I stood in a bustling square at the center of La Paz, amidst children chasing pigeons and old women selling ice-cream, when I was suddenly confronted by a man in a ski mask. Before I could make up my mind on which way to run, he stopped a short distance away and started pointing at my shoes. I was bewildered as to why anyone, in any part of the world, would be interested in my faded black canvas shoes. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted another man in a ski mask polishing the shoes of a businessman. 'Ah', I sighed, relief mingling with my resumed breathing, and shook my head. I could spot a look of mischief dart through his eyes before he turned and scampered away into the crowd.
Most of my experiences in La Paz were of the unusual kind, right from the time the plane descended for landing. As we dropped in altitude, I still couldn't see the city -- it was as if we were plunging straight towards the looming Andes mountain range. As we got closer, I could see that the mountains were glinting with tiny silver specks which turned out to be the tin roofs of houses. It was a bizarre spectacle, as if the mountains were growing houses instead of trees. Even after landing, during the entire taxi ride from the airport, I couldn't take my eyes off the city of La Paz that seemed to cling on to the undulating slopes of mountains that stood at an oxygen-challenged height of 4058m.
My taxi slowed to a stop near the city centre and I got out, only to find myself right in the middle of a confetti shower. Bemused, I looked around to see a happy, loud wedding party posing for photographs, as onlookers stopped to congratulate the bride and groom. Traffic weaved slowly around the bridal party of colorfully dressed Aymara Indian women in long skirts, ponchos and bowler hats. I felt as if I had stepped out of the cab and walked straight into the exaggerated colors and animations of the pages inside a picture book. My hotel was situated right at this bustling centre of activity, its gate being hidden by the wedding party. I dropped my bags and went for a walk, looking for something to eat. My walk took me to the Witches' Market that merged with the central Sagarnaga Street. There were stalls and shops selling everything from the most bizarre to the very mundane -- llama fetuses that ward off evil, nude mannequins, juicy mangoes, nail clippers, everything that you may or never need in this lifetime. To refresh you during the shopping, there were stalls selling banana chips and peanuts, to be washed down with a small shot glass of coca cola.
I walked into one of the roadside eateries that had colored pictures of the food available on a yellow billboard outside. Pointing at some beans and rice, I took my seat on a plastic chair, craning my neck to see what the rest of the Bolivians were watching on a black and white TV set that was suspended from the ceiling. I couldn't exactly make out what it was, but it looked suspiciously like a Spanish rerun of an old Baywatch episode. A young girl walked around, carrying second helpings of rice and beans. Eating there felt like such a communal experience that I sat there watching the television for a while after finishing my meal, before heading off to wander around the streets of La Paz.
A day ride away from the city is the Bolivian end of Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America. The lake swerves around the town of Copacabana (the original, after which the famous beach in Rio was named) that has the jaunty vibe of a waterside holiday destination. On the shores of the lake, an enterprising young man had brought along a fluffy baby llama alongside which you could pose for a small fee. The llama, however, had other plans. As young children ventured to pet it, looked upon by their indulgent parents ready with a camera, the llama waited till they got sufficiently near and then proceeded to calmly spit on them, making them jump and run away by a mile. I spent an entertaining afternoon watching this llama in action as its young owner looked on disbelievingly, shaking his head and fists to no effect.
Be forewarned that La Paz is not the kind of place to visit if you are looking for a vacation by the pool, sipping margaritas. In places, it could appear to be congested and unpolished. But it is these rough edges that gives it that earthy feeling -- the feeling of discovering something that is honest and pretenseless, like digging out your own vegetables from your back garden instead of buying the cleaned, shiny ones from the supermarket aisle. As my plane took off from La Paz, I kept watching the bowl of the city that slowly morphed into the surrounding mountain range, seemingly non-existent for someone who doesn't look for it. I was glad that I had looked close enough.