Thoughts from Places: Crime & Death in La Paz
Bolivia is something of a mystery, but not because it’s especially mysterious. Not a whole lot of news from the poorest corner of South America really filters up to us here in US, aside from the occasional WTF curiosity. So when I traveled there recently, I had a lot of questions. What could I expect from a two week jaunt through this relatively unexplored but supposedly remarkable place that (literally) exists on another plane?
I was glued to the window as we flew over Lake Titicaca, the highest commercially navigable lake in the world.*
Landing in La Paz was an unlike any experience I’ve ever had. At over 13,000 feet, El Alto International Airport is the highest international airport in the world* and the thin air makes landing a hair-raising experience that causes the plane and shudder and sway side to side for what feels like an eternity.
My freak out must have been audible. Not long after landing, a gentleman from Chicago introduced himself and we started discussing travel plans. He had received a research grant and was doing an extended tour of South America. He had just come from Peru where he had met a woman told him about Bolivian thieves who cut open her pockets in order to steal her iPhone. He then decided to recite all of the terrible things he had read about in the Lonely Planet, and looked to be having a serious attack of nerves. I tried to calm him down by telling him that the violent crime rate was relatively low by South American standards, but that didn’t seem to do much for him. Maybe if I showed him the Wikipedia page, he would’ve believed me.
Thankfully, I had thought to fill out our visa application forms ahead of time, which meant we were able to speed through immigration and leave our worried friend behind.
La Paz itself is a mind-boggling sight at first glance.
Imagine a city built within the Grand Canyon, with downtown at the bottom while the poor neighborhoods cling to the canyon walls. In a country of such high altitude, the most expensive real estate is where the oxygen is.
Walking the streets of a foreign country on the first day is inevitably one of unease and wariness, partly due to jet-lag and partly due to the sensory overload that comes from being in a place that’s unfamiliar. But I was especially hypersensitive now that my friend on the plane had given me a crash-course reminder on the “Dangers” section of the Lonely Planet.
As often happens, my fears were overblown. Instead of trying to slash my pockets, all La Pazians (La Pazites?) were too busy with their own concerns. In a city of 2.3 million people and not enough oxygen to go around, who has the energy to bother the tourists?
Documenting, researching, and seeking out information before jumping into something is vital. There’s nothing more valuable before embarking on an endeavor than simply making yourself mindful of all the things that could go wrong. But there’s diminishing returns after a certain point. If you’ve found yourself googling “what can kill you in bolivia” at 2am, you’re probably doing yourself more harm than good.
*Bolivia has a lot of things that are the “highest in the world.” In Juan de Recacoechea’s ridiculous crime novel American Visa (Down and Out in La Paz would’ve been a more appropriate title, IMHO), the main character calls this Bolivia’s national consolation: “It’s compensation for our frustrations.”