Wonder Valley's own artist, Heather Johnson, is riding her motorcycle to the other end of the Americas. She's made it as far as La Paz, Bolivia.
From Monday. 11am.
(A post-Thanksgiving novel.)
The shuttered city of Sunday has sprung back to life. Right now, as I sip on this distillado con crema, semi-spiked with some unknown sort of hooch, a group of 10 people fill the Torino Cafe with their voices, clapping, the strumming of a mandolin and guitars. They are smartly dressed in black suits and sing of broken hearts while blending in nicely to the wood paneling, lamp light and collections of English language pulp fiction novels, all dog-eared and spine cracked, that line the shelves of this darkened space that was probably once frequented by Nazi fugitives. No one smokes in here, but the walls are stained from cigarettes past.
When I'm done with my coffee, I'll walk down the hill in search of ladies selling avocados, tomatoes and triangular-shaped bread, ladies with gigantic ruffled skirts and ill-fitting bowler hats who spend so many hours selling their wares on street corners that they often fall asleep, deep lines impressed in their cheeks making them look older than they really are. Police in riot gear sweep around corners on Honda 250cc dirt bikes spray-painted military green. And people clog the narrow, slippery sidewalks, moving like confused bees at a million different paces, bumping into each other, narrowly avoiding annihilation by collectivos all jockeying for street space and customers in the bottom of the canyon that is La Paz.
I've gotten to know the pavement cracks intimately here. They criss cross stone sidewalks so steep they need stairs. If you want you can climb the all the way to the top of the mountain, where the poorest people live. It's cheaper up there because it's a pain in the ass to get to and it's bitter cold (but hell, at least the views are really something).
My hostel is five blocks up from the bottom. One of the only places that can accommodate small motorbikes, to get in you have to hop yours over two steep steps without crashing on the inside door in the process. Horns blare in the background while you maneuver into position on slick cobblestones. Inside, the space opens into a 4-story terrarium with cracked pink walls and rainbow murals of cats, and the ceiling made of corrugated transparent fiberglass fills the place with light (but protects my bike from the rain at the same time). Couches surround tables with ashtrays made from the bottom halves of plastic water bottles, overflowing with butts left by backpackers and motorcyclists. There is a kitchen here with a fridge that doesn't work. Sometimes the smoke gets so thick it makes a translucent cloud, penetrating the frosted windows to my room 3 stories up. The trade off lies in the paintings, drawings, proclamations and testimonials layering my walls in psychedelic colors and shapes, products of years of acid trips shared in this, the hostel's only sunny cuarto.
La Paz has its dark spots. The market merchants don't suffer gringos gladly, charging us twice as much for goods as locals, assuming we're rich and can afford whatever price is asked. Sometimes you see effigies hanging from telephone poles, jeans and hoodie-clad "bodies" stuffed with rags, signs to would-be criminals that offenders will be strung up or burned, and not by the police. Young men who try to make a living shining shoes cover their faces with ski masks to avoid being stigmatized. And far too often women spend their final years sitting on filthy sidewalks, hawking several varieties of dried potato, only to have to climb to their hilltop homes every night with sacks of unsold merchandise on their backs.
But I am comfortable and safe. All it takes is a rare flash of smile, or for some woman to call me "siñorita" (despite my being 46 years old) to turn a day into an amazing one. I must work to earn people's interest or respect here, so when it happens, it rocks my world. The subtlest gestures of kindness are now loaded with meaning. So are hot showers and warm beds. I hope I never again take these things for granted. — in La Paz, Bolivia.