Wednesday, November 10, 2010

comfort vs. adventure: travel bolivia-style

Travel in Bolivia can be described in many different ways--none of which, in my opinion, would ever make use of the word "comfortable."

I was reminded of this yesterday when, in a hurry to return to Carmen Pampa from La Paz, I opted for a seat in a 15 Boliviano ($2.15 USD) 15-passenger minibus that was leaving ahorita.*  I hesitantly chose the minibus over the faster and more comfortable 25 Boliviano ($3.50 USD) minivan option that I usually take on my weekly treks to Bolivia's capital city because there weren't any minivans available.

Giant buses like the one pictured here are generally reserved for longer, overnight rides. This was a flat tire on a 17 hour trip to Apolo.

So, unable to run the risk of not getting home, I found myself smashed smack dab in the middle of a minibus. With not enough leg room for me to sit forward, I turned my body to the right--resting part of my back on the man sitting to my left and claiming floor space of the young man to my right. With no room to put it on the floor, I held my bulky messenger bag on my lap carefully trying not to bother the braids of the woman sitting in front of me. It was immediately obvious to me why I generally splurge the extra dollar for the minivan option.

There seems to be an unwritten rule in Bolivia that for every seat in a car, bus, or van, there is the capacity to hold 1 1/2 x's that amount. On trips to Caranavi (three hours away) four or five people are often squeezed into the backseat of a station wagon that should only have seatbelts for three. Once, seated far in the back of a 15 passenger minibus with my parents on a trip from Tiahuanaco to La Paz, my mom shouted aloud (in English) when the head count surpassed 22 people: "What? How many more people are going to get on?" (The answer, we learned, was two).

A minibus from Carmen Pampa carries a spare tire, soda bottles, and a local kid on top.

And when people don't fit inside the vehicle, they go on top. Bolivians like to joke that the fare actually costs more because those "seats" come with air conditioning and a panoramic view. But, as a product of a country that enforces relatively strict seatbelt laws, it never seems quite right to me when I see children, live animals, and propane gas tanks sailing harmoniously atop clunky Toyota minibuses!

That's not to say I'm immune from riding in non-traditional fashion. I have done my fair share of riding standing up in the back of pick-up trucks and the larger, semi-truck-esq camiones.  In fact, apart from the slow speed, possibility of getting rained on, and the safety concern (there is always the threat of going over the cliff!), I hold firm that one of the best ways to travel from the hot lowlands back to Carmen Pampa is hitching rides with truckers carrying giant loads of rice or coffee. The bags containing either of these products naturally contour to the shape of your body as you nestle in for an evening of Southern Cross gazing and shooting star watching.

Yesterday, as I loathed my physical discomfort, I was hit with an odd nostalgia as I recalled all the times I had traveled in uncomfortable conditions.  And that's when I realized that some of my most vivid memories of Bolivia have centered on uncomfortable travel. Whether it was begging the driver to let me off a non-stop 15+ hour bus ride so I could go to the bathroom. Or the time I hitched a ride with a bus of young military guys who dropped me off in the middle of nowhere at 1am as the fork in the road leading to our separate final destinations forced us to part ways. Or the overnight bus I ended up on with all elderly Quechua-only speakers who I accompanied across the cold, dark Altiplano listening to the song "Sunshine Reggae" played repeatedly. (I of course had to purchased the song off of iTunes once I got home.)

This truck, eventually carrying about 16 people,  didn't make it to our final destination...we arrived on foot.

It has been in some of the most physically uncomfortable modes of transportation that I have experienced some of my best and most memorable adventures. They are the hot and dusty adventures of listening to countless hours of cumbia music. They are the reflective adventures of looking out the window and feeling overwhelmed as I watch Bolivia's poverty whiz by. They are the quiet adventures of traveling across the barren Altiplano. They are the conversations with local folks about politics and economics and social conditions. They are the unforeseen, three dollar adventures of sing-alongs and flat tires and near-miss head-on collisions on winding, gravel roads that weave throughout Bolivia.

Almost all of them are the types of adventures my back and legs and patience would prefer not to repeat. Yet I am so grateful to have experienced every moment.

Yesterday, as I sat for 40 minutes inside the tight confines of the minibus that had yet to leave the terminal, I felt my patience waning. And then, as the bag of coca started to be passed around and the murmur of the native Aymara language began to bubble up, I reminded myself that I'm not here because Bolivia is "comfortable." I'm here because I love traveling on a journey full of adventure!

*The Spanish word ahorita, by definition, means: "right now, right away."   However, I have found it to mean: "any time between right now and five hours from now."


Brooke said...

Thanks for the happy memories. I just attended a panel on student travel and international service at a conference. One of the discussion topics was "what we don't tell the university administration about how people travel in the developing world." Don't ask, don't tell.

Colin Robertson said...

Love this recollection/reflection, Sarah. Especially the bit about your mom and dad! That must have been entertaining! Glad to know about your work in Bolivia.