Torotoro to La Paz
4 march 2015:
6:45 – We’re up early to pack and buy breakfast. Eggs this morning, peach juice, coffee, and the fruit salad Frances makes so well. While we’re eating, Macedonio swings by to tell us the minibus is ready and we can leave as soon as we’re finished eating. We hurry with the bill and our bags and head out the door.
8:40 – The minibus is not ready. Macedonio is nowhere in sight and the ticket agents at the little minibus kiosk tell us they’re waiting on four more people before the van will leave. The minibus system is faster than the bus and only a little more expensive, plus you have more control over departure times and stops, but the downside is that the minibus does not leave until it’s full, which can sometimes take a few hours.
9:40 – Macedonio has come and gone and we’re still missing two or three passengers. I chat with a Bolivian man waiting for the same bus (he cans and exports palm hearts for a living), pet the friendly stray dogs, and catch up on writing.
10:20 – we collectively decide to buy the empty minivan seats so the van can leave. I take one last bathroom break.
10:45 – After a few more frustrating moments of waiting, the van rumbles slowly over the cobbled streets, across the river, and out of town. Including the driver, there are 13 of us stuffed in a car only a little bigger than the average American family van. The scenery out of Torotoro is stunning. It was dark when we first arrived, so this is my first time seeing this landscape. We leave the jagged-edged bowl with its striped layers of earth behind and begin weaving in and out of green hills. Occasionally our driver brakes hard for a herd of goats or a stray cow. We pick up two more passengers along the way (I’m still not sure where we managed to fit them).
The curves in the road make me dizzy, so I close my eyes and listen to music. I would sleep, but the bus driver honks every time we round a curve, which makes sense – the road is not quite wide enough for two cars to pass and most of the curves are blind turns. What I don’t quite understand is why he also seems to be honking at water crossings, trees, and large rocks. The peculiarities of Bolivian road etiquette are still a mystery to me.
When I can open my eyes again I watch closely as we pass small groups of buildings – not towns or even villages, just clusters of houses every now and again along the road. They’re all dirt and adobe, some with corrugated metal roofs held in place with bricks or stones. Sometimes there’s no glass in the windows. Sometimes there are no doors. I see a lot of political slogans painted along the walls, all of them pro-Evo Morales, the current president who is running for his fourth term. In the doors of the occasional kiosk plastered with coca-cola slogans sit indigenous women dressed in the traditional Bolivian outfit: black sandals, a knee-length skirt and petticoat in a sold blue or green, long-sleeve knitted sweater, and wide-brimmed hat sitting atop two long, shiny braids hanging down to her waist. She sits with her neon striped blankets tied around her shoulders, a tiny son or daughter peeking over her shoulder from within the shelter of the blanket; or with the blanket spread in front of her, various sweet snacks tucked inside for sale.
14:40 – we climb out of the van on a busy street in Cochabamba, stretch, shake hands with Macedonio, and grab a taxi into town for a hurried coffee and a menu del dia.
16:32 – we’ve just missed a bus departure to La Paz, but the noise in the terminal tells us we won’t have trouble finding another. The terminal at peak hour is a madhouse. Women and men shout destinations like they’re selling food at a county fair: “La Paaaaaaz! ” “Oru-ru-ru-ru-ro-O-ruuuuuuu-ro!” “PotosiPotosiPotosiiiiiiii!” It’s surreal. The noise is deafening. We weave through vendors all but screaming in our faces, like soldiers running through enemy fire, to a company advertising cama and semi cama seats for La Paz. Our taxi driver advised asking for a company with a semi cama option as a security measure (buses in Bolivia have something of a reputation). The El Dorado booth looks clean and professional. The woman selling tickets signs us up promptly for seats at the very front of the bus – seats with a panoramic view – and assures us that the bus leaves “al punto” 18:00 – exactly at 18:00.
18:15 – the bus does not leave exactly at 18:00. The bus driver is sound asleep in the front seat. We check with the woman who registered our bags and she assures us the bus will leave in “just a little bit”.
19:02 – having a seat at the very front of the bus gives me an excellent look at how close the bus driver pulls to other buses and cars as we crawl out of the terminal, an hour late. I am genuinely surprised that the bus is leaving so late; the microbus this morning was one thing, but this is a major bus company and generally they leave punctually. The bus weaves rapidly in and out of traffic as we navigate the suburbs of Cochabama. The driver honks at everything. I lose count of the number of obstacles and other vehicles we nearly hit.
19:30 – the other passengers on the bus complain loudly and bang on the windows and floor. “Vamooooos!” We’ve stopped to pick up passengers in Quillacollo and everyone is more than anxious to be on the way.
20:30 the bathroom that was advertised in the el dorado ticket office is apparently “closed for the duration of the trip”. We stop next to a line of about 15 identical restaurants serving chicken prepared in various quantities of oil, and several men and one or two women get out. The men turn their backs to the road. The women squat in the shadow of tractor-trailers parked in a long line. I find a deserted concrete corner behind the line of restaurants. When I come back, the bus is already pulling back on to the highway. I yell and bang on the door and they slam on the brakes so I can jump in.
22:08 I’ve decided that the best strategy for surviving the journey with nerves intact is to close my eyes. We’ve already passed long lines of trucks on mountain roads with short blind curves. A few times the bus driver has begun passing a few cars on a hill, only to slam on the brakes when another car comes flying at us in the opposing lane. Now I think I know what they’re talking about when they say going by bus in Bolivia is rough on the nerves.
0:43 we make a stop to let off a few passengers. I eat an apple with peanut butter – an excellent gluten-free travel snack, readers, if you all are curious how I stay alive on long bus trips. The lights in the upstairs level of the bus come on and stay on. According to the information our taxi driver gave us, we’re still three hours from La Paz.
2:35 and it seems we made good time to La Paz, and we’re groggily shouldering our backpacks and deciding whether or not to take a taxi to our hostel, which turns out to be just a few minutes’ walk downhill, and then we’re falling into our bunks and trying not to wake the other guy already asleep in our room, and then we’re out.