Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Just in for the Ride

I am most definitely not the first and by far not the last one who will write about the unforgettable adventure of riding a bus in Bolivia. Still, I would like to dedicate my travel story to the Bolivian Bus (BB) because it not only tells a story of my pain, sufferance and joy, but stands symbolically for how this country grew on me until it conquered me. I was reminded of these "bus rides from hell" that I will probably never forget as I read about another blogger's experience on a another bus from hell - in Mozambique. It hit me that there probably isn't a single traveler out there who does not have his or her own horror bus experience. This is mine: 

Bolivia, August 2011

After one month of countless shaky rides on stony roads in dazzling heights, I have come to dearly love the BB.
Faith brought us together right after crossing the Argentinian border, in the small frontier town of Villazón. About this town, all I can say really is that the bus terminal is hopelessly crowded and that you can only pay for your bus tickets in cash. Another fun fact therefore is that the currency exchange offices close at 6 PM which is why I spent one hour looking for a working (!) ATM machine with money in it (!!!). I admit, my general mood might have been a bit clouded by these little obstacles that I had run into; and the ten hours that I had already spent on a bus that day probably did not help much to improve my mood either. So BB and I had a very brisk first encounter. To be completely honest: it was loathing at first sight. Starting with my backpack that was dragged over the dusty ground to be then tied to the roof by cords, continuing with the over-flooding interior of the bus where I could roughly make out three Bolivian families (meaning: 15 members per family) not including babies, bags, blankets and food that seemed to be meant to nourish these 15-members-families for the next three months, and concluding with the observation that there was no bathroom in the bus. These observations were only topped by my realization that I had to spend the next 15 hours on this bus. Somebody (anybody??) help!!! Hours into this first BB ride, I noticed further troubling details. The lacking bathroom was compensated for by a "restroom" stop every two hours. Restroom stop means: the lights are brutally turned on in the middle of the night JUST when you managed to fall asleep next to the smelly, snoring person next to you, everybody wakes up, everybody moves their bags, babies and food around so they can pile out of the bus, then everybody runs to a public bathroom (meaning: the bushes), after which everybody runs back, re-arranges bags, babies and food, and somehow gets back on their seats again. This process took each time approximately 30 minutes. Detail number two: I could not close the window next to me. Yes, a tiny detail BUT: if you are on 12.000 feet altitude with an outside temperature of -12 degrees Celsius (for Fahrenheit counters: it was freezing!), while the air conditioning in the bus is turned on “cold“, it becomes a crucial detail. (Later on, I would notice that there is not a single BB where ALL windows work and you are always the lucky one who sits right next to the broken one). After 16 hours of this first BB ride (restroom-stop-delayed), I finally got out of the bus, after having spent for sure the coldest night of my life. I could not move my fingers nor my frozen feet. No, that was clearly not the beginning of a wonderful friendship between the BB and me. Having arrived at my destination, Sucre (a beautiful colonial town in Bolivia), I was soon to become acquainted with BB`s little brothers and sisters – the micros (city buses). Here, I have witnessed in awe how agile Bolivians jump on and off a bus (at 50 miles per hour) with suitcases, bags and babies in one hand while handing the bus driver the bus fare with the other one – without falling down or even tripping. Compared to my gringa self, out of 100 bus drives, I tripped, slipped, fell over somebody or spread the content of my entire grocery bags on the floor at least 95 times. I also wasn't able to find out at what street corner the buses would stop. The corners seemed to change every hour and everybody obviously knew about this while I found myself being ignored by microBB after microBB because I was standing on the wrong corner. So I watched and learned. And when it was time for my next big BB trip, I was prepared. After a little inquiry  I had determined the best BB company, that is, the one with the newest (or better: not completely ancient) bus. I reserved an alley seat (furthest away from a possibly broken window) and entered the BB with 3 T-Shirts, 2 sweaters, 1 jacket, 1 safety-jacket and just in case I brought a hat, a scarf as well as gloves – and was immediately struck to the seat by the heat inside the bus. This time, the bus driver had decided to turn the heating on all the way and I could understand the frustration of the Italian lady in front of me who could not OPEN the window next to her. It made me think of the wisest words I have probably heard on my Bolivia trip from a fellow traveler: „In Bolivia you have to be prepared every day. It doesn't matter where you go but you ALWAYS have to have the complete equipment from bathing suite to winter jacket to umbrella.“ "Oh well", I thought, while the Italians still tried to open the window, "then I'll just get rid of three layers of my clothes." Always be prepared!
BB, I thought, this time we are off to a better start. This next ride took me from the mining town Potosí to the south of Bolivia to a city called Uyuni – more or less 8 hours on the BB – on roads without pavement (I am still wondering where those paved roads that the travel guide talked about might be in Bolivia!). On this tour, BB already had the next big surprise waiting for me. In Bolivia, the passengers are asked to be at the bus terminal 30 minutes before departure so one can – even with all the loading and re-loading of bags and bags and more bags and babies and animals – leave on time. Of course, this never works and as usual we were already 30 minutes behind. Getting on the BB in Potosí, three different buses were supposed to leave to Uyuni, as it is a very popular destination. One of these three buses (mine) never came. "Why" – is a question you learn not to ask in Bolivia, so I just gave into the chaos and waited. The bus drivers decided to squeeze everybody into the two buses that were there and they distributed the remaining passengers between the buses according to some mathematical equation that I didn't quite understand. This announcement immediately led to everybody frantically changing seats at least three times. One poor French girl in her desperation started crying and hitting the bus driver. Something had gone wrong in the seating procedure. After having changed my seat four times and after an additional hour of waiting around, we found out that it was actually all my fault. I had gotten on the wrong bus, and while we had to unload my backpack, heave it on the other bus and run to my new seat, I could feel how 50 Bolivians and one French girl hated my guts. I am not sure if the Bolivian relaxed way of life had already gotten to me but I just found the whole situation incredibly funny and was almost looking forward to my next BB ride – since we were almost friends by now. Shortly after that, at the end of my travels throught Bolivia, the time had come where I had to say goodbye to Bolivia and to the BB. Crossing over to Chile was a trip which started one hour late, where my luggage was moved up and down the bus at least three times, where we changed buses twice and finally had to wait for another BB for four hours at the Bolivian-Chilean border. And there came Chile: a highly modern bus arrived, on time, fully equipped with a working air conditioning, just one seat per person, and it even had a TV and blankets. Wow! I was somehow not impressed. Compared to the BB, the Chilean bus has no personality at all! 

I still get very nostalgic thinking about these adventurous bus rides in Bolivia! What about you? What's your worst experience on a bus? 

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