Aug 20th, 2006
Ever lusted after a choose-your-own-adventure moment?
One cold night in a worsening snowstorm in Bolivia's Quimsa
Cruz mountains, I had two options:
- Wait for 4 hours in a small shack at the intersection
of two dirt roads for a bus that may or may not pass at midnight
Run uphill at 16,000ft after a minibus that wasn't strong
enough to climb the snowy highway to the pass with us in it
As irony would have it, choose the second, sometimes destiny
serves the first for dessert.
For the last week, I'd been traveling with a group of climbers,
including our fearless leader Denys, a chica from La Paz who's
writing a book on the region. Also on the trip: Maxi and Laura,
an avid pair of Argentine climbers; Manuel, a physics student
from La Paz, and Gringo, a tall, blond Frenchman studying in
Argentina, but currently AWOL for Bolivian climbing. We'd packed
food for 7 days, and for the last 3, had been camping beside a
dazzling blue lake at 4800m (15,750 ft), between craggy
mountains that were much
taller. With rope for rock
and ice, there were multiple expeditions running each day,
and much tea consumed as the temps plummeted at night.
Through Denys' connections, we scored free lodging for the
first two nights, with 3-course meals! Our hosts ran a
private hydroelectric power plants that harvest lakes over
3000ft above. The prosperous community, unlike many in
Bolivia, has a beneficent paternal feel to it. After a
grueling day hike in pea-soup fog, we returned and ended
up playing walley ball with the employees of the plant --
one of the 4 sports courts on the premises. They were
even nice enough to drop us off at the trailhead in a 4x4
the next day. But, as the prelude indicates, this story
is all about getting out..
On the night of departure, with our choice made, we hopped
into the puttering minibus.The driver accelerated, taking
snowy turns at 20, 25, 30mph. When you can see nothing but
blowing flakes and village lights 200ft below, this is a
genuine concern. Still, better than shivering under a tin
roof for a doubtful bus, so I gritted my teeth and Denys
and I talked about her volunteer firefighting in Bolivia
and Canada. Our minibus was speeding towards the town of
Quime, where with luck we would find transport back to La
Paz that night.
It started optimistically enough. Opening the minibus door,
the air at Quime's lower elevation was a balmy 50 deg F.
Pulling at 10PM, Denys and I sprinted down the cobbled street
to a waiting bus scheduled to leave for La Paz at 10:30PM.
There was space. I ran back to collect the other four.
By the time we returned, not only had the bus filled up
every seat including the aisle, but the bus manager was
refusing to sell us tickets, even at a higher price. No
other buses were leaving that night, and one of our crew
-- Gringo -- had to be in La Paz the next morning to begin
a 4-day trip back to Southern Argentina.
It was bad. There was yelling, and crossing of arms.
At one point, we shoved Gringo onto the bus and pushed as
the bursting public inside pushed back. But no luck.
Just as futility dawned, we learned there was another set
of bus companies down the road, with departures for La Paz.
The group trotted further down the street. As we arrived at
the new company, a bus pulled up. It was arriving from
another town and was already mostly full. Realizing the
stakes, our group formed a protective phalanx around the
door, even before the bus pulled to a stop. The mining
towns of Quimsa Cruz are underserved by public transport,
to put it mildly, and we were surrounded by 30 other
people clamoring for space *in the aisle*.
Denys and Maxi shoved us on the bus and started rapid
negotiation with the driver to load our huge packs.
Manuel, Gringo, Laura and I all piled on. Every seat
was full. Most of the aisle was already full with
"Cholas" (Bolivian ladies in traditional dress of
bowler hats, pleated skirts and at least a dozen
other layers) sitting on their cargo wrapped in blankets.
We crammed in where we could -- the 6 of us were spread
throughout the bus in twos, with a collective total of
about 5 square-feet of floor space. My feet were splayed
around a blanket-wrapped load of oranges and the seated
Chola owning them. Grabbing the railing of the overhead
luggage rack was all I could do to avoid an overly
personal greeting. I could wiggle my toes for circulation,
but not much more. Manuel was sitting on the top of
the seat adjacent to me, legs dangling down, without
floor space at all.
The journey would be 8 hours. We would pass through
the 4500m (14,750ft) altiplano, with most of the windows
partially open. The temperature would hover at or below
freezing, and the windchill was too scary to think about.
I seriously wondered if my feet and legs would make it --
we had hiked with full packs for 5 hours earlier that day.
Each time the bus stopped, Gringo or Maxi jumped out the
window to check that our bags were safe. Bolivian night
buses are notorious for bags being borrowed from the
compartments. No less than 3 times, they popped out
the windows into the dark to patrol the compartments.
For the first two hours, we didn't talk much. Manuel
and I were packed so tightly that his arm hung over my
shoulder. I could feel the blood filling my feet, and
the laced boots cutting into my ankle. We had nothing
left to do but laugh at our own suffering. Then the
trip began to get ridiculous...
A boy started doing laps on top of the seatbacks,
walking all the way from the front of the bus to the
rear, and then skirting back up the other side. People
in the aisle began to moan. Gringo, to our rear,
announced that the "bus had to stop". We passed the
message up, but the driver paid no heed. We tried again,
but no response. Suddenly, to my left, Gringo (a 6'4"
blond Frenchman in huge mountaineering boots) was walking
on the seatbacks, as the 10 year-old had before him.
He walked up to the front of the bus and personally
requested a stop. Clearly, this was serious.
They continued to ignore him until the bus hit a security
checkpoint 15 minutes later. Gringo opened a window
and jumped out. The bus erupted with shouts (mostly
our group), "a person has left the bus! wait! Turista afuera!!"
After finishing their documentation, the bastards driving
the box of a human sardines started to pull away. Gringo,
finished with gastrointestinal business, was on his way
back to the bus and began to run after it. "Stop!
There's a person behind!!"
I can't be sure if Gringo caught the bus before or after
it stopped, but I watched as he hauled himself back
through the window, over two Bolivians, and took up
roost on a seatback.
After the bus stopped for a short break, Gringo and
Laura encamped in two seats in the rear, and refused
to move, claiming Denys had the tickets. A man who'd
purchased the ticket flatly called Laura a liar, but
she refused to move. Instead, he stood near me,
nodding asleep (into my shoulder for 45 minutes).
The man probably had the worst breath I've ever smelled.
It was like death and like sour cheese. He was
less than 3 inches from me for the next four hours.
The bus sped on, and the temperature dropped. I had
on every shred of clothing, but was still shivering.
At one point I fell asleep and woke up with frozen saliva on my lip.
Eventually, I was able to sit on the floor, and fell asleep
there between bumpy stops. Manuel lost feeling in his leg for 3 hours.
Eventually, Denys called back from the front of the bus.
She gestured to lights on the horizon.. La Paz was near,
as was the end of the trip. We were gleeful. As the bus
pulled into the city, the cholas emptied the bus, taking
their oranges with them. The aisle was free. Then seats.
Then the whole bus. We reached the terminal and just laughed