Tuesday, August 7, 2012

La Paz

So I know I wasn't technically posted to La Paz, but I did spend the summer there, and I was at the embassy after all, so I decided to join in my first Foreign Service Blog Round-up and contribute my thoughts on what makes the city a good place to live.

The Pros

1) Location, location, location
La Paz is only a weekend away from some of the most interesting sights in South America, many of which I got the chance to see while I was visiting. There's the Salar de Uyuni - the largest salt flat in the world - only an hour's flight from La Paz. There's Lake Titicaca, one of the most beautiful places I've been in my life. You can see it in a weekend easily. You can bicycle down the deadliest road in the world and be back home in time for dinner. You can climb in the Andes or zipline through the jungle. Slightly longer trips will get you to Machu Picchu and some of the major tourist cities in South America, like Rio or Buenos Aires. La Paz really is a perfect jumping off point if you'd like to travel in the area.

2) You want it, you got it
Some people at the post might disagree with me on this one, but after living in Thailand, Bosnia, Serbia and Sri Lanka I can say without a doubt that Bolivia has a much better selection of American products than I've ever seen abroad. On a given day you might be able to find 3 different kinds of Honey Bunches of Oats (silly me, I didn't even know there were multiple kinds), several variations on Kraft Ranch dressing, Thai Kitchen noodle packets, and multiple sizes of Kikkoman soy sauce. Not just at the big groceries stores either, but right down the street at the market. I've heard the fresh cheese selection isn't what some people would like, but there are some perfectly good specialty stores for that, so I saw no reason to complain. (In Thailand they didn't even have cheese in my neighborhood. And in Sri Lanka the only American product we had on our shelves was an occassional box of Corn Flakes so I didn't have much patience for food complaints in La Paz.) Amazingly La Paz is also a consumables post so you can really go to town if you want.

3) The weather
I know weather is boring, but hear me out on this one. If you don't want to ever have to shovel snow, or show up sweaty and gross to work, then La Paz is your post. Think of it as fall all year round. At night it's cool and crisp and you wear your jacket. During the day it's sunny and warm(ish) and you can run around in a t-shirt and jeans. (I personally am more of a summer-all-the-time, so-hot-you-can-hardly-breathe type of person, but I realize that I'm sort of the exception to the rule.) I wasn't there all year, so I can only vouch for their winter, but I've heard the weather doesn't vary too much.

4) The people
The people at the embassy were totally great, both the local staff and the American staff. But it wasn't just them that made Bolivia so great,  it was the Bolivians we met on a daily basis. They were always kind to us and patient with my terrible Spanish. I never once had anyone (from taxi driver on up) try to get more than a fair price out of me, even when they knew I was foreign and might not have known the difference. They are proud of their heritage and eager to share it with newcomers, but there wasn't any of that cultural superiority that I've gotten in a few other places where I've traveled. In short, Bolivians are awesome and that's a pretty big component of happiness anywhere, right?

5) Dieting without the diet
Everyone loses weight in La Paz. And the best part is, you don't even have to try. It's something about your body needing oxygen to metabolize food or blah, blah, blah science... doesn't really matter. The point is that it's a near certainty. While I don't want to encourage any body-image issues I will say that it was awfully nice to eat whatever I wanted, never exercise, and still effortlessly lose all those extra grad school pounds.

There are plenty of other perks that I thought worth mentioning too. Flowers bloom all year round. You can see an American film right after it comes out in the very awesome VIP theater (with giant recliners and full meals) for the same price as a regular ticket in the states. Life is cheap - especially food. There are tons of interesting restaurants and cafes to try out, from Japanese to German to Brazilian. The time zone lines up nicely with the US, so it isn't a pain to call home. In short, it was an excellent place to live and one I'd highly recommend.

The Cons
1) Heaters, or the lack thereof
Apparently Bolivians just don't do central heating, so neither do embassy people. This works out fine in the middle of the day when it's nice and warm, but at night and in the mornings I found it miserably cold. They do have radiators (and I think you get one per bedroom) which work great. But it would also be nice to have heat in other rooms (like the kitchen, the bathroom, the living room,etc.) Our living/dining room went basically unused and we carted the heavy radiator down to the kitchen so it wouldn't be 50 degrees in there while we were trying to make breakfast. Not a deal breaker, but I think 2 years without heat is a little unnecessary. (*Note: Most of the men in La Paz didn't mind this at all/enjoyed it immensely. It was more of a problem for the women I spoke with.)

2) The internet
Maybe it was just me, but I was surprised by the lack of easy internet access. It's entirely possible that real FSOs get help setting up real (and fast) internet connections, while interns are left to their own devices, and if so, it's entirely understandable. But our experience was terrible. It took several weeks to get ahold of an internet company and they quoted us a price of several hundred dollars a month for the slowest service. There are also the USB modems, but they worked badly if at all. It's not the end of the world to have bad internet, but it made it impossible for me to skype my parents for the entire ten weeks, or check my email at home, or download kindle books, or anything really, so in the end it was a major annoyance.

3) Roads
I'm sort of running out of things to complain about, but I will say that I found the roads mildly annoying. They are big fans of the speed bump in La Paz and that, combined with the narrow, twisting roads made for quite a few carsick moments. This isn't a huge deal though. 

4) The saltenas places all close at 11 am Think of the perfect lunch/snack food. Now picture you can never have it fresh at lunch/snack time. Yes. I'm really reaching now, but it is kind of annoying. 

5) Cooking... it's more difficult 
If you've ever tried to cook at altitude (say in Denver, at around 5,000 feet above sea level) then you can probably imagine that in La Paz - at 13,000 feet above sea level - baking can be a challenge. So much so that the best chef I met still hadn't figured out (after 2 years) how to make brownies happen. This makes boxed mixes basically useless, since you need to be able to adjust the quantities of things like baking soda (or whatever). So again, not a deal breaker, but worth considering if you're headed here in the future. Learn to cook a real cake and read up on high altitude baking and you should be fine. 

Ok, that's my two cents! Hopefully someone with more experience about schools and shipping and pets and all the rest can chime in on La Paz too.

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