It had all started so well. Uyuni, several thousand metres up in the Bolivian Altiplano, was a traveller’s hub with a frontier feel. Backpackers had either just arrived across the Salar de Uyuni salt lake from the lunar-like desolation of northern Chile, as had I, or were about to make that journey. From there I was headed for Sucre, in Bolivia’s interior.
My faltering Spanish had held up sufficiently when I bought my ticket, but it faced a sterner test the following day when it came to actually getting the bus. I had a green ticket whilst everyone else had a red one. This was a problem. I never quite understood why, but the result? I was sent away to wander the dusty streets of Uyuni’s bus station to try and find the green ticket bus, using a combination of pidgin Spanish, pointing and when all else failed, exasperated English. Each bus company pointed me to another until I was eventually, and predictably, sent back to where I started.
This time though, I was allowed to board. What had changed? I neither knew nor cared as I finally clambered on and squeezed into my seat next to a local lady in traditional Bolivian dress, offering a polite "disculpa" by way of apology. I can’t imagine she was overly pleased to be sat next to a long limbed foreigner in such cramped conditions, and even less so as I strained to see outside, checking that my backpack was indeed being loaded onto the roof.
Problems over? It appeared so as we rumbled out of Uyuni along narrow, pitted roads through lush valleys and up steep mountain sides. We passed through one-street villages with mud-brick houses and open drainage, as the sun shone brightly above in the late afternoon. The air inside the bus was warm and airy, given the open-plan windows, in contrast to outside where the altitude kept temperatures down.
It was on the edge of one of these Altiplano villages where the bus, which had strained and jerked whenever faced with another bump or climb, decided enough was enough. The prolonged attempts of the drivers to get it going again proved futile. Curious villagers, no doubt pleased at the distraction from their daily work, wandered over to offer advice or to simply stare and laugh at our predicament.
As it became apparent this bus was going nowhere, people began to disembark and stretch their legs. We would all be waiting here until another bus came along, and nobody could say when that might be. I stared out across the valley from our spot on the side of the road in this village halfway up the hill. A small river far below trickled slowly along, making far better progress than we were. I looked back at the village, its muddy streets in some parts dusty, in others wet through with washing water and drainage.
My fellow passengers were either sitting by the road, staring unhelpfully at the engine, or wandering off in search of a snack. The village shop owner’s gap-toothed grin betrayed that he could scarcely believe his luck as his restful afternoon was suddenly interrupted with some brisk business. Then again, this probably happened all the time.
I bought some crisps and a beer and sat by the stricken bus, stretched out and settled in. I didn’t want to be there, but there was nothing I could do about it until another bus arrived. Despite this acceptance, some thoughts ran through my head. Would another bus come, or would I have to stay there for the night? Would I reach Sucre that day? All other buses only went as far as Potosi. Would I be stuck there instead?
The answers would all come in time. But at that moment, all I could do was sit with my beer and my view and hope for the best.