Flipped a coin at the terminal in Santa Cruz and settled on Trinidad, not entirely sure what I would do there but confident that it was at least halfway to Rurrenabaque, the gateway to the Bolivian Amazon. Bus terminals are not the prettiest parts of any town, but this one’s chaos was particularly oppressive. I’m talking unaccompanied minors with dirty faces. Beggars. Overflowing trash cans. Corners that have definitely been urinated in recently. People pouring in and out of the wide double doors, pushing and shoving and shouting. Nothing to do in times like these but to pull up a free chair, wrap the straps of your bags around your legs, and stare. And spout platitudes.
The overnight journey to Trinidad was uneventful. At some point after the witching hour the cool little lady next to me and I shared a lemonade and a cigarette under an awning as a tropical drizzle lifted some of the new heat. We both slept soundly until 5am, when she poked me in the ribs and said I’d better hurry and get out, or the bus will leave with me still on it. Groggy and uncertain about this place, I waited for my backpack to be hauled out after a two-tiered cage full of little chickens. Chirpy and unaware of their fate, the chicks and I shared at least one quality. That is, being unaware of our fate.
I didn’t even bother leaving the terminal that morning. It was still dark when I acquiesced and bought a bus ticket straight to Rurrenabaque, scheduled to leave at 7am. After all, it was only 400km away, and I doubted that the trip would really take 10 hours as I was told it would. That’s just crazy talk.
Well. A non-specific indefinite delay meant that we were still in Trinidad’s terminal at noon that day when I woke up from a long nap, legs a little sunburnt due to the fact that I was sleeping with them stretched out of the bus window – shoeless and shameless. I woke up when the bus rattled to life, a sound that nearly made me weep with joy. We were on our way at last, and I would be in Rurre by midnight, for sure.
A dirt road led us out of Trinidad and past wetlands on both sides, big white stork-like birds traipsing on thin legs through shallow waters, poking their long beaks through the lily leaves in order to acquire lunch (something I had failed to do). Birds of prey mocked gravity, floating and flapping high up in the blue sky. Massive palm trees – what I now realise are banana trees – stood perfectly still in the windless afternoon. The ride was slow and bumpy; all the better to take in the sights.
We were ferried over the Rio Mamore on what is basically an extremely large wooden plank, bus and all, which is pushed around and over the river by a much smaller wooden motorised kayak. The transfer took ages. The general wetness of the area means the river bank is actually just a landslidey mud pool, and I watched for ages as a couple of jovenes used shovels to create a thoroughfare for the bus. And then again on the opposite side.
About five minutes after leaving the river, the bus came to a stop. The same mud that had made crossing the river a time-consuming affair was now thwarting our plans. For a while, we just stood there. The bus driver’s assistant got out and ran off and came back about 20 minutes later. Judging by the activity in the bus, he must have asked for assistance of some kind. Out climbed a bunch of the men and off they went. I stuck my legs back out the window.
Hours passed. More dudes from the buses that had accumulated behind us walked towards the problem, too. Some came back quickly, others took longer to do so – these ones usually covered in mud up to their thighs. More hours passed. The sun was getting lower, and we didn’t move. I wondered whether I would end up spending some time in Trinidad after all; whether it was possible at all to double back.
When the bus took off at dusk strangers cheered and smiled at each other. In the dark, the shoes and the jerseys came back on and new positions were devised to soothe some of the pain that had descended on back and butt.
It was 5am when I got off in Rurre, 24 hours after arriving in Trinidad, waiting along with other tourists for the sun to rise so that a hostel can be found. It was quiet and hot, tropical and different, slow dawn and boredom punctuated by a group of men jogging in formation around and around the block, chanting some kind of army anthem, training for god knows what, I never have understood exercise. When there was some light, I walked alone through the empty streets from one end of town to the other, knocked on two closed doors before being allowed in at Santa Ana Hostel.
In the end, it took 33 hours to travel the 938km from Santa Cruz to Rurrenabaque. I don’t know how the rich travel through this part of Bolivia – I suppose they fly – but everyone else is sure to not be in a hurry. Because you simply have no idea how long it is going to take, or what you might encounter while you try to get there. Makes me laugh now, when I think about how long I thought it took to get to Puerto Varas in Chile – these long bus rides have become a way of life. And not a shitty way either.