Oxygen


I

Three thousand, three thousand two hundred and beyond… In the Humahuaca Valley in northwest Argentina the altitude sets in and the human body’s resilience is tested. Just how much oxygen does a body need, anyway?

Normally there’s a mild headache that stretches on from several yesterdays. Normally there’s shortness of breath and lethargy. On a first occasion though, during a first clash with the heights, it must be usual to wonder through the night if the symptoms remain within that normal range. As there’s no past experience, nothing to compare an individual reaction to, there’s no exact measurement to be had.

Is this how initial acclimatisation should feel? Is it static? Is it getting worse?

What’s known: not all human bodies are the same. Elevations affect people differently and while three thousand plus metres is not nearly as high as we can go, at some point there comes for everyone that stage where the body is deteriorating faster than it can adjust – when, oxygen-starved, a body slowly dies. It’s not clear just at what elevation a body will succumb to altitude sickness. The only way to know about the nature of one’s own body is to try.

It’s supposed to take about a month to fully adjust. The body produces more red blood cells to better grab oxygen at lower air pressure. Usually after a few days the headache will go, and the breathlessness will gradually dissipate over the coming weeks. Usually the lethargy does not last.

But is this how acclimatisation should feel?

























II

The country was a galaxy in grandeur, the bus turned into a toy with its passengers as pinheads, ants. In a landscape like that, of soft yellows, reds and browns, vast and empty, the human is easily understood to be not more than an unimpressive bag of chemicals, affected by changing conditions and prone to reactions. We’re no stronger than the wind and the air.

The country had been creative, with cacti decorated desert hillsides and twisted, multicoloured cliffs that earned their poetic names like the ‘Artist’s Palette,’ and looked as a great wealth of minerals. There were windblown rock formations and it was worth the breathing strain to see it.

Yet from the reaction to the lower pressure it should’ve been some alpine expedition. It should have been on foot with a walking stick, possibly ropes. There shouldn’t have been a bus service at all, nor a highway, nor beyond that open country, buildings.

That the human species has colonised almost every terrestrial environment would account for the two small towns on either side of the bridge. It would explain La Quiaca and Villazon.

It was time to get out and try to stretch one’s legs, because the future was up ahead, across the little bridge, where those bags of cement were, at great speed, going.
























III

They were running across the bridge, hundreds of people, without any formalities. What drove their urgency was at first unclear; that they could run at all was a wonder. Where was the oxygen? Well, they say the locals are born with larger lungs.

It was a colourful procession, short indigenous men and wrinkle-faced women with swinging plaits and carefully balanced bowler hats. They lugged bags of building supplies, grain and cases of fruit, more, unknown boxes and baskets carried in multicoloured aguayo blankets slung over their shoulders and across their backs.

Among the bowler hats were several distinct varieties: black, brown or dark green, full-sized, nicely fit on the head or child-sized and looking a bit precarious, balanced at a fashionable side angle.

To the left, another line was coming southwards: people of the same crowd with the same tanned skin and distinctive cheek bones.  They were then carrying nothing but just as quickly. What was all the rush for?

The world has many borders. There’s a winding train line border from Belarus into Vilnius, a muddy channel with reeds between Iran and Iraq, there’s a long line of Tata trucks parked along the road to Haridaspore. And I remember how as another bus had once crossed from Bulgaria to Macedonia the passengers had hid cartons of cigarettes on the bus roof through the skylight as it drove slowly enough not to knock them off, through the checkpoint.

Still, of all borders it’s that one, La Quiaca in Argentina to Villazon in Bolivia, which is one of the strangest of all.

Why were they running? A tourist said they were contrabandistas, desperately smuggling as many loads of Argentina back into Bolivia as they could while Argentine customs officers stopped for lunch and siesta. It was a street market on the run; it seemed as if half of Argentina would be removed and resold before the customs post reopened.

Argentina has a Titanic-sized human border leak that’s impossible to fix; only a few people stood in the official queue.

And although it was but a small bridge it was a border that seemed natural, due to contrast, not least in the human faces to the north and to the south.

To the south was a largely immigrant country with a strong Italian influence that altered the pronunciation of the Spanish language. To the north there was an indigenous majority country still waiting, as at 2005, for its first indigenous president, an achievement which was surprisingly just one year away. His name was Evo Morales and people would speak of the end of Andean Apartheid after his election.

I wondered what it would be like to have an indigenous Bolivian friend, Quechua or Aymara. Would such a friendship have a distinctive Andean shape to it and how would it fit into the rest-of-life jigsaw, so entirely different as to be left waiting to one side, unable to place? What would life be like in La Paz, after I took up my new Bolivian job?

I remembered my mother, who’d warned me to watch out for the multitude sickness. I can only imagine that’s a rare type of affliction which strikes in elevated locations that are also crowded, places just like the La Quiaca – Villazon border.

And there, incidentally, running is certainly not as obvious an activity as stopping to catch breath.


IV

The Bolivian official reminded me, ‘thirty days’ as he stamped my passport. I thought he was fishing for an insistence on ninety for a small unofficial fee, but I might be wrong about that. In any case it was already planned to pursue a work visa, a process into which a week of my life would disappear, later, in the Bolivian capital.

My first Bolivian steps were in the town of Villazon, which, apart from that Andean dust you can’t do anything about, was clean and fastidiously swept. Somehow I’d imagined a more chaotic Bolivia.

They had an organised ticket system at the railway station and with my newly acquired Bolivianos I bought a ticket for Tupiza, the nearest town.

A robust train conductor in a hard cylindrical cap with a tin sign across it, labelling him in Spanish, greeted passengers at the carriage door; and he religiously swept the carriage every half hour or so.

I sat dusty-comfortable, watching the on-train video of traditionally costumed Bolivians dancing around a train, to the eclectic rhythms of Andean cumbias, and the out-the-window movie of banded dry hills, small gullies, distant mountains and a sunset over cactus flats.


There were a few adobe hut villages with washing drying on thorny bushes by a stream. The occasional goods truck chewed up dust and bowler hatted, long plaited goat herders walked from somewhere over the horizon to somewhere else over the horizon. Finally, there was night.























More Argentina...


More Bolivia...


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This article also published in Star Magazine, here: Oxygen



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