The Bolivian Outback
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Where I stayed
In the Bush
On the morning of our tour, six of us (plus our cook) piled into a Toyota Highlander. The cook hospitably claimed the prime seat up front, booting to the backseat one of our fellow guests who wasn't feeling very well and really could've used the extra space. This left us sitting three across on the two rows in the back. There was no trunk space at all, so we had to put our day packs in our laps. Patti, Shelley and I had left our big backpacks in the Andean Salt office, but the other three passengers were continuing to Chile, so their big packs went up on the roof.
Once we were all squeezed in, clown car style, the car wouldn't start. This was very comforting when I considered the desolate wilderness where we'd be spending the next three days.
After a few tries, we were off to the train cemetery. The train cemetery is a former station outside of town where old trains from the early 20th century were left to rot on sunken train tracks. Because this is Bolivia, we were free to climb all over the rusty structures and take lots of fun pictures from up high. The trains were covered in graffiti, mostly teenage declarations of love and one particularly creative: "Experienced mechanic needed."
Leaving the train cemetery, we drove through the trash-covered desert to a small "village" that was really one giant souvenir stop. The buildings were all made of salt, which looked like stone until you got really close. I was tempted to lick the wall and see if it tasted salty, but restrained myself.
Inside one of the buildings, there were large figures and animals made out of salt. They charged for photos but I took one quickly without paying. I'd already paid 5 bolivianos (almost $1) to squat over a smelly hole in the ground (not to mention the cost of the tour itself) so that was the limit of my charitable contribution for the day.
We had lunch in one of the salt buildings. Our charming cook, who hadn't said a word to any of us besides, "I need to sit there" to the girl who'd originally been sitting in the front seat of the car, concocted a meal of tough, room-temperature llama steaks, cold quinoa and veggies. While I much preferred llama to the alpaca I'd tried in Arequipa, I still wouldn't seek it out. It tasted like slightly sour, tough beef. Dessert was slightly under-ripe bananas and a candy bar.
After lunch, we headed to Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt lake in the world and the highlight of our tour. Typically, the salar looks like a giant plain of blindingly bright salt. Since we were there in the rainy season, a few inches of water covered the whole thing. The effect was spectacular. When the sun came out, the water perfectly reflected the sky and the horizon line disappeared, so it looked like we were floating in the clouds. We were able to take some fun Salvador Dali-esque pictures that capitalized on the strange perspective and made us look like miniature people. Driving through this landscape almost made me dizzy. And happy, because I felt like I'd stepped onto the set of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
In the afternoon, we came to a salt hotel where the beds, tables and chairs are all made of salt. They had another "museum" full of salt animals and people, which I again refused to pay for. There were a couple of signs on each side of the building telling people not to pee. Are people really peeing there, with hundreds of tourists standing around? Maybe guys figure there´s no reason for them to cough up five bolivianos when they can just go outside.
We spent the night in the tiny village of Alota, at a very basic hostel with stone walls and no heat. They had a parade for Carnaval composed of twenty-five people walking along in their street clothes, some tooting whistles.
As random and remote as this place was, people kept running into other people they knew. We sat in the dining room all night, since there was nowhere to go and absolutely nothing to do. Shelley got talking to a girl from Lexington (near Boston) and they had a close mutual friend. Then another girl on our tour bumped into her kickboxing instructor from Santiago. How crazy is that?
The cook made herself even more unpopular by moving everyone around in the dining room. According to her, we had to sit at the table alongside people from our particular car, even though we were touring with the same company.
After much arguing, we all moved, which meant that people who'd been having conversations but were now sitting at different tables had to either shout across the room to each other or forget it.
The worst part was, it took another 45 minutes for the food to come. It was totally stupid. I understand that she had a schema in her head for dividing up the food, but she could´ve a) Waited until it was actually dinnertime to do this or b) Just said, ¨´Hey guys, don´t share each other´s food, ok? It has something to do with the budget.¨ To which we would've replied, "No problem." Grrrr.
Dinner was alright, consisting of spaghetti with an oddly sweet bolognese sauce and decent soup with squash and some sort of greens floating in it. I made the mistake for reaching for the soup tureen closest to me. Our charming cook shouted, "No! That´s for those five people" (who were also in our group and sitting right next to me). "That one," (indicating a bowl down at the very far end of the table) "is for twelve!" I was shocked but the five took pity on me, said they had plenty (which they did) and filled up my bowl. I think I've found the Soup Nazi's new girlfriend.
After dinner, the cook gave us three small bottles of wine to split between the 17 of us. When I read the label, I saw that the wine came from Mendozza, Argentina, and I expected great things. Apparently, even famous wine-growing regions are capable of producing blunders. Oh well.
The G.A.P. Adventures tour group was staying at the same place, and we hung out with some people in the group and their guide until pretty late. We shared our frustrations with the Bolivian people, especially the intense hostility and dishonesty they'd shown us on a daily basis.
The guide encouraged us to stop thinking about the situation from an American perspective.
"Of course, stealing is never right," he admitted, “But they don’t owe you anything and they see no reason to have to be nice to perfect strangers.”
Bolivian society has the opposite opinion towards strangers than the U.S. does. In America, “the customer is always right.” Americans seem to place a higher value on behaving politely towards strangers. Waitresses ask how a diner’s day is going. Irate customers are answered with calm, solicitous responses. Here, it’s the other way around. When we told the front desk of our hotel that Shelley had been robbed, they shrugged their shoulders. When we tell cab drivers where we want to go and they say ok, then ask us again halfway through the ride where we’re going and announce that we’ll have to pay a higher price based on our (same) answer, we have to pay. We are considered the ones at fault, or at least we're at the mercy of locals in the service industry. They figure they don’t owe us anything because they don’t know us.
Growing up in America, this attitude seems nasty and “wrong,” but I've realized that’s a fairly ethnocentric.point of view. Maybe it makes sense to reserve our finite supply of good manners for the people we truly care about. I'm not sure whether there's a higher standard of politeness towards family members here, whether, for example, the Bolivians would be shocked to hear the way some American teenagers scream at their parents. In any case, it's something to think about.