Thursday, October 25, 2012

In which I ask the right questions to take the bus

I tried to be more scientific about the bus I chose for this trip. Several bus companies made the journey to La Paz and I interrogated each. “Do you have heat?” I asked one clerk.
“Yes!” he said enthusiastically.
“Do you have a toilet on board?”
“Do you have a VCR?”
“No.” He looked dejected.
The clerk at the next booth spoke up. “We have heat; we have toilets; we have movies!”
“Great!” I said. “What kind of movies do you show?”
“What kind do you like?” he asked coyly.
“Oh, no,” I said. “You tell me first. If I tell you what kind I like, you’ll say, ‘That’s what we have!’”
“Well, I couldn’t really say,” he said.
“Do you have action movies with a lot of violence?”
He brightened. “Yes, we do!”
“Great! That’s the kind of movie I hate!”
“Wait! No, we don’t have that kind!”           
“Ha!” I said. “Now you say so!” I returned to the bus without the VCR, bought my ticket, and went downstairs to wait.
The Potosí bus terminal had a clever method for loading luggage. Most places had men hauling the luggage up a ladder to the top of the bus, but in Potosí someone had actually planned. The bus offices were on the second floor and had patios that opened to the concourse. A company’s bus would park in the gate corresponding to the office and the workers would merely carry the luggage from the patio to the top of the bus -- no ladders necessary.
I’d smartened up by the time I got to La Paz: I’d called for reservations and warned the guy I’d be arriving at 5:00 a.m. I just didn’t know that I’d be arriving bathed in sweat. The other buses had been so cold that I was absolutely unprepared for the sweltering temperatures provided by El Dorado, Cia. When we first pulled out of Sucre, I was excited that the bus wasn’t freezing. But within an hour, I was pulling frantically at the window to open it a little. It was so hot inside the bus that the windows were steaming, which meant that I couldn’t see the stars.
I did have my chance to see them when we stopped for our 11:30 p.m. supper break at a lonely café huddling on the enormous plain. The aroma of grilled guinea pig (or llama or whatever the catch of the day was) didn’t appeal to me, so I wandered to the back in search of the bathroom. Someone figured out I wasn’t from there and asked what I sought. “The bathroom,” I replied.
“Behind the café,” he told me.
I left the din of the café, which, despite the apparent lack of electricity in the area, had electric lights and a television blaring “Guardia de la Bahía.” “Guardia de la Bahía” means “Guards of the Bay.” The first time I heard the title, I thought was a National Geographic program but then I learned it was “Baywatch.” “Baywatch” and “Beverly Hills 90210” are two of the most popular shows in Latin America. It’s hard to defend assertions that the U.S. lacks culture when these two shows are among our biggest exports.
I stepped into the enormous cold night and walked shivering to the back of the building, looking for the outline of an outhouse. Twenty feet from the café, I was out of range of the TV and there was no sound. Millions of stars flickered overhead. I couldn’t see an outhouse. But dappling the ground  were little dark shadows. In the darkness cast by the café crouched even larger shadows. As I watched, some of them unfolded and drifted away. It was then that I understood that the toilet facilities were wherever I wanted them to be.