Bolivian families, fondlers and carcasses; caught between dream and reality at thirteen thousand feet
The older driver crouched and crawled under the bus. He grabbed his partner’s legs and tugged. The younger driver slid out. His cheeks were puffed out and he looked up at his partner, wide-eyes. The axle had dropped half an inch short of crushing his skull.
I looked around at all the relieved faces, and saw two guys looking over. They had the lighter skin, longer hair and a rigidly proud way of holding themselves that told me they were not Bolivian, but Argentinian.
‘Wow,’ one of them mouthed to me. They walked over.
‘Argentinos?’ I asked.
‘Sí. Ingles?’ I nodded. ‘They keep speaking Quechua, but I think they say to get back on the bus. They say they call for a replacement bus.’
We chatted to the Argentinians as we got back on the coach. They were the only other foreigners, and probably the only others who spoke a word of English.
Not everyone got back on the coach. Many of the Bolivians dragged their luggage off the coach and to the side of the road, and stuck their thumbs out to hitch a ride. Whole families, small kids and old grandmas, piled into the backs of pickup trucks, crushed in on top of livestock and luggage. It was 2am. Even on the bus it was freezing. On the back of a truck, with the biting mountain air, the cold must have been unbearable. How much of a rush were they in?
And yet more and more of them got off the coach to hitchhike. Bolivians, especially in the more rural mountainous areas, speak mainly in Quechua (the old language of the Inca empire). They use very few words to communicate. Much of their message is conveyed in complete silence. No one had spoken it, but they all seemed to have a common understanding of what was going on. They clearly knew something we didn’t. I looked around for help or understanding. There was hardly anyone left on the bus. A man and woman were just taking their luggage from the overhead space to go and hitch a ride, and I asked them in broken Spanish why everyone was getting off. They looked at each other, pretending not to understand me, said something to me in Quechua, and got off the coach. Further back the Argentinians were stood up, looking equally confused.
‘It’s not coming, is it,’ I said.
They shook their heads and we all got off the coach.
This was the only road through to the next city, Oruro, so buses or trucks came through every fifteen or twenty minutes. But they would each only take two or three people, and never us.
Eventually it was just us, the Argentinians, and one last Bolivian family of two adults and four kids. It had been a long time since anything had come round the corner. It was about 4am and my bones ached from the cold. I chain smoked in the vain hope it would warm me up. The Argentinians offered us some maté, which helped a little, not a lot.
I heard a rumbling, and a huge white coach came round the corner. The Bolivian family waved it down and we all ran over. We were completely ignored in favour of the family and we once again slinked back off to the side of the road. The Bolivian family were told to climb into the luggage compartment. A pitch black hole above the back wheels and below the passengers. As they climbed in, led flat, the father turned round and whistled at us.
‘Es el último,’ he said.
‘It is the last,’ said the Argentinians.
‘The last bus,’ said me and Gabriel.
I don’t know how he knew, but Bolivians seem to have a sixth sense for this sort of thing.
After a lot of begging, pleading, and thanks mainly to the Argentinians, the driver eventually let us on the bus.
We were lying on the floor in the isle. Gabriel was in front of me. I was trying desperately to get to sleep. To get some rest. I was sliding about on the floor. I was back in that space between dream and reality. A hand was on my knee. Gripping it firmly and sliding up my leg. I slapped it. It retreated. Gabriel can be pretty weird. I started dozing off again. The hand was back, again sliding up my leg. Firm.
‘Fuck off Gabe.’
‘Get off my leg man, I’m knackered, really need some sleep.’
‘I’m not on your leg.’
‘I swear, I’m not.’
Dream or reality? I slapped the hand hard.
‘Fuck off! Fuck off!’ I said.
The hand retreated. I looked up but couldn’t see a thing on the pitch black bus. The hand didn’t come back, but I never did get any sleep.
When we were dropped in Oruro we were told we had to pay 60 bolivianos — for the pleasure of lying on the floor and being groped by a stranger in the dark. After a long argument, we eventually handed over 30 (still an extortionate price) and the driver put it straight in his back pocket.
As I was putting my wallet away and mulling over our misfortune, the drivers were opening the rear luggage compartment. Out slid the Bolivian family. In slid two muscular Bolivian men. Behind them, a third man wheeled up and laid out four large wooden pallets. Panting and grunting came from the men inside. Out of the darkness, falling onto the first wooden panel with a thud, came a fully skinned cow carcass, red and pink and purple. Three more followed, each thudding onto the wooden pallets below.
Maybe 30 bolivianos and a little groping wasn’t too bad after all. On the cold, winding, mountainous roads, better a mystery fondler than a skinned carcass rolling up against you — Only in Bolivia would you have to make that concession.