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Identity crisis in Bolivia

by sue n 

Posted: 21 April 2005
Word Count: 1078
Summary: How would my remains be identified? A bus ride in Bolivia

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Identity crisis in Bolivia

After a few days in La Paz, I fancied a short trip into the Yungas, a fertile area of valleys and gorges that link the high Andes Altiplano and the Amazon basin. With very limited command of the Spanish language, it was more by luck than skill that I managed to buy a ticket for the 10 o’clock bus rather than a kilo of oranges. In true Latin American style, when there were enough burly Bolivians with their sacks of produce to fill the minibus, we left at 11.30 for Coroico.
The first hour was a picturesque drive in the mountains on a reasonable quality paved road that climbed into the clouds and over the La Cumbre pass at 4,725m, where the dark grey rock was peppered with a dusting of snow.

Once through the pass, the road divided and from there on it was, in every sense, downhill all the way, as the road degenerated into a dirt track hacked out of the side of the mountain. As it was only one vehicle wide, if anything was coming the other way, one party had to reverse to where the wheels could hover on the unprotected edge without actually going over. Waterfalls ran off the mountain falling onto bus and road alike, turning the dirt into deep mud. I had the misfortune to be sitting on the side where, if I dared look, the edge of the road just fell away in a sheer drop down the vertical side of the mountain.
At one point where the mixture of mud and water had produced a quagmire of deep water-logged ruts, a digger sat serenely in the middle of the road, with no sign of workmen, driver or any recent human activity. As we tried to manoeuvre round it, the agonised revving of the engine in my ears and a sheet of mud spray flying past the window, made translation of the driver’s announcement in Spanish unnecessary -- we were stuck. To add to the pantomime a lorry with a jocular band of locals riding on top of the load appeared from the other direction, jeering loudly at our plight. I followed the other passengers off the bus and plodded through the mud to a drier section further on. Eventually the bus was shaken free, squeezed past the lorry, and arrived at a point where we could get back on.

The proliferation of little shrines bore witness to the fate of many travellers along this notorious road. A few years before, a one way system had been introduced, mornings from La Paz to Coroico and afternoons in reverse but as convoys built up and the slowest vehicles were recklessly overtaken, the accident rate soared even higher.
While contemplating the ease with which the bus could slip or slither over the edge, it occurred to me that my passport and other documents were locked up in the hotel safe in La Paz. There wasn't a soul in the world apart from the ticket seller at the bus station that knew I was here, and the thought of my crumpled body remaining unidentified, my children never knowing what fate had befallen me, brought me out in a cold sweat. In a flash of inspiration, I remembered that I had a few Guardian Netjetter cards in my purse and surreptitiously slipped one into every pocket, confident that a national newspaper would be able to sort out the protocol in getting what was left of me home. Feeling a little better, I occasionally dared to look beyond the cliff edge to the stunning scenery, tall hills with rich jungle clinging to the steep sides and verdant valleys below.

Shaken, mentally exhausted, yet all in one piece, I arrived in the little town of Coroico, perched on the side of a hill at 1,760m. It was a pretty, sleepy place, with steep cobbled streets leading up from the central plaza, which had an array of little shops and cafes. The hostel was good too, with a sunbaked café area, big rooms that led onto a patio with glorious views over the surrounding banana and coffee groves with the sweeping Yungas behind. Strolling around the village I found a travel office but, yet again, there were no walks or guides available for parties of less than four, so I contented myself with reading and sunning myself on the veranda. Not finding any company, and the only customer in the hostel restaurant in the evening, I was finding Coroico relaxing but lonesome.

In the morning, a walk up an almost vertical hill took me to the very edge of the village where the beautiful countryside tempted me to carry on, but the guidebook warnings of walking alone in this area made me reluctantly turn back. There didn't appear to be any other travellers around and I just exchanged nods with a group of village women dressed in flared wool skirts and colourful woven shawls, not a scrap of denim or PVC to be seen. They each sported a little bowler hat perched on the top of the head, as if at a Laural and Hardy convention.

Deciding to return to La Paz, I booked the last seat left on the afternoon bus. Surprised that it was a window seat, as soon as I sat down I knew why, as all of the leg-room was taken up by the wheel arch. When a rotund Bolivian with a big cardboard box sat next to me I knew I was in trouble. With my knees under my chin, the hold-all and day sack squashed above and below them, however I positioned myself, different parts of me either went dead, locked themselves or went into spasm. The man beside me must have thought I had tics, either live or nerve induced as I jiggled and fidgeted for the whole journey. At least the road didn't seem quite so bad going back, partly as it was uphill and I was on the side that looked out onto the cliff face, but primarily as all my attention was focused on trying to ease the pain in my body.

Safely back in La Paz, I learnt that Cumbrai to Coroico is a popular mountain bike route, but all I can say is that anyone who cycles this road must be seriously insane --the only way I was going to continue my journey on to Lima was in an aeroplane.

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Comments by other Members

Sleek at 10:26 on 26 April 2005  Report this post
Hi Sue,

Liked your account of your trip to Coroico. A suggestion though:

Consider much tighter editing. It feels like you're trying to include everything you did on your trip. This produces a very linear narrative where some things that are of marginal interest (like the exact height in metres of various places) are included with things that could be expanded more (the whole comic experience of being stuck in the mud on the so-called Most Dangerous Road In The World).

You don't have to do everything in order. You could start the section with staring out of the window at the rows of little shrines and wondering what would happen if catastrophe struck - it really does strke when you get stuck - as you're standing waiting for the bus to be dug out you can explain the reasons you were taking such a tough bus journey in the first place. Instead of ABC you have gone BCA and made it more pacey and less linear.

(I have been to Bolivia as part of my own RTW - it was one of my favourites).

Richard Brown at 10:45 on 26 April 2005  Report this post
Each to his own! I'm sure that Sleek's comments are very well worth considering but I really enjoyed this piece the way it is (though I was almost driven to putting fingers over eyes at the account of the wheels half way over the edge; very scary). My only (slight) difficulty was with the use of commas. One or two sentences seemed not to flow as easily as they might but this is probably just a personal preference. Overall the article held my attention very well and (true test of a travel piece, I suppose) I picked up a strong sense of place.


sue n at 22:37 on 26 April 2005  Report this post
Thanks Sleek and Richard, although now I am confused. I will have to wait for a third commentator to give a deciding opinion.

Is there a secret to commas? I just can't seem to get them right.

Sue n
(Bolivia was one of my favorites too)

CheekyGrin at 12:41 on 28 May 2005  Report this post
Hi Sue

I think I agree with Richard on this one. On the whole it read well, although one or two sentences were a little jerky. Also, you mention "yet again, there were no walks or guides available for parties of less than four" -the first mention of this in the piece, and it leapt out as inconsitent.

Also, you may be interested to know that that road has officially been named as "The World's Most Dangerous Road" by the Inter-American development bank due to the high fatality count on it. On average one vehicle goes over every 2 weeks, and as these vehicles are usually buses or lorries with people sitting on the produce the death toll when they do is high.

Well I must be mad because I've gone down it on a mountain bike. Safer than a bus anyday - how often do people ride off the side of roads? (alcoholic influence excluded!)


sue n at 20:13 on 02 June 2005  Report this post
Well Simon
I pronounce you officially bonkers.
Sue n

ashlinn at 20:56 on 02 June 2005  Report this post

I liked this piece very much. Sometimes, I feel about travel articles like I do about other people's holiday photos; interesting if you lived it yourself but boring as hell if it goes on for too long. But that's not the case here. You had my attention all the way through.

What I liked best was the tone: it was informative and interesting while remaining light and funny. There were lots of descriptions that I liked a lot. (I have a particular fondness for "as if at a Laurel and Hardy convention." I have travelled in Bolivia and that's exactly what it was like.) The little throwaway phrase "Feeling a little better,.." also appealed to me. The whole idea of feeling better because of the card in your pocket made me laugh.

The one word I didn't like was 'pantomime'. Don't ask me why but it jarred with me.

In my opinion, the only way to improve it is to add more. Maybe it could do with a little more human interaction. How about including a conversation you might have had with someone on the bus on in the restaurant? It would be great if you could capture some real insight into the people and their way of thinking and living.

Well done


sue n at 20:52 on 03 June 2005  Report this post
Thanks - I liked your comparison of travel articles to holiday photos- I've never thought of it like that before.
Unfortunately all my time on the bus and in the village I didn't talk to a soul. I don't mind embellishing something that did happen but haven't ever got to grips with just making it up.
I have vowed that I am going to learn Spanish before I go to South America again.

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