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In the hours before dawn

It’s been weeks since I posted about Bolivia. Partly because life has been getting in the way and partly because this story was sort of difficult to write. It starts on our seventh day of travel, the morning of our fifth day in Bolivia, as we began the full-day journey that would lead us to the first day of our Andean trek. This was where things really started to get adventurous. If you’ve missed the previous posts, there is a list of all of them at the end of this post.

Our wake-up call was late the morning we left for Charazani. We’d asked for 4 a.m. but it was 4:25 when they called. We brushed our teeth, dressed in a hurry, stuffed our still-damp laundry in our packs. I was last out of the rooms, left to do a final idiot check, and by the time I made it to the darkened lobby we were checked out and our cab was loaded. Ten minutes later we were getting out of the cab on the pitch black streets of La Paz’s Cementario District.

We had visited the Cementario District our first day in La Paz and were enchanted by the sunny, bustling, charming area of the city. But two hours before dawn it might as well have been another planet. Most of the street stalls were closed up, their hulking forms casting dark shadows on the sidewalk. A few streetlamps leaked pale yellow spots of light that made the edges of shadows seem darker. Two buses were parked at the curb and people milled around. A woman called out, over and over, “Charazani! Charazani! Charazani!” It sounded like a song the way she chanted it. I was nervous. I feel uneasy in large cities in the early hours before dawn. It is, in my opinion, not a good time for tourists to be wandering about. I looked around and saw young mothers, babes at breast, and little old ladies with huge bundles on their backs. There were old men with oily faces who lurched and shouted and smelled of stale liquor. Young men skulked in the alley, their shoulders stooped and their eyes hard. We stood out with our pale skin and brand-new Patagonia clothing. My mind flashed to all those damn State Department warnings I’d read and I whispered a prayer for our safety.

We bought our bus tickets from the woman who chanted, “Charazani!” at the top of her voice. In his pidgin Spanish, Mike confirmed that our bus would leave at 6:30 a.m. The cabby that had dropped us off was idling by the curb, so Mike pulled me in for a quick kiss and said, “Our bus doesn’t leave for over an hour. You stay here with Dave. I’m going to take the cab back to the hotel to get that nalgene.”

That stupid nalgene. In our hurry to leave the hotel, it had been left, full of clean filtered water, on the floor of the hotel lobby.

For those of you who don’t know what a nalgene is, it is a type of refillable water bottle that hikers like to use. Nalgenes are about twenty bucks a pop; expensive, yes, but probably not worth leaving your wife and brother on a creepy South American street at 5:15 in the morning and nearly missing your bus to Charazani for. In Mike’s defense, he was sure it wouldn’t take him more than twenty minutes and he thought he had over an hour to kill. But still.

Mike’s cab melted into the dark and my stomach knotted. I helped Dave load our packs onto the bus and then he suggested we look for something to eat. I didn’t want to walk away from our gear. The luggage compartments were hanging wide open. Anyone could walk by and snatch something. We only packed necessities – we couldn’t afford to lose a thing. (Not even a nalgene.) We stood on the dark sidewalk and tried not to think about the giant targets stamped on our foreheads. I trained my eyes on our packs and stewed over Mike taking off. I was about to start bitching about it when a man, swaying and bleary eyed, staggered towards us. He stared at me, opened his mouth, and leaned in.

“No gracias, señor.” I didn’t know what else to say. He took a step closer. He made the shapes of words with his mouth but no sound came out. He was standing too close to me, much, much too close. “No gracias, señor. No!” I tried to sound stern. I wanted him to walk away, but he leaned in so that he was almost touching me, his fish-mouth opening and closing, and there was something in his eyes I couldn’t recognize. I didn’t know if he was drunk, sick, or working up the courage to do something horrible. I was afraid it was the latter and I was terrified. I started shouting. “No! No! No gracias!” I didn’t care that people turned and stared. “No señor! No!” He leaned in closer, a fraction of an inch, his mouth opening and closing, his eyes unblinking. I made my face angry and shouted again, “No! No! No!” He stepped back. Turned around. Walked away. All the breath left my body and my knees began to shake. There was movement near the bus. I heard the luggage compartment slam shut, saw the passenger doors close. And then, with our packs in its belly, our bus pulled away from the curb.

It was then that I went mad. I screamed. “No! No! All our stuff’s on that bus!” Without thinking I ran to it, now slowly moving up the block. The bus stopped suddenly and I yanked open the luggage doors and started dragging our packs into the street. My limbs sparkled with adrenaline. Dave was still on the sidewalk where I’d left him. I screamed at him. “Help me!” The woman who had sold us the tickets rushed over, her expression confounded. She said something in Spanish that I couldn’t understand. I shouted at her. “The bus isn’t supposed to leave until 6:30! It’s only 5:30!” I was too upset to care that she couldn’t understand me either. I hoped my hysteria would stall the bus. I didn’t know what we’d do if it left without us. Haul all one hundred fifty pounds of gear thirty minutes back to our hotel on foot in the pitch dark while drunk men leered at us? “My husband went back to the hotel, he’ll be right back, please wait! Seis treinta! Seis treinta! Mi esposo seis treinta!”

I’ll never forget the look of startled confusion on Mike’s face when he found us, wide-eyed and pleading with the ticket lady, our gear in a pile at our feet. I nearly burst into tears at the sight of him. He wanted to know what was going on so I told him, a flood of words spilling into the night.

Mike spoke to the woman and realized he’d misunderstood their earlier conversation. The bus was scheduled to leave El Alto at 6:30 a.m., so it had to leave La Paz at 5:30. My fit had stalled the bus so Mike and Dave loaded our gear back into the undercarriage. We boarded, settled into our assigned seats, but I couldn’t stop shaking. I was furious and coming off of a terrible fright. First the creepy man on the street, then the bus pulling away with all of our gear. I’d been sure we were going to be stranded in La Paz with nothing but the sweet rolls we’d been saving for breakfast. It was awful. I buried my face in Mike’s chest and told him how scared I’d been. About the crazy man who stood too close and the feeling that I was on my own to protect myself. The way my belly had sunk to my toes when the bus pulled away. He stroked my hair and apologized over and over. Promised not to go off like that again. He whispered to me,”‘No me moleste.’ That’s what you say if anyone bothers you. ‘No me moleste’.” I repeated it back like a mantra, over and over, until I finally fell asleep.

L.A. to Mexico City to Tapachula…

…to Lima to Santa Cruz to La Paz

La Paz = Love

Cementario del Distrito


Isla del Sol en las Fotografias

Trekking Isla del Sol

Trekking Isla del Sol, One Step at a Time

Evening in Yampupata

The Village Awakens

Trucha Frita

Back in Copacabana (Finally)


El Alto

Dinner in La Paz

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  • Holy crap, that morning sounds fairly terrifying and awful!! So glad it all worked out… 

    • It was totally one of the scariest experiences on the trip. Not helped at all by my too-vivid imagination.

  • ‘Cita

    I’m happy that  it was ONLY your imagination.  U have hair on your amazeballs….

    • For the record, I’m not convinced it was ONLY my imagination. It just wasn’t helped by my imagination. And, um, thank you for saying I have hairy amazeballs. You have no idea… 🙂

  • I has be saided it before and I’m a gonna be sayin’ it again… YOU need to write for a living.

    Oh, BTW, in the future if you don’t speak the language, nut-punch is universal for ‘go away’.

    • I would love nothing more than to write for a living. But how? Where do I even begin?
      Nut-punch, huh? I’ll have to remember that.

    • Anonymous


  • Oh my god, what a terrifying ordeal.  I’m so glad you guys (and your stuff) are ok.  And you would think that “NO NO NO” is the same in any language…eesh.

  • Carpe Diem

    Can’t believe that not knowing a simple word in spanish and being not really bold enough to face different cultures on your own (not on a typical touristy-take a pic & tell your friends’ group) , your husband leaves you for a silly 20 dollars bottle???  Bolivia it’s a great country for adventure and to leave behind all those “needs” american “buy it now” culture make people to crave on.