FOREWORD: I have very few photos of beautiful La Paz to accompany this update, but I’ve scheduled a photo shoot with the city when I return in about a week.
Twenty-seven kilometers outside La Paz the bustle begins. This slow unfolding of business and stare on the outskirts of the 2,364,235 person metropolis is calm compared to the city center. But compared to the flatness of the rural plains between Peru and the Bolivian capital, where several families had taken me into their adobe farm homes, this urban sprawl seemed like the screaming cradle of civilization. It was a welcome contrast. When entering La Paz an overwhelming happiness filled me despite my tired legs that couldn’t seem to get enough oxygen. Everything was new, the chalkboard menus that faced the street were scribbled with unknown foods, the buses were painted differently, even the cars drove with a careless abandon I had not seen in other South American countries. Socialist propaganda and graffiti were openly displayed, but less so than in Venezuela. I felt moment in time, a part of history, probably because I had heard so much about this area of the world and was finally seeing it for myself. Still, I was confused about where the city actually began. My bike computer’s kilometers clicked toward an estimated ground zero, but nothing around me looked like the photos I’d seen of homes stacked atop each other on the mountainside. I was in El Alto, a neighborhood overlooking the “toilet bowl”—as my friend who biked South America Matt Cunningham said—, at the pampa’s edge where it suddenly drops into the city below.
I had not yet dropped off. I was too busy fixing a chain link that snapped atop a pedestrian bridge in a busy market district. Make-shift tents fixed shoe soles and copied keys; fruits and vegetables were stacked neatly inside wicker baskets. Dodgy types lingered. It was the worst place this failure could have happened in the last 200 kilometers. Propping my bike and trailer against the curb, I sized up the situation. I didn’t want to open my bag, spread tools across the sidewalk, and make repairs surrounded by hundreds of pedestrians, any one of which could easily sprint off with my valuables. Thieves blipped on my instinct radar, and I was echoing sonar on theirs. A police officer later confirmed this in his own unique way. As I decided what to do—either repair on the bridge or coast to a safer place—the green uniformed man approached me. By-passing the normal courtesies of ‘good afternoon’ and introductory ‘hellos’ he asked with semi-intimidating authority, “How much is that bike worth?” I mumbled generalities about old used parts and faulty chains thinking he wanted to confiscate my bike. He walked off though to blow his whistle at cars, ignoring me completely. By this time a small crowd had gathered around me. Another police officer, this time in civilian clothing, became interested in my situation. Following an initial hello, he said I chose a very bad place to fix a bike. I recycled laughter inward like a no bubble scuba regulator. I didn’t believe his police story at first and kept my valuables tucked inside my water-proof bag. Eventually he won my trust with his child-like questions about the United States, his genuine interest in every tool I pulled from my mystery bag. As I picked spare parts from the gutter and linked the chain with greasy hands, he watched my belongings with an exaggerated concern that I exaggeratedly appreciated given the situation.
With repairs completed, both officers returned to say good-bye. They recommended I take the highway to the city center, but to be careful because “the cars will not respect you as they pass at 100 kmph.” This turned out to be true as gravity pushed me down the 10 kilometers of winding downhill curves blotched with potholes, uneven cement slabs, and cars that changed lanes without looking. At one point a car forced me to one-finger salute its rearview as it nearly ran me into the shoulder’s concrete ravine. I don’t think it saw me either time. It was a memorable yet scary descent into La Paz. When I arrived to the main square that smelled of historic importance, Plaza Murillo, a young couple photographed my bike and I, welcoming me to their city with a flash.
In Copacabana I had contacted Cristian Conitzer for a place to stay. Bike enthusiast Cristian offers long-distance bikers a free place to stay in his home, which is part of a network of South American Casa de Ciclistas, just one of two in Bolivia. Little did I know when I sent that first mail that my living situation would be a work exchange in a second floor cafe/restaurant with a balcony overlooking the historic district popular with international travelers. I shared a backroom with a 60-something indigenous woman who proudly wears her native dress—even when she traveled from South America to Canada by land as a representative for a community textile cooperative. In exchange for the prime location, wifi, and free accommodation I managed the cafe when Cristian and his wife were away. Besides daily runs to the open air market to haggle with indigenous women over vegetable prices, I met people from all over the world, heard a Babel’s Tower languages, perfected my cappuccino skills, and learned the restaurant business can be extremely profitable if done right. Still, the dirty dishes and need to constantly watch over the establishment also taught me that restaurant ownership is not in my immediate future. There are easier ways to put money in the bank.
During my downtime in the cafe I spread my Bolivian map across the table and traced travel routes with my finger. I soon realized seeing everything is not possible on the bike. Five years could easily be spent exploring South American back roads—I’ve met several cyclists doing just that. In my case, I estimated it would take an additional 40 days to complete a circuit around Bolivia’s southern deserts then up through the steamy western jungles to the Brazilian border. This loop would cut out the famous Death Road just east of La Paz, a scenic byway that has increasingly fascinated me once I learned it was possible to descend with a fully-loaded bike. Deleting the world’s most interesting (and statistically dangerous) road from my tour was not an option. In the end, I decided to take a bus then train to the world’s largest salt flat, camp on an oasis in the middle, test my camera’s depth perception on the blinding white infinity, then visit the mining-town of Potosi whose mountains of silver were hollowed by European powers before returning to La Paz to continue by bike. A very loose estimate puts me at the Brazilian border around April 15th, though past experience tells me I should stop altogether with even abstract deadlines: I haven’t kept to schedule once this trip. South America is that beautiful.
La Paz is a city that surprises in every way. Among other things, I attended an international theater festival, a downhill mountain bike race in the surrounding mountains, started and ended every day with a fresh fruit smoothie (US $.60 each), went to a folk music bar that serves coca leaves with its drinks, tried to erase months of rice and chewy meat memories from my palate with a barrage of ethnic foods, and strolled a witchcraft market where dried llama fetuses are believed to bring good/back luck—depending on how they’re used. One interesting thing I noticed was all the shoeshine boys cover their faces with ski masks. Full-on bank-robbing ski masks. I saw this strange practice when my bike chain broke in El Alto. Among the people gathered to watch the foreigner fix his bike was a motley crew of masked boys with shoe polish canisters and little wooden benches. I had no idea this ski mask thing was the norm. Though not afraid, I did find it funny that a little piece of bent metal was going to get me robbed by a bunch of kids in broad daylight. A few days later I asked the smoothie woman why the ‘lustrabotas‘—shoeshine boys in Spanish—always covered their faces. She said they were ashamed to work in such lowly positions and don’t want people to know their identity. I found this extremely sad, especially since I had since had conversations with a few of these kids. All over La Paz they’re bright, curious, respectful, and hardworking. They constantly practice their English with foreigners, not as a pretext for money, just for the pure sake of learning.
I’ll be back in La Paz in about a week to pick up my bike, eat sushi, and visit friends. Expect another post soon.