Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Salar de Uyuni: Gringos

The popularity of our route was undeniable. Despite the fearsome appearance of this section of altiplano, which sitting at 14,000 feet above sea-level scarcely provides enough grass to feed a few scraggly and frozen-looking llamas, squat tourist refuges had sprouted like mushrooms over any halfway-potable source of water that the volcanoes saw fit to release from their slopes. Lines of parallel tire tracks raked the plain like plough furrows in a field. Where the ground turned rockier, a quartet of jeep paths beat in the boulder field intersected and bifracated. We climbed a small hill and passed a broken-down jeep, surrounded by a group of cold and angry-looking tourists.

We turned off a rough track and found the main road. “How many years have you been a guide,” I asked Carlos, our driver.
“16 years. It has changed a lot. It used to be a 5 day trip [now it is 3]. Only 3 or 4 tourists a week would come,” he answered without lifting an eye off the wheel as we speed down the freshly-graded track.
“It seems like there's more gringos than Bolivians here.”
“Yes, there are.”
I paused and thought for a second. “Well, I am here, too.”

The landscapes were mind-bendingly hallucinogenic. But the altiplano was suffocating on its own popularity. At the lake we found another half-dozen Brits from some another company attempting to stalk a couple of wary flamingos. We got out of the jeep to find our own flamingo to hunt and absent-mindingly tightened the altiplano's ligatures a little more.

We left the lake and speed towards our hostel, which had sprouted next to an anemic-looking stream, and added our own furrow to the loose gravel. We complained about the food loudly in English as it was served. After dinner, the Brits bought beer and were getting rowdy, when the fickle power cut out for good. I sat in the dark at the corner of the table for a few moments before I got up and went to the kitchen and, interrupting a conversation in Quechua, asked for a glass of my own.

If you lived in Bolivia and occupied the bottom of the labor pool, you might take home 20 Bolivianos (US$3) a day. And you wouldn't turn down even a single Boliviano, no matter how outnumbered you were in your own country, no matter what language its owner shouted at you.

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