The border didn’t look like much. I tucked my passport into my pocket, the ink from Peruvian immigration still drying, and adjusted my backpack. I began walking down the dusty road lined with a few low, buildings, a brick arch separating the two countries. The next part was going to be trickier, crossing into Bolivia for US citizens is notorious. We had a thick pile of documents prepared; itinerary, bank statement, bus tickets for onward travel, proof of reservation with the hostel, passport copies, proof of my Yellow Fever Vaccine, passport photos, a couple Bolivian immigration forms we’d filled out, and $160 in perfect, crisp $20 dollar bills. We walked across the area that was no-man’s land and into the Bolivian Immigration building. For the first time during our travels in South America, it smelled like dog poop. We had seen so many stray dogs throughout the trip and I paused to marvel at the fact that we had never smelled them.
A man waited in a separate window for the Americans, chin to his chest, he kept one eye on his cell phone as he selected the documents needed, placing them in an imposing white cardboard folder. He handed it to me and pointed, I wrote my name on the front. The man scrutinized each $20 bill, holding them up to his eyes and away, slowly running his fingers over their surface. Satisfied, he returned to his phone while straightening a small round camera and took a photo without looking at me. I study the top of his head, hair so short you can see his scalp, as he prints my visa and seals it into my passport. I released the breath I’d been holding and walked out, into Bolivia.
The doors in LaPaz are layered, metal grates over metal shutters over thick wooden doors. In the mornings shopkeepers unlock once, twice, three times. The buildings are constructed with a kind of square brick, often left exposed. It feels unfinished somehow next to the occasional edifice that had been plastered over and painted. The walls have collected layers of graffiti, lost coats of paint. Old posters curl up and newer ones have been applied in a lumpy, peeling fashion. The buildings seem half remembered, their edges lifted, tattered, dirty… The kind of invisible homeless people can sometimes be.
The mustiness of the Witches Market sticks to me. The little street of shops selling dried llamas, starfish, tiny pots, talismans, cures and curses. It has a strange, dry smell of death mixed with pungent herbs. I wonder if it was that or the reputation that leaves you unsettled, flinching away from approaching footsteps. I stuff the little carvings we bought deeper in my bag, move a little quicker, away from the peculiarly quiet cobblestones.
We take a left, this street is teeming with people, storefronts crowded and stacked together. The sidewalks form another row of vendors, women in brightly colored traditional ruffled skirts, tall socks, tidy black shoes, a jaunty top hat and two long braids down their back. The skirts are beautiful, some are velvet, some with designs laid out in sequins on top of the rows and rows of brightly colored ruffles. They spread their skirts alongside blankets they’ve laid out on the sidewalk, neatly displaying their wares. We pass a cart that’s selling deodorant and buy two. We walk in the road, twisting our hips to move through the laughter and conversations. The smell of empanadas and salchichas (hot dogs) is hot and spicy, so strong you can taste them on the back of your tongue when you take a deep breath.
We get in line at the small cart, inside a man with his face hidden behind a surgical mask rolls the salchichas over the grill. One bursts, spraying a hot jet of grease into the air and marking the white of his apron. He picks the thick sausage up with blackened tongs, carefully settling it into the bun. Matt takes it and I pass the man 3 Bolivianos, 50 cents.
We cross a wide boulevard where bags of garbage lay stacked up next what-was-once-grass divider in the middle. A lean dog has torn a bag open on one side, leaving its contents scattered as he makes off with a scrap. On the other side, a man pauses in the street and begins to pee on the pile. We reach our room, I shut the door and lean my head back against it, letting my shoulders sag for a moment. Matt sits on crisp white sheets, eating his salchicha, fingers bright with grease.4