Mendoza, Argentina to Santa Cruz, Boliva.
Start time, noon April 17th. Arrival, 2am April 19th.
When Dan headed North to Bolivia and Machia animal park, he had some border issues.... I was prepared for some nonsense but hoped it might not be quite as hard for me, after all, I speak some Spanish by now, have 3 months of south America under my belt. blah blah blah.
I start at the bus station, asking every bus company for a bus that goes direct to Santa Cruz. no beans. International buses run to Peru, Uraguay and Chile... but no cross over into Bolivia. I return and check the internet. nothing solid, reputable looking. Even if I could buy a Bolivian ticket online there are no companies I'd be happy giving my credit card info too. no beans.
So I'm flying kind of blind in... and when my brother did it he got stuck in a border town for 3 days.... so my expectations are for not an easy day(s). but, you know, here goes nothing. I buy a ticket to the border. (Salvator Mazza crossing to Potsoi (?) bus then from neighboring Yacuiba to Santa Cruz is the plan...)
it's a 28 hour bus ride to the border and I have crap luck with Argentine buses. So far, 3 out of 6 have broken down on me though everyone else tells me it's not usual. this one breaks down at the 24 hour mark, I am the only whitie on the bus. standing water/murky puddles everywhere and everyone covering themselves with DEET like it's going out of style. There is, after all a Denge Fever epidemic with something like 30,000 people in Northern Argentina infected. It's not the best of places for the bus to break down.... A few people not so far from their destination call a cab, including a woman about my age and her gorgeous 7 year old daughter. I smile at the kid and she smiles back shyly. She holds a naked baby doll, completely unadorned except for some hair drawn in around the ears in blue ball point pen. Her eyes could break any heart as she clutches that doll to her like it was the most important thing to save in the whole world. and perhaps it was...
Eventually another bus heading the same direction pulls over and picks us up.
All the non-Bolivian looking types get off at the next stop, leaving only about half a dozen of us for the last hour of the ride. The driver's wing man comes up to me and sounds very concerned. Do I have a place to stay? um, no. do I need one? well.... do you have a reservation on a bus on the other side of the border? um, no. wasn't possible. etc. etc. this is all making me nervous. We get off the bus and I am immediately swarmed by people trying to call me cabs, asking me where I want to go and trying to take my arm and lead me places. After 28 hours on a bus I'm dazed beyond belief but hold it together. The bus driver's wingman reappears, tells me to take a cab to immigration and if there are any problems come back to the station and go to this window and they'll help me find a place to stay.
I only understand this much after asking 3 times and telling him he really must speak slower. but fine. ok. he tells me very seriously, glancing around, WATCH YOUR BAG for the tenth time. ok.
I get in a cab, bag in my lap and hope they aren't going to sell me into white slavery. I, unfortunately, know that I need to find an ATM to successfully cross both borders. but I have enough ARG money for a cab and the potential, you've-overstayed-your-visa-by-a-day fee (50 Argentine pesos).
Argentine immigration goes smoothly with no fee and I walk across the bridge to Bolivia. There is a street market five miles long that I walk along looking for where Bolivian immigration is. Eventually, after about 15 minutes walking, I get to a cross street and someone catches my attention. I ask where the long distance bus terminal is and they flag a bus for me. I get on the bus realizing that I have only 100 Boiviano notes and no coins. crap.
The bus's door has directions written in Japanese on it. I feel a little like I'm in the twilight zone. I also realize that the man who caught my attention could have been a slave trader or something. I look around the bus. hmmm, no one else with bags. no other gringas. well, breathe and look sharp, I think.
I get to the long distance bus terminal, paying with an Argentine peso, and bus driver gives a little honk as I get down to the street. Immediately women start running toward me. They ask where I'm going, Santa Cruz. and start trying to steer me in their direction. I'm not as sold as they would like and so they grab hold of my arms and backpack straps trying to guide me to their bus office. This is so not cool. The company the loudest one is from is called "American Bus" and looks dodgy as hell. Another lady is pulling me in another direction. More hawkers are approaching by the dozens. they are all touching me. I'm so tired I feel I could just drop onto the 90 degree cement and pass out. I try to come up with the Spanish for GET YOUR FUCKING HANDS OFF ME but my mind is blank. This is all so not cool. I'm surrounded.
A woman slightly older and not as loud as the rest asks where I'm going, Santa Cruz, and points to a decent looking bus and says it's her company. I ask how much. 40 bolivianos. sounds cheap. (14USD=100Bs) ok. she is the only one who is not touching me and so I shake off the others and follow her. sigh of relief. the women have all let go.
The bus leaves at 8. It is now 4 in the afternoon. Immigration, however, is back at the border. I am, nonetheless convinced to buy the ticket. I'll take the risk that I won't be able to get back in time. I change my left over Argentine pesos and Chilean Pesos into Bolivianos and pay the woman. says she'll hold onto my bag for me but I decline. I'll keep my crap with my thank you very much...
I then hail a cab back to the border.
the cabs in Bolivia are normal cars with tiny, sometimes hand written, signs that say "taxi." sketchy as fuck. no ID. no meter. we get near immigration and I ask how much. I already feel like a sucker. 12.5 bolivianos. I have no idea what the rate should be. I pay the man.
I get to immigration. I have only some of the things I need. I don't have photocopies of my yellow fever card and passport. nor do I have the 135 USD or 1050 Bolivianos for the visa fee. no problem. Where's an ATM? back in town. near the long distance bus station in fact... arg. the immigration officer sees my look of oh-dear-god-I'm-too-exhausted-and-might-just-break-into-tears look on my face and assures me it's only an 8 minute cab ride. just get the cab driver to wait for you, he tells me. ok. fine.
first I get copies of my passport and yellow fever card and check they are ok. I also still have left over passport style pictures. check. ok. all I need is cash. back to town in a taxi, money not a problem to withdraw. sigh of relief. back to immigration. I ask the cabbie how much? mmm, this probably makes me a double sucker. this time the cab is 50 bolivianos.... um.... crap. I'm tired and a pushover.
I have faithfully played the part of the gullible pushover gringa. But I comfort myself that in first world money 50 Bs will buy you only a cheap beer in Tokyo. The world is so weird.
I push on.
I fill out the same information 5 different times at the border, pay them the cash, they put a colorful sticker in my passport (I'm actually starting to worry about running out of pages...) and stamp it multiple times with different information.
An army looking guy, as soon as the stamps and forms are finished, tells me to hurry and follow him. I stuff my passport back in my waist money belt as I hurry down the street after him. He's trying to hail me a long distance looking bus and telling me important details about my visa (only good for 5 years, but doesn't matter because my passports only good for 3 more anyway, re-entry stuff....) as I hurry after him in a crowded street and he yells at the double decker buses.
We catch one. He tells them I'm going to Santa Cruz. I assume this means they will drop me off at the long distance bus station again. Thank god, I don't need to take another cab. A Nick Cage in Vietnam flick is playing, the air conditioning is on. I can relax....
Two Bolivian men are sitting across from me and begin making friendly conversation. I'm so trying to be game for being friendly. The usual where are you from? what are you doing? Estados Unidos. traveling and studying spanish. Oh how nice. Some talk about visas. something about Bolivians getting visas to America... I don't really know. Something about how his brother is in America or wants to go or something and he's really not a bad guy at all. and wouldn't it be easier to get a visa if we all went together and when was I going back to the states.
Suddenly, I conjure up a boyfriend. A rich American boyfriend. I smile dreamily. Yeah, left him in Argentina but will see him soon.
the bolivian man looks disappointed. He asks if I can have a different boyfriend in every country I go to? Isn't that how American's do it? I shake my head very sadly. oh no. I'm a very faithful girl. I don't know how anyone else does it... but not me. I couldn't possibly.
They get off at the long distance bus terminal, the border town of Yacuiba their final destination. I wonder how many foreign girls they try to marry every day and if the rejections ever dampen their spirits.
I try to get off too. But why? the wingman of the driver asks. Aren't you going to Santa Cruz? Well, yes. but after all my ticket is not for this bus.
He looks at my ticket in the dark bus. Oh, this is obviously a fake. It doesn't have a date on it. um.... but isn't it right over. but it's too dark and the ticket is in his hands. Where did you buy it? I point. he shakes his head. Wouldn't you prefer this bus anyway? we have food, air conditioning, movies.
and it's true. I don't want to move. I'm so exhasuted. The sun is setting on the border town highlighted as both a Dengue Fever and Malaria epidemic zone. The mosquitoes are sharpening their talons, not to mention the dozens of women who's tickets I did not buy.
How much? 100 Bs. ok. fine. give me food. here's cash. I'm too tired.
The wingman named Wardo tells me all about Boliva and Santa Cruz and makes sure I have everything I want. Food. Coca-cola. endless conversation (errr, that I kinda want.) He points out a river where people are fishing and then the monument to fish in the small neighboring town. He hopes I like Bolivia as much as the rest of South America. He thinks it's stupid they charge Americans so much at the border. It's not like Americans are going to want to move to Bolivia, he says. He's heard of the animal refuge I'm going to and has fantastic things to say.
I eventually apologetically tell him I must sleep. But thank you.
The bus arrives in Santa Cruz at 2 a.m. The night is hot and dark. This was not supposed to happen. I have so far tried very hard not to arrive in the middle of the night in a city I don't know. Especially with out a reservation. My hostel reservation is for the following night... but I decide to go there anyway. If they are full maybe they'll take pity and I can sleep in a corner with a mop or something. I so don't care. I just want to be safe and sleep already.
I get in a cab. Give the directions. He knows the hostel. 12 Bs. (a fair price, now that I know about these things)
I ring the doorbell and it feels like it takes ages for someone to answer. But they do. And they have a bed. I write my name over and over on all their paperwork, crawl into bed and fall asleep in all my clothes.
A full day to recover. A day and a half to do nothing but write and lay about by their pool. My friend Anthony from Japan has joined me and tonight we catch another bus, this one toward the interior of the country and the animal refuge. The same one Dan went to. I wonder if I'll walk the same bear.
It's hot and beautiful here. The flowering trees that were so beautiful when I arrived in Buenos Aires in February and slowly lost their petals during my 6 weeks there are in full bloom here.
The adventures continue...