Bolivian Buses = Memories

I knew there was a high delta that I would run into problems when I decided to bus from Asunción, Paraguay to Santa Cruz, Bolivia. When purchasing my ticket, I did my best to make sure I would have a decent bus. I asked two different attendants to list the included amenities. They both told me it would be a cama bus, with aire acondiciado and two meals. My prior doubts were confirmed when my skimpy old bus pulled into the terminal lacking air conditioning and having seats that barely budged — let alone fully reclined into beds. In all honesty, this is what I expected and I shrugged it off over a good laugh with a Dutch kid who was also about to shove-off on this memorable adventure.

Our bus had a great atmosphere and was, luckily, less than half full. There were four professional soccer players, a Brazilian couple, the Dutch kid and a few other stragglers. The footballers brought a bunch of beers and were content to party away the first few hours of the tour. It was enjoyable. We made our way through a beautiful Chaco night — with innumerable stars illuminating the unique shrubbery. I tested a few sleeping positions and retired for a couple hours at a time, until my extremities were devoid of blood and I had to find a new posture.

We arrived at the Paraguayan exit location at 3:00, and hundreds of kilometers inside the Paraguayan border. It was surreal pulling to a halt at such an odd hour, and long before expected. We paraded out into the darkness and knocked on the door of the attendant’s shack. We woke him from his slumber, got our passports stamped, and resumed our journey.

We arrived at the Bolivian border at 7:30. Our drivers got out and curiously conversed with the Bolivian military guards stationed there for about 15 minutes, before taking up a comfortable position under a tree. They didn’t give us any information and told us to wait on the bus. They got back on board at 9:00 and told us we were going to make our way to the Migration office, 60 kilometers further into the country, but that there might be a problem.

We made it to the migrations office and were told we wouldn’t be permitted to enter the country until 18:00, (19:00 in Asunción). This was a result of the very important constitutional referendum being held. The military was worried that there might be riots, or possibly even a coup. We were in a tiny little shanty village of about 15 buildings and a military training facility. It was dusty and was already over 90 degrees at 9:30. We had nowhere near enough food or water. The nearest town in Paraguay was hundreds of kilometers behind us, and we had learned the night before that the air conditioning on our bus didn’t work. I had a very emotional couple of minutes.

After a few minutes of banter between passengers, people started to accept the situation and think about how to pass the time. I spent the next couple hours learning the simple Brazilian card game Truco with the Brazilian couple and Dutch kid.

The bus cheered for joy when the lady who ran the minuscule village restaurant said she was preparing a free lunch for us. She slaughtered a few lambs and made a dish of rice, lamb chops, potatoes and onions. It was delicious and certainly beat the warm chocolate milk and wafers we were stranded with on the bus.

This little town lit on fire, and the temperature exceeded 42 degrees Celsius, somewhere near 110 degrees Fahrenheit. We were dangerously lacking water, and all they had in the town was soda and extremely grimy water from a bug infested water tower. Despite my thirst, I respected my American-style lack of immunities and refrained from drinking this water — but a couple hours more and I would have given in.

Now, to provide context, I am going to backtrack a bit. I had a nightmarish time obtaining a Bolivian visa. I went to the Bolivian Embassy/Consulate eight different times in three different countries over a three week period. Every time I showed up, they told me I would be able to pick up my visa the NEXT time I arrived. Every time, either they were out of paperwork, the consulda wasn’t present, the fax machine was broken, etc… I wasn’t able to obtain an actual visa because of these fax machine issues in Asunción, but I did have an official document saying I had completed all the steps and was to be given a visa upon first appearance in Bolivia, signed and stamped by the Consulada, with phone advances.

When the migrations offices was finally opened 30 minutes late, I was given mountains of paperwork I had already completed and told to get to work. I filled them out and walked into the office. I showed my documentation to the clerk, paid my absurd $135 visa fee, and was successfully passed off to the man who was simply in charge of putting the visa in my passport. He told me my documents were invalid and that he wouldn’t be let into the country unless I gave him money: ‘no dinero, no entras!’ I stubbornly bluffed my way into saying I only had $5, and after a few minutes of arguing, he gave me the visa in exchange for my money. I guess $5 is worth more to him than stranding a gringo in the middle of the barren Chaco.

RELIEF!!!! We finally made it into Bolivia! Only 8 hours to go until we reach Santa Cruz! Not quite.

We navigated the treacherous dirt road and made it deeper into Bolivia. That is, until we approached a large dip, at which point our drivers nervously stopped the bus, deliberating about how to proceed. They decided to gun it and we shot down, hoping to have enough speed to clear the hill on the other side. We didn’t even come close. We got stuck at the lowest point, in thick sand. We spent the next hour and a half nervously digging ourselves out of the dirt and acquiring make-shift traction by gathering and laying wood from our surroundings. After many attempts, and with the whole crew pushing in unison, we finally cleared the hill after an hour and a half, and as we were completely losing visibility.

We hit the road for another couple hours as a massive thunderstorm gathered. It was easy to find my way to sleep after such an emotional day, even as lightning wailed and rain poured.

I awoke in a curious daze as the bus slowed and the engine died. We had pushed this little guy to the max, and he just couldn’t make it any further. Our drivers spent a while tweaking and cranking the engine, and we finally got her started again, to wild cheers and chants from the footballers. Our bus was supremely bonded by this point. We had taken photos, surmounted language barriers and exchanged e-mails. We were a family.

We pulled into Santa Cruz at 4:00 (5:00 in Asunción) after an extremely emotional 33 hour, epic pilgrimage. This is not the ideal time to arrive in Santa Cruz, so I piled into a taxi with the Dutch and Brazilians and we were escorted to a $3 hostel, where we showered and collapsed.

I bonded with Bolivians and was astounded by their generosity. I learned a lot about myself and pushed my limits. I also learned that I won’t be investing in Bolivia for at least 10 years. What a trip.

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