While abroad, even if speaking the local language, talking with denizens may be a difficult experience due to cultural differences. South America displays certain recurring peculiarities that – strange as they are – can be overcome simply by being aware of how language is used there. A useful example is the seasons. Most travelers – and probably most people in the world – look at seasons as being climate related. Rainy season, cold and hot seasons, an almost endless variety that depend on many physical variables. Thailand displays a three-season system. Singapore has only one due to its closeness to the equator. Terms like winter and summer may coincide with its solar definitions, but that would be just a lucky coincidence.
South America is different. Invariably, the solar calendar definitions rule there, despite how far from reality they are. One minute is autumn the next one is winter, even if it’s the hottest day in the history of the place. This is very surprising in a place ruled by the Hora Boliviana (Bolivian Hour). This term refers to the fact there is one hour allowance for every meeting in Bolivia. Don’t expect anybody to be on time or even to apologize for a delay of over one hour (once I was made to wait three hours; I’m still waiting for the "sorry…"). Since locals keep their watches ahead of time – but unsynchronized with each other – making punctual meetings is impossible. The problem cannot be solved easily. It has to do with the way locals analyze time. Some time ago I was talking with a local friend about an event in her far past and she told me in Spanish: "It’s too ahead, I don’t remember." The sentence doesn’t make sense in Spanish, but it’s perfect in Aymara. Simply, in the Andean cultures, the past is ahead of us, because we can see it, i.e. remember it. The future is backwards, because we don’t see it. The result of this worldview is that the future is never taken seriously. Don’t expect to meet people on time even if it was agreed several times (another local cultural point is that only things repeated three times are agreed upon). Yet, the timing of the seasons is holy. Spanish (most Bolivians are at least bilinguals speaking Spanish and another language that varies with location) is a language that inspires rigid thought patterns; that’s a result of several peculiarities I’ll mention in a future entry.
Bolivia is too close to the equator, and parts of it too high above the sea level, for solar seasons make any sense. If ignoring the solar calendar then the Andean High Plateau climate patterns vaguely resemble locations in the northern hemisphere. July and August are sunny and dry while January and February are rainy. This is a very useful rule of thumb, but it is worth remembering also a few other details; they are useful while traveling around.
From late December to March it is rainy, it can rain at all hours, but more often than not it happens during the night. In February, the rain will turn into hailstones. In the lower parts of the city, that seldom happens. In downtown the hailstones would be rather small. In the city upper parts and on the plateau, the hailstones can get surprisingly big, staying out is dangerous.
From April onwards, the weather gets gradually drier and colder. In July the temperatures go below the freezing point at night and during the mornings. Against intuition, this is not the best season for taking pictures. It’s dry, but the air is not clean due to dust brought by the plateau’s winds. The best for this are cloudy, non-rainy days during the rainy season; high altitude radiation also contributes to this limited range. During late July and early August, snow can be expected. The high peaks of the Andes would be white; snow in the populated areas is becoming scarce due to ongoing warming. During late August fierce winds reach the city from the Andean High Plateau; Chicago is not the only Windy City in the world.
September and October are the hottest months of the year; even then, temperatures barely cross the 20 Celsius at noon. From November, the temperatures drop again until the rain arrives in December. Such an unusual system doesn’t fit the solar calendar.
Many travelers like watching large screens at the airports showing CNN weather reports for almost every imaginable spot on Earth. It may be fun for a few minutes, but it is highly useless for destinations like La Paz. Local media reports three different temperatures for the city. Simply the city spans an altitude gap of 800m! Its lower parts are significantly hotter than the upper ones. Moreover, there are other unexpected effects related to extreme altitudes. For example, regardless the external temperature or the season of the year, the sun can cause sunburns after a short exposure. Stand under the sun and you’ll feel hot; move a few meters into the shade and you will feel cold in no time. After all, this is not only a linguistic alien world, but also a physically alien one; that transforms it into a must destination for us, travelers.