Thursday, September 20, 2012

In which I back down in the face of a bossy man - I hope that today, I would not be such a wimp

On the ride back to Santa Cruz, I was the first person on the collectivo. I jumped into the front seat. We waited for more passengers. A Bolivian man appeared. “I have to have the front seat,” he told me.

“But I was here first!” I protested.

“Yes, but I have longer legs,” he said with authority, and opened the door for me to get out. [Me now - I CANNOT believe I did that! What was wrong with me?]

Then he was even more presumptuous. He and I and a third person were the only passengers. The driver was waiting in hopes that a fourth might apear. But after waiting a few minutes, no one showed up. Front seat hog man said, “Let’s not wait. Let’s just split the third fare amongst ourselves. Instead of ten bolivianos a person, it will cost us each fifteen. Big deal!” (Yes, I noticed his math wasn’t very good.)

The other passenger said through a mouthful of popcorn, “That’s fine with me.” They both looked at me. What was I supposed to say? “No, it’s not fine with me! I’m so broke after two years in the Peace Corps and two years in grad school that five bolivianos is a lot to me!” I should have, but I chickened out. [I hope I only paid 3 B extra.]

“Fine,” I muttered. I was not going to be happy about it. I spent the entire trip fuming in the back seat and conjuring up obscure Norwiegan curses in my mind. Some day he would rue the day he’d crossed the blond lady. Just not now.

Santa Cruz was as hot and muggy as it had been when I’d left two days before. It was about four p.m. when we got back and I thought about just finding a place to stay for the night and going to Cochabamba in the morning. But then I realized I had exhausted the mulititude of pleasures Santa Cruz had to offer. I decided I’d rather not spend the next six hours sitting in a hostel room when I could be on a nice uncomfortable Bolivian bus.

I walked over to the bus terminal. The bays were on the street level and the ticket offices were a flight down along a concourse. There were about two dozen bus companies offering service to Cochabamba and points west. Ticket vendors jumped in front of me as I tried to dodge men pushing dollies piled high with luggage and stout Bolivian women with colorful blankets stuffed with what looked like chickens and televisions tied across their backs.

“TV!” the vendors shouted. Little did they know that’s the last thing I wanted on a bus.

I brushed them off and looked at the scheduled departure times, which I later realized were works of complete fiction. There were three lines leaving within the next hour and a half. I shuttled between them, comparing bus data. Was there a toilet on the bus? No from all three. TV? Yes from one. Strike it from the list. Air conditioning? Nope. The two finalists were next to each other. One clerk finally said, “I’ll cut the price!”

The other one countered, “Me too!”

I let them fight it out -- it’s nice to have men fight over you, although I would rather it have been for my beauty, charm and with than for my money. Finally, I picked the one that left earlier. The clerk asked for my backpack.

“I’ll just hold onto it and take it to the bus before we leave,” I reassured him.

“No,” he said. “We have to load the luggage soon so we can be sure to leave on time.”

I looked at him and he stared back. Maybe he was telling the truth. I handed over the pack and took the receipt he offered.

“Be at the bus at 5:15,” he said. “We leave at 5:30.” I realized later that he’d dealt with gringos before and knew just the right things to say.

I should have realized he was pulling my leg. The signs were bad. Lettering on a banner stretched across the exterior of the bus terminal proclaimed “Be on time!” As if.

I walked to the back of the terminal, where there food vendors and tables and chairs. Women picked through their children’s hair, looking for lice. I found an empty table and sat. A fat woman waddled up to me and asked what I wanted.

“Do you have any bottled water?” I asked.


“What about diet Coke?”

“What’s that?” was her answer.

“OK,” I said. “How about a coke? Ice-cold, please.

“We have coke, but we have no ice.”

A warm coke just didn’t have the appeal it otherwise would on a hot day, but I ordered one anyhow. All I really wanted to do was sit at the table while I waited for my bus. I toyed with the coke, taking a few sips of the sticky sweet liquid. Yuck. It was enough to put me off soft drinks forever.

I made a last trip to the toilet. The ladies’ room at the bus station was barely civilized: toilets without seats (where do all those spare seats go, anyhow?), the only lighting provided by candles set in sand in plastic Coke bottles with the tops cut off and do-it-yourself plumbing where you scoop water from a large barrel and throw it in the toilet to flush it. There are times when I’m glad I’m nearsighted.

It was 5:15, time to board the bus. I pushed my way through the crowds and found my bus. A few placid women sat next to their stuffed blankets. Most of them had extra blankets in their arms. I thought nothing of it. After all, we were here in the Amazon basin, melting away. Those blankets were probably their extra luggage. Short, dark men stood beside them. The men carried nothing. I climbed up and found my seat. No one else seemed to be anxious to board. But we had only ten minutes before we were supposed to leave! Then I noticed that they were just now loading the luggage. At 5:37, the other passengers started to board. The driver showed up at 5:45. At 5:55, we pulled out of the terminal and cruised through rush-hour Santa Cruz, stopping every few blocks to pick up people who’d seen our destination sign and decided that they, too, wished to go to Cochabamba.

Despite our maddeningly slow start, the beginning of the trip was fine. My seatmate was, as usual, a man. (Women almost never sat next to me.) He was chatty and kept me distracted from my hunger, which was immense. When I’d boarded the bus at 5:00 p.m., I hadn’t been worried because standard bus practice is to stop for a snack break every hour. Even when the buses wouldn’t make long stops, there were always food vendors throwing stuff up through the windows. But this driver didn’t stop for food, only passengers. They were stuffed in the aisles and I was hungry.

We didn’t stop for supper until eight and I practically dove out my window in search of food. We were at the Bolivian version of a truck stop, which is almost as appealing as its American counterpart. There were the official restaurants and then the do-it-yourself vendors selling meat of unspecified origin but I will note that I don’t remember seeing many cats during my trip.
Contrary to what you might think, Bolivian food isn’t a gourmet cuisine. I scoured the dozens of vendors, seeking something that might be meatless and not fried. (This was my usual strategy, which explains why I ate a lot of tangerines and crackers.) All I found were stacks of sandwiches filled with unidentifiable substances, fried cakes, and more of those half-peeled oranges. I wanted real food that had been heated to a point that the germs would at least be lethargic, if not dead.

I noticed “Vegetable soup” written on the blackboard menu at the official restaurant and sat to wait for a waitress. No one came. I looked around: everyone else had food and I did not, even though I was hungrier and more deserving. Then I noticed a few foodless others giving poker chips to the food bearers. Upon interrogation, they admitted that you placed your order at the counter and were given a chip that in turn you gave to the waitress. I ambled up to the counter and ordered my soup.

I didn’t even bother verifying the non-meat status because there it was written plain as day “Vegetable soup.” I should have known better. My soup arrived and there it was, lurking in the middle of a watery broth: a big chunk of gristle with a little fat thrown in for flavor. I picked around it and ate the droopy cabbage leaf and the two carrots.

The restaurant toilet was the Bolivian fancy desert toilet. (I found out what the no-frills version was like later.) The toilet doesn’t actually flush. Such technology requires sophisticated plumbing methods -- the kind where water is piped in from an outside source. To flush this toilet, I had to fetch water from a barrel 20 yards away from the toilet and carry it back to the toilet. A lot of people skipped this step, I noticed.

I decided I didn’t care to pass an entire night with unbrushed teeth. I looked around the bathroom for a sink, but then realized I didn’t really want to brush my teeth where it smelled so bad. And when you use bottled water to wet your toothbrush, it doesn’t really matter if you have a sink or not. I wanted to get past the clusters of stolid, dark-haired women in their full satin skirts and bowler hats, but they spread out past where the light ended into the shadows. I poured a little of my precious water on my brush and squeezed some toothpaste onto it while they watched me silently. It’s hard to look cool when you’re brushing your teeth and foam is welling up around your mouth. It’s even harder to look cool when you’re trying to spit toothpaste out. I thought I saw the mothers pulling their children close to keep them from the gringa with rabies.

I finished my ablutions and went in search of the bus. It was gone. I looked around and saw my seatmate. “Where’s the bus?” I asked.

“It’s gone,” he explained patiently.

“Is it customary for Bolivian bus drivers to abandon their passengers?” I asked in panic.

“He’ll be back,” he assured me. I wasn’t so sure. After all, the guy did have my valuable backpack in his luggage hold. I sat gingerly on the only bit of cement ledge I could find in the dust and refuse and put my lovely Paraguayan leather daypack between my knees. No one better snatch it from me: it held my toilet paper. Men eyed me curiously but no one said anything to me. I wondered what I would do if the bus didn’t come back. What a miserable fate -- to be stuck somewhere without enough water to flush toilets.

After an hour, the bus returned. They’d had to change a tire that looked as if it were going bad. Prevention is not a Latin concept. It has never crossed the minds of the people who run the bus companies to inspect the buses and do any necessary maintenance before the buses leave the stations. (Leaving the station with a full tank of gas is not a priority either, I discovered.)

With relief, I climbed back up and tried to sleep. I was unsuccessful. Every half hour, we stopped to take on or discharge passengers. This is not a complicated process in normal places, but on this bus, the aisles happened to be filled with sleeping children, so the moving passengers had to step over them. In the aisle next to me was a group of three kids. To step over them was a maneuver that carried a difficulty rating of fourteen. But no one ever said anything -- just climbed all over the people sitting in the seats next to the kids to avoid disturbing sleeping children. As if it were hard for children to sleep.

We had to stop for two drug inspections. All passengers had to get off the bus while Bolivian soldiers clutching submachine guns poked every cranny and inspected all the luggage. If you are caught with the smallest amount of drugs in Bolivia, you are thrown in jail and are not released until the trial, appellate, and supreme courts have found you innocent. You stay in jail the whole time. Bail is not an option. The proceedings can take years. (This law was written under pressure from the U.S. There is a Spanish woman who has been prison in Cochabamba for drug possession for two years already. She’s been found innocent twice and is waiting for the Supreme Court to hear her case. Had she been found guilty, she would have already been deported to Spain.)

We arrived in Cochabamba at 4:30 a.m. At 4:30 a.m., the bus station is not open and the public transportation isn’t running. Unless you already have a place to stay in Cochabamba, you’re stuck. You can’t take a bus to find a hostel and you can’t sit in the station to wait until six, when the local buses start. We weren’t the only bus sitting in the parking lot waiting for the station to open. This situation is not unique to Cochabamba -- I found it in every Bolivian city. I still haven’t figured out the logic behind this strategy. I even interrogated several ticket agents, asking why the buses didn’t leave a little later in the day so they’d arrive after dawn. Or, barring that, why not open the bus station when the buses arrive? No one could give me a satisfactory answer.

The bus driver was kind enough to let me stay on the bus until the terminal opened. I huddled in the corner of the seat, trying to reduce my surface area. I was freezing and finally realized why everyone else had brought blankets with them (they weren’t just fashion accessories, apparently). Cochabamba is in the mountains, and although it has a lovely dry warm climate during the day, at night the temperature plummets.