Frenetic La Paz

“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:

A creature

A plaza

A dreamer

A message

An alley

A llama

A witch’s shop

16 comments

  1. Pingback: Super Sweet Blogging Nomination | wanderbug

  2. Meghan, I really enjoyed your refreshingly honest post and that you weren’t afraid to write something negative – I think it is easy to fall so in love with travel and feel so grateful and feel pressured to remain open minded, that sometimes we try and see a place through rose-coloured glasses, when the truth is less beautiful. I would rather read this, than read guides in Lonely Planet portraying cities like Monterrey as a party hub and a fun metropolis, when I know for a fact (from friends that live there), that it is in fact incredibly dangerous for tourists and locals alike. Thank you for being trustworthy and not skipping over the uncomfortable parts in favour of pimping out the town to naive travellers.

    It is funny, I had an awful experience in my favourite city in the world, Paris, on New Years Eve 2011 ( or technically as it was after midnight, the first day of 2012!). It was terrifying, I felt vulnerable, scared and on the verge of a panic attack as I found that unlike (generally) in Australia, I was not safe in a crowd. Even since then, I’ve had anxiety issues when standing in crowds even at home at a peaceful concert, etc. However, I think I had already fallen in love with Paris, and instead associated the experience with being a petite, fair skinned-blonde out at night in a chaotic environment, or even just out at night in general.

    I’ve actually had a few creepy and near-miss experiences in Paris, but thankfully for me, Paris’ beauty and special moments outweigh the uncomfortable. Had that been my only night in Paris, I think I might have felt differently. I’ve since studied there and am going back again soon – and am just very cautious. And I avoid travelling alone after dark!
    It’s funny the way an experience affects our overall evaluation based on its context – one scary night in a context of two amazing weeks didn’t bother me too much, but if I hadn’t liked the city as much I’d probably hate Paris. I’m sorry to hear you had a rough time in La Paz, but thank you again for your honesty in sharing it!

    Genevieve

  3. I know you posted this back in November but I just discovered your blog this morning and have been reading through all your archives in between work.

    This post could have been written about me and Oaxaca. Honestly. And I felt the exact same way about it as you do about La Paz. I had an awful experience in Oaxaca city with a local guy and it completely ruined by image of that city. Even further in the week I was enjoying my time and had made lots of friends but, still, even now when people mention Oaxaca to me I get this negative image in my mind.

  4. Great writing and great photos! I’m definitely a fan!

    I think unpleasant situations like the one you mention with the rude man can happen almost anywhere, even a place that you love and where you feel most at home. It’s unfortunate that it can ruin a day.. or even an experience of a place, but I think eventually you just have to look at the beautiful things about a city, even if there are few. And still, it’s ok to not like a place… just like travelers to the US may not like your hometown, etc. It happens. 🙂

    • Thanks Christina!

      And you’re right, this kind of thing can happen anywhere. It just happened to take place within my first ten minutes exploring a new city, by myself, when I was already feeling quite vulnerable based on my surroundings. Sadly it was not an isolated incident either; several other people I’ve met within the past few days have had cases of theft, or being followed with the intention of being stolen from.

      It’s sad that this is the impression with which I’m leaving La Paz, but my mind is still very much open to the rest of this beautiful country’s offerings. I expect to have much happier stories to share shortly!

  5. The skinny llama makes me want to cry. And the message is just the universe winking, I promise.

    I completely understand and empathize with your guilt over not liking certain places as a traveler. Being honest with yourself, with your loved ones and with your readers is part of what makes you a reliable traveler whose adventures so many of us so avidly follow. Enjoy the salt plains and know that this little wanderer wishes she were traveling with you.

    • I was afraid to ask how they … acquired… all of those dry llama fetuses.

      And I’m glad you appreciate the honesty. I was hesitant to express exactly how I felt in La Paz for fear of offending someone (not sure how many of my readers hail from La Paz, exactly), but they were questions that were too big to ignore.

      There is still time to meet me in Uyuni, little wanderer!

  6. melissakoski

    I love the honesty in knowing how you felt spending time in certain places. Interesting questions about what makes us love a city.

    The llama photo was great. You can never see enough dried up llama. (: What’s the colorful backdrop behind the llama?

    • Thanks so much Melissa, I’m glad it was well-received! I’ve been thinking about these types of questions a lot since leaving Lima. I don’t have the answers yet, but I guess that’s the reason I’m continuing to travel.

      Poor little guy. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure exactly what the background is. I think they are either magnets or decks of playing cards? They sell such a bizarre collection of things in La Paz, I couldn’t tell what was what most of the time!

  7. I’m sorry to hear your experience thus far in Bolivia was less than stellar. I trust you will find a better reception once you reach Argentina.

    By the way, if you do nothing else while you’re in B.A., I would definitely recommend La Boca. Take a noseplug or something (it’s on the water, and the smell from the fishing boats can be overpowering), but it’s a photographer’s dream destination. The colors are fantastic! Also, if you’re a fan of arts and crafts, there’s more than you can shake a stick at there. They have (at least they used to – it’s been a while since I was there) the most amazing handmade puppets…

    • Thanks Anglophile. I am already feeling better now that I am in Potosi. Just another example of the fact that I am not a city gal.

      And thank you so much for the recommendation! I will have to check that out. I’ll be there for nearly two weeks, so I will have plenty of time to explore.

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