Our bus ride from La Paz to Potosi was a once in a life time opportunity… one of those ‘learning type opportunities’ that you slot under useful experiences in the back of your mind, should you ever be in the same space again… to ensure you make different decisions next time.
It was a night bus, and our hostel in La Paz (Wild Rovers) had booked the bus tickets for us. Given the cost of the ticket, I assumed they had booked us onto an El Dorado bus, or some other favourable bus company with pricier tickets. Not so much. Wild Rovers booked us with the shittiest bus company available, which would have been fine had they not charged us five times the amount of El Dorado (the most expensive bus company). Lesson learnt: go-to-bus-station-and-book-own bus-ticket-in-the-future-do-not-trust-hostel. But, it did give me a great story. So, let me tell you that story….
It was a night bus, ‘Trans – Copacabana’ was the name. Lesson two: Don’t ever book with a bus company that has the word ‘Copacabana’ in the name (note the second time for learning this lesson). It’s bound to be shitty… interesting, but shitty. We were the only foreigners on the bus and stood out like torches with our mops of blonde hair. Our night began with the driver giving a sales pitch for magnetic jewellery to the passengers, which, had I been in the market for magnetic jewellery, I would have gone for. He followed this up with letting people onto the bus to beg money from passengers… being the only foreigners we were targeted, which didn’t really leave me feeling so safe.
The driver then locked us all in the back while he made numerous unscheduled stops around La Paz, picking up boxes of goodies and anyone who wanted to join the party. This was around the time when we noticed that every other person on the bus had all of their belongings with them… and we were the only ones who had left our backpacks underneath the bus. A few men finally pushed their way through the door at one random side-of-the-road stop, only to find the drivers cabin full of people too. A few of which then decided to come and sleep in the isle, so we all got cosy. We finally fell asleep only to be awoken by ‘the toilet break’. This was a moment not to be missed. It consisted of the bus pulling up in the middle of nowhere and all the passengers getting out of the bus, lining up on the right side of the bus and peeing on the side of the road together. They then went around the other side of the bus and into a restaurant. Unfortunately my bladder didn’t feel the need to participate, so I missed out on the joint peeing experience… which also meant I had to hold on for the rest of the journey (lesson 3, pee when you have the chance, as long as the pee is on the outside and your trousers stay dry, you’re up on the alternative option). We finally made in into Potosi at 6am, and thankfully our backpacks were still in the hold, and my trousers were still dry… al be it barely
So, lessons learnt: 1. Never should you let a hostel book your bus tickets, even a great and well known hostel such as Wild Rovers. Always go to the bus terminal and book it yourself, at least you’ll get what you paid for 2. If the word ‘Copacabana’ is in any way incorporated into the name, consider re-considering. 3.With the exception of bathroom breaks, if ever in the above situation, take note of what the locals do and do the same, ie. if they take they’re belongings onto the bus, do the same and take your backpack on the bus with you and put it at your feet, and pee when there’s the option to pee. There’s uncomfortable and there’s… uncomfortable. Choose the uncomfortable you’re more comfortable with.
Potosi is an old mining town. From what I could gather from our tour guide the government closed the mines and the miners now have co-operatives and run the mines themselves. This sounds like a good thing, profits going back to the community and all, right?? Wrong. The silver has gone and the cooperatives are pretty much scraping out the last dregs of zinc and other metals. They’ve completely de-regulated the mines, meaning awful working conditions, no safety to speak of, they smoke and drink 96% alcohol whilst down in the mines which causes an array of accidents. And the worst part is it’s all self imposed. The cooperative lets 16 yr olds work in the mines when government regulations were an 18 yr old minimum. The cooperative also elects a president. This president gets a salary off the other miners, a fancy car and a driver… while down in the mines the tracks are all buckled and conditions are horrendous. The conditions set by the cooperative are actually worse than previous government regulations. What an eye opener. I always assumed that when given the opportunity, people would prefer equality and fairness rather than a small power elite at the expense of the masses… Potosi showed me that I was wrong.
Our guide was Julio, who use to work in the mines when he was young. We was a stocky aggressive man and, as it turned out, amazingly ignorant and an absolutely awful tour guide. We were all given green waterproof clothes, big gumboots, helmets and torches. We were meant to have masks to guard against the fumes but our guide didn’t believe in them, so no masks for us. On route to the mines our guide bullied us all into buying ‘gifts for the miners’ as he reported that “all westerners are rich, so you can afford it”. We finally got to the mines and our guide handed over 60 Bolivianos for our group, we’d had to pay the cooperative 80 each and I couldn’t help but wonder who the rest of the money was benefiting. The tour through the mines was 3 hours down small dark passageways. After about 45 mins I had seen enough and our guide was becoming too nasty for my liking, so one of the miners took me out while the rest of the group went on.
I happily sat outside in the dirt for two hours decked out in my green gear and helmet. A few older miners were lovely and sat down and had a chat, they laughed at me for being ‘too scared to stay inside’. Eh, laugh away, I value my life more. At one point a lady came up to me asking for coca leaves. When I said I’d given them away she tried to take my bag. Which is when I repeated the above in a more forceful tone and gave her the death stare… seemed to work a treat.
The rest of the group finally showed up an hour late, and I found that I’d made the right decision in turning back. The tour went a lot deeper and breathing became difficult, especially with no mask to keep out the fumes. The guide became even more aggressive, taking people’s water to give to the miners they passed. The group also passed an area with old government safety regulations, including signs and nets to protect the miners. The tour guide assured the group that the cooperative would never bother with this sort of thing, and thought that this was good. Seriously. Our guide also told us that as the miners are working underground, they worship a ‘devil’ of sorts, and make offerings and sacrifices to keep the ‘devil thing’ happy. He then went on the explain that sometimes this includes telling a new miner to go into an area they know is dangerous, it collapses, he dies, they see this as a sacrifice to the devil… Yes, really. By this point, not only had I came to the conclusion that the idea of a ‘co-operative’ is completely lost here, but that there’s also a certain amount of insanity going on. So, that was the mines in Potosi. Something I would never want to experience again.
The one great thing about the day? We got to light a stick of dynamite and watch it explode. That was kinda cool.
When we arrived back, we checked into a hostel and managed to get our own room. Potosi is a small town, so when we found a cafe for lunch it was full of everyone from the hostel. We all started chatting and swapped tips on tours in the salt flats. It was a welcome change to the clicky groups of cool kids I’d encountered along the trail so far. We only stayed the one night and left the following morning.
As it turned out we were in for even more of a treat when trying to leave Potosi than when we were trying to get there. We learnt our lesson from the previous journey and went to the bus station the night before to book our tickets. This consisted of a small street with massive buses parked along side little ticket booths. We found an ok looking one with a nice bus out front and brought our tickets with Trans-American. The lady assured us it would be the same bus the next day and proudly pointed to the framed photos of 2 lovely big shiny buses on the wall. Happy with that.
We arrived the next morning, waited with an array of Irish and Israeli travellers until our lady told us it was time. She pointed to the other side of the road to a small minibus with the bumper falling off and bags being loaded onto the roof. “Diana Tours” she says, with a big smile and a nod of her head. “No, Trans-American” we said. “No… Diana tours” she said.
We waved goodbye to the picture of the nice shiny bus on the wall and boarded our chicken bus in the rain.
We managed to fit one pack on the roof and the other at our feet, and found a seat to tuck into for the ride. I’m writing this 2 hours into the ride. So far we’ve made an unscheduled hour long stop for the driver to have lunch (not that we knew this until he got back on the bus) and have picked up about 9 extra people along the way, all of which are sitting in the isle. So I’m appreciating my seat even more. The scenery looks like it’s straight out of Roadrunner and I’m thinking the five hour journey could easily become eight. My knees are up around my ears as my backpack is under our feet, but I’m counting myself lucky as my travel buddie’s backpack is on the roof… in the pouring rain.
I’m looking out the window at the huge potholes in the clay road which resemble murky pools in the pissing rain, and I find that now… instead of hoping to arrive without my bag being stolen, I’m happy to just arrive alive. What a journey…