The land was thirsty. The land was weary. The land was cold. The valley expanded evenly in every direction, a combination of hard packed dirt, withered mountain plants and exhausted rocks. Everything was dust; it blanketed the parched valley, writhed in swirling columns, and pulverized the earth. A barren gust assaulted the land, frigid and stinging; it pierced deep down into the arid bones of the ground. Monumental volcanoes crowned with snow stood watch far in the distance, their stark omnipotence adding to the coldness of the land.
I stepped off the bus and started towards a large boulder to relieve myself, the moisture was stolen from the land by the cold dry air, the world choked. The boulder that shielded me a resembled turtle hidden within its shell, an ancient giant, calcified, spending eternity hidden from the biting dust. I climbed onto his rocky shell and ran my eyes along the line of trucks that slithered out of the mountains like a metallic snake. The trucks sat motionless, rumbling loudly for fear of losing the heat of the engine and spouting dark grey fumes of smoke. The snake shivered and hissed and exhaled sulphur.
With the wave from the border guard, the head of the snake shifted into gear and began to pull itself forward through the valley. A chain reaction of shifting gears and revving engines called us back to our bus, where we scrambled up the steps and found our seats. The frigidly barren valley began to pass on both sides, the brush and rock and dust melded into streaked brush strokes, painted in dead shades of brown and grey, dust and cold. Only the mighty volcanoes remained clear, the rest of the world rushed by in a torrent of dust, the behemoths with their pure white slopes stood erect against the barrenness of the landscape around them.
Small streams of life began to trickle into the lifelessness of the valley, streams of life wrought from an impotent ocean of dust, streams that flowed like molten lava, steadfast as stone, flexible as steel. Small huts blossomed out of the ground, decrepit doors swaying limply in the breeze, dusty fields begging the sky for rain. Among them people moved, people with skin the colour of the dust around them. Their faces were baked by the sun, tough leather pulled over proud skulls, creased with grime filled lines that afforded them the wisdom and resilience of the land they were born from. Despite the speed of the bus their faces were as clear and as stark as the volcanoes that loomed over them. They seemed to be carved from stone; their facial bones protruding at straight angles, weathered faces, steadfast faces, defeated faces, remembering faces. Jet black hair clung to their foreheads and necks and their dark eyes shone brilliantly from behind their bronze skin.
The shanty houses began to multiply, began to increase in size, to expand in frequency, to diversify to shops and businesses, to surge into one another, merging, until there was no longer gaps between the settlements, simply a line of dusty coloured brick and wood straddling the road, with a myriad of weary dark faces mottling the landscape. The entire time we had been climbing higher, sloping upwards closer to the sky, closer to the cold, the road had hurtled forward through the valley, never shifting or turning, the metallic snake slithered forward towards where the land met its zenith, hissing loudly at the thin stream of buildings on either side, it reached the peak of the dead cold valley, it rushed forward, its shining scales of metal and rubber pushed towards the precipice, the sun hung low in the sky, waiting at the point where the land was highest, the great snake swung its head over the peak and for a second was dazed by the blinding rays of the sun.
I blinked and the snake could see again, from within a cradle of mountains the city erupted. A behemoth of steel and stone and man. Dusty red buildings and paved entrails bloomed out in every direction, they crawled up the sides of the mountains surrounding them, weaving upwards, latticing upon one another to reach the sky. The mountains cast their shadows across the city, and in turn the city blanketed the valley in noise and sulphur, out of the dust and cold and death of the valley there appeared a civilization, a civilization forged from tawny faces, dust, coca and history. A civilization that pulsated and surged, that struggled and fought, that bent and submitted, that never ceased to forget or to look forward. As the snake slithered its way down the side of the mountain and into the nest of steel and stone, I swore that I could hear the streets screaming.
During my studies at U. de Chile I was lucky enough to have one of my good buddies/old roommate fly down for the 2 months break in between semesters. We had planned, and at this point in my travels “plan” had become synonymous with picking a city and showing up to it with no real plans, to backpack through Bolivia and Peru, with a few definite destinations such as the Amazon in Bolivia and Machu Picchu in Peru. We met up with our other roommate from Ottawa who was studying at Vina del Mar a few hours north of Santiago, and together we set out to take on Bolivia.
We flew from Santiago to Arica, a Chilean town on the border of Bolivia. The timing wasn’t great and we arrived in Arica late at night, unable to grab a bus across the border so late and with plans to meet up with another Canadian guy from Vina the next morning, we set up camp in the airport. Now I am pretty good at falling asleep anywhere, as long as I have a hoodie to turn into a pillow I can take a nap in the dirt, kind of an expert at dirt naps, but sleeping in the airport for the first time was a hilarious experience. I opted to make a makeshift bed out of some hoodies and a pillow out of my trust MEC pack, one of my travel companions on the other hand put 100 pesos into a massage chair and when it reached the comfiest position had me pull the plug out of the wall so it would stay like that, while the other wandered off to some random bench to call his own. We did stay up from quite some time drinking maté and playing chess on a portable chess set I had bought that pitted the Spanish conquistadors against the Mapuche natives, I lost every single time to a move we dubbed “The French Curtains”.
When 5am rolled around we packed up our things in the dark and waved down a cab to head into the centre of Arica, a city that was distinctly different from anywhere I had been in Chile. Historically a part of Bolivia that was annexed during the war of the Pacific between Chile, Peru and Bolivia, both the city and the people felt different from what I had experienced during my time in Chile. Once in town, still waiting for the sun to come out, we found the bus station, which we were told wasn’t the best place to hangout during the night, and wandered around until we found the hostel of the Canadian guy we were meeting with. After shovelling out the classic politeness of a Canadian greeting we headed back to the station to buy our tickets. Unfortunately for us we didn’t find out that not only must you buy a ticket but pay a ‘bus station’ tax before being allowed on the bus, something that almost resulted in the bus taking off with our packs but without us. In the end we made it onto the bus and were en route through the dust and desert towards to Chilean-Bolivian border.
Four gringos with big smiles on their faces chattering away in English, we were unbelievably stoked to experience Bolivia, unfortunately we had a hiccup before we even made it into the country. I will refrain from going into too many details because of the legality, or should I say lack of legality of our border crossing into Bolivia. To sum up what is probably one of the best aspects of our trip, one of my travel companions did not bring his Canadian passport, and after arguing with the border police and being told he could not enter, was snuck across the border into Bolivia by the bus driver, welcome to South America!
Once all back on the bus, laughing about it, although somewhat nervously, we settled in for the next 6 hours or so it was going to take us to get to La Paz, the seat of government for Bolivia and an obvious stop for our journey into the Amazon. The bus ride was familiar to my travel through San Pedro de Atacama, everything was a desert and the horizon was populated with volcanoes that loomed over the world, peaked with white snow that shone brightly in the sun. Although there were almost no clouds in the sky and the sun beat down mercilessly on the ground, it was extremely cold. La Paz is officially the highest, in terms of altitude, all drug jokes aside, seat of government in the world, and the climbing altitude made the journey increasingly colder and the echoes of altitude sickness came creeping back. We stopped a few times and were able to stretch our legs and really take in the unreal landscapes around us, however after barely any sleep in the airport and the disadvantages of being 6’6 in a continent that doesn’t believe in leg space on buses, I was ready to reach La Paz.
By the time the sun began to set we reached the edges of the city, small communities and settlements that lined the street, all the buildings seemed to be made of the dust that blanketed the valley. Finally we reached the peak of the mountain and began our descent into what looks like a crater of an asteroid that left behind an entire city. The city begins in the centre of the valley and literally blossoms out and up the mountains on all sides, driving into La Paz the first time was awe-inspiring and will always be burned into my memory. We reached the bus station, collected our packs and headed out to find a hostel with a map that we could barely see in the dark.
Luckily enough we stumbled onto a hostel that offered beer made at the micro-brewery across the street, a very important factor for deciding on a potential hostel. We stashed our things away and did a quick venture around the hostel, within about 2 minutes from leaving the hostel I witnessed a little boy jump out of a mini bus, run across the sidewalk, squat over a patch of grass and proceed to.. I’m sure you get the picture. Instead of being disturbed by it, I realized that this was going to be the big culture shock I was looking for. Chile, although distinctly South-American, was very Eurocentric and westernized. Bolivia on the other hand had a population comprised mainly of native descendants, had a distinctively different history and culture, and I was excited to really experience something new. Bolivia, especially during the drive into La Paz and wandering around La Paz, would be my first encounter with extreme poverty and the disparity experienced by many people throughout this world. It was going to be an incredible eye-opener and learning experience for me.
We grabbed some food off the street and retired back to the hostel to enjoy a beer before heading to bed. We were only staying in La Paz the one night before heading to Rurrenabaque, the jumping off point into the Bolivian Amazon, the following morning.