Uyuni Blues II

After the necropolis:

The night was cold and the extra sleeping bag was absolutely necessary and sufficient. Would have been fine with what I came with but all my warm clothes are gone in anticipation of the lowlands. No one could sleep well. No salt today but lots of lagoons. Multicolored ones rocks shaped like trees, kind of like Utah. It was a day filled with driving interspersed with 10 minute stops to see a rock or a lagoon, then another 10 minute stop. We ended in a place (hostal) where everyone else did. Or rather 6 other groups did. 36 tourists doing the same thing as you are for, perhaps, probably, a different price. Everyone in my car had paid different prices for the same thing. The girls had paid $60 each (less than I did) and the Germans had paid $85 but that included return to Potosi. $65 was average for the cheap outfits.

Often the commodity itself is the expense. I was once told that VCRs that people do not trust $20 VCRs, they believe they will simply break and instead choosing the $40 or $50 models even though they are the same brand and probably the same components. They simply believe that a good VCR should cost a certain price and a cheaper product will almost certainly be lower quality.

Ours had problems typical of the cheaper outfits: our car’s starter and/or sparkplugs were dirty and/or broken. The salt is hell on the cars and they need heavy and constant maintenance. Many did not work, ours no exception. We pushed it to get started every time. Stephan and I did. One time we were stopped at a particularly boring group of rocks which were one the tour and it was freezing. It was always freezing but sometimes the wind was intolerable. Extreme conditions would be putting it lightly. I sat to write but our guide came and wanted to talk. He wanted to know where I was from and all that. “Very cold, huh?” was his favorite expression. I asked what his favorite part of his job was. “The tips.” He said. “Like your salary or the tips,” I asked. “The tips” he replied again.

It certainly takes the cork out of seeing beautiful things when you realize your guide doesn’t think they’re so beautiful. If it paid as much as tourism he’d stripmine the natural wonders in a heartbeat. There it was again: how does one understand how to give a good tour having never been on one and never having had the desire to go on one.

We saw many beautiful and amazing things. All the rock is igneous pillar lava. We saw a half squirrel / half bunny called a vinculla (?). We saw tons of flamingos. There was either salt / ice / borax / lye / or, were told, sulfuric acid in the water. The flamingos cared for naught except chilling out and running away from us, it seemed. I don’t think any fish live in these toxic waters but perhaps they looked for worms. Our guide told us that there were times when the lagoons were frozen over and there were no flamingos. They just disappeared for 2 months a year.

At the end of warm car vs. freezing outside we arrived at our hostal at 4:00 or so. Early. We played UNO (with German rules and ordinary cards). So the games were less interesting. We were playing with cards that had mixed drink recipes and pictures of the drinks on them. One of the Irish girls claimed to have the “greatest rule of all time”. It turned out to be that if the drink contained rum we would have to drink rum and if the drink contained whisky you had to drink whiskey. “With your permission of course” she added as an afterthought (she had not brought anything to drink). The game promptly ended when she added that you could only play hearts that were royals. Boring. With power comes responsibility.

People wandered around until dinner was served at 7:30. Lunch was veggie hamburger with salad and pasta. Dinner was spaghetti which BARELY passed for bolognaise. Lovely. We were freezing but sated. I offered to read Tarot cards for people from the deck of Coca Cola playing cards we had been playing UNO with. The 3 Irish girls were enthusiastic, giggly and skeptical.

They all asked similar questions about what would happen in the future about where they would live, their friendships, etc. These were all questions that had little to do with the future itself but rather things they had extreme control over. There is a big difference between “Will John and I be dating in a year?” (a question over which you have complete control) and “Will John still be in London when I return?” (which is a real question about the future, not just about things that are defined by your own actions). It turned out that, perhaps because of their shuffling (or lack thereof), the cards were almost identical for all three girls. Their questions were not entirely innocent either because they related to each other. For instance, will the 3 of us still be friends in a year will probably get a nasty answer 50% of the time. All this stirred the pot but by the time it got around to Stephan and Anna, who actually believed in Tarot cards, the three girls were more or less believers. Amid the hoots and hollers from the girls I turned over the cards. Stephan was more tuned into it than the girls and was easier to read. The reading seemed to indicate that he had just finished work on something and beginning something new. This new thing might fail due to naysayers. His lack of any reaction, positive or negative, told volumes. At this point Anna might have felt pressured into a reading and I believe she was. But it was out of my control now and the girls wanted to see what the cards had in store for her. It was becoming hard to concentrate but I felt in tune with the cards though not really aware of what I was saying. I had also built up enough courage not to hedge bets but to rather say things categorically. I told what the cards told: “Your biggest challenge is pragmatic: making sense of your money and finances … you have recently chosen a spiritual path, a path of exploration, in the future there will be victimization by you or others.” I looked up and she was crying in a very reserved way. “You’ll have to excuse me,” she said, “It’s just a little close to the truth.” Everyone was a little shocked though I’m not sure what else we had expected.

Neither Stephan nor Anna revealed their questions afterwards so their secrets were safe but I assume that they were similar in that they related to things which they secretly knew they must address but were asking about because they wanted reassurance before they stepped out to do it. Not finding guaranteed providence was hard for them. I felt guilty for hurting them and I tried to explain that I had only said what the cards had told me.

I read by candlelight for some time. I got to the part where Harry discovers about the philosopher’s stone.

The night was freezing and we were woken at 5:15 to start the car by pushing. We quickly realized we needed more folks. The magic number arrived at was 6 and 4 more men (tour guides) were rousted from their warm beds to help. They were none too happy but they did it. We pushed the car a good 20 feet before we discovered it was too cold for the engine to turn over and we would have to wait till the magical time of 6am. What they expected to happen at 6am I was not sure but the sun did not begin to rise until 6:15 or 6:30 so it was none too much warmer. We ended up using the rubber ties on top of the truck combined with my hammock ties to tow the 4X4. I was sure that they would break as the security lines were made only of rubber tires. They didn’t and with the tow and 3 people pushing, the car started and I returned to hot coffee and cookies and dulce de leche.

I used the “flush” toilets (bring your own flush) and we left late again to see the sites. Its funny how there can even be a late when you’re on vacation but somehow that happens when you’re working with other people’s agendas. For me, I don’t really have a time schedule. I will stay in a location for as long as it suits me or for as short as suites me. It is a marvel how easily we become the will slaves to the priorities of others, our betters, our leaders.

Unfortunately we needed to drop off the Irish girls at a bus stop near the Chilean border, which was really a small mining town named San Pedro. The girls needed to connect with San Pedro de Atacama. I had chosen to return to Uyuni because it’s cheaper to take the train from there ($5) to Argentina than the much shorter ride from San Pedro de Atacama ($35). San Pedro is expensive because… well… because it’s expensive. People often can’t provide good reasons for things being expensive. Things are just more expensive in Chile. They especially like to say it when there are outside Chilean companies coming into their country. I believe that the hateful trains to Machu Pichu are Chilean.

We visited a few things in rapid succession but the only thing we really cared about after 3 days in freezing cold and no showers was the hot springs. In such freezing weather the hot springs were a godsend. After these we visited a lake of copper. When the wind came fast the copper in the lagoon oxidized and became a brilliant green. I THOUGHT we had a strong wind but apparently the lake disagreed and there was a large red copper stripe shooting through the green. Then we dropped off the girls and returned to the thermal baths where we relaxed in the lovely water for almost an hour while Candy prepared lunch. Or rather, Stephan and I did and Anna wrapped her coat a bit tighter in her coat and dangled her feet in the water. It was absolutely lovely but I think it did us in. I think that it was at this point we bit off more than we could chew. Or perhaps sometimes it is in the moment of relaxation after stress (in this case stress on our bodies from sitting still for long periods, constant temperature change, dust and salt flying at our bodies in high wind) that we broke down. It also could have been the lunch…

The lunch was rice with “tuna” and salad. The others didn’t know the danger but I could recognize an old foe when I saw it. I immediately rooted through the trash bag to find the can. As I suspected, the can did not say tuna, only “fish.” If they did not specify the type then they did not also specify the parts used, though the can’s contents were replete with eyes, mashed bones and scales.

Perhaps in my tiredness and hunger I somehow doubted that it was this material that had caused Marco’s Disease in Machu Pichu (I have since heard from Marco and he is safely home in Sao Paulo). But, along with everyone else, even after examining the cans, thinking through the consequences I chose to get back on that wretched nag that threw me into the ditch and ride it, come what may.

And…

Nothing happened to me!

Stephan, however, became violently ill within minutes with many of the same symptoms Marco exhibited before drifting into oblivion. The severe diarrhea hit almost immediately. When we stopped to pay a visit to yet another lagoon he took the opportunity to first stumble and then crawl into the wind whipped desert and throw up in an attempt to expel the sardines. It sounds callous but I’m glad I got a picture because it really looked as if he one of those left to die in the desert with no food or water. This was as close to the middle of nowhere as you could wish for.

He was sick and became progressively worse. It got to the point where, when we were descending hills Valerio would ask if we needed a bathroom stop so we could restart the car if necessary. Valerio too was exhausted. Completely exhausted. He had been driving 10 hours or more every day since we had left. He also had the additional job of restarting the car, fixing the wretched Landrover and a million other tasks. Most of the fourth day he spent swerving on and off the safe track among rocks which we called, for simplicity, the road.

I had been coughing up a lung from being sick BEFORE I came here and the trip had not improved much. Both the Candy and Abel were also sick and we were all probably cross-infecting each other. Anna was feeling perfect, great – couldn’t be better. Except for her the tour was an infirmary on wheels.

Valerio tried his best to commiserate with Stephan’s illness. “It is probably the altitude,” he said, ignoring that Stephan had been at altitude over a month, “Many tourists have problems with the altitude when they first get here.” Then he added, “I’ve also been sick because of the altitude. Before I drove these tours I worked in a sulfer mine inside a volcano. On the first day it was so hard that I fainted. I understand how he must feel.”

By the time we arrived where we were to rest (3pm or so) Stephan couldn’t hold down pills and Anna was just beginning to criticize his self pity. Valerio went straight to bed and began writing and brainstorming ways to get medicine inside Stephan. Candy and Abel disappeared into the kitchen, presumably to cook dinner.

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