Outside the entrance to my hostel on busy Calle Illampu street in central La Paz, all along the pavement – sit women – squatting or cross legged, on pieces of cloth, with their wares for sale in front of them.
They all don the usual Bolivian finery of colourful skirts and scarves and black felt hats. I have been reliably informed that they don’t wear knickers, and when they want to make pee, they simply squat down, lift up their skirts – and when finished, simply get up and walk on. All in one proud flourish! Anyway, this post is not about peeing habits. It is about more respectable topics!
The women on the pavements sell all manner of goods and as you walk down you hear their shouts and choruses – their advertisements – like attracting brightly plumed birds of paradise: some specialise in selling nuts, others sell chocolates and crisps and drinks, others tooth brush’s and toothpastes and mouthwashes and shampoos, and some sell second hand books in German, Spanish and English they can barely read. There is a women that sells strips of Nickel ion batteries for watches and calculators. But my favourite women is the one that sells knock-off Hollywood DVD’s from China – for the handsome some of 3 for 10 Bolivianos (3 for 1 GBP).
Why is she my favourite? Is she younger with a nicer skirt and she don’t pee on the pavement? Don’t be stupid.
You see during my recent ‘second’ Wisdom tooth extraction (more on this later as it is rather funny), I was told to rest in my room – a convalescent in another country, and during this period convalescing, I barely left the hostel, except for regular forays outside the entrance – to the ‘DVD women’. Her best customer ever. The quality of the DVD’s was excellent and I would spend whole days holed up in my room catching up on my movies on the laptop. God bless the DVD women. Without her I would no doubt have been reduced to a throbbing mass of pain and boredom.
Then there is the ‘Soup Women’ not far away from the DVD women. She would sit all day long next to her gigantic cauldron of bubbling soup with her little boy beside her (his nose leaking snot) – selling bowls of soup to shop customers and passers by. Soup is tooth friendly. Soup don’t require rigorous munching or masticating movements. Soup don’t get stuck where your wisdom tooth once lived. Soup just requires slurping – and thus, because of soups fluid characteristics, I would frequent her twice a day for my regular fill of delicious home made soup broth!
What was in the soup? No idea but it was delicious! Though it did lack a little salt and pepper which I could procure from the friendly fat chef in the hostel kitchen. And it costs only 15 pence a bowl! – cheap as muck.
And when I tired of soup? – Why there is the father and son team in their little shack on the street – where a 3-course meal of bowl of soup + Bolivian pollo main course with rice + fresh fruit juice, would cost 15 Bolivianos (1.50 GBP). This is where the locals and shop keepers go for lunch. So there are plenty of great tasting, healthy and cheap eating options here in La Paz. Most Westerners; in mortal fear of contracting some diabolical bacterium, tend to flinch from these establishments, but not I. For I am immune, for I have been pumping myself full of antibiotics for over a week now! There is no ugly Bolivian bacterium my body can’t deal with! I am Amoxycillin Man!
But, coming back to the main point – the food in these road side establishments is mighty good tasting and kinder (much kinder) on your wallet. And you feel good for giving business to a sole trader.
Anyway, back to the women selling their wares outside my hostel. There are others. Especially interesting is the one selling a whole assortment of USB flash drive memory sticks! Her entire rickety stall (yes stall for she is a little more upmarket!) is literally garlanded with them: strips of memory sticks hanging from the awning and many from recognisable major brands. It seems to be a little incongruous to me – a wizened old leathery creature selling technologia. Does she know anything about what she sells? Can she dispense advice on USB flash drives? And how on earth (or how in La Paz) did she get into this business? I can imagine her selling wrinkled corn cobs! I do wonder if they are originals or knock offs from China.
There is also the women selling stationery, another specialising in all manner of locks and padlocks (you can’t be too careful here in La Paz for people have butter fingers), another selling rude looking wrinkled fruits and vegetables long past their ‘shelf / street life date’. And this goes on all along the street – day after day – week after week – year after year. How much do they make? Not much I gather. A life that promises nothing to escape it. Many times when I have brought something from them I feel almost ashamed and embarrassed for accepting the measly change they give me. Silly really.
But, and yet – they seem so happy and content. They know no other life. Out on the streets they chat and gossip with the other women. Strong bonds formed – friendships forged. The street is their office and work place. After school their children don’t go home. They sit beside their mothers, helping out, till dusk and maybe even later. I watch them and my heart is filled with such tenderness, that I wish to hug them all. Such simple lives and simple faces and simple people.
Eeking out an existence – their eyes sparkling like little orbs of suns, their leathery skins wrinkled, permanently pasted with smiles that speaks of wisdom – a wisdom seemingly beyond their station in life or education.
But a wisdom nonetheless.