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.