There was a long row of blue shops on Panoramica in El Alto. There was a young woman grilling corn on smoking coals in the middle of the sidewalk. On the other side of the avenue, an elderly man with a llama was coaxing passersby to take a photo with his bored pet in exchange for a generous tip.
I walked into one of the blue shops. The size of a garage with no windows. Just a door closing behind me. It was dark inside. A desk lamp on a crammed bookshelf illuminated a small table, covered in a red and black striped tablecloth. A middle-aged man sat on the bed, his protruding belly leaning against the small table. He was wearing a pale black shirt and a blanket wrapped around his waist. He didn’t look like the stereotype gypsy fortune teller I was expecting, with a colorful skirt and a wart on her chin, but more like a handy man watching a football game on the couch. But I guess even the fortune tellers are different on this side of the Atlantic.
My friend Carmen and I sat on a bench across from him, as he scattered a handful of coca leaves on the tablecloth, mumbling some mystical chants under his breath in some foreign language. A few minutes later, he turned his attention to us and pointed a chubby finger at me. He switched to Spanish and claimed he could see my sadness in the leaves. My sorrows would persist for the next couple of years and there will be a drastic change in my career. He continued with some vague predictions about my romantic and family life that brought me to tears.
I should mention at this point that I am a great sceptic when it comes to fortune tellers, but even a sceptic resorts to extreme measures when he’s desperate. The coca leaves were just a disguise for this man’s talent to read people and my curiosity was just a pretext for needing someone to confront me with what I was not willing to face.
The coca leaves have the power of vocalizing the unspoken, but can also relieve the ailments caused by the thin air. My headaches were cured by drinking coca tea and stashing some leaves on the inside of my cheek for the occasional chew against nausea.
La Paz is a bustling city at 3600 meters above sea level, amongst the peaks of the Andes. You can avoid the loud traffic on the wide avenues by strolling through the narrow alleys, between the little shops selling tourists souvenirs at horrendous prices. Or you can buy fruit from a corpulent woman with a traditional colorful scarf wrapped around her shoulders and two long black braids dangling down her back to where they meet the wide skirt tightly bound at her waist.
To get around, you can hitch a ride on one of the small white vans that crowd the streets and stop anywhere for a petty fare. Or you can use the La Paz version of a subway, the Teleferico. A network of cable cars hovering over the city. The glass boxes dangling from thick black wires are a great observation deck from which you can admire the skyscrapers and peer into people’s homes and catch a glimpse of their daily life.