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“Ya”. Hitchiking in Bolivia and a Patient Appreciation of Time

‘Ya’ in South American Spanish is a subtle, fluid word. The fact that it’s linked to time – a concept even more difficult to pin down in this continent than anywhere else I’ve travelled – makes it more problematic.

“Ya viene,” she insisted for the third time; a savage nod of her head and her face was turned away, eyes slipping into the interminable gaze of a patient Bolivian awaiting a lift.

It’s coming.

I’d originally learned that ‘ya’ meant already. “Ya lo hice” – I’ve already done it. But as my many months in Bolivia had smudged into two languages and an understanding of the dominating culture of tardiness, I had come to understand its other, more common meaning.

Now. At once. Soon.

The impatience I felt when now became later; at once, sometime in the near future; and soon migrated to at least another few hours, revealed my foreign perspective. I had been raised on regular public transport, privately owned vehicles, and a cultural obsession with punctuality.

hitchhiking in Bolivia

In the Bolivian countryside, none of these rules applied.

Even now, almost two years living on these shores, and I’ve never lost my feeling of incredulity at the locals’ endurance when it comes to waiting, nor their confident assurance that it is coming rather than it will come.

On that day in particular, sat on the side of a barely existent road in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia, there was no question about the fact that the camion – the truck – would be there.

Ya. Ya. Ya.

But Adam and I were far less practiced in the art of waiting. After a seemingly endless hour or two, we agreed that a chilled can of paceña beer might help to diffuse the thick heat of early afternoon – or at least help us to lose track of the time spent waiting.

hitchhiking in Bolivia
Views across the Bolivian countryside

As Adam returned with the beers, our numbers had swelled; it seemed we weren’t the only ones hoping to get to La Yunga.

There was a woman dressed in traditional pollera and wide-brimmed hat who seemed to be passing the boundaries of middle-age – although I had long since given up attempting to assign years in a country where the cruel legacy of the sun cut deep and cut young.

Her bulging shopping bags, fashioned from the brightly striped, traditional textile aguayo, had become a seat on the filthy grass that marked the edge of the thickly crusted dust road.

Standing motionless a few meters away was an elderly man: he wore striped, black cloth trousers and a thin grimy shirt; his sleeves were drawn up to his elbows and threadbare from poverty.

A black fedora obscured his eyes, yet the angle of his head suggested him to be peering fixedly at the ground to the right of his rubber sandals; spellbound by nothingness.

There’s was a confident, practiced wait. Hours could be spent staring into the mid-distance; eyes squinting into the fierce Andean sun.

This silent contemplation would only be broken to swat away a tenacious mosquito, or to impart a brief nod of the head at a passer-by.

hitchhiking in Bolivia
Men working in the fields that we passed as we were hitchhiking in Bolivia

A final handful of locals joined. I overheard one telling the seated woman that the driver was on his way.

Not only “ya viene” but she’d seen him, shoveling the final few scraps of his chicken milanesa into his mouth at the dirty plastic tables of a food shack on the main road.

He would be here, ya.

For once, ya really meant ya.

We could see the large camion making its painful progress through the dust, before halting beside the waiting crowd.

A few thin rods of metal acted as a ladder for climbing into the truck; but as they started above the wheel arch, anyone unpracticed in the limbering art of climbing into the back needed a firm push up to achieve the required momentum.

It already contained other passengers looking to make the 20-mile journey up the mountain to the village.

A handful of older women had settled themselves onto boxes and the plastic woven bags that comprised the other cargo and were snoozing away the afternoon heat.

Two sheep cowered in a corner, a thin line of rope strung from their necks to the hand of a younger woman, who was clutching what first seemed to be a bundle of cloth – but actually contained a sleeping baby.

We scrambled to cling onto the wooden slats that formed the sides, steadying ourselves as the camion began to move.

As we passed from the smooth surface of the dust road onto tracks of rigid, sun-baked mud, we were jolted from side to side; none of the other passengers seemed to register the movement.

hitchhiking in Bolivia
The patchwork of fields that covered the surrounding landscapes

Progress was slow and gradual; the wheels valiantly forcing us through dried rivulets of mud and occasional burst streams that had encroached onto the road.

It was clear now why the moto taxis in the town below had refused us passage; not keen to face the prospect of finding themselves mired in a stretch of barely inhabited track.

As we wound further up through the mountain, the edges of the road became a patchwork of fields of potatoes and corn, etched out from the wildness.

Every few minutes, dilapidated, windowless adobe buildings topped with once orange tiles and bordered by fences of thin sticks forced in a disorderly fashion into the ground, seemed to rise from the ground.

Ahead, every minute a little closer was the thick, dense cloud forest that had once ruled; now trapped in a patient but persistent battle against the boundaries of the locals’ terrain.

After close to an hour of gradual climbing, the truck rounded into a clearing where the infringing semi-jungle felt closer despite the expanse of grass that had been reclaimed. We realized that we had arrived.

The locals disembarked quickly, scattering in each direction to distant houses, hidden beyond the thick surroundings of trees and vegetation.

We clambered out more slowly, struck by the silence and calm. We had come to explore the cloud forest, but merely arriving had been a lesson in the dogged endurance that characterizes the Bolivian people in so many ways.

Ya we were learning that an adventure can be a journey; and a period of waiting and absorbing more powerful than doing.


Friday 25th of November 2016

This is so interesting and well-written! I really enjoyed this piece.

Steph Dyson

Friday 25th of November 2016

Thanks Stephanie! Glad you enjoyed it :)