Sunday, 12 October 2008

The Amazing Race 13, Episode 3

Fortaleza, Ceará (Brazil) - La Paz (Bolivia)

wiphala with procession of marching bands

We’ve seen the effects of altitude in The Amazing Race before in Ethiopia and Chile . This week yet another team was eliminated from the race because they couldn’t cope with the altitude — roughly 4,000 meters or 13,000 feet above sea level — in La Paz, Bolivia.

Bill and Mark, about whom I wrote last week, made a careless-seeming mistake in following directions: they went by taxi when they were told to “make your way on foot”. Then Mark struggled with the physical exertion of acting in a Bolivian performance adapted from televised American professional wrestling. (Among the surprises of world travel is learning which aspects of Hollywood TV and movie culture have put down local roots in which other parts of the world, and with what unexpected adaptations.)

High altitude, like hypothermia, not only impairs your mental functioning but impairs your ability to recognize that you aren’t thinking as clearly as usual. So one of its characteristic symptoms — typically recognizable only by other people, and not by the one who is most affected by the altitude — is the making of uncharacteristically “stupid” mistakes. When you are “feeling the altitude”, you should keep reminding yourself and your travelling companions of the need to go more slowly, take extra care with both physical and mental tasks, and double check each others’ thinking as well as your own.

More tourists have serious problems with the altitude in Bolivia than almost anywhere else in the world, mainly because most foreign visitors to Bolivia fly from sea level directly to La Paz, the world’s highest large city and major airport. The Himalayas are higher than the Andes, of course, but they have far fewer high-altitude cities or airports, so most visitors to comparable altitudes in Asia have time to acclimatize during a gradual overland ascent.

Acclimatization was made harder for the racers by having them spend their first night in La Paz outside on the plaza. It’s hard to sleep, even in the most comfortable bed, when you are panting and your heart is pounding to try to get enough oxygen into your blood and to your brain. The norm is to sleep poorly, if at all, for the first several nights at a new altitude, and to wake up with a headache, dizzy, dehydrated, and feeling unusually cold.

The racers were provided with thick colorfully-patterned blankets (typical souvenirs for visitors to the Andes, along with felt hats such as those the racers were assigned to buy as one of their tasks). But outside on the plaza, they might not have been given the coca-leaf tea that is served to all arriving guests, and offered at every meal, at every hotel in the country. Bolivians simply can’t imagine coping with the altitude without coca. Coca tea and the chewing of raw coca leaves are legal and ancient traditions in Bolivia, where President Evo Morales began his political career as an organizer in the coca-growers union. Beware, though: Some neighboring countries are anxious to prove that their governments aren’t run by the cocaleros (or by the indigenous underclass), unlike Bolivia. Our luggage was closely searched for coca products, in any form, by Chilean customs officers when we entered Chile from Bolivia.

The award-winning documentary on Evo’s populist presidential election campaign, Cocalero , is must viewing if you are interested in contemporary Bolivia, although despite English subtitles it assumes a fair amount of background knowledge. Evo’s base of support comes from the indigenous and poorer peoples of highland Bolivia — a different world from the fertile lowlands and the white Hispanic power structure in Sucre and Santa Cruz. So we felt privileged to get to see the film in context in a theater in Potosi.

At the finish line of this episode, the racers were greeted by a local woman wearing an elaborate headdress (for which, unfortunately, no explanation was offered to television viewers) inspired by the “wiphala”, the rainbow-colored checkerboard flag that serves as a transnational symbol of indigenous identity for peoples throughout the Andes. And by coincidence, just before watching the race this afternoon I was mounting a Bolivian wiphala in front of our house in celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day on Monday! You can see a more typical wiphala above, or on the home page of the Web site for the “Cocalero” film.

I’m no athlete and I’m almost 50 years old. But I visited the Bolivian highlands and the scenes of previous high-altitude episodes of the race in Lalibela and Chuquicamata, without major problems from the altitude. The difference is that whenever possible I ascended gradually, and when I had to fly directly to a high altitude I spent several days resting before trying to do any extensive walking or anything else strenuous or requiring full concentration and mental ability.

The racers’ problems reinforce the significance of the Quebradra de Humahuaca, which I mentioned in my preamble to this season of the race, as the best acclimatization route up to the altiplano. This World Heritage Site isn’t well known to foreign tourists, but there’s an introduction on the Web site for Wayne Bernhardson’s outstanding Moon Handbooks Argentina . Midway up the canyon, the Quinta La Paceña in Tilcara might be the most comfortable and best-value bed-and-breakfast or inn (“posada”) we stayed in during more than a year on the road. Don’t be alarmed at the tariff: the prices are in Argentina Pesos — typically represented by a dollar sign, as are many other currencies around the world — not U.S. dollars. Current rates for a “habitación matrimonial” (room with a double bed) start at ARS150, or a little less than USD50 per room per night. We were staying there last year during the Fiesta de San Francisco (feast day of Saint Francis), where I took the picture at the top of this blog entry of a wiphala with part of the procession of marching bands.

A drawback to this route is that it takes you into Bolivia from the southern border, a long and until recenty pretty grueling (although spectacularly scenic) bus ride from any of the best-known Bolivian tourist destinations (Potosi, the high desert near Uyuni, La Paz, and Lake Titicaca). One way Evo’s government is delivering on its promises, however, is in redirecting national resources — particularly revenues from Bolivia’s growing exports of natural gas — to improve infrastructure in the previously neglected highlands. Trunk roads through the mountains are being paved and upgraded rapidly. The bus ride to Potosi from Villazon on the Argentine border had been reduced to half its previous duration: it took us 8 hours in relative comfort, on a “luxury” bus patronized mainly by Bolivians returning home on family visits from jobs as construction laborers and domestic servants in Argentina.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 12 October 2008, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I wouldn't be so quick to blame Hollywood for the popularity of Bolivian wrestling, which seems to have much more in common with Mexican wrestling than American wrestling. Mexican wrestling's popularity dates back to the 1930's and has its own history independent of the US:

Posted by: Mateo, 14 October 2008, 16:13 ( 4:13 PM)
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