When the journey starts

by Rocio Sanchez (Spain)

Making a local connection Bolivia


I had been traveling for two weeks when I left Villazón. However, a feeling of insecurity hit me when the train departed. Just as that I had felt years before when I moved away to start college. Mr. Alfredo had come to pick me up at the hotel that morning at 11 a.m. I was exhausted after the trip the night before. Five hours in a bus along a narrow, bumpy road in the freezing temperature of July. - Good luck with your journey - told me a kind-hearted receptionist as I walked out of the hotel. It was like the sixth or seventh time they wished me good luck. Yet I hadn’t experienced any event that could be identified as an accomplishment since I started my adventure. Nothing that felt awakening or memorable. Was it lack of practice? After all, it was my first time traveling on my own. Villazón was a surprisingly quiet village. No one would guess 200 people cross its border post every day. Just a couple of money exchange offices proved the place was frequented by foreign travellers. Mr. Alfredo owned the agency I had hired to organize my trip to Uyuni. His was one of the few agencies I could find that operated within Bolivia and the only one in town. I had read some reviews complimenting his friendliness and hospitality. As we walked to his office, I immediately confirmed this. Alfredo was a middle-aged man, cheerful and gentle. You could easily notice his desire to share his knowledge about his country and have it appreciated by others. Once he had explained to me all the details of the route he had prepared for me in Uyuni, he gently led me to his home, next to the office. His wife was ready to serve the meal. Until that moment, I had no idea that I was being his guest that day. While we were eating a thick slow cooked pumpkin soup, he asked me about my future plans and why I was traveling. I was certainly the youngest client he had ever received. His agency had been working for about five years. He was excited with the project, although he took it as a hobby more than as a professional activity. Accustomed as I was to travel along dozens of anonymous tourists, this situation was pleasantly new. Rather than a simple client, I was a guest at his home. The atmosphere felt like a lively family conversation after a Sunday lunch. We chatted about some banalities but also exchange our points of view about political instability and how Bolivia was gradually taking charge of tourism as an essential business for its development. -Most visitors book their tours in Chile or Argentina. They come, quickly visit Uyuni, Potosí and La Paz and leave the country. These agencies don't exchange a single word with local communities- he complained. At 4 p.m. we headed to the station. The Southern Express was making its first trip to Uyuni that afternoon. Due to the rains, transport was often affected. This train was a novelty to the locals. Like kids around a new discovery, a group of villagers looked over the brand new machine. Two German friends and a young American couple were assessing the comfort of the seats and the services on board, oblivious to the throbbing emotions of the engine driver and the rest of the staff. The occasion deserved a picture. With the innocence and respect of a shy adolescent, Mr. Alfredo asked me if he could rest his arm in my shoulder for the photo. Before leaving, he drew me a map to find the meeting point where my next guide will be waiting for me in Uyuni. Then I got into the train and found my seat. When we started to move, my heart rate accelerated. I was leaving behind a person who cared for me. I grabbed my notebook and began to write to overcome the emotion. That emotion that didn’t arise at Buenos Aires airport when I embarked on my first solo journey in the Americas. That emotion that made me feel my journey had begun at that very moment.