Today marks the fifteenth day that I have been in Bolivia and it has felt both like an eternity and like a second. I wouldn’t expect it to feel like anything else though considering the duality that is Bolivia. In three hours you can drive from the semi-tropical cloud forests of Los Yungas, where it is very hot and humid, to the freezing cold high desert altiplano where the Cordillera Real Mountains of the Andes and the cities of El Alto and La Paz are located. In El Alto, next to an unfinished, partially collapsing building, rises a brand new 6-story Cholet that looks like something out of the future. Cholets combine aspects of traditional Aymara and modern architecture and are often described as looking like spaceships (cohetillos). If you are navigating between El Alto and La Paz, you could take a trufi, taxi, or micro and be stuck in horrendous traffic, or you could glide over buildings and be in central La Paz in 15 minutes by taking the Yellow Line of the Teleferico. In what other city is public transportation a ski gondola! Then again, there is no other city like the combined cities of La Paz and El Alto.
Unlike the Yungas where we spent our first six days in Bolivia, I don’t think the words hot and humid would ever be used to describe El Alto, since when you go to bed at night, you can watch your breath escape your mouth. However, the constant cold has not stopped me from appreciating and even loving this city that I have called home for the past 9 days. For one thing, the surrounding mountains of the Cordillera Real are some of the most beautiful and extraordinary things I have ever seen. The three mountains of Huayna Potosí, Mururata, and Illimani (the protector of La Paz) tower over the city and surrounding area, their snow capped peaks simultaneously reminding you of the constant cold and humbling you with their incredible height and size. As someone who grew up loving the mountains, it is amazing to be in a place where the mountains are not only an amazing part of the geography, but also an integral part of the culture. Aside from the mountains, the city of El Alto where I have been living with a homestay family has a rugged grittiness that I have become very fond of. You may have to watch where you step while walking down the street, as the huge population of dogs that roam the streets tend to not care where they do their business, but if you take a second to look up, you’ll find a thriving center of human life. The streets are constantly flowing with trufis, taxis, and micros, and pedestrians making their way through the chaos in the biggest game of chicken I have ever seen. To say the least, traffic laws in El Alto are a suggestion and it is unlikely that any sort of motorized vehicle will stop for you even at a red light. You have to stay vigilant and when you decide you’re going to cross a street you better look both ways and then take a small leap of faith. Of course, I am exaggerating slightly, but crossing streets is definitely much more of an ordeal than in the U.S., which actually makes even a short walk an exciting adventure.
The highlight of my experience in Bolivia thus far though, has definitely been my homestay experience here in El Alto. My homestay parents Alex and Jackie are two of the nicest people I have ever met and they welcomed me into their house and made me feel at home from the day I arrived. Alex and I have bonded over our mutual love for soccer and tonight we are stoked to watch the quarterfinal match of the South American Club Championship between the Bolivian team out of Cochabamba, C.D. Jorge Wilstermann, and the Argentine team, River Plate. Jackie is a first grade teacher and a few nights ago I had a blast watching Futurama with her, Alex, and Matthew the other dragons student in the homestay with me, and making xylophones for her students using foam, Popsicle sticks, and hot glue guns. At night we all eat dinner together and then sit around drinking tea and talking afterwards. I even got the shower water to be hot after a few days of experimenting with it and since then my mornings have been much more pleasant. We leave El Alto tomorrow morning to go build a green house with an Aymara community in a town three hours from El Alto and I am sad that I will have to say goodbye to Jackie and Alex, but I know that I will always have a second home here. My sadness at leaving them is matched however by my excitement for the next phase of this amazing adventure, which I am sure will be just amazing as this first little part has been. I can’t wait to look back and realize it’s been a month that has gone by so slowly and yet so fast.