Altiplano Anecdotes
(May 30, 2003)

May 25. Santiago, Chile.

5:15am. I would say that the morning was just beginning, but, in fact, the previous night was still continuing. (By Dubie´s definition, this qualifies as the same day). I didn´t dare risk sleep, for fear of missing the flight to La Paz (Bolivia, not Mexico). I followed my classmate and traveling cohort, Steve, into the taxi waiting to take us to the airport.

I awakened and gazed out the plane window, blinking in astonishment at the surreal scenery below. The Bolivian landscape boasted an impressive array of earth tones from black and gray to beige and red. Accenting these hues, snow-sprinkled conical mountains dotted the high desert plateau. Apparently, the land was as inhospitable as it was beautiful; there were no signs of any human activity, even roads, nor any flora or fauna.

At 12,000 feet, our plane landed at La Paz airport on the high desert plain (the Altiplano) just above the city. La Paz, with its 1 million inhabitants, is snugly nestled in a valley, with the large uninhabited Altiplano to the west and glaciated mountains over 15,000 feet on its other three sides. As our taxi began the descent into the valley, the city appeared as a miniature set. Seemingly tiny brick houses clung to every available inch of the steep valley, while larger, more modern buildings rested comfortably on the valley floor.

Our friendly taxi driver was much easier to understand than anyone I had encountered in Santiago. Bolivians, unlike Chileans, actually enunciated their Spanish AND, as an added bonus, spoke at a somewhat reasonable pace for gringos. However, Bolivians are not so considerate when it comes to driving. As our cabbie explained as he drove through a red light, traffic signals are viewed as mere suggestions, rather than commands. Indeed, as we worked our way through the hubbub of the city towards the bus terminal, the traffic flowed according to some rules of chaos understood by locals but incomprehensible to outsiders.

Steve and I took our seats in the front row of the bus´ top deck. A small sign informed us that wearing seat belts was required by law. While, the windshield cracked from the inside had already provided us this incentive, the bus had no seat belts.

A friendly family from Oruro sat next to us. The twenty-something mother of two found my Spanish to be an endless source of entertainment, particularly, my mispronunciations. My inability to roll my r´s prompted her to repeatedly request that I say "perro," as we all laughed aloud.

The bus rolled smoothly southbound on the paved highway en route to Oruro, 3 hours from La Paz, through the pastoral countryside. The flatness of the Altiplano scrub grasslands through which we rode was broken only by occasional rolling hills. Every few miles we passed spartan stone farmhouses with straw roofs. Lone campesinos tended to small flocks of grazing sheep.

At sunset, we arrived in Oruro and checked into a rather luxurious hotel room by Bolivian standards, offering both hot water and cable TV. Of course, he had to pay handsomely for these amenities-- $18.

"We did it!" True, we were exhausted, but we had successfully climbed the one flight of stairs to our room. At 12,000 feet, oxygen proved to be a relatively scarce commodity. Our hemoglobin would need to acclimatize before trekking Machu Picchu in Peru. At 12,000 feet, other effects were clearly pronounced. As darkness descended, the temperature quickly dropped. As we walked in the frozen darkness of a Sunday night in Oruro, we searched for our first taste of authentic Bolivian cuisine. We settled for the only open restaurant in the city of 10,000, Chinese food.

May 26. Oruro, Bolivia.

I attempted to converse with our cabbie as he drove Steve and I towards downtown. Despite some improvement, my Spanish clearly needed some work. I had intended to ask the driver if he had visited a site; instead, I asked him if he was old-fashioned. His only response was to give me a funny look.

Forging my path through the crowds and street vendors in Oruro´s narrow streets, I was reminded of Khatmandu. As I admired the water fountain in the central plaza on a warm sunny day, I was alarmed by nearby gunshots. Turning towards the scene of the crime, I saw an approaching parade. As it passed, I realized that it was actually a protest, complete with fireworks to draw attention to the cause. The garment workers carried banners and chanted slogans denouncing American clothing companies.

Walking around Oruro with camera in hand, I became captivated by the appearances of the Mestizos. Beautiful in a way that´s alien to American culture, they tend to be relatively shorter and stouter, with broad faces and large elongated cheeks. Most of the women wear bowlers over their pigtails or ponytails; all of them sport handmade ponchos or shawls of dark colors or the traditional bright colors and patterns of the indigenous indian cultures. Altogether, the combination was picture perfect! However, my would-be photographic subjects did not share my enthusiasm. One after another refused my request to take a picture. I resorted to various tactics: 1) Making conversation; 2) Flattery; 3) Buying vendor´s trinkets; 4) Offering to pay for photos. All failed. I settled for surreptitious shots with the telephoto lens. Looking at the photos in my Bolivian guidebook later that day, I realized that my experience was not unique. In each of the book´s photos, the subjects were far away and looking away from the camera.

On the 7-train ride southbound to Uyuni, Steve and I drank Inca beer (Bolvia´s version of Guiness) with our new traveling accomplice, Chris from France. He´s been on the road for several months. His love of reggae music reflects his calm demeanor. As we progrssed through the countryside, green grasses gradually yielded to desert scrub brush. The scenery increasingly resembled Nevada, as farmhouses decreased in frequency. The only witnesses to a spectacular desert sunset included the train´s passengers and the lone mountain silhouetted the horizon.

May 27. Uyuni, Bolivia.

One can only say too much about Uyuni. This remote town of 7,000 merely exists to serve the tourists who come for the nearby Salaar de Uyuni, the vast expanse of wilderness in the Southwest corner of Bolivia, abutting Chile. The guidebook stated that all of the tour agencies offered nearly the same deal for the 3-4 day off-road excursion; the key was to find the one with the vehicles least likely to break down hundreds of mile away from the nearest help. We three amigos randomly walked into one of the agencies, where a letter of gratitude from a prior customer was proudly displayed on the wall next to me. It gleefully concluded, "We came back alive." Personally, I wasn´t quite as enthusiastic about that point of distinction.

The well-worn Toyota Land Cruiser had no room for our backpacks, which the tour agent secured to the roof. I inquired if I could borrow a sleeping bag, but he assured me that the hostels in which we would be staying would provide ample blankets.

Provisions packed, seven guys squeezed into the Land Cruiser and set forth for the Salaar de Uyuni. Two Israelis and and an Aussie rounded out the list of passengers. Geraldo, our weathered driver and tour guide, had made the 700-mile trip nearly 1,000 times. He spoke no English. In fact, he hardly spoke at all; probably because his mouth was usually full of cocoa leaves from the bag he kept by his side.

Our first stop was the all-but-forgotten town of Colchanei. The straw roofs on half of the single-room stone houses had decomposed some years ago. These befitted the crumbling stonewalls. One lone woman skinned potatoes in front of the town´s tiny store. Otherwise, the place seemed vacant of its residents. Apparently, some of them were working in the Salaar extracting salt.

As we approached the vast salt desert, the dazzling white expanse nearly blinded us. Without sunglasses, it was impossible to see anything. We parked next to several small piles of salt, created by a nearby laborer stooping over a shovel. Upon closer inspection, we discovered that regular polygons, 1-meter across, formed the barren flat expanse of white that stretched for several miles in each direction to distant mountains. Actually, the salt desert wasn´t totally barren; after driving for some miles, we stopped at the kitsch Hotel de Sal (Salt Hotel). Yep, a hotel of salt. While I was tempted to lick the walls to verify the claim to fame, I decided to trust their word.

After driving across the salt for several more miles, we arrived at Islo Pescadero (Fish Island). We hiked to the summit of the cactus-covered rock island, 100-meters above the sea of white surrounding us. From this vantage point, the brilliance of the white reflective surface was evident, as was later confirmed by the sunburn on the bottom of my chin and inside my nostrils. We continued westward beyond the mountains, where the salt turned to lifeless red dirt. All the while, I was reminded of Nevada´s Black Rock Desert. Slowly, desert scrub emerged and we found ourselves navigating one of several bumpy dirt trails.

Llamas are the Bolivian equivalent of American cows. Upon our first sighting, we stopped for the obligatory photo-op, much to the amusement/chagrin of Geraldo. After all, how many people in the States pull over to take pictures of cows? Perhaps we had broken Geraldo´s patience, as he chose to continue past the broken-down Land Cruiser and forlorn passengers of another tour company. (I would later discover that this group endured one broken clutch, one punctured radiator, and three flat tires.)

At sunset, we arrived at San Juan, elevation 13,000 feet, population 200. Among the 30 travelers in the hostel, Steve and I were the sole Yankee representatives for good ole Uncle Sam. About 10:00pm, the town generator ran out of gas and we were engulfed in darkness. While literally feeling my way through the darkness to retrieve my flashlight from my daypack on my bed, I realized that the lump I was feeling wasn´t my daypack, nor was it my bed.

Despite the cold, the temptation of the stars proved irresistible. With a new moon, no artificial light, and little atmosphere at 13,000 feet, the Milky Way illuminated the sky. Lying on my back, I followed the trajectory of a shooting star.

One of the least fascinating aspects of cultures is pillows. For example, take Germany. Germans prefer pillows that have been cross-bred from limp rags and lint piles. Bolivians, by contrast, prefer pillows that, in form and firmness, lie somewhere between footballs and 8-inch PVC pipe. Given these two choices, I´ll go with neither.

Sans pillow, I crawled into bed with four blankets and thermal underwear. The eternal conundrum of how to keep one´s face warm without suffocating had been solved. Indeed, all of the sunburnt faces warmed the unheated room.

May 28. San Juan, Bolivia.

Mountains flanking us, we bounced along in our Land Cruiser towards the Chilean border, following one of several poorly defined trails through the desert scrub. Shortly after passing a remote military checkpoint near the uninhabited border, we passed another Land Cruiser with a flat tire. Another tour group had already stopped to help them. Regardless, we did not seem to be garnering good karma. Three minutes later we hit a large rock and the engine stopped. After several unsuccessful attempts, the engine started and we pushed onward.

The two wondrous sites did not need to compete for our attention. Beyond the alien red rock formations nearby, a plume of steam rose from a tempestuous pimple on the massive face of Ollogue Volcanoe, which straddled the border with Chile. We continued southbound without any signs of animals or trees, nor any human activity, save the dirt trails and the tastefully placed stacks of balanced rocks, the international sign of hippies. I then realized that we were in the same region at which I had marveled from the plane.

Laguna Edionda provided a dramatic contrast of vivid colors. A pristine electric blue sky set the dramatic stage. White streaks of snow descended across bands of red, yellow, gray, and black from the peak of a mountain framing the far side of the cobalt lagoon. On the near shore, an immense beach of white salt gradually yielded to irridescent green algae, where hundreds of neon-pink flamingoes caroused at the water´s edge. Spellbound, I humbly attempted to capture the magic on film. You can decide for yourself when I post them to my website.

Still happily dazed from the experience as we continued on our odyssey, I awakened from my reverie when we drove upon a herd of Vicunyas. The elusive wild relative of the domesticated llama inhabits the remote highlands of Bolivia and usually flees in the presence of man, which these did. How these animals survived in such a harsh climate puzzled me. At 14,000 feet, the only vegetation I could see was scant clusters of scrub brush.

We pushed southward and upward, along the frontier of Chile until we were driving across patches of snow at 15,000 feet. At this altitude, even the most tenacious plants could not survive. Late in the afternoon, we braved the relentless wind and cold to investigate Tree Rock. A natural rock fomation of an inverted pyrarmid about 12 feet high, it seemed to defy gravity. Clearly, Nature´s talent for delicately balancing rocks clearly exceeded that of man.

When the cold became untolerable after a few minutes, we briskly walked back to the shelter of the Land Cruiser (a tiring endeavor at that altitude). As we did so, I questioned the wisdom of driving in this inhospitable, uninhabited region with only one vehicle. What if it were to break down? I found comfort knowing that we were not the last vehicle following the circuit that day; one straggler from another agency lagged behind us. Geraldo turned the key and the engine turned over several times but it did not start. Again he tried, and again it failed. On the third try, the engine reluctantly complied and we raced the approaching darkness to the hostel at Laguna Colorada some 30 miles away.

The lack of hot water at the hostel did not come as a big surprise; however, the lack of heat did. Six of us huddled around the bare incandescent light bulb suspended from the straw room of our shared room and enjoyed the warmth it provided, along with several bottles of wine. Perhaps it was the wine, but nobody seemed to mind the llama steak dinner provided by our diminutive Mestizo hostess. At 10:00 the generator was shutdown. After finishing the last bottle of wine by candlelight, we called it a night. Wearing two pairs of thermal underwear, wool socks, hat, and gloves, I crawled into the hobbit-sized bed, unable to lay flat. The two matching hobbit-sized blankets could cover one normal-sized person´s feet or chest, but not both.

May 29. Laguna Colorada, Bolivia.

After several hours of wrestling with the bedding in a feeble attempt to stay warm, I added a polar fleece jacket to my sleeping attire and finally fell asleep. If I had known at the time that the temp was -15C (+5 F), I would have done so earlier. Seemingly a few minutes later, a loud knocking on the door awakened me. I opened my eyes but couldn´t see anything in the pitch-black night. After realizing that I had pulled my hat over my eyes, I removed it, only to discover that it was just as dark. This was our 5:00am wake-up call. Through the beams of crisscrossing flashlights, I noticed the Aussie packing a sleeping bag; however, I knew that he had not brought one on the trip. When I inquired about it, he seemed puzzled. "Didn´t you know that the agency provided both of us with them?" Well, at least if the car were to break down on the day´s trip back to Uyuni, I probably wouldn´t freeze to death.

I scraped the ice off of the interior of the vehicle window and noticed the eastern horizon just beginning to lighten beneath a crescent moon that hung below brightly glowing Venus. Geraldo repeatedly scraped the ice off of the interior of the windshield to create a small area through which he could apparently see the path to the sulfur geysers. Numerous steam clouds issued from gurgling mud craters as daylight (and heat) finally arrived. Nearby, we ate breakfast on the shore of the frozen lake, Aguas Thermales. Despite the sunshine, the temperature was still well below freezing. However, how could I possibly resist the Sirens´song from the hotspring on the shore? Apparently, nobody else from our crew shared my enthusiasm, so I gladly stretched out in the pool and dethawed the prior night´s chill.

After checking out Laguna Verde in the far Southwest corner of Bolivia, we began our 9-hour trip back to Uyuni. By this time we had heard Geraldo´s two Bolivian cassettes through tinny, blown-out speakers no less than 8 or 9 times. By the 10th listen, desperate measures were needed to stave imminent insanity. I reluctantly concluded that conversing with Geraldo was the only means of getting him to turn off the stereo. Other than my limited vocabulary, horrendous grammar, gross mispronunciations, and lack of listening comprehension, I had finally mastered Spanish by the time we had arrived back in Uyuni alive.

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