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In the hours before dawn

It’s been weeks since I posted about Bolivia. Partly because life has been getting in the way and partly because this story was sort of difficult to write. It starts on our seventh day of travel, the morning of our fifth day in Bolivia, as we began the full-day journey that would lead us to the first day of our Andean trek. This was where things really started to get adventurous. If you’ve missed the previous posts, there is a list of all of them at the end of this post.

Our wake-up call was late the morning we left for Charazani. We’d asked for 4 a.m. but it was 4:25 when they called. We brushed our teeth, dressed in a hurry, stuffed our still-damp laundry in our packs. I was last out of the rooms, left to do a final idiot check, and by the time I made it to the darkened lobby we were checked out and our cab was loaded. Ten minutes later we were getting out of the cab on the pitch black streets of La Paz’s Cementario District.

We had visited the Cementario District our first day in La Paz and were enchanted by the sunny, bustling, charming area of the city. But two hours before dawn it might as well have been another planet. Most of the street stalls were closed up, their hulking forms casting dark shadows on the sidewalk. A few streetlamps leaked pale yellow spots of light that made the edges of shadows seem darker. Two buses were parked at the curb and people milled around. A woman called out, over and over, “Charazani! Charazani! Charazani!” It sounded like a song the way she chanted it. I was nervous. I feel uneasy in large cities in the early hours before dawn. It is, in my opinion, not a good time for tourists to be wandering about. I looked around and saw young mothers, babes at breast, and little old ladies with huge bundles on their backs. There were old men with oily faces who lurched and shouted and smelled of stale liquor. Young men skulked in the alley, their shoulders stooped and their eyes hard. We stood out with our pale skin and brand-new Patagonia clothing. My mind flashed to all those damn State Department warnings I’d read and I whispered a prayer for our safety.

We bought our bus tickets from the woman who chanted, “Charazani!” at the top of her voice. In his pidgin Spanish, Mike confirmed that our bus would leave at 6:30 a.m. The cabby that had dropped us off was idling by the curb, so Mike pulled me in for a quick kiss and said, “Our bus doesn’t leave for over an hour. You stay here with Dave. I’m going to take the cab back to the hotel to get that nalgene.”

That stupid nalgene. In our hurry to leave the hotel, it had been left, full of clean filtered water, on the floor of the hotel lobby.

For those of you who don’t know what a nalgene is, it is a type of refillable water bottle that hikers like to use. Nalgenes are about twenty bucks a pop; expensive, yes, but probably not worth leaving your wife and brother on a creepy South American street at 5:15 in the morning and nearly missing your bus to Charazani for. In Mike’s defense, he was sure it wouldn’t take him more than twenty minutes and he thought he had over an hour to kill. But still.

Mike’s cab melted into the dark and my stomach knotted. I helped Dave load our packs onto the bus and then he suggested we look for something to eat. I didn’t want to walk away from our gear. The luggage compartments were hanging wide open. Anyone could walk by and snatch something. We only packed necessities – we couldn’t afford to lose a thing. (Not even a nalgene.) We stood on the dark sidewalk and tried not to think about the giant targets stamped on our foreheads. I trained my eyes on our packs and stewed over Mike taking off. I was about to start bitching about it when a man, swaying and bleary eyed, staggered towards us. He stared at me, opened his mouth, and leaned in.

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