The last four months have been madness. It’s been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced and I’ve loved every minute of new tribulations and friends and responsibilities and celebrations. But it’s certainly worn me down. Suddenly being put in charge of actual human lives, cooking at an industrial scale, and the myriad of other challenges and tasks I’ve been venting about this semester take their toll. I’ve been sick more often than not and it’s felt like all I’ve needed is a chance to rest: to not have to worry about cooking or waking up early or staying up into the morning. So instead of our regularly scheduled madness, Sierra and Katie-Jane and the rest of us prescribed a once-in-a-lifetime master plan to escape Rurrenabaque with nothing but the enormous bags on our backs and spend six weeks traveling South America.
Naturally, the first thing we did was to cancel a whole week and a half of the trip the day before we left and reschedule for an entirely different part of the continent. It turns out the only time of the entire year when people are not swarming over the misty summits of Machu Pichu is when they’re swarming over the streets of Peru trying to convince their president that no, he in fact may not continue to be president after his elected term expires. The day before we left I was barely lucid from the lack of sleep and the not lack of 14 year-old-boys running around our house making terribly unfunny jokes, but I heard rumors among my travel companions of “level 5 travel warning” and “canceling Machu Pichu.” This was a vague source of dissatisfaction in the back of my mind, as I was very willing to making an exception to my general rule of avoiding tourist locations for this ancient wonder of the world. In addition to this decision, however, I also decided that while causing an international incident was still on my bucket list with visiting Machu Pichu , being an international incident (or, more specifically, becoming a red paste in a Peruvian alleyway) was not.
So I conceding to the rescheduling, Katie-Jane and Sierra once again swept in and miraculously got our money refunded, and now we have our sights set on Chile.
Tangential to this adjustment, we had collectively decided that the first five days of our trip, including Christmas, would be best spent inspecting the interior of integral Bolivian public transport infrastructure, including but not limited to buses, planes, airports, and river barges. Here I try to summarize our findings.
Bussing and Barging
After Alex dropped us off at the Rurre bus station mid-Wednesday morning, we sat dazed in the sun waiting for our bus, and half expecting a denizen of Familia Feliz to tell us we wouldn’t be able to leave for some unexpected eventuality. Instead, Carlo chatted with other travelers, we bought empanadas and smoothies, we unburdened ourselves of responsibility, and we stepped onto our bus, unceremoniously released into the freedom of South America.
Ostensibly, South American freedom turned out to be three cubic feet of space on board the Yungueña forty-person flota from Rurrenabaque to Santa Cruz. For those of you who haven’t had the privilege of traveling by bus in a developing country, allow me to provide a few illuminating analogies. The ergonomics and emotional effect of the chairs were that of an upright dental chair. The ambiance was that of a poorly planned funeral where babies are encouraged to let out their emotions through glass-shattering auditory performances set to the tune of the folksy backwoods Bolivian karaoke that occasionally blared over the bus speakers when some zealot accidentally connected to the Bluetooth system. Finally, the climate was like being inside the wet swimsuit of an overweight gym teacher who has a fever of 105°F and was magnanimous enough to leave his zipper open just wide enough for the occasional gym-locker-room but depressingly tantalizing breeze to drift by. This became our home for the next 21 hours.
As you might imagine, we were thrilled to disembark at our first stop for a bathroom break and a chance to check our watches and realize we were only five hours into the trip. The reason we were told to get off was that we had arrived at the river crossing, and the bus was too heaving with passengers to perch on the homemade river barge. Given that Bolivia operates comfortably within about four standard deviations of OSHA safety laws, I took this as a sign that our chance of drowning in anaconda-infested waters on board the bus was at least in the double digits and happily disembarked.
The screams began in the tall grass outside the bus. We were being hunted. At our most vulnerable, while taking much-needed bathroom breaks, we were cut low.
Allow me to take a moment to explain some of the rules of living in Bolivia. You may not exist for more than five consecutive seconds without coming in physical contact with a bug of randomly selected size. The laws of deet do not apply. Clothing merely keeps them locked against your skin. We have become accustomed to this and have found refuge from nocturnal mosquitoes, roaches, and tarantulas inside our hermetically sealed bug nets. However, what we encountered by that river was something entirely new and terrible. Loud periodic slaps from behind clumps of bushes alerted me to the fact that everyone else was facing the same audacious, small-house-cat-sized mosquitos that I was. The insects were so frantic they just used their momentum from flying to pierce the skin. I could get two or three in one go, leaving crime-scene quantities of blood splattered across my limbs and clothes. But there was no way to continually slap every square inch of my body, exposed or not, which is what it would have required to avoid them. We hurried back from the less-than-modest bushes to dance in a circle of awestruck exclamation and defensive fidgeting while the locals looked on in indifference and long-sleeved clothes.
We were grateful to finally scamper onto the passenger barge and put distance between ourselves and the vampire clouds. The victory lap was taken too soon. We had assumed we would take a passenger float and our obese bus would be taken on another watercraft suited for vehicles. To our dismay, our bus joined us on the barge. I may not be good at mental math, but this did not add up. Actually, something was adding up, it was the lack of subtracting I was more worried about. One overweight bus plus a surplus of passengers plus a number of other small vehicles and travelers equaled well beyond the tolerances of my observations of the two-by-fours and plywood between our feet and the water. We came to the conclusion that we were taken out of the bus simply as a courtesy so we wouldn’t have to drown inside the bus when it toppled into the chocolate milk river. Instead we could drown outside the bus while fighting off creatures normally reserved for late-night Animal Planet shows.
Fortunately, our angels were hard at work and we made it to the other side, all the way to Santa Cruz the next morning without incident. I even managed to accumulate a grand total of approximately 160 non-consecutive minutes of sleep.
Santa Cluz. Santa Crause. Santa Clause in Santa Cruz You Get the Idea.
Because of bus and plane schedules, we spent two nights in Santa Cruz essentially waiting for our plane to Río. I had no idea how much I needed the chance to do literally nothing. The weight of responsibility and unending cycles of uncertainty and chaos slowly started to evaporate. It was the first time I'd napped for most of the day, accomplished absolutely nothing, and felt no guilt.
We locked ourselves in our hotel room, bathing in the glory of not only air conditioning but air conditioning that was actually powerful enough to warrant blankets and sweaters. We celebrated Christmas Eve with friends at church and at their house for lunch, then with naps dense enough to create gravitational anomalies, and finally with a Christmas Eve dinner of hotel room groceries in the frigid 55°F climate before we rushed off to the airport around midnight.
São Paulo Airport: the Experience
Our next stop was Río, which would take several layovers and airports to reach. The first leg of this journey was five hours on board a medieval torture machine retrofitted with wings and jet engines. It felt like being inside one of those metal cows we all saw on the History channel that slowly crushes you to death. Even with the seat in front of me upright, I couldn’t put my knees directly in front of me. The headrests were designed for people with about four fewer neck vertebrae than me, and trying to lean my forehead on the back of the seat in front of me amounted to using the corning of a table as a pillow. My knees and head still have bruises and my spine aged a quarter of a century. Anyways, everyone else was fine and actually got the chance to sleep in the middle of the night because I’m just built different: with hideously disproportional and elongated skeletal anatomy.
Our longest stop was in São Paulo Airport, a mere fifteen hours set square in the middle of some other unnumbered, unnamed night. We enjoyed a lovely if not terribly awake Christmas dinner at Olive Garden, where Maddy got to experience the Christmas miracle of unlimited breadsticks for the first time.
As an unofficial and stubbornly uneducated connoisseur of architecture, I was impressed by São Paulo’s main atrium. Its stark concrete geometry was filled with colorful enclaves of warm light and angular escalators. It felt like what you might expect post-apocalyptic humans to live in under sheets of ice in the Antarctic: cozy but brutal. After several attempted conversations with the native Portuguese-speaking employees, we discovered we weren’t allowed to check into our flight 12 hours before take-off, and thus this atrium would be our home for the night. Exploration expeditions returned with reports of a single travelers’ lounge.
Let me take a moment to say that everything I’ve complained about so far was a travel decision I voted for. I am, what is formally known as, in modern vernacular, a bum. I will live on a bus for 24 hours, fly across the Pacific in any manner of repurposed medieval cow pressure device, deprive myself of overpriced food, or schedule ridiculous, multi-day layovers if it means saving money. So, when I saw the cost of staying at the travel lounge, I resigned myself to a night of airport floor sleep.
Unfortunately, the architects of the São Paulo airport decided to apply their large-scale concrete brutalism to the small-scale seating areas. This meant that sleeping across the chairs lit by flickering prison lights required folding one's self across, in, around, and between several obstacles. Some of our members managed to accomplish this; Emilianne gave up and placed a thoughtfully packed camping mat under the chairs. São Paulo even taunted us with a single layer of frosted glass between the free, liminal, fluorescent, bio-hazardous, rest area and the unobtainable, warmly light, cushioned, noninfectious travel lounge. To distract myself, I used four days of sleep deprivation as a lightning rod for inspiration and wrote this.
Eventually, I sacrificed a poached airplane blanket to the criminally foul floor and absorbed a few minutes of sleep before we checked into our flight.
Next, we’ll be in Río where I plan to throw away all my judgmental reservations about tourism destinations and take mainstream selfies at some of the most iconic sights in the world.