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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South America, Tourist, Traveling

Fun and Guns for Everyone

Day two in Bogota, I took a long look at the map in my guidebook, then ditched it and went in search of two things: the tourist kiosk in Plaza Bolivar, and the Museo de la Policia Nacional.  The first was rumored to have the best maps of the city (important in a place where, in the last two years, some – but not all –  of the street names have been changed. Now, instead of 12th-16th streets, there are streets 12a, 12b, 12c, 12d and 12 (formerly 16th) street). The second has a basement exhibition on the hunt for Pablo Escobar. Anyone who knows me knows that, as much as a good diorama, I’m a sucker for a crime story with a drug lord.

Just southeast of the Plaza Bolivar I ran into a cache of guns. Still overwhelmed by altitude, and by the fact that I had just, with very little planning, left the country for six months (though it’s difficult to say which of these caused more trouble with my breathing), I overshot the tourist mark. Guns were everywhere. Soldiers protected each building en masse. (I later learned these were the  presidential residence, presidential offices, the presidential guard battalion, that national archives, and the national observatory where the Colombian constitution was devised – all gun-worthy locations.) Cadets in camo walked in twos and threes; policia in their neon yellow pinnies monitored street corners. Federales with semi-automatics stood at the gates and driveways of sandstone buildings. A map would have been helpful here.

I turned north, hoping to head closer to the Plaza, or a tourist zone. Both sides of the street were lined with stores  geared for soldiers – or their like minded family members. Booth-sized entrances were filled with military gear for the whole family: boots, badges, and pins for the already camo-clad dad. A stylish desert camo ¾ length overcoat to get the supportive wife through the cold season.

and Camo fashion for the moms

and Camo fashion for the moms

Surely junior wants in on the action – we have camo of all shapes and sizes for your little ones.

Back to school outfits for the kiddos

Back to school outfits for the kiddos

And while you’re at it, get them a shelf full of military dolls to remind them what their future occupational options may be! It’s a family even a revolutionary could be proud of.

Police are fun!

Police are fun!

Colombia has made a concerted effort to improve the reputation of its military, and it seems to be working. The police presence is everywhere, more as information posts and beat cops than mini dictators. Bus stations, street corners, your sidewalk taco stand – all of them are monitored by pairs of policia who are more than happy to try to answer your questions.

No where are they happier to do this than in the Museo de la Policia Nacional.  Here, polyglots serve military service as tour guides, and mine, whose name was Oscar, did not disappoint. For almost two hours, he toured me through rooms with thesis projects put to use as drones and bomb detecting devices; the history of Colombian police structure and the efforts to devise a public relations – and culture – strategy to reduce the ‘dirty cop,’ reputation of the industry; the development of forensic science; a wide-ranging sample of weapons and ammo. And at last, to the hunt and capture of Pablo Escobar and other cartel leaders.

It was worth every minute. The displays were thorough but not laborious, Oscar’s English (part of which he learned in school and most of which, he told me when asked, was “empiric,”) was so close to excellent that it was an entertainment for us both when he forgot a word and we would work to discover what he was trying to say. Along the way, other English-speaking cadets would join us for a time, add their two cents, and then move on.

This being only day two, I wasn’t settled in my solitary traveler status, which now feels like a lovely bubble I can pop whenever I want out , but which I can wear as protection when need be. I couldn’t help but think of everything I saw through the eyes of family I wouldn’t  see for quite some time.

For my dad, there were homemade guns, marked by their creators or decorated to suit the discerning owner.

Homemad crafts

Homemade crafts

For my niece and nephews, there were models of helicopters, trucks and airplanes, displays of badges from police around the world, and uniforms that would make for days of good dress-up.

My nephew's xmas present...

My nephew’s xmas present…

For the architects (my family has two), models and plans of houses, towns, and even a prison that drug lords built for themselves, and the Spanish roof tile on which Escobar landed after he was shot and fell out the second-floor window. For my motorcycle-loving brother in law, Escobar’s illegally imported Harley embellished with gold and silver décor.

An embellishment on Escobar's illegal Harley

An embellishment on Escobar’s illegal Harley

There was even a horse-drawn paddy wagon occasionally converted to an ambulance when need be. It was a blissfully honest, entertaining, military mess, and I loved every bit of it.

And it was just the beginning of my second day.

For more pictures of camo and ammo, as well as the rest of my pics from Colombia, click here

South America, Tourist, Traveling, Uncategorized

Parque Tayrona

There is nothing but the heat: heavy heat, drenching  you with sweat you didn’t think was left in you. Sweat so thick it covers you with a sheen, a sheet, that stretches your clothes. It explains why, even to church, women wear tight-fit synthetic clothing – cotton is for tourists and the ignorant. The blessing of even a slight breeze that licks the water from your skin like a fan, if just for the briefest of moments.

In the jungle of Parque Tayrona, on the NE coast of Colombia, the heat is the same, but the air fresher. In the shade, noises you don’t know move like large animals lurking in dry leaves, then  turn out not to be large animals but little lizards or iguanas or chameleons. Winter is just ending – the choice is mud or muddier, or, after a couple kilometers, the exposure of the hiking on the sand – hot, and glaring, no protection from sun and giving beneath your feet so that every step you take takes back a half. I choose the shade.

If you’re looking for dry ground, follow the red ants. They are larger than any you’ve ever seen, carrying mac trucks of foliage on their backs down the insect super highway, defying gravity and other rules of physics. Watch out for tree roots that spread across the jungle floor and up its rocky walks like giant snakes, reminding you of what you hope not to see. Butterflies the size of your head, in pantones that would make LG engineers cry with envy, wrestle and settle on occasion. In the distance, you can hear the crash of the ocean you hope soon to see.

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You can’t help but think about Vietnam. You’re dripping wet with sweat and effort for only a day, with the promise of a picnic and a swim in the near future, but what was it like for those boys? To be 18, 19, from someplace in the middle, someplace like Montana, where heat doesn’t sift through your skin and boil your insides, and be sent to a blanket of weather like this, humping a pack half again your weight, things you can see the least of your terrors. That’s some thing we did. To those boys.

At the entry, where you pay the exorbitant $37.500 COL ($20USD) entrance fee  – the price of being an extranjero) – you leave an emergency phone number with the guard. “In case something happens,” he says, and then gives you a ‘tour’ of the park map, carved in wood on the side of an entrance hut, and some admonishments. “Only on a marked path….Only Sendero Arrecifes” he tells me, because that’s where I’ve said I’m going. Only since he tells you you can’t swim there, you’re going to La Piscina, a bit farther down the way. The guard seems doubtful you can do this and make it back in a day.

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Wherever the trail leads to the beach, large signs warn you not to swim. More than 100 people have been lost in the surf, they tell you. At Arrecifes, where you can rent a horse for the trip back, or spend the night, buy a drink, or a bag, or an ice-cream pop, the trail dead ends into a soup of mud and there is no choice but to hike along the beach. The path to the sand sports a sign that says 200 people have been lost at this beach. It is not suitable for swimming. And then this:

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Your fearometer tells you that this says there have been caimans spotted in the lagoon, and not to swim in it. When the path actually turns to beach, there is another sign: 100 people have been lost here. You start to wonder if the caimans were responsible for 100 between the mud and the sand.

At La Piscina, the water is so warm it barely rinses off the sweat, and yet such sweet relief. First there is no one but you, and then, by twos, by fives, some hikers, a tour group, a family. The tide is coming in; you place your things on a high rock so as not to lose them. The jungle comes right down to the ocean here – the sand is being swallowed by the sea in this cove. Waves are full of bark bits and no one cares – you just want the pretense of cooling off.

On the way home, everyone walks the other way. They are coming to spend the night in a hammock between the jungle and the sea. One night, three nights. Couples looking for a private moment, backpackers on a cheap adventure, families who want to experience this national treasure. You can’t help but wonder if their kids will be whining from heat or boredom before night falls. You walk against this tide, think you could have spent the night with a group – but not alone. Not alerting to every sound – in the jungle, that makes for a long, long night. But to sleep by the sound of the sea, the occasional smell of salt in the air– it sounds sweet, it sounds like home. Next time, you think, already planning the return.

The ants go marching….

South America, Tourist, Traveling

The Terror….the Terror

No one tells you about the terror. Everybody talks about how exciting it is, all the places you’ll see and the people you’ll meet. They talk about how your life is will change. They don’t talk about being nauseous, shaking, and feeling like you may pee your pants, simultaneously. No one warns you that you’ll get so anxious you’ll barely be able to say goodbye to your family without crying, even over the phone. Finally, I understand what people mean when they’ve been telling me for months, “you’re so brave!”  Apparently they all knew something I didn’t: this is terrifying.

Who in her right mind gives up a perfectly good job and an apartment and drives around the country for three months, then ditches dog and car and leaves the country for six? Who gives up the comfort of clean air and cotton sheets for diesel fumes and polyester? Or a nice deep tub and clean bathroom counter for a communal bathroom the size of a pea? Instead of telling me I was brave, I’m beginning to think people should have told me I was crazy. What is wrong with you people for not stopping me?!

Like all dreams, this one is currently suffering from a dose of hard reality.  The business class ticket was a good sendoff (and, dare I say, by the time I board that plane to Sydney, will be a welcome relief), and the free champagne went a long way to calm my frazzled nerves. Even Miami, which I recall being the armpit of airports, looked all spiffed up when I went out to the ticket counter to pay for a change to the Chilean leg of my plane ticket and came back through security. And Colombian customs? Uneventful, thank goodness. And then I woke up.

Now, while I walk around Bogota, the fear whispers at me like a Marlon Brando Apocalypse Now nightmare, only instead of “the horror,” it’s “the terror, the terror.”  In the newness of this one city, I am gleaning what the next six months of my life will be like: unfamiliar. Nothing to be taken for granted.  No landmarks by which to measure position or progress.

In a ten day vacation, I revel in this. Who cares about familiar food or your own bed for short periods of time? Or for that matter, being able to communicate fluidly? Isn’t half the fun of a foreign place the interaction you have while trying to engage in the completely, totally unfamiliar? Isn’t that why you leave the country?

Yesterday, negotiating something in my barely passable Spanish, I started panicking about how I will make it around Southeast Asia, where I can neither read nor speak the language. You got it: on day two of my 180 days, I started worrying about something that won’t happen until  the end of the second month. That’s day 60, for you math whizzes. And honestly, it was a pretty great day two (which I will write about later).

And so, this is how the transition goes. It is the challenge of a journey this length: how do I open my heart to this adventure without letting in too much of the fear? How do I balance the new and exhilarating with the exhaustion that comes with it? How do I learn to see today for today, and not for what it means for the next six months? My goal for Colombia is to bring myself to a place I can find comfort in being lost. I’ll let you know how it goes.

On the Road, Tourist, Traveling, Uncategorized, United States

Heaven on Earth

I’ve been thinking about heaven a lot lately, driving around the United States and finding myself fully realizing the words to ‘America, the Beautiful,’ as amber waves of grain roll by my car windows. I’ve fallen into describing the awe-inspiring landscape as “heavenly,” meaning it brings peace, visual pleasure, and possibility into my frame of visual reference, and thought. In hotels, I’ve slept on more than one ‘heavenly bed,’ some because they are branded that way, and others because they bring the possibility of sleep and the chance to unbend my frame from it’s too-frequently seated position.  And from airplanes, of course, I’ve looked down at an ocean of puffy white cotton-like clouds outside the window and thought, ‘this is what they say heaven looks like.’ Yet upon my return to Orcas (the island I’ve made home base this fall) after a few weeks away, it occurred to me that if there is a heaven on earth, it is not a place or a vision, but a smell.

Sometimes heaven smells like wet seaweed

Sometimes heaven smells like wet seaweed

Smell transcends time and place. It can carry you from where you are now to where you were when. Think about it: the smell of fresh-baked cookies – anywhere – in a home or a bakery or wafting down a street in any small town or large metropolis – any where  in the world, can pull you from the moment you are in, to another moment, possibly long ago and far away, that is anchored by the smell of warm chocolate chips and dough that sinks back to hug them as they cool on a rack, and defined by the moment of peace or hope that it brought to you back in that time and space. Isn’t that what heaven is? The transcendence of the present to a larger realm of peace and possibility?

Sometimes heaven smells like fall

Sometimes heaven smells like fall

I am a person of place. I always have been.  I engage in a place by falling in love with its landscape. When I lived on the east coast, I often longed for the west coast with its cold ocean and high foothills. I longed for the hilly streets and old Victorians of San Francisco. I longed for the stillness of this island on which I’ve spent much of the last two months, and for the serenity of the view from where I now sit – over the grass, beyond the apple trees to the sound, to Lopez Island, to the sky above it and the Olympic mountains standing guard behind. For most of my life, I have associated this anchoring, this peace, with this place. I believed, for much of  my time living in Dallas, that what made it difficult was that city had no hills, not enough trees, too much strip mall cement.

And then a week ago, I drove off the ferry, cracked my window, and was in my heavenly home. The smell of clean air, laced with sea salt and rained grass, rushed in to welcome me.  In the distance was a top-note of wood-stove burning off fall chill and deep, deep beneath it were undertones reminiscent of the sun warming sugar out of last summer’s blackberries.

Suddenly, all the smells came to me. It wasn’t San Francisco I missed when I was on the East Coast. It was the smell of old book stores filled with history and revolution. It was salt floating on fog on early mornings when I waited for the bus to work. It was eucalyptus  trees carrying their native Australia to Tennessee Valley. Strip malls weren’t the problem with Dallas. The air was. Except when it was raining, and the air was filled with the electricity of a storm, Dallas atmosphere stagnated. There was no news being brought on the wind. You couldn’t tell where the ocean was by inhaling. There was no possibility blowing through.

And so, as I prepare to leave for lands that smell of dewy mornings in thin air, of the dirt road beneath your feet, the slow burn of trash in a neighboring field, the diesel of combis and collectivos that roar by, I’m taking some time to absorb this heaven. Lying in bed last night with a rain pounding wind down through the alder and rushing the scent of leaves and water through the roof eaves to where I lay, I inhaled deeply and held my breath, absorbing just a little bit of heaven on earth to bring with me on the road.

Heaven is the smell of true north

Heaven is the smell of true north