Several weeks ago, I was in a bookstore in Rio de Janeiro buying coffee. The cashier, a friendly middle-aged Brazilian woman looked at me curiously. She knew that I was a foreigner but couldn’t pinpoint from where. “Boliviana?” she asked. I smiled and replied, “No, Americana.”
“Why would she think I was Bolivian?” I thought. I wasn’t offended but I was curious. I had actually never thought of visiting Bolivia before that encounter. That’s all it took. “I want to go to there.”
Fast forward to a few days ago. I took a bus from Argentina to the Argentina/Bolivia border and crossed with relative ease. Once I was in Bolivia, I rested at a cute, simple hostel not far from the border. I rested and watched TV (a Portlandia marathon in Bolivia, who knew?!?) and prepared for another bus ride to Uyuni.
The next day, I arrived to the bus station and it was just how you would imagine a bus station to be, no frills. Although, there was one difference. Upon entering the door of the station, travelers are surrounded by a group of vendors shouting and competing for you to purchase a ticket from their company. It’s only funny when you’re on the outside looking in. I had already purchased my ticket online so I was able to walk directly to the counter of my bus with confidence. After checking in, I waited a few hours for my bus, which I didn’t really mind because I have lots of things to keep me busy. I purchased some snacks and a quart of apple ‘drink’, the majority of which I consumed while I waited. The bus arrived and we piled in.
We weren’t 30 minutes into the 10-hour trip when we stopped for what I could only assume was customs. The customs officers climbed aboard the bus with flashlights in hand looking under seats, in overhead compartments, everywhere. They found several bags belonging to what appeared to be a family who had packed multiple cartons of white whine (I was nosey and peeked in the bags as the officers stored them next to my seat, which was near the door.) They confiscated several cartons of wine after much pleading and arguing. What I gathered from the whole ordeal was that the family had purchased the wine outside of Bolivia and was planning to sell it in Bolivia, which according to the customs officer was “prohibido.”
That took about 15 minutes to sort and we were back on the road. Now that I wasn’t distracted, I began to look toward the back of the bus where the bathroom is typically located. There wasn’t one. I assumed it was on the lower deck but I remembered that the luggage was stored there so it was logistically impossible. I didn’t have to use the bathroom at that moment but my brain was several hours ahead of me. Then panic set in: “THERE IS NO BATHROOM ON THIS BUS!” I tried to talk myself down. Surely, they will stop at a rest stop on the way, everyone will get off and grab peanut M&M’s and Cokes. My hopefulness had turned into delirium. I thought to myself, just try to sleep and maybe you’ll experience a miracle and not have to go (although you drank almost a quart of apple drink).
A few hours later, and like clockwork, I needed to go. Thankfully, only minutes after I had this realization, the bus stopped. The attendant walked up the steps and yelled “Bano!”
“YES! YES!” I thought. I breathed a sigh of relief as about a dozen people whizzed past me, down the stairs and out the door. I stood up preparing to follow them. It was dark but not too dark that I couldn’t see clearly. There was no building. The ‘bano’ was the side of the road. I saw men walking away from the bus 10-15 feet with their backs turned and women squatting behind dirt mounds.
“Oh, Lawd!” I haven’t reached a level of maturity that would allow me to use the bathroom, basically exposed in public! Nope. I sat in my seat completely uncomfortable but with my dignity intact.
The total trip to central Bolivia was approximately 24 hours between 2 buses. I’m looking forward to discovering Bolivia and I can’t tell you how thankful I am when I see the word “bano” somewhere.