Coming soon. More tales from the Salt Flat. An encounter with a lynch mob. The World’s Most Dangerous Bike Ride.
Stay tuned. Same bat time. Same bat channel.
Coming soon. More tales from the Salt Flat. An encounter with a lynch mob. The World’s Most Dangerous Bike Ride.
Stay tuned. Same bat time. Same bat channel.
The first day’s drive consisted mainly of climbing up to the altiplano. The das gellende was composed of rolling hills, abandoned villages, sparse grasses, primitive gold mines and prissy llamas with pink bongers attached to their ears. Their decorations were related to some sort of religious festival.
Five hours into the desert, we came around a bend and suddenly passed, in the middle of nowhere, a cholita woman. Bowlegged and traditionally dressed, she was stoically slogging up an enormous slope. She was hour’s drive from the nearest signs of civilization. Attached to her back was a hulking bundle of spindly firewood. It was secured to her by a colorful pink blanket that the women here use to carry everything from babies to fruit produce.
All of us thought or mumbled at once: “Where is she going?” A few minutes further down the winding hill, we passed her husband. He was resting on a rock and didn’t appear to be carrying anything. Chivalry, dead on the altiplano? I hope not.
Delayed by persistent flooding, we crawled into a tiny village for our first night. No sooner had we stumbled through the rain into a low ceilinged refuge were we inundated by a second storm of young girls trying to sell us bracelets and llama hats. Every few minutes, a new girl or a repeat offender would knock timidly on our door, poke her head in, and silently present to us her goods.
Our small change was quickly exhausted so we resorted to offering them sips of our hot chocolate. Those brave enough to try it were delighted. We pressed one of them to stay and talk with us a bit. It wasn’t clear if she was struggling with Spanish or with her shy nature, but she slowly opened up to us.
She was fascinated with my laptop, which I had opened up to play some music during tea time. “Que hace,” she asked in astonishment. What does it do? She seemed to want to watch a video of some sort but the only media I had on me was Guy Ritchie’s Rock n’ Rolla: a stereotypical gangster caper that never departs from its central themes of sex, drugs and violence.
Thinking her innocence would shield her from recognizing the movie’s banality, I played her the most benign clip I could find. A group of men in suits were doing a drug deal with a group of thieves in leather jackets.
She stared intently at the screen for a few minutes and then piped up with the most incredible question: “Son turistos?”
It took a second for the question to sink in, the tear-jerking innocence of it. Are they tourists? The white men bantering in incomprehensible English? In her eight-year old desert calculus, she had permanently equated the white man as a tourist.
I tried to explain to her that they were ladrones, bad guys, thieves. But she shrank into a shell of incomprehension. Despite all my alien gadgetry, despite my intrusion into her isolated world, I was the one struggling to comprehend was I was seeing.
In 1930, Mohandas Gandhi led thousands of Indians to the sea in an act of civil disobedience against the severe British monopoly on salt. For why should man pay for something as fundamental to life as salt? Unfortunately for gringo tourists visiting the Salare to Uyuni, the price to see this precious commodity remains high.
This salt flat spans close to 9000 km of southwestern Bolivia. It is an awe striking crust of sodium chloride formed from centuries of intense drying of an even bigger underground lake.
But before we could traverse the desert to see it, we had to navigate through a treacherous minefield of tourist companies that were all chomping at the bit to have us go with them. The first day we were meant to salir for the salare we were booked to travel with two Brits. As is the custom, they had troubles at the border as well as trouble finding convenient buses and open roads in southern Bolivia. For an entire day we were led on and told that this mysterious couple would surmount all odds and arrive in time to join us. We soon became cognizant that the 99% chance (of leaving in the morning with a full jeep) at current exchange rates is 20% in Canadian.
Once we admitted to ourselves, by late evening, that the jeep wouldn’t be full and we wouldn’t be able to leave, we rushed to change companies. We were just in time and signed up to go with three other charming girls from Sweden and Texas. We slept soundly with the foreknowledge that we would be well on our way the next day, in good (and with a good) company.
At noon the following day, we found ourselves huddled in a broken down jeep on the outskirts of Tupiza. Three hours had brought with them three breakdowns and we still hadn’t even managed to travel a handful of kilometers out of town. During this time we were assured first that the jeep would be fixed and later that we would be taken in a new one. Batteries were changed and then changed back. Power chords were wiggled. Three Bolivian men contemplated auto-mechanics with their heads buried under the hood and their legs dangling out above the muddy road outside.
When we started to get anxious about the long wait, we tried to demand that we get a new car. The answered with an emphatic Si! Por supuesto! – Yes, of course. But the self-proclaimed mechanics continued to tinker and no new car passed over the horizon.
Of course, they were just stalling. Unfortunately, by the time we had gathered the courage to overcome inertia and tug our bags off the roof we had lost another day.
The experience had a bonding effect on the five of us and we decided to stick together, to try and travel with another company. I returned defeated and embarrassed to the first company, Tupiza Tours (I told them they would suffer the wrath or reap the wealth of a review in my widely read publication) which ended up being a fairly priced and extremely professional choice.
But our three day ‘tour-company tour’ did not stop there. We met a quirky Isreali, a ‘spontaneous traveler’ who had in proper fashion decided to join our crew. Unfortunately, with a cook and a driver in the front of the land cruiser, we didn’t have another spot for him. So he needed to fill another jeep to convoy with us. Being an enterprising young man, he asked every lumbering backpack carrier in the town to join him. But because many of the hostels are hostels/travel companies, he was soon in heated argument with some hostel staffers who had caught him trying to poach some of their guests. The voices grew voluble and the language grew condemnatory. Desultory threats were declared, police were telephoned. I somehow got caught in the middle of the madness, running secret messages between the Isreali and two girls in my hostel under incriminatory Bolivian stares. Having no room number, I knocked on doors looking for ‘two tired Swedish girls’. My encounter with them was, to say the least, awkwardly entertaining:
(Door opens, revealing hostel room with two wide-eyed red-cheeked Swedish girls wrapped in blankets and startled out of sleep.)
Me (looking foolish): Um, are you from Sweden?
(The girls nod incredulously, unable to divine why a scraggly haired Canadian they had never met had entered their room)
Me: Um, did you meet an Isreali guy earlier today?
(The same nods follow)
Me: Well he’s not allowed in the hostel. (Awkward pause during which they seem to be thinking that they had met some sort of evil psycho earlier in the day…) No! (I blurt out) He asked me to find you and meet him outside, to see if you still want to head out in the Jeep tomorrow.
(Epiphanies had by all, sighs of relief echo from left to right. Sun sets, revealing silhouettes of two tall Swedes and a backpack laden Isreali shaking hands. Everyone is smiling imperceptibly in happy accord. All live happily ever after. Roll credits.)
By the third day, whatever deity of travel we had offended has grown satisfied that we had struggled enough. The plague of falling arrows ceased, the legion of tourist aggravators had disbanded, and we awoke to a sight of a sunlit room and the soothing sound of a fully functional jeep engine outside.
As it had been written by the Hand of Allah, on the third day we weary but intrepid travelers entered the Bolivian desert.
According to the myths of a small tribe of medical professionals who study alpine pathology, you don’t dream at high altitude. What’s more, you might not even be able to sleep as your sympathetic nervous system goes haywire.
My experience with altitude was painful rather than fascinating.
To scale the peak of Huayna-Potosi, the standard approach is a ‘two-day’ journey. You leave around lunch from the base of the mountain and wind up a rocky path for five hours to a simple metal shack halfway up. Then you ‘sleep’, get up at 1 a.m. to finish the ascent, and arrive at the peak for sunrise. Then you come all the way back down by lunch.
In reality, it’s a grueling 16 hour hike with a brief nap penciled in the middle.
We started in the low lands with high spirits. We made good time to the upper camp and wriggled out of our snow boots as the clouds evaporated below us. Even five hours up, the view of surrounding snow-capped mountains and muddy valleys was sensational.
We bundled into the refugio and sat smiling in excitement around the cramped dinner table. We inhaled our Ramen noodle and hotdog dinner before worming into our sleeping bags up on a big, shared bunk-bed.
Unfortunately – when the lights dimmed down, the altitude horror show began. At first I only had to grapple with the standard headache. I chalked most of the pain down to dehydration, screwed my eyes shut and tried to get to sleep. But I quickly became the world’s most annoying middle spoon as my homeostatic mechanisms went haywire. Within the first hour I had to run out to pee four times. This meant getting out of my sleeping bag and its impossible zip, putting on my clunky boots, tiptoeing overtop and on-top of our guides in the kitchen, and surviving the subzero temperatures semi-exposed…
That was just the beginning. Fever followed quickly and my dinner, along with the four litres of water I had been desperately drinking, made a grotesque second appearance.
One of the Isrealis and I, we were both hit hard by altitude sickness. Both of us started to have doubts about whether we would be able to weather the mountain. At the same time, my sister was having a completely different reaction to the lack of oxygen. While I was quickly degenerating into a cholera patient, she spent the entire night trying to suppress spontaneous burst of giddy laughter.
The one thing we had in common was that none of us slept a wink. But I was in particularly low spirits as I strapped on my crampons and expedition harness in the dead of night: I couldn’t eat or drink and every ounce of fuel or liquid I had taken in the day before had violently abandoned ship.
I won’t keep you in suspense. I made it to the summit. I vomited my way to the top. It was one of the least fun things I have ever done in my life. Looking back on it, there was so much that would have fascinated me if I had been healthy:
The majority of the ascent was done in the depth of night when the snow is more compact. In the sun, it gets sticky and clings to your boots. At any one time I could see little groups of 3 or 4 headlamps bobbing on the horizon, comforting strangers sharing my strange struggle. We traipsed carefully over gaping chasms of ice whose depths our headlamp beams could not fathom and stumbled up interminable undulations of snow.
At some point I became aware that the city of La Paz was in full view below us. Her orange lights glittered like ebullient caviar bubbling in an earthen bowl.
The majority of the climb was steep but walk-able. I expected this trend would continue until the summit. But the last 200 meters was straight up and would have been impossible without ice climbing gear. Without oxygen or energy I slithered up the endless slope. I likened my movement to the reluctance and ‘ineluctance’ of the first creature who dragged itself out of the sea. Small bits of snow pelted me from above, loosened by other climbers. The hyperventilation every 10 steps brought me would have been hard to distinguish from anaphylactic shock.
The last sixty meters along the cresta, the final ridge, reminded me that we were approaching a real peak. We crept, exhausted, along a thin white trail of snowy footsteps. To either side, the ground fell away with startling rapidity.
But the view, in the clear sky, at day break, was something unforgettable. The panorama seemed to stretch around us more than 360 degrees and the horizon seemed infinitely far away. To the left, the Cordillera Real, an epic amalgamation of bleak, dark, mountainous rock was coated in clouds. The red glow of the sunrise was reminiscent of Mordor.
And then there was the mountain. Our mountain. Its immensity had been kept secret from us through the night, but the sun has painted in every one of its contours. Snow curled up into enormous, frozen waves. Sharp faces were cut into the ice and adorned with mammoth icicles. Despite seeming perfectly still, infinitely benign, I could feel the mountain beneath my frozen toes. I could tell it was just dormant, at any moment capable of capricious acts of colossal destruction.
I stared down on all this beauty from 6088 meters above sea level and, sadly, all I could think about was a warm bed and a settled stomach.
A famous tourist articles written on the cumbre (peak) of Huayna-Potosi starts like this: It was there. So we climbed it.
I can’t claim to have a more profound reason. I could conjure up a handful: inspirational words from a pair of intrepid Isreali trekkers, wanting to break the lax habits of travelling, a need to get off the dirty streets of La Paz and into the bosom of nature. But really, it was there. So we decided to climb it.
2 days at base camp and I am yet to see her. Huayna-Potosi. Famed for being one of the most accessible peaks over 6000 meters above sea level. 6088 to be exact. Everest is only 8840 meters high. This is the real deal, a high altitude ascent.
The last two days we spent ice climbing on a glacier and acclimatizing for the peak. Ice climbing is a blast: spikes on your feet and a deadly ice axe in your hand to penetrate the slope. Trotsky was killed with an ice axe. In Mexico of all places. I can assure you that the thought of impaling my twin sister, despite her communist tendencies and our current residence in Latin America, has not crossed my mind.
The trip has been filled thus far with ironies of biblical proportions. My expedition group is made up of myself, my sis, and 6 Israelis. And our guide? A gentle, tireless Bolivian of diminutive stature named Jesus.
Two days of learning how to walk on (frozen) water.
But Dr. Hugo Berrios was in all respects the highlight. He owns one of Bolivia’s premier climbing companies and he joined us on the ice to prove that you can achieve a professional title and respectable success in business without ever growing up.
He was as excited about sharing his love for rock music with us as he was about sharing his love for climbing. In his comfortable refugio, our climbing gear drying by a crackling fire, he was quick to introduce us to his extensive and tasteful music collection. The highlight was a Brazilian cover band that played rock hits in the soothing style of Bossa Nova. Bossa n’ Roses. Bossa Stones. Even a little Bossa Marley. He was also quick to strip down to his thermal tights and show us a little bit of his Mick Jagger swagger. Disturbing, but in an endearing way.
In his hype to get out of his office and onto the slopes, he had convinced us to start our trip a day early. His agitation also impeded his memory for our names. The first approximation stuck. I became Andy, a redhead Isreali named Oren became Ollie el zanahoria, Saci received the appellation Isaac (which unfortunately was how Hugo pronounced ice-axe), and Sela – which roughly translates to Rock in English – became Roca.
He was also an epic but erratic story teller. He switched effortlessly between orations of bible passages relevant to climbers to illustrative stories about innocently getting himself stuck in a single tent with two French lesbians. He recounted a rich, interconnected tale about his country’s and his family’s personal connection to Che Guevara which somehow (d)evolved into a giddy retelling of his weekend binges in Buenos Aires to watch rock concerts that he can’t tell his wife about.
The Chacaltaya glacier itself was an incredible instance of natural architecture. Its sharp pillars of grey ice jutted out at every possible angle. Intricate crevasses weaved between them, carved out of a perfect translucent blue: a terrible combination of danger and seductive beauty. Some of them echoed spectacularly, so I tried out my echoing in Spanish:
“Enrique!” – “Que…que..que…”
“Quieres plátano?” – “No…no…no…”
“Papaya?” – “Ya…ya…ya…”
And the hike to the glacier was not to be outdone. It took us through a mesmerizing, austere color scheme of white snow, rust-colored boulders, crumbling grey moraine and spiny tufts of yellow grass. In sharp contrast to this Martian landscape, the glacial lakes sparkled with an alien aquamarine – inviting us to risk a swim.
Tomorrow, we take on the mountain.
Arrived. Housed. Cleaned. And in algorithmic fashion we found ourselves gleefully confronting heaping plates of Trucha (trout) and a growing crowd of beer bottles. Two European girls, long term volunteers on the island, had joined us for dinner. The subsequent conversation gave us some important insights into island culture.
Until I visited island, I had no idea how traditional Bolivean courtship functioned. They are a very quiet people and it’s a rare sight to see a Bolivean man and his cholita chatting intimately over a glass of wine or shaking what their mothers gave them out on the Salsa floor. Yet the broods of snotty children running around on the street provide overwhelming evidence that this courtship is somehow taking place.
Unfortunately, the answer to my questions was not a cheerful one. The Island of the Sun is an interesting microcosm, as tourism did not arrive there until about 20 years ago. Before that, the Isleños were a very communal group. Then tourism arrived, bringing with it a new but limited industry. According to the volunteers, this has created some major wealth imbalances and motivated jealousy.
This sad fact expressed itself in its most vulgar fashion with the kids of the island. Every one that you pass on the island sticks out their hand and bluntly demands payment from gringos. If you snap a picture of a cute little girl, like Pavlovian clockwork she will run over you with supplicating hands and a demanding wrinkle in her brow and yell: Pagame. Pay me.
But more important than how intrusive gringos are treated is how the Isleños treat each other under the auspices of tourism. The natural courtship ritual of the islanders consists of playful flirtation (stealing each other’s cows etc.), followed by a serious inquiry to the girl’s father about a potential marriage. Dating and premarital sex are not exactly textbook expressions of this process. But with tourism came skinny white girls with flashy bikinis and an inundating wave of the best and worst of western media.
The result? An alarming incidence of local girls getting raped by anxious young men. And that can be the fastest and saddest way into a marriage on the island.
As the full impact of the poisonous quality of our good looks and tourist dollars sunk in, we all stared down at the table guiltily. To break the awkward silence, we poked a little fun at my sister, who had forgotten her bathing suit and had been tanning in panties and a bra. Western women. The root of all evil.
Thankfully, the falling of night and the calming effects of natural beauty quelled our consciences.
Despite the howling winds blowing in off the lake, I made an effort to visit the sanctuary of the middle of the beach on my final night. Far from the dimming effects of any artificial lights, the stars of the Southern hemisphere were startling. I put my hood on and lay back. The sand cradled my shoulders, cushioning me for a silent symphony of meteors and the overwhelming night sky.
But the light show didn’t stop there. Being at 4000 meters sobre el nivel de mar, clouds and their incipient storms hang surprisingly close to the ground. This creates an incredible apparition, day or night, of huge and distant thunderstorms occurring while you sit under the clearest blue sky.
As I sat up to head back inside, a pair of these storms was striking up behind distant hills. Not a single star was obscured by cloud and a veritable timpani roll of lightning drummed up at the horizon. Soul music.
“Omerta,” explained the Italian – his unruly hair held back by a headband and hands wildly gesticulating hands – “the law of silence. If there is a fight or a crime committed, no one will say anything about it. That’s the thing about Italy. We’ve got it all: beautiful architecture, the best food, wonderful cities,” he paused, counting out the marvels on his fingers, “and beautiful women, people that is. But there has to be a tradeoff or everyone would be rushing to live there. And that tradeoff is the Mafia. You can’t get anything done in business or politics without facing corruption.”
It’s just as bad in Bolivia, I thought to myself. “Corrumpida hasta la medulla,” they say. Corrupt to the core, to the inside of the spinal cord.
The conversation reached a natural hiatus. We all breathed in deeply, taking the timeout to digest the density of the Italian’s social critique. My sister breathed in yet deeper, the stories had shed some shadow on her sparkling dream to move to Italy to play soccer.
But it only took a few moments for the refreshing breeze coming off Lake Titicaca to blow us back to reality. The dark side of Italy was forgotten as the Siren song of nature washed over us. We faced endless sparkling blue interrupted by strange towering humps of green terra erupting out of the water. We all turned our heads bow-wards. Land-ho. We had arrived at the Island of the Sun.
We piled off the small barca at the south end of the island. A couple of Argentines makes a scene with the pobrecita Cholita asking for a 5 Boliveano park fee. A scene over 80 cents. That’s why the islanders all know how to speak Argentine slang – more out of odium that adoration.
We needed to get to the north end but all the boats were private and expensive. It was the wrong day of the week to be circumnavigating islands at such a high altitude. My Bolivian friend Julio, oft mistaken for my private guide thanks to his verbosity and limitless culture general, gave them a piece of his mind about it. In all honesty, he had failed horribly in being a guide of any sort. He had assured us an endless supply of bag-carrying donkeys would be expecting our arrival but the only living creatures having any apparent interest in carrying our bags were a pair of malnourished Bolivian youths. They were interested in making a quick dollar (or at any pace really).
After suffering an epic internal conflict between pity and guilt we decided to pay them to shoulder our load for the 3 hour trek. It seems somehow wrong to pay someone to carry our bags, to outsource our suffering to cheap labor. If they seemed too heavy for us, how can we dump them on the scurvied shoulders of two youngsters? But it seems that when you try to help you often harm, and when you do things that seem cruel and exploitative you might actually be helping out. Oh, the counter-intuitive 3rd world.
As it turned out, what our guides lacked in stature they made up for in lively belligerence.
If you were cruising along the shores of Isla del Sol about two hours later, perhaps you may have witnessed these two jovenes trudge down onto a sandy beach and plopping down with a hodge-podge of backpacks. Three tourist types would have lagged just behind them, in apparent overwhelmedness gracias to the vast natural beauty of the island. You may have been puzzled at their penchant for snapping senseless amounts of photos and their oversized cameras.
Those tourists would be us. Those tourists would be mumbling unintelligibly in awe of the rolling, semi-developed agriculture hills, the loose pigs and sheep nibbling at the grass and of course – the snowy peaks towing with lonely dignity across the elegant waters.
Our llevadoros were also mumbling, but not exactly in worship. Oh Gringos and their constant pleas to stop and photo the flowers.
The conversation to this point had been decidedly jocular. They toyed with our innocent introductory questions – they gave us fake names, spoke hyperbolically about their poverty, and made fun of Julio for being a ‘fake’ Bolivean. “You don’t know what these plants are? What kind of Bolivean can’t recognize a POTATO PLANT!” After years abroad, Julio’s accent had become quite neutral. This perplexed the boys and in turn they developed the plausible story that he was our personal guia.
Was it more believable that he was our friend? That would likely be a novel concept to them.
So we walked, and traded lies. We found ourselves in part frustrated, in part intrigued by the mystery of island life. One of the guides started waxing polemical about his 13 year old esposa, wife. And whenever Julio grew too deriding in response to their fabrications, they would regress to Aymara, their native language, and poke some more fun at us.
It was a jolly company that arrived at the beach. The boys, tired of slogging, talked us into paying them to row us the final stretch. We agreed, on the condition that we could jump out for a quick dip partway through the lake.
Partway across Julio and I asked to row. The boys looked at us skeptically, but acquiesced. After rowing in three or four circles and suffering extensive criticism from the boys, we finally started moving in the right direction. I tried on a bit of Spanish: “Estamos volando!” I cried!
And one of the boys responded: “Como un Tortuga…” Like a turtle. This sent us all into bursts of laughter.
We switched back and I took up my imaginary drum. I am assuming that they have never seen Ben Hur, but I yelled to the boys, with hopes that they would understand: Ok Lads! Ramming speed!
The Sun began to set behind hills at 4000 metros sobre el nivel de mar, saying her goodbyes to an unlikely fellowship of boisterous interlopers shrieking in freezing exstasis and splashing out of the frigid waters of Lake Titicaca.