Maira wakes me up at 7. It’s barely light out and as cold as anything. 12,000 feet and the dead of winter does not a kind morning make. She says, we have to get going in the next 45 minutes. Community service. I say, okay, great, let me get dressed. I roll back over and stay under the covers for the next 15 minutes.
When I finally get dressed I have a revelation. I haven’t actually seen my toes since I got here. I don’t think I even looked at them in the shower. I take my socks off and puzzle over them for a few minutes. They look like home. I never knew toes could be comforting.
Breakfast is more dehydrated milk and cheerios. Maira said yesterday that we’re going to help the mentally impaired. Actually what she said is “people who are crazy”. I don’t think that’s the best place for my camera, so I don’t bring it, which is why the photos for this entry are all after the fact.
Transportation. First, I get in the family car with Maira, Chossi and Maira’s sister Nayel. We drive down out of Achumani (our neighborhood). Chossi drops us somewhere around the middle of La Paz. Then we take what I’m going to call a Minitaxi. It’s like a Minibus but in a taxi. This means it’s smaller, smellier and there are even more opportunities for accidentally touching strangers thighs. Then we get out of the Minitaxi and get on a Minibus. It careens in and out of traffic till we get to a section of La Paz I’ve never been to before. Before we climb out, someone hands me a pamphlet called “la solucion a la angustia existencial”. I decide to save it forever. Maira pays the whole time because I am incompetent. Graffiti highlight of the trip: A shiny Barbie-pink cupcake with a perfect cherry on top spray painted on an alley wall. Underneath, in the same cotton candy color, is the lettering “666”.
This new part of La Paz is not actually where the community service is, Maira explains. We’re just meeting a friend who’s going to be coming with us. Her apartment is a few blocks away. On the way we walk past mirrored car dealerships full of spotless Chevys that blaze with chrome stripes. Outside sit homeless men in plaid rags and not much else. I think about what it must be like to live here with sights like this every day. I have to remind myself that where I live isn’t so terrifically different. In Seattle there are starving people walking past the Ferrari showroom every day. I know because my school is right there. I’ve just gotten used to the cardboard boxes and piss smell. I wonder if it’ll look different when I come home.
Maira’s friend lives on the 6th floor. Maira has to call her several times because she’s asleep. She comes to the door in her pajamas, introduces herself as Maraian and quickly has us come into her room so she can change. Her bedroom bears a striking resemblance to a friend’s back home. The walls are bright green, there’s lot of shelving, and Mariana has an excellent collection of CD’s ranging from Avril Lavigne to The High School Musical Soundtrack. The most immediate feature, however, is the cardboard cutout of Nick Jonas lurking behind one of her curtains. When I ask Mariana says he’s the love of her life. I cannot tell if she is joking and decide to never bring it up again.
She brings in donuts and she and Maira devour a few while discussing outfits and boys in fast Spanish. A few minutes later they decide it’s really time for us to go. After a bit of walking we meet up with a group of girls and two boys who are clearly friends of Maira and Mariana. Most of the girls are from a made-up sounding European country. A few are local. One of the local girls tries to have a conversation with me as we walk through a marketplace to get to the next Minibus. I get so tongue tied and panicked that I stutter on my own name and can’t answer the simplest of questions. She takes pity and ignores me completely for the rest of the trip.
We get on a Minibus that I think they must have hired because our group takes us the entire bus. We start the drive out of the heart of the city. It only now occurs to me to ask what exactly we’re going to be doing. Mariana says, helping out young children. I think they’re orphans. All I can think is, that’s classic.
The drive takes about an hour. It is a miserable hour. The temperature has increased to Almost T-Shirt Weather as we’ve been driving and I forgot water. The roads are as twisted and scary as my spaghetti. I am carsick, dehydrated, and culture shocked. Every time we slow down I think we’ve reached our destination and every time I’m wrong. It’s normally for a stupid reason, like Not Hitting A Dog or Not Driving Off a Cliff. I keep having flashbacks of the time I barfed all over the floor of a secondhand store in LA because I didn’t drink enough water on the bike ride over. This flashback inevitably leads to me remembering the awful denim shorts I bought on that trip because I felt bad puking and not paying. This makes me feel even sicker. It’s not a nice car ride.
When we finally get there I am given water. I instantly feel better. Only then can I appreciate the fact that I am in the middle of some of the most imposing and magnificent country in the world. There is really no way to describe it. It’s so beautiful I lose my breath a little. I finally understand why Bolivians might have wanted to settle 12,000 feet into the mountains so many hundreds of years ago.
We walk down a massive ridge to a school situated on an outcropping. It’s a bunch of small buildings on a plateau. In rapid Spanish our guide explains that some of us should go with the little kids. I volunteer. The European girls and I head out to the young girls room. The rooms are small and smell faintly of pee. When we walk in Cinderella is playing in Spanish. As soon as I sit down, five girls are on me, asking my name in Spanish and sitting on my lap and brushing my hair. We have an excellent time trying to get the children to listen to us because we all speak broken Spanish and none of them speak English. One girl won’t let go of me. She’s 8 and adorable. Eventually, after some Cinderella and a lot of piggy back rides, we go outside to the playground. I push one girl while watching another do flips on the money bars. A third shouts at me to watch her while she goes down the slide on her stomach.
Eventually we have to leave because it’s lunch time. The ride back is equally miserable in terms of length and heat, but at least I have water this time. When we get home I collapse. I think that I need to help more orphans when I get home.