February 3 through February 7, 2011
My first step on this nightmarish journey through Leishmania began in a fittingly surreal location: the Salt Flats of Uyuni. Shalynn and I left the jungles of Manu in early January to travel on through Lake Titicaca and La Paz, and on to Cochabamba, where I had set up a volunteer position working as a documentary producer for Sustainable Bolivia. After getting situated in the city and moving into one of the volunteer homes Sustainable Bolivia rents out, I made a production schedule with the Bolivian Energy NGO for whom I would produce short promotional films. Our schedule allowed Shay and me time off to go to Uyuni with some other volunteers, where I first noticed something wrong with my face.
The Salt Flats of Uyuni stretch out for over 4000 square miles and are the largest salt flats in the world. The combination of the high desert geology and the unreal reflections and perspectives of the endless flats make Uyuni the most frequented natural attraction of Bolivia. Our group spent 3 days in the region; fourteen of us were crammed into 2 jeeps on an adventure through a microcosm of Bolivia’s failed tourism infrastructure.
We negotiated with our tour company for several hours yet were still screwed into our sardine arrangement in the jeeps. We spent the next three days on bumpy mud roads in disrepair expecting to crash or blow a tire at any moment. Our driver was a complete asshole who ignored all of our questions, formalities, and even shouts of panic and anger as he drove away with one of our group left behind. Costumer service? Although I like most Bolivians and encourage everyone to go, this tour operator was about par for the course in Bolivia.
Our guide was a great character, on the other hand. He introduced himself by saying: “I have no teeth because I worked in the mines of Potosí as a kid.” He started in the silver mines at 13 years old, but eventually taught himself Spanish (being a native Quechua speaker) and English, and eventually German, Italian, Dutch and Portuguese as he found more and more work as a tour guide. Roberto shouted at us at every stop to convey each attraction’s main details. He was loud and hurried in his baggy wool sweater and toothless grin. Once we arrived in separate groups to a site and when one in our group couldn’t recall how many times Roberto claimed to have climbed the mountain before us (63 times), he yelled at him for being a fool who didn’t pay attention. He was a fun guide, to be sure, who danced with us to Madonna in the hostel and took every opportunity he could to take off his pants, explaining that the minerals of the geysers steam and the salt flats were good for the osteoporosis.
We began our tour at the train cemetery. Literally at the end of the line, these trains were abandoned when the demand for salt decreased. We continued on to see formations at The Valley of the Rocks and petrified coral left over from the ocean that covered much of South America before the Ice Age. That night we stayed in a small village. Four children came to perform for us while we ate dinner, and although their frightened expressions and dull, repetitive music left us with a strong awkward feeling, we donated to their travel fund to be able to go to high school.
The next morning we awoke to the cries of llamas flowing out of their pens into the neighboring valley. We continued driving across the high plateau to Laguna Colorada, where hundreds of flamingoes collect below snow-covered, purple mountains. I had brought a couple of cans of Potosina beer and snapped one open for our brief stop. It was terrible. Utterly terrible. As I spit the piss beer out the window, I caught my reflection in the rear view mirror; I noticed a pimple on my right cheek. It looked a little weird – hardened and dark. But no matter. We had a great day!
That night we partied with Roberto in a really run-down hostel near the Laguna Colorada. The sheets were staunch and sticky. The wool blankets dusty. The pillows smelled moldy. I slept fast and woke up early for the big day on the Salar. We had to argue with our drivers to get them up in the morning and to even head out to the Salar after the full day’s drive. They said the rains had made the roads unsafe. Roberto told us they would beat him up if he gave them any orders, and suggested that we just bag even going. Since we had come primarily to see the Salar, we were greatly disappointed, but fought for a few hours on the Salar. We blew two tires on the way but it was worth it. The Salt Flats were covered with a few inches of water and formed a perfect mirror to the heavy clouds. We began working on all of our pre-planned “warped perspective” photos with our friends. Sudden inspiration told me to streak across the salar and I never have felt more free or energetic or as easy to run. As we piled into the jeep again to head back to town to catch our train, I looked into the side view mirror again. Back-dropped by the blue, gray, and white of the clouds in the sky and reflected on the salt, the little red bump on my cheek stood out.