Sometimes Moving, Sometimes Stuck:
Notes from a Bolivian Bus Journey
by William Blomstedt
09:31 As I step out of my hotel and onto the bright streets of La Paz, Bolivia, I am struck by a distinct traveler’s freedom. I can go anywhere and do anything as long as am I back in La Paz on Saturday to catch a plane. The amazing geography of Bolivia presents a host of options: Do I want to see Potosi, the highest city in the world? The giant Lake Titicaca? The salt flats of Uyuni? These ideas flash through my mind but one stands higher than the rest: the jungle. I had yet to experience the deep, sweaty jungle, and the town of Rurrenabaque is circled on my map. By my crude estimate, it seems to be about an eight-hour bus ride away, a perfect distance for a weeklong trip, and with my small knapsack I flag down a taxi-bus and start across town.
11:06 I arrive at the northern bus station and walk into the first bus office that advertises Rurrenabaque. I reach the door just ahead of six other backpackers and for seventy bolivianos, or ten dollars, I buy one of the few tickets left. Luck’s on my side, I think, as the stragglers begin to figure out who gets the remaining seats.
11:25 Five minutes until scheduled departure time. While waiting in line for a salteña, a kind of meat-dumpling street food, a Swiss girl smiles at me and asks if I am “ready.” Ready for what? I ask. This eighteen-hour bus ride, she replies. I look at her for a moment and say Yes, of course, before running with my salteña in hand to pick up more supplies at a nearby store.
11:44 Sitting on the bus and waiting for it to move. I am seated on the aisle two rows from the back of the bus. With my butt solidly against the chair, I can barely squeeze my knees against the seat in front of me. The third man in the last five minutes tries to sell me a small, netted bag of apples. People on the ground continually hand up backpacks, boxes, potato sacks and other species of luggage to the top of the bus where a maestro is stacking them together like Jenga pieces. I turn around and see the final row of the bus is all seats. There is no bathroom on board.
11:58 My seatmate has arrived: a woman in her twenties carrying a large colorful cloth bag and leading a child by the hand. I stand up to let her in, looking around to see where her child will sit. They both squeeze past me, the child jumping up on the woman’s lap, the bag stuffed down between her feet. Here we go, I think.
12:15 We are still stationary, but the flow of bags has slowed. By the sound of footsteps on the roof, I can tell the maestro is putting the finishing touches on his packing masterpiece. An ice cream vendor is on the bus, sending the child next to me into a fit. The mom doesn’t have any coins, so I buy an ice cream and we split it. I hope this will be a seed that cultivates a friendly relationship in this upcoming close-quarters experience.
12:31 The engine of the bus starts and the packing maestro climbs down. I can see in the reflection of a store window that our bus now has a large blue hunchback. The bus creeps forward, turns uphill and drives away from town. All seats on the bus are filled. All passengers are Bolivian except for myself, three French backpackers seated across from me, and three Swiss girls in the back row. A man behind the Frenchmen hands me a cup of strawberry yogurt as a segue into conversation. I ask him how many hours to Rurrenabaque and with a shrug of his shoulders tells me twenty-two or twenty-four.
13:40 After a few unexplained stops on the way up, we reach the peak of the hill. Snow-covered mountains peer through some combination of cloud and fog as we drive around a treeless, gunmetal gray lake. The flat bit doesn’t last long and we soon begin our descent of the Yungas, a stretch of road which is acknowledged as the most deadly in the world. I am feeling lucky until our driver starts accelerating downhill and passes a truck on a blind corner. I find myself clutching the handrest and wishing I’d told my mother I loved her one last time.
13:53 The driver has calmed down and we are descending in a low gear at a modest pace. My nervousness is soon forgotten as we are passing some of the most striking landscape I have ever seen. The bus clings onto an amazingly steep mountainside that drops thousands of feet into a boiling little stream. We are floating above clouds, in clouds, and below clouds. The biomes are changing and grasses and hearty shrubs start to clothe the naked rock. I am taking pictures, but nothing is coming out well and I am annoying my seatmate.
15:04 It feels like we are flying in a small plane. The bus is driving along a cliff edge, sometimes with a guardrail, sometimes not, and if I stand up I can look straight down the precipice. I still feel a bit nervous and think of what I should yell if we go shooting off the cliff. The term “peppercorns” comes to mind, and seems as good as any. Two of the Frenchmen are reading books and one is sleeping. All three Swiss girls are asleep. I want to yell that they are missing the most beautiful ride of their lives, but I refrain. There are more trees now, and I roll up the sleeves of my shirt.
15:35 We pass a yellow bucket-loader that has been flipped on its side and abandoned. A few hundred meters away the road widens and a small village clings to the cliff. The village consists of about thirty tin stalls side by side, with twenty-five of them closed. They all seem to be selling the same items: drinks, potato chips, candy. Laundry is resting on nearby bushes and looks like it has no chance of drying. The man across the aisle hands me another strawberry yogurt cup and tells me this is the new Yungas road, built only a few years ago. The old one, the deadly one, is on the other side of the valley. This bit of information does not comfort me, as we are still racing along an unprotected cliff.
15:45 The town Coroico appears on a small hill in the distance, yet we have an ocean of space separating us. We have to go all the way down to the bottom of the valley and back up. I can see our road continuing a thousand feet below us, but I can’t imagine how we are going to switchback our way there.
16:39 We pass Coroico without stopping. It’s now hot and humid and my armpits feel sticky, like I used raspberry jam as a deodorant. The road is now dirt, and though we aren’t descending as rapidly, we are still driving along a crumbling cliff without a guardrail. The road follows the contours of the hill, and we splash through shallow, bridge-less streams. I give thanks that we are in the dry season. The child next to me, who I recently learned is four years old, has been sucking down different kinds of sugar water for the past hour and has a bad case of verbal diarrhea. At the moment it seems only slightly better than real diarrhea. He starts jumping up and down on his mother’s lap, sometimes striking her or bringing his face directly up to hers and laughing obnoxiously.
17:00 We have stopped. There is a roadwork crew ahead and large trucks are continually bringing loads of dirt and dumping them off the side of the road. The construction crew seems not to care about the waiting vehicles and they professionally ignore any frustrated horn blasts. About a quarter of the bus passengers get out to watch. Our bus is second in a line which is growing by the minute.
18:23 The bus at the front of the line revs its engine and drives past the helpless man holding the stop sign. Our bus follows close behind, as does the rest of the line, and with our power in numbers we advance along the road while skirting many a honking dump truck. Darkness is approaching. There is a TV in the front of the bus, but it shows no signs of life. There are no personal lights on the bus. I haven’t eaten a meal since dinner the previous night, but with a constant wad of coca leaves in my cheek I feel fine. I have been sweating since Coroico and starting to smell, but not more than anyone else on the bus.
19:19 It is fully dark now, and only the headlights of the bus show that we are driving along a cliff and one slip-up would mean a spinning, crashing death. The dirt road is about one and a half lanes wide and when we meet a truck coming the opposite way both sides slow down and our bus drives on the left while they pass on the right. I think about this for a while, wondering why we have to face the cliff at every encounter. The only explanation I can think of is that, with our driver on the left side of the bus, he has a better chance of judging the crumbling, microscopic distance that means life or death.
20:23 We go through a deep ditch and the back axle of the bus makes a terrible cracking sound. My seatmate says “Oh Dios mio” (Oh my God) for the fourth time since it got dark. The child in her lap has slipped into a trance-like state where he punches one hand with the other over and over and over.
21:02 The bus stops in some roadside town and the driver says we have a half-hour for dinner. We all pile off and I help a very old Bolivian lady come down the steep bus steps. There are five different restaurants that are serving either fried chicken with French fries or hot dog chunks, also with French fries. There are also five little shops that sell drinks, packaged food, candy, and coca leaves. I walk up and down the street twice before ordering hot dog chunks and eating them while sitting on the curb.
21:20 Walking the street one more time to stretch the legs, I come upon the old Bolivian lady who I helped down the steps. She is confused and asks me where the bus is. I point it out, about fifty feet away, the only bus in town. She thanks me and says her mind isn’t too good anymore.
21:30 We are driving through the thick jungle. The road is jaw-shatteringly bumpy, and sleeping is out of the question. The back axle makes a terrible sound every now and then. The man in front of me cranks his seat back on my knees, causing me to yelp and half-stand before I somehow engineer my legs into the aisle. The only light on the bus is from one of the Frenchmen’s iPod as he plays a video game. Everyone in the three rows behind is watching him play.
23:17 I wake up to stillness and see we are pulled off the side of the road. I didn’t know I had fallen asleep. The insect noises of the jungle now compete with a few snoring passengers and every few minutes the bus inexplicably shatters the scene with a loud horn blast. The moon is just under full and climbing in the east. Everyone is sleeping, or at least pretending to. All the windows of the bus are open and I think of the malaria- and dengue-harboring mosquitoes. I hide under my little blanket and try to cover every piece of exposed skin.
00:35 I come out of a doze to see our seating arrangements have changed. Instead of me controlling half of the seat, with the woman and child in the other half, the kid has slid down by the window and is sitting on about one-fourth of the seat while the mother has about one-third. This leaves me with the remaining five-twelfths and I twist onto my side so our backs press together. It is almost intimate.
02:51 Hours spent half-dozing, half-awake. When I sit-lie on my side, my leg falls asleep after a few minutes and I switch to another position but it is not much better. The Frenchman and I have been kicking each other for the past four hours, continually repositioning our feet on a giant backpack in the aisle between us. The moon watches from overhead. Though we are still not moving, a few vehicles have passed coming from the opposite way. I can see the headlights winding their way along the cliff road. I hear the woman next to me mumble “Oh Dios mio” as she repositions herself once more.
03:40 We are moving now. Some passengers sit up awake. We are in a long caravan of vehicles, their lights all lined up behind us. Our stop remains unexplained, but it must have been something with the road.
06:13 I wake up to hammering and wrench-cranking noises beneath the bus. It is light and once again we are not moving. We are in a small town and I am not sure how long we have been here. A few of the passengers are in the nearby restaurant drinking tea and eating breakfast. I get off the bus and see two guys kneeling on cardboard and working on the axle. The ground is wet from rain. I find out that we were stuck last night because a truck foundered in some soft ground, blocking the road, and it took them several hours to dig it out.
07:34 We are moving again. They have supposedly fixed the axle but it still makes a creaking sound every time it flexes. The ambient smell hit me when I climbed back on board: a fecund odor of trapped, sweating people. Even with the windows open, there are enough little factories to create an enduring stench. If an outsider walked onto the bus, they might faint.
09:30 We pass a sign that says we are entering the province of Beni. We have been on the bus nearly twenty-two hours and, looking at my map, it seems that distance-wise, we are only halfway to Rurrenabaque. My friend across the aisle notices this and tells me the roads are much better from now on.
10:27 It is raining hard. “I thought it was the dry season,” I say to no one in particular, and imagine the swelling, bridge-less streams ahead. As the bus reaches the top of a rise, I look over an ocean of green jungle that stretches to the horizon. Puffs of fog come from little hills and reach up into forever. Looking closer at the side of the road, a bright red dirt shows beneath the vegetation, but the green is savagely trying to smother every inch of it. The road and streambeds are the red soil’s strongholds, and as the rain runs through the soil it creates an orange milk which undercuts the green by its roots. It is only one of the eternal battles occurring in this jungle.
11:45 We have stopped and heads are poking out the windows. A truck is stuck in the road ahead and a host of people are working on it with pickaxes and shovels. Half the people on my bus get out to watch. There are two pigs tied up on the side of the road and they oink enthusiastically. This is obviously the most excitement they have had since feeding time. It is still raining and I get back onto the bus. I celebrate the twenty-four-hour mark with a mouthful of water. The child is jumping on his mother’s lap. He yells “Vamos!” (We go!), which everyone thinks is funny, so he yells it again. And again.
12:42 We are moving. We pass a bus coming in the opposite direction so closely that I could give a pencil to an opposing passenger without our hands going out the windows. We stop, momentarily side by side, and the passengers sheepishly smile at each other from a few inches away. The drivers squeak the buses past each other without touching and we continue on as if nothing had happened.
13:38 I am shocked to realize that I haven’t really had to go to the bathroom this whole time. With a minimal water intake and the use of bushes during the sporadic stoppages, I have been quite comfortable. But by looking at the faces of the Swiss girls I can tell they do not agree with me. I am thankful beyond all measure that a case of the traveler’s runs did not strike in the past twenty-four hours. I can only imagine the horror. I make a mental note to find that street chef back in La Paz and thank her for thoroughly cooking that salteña.
14:04 The bus slows down, pauses, and then bursts forward. Uh oh, I think. The driver needed only a moment to decide that speed was the solution to the obstacle ahead. We splash down into a wallow and the bus tilts dangerously to the right, throwing a sleeping Frenchmen to the floor. But we don’t get stuck, or tip over, and the bus roars triumphantly to the other side. The Frenchman blinks rapidly as he climbs back into his seat. “Oh Dios mio,” the lady next to me says once more—my count is somewhere in the high teens. I look through the back window and see a small pond that I wouldn’t drive a Land Rover through. The waves crash back and forth, awaiting the next victim.
14:45 We are driving on the flat now. A hypnotic jungle view crowds both sides of the bus. Vines are the dominating plant in this biome, crawling over everything and disguising the trees as big, leafy, cartoonish heads. All talk on the bus has stopped, save for the Swiss girls who are unenthusiastically playing Trivial Pursuit. The rest of us are watching the landscape pass in a near-catatonic state. Every now and then we pass a hut, or a clearing, and all the people on the ground turn to watch the bus. I daydream about how long I would last walking alone through this jungle.
16:10 The seat ratios have been redistributed once more. Now the child, who is sleeping peacefully, has about one-third of the seat while my share is down to one-fourth, only one cheek. The bus slows down to a stop and the old Bolivian lady stands up. “Thank you to all my companions today,” she says to everyone in a soft voice and slowly climbs off the bus. There is no house or any other sign of civilization other than a small dirt path that leads into the jungle. As the bus speeds away, I get up and move to her seat.
16:54 I am watching the endless reel of jungle green and thinking about the old Bolivian lady whose seat I adopted. How many times has she taken this bus? Was this a bad journey, or were these incidents more or less normal? And what about the rest of the Bolivians on the bus? Was this kind of ride just a trial of their daily lives? What about the drivers who probably make this journey a couple of times every week, with the responsibility of these lives in their hands? What horror stories do they have from traveling in the depths of the rainy season? For the Frenchmen, the Swiss and myself, this ride is a novelty of sorts, something to suffer through on our travels before returning to our timely, comfortable lives. The story could be particularly colorful if told on a train from Zurich to Bern that arrives within a minute of the stated goal. But for the Bolivians this is their normal life. They have to take this route to work in the city, to visit family, to purchase goods, or even to get health care. This world is vastly different than the one I grew up in, and I make a promise to myself that whenever I climb into my car, or get on an airplane, I will remember that this bus, or one like it, is somewhere along the route to Rurrenabaque, either moving or stuck.
17:07 My jaw hurts from the near constant intake of coca leaves and my head is buzzing in a strange way. The space between my clothes and skin feels like a swamp. We haven’t stopped at a town since breakfast. I have crackers but I’m not hungry, and I have water but I’m not that thirsty either. The sun is starting to go down again and I imagine another mosquito-fearing night on this bus. I wave at a child standing in a small clearing, but the child just stares in response.
18:30 We reach the outskirts of Rurrenabaque. A guard lifts open the gate and we pass into town, the houses clustering closer and closer together in this small outpost of civilization. The passengers are coming alive at the prospect of a stop for dinner and perhaps even the night. The bus is scheduled to continue on to Ixiamas, and looking at the map, Rurrenabaque seems only two-thirds of the way there. We arrive at the station approximately thirty-one hours after the departure time and I am a little surprised there is no fanfare for our safe arrival. Perhaps this is normal. I get out, stretch my legs, and find my bag in the pile of luggage. Then walk into the nearby office to buy a ticket back to La Paz in two days’ time. ■
William Blomstedt is a migratory beekeeper, geographer, and writer. He currently lives in Ljubljana, Slovenia.