Only in Bolivia…

The end of my practicum experience felt like it appeared out of nowhere. Friday, March 30 was my last full day and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had just arrived only a few days before. Four weeks absolutely flew by and it was bittersweet when my flight left La Paz on 3/31.

I expected some sort of adjustment period or reverse culture shock, but aside from the spring-disguised-as-winter weather, I’ve had no issues adjusting to being back home. I was fortunate to stay in a very nice apartment with excellent water pressure, so I didn’t have issues adjusting to rustic-then-luxury accommodations. And we’ve got bad drivers, sudden weather changes, and a lack of respect for personal space in Chicago, too.

I do, however, miss La Paz’s personality and quirks. Where else can I find things like:

The weirdly aggressive (and judgmental?) store mannequins. US mannequin dressers are lacking some serious imagination. I’d be willing to buy something just to make these mannequins stop staring at me.


The llama-fication of everything! I don’t have a special affinity for the actual animal, but everything is a little more fun when it’s dressed like a llama.


Mixed public health messages. The sign on the left very bluntly states “Trash Kills” and announces fines for littering. The picture on the right was taken one block from this sign. This cluster of power lines remained low like this for an entire week before it was finally repaired. This is what it looks like to live and work in a resource-limited setting: public health gains and losses exist side by side, without complaint, because everyone knows the city will fix it when they can fix it.


The traffic zebras and donkeys! Thanks to John Oliver, I was aware of the traffic zebras – they encourage safe driving and pedestrian behaviors – and they were really fun to see in person. But I didn’t know that there are also traffic donkeys! They aren’t out as often as the zebras and they aren’t playful. They tend to scold people for unsafe driving and pedestrian behaviors. It’s surprisingly effective – it does feel a little shameful to be teased by a walking plush animal.



Syncretism (sincretismo): the fusion or mixture of Catholicism or Christianity and indigenous religious beliefs. Bolivia is a predominantly Catholic country, but many people also observe indigenous religious traditions.

In the Mercado de la Brujas (witches’ market), you can find all the supplies you’d need to make an offering to Pachamama, the Mother Earth goddess. Offerings include sugar candy (because Pachamama loves sweets), small candy plaques decorated to represent a special hope or wish (better job, a new child, etc), and dried llama fetuses, which represent a meaningful financial sacrifice. At night, the offerings are placed in a fire and left to burn overnight. If there is nothing but ashes left in the morning, then Pachamama has accepted your offering and will grant your wish. If the offering didn’t fully burn, Pachamama did not like your offering, and you have to make another, bigger offering. It is not unusual for people to attend mass and then burn an offering to Pachamama later that same week.

In the picture below, the statue on the left is Ekeko, the god of abundance. The statue is decorated with items that represent cultural, financial, and person abundance, such as a pan flute, money, flowers, foods, and various farming implements. Every day, the store owner puts a fresh cigar in his mouth – if it burns all the way down, Ekeko will grant your wish. If it doesn’t, you just have to hope that Ekeko will be in a better mood tomorrow. (Side note for the single ladies – Ekeko is needy and demanding of attention. Single women are “prohibited” from buying Ekeko icons because it is believe that Ekeko, out of jealousy, won’t bring them a husband.)

The market also sells spell potions and soaps – in the picture below, the Sabonete is meant to ward off domestic violence. There other potions and powders can help you find love, find a job, treat minor ailments, etc.


Vibrant street art, including sculpture, murals and graffiti. I didn’t get an opportunity to take a lot of pictures of the graffiti, but in general, it is very political in nature, and the messages change across city neighborhoods. Where I lived, most of the graffiti was very anti-Evo Morales – a lot of “Evo es dictador” (Evo is a dictator). In the older parts of the city, and in areas predominantly populated by indigenous persons, the graffiti was very pro-Evo – a lot of “Evo sí” (yes to Evo) and “Si no es Evo, quien?” (if it’s not Evo, then who?).

The most common message in all parts of the city was “Mi voto vale”, meaning my vote matters. The US has struggled with electoral apathy for a very long time. It was refreshing to be in a country where people are very engaged in politics and believe in voting.

(Some background info – Evo Morales cannot run again because of term limits. He held a referendum to change the constitution to allow him to run an unlimited number of times, and the Bolivians strongly voted No. However, Evo does not want to leave office, and while Bolivians like and appreciate his reforms, they believe he needs to honor their constitution and their vote.)


The traffic light countdowns! We really, really need these in the US. When the light is red, the clock that will count down the seconds until the light changes. Once the red countdown is finished, the yellow light will come on and a green clock will count the seconds until the light turns green. This builds in a few seconds between light changes to allow the intersections to completely clear. When the light turns green, a green clock will count down the seconds until the light turns red. Did i mention that we really could benefit from these in the US?


The very entertaining television shows that seem to be a mix of talent show and telenovela. They go all in on the costumes.



Mostly, though, I will miss my co-workers and friends, who showed me an enormous amount of generosity, courtesy, and affection during my time in La Paz.

Pass the salt, please

Even though I am here for school purposes, my practicum program gives us time to explore La Paz and Bolivia. I spent this past weekend in Uyuni, Bolovia, home to the world’s largest (and highest) salt flat!

I know, I know…visiting a salt flat sounds boring and/or lame, but it was actually quite beautiful. My tour started with a drive past fields of red quinoa plants. According to Bolivians, the best quinoa in the world comes from these fields, as the minerals in the soil create a very nutritious and uniquely tasty grain.


Next stop was the train cemetery in Colchani. The train tracks that run through here are the original tracks that carried silver and other minerals from Potosí to the coast for sale and distribution. Since Bolivia no longer has a sea port, these tracks now lead to Chile.


I have no idea why a place where trains go to die is a tourist attraction, but it was kind of cool to explore train cars up close. Lots of tourists climb the cars. I might be current on my tetanus shot, but I wasn’t willing to push my luck.

After visiting the train cemetery, we visited the small town of Colchani. There is a small museum here that is supposed to be about the salt mining and manufacturing process, but it mainly focused on llamas. I can’t say I learned anything at this museum, but it did have some very entertaining miniatures.



Colchani also has a row of stalls selling various handicrafts and items made from salt. It took every single bit of self control I had not to buy one of these stuffed llamas/alpacas. IT’S SO FLUFFY I COULD DIE!


After leaving Colchani, we headed straight for the salt flats. I’ll let Wikipedia provide us all with some basic info: “the Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi). It is at an elevation of 3,656 meters (11,995 ft) above sea level. The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is covered by a few meters of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness with the average elevation variations within one meter over the entire area of the Salar. The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium. It contains 50% to 70% of the world’s known lithium reserves, which is in the process of being extracted. The large area, clear skies, and exceptional flatness of the surface make the Salar an ideal object for calibrating the altimeters of Earth observation satellites.”

It is currently the rainy season in Bolivia, so the Salar is covered in rainwater. When I visited, the water was 4-6 inches high in some places.


In other places, the salt is wet, but not saturated. In these areas, you can see the many colors that lie under the salt crust.

And because science is cool, here are photos demonstrating how the water effects the shape of the salt crystals. The photo on the left shows the salt crystals from the drier parts of the Salar. The photo on the right shows the salt crystals from the parts of the Salar that are underwater. Travel tip – if you visit the Salar, I would not recommend walking across it without shoes. These crystals (particularly those that are underwater) are quite sharp.

The Tunupa volcano provides enough heat to create bubbling pools throughout the Salar. These pools are similar to the geothermal pools you’d see at Yellowstone or in Iceland, except the bubbling water is very cold!


The combination of water and calm winds creates a mirror effect. Unfortunately, the winds were pretty strong the day I visited, so I couldn’t get good pictures of the reflection of the sky upon the water. But that didn’t stop my tour group from taking all sorts of silly pictures to capture what we could of this mirror effect.

The vastness and flatness of the Salar allow you play around with proportions:

And for the tour’s final act, I got eaten by a TRex: