Crossing the Desert

Sun, 06 Apr 2008 18:40:58 +0000

Mat's day off Index Back in La Paz

I was fully prepared for this to be the worst bus journey yet, given that the company I bought the ticket from was just a tiny booth in the crappier section of the bus terminal. But there was something about their logo that gave them an aura of reliability. Can't put my finger on what, exactly...

In the event, the bus was reasonably comfortable, although they did manage to double book my seat, so I had to move to a new place, which wasn't a window seat. Pity. The guy I was next to was a bit chatty, and not the least bit deterred by our mutual incomprehension. We discussed the relative levels of economic development between Australia, the USA, Chile and Bolivia, which you might be surprised to learn can be done with a combination of the single word "deneiro" and mime.

And then we were off, straight into the middle of utter parched wasteland.

I'm certainly getting plenty to stare at out the windows on this holiday. I found it particularly bizarre when the mountain in the distance appears to be completely nude of vegetation, but still has snow on top. You'd think the spring melt would allow something to grow on the lower slopes, but apparently not.

As we climbed higher, I started to feel worryingly light-headed. At first I thought it was motion sickness due to my lack of window, but of course it was the altitude. I was coming from sea-level, and by the time we got to the Bolivian border we were almost 4.5km up (thanks, GPS). So it should have been no surprise. But I was in quite a bad way as we crossed the border - I was seriously worried that I was going to faint, I had pins and needles in my hands, and I saw spots whenever I stood up. It would have been pretty embarrassing to faint halfway through completing immigration formalities. But I soldiered through. By the time we got back down to 4000m, I was fine. Still, although the altitude wasn't doing me any favours, the border certainly is a spectacular spot, with snowy mountains looming large over the tiny border post.

They even served us lunch on this bus, stopping at a roadside cafe to do so. And very unappetising it was too: mashed potato and a single nondescript piece of chicken. I ate it anyway. I had noticed a party of three gringo girls ("gringas"? "gringitas"?) who didn't seem quite prepared for the rigors of South American travel: at least, not when they carefully tore their last tissue into two so that two of them could use the toilet. Always carry a full pack of tissues, man. Anyway, sure enough at lunch the cry went up, "vegetariano?" Sigh. There's no vegetarian option in South America, dude. So I spent the remainder of the trip feeling superior to them, which was fun.

Gradually, vegetation reasserted itself over the landscape, and herds of llamas were in evidence. Still pretty arid territory, but llamas are nothing if not tough.

Unfortunately, once again, there was televisual entertainment on offer, at the customary blow-your-eardrums volume. They started with "I Am Legend", which I tried my best to ignore. Hasn't that exact same movie been made about five times in the last couple of years? Then they moved on to "Sweeney Todd". Usually I'm keen to see Jonny Depp in anything, but I couldn't help noticing that this was rated "R" for "graphic bloody violence". Um, no, I'll plug in my headphones and pull my cap down over my eyes, thanks. Fortunately, that seemed to die halfway through. Unfortunately, it was replaced by some outstandingly bad latin music. So the headphones stayed plugged in.

Eventually, two hours late, sweaty, exhausted, light-headed and sore, I arrived in La Paz, which was looking more spectacular than ever:

I'm staying in the Loki hostel where I didn't enjoy myself last time, on the "better the devil you know" principle. But I'm now in a smaller dorm, and the people seem quiet. I also don't have an early bus to catch tomorrow, for a change. In fact, being Sunday again, there's not much to do at all. So I think I'll spend the time acclimatising and recovering.

Mat's day off Index Back in La Paz