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  • Today is the last day of my too-short stay in La Paz, and I’m sorry to say that I’m leaving this town before really getting a handle on it. La Paz is a strange place. In an Observer article from April of 1963, Thompson called it “a land of excesses, exaggerations, quirks, contradictions, and every manner of oddity and abuse.” It’s a description that makes sense to me. The city lacks the buttoned-down artifice of Andean metros like Bogota or Quito or Lima — maybe because it doesn’t shoulder the burden of being a capital. Even arriving felt weird, looking down from the barren altiplano at the implausibly dense city in its long, deep valley. La Paz looks like a crack opened up in the Earth and every building in the world fell in.

    The llama fetuses for sale on Calle Linares are one conspicuous quirk. These are dried and pungent cadavers in various states of decay, stacked in crates along a row called the Mercado de las Brujas, or witches’ market. They’re enshrined and then buried in a sort of good-luck ceremony honoring Pachamama, the Earth mother. Traffic zebras are another oddity, pairs of costumed zebras that dance and cavort in busy intersections during rush hour, distracting drivers so pedestrians can cross. And there’s the café I sat in on Tuesday, which for some reason played Michael Bolton’s “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” over and over for two consecutive hours.

    On Wednesday, I watched a small Quechua woman struggle into an empty square pushing two huge carts, then proceed to wrestle out a pair of full-size foosball tables. “I bring these here every day,” she told me, breathlessly. “After school, the kids pay fifty centavos to play.” I said she must be very strong, and she replied, “Of course, all the women are.” By the time I left the park, she’d set up a small carnival, complete with balloons, food stand, and umbrella.

    Thompson’s story “A Never-Never Land High Above the Sea” starts out with observations like these, about the peculiarities of life around 12,000-foot La Paz. It moves on to tackle the city’s political and economic idiosyncrasies, a circus of strikes and blackouts where “the Americans fear the Communists, the Communists fear the Alliance for Progress, and most people don’t care about any of this as long as the money and aid keeps flowing in.”

    But for all its political analysis, “A Never-Never Land” is probably the closest thing to a straight piece of travel writing in all of Thompson’s oeuvre. It seems a bit strange to think of Hunter Thompson as a travel writer, but when you bundle together his continent-spanning South American reportage, that's really the figure that emerges. Read individually at breakfast tables in 1962 and 1963, the stories were newsy features about the social landscape of South America. Considered collectively, fifty years later, they’re panels in a rich mural, a stylistically varied account of one man’s There and Then.

    You could argue that Thompson’s coverage is too selective or takes too many liberties to position him as a deep chronicler alongside John McPhee or Paul Theroux. And that’s probably true. But as a discussion on World Hum explored this week , this is a genre that absorbs (and maybe demands) a breadth of technique. If W.G. Sebald can be included in the pantheon (as Robert Macfarlane maintains in the article discussed) then Thompson’s sometimes narrow focus and fictive elements surely can’t disqualify him. And as Daniel Roberts pointed out last month in an essay on Thompson and David Foster Wallace, techniques like subjectivity, quote-tweaking, and selective reportage can enhance rather than detract from the illusion of comprehensiveness — of reality. Travel writing takes advantage of these techniques like no other genre. You can’t feasibly document the entirety of life in La Paz like you might the death of Pat Tillman or the Watergate scandal. And so you choose, like Thompson, to relay stories — apocryphal and often unprovable — about the ex-Marine who dropped dead from exertion at the city’s dizzying altitude. You pass on urban legends about La Paz’s lack of a fire department (the air supposedly being too thin to sustain a blaze). You grab snapshots of life and shade them with your values, calling the city’s rolling blackouts “the really sinister thing about this place” and attributing the quote vaguely to “one American.”

    Bolivia, Thompson ultimately announced, was “not quite real.” In a couple of hours, I’ll be on a bus, heading deeper into the country, and I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of non-reality is in store.

    To keep up with new stories from the Hunter S. Thompson Trail in South America, follow me on Twitter.
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