For better or worse, my Lonely Planet guide book has a hand in deciding my outlook on pretty much any country I visit. The section on Bolivia (and especially La Paz) was written with a loving flare not present in the others. Someone loved this place... or was trying to get people to like it more than they probably would otherwise. This combined with my experience at the border resulted in my opinion of Bolivia being a couple notches below par.
They were right about one thing though - the initial view of La Paz is tremendous. The entire city is nestled in a relatively deep canyon. The majority of the city including its center and most of the larger financial buildings sit at the bottom with the the residential and suburban sprawl climbing the canyon walls, hundreds of meters up. As we approached the city from the West and began to descend into the heart, I was wondering what possessed people to build this way - in this place. Regardless, it's quite a first impression. We rolled through the outskirts unimpeded until we neared the bus terminal. It was Friday afternoon around 4:30 local time, and traffic was beyond thick. We inched forward, two, maybe three cars pushing through each light change. Police officers were superseding the lights in places and controlling the flows manually. Unfortunately for us, the nexus of the problem was the bus station itself. Thousands of people were already there, or were headed towards it. Mass hysteria. When we finally came to a stop in the station, we learned the chaos was due to the start of Carnivale. Apparently there was a massive party in a city near La Paz, and everyone and their brother was headed that way via bus.
I was plowing through the crowd with an Irish couple that had been on the bus with me - they had the same Lonely Planet book as I (as do 70% of the backpackers I meet), and were as yet undecided on a hostel. I had one in mind, so they decided to follow. Outside the bus station, we asked the tourist police for some help finding a taxi in the madness. Only partially understanding us, she walked us across the street to an absolute Bates motel-esque hostel which looked like it catered to stray dogs and rats. Not a chance. True to form, none of us spoke Spanish worth a damn, and as we explained our needs, she ended up pointing in one direction a bunch of times and giving us a map which completely sucked, then turned and left. We walked down the street for a while, looking for some landmarks. After about 30 minutes of frustration (and all our luggage in tow), we broke down and got a taxi - which we should have done in the first place.
I navigated the driver to the Hotel Torino, which actually turned out to be pretty good. It's in a great location, and I ended up with a private room with my own bathroom for about $6 a night. Tremendous. After settling in, I walked around the city for a bit - the hotel is just off a very cool little plaza containing some scenic statues and buildings. I even ventured down toward a busy street, which after a few blocks turned into a poor-man's version of the Champs Elysees in Paris. Lots of street vendors and restaurants, shopping and travel agents. It was actually pretty nice.
The next day I got up with the purpose of finding a flight to Santiago. I'd read it was expensive to fly out of La Paz due to the altitude (La Paz being the highest capital city in the world), and the canyon factor, but I thought I'd try it anyway. After some breakfast I headed back down to the street I'd walked the night before. Overnight the entire area had been turned into a party zone. Carnivale was in full effect. It was 9:00 in the morning and there were people all over. Side alleys had been transformed into playgrounds with inflatable castles and circus games. Kids were dressed up like it was Halloween; munchkin-sized dragons, devils, angels and witches walking hand in hand with their parents, most of whom were inexplicably wearing ponchos. There wasn't a cloud in the sky...
It seemed like the whole city was heading to this spot. There were people pouring into the street from every side road and staircase. I could hear a band in the distance to my right. The crowd was lining up for a parade to stroll by in the near future. It was quite the atmosphere. Out of nowhere, a streak of orange whizzed by my head, and exploded with a splash on the pavement to my left. Hmm. Someone just chucked a water balloon at me! I looked around a little closer at everyone, and then understood the wisdom of the ponchos. Everyone (and I mean everyone - kids too) had cans of aerosol spray-foam, or squirt guns or water balloons and were firing them at anyone or anything. Some were armed with just a little hand-held water gun. Many had plastic bags full of water balloons which were thrown at unsuspecting people with their back turned. I was wishing Gillispie and Franks were here with me - it would have been awesome.
I quickly walked down the street to the American Airlines office just off the main drag. They were of course closed. As was pretty much everything else. Everyone was at the party. Still unarmed, I dove into an internet café and found a seat facing the glass windows where I could see the madness. It was fun to watch. The parade proceeded right in front of the café, and I watched as anyone and everyone was nailed with water and foam for about 3 hours.
I checked for flights on every airline listed in my guide book. It was going to cost anywhere from $600 to $3000 bucks to fly down to Santiago in the next 4-5 days. The hell with that. I'll suck it up on a bus for that kind of money - even if it is a 24 hour ride. I tested my luck with the crowd and weaved my way down to another café for lunch. Then I flagged down a cab to the bus station. Just as I was opening the door, a passing taxi slowed down enough for the person in the back seat to do a drive by shooting of foam all over my back and into the seat of my cab. I was actually impressed with the accuracy of the shot - it was well executed. The shooters just drove off - my taxi driver just laughed and told me to get in. Who cares? It's Carnivale.
Once at the bus station I got a ticket to Arica, Chile for the next day from some bus company I'd never heard of (There are no direct buses to Santiago from La Paz. You have to go to Arica or Iquique, then down to Santiago). I walked it back from the bus station, avoiding the occasional sniper-shot water balloon from the kids in the street or in windows above.
As I turned the corner of one street which I'd passed many times before, I saw a tour bus heading up toward a construction zone. The area had been blocked off yesterday and this morning for construction, but the barriers were gone at the moment. The bus passed me, and headed up the hill. It was just a bit too tall - the top of the bus caught a power line running low across the area, and pulled it until the blue strobe light of electricity came bursting out of a small junction on a temporary pole. The line came down on top of the bus and rested about midway on its roof. It was weird; I'd seen it in movies - where a power line ends up on a car and you're not supposed to get out, or go near it for fear of painful death and all that. The line was just draped over the top of the bus, the broken end lying on the left side. It wasn't sparking or jumping anymore, so I assumed it was dead, which is what I assume most people killed by downed power lines thought. I watched as the construction crew reacted, fairly slowly, looking pissed off at the prospect of additional work and seemingly unconcerned for the passengers of the bus. Traffic was backing up behind the bus now, people were leaning on their horns for the bus to move, unaware of the impending danger. The door opened, and a young Asian woman stuck her head out the door, and then made a move to step out. I wanted to yell and say something - anything, but I was far enough away that she wouldn't have heard me, and I wouldn't have been in time. Her foot hit the ground and.... Nothing happened. She was fine. Apparently the construction guys do know a lot more about electricity than I. After a few minutes - when it looked like no one was in peril and knowing there was a better chance of me getting in the way or electrocuted than being able to help, I walked back to the hotel.
My bus didn't leave until noon, so I took my time getting up, finding some breakfast and getting to the bus station. Around 10:30 or so, the lady I'd talked to yesterday found me sitting on a bench across from their office and told me the bus was going to be delayed until around 1:30. Son of a... Oh well, what am I going to do? I guess I really don't have anywhere to be. I found a post office where I mailed some postcards, then bought a new rice bag for my loose stuff. Yeah, that's right, a rice bag. I bought a fruit/rice sack in Guatemala which I'd been carrying a bunch of stuff around in, and it was starting to show some wear. I bought a new one (apparently other people use them for carrying luggage as well as rice besides me) for 15 Bolivianos (about 2 bucks), and walked over to a bench to move my stuff around. As I was in the process of transferring my belongings, the lady at the desk of the bus company yelled at me - asking if I wanted to put my backpack in storage with them until the bus left. Sounded like a good idea. So stupidly, I left my stuff sitting on the bench just 25 feet away while I took my backpack over to the counter and handed it to them through the window. This took approximately 53 seconds. I went back to my bag and finished moving my stuff over to the new bag, zipped it up and went about burning a couple hours.
I found a little internet café where I got online for a bit to check email. I'd received one from a cousin of mine from Nebraska who had just gotten engaged. I remember it clearly - I was writing: "...and everything's going well - and I haven't lost anything yet..." right then my stomach sank. Did I see my camera in my new bag? I don't remember seeing my camera in the new bag. Where is my camera? Is my camera still here? My new bag was right under my chair and I grabbed it violently and unzipped it. I gave it a cursory look. Then I took out a couple things. Then I emptied it. No camera. F#&%! (I said this word repeatedly for the next 3-4 minutes). I left my new rice bag sitting under my chair at the computer and I ran back out into the hallway into the terminal where I'd transferred my stuff, hoping, praying, asking for a miracle. I went to the bench. Nothing. I looked around. Nothing. I went to the bus desk. Nothing. My stomach wrenched. "It's gone. It's gone. It's gone." Those were the only words in my head. I went back to the computer in the internet café and finished my email to my cousin. I don't even remember what I wrote. I paid for my session then went back over the scene of the crime (and my stupidity). Nothing. I sat down on the bench. I was pissed and depressed. Pissed at myself, and pissed at everyone around me. It didn't matter if they had nothing to do with it. They were all suspects. They were all guilty. I looked in people's eyes. You have it, don't you? The people in the little bus booths all up and down the corridor - I looked at each one of them with accusing eyes. I could have gone to the tourist police, but that would have elicited some empathetic looks, then some laughs after I left. It was gone.
I got on the bus thinking only about my camera. It's strange when you lose something like that. I'm no stranger to having things stolen. My truck was broken into a few years ago, and less than a year ago, someone broke into the house I was living in. Each episode brings a sense of violation and victimization. This was different. My whole world is carried in two bags. It's all I have.
Now on the plus side of the situation, of all the things to have stolen, the camera was probably the best (I hate saying that). It wasn't my wallet - with my money, passport, credit cards, etc. It wasn't my laptop - with all my personal files, addresses, photos and other stuff on it. And fortunately, as luck would have it I'd moved all the pictures from the memory card onto my laptop the night before. The thief made away with the nice case, the camera and two memory cards. All replaceable. I actually would have been much more pissed had I not moved the pictures over - Losing my pictures of Machu Picchu would have been traumatic.
Still, I was bummed. The entire ride to Chile sucked.