A few years ago a progressive Bolivian politician tried to instigate a revolutionary rule preventing the nations’s bus drivers from drinking alcohol while transporting its unsuspecting citizens around the country’s precarious mountain roads.
The bus drivers responded with what all Bolivians would consider a perfectly sensible course of action – they went on strike.
Bus transport, the main and often only form of transport in Bolivia, ground to a halt and the upstart politician in question was forced to back down and forget his ridiculous notion that bus drivers should be sober while on duty.
I was told this story the day before I crossed the border from La Quiaca in Argentina to Villazon in Bolivia, aware I was facing an 18 hour bus journey to La Paz. It did not fill me with confidence.
The same day a charming Argentinian told me with a concerned smile I must be careful with the food in Bolivia as he had never succeeded in visiting the neighbouring country without suffering a severe stomach upset.
And the buses have no loos, another person kindly added.
In the circumstances it went pretty well. I have made it to La Paz without being driven off a cliff or being sick.
I have not slept and lay curled up shivering throughout the night as we swayed through the mountains only to be dumped dazed, confused and freezing in the dark 6am madness of La Paz bus station. But I have made it nonetheless.
Like all land-based national borders, the bridge crossing from La Quiaca to Villazon is strangely arbitrary. You are stamped in and out and that’s it, 30 seconds walk and you are in a different country with a different culture, history, laws, government, food. Stray dogs cross freely between the two, trotting over the bridge to presumably whichever country smells more enticing, as if highlighting what a laughable human construct a national border really is.
But the moment you step off the bridge into Villazon it is clear you have entered a different country. The traditional Bolivian dress, the way people look and talk – an incomprehensible mix of Spanish and Quechuan – the street food and the increased general shabbiness denoting a poorer and less developed country.
But I liked Bolivia almost the moment I entered it despite the immediate realisation this would be a trickier place to travel than Argentina.
It is a country of organised chaos. Things seem to work, most of the time, but in a totally chaotic and inexplicable way.
As if to cement the country’s reputation for ‘huelgas’ – strikes – we had barely stepped off the bridge when a large protest group came marching towards us through Villazon waving banners and chanting their dissatisfaction.
We were swept up and carried along with them down the main street where I was able to ascertain it was a strike by the coca leaf growers association although what they were demonstrating about I could not work out.
Prices have fallen by about a factor of ten since crossing the border which is a blessed relief. The bus to La Paz cost just £8.
I am currently chugging coffee in an attempt to summon the energy to go out and explore this bizarre seeming city as I have no intention of lingering here more than a day. Lake Titicaca is already calling to me…