See all the pictures from the Uyuni Expedition here…
God damn borders. Ever since I was about nine, they’ve triggered an uncomfortable feeling in my gut. The reason? From a young age, I had collected a large array of knives. It started as the standard going-away-to-camp-for-the-first-time Swiss Army knife but soon evolved to more unique additions including a kuhkri that my sister Victoria had bought me in Nepal and a goat-skin sheathed machete from her time in Africa. Even my parents had given me knives – it wasn’t a weird fetish, just an honest, affection for the shape and design of the instrument.
So there I was, in Heathrow Airport, surrounded by 3 security guards, one of whom was gripping a semi-automatic weapon. I had just walked through the metal detector and had apparently triggered the ‘this guy has a large piece of metal on him’ alarm. My mother approached the metal detector:
“Madam, please wait right there!” The guard with the gun blurted. I instinctively put my hands up.
“What are you carrying?” One of the guards asked me.
“I don’t know. Honestly!” I honestly didn’t. I got patted down and, from a hidden pocket inside my jacket, the third guard fished out a rather large and intimidating butterfly knife. This style of blade is illegal in pretty much every developed country, including the UK, due to its favorability among criminals. As was customary when authorities got involved in my childhood, my mother always came to my questionable rescue:
“I’m his mother, I’ll take care of his punishment!” I smiled awkwardly. I heard this line many times and it usually meant a fate worse than what any uniformed authorities could legally bestow; she had a tough disciplinary streak which would have my pants down and any reachable, spank-worthy object in her hand almost instantaneously.
“You’re a terrible mother!” The more superior looking guard exclaimed. “What kind of mother would allow her son to possess such an item?” At this point I was relieved to see her matriarchal terror turned on the unsuspecting guard:
“How dare you question my maternal ability, you rude little man! Now we have a plane to catch to Italy! Let us through!” The guard was obviously taken aback, but before the situation progressed any further a British Airways representative emerged from behind in the line.
“Excuse me sirs,” He calmly spoke in the Queen’s English. “I believe I’m the pilot of their plane. He’s just a boy, so why not just confiscate the weapon and we’ll all be on our way.” In a concession that would probably never occur in 2010, the head guard relented and we past into the gate area – but not before my mother simultaneously thanked the pilot and flashed the guard her meanest of Italian vendetta glances. For now it seemed I was spared. I never got my prized butterfly knife back but ever since then I’ve had a deep apprehension of borders and metal detectors. Occasionally it’s totally unreasonable; for example, when I see drug dogs, I can’t help but think, what if I am smuggling condoms full of cocaine in my ass and I don’t even know it!? Either way, these days I always double check my pockets and refuse to be anyone’s mule.
The border into Bolivia was hardly frightening but it was impressively in the middle of nowhere. In every direction the only other sign of human existence was a dismantled school bus, otherwise it was just open desert and mountains. A group of about 20 tourists were in line, all having been dropped off by the same bus and getting ready to split off into Jeep-sized groups of 5 or 6. When I reached the front, the burly and bulletproofed guard took my passport and grimaced:
“Estados Unidos!” He threw the passport down, stood up and assumed a boxer’s stance. His face then lightened up and he laughed. “No is OK, but you must pay.” He pointed at a poster explaining the fees, but I was already expecting this. Like many countries in South America, Bolivia now imposes a reciprocal fee, mirroring the charge that we impose on Bolivians visiting the US. My passport got put into a paper envelope, further sealed by an absurd amount of staples and was then handed to Herman. Herman was the driver of our 4×4 and didn’t speak a word of English. By this point though, thanks to my iPhone’s dictionary and verb conjugating tutelage, I was now able to carry basic discourse and understood that he’d be keeping my passport until I paid the fee at the immigration offices in Uyuni.
Herman and I emerged from the small building into the bright desert sunlight and approached the rest of our posse, who had gathered their bags by our red and rugged Toyota Landcruiser. There were 6 of us, not including our quietly smug driver; it was me, Alessandro, Susie from Scarborough, England and the sweet Australian couple, Cameron and Adelaide. The sixth addition to our posse was Marianne, an older Canadian writer and photographer, who immediately seemed happy to fill the maternal role and offered us sunblock and cookies. Herman strapped our bags to the top of the truck along with some gasoline, a canister of propane and a bunch of other supplies. It would be about 3 days until we reached dependable services so we had to carry all of our necessities.
I happen to be very fond of games of chance when the odds of winning are statistically in my favor. For example, while the girls took the back seat and Marianne assumed the front, it meant that the boys would ride in the middle row and one of us was going to have to ride ‘bitch’. So, if you play a game of chance for such an outcome, your odds of winning are 2:3 – a decent bet, and way better than anything you’d find in Vegas. However, I especially like playing games of chance when I have the upper-hand from a psychological standpoint and ever since my favorite scholarly-hippie Dustin Boyer taught me to some psychological trickery, I always suggest the game of ‘rock, paper, scissors’. I don’t always use the trick, and I promised Dustin I wouldn’t publicly share it, but needless to say, Cam lost and was riding in the middle. The group of 4x4s loaded up and one by one shot off into the vast desert.
Day 1 took us to 4600m (x 3 1/3 = ~15,200ft) via a few spectacular lagoons. Laguna Blanca is a sodium rich lake, dotted with pink flamingos and black ducks that feast on the plentiful microorganisms. The 4×4 kicked up grit as we zoomed across great expanses, flanked by multicolor hills rich with mineral deposits of copper, iron and sulfur. At Laguna Verde, a small shift in the wind can dramatically alter the green tint that the dissolved copper creates. While we took photos I also took some time for stretching, push-ups and even used some matching rocks as makeshift weights. It’s inevitable that some people think this is funny, but I could care less; too many empanadas and fancy cakes in Chile had left me feeling a little soft, and the intense heat of the desert always prompts some body tuning.
We passed the hours driving in stints of conversation, quiet thinking and games such as ‘What is your porn name?’. If you’ve never played this game, it’s surprisingly easy and hilariously effective. All you have to do is take the name of one of your pets and combine it wit a street that you’ve lived on, resulting in your porn name. We laughed at our concoctions:
Mariann: Frisky Sherwood
Me: Muffy Paradise (definitely not in the heterosexual market)
Adelaide: Spiltsy Pacific
Susie: Peanut Byward
Cameron: Goldie Soldiers
Alessandro; Billo Retta. OK, Alessandro’s didn’t really work so we changed the rules for him, substituting his favorite pasta instead of street name. So watch out if a tanned Billo Macaroni shows up to fix your plumbing!
That afternoon we passed through the desert of Salvador Dali, where the rocks are reminiscent of his psychedelic paintings. Oddly shaped formations jutted unexpectedly out of the otherwise featureless sand – it just needed some large ants, elongated figures and melting clocks to complete the effect. At the Laguna Rojo the others relaxed in the thermal baths while I went off to snap some macro photography. Brightly colored mineral deposits sat in clumps around the edge of the lake while still more encrusted the sides and beds of the warm spring streams. Greens, whites, browns and the odd tufts of sturdy grasses created rich textures around the blood-red lake.
Leaving Laguna Roja I was promoted to DJ in the front seat and got to share some of my favorite Burning Man style, deeply reverberating bass sounds with the others which I thought were completely relevant for the sulfurous and bubbling geysers we came upon. As usual they trippy electronic music wasn’t received with too much enthusiasm so I resorted to a mix of more poppy tunes; in a stylistically regrettable pinch, there’s no better cross cultural bond than Abba’s Dancing Queen.
So I have a little bit of an impulse purchase problem, especially when it comes to new technology. Just before leaving had paid about USD$80 for a slim solar charger that can recharge anything that is powered via a USB. So far, in the last two months I hadn’t needed it yet but I was sure this desert trip would finally allow me to tell Tammy Lee, an incomparably sweet friend of mine who’d playfully mocked my impulsiveness, that it had been hugely invaluable. However as my iPod battery drained I noticed, not without a little annoyance, that a car-charging iPod cable hung from Herman’s cigarette lighter. God dammit, I’m never going to use this thing! I thought. My self judgment was shaken into oblivion as a herd of brown and white vicuñas vaulted from the side of the road. Herman blasted a rather comical sounding horn, the kind of thing a child’s firetruck might sound like, only at an ear piercing decibel. The vicuñas scattered in terror.
After a long day’s driving we finally reached a couple of narrow, one storey buildings that abruptly appeared on a rocky expanse between Laguna Colorada and an up-crop of tree-less mountains; this would be our home for the night. We unloaded our things and had a nap, before being woken up by a grinning Herman who insisted that we go for sunset at the Laguna. As we descended the steep hill towards the colorful lake, we came upon a bunch of grazing llamas who were enjoying the tough lakeside grasses too much to be bothered by us. The lake had streaks of red, white and green from the dissolved borax and sodium and algae that bloomed on the surface. A distant storm over the Bolvian altiplano (the high, flat section of the country, surrounded by mountains) punctuated the sunset with electrical flashes. I came upon a dessicated llama; only tufts of hair remained on its leathered, taut skin. It’s empty eye-sockets stared intensely ahead while it’s mouth had stretched into a thirsty grimace. It probably died of exposure and surprisingly didn’t have a single scavenger’s bite, a sign that indicated how little life actually survived here.
It was only inevitable that one of us was going to get altitude sickness. You never know who it’s going to be. In fact it’s so hard to predict that you might be fine on one excursion and deeply effected on the next. Whatever the case, the thin air and lack of oxygen can really mess with your head. The symptoms include nausea, severe headache, dizziness, severe fatigue, lack of appetite and slow brain function. In fact, a Bolivian high altitude expression is ‘Walk slow, eat light and sleep by your poor, lonely self!’ indicating that any large expenditure of energy can be rough on your system. Cam was the worst affected and had been in a daze for most of the day – Herman suggested that we all get dosed up on coca leaf tea. In fact I got so hyped up that after a simple dinner, when almost everyone else went to bed, I decided to remove my babbling self from the remaining group and go for a solitary desert walk. I looked up at the bright stars and tried to remember the things that Stella had told me at the Las Campanas observatory. The Southern cross and Orion. The Magellan galaxies. Saturn and Mars. I saw numerous shooting stars and, still in a coca infused state, was well on the way to plotting the next 10 years of my existence when I realized that somewhere in the featureless darkness, the inn had turned off it’s generator and things now seemed extremely cold and reference-less. Luckily as I retraced my steps my eyes detected a pinpoint of light in the distance – it turned out it was coming from a battery powered lamp in the kitchen and it led me all the way back. I went to bed, still too amped from the coca tea to sleep so I read the Bolivian Lonely Planet book with a reading light (yes, on my Kindle) until I got tired: do you know that the Andean condor has a 3m wingspan and can drag 20kg cadaver with ease?
On Day 2 everyone felt shitty. I distinctly felt, even though not a drop of alcohol had been consumed, like I’d drunk a bottle of tequila the night before and was now having an aneurysm in the rear left of my skull. At around 8am (the lack of decent sleep was certainly not helping) we met at the breakfast table in sunglasses, resembling a group of drug addicts in the depths of cold turkey. While the fancy-pants tour on the table next to ours feasted on more pancakes than they could consume, we ate dry bread and sugary spreads. More importantly though, we all forced down a cup or two of bitter, coca leaf tea and amazingly after packing were all feeling much more normal, even Cam, who now didn’t look like he was so close to death.
We had a large distance to drive and Herman blazed along, through open expanses of sand, in shallow river valleys and over rocky hills. The first stop was the Stone Forest, which was yet another sudden appearance of strangely shaped rocks, formed by the erosion of long vanished waters. The harsh winds and flying grit had further smoothed the rocks and provided the backdrop for some fun pictures before we moved on. By this point, Susie and Adelaide were becoming experts at jumping out of the cramped back seats and reinserting themselves amid the bags with surprising agility. We all traded snacks, lip balm and sunblock. However, it was looking good that we weren’t going to sing any group songs.
We passed more lagoons, smoking volcanoes and a little town where we stopped for a few basic supplies and where I played with a little kid and a stray puppy. We stopped at a lake for a picnic and Herman prepared a delicious fried chicken and pasta salad – mayonnaise of course was abundantly provided. (Argentina, Chile and Bolivia all have a little problem with mayo-addiction, and every supermarket has an entire aisle dedicated to it). We drove through salty mud flats where we found a remote cemetery in which the crosses where fashioned out of railway iron. We went through a pseudo military post where Herman gave ‘gifts’ of wine and eggs, passed ancient cliff dwellings and finally into the small town of San Martin where we’d be staying that night.
As we pulled up to the inn it was already getting dark. There was no electricity yet and the flowing hot water that we’d been promised was a pathetic, cold trickle. A Swedish couple from another 4×4 was freaking out. Amid the chaos I decided to dip out and explore the little, mud-brick town. I found a pleasant central square (most towns have one) where I read my guide book and tried to figure out my next move upon hitting Uyuni the next day. While it was nice to travel with the group I was feeling two things: I was filled to the brim with adventures and needed some time to reflect and write, and I was missing the solitude where I found this more possible As if to underscore the latter, Susie and the Australians appeared and coerced me to return to the inn and join them for wine; I didn’t put up much of a fight. On the way back we found an odd couple: a sheep and a llama that appeared to be great buddies. Any place one would go the other would follow – for some reason this made us all very happy and I added it to my growing mental bank of metaphorically-thick children stories.
After returning to the inn and peeking inside the kitchen, Allesandro and I made a pact that we weren’t going to eat any meat that came out of that dank room. I used to think I was invincible until I visited Nepal in 2007 and got a case of giardia so bad that it stuck with me for weeks – talk about a socially awkward condition; it was like Satan had made a new home in my intestines and was having a party with his favorite, gaseous bacteria. Anyway, these days when in doubt, I stick to being vegetarian. Luckily, as if to anticipate our concerns, the dinner was a simple pasta with tomato sauce which we enjoyed on rickety chairs in the austere glow of a single, unshaded fluorescent bulb.
When I got to bed I was grateful for possessing earplugs – besides rather potent feet, Alessandro had a serious snore on him – and I barely remember sinking into my squeaky trench of a bed before falling into a deep, dreamless slumber.
The final day began at 4:40am and as I tried to blink some moisture into my contact lenses I began to muse that I was really going to need a vacation from this vacation; I’d never worked so hard at recreation! I woke up to an mini-argument between Susie and Alessandro. She apparently been awake for hours because of his snoring and had been constantly beating him with her pillow. He was annoyed that he’d been disturbed and was of the mindset that if you can’t sleep it was your problem. Either way he threw a sock at her which took things to the next level. I went to the bathroom and decided to give the cold trickle of a shower a pass, instead performing a quick handy wipe cleanse (a fantastic skill learned from my time in the desert of Burning Man).
We had woken up at the crack of dawn so we could hustle to the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s most expansive salt flats, for sunrise. After packing the cars, we bounced and weaved through the difficult roads until we abruptly hit a smooth surface that crunched like ice under the tires of the 4×4. We had reached the edge of the salt flats. The darkness was slowly lifting as a deep red gradient on the horizon met the receding midnight blue of the night sky. As we came to the edge of the shallow water that covered parts of the Salar, this gradient was perfectly reflected in reverse on the smooth surface. I’ve never seen anything like it; at times it was impossible for even your eye to perceive any discrepancy in the reflection. The Salar is so flat that even a half inch of water can cover large swaths of it uniformly, and the shallow ripples created from the 4×4 don’t have the chance to propagate far enough to disturb the illusion.
Just before sunrise we reached another dry patch and got out to take pictures. I was in my own world and walked off to explore a distant fleck of black on the horizon. I was listening to an unbelievable musical mix that my good buddy Dr. Tristan Ursell had sent me which was fantastically appropriate for sunrise on this flat, white planet; “A Minimally Distorting Lens” pulsed and fizzed through my dome-piece as I ventured on my own path. The other day Cam had walked off and Adelaide had said:
“I don’t know why he does that sometimes!”
“Guys need to do that occasionally.” I had assured her, but I had kept thinking about that moment. It’s true; at times I have a compulsively active brain which often nesessitates the need to achieve mental stillness; I can do this most effectively in solitude. Only when this stability has been reached can I then propagate a content and peaceful mindset to others. So girls, that’s why some guys have to walk off occasionally. ‘It’s not you, it’s me!’ Seriously.
By now the sun had risen and I’d reached the distant black fleck, which only turned out to be a seemingly misplaced pile of rocks. Realizing that I’d been lost in my head for some time I turned to look at the 4×4 and noticed that Alessandro had also gone off on his own but was now walking back. I decided to head towards him and we met about 50m out onto the reflected surface, yet still in only about ½ an inch of water. We took some fun pictures, agreed that this was the most strange place we’d ever seen and returned to the 4×4 where people were hungry and needed to pee. I was mildly annoyed that we had to leave this dreamy landscape so soon but such is the reality when traveling by committee.
For the next hour we drove at about 50mph across the salt flats towards the other side – but it felt like no matter how fast we went we didn’t get any closer. In fact the Salar de Uyuni is spread over 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi), which is roughly 25 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in the United States. It was slightly unnerving to think that we were cruising on a thin crust of solid salt (only a handful of inches in some places) and below that was cold, briny water. On the other hand we had calculated that in the last 5 years Herman had completed this trip about 180 times so the odds were good that he knew what he was doing. We asked Herman if he’d ever lost a tourist; he just laughed. It’s interesting to note that the Salar is so flat and large and has such clear skies that it makes an ideal location to calibrate the altimeters of orbiting satellites.
Just before reaching the other side we came upon single level structure; the first hotel made entirely of salt. Real glass windows and wooden doors were sandwiched between bricks that had been excavated from the Salar’s crust; you could easily see the layers of salt and fine sediment. The hotel was in a state of disrepair and many of the walls were sagging. Almost comically, the walls had signs posted requesting that visitors ‘please don’t pee’ on the hotel. In the front of the hotel sat a few tables and broken benches made of the same salt bricks. Herman busied himself making breakfast while we explored. Inside the building was a pseudo-museum with salt sculptures and a few, still functional rooms which seemed to be occupied exclusively by Japanese tourists. We’d had been offered the chance to stay at a salt hotel but had politely declined; while quite a unique experience, they pump your excrement right into the water below, which is not only kind of revolting but not so great for the environment.
After a delicious pancake breakfast we were on our way again, passing salt harvesting operations that scraped layers of the salt into piles and then transferred them to trucks. We finally reached a small town at the other edge of the Salar. While Herman found a kitchen in which to cook the lunch and the others did a little shopping at a series of handicraft booths I set off around town to explore. It was a very strange place. First of all, like San Pedro, all the buildings were made of baked mud bricks. Many were falling a part but some new ones were being built in what seemed to be a continual process. There was barely a soul around, probably because this was a salt mining town and they were all off mining salt on the Salar. As I walked through the empty, decomposing town, a hauntingly romantic Spanish song emanated from somewhere amid the buildings. A nice local lady broke the eeriness when she walked by and engaged me in conversation. She said the place used to be a lot more pretty when the trains worked, now everything was falling apart and no one cared. She said that I would enjoy the thermal baths to the north more. I didn’t tell her that I was the kind of tourist that preferred roaming around abandoned buildings than lazing about in thermal baths. I thanked her for the information and she disappeared into a thin alley.
On the way back to the 4×4 I walked past a fence made of train track cross-ties, the perpendicular part that supports the rails. Inside the fence was a Catholic shrine. As I continued walking I noticed that next to it was another fenced off area, which had a large TV satellite inside it. I couldn’t help but find some amusement in this: two side-by-side, and hugely different forms of extra-terrestrial communication. I wondered which would prompt more complaints from the locals if vandalized.
The final stop before Uyuni was the train cemetery. This is an unbelievable collection of turn of the 20th century steam powered trains that had been left to rust after their useful period elapsed and funding dried up. What seemed like hundreds of salty and eroding machines stood on a few decaying tracks, in a stark reminder of our earthly impermanence. Much of the sheet metal had been oxy-acetylene’d off for scrap but what remained was still wonderfully ornate in its complexity. A ridiculous amount of pipes, nuts and knobs adorned the old steam engines and we had a lot of fun climbing on them and taking pictures, while carefully avoiding scrapes among the tetanus glazed death-traps. Herman fixed lunch which I politely declined; the sheer amount of flies and the questionable source of the meat after 3 days had me sticking to my $5 imported Pringles. That’s right, perfectly decadent.
By the time we hit Uyuni it was a double whammy culture shock. First of all, we’d just been in the wilderness for 3 days and suddenly Herman was basically like: ‘OK, here is the bus terminal so you can plan the next portion of your travel. Adios amigos!’ and secondly Bolivia was far more rugged than anything I’d experienced in Chile or Argentina. I knew this was going to be the case and was in fact looking forward to the challenge, but I just hadn’t acclimated yet. So as the others, including Alessandro who had a tight schedule to keep, plotted their way immediately to La Paz ,I decided to stay in Uyuni for the night to relax and gather my thoughts. After I checked into a semi-completed hotel (my floor was completed but the two above me were not) I met up with the group at a pizza spot in the main square. We traded pictures and talked about how fun the trip had been. I don’t know it was fatigue or over analysis but there was a weird vibe at the table, in particular directed at me from Susie. For the last couple of days her playful jabs at everyone had become increasingly directed towards me, and increasingly less playful. She constantly laughed at my Americanisms and my choice of writer’s vocabulary. Others were even noticing it and it was more a comment of her, than of me. It takes a lot to aggravate me so I played it off, but as a final oddity, it seemed as she felt that I was abandoning the group. “Oh, you have big plans for Uyuni, do you?” Rather than let anything come to a head I simply enjoyed an ego-snack by telling myself that she was attracted to me and like many people who don’t leave behind this relic of adolescence, this was how she was dealing with it.
After lunch, rather than dragging the goodbye out further, we parted ways outside the pizza place and since I hadn’t finished my beer I turned to a table with a cute blonde girl who I thought I recognized – such meetings and re-meetings are typical when traveling on the same route as others. “Hey!” I said more confidently than I might with a stranger, “Can I chill with you while I finish this?” She had an unbelievably large smile and when she removed her glasses I noticed her blue eyes and also realized that I’d actually never met her. Nevertheless, I sat down and returned a large smile, at this point mostly due to the fact that I was once again going solo. Kim offered a welcome change of positive energy; a bright and gregarious American girl, taking a trip before starting her PA medical degree in South Carolina. We immediately hit it off and spent the rest of the day together.
The next morning she was heading to the salt flats and I was heading to the old mining town of Potosi. I gave her the rest of my handy wipes, she gave me some Q-tips and a course of the antibiotic Cipro just in case Bolivia had any intestinal surprises in mind. We made plans to meet again the following weekend in La Paz if our schedules worked out as planned.
Either way, as I headed to Potosi, I felt inspired and once again independent. When you travel you meet people and you visit places. Some you like, some you don’t. You move on. You begin again in a new place with a new group and a similar set of questions. Where are you from? How long are you traveling for? What do you do back home? What are you going to do differently when you return? That last one is always the least asked but most important in my opinion, so I always ask it of others. When turned introspectively, I’m happy to say that this trip has already provided the objectivity and clarity that I was hoping it would – and a glimpse of what needs to change when I return. I’ve had a surprisingly deep vision of where my being is headed, identifying the emergence of a very real, and deeply-needed social shift, the foundation of which I have been subconsciously building for years.
In these final few weeks of my trip I intend to clarify these thoughts and to plot the course for the next iteration. I still intend to get back into Argentina and find that much fabled motorcycle in Bariloche, but for now, this bright and plant-filled courtyard of the Grand Hotel in the charming town of Sucre seems like the perfect place to be. And for $18/night for a private room and bathroom, functional wifi and a gourmet meals for $5 on a plant-filled patio, why should I rush to anywhere else?