Uyuni and the Desert People

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.

 

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