The World’s Highest Capital City

La Paz, Bolivia, at Night

If you want to land in a capital city so high up that you will get an immediate nosebleed and tumble headfirst down the steps of the airplane, you would pick La Paz, Bolivia. The average altitude of El Alto, where the airport is located, is 13,615 feet (or 4,150 meters). The city itself is about 2,000 feet lower, about the same altitude of Lhasa, Tibet.

In The Old Patagonian Express, Paul Theroux talks about his accident-proneness at high altitude. Taking some aspirin in his hotel room, he drops the water tumbler into the sink. Trying to pick up the pieces, he cut himself badly and decided to seek medical attention:

But I had not gone two blocks when the new towel I had wrapped around my hand was soaked with blood. It did not hurt, but it looked dreadful. I hid it under my arm so as not to alarm pedestrians. Then the blood dripped on the sidewalk and I thought: God damn. It was deeply embarrassing to be walking through this large gray city with a blood-soaked towel on my hand. I began to wish I had tried the rubber band. I left spatters of blood on the crosswalk, and more spatters on the plaza. I asked directions to the pharmacy and saw, when I looked back, that there was a pool of blood where I had paused, and a horrified Bolivian watching me. I tried not to run: running makes your heart beat faster and you bleed more.

Of course, if Theroux had been trying to cope with the altitude by taking aspirin, his blood was not likely to clot soon. He should have chewed coca leaves with an alkaloid, or drank some mate de coca tea. But then, this was the 1970s, and this was not generally known to gringo travelers.

Bolivia has had a violent political history, with presidents changing office approximately once a year—or even more often. In 1948, some angry rebels yanked President Gualberto Villaroel from the balcony of his palace and proceeded to lynch him from a lamppost in the plaza. Fortunately, the present government is a little more stable


Ghost Train to Anywhere

Paul Theroux on One of His Mythical Train Rides

Paul Theroux on One of His Mythical Train Rides

For almost forty years, I have been traveling around the world with Paul Theroux—starting with his train ride books The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) and The Old Patagonian Express (1979) to whatever I could get my hands on. Even when I said to myself, “This guy is altogether too snarky,” I followed his adventures with an interest bordering on zeal.

Only now do I realize he is one of the great influences on my life. It was not until November 1975 that I began my own travels (other than back and forth between Los Angeles and Cleveland). My visit to Yucatán opened my eyes and was followed by trips to Britain, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and a lot more of Mexico. It was as if the floodgates were open, and my eyes were focussed on the world at large, and not just at whatever place I was living at the time.

I have glorious memories of my trips, even the first one to Argentina, when I broke my right shoulder in a blizzard in Tierra del Fuego. I was hooked, and have been ever since.

Yeah, I Second the Motion!

Yeah, I Second the Motion!

A few days ago, I finished reading Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2008) in which I found the following quotes which resonated with me:

Often on a trip, I seem to be alive in a hallucinatory vision of difference, the highly colored unreality of foreignness, where I am vividly aware (as in most dreams) that I don’t belong; yet I am floating, an idle anonymous visitor among busy people, an utter stranger. When you’re strange, as the song goes, no one remembers your name.

Also, it doesn’t matter any more who’s topping the charts. Taylor Swift doesn’t mean anything to me; and if Kim Kardashian’s ass were offered to me on a silver platter, I would not too politely refuse. I have climbed the Mayan pyramids at Uxmal and Chichén Itzá. I have taken a fall at Magallanes and Rivadavia in Ushuaiah and injured myself. I have visited two Communist Eastern European countries before 1989. I have seen things most people have not seen, and it has changed me forever.

It seemed to me that this was the whole point of traveling—to arrive alone, like a specter, in a strange country at nightfall, not in the brightly lit capital but by the back door, i9n the wooded countryside, hundreds of miles from the metropolis where typically people didn’t see many strangers and were hospitable and did not instantly think of me as money on two legs.

Being a traveler is being something of a loner. I am certainly that. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I will travel as long as I can.