Alaska to Bolivia in 31 hours

August 05, 2014

The trip from Alaska to Bolivia in 31 hours, stopping in Seattle, Miami, Lima. I arrive at 1:00 AM, at the world’s highest capital. The airport is at a headache-inducing 13,300 feet. Fortunately, nobody faints at the immigration line this time.

Bolivia is one of the strangest and least visited places in Invisible World. Landlocked, backwards, with the highest capital city in the world, when people think of Bolivia at all the first image is usually of it’s number one export, cocaine, or of the place where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid died in a hail of bullets while robbing the payroll of a silver mine in 1908. The real Bolivia, the one that exists outside our imagination, is no less odd and provocative.

Most cities are built on a plain and gradually boil upwards onto surrounding mountains. In La Paz it’s the opposite: your taxi approaches from above and then dives into a twisting labyrinth of hairpin turns that follow the city down through the massive gorge in which it’s built. In La Paz the rich neighborhoods are at the bottom, where there is oxygen and warmth. Several years ago a freak hailstorm and downpour caused a flash flood that raged down La Paz’s main avenue and killed more than twenty people. At this time of night the streets the streets are clear except for small groups of drunken or drugged out youths staggering across the light traffic. La Paz has become known for it’s drug tourism, and a trickle of backpackers snort $15 cocaine and buy ayahuasca and San Pedro cactus (related to mescaline) in the Witches’ Market.

Bolivia has always been a country where a veneer of modern government is imposed on large mass of impoverished indigenous people. 60% of the country is Quechua or Aymara, the former being settlers brought by the Incas eight hundred years ago. The Aymara are probably the most reserved, not-friendly people I’ve encountered on my many travels. They hated the Incas for two-hundred years then traded them for even crueler overlords from Spain, who enslaved them and worked them to death in the silver mines by the hundreds of thousands. Any statement about a large group of people is bound to be wrong, but I would describe them as dignified, resolute, careful with their words and distrustful of outsiders. And if you’re not Aymara, you’re an outsider.

Which brings us to Bolivia’s first Aymara president, Evo Morales, a man with a sixth grade education.

I know: this blog is supposed to be about alpaca sweaters and Invisible World, not politics. But you can’t really talk about alpaca sweaters without bringing in Evo Morales and Bolivia’s fabulous export crop: cocaine.

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