It was 4am, it was my birthday and the scene was apocalyptic – burning logs, ripped metal, piles of bricks and trees scattered for miles up the spookily empty dual carriageway. The taxi driver nervously swerved around several blockades before we could go no further. I got out and walked for 90 minutes up the motorway to the airport.
Five hours later, I had been joined by a close friend Graham (probably the only tourist who has arrived this week in La Paz) and it was time to return to the city. With all transport blocked or on strike, we found ourselves on the only open road into town which was completely taken over by one of the largest marches from the adjoining city El Alto into La Paz.
Being bystanders didn’t seem much of an option. We were rapidly given Bolivian flags, and encouraged into the orderly queues that make up the marches here. It must rate as one of the marches with the best views in the world. As we swept down the side of the valley, we had views of the the soaring heights of peaks like Mount Illimani, a brilliant cold blue Andean sky and the whole of La Paz sprawled across the whole valley.
The march was very good humoured as it made its way down, full of chants calling for nationalisation and rude remarks about the current government officials who are seen as responsible for selling off Bolivia’s natural resources.
Being probably the only gringos on the march, we attracted a great deal of attention (laughs, thumbs up, jokes) despite trying to hide behind our flags.
Once we reached the centre of town, the march joined up with hundreds of other marches approaching the city from every direction. Estimates later said that up to 500,000 people had been on the streets. The now distinctive boom of miners letting off dynamite would occasionally echo through the built-up streets.
We decided to sneak off for lunch, and soon found ourselves in another world. A french bistrot cafe in a posh part of town. As we toasted my birthday, it felt that we could be any other European city. Outside demonstrations were intensifying, leading to an immense political crisis, Bolivia was being rent apart with divisions, but we felt cushioned.
The first few hours of my birthday has reflected the week – an extraordinary mix of tension, curiosity, fear, festivity and apparent normality.