You Take My Breath Away
I was struggling to survive the ravages of Capitalism for a few years in my home country of the United States and decided to make the formidable move to another continent. I moved to La Paz, Bolivia in February of 2020.
Bolivia seemed to have more Socialism and less Capitalism in their system than the U.S. as well as a lower cost of living and a thriving economy. I was hoping to have an easier time financially, tired of too often having to choose between paying rent and buying food.
I had to choose wisely in deciding what to bring due to the airline industry going full-blown Capitalist in recent years. I couldn’t afford to bring more than two pieces of luggage and, unfortunately for me, musical instrutments count as a full piece of luggage despite weighing much less than the accepted weight limit. Instead of bringing two suitcases, my guitar, my bass and a small guitar amp, I was forced to bring just one suitcase (packed mostly with CDs, books and DVDs; very little clothing) and my guitar. There would be no funky bass riffs. I also brought my cat Louie, a rescue from Hell’s Kitchen, N.Y.C. That cost another few hundred dollars.
After a grueling journey of three flights that lasted about 18 hours, we landed at El Alto International Airport. Louie was terrified, but the ordeal was over once we took a cab ride to a small, inexpensive hotel in an interesting part of La Paz.
La Paz is a very beautiful city. It’s modern and bustling with activity, some of it interesting. I found one spot that reminded me a little of Greenwich Village in NYC. There was someone singing, people dancing, an artist and two comedians working a crowd. It also has an “old world” feel, with old, beautifully designed buildings, many with courtyards of stone benches, gardens and statues.
It has a diversity of people, architecture, food and art. And though there is a lot of automobile traffic and, in my opinion, not enough traffic lights or proper road maintenance, it has a very cool transportation alternative to traversing the rough, crowded streets – a tram system that extends throughout the city.
Called “el teleferico”, it’s one of the most interesting changes brought to the city during the presidency of Evo Morales, widely considered the best president in modern Bolivian history. (Even a Capitalist Fundamentalist from Santa Cruz, a city full of Libertarians, expressed that opinion, despite the fact that he still deeply fears the word “Socialista” and ridiculously expected to lose at least one of his houses once Morales took office. Not only didn’t he lose anything, he continued to thrive financially.)
Riding the tram system offers people beautiful views of the city, but the real attraction is what surrounds La Paz. This city sits in the Cordillera Real mountains, part of the Cordillera Oriental, a sub-range of the Andes. The views of the mountains are so spectacular that tourists from all around the world have stated that no matter where you are in this city of more than one million people you see beauty worthy of a postcard. The centerpiece of the mountain range is stunning Illimani.
The second highest peak in Bolivia at 21,122 feet above sea level on the north face, Illimani is made up of granodiorite and was formed during the Cenozoic era. Granodiorite is a phaneritic-textured intrusive igneous rock, similar to granite, but containing more plagioclase feldspar (calcium and sodium) than orthoclase feldspar (potassium).
Yes, that sounds boring, but much more interesting is the fact that the northern face of Illimani contains glaciers despite being only 19° from the equator. While this would seem to be impossible, glaciers can form this close to the equator under specific conditions. These conditions being high enough altitude, cold enough temperatures (obviously due in part to the high altitude) and significant moisture – in this case due to proximity to the Amazon basin.
The city took my breath away… sadly, in more than one way.
I don’t have strong lungs and expected problems with the high altitude of La Paz. I’d read that a certain percentage of people, many of whom are healthy, have difficulty with the transition from low to high altitude, especially those who’ve lived at sea level their entire life (as I have). Well, apparently I’m part of approximately 2 to 3 per cent of the population who are seriously affected by altitude sickness. I had so much trouble breathing I could barely sleep – and most of the time I slept was while in a hospital. I experienced incredibly adverse affects on my mind within one week of barely sleeping (a little over an hour per night). I developed difficulty concentrating, my memory faltered and I even experienced problems with equilibrium, banging into a wall twice. I was getting “jelly brain” – a term I’ve used in the past to describe my observations of the homeless people I’ve seen walking around dazed and confused in U.S. cities.
Lack of nutrition will make you sick, lack of sleep will take your mind away.
I made two trips to a hospital during the first ten days I spent in La Paz. I was given oxygen and put on medication. My blood oxygen level apparently tested normal – twice, but I couldn’t take a normal breath at that altitude and couldn’t bend over or lay flat without gasping for air. The doctor was so confused he brought in another doctor to confirm his findings. Both doctors were perplexed. During the second visit one of the doctors was adamant I stay longer, but not being a citizen of Bolivia I had to pay full rates, cash on the spot. It was significantly less expensive than a hospital stay in the United States (boy, is that an understatement), but it was still too expensive for me. A few days later, someone arranged for another doctor to visit me in our hotel room for a checkup. (This was a highly respected doctor who was a political dissident, had been accused of and jailed for a horrible crime he didn’t commit, and had endured torture. A movie should be made about him.)
This doctor advised me to spend time at a lower altitude and make a gradual change back to the (approximately 11,700 ft. above sea level) altitude of La Paz. I took a treacherous 2 1/2 hour drive outside La Paz for what was to be a two week stay to begin to acclimate to the change in altitude. I wound up in a tiny village in a region of Bolivia called South Yungas. It’s in the Royal Mountains and is situated at about 6,800 feet above sea level. Before the two weeks were up the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The country went on lockdown. No travel. Airports were closed and checkpoints were set up throughout the country to prevent travel inside the country… I became a resident of this village regardless of what I wanted.
Breathing became much easier than it had been in La Paz, but still not comfortable. Bending over was still occasionally causing me to gasp for air. I never thought I would ever need to put effort into something we do all day long every day of our lives.
A powerful lesson I’ve learned during this adventure is not to take anything for granted. You never really know when you’ll take your last breath…