Wednesday, May 14, 2008

surviving bolivian buses

journey of my life. holy crap.

so, i stayed in salta on sunday night and spent monday exploring. i took a gondola up to a hill outside of town and saw the sights. san lorenzeo, about 11 kilometers by bus, was pretty but everything seemed to be closed on a monday afternoon. i finally just decided to chill at an internet cafe, eat some spaghetti and chill at the hostel (in that order).

after being entertained (and later, harassed and annoyed) by some drunk saltenos at the hostel, i finally got my pack and headed to the bus terminal at midnight. yes i was taking a midnight bus to the border. sounds sketchy. but i had no idea. this was only the beginning!

the bus left at almost 1, with about 4 other brave tourists and two bolivian women. and wow, it was cold. maybe it was the lack of people on the bus to create heat, or the fact that we were heading for more mountainous regions, i dont know. but the temperatures on the bus definitely dipped down to about 40 degrees farenheit. i shivered my way through 7 hours and woke from a snooze to see ice covered windows. i scratched a hole in the ice and noticed that we had arrived at the border!

outside the bus things got confusing. i clumped with the other confused tourists and we managed to get taxis to the border. from there, the 5 of us walked across a bridge with our packs and entered the customs office. i proudly displayed my bolivian visa and health certificate, the ones that had taken me two weeks to get. the officer didnt even look at them! he just stamped my passport and waved me on. gah.

and then, just like like that, i was in bolivia! the 5 of us got cabs to the bus terminal, where a man asked where i wanted to go. i answered, in a daze, la paz. he ushered me to a small office and five minutes later, i was holding a ticket for a bus to la paz. it left in one hour! how lucky.

and thus began my epic adventure on a bolivian bus. i boarded the bus right as it pulled in, determined to not give up my seat (i have been told that this happens). my seat buddy was an old bolivian man who chatted with me the whole way. as the bus filled up, more and more people kept getting on. there were no seats left, but people stood in the aisles. as the bus finally roared to a start, i realized that this was 1. not an argentine andesmar type bus and 2. probably not going to play bingo.

the bus took off at an alarming speed and one old man standing in the aisle next to me fell into my lap. then, as the bus exited the town for the "main road," the whole vehicle began to shake! i wondered what the problem was. but then i realized that the only problem was that 90 percent of bolivia's roads are unpaved, and this was going to be a long, bumpy ride.

for several hours we bounced around. around hour 3 i began to deeply regret the coffee i had at the bus terminal. around hour 4 i felt horribly sick, and by hour 5 we finally stopped. the bus parked on the side of a dirt path in some little village. i walked up and down the street, people staring at me. for a few bolivianos, i bought an empanada and ice cream. then it was back on the bus for me.

for the next few hours we stopped every twenty minutes to let another vehicle pass, to move goats, sheep, cows, alpacas and llamas off the road, and once, we forded a river. yes, that is right. the dirt road that we had been on led straight down into a brown stream. so, without hesitating, our fearless bus "off roaded" it for a half mile next to the stream. and when the driver found a spot that looked shallow, he backed up the bus and sped right through he stream!

other exciting moments that i thought i was going to die: when we took curvy mountain dirt trails and sped around the bends. and when other vehicles approached, we took the outside lane. also, after a while i began to deeply regret the roadside food i had consumed at our stops. i mean, what had ever possessed me to eat a small bag of greasy meat mixed with potatoes... i have no idea. and the bus was freezing again. i shivered and shivered. i finally managed to doze off, only to be startled awake an hour or so later by the fact that i couldnt breathe.

ah. altitude sickness. i woke up and felt like someone was pressing on my chest. i started gasping and gagging really loudly, waking up the other passengers. i almost passed out, which would have been interesting. for about five minutes, i just sweated and gasped until i found a method of breathing. then i felt nauseous. but luckily for me, there were no more stops until la paz! uggg.

around 5 in the morning we stopped. having no idea where i was and too exhausted to move, i stayed on the bus. i woke up half an hour later and realized that everyone had left the bus! i got off the bus, collected my pack which sat outside the bus at this point, and concluded that i must be in la paz. i walked around until i found a taxi. giving the address of the only hostel i knew, my driver took me to loki hostel.

i knocked and knocked on the hostel door in the freezing early morning light. finally, a big man appeared and told me there were no rooms. slam. i walked, dazed, down the street to two more hostels, only to get the same response. finally, i hailed a taxi and just asked that the man take me to any hostel he knew of. at austria hostel, i lucked out! a bed, rather lumpy and cold, was available. yessss.

u slept for 4 hours before getting up and going back to loki to try to book a room. in the main office, i bumped into shawn, my long lost traveling buddy!!! apparently he has been in la paz so long that he decided to get a job here at the hostel. now, we are just waiting for amanda to get back from a tour... and then the triumphant trio will be together again!

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