Friday, July 29, 2011

Three Weeks in Bolivia

A good friend of mine from grad school, Andrew McCown, entered the Foreign Service after graduating from USAID. After several months of training in DC, he was posted to La Paz, Bolivia. When he left in February, I was already hatching plans for a visit. I loved my month in Ecuador in 2003, and Bolivia has a great many items of interest for a geographer. And, in addition to having a comfortable base at Andrew’s house in La Paz, another of our pals from UT, Tom Barnett, was cajoled into joining us for ten days. Having steeped in Latin American geography while in grad school, we had a lot of fun thinking about our professors and various articles we had once encountered on such once obscure topics as raised beds and lithic mulching (more on these subjects, anon).

I hope to write several entries about the trip over the next couple of weeks, but let me begin by describing the singular nature of La Paz, where I spent the plurality of my time in Bolivia. Many people know that it is the highest capital city in the world, and indeed, when I first arrived, late at night in early July, I could feel the difference in the air as soon as the cabin depressurized. Each breath simply was less rejuvenating than what I was used to, particularly as I began moving about.

As we drove away from the airport, through an area known as El Alto (in fact, a separate city from La Paz), I became keenly aware of drab brick and stray dogs, with little evidence of the mountainous landscape that I had anticipated. Then, we abruptly dropped off the side of what turned out to be the altiplano, the enormous alpine plain that occupies most of western Bolivia, into the canyon across which La Paz sprawls. A rolling carpet of stars unfurled beneath me as if the night sky had suddenly turned upside-down.

In most cities, the wealthy live high up, for a better view, but the inverse is true in La Paz due to the climate. El Alto, it turned out, is notoriously poor and unsafe. Most people who live there are Aymara Indians, so the town has a great deal of cultural significance—it’s the largest concentration of these indigenous people in the country—but it’s also the kind of place where people string up dummies on lampposts to signal that vigilante justice is in effect.

Andrew’s house (provided by USAID) was down in La Zona Sur, a couple thousand feet below El Alto (the airport is over 13,000 feet). It became noticeably easier to breathe during the descent, which was long and steep. Bad as the city must be for car brakes, I never saw a cyclist during the entire trip. La Zona Sur is a world away from El Alto— it’s warmer and less windy and is full of substantial houses and apartment buildings. The population is generally white and, if the omnipresent billboards are anything to go by, aspires to American style consumption patterns.

To go anywhere at all in Bolivia, I needed to drive up to the altiplano, so I saw quite a lot of La Paz’s various strata over the ensuing weeks, often from the back seat of a wildly weaving taxicab. The sleek chic at the bottom gave way to the ubiquitous chaos of downtown and, once over the canyon lip, drab, austere El Alto. To return to La Paz by car is like driving into a city from Biblical times: from far away across the brown plain you can see the outlying sheep grazing on brittle grass, and then the clusters of earth-colored corrals and houses, and, finally, highest on the skyline, for the missionaries have succeeded in their work, the white steeples of evangelical churches. Such a skyline could not exist in the developed world.

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