The Virtue of Being Grace
I met an Argentinian lady at a hostel. Grace. She likes practising her English because she used to teach it and had an American boyfriend but hasn’t the opportunity to use it regularly. She was also going to Bolivia at 930 on the morning I was going. I booked the 830 bus because I figured the immigration queue will be terrible.
On the morning, I saw my bus leave at 800. I couldn’t run fast with the shit I was carrying. The ticket lady smiled apologetically and said something about the bus boy wanting to leave early. She returned me my money and told me to get the 930 bus. Fun.
Ok now a bit of context. I’m on day 55 of a solo trip around South America and day 30 or so of having to speak some Spanish regularly. I’m also suffering some altitude-related nasal problem where I’m bleeding from my nose and perpetually tearing.
Grace shows up for her — and now my — bus and we have a polite chat. We talk about where we’re heading to and she changes her plans to follow me to Potosi, which she hasn’t heard of instead of Tarija which she knows is a lovely place. She feels safer travelling with me. Me — Asian girl, probably 25 (everyone thinks Asians are 16–25), speaks very little Spanish as far as she knows and pretty much holding a couple rounds of toilet roll to my face the entire time I’m talking to her.
Safer with me.
We have a conversation that goes something like this -
G: Why Potosi?
Me: I want to go to Uyuni but the salt flats are closed for this Dakar Rally race on some days so I have to do a detour. Also I hear you can book the tour from Potosi so it’s easy.
G: What’s in Potosi?
Me: Mines. It’s quite cool. There’s a tour to see the silver mines.
Me: Minas. (Mines in Spanish)
G: Ahhhh minas. I don’t like.
Me: Uh ok.
G: Why don’t you go to Tarija?
Me: I don’t want to?
G: It’s beautiful. I don’t know what’s in Potosi.
Me: Mines. The mines.
G: I don’t know. Why don’t you go to Uyuni?
Me: Because the salt flats are closed…
At this point I figured that this isn’t such a good idea. On the bus, I start selling the idea of her going to Tarija which she likes instead. I’m only going to be in Potosi for a day and if I can get a tour to the Salt flats by some chance (you know, pay a bit more, stuff happens), I won’t even stay in Potosi.
G: I hear the salt flats are closed. You can’t get a tour in Potosi.
Me: Yea ok but I still want to see Potosi…
G: What’s there in Potosi?
G: Oh yes mines. I don’t know what else is in Potosi.
We reached La Quiaca, an Argentinian border town. There, we are supposed to walk across a bridge to the immigration counter then find the bus terminal on the Bolivia side of Villazon and grab a bus to wherever. I mention that I would need to pay for a visa on arrival. We are on the streets.
G: I don’t know if I need to pay. I need this paper that says (I zoned out at this point).
Me: Ok. I know I need to pay so I need to change some money.
G: Yes I need to change money too but we can change over the border.
Me: I want to have exact change because I am afraid immigration will overcharge me if I hand over a big note.
G: Why would they do that?
Me: Because Bolivia? And no one knows where Singapore is.
G: They won’t do that.
Me: I prefer to change money here.
G: You need to pay for your visa?
G: I don’t know if I need to pay.
Me: I don’t know either.
G: How much are you changing?
G: Why do you need to change money?
Me: TO PAY IMMIGRATION.
At this point, the guy behind us overhears us and offers the usual everyone-is-a-money-changer-in-Argentina deal. I smile and start walking away.
G: We need to be more alert of people around us. It can be dangerous.
I’m still tearing uncontrollably.
We are at immigration. Grace starts a conversation in Spanish with the girl in front asking her about the weather in various parts of Bolivia, if it’s cold, what the temperature is like in Potosi, how Potosi is like, what there is to do in Potosi, bla bla bla. The queue takes so long the girl eventually leaves — I will never know if it’s because she’s sick of talking. The conversation then (again) turns to me and how I need to pay for my visa and how she doesn’t know if she needs to. I’m still tearing uncontrollably.
At the immigration office, there are 2 counters — one for exiting Argentina and one for entering Bolivia as is the norm for most countries except that there was so many people at the counter you’re just expected to know this. I tried explaining this concept to Grace first in English, then in Spanish (ie. “Salida Argentina, Entrada Bolivia”). She doesn’t understand. Next confused guy comes along and of all people she starts asking him in Spanish. He doesn’t know. I repeat what I said in Spanish. He gets it. She doesn’t. He explains it to her. She still doesn’t get it but queues at the counter and asks a whole bunch of stuff anyway including if she needs to pay.
The bus terminal is 5 or so streets away. I’m carrying a 7kg unicycle bag, an 8–10kg backpack and a 2–3kg knapsack with my laptop and water. Grace is dragging this trolley bag around the cobblestone streets. 3 streets later she starts whining about how her bag is heavy and how the altitude is getting to her. I’m sniffling blood and mucus so I just nod and smile. At least she knows Spanish, right?
We reach the terminal and there’re only overnight buses to Potosi that supposedly take 9 hours (nueve horas). I was with Grace when she checked with the collectivos (these are like carpool vans). They cost about US$10 more and will take 4.5 hours (cuattro y media horas). I don’t really believe them since Google Maps shows a 6h route. I try to talk Grace into heading to Tarija instead since she is whining and whining incessantly about how long it takes. We have this classic conversation -
G: The bus leaves at 9 and takes 9 hours. It’s very long. Why don’t you go to Tarija?
Me: Because I want to go to Potosi.
G: I don’t know what there is in Potosi.
Me: MINES. I want to see if I can get a tour to Uyuni too.
G: Why don’t you go to Uyuni?
Me: Because it is closed. YOU SAID SO.
G: Oh yes. 9pm is a very long wait to the bus.
Me: We can take the collectivo.
G: I don’t want to reach at night. It will take 9 hours.
Me: No… it will take less. They said 4.5h but I think a bit more?
G: They told you 4.5h?
Me: No, they told YOU. YOU asked. In Spanish.
G: I don’t know. I think the bus takes 9 hours.
Me: YES BUT THE COLLECTIVO TAKES LESS.
G: I don’t know how long it takes.
Me: Cuattro y media horas.
G: I don’t remember.
We bought bus tickets because you don’t want to think when you’re bleeding from the nose and streaming from an eye while lugging 15kg of shit around.
We took a walk in the streets. Every other street, Grace would stop a random passerby to ask where the touristic sights are. We are in a frickin’ border town. No one gives a conclusive answer and I try to look as poor as I can while holding on to my valuables tight.
It wouldn’t matter anyway because after a while, Grace decides the weather is too hot and we should stay in the shade. There’s a street with shops on both sides. She reckons the shaded side is more interesting. I don’t care because we have a lot of time. This side happens to sell hardware.
G: You like looking at these?
G: Hahaha. But it’s interesting yes?
Me: Are you looking for a buzzsaw? Everyone’s selling them.
G: I don’t understand.
Eventually she caves in and asks what I’d like to see. Local crafts, I say. There’s a local market that I’d love to walk around in. We went there.
G: It’s too hot. Let’s walk here.
Me: What’re we looking at?
G: The shops! Aren’t they lovely?
Me: I see a wall.
G: Hahaha. More shade here.
Me: I don’t know what we’re seeing.
I left to take a walk on my own for the next hours. Still tearing.
Now you’re probably asking why I’m not ditching her yet. I would except we got bus tickets where we’ll be sitting next to each other for 9 hours. It is political to be cordial to someone who will be unwittingly guarding your valuables for 9 hours. I thought hard about how to ditch her once in Potosi and figured the only way would be to somehow lose her in a hostel.
While in good spirits after a cheap ice cream cone, we somehow concluded that we could share a dinner since I was feeling sort of sick and a long bus ride without toilets isn’t fun at all with a full dinner. It’s for once something that’s mutually beneficial.
She also mentioned she is somewhat vegetarian but she’s taking meat while travelling. We went to something like 10 different restaurants, all of which are unacceptable because she wants to eat something that is not fried but is not soup and has to be dry and also served in a restaurant with a proper bathroom and a TV and bla bla bla.
G: Do you like this place? This place is not so good because it has no TV. You want TV right?
Me: I can eat anything. TV is in Spanish. I don’t care.
G: Ok we go the next one with a TV.
Me: You can choose.
Somehow, she settles on a place that serves nothing but fried food and she asks me to pick what to eat.
I picked the greasiest, meatiest thing on the menu, then smiled and told her that it looks like it isn’t fried and comes with a salad so she should love it. It’s probably one of the most passive-aggressive acts I’ve done in my life.
Finally we get in the bus. I hold my backpack to my lap partly because it might be cold and mostly because my laptop is in it and Grace is sitting on the aisle seat and I don’t trust her to keep watch on my stuff.
G: You can put your bag up there.
Me: It’s ok. I’ll hold it.
Me: I like it.
G: Is it because you don’t feel safe?
G: It won’t get off the bus! It’s ok!
Me: I like to hold it.
Personally, I hate speaking in English in non-English countries because you never know who’s listening in and also because it makes you stick out like a sore thumb. What’s worse than a loud English conversation is a loud English conversation about your fears on being robbed because what better ways to draw attention than to tell everyone in the bus where your valuables are kept? I make a mental note to lose her in Potosi.
I fall asleep — or try to- promptly, still sniffling and tearing. Midway through, some immigration officers get on the bus to check on our passports. Mine is fine and Grace is missing an entry stamp — the one I specifically told her she needed at the border. She has to get off the bus and when she got back on, she began whining about how cold it is and how terrible it is to have to get off for a stamp that they didn’t tell her about. She then notices I’m all bleary-eyed and comments how good it is that I can sleep. I turn around and go back to sleep. She starts talking to the guys behind us which in my haze I could make out to be from Buenos Aires too.
The bus stops at the terminal in the middle of nowhere in the morning which I didn’t quite expect. I wake to Grace asking me “Que tal, como estas? Oh you are still sick. Same thing eh?” I want to slap her.
Some people start getting off the bus and Grace gets up and tells me to “Vamos!”. Repeatedly. I get my phone out and try to figure out where we are. We ARE in the middle of nowhere. We get off the bus and amidst her whining about how we need a cab and asking every other person in Spanish how to get to town when it’s so early AND random haggler cab drivers screaming at us to engage their services, I attempt to ask the porter in halting Spanish if there’s a different terminal in town or if the bus stops elsewhere since some people haven’t gotten off the bus yet.
I make out that yes, there is an older terminal closer to town but this bus doesn’t go there and we can stay in the bus til daybreak. I fall asleep in the bus as Grace chats with the guys from before.
7am. I wake and I wake Grace up. I suggest we can cab. She agrees. I suggest asking those guys she was talking to to share a cab. They’re gone she says. No they’re not, I say, they are there 5 seats behind us. She looks into God-knows-where and I walk to the guys and wake them up. They reckon we can take the public bus instead. I don’t care because they seem like they could be my substitute for Grace to leech onto.
We chatted a little about hostels and directions. Grace says she doesn’t know anything because there was only wifi the night before and she was on Facebook the whole time. Haha, she laughs cheerfully.
The guys don’t have a hostel to stay at but have a lead from someone in the bus so we got off a little further than the hostel I want to be in and found our way to this dingy place that was recommended. All 4 of us got in and didn’t like it. They left their bags at the place so they could look around the area. I figured it’s the best chance for me to lose them all so I insist on carrying my bags and to head to where I had intended to go to begin with. We all decided to check my place out.
The hostel is awesome. It has wifi and was serving a buffet breakfast when we turned up. I booked a bed on the spot and left my luggage in the keep while waiting for check-in. Some time later, Grace appears from the toilet and announces that she can’t find the guys.
G: My luggage is at the other place and I can’t find the guys.
Me: Did they say they will wait?
G: I don’t know.
Me: You want to get your luggage?
G: I don’t know where the place is.
Me: It’s 2 streets there and 2 streets to the right after.
G: Oh. I don’t know if the guys will be back.
Me: Ok so you wait for them?
G: I don’t know where the place is.
Me: 2 streets, 2 streets.
G: Oh it’s 2 streets then 2 streets?
G: But I don’t know where the guys are.
Me: You can wait for them.
G: Yes I have to. I don’t know where the place is.
Me: IT IS 2 STREETS IN THAT DIRECTION AND THEN 2 STREETS AFTER.
G: Oh but I might have to wait for the guys.
At this point, I’ve just got Wifi and am trying to concurrently dry my tears, arrange a flight, load up a map for my location and bitch on Whatsapp about the stupidity I’m in. All while Grace is continuing with her rant.
I did make sure to give Grace directions to a few more hostels in the area. She didn’t get the hint.
The guys showed up some ten minutes later and led her away. They eventually settled on staying at the hostel I was at and I paid extra to be in a different room and then promptly arranged to join a day tour for the afternoon. To the mines. While tearing and bleeding.
I met Grace later in the day before I left for the mines.
G: I am not going to the mines. The guy tells me it is not so good.
Me: Ok. I’m going still.
G: You are going to the mines?
Me: Yes, that’s why I came to Potosi.
G: So you are not going to Uyuni today?
Me: No… it is closed…