Saturday, January 07, 2012

La Paz, Bolivia, Dec. 2011

My problem with auto safety-glass isn't that one is bound to be killed, even in the event of a minor crash-- to be expected-- the problem I have with the plain glass is that one is shredded in the going back an forth through the window. This image occurred to me as I looked out the bus window at oft times beautiful scenery as we rode through the Andes south from Puno, Peru to Copacabana, Bolivia, winding up and down the road in the bus, the tan-brown mountains with almost uniform flat tops on one side and on the other, under the lovely sunlight, the clear blue Lake Titicaca. Looking at this loveliness my mind turned to our bus crashing, perhaps from a blown tire or the driver having an attack of weirdness, hurtling us all into a deep canyon, my self turned to raw manburger in the jolt and the landing. I have to die someday, and since my travels don't add up to a vacation I travel without expectations of comfort or happiness from my experiences. I expect to be in pain much of the time, if only slightly, and that it will be a large part of my journey's process. I assume sickness and injury and possibly death. This is what I take to be a good life – for me.

I took a first thing in the morning bus from Puno to Copacabana just across the border in Bolivia. I get nervous crossing borders because the guards always pick up on my edginess that to them rings “criminal” bells. In my way I have lived a hard life, and because I have lived it among thugs and maniacs, some of it sticks to me, an odour, as it were, of toughness like one finds in prisoners. Border guards sense it, and they are in a position to prevent me from entering their nations. I get nervous. So, I booked a ticket to the first border crossing I could, just in case I couldn't enter at all and would have to return to Peru. At the border a Columbian and his girlfriend were stopped and interrogated for an hour. Our driver honked and rolled a few feet and honked again. We all sat nervously, wondering if he and his friend would be released. Indeed they were. They returned a bit embarrassed by all the fuss. I got through just fine, being, essentially, a pretty normal guy with no criminal record at all. Normal middle-aged guy going to Bolivian in a chicken bus.

I don't fret over a bit of discomfort if it's a matter of a short haul. Being jostled over dirt roads and pot holes in a cramped chicken bus is OK with me if that's what the situation is. In this case, I made the mistake of not booking the bus myself but let the hotel do it for me. In the rush to get out the door and on the bus I forgot my change for the ticket. Instead of $5.00 it cost me $6.00. I roll with it. On the bus we bumped and ground and I looked out the window at the beautiful brown Andes, so unlike the black and grey Rockies I love so much. I thought about death and mutilation as we rode on to the border of Bolivia, land of a moronic socialist acolyte of a lunatic South American dictator dying of cancer in a nearby nation. Business as usual circa 1965.

Entering South America's poorest country was simple and fast, costing me nothing, unlike the American passport holders who are required, because America is an imperialist running dog nation even with our current president high-fiving said dying dictator, to pay a pretty hefty $135.00 visa fee. Funny thing, though, I didn't meet any Americans at all doing that. Those who crossed all have second passports. It's the nature of our game. So I got my exit stamps and my entry stamps, and I entered Bolivia with a smile on my face.

I had decided the rational thing to do when I arrived in Bolivia was to go straight to a bank and withdraw money locally so as to save the transaction fees of cashing in Peruvian money. I landed at the border with 20 Peruvian sols, which I cashed in for 50 Bolivian bolivianos. That would be enough for lunch and whatever I might need till I got to a bank machine at Copacabana. Upon arrival, finding the ATM was too easy. I already had a room set up and my pack stowed safely, so things looked good right up till I finally conceded that the machine was out of order. I had 50 local bucks. My room would cost 40. I went for coffee to wait for the tourist information office to open so I could get some details officially about the ATM malfunction. The town had run out of energy, said the locals, and there was no electricity. It might come back on by 4 or 5 p.m., depending. I talked to the hotel owner, who was convinced that my bank card, not being Visa, would not work even if the power came back. I sat out in the sun at a competitor's hotel and blew 10 b.s on coffee while I waited for the Tourist Information Office to open from the lunch break. Then I sat on a log for an hour more waiting still for Godot. When the official did show up I was confronted with a thug slouching his way to grinning, drooling imbecility. That things had turned to cosmic justice just for me, I had to make up my mind about abandoning the village of Copacabana and risking the perils of the big city with no money. If La Paz were on strike again, if protesters were stoning buses at road blockades again, if there was no electricity in La Paz, which is quite easy to believe, then things would look poorly for our humble traveller here. I stared into space like a pure genius and then took out a ten dollar bill in Canadian money, the kind of bill no one would take for anything. I walked back up the hill to the main tourist trap section and entered a money exchange, unbelievably getting another 40 bolivianos, far less than I should have had but a wind-fall for me. I hopped the first 15 b. chicken bus to La Paz and considered my lilies in their field. Off to La Paz.

I was one of the few non-Aymara speakers on the bus, the rest being mostly females chattering away in the local native dialect. The empty seat beside me fell to the floor as we hit a large pot hole. I put it back, sat on it, and looked out the glass window, thinking of death again.

We arrived at a ferry landing, and when we got off the bus to take a motor boat while the bus was ferried alone, I found I had to pay a fee for that little boat, throwing me into cheapskate confusion. Uh. I paid. We got across just fine, and I still had money in my pocket, though I decided not to buy food till I arrived in La Paz in case other emergencies arose. I snapped couple of photos of blood-thirsty statuary showing how the brave Bolivians had bayoneted an enemy in the throat during the war the Bolivians lost, becoming a land-locked nation in the process. I looked around at mud and adobe places partly built, and I waited for our bus to cross. Strangely, it had come across while I was watching the wrong ferry. I noticed out ladies boarding on a far side street. I went over and got on too. Then we waited. We waited for a lady who did not come. The passengers grew angry at the driver and demanded we continue. This went on till he reluctantly drove a few feet, stopped, honked repeatedly, and drove a few more feet, the majority of passengers soon becoming so irate he did leave the lady behind. She had no friends, I assume. I might be wrong.

And so it went, driving along the lake side and then into the dun landscape till clouds covered us at dusk, blackening the view, and the rain came, furthering the gloom of the journey. We reached the mountain top dwellings of La Paz in a fog, which at first I thought were rain clouds but soon discovered were clouds of diesel smoke mixed with simple fog. Rain came on like a monsoon, my pack resting somewhere on the rooftop under a tarp. We bounced around tiny streets, up and down and up and down, La Paz being in the depths of a valley but one with hills dotting the whole. The streets in the outlying area, if paved rather than mud, were stone. We slid and slipped and meandered up and down in the dark in traffic that is worse than many parts of Africa. This is a bad thing. Then, I know not where, we stopped, and I had to greet the rain in a city I know nothing much of and knew not where I had landed. I looked around on the way up and down the hills into La Paz for signs of hostels, ubiquitous elsewhere, and saw not a one. As always now I walked with supreme confidence, my leg dragging slightly from a permanent limp, hauling my pack up and down streets in the dark and the rain looking for somewhere to lie down, not having slept at all the previous night, still wide awake. Not hostels, and no one knew of any, they being locals who have no reason to know, no reason to want a stranger with no home to go to among them. I finally flagged down a taxi, telling him I needed a cheap room for the night. He told me he knew of none, and off he went into dark rainy gloom. I said to myself, “Huh?” Then I walked farther on till another taxi came and took me across town to some place else. He dropped me in a knot of traffic, telling me there were three places in a row across the street and why couldn't I see them? Ten bolivianos for this. I took my pack and went across the street to what were, in fact, places to “sleep.” What had I been thinking?

I demanded of the first place that the clerk show me the room he wanted 30 b.s for. As I figured, it had a mattress on a metal bunk fastened to the wall, and a paper sheet that might have come from a doctor's office examining room. I spent a bit of time looking at the room because it was my chance to see the life of a Bolivian prostitute's work environment first hand. I have little sympathy for those Modernists who claim they themselves are poor. Of course, I am a fascist. There's no need to imagine the room scene, and less reason to describe it. It's a life most will never need to encounter and most of us would rather not recall having seen it once. It takes my mind from thoughts of death and brings me to consider the living. I left in search of a bed for my own self, alone. The next two places were as bad.

Finally, I stumbled across a fancy looking entrance that I hoped I could afford.

I rang the bell and was met by a friendly geezer who let me into the courtyard and took me to the office where he told me there were no rooms available. I sat and wondered that over, wondering why he would invite me in to tell me there were no vacancies, thinking that he would find one, but at a premium price if I waited long enough. Yes, indeed, and it cost me all of half of what I was paying in Peru. It took every boliviano I had, and I was thankful to escape the Dantesque scenes outside. La Paz in the night with rain is hellish for the first time visitor arriving broke with a wet backpack.

Daytime, well, it's not that much better.

After a terrible night's sleep, the air being so thin that I suck it in to the point my mouth dries so badly my lips and tongue stick to my teeth, forcing me to gulp down a glass of water, in turn waking me an hour later to use the bathroom, and not to mention the broken springs in the thing that passes for a mattress, I got up before dawn and went out in search of life, finding plentiful evidence of the storm I had arrived in, broken tree limbs and trash everywhere. The sun rose and showed a city climbing the mountains that surround and that are La Paz. If one likes science fiction scenes, this is it. I returned to my hotel, and had breakfast, resigned to staying here for a while to explore, to find out exactly I have no idea what. I saw a poverty-stricken city enshrouded in fog and gloom. So I set out on foot to see more.

Down, down, down one of the hills in what passes for the centre of the city I found a huge building with no sign, though I took it to be a church. To one side I saw uniformed guards at a small alcove entrance, and having no reason to move on, I went in to see what valuable thing lay inside, it being the tomb of a fallen hero of the lost war. Winners move on. Bolivia is stuck with making this issue the biggest thing in the nation's history. I looked at broken tree limbs and rubbish. Going into a small opening in a block otherwise boarded up I saw a crest of some official kind, and I took a picture of it, not only because it says much about the nation's values, but because it had come loose from its moorings on the wall and hung at such an angle that even normal people would normally be driven to straighten it. It hung at two o'clock, by my reckoning, though I am not a mathematician at all. Badly, shall we say. I walked further, my mission-- to see.

I got some cash from an ATM, no problem, and stopped for food that I could hardly eat, it being fine. Then the rain came again. I dashed across the street and up three levels of a market that offered me hardly any view of the city at all. There are more high-rise buildings here than I saw in all of southern Peru. I assume earthquakes are less frequent here, but that seems unlikely. I am at a loss to grasp it. I looked around, looked down and saw that some fool had spray-painted a slogan of sort on a road side: “End hunger.”

I had just walked up three levels of a market in La Paz where at least 100 stalls were given to selling food. I saw mounds of food going into cook pots and pans so fast as the owners could work, men and women and children eating food that looks to me as good as any one could ever hope for. At least a hundred stalls over three levels, and that was the cooked food, not the raw. One market, not mentioning the stores and street vendors. There is food galore, all thanks to Modernity's push to create a better world through individual initiative, ie., making a profit. There was so much food that the look of it was making me ill. And yet, this is a poor country, even by my own low standards. It lacks democracy, for one thing, though I have seen far, far worse.

Here, poverty or no, people still go shopping for Christmas, still dress up in their finest, still live life to the fullest. As much as my first impressions of the city are negative, I see that I might see more and come to like some of it.

Most people in most countries (though not all) live lives of happy belonging. I wouldn't want to live here. But there are worse places than La Paz. I'm OK.


Michael Crosby said...

Dag, that's some great writing. Boy did I love your post. Raw, real, and I feel I got to feel it a bit just after you.

Thanks so much Dag.

Dag said...

Terrible internet connection here, Michael. Will post a lot when I can. Much writing done but not able to post.

Glad you like this much at least.