When you board a bus in Bolivia, you have to be ready for anything. We had been warned of this fact multiple times; friends, travel guides, and blogs all seemed eager to share anecdotes and advice on the issue of Bolivian bus travel. However, despite the warnings, Don and I were feeling like old hands when we caught Sucre’s local bus to the bus station in order to buy our tickets to La Paz for the next evening. Unlike our first visit to the Buenos Aires’ bus station over 2 months earlier, this time we knew exactly what we were doing. We walked from one window to the next, collecting prices, times, and bus features like savvy customers shopping for a new car, undeterred by the people shouting out to us from all directions and the rapid-fire answers that were directed at us in Spanish. We chose our bus with confidence, paying for neither the most expensive nor the least expensive, but instead settling on a solid budget option that still had reclining seats and a little leg room. The bus was to leave in the evening and arrive in La Paz the next morning, providing us with both transportation and a night of “accomodation” all in one. We left Sucre the following afternoon eager to explore another side of Bolivia, and anxious to fill the following two weeks with much adventure and exploration. We had agreed to a month of work on an eco-campground outside of La Paz, but the work wouldn’t begin until the middle of February, so in the meantime we had plans to explore the towns of La Paz, Sorata, and Copacabana.
We boarded our bus fully stocked with all the necessary provisions: warm socks, puffy jacket, juice, snacks, alcohol, and water. We were looking forward to the 11 hour ride, and tried not to let the fact that our bus did not in fact have a bathroom on board, as we’d been told, get us down. We were bouncing along just fine when, about two hours into our trip, our bus came to a sudden, unexpected halt on the side of the road. As the sun set and the sky grew dark, the cars that whooshed past shone bright spotlights into our windows. We sat for a couple hours without a word of information or complaint coming from either the driver or our fellow passengers. When I finally stood to head outside and use the bathroom, rain was coming down hard and pounding the metal roof of our broken down bus. I asked the driver in passing if there was a plan, and he said another bus was coming soon to pick us up. I asked him how long he thought the bus might be, and the driver told me 15 minutes with a confident finality in his tone. I returned to my seat content with this plan and continued with my reading.
Unfortunately, hours passed and still no bus came. Amazingly, as the minutes crawled by, our fully loaded bus sat patiently, not a complaint being issued anywhere, even from the mothers who had multiple small children on board. If they could wait, so could we, although we certainly felt like we’d been left out of some inside joke. Finally, at around 5 in the morning, after 8 hours of waiting, we heard the ignition turn, and without warning, our bus roared to life. There were murmurs going around that a mechanic had come to save the day, but why he took 8 hours to get there, or what he possibly could have done to make the bus work on its first try, remained a mystery. We pulled back onto the road and continued on our way as if nothing had happened. Our first stop was the town of Potosi, where we switched buses, from our prudently chosen middle-of-the-road bus (that still seemed eager to break down at any moment) to a more standard, zero-leg-room bus (with a more hearty engine), and continued on our way. According to our calculations, we’d be arriving in La Paz at 5pm rather than 7am, which normally would have been fine for us (after all, we rarely had plans that were set in stone), except that on that day we had made tentative plans with the host of the eco-campground where we planned to work to go have dinner and stay for one night, and now we’d have no way of letting her know that we wouldn’t make it in time. Fortunately, we were momentarily distracted from this concern as we neared the city of La Paz, and were left speechless by the incredible view of an immensely populated valley surrounded by looming, snow-covered mountains.
We had heard plenty about La Paz, that it was a high-elevation, smog-filled, somewhat gothic sprawl that would leave us breathless, impressed, and most likely overwhelmed. After some exploration, we came to believe that this was a very biased and quite pessimistic view of a rather incredible city. Sure, the city was built at a high elevation, but the steep streets that climbed up the mountainsides from the city center gave the city an organized, easy-to-navigate feel. The sidewalks were heavily populated, sure, but there was so much going on around us that it made us feel more energized than overwhelmed. On every street, and on every corner, there were kiosks, shops, restaurants, plazas, parks, churches, and markets that brought the city to life and seemed to provide endless hours of exploration and adventure. But we only came to discover all this in the days that followed. As our bus dropped into the valley at the end of our long day of travel, and passed over a rapid-moving river that seemed to serve as the city’s main artery, we made a plan for our first few minutes in town. We would go to the bus company window first, demanding a partial refund for the delay and the change in bus quality, and then would head straight to an internet cafe, where we could get in touch with Emma, our soon-to-be-boss, and inform her of our change in plans.
Surprisingly, only one other passenger accompanied us to the bus company window, a young man from Buenos Aires who seemed nearly as perturbed as we were by the day’s events. All the other customers, mostly Bolivians as far as we could tell, moved off in their separate directions with hungry but compliant children in tow, apparently used to the drill and content to simply have arrived at all. We explained our situation to a professional-looking man behind the window, and with rehearsed expedience, were asked to fill out a short form and were handed a refund of 20% on each of our tickets. Happy to have a little more cash in hand we rushed off to the bus terminal’s internet cafe to check our email. With a great sigh of relief, we read out loud an email from Emma that asked if we could in fact delay the dinner plans by one day, as that night wasn’t going to work for her after all. We wrote back a quick reply that yes, the following night would work perfectly, and headed out into the city to find ourselves some satisfying grub and a cheap, but comfortable bed. That night, over a delicious pizza, we laughed at the predictability of our bus journey, but also reflected on our North American response. We did feel like we deserved the refund that we received, but we still found it odd that no one else had even tried to get their money back. For better or for worse, we had to admit that our culture had instilled in us a deep sense of entitlement, and that it was a delicate balance to strike between justice and greed. This wasn’t our first inconvenience while traveling and it wouldn’t be our last, but to be honest, it almost felt like a rite of passage to have sat for long hours on a broken down bus. This was a story we could tell to other travelers, and one that might prepare us for our next bus ride. THIS was international travel.