Africa, Tourist, Traveling

In Love For All the Wrong Reasons

It is possible that no one has ever landed in Kenya as completely ignorant as I. I had a reservation for one night in Nairobi, a vague idea of what a taxi should cost to get to the hotel, and a plane ticket to Mombasa the next day. I met my original Travel Companion (you may have read about TC here) for the Mombasa flight; once we landed, I threw myself at the mercy of a local.  And I loved it.

Here are the right reasons to love Kenya:

The water – even from the faucet – is salty and reminds you of earth. The earth is red and rich and reminds you of life blood. The ocean is vital and as vibrant as the birds, which are colorful and loud.

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Everyone greets you with, “jambo,” and though it feels touristy, you say it back. They greet one another with “mambo,” a handshake and words to catch up. Rules are made on the spot. Once, they were written, by someone, somewhere, who has no bearing on the situation you may be in, and so there is improvisation. You are patient. You move slowly. You work it out. You finish with ‘sawa, sawa,’ and then you move on. It is the interaction that is the rule, not the rule itself.

Get in a fender bender, and you'll find out how fast the rules change from one police station to the next...

Get in a fender bender, and you’ll find out how fast the rules change from one police station to the next…

The air is hot and carries the smell of burning rubbish. But it is moist, and turns the plants green, keeps the clothes you wash by hand damp on the line. The chickens peck the yard; don’t forget to close the kitchen door when you go out to do the laundry, or you will find the counters covered in hens when you return.

In Tsavo, there has been rain: good for the land, bad for the animal spotting. The cheetah can slink through the golden grasses almost unseen. Dik dik, impala, buffalo move slowly against green brush, under trees. Superb starlings and lilac-breasted rollers flit above them, racing from power line to tree branch and back again. Giraffe necks rise above the horizon. Elephants cover themselves in red dirt to protect their skin from the sun and stand out in the open. Hippos slide low in the water, hiding all but their eyes. The zebra….the zebra have no hope of camouflage.

The zebra have no where to hide.

The zebra have no hope of camouflage

In the pickup truck, it is hot with the windows up and dusty with them down. But it is quiet, except for the toto, Evelyn, who entertains herself by playing angry birds and finding Waldo in the back seat. She has made Travel Companion her personal mascot, and goes nowhere without her. You are merely a divining rod for TC’s location in her eyes.

The toto surveying the waterhole.

The toto surveying the waterhole.

In the evening, looking out over the watering hole, there are cokes and conversation, maybe a beer. You are hoping for a lion. You do not need a shirt that announces you saw ‘the Big Five;’ you will take in everything available and cherish it. But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t like to see them.

When night falls, when most have gone to sleep and you sit by the fire and talk to the night guard about the lion who comes into camp after the day is finished, the air pulling in moisture before a hot day rises again, you make him promise to wake you, no matter what time, if the beast comes back. And when he comes for you, you will be thrilled with terror, wrapped in a kikoi on the porch of your tent, listening to the chortle of the beast’s breath pacing the outskirts of the tent line. The king sounds like a stallion heaving off a heated race, but all he does is seek, and leave. You never see him, but you feel the sound of his breath imprinted in your memory.

After, south down the coast, the air still and heavy until the afternoon moves the water hurridly toward the shore, your mind swimming with the bodies and colors of Tsavo, the whydahs and kingfishers and weavers and bee-eaters and hornbills, your body goes swimming down with the fish.

Swimming with fishes (photo credit: Sander den Haring)

Swimming with fishes (photo credit: Sander den Haring)

Between dives, you float on the dhow or watch dolphins swim. These are the right reasons to love Kenya.

Dolphins of dhow bow.

Dolphins off dhow bow.

Here are the wrong ones:

  • The twelve days I spent in and around Mombasa were the longest I’ve gone without getting on a plane since I left the states on October 16th. Instead, our fantastic hosts delivered us from one amazing experience to another, with the help of friends and family. For twelve days, I knew no strangers; only new friends. I was allowed to yield all logistical decision making to someone who knew what he was doing. My mind has not known such rest in quite some time.
  • Kenya was a land for firsts. My first scuba dive – a momentous event as I have found the idea of trying to breathe underwater so disturbing I long ago negated the possibility of such activity ever occurring with me involved. But in Kenya, I looked up to see the sun break through the surface of salt water. Kenya was also the home of my first left-side-of-the-road, right-side-of-the-car (left-handed stick-shift) driving adventure.
    About to set out on a right-side of the car, left-side of the road driving adventure.

    About to set out on a right-side of the car, left-side of the road driving adventure.

    Despite the trip involving a disturbing number of wrong-direction rotaries (excuse me – roundabouts), TC and I successfully survived to tell the tale (and post a video).

  • We all know the Dutch just jumbled German, French, and English and called it something new. As its own language, it’s a jumbled mess, but a native Dutch speaker communicating in something other than Dutch makes a sount of equal and opposite beauty. An accented, calm, “sawa, sawa,” or little Evelyn’s sing-song as she calls your name to ask, ”where is TC’”– is something with which my ears fell instantly in love. (The jury is still out on the word “lekker,” which is along the lines of, “tasty,” but sounds like something bad is about to occur.)
  • Swahili. I went to throw something out one day and found that the word for trash is “Taka taka”How can you not love that? Or “toto” for the little ones? So foreign to my ears, but such a smooth sound, even rapid fire, with consonants.

    One person's trash is another person's takataka

    One person’s trash is another person’s takataka

These are the wrong reasons to love a place, because these are reasons this place was easy. Kenya isn’t easy. It is full of struggle – for water, for livelihood, for a very small piece of the pie. It is a place of matatus with names like “Love Bomb,” “Delta Force,” and “Dreamz of Money,” driving between you, at you, around you while riders hop on and off. It is a place where Friday mornings are reserved for riots, and Europeans still fly straight in to four star resorts where first the shower doesn’t drain, then the door doesn’t lock, then the toilet doesn’t flush, for a week away from winter.  And still, they never leave the compound. Kenya is a place where boys stand in traffic to sell you oranges, and if you are stuck too long, they may just steal your luggage from the trunk. It is a place of wonder, of amazement and awe, and of hard work, brutality and beauty. I loved Kenya for mostly the wrong reasons, but I will return for the right ones.

 

For more pictures of my trip to Kenya, click HERE

 

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Life Skills, On the Road, Traveling

About a Girl

It will shock no one to know that the blog essay, “Don’t Date a Girl Who Travels,”  (originally posted in May 2013 and recently picked up by Huffington Post and Thought Catalog, among others) has been sent my way a number of times in the last few weeks. Always, the sender noted that s/he was thinking of me, out here wandering the world, living  out my own wildest dreams, and a few of theirs as well.

I kept it to myself that I find the essay totally offensive. After all, I was in Africa when it began arriving. Who cares about bad writing and publicity politics when there are cheetahs to track?

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Cheetahs that were tracked

Then I  was tagged in someone’s Facebook share of the article and a commenter included a link to a response that upgraded the original to something more than drivel. By that time, I was in a riad in Fes, only mildly interested to discover a hullabaloo on the internet about the original post, and a number of responses, many of which are equally superficial. Since the subject, via link, or comment, or email, has continued to come my way, I will take a solitary Madrid afternoon minute to tell you what I think.

How can I care about silly HuffPost politics when my riad room looks like this?!

How can I care about silly HuffPost politics when my riad room looks like this?!

If poor writing were the crux of the issue, I would snark and move on. But it isn’t, though that certainly led readers astray. Weak structure fails the satirical tone of the piece and readers are left unable to determine whether the author seriously thinks that a girl who travels, “doesn’t plan or have a permanent address…Chances are she can’t hold a steady job.” Or, as I think is her intent, does the author mean that someone who travels is independent, craves new experience, and prioritizes a travel opportunity over security?

Stephabroad.com addressed this in her rewrite, which took the original premise and turned it proactive, returning some ownership of the girl and her desires to the girl herself. Rather than focus on aging skin and instability, or try to convince a guy that it’s ok the traveler won’t go clubbing with him, Stephabroad notes how diligently the traveler seeks the world and what there is to learn in it, and how compatible that makes her with someone who shares these values, if not her habits. Written as it is, this version gives the girl credit for volition and experience.

And yet I still take umbrage:

This is not a girl about whom we speak. It is a woman. And we should all be less afraid of calling her such. She deserves it. In all versions of the piece, this protagonist makes her own money. She makes her own reservations. She carries her own pack and walks home at night down unfamiliar streets.

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A sort of dark and very unfamiliar street in Marrakech

On a regular basis, she makes decisions of calculated risk that would make a wall street trader cower. Her life is a gamble of safety and adventure, joy and sorrow, experience, loss, and gain. She who has hugged a foreign and likely filthy toilet bowl for a long night of purging the wrong market stall of food from her system, and survived to hop the next bus is no  longer a girl, she is a woman. She who holds her head high while a carpet dealer discusses the sharmouta who won’t buy, and lets that not dampen her opinion of the country she explores is not a girl, she is a woman. And she deserves the respect of being called such.

The semantic error – and our constant fear of addressing it – underlies a larger cultural issue with the piece: even when heralding the independence of a woman, the author can’t think of anything more original than a traditional gender paradigm (dating) to evaluate the worth of her gender. She is trying to convince men not to be afraid of her, and her ‘shortcomings’ which may make her slightly less palatable in traditional roles.

Are you kidding me with this?

Here’s a piece of news for you: the chick who travels doesn’t give a shit whether you want to date her. You don’t get to make this choice on her behalf. She already knows that, if you need convincing, you aren’t the one she wants. This life she lives is about the choices she makes, the work she puts in, the desires she chases. It’s not about convincing a traditional world to figure out how to accept her. The original writer knows this – she is a former corporate employee who took a career break and is now a surfer and yoga teacher. She just isn’t able to write it.

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The chick who travels, chasing her desires above the cloud cover in the High Atlas (photo credit: Paul Allen)

Unlike that original writer, I don’t speak for all women who travel. I speak for no one but myself, and here is my response: I am a woman, and I don’t want to be dated. I want to be adventured with. I want a man who can see the way the blue of an iceberg nuzzling against the shore of a lake in Torres del Paine thrills me to wondered stillness, and respect that being my moment of reflection. Sometimes, we will share these moments of awe. And sometimes, we will mutually appreciate them afterwards, in a warm pub over beer, and they will be no less valued. Awe, travel experience, and love can all be separate and equal.

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Iceberg blue in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

This article fails to recognize that part of the impetus to explore the world stems in part from dissatisfaction with the roles available to one at home. It isn’t just in countries where shariah prevails over women to wrap their hair in scarves that opportunity lacks. In the US and in many developed countries, social paradigms and their resulting power structures fail to recognize that women aren’t paperdoll cut-outs. Women who travel refuse to be tab-folded and dressed in outfits suitable for a  given occasion. (Although, like a paper doll, I have about six outfits in my wardrobe right now…) And so we take a chance to look around the world first-hand and see what our other options may be.

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Looking around (and under) the world for options (photo credit: Sander den Haring)

When I was young, my father used to tell me, “a girl without freckles is like a night without stars.” It is a sweet sentiment, when you are young. Now that I am on the night side of 40, I am endeared to the saying out of nostalgia, but the language, like that article, is problematic, because I am not a girl, and I don’t want to be evaluated on the basis of my face. My aged face, full of freckles, is in fact like a night sky full of stars, lit from within by a fire that started burning long ago, both fed and drained by travel across time and space. Its origin may be long gone, may be darkened by forces we won’t see in this lifetime, but in its present, it is brilliant and magical and strong enough to navigate oceans.

I am a woman, and this fact is more than just the failed semantics of a Huffpost article. It is a lifetime in the making. A lifetime of experience, of love, of adventure and heartbreak and bruises and bad train rides and good break ups and difficult jobs and random rewarding encounters. It is hard work and joyful leisure to be a woman, and regardless of who may or may not want to date me, regardless of who wants my journey for his own, I have my soul full of fires, lit over a lifetime. You can take that, or leave it, you decide. I’ll decide whether you are worth dating – or reading. Right now, I have a plane to catch.

Creating bruises

Creating a day of adventure and bruises.

Asia, South America, Tourist, Traveling

The Happy Room

The restroom. The WC. Toilet. Powder room. Bathroom. It has a million uses and a million euphemisms, and nothing will make you feel farther from home than being so confused about how  or where to handle your basic bodily functions that you are afraid to pee.

My favorite bathroom nickname accompanied with one of the nicest places I’ve stayed. On a junk boat in Bai Tu Long Bay, our guide repeatedly reminded us, before we headed out for a kayak or hike, to go to, “the happy room.” It elicited giggles, until one guy went to the happy room erected near the cave where we ate Christmas Eve dinner and hit his head so hard on the rock ceiling that he bled for two hours. Not so happy.

Twenty years ago, I learned the hard way what to expect from plumbing in the developing world. Nothing teaches you to appreciate the luxuries of home quite like having to crawl out of a sleeping bag in the middle of the night, put on two extra layers of clothing and your hiking boots, and race outside in 15-degree weather to have multiple bouts of diarrhea in a dirty outhouse. What I hadn’t expected, on this journey, was to find report-worthy bathrooms before I even left the relative haven of the United States.

On I-8, so far down the state of California that a random border patrol outpost pops up out of nowhere,  I pulled over at a rest stop between the east-and west-bound segments of the highway. There is a special place in hell for this chemical toilet positioned near a neglected, overflowing dumpster surrounded by more red ants than I could find in the state of Texas, and quite a few large bees.

Conversely, in southeast Wyoming, just off I-25, oil dollars have developed a rest stop complete with dinosaur fossils, dioramas on the history of Wyoming, and the cleanest highway-side bathroom I’ve seen.  In Wallace, Idaho, a town familiar to those who’ve read The Big Burn, a large green area with outdoor exhibitions on mining and logging, the history of the town, and a lovely playground is sabotaged by a metal toilet-tank combo, the likes of which I believed only exist in prisons. Clean, but depressing nonetheless.

Let’s be honest: the issue isn’t ambiance. It’s sewage. Like most of life’s unpleasant aspects, sewage is something best put out of sight and out of mind. In much of the developing world, where things are turned inside out, sewer systems are close to nonexistent. Necessity being the mother of invention, this leads to some creative ways to handle every day need.

The key to getting around plumbing problems in places with little infrastructure is to reduce waste. No toilet paper goes in the toilet. Instead, it goes in a waste bin next to the toilet. The only place I’ve intentionally flushed any toilet paper in the last three months is on an airplane – which makes business class seem even classier. The more common solution to this problem is just to not use toilet paper. Problem solved. One problem, anyway – and another presented. How does one…clean up? The answer is: water.

Water, you ask? What do you mean, water?

Here, we have two choices. The manual method is the bucket of water with a scoop/cup which you use to clean yourself. The ‘automated’ method – think mobile bidet – is a sprayer like that which may be on the side of your kitchen sink, used in theory to clean yourself.

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In practice, by the unpracticed, this tool frequently leads to an entertaining mess. If you are lucky. If you are unlucky, it leads to an entertaining mess on your clothes. Neither of these methods leaves you dry – an obvious point I feel the need to mention.

Honestly, one should never assume that there will be anything useful in the bathroom. If you want toilet paper, carry your own. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how seldom I’ve had to pull mine out of my bag  on this journey. As a result, I’m still carrying around part of a very high-grade roll of Charmin pilfered from a friend’s apartment in Dallas.  You should also never count on having anything with which to wash or dry your hands. I’m ok with being that horrible tourist with the hand sanitizer. I’m not afraid of germs; I’m afraid of typhoid. As a consequence, I’m also still carrying the same container of hand-sanitizer I brought with me from the states.

While I’m being frank, one should also never assume there will be a toilet in the happy room. Don’t worry – you can still be happy. A squatty, in a lot of instances, is actually cleaner than a western toilet. Especially if you are in places where people aren’t going to sit on it anyway – or where, as is frequently the case in Asia, they have to be reminded not to stand on it.

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None of this addresses what happens with what goes in the toilet. In many places I’ve seen, much of the plumbing is actually not hidden in the walls. The sink and the bathtub (a rarity) may drain out of a pipe and into the drain on the floor.IMG_5610

The same will be true of the shower, if it’s actually a separate section of the bathroom. More likely is that it will be a showerhead coming out of the bathroom wall, and should there be toilet paper provided for you, you’d best remember to remove it from the room before accidentally turning it to paper-mache material by turning the shower on in its presence.

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But what of the actual sewage? I have mentioned that in some places, it is actually running right beneath the sidewalk, as an unfortunate misstep may reveal. In other locations, nothing’s left to the imagination: it’s simply running out from beneath the outhouse. For example:

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Occasionally, you can get the same thing with a much nicer view:

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Or this, where you simply squat over the ditch with water that runs through it…and I honestly don’t want to know where it goes.

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More disturbing were the outhouses I saw at the floating villages on Inle Lake, which is also ‘famous’ for its floating gardens, which yield tomatoes, cucumbers, and watercress offered in every restaurant in the vicinity.

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I ate the tomatoes. They aren’t Washington State heirlooms in August by any stretch, but they didn’t taste like their fertilizer. One of many small blessings I’m counting while I wait to see what entertaining plumbing Africa has in store for me.

Asia, Tourist, Traveling

Bagan Bandit – Barely

When I get to the bottom of the temple steps, the hotel staff is waiting for me. Two of them, boys almost, have followed me here on their motorbike, determined I owe them for one of my five nights in their hotel. A night for which I paid online, three days ago.

We have had this conversation already once today, at 5:25 a.m., when I asked them to call the taxi that was ten minutes late. The sun only rises once a day, and this was my last chance to see it in Bagan. I was not willing to wait patiently while the light rose through the morning mist that hangs over the temples and sugar cane. Instead of calling the taxi, they started sifting through a registry notebook.

“Is the phone number for the taxi in this book,” I asked, smiling, in my English which is broken from conversing with non-native speakers for weeks on end. It is unfair to speak grammatically proper English when you are talking to people who only know half the words (which is of course many more than my two words of Burmese). The remainder just get in the way, so I’ve learned to take them out. It reduces confusion to a tolerable level for both parties. “I get you phonebook,” I ask, pointing to the phonebook, never used, on the lobby table.

Bagan phone book

Bagan phone book

“Yes, yes, taxi coming. And you pay for the night of the 11th?”

“I’m sorry?” It’s what has replaced ‘excuse me,’ in Myanmar. For everything.

And so the conversation went, the poor clerk, speaking to me in his five available English phrases, both of us trying to be polite while not giving ground.  I explained that I had paid, online, on Agoda, just like all the other nights.

Not only did I pay, but I gave the day manager the reservation number. My name was on the welcome board outside the door that day, though I was already riding a bike through a countryside of red temples, covered in dust and sweat, flipping off my flops at the bottom of steep temple stairs whenever I could to climb to their tops, wander their hallways, kneel in front of their giant sandstone and gold leaf Buddhas and ask for a little wisdom or peace.

Red temples in the country

Red temples in the country

I promised him that I did not owe him any money.  And then I pointed to the whiteboard on the wall where it was clearly written in Burmese from the night before: 5:15 to Buledi for sunrise, 8:00 a.m. to airport for room 501.

Room 501 for sunrise pickup

Room 501 for sunrise pickup

And then I lost my composure, and said he needed to call the taxi right now because my friend was waiting and the sun was coming up. And it scared him, so he did.

We made the temple for sunrise.  We stayed for two hours, climbing up the steps in pitch black and watching the mist creep, the light change, the hot air balloons rise above us with a loud, repetitive hiss of helium. We listened while fifteen Chinese shutters went off repeatedly, watched professional amateurs with tripods set up shots, joked about gently nudging them over the ledge to get them out of our own photographic frames.

The cold air turned warm with the appearance of orange on the horizon and at last, we decided we were ready to climb down, get some coffee, and move on from temples to lake, and that is how we found ourselves standing by the taxi with the hotel staff, holding two of my three reservation receipts and convincing me I owed them for the middle.

Travel Companion's rendition of me being captured by hotel staff at our taxi

Travel Companion’s rendition of me being captured by hotel staff at our taxi

They won’t budge. I promise them it would not be good for me either, to owe them money. I get their email so I can forward them my reservation number. They point at my phone and tell me to get it for them, but what can I find them, at a temple? I have no internet, no phone service here. Travel Companion mentions we should go back the ten minutes to the hotel and use their internet to get the number, put this whole thing to rest. And so we do. On the way, I begin to question myself.

Maybe I didn’t really make the reservation? With all the problems with the promised free wifi that goes out for ten of every twenty minutes….with the rainstorm that knocked out the power and added a welt to the already buckling ceiling of my room …maybe I didn’t feel motivated to add another $43 to my tab?

At the hotel, the wireless isn’t working. The day manager is there and I remind her I stood in front of her and gave her the booking number. Maybe it isn’t so nice to tell me I am lying? They invite me into the office to use their computer.

I take off my shoes and enter. I try to load web pages that move at the speed of a 1996 dial up connection. One of the young men from the temple stands over my shoulder, waiting. The others huddle in reception, flipping through pages of registration receipts. And then I hear it. From the young man who was so determined in the temple.

“Oh shit.”

I close the internet browser, push back my chair, and walk out of the office. “Thank you,” I say. “Chi-zu-be.” And I go to have my coffee, and fly away.

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.