War and La Paz

I left Lake Titicaca and headed for La Paz. The road was at 3000 meters so I knew what that meant – dangerous winding cliff-face roads. But to my surprise it turned out to be a plateau with a beautiful straight highway the entire way to La Paz. I arrived at the outskirts as the sun was setting. Some days on a motorcycle are very hard; some days you breeze through.

As I joined the queue of traffic, a light drizzle coated my visor. I flicked on my electric vest: because why be cold when you can be hot? Over the next hour of inching forward the rain gradually escalated to a torrent – my top half soon felt like it was in a hot tub; while my bottom half was in an ice bath. I pondered for a while on the poor job I had done wiring the vest to the motorcycle battery and weighed the pros of being warm against the cons of being electrocuted. The vest was staying on.

The disembodied voice in my helmet that gives me directions shouted, “Turn left… Battery dying… Goodbye.” I knew I vaguely needed to get across the city to my hostel. I slowly edged through the traffic and turned left up a steep hill. The traffic here was at a complete standstill. Each side of the road was lined with stalls selling everything imaginable: toys, dolls, CDs, DVDs, knives, trinkets… I had expected everyone to be wearing authentic Bolivian ponchos woven from the wool of llamas grazing high in the Andes, but no, everyone was wearing bright plastic ponchos; it looked more like a music festival than a street in La Paz.

Stalls were closing up for the night. The rainwater running down the edge of the road grew and grew until it turned into a small river. It swelled at the stall to my right, edging perilously closer and closer to the cloth dolls on display. The owner stabbed wildly at the blocked drain with a sharp stick. She harpooned trash until finally she came up with a Coke can: her white whale. The waters receeded and her dolls were once again safe. Not having moved for an hour, I decided to cut down the alleyway to the left, even though it was clearly one way in the other direction. There is a tendency in these countries, especially on a motorcycle, to ignore the laws and just get on with it. As I dodged oncoming traffic the rain finally ceased.

I came out onto another highway and again came to a complete stop, moving a car length every few minutes. A Bolivian man with a plastic bag and a knowing smile appeared at the side of the road. He pulled out toilet paper and walked alongside the traffic selling rolls. Entrepreneurialism at its finest. He approached the back of a bus and threw a roll up to the back window. A hand shot out and caught it, coins rained down in response.

I moved another car length. The highway snaked around the steep incline of La Paz. To my left the twinkling city lights spread out down the hill under the crisp post-storm air. I heard a loud thud and then a few more in quick succession. Something touched my foot. I looked down and a fist sized rock was resting against my boot. I looked up; the right side of the road was a dirt cliff-face. Trees lined the top of the ridge with the faint noise of traffic beyond. I thought about the health and safety standards in Bolivia and the possibility of a landslide as I sat in traffic. I decided it wasn’t worth the risk, I turned around looking to find another route. I passed a bus pulled in on the right hand side, 5 Bolivian women were lined up behind the bus, peeing in the street. La Paz was descending into chaos!

I found a small alleyway leading straight down the hill. It was the steepest street I had ever seen. I pulled hard on what was left of my brakes and careened down the slope. It cut back onto the highway further down the hill. I could see the reason for the backup. A mudslide had cut across the road and a truck was stuck in the mud… in the middle of the city. I pulled onto the hard shoulder and shot past the line of traffic. Everything was flowing freely after the mudslide, soon the traffic dissipated and I was alone.

I followed the curves of the eerie street, a car sat on the right hand side of the road with both doors open. A Bolivian couple were standing in front of the car attending to a desheveled Bolivian man sitting on the ground. His shirt ripped open and his head bobbing from side to side. They were clearly concerned. From what I could tell, they had just knocked him down.

The desolate street led to a roundabout that linked to a busier Benavente Road, the street that my hostel was on. My ordeal was nearly over. I joined the queue of traffic coiled around the roundabout. From the corner of my eye I could see a car approaching the roundabout faster than I would have liked. I tooted the horn – generally motorcycles are invisible and have to drive defensively. I heard a loud crack and then I was moving sideways. I had been in Latin America long enough to know how to deal with this. I started screaming ‘WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?’ In a Latin American crash whoever shouts loudest is the winner, even if they were clearly at fault. I continued to hurl obscenities until the other car drove off. Many miles and days later in Uyuni I pulled a chunk of his bumper out of a crack in my side case.

It had taken me four hours to drive across La Paz at night but I finally made it to Tinka Guest House, a Bohemian paradise in the city. I mentioned my marathon odyssey at the front desk and he looked at me confused, ‘Of course it took you that long, this is the Thursday before Carnivale.’ ‘Ah.’ I asked if there would be anywhere open for food at 11. He responded, ‘There was, but it’s midnight now.’ Another hour of my life stolen by the travel Gods, but I had survived the infamous La Paz traffic so I couldn’t really complain!

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