Friday, October 16, 2009
(old) It’s all about perspective.
The alarms went off at 4:30am. There was no shower but there was a good breakfast with eggs. Well, that’s Adrian’s definition of a good breakfast not mine. I hate eggs and these tasted really eggy but compared to the instant coffee and bread from yesterday it was an improvement. It was still pitch black when we loaded our gear back on the roof of the jeep and then raced across the salt flats trying to beat the sun. The rays were just peeking above the horizon when Amigo stopped the jeep. We got out and since the sun was still a few minutes from making its appearance we got to take in our surroundings. First, it was fricken (and you know I wanted to write something other than fricken) freezing – as in see your breath, stamp your feet to keep warm, sort of freezing. Once we got over the shock of the cold, we realized we were at a place where they were harvesting the salt from the salt flats. Wow, because it’s such a touristy thing to do I’d forgotten that they weren’t just a pretty place but a livelihood for locals. So how did they harvest it? Well, they had some sort of machine that cut the surface salt into blocks which they let dry out and then stacked for the trucks to pick up and take to the salt processing place. Or so Adrian found out using his amazing non-verbal Spanish abilities – I really don’t know how he does it.
I found myself wishing the sun would rise faster and distracted myself by taking pictures of the vast white landscape. This time I didn’t distract myself by taking up Amigo’s invitation to taste one of the blocks of salt. And eventually the sun slowly peeked over the horizon. Was getting up that early worth it? A sunrise is always pretty but the cold made it hard to appreciate. A sunrise only last a few minutes and in this case as soon as it was up we all huddled back in the jeep and joined the long line of vehicles heading towards the horizon. After our solitary day of rock sighting, we were back on the tourist train. The next “station” in this case was the Isla de Pescado (fish island). I asked Amigo why it was called that – as it had been a long time since there were any fish near by. He told me that the real name was actually Xqkyrtsqsfd, or something like that. (Okay that wasn’t the real name but it was in Quechua so that’s as good as I can do) but some tourists had remarked that it was shaped like a fish and the much easier to remember Isla de Pescado stuck. The island was indeed an island in the salt flats a hill rising out of the immense white expanse (photo above). It was covered in ancient cacti and coral rocks, a reminder of the time there was actual water in the area. We all followed the path up to the top of the island. There was a natural arch in the old coral rock, a plethora of giant cacti, as well as an area where the local Quechua folks performed some sort of rite but now appeared to be a dumping place for people’s extra visa and passport photos. The view was more white salt flat vastness so I decided to head down. I saw Amigo at the bottom and decided to finally ask his name. I told him I’d forgotten it and he was gracious enough to let me know what it was. Drum roll please…. “Me llama… Ruben”. Finally, mystery solved. When the others came back down I let them know. And we all breathed a sigh of relief and then promptly started using his name every time we spoke to him. I’m sure he was annoyed and confused by the sudden popularity of his first name.
Back in the jeep we headed out to the middle of the salt flats for some fun with perspective. Well that was my goal. Ever since I read another blogger’s account of their salt flat trip, I had been eager to take my own weird playing with perspective photos. It’s possible because of the featureless landscape. The others had no clue what I was trying to do as I posed Adrian standing metres behind the only prop we had – a water bottle. It wasn’t as easy as I thought but I eventually figured it out. Soon the others got into it and they all took turns “standing” on top of the water bottle while I snapped away on their cameras. I wish we had other things but either no one wanted to admit a stash of toys in their packs or we were all just too old and boring. After that we explored the small building made out a salt which, judging by the bottles and other things left in front was some sort of chapel. There was even a small table and chair made out of salt but it didn’t look up to anyone sitting on it.
But that small building was nothing compared to our next stop. By request, Ruben let us off at the salt hotel. It wasn’t just a building made out of salt, but everything inside. Ruben let us know that it was free to visit but that we should purchase something inside as a donation, since it was a private establishment. Inside Adrian found giant bars of Dairy Milk chocolate for sale and would have bought the entire stock if I hadn’t stopped him. With our “entrance fee” paid we began exploring the hotel. The table, the chairs, the beds, the bar, everything was made out of salt blocks. Pretty cool but also a little weird. But not as weird as the “museum” which was really a collection of salt sculptures from Quechua mythological figures, to a copy of Big Ben. Told you it was weird. Outside, a small wading pool had been cut out of the salt but at this temperature I can’t imagine it got much use. But it was worth it if only for the chocolate even if it did cost a small fortune.
After the salt hotel, we stopped one more time at a little town just on the edge of the salt flats. And by town I mean a collection of souvenir stalls and some high-end hotels. I headed straight to a display of alpaca wool hats and gloves and picked out some for both Adrian and I, not as souvenirs but as necessities. And cheap necessities too, at only $3 each. Finally my head and hands were warm after the 3 freezing days. The rest of the gang bought more than their fill and then it was back to the jeep and on our way to Uyuni. But now I had a request. I wanted to stop at the Uyuni train cemetery. It was exactly what it sounded like, a cemetery full of old decaying and rusting old locomotives. That’s right more decay. I think it was a bit out of the way but if we could see it on our way into town then there was no reason for Adrian and I to stay in town and we could immediately (try) to head to Argentina. I don’t think the others were as enthused by the detour but when we got there, Adrian and I didn’t care. Amongst the wind-blown rubbish were hundreds of rusting train parts and probably just as many tourists climbing over them. My camera battery was flashing red but it lasted just long enough to get enough shots to make me happy (although I could have taken more). I’m sure the others were happy that my battery died because when we made our way back to the jeep, they were already waiting.
And then it was into Uyuni. Thanks to the early hour it was barely noon. But that gave all of us time to figure out our onward travel plans. Tony was going to stick around for a night. While Kai, Anna and Bart were all trying to head out that day. And we were, well originally we had said that if we couldn’t shower in the morning we’d stay the night in Uyuni but now that we were in the town even feeling gross and icky wasn’t enough of a reason to stick around. So we decided to let the availability of train tickets decide our fate. Ruben dropped us off at the train station and then took the rest to the ATM, promising to come back for us. The station was empty as was the ticket office. Eventually a man appeared to tell us that there were plenty of tickets available for tonight’s train. So that was decided we were heading to Argentina tonight. We opted for first class tickets figuring that a bit of comfort after the last four days and within 5 minutes we were booked in. Now it was time to wait for the others to come back.
As we were standing in the shade outside the station, we saw some familiar faces across the street. It was Stuart and Max from Santa Cruz. I went running down the street after them to say hello. They had just arrived and were shopping around for a cheap salt flat tour. I told them that the one-day tour would be enough. But our reunion was cut short by the return of the jeep. We said goodbye (once again) to the lads and climbed back into the jeep for the short ride to the bus company offices. While the others bought their tickets to La Paz and Tony checked into his hostel, Ruben unloaded all of our luggage. When all that was done we thanked him, gave him his tip and said goodbye. We may not have been able to remember his name, but we really did appreciate everything.
Then it was just us without the guide. We decided to stick together and have lunch in the main square. We followed the others with our big bags (they had been able to check their’s at bus company) to the first tables we saw. They were in the sun and, of course now that I’d bought woolly hats and mittens it was baking. The menu was a bit of a shock. The prices were more like Chile than Bolivia and after Adrian and I had told the others how cheap Bolivia we were going to have to literally eat our words. But it was food and drinks not cooked by Ruben and that was worth it. (Sorry Ruben). After lunch the others went out to explore the town while Adrian and I stayed put, and getting a chance to chat to Stuart and Max who passed by as well as two British girls at the table next to us. We started to talk about food we missed and when one of the girls mentioned Cadbury’s chocolate I gave her the rest of the giant Dairy Milk we had and immediately became their best friends. Travel karma.
Adrian and I realized the café was actually part of a hostel and he asked if we could use their shower. They charged us $2 but it was the best $2 we spent and now we were ready to take the overnight train, except it wasn’t leaving for another 8 hours. We were sick of schlepping our bags around so we headed to the train station to ask if we could leave them there. The station master told us he wasn’t supposed to but told us he didn’t mind helping us out. We assumed he was dropping a hint so we gave him a small tip and just hoped our bags would be there when we got back. Then it was time to join the rest of the group. Adrian and I had decided that we wanted to try the infamous Minuteman Pizza that so many people had raved about and the others said they’d join us. Adrian went off to use the internet and said he’d join us shortly. But as the rest of us were searching for the pizza place which wasn’t sign posted I realized he’d never find it. I waited for 20 minutes and then went out to find him wandering the streets looking lost. After dinner and an exchange of emails, Anna, Bart and Kai went to catch their buses while Tony, Adrian and I went back to the internet. It was time to do some research to prepare for crossing the border – like buses from the border, places to stay in Salta, and most importantly the exchange rate between the Boliviano and the Argentinean peso. That helped pass the time until it was time to catch the train and for Tony to head to bed.
With no sun beating down on us it had turned cold again and the waiting room was not heated. Nor was there anywhere to sit. As the people piled in it warmed up and the luggage room was officially opened. Phew our luggage was still there. And almost on time the train arrived and we headed out. I failed to notice any difference between the first class seats and second class. The seats were far less comfortable than bus seats and there were no blankets. There was however a TV playing a really bad Bolivian talent show, really loud. From our perspective, the TV was a minus but the Bolivians in our car seemed to love it. But we were so tired that we soon fell (almost) asleep.