About this time last year, while sitting in a pub that prized itself on being the highest Irish-owned pub in the world, I was contemplating how best to steal a beer mug. The crime itself was something I’d been planning ever since I’d arrived in Peru with my small band of friends, but now that the moment had come, a deep sense of paranoia had gripped me. The space we were in was small and cosy. The furnishings were all wooden, and the tiny windows provided a limited view of the cobbled plaza outside. Although the pub was crowded, I was always within the eye line of any waiter or waitress who might glance in my direction.
The reason that I’d decided to steal a beer mug in the first place was because, while I was in Peru, I was missing out on a friend’s birthday in Santiago. A few months previously, as a housewarming gift, Fran had given me a beer mug that she herself had stolen, and now I wanted to return the favour.
The pub in which I found myself was called Paddy’s, and it was located in the Peruvian town of Cuzco, which seemed to have more tourists than locals. The predominant language being spoken about the place was English, but in a variety of accents. I was seated in the corner, a choice I’d made even before entering the establishment. I wanted to limit the angles by which I could be seen. My best bet, I figured, was to steal the mug off of someone else’s table. That way, if the mug’s absence was noticed while I was still there, the blame would be placed on other patrons. I was not only planning to steal, but to frame innocent people as well.
After scanning the room for some time I finally had my mark. There was a group of about half a dozen folks from the United States sitting next to us. They had pushed two tables together to accommodate all of them, and their space was littered with empty beer mugs. One missing glass wouldn’t be noticed right away.
Eventually they gathered their things and left, and in the wake of their departure I leaned over, snatched up a mug, and buried it deep in my friend’s handbag. From that moment I felt a powerful desire to get as far away from Paddy’s as possible, but I had to play it cool.
Moments later, a waitress came over. “Every thing alright over here?” she said.
“WHY?!” I said, calmly.
The waitress hesitated and then said, “I mean, can I get you guys anything else to drink?”
“NO!” I replied, wiping sweat from my brow. “WE JUST WANT TO PAY NOW!” The temperature in the room had risen to Sahara-like levels.
The waitress regarded me for an extended time. I didn’t want to look guilty so I forced myself to meet her gaze, blinking one eye at a time so that I wouldn’t break eye contact.
“Sure,” she said after a moment. “I’ll be right back.”
The bill was delivered swiftly and without comment, and before I knew it I was out in the sunlight with my gang of accomplices.
The only hurdle left, at that point, was that I still had about three weeks of travelling before I would be back in Santiago.
Travelling with a beer mug in your backpack can be frustrating. You must always remember to but your bag down carefully, and to take care not to shove things haphazardly into it lest something heavy crushes the glass. But overall, travelling around South America with it didn’t cause me any problems at all. I took it with me around Cuzco, and later to Machu Picchu. After that, I brought the mug across the border into Bolivia. The mug was with me when I cycled down the Death Road in La Paz. I had it with me on the overnight bus ride to Cochabamba, and then onward to Santa Cruz. I brought it with me on an endless bus ride to a rural town called Pasorapa, and then back again – 12 hours each way. Then I loaded the glass in question onto an airplane, and flew it to Santiago, where I was finally able to bring it safely to my apartment.
The worst was over. All that remained to me was to deliver it into the hands of my friend Fran, and that wouldn’t happen for another week or two because her weekends were often full.
Eventually, a convenient day arrived when a group of us agreed to meet at one of Santiago’s oldest and most famous watering holes – La Piojera. This rustic and rowdy bar near the center of the city was famous for the terremotos that it served. Now, if you don’t know, a terremoto (which means earthquake), is a potent alcoholic drink made from snake venom, nail polish remover, and ice cream*. One glass of the stuff goes down easily and deliciously, and when you stand up afterwards you find that the ground is moving violently beneath you – hence the name. La Piojera sells terremotos at such a furious rate that at any given time there are always at least six plastic cups on the bar being filled up with the exotic substance.
Some friends and I got there early in the day, before the place had filled up completely. This meant that we were able to secure a rather large table for ourselves in one corner of the room. Puddles of terremoto and empty plastic cups littered the floor, even at this early hour, so I had to keep my satchel on my lap. My satchel contained a bottle of water, a sweater for later, and Fran’s stolen beer mug.
Fran was running late, and while the rest of us waited for her we decided to order some finger food. I scraped my chair forward to better hear my friends over the din. The satchel shifted in my lap, and the stolen glass rolled out and exploded with an almighty pop all over the alcohol-soaked floor of La Piojera.
In the universal language of bar-related mishaps, every single individual in the bar, about 50 people to a man, exclaimed in unison:
It was interesting for me to take note that not a single patron questioned the existence of a glass container in place that used exclusively plastic cups.
The second point that amused me was that, at some point in the evening, a member of the staff was going to have to clean up the mess, and I could only imagine their bewilderment at having to clean up glass. Who brings their own mug to a bar?, they might inquire.
The third and most pressing point that crossed my mind was the terrible loss I had just suffered. My travelling companion was gone, relegated to the trash in a place so far from its origin and so much closer to sea level.
While I processed everything that had just happened, a flash of movement caught my eye and I looked up from the mess on the floor.
“Oh, hi Fran,” I said glumly.
Why do we travel? Well, according to this picture I found on the Internet, “We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.”
I guess that’s poetic and all, but I mostly travel in order to impress other people. In fact, if I could sum up my life’s motto in one pithy slogan it would be: “We travel in order to win every time we play Never Have I Ever.” It’s not as lyrical as the previous slogan, but write it out in curly pink script and slap it over a sepia photograph of a girl walking along some train tracks and I’m sure it’ll be a hit.
Speaking of doing cool things and then bragging about them, I recently returned from a trip to Bolivia (“Never have I ever been to Bolivia!”), and while I was there I went to a cocaine club (“Never have I ever been to a cocaine club!”), rode along the Death Road (“Never have I ever ridden along the Death Road!”), and took a 12-hour bus trip in a direction I didn’t want to go in (“Never have I ever done that thing I just said!”).
Now as interesting as cocaine clubs and Death Roads sound, I think it’s more important to investigate just how I managed to fail so spectacularly at taking a bus. Let’s start by looking at the facts:
I had a few days left in Bolivia, and my friend suggested I use the time to check out the quaint nearby town of Samaipata, which was a short bus ride away from Santa Cruz, where I was staying.
My ticket was purchased in a hurry, and the bus was boarded moments before it left the station.
I assumed the bus was going to go straight to Samaipata and stop there. I did not think to check the accuracy of this information.
My allocated seat was right at the back, against the window, in exactly the spot where a toilet is usually found. I was acutely aware of this because over the previous three weeks I’d taken several overnight buses, and my notoriously small bladder meant I was well-acquainted with relieving myself while in motion. The fact that this bus did not have a toilet didn’t faze me. I’d been told that the trip was only about three and a half hours long, so a toilet was hardly necessary. Besides, I’d been careful to keep my liquid intake to a minimum that morning.
I shuffled to the back of the bus, pummeled my backpack into the overhead rack, and made myself comfortable. Fortunately, I had the back row to myself, so even though I couldn’t recline my seat, I could still stretch my legs out to the side. That was probably the only thing that worked in my favour that day. That, and the fact that having celebrated a birthday party and a wedding over the previous two days with alcohol of questionable quality meant that I was feeling quite thoroughly poisoned and miserable. Perversely, this was a blessing because an appetite is exactly what you don’t want to have when you get unexpectedly trapped on a bus for 12 hours.
A few hours into my journey I noticed that my phone had ceased to function. I wasn’t too worried at first; the hostel I’d booked in Samaipata had promised wifi. I’d be connected with the world again in a matter of hours. But my lack of connectivity meant that I couldn’t check my location. The little dot showing me my location remained gray, and indicated that I was still in the heart of Santa Cruz. I had no idea where I was or how much time remained of my journey.
Four hours in, I was still calm. I’d learned that travel times in Bolivia were given as more of a guideline, and shouldn’t be taken literally. It was around that time that the tarmac ended and the bus began bouncing along a dirt road.
Six hours in, and the bus stopped for lunch. It was at this point that I began to worry. Stopping for lunch meant that there was still a great deal of travelling to do. No bus would stop for lunch twenty minutes outside of its destination. We were at a small restaurant in the middle of nowhere, with the name of the place written in white lettering on a Coca-Cola background. Inside there were maybe three tables, a fridge with soft drinks, and a small counter at which customers could place their orders. Around back there was, thankfully, a bathroom.
It was at this point that the first cricket ball of doubt began to smash through the window of my confidence. I made another attempt at using my GPS to find my location. Miraculously, the dead grey dot had sprung to life, and was now glowing a healthy blue. It indicated to me that I was some distance beyond Samaipata. I concluded that the map was wrong. Surely my malfunctioning phone, as well as my inhospitable location in the mountains, meant that the satellites were struggling to get a lock on my location.
I pulled the curtains of denial across the broken window in my mind.
So strong was my resolve that we’d reach a destination soon that I didn’t bother buying anything to eat at the little restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Besides, my stomach still wasn’t very open to the idea of food. At least I had the presence of mind to buy a bottle of water. Of course, I’d learned that water should be taken sparingly when travelling on buses that didn’t have toilets*.
Once the bus had set off again, I waited perhaps another half an hour before consulting my map again. The blue dot had moved noticeably further away from Samaipata, and I was forced to face the truth: I’d missed my stop, and I was being driven further and further into the middle of nowhere. But I kept my head. Another glance at the map showed me that I was heading in a westerly direction, closer to Cochabamba. Cochabamba was a town I’d stopped in on my way to Santa Cruz, so if I could just get there I knew I’d be able to carry on to La Paz, where I could catch my flight home.
So I carried on into the west, bouncing along down a dirt road that seemed to go on forever. The sun slowly went down, with the sky going from, you know, something pretty to nothing but gloomy darkness. I threw on my large coat, stretched out along the back row of seats, and tried to get some sleep.
At about thirty minutes past midnight – twelve hours after getting on the bus for the first time – I was awakened by the bus driver announcing that we had arrived at our final destination. I looked out my window to see where I had ended up. I had expected a terminal of sorts, a few other buses, a kiosk maybe. Even a toilet would have been nice.
All I got was half a wall. It was made of stone, and the top part of it had crumbled down years before. Beyond that I saw only darkness and stars. Somehow, this minor landmark, which rose no more than five feet off the ground and was perhaps three meters long, was the target that my bus driver had been aiming for since noon.
I stepped off the bus, my sneakered foot puffing up a thin cloud of coffee coloured dust as I did so. The remaining passengers were getting their larger bags from the storage compartment of the bus, and thereafter they quickly disappeared into the night, like figures in a dream. Opposite the Wall was an uninteresting building, locked up tight for the night. Further along the road I saw other buildings, all of them similarly boring and quiet, made of grey stone and only one story high. I asked the bus driver if there was a bus that went to Cochabamba. The driver (young, not unfriendly, yet lacking in compassion), gestured vaguely over the Wall and told me there was a plaza there, where I could catch a bus to Cochabama in the evening.
That was some good news, I guess. But it meant that I had to bide my time in a town where no one seemed to exist.
A funny thing had happened to me as I got off the bus. In the time it took me to walk up the aisle and descend the stairs, I made up my mind to sleep on the street. Based on the data immediately at my disposal – quiet town, late night – I concluded that no hostels or hotels would be in existence. Even if there was some kind of bed and breakfast, they surely wouldn’t open up for anyone at 01.00 in the morning. Besides, the day had already worked so fiercely against me, it only made sense that it would end with me sleeping on the street. And, to be perfectly honest, Dear Reader, there was a tiny voice in the back of my head whispering, “Never have I ever spent the night on the street…”
I had to look for someplace to settle down for the night, but before I did that I thought it would be prudent to scout out the plaza that the bus driver had mentioned. I wove through the streets, remaining carefully aware of the location of the bus in relation to me. If I got lost, I’d at least want to make it back towards the bus. It was the last vestige of civilization in this part of the world.
As I trudged, my footfalls softened by the dusty streets, I took careful note of the state of the non-existent sidewalk, looking for a potential doorway to sleep in. What I saw depressed me. The dusty roads spilled all the way up to the buildings, the doors of which closed smoothly into their frames, without so much as a step to allow me purchase. There was no shelter, and no clean surface for me to lie on. Even though I wasn’t shivering yet, the night was cold, and I was thankful for my coat.
Cresting a minor rise in the road, I spotted a church a few blocks over, its windows blazing with electric light. My spirits instantly lifted. It appeared that this place was better developed than I’d given it credit for. I headed in the church’s direction, and quickly discovered the plaza that the bus driver had referred to. Not surprisingly, nothing was open. Even the church, with its welcoming lights still burning, was locked up tight. But not all was lost. The plaza was well-kept and in its center, beneath a few trees, were long green benches wide enough for me to lie on. As far as places to spend the night went, I could have found worse. Not much worse, but as least I wasn’t going to have to lie down in the dust.
Being a dog person, I decided to follow in their habit and sniff around a bit before settling down for the night. Now that I knew where the plaza was, and that it existed, I felt a little bit better about the place I was in. A few blocks away, I discovered a sign jutting out of the side of a nondescript building. It said, “Pensión Tourista.” I knew what “tourista” meant, and a quick glace at my offline dictionary told me that “Pensión” meant “boardinghouse.”
I couldn’t believe my luck. There was actually a place for tourists to stay. There was no bell, so I knocked loudly on the door. After a few minutes, a voice greeted me from within. I asked it if there were beds available, and the voice said that, no, there were no beds available at this time. This news didn’t crush me. There was a certain sense of inevitability about it. In the back of my mind, sleeping on a bench was always going to happen. So I did not protest, or ask the voice if it knew of any alternatives. I just nodded my head, thanked the voice, and returned to the plaza. I went back to one of the long benches, lay down with my head on my backpack, and tried to fall asleep. The night was cold, but it was bearable.
Two hours later, at 03.00 in the morning, I woke up shivering. My legs, which were normally the last part of my body that ever felt the cold, were freezing. I knew I’d have to start walking in order to warm myself up. I remembered a scarf that I’d bought as a gift in Peru, and I scrambled to extract it for the extra warmth it might provide. No easy task since I was shaking so violently.
After walking around for a few minutes, I started to feel better. I began to wonder if I’d be able to keep walking until the sun came up, but the prospect depressed me. I kept thinking about how much I was learning about being homeless. The plaza had seemed nice, but I realized now how exposed it was to the wind. What I needed was someplace secluded, that could trap some of my body’s warmth and block the wind from getting to me. There were a few vehicles parked outside dormant buildings, and it quickly occurred to me that the back of a pickup truck would be the perfect solution. It would offer me protection from the wind, and it would be a relatively dust-free surface.
Despite my dire situation – I was tired, freezing, I hadn’t eaten in about 16 hours, and in the previous 12 hours I’d only had about half a bottle of water – I still felt pretty level headed. But the ease with which I was able to pull myself into the back of a stranger’s pickup truck without fear of trespassing made me think that perhaps desperation was making me lose my mind a very little bit.
The back of the pickup truck was slightly smaller than I imagined it would be, and I had to curl my legs a little in order to properly fit. I wasn’t much warmer than the plaza bench had been, and after a while I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to fall asleep again. I remember turning onto my back, my bent knees pointing up to the sky, and looking at the stars. Being this far away from any kind of factory meant that the night was awash with shining stars. At least that was beautiful. But after a few minutes of lying uncomfortably in the back of the world’s tiniest pickup truck, I realized that I was not going to be able to stay there for very long. I got out of the truck and walked a few meters up the road. There, on the corner, I spotted a sign stuck to the door of one of the dust-covered buildings. The sign was a simple A4 printout explaining that the building was a hostel of sorts, offering beds 24 hours a day.
Numbly, I rang the bell, and a few moments later a woman opened the door. I apologized for disturbing her so late, and asked her if there were beds available. She told me there were, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, and she led me onto the property, to a room that had three unoccupied beds. Even from the distance of a few feet, I could feel the warmth radiating from the room.
At this point I felt like I should have collapsed from relief, or begun crying in gratitude at this woman who’d saved my life, but instead I just nodded my head at the universe. It seemed so obvious, in that moment, that I had always been destined to find a bed. I realized then my own foolishness at being so determined to sleep on the street. I should have made more of an effort to find accommodation as soon as I got off the bus, rather than stubbornly trying to sleep out in the cold. I’d wasted about three hours before finding this place. Three hours that could have been spent under lovely warm sheets.
I paid for the night (afterwards the woman went back inside, and no joke, I never saw her again), brushed my teeth, and crawled underneath the covers of what was then the most comfortable bed in the world.
The next morning I was awoken by explosions popping off a few streets away.
“Great,” I thought, “I’ve wound up in one of those Purge towns, where everyone is busy killing everyone. This is definitely in line with how my trip has been going.”
I showered (naked), gathered my things, and went out to explore the town (clothed).
In the daylight, the town was marginally less uninteresting that it had been at night. For one, a few people were actually walking about, albeit glacially. Also, The Purge was still going on next door. Every few minutes a loud series of gun shots would crack open the silence. I quickly found out that the explosions were caused by some of the townsfolk who were setting off firecrackers as part of some kind of celebration. So I dialed my fear of getting murdered down to Orange Alert.
After some investigation, I learned several things.
There was no bus that went to Cochabamba.
The locals spoke mostly Castellano and Quechua.
The only bus out of there was one that went all the way back to Santa Cruz, the city I’d come from, and it left at 15.00.
The name of the town I was in was called Pasorapa.
The town of Pasorapa has a Wikipedia page so small that I read the whole thing by accident when I was looking to see if it did indeed have a Wikipedia page. Also, utterly coincidentally, the last five letters of Pasorapa form the name of a small town in Botswana in which I used to live – Orapa.
Now, the fact that people were celebrating with fireworks, as well as the observation that most shops and places of commerce were closed, suggests to me that perhaps I’d arrived in Pasorapa during a public holiday. But I’m from the big city, where small town backwardness is hilarious, so I’m going to ignore this fact.
The only meal I could find to eat was a meaty broth for five Bolivianas (which is dirt cheap). It was the first meal I’d had in about 24 hours, yet my state of health meant that I still wasn’t hungry. But to be fair, it was a good meal, and probably exactly what my body needed at that point. I also found a place that sold SIM cards, and I was able to get my phone working again, and alert people to where I’d wound up.
I was in the eye of the storm of my adventure. The town was quiet and the day was pleasant and warm. Perhaps the only exciting thing that happened to me that day was my encounter with one of the town’s 1 114 inhabitants (thanks Wikipedia, I guess). He was an old man who shook my hand and spoke to me in a language I didn’t much understand. He was drunk, and the stetson he was wearing suited him well. I was able to understand a few words that he said, and I gleaned that he was asking me about where I was from, and if I spoke Castellano or Quechua.
“¿Me entiendes?” was his repeated refrain.
Late in the afternoon, before catching my bus, I returned to my “hostel” to charge my phone before starting my trip back to Santa Cruz. My bed was still unmade, and the property seemed deserted. I had a strong feeling that I could have stayed there another night and my presence would not have been noticed. I bought liquids and snacks, and went back to the very same bus I’d been on the day before. What followed was an excruciatingly uncomfortable, yet wholly unremarkable, 12-hour trip all the way back to Santa Cruz. As the bus rattled on along miles and miles of dirt road, I reflected that I hadn’t taken any photos of the buildings because there was absolutely nothing in that town that attracted the eye. Sadly, I realised too late that the dull buildings would have made a worthwhile photograph in itself.
*I’m not going to note every time I went to the toilet in this blog, but just keep in mind that every time I had the chance, I took it.