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A gentle landing in Bolivia’s La Paz

My journey through Bolivia began in the lonely town of Uyuni on the edge of the world’s largest salt flats. The land was flat and dusty, stricken from the high altitude and weathered by a climate that ensures its isolation. Like another world, it stretched out into a sea of dizzying orange colours, in sharp contrast to the flawless, blue backdrop of the desert skyline. Visually dazed from this seeming mirage, I yearned for new ground to cover. 

As the sun’s embrace dwindled like the slow burn of a candle, the offering of a new adventure lured me in with promise of rapture and volatility. I‘m sold the final ticket to La Paz to leave that evening. I join the locals in their hoards, and we huddle and jive our way through the glacial night air; fused together with eager anticipation of the trip ahead. I contemplate the reasons for their journeys, I suppose money? Food? Survival? Huge sacks are bundled on with each passenger, filled with their hope and determination. A man crouches on the floor without a seat, tired and aged, but with eyes that crave success like the resonance of a cheering crowd. I contemplate the thoughts and feelings of each wife and child as they wave goodbye to their loved ones, and quietly feel thankful for everything and everyone in my own life.

On further scrutiny of my surroundings my feelings of excitement are momentarily disconcerted with a sense of apprehension; broken windows and dejected seats impose a stark revelation for the overwhelmingly cheap ticket price.. The vehicle is worn and tattered like the grooves of an old tyre and twelve hours in the dark feels like a cruel challenge for this humble hauler. Night-time arrives and in its chilling wake, we depart. The dust-ridden roads wind round and round the angry terrain of the barren countryside, it is an uneven match. Like a small boat trapped in the blitz of a storm, the struggle is tangible as we shudder and sway in-tandem with our host.

As morning creeps upon us, I’m seduced by its optimism and warmth. I awake, confronted with a view that clutches at my breath and convulses my spine. La Paz awaits me. Suspended at 3660m above the sea, I look down at a city trapped in the gulf of the Altiplano, the highest capital city in the world. The triple-peaked mountain of Illimani looms ostentatiously in the distance, touching the clouds with is snow-capped tips. As we descend into the crevice of this majestic settlement, its bold divergence confronts you. Shanty houses cling tenuously to the hillsides, amidst skyscrapers and beautiful colonial houses. Each building tells a story about struggle and survival. It’s a city that speaks to you.

I begin my endeavour on foot, my senses are instantly provoked and my body becomes a sponge; soaking up each moment with incessant greed.. The shabby fare collectors hang out of their ‘micro’ vans with intrepid ease, each shouting out their route and seizing each passenger with cut-throat vigour. Taxi horns beep in time with the pace of my feet, a reminder to keep up, as I become enwreathed by the city fog which creeps into every corner like osmosis. Street sellers lace the pathways like swarms of ants, offering out their wares and wonders. I marvel at their inimitable collections; dried frogs, llama foetuses and soapstone figurines, and farcically ponder their market potential at home.

As I tread deeper into the city, the smells of Andean delicacies greet me with promise of more surprises. Llama meat and guinea pig ‘saltenas’ impose a tentative choice of meal, and a regrettable burden on the stomach some hours later.

Afternoon rolls on with rapid pace, the frantic passers-by are both startling and soothing as you try desperately to synchronise with the rhythm that surrounds you. And throughout, remains the lull of shoe-shiners; their muddied knees and concealed faces remind me of the poverty that grips this country and the humble victims of it. I take a watchful moment to satisfy my penitent curiosity, and ponder the true reality of rich and poor.

My final steps grace me with a musical awakening. As darkness descends upon the city, Andean folk spills out from the ‘penas’ and permeates the ears. Its melodic charm seeps into the pours and rattles heartbeats, like an irresistible Latin love affair. As I dance my last folkloric dance, I reflect on my foreign hosts . Indigenous to the core, the Bolivian people are a unique preservation of the Latin American soul. They compose the essence of this city, an inner spirit which proudly protects the country’s cultural and political heritage from the passage of our modern times. Each man and woman, strangely synonymous with the scenery, wear weathered skin comfortably like that of an old leather boot and carry a brashness which reflects strength of character and custom . I am left ever-more intrigued by their lives.

I leave La Paz enchanted by my encounters, whitewashed by the passion and spirit the city exudes. It’s unrefined and stressed; a web of opposites that bite at you like a winter frost. Like an oyster its edges are rough, yet beneath the rubble lies a rare substance that is rich and gratifying. And with a closer glance, you can see the beauty of its struggle and haste, a gentle simplicity amongst the mania which grips the city as a whole. It’s a city that speaks volumes to you, and leaves you utterly absorbed in each and every word.

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