October 29, 2010

Election day in Bolivia


On Good Friday I crossed the border from Peru to Bolivia. By now I was familiar with the procedure. First exit Peru, get the passport exit stamp and turn over the temporary import permit for my motorcycle. Now I will be in limbo until I can get my entry stamp from Bolivian immigration and the papers for the bike. Desaguadero is a grubby border town on the shore of Lake Titicaca that reminds me of the border crossings in Central America, a collection of shacks and decaying buildings stretched along the highway, a permanent flea market and country fair midway, jammed full of cars, trucks, buses, taxis and push carts trying to get the hell out or in, and the border entrepreneurs will try get a piece of the travellers before they leave.

The immigration officer is courteous and friendly and I have my passport stamped in short order. Unfortunately the Aduana (customs) side of the operation has been waylaid by a dead computer network. It is the Aduana who issue the necessary papers required to legally operate a vehicle not registered in Bolivia. I am directed to another building to get temporary import papers for the motorcycle. I ride up and down the streets and alleys looking for the right place and eventually find my way to a building at the edge of town with a gate and a policeman. I try to explain what I need in my bad Spanish. The officer takes my drivers license and motorcycle registration, copies everything by hand into a ledger and tells me I am good to go, but I still have no papers. I figure this can't be good, and try to explain I need 'papele'. I had been stopped in most of the countries I had visited so far, mostly to ensure my 'papele' were in order. My whining and tears were having no affect, so eventually I leave in frustration, but none the less pleased to see Desaguadero dwindling in my rear view mirror.

La Paz, Bolivia's major city and administrative capital, is another 100 or so Kilometers down the road, and I am thinking I can probably straighten everything out when I get there. When I reach what I think is La Paz, I stop at the first hotel I see. At first they say I can't stay as the hotel is closing, but then they tell me I can stay one night, as the hotel is not actually closing until Saturday. I ask why the hotel is closing they tell me that Sunday, (Easter Sunday) is an election day. They tell me that everything else will be closed as well, banks, stores, restaurants, everything! My next question is why it is necessary to close the everything on an election day? The reply is something along the lines of 'Because!' as near as I can make out. Provided with this level of information, I make my own conclusions, if hotels, banks, stores, restaurants and everything else feel it is necessary to pull down the shutters, maybe this is not such a great place to be during elections. My imagination is conjuring up riots, bombs, burning buses, and angry mobs shouting "¡Viva la revolucion!'.  I am not in the mood.

I find out that I am not even in La Paz, but in El Alto, a newish satellite city that butts up against La Paz. El Alto does not look like a nice place. Even on Good Friday, two days before the election, the place is completely locked down. All the storefronts are covered by corrugated steel roll down doors. No restaurants are open, the only food to be had is from sidewalk vendors. My supper consists of buns and mandarin oranges.

My options are to carry on to La Paz the next day, with no guarantee that anything would be open there either, or to return to Lake Titicaca on the Bolivian side and head for Copacabana, a popular tourist destination. I am able to determine from the hotel staff that whatever election drama there might be, would probably not affect the tourists and the industries that cater to them in Copacabana.

Lake Titicaca is the highest 'commercially navigable' lake on the planet, according to Wikipedia. I had already followed the shore of Titicaca on the Peru side on my way to the the border crossing at Desaguadero and would have stopped on the Peru side had I found anyplace I that looked attractive. Copacabana is on the Bolivian side, so I would be going back, but this time I would be on the other shore.

Finding one's way in Bolivia turned out to be more of a challenge than usual, as there are no road signs. I headed back the way I came looking for the highway on my map that would take me to Copacabana, supposedly one of Bolivia's main tourist attractions.  The usual way for tourists to get to Copacabana is by bus or taxi, and presumably the bus and taxi drivers know the way.  It took me about 3 hours to find the right road which ended up being practically next door to the hotel I had stayed the night before. My mistake was assuming that there would actually be an intersection of the two highways as was indicated by my map.  In order to get to the Copacabana road I had to traverse a vacant lot with a creek running through the middle of it. This turned out to be pretty normal for Bolivia, but not like anything I had yet encountered in my travels. The lack of road signs continued to be frustrating even when I was on the right highway, as I was still never one hundred percent sure I was on the right road, and I usually had no idea how far I had yet to go.

By early afternoon I was following the shores of Lake Titicaca again, so now I was fairly certain that I was heading in the right direction. Along the way I passed a small hotel on the shores of the lake, the Hotel Maravilla Natural. I was tired, so I figured I would check it out. Entering, the place appeared to be abandoned, so I turned around to leave, just as a lady popped out of a doorway and ran towards me. I should have kept on going, because once had I stopped, she was not going to let me leave. I wanted a hotel with internet, and she insisted that they had internet, so I figured what the heck.

As it turned out there was no internet, nor much of anything else. The hotel was OK, no stars, and had seen better days. My room had about seven beds in it, fortunately I determined that I was to be the only occupant. The price was definitely right, 100 Bolivianos or $14 US. It appeared that a good part of the hotel's business was of the hourly variety, but even this traffic was pretty light. A large family group came in for lunch and left again. By nightfall I was the sole guest.

The next day, (election day, remember), I headed out again for Copacabana. There was no traffic whatsoever. My final hurdle was a ferry crossing. The ferries are crude wooden barges powered by 40 horse outboard motors, free floating versions of the old style cable ferries of western Canada before they built bridges. Because they are powered by a motor mounted on the transom, vehicles have to either back on or back off, no roll on  - roll off. My ferry only had a few narrow planks to park on. The planks were not wide enough for me to get off the bike, and on the other side I would somehow have to paddle the fully loaded bike uphill to get off without falling off the narrow plank and probably breaking both my legs. Now I know how a cow confronted by a cattle guard feels.

When we get to the other side we are met by the Bolivian Navy. Bolivia is landlocked like Switzerland, but they have a navy, and it patrols Lake Titicaca. Presumably to keep an eye on the nasty Peruvians on the other shore. 

Accompanying me on the ferry was a small SUV, that had for some reason not obvious to me, raised the ire of the Bolivian naval forces. There was a lot arm waving and angry Spanish, which I was too far away to hear, and would not have been able to understand anyway. I was somehow involved in all of this, as I had been commanded to remain where I was on the ferry. I was happy to do this, as I still had not figured out how I was going to get myself and the bike off.

As it turned out, all travel is forbidden on election day in Bolivia, which did not apply to me, as I was an extrangero turisto. In Bolivia as in many other South American countries, voting is compulsory, so Bolivia apparently enforces mandatory voting by preventing locals from traveling when an election is held. 

The naval commander gave me his card and said I should give it to anyone who gave me grief .

Not much later I was in front of the entrance to Copacabana, which was blocked by a chain and a guard. The Jefe's card got me inside, and I was safely in Copacabana, a survivor of Bolivian enfranchisement. The elections themselves were anticlimactic. The incumbent MAS party claimed some advances, no riots, bombs, burning buses, or angry mobs.

I ended up staying in Bolivia a lot longer than I had planned. I met people in Copacabana and La Paz who sold me on visiting some of Bolivia's attractions, such as the Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats) and Coroico at the edge of the Amazon, terminus of the infamous Bolivian 'death road' of Top Gear fame, and absolutely stunning vistas like these;



As I was finally making my way out of Bolivia, I ran into Randy O'Donell, a fellow Canadian and owner of many KTMs, who lives Camiri, and ended up staying another week with Randy and his family.  Camiri is a short distance from the Argentinian border, and Tucuman, home to a KTM dealer I needed to visit in order to get an oil change and some repairs done.

When I left Camiri, Randy came along to accompany me to the Argentina border and help me get across without benefit of the Bolivian temporary import papers which I had never gotten around to straightening out. About 100 Kilometers out of Camiri we came to a long line of trucks stopped in the middle of the highway. Nothing was moving. As it turned out the town ahead was having municipal elections, so naturally all traffic through town had been stopped, never mind that this was a major highway leading to the border.

The police were not allowing any vehicles through, not even to enter the town. It would have been fairly easy to circumvent the road block, but Randy explained that would be a very bad idea and would likely end with a stay in the local Crowbar Hilton. I was able to find a crappy hotel-motel on the outskirts of town, and Randy headed back to Camiri, while I waited out election day in a small town with everything closed (of course), really looking forward to putting Bolivia behind me the next day.