Laugh to Keep from Crying

by Ekua on November 12, 2009 in Bolivia

August 11, 2009

As we approached Uyuni, I could see light peaking through the curtain. I pushed it back so I could wipe the water off the window. But the water didn’t move. It wasn’t water, it was ice. It had literally been a freezing cold night.  Needless to say, no one on the bus had slept much. We stepped off the cold bus into an even colder town. The sun was barely up and hadn’t had a chance to warm it yet.

There was someone from the tour company waiting for me. She shouted my name and held up a sign until I approached her. She welcomed me with a huge smile and continued to repeat my name. She walked me to the tour office. With each step, I increasingly couldn’t feel my feet on the ground. They joined my fingers in complete numbness along the ten minute walk.

The inside of the tour office was just as chilly. The woman turned on a floor heat lamp while we worked through the formalities. I’d signed up for a three day, two night tour. I was apprehensive about it. It was only going to get colder, and I had no idea who would be in my group. She left and said I could continue to hang out and defrost. When I finally felt my fingers and toes tingle and begin to regain feeling, I headed across the street to eat breakfast.

In the restaurant, I found my English former roommates and their three friends. There was a fire in center and three heat lamps made from barbecue gas tanks spread throughout the room. Over breakfast, we had a jovial conversation about the perils of traveling in Bolivia. It truly is a challenging destination. While laughing hysterically, we discussed how the amount of laughing we’d done often prevented us from breaking down and crying. I wished I’d been able to find their tour company office in La Paz, it would have been fun to go with them on the tour.

After breakfast, I still had quite a bit of time, so I went to look for a Western Union. I found one, but my attempt to claim my money there was unsuccessful. I figured that Sucre would be more modern and better place for transactions. I felt that I had enough money to last until I got there. I stopped by a store to buy wool mittens to layer over my gloves before heading back to the tour office. I was ready for my Salar de Uyuni tour.

Jeeps filled up and left and I was still sitting in an empty tour office waiting for a group. Finally, the woman who’d gotten me from the bus showed me to my group– five French people. They seemed like a nice group that wanted to be inclusive, but I still felt like the odd person out.

As we reached the outskirts of Uyuni, a group of teenage boys stared at us menacingly and showed us their middle fingers. It felt like an omen. We drove on through an open field of desert vegetation that was covered with trash. Our first stop was a train cemetery that was overrun with tourists. We agreed as a group that we did not want to stop there. We’d been among the last groups to leave Uyuni and it would be nice to get a head start to the next stops.

The next one was what I like to call a shopping stop. We were dumped in a spot with vendors selling a bunch of random items made out of salt. At this stop, I ran into a German guy I’d had a brief conversation with in Uyuni. He was doing a one day tour and I fully envied him at that point. His tour mate, a feminine English guy decked out in llama gringo gear, started to talk to me as though we’d already met. He seemed like someone who’d been traveling for awhile. I immediately like him.

Salar de Uyuni - Salt MoundsBack on the jeep, we headed to the next stop, mounds of salt. It was here that I realized our guide’s main goal was to drive us around. The Amazon tour guide was just right– friendly with just enough info about the animals we were looking at. The Tiahuanaco guide was way too hot with his excessive amounts of information. This guide was way too cold. He never cracked a smile and drove without saying a thing until we arrived at a stop. “We stop here. You guys take pictures. 20 minutes.”

Salar de Uyuni - Salt Hotel Flags

Inside the Salt Hotel

We drove across stark white land through electric blue sky, it was a whole lot of blindingly beautiful nothing. Our next stop was a salt hotel. I bumped into the English guy and German guy again there. “Do you want to stay in a place like this?” the English guy quizzed me. No, I did not. But my tour included staying in a salt hotel that night. We got back in the van to head off to our next stop. Because of the high altitude, when the sun comes up, it can get warm. Now defrosted, my exhausted body could relax enough for me to fall asleep.

Salar de Uyuni - Incahuasi Island

I woke up to the most incredible sight I’ve ever seen, an island of green cacti in the distance surrounded by a sea of white salt. It was Incahuasi Island and it was magnificent. Somehow upon waking up, I knew with absolute certainty that I was done with the tour. I asked around to see if any of the day tour groups had extra space in their jeeps. The English guy told me his group had an open seat. He talked to the driver who said it was fine as long as everyone in the group was okay with it. They were.

I was cutting short the segment of my trip that was the impetus for the entire trip. The salt flat had been amazing, but I was ready to leave for several reasons. It was the impersonal feel of the tour and being carted around and dumped in various spots to take a picture or buy things. It was the thought of sleeping ina  hut in below zero temperatures. It was my wanting to get my money situation sorted out. I knew it was best to go. There was something that had been missing from my trip since I’d left the Amazon– joy. I’d been doing the things I thought was supposed to be doing in Bolivia without considering how I was feeling in the moment. I wanted the joy to return to my trip for the last week and a half of it.

I had lunch with my French group. If you don’t request vegetarian, all the tours automatically serve you the same lunch: llama, quinoa, and some combination of vegetables and fruit. Afterward,I did some more exploring around the island after lunch and then helped the English guy take perspective pictures.

He’d had his camera stolen a while back so all he had was a disposable camera. Perspective shots are harder than you think and even more challenging with a disposable camera. I couldn’t waste a shot. He had a stack of books and wanted to look like he was sitting on top of them. I asked him to move forward and backwards. I moved forward and backwards, and went high and low. Finally I figured out that I could get the shot by laying on the ground on my stomach.

The group I hitched a ride back to Uyuni with

After this, I got my backpack from the top of my original group and moved it to my new jeep. I hoped my group members didn’t take it personally. They had  looks in their eyes that made me think they thought I was doing the wrong thing. Maybe they thought I’d be missing out on some great sites. I was sure I would, but I also knew more than anything that I wanted to go. Travel has become less about sites and more about experiences for me. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to visit the salt flat again under better circumstances. If not, I still saw it and opening my eyes to see an amazing island of cacti will be an unforgettable image in my memory.

The English guy was heading on a train to Argentina that night, but I had to wait to catch a bus until the next day. It was possible to take one that night, but night buses are not recommended in Bolivia when there is an option to take the same trip during the day. Thefts are more common when traveling overnight. We went in search of a reasonably priced hostel room for me and I eventually settled on one that was affiliated with Hostelling International. I bought a bus ticket through the hostel. They told me I couldn’t go all the way to Sucre the next day, I’d have to stop in Potosi for a night.

I got settled in my room and then went to meet up with the English guy. We went to an internet cafe that was expensive compared to everywhere else in Bolivia and so impossibly slow that it wasn’t worth it. We left and looked for a place to have dinner. One recommended restaurant was completely full. We found a restaurant tucked into a little hallway off the main square that was completely empty. Who knew how the food would be, but we had the place to ourselves.

The restaurant seemed to be a part of the house of the family who operated it. A cute little girl was setting fire to napkins with a barbecue gas tank heater. She smiled at us as she dropped the burning napkins on the ground. My educator instinct kicked in and I shook my head to signal that she should stop. She kept doing it while looking directly at me with an even bigger, more mischievous smile. My English friend and I shared stories over an incredibly long dinner until it was time for him to catch his train.

Uyuni - Restaurant Poster

As we left, the little pyromaniac girl chased after us so she could give me a hug. That, combined with meeting an awesome person to spend the day with, warmed my heart. On our way out, we noticed a possible reason for us having the restaurant to ourselves. There was an awfully translated sign advertising the dishes the restaurant offered. It read, “we offer him the specialty of the house… PLATES NATIONAL MEAT OF HE/SHE CALLS OR HEAD.” Dishes listed on the sign included: chop male, mounted loin, cream, and pasture. This gave us a good laugh. I was sad that I didn’t have more time to spend with my new English friend, but constant parting was something I had to get used to on that trip. We said goodbye and I went back to my hostel.

There was a sink right outside my room and I turned it on to brush my teeth. Water trickled out for a couple seconds and stopped. None of the other sinks had water so I used bottled water. I used the toilet and unsurprisingly, it didn’t flush. I noticed a bucket of water in the corner and poured it in the bowl to flush it. I went to the front desk to request an extra blanket. It was super cold by then so I knew I’d need it. I went back to my room and got dressed for bed. No joke, this is what I wore that night:

  • tights
  • leggings
  • yoga pants
  • two pairs of cotton socks
  • one regular pair of wool socks, one knee length pair pulled over my pants
  • a camisole
  • a long-sleeved t-shirt
  • a turtleneck
  • a fleece pullover
  • a wool hoodie with the hood pulled up
  • a wool scarf
  • wool gloves
  • wool mittens

I felt like Ralphie’s younger brother in A Christmas Story. But I was just doing what I needed to do to get a good night’s rest. It worked, and I drifted off to sleep dreaming of future days when I wouldn’t have to bundle up to the point where I could barely move before went to bed.

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