as stones. Such potatoes form one of the chief articles of food of the Bolivians. They are a staple article among the Indians of the An-dean highlands. They have to be soaked for three or four days before they can be eaten, and are often served in the form of a stew. I have tasted chuno several times. All the life of the potato seems to have been taken out of it, and it is insipid and unappetizing, qualities which are not improved by the frequent sight of the dirty bare feet of the Indians with which the vegetable is sauced.
The Indian corn of Bolivia is also a novelty. Many species of maize are grown here which are unknown in North America. One variety has grains twice as large as those of the largest corn grown by our farmers. One kind is of a bright-yellow colour, every grain being as big as a thumb-nail. When bitten into it crumbles up almost like flour, and with a slight bruising it could be turned into meal. Another variety is white, and a third, called "maize morado," is of a mulberry colour, and has a floury kernel. It is used in making and colouring liquors. The most of the corn sold here is grown in the Yungas country to the east, and far lower down than La Paz.
The fruits are equally interesting. There are fruit peddlers on nearly every square of the city and the market is filled with quinces, pears, oranges, and pineapples. There are sweet and sour lemons, and white grapes each berry of which is the size of a damson plum. There are clingstone peaches as big as the White Heath, and figs and other fruits which we do not have. A peculiar one, known as the "picae," looks like a mammoth green bean-pod. When opened it shows big black beans encased in a pulp which has the appearance of the finest of white spun-silk. The pulp cold tastes much like a finely flavoured ice-cream.
These fruits come from forty or fifty miles lower down on the eastern slopes of the Andes. By going that distance you get into tropical Bolivia, and during a few days' trip can pass through all the climates, from frigid cold to tropic heat. The snow never melts on Illimani ; the climate of the plateau is about that of Paris; but in the Yungas and the Beni regions, not far away, there are pineapples and palm trees, wild orange and wild cotton trees, and coffee plantations; also rubber forests in which the Indians gather sap to be shipped down the Amazon to Para', and the United States.