Wednesday, 7 November 2007

BOLIVIAN BUS JOURNEY FROM HELL (Rated PG)


Note: This is a long post, but don’t just skim thru, it’s worth the time.

It was a fresh cool wind that blew in that Sunday evening. It was almost as if nature itself was signaling a change in the air and we felt uneasy but weren’t exactly sure why. The day had passed without much to see or do and a dreaded bout of ‘Squirt Alert’ (see previous post from Cachueta) had left me drained, tired and a bit raw round the nether regions. The bus terminal was particularly busy with travelers, most of whom were locals and the few gringos that were there, stuck out like nuns at an orgy. Local old ladies, donned in traditional dress, were aggressively selling their wares of knitted blankets and clothes.

The price of the ticket from Villazón to Potosí varied depending on the quality of the bus (from rust bucket to brand new double decker) and the number of intermediate stops, so we went for the express luxury option of 8 hours in a semi-cama (half bed) coach supposedly with toilet, DVD, drinks service, air-con etc. The ticket agent was coughing and spluttin’ everywhere as she hand wrote out the tickets, but thankfully there was a glass screen between her and us to block the north easterly gale of flem and mucous that spewed forth. The bus was full, so we would not be able to sit together, but figured we’d be able to swap seats with someone, once we got onboard. The bus was due to leave at 7pm and arrive in Potosí at 3am, where at 4am, we would get a 3 hour onward connection east, to the of city Sucre. 7.20pm came and went and we could see our bus sitting in front of the terminal but no driver in sight. We went to information to get a status update and were told ˝Yes, the bus will leave at 7pm˝. ˝ But its 7.20pm now˝ we said, which was shot down with a surly ˝7pm Bolivian time – NOT Argentinian time!˝, so we just figured that Bolivia wasn’t too punctual and made our way to the bus and waited patiently.
At 7.45pm the driver arrived and we handed him our bags to load into the luggage bay, but to our surprise, he told us the bus didn’t stop at Potosí. A few minutes later, after consulting with someone from the ticket office, he was reminded that the bus did in fact stop at Potosí. Great Start! I thought to myself, the driver doesn’t even know where he’s going. We piled onboard and took our allotted (separate) seats, but to my horror, I was on the upper deck, in the BACK ROW which meant no reclining seats. Even worse, I was in the middle of the back row of five seats, sandwiched between five people already there. Fabulous! Six people in five seats – Welcome to Bolivia!
On my right was a large old lady traveling with her grand daughter. The old lady, who I nicknamed ‘Big Mama’ (not unlike the woman in the photo above) was wrapped in at least 8 blankets and had that strong musty old lady smell. To my left, was a young couple and their 2 year old child who had the lungs and pitch of Pavorotti (may he rest in peace). The father, who I nicknamed ‘Handyman’ (for reasons soon to become apparent) seemed exhausted and none of us were too thrilled about our seating arrangements. It seemed to take forever to get everyone onboard, as they were bringing large boxes and bags and I was just waiting for the cage of chickens, but finally at 8:30pm, the engine started and I settled back for the adventure ahead. We circled the terminal once and two minutes later we were right back where we started. Fifteen minutes went by and we were still stationary at the terminus and the driver was nowhere to be found. A chorus of ‘Hora!, Hora!’ (Time!, Time!) erupted and people started to pound the floor with their feet. REVOLUTION!, Bolivia style, was in full swing. Finally at 8:50pm (110 minutes behind schedule) we set off. Twenty minutes later, we ground to a halt and the driver was slamming the back of the bus with what looked like a sledge hammer. I’m still not sure what that was all about. Maybe he was just taking out his frustration and if so, I could definitely relate. So off we went again and it soon became apparent that there was no paved road. This was going to be bumpy, dusty, winding dirt road for eight hours and the bus was vibrating so hard, it felt like full-on severe turbulence. Bags were falling out of the overhead bins and windows were rattling like 220 rpm hard core techno. The air-con was on full blast and it was like Siberia in the back of the bus. People were shivering in the back but apparently it was like an oven in the front. After about an hour, we made our first official stop to pick up more passengers, but there were no seats left, so these people had to stand in the aisle. A pregnant woman and a family with a new born baby got onboard and made their bed in the aisle. Although there was a toilet downstairs, there was no way to get there, with the obstacle course of people, boxes and bags in the aisle.
Although the lights were now off, there was going to be little chance of sleep on this journey to insanity. Two hours later, we made another stop and lots of people hopped off for a pee or to grab a sandwich or drink but more people piled onboard and took their seats. When the ‘pee people’ returned, fights broke out over who had the right to the seat, but the driver set off oblivious to the riot breaking out upstairs. To make matters worse, the stench of onion sandwiches wafted thru the bus and I began to feel green around the gills. It was probably sheer exhaustion, but somehow my companions in the back seats, to my left and right, ‘Big Mama’ and ‘Handyman’ managed to doze off. Big Mama started to lean into me and squash me over towards Handyman who was also leaning into me, so I was gradually being squeezed like a melon in a vice. I christened him ‘Handyman’ as he had a tendency to flail his hands around when he slept, so I would was getting slapped on the side and on the leg. I tried to push Big Mama back to her side to avoid the bitch-slappin’ I was getting from Handyman, but she was built like an ox, so I would have needed a car-jack to shift her. With my knees firmly locked together and no way to move, the bus suddenly started a series of steep down hill descents. My jeans started to compress my privates and I was basically getting a ball crushing wedgie. I started to lose the plot but refocused and repeated to myself – ‘Keep it together – Keep it together. ‘Don’t worry’, I told myself, you’ll have a bucket of cold beer once you get off this hellish nightmare ride.
It was pitch black and it seemed like hours had passed and every now and then, the drone of snores reverberated around the bus above the turbulence and rattling windows. The little kid (Mini Pavorotti) was screaming his lungs out with every big bump we hit and we were hitting lots of them. Only the occasional light from a house in the distance partially illuminated the surroundings for a few seconds. Suddenly, I noticed what seemed like specks of light on my black fleece sweater. As I moved my sleeve the specks moved, so this can’t be specks of light I thought. The logic within me tried to reason the source of the specks so I thought, maybe with all the squashing into Big Mama, her blanket had left some kind of fluff residue, but as I tried to pinch the fluff away nothing moved, so this wasn’t fluff. Maybe I’m hallucinating as I haven’t slept well in days. I’ve read sleep deprivation can lead to symptoms of hallucination and paranoia, so don’t worry Enda, I said, ‘Keep it together – Keep it together’, focus on that bucket of beer. The specks seemed to grow and multiply – what the hell was going on? If I rubbed a speck hard, it faded, so this had to be some kind of powder. Perhaps the young couple had baby powder for their kid in the overhead bin and it was dropping down on me. Just then, we pulled up to a security check point and the bus in front was waved to the side and the passengers disembarked for what looked like i.d. verification.
Paranoia went into overdrive, as suddenly I had a flash of horror. Wait a minute, I thought, we’re in Bolivia and I’m covered in powder, Argh! What if it’s DRUGS?! Maybe I’m a decoy or maybe someone stashed cocaine in the overhead air duct. What if we’re stopped and asked to get off the bus. Memories of the sniffer dog in the border crossing in Chile came flooding back. I’ll be hauled away and locked up for years. Visions of the movie Midnight Express flashed by! ‘Keep it together – Keep it together’, focus on that bucket of beer. I gave a huge sigh of relief when we were just waved on by the police control, but I was still uneasy about the mystery powder that just seemed to multiply.
At another scheduled stop, the lights finally came on and I could see I was completely covered in this powder which was light brown. It was on my jeans, sweater, hair, face, everywhere, but only on me. Big Mama and Handyman were completely clean. I examined the air duct directly above me and discovered it was indeed the source of the powder and the powder was in fact dirt or dust. I can only hypothesize, but reckon the wheels at the front of the bus were whipping up the dust from the road and a broken ventilator at the back of the bus (maybe missing a filter) was sucking in the dust and showering me from head to toe.
Handyman’s wife could see I was shivering with the Siberian ice blast coming from the air-con so she leaned over and gave me a corner of the family blanket. Big Mama, the Handyman family and I, all snuggled together under our blanket to keep warm. An hour later (4.45AM) we arrived at Potosí. The journey to the fiery depths of hell and back was finally over, at least for me. I bid farewell to my shivering traveling companions who only had another 12 hours of this madness to endure, to their final destination of La Paz.

11 comments:

Shona,  October 01, 2008 1:23 pm  

I have never read a funnier description of a bus trip in my life... I have tears in my eyes. You weren't kidding when you said it's worth the time to read!

Quickroute October 01, 2008 1:47 pm  

Thanks Shona, and welcome to my wee blog

Argentum Vulgaris February 09, 2009 9:40 am  

LOL...

I have done that trip and not in the lap of luxury as you did. Your description is soooooo real. It is pretty much like that all over Bolivia, the only thing funnier is the Tren de la Muerte (Santa Cruz to Puerto Quijarro), I would love to see you write on that.

AV

Argentum Vulgaris February 09, 2009 9:41 am  

I am actually going to link that post from my Broke in Bolivia Blog

AV

Mia July 02, 2009 11:29 am  

Hey, very good story of this bus ride! I did the same in January and other ones, the way from La Paz to Cusco was the most horrible for me, I was also sitting at the back with 5 people plus a baby. And I had 38 fever and I was travelling alone :D But good memories still!

Tempo Dulu March 07, 2010 2:31 am  

hahaha! In Indonesia you can do similar journeys with chickens on the roof, loud music and a crazy bus driver. All part of the travel experience!

Quickroute March 07, 2010 2:42 am  

@ Argentum: Thanks for the link

@ Mia: Good memories for sure

@ Tempo: I've done a few of those in Indonesia too - quite an experience

Anonymous,  February 18, 2011 10:37 pm  

hi pleaseeeeeeeee could you delete just this post so i can use parts of it for my english essay so it doesnt look like ive plagarised.

thanks

Quickroute February 19, 2011 11:17 am  

@Anony: ummmmm errr NO!
p.s. you're grounded

Fida March 28, 2011 11:28 pm  

OMG, the pleasures of a ride to hell...what madness...but sorry, I laughed my way through your post! The bucket of bear must have been the best you tasted for a long time!

Quickroute March 29, 2011 12:00 am  

@ Fida: It was the finest bucket of beer I ever had

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