As anyone who’s ever met me or read anything on this blog probably knows, I love markets. Any kind of markets: food, craft, Christmas… And La Paz, with it’s streets behind the plaza San Francisco full of stalls selling alpaca jumpers, alpaca gloves, alpaca hats, small fluffy alpacas (seeing a theme here?) etc is amazing for the kind of aimless browsing (and attempting to avoid over-zealous saleswomen determined to dig out all of their many designs of poncho in order to persuade you that you really want one, really you do, for a special price…). But there’s only so much alpaca one girl can take, and only so many looking at what, if we’re honest, are pretty much variations on a very similar theme, all along one interminably long street.
And then I found Alasitas. A quick overview for those not familiar with this bizarrely Bolivian tradition: the 24th of January is the festival of Alasitas, which is a kind of celebration of prosperity and abundance. The idea is basically that you buy loads of miniature things that you want for the next year (think houses, cars, money, but also building materials, tins and bags of food… and just about anything else you can think of!), take it to be purified by having incense-smelling smoke waved over it and then give it to someone as a gift. So far, so… Bolivian. But then I found the fair where they sell the stuff.
From above (since it’s in the bottom of the valley running through the centre of town, you inevitably arrive from above), it just looks like a sea of tents and corrugated roofs. From inside, it isn’t a lot more straightforward to navigate through. There are stalls and stalls selling little things (standard packs of mini money, panpipes, square of material, few pots and pans and a little car), and then a vague division into sections: jewellery, tattoos, hair braiding, food, artsy things, rows of table football tables, flower arrangements etc. All on varying inclines, balancing on steep steps, toppling into the abyss…
Of course, there is no change. There is never change. Changing a 100Bs note (the denomination the cash machine gives them out in) becomes a mission roughly equal to negotiating world peace or finding a cure for malaria. Stallholders rush to find their friends and beg for change, change in any form. 2Bs coins are completely acceptable. I had this with the mini Beetle, I had it with the wheelbarrow (complete with spade and pick), I had it with the bell shaped like a cheery little cholita and baby. And somehow I still ended up without change for the bus home…
I knew twelve months ago that I was coming to Bolivia, and it was shortly afterwards that we found ‘the Bolivian shop’ in York. It is full of gorgeous crafty things, all little figures and jumpers and gloves and bags. I could buy just about everything. Except it’s all really expensive. So I held out for real Bolivia. In a way this was a good move: everything here is about a tenth of the price. In a way it’s dangerous: I have just a few weeks to stock up on the things I’ve been after for months. I don’t know if my luggage will all make it home.
But anyway… the other amazing section of the market is the ‘api corner’. Api is the drink I’ve been dying to try since I got here, and nowhere ever seems to sell it. Until now. A whole row of stalls was offering this hot, thick, purple liquid, made from brewing ground purple corn with water, sugar and cinnamon. It’s a kind of traditional breakfast drink in the Andes, and you can see why: a tankard of this (OK, not exactly a tankard, but it was served in a glass with a mug-type handle) would be enough to entice anyone out of bed on a freezing cold winter morning. Especially when served, as I had it, with a big, puffy, deep-fried empanada with cheese in it. Bolivia may not be known for it’s haute cuisine but this kind of hearty thing is perfect for warming the cockles of your heart, wherever they might be… Now I just need to find somewhere else that sells it, preferably without the accompaniment of wrestling on a widescreen TV.
PS. I’ve also had a chocolate brownie this week, but that’s not very exciting/ exotic/ Bolivian, is it?