The 8 of July 2015 was declared a national holiday in anticipation for the arrival of the Pope to La Paz, Bolivia. That about 80% of Bolivia’s population is Catholic, hospitals, schools and many businesses were closed so employees would have the opportunity of seeing the Papa, the Spanish word for Pope. Papa San Francisco was flying into to La Paz where he would spend four hours before leaving for Santa Cruz, the next city in his tour in South America. After arriving from Guayaquil, Ecuador it was planned that the Papa would be given a welcoming ceremony, later give a short sermon and then make his way down Avenida Mariscal Santa Cruz, a main street that runs through the city of La Paz. This is the same street that I would see the Papa for a whole three seconds after waiting for over 5 hours, just like many others surrounding me and pushing their way closer towards the street to have a better view.
Prior to the arrival of the Papa many billboards and posters strewn throughout the city greeted the Papa saying: Beinvenidos (welcome) Papa San Francisco, with a picture of the Papa smiling and waving beneath. The Papa himself is from Argentina, the first Pope that was elected from Latin America. As this was his first return trip to South America, and Bolivia one of three countries he would visit, the people of Bolivia were fervent for his appearance.
My roommate, Sara and I left our home stay after lunch and made our way down to the Plaza, ironically named Plaza San Francisco, where we waited among thousands of others for the arrival of the Papa. Shortly after leaving the house we became engrossed in swarms of people waiting for the Papa. People set out chairs claiming their space just like people in America might for Fourth of July parades. I have never been in such massive numbers before. No matter what side street we turned down or where we walked, there were people everywhere.
Many people were selling food, umbrellas Papa memorbelia such as flags and pins. I bought a pin with the Papa smiling on the front for one Boliviano, equivalent to about 15 cents. The Papa was supposed to arrive to the plaza around 4pm, but the sun began to set as we waited for the Papa in our little spot. The Papa was already 2 hours behind schedule. There was a news reporter not far from us saying the Papa was experiencing problems with the altitude. Many tourists before traveling to La Paz will read that the city is at an elevation of about 12,000 feet. When traveling to a high altitude such as La Paz many people experience symptoms as a result of altitude sickness. People around us began to wonder if we would even see the Papa because he only had one lung which would only seem to exacerbate the effects of the altitude, before he had to disembark to his next stop, Santa Cruz a city at much lower elevation in Bolivia.
My legs were killing me, we had left our homestay at about 2pm and now the sun was setting. I’m not sure how other people’s legs felt standing on cement for hours, but I was amazed by people’s desire to see the Papa. Little children, elderly women, people with casts or in wheelchairs all waited. Despite individual’s physical state it seemed all of La Paz, all 1 million inhabitants had flocked to this very street to see the Papa. When seven o’clock rolled around we heard word that the Papa was feeling better and he was making his way down Avienda and would be passing by shortly.
When the Papa drove by he was standing in the back of the car with a big oval shaped glass structure encompassing him (referred to as the popemobile). He smiled. He waved. Just like the posters we saw in town. We saw the Papa for about three seconds before he zoomed by. People were cheering, some crying. Many people holding electronic devices up trying to record the moment in which he would pass. People were joyful but also slightly surprised how quickly he passed.
The following day at work and classes, the only question that seemed to be asked was, “Did you see the Papa?” People talked about how crowded it was, how quickly it all happened, more interestingly was how people started calling him the “the Pope of the Poor.” How he had touched the head of women’s child and healed the infant. How the Papa promoted this and talked about that in his sermon, particularly about the “steps” Bolivia had taken to include the poor in the political and economic life of the country.