Five Stars, Stolen Cars and Rainbows in the Mist – La Paz, Bolivia

Five Stars, Stolen Cars and Rainbows in the Mist
La Paz, Bolivia
I just want to begin this story by saying that I have no fixation with the Brady Bunch. Their theme song is just one of those things that is engraved onto your memory after growing up in the USA. So to the tune of the Brady Bunch theme song, here is my introduction:

Here’s the story…
Of a girl named Ruthie…
Who was staying in La Paz, needed a shrink…
Traveling Bolivia, learning Spanish…
Went out to have a drink…

Here’s the story…
Of a man named Jean Paul…
Who was living with his parents in their home…
They were three friends living all together…
Yet he was all alone…

Till the one day that Jean Paulo threw a party…
And invited this new girl from the bar…
In the morning when they woke Jean Paul was missing…

And with their son the girl had taken their new car…

We had a crunch…
Came back for brunch…
That’s the way that I met the Benavides bunch…

It all started when I met a boy named Jean Paul at the bar one night. He had an amazing smile and seemed genuinely friendly and interesting and we danced the night away. He invited me to come to a party the following night at his home. I said maybe and he walked me home through the empty streets of La Paz.

The next morning when the alcohol had worn off I began feeling a bit shy and insecure. Why had he invited ME to the party!! What if he was regretting it now that his alcohol had worn off? What if he didn’t even remember inviting me? Worse yet, what if I went to the party and he didn’t even remember meeting me!! What if everyone at the party was rattling off so quickly to each other in Spanish that I spent the entire evening locked into a permanent smiling nod in the corner!! And what if my face stuck that way!! What if it was a ‘private’ party, you know, where the surprise is that none of the other guests could make it for one reason or another and it was just him and I? What if he turned out to be a jerk?

I had some friends in town that had recently had a near drowning experience in the jungle and had decided to recuperate by splurging a little and staying in a five star hotel for the night. I was certainly not above feasting off the crumbs of their extravagance, so I went to chill out in the pool at their place (which was warmer than the shower at mine!). Sitting in the sauna and impatiently listening to me whine, my friends gave me the kick in the booty that I had come for and told me to shut the hell up and go to the party!! That was just what I needed to hear, what can I say, good friends will never fail you!!

So I crossed my fingers and hopped into a colectivo, got out of that one and then hopped into the correct colectivo and I was on my way! My heart jumped when Jean answered the intercom at the door, he did remember me and even sounded glad to see me! This might be a good night after all.

There were other people at the party, and they were so friendly!! I didn’t even see Jean Paulo that much that night because his friends were so welcoming and kept coming up to me striking up conversations in English and Spanish. I have a hard time staying at any party for very long before I start dancing so we soon had a gaggle of boogie-ers tearing up the floor. We danced until we noticed the birds reminding us of the time and that the day was beginning to streak the sky. This was an obvious cue for the most of the party goers who headed home to bed. But leave it to me not to catch a cue!! Once I get wound up I am a little hard to unwind!

Jean was walking around looking sleepy but didn’t seem that eager for me to leave, so I insisted that he take me to see the most beautiful sunrise in La Paz. He said that he was a little to drunk to drive at the moment but that he knew of a special spot if I felt up to driving.

So we jumped into his shiny new Land Rover and I had my first experience of driving in Bolivia. I had not driven in months but had eight years of experience driving all over the USA so I felt up to the challenge. I was sober but just struggling a bit to squint through the brain fog that occurs after a crazy long night of partying.

As we were bumping and jolting along the rough potholed cobblestone streets through town, and as I pushed uncertainly through the strange unsigned intersections, Jean kept laughing and asking me if I was sure that I really knew how to drive. I assured him that I was an excellent driver, but driving in Bolivia is certainly a different experience from driving through the wide orderly streets of the USA! I could see why there were so many 4 wheel drives here, you wouldn’t get very far in a little economy car like mine on these roads!! I was loving the freedom of being behind the wheel after months of relying on public transportation.

He directed me to a very steep and very narrow, winding dirt road up a mountain on the edge of town. How narrow?! So narrow and winding that the buses would lay on their horns all the way down the hill so that the people coming up would know to get out of the way!! And of course as with mountain roads, one shoulder was the mountain and the other was the cliff. How steep, you ask?? So steep that whenever I lost my momentum (getting out of the way of a speeding bus, for example) the car would stall and I would gun the engine getting started again trying not to go backwards, or worse off the side of the mountain!

Another thing that made the ride a little more exciting was the great view down, my unruly eyes kept straying from the road, they were more eager to take in all the pretty sights! I had to keep telling myself to focus, drive, focus, drive, you can look after you stop.

When we finally reached the top the view was amazing!! The air felt brisk and fresh and a little damp. The sun was already up but the world was still glowing with that soft just after sunrise light that makes the colors show so brilliantly. The impressive Mt Illimani rose up on one side of the hill where we stood and some fascinating orange stalagmite-looking formations rose up like a Martian landscape below. There were lots of little farms below with people in their traditional campesino dress beginning their daily chores of life, oblivious to the tiny people on the nearby hilltop who were looking down at them. We could hear all the morning sounds of the birds and the farm animals in the distance.

Then the clouds began to move in blowing around us, and seemingly through us, obscuring our view. This only made the moment more magical though, because with our backs to the sun we could see our gray silhouettes against the white shimmering mist. Surrounding our shadows from our heads to the ground were rainbow halos like I had never seen before!! We moved watching our shadows and the rainbow bubbles that followed them, feeling very lucky to be alive, together, there in that moment in time, and to witness a phenomena of such beauty. And yes, all we had to drink was alcohol!

It is experiences like this that sometimes make me feel that I lead a charmed life. What a shame it would have been if we would have just gone to bed like the others. I must have done something right to the cosmic gods because they sure are nice to me. I never wanted to leave that moment. But the time passed and the light changed, so we headed home.

On the way back Jean grumbled a little about the time. I asked him if he had to work that day. He said no, but that his father might have needed his car and perhaps we should have told him we were taking it! What!! I was surprised to learn that I had been gallivanting around all morning in his dad’s nice new shiny Land Rover, whom I had never met and who had probably never heard of me! Oops!!

I met Jean Paulo’s mother when I pulled her missing Land Rover into her driveway at around 10 that morning. I said something to the effect of “Hi, I’m Ruth, nice to meet you, sorry for stealing your car.”

I was feeling a little sheepish due to our unusual introduction and our bedraggled appearances. It just doesn’t feel like the best time to meet someone’s mother when you have been up all night, dancing and drinking and stealing cars!! She was very nice and friendly, but a little concerned about Jean’s father who had been very worried and calling their friends trying to locate his son and his car and who had just gone out searching for him.

She insisted that I stay until he returned, because he was going to be very upset. Personally I thought that sounded like a very good reason to leave, but I waited. She said it was fine that I had taken the car, as long as I was driving (obviously she had never seen me drive!). They had just assumed when they woke up and the car was missing that Jean, who apparently had never driven, had forgotten that little detail and taken off in a party crazed state of drunkenness on a joyride destined for doom. I guess Jean forgot to tell me a few little details!!

When dad got home he didn’t look happy but he was certainly very calm and very polite to me. What a way to meet your new boyfriend’s parents!! I couldn’t believe how welcoming they were to me in spite of our joyride. They cooked us brunch (although I think this was partly to make us stay awake as punishment, Jean and I were really dragging by that time!), and when I mentioned that I was a nurse even offered me a job as a volunteer in a clinic they were starting up!! Are all Bolivians this nice?

So I guess in hindsight the whole thing was actually pretty funny. I felt like I was 17 again sneaking in after curfew! Whenever we talked about transportation after that it became a standing joke, “Don’t worry! We can just borrow Jean’s dads’ car!!”

The Benavides family continues to be lovely and I have been hanging around there a bit. I haven’t been seeing any museums or any of the ‘sights’ in the guidebook, but who cares!! I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to get to know this family at the other end of the world and I hope Jean Paulo and I will stay friends forever.

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