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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Bolivian Blockades: Part Two

Later that same night of our daring escape into Uyuni, Jorge and I were dining just around the corner from the bulk of the tour agencies. The door of the restaurant swung open, and some tourists walked in -- dirty, ragged, boots covered with dust.

Their driver hadn't made it past the protesters; they'd been forced to walk into town. 

And only moments after they came into the restaurant, we heard some gunshots from outside. 

The owner of the restaurant leapt into action; she scrambled out the front door, surveying something in the distance. Then she came inside and ordered all her employees to lock the place up. With all of us diners still inside.

"It's okay," she assured us. "We are going to shut the restaurant for a little bit because the protesters are coming around now to bother the businesses." We heard shouting in the distance, something that sounded like stomping. "For the safety of our business and for your safety, we're going to lock up."

She yanked down the metal wall used to lock up shop at the end of each day. I watched as she used a padlock on both ends of the door. And then she and the other workers disappeared into the kitchen.

I can't speak for the other patrons at that moment, but I felt deeply concerned. Jorge and I looked at each other, WTF heavy in our gazes. Seriously, what was going on here? Were we inadvertantly caught in the midst of some revolution? The situation had escalated greatly since our arrival that morning at 5:30 AM...and now the protesters were taking to the streets. Restaurant owners were locking up out of fear, "for our protection". What were these guys going to do?

I was happy a jar of Sangria and three quesadillas were on the way to our table, because I needed something to take the edge off.

Between breaking into the city twice -- both that morning and that night -- and now facing the increasing stomps of a psosible mob maybe only a block away...I was deeply confused about the severity of the situation, and deeply concerned about how we were supposed to get out of Uyuni. 

Our dinner progressed relatively normally; after a little bit of banging around a few doors down, the threat disappeared and the owner opened up again. We consumed our quesadillas and Sangria with relative comfort. And as soon as 9PM rolled around, we bolted for the train station to find a way out of the city.

All bus transportation had obviously ground to a halt. If we couldn't make it into the city on bus or Jeep, we certainly were't getting out that way. And being that it was Friday, any negotiations between protesters and city officials likely wouldn't happen until Monday. So we were looking at a potentially long weekend in Uyuni. 

This was a no-go for a variety of reasons. First of all, Uyuni's main draw is the salt flats. Now that the tour was over and we were safely absconded back into Uyuni's unreleasing clutches, there wasn't much else to do there. 

And second of all, we had a flight from Lima, Peru in exactly one week. The miles between Uyuni and Lima were...well...a LOT. Easily several days voyage via bus. So we had to leave ASAP, and waiting until Monday would push us far too close to the deadline. 

The train station in Uyuni was bursting with people. We entered a line a mile long that didn't move an inch for a full hour. 

A train was due at 10:30PM, but whispers said the tracks had been blockaded and it wouldnt arrive.

At 10:45PM, someone cried out, "THE TRAIN IS COMING!" and the ticket office opened and everybody sighed collectively with relief.

Once all the passengers had boarded and the train departed, we were able to buy our own tickets, for the next night to a city more to the north but not our final destination of La Paz. We'd take it. Fine. Whatever. Just get us out of here.

We left that night exhausted yet triumphant. The next night would see us on a train, chugging contentedly out of Uyuni and on our way to Lima, or at least one step closer. Excellent.

We slept like babies that night.

The next morning over breakfast, some travelers came into the restaurant. They talked in low tones, looked a little anxious. And then we overheard something unsettling.

The train was blocked. All outgoing tickets were suspended.

We wouldn't be leaving Uyuni on bus, nor on train. What to do???

We confirmed the train blockade at the station; their advice was to wait until that night to see if it really showed up or not. However, we didn't want to wait a whole day just to find out we were stuck another one. So we looked into our last option: PLANE.

We ran to the airline office. Their only flight that day had left at 7:30AM -- completely full. Their next flight left the next night, at 10PM for La Paz. Over $100 per person, a stark comparison to the $9 train ticket.

Jorge and I didn't know what to do -- stick around to watch our options continue to disappear or otherwise shrivel? Wait for Monday and hope the rapidly worsening situation magically resolved itself?

As we paced the city streets plotting our escape, a wild-eyed woman approached us.

"Potosi," she cried. "We're going to Potosi, if you know of anyone that needs a ride, tell them we leave now!"

"How much?" Jorge asked. "And will you wait if we get our things?"

She said yes, they'd give us a half hour if we wanted to join them. We speedwalked to her office as she explained the details -- $50 per person, her drivers were sneaking our tourists in 4x4 Jeeps via a back road. Three Jeeps had left the night before; three more were leaving today. The situation was rapidly worsening, and it was of the utmost importance to leave now, because later might not be possible. 

We paid her (reluctantly, I might add -- a regular bus fare to Potosi was only about $10) and then booked it to our hostel to pack up and check out. We arrived back at her office fifteen minutes later, huffing, puffing, and totally ready to escape.

The Escape Director led us and four other guys through the city, block after block under the mid-day sun. Again, I felt my body failing me, too much weight compounded by the three layers of coats that were useful in the morning but now, not so much. 

Just as I was ready to call it quits -- I'll stay in Uyuni and wither, miss my flight, remain a tourist hostage, as long as I don't walk another step! -- we reached the escape vehicle. I've never been so happy to hand over my belongings to a stranger. The driver loaded our backpacks on top of the Jeep; he ushered us inside, and we began our swift and quiet exit from the city.

The Jeep was crammed full -- 4 gangly early 20's backpackers from a variety of countries (USA, England, Denmark), Jorge and I, and one small, quiet Bolivian woman. Nobody uttered a word as we turned down a dirt path and began driving away from the city.

I looked around, trying to discern whether blockades would be a problem this time. Our driver was taking the road opposite of...any road. He was, in fact, driving toward pure wilderness. The mountain was the only thing in front of us. 

As the road gave way to craggy dips, arching geologic formations, soemtimes almost vertical rock faces and a barely discernible sandy path, I felt deeply grateful for the 4x4. We alternated between safari-style bouncing and bated breath creeping. At some points, I thought I might see a rhinocerous. The landscape was so utterly pure and wild. Again, I dared not question where we were going and when me might get there, afraid that any display of doubt might make our escape mission crumble to the ground.

We wound through this 'back road' for nearly an hour, passing by a handful of 'villages' that were no more than a cluster of huts and sheep. Finally, in the distance, we could see the glimmering arc of a highway. We cheered. And once we set tire to smooth pavement, I breathed easily, feeling like the final threat of the protesters was securely behind us.

We drove on 4 more hours to Potosi, stopping once in a small village to pee behind a building.

This village had slightly more buildings than sheep, 
and electricity. I think. 

And the second we got to Potosi, we high tailed it to La Paz, hopping on the first bus to the capital. This time, when morning came at 5:30AM rolled around, we were snug and warm inside the bus, and not trudging along a highway with a million kilos of crap strapped to us.

Small joys. 

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