Uyuni itself is a combination of typical Bolivian antiplano town and tourist hive, depending on which streets you walk. We spent a few days relaxing and letting Philipp’s stomach and my chaffed behind recover from our travails through the salars.
We decided to skip cycling the beautiful but notoriously difficult laguna route. Philipp still had some nagging stomach issues and, with August being the coldest month of the year round these parts, our gear was struggling to keep us warm in the -5 nights at 3600m. The very idea of camping at 4500m+ in reported temperatures of -20 was giving me anxiety. Instead we would set off on the more direct route to the Chilean border and cycle south down from there to the desert Shangri La of San Pedro de Atacama. It wouldn’t be as spectacular but it would spare us a week of pushing our bikes through thick sand and freezing our toes off.
Experience dictates that the wind is strongest in the afternoon so we set off early in hope of avoiding it. However, the rebel wind wasn’t playing by the rules and decided
to start up at daybreak. We struggled onwards for 20km but then things got wild. The mountain in the distance disappeared in a huge duststorm and we were forced to take refuge from the strongest wind I’ve ever felt in my life. It was difficult to stand still, let alone cycle, and we resorted to pushing forward at about 2kmph, frequently stopping to
shield our faces from the onslaught of dust and rocks. When a truck drove past, without word we both stuck our thumbs out…
The next morning the wind was even stronger. The birds couldn’t take off, comically veering from side to side at every attempt, and even the locals told us this wind was highly unusual: one guide describing it as some of the worst he’d ever experienced. We tried to cycle but gave up after 30 seconds and installed ourselves on the side of the road. The bus wouldn’t take us and a jeep driver quoted us a ludicrous price of 1000 Bolivianos ($130+ dollars) for the 80km drive.
Notes/Observations on Bolivia:
– The first things I noticed on crossing the border was the quality of bread. The Peruvians favour these little circular rolls, almost like flatbreads, while the Bolivians make all different types, including proper crusty bread rolls. In some restaurants they even serve these with the soup, something we take for granted in Europe, but rarely seen elsewhere in South America.
– On the outskirts of many Bolivian towns and cities there are entire neighbourhoods of shoddily built, unfinished redbrick houses. Sometimes these ghost suburbs go on for miles and miles; the majority of the houses too small to house an alpaca, let alone a family of Bolivians. Whether they’re built as a land grab with an eye to future completion or as some kind of tax break loophole, I never found out for sure. If anyone can enlighten me please comment below as I’d be fascinated to know.
– Among many travellers the Bolivian people have a reputation for being rude and unfriendly to foreigners. Like most stereotypes I found this to be reductive but with a
hint of truth. It’s true that most Bolivia doesn’t have a sterling service culture. Shopkeepers and waiters rarely made any extra effort but to me this came across as indifference rather than outright rudeness and after months in rural Peru I was already so used to it that if someone had asked me if I was enjoying my meal I would’ve died of shock. Aside from one miserable hotel owner who gleefully closed the door in our faces when we tried to haggle, no-one stood out as particularly nasty and one very poor old lady in Viacha, after a chat about my trip and my family, even insisted that I take 10 Bolivianos from her despite my protestations. “I know how it feels to have my children away from home. You must eat!”.
– In the 1870s Bolivia lost the Atacama desert in a war with Chile, and with it their only link to the sea. To this day this is a contentious issue and is often blamed for Bolivia’s
economic struggles. #MarparaBolivia (sea for Bolivia) can be seen on the side of cable cars in La Paz and the kids of Alota made it the subject of the only poster in our abandoned classroom abode. In La Paz me and Carol visited the “Museo de Litoral” (Museum of the Coast) which was dedicated to this conflict. One of the rooms, labelled “Introduction” simply had two giant wall projections of the lost beaches, set to the sound of waves crashing. It with simultaneously hilarious and tragic. The whole thing reminded me of the South Korean dispute with the Japanese over the island of Dokdo. Photos of Dokdo could be seen on the walls of banks, bus stations and over the course of the stay my students regaled me with questions, and gave presentations on the “colonalist Japanese dogs”, shouting “DOKDO IS OURS!” and waving their fists in the air. During the day of Independence parades we heard similar anti-Chilean sentiments being shouted and word has it that if you bring a car with Chilean number plates into Bolivia it won’t last the night.
– For some reason the nation has collectively fetishised marching bands and a brassy racket has haunted much of my waking life this past month. I’m indifferent to their charms but when they start directly outside of my window at 6.00am as was the case in Uyuni my feelings harden somewhat. Then when a soldier tries to stop me entering my hotel as it’s in the path of the parade, the prospect of defecating out of the window into a passing tuba suddenly becomes much more appealing.
Tunes: Manchester Orchestra – A Black Mile to the Surface , Into The Wild OST – Eddie Vedder, Drive OST, Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
Reads: Jonathan Franzen – Freedom, Into The Wild – John Krakauer