Monday, December 20, 2010

OFF THE GRID: 4 days and 600 miles across the Bolivian Desert.

Continue reading and you'll see what this picture is all about.
We started planning our trip to S. America last August and I began making bullet points on scratch paper, noting bucket list items and destinations.  There are all different types of travelers, but I have never been one to get my kicks visiting museums and monuments for hours on end; flipping through informational brochures while listening to detailed descriptions on a cassette player.  I, on the other hand, get my fix from being in the great outdoors and putting as much distance between myself and any human trace as possible.  Although I do have a deep respect for history and enjoy it quite much, I’ve never quite grasped how some nations spend fortunes protecting marble statues while they pillage and neglect the greatest treasures of all; you know, the ones that were not made by man? 
Among the list of bucket list items I penned on Tribune letter head was the unspoiled landscape of Bolivia.  I had been reading and hearing about Bolivia from people who had been there for ages and if I were to ever visit S. America, I refused to do so without passing through Bolivia.  Bolivia, however, is not an easy place to travel, especially for Americans.  Bolivia is a land of extremes.  It is the poorest country in S. America with 60% of its population claiming indigenous heritage. It is one of the most isolated countries in the world; it has the highest city in the world (Potosi), the driest place in the world, the largest salt flat in the world and the nicest people in the world, etc.  All of these things make it a dream for the adventure traveler, but the remoteness of the country and the poverty it suffers from makes it particularly difficult to get to and to get around in.
Before we had a single detail of our trip planned, we started researching Bolivia in anticipation of the troubles we were likely to encounter.  Most notably; our United States Citizenship.  Evo Morales, the current president of Bolivia, is not only the first indigenous president elected in Bolivia, he is also one of the largest coca farmers in the country.  Coca is a harmless plant chewed by most residents to fight the effects of living and working long hours at extremely high altitude.  It also happens to be the same plant from which cocaine is manufactured and, not surprisingly, 80% of the cocaine manufactured in Bolivia manages to find its way, in one form or another, into the bloodstream of countless Americans.  It’s no shock that the U.S. Government, who has waged a Coca eradication campaign in S. America for decades, has come down particularly hard on Evo Morales.  And as such, it also comes as no shock that Americans are now the only citizens in the world that are required to obtain a visa to enter Bolivia.  When we planned our travel to Bolivia, the State Department had warnings for American citizens against travel in Bolivia, which was suffering from civil unrest.  We said “fuck it” and we decided to go there anyway.
After a nine hour bus ride from Salta, Argentina to La Quiaca, we arrived at the border town and grabbed our backpacks before catching a taxi to the Argentine/Bolivia border.  Christina and I both had reservations about this part of our travel.  It was no secret that Americans were often harassed at the border and our chance encounter days before with an American girl that broke down in the tears at the border did not ease our anxiety.  Our requirements for passing the border were as follows:
 -One visa application filled out in print with address, name of employer, etc.
-Copy of bank statements (to show solvency) or copy of all major credit cards
-One passport picture
-One letter of invitation from a Bolivian hotel or tour operator (in Spanish)
-One W.H.O copy of vaccinations
-$135 U.S.D (must be in mint condition and must be U.S)
When we arrived in Villazon, Bolivia countless Europeans crossed the border without out so much as a second glance. Christina and I showed our passport to the border authority who quickly ushered us over to a separate window where a young man sat in an Adidas jumpsuit.  We handed him our documents which we had unscrupulously labeled, which were thrown in a pile of other paper work without out so much as flipping through the papers; this man wanted our cash.  Christina handed hers over (all large bills) and she was quickly awarded her visa.  I, on the other hand, had spent most of my large bills and was forced to use the 50 American $1 bills I had brought along.  Over a course of fifteen minutes, the young man combed through my American cash, placing crisp bills and slightly dilapidated bills in separate piles.  Every last American dollar I had was in this man’s hand, so Christina and I held our breath as we waited for the verdict.  The young man turned down $25 of my American cash for reasons I still do not entirely understand.   Although I had heard of this happening, I was still slightly befuddled because the exchange rate was 1:7 (do some math, buddy, you’re on the winning end here).  After some negotiating, the gentleman agreed that I could pay him the extra money in Argentine Pesos, but not in their own currency, Bolivianos. I paid the extra cash and after another young man stamped my passport and exclaimed “Ahhh, Americano!” I was on my way.  Christina and I hailed a Taxi to the train station where we would catch a three hour train to Tupiza.  We had gone from very little altitude to nearly 12,000 feet in a matter of hours and when we sat down at the train station, the altitude slapped us in the face.  Having arrived nearly two hours early, we struck up a conversation with a young Italian man who was on his first week of backpacking around the world.  As the time for our departure neared, we moved outside and continued the conversation as we waited for the train.  As we stood against a wall and traded stories, a small group of dodgy looking young Bolivians traded glances with us.  Not a moment later, the young Italian turned around and noticed his bag was gone.  A group of locals began yelling at him, describing what the thieves were wearing, but it was too late; they were long gone.  Apparently, although a large group of Bolivian men and women witnessed the bag being stolen, the thieves’ reputations as thugs kept them quiet until they had left the scene.  We had not been in Bolivia more than two hours; this was a wake up call.
We said our apologies to the young Italian man before hopping on the train to Tupiza.  We had made our way from the southernmost city in the world to the isolated country of Bolivia (some 3,000 miles away) with one goal in mind: drive across the Bolivian desert and visit the largest salt flat in the world; the Salar De Uyuni. The train’s cabin car was not bad; it featured a small articulating fan and a TV that played amateur Bolivian music videos featuring the pan flute.  At times, however, the cabin car filled so completely with dust that people wrapped t-shirts around their face and covered their eyes.  Three hours later, we stepped off that train and for the first time, I no longer felt like some yuppie from the city carrying a backpack, but a real backpacker.  We were tired, covered in dust, completely unkempt and smelling god awful as we walked down the mud streets Tupiza with various odds and ends clipped to our back packs (hiking boots, stuffed animals, rain gear, nalgene bottles, sandals) swinging to and fro in complete synchronization.  In two short months, I had gone from Clark Kent to Grizzly Adams; it was an odd, but strangely gratifying feeling.
We had booked our salt flat tour before coming to Tupiza as we needed a letter of invitation to enter the country.  I had been researching tours to the Salar de Uyuni months before our departure and the stories I read both scared and excited me.  The southern half of Bolivia is one of the most desolate isolated places on earth.  And, outside of anthropological studies, the only reason anyone would ever find themselves in the remote desert of Southern Bolivia, is to partake in the Salt Flat tour.  However, this small boom in tourism has spawned countless hundreds of tour companies, all jockeying to grab as many tourist dollars as possible.  And, the disparity among the qualities of these tour companies is expansive.  Before our trip and even during our travels, we had heard countless horror stories of people pairing up with the wrong tour operator during their Salt Flat tour.  In fact, even our Lonely Planet guide book (which is the bible amongst backpackers down here) admitted that picking a tour operator for the Salt Flat tour is tantamount to playing Russian roulette; there is no guarantee that your experience is going to be a good one.  Stories of drivers getting drunk at 5.a.m., jeeps breaking down stranding people in the desert for days and passengers staging mutinies had both Christina and I on edge.  But, while hiking in Torres Del Paine, we met a S. African couple who ensured us that going from Tupiza (considered the reverse route) was the safest option.  And, although it cost nearly twice as much as most other tour operators (usual cost is $80 for 4 days and 3 nights), I was smart enough to know that this is not the type of trip where you want the best bargain.  So, at the advice of others, Christina and I booked our tour with Tupiza Tours and hoped for the best.

Our ride!
Calling it a “Salt Flat Tour” is kind of a misnomer.  Like most things in life, this trip is about the journey, not the destination.  Think of the Salt Flat as the dessert  following a twelve course meal.  It may be the sweetest part, but the dinner is just as memorable.  Getting to the Salt Flat is not an easy task, in fact, when you analyze the rather wide margin for error, a trip across the Bolivian desert to the Salt Flat seems rather stupid and at the very least, extremely risky.  To get to the Salar De Uyuni, one must first traverse 600 miles of Bolivian desert void of any roads in a jeep.  The most important element in any tour is without question, the jeep within which you are riding.  There are varying degrees of jeep quality, but the jeep of choice for most all tour companies is the Toyota Land Cruiser.  Most all are outfitted with large off-road tires and huge steel roof racks to carry extra fuel, food and passenger cargo.  Most people and guide books recommend checking out the quality of your ride before signing up for a tour, as people are often stranded in the desert for days awaiting rescue and transport when their jeeps break down.  Given that I know jack shit about cars, I gave our jeep a pat on the hood (sounds good to me), checked to make sure the tires were not flat (looks good still) and crossed my fingers  after seeing that our jeep had over 200,000 miles on its odometer.
The next morning we woke up early to pack the jeep and meet our future travel mates.  You have the option of traveling with four or five passengers, not including the cook and the driver.  The idea of sharing a jeep for ten hours a day with seven other people did not sound so enjoyable, so we opted to pay a little more money to travel with only four passengers.  While loading up the jeep, Christina and I met Valentine and Laetitia, two French girls who were traveling together for a few weeks.  They spoke English, were our same age and immediately seemed warm and friendly; the next few days we would all grow very close. Our cook was Zaida, a shy twenty-year old who barely muttered a word our entire trip.  And, our driver was Edgar, a twenty-eight year old who had been driving this particular tour for the last three years.  His age and experience came into question moments after our drive began and we found ourselves hugging a tiny, two lane dirt road, carved out of the side of a mountain and perched precariously over 1,000 feet above the canyon lands below. Our first day we would drive for nearly nine hours, but we had barely been in the car for a half an hour and everyone was already questioning what sort of adventure we had gotten ourselves into.  It did not take long before we were in the middle of nowhere, having left any trace of industrialized civilization long behind us.
The desert if fun.  Yay!

They're fun to watch and eat for lunch.
The next four days we would drive over 600 miles across the Bolivian desert and traverse nearly the entire southern portion of Bolivia. And it would be some of the most interesting days of our entire trip.  The expression “off the grid” can barely begin to describe where we were and the places we traveled. The very word “desert” brings to mind isolation.  We, however, were traveling in a desert 15,000 feet -18,000 feet above sea level in one of the most isolated countries in the entire world (likely for that very same reason).  The landscape in this desert is often described as Martian like.  And, without question, when traveling across it, you certainly feel like you are on another planet. We went four days without traveling on a single road.  We passed countless volcanos, geysers spewing sulfuric mud and huge dried beds of borax.  Strangest of all were the countless lagoons we visited, lagoons that were red, grey, blue and white; at the top of the world, in one of the driest places on earth.  But, what truly made these lagoons unique was not their isolation, their location, but the fact that they were composed largely of arsenic and magnesium and on top of it, home to countless thousands of pink flamingos.  This was no drug induced hallucinogenic trip (although it seemed like at times), this was the real McCoy; hundreds of miles from any sort of industrialized civilization, in the middle of a dessert at +16,000 feet you can find a sprawling bright red chemical oasis home to home to flamingos too innumerable to count.  The smell of these lagoons will accost your nostrils and knock the breath right out of you, but the sight will leave a lasting impression.
Pink Flamingos in a pool of Arsenic and Magnesium. Why not?

The valley beside where we slept our first night.

The village we slept in our first night.
 The first night we arrived in a small village, where we would spend the night in a small mud hut hosted by a local family. Never in my life had I felt more isolated then on that first night. We had driven by a handful of pueblos on our way through the desert; groups of 10-12 dilapidated mud houses where llama herders or mine workers typically lived.  I was fascinated that a collective of people could survive in such total isolation and in such harsh conditions without any of the conventions of a traditional society: no plumbing, no cars and no electronics.  The pueblo we stayed in was home to around 100 people.  Each house was about the size of a standard bedroom (usually no bigger than 12x12’) where entire families would live, sleep and eat.  I simply could not wrap my head around it.  After we arrived, I took a brief walk up onto the hill that overlooked our pueblo and watched as the sun descended and turned the Monet clouds a beautiful shade of pink; it was beautiful.  I took a deep breath and everything that I had done to get to this place flashed through my mind, like some cliché movie montage.  What a wonderful and vulnerable feeling it is to be so far from everything you know.  And sometimes, as in this case; everything you don’t.
The sun setting on our first night.
That night for dinner, we ate Llama for the second time that day.  It wasn’t as good as our lunch, but no one had high expectations.  Before going to bed, we threw on our head lamps and ventured out into the valley to take a look at the stars.  There are moments in your life when you convince yourself that what you are seeing is something that will never be repeated; something truly once in a lifetime.  And, there is often no greater feeling than proving yourself wrong.  Both in New Zealand and Torres del Paine, I saw stars so innumerable, so plentiful, that I thought could not be repeated, not anywhere else in the world, not if my lifetime.  Well, I was wrong and what a delight it was.  At night in the desert, the clouds disappear and the sweltering heat gives way to freezing temperatures leaving a remarkably clear sky-the clearest I’ve ever seen.  We were hundreds of miles away from any city and it’s ambient light.  The stars that night made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.  You could see Jupiter clearly, the Milky Way peppered the black sky in a way I’ve never seen and shooting stars fired off as if on command.  We spent about a half an hour under the stars before the cold and creepy desert noises got the better of us.  We headed back to our mud hut, threw on every layer available (a potato sack roof, no heater and sub zero weather makes for a shitty combination) and set our alarms for 4:00.  We would hit the road the next day before sunrise.
"Is it just me, or is this road bumpy?

Getting high.  (That's 16,021.5 feet)
Fun with altitude!!!!

The stone tree.  Yes kids, sand did that!
The following three days were long and exhausting.  Riding in a jeep at 40 M.P.H. across the desert for 10 hours a day feels a bit like being on a roller coaster that never ends.   We were lucky to have the company of Valentine and Laetitia, who were always up for sing-alongs and good conversation.  We picked each others brains constantly about each other’s cultures and often poked fun at the ridiculousness of them.  Had we been cooped with a forty something couple that didn’t speak English, I would have jumped out of the jeep at the nearest cliff, but, we were lucky; they were great!  Each day more or less began to bleed into the next.  The scenery was often awe inspiring, but sometimes featureless.   I won’t bore you with the boring parts because, well­-they’re fucking boring.  But, below are some highlights and memorable moments (but, first two random pictures I couldn't fit anywhwere else)

A volcano.  We saw too many to count. I named this one Cledis.

 Our Christmas card.  Also, the railroad of death.
- THE JEEP Problems with the jeep and complete breakdowns.  Our jeep had at least five problems during our trip.  They included two flat tires, replacement of an alternator, and some other major problem of which I’m still not certain, except for the fact it was certainly the worst of the bunch.  Watching Edgar (our driver) fix a flat tire, in the middle of the desert, while wearing a sweater in 95 degree heat without out so much as forming a single bead of sweat on his forehead was impressive.  There was no spare, he had to remove the tube from the giant off road tire and patch it by hand with a lighter and god knows what else.  At another point,  when our jeep broke down within sight of the mud village we were sleeping in, Edgar spent the following five hours (after having driven for nine hours that day) completely dissembling our jeep in the dark.  I’m not sure what the problem was, but his tools were minimal and I shit you not, the repair involved multiple fabrications from soup cans in the mud village.  Edgar was a man of very few words, but he knew how to drive and repair his vehicle.
- THE ALTITUDE  The altitude is certainly one of the most memorable parts of the trip.  Regardless of whether or not you had properly acclimated (we did not), sleeping at 16,000 feet every night is enough to throw you for a loop.  Everyone got sick at one point and popped Soroche (altitude sickness pills).  We reached our highest point at the geysers, where we would spend 30 minutes.  The geysers were at 18,000 feet and I felt every foot of it. I had declined the altitude pills that day which turned out to be to a school boy error on my part.  While walking around the geysers of boiling sulfuric mud, I hit a wall and my knees nearly buckled (the last thing you want to happen while walking around pools of 500 degree mud).  My head was spinning, my stomach was churning and my mind was racing.  Edgar, noticing the sudden loss of color in my face, offered me a handful of Coca leaves.  I gladly accepted, knowing that people of the Andes have been chewing Coca hundreds of years to relieve the affects of altitude.  Coca leaves take about 30 minutes to take effect, but eventually I was feeling normal again and thankful to be heading back to 16,200 feet, where we would spend the night again.
-OFF THE GRID, OR MAYBE NOT? There’s one valuable thing I learned from this trip: no matter how far you travel, no matter hard you try to leave behind the trappings of conventional society; it will find you!  This idea first came to mind while riding through the desert canyon lands and listening to Boy George and Twisted Sister.  True, it was only the first day of our trip, but were already in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by Llamas and wild Vicunas and we were all playing sing along with Cindy Lauper.  I could not help but to acknowledge this strange paradox.  This moment was not so much disappointing as it was ironic.  However, there were a few moments during our trip that made me wonder whether or not there were places on this earth that truly remained pure.  And by that, I mean places that had not been touched by Coca-Cola.  It’s a bizarre to be in the middle of the desert, in one of the most isolated countries on earth and to come across a mud village of 25 with a Coca Cola sign hanging precariously from their window.  What a tragedy.

The last night of our trip, as we neared the Salar de Uyuni, we stayed in a hostel, in the middle of the desert, made completely out of salt.  The floors, the walls, the chairs, the ceilings and the beds were all made completely out of salt. The “Salt Hostel” had been our nicest accommodation in the past few days.  And, after eight hours on the road and a very long dust storm, we were anxious to arrive to a place that served  extremely expensive beer, that had a roof not made out of potato sacks and a shower you could pay to use (although the shower did not end up working out as planned).  When we arrived, we were still catching the tail end of the dust storm, so I helped Edgar unload (as usual) as the girls headed in for cover.  While outside, I made friends with a little piggy who tried to bite the ankles of fellow travelers, but apparently warmed up to me (he must have smelled all of the pork in my blood).  That next morning we woke up at 4:30 to head to the salt flats; the grand finale.
Me and my piggy!

More fun with trick photography.

The Salar de Uyuni is something that is impossible to describe in words, but the pictures below will hopefully paint a picture, so I will stop short of writing in detail. It is the largest salt flat in the world, spanning over 12,000 square kilometers.  It is huge, it is flat, it is made entirely of salt and it sits at over 12,000 feet.  In the middle of the Salar lies the Isla De Pescadores, a small island oasis populated by thousands of Cactuses (or is it Cacti?).  After stopping at the Isla for a 5:30 breakfast, we hit the road to explore the rest of the Salt Flat.  Driving across the Salt Flat is quite a trip.  The horizon is so flat and so expansive, it’s impossible to grasp, causing your mind and your eyes to play a game back and forth; each one questioning the other.  Because the Salar de Uyuni is the largest, flattest place on earth, it lends itself to perspective bending photography.  We tried our best, but others have done much better.
The Salar de Uyuni and the Isla de Pescadores.

An island in the middle of a salt flat full of thousand of cacti?  Why of course!
When we finally finished our trip, everyone was exhausted, covered in dirt and smelling like a herd of Llamas.  We rolled into the small desert town of Uyuni, where we would wait for an overnight bus to La Paz with Laetitia and Valentine.  What an amazing trip it had been, one of the most memorable and IMPRESSIVE of my life.  In life, I love nothing more than the discovery of something new and the realization of how little I actually know.  What a beautiful feeling it is.  Thanks for following this journey.


1 comment:

  1. My friend, that was some incredible writing. You and your lovely have a talent for this. I feel like I'm reading the Hardy Boys..just one of the boys happens to have had a sex change. Seriously though, that desert shit is something that wouldn't cross my mind as enjoyable. I would have seen the Toyota and said to hell with this whole thing. Unless it's a hummer, I ain't goin. I cannot get my mind to comprehend what it must be like to leave the confines of my keyboard and sanity to regressing to something that is instinctual, natural, unstructured. You both have become what few in their lives will ever know, but many claim they do. Your independence is truely remarkable. On a side note, I loved the comment about how much money is spent on monuments but not on natural objects. I had never even thought about that. If the monument was built once, it can be built again...let it go. Enlightening my friend... be safe.