Coca leaves play a siginficant role in Andean cultures as a curative. Traditionally chewed or made into tea, they are widely available in Bolivia. I was chewing them to avoid altitude sickness. Without them I don't think I would ever have made it through that journey. At least not intact...
Our bus pulled out of Guayaramerin at about eight o'clock in the morning with the intention of arriving in La Paz some 36 hours later. I don't know why but deep down inside I doubted that. Maybe it was that the bus looked liked it was held together with bits of string and chewing gum. Maybe it was that there were chickens, dogs and cats running around inside. Maybe it was that the roads were little more than dirt tracks. Or maybe it was all three together but somehow I knew we were in it for the long haul.
And, in my heart of hearts, I couldn't imagine it any other way. This was Bolivia and if we were going cross-country we were going to do it a lo boliviano. And so I had bought a bag of coca leaves in the market outside the dusty bus terminal to chew along the way.
The Colombians, Camila and Leo, were ready for the journey. Especially Camila. Despite (or maybe because of) her small stature, she was a tough cookie - la jefa - and I rarely saw her without a smile on her face. Leo had done a year's military service, was the youngest of all three, would moan periodically but never cracked. Even when he moaned he did so half smiling. They were good people, good travel companions. And I had a packet of chocolate covered almonds - Camila's favourite apparently, so I was in her good books from the get go.
And so the bus rumbled on. We were the only foreigners. The rest of the passengers were locals. I think the driver had a girlfriend in La Paz, so determined was he to get there without stopping. The passengers would bang on the floor - his ceiling, the driver was situated below the passenger compartment - to signal for him to stop the bus so they could relieve themselves. But more often than not he ignored the banging above him and just carried on at the highest speed the dirt track would allow. Eventually the passengers could take no more and the banging on the floor became a cacophony. And at some points I thought they might get violent...
And so I saw the Bolivian countryside. Periodically at least. Small, under-developed villages dotted the countryside, mostly shacks beside the roadside with the occasional concrete monstrosity to compliment. (That was usually the bus station.) In one of these, we found a waxwork representation of an ancient Indian chief. Passengers posed next to him and took photos.
We were making good time. Too good. I knew something had to go wrong. That night I slept fitfully. I had been chewing coca leaves to help combat any symptoms of altitude sickness. They work; they really do in that capacity. But sleep is not really an option. It's not like taking cocaine. Far from it, in fact. You don't feel wired. Slightly energetic, perhaps, which is not a good thing to be at 3am. I had the feeling that guy next to me hated my guts. He wasn't chewing coca...
But I did get a few hours. And then I awoke. The bus was stationary. It was all juts too easy. I mean, this was Bolivia. There was no way we would get to La Paz without incident. A landslide! Of course! It was the midst of rainy season, we were on the final stretch a few hours from La Paz - according to some we were running early - high up in the mountains on the Camino de la Muerte (Death Road, the most dangerous road in the world), and there was a landslide.
I didn't see it happen, I was asleep, but we must have just missed its impact as we were at the head of the traffic right next to the swathes of mud, rock and dirt that had flooded the road before us.
I wasn't upset. I wasn't even surprised. This was all part of the experience and I wouldn't have it any other way. Camila and Leo, seated behind me, seemed pretty resigned too. I got up to have a look around. It was about 6.30 am and the traffic was backing up behind us. People were getting out having a look. There were crowds gathering on the road, climbing about on the boulders, some eight to ten feet wide and as at least as long.
A small digger truck had arrived to clear the way. It was tiny and I felt sorry for the driver as people shouted indiscriminately at him. "Move that rock you idiot!" Or something like that. The driver sat alone in his tiny truck with a tiny crane, our only solution and the butt of our frustration. Poor guy! He worked on it all day long amidst torrents of abuse. He just couldn't win. But he tried.
We were stuck there for almost 14 hours. And yet, for me, they passed rapidly. I took photographs, read my book, and spoke to the locals. We climbed back and forth to the other side of the landslide. The traffic had backed up there too. I devised a scheme for us to get out of here quickly. "Why don't we all just swap buses?" I said this because I had spotted a luxury coach on the other side with TVs and toilets. It put us to shame. We could kill two birds with one stone. Get out of here quickly AND in style! It fell on deaf ears...
At about 5.30pm a second larger digger truck arrived. This one meant business. The crowd went wild. But I thought: "Where the fuck was he a few hours ago?!" More than anything I felt sorry for the other driver. He'd slaved away all day, putting up with abuse from all angles and this other had just turned up and was going to steal all his glory. Poor guy. Size does matter apparently. Mais c'est la vie...
Within a few hours the road was clear. I had made some new friends and then suddenly we had to say our goodbyes as we made our way back to our own buses, cars or trucks. The vehicles would have to fight their own way out through the space cleared by the diggers, against the oncoming tide of traffic coming from the other side. It was every man for himself; each to their own. No one was directing and there was only room for one vehicle to pass through at a time. At one point, I actually threatened to get out and hold up the oncoming cars and trucks and buses. It was a fight and those coming towards us were winning. But then at some point our driver seized the day, hit the gas and we were heading into the cleared space, towards a small car with the certain knowledge that if anyone was going to back down it wasn't going to be a four ton bus.
And so adios landslide and onto La Paz. As night fell, the rest of the bus fell asleep. But I had been chewing coca for the past day and half. And so I put on some Led Zeppelin, and opened my window slightly to smoke a cigarette. We were now on full on into the Camino de la Muerte, winding through the mountains, and I was in the mood for dancing. Sitting there, whilst everyone else slept, taking in the mountain air, it felt good to be alive.
We eventually pulled into La Paz at midday the following day. The journey had taken a total of 52 hours! FIFTY TWO! With no modern comforts, no toilet, sharing the space with cats and dogs and chickens. And I loved it! I arrived smiling, liked I'd earned it. And at the same time, this was Bolivia. Get used to it...
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