12/01/2009 09:50 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Don't Mess with Quechuan Grandmothers

I recently moved to Cochabamba, Bolivia, and will be publishing occasional pieces here on Bolivian politics as well as my personal adventures. Here's a piece on my first inter-city bus travel.

Suggested Revisions to Bolivian Travel Guides, Part 1:

Inter-City Bus Travel

If you're thinking about taking a Bolivian bus from one city to another, bear the following in mind:

(1) Do Not Take The Bus From Cochabamba To Santa Cruz.

Note: If you are going to take the bus from Cochabamba to Santa Cruz, make sure the new highway is open. If the new highway is not open, and the bus is going to use the old two-lane highway, don't take the bus.

Note: The advertised time of ten hours bears absolutely no relation to how long the bus ride will actually take, has historically taken or is expected to take.

(2) If, for some reason, you do decide to take the bus even though the new highway is closed, choose your bus carefully. You will get exactly what you pay for, and if you pay the absolute bare-bones fare of 30 bs ($4 dollars) for the cheapest possible bus, you will get the absolute bare-bones treatment on the cheapest possible bus.

Note: This will inevitably include broken seats, inoperable windows and no functioning lights. If you were thinking about air conditioning and electric outlets, please refer to Rule 1. The bus will be overcrowded and will have treacherously screeching brakes.

(3) Do not drink or eat for at least six hours before taking the bus. The lack of bathrooms and bathroom breaks are complemented by a kind of bumpiness that can only be experienced in an old bus riding through the Andean mountains.

(4) If you made the mistake of drinking water in the last six hours, and the bus driver says you can jump out of the bus for a bathroom break while the bus is stopped at a tollbooth, he is lying. He will drive away without you, and you will have to run at least a quarter of mile and execute an Indiana-Jones style diving entrance to get back on to the bus.

Note: the ovations from the bus crowd will depend on the quality of your diving entrance.

Note: This rule holds true not only for gringos but for Bolivianos of all ages, up to and including 80 year old Quechuan grandmothers.

(5) If an 80 year old Quechuan grandmother is left behind on the side of the road, you can force the bus driver to turn around, though he will do so only after the daughter and granddaughter start crying and only under duress and pressure from the entire bus community.

Note: The bus driver will complain loudly about time lost while retrieving Quechuan grandmother.

(6) Do not underestimate Quechuan grandmothers, who are capable of moving at astonishingly fast clips to catch buses even after they have disappeared from sight.

(7) Restrain Quechuan grandmothers from using their canes to castigate bus drivers, as a severe cane beating will only further delay the bus.

(8) Do not express surprise when the bus driver, after complaining loudly about lost time, turns off on a side road and stops at a sprawling farm house where his entire extended family boards the already-overcrowded bus and proceeds to encourage people to squeeze three people in to two seats to make room for them.

(9) Do not be alarmed when you wake up and numerous individuals have shifted seats, leaving you next to the very same Quechuan grandmother, who has fallen asleep with her head on your knee and is, in a strangely endearing way, drooling.

(10) Bring soda and food to barter with fellow bus companions for toilet paper, water and other essentials.

(11) Bring small change to buy ice pops, fresh mango and cold beers from local women who hang out along known traffic spots and sell these goods through bus windows to frustrated bus residents.

Note: Do not ask these women if they use the proceeds from their sales to bribe truck drivers to hold up traffic. They will not respond.

(12) If the bus ride extends beyond fifteen hours, Bolivian customs allow for all standards of personal hygiene and decorum to be formally abandoned. Feel free to change clothing, have marital disputes, breast feed and change diapers, spit coca leaves on the floor, yell loudly at the bus drivers and curse in extreme and graphic terms.

Note: Bolivian customs allow for Quechuan grandmothers to adopt these rules of behavior fifteen minutes in to the trip.

(13) If the bus ride extends beyond 20 hours, Bolivian custom allows for bus drivers to be compelled by threat of group force to illegally pass large trucks and military vehicles to get around mile-long traffic jams.

(14) If the bus ride lasts in to the 24th hour, even lonely gringos will be accepted in to the bus community, fed special Bolivian treats, and counted as a partner in the effort to shun the bus driver's family for the unspeakable sins the bus driver (and his entire extended family) must have committed to lead the bus into a 24 hour, 300 mile drive that should have taken no more than 10 hours, even on the old highway and in the worst possible bus.