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South America 2003: La Paz, Bolivia

Dangerous Days in La Paz


View South America 2003 on GregW's travel map.

There is a scene in The Princess Bride where the grandfather (the dude who plays Columbo) tells the sick little boy (the kid from the Wonder Years) "she doesn't die right here." This was something that was going through my head during my time in La Paz. I was thinking of writing my update, and perhaps people being worried, and saying to them "I don't die right here." So if you get too worried, remember that I don't die anywhere during this story.

La Paz, Bolivia is a city of 1.5 million people built into a chasm in the antiplano at 3600 meters (12,000 feet) above sea level. Flying into La Paz you land in El Alto, a city that lies on the plains (and thus has flat spots for planes to land) about 400m above the core of La Paz. A 30 minute winding route down the canyon's sides takes you into the heart of the city. The city stretches up the canyon walls, and from the base of the canyon, city rises away from you in all directions. One traveller described it as looking like the city were trying to escape the creator it is in. To me, it looked like someone took a flat city map and placed it on a rough surface and said, "this is where your buildings will be. If you need a 12 story building here on this 45 degree incline, so be it!"

La Paz is also much more "South American" than anyone of the cities in Argentina or Chile had been. Argentina and Chile had been very Spanish influenced (B.A. and Santiago) or very German/Nordic influenced (Patagonia). La Paz is all crocked and narrow cobblestone streets filled with native South Americans with booths selling anything from fruit and drinks to craft goods to CDs (no doubt not illegally burnt...).

And now you know as much about La Paz as I do, because during my 5 days there I could only manage about 4 hours when I wasn't lying in my bed wishing I were dead. I had figured that I would arrive in La Paz, take 2 days to get used to the altitude and be ready to move on to Machu Pichu. Instead, La Paz and the 12,000ft altitude took their toll on me. I suffered greatly from altitude sickness. I had no energy, my appetite disappeared, I had splitting headaches and weird semi-wake delusions (like I had two heads, or I was part of a group of 7 people trying to pull some weird scam). I arrived on Monday night, and by Wednesday night it was obvious to me that I wasn't getting better. In fact, I was getting worse. I had developed a dry cough. I had tried to eat, but my mouth would not produce saliva. I would consciously tell my body to do something (like sit up), and it would ignore me. I would require half an hour of prodding to actually do anything.

So I made one of the most heartbreaking decisions of my life. On Thursday morning I was going to force myself out of bed, to the bus station and onto a bus for the lower altitudes of Chile. I would have to skip Machu Pichu for this trip. Obviously the next time I came back I would take a slower overland route with a couple days built in at a lower altitude for acclimatization. I went to bed (early as usual) on Wednesday night to the sound of fireworks, no doubt the Bolivian people celebrating my remarkably sound decision (not bad for a guy with two heads).

Thursday morning I awoke to a very different sounding day than the previous ones. There was no traffic or people noise. In fact, there were those fireworks again. Why would people be lighting off fireworks in daylight? BAM! That was no firework. That sounded like cannon fire. I got dressed and made my way to the lobby. A couple of frantic backpackers were trying to find a way out of La Paz, the TV was playing pictures of crowds of people running through white smoke and buildings burning. "What’s going on?" I ask

"Everything," replies one of the backpackers. "They've got tanks out there."

The violence in La Paz began Wednesday night when 7,000 striking police officers and civilian protesters clashed with government troops over a new tax plan. The protesters left a dozen government buildings in flames after picking them clean, tossing chairs, papers and radios out of windows and walking off with computers. They shouted slogans calling for the president to step down: "Resign or die, those are your options!" As sirens wailed, bands of looters ran through central La Paz, where tanks and 400 heavily armed soldiers were deployed near the presidential palace. Over the two days, 22 people were killed, including at least nine police officers, and 102 were injured. (Facts from CNN.com - link at bottom of chapter).

All this was happening 4 or 5 blocks from my hotel. The buses and planes were all not running. Turns out that I was trapped in foreign country during a revolution. "This," I thought "is the perfect time to call the Canadian Consulate and see what advice they can provide." They were closed due to the unrest. Now, it would seem to me that the very day that you want your consulate to be open would be on the day of unrest in the country. So I was truly stuck in the hotel.

Around 3 o'clock things seemed to quiet down (at least in La Paz. In other cities the rioting continued). I ventured out to find some water and food. Most stores were still closed, but a few were open and I was able to buy some peaches and 4 liters of water. Walking back to my hotel it was interesting to watch the people of La Paz on the streets. Some young boys were playing soccer on a street that was normally bustling with traffic, groups of people were having casual discussions on street corners, a young couple walked by my hand in hand. Less than 3 hours ago armed combatants had been running down these streets, and now people used them so casually.

That was the most amazing thing about the whole "siege" incident was how incredibly boring and un-scary it was. There was nothing to do but wait, so you waited. There was nothing you could do, so you didn't worry. And now that it was over, the people of La Paz got back at living their lives. Maybe the Bolivians are more practiced at it, but I wonder what Toronto would be like 4 hours after tanks were called in to crush an armed rebellion.

Thursday night was up in the air as to if hostilities would restart, so I lay in bed waiting for the sounds of gunfire. Early in the evening I heard much chanting and some light gunfire, but then it started to rain, and the night grew very quiet. An interesting point on the whole rebellion thing is that Wednesday (the night it started) was the only afternoon that was didn't have rain. Most afternoons (certainly the ones I was there) it rains for a couple of hours. I could imagine protestors getting themselves riled up in the early afternoon drinking their Mate de Coca (coca leaf tea), only to have their rebellious fires extinguished by the afternoon cold rain. Wednesday, with no rain to make the lure of hearth and home more appealing, all hell broke loose. Pray for rain.

Friday arrived with no signs of further violence, so I forced myself (coughing and staggering) to the bus terminal to get myself passage out of La Paz and to lower ground. The earliest bus I could catch would be 7 the next morning (Saturday). The thought of getting up at 6 am was beyond belief when I couldn't even walk to the bathroom without a 2 hour windup pep talk, but for a chance to get down to a lower altitude, I was willing to try anything.

My alarm went off at 6 on Saturday and I went through my checklist of things to do:
- sit up
- turn off alarm
- put alarm in back pack
- put on pants (I wore my underwear, socks and t-shirt to bed to aid in the dressing process)
- put on sweater
- put on jacket
- put on backpack
- leave room
- descend 3 flights of stairs
- pay for room
- leave hotel and hail cab
- get on bus

Somehow I managed to do it all. I was so happy, I quickly drifted off to sleep. The bus left La Paz and rumbled along until we reached the border point. A few stamps and I had left Bolivia (and it's dizzying altitudes and armed rebels) and re-entered Chile (with it's white sand beaches and lack of armed rebels).

And this is where you find me now, Arica, Chile. Population around 200,000 people with lots of great beaches. And so ends what I hope will be the most dramatic and harrowing of my updates. In fact, if all goes according to plan, my final update will say simply "spent 5 days in Arica, 5 days in Santiago. Saw some pretty girls."

Oh, and one final funny note from my high altitude adventures. I have been carrying my shampoo and soap in a water tight container so they won't spill out all over my clothes. I sealed the container in La Paz, and when I went to open it today in Arica (altitude 0m above sea level), I couldn't get it open. The air pressure inside the container was much lower than the outside pressure, and it was keeping it shut. I had to dig out my knife and pry the container open to get at my soap and shampoo. There's a lesson in physics for you!

The La Paz situation: CNN

A shortened version of this blog was posted on the Pilot Guides website under the title Fracas in La Paz.

Posted by GregW 16.02.2003 17:31 Archived in Bolivia

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