After only 3-4 showers a week, most of them lukewarm at best, the value of a hot shower has increased ten fold in my book. Somehow, on the day of my planned expedition out of Bolivia, I was lucky enough to get up to my first hot shower in over a week. It was strange to spend the first hours of the morning having no idea what the day would bring (i.e. cross the border? road blocks have me stuck in Copacabana? walk 10 kilometers under the hot sun to border?).
After hearing that the PerÃº/Bolivia border was a go (gracias a dios!), Caroline and I spent the morning scrounging up food for our trips (she to Arequipa, PerÃº, me to PerÃº/Chile). I had run out of Clif bars, so I decided to stock up on a less-healthy emergency energy source (emergency as in on the bus in the middle of the night with a screaming stomach and the next food opportunity several hours off). Snickers bars run about a buck a pop down here, but slightly less in Bolivia, so I stuffed a couple into my pack. We also picked up some bread after finally realizing that the price everyone was quoting us was per kilo, not per ea. Funny. 🙂 We thought bread might as well have been gold at first.
Colectivos for the border depart from the plaza, so we nabbed a spot in the sun to wait for a car to be full so I could get on with my journey (Caroline had a bus ticket for later). I made a commitment to one driver, and twenty minutes later there still weren’t any other passengers. Then, all of a sudden, a car rolls by almost full shouting out the name of the border town and I go from zero to sixty, say a hurried goodbye to one of the coolest women I’ve met, and toss myself and my luggage in an old Ford station wagon. Inside, I found myself among a bunch of locals who were all smiles. Finally some friendly folks! The driver had a bunch of glittery bumper stickers hanging all around in the car, most of them oozing with sarcasm. My favorite was right above my head, “No pida velocidad, pida seguridad.” Don’t ask how fast we’re going, just ask if you’re safe. At we topped out at 110 (mph, NOT kph!!!) in a car with no seat belts, I realized it wasn’t exactly the joke I took it for at first. Yikes.
He dropped us at the Bolivian exit office, and I once again encountered the burden of figuring out transport. After going through all the legalities, I found myself on the Peruvian side looking for the colectivos going to Yunguro. Well, come to find out, there are no colectivos collecting folks at the border. You have to get into the next town and take a ride from there. All of this is explained to me by the driver of one of those three-wheeled taxis (remember the photo?), and I end up as his fare. I tried to center myself over the rear axle before we took off towards town, bouncing the whole way. Crazy! A small bus, almost full, was calling out my destination as soon as I stepped out of the cab, so seven minutes later I could finally relax for a bit about how I was getting to the next point. To my pleasant surprise, three Brazilians I had met the day before on the way out to the island were on the same bus. Score! On the less fortunate side of things, the awful, albino Australian that I had met weeks ago in the desert on my way to San Pedro de Atacama was also on the bus. He was complaining in full force, true to form. Ack!
We finally rolled into Puno two hours later. Not the most comfortable ride, with too much stuff on my lap, the Australian making all his judgmental pronouncements, and last-minute passengers standing in the aisle for the whole trip. As is common with any large group (bigger than two!), there was mass confusion as the five of us (Brazilians, myself, and the Australian) got off the bus downtown and tried to make a group decision about priority number one. With taxis practically crawling down our throats to give us a ride, ticket sellers coming out of the woodwork to offer us passes to various destinations, and vendors calling out various items for sale, we finally managed to get underway to the bus station. We took turns watching the bags as everyone bought their onward ticket. I found an especially cheap seat to the PerÃº/Chile border, which made my day!
The plan had been to go out to eat, but the Brazilian’s bus was leaving too soon, so we lunched at the station. Fine with me. The less time I had to spend with the Australian, the better! Lunch ended up being chaotically entertaining, with three wrong orders, two spilt sodas, and plenty of group photos. I was sad to see them go, but I split from the group as soon as we left the restaurant. I wasn’t about to get sucked into an afternoon of enduring the Australian’s caustic comments.
Instead, I thought, what better way to spend wait time than in an internet cafÃ©. I went in with five hours to spare, a pocketful of change, and several emails waiting to be responded to. I thought for sure I’d use up three hours at most, but four and a half hours later, the young woman at the counter was yet again warning me that I was about to consume yet another hour. A bit sheepishly, I told her I was well aware, and kept clicking away at the keys. When I was done, my butt was numb, my brain was numb, my eyes were numb, and I was ready for the night-time bus ride ahead. I had been getting sick (a cold?) and could definitely use the sleep.
We stopped ten minutes after leaving the station, before we were even out of the city, to pick up more passengers. After much confusion and arguing, it became clear that seats had been oversold. After being offered free passage, a few finally acquiesced to sitting in the aisle instead of vying for the seat they had purchased. Heat on the bus was unpredictable as usual. At first, it seemed there wasn’t going to be any heat at all. To protect myself from getting even more sick, I broke out my sleeping bag and curled up for the night. I awoke later to a thick build up on ice on the inside of the windows; that’s how cold it was! Finally, in the middle of the madrugada (as they would say here) the heat kicked on and the chattering of my teeth was replaced with the shedding of as many layers as possible.
When I woke up at 6:30 as we were rolling into Tacna, I was startled to see that my seat partner had gotten way too close for comfort. Then I realized that it was my hair, not my neighbor’s, lying on my shoulder. The sun has started to work its magic, and my hair seems to be dying (no pun intended) to work its way to the blonde end of the spectrum if I keep spending all this time in the sunshine.
Although Tacna has three terminals, our bus company didn’t see fit to drop us at any of them, so I threw in with a couple of Australians (Nick and Jessie) to get myself to the international terminal. They were crossing into Chile as well, but because of the early hour, we still had a bit of a wait before our colectivo was full. The colectivo driver cut us a deal on the fare, though, so we didn’t mind. On the way to the border (this would be their first land-border crossing) I told them stories about my last experience at this border crossing and about how strict the Chilean customs people are. After my story about a drug dog at one checkpoint, Jessie got really scared. She confessed that she and Nick had bought some mary jane in Cuzco and had no idea what had happened to it. He was certain that it wasn’t in their bags, but she wasn’t so sure. “Great!” I thought. “Just what I need. Guilty by association, I’m sure. Oh well! No turning back now!” Counter to what I had expected, the border crossing went quite smoothly, minus my alarm going off while I was standing in line to get my exit stamp. Because I don’t have a cell phone, or pager, or any other electronic, noise-making device that frequently and unexpectedly elicits a response, I had no idea it was me making all the racket. As a result, I stood there for literally five minutes getting annoyed until I realized the beeping was coming from MY bag. Ooops!
We made it to the Chilean side of the border just in time to miss all the early morning departures to Antofagasta, Chile. Judging by the maps in my book, it looked quicker to cross the Chile/Argentina border from there versus the location further North that I had used last time. Jessie and Nick said their good-byes and went in search of a hotel while I spent the next few hours waiting for my departure. After I had already bought my ticket, I noticed an office that I hadn’t spotted before. It was the same company, Geminis, I had crossed the border with the first time. I began to suspect that perhaps there was only one place to cross the border, and that maybe I had chosen to send myself several hours further south than necessary. About ten minutes before the departure, my brain doing a rapid-fire trouble-shooting of all potential situations, I ran to the Geminis office. I waited in line for five minutes while the customer in front of me shot the breeze with the counter guy, and finally gave up in the interest of making onto the bus I had already paid for.
After paging furiously through my guide book and giving the bus steward the third degree, I confirmed my recently developed suspicions. I was going too far south. However, I also recollected that border crossings by bus were only on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday mornings. The buses originated in the city I was headed for, so really, no big problem. But wait. It was Thursday. I felt like I had suddenly been attacked by the bad luck bug. I resigned myself to two extra days on the Chilean (more expensive) side of the border and dug into my identifiable (!) lunch of turkey and mashed potatoes while puzzling over the road-building scars left all over the desert. I never realized the reclamation done alongside roads in the states. Here, it’s painfully obvious, especially in the desert, that reclamation is not a priority. I could see the ghosts of every single push made by track dozers as we crossed miles and miles of the wide ranging Atacama desert, driest in the world.
As the sun set, the stars came out and I caught my first glimpse of Orion since I’ve been down here. It’s so funny to see the constellations I’m so familiar with be upside down! And also neat to see a whole sky full of stars and patterns that I didn’t grow up with. I’d give anything to run into someone familiar with the southern skies while I’m down here. So far everyone I’ve asked can only tell me the southern cross, just like most people on the northern side of the equator can only point out the big dipper. Sad. 🙁
After spending all day on the bus (and really, I hadn’t seen a hostel/hotel for two days), I was grateful to finally get to Antofagasta. I went to the cheapest place recommended by my guide book only to find it was charging three bucks more than I was planning on paying. Thanks to my lack of luggage, I went in search of something cheaper without much hassle. The desk clerk had directed me to a place around the block that she thought might be cheaper. I walked in the door, unknowingly launching myself into the chaos of some kind of blanket making/bedding extravaganza. The rooms were about the same quality and price as the last place, but I wasn’t a fan of the party going on right outside my door. I hightailed it back to the other joint and came to terms with the fact that I was just going to have to break budget for a few days. I thanked my lucky stars that at least I’m financially secure enough to afford these kinds of unexpected expenditures. I figured if I went any cheaper, I’d have to deal with roaches, on top of the fact that my bed sagged badly in the middle and tilted downhill to the left, the water faucet groaned a complaint every time I tried to use it, a metal cabinet posed as my bedside table, the walls and light fixtures were bare, and the shower in the shared bathroom barely dribbled a stream of water. It’s the good life!
I headed out to catch a bit of internet time before the shops closed. As I passed topless bars, one after another, I realized that, consistent with the appearance of my hotel, I wasn’t probably in the best area of town. That doesn’t bother me now like it would have a month ago, though. One ice cream cone and four hundred pesos of internet later, I made my way back to the hotel to indulge in some hard-earned shut-eye. I set my alarm for 6:30 so I could run to the bus station in the morning and see if, by some miracle, there was a Friday departure so I wouldn`t have to spend the whole weekend and half my cash in Chile.