Our first Foreign Service excursion was to La Paz, Bolivia. It was a great first tour in many ways. It was a hardship post with all that implies—extreme poverty, lack of infrastructure, frequent bouts of turista, plus altitude sickness. But, it was safe and very interesting!
We arrived in the summer of 1989, and while I had personal issues adjusting to the Foreign Service, I was fascinated by the country. Thanks to several years of high school and college Spanish followed by a few weeks at the Foreign Service Institute, I arrived with a 2+/2+ (working proficiency) in the language. So, I could get around relatively well on my own. This was a good thing, because it was a pretty lonely tour for me. At 23, I was much younger than all the other spouses, and I had no children to plug me into the mommy mafia. No one knew what to do with me, and I didn’t know what to do with myself! So, I spent a lot of time exploring the city.
Bolivia was (and no doubt still is) a weird and wonderful place. It is the closest I will ever come to using a time machine. I am sure that it is more modern now, but I can remember when La Paz acquired its first escalator! It was in a small department store. It was one-way only and packed with locals riding it up, running back down the stairs, and riding it back up again.
The Aymará indigenous population did not want their photos taken because they thought the camera would steal their souls. Llama fetuses were buried under houses for good luck. People brought their animals to the cathedral once a year so a priest could bless them. When I asked for a pregnancy test in the pharmacy the cashiers recommended I go to the witches market. I am not making any of this up :)
I did all my shopping in small tiendas and open air markets. I learned to cut up whole chickens—head, feet, and all. I learned to never to buy Lake Titicaca trout that didn’t come cold out of a cholita’s Styrofoam cooler. I also learned to ask whether or not vegetables had been grown in the Rio Abajo—a river running downhill from the city that was basically an open sewer—and not to believe vendors when they said they hadn’t been!
I bought entire filets of beef for just a few dollars from Hilda, a scary German woman with a large cleaver who was a member of the Nazi retirement community in La Paz. Then I fed the filet to our rescue kittens because it was cheaper than imported cat food.
I learned to cook at an arid 12,500 feet above sea level, which is to say, not very well, because water wouldn’t boil and cakes and bread wouldn’t rise. I also ate quinoa before quinoa was cool. And potatoes. Really a lot of potatoes. Yellow ones, blue ones, purple ones. Quite often with rice, because green vegetables don’t grow all that well in the mountains. But the trout and the grass-fed beef were amazing.
I drank German-style beer (see Nazis, above) out of big, round balones (brandy glasses). And I learned that the intoxicating properties of beer are in inverse proportion to the oxygen in the surrounding air.
I stuffed myself on sushi at a Japanese restaurant down the street from our apartment, and watched visiting Japanese businessmen get wasted on Johnny Walker Black and sing along to karaoke music videos.
I employed my first empleada, which didn’t work out all that well because what the heck did I know about cleaning ladies?
I taught the employees of a secondhand clothing warehouse to quilt, using the same techniques that my great-grandmother would have used. They made wonderful quilts using cut-up clothing and a suspended quilting frame they made based on photos in a book I lent them. This was cool.
And just when I was getting the hang of it all, our tour was curtailed for rather silly bureaucratic reasons. I have no real regrets about that except that I do wish I had had a better camera! I have just a few dozen photos from La Paz—and no, they aren’t Instagrammed, that’s just what photos from cheap camera looked like back in the day. I’ve been getting them organized and decided to start “retroactively blogging.”
Here’s a few photos from around La Paz. More to follow, from a couple of awesome road trips we made during our year there.