When 12 Means 20

I had initially thought I would go straight from La Paz to Uyuni. Like most plans, this quickly changed after I met some people who had traveled through Bolivia and said Sucre was worth a stop.

I found myself on a bus to Sucre on Monday night and went to sleep ready to wake up to some sunshine and a new city to explore twelve hours later.

I woke up at around 4am to a stopped bus. The frozen window next to me made it hard to see what was going on, but I could make out another bus beside me. I figured we were at some sort of bus depot and tried to fight the cold back to an uneasy sleep.

I woke again close to 6am to the rustling of bags around me. A few passengers were gathering their things and leaving. I watched one father go to the front of the bus, wipe the windows clear, and puzzle at the scene before him. I couldn’t see from my seat so I was left in the dark.

I decided to do what makes sense in most situations: follow the crowd. I grabbed my pack and descended from the bus and found that we were stopped in a long fleet of other buses with people streaming past. I found someone who I knew spoke English and asked her what was going on. She told me there was some sort of blockade up ahead by miners in the area. We found the bus driver and he said the blockade could be broken in minutes or hours but he just didn’t know.

At that moment I began to take more notice of the people walking past us. They were all heading to the other side of the blockade in the hope that there were buses available to continue their trips. It was freezing, I had little hope that there would be movement with the blockade soon, and I was up for a stroll so I started walking.

Along the way I picked up a few friends and oranges. The friends were from America and Canada and had the same reasoning for walking as I did. The oranges were a gift: a man spilled his bag of fruit and I stopped to help pick them up.

At the heart of a small town that was the miners’ staging ground, I came across large rocks blocking passage and haggard men huddled around large fires. We passed to the other side of the blockade and found people walking the opposite direction; it was Mother’s Day, after all, and people had places to be. The group of gringos I was with decided our best bet was to walk past the crowds of people and convince a passing car to turn around and drive us to the nearest town.

As cars passed us, drivers made a circular motion with their hands signaling they were turning around, then passed us again stuffed with people. Our plan appeared to not be the best one. A Bolivian was almost successful in getting a pastry truck to give us all a ride, but he promised he’d pick us up on the return only to pass us full of people.

I made friends with the Bolivian man - Saol - but the other gringos decided to turn around. The haze behind us in the morning was apocalyptic with the stretch of people with their luggage, the stopped lines of buses, and the burning fires of protesters in the distance. I much preferred the open road ahead and my new friend’s ability to get somewhere after he told me he had a one year old at home - Abigail - and wanted to celebrate the day with his wife. So, we walked. And walked.

While walking, I learned that he was a mechanic from Sucre. We discussed traveling, Bolivia and my future at law school. Miles later, Saol and I stopped at the outskirts of a pueblito (a small town) to rest for a moment. Suddenly, some sort of transport truck appeared to be stopping and a chorus of voices encouraged us to hop in. I climbed up to see a horde of people stowed in the bed of the truck. Women were huddled at the floor, sitting, wrapped in blankets. Men were holding on to whatever they could.

Shouts of “¡Dentro, dentro!” filled my ears. It became clear that they wanted me to descend into the pit, but I couldn’t see anywhere to put my feet. One older man told me to put my feet on the side and shimmy to the middle of the bed using the center rail. With some dexterity I moved into position and asked for someone to take my backpack. After managing to drop down without hurting anyone, I gave thanks to all amidst a few cheers.

I spent the next three hours standing up, one hand on my jacket thrown over the center rail and the other with a tentative hold on one side. With some jolts in the road we all quickly made friends as we grabbed onto whatever was closest. It became apparent that I was the only gringo among the 50 odd people riding and everyone got a kick out of my attempts at Spanish. The landscape cast around us was beautiful and it felt like another great example of “frameless travel” that I’ve written about before on The Orange Sky.

Nearing the end of the journey, a few of the men made guesses at how close we were and then we all laughed at the bad answers as the time passed. Finally, we made it to Potosi, dropped off near the bus terminal. Saol walked with me, pointed out a good company to get to Sucre and we wished each other well.

A few hours later I made it to Sucre without incident. In the waning light I decided to walk to my hostel from the station and was rewarded with a spray painted message on a quiet street reading “Education is a right, not a commodity”. The fight lives everywhere.

Finally at my destination hours after I expected, I collapsed gratefully in my bed. A 12 hour journey had grown into 20. Still, it was an adventure worth experiencing. I felt that there was a sense of a temporary community. As bus passengers, walkers, and then hitchhikers there was a common thread woven through us all. Before, we were isolated by our separate buses and separate seats. Maybe for a few moments I wasn’t that gringo passing through Bolivia unnoticed but a part of a community surrounding a blockade 100 kilometers from Potosi. Maybe not. At the very least, it was a reminder that things don’t always go as planned and the only way to deal is to pick up your pack and make your own luck.