We left Salta at one in the morning on our first grungy bus headed for the poorest country in South America, Bolivia. The bus ride was a short seven hour sleep. I had to urinate very badly but after opening the bathroom door and smelling the vile stench of puke I decided to simply forget about the issue all together. I woke up before Sarah and pulled back the curtain to watch the sun slowly rise over the mountains. The view looked like a perfect post card with beautiful pink and purple colours bouncing off the mountain peaks.
We got off the bus in La Quiaca Argentina and I was instantly hit by my first real dose of culture shock. Stepping off the bus I was surrounded by women wearing traditional Bolivian clothing. The people here look far more indigenous then their European neighbors in Argentina. All women dress the exact same. I imagine the fashion magazines here (if they exist) are rather boring. The typical Bolivian attire for woman; long braids down their back, head topped with a large brimmed hat, puffy colourful skirts with knee socks and little leather sandals. They carry their babies and groceries on their backs with the help of linen weaves made into little sacks that wrap around their shouldars. It is fun to watch little baby heads poking out behind the necks of mothers as they walk up and down the streets. We grabbed a taxi from the bus station to the border for pennies. We had to quickly get our passport stamped to prove we were indeed leaving the country and then we had to walk over a border bridge to the small town of Villazon. After stepping over the bridge we literally walked into a different world.
The customs officials are so unorganized here. We found a little office where we were told we had to get a photocopy of our passport before getting our passport stamped. We were told to just walk down the street a block or two until we reached a little hole in the wall with a photocopier. It was ridiculously stupid as we could have easily continued walking into the city and avoided stamping our passport. They didn´t even have police escorting us to the photocopy shop. I kept thinking, “why don’t they have a photocopier in the office?” We stood in line at the photocopy hole in the wall as tourists from all over the world yammered on about how ridiculous the immigration procedure was in Bolivia. We walked back to the office and got our passport stamped, thank goodness.
We met two girls, Martina from Ireland and Sashi from Australia who would end up being our companions for the next few days. We walked with them into town arriving at the bus station where we looked for buses heading for the two hour trip to Tupiza. We didn´t have any Bolivian currency yet so we asked the man at the bus kiosk if we could pay with Argentine pesos. We had a few of those between the four of us but it seemed like it would be easier to just use USD. When we showed him the American currency he threw up his hands as if we had tried to offer him poison. We walked to our bus which featured a front dash window cracked from one side to the other. The man who took our tickets asked for some Boliviaries (everyone wants money for nothing here). We told him we had nothing but offered him a Canadian Loonie. Once he realized we were Canadian his face developed into a lovely inviting smile. We hopped on the bus which wasn´t as ghetto as it could have been. At least the windows at our seats weren´t smashed. As our bus took off for Tupiza a hilarious young man started ranting up and down the aisle of the bus. “I am just a man trying to get through life. I am selling 100% chocolate bars. Looking is completely free but please do not touch unless you want to buy these delicious treats. I will tell you jokes to entertain you!¨ He proceeded to hassle the bus with his mediocre chocolate bars and told a few rather horrible jokes which made our first bus ride in Bolivia rather entertaining.
Staring out the window we were surrounded by the colours of olive green, white and yellow. My teeth chattered the entire way as I felt as though I was sitting inside the spin cycle of a washing machine. The roads here are considered the worst in the world. None of the roads are paved. I grabbed onto Sarah´s arm a few times as our bus bounded across the Bolivian desert. Looking at the landscape outside I could have sworn I was in Afghanistan or Iraq. Our bus wheeled around sharp turns on the side of mountain cliffs. We had heard several stories about buses actually going over cliffs where several people were killed (including an English girl who got in a car crash on her way to La Paz and actually flew through the windshield and died instantly). I have to admit I was a bit terrified. We passed through small little towns with little houses made of mud and bricks. I instantly felt as though I was on some sort of National Geographic documentary or traveling with Amnesty International to deliver aid to these people. One of the most terrifying parts of the journey was when our bus drove directly through a small crevice between two mountains. We barely scraped through and we had to close our eyes and do a few hail Mary´s in order to keep our cool.
Our bus arrived in the small town of Tupiza where we hopped out and grabbed our filthy dirty bags. The entire city is built on a flat dust bowl. I felt like I needed a mask as clouds of dust surrounded us as we walked around the small town trying to find a hostel. I saw several women at the bus station selling soup out of small little garbage bags, ghetto lunch. A lady grabbed us as we exited the bus station and we soon found out she worked for the HI hostel in town where we intended on staying the night. She walked us to the hostel where we would end up paying 4 USD a night for a private double room.
We walked into the town center to get to the bank before it closed for the day. They don´t have any ATM´s here so we had to take a VISA cash advance which proved to be rather expensive. We went to a small little restaurant called California for lunch where I gobbled up two doughnuts and drank a one liter bottle of local beer and a lasagna for a grand total of four dollars. We sat in this little restaurant watching corny Mexican pop music videos and chatting about the adventurous four day tour we would be taking the following morning. We had some interesting conversations about how small the people here are. I feel like a giant for the first time in my life. The tallest men here are smaller than me, and I´m a short little midget at home! A rather odd girl from NYC sat down at our table just as we were about to leave. She told us her name was Wolf. She had changed her name to Wolf after leaving NYC (and she told us she never wished to return), she was officially a wack job.
We left the restaurant and walked around the town for an hour or so. We walked up and down several market streets where you could buy everything from Lama wool hats to dollar store trinkets and a plethora of fireworks. Tupiza´s claim to fame is that it is the location where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid were shot. The place is hot, dry and dusty but the locals seem to forget all of this as they go about their business. An odd little part of town was the small square just off the street where teenagers were playing on outdoor pool tables.
The four of us searched for a nice place to eat dinner and ended up stopping at a barren Italian restaurant with a twelve page menu. The restaurant had several murals of fresh pizza and wood burning ovens. The place looked great. We soon found out that they only had one pasta sauce, no pizza, no meat, no hamburgers, no Bolivian wine. Basically they had nothing to offer. Martina from Ireland flipped out at the table as she could not handle this third world idiocy (as she so finely put it). She got up from the table ever so rudely and walked down the street to eat pizza at a hole in the wall by herself. I have never seen someone get so frustrated. I ended up ordering chocolate banana crepes, Sarah had an omelet with fries and Sashi had a tuna fish sandwich. Sashi spilled the beans on Martina and we soon found out she is the biggest Debby Downer on earth. We don´t even understand why she came to Bolivia as she has ridiculous expectations. Sashi said she has been following her around Argentina and she is driving her entirely mad. We met up with Martina after our dinner and walked with her to the main square where we stopped at a little bakery and chewed on a few dried out brownies.
Sitting in the square in the pitch black was sort of thrilling. Young kids were lighting fireworks all over the square which sounded like demolition bombing. A ridiculous man drove around the square for an hour or so with a huge speaker on his hood blaring really irritating Bolivian pop music. What an ambiance, bombs and tacky beats. Before bed we hopped in our first notorious Bolivian shower. We had been told plenty about them. If you were lucky enough to find a hostel or hotel with hot water you were likely to get electrocuted. They don´t actually have hot water heaters here. Cold water passes through pipes above you and accumulates in a small little bowl at the top of the ceiling. As you stare up at the shower head you can see an assortment of electrical wires that feed into the bowl from the wall. Basically they heat up the water by passing electricity through cold water. Even showering here is a death defying adventure! Fortunately we were not shocked this time around! We headed to bed early as our four day excursion left at 9am the next morning. It took us about an hour to get to bed as the racket outside was rambunctious to say the least. Drunken men singing in the distance, the sound of bomb blasting firecrackers and dogs a plenty howling into the full moon. Bolivia is out of this world, crazy.