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by rachel67 

Posted: 08 October 2006
Word Count: 2298
Summary: Travel piece on a bus ride in Bolivia.

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And so here we are; crashing through the heart of South America on a wildly rocking, ancient bus. It’s the rainy season and outside the precarious Andean road is drowning under an ominous brown river. I rub condensation from the window and see swirling waters hurling themselves over the worn cliff edges and plunging into the shadows. In my mind I imagine shimmering masses smashing into a million muddy droplets on the rocks far below and shift nervously in my seat.

Nobody talks on the bus. Not the local work women with their plaited jet hair and multi-colourful blankets, not the dirty faced children who cling to their mother’s woollen socked legs or the stocky farm labourers with live chickens staring wide-eyed from homemade string bags; even the other backpackers are unusually quiet. All murmurs of, ‘Where you from? Have you been to La Paz? Yes the Inca Trail was amazing’ dried up when the water started seeping up through the floor.

I am no different from the other Gringos. All of us are flicking glances at the locals, desperately looking for signs of reassurance in their faces. We are disappointed. Instead of stifled yawns and sleepy sighs we see knotted eyebrows and nervous twitches. When we hit a pothole that lifts us forcibly out of our seats several local women scream and the driver crosses himself. We all buckle down and prepare to be terrified and battered for the remaining 12 hours or the journey. Whenever we lunge round a monstrous hairpin bend thick with sludge I close my eyes so I am not tempted to peer over the edge into the abyss.

An hour or two passes like this and in that time the cloud-covered sun must have set behind one of the majestic peaks and added darkness to the driver’s list of woes. Every so often he mutters Spanish curses, or prayers - I’m not sure which - under his moustache and blinks rapidly. His mate looks on sympathetically shaking his head and offering his half drunk bottle of beer as a sign of support.

‘I think he must stop now, yes?” says a young German woman sitting in the seat opposite me.

‘I’m not sure. It’s not like we can turn back and there’s so much mud on the road we might get stuck if we’re not moving.’

‘But it’s too dangerous in the dark. He can’t see anything.’ She waves vaguely towards the driver. ‘The risk of falling off the cliff is more than the risk of getting stuck I think.’

I shrug and smile apologetically. ‘I’m sure he knows what he’s doing.’

My response is unconvincing but I don’t want to upset her by trying to explain that any appeal to the stony-faced Bolivian driver would do no good. From what I have seen from my three month stay in this long suffering, poverty stricken land a substantial risk of untimely death during any journey seems to be an accepted part of life.

She looks desperately round from any sign of support but most of the other travellers haven’t heard her over the incessant rattle of the overworked engine and those that have resolutely stare at their copies of ‘South America on a Shoestring’. I quickly open my own copy and pretend to be absorbed by a page on the laundry services in Rio. She gives up, sticks her bottom lip out and stares sulkily at the back of the driver’s head.

More time passes, during which the rain gets heavier - something none of us thought possible a short while ago - and water starts dripping down from the ceiling as well as oozing up through the floor. I also reach a point where I can’t avoid the toilet in the rear of the bus any longer.

After my first bumpy and nauseous 14 hour ride between La Paz and Potosi I learnt a valuable lesson; if you are female and you book on a long distance bus in Bolivia without toilet facilities you must either perfect the art of mind over bladder or purchase a Native Indian style skirt, acquire the skill or pulling your knickers down without lifting said skirt and get over any inhibitions you may have about peeing on the rear wheel while being watched by all the other passengers - an act most native women have no problem with. Being jean-clad at the time the mind over bladder option was my choice but was only achieved through huge amounts of willpower, physical discomfort (later turning to pain) and a few minor leakages which thankfully didn’t show through my clothing.

After several more trips I learnt that buses with toilets were not much of an improvement. Relief in privacy, yes, but only if you could hold your breath for as long as it took to urinate while hovering above a filthy loo which often slopped it contents on to your feet.

I stagger back down the bus with wet trailers and the urge to vomit having not achieved the breath holding part of the exercise. On either side passengers clutch the thread-worn headrests in front to stop themselves being thrown too violently about. Time had worn away their terror and replaced it with abject misery. Everyone had given up trying to read or peer out the windows. A few hardy souls watch a tiny flickering television screen set in a mount behind the driver but when water gets into the electrics the Spanish dubbed version of ‘Die Hard’ disappears forever. More hours stretched out in front of us.

I try to arrange my torso in a half comfortable position across the double seat while wedging my legs against the seat in front for stability.

After a while I relax enough to drift off into a fitful doze, frequently interrupted when we hit potholes and my head is slammed into the window. After this happens five or six times I stop waking up.

I dream I am at home in England when an earthquake strikes. Books fly off shelves and huge lumps of plaster break away from the ceiling. I dive under a table and huddle there terrified. The quake is getting so bad my shoulders are jerking back and forth……I wake to find a huge Australian shaking me.

‘Hey there, hey! Wake up. We’ve got to get off the bus. We’re stuck in the mud.”

I blink blearily and see a line of dejected passengers shuffling up the aisle clutching their soggy belongings. I join them and head out into the wet.

A group of Bolivian men are huddled round dragging hard on foul-smelling cigarettes which they cup in their hands to stop them getting wet. They are debating the crisis.

‘What happened?’ I ask the Australian giant, who later turns out to be a Kiwi and is offended I haven’t realised this.

‘We hit a mud slide on one of the bends and the silly bugger revved the engine until we were well and truly stuck in.’

‘Great!’ I say pulling my waterproof on. I slide through the quagmire to the back of the bus. Sure enough half the wheel has disappeared into a slimy hole – a native woman is peeing into it.

I join the Australian/Kiwi, a couple who turn out to be Swedish, the German girl and an Indian woman with her child under a slightly overhanging rock that offers a small level of protection from the downpour.

‘Looks like we’re going to be in here for a while,’ I offer as an opener.

No one answers.

‘We should never have started the journey,’ snaps one of the Swedes from inside a hood. I can’t see either of their faces properly but they are both coming a close second to the Australian in the competition for tallest person on the bus.

‘I was just talking to a farmer from Sucre who said a bus went over the edge last week in weather like this,’ the hood adds. ‘Why didn’t someone phone ahead and check conditions before we set out.’

As usual I am impressed by the mainland European’s ability to speak several languages fluently, where as like most other Brits I can just about manage, ‘How much? Good morning!’ and ‘I would like one beer please.’

‘That would be a bit close to common sense for this lot,” snorts the Australian/Kiwi.

‘No wonda this country is so bloody poor. Look at La Paz. I went to the market to buy some shoelaces, spent an hour looking for a stall that sold any, then when I did there was 20 other stalls next to it selling shoelaces too! Row after row of silly sods all sitting on there arses looking bored and wondering why they weren’t getting any trade. They haven’t got a clue.’

I wince as he’s telling the story and keep checking the native woman to make sure she doesn’t understand.

‘Yes, very stupid,’ says the German girl. ‘Take our driver for example. He should have stopped the bus a long time ago. Our lives have been at risk for hours.’

I avoid eye contact assuming that this statement has been made for my benefit. Instead I start scrapping mud off my trainers on the side of the rock.

The little girl watches me fascinated then bursts out laughing and starts pointing at me while gabbling something to her mother in Spanish. Her mother is trying to quieten her and looks embarrassed.

‘She says you look like a donkey.’ says the German girl helpfully.

‘I know’ I lie and turn towards the little girl so I can fake a look of shock and outrage.

She laughs so I waggle my hands on the side of my head to imitate donkey ears. ‘EEEE-OORR, EEEE-OOORR’.

The child doubles up with glee, even her mother is laughing, even the Australian/Kiwi and Swedish couple manage a smile. The German folds her arms and pouts.

‘Excuse me,’ says a voice from behind.

We all turn to see a tired looking Bolivian man in a cheap crumpled suit addressing us.

‘Apologies for interrupting you but as you see we have a problem and we would kindly ask for you help.’

He nods towards the back of the bus where half the passengers are already in position.

‘Would you be kind enough to help us push? If we all push we may be able to move it.’

We start into action, slide towards the bus and take up position next to the locals with our hands laid flat on the filth covered back ready to push with all our might.

The driver jumps aboard, starts up and revs what little guts are left in the engine to their full capacity. The wheels spin like tops in their holes, black smoke belches from the exhaust and mud splatters in all directions. It takes a few minutes but eventually we co-ordinate a rocking motion into our efforts and with a final roar from the mechanics the bus lunges out of its trap and after a nasty moment where the back end skids uncontrollably from side to side and we all hurl ourselves to safety it straightens and continues its journey up the mountain a few hundred yards until the road flattens out and it is safe enough to stop.

We cheer and pat each other on the back. Then the drivers jumps out and waves at us frantically to hurry the few hundred yards up the road and get back on before we get stuck again.

As we move off the crumpled suit joins us again and smiles wearily.

‘Thank you.’

‘No problem.’ says the Kiwi/Australian. The others smile and nod.

The man turns to go but then changes his mind and stops.

‘Can I explain something to you please….In Bolivia we do not have many choices. The people on this bus are travelling because they have to. They have to travel to find work because there is none where they live or they have to travel to look after sick relatives who stayed behind after they left and have no one else to care for them and can’t afford a doctor. They travel on this bus because there is no other choice. It is the only bus. The bus driver keeps driving even though the roads are dangerous and at some point the bus will probably get stuck because he has to. If he doesn’t he won’t get paid and if he doesn’t get paid his family goes hungry.

‘I think sometimes people who do have choices don’t see these things. You have choices. You choose to visit our country and I hope while you are here you will learn a little about us and remember it when you go back home.’

He breaths in and straightens his back. ‘Thank you again for your help.’ Without another word he turns and starts walking back to the bus leaving us motionless and ashamed in the mud.

Three days later when the bus journey of 12 hour hours that turned in to 20 hours has already become a well told yarn in the backpacker’s hostel we all booked into I am sitting outside a restaurant writing letters home when I see the Indian women with her little girl heading back towards the bus station. The woman carries a bundle almost half her size. She doesn’t see me, she has other things to think about, but the little girl does. She stops, her face lights up. I smile and wave at her before her mother yanks her forward and they disappear round the corner.

As I sip my coffee I wonder if they’re heading back up the mountain on the same bus and think about where I’ll head to next…the choices are endless.

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Comments by other Members

crazylady at 13:26 on 08 October 2006  Report this post
Hi Rachel,
This is a superb vivid piece of writing.
You took me right into the bus journey immediately.
Your introduction of the other characters is well timed too. Although there are plenty of them, each is individual and identifiable.
Your descriptions of the weather, the loo and the attitudes of the people are all brilliant.
And your ending when we are reminded just how arrogant the average wealthy traveller can be, is masterful.

Now just because I'm such a picky person I'm going to list a few typos.
stagger back down the bus with wet trailers

think this should read

scrapping mud off my trainers

think this should read
scraping mud off

I join the Australian/Kiwi, a couple who turn out to be Swedish, the German girl and an Indian woman with her child under a slightly overhanging rock that offers a small level of protection from the downpour.

This sentence clunked a bit for me. Perhaps if you switched it around it may read clearer.
I took shelter under a slightly overhanging rock, along with the Australian/Kiwi, a couple who turn out to be Swedish, the German girl and an Indian woman with her child.
Just a suggestion.

Please, please don't think that because of the above list I have not thoroughly enjoyed your story. I think it is excellent and thank you for taking me to a part of the world I have never visited.

Cornelia at 17:21 on 08 October 2006  Report this post
I really liked this, although it reinforced my decision not to do South America on a Shoestring. I've resumed studying Spanish lately and realised that it's not just Spain where I can use it, but your piece is a timely warning about the discomforts routinely endured by the poor people of these countries. Costa Del Sol, here I come - again!

The lesson at the end is a good one - it's always a good idea to travel with the idea of learning instead of making judgements. I look forward to reading more of your adventures.


Richard Brown at 19:44 on 10 October 2006  Report this post
Gripping and very moving in the end. It's true that there are a few typos but in relation to the power of the piece these are of minor consequence. Really, a superb piece of travel writing. It's tempting to ask; why do people do it? but you also supply an answer. More please!


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