“No one seems to think it remarkable that somewhere above an ocean we are flying past a vast white candy-floss island that would have made a perfect seat for an angel or even God himself in a painting by Piero della Francesca. In the cabin, no one stands up to announce with requisite emphasis that if we look out the window, we will see that we are flying over a cloud, a matter that would have detained Leonardo and Poussin, Claude and Constable.”
Alain de Botton. The Art of Travel.
I’m getting good at flying these days.
After a calming trip from Cusco, cruising over Lake Titicaca and the Andes mountains, I arrived in La Paz uncertain of what to expect. Three days later, I remain genuinely disinterested in this city.
La Paz resembles Cusco from afar, a valley blanketed by pan-tile roofs and brick buildings, surrounded by green mountains. But as my taxi wound its way into the city, the differences emerged. Roads do not have lanes. Buses and bikes and people seem to flow along according to their own rules, honking as often and for as long as they’d like. As much as I liked to laugh about driving in Peru, Bolivia is another level of terrifying. Infrastructure is lacking and electric cables droop over the roads like sad tree branches.
The cab driver told me as we approached my hotel: “This is the touristy area of La Paz.” Stupefied, I scanned the streets for Western tourists or anything that would resemble a Kodak moment, without success.
After spending the rest of the day cuddled in bed with a book and a can of Pringles, I was determined to explore the city on foot the next morning, as I had done in so many other places. I woke up early to the sound of blaring horns outside my window and ventured out in search of something beautiful. The sidewalks are small and crowded with Aymara women selling fruit, recycled baby dolls, and peanuts. Trying to remain as discrete as the only blonde on the street can be, I took in the smells of the street food, cheap perfume stores, and thick black car exhaust.
Within a few minutes, I heard someone across the street whistling and shouting out a profanity-laced tirade about a white girl in accented English. “Damn, white girl! All alone?” I kept my head down, hoping it wasn’t about me… the only “white” girl around. I hesitantly glanced backwards to see a young man in a leather jacket rushing toward me. The cursing and whistling continued as he stepped into my path. He laughed as he told me his house was just down the street and that he’d take me there (I’ll spare you the rest). I spun around and quickly walked the opposite way. I could still hear his laughter and lewd comments about the “white girl” as he thankfully continued down the road. I rushed back to my hotel, heart pounding and tears welling in my eyes, wondering what I was doing in this foreign city all by myself.
I felt ashamed of my own fear and ashamed of being a small and easy target. I felt more alone in this crowded city than ever before in my time in South America.
After spending some time googling safety warnings for foreign travelers in Bolivia and consoling myself with a KitKat bar, I did step outside again. I took what ended up being a nice walk to the Plaza de San Francisco, where I met two friends from the States who kindly brought me a three week supply of granola bars. I saw the witch markets, took a requisite photo of the dried llama fetuses, and ate some strange red jello snack I bought on the street. But with that, my limited curiosity was quenched, and I returned to my hotel room for more telenovelas.
My experience in La Paz has generated a lot of self-directed questions: Is it ok to admit I don’t like a particular city? Am I being judgmental by concluding this based on one bad experience? Does that make me a small-minded traveler? And how does this affect my former confidence in being a solo female traveler?
I also wonder how my feelings for Lima would differ if I had suffered a similarly bad first impression there. And further, what exactly was it about Lima that made me love it so much? The misty coast? The long nights of dancing and the pisco sours? The students in Villa El Salvador? The incredible luck that I was joined with my roommates? I have to wonder what the magical combination is that leads us to fall in love with certain places and leave others unmoved. And I worry about whether this adoration can turn one place into a shimmering idol in our memories, outshining the rest.
Tonight I leave La Paz for a twelve-day journey through Bolivia, northern Chile, northern Argentina, and finally to Buenos Aires. I am grateful to be heading into the countryside and out of the city. Wifi-connection willing, I will try to post something from the road. Otherwise, prepare for a maelstrom of photos and stories at the end of the month.
A grumpy photographer’s shots of La Paz: