Breathing in Bolivia, Even When There’s Hardly Any Oxygen

9 May

Snow capped volcanoes

As we sped past the convoy of other 4x4s on the narrow dirt road, the three girls and I began to look at each other nervously and joke around that we were about to die. To each side of the road was a sharp drop into jagged rocks, and at the speed we were going, no seat belt would ever do any good. I was warned the night earlier at the hostel to be careful with the drivers by two Israelis. Apparently just a couple of weeks before three other Israelis had died when their trucks rolled over on a tour.

“Is it really necessary to pass the other cars?” I yelled to our driver Gonzalo from the back of the Toyota Highlander.

“Yes,” is all he replied, continuing to take hairpin turns with the grace of a rally driver who had grown up in these parts.

Sunset from San Antonio de Lípez

We held our breaths and hoped for the best, but somewhere in the back of my mind I was rested assure that he was too busy chewing coca to be on a suicide mission, and that if he was speeding it was because he generally thought he needed to. Fast forward to the end of the day and we realized that with no refuge reservations, the first trucks into town had dibs on lodging, so in essence, yes, he had to speed up to beat everyone else. Even after taking the lead from dead last out of Tupiza, we pushed on ahead of the group and had to wait around for our wingman truck. You always go out in groups of at least two for safety, because you’ll probably encounter some kind of trouble along the way.

Let’s get cliche for just a moment: I don’t know what was more breathtaking, the scenery or the altitude. The first time we passed a snow capped volcano we stared at it with wonder and admiration. Naively, a couple of us tried to snap photos from the rapidly moving truck, thinking we would have no better opportunity to steal a memory. But we were foolish for thinking that. Soon volcanoes popped up on all sides, and neither the right nor left flanks were clear. Giants lurked with soft and inviting tones. I thought of a number of things, but rarely considered the extreme altitude we faced. It was partly because the numbers I was given were in meters, rather than feet.

Looking back on it, we passed through heights of over 4,200 meters (13,780 feet) above sea level on average. Because I had lived at high altitude in Ecuador and am a young runner, I assumed that I was impervious to the affects of altitude sickness. Yet the places where I lived in Ecuador (Quito, 2,800 meters/9,200 feet; Cuenca, 2,500 meters/8,360 feet) were much lower in comparison, and I was not well acclimated. One of our highest elevations was over 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). On the first night we stayed in a bare bones refuge in San Antonio de Lípez (4,200 meters above sea level). It was there where the effects of high altitude got the worst of me.

4,690 meters (15,387 feet) above sea level

After settling in we had a nice dinner under two dim light bulbs. There was no heating, though we were given three blankets each (and I rented a sleeping bag), and one bathroom for about 15 people to share. As usual in Bolivia, no toilet paper was provided. After our dinner we walked into the frigid night for just a few minutes to catch the millions of stars in the sky. With no light pollution, we could easily see the Milky Way, Southern Cross, Orion, etc. With a 4:30 am wake up time, we were in bed by 8:30 pm. Yet once I lay in the bed resting on a stone frame, I was unable to breath.

I tossed and turned all night, struggling for freedom in the tight North Face sleeping bag. On my side I could feel my heart beating double time, as if I had just been running for a long time. Deep and drawn out breaths brought me nothing, and I felt as if I were drowning. It was a horrible feeling, to reach back as far as I could and still have no air to breath. Throughout the night I could hear the girls in the room also struggling to breath, and a look at the travel alarm clock showed me that it was only 1:30 am. There were moments were if I didn’t mentally think to myself, “breath in, breath out”, then I was suddenly gasping for air as if I had been holding it without noticing.

By the time the alarm went off my mouth was as dry as sand paper. I sat up in bed and felt what must be the sensation during a migraine, because it was the worst headache I’ve ever experienced. While the others ate a breakfast of tea and bread I rocked forward feeling like vomiting, and after finishing my coca tea excused myself. I never came to the point of vomiting, and once I took some ibuprofen I felt better, but the uneasiness stayed until the sun rose. On the second night, staying at even higher altitude, the effects continued, though by this point I had at least gotten somewhat more used to it. And by the third night of the excursion I felt slightly normal.

Red mountains

You see, that’s the thing about Bolivia. It can knock you out and push you around, but still leave you wanting more. You get sick from the altitude, the food, the water, whatever else might be out there trying to kill you, and you selfishly keep coming back for more. Those monster mountains on each side of the truck call to you, and at the end of the day, it’s worth a few deep breaths.

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