Thursday, July 21, 2011

Back to Bolivia, blockades, bad movies and buses

Once in a lifetime trips out of the way, it’s time for more mundane matters such as negotiating the near 2,000km journey from Santiago north to La Paz via Arica. Bus journeys in Chile are a pleasure though, and I travel north with Pullman buses, and enjoy their idiosyncratic selection of movies ranging from a modern take on The Exorcist to the second half of Schindler’s List. The journey to Arica takes 30 hours but it passes in a blur of the aforementioned movies and endless quantities of saccharine heavy snacks. It’s never good to make snap judgements on cities or towns that you spend a mere two hours in whilst awaiting a connecting bus, but I specialise in snap judgements and so, based on this, Arica is a shithole. To me it’s like Blackpool on downers, all ugly seafront views and putrid ocean smells. The bus station also doubles as the meeting point for the city’s many panhandlers hustling you to change currency, buy weed or buy ludicrously overpriced bus tickets to La Paz. The fact that this is Chile means that ridiculously overpriced tickets are a given anyway and two hours after the 30 hour ride from Santiago, I’m off on the 9 hour journey back to Bolivia.
Apart from the fact that returning to Bolivia from Chile means that I automatically become relatively wealthy once more, it’s great to be back here again for many reasons. I’m returning to Bolivia and La Paz in order to trek and there are an abundance of trails in and around the city. But, this being Bolivia, getting there is the hardest part. What I haven’t made mention of as yet is Bolivia’s penchant for blockades. As Bolivian an experience as eating a salteña, you haven’t fully experienced life as it is in Bolivia unless you’ve sat in one of their many blockades. Simply put, when Bolivians get pissed off about something - and it’s almost always with the government - they simply decide to close off the roads, resulting in traffic chaos. So it is, one hour’s drive from La Paz our bus driver announces that there’s a blockade and what he wants from us more than anything is patience. I, in return, for a split second want to be back in blockade free Chile. His announcement is met with a collective shrug of the shoulders from the passengers - this is Bolivia after all, so this is an almost daily occurrence. The only frustration on show is when the driver shuts down the DVD - featuring Adam Sandler preparing for a prisoners vs guards footie match - in order to save battery power. For my part, I feel like applauding him but we might be here for a while so I sit quietly.
And we are there for a while. The hours pass and people start to walk towards the city which, we’re informed, is still 50km away. As it turns out, we spend the night on the bus about 4,000m up and it’s unsurprisingly Arctic. By the next morning, I too decide to make a move on foot as there are whispers of the blockade lasting days instead of hours more. It’s a community blockade - yes, they’re pissed with the government - and there are several mini blockades of piles of rocks scattered across the motorway, each of them proudly flying the Bolivian flag. If the intent is to cause maximum disruption then it’s an overwhelming success as there are people from all walks of life flocking towards the city on foot, with nary a sign of disgruntlement. I try to do the same until, blinded by my day pack to the front, I almost do a somersault over an infirm dog in the middle of the road. As ever when these things happen, I feign a smile whilst aiming an internalised Tourette’s stream of invective at the half dead pooch.

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