I feel like we`ve been to hell and back, but as they say here, “Vale la pena.” Literally, “the pain has value” or in English, “it`s worth it.”
We`ve finally arrived in Uyuni, the jumping off point for the spectacular Salt Flats. To get here on the incredibly tight time schedule, we spent three days straight getting crappy sleep on trains and busses, living out of bus terminals, not showering, and wearing clothes so dirty I was afraid to touch my own body. From Quijarro to Santa Cruz, we rode the train, nearly a 24 hour journey. All in all not bad, but 24 hours on a train still makes for an exhausted couple of travellers. In Santa Cruz, as we suspected, we got taken on our bus tickets. We paid double the price ($12 instead of $6). The agency took our money, scribbled out some faux tickets, went and bought tickets from another agency for half the price, made up some story about a later departure than they originally told us (the bus is having mechanical problems or some such nonsense), and then last minute escorted us personally to the front door of the bus from the second agency and handed us the 1/2 price tickets. I was too shocked to really say anything, but now I regret not getting somewhat miffed and demanding that they return at least 1/2 of the extra money. From Santa Cruz to Sucre was to be the most comfortable bus ride of them all, little did we know. We left Santa Cruz in the evening, travelled overnight, and arrived Sucre early morning hoping to go directly to Potosì (we`ve no time for stops in between major destinations since we`ve committed ourselves to such a demanding schedule). We managed to get a bus leaving at 9:00am (we`re now on day three of travel with no real sleep, mind you). Thankfully, the small bus (seats for 26) was not crowded, and Pat was able to have a seat all to himself with a vast expanse of leg room. Or so we thought. We left the terminal, but stopped every few blocks until the bus got so full, that I jumped over to share Pat`s seat with him. At one stop, the seats finally filled up, but people kept cramming onto the bus. I had the aisle seat, which meant plenty of other people`s stinky body parts in my face. It turns out my shoulders were the perfect place for aisle-standers to sit whenever they needed to let someone else squeeze by. Finally we were on the road, as I squirmmed to maintain the small space I had paid for. Slowly but surely, the woman and her child standing just slightly in front of me started to inch their way into my foot space until the child was actually standing on my feet.
Side note: it`s really difficult for me, being from a country where there is enough for everyone, and everyone waits their turn (at least in the cities and environments that I live, work, and play in) to be in a place like this. In the U.S., our golden motto is: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Here in Bolivia, it seems to be: do unto others whatever you need to do to get whatever you want. Because in the U.S., if you are patient and wait in line, surely your turn will come. Here, if you are patient and wait in line, your turn will never come because people will continue to shove in front of you. I try not to be appalled, and I try to remind myself continuously that most of these people are quite poor and have to fight for everything they have (or at least more so than I am used to), but sometimes I can`t help but be frustrated and annoyed.
And, the bus between Sucre and Potosì was no exception. The constant battle with the woman and her child for the leg/foot space I had paid for was a definite test of my resolve. The low point was when the woman, who had finally decided to put her butt in the aisle and her feet on top of mine, instead of vice versa, covered the mouth of her coughing child. Wait, not coughing. Wretching, I realized too late, as the three-year-old boy projectile vomited across my feet! I managed to jerk my feet out of the way just in time to miss the main stream, and sat crouched like a monkey in my seat for the next (and last) hour of the trip to avoid the mess. This, of course, pleased the woman, because it meant more room for her as she stretched the rest of the way into the area the bus designer intended for my knees, shins, and feet and squeezed her son between the wall and Pat`s knees. I wish I were kidding.
You`d think that was the low point, but instead, I`d say we hit bottom and flat-lined. When we got to Potosì, the highest city in the world, we missed the afternoon Uyuni departure by an hour, and the only mine tour we had time to go on by 1/2 an hour. We bought our evening departure Uyuni tickets, only to find that the bus didn`t leave from the main terminal, but from another office. The man behind the counter would only give me vague, half-hearted directions (are we getting scammed again!?), so we finally left to wander around in hope we could find said office. After walking uphill for fifteen minutes in the thin, dry atmosphere of the highest city in the world looking like lost tourists, we were finally redirected to the office we sought by a woman hoping to sell us bus tickets. We were able to drop our bags and wander about the streets hoping to find lunch, but it seemed chicken and fried potatoes were the only fare on order. Bolivia is well known for it`s lack of cleanliness and therefore rampant food poisioning if you are a first-world traveller unaccustomed to the bacterial-onslaught. Therefore, we thought it best to avoid the chicken, and no place would sell us just fried potatoes. So, tummies rumbling, we ambled slowly (to avoid the headaches, etc. brought on by any kind of fast paced activity at 13,400 ft.) up and down the streets until we saw a slightly more promising restaurant (i.e. with a menu instead of just having to know what`s being served and how it all works). Finally Pat was able to get a coke and a quesadilla with rice, and I was able to use the first clean bathroom I`d seen in four days. Alleluia!
After lunch, we set about procuring more food for the bus trip, but the food on offer is so unfamiliar to us that I ended up just getting roasted corn (a less salty form of Corn Nuts), some bread, and some choclate. Finally I found a stand selling fresh sopapillas and downed two before we finally tossed our bags up top and boarded the tiny onibus for the worst bus ride of our lives. A tour group boarded immediately after us. Groups tend to be annoying at the least, and outright rude and disrespectful of everyone else at the most. Except for the loud boisterous chatter, the ten Russians weren`t bad. It was seven o`clock, and we were finally off to Uyuni, where laundry and hot showers awaited us. Oh, but don`t get excited yet. We were told the ride would be six to seven hours. Depressing because it meant an early morning arrival with questionable potential to sleep on the bus until sunrise. Ten miles down the road, we started praying it would be just six hours instead of the potential seven. The seats on the bus were no wider than my shoulders (which means 1/2 as wide as Pat`s), and the padding in the seats had gone out long ago, which meant our bones were purchased on metal rods. Roads in Bolivia are known for being shoddy at best, and eternally miserable at worst. Our road was somewhere inbetween. Pat tried to solve his seat-width issue by flipping his arm rest up, but every bump tossed him into the aisle. My attempts to sleep were futile, as were Pat`s. At the first stop we decided to try and layer ourselves across the two seats. Pat wiggled into place first, and as I struggled to find a comfortable position on top of him, the Russians started disscussing our collective plight with us. Pat commented that he was to big, to which the man behind us said in his wonderfully thick Russian accent, “No! Not too big! The bus is too small!” Shortly thereafter, one his friends offered to trade us seats. Five seats stretched across the back of the bus, one at the end of the aisle, which meant limitless leg room. We made the rest of the ride in slightly better condition and arrived three hours earlier than expected. A tour peddler awaiting the arrival of the bus shuttled us to a hotel and we got to sleep in a bed for the first time in four days.
If we can`t get the boat from central Bolivia to the Brazilian border, this is the road we will travel for 30 hours. Please, God, no.
Now, here we are. Uyuni is cold and dry. We sleep under eight blankets, but I actually don`t mind the cold. It makes me feel like I`m camping, and I am happier here than I have been in days. Today, we finally got our clothes washed, and we had a nice hot shower for the first time in days.
Today marks five months of dating, or whatever you might call it, so tonight we are celebrating with a feast at a pizza buffett. We have to hurry up and choose a tour as well as get onward tickets (I hear it`s quite easy to get stuck here) to LaPaz, but today has been wonderfully relaxing.
I am so looking forward to the salt flats. The altitude never drops below 14,000, and it`s winter here (no snow… that comes in the wet season… summer), so I am fully prepared to freeze my butt off. I can`t wait!