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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.)
- 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.