This is part 3 of a multi-part blog in which I am inventorying the things I have come to live without while traveling abroad. Read part 1 here and subscribe below to stay up to date with the latest issue.
In my last blog, I wrote about what it’s like to live without some of the little luxuries that I take for granted in the States. Coffee, pot, and hummus tend to be some of the highlights of my day when I’m in San Francisco, but living without them in La Paz (or at least less of each) could barely be considered a hardship.
Life in the Andes is no joke, and I’ve quickly come to learn that beyond these daily indulgences, I’ve also had to adapt to a dearth of more fundamental comforts. These are the elements of my comfortable life which I am so accustomed to that I would never inventory any of them amongst my good fortune.
Their absence in my daily life is a more meaningful challenge than just not being baked all the time, but every challenge is a glorious opportunity to adapt and the bigger the challenge the richer the reward.
Oxygen, as may know, is fairly important to live. Most scientists agree that it’s one of the top 3 things you should give your body every day, along with water and marijuana.
The air is thin up here. La Paz isn’t some cow-town on a hillock (like Denver)—it’s the world’s highest and most isolated capital city. You notice it pretty quickly. Altitude sickness kicks in pretty hard after about 2 days. Headaches, muscle aches, fatigue; it sucks pretty hard.
Even after you fight through the first few days, you’re still at risk. La Paz sits at about 12,000 feet but it’s a mountainous region, so just heading up-town can take you up another 1,000 feet up and that’s more than enough to knock you on your ass.
Exert enough effort to break a sweat and you’re likely to get hit as well. Walking up hill with an armful of groceries will fuck up the rest of your day. It takes a real psych to try to do cardio up here. I tried to go for a jog once and I thought I was going to die.
The worst part is that once you realize you’re sucking wind, it’s way too late. Imagine you’re running a marathon. You come around the bend at mile 25 and you see somebody handing out cups of water. Except once you get to them, you realize it’s not water, it’s pudding. Also, the pudding is salt flavored. That’s what trying to catch your breath in La Paz is like.
Also important to note that the mountain air is dry and dusty, and the smog can get quite heavy (no emissions regulations on cars). The end result is that I’ve spent the past 2 months with my finger buried in my nose like a window-licking idiot.
I’ve gotten used to it, though.
The first 3 days are brutal and the first few weeks are a roll of the dice. Now, 8 weeks in, my lungs have gone native. I’m such a Paceño I could probably smoke a cigarette while riding my bike up hill, if I were so inclined.
That’s not even close to true but, frankly, I hate cardio and I’m happy to live without it. Headed into this trip, I thought I might use some of my abundant free time to get in better shape. I got really skinny really fast (more on that in a moment), but intensive exercise fell off my list of priorities pretty early.
So instead I walk a little more slowly, drink a lot of coca tea, always make time to sit for a while in the middle of the day, and do a little bit more yoga than I would otherwise (Yoga with Adrienne on Youtube is the best).
And I feel really good about my fat little belly and my fat little pace of life.
The English Language
I’ve got a good handful of close friends down here who are English speakers to varying degrees. I spend most of my time with my wife, who is a great conversationalist and attentive translator. I’ve also been studying Spanish with Babbel, and it’s coming along pretty nicely. So I get to spend a fair amount of time speaking English, and I’m getting better at speaking Spanish every day.
But still, shifting into a foreign language is an exhausting and often times isolating experience. It requires significant mental energy to translate in your head all day—everything from street signs to menus to music on the radio—and it leaves you feeling mentally and physically drained quickly.
The end result is that I spend a lot more time in my own head, like one of those introverts you’re always hearing about (from themselves, at length).
I’m getting used to it.
I grew up skiing in New Hampshire. East Coast skiing is all ice and slush- not the fluffy powder I’ve gotten used to on the West Coast. On the first few runs of the day, you just point your skis downhill, try to stay on your feet, and trust gravity to get you to the bottom. But by mid-morning, you can start to find grooves carved into the ice, and your knees adapt to popping smoothly in and out of them on your way downhill. By the end of the day, the whole mountain is grooved up and you can traverse your way efficiently from one set of grooves to the next.
That’s how I’m learning Spanish. Groove to groove. Somedays I find the groove at breakfast, sometimes I wipe out early and never quite get there. Most days, I can find the grooves consistently enough that I can generally go to the market, get a taxi, order a beer, and ask for directions without apologizing for my crappy Spanish.
When I can’t find the groove, I try to make the most of the extra time upstairs. I’ve never been lacking in inner-resources and I’ve had a lot of good stuff to think about, like this blog.
One direct and significant result of all that extra thinking time is that I had to kill my Facebook.
Boy oh boy do I hate that website. If you told me that there was a website where I could go and read a bunch of tedious, redundant lectures on race from people in my extended social circle, I would never go to that website. Yet there I am, every god damn day.
A few weeks into our trip, I realized that I’d developed the bad habit of scrolling down my wall every morning right after I woke up, sometimes before I even ate breakfast. Then I would get all pissed off about some stupid bullshit (a HuffPost think piece about #AllLivesMatter will usually do it) and spend all day walking around thinking of an appropriately clever and abusive response. That’s not really a great use of inner resources.
So instead I just deactivated my account and you know what? I don’t miss it at all. It’s not a permanent plan (for now) but I want to make the most of that extra time I spend in my own head. I’ve had a tremendous creative process down here and I’ve been working on a long-form project that I honestly think is the best thing I’ve ever done, in terms of artistry and story-telling.
All that unplugged zen aside, I’ll tell you this: that twerpy little geek who wrote the shitty poem about “white boy privilege” can go right in the basket of deplorables. And how about that smarmy hipster doofus who does the videos where he “unboxes” tired millennial bullshit like “toxic masculinity”? Throw him in the basket too.
If you’ve been following this blog, you probably don’t need me to go over all the diarrhea again. You can read about it here, here, and here. If you don’t want to do all that reading, let me offer a quick summary: I have diarrhea frequently and I don’t like it very much.
There is no getting used to it.
You can build up a bit of tolerance to issues with the food and water. It takes a few tough trips to the bathroom to get there, but eventually your gut finds the balance. But you’ve always got to boil your water and clean your veggies, and even the locals get sick from time to time. The reality is that every meal can potentially be a game of Russian Roulette (if you’re not willing to live on Cornflakes).
I love the food down here. There is a great restaurant scene and some of the best food is also the cheapest and dirtiest. It can be scary at times, but part of any great journey should involve being a little scared.
Next time: Grabbing life by the pussy!