Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

Caseras, Cholitas y Brujas

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What have you been up to Sarah B? You may well ask!

I’ve essentially been hanging out in La Paz for a week and a half, primarily waiting for a date to do a TOEFL English test (as part of a visa application) but also getting to know this beguiling city in the process. The big downside of course is that I’ve said a fond farewell to one of my dearest friends in the world, and cycling companionista, Sara-Ann. We’ve had such a fabulous six weeks together and I’m genuinely gutted to have parted ways.

Here we are enjoying the views from the La Paz Teleferico on our last day

So what’s been keeping me busy?

Caseras y yapa

There are pretty much no supermarkets here in Bolivia. Instead, you buy your food from the local ladies. They sit minding their stalls at the side of the road, looking regal in their bowler hats and voluminous skirts. Every day I make the short walk to buy fresh fruit, veg and eggs from these ladies. When you first start buying from them, they’ll pretty much ignore you and talk to their other customers. But once you become a regular, the lady becomes known as your ‘casera’.

Caseras are not only traders, but we’ve also been told that in the course of time, they will also become your friend and agony aunt (‘What? Why are you buying fewer potatoes today? – what happened? – you threw out your husband?!’). You’ll often hear Bolivians in the street greeting ‘hola casera’ to a lady they regularly shop from. In turn, your casera will put aside the best produce for you and give you a little bit extra (known as ‘yapa’) each time you shop with her. It’s effectively an old-school loyalty programme.

Sara-Ann and I had noticed that whilst the caseras don’t negotiate on price, they often gave us a little extra, like 3 bananas instead of the 2 we’d asked for, or throw in an orange for free. So the penny dropped once we heard about ‘yapa’ and it isn’t uncommon for customers to ask their casera for a little extra / yapa – again, kind of seems like an age-old version of a ‘3 for the price of 2’ deal!  Now I’ve been shopping with the same three ladies for a while (one for fruit, one for veg and one for dry goods like porridge oats and loo roll), they’ve definitely started to be more friendly.

The other thing I love about going to the markets here is how each street has its own speciality. Depending on the size of the market, there may be a street for bread, or another for eggs and dairy produce, another for wool, and so on. In La Paz this extends to streets dedicated to bathroom suites and bedroom furniture. So just like learning which aisle to go to in the supermarket back at home, you have to get familiar with which street to go to depending on what you need to buy. Then you can inspect it all in one place and decide who has the best produce to buy from. Bonus points though if you can figure out where to buy a tin opener from – that had me hunting round the streets of La Paz for hours to no avail!

As in Peru, potatoes continue to be big business in Bolivia. So much so that ‘You are my camote’ (sweet potato) is a term of endearment, and the inhabitants of La Paz are known as ‘chacutas’ (potato heads)! In La Paz they even have a type of black and white potato that will keep for up to 30 years.

The Witches Market

Offerings for sale at the witches market – this one for heath, love and money

Safety at work for the miners

For home & family

Llama foetus – to put in the foundations of your new building (our guides told us it was rumoured human sacrifices were used for particularly large buildings, after skeletons had been found beneath demolished buildings)

One of the more unusual sections of the market is the ‘Mercado de las Brujas’ – The Witches Market. These streets make what we learnt back near Copacabana (see earlier post) look like the tip of the iceberg! The ‘witches’ sell all kinds of charms and potions, including the llama foetuses we were told about, and also offerings to be made to Pachamama (mother earth), as apparently she loves sweet things such as sugar wine, decorative candies and coca leaves. The candies are made up to denote any occasion imaginable – buying a new house, getting married, going on a bus trip. You name it – there’s a decorated candy for it. These offerings have to be blessed by a ‘yatiri’ (witch doctor) in order to bring good fortune. You’d imagine this market may only be there now for the benefit of us tourists, but on Friday night there were literally queues of people winding down the road waiting to buy from these ladies.

Other potions we were told about that you could buy:

The ‘sigueme sigueme’ powder – literally meaning ‘follow me follow me’ – that you blow on the man or woman of your dreams to get them to fall in love with you…but La Paz being a Windy City there’s the risk that you might get the wrong person, so it’s sold in a package with a repellant dust solution.

For misbehaving boyfriends there’s also ‘el castigor’ potion – the punisher – apparently to bring him back in line if he’s spending too much time partying with his friends instead of being with you.

Also the ‘vigaron viagra’ – or the ‘bed breaker’ – no need to explain that one;).
I’ve just realised that I’ve also seen people making these offerings quite a few times when I’ve been on the bike. As the small ‘collectivo’ public minibuses pull out at the start of a journey, someone will often throw a handful of coca leaves and a dash of spirit out of the window on each side of the bus – presumably to ask Pachamama to take care of them on their travels.

The street of the Yatiri (witch doctors)

Yatiri adverts – they’ll help you with health, love, money, travels, selling land and destroying hexes.

Wrestling Cholitas

Another interesting show we managed to go and see is the local wrestling ‘cholitas’. They started up originally to help women suffering from domestic violence, and now its grown into a bi-weekly show, and the women have been to the US to get professional WWE training. After an hour we’d had enough, but it’s pretty entertaining to also watch the locals going crazy about their favourite fighters and throwing popcorn and drinks at the baddies.

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