And I don’t mean the bus going to Sajama. You can miss that one with no problem and probably be a lot better off.
After the ride down the World’s Most Dangerous Road, Julien and I spent two days away from La Paz, one at the animal refuge, La Senda Verde, where our bike ride ended and another up in the village of Coroico. We had good company in the form of Daniel and Louise, two Australians who did the ride with us. Daniel and Louise told us of their plans to go to the pampas in Rurrenabaque, and we almost changed our itinerary to go with them.
Once back in La Paz, we went to the agency they signed on with, but we weren’t impressed by the overly touristy circuit the travel agent proposed. It would have been nice to take another kind of trek into the jungle, but time is not on our side. Our next plane is out of Santiago, Chile on the 30th.
Sticking to our original plan, we caught a bus out of La Paz to Patacamaya. We were thrilled to be on the move again, looking forward to gorgeous scenery and a change of atmosphere. The scenery wasn’t up to par with what we had experienced upon leaving Peruvian cities; the suburbs seemed to straggle on in squalid misery, and the tilled fields, once they came were sown with more trash than greenery.
Patacamaya was a little bigger than the other villages we passed through, but there was nothing to set it apart except a longer strip of eateries and refreshment stands to accommodate the travelers who change buses there. Our guide book told us to make sure we arrived in Patacamaya before 12:00 pm, or we’d run the risk of missing the minivans that relay passengers to the Sajama National Forest.
Like dutiful little travelers’ we were there at 11:00 am, only to find out that no minibuses leave before 1:00 pm. Having nothing to see or do, we sat in the minivan and waited. True to his word, our driver left Patacamaya at 1 even though his van wasn’t packed. Aside from us, there were three Bolivians and a Spanish couple, Abil and Beatriz.
The road was a lot prettier going to Sajama, parts of it making me think of Grand Staircase Escalante in Utah without the wild range of colors. Still, despite the rain and hail and drippy window I was sitting by, I was happy to be heading toward a park where there wouldn’t be a lot of tourists, just volcanic mountains, herds of llamas, and hot springs.
Our first nasty surprise came at the “gate” into Sahama village. We expected to pay 25 bolivianos each, but the lady at the desk informed us that it was 30. Abil and Beatriz complained, but the lady insisted that it was a village accord, take it or leave it. Well, after 5hrs of bus and minivan to get there and the next village 11kms away, no one was in the mood to say no.
Nasty surprise number two came when we saw that the hostels were closed. Everything was closed. All the villagers were at a graduation party for the 18 graduates (or maybe students? The village only has 100 inhabitants), and no one was worried about the debarking tourists, who are, I might mention, supposed to be of their primary sources of revenue.
Following Abil and Beatriz, we made our way down to the fiesta, hoping to find someone to help us. Thankfully, they could make heads and tails of what was going on and convinced a man to come help us. Like every other man over the age of 16 or 17, he was completely wasted.
He took us up to the Oasis Hostel and roused a little girl who must have been all of twelve to show us our rooms and explain the prices. They were filthy and when Beatriz complained of the price and asked to have a room for 50b instead of 80, the girl pertly told her that she would have to make do with dirty sheets because, for that price, they wouldn’t be changed. Oh, and there would be no hot showers. The little brat saw to that....
We would have liked to walk out right then, but there was nowhere else to go. Julien and I could have set up our tent, but then we would have had to leave the bags unprotected while we went for hikes. We could have potentially asked to sleep at someone’s home--one of the ways of welcoming and making money off tourists--but we were informed at the gate that the price was not the 10b quoted in our guide book, but 25b/person, the same price as a hostel room.
Deciding to make the best of a so-so situation, we took the rooms. Seeing there was no toilet paper in our bathroom, I asked the girl for some. “Oh, so sorry, ma’am,” she said with a little smile, ‘we don’t have any. Please forgive me.” While her back was turned, Julien ducked into a neighboring room and found some. Didn’t have any, eh?
Well, no sooner was the door shut behind us and our bags shrugged off, the electricity went off (yeah, no electricity, not hot water...). Beatriz kindly called back the girl who said that it was a village-wide blackout. When we pointed out that the stereo was still going full-blast in the tiny cinderblock building just outside our rooms, she told us that they had a generator.
Not wanting to stay in the dark, squicky rooms, we followed Abil and Beatriz back to the fiesta. The stench of beer and beer-soaked sweaty bodies reached us as soon as we stepped back into the desolate plaza. When we entered the community center (if it could be called that), the reek of alcohol was flagrantly fornicating with the odors of overcooked meat and something vinegar sharp. People were milling about, red-eyed, chatting, laughing, lost and staggering in alcoholic hazes.
Abil found someone willing to cook us a “snack”/early supper, so we went for a walk while she prepared it. We headed out of town, happy to leave the ruckus behind. Clouds obscured the snowy volcanic peaks we had come to see, but we set gamely off toward a herd of grazing llamas.
We soon had to turn our eyes from the living herd to watch out for the myriad llama bones littering our path, along with human dirt, glass, and piles of trash. We meandered down by the river to watch the aquatic grasses swaying and almost stepped on the carcass of a dead dog. Even llama skins, drying--rotting?--in a pile...
I tried to shake the feeling of unease and disgust that I was getting from the place,* but the blaring music from the village was still audible, a siren call that tempted us not. With regret, we made our way back to the plaza when it was time to eat, passing another dead dog, this time a puppy with its head bashed in.
For our meal, we were offered the choice between llama meat and eggs. We all chose eggs, and they were served with the typical combination of rice and french fries.** Convinced by Beatriz’s hope that the villagers might offer us a slice of party cake (there are at least 25 or 30), we decided to give the festival one more try.
We didn’t last long. Seeing men and women and kids not-quite-out-of-puberty wasted and senseless just isn’t a fun thing for me. I told Julien that despite having done all that traveling to get to Sajama, I would prefer to leave the next morning. After all we’d witnessed, Julien agreed. We had two people (our driver and the gatekeeper) tell us that there was one bus at 6:00 am on the morrow, and we asked Beatriz to confirm it with the villagers. Yes, several of them said, one bus tomorrow, 6:00 am.
We headed back to our still-dark rooms, but soon enough, the twilight proved that the little “hostess” girl had not been truthful: everyone in the village but us had electricity. Beatriz hunted down the girl, who lied and said that a cable was fried and her mother was drunk and and and... Beatriz cut off her excuses with a threat: If we didn’t get electricity in three seconds, we were not paying for our rooms.
In three seconds flat, ta da! Lights! The girl came by our rooms with two friends her age and asked us to pay for the night. We followed Abil and Beatriz’s lead and only give half, sure that as soon as we paid it all, the little minx would cut the lights again.
And then, irony! The entire village did have a blackout. We didn’t mind so much because we were tired anyway, and it meant a blessed end to the god-awful music.
Abil and Beatriz decided that was enough; they didn’t want to hang around either. They made plans to leave the next with us.
We climbed, fully dressed, into our sleeping bags, and sadly, the electricity came back on, along with the music. We were dozing when someone started tapping on our door. Even with my earplugs, I heard it. Julien said to ignore it, but it continued, getting more insistent. It was the girl again, wanting all of the money now because she wouldn’t be awake when we caught the 6:00 am bus (Can you recite with me now what time the bus is? You must remember it because, think back on the title of this post: it’s one bus you don’t want to miss).
We held firm and told her to leave us alone, she’d get the rest of the money in the morning. We’d leave it on the hallway table, we said.
Around 2:30, I woke, nervous the alarm wasn’t going to go off, and we were going to be stuck in Sajama another day. Good thing I checked because Julien had set the alarm but forgot to validate it. I went back to bed, but I heard two men whispering and hammering softly at something. Thoughts of Calvaire (see footnotes) in my head, my heart started thundering. Remembering that Julien was sleeping with his knife and that I was clothed and ready to jump out of bed should anyone bust into the room, finally helped me relax enough to doze again.
I sprung out of bed the moment the alarm rang, even faster than I moved on the morning of our Machu Picchu visit. I was just packing up my sleeping bag when I heard a motor outside the window. I pulled back the curtain and saw a minibus heading away to Patacamaya. Fearing it was our bus, I snatched up the phone and checked the time. It was only 5:40 am. No one leaves on time in Bolivia, much less 20 minutes early, so I relaxed. Somewhat. There was still a fear that that was our van.
We met Beatriz and Abil in the hallway, and we decided that we weren’t going to pay the remaining money for the rooms. The lies, petty tricks, and dirty sheets were too much. With steps bouncing, we set off to the plaza, happy to be leaving Sajama behind.
Only to find no van waiting. One villager after another wandered through--awfully early for people who should have hangovers--and told us, “Nope, won’t be another bus today. On Sunday the van leaves at 4:30 am. Every other day at 6. Today at 4:30.”
It was our bus I saw leaving an hour late.
Still, we didn’t lose hope. We saw a guy napping behind the steering wheel of a minibus with a sign in the windshield proclaiming he drove the Sajama-Patacamaya route. Julien woke him, and he said his van would leave at 6.
But 6 rolled around, and several more villagers told us there was no bus after 4:30, and the sleeper wasn’t ready. Beatriz went to see him, and he said that we’d be leaving an hour late because he didn’t feel well.
By 7, the man had disappeared. We hailed a woman who said that there was no bus at 7, but there would be one at 8:00, completely contrary to what everyone else told us about there only being one departure on Sundays. Abil asked if she’d cook breakfast for us, and she happily agreed, taking us into a dirt-floored hovel next to the van we were supposed to take at 6.
The sun was finally breaking through the clouds, so I went off to shoot some photos and try to clear the nasty feeling from my being that the village had instilled in me. I went back to breakfast on the table. Julien quietly informs me that the woman has decorated her house with posters because she often receives tourists. Seeing the piles of dusty goods, unwashed dishes, and lack of beds, I was pretty happy for the hostel, dirty sheets and all.
A 8:10, we were ready to leave and the driver fired up the engine. However, when I tried to board the van, he told me that it wasn’t time to go yet. First, we had to eat. We already ate, we informed him, but he insisted that he had to eat something and we should, too. We politely refused and asked him to hurry. The woman’s son came out and tried to get us to have some soup, too. When we told him no as well, out came the woman to convince us. We sent her back into the house with the message for the driver to hurry so we didn’t miss our bus for Oruro in Patacamaya.
We finally pulled out of the yard at 8:45. We stopped and picked up passengers, an elderly, er probably middle-age man and his wife, who reeked of the night’s fiesta. When Beatriz asked, they told her that, yes, they knew that a bus was leaving at that hour.
May I just interrupt myself to say WHAT THE HECK IS WRONG WITH THAT TOWN? Can no there tell the truth? We were asking for departure times, not where they hide all the entrance fees they get off tourists.
The driver stopped for one of the passengers to unhook the chain barring the exit from the village. The gatekeeper hustled out, and we tourists exchanged looks, thinking she was coming out to denounce us for not paying the rest of our hotel bill. But she only wanted a head count and we were on our way.
Sajama faded behind us, and I let out breath after breath, gaze fixed on the gorgeous volcanoes we came to see, trying to remember that there is beauty even in the ugliest of places and the adventures we remember the most are the ones that made us suffer just a bit...
*Although NOWHERE NEAR AS BAD OR WEIRD, Sajama reminded me of the terribly creepy, sicked-out village in the freaky, dark French movie, “Calvaire.”
** Two such starches, a healthy meal do not make!