Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Another amazing tale — the journey from Bolivia to Chile

We purchased what we thought were the last two seats on the 4:00 am bus to the Bolivian/Chilean border and onwards to the mining town of Calama, Chile. Unfortunately, that meant several more hours in Uyuni — oh joy! We had found the only (and I mean only) nice hotel in this god-forsaken town and thankfully they had one room left. After we packed up and said our final goodbyes to Raoul and Noemi we moved over to our new digs, the Hotel Tambo Amaryo. We invited Bjorn and Joachim to join us so they could utilize the reception area to recharge their phones and computers. The hotel would not let us have guests in the room so we all sat in the reception area together for the rest of the afternoon. Considering that just a few hours earlier we were all suffering from food poisoning, it was quite miraculous that we were all feeling healthy.

Around 6:00 PM we gave our Swedish companions final hugs and off they went, as they say, into the dusty sunset, along the unpaved and garbage strewn road to the god-forsaken spot where their dilapidated bus awaited them. We, on the other hand, headed up to our lovely clean and modern hotel room for a luxurious hot shower in a private bathroom with fluffy white towels and toilet paper! Four days without any of this made the experience one to savour!

We managed to get a few hours of shuteye before our 3:15 AM wakeup call (Marc’s iphone alarm). Our hotel was about two blocks from the bus stop. It was 3:30 am when we left the hotel and the streets were dark and deserted. As we neared the bus stop, however, we saw a very large crowd of people boarding our bus which was already there waiting for us. I left Marc with our luggage and I made an attempt to board, to secure our seats at the very back of the bus. By the time I got up the stairs I could see that the bus was already completely full of people in each seat as well as dozens of people in the aisle. I could see our seats way at the back of the bus (with people in them), but it seemed impossible to get to them. No one was moving. A young Spanish speaker looked towards me and said something in Spanish, which I did not understand. Eventually he translated what he had said into English. “They have oversold the seats! If you have paid for your ticket, you have to push through all of the people to get to your seats.” he explained motioning to me to push forward.

This was easier said than done. As I have described in previous “bus” posts, people who board the bus with the intention of standing bring all of their luggage with them in the form of woven blankets full of stuff or just wrapped boxes and misc parcels of all shapes and sizes which end up in the aisle. They are also not, may I add, necessarily small people. I worked my way over and around many obstacles to get to the back of the bus and finally into our seats. (I had to politely ask the people sitting in our seats to please move into the aisle.) I could see Marc boarding the bus, now even fuller than when I boarded. I had to actually yell at the top of my lungs from the back of the bus that he was going to have to bulldoze his way through if he had any hopes of sitting for the next eight hours.

By the time Marc got settled, the bus was literally packed like sardines. There were as many people standing in the aisles as sitting in seats. Some of the people sitting in seats were doubled up as well. This was by far the most bizarre bus trip yet. And it had only just begun. We rolled out at 4:00 AM.

The bus stopped in the middle of nowhere, but there is always a concession stand!

By about 7:00 am we arrived at the Bolivian border. We all got off the bus where there were the usual food stands with big women in their multilayered skirts serving up huge bowls of chicken soup with potatoes and rice from large tin pots covered with blankets to keep everything warm. Eventually the border office opened and one by one we entered and paid 10 or 15 Bolivianos for the privilege of leaving the country. Marc tried in vain to ask for a receipt (since we all knew that there was not supposed to be a charge to leave the country). But, eventually, we too paid the bribe that went directly into his pocket.

Then we waited and waited and waited, until we finally got back on the bus and traveled for about 15 minutes to the Chilean border. This time we were literally stopped at the side of the road in what looked like nomads’ land. On the other side of the road was a Chilean bus that had just arrived from the Chilean border. Both buses asked their occupants to disembark and take all of their luggage out of the luggage compartment. Then we all waited. And waited. And waited.

You will notice that someone in the back is knitting. There was time to complete a sweater while we waited!

The shadow from the bus afforded us some shade but as the wait approached two hours, we were all huddled in the now very narrow area of shade left. Eventually a bus arrived and we all put our luggage into the luggage compartment and boarded the bus — for the 5-minute ride to the actual border!

I don't have pictures to prove it, but there were a cute youngster wearing this mask and the paws that went with it throughout the journey. There was another very cute little boy that was quite sure the mask was real. We were all in need of entertainment, so this was a nice distraction.

There we worked our way off the bus and took our luggage once again from the luggage compartment and waited to be interrogated and searched by the Chilean border guards. They are very picky about any vegetable matter entering so they check each bag. And then take a very close look at the bus, inside and out, and the baggage compartment. The guards were actually very nice and had fun talking English to us. The search of our bags was, in the end very cursory and we were through quite quickly — and no bribe to pay this time around!

I think by now it was about noon and we had been traveling since 4:00 AM. Within an hour we would be in Calama, a well-to-do mining town at the other end of the spectrum from what we had experienced in Uyuni. So it was really a shock to us that it would be in Calama of all places that we had our first really negative experience of this leg of our journey. And one that changed the tone for the rest of the trip.

A few words on that on my next post!

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