The world's largest street market

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Andean Adventure

The world's largest street market
September 4, 1997

We're trying to get the hang of traveling on busy city streets
Suddenly the view opens beneath us: millions of shining lights spilling from the edge into the canyon below. It is a magical sight; you can almost hear the gasps. Others nod knowingly seeing our excitement — no one forgets their first view of La Paz.

La Paz is a city that shouldn't be missed; the mixture of indigenous cholitas with their voluminous skirts and precariously perched bowler hats along with businessmen toting cellular phones adds excitement to every street corner. And the street is where the action is.

La Paz is one big street market. Half the population is unofficially employed lining the streets with makeshift booths. We never enter "stores." We buy everything in the streets. The constant bustle of street commerce is the essence of the La Paz experience — a fantastic cultural orgy — except when you really need something specific. It takes half a day to find the strolling vendor selling razors.

I think we've got the hang of it now. Each block is a different market: one sells fruit and only fruit, in the next block you'll find cloth and only cloth; there's a hardware block and a bread block. There's even a block where you can find that perfect llama fetus sacrifice for the new home.

We figured out that each block
is a different market
We brace ourselves for a day of chaos with a fresh juice — of course over in the area where five women sell fruits from five identical adjacent booths. They see us coming a mile away and leaning out from their tropical paradise begin screaming, "Joven, yo te llamado. Joven yo te llamado!" (Young man, I called you first!) Their hands flap crazily, pulling the air to draw us near. We can only shake our heads and laugh at the riot we provoke and head to the vendor who has remained tranquillo.

Navigating through La Paz you soon realize there are only two directions: up or down. More hilly than San Francisco, and at 12,000 feet you are exhausted by mid-afternoon and all you've done is mail a letter. We've been forced to master the micro system, an armada of Japanese minivans that buzz the streets. Children hang out the windows, reeling off street names like professional auctioneers. Spotting your ride you rush into five lanes of traffic and make the leap through the jaws of the sliding door and into a cholita's lap. No one bats an eye.

Indigenous women watch
their product stands
Speaking Spanish helps. The wonderfully colorful indigenous women sitting so innocently aside their product stands are actually bargaining mavens. Being a gringo you can spend a half hour haggling just to get back to the original price. Bill constantly engages in battle and relishes the savings of even one boliviano — 20 cents.

Aside from the cholitas, shoeshine boys comprise the other half of the street population. Even in the middle of the morning I'm frightened by these masked youth with their faces covered by ski masks and hats. Following the passage of shoes, only their black eyes are visible through a slit of fabric. Supposedly they are hiding their identity from truant officers, but many appear well beyond school years. Perhaps it's clan identity.

Shoeshining is a passion here. Bill yearns to get a polish on his One Sport running shoes just to feel he's not missing out on some essential cultural experience. Perhaps we can get it done. Just after we've found the guy selling razors.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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