Our MSR International Stoves needed gasoline to cook the food that would sustain our efforts throughout our trip. No Gas = No Food = Dead. But gasoline is heavily subsidized by the Bolivian government and is not to be sold to foreigners. This meant begging, cajoling, and laying on the charm to a couple different gas station attendees before one of them agreed to sell us some. This also meant having gasoline spilled all over our hands, pants, and shoes.
With blackmarket gas in hand and our clothes now updated with an easy to ignite feature, we set off in search for the Altiplano bus station. Eventually, after walking through the electrical-outlet, the short-handled-broom, the purple-raw-meat, and the human-shaped-effigy-strapped-to-a-telephone sections of town, we came to the small squalid ticket station, where we waited in line with chickens, baby pigs, and some humans before buying tickets for the lifted offroad bus leaving the next morning at five AM to take us deep into the Bolivian Altiplano.
We wake up (on purpose) at four-thirty. First we stumble in the quiet and dark to our own private classic continental breakfast; folded ham slices which taste like they were cured in ketchup, yogurts, 37 different shape-kinds of bread all of which were tasteless, undercooked variations on white flour, some jugo, instant coffee, a bowl of cocoa leaves, etc., then we load our bikes and gear into a pre-arranged minivan cab. The bus station is only two miles away but its at the top of giant La Paz-style hill. And it’s raining. On the way we stop at a banco. It’s still dark.
The bus station street is empty but the sidewalk is packed. Everyone is crowded together under various awnings and overhangs in an effort to wait and huddle somewhere not in the rain. Everything is shiny and stinks and covered in grime. Old dudes keep asking us if our Fat Boys are bikes. Because of the tires it seems like a reasonable question.
There is a big rock lying in the road. Some lady wearing a poncho rolls it with her foot a few yards down the street. Then she sweeps the muddy street for seemingly NO REASON at all.
A bus pulls up but it’s the Bronco though and not ours. Then another, also not ours. This one has the words ELEGANCE and LUXURY painted in giant letters across the front. Finally the Altiplano pulls up. It looks like a double decker but the bottom, it turns out, is just storage. It has big tires and reminds us of a Soviet military vehicle if a Soviet military vehicle was dressed like a flamboyant Canadian in Costa Rica on a Surf & Yoga Holiday.
We load our bikes into the very back and bottom. The hold is dark and metal and the door hinges make the whole thing difficult. Also, the door hole is an irregular shape. We have to lower our seatposts, twist our handlebars, take our tires off and stack the bikes on top of each other. We don’t have moving blankets or padding of ANY kind. It’s a pile of hate. It’s a seven-hour drive and it’s likely to get rowdy here in the way back. Just the streets of La Paz are gnarly. In the middle of loading our bikes it starts to rain even harder, also the the bus is parked in the middle of what is now a very busy and exhaust-choked street.
It smells rough inside the bus. Its total chaos. One guy has a flashlight. People with refrigerators and babies and all kinds of large oddly shaped shit tied to their backs are passing each other in the center aisle. It smells like goats and musk and the dry bitter smell of coca leaves. The bus leaves well before everyone is seated, in fact lots of people continue to mingle and stand and move around the whole way up and out the basin bowl that is La Paz.
It’s prehistorically humid. All the windows are fogged and steamy. Clouds are starting to form inside the bus.
I’m seated in the middle of a bunch old dudes sharing a thin plastic sandwich bag filled with coca leaves. The bag just kinda slowly makes its way from row to row and across the aisle. Each dude spends about five minutes with it, sifting-picking-and-plucking, then passes it along. A lady in wide brim straw hat with a fake rose strapped to the top talks non stop to nobody in particular. It’s not Spanish. She’s loud and has no teeth, and sounds like a bandsaw.
At some point a dapper dude in sharp looking clothes including a blazer and a scarf, stands up at the front of the bus, gets everyone’s attention and starts preaching. Or maybe teaching. Either way a lot of people stop talking and pay attention to him. And answer his many questions. He makes people laugh. Eventually it’s clear that he’s selling various pamphlets and a collection of small books. Presidents of Bolivia. Medicio Sana. Letras. Cultura General. There are 8 books in total. He passes a set to everyone who shows interest, they flip through them, keep the ones they want, pay him.
The Wizard next to me is tearing through a private baggie of coca leaves. He has no teeth and severe mumble. I catch him pissing into an empty coffee can he keeps in his pocket for this very purpose. When he pours the piss out it streaks across the windows behind us and sprays a few of his homies two rows back.
Across from me I watch a three foot tall guy in an Alpaca Andean Flap hat eat a rotten banana. He can barely see out of the window. He presses his hands against the window. He stares out the window. He loves the window, and it would seem, bananas. The dude next to him is listening to a transistor radio.
We stop in a town for ten minutes for a bathroom break and, apparently, to buy 20 pound bags of rice and plastic baby doll heads.
First we hit dirt roads. Then we hit the Andes. Then for hours we listen to the rhythmic pumping of air brakes. The roads don’t feature guardrails and these buses can lean like a motherfucker.