July 29, 2006
I picked the perfect day to leave Bolivia. I started out my day by getting a bus to Copacabana, near the border on lake Titicaca. Several people stopped there, and the rest of us were told that we had to change to another bus, but it was still in Peru, so we would have to wait. Suddenly, the driver told us to jump aboard and he would drive us to the border. Something seemed out of place. Why hadn't the other bus crossed the border yet?
For the next several minutes, we had to drive around several piles of rocks in the middle of the road. They were obviously placed there deliberately. Suddenly we were stopped behind a long line of cars and were told to start walking with our stuff. I didn't hesitate and began walking toward the border, which I didn't realize was still several miles away. While walking, I passed a large group of Bolivians who appeared to be assembling for something. There were also a lot more piles of rocks in the street which prevented traffic from moving.
After ten minutes of walking I reached the next bus along with several other backpackers. We were told to wait for everyone else to get to the bus. It was a strange situation, but I was used to being in strange situations in Bolivia, so I started reading a book in the shade. All of a sudden, we were told to board the bus. It wasn't even half full, but we started heading toward Peru anyway. Then we stopped and I looked behind us. At least a dozen backpackers were running toward us, and behind them was a mob of angry protesters. The backpackers got to the bus and started pounding on the door and begging the driver to open it. Finally, the driver complied and yelled at everyone to jump on quickly. Meanwhile, more protesters started throwing rocks into the street a few hundred yards in front of us and swinging chains in the air, threatening to hit anyone who came too close. We were blocked in.
For the next fifteen minutes, more and more backpackers began to break free of the crowd and ran toward the bus. We picked up a bunch more people, but none of them knew which bus they were actually supposed to be on. The bus was overflowing with people in the chaos. We drove up to the roadblock in the street and the Bolivians started gathering around the bus, waiting for the violence to break out. The driver acted quickly and threw a bribe to one of the protesters. They temporarily moved the rocks away and we were free. As we pulled away, there were still a lot of other backpackers running around and begging to get on buses while simultaneously trying to avoid getting hit by a flying rock or chain. I'm not sure what happened to them because we drove away so quickly.
When we got to the border, I noticed a surprising lack of of military personnel. It seems that the military are stationed everywhere in Bolivia except at the locations of violent protests. We appeared to be outside of the violence at least. The rumor was that the protest was happening because the government refused to pay the participants of a festival in Copacabana like they had in previous years. I guess their way of recuperating their losses was to set up road blocks and look big and mean so the tourists would bribe them.
Going through customs, I couldn't find the piece of paper in my passport showing that I had nothing to declare. I was supposedly given it when entering the country, but considering that I entered through Paraguay where there were no border controls, I don't think I was ever given such a paper in the first place. I started to get mad when I was told that I'd have to pay a fine to leave the country, but I calmed down and payed it when I found out it was only 10 bolivianos ($1.25).
I walked across the border to Peru and met up with the bus once again. However, amidst the chaos before the border, the bus had become overloaded with backpackers and the driver had taken my ticket. I was eventually able to convince the driver that he had my ticket and was allowed to stay on. A lot of the other backpackers got kicked off and were forced to wait for their respective buses to break through the protests and cross the border.
We finally got to Puno several hours later, but there was more confusion. Most of the passengers were continuing to either Cusco or Arequipa (I was going to Arequipa), but nobody had a ticket anymore. We all had to write down our names so the bus employees could search for our tickets which had disappeared. Eventually everything got straightened out and I had my ticket to Arequipa.
I was supposed to get to Arequipa at 7:30 PM where I would jump on a bus to Ica and arrive early in the morning. However, the bus didn't get to Arequipa until 11:30 PM because of the chaos and confusion. All the buses to Ica were already gone for the night. I had to stay in a motel and will try to move to Ica tomorrow. Some girls on my bus were really unlucky because they had paid to go to Lima tonight but missed all of the connecting buses. Not only will they have to pay more money tomorrow, but they will probably miss their flight home as well. The two biggest things I learned from my three months in Bolivia were that Bolivians love to protest and to expect the unexpected, both of which applied today.