Lynching at dawn: riding to La Paz - South America: a first time for everything - CycleBlaze

September 19, 2013

Lynching at dawn: riding to La Paz

WE SAW A LYNCHING this morning. Well, that´s an exaggeration, I suppose, but we did see a lynching in effigy. We had ridden all of two kilometres from our hotel on the bank of the lake when we spotted a body hanging from a roadside tree.

As if that weren´t enough, we saw another at the end of the day as well.

My Spanish isn't formidable but I think the message doesn't promise good news
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This morning´s was a curious and chilling moment even though it was clear the victim was a dummy rather than human. Because the meaning was clear: the figure was intended to be identified and the notice around its neck, which we couldn´t quite read, seemed to promise a public burning. Not the kind of thing you want to find outside your house after breakfast, anyway.

It reminded us that moments before, on the other side of the road, we had passed an ochre-coloured mansion with its windows smashed. Across the front, someone had painted in wavering capitals "This house belongs to the local council", although whether that was a plea for the vandalism to stop or an explanation for why it had happened, we couldn´t say. What we did wonder was whether the hanging and the stoning were connected. Could the house once have been occupied by the alleged thief? Did the body hang outside the house of the man whose petrol was stolen, a grudge and a threat at the same time?

We rode on, without an answer.

Today, frankly, was an exercise in getting to La Paz, our last day on wheels in South America. The road began with a belch of indigestion through the morning´s chill and threatening rain. And then it settled into a more good-humoured mood and rose and fell only gently before climbing apologetically to a plain.

We left the banks of Titicaca and with it the dawning prosperity brought by tourism - tourism not universally welcomed, however, to judge by road daubings protesting that spoiled local traditions. Nobody has grown rich from it, to judge by the surroundings. And several have failed, because along the roads were the dead hopes of nailed restaurants and empty lodging houses.

Yet, relative prosperity there was, for the further we rode from the lake, the poorer the surroundings became. A few smallholdings had a handful of cows but most were a few roaming pigs, nosing in the dry dust, or perhaps a sheep or as goat. Old houses of baked brown mud which had been less comfortable than they were picturesque had been left to tumble, the families now living alongside in less appealing but doubtless waterproof homes of breezeblock and corrugated sheeting.

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From them, or beside the road, brown-faced people smiled and returned our calls of Buenos dias!, women bowed beneath cloth-wrapped loads and toothless men in bowler hats often adding wishes for a safe journey. We may not share a language but at moments like those, we share a moment, a brief but warm contact with humanity.

The more we climbed on the plateau, the poorer and emptier things became. Finally there was nobody at all, just us and the traffic a metre to our left, separated by a continuous white line. It wasn´t fun but it worked. It got us there, pushed by a rising tailwind, and it could have been worse.

There's not a huge difference between Peru and Bolivia, but Bolivia's buildings are more finished and less prone to political graffiti. After a while, though, all habitation vanished and we were alone on the plain (alone, that is, apart from the traffic)
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La Paz is the world´s highest capital, with the world´s highest commercial airport. But it is in a horseshoe hollow. Higher still is the suburb of El Alto - The Heights - to which we came in a choking swirl of dust. The whole area - it is a city in itself, larger than La Paz - is a building site. Houses are being built or upper storeys added to shops and offices the length of the main road. The sand and cement dust they create has heaped in the road, restricting its width and adding to the horn-leaning chaos of Bolivian towns.

At one moment, we passed a boy of about five anxiously holding his younger sister´s hand to protect her as he tried to find a gap in the traffic to cross the road. Older people had abandoned such precaution and walked across the road with the insouciance of a bull-fighter, daring drivers to deter them, mentally swirling a red cape of contempt.

We regroup and grit our teeth to struggle through the colossal building site of El Alto, the suburb of La Paz that is larger than the city itself
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I can´t say it was pleasant. But I wouldn´t have missed it for anything, still less our 75-centime bowl of thick soup in a tiny café of locals amused by this unprecedented invasion of gringos in Lycra.

Enlightened chaos followed as we wobbled through market streets and across bus and taxi stations to find a way out. And then, our reward: surely the most dazzling view of a capital city anywhere, down in the horseshoe hollow.

Except that, what was this in the trees?

Another mock lynching.

Lynching number two: this is starting to get a habit
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Again, no idea of whom or why. We guessed perhaps it was a politician in effigy. But, whatever it was, it showed life here is so very, very different from the sun-charmed, gentle villages of south-west France.

Do not adjust your vision. This roadside stall really is at this angle. And it sells...
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...dried llama foetuses, found on the winter plain. Bolivians make offerings to the god of the sky and the god of the earth. The offerings include chocolate, alcoholic drinks, money... and dead, unborn llamas
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