The sun was just beginning to come up. The streets were empty except for a few vendors who were starting to set up their stands and several policemen. I stopped to ask directions and they pointed me north.
My backpack was really heavy after a night with practically no sleep. All I wanted to do was find a bed and fall into it for a few hours. I found the first hostel in the list. I rang the doorbell but no one answered. I rang again and again but to no avail. The Bolivians were not early risers like the Paraguayans.
I gave up and walked three blocks to the next place. Someone opened the little window in the door this time but told me there was no room. Come back at noon.
“Noon!” I said with dismay. That’s over five hours from now! Don’t you have a couch or something?”
He yawned and turned away. “Nope,” he said.
I kept walking. The third place I found actually had a desk clerk who was awake and who showed me a room. When he flung open the door, the bed was unmade and the contents of a backpack were strewn on the floor.
“Oh,” he said. “I guess someone is still in here. It might be available at noon.”
I reiterated my plea for at least a sofa, but my cries fell on deaf ears. He showed me to the door and I walked out, defeated, exhausted, and unshowered.
I decided the only thing left for me to do was to throw myself at Christine’s mercy. I pulled my little notebook out to find her home phone number. Aha! She had no phone at home! All I had was a work number! But I did have her home address. I stopped in a bakery and asked directions. The woman there assured me the address was not far away. You’d think by now I would have learned not to trust such reassurances, but I was tired and not thinking clearly. I bought a roll and a box of apple juice and began to walk again.
It was half an hour, two miles -- which is a long way with a backpack, and five sets of directions later that I finally stood in front of a tall iron gate at Christine’s house. I rang the doorbell. No one answered. I rang again. My patience was gone and I didn’t care if I woke people up. I wasn’t getting to sleep, was I? Finally, a boy in his pajamas opened the gate. I explained that I was a friend of Christine’s (OK-- a small lie -- she had never even met me) and he let me in. I guess the fact that I was another gringa was good enough for him.
“She lives upstairs,” he said, and pointed to the stairwell at the back of the garage.
He ducked into the front door while I walked toward the stairs. Dog droppings dotted the floor and the new sun was releasing their pungency. A sheet of plywood blocked the foot of the stairs; a gate blocked the top. Upstairs was a large landing off which were four doors, all of which had big windows. It was only 7:45 in the morning and I didn’t want to wake Christine, so I tiptoed to the first door and looked in. It was a living room. I tried the handle, but it was locked. The second door was to the kitchen; the third to the bathroom -- which was unlocked, fortunately. My keen intuition allowed me to deduce that the fourth door was to Christine’s bedroom.
I shed my bags, grabbed my toothbrush and soap, and headed into the bathroom. There was no mirror, so I pulled out my compact. No wonder there had been no room at the inn! I looked like hell. In addition to my attractive outfit of black leggings (the torn seam since repaired but the effects of a year of hand-washing against a rough board beginning to show), maroon shirt, bright red sweatshirt, jean jacket, and men’s hiking boots (in Chile, I could not find women’s shoes to fit my size-nine gringo feet), my hair was sticking up in all directions and an enormous pimple had chosen to emerge on my chin. I looked like I’d spent all night in an uncomfortable bus. Normally, I disdain the grunge look, but I right now I looked like their poster child.
I brushed my teeth, washed my face, combed my hair and did the best I could with my magic Cover Girl concealer wand. Christine still wasn’t up, so I pulled my book out of my pack and sat on the floor to wait.
At about nine, she finally emerged from her bedroom. I was worried she would be startled at the sight of a total stranger sitting in her hall, but she handled the surprise with aplomb, opening the living room for me and pulling a set of clean sheets out of the big chest in the corner. She gave me a key, pointed to the couch, and left me to my own devices. I made up the couch, stripped and sank into the cool sheets and blissful sleep.
Christine returned at lunchtime and offered to eat with me. We went to a vegetarian restaurant that had a lunch special for about $1.50. I could have stayed in Cochabamba just for the food. It was wonderful. For that small amount, I got salad and soup and entree -- and lots of each. The salad bar had beans and artichokes and tomatoes and olives. One of the soups was a Bolivian peanut soup, smooth and rich. The entrees usually included a big serving of rice. I developed the habit of eating a big cheap lunch and not eating supper. I saved money and lost weight -- what a deal!
I wanted to mail a letter I’d sealed with scotch tape. I laid it on the counter in front of the stamp seller. She looked at it and told me that she couldn’t accept a letter with tape on it.
“Why not?” I wanted to know.
“Because the recipient might think that the Bolivian Postal Service opened it,” she explained with impatience. I wanted to ask if it was customary for the Bolivian PO to do so. I had never thought of anyone opening my mail before. But I didn’t. Instead, I asked if I could just sign across the seal. Nope, that wouldn’t work.
“Fine,” I replied, and ripped the tape off. The seal held. “There.”
She pursed her lips and said, “I can’t take a letter that’s been ripped.”
I went to the phone office. If you don’t have a phone in Latin America, you go to a phone office, which will have from one to 20 phone booths. You give the number to a clerk and wait. When the call goes through, you hear a garbled announcement over the loudspeaker: “Anita, cabin nine.” You go into the booth, pick up the phone, and talk. When you’re through, you pay another clerk.
I was trying to reach a friend of mine who was supposed to be teaching at one of the American schools in Cochabamba. I did not have the phone number of the school.
I asked the clerk behind the cash register where I could find the number. “Try the Information desk,” she suggested.
I walked over to the Information desk. “I need the number for the American school,” I said.
“You need to call the international operator,” the clerk told me.
“No, this school is in Cochabamba,” I insisted.
“Oh. Then look in the phone book!” she said brightly.
“It’s not in the phone book! That’s why I’m asking you!” I said with exasperation.
She gave me a look of annoyed confusion. “Well, if it’s not in the phone book, how am I supposed to know?” she demanded.
I surrendered and returned to clerk number one. “Is there directory assistance?” I asked her.
“Sure,” she said.
“Great. Place a call for me to them.”
“Oh, you can’t call them from our phones. You need to go outside the building. There’s an old lady who sells candy and rents her phone.”
I looked at her. “Why can’t I call from here?”
“Our phones won’t call directory assistance.” She shrugged and went back to filing her nails.
I gave up and went outside. I found the little old lady and gave her ten cents to use her old rotary phone to call the Bolivian phone company’s directory assistance. The racket from the vendors and beggars gathered around the phone building made it almost impossible to hear the operator. I memorized the number, went back inside, gave the number to the clerk, waited for the call to be placed, talked to the school secretary -- and found out my friend had left Bolivia the past June.