Letter from La Paz

My senior year of high school I used to frequent an all-ages jazz club in New York called Small´s. My friends and I would spend the night there, usually sleeping right through the early morning set. The musicians never bothered us and the other patrons tolerated us. Most nights there was a line and we´d have to wait until two or three in the morning just to get in.  The doorman, who I also think was the owner – or so he said – used to tell us how he imagined a different kind of mass transit, hot air balloons landing on the top of the Twin Towers, which at the time, still loomed over Christopher Street.
The romantic notion of airborne mass transit has stayed with me. This might be because I still do not know how to drive, or because there’s something inherently futuristic about moving in the sky. Nevertheless, I finally found that mass transit system in the sky, quite literally, at over 12,000 feet above sea level, in La Paz Bolivia.



The cable cars system, still in expansion, travels across a series of extremely steep mountain slopes. If you were to go from El Alto (1,000 feet higher than downtown La Paz) to more recently constructed Zona Sur on Mi Teleférico, you’d have traversed a few thousand feet in a hour. Your ears actually pop between a few stops along the way.


The name of each station is written in both Spanish and Aymara. Until 1976, Spanish trailed Aymara and Quechua as the majority language. While much has changed, as global languages increasingly gain grown on minority counterparts, one still hears Aymara and Quechua being spoken in the street. Advertisements aimed at professional for learning Aymara and Quechua have been plastered on walls.


Slowly floating through the air, a motion we normally associate with amusement parks, between cragged mountain peaks, over cookouts, military school drills, a shirtless man looking peering out of his porch with a pair of binoculars, not only invites the sensation of pause, as a subway might, in its underground abyss but absolute lucidity, while the wind gently rocks the cable car.


There are however rules on this ride: paying your fare of course, and a new far for each transfer to another cable car line; not standing; only ten people in a car, and like the wonder wheel, no waiting for the next car to see if you can have it to yourself.


Like so much of Latin America, “modernization” has taken place here unevenly. While the multi-colored cable cars quietly zoom across the air, junk buses slam down pot-holed streets. The “cholas”, as they are popularly called here, seem to belong to another more formal epoch, after at some point their family left behind their traditional dress for a new sort of traditional dress, with a pollera, or long skirt, and a black fedora. They too ride the teleférico, or cable car.


Likewise, while cigarette packs have also adopted the nefariously nauseating shock photos, you can still smoke in bars. Unless you smoke, the noxious fog inside bars is a reminder of a world you are glad most other places have left behind. How did I ever do this for hours and hours on end, I wondered? Plus, walking uphill is hard enough at 12,000 feet, do we really need to add the challenge of overcoming inhibited lung capacity?


Honestly, I wish I had more time to visit bars in La Paz. I have this myth of the paceño bohemian alcoholic from some of their literature floating around in my head. Jamie Saenz is probably Bolivia´s best known poet (see he his many translated anthologies) and believed in the revelatory power of alcohol. Another write, Victor Hugo Viscarra has often been compared to Charles Bukowksi for his drunken memoirs of city streets and prostitutes – although I think this is an unfair comparison because Bukowski, in my opinion, wouldn’t have lasted as long in the cold, unpredictable streets of La Paz, drinking grain alcohol at extremely high altitudes.


Something many people don’t know about high altitudes is that they leave you with horrible hangovers. And unlike some of the other symptoms of being above sea level – stamina, for example – the high altitude hangover never goes away. At 9,000 feet a few strong beers can leave you hurting the next day. Coca leaves, some say, relieve the symptoms of hangover, but I haven’t found this to be true.


In La Paz above the tourist-travelled Calle de las Brujas, a place that evidences the power of travel tourist discourse turning a pretty ordinary street of people selling crafts into something “magical”, coca leaves are sold in large garbage bags. A coca-chewing friend had asked me to get some llipta or gipta, a sweet residue, made from quinoa or sweet potato or stevia of which add a bit of to your leaves while you chew. This sweetens the leaves and also helps breakdown the coca leaves while in your mouth.


If I were going back to the United States I wouldn’t be able to carry even coca candy with me, but you can travel freely between Peru and Colombia with it. I know people who trade leaves, as they are not marketed internationally in any formal way. Getting high in La Paz would seem to be a waste. The cable cars in the sky for me suffice. One wonders if what Jaime Saenz calls the ¨dark city¨ has transformed into something else. something more still more intangible.




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