The Bus Trip
By JP Richard
The bus pulled up in La Paz, motor coughing and exhaust belching, its gray, dusty sides visibly dented and scratched from hard use. The tour group slowly climbed aboard, looking at each other anxiously.
Could this heap make it all the way to the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats in the southern part of Bolivia?
The ten adults and the twelve children in the group- parents, grandparents, teenagers and younger children- had been looking forward to this trip for weeks. Other travelers who had been to the Salar spoke in raptures about the trip. We had read up on the site’s wonders. The day had dawned bright and crisp, with the thin, high-altitude air practically vibrating with our anticipation. We were setting out for the interior wilds of Bolivia on a dilapidated bus on an adventure we were having second thoughts about already.
“I wonder why the bus is so seedy,” I asked Steve. ” I’ve seen some real plush tour buses cruising all over town. Why didn’t we get one of those?”
“Maybe the tour organizer took our idea of economy a little too far,” Steve shrugged his shoulders.
The whole trip had been planned by a local travel agent with a reputation for taking good care of her guests. What had happened this time? The trip had been sold to us as a high adventure trip to one of the wonders of South America. We knew accommodations were a little less than luxurious in this poor country, but our first impression was not positive. But there was no turning back now. We had paid for the trip in advance.
The first six hours of the trip, we crossed the vast, dry, desolate plains called the Altiplano on a two lane paved highway. A smattering of llamas, sheep, and goats alternated with isolated mud-brick farmhouses along the route; only two small towns broke the monotony of the drive by providing us with welcome, if seedy, rest stops. Occasionally, the bus passed a lone bicyclist beside the road.
We had prepared for the trip with snacks and bottled water for everyone, books and magazines for the adults, cards and PlayStations for the younger travelers. It worked surprisingly well for most of the trip. The youngsters were distracted with video games while the adults gazed at the monotonous scenery and commented on the poverty of the countryside.
The next five hours were less relaxed, as we traveled on an unpaved dry-gravel track the Bolivians called a road. We often forded dry rivers as they twisted through the desolate countryside. The ride was bone-jarring and dusty; we squirmed in our seats to get comfortable, rubbed our teeth to get the grit off. The teenagers were asking when it would be over, the younger children ran up and down the aisle more frequently. One calming tactic was to let them take turns in the front seat and stare out at the scenery. The monotony of it seemed to calm them- or it may have been the drone of the engine.
The bus would start down a sharp precipice, on even narrower tracks, only to climb up the other side of the valley, just as precariously. Now I knew why they had assigned us such an ancient bus. A newer one would have been too wide for the dirt roads and probably would have broken its axle in this terrain.
Periodically, the driver and his assistant would stop the bus in the middle of the road, open the door or window, letting in even more dust and dirt, then toss out some leaves and a spray of clear liquid from a bottle.
“What’s that all about?” I asked Lupe, our translator.
“They’re tossing out alcohol and coca leaves as an offering to the gods. Each of these spots recently had a serious accident.”
Then I noticed. A wooden cross stood by the roadside at some stops. At other sites, a smashed vehicle was visible at the base of the cliff we were teetering on, reminding us what could happen again.
During this phase of the trip we saw even fewer animals and no towns. So when we arrived at a town called Calchini, just at sunset, the adults heaved a collective sigh of relief.
“Looks like a ghost town,” my granddaughter Jackie said.
We turned onto the salt flat and headed out into a bleak open space with absolutely no vegetation to serve as route markers. The diminished light of the waning sun made the already stark view seem even grimmer.
After only five minutes, the driver stopped, consulted with his co-driver and Lupe, and then turned back toward Calchini.
“He says he needs to find a guide or he’ll get lost out there in the dark,” said Lupe.
“That’s the last straw–now even our drivers are lost. Where did they come from?” Luckily neither of our two drivers spoke English, so they just looked back and grinned at that remark.
A local elder was recruited after tedious negotiations. He assured the driver he knew how to find our hotel even in the dark, so we were off again. Now it was pitch black and we had to trust the guide totally.
We did finally arrive. The hotel periphery was well lit and people were milling about the parking lot waiting for us. As I stepped off the bus I heard someone call out my name and say: “It’s good to see you!”
How could anyone in this desolate spot know me by name? Whatever the reason, I felt a warm surge of gratitude to be greeted by name after such a long ordeal. Then I recognized the familiar, smiling face. It was Roberto, a guide we had met two weeks earlier in Sucre, the old colonial capital of Bolivia. Now he was back as the guide for our whole group. I now knew the trip was taking a turn for the better.
J.P. currently lives in Virginia Beach, is a member of Hampton Road Writers Group and enjoys writing about his experiences. J.P. has previously published articles on disability topics in Exceptional Parent, has written a column on Federal Procurement for a DC professional journal currently teaches technical writing and does selective market research.