Bad air day!

Bad air day!

We booked to go to Bolivia for 5 nights, leaving Wednesday and making the most of public holidays over Easter when Natasha was off work. Destination Sucre, the old capital of Bolivia and a centre of textiles, weaving and chocolate – paradise in other words. A connecting flight in Santa Cruz but with a comfortable 3-hour stopover.

The trouble started with a general strike in Argentina on Tuesday. A couple of times a year these shut down the entire transport system; so no buses, trains or subte (underground) and lots of flights canceled too. The taxis, just falling short on solidarity, have a field day. Due to fly just after 11 am on Wednesday we had a whole day of feeling relief and some smug satisfaction that we had not booked for the Tuesday. Then the emails from Aerolineas Argentinas started. The first: flight rescheduled to 1 pm. The second: flight rescheduled to 1 pm from a different airport. The third: still 1 pm but back to the original airport. All a bit disconcerting less than 24 hours before departure and the connection time getting tight.

We made it to the right airport and onto the flight to Santa Cruz, which left about 20 minutes late. Then the catalogue of little setbacks started adding up to a seriously bad air day, the more so because it was Natasha’s birthday (did I say I was travelling with her?). Here’s the catalogue – the narrative is just too tedious:

>Aerolineas cabin crew assure us the connecting flight will be held and their ground staff will meet us

>No ground staff in sight as we disembark

>Spirits sinking

>Quick through passport control and baggage claim

>Spirits soaring

>But Customs decides I look iffy and so I have to open my suitcase while some burky uniformed bloke has a bit of a rummage

>Spirits sinking

>We reach Amaszonas desk 30 minutes before the flight departs – already checked in online the night before

>Spirits soaring

>They say (start a new bullet list): (parenthesis because they didn’t actually say that. Don’t be silly!)

=they don’t have any record of us checking in

=the flight us closed

=the flight was rescheduled and left early

=the plane hasn’t taken off yet but there are no seats left

=Spirits sunk

All this was fabricated by about 5 different check-in staff who had not agreed their stories. And the truth was they had just re-sold our seats. Well, my burgeoning command of Spanish deserted me. Fortunately Natasha is particularly impressive on the Spanish for complaining and she put in a bravura, emotionally charged performance worthy at least of an Oscar nomination in Best Foreign Film documentary category. Hell, she was awesome. Didn’t get us to Sucre but got us a 5-star hotel for the night, taxis and a seat on tomorrow morning’s 11 am flight.

So a night on the loose in Bolivia’s biggest city (yes, it’s bigger than La Paz) in a hotel that long ago lost the starriness from its 5 stars. We eschewed the dinner in the lifeless restaurant and headed for the centre of town by taxi – a really cheap (for us gringos at least) and slightly hair-raising form of transport. I don’t think there’s an MOT system to speak of here and as for a Highway Code, forget it. The driver dropped us right in the centre of town in the huge and very beautiful central square, a classic of colonial architecture and filled with people passing the early evening – strolling, standing, sitting, smooching, selling stuff – just like the main plaza of any Hispanic city anywhere.

We had decided on a curry for dinner. A good curry is difficult to find in Buenos Aires, says Natasha, and it is her birthday. Plus, an Indian restaurant called the Taj Mahal owned by a Bangladeshi in the heart of Santa Cruz de la Sierra was just too random to resist – and given top rating by Lonely Planet. A few blocks, maybe more further out, we took another taxi and joined the chaos of traffic that seems to plague the centre of all South American cities. The driver didn’t know the Taj Mahal but a landmark close by was good enough to drop us within walking distance. We found it easily; we found it closed! So we were now off map in a strange city and decided best to head to the end of the street and jump in another taxi. Only it wasn’t another taxi but the same one! By now, we had stopped feeling sorry for ourselves and were well into seeing the funny side of our adventure and this reacquaintance with the same taxista had us helpless! He stopped for us but said he couldn’t face a journey back through the traffic, or maybe he just couldn’t face another journey with us, and he wiped his sweating face as if to reinforce the point!

Another attempt at a Lonely Planet recommendation with a different taxi also fell flat as the restaurant, it seems, no longer exists. Lonely Planet may just possibly be the kiss of death in Bolivia! We ended up in a place called Buenissimo with low expectations but a ravenous hunger, and it was excellent. There must be a lesson there about the pitfalls of planning or seeking ideal destinations? ….. Anyway I wouldn’t have missed the taxi rides even for a great curry! Back to the hotel in yet another taxi driven with more than a hint of stock-car bravado – eyes shut works best, I mean for the passenger of course! And lo, as we reach our room, a call from Reception to say that our flight has been changed. Well obviously! Amaszonas probably oversold again and we are now on an earlier flight with Ecojet (which is either low-budget or the owner has an ironic sense of humour) and a taxi will pick us up at 6.30 am. Aargh.

We made it to Sucre whence I write. It’s a fabulous place full of good air – worth all the bad air getting here!