The walk to school

The walk to school is about 1.4 miles long. With Zeke’s school in the morning and Anna’s in the afternoon, we make 3 or 4 trips to school each day. After a month, we have found the route that seems fastest and has the least amount of up and down. Walking, we have done it as fast as 26 minutes; Paul has run it in just over 13 minutes. If those times seem modest, remember that this involves crossing several busy streets and plazas with no stop signs or traffic control and passing through taxis, minibuses, pedestrians, produce haulers, and handtrucks in the busy market district.

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Sushi Economico on Calle Luis Crespo

We live in Sopocachi, in a fairly peaceful upscale part of town. For Zeke and me, the walk to school begins between 7:20 and 7:29 (if we leave on the late end, we need to move it) with the steep uphill to Calle Luis Crespo, where we immediately pass two auto repair shops and say good morning to the guys, who do a large part of their work on the street in front of the shops. Just down the block is Doña Marcella’s store, where we buy our water, eggs, and nuts and other stuff, so unless she is out of sight, we say good morning to her. We go by the Sushi Economico place, which both scares and tempts me. A few vans go by with “Max Paredes” on the front windshield; occasionally we take one, though the time to school is more predictable on foot.


About 7 minutes into the walk we pass the San Pedro upholstery shop and cross Landaeta, which to me is the boundary line between Sopocachi and the more working-class, bustling San Pedro neighborhood. Once in San Pedro, crossing streets gets more complicated, as there are no stop signs and no clear right-of-way. It is amazing to me that we have not yet witnessed two vehicles colliding, though it probably helps that the majority of the traffic is taxis and minivans – that is, guys (and it is almost always men) who drive in La Paz for a living. The protocol seems to me that the larger, faster, or braver vehicle crosses in front of the other. If there is a string of traffic crossing, a car hoping to break through edges into the intersection little by little until the string has no choice but to let them through. For walkers, it is helpful to know which streets are one-way, to watch vehicles closely for signs of turning (never trust a turn signal or lack of one), and to know where the speed bumps are and how much they slow down the traffic. A useful move is to let a car going your way run interference for you; this may involve running to get across the intersection at the same rate as the car. A similar move is to glom onto a few Bolivians (who cross with more authority than us) and cross with (but downstream of) them.

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Traffic in San Pedro

In San Pedro we go by the liquor store, the Spock store, a plaza, a few all-purpose stores, restaurants and salteña places, another plaza, and then we’re into the tire district. Four or five stores in a row seem to be just a small room crammed with tires with space to walk between and place a stool or sometimes a desk. In the second plaza is a guy with a pad of paper who sometimes grabs a piece of paper from a passing van.
Our first sign of our timing is the situation outside the Maria Auxiliadora school, which seems to start at 7:45. If we walk by at 7:43, the families walking are fairly tranquil, but if we pass at 7:45, we get the sight of families sprinting toward the door, children stuffing bread or empanadas into their mouths, handing hair brushes to mothers, and taking off at a pace their parents can’t hold. Once past Maria Auxiliadora, we go by two plant stores and turn right onto Calle Riobamba. Here the character of the walk changes again. After another auto repair place and a few stores, we find stands lining the sidewalks and turn left onto Max Paredes and into the market district.

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Market at Max Paredes and Rodriguez

In the next few blocks (those nearest Calle Rodriguez), the street is lined with stands selling fruits, vegetables, breakfast (api, buñuelo or pastel, yaucha, empanada, oatmeal in a bag, soup, coffee), cheese, peanut butter, meat, both raw (there are women who spend the day cutting huge recognizable animal parts into smaller bits on platforms on the sidewalk) and dried (did you know that the English word jerky comes from the Quechua word charqui, for dried meat?), fish, eggs, peanut butter out of five-gallon buckets, cheese, all kinds of cooking oils, flour, spices, cleaning products, blankets, belts and hats, small plastic toys, cakes, newspapers, and stuff I’m sure I’m forgetting. The minibuses and taxis have people loading and unloading bundles of goods as well as people trying to get to work; often both directions come to a complete stop and, with the sidewalks filled the pedestrians, many heavily loaded, get through as well as they can.

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Mercado Rodriguez

Farther up Max Paredes, things thin out a little. We cross Calle Sagárnaga, which only two blocks lower is one of the main tourist streets, full of cafes and adventure tour operators, but here is just another (fairly gritty) street. A few streets higher is another market center, where we often see vans full of bananas or pineapple unloading. When we pass at just the right time, we see the Morning Papaya Toss, a well-coordinated two-person transfer of 50 or more papayas out of the hatchback of a white taxi. We usually arrive at the school around 7:54, which gives Zeke time to play soccer in the courtyard until the bell rings at 8. On my way out, I pass loads of scurrying kids trying to get to the gate before it is closed by the guard. Then I head back down Max Paredes, either back toward home or farther downhill, past Plaza San Pedro and its huge (but somehow not depressing) prison, toward the university.


I love that we walk through this every day, and it makes my short walk to work up Main Street in Bloomsburg seem a bit dull by comparison. Perhaps there are still a few markets in the United States that bustle like this, but I guess that a place with this level of informality and human-powered activity can no longer be found in the (so-called) developed world.

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Up to the ridge

We´ve been looking across the valley to the ridge on the east side of La Paz for almost two months now, wondering what it is like up there. On Sunday we decided to find out.

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This is 100ft from home on our little dead-end street.

The hike starts by going down toward the river Choqueyapu, at the bottom of the valley. The river smells like sewage, looks like soapy washing machine water, and is covered over through most of La Paz. Taking the high bridge (Puente de las Americas) avoids a little up and down. From there we head towards the Killi Killi Mirador (lookout). It is one of the few places on this hike where we saw gringos, or at least evidence of them – a nice guy selling miniatures of the archeaological stuff at Tiwanaku. Also, we could see our house.

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Can you spot our building? It´s white.

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We never get tired of taking pictures of Illimani. Also from Mirador Killi Killi.

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In the upper left is where we want to go. We´ve already crossed the lowest part of the valley.

From there it´s down steps, and then up lots more. There are times when it seems like we have left town, and other times when it seems lie we are back in the middle of it. There are narrow stairways guarded by barking dogs, sidewalks that if you fell off them you would land on someone´s roof, and roads under contruction. It keeps seeming like we are getting farther from the city as we know it , but there is always more city above. Eventually we find ourselves in Alto Pampahasi (one of the fun things of these walks is learning the locations that words on busses correspond to) on the ridge that we see from home.

From there there is more uphill, but we can see the trees at the top of the ridge. Soon (well, not so soon, but after a while) we are off the roads and onto a dirt path. Here it is good to sit while Leticia goes a bit higher on the narrow path with dropoffs that make Paul´s feet tingle just thinking about it. He asks her to please not take Zeke. Zeke wants to go, but sees the look on his father´s face and agrees to stay behind.

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Leticia took this from the top. Well, not the top, but as far as she went before she thought of her husband worrying about her and turned around.

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This is literally the high point of the hike, for all but Leticia. 13,175 feet at the satellite dishes, before the path gets all droppoffy.

And so we headed back down, thinking we might catch a bus, but also curious about how to get off the ridge. We followed the main road for a while, figuring those busses had to get down somehow. The lure of more steps and a quicker descent pulled us off the main road, until finally we found ourselves in Obrajes, close to the green teleferico line. So we took that home. All told, a 10 mile hike that took 7 or 8 hours, counting breaks for food, water, photos, bathrooms, catching breath, thinking about how to get there, etc.

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Walking near Coroico

One of my favorite things about life when we travel is that walking becomes a more central part of our lives. It becomes both transportation and entertainment for us and there are less other things competing for our time. This time at 5 or 6 weeks in I am wondering how long it will take for me to be in shape for this city. At least once daily I am walking the 4 mile round trip to get Anna or Zeke to or from school. My muscles are still sore and some days they feel more weary than I would expect at this point. Also daily I find myself winded as I try to make good time or keep up with Anna and Zeke. It is true that I keep walking faster and that I keep increasing the weight of groceries I am willing to haul home, but is the lack of recovery me getting older?
I am again marking a map- seeing how many roads I can walk while I am here. (The year we lived in La Falda Argentina I tried to walk all of the streets of the town and was impeded by territorial dogs on the edges of town.) I am trying to add at least a little section of road I have never walked most days. Somehow I love the slowly understanding the map and the roll of the land better. This is a city which is particularly ill suited to being understood with a flat map with its steepness and folds. I enjoy both the scenic walks and the walks which may be less pretty but add to my understanding of place, and there is often a sweetness to walking through neighborhoods where foreigners are rare and being met with some curiosity.

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This weekend no roads got marked on my map though. Friday after successfully finding a dentist and getting a piece of work done for Zeke we headed towards Coroico. We had a snowy and foggy drive over a mountain pass and then down a mountain road. I was in the front seat, was grateful for the care our driver took and was grateful when we got below the clouds. We stayed the weekend at Senda Verde, a refuge that takes in animals rescued from illegal trafficking. (Perhaps others will write about the fun of that… this is about walking.)

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Paul said ¨what´s this thing on my head?¨ and this is the picture he got.

After arriving and getting settled on Friday we walked out to the town of Yolosa and up what turned out to be the “Death Road” which is the old way to Coroico. Especially after being in La Paz the diversity of plants and flowers was delightful as was being able to walk dirt roads with few people. Birds felt like another treat which we have been missing. I also delighted in the warmth and humidity in the air though some among us found it a bit much for walking.

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Saturday we took a taxi up to Coroico for lunch and to explore, and then we walked the 5 miles (?) back to Senda Verde. On Sunday we explored up another road. Unfortunately we had to turn back in search of lunch and return to La Paz. Both Anna and Zeke were difficult to turn, and Anna and I agreed we really want to spend some time walking from one town to another with daypacks sometime soon.

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We are back in La Paz now and just from the uphill block from where we had our taxi drop us to home I am convinced that the lack of oxygen here is at least part of my weariness, which I will take as more reassuring than frustrating. I am grateful we got a bit of time outside of the city and will try to be gentler with myself as we settle back into routines.

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The walk to the soccer field at the edge of the world

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Week 5 or Routine

We have finally found routine in daily life. We have been in our apartment two weeks now, but somehow it seems like much more. Similarly, while it has been 40 days since we left the United States, that feels like long ago.

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The dining room, barely furnished but with wood floors and huge windows that get afternoon light.

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We live on a Pasaje (in this case, a short deadend street) appropriate for hackeysack.

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Paul is delighted that Anna is reading the Bible in Spanish. Anna is less than delighted about Pauls letter to the Ephesians about the relationship between husbands and wives.

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Illimani out our bedroom window continues to be a fascinating subject. Anna took this one.

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Looking north to La Paz from the Green Line of the Teleferico.

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We call this the soccer field at the end of the world.

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Giant concrete slides, another wonder of Bolivia. This is in Parque Pura Pura.

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They are just happy. I am not sure why. But they are happy.

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Week Three – Home

A few of our contacts in La Paz said they were looking out for apartments for us, but after two weeks without anything showing up, we decided to try to figure it out ourselves. We had heard lots of scary stories about people renting (or selling) homes that were not actually their own, and other swindles that left renters out a few months of rent. There are also some online listings, and travellers kept mentioning airbnb. All those are geared to foreigners and are hence very expensive over the course of five months. So I bought a newspaper, circled things, and started making calls. I should say here that I do not like the phone to start with, and doing this in Spanish with the time delay that seems to come with Bolivian cell phones is even worse. But the first place we saw (larger than our house, great views, affordable, but totally empty) made us think we could find something. The second place was owned by an old lady who wanted nothing to do with us when she found we had three children (and shown by two immaculately made-up, well-dressed real estate agents who told us we couldnt find what we were looking for for the price we wanted, suggesting we look in a different neighborhood. The third place had three bedrooms, lots and lots of windows, wood floors, a big kitchen and living room, and two bathrooms. Even better, it is on a tranquil dead-end street (a ´´pasaje´´). The views are great, the owner friendly, the price OK, the location a 30-40 minute walk from school. We moved in Monday, 24 days after landing in La Paz. For now, just one photo.

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The view out our bedroom window – Zeke in foreground, Illimani in background.

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Week Two – School

If week one was spent just getting our bearings, week two was when we began to figure out a bit more about regular life. I (Paul) had my first two classes at the university. I was told to expect 5 to 10 students for this advanced course, but on the first day there were 20 and on the second day about 30. I have also been told that many are just listening in; it isn’t til the second week that I will really know how many are actually signed up (and how many will turn in homework is another mystery).

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Anna’s first day

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Zeke’s first day (18 hours later), with Sofia, the Pirwa Hostel puppy.

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Chirimoya, a fruit so strange and good it seems it can’t be real.

The folks at the Unidad Educativa Evangelica Los Amigos (or just the friends school, if you prefer) have been very friendly. We visited for second time on Tuesday to talk to the director; he was very open to the idea of Anna (Zeke is in the primary school with a different director) attending as a listener, meaning she participates in everything but doesn’t get official grades at the end of the year. That same day we bought uniforms for Anna and Zeke, and Anna started Wednesday afternoon. We got the OK from the morning director on Wednesday, and Zeke started Thursday morning.

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7:30am at the cemetery, waiting for the Independence Day parade to begin.

August 6 is the Bolivian national independence day, and on Friday the 5th the schools of that part of town marched through the streets as part of the parade. Thus Anna and Zeke’s first days of school were spend partly on marching practice. Next week will bring the regular schedule. Zeke goes from 8:30 to 12:30, Anna from 1:45 to 6:10 (morning and afternoon turnos are common in South America, as it lets a school have more students with less infrastructure), and it takes about 35-50 minutes walking and anywhere from 25 to 55 minutes on the bus, depending on traffic. Thus it feels like our weekdays are framed by the comings and goings of Anna and Zeke, who don’t see each other at all between 7:45am and 6:45pm. We have hopes of finding an apartment a little closer to school, but quite close will be hard, as the neighborhood around the school is mostly businesses. Now that school is figured out, finding a place to live is our main job in week three.

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The friends school flags, followed by the marching band and about 300 or so students (from kindergarten to 12th grade).

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Sorata

The idea was to get out of the city for a few days; all of us were needing to see a little green. We thought about Copacabana, along Lake Titicaca, but hotels were expensive. The folks at the Bolivian Quaker Education office in La Paz had mentioned that there would be a celebration in Sorata this weekend for the tenth anniversary of the internado, basically a dorm for high school students who live too far from town to go to high school (I talked to one kid who walks 7 hours to get home every Friday). So at the last minute we changed gears and headed for Sorata.

At the Internado in Sorata

At the Internado in Sorata

Illampu, the mountain above Sorata

Illampu, the mountain above Sorata

Getting to Sorata means taking a taxi or bus to the place from which the busses leave. There’s no station, just a block where the minivans wait until they’re full. As is usual in Bolivia, about 17 people fit in a minivan, with any large baggage tied on top. The road winds up and out of La Paz, with great views over the city, and then into the suburb of El Alto, which has many roads and bridge under construction, so that you’re always bumping through a grid of dusty roads and walled-in lots with half-built houses (and the occasional very new-looking house) and messages like “autos sospechados seran quemados” (suspicious autos will be burned) or “ladrones pillados seran linchados” (thieves caught will be lynched). This finally gives way to paved roads and views of Lake Titicaca and the mountains of the Cordillera Real.

Down to the Rio San Cristobal

Down to the Rio San Cristobal

The last 20 miles into Sorata are the classic Andean toboggan ride, down windy roads that you wish the driver would take a little slower. We have been on narrower roads with larger dropoffs, but this was enough to bring those roads to mind. Sorata itself seems thankfully tranquilo after a week in La Paz. Our hostel was mellow and made us a lovely breakfast including crepes and eggs. The celebration at the internado was sweet, and we were made very welcome. I’m not sure how it will fit in with school schedules, but we’d love to spend more time there.

Tenaja, Anna, Rio San Cristobal

Tenaja, Anna, Rio San Cristobal

A South American hike isn't complete without a dog to follow you. This is Coqui from the Hostal Las Piedras. And Zeke.

A South American hike isn’t complete without a dog to follow you. This is Coqui from the Hostal Las Piedras. And Zeke.

And the hiking is good too. It sounds like Sorata had hoped to be more of a tourist place than it now is, as there are many multi-day treks that can be taken from Sorata. Instead most of its income comes from mining, lately mostly gold. There are signs of wealth – kids in the park watching movies on an iphone, for instance – but the town mostly feels sleepy and remote.

Sunset from the balcony outside our room, Hostal Las Piedras

Sunset from the balcony outside our room, Hostal Las Piedras

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Week One

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Leaving home, with a year of stuff (Tenaja’s stuff not included)

Our first week in La Paz has had its ups and downs. We arrived a day late due to airline problems, but we did get nights in hotels in Miami and Santiago (and meals). Once here, as predicted, we were all hit by the altitude (we are somewhere between 11,000 and 12,000 feet). We drank lots of coca tea, walked slowly, and sat around a bit.

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Coca leaf tea: illegal in the U.S., indispensable in La Paz.

There were the ¨What are we doing here?¨ moments, leavened by the ¨Wow, I´m so glad we´re here¨ moments. We are small town folks, and the city can be overstimulating. Trying to figure out which bus (if any) to take, then trying to flag said bus, then trying to squeeze all five of us on and off the bus – it isn´t anything we´re used to. Sidewalks full of people, traffic that is nearly gridlocked, and all the chaos of markets and vendors that fill up the sidewalks and spill into the streets make it stressful to manage a group of five when you aren´t exactly sure where you´re going or how to get there.

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La Paz’s central park, a respite from traffic and chaos.

There were partial days of sickness, some homesickness, days of trying to figure out where we would get food we could eat. One thing that has been uniformly positive has been my connections at the university. They are very happy I´m here. It turns out the course I´m teaching – an undergraduate analytic number theory course – hasn´t been taught in years, as the guy who taught it retired a few years back. This makes it clear that I´m not taking anyone´s class away.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On Thursday we had a disappointing meeting with the school we were hoping to have Anna and Zeke attend. They say government control is tight, and they can´t do it. Then in the afternoon a meeting with another school that was much more positive. We still need to speak with the director tomorrow, but this school has had much more exchange with North American Quakers and seems to be more open to the idea. Looking for a house or apartment has been on hold until we figure out where the kids will be in school, but we have a few folks looking out for furnished places for us. Our current hostel is nice, but the five of us are sleeping on bunk beds in one room smaller than most bedrooms in the U.S. With a year´s worth of stuff all around us, it is cramped, and paying by the night is a lot more expensive than paying by the month. The hostel does have a computer and wi-fi, though it is often down or slowed incredibly by other travelers on their phones. The laptop we brought seems to have lost its ability to hold a charge, and only works when plugged in. For a few days, the computer´s fan made a noise like a blender; now it only says ¨Fan error¨ and shuts off. So there are things to be figured out.

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On the terrace at Hostal Pirwa, Sopocachi, La Paz

What are the upsides? Views of Illimani (the snow-capped mountain that looms over La Paz), wandering streets so steep that you can´t believe someone decided to build a city here, finding fruit that we can´t get at home or an incredibly good bowl of soup for less than a dollar, conversing and connecting with people from many stations in life. As we left La Paz on Friday for a weekend in Sorata, I was imagining life in Bloomsburg right now, and this felt so much more exciting.

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La Paz

After three flights and two nights in

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mountains from the plane

hotels due to a missed flight, we finally                    arrived in La Paz last night.

We took it easy, and spent a lot of time sleeping, drinking mate de coca, and adjusting to the altitude.

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mate de coca (coca tea)

Today we are feeling a lot better, but we still get winded going up the three flights of stairs to our room. Our hostel is great, with wonderful views of La Paz and the new teleferico from the two balconies( I got my hair cut while looking down at the city from one of them.) .The teleferico is a cable car that goes from El Alto, the city above La Paz, to La Paz. Two or three of them exist now, and there are more planned. From my bunk I have good views too, including a view of Ilimani, a snow capped mountain above La Paz.

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Ilimani

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teleferico above La Paz

I am so happy to be here, and can’t wait to run around and explore without having to go slow because of the lack of oxygen. Nights are chilly and I think we are all appreciative of the down comforters the hostel has. I miss everyone, but am having a wonderful time.

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