“What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. . And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”

— Former first lady Barbara Bush about Katrina evacuees housed in the Houston Astrodome (hear the quote)

I recently received the following email from a friend in the States;

Been wondering what you’ve heard about New Orleans. Does the media where you are talk about it all? It’s really outrageous, Nathan. It’s appalling how irresponsible and incompetant our government is. It’s really depressing–the last shred of trust I had in our government has been completely obliterated. It’s pretty clear now that I can’t depend on them for the bare minimum. Yesterday Jessica and I listened to This American Life. Ira Glass was interviewing a woman who had been in the convention center. He almost started to cry, listening to this woman tell about the horrific conditions inside. I certainly cried.

If this doesn’t change the attitude in our country towards George Bush, I really don’t know what will. If the aftermath of Katrina doesn’t make this country realize that extreme poverty and racism still exists in the United States, I don’t know what will.

How does this news meet you?

Today, as well, is September 11th. My oh my.

The answer is that for news on South America I have my news page I set up on my website. I mostly just check that so I didn’t even know about the hurricane till I received an email from a family friend on September 1:

Dear Nathan, I don’t know how much you are hearing or seeing about New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, but it is truly horrible. We were in Santa Cruz without a TV so we didn’t see the pictures until yesterday. People are dying because of lack of medical care. Apparently, there is no communication system. The hospitals are closing because they have no electricity or supplies and our president played golf last Monday. Yesterday he thought he would look at the damage from the air for the first time. They can’t even seem to get water to the people who are walking out of the city on their own. We are very angry. It is a disgrace. I have a friend in one of the hardest hit towns and I cannot reach her.

It was actually confusing to get this email. I was in a small town in Bolivia and I had no idea what she was talking about. I don’t know the spìn in the states but the a Guardian Unlimited article didn’t seem to agree with Mrs. Bush. But this stuff is big news in the foreign press as proved yesterday when I asked about the price of a Harry Potter book at a bookstand and I was approached by a 13 year old Argentinean kid who told me that my president is racist and doesn’t care if black people die. A 13 year old in a book store told me this. I asked him why he thought that and he told me that he thought it because of the hurricane. I told him that it was very sad to go to another country and have to hear that about my president (especially from children). He was very polite about it.



The Tour: Salt, Salt, Salt

We drove off into the Salar. The terrain became whiter and whiter and eventually turned into pure salt. Like in the rest of Bolivia there was not really a road, just a place where people drove. But unlike the rest of Bolivia, it was really not different from anywhere else. It was flat as far as the eye could see and it was because of this you needed a guide. I had always thought of needing a guide in places like jungles and mazes but the sheer openness of desert it is far more frightening. I was reminded of a story by Borges, the famous Argentinian writer:

The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths

It is said by men worthy of belief (though Allah’s knowledge is greater) that in the first days there was a king of the isles of Babylonia who called together his architects and his priests and bade them build him a labyrinth so confused and so subtle that the most prudent men would not venture to enter it, and those who did would lose their way. Most unseemly was the edifice that resulted, for it is the prerogative of God, not man, to strike confusion and inspire wonder. In time there came to the court a king of Arabs, and the king of Babylonia (to muck the simplicity of his guest) bade him enter the labyrinth, where the king of Arabs wandered, humiliated and confused, until the coming of the evening, when he implored God’s aid and found the door. His lips offered no complaint, though he said to the king of Babylonia that in his land he had another labyrinth, and Allah willing, he would see that someday the king of Babylonia made its acquaintance. Then he returned to Arabia with his captains and his wardens and he wreaked such havoc upon kingdoms of Babylonia, and with such great blessing by fortune, that he brought low his castles, crushed his people, and took the king of Babylonia himself captive. He tied him atop a swift-footed camel and led him into the desert. Three days they rode, and then he said to him, “O king of time and substance and cipher of the century! In Babylonia didst thou attempt to make me lose my way in a labyrinth of brass with many stairways, doors, and walls; now the Powerful One has seen fit to allow me to show thee mine, which has no stairways to climb, nor walls to impede thy passage.”

Then he untied the bonds of the king of Babylonia and abandoned him in the middle of the desert, where he died of hunger and thirst. Glory to him who does not die.

As we drove through this snowy wilderness we would stop at various touristic places. First there was the salt refinery. It is family operated and everything is done by hand. There was once machine run factory down the road but it had to shut down because they could not afford to keep the machinery running. Now there are about five families and they each work a different salt patch. It is hard to explain but these people literally live in a world of salt. All they have to do is walk outside their house, put a shovel in the ground and they have a shovelful of salt. Many of the houses are even made of salt. The families do not own the salt, no one does, but they do not let anyone else mine the patches.

We had come during the windy season when they could not refine any salt. To refine the salt they use fire and the fire can quickly spread to other buildings. I assumed that they had learned this from experience. All the work in the refinery was done by hand, without gloves. I asked why they couldn’t use gloves but they just said it wasn’t possible. The lady told us that the salt burns their hands terribly but this is the only way they can do it.

We were invited to buy salt ashtrays, salt llamas and salt dice-cups with dice made out of salt. We didn’t buy anything. I wanted to but I have no way of carrying souvenirs.

The next stop was a salt hotel. Instead of asking for a “propina” they required you to buy a small, overpriced item from their store. We all did. It was a house made of salt with crushed salt on the floor. I was impressed only with its ugliness, its dirty salt bricks. If you go there expecting a shiny white building, think again. Imagine living in a sugar cube for a few years… then imagine the bathroom. More than that I cannot say.

The third, final and best stop of the day was Fish Island. Fish Island is in the shape of a fish though I doubt any fish has lived on it for several million years at least. It is, however, made of coral. It was part of the seabed in the ocean that once was here. Millions of years ago volcanic activity isolated this part of the ocean from it’s source and the sun dried it out, leaving only the scorched salt. It was this same volcanic activity that made Lake Titicaca.

In this ex-oceanbed cum desert the wind has free reign and whips through relentlessly in the winter months. I have been in a minor dust storm in the crater of Mitzpeh Ramon in Israel but I would hate to be in a salt storm.

At Fish Island we ate llama steaks, quinoa and salad. Delicious. The Irish girls had said they did not eat llama. We told them it was cow and they loved it.

From Fish Island it was a few hours to where we would sleep that night. The vast majority of the tour involved sitting in the car and making small talk. The three Irish girls sat in the back and I sat in the front with the German couple. The backseat talked mostly amongst themselves about the places that they’d been and things they’d found there. They liked Argentina for its steaks and wine and they liked Mexico for its mixed drinks on the beaches. Two had worked together in a bank: one in equities and another in fidelities. The other is a speech therapist. All had quit their jobs to move away from London together. This trip was their big fling before the move.

German couple was composed of two university students: the boy (22) of information systems and the girl (20) of geography. I made small talk but with them but it kept turning to politics, which they did not like. At one point I remember saying “I feel great… I feel like I…” “Like you’re 20 again?” the girl said, completing my sentence for me. We both laughed.

We arrived at the place we were to sleep that night. The I went with the Germans to view the Necropolis nearby. When this land had been underwater, long before the Andes were formed, the Necropolis was a coral bed, the kind you could imagine the little mermaid playing in. We explored the labyrinth of natural mausoleums in the half dark. These coral caves now store the bones of some forgotten people.

We returned to a lovely dinner: Vegetable soup and chicken suprema (which is chicken, fries and fried banana). Foodsharing is an important art and this German couple could have been professionals. For example, above the usual snacks like chocolates, candies, chips, and cookies they had brought loaves of bread, ham, cheese, condensed milk, 10 liters of Coca cola and whisky to mix it with. They had even brought limes. It was very impressive.

Before I had been feeling alone and isolated. It was nice to be stuck in a car with people who had nothing better to do than talk to me. It was also interesting to see what it was like for people to travel in groups. The girls were firmly stuck in their group of three. That evening I explained about SERVAS over a game of liars’ dice. One of the Irish girls said, “I’d love to do something like that but I’m traveling in a group…” It made me very happy to be alone, compromising nothing.

The wind howled outside. It sounded as if there were people trying to open the doors and windows, to get inside. I thought of the skulls tucked away peacefully in their coral beds while the wind raged around them.

The Tour: Exit Uyuni

I got up at about 8am and bought my train ticket out of Uyuni for when I returned from the tour on Saturday. Then, once I had spoken with the tour company I had to return it because it turns out they had made the tour an extra day (“at no extra charge… of course”). I did not want an extra day on the tour, I just wanted to get out of Bolivia. I was not given options and I did not really care that much so I went along with it.

On the trip was a German couple and 3 Irish girls on an “around the world” ticket. However, we did have to wait a few hours while 3 of our trip staged a sit-in protest in the tour company’s office. They had been promised an English translator and there was none to be had. They wouldn’t leave without one. The tour company was very upset and did not want to leave without them. They did call the Irish girls all sorts of nasty things including “foul people” and “Israelis”. The tourist police were eventually called. Unlike her counterpart of the day before, she was sober, at least enough to say “There is simply nothing you can do: you must go on the trip.”

The tour company was completely befuddled by the whole process. Even the tourist policewoman was confused: “Usually tourists get upset because they find out at the last minute that they are being overcharged for their English guide. But this is the first group that wanted to pay extra for one that I have encountered. I don’t know why these girls don’t just learn Spanish and enjoy our culture.” I tried to explain that the girls had really been upset by the cultural principles involved in keeping one’s word and I think it was lost on them. While everyone in the town seemed to be involved in the touring business, I doubt there was one among them who had ever been on a tour in his life! They offer products they do not consume themselves and, like the chef without taste, the blind traffic cop, and the deaf composer, often wonder why they have dissatisfied customers. Beethoven was a prodigy and we shall speak no more of him.

The Irish girls held out for another hour until someone’s grandmother was summoned to translate English. At this, the point of the Irish girls was proved and they decided to go on the trip and give some money to the German girl who spoke excellent English as well as Spanish and, of course, German. She would be their translator.

Personally I’m glad we didn’t have a paid guide who spoke in a second language. They often feel they have to speak just to prove that they can. They are misleading at best.