Friday, September 18, 2009

Learning to drive in La Paz

It was 4:30am and I was wide awake again and didn’t get back to sleep until 6:30. I guess I shouldn’t have gone to bed at 9:30pm again (teehee whoops). But getting out of bed was much easier when we did finally get up – particularly because there was heat in our room and the bathroom was just a short trip across the hall. We took full advantage of the endless hot water shower and then treated ourselves to breakfast at the hostel. But in a comedic miscommunication Adrian ended up with 3 eggs rather than three pieces of toast when he used his sh-sh-sh sound and motioned to his plate. I was just grateful that it wasn’t me who ended up with all those eggs. We checked out and then headed down the hill one last time catch the bus to La Paz.

There were plenty of tourist shuttles trying to tempt us onboard but we bypassed them. Not only did the tourist shuttles not leave until the afternoon but they were triple the price of the public bus. So we followed the locals to the square where a small bus was waiting for us. We were two of just four gringos onboard but despite all the jokes about Bolivian public transport, we were disappointed to discover the rest of the passengers were human not feathered or four-legged.

The bus ride was just another bus ride with one exception. To get to La Paz from Copacabana, all traffic has to cross Lake Titicaca. There was no bridge but there was a ferry, you can call it that. At a narrow straight, the bus stopped and let us off and then continued on to a floating raft that looked like it was barely able to float (photo above). I was glad that we didn’t have to join it until I saw how we were getting across. There was a small passenger boat much like the one we had taken yesterday to get off the Isla del Sol. Impossibly it looked even less sea-worthy although, unlike the Isla del Sol boats, I did notice the presence of two life jackets that could be fought over by the 20 passengers in case of emergency. We all piled onboard and then waited and waited so more until a cranky and impatient old man, yelled at the gabbing captains that we were cold and weren’t getting any prettier which got the attention of one of the captains. He jumped onboard and started the boat, smoking while hanging over the motor that smelled of leaking petrol. I noticed that there were no fire extinguishers.

But in the end, we made it to the other side without incident. The only problem was we had no clue where to catch out bus. Neither did the two other gringos. Tomas and Chris were also on their way to La Paz and to the same hostel we were going to. We decided to stick together in the square and hope that with the four of us gringos grouped together and standing heads and shoulders above the rest of the crowd (literaly, Bolivians are tiny) that if we couldn’t find us the bus would at least be able to find us. They offered us some of their Andean popcorn. I’d seen the giant plastic bags of it for sale around Copacabana for mere cents but hadn’t tried it yet. Each piece was the size of Styrofoam popcorn but it tasted like Cracker Jacks. I passed on more after two pieces because unlike Cracker jacks there was no prize for finishing this stuff. Our plan to stick together worked as the bus honked at us and we turned in the direction of the sound to discover it parked a block away on a side street and the driver motioning to us.

We had all heard that the bus trip to La Paz could take up to 6 hours but we managed to get to the city limits in just 2.5 hours. I have a feeling the tourist shuttle companies try to scare folks by claiming the local bus takes 6 hours because our driver certainly wasn’t speeding or driving like a Colombian. Well not a first anyway – as we snaked through La Paz, his driving did take on a certain flair. At first La Paz seemed to be a big stretch of flatness with lots of wide (although crowded) streets. This was a surprise because I had read that La Paz was hilly. Then the bus made a turn and I realized that we had been in the suburbs. The bus was now on the edge of a precipice that was home to La Paz. The city lined a canyon-like gash in the flat altiplano and to get to the bottom now required the bus to begin an almost completely vertical descent.

Unfortunately for the driver, his normal route was blocked by a huge parade that was winding its way up the side of the canyon. Every street he turned onto had a roadblock at the end of it. Finally, he approached a road block but with no parade in sight he ignored the police motioning him to sop and turned down the parade route in an attempt to cross town. Eventually he was stopped by traffic and the police surrounded the bus. They forced their way on the bus and demanded to see his license while asking him which part of “stop” and “do not enter” did he not understand. They ordered him out of the bus but there were no guns and a quick look at their holsters revealed that they were only armed with pepper spray anyway. However, the driver didn’t want to get out. You see we were on what felt like a completely vertical street and he didn’t want to take his foot off the brakes. With his hands up in the air, he tried to explain as his ayudante scurried outside to put some blocks under the wheels of the bus. He tried to argue about his responsibility to his passengers but now the cops were questioning the roadworthiness of his vehicle and were threatening to impound the bus. Now the driver got a little worried and he tried to get out the bus to show the cops that there was nothing wrong with the bus – of course, now the bus lurched forward and sitting in the front seat, we noticed that the road we were on turned sharply right just 30 feet ahead but the bus was now heading straight and over a cliff. Luckily before we all went plummeting to our deaths, the driver jumped back into his seat ad pumped the brakes to stop us. The police continued to yell at the driver until a senior police office came on board. He was about to say something to the driver when he saw Adrian and I sitting in the front row. Instead, he told the driver to be more careful, not to do that again and sent him on his way. Being a gringo has its privileges.

Now that we were free, the ayudante brought the blocks back on the bus and the driver carefully navigated the sharp turn away from the cliff and continued down into La Paz. He pulled into a bus station across from the cemetery and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was home to the passengers of other not so lucky buses. And then of course both Adrian and I couldn’t stop singing Morrisey’s song “Another sunny day so I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates.” Tomas and Chris joined us and we decided to share a taxi. It was only a two dollar ride but it was a long ride as the driver had to take multiple detours to snake around the parade route. He told us that all weekend there was a big fiesta but he wasn’t sure for what since there seemed to be a fiesta every weekend. It took 20 minutes to go just 2 kilometres but he didn’t raise his price when we arrived at the Loki hostel and more importantly he got us there without any more drama.

The hostel is probably the first big hostel we’ve stayed at. It used to be a hotel but was now part of the Loki chain that dotted Peru and Bolivia. It was huge and young and a bit of a party hotel. We were given ID bracelets to wear at check-in, the same as those that are worn at resorts and told about the bar upstairs, the oxygen bar on the roof and the free wifi and computers. I’m pretty sure we were at least 10 years older than every other guests. But it was oddly comforting, perhaps because half the staff have Mohawks which make me feel at home until I remember that I haven’t had funky hair in 15 years. My how time flies. Yet, it was very efficient and they were even able to tell me that our courier package had arrived. However, they had had to turn it away because the courier company needed to collect $150 in duty. Gulp. I guess we’ll sort that out on Monday.

Instead we spent the rest of the day catching up on the usual – laundry photo uploads and blogging – before having the lasagne dinner at the hostel. The kids staying at the hostel had other ideas and we could hear them partying well into the morning while we were sleeping. Our introduction to Bolivian driving had been all the excitement we needed for our first day in La Paz.

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