La Paz Bolivia 2009

 

It was a busy personal travel year for me; Salt Lake City in February, Puerto Aventuras in February, Puerto Morelos in July, Isla Mujeres in November and Park City over New Years. I am a very lucky person, three dive trips and two ski trips in a year. On the other hand work travel was minimal, until the end of the year. I went to Charleston South Carolina in April to install equipment and LA in August for a seminar. Then all hell broke loose; the beginning of November I was diving in Isla Mujeres, followed by a seminar in Dallas. In December I went to Hawaii for a seminar and maintenance on equipment. I ended the year with trips to Bolivia and Parks City UT.

The La Paz trip was offered to someone else but they declined so I was offered the trip and unfortunately I had very time to decide. I was a little unsure about going to Bolivia after I read the warnings on the state department website. The warnings about La Paz were mostly about not taking  gypsy cabs because you might get robbed. The only way I was going to go was if I had someone who spoke Spanish travtravelingh me. Our distributor was sending their representative who was born in Columbia so he was very fluent in Spanish. I discovered that La Paz is a very safe city but like any large city there are things you just do not do.

Since all of this happened at the last minute I had to rush to get my vaccinations and I had conflicting information about the visa requirements. Bolivia requires a yellow fever vaccination and it is recommended you get hepatites A and typhoid. I had called just about every clinic in the phone book. I finally found one that had a supply of the vaccines and was able to get me in. The nurse at clinic told me that I would need malaria medication for certain parts of Bolivia, but luckily not where I was going. She offered me altitude medication but told me that if I drank any soda while on the medication it would taste like dried blood or a dead mouse. I have been at altitude in Colorado and Utah and not had a problem so I opted to forgo the medication, but later wished I would not have.  The clinic where I got my vaccinations was called Airport Clinic located by MSP airport. I still have to go back for my second hep A vaccination sometime in June 2010.

The visa process was more irritating than trying to get my vaccines. On one hand I had our travel agent was telling  me I needed a work visa to get in the country and on the other hand the distributor said I did not. Our company has a visa service that it uses in these situations and I was on the phone with the visa service ten minutes the last FedEx pickup. I was told that I had to send my paperwork and passport that night in order to get it back in time for my trip. I was not crazy about the idea of sending my passport via any delivery service, if they lose it I am  in trouble. Since the distributor insisted that I did not need a work visa and someone at the visa service concurred, I  decided the get a tourist visa in Bolivia, if the distributor was wrong he would have to figure out plan B.

One of the Marcor people in our office is married to an international sales rep and she travels extensively through Central and South America. While I was in Hawaii he emailed her (she was in Brazil) to get her take on my situation, she said she never gets work visas because  her company is in the US, if she was traveling to a country to be employed by a company within that country, then she would get a work visa. So I feel a little better about my decision to go with the work visa.

I had to cut my Hawaii trip short by one day so I could spend a day at home before leaving for La Paz. Karen was suppose to be in Des Moines watching our nephew Charlie perform in the Nut Cracker. Luckily (for me) there was a snowstorm and she had to cancel her trip so we could spend a day together.

When I came home from Hawaii I flew overnight from Honolulu to LA and then arrived in Minneapolis at noon on Friday. I stopped at Minntech on the way home to pickup some tools for the install and to make sure that the machines had arrived in La Paz. I was told they were but I later found out there was no clear answer.  Saturday was busy so I was up late packing and had a 6:00 AM flight out on Sunday, which meant that I had to get up at 3:30 am. More sleep deprivation.

Minntech booked a day-room for me at the Wyndham hotel at the Miami airport. I am glad they did, I was dead tired when I got up Sunday morning from not being able to sleep in Hawaii. I could not imagine wandering around the airport all day waiting for my plane to take off. I was able to get a little sleep but not much. The Wyndham is a very nice hotel, I would definitely stay there again.

I decided that I would eat dinner at the airport, big mistake, when I got to my gate the only restaurant that was open was a little sandwich shop. I had a chicken wrap that was exactly what you would expect from a pre-wrapped airport sandwich, dry and tasteless.

 

Carlos at Intersanistas in La Paz

 

From Bolivia 2009

Carlos and I met for the first time at the airport. He called me on his cell when he got to the gate and we both stood up and looked for each other. Carlos was the  perfect traveling companion, goods sense of humor, and smart. He was indispensable, I could not have done it without him.

I was glad we flew business class to La Paz, it's a six and a half hour flight. I immediately got my blanket and pillow and crashed, I was asleep before we took off and slept through to landing, only waking up several times. Unfortunately for Carlos he was not able to sleep.

It was 6:00 AM when we landed. We deplaned and waited in line for customs and immigration. As I was talking to Carlos when I realized that I was breathing hard because there was no air! I was amazed, I thought I would be fine at 12,000 feet, I've had no problem skiing at 10,000 feet in Colorado or Utah but the air at 12,000 feet is too thin for me.

The terminal reminded me more of the terminal in the British Virgin Islands; small and old. It was not what I expected for a city of over two million people, there were only four of five lines for immigration. Carlos had gotten his tourist visa in the US, I had not, so I had to stand in line to pay my $135 tourist visa fee, cash only, no credit cards. I actually had to break a twenty for the guy in line in front of me, they ran out of change in the visa booth.

I was the last one in the tourist visa line and immigration and customs. Since I had a tourist visa I was a little afraid of going through customs and having them find my tools in my suitcase but I was literally the last person in the airport so they just ushered me out the door and did not look through my bags.

The local distributor had arranged to have a cab pick us up at the airport and drive us to our hotel. The taxi drive was surreal, I was groggy from lack of sleep and lack of oxygen. The cab flew down the hill into La Paz, we were passing taxi stands with twenty people lined up waiting for a cab, cars were ignoring stop lights and stop signs, pedestrians were walking in front of our cab and the cab driver was not slowing down, I honestly thought we were going to hit many of the pedestrians.

The Bolivian distributor booked us a room at Hotel Castillon. The hotel was on par with some low rent hotels I've stayed at in Mexico. The hotel entrance and front desk area were fine, the rooms were about two steps below a Motel 6. The rooms did not have central heating but mine had an electric heater, which did not work. The room had a thirteen inch TV hanging from the ceiling and it actually had several English stations. The shower had an exposed electrical outlet with wires sticking out of it, 220 volt none the less. The outlet was well out of the wet area of the shower and I was only suppose to be there a couple of days so I did not complain to the management. The hotel had a policy of turning off the hall lights after 10:00 PM, so the nights we worked late I had to find my way from the elevator to my room in the dark, can't imagine that in the US but I would guess the electricity is a lot cheaper in the US than in Bolivia.

We checked in, showered and went back to the distributor's office. They noticed we were breathing hard after climbing a flight of stairs so they sat us down, told us to walk slow during our time in La Paz and then they gave us coca tea, and  it actually seemed to make the altitude more tolerable so we drank it daily for the rest of our time in La Paz.

Originally we were going to fly in Monday, also setup and train on Monday and fly back to the US on Tuesday. I felt that was not enough time to train, especially when taking into account the language difference so I decided to train also on Tuesday and return on Wednesday. That was the plan but it did not work out that way.
After our cocoa tea Carlos  had a long conversation with Alfredo, the distributor.  Carlos informed me the equipment was not in La Paz, I had taken the company's international cell phone with me so I contacted our international customer service person and she said she would track it again and let me know. She called me back and said her information shows the equipment is there.

We literally spent the next three and a half days trying to track the shipment. Our information showed it was in La Paz but the local people told us that it was in Santa Cruz Bolivia, then in La Paz, then it hadn't left Miami yet. We ultimately found that it had been in La Paz the entire time but was held up in customs. We also discovered that the reuse room was not even close to being finished but the clinic had arranged space for us to setup the equipment and perform the training on the clinic floor. We decided to extend our stay to Friday and told the distributor that if the equipment wasn't there by 4:30 PM Thursday afternoon we would have to schedule the training for another time.  As luck would have it the equipment showed up at 3:30 PM on Thursday.

The distributor requested technical training so I spent Monday afternoon and evening training the technicians at the clinic on the operation and repair of the Renatron. I did not have a machine or manuals and English was not their first language so I did the best that I could. They were a bright group of people so I hope they were able to absorb enough information.

Tuesday we went to the distributors office, went to the reuse room at the hospital; it was still not close to being done, then back to the office etc..

Wednesday we were informed that the equipment was in La Paz and had been there since Monday but it would not be delivered until Thursday. Alfredo arranged to have Boris, take us to Lake Titicaca. I really never thought I would get a chance to see the Andes or Lake Titicaca in my lifetime so it was worth spending two extra days in La Paz. Just as any other time that we were in a moving vehicle in La Paz we came close to hitting several pedestrians, we ran red lights, drove on the wrong side of the street and almost got rear-ended.

We climbed out of the valley that La Paz is located in onto the high plains. The snow covered Andes were to our right. The road was mostly flat and straight until we got to the lake. We passed what appeared to be subsistence farms, along the road and saw people washing their close in streams and laying them out on rocks to dry.

Lake Titikaka
From Bolivia 2009

We stopped at several overlooks and took pictures of Lake Tticaca. The lake is amazingly blue, it reminds me of Crater Lake in Oregon. We stopped at a souvenir shop that also makes reed boats, they bundle the reeds together and make a boat that is a cross between a Viking long boat, with dragons heads and a pontoon. They also had an alpaca and a llama.

Crabby Boat Captain
From Bolivia 2009

The road ended at the narrowest part of the lake, it was about 1 km across. San Paulo was on one side and San Pedro on the other. We paid to take a boat ride across, it was an old wooden boat the had rotting floor boards. The captian was a grouchy old salt that made us wait while he tried to get more customers for the already full boat, there was a lot of yelling in Spanish between the captain and the other people on the boat before he finally gave in and took us across the lake. We explored the small town then returned to the other side and drove back to La Paz.

On the return trip to La Paz Boris's girlfriend told us a story about a parasite that exists in the more tropical parts of Bolivia. It is transfered by insect bites and when the parasite larve hatches in your body it stares feeding, where ever it hatched; brain, heart, lungs and there is no cure. I asked her if the bug exists in La Paz and does not, I hope.

Thursday was the final day for the equipment to arrive. Carlos and I had decided that if the equipment wasn't there by 4:30 PM we would have to come back to train. Even 4:30 PM was unrealistic, we wouldn't finish until after midnight and we had a 7:30 AM flight out.

As luck would have it the equipment arrived at 3:30 PM. At this point I would rather work late into the evening to finish than have to spend nine and a half hours in a plane to come back.

It was complete craziness once the equipment arrived, we threw the boxes I thought we needed into Alfredo's SUV and sped to the hospital. We unloaded and I realized that I did not bring the pressure regualtors so we had to go back to the office and get them.

Manuel, the clinic biomed, had plumbed the fittings we needed and provided the electrical outlets that we requested. It took us about one hour to set-up the computer and the rest of the equipment and then we started training. The training was done in Spanish so I would make a statement, Carlos would translate it, answer as many questions as he could and ask me for clarification if he needed it. This really slows things down but it was necessary.  We stopped at 8:00 PM for dinner and finished training on the operation of the system about midnight. They had also requested training on the troubleshooting and maintenance so we continued on until 1:00PM, said our goodbyes and Alfredo took us back to our hotel. We arranged to have a cab pick us up at 3:30 AM. Carlos said that he was going to try to grab a couple of hours of sleep. I know myself, I will feel worse if I get two hours of sleep than if I get none at all, so I showered, packed and watched some bad Spanish TV. As it turned out Carlos could not sleep either.

The return flight went from La Paz to Santa Cruz to Miami. Carlos was in business class, since we had to change the flight back from Thursday to Friday, I ended up in a middle seat in cattle class. It was a long flight back, I managed to grab an hour or so of sleep but Carlos could not nod off at all, despite having the luxury of business class.

Carlos and I parted ways in Miami, he went home and I had hours to kill before my Minneapolis flight. I thanked him profusely for the wonderful job he did in La Paz. I hope I get a chance to travel with him again. I was lucky, Google was providing free wifi at airports across the US for the holidays and Miami was one of the airport so I checked my email while I was waiting. The flight back to Minneapolis was uneventful and I felt I could sleep for twenty-four hours straight by the time I got home.

Recap for Bolivia:

  • You will need a yellow fever card.
  • Bring plenty of cash for the tourist via or get the visa ahead of time if you can.
  • I definitely recommend getting the altitude medication. I can handle skiing in the mountains in Utah but I could not sleep in La Paz because of the altitude.
  • Prepare yourself for the cab ride. The traffic is crazy, cars do not slow down for pedestrians, stop lights are  just a recommendation, most cars do not stop for them. They also drive on the wrong side of the street and go the wrong way on one ways.
  • You will need $25 cash for the airport departure fee.

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