I am writing this in a bus around an hours drive east of Santa Cruz. It is 9am, 12 hours after we left the city. We were due in Quijarro, on the Brazilian border at 6am. Instead we are in the middle of a blockade that stretches for kilometres on either side for us. There are hundreds of buses, and many more trucks parked at various angles on the side, and across the road, with most of the occupants aimlessly wondering around the road with a look of despair.
But let me go back a few days. Two days earlier, we had walked 20 minutes from our hostel in the middle of Santa Cruz to the third ring of the city. The city is made up of 9 rings, expanding from the middle, with an extra ring added as the city grows. It is the largest city in Bolivia, and it is a sprawling, heaving mass of people, cars and humidity. It is also extremely dangerous, with a lot of the problems stemming from drugs and the combination it makes with the close proximity to the Brazilian border.
We were taken out on our first night by Mauricio and Claudia, residents of the city and a relative of a good friend from home. They drove us around parts of the city, explaining the issues and stressing the importance of safety. We have been to some cities in South America where someone might try the birdshit scam, or pickpocket you, but in Santa Cruz there is a very good chance of being robbed at gunpoint if you find yourself in the wrong area, especially outside the comfort of the first ring at night. There are 4x4's driving around the city full of armed police patrolling the city.
Knowing that it is a bit dodgy at night, we walk to the bus terminal mid afternoon, crossing numerous roads without traffic lights. There are not many intersections in the city with traffic lights, it comes down to driver beeping their horn prior to the intersection, & then having a big pair of balls and driving through partially blindly. Crossing as a pedestrian is not much easier, especially when crossing an 8 lane hwy with roundabouts.
We make it to the bus terminal, which is also the train station. There are sorts of street vendors selling anything from food, thongs made from car tyres, to toilet paper. There are also many beggars, some who pretend to be be blind, but don't realise that we saw them close their eyes a few seconds prior to reaching them. Inside the terminal, it is huge with almost a 100 bus companies to chose from, but not all having services to Quijarro. After a brief search & compare we approach one company & the guy behind the counter speaks a little english, which is always a bonus for us. The company has a number of services to Quijarro, with the top range being a a cama class (the seat lies almost like a bed) with air conditioning, a toilet and tea and coffee. We are shown a picture of the bus and it looks like the ones we were getting in Argentina, and therefore a dramatic improvement from the previous ones we had caught in Bolivia.We were also told by the guy, & from other locals that the blockades that had been in action for more then a week will be finished by Friday night. So we purchase tickets.We walk back to our hostel, this time braving peak hour, which was an adrenalin junkies dream. Relieved at getting back to the city in one piece, and proud of purchasing our cama deluxe bus tickets we go for a beer.
On the Friday we again check the news and talk to some locals, & it seems that the blockades are over, despite there still being numerous protests in the city, They protest here for things like more money to new schools, always a protest in Bolivia. So we are ready to commence our 40 hour journey, comprising of 3 separate buses to get to the Pantanal in Brazil. Arriving at the terminal it is a hive of activity, it seems that 1000's of Boliviano's are taking the opportunity to travel with the break in blockades. After finding our guy, we are again reassured that the roads will be 'libre'. As we get close to the departure time we are herded outside the bus terminal and then down the side of a hwy for a few hundred metres, which we then need to cross in peak hour. Once again no traffic lights, but this time laden down with an additional 30 kilos!
Relieved at surviving the crossing, we are taken back back as we realise that our companies bus depot is a small shack in between some mechanic and welding shops. Our mouths drop even more as we see a clapped out old bus with roofracks being loaded up with items varying from 50kg bags of onions to chairs and big canvas bags full of who knows what. There are guys all over the roof strapping things down, and guys in the storage compartments looking liker miners as the navigate their way though the luggage compartments trying to find a pocket to stuff more shit into.
Our guy comes across and says don't worry, that's not out bus, phew! Ours arrives 20min later, & while it does not look like the one in the picture we were shown, it is a slight improvement from the one we have just watched get stuffed like a turkey at christmas. For a start it does not have roofracks, however, nor does it have a toilet, and sure as hell does not have tea and coffee facilities. Air conditioning implies that the windows open!
Mojo secures our seats as I watch on in fascination as the packers work like tetris masters to make almost everything fit. One of the compartments will not shut properly, so the solution is to get three guys to lean hard against the door while another ties some rope and attaches it to the internal frame. Glad that our backpacks are in another compartment that is full and locked up, i join Mojo on the bus. The seats are not too bad, almost lieing flat, but there are bags everywhere, hanging from every overhead compartment and in the isles. Soon this is added to with the bags that will not fit downstairs.
It takes a good hour to pack the bus up, and we leave an1.5hrs late. The driver thinks that this is an appropriate time to drive like a maniac to make up lost time, weaving across single lane roads to overtake any poor soul that is only driving at 100km, flashing and beeping them in the process, and usually swerving back into our lane entering the dirt on the side of the road. I think will have the bruises on my arm for a week where mojo was clenching them in fear. After an hour of this, we understood why other travellers had told us that that best way to deal with Bolivian bus travel was sleeping pills.
Just as we are trying to force ourselves to sleep the bus dramatically slows, and we start passing trucks parked on the side of the road. Ahh we think, this is the remnants of the blockade! For a few kilometres we snake past the never ending line of trucks, then there are trucks parked side by side, taking up half of the two lane road. We weave around these and oncoming trucks and cars for another kilometre, but soon after we hit a complete block, there are buses and trucks parked all across the road and the dirt access lanes. Our driver talks to some other drivers, and soon we are told that we are not going further tonight. The lights in the bus are turned off and that's that. We have slept on numerous overnight buses so far on this trip, but never ones that was stationary...
At one stage the bus starts up and think that we are off, but it is only to move a few metres to make room for another bus to park. After 8 hours of some sleep, the sun rises with a nice pink glow, which we hope is a good omen. But as i write it is now 5 hours after sunrise and we are still here.I have walked about 2km back to near the beginning of the line of automobiles, and come across a bunch of people standing around a 'blockade'. It is comprised of some rocks, bricks and tree branches around 60cm, high and stretching across the road. Really, this is a blockade...? Any half decent truck driver could blow this over with a solid fart.
There are motorbike taxis ferrying people from the buses to either end of the blockade trying to get people through, to no avail. The ground is covered in masticated, spat out clumps of coca leaves, and toilet paper, and there are many industrious people wandering around selling coffee & tea (is this what they meant when we bought the bus tickets?!?), empanadas and one fella selling mobile phone charges that plug into the cigarette lighters in cars. It seems everyone is so prepared, with the locals so accepting yet ever so frustrating for the gringo's, for which there are only a few in the thousands of people here. But this is Bolivia and they love to protest.
I am typing this up now, some 13 hours later in Quijarro, in a nice hotel sipping a beer and smelling clean after a hot shower. We got out after a 12 hour delay, but it has screwed up our travel plans in brazil. Oh well, it was an experience.
One last note for fellow travellers this way, once we were on the road we observed that all of the buses look the same as we had, i.e. they do not look like the pictures that were advertised. So i don't think we got duped, just some creative advertising that is used by all.
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