Friday was the birthday of my friend Carrie (who I met in Potosí), a Canadian woman who is a graphic designer in La Paz. To celebrate, I met she and her friend Lisa who had flown in for the occasion at 2pm to get massages. They had just climbed Huayna Potosí, a 6000+ meter mountain, and their bodies were aching. I had been promising myself since finishing the final draft of my dissertation that I would relieve the aches of hunching over a laptop for months with a massage. We had reservations at a small local beauty shop on Calle Linares for 2:30, but as we were about to start walking they called us back. “Necesitamos cancelar la cita porque apagó la electricidad.” Well, what should one suspect in La Paz? Instead we walked to Hotel Europa, where my friend who works for the Inter American Development Bank always stays when he is in the city for business.
We walked through the giant automatic revolving door and the climate was immediately different. Warm and slightly humid. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were pumping oxygen into the building as well. After consulting the front desk, we walked through the lobby to the pool and spa and asked for massages. They could only accommodate one every 15 minutes, so Carrie began first, while Lisa and I used one of the saunas. We chose the “wet” sauna (labeled in English), thinking that some humidity might be nice in contrast to the usual dry altiplano air. This was a corporeal experience I had never had in La Paz. My body has been exposed to sunburns, dog bites and subsequent rabies vaccines, many scars from cut glass, back spasms, dislocated knees and other various injuries from wrestling, constant colds, constant shivers, a month-long undiagnosed illness I swear was typhoid, and what must be at least 90% of the parasites known to humans—not to mention the general lack of oxygen one lives in every day here.
image from february 2012
But in the sauna it was hot, wet, and smelled of lovely herbs. Water droplets pooled on my skin and I couldn’t tell if it was sweat or condensation. Either way, the outside air is never moist enough for either to happen. At first I didn’t like the sensation of the hot wet air I pulled into my lungs, but after five minutes I breathed more deeply, hoping it would clear away any mucus that might be stuck in the respiratory system waiting to make me resfriada (or worse). After ten minutes it was time to start my massage.
I was completely naked beneath my towel and slightly embarrassed in the brief moments between hanging it up and having my but covered as I laid face down on the table. But the young Bolivian woman didn’t flinch, and she set to work rubbing the backs of my thighs. I thought about how she might have learned to be a masseuse. How she came to work at this hotel. What neighborhood she lives in. Whether she lives alone, with her partner, with her parents. If she has children. If she takes a trufi or minibus back to her neighborhood after work. If she prefers tucumanas or salteñas. How she celebrates her birthday.
After forty five minutes I wrapped my towel around me again and went to the shower with the small pack of shampoo and soap I was given. It was a nice hot shower and I wondered if the women who work in the hotel ever shower there, or if they’re stuck with the electric showers in their frigid bathrooms at home. Do they even notice, having grown up in this place that is always cold?