I’m a city boy, born and raised in southern California, in a town just a few miles east of La-La-Land, but still very much part of Greater Los Angeles. It is a Twilight Zone of its own to those who live elsewhere and wander into it unprepared. To me, however, it was home. At least for the first twenty-one years of my life. Then one fine day in 1965, an officious envelope arrived from none other than Lyndon Baines Johnson, the President of the United States of America himself, calling me to active military service. Although there were several details in fine print on that single page, the main text was terse and to the point: “GREETING: You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States, and to report at L.A. Examining and Induction Station, 1033 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, Calif. on JUL 28 1965 at 7:30 A.M.” I had been gathered into the fold.
I was soon whisked away to the bosom of the American Armed Forces, ending up at Fort Sam Houston on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas, there to receive training for the next five months, first as a soldier, then as a United States Army medic. Now, Texas is something of a Twilight Zone all unto itself, at least from a California boy’s standpoint, but another Twilight Zone of an entirely different ilk awaited me soon after in the central highlands of what was then known as South Viet Nam.
A year after that I found myself yet again in central highlands, but these five thousand miles from my hometown in California, and twelve thousand miles from Vietnam, in the high valleys of Bolivia, in South America.
Through circumstances relevant to this story but too long to go into here, in October of 1968 I sailed, together with a family I’d known for years, aboard a ship — which, I might add, very narrowly capsized along the way — from Panama all the way to the port city of Arica on the northernmost tip of Chile. From Arica, we boarded a train that passed through the Atacama Desert — a desert so arid that it makes the vast Mojave in the American southwest seem like a veritable forest in comparison — and slowly wormed our way into the Andes to the east, arriving hours later at dusk and many thousands of feet higher in the capital of Bolivia, La Paz, a city nestled in a vast hole dropping from the edge of a 13,000-foot altitude high plain called el altiplano and surrounded by dozens of majestic snow-capped mountains, some reaching nearly 20,000 feet into the sky.
My friends and I looked at one another and said, “What in God’s Name have we gotten ourselves into?”
Days later we found ourselves in the high valleys of central Bolivia, in the city of Cochabamba, which was to be my home for 20 years. Many and sometimes bizarre, among the mundane, were the adventures I was to have in Bolivia, and although Rod Serling wasn’t there to prepare me, I still remembered distinctly his famous TV program introduction: “You’re traveling through another dimension — a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s a signpost up ahead: your next stop: the Twilight Zone!
From my perspective at the time, boy, did he say a mouthful!
During my many years in South America, both in Bolivia and in Chile, I wrote hundreds of letters to my parents back in California, and upon my return in 1995 — which, by the way, after so many years absent, proved to be an altogether new Twilight Zone to re-accustom myself to from the old and different one I’d abandoned in 1968 — I happened across a large box at their home filled with those old letters. Curious, I poked around and reading a few of these, I began to relive many of the episodes of my own past. Seeing as how nearly three decades had transpired, I decided to start in on the earliest letters to refresh my memory. I was surprised, even astonished, to discover that over the years my aging brain had rewritten many of my adventures, and what I was now reading often turned out something at odds with my memory.
Early on while in Bolivia I’d written to my mother and father about a rather bizarre albeit amusing incident that had occurred while on a trip into the boonies. Without entering into background details here other than to say that, given the circumstances, I was probably out of my mind to take this trip in the first place, I wrote that I’d traveled — and on my own for the very first time — on a rural bus to an inhospitable tin mining town called Uncía high in the Andes mountains, many hours away from Cochabamba where I lived. I spoke little Spanish at the time, and absolutely no Quechua or Aymara, two indigenous languages widely spoken in this district, other than perhaps “Imaynalla kasanki?” (How are you?) and “Mana intindinichu qhichwapi” (I don’t understand Quechua).
Rural bus trips in the Bolivian Andes are rarely if ever what you could call ‘fun’ trips, unless you’re an adrenaline freak. When I arrived, most roads outside of the cities were unpaved, the buses were not comfortable by any sense of the imagination, passengers tended to stash their belongings, both inert and alive, wherever they could find room, and that might include the aisles, their laps, or even your lap!, they often became ill from motion sickness, which usually sparked an epidemic of nausea and vomiting. And, whenever traveling in these mountains, always in the back of one’s mind was the gnawing dread that this particular vehicle, for whatever reason, was going to be the one to plummet into the abyss, as had happened so often to hundreds of cars, trucks, and buses over the years in Bolivia on these treacherous roads — roads sometimes so narrow that the drivers of large vehicles could not safely pass one another without performing what can only be regarded as feats of thaumaturgy.*
Aside from the above-mentioned discomforts, along the way we were also being continually stopped by armed soldiers, checking for contraband as well as possible domestic and foreign communist insurgents. It was April of 1969. A little over a year before, the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara had been captured and then executed in one of the jungles to the east by Bolivian armed forces. But for months afterwards everybody was paranoid about Marxist-Leninist guerrillas sneaking in to indoctrinate the people with the intention of turning Bolivia into another Cuba. So there were these periodic barriers in the roads where jeeps, buses and trucks would be stopped and checked by the military and regional police. These rides in the Andes were long, dusty, tedious and, as mentioned, often quite dangerous.
The passengers on my bus were not only tired from the trip, but becoming increasingly peeved over being stopped every few kilometers and searched by armed guards. Near the end of the journey we were stopped yet again. An officious soldier climbed aboard and started eyeballing the passengers suspiciously and prodding people’s belongings for possible contraband. I was seated toward the rear of the bus next to a friendly, plump Indian woman about twice my age on her way back home, with whom I’d exchanged pleasantries during the trip in my very limited Spanish, when the soldier finally caught sight of me. It was quite obvious that I was not from around those parts, and he started making a ruckus.
“Who is that foreigner?” He pointed at me with an accusing finger. “You! What are you doing on this bus? Where are you going? Why are you going to Uncía?”
I’m a bit sketchy on the historical details, but as I recall, Uncía was among a number of mining towns rumored to be possible breeding grounds of communist sedition. Uncía had long before been a hotbed of union protest against the exploitation of mineworkers by wealthy and unscrupulous tin mine owners, and years before, the miners organized to combat against patent injustices, only to be beaten down violently. Over the years, however, the union spirit did not die, nor did distrust on the part of the government that new rebellions might occur, especially now by the revolutionary uprising several months before. Foreigners traveling in out-of-the-way places were now under suspicion. One of my American compatriots, a large, affable bearded chap who had arrived in Bolivia along about the same time as I, related to me a few months later that his beard alone had awakened suspicions that he might perhaps be in cahoots somehow with insurrectionists, notwithstanding the fact that he spoke Spanish worse than I did at that point. In the end, he had been obliged to shave it off.
The guard started heading down the aisle towards me. But by now the passengers were pretty steamed by all these absurd holdups. The Indian woman next to me, who had been muttering imprecations all along under her breath, finally had quite enough of this nonsense. She rose up from her seat and started yelling at the guard and shaking her fist. His eyes grew wide with surprise.
“¡Oiga, sinvergüenza!” she cried. “Listen here, you rascal! You should be ashamed of yourself, bothering innocent, law-abiding citizens! And this young man here? You leave him alone! He’s done nothing wrong. I should know. He’s my son-in-law!” The other passengers gaped for an instant in amazement at her patent fabrication, looked at one another, shrugged, then joined in, “Yes! Yes! The young man is her son-in-law!” They razzed the hapless soldier to such a degree that he became rattled, and now fearing that they might even lay hands on him, he quickly backed up and fled the bus, telling the driver to get the hell on his way. After that, everybody cheered and burst into laughter, reckoning as highly comical the very unlikely son-in-law/mother-in-law relationship between this light-skinned gringo and this delightful brown-skinned Indian woman, whom they now regarded as the heroine of the day who had saved everyone from a lengthy delay and quite possibly me from detention. I, who’d had my heart in my throat all through the incident, thanked her over and over, and she patted me on the arm and gave me a wink, pleased indeed by her own clever acumen, not to mention transforming this otherwise mind-numbing journey into a commemorated adventure . . . into the Twilight Zone.
*You can look up thaumaturgy, but if you wish to see just how narrow Bolivian mountain roads can be, go ahead and google “bolivia dangerous mountain roads” for images, or check out the photographs on this website: http://www.dangerousroads.org/south-america/bolivia/44-death-road-bolivia.html
(Note: The pics are slides, so wait a few seconds for them to flip to different views.)
And if you aren’t too queasy about hair-raising rides, below is a link to a short video about what is considered the most dangerous road in Bolivia, and indeed in the world. I never took this particular road, by the way, but I’ve been on many others that were similar.
I should note that I have a number of good friends who’ve lost their lives on these kinds of roads. One friend, though, narrowly escaped such an accident by providentially sitting in the very back of the bed of a truck he was traveling on. It was nighttime and all the other passengers were asleep, while he remained awake, uneasy by a premonition. Suddenly he felt the truck lurch violently and realized that it was going over the edge of a cliff. He cried out to the sleeping passengers, but too late to awaken them. He jumped from the truck to safety just in time. He was the only survivor.