Bolivian Bus Botherations

Botherations, it’s a word.

It was the theme of my bus travel this week as I finally moved on from La Paz, with a tour of the Salar de Uyuni next up on the list. Now, part of traveling in a “developing” country is learning to have a laugh at your situation – maybe there are chickens and livestock along for the ride, maybe when you are absolutely sure the bus is full it stops to pick up 10 more people, and maybe personal space is more of a North American concept. Still, Bolivia caught me off guard.

I should start by telling you that the preferred method of protest in Bolivia is the road block. It’s one of those beware facts you read in the guide book on your way out of Peru, and shrug off. Fast forward a week, the whole city of La Paz is going mad over elections (so much so that alcohol is banned for 5 days prior), the guided tours and treks are shut down, and you are kindly informed at the bus station that the road out is blocked. Okay, there is more than one road out. But as a rule, the one that you ask for, the one road that leads in the general direction of progress, progress you were scheduled to make a week ago… that road will be blocked. And so I backtracked for 2 more nights of fresh trout and sunsets over Lake Titicaca.

Stuck in the landslide

Two buses stuck in the landslide.

Another beware fact that I shrugged off was that Bolivian buses are prone to landslide delays. Sure enough, we got stuck in the mud on the way to Potosi. Everyone left the bus and the men were asked to push as the driver spun the tires, spraying a few lucky pushers with fresh landslide. The women, mostly fat and loud, offered their strategic insights from the side of the road. “Empuje!” (push) they yelled repeatedly. When the driver finally freed the bus he backed into the drainage ditch on the side of the road, and the bus tilted to a 45 degree angle. I eagerly filmed the ensuing struggle, debating whether catching a bus flipping on video was worth being stuck in the middle of nowhere with my backpack trapped in storage. After alternating for two hours between mud and drainage ditch, the bus was freed and we were on our way.

The next, ahem, curiosity I experienced was the Bolivian Bus Bathroom Break. In the States, public urination can get you fined, arrested, or even land you on the sex offenders list. In Bolivia, it’s the preferred method while traveling. We’re talking a bus load, an over-capacity bus load of people finding their spot, lining up along the side of the bus or on the neighbor’s fence. Older Bolivian women in the middle of the road, using their long dresses for privacy. As for me, I try not to miss an opportunity to blend in with the local culture. And besides, I had just drank a Paceña (Bolivian lager beer, or as their slogan kindly informs, “Es cerveza!”). As they say, when in Rome…

I eventually made my way South to the city of Cochabamba and determined that despite taking a night bus in, I would take the next night bus out. It wasn’t a bad city – in fact its more affluent residential areas even felt a bit like Florida, with palm trees and houses with stucco walls and tiled roofs. I enjoyed catching young Bolivians taking candid pictures of the redheaded girl I was with. And I ate the best empanada of the trip in Cochabamba, stuffed with beef, potato, boiled egg, and a spicy yet sweet barbecue sauce. Still, it was just another city, and I was on a mission. Moving on to Sucre would prove to be the biggest bus adventure of all.

With bags packed I was ready to go. The only problem was all of the buses to Sucre were sold out. It was obvious as I walked the terminal that some scamming companies had partners on the lookout for gringos – “We’re sold out, but you’re lucky! This man no longer wants to travel, and he’s willing to sell you his ticket. Only 50 Bolivianos over face value!” While the difference in price would only amount to about $7 US, my pride and my mood refused to let me give in and the search continued.

With the knowledge that some seats would be available for the overpriced scam tickets, I talked my way past the ticket taker who was happy to let me enter the bus departure area and go on “standby” for an empty seat. Sure enough, a bus driver pointed me to a woman looking to sell her ticket at face value. We completed the transaction with the driver present so that I could be sure it was a legitimate ticket, and I was on a bus to Sucre afterall!

I grinned as I got on board. I had navigated my way through a Bolivian bus station, spoken Spanish to board a supposedly sold-out bus, paid a fair price, and would arrive the next morning in Sucre after all. This is what travel is all about. But making my way to the back of the bus, I found my seat number 49 written in permanent marker on the back wall, above the center aisle. Even some of the other passengers were confused, and they attempted to argue on my behalf to an apathetic ticket taker. She simply turned and walked away – it wasn’t her problem. It was going to be an uncomfortable 10-hour overnight ride. This is what travel is all about.

Fortunately, as the bus started moving some passengers waved me to a seat that had remained open. Relieved, I sat down, laid back, and closed my eyes as the old man across the aisle lit up a cigarette… Huh? Luckily this wasn’t allowed in Bolivia, he was just a bit crazy, and he was quickly asked to put it out. The rest of the ride proved uneventful. And by uneventful I mean a 3-hour Bolivian Bus Bathroom Break as a result of an overturned truck blocking the road.

The bottom line is I made it to Sucre the next day. And several days later I began my tour of the Salar de Uyuni in a Lexus 4×4. That’s more like it.

This is how we're crossing the water!?

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