Posted by: standing_baba | March 24, 2010

When Non-Bike Travel Happens

FOREWORD: Instead of completing an estimated 40 day circuit to all the places I wanted to bike in Bolivia I decided to take a bus and train to visit select sites, then return to La Paz to continue biking east toward the Brazilian border. This is what happens when you abandon Bob & Surly for the supposed easy ride.

Bolivia happens. It happened to me several times today, and with each unexpected wrinkle I understood this country a little more.

10:00am. While hurriedly taking public transportation to the main terminal to catch a bus to catch a train, the downtown traffic stopped, swallowed its own tail, and pondered its predicament. It just folded up itself, pouting like a toddler who didn’t want to eat its oatmeal. Metal boxed me in from all sides. Honks punctuated the standstill like a thousand modern gunslingers bent on justice. We simmered in exhaust fumes that seemed to have every advantage over the thin mountain air, that in all actuality, barely exists in the first place. Most passengers accepted this fate and settled in for the long haul, but one elderly woman insulted the driver—as if all the world’s problems sprouted from his very seed—, humiliating him in a voice more appropriate for a construction zone, then stepped off in a flurry of swear words and disappeared into the sidewalk masses. I was happy to hear other passengers console the driver. “Don’t pay her any mind, she’s crazy” and “Continue sir, we’re with you” were voiced from the twenty some rows inside the blue-painted school bus.

At about this time a gentleman across the aisle addressed me. “Please forgive the delay, we’re almost around the bottleneck.” As the conversation evolved I learned he was a lawyer that never outgrew his boyhood fascination with cowboys. His eyes bulged upon hearing I had lived in Texas. “You know Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were killed here in Bolivia while robbing the railroad companies.” I did know that, but the modern chaos of La Paz suddenly made it hard to imagine two American outlaws riding off in the sunset, sombreros tipped to the left. “If you catch your train south, you’ll see the wide open land they used to call home.”

Ah yes, the train. I preferred to change the subject. This delay dwindled my chances of making the twice weekly run across the plains. “What do you think about the judicial process here, is it effective?” I asked already knowing the response. “It’s difficult, I’m up against a very corrupt system,” he began, staring out at the ocean of cars. “Those with money can buy themselves out trouble, those without any influence get taken advantage of.” He adjusted the briefcase on his lap; now he looked directly at me. “That’s the only good thing about this government, they’re fighting corruption. But they ignore the bigger problems just to pat themselves on the back over a few big fish.”

Our conversation ended with a formal business card offering. “If you need my services, just call.” “Hopefully I won’t need them,” I joked but pocketed his card anyway. I was beginning to learn anything can happen in Bolivia. A few long blocks later he exited onto a street lined with private lawyer offices, many with hand-painted signs marking their doors.

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11:00am. I was now on a long-distance bus that slowly maneuvered the many miles of capital city sprawl. Destination: the city of Oruro an easy three hours south. I hoped to arrive by 3:30pm in order to catch the train to Uyuni, a dusty town that bordered the world’s largest salt flat. Plenty of time, I thought ignoring the Van Dam movie explosions and gun clicks on the mounted TVs. Soon my world was a Radiolab podcast that comically explored the topic of chance. “What are the odds that somebody somewhere will win the lottery twice?…In Connecticut, employees of a place called Shuttle Meadow Country Club, they won twice. A man in Pennsylvania he won twice a few years later. A California retiree won a Fantasy Five and the Super Lotto in the same day. The odds of that were calculated at 1 in 23.5 trillion.” I fell asleep, cheek against the cold glass, slot machine numbers and the ghost of Butch Cassidy galloping in the distance.

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12:35pm. Forward movement stopped. I woke to more explosions and gun clicks, dried saliva on my lip. A drawn-out ‘what the f————–?’ automatically rattled my waking mind. The bus was on the shoulder, paralyzed, motored-down. Mechanical problems I assumed, but then I saw from my window’s sharp angle a line of trucks, cars, buses, and people waiting on the roadside. It was a roadblock, a protest, or some hybrid of both. There are two ways to deal with these all-too-common situations in South America. You learn patience or you go crazy. The Bolivians were silent with their patience, fully-absorbed in the movie. I respected their sanity, no matter how numb and dumbed down by the action-romance blood film. Having barely returned from insanity’s edge during my first ten or so roadblocks in Latin America, I too had learned patience. I slept. The group of French, German, Canadian, and American travelers several rows back strained their necks out the window for up-to-the-minute updates while incessantly asking about our future hypothetical forward movement. I rewound my Radiolab podcast to the exact spot where I had dozed earlier, and closed my eyes. “…The real lesson here…is if you don’t see past yourself you fall prey to, you know, superstition or magical thinking. You have to be careful not to find meaning here, when its just coincidence.”

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1:40pm. Open eyes. Some force greater than max volume on my iPod brought me back to life. The DVD menu screen’s soundtrack was repeating. It’s decibel level was louder than the actual movie, not sure why. As far as I could tell the obnoxious intro that tried to pack a war’s worth of cinematic anticipation into its 30-second score had been playing over and over and over ever since I consciously went unconscious. I had been awake now about two minutes, which meant it took four soundtrack loops for me to realize the bus driver had abandoned ship to kick dust around with his co-workers outside. We had been left to marinate in bad B-film music. I was rose to shut off the musical Chinese drip torture amazed that this idea had not occurred to anyone else. As I gave cheek to the blank-eyed woman beside me and stepped into the aisle, I was passed by a German girl with a violent determination who had obviously endured more than four soundtrack loops and was now visibly shaken as she barreled toward the front cabin to end the madness. I sat down, curled into a ball, and once again rewound my Podcast to block out the world. “…On the subject of predictability humans and coins are kind of similar….” The whole ridiculous soundtrack situation exemplified an unfortunate characteristic of the Bolivian people: for so many years they’ve contented themselves with so little that it now goes against every grain in their personality to demand a better situation.

We were still parked on the shoulder with no sign of moving forward.

*****************************************

2:23pm. Motor sounds, cheers from the foreigners. Bolivians stirred in expressionless joy. We were moving forward once again. Wanting to take in the scenery I put away the iPod almost by obligation and began to contemplate the void. Gently sloping mountains were mini-golf putting greens. Flat, tree-less land expanded outward to meet them like the gridded space in geometry textbooks. A few houses laid scattered like lost Lego bricks on a dusty floor. The highway lined the earth like kindergarten letters on a practice chalkboard, never quite straight, never quite confident in the creation of something in the nothingness. Over the now snoring blank-eyed woman next to me, I finally asked a Bolivian gentleman about the roadblock. He said students had recently taken a test to enter a university in La Paz. Before the exam it was announced that only 100 positions were available to the 5,000 applicants. After the exam when indeed only the 100 top scorers were accepted, the rest protested, shutting down the main road to the country’s southern half. “But if they knew only so many positions were available, why protest?” I asked. His answer was typical but longer than I expected, “Welcome to Bolivia. We don’t understand how to function as a society. We don’t have a single industry, we have a president who barely speaks Spanish, instead of going forward we’ve voted ourselves back to the Ice Age.” This continued in opinionated half-truth detail for some time. Eventually he realized we were in motion again, despite the still oneness of the scenery outside. For the first time in our conversation a smile lit up his face. I wanted to ask what had made him happy, at what moment he realized life is life and that’s enough, but I let it be. The important thing was to move forward.

*****************************************

3:25pm. In the front of the bus a small gang was plotting. I was among them. The same smiling gentleman, two of this friends, a woman with baby, and I had five minutes to pull off an unlikely feat: catch the train. Our bus had just entered Oruro city limits and would take another half hour to travel downtown—the opposite direction of the train station. With some reluctance, the bus driver agreed to drop us off outside of town. The gentleman called the station to check the train’s status, no answer. He called the taxi company to have a car waiting for us at the intersection, no answer. Under a barrage of honks we fell from the bus mid-traffic. The driver began to pull away as I yanked my backpack from the under compartment, luggage spilling from the machine’s belly onto the asphalt like landmines for the backed-up and angry traffic. The poor luggage boy received the brunt of anger as he dragged bags as large as himself back into the beast. Frantically, we waved down a taxi, piled in like circus clowns, and sped toward the station, five in the compact car, sitting on laps with bags falling around us, laughing because what else was there to do?

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Random guy by train

3:30pm. Our gang had contacts on the train. After a cell call to a friend aboard we learned the train had already departed, that it had actually left on time. In Bolivia the chances of this were slim. The group of men had to reach the desert town of Uyuni that night because early the following morning they were to take a group of Spaniards on a salt flat tour. Determined to arrive, everyone chipped in extra to propel the taxi at unnatural speeds toward the train’s next stop—a town of a few houses and a platform station about 30 kilometers away. It was going to be close. We did everything to convince the taxi driver of this mission’s importance but physically massage his back from the backseat. His dangerous passes on blind curves were rewarded with words of encouragement. When his motor revved above healthy RMPs, we cheered his recklessness. When another taxi passed him (which we later learned was full of passengers from our same bus) we voiced our disappointment with immature taunting the likes of which I haven’t heard since grade school. I thought it was pretty clear to the driver that we had to catch this train, that we were dancing on a wire, that fractions of a second meant success, that red brake lights meant failure. Faster, faster, faster was the only valid option.

Then the driver stopped for gas.

“Welcome to Bolivia,” said our ringleader with the cellphone as the taxi driver and gas attendant slowly filled the tank, then walked out of sight to break the bill with which we paid our fare.

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3:56pm. After bouncing through the small town’s roads which were little more than dust paths, we missed the train by seconds. We watched it’s caboose wiggle down the line as we arrived to the rail tracks. Like a shipwreck survivor, I felt if only we would have had a flare the outcome would have been different. The contact on the train had asked the conductor to wait five minutes at the platform. The conductor became impatient at three, then steamed up the engine at four. We arrived exactly at the promised five.

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Here it comes....

4:10pm. Our cellphone contact on the train told us to drive to the next small town—a mere 30 kilometers up road. We confirmed the town’s name. The conductor said he would wait for us there. The taxi driver promised to arrive, no problem. The new fare was agreed upon. Off we went in the same routine of daring highway recklessness. Soon the train was in sight as it bordered a lake on the horizon, looking like a square worm sliding across a hockey rink. Eventually we passed the train, waving hats and handkerchiefs outside the car windows like raft refugees. We were smiling, joking, laughing. Success would be ours. Arriving to our small town destination, again we bounced over dusty paths that divided mud houses, sped past the concrete slab plaza, then shot out of the car next to the tracks, packs in hand, wrapped in smiles, only to have the train cars speed past us, one by one, each full of Bolivians and tourists alike who thought us friendly villagers greeting them with a unique cultural hello of flailing arms and desperate screams. I distinctly remember one blurred tourist taking my photo with her bulky SLR camera.

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4:30pm. Minutes after our entertaining spectacle for the passengers, our contact phoned to tell us the small town where we parked had the same name as the bigger small town with an official train platform—just a short 15 kilometers down road. As in the movies, dust kicked up where dirt road met highway and our car jumped the shoulder, shifting gears mid-air, and sped toward our comfortable seats on the lunch wagon, where this whole episode would become a past episode in a string of repeating episodes that is not just a memorable blog moment for my new Bolivian friends but a very real part of their existence, their national situation, their struggle to arrive in a climate unfriendly toward arriving.

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4:48pm. On the train. Lego houses scattered across the altiplano. Mini-golf mountains undulated along the panorama’s outermost border, illuminated bronze and ash orange as the sun began its dip behind the horizon. The flatness was unmoving, frozen in time, despite the tick tack momentum of the worm over the tracks. My seat was number one, below the TV monitor cranked to full blast. Die Hard IV. More explosions and gun clicks.

*****************************************

“Welcome to Bolivia,” smiled the ticket man from below the wide brim of his tall hat as he plopped down in the empty seat next to me like an old friend. “That’ll be 52 bolivianos, please.”


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