The Peruvian-Bolivian border crossing goes without a hitch, and my visa is accepted. The sun feels nice, and it is too soon when the bus attendant calls for us to board. Before entering Copacabana, a man with a vest hops on the bus, and asks for a 2-Boliviano tax for the city of Copacabana. The more wary travelers on the bus tell him no, and I reach into my pocket and give him a couple Bolivianos. After all, the man had a vest with the city’s name on it. Who am I to question his credentials?
We had the luxury of making it a mile into Bolivia before the Peru Tours bus stopped at a building marked with its name, and the attendant told us to get off. As we stepped out, the attendant explained that we would have to change buses to get to La Paz, which left an hour later from another tour company on the corner. A young German-Swiss woman, who was given a ticket to the same bus, suggested we go find lunch and I agreed. It is almost inconceivable how many German speakers I came across in South America, but I digress. She was rather upset at the bus change, but after bus breakdowns and 24-hour sentences in a single seat, I was happy to get into the sun, grab a bite of real food, and have a cold drink.
We ordered a “Spring Pizza,” since she was vegetarian and I hadn’t eaten a vegetable in almost a week. I noticed many vegetarian restaurants in my travels across South America thus far, and she told these were seemingly ubiquitous because of the tourists; apparently, the small towns did not have too many vegetarian restaurants. I didn’t ask her motivations behind being vegetarian, but it seemed to me that humani-vegetarians need not worry about the treatment of South American cows. On the drive from Copacabana to La Paz, it seemed each cow had its own acre of land to graze in freely. Not that I ever took extra care in making sure my food was ethically sourced, but I made certain to focus on the difference in flavor in the meat I had thereafter in South America. It seemed so much of the meat I had in Peru and Bolivia tasted fresher than the frozen ground beef it seems I mostly eat back at home.
Miles of pastureland ultimately gave way to an open town square and the expansive Lake Titicaca. Our bus was to drive onto a flimsy looking barge to the other side, while the rest of us boarded a passenger ferry. As we crossed, our vessel rocked furiously, bringing nervous looks to many of the other tourists’ faces. I, on the other hand, was having the time of my life. This trip was finally starting to feel like the rugged, dangerous, backpacking expedition I hoped it would be. When we disembarked, I was certain that the ferry fare had been the best 32-cents I had spent this trip. The young Swiss lady was not as amused as I was.
Wanting to prolong the adventure, and perhaps get a nice tan, I asked the 14-year-old ferry captain how much I’d have to pay him to take me the rest of the way to La Paz. thinking that if he’d take me across the lake for 32 cents, I could probably pay him five bucks and go direct to La Paz. He said he couldn’t do it. It was not until were reached La Paz that I realized the city is not only landlocked, but also located up a very tall mountain. The more you know.
Thankfully, the adventure does not end there. Since the bus we boarded in Copacabana was not the company we booked with, it seemed they were free to drive with the reckless abandon that, frankly, I would have if I were driving alone or, for example, playing Need for Speed on the Playstation. I wanted front-row seats, so I assumed my position in the ‘bubble’ on the second floor, located above the driver’s seat. From there, I was able to look out to the rolling hills of Bolivia, and witness the small villages as they appeared from the driver’s seat.
Ten minutes into our post-ferry drive, La Suiza tapped me on the shoulder to notify me that the side door to the bus had been open the entire time. I alerted the top-floor bus attendant, who was sitting next to me. We both laughed at the idea that we had been driving 60+ and didn’t even notice the door was still open. He walked down the stairs, tapped on the glass, and let te driver know to close the door, which he did automatically from the front without even slowing down.
As we climbed into the hills, the driver started making increasingly sharp turns, many of which would have resulted in us plunging hundreds of feet into the lake if not executed properly. At one turn, I felt my stomach lurch as we grazed one of the white-and-red pylons placed in the 3-foot shoulder between the road and watery death. I had the most powerful sense of deja-vu I had ever had, but could not put a finger on where I had experienced this moment before. Nowhere I had ever been, as far as I could tell, would install only small, plastic cylinders between a road and a steep cliffside, and yet I knew I had seen this image before. The pylons, the cliff, and even the royal blue lake water. I had seen it all. “Perhaps it was in my nightmares,” I thought. Tumbling over a cliff is definitely the type of stress-dream I would have, but that couldn’t be it. It was too familiar.
The only rational explanation, and I use the word “rational” lightly, that I thought of was, perhaps, when one’s life flashes before their eyes they see the past present and, if they should have one, future. Maybe the last time I was close to death I saw all the moments stretched out before me wherein I would almost meet death. Then, like waking from a dream that you promptly forget, I dropped the memory of the pylons and the the lake and all that remained was a photo negative printed in my subconscious, waiting to be developed permanently by the memory itself.
Maybe I shouldn’t have read Slaughterhouse Five on this trip. So it goes.
As we continued, the two lanes became four distinct strips of asphalt, meeting and separating at random intervals to be connected at a later date by a Bolivian construction crew. Many of the strips were dotted with potholes, so the driver, with impressive deftness, would hop between the four lanes regularly, getting out of the path of oncoming traffic often with seconds to spare. I could tell he knew when the strips of pavement would conjoin, as he would use these opportunities to change lanes to not only avoid the potholes, but also the stretches of unpaved gutter between the paved roads. It was as if he thought “I’m going to give this group the smoothest ride possible, even if it means swerving across 4 lanes.” By the end of the roads outside La Paz, I found myself agreeing that lines were social constructs meant to prevent perfectly ingenious and creative drivers from challenging the chains of conformity and reaching their full potential. “This man was a visionary,” I thought, “and I don’t even know what company he works for.” The thought also crossed my mind that maybe he doesn’t work for a company at all and we are being kidnapped.
At regular intervals, I would turn around to make amused glances at the Swiss chick behind me, but each time she would be napping, or texting, or blowing her nose, either unaware or unamused at the wild trip we had made through the Bolivian highlands. I like to think this was a calm Sunday drive for her. Why shouldn’t it be? In her country, the hills are alive.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.