On the Road, South America, Tourist, Traveling

How to Have an Adventure: The Final Chapter

Here is what I learn from the Salar: grown ups need to climb stuff more. It starts six minutes out of town, when we go to the Train Cemetery. It is swarmed with people from other tour jeeps. The light isn’t great for photos, so I’m glad I was here 16 hours ago on my own. Instantly, people of otherwise respectable age are atop broken locomotives, walking their lengths, posing against the slick blue sky, and swinging from a swing shaped like two dog bones suspended from the ribs of an old train car. It doesn’t stop there, and most of the time, I’m happily in the mix.

The dog-bone swing.

The dog-bone swing.

The first climb of the trip

The first climb of the trip

The salt flats are amazing, as you can see from the picturesWalking on the salt field is like walking on slushy snow, only more compact, and not slippery. So basically, nothing like slushy snow, except for its appearance.

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Salt – Very similar to and yet totally different from slushy snow

The air is hot and whipping with wind, and all you can see is a vast, flat, field of white, bordered in the distance by hills rising from nowhere. There is no road – only a ‘path’ of diesel dirt left by the million other tours around you, and followed by those who come behind.

We're on a road to nowhere....

We’re on a road to nowhere….

After a photo shoot on the flats, we stop off in a town that harvests salt. Which means this is where the truck that is manually loaded is manually dumped, and then, manually, the salt is loaded onto a pan above a remedial wood-burning oven and sifted by shovel so that it dries out.  It is then (manually, of course) mixed with iodine and bagged into small plastic sacks that are heat-sealed with a propane burner, and stacked for sale.

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Heat-sealing salt bags with a propane burner. Watch your fingers.

After the salt flats, our three-day, two-night tour goes to what is referred to as ‘la isla,’ so I assume we are taking a boat to an island in a lake somewhere. I’m forgetting, of course, that we are driving across what used to be the lake. ‘La isla’ is a cactus-covered red-rock out cropping in the middle of nowhere, rising from the salt flats with a completely independent vegetation zone.

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Cactus Island, in a sea of salt

You can climb on top of it, hike its perimeter,  take pictures, and, if you are me, lead Travel Companion mistakenly off the proper trail so that by the time you eat lunch and leave, she has lost her iphone and will never find it again. If you are more touristy and have money to burn, you can pay the roving land-cruiser some extra bolivianos to go parasailing behind his car. I stick to climbing on things and leading others astray.

Me, on top of a rock, making Seanna nervous

Me, on top of a rock, making Travel Companion nervous

At the end of day one, we drive to the edge of the salt flats, stopping for more photo opportunities, in which our group learns that (1) it’s very hard to take a picture of two people simultaneously off the ground and (2) it’s physically impossible to get off the ground without opening your mouth.

The success ratio of getting both parties off the ground in these shots is actually 2:17.

The success ratio of getting both parties off the ground in these shots is actually 2:17.

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We land for the night in a hostel with salt-brick walls and a floor made purely of salt, and since it is well insulated with…well, salt, and we’re terrified of freezing, we’re just fine with it all, even the spare hairs on the bed.  Outside, the wind howls across the the landscape, brushing a herd of vicuna into the low hills and lulling us to sleep.

I have no idea what day two has in store, since we are on a salt tour, and I’ve been told we’re at the end of the salt. I do know that somewhere in the next 48 hours, I’m going to get to see some flamingos, which I keep calling penguins. By the time they’ve known me for 24 hours, though, my tour team is unphased by my behavior. They know that when I say penguin, I mean flamingo.

Day two starts with rocks, and moves on to volcanoes, with a train track or two thrown in for good measure. Just to be safe, I climb on everything I possibly can, including in and out of the third row of the car, which Travel Companion has advised me to stop doing in one stretch at the risk of pulling a groin muscle. I do not climb the volcano, which is disappointingly far in the distance.

Climbing.

Climbing.

I am not alone in climbing. I am alone when I lie down on the train track to have my picture taken like a damsel in distress, minus the distress and the damsel-ness. Minus also an oncoming train and a wily cowboy to rescue me. I will blame this on sugar snacks before ten a.m. (I have a much better understanding of Cookie Crisp cereal after my Salar tour.)

Non-damsel in non-distress

Non-damsel in non-distress

At this point, it has become abundantly clear that any fear we have of our driver irresponsibly abandoning us in the middle of nowhere carries no muster. At almost every stop, Garcia wanders off to help another driver with a bad tire, leaky oil, or a jeep that plain won’t start. Aside from him being a skilled mechanic, we will never be alone. At every stop, there are at least four, and usually six to ten, other groups stopping to take the same pictures, and climb on the same rocks. Lack of solitude in the middle of nowhere makes for very indiscrete natural bathroom opportunities, which Travel Companion and I discover the hard way.

From salt and rocks we move on to a series of Lagunas. I forget the order of them but most are named after colors (Laguna Verde, Laguna Blanca – this one was the very last, Laguna Colorado).  Many appear to have great salt crusting on their banks, but this turns out to be borax. Each of them is home to some naturally occurring mineral that changes the color of the water. In the case of Laguna Colorado, sun and heat during the day bloom a red algae that, just for a few hours, turns great parts of the lake red.

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Laguna Colorado, with it’s red algae

All of the lagunas save one have flamingos, and my camera finger goes into autopilot, shooting everything in sight, knowing that maybe five of these will ultimately be worth the time. Bless digital photography: for all its weaknesses and the people it’s put out of work, it sure makes being an amateur a lot less expensive.

We eat lunch next to a large, full lake of pink and white birds, and are accompanied by some Andean gulls, which are seagulls with black heads. There is a little café and hotel with a sign advertising wifi, so the lone Brazilian gets very excited, and then is dismayed to learn that, ‘it is only turned on at night.’ The rest of us doubt there are even lights here at night, and the smell of the chemical toilet is so overwhelming you can’t breathe and pee at the same time, so I’m pretty sure that wifi thing is a ruse.

The Brazilian couple cuts up pieces of food and throws them into the air near the table so that the Andean gulls will fly up and form the perfect picture, and the rest of us find this highly amusing. It is so windy that we have dirt as a spice on our food (which isn’t hot dogs, but could use a little spice), but it is not cold. Garcia moves the car to try and make a wind block, but the effort is futile.

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Black-headed Andean gull, with lunch (ironically, I think it’s chicken)

A couple arrives on bikes. Reiteration: there are no actual roads. We have been driving through salt and sand for more than a day. Partly because yes, it’s fun, but mostly because THERE ARE NO ROADS.  They are not the first cyclists we’ve seen, but these have a sign on the back of one bike that says, “luna de miel,” – honeymoon – at which point I add this particular gentleman to the very long list of people I’ve decided I can never marry. I go stick my nose in their business and discover they’ve biked from Mexico and are headed to Patagonia.

We are astounded by these two and comment on them off and on for the next two hours until we stop at an unnamed rock outcropping (we haven’t climbed anything since this morning, and the natives are getting restless), where we meet a Swiss couple with two of the dirtiest children I’ve ever seen, one of whom is still wearing diapers, that have been cycling for three months and are also headed very far south.

This restless native on rocks. Swiss Family Robinson may be visible in background.

This restless native on rocks. Swiss Family Robinson may be visible in background.

If you haven’t read Part II  of this adventure, you may have missed the part where Travel Companion and I take a cab five blocks mostly because of the weight of water. If you are skimming, you may have missed multiple references to the constant velocity of wind, and the sand that is providing texture for everything from our hair to our food. I am in awe of the adventure this family is on. I forgive them for letting their five year old run around with a pacifier in her mouth. When she starts climbing up the rock face with us, both Travel Companion and I are unsure whether to encourage her or tell her parents. When she gets about six feet above ground, her father comes over and coaxes her down. Awe.

Tonight, we sleep together, our little jeep family in a large hostel room, each in his or her own bed with 14 layers of clothing. The howling wind comes in through the cracks near the window frame and threatens to lift the roof off the hostel. We are waking at 5 a.m. to see some geysers at sunrise, so we go to bed at 8:30.

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Little Jeep Family, all snug in our beds

The geysers are worth the wake-up call (which all of us heed except Garcia, who is nowhere to be found). The sun is up, but barely, gleaming on the horizon and powering through sulpheric steam…

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The sun coming up through sulpheric steam

while great hordes of tourists roam dangerously close to craters of bubbling mud that gurgle, then blast into the air.

Mud blasts off.

Mud blasts off.

There is a sign that says not to get too close, but nothing to prevent you from doing so. We ask Garcia when people have last fallen in. It was three years ago, and the man suffered severe burns on much of his body.

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Bolivian safety measures

The tour could end here. We are happy, cold, and done with the car. But there are more lakes to see, and despite having told us basically nothing about any of our locations except what they are called, Garcia would not feel he were doing his job if we were to bypass anything. So we head to the first lake we’ve seen with absolutely no flamingos. Why? Well, because the naturally occurring mineral here is arsenic.

Travel Companion and I at Arsenic Lake

Travel Companion and I at Arsenic Lake

I rename this one Arsenic Lake. It may actually be Asbestos Lake but it is lacking penguins and honestly not the best one we’ve seen so, whatever. The last is Laguna Blanca, which has such a smooth surface that it reflects the mountains of Bolivia like a mirror at the beginning of the day.

Laguna Blanca - the blank slate of lakes

Laguna Blanca – the blank slate of lakes

And then, we are done. Thirty minutes later, we are at the border. Travel Companion, Irish and I offload and go to the migration hut for exit stamps and then await the bus for San Pedro, where we hope Chile will bring a little less dirt and a lot less hair. The Brazilians change jeeps for a full-day drive back to Uyuni. Garcia drives off to upload another group of six and do the whole thing over again, and again.

On the Road, South America, Tourist, Traveling

How to Have an Adventure, Part II

I forgot the peanut butter.

In my defense, it’s not the kind of thing I’m trained to think of at 4:45 a.m., when none of the three cab companies I’ve called is picking up, and we need to get to the airport. Peanut butter is a camping staple; I’m not a camper. I’m more of an ‘I’m kinda outdoorsy but not actually skilled and currently overpacked for my round the world trip,’ kind of chick, and peanut butter is an addendum for which I’m not prepared. I will live to regret this.

Uyuni is forgettable for reasons previously mentioned. I will add only that, in our effort to find snacks to bring with us on the tour, we can find only two options. First is the local market, of which generally I’m a huge fan, mostly for photographic reasons. This one, however, has vegetables literally piled from floor to waist, most of which are potatoes and some of which I can’t identify.

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It also has very little fruit, very smelly meat counters, and cute but mangy dogs wandering through. In other words, I don’t trust this place. And Nurse Wratchet at Travel Companion’s Travel Clinic of Fear has definitely put the kibosh on – well, everything – which precludes us from consuming anything purchased in these smelly hallowed halls.

The second option is what advertises itself as a supermarket, but which is open only one of the four times we go by. It has a section called, “moldy bread.” It’s ten degrees hotter than the rest of town despite being indoors in a modern building, and is smaller than my last urban apartment. There are four types of dulce de leche in jars but no peanut butter and no loaves of non-moldy bread. When I ask two women who seem to be shopping, but who, it turns out, work there and are reorganizing shelves by putting their contents in a shopping basket and moving them around, they look flummoxed and then tell me that not only do they not have peanut butter, but there isn’t anywhere to get it in town.

We quickly pull together a number of sugar-based snacks (those of you who know me will think this would be my idea of heaven, but I’ve been eating so little sugar since I left home that half a Snickers made me high for three hours) and add six two-liter bottles of water (one each per day of tour), and get the hell out of there.

The next morning, we take a cab five blocks (Snickers bars and liters of water are heavy when added to my giant pack, Traveling Companion’s not large but very stuffed suitcase, two day packs, and the weight of our anxiety) to our guide company. It’s closed. A man comes and opens the door when he sees us standing there and then tells me to wait a minute and wanders off. A few minutes later, a woman arrives and tells me, in rapid-fire Spanish, that we are going across the street to her cousin’s tour company. “Es lo mismo – exactamente lo mismo,” she assures me.

It’s common for tour groups to be combined so that there are six people per jeep, but the bait and switch isn’t sitting well with either of us. The whole street is lined with people loading up into cars; I’d call it a military operation except for the lack of order and the abundance of unkempt hair.

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We really have no choice but to roll with it, and so we do. After about forty minutes of futzing around, we are loaded into a jeep with three Brazilians, an Irish woman, and a driver whose name is Reynaldo Garcia. When I ask him whether he prefers to be called, “Reynaldo,” or, “Senor Garcia,” I barely get the second option out before he responds, “Garcia, Garcia.” And then he says very little else for the next three days.

For the most part, we luck out. Although I have told Travel Companion four times that if the Brazilian make-out masters from across the aisle on the plane from La Paz end up on our tour, I’m pushing them out of the car in the desert, and despite the fact that two of our three Brazilians are a very affectionate couple, they are sweet both to each other and to us, and they do their making out quietly in the back seat. The Irish woman has been volunteering in Colombia for six months and is traveling down around South America on the cheap before heading home, and the other Brazilian is a quiet young tax attorney who checks for phone or wifi signal every time we stop, and otherwise keeps mostly to himself. We are blissfully free of alcoholics and chain smokers, and it seems all six of us are quite pleased to discover this. Murder in the Salar is looking less and less likely as we hop into the jeep and head out.

On the Road, Preparing, South America, Tourist, Traveling

How to Find an Adventure, Part I

Step one: Follow the advice of travelers you know peripherally, who don’t need to shower more than once a week, think sleeping in the same room with six other people is heaven, find patchouli to be a remarkably endearing scent, and may or may not want to get you into an entertaining mess.

Step two: Do not solicit advice from other, more similarly minded travelers, for whom sleeping without the hair of strangers left behind on sheets and blankets may be a priority.

Step three: go to a very much still developing country, find the least populated part of it, and hop on a tour.

Back up. Step two B: land in the highest airport in the world, spend three days taking Diamox and sucking on diesel and too little oxygen.

I believe I have mentioned this blog should have been called, “flyingbytheseatofmypants.com,” so it will not surprise you that these are the steps my shall-remain-nameless (totally fantastic) Travel Companion and I followed in planning our trip to Bolivia, whose primary purpose was to go on a salar tour. What, you ask, is that? I had the same question.

It turns out much of Southwest Bolivia used to be a great salt lake surrounded by volcanoes. Times have changed, but salt has not.  Over 4,000 square miles of the area is still a great salt field, worked manually by salineros who shovel the salt into piles, let the water (still not far below the surface of the ground) drain, then collect it in a truck and take it to be harvested and packaged for sale in Bolivia, and beyond.  A few meters below the salt lies the largest lithium field known to man, projected to contain 50-70% of the world’s lithium stores, currently in the process of being extracted to power our electronic addictions. All of this happens at close to 12,000 ft of altitude, under some of the clearest skies you’ve ever seen. They are so clear, in fact, and the white flat beneath them is so flat, that the area is used to calibrate altimeters of some Earth observation satellites.

Before we get to the tour, Travel Companion and I have to overcome a couple of obstacles. First, there is La Paz. Here, the airport is so high, it is actually called “el Alto.” All international flights seem to arrive between 2:30 and 6:00 a.m., for reasons I can’t understand, but which lead to a disproportionate number of people finding places to sleep in the small, humble airport until they can get into their hotels, hostels or onto morning flights to other places.  Lucky me, I found a random couch outside a ‘pay by the hour’ travelers’ hotel and happily took it. I donned my eye mask and ipod, and slept in cirque-de-soleil inspired contortion until six-thirty a.m. When the airport roared to life, I changed some money, grabbed a cab, and went to meet the owner of our rental apartment.

Because sometimes I am a moron, and because I was booking my Bogota – La Paz ticket when still in the midst of a severe state of travel panic (see The Terror), despite having read Travel Companion’s reservation six times, I still booked my ticket a day too early, leaving her to fend for herself (albeit with excellent instructions) to get a cab from the airport the next morning. As a result, when she showed up, I was a day ahead of her in the ‘adjusting to altitude and diesel’ environment, having spent about ten hours watching bad American HBO movies and eating peanut butter toast the day before. I’d also adjusted to Diamox side effects, like bouncing eyeballs and tingling extremities, especially hands, which make it difficult to sign your name, or unlock the apartment door.

Such is the state we were in when we headed out onto the diesel-fueled and diesel-fumed streets of La Paz to schedule the tour, at a Lonely Planet – recommended, bilingual tour agency with which I had been corresponding via email. I had been taking this whole thing casually, but my travel companion had been doing research, and she was scaring me. Apparently, it isn’t uncommon for tour drivers to be drunk the whole time they are driving. Since we didn’t want to pay $600 each for our three day tour, our driver would also be our guide and our cook. He wouldn’t be bilingual, and blog-rumor had it he would only cook hot dogs. Also, it was likely to be cold – REALLY cold – at night and we would need sleeping bags, which we didn’t have. What if, as the nurse at the travel clinic had warned her, my travel companion got typhoid? What if we had a drunk AND irresponsible driver and ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere, where no one found us until we had our own Bolivian version of “Alive” in full swing, minus the hot soccer players?

When we found the travel agency, we asked these questions as rationally and respectfully as we could. The kind agent tolerated my continuing to speak bad Spanish with her even when she answered me in English, and reminded us it wasn’t good for them if we had a bad tour. The last time they’d had a bad driver reported was in 2008. She recommended we bring some snacks and extra water, assured us we could rent sleeping bags from the agency, and booked our plane tickets to Uyuni for us. (We may not be willing to pay $600 for a better room, a bilingual guide or a cook, but we sure as shit weren’t taking an overnight bus to arrive the morning of our tour.)

Before we said goodbye, we were committed to whatever adventure we had just paid for, which would start with a 6:30 a.m. flight the next day. Unless the travel agent called to let us know it had been moved up to 5:30. In which case, we were pretty sure we weren’t going anyplace. We went to the grocery for bread and water, and returned home to our apartment for peanut butter toast.

On the Road, South America, Tourist

Cementerio de Trenes

There are really only two reasons to go to Uyuni: because you are sent there to work for a mine, or because you are touring the Salar and associated sights (see pictures here) and this is your jumping off point. It’s a shock to the system to land there unprepared. Sand is everywhere. A wind blows from far away and has no intention of stopping. It’s hot and dry in the sun and cold and dry in the shade. The food is blah, the scenery is sand-beige (except for the colorful skirts and mantels of women in traditional Aymara dress), and everything is overpriced, because everyone is trapped.

But Uyuni has a saving grace: the train cemetery.

IMG_4393While I appreciate that not everyone shares my love of a good cemetery, and maybe not my untested, purely nostalgic adoration of trains (we’ll see if I get over that in Vietnam, Morocco, or Europe…), surely most of you must agree that a train cemetery is a sight behold . If for no other reason than because it is like an adult playground for the tetanus-saavy.

Depending on to whom you speak, the origin of the cemetery is different, and I don’t know who holds the truth. Lonely Planet says the rusty, lopsided, off-track steam engines and boxcars date back to the 18th century, when there was a steam car factory in Uyuni. Wikipedia notes the name of the town itself, which wasn’t founded until the late 19th century, means, ‘the one with the pen/cemetery,” and holds to the more likely explanation for the train junkyard: Uyuni served as a distribution center for trains carrying minerals from Bolivia to the coast, starting in the late 1880s and collapsing suddenly in the 1940s due to mineral depletion.  Train cars and their engines, no longer used and suffering from exposure to, among other things, the massive amount of salt that is still harvested locally, were pulled away from the town to rot in this glorious, colorful, ghostly pile.

I had planned on walking out to the cementerio in the late afternoon, but quickly realized that, other than about four main routes in town covered in cobblestone, the rest of the roads – and I use that term loosely – in Uyuni are unpaved sand trails. Sometimes, they are nothing more than tire-worn ruts in the desert. It was completely unclear to me which way I should go, so I grabbed a cab and asked it to take me there and wait fifteen minutes, while I explored.

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Needless to say, I feel instantly in love. I had the place to myself, and late afternoon light added to the eerie beauty of this bizarre hallmark of a history potentially repeating. Uyuni is the closest city to one of the largest lithium fields on earth, which is actively being mined to charge our cell phones, cameras, and computers. It may only be a matter of time before trains are once again pulling minerals to the coast.

My cab driver thought I was a bit nuts for liking this. He doesn’t understand why tourists, many of whom showed up on their way back from Salar tours while I was still exploring, would want to see ‘junk.’ I don’t know if I explained it to him in any rational way. I told him in the US, we can’t do this; we are prevented by fences and wires and alarms. And fear. But as the days of our tour went on, I realized part of it is that as people, we just like to climb on things, and as adults, we do it far too seldom.

If traveling by train is more your style than climbing on one, you can still hop on board and make it as far as Oruro, or head toward Chile. But the truth is, wherever you take the train from here, you are likely to need to follow up with a bus or a plane, so I stuck to playing around these great spirits of a former life.

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Moving, On the Road, Preparing, Traveling

Where and When

Friends, and total strangers….

I’ve had a couple requests for my schedule, and since I’m currently more interested in whether penguins are hatching in Patagonia than how to figure out the calendar feature on WordPress, I’m hoping you all can settle for the little list of places and dates below. It’s a rough outline; as I may have mentioned lately, I realize I probably should have titled this blog, “FlyingBytheSeatofMyPants.com.”

Through November 25th:                  Chile

November 29-December 14:           Myanmar

December 14-December 22:           Cambodia

December 22-January 2:                  Vietnam

January 2 – January 5:                     Thailand (does anyone else see a problem with my ‘New Year’s on a Thai beach’ plan?)

January 6 – January 12:                   Jordan

January 13 – January 26:                 Kenya

January 31 – February 12:               Morocco

February 13 – February 20:             Spain

February 21 – March 1:                    France and Switzerland (Geneva)

March 1 – March 7:                           Amsterdam

March 8 – March 14:                         Eastern Europe TBD

March 15 – April 5:                            Turkey

Looking at it now is pure insanity and I already know how much I’ll miss the things I don’t get to because of time. It’s also pure excitement to see on a page all the amazing places I will get to experience before flying back into DFW, six months and one week to the hour after I flew in for my pre-departure visit. I will be jet lagged and travel weary and hopefully wiser and definitely ready for a Manhattan on the Tried and True patio so someone hook that up!