Wednesday, October 14, 2009

(old) Cold showers and hot baths.

It was a rough start to our tour when we woke up to no hot water and no breakfast in the hostel. Since we could see our breath we skipped the cold water shower and pulled out some cookies to tide us over until we got the breakfast the tour company had promised us. And looked forward to the hot water shower we’d get tonight. We didn’t let it get to us probably because we were getting out of San Pedro before we went bankrupt. The tour office was just a couple of blocks down the road. There was already a small crowd waiting although at this early hour no one was feeling particularly talkative. Or perhaps they hadn’t had their hot showers either.

Right on time, a guide appeared and shuttled us over to a waiting minibus. There were twelve of us in total but we weren’t all traveling together. This was just the bus to the border where we’d be separated into our different tours, depending on how long we had signed up for. Chilean tour companies aren’t allowed to got into Bolivia and vice versa and since we were only 20km from the border this journey was going to be a short one, that is until we got to the Chilean border post just outside of town. The two Colombians onboard had forgotten to bring their tourist cards with them and we had to wait a half hour while the driver took them back to their hotel to fetch them. Then it was back on the bus for the drive past the turn off for the Argentinian border past some volcanoes to the Bolivian post another 45 minutes away. Even the word post is perhaps too strong a description. It was just a hut in the middle of the desert. There was nothing in sight in either direction except a burnt out bus shell yet the Bolivians had taken care to put up a free-standing gate across the road, perhaps not realizing that the hard packed desert on either side of the road was probably easier to drive on than the potholed road they were blocking.

We were given forms to fill out and then waved into the hut one at a time to pay our entry fee. The fee was a surprise since we hadn’t needed to pay one at the Peru-Bolivia border and when I raised my eyebrow at the $2 they wanted they showed me the official-looking seal in my passport that my money bought. Our border crossings in Central America taught us that individual border posts are good at coming up with official looking receipts for fees at supposedly free crossings. But rather than protest I reminded myself that $2 was a lot less than the useless bus tickets we’d had to buy to get into Panama or the $150 the Americans had to pay.

Once we were all paid up and stamped in we were divided up into three groups – those doing a one day tour, those doing a two-day tour and the 6 of us who’d signed up for the full 3-days to Uyuni. Unfortunately for us 3-dayers, our jeep had yet to arrive so we huddled into the bus to protect ourselves from the bitterly cold wind that was blowing across the desert. The cold got to Adrian’s bladder and with nothing except the burnt out bus to hide behind he ran off to do his business. He returned quickly breaking the ice with the rest of our tour mates by providing a full report of his journey.

“Don’t go back there,” he warned the rest of us.

Apparently the burnt out bus was the local toilet for everyone crossing the border and was a minefield of excrement. It must have been bad because Adrian didn’t even ask for the camera so he could take a picture. Either that or he knew I would have denied his request. Before he could launch into more detail, the jeep arrived saving us from the cold as well. The jeep driver jumped out and began loading all of our bags up on the roof of the jeep. He did an amazing job of fitting it all up there and even more amazingly, the vehicle didn’t topple over under the weight. Now it was time to fit all of us in the vehicle. Adrian and I hopped into the back and let the skinny others share the middle and front seats. Our driver was just about to launch into his introduction when Adrian interrupted him to ask about breakfast and was distressed to hear that it wasn’t coming for a while. But at least it silenced him long enough so that we could all introduce ourselves and let the guide begin his tour.

Up in front was Kai, a young German guy on a three-month whirlwind round the world tour. In the middle was Tony, an older German guy on an extended vacation in Bolivia and next to him Bart and Anna a Dutch and French couple (respectively) on a 6-week vacation of South America. Our guide didn’t speak English and his name would become the subject of much debate amongst us over the next few days. Was it Ruben? I heard Brugen? I thought he said Robeto? Even Kai who was half-Spanish didn’t catch the name as he stepped in to act as translator for all of us. Instead we just avoided any situation which would require us to call the guide by his name.

Our first stop was the park entry office where we had to pay our entrance fee. Adrian asked if this was where we were having breakfast but Ru-bregen-erto just shook his head and with a small smile said no. Anna and Bart went to the take advantage of the washroom located in the office thinking it a better option than the bus at the border. But judging by their expressions when they came back, perhaps not too much better. With our entrance fees paid we piled back in the van and headed to our first site, Laguna Verde. Amidst the dusty desert, it was a perfect aqua colour that reminded me of Llanganuco in Peru. Our driver drove past the other tour vans and headed up to a ridge overlooking the lake so we could take it in. It was the perfect spot but not perfect enough for Adrian who once again asked if this is where we were having breakfast. And once again our guide shook his head no although this time there was no smile.

After we’d all had our fill of the view, we piled back into the jeep and drove to another small lake remarkable only because of a small flock of flamingos camped out nearby. Adrian was about to ask if this is where we were having breakfast but I stopped him. Of course this was where we were having breakfast. There was a small hostel just over a ridge with a good view of the lake and an empty dining room. We may have been in the middle of nowhere but breakfast was already an improvement over the typical bread and jam we’d been offered at other hostels. This place had cheese and it was real cheese not the weird feta-mozzarella cross we’d had for the last 7 months. Adrian was finally happy as were we since we wouldn’t have to listen to him ask when we were going to eat. Thanks to the leftover bread on another table we had plenty of food. Kai left us to scout out the bathrooms and accommodation and it wasn’t promising. We hoped that our luck would be better tonight. We paid one last visit to the flamingos before getting back into the jeep.

It was another hour until our next stop which Rubregenerto told us were called the Dali rocks. This was a bad name since we all conjured up images of rocks that looked like melting clocks or cities on giraffe legs and when we got there they looked like a bunch of boulders in the sand. I think the guide sensed our disappointment because he quickly moved on and promised us we’d love the next stop. We were headed to the hot springs although considering how cold it was outside I wasn’t sure how fun or how hot the springs could actually be. When we pulled up I was encouraged by the sight of 5 others already in the springs steam rising up from around them. However, that still didn’t solve the problem of the blustery cold wind that we’d have to fight before we got into the water. I was about to point out to Adrian that there was also no place to change into our bathing suits but when I turned around he was already in the midst of stripping down and jumping into his trunks in front of our group and the 20 others standing nearby. He jumped into the water and repeated ad nauseum “nice, nice, nice”. Well if he didn’t care neither did I. But I did care about exposing my bottom to everyone. So I wrapped a towel around me and somehow managed to change without flashing everyone then ran into the water before hypothermia set in. Kai joined us but the others passed. The water was indeed hot and super relaxing but with all the minerals I don’t think it was the best choice as a substitute shower. We soaked in the bath as long as we could mostly because the idea of getting out of the hot water and into the freezing cold was so unappealing. But eventually, our guide told us time was up. It was still freezing and the wind on wet skin meant certain wind chill frostbite. I sucked it up and quickly managed to get changed back into my dry clothes without exposing my bare ass to everyone else and without getting my dry clothes wet. Quite an achievement.

Just beyond the springs was another hut. This was our lunch stop. Inside it was filled to the rafters with folks from other tour groups. The room was just a dining room and the food was provided by the tour companies and there was a definite difference. The Japanese had a major spread while others were eating rice and not much else. Our tour group fell somewhere in the middle and considering the cost it was pretty good. The best part of the stop (after the bath in the hot springs) was courtesy of one of the older Japanese women. She pulled out a bag of origami peace cranes which she proceeded to hand out to us backpackers. She didn’t speak any English but understood everyone’s garbled version of Domo Origato (I stopped myself from adding Mr. Roboto, disappointed aren’t you?). It was such a simple gift but we all loved it and I wished there was a Canadian equivalent to break the ice as we traveled – Timbits? Hockey Pucks? Touques? Not quite the same. Although I wish I’d had a touque at that moment – it was freezing.

It was time to get back in the jeep and this time we all changed our seats which meant poor Tony was crammed next to Adrian in I in the middle. Oh well, at the very least we warmed up quickly. But it was a short cramped ride as not too far from the hot springs we pulled up to a field of smoke and boiling mud. Signs warned that this was a dangerous field of volcanoes (photo above) and I suppose it was although the volcanoes were only an inch or two across although constantly erupting. The steam-smoke was a noxious sulphur mix that made it hard to breath and hard to enjoy the warm so we headed to a windy spot to view the field. That required us to walk over suspiciously unstable parts of caked mud and I expected us to fall through into the boiling mixture just below the surface. Of course we didn’t and Adrian accused me of being as melodramatic as the warning signs. However, warning signs aren’t common in Bolivia so I figured they must be there for a pretty good reason. Too many boiled stews of tourists was my best guess. At this point the driver called us over to make a decision. We were headed towards the Laguna Colorado and afterwards we could go in one direction and stay in a refugio with no electricity or running water and tomorrow we’d see more lakes and the arbol de piedra or we could go in another direction and stay at a better place with lights and water (and a shower) and tomorrow see other rock formations. Faced with the prospect of roughing it we all voted for the nicer option. Although I was a bit torn because I wanted to see the rock tree that I’d seen in photos. However, the guide told us that we’d see lots of rocks like the arbol. So I felt better and I’m sure I’d feel even better after that shower.

Laguna Colorado was a giant pink lake covered in flamingos. But these weren’t ordinary flamingos they were super smart. Or at least it appeared that way. The closer we tried to get to them the further away they got without appearing to move at all. Somehow these birds could bend the laws of physics. We all tried to get close to them but nothing worked until the convoy of Japanese tourists pulled up at the opposite end of the lake causing the birds to motionlessly move right in front of us to get away from them. Good for us but bad for the Japanese tour group – perhaps they should have tried giving the flamingos some of those cranes.

The guide then told us it was time to go to our accommodation for the night. It was another hour of driving to Villa Mar – weirdly named since there was no sea anywhere nearby. But that wasn’t the only disappointment. Our “deluxe accommodation” was a six bed door and the showers were there but none of us could figure out how to get them to work. Not at all what we expected. This was the first time we were staying in a dorm on our trip so we warned the others about Adrian’s snoring. Oh well, nothing like a sleeping on top of each other to ensure our group would bond. Just behind the guesthouse a woman was washing clothes in the stream oblivious to the fact that it was freezing. Just beside her llamas grazed on the bit of grass growing on either side of the trickle of water. It was pretty but it was also too cold to explore so I hid back in the room trying to get some blood and feeling back into my fingertips. If the rest of the trip was like this I was in trouble - I only had that long sleeve polo shirt and a windbreaker and this was full fleece weather. The others headed into the village to explore (and look for a pub Bart said half-jokingly) while Adrian headed up to climb the rock cliff that circled the village. But everyone returned in time for dinner. Bart hadn’t found his pub but Adrian had found a store selling beer by candlelight so we created our own pub atmosphere over our soup and spaghetti. It was probably just the alcohol but for a brief moment I was actually warm so I left the others and crawled into bed fully clothed hoping to wake up with all my digits unfrozen.

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