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.
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.
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.
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.
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.