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.