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Bill Maxwell

On travel, terror and living to tell the tale

LA PAZ, Bolivia

Even before I had adjusted to the altitude of the world's highest capital, my hosts and friends, members of a generations-old Bolivian family, hauled me off to a parade. Nearly 1 million people from every South American country and tourists from elsewhere flooded the streets and sidewalks of the central city.

When we left the parade, freeing ourselves from the throng, we had to cross several streets along the parade route and pick our way through lines of other spectators. My La Paz-savvy friends slipped through easily, but two indigenous women shoulder-bumped me as I tried to squeeze between them. That is when I realized that I was a stranger in a remote, Third World land whose customs and etiquette I did not understand.

For the first time, I was afraid for my safety. Because of my many years of covering big outdoor events, I am wary of festive multitudes. I had been present in the late 1970s when a woman was trampled to death after a soccer match in Johannesburg, South Africa. I imagined myself getting trampled to death here in La Paz if trouble broke out.

Catching up to my friends, I pretended that nothing was wrong. In reality, nothing was wrong. I was practicing what I had been preaching to aspiring writers throughout my careers as a journalist and a teacher: Travel every chance you get. Go to places that make you feel uncomfortable. Meet peoples from all parts of the world and seek out unfamiliar and challenging experiences.

During my three weeks in several parts of Bolivia, I often was uncomfortable, and I was constantly introduced to the unfamiliar and the challenging, even the truly frightening.

I do not speak Spanish beyond perfunctory greetings. When one of my friends was not with me, I was virtually lost. I did not know when I was being ripped off for simple purchases; I could not order in restaurants with confidence; and I could not read the newspapers, a real downer for a print news junky. After two days of linguistic disorientation, I tossed my U.S. pride and asked my hosts to translate for me.

Besides my dark skin, my tall frame, gray hair and beard made me stand out like a llama in a fancy dog show. I am much taller than most Bolivians, especially the indigenous Indians, causing curious eyes to follow me everywhere. Vanity is alive and well in Bolivia. My friends told me that the moment most Bolivians, male and female, see a gray lock, they rush to the store for dye and use it for life. Indeed, I did not see gray hair anywhere I went. And hardly any men have noticeable facial hair.

When my friends and I went out, I used their toilet beforehand, trying to avoid using a public toilet. The first time I used one, I plucked down a peso, and the man pointed to sheets of pink paper on a beat-up counter. I realized that the pink sheets, about eight, were my allotment of toilet paper. When I opened the toilet door, the stench was overwhelming. I held my breath and entered. I must acknowledge that some of the public toilets were clean, but the stench of the first one never left my mind.

The abrupt changes in Bolivia's climate, environment and altitude from one region to another were pure culture shock. In La Paz, the average temperature was 38 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. We had snow two days in July. Down in the lower elevations of the subtropics — merely three hours from La Paz — we had temperatures as high as 80 during the day.

Almost everything about Bolivia is chaotic, and nothing is more emblematic of the chaos than vehicle traffic. In La Paz, only upscale sections of the city have traffic lights and stop signs that are observed. Elsewhere, drivers' expertise and nerves determine who survives. Lane markings and center lines do not exist, and vehicles, their horns blasting, jockey for space. Imagine thousands of bumper cars in a finite, mountainous space trying to avoid collisions. That is La Paz.

On the open roads, the fastest and biggest vehicles rule the sharp curves and steep inclines. For good luck, many truck, bus and taxi drivers pour a drop of liquor on the ground each time they hit the road. The liquor is for Pachamama, Mother Earth or god of nature. One of our Copacabana bus drivers performed the sign of the cross each time he got behind the wheel. Many passengers also prayed.

I had the harrowing experience of traveling on some of the world's most dangerous roads. When we took the unpaved Yungas Road, which goes to the tropics, I thought I was going to die. Only a few spots in the road are wide enough for an oncoming large vehicle and car to pass each other. When a place is too narrow, the vehicle going up has the right-of-way, and the one going down must pull into a designated safe zone or back up.

I spent many terror-filled moments looking down into dizzying gorges as our minivan backed up. Sometimes, we were as high as 3,000 feet, with a roaring river below, maneuvering hairpin turns or backing up for a tour bus to go by. Memorials to those who have plunged to their deaths are built along the road.

Each time I travel to a faraway place where I am uncomfortable, where things are unfamiliar, I return with a greater appreciation for the United States and a deeper understanding of another part of the world. All of the inconveniences and the fear are worth every minute.

On travel, terror and living to tell the tale 08/01/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 3, 2009 7:33pm]
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