Wednesday, 27 November 2013

On the Buses - again.

A clock that works, it even tells the correct time. A waiting hall that is litter free and polished clean. A woman'd information desk that's open. Ticketing booths that are operational, porters with smiles and trolleys. Stationary busses that switch off their engines. A coin operated full body massage machine. This is Sucre bus station, Bolivia. Only we're waiting for the reality check and the first negative.

As is our custom, we've walked the escape route the previous day, uphill through a throng of crawling micros, street food and the inevitable fumes. So this morning we know where we're meant to be going. Renegotiating a fully loaded cycle back up a wrong cobbled alley, with a dead line, is not good for a marriage. Renaging on the inclusive breakfast.....I not a good for the parsimonious Scot. So of course we arrive too early. The streets were empty, the traffic lights still switched off, so the micros were able to race each other from pick-up to drop-off, usually only a few metres apart. The food stalls were shuttered, even the re-bar delivery men had yet to strew the highway, as they sort through their steel rods. We've collected our ticket and paid the departure tax (23p). All is going to plan. But where and when will the knock back appear?

We're expanding our experiences of South American bus travel and taking a Bolivian semi-cama to Uyuni. We've been granted our dispensation, avoiding a reputatious slur, as we will be traveling roads we've cycled previously. Strange how that old justification excuse still nags away deep in the Presbyterian subconscious. An eight hour journey that took five days to ride. A jump to keep ahead of the wet season weather that's been threatening for the last few days.

The similarity between Argentine and Bolivian busses, lies solely in that term 'bus'. They still have the requisite number of tyres, don't check the treads, the reclining seats, the un-watched violent video, but do come with a reputation for for late departure and non arrival. The UN road fatality statistics make for sobering reading and English language guidebooks seem to delight in naming some routes, quoting one as averaging a crash per fortnight. But it's the roadside shrines, all with one date, that are the physical, ever present reminder.

Another unique aspect of the service is the paintwork, that can be both mystifying and interesting, Religion, mysticism and dubious history all feature, but it's the prophetic that raises an eyebrow. 'Ultimate Viajes' seems a bit conclusive, and one company that might sum up the fatalistic nature of bus travel Boliviano: a clutch of rolled dice. A game of chance, a shot at Russian roulette.

Sucre bus station is a oasis of calm efficiency, if you disregard time keeping. Each operator has his own stance in a gated yard, which keeps out the packs of dogs and meeters and greeters - an institution that clogs up so many of the southern neighbour's stations. It allows us to do what the locals do, to break down our bikes into cargo sized bundles in peace and security, and then to join the orderly queue of trader goods going to the next market. It allows the handler to plan his loading in a logical manner and to put our bikes on top. It's a novel concept. He needs to fit in a blacksmith's construction that might be metal window frames and a coffin like box that requires three to lift. Now add in a trader's trolley, several sacks of rice, potatoes and coca leaf. As yet I see no livestock, but who knows what lurks in those anonymous pale blue poly-prop bags. Our cycles are the least of his problems.

So what if the departure time is long past, nobody seems either surprised or concerned. We haven't even needed to sharpen our elbows. Eventually our bus arrives. It's vintage looks to be just of this century, unlike some of the weather worn, mud encrusted, crack windowed models that run on disgorged reek, that have been departing in the last few hours. Luggage starts to decend on a rope from an upper storey from whence and why, I know not. Porters deliver crates of Red Bull and boxes of Chivas Regal. This service, like every other Bolivian bus service doubles as a lorry delivery service. A cast of characters climb on board, all Andean Highlanders, the ladies with their babies wrapped deep and muffled in their back-packed vibrant shawls, the men dapper in careworn suits and their bandalleroed shawls, all are working their mobile 'phone.

I check for what I had already on board toilet. It's partly why we forwent coffee and the mate de coca this morning. It's an eight hour journey. I hope they stop.

The bus does stop. The driver needs his dinner, his conductor needs to change into yet another football shirt. 'Barca', 'Boca' and 'The Strongest', have all been supported . We're at a stance that needs to serve up thirty 'almuerzo' meals instantly. It's only a twenty minute stop. We've regularly used these places, and marveled at their efficiency. Now I know why. There is a shack some distance off, The Bano, yet most ignore it and head off into the scrub. An unwritten etiquette prevails, the same one as when the driver calls "Bano", and stops, later in the day, somewhere on a vast empty plain, not a building, tree or blade of modesty grass in sight. Males to the right, ladies to the other side of the bus. There's no Brittish prudish embarrassment. Although the moaning Altiplano wind does play havoc. On occasions a micro will pass us and pull in, right in front. A perfectly acceptable Latin American traffic manoeuvre, as he's legimised the action by blowing his horn. The full passenger load will descend and relieve themselves in full view of the now unshockable gringa. Or, I'm standing in a crowd, when I become aware of toddler urinating towards a lampost, his aim's not great, but nobody's bothered. Blame it all on our British potty training.

We do arrive alive, even if on more than one occasion the bus seemed to be in freefall, descending some of the long downhill straights, the speed accelerating, the brakes unfeathered. I've ridden the route, I know there's a hairpin bend and a collection of memorials at the bottom. It's all fate and there's little point in worrying.

We of a Western disposition have a tendency to disparage the so called 'New World', to denigrate and belittle. Yet Bolivia still has a public transport system that works, that covers the whole country, that's efficient, affordable and doesn't tooth-suck when a Gringo's cycle materialises.

Our departure from Uyuni will be by an equally efficient method... The WaraWara overnight train to Oruro. It too will leave late but still manages to arrive on time.