Even more anthropologists have written on the perils of transportation in their fieldsite. Ellen Moodie writes about an bus crash in El Salvador and points out the ways global inequalities and institutions actually bore quite a bit of responsibility for a seemingly “accidental” incident. And certainly, anthropologists such as Lynn Stephen—who works with undocumented immigrants—can’t ignore the perils of transportation for such a population.
But you never think it will be you who is in that crash. I suppose because the academic anthropologist is among the first-world privileged and can choose to use “safer” forms of transportation than the public busses Moodie describes. And are privileged enough to be able to obtain visas rather than illegally crossing borders (aside from Bourgeois’s famous example).
And indeed, I was returning from getting my visa to remain in Bolivia. It was an annoying bureaucratic process that took far longer than it should have, but it was not impossible. And the kind (but paternalistic) Consulado kept assuring me they would give me the visa if only I could provide a little more documentation. Obtaining the visa was a vastly different experience than my middle class Bolivian friends have had when trying to get tourist visas for the U.S.
And as for transportation, I decided to avoid the 30 hour, somewhat comfortable tourist bus from Lima to La Paz and opted for what I assumed to be a more posh option. Flying to Juliaca would—yes—require me to take some local busses rather than a fancy full cama option. But would also be much faster and presumably safer. Of course, this was not exactly the case. As the taxi from Puno to Desaguadero went spinning off the road and those mortal thoughts when racing through my head, I never once thought “this isn’t supposed to happen.”
But I did think that later. As I reflected on the events, I couldn’t help but think of the endless stories you hear in the Andes of busses careening off the sides of cliffs. All the passengers and driver die. And they all remain nameless locals. This doesn’t happen to the tourist or anthropologist because they can afford the safer option. And that comforts us the night before we travel. We have paid our $70 rather than 120 Bs. (about $18) to travel, thus ensuring our safety. We will arrive in (relative) comfort and be happily on our way.
But the truth is, there is an element of luck. Sure, it seems the more you pay the better your chances are. But things like blockades, weather, and poorly maintained roads treat us all somewhat equally. Of course, some have the luxury to avoid travel when conditions are less than perfect. Some have the luxury of flying rather than taking any ground transportation at all. But even if I had flown directly to El Alto, I would have still had the blockades on the autopista to deal with. Money and status help, but they don’t take away risk completely.
And so, as I sat in the back seat of that recently-demolished taxi, and watched the Peruvian man next to me bow his head and cross himself, in a way I wished for something to thank other than luck for my survival. I had been given enough of a shake to be reminded that wealth and status can’t always protect you. I wanted something else to believe in to keep me safe. But I had nothing.
And the truth was, it wasn’t even myself that I was afraid for (except maybe in the moments when I was sure I was going to freeze to death). I have lived a good life. I have done amazing things and been loved by amazing people. And my attitude toward transportation is often: I would rather die in the process of going somewhere than sit idly at home, afraid to take a risk. And I stand by that still. But I was afraid for the people I love. Perhaps I’ve just read the introduction to Culture and Truth by Renato Rosaldo (Michelle’s widower) too many times, but I didn’t want my parents, sister, colleagues, professors, and friends to wish I had never come here. To wish they had stopped me or proposed I do local research. I had no regrets. I don’t want to be the cause of regret for anyone else either.
And so, having returned to La Paz, I sit in my cushy SoHocachi house, writing this on a day when all the choferes (taxi drivers, bus drivers, and voceodores) are striking and blockading the streets of La Paz. And I wonder if perhaps they don’t ask for enough. I argue with taxi drivers over the difference between 10 and 12 Bolivianos (about 30 cents) to take me home at 10pm. But that taxi driver could be keeping me out of harm. But that’s just the beginning. Perhaps better roads, more structured public transportation, more accountability. And this is starting to sound like I’m making a bigger government argument, but hell, this country has already nationalized about every industry it can get its hands on, and the Movimiento A Socialismo party is in power, so maybe that’s a moot point. A little more reliability for transportation would go a long way around here.
But at least the Cebras are a start.
2005 Microbus Crashes and Coca-Cola Cash: The Value of Death in “Free-Market” El Salvador. American Ethnologist 33(1):63-80.
1993 Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston: Beacon Press.
2007 Transborder Lives: Indigenous Ozxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon. Durham: Duke University Press.