I love strolling around markets! Partly because I find them interesting as an economist and maybe partly because as a kid I’ve been constantly dragged to bazaars and various food markets all over my hometown. I’ve been lucky enough to wander around markets in many parts of the world. A big general market and a sunday animal market in Kashgar come to mind as something special. But they’re definitely not my favourites. The so called black market in Ulan Bator, small food markets in Bosnia and Croatia, various markets around Mexico are all a lot of fun. What differentiates them is not only what is being traded but of course the people who trade. I’m not the most chatty person and am often on a quiet side but depending on my mood and a place I do feel the need to integrate beyond the basics. I speak at least one language from each of the latin, slavic and turkic language families which allows for at least very basic communication with the locals. It’s amazing how far can basic knowledge of a language go and how similar two languages can be. For example, to my own amazement my crappy command of turkish was enough to hold an insightful conversation with a local music teacher in a shack in Kashgar (Uyghurs speak a turkic language). Though sometimes my rehearsed phrases in Croatia got me in trouble and made me appear more fluent than I actually am, so pretty quickly I couldn’t keep up with chatty locals.
These photos are from a market in La Paz, or El alto to be more precise. It’s the highest market I’ve ever been to at 4100 metres above sea level. It’s no doubt the market with the best view and sometimes that on its own was enough to consume all of my attention (maybe it’s also the lack of oxygen). It’s unbelievable what you could find that high in the mountains, from korean music to chips for your motherboard to Chevy camaros. Some things are legit, some are stolen and of course if you look in the right places you can find a bunch of illegal things too (I’ll let your imagination play here). The amount of things being traded is overwhelming, it’s Adam Smith’s invisible hand at play, and a free market advocates’ playground with no government intervention, regulations or taxes. Except it’s not … because It’s Bolivia. I’ve been lucky enough to stay with some of the most intelligent people in Bolivia (probably the most educated). They’ve interestingly pointed out that where the government is weak the civil society is pretty strong. So in a way it is a free market with Adam Smith’s invisible hand but (not so free after all) with Marxist defence of a class. Who gets into these markets is not always straight forward. The entrance of bigger electronic firms like Sony is a good example where they couldn’t just come and open shop, civil society had a say in it collectively as to what the terms would be and who is allowed to sell.
If you think about it even for a little bit it’s pretty amazing. This community organization doesn’t stop with economics. Though there is a country level judicial system a lot of judgement is passed without government involvement. What constitutes a crime, who and how is a person punished is decided by a community. I’ve heard of a story where a female foreign worker in a community was harassed by one of its members. It was decided to tie him to a tree and let insects have their way, I’ll let your imagination go wild again ! Passing through one other community there was a sign that said “The thief will be found and burnt as punishment”. Whether this was the “official” community announcement or unfounded threat I don’t know, but either way the organizational power and strength of civil society in Bolivia is truly incredible. If you factor in the cultural diversity (there are around 35 indigenous languages) it becomes a significant challenge to understand … but oh so interesting.
I broke my own little rule on my birthday. Over the years I’ve built a preference towards staying in one place longer rather than going to a new country for a very short time. Of course what makes time short varies by place and purpose, rendering this rule closer to a guideline than an actual rule. So few days before my birthday I had decided to swap Chile for Bolivia and flew north.
La Paz is like no other place. At first it appears similar to the same sized cities in developing economies around the world. But with a bit more time it’s easy to see it’s like no other (I’ve been to) with its geography, culture, civil society etc. You can ask 10 different people what they think of La Paz and chances are you’ll get close to 10 different answers. Primarily because it’s a city of extreme contrasts. It’s a city that is very hot and very cold (sometimes from second to second), big and in many ways very small, rich and poor, ugly and beautiful, boring and entertaining, modern and old fashioned. It’s all those things at the same time and it’s not very obvious why. La Paz (and Bolivia in general) is a very complicated place in terms of governance, economics, culture. In the short time I’ve spent there I’ve only scratched the surface leaving with more questions than answers. And looking through this perspective maybe the short trip was worth bending the guideline.
You can see a lot of the houses in the city aren’t painted and look like they’re in the middle of a construction with plain bricks covering the façade. I’ve been told that painted houses are faced with higher tax so many choose not to paint their houses. The view is plain incredible, the city carved itself onto every hill and slope. A number of these houses will be washed down from hills during the rainy season.
Pablo Neruda is Chile’s second Nobel laureate in literature. This is a view from his bedroom and office windows in his house in Valparaiso (1 of his 3 houses in Chile). Neruda had a habit of naming his furniture as well as his houses. This one’s called La Sebastiana. He described it as a “toy house” in a city that is “secretive, sinuous, winding”, “twitches like a wounded whale” and where “eccentric lives” played out as an “inseparable part of the heart-breaking life of the port”. Neruda dedicated a poem to this house and claimed that it gave him a unique perspective into the city, that the privileged view allowed him to see things others couldn’t. For example, he used to tell his friends that everyday at 9pm sharp in the blue house by the green one (don’t remember the actual description) a beautiful woman showed up in her bedroom, completely naked. No matter how hard his friends tried to find the house with the woman nobody ever did.
I was genuinely impressed with Valparaiso and was left with something I did not expect to find, likely because I knew nothing about the city in the first place. Neruda wrote “If we walk up and down Valparaiso’s stairs we will have made a trip around the world.”, though the times have changed there are little subtleties around the city that make it hard to disagree with him. But more on that later….
“Querida viejita: Qué es lo que se pierde al cruzar una frontera?
Cada momento parece partido en dos. Melancolía por lo que queda atrás y, por otro lado, todo el entusiasmo por entrar en tierras nuevas.”
Che wrote these words as he crossed the border into Chile from Argentina across this very mountain range (a bit south from Santiago) in 1952. It was his first border crossing on the famous motorcycle trip, I find these words to be true for many of my own border crossings. Santiago is my first city in the Americas south of Mexico, leaving me packed with plenty of enthusiasm. I had a burning desire to move here for school when I was 19-20 but it never came to be, I went to Europe instead. Years later I’ve finally made it and the first thing to spark my curiosity (entusiasmo por entrar) is the massive cordillera, steep and imposing. For the most part I grew up in a city by the mountains, so I’m no stranger to mountain views. However, mountains this massive next to a city this large is something special. Santiago, with its population of over 5 million is located in a valley surrounded by mountains trapping the pollution inside, making it one of the most polluted cities in South America. You can see the smog permanently hovering above the city. Yet the mountains tower above that too.
This is in the ejido of Canasayab in the state of Campeche in Mexico. Having visited dozens of villages in the state some are more memorable than others. It’s not always related to whether there was something interesting and fun to see/do. It often came down to the simple matter of time and whether I had enough of it to walk around and absorb the surroundings.
Luckily in this village I did and these coconut trees particularly come to mind. They were just behind the local school. I thought it was the coolest school “playground”.
I used to listen to Freakonomics podcasts in grad school and a segment from the show came up to mind the other day, about how people change their behaviour depending on their surroundings. It got me thinking about how our surroundings affect our daily lives, rhythm, lifestyle and the lessons we take from it all. Then I thought about one of the motorcycle trips I took years ago in northern British Columbia. Certainly feels like a world away today. What I now think I learnt from it is quite different from what I thought at the time. As silly as it may sound, one of the most recurring thoughts during the trip was about packing the bike as it affected the ride and is something I had to do every day, sometimes several times. I mean look at it, that mountain in the back of the bike looks pretty unwieldy. I felt quite pleased that the situation has been slowly improving day by day.
One of the things I now think I got out of the trip is a marginal lesson on how to enjoy myself. Let me explain 🙂 Such trips in northern Canada can get bumpy. It’s nothing to complain or write home about, but on some days with hands frozen to the handlebars, a numb face and sore body parts it’s easy to start to wonder “why am I doing this?”. Unlike the packing situation these thoughts have surfaced only once in a while. One day in particular comes to mind, a few days before I took this photo. Almost in Yukon the weather was woeful with a temperature around 0, rain and wind. At a much needed pit stop an RV driver came up and stated that my friend and I must be either very brave or very stupid. It’s probably a bit of both but my frozen face could only summon a smile in return. I didn’t really think much of his question as my mind had been fixed on a hot soup I was about to get. It’s quite fun to get surprised by a ready convenience at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. The attendant’s demeanour added to the whole atmosphere as she nervously and frantically rushed to serve the only 4 customers like she was serving a full house in lower manhattan 1000s of kms south. Maybe she wanted to hurry us out of the place to get back to peace and quite until the next pack of customers, whenever they might pass by.
What I’m trying to say is that it takes a certain mindset to smile and disregard every inch of your body screaming “get me out of here”. Then you stop wondering “why am I here?” and start thinking “isn’t this something!”