Gran and I arrived a little late at the small booth selling tickets for the Jeep ride from La Paz to Apolo. ‘We just sold the last ticket’ the man shook his head. ‘Come again a bit earlier tomorrow’.
We left disappointment, but returned hopeful the following day. ‘I’m afraid there will be no viaje today. The driver and front seat passengers died last night in a collision with a lorry’. The front seat is the comfiest, usually reserved for the most senior passenger. That would have been Gran. I’m so glad we were late yesterday.
Third time lucky and here we are in the front seat of the Jeep, the driver beside us quietly chewing coca leaves to keep him awake through the night. As we leave the slums of El Alto behind us, we approach barren mountains. The same landscape I had envisioned for months in the recurring dreams that had drawn me here. The daylight begins to fade and I wonder why this journey is an overnight one through darkness. I was hoping to enjoy the view…
It’s close to midnight and the road is getting bumpier. The driver weaves from left to right to dodge soggy patches. A few times we get stuck in muddy ditches, but we manage to dig ourselves out and continue on our way. This happens a few more times before the rusty roof rack, carrying way more luggage than it was designed for, decides to come unhinged and land with a huge muddy thump on the ground. The muddy road has beaten us. We can’t get the Jeep out and we can’t leave the luggage on the side of the road, so we have to continue on foot, the driver guarding the Jeep and our luggage while help comes.
I’m secretly excited. Its pitch black, but fireflies and the hum of thousands of invisible insects keep us company. In between her grumbles, Gran warns me that if we encounter a Puma, it will first jump out in front of us and test our bravery before deciding whether to attack, so we must show no fear!
Its hard work walking through this thick, sticky mud. My shoe is sucked completely off my foot and I balance awkwardly to try and retrieve it without getting my bare foot dirty. We have been walking for hours now. We come across two small benches, which look good enough to sleep on. I barely remember falling asleep before my eyes open, expecting to see blue sky. Instead there is a deep green canopy adorned with a couple of colourful parrots. A chicken clucks around my bench and I see Gran washing her hands in a nearby waterfall. We hadn’t seen it in the dark, but these benches are part of the café, which serves as a pit-stop for truck drivers carrying goods from Las Yungas to La Paz.
We manage to get some fried eggs and plaintain before hitching a lift part of the way. The sun is out and it’s beginning to get hot. The insects are huge and I must look like breakfast! We walk for yet more hours along the winding road, admiring the view of the mountains covered in a thick carpet of trees. As we turn yet another muddy corner, we come across our Jeep stuck in a huge muddy swamp, the luggage now enjoying our seats. Somehow it snuck past us during the night! We walk around the very edge of the road to avoid the deluge. I look down at the tree tops which might break my fall if I slip. My foot gives way from under me and I lose balance, but before I know it Grans arm has shot out and has a tight grip on my wrist. For an old lady her reactions and strength are astonishing.