Days 205 to 207: It Makes You Feel Good

Day 206. I awoke with the rather depressing thought that I had to spend the rest of today wandering around a boring town while I waited for a bus which wasn’t necessarily going to be there. Pants! Looked on my map of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and saw an area marked as a park with a little lake so I headed there. The day was extremely hot so I looked around for a park bench which was in the shade but there was only one free and that was because it had the biggest pile of shit next to it I’ve ever seen. So big in fact that I’m sure that it was not from a dog at all but from a human. While I sat there this guy came over to me and said, “Sind sie Deutsch?” Not a good start I thought, calling a British guy German but everyone seems to do it here, so I pointed out his error without swearing at him. It turns out that he’s from Belgium but living and working in Lima and is making his way overland to Sao Paulo in Brazil for a flight home.

Over a nice lunch and ice-cream I mentioned the riot last night and asked whether he knew anything about it. He told me that Santa Cruz was quite a prosperous city due to the drug trade and that the government had started a major crackdown, no pun intended, which had started a lot of protests. He’d been warned that here in Bolivia a coalition of anti-government groups had begun a period of civil unrest which had turned violent. The group leaders include those opposed to the government’s coca eradication campaign in the Chapare region between Santa Cruz and Cochabamba which was basically the way I travelled the night before last. US travellers have been warned not to enter this region as the US government is supporting the scheme so making US citizens a target. I just asked whether under the circumstances he thought a 6ft tall white bloke running between a government building and a mass protest was a good thing. He suggested that it wasn’t the smartest of moves!

In the afternoon I wandered off on my own and went to sit in the Cathedral as I’ve learnt that these old buildings are the only real vestige of escape from extreme heat. Inside I took time to look at the life sized statues. The imagery was really quite vivid and quite impressive, the sculpture of Jesus on the cross was the most dramatic. Although similar to those in La Paz and other catholic cathedrals these seemed more realistic and quite disturbing. Jesus wore a crown of thorns and blood streamed down his face as did blood from the nails in the palms of his hands and in his feet. It was so shocking that many children would burst into tears at the sight, almost as if it were designed to scare people into religion. Adults would touch this figure of Christ on the leg, chest and foot and pray. I really wanted to record this image but felt the emotion people were showing to this particular statue may mean they might take extreme exception to me taking a picture. I would be invading what was to them a deeply religious and emotive moment.

I headed back to the coach station and had the usual farce, I was told to sit in the coach office while the agent ran around trying to see what was happening. At this point I was again quite demoralised and wondered whether I would ever leave this town as by now it had gone 6:30pm the time the imaginary coach was meant to leave. Then after about an hour the Belgium guy Christophe walked up, he was also waiting for the same imaginary coach but booked through another coach service. It may sound weird but even though I might still be stuck here, the thought that I am not in this position alone feels great. You always feel safer in twos and more confident that you can overcome difficult situations. To our amazement at about 8:30pm a big metal box drove up just outside the coach office. It’s really hard to describe the coach but basically it’s an old knackered coach chassis dinted and bent and placed on top of a frame which is raised on high suspension with large 4WD off road wheels. All this makes it quite difficult to climb into as the first step is a good 2ft off the ground. The agent looked really pleased with himself, almost relieved that the thing had turned up. He took us both to the coach shaking our hands and wishing us good luck, looking at the coach I think we need it. I’m sat right at the front which means that I have absolutely no legroom, great, eighteen hours of this!

Day 207. After a poor night’s sleep caused by a combination of being cramped and the bumpy dirt tracks, which explains the need for the massive wheels and ground clearance, at 8am we stopped at Camiri. Amazingly and for what appeared to be no reason we stopped here for an amazing five hours. We were given random excuses for this along with much banging underneath the coach but at least we were eventually offered a free meal. Irritatingly, just as I was about to eat, almost predictably, the coach was ready to go, I couldn’t believe it, only me, I hope they all get food poisoning, bastards!
A few hours after restarting we got a flat tire and in typical South American fashion, although they knew we’d be travelling in the back of beyond through a particularly arid part of the country we don’t have a jack. They spent ages hammering bits of wood under the adjoining wheel of the rear wheel pair and then dug the sand out from underneath the flat one. They removed and replaced this tire but instead of hammering the blocks out they tried to drive the coach straight off the blocks and looked surprised when this didn’t work. I don’t think they understand what a differential is but that was hardly going to work. Then the next plan was to hammer more wood under the new tire but the wheel just skidded. After what must have been more than thirty minutes of farce trying to get the coach off the blocks I just suggested knocking the wooden blocks out as no one had tried it yet, and guess what, it worked! I have a sneaking suspicion that we will not arrive in Asunción by the end of the day as we are now eighteen hours into the journey, the time I’d been told that we’d be arriving.

Eventually we arrived at the Bolivian border control which was an army base quite a number of miles from the actual border. The army base personnel all came out to see us as clearly a bright orange coach with a couple of European gringos on it was an unusual sight particularly this late in the day. We had to queue in single file to go into a little hut where a bloke checked our passports and his kids who were stood next to him stamped them. Then to my amazement, irritation and annoyance the coach turned around from the border and drove for over an hour back in the direction we’d come from. We’d gone back to pick up the petrol cap which had fallen off the bus, how the hell the driver knew where it was I’ll never know but he found it. We also continued a little further to drop one of the Army guys off which was probably the main reason for the detour. He was carrying a bag of huge melons which in some sort of strange deal one was handed over to the coach driver who looked very pleased with himself. So over two hours after getting our passports stamped, for what I believe was just so our driver could get a free melon, we passed through the barrier into no-man’s-land.
I’m starting to become a little concerned as usually you get the entry stamp a few hundred yards further on from getting the exit. After travelling for a few hours we eventually we stopped at a ranch in the middle of nowhere which I thought was the border control but in fact was a small ranch where a little celebration was going on in honour of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. It’s an import celebration here, wherever here is but I get the impression that we are in Paraguay by the flags so I’m not feeling great as I really want that stamp in my passport!

We all got talking to each other while free drink and coco leaves were offered to chew on. I kept asking about which country we were in but people just laughed which was a little worrying, I get the impression that this is a part of the world where no one is in charge. While talking to the Brazilian guy from the bus, he brought out a paper bag which had some white powder in it which he said “Would make me feel good.” He kept saying, take some to which I asked whether it was cocaine, he said “No, it’s good for you.” So I asked whether it was tooth paste as he was rubbing it on his teeth with his index finger. As I was intrigued I placed a very small amount on my finger and tried a little. Needless to say nothing really happened other than a having a bitter ‘tart’ taste in the mouth and a bit of dizziness but I think that was caused by the homebrew. He was probably right it wasn’t cocaine, it was probably soap powder. For a more natural high I stuck to chewing coco leaves instead, quite nice! There’s a Japanese girl on the coach who only had one of the ‘home brew’ drinks and got completely pissed, but I suppose it was very strong. I think she has a lot of courage to do what she’s doing as she speaks practically no English and very little Spanish, you don’t tend to meet other Japanese speakers in places like this! Everyone had a bit of a singsong around the fire, they even tried some British Songs to try and include me but had to point out that ‘Oh Danny Boy’ was Irish! We’ve now left the ranch to find the Paraguayan border control with a drunk and stoned coach driver who now looks like a drugged up Diego Maradona!’,’Day 206. I awoke with the rather depressing thought that I had to spend the rest of today wandering around a boring town while I waited for a bus which wasn’t necessarily going to be there. Pants! Looked on my map of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and saw an…’,’1′,’Days 205 to 207: It Makes You Feel Good’,’days-205-to-207-it’,’604′,’605′,”,”,’90’,’finished