Friday, November 30, 2012

Bolivia, an unrequited love: Part 2

For the first part of the Bolivia Saga, read this first.

The overnight bus ride included dinner served on the bus, but we plugged in our earphones and waved the unappetizing service away, except for the bottled water and chocolate bars. We woke up at 2:30 AM in Oruro, when the bus attendant (like a flight attendant) announced there were mechanical problems, and we’d have to switch busses. It turned out, we were swapping busses with a group heading to La Paz from Uyuni, and we strongly suspect that ‘mechanical problems’ happen every night, and they simply don’t want to take the nice new bus on the very rough, dirt roads when the pavement ends at Oruro. We got on a more cramped, dingy bus, where David’s knees pressed fairly tightly against the rigid plastic of the fully reclined seat in front of him, and drove across severe washboard for 6 hours. It was like being on a really bad, but really powerful massaging bed of the Magic Fingers ilk. At some point during the day or night (we’re losing track!) David’s right eye became very bloodshot, and started to crust over, giving us both the fear of conjunctivitis, and Lana’s sunglasses broke, just before we were going to one of the brightest spots on the planet.

A sample of the magic vibrating bus—it felt much stronger than it looks.

We arrived in Uyuni at 8:30 in the morning, and staggered to the finest hotel in town, which cost a whopping US $43 a night—we were not going with the cheap option here, in a town that has no pavement and tumbleweeds blowing in the streets. The Ritz, however, it was not. The advertised “hot shower” is provided by two insulated, but otherwise bare, wires that come out of a hole in the ceiling, and enter the shower head itself from opposite sides, powered by a 50 amp, 220 volt breaker on the wall. We were wary.  But more on that later.  First order of business was to see about getting the next train out of town (more on that in a minute).

First, however, we discussed what our options were (or Lana listed options, and David tried to look coherent). There are basically two towns that you can do the Salar tours from: Uyuni (at the north end) and Tupiza (at the south). Uyuni is closer to La Paz, and seems to be the place where tours either start and end, or in the case of tours that start in Tupiza, just end. Our plan had always been to start in Uyuni. The options we could see that were left were just two: find a day tour for the next day, or leave ASAP. We knew how horrible the bus ride had been thus far, and we also knew that if we did a day tour of the Salar de Uyuni, we would have to take another bus on that road south to Tupiza the following day.

There was another option, however. There is a train that runs from Oruro (where we changed busses in the middle of the night) to Villazon, which is the town that borders Argentina, stopping in Uyuni on the way. The train is not necessarily faster or cheaper, but it is more comfortable, and from what we heard the view was better. It runs four times a week—two fast trains (Expresso del Sur) and two slow trains (Wara Wara del Sur). The train operates on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, although it runs overnight, so which day they mean by that schedule gets a little gray. Anyway we rolled into town on Sunday morning. There was going to be a train on Sunday night (2 am Mon. morning, actually) and theoretically Tuesday, although my math again makes that 2am Wednesday morning. Want to guess when the census was? That’s right, Wednesday. We’d been assured in La Paz that the train would run on Tuesday, and that the train station was open from 8-12 and 2-5 on Sunday, and we could buy our ticket for Tuesday there. So we knew we were going to buy that ticket to get out of Dodge Uyuni on Sunday, it was just a question of whether or not that would be the Sunday/Monday or Tuesday/Wednesday train.

So we headed down to the train station only to find it locked up. In reviewing the limited signage, we discovered that the train station was open on Sundays. For an hour. From 11 to noon. It was 9:00 am. This much effort was too much for David, so he made his way back to the hotel (apparently it was more challenging than Lana realized because David just disclosed he almost got lost on the way back—it was a straight shot three blocks from the train station) and Lana ventured on into town to see about some one day tours and a pair of sunglasses to replace the ones that broke. Oh, the mystery crud on the table in this picture? That’s the table in the best hotel in town.
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Anyway, so when Lana ventured into the first travel agency she saw, she thought she might check with a local authority about the train schedule for the week rather than the travel agent in La Paz that wasn’t right about the time when the station was open. I’m sure the ensuing conversation could be translated humorously a la David Sedaris, but since only herself and the knitting grandma at the travel agency know for sure how it went down, she’ll just give you the summary: I established that the train was running tonight. Then I ventured to ask whether it would be running on Tuesday. Tren a Villazon martes? No. Solo esta noche? Si. Any other questions about day tours of the Uyuni kind of fled at that point. We were getting out of Dodge Uyuni on the (you guessed it) slow Wara-Wara del Sur train, esta noche. That is, if there were any seats left, and if I could buy two of them today between the hours of 11 and 12.

From there Lana walked around a bit, bought two extremely cheap pairs of sunglasses (this was a very good thing in hindsight) and a gatorade for her feverish husband. The whole episode was upsetting, yes, but she was glad to have some direction and purpose again. Our choices had been to either wait out the census and go on the Salar de Uyuni tour after it was over and the tours started running again, or to just abandon that idea and head for the border now. The new set of goals were simple—to get out of Bolivia as soon as possible, hopefully before Wednesday. If we could get on that train, we’d be one step closer to that goal.

While waiting for the magic hour, Lana used the hotel’s stunningly slow (best hotel in town!) wifi access to research places to stay in the nearest town of any size on the other side of the border—Salta.  She also researched flights from Salta to Buenos Aires, because let’s face it:  David was a zombie who had stuff oozing out of one eye, no voice, a horrible cough, and a kleenex addiction. We were going to have to find a place to park him for a while, and soon. If he needed a doctor by the time we got to Salta, we would go there. Otherwise we would fly to Buenos Aires from Salta, and he could rest up there. Sure, it wouldn’t be cheap. But it would be done, with no more bus travel for some time. That is, after we got there. We would still need to travel for another 9 hours to get from the border of Argentina to Salta. But one step at a time. We still had to get out of Dodge Uyuni.
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Lana nervously queued up at the train station with David’s passport but not his presence, waiting with another 5 or so people until they opened the ticket office, 15 minutes or so late (hey, that’s early Bolivian time-wise). Then she looked at the price list and realized she didn’t have enough cash for two tickets, so sprinted to the nearest ATM, withdrew another 400 Bolivianos, sprinted back, hopped from foot to foot while hoping she could get back her place in “line” (who are we kidding--no one lines up in Bolivia). She managed to buy two “Ejecutivo” or first class tickets on the train leaving at 2:30 am. Here’s a travel tip: if you’re in a country where first class travel seems like a reasonable price, ALWAYS travel that way. First class doesn’t count for a whole lot in Bolivia, but we saw the second class cars when the train pulled up, and we’re here to tell you it’s not the place to save your pennies.

Flush with her success, Lana decided a shower was in order, despite her misgivings about the ‘widow maker’ flash heater shower head, as we’ve heard it referred to.  However, despite following the detailed ‘how to get hot water’ instructions, it only issued bone-chilling, cold water.  Let’s break this one down.  We’d just journeyed for eleven hours on a bus that shook like an unbalanced washing machine for six of those hours, in the hopes that we could see the one thing that we’d come to Bolivia to see. We’d just found  out that wasn’t going to happen, and that we were going to have to get up at 2am to take another 10 hour overnight journey via train (followed by a border crossing and another 9 hour bus trip) before we were going to have another chance to shower.  David was in and out of consciousness with a fever, cough, and possible conjunctivitis, and therefore absolutely incapable of helping with any of this. We’d paid $43 for a room that we weren’t going to spend the entire night in, with the knowledge that we’d be able to shower, nap, and travel plan by internet.  Lana was beyond the point of napping, her mind racing on to the next hotel she had to book and airline tickets thereafter, so napping was out.  The internet connection was painfully slow and prone to intermittent drops in service, so planning was out. And now in the ice-cold shower, the final leg of the table was being sawed out from under her sanity. 

Cue naked sobbing meltdown in the shower. 

The zombie-husband was insufficiently consoling and sympathetic. 

It took a good hour, but eventually Lana did rebound on her own, at which point she took a baby-wipe shower and we went down to what was billed as “the best restaurant/pizzeria in town,” which happened to be in the lobby of the hotel (this is how you can tell you’ve booked the best room in town, by the way).  Dinner was ok, the cookie and proper PG Tips tea after was better, and by the time we left David had rose from the dead enough to mention that the shower didn’t work to the guy at the front desk of the hotel.  After what can only be described as some MacGuyver-like repairs, the shower was once again in business.  Lana decided that the shower was dead to her, but David did venture in.  He described the experience as someone pouring water from an electric kettle through a colander. 

Eventually a hotel was booked in Salta, and plane tickets from there to Buenos Aires were purchased, and inquiries were made about potential accommodations there as well.  We set three alarms for 1:30 am, and tried to get some sleep.  At midnight, Lana woke up realizing that the front door probably locked at a certain point, and that we might not, in fact, be able to get out of our hotel (finest hotel in town!) to get to the train station.  She tiptoed down to investigate using her headlamp as the entire hotel was pitch black.  She did discover that she was able to get out, but in doing so, awoke the front desk staff, who was sleeping in a room just off the lobby.  Much can be said in praise of Lana’s midnight explicatory Spanish on the subject of egress from the hotel in order to catch the middle-of-the-night train.  Promises were made to let us out if we rang the bell.  These proved to be true, and we managed to make it to the train station in plenty of time.

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While waiting for the train we started chatting with a guy who had bike panniers with him, and he told us about his travels.  He’s Dutch, and has been traveling via his bike, from Vancouver to Los Angeles, and then flying to South America, traveling down from Peru, through Bolivia and Argentina to Patagonia.  All told his trip would take him seven months.  It was lovely to learn about his trip, and trade stories about our journeys through South America, and his reflections about traveling the west coast of America. 

We also watched what appeared to be the train station dog, vigilantly looking under each car, we assume checking for rats?  He was certainly working, and he was familiar with the train conductors, and vice versa.
Train station dog on duty

The train arrived, relatively on time, and we got on in the dark. The ejecutivo cars were relatively empty, and quiet, and we curled up with heavy blankets and pillows against the chilly single pane windows and drifted off to sleep.  It had been a long, crazy, messed up day.

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The day broke to find us in traveling through the most beautiful countryside.  It reminded us very much of the American southwest, with red rock canyons and cactus.  Bolivia is beautiful, if capricious.  Our feelings for it were mixed.  There is a certain amount of difficulty that you should expect when traveling in a developing nation, and for the most part we rolled with it.  But the census really squatted in the middle of our time in Bolivia and stared us down like a game of chicken.  We knew there would be snags somewhere in our year of travel, and we specifically wondered if a Salar de Uyuni tour would be possible in the time we had available.  But we didn’t expect it to snowball like it did, or that we’d have to make a dash for the border.  We did better in Bolivia than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, at least.  We did get to Villazon before the census started, and crossed the bridge into Argentina uneventfully (we’ll save that for another post).  David’s eye cleared up completely, and his fever stopped eventually.  Lana did finally get a hot shower once we got to Salta, Argentina. 

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And so we bid a fond farewell to beautiful Bolivia. We really wanted to love you, Bolivia. You just didn't love us back.  However, our Bolivian visa is valid for 5 years; we may try again.  Hasta luego!