Thursday, February 10, 2011

Hay Lluvia.

Nobody felt great, and it was pouring down rain as we all made our way to the bus station in Cochabamba on Friday morning. The city floods nearly instantaneously, and none of the taxis have defrost. This was how, after getting my jeans soaked flagging down a cab, when we drove through a large puddle, a wave of street-water came in through the cracked window straight at my face and open mouth. No better way to start a weekend in the country than contracting cholera.
On the four-hour bus ride to Oruro, multiple men got on the bus and yelled 30-45 minute sales pitches at the trapped passengers. One of them was selling an elixir that can make your hair grow, clean blood from carpet, earn at least 8% interest for investments, and cure AIDS. One tube was only 10 Bolivianos. Not one of us bought any. We were too busy watching Jackie Chan movies on the bus TV.

In Oruro, we connected to a 7-hour train to Uyuni. I got stuck in a car by myself, directly behind the engine, thus full of diesel fumes. I shared a seat with a woman  and her 7-year-old son—apparently trains don’t have the same “children over 2 must have their own seat” rule that planes do.

The hostel in Uyuni lost our reservation.  Such an event is a mild inconvenience for a group of 14 Sustainable Bolivia volunteers arriving at 11pm.

The next morning, three of us shopped out the various tour hawkers on the streets in the pouring rain. Dozens of companies sell virtually the same three-day tour of the salt flats and surrounding areas. Our main priority was that our whole group not be crammed into just two 4WD vehicles. We reached a deal with “Expediciones Lipez.”  Shortly after taking our money, Mr. Lipez directed the 14 of us to split into two groups of 7 and climb into 2 vehicles. The third vehicle parked out front would be full of other tourists and join our group on the tour. Three adults in the backseat of an SUV would be something we would have plenty of time analyze the discomforts of. 

“The Others” consisted of 2 Russians that pretended to speak no English or Spanish and strolled into everyone’s scenic photos (I maintain that they were spies); 2 Canadians in their 60s that talked a lot; and an American neuro-scientist/mountaineer.  This crew shared their vehicle with our guide.

We paid extra to have an “English-Speaking guide.”  Through a few teeth, using decent English, he introduced himself as “Roberto DiNero” or “Llama.” I called him ‘Fancy Pants’: for three days he wore orange camouflage.  On Day Two, he stopped speaking English. Each vehicle had a Spanish-speaking driver. These drivers formed a union and waged a little three-day war with the guide, refusing to drive to tour sites and refusing to wake up at the scheduled times.
The altitudes on the trip ranged between 4000 and 5000 meters (13,000-16,000feet).  It was fairly cold. Most of us were clad in locally purchased wool adorned with 2-dimensional llamas.

So appointed, we bumped and splashed through spectacular desert scenery. There were marvelous rock formations and multi-colored lagoons.  We saw thousands of flamingos and possibly more llamas. We ate llama. We did not eat flamingo.  On the second day, we visited stinky, belching, sulphuric geysers. It was here that Fancy Pants pulled down his pants and squatted over the geyser steam. When we asked what the hell he was doing, butt-naked in belching clay,  he said, “It’s good for osteoporosis.”  We soaked the image out of our mind in thermal springs nearby, before continuing on to more scenery.

On the final day, after a 4:30am wake up call, we drove to the salt flats. It had been raining for days, and a shallow layer of water covered the miles and miles of white salt. This created a perfect, seemingly infinite mirror, and thunderheads reflected back at the sky. It was one of the most spectacular places I have ever seen. Ever. When I look out my window at home, I see glaciers and mountains. I fly airplanes over some of the most remote wilderness in the world. And there I was, ankle deep in saltwater, staring at something I cannot believe I had never heard of before coming to Bolivia, because it could be used worldwide to define natural beauty.

The train for home was scheduled to leave at 1:22am. After midnight, the train car was parked in front of the station and we all climbed aboard. As we waited for departure, tired from a long day on the road, we drifted to sleep. At 6am, we awoke, one by one, to discover that we hadn’t moved. We all climbed off the train back onto the Uyuni platform. The only worker in sight told us, when asked why the train had not departed, “Hay Lluvia.”  ‘There is rain’ doesn’t really seem like a sufficient explanation for a 7-hour delay of a 7-hour ride, but apparently, in Uyuni, that’s how it goes.

Halfway through the ride to Oruro, one of the train conductors came through our car with a trash bag, politely collecting all the rubbish that people who are stuck in a train car for 14 hours produce. We all looked at eachother pleasantly surprised. This was the first time we had seen trash collection of any form in Bolivia. We also had the privilege of being in the caboose, and thus watched as the conductor carefully tied the full bag of trash after making his way through the full train, then walking to the back door, unlatched it, and chucked the bag out the door. It tumbled off the tracks and into the desert.

We finally arrived in Oruro and caught a connecting bus at 4:30pm.  Two hours later, in the middle of a Jackie Chan movie, the bus broke down. We were in the mountains, 2 hours from Cochabamba, and would have to wait for a rescue bus to arrive.   We had a bottle of rum, perfect for such an occasion.

I walked in the door to my house close to midnight. My host brother asked why I was so late. I was too tired to remember any useful Spanish to explain my awesome weekend, and the glories of transit in Bolivia. “Hay Lluvia.” I replied.  It’s only evidence of cultural mystery that he seemed to understand exactly what I meant. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

amazing picture of the salt flat, Steph. (btw, como es tu espanole? practicando mucho??) jeff y.