We were stuck across the river from Brazil, trying to explore Bolivia but getting blocked by the May Day holiday and the limited amount of money we could withdraw from the town’s one ATM. We seen pretty much all Guayaramerin had to offer, a town in Limbo, disconnected from the rest of Bolivia, dependent on its Brazilian twin for commerce. We had a few nice conversations with Bolivians and one French expatriate who had moved to Africa, fallen in love with the simple life, but fled from a revolution to relocate somewhere more peaceful, like Bolivia. He started a hotel then lost it somehow in a web of government machinations, finally ending up in Guayaramerin, as remote and simple as any Frenchman could ask for. He and his son ran a roasted chicken restaurant out of the lobby of an old movie theater.
We finally managed to buy tickets on Bolivia’s TAM airlines, a military transport service who’s prices undercut the other commercial airlines by half. Word had it though that their quality was cut accordingly. The Frenchman disagreed, he noted that if the other airlines crashed, no one would come looking for the wreckage, when a TAM flight crashes, the whole Bolivian army is sent out. Obviously this put us at ease.
We waited for the plane at the most basic airport we’ve ever been to. We had been worried about flying again after the x-ray incident in Manaus, but needn’t have been concerned. There was nothing as complex as security at the airport or even as complex as a building with terminals. What it was was a big field. Passengers waited under a temporary looking open air shelter. A man behind a desk wrote the suspected take-off times on a chalkboard. These were at best estimations, at worst lies.
The aircraft control tower was a wooden shack sitting on a mound of earth. A man inside peered out of a window with binoculars. In the off chance he saw an approaching plane, he called the man behind the desk who updated the chalkboard. We’d checked into the flight in town, dropped our bags in the TAM offices, and then ridden a tuk-tuk out to the airstrip. We could see our backpacks on a large trolley sitting on the runway, the baggage handler sleeping in the shade beneath. At the time of our scheduled departure nothing happened. Our plane hadn’t arrived, indeed there were no planes at all, just tall grasses, palm trees and the encroaching Amazon jungle. Despite the shade it was very hot.
An hour after our flight was supposed to take off, the man behind the desk took a call, got up, and wiped the board clean. He replaced it with the current time. Sure enough, a twinkle of light flashed like a daytime star against the deep blue sky. A plane was approaching, the baggage handler woke up, the other passenger got in line next to an opening in a chain-link fence. It was an airport after all.
A half an hour later the Amazon was disappearing behind us, a great unending sea of green. A grey-brown river meandered through it like an anaconda headed across a lawn. It was sad to see it go but ahead the earth was rippling, rolling, and jutting upwards. It was the Andes Mountains, our old friends from Chile, cousins of the Antarctic Range, brothers of the Rocky Mountains. Spine of the Americas.
We landed in Cochabamba and disembarked onto an asphalt airfield. Our first breath as we left the plane was like breathing for the first time. Fresh, dry, cool air filled our lungs, it was scented with a tinge of burning eucalyptus and mountain herbs. It smelled at once like spring and fall, approaching summer, approaching winter. It smelled not at all like jungle, dense vegetation, putridity. We’d stepped out of a greenhouse and into the fresh air of reality after three months inside.
The airport at Cochabamba was nothing like Guayaramerin. The two places were centuries apart. A baggage carrousel, like any other in the world, delivered us our backpacks. A neatly uniformed woman checked the claim tags. A poster reminded travelers to fight disease by washing their hands frequently. We were back in civilization.
Alex, the owner of the Las Lillas hostel in Cochabamba was waiting for us. If he was annoyed that we were an hour and half late he didn’t show it; our plane had been comparably on time by Bolivian standards. We piled into his big Dodge SUV and headed into the city. One of our first stops had to be an ATM, we were short on cash due to the lone, stingy machine in Guayaramerin. Alex pulled over to the side of the road and Magda jumped out to remove some Bolivianos. While Alex and I chatted, I kept an eye on the door to the bank. Magda had been inside a little too long. I was starting to get nervous when she came running back out, looking upset. As she dodged through traffic to reach us, she gave the thumbs down. I opened the door and she explained, uncharacteristically calm, the machine had eaten our card. It declared it expired, swallowed it, and cancelled the transaction. She’d talked with the bank tellers who told her there was nothing they could do, we’d have to wait until morning.
It was the beginning of a very long, stressful week.