Friday, April 10, 2009

The road to hell

Having had my dreams of a lie-in once again dashed by what I can only refer to as "that bird", I got my bags cleared out of my room and went for some breakfast at the Back-Stube, the German-owned cafe across from my guesthouse, which proved both tasty and timely, a pleasant exception from the normal rule in Coroico whereby it takes the best part of an hour to produce a plate of pasta. After this, I took final advantage of the internet to write up a spot more of my journal before I headed over to the tour agency who had organised my ticket. There I was greeted by the twin news that they had not, as they announced previously, been able to definitively reserve me the aisle seat that I had requested, and that I was not in fact the only crazed gringo taking the bus journey to end all bus journeys. Or rather, I was the only gringo, but there was a gringa. When she turned up shortly thereafter, I met Jenny for the first time.
As it turned out, what with waiting 20 minutes or so in the back of a minibus whilst they did the usual trick of bellowing the destination at anyone passing in the hope that they would suddenly realise "Oh yes, I really wanted to go to Yolosita and just didn't realise it yet..." and buy a ticket (even weirder than this is that nobody ever turns up until about 30 seconds before the vehicle is due to leave, when suddenly you get swarmed!), and then another 3 hours or so at Yolosita waiting for our bus to make an appearance, we had plenty of chance to get to know each other even before the wonders of the bus trip. In fact, we didn't spend the whole time at Yolosita chatting, as I was nervously hanging around near the police checkpoint, trying to make sure the bus didn't go without us and goggling at the sheer chaos that is Bolivian driving practice. The checkpoint itself consisted of the Bolivian equivalent of PC Plod sat in his little brick hut, operating what Jen and I came to term the "hi-tech Bolivian gate" which blocked the road - said gate consisted of a section of string/rope running across the road; if one loop in it was hooked over the nail on the front of his box, the road was blocked, if the other was hooked on, it hung loose across the road and vehicles could pass. A work of genius. Drivers queueing up behind the rope had to go and show him their papers and once satisfied, he would let them through. However, they were not above charging for the open road whenever the string was down, via the wrong lane of the road if necessary. In fact, as per usual unwritten Bolivian rules of the road, there are always at least 3 lanes of traffic on a 2-lane road anyway, and you'd sometimes see a vehicle coming up the road, waiting for the string to be released and then waiting further whilst all the vehicles in the wrong lane on the other side pulled out into the traffic. Barking. When the bus did finally turn up, it turned out that the details of make, license plate etc we had been given were totally wrong, and we were rushed on as the bus was already an hour and half or so late. In fact, we were so rushed that Jen forgot her flowery hat and the bag of coca leaves that had been kept in it. D'Oh!
Jen works on a very simple principle: she does not want to spend winter in the UK again if she can help it at all, so works for 6 months or so saving whatever she can then runs away for several months over the winter. Nice plan, thinks I (don't worry Mum and Dad, I'm not seriously planning this, honest...). She's also very much of the "wing it" school of travelling, whereas I subscribe to the "practically swallow the guidebook and plan like crazy" school. She's a Londoner and loves the place, I was glad to be out of the Big Smoke. Annoyingly, as I was to find out, she can sleep just about anywhere, including crazily bucking Bolivian buses; as those of you who read regularly will be tired of hearing, I have trouble sleeping on any kind of a bus whatsoever. Still, we got past these difficulties, and actually got along quite well.
Some of that, mind you, may have been due to the "shared peril" scenario of actually surviving the road down to Caranavi. As I mentioned when discussing my trip down the "World's Most Dangerous Road", since the new road got finished, there's little or none of the traffic that got that road its name present any more. What I hadn't realised until about 10 minutes into the journey was that that road very much still exists, in the form of the section from Yolosita to Caranavi. Crazed lorry-drivers, narrow passing points into which the bus must reverse (I was quite glad to only realise afterwards that because we were in the rearmost seats, we were probably hanging out over 400-odd metre vertical drops a few times!), iffy visibility as it got rainy, a delightful surface mix of mud and gravel - all par for the course on this road. And this went on for around 4 hours, as we crawled the 75km into Caranavi. What relief we felt on arrival was tempered slightly by the realisation that Caranavi was a one-horse town missing its horse, that we would not (as we had hoped) be able to buy ourselves some wine to self-anaesthetise, and that the options for food in the vicinity of the bus station consisted of chicken'n'chips, chicken'n'chips, chicken'n'chips or chicken'n'chips. Surprisingly we had chicken'n'chips. I chivalrously left the last beer in the fridge of the restaurant for Jen, but she responded by asking the waiter nicely and he disappeared off to fetch me one, it turns out actually popping into a next-door place to buy it!

Filled up with our spectacularly unhealthy dinner, we gathered our courage and clambered back onto the bus, ready for the onward leg to Rurre. By this time, the light had gone so we could no longer see what potential perils awaited us, but this actually made it a bit more relaxing. Or rather, it would have been relaxing, had the bus not been nouncing and jolting every 10 seconds or so as it growled its way over the ridges towards its destination. Deprived by this less-than-restful motion and the lack of onboard lighting (apart from the seating lights which strobed intermittently in green and red, giving the unwlecome impression of a runaway mobile disco) of the ability to read or anything, Jen and I continued exchanging tales, jokes, philosophies and occasional mild epithets until the next stop, at Yunguyo, by which time it was around 11pm. After this, Jen curled up and miraculously dozed off, whilst I began my regular battle for any kind of rest on the omnibuses of this world.