Occurred: June 5, 2014
Written by Roxanne and Len
We arrived back into Uyuni, Bolivia at about 5:30 pm to the sound of fireworks (they seem to set off fireworks for all occasions) and many people in the streets. Since our night bus to La Paz, Bolivia wasn’t to leave until 8:00 this left us with 2 hours to grab a bite to eat and get to the bus station. Not wanting to carry our backpacks around while we looked for a restaurant we decided to drop them off at the bus station. Making our way through a group of protestors we found the tour company we were traveling with. When we got there we were quickly informed that we would not have time to eat because of the “riot”. We asked, “What riot?” The clerk pointed to the people outside. We laughed, thinking there were no more than 50 people marching and chanting, how could this be a riot? Within minutes, more and more travelers started to show up. Ok, we thinking to ourselves, everyone, but us, must have read the fine print that states travelers must report in two hours prior to departure if there is a riot. Note to selves: read the fine print on tickets.
By this time it is after 6 pm and they have given us our supper early so we ate it quickly. Everyone seemed to have opinions of what was going on. We only caught bits and pieces as our Spanish is not that great.
Next thing we knew, we were rushed into a waiting taxi. The driver silently and hurriedly drove us to the Uyuni city limits, shut off his headlights and drove literally into the dark down a rough trail. We could not see anything as we drove into the dark. I am not sure how the driver did it. By the time my eyes adjusted to seeing anything, in the dark (which was literally nothing, as other than a little light from the moon, it was pitch dark) we saw silhouettes of people standing beside the silhouette of what looked like a rundown shack of a building. After we got out of the taxi; Len began in digging in his backpack to find his flashlight, I heard an English accented voice saying “…they don’t want us to use any lights, because they don’t want us to be spotted by the protestors…” It was at that point we finally discovered the story of what was going on. The bus drivers were on strike demanding a new bus station and a group of them were gathered around a huge bonfire that was probably only 500 metres from where we were dropped off. We could see the protesters gathered around the fire and were told by the previous passengers who were dropped off just before us, that we also needed to be quiet, so as not to be discovered by the protesters. The taxi drivers did not want to be discovered as aiding the bus company and passengers, so that was part of the reason for killing the headlights at the outskirts of town. They did not want to be seen as aiding the bus company, passengers or crossing a picket line and stirring up a potentially unpredictable situation. We were left wondering what the big deal would be if the strikers spotted us but apparently, no one was really sure how the strikers would react or what they would do if they discovered that passengers were still being taken to board a bus. We were told we had to walk approximately another 45 minutes into the dark, with no light and also be quiet until well out of hearing range. Somewhere further down the highway, was a bus and a bus driver waiting in the dark for us to arrive and board.
Now to make matters worse it was very cold and as we walked into the dark (we think about -15ish degree Celsius), we were not even sure if we were on the right path to find the bus, as the directions we were given were in Spanish and were very vague. We were left wondering what would happen if we did not find the bus, or got to it too late? We saw many headlights approaching us and then turning in a different direction, and were left wondering, were these protesters looking for us, or bus employees trying to find lost passengers? We walked for what seemed like well over an hour before out of nowhere, in the pitch dark just about a hundred metres in front of us, a flashlight appeared, startling us (a lot). It turned out to be a bus company employee guiding us to where the bus was parked and waiting for us. By this point we were freezing, with heart beats racing, as we had not prepared ourselves for this walk in the dark cold night air. We were also at an altitude of 3653 metres above sea level, and during the walk and our previous few days of touring; we all were finding breathing at such a high altitude, very taxing at times. Just to add to “the evening’s fun…” Aurora and I fell and hurt themselves. We had been carrying all our very heavy baggage and walking literally through farm fields, ditches, rocks and other obstacles. A steep sandy ditch took me down and an abandoned spiral piece of wire took Aurora down earlier in the walk. AND…. just to also make our cold, worried, bruised, ankle twisted bodies feel better, we could see that by the time we got to the bus, that the bus company had reconsidered their idea of sending passengers into the dark cold night to walk for an hour into the dark to find a bus. We could see from headlight traffic that they had started running the later departing passengers from the bus station by taxi all the way to the bus on the highway. Sooooo…. we were a group of “…guinna pigs passengers…” who were sent into the dark with vague instructions of what to do and where to go. Obviously a manager at the bus depot realized this “was not a good idea” to handle the situation, and maybe they better start driving the passengers to the bus directly, instead of sending them blindly into the cold dark night to potentially get lost, hurt or completely miss the bus. Probably not a good thing to do to a foreign tourist, wouldn’t you say?
However, we could have easily done without the twisted ankles and cold. What I didn’t tell Len until in were in Lima was that I overheard the bus driver asking a bus employee if we would even be able to make it back to La Paz, because there were rumours that the drivers had set up blockades on the highway, to stop bus traffic. The whole ride back to Puno was spent looking out the window watching and waiting for the protesters.
All of us never have never encountered anything like this before so it was quite an experience, even a bit of an emotional “rush” because we kind of felt like we were escaping a war zone or were secretly crossing a border or a “no man’s land zone”. It is likely that had we left the bus station any later, we probably would have not had this experience of “leaving under the cover of darkness” and you would not be able to read this adventure story.
Now the story should end right, but it does not. It was the probably the first most hellish bus ride of our lives, second only to the original bus ride from La Paz to Uyuni. We do not know how a highway bus of that size and magnitude could ever handle and survive roads as rough as they were. It was the bumpiest, roughest vehicle ride any of us have ever had. We found ourselves s number of times. The only way you could survive the ride was to let your body go limp and let it flow with the movement of the bus, which we are sure covered every one of the 360 degrees our bodies could move from stationary sitting position, which by the way was never once for more than a second, a stationary sitting position. We are not sure how we did it but we left about an hour late and arrived about an hour early in La Paz. We are guessing we arrived early because the management wanted to get the bus into the station ahead of schedule so as to avoid any potential confrontation at the station in La Paz. So ends our story, ah but not quite.
Len is offering a few closing remarks on the little adventure: In the hurried and chaotic way we boarded the bus I (Len) was quite out of routine with how I was handling our bags, and instead of taking the time to properly pack our camera bag and contents into one of our backpacks, I carried it separately in the dark on our journey to board the bus. Once on the bus, and debriefing with other upset passengers, I also neglected to pack it away properly and left it out loose on the bus seat. When Noah decided to finally get to sleep I moved it from the seat to under the seat to get it out of his way, with the full intent of remembering I had put it there and taking it back from under the seat when we got to La Paz. However, as our bags were not tagged and checked as they normally would be due to our abnormal boarding process, I got off the bus in La Paz hurriedly to make sure we got our bags back the storage belly of the bus. In the process, I forgot to get the camera bag from under the seat. By the time we realized we did not have the camera bag we were back at our hotel and checked in. I got a call into the bus depot as quickly as I could from the front desk and to make a long story short the bus company reported that they could not find the camera bag on the bus and that no one had turned it in. To say the least I was very angry about this because Roxanne and Noah were the last passengers off the bus other than bus employees and as far as they know, no one got back onto the bus after they got off. This leaves us with only one conclusion, that a greedy and dishonest bus employee got to go home with our new camera, all it’s accessories including a regular and telephoto lens, an expensive camera case and memory cards of the majority of our photos from May 19th and on, as well as some Regina photos and Aurora’s entire first full memory card from her camera which included both pre-travel and travel photos, as well as a number of blank photo cards. Quite a score for someone. I am still steaming from this loss, as to me it feels as close as I can get to suffering from a personal crime, because our memory cards represent our memories of the trip of a lifetime, and they are gone and the thief, has no clue how offensive his crime was. It is my fault for forgetting it, but I wanted to believe in the goodness and honesty of people, only to be disappointed. What’s ironic is that to date we have returned two lost cell phones and a to their owners oklt to experience no reciprocal actions. I could handle losing a jacket or a camera without a memory card, but I’ve effectively lost weeks of my family’s memories, and good ones too. I will let this go but it will take me some time. Thank you for listening to this rant.
We hope you have enjoyed this latest posting, I think we are now caught up with our postings on South America.