After a night of adjusting to the altitude in La Quiaca, we joined hunched campesinos with colorful scarves securing massive crates and/or children to their backs to cross the bridge into Bolivia. Crossing our fingers that a fistful of money and buoyant smiles would suffice for entry instead of yellow fever certificates (currently lost in the Argentine postal system) and almost all of the 300 entry requirements Evo asks of poor Americans, we were happy to find the border guards in jovial moods. They deemed us worthy of 1. getting our passports photos mocked and 2. GETTING VISAS! Here we are with our shiny new Bolivian visas, so young and naive, with no idea of what lay ahead for us. With stomachs full of coca tea, we set off to the train, which by all accounts leaves every Tuesday.
Our first bad news of the day: PSYCH, no trains till Wednesday! Faced with the choice of staying in the god-forsaken border town of Villazon or taking the bus to Tupiza, we weighed our options. We had been warned about the bus to Tupiza. "It's really dangerous," people said. "Wait for the train, it's much safer." Our response? "How dangerous can a bus be, really?" So for 10 bolivianos, just over a dollar, we threw our packs in the belly of a rickety bus and climbed aboard. This was, perhaps, one of the worst decisions I have ever made regarding my personal safety.
We are used to busses smelling strongly of body odor and unidentified comestibles, and this was no different. However, only a quarter of the windows worked, so we sat three in a row in the baking sunshine as Urux kept an eye on the cargo to make sure no one made off with our backpacks. Marlo and I did the following things pre-departure: read Psalms regarding physical protection, kiss our necklaces of St. Christopher and St. Benedict, and hold hands. These were repeated throughout the voyage with increasing desperation and later were augmented by a few Our Fathers and, eventually, resignation to our fate.
The bus hit a pothole before we even left the city, tossing duffel bags out of the overhead compartments onto the heads of unsuspecting passengers and causing the bus to tilt so far to the left that I had visions of myself under a pile of the passengers next to me. And with this fortuitous beginning, we set out into the desert.
Oh, the desert. It really means business in southern Bolivia. Huge clouds of dust billowed into the bus with astonishing frequency, finding their way in great gusts through the few functioning windows and half-broken skylights, and surrounded the bus so completely that we wondered how the driver could see to drive. Not that it really mattered, though, because there WAS NO ROAD. Nope, just a "suggestion" path through a desert that, although appearing flat, pitched our poor bus around like a ragdoll. The rattling of seats made conversation impossible and I had images of the entire vehicle crumbling to pieces right there in the desert where Butch Cassidy died.
Then the mountains began, which is when I seriously began to consider standing up and saying a few words. Driving through cliff territory with no guard rail and only a couple inches of wiggle room? And all that business we heard about Bolivian bus drivers drinking on the job? TELL ME THAT'S JUST A RUMOR. I felt the bus slow down and peeked hopefully out the window. Rather than seeing our destination, I saw the trail ending in front of us. With a cliff to our right and a river to our left, we apparently had nowhere to go.
Silly American! If there's not a road, you can just DRIVE THROUGH THE RIVER. As Urux laughed "only in South America," our driver took a direct left and drove straight into the water to continue our journey.
This was an unfortunate time to look out the window again. Our route had not been kind to previous busses, and we gazed in terror at another bus exactly like ours, toppled on its side and resting on a gravel island in the river. On the verge of tears and strongly considering getting out and walking the rest of the way, we couldn't move from being paralyzed by terror and having peed our pants.
We finally made it to Tupiza after three hellish hours. We never want to see another bus for as long as we live. This story isn't even funny to me yet, and I need a drink.*
*This was written over a week ago, and we did end up getting some local moonshine to celebrate life. However, completely forgetting that we are in a 3rd World country and ice is a no-no, we got stomachaches from the fruit liquor and are sticking to wine from now on. Also, this story still isn't funny to me.