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A Day Late, A Loonie Short

Hola! from the great white north that is Bolivia. It is cold, grey and rainy and I am incredibly happy to be here.

After a month in Brazil, I decided to make my move in to Bolivia. To start my journey from Brazil to here, I went at Caceres, a typically horrible border town, on Monday afternoon. I quickly hopped on a local scooter, heading straight to the Federal Police, so I could get my exit stamp that allowed me to go to Bolivia. When I arrived, the officer there asked me where a certain official document was, one that I had never seen before.

When I told him I didn't have it, he explained to me that there was no way I could leave Brazil without it. I felt a healthy wait or an even healthier bribe coming on. Suddenly, the phone rang and the officer picked it up, and instantly started talking to his friend on the other end about soccer. He quickly stamped my passport, gave me a thumbs up, and sent me on my way. Civil service is not one of the major differences between Canada and Brazil.

After spending all that evening fruitlessly searching for a place that would change my cash into Bolivian currency, I got up Tuesday morning to catch the bus to Santa Cruz, Bolivia. I woke up at 5am, stuffed my crap into my bag and then promptly got on the wrong bus.

Bus stop #1 - the errant oil tanker

It's not that the bus was at the wrong time, or didn't go to Santa Cruz - both of those aspects of the ride were just fine. The problem was that I happened to get onto The Bus That Didn't Want To Arrive. The first two hours went smoothly: As per usual, it was standing room only for the 22-hour journey, bags strewn all along the floor, Brazilian dance music blaring at a Spinal Tap-esque volume of 11, and I ended up speaking for hours in French with a Bolivian politician named Victor Hugo, which, really, is the sort of thing that you just can't make up.

After three hours on the road, we lucked into finding a huge oil truck stuck in a giant pit of mud at the bottom of a hill. The truck had skidded while trying to avoid the pit and had ended up getting stuck at a right angle, taking up the entire road and leaving vehicles stuck at the top of both sides of the hill, static in indecision. The truck driver had long since disappeared, in search of help, or perhaps a new job. While the truck took up two-thirds of the pit, various other vehicles were trying their luck, hopping to make it through the deep mud in in the other third, and usually failing. Groups of thirty men would pull out micro-buses and trucks as they got stuck, and each new vehicle's entry was an adventure. One microbus driver careened sideways through the mud with a skill so obviously practiced that it was both unparalleled and unwanted.

After an hour of watching crazed individuals drive through, or pulling them out, it was our driver's turn. He sped up, slid, squealed the tires and jumped out the other side, smooth as butter. We screamed with delight. He was promised beers from every member of our group, which we hoped he would imbibe at the end of the journey. Everyone piled back into the bus and we drove approximately 800 metres, where we came upon another scene of traffic distress. On the left, a mini-bus with three wheels fallen through a collapsing wooden bridge. On the right, a three-foot deep narrow river. Rather than waiting for the bus in the bridge to get out, our driver, pumped with adrenaline and possibly a few of those beers, told us all to get off. He headed for the river, an endeavour which he very obviously couldn't make, and, more obviously, didn't. There was now a bus stuck in the bridge, and ours, tilted at a nerve-wracking thirty degrees, lodged fender-deep in the river. The first three hours were spent standing in freezing water, trying to reconstruct the bridge underneath the mini-bus, helping to get it out, a venture which was eventually successful. The people from that bus then tried to help us, but after an hour of failure and being four hours late already, went on their way and left us alone.

Bus stop #2 - A Bridge Too Far

After about six hours of being stuck, the babies started to cry. Add into the mix that, due to a freak cold snap, it was 10C, or about twenty-five degrees colder than it had been in two months, and would likely dip below freezing at night. It was then that I was struck with the sobering thought that I do not live in a movie, and these stories do not always have happy endings. It was dark, our clothes were wet, particularly the ones stored under the bus and now completely submerged in the river, and the only person doing anything was a four-foot high Quechua woman who had managed to make a bonfire for the entire group of twenty people. Finally, a huge flatbed truck showed up going our direction, and again we released screams of joy, none louder than from our now-exceptionally unpopular bus driver. The flatbed backed up beside us and attached a chain, trying to pull us out from the rear. It revved its engine and yanked with all its might, causing nothing but for the cable that was attached to our bus to snap. Three more efforts of this produced the same non-result. We stuck everyone from the bus onto the flatbed, hoping to add weight for the pull. The wheels screeched and skidded people fell overboard like soggy lemmings, but again the chain snapped. The truck then decided to try and pull us out from the front, which meant crossing the bridge. And, in trying to get ahead of us, also had three wheels fall through. An hour later we had that truck out, and it attached the chain to the front of our bus. It revved the engines once more and pulled on ours hard, pulling us easily out of the river, and, in its effort, driving itself directly into a ditch on the other side of the road. In our continuing back-and-forth stumble between comedy and despondency, we managed to pull their truck out with our bus and get back on the road.

At this point, we had been travelling for fourteen hours and had gone just over three hundred kilometres. The babies were still crying from hunger, as were most of the adults. However, our suddenly time-conscious driver now felt that he was behind schedule and refused to stop for dinner. We tried to explain that we doubted anyone would notice a few extra minutes after being a half day late but he wouldn't listen. This turn of events caused a group of six men in the back to revolt. They sprinted up to the front and jam-packed the driver's cabin, sitting on him and making him pull over at the first sign of food. We ate, came back, and had the rest of the ride without incident.

I have heard of the concept of being in a place so idyllic that time has no meaning; on a South American bus ride it is time that holds all meaning and distance that has none. I have a short two hundred kilometre journey tomorrow - I hope to arrive within the next week…