Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Uyuni to Tupiza and Enduring Shame with PICS

Travelling from town to town in Bolivia is frequently uncomfortable, seldom on time and sometimes downright unpleasant, but it has not yet been a mundane gap in my life between experiences in one place and adventures in another.

For some reason all the road transport from Uyuni to Tupiza leaves before dawn. At least that´s better than the train, which operates entirely at night and only runs twice a week.

The options were a bus or jeep. I decided on a bus for comfort, and because they leave an hour later. However, the company I chose with a 6am departure then informed me that I should report at 5:30. Ugh.

So I grumbled my way through the cold night to the 11 de Junio office (several bus companies have chosen dates for their names - very odd) just before 5:30. Promptly at 5:50 the vehicle appeared and started loading. But it was a jeep! Well, it was a Toyota Land Cruiser modified for extra passengers. Two lucky souls sat up front and the other 10 of us plus a toddler-on-Mum´s-lap sat in two rows of 5 with just enough room for our knees in the middle. The locals had all brought thick blankets, but we were so tightly packed that they cannot have made much difference to the warmth. However, they did restrict even further the opportunities to rearrange knees and feet.


My "bus", photographed later unloading in Atocha.


I gazed enviously at the real bus outside the other company´s office. It had been there since before I arrived so luggage was stored and passengers seated for a prompt start at 6 o´clock.

We left late. Too bad. But before we had left Uyuni behind my bladder commenced complaining. Oh no. Luxurious buses with toilets are scarce in Bolivia, especially down here in the South. They are unknown on this route. I would never survive the whole journey. Could I save face and suppress nature until the stop in Atocha?

I had relieved myself last thing before I left the hotel. It must be nerves then. Think of something else, Bill. Well I watched the lights of Uyuni disappear; I concentrated on the sun coming up over the mountains far away across the salt desert; I studied the terrain and hoped for some wildlife to distract me, but all to no avail. The more I thought about it, the more urgent my need became. Can I at least hang on until 7 o´clock. An hour after the due time for leaving isn´t so disgraceful, is it? The jeep´s radio was on. I´ll be OK until the end of this song. Arrrrgh.

Eventually I bowed to the inevitable and confessed my need to the driver and my fellow passengers. Oh, disgrace to the whole race of gringos. The driver cheerfully pulled up and half the people in the rear section had to alight to let me out. However, I noticed that many passengers took advantage of the pause to have a pee themselves. That made me feel rather better, and the driver waved away my apology. I guess it must have happened before.

The rest of the journey to Atocha was quite pleasant. The scenery was good, the road not too bad. I was engaged in conversation by the man opposite and had to dig my guide book out of my day pack to show him where NZ is from the map inside the back cover.

We passed a grader. Heavens, this track is actually maintained. However, there were places where our driver could, and did, choose his own path through the tussocks. And in one valley I couldn´t see where the previous vehicles had exited on the other side. The answer was simple - the river bed was the road. Up the gorge we drove and, after a couple of kilometers fetched up in Atocha.

"All change" was the message. The driver explained that I had an hour and a half for breakfast before the journey continued to Tupiza. He also gave me directions to the public toilet. How thoughtful.

Breakfast was an even better thought. I had laid in stores and tucked into my bread and cheese hungrily. I retraced the route to the edge of town and photographed a bridge that goes half way across the river and ends in a ramp that descends steeply - onto the river bed. I trust this is an unfinished project.

I pottered through the market, ambled across the tracks at the railway station, and admired the old Cessna that is dispayed at head height in the main square. I think that´s all Atocha has to offer. I lavished 50c on the public loo.

The driver´s estimate expired at 9:50, but the departure time painted on the bus company wall was 10:30. The wall has the correct time. That´s OK, I´m not in a hurry and there is a real bus parked in the terminal with a card in the windscreen that says, "Tupiza". At 10:20 the competitor bus has loaded and ours still hasn´t opened its doors. What´s going on?

At 10:25 the big, comfortable bus drives off empty and its place is taken by yet another modified Land Cruiser. A short and very slight driver stacked our luggage on the roof and, as usual, wrapped it in a tarpaulin against the dust. The other company´s bus pulled out. I believe I see smugness in the faces of the passengers.


Loading "bus" no.2.


This jeep is arranged differently. Behind the driver is a bench seat across the vehicle. At the back is a much smaller cabin in which four passengers sit facing across the jeep. The dispatcher had told me my seat was in the middle row, but attempts to claim this are rebuffed by other passengers. That´s OK, I don´t mind where I sit. Not, that is, until I went to sit in the rear compartment. These seats are much higher for some reason and my head was bent forward under the roof. On a bumpy road this would be risking a broken neck, as well as uncomfortable.

I appealed to the dispatcher and a disagreeable scene ensued. Senora dispatcher explained that she had allocated me to the middle because I am tall. Beside most Bolivians I am a full head nearer the sky. An elderly gentlemen in the cramped seats at the back who had seen me try the seat opposite him chimed in vigorously on my behalf. But the four occupants of the desirable middle row stayed put. I couldn´t follow all the conversation, but there were oft repeated references to having paid. Then the fellow I had chatted to in the previous jeep came over and applied more pressure. Finally a young woman consented to move and I was able to board my ´bus´.

There isn´t too much space for 4 Bolivians across a Land Cruiser, and substituting a full size gringo was a real squash. The ugly and unchivalrous gent on my left had the driver shut his door from the outside. Both doors were locked for safety.

Long after the scheduled time we left Atocha and continued up the river bed. Soon we turned left out of the river and headed off across the hills. A couple seemed to be very proud of their new cassette player. Did the driver have any tapes? Yes, he did but, oh no, they were straight off the play lists of Radio Misery (see "My Inca Trail" in July). Surely the woman with the wailing voice and disastrous love life couldn´t have postponed suicide long enough to record an entire album. But she had. Tapes 2 and 3 were almost as bad.

At least the awful music took my mind off the discomfort. Not only were we crushed like sardines too big for the tin but it was now really hot and I was still dressed for Uyuni at dawn. Maybe if we melted a bit it would ease the crush. Fearful of my bladder´s capacity I took only tiny sips of water.

Down into the valleys and up over the hills we went. We caught and passed the bus, which had to negotiate the hairpin bends with 5- or 7-point turns. In 2 or 3 valleys we saw small mines. I don´t know what they were extracting. Optimistic miners tried to flag us down but they were left for the bus to pick up.

Some typical scenery.
Then the road changed policy and followed the ridge for several kilometers. Not that our driver put his foot down. He was extremely careful and meticulous about sounding his horn when approaching one of the many blind corners. We didn´t meet much traffic. The tally for the entire journey was 2 buses and 4 4WDs.

Suddenly there was a strange noise, as of machinery that wasn´t working properly. The motor was still running, but there seemed to be no power to the wheels. Tiny pulled up and forcibly wiggled his gear levers. This couldn´t have done the trick so he got out and inspected the wheels.

Applying a temporary fix.


The passengers sympathetically got out and took a loo break. I also thankfully removed my sweater.

By tying a rag around one of the rear hubs and selecting the lowest setting on the 4WD gearstick some forward motion was achieved. We limped on until the bus caught up with us. By now the bus had standing room only but most passengers elected to transfer. I was going to folow suit until the lady next to me explained that our wounded chariot was still going to Tupiza and suggested I claim the front seat.

So after luggage was transferred we crawled towards Tupiza with the driver and I in the front and three in comfort across the coveted middle seat.

In the village of Salo we pulled up behind the bus for a meal break. I took some photos, attacked my stores and, now wise to Bolivian bus travel, emptied my bladder just in case.

While waiting for my driver to return from his lunch I noticed a crowd around the bus. The villagers were enjoying the spectacle of the bus driver and loader attempting to change a wheel. One of the front tyres was very flat. I know it´s bad enough trying to loosen the nuts on a car wheel. Removing all ten from the bus wheel was demanding a lot of effort.

Sadly, I didn´t see the end of the exercise because my little transport was ready to leave. At a leisurely pace we drove out of Salo and through a fantastic canyon. I wound down the window and took photos. I was getting a scenic tour as part of my fare.

No further mishaps occurred and we were delivered to Tupiza bus station at 20 past 3. The advertised arrival time had been 1:30, so that wasn´t bad considering all the dramas along the way. The hostal I had selected from the guide book was close by and I was soon settled as the sole occupant of an 8-bed dormitory.

Tupiza is a pleasant little town in the midst of a host of scenic wonders. The recommended way to see them is on horseback. I have selected the 5-hour tour to save my bum from too much agony.

I presume the bus eventually changed its wheel. While I was enjoying my first dinner in Tupiza ´Ugly and Unchivalrous´ walked in with his family. We nodded to each other but did not smile.




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