July 9, 2013
The taxis slip past slower trucks on a forty-percent downhill grade with no room to spare. On either side in the night are graffitied walls, some just tagged, some political, like “Vive Chavez,” clearly written after his death. The buildings, whether new or crumbling and empty, have no sense of being built to last or to provide a pleasant view—just concrete and brick, untended, unloved except perhaps by those who sign every wall. Jacky and I are in one taxi, Thalia and Karen in the other, both overladen with our three bags each (a huge suitcase, a carry-on, and a backpack). It’s after ten at night but once we reach downtown the streets are full of people shopping, waiting, talking, gesticulating. This is La Paz.
In the morning my headache—from altitude sickness and lack of food—is elephantine. I’ve been dreaming about wandering through a world of massive blocks of stone. I take some pills and chocolate before breakfast. That and the coca-leaf tea help a little, but not much. A mass of elderly Bolivians in their campesino dress are lined up around the block—I can’t tell what for. We and our load get in taxis again. People dressed as zebras direct traffic around the pedestrians at the zebra crossings. And then we zoom up to El Alto, a million people on a plateau four thousand meters above sea level.
From up here, La Paz looks like a dream, sprawling over valleys under watchful snow-capped peaks. And when we take off El Alto comes clear with its rudimentary tin-roofed blocks. The flight to Sucre passes over ridges as jagged as any I’ve seen. Practically nobody lives in Bolivia—only ten million people in a country the size of Spain and France combined. We see very few habitations from up here.
René, a warm, kind Belgian hotelier (a retired school principal) and our de facto landlord, shows us our new home in the very center of this breathtakingly lovely town. It’s picturesque, each wall painted a dull orange or yellow or green; the tables and chairs are simple, all dark wood. Tiled floors, skylights on the third floor, a small garden with rose bushes cut almost all the way back to their roots, and not enough furniture: no garbage cans, for example. The Internet code we received is a “mismatch” with the router; not having Internet makes us feel helpless and lost. But René is a dear, if somewhat helpless when it comes to an issue like this.
We see some of Sucre mostly in the company of an American who married here and comes back for a few weeks every year. The owner of the fanciest hotel in town shows off his masterpiece, a Spanish colonial mansion upgraded with jacuzzis and views. The mercado central has a whole section devoted only to bananas. And everyone is out on the white-walled streets, the narrow sidewalks hard to navigate, the noise hard to shout over.
The kids are so tired they go to bed early. Karen worries about the success of the trip. We’re all frustrated by the lack of connectivity; Karen fears that this land is simply too poor, too foreign. She’s in culture shock. But I have a different fear: that being so obviously gringo, living so close to the main tourist spots, we’ll remain isolated from the Bolivian people, perpetual tourists on too long a jaunt.