Friday, 19 February 2010

The Bolivian taxi driver.

The taxi driver picked me up outside my hotel which was just a stones throw from the famous Mercado de Hechiceria, otherwise known as the Witches Market. Yes, I chose it because of its location! The market is one of La Paz’s most visited places, and the concentration of pickpockets in the area I’d read, is extremely high. In the labyrinth of streets which make up the market, you can buy silver, stone, and crystal charms, beads, all kind of herbs, incense and llama foetuses, and much, much more. There’s everything and anything you might need to make your own personal alter or ceremony. Shamans sit on the pavements and read cocoa leaves for the local people. Bolivians will wait for hours (in the street) to consult their favorite shaman. This kind of oracle telling is taken very seriously by all Andean people. At this stage of things, day two in Bolivia, I was still in a state of overwhelm/altitude mal- adjustment, so hadn’t yet dared explore the market. A few days later, I’m sitting on the pavement on a tiny camping stool, having my cocoa leaves read. At first I couldn’t hear the shaman’s voice, he spoke so quietly. Then.... But that’s another story for later!

I’d read about Bolivia’s National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore with its magnificent collection of ceremonial masks, and that’s where we were heading. The price of the fare was agreed before getting into the taxi, as advised by the hotel receptionist. It was ten thirty in the morning. Sunny. Summer there, although early December

The taxi driver was middle aged, handsome from behind, and kept his eyes well on the road which was a good thing as the traffic was pure chaos and there were a million people sitting on every single pavement, or so it seemed. They were selling everything you could possibly think of, and things you’d never dreamed you’d see being sold, like the llama foetuses.

Alfonso, the taxi driver, and I quickly liked each other. I felt like I was talking to along lost relation. I’ve had these kinds of conversations many times in many countries, but this was different because he was the very first Bolivian I had spoken to. I was particularly interested to hear everything he could tell me about his country, as I’d been dreaming of exploring Bolivia for almost two years. Alfonso gave me a potted history of his country, his hopes, his fears and his beliefs as we sped towards the national folk lore museum. I was looking forward to seeing the collection of hundreds of ancient ceremonial masks in a building that dated back to when the Spanish arrived. I'd read the masks were displayed in darken spot lit rooms.

When he dropped me outside the museum, he didn’t have change. I said keep the money, and, could he come back in two hours later and take me back to the hotel? Sure, he said. No problem at all.

The museum was gob smacking. I'm sorry to use that word but it's perfect. It was even too much for my camera. It locked itself into movie mode and I couldn’t unlock it. A Japanese student tried to help but failed. It was like the camera didn’t want to miss a single thing either.

Apart from the collection of really incredible masks, the museum consisted of a series of rooms full of the most beautiful woven textiles. There were many faded, sepia, photos on the walls depicting the lives of weavers in the mountains. In almost every room there was a TV showing a video of the shearing of the llamas, people working in the fields and the valleys, and other aspects of the lives of the campasinos ( the country people). The videos were of days gone by, but for many, life is exactly the same today as it was 200 years ago.

I was in a state of awe watching these films, but every five minutes, the building had a power cut. So I'd be sitting entranced, then everything would go dark! Pitch dark. This was a little scary in the extraordinary hall of ceremonial masks; some of these masks would be very frightening for little European eyes.

Having taught mask making for many years, and having been fascinated by masks since I was about six, I was in heaven, even in the pitch darkness. The Japanese students giggled a lot during the black outs.

Two hours later, I’m waiting outside for my friendly taxi driver to pick me up, and yes, you guessed. He doesn’t show up.

Then followed some confused thoughts. The followed some strange experiences. I waved down a yellow taxi, gave him the name of the hotel, and he drove off, without me. This happened six times. This happens a lot in La Paz I learned later. I had a moment of upset when I realized I didn’t know which direction to start walking in, and that’s when a white radio taxi stopped and picked me up.

Back at the hotel, I mentioned to the receptionist that the taxi driver hadn’t returned as promised. No big deal I said, but I felt disappointed, I really didn’t want to think badly of my new friend.

Four hours later, with the altitude sickness kicking in (big headache, breathing tricky, and legs that don’t like walking upstairs) I head for the hotels little cafe where cocoa tea is provided for exactly this kind of thing. The receptionist calls me over and hands me a ten boliviano note. The taxi driver came back she said, and left this for you, your change. He said the police wouldn’t let him stop to wait for you.

I smile.

Now, you might not believe that was the true ending of this story. Could it be different?

A friend who describes herself as a cynic laughed when she heard this tale and said,

“No Meg. What happened was the receptionist called the taxi company and said if you don’t come immediately and repay the customer, we won’t use your.******...... taxi firm ever again”.

Did that thought cross your mind?

Actually, I never mentioned the money part of the adventure to the receptionist!

May we all be blessed with friends, acquaintances, and experiences that make our hearts glow.