The flight, with all its stopovers had taken me 48 hours and my bowels were complaining loudly. A couple I’d met on the last leg of the flight had recommended a hostal in the centre of town and I was relieved not to have to make a choice. The taxi took me directly there and I struggled through check in with my poor Spanish, then asked where the bathroom was, not even noticing the cosy courtyard or caring which was my room. Stepping inside, though, I was horrified to see that there was neither soap nor paper. I’d have to hold on a little longer.
It was already getting late, but I trusted that the supermarket would still be open and went for a walk. I’d been too embarrassed to ask where to find one, so I had to explore. After only a couple of minutes, I realised that a supermarket was a concept only valid in developed countries and there wouldn’t be a large sign pointing to the nearest K-Mart. I’d have to find a general store that sold basic items. I began my hunt in ever widening circles around the hostal and was soon lost in the mass of shops selling bridal gowns, car parts, fancy dress, computers, cakes, mobile phones, magazines and internet access – all advertised with posters of buxom women in bikinis. I still don’t understand why these items should be easier to find than soap and toilet paper. It took me half an hour to find a small market with a man selling what I needed to avoid an explosion. Thankfully, the toilet was free when I got back to the hostal and Cochabamba is still whole.
I returned to the courtyard with a relieved smile and found a couple chatting. I’m never comfortable meeting new people, but these two were very friendly and ready for the additional company. Sandra was Dutch and had been living in La Paz for a couple of years doing research for her political science research. Traverse was an American adventure leader taking a break from work in the Andes to study Spanish. I spent much of the week with them, which wasn’t the best thing for my Spanish as they could both ask a question and decipher the answer before I had looked the first word up in the dictionary.
Traverse took me to the bigger markets, where and we bought plenty of local clothes made from alpaca wool in a variety of vibrant colours. Unfortunately, we pushed the sellers away once we’d bought what we needed, thinking that they were trying to sell us more. It turned out that they were offering to sew buttons onto the sleeves which were otherwise left to hang open at the cuffs.
We wandered down streets hundreds of metres long and selling nothing but bananas, or entirely comprising kitchen pot stalls. I can’t imagine how many bananas go bad before they get sold in such an environment.
The most bizarre sight was the shop selling power tools and lingerie. Perhaps they’ve hit on a fast money scheme by preying on men too shy to buy lace for their wives and girlfriends. If they can walk out of the store carrying a new chainsaw, then everyone’s happy.