Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sage advice: When travelling by bus in Bolivia — Pee before you go

I can’t remember where I read that, but it is very good advice. We had graduated from buses with locked bathroom doors to buses without any kind of bathroom at all.

We boarded our bus in Sucre headed to Tupiza, the jumping off point for excursions to the Bolivian salar (salt flats) around 6:00 pm with a full complement of passengers ranging in age from infants suckling at their mother’s breast to grandparents dressed in indigenous garb. This includes, for the women, many skirts one on top of the other and many layers of upper garments including of course the obligatory woven blanket full of food and possibly a grandchild or two or at least a week’s worth of luggage.

We left the Sucre bus station full – but managed to stop every 10 minutes or so to pick up additional passengers until we were full to the rafters.

Now — the advice to pee before you go is all well and good, but if the bus ride is overnight and more than eight to 10 hours, all the pre-peeing in the world is not going to convince my body or the bodies of the many children and elderly on board not to need to pee! I was curious to see how this was going to play out.

After about three hours the bus stopped at a roadside restaurant for a 20 minute dinner break. The restaurant was ready for us and served up heaping bowls of chicken, rice, carrots and potatoes to anyone that was willing to partake. The rest of us in more urgent need to relieve ourselves walked in the dark towards the makeshift latrine where the women in their multi-layered skirts were maneuvering in and out of a very tight space. No one was happy about his, but you gotta do what you gotta do and somehow we all managed within the 20 minutes allotted to us to pee and have a snack before reboarding the bus. The facilities from this point on only got more primitive.

Sometime past midnight we stopped in a town that could only be described as a banyo central. All you could see in all directions were hand lettered signs barely visible in the dim light saying BANYO. Under each sign were several women ready to provide you with a wad of toilet paper for a few coins. Buses of all sizes and descriptions were parked on both sides of the highway and tired, unhappy, bleary eyed passengers were making there way to one shack or another to do what needed to be done.

At 3:00 am the bus dropped us off at the bus station in Tupiza. At that hour, the town was completely quiet. I had booked a room at Hostel El Torre which was 200 meters from the bus station. We easily walked to the hotel with some directions from a cab driver or two along the way. The night receptionist welcomed us warmly and showed us to our room, which was remarkably nice considering we were in the middle of nowhere on the edge of a vast wilderness of salt flats, black, green and red lagoons filled with pink flamingoes, and volcanic rock gardens so amazing you have to pinch yourself to be sure you are not dreaming. But we had yet to experience any of the natural wonders of this very special place. We were simply happy to be off that horrible bus and in a room with an actual toilet that flushed, a bed with clean sheets, and the anticipation of the amazing adventure that awaited us.

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