Entering Bolivia was suitably ridiculous. Arriving overland from Peru, it was late at night when we crossed the border and were therefore too tired to question why the immigration officer who checked our passports was wearing a monkey mask.
It was our third month in South America and it was to be the maddest one due, I reckon, to the altitude – you can’t live in the highest capital city in the world (with apologies to Tibetans) without becoming a little bit bonkers.
It also took its toll on us.
Bolivia is a naturally beautiful country full of extreme and diverse landscapes with equally fascinating people. I could never establish whether it was shyness or disinterest that made them not be curious in foreign tourists who were invading the far reaching crevices of their amazing country, but they certainly kept themselves to themselves.
An entire bus load of them did express a faint interest in me the time I got the driver to stop our bus a few hours into the journey when in the middle of a desert of sorts, as I was convinced my backpack hadn’t made it onto the roof along with everyone else’s luggage. It was his own fault. He had suddenly turned round from the wheel and asked if my backpack were green and looked slightly disappointed when I told him it wasn’t.
The last thing I wanted to do was reach our destination only to find that my belongings hadn’t so I made him get up on the roof to check. All the other passengers were locals and looked totally bemused as I shouted up to the driver in extremely broken Spanish what he should be looking for.
The ‘windows’ of the bus (not that there was any glass) had faces pressed up against them scrutinising my every instruction, which included getting my fellow traveller Rachael to look up precise words in the dictionary in order to give a more accurate description.
Had I not felt so tense at the thought of being parted from all my worldly goods, I’d have still been entertained at the incongruous sight of the women wearing huge, brightly coloured polyester ra-ra skirts and bowler hats which usually brought a smile to my face. But I was concentrating on whether or not the ‘red’ backpack he told me he could see was in fact mine. I couldn’t help but be a bit London about the whole thing and had asked Rachael to look up the word for ‘cerise’, as that was closer to the colour of my bag.
It was at that point that everyone began to groan and I realised I’d have to take his word for it and trust that I’d be reunited with my stuff – which, indeed, I later was.
When in La Paz, we hopped in a taxi and took tips from the driver who wanted us to be aware of a number of scams involving fake cabs. He went to great lengths to explain how we should look out for cars which weren’t painted with the black and yellow chequered logo as they weren’t legal and, at the very least, we’d be charged through the nose and at worst, maybe have our bags stolen out of the boot by an accomplice.
We thanked him and waved him off, noticing immediately that he had no logo.
If only it were as easy as spotting a logo. On a subsequent occasion we climbed into a car at night and noticed half way into the trip that the steering wheel was loosely sitting in the dashboard on the left of the car but it had clearly originally been on the right. Where it had once been was now home to a massive hole which opened straight onto the engine.
Another time we went with a man who we thought was just helping to flag down a cab for us and we expected to give him a small tip for the privilege. When we were shown to a car and he jumped into the driving seat, however, we called a halt to it. The reason being that he only had one arm and sadly it was on the opposite side from anything he needed to use, such as the gear stick or indicators.
He wasn’t bothered by it but it struck us as a tad risky.
The long haul buses were a constant source of amusement – if not because of the highly inappropriate videos that blared out (be they of the soft porn or extreme violence variety) then from the passengers themselves.
The drivers would allow people to travel who were on there simply to do business. With a captive audience at their disposal, random men, women or children would suddenly stand up from their seats and work their way down the aisle trying to sell whatever wares they specialised in. It ranged from kitchen equipment to medication. After one particularly persuasive sales pitch we eventually declined to buy pills that the seller convinced us would cure cancer.
All around us people were buying up these things by the bag load.
Sometimes they had no actual products and would rely only on their god-given talent – or what they thought was talent. One teenage girl, with absolutely no warning at all made her way to the front of the bus and started belting out a song in possibly the most tuneless voice I’ve ever heard and the locals seemed to agree with me. Rachael and I were the only non-Bolivians onboard and we were the only ones who weren’t openly laughing. The girl battled on with her caterwauling in the face of a bus load of people who were incapacitated with laughter, tears rolling down their cheeks, banging the sides of their seats and pointing. She made it through to the end of the song and then defiantly walked down the aisle hopeful for tips.
None was forthcoming.
Spurred on by the girl’s confidence, I decided I’d give it a go myself and, from the comfort of my seat, I gave as good a rendition of Robbie Williams’ Angels as I possibly could, but I didn’t get quite the same reaction as the girl had.
In fact, I got no reaction whatsoever. The Bolivians had no idea what to do and so did nothing at all.
I didn’t dare go down the aisle with my hand out.
Travel in Bolivia was never short of madness.
More on another occasion.