Uyuni Blues

When one is traveling it’s easy to see how one small decision can lead to others, your choices swirling together, one following another: the ebb and flow of your life as it washes against time. Perhaps our decisions are so based on past decisions that we hardly even decide and our lives are more like a game of Snakes and Ladders. If so, I had just landed on a snake that stretched half the continent: since Lima I had been dropping southwards at increasing velocity. Bolivia was the country I had been most excited to visit and here I was boarding a bus South after a single week. I could visualize those at home interrogating me about why I chose to miss the backpacker’s paradise of pristine rainforests and one dollar hostels. I felt guilty because I visualized things from a moment looking back. Later, in Argentina, I emailed a fellow traveler about meeting up on the road: “Things look bad for our heroes,” I wrote. To which she replied: “We are not heroes and our lives are not stories.” Though we did see each other again in Buenos Aires she was right: seeing your life as part of a larger story can either make you feel either too secure or too insecure but rarely just the correct amount. But at the time I felt as if I were going against some greater plan, ignoring a list of things I “ought” to do.

In Bolivia the roads are not paved and as we bumped our way through the desert dust filled the bus, covering everything. Some windows were stuck partly open and at every turn the couple in front of me would get a dust shower. The kid next to me would not speak but would nod or shake his head. Are you going to Uyuni? Do you live there? Do you go to school? He played possum and eventually I let him alone.

There was a girl on the bus who is dressed in a red jumpsuit. She also wore a red cap jauntily on her head. She was very stylish and pretty by Bolivian standards. She was also a master at Bolivian busmanship. She had two seats to herself and chose the one near the aisle. People would try to sit by her but she would make her legs rigid and would not move them. “I think it’s easier if you sit on that seat over there” she would say to them. Invariably, as they stumbled off confused, they would find that to be the case.

Before the bus trip I asked the man at the kiosk how much the bus cost: 25BS. At the end of the trip the conductor, a short man with aviator glasses, came and asked me for my money. Change being hard to come by, I wanted to pay 30BS and get change. I held out my money and asked how much it cost. He looked to see how much I had and then said: “30 Bolivianos”. I told him I’d heard it was only 25. He said: “Well, it’s 30.” I gave him 25 and told him: “That’s the correct amount, right?” He winks at me and we both laugh.

Uyuni is a nasty little tourist town with only one thing to do: take the tour of the Salar de Uyuni. These tours last 3 to 4 days while you drive around a magnificent salt flat in a Land Rover, witnessing the wonders it has to offer. There are 8 people on a typical tour: 6 tourists, the driver/guide and his cook (which is usually his wife). If you go a tour company they will form a group of 6 for you but you have more bargaining power if you already have a group of 6 when you arrive. Trying to form this group was my first order of business when I got off the bus. It was about 3pm so I had plenty of time.

There were other tourists on the bus and I asked some of them what they intended to do. They avoided me in a kind of ambivalent way that I have only seen people do in Bolivia. I felt like I was trying to sell them something. Many tourists and backpackers are like this in Bolivia. I have no idea why. But if there’s one good way to find tourists it’s with the Lonely Planet. The Lonely Planet is the first word in travel guides and, since 90% of backpackers use it, it’s the best way to find other tourists quickly.

The Lonely Planet is a large guidebook of about 700 hundred thick pages: they did not want their book falling apart and prepared it for extreme conditions. I do not enjoy carrying this book around towns with me because of the weight and also because it’s like having a big sign above your head saying: please try to sell me something I don’t want. When I arrive at a new place, usually the first thing I do is tear out the applicable pages of my Lonely Planet and just carry those in my pocket.

I was crouched on the ground by the bus ripping apart a book when I heard a voice: “Have you got a tour agency. What agency do you have?” I ignored the voice. I did not want to look for tours yet and I continued tearing my book. “Hey. Excuse me. I asked what tour agency you have.” “Calm down,” I reply, not turning round, “I’m trying to do something here.” “You don’t have to tear apart your book. You can just tell me what agency you have,” the voice told me. I stand up and turn around to find a man in military fatigues. “Who do you work for?” I ask. “I’m the tourist police,” he answers.

I was relieved not to have to deal with a salesman and, having retrieved the pages I needed, I told him that I had no tour agency and asked the man if he had one to recommend. “Cheap or expensive?” he asked. I could smell his breath: pure vodka. “Well” I said, as I always do in these situations, “Good value. Comfortable price.” “But there are so many!” he said. I affirmed. “Far too many!” he said again. But now he was interrupted by a man in a black shirt. At first I thought he was harassing this officer for being drunk on the job but it turned out that he too was drunk and was trying to stabilize himself by resting his head on his friend’s shoulder. The cop kept pushing this man away, stumbling as he did so. “I can’t speak for these businesses” he said, pointing to the bus with his left hand, “they might be good and they might be bad. But,” he said, motioning towards a pizza restaurant with his right, “these are ok.” I thanked the man and, having performed his duties for the day, he hobbled off with his friend.

There are 65 tourist agencies in Uyuni and they all offer the same tour for more or less the same price and varying levels of service. They will all try to cheat you and it is impossible to know what you are getting. They are probably not even sure of they services they intend to provide until they are on the road. How did I choose? I chose the first one I walked into. I had no real criterion for deciding anything. I was a lamb and they were the wolves…

That night I hung out with some fellow tourists over a pizza and got to play a real steel string guitar that someone from Sweden had brought. Talking to the people reconfirmed my fear that most folks traveling for six months or more either had problems to keep them from home or were depressed.

I spent “a lot of money” that night ($7) but it was worth it. It’s weird how life is relative, money is relative.

I went to bed that night, eagerly awaiting the tour, the last thing I would do before leaving Bolivia.

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