Buenos Aires has the widest avenue in the world, the Avenida Nueve de Julio. Bolivia has El Prado: a smaller main drag, but a bigger nightmare. Two lanes run in either direction. The north and south flow of traffic are separated by a sprawling divider of concrete sidewalk and fenced in green space. The traffic is bad, but the street is virtually unwalkable because of its human traffic. The bottleneck quality is aggravated by the myriad trinket stands that line the already narrow sidewalks.
The cars are bad enough: every road in the city not crippled by construction is strangled by a 24 hour traffic jam. La Paz has a colorful variety of public transport vehicles. The most common is the micro, shaped like a VW van but jerry-rigged to carry a dozen people on rickety folding chairs. Underfed, underpaid sons and wives of micro drivers hang out the windows and perpetually squak out their destinations. They compete with regular taxis and bumbling, multi-colored cartoon school buses for passengers and worming space.
The inuits have 53 words for snow. The Pasenos have 53 different excuses for horn honking. It is insufferable. And the city planners have some interesting solutions the challenges facing their transit system. My favorite instance of this Bolivian creativity is pedestrian crossings. No one obeys the lights to start with, the semaforos, and pedestrians are forced to try their chances at Frogger to cross the road.
If zebra crossings don’t work, then what the heck, what about people is zebra costumes? Yes, dancing zebra traffic mascots frequent the Prado and herd (the irony is not lost on me) pedestrians across the busy roads.
Futbol with Fries
I stumble out of the Isreali-owned American Hard Rock Cafe in Bolivia into the streets, more tired than drunk but more hungry than tired. I beeline for San Francisco Plaza, the last best hope for late-night burgers. I arrive at the fried food mini-city, 16 tin stands billowing out bright lights and hotdog steam. I poke my head into the first. I am met by a stack of fried eggs and gigantic hotdogs, but I find no one to serve them. I dart from one stand to another but I am met with the same strange absence of humanity.
Then I hear something: shrieks, the scuffle of footsteps on pavement, sharp outbursts of protest, cackles of laughter. A makeshift chef soccer game had kicked off. Each team is complete with a full complement of chefs uniformed in greasy, white aprons. There are even self-elected coaches pacing the sidelines.
Imagine walking into McDonalds in Canada to discover the tables pushed aside and the entire counter staff playing floor hockey in the middle of the restaurant. You stand half in awe of humanity’s life force and half in worry about whether anyone will notice you and fix you up a burger trio. It was that kind of frustrating miracle.
In Bolivia, football comes before food safe.
There are no parks in Central La Paz and joggers are regarded quizzically if they try and nip through the busy and broken down streets. And I know whenever I lace up my running shoes, there is only one way to go: Up. La Paz is the ultimate hill run.
Staggering up the slopes, huffing and puffing up cement staircases and slippery cobblestones, you get to see the uphill struggle of Bolivian life. Shit is supposed to roll downhill, but in the slums here it usually ferments under the grates of heavily frequented staircases, it just kind of sits there and steeps. I stopped to catch my breath over one of these open sewer covers and I almost passed out. And believe you me, my weak legs had nothing to do with the altitude or the hills. Besides the smell, you can expect to see a few other stereotypes of Paceno life on the ascent: pickup soccer games on concrete pitches, sexually active stray dogs, youths crowded into tiny internet cafes, and drunks – arm in arm – jeering unintelligibly at goofy gringo joggers.
It’s a brutal price but an incredible reward to arrive at Mirador Alto Pampahasi as the city lights take over from the sun. You know that meditative feeling you get 40 minutes into a hard run? It’s amplified tenfold if the endorphins hit you while you stare down on La Paz: a city flanked by watchful mountains, a city dug stubbornly into eroding cliffs, a city you have to breathe in all at once to appreciate.