Thursday, 31 March 2011

Only train ride in Latin America and the bus ride from hell

Coming back with our minds almost overfull of the amazingly beautiful images, bizarre smells and intense three-day 4x4 journey around Uyuni, we booked ourselves into a hostel for a couple of hours as our train was booked for 2.30 am and we couldn't imagine spending the 8h leading up to departure walking the rain pounded streets of this small town.

A wise decision that allowed us to have a hot shower to wash away the grit of the three days, a place to repack and store our stuff, and a couple of hours of stretching out our bodies on a straight soft surface after having spent 12h in the 4x4 car and before boarding the train for another lovely 8h of much comfortable seat sleeping.

Venturing out for dinner,
trying to find our newly made group of friends from the trip, we soon gave up as no one seemed to recognize the name of the pizzeria they had told us and the town was for some reason stuffed with pizzerias (I guess the fact that this place mostly exists due to tourism might have something to do with it). We settled for another pizzeria where the pizzas smelled and looked yummy, ordered a liter of beer (normal size here, and so cheap) and set up to play some 'speed' (a card game we had just learned during these three days, which would then make up our favourite pass-time for the next couple of months).

Instead of playing we started up a conversation with a couple sharing our table, or rather, the couple who's table we squatted as the restaurant was full. And we quickly found out that they were not just travelling on the same train as us later that same night, but that they actually had the train tickets that we had originally been promised! You might remember that Nuno mentioned that we had problems finding tickets out of Uyuni on the first day when we arrived.We were finally promised some by the organisers of our salt tour, but for some reason they never wanted to hand the tickets over, although we had paid them already. They promised us to give them later, and assured us in every way all was good.

As promised, they had finally handed over the tickets when we had returned previously that evening, but to our surprise the seats were not together as we had expected. Too tired to make a big fuss about it and for some reason deciding to believe the promises that it would be easy to switch seats with some fellow traveller once aboard the train, we had left it at that and just been happy to actually have tickets away from the dead town of Uyuni that same night.

Which finds us back at the pizzeria realising that the couple at our table had bought their tickets from our 'guide' that same day. And they had seats next to each other! They had originally been offered two tickets with seats apart but hadn't been interested in those, and then the seller had offered them the joint seats instead. Our tickets were hence in their hands.

Nothing to do about it though as it wasn't in anyway their fault. And it didn't seem as such as big thing either as it was just a six hour train ride during the night, so the plan was to try to sleep the whole way.

That is, not a big deal until we boarded the train and realised that 1) there was no way that we would be able to switch seats as most of the people on the train had already been travelling for hours and were sleeping. 2) Nuno's seat was not just in another wagon, but was at the very end of the wagon. Meaning that instead of a quite nice reclinable seat, he ended up with a seat that didn't recline at all due to the wall behind him, although the seat in front of him reclined fully, leaving him a few centimeters of breathing space. In addition, his seat was a bit more narrow than the already very narrow seats of this train, he had a heater burning his left leg and cold condensation dripping onto his head from the window. A lovely ride...

I was a lot more lucky with my seat. A normally sized seat that, although very narrow, reclined fully. The big bum of the lady next to me pressing into my leg the full night as she took up a seat and a half, can just be seen as additional coziness. After all, she was there before me right. Ah, and the couple making out - or to be more precise were involved in very intense love-making, just with most of their clothes on - for an hour right across from me, where in fact just a good excuse for me to quickly find my ipod and blast it into my ears to avoid hearing their sucking noises...

Somehow we both managed to sleep most of the way though. Until sometime in the early morning when we suddenly realised that 1) the train seemed to have stopped in the middle of nowhere, and 2) people were starting to mill around outside or press their noses against the windows to check what was going on.

Being naturally curious (some would say to curious), I dragged Nuno out of the train and went out to investigate what was going on. A pressing need to pee while the toilets were all locked due to the stopped train had of course nothing to do with it...

Natural needs having been dealt with, we followed the stream of people to about a hundred meters in front of the train and finally understood why indeed the driver had felt a need to stop for a couple of hours.

The train track was in fact covered with a couple of meters of small stones, dry mud and other train unfriendly substances as yet another small landslide seemed to have passed over the train track (we had been stuck with our bus coming into Uyuni due to a river having opened up across the road four days previously and had followed the spontaneous bridge building by the drivers with great interest at that time).

Here a machine had been sent out to clear the tracks and two hours delayed we finally continued out trip with no further delays and with no other problems crossing the boarder except for a desperate need to find a working ATM on the Argentinian side while our taxi driver waited patiently outside first one and then a second bank (we were told that Argentinians do not really trust banks that much since the economic crises started and a lot of people lost their savings, and hence ATM's are not that common and they often do not work very well).

We did however manage to finally withdraw money, to pay the taxi driver and to get our bus ticket for another hellish bus-ride as the bus stopped about 15 times during the 7h ride from 9p.m to 4a.m and every time the driver turned on all the lights in the bus, just to plunge us back to complete darkness as soon as we would leave the terminal. Making it impossible to do anything else than sleep, but a sleep interrupted by strong light every 30 minutes. Isn't this one of the torture methods used in bad places by bad people such as in Guantanamo?

At 4 in the morning, it was with great relief that we got off the bus in Salta, that we followed the guide of the group of super cool people that we had gotten to know during the salt trip (we had failed in finding them at the pizzeria but met up with them again in the train and crossed the border just in front of their group, and as we tried to book a place in Salta as we realised we would arrive in the middle of the night, their guide offered to check with their hostel for us), and that we lied down our tired heads and aching bodies in a real bed for a couple hours more of sleep.

Tired after the last days of travelling that had included:
1 night in a noisy bus going down a bumpy road to get to Uyuni
3 days spent in a 4x4 car, with 2 nights in cold hostels and loads of loads of new impressions
1 night with a couple of hours in a hostel bed, to then wake up at 1.30 am, get on the train by 3 and spend the rest of the night trying to sleep for Nuno in the seat from hell / for me with a bum pressed into my leg
1 night spent in torture-bus number 1

An awesome, beautiful part of the trip with memories to cherish forever. But all in all we now felt we deserved a couple of nights in a real bed in Salta before moving deeper into Argentina.

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