Sunday, June 13, 2010

Oruro to Uyuni

At the dusty bus terminal at Oruro, Bolivia, the bus company touts sing their destinations to passersby, and chorus to each other. “Uyuni, Uyuni” calls an alto on the left side of the bus station. An older baritone on the right side sings back; “Cochabamba, Uyuni” as if to say “we go more places than they do.” They call back and forth every few minutes.

It is 8.30pm, Sunday 6th June and Alix and I have arrived at the bus terminal from Cochabamba, some 5 hours north of Oruro by bus. We have eaten a simple dinner at a roadside restaurant and purchased two tickets on the 9pm Trans Azul service south to Uyuni, due to arrive at 7am the next morning. The Trans Azul is the local traffic bus, not a tourist service, so the seats are bound to be narrow and probably don’t recline. On the upside, the tickets are cheap, only 60 Bolivianos for two tickets, i.e. ten dollars in Australian money. We want to spend more and get the big reclining seats they have on the ‘Cama’ premium buses, but there is no Cama bus until tomorrow and we don’t fancy a spending a night in grungy Oruro, so we load our backpacks onto the Trans Azul bus and await departure.

9pm and the bus is departing, we interpret this as a positive sign because punctuality is not typical for Bolivian buses. The bus is two- thirds full, there are a few spare seats remaining and we are the only gringos on the bus. There is no TV on this bus, unlike the more expensive buses they will not screen a movie. With no light to read by there is nothing to do but to try to get some sleep.

11pm. The road on the way to Oruro is bumpy and I am pretending to sleep, dozing occasionally but mostly just sitting and trying to relax. There are no lights anywhere but three strips of reflectors fade into the distance on the road ahead, indicating the far right side of the road, the centre division, and the far left side, splitting the road into two lanes. Shadows dance across the bus cabin in the darkness, caused by the headlights of the traffic passing by on the way to Oruro. Our bus drifts to the left and I open my eyes. I can dimly make out a hulking black shape up ahead. Headlights dazzle into the cabin and the bus lurches suddenly to the right. A set of headlights flashes very close by our left hand side and the high whine of a long blast on a car horn sails by our ears. Alix wakes up and grips my arm. Our bus lurches to the left again and the bus headlights illuminate the hulking shape of an abandoned bus in the middle of the right hand lane in which we were travelling. We narrowly pass the abandoned bus on the left lane without slowing and reoccupy the right lane before any more oncoming traffic comes into view. Alix and I are both suddenly wide awake. “I thought we were going over for sure” Alix says. I had wondered if we would roll, too.

12 midnight. The road is even darker now as the road changes from paved to dirt. There are neither lights nor reflectors on the road now and it has narrowed to one and a half lanes, enough for two vehicles to pass each other provided one or both vehicles drive with their outside wheels on the dirt verge. The ride is even bumpier and neither of us hold out any hope for any real sleep on this bus ride any more, the shaking is too intense. The cabin is heated but it is still quite cool as the outside temperature drops to below freezing.

3.50am. The Trans Azul bus we are travelling in collides head on with a black 4WD coming the from the other direction. There is a loud bang and the bus comes to a sudden halt. My knees connect painfully with the back of the seat in front of me and a child begins to cry. The cabin light comes on and I take out my earplugs and begin to put away my inflatable travel pillow and look around. Other bus passengers have superficial injuries . The older woman in front of us has hit her face somehow and is holding a tissue to her bloody nose. The door opens and one of the two bus drivers emerges. He is wearing work gloves and overalls and stuffed in his left cheek is a wad of coca leaves the size of a golf ball. He explains that we have hit something on the road. A woman flexes her palms to the ceiling and yells at him in Spanish. “¿Es tomado?” Are you drunk?

We file off the bus to have a look at the situation. Both vehicles have been disabled. The front left headlight and the bumper of the bus has been smashed and the left front of the bus has caved in slightly. The 4WD has been written off and the engine is a mass of twisted metal. The windscreen has caved in and the metal upright between the windshield and the left front window has collapsed inwards, pinning the driver by his chest to his seat. The driver is unconscious and has apparent head injuries from the blood trickling down his face. There are no other people in the 4WD.

3.55am. The crew of the bus attempt to free the trapped driver, removing the windshield with gloved hands and attempting to remove metal from the 4WD with a crowbar. The driver is swearing in Spanish. It is too cold outside so most passengers go back into the bus cabin. There is no response from the driver of the 4WD, his head lolls forward in his seat. There is no fulcrum from which to safely use the crowbar to lever away the metal pinning the driver to his seat.

4.00am. Alix talks to one of the bus drivers in Spanish, explaining that if the driver has spinal injuries, moving him will make them worse. The driver dismisses her with a wave. Spinal injuries or not, the cold will soon kill him if he is left outside. Alix and I take our backpacks from the bus luggage store. I offer the driver the pair of pliers on my leatherman tool, an irrelevant gesture, if the crowbar can do nothing, neither can the pliers. A second bus pulls up behind our bus from the Oruro direction. The collision has blocked the road. Bus drivers talk to each other and the second bus pulls over to the left hand side of the road. There is a sprinkling of lights up ahead on the road, the small town of Uyuni is only about 30 minutes drive to the south. Mobile phone calls are attempted but there is no mobile reception.

4.10am. Passengers from the first bus are moved with their luggage from the first bus to the second. Drivers from both buses and a couple of other men are walking around the 4WD, occasionally trying to pry metal loose with their hands, failing, swearing, talking, trying again. A white 4WD arrives travelling south to north, stops momentarily, drives off road and continues on its way. A white station wagon arrives from the same direction. The driver stops and speaks to one of the bus drivers for several seconds, turns around and drives back in the direction of Uyuni. The second bus is now crammed with passengers from both buses and there is standing room only, but it is warm inside. The trapped 4WD driver lapses into consciousness, wails loudly, and falls silent again.

4.45am. A semi-trailer arrives travelling north to south and pulls up alongside the crashed bus. The semi-trailer crew join the other drivers in the rescue effort. A rope is tied to the metal upright that is pinning the trapped driver, doubled through, and tied to the bullbar on the semi-trailer. The semi-trailer reverses slowly and the rope is pulled taut then snaps, sliced apart on the twisted metal of the wrecked 4WD. The trapped driver wails again.

4.54am. A second attempt at the rope-pull successfully bends the metal upright away from the trapped driver enough to free him. Using a blanket as a stretcher, three men carry the patient to the second bus where he is put down on the floor of the bus between the rows of seats.

5.03am. The patient is unconscious and bleeding from the head but breathing evenly. He is a young bloke, probably 24 or 25 years of age and a handsome looking fellow despite the blood on his face and the windscreen glass covering his clothes. His head is wrapped in the blanket he was stretchered in, it is moved to free his face to ensure his mouth is clear. His skin is too dark to tell if his lips are blue but his chest is rising and falling. I grab a blanket to throw over him to keep him warm and people look at me oddly. “Mucho freo,” I say by way of explanation- very cold. I receive a few nods of comprehension. The cabin light is switched off and the bus departs in darkness for Uyuni.

5.07am. With a head torch on her head for illumination Alix applies first aid to the patient, holding his head between her hands to stop it lolling with the movement of the bus and monitoring his breathing and circulation. He is cold but breathing and occasionally snoring.

5.28am. The bus arrives at Uyuni hospital where the patient is blanket-stretchered inside. The man whose blanket I gave to the patient has just noticed that it belongs to him. He frowns and says something irritable in Spanish.

5.45am. The bus arrives at the bus terminal, we collect our luggage, hail a taxi and check into our hotel. There is an open fire in the foyer. One other passenger from our bus is also checking in. I rub my hands together and say “Mucho freo.” He responds “Si, Mucho freo.”

6.00am. We unlock our room and dump our stuff inside. We booked a double room, but this room is a twin single. Alix looks at me and says “I need to wash my gloves. They smell of blood.” I turn out the light, we curl up very close together into a single bed and fall instantly to sleep.


  1. Loved this -- what a good travel article it would make! 42 years ago 2 acquaintances were killed, and one friend seriously injured on the Bolivian roads. They worked for Reuter's as freelance journalists. I remember it as if it were yesterday as I was meant to be on that trip! Love your writing.