05.01.09

La Paz Hustle

Posted in Bolivia at 11:25 pm by Jackson Lee

There is a feeling of liberation, found at dawn, when your feet step off a long distance bus and into a new chapter of travel. Behind you lies uncomfortable hours of blearing disco music, wedged sleeping positions, toiletless discomfort and the ceaseless turning motion which accompanies any journey through the almost unbreachable Andean mountains. Ahead lies freedom – freedom of choice – freedom of responsibility – freedom of who you think you are – glorious, fresh air heavy, travel freedom.

Bolivian Bus - Without Toilet - Which can be tough on 12+ hour rides on Bumpy Roads

Your feet guide you to the underbelly of the bus. The bus conductor, a figure of momentary power, hands out luggage like the anti-Santa. Paranoia chirps in, reminding you that theft, especially of gringos expensive looking luggage is common on buses in Latin America. The tension in your stomach unwinds as you catch sight of the only familiar object in this foreign place. Soon the weight of every item you possess rests securely on your back. Your mood lightens. Through a haze of grogginess, you vaguely recall what fellow backpackers and travel books have told you about this place – you set off.

The bus terminal is a unfriendly place. The sea of half stares and the alienness of the environment play with your sense of vulnerability. You are the stranger here: raised somewhere affluent and travelling with considerable thickness to your wallet. How many of them are thinking, “Why would that gringo worry about paying a tiny bit extra  (or taking a more scenic route) for a taxi ride or how bad would it really be if he lost his easily replaceable camera…. or gold-lined backpack for that matter”. And indeed, their logic is sound – but you come from a world of law and order where theft is never justified – unless you dress in green tights and are handy with a bow.

The sign above the station’s entrance cements what you already know. This is La Paz – capital city of Bolivia – center of South America. There is no one here to welcome you, but that is a small price to pay for freedom.

La Paz - Capital Of Bolivia

Your aching legs, now bearing a backpackers burden, guide you past the “taxi Amigo” crying voices of the fare seeking taximen and into the cold, darkened, streets beyond. Pausing in a small square your eyes are drawn to the blip of light of a descending plane heading gracefully towards Al Alto airport. Air travel, shunned by locals due to its cost is uncommon in Latin America while the continents rail network – visionlessly neglected and poorly developed by the Spanish and Portuguese during the birth of modern South America – has been further degraded by the governments of the 1980’s and 90’s. The end result: The bus, humble and uneconomic, has become the defacto form of transportation for the massive lower and middle class of South America.

View of the Canyon Which Cradles La Paz City

The plane descends out of sight, easing beyond the tsunami shaped walls of the canyon which cradles this city. Formed over more years than it takes to change a solar systems sized light bulb, the canyon was carved by the river Choqueyapu, and is the most defining geographically feature of the region – aside, perhaps, from the 6438 meter high, snow capped and monstrously proud, mount Illimani – guardian of La Paz.

La Paz City As Seen from Al Alto – With Mt Illimani In the Background

Approaching taximen prompt you back into motion and soon you are passing heavily dressed, Botero like, locals as they shield themselves from the extreme weather of an Andean night. The hand drawn map gripped in your freezing hand tells you its only a few blocks to the safety of the hostel. Its common knowledge that bus stations are notorious for robberies and scams – and therefore important to leave them as quickly as possible. But you chose to walk for the usual reasons: The hostel website, perhaps unwisely, indicated it is only a two minute walk from the station.

Indigenous Bolivian Women - Dressed In Cholita Clothing

The sky has become milky with the first attempts of morning to control the day. Everything moves with the slowness of beginning – a man limps past quietly – a bus backs tentatively – a station guard wonders aimlessly as he gazes into the glow of his mobile phone – and in the background the colours of morning creep faithfully into position.

Pausing to get your bearings, you gaze around at the street signs. One block from the station and the streets, as if cowboys were about to showdown, are almost deserted. Calmly, a man approaches and offers greetings – recognising you are a lost foreigner he takes the map from your hand and cheerfully offers to help. Your senses, blunted by the earliness of the morning and the recent rigours of the bus, scream quietly in your bad ear – this is dangerous! – but your feet guide you in the direction of the cheerful local.

“Frio, sí (Its cold isn’t it)?”, you mutter as you grab the map back.

“Sí Amigo, muy frio (yes my friend, its very cold)”, the guy replies. His face is untrustworthy, so generic looking it would be hard to place him at the scene of any crime. His friendly mannerisms seem forced. There are enough people and passing traffic around that there is no chance that this guy is going to pull a weapon and rob you.

Before these thoughts has moved onto more rational ones, another man jogs past. The street is steep and his movements uncoordinated. La Paz is high in the sky. Sitting in the Andes, it is the highest capital in the world – over ten neaty stacked Empire State buildings high into the sky. You wonder why the guy is running and vaguely notice something fall from his pocket. Seeing this, your friendly guide makes a small cry and reaches for the ground. Suddenly in his hand is a small plastic bag. Peering through the clear film, you see a large bundle of Bolivianos: the currency of Bolivia.

Nervously you look up the street but the runner has disappeared – momentum seems to be dragging you into something bad – your new BFF is holding a fist full of Bolivianos and gesturing at you enthusiastically. As if Gandolf himself has sent them: a flood of logical thoughts take the helm of your disorientated body. Your feet start moving and are soon carrying you away from the situation. Ignoring the scam artist’s desperate pleads, and not looking the fuck back, you cross the street and aim for the nearby intersection.  The air is thin and the backpack heavy enough to flatten a small child but before long you are out of sight, breathing ruggedly.

Steep Street During The Day

Luckily the hostel is only a two minute walk away…

Ten minutes later the sky has gained a friendlier tone of brightness and the city has taken another tentative steep to coming alive but you still haven’t found that damn hostel. Seeing no alternative, you make your way back up the same street. Before you have time to think to yourself how smart this idea is, another generic looking man materialises at your side and begins speaking in a friendly sounding voice. Before any emotion can rise to the surface and tell you how to overreact to this new threat, the same runner from the last scam attempt runs past – this time you see as the guys hands expertly forces the package “accidentally” from his pocket. As before, the runner continues up the street, rather impressively considering your difficulties, and your new conversation buddy is soon reaching for the bundle on the ground.

“Fuck (add dramatic pause here) Off”, rings loudly around the hills as you turn and head angrily down the street. Is it really possible that the same scam group had tried the same trick on me twice in the space of ten minutes? Was my aggressive reaction, for that matter, safe?

A few minute latter, you are sitting in the hostel sipping on a life reviving cup of Earl Grey and watching the morning pancakes bubble into solidness. One of the hostel staff has just told you that the fallen money scam is “going around” at the moment. Others have been fooled by the scam, which works out as follows: Having ‘found’ the bundle of money, the conversation then leads to what to do with it – which then, after a token comment to hand the money to the police, leads to the idea of the money being divided between you (often, without the victims agreement) – in the midst of this dividing the ‘runner’ suddenly returns and demands his money back – ultimately the runner threatens to call the police unless he is paid some reparation money.

While working though the unbearable parts of your education you daydreamed about traveling, and again, later in life, while saving for the trip you suffered as time slowed mercilessly during the afternoons and turned your work day into mini experiments into Einstein relativity. It is now, as the much searched for feeling of liberation is hounded by your sense of vulnerability, that the meaning of all this becomes clearer:  Bolivian buses suck.

Your feet guide you to the underbelly of the bus. The bus conductor, a figure of momentary power, hands out luggage like the anti-Santa. Paranoia chirps in, reminding you that theft, espically of gringos expensive looking luggage is common on buses in Latin America. The tension in your stomach unwinds as you catch sight of the only familiar object in this foreign place. Soon the weight of every item you possess rests securely on your back. Your mood lightens. Through a haze of groggyness, you vaguely recall what fellow backpackers and travelbooks have told you about this place – you set off.
The bus terminal is a unfriendly place. The sea of half stares and the alienness of the environment play with your sense of valuability. You are the stranger here: raised somewhere affluent and travelling with considerable thickness to your wallet. How many of them are thinking, “Why would that gringo worry about paying a tiny bit extra  (or taking a more scenic route) for a taxi ride or how bad would it really be if he lost his easierly replacable camera…. or gold-lined backpack for that matter”. And indeed, their logic is sound – but you come from a world of law and order where theft is never justified – unless you dress in green tights and are handy with a bow.
The sign above the station’s entrance cements what you already know. This is La Paz – capital city of Bolivia – center of South America. There is no one here to welcome you, but that is a small price to pay for freedom.
Your acking legs, now bearing a backpackers burden, guide you past the “taxi Amigo” crying voices of the fare seeking taximen and into the cold, darkened, streets beyond. Pausing in a small square your eyes are drawn to the blip of light of a descending plane heading gracefully towards Al Alto airport. Air travel, shunned by locals due to its cost is uncommon in Latin America while the continents rail network – visionlessly neglected and poorly developed by the Spanish and Portuguese during the birth of modern South America – has been further degraded by the continents governments of the 1980’s and 90’s. The end result: The bus, humble and uneconomic, has become the defacto form of transportation for the massive lower and middle class of South America.
The plane descends out of sight, easing beyond the tsumani shaped walls of the canyon which cradles this city. Formed over more years than it takes to change a solar systems sized lightbulb, the canyon was carved by the river Choqueyapu, and is the most defining geographicaly feature of the region – aside, perhaps, from the 6438 meter high, snow capped and monstrously proud, mount Illimani – guardian of La Paz.
Approaching taximen prompt you back into motion and soon you are passing heavily dressed, Botero like, locals as they sheild themselves from the extreme weather of an Andian night. The hand drawn map gripped in your freezing hand tells you its only a few blocks to the safety of the hostel. Its common knowledge that bus stations are notorious for robberies and scams – and therefore important to leave them as quickly as possible. But you chose to walk for the usual reasons: The hostel website, perhaps unwisely, indicated it is only a two minute walk from the station.
The sky has become milky with the first attempts of morning to control the day. Everything moves with the slownest of beginning – a man limps past quietly – a bus backs tentatively – a station guard wonders aimlessly as he gazes into the glow of his mobile phone – and in the background the colours of morning creep faithfully into position.
Pausing to get your bearings, you gaze around at the street signs. One block from the station and the streets, as if cowboys were about to showdown, are almost deserted. Calmly, a man approaches and offers greetings – recognising you are a lost foreigner he takes the map from your hand and cheerfully offers to help. Your senses, blunted by the earliness of the morning and the recent rigours of the bus, scream quietly in your bad ear – this is dangerous! – but your feet guide you in the direction of the cheerful local.
“Frio, sí (Its cold isn’t it)?”, you mutter as you grab the map back.
“Sí Amigo, muy frio (yes my friend, its very cold)”, the guy replies. His face is untrustworth, so generic looking it would be hard to place him at the scene of any crime. His friendly mannerisms seem forced. There are enough people and passing traffic around that there is no chance that this guy is going to pull a weapon and rob you.
Before these thoughts has moved onto more rational ones, another man jogs past. The street is steep and his movements uncoodinated. La Paz is high in the sky. Sitting in the Andes, it is the highest capital in the world – over ten neaty stacked Empire State buildings high into the sky. You wonder why the guy is running and vaguely notice something fall from his pocket. Seeing this, your friendly guide makes a small cry and reaches for the ground. Suddenly in his hand is a small plastic bag. Peering through the clear film, you see a large bundle of Bolivianos: the currency of Bolivia.
Nervouslessly you look up the street but the runner has disappeared – momentum seems to be dragging you into something bad – your new BFF is holding a fist full of Bolivianos and gesturing at you enthusiastically. As if Gandolf himself has sent them: a flood of logical thoughts take the helm of your disorientated body. Your feet start moving and are soon carrying you away from the situation. Ignoring the scam artist’s desperate pleads, and not looking the fuck back, you cross the street and aim for the nearby interesection.  The air is thin and the backpack heavy enough to flatten a small child but before long you are out of sight, breathing ruggedly.
Luckily the hostel is only a two minute walk away…
Ten minutes later the sky has gained a friendlier tone of brightness and the city has taken another tentative steep to coming alive but you still haven’t found that damn hostel. Seeing no alternative, you make your way back up the same street. Before you have time to think to yourself how smart this idea is, another generic looking man materialises at your side and begins speaking in a friendly sounding voice. Before any emotion can rise to the surface and tell you how to overreact to this new threat, the same runner from the last scam attempt runs past – this time you see as the guys hands expertly forces the package “accidentelly” from his pocket. As before, the runner continues up the street, rather impressively considering your difficulties, and your new conversation buddy is soon reaching for the bundle on the ground.
“Fuck (add dramatic pause here) Off”, rings loudly around the hills as you turn and head angryly down the street. Is it really possible that the same scam group had tried the same trick on me twice in the space of ten minutes? Was my aggressive reaction, for that matter, safe?
A few minute latter, you are sitting in the hostel sipping on a life reviving cup of Earl Grey and watching the morning pancakes bubble into solidness. One of the hostel staff has just told you that the fallen money scam is “going around” at the moment. Others have been fooled by the scam, which works out as follows: Having ‘found’ the bundle of money, the conversation then leads to what to do with it – which then, after a token comment to hand the money to the police, leads to the idea of the money being divided between you (often, without the victims agreement) – in the midst of this dividing the ‘runner’ suddenly returns and demands his money back – ultimately the runner threatens to call the police unless he is paid some reparation money.
While working though the unbearable parts of your education you daydreamed about traveling, and again, later in life, while saving for the trip you suffered as time slowed mercelessly during the afternoons and turned your work day into mini experiments into Einstein relativity. It is now, as the much searched for feeling of liberation is hounded by your sense of vulnerability, that the meaning of all this becomes clearer: experience.

2 Comments »

  1. Nana said,

    November 14, 2009 at 6:51 am

    Enjoyed this Bolivian section Jackson.mum tells me you are in Malaysia now with Fiona and have caught up with family in KL. Hope it is going well. I am OK david is in hospital again.Cheers
    nana

  2. Joline said,

    December 21, 2015 at 11:06 am

    she has made note Well, then she should also make note that it is plpoee’s constitutional rights to have freedom of religious beliefs, and that only recently pagans who have been brutally persecuted even when serving their country were finally honored, so that for the first time the Wiccan pentagram has been allowed to be placed on the tombstones of soldiers of pagan religious beliefs who gave their life defending the United States.Please keep up your interesting and romantic posts. Those of us who are artists, visionaries, individualists and romantics appreciate your creative voice as well as your clothes.

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