Monday, August 16, 2010

City Woes

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Nearly a week has passed since I rejoined the ranks of society who flip on light switches, go to the grocery store, and wash their hair without a second's thought. My initial instinct to reach for a candle and my headlamp has worn off, and my re-assimilation to semi-normal life is complete. I have found however, that although La Paz has relatively easy access to certain comforts like phones, food, and internet, life here is not without it's challenges. For instance, if at any point you happen to find yourself anywhere other than sitting outside soaking in the intense rays that pummel the earth at 3,300 meters, I can guarantee that you will be absolutely, positively, freezing. It's something of a Catch-22, though, because if you do decide to soak in said pummeling rays, you will be burnt to a crisp in little more than fifteen minutes (so that you may understand the gravity of this statement, I will digress to explain that having spent a large portion of my childhood cultivating melanin as I frolicked barely-clothed in the heat of the South Florida sunshine, sunburn is a more or less foreign concept to me. You can imagine my distress, then, when I realized yesterday morning that my scalp is now peeling. Gross.). Not to worry, though—you are unlikely to care about the sunburn because you will finally be able to feel your hands again and your lips will momentarily return to their fleshy pink hue from the semi-permanent deathly purplish tone they've taken on for the last several days. In an earlier post I mentioned that while staying at the Casa del Cafe I didn't have to spend any energy contemplating what I would wear because only one set of clothes was clean and dry each day. Here in La Paz I spend (if possible) even less energy picking out my daily attire because generally I am already wearing it when I get up in the morning (don't judge me). What is “it,” you ask? It, is precisely every article of clothing that I brought with me to this land of mountains and dust. Yes that is a picture of me wearing seven layers of Smartwool and a thick wool cardigan on top; yes I am still finger-numbingly freezing all day, every day despite all of these layers; and no I am not certain how this is remotely even possible. By the time I'm ready to go to sleep every night I've been so cold for so long that it takes me literally several hours to warm up, even though I'm wearing seven layers of smartwool, I've crawled inside my 35 degree down mummy sleeping bag, I've burritoed (yes, that is a verb) my sleeping-bagged self (and yes, that is an adjective) with one down comforter, and have pulled yet another down comforter over top of me. You can imagine how pleasant showering is under such conditions...which brings me to my next challenge of life in La Paz.

I spend a good portion of each shower here pondering which circumstances are most unpleasant: a cold shower in the 70 degree cool of early evening in Chijchipani, or a luke-warm shower in the balmy 40 degrees that is the inside of my house each morning. I reached a definitive answer today, when, five minutes into the hypothermia-inducing masochism that is my cleansing routine, the lights began to flicker and muffled popping noises fell upon my red, frozen ears. Odd, I thought, as pop! the lights tuckered out for good and in an instant, the electricity-heated cascade of water that I had been so desperately twisting and folding and tucking myself into suddenly turned bitterly, painfully, arctic. I let out a yelp of pain and frantically patted the wall for the faucet knob as soapy streams drained into my eyes. Fumbling in complete darkness to find a towel, I took the opportunity to revisit my daily bathtime ponderings; Yes. Definitely more unpleasant, I decided as my teeth started chattering behind what I've no doubt were purple lips. On tip-toes I hopped across the ice-cold floor to the door, where more darkness and the toxic smell of burning plastic were awaiting my senses on the other side. I nervously followed the ominous popping sound all the way to the kitchen where, much to my horror, the fuse box on the wall was angrily spitting tiny balls of fire onto the counter below {{insert your own preferred expletive here....I'm pretty sure I used them all}}. Dodging sparks, I raced to remove anything flammable from the area, wiped the ocular-destined suds from my forehead, and sprinted up the dark slippery stairs to the bedroom to grab my headlamp. I leaped back down the stairs two at a time and, light in hand, cautiously approached the fireworks so I could read the words that I knew were lightly penciled along two thin strips of yellowed masking tape. My eyes quickly found what they sought (baño) and with a loud snap I flipped the switch to “off.” Phew. Imminent danger subsided and I stepped back to assess the damage: wisps of corrosive black smoke slowly curled towards the ceiling and the fuse switches on the left-hand side of the box hung lower than the rest, looking dejected in their semi-melted state. Sigggghhh. Oh Bolivia...can't anything be easy here...? I snapped the rest of the switches to “off” just to be safe and turned my attention back to my present status: naked and wet in the dark, shivering with cold while perched high on tip-toes in a futile effort to avoid the frosty tile that lay beneath my feet. There also remained the unfortunate dilemma of the eye-stinging trails that slowly seeped down my face—unfortunate less because of the stinging and more because of the frigid encounter that therefore loomed imminently in my near future. Boo.
Jaime had already removed most of the damage by
the time I took this photo, but it gives an idea....

Outside the locked shutters of my first floor windows the day was bright; with (clean) icicles dangling from my scalp I eagerly sought the burn of the sun and decided I would go explore the bustling town and national park of Mallasa that I pass through each day on my way into the city. I had made plans earlier to meet a friend from school (also interning in Bolivia) later that afternoon in El Prado region downtown (that I had yet to visit), so I figured it would be a good combined trip. After a week of practice I now considered myself to be well-acquainted with the mini-bus system, which brings me to what is ironically both my least and most favorite challenge of this city: transportation. In Boston, I generally turn up my nose at the perfunctory regularity of the fantastically reliable, beautifully comprehensive T system that runs beneath our streets: too slow and too ordinary, I tell myself. I'd much rather be dodging cars, fighting raindrops, inhaling snowflakes, and soaking in the calm, glistening grace of the Charles as I pedal through life on Tonks, my trusty fire-engine red steel-framed touring beauty with shifters on the downtube. Here in Bolivia, on the other hand, there is nothing that is either perfunctory or reliable about the transportation “system” (if you can call it that) and surprisingly that is why I loathe it so. My commute time ranges anywhere from thirty-five minutes to two hours and thirty-five minutes, depending (as far as I can tell) on how many of the mini-bus drivers were out drinking the night before. Today being Sunday, I braced myself for a long wait and Bolivia did not disappoint. I walked over four miles up the road in the hour and a half that I waited for a mini-bus with an empty seat to appear. 
I was almost ready to throw in the towel when I heard the familiar low rumble of the strained engine and ancient exhaust system struggling over the hills in the landscape behind me. A glimmer of hope shot through my veins as I turned to face the approaching 1980s-era rickety conversion van and stuck my arm out. The engine sputtered and the tail pipe spit as it pulled to halt and a twenty-something male opened the sliding door to let me in. His greasy black hair was slicked back on his head and a sparse, dirty mustache donned his upper lip; he had the kind of snarky, sarcastic smile that made you not want to hesitate, ask questions, or in any way delay their travel. I climbed in and made my way to the closest empty seat as the driver peeled out into the dirt road, sending me lurching face-first towards the bench that I had been aiming for; the van bumped and bounced along underneath me and on wobbly legs I turned, sat, and took a gander at my surroundings. While the lack of dependability makes this system somewhat deplorable, its sheer absurdity has wholly won my affection. The word Sergio was inexplicably pasted across the rear view mirror in large, dripping green block lettering; tasseled trinkets adorned with Winnie the Pooh and Bart Simpson stickers hung from suction cups on the windshield; and tacky hand-embellished (three cheers for Elmer's and gold lace piping) Christmas ornaments depicting Jesus and Mary hung on bent paperclips stuck into the air vents and wrapped around the cigarette lighter. A matted-down blue carpet covered the entire top of the dashboard and faded blue tassels draped over the edge, swaying wildly back and forth with the movement of the vehicle. A plum-sized disco ball hung from the ceiling in between the two front seats, and skinny blue LED cable lighting ran from left to right across the ceiling behind it. Every time the driver pulled to the side of the road and turned on his hazards, the blue lights would blink and the disco ball would send scores of tiny blue confetti spinning around the aged interior. An impressive collection indeed. Though it makes it more difficult to get out, my preferred place to sit is in the back row because it gives me the best view to play my favorite travel game here in Bolivia: Count the People. Before coming here, I don't know that I had ever given much thought to how many humans you could fit inside a van that's only slightly larger than a VW hippie bus, but if I had done so I'm certain I would have underestimated. There are fifteen legit seats in most of these vans; so far my winning number of passengers is twenty-three (that's two rows of five, two rows of four, one row of three, and two standers). I'm certain it can be topped though; just yesterday a mini-bus whizzed by me with at least that many people inside and three more people on the roof.

As the familiar scenery of Mallasa approached, I yelled to the driver to stop and let me off. En la esquina voy a bajar! I stood up and rubbed the circulation back into my legs (my status as a giant here means that my knees are always jammed painfully into the seat in front of me) and asked Greasy McGee how much my fare was. I smiled as I correctly answered his subsequent question: ¿De dónde has venido? (where did you come from?). Carreras, I said, remembering my first mini-bus encounter in which I had answered Los Estados Unidos to the same question. I can only imagine the jokes that followed that day as the bus full of people drove away; given the question my answer was technically not wrong, but given the circumstances it was certainly not right. drove her all the way from the U.S., huh? What was the fare for THAT?!

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