Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Air Sick Lowlanders

Our bodies, it turns out, love oxygen. A lot.


Red blood cells are those handy little helpers delivering oxygen all over your body. It doesn't matter what shape you are in, when you ascend to a higher region with thinner air and less oxygen, your body needs time to make extra red blood cells to compensate. 

When you ascend too quickly, you get altitude sickness as your brain is deprived of oxygen. Fun symptoms include:
  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea or vomiting
  • confusion
  • difficulty walking
  • rattling breath
  • feeling generally extremely ill
While researching travel in Bolivia, Colleen also read about High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE).  Needless to say we were not interested in having a severe enough reaction to altitude that we suffered BRAIN SWELLING or FLUID FILLED LUNGS.


Understandably, we took a number of precautions before we went to the altitude of La Paz. 

  1. Iron: We ate 100% of our recommended amount of iron for two weeks before travel. Red blood cells need iron so having enough iron in our system should help make more. 
  2. Prescription Altitude Medication: We took that, starting a day before our ascent to Sucre as prescribed
  3. Ascend to 8000 ft then adjust: we spent three days at 9000 ft
  4. Only ascend a further 1000 ft per day after 8000 ft: This we did not do. We ascended 3000 more feet to La Paz in a day
We still experienced some of the normal reactions to altitude.
  • breathing faster
  • peeing a lot
  • diarrhea
  • interrupted breathing while sleeping (hold breath for up to 15 seconds then rapidly breath in deep)
  • headache - rule out more serious symptoms by drinking a gallon of water and look for secondary symptoms of more extreme reaction

Colleen didn't sleep well the night before. Despite the "sleep music" she played to drown out the constant honking that seems completely normal for how drivers get around in Bolivian cities, and the drunken masses on the streets below, she would wake up gasping for breath any time she started to achieve sleep.

Also Imodium is your friend. We learned to deflate our sunscreen and shampoo before ascending otherwise you get a pressurized bottle of doom waiting to explode once uncapped. Imagine what happens to the gases in your bowels. That's right. We went there. 

Needless to say we spent most of our first day in La Paz eating and drinking (non alcholic drinks). Lower air pressure at higher altitudes also means moisture evaporates faster. We were thirsty, coughing and our noses were so dry they started to bleed when we blew them. 

Colleen eventually had the genius idea of shoving Aquaphor up her nose to simulate mucous. 

Aquaphor was a hero on our trip. We all became addicted to it for our dry, chapped lips. If you ever go to high altitudes, bring Aquaphor. And sunscreen. High altitude equals less atmosphere. The amount of sunscreen we slathered on every day makes it look like we are constantly sweating in our photos. Worth it. 


Between our eating and drinking we did some serious shopping...at an airsick lowlander pace. The markets of La Paz are filled with a variety of textiles, silver jewelery, and ...dried llama fetuses. The last was found mostly in the Witches Market which, other than the llama fetuses hanging all over the shop, looked to be filled with herbs, and candles.

We did not take photos of the llama fetuses. La Paz is considered a dangerous city for tourists and not just for the high pick pocket and opportunistic theft rate.

Local scams include:

  1.  "Fake Tourist Police" in which locals will pretend to be police, bring you to another location and a group waiting there will steal what you have if your are lucky, otherwise they beat you until your give them PIN access to any accounts you hold.
  2. "Fake Taxi", where you get in what you think is a taxi and they drive you to another location and the end result is the same as the Fake Tourist Police
  3. "Friend Share" is an extension of "Fake Taxi" where a local you've made a connection with suggests you share a taxi. This ends, as you guessed, the same as above
Or some child or older woman will drop something and if you pick it up, you are arrested for theft. Or a child or older woman will spit on you and when you pause to wipe it off, you get pick pocketed by their partner. You get the point. 

We didn't bring our camera out much and one of us would watch the street while the other two shopped. Since shopping was involved, the one who watched was Steve. 

By the end of the day, we deemed ourselves adjusted enough that we booked our Death Road biking adventure for the following day.

One the way back to our hotel, we bought some street bananas, and shiny new white shoes for Karen. Shiny new shoes that could get nice and dirty on the "World's Most Dangerous Road."

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