It’s the bus journey where I start to feel it. I always know I’m in a bad state when I reach for my iPod and one of my greatest comforts: Stephen Fry reading me one of the Harry Potter series. It’s usually a later one, although the first couple sometimes still get an airing. This time I chose Half-Blood Prince.
It’s similar to the few times I was ill in Cusco and amidst the ruins at Machu Picchu – there’s the nausea and lack of energy, and I decide it must be altitude sickness, the only connecting factor for all of my episodes. But a quick and lucky toilet stop indicates that this time things have considerably escalated.
We’re on the short bus ride to La Paz from Copacabana. Short for me is four hours, but I suppose my UK-self, used to far shorter journeys, would dispute the term. We’re in the worst possible seats at the back of the bus. We have plastic panelling instead of a window. The air is close. I shut my eyes and lean back, willing myself through the journey without incident.
My toilet stop coincides with an amusing diversion en-route, one which makes me roll my eyes and say, as I do increasingly these days: “Only in Latin America!”
We’re asked to leave the bus as there’s a stretch of the lake to cross – presumably traversing the shoreline would take a lot longer. We’re instructed to catch a small boat, without our belongings, as the coach is transported precariously on a separate vessel.
Now one of the endless challenges of this blog is to describe places and events in colourful enough language that they materialise in others’ imaginations, not too altered from the original. But I feel only a picture can do this particular scene true justice.
When we pull into La Paz’s hectic bus terminal, the repeated shouts of unknown destinations thick in the air, I leave the others for a taxi, feeling too nauseated to attempt what I know is a short walk to my hostel. I’m staying at Loki – a renowned party hostel chain – following my Austrian friends from Cusco who are already here. The rest of our party plan to find somewhere else to stay as they want to be able to use a kitchen.
Reunited with my friends, we watch an unbearable action film involving a dead puppy, a retired assassin, ridiculous revenge plots and Keanu Reeves. Later that night, Kelly and Shing both appear at Loki, unsuccessful in their mission, and end up staying in Loki Towers with me.
I call it this because the building itself is a rather ugly tower block, its sixth floor bar affording a stunning view of the city and distant snow-capped mountains, one of the hostel’s definite highlights.
The following day, feeling no better, I force myself to get out and explore the city. Caroline is conducting her very own walking tour, she tells us, and with her leading the way we discover a nearby market and the central and rather beautiful San Francisco church and plaza. A few steep streets up from this, the whole city seeming to exist on some kind of hill, is the witches market, full of ghoulish trinkets for luck and remedies, including – most disturbingly – the skeletal remains of baby llamas hanging from the ceilings of some of the shops. I buy a new pair of shoes, my boots having lost their soles from over-use the previous day.
One hour, however, is all the exertion I can stand, and I’m forced to leave the others and return back to Loki, pale and out of breath, to the quiet of my dorm bed and the movies on my laptop.
This is one of my only experiences of La Paz during this first stay. I remain in my room, or staring impatiently out of the window of the bar to the bustling and unknowable city below. Loki is a very clever hostel. All food and drink bought in the bar goes on to your tab, which you pay at the end of your stay. This means buying things is far too easy and seems affordable. I’m grateful for this, though, in my particularly immobile state. My concerned friends take me to a pharmacy and I’m put on to anti-biotics.
Inevitably, as always happens when I’m sick for long periods, I get extremely bored of this state of affairs. I decide to distract myself a few of the nights by… drinking. Not sensible perhaps, but my argument at the time was I couldn’t feel much worse, and alcohol did seem to briefly change my mood.
One of these nights is mandatory as it’s Caroline’s birthday, coinciding neatly with the Rugby World Cup final. This has been a fixture in the calendar ever since the Salkantay trek, as we talked over and planned it then. I couldn’t help supporting New Zealand as I watched the final, not only because it would’ve been rude not to with Caroline and Kelly, both Kiwis, with us. I was in New Zealand for the last cup four years ago and got particularly attached to the team and the touching and adamant support we saw for them throughout the country.
We go out for our Chinese or ‘Chifa’ in high spirits for New Zealand’s win, meeting Cecile, also from the Salkantay trek, and one of her friends. Cecile is currently studying in La Paz and has lived there for a few months.
The night descends. After the food we find a place called ‘The English Pub’ and make our way through the list of cocktails. We’d initially expected to move on after a few drinks, but we end up staying for most of the night. Incidentally, it’s Halloween. Unprepared, I’ve put some glitter on my face to mark the occasion.
The rest is a blur of cocktails, conversations with strangers – some in Spanish which I have a misinformed confidence for when I’m drunk – and finally a club which I can’t remember the name or location of.
A few days later we prepare to leave the city. Caroline, Shing and I are going to Coroico, a small town about three hours away set amidst picturesque hills and at the end of the world’s most dangerous road, a popular mountain biking spot on the gringo trail.
I would like to say I enjoyed that first stint in La Paz, but for the most part I felt like a prisoner to Loki’s dismal interior and limited selection of meals. My true and much more enjoyable experience of the city came later.