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Eight Hours to Charazani

view from my bus window

The eight-hour bus ride to Charazani was uneventful. It was not a modern tourist bus like the one we took to Copacabana. This bus was at least as old as me, if not older. There was no heat and it was very very cold. The people who shared the bus with us were wrapped up in warm blankets – they’d known how cold it would be. They were not tourists, but native Bolivians traveling for work, traveling for family, traveling for Festival, traveling for a better life somewhere else.

I slept most of the way and when I wasn’t sleeping, I watched the landscape slip past the window. I tried not to look down because when I did, I saw nothing but the steep slope of jagged mountainside. The road we traveled was narrow and our bus hugged the edge so that it seemed one sharp turn would send us spiraling down the mountain in a flurry of stone and dust. Every few miles we came upon a herd of cattle and more than once I was sure we’d barrel right through them, but they always scattered in time. Two hours in we made a stop for food and toilets. Dave and Mike got off the bus to pee and came back with fried chicken and french fries. Possibly the best fried chicken and french fries I’ve ever tasted in my life. After that, the bus only stopped to let passengers off and never for more than a moment.

waiting for a different bus

roadside cattle

sheep grazing

8 hrs to Charazani

Midway through the trip they played a movie on an ancient little television. An American sci-fi movie dubbed in Spanish. A little boy, maybe six or seven, stood in the aisle gripping the armrest of Mike’s seat, eyes glued to the television as it lulled him into enchantment. His eyes were so wide, so full of awe, his mouth hung open just slightly and when the bus hit a bump and he lost his footing, he’d grab Mike’s shoulder or arm and hang on, eyes never leaving the television screen. I wanted to scoop him into my lap, bury my face in the top of his head, nibble the sugar at the back of his neck.

road to Charazani

Charazani from above

We saw Charazani long before we reached it. A cluster of brick buildings pressed into the mountainside. The closer we got, the less inviting it looked. When we finally pulled into the town square, my whole body was tense. I told myself it was because I’d been on a bus for eight hours – I just needed to get off and stretch my legs. But that wasn’t it. It was the people in the square who stopped what they were doing to watch the travelers disembark. Who froze in their tracks with slack faces and cold eyes and stared.

It was hot and I was sweating. Tired, hungry, bladder bursting, and sweating. We pulled our gear off the bus, now crusted with a layer of dirt, loaded it onto our backs and started walking. We knew there were three hostels in the village. The first one we tried was locked up, deserted, so we moved on. I only wanted a clean place to pee, a hot shower, and meal. After that, I didn’t care what happened.

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

In the Hours Before Dawn

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.

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