As I had been instructed, I arrived a half an hour early at the terminal. It’s a way of identifying foreigners, because the locals never arrive early. I was on the bus, ready to go, but when the bus driver pulled out, a hue and cry arose from a group of schoolteachers who had been in Cochabamba for a conference. Two of their group hadn’t arrived yet. The driver grumbled but waited for the late passengers. I should have known right then that this group was going to annoy me.
The first half hour of the trip was marred by the encyclopedia salesman who stood at the front of the bus and harangued us to improve ourselves with these paperback tomes of knowledge. He sensed he didn’t have a strong hold on his audience, so he threw caustic comments into his speech -- like, “If I’m not taking too much of your time” or “Well, if you’re not interested in being educated,” which I thought was cheeky, considering no one had asked him to stand up and annoy us. The teachers laughed and bought his books. At the end of his discourse, he had the nerve to ask for tips.
The trip went downhill from there. The attendant put on a video but couldn’t get the TV to work. The picture flashed on and off and the sound was horrible. The movie stank. It was an American made-for-TV movie about a father-and-son armed-robbery team that had been dubbed in Spanish. I wanted them to die in a bloody shoot-out, but they survived to escape with the loot. When the video was over, the radio came back on. Horrible music. Usually, I could tune out the radio and doze. Not this time. The teachers -- whom I came to hate -- began to talk loudly. I gritted my teeth and endured. After all, it was only 10:30 p.m.
Suddenly, there was a sharp crack. Cold air rushed into the bus. A woman screamed. Something had shattered a window. The two passengers in the seat next to the window were covered with glass shards. The attendant, who had already prove his mechanical abilities, tried to patch the hole with the curtain. Much to his surprise, that didn’t work.
We stopped for supper at 11:30. The café had a restroom of sorts. I found the women’s restroom and was minding my own business when a man walked in. He looked at me and the other women and, unperturbed, walked into a stall and did what he needed to do.
I took a sleeping pill and prepared myself for another six hours on the narrow, twisting, unpaved roads. (I wasn’t to find out until I went from Sucre to Potosí just how precarious Bolivian roads really are.) But I wasn’t prepared for the teachers. I’d thought they would be tired and ready to sleep, but they talked and shrieked and giggled all night. My occasional pleas of “Be quiet! People are trying to sleep!” were met with laughter. I took a second sleeping pill, but it didn’t work.
We limped into Sucre at 5:30 a.m. The horrible loud people left almost immediately and I tried to take advantage of the silence to get some sleep, but now the bus heater was turned off. (It was too early to go door-to-door seeking a hostel and the bus station wasn’t open yet so I couldn’t even call one.) It was freezing cold. At 6:30, the bus station opened and I was able to call and find a hostel.
By seven, I was in a bed, but by then, I was so cold that I couldn’t warm up, despite the three blankets I had piled on top of me. I gave up and tried to shower, but found the water to be icy. Bolivian showers are heated by electric heaters attached to the shower heads. Huge electrical switches are attached to the wall next to the shower. You’re supposed to wait until the water is running to turn the heater on. Sometimes there were rubber insulators on the switches, sometimes not. Always there were stray wires on the heater itself. A few places had signs posted with dire warnings: “Don’t touch the shower head! Danger of electrocution!”
Sometimes the heater would work immediately. Other times, I had to jiggle the switch to find exactly the right position. It wasn’t always obvious if the shower were broken or just touchy. After a couple of minutes of ice-cold water (fresh snowmelt from the Andes!), I realized this shower was broken. I had to get dressed and find another shower.
I spent the morning sightseeing. Sucre is called “The White City.” The buildings in the town center are whitewashed with red tile roofs. Doors are heavy wood studded with big iron nails. Steep, narrow streets wind up the mountains. It’s easy to imagine the Spanish conquistadores here 500 years ago, walking through town in breeches and plumed hats.
I sat on a bench in the plaza. To my left a band of four men played the haunting reedy native Andean music. (The first time I heard an Andean band playing “El Condor Pasa,” I exclaimed, “Hey! They’re playing a Simon and Garfunkel song!”) They wore the native clothing: the pointed hats with the long ear flaps, ponchos over loose pants and sandals. A cronish old woman approached me and stuck out her hand. At the beginning of my trip, I’d given to any beggar who had asked, but I’d realized I couldn’t afford to maintain such a policy. I shook my finger. She thrust her hand insistently into my chest. I shook my finger again. She stepped back and began to scream at me, drawing strange figures with her fingers and shaking her hands at me. It took her thirty seconds to curse me, then she walked away indignantly.
At the top of one of the hills around Sucre is an old monastery. The view from the plaza in front of it is spectacular. You can see the entire city below -- all red and white and stark. An old lady, her hair coiled in a bun on top her head and a bundle wrapped in a brightly-colored blanket slung over her shoulder, trudged up the hill.
I waited in the plaza for the two o’clock tour, along with four other tourists, sitting on the edge of the fountain and watching the wind blow the trash around the square. Clouds rolled in from behind the mountain and the wind picked up. The temperature dropped. It had been warm and sunny in the morning, so I had dressed lightly. Now, I was shivering.
I went back to the door to the monastery and knocked loudly. It was already past time for the tour to start. A young man in a brown robe opened the door. “Are you going to give the tour today?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered, “but the secretary is still at lunch. She is the one who sells the tickets.” He started to close the door.
I stuck my foot between the door and the frame. “Could I please wait inside? It’s freezing out there!”
Reluctantly, he opened the door. The wind blew the outside trash into the foyer. He waved to a bench and slipped away. I heard knocking. The Japanese couple smiled gratefully when I opened the door and walked to the corner.
At 2:30, the secretary appeared and sold us our tickets. The man in the brown robe returned and started the tour. Three Germans -- a young woman with a baby and a woman who looked like her mother -- joined the tour. The monk led us through the cloisters and showed us a tree. “This tree,” he said, “is very old. It was here when the first monks built the monastery.” He rattled off facts about the tree and the German woman translated for her mother.
The monk turned and led us to another room. Again, he spoke rapidly. The German woman finally said in exasperation, “Could you please slow down!”