28 May, 2015 | Emily Cashen
Here in La Paz, fortune telling is big business. Steeped in the city's history and rich in Aymara culture, this practice is revered by superstitious locals, many of whom would choose a consultation with a Shaman over a trip to the doctor. But to find the spiritual spots frequented by native paceños, you have to look much further than the tourist traps of the Mercado de Brujas.
My desire to take a small glimpse into my future first leads me deep into the depths of El Alto. After a nerve-racking hour of hurtling through the satellite city's narrow streets in a cramped rush-hour minibus, I arrive at my destination.
Sitting a mere 10 meters from the side of a busy road lies a strip of makeshift stalls. A chaotic tapestry of tarpaulin and floral fabric covers this mystical market. Behind the blue plastic entrance of the first stall, I meet a smiling Aymara woman who agrees to read my fortune through the medium of coca leaves. I am surrounded by an atmosphere of unspoken secrets and potential futures that infiltrate the muggy mid-morning air as I sit on a wooden stall in front of my chosen fortune teller. Then, the ritual begins.
Murmuring Aymara mantras, the woman splashes pure alcohol onto the table that separates us, followed by a handful of coca leaves. The fortune teller then asks me what aspect of my future is concerning me most, with another bunch of leaves in her hand. Unsure of whether to fully unleash my quarter-life crisis on this unsuspecting woman, I play it safe with some quintessential twenty-something woes. For each of my questions, a coca leaf is thrown onto the table and its position is carefully studied before my fortune is delivered with great sincerity and solemnity. Half an hour later, I emerge from the tarpaulin shelter 40 bolivianos poorer, but supposedly spiritually richer.
For my next venture into the fortune-telling realm, I find myself a little closer to home. Tucked away in a quiet corner of Sopocachi, lives Doña Juana, a flame-haired Argentinian woman whose gift lies in reading Tarot cards. The air is heavily fragranced with incense and a family of identical Siamese cats slink nonchalantly around the room as my fortune reading is carefully prepared. Two evenly divided stacks of cards sit in front of me. One pile contains cards displaying images of multicoloured crystals and gems. The other, simple designs infused with Christian imagery. My first task is to choose the cards that appeal to me the most, which I take my time in doing, trying not to feel self-conscious about my subconscious.
Examining my chosen cards, Juana begins my reading and leaves no stone unturned. From finance to fertility, the cards seem to be especially talkative today. Throughout this stream of tarot-fuelled inspiration, Juana pauses only to write a mantra for me to alleviate worry and anxiety. Perhaps this is her way of telling me that I'm not French enough to pull off this many existential crises.