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viernes 27 de diciembre

Destino: Bolivia Modo: Avión, Taxi y Pies Distancia: 620 kilómetros

Cusco, Perú a La Paz, Bolivia At 4:30, I was up and walking toward the public bathroom outside. The showers were located off of the Don Sebas courtyard which was soaked with morning rain. (We had reached a gentleman’s agreement not to use our pungent private bath.) After a quick spray, I finished packing my mochila with last night’s purchases. Dirk was up next followed by Andy who, although already packed, was pushing the envelope for our 6:00 check-out. We hailed a cab outside on a dark Cusco side street and were driven directly to the airport. The taxista did not do much talking, but the orange, bobbing-head plastic tiger on his fuzzy dashboard kept the three of us under its spell for the ten-minute trip across town. Upon arrival at Aeropuerto Velasco Astete, Andy and Dirk went to check on their flight that was scheduled to leave at 7:30. I went alone to the Faucett counter only to find out that, for no apparent reason, there would be no flights that day to Juliaca. My second option was to fly Aero Continente east to Juliaca for forty-one dollars later in the day. That flight, I would soon learn, had been booked solid for weeks. I was in dire straits standing in the Cusco terminal with vanishing departure options. I was tempted to run to the nearby train station and try to secure a lastsecond ticket east to Pisac. After checking their bags, Andy and Dirk walked up to me and I explained my travel dilemma. Dirk glanced over at the AeroPeru counter and said, “You mentioned that you wanted to visit La Paz. Why don’t you just take the next AeroPeru flight to La Paz and try to get back to Buenos Aires from there? At least you would be moving in the right direction” Good point. I knew that we had brought Dirk along for a 170

reason other than his ability to exploit legal loopholes: a skill that would be in great demand in the minefield of Mexico City business and politics. I went to the counter and found out that there were seats remaining. Due to the poor weather conditions, the plane would definitely not be leaving on time. In fact, the 7:00 departure was now looking more like an 11:00 takeoff according to the gate agent. With ticket in hand, I joined Andy and Dirk in the second-floor airport restaurant for a quick desayuno continental. This sit-down breakfast gave us a good chance to make some tentative plans for the coming weeks. Tops on the social agenda was meeting up with Dirk and other friends in Buenos Aires for New Year’s Eve. Andy, meanwhile, would be spending the holiday somewhere in Ecuador. After landing in Lima, he would change planes for Guayaquil (border tensions between the two nations ruled out a bus crossing) and travel toward Quito. Back downstairs, we walked single-file to the gate area where we sat down and met an interesting couple from Buenos Aires. They were also flying to La Paz. Coincidentally, the couple, Ernesto and María, lived in Palermo approximately five blocks from my adopted Argentine residence. We talked until it was time for Andy and Dirk to board their flight to Lima. After a round of good-byes, the gringo and the mexicano strolled casually onto the Cusco tarmac in what was an unforgettable sight. Andy walking next to Dirk the Daring, who was decked out in his new full-length alpaca poncho that turned several heads en route to the boarding stairway. It was tough seeing my two partners in Peruvian crime (Hey, it was only a train ticket!) take leave of me. But alas, all good things must come to an end and Andy’s and my South American odyssey was no exception to that old rule. Still, as one chapter closed, another was about to begin entitled “My Trip Home to Buenos Aires.” Fortunately, Ernesto and María were there with good stories and familiar porteño accents to put me in a B.A. State of Mind. I spoke at length with them about their experience abroad after Ernesto’s exile from Argentina in 1976. During that year, General Videla came to presidential power and Perón’s second wife, Isabel, was deposed by the military on March 24. The military regime remained in 171

power until 1983. It was a dark seven-year period during which thousands of suspected subversives were kidnapped, tortured and executed by the ruling militares. The notorious Dirty War remains a bitter chapter in the complex history of Argentina. It is a tragedy that is unlikely to be repeated thanks to growing political stability and awareness efforts by relatives of the estimated ten to twenty thousand desaparecidos. After three long years in France and another fifteen in Venezuela, Ernesto and his family had returned home to Argentina in 1994. They still seemed unsettled by the current state of affairs in their mother country. Today, however, they explained that their concerns were more economic than political. Time slipped up on us and before long, it was time to board AeroPeru flight number 615 to La Paz. On board, the plane was practically empty. By my count, only fifteen of the 727’s one-hundred fifty seats were occupied by paying passengers. In fact, one of the stewardesses actually sat in the row behind me during takeoff for a good window view of Cusco below. The flight lasted an hour, and I thoroughly enjoyed another one of those gourmet AeroPeru in-flight meals. The vitamin-C enriched cherry caramelo rivaled the lemon-flavored feast that we had tasted flying north from Arequipa. Once the 727 had cleared the eastern bank of Lake Titicaca, I knew that we were getting close to La Paz. Gray Skies Over La Paz Our approach to El Alto International Airport was cloudy and turbulent, and touchdown came around 12:00 Bolivia time. Upon disembarking, I just sort of followed the flow of human traffic, as travelers are apt to do when arriving On Approach to El Alto in a strange airport. Moreover, I was in a strange airport on the outskirts of an unfamiliar Andean metropolis in the heart of a country that I had only read about in history books, newspapers and magazines. I proceeded to the baggage claim area, picked up my mochila, and walked outside, listening for ride offers and hoping for a cheap seat to downtown La Paz, some twenty kilometers away from El Alto. 172

For no logical reason, other than not wanting to stand on the airport curb looking like a lost six-foot puppy any longer, I ran toward a micro that was preparing to leave. Unlike airport shuttles in the States that have Hampton Inn or Dollar Rent-A-Car emblazoned on the side, the only distinctive marking on this vessel was the word “Daihatsu.” In reality, several of the letters had fallen off the wagon, so I was actually flagging down a “Da ha.” Upon boarding, I asked “Vas al Centro?” and the young kid in the passenger seat only said, “Sí, vamos.” He grabbed my bag and threw it on top of the van. Once we were rolling, I realized that the only thing keeping my mochila safely on the roof was a metal bar that rose three inches off of the surface. While bag storage had room for improvement, I could not complain about the price. A ride to La Paz only cost three bolivianos. I only had U.S. currency so I had to pay with greenbacks. The kid gave me twenty-two bolivianos change for a fivedollar bill, which seemed fair enough to me. Without handheld access to bloomberg.com’s currency converter, I would just have to wing it. I now had no map, no city guide and absolutely no idea where the Da ha was going ( ¿Adónde va el Da ha? ), other than away from the airport. The view on the ride into town was most impressive. As many people had told me, the City of La Paz suddenly appears about ten kilometers into the ride from the Airport. The brick and adobe structures spread out over an enormous jagged, semicircular valley and hillside. The architecture is diverse, ranging from slum dwellings high on the hillside to modern hotels and skyscrapers in the downtown business district below. When the van got into what appeared to be the heart of the city, I asked the gentleman next to me if we were close to Avenida Sagárnaga. It was one of the only names that I remembered seeing in the travel guide the night before. (The guide was Andy’s and he had taken it with him north to Ecuador. Furthermore, finding Bolivian travel guides in Bolivia was a tall order.) The gentleman quickly leaned up and passed along my question to the driver, who replied that we had just passed Sagárnaga. At the next intersection, he pulled over and let me out of the Da ha. I grabbed my mochila which, by some gravitational miracle, had remained on top of the rollicking van and started walking. After getting situated with my gear firmly on my back, I backtracked three blocks to Sagárnaga. 173


A left turn on my avenue of choice presented a hike that I had not anticipated: a three block stretch straight up a narrow cobblestone street. With twenty pounds of outdoor stuff strapped to my back, I was able to get a complete cardiovascular workout without even hitting the gym. The street was lined with señoras selling beautiful handmade mantas, chaquetas and other items which were even more colorful than the ones that I had seen and purchased in Cusco. Some overdue holiday shopping would be in order before departure. Moments later, I was standing on the red shag carpet in the lobby of the Sagárnaga and made my way to the front desk. The clerk was friendly and told me that I could get a room with two twin beds for only fourteen dollars. Anxious to shake my pack and get a good shower, I said “Bueno” and grabbed the six-inch wooden totem pole key ring to room #117 on the second floor. I was pleased with my room and, especially, the sweet view that I had of Avenida Sagárnaga in front of the hotel. Fortunately for me, the view would only improve after sunset.

La Paz: Life At 11,000 Feet

Hillside Dwellings

Avenida Sagárnaga

El Prado District

After unpacking a few things and getting situated, I was ready for a shower. It was already mid-afternoon and there were only a few guests in the hotel, so I did not have to wait for a vacancy in one of the two empty closet showers located just outside my hotel door. After a change of clothes, I was ready for a self-guided tour of La Paz. While I wanted to take my time and enjoy my first visit to Bolivia, I had to be realistic. If my checking account balance were a fuel gauge, I would be flirting with the left side of the “E” hoping to wring a few more miles out of the tanque. Funds were dangerously low, and I needed to get back to Buenos Aires before New Year’s Eve and my flight home to the States on New Year’s Day. Also, Dirk was going to be in town, and I had already made plans for ringing in the New Year with the firm of Francisco, Mária and Associates. 174

In order to start the planning process for the leg home, I stepped into Dinatur, a small travel agency adjacent to the hotel’s main lobby. Inside, I was greeted by a sweet Bolivian girl named Monica. I explained to her that I wanted to take a bus from La Paz back home to Buenos Aires. Much to my delight, she said that such bus service was available along the Pan American Highway. I have always enjoyed bus trips in South America, and I figured that a long bus ride would be the best way to see southern Bolivia and historic regions of Northern Argentina like Salta and Tucumán. Monica said that there was only one company that made the international road trip. She was not certain of the day or time of departure and asked me to come back around closing time at 20:00. By then, she could give me the full itinerary for the trip home. Pleased that the travel wheels had been set in motion, the next item on the agenda was laundry. Much to Monica’s displeasure, I had carried a small bag of ripe trail garments with me into her travel agency. I walked across the street to a small laundromat with a yellow and blue LAVERAP sign in the window. The owner assured me that, despite the condition of my trail duds, today’s high-tech cleaning technology would return my clothes to their original scent and whiteness. As time was now a factor, I asked if I could pick them up later in the day. “No,” he replied, explaining that the clothes would not be washed at that store, but rather at the LAVERAP Superstore a mile away. I explained that I was leaving town and really needed the clothes the next morning, and he wrote “pick-up before noon” on the ticket. He also gave me the address of the LAVERAP next to the bus terminal that would be doing the washing and drying. With JVC in hand, I was ready to roam the streets of La Paz and get some Bolivian film footage. I wandered through downtown and was surprised by the number of modern high-rises in the bustling business district. Side trips to the pharmacy for some Bazooka gum, the locutorio for a long-distance phone call and un banco boliviano for a quick currency exchange were all successful. And although I was enjoying the novelty of traveling alone, I really missed having a sounding board for making plans and voicing random observations. After all, the best part about the journey up to this point had been the Room With A View 175

opportunity to share the adventure with friends. Kerouac had hit the road with Dean Moriarty, and el Che’s biker buddy was Dr. Alberto. Being alone in La Paz, I felt sort of “out of the loop.” I knew at that moment my trail compañeros were hanging out together in Lima International waiting for the next leg of their respective trips: Andy due north to the U.S. and Dirk due south to Buenos Aires. I decided to combat the early evening solitude with some light grub in the Sagárnaga’s hotel coffee shop. The ruby red shag extended the length of the lobby, behind a glass partition and into a small one-room café with seven tables and a full bar. There were only two other patrons in the entire restaurant, and the bartender was handling everything from mixing drinks to taking orders to cooking and washing the dishes. Another sandwich de pollo and a frosty cerveza set me back several bolivianos, but when the bill came, I was too tired to calculate the exchange rate. For all I knew, I could have just paid fifty bucks for a beer and a chicken sandwich. Next door at Dinatur, things were winding down for the night and, more importantly for the travel agency staff of two, el fin de semana. When I walked in at 20:00, Monica smiled, asked me to take a seat and handed me a small piece of paper. With just a few phone calls, she was able to find out everything that I needed to know to get back home for the least amount of money possible. The bus service running from La Paz to Buenos Aires was the Panamericano line with daily afternoon departures at 16:00. Now for the bad news: The trip would last three days. Essentially, leave La Paz Saturday afternoon and arrive Buenos Aires on Tuesday morning. Previously, the longest bus trip that I had taken was only twenty hours from Buenos Aires to San Carlos de Bariloche; this little sojourn home was going to last three times longer. Still, given my dwindling resources and inability to generate cash flow by legal means in La Paz, one hundred twenty-five dollars was about the best that I was going to do for a cheap ride home. I booked a seat with Monica, thanked her and walked back into the lobby of the Sagárnaga. Briefly, I contemplated another trek through the city streets, but the altitude was really starting to get to me. 176

I had not seen a warning label from the Bolivian Surgeon General on the beer bottles, but the Andean suds multiplied by 11,000 feet were definitely having a synergistic effect that sent me staggering back to room #117.

La Paz...I’m still in La Paz.

spiders! spiders!

patrick y yo

bedside beer table

Instead of being able to relax, the surreal interior of my room merely put me on edge. The bedspreads and curtains were a deep crimson that was not soothing. Laying back on one of the twin beds, I had a final sip of water and stared long and hard at the ceiling where the bamboo fixture housing the lone sixty-watt bulb projected an eerie spiderweb shadow across the ceiling and down the walls onto three Dali posters hung in cheap gold frames. Was this the kind of loneliness that had pushed Captain Willard over the brink in that dirty hotel room in Saigon? I could hear his voice: Saigon, shit, I’m still only in Saigon. Fortunately, while Willard had to head up the Nung, my travels would take me down the Panamerican. Before falling asleep, I picked the camcorder up off the floor and filmed my reflection in the full-length mirror at the foot of my bed. Power On. Zoom In. Zoom Out. Focus. Curtains. Light fixture. Dali prints. High altitude. Too much beer. Too much silence. Time to go home.

Y aquél fue un momento inequívoco de mi vida, el más extraño momento de todos, en el que no sabía ni quién era yo mismo: estaba lejos de casa, obsesionado, cansado por el viaje, en la habitación de un hotel barato que nunca había visto antes, oyendo los siseos del vapor afuera.
-Jack Kerouac, En El Camino 177

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