At the hangar, the information booth was manned by a police officer; soon I would find them in every public building, often carrying large hunting guns.
"Where is the inexpensive guesthouses area?" I asked her with care. I still had difficulties pronouncing certain Spanish diphthongs.
"Go to Illampu Street; it’s nearby," she said handing me a photocopied map of the area. Later, I found she had sent me to a relatively expensive area, where international travelers made their informal headquarters.
I left the hangar with my two backpacks; these few steps shifted my attention to the altitude issue. Walking here felt like running at sea level. I would need a few days walking slowly, hydrating and letting my body increase the concentration of red cells in my blood. However, there was no time for this; I had just five dollars left in my pocket.
The way to the travelers’ headquarters passed through Plaza Eguino, one of the main junctions in town and part of its largest street market. It also delimited the beginning of the street I was searching for. It was the early afternoon, so I wasn’t in a rush to find a hotel. I lowered my largest backpack to the sidewalk and spent a few minutes studying the scene. This was important. It was safe to assume the scene was pristine, unspoiled by scenes staged by the plainclothes policemen of the type I had witnessed in the previous months. I could study the place. What was normal here? How did people walk? How crowded was the place during the day? It was too much information for analyzing on the spot; thus, I made an effort to memorize as much as possible. Later, I would have time for analyzing it.
About half an hour later, I found a cheap guesthouse—"Dynasty" was its name—charging just $5 per night. I had no money left for food. At least I had food for the mind. What I had seen minutes earlier at the plaza was astounding.
The first thing I had noted was how close people walked to each other, to the extent they were practically bumping into each other or blocking each other. Only in subsequent weeks, after witnessing the Carnival, I would understand this peculiar "Bolivian walk." Many of the walkers carried on their backs immense loads, as if they were the travelers and not me. These were often wrapped in a colorful cloth called "awayo." Notoriously, they didn’t look around, just walking without making sure the way ahead of them was clear. Many of the passersby had been crippled in an awful variety of ways. The wild traffic and the fact that people walked between the cars because the sidewalks were occupied by vendors and stalls was the obvious reason for the massive maiming. Bizarrely, I felt as if I was in an overweight zombies’ movie. Then, I noticed something much more worrying. Tiny, stocky men dressed all the same stood inconspicuously at control points; places from which large parts of the plaza could be watched. They were just watching. In the following months, I would be warned time and again about these thieves by all people I met. The newspapers’ headlines confirmed that: this was a crime-oriented society. People were assassinated for worthless cellular phones; every person I talked with had stories of being robbed. Maiming of the victims was common. In the following months, I would be assured time and again by local friends that nobody would help me if something happened.
The short survey I had performed was crucial. In the future, I would be able to compare any given situation with my memories of a normal street scene. Hopefully, discrepancies would stick out.
(Excerpt from The Cross of Bethlehem II – Back in Bethlehem; the book reads independently of Part I, The Cross of Bethlehem - The Memoirs of a Refugee.)
The Cross of Bethlehem II – Back in Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.