Sunday, February 13, 2011

Tales of a 36 Hour Bus Ride

My main goals for my trip to South America are to visit rainforest and to photograph Machu Picchu. The most economical way for me to visit Machu Picchu and still be able to tour Brazil was to travel to Cusco, Peru by bus from Rio Branco. I read many stories about this 24 hour bus trip, but nothing could have prepared me for the adventures ahead. Normally, the bus takes about 10 hours to go from Rio Branco to Puerto Maldonado, Peru. Then you take a boat across the river and catch another bus that travels during the night and arrives in Cusco early in the morning.

The bus from Rio Branco to Puerto Maldonado was beautiful, air conditioned, had a working bathroom and had clean windows to photograph through. There were only about 6 other locals on the bus, allowing plenty of room to put the seat back, stretch and dominate the front row of the bus.

The views were stunning. The lush greens had their own special tones. I felt like I was half in the rainforest and half in Scotland.

Passing border control into peru brought an enormous transformation in the flavor of the landscape and culture. Even though the homes were still very humble, there was a lot more color. We also saw our first 'motortaxi,' a 3 wheeled motorcycle with a covered place for riding. They are very popular in the smaller Peruvian cities.

I was amazed by the complete lack of tourists on the bus, in the towns, and everywhere throughout the journey. Every couple of miles, the bus passed a local on a bike, a family of kids running along the road, men pulling carts, children hanging out on dirty horses. Everyone was out on the streets, especially in the towns. Mothers sat in their doorways, just watching life pass by. Even though everything appeared old, poor, rundown, the rural communities between Rio Branco and Puerto Maldonado didn't strike me as dangerous. Many of the houses didn't even have doors. Some didn't even have walls, only ropes with tarp hanging from them that doubled as clotheslines.

The trip to Puerto Maldonado was comfy, clean, peaceful, but that feels like forever ago. The weather was perfect until the last five minutes when we drove into Puerto Maldonado. The sun went down as it started pouring rain. I sloshed through the mud wearing my bright blue poncho trying to find out how to cross the river. A local man pointed to a wooden staircase where the boat would dock. The staircase looked like it was thrown together by a 5 year old with a hammer and was smeared with a thick layer of mud. After a few minutes, a tiny chugg-boat/canoe with a little tarp roof arrived. It was about 4 feet wide, 20 feet long and rocked back and forth with each wobbly step. Everything was soaking wet. I took snipits of video while I could, but it was too dark to even see, let alone take a decent photo. It was still pouring when I got to the other side of the river, so I ran for the cover of a little bar where a mother, 6 kids, and an old man sat chilling out and talking. They whistled for a motortaxi to take me to the bus station and I piled on in.

Turns out, the terminal was far, about 8 km from the center of the city. It was pretty tense to be chugging along dark and deserted roads that were so bumpy that I was sure the whole "car" was going to flip on its side. After about 20 terrifying minutes, we finally arrived. The bus terminal looked more like a small abandoned warehouse in the middle of nowhere! There was no time to eat dinner, so crackers from a vendor at the terminal had to suffice. The place was crawling with locals staring at my bright whiteness and mountain of luggage. I had dreams of finding wifi in Puerto Maldonado, but I ended up being thankful that the place even had electricity! When I checked my ticket reservation, I found out a mudslide would prevent us from finishing the trip that night. The bus would take us as far as we could go safely, and then stop until workers could clear the mudslide in the morning. No one had any idea when the bus would arrive in Cusco, but I took the plunge anyway.

The bus looked nice, double decker with a bathroom, AC and an incredible front row seat. Turns out, the bathroom and air conditioning were both broken, so the air in the bus quickly became hot and musky. After about three hours of driving, we stopped in a village crowded with tour busses and cars that couldn't pass the mudslide. Dozens of little girls ran around selling treats and food to everyone who was stranded. A hostel let us use their bathroom, thank goodness. All the lodging in the town was booked. One hotel even allowed people to sleep on the floor of their lobby. I decided to sleep on the bus. I woke up around 7am, hot, sweaty, and smelly. The sun started to rise, so I left the bus to photograph the mess and confusion.

I did not hear a single local complain or even get restless. They behaved as if it was perfectly normal to spend the night on the bus in the middle of nowhere. Some of the buses were finally allowed to proceed with the trip, but only 10 minutes later were stopped at a police barrier next to a little farm. Some of us got off the bus to stretch, and I soon found myself a foot deep in mud and cow poop photographing a happy old Peruvian man named Felipe with his amazing herd of cows. Awesome.

This is Chico, Felipe's favorite.

The next couple of hours were a fun game of stop and go. We drove past a couple of smaller mud slides, but then had to stop again at a bridge. I loved that the drivers didn't mind when we got off the bus at each road block. This especially helped calm the children riding on the bus.

Finally, we arrived at the mother of all road blocks. Some of the passengers wanted to walk for a while, so the bus driver promised to pick us up down the road. The traffic moved so slowly that we got to walk for at least half a mile. I arrived at the infamous mudslide that kept us stuck all night and finally understood what all the fuss was about. This was the state of the mud slide after being worked on for several hours:

Even though the trip was a total mess, I felt so lucky to be able to travel from Puerto Maldonado to Cusco during the day. Trapped in the middle of a jungle with incredible views and my camera was the perfect place for me.

The bus eventually caught up with us and we hopped back on. After that it was smooth sailing until Cusco, except for a little mishap when all the men had to get out and push the bus to make it start. I saw at LEAST 60 landslides, but they were nothing compared to the one that kept us stuck all night long. The driver let me sit downstairs with him to take pictures since the windows up top were muddy from the rain. Rivers running over the road did not phase the driver one bit.

We passed all sorts of small villages, but this market was the most colorful! I have seen pictures of peruvian women wearing their traditional garb before, but it's so fun to actually see them in person.

Even though I arrived in Cusco completely exhausted, I wouldn't trade that journey for the world! The rest of my stay in Peru is going to be a unique and incredible adventure!


ml said...

Photography, as we all know, is not real at all. It is an illusion of reality with which we create our own private world.” , Arnold Newman

lizzie n dave said...

we are planning the same trip and this is so inspiring! Thank you :)

Michal said...

I'm planning to do the same trip in reverse this year.

Beautiful pictures! What camera/lens have you used?