I'm in La Paz. Thin air and dirt cliffs. It's a crazy place to build a city. The airport runway is higher than Aoraki Mt Cook.

The wealthy live in the lower parts of town. The poorer have to walk uphill to get home. Slowly. Everyone moves slowly.

Red brick houses fill every usable nook of every valley. When it's clear you can see Andean mountains jutting into the sky.

In the touristy markets they sell aphrodisiacs and handicrafts. Wool scarves, key rings, and coca leaves.

Advertisement

A few stores stock dried llama fetuses; apparently they bring good luck. I'm not sure New Zealand customs would agree.

I reckon there are two good places to get a good sense of a foreign place: supermarkets are more interesting to me than most churches and museums, and I enjoy experiencing humanity's leveller - public transport.

There's an impressive, newish cable car system navigating the hills of La Paz, made by the same German company that makes the lifts on our ski fields.

The Bolivian President's grinning face is on the window of every car - he signed off on the cable cars and won't have anyone forget it. He also recently passed a constitutional amendment to give himself at least an extra term in office. Cynics abound.

Those who don't catch cable cars take collectivo vans to get home.

The plaza where the vans queue for customers is a moolymash of commerce and activity.

Old women set up little stalls with sacks of potato chips and peanuts. Students in smart school uniforms buy chocolate skewers and ice cream. Indigenous women in bowler hats and pink dresses swaddle chubby-cheeked babies in cloth, and sling them over their backs.

I was taken most of all by the shoe-shine guys. They're all over the city, but at rush hour they gather in the plazas up to three abreast. They have cardboard signs advising their colour range (brown or black).

Advertisement

And almost all of them are hidden beneath balaclavas and caps. Apparently it's a stigma thing. Discrimination.

Shoe shiners, or lustrabotas as they're called in Bolivia, are often dismissed as drug addicts and petty thieves. Many start shining shoes as teenagers.

At the feet of La Paz, the lowest point of the sky-high city, the lustrabotas wear balaclavas and caps because they're made to feel ashamed.

Travel so often reminds you the world is a really tough place.

• Jack Tame is on NewstalkZB Saturdays, 9-noon.