To Uyuni

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Where I stayed
Hotel Julia

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, March 7, 2011

On Sunday morning, while I lay in bed sleeping off the rest of my food poisoning or whatever it was, the girls went to the train station to get us tickets to Uyuni.  We'd heard that the buses from Oruro to Uyuni were very bumpy (since almost all the roads in Bolivia are unpaved) and not that safe at night.  On Friday, we'd asked the girls at the tourist information booth for the train schedule and they told us that there were no longer any trains running to Uyuni - ever.  Turns out, they lied.  Maybe they wanted us to buy a bus ticket, since the booth was in the bus station.  Anyway, we were able to book seats on a train that very night, with a choice of two companies.  

While they were running this errand, the girls bumped into a nice Bolivian guy who'd been living in the U.S. with his wife for the past 20 years.  He treated them to breakfast and told them how sad he was to see what the town and Carnaval had become.  He was so nice that we all decided to meet up later in the day and go to some hot springs nearby.  The plan was that we would call him to set a time.

We should've known better.  Nothing is ever simple in Bolivia. 

The front desk of our hotel told us they couldn't allow us to make the phone call (which we were prepared to pay for) because they "didn't have any credit."  I find it very hard to believe they were running a business without working phones.  Patti went down the street to a call center, where they also told her she couldn't pay for a phone call there.  The third place we tried said the phones never worked on Carnaval, which seemed like either a lie or a dangerous scenario considering all of the street violence and public drunkenness.

Eventually, we realized that we weren't going to be able to call our new friends and meet up.

Instead, we headed to a pizza place called Caruso that someone's guidebook had recommended.  The food was ok, but the service was horrible, as always.  First, they told me they were out of the peach juice I wanted.  (Later, as we left, I saw an entire case of those juices next to the door.)  Then, they didn't have any of the ingredients for the pizza we'd ordered, so we had to change our order.  While we waited for our food, we had to go up and remind them to give us our beer after almost half an hour with nothing in front of us. 

When the pizza finally came, it was missing the ham that was supposed to be on it.  First, the waitress tried to convince us that it wasn't supposed to have ham on it... even though it was called "Ham Pizza."  Once she was finally on board with that, she tried to convince us that the slices of purple onion on the pizza were ham.  Because they look so similar.  Sigh.  Our experience at Caruso was just another of several incidents like it that convinced us to leave Oruro early.     

Making the train was a close call.  We all met in the lobby at 6 p.m. to catch a cab to the train station.  Then, the girls started telling the front desk workers how terrible our experience at the hotel had been.  To sum it up, the staff had acted rude and uncaring towards us about a thousand times.  They made good points, but unfortunately, it didn't change anyone's mind or earn us a refund for the two nights we were skipping by checking out early. 

The complaining also made us half-an-hour late in leaving, so we didn't get into the cab until 6:30 and almost missed the train.  Our cab was stuck in traffic, three blocks from the station, when we heard the train's whistle blow.  We got out and ran, heavy backpacks and all.  People walking along the sidewalk shouted words of encouragement.  Once on the platform, we tried to get on our car, which was right up front.  The conductor stopped us from getting on and made us run the entire length of the train to store our  luggage in the back, then all the way back up the train to where our seats were.  We just wanted to get on and figure out our luggage and seats later, but that's too logical of a plan for Bolivia.  

The train ride itself was uneventful in the nicest possible way.  It was a smooth but slow ride, and the TV on-board showed several segments of "Just For Laughs."  For those of you who don't know, "Just For Laughs" is the way funnier (Canadian) version of "Candid Camera."  They tend to show it all over the world because you don't need the audio to get the jokes.  I remember watching an hour of it in the Ho Chi Minh City airport, for example, and at least a few clips or whole episodes have been shown on four or five of the bus rides we've taken in South America.

It's kind of cool to hear people who speak different languages giggling together as we roll through the middle of nowhere.  My favorite sketch of the night was a lemonade stand where the kids were charging $1 a cup, then upped the price to $10 and finally $100.  Of course, both the kids and the customers were in on the joke but the people watching it were so confused.  The looks on their faces were absolutely priceless, something between confusion and considering the possibilities of professional lemonade standing.
The award for weirdest carry-on luggage goes to the lady who sat behind me with a leashed monkey in her lap.  It was quiet during the ride, except for one lunging/shrieking incident when a woman tried to pet it.

When we pulled into Uyuni at three in the morning, we successfully got our bags, then tried our luck at a couple of hotels right across the street from the train station.  The Hotel Avenida (highly recommended) was full, but the Hotel Julia had room and turned out to be really nice, with clean and spacious rooms. 

As we put our stuff down in the room, Patti realized that her purse had been slashed.  Luckily, the thief didn't get anything, but she had just bought the purse in Iguazu and it was totally ruined.  She sort of remembered an older lady bumping into her (just like what happened to Shelley the night her camera was stolen); but, like Shelley, she had attributed it to the jostling, chaotic crowd.  I've always heard that children were the thieves to watch out for, since they're small and can sneak around quickly and unnoticed, but we've had the worst luck with nice-looking elderly ladies. 

I hate that all of the long-distance buses and trains only run overnight.  Sometimes, I wonder if they scheduled it that way to purposely give thieves a leg up.

After a good night's sleep, our main chore on Monday was choosing between the dozens of tour companies offering tours of the salt flats.  The guidebooks were pretty unhelpful on the subject.  Both the Footprint and Lonely Planet noted that it was "impossible to recommend a reputable company" because there are so many different drivers and guides for each company that no company stays consistently good or bad.  Nonetheless, it's important to choose wisely because stories come back about cars broken down or out of gas in the desert, drunk drivers (this would actually happen to two different groups we'd cross paths with on our tour), food and water shortages and freezing hotel rooms without adequate blankets. 

After hours of Internet research, talking to people who had just returned from the trip, and my Frommer's guidebook, I had narrowed our choices down to two: Oasis Odyssey and Andean Salt.  Oasis wasn't starting the tour on the day we wanted because they didn't have enough gas, but Andean Salt was, so we went with them.

Chores complete, we wandered around town a bit.  Uyuni is an odd frontier town, sort of a less-cute version of El Chalten, Argentina.  The streets are unpaved with low, beige buildings and the requisite stray dogs running around.  Basically, there's not much to do - and we were there during Carnaval!  A couple of kids got us with water guns, but without the malicious intentions we sensed in Oruro.  A tiny parade went by, and that was all.
We had dinner at the Minuteman Pub inside the Tonito Hotel.  It's a pizza place run by a guy from Amherst, Mass.  The pizza was excellent but expensive (for Bolivia) at the equivalent of $7 USD for a personal pan pizza.  I guess the higher prices can be explained by a note on the menu that they import their ingredients from five countries.  There was a cute side-note explaining what "pepperoni" was for non-native English speakers have apparently been interpreting the name as a kind of pepper.  The pub had a decent beer and wine selection, plus mini apple pies and a decadent-looking chocolate cake.  The chocolate chip cookies were kind of a let-down.  They were crispy, really sweet and not very buttery, which is typical of the cookies I've had down here.

The walls were covered in photos of places the owner had traveled to, and there was fun memorabilia throughout.  A group of action figures (including Buzz Lightyear) stood above the bar and the bathroom was papered with photocopied pages from a survival handbook.  I spent an extra ten minutes
in there learning “how to construct a jungle raft” and “how to survive a



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