The Day I Lost Everything I Owned

Zur deutschen Fassung dieser Geschichte.


On my last day in Bolivia, I had bought a bus ticket from La Paz to Puno in Perú. When the bus made a stop for lunch in Copacabana and the driver said “the bus will continue at 1:30 pm two blocks from here,” I thought: “Great, I have two hours to walk around town.” Copacabana has some fun things to observe during a lunch break.

way of the cross to Calvary in Copacabana

Naturally, I left all my belongings on the bus. Not only is Bolivia the safest country in South America, but who wants to steal two bags, weighing 30 kg and consisting mainly of books and notebooks and maps?

At 1:20 pm, I return to the described point of departure and don’t see the bus. Okay, I am thinking, maybe it’s somewhere else.

To readers unfamiliar with bus stations in Copacabana, Karachi or Kathmandu, I need to set the scenery a bit: There is no real station, the buses just all go to the main square. Because there are many more buses than space, the square fills up fast, with buses backlogging through the side streets and side alleys to side streets. In between, there are hundreds of ticket vendors, food stalls, taxis, travel agents, musicians, people selling hope in the form of lottery tickets, Aymara priests, an escaped lama, a butcher chasing after the lama, and a little lost traveler like me.

I thought I would recognize the bus because it was colorful, but I quickly discover that all buses in Bolivia are as colorful as if designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

img_4724

As the minutes in the scorching sun are progressing, trepidation sets in.

I ask one of the bus drivers if he happens to know where the 1:30 bus to Puno will leave from. “That’s my bus. Hop on in, we are leaving right now,” he says, using ahorita for right now, which in South American Spanish can meaning anything from “I was just about to close the door” to “let me first have lunch and then call all of my children to remind them to do their homework, before I get together for a meeting with the other bus drivers to discuss whether the bus drivers’ union fund should make payouts to the widow of a bus driver who got killed in an accident, although he was in default with his union membership contributions and although some drivers say that he didn’t really like his wife anyway, but then we’ll really set off for Puno.” But I don’t mind, for I am not in a hurry. In my time in the country, I have become bolivianized and all the more relaxed for it.

I am however worried because he clearly is a different driver with a different bus. Confused and causing confusion, I ask him if my luggage is on the bus already.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” he replies, as politely as he can.

“I left my luggage on the green bus with which I came from La Paz this morning, because I thought that bus will continue to Puno,” I explain.

“Oh, no. That bus is on the way back to La Paz already.”

Damn.

All the stuff I own, all the possessions with which I emigrated, everything is in those two bags. This may seem little to people who have houses and kitchen pots and winter coats and stuff, but my goal is to reduce it even more, so that everything fits into one backpack. Unfortunately, I really don’t like e-books.

“I have to leave now. Do you want to get on?”, the driver urges me.

I have already paid for the ticket, but finding my luggage again will be even harder once I will be in Perú.

“No thanks.”

The driver looks at me as if I am a bit stupid. And maybe I really haven’t been the brightest star in the sky today.

As the bus pulls out from the mayhem of transport options, towards the nearby border, I begin to think about all the things I have lost. The clothes are neither many, nor important. Only the loss of my Gabor hat, which I bought from a Roma trader in Transylvania, would be sad. I wouldn’t even mind the loss of my computer, my camera and my phone. Cleverly, I always buy the cheapest ones.

No, what I really grieve about, what I regret, what gets me slightly agitated is the loss of my notebooks. For many years already, I have been collecting thoughts, drafting poems and writing stories. Some of them created on location in a castle in Romania, on a ship crossing the Atlantic, or overlooking Lake Titicaca. Situations, memories and thoughts that could not possibly be recreated.

It’s a big loss, but I wouldn’t want to call it a waste. After all, I enjoy writing while I do it, almost independently of whether anyone will ever read it. But on the other hand, I also enjoy telling stories, especially as I know that not all of you will visit all these strange places yourselves. And if you do, you won’t live through the same adventures, if only because you will be smarter than me.

Less important to me, but probably more important to the readers of this blog are the almost 10,000 unpublished photos from Iran to Guernsey, stored on the computer which is now on the way to La Paz.

Luckily, I was very talkative this morning and chatted with the bus driver. I remember his name: Victor. At the square where all the buses arrive and mingle, I am looking for a bus from the same company and ask the driver if he knows Victor.

“The short one with a belly?”, he asks.

“Not an exceptionally big belly.”

“Yes, I know him.”

I explain the situation, and the very kind and helpful driver calls Victor. He is already beyond the ferry across the Strait of Tiquina, where he could have easily passed my luggage to another driver going in my direction. But he will work something out, he promises.

ferry Tiquina

The friendly bus driver sees that I am still nervous and tells, no almost orders me: “Don’t worry! We will work something out. Just go for lunch or for a walk and come back here at 3 pm.”

Worrying about having to start writing and photographing from scratch again – and about the lost toothbrush -, I cannot enjoy the lunch break. What the bus drivers don’t know, what you don’t know yet, and what nobody else should know, is that having lost all of my possessions is only one of my problems that day: I have been staying in Bolivia illegally for a few months. So I am nervous enough about having to cross the border. At the end of this day, when night will fall, I may already be in prison, not to see the sun again for many years. But that’s another story. First things first.

At 3 pm, the helpful driver welcomes me at the bus station: “Do you have something to write?” Luckily, among the few things I took with me from the bus, there are a notebook and a pen, as well as my passport, cash, and Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia.

“Write down the name: José Luis Velasco. But nobody knows him by that name. When you ask for him, ask for El Cupo.” And: “He is short and has a big belly,” which seems to be how he describes all his colleagues. He tells me that the man known as El Cupo is expected in Copacabana by 4:30 pm. On his bus, there should be my luggage, because all the drivers in western Bolivia got onto their phones, trying to find out who is going where at what time. When Victor found a colleague who was going from La Paz to Copacabana, they stopped on the highway in the middle of the altiplano, carrying two heavy bags, full of books, but probably suspecting something much more sinister, from one bus to the other.

And at 4:30 pm, a bus from the same company pulls in. I ask the driver (who is neither particularly short nor fat), if he is El Cupo. He nods and beckons me to get onto the empty bus to retrieve my luggage. It’s all there.

El Cupo and the helpful middleman are sitting together in the market square, having coffee. I thank them profusely and suggest that I invite them to dinner or something. “No, no, don’t you worry, Sir,” they shrug it off, wishing me a nice trip.

Before I moved to South America, people told me that I would get robbed many times. Instead, I was stupid enough to lose all my stuff on my own, and complete strangers got together, telephoning around all afternoon, not only to locate my bags, but to bring them back to me.

And this story is just one reason of many why Bolivia is the loveliest country in the world. (The way the immigration authorities dealt with me overstaying my visa by four months is another one.)

Practical advice:

  • Whenever you can take a train, take a train. Trains don’t disappear as quickly as a bus. Also, train stations are more organized than bus terminals.
  • In South America, don’t even bother about booking ahead. I had missed the bus to Puno, obviously, but there was another one within half an hour of me getting my luggage back.
  • Also, I have seen many travelers make the mistake of looking for buses online, where only a few are listed. Just go to the bus station and ask. There will almost always be a bus to your destination leaving ahorita.
  • Traveling with a lot of luggage is a pain in the culito.
  • If I hadn’t spoken with the bus driver, I wouldn’t have known his name, and maybe I never would have found him again. Speak to people! You can still stare into your cell phone when you are back home.

Links:

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Bolivia, Peru, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to The Day I Lost Everything I Owned

  1. Asha Seth says:

    That scene about colored buses just reminded me of that scene from FRIENDS when Joey and Chandler lose Ross’ baby and also the bus, well because, they all look the same.

  2. Carla Madruga Gomes says:

    “Bolivia is the most lovely country in the world”. :D :D
    I am sharing this post right now with a very dear friend, from Bolivia <3
    Lovely post, one of the very best I have read until now.
    "Among the few things I took with me from the bus, there are a notebook and a pen, as well as my passport, cash, and Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia." Really!!!! Pen, paper and (In) Patagonia have been my companions in many travels (Songlines was the one that sneaked into the backpack to climb Pico, though).
    But one thing: I am aware of the literary demands here, but you can't really say that you have lost everything when you had that book with you. That's blasphemy.

    • And there I was, thinking I am silly for carrying books through the jungle, but you carry a heavy tome up on the highest peak in the country!

      Honesty, back home in Germany, I still would have had many more books, of course. And even a few shirts, I guess.
      But in that moment, I felt quite stupid. (Because everyone else had of course known that the buses would change.)

      Overall, my experience in South America was mixed – https://andreasmoser.blog/2017/04/12/return-to-europe/ -, but I will definitely return to Bolivia to live there again. It is such an interesting and funny and sweet country.

  3. Carla Madruga Gomes says:

    Notebooks are really the most valuable thing one can carry. When doing fieldwork in Mozambique I would buy these cheap tiny note pads in the supermarket. They only lasted for 3 or 4 interviews, and I would scatter them through different backpacks, bags, even people’s houses along the journey. That was my strategy for minimising the risk of information loss, if something would come up. I had friends who got mugged and lost everything. The cameras and bank cards they could replace, just buy another, but never the notebooks…

    • I hope I would have the courage to plead with the muggers to give me back my notes.

      In Perú, I had a Couchsurfing guest who got robbed in his tent by armed robbers (Perú is crazy dangerous), and he asked them if he could keep the memory card from his camera. They agreed.

  4. Matt Lee says:

    Fantastic ending. More people should be like this!

  5. Kindness of Strangers.

  6. Linda historia y me alegra que recuperarás tu equipaje especialmente tus notas 😘

  7. Don’t ever leave your stuff. I’m not a seasoned world traveler but I know to hold onto my stuff.😆
    I think most people are kind whenever you go. We may speak different languages and have different customs but we all just want to live and be happy.

    So all bus drivers in Bolivia are short with big bellies? 😂

    • Well, definitely most people in Bolivia are short by my standards. But I think the guy who attributed a big belly to everyone was a bit obsessed about the body-mass index. About me, he probably would have said: “Not too short, but still a big belly.”

    • Even more important than not leaving one’s stuff is not to take too much stuff.

      When I have just a few old clothes and some books in my backpack, I am much more relaxed than the people who need to worry about computers and video cameras during the whole trip.
      Actually, this is not only true while traveling, but in all of life.

    • Very true! It would be inconvenient to lose my phone but not catastrophic. The only irreplaceable things are my loved ones and since death is a part of life, they will be lost (or I will) at some time. Everything else is just stuff.
      Our planet would be happier if we humans produced and consumed less stuff.

  8. I left my phone and wallet in a taxi in China, and got it back later that day. When I told this story to a couple of Chinese tourists in India, they told me how the same thing happened to them in India. We agreed that it wouldn’t usually happen to us in our own countries. Are people more helpful to tourists in trouble?

    • Wow, you are blessed with luck, too, not only for getting your stuff back, but also for meeting people with the same experience!
      But I wouldn’t be so sceptical about your home country. I often hear people say “this kind of thing only happens abroad”, but they haven’t really tried it at home. (For example, when I told people in Germany about hitchhiking, they said the same. But they had never tried it. I tried and it worked well: https://andreasmoser.blog/2020/04/13/ypres-hitchhiking/ )
      On the other hand, there may be something to your assumption. Maybe people have pity with foreigners or they want to show how good their country is.

    • Losing things in a taxi or public transport is common enough that you have a good feel for what might happen. Some other things, I agree that you might have a pleasant experience in your own country if you try it out.

  9. Pingback: Der Tag, an dem ich alles verlor | Der reisende Reporter

  10. Jan Rivera says:

    The best advice is to talk with people and to look at the details.

  11. That’s a lovely story! But I hope you learnt never leave your luggage unentended?;)

  12. Bolivia is the only country (the western part of it mostly) in South America where I would just leave a bag containing a laptop, a hard drive and a 1000$ camera on a corner of a bar, eat, laugh and get drunk, then catch the backpack again and leave.

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