Bolivia 2 of 3 - Uyuni

Trip Start Jan 26, 2007
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Trip End Feb 06, 2008


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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, March 19, 2007

This entry is an exploration of the difference between believing in serendipity and just being happy that chaos has awesome side effects.

I arrived in Uyuni in the early morning, and I immediately liked it. Not because it is a pretty place (Ben Crosby describes it as Cat Butt, Bolivia), but because of the people. Upon exiting the bus, many tour operators greet you asking you if you would like to take a tour on the Salar. When I informed them all that I already had a tour with another company, they not only understood, but also pointed me towards the office and told me that I would have a fabulous time. I had about 4 awesome 3 minute conversations while waiting for my bags and getting my bearings. People in Uyuni did want to sell you stuff, but did so in an endearing way that said, 'As long as you are here, I am happy,' versus the usual, 'You are a tourist and you should give me your business.'

I went to set up my tour and sat down outside after getting my things in order. Listened to a crazy old woman complain about not having enough business, and talked briefly to an Argentinian, before seeing Thea Lorentzen of team Crushing Power (the bicyclists - see their site at http://crushingpower.blogspot.com) wandering around the street. Needless to say, this was unexpected. I had expected to be about 1 or 2 weeks ahead of them since they were bicycling into Bolivia and I was hightailing it with buses and planes, but they had some more mechanical troubles and had to bus themselves up into the city. After a confluence of a countless number of factors and lucky bounces and silly conversations and the like, I was reunited with my four friends in a tiny, dusty town in the middle of nowhere.

This is where Paulo Coelho of the Alchemist fame would tell you, 'When you are pursuing your Personal Legend, the universe conspires to help you achieve it,' or perhaps he would have said, 'Omens are the Language of the World, and you should heed them in order to achieve your dreams.' I apologize to any readers who may have enjoyed his book. According to Paulo Coelho, if all of us had just listened to ourselves when we were kids, we could have easily achieved our goals, which are most pure in childhood. I sure hope he is right and that the human race figures out how to pursue their collective Personal Legend, beause God knows America could use about 50 million Presidents, 80 million firemen, 90 million astronauts, 75 million professional athletes, and 5 million more doctors and investment bankers (those are the kids who always wanted to do what their parents did).

Anyway, regardless of one's philosophical beliefs about the size, shape, and workings of the world, it was great to be linked up with my friends again. Since their plans were not to be in Uyuni for 3 days, I cancelled my trip and we all signed up for a one day Salar excursion, from morning to after sunset.

First stop was the Cementerio del Trenes, a train graveyard which has about 2 or 3 strands of rusting boxcars and engines stretching around a half kilometer. Here occurred another Ben Reddy moment, as I saw and took the same photo of the rusting train engine in the middle of nowhere with Einstein's Field Equation painted on it (no, not E = mc^2, but a much more complex and lesser known equation). Search for bred's travelpod on this site and look at his Uyuni pictures for it. It was an adventure to chase the ghost of Ben Reddy with Bull, Ben C, Thea, and Harris. I had this sensation all throughout Bolivia and will continue to have it in Peru.

Next up, the salt flats. The Salar is best described by experiencing it. Pictures do OK at summarizing some discrete ideas that are present in the Salar, and words are pretty horrible at giving any sort of impression as to what it is like. But I will try anyway.

The Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest Salt Flats, and I am too lazy to look up the figures, but it is approximately circular with a diameter of anywhere from 80 to 120km. In the dry season, when Ben Reddy visited, the Salt floor of the vast surface crack and crumble into hexagonal and pentagonal pieces. During the rainy season, the salar is flooded with anywhere from 2 inches to 3 feet of very salty water. If the breeze is calm, the sky is mirrored perfectly. However, since the Salar is so large, if you are in the middle, you don't really see a mirrored sky in the ground, because there is nothing to mirror but some tiny slivers of mountains far off in the distance. Instead, the water gives mirrors a bright-white sky and gives the impression that you are floating in a nothingness of white. Often the hemispheres of sky and earth are only distinguished by salt piles or vehicles on the horizon, giving the appearance of a vast white sheet that is torn horizontally in the center, or perhaps just giving the impression that a great many white and black dots are migrating in a very straight line in front of a burning white background.

The Salar is mined for salt by workers who pile up little mountains of 2-3 ft, let them dry, and then shovel them into trucks. These piles are made in straight lines, and often different salt miners pile in clusters, so there are these little farms of salt piles and old rusty red trucks that slowly drift along while workers shovel the salt into their truck beds. 

The Salar also has a salt hotel in the middle of it, which is underwhelming except for the awesome flag stand out front. The Salar is out of this world, and very interesting. We ate some pretty delicious cooked food. Later (after 3 more hours of crazy floating in whitespace), we went off the Salar and visited some places on the edge. One cavelike room had a bunch of skeletons in it, whose bones are preserved in the local climate. They had been posed, and the central figure had splayed legs and a baby fetus skeleton where I suppose it would have been at the time of death. Rather disturbing.

The most interesting, eerie, and fantastic experience came when our driver dropped us off at a hotel on a hill to watch the sunset. The driver told us he would wait for us below, so we just headed on up, not really thinking about why he might have avoided accompanying us. The hotel is a one story building made all of salt and straw for the roof. It stretches along a mini plateau overlooking the salar, and is quite nice. However, it was also abandoned. It appeared as if it had not quite opened yet, or was closed for a while. We weren't sure either way, but entered the building and decided to enjoy ourselves. We just assumed it was under construction, and played foosball and ping pong and drank the beer we had brought.

Slowly, while waiting for the sunset, we collectively realized that something was wrong. A creeping feeling came over me, and I felt like Goldilocks, pingponging and running around and taking photos and trying the bears' soup - but I hadn't really thought what the bear might look like. Ben came back from the kitchen and said there was a half eaten sandwich on a plate. There was laundry hang-drying outside. The guest register had most recently been signed two days earlier. We were quite obviously trespassing.

Once we realized this, the sun obliged us and decided to give us a good excuse to exit the edifice. Sunset was stunning. Clouds stretched from the Salar on the horizon all the way above and behind us into a deep blue. The salar itself reflected the disk of the sun, and the clouds were deep bluegrey and lined with bright orange. Just stunning. As we were watching the sunset, the tenants of the hotel came out and were quite puzzled as to what we were doing there, and spent the next 15 minutes watching us and I suppose trying to figure out if we had done something wrong by entering an unlocked building with no signs to the contrary. Our driver, we think, wanted to give us a good experience without incurring the wrath of the owners of this $80 a night hotel. They surely would have been very annoyed at his insinuating that we could run around and play and spend a few hours, but he was smart enough to know that gringos can get away with a lot because they are so stupid and rich.

We headed back to Uyuni, ate some food, had a wonderful time. Friends in random places are great. Harris decided to head off on a 2 week solo bike, while the other 3 are going to meet friends in La Paz. So, sans Harris, Thea, Bull, Ben and I planned our next excursion to Potosí, the highest city in the world and once the richest.

The excursion included taking a bus ride. The bus ride. We were stretched 4-across a 5-wide back row with non reclining seats, on a bus filled with locals. Bull's neighbor at the far window was a man and his 13 year old son sitting on his lap. The bus was rickety, had no bathroom, and steamed up immediately upon departing Uyuni. For 8 hours, four terrible synthesized songs with synthesized bird squawks played. Four songs on repeat. The bumpy, mountainous, muddy road to Potosí is supposed to be beautiful, but all we saw was a foggy, muggy, overpacked cabin. We could feel our bodies being jostled, and occasionally moving backwards, which really freaked our physiology out. In order to tolerate the experience, we played games that we had learned while counseling 8 year olds at Camp - word games, 20 questions, all sorts of fun. Upon stopping in the middle of nowhere at midnight, a woman brought her dog on board and another woman took the seat of the father and son next to bull. She had a huge blanket filled with her stuff and Bull ended up having about a half a seat.

At 12:30am, we were violently jolted out of our half-sleep dazes. The bus was pitched down and to starboard at an insane angle, as if we were in a boat that had been stuck on the peak of a massive swell. The busriders all began yelling that we should get off, and also a few made some jokes about turning the music back on. Turns out we had slid off the mountainroad into a ditch. Upon realizing this, the driver, the bus crew, and most of the men on board the bus packed their lips with massive mounds of Coca leaves. I guess in order to solve the situation you just have to chill out a bit and get to work. After 30 minutes in the rain, watching the bus crew unsuccessfully try to spin their wheels out of the mud, the guy with the biggest coca lip (I think the driver) got a pickaxe and started digging through the wet mud to the more dry earth below. Another bus stopped, watched for 10 minutes, and then drove by without helping. We finally escaped the ditch and crossed our fingers that the coca-chewing driver wouldn't make the same sliding mistake when we were close to a cliff.

We made it to Potosí at 2am and slept on the bus until 7. This story will continue in the Potosí entry, Bolivia 3 of 3. 
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Comments

knbaum
knbaum on

your pictures...
are amazing...again well done

Elisa on

Fantastic pics-- Now I want to go stay at the Goldilocks Inn!

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