One Way Home
Within a month of our arrival in La Paz, I found a job in the Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS). Although the name sounds sexy, this department did not promote doped-up trysts but rather the business of drug interdiction, a somber and dangerous undertaking. My job entailed only office work, however; no danger for me. The senior secretary in the office, Lisa Fowler, young enough to be my daughter, and an innocent newlywed accompanying her husband on his first overseas assignment, heaved a sigh of relief when I let her know I was not at all jealous of her seniority. We got along great.
The NAS office occupied the northwest corner of the third floor of an old bank building leased by the embassy. A long wall of windows faced the same direction as the embassy's entrance. One of those windows still bore the scars of a recent demonstration -- cracks in a star-shaped pattern from the impact of a medium-sized object, maybe a brick or rock. As the newest member of the NAS staff, I sat at a desk in the corner of the reception area. Everything about the office seemed decrepit. Heating pipes exposed their peeling paint and electrical wires drooped in random loops hanging here and there. The air smelled like ancient Incan relics from the downtown black market.
In spite of the rundown physical environment and the serious tone of the war on drugs, my office mates were cheerful and upbeat – when they were there, that is. Since most of the coca-growing and cocaine labs were in the jungle region, the staff traveled often, leaving Lisa and me to run the office.
Demonstrations flared up in front of the embassy about once a month. I was relieved to learn that the demonstrators marched to protest Bolivian, not American, government policies. However, our embassy was located right across the street from the offices of the Bolivian Labor Department. Normally we had plenty of notice before a scheduled march and our security office closed the embassy for a couple of hours and advised everyone to draw the drapes and stay away from the windows. The demonstrators would gather at the top of the street at noon and chant their way down a dozen blocks to the Labor Office, exploding half-sticks of dynamite and throwing bricks at windows along the way.
One particular demonstration played out in a different way, especially for me. This time we had only a few minutes' warning. And it was late in the day, 4:30 PM, almost quitting time at the embassy, and I was alone in the office. When Security announced that the embassy would be locked down in ten minutes, I reacted without considering the consequences. I shut down my computer, grabbed my purse and sweater, rushed down the stairs and out the door. In the back of my mind I pictured flagging down a trufi (share-taxi) on the next street west of the embassy and arriving home in Achumani in thirty minutes, long before the demonstration hit its peak. But when I reached the next street, which was a major taxi route, there was not a single car as far as I could see in both directions. I learned later that part of that day's protest included a taxi drivers' strike, but having no idea in the moment, I hurried along in a direction that I hoped would take me to another taxi route a safe distance from the demonstration.
I crossed street after street as empty as if a major evacuation had already occurred. I began to perspire. I might have been walking fast enough to break a sweat, but I also felt a sense of impending doom. Maybe I was in serious trouble. Best-case scenario, I faced a ten-mile walk home in the dark. Located so close to the equator, La Paz days and nights were of equal length year round, so the fact that it was summer didn't help me, other than providing survivable evening temperatures.
The end-of-the-world appearance of the streets continued until I reached the Prado, the city's downtown area. Traffic appeared to bustle as usual until I noticed that the assortment of vehicles included neither taxis nor minibuses. I reconciled myself to the prospect of a long hike in inadequate shoes because I am neither brave enough nor foolhardy enough to hitchhike. Anywhere. Not in La Paz, Bolivia, of all places. I turned toward home with determination and strode forward, fantasizing about a miraculous rescue coming before holes appeared in my shoe leather.
A passing shot of color caught my eye. I watched the big yellow bus roll past and discharge a passenger on the corner. I had seen these buses every day but never gave serious consideration to riding one. Their routing system was a complete mystery to me and I couldn't imagine being able to manage the embark/disembark procedure. The Cholita buses, so called because of the preponderance of bowler-clad Aymara lady passengers, moved along at about ten miles an hour unless picking up or letting off, when they slowed to five miles an hour, requiring the passengers to scurry alongside before getting on or after getting off.
I noticed the lengthening shadows and shivered at the cold strip of dampness between my shoulder blades. I amped up my courage and made the leap onto the next Cholita bus. I scrambled on board and paid my fare, the equivalent of ten cents. I found a vacant seat near the back and prayed that this bus would take me closer to home. From my vantage point I could watch the other passengers and analyze their arrival/departure techniques.
Most of my companions that day were Aymara Indian women, dressed in their ample layered skirts, carrying who-knows-what-all in their multicolored hand-woven aguayo cloth wraps, bowler hats perched on their heads at a rakish angle. I would have been happy to eavesdrop on conversations, but no one spoke. I tried to relax and enjoy the atmosphere, but whiffs of odd odors kept me on edge. I could detect food smells and sweaty smells, but there was also a nostril-crimping undertone that reeked of waste and rot. I squirmed a bit and estimated how long it would take to travel ten miles at an average speed of 8 miles per hour.
I lost the urge to gag as soon as I recognized the shops of Calacoto. Elizabeth's store, where we shopped often for rugs and souvenirs, never looked as good to me before. If the bus continued on this main street, I would be able to jump off at the corner two blocks from our house. I wondered if Fred knew I was unaccounted for. He might be locked in the embassy still, or he might be home already. In those days without cell phones, we were accustomed to spending considerable time out of communication with each other. I hoped he wasn't worried about me.
As the bus started up the hill toward Achumani, I prepared my exit strategy. Stand up, proceed to the side exit and face the door. Wait for the bus to slow as it approaches the corner by our local butcher shop, hold the pole in a firm grip, and exit running.
When I hit the road I stumbled, flailed to regain my balance and – success! I huffed my sense of relief and crossed the main street at our corner.
Lights glowed in our windows and warmed me with a welcome sense of home. I found Fred in the bedroom changing out of his work clothes into his comfies. He had arrived only minutes before, surprised that I wasn't home, but not worried yet. I enjoyed telling him the tale of my journey. He made me promise that was my only ride on a Cholita bus. When I told my friends, their reaction made me feel as brave as nineteenth century explorer Isabella Bird. Lisa, my office mate, gave me a miniature Cholita bus tree-ornament that reminds me every Christmas of my potential for spunk. ###
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