A Bolivian Detour

I stayed just over a week in Arica, spending too much time in front of a computer screen, intermittently doing a bit of printing or selling internet time to the scant customers. I had a strange feeling of having too many roles packed into a small space of time: some days, I would have to stop and actively check, now, am I being a backpacker, a guest, working with the public, or occasionally being surrogate Dad. It was a nice stay, with the sunny beach nearby and a slow pace of life, but as a seven-day mark came and went, I found I was not sorry to never again have to sing along to Michael Jackson or the Black Eyed Peas, or hear 6-year-old Jordan scream “I DON’T WANT TO!” at the last pitch available to the human ear.

Facing down a resilient sandwich in Arica bus station, it began to sink in that I was about to spend the next six days on the move, crossing two borders in the process, without a route or itinerary planned, no reservations for transport or accomodation, or a even a guidebook to help me along the way. I also realised that, for the first time since leaving school, the travel bug had gone. Not that I wasn’t excited about Bolivia and Peru, far from it, but I had to accept that I was perfectly happy with the idea of being in Britain and not having any immediate plans to leave again.

That was still three weeks away though, and I had the first of a series of long-distance buses to think about. I trundled through crowd when my bus to San Pedro de Atacama was called, and was turned away by a youth in a reflective waistcoat who informed me I hadn’t bought a ticket to leave the station. I have been charged to enter many a bus station, but never to leave one. Using my rucksack as a croquet stick, I batted a middle-aged lady out of the queue, bought a bus station ticket with some small change, and presented it to the youth, who shredded it without enthusiasm.

Some twelve hours, two customs inspections and an unscheduled change of bus later, we arrived in San Pedro, a tiny speck of a village in the Atacama desert comically overpopulated with tourists. I found a hostel and made some friends to spend the day with, and enjoyed a trip to the feral rock formations in the Valley of the Moon and Death Valley, and admired the sun turning the Andes red before dinner. It all went past very quickly – spending just one night in a place makes it impossible to get any real feel for it. I went to be early and got up early, 6.45am, to leave for the Bolivian border.

I was about to embark on the famous three-day salt flat tour from San Pedro to a town called Uyuni, around twelve hours south of La Paz in Bolivia. I got in a minibus at 7.30, filled in immigration forms and greeted my new companions: a characterful middle-aged English couple from Leamington Spa, an Austrian lady on a solo world tour, and young Belgian couple. The latter got things off to a bad start by asking for the Manu Chao to be turned off, but more than redeemed themselves afterwards with good humour and genuine Belgian chocolate.

The first two days, before the salt flat, were spectacular and tiring, stunning yet repetetive. We drove through the desert, skin-burningly dry and so big and empty that distances became impossible to judge. We stopped at a series of landmarks: lakes turned brilliant colours by algae, rock formations blasted into dreamlike shapes by the unimpeded wind, geysers throwing plumes of sulphur-smelling smoke out of honeycomb-like ground. In between each, there would be maybe an hour of driving, sometimes in silence,  with only the click and snap of the wheels throwing pebbles against the underside of the car, and sometimes in conversation generated by our guide, who, unlike some others we met along the way, was cheerful, engaging and informative. He fed us oranges, the juice burning the cracks in my dried out lips.

Towards the end of the first day, having climbed steadily since crossing the border at 9am, altitude sickness finally began to kick in. Fortunately for me, I didn’t get affected too badly, although there was one moment where I got out of the 4×4 at over 5,000 metres, and after a while realised that my head felt about three feet away from my body, I couldn’t tell whether I was walking up- or downhill and I was breathing as though I’d been running. The guidebooks describe this as “light-headedness,” and is a symptom alongside headaches, difficulty breathing, and nausea. That night, sleeping in a hostel at 4,800 metres, I did get a headache, strong enough to disturb my sleep, but was spared the suffering of my companions, who along with worse headaches couldn’t eat or walk faster than a crawl. We shook our heads at each wordlessly as we drove past a chemical processing plant 5,200 metres above sea level, where the driver told us there was a workforce of three hundred, who would stay for three weeks at a time before descending for a month. There was a football pitch with two netted goals just outside the plant.

On the plus side, the nights high up in the desert presented us with the best view of the stars I have ever seen. Getting ready to leave a hostel at 5.30am, I had maybe thirty seconds when I was standing alone outside in the dark, and could see the sweep of the Milky Way like a giant, shimmering tunnel, before the 4×4’s engine roared on and the headlights blotted it away.

After that came the centrepiece of the tour, the salt flat itself. An area of ten thousand square kilometres, roughly the same size as Jamaica, it is perfectly named: it is made of salt, and it is flat. These two features make trick depth-perception photos obligatory, and they are a lot of fun, but the real effect of standing on in the middle of the flat can’t really be expressed in a photo or a description. The closest thing I can think of is the moment in The Matrix where Morpheus takes Neo from the real world into the teaching program for the first time. We got to see the sun rise over a mountain, stretching our shadows out as far as the eye could see. There were a couple of sights added on, such as the “island” hill covered with hundreds of cartoon-perfect cactus trees, and, just outside the salt flat, a train cemetary of old steam engines left over from the first railways carrying the salt away, but that was effectively the end of the trip. My companions and I shared a farewell beer in Uyuni after saying goodbye and thank you to our guide, and then went our separate ways: half got in another 4×4 to head back to Chile, and I hung around in town until the sun went down and my bus to the capital showed up.

The bus was in better condition that the road, and despite not being the most expensive option, did at least come with blankets, necessary as the temperatures dropped below zero. I was on the top deck, surrounded by a contingent of Quebecois students made loud and bold by weight of numbers. I was thinking about how to cross the border into Peru, hoping the buses would work themselves out. They usually do. We wrapped blankets around our legs like invalids, and the bus shuddered and jolted out of Uyuni and began the twelve hour trip to La Paz.

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