30.4.09. La Paz, Bolivia.
The sensible thing to do, altitude-sickness-wise, is to ascend to anything over about 9000 feet slowly, taking things very easy and watching for symptoms all the while. Not go from sea level to 15500 feet in three hours, and then carry 8 tons of luggage up 4 flights of stairs. That would be a recipe for a pounding all-night headache, no sleep, a jackhammer pulse and - perhaps - death.
Having not, in fact, died in Tembo Quemada, I'm tempted to declare all medical professionals semi-literate bumpkins and guess-mongers. I won't though. You never know when these people might actually come up with something useful (e.g. Ibuprofen, bionic legs etc).
Like all border towns, TQ is absolutely rubbish and horrible from every angle except the rear-view mirror one, but it does allow me to test the "all Bolivian border officials are corrupt" theory. Guess what? It's wrong. Only 66.6% of them are. The fella that writes down my numberplate in his big ledger asks for "diez Bolivianitos" (ten little Bolivian pesos), waiting until no-one is looking to do so, and holding onto my (falsified) driving licence while he asks. No way man! Not possible, I reply in woeful Spanish, and grab my hooky "licence" off the desk. I paid 8 pounds for those copies (and some fags) and I'm not about to give one of them up at the first hurdle. We shake hands and I trudge to the next office, where the scenario is reprised with identical results.
By office 3, I'm as ready for a punch-up* (while being completely out of breath) as I've ever been, but Customs man is a gent so I spare him the taste of Bolivian hospital food and retire to my dreadful, freezing room to dine on one Ibuprofen tablet and shiver until it's time to get up.
(Oh! Didn't I mention? I made as if to leave the hotel at 7pm to get some food, but the manager implored me to stay and eat with him in "thirty minutes". Four hours later there was no sign of any food, or indeed him, and I was locked in for the night, so I stared at the ceiling and listened to my heart wheeze until sun-up.)
Dawn comes - not that you'd notice in my windowless dog-prison - and a big bowl of chicken soup and some cheeky chat with a group of cops sorts me out.
Never seen clear skies like this - everything's razor-sharp to the horizon. It'll be another day and a half before I get used to the altitude, but - cor! - everything is beautiful and my eyes are a-burst with thrills.
Patacamaya is, let's be honest, a little bit of a dump, but it'll do as a break-point between here and La Paz.
The multiplex/mall/food-court isn't open yet, and in fact never will be because they're not building one, so I take an early night after visiting a very Bolivian restaurant. One pound for two courses. The soup looks good when it arrives - is that a crab claw poking through the meniscus? I spoon up the liquid. It isn't. It's a chicken's foot. A big one. Oh boy it looks bad.
The actual soup tastes lovely, so I drain it and leave the foot un-sucked, hoping this doesn't cause offence. Frightening but cheap - always the blueprint for a memorable meal.
I do without a proper lavatory visit in the morning - it's a squatter, like West Africa, but minus the water element necessary to deal with missed-target issues. I settle for electrocution-by-shower and scoot. Don't need breakfast if I haven't had a poo anyway.
It's a short, bright-blue run to La Paz. Ten miles shy of the city I'm flagged down by Big Truck Michael, organizer of a huge Harley-Davidson meet starting today - Friday - and continuing over the weekend.
He has pies and coffee in the 6 berth truck and I scoff happily, not quite relaxed enough to ask if I can defile his chemical toilet. Soon his pals arrive and turn the lay-by into a deafening, whisky-scented metal garden for 40 glorious minutes.
Off into the spectacular city, and with La Fluffita parked cosily in hotel reception, a 3 day stay in La Paz becomes 10, thanks largely to Max in (ahem) Oliver's Travels, a football/pint/English breakfast joint, 5 minutes wheeze from where I'm staying.
It's a messy 10 days. On one of them I arrive at OT at 8.45am to watch a live Arsenal game. It's not on, due to Fox Sports' regular bumming-up of the schedules, but since Max has already started on the Paceņas it would be insensitive not to join him. Some other days start later but finish at 6.30am. Details are scant - let's just say I did well to leave when I did.
*i.e. not at all
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