Tuesday, October 10, 2023

An Unforgettable Journey: Part 3 (Conclusion)

You know that feeling you get when you're driving on a remote Bolivian dirt road, and you suddenly find yourself at the end of the barrel of a gun?

This is the conclusion of a story from last year, which I never finished telling. You can find the previous posts here (Part 1) and here (Part 2). But before we get to the end of the story, let's back up. Our group had traveled a full day on sketchy Bolivian roads, then spent the next day hiking to the site of the wreck and salvaging as much as we could. We spent that second night with a Bolivian family, and on the third day hiked back to where our vehicles were parked. At this point, day three is just a blur to me, but it's day four—the day that we drove back home to Cochabamba—that really stands out in my mind.

We were up early to get on the road. It was going to be a long day of driving, and we were hoping not to run into any snags along the way. It was hard not to turn heads with airplane parts strapped to our vehicles!

DJ's Land Cruiser, with pieces of his airplane's wing strapped on top.

A warning to passing drivers to be more careful than the guy who was driving this truck.

The drive was going somewhat smoothly, with only a few times that our vehicles nearly got stuck trying to go uphill on muddy, rutted roads. About halfway through the drive, I was starting to feel optimistic. The worst of the roads were behind us, and pretty soon it would be smooth sailing back to Cochabamba. But that feeling of optimism would soon give way to a host of new feelings.

I was second-to-last in our group of four vehicles, and I couldn't see what was going on up ahead. All I knew was that the lead car was coming to a stop. I thought that perhaps it was a checkpoint of some sort, or maybe locals asking for money to allow us to pass through. But without warning, a large group of uniformed men emerged with guns drawn, running past our cars. Had we inadvertently found ourselves in the middle of a military exercise? Wait, no...those guns are pointed at us!

We rolled down our windows, and the men in military fatigues yelled at us to hand over our phones. They asked repeatedly if I had guns in the vehicle and ordered us to exit our cars. Some of us were put in handcuffs, and I was simply ordered to stay near my vehicle. I was forced to hand over my wallet, and my vehicle was searched while the man with the gun kept telling me not to run. I'm not sure where he thought I was going to go, since we were in the middle of nowhere. I would probably get lost and die of starvation out there! I'd rather take my chances on the guy with the gun.

After some time we finally found out that we weren't being robbed or kidnapped. Apparently, two or three police units, along with a couple helicopters, had been dispatched to look for us. Someone had made a false claim on social media that DJ's plane was a drug plane, and that the pilot had died in the "crash". Imagine their confusion when DJ—alive and well—informed them that he was the pilot who "had died" a few days earlier!

My vehicle, with DJ's following behind. I didn't get any photos of the real excitement
because our phones were confiscated by the police.

We were detained for quite some time while the police figured out what to do with us. We suspected that they finally realized they had made a mistake, but what were they going to do at that point? Let us go? Of course not. They did return our phones and our belongings, but instead of letting us go, they escorted us all the way back to Cochabamba. It was slow-going, and it was the middle of the night by the time we arrived on the outskirts of town. 

We pulled off on the side of the road, hungry, exhausted, and confused. As we sat waiting in the dark, we could tell that the police were still trying to figure out what to do with us. All we wanted to do was get home, eat a little something, and go to sleep. By this point, they had changed their story. Now they told us that we had been stopped at a routine checkpoint. They suddenly "forgot" about that social media post they had shown to DJ earlier in the day.

There is a reason why the airplane is such a useful tool out here!
The roads can be quite treacherous.

After several phone calls and much deliberation, they decided to confiscate DJ's airplane to test it for drugs. We would all be free to go home, but not before being taken down to the police station to be questioned. By this point it was early morning. We were escorted by the police back to the station where we were questioned one-by-one. After giving my statement, I was finally free to leave.

It was a crazy, emotional, exhausting day, but I was happy to finally be home with my family. It sure beat spending the night in a Bolivian jail! I can't say that the experience was one that I'd like to repeat, but if nothing else, it makes for a good story! And in case you're wondering, the airplane was found to be clean of drugs. This is what we expected, of course—our only concern being that someone malicious could have planted drugs in the days that the airplane was unattended at the site of the incident. But thank God for his watch and care over us and over the airplane! 

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