A gringo's trip to hell

The Unduavi-Yolosa Highway, known as the world's most dangerous road.
The Unduavi-Yolosa Highway, known as the world's most dangerous road. Photo: Craig Pershouse/Lonely Planet

Patrick O'Neil learns about patience, pan-pipes and chaos theory in a three-day traffic jam in the Andes.

Bolivia is a confounded nation; a place where no one is organised, or wants to be. Where protest is the only way of interacting with the state. Where nothing works, you're not sure what food you're eating, buses never leave on time, most highways are unpaved and, frankly, no one even expects anything to go right.

It's the disarray and chaos that make this such a frustrating and wonderful nation, which tests the patience of even the most tolerant, laid-back traveller and drives the uptight insane.

Locals seem to have an innate comprehension of the mysterious manner in which everything gets done in its own time. They always arrive just as a problem delaying their bus is resolved, as though there is a secret messaging system that I'm not aware of - perhaps carrier pigeon.

Historically, it is such a poor nation because every time things were looking up, and it founded a viable industry, one of the surrounding more powerful nations simply sliced off whatever area had proved to be valuable. Whenever it has suited anyone, they have screwed Bolivia.

Bolivians might not have any money but what they do have is a somewhat bewildering revolutionary pride. What they have learned from years of powerless poverty is that even the smallest man - and this is a nation of midgets, literally and metaphorically - can stop anything from working, especially if he enlists a few of his comrades. Roads, services, factories and companies are frozen by strikes, roadblocks and rallies.

Nothing unfolds as planned. Of course, you don't learn these lessons about Bolivia overnight. The best lessons are learned the hard way.

So that afternoon I arrive amid the chaos of the sprawling bus station in Santa Cruz. Unfortunately, not a single ticket remains for the 10 buses leaving that day for Sucre. Within the space of seven breaths, samurai-style, I decide that rather than regress to my grubby hostel, I'm getting out of Santa Cruz no matter what. The screaming ticket-sellers are in luck, because I'm willing to go anywhere.

There seems to be no shortage of tickets to Cochabamba, another town vaguely in the direction of La Paz, the administrative capital, where I'm planning to end up. Some haggling gets me a ticket for 60 bolivianos and a receipt for 50 as I scribble my name on a blank passenger list. The departure time is allegedly in 15 minutes, so I bolt around the station shopping for snacks, fearful that at any moment my bus will tear off.

Somewhere in my guidebook I remember a heavily stressed warning to take ample food and water when embarking on any form of Bolivian transport. I wonder how much is considered ample for a six-hour bus ride and decide a packet of chips and a bottle of water will get me there.

Then, on yet more heavily stressed advice, I make a quick toilet stop. Bolivian buses rarely have toilets and if they do they are rarely working. I later learn it is probably safer to take a bus without a toilet, unless you also pack a gas mask and oxygen tank.

Three hours I wait alone next to that bus. The driver - if he is indeed the driver - keeps grinning and nodding despite not understanding me. I learn an important lesson that day: Bolivian buses do not leave until they are sold out.

Other passengers begin to trickle on and eventually, about an hour later, the bus is full. Then another hour rolls by and I again praise my wisdom in bringing a book, although by then it is becoming a little hard to read - the 40 disgruntled Bolivians aboard have begun screaming "Vamos! Vamos!" and stamping their feet.

We finally pull out at 11pm to loud cheers from the passengers, as if they'd had some sort of victory because the bus has left only three hours late. I've been waiting six hours and I'm in no mood for cheering.

Despite Bolivia being a nation of the diminutive, I find myself seated next to the tallest man in the country - at well over two metres, a giant by any nation's standards. Behind us are two five-year-old boys with a stadium of leg room. The giant and I spend the next hours wrestling for knee space between the cramped seats. It gets ugly when we begin slamming our knees against each other and it might have erupted into violence if I hadn't dosed up on Valium.

Five hours later I awake, in daylight. Inside, the bus is thick with suffocating hot air. I rub the mist from the window and peer out. We're bouncing down a boggy, unsealed mountain road through lush jungle. Clouds hover in the valleys in the drop beside us. Certainly, we're high up but it's unclear exactly how far we will fall if the driver decides to ignore his responsibility to grip the wheel.

Shortly after, the bus grinds to a halt behind a truck piled high with logs on which huddle 20 freezing locals, icicles hanging from their nostrils. The driver barks something in Spanish and most passengers immediately shuffle off to relieve themselves. The promised toilet on the bus doesn't have a handle to open the door.

As I head out for a cigarette, a Bolivian girl with beaded braids and flared jeans asks me for a light. Claudia and her two amigas are communications students who, by some wonder of the Holy Spirit, speak a little English. As we smoke they tell me the mist has turned the road into mud and a bus ahead is bogged, so we'll have to wait until it's sorted out. Indeed, there is a long line of stationary traffic in front of us.

I stride for 15 minutes and still don't get the sense I'm getting close to the bogged bus, or whatever it is. Instead, all I find is an endless line of vehicles and thousands of people spread all over the road, chatting or gazing dolefully at the mountains. Around us, looming green peaks nose out of the clouds, which must have begun to surround us because it's now impossible to see more than 50 metres.

An ebullient little man who seems immensely proud of his English skills barrels up and tells me the bumper-to-bumper buses are waiting because there has been a truck crash ahead. "We wait 10 hours!" he cries enthusiastically.

As I begin the walk back, three cars zip past the buses on the wrong side of the road and all the drivers start screaming. Suddenly everyone is running back for their buses. Where's my bus? But the traffic isn't going anywhere. Instead, the drivers steer their vehicles diagonally across the road to block any further traffic from sneaking through. They form a gridlock, criss-crossing the bog. Grave doubts that I'll ever leave this place begin to surface. I'm going to die in the Andes.

After peeking through the doors of 20 buses, I finally find mine and memorise everything about it. The bus drivers are angry that the small cars get through while they wait, so they stop them, Claudia tells me.

I examine my rations. I have a quarter packet of chips and about three sips of water. With a precious sip I take another Valium. Tempted to turn on my iPod to wind down, I decide I have to ration my batteries and my drugs if I'm going to see this out and I allow myself the pleasures of only one of these at a time.

It turns out lack of tunes isn't a problem. Thirty seconds later the bus driver begins blasting out ear-splitting tecnocumbia, a torturous genre of twanging harp, Oompa-Loompa horns, repetitive choruses, a splash of Mao-era Chinese patriot music and lashings of Andean pan-pipes mixed with the score of a B-grade movie from the '80s. A hex on the man who invented the pan-pipes.

Without the Valium, I'd have considered diving off the road's edge. But, deep down, something in me loves that I'm stuck out here, living this life. Sure, I'm broken-hearted but this is Bolivia. And if Bolivians spend every bus trip stranded on mountain roads, it's good enough for me.

Seven hours pass. We don't move a centimetre. I find myself fingering my last few chips. I have two sips of water left. After that I won't be able to knock myself out with Valium.

My fellow travellers are becoming hungry and desperate. A baby beside me has been screaming for hours but its mother has nothing to feed it. A man gave her an extra blanket when the bus heater died several hours earlier. Only breath is keeping us warm now.

In the following hour a couple of trucks slowly pass, apparently from the other side. Maybe there is hope, or maybe they'd just turned around and given up. This narrow road is the only way to travel by land between Santa Cruz and La Paz, the nation's two biggest cities.

Late in the afternoon I go searching for food. I walk for an hour but fail to reach the accident site. By then I realise it's not thousands but tens of thousands of desperate people hovering around, waiting for Godot. As I pass, most of them point and stare, astounded to find a gringo in the same mire.

Eventually I reach a one-room shack made of broken bricks and tree branches. Around the back, a group of Andean women hover over a steaming pot, like a coven. There seems to be at least five generations present. I gather the soup they're making is three bolivianos a bowl. That's about 50 cents - expensive for Bolivia but they certainly have the market cornered. It makes me wonder whether families like this might conspire to slosh buckets of water over the road to increase the bog, for one traffic jam like this will fund their lives for a year.

I just miss the last scoop of soup. I wait nearly two hours for the next pot, ever weakening. The two men standing closest to the pot are clutching bowls defensively, the woman next to them a jar. I hunt among the rubbish for my own dish but it soon becomes apparent there are only two bowls and, comically, only one spoon. In the end, one of the old women hands me a 20-litre washing bowl, the only vessel in the hut that has curved sides, and I join the others waiting outside.

As I wait I see a man in a sharp leather jacket fossicking around the garden with his son, and then engaging in a hushed conversation with one of the Indian men. The old Indian nods and returns with a chubby grey bunny that looks as if it might be his pet. He carries it curled in his arms almost tenderly, the rabbit's head protruding from his jacket. I realise he is letting the little creature enjoy its last moments, for he then walks over to a stump in the corner of the garden, lays down the bunny and hacks at it with an axe. A minute later he returns, puffing, shows the leather-jacketed man the skinned rabbit and hands it to one of the ancient women. She fries its limbs in a saucepan.

Finally the soup is ready. I manage to get a scoop in my absurdly large bowl as a pack of fellow stranded travellers hover, waiting to seize it from me.

Now I stroll back to the bus with a spring in my step, warmer and happier for the food in my stomach. But night is falling and I sense the road is much more perilous now. Hunger turns otherwise reasonable people into wild animals. I remember the girls telling me it's too dangerous to walk by night and I quicken my step.

Back at the bus Claudia is relieved to see me alive. "We worry for you! Where do you go?"

All night the baby near me screams and the tecnocumbia continues unabated. I gulp a Valium with my last sip of water.

At dawn, three buses roar past. The passengers jump to their feet and giraffe their heads out the windows. Minutes later the truck in front of us moves - only a metre but a wave of applause sweeps through the bus.

Our harassed driver spurs the engine and we lurch forward. But the tyres are bogged. The harder he pumps the accelerator, the deeper we sink. By now all the passengers are on their feet screaming in despair. The old woman at the front is swinging her handbag menacingly.

But as the sun emerges from behind the mountains and the mist melts around us in a second, our tyres somehow find purchase and we slide forward - our first movement in 24 hours.

After another two hours of driving, we're still in the mountains. Here, by the side of the road, are dozens of stalls selling all kinds of snacks and drinks. It seems we had been stuck in the worst possible place while those ahead of us gorged themselves on sweets and soft drinks. We pull over and the entire bus treats itself to a cooked breakfast. The girls and I ensure anyone who doesn't have money is fed. It has been a long time between meals.

Finally grinning, we pull into Cochabamba, 34 hours late. As we file off, most of the Bolivians pat me on the shoulder or nod and smile. We're comrades now; we've suffered together. No longer am I a rich tourist - out there on the mountain track for 40 hours I'd become one of them.

Edited extract from Sideways: Travels With Kafka, Hunter S. & Kerouac by Patrick O'Neil (Viking, $32.95).

FAST FACTS

Getting there

LAN Airlines flies from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, via Auckland; fares from $1420 ex-Melbourne (Qantas to Sydney) and $1320 ex-Sydney. LAN has one-way fares to La Paz via Iquique from $US461 ($717). Or fly to Los Angeles with Qantas for $1440 from Sydney and Melbourne and then onto La Paz with American Airlines for $US1099 return with an aircraft change in Miami. (Fares are low-season return excluding tax.)

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