The sunlight in La Paz at dawn makes the old city look young. The taxi we’re in has camouflage seat covers. A lone bus roars through an empty intersection with a phrase painted on the back of it: “My blood is a river that carries your name.”
A broken blender is for sale at the market in El Alto. A drunken man stumbles through puddles, half-dancing to the morning’s cumbia music. Vendors unpack used clothes from the US, boxes of candy, arming their day.
Ancient stains are all over the pink blanket on the bed in the Cochabamba hotel. The rain pounds down hard, drowning out all other noise so it’s as though the city doesn’t exist anymore, just the rain: the street outside fills with water and floating garbage.
The mountains are bigger than the soccer stadium we’re sitting in. The white smoke from the sausage stand mixes with the red smoke of smoke bombs that go off each time a goal is scored. Drums from the crowd sound like thunder in the light rain. A bag of peanuts sails through the air, just missing the referee “de mierda carajo.”
The sidewalk on La Paz’s Prado is shiny with heavy use. All the city’s lights are on. The air is heavy with exhaust. A small boy strums a charango, singing for pesos in the cold night.
Tubas belch. Dogs howl. Synthesized music is elastic and snaps against the apartment windows. The sudden shock of fireworks crashes in the street. A child screams, a baby responds with cries. A drunken crowd of party goers sings along to a blasting radio. Not even the car horns can compete with these sounds. We are in an aquarium of noise. The streets are packed with people. All the TV channels are on at once, all the radio stations are turned up at full volume in this neighborhood’s battle of sounds.
We’re sitting on the sidewalk in Cochabamba next to a stand that sells sugary wafers and mangos. We’re waiting for a ride to a town which is inaccessible because of road blockades set up by people protesting the expansion of a nearby landfill. A hat on the street has been ground nearly into dirt by the constant traffic. A car passes with furniture piled five feet high on its roof. A man selling ice cream pushes his cart past, mumbling for buyers as if in prayer. Everything is moving. Everything that’s not moving is covered with dust and dirt. An older woman is in such a hurry to catch her bus that she forgets her big sack of potatoes on the sidewalk. Dogs fight each other in the middle of the road. There is a ham sandwich as big as a truck hovering above the traffic on a billboard. The side of one bus announces its intent: “security, elegance, adventure.”
The street is a reminder of what Italo Calvino said in his book Invisible Cities: “Irene is a name for a city in the distance, and if you approach, it changes. For those who pass it without entering, the city is one thing; it is another for those who are trapped by it and never leave. There is the city where you arrive for the first time; and there is another city which you leave never to return. Each deserves a different name…”