It Could Only Happen To Me – Getting caught up in a rock fight in Bolivia

When you’re travelling long-term it’s inevitable that you’re going to have a few bumps and scrapes, along the way. Plans don’t always run smoothly, things get lost in translation and there’s always the opportunity to play Russian roulette with some dodgy looking food.

But do you ever have those moments when you think to yourself: “This could only happen to me.”? I seem to have a lot of those on the road and at the time, I’ll be honest, they’re usually not great. But whether it’s being thrown off a crazy horse in Bolivia or discovering that a 24 hour train journey in China is actually 36 hours, they’re always the stories you end up telling again and again when you get home. So, in honour of all of those embarrassing/uncomfortable/scary moments, which end up being the best travel stories you’ll ever have, I’ve decided that every Friday I’ll feature one.

The first in the series of It Could Only Happen To Me is one of my favourite stories from my 30b430 trip, when I managed to get caught up in a rock fight in Bolivia… 

The 12-hour journey from La Paz to Sucre in Bolivia was already turning out to be pretty uncomfortable.

At the bus station we had done as the guidebooks suggest and checked out the buses before choosing a company to go with. It was only after we´d purchased our tickets that the nice shiny bus we´d seen reversed out of its parking space and was replaced by one which was decidedly more worse for wear.

After boarding the bus we discovered that the ‘semi-cama’ (half-bed) seats were tiny (and this is a short person talking), the toilet was out of order and the assistant though it was appropriate to screen an extremely violent film despite the fact that there were many children on board.

It seemed to take hours to get out of La Paz, with the bus stopping regularly, for reasons unknown. So when we stopped yet again, at just past midnight, in the middle of nowhere we didn´t pay too much attention to it at first. But after half an hour or so it became obvious that there was a problem.

Eventually we were informed that there was a road blockade going on and we weren´t going anywhere. There was some grumbling but in general people seemed resigned to the fact. (We have since discovered that blockades are a fairly regular form of protest here particularly for reasons unknown, on Tuesdays.)

The waiting begins.

The waiting begins.

So there was nothing for it but to settle down for the night. (Having first lost all dignity by having to go to the toilet outdoors in full view of everyone on the bus as there was nowhere else to go.)

We were woken at about 5am by people who were obviously getting restless. Various solutions to the problem were being shouted back and forth by passengers. One man suggested telling the driver that we would all pay a bit extra to take another route. “Tell him the gringas [foreigners] will pay the extra for us” one woman cackled and we laughed along, seriously hoping she was joking. But apparently that wasn´t a solution and our wait continued. Meanwhile, despite the fact that the police seems incapable of getting to us, the ever-present street-food sellers had managed to locate us, so at least food wasn´t an issue.

In a typical South American way, we were given no information or updates. At one point I got off the bus to take a photo of the queuing traffic, only to see it suddenly speed off down the road. I was forced to run alongside the door, like a character in the film Little Miss Sunshine, with the people inside calling me to jump in.

However, it turned out to be a false alarm and after a rumour that the country´s president had given in to the protesters´ demands turned out to be false, the passengers decided to take matters into their own hands. Suddenly there was a huge commotion outside and people began running alongside the bus.

The assistant from our bus company jumped up to rally the troops. “If we want to get through we have to fight!” he urged and with a cheer everyone started to get off the bus. “Vamos, vamos”, a cholita in her 60s dressed in the traditional Bolivian outfit, said to us. “Let´s go.”

But where we were we going was what we wanted to know. “We´re going to throw rocks at them,” she said, “Vamos”. Not sure how keen we were to get involved in a rock fight but also not wanting to get on the wrong side of our fellow passengers, we had a moment of indecision. Fortunately we were spared by another passenger who told us it would be dangerous to get involved and we were left on the bus with the old people and children, as though we would be no help whatsoever anyway.

And it seems that in the end people power won, as less than ten minutes later we were on the move again, only seven hours later than planned…