Love La Paz

Tuesday 2/1/11, 0:05am
La Paz, Bolivia

I’m feeling love tonight.

La Paz, you don’t have to do anything to impress me. Oh, the first time I saw you, (last night), as I dreamily gazed out the rain-streaked front window of my double-decker overnight bus, when your orange glow touched me from a hundred kilometers away. I knew this was going to be good.

Hurdling towards you in the night over endless dark flats, I was not prepared for my first real breath-stealing glimpse of you. Looking from above, a million points of light revealing your lovely contours and valley walls, you are more impressive to me than Rio’s largest favelas by night – you’re something special. Massive.

Upon arriving at the bus station, I navigated through leagues of campesinos and their little rascals peering from under blue tarps, and caught a taxi to my couch-surfer’s, whom I got hooked-up with only the day before via Trey, my awesome host in Cochabamba. Zooming through her lustrous streets, which were already stirring at 5:30am, I questioned my excitement for this grey urban landscape, staring fish-eyed up at the high-rise buildings. The driver asked me which building, and I replied El Carmen (all the big buildings have names here, like Casa Diana and Edificio Esmeralda.) Twelfth floor, amazing apartment, my host Etsuko, a Japanese doctor, let me in and invited me to make myself at home, and we both opted for more rest in lieu of socializing before our busy days in the big city.

I have business to take care of here, and so far it’s been all too convenient, as Etsuko’s location is prime. I finally got to eat my first salteñas here in Bolivia, the typical stuffed-pastry available on nearly every corner during breakfast time, as perhaps the only vegetarian salteña joint in Bolivia is just downstairs.

I then walked in the rain up to a nearby mirador (lookout), as it’s all hills here, found a dozen smiling dancing Bolivians in traditional clothes shooting a music video, and I surveyed the Sopocachi neighborhood. Absolutely stunning. The way La Paz sits in a valley, an extremely steep valley, with it’s walls developed up to the rim, just about every aspect of it miraculously clinging despite gravity, it seemingly defies reason. Perfectly unreasonable.

Next I went to the ATM to withdraw some money. The machine spit out 3,000 Bolivianos in hundreds, which are hard to break on the street. Despite twenty people sitting in the waiting area of the bank, my ticket number came up immediately, I proceeded to window 3, and the teller changed half of it into 10s and 20s, painstakingly counting the bills into 15 neat stacks. For some reason, I felt so VIP.

Next I went for a coffee at Alexander’s Cafe/Pub, to read up on La Paz, further my game-plan, and buy my tickets to Lollapalooza on the Wifi. I’m planning to rendezvous with Trey in Chile this April for the concert, and he somehow convinced me to spend 3x the ticket price for VIP passes. I was wavering, but in the end that’s what I did. (His well-timed SMS re-iterated how “so worth it” it is.) Extra-nice was running-into an Ecuadorian friend from last Friday night in Cochabamba, who re-iterated what a freakin’ wild night it was. Him and his girl helped me figure out where stuff was, like the Paraguayan Embassy, which is actually that cool onion-dome building I kept looking at from my window this morning, right on the corner.

Minor epiphany: For a big city, it feels perfectly the right size. There’s about a million people here, and relative to where I’ve been the last 3 months, that’s big. But it feels like just the right size. Not infinite and intimidating, and definitely not too small. The only main road runs right through the middle of the valley (yes, the one Etsuko lives on), and from there in either perpendicular directions the hills climb high, the perspective at any time more extreme than anywhere in San Francisco. And supposedly, all the action happens in the hills! With so much here, and all within reach, it feels damn good. I’m still definitely city, but I’m shrinking :)

Next I went to the embassy, but it was closed, as all embassies are the first time you visit. Backstory: I decided to go to Paraguay in two-weeks for their Carnivale – which I heard is exceptionally wild but considerably smaller than it’s Brazilian and Bolivian neighbors – as I can’t legally stay here long enough to attend the Bolivian one next month due to my 3-month visa limit. I’m considering, however, if Paraguay turns out to be too tricky or expensive (one source said I needed to pay another $165 for the visa!), I just might not leave Bolivia, as folks sometimes tend to do, and pay the fine of $3/day for over-staying. (Much cheaper, as most things tend to be here!)

A few days ago in Cochabamba, I dragged my reluctant friend to the edge of town, following a lead in the 2007 Lonely Planet (serves me right) to a vegetarian Chinese restaurant. It no longer exists, like much antiquated information in the Lonely Planet for Bolivia, as well as, a great but sometimes hit-or-miss resource for veg. listings worldwide. Today, yes one block from my apartment, I found my $3 veggie Chinese fix at Chifa New Hong Kong, an amazing meal I swear to repeat, but fear may thwart other opportunities. My ridiculous MSG grin persisted like Viagra.

I set-off walking towards another populated part of town, to find the real La Paz, as I was obviously living in wonderland. (Etsuko’s place is quite upmarket.) I walked by San Pedro Prison, “the world’s most unique jail” (will report if I can actually get in), and up some crazy streets, snapping photos like my iPhone is going out of style. (Read: my Canon is still trashed & f’d, but Oh yeah!, I dropped it off two blocks from my apt. to maybe get fixed, and yup, it’s the only service center in La Paz.) Thank you Etsuko!

I walked mad far, making my way down the most colorful and crowded side streets – the city only gets prettier. This one area had all these supremely cool-looking dilapidated buildings, with open doors, portals into costume shops. These places combine carnival kitsch with more authentic spookiness than I’ve ever seen Halloween achieve. (Homemade foam masks put my own creepy DIY costuming to shame.) Walking down dark alleys through shut-down markets, with their cobblestone streets washed clean for the night, I somehow felt extremely secure. Sometimes energy just feels so right, and you know there is nothing to fear.

Which leads me home, limping a bit as one of my feet has a minor infection from some nasty bug bites I got in Santa Cruz, aka mosquito central, hopefully not dengue-central! (Etsuko recommended a really good skin specialist a block away, heehee.) Upon arriving home, during my maiden conversation with Dr. E, I got two extremely sweet text messages from friends in Samaipata and Cochabamba, responding (I think) to my most recent blog posts about Bolivia. One said I’m so beautiful, and the other said she likes it a lot what I write on my blog about her country, “Gracias.”

Really now, what’s not to like!?

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