October 29, 2006

Bolivia-Argentina Anguish
Salta, Argentina

After receiving word from Andy to keep on my path and not worry too much about the immersion heaters, I bought a ticket for an overnight bus headed south out of Sucre, to the Bolivian town of Tarija.

Climbing over my sleeping neighbor, I took the opportunity to get some fresh air and relieve myself around 3:00 in the morning, after our bus pulled over to repair a tire that had blown out—the second flat tire of the evening.

I stood on the silent dirt road, looking at the sky and listening to a nearby river somewhere below me, reflecting on the word backpacker, and how my style of it is very much different than backpacking and camping in the wilderness. In that moment I felt much much like camping by that river in the darkness.

As I can never sleep on buses, I tend to do a lot of thinking on them—especially at night. With nothing to look at, save the stars and the occasional passing vehicle, I usually find myself in deep thought. I do some of my best thinking in an uncomfortable seat, in slightly sleep deprived state.

Listening to mellow music, I think on people met and events experienced, while bringing my thoughts and observations into focus (many of which eventually make their way onto this site). These times also find me remembering parts from my life in the United States, some aspects long since gone. Without fail, a memory of me driving at night always appears in my mind—enjoyable music playing calmly through the speakers, smiling, headlights illuminating the slightest bit of road in an otherwise empty environment; my hand, either shifting the gears of the small coupe I'm in, or gently holding the hand of a girl I care about sitting next to me…

The memory soon fades—it waits patiently for the next late night ride to bring it back to life.

Tarija

I arrived in Tarija a few hours after sunrise, wanting one thing: A shower. Now that I have hair again (and a lot of it), it's gross and painfully unattractive what this mop on my head turns into after just 24 hours. I needed to be clean, and thus, after catching a passing minibus, I set off in search of a room in the center of the city.

Incidentally, I love the way Bolivians call the (mini)bus drivers in their country maestro—it's great. There are so many small differences and nuances about the language from country to country; it's always neat to pick them out.

Pack on my back, warm sun beating down on me, I walked from hotel to hotel without luck. OK—no room available at the first two places I tried—interesting. Then none at the third and fourth—very peculiar. Then nothing left but expensive rooms in every place I went into—what's going on?

I bused back to the bus terminal and looked for dumpy accommodations around station, but everything was full. I started asking around, trying to figure out why I was still hungry and dirty, and lugging this pack around (instead of showered, and fed, with my pack locked in a room).

It would seem that several thousand high school students descended upon the city the day before I arrived (for some sort of fútbol thing or festival), and gobbled up every affordable room in the city. Joy.

I checked the schedule for the buses headed towards the border: Two buses leaving in 11 hours, at around 20:00. Even though I needed a layover in town with a bed, I bought a ticket. Another night of sleepless bus travel would be had.

I still needed to be clean and rid of my pack, so I had to start thinking outside the box, so to say, about what I was going to do. I ended up taking a wonderfully refreshing shower in the grungy terminal restroom, and dropping my pack off at the conveniently available luggage storage—total cost: US$1. With a clean body and fresh clothes, I jumped back on a minibus and proceeded to kill the daylight hours in town.

It's amazing what you'll sit and watch when you've got nothing but time on your hands. That day I watched, for the first time, the mating rituals of pigeons—yes, flying rats.

I sat on the plaza bench, eating an empanada, and laughing to myself at the display. It was like watching men and women in a nightclub.

A pigeon doin' his thing

The male pigeon would see a female, get all fluffed up (making himself as big, shiny, and attractive as possible), waddle over to her, and start struttin' his stuff. He'd do a spin or two in front of her, as if to say yeah, what do you think of that…. nice, huh?, and then start circling, dancing around the stationary bird. Often the female would start walking away, at which point the male would start following her around. I've lost count how many times had I seen this played out in a disco.

Tarija is a cute town, but in many ways I was happy to be moving on. I don't think it had much in the way to keep me stimulated for much more than a day.

Now, about this bus to Villazón, the border town with Argentina. The people planning this schedule must be of the same moronic caliber as those who had me sitting on the border with Bolivia (from Chile) for 1/4 of a day in the middle of the night.

No daylight transport is available to this town, so my only option is to depart in the evening and arrive at 4:00 in the morning. Honestly, what are these people thinking?

So there I am, four-something in the morning, dark and absolutely freezing outside, and I'm asking the driver if there's someplace warm I can wait until daybreak—he shrugs his shoulders. Other people are getting into taxi's, perhaps going home or to a hotel. Down the road I spied the only illuminated building in the area—the ticketing office for another bus company.

In exchange for not receiving hypothermia that morning, I sat in the office and shoveled out more than I think I should have for an onward ticket to Salta, Argentina—a little over US$11. I waited and finished off the novel that I swiped from the hostel in Sucre, a day or two earlier.

The bus was supposed to arrive at 7:30, do the border formality thing, and then proceed onto Salta, some eight hours away. I'm waiting at the door, watching the ever increasing amount of buses and pedestrians scurry about, looking for my transport. Nothing. No office personnel are in sight.

It must be 7:45 when an employee walks in with five British girls and a tall white fella. I watch them get issued tickets, and they tell me they're going on a 10:00 bus. I look at the guy, and say, "where's my bus?" He replies, "It's gone." I'm looking at him, giving him my very unhappy face. Apparently the bus flew past the town without stopping, and went straight to the border. The compassion-less Bolivian tells me that I might be able catch the bus at immigration, or to talk with the sister office on the other side.

I take off down the road, jogging with my backpack on, and catch sight of a bus at the border—probably my bus—speeding off in a cloud of Argentinean dust and dirt just as I get to the frontier.

Still hoping I might be able to catch up with the bus at the office in the border town in front of me, I checked out of Bolivia in a heartbeat. The Argentinean military guard verifying exit stamps—a real dorky looking doofus—is harassing every person crossing the frontier, making fun of their name or appearance—he said I looked like a cat. Still very displeased with the entire waiting since 4AM and the bus blowing past me situation, I tried very hard not to shove my passport down his throat and get ejected from Argentina before I was even stamped in.

The 30 minutes spent at the Argentinean control point made sure there was no hope in catching my bus. I walked the 10 minutes to the bus terminal, reflecting on the verbiage I would use with the people therein.

An older man and younger woman were behind the desk of my bus company. Speaking to the guy (who looked like he was the superior), I told him about the bus, how I was very unhappy, and that I wanted my money back so that I could get a ticket for the idling bus outside that was leaving for Salta in a few minutes.

Lying, he said that bus wasn't going to Salta, and the next bus (from his company) would be at 11:15 (we had jumped ahead an hour when I crossed the border). I was not pleased with this response, and we bickered back and forth for a while before he threw up his hands and turned his back on me—the typical Latin American thing that people do when they're fed up with me (that, or shut a door in my face). Like an ostrich with his head in the sand, if he doesn't see me, I don't exist.

Before disrespecting me by showing me his back, he said the only way I was going to get my money back was if I returned to Bolivia and dealt with the office there.

The girl politely asked if I wanted to change my ticket for the later bus, and since it didn't look like I had much of an option, I agreed, and watched the bus outside speed away.

As I'm sitting in the parking lot, I'm trying hard to remember the last time I had a smooth land crossing into another country. Chile–Bolivia was horrible; Peru–Chile was expensive and chaotic; Ecuador–Peru was overly dangerous; Colombia–Ecuador was freezing and plagued with fixed calculators; and the pure organizational disaster that was Costa Rica–Panama really needs some help from a few consultants. I suppose the last stress free crossing was between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, in the first few days of July (although this was sadly the same day that Germany lost the World Cup). I can also vividly remember Nicaragua refusing to give me an entry stamp into their country as I departed Honduras—bizarre. Maybe I need a rabbit's foot, or something.

Dirty and displeased, I cleaned up in the bathroom. I have no qualms with washing up and shampooing my hair in a bathroom sink. I felt much better afterwards.

The final frontier shocker came when the bus company actually charged me to check and store my backpack under the bus—amazing—that one was a first.

All I need now is a shower (to wash away 60+ hours of sleepless travel), and to sit back in a comfortable chair with a bottle of wine. Thankfully, that will be the last border I cross for some time.

Comments:

Israel and the Palestinian Territories

Dana

November 18th, 2010

OH MY GOD! border crossing sucks!!
i started reading your blog when you where in Israel and the border with Jordan wasn't fun to say the least.. but now i read to get a clue about what's it like there (latin america) as i am starting yet another journey in January..
hopefully i will learn from your experiences..:)
take care and thanks for sharing!

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