Drenched in sweat, eyes drooping. Spirits broken. As the doors of the rickety, ancient Bolivian van swung open, the stench accosted our nostrils and the heat, a tidal wave, engulfed us. The previous passengers plodded off the vehicle in a steady stream of fatigue and dismay. ‘Enjoy the ride,’ remarked one perspiring American to a group of us; his irony wasn’t overly appreciated due to the contact with hot, sticky skin which its delivery seemed to necessitate.
I’ll admit that the journey ahead looked hellish at best. Piling on to the dilapidated vehicle as the impatient crowd surged forward and swept me along with it (willing or no) I couldn’t escape the feeling that the ride wouldn’t exactly rival the luxury and excitement of my 6-year-old limousine birthday party. Even the drunken taxi rides back home to our student digs covered in someone else’s vomit seemed a fond memory beside the picture I was now presented with.
Momentarily my attention was snatched from self-pity – the tussle for seats had begun.
Catapulted into a state of hyperactivity by some inexplicable yet instinctive initiative from my body, my vision sharpened as my eyes dashed across the truck’s interior (only recently revealed to our hungry senses), frantically assessing the desperate situation. Empty – but not for long. Seconds were all it took for the predators to descend; in the moment which I spent securing myself to the railings on either side of me (thus preventing any foul play from the dazed latecomers behind), the clued-up itinerants had made their move. Bums were super-glued to seats (or so they would have us believe) and already the smugly apologetic expressions were being flung across the bus without shame. ‘You snooze, you lose,’ their arrogant smirks sniggered as they bagsied neighbouring chairs with bulky holdalls.
Then came the next wave: a sea of self-righteous tutters. Flooding the narrow aisles, they provided such a display of hypocrisy one would think it funny (if not so close to tears) as they sharply reprimanded the greedy vultures who seemed to believe that their speed and savagery entitled them to all the space they could lay their hands upon, whilst simultaneously exploiting the position of authority gained by this mission of right to park their own weary, but lawful, backsides.
Deploring Brits stood distraught and horrified, too distressed to bemoan the dereliction of a queuing regime and all its comforts; vociferous Americans hollered at the chaotic scene rather than to any particular individual to ‘sit the hell down’; and apparently insensible locals continued to load their stock of fowl, cattle and all things in between onto the overcrowded inferno, as if furthering the tumultuous bedlam were their sole and seemingly gratifying aim.
80 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Yankees had the right idea, I thought, as I contemplated relieving some of the stress of my dire situation in the form of a deafening, yet thoroughly cathartic, wail of wretchedness and desperation. Best not, my sensible self whispered. Ahead of me the aisle had swiftly cleared amid the confusion so, with a partially deliberate wobble which intimated my feeble state to the irate, clammy gentleman who fidgeted grudgingly behind me, I ventured forth. Remarkably, I managed to obtain one of the few remaining seats and installed myself gratefully beside one grinning South American chap and his curious collection of livestock. Politely refusing his offer to change seats with the bleating flock, I commented that I much preferred the window (despite my panicked and growing feeling of claustrophobia).
I breathed a heady sigh of relief.
Soon I realised my mistake, however, as the stench of unwashed Bolivian male wafted towards me (apparently from all corners of the vessel) through the thick, sticky air. Homesick didn’t begin to cover the scope of my emotions; woebegone was a much more accurate approximation.
Hardly able to stop myself from gagging on the stifling odour which seemed to consume me, I did a pretty half-hearted job of maintaining a ‘charmed’ smile as the chirpy farmer beside me chuckled at his frankly ferocious fleet of beasts. Noting, as I attempted in vain to close each of my senses to my lamentable situation, that the goat beside me had just worsened the stench ten-fold (which my companion found not only laughable but thoroughly endearing), I sank further into the filthy bus seat and sobbed.
The knowledge that the only possible emotion which I could adopt at this point was resignation offered me little comfort in such a tragic position. Gazing out of the dusty window at the acres of baking desert which stretched before us all I could do was hope, pray, that the travel agent had been erring on the side of caution when she described the accommodation which awaited me as ‘basic at best’.
After all, she had told me that there are public washing facilities in convenient locations all across South America. Based on my experience to date, I could deduce that either the locals were wholly ignorant of such amenities, or she had most definitely been working on commission.
And so I remained, suppressing frequent outbursts of hysteria, whilst, with painstaking slowness, the hours passed, until all thirty-six of them lay exhausted behind us. We pulled up outside the tiny bus stop where a group of bright-eyed, bushy haired students eagerly awaited our arrival. As the doors of the now-abhorred Bolivian bus swung open to release its stock of debilitated prisoners, we poured forth to breathe in the fresh (by comparison) draughts of air which now welcomed us. All of my energy was now focused upon gaining freedom from that suffocating cell and its smothering stench; but as I dismounted the vehicle I couldn’t resist catching the eye of a particularly high-spirited girl who stood amid a gaggle of boisterous tourists. ‘Enjoy the ride,’ I remarked, and smiled.