Filled with excitement and anticipation, I watched my backpack being thrown up from the floor of the terminus waiting room onto the roof of the overnight bus to La Paz. Next morning – after a fitful night on a very bumpy road – my five travelling companions and I arrived, checked in to our hotel and headed straight off to Bolivia’s most famous ski resort, Chacaltaya. The track wound up to 5,300 metres, the highest I have ever been. We ascended in 4WD trucks, following a single track over jagged rocks and small boulders. I wondered what the lifespan of local vehicles was.
A poster about the Ski Club Andrino Boliviano boasted eight members, whose skis hung from string on the walls of the clubroom. The ski lodge was deserted and an icy wind blew outside, so we settled around a small television which was wrapped in a blue and white tablecloth to insulate it from the cold. We hadn’t come here to ski, but to hike, and chose instead to watch football – it was the World Cup, after all. The air was so thin we could hardly breathe, let alone ski or walk. After the match we ‘intrepid’ but lazy travellers descended on the same narrow track. On the hairpin bends we had to slow to a near stop alongside herds of llamas munching on the scant grass of the high slopes, and we returned almost vertically down to La Paz, its shanties crawling up to greet us on the sides of the mountain bowl they inhabit.
When we got back to the capital we headed up to the top floor of the Plaza Hotel for a pisco sour cocktail and a breathtaking view over La Paz at night. Walking to our hostel through the streets below, we saw telephones hanging from loose wires on market stalls, all of them being used by bewildered-looking travellers shouting above the traffic noise. Vendors offered boiled eggs, lace, textiles, cakes, nuts, Xmas decorations, buttons, and leather shoes. I watched, bemused, as a tiny girl suddenly squatted and peed into a drain. A sour smell of urine and acrid cigarette smoke permeated the whole area.
A few days later it was time to move on. At the railway station my travelling companions and I sat on a bench on the platform and took it in turns to shake my passport, rescued from a slimy puddle where I had dropped it. Someone had the bright idea of using a travel fan to separate the pages. Several passers-by stopped to observe this strange European custom. Gummy old timers gazed curiously as they shambled past, looking back over their shoulders to confirm they weren’t imagining six scruffy, preoccupied backpackers blow-drying a passport. Kids with rosy cheeks and snotty noses grinned broadly, displaying broken teeth and mouthfuls of half-chewed food. Mothers proffered their babies, swathed in multi-coloured shawls and suspended from their backs, to tempt us into giving them a few coins whilst checking us out more closely.
Our train approached, its brakes screeching. An extremely short woman hurried along the platform leading a strangely compliant donkey on a rope, carrying a wriggly piglet under her arm, her broad hips swaying with the weight of her heavy, woven skirt. As we stopped fanning to stare at her, disembarking passengers stopped to stare at us. A second or so elapsed – a pulse of connection between a motley band of humans – a second or so that I will treasure as long as I live.