Asia, Middle East and Africa

Wadi Wadi, We Like to Party

Everybody’s got to make a living. It’s a simple fact that breeds an annoying amount of value-less interactions between total strangers in countries around the world. Tourists have needs, and anyone looking to make a buck will try to fill them. In the developing world, the volume of these interactions multiplies – but so does their value.

In Nepal, in India, in Bolivia, Colombia, Vietnam– you can’t get out of an airport without a taxi tout offering you a ride. He isn’t the driver – he’s the guy that gets the driver who only speaks the local language situated with a client. He gets the address of your destination, does the bargaining, puts you in a car, but then, he’s gone. You can repeat this with any mode of transport – the boat tours in Inle, the bike rentals in Hoi An, the motos in Phnom Penh – it’s the universal system of transport bargaining when a language barrier is involved.

In Myanmar, in Cambodia, in Thailand – walk near any monument, temple, or attraction and someone will be there to sell to you – postcards, sir? Sandals, buddhas, hand-made paper, bamboo wallets, souvenir t-shirts, sand paintings, Chinese waving happy cats? You need change money? Anything they can find that might interest you in the very least will be there. “Just for looking,” they invite. “No have to buy.” Don’t bother climbing a temple at sunrise to try to escape; a good salesperson knows exactly where the tourists are, and will be there with his paintings before the light clears the horizon.

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Money changing booth at the temple in Mandalay (just in case you need to buy something)

Restaurant owners place their touts in the doorways. “Mingalaba,” they call in Bagan, as you try to bike by without crashing into them. “Massage? Pedicure,” they suggest outside spas on the streets of Saigon, handing a brochure across your path while you walk. The same tout from the same spa will come at you multiple times in a day. You are anonymous potential.  In Hanoi, try not to touch anything you aren’t 100 percent sure you’d like to buy – they say ‘just looking’ but they mean just buying, and dirty looks (or worse words) may be thrown in your direction.  But in Jordan….in Jordan, things are different.

In Jordan, all of it – the touts, the bargaining, the day to day crap of life that must be negotiated in a fashion fit to exhaust those of us who are accustomed to set prices and developed logistics – in Jordan, all of it is a joy. You will not offend by saying no. You will just elicit an escalating entertainment of pitches.

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No, thank you, I don’t want to ride through Petra on your donkey. “Why not?” I like to walk. I’ll use my legs.

“Four legs, madam. Donkey have four legs. Better than two.”

“Walk? You not so fat you need to lose weight.”

“You worry about money? Happy hour price!”

“Taxi, madam?”

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You keep walking down the Siq, past the Treasury, to see the tombs. “You drop something, madam,” a kid will call. In Central and South America, be very wary – this is the beginning of a ploy to distract you while someone else steals your camera, your money. In Jordan, in Petra in particular, it’s the beginning of a joke.

“Madam, you drop something!”

“Me?”

“You, madam,” the child will respond, pointing toward the ground behind you. At some point, despite your better traveler judgment, you will turn around and look. The child will giggle, his friends will join in, and someone will call, “your smile, madam! You dropped your smile!” It makes no sense. It isn’t even that funny, and yet they have so much fun doing it, you have to laugh with them. You also have to laugh because they will remember you.

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Don’t think for one minute that you are an anonymous tourist in Petra. Don’t think that just because it gets over 600,000 each year, you can’t be identified. That kid who speaks to you, who asks you, “where you from, Madam,” on your way into the site in the morning, he could have asked you the same in Italian, Spanish, Russian, French, Portuguese. But he sees you, sizes you up, nationality included, and when you leave later on, he will say goodbye in the language that is yours. He will recall a joke he told you, or an exchange you shared, earlier in the day.

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Feel free to get a little cheeky – the kids enjoy it. If you respond to “where you from,” with the same question back, “and you, my friend, where YOU from,” the answer will not be ”Jordan,” or, “Wadi Musa,” or, “the Bedouin village.”  The answer will be, smiling, “from my mother!”

Don’t misunderstand, you are economic potential. But in Petra – maybe in much of Jordan – the rapport is a prerequisite. Tea first – tea with so much sugar it’s almost a syrup – Bedouin whiskey, they joke – tea is first. A chat. And then – then whatever is coming will come.  “We have tea, then maybe you look at my shop. If you like something, you buy it.” Or it will be time to haggle over the price of a camel ride, or a jeep trip through Wadi Rum, or the aba you see the ladies wearing and think you may want to take home with you.  But first the tea, the talking, the laughter. Because in the wadis, life may be hard (living in a cave, or the desert – it isn’t easy, even if it is full of beauty), but it is also full of joy. And if you come to see the scenery, you must take in the joy as well. And that, for free, you may take home.

For more pictures of my time in Jordan, click here.

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Asia, Tourist

Myanmania

Everyone is flocking to Myanmar. They want to see what there is to see before it crumbles to the ground and is replaced by progress, westernization, and tall gleaming buildings. They better hurry.

Myanmar Embassy Visa Services in Bangkok

Myanmar Embassy Visa Services in Bangkok

Yangon is crumbling beneath your feet. The earth is coming to take back what is hers: the colonial buildings are beginning to hide behind the trees that grow out of their walls four stories up, and the mold that covers their vibrant colors in a patina of black. On ground level, gleaming electronics stores filled with Bravia flat screens and ASUS laptops are built out in glass and tile, clean and modern. One story up, laundry hangs to dry over balcony railings.

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It doesn’t matter if the earth takes back the buildings, because life in Asia happens on the street. Sidewalks are packed with stalls and tables – little plastic tables in primary and pastel colors, set with metal teapots and waiting for customers, looking like a child’s tea party is about to take place. As suddenly as evening falls, the tables fill with people eating, drinking, pulling their day to a close, or their night to a warm beginning. In the smaller streets, not just eating, but dressing, cleaning, a street shave and a quick brush of the teeth. The country is turned inside out.

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Waiting for lunch customers in the market, Yangon

Watching the SEA games on the street in Mandalay

Watching the SEA games on the street in Mandalay

The sidewalk itself, when not covered with business, is also being taken back. The thick cement squares that fit together like blocks are tilting, breaking apart and be careful what lies beneath – the interlocking tiles cover the sewage canal, and you definitely don’t want to fall in. In some places, no sidewalk at all, nothing but the dirt, dust piled high, the earth coming back to claim some territory against the base of a new glass skyscraper. Always, someone fighting back against it, creating a modicum of order with the world’s tiniest broom.

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The sidewalk, crumbling beneath your feet.

In the temples, the fight is constant, even with no shoes on. One day a week, Sule Paya is doused in water and the dirt is swept down the drain by volunteers. It creates a torrent of grime, and a slick danger zone if you happen to visit at that hour. At Shwedagon, each evening sunset is followed by a ritual of orderly sweeping: rows of women fanning out from the stupa like spokes of a wheel, set in motion by a coach and timed to perfection. Photographed to perfection as well (by tourists, with bigger lenses and more aggression than I). Mandalay Hill….well, just plan on scrubbing your feet well after you make it back down.

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The sweeping ritual at Shwedagon Paya

Even the money is a battle between the old and the new in Myanmar. Bring your US dollars crisp and clean. Change them for Kyat on the black market only – the black market that is wide open in your hotel – for 980 to the dollar. But one little tear, one nick or mark on your US denomination, and you pay a ‘commission,’ a discount, to receive your mangled mass of moldy, smelly, torn and written on, sometimes taped-together, thousand-kyat notes, so for every hundred dollars you change, you carry away 90 bills, or more. You feel like a baller until you spend them, and pay a commission again, because prices everywhere run 1000 kyat to the dollar. Don’t bother fighting it. Just smile. It’s the price of being here ‘before,’ the price of coming in early, the price of the tourist pioneer.

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You aren’t a pioneer, my  friend.  It isn’t early. Lonely Planet already has a guidebook, one that  tells you where to go to get ‘off the beaten tourist path.’ The monks at Ganayon Kyaung eat their daily breakfast with 100 Chinese cameras shuttering through the windows of the dining hall. Everyone not old enough to have learned English before the British left is fighting for the chance. Yangon University, famous for educating the likes of Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, is reopening and the lines of applicants are long, and talented. People who haven’t ever voted talk already about the 2015 election, when they will cast ballots for the embattled Suu Kyi, even while they tell you what they think she could do better. The country is bursting with people looking to grab hold of a decent opportunity.

Don’t think you’re on a solo soulful temple journey.  Before you take off your shoes someone will ask to practice their English. “Hallo, Hallo,” they will cry as you walk down the street, persistent and friendly and expecting an answer. Before you can muster a stumbled, “mingalaba,” a pupil will be at your side, too close, and won’t leave. Climb all 45 minutes (or 25, but don’t bother speeding up, you can’t escape) of Mandalay Hill and you won’t be left alone. On the street, it will be constant. In a monastery, it will be the monks.

And how can you not answer? How can’t you smile and sing, “hello!” This is what you wanted, isn’t it? Women with thanaka paste sponged onto their faces running up to your own pasty face with their toddlers, telling them to say, “mingalaba! Hello!” Isn’t this what it means to be ‘first?’ It’s the price you pay to be able to say later, “I was there, when.”

Shwedagon at sunset - one of many reasons why it doesn't matter if you aren't first - you'll still go back.

Shwedagon at sunset – one of many reasons why it doesn’t matter if you aren’t first – you’ll still go back.

For more pictures of Myanmar, please click here

Asia, Moving

Business Classy

It’s time for a confession: I sprang for business class.  A 14-hour stretch of dehydration torture with air contaminated by the coughing tubercular denialist three rows back isn’t my idea of a good time, so I paid to put a little space between us.

It takes less than five minutes on my first long-haul to deem the price of this extravagance worth packing in. I board, and go to the left. First class is sequestered upstairs, and everyone in coach heads right. I feel delightfully free of the fray, especially since I survived three bad omens to get on board.

The first involved an overturned Mini Cooper on the ramp to airport departures. The driver lay on the cement, her head braced by a civilian as her own blood pooled at her side. Its color matched the cherry red car. I’m 90% sure she was missing her right hand, but I stopped trying to figure that out the minute I noticed it.

The second occurred just after my taxi driver/ English professor/ Masters in Linguistics candidate (“you learned your Spanish in Mexico? Ahorita is a very Mexican wor.”) pulled to the curb. According to the lovely agents at Quantas, I am required to have a visa to enter Australia, even if I only plan on spending the night. In the airport. (I’m a princess, but a stingy one.)

Luckily, I can get this right across the hall. After some back and forth, some very vague responses to my question of requirements (is this for Chileans, for planes arriving from Chile, or for everyone?), and $26,200 “leftover” Chilean pesos ($50USD), I am checked in and on my way to goof off for a bit before boarding my plane.

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Chilean money is the prettiest I’ve seen so far. Some of it has windows and the $10.000CP notes match my iPad cover.

Aside: I’m traveling with books on my ipad, which means I have to find something to do during take-off and landing. (God forbid I read Southeast Asia on a Shoestring and actually plan my trip.) I wander to the airport newsstand where I find a Vanity Fair. Disturbed by my level of excitement, I take it to the counter and tell the woman behind it I’m afraid to ask how much it costs. She laughs, and tells me: $7900CP. That’s $14 US dollars, which converts to one dollar for each hour of flight. Jay-Z better be pretty damn interesting.

I go upstairs for one last fantastic South American cappuccino before leaving. Somehow, I get this:

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A cappuccino to insult all cappuccinos.

How milk foam with a little espresso becomes coffee with whipped cream is a conundrum.  Also a conundrum: how to drink this.The whipped cream foams in the coffee, spilling over the edge of the mug and onto the saucer. I let it sit for a while until the foaming comes to an end, and I drink it. Why not?

Eventually, I slink through duty free, careful to avoid the perfume assault zone,  and find some other interesting items, like a $19USD bag of m&ms,

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Easy economic conversion for Chile: drop 3 zeros and multiply by two. Thus, this bag of m&ms costs (9,500/1000)x2. Or $19USD.

and a selection of goods in sardine cans with the brand name “Robinson Crusoe.” They are things I wouldn’t consider eating, regardless of being stranded on an island. One can’t help but wonder who does the product selection for this location, and how much canned octopus cocktail they actually sell.

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I don’t know what oil of maravilla is, and I think I’m better off this way.

And here I arrive at bad omen number three: I queue like a South American now. In other words, I line up ridiculously early and completely ignore all order-related instructions. Boarding rows 45-60? How nice. I’m in row seven and I’ll just be boarding now too. Apparently I’ve adopted this mentality during six intracontinental flights and a similar number of bus trips since leaving home.  Consequently, I unintentionally cut a long line of people who actually are in Business Class, boarding with me. Australians do not take kindly to this provincial custom, and I garner quite a few dirty looks.

When I get to my seat, I shirk off the guilt. I’m too giddy to care. I’m on to more important things, like my seat. It flat-reclines, has adjustable lumbar support, and a massage feature. A pillow and two blankets await me, and there is so much leg room, I can stick my legs out straight and still not touch the next row.

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I have my own tv that rises out of the center console and has movies, tv shows, documentaries, news, and more. There is a vast menu of food options that make my mouth water, even if I accommodate for them to be done airline-style.

The flight has a customer service manager, who introduces himself in English, with a tasty Australian accent. This is the first time I have understood a flight attendant’s safety instructions since I left the US. As soon as the door closes, I am brought a bottle of water, hot towel, toiletry kit. And then…a set of pajamas.

The woman sitting next to me is a pro. She already knows that second blanket is a bedroll to pad your seat for more comfortable sleeping.  The minute we are allowed to unbuckle and move about the cabin, she is first to the restroom to put on her pajamas. (The bathroom has a flower arrangement, and individual cloth towels instead of paper.) She is quickly followed by most of the rest of the cabin, so that, while we boarded as normal individuals, we slowly don the appearance of a doomsday cult.

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Yes, these are real. I checked.

Luxury comes at a cost, though, and I’m not talking about the price of the ticket. The cloth towels go into the trash just like paper. Does this happen with the hot towels, which are made of the same cheap washcloth? What about all those pajamas when we are done with them? Are they laundered and reused?

What about all those cases with unused toiletries, facemasks, and little black socks? The list of waste goes on, and maybe this is why I don’t sleep for more than about three hours on this flight.  I am slightly ameliorated by putting some of my beloved Chilean pesos in the UNICEF envelope provided with my headset and collected at the end of the flight, but heading into an area of the world with extreme, extreme poverty, this definitely provides some food for thought.

The price of just an average foreign vacation in much of Southeast Asia is much more than the average Southeast Asian can afford. People in the countries I am visiting don’t use toilet paper, so how does one explain throwing out cloth towels after a single use? I may be Business Classy, but the contradiction between the way I’m traveling and the standard of living in the countries I’m traveling through is definitely not lost on me. It’s food for thought for that four-star menu.

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, 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.