We were sat in the Plaza of San Francisco Church in downtown La Paz when up sidled two shoeshine boys looking for their next victim. Jorges and his little fat balaclava'd friend just wouldn't take no for an answer even though I was wearing my trainers. The final straw came when one of them began to rub some unidentified liquid into my shoe. I gave them one Boliviano each and they skedaddled.
I turned to the woman wearing traditional costume next to me and enquired as to whether they lived on the streets. She peped out from beneath her Bowler had and explained that they lived up on the hill and came into the city either to help support themselves if they'd been disowned or to help their family. She spoke with good authority as it turned out that Adela was a Director of The Centre of Cultural Communications in the Zona Estrella district of El Alto. We chatted for a bit, me not understanding much of the conversation, exchanged email addresses, and then Alex and me said goodbye to our new Bolivian penfriend and set off down the Prado for the umpteenth time.
Later, we went for a coffee in the famous Club La Paz. Famous for being the hangout of Nazi fugitive Claus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon. It didn't appear that he was in residence that day so we sat back and enjoyed the wood panelled oasis of calm in the middle of the city.
We'd decided that, after a few days of relative inactivity, an adventure was needed and, with that in mind set off for the Club Andino Boliviano where we'd read that we could buy tickets for a visit to the world's highest ski slope!
When we arrived at the address, the Club seemed closed, the windows were dusty and the paintwork faded. There was a shiny brass doorbell though and, when we pressed it, there was a slight pause before a buzzer sounded and we pushed the door open and went inside.
It was just as dusty inside and when we found the right room, we were presented with the sight of an even dustier looking old man who invited us to sit down.
Alfredo Martinez Delgado was celebrating fifty years with the Club, an anniversary he shared with Hillary and Tenzing's first ascent of Everest. He handed us a collection of bound photocopies which dated back decades and charted his climbing exploits with various big names in the wolrd of Alpinism and even an expedition fron Reading University in the 50's!
The walls of the room were covered with maps of the Andes ranges and the wall behind us was given over to various trophies, one of which bore the Olympic rings. We could only speculate as to what kind of Bolivian winter sports team had won the huge gold cup.
Next morning, we joined 20 others for the three hour trip through El Alto and on to Chacaltaya. As we approached the foot of the mountain, the bus was forced to wind through several snaking switchbacks as we inched ever higher. At some points the road seemed so narrow that we thought we'd surely tip over the edge and tumble down onto the Altiplano plateau far below.
We eventually arrived at the ski lodge which left us with about 4-500 metres to climb to the 5460metre summit. On the way up, the ski slope could clearly be seen following the rout of the ever receeding glacier. The altitude made for slow and steady progress but the viwes from the top were simlpy breathtaking. We could see along the Cordillera range from the imposing Illimani in the south east all the way along to the magnificent Huayna Potosi in the north west. Mineral rich melt water pools glittered cobalt and emerald in the valley below.
All too soon, our two hours were up and we were forced to retreat to the lodge to catch the bus back to La Paz.
In the afternoon we sent home the first parcel of 'artifacts' which, at a conservative estimate, cost us twice as much to send as we'd paid for the contents!
That night we went to Eli's restaurant which had become something of a favourite. THe owner, Harry, greeted us as he did all the patrons and we settled down to a bottle of red wine and saltado's. Harry soon joined us as he made his way around the tables checking everything was ok.
The eighty year old restauranteur told us a potted version of his life story, which made for interesting listening. He'd arrived in La Paz aged 15 with his mother, father and brother, fleeing their German home (which was now in Poland) to escape the Nazis. I wondered if he'd ever thought about the irony of the clientel at the Club La Paz dining just up the road but didn't say anything. After leaving and living in New York for 30 years, he'd returned and bought the then cafe from a lady called Elizabeth (hence the name) and had owned it ever since. THe restaurant was one of the oldest in La Paz, trading since 1942.
After having the remainder of our complimentary dessert wraped, we thanked Harry for his hospitality and took to the chilly night air. Tomorrow we'd be taking the coach to the once flourishing mining city of Oruro...