Thursday, August 5, 2010

On the Road in Bolivia

It’s always a good idea to take one’s life in one’s hands now and again, just to keep a sense of the value of life and health, right? Once in a while can be a daily occurrence here, I’ve found. And at times I can feel that my perspective of what is safe and what is really out of the question could become about as fuzzy as three day old leftovers in the fridge.

I’ve travelled in all manner of ways here (save bicycle and horse), but by far the most common mode of transport is car. This might be in a taxi or a mini-bus (full size buses are only for inter-city transport) or in a colectivo (a larger car or mini-van that travels between the urban and rural areas, and only leaves once full of passengers.)
It is always important to remember that laws (and the accompanying concepts of justice) will change from culture to culture. This includes the concept of “right of way.” Here in Bolivia it seems that it is not the pedestrian who has the right of way, and cars will regularly honk to hurry passengers across the street. I’ve more than once come near to denting the hood of a taxi or mini with my fist when they’ve decided to get too close. (That’s my fight response kicking in when flight would be impossible.)
Cars aren’t always honking to warn off pedestrians. It is also the accepted thing to do in order to cross almost all intersections. You see, traffic lights and stop signs are not terribly common, and rather than slow to a stop to ensure no other cars are coming, it really saves time to just honk and hope any other cars hear you. At least most streets are one way, so that simplifies the number of directions in which you have to focus your attentions.
At night there is less honking, and it is more common that cars will flash their headlights as they approach an intersection. In a fairly well lit town, this makes me cringe, as that flash of light is often very difficult to see. But then again so are many of the cars, because actually using your headlights is not an altogether common occurrence here, either. When I’ve asked about this strange habit (or rather lack of a habit), people have pointed out that the city is quite well lit, so you don’t really need to lose your headlights to see. When I bring up the idea that headlights are also useful as a way to be seen (rather than only to see) this seems to be a new idea for many. I’ve often dodged cars and motorcycles that I didn’t see coming down the street at night.
Headlights are not the only lights I find myself worrying about when it comes to riding in cars here in Bolivia. There are also the dashboard lights to be concerned about, or rather, to try my hardest to ignore, because they are almost always lit. My worst moment to date was when I found myself perched on the middle front seat of a minivan colectivo travelling from Oruro into the rural area of Caracollo. (“Wait,” you say, “since when to minivans have a middle front seat?” Well, a box and blanket squeezed in between the bucket seats is enough to make another fare earning seat, don’t you know!) So there I was, sans seat belt on a blanketed crate, cruising down the highway at highway speeds and trying not to look at the dashboard where the gas warning light, check engine light, the airbag light, and the anti-lock brake system light were all lit. (I comforted myself with the idea that it was nothing more an electrical short in the dash, and when I finally dismounted a half-hour later in Oruro I silently celebrated the fact that I hadn’t had to find out if my comforting imaginings were true or not.)

Anti-lock brakes? Well that was a newer Toyota minivan, but in reality most cars here are hardly so new. In fact, bolivian cars seem to have more lives than cats. One night I was riding in a taxi and trying to understand why there was a gaping hole in the dash where there should have been a glove box on the passenger side. Only slowly did it dawn on me that the gaping hole was the original location of steering column, which had been switched from the right hand side (British style) to the right hand side (as is used in most of the Americas.) So in essence, the driver was driving through the glove compartment.


The only ways to travel between cities here (unless one is lucky enough to own or know someone who owns a car) is to travel by bus or train. By far the most common and most thorough network is that of buses. This is how one travels between La Paz and Oruro and Cochabamba. The price is excellent, only three bucks! But for those three dollars, you are to some extent taking your life in your hands. Bus accidents are common, and there have been so many lately that even the Bolivians are remarking on the fact. I actually met a German man whose bus between La Paz and Oruro had been in a head-on collision two days prior. And one of the members of the parent association at a school Save the Children works with was injured in a bus accident in La Paz. Bus drivers will regularly pass slower trucks, and highways are often two lane affairs with nothing that resembles a shoulder, unless one counts either the valley below or the sharp face of the mountain on the other side. So, I always feel a little lucky to have arrived safely, even if the bus ride itself was intolerably nausea inducing.

I refer to travelling by train as the $15 luxury here in Bolivia. Safer by far and much more comfortable. The tracks extend south from Oruro only and are hardly what most people would call luxurious or smooth, but to me they make a lovely change from the rough roads and alarming driving habits. And the huge windows let you look out at the changing (or rather not changing all the much) landscape of the Altiplano (where I’ve decided that the sparse clumps of grass look like tribbles from the original Star Trek.)
All in all, travelling around Bolivia is easy and affordable, but rarely comfortable or altogether perfectly safe by North American standards. That said, it’s better to travel than to stay in one place. I can’t imagine staying in one place or not experiencing all that the world has to offer.

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