Tag Archives: quito

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.


Running Commentary

7 Nov

Quito 15k, June, 2009

Next Saturday is the Nike 10k race in Buenos Aires. The race has already been run in several cities throughout the world, though I think the original idea was to have cities throughout the world running at the exact same time, which is obviously difficult for some cities in night time. I’ve been training for this race for months now, but if you’ve been following along over the years, you know that I picked up the habit of running back in Ecuador, halfway through my year there. Come to think of it now, it’s actually pretty cool to think that I can look back some day and have a running commentary of the training I’ve gone through.

It started as a way to kill some time in my empty days in Ecuador, until I was finally challenged by my host mom to run in a 10k in Cuenca. That was high altitude running–a challenge for any runner, and I was just fresh in the game at that point. It was a slow pace with my friend Jamie, but at the end of the race I felt great and like I could keep running. This gave me ideas. Against my better judgment, my friends convinced me to sign up for a 15k in Quito the following month (June), which was at even higher altitude. The race went off well, and though it was difficult, I finished ahead of many others and held my head high.

Once back in the States I continued to run for the three weeks I was home, and I really noticed the difference from the high altitude training. Of course, that only lasted three weeks, and then I was back to regular lung status. In Buenos Aires my running got off to a rocky start, with trouble finding the time and places to run. But I did participate in the Nike 1ok last year (without signing up) and eventually moved closer to parks where I could graze freely at night. It was important for me to keep going. I ran in a couple more 10ks in March and August, and have improved on my time in every race.

The most amazing thing about this is that I used to be the kind of guy who would do anything to avoid running. Not necessarily anti-run, but not pro-run either. Yet over the course of time I’ve become a runner. At first I didn’t want to think of myself as a runner, but rather a just a guy who runs. I don’t have the short-shorts or tank tops, and I don’t buy new running shoes every few months. I don’t even stretch very well. But now I’m the guy who runs, and will look forward to getting a good run in quickly after waking up on the weekend, regardless of whether or not I’m exhausted from the night before. So looking back over the years, if you look at this as a travel or expat blog, you could also look at it as a running blog as well. It’s a category I never considered.


30 Sep

I’ve been watching the news all night and in the last hour the military has been in an intense firefight with the police, rushing up to the hospital where President Correa was held against his will. The military rescued the president and he escaped in a truck (allegedly) but the fighting has continued, displayed live across news outlets in Argentina. At least one soldier was shot one live TV and possibly killed. Scores of soldiers in squads have advanced on the hospital where they continue to battle the police. Meanwhile, supporters of Correa march in his favor and other cities seem quiet in Ecuador.

UPDATE on the Coup in Ecuador

30 Sep

This just in from the U.S. Embassy in Quito:

UPDATE – The strike by police units and some military in Ecuador
continues at this time.

The airports in Guayaquil and other major cities remain closed as of the
evening of September 30; however, reports indicate that the airport in
Quito will reopen later this evening. Be advised, American flag carriers
confirm that U.S.-bound flights remain cancelled tonight, September 30.

Major highways may be closed going in and out of Quito, Guayaquil and
other major cities. Throughout the day, there have been blockages of
major roads and tire fires being set by police. In some towns along the
coast, there are reports of looting and other lawlessness. In Ecuador,
all schools are scheduled to be closed tomorrow, October 1.

In Quito, American citizens should be advised that, because Hospital
Metropolitano is located next to the North Quito Police Headquarters,
they should use other area hospitals if feasible.

American citizens are asked to continue to stay in their homes or
current locations, if safe. American citizens with immediate travel
plans will be forced to put them on hold until the situation improves.
Hotel rooms are still available in Quito, but as more flights are
cancelled, they are likely to fill up quickly. Very few hotel rooms are
available in Guayaquil.

The U.S. Embassy in Quito will be open tomorrow, October 1.  The U.S.
Consulate in Guayaquil will assess its status on October 1.

The U.S. Embassy recommends continuing to monitor Ecuadorian news
outlets for updates on the strike. We will also continue to provide new
information as it becomes available.

The Police Protest/Coup in Ecuador

30 Sep

Fuerza Ecuador!

This afternoon I decided to quickly check the Buenos Aires Herald just to see what was going on in the news. I didn’t expect much, so I was totally taken by surprise to see that President Correa of Ecuador was essentially under attack and a full scale protest, possibly even a coup was under way. Immediately I delved into the story, trying to figure out what was going on. It pains me to think of another coup taking place in Ecuador after three presidents were ousted in the last 10 years alone. I think of my friends who are there, both locals and expats, and how this is affecting them. Some stories coming out of the Herald developed throughout the day, but what amazed me was that American news outlets didn’t even seem to be picking up the story until about 3 pm in Buenos Aires.

I was taken aback at first, thinking that perhaps this just went to show that people really don’t care much about Latin America, or that it was simply considered another coup attempt, aka no big news. Or maybe it was political, that South American news would report it being a coup, but American media would say it was merely a protest. Children can protest, after all, but a coup is a very serious situation, threatening democracy and rights. But once the story was up by the New York Times, I figured it was getting its due attention. I also received warnings from the U.S. Embassy in Quito to stay in doors and avoid protests.

Early reports were that the police and parts of the military were angered over the presidents’ democratic attempt to take away benefits from them. Benefits like obligatory promotions and bonuses or medals given with those promotions. As someone who lived there for a year, I feel safe in saying that they are complaining about this while they don’t even do their job. They are setting a horrible example, and the worst part is that right now the country is essentially without a police force, allowing looting and violence to reign free. At least two banks have been robbed already.

President Correa tried to speak to the troops but was attacked with water and tear gas. He was taken to a hospital where he has been under house arrest, and he has said that he feels like he’s been sequestered against his will. I’ve been checking with my friends there. In the afternoon I spoke with my friend in Quito, who told me that the streets were quiet in some parts but a mess in others. She was staying in for good. Other friends in Cuenca and Guayaquil told me that the streets were empty but there didn’t seem to be any trouble. Yet reports were that the airport was closed in Quito and military bases were taken over in Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca.

As of this night one person is dead and leaders of South American nations in UNASUR are meeting in Buenos Aires to discuss the coup. The U.S. government has condemned the violence and shown its support for President Correa, and for the better part of the night I’ll be tuned into the news for more updates. But for now, it appears as though the biggest mess is in Quito. Streets are filled with people protesting against the police and in favor of the president, who is considering dissolving congress. Correa has said if they military wants to kill him, they can. Hopefully it won’t come to that.

I’ll keep you updated when I hear more about this.