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April,24 2010

Unchanging La Paz

Unchanging La Paz
Beautiful snow clad mountains overlook La Paz You wont believe the houses trickling down the Valley

In La Paz, the air remains choked with diesel fumes and speckled noise. Former eastern-bloc countries have rapidly industrialized in Europe; India and China have become economic powerhouses, and the world has become even more flat in terms of communication and trade, but Bolivia remains as Bolivia was - the poorest country in South America, seemingly barred from progress just like it has been barred from the sea.

Maybe I'm just hallucinating, my oxygen-starved brain crying for drama that isn't there. Last time, I had weeks to acclimatize to the altitude, and when visiting the world's highest capital city (3600m) and highest navigable lake (3800m), your body needs time to prepare for miserly air. This week, my preparation consisted of time in a plane, a short layover in Lima, and watching a man pass out from lack of oxygen on arrival in La Paz's very chaotic airport. Picking my backpack off the conveyer belt resulted in a staccato breath, my heartbeat racing. Thirsting for O2 at altitude literally leaves you high. It was after midnight and La Paz was freezing. Sprawled inside a dry, moon-like valley, half-built houses pockmarked the surrounding mountain, creating an atmosphere of undeniable urban decay. 

It is a city of only 1.5 million people, although it looks like it could easily accommodate three times that amount. Bright revolutionary graffiti decorates cracked cement walls, modern billboards are few and far between. Driving from the airport, I see stray dogs chewing garbage. The highway feels as if ten thousand pianos once dropped from the sky, and we're still driving over them. I cannot see a single crane, a single sign of urban improvement. Bolivia seems resistant to change. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Before Thomas Friedman wrote the seminal "The World is Flat", he wrote a book called "The Lexus and the Olive Tree". It discusses how modernization battles with cultural habits, how assembly lines of products rubs up against centuries of tradition. We can clearly see the world becoming culturally pasteurized, as multinationals and their invasive brands boil away the richness of local variety. Friedman does not judge whether globalization is for the better or worse. It is a reality of modern life. To see where we're heading, look to the mighty USA. Across an entire continent, every US city has the same stores, the same strip-malls, the same same, hardly different. Travel across the developed world, ditto. 

So I appreciate that La Paz conforms to some unwritten theory of urban chaos, where round ladies wearing round bowler hats sell just about anything you can imagine on the streets. Who can afford a cup of Starbucks when it costs more than a week's wages? Who gives a shit about Gap when you're more concerned about goats? I remember well the parts of La Paz that resemble parts of Miami, and certainly there are a few tall buildings (albeit desperately in need of a fresh coat of paint). Small pockets of space serving the tiny upper-class elite, while in Sagarnaga, the backpacker ghetto, it's all Tour Operator, Internet , hostels and enough Hebrew to make you think you've popped up in the Middle East. Israelis, like Americans, Irish, Argentineans, Aussies and English, come here because it is cheap. 

For travellers with US dollars, Bolivia is one of the cheapest countries in the world, easily comparable to India or Laos. Ear-splitting noise, rampant corruption, fake currency, scams, absurd regulations, tap water laced with fecal matter, minimal tourist infrastructure - just a few reasons most tourists skip the country for Peru, who have managed to recognize a foreign gift horse when they see it. But travelling in Bolivia allows the backpacker some of the most breathtaking scenery you can imagine, untouched, well beneath the interests of corporate invasion. 

Robin Esrock is a travel writer and presenter for travel TV show. You can read more of Robin?s take on the world at his website: www.moderngonzo.com. He is a good friend of www.greentoadbus.com, which will take you backpacking to La Paz and the rest of Bolivia.

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