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.

image

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.

IMG_5517

Moving, South America, Traveling, Uncategorized

How It Happens

This is how it happens, then. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, things fall into place.

La Plaza de Villa de Leyva

La Plaza de Villa de Leyva

You leave the city for a smaller town. You ride the bus, watch the countryside change. You walk around, find a park, watch a family playing basketball in the twilight. Multiple generations – the girls mostly, their father, mother, and grandmother. You head to the plaza, buy a latte, and sit on the steps of the  church while evening services sing out the door. You watch a procession carry the virgin around the plaza, down a street. She doesn’t come back until the next day.

While sightseeing, you get caught in the downpour and don’t mind. You run into the owner of the comedor where you failed to consume the menu del dia because you couldn’t make the food go down the tunnel of knotted nerves that used to connect to your stomach.  She comments that you are wet, you’ve been caught in the rain. She invites you back for another try. You have just the soup, this time, so you don’t waste food.  And it’s perfect. Fresh, warm, filling. Your appetite has returned. When you pay, she lets you know the next day’s menu, so you can plan ahead.

Outside, the workmen leveling the cobblestone street – by hand, digging up the stones and rearranging them in a less treacherous fashion – are back to work. As you walk by, one raises his pick jokingly, as if to hit his coworker on the head. You notice and you laugh out loud, which makes all of them laugh with you.

This dude did NOT like when I got too close to one of his ladies

This dude did NOT like when I got too close to one of his ladies

You don’t care that you walk all the way to the ostrich farm and find it closed. Instead, you take a picture of a cow, and an oriole, and talk to a guy who’s twenty feet up a telephone pole hanging wire. You don’t mind when you find a little scorpion in the bathroom; you just put on your flip flops and do some thinking. You take a nap and listen to the second rainstorm of the day. After, a woman scrubs water down a large street with a very small broom.

in case there was ANY question...

In case there was ANY question…

You see some fossils. The town is small enough that you run into everyone again – the lunch lady, the coffee lady, the guy you asked for directions – and they all want to know how the fossils were. They want to know If you liked the ancient stone structure like Stonehenge (only not, only smaller, only tiny and completely phallic – so how do you tell them you thought it was great without sounding like a perv?) and if you’re coming by later, for coffee, for lunch.

When you return to the Bogota, the city is more familiar. You get off at the right bus stop. You see landmarks where you change to the express. You sit through rush hour and laugh with the woman next to you when everyone, already packed like sardines, gets pushed a little more in places that aren’t pushable. What else is there to do?

This is how it happens, then. How the unfamiliar becomes familiar. How the nerves recede, for now. How you let the world in.

To see more pictures of my travels in Colombia, click here

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, Uncategorized

Are YOU My Cemetery?

Sea Stacks in Bandon

I’m chasing my ancestors down the path of their history, backwards through the towns they settled along highway 42 in Oregon. The route wraps around the south side of the Coquille river, starting with the warm fog that twists its way around sea stacks in Bandon and heads into Pleasant Valley, where the sun blinks through overcast skies.

My goal is to visit the graves of my grandmother and her family before tearing north on I-5 to make the 9 pm ferry for the San Juan Islands. But a 20-year absence from this part of the country and a couple well-placed questions from my mother have got me reinventing that kids book I used to read in kindergarten, “Are You My Mother?” Instead of a bird asking every living animal or machine if I belong to it, I’m a human screeching off the highway every time I see a sign for a cemetery.

“Are YOU my cemetery,” I asked this morning, after taking a hard left and tiptoeing through the remains of Coquille, to arrive at the Masonic Cemetery. Coquille’s main street looks like a movie set – a stately bank, sculpted storefronts, and too many empty windows in front of which few people move.  The cemetery is so small and non-descript I couldn’t believe the Masons claim it. I u-turned illegally in front of the high school marquee announcing registration dates and head back to 42, conspicuous in my dirty black foreign wagon with the Texas plates.

“Are YOU my cemetery,” I asked again, outside Coquille, when a cemetery sign pointed up a small hill to the Myrtle Crest Memorial Gardens. The hill and quiet atmosphere were promising, but the cemetery was new and compact, one small loop of road with grave markers on either side, and four groundsmen tending to the sprinkler system. One moved his truck out of the one lane so I could get by without running over the dead, and while I headed back down the hill I thought it must be true what they say: the only two things you can count on are death and taxes, and the death part is an increasing certainty in this part of the country, where the land is what you count on, and there isn’t much else.

View of Pleasant Valley from Norway Cemetery

In my memory, at least, MY cemetery sits high on a hill with a view of the valley and a two lane road winding beneath it. There are pine trees, and graves from the last century, and an A&W not far down the road. I remember thinking the last time I was here that this wouldn’t be such a bad place to spend eternity. But things have changed. The winding two lane road is now a six lane arterial, and the town of Norway, which I believe is where MY cemetery is located, doesn’t show up on my iphone map. Still, the road winds on. To the left, hills rise and fall, and to the right, the valley lies down, throwing up a lumber mill, new or abandoned, or a dairy farm, from time to time.

The Chandlier Drive-Thru Tree

They know what they are doing here, and they’ve been doing it for more than a century. Sheep and cattle graze the flat lands, timber is cultivated and felled on the mountains, and milled beside the busier transport roads. Always, trees are left bundled and tall along the most visible pathways, as if the pine curtain can hide a naked mountain of clear cut, or the low bush where trees begin to grow back, only to be cut again in how many years? 40? 50? Nothing will replace those that came down a century ago – like the ones along the Avenue of the Giants I drove yesterday on my way up California. There are no more “Drive Thru Trees” being grown, no more “One Log House.”

Mechanical memories of yesteryear

Mechanical memories of yesteryear

While I am gaping yet again at a truck cab speeding past, hauling his own back half on his mid section, the empty hitch and fork of a logging truck without the load, I see another cemetery sign out the corner of my right eye. As it registers, the turn-off passes on the left, blurred by the roadside leftovers dancing in the wake of the Mac cab. I take the next opportunity to pull off the main drag and circle back on old 42, slow, narrow, littered with mechanical memories of yesteryear. This is the southern Oregon I remember. This is my America.

Welcome to Norway Cemetery

I miss twice before making the turn. The new road is up ten feet higher than the old one. To get up the cemetery hill, you must first go down into a rut. “Historic Norway Cemetery,” the sign welcomes. Then validates, “circa 1875.” My grandmother and great aunts, their parents and aunts and uncles are where they were left.  The view is little changed, though the trees slightly overgrown. A lone gardener tends to some of the grave sites.

I sit with my family, have my communion with the dead. The dog chooses my great-great uncle’s stone as a cool place to lay his head on a heating day. I update everyone on my sisters, my niece and nephews, who looks like whom and acts like who else. I sit in silence and look at the valley, then wander around the gravesites of pioneers. And then I head out, communion finished, twist back down  to the new 42, and speed past the A&W to head north.

IMG_3039

On the Road

Why Worth Packing In?

Road Tripping - Diamond Lake, 1968

Road Tripping – Diamond Lake, 1968

My grandparents were excellent travelers. They thought nothing of packing up the car like an ancient tetris game and heading out into the world from their Bay Area home base. In 1956, it was not uncommon  for them to put my mother and uncle, their ‘spinster’ aunt, and Bronco the dog in the car and head up the coast to Oregon to check on the maternal family dairy farm, to Carmel for lunch and sandcastles on the beach, to the Sierras for camping and trout fishing, or to Arizona, Chicago, and later, the East Coast, where my mother was in college. Along the way, they managed to find Hopi ruins, Chicago’s greatest hauftbrauhaus, California’s widest redwoods – the best of what their world had to offer, without a guidebook.

Continue reading