Bus Down in Bolivia

Blogging is narcissistic, but I wanted to share this story:

6am after a ten-hour bus ride. The driver’s assistant stepped through the door separating the passengers from the driver and announced that protestors had taken over the main road in a town called El Alto, which sits on a hill on the outskirts of La Paz.  I had seen El Alto during my walking tour of La Paz, but only from a distance of several miles from the 17th story of a five-star hotel in the center of town.  It looks like El Porvenir, the impoverished community in which I work on the outskirts of Trujillo, Peru.  I don’t like the expression “run-down” to describe these communities because the phrase implies something that was once built and is now crumbling.  El Porvenir, and I think El Alto, are communities that never reach complete construction, so they can’t be classified as run-down.  Instead, they are marked by half-built houses with bricks stacked in uneven, incomplete rows, and sheets of metal to serve as temporary roofs, or sometimes no roof at all.  And of course, painted on every brick wall in town is some sort of slogan from a politician who will be elected and will ultimately do little to help the community advance.  Either they can’t or they won’t.  I’m not sure.

The driver’s assistant said that we were about one hour away from our destination, the office of an expensive (relatively, of course) bus line that travels directly from La Paz to Uyuni and back.  He said we would try to take an alternate route since it would be impossible to drive through the endless crowd of locals who had taken over the main street that leads to La Paz.  He didn’t seem confident that this would be a real solution, and I soon discovered why.

Just like El Porvenir, El Alto has basically no infrastructure.  It’s a forgotten town, people say.  The government has forgotten to build a street through much of the community, leaving nothing but rocky, dusty paths.  Unlike El Porvenir, however, El Alto is not situated in a desert.  Rather, it rains in this part of Bolivia, and pretty frequently.  This means instead of dirt roads, El Alto is largely made up of mud roads.

As our self-proclaimed luxury bus bumped up and down El Alto, making impossibly tight turns and backing up for uncomfortably long stretches of time, the passengers started to become nervous.  And they were right.  All of a sudden, the bus jerked to the side and stopped at a steep, right-leaning slant.  Its tires were stuck in about three feet of mud.  It could not move.  We were all now stuck in El Alto, about one hour outside of La Paz.

The driver’s assistant reappeared through the glass door and announced that the bus could not continue.  The tourists aboard the bus panicked.  What could we do then?  Walk, he answered.  Everybody off!  So we got off the bus.  Some good-humored tourists snapped photos of the slanted, trapped vehicle.  Others shouted at the driver’s assistant, as if it is his fault that there is no paved road in that part of town.

As we swung our gigantic travel backpacks onto our backs, I noticed my fellow travelers stepping daintily and sometimes slipping in the mud that was all around us.  I also noticed local children making their way to school in simple but fresh-looking uniforms, also walking through the mud.  Some pushed bicycles through it.  I saw one girl, maybe ten years old, jump from one dry heap of dirt to another to avoid an especially murky puddle.  Some paused to giggle at us.

Then we started walking, all forty-or-so of us, following the driver’s assistant into La Paz.  After about ten minutes, he told us to stop and he scampered off toward a local, gesturing in different directions.

“He’s asking for directions?” someone gasped.

Of course he is! I thought.  How could he possibly know his way around here?  What reason does he or anyone else have to visit a forgotten town?

While we waited, I noticed my fellow travelers slathering sunscreen onto their pale arms and faces.  The driver’s assistant returned.  We had been walking the wrong way, so we changed direction and began again.  After maybe thirty minutes, people wanted a break.  Their backpacks were heavy and they were tired.  I waited and watched indigenous Bolivian women walk past us balancing bowler hats squarely on their heads, babies strapped to their backs in brightly-colored cloths.

“Do you know what they are protesting?” I asked the driver’s assistant.

“Transportation,” he said, “Lack of transportation to this part of La Paz.”

Two clearly frustrated young girls looked at each other and their jaws dropped.  One forced an ironic laugh and clapped her hands. “Transportation!” she laughed, then turned to her friend and said, “Can you believe it? That’s it!  We should have just run them over!”

OK.  I get the irony.  I understand her frustration, but are you effing kidding me?  I felt my heart start to speed up in the way it does when I feel angry and nervous that I might say something impulsive that I will later regret.  I moved two paces away from the girls in an attempt at self-control, but couldn’t help myself.  I moved back and said, “But you have to understand.  We’re dealing with this for one morning and it’s frustrating.  They deal with this shit every day of their lives!” I used the word “shit” to expel some of the anger that was boiling inside of me.

“I understand that,” the girl said in an almost rehearsed, calm tone, “but they live here.  We’re just backpacking through.”

I’m not sure what her point was.  That they should be used to it or something? That it’s reasonable for us to be mad because we have no connection to the community, and therefore shouldn’t have to deal with its problems?  No!  This is precisely why I chose to leave the academic environment from which I came.  And isn’t this why people backpack through developing countries in the first place?  To involve themselves, to experience firsthand the lifestyles into which so many are born without any choice.  Travel can’t be just about collecting patches or taking photographs, or wearing T-shirts boasting your survival of Death Road.  Travel, as cliche as it sounds, is supposed to help you grow, to make you more sensitive to real world issues, to open your mind and maybe even inspire you to take action.  I truly believe that.

I considered the girl a lost cause and walked ahead toward the front of the group.  We continued on.  When we finally reached a paved road, it was crowded with women in colorful, traditional skirts, men in dirty work clothes, and even children kicking around soccer balls.  The driver’s assistant told us to wait while he went ahead to make sure it was safe.  Many welcomed this as an opportunity to take off their heavy backpacks for a bit.  One older Bolivian woman who was on the bus with her husband distributed Skittles to each of us, which was a nice gesture and struck a particularly sentimental chord with me due to recent events in the United States that probably need no further explanation.  The driver’s assistant returned and said we could make our way through the crowd, but everyone should be especially careful of their belongings.  Fair enough.  I live in Trujillo.  I already had my passport and credit card tucked away in a money belt under my clothes, not to mention the memory card from my camera in my bra.  But I really didn’t think the protestors meant us any harm.  They were mad at their government, and we all could see why.

As we walked through, the locals stared at us.  Not many tourists in El Alto.  But they smiled (laughed maybe?) at the group of forty who had now walked about three miles in the cold yet blaring sun, equipped with humorously large backpacks.  I said buenos dias to a group of women sitting in the road, and the older woman who shared her skittles shot me a look and said sternly, “Don’t talk to them.”  I think she was afraid of upsetting them, but she was wrong.  A car tried to pass through, and the protestors shouted and whistled.  This was the point of their protest.  Transportation.  We were walking.  We were one of them, experiencing their daily struggle of no public transportation into their part of town.  One woman  participating in the protest greeted me, and when I smiled and said, “Buenos dias,” she took my hand into her wrinkly little hands and said, “Dios bendiga el viajero.”  God bless the traveler.

At a certain point, I thought I saw a professional video camera making its way through the crowd, but it was just a black, rolled-up sleeping bag jutting out at an awkward angle from the top of a fellow traveler’s backpack.  There were no cameras there.  No reporters.  No press at all.  There weren’t even police officers.  No wonder they block the roads.  How else can they make their voices heard?  How can they get people to pay attention to their forgotten town?

As I continued toward the end of the blockade, now well past 10am, I saw graffiti on a wall that said, Viva el primer presidente indigena.  (Long live the first indigenous president.) I wonder if he is even aware of the protest at all.