We left Tilcara unsure if we would go to La Quiaca to spend the night or the nearby village of Yavi. We’d read that Yavi was an interesting place and as it was only about 20 km outside of La Quiaca we thought maybe it would be the more interesting choice for the last place to properly visit in Argentina.
I still have a hard time reconciling myself to the extreme differences of the far north of Argentina to anything else I had seen in the country. From Cordoba to Iguazu to Mendoza, Argentina was a continuum to me; the differences were subtle. I had seen the influence of a greater Andean culture pervading in Salta and Jujuy but I hadn’t stayed long enough in either of these places to understand that surely north of them the influence would become stronger and certainly more tangible. I remember seeing a Bolivian-looking woman in Jujuy and kioscos selling coca and bica but that was it; I rated those slight changes on par with the fact that the empanadas were slightly different; it really didn’t make much of an impression on me.
When Gina and I were just a few km north of Jujuy we came into a different country, a liminal world that existed between Argentina and Bolivia. The faces were no longer European, mouths bulged with coca leaves and the landscape became harsh and beautiful in a way that I hadn’t seen before in Argentina, even on the Chilean border over the Andes. I no longer knew what to call people. ‘Vos’ now seemed absurd. I tried ‘ustead’ but it still seemed too cumbersome, especially when talking to the younger people. I ended up just keeping my verbs in the third person and not really calling anyone anything. Signs of Argentine culture still shown through. Quilmes beer is still available, although it seemed that Norte and Salta were more popular and the restaurants still provided that little basket of tasteless white bread. There were even some portenos in Tilcara perusing the markets for deals on hats and woven tops. Until I had seen these people I had always labored under the false association that you are less of a tourist if you are visiting something in your own country. When I stopped to see landmarks and important places in the states and saw a group of Japanese tourists gawking at the same spectacle, I felt that I was more in my element then they; that somehow I even deserved to be seeing Beal St or the French Quarter more than they did because they were part of my country. Seeing the portenos shopping in Tilcara, I realized this is an incredibly false assumption. They looked much more alien in the place than I did with their arms full of plastic bags bulging with tapestries and handbags and with their highheels beating out the same tattoo that pulses down Santa Fe at 10 o’clock on a Friday evening.
I was tired as hell because we had walked about 30 km the day before and switched hostels in Tilcara to save a little money. The place we moved our stuff into was just a closet with bunk beds. The dogs barked outside most of the night and something about the place was oppressive and thirst inducing. God! I was thirsty in there. I was trying not to drink too much water after I had already gotten up and peed. My bunk was high up enough that it was difficult to successfully pull oneself onto in the dark, and the noise of my sudden landing on the mattress was more than enough to wake Gina up with a start on the bottom bunk. I was also literally plagued with nightmares up there. Like I said, the place had a weird vibe.
I didn’t mind being so tired because all I had to do was ride the bus to La Quiaca, which I did in semi-daze watching the protean landscape roll past the dusty windows on the bus. It was hot, the bus was old and dirty, but damn! It was still a lot better than riding in the van that I had to ride in for my last job. After working as a traveling actor, traveling for pleasure, no matter how low-budgeted, is amazing enjoyable. I was able to fully stretch my legs out on the bus, that alone made it better than the van.
So, the La Quiaca bus station is about what you would expect from the bus station in a border town. There wasn’t too much to see coming into the town, but, at the bus station there was a riot of activity. Gina and I were mobbed right away, but then another gringo couple that had blonde hair and bigger backpacks got off after us and everyone ran over to them. A taxi driver, seeing that there was no room over by the blonde backpackers came over to us reluctantly. I asked him about Yavi. He said we had to leave from the market, he’d take us there for 20 pesos. I turned to the blonde backpackers and asked them if they had designs on Yavi. They said they did. The diver agreed to take all four of us to the market for 20 pesos.
When he dropped us off he told me to just start asking around. I went up to about five or six pickups, like the one that he had driven us in the back of, and asked. I got little encouraging response until a fat guy with hardly any teeth seemed almost exited to drive us all to Yavi. 15 apiece he said and since it was so much better than the 30 that someone else had said we took him up on it. As we were all loading up our packs a car came barreling in behind us yelling ‘Yavi nueve pesos!’ Whatever, the fat guy seemed cool enough and he had gotten there first.
There’s very little in Yavi except a very beautiful church and some petroglyphs that we couldn’t find. The other backpackers seemed to sense this right away and then we were two again. Gina and I, undaunted by the apparent lack of things to do, wandered up the main street, which was really the only street. We tried a few hostels until we found one on which the door wasn’t locked. Still, we had to shove it open and in doing so, surprised a chubby, slightly metal looking guy who was drinking beer and staring off into space. He seemed happy to see us and we were happy to see him. The hostel was completely empty, but there was a nice dog, Vladimir and a cheap room. We put our backs down and the proprietor said not to worry about the key, everything was cool. Noting his manic chain-smoking behavior and coca leaf and alcohol breath, I decided to take my computer with we when we left all our other stuff for a walk.
Yeah, the first impulse was right. There was nothing in Yavi except beautiful scenery and teenagers out getting ridiculously drunk out in it. The church and its curator were amazing. They had a candelabra in there that was supposed to be a dove representing the Holy Spirit, but looked much more like a white phoenix rising from the proverbial ashes. After we had found ourselves just walking down a desert road that clearly led nowhere, at least immediately, we decided that maybe we should just go back to La Quiaca. We could find a hostel there so that in the morning we could leave our bags and take care of changing money and going to the post office without having to come in from Yavi and tote the damn things around all morning. I felt bad about telling the guy at the hostel about our change of plans, but he seemed to take it really well and told us were we could wait for the shared taxi. We went into our room and grabbed our stuff. Out in the street, I had to ask some kids if we were waiting in the right place, there was no one else around. They shrugged and said yes, which wasn’t very encouraging. After about five minutes of waiting, I told Gina that I was going to run back to the hostel to give the guy a little bit of money for holding our bags for the day. I wanted to at least buy him a beer; it seemed wrong to have just bailed after he thought we were going to stay.
He seemed to have had the same thought since we had left for the taxi stop. In fact, he was almost irate, telling me that someone had called about a double room and he had told them that it had been taken. He was lying, of course, but then again, I had lied to him and told him that our friends were waiting for us in La Quiaca. (I didn’t know how to politely tell him that there was no reason for us to stay in Yavi, sitting around the hostel, watching him get progressively further out of touch with reality.) He told me I had to give him fifty pesos, the sickly sweet smell of beer and coca spraying out of his mouth when he said the sibilant ‘cincuenta pesos.’ I told him I would give him forty, since I had planned on giving him ten and because I can’t ever just give people the amount of money they ask for. I could be getting robbed and I swear I’d try to haggle with the guy. Of course, when he agrees to forty, all I’ve got is a fifty. He’s cool and tries to give me weed for the remainder. I tell him I don’t want it and take twenty from him while giving him another ten. He seems confused by this but doesn’t get upset and when we part he tells me if we ever come back he’ll give us a discount.
The next morning we woke up in an overly bright hostel in La Quiaca and crossed the incredibly open border on foot. Gina, who had technically overstayed her tourist visa a year was stamped across the border without incident and changing our Argentine pesos wasn’t very hard, although even the Bolivians seemed leery about taking them. We were hustled into a van going to Tupiza as soon as we approached the bus station and have been wandering through the town and lazing around our nice hostel room ever since.
After I finished writing that, I went to bed. As I mentioned, the room we had gotten in Tupiza was pretty nice and I was pretty tired. I fell asleep almost instantly and enjoyed a restful and dreamless sleep.
There’s a sound, a loud sound, nearby. It’s breaking glass. Gina has turned over and is clutching me. Where am I? Bolivia, hotel. The sound again. Definitely breaking glass. It’s close. Is it in here? SMASH. Yes, it’s in here. What’s happening? What am I supposed to do? Is someone breaking in to the room? I jump up and lock the door and then jump back into bed. Gina grabs at me. I can see the wind blowing the curtains from where the window has been broken. I’m staring at the window, waiting to see something, a hand reaching in or another break. It’s completely still. There is no sound either inside the hostel or out in the street. I wait. “What was that?” I whisper to Gina. “Someone throw something through our window.” She tells me, also whispering. I knew that already, but when you’ve been woken up by something as strange as someone breaking your windows, it’s nice to have someone else affirm what just happened, in case you’re still dreaming. I decide that I should go over to the window. I tell Gina this. “No!” is obviously her response. “Just for a second; I want to see what happened.” As if I didn’t know what had happened. I’d just had it affirmed for me. Someone threw something through our window, but why? Where they doing it everywhere? I didn’t hear any other windows breaking. The silence outside remained unbroken. I went to the window, crouched down by the broken glass and looked over the sill. No one. I raised myself up a little. “Jonny!” Gina hisses at me from the bed. I hold up a wait-a-second finger to her and look back to the street below. No one. I go into the bathroom and look from the bathroom window. I look down the street both ways. There is no one in sight. I can’t see any other broken windows. “Why would someone…” And I cut off my own thought there because I’ve answered my own question. They’re outside the door. They’re waiting for me to leave the room to figure out what happened. When I do they’ll rush in. I sit back down on the bed, suddenly feeling trapped. I want to go out and see there is not even a hint of any activity in the hostel. Surely, someone else heard that? I start to think about Bolivia. How little I know about it. How we just got here earlier today. Do people break windows often in Bolivia? Do they rob tourists frequently? Do they have elaborate means of doing this such as breaking windows and waiting outside of doors? I remain in bed and Gina and I discuss all these points. I’m trying to decide if I should open the door. It’s not like anyone has tried to open it.
Hours pass, Gina and I are still lying in bed in the dark, since the windows were broken we never turned on the light. It was about two o’clock when they broke. It’s about four now. We still have hours to go before daylight. At every passing sound we hold each other a little tighter. You can hear people’s feet kicking the glass below. I’ve decided against leaving the room. It seems like anyone who had been downstairs would have come to make sure we were ok. In the bed next to us there is broken glass on the bedspread. If we had not had a double bed one of us would’ve woken up to a spray of glass. The sounds outside become less threatening as more time passes and eventually we both fall asleep again waiting to be woken up by the sound of the remaining windows being broken, or by someone trying the door handle.
About six o’clock I wake up. It’s light now so I go downstairs, while Gina takes a shower. There’s a few workers downstairs, one is even cleaning the sidewalk. He says nothing to me besides returning my buen dia. He doesn’t know which room I am in, of course, otherwise he would’ve said something. I go outside to smoke and look up and down the street. In front of me, there is a sliding glass window in four panes with a hole in three of them. That window is ours. There is no damage elsewhere on the street. Luckily, nothing seems sinister to me. I was worried that I was going to wake up hating Bolivia and scrutinizing everyone I passed for signs of maliciousness. By the light of day, the place looks as friendly and hospitable as it did before.
We have breakfast in the hostel and no one mentions anything. Afterward, we go down to the bus station to get tickets for onward travel. There a café across from the station advertising espresso. It’s been awhile since we’ve had anything but instant coffee. We stop in. Espressos are 6 but Luis says he’d be able to give us two for ten. Sounds like a deal ,especially because I’m going to drink more coffee today regardless. While we drink our coffee Luis tells us about his café, shows us a video about how Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid died outside Tupiza in a town called San Vicente. He shows us a block of lead and a block of pyrite that come from the regional mines. He’s a hell of a nice guy who obviously joined the café business to talk to people. Before we leave he asks us to decorate his wall with our thoughts on the place. I draw a cartoon coffee cup saying something to the effect of ‘Luis has really good coffee’ in Armenian. Gina, being more considerate, draws a deer saying, in English, that the café was wonderful.
On the way back to the hostel, I begin to feel worried about the window situation. It’s now about nine o’clock, we’ve got tickets for 10 and I don’t have time for accusations. I should’ve been furious that no one had said anything to us after the night we had, but now, all I wanted was to not have to deal with it. My impression of the town had been restored, if it had ever really been battered, and now I just wanted to leave on a good note.
The woman who checked us in the day before, is back at the front desk. She’s setting up a tour package with some people and doesn’t even regard my wave as we pass by. Back up in the room, I’m perplexed and slightly angry. “What the hell kind of place doesn’t even acknowledge it when someone throws rocks through your window in the middle of the night?” I yell to Gina once we are back in the room. Before she can respond, I add ‘If I had a hostel, I’d be telling those people to hold on a second and running over and telling us she’s sorry at least and that she’ll talk to us later. What kind of shit is this? We were practically terrorized!” I continue on in this fashion for a while until we decide that it’s about time to leave.
She’s still talking to the couple about tour packages when we come downstairs. We take our packs off and sit down in the office. She continues talking to the couple for another few minutes before coming over to us. She tells me the price again and then asks where we are going next with a big smile. I’m so stunned I pay her and tell her. When she is getting our change Gina tells me that I should probably tell her. God! How could she not know? One of the windows on the front of the building is shattered with big holes in it. Is it really possible that no one told her? Not the person who was here in the night (if there was one) not the kid in the morning sweeping up the broken glass? She comes back over with the change and the same big smile. I take the change and ask her if she knows nothing about the window. She replies with what seems to be a genuine ‘no.’ After I try my best to explain to her what happened in Spanish she runs upstairs and looks. I am about to follow her when she returns. ‘Mil disculpe,’is all she says. I try to tell her how scared we were, the silence, the dark, the new country. ‘Mil disculpe,’ she repeats. Whatever, at least she’s not blaming us for it and we go.
On the bus, someone stands up as soon as we take off and starts talking about the pathetic state of education and the rise of juvenile delinquency in Bolivia. I listen to him for a while, waiting to see what his point is going to be, before he suddenly produces stack of workbooks that eager students can do at home, only ten Bolivianos! After that, I stop paying attention.
The bus isn’t nearly as nice as those in Argentina, but we’re in Bolivia, I didn’t really expect them to be nice. The gears crank and grind against each other, the squeak of the brakes becomes a squelch, there’s a sound like fan belt that’s about to break and the window above us is broken so it’s been repaired with black duct tape. Luckily the one below us affords enough of a view of the dizzying heights that we’re climbing. From the window, we can often see straight down about 100 feet into the valleys below. We bump uphill and downhill on a grinding, wheezing bus on a dirt road with no shoulder that is only about 1 and a half lanes wide,( at best) for about three hours without stopping until we reach a pueblo where, after the bus stops, it promptly breaks down. Neither of us are remotely bothered by any of this, however. The trip is probably the most unnerving I’ve ever taken besides the Aeroflot flight out of Kazakhstan to Ukraine and yet it’s adventurous and fun. The parts that aren’t comfortable are the parts of the journey that become stories later on. To some degree, that’s why people travel through such places. Anyone can go to Europe and stay in a nice hotel for a week, but there’s no excitement. It’s nice to relax but it’s nice to come back home and tell someone something other than ‘Damned if it wasn’t the best continental breakfast I ever had!’ The broken window and the bus breaking down for two hours are already stories that I’m telling you, and I’ll tell them in the future for all my friends who never read this stuff and anyone else that will listen. Best of all, it’s a story that Gina and I can tell together, a shared experience that we won’t ever forget.
When the bus got moving again we rode through some nearly empty desert tracks until we came to Uyuni. When we got there (here) we were mobbed by tourist agencies trying to take us to the salt flats the following day, but we turned them all down and went by ourselves via a local bus and a long walk. It was much more interesting that way.