When Bolivians pray, their appeals hit the ears of three beings—the Catholic God, the Andean goddess Pachamama, and the Bolivian bus driver. There are very few times in my life that I’ve had to put as much faith into a single person as I had to put into the masterful motorist that held my destiny and the destiny of 50 other passengers on the 12 hour long trip from Cochabamba to Sucre… and then back again. A 12 hour long trip is not bad. 12 hours gets you from New York to say, Bolivia, on American Airlines. 12 hours gets you from New York to North Carolina on I-95. 12 hours of transport is commuting back and forth on the Long Island Railroad every day for a week. 12 hours on an unpaved, treacherous road that corkscrews through the mountains, and at some points leaves you as vertical as the awkward take-offs at LaGuardia and as nauseous as riding through Space Mountain with a hangover, those twelve hours? Those are pretty bad.
Obviously heeding Dr. Jaime’s advice of “taking it easy,” or rather, temporarily discarding all drops of reason that I could have possibly had left, I decided to make the notorious journey from Cochabamba to Sucre, the capital city, a day after being admitted to the hospital because of a parasite. (And yes, the journey is very notorious—there’s even a line on Sucre’s Wikipedia page about how hard it is to get there from Cochabamba.) Having chose seat #51, the center seat at the back of the bus, because of the extra leg room, proved to be a problem, because the one Bolivian that is taller than me also wanted it.
“No,” I insisted, “This is my seat. I chose it when I bought the ticket.” I lied. Well, I didn’t lie. I had chosen the middle seat when I bought the ticket but the number of the seat on that map didn’t match the number of the seat on the actual bus.
“No, it’s mine. I HAVE to sit there!” He pushed back.
“NO. THIS IS MY SEAT. I AM ALREADY SEATED AND READY TO GO.” I raised my voice and noticed the other seat, to the right, with no one in it.
“THIS IS YOUR SEAT, HERE. SENTATE ACA!” I screamed, pointing to the free space.
And would you imagine, the tall Bolivian, who now seemed not-so-tall, listened to the gringa, and took his place, even though his ticket rightfully said seat #51. (I did wind up moving to the window seat at one point, to stick my head out the window and cure the conga line congregating in my stomach.)
After what seemed like eternal damnation, my faith in señor bus driver (and other beings) had returned when the glowing cross that sits atop the hill overlooking Sucre, came into view. Cue the angelic chorus, hallelujah. I wouldn’t say that my $8 ($60 boliviano) bus ride was a great value, but I got to and fro in mostly one piece. My total transport and lodging costs for two full days in the capital of this country rang in to under the grand total of, wait for it, $20. Twenty American dollars! What can that get you in Washington DC? A cup of coffee? Okay, maybe not just a cup of coffee…maybe a cookie too.
The city of Sucre is beautiful. It differs entirely from Cochabamba in the fact that when you’re in Sucre, you know you’re in the Andes. There is beautiful white-washed colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, and more importantly, everything is on a slant. You find that your lower back and thighs start to ache for what seems like no reason, but then you realize that you’ve been walking at a sixty-eight degree angle for the past ten blocks. There are a lot more tourists and backpackers in Sucre, which isn’t hard to say because there are virtually none in Cochabamba and mostly everyone has a smiling happy face and isn’t baffled as to why a blond is in Bolivia. The attitude is relaxed, the altitude is high, and the sun is very strong even though the air is freezing.
Saturday was spent strolling the streets of Sucre, drinking tea in European-style cafes, visiting museums, and being relaxed. Maybe it’s the fact that the air is so thin at these heights, but it almost seems like everyone has had a tranquilizer or two. No one really has a place to be or a time to be there. My stomach was still bothering me at this point, so the change of pace was a welcome respite.
Sunday I placed my faith in another bus driver, this time on the much shorter, two hour trip to Tarabuco, a traditional town outside of the capital. I arrived just in time for the Pujllay, a ritualistic festival that celebrates an indigenous victory over the Spaniards (the town’s population is mostly indigenous) as well as drawing a connection to the gaiety of Carnaval. The fact that is occurs during Lent makes me smile because it almost seems like it’s another way for the indigenous people to stick it to the colonizers. It’s as if they’re saying, “Here’s our party during the time you have to be good! Na-na-na-na-na!” Being taller than the average Bolivian does have its perks, however, when it comes to parade time—I had a clear, bird’s eye view of all the costumes and traditional dress.
After buying a pair of alpaca slippers (!!!!) and eating my first vegetarian meal in the country (soy patties with cucumbers, beans, and fries, SERIOUSLY!), I cut it close by leaving the festival at 4:30 in order to catch the bus back to Cochabamba at 7. Dios te bendiga, bus driver, because that two hour trip back to Sucre did not take two hours! By 7:30, I was on my way back home, the Bolivian moon glowing huge and silver like a $2 peso coin in one corner of the sky and the gleaming cross in the other, a shining beacon of faith in God and a reminder to all who visit Sucre, to have faith in everything, bus drivers included.