Journal: A Classic Travel Horror Story

Everyone has their bus/train/travel horror stories, so I guess here’s mine. It’s not as bad as some I’ve read, but still my worst experience these last 10 months…

The ride from Potosi to La Paz is supposed to take 8 hours, and buses do it in about 9. Bolivia is a country where I always look for the most expensive and touristy mode of travel, because otherwise conditions aren’t great, and you have a better chance at safety. At the same time, it’s really difficult to find reviews of the carriers online, so when I saw one that had two mentions of good experiences (El Dorado), I went straight to the counter and was happy to see that I could get a last-minute window seat in business class.

I read for an hour to await departure, dropped off my bag (nearly forgetting to grab my blanket first!) and then went outside to take a look. The bus was in decent shape but not the best at the station; in fact, I immediately noticed that both doors on the passengers side were a bit broken (one wouldn’t open, the other wouldn’t close fully). Uh oh. With below-freezing temperatures at night, you don’t really want the breeze to come through.

Taking a look at the front of the bus, I saw that the bus was “tattooed” with something less-than reassuring: a creepy Joker from the batman series, holding a few playing cards. Not what I was hoping to see.

2016-04-22 20.38.57

Finally, I boarded the bus and found my seat. I’d forgotten, when I bought my ticket, that the last row in business has significantly less recline, due to the wall behind the seats. I kicked myself for not remembering, since there had been other window seats available.

We finally started moving about 15 minutes late, and I immediately smelled exhaust in the cabin. It slowly dawned on me that the exhaust system was broken. I went upstairs to what you could call economy, and was pleasantly surprised that the smell was not there. However, going up the stairs I tripped on a mother and her baby, and realized that the bus was overbooked and I could not reseat myself. Classic Bolivia. Resigned, I headed back downstairs to my seat, and asked my seatmate if he smelled it too. He didn’t. Cars in Bolivia make 2008-2015 diesel VWs smell like plug-in electric vehicles, so I suppose the locals on the bus are completely used to it. I tried to cover my face with my blanket, which made it slightly more bearable.

About 30 minutes later, the bus slowed and stopped in traffic in the middle of the highway. I know protests in Bolivia are said to last 12-36 hours, and this was obviously the worst possible bus ride for them to blockade the road, from my perspective. We waited an hour or so, moving a couple of feet every 10 minutes, and saw some opposing traffic come by. I had no idea what was going on. I finally stood up and went to the driver’s compartment, to see his perspective. Nothing to see here either. Finally, after about 2 hours of waiting, it was our turn to go: a major bridge was under repair, and we had to single-track over a very sketchy-looking stone bridge that apparently used to be the official route. I held my breath as our bus passed over the bridge, with two other huge trucks putting strain on it at the same time. We made it through without a problem.

Reaching paved, two-lane road again, the driver started weaving from one lane to the other and back. He was not drunk or distracted, but I had no idea what he was doing either. In retrospect, I think the engine was overheating, so he was trying to ascend the mountain more slowly. After another hour of watching the open road, I went back to my seat/bed.

I managed to fall asleep for two-hour blocks at a time, but the broken doors and general condition of the bus means it felt colder inside than it probably was outside. I had an oversized blanket, which I managed to turn into a sleeping bag, and shuddered at the idea of what would’ve happened if I had forgotten the blanket in my suitcase.

Around 8am, 11 hours after departure, we arrived in La Paz. I ran out of the bus that had been poisoning me for that entire time, and drunk the fresh air. Luckily, my suitcase made it too. However, from a combination of the exhaust, the altitude, and maybe food poisoning from eating street food before boarding, I felt nauseous, and noticed my digestive system had given up. I also realized that I did not mark on the map where the hostel was, and that there was no wifi at this station. I approached a few other groups of backpackers, which were ridiculously easy to spot both on physical appearance as well as clothing (and the backpacks). I found two that were going to a hostel right by the station, and tagged along.

I was sick for the rest of the day, but luckily had a 4-bed dorm and bathroom to myself, so I didn’t need to bother anyone else. I thought about going to a hospital or clinic to get an IV drip, since I could hold down any liquids, but couldn’t find the effort to actually get out of bed. By 6pm, the nausea was gone and my stomach calmed, and I was on the road to recovery…

It’s frustrating how, despite relatively good preparation, something like this still happened. Luckily, the next bus rides would be shorter and leaving Bolivia, so I hopefully would not need to experience that again.

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