After two sleepless nights flying across as many continents, I find myself in a world both foreign and familiar. It’s 3am. The air at 4,061 meters (13,323 feet) is notably lacking. Welcome to La Paz.
English is almost entirely absent here, and I’m immediately regretting not spending more evenings on Duolingo, reading Bolivian newspapers, and listening to Spanish music. Attenuating ears and a tired brain interspersing unfamiliar words with high school French aren’t helping.
Adam speaks enough Spanish to get us use of a shopkeeper’s telephone to track down the Airport Shuttle we had reserved. It’s not there, and it’s not on the way. Great.
Already, the combined effects of exhaustion, hunger, and altitude (oxygen shots for sale litter the airport lobby area) are creeping into my head and stomach and all I really want is to be somewhere where curling up in a ball is acceptable behavior.
My advice if you find yourself en route to the highest elevation airport in the world? Full, nutritious meals throughout travel, resisting the urge to binge watch all the blockbuster movies you missed in theater because they’re now at your fingertips during an 8+ hour flight, and investing in an Ostrich Pillow. Address exhaustion and hunger and the body has a fighting chance against the effects of high altitude (re: soroche).
The airport is bustling despite the early hour. It’s obvious Adam and I are not locals. Though countless drivers ask us if we need a taxi, we hesitate while discussing how much one ought to cost. At this point, I can’t think straight anyway.
We’re rescued by a pair of Koreans who approach us with “compartir taxi” written on a smartphone screen. Brilliant. The young woman teaches Korean at a local university and negotiates a taxi ride for the four of us for 80 bs (about $12). Though the 20 minute ride smelled of gasoline and did not include seat belts (a component we soon learn is commonly absent from vehicles here), the ride also included a backseat tour of La Paz narrated by a Korean teacher who speaks enough English and Spanish to communicate with both us and the driver.
I’m reminded of how my single language status is quite stereotypically “American.” Addressing this shortcoming just moved up several notches on my to-do list.
We split the cab ride and thank the two Koreans for their help getting us to our hotel. Kindness knows no barriers; this much is familiar.
Early arrivals and departures must be an everyday occurrence at this hotel. We camp out in the lobby (Adam kicking off his shoes and curling up on the sofa while a continental breakfast is visited by early hotel patrons) until it’s a reasonable enough hour to phone our group lead in his room.
A shower, nap, and some food a while later get me to a state in which I can at least travel. The flying is finished, but we still have a long journey ahead in rental cars through various roadside towns. The anarchic traffic here is complete with minibuses stopping when and where they please. Our escape from the chaos leads us down a steep one-way 60+ switchback mountainside dirt road to a community called Llapallapani.
What brought us to this isolated village in what’s considered the least developed country in South America? The answer goes back about a year and a half to when a co-worker—as Adam and I both work for the same engineering firm—forwarded us an email about a pedestrian bridge. The bridge was being designed for a remote village in Bolivia by a team of Kiewit and Parsons Brinckerhoff employees working through Bridges to Prosperity (B2P). Construction would be lead by the same two firms. Team applications were open.
As the urban La Paz and El Alto faded into our rearview mirrors, we were soon to find out just why the Llapallapani bridge is the most technically-challenging bridge B2P has undertaken to date out of its hundreds of pedestrian bridges worldwide.
Note: More photos of the journey can be found here.