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The Milk House: The coronavirus-caused escape

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairy Published on 30 June 2020

A small pack of dogs sat on top of the hill and watched us speed by. Everywhere in Bolivia, there are dogs.

An hour before that, my girlfriend and I were still in bed. She was the only one of us who could speak Spanish, so when my phone said it was the airline calling, I handed it to her. She said the expected things under such circumstances: “You can’t change our flight on such short notice. Why are you telling us this just now? How do you expect us to get there?”

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The logistics were like this: We were booked on the last international flight out of Bolivia at the end of March, leaving from Santa Cruz. We had to take a domestic flight from La Paz to Santa Cruz. We were in Copacabana, which was four hours from La Paz by bus. The flight from La Paz left in four hours.

Bus drivers yelled out to us as we ran through the streets of Copacabana, dragging our luggage with clothes sticking out of the zippers. They ushered with their hands to get on their bus. “Can you get us to La Paz by 12:30?” I asked them. “Of course,” they all replied. “Can you promise? Are you lying to us?” Yes, they were lying to us, they would all eventually admit.

We looked around until we found an old man with a rickety gray van. He said he might be able to get us to La Paz by 12:30, but he had to wait for his van to get booked up with customers first. We paid for the entire van. He had no teeth, and his hands shook so much that he had trouble grasping the 240 bolivianos (45 dollars) we gave him. We didn’t like our chances.

The driver beeped at the vendors passing through the streets selling bread or toilet paper from their carts, or other locals going about their day, little affected by the virus that was shutting down the rest of the world. Some dogs chased the wheels, but most of them only lifted heads to watch us pass. In the poor hygienic conditions of Bolivia, the feral dogs thrived much more than the people and sometimes seemed to outnumber them.

It was a few minutes before I even realized an old indigenous woman was also in the van. It was likely we were paying for her ride to La Paz, but she said she would pray for us – which, as the van picked up speed on the dirt roads outside of town and took the sharp mountain corners in the wrong lane, didn’t seem like a bad investment. The driver beeped at every vehicle in front of us before he passed them, somehow getting the piece of tin we sat in to 96 and maybe 112 km/h.

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We raced by farmers leading their ragged Brown Swiss to other grass patches, barely able to see their expressions before they were out of sight. Sometimes flocks of sheep along the shoulder exploded down the bank and into nearby fields. Only a couple of hours before, my girlfriend had been charging through the streets of Copacabana, screaming about the injustices of Bolivian companies taking advantage of tourists during the epidemic. Now, she gripped my hand tightly and, at one point, leaned in to whisper: “Probably it’s more important to arrive in one piece than on time.”

At one point en route, we had to take a ferry across a small lake because the locals refused to lose their jobs to a bridge. I could see our driver become more anxious, looking back at us in the rear-view mirror. The old indigenous woman got out of the van and yelled at the boat operator to hurry up because they had to get the tourists to the airport by 12:30.

As we got closer to La Paz, the driver started asking us the time more often. He had our money already and didn’t have to get us to the airport on time, but as he weaved through the increasing traffic without slowing, it became apparent he fully intended to do just that. At one point, he veered onto a busy one-way highway going the opposite direction, forcing cars and large trucks out of our way, because it was a short cut. Another time, a dog lazily crossed in front of us. We hit that dog and kept going.

My girlfriend and I sat in front of our gate at 12:25, the flight not yet ready to board. I looked at her and figured I was probably as pale as she was. We could have said the usual things to each other, like: “Hey, we made it.” “We’re getting out of here.” “We almost died, but we didn’t.” “No one probably owned that dog anyway.”

Instead, we sat silent and wide-eyed, waiting for the gate to open. Forty minutes later, they began to board.  end mark

Ryan Dennis is the son of a former dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. He tweets at @PenOfRyanDennis.

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