There are days when it all works and days when it doesn’t, and sometimes the days when it doesn’t work are sufficiently funny that I can forgive them for failing to co-operating.
I went to Argentina on the spur of a moment. It probably says something about how travelling opens you up to new ideas, new possibilities, that it seemed perfectly reasonable to spend thirty solid hours travelling to get somewhere on just the basis that I’d heard there were hot showers, great barbecues and handsome men who might just be taller than me..
In Salta I had a fun few days doing nothing much at all but ogling the range of cosmetics in shops, looking longingly at the beautiful people, drinking smooth red wine and eating my body weight in meat.
I went out dancing, enjoyed holidaying from my holiday for a while and just for that little time it was rather good.
Then came the trip back to Bolivia. At 5am I called a taxi to get to the bus terminal. The taxi driver chatted politely, and then as we pulled into the terminal he informed me that we had enough time to make out before my bus got in. I thought I’d got my Spanish tangled until his hand gestures made the meaning quite unmistakable -I could only laugh and make a sharp exit.
Then came the long bus ride to the border, broken inexplicably by a movie about an Indian Muslim moving to the United States and battling prejudice – all in Spanish of course. My mind boggled.
The fuzz descended until young guy politely jiggled me out of sleep at the stop just before the border. I walked the gap between countries, dream-heavy and disorientated.
At the checkpoint, the soldier took my passport and then slowly turned every page. He called a colleague over to look. Anxiety edged me into wakefulness till he said ‘wow’, grinned broadly and handed my passport back without further ado.
I had a few hours to dust in Villazon, the Bolivan border town, before a bus could take me anywhere much at all. I sat down on my rucksack on the street, attempted to chat with an elderly lady, selling chewing gum, in my very best Spanish, only to realise she was chatting to me in her very best Quechua.
I dived into a little restaurant for lunch – with the choice of big chicken and rice or small chicken and rice, choosing wasn’t difficult.
A man passing by the window smiled. Instinctively I smiled back. In moments he was at my table, declaring me his heart, his passion, his love, his life, asking for my name so he could build a shrine in my heart. I pretended not to understand his Spanish whilst desperately trying not to smirk and roll my eyes.
At 8pm my bus pulled out of town and I settled down for another twelve hour stretch of nothing much at all. But at 3am they dumped me out at one of the highest cities on earth, 200 km from where my ticket said I was meant to be.
Groggy, foggy and not understanding much I stumbled off the bus, glad to’ve already learned the lesson of carrying a sleeping bag. I wore it half unzipped, me half in, belted at the waist, accessorized with a mitten and one woolly sock, subbed in for the other one lost somewhere along the way…. I’m telling myself that I rocked it.
A lady with a neat black bowler hat, waist long plaits, and a cotton dress printed with pictures of Shrek, took sympathy and harangued the bus driver on my behalf until she’d extracted a refund and my bag from the hold. I had no words to say my thank yous, but she didn’t seem to mind.
The next bus was not for hours and with no clue where I was, there seemed little choice but nestle down in the sleeping bag by the side of the road.
After a few minutes some other good Samaritan came and led by the arm into a building to take shelter from the bone chomping cold. Far too tired to speak or understand much English, never mind Spanish, the universe seemed prepared to take me by the hand, without needing to wait on pleas for help or offering complex instructions.
At 5am I was hustled along to a little window where tickets for the next bus were rapidly selling out. By 6am I had a seat to sleep on and was rolling down another road, ever glad, ever grateful.