Since the start of the pandemic, I haven’t got a lot of writing done. Besides finishing a master’s degree last summer, most of my time and energy have gone on homeschooling and on trying not to go too stir-crazy. The one thing I did get done, however, is a project I started over a decade ago, in another life when I was training to be an anthropologist: my book on a community of indigenous people in southeastern lowland Bolivia, which is published this March by Lexington Books.
So in celebration, here is a (slightly modified) post from a now-defunct blog I set up to keep my friends and family updated on my exploits while I was on fieldwork in Bolivia from 2006-8, which tells one of my favourite episodes from that time.
In June 2006, when I had just started my fieldwork, I travelled from Santa Cruz de la Sierra to Sucre to go to a congress of historians, anthropologists, and related creatures, where my then-supervisor and his co-authors were to present their latest book. The following is the story of how I got there, namely, by bus.
I had gone to the bus station with a friend who lived in Santa Cruz the day before I was due to travel to buy a ticket, so I left my hotel with a feeling of calm. The taxi driver, when told I was headed for Sucre, told me that I would have to watch out with those ‘Collas’, which is what they call people from the highlands in Santa Cruz, but that didn’t worry me, as highland people were just as likely to say the same thing about the Cruceños, whom they call ‘Cambas’.
I got to the bus station, dropped off my mochila (rucksack) at the luggage collection point, and went looking for my flota, the Bolivian name for big, long-distance buses (as opposed to the ‘micros’ that serve as public transport in the cities). The bus was due to leave at 4:30pm, and it soon appeared in the station: a big blue thing with reclining seats, perfect for the sixteen-or-so-hour journey to Sucre. I got on without the driver paying me any attention and looked for the seat with my number. There was someone sitting in it, but, having been told that these things tended to happen, I didn’t think much about it and simply grabbed another seat in the back. The journey started with me looking out the window and feeling smug at how easy everything had turned out to be.
We passed the usual landscape of shops in the inner city, then the dirt roads, then even scruffier dirt roads and suburban streets with stalls selling all kinds of things, stray dogs, and crowds of ever scruffier-looking people. Every once in a while, the bus stopped to pick up new passengers; at one point, an Andean-looking couple got on and shooed me out of my seat, as their tickets corresponded to the numbers of the seats where I was sitting. I got up, resolved to in turn chase away the intruder who had taken up my seat. I went up to him and mumbled something about how I thought that he was sitting in my seat, and showed him my ticket as proof. He looked at his own ticket, then at mine, and then, comprehension dawning on his face, he told me: ‘You’re on the wrong bus. You’re meant to be going with Copacabana; this is a different company.’
Oh. My. God.
What the hell was I to do now? My luggage was happily approaching Sucre on the other bus, plus, by that time, I didn’t have a clue where I was, and how I should ever make it to Sucre now. Fortunately, there was a man selling sausages and other snacks on the bus, who negotiated with the driver, and what the two helpful souls came up with was this: they would let me out at the next stop, and there I could wait for my proper bus, which, they assured me, would just be along in a few minutes. So, under the staring eyes of the entire bus, they dropped me off at a road tax collection point, where my presence caused quite a stir among the water vendors and the toll collection staff.
So there I was, in the middle of a lot of lush greenery, with some locals I could hardly understand, with herds of cows trotting past me, and wondering whether I would ever get to see my luggage or, for that matter, my supervisor again. The boy in the toll point closest to me took a bit of a shine to me and kept running over to where I was sitting to chat in between cars. He asked me whether I liked Bolivia, how long I was there for, what I was doing, whether I was married, and when I negated the latter, he gave me his phone number and made me promise that I would call him once I was back in Santa Cruz. (As it happened, I never did.)
Meanwhile, the water vendors kept looking out for approaching buses, with each one sending them running towards me with excited cries of ‘Flota! Flota!’ I asked in a passing bus about the 4:30 Copacabana service to Sucre, and they told me it was just behind them and would be there within minutes.
Half an hour later I was still waiting, when finally two Copacabana buses arrived at once. I approached the first one, whose driver told me, ‘No, this is not your one, it’s the one behind us.’ So I went up to the second one, relieved at the prospect of finally being able to get out of wherever I was — just to have this driver, too, tell me, ‘This is not your bus. Yours is coming behind us, it’ll be here soon.’
At this point, I wasn’t actually panicking too much yet, as there was really not much I could do but wait. So wait I did — another half hour or more, until it was past 7pm and getting dark.
Another bus approached the toll point, and when the water vendors asked its driver and his companions about the 4:30 Copacabana, they broke out into great excitement and told me that I would have to come with them, as the Copacabana one was gone, and there wasn’t going to be another one until the next morning. ‘They’ll have a stop at a restaurant further ahead so the passengers can have their dinner,’ they told me. ‘We’ll catch them up there!’
So I continued my journey in another wrong bus, sitting on a pile of blankets right behind the driver’s seat. Quite a smooth ride, I have to say, and a lot better than sitting in a proper seat in the back. The driver, Marcos, and his friends, one called Felipe and a young guy whose name I didn’t catch, seemed to be decent enough people, despite the fact that they slowed down the bus every time they saw a nice-looking girl at the side of the road to whistle at her. Felipe told me that there were in fact twelve bus companies going from Santa Cruz to Sucre, and even though I wasn’t able to verify this number, I did find out later that there were certainly a lot more than one. Oh well. You live and learn.
We passed suburban shanty towns, then rural shanty towns, until there was nothing outside but dark wilderness. The roads were getting worse and worse too, with Marcos having to navigate around large holes, all the while avoiding the deep drops on the side of the road. At some rural village, they dropped off Felipe and continued the journey without him. In between taking gulps from a plastic bottle containing some kind of high-percentage alcohol, the remaining two started to ask me all the usual questions: Where was I from? Did I like Bolivia? -The Bolivians? -Bolivian music? How long would I stay? Was I married? Why not?
After about a couple of hours, we reached the presumed resting spot of the Copacabana bus, whose existence I was beginning to doubt: a tiny, run-down place in the middle of nowhere, which seemed to consist of one street with a petrol station, a restaurant, and a hotel, the latter being the place where the Copacabana passengers were meant to be eating. Marcos and the other guy shooed me out (not before charging me twenty bolivianos for taking me, which I assumed they were going to divide between them), telling me that my bus was just there, and that it would take me to Sucre.
There was indeed a Copacabana bus waiting for its passengers, and I hopefully went up to the driver and showed him my ticket. He had a look, then told me that this wasn’t the bus, but my one (which, apparently, was the last one of the night) was just on its way, and it would definitely take me. So I sat on the curb next to the hotel for a while, wondering whether this other bus was going to turn up, and whether it would actually finally want me. There wasn’t much to watch, apart from more stray dogs, a stray cat, and some youngsters driving up and down the road in front of the hotel on motorbikes and bicycles, seemingly looking for girls to impress.
After a while, another Copacabana bus pulled up. I approached the driver, resolved not to let this one get away: if they didn’t want to take me, I was going to beg, to tell them that I would pay the entire fare again; I just wanted to get out of that place, which seemed to me by far worse than the last one (and, moreover, a lot further away from Santa Cruz, or, as far as I knew, from anywhere). The driver had a look at my ticket and told me that this wasn’t my bus. But then, just as I was going to break out in (hopefully effective) tears, the incredible happened: he took my ticket back, looked at it again, and told me, ‘In fact — this IS your bus, but you were meant to get on in Santa Cruz — how did you ever end up here?’ I neither had the energy nor the Spanish to explain the whole episode to him, so I merely told him that it was a long story. He looked at me and nodded, then told me, ‘Right. Just get on when all the other passengers do.’ After all that hassle, I almost couldn’t believe it (and it seemed that there could have been a lot less hassle had I just waited at the toll point and not gone with ‘helpful’ Marcos and Felipe).
From then on, everything went smoothly. My bus, it turned out, was filled with a bunch of nice students from Santa Cruz University headed for the same congress in Sucre as I, and they talked with me until two flat tyres on the bus had been fixed and we could go on. I then spent the rest of the journey sleeping, trying to sleep, or pretending to sleep, while the students were singing and playing games in the back of the bus. After another flat-tyre break, we finally reached Sucre — only four hours later than planned. I had another small scare in the bus station when my mochila failed to turn up, but that was luckily resolved very quickly, as it turned out that the mochila had just come on a different bus and had in fact arrived before me.
So against all odds, I finally arrived at the conference late, but happy.