Angry as Hell in a City Called Peace

See all the pictures from La Paz and Death Road here…

La Paz, goddammit, if you weren’t so damn formless and concrete I’d want to punch you in your filthy face. And just when things were going so well in Bolivia! By chance, on my last day in Sucre I’d run into Adelaide and Susie and we’d all agreed that the Bolivian crime stories we’d heard about didn’t really seemed well founded. And then you go and kick me in the nuts. Was it really necessary?

I was in high spirits when I boarded the night bus from Sucre to La Paz. The previous few days had been productive and relaxing and the upcoming week was going to be an enjoyable exploration of some of the sights around La Paz (Spanish for ‘The Peace’); biking dangerous, cliff-hugging roads and visiting old Inca ruins on Lake Titicaca. I’d made it a habit to catch up on writing and emails on these long bus rides and had worked for about 6 hours until my netbook battery died. After that I looked out the window onto moonlit expanses of the Altiplano until I eventually drifted off into a sporadic cycle of dreams and semi-consciousness.

At 7am the bus PA system buzzed loudly and announced that we would soon be arriving in La Paz. Outside the window an ugly looking city slapped my dried out contact lenses. I poured a capful of water into each eyeball. ‘Oh well,’ I told myself, ‘give it a chance, the bus stations are never in the nicest areas’. As usual, when the doors open the locals always rush for the door, and I typically take my time – after all, they need to take the bags out of the cargo hold which takes about ten minutes. As I slid on my shoes I looked down at my backpack, which I’d stored directly under my legs – I noticed that the zipper to the pocket where I keep my passport pouch was open. I reached inside – nothing. I’ve been working hard at not blindly reacting to situations and was was impressively calm – there must be another explanation than theft, It must have fallen underneath my seat. I checked – nothing. I checked inside the backpack – nothing. Well it won’t do any good to freak out, I thought, so I patiently waited for my large bag to be unloaded on the curb.

After avoiding the shady taxi touts I hailed a taxi from the street and headed towards the Hotel Milton, which the Lonely Planet had described as a 70’s hotel, featuring ‘red vinyl studded walls, painted murals and funky wallpapers.’ When I arrived, they wouldn’t check me in without a passport, but being a functional Technomad, I simply logged into Gmail at the front desk and printed out a scan that I’d sent to myself before the trip. This was good enough to get access to my funky yet somewhat dingy, $15/night room. The next thing I did was call the Grand Hotel in Sucre – there was a possibility that I’d left it in the room (even though I knew I couldn’t have done that as I’m far too aware of my packing protocol!) Of course they hadn’t found it. I just couldn’t believe someone would have been so bold to go underneath my legs during the night and unzip my bag – and almost more odd to me was that they hadn’t zipped it back up! There was a chance it had gotten stolen before I boarded at the bus station, but it would have taken an amazingly observant and dexterous thief to unzip the hidden zipper and remove the snug pouch.

I mentally took inventory of what I’d lost besides the passport: USD$100 backup cash, my vaccine passport, 2 backup credit cards (luckily I still had my main card in my pocket), SIM cards for all my various cell phone plans, my international and my US driving license. The very thing I loved about the pouch (that my deceased grandfather had given me almost 20 years ago) was also it’s very weakness; it conveniently kept everything in one place. I cursed myself for streamlining the theft.

The next step was to cancel the credit cards, it was only about 8:30am by now and the companies were relieved that no erroneous charges had yet been charged. New cards would be waiting for me in LA. The next step was to get over to the US embassy – but first I lay down for a while and tried to mentally center myself by observing my various emotions. This is both a Vipassana meditation technique and the main insight in the current book I’m reading, ‘A New Earth’ by Eckhart Tolle. Negative situations like this are of course regrettable, but they offer a wonderful and experiential (vs. theoretical) insight into a very primal side of your mind and your ego – so why waste the opportunity to analyze it?!

First of all, I felt really stupid. I’m meant to be an expert traveler! I lamely said to myself. Upon observing this feeling I considered what the fuel was behind it; it is purely an egoic reaction stemming from the typical mindset of ‘It won’t happen to me! I’m way too smart!’. This belief helps your ego feel superior to others. But when you get a reality check, your ego feels less super and more average, more normal. Luckily, human adaptability is such that this can be one of the quicker feelings to fade away; the sooner you can remove blame, both from yourself and others, the sooner you can get back on the path of a happy existence. Ultimately it is only your ego that has been hurt, not the deeper you (the being your ego would rather you didn’t know about), to whom this whole affair is rather meaningless and fleeting.

Then there’s the logistical hassles. Oh crap, that’s going to mean hours in embassies or at a DMV when I return home. or Great, I just paid for five year visa’s for Argentina and Bolivia and now they’re gone! Is Bolivia even going to let me out of the country without my stupid tourist receipt? True, it’s going to be a time drain, and more than likely cost some money to fix, but the experience will only be as bad as you let it be. Still, all I could think was if I’d arrived a day earlier as I’d planned, then all of this would have been avoided probably – but that’s a stupid and futile psychological game to play. Do I want to hang on to this and keep bitching, churning out more negativity, or would I rather just move on?

The next thing, and significantly harder for me to deal with, is the nostalgic loss. The passport that had carried me through the last eight years of adventures contained ornate stamps and visas that all held stories. They’re just stamps, I thought to myself, it’s impossible to rob the memories and experiences from my being. Even the pouch itself has seen me from a mere pre-pubescent kid into my adulthood. However, while hard, nostalgic losses are overcome in two simple ways. First of all, the realization that external objects do not define you, they merely give the ego something to identify itself with – thus tricking you into thinking they’re very important. While you can certainly enjoy and cherish objects, it’s important to realize that these things neither define nor add real value to the deeper you. While it’s easy to say it can be hard to really believe sometimes – but just let time unfold and the acute upset gets blunted relatively quickly, especially for such trivial matters.

The final emotion that I sensed in myself was the worst of the bunch. I’m sorry to say, I was feeling some serious pangs of anger. I couldn’t help but imagine what would have done if I had caught the thief mid act. Oh I would grab his head and kick it! I’d break the bones in his hand so he thought twice about stealing next time! I’d stab him with my fruit knife!. As I lay there looking at the horrible green, wavy design I could feel my pulse begin to get faster and my muscles twitch with some pre-ejaculate adrenaline. This was a despicable emotion; what would that accomplish, besides getting me in trouble and delivering more negative energy into the whole cycle? I didn’t know who had taken my wallet, but it was likely that the thief is already being punished, so trapped in his own miserable existence that this is how he navigates the world.

Content that I’d at least observed, if not fully overcome, my blind reactions, I had a shower, cursed my stupidity a little more, and made my way to the US embassy with the appropriate forms and rather sexy new passport photographs. Unfortunately, La Paz itself did nothing to help calm me down. What a chaotic city of honking vehicles, horrific smells and ugly buildings. I felt like I was the passenger in a game of ‘Grand Theft Auto’ as the taxi narrowly avoided old women and children who leaped out of the way as he accelerated. Loud Reggaeton, interspersed with advertisements in Spanish blared on the radio. A plastic Jesus, which hung the rearview mirror, shimmied to the music as the driver cursed a minivan that cut him off. It got me there in the end and it’s hard to complain though when a 10 minute taxi ride costs seventy-five cents.

After I had breathed in the guards face (I didn’t get a good answer for why I had to do that) and left the two metal detectors behind (I really do carry a large amount of tech at any one time) I entered the concrete and steel castle of The US Embassy. Besides the usual feeling of sterile practicality, it was actually a welcome refuge; it was spotlessly clean and the pristine bathroom had soap and paper in the dispensers. In filthy cities there’s nothing quite like the feeling of washing your hands – aah, the little luxuries that you miss! For USD$100 they hooked me up with a temporary ’emergency’ passport, thankfully expedited by my various printed out scans of my passport, drivers license and credit cards. On the way over I’d also stopped to get a police report at the tiny, type-writer equipped tourist police station that was next to a questionable bar called ‘Love City’. The guy that helped me at the US embassy, who interestingly was not allowed to tell me his name (why not at least have a stage name like Splitsy Pacific or Muffy Paradise then?) also informed me that I would have to visit the Bolivian Immigration and Argentine Embassy too in the coming days. What an unexpected and fun adventure! Think of all the possible things that might emerge and would not have not have happened otherwise! I tried to sell myself but I saw through my shallow ploy. Truthfully though, we only see the path that unfolds and it’s impossible to be aware of all of the things that a bizarre twist of fate prevents. There’s a great story from war time Japan about a wise grandfather and a young man. While out tending to his father’s flock, a young man found a stranger who had gotten lost in the wilderness and was very weak. The young man gave him some food and water and pointed him in the right direction. Some days later the stranger visited the young man and gave him a horse as a gift. Oh what a great man, and what a lucky son we have! His parents exclaimed. We’ll see, said the old grandfather. The young man loved the horse and rode it every day. One day, after being too foolhardy he fell and broke his leg. Oh curses to that damned horse, what a terrible thing to happen! His parents lamented. We’ll see, the old grandfather replied. Meanwhile the second World War had broken out and the air force was looking for young men to enlist, in particular to become kamikaze pilots. Of course the young man was in no condition to join the army. Oh what luck! Our son must stay home with us! His parents rejoiced. We’ll see, the wide grandfather said.

After leaving the embassy, I decided to walk back to the Hotel Milton. A beer at an outdoor cafe would be a welcome treat after the last five hours of bureaucracy. I walked for an hour and didn’t find one place other than a couple of dark, dingey caves, which looked like they’d only add to my negativity. Eventually I got back to the Milton and by this point was pretty much swearing at the world, and this horrendous city, out loud. Cholitas (indigenously dressed working class women), wearing bright colors and rather silly looking little bowler hats, sat among piles of vegetables while others asked me for money. Bolivia has already robbed me! I thought to myself. I really wasn’t liking my bitchy mood so, as was customary when it occasionally surfaces, I felt it was going to be necessary to remove myself from public engagement ASAP. All I was looking for at this point was a mini-market to buy a cold beer. There was a ridiculous amount of paint stores, raw meat shops and stands selling electrical trinkets and odd things like toilet seats and spray bottle nozzles. At times smells so horrendous, like old meat and faeces, reached my nostrils that I felt like I might vomit. I felt like I was losing my fucking mind. I was quickly spiraling downward into a really nasty mix of thirst, exhaustion, stress and self pity. I finally found a place where I bought a couple of bottles of beer and a large bag of cheese puffs. I entered the Milton and just kept climbing towards the roof – I needed to be away from people and ideally not in my somewhat depressing room.

As I reached the roof level I found a door that led out onto a terrace – score! It offered a spectacular view of the city, and while the architecture is still a bunch of ugly filthy crap, the red brick shacks that clung to the sides of the surrounding craggy mountains added a spark of some visual beauty. Beyond the sprawling town, snowcapped peaks of 6000m pierced the dramatic clouds. As I drank the cold brew and piled cheese puffs into my face, I was aware that all day my feelings had been a little skewed and maybe La Paz wasn’t so bad. Either way, this was the moment to turn it around. Two bottles of Pacena deep and feeling poetic I decided to go to my room and write this story – documenting situations always helps me put them behind me.

And so here I lie on a horrendously ornate bedspread in a light blue tiled room, with edges lined in a wavy green and yellow pattern. Honestly, it looks like the pattern monster got sick and vomited all over the place. There’s a TV that won’t turn on without a remote, and there’s no remote at the desk that matches. There’s a German couple having lou sex in room 210. There’s a screaming child outside my window that is audible even among the honking traffic. You can’t change the world around you; you can either fight that fact or roll with it. I’m going to roll with it. Everything is going to be alright and tonight I’m going to get into some mischief, I feel it already, in the rate of my pulse. But first things first – and that’s to head downstairs and to book myself on tomorrow’s mountain bike tour on the 65km road to Coroico, AKA ‘The Most Dangerous Road in the World’ where multiple tourists die every year. Yes, that should take my mind off my passport – and anything else not directly related to staying on the path, and away from the 600m vertical drop.

3 Responses

  1. Drag about the passport theft, but as Grandpa says “well…we’ll see.”

    The last (and only) time I was pick – pocketed I was so bummed. I had no access to a bank – as it was Ramadan – so I couldn’t leave the unfriendly city I was in. Turned out spending the extra night led to amazing an unexpected debauchery (a personal best) and now that city is on my list as one of the all time favorite cities on earth.

    Hope your adventure turns out similarly.

    Safe travels my friend.

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