La Paz Again: The long low point in a long adventure.

March 8-12, 2011

After getting robbed in Carnaval, after exposing an infection on my face to booze, cold, crowds, and open air at Carnaval, after having the time of my life at Carnaval, the repercussions of our blended fortunes fell heavily upon us. We had all of our traveling gear with us in Oruro and decided that night to head back to Cochabamba to regroup. All the embassies were closed to celebrate Carnaval, so we decided to take a bus to La Paz to be there in the morning when the US Embassy opened up. I had never been to an embassy before. I was somewhat surprised, then proud, to encounter that the embassy was mostly run by Bolivians. Even though we are US citizens we were still carefully scrutinized before allowed entry. Shalynn began putting on her “distressed poor me” act to beseech for a rush order passport, and the embassy official could only encourage her that if it were a life and death situation, like any family who is sick that you have to get back to…

Thanks to her Uncle Earnest’s recent diagnosis of terminal cancer, Shay got a brand new passport the next day.

In the meantime we filled our days with dreary errands; we had to plan our route, buy some replacement items, restore our sense of adventure. More importantly, I finally resolved to find a doctor who could look at my infection. We found a public health center near our hostel and didn’t wait too long to talk with a doctor. She asked where we had been, when the wound appeared, if I’d had any contact with other people. We told her that we lived in the jungle for two months and she asked if I had heard of leishmaniasis – we both firmly negated the idea since it had been over two months now since leaving the jungle…

I understood most of what the doctor said and she ended up diagnosing me with some bacterial or fungal infection. She gave me a prescription for a cream, and then had me wait for something else. Soon another nurse took me back and had me pull down my pants. She stuck me in the flank and told me to come back two more days. All told, my first experience with foreign, free health care cost me 15 Bolivianos for the doctor’s visit and 80 Bolivianos for the medicine. Not bad treatment for $14!

After Shay got her passport the real battle began with trying to get the Bolivian customs office to give her a new visa stamp. Even through we had proof of us flying into Ecuador together and our flights leaving Santiago in 10 days, even though we showed them my passport and the date and location which it was stamped upon entering Bolivia via Lake Titicaca, and even though we had the official police report that we were together and that Shalynn Pack had her passport stolen, the customs officials said they would be unable to verify that she had entered the country legally. Despite having been in the country for over two months, their records of our presence had not yet been entered into any sort of computerized database. The only proof of our entering the country was a small stamp on our passports and a sheet of paper in a file cabinet somewhere in the one-room annex to a convenience store that serves as the Bolivian immigration office.

We returned daily for our punishments; I had a shot in the butt and then painful work of La Paz’s hilly streets, and Shay had to beg every day to get her passport back with a stamp. We wandered the streets looking at the markets, found our way to the bus stop to check on dates and the cheapest rides to Chile. We were cynical of Bolivia’s problems of corruption and a lack of infrastructure. Why couldn’t they spend ten seconds and sign a stamp on her passport? How difficult could it be? Did they want us to openly bribe them? We kept running into an Australian who overstayed his visa because he spent two months in the hospital due to a severe intestinal bacteria. He had the hospital records, letters from the doctors, letters from his employer back home, and letters from Bolivian and Australian lawyers. I translated for him. The customs official said he was unlikely able to help him.

Our will finally broke. We started arguing about whose fault it was that we were where we were. Why didn’t you wear your travel wallet? Why did you pick up his keys? We were drained from the daily errands, agitated, cold in the high altitude, disillusioned with our experience of an incredible country, and I had to get shots for an open wound on my face that had gotten worse for a month straight. At our lowest point we started drinking, then went to a crappy movie theater and watched Toy Story 3 and bragged loudly in English about how we’ve actually been to Disneyland, but then spent the rest of the night homesick for our old toys and home.

On Friday I got my second-to-last shot and we went to the Migration office. They said to come back before they closed at 5 to get her passport. We were really worried that if we couldn’t get it that day that we’d have to wait over the weekend and then would only have a week to get the 2500 miles to Santiago. We came back at 4:30 and I yelled and begged and Shay held me back and begged. We went up to the desk every 5 minutes to ask why it was so difficult. At one point they said they couldn’t find her passport. Five o’clock passed. By five-thirty they were asking us to leave, but we wouldn’t. At this point we just wanted her passport back and would maybe just bribe the official at the border.

Finally at 5:40 they read off a few names. Shay was called and they handed her the passport with its stamp. We hopped a bus the next morning after Shay gave me the last shot. She had food poisoning and had a miserable trip to Chile. I had a bandage on and hope that the injections I had gotten would finally get rid of this infection.

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