12 November 2011

Welcome to Bolivia!

The Litoral bus to La Paz left the bus station at Cusco soon after 10pm on Friday 28 October, with me sitting in seat 2, right up front behind the driver, next to a young male traveller – I have no idea of his nationality, though he spoke Spanish like a native, so maybe he was South American of some description. It was comfortable enough, and they gave us thick, cosy blankets, so I snoozed on and off till we reached Puno about 5am. We only stopped there, on the roadside, to let off passengers, then continued on to Despaguerdo for the border crossing from Peru to Bolivia.

Here, Litoral let us down, I later discovered, as they were meant to guide us through the process. Instead, one of the drivers simply told us, in Spanish, to get off the bus and line up. A local official went up and down handing out forms to the locals, but wouldn’t give any to the gringos, not just me. After an hour and a half, I made it to the head of the queue and had my passport stamped out of Peru. At the other side of the river bridge that forms the border, I was stopped by a Bolivian official and marched in to their office. They asked about drugs and checked how much money I had and searched my bag, but there was no paperwork to complete. Two other gringos were treated the same way so I didn’t think anything of it. And it wasn’t till I got back to the bus that I realised my passport hadn’t been stamped – it was too late to go back. And it wasn’t till I was checking in to the hotel in La Paz that I discovered what a problem the lack of a stamp and official piece of paper I was also supposed to have completed would be – I could be fined when I left the country so would have to spend Monday morning visiting the Immigration office in Uyuni to get it sorted. I later discovered this is a common scam to get tourists to pay the fine, which is then pocketed by the immigration officials. It wasn’t a good start to my holiday!

But the rest of the day was great. Tony, the travel agency’s guy, was at the bus station waiting for me, even though we were 1½ hours late arriving, and I was whizzed off in a van to my hotel – which was nice, with free internet in reception and friendly staff, and I had a large comfortable room. Tony gave me all the vouchers for my future travel and said he would meet me the next day.

I was feeling very tired, and the business of my immigration paperwork made me feel a bit down. But I hadn’t eaten since the previous evening so I knew I had to pick myself up and go out. And I was so glad I did.

The city was alive, full of people and buses and cars. It has motorways and overpasses and roundabouts, things Cusco does not. Its suburban houses and buildings seem mostly to be made of red brick, but in the city centre it has some interesting old architecture, buildings that look European but not necessarily Spanish colonial.

I had a late lunch in a delightful restaurant that looked like it hadn’t changed from the 1920s, with old family portraits and film star photos hung in elegant frames on the walls, and memorabilia stacked on every available surface – an old cash register, typewriter, camera, phonograph – and art deco light fittings that a collector in the West would die for! And the food was pretty good too.

When I stepped back out on to the street, with 3 empanadas in a little bag for my supper, there was a parade in progress on the other side of the street. It was some kind of traditional cultural display – and it was fun! Some of the characters were weird – heavily wrinkled old men dressed up in white lacy petticoats with angel wings on their backs, one performer with a green dragon head, guys with doll-like masks and bulging blue eyes. The performers were quite happy to be photographed and, when I showed them the photos, we shared a laugh and simple conversation. There was a carnival atmosphere and my smiles were quickly returned. I returned to the hotel, very tired but having had a lovely afternoon!


Look at that face!


I shared a laugh with these two old gentlemen

A knitted mask

A doll-like mask

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