Saturday, August 26, 2006

day of the sunrise

How does one sum up the past four days? Well, we left Tupiza at 9am on Tuesday was it and slowly left the smallish town and soon were climbing improbably on bumpy dirt roads, something that would become more than just a theme on this journey to the fabled gringo trail experience that is known as Salar de Uyuni. The first day was not so oh my god interesting but involved 7 hours of driving higher and higher and then lower and seeing some llamas in our path and basically being out in the absolute middle of nowhere and concentrating on our breathing. Those folk with us were Geraldo and Cristina, our driver and cook who were a couple and had been doing this relatively epic journey 3 times a month for the past 4 years, Alan from the US, Chris and Selena from England and Sylvian from France and of course Miss Assiyeah. The 8 of us were squeezed into a Bill Clinton-still-smoking-pot-era Toyota Landcruiser painted pea green and somehow devoid of the kind of shock one would think necessary on an journey through a country that has ten percent of its roads paved. We have yet to see one really since entering the country but that´s neither here nor there. We were puttering along, quoting movies, speaking mostly in English with some Spanish sprinkled in and about an hour to dusk we´ll pulled into our accomodations for the evening.

Picture yourself in the winter time at 14,000 feet in a valley, a village with a few hundred hearty inhabitants clinging under the wing of a mountain just hundreds of feet higher than they receiving visitors. It sounds rustic, doesn´t it. The few kids we saw were playing soccer on the basketball court somehow as we were getting winded just walking around lazily trying to soak in how remote from reality we were. We saw our room. The 6 of us were to sleep in a dorm room which is fine. It was already getting cold. The room was cold. The walls were white, the beds spartan but Cristina, who was to become a taken for granted little savior on our trip soon appeared with choices of hot tea and coffee, some crackers and cookies. No heater. Some blankets arrived. Our dinner was Milanesa, which is a pounded meat that is breaded and fried and mashed potatoes. About an hour after that the lights went out. They didn´t come on until 7pm, a time we had been reading, drinking, talking by one candlelight and the far off glow of Chris´Ipod and small speakers and poof, they came on. Three hours later they were gone and we were in the dark. A good thing too, because we had to wake up at 6am the next day.

I had slept in long johns top and bottom, sweats, a tshirt and my jacket, gloves (which I had bought from a woman who had knocked on our door the previous evening wanting about 2 bucks for some wool gloves she had made) and my beanie. Come morning I was warm but not doing too hot. After going to the bathroom, my visited extended itself. I got on all fours and prayed to the porcelain god. This was my first real experience with elevation sickness, an experience I was to repeat two more times in the next 8 hours during our day. I was sort of okay in the morning for the first couple of hours of our driving, past a village that had been abandoned in the 16th century after gold was found and then past some more small remote villages, with just quick glimpses of almost empty dusty streets with the one story houses made of an adobe the same color as the streets and a woman with a heavy load or a curious child watching us go by, sometimes waving back as we dusted his view of the future.

Then it happened again at a checkpoint which put me down for the count and then when we got to the thermal baths, I opted to ¨sleep¨for an hour while everyone enjoyed hot water and ate and as soon as it was time to go, I went outside about 10 feet away and yakked again. Three times the charm baby. The rest of the day is just a blur of missed photo opportunities with cool names, like Laguna Verde and something something Geysers.

Our accomodations that night had a heater in the main room. It was a step up like Eastern Europeans in the early 1900s making their way to start Hollywood felt like a step up. The walls were painted, but I couldn´t enjoy any of it, I was just lying on my bed the whole night and even slept in my jeans without brushing my teeth that night. It was a rough day.

Day 3 started much better, after being hot sleeping and waking up at 3.30 and realizing I had 3 more hours to sleep, we had breakfast and packed up the bags and drove about 15 minutes to Laguna Colorada, a shallow lake with high red mountains around it and borax (stuff used in soaps I think) piled up like little icebergs throughout and flamingoes. I swear to god you would never in a million years picture flamingoes in such a god forsaken place but there were 3 kinds even and we took a bunch of photos of them. Got more chances too, I hope they came out good. I was doing better that day and enjoyed the Rock Tree thingy we visited next, a large rock the size of a big truck but shaped differently that was yes, shaped like a tree, with the heavy end of the rock up in the air. There were other rocks in the area and it was interesting to see such an array of stuff in one general area. All dirt roads, don´t forget, some with rocks the size of watermelons placed like Uboat mines throughout, their smaller but devlish cousins even more frequent.

We had lunch at a place that translated to ¨bad smell lake¨from the sulfur I think and more flamingoes! We had our roughest and bumpiest stretch of the trip as we glimpsed our first salt flat but it took us almost twenty minutes to bump and hop and jump and tilt and carefully baby us past the rocks and uncomfortable angles to the salt flat and then bam, it was smooth as a baby´s but. Too bad it only lasted about 15 minutes and then bumpy again. We passed through a village at 4pm and then by 5.30pm were in our last accomodation, a small charming village on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, all 12,000 square meters of it. We snapped some shots, tried to shower in the absolutely blistering hot water and had a spaghetti dinner and were in bed sometime after 10pm.

We were awakened at 5.15am and were soon driving on the Salar de Uyuni which is a salt flat fairly slowly as the reddening to our right got bigger and bigger. We stopped to snap some shots, then a bit later for the actual sunrise and got some sweet shots, the kind that go on the front page of the photo album afterwards and then visited the Isla del Pescado, so called because from the air it is shaped like a fish. It was a nice little 45 minute leisurely hike around cactus and ancient coral and then we went to the Salt Hotel, where the whole place was made of salt! I forgot to mention that our last night´s accomodations had beds made of salt (no, not the blankets and pillows silly, but the bed frames and what we basically slept on that was underneath that mattress and there was salt on the floor or rather, was the floor)! It was crazy seeing whole rooms made of salt with bright South American blankets on the beds. We then went outside and started taking crazy pictures because there is no sense of perspective on the salt flat so we got someone to go 50 yards away and then act like they were hanging on the arm of someone else that was standing closer to the camera. You get the picture. We were like kids with a new toy. A quick finish of the salt lake which included highlights of Chris´determination to pick a good-sized salt crystal from one of the small holes with water in it and after lunch, we got dropped off in Uyuni, we being Assiyeah and I, in front of a closed tourist office in a windy, dusty, barren looking place. Ciao, adios to our new friends and now what.

We looked for the nice hotel that I had promised Assiyeah. Booked. We walked around the corner and found a nice place for 20 bucks, including breakfast and hot water. Hey can´t take that for granted. Then it turns out that today is the biggest day of the year for this village of 15,000 people (as fireworks just went off outside the internet cafe door again, the bass drum and horns fading out as a new set will fade in within a minute or so), a festival to their patron saint or the virgin for this town, it´s hard to say. I got some money at the Western Union and we checked out the brightly clad teenagers and kids, wearing what looked like where coats with dragons embroidered, or cowboy boots and special dressed for the day or panda bears or god, it´s just too weird. We took a taxi out to the Cemetery of Trains, the first set of trains that were in South America and now they´re all rusted and graffiti but make good pictures, came back and watched more of the parades, just had a fat dinner for the two of us which included a pitcher of fresh squeezed orange juice, steak with mashed potatoes, chicken and french fries and a hot chocolate for Assiyeah, all for about 10 dollars including tip.

Tomorrow we are off to Potosi, the highest city in the world at 4,000 meters. You do the math. We´ll be in touch. My lips are chapped, I´m exhausted but glad to have just experienced this and brought to you in your homes or wherever you are. Cheers.


At 10:56 PM, Blogger Moondoggie said...

It sounds like you had a little adversity...sorry to hear about the stomach sickness. Luckly you had all that practice time in college praying to the porceline GOD. I've been enjoying your blogs...keep it up. Your Dodgers are two games up on the Padres...booo to the blue I just thought you may enjoy some americanized banter. ALso, I saw Beer Fest (movie ) I think you'll enjoy the cultural references. Anyrate, not much new here, working hard and so on.. So you keep going so that I and others may live through your experiences. Please say halo to Assiyeah and let me know if you need anything from me good buddie!
Take care,
"For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints."
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), "To travel hopefully is better than to arrive." RLS

At 4:46 AM, Blogger Jason said...

I love you bro! hahah

go dodgers!


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