Bolivia generally isn’t known for its elegant, efficient highways and state of the art road traffic management systems. If you take a second out of your day to picture a Bolivian road you’ll probably picture something dusty, something half-finished, something unsafe, and you’re probably seeing some kind of wild animal – a sheep or alpaca maybe – standing around doing nothing much.
Well, you’re right. I’d love to sit here and be able to dispel that image and call you a stereotyping meanie, but I can’t. Why? Because I actually found myself involved in the building of an impromptu road in the middle of god knows where. Yes, friends, I built a road.
I was on a bus from La Paz to Cusco, by way of a simple change in a town called Puno on the edge of Lake Titicaca. That was the plan anyway. It should have been a really simple journey and although I was travelling alone at this point, my Spanish was passable — okay, I could ask the tired-looking woman in the bus station, “Cusco. Mañana?”, then hand over some money. Easy. I wasn’t expecting this to be difficult.
I got on the bus late the next afternoon without any problem at all and found myself sitting next to a fellow Brit. His name was Rob and he said he’d been living in Bolivia for two years teaching English. He’d done the same in Saudi Arabia for a few years before that. He was half a dozen years older than I was at the time and I was in awe of him I suppose. He had a life I wanted. And it turned out his hometown was a place called St Ives, a village about 10 miles outside of my hometown of Cambridge. Serendipity or what?
Anyway, we chatted for a while, then we suddenly looked out the window and realised we were about to die. There was no road out of the window at all. There was just a 30 foot drop and, I repeat, no road beneath us. The bus’s wheels were scrabbling around in vain on loose stone on a road that had been winding upwards for a while. I was sure I could feel the bus wobbling up and down like they do in the movies, right before a last-gasp hand from Tom Cruise as the bus drops off the edge and explodes in a glorious fireball.
Obviously the fireball didn’t happen, nor did an appearance of a Tom Cruise (not even an Adrien Brody) and we survived that scare and continued on this road. People began whispering and translations got fumbled around six different languages but eventually news filtered through that this wasn’t the road we were supposed to be on. Apparently locals were on strike about low wages and were blockading the main roads so we were on an alternate route.
Only the alternate route turned out not to have been finished. The road dwindled into dirt path and then nothing more than flat ground. Then it stopped being flat. We rolled to a stop, tried to back up, couldn’t, tried again to move forward, couldn’t. The driver barked some unhappy words and everyone got off the bus. We were stopped in loose gravel in front of a tiny slope which we evidently couldn’t go forward nor reverse from.
After a lot of standing around everyone started trying to pile the biggest, flattest rocks they could find in front of the bus’s wheels. Then someone found some odd-sized planks of wood and laid those on top of our rocks. We’d built a road.
Somehow this giant coach managed to not flatten this makeshift road and we managed to get back onto flat ground. High fives and clapping commenced. “I’ve never done that before,” Rob said to me.
Our euphoria was short-lived. As if we were puppets in some novel where the author loathes his characters, we soon ran into a huge, uncrossable ditch. It came out of nowhere and separated us from a path that actually looked like it’d go somewhere. There were no planks, no rocks, no anything. I wish I could say we found a way around it by some heaven-sent lightning destroying a huge tree or something equally preposterous but in the end we had to turn around and go back exactly the way we came. That’s how life goes sometimes. No happy ending.
Or maybe the lesson in all this is that life sometimes makes us go the long way to find the simple solution. Who the fuck knows. Point is, we got to Puno eventually. Then the ride from there to Cusco was all sorts of crazy but I’ll tell you about that later.