Travel Writers: Fracas in La Paz

Travel Writers: Fracas in La Paz

by Gregory Wesson

Location: La Paz, Bolivia, South America

I had 3 weeks left in South America and I really wanted to see Machu Pichu.
However, I was on the other side of the continent, in Buenos Aires. I booked a flight to La Paz, Bolivia so I could grab a bus across the border to Machu Pichu.

Buenos Aires is at sea level. La Paz, Bolivia is 3600 meters (12,000 feet) above sea level. Flying between the two gave me no time to acclimatize to the changes in altitude, and as soon as I arrived I was short of breath and developed a headache. I figured that I would adjust to the altitude over time, but during the next two days I got worse and worse. I had no energy, my appetite disappeared and I had weird semi-wake delusions like I had two heads. I developed a dry cough. I would consciously tell my body to do something, and it would ignore me.

I decided the best plan was to skip Machu Pichu, go to the bus station and get down to lower altitudes. I went to bed on Wednesday night to the sound of fireworks, no doubt the Bolivian people celebrating my remarkably sound decision.

Thursday morning I awoke to the sound of fireworks again. “Why would people be lighting off fireworks in daylight?” BAM! “That was no firework. That sounded like cannon fire.” I got dressed and made my way to the lobby. A couple of frantic backpackers were trying to find a way out of La Paz as the TV played pictures of crowds of people running through white smoke and buildings burning.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

“Everything,” replies one of the backpackers. “They’ve got tanks out there.”

Four blocks from my hotel, 7,000 striking police officers and civilian protesters clashed with government troops over a new tax plan, which had prompted the government to call out the military. Buses and planes were not running. I was trapped in foreign country during a revolution! “This,” I thought “is the perfect time to call the Canadian Consulate and see what advice they can provide.” They were closed due to the unrest. It would seem to me that the very day that you want your consulate to be open would be on the day of unrest in the country!

The unrest was short-lived. By 3 o’clock in the afternoon the tanks were gone and the streets started to fill with people again. It was amazing to see how quickly things returned to normal. Some young boys were playing soccer on a street that was normally bustling with traffic, groups of people were having casual discussions on street corners, a young couple walked by my hand in hand. Less than 3 hours ago armed combatants had been running down these streets, and now people used them so casually. The people of La Paz had got back at living their lives. Maybe the Bolivians are more practiced at it, but I wonder what Toronto would be like four hours after tanks were called in to crush an armed rebellion.

The next day I was able to get on a bus and head to Chile. The symptoms of my altitude sickness cleared up quickly, though my sense of balance was slow to return. For about three days I was walking around like a drunken sailor. I would often find that I had (unconsciously) leaned to far forward or backward or to the left or to the right and suddenly find myself stumbling in that direction. I am sure that everyone in Northern Chile thinks I am a hopeless alcoholic.

Text © Gregory Wesson 2004, All Rights Reserved

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