Bolivia South America

How I Failed To Get Into Prison. And Other Stories…

After the peace and quiet of the island we returned to Copacabana to catch the bus to La Paz. All our other buses up to that point on the trip had been public buses mostly containing locals, but this time we’d somehow ended up on a bus entirely filled with fellow gringos. And even after being away in our own little world for just a short time, I’d almost forgotten that this continent is full of all these other identikit backpackers all doing the same stuff and going to the same places.

Our fellow travellers on this bus journey included an Irish guy who appeared to have stolen Billy Connolly’s hair. Within seconds of sitting down in the seat in front of me he’d reclined as far back as he could go, for maximum knee-crushing potential, and revealed to everyone within earshot that he was not happy. As I tried to regain the feeling in my lower legs I realised that this was because he’d come from Cusco, labouring under the misapprehension that he would be travelling on a directo bus to La Paz (if he’d really been going the fast route–via the Desaguadero border crossing–then he shouldn’t have even been in Copacabana at all, let alone having to change buses there). Unfortunately for him–and me–he’d ended up going the long way round, and when he realised that this route crosses the lake at Tiquina, and that we would all be chucked off the bus to jump on a ferry, while the bus travelled across on a floating platform of its own, he almost exploded.

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Just before leaving Copacabana, we’d bumped into Lottie and James, who we’d previously met in Huacachina and Arequipa. They, too, were heading for La Paz, albeit on a different bus (presumably free of moaning gringos), along with their friend Nick, and so we had friends to catch up with when we got there. And when we did catch up with them, the first thing they told us was that they’d just signed up for a trip their hostel was organising to Willkakuti (“El Retorno del Sol”), the celebration of Aymaran New Year that was taking place that night (the winter solstice) at Tiwanaku, an archaeological site 70 odd kilometres out of town.

Did we want to come? They asked.
Well. Why not? Who needs to use that hostel bed you’ve paid for anyway…

And so we found ourselves forgoing sleep to join a 1AM bus full of gringos heading out to the festival. We might have been half freezing (in spite of all the extra layers we’d brought and the dubious local rum we’d drunk while we waited for things to get going) but it was one of the best things of our trip so far. Joining the crowds on the site felt a bit like being at a weird South American version of Glastonbury, except with no music and where the only entertainment is the arrival of the sun…

Reaching out for the Sun's Energy...

I’ve no idea what happened to everyone else who had been on our bus, but we seemed once again to be mostly surrounded by locals (who explained what was going on, and told us that the thing to do was to put your hands in the air to soak up the sun’s energy). Oh, and then Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, turned up in a helicopter to officiate at the ceremony. We couldn’t quite see what it was he was doing, but I did get to tick off the first item on my South American Presidential Bingo Spotting card (although having said that, it’s taken me so long to get round to writing this up, that he almost wasn’t president of Bolivia any more–he survived a referendum earlier this week–I don’t know whether that says more about how far behind I am in writing up this trip, or how quickly things can change in South America…)

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When the ceremony ended we had to rush back to get to our bus, and so we joined a minor crush as everyone else tried to get out of the site down the same tiny flight of stairs that were woefully incapable of dealing with the volume of people who were there. While we waited to get out the locals around us laughed at me for being so tall and told me that I looked like that Doctor House off the TV show. Which is a new one for me…

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Our journey back featured yet more moaning from the gringos on the bus. One of our fellow passengers described the two hour trip back to La Paz–in a comfortable half empty bus on mostly empty paved roads–as “the worst bus journey ever”.

Clearly the words of a man who hadn’t spent much time in Bolivia.

*

Oh yeah. The story of how I failed to get into prison isn’t actually as interesting as it sounds. We’d heard and read about La Paz’s famous San Pedro prison, where the guards turn a blind eye–if you slip them enough cash–to visitors coming in to meet a prisoner and see the city within a city inside, but we turned up without doing any proper research, expecting someone would just approach us like they do everywhere else, and it was only after this didn’t happen, and after I eventually plucked up the courage to ask the guards–in Spanish–if they’d let us in, that we realised that it wasn’t quite that easy.

I could come in, said the guard, if I knew who I wanted to visit. Oh. Right.

I opted not to try picking a name out of the air, and we left disappointed.

*

And that was mostly that for La Paz for us. We spent the rest of our time there hanging around with our friends, at least until I got my first bout of sickness of the trip so far, and had to spend two days in bed while an increasingly bored Sal went out to look at art galleries. And then it was time to head on to Oruro a little way down the country, where we were catching the train to the salt flats…

2 thoughts on “How I Failed To Get Into Prison. And Other Stories…”

  1. “While we waited to get out the locals around us laughed at me for being so tall and told me that I looked like that Doctor House off the TV show.”

    Brilliant.

  2. Yeah. Can’t quite see the resemblance myself, but if the Bolivians say it then it must be true.

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