Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Salted Sleep

We waited around for about two hours before there was to be a bus for Colchani, which is the closest village to the salt flats. I kept thinking to myself that they had all the tour companies for a reason, that to get out to the famous Salar Uyuni alone was not possible. Still, we waited on the bus, as from Google maps, it looked as though the salt flats really did abut the village. From the bus windows, we can see the luminescence of the white salt. Along the horizon there was a diffuse glow, like when you see a photo taken from space of Earth while the sun is behind it. The brown earth turned to khaki and to a thin line of white that mixed with the blue of the sky; the reflecting qualities of the white made it difficult to tell where the horizon ended and the sky began. We hadn’t yet reached Colchani and the bus rambled further along the dirt road. We got off in a small village that had railroad tracks and not much else. Somewhat leery, because we couldn’t tell how far away the Salar was, we began to walk toward the horizon’s luminescence. We were heartened when we past some touristy stands selling woven blankets souvenir hats and, God, ‘llama sutra’ t-shirts. I threatened to buy Gina one of the abominations. At the stands we were among a large group of tourists, looking at them all we realized that we had forgotten one (probably) very important requirement for the Salar: sunglasses. “Oh, shit,” I thought. “Those things are going to cost a fortune here, if they even have any.” We looked around a few places and found a display of sunglasses that didn’t look totally disposable. They weren’t too expensive, and since Gina didn’t have any anyway, and the ones I own are incredible crooked, we bought them and set out past the waiting tourist 4x4s on foot. It was a great feeling to visit the Salar unaccompanied because it’s something that should be played on. I could see how it brought out this spirit in everyone who came to it. The glowing emptiness coaxes out a childish run and jump and prod response. As the ground under our feet gave way to salt trails, cracks and crispy filigreed pockets of dust and salt we began to jump and shout and say absurd things that made us laugh even more. Perhaps it was the feeling of being in such a remote and desolate place, but with the consolation that you had a way back home. It may have also been that the otherworldly landscape evokes a certain response because it is altogether unfamiliar. If you think about it, there is a certain decorum for places like cathedral forests, and vast impressive mountains. A white desert starts at you like an impressive thing, but somehow quickly becomes an absurd thing, perhaps because it is such a harsh environment that one becomes irreverent. With due irreverence, we bounded along the salt flats, jumping on piles of salt, kicking up buckled plates of dried salt, eating salt, poking salt sludge and flinging it at each other and continually saying ‘wow’ to every tiny variation we came across. At the ‘Ojos del Salar’ (which were a collection of a few large thermal pools in the Salar) we dug our arms elbow deep down into bubbling red pools. The water was warm, but not warm enough to bathe in, especially with the wind that was whipping around out there. As soon as you took your arm out of the jasper-red water, it got very cold. The solution was to wipe it repeatedly on my pants and end up totally encrusted in dried salt. This led to complete disregard to preserve any of my clothing and soon I was completely covered in salt. We had been out on the Salar for a while and were wondering whether we should go back to the village and try to figure out where to get on the bus, or if we should walk just a little further. Our question was answered for us when we saw what looked like a bus gradually growing on the horizon. It was hard to be sure, the Salar does weird things to perspective. We had earlier been following a 4x4 that had been moving away from us, thinking that it was some kind of attraction. We ran over to where we though the bus would intersect our path. There were no clearly demarcated roads on the Salar, cars just drove across it in all directions like a vast, white parking lot. “This is like something out of an acid trip,” Gina said as the bus slows down to let us on. “Or like the end of a movie,” I added. Where previously, there had been nothing, this bus had suddenly materialized in front of us and now stood waiting with open doors, nothing around but white. In this environment, the bus seemed more like a conduit or a plot device than an actual tangible thing. We stood on a blank white page waiting for the author to make a decision, lacking inspiration a writes ‘ a bus appears’ and that’s all we’ve got: white emptiness and this bus. We bought tickets of Oruro when we got back into town. The buses didn’t leave until 8 pm and now that we had seen the Salar, there didn’t seem to be any reason to stay in Uyuni for another 24 hours. We had a nice room, we could’ve just stayed and relaxed, but we had become accustomed to the perpetual motion of travel and longed for another rocky bus ride that would leave the inside of our nostrils raw, our lips chapped and our bodies coated with a fine, undefinable film. 8 O’clock in the evening seemed like a good time to leave. We had seen a lot of the area from a walk in the morning and we were tired out from our trip to the Salar. We had time to relax a little and then go over to the bus station. It seemed possible that we might even sleep. To better our chances, I bought a couple cans of beer for us to drink at the bus station. Bus stations are naturally overwhelming places. It helps if you can have something that shows your disregard for them. Sitting on your pack, holding a can of beer, the running people, the ticket sellers shouting over each other and all the buses jockeying for position mean nothing. Your bus leaves at eight. There’s no reason to get up until then. We had a about a can and a half of beer a piece, not much, but enough to make a bathroomless bus ride hell. At about 5 minutes to 8 we ran to the public bathroom to empty our bladders. When we got on the bus, I thought we had beaten the whole thing. Yeah, we were going to have an uncomfortable night bus ride, that was probably going to dump us off at our destination at some ungodly hour in the morning, but we were relaxed and intrepid; we weren’t concerned with such things. Once on the bus, we put our headphones on in the dark, smiled to each other and watched the blur of stars outside the window. The ride was supposed to be very cold so we had layered up before leaving. It wasn’t, however, and soon we were getting warm. I left my sweaters on in hopes that somehow the discomfort of being hot would distract me from having to pee so bad. We hadn’t been on the road more than twenty minutes when I had begun to feel the disconcerting tug of my bladder. The last bus we had been on had stopped once in the middle of a six-hour journey and it seemed less than fain to even do that. We rocked and bounced along in the suffocating heat and darkness, so much different from the bright and cool salt flats of that afternoon. I clenched my teeth, I crossed my legs, I tried to lose myself in the music, but it wasn’t long before the pull became a tug and then clenched into an actual fist of pain right below the left side of my ribcage. The fist bounced and broke with every bump in the road. I felt short of breath, sweat seemed to cascade down my forehead. I pulled my hat off and kneaded it between my hands. I gasped. And then the bus stopped. Not a rolling stop, but an actual hard stop. The lights came on. In my desperation, I stood up, hopeful. The aisle was full of sleeping children and a few sitting adults. I had no way to get off or get to the driver there was no room even if all the kids had stood up they would have to get off the bus to allow me to pass though. Dejected, I sat back down, waited for the lights to go back down and took out my thermos. Surprisingly, it wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined, nor as awkward even while sitting next to a complete stranger. I hadn’t wanted to do it, because I knew that Gina probably had to pee as well, even when she reassured me that she didn’t, but it got to a point where it felt like something was going to break. We stopped about an hour later and I went again, just to be sure. The bus pulled into Oruro at exactly three am, which is probably the worst time to arrive anywhere, but especially a place you know nothing about. I had set up a meeting with a couchsurfer there and hadn’t planned on getting a room at all, but when we found ourselves in dirty bus station where dogs slunk through the open door and fought with each other, I decided that we would go out and find a room regardless. I’ve slept in bus stations before, but I didn’t want to sleep here alongside the cavorting dogs. We shouldered our packs and went out in search of a hotel. In the parking lot, I stopped to ask an attendant where a certain street. He began to tell me and then asked if I planned on going there now. ‘Well, yeah, I’m going to get a room,’ I told him. He shook his head, ‘you don’t want to go out there now, there’s nothing but thieves out there. You’d better go back into the bus station and wait until dawn, then go and get yourself a room.’ It seemed reasonable advice, but by dawn I would have no reason to get a room since we had someone in town to stay with and the bus station was full of dogs and no benches, not even a chair to sit on. I thought about leaving the pack with Gina and going out alone to see what I could find, but I was too tired for such heroism and soon found myself spreading out my sleeping bag on the bus station floor, amidst the yelping and growling dogs. I wasn’t asleep, but I wasn’t awake either. When you try to sleep outside without ample equipment, you enter into a strange sort of twilight sleep: aware, but foggy. You can feel your hip grinding against the cold tile floor and the drool running down your cheek, but you cease to care after a while and abandon yourself to the idea that you’re going to have to lay here for hours, turning back and forth. I was in the middle of accepting this when a woman was suddenly above us telling us to get up, she needed to get into her store, the door of which we were laying in front of. Oh, it must already be morning. We got up and began to pack up the bag, but something seemed wrong, outside, it was still dark and there were still people sleeping all over. I looked at the phone to see what time it was. 4:40. We walked over to another part of the bus station, lay down on the cold tile and pulled the sleeping bag over our heads, trying to shut out even the idea of what we were doing. Around six we could no longer ignore the roar that was gradually breaking over us. The bus ticket sellers had become much more strident. “Potosi, Potoseeeeee,” they yelled. “Cochabama, Cochabama, Cooooochabaaaaama,” they shouted. I peeked out from under the sleeping bag, there were feet all around us, not sleeping feet, standing feet, waiting feet. It was time to get up. My only consolation, was that the morning sun would be much warmer than the tile floor had been. We pack up the sleeping bag, shouldered our packs and walked about a block away before stopping. We had nothing to do and nowhere to go. Even if we wanted to go somewhere, we had our massive packs. I needed to contact the couchsurfing host, but I knew that it would be some time before the internet cafes opened. I badly needed a cup of coffee. We sat there for a while, trying to decide what to do. My eyes had sand in them, my clothes, salty from the day before, were practically stuck to me and my mouth was nearly gummed shut. It was great. The night, we made dinner together with our couchsurfing host, Juan Carlos and some other couchsurfers from France. The French couple were travelling around South America promoting different kinds of games, as well as learning about them, but they weren’t as hippy as that sounds and we had a great time trying out their games and eating quinoa and trying to speak Spanish to each other. It was my first Couchsurfing experience in which everyone wasn’t speaking English and by the end of the night I was full and incredibly thankful to have a bed again. As I lie down, I could still hear the dogs and the bus ticket sellers in my head. “Potosi, Potoseeee!”

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