Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The selling of The Gypsy Train

By Alex Mehlin

I bumped into a van when pulling the bus out of the parking lot in Potosi, Bolivia. The damage was minor but the guy managed to get 340 Bolivianos out of us. I was pissed at myself for the accident. Alaena and I drove 200 km to Sucre. The mood was not right, I didn’t really believe it was going to be our last long distance drive in the bus. I guess I should have cherished it a bit more.

We pulled into Sucre, the white city and after getting lost amongst the endless one-way streets of the Spanish colonial town, we finally found a car wash who allowed us to park for the night. We cleaned the interior while the fat man and his balaclava wearing children cleaned the outside. We parked the sparkling bus and promised to return in the morning.

It was my and Zach´s one year anniversary being in South America. Alaena and I watched a movie on her laptop like we had done so many nights before on the bus. We had a couple of beers and passed out.

We awoke before the sun and walked up the hill to the bus. We pulled out of the parking lot and drove to the car market. Only there was no market, it was just a blank street. A local informed us that it only took place on Saturday.

The next morning we returned after spending our last night ever sleeping on the bus under the street lights.

A small man greeted us, I spoke to him the best I could while Alaena made last minute adjustments to the bus. He assured me that many people came to the market and we would sell the bus today. It was hard to truly believe him, I guess I didn’t really want to.

The sun pierced through the window, outside short fat women set up stands selling SalteƱas, sweet pastries filled with meat or cheese and Papa Rellenas, deep fried mashed potatoes filled with meat. We got our first visitor as the street began to fill with cars.

For the next 8 hours Alaena answered these same questions.

A small man, generally missing multiple teeth would approach the window and yell in. “How much,” Alaena would respond, “6 thousand”. He would smile, thinking this was very cheap and we must be very stupid.

“What year”, -1998.

“What type of motor” - 3500 diesel.

He would respond,” oh that’s small.” We were after all very stupid gringos.

Then the kicker question would arise. “Do you have Bolivian Papers?” This took more explaining, no we did not have the papers, we were selling the bus illegally. The buyer would take full responsibility for the legal aspect of having the bus. This is why we were asking only $6000.

At this point most potential buyers would just walk off. A few would tell us the ways that they could illegally operate the bus making it a good, but risky purchase for them.

One, make duplicate copies of the same bus in a different city and apply them to our bus. Two busses having the same papers. If discovered by the police the bus would be seized.

Two, buy a shitty bus legally and transfer all the numbers and papers illegally to
the good bus.

Three, bribe officials until the bus was legit, this would cost $4000.

Four, sell it off as parts.

Those that stuck around would ask more questions. Why would we take the seats out and put a bed in? They also questioned why we would want to hang so much stuff on the roof?

They then would make a ridiculous offer or question whether we would go down and declare they would come back later. One man even tried to trade us Artisan goods, like sweaters for the bus. At one point he told Alaena to take down the for sale sign because he was going to buy it with colorful pants and sweaters.

This went on for what seemed like years. Towards the end of the day Alaena´s patience was wearing thin. I tried to help her by getting her some chocolate but she was going to need more than just chocolate to keep up with the barrage of questioning.

A small business lady approached the bus, she wanted it for parts, she offered $4000 no more. Alaena looked like she was considering. Could we sell The Gypsy Train off as junk? The bus that brought us to all those amazing places in a million pieces scattered around Bolivia, it was hard to swallow.

We passed on the offer but not before giving her our number with instructions to call on Monday.

The market began to wind down. Two very young men entered the bus. They were ecstatic about the bus. One was a mechanic and the other was a bus driver who owned a beat up bus. Option TWO was now in play.

They offered $5000 on Monday. Just as we were discussing the prospect of sale, a couple who earlier were looking at the bus showed up. They offered us $5000 on the spot.

We had the makings for a bid off.

Alaena asked the young men if they were serious. They kind of blushed and walked off the bus. We were left with the couple. Soon the commotion attracted more people. The artisan man was now offering $5500 but we could hardly take him seriously.

The couple offered to take us to their house, they had a garage and spare room. We could stay there until Monday when we could go to a lawyer and send off the money to a secure location.

In the commotion and relief to have a real serious buyer we took the offer. I pulled into the stop and go traffic and drove out of the market with the couple. I stopped and Willy took the wheel. It was my last drive.

Willy maneuvered the bus with skill. He had previously been a bus owner, driving was in his blood. We entered their massive constructed brick complex. Dora showed us our room and made us coffee and toasties. A delicacy she picked up two years prior when her and Willy left their children in Bolivia and moved to Spain to work in rich people’s homes. They saved every Euro and used the money to build their home and I presume to buy our bus.

It was very weird staying with them. After coffee Dora instructed us to go rest in our room. It was 7 o´clock and we were hardly tired. We spent the next 3 hours watching movies on the laptop and fell asleep. I questioned whether the bus would be there in the morning.

The sun came up and we ate more toasties with Dora. We escaped her home for the city for the day, but not before checking on the bus.

We came back late, went to our room and slept.

In the morning we cleaned out the bus. Collected all our belonging and put what we did not want in a pile for Dora to buy. She purchased; blankets, the kitchen, the chairs, the shovel, old camping equipment and other various goods for 300 Bolivianos.

The four of us, Alaena, Dora, Willy and I, got in their 21 year-old son´s car and he drove us to the lawyers. There they gave Alaena and I $5000 in crisp 100 dollar bills. For the second time in a year I was running around a South American city with way too much money in my hand. We found a safe outlet and got rid of it while Dora and Willy waited for the lawyer. The paper work was not to be. We had to wait until morning.

At 9 a.m. sharp Willy phoned us and we met him at the law office. The paper work was completed. It stated that I sold the bus to Willy and he bought it from me. I signed it and we went to the notary. He took my thumb print and Willy´s. We signed again and made it official. Willy and I shook hands, Alaena and Willy shook hands. We parted with an Adios. Willy seemed happy and we were happy to have the process over.

Alaena and I proceeded to get far too drunk and went to the mercado central for dinner. The next day we had a proper celebration at the finest French restaurant in town, it cost us $35.

Not having the bus has not hit me yet. I know it will when we board our first public transportation bound for La Paz. Right now it kind of feels like the bus is safely parked waiting for us to be tired of the city. I know deep down that day long drives and the thrill of having no idea where we will end up is over, but in that same deep dark hole I know that it was time.


  1. One of the saddest things for me is that I won't hear this story in person for a long time. I miss you guys.

    The skinny kid with the bald spot.

  2. Congratulations on the sale, however bittersweet. Good luck to you all and may your paths cross again in equally adventuresome ways. Cherish your memories and know you will have the stories to share. Thank you for the past year, it has certainly given me something to talk about in my static life.

    All my best, A Gypsy's Mom