Thursday, February 28, 2013

Transportation impressions though Peru and Bolivia

I have been thinking about the interesting progression/deterioration of our overland bus travel over the last seven weeks and felt it was worth a blog post to document the evolution. It has kind of crept up on us with each new bus reservation. And even as I write this post, we are heading off to yet another bus station to reserve yet another bus trip, which will undoubtedly be another notch down in class, comfort and cleanliness.

I will start with a little background (which I am simply making up from my observations). There are hundreds of bus companies in Peru and Bolivia. It seems that if you can buy a bus, come up with a name for it, and decide a route you would like to take, you have a business plan. In every bus terminal there are at least 30 stalls selling tickets to three or four destinations each. All have photos of beautiful new buses, claiming their bus looks just like the photos. As you enter the station, you hear voices calling out city names, like auctioneers, beckoning you to their booths for the next departure.

If you take a look in the parking lot of any bus station, there are dozens of busses that all look similar. They are all painted in bright colours, with “Tourist Class” or something similar on them, and the name of the bus company. Most of them have two levels with more expensive seats on the bottom floor that recline and are more comfortable and upstairs seating for a reduced price. They all claim to have movies, music, air and even some with wifi. The sales people gloat endlessly about the features as if they actually exist.

Our first bus ride with Cruz del Sur, from Arequipa to Cuscu in Peru, was absolutely luxurious and I think we got completely spoiled as they delivered everything they promised, including leaving and arriving on time. But each ride since then has been a steadily declining experience. But somehow, the fact that it has been so slow, it is only now that I have realized just how low we have actually come!

Here is my theory: All of these buses (except Cruz Del Sur) must have had another life somewhere else in the world where there were standards of cleanliness and there were technicians that could fix all of the basic workings of the bus (like the ventilation system, televisions and toilets). When they were deemed unfit for use in their country of origin, they were shipped to Peru and Bolivia. They arrived here with broken windshields, TV screens that no longer work, unusable toilets and upholstery that had not seen a shampoo since Inca times. In other words, in perfect condition to begin service here!

On our first bus ride with a cracked windshield (we were in seats 1 and 2 to be able to see the view), we both wondered if the cracks were due to an external cause (rock or another bus hitting the windshield) or an internal cause (heads hitting the windshield from inside the bus). We tightened our seat belts and hoped for the best. Every bus we have travelled on so far has had cracked windshields!

If you recall, I raved about Cruz del Sur providing meals and drink service on our bus from Arequipa to Cusco. Well, in subsequent trips, and especially now that we are in Bolivia, the tides have changed dramatically. There is definitely food onboard, but not the kind that is served to you by a steward. You have seen the photos I have posted of the women here in their wide skirts and shawls full of babies or huge amounts of goods they are carrying from one place or another. Just imagine how much cooked chicken or ham, and other greasy packages of food can be hidden there? Once the bus leaves the station, the food appears, with everyone eating with his or her hands and using the upholstery for napkins.

And then there are the entrepreneurs boarding the bus at each stop, selling potato chips, jello in plastic cups with whipped topping, pop, plastic bags of white cheese in brine and assorted other messy snacks. Let your imagination go wild. The reality is much messier than you can imagine!

Initially each bus ride was booked with pre-selected seats, and baggage tags neatly stapled to them. At this point it is a free for all, with people standing in the aisles, bags thrown in the storage or wherever they will fit.

Which brings me to our bus ride from Copacabana to La Paz — the inspiration for this post.

When we got off the boat after our trip to Isla del Sol, we stopped in two bus company booths along the main drag. They were both bidding for our business calling out the special features of their sparkling tourist level buses to La Paz. The one that promised wifi got our business, even though we were quite sure that was not going to pan out. She quickly filled in our ticket voucher and sent us on our way with no seat selection and barely any idea of where we were to find the bus. Copacabana does not have a bus station, just lines of buses on the road out of town.

When the time came to find our bus, we did find an office with our bus company’s name on it and a growing number of people waiting for our bus. We managed to get seats together near the front of the (not nearly as sparkling as the photos) bus. The ticket taker even gave us a password for the wifi(that worked for about 15 minutes). So far so good.

But the fun began about an hour later. Traffic came to a halt in the middle of a town we had just entered. Was this a lunch break? Was there a police incident? For what seemed like ages, no one knew what was going on. Eventually, the driver and his wife who was travelling up front with him (This is a normal state of affairs. There are any number of passengers in the driver’s section of the bus sitting on the steps or the floor.) said a few sentences in Spanish (which we did not understand) and everyone filed out of the bus.

We could see our bus being ferried across.

What we could see once off the bus was that we were at the edge of a raging body of water and, one by one, the vehicles were being loaded on barges (no larger than the size of the bus) to cross it — but no passengers were allowed. So how do we get across and how to we meet up with our bus on the other side? We saw some of the passengers buying tickets at a ticket booth and were getting on small boats to get to the other side. There was a lot of confusion and consternation from all of the tourists on the bus. Finally, we too bought tickets and got on a small boat which took us to the other side.

All of us on a small ferry boat

The other side was a big place and we wandered around trying to remember what the people on our bus looked like so that we could figure out where to wait for our bus that was floating precariously on a barge half submerged halfway across the river. We could see it in the distance and could see where the dock was for the barges, but were not sure if we were to wait in the town or at the barge dock. A bit nerve wracking, but somehow, after so many months of travel, as unbelievable as it may sound, we were quite calm.

Our bus finally coming down the street for us!

Eventually as is always the case, it all worked out and the people gathering around us started to look more or less familiar. Our bus did finally appear and we all got back on and eventually arrived at our destination — La Paz where a rowdy festival was in full swing. And the adventure was not over yet.

The bus stopped at the side of the road, outside the bus station and reluctantly everyone filed off the bus. None of us really knew where we were. There were other South American tourists on the bus who had expected to be dropped off in the centre of town. The driver and his wife had no intention of driving to the centre of town, where we all wanted to be, so off we went to fetch our untagged bags.

Unbeknownst to us, the backpacking section of town where our hostel was located was the centre of the festival’s beer garden/street discoteque, and the first couple cabs we hailed were not interested in driving anywhere near the area. After a bit of panic, not understanding why no one would take us to where we needed to go, a lovely local women directed us to walk up the hill to a street going in the other direction where we would have a better chance of convincing a cab to stop for us.

This worked and the cab driver was able to drop us about two blocks from our final destination. The street in front of us was filled with costumed women, beer in one hand, dancing to blaring music. We wheeled our bags through confetti, spilled beer, and general street party grunge till we got to the door of the Hostal Milton where we would be spending the night.

It had been a very long day and it looked like it would be a long night of street noise, but we had made it to La Paz in one piece with all of our belongings…feeling thankful.

1 comment:

  1. Sort of reminded me of a moment I had in Israel. I had taken a bus to go to a National Park for the day, but I had no idea where to pick up my bus to go home. I walked up and down a highway in the middle of the dessert for half an hour trying to figure out where a bus stop was. I managed to flag down my bus as it was taking a turn out of the park, but I was amazed that I didn't miss it.

    Like you said, it always manages to work out!