Sunday, May 08, 2005

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Having been in Bolivia almost a week, I´m beginning to get used to the rhythm of this country, which is completely different from Argentina and Chile. First of all, it´s much poorer, which is evident just about everywhere. It will take a while to catch up on all the things I´ve been seeing, so let´s start a week ago with the Salar de Uyuni...

The tour went well overall; we had a great group: me, Thibaut, Rio (from Scotland), Karla (from Ireland), Walter (from Austria) and Mathias (from France). We had a blast together and really got along well, which is important when you spend three days together. The countryside of Southwestern Bolivia is so beautiful that you almost don´t mind being bounced around in the back of a Land Rover eight hours a day for three days. We saw gorgeous lakes tinted several colors by mineral deposits, with pink flamingoes wading around and fishing for algae. We all felt breathless and slightly dizzy at the highest point, 4,800 meters above sea level, where we stopped to see some geysers. We chewed coco leaves to ward off the effects of altitude (and cold and hunger) as the Bolivians of the Altiplano do. The geysers were disgusting and fascinating pools of gray or red mud bubbling and letting off a horrible sulphur stench. We also saw weird rock formations, which seem to have fallen from nowhere in huge volcanic explosions millions of years ago. In between stops, we crossed vast stretches of desert, completely barren all the way to the surrounding mountains.

On the second night we slept in a hotel made entirely of salt! Tables, chairs, walls, beds, floors, etc. (Well, except for the bathroom, I suppose it wouldn´t be that great if the shower walls dissolved while you were in the middle of your shower or the toilet dissolved into the ground when you flushed it). Finally on our last day we crossed the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the large that when you´re in the middle of it, all you can see is salt all around you, besides some distant mountains. It´s pretty amazing that all this salt exists out here, at around 3,500 meters of altitude. When some of it is removed for processing, the hole fills in with water from below, which eventually evaporates and fills in with what seems to be an endless supply of salt! We stopped at an "island" covered in cactuses to take some pictures and play in the salt.

The problem we had with the tour was our "guide-driver-cook", Ernesto. Really, "driver" is the only word for him, considering he hardly spoke at all (only told us his name when we asked, and never even asked ours, preferring the universal "amigo/amiga" to the effort of trying to get to know his clients). His idea of guiding was to stop the car at a lake and say "Laguna Colorada, amigos. 20 minutos!" At first we thought this was because his first language is Quechua, not Spanish. But that didn´t seem to stop most of the other groups´ guides from being friendly and outgoing. Then there was the small problem that he seemed to be stealing some of our food: at each meal there were a few things missing, things that the other groups had. We had heard that occasionally guides will take food meant for the group to sell it to supplement their income. After our tour, it seems Ernesto would be able to sell an avocado or two, some bread, soft drinks, butter, canned meat, and dulce de leche (and that´s only the things we noticed). Obviously, guides are paid next-to-nothing by the agency, and we felt bad about that, but still felt rather annoyed that we did not get all that we paid for. This left us with a rather uncomfortable dilemma: do we complain and risk costing him his job, knowing he has a wife and three kids to support on an extremely meager salary as is, or do we accept this as part of the uncomfortable truths of "rich" foreigners visiting Bolivia? I´m still on the fence about that one, but in the end it might come down to a much simpler question: whether or not I have the energy and motivation to write an e-mail to the agency. And in the long-term, the positive aspects of the tour, the friends I made and the beautiful things I saw far outweigh the negatives.