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Day 38 – On A Bus (La Paz to Uyuni)

November 17, 2010

Location: Bus from La Paz to Uyuni, Bolivia

Date: Wednesday Night, November 17, 2010

I’ve endured many bus rides (Vietnam, South America, etc.), but until today none have made my brain fall out of my ear or given me standing room only seats to a Vegas show.

The bus was from La Paz to Uyuni where Jamil–my Canadian friend from Isla del Sol–and I would start a three-day tour through the bizarre southwestern Bolivian Antiplano (most notably the Salar de Uyuni). It was a mere 12 hour overnight trip.

We stashed our water, snacks, and a bottle of wine in the overhead storage area. (The Uyuni tour provides meals, but not snacks, water, or other beverages–we came prepared.) The first seven hours of the night went quickly. The bus passed through the outskirts of La Paz and its night markets, groups of people jockeying for position on the next collectivo, and car after car of traffic.

The seats weren’t luxurious like those on Cruz del Sur, but they were on a “tourist” bus which meant almost all Western passengers and no stops along the way to pick up more passengers. In all, enough amenities to catch some sleep.

Well, except for a draft in the window next to me that shot cold air down my leg. In response, I went full burqa and pulled the blanket over my head so that my breath could warm the trapped air. It worked, so long as I also curled into a manly fetal position.

The real fun started at five in the morning. The sun was just warming the night sky when the bus pulled off the tarmac onto a dirt road.

Dirt roads are nothing new, but the combination of the Bolivian bus (read: rickety), the rutted road, and the speed the driver insisted on mashed into a perfect storm. For the next four hours we rode an 8.0 earthquake. Turns out I was lucky to have the drafty window; heck, I was lucky the window was still there at all.

It was like sitting on God’s desk while He nervously bounced His knee through an Evolutionary Psychology final. It sounded like three classes of fourth-graders were duct taped to the outside of the bus and were stomping on the roof, walls, and undercarriage. By hour two I wondered if adults could experience shaken-baby syndrome. I felt epileptic.

During the man made natural disaster our wine bottle got loose and Jamil had to take it down because it was rolling forward and back through the bus like a wrecking ball through people’s stuff. Around the same time, an Irishman was awakened when a 2 liter water bottle fell out of overhead storage and landed on his head; because he plays rugby and because he’s Irish, he awoke confused, angry, but immediately went back to sleep.

I had my own misadventure. Somewhere between the fifth reenactment of Loma Prieta and the second simulation of life inside a bass drum, I needed to piss. Half asleep, I staggered to the back, stepped into the bus bathroom, and tried to lock the door. Not only did the lock not work, I realized that, because of a broken bolt, that the door would fly open bringing my glory to the world. Looking around I noticed that the bathroom window was open and that I was standing in a layer of mud made of desert dust and not-water. My predicament, and the predicament of those that came before me was clear: how to pee in peace.

I grabbed the plastic door handle with my right hand, leaned forward, and—contorted like a Cirque de Soleil acrobat—fumbled through the job at hand with my left. What followed was something akin to a Bellagio Water Show choreographed by a crack addict hopped up on 50 gallons of coffee with the fountain machines stuck on fast forward. Mid performance, the bus slammed into a pothole and my head and my act almost hit the ceiling–I had visions of being thrown through the bathroom door, into someone’s lap, and prematurely debuting my show to the world.

“Hi. Uh, would you mind helping me up? Here, grab my right hand, my left is still busy. Dancing water is mesmerizing, isn’t it? Still, I’d close my mouth if I were you.”

Back in my seat I realized I wasn’t the only one. I giggled every time I saw someone make their way back to the bathroom and I almost burst out laughing when I saw the look on their face as they stumbled back to their seats. Turns out Jamil had a similar experience about an hour earlier except the bumpy road had blasted the door open halfway through his waterworks.

As we exited, the floor of the bus was litter with trash, water bottles, dust, tissues from other La Paz cough suffers, and lost knickknacks from the overhead bin. Passengers stumbled off the bus, trying to get their land legs back.

A priceless journey, a once in a lifetime show, and a twist on an old saying: don’t piss into an earthquake unless you want to get everything wet. Or unless you enjoy an acrobatic water show.

GALLERY: No bonus pics today.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 28, 2010 5:25 pm

    Ah, yes… in the backwoods of Bolivia!!


    When we left Potosi in 1970, we were doing trains whenever possible because we owned a 60-day Railpass (in the days when trains ran in MANY places around S. America). So we ended up in a station on the main line to Antofagasta, Chile around midnight – waiting for the through train to arrive about 5:00 a.m.

    All very fine except that the temperature was more or less zero centigrade and it was a waiting room filled with locals – the only folks (other than really frugal gringos) who rode trains. We settled down on the floor among our fellows – except that we had a Sierra Designs double mummy bag to keep warm in.

    Except, of course, that THIS was when Montezuma took his revenge on me! And Bolivian RR stations….have….no….restrooms.

    Out behind a boxcar in the biting wind…back to the sleeping bag….out behind a different boxcar in the shrieking wind….back to the sleeping bag. Was there EVER a more miserable night? I can’t remember it.

    Largely made up for when we got on the train and found ourselves in a Victorian sleeper, with green leather seats, shining chrome fixtures (the sink folded up against the wall over the faucets, and was shaped like a clamshell), and on the windows the letters FCAB – for Ferro-Carriles, Antofagasta, Bolivia…..except that Bolivia LOST Antofagasta to Chile in the War of the Pacific in 1879. We were riding on a genuine antique.

    I have pictures to prove it, too.

    I’m really enjoying reading about your trip, along with all the wonderful memories it engenders….the good stuff is much more vivid than (most of) the bad!


    • December 4, 2010 1:24 pm

      Stomach ailments seem to strike at the worst times. Mine, of came while in Cambodia staying in a dingy, rat infested room with a bathroom with no toilet seat. In the end it also forced me to bribe a cop. Good times. High price to pay, but it usually leads to some he more memorable stories, yours being a fine example.

      Never saw a train running on the tracks. Didn’t see anyone waiting for the train either. Our guide spoke only Spanish and I gathered from him that Bolivia and Chile were negotiating service between to the countries, implying there currently is no service.

      Not surprising. I get the feeling the border is still contentious, what with all the military posts and checkpoints.

  2. Doug permalink
    November 28, 2010 5:33 pm

    That is a side splitting story that will entertain friends for the rest of your life. If younmake it through south America. ; I

  3. November 29, 2010 10:14 am

    That train was heavenly, especially after Potoci where I had such a vicious chest cold and delirious fever, with the crisp sheets, warm wool blankets and the dining car with the fresh flowers in crystal vases on the wall above each table. Surreal experience of luxury travel in the back-of-beyond Bolivia.

    I also fondly remember that 10 hour por puesto ride across the altiplano with the most stunning views of the mountains changing colors every few minutes and mysteriously never getting any closer.

    Really love living your trip through SA with you, Mervyn!

    • December 4, 2010 1:26 pm

      It’s a strange place. I wish I could have taken the train. Then again, I’d have missed out on the back roads water show.

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