The Passenger (riding the bus in S.A.)

This is me in La Paz, very happy to be wearing another alpaca sweater and to not be on a bus (because La Paz is awesome.)
This is me in La Paz, very happy to be wearing another alpaca sweater and to not be on a bus (and La Paz is awesome.) Also I have no photos of buses, you can use your imagination through my vibrant imagery.

After about 3 weeks traveling around Bolivia, Peru and Chile on buses, I’d like to say a bit about the experiences so far. I have taken 8 buses so far (just in these 3ish weeks.) All have been 6 hours or more (emphasize more.) In total I’ve spent about 2 1/2 days on buses. I still have two to go in Bolivia this week, one tomorrow to Cochabamba and one Friday to Santa Cruz. And when I get home in two weeks, there’s the Megabus from Chicago to Omaha. But God help me, I think Megabus has wifi.

So, lets start with the basics of buses, sometimes called “flotas” in this part of South American I am only beginning to understand. Buses are the most common mode of transport here. Going into a bus station is like going into a bartering market.  All of the bus company representatives yell names of cities and when the buses will leave, and you can buy a ticket for a bus at that hour on the spot. It is cheapest to buy tickets on the spot but obviously not always practical. I did both, and the cheapest I got was in Peru, from Puno to Cusco at 15 soles, which is about $5. It was an 8-hour trip on what an Aussie described to me as a “chicken bus.”

(Before I go on, I should note that there are a LOT of nice, inexpensive buses around here.  I took a few of them.  If you plan well you can basically always do this.  S.A. buses can be fantastic.  But where’s the fun in writing about those?…)

I do think that the “chicken bus” reference is condescending, but it was definitely a cheap local bus, and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t smelly, dirty and slow with music blasting and random hawkers climbing aboard to try to sell their informacional videos and silver chains (and people bought them!!) At every stop there are people climbing on to sell full meals of meat and potatoes, plastic cups of jello, ice cream, nuts, bread, and anything else you can possibly think of.

Taking the dirt-cheap local bus is a real experience, and you really have to have your wits about you to get through it without hating yourself for what you just did. I bought my ticket for that bus at about 8:15, and it was scheduled to leave at 8 so I had no time to buy food for the trip. The bus gradually got totally packed with local Peruvians and I ended up squashed up next to a window by an Aymaran woman and her grandbaby. But it was early in on the trip and I was in good spirits and she and I ended up talking quite a bit about the landscape on the way to Cusco. It was an incredibly beautiful route through villages and mountains and lush valleys, and she also probably saved the bus from leaving me at a bus station along the way.

I hopped out to use the bathroom after about 5 hours of not stopping and to quickly buy something to eat. I figured the bus would stop a few minutes to unload people and get more on board.

“Voy a volver” I said to her, as I squeezed my way out of the seat covered in her textiled blankets and grandbaby. I hurried as quickly as I could but when I ran back out of the bus station the bus was slowly headed out the gate. I ran up to it and jumped on board. The conductor laughed at me and as soon as my head popped up the stairs onto the seat level my seat mate saw me and yelled “Ven Gringa, ven!” and several others yelled similar things, in tones of both concern and amusement.

Brazil still makes these guys, looking cool and 1060s next to the mar in Arica, Chile.
Brazil still makes these guys, looking cool and 1960s next to the mar in Arica, Chile.  (Arica was great.)

My other really cheap, “I was the only gringa” local bus was from Arica, Chile to La Paz, Bolivia. Oh the dreaded border crossing of my slightly ambigious status…. As it turned out, my tourist visa worked upon another entry into Bolivia, thank heavens, but they did give me an H1N1 shot on the way through. I thought they were giving out Yellow Fever originally, and I had a copy of that vaccination in Italian.  After proudly telling the nurses this they informed me it wasn’t for Yellow Fever… and after asking several people if it was absolutely necessary, I rolled up my sleeve.

But that bus wasn’t too terrible.  It was 9 hours or so and was totally local too. My seat partner and his family talked to me intermeditently throughout the trip, and again I felt that they were kind of looking after me.  Like when the lady came on to sell ice cream they made sure I had a chance to buy some.  Even though the local buses can totally suck and honestly I plan to buy a good seat for the next ones I take, I think it’s a good thing to do every now and then. I really got a sense of community on those buses, being the only gringa. People were incredibly kind to me, interested in me, and I got a real sense of the culture.

I will be glad when the buses are over though. I think the ones that really did me in were the two coming and going from Machu Picchu. Six hours each on switch-back one-way gravel roads through the (majestic!!) mountains. Oh heavens, my stomache and head felt…. not quite right after that. On the way back to Cusco the driver’s young son who was sitting on a bucket next to the seats by the door fell asleep on my shoulder. I had offered him part of my coat because the bus was freezing and even when I asked the driver to close the window he only did partly. Ohhh cold buses. Oh hot buses. Oh smelly buses. Oh buses that play American movies incredibly loudly dubbed in Spanish for all to enjoy while playing music at the same time (bus from Arequipa to the border of Chile.)

Oh getting sold a good seat for the night bus on your birthday to discover they scammed you and you got a regular seat for those 10 hours….

Well anyway… buses in South America. It’s a whole thing.

I’ll leave you with this song that was sent to me last night.  It reminds me of good old days in Prague dancing to Balkan music and Iggy Pop into the wee hours.  Not that that’s relative, but I thought the title was fitting, anyway.

Well, S.A., sayonara (in one week.) It’s been real.

The Passenger” (Iggy Pop)

EDIT (2 days after original publication): Clearly I cursed myself or something for writing this blog before I took the bus from La Paz to Cochabamba (approx 8 hours.)

It started out alright.  I bought a $7 ticket about five minutes before the bus left, the seats were huge and reclined and there was no annoying music or movies playing.  It was heavenly, frankly surreal.  I just curled up in a ball and listened to Leonard Cohen.  We even stopped for lunch.

And then, with about 3 hours left, the nightmare bus situation occurred.  The one that you always think about when you think about long buses potentially without bathrooms.  Yes, I started to get that OH-SO familiar feeling in my intestines and after ten minutes or so went to beg the driver to give me the key to the bathroom. Evidently it wasn’t functional.  DEAR GOD, I knew I was going to have to wait, my insides cramping, my hands gripping the handrails, for hours.

It was as hellish as you can imagine it would be.  When the bus finally stopped in Quillacollo, a suburb of Cochabamba, I hopped off (before the normal main terminal stop,) elbowed my way to the front of the line where luggage was being dispersed and RAN to the Hipermaxi down the street which amazingly had a public restroom near the entrance.

But… I survived.  And I took a photo.  And I have another bus story now…

Looks like a nice bus doesn't it?  Too bad it's run by evil bus drivers who lock the bathroom and don't stop for 5 hours.
Looks like a nice bus doesn’t it? Too bad it’s run by evil bus drivers who lock the bathroom and don’t stop for 4 hours.