Sunday, October 4, 2009

Bolivia I: The Road to Rurre

Our drive around scenic Lake Titicaca took us through some of the most beautiful regions of southern Peru. We got to see more of the shore than previously anticipated, and the bus wasn't even that uncomfortable. Little did we know, all of that was about to change.

The Bolivian border crossing is something like Russian Roulette, except that revolver's fully loaded and the target is your wallet. First comes the confusion. The bus will stop a good distance from the border, and everyone must amble into the proper lines and buildings on the Peruvian side to process their passports. This involves a trip to the stamping station, a trip to the police station, and then another trip BACK to the stamping station for another round of inking. Somewhere in there it would be prudent to hit up the ATM, since the Bolivians are getting ready to rob you blind. Anyways, aside from going back and forth, the Peruvian side of the border really isn't that terrible. Everyone speaks some semblance of English, and - all in all - it could be worse....

Ideally, we would then walk about 100 yards to the Bolivian side of things, pay to have some important documents photocopied, and go through their immigration office. It's not so bad, if 1) you're not an American and 2) you've properly completed the Peruvian exiting requirements. But, trust me, you are an American and you haven't completed the Peruvian requirements. So, back across the border you go. Stamp here, sign there, and it's time to trek the 100 yards back to Bolivia. So there we were again, getting ready to pay the ridiculous visa fee - something like $140 U.S. dollars (which you MUST pay in greenbacks) - and oops, out the door you go. But hey.....

It was worse. This time, all you have to do is pay a fat Bolivian woman $2 to photocopy your passport. Then you can hop back in line, pay what basically amounts to a bribe for the border police, and have your documents stamped. But let's face it; you're not that lucky. You'll have to track down another money changer to get the proper amount in American dollars, since you just changed all of your money over into bolivianos when you left Peru an hour ago. So, back across the border to Peru, money, money, money, back to Bolivia, pay the bribe, get the stamp, and get back on the bus an hour later.

Wrong. It's not the same bus. This one is cramped, smells bad, and has no A.C. But hey, it could be worse.... at least we're not still stuck at the border station, right? After about 30 minutes on the hot, dirty bus, we entered the town of Copacabana. It's one of the more popular tourist destinations in Bolivia, since it's located on a peninsula that juts into the lake and has Peru a (theoretically) comfortable 45 minutes away. There's just one problem: even if you're not staying in Copacabana, the bus is stopping in Copacabana, and there's a 2 boliviano entry fee. Well, that's only about 33 cents, so it could be worse.... Brice and I grabbed quick lunch, observed the port, and sat around waiting for our connection to La Paz. There was some confusion as to which bus we wanted, but we worked it out in the end. Hey, at least Copacabana is pretty (and if you do manage to miss your bus, there are lots of combis in the town willing to go to La Paz fairly cheap).

Back on the road to La Paz, we took a chance to enjoy all of 30 seconds of the rolling hills and blue skies before the 'Bolivia sucks' mantra set in. But all the while we remembered this: it could be worse...

About an hour outside of Copacabana, we had to cross Lake Titicaca. The shores where Copacabana and mainland Bolivia come closest together are (maybe?) half a mile apart, but this is Bolivia, so don't kid yourself. There is no bridge. We got off the bus, purchased tickets for the 'ferry' (a large motor boat) not included in the cost of our bus fare, and hoped for the best. We got across just fine, and the boat itself seemed sea worthy, but it's hard to envision a worse reality for the flatboats they used to ferry the buses across. Even without any of the passengers on board, the buses nearly capsized the ferries; men with bailing buckets had a lot of work on their hands to make the trip possible, but none of our things got wet so - at least in that sense - it could have been a lot worse.

We got back on the bus, took a nap, and made it into La Paz by nightfall; it was a long day. We took a taxi to our hostel, met with a travel agent to finalize our rain forest plans, and took a walk through the city. La Paz - at least the lower portions - is kind of like a big street carnival. Socially, it's set up like a funnel. The center of the city is in the bottom of the valley, so the closer you live to the center (the 'lower' you are) the higher your social status. We stayed in a place fairly low in the city. The streets were entirely packed with vendors, pedestrians, cars, and pigeons. We didn't have more than a few seconds of peace the whole time.

I got really fed up with having my ass grabbed by nasty old men, and Brice got really fed up with me trying to keep a hand on him so we could stay close together in the crowds. Our map was less than accurate, so we wandered a bit longer than we had intended, and - after a while - (I blame him) Brice did what he does best and left me to my own devices for the night. I spent an hour killing time in an Internet cafe, and then I visited one of La Paz' most popular bars: Oliver's Travels. Oliver's is a fun place, run mostly by a cranky, drunken Englishman and a bunch of college-aged gringos; the atmosphere is great, but what's really worth the visit is the book exchange. Good old 'Oliver' has quite the scam going, but after 3 weeks reading trash you'll pay his (reasonable, by American standards) prices to get your hands on a decent paperback. And hey, his prices could be worse....

The next day we sent out our laundry and took in the sights, sounds, and smells of La Paz in a slightly (albeit not incredibly) better mood. We viewed the major churches (there's ALWAYS a mass in session in La Paz) from the outside, found the black market (though not the desired goods), the witch's market (where you can buy a dehydrated llama fetus!), and Plaza Murillo to feed the pigeons. Feeding the pigeons was kind of the highlight of our day in La Paz, but: it could have been worse. We chased them around, trying to start a swarming rally, and took some photos of the unique-looking riot police situated in the area (Brice made us stop and take their photos several times). I'm not doing it justice in this retelling, so here's a portion of my journal:
La Paz is alive, and I think it hates me. Can I take a step without the garish honking of ancient taxis and the stale stench of urine? I don't know, I'd need the space to take a step in the first place. The smell of vendors' dinner stalls mingles with the diesel exhaust and sickly-sweet tinge of roses. There are so many roses... I want one, just to carry around and remind me that there are still nice things in this sea of faceless ass-pinchers. It's nearly Mother's Day - Mother's Month, in Bolivia - and the roses are on sale. Brice won't buy me any, not even a single stem with thorns still on for a measly 16 cents. Maybe he hates me too.

There is no peace in this place. La Paz, you are your own antithesis. In London, they go to bed at 3, in Paris by 1:30... La Paz: true eternal city. Last call at 4, taxis come at 5. Mass at 6. Do they ever sleep? Fast-paced shopping on every corner, impenetrable traffic in the streets. No empty taxi in a 3-mile radius. Night and day differences between rich and poor. I've never seen so much poverty in one place, but they all seem to get by. But seriously -- when do they sleep?

We had a nice, quiet day, and went to bed early so we could catch a cab to the airport the next morning. Oh, and it turns out they do sleep. From about 7 AM - 10.

Unfortunately, the laundry still wasn't back at 11 o'clock that evening, so we had to call the front desk and ask them to 1) track down their washer woman and 2) get our clothes back. Our jeans, shirts, hoodies... everything! came back sopping wet and freezing cold. We had a few pairs of wearable things between us, so I guess it could have been worse.... Anyways, we left it all out to try as best it could, and got some sleep. The next morning, our things were still wet, but we were in no mood to complain. (Well, I was, but I thought Brice would probably leave me face-down in the Amazon river if I did.) So, we packed our things, hailed a (drunken) cab, and tried our luck at the airport.

Our travel agents at Swiss Bolivian Adventures did their jobs flawlessly. We didn't have an issue getting our tickets, and the airport's domestic flight exit tax could have been worse... all the same, about two hours after our flight was supposed to depart they finally told us that it wasn't possible for us to fly into Rurrenabaque any time this week. Apparently it had rained there (rain? in the jungle? never!) the night before, and the dirt runway was entirely washed out. So, we refunded our departure taxes, took a cab back to the Swiss Bolivian offices, and let them sort us out. They began the paperwork to refund my credit card, set us up with a bus schedule to Rurre, and wished us luck.

Finding a cab to the bus terminal turned out to be easier said than done. It was some sort of school holiday, and the roads were completely overrun with children in uniforms doing jumping jacks. But, we did make it to the bus office, we did purchase tickets to Rurre, and we did find our bus before it left without us. I had Brice a bit more frantic than he likes to be searching for it, so he was quite moody by the time we figured out where we were supposed to board. I bought some water, crackers, and cookies to tide us over - it's an 18 hour bus ride to Rurrenabaque, on a good day - and Brice bought himself a rather posh-looking wrist watch - which fit him better as an arm band than a bracelet - so he wouldn't be captive to my scheduling whims. To this day, people still compliment him on that watch.

They used to call the road to Rurrenabaque the "death road" because the perilous turns, washed out rocks, and sheer cliff faces contributed to - you guessed it - a number of gruesome, horrifying deaths. The road we took is the "new death road." It's not somehow safer or better constructed than the old death road, but it has the advantage of being relatively new; it's reputation hasn't quite been built. Well, 'new death road' or old 'death road,' we descended into the tropical lowlands (the first third of the trip) without issue, and honestly, the road could have been worse. Sure, it was washed out and flooded in a few places. Sure, we almost had half a dozen head-on-collisions. But really, it could have been worse! Some of the guys we met a few days later at our campsite said that their bus had actually overturned and nearly fallen into the ravine, and that after they evacuated the wreck the survivors were nearly run over by a logging truck. They spent hours out there on that road, without a ditch or curb to cling to, waiting for another bus to come and rescue them; it must have been terrible.

Then again, nobody died, so....

We stopped at a small jungle town along the way, encountering what may have been the worst of public toilets in South America, and got back on the bus. That was our life for an entire day: on the bus, off the bus, on the bus, off the bus... At 6 AM the next morning, we had made friends with the English-speaking tourists around us, rekindled our old animosity from the days before, and really, really wished our other clothes were dry enough to wear. Oh, and we had arrived in Rurrenabaque.

We sat around until sun rise, whereupon we attempted to feed ourselves and find the Indigena Tours offices. "Bolivia sucks" became "Rurre sucks," but, as is always the case, it could have been worse. We ate some chicken soup (complete with whole drumsticks and boiled eggs), hired a cab to take us to the Indigena offices, and completed the remainder of our paperwork. One of the tour guides took mercy on us and walked us over to the village charity house. They were good enough to give us new jackets (donated by past toursits, probably) for a reasonable donation, and it's only thanks to that that we didn't freeze during what I've heard was one of the coldest, wettest weeks in Rurre's history.

After all of that, we were finally on the road. Our Jeep 4x4 had to navigate the flooded, muddy roads for nearly two hours to get us to the canoe launch for our river tour, but... well, you know. We made friends with the British girls in our tour group and Brice fantasized about the jeep overturning in the road. We drove through herds of cattle, flocks of heron, and a pile up half a mile long. But all the same, we made it to La Pampa and started one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of our vacation.


Brice said...

Only two corrections and a comment:
I never stopped for cops, that would be too obvious. I might have followed them through markets though.

The cabbie really was drunk. Really.

The way I remember the bus didn't overturn, it just got stuck sticking off the road / over the cliff.

Anonymous said...

It just keeps getting better... MOM