Lighting Dark Corners in Uyuni, Bolivia

11/27/12

If I’ve learned anything about traveling during my time on the road, it is that it is a true art form. Sometimes simple, sometimes explosive, but always full of beauty and contrast. Letting the road unwind itself as it may, either by choice or force, has led to some of my most fulfilling experiences.

One of the greatest challenges for U.S. citizens traveling through South America, Bolivia in particular, is that as a rule of thumb nothing goes as expected. Buses don’t come on time or sometimes even at all, tourists get ripped off, strikes break out on a regular basis, internet doesn’t work, civil unrest is common, and corruption is prevalent at every level… Call it experience, call it being jaded, but eventually these types of hardships stopped bothering me. I found that my choice was to either fight the wave or learn to surf it; and trust me, it’s a choice. We’ve all had moments where we feel nothing is going as we had expected and frustration creeps its ugly head in. But as I’ve discovered, with a simple (but not always easy) change in perspective, there’s beauty to be found in the seemingly most dire of circumstances.

Contrary to popular belief, I wasnt always this tough and awesome. The limits of my patience were tested years ago when I lived in the bustling and contradictory city of Bangkok. After originally struggling to make their lifestyle fit with my former lifestyle, I realized I was punching air and gave in. And suddenly a weight was lifted off my shoulders and I was free to grow and change. There’s a profound sense of peace to be discovered when you wholeheartedly make the decision to let go of your ideals an’d let things unfold as they may.

From then on, I made an effort to cultivate this sort of acceptance, and before long I welcomed unplanned events. Through the years, I’ve discovered that the unplanned situations I find myself in, situations that are potentially frustrating, where nothing goes as expected, turn out to be the most memorable.

Case in point: Being snowed in in Uyuni, Bolivia on the 4th of July. Cold, wet, trapped, alone, and steered away from the reason I went there, to see the Salt Flats, turned out to be one of the most memorable parts of my journey. And yes, I’d be happy to tell you the story…

I make my way to Uyuni from Rurrenabaque, the rugged jungle of Northern Bolivia, with my sweet Tunisian friend Zico who I had met while survival trekking in the wilderness. We arrive in Uyuni on July 3rd at the convenient hour of 3:30 a.m., after a daunting combination of stuffy buses and icy trains.

It is COLD. Snowing and COLD. We climb off the train, bleary-eyed and teeth-chattering, and emerge into the lost city of Uyuni, a town that has seen better days. As we slush our way down the sidewalk, our nostrils numbing with each breath, the deafening silence hangs heavily between us, and I can’t help but feel a pang of sorrow for this forgotten city. The thick ominous air tells the tale of a city once bursting with charm and vigor, but long ago passed its prime and slowly transitioned into a ghost town, a town that “once was”. It’s now nearly abandoned, consisting of one long desolate road, a few crumbling statues, and several faded motel signs. Travelers pass through for one reason only: to come see the salt flats, and then disappear into the night on a midnight train, just as stealth and unannounced as they arrived.

We find an old beaten up motel and bang on the door. A tired old man with a cane and lonely eyes opens the door, beckons us inside, and points toward a vacant room for us to stay. The room has no heat. The showerhead is covered with icicles, and the bed is damn cold. I wrap myself up in every article of clothing I own, including four pairs of socks, two warm hats, and two mittens on each hand, and climb into bed. I try to wiggle my toes but can’t feel them. As I shake and shiver my way to some form of unconsciousness, I vow to go see these damn salt flats tomorrow and get the hell out of town.

I awake a couple hours later the same way I went down: shivering. I peer out the window and see that the sidewalks and roofs are covered in fresh blankets of silky snow. It looks more promising in the daylight and I get excited. I’m like a child when I see snow. True to my sun-kissed California roots, snow to me has always represented something more foreign, a fairytale land.

With new found hope, I leap out of bed and gear up for the day. I grab my partner in crime, Zico, and we rush to the jeep tour office, only to find… traffic in Uyuni has come to a stand still. There are no jeeps headed to the Salt Flats due to heavy snow and poor visibility. And there are no buses or taxis allowed on the road. Indefinitely. Fabulous. We are then informed that the only way out of town is by train, which leaves twice a week. And tonight at 1:30 a.m. is a train.

I consult with my travel partner Zico and we decide, both of us having very little time left in South America, to forego the salt flats and leave town by train that night. As we purchase our advance tickets, we run into three Brazilian guys we recognize from our train ride in and introduce ourselves. The five of us, all being stuck together in Uyuni for the day, agree to become friends and make the best of it. I love how easy it is to make friends on the road: a wink, a nod, and an unspoken agreement that the friendship has begun.

We are cold, standing around in the snow chatting, so we make it our mission to find a toasty bar with a fireplace to warm ourselves over mulled wine and cocoa leaves.

As anyone who knows me well could probably guess, this plan quickly evolves into a downward spiral of debaucherous bliss. The five of us play around all day, ordering bottles of wine and chewing cocoa leaves like it’s our last day on Earth. I reason with myself by deciding, hey, it very well could be.

Our group of stranded wanderers steadily grows as the day lingers on, as the sun polks through the gray skies and casts a glimmer of light on the town. Before long there are seven or eight Brazilians, a couple German trekkers, a few Spaniards, one Tunisian, and me, sitting around an array of tables in a cozy pizza restaurant. They toast me, somewhat mockingly, to it being my country’s independence day. And I think to myself, how ironic.. what better way to celebrate my own independence than with a group of strangers from different corners of the globe, in a small town that I can’t pronounce, in one of the least tourist countries in South America?

The day unfolds itself nicely. We tease each other, laugh hysterically at what we can only assume is lost in translation, order endless bottles of cheap shiraz, throw snowballs at each other, snap photos, smoke massive cigars, and attempt to mingle with local guardsmen who aren’t half as amused as we are. We eat surprisingly delicious pizza drenched in spicy aji sauce as we all fight to warm our toes around the only space heater at the only bar. Zico tries to teach our new friends how to speak in Tunisian, and they stare back at him blankly. I teach our new friends the correct way to chew cocao leaves to obtain the best taste and the optimal high, an art I gracefully mastered during my time in the jungle. I share my big bag of cocoa leaves with them. Between my English, the Brazilians’ Portuguese, and our collective poor Spanish, we struggle to find middle ground.

Night falls and we dance the night away at a hidden bar we find called Extreme Fun Bar. How better can I describe it than by saying it was extremely fun?! “California Girls” by Katie Perry comes on and I confidently make my way to the dance floor and bust out. And no, I’m not proud of it.

I check the time and it is 1:00 a.m. I call for Zico, who has somehow managed to lose his shirt and is behind the bar pouring shots and yelling that it’s the best night of his life. I grab him and our backpacks and do some sort of a stumble-run to the train station, while the Brazilians trudge along behind us to send us off. We snap some final pictures to remember our day in Uyuni, say our goodbyes, and then huddle in the corner of the train station eagerly waiting for the train.

We wait for the train. And we wait for the train. That train never came. What happens there at the train station that bitter cold snowy night is something almost indescribable. I’ll keep it for another time, if any. Simple words won’t do it justice. But I will say tears were shed, babies were crying, and people slowly lost their minds and faded from consciousness. It was very cold. I became delirious. Zico became frantic. We waited for hours and hours. He insisted I take all the clothes he had in his bag, including the jacket off his back, so I would stay warm, while he stood and shivered uncontrollably. At that exact moment we crossed a new threshold of travel friendship. Tears stung my eyes as I watched him, the one who was always so calm, collect, and Tunisian, lose it. And his only concern was that I stay warm, and the children stay warm; there, on that snowy night in the Uyuni train station, I watched him become my protector and take care of me as if he had known me for years rather than days. It was bittersweet, painful, and dug deep into my soul.

At 5:00 a.m., after four hours waiting in the snow, we give in. Our bodies are numb, our minds are numb, and somehow the train has gotten lost on the tracks. Without a word, we struggle to make our way back toward the town. A combination of cold, exhaustion, and a headache from the cheap wine has overtaken us and we find it difficult to walk. We knock on motel door after door but nobody will help us. They’re either full or aren’t in the mood to bother with stragglers. We finally find a generous enough woman who we plead with to give us a room. She sees defeat written all over our faces and lets us in. Okay, she says, and overcharges us three times the price and sticks us in a filthy room on the fifth floor. I no longer have the capacity to care. Again, a cold room. I watch my breath as I lay on the bed in a comatose state. Another night of attempting to shiver myself to unconcsciousness.. But I can’t sleep. My brain feels frozen and my muscles are shriveled. I try to distract myself by daydreaming about what I have waiting for me back home, but it’s too painful. Home feels a million miles away, in every sense of the word.

Somehow, the final hour of darkness subsides and I open my eyes to a shred of sunlight rudely reminding me the train never came and I’m still stuck in Uyuni. More exhausted and worn than I’ve ever felt, I manage to peel myself out of bed. Zico is lying in his bed and refuses to budge. I tell him the sun is shining and God has blessed us with another day in Uyuni. He laughs at my attempt to make light of the situation. We grab our backpacks, check out, and saunter back toward the jeep tour office. I don’t mention a word about last night; I sense he is still feeling heaviness in his heart and doesn’t want to talk about it.

The jeep driver tells us visibility is good and we can now go see the Salt Flats. Hooray. So, we cram in a jeep with two bright-eyed cheery couples who had just gotten to town, and take that damn tour to see the salt flats. And yes, let me tell you, they are spectacular. And worth it.

But to be honest, it almost didn’t matter anymore. Our plan was to travel into Uyuni for the day, use it as a jumping point to visit the salt flats, and leave town. But Bolivia had a different plan for us. And rather than fight it or sulk, we let it happen. We surrounded ourselves by other travelers, learned about each other, drank copious amounts of cheap shiraz, played in the snow, danced at the only bar in town, and took pictures atop crumbling statues. We felt the joy and sorrow of Uyuni. We laughed, cried, huddled and nearly froze while we waited for the train that never came. We nearly collapsed with exhaustion.

And in the end, Zico and I parted ways with an understanding of each other that that can only be obtained through facing new experiences and hardships together. He had looked out for me when it counted most. He had comforted me and I had comforted him. We didn’t plan on spending three days in Uyuni, but we did. None of this was expected. And now it was time to say goodbye.

I found a group of Colombians on the street corner who told me they had bribed an off duty bus driver to take them back to La Paz late that night, and agreed to join them. I decided I couldn’t die a happy woman until I had been involved in a monetary bribe with Colombians. Zico was off to Potosi. Our roads were diverging. We wished each other well and I boarded a bus with twenty Colombians. As I curled myself into a small seat crammed against the window, Zico yelled out from below for me to keep in touch. I told him I would. I knew it was a lie. Deep down I knew our time had come to an end and our roads would probably never cross again.

No matter how different our lives become, all of us we’ll always remember the joy and sorrow of our passing spot of time we all shared in the forgotten town of Uyuni.

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

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