I am still breathless, but now I am breathless in Bolivia, now nearly 3660 metres up.
La Paz is quirky, kooky and in some ways more than a little random. I left my friend’s house in the morning to see people in zebra suits holding up the traffic. That probably should’ve told me everything I needed to know.
In the central square a giant frog danced along to traditional Andes pipe music and then was replaced by a group of young men shaking their thing to some Bollywood beats blaring from the sound system. Red Cross volunteers were giving demos on dummies, pounding out breaths and chest pumps in time with the tap pat tap of dancing feet.
The skyline stretched snow mountain high into the stark blue sky, seemingly at odd with the vendors who clutter the pavement with ankle level offerings of this and that – locks, keys, safety pins, razors, notebooks, potatoes, knickers.
On tourist stands alpaca hats and mittens teeter precarious in bundles of geometric designs, dizzying the eye and overwhelming even my impulse to buy. Tour offices baffle me with choice, make me walk by a little quicker so as to stay more easily at ease in my place of paused indecision.
The streets are strolled by pretty young things, cat eyed and coquettish throwing looks like lightening blots from sheets of raven black hair.
Older women are triangulated beyond sense or proportion by acres of petticoats layered thick under multi-coloured skirts, self-swaddled in bright blankets as if in need of comfort against the creeping cold. Their thick plaits seem to hold them down, tied tight to the land and the earth. Bound up in a bowler hat pact that I will never quite understand.
I browse through churches, scared out by gilt and gold, until I find one austere enough for the protestant part of my infidel heart to feel a little at home. I sit, listen, look and let the quietness sooth me.
I’m jostled out of prayer and into giggles as a man strolls up the aisle shouting ‘hello, hello, where are you?’. It turns out he’s talking to his mobile rather than the heavens but I keep an ear open for an answer just in case.
The gentle dusk of the church gives way to the bright bake of midday light as I head out looking for the museums, feeling a little guilt at skipping out on the cultural kicks.
But then I’m wholly distracted by swirling whirls of pigeons clouding and clowning above my head. I lose an hour and a little money in flutters of feathery happiness and handfuls of seed.
I find friends in smiles, grins and girly shrieks. It’s hard to be aloof with a bird sitting on your head and I’m soon caught in an in depth discussion, in very shallow Spanish, as to the relative merit of Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga. It seems teenager girls are teenage girls wherever you happen to find them.
In no time at all the dark is closing in and I shiver by the roadside squinting to at destinations scrawled in speeding past windshields. The combination of dim light, dazzling headlights and reflected street lights makes for a damning eye test and after an hour standing in the cold, I remind myself to agree to those glasses next time.
In the plaza behind me backpackers are chasing people with whoops of enthusiasm, catching them in hugs: embracing startled passers by in flurries of dreadlocks, an explosion of thai fishermen’s pants and beaded bracelets.
A woman beside me, also looking, asks ‘you’re a gringo too, what are they doing?’ I smile, say I don’t know and suggest that travelling can make you a little crazy.
Suddenly the strangest things have started making perfect sense…