La Paz, 2003
We arrived at night, three hours late. From near the lake, an hour out, you could see the city’s lights at the plateau’s edge glowing like a jeweled coiled snake in the night. El Alto de La Paz, by daylight is a gritty suburban city, of unfinished brick constructions and urban works gathered on the lip of this high plateau, the altiplano, that stretches between the twin ranges of the Andes. With somewhere between half a million and a million souls it is the highest city on earth. At the lip, or to change images, the plateau’s eyebrow, as it is called in local Spanish, it is above 14,000 feet high and slowly drops downward from there until the houses become scattered and empty fields claim the night.
If by daylight it has a strange hard scrabble and utopic feel, by night it gleams with mystery and an urban swagger, as we drive down a broad avenue lined with four, five and six story buildings. Many of them still have sheaves of steel stretching up from them, as if they had a case of bed head, waiting for new construction to leave them well groomed.
Once we pass the eyebrow, the main body of the city of La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, opens before us. This is one of the most stunning views on earth. A valley with lights climbing from more than a thousand feet below right up to the brow opens before us. It is as if instead of being a flat coil of infinity, the lights took on weight, depth, and dimension. It is as if we were on the head of a body, whose arms reached up to encompass us, and it was covered in sparkly glitter and sequined clothing shining so brightly that only through their brilliance can we sense the shape of the body behind them.
As the highway drops downward, you move into the lights. They are now above you, beneath you, and at your side. La Paz is a marvel.
Enchanted by the lights our bus took a wrong turn and got lost until a policeman told the driver where he should go. So he had to block an entire avenue’s traffic in order to make a slow, agonizing u turn with this large, awkward navigator of the night. (There were only three of us who had made the journey from Cusco, me and a couple headed to Argentina.) Our entire journey had been like that. We left an hour and a half late for reasons that seemed to change every time they were explained, from the need to fix a flat tire, to problems with loading fuel, and so on. In fact we were through the gate of the terminal in Cusco, when the driver decided to slowly back up to the gate from which we had departed, taking another fifteen or twenty minutes, for another two passengers to come on board for Puno. We were not supposed to stop in Puno, but we did, for a ten minutes that became an hour. In each city we passed through the driver got lost. He was fine as we climbed up the valley from Cusco to the pass called La Raya beneath glaciated peaks, from which the altiplano opens up. He was fine as we went around the immense and amazing Lake Titicaca as dusk set in, turning the lake from intense blue, to grey, to deep black. He was even fine at the border, where a narrow, weak bridge spans a river draining the lake into marshes and a salt lake further south. Only one large vehicle at a time could cross the bridge, creating a traffic jam of behemoths, belching fumes into the night. We passengers had to descend and negotiate a path among these grumbling beasts, while dodging tricycle carts loaded with huge sacks of onion headed for La Paz, and occasionally a passenger sitting in their basket like some strange potentate. From among their labyrinth we had to figure out where the immigration offices of both countries were, walk across the strangely empty bridge, like a weird, nocturnal no man’s land, and emerge on the other side to wait for our bus, while the night just seemed to get deeper and more intense, and cold settled around us.
But we made it. My friend Romy and her husband Juan Carlos were waiting at the terminal. As I descended from the bus, they shouted out my name and ran up to give me a warm, sheltering hug.