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After around 20 years I came back to La Paz, the place I was born in, without a doubt, a different person and with the eyes of a stranger. I know it is a bit too early to have some definite impressions about the city where I spent my childhood. However, I intend to answer here the question I am getting the most from friends and strangers: how do you find your city after all these years. These are first impressions after spending almost three weeks here.
The first thing I say to people when they ask me that question is, the city has completely changed. The La Paz I knew is no more. With that I concur with a friend of mine (I forget who) who once told me, as we spoke of my oncoming trip to Bolivia, that one could never go back to the place one once knew. It was impossible. In the beginning I thought that was a strange thing to say. I had always thought of going back to La Paz. Now, that I am living it, that I am there, my friend's piece of wisdom rings truer than ever.
One of the first things that made an impression on me is that the streets have physically changed. Where there once was nothing, now there are tunnels, bridges and multilevel streets. Just half a block from where I used to live, there is a new tunnel passing right under two or three blocks of houses. Funny, I had never imagined those days when I was playing soccer in a school nearby, that one day cars would be driving through right underneath it. Although I should have, because already at that time, the traffic was getting worst by the day. Some times, I need a map to orient myself. People have made fun of me because I needed some instructions on how to get to that place I was heading to. It feels strange not to know where something is anymore. Sometimes I really feels like a tourist.
The city grew incredibly. I am constantly pointing out how that hill or the other, did not have any houses. Many places around the city have been urbanized. Just yesterday I went on a horse riding tour to the nearby Devil´s Molar (Muela del Diablo) mountain. This area was once desserted. There were maybe one or two small villages (200 people perhaps, just to give an idea). Now, as we rode up the road or better yet, the way, two thirds of it was populated. The streets (if one can call them streets) were even numbered. Electricity and I assume water and some kind of sewer system must be in place too. From the top of that hill, we could see the extent to which the southern part of the city had grown. I don´t mention names of areas because they won´t mean anything to you, but as a way to illustrate, I can tell you that once I stood on a hill, not as high as the one I just talked about, but one could see fairly well the whole valley. What I saw was empty land, and mountains. Now, what I saw were brick houses, paved roads, some builgings and some parks and soccer fields. I am not even talking about the northern part of the city. Where once there was a gap between the city and El Alto, now there are brick houses. It looks as though these houses are spilling over the edge of el Altiplano into La Paz.
Another thing that striked me, is the quantity of uniformed personnel just present on the streets. The city seems to be militarized by police officers and private security. At least, this is true for the center of the city, the business district and the south of the city. There are people with hand guns or some type of weapon in every corner. Compared to the places where I have been living the last 20 years, this is a bit striking and unsettling.
Now, the city has a commercial spirit, I say. You can find commerce anywhere you go. The most striking is that the neighborhoods I used to go to, which were residential areas, have become small hubs of commerce. Where there once were small family houses, now there are tall buildings, housing luxury residences, car dealers, lots of restaurants, boutiques, cafes, etc. Even some international organizations such as the UN and embassies and even government buildings are located there. Of course, I am talking about the southern parts of the city known as Obrajes, Calacoto and San Miguel. Lots of changes there. Unbelievable.
Lastly, one thing that I don´t like is the amount of smog being released by the cars. The worst are the so called micros (short for microbus). These kind of transport release the most foul kind of smog. I am staying pretty close to a main street. One cannot set foot on the street without being asfixiated by the fumes of these cars. The whole city smells pretty bad of smog. My hope is that the city government will do something about it, some day, before it gets worst.
Other than that, I haven´t found myself going down memory lane too often. Life is busy here, people come and go and life goes on. But, I am happy for having met some people I knew. See how they are doing and how life has treated them.