Monday, March 11, 2013

Stop, collide, survive ... Bolivian road safety

I’ve cycled a mountain bike down Bolivia’s infamous “Death Road” near La Paz and made the nerve-racking trip back up in a bus.  The loose gravel, the well-publicised death toll, not to mention the sheer 600 metre drops off the edge, made it pretty scary but that experience pales in comparison to the bus ride from Santa Cruz, near the Brazilian border, to the city of Sucre.

I was immediately sceptical about the state of the bus when I managed to bargain the price of the ticket down to 50 Bolivianos, about £5 or $7.  There were photos of shiny, modern looking buses plastered on the walls.  “Semi-cama” (semi-bed) promised the lady who accosted me at the bus station, showing me a photo of some comfortable-looking reclining seats.  It takes 16 hours she explained, which in South American time means it would probably take at least 20.  I reluctantly handed over the cash and was given a hand-written ticket.

The bus was an hour late and when it finally arrived all my doubts were confirmed.  Not exactly the sparkling vehicle depicted in the ticket office, more like a beaten up school bus, but it would have to do.  The levers on the side of the seats indicated that in the past they did recline but those days had long passed.  Air conditioning was controlled by opening and closing the windows.  This was also convenient for the hordes of ladies waiting by the roadside to bombard passing buses trying to sell snacks and drinks to commuters.  There was no toilet to be found, only the promise of three loo breaks along the way.  So all in all, the state of the bus was pretty much as I had suspected.  I was a little unnerved though by the complete lack of seatbelts, considering Bolivian bus drivers are notorious for being drunk, falling asleep and generally being cowboys behind the wheel.

Soon enough I was sitting (bolt upright) in my seat, Ipod set to shuffle, eye mask at the ready and we were on the road.  Just as I was thinking the bus trip might not be as bad as I initially expected the paved road ran out and we started bumping along a rocky, dirt road.  After the sun set and the lights went out it was time to try and sleep, which proved almost impossible because of the jerking motion of the bus on the rocky road and the fine dust blowing in through the open windows.

We were stopped twice by the police, ironically not concerned about assessing the roadworthiness of our bus, but about checking that the bus was carrying a first aid kit.  The kit was about the size of a child’s lunchbox and contained little more than a bandage and a few bandaids, all of which would be extremely handy in the likely event of a crash.  However, it passed inspection and we were allowed on our way.

I had just nodded off when I was woken again by a jolt of the bus and the sound of steel-on-steel.  I glanced to my left to find the trailer of a large truck within centimetres of my window and flush against the top of the windows behind me.  The driver tried to inch the bus forward but it pretty quickly became apparent that the windows were about to shatter and the roof of the bus would be gouged open like a tin can if we continued.  Everyone on the bus quickly evacuated and spent the next hour sitting on the side of the road.  Unfortunately this gave me ample time to contemplate the state of the road, which I hadn’t been able to see in the dark and I knew that there would be no more sleeping.

The bus driver had driven up an embankment to try and pass the truck, even though the section of road was wide enough for only one vehicle.  The bus had ended up wedged against the truck at a 45 degree angle. 

How many Bolivians does it take to change a light bulb you ask?  Well if this situation was anything to go by, dozens!  Bolivian men spilled out of trucks and buses that were now banked up along the road to come and stand around, arms folded, inspecting the situation.  Meanwhile the Bolivian women sat on the side of the road, swaddling their children as if nothing remarkable had happened, and giggling at the gringoes taking photos.  After at least an hour they managed to place enough large rocks under the bus to get it upright enough to free it from the truck with only minor damage.

Now wide awake and gripping the seat for dear life, we bumped along the road for another couple of hours until we were forced to stop behind a long line of banked up buses and trucks.  It was pitch black but we all shuffled off the bus bleary-eyed and used whatever light we had to wander along to the cause of the traffic jam.  An overturned truck was the culprit and it didn’t look like it was being moved anytime soon.  We were in the middle of nowhere, on a narrow dirt road with a steep drop on one side and a rise on the other.  The sky was clear, the milky way looked amazing and I happened to look up just in time to catch a shooting star.  At this point I thought it was highly probably I would die on this bus trip so you can imagine what I wished for.  At least now the bus was stationary I could get some sleep.

There was light in the sky when we got moving again and I was hoping the rest of the bus ride would be uneventful but it wasn’t to be.  Some genius had decided to place his new full-size whipper-snipper in the overhead rack above my head and it came crashing down with a thud as we rounded a bend.  Thankfully it landed in the aisle, missing my head by inches.  The owner proceeded to put the machine back up into the overhead rack, while I tried to protest in the best Spanish we could muster.  Apparently he couldn’t see how this was in any way dangerous and it took at least 10 minutes to convince him to lie it on the floor.  It was a good thing we did because the road was one hairpin bend after another for much of the rest of the trip.

Nineteen hours after we left Santa Cruz we pulled into the bus station in Sucre.  I stepped off the bus exhausted and covered in a thick layer of brown dirt, desperately needing a shower, food and sleep.  But I was alive, uninjured and thanking my lucky star I survived!

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