I arrived to La Paz, Bolivia in the middle of the night and was greeted by the warmest driver and attendant possible. As we drove down into the city I was struck by the steep decline, the frigid air and tall trees casting eerie shadows along the treacherous mountain road. The city was alive even at 4 am with a multitude pouring out of restaurants and bars. When I arrived to my home stay and Señora Donoso was there to greet me, I instantly felt so welcome and comfortable. However, my minimal Spanish was put to the test and our communication, I imagine, will be a fun challenge throughout the month.
When I awoke on Saturday the 29th of April, I quickly realized that La Paz is a city that holds a magic like I’ve never experienced. The altitude at almost 12,000 feet makes it the highest political capital city in the world. “Soroche” is the word for altitude sickness here and often newcomers can find themselves experiencing symptoms of headaches, stomach aches, numbness/tingling of the hands/feet, the worst of which include pulmonary or cerebral edema. Thankfully, since I’ve arrived, my symptoms have been minimal.
Nitin is another medical student from my school participating in this international rotation. We both met with Señor Gonzalo later in the afternoon and his orientation was incredible. We travelled to “El Hospital del Nino” and “El Hospital de la Mujer” to see where we would be rotating. He then took us to the Basilica de San Francisco that was consecrated in 1758. The first structure was built in 1548 but collapsed due to snow fall. Señor Gonzalo left us with a secure feeling of having someone to look over us during this entire experience.
It’s challenging to take in all of the smells, colors and textures of this place. The mountains that surround La Paz are ruggedly beautiful and the crowded city is filled with the clashing cultures of modern life and the traditional Quechua and Aymara people dressed in vibrant colors that light up the streets.
On Sunday, Nitin and I got to explore the Teleferico – La Paz’s cable car system which was created to be an electric run alternative of transportation to the crowded roads of the city that have little space for expansion. The suspended cable car took us high into the mountains on the edge of the city to a place called El Alto. The view was incredible. The snow peaked mountains surrounded us and I felt the immensity of being in such a new and different place.
Yesterday was May 1st which is Labor Day in Bolivia. Nitin and I spent the day exploring Valle de la Luna (moon valley) in the Pedro Domingo Murillo Province. It is a place where erosion has worn away the majority of a mountain composed of clay leaving striking tall spires that resemble the surface of the moon.
We then went to see the “mercado” next to the Basilica de San Francisco and the sunshine made the city blossom. Along our walk we were able to witness dancers, jugglers and a plethora of citizens celebrating in the streets.
I leave you with a quote from my favorite South American poet.
“All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song”. -Pablo Neruda
This quote exemplifies the feelings that come forth when you enter a country which is not your own and you are met with the difficulty of expressing who you are without the ability to do so. The solitude and isolation create space for reflection and deepening of oneself, which helps to cultivate understanding of new perspectives and cultures. This quote also helps me to think about the patients and individuals that I will meet during this time. Their experiences and world views are so different from my own. It will be a challenge to help understand, cultivate and empower their voice.
This post begins the month of my journey in La Paz, Bolivia to grow in my understanding of medicine within this culture, to become enveloped in the customs and language of the people and most importantly, to understand the empowering systems created here to benefit the health of it’s people.