I have had a few sad travel experiences, but my most devastating travel experience was when I traveled by bus between La Paz and Uyuni. It was one of the most sad days of my life. You probably are thinking, it couldn’t have been that awful and you might be right. It was just a devastating day to me and let me tell you why!
My friend Joni and I had just spent the last few days enjoying La Paz, the capital city of Bolivia and were trying to figure out where we should travel to next. Should we cycle down Bolivia’s Death Road, the most dangerous road in the world, or travel 348 miles to Uyuni, the southern part of the country to see the largest salt flats in the world? We were short on time and could only do one of the two activities so we chose to see the salt flats! We boarded a bus for a 10 hour overnight trip to Uyuni. I wasn’t thrilled by that aspect, but I wanted to see these salt flats since we were in Bolivia and we were so close to them.
The first 1/3rd of the trip was great and I actually don’t have anything to complain about. The road from La Paz to Oruro, our first stopping point, was paved so it was actually a nice ride and very smooth. We had to stop and change buses in Oruro because the remaining 2/3rds of the trip was going to be on an older bus along a very bumpy dirt road. This didn’t concern me because I had been on many bumpy, unpaved roads while traveling before. As we were arriving to Oruro around 10:00 pm, the bus driver announced over the loudspeaker to watch out for thieves as the Oruro Bus Station had a reputation as a traveler’s nightmare when it comes to theft of personal belongings. Being aware of this, I made sure to collect all of my belongings as we were exiting the bus and was aware of my surroundings.
We were one of the first ones off the bus and were waiting by the undercarriage of the bus to collect our backpacks. As we were watching the bus driver pull off some of the other travelers bags, we noticed a couple other Bolivians come up behind the driver and proceed to take these other travelers backpacks behind to the other side of the bus. At first I didn’t think anything of it, but then when these travelers got off the bus they started asking where their bags at gone and I realized, their bags had been stolen so quickly and without really anyone noticing. I felt awful for these travelers as all of their stuff was now gone! This made me even more paranoid as I didn’t want any of my things to be stolen. We gathered our bags and made our way into the bus terminal to use the bathroom and check to make sure our next bus was on schedule.
The bus terminal was hectic and there were people everywhere. It didn’t matter that it was so late in the evening. My friend Joni had to use the bathroom so while she ventured inside I stayed in the hallway of the terminal watching her bags. My shoulders were getting tired from holding my large backpack that was on my back along with a LLBean book bag/day pack filled with extremely important things to me, like my daily journals from when I was conducting my independent study in Ayacucho, Peru, to my travel books, my 35mm camera, my 32 rolls of already developed film of my experiences in Peru, which I had planned on using to present my study findings to my professor when I returned to school, my toiletry kit, among many other things I had stuffed into this bag. Needless to say, it was a heavy bag and while standing there, I just wanted to take some of the weight off my back so I sent this bag down at my feet. There were very few tourists around me at that moment as they were in the bathrooms or at a ticketing window to get another bus ticket. I was looking around me at all the Bolivians in the bus terminal in front of me with their beautiful hats and colorful ponchos.
Suddenly, someone tapped me on my right shoulder so I turned around to look and it was a Bolivian man who was shorter than me. He asked me in Spanish, where was I going and in that moment, I had thought, why is this random guy asking me where I am headed to, but I quickly translated in my head what he was asking me and responded by saying, “Uyuni”. I still thought it was a little odd and looked down at my feet, where I had set down my bag and it was not there when I had just seen it a few seconds before. I quickly looked to my left and I saw a younger individual carrying my backpack around the corner of a bus kiosk, quickly vanishing out of sight. I then whipped my head back around to the right to see where the older guy who had asked me the question was going and he also was running away, disappearing behind another bus kiosk.
As the feeling of what just happened to me sank in, I couldn’t help but look at all of the Bolivians surrounding me, of which the majority were laughing and what I had thought at the time, was that they were pointing at me. As the realization that I had just been robbed flooded my conscious, I was getting upset that all these people around me who are watching me, said nothing or didn’t try to stop it. It all happened so fast, that I was having trouble believing it myself. My friend came out of the bathroom and was in shock when I told her what happened and that I had wanted to run after the thief so badly, but I couldn’t because I had such a huge backpack on my back along with standing guard watching her bags that I didn’t want to leave them unattended as I went and searched for the thieves so I just stood there motionless and confused at what had just transpired.
Once my friend picked up her bag, I went to find the police guard stationed in the bus terminal and as I was upset started speaking to him the best I could in Spanish regarding the incident and how these two guys had just stolen my bag. He said there was nothing he could really do as I had no idea where the guys who stole my bag were. He reminded me how important it was for us to watch our belongings. I wanted to scream at him because I had lost some of my most valuable pictures and journals I needed for my independent study and could only think about how I would probably fail my class now!
The whole experience had been a blur as it hadn’t been a long period of time from when we stepped off our first bus to the time my bag was stolen to when we had to board our next bus to Uyuni. My friend was trying to calm me down after speaking with the policeman and reminding me that even though my stuff had been stolen, I wasn’t harmed and I was safe. As we started on the second part of our journey to Uyuni, after the bus driver turned off the bus lights, and the smooth blacktop gave way to the bumpy dirt road, I started to cry uncontrollably! My emotions were having a field day, pushing me to be angry at the world and the people around me, to being sad about what had happened and having the feeling of loosing everything. The tears just came and I couldn’t stop them. I just felt like I had lost all that was important to me because at that time, those journals and pictures meant everything to me.
I was actually glad the bus was so loud riding down the bumpy road because the noise from the bouncing bus drowned out my crying where no one heard my tears except for my friend Joni. I didn’t get much sleep on that bus ride, not only because it was such an awful unpaved road, but because my mind was in a constant state of questioning and thinking, replaying the events at the bus terminal, thinking you could have done this or you could have done that to prevent it from happening. To then thinking, what are you going to do to present your independent study now? After wasting too much time thinking about and not getting any sleep I came to the realization that I still have my memories in my mind and no one could take that away from me.
When the bus arrived in Uyuni as the sun was rising and the light was permeating through the bus windows, all I could do was dry my eyes and think about this wonderful traveling journey I was making with my friend and how we were about to visit the largest salt flats in the world! I was exhausted from the sleepless bus ride, but excited to be in a new place. As we stepped off the bus into the cold air, reality quickly hit me once again and reminded me that we were at 3,656 meters above sea level. We found some food, which helped me get my mind of everything that had happened and walking through an early morning market allowing me to see that the world never stops and just continues with life. It wasn’t the end of the world and even though a small part of me had been broken from the theft of my backpack, I was still excited to be traveling and being able to experience all the Treasures Of Traveling throughout Bolivia!
Here are some quick travel tips to remember!
Always be aware of your surroundings.
Keep your passport, money and important documents on your person.
Be aware of people wanting to start conversations with you.
Have you ever been robbed or had anything stolen from you while you have been traveling? Tell me about your travel stories below!
— Luke Keeler