And don't forget the toilet paper

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Andean Adventure

And don't forget the toilet paper
August 4, 1997

In Bolivia, things took on
a whole new look
What an abrupt change we've encountered coming into Bolivia from Argentina. Just crossing the border at Billazon was transforming. People everywhere in typical bright colors, the women all wearing these tiny delicate shoes with thick wool tights, layers of brightly colored skirts and bowler hats, their long braids cascading down their backs. All with enormous wads of coca in their cheeks, and a baby and a 50-pound bag of potatoes slung over their shoulder.

My first day in Bolivia was all sensory, taking in the vendors, blaring music, children, and of course, the food. I got too excited and began tasting all the street food. I'd forgotten the consequences. Yes, I could feel my stomach cramping and my head sweating. The bathroom became my second home.

In the aftermath of my eating rampage, I remembered we were not in Argentina anymore. Diarrhea is something you get used to here. The key thing is remembering to bring your toilet paper with you, because no one supplies it. You can see all the Bolivians carrying little rolls in their chest pockets.

I'm used to no toilet seat and always wonder where it went to. Did the toilet not come with one? or did they lose it? But perhaps like the elusive graveyard of the elephants they all lie hidden in some remote corner of the Amazon. These are questions that baffle me.

Showers, too, are always an experience. You know when a place says agua caliente, it means you must cough up the courage to stand naked on the cement floor and turn the knobs that are connected to a spiderweb of exposed wires.

Riding the crowded bus was almost more difficult than biking
Although our mode of transportation is by bike, we did for the first time in seven months take a bus. Thank goodness I'm used to Latin American transportation from Mexico and Ecuador. But your experience is always different. We had bought two seats on the only bus to Uyuni that runs on Wednesdays, so it was full. After literally throwing our bikes and panniers on top of the bus, in between chickens, bags of flowers, mandarins, and anything random you could think of, it was time to enter this miniature 1960s school bus that was to take us across the altiplano.

Getting on is always a hassle. The aisles are filled with huge bags of who knows what heavier than I am, three people to two seats and 12 people in the aisles, the overhanging compartments filled with blankets, fruits, dinner, livestock. I feel I know how to handle this. With an old woman behind me saying something in Quechua, I began my ascent to the back row. I scaled the armrest, placing my feet on the free or not free space to move. Problem solved, I make it to my seat. The Quechua woman with the bowler hat gives me a congratulatory smile. I've made it. Now there will be no moving for four hours. Other foreigners are always so amazed at our cycling, but taking the local bus is almost more difficult. The next four hours would be the loudest, bumpiest ride ever, and as soon as we arrived in the cold Uyuni night we were searching for our toilet paper.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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