Mercado Lanza is an enormous, hulking block of concrete occupying an entire square block in the middle of La Paz. Its interior can best be described as maze-like – every few feet, the concrete path splits to form narrow ramps that zigzag off in various directions.
Like any good department store, there are places where certain products can be found. There’s a flower section, a weird old magazines section, a snack and drink section, a meat section, a cleaning supplies section. Vendors sell their wares from what look like mini-garages or tiny shipping containers (it goes with all that concrete, I guess?) and some ramps are crammed with them end-to-end while other ramps are deserted and sad-looking.
Unlike their American counterparts, who look to be unique and exploit their market differentiators as much as possible, these Bolivian vendors were intent on carrying products as similar to their neighbors as possible. Each stall was like a slightly rearranged copy of the one next to it.
Looking for a bit of lunch, we headed upstairs to the food vendors, where the smell and sound of food preparation seemed to be coming from.
Each stall was run by one or two women, with a narrow seating area and tiny kitchen inside. Much like the rest of the market, there wasn’t much to differentiate the stalls except for their signs – either a Coke or Pepsi logo and the owner’s name. Occasionally, someone looking to drum up business would dart out at us and yell something in Spanish repeatedly.
We avoided these stalls.
Ultimately, we ended up at the end of a ramp in one of the deserted looking ends of the market, with the hopes of finding a non-claustrophobic and non-confrontational person who could feed us. There, we found a stall with no sign at all, but instead had a fraying and weather-beaten menu for “Dona Gaby.”
We pointed at a few different options, only to be replied with exasperated sighs and confused Spanish from (what I assume was) “Dona Gaby.” Eventually, we settled on something I knew was chicken and would probably be ok. Who doesn’t like chicken?
After sitting down, we noticed “Dona Gaby” had disappeared. Did she go to get some supplies?
A few minutes later, another woman came by the stall and spooned some soup out of “Dona Gaby’s” pot into a plastic shopping bag and then left.
Did we just witness a soup theft?
Did we need to tell “Dona Gaby?!”
Should we have ordered the soup that’s so good that people want to steal it?
“Dona Gaby” came back with a plastic shopping bag of her own full of something a few minutes later. She didn’t seem bothered that her pot had been touched, so we just carried on being the dumb tourists we were. She stirred her pot some more and walked off again.
Not long after, a third woman came by a brought us giant plates of fried chicken, rice, and potato salad.
It became pretty apparent at this point that what we witnessed wasn’t a case of soup theft, but rather the inner workings of a giant collaborative restaurant. With such tiny kitchens, no one person could possibly offer the kind of menu that all their customers might want. The solution is to specialize in one thing and work with others to share the production as needed.
Even more than the language and the weird potatoes, this way of working seemed incredibly foreign to me. Sometimes it feels like my default mentality (and that of everyone around me) is to build structure into everything. Create a plan. Formalize a process. Do what’s expected and know what to expect from others.
But creating structure doesn’t ensure success. Otherwise, how would companies like Valve and Zappos stay in business? If you present people with problems to solve, or ways to show off their talents, they might just perform and do what they need to do to get the job done – whether you create those structures and hierarchies and bureaucracy and reporting structures or not.
Bolivia is something of a mystery, but not because it’s especially mysterious. Not a whole lot of news from the poorest corner of South America really filters up to us here in US, aside from the occasional WTF curiosity. So when I traveled there recently, I had a lot of questions. What could I expect from a two week jaunt through this relatively unexplored but supposedly remarkable place that (literally) exists on another plane?
I was glued to the window as we flew over Lake Titicaca, the highest commercially navigable lake in the world.*
Landing in La Paz was an unlike any experience I’ve ever had. At over 13,000 feet, El Alto International Airport is the highest international airport in the world* and the thin air makes landing a hair-raising experience that causes the plane and shudder and sway side to side for what feels like an eternity.
My freak out must have been audible. Not long after landing, a gentleman from Chicago introduced himself and we started discussing travel plans. He had received a research grant and was doing an extended tour of South America. He had just come from Peru where he had met a woman told him about Bolivian thieves who cut open her pockets in order to steal her iPhone. He then decided to recite all of the terrible things he had read about in the Lonely Planet, and looked to be having a serious attack of nerves. I tried to calm him down by telling him that the violent crime rate was relatively low by South American standards, but that didn’t seem to do much for him. Maybe if I showed him the Wikipedia page, he would’ve believed me.
Thankfully, I had thought to fill out our visa application forms ahead of time, which meant we were able to speed through immigration and leave our worried friend behind.
La Paz itself is a mind-boggling sight at first glance.
Imagine a city built within the Grand Canyon, with downtown at the bottom while the poor neighborhoods cling to the canyon walls. In a country of such high altitude, the most expensive real estate is where the oxygen is.
Walking the streets of a foreign country on the first day is inevitably one of unease and wariness, partly due to jet-lag and partly due to the sensory overload that comes from being in a place that’s unfamiliar. But I was especially hypersensitive now that my friend on the plane had given me a crash-course reminder on the “Dangers” section of the Lonely Planet.
As often happens, my fears were overblown. Instead of trying to slash my pockets, all La Pazians (La Pazites?) were too busy with their own concerns. In a city of 2.3 million people and not enough oxygen to go around, who has the energy to bother the tourists?
Documenting, researching, and seeking out information before jumping into something is vital. There’s nothing more valuable before embarking on an endeavor than simply making yourself mindful of all the things that could go wrong. But there’s diminishing returns after a certain point. If you’ve found yourself googling “what can kill you in bolivia” at 2am, you’re probably doing yourself more harm than good.
*Bolivia has a lot of things that are the “highest in the world.” In Juan de Recacoechea’s ridiculous crime novel American Visa (Down and Out in La Paz would’ve been a more appropriate title, IMHO), the main character calls this Bolivia’s national consolation: “It’s compensation for our frustrations.”