14.04.2012 - 21.04.2012 54 °F
I have now spent a full week on Bolivia and everything about this country is a loud contradiction.
The minute you cross the border from Argentina (on foot, walking 20 minutes from where the night bus romantically drops you off at dawn), you are plunged into color, age and chaos. Women dressed in traditional garments seeming to have jumped off the pages of a travel magazine, streets that never seen asphalt, houses of all colors cramped on top of each other at various heights and shapes that give the place a real gaiety and charm.
If you swallow a bit of water or eat the leaf of lettuce uncannily served with your lunch, you are guaranteed 3 days of urgent bathroom meetings.
Yet, the cars you see on the streets are an impressive and healthy variety of American and Japanese 4x4.
In the remote villages that we visited, electricity is restricted to a few hours at night, yet they have solar panels and all the toilets I´ve seen (no need for details, but at 4+km altitude and drinking 4 liters a day...), they all flush and not a single one was just a hole.
Toilet paper is never free but a luxury suit at a 4-star hotel is $40.
On the way to Salar de Uyuni we stopped at a number of indigenous villages (apparently, 60% of Bolivian population is indigenous, compare to only about 5% in Argentina). Most of them set at 4km altitude. During the day, it´s burning-skin hot, but none of the heat seems to be retained by the dark, solemn huts where I slept in a sleeping back and under 3 heavy wool blankets.
Compare to the people, I finally felt tall, and like a creature from a different era.
But what stayed with me about the people, the toothless men, the women in tall hats and with long, charcoal black braids (the phenomena of graying hair seems to have entirely skipped these people), the children going to school dressed in a uniform, is that they are silent people.
They don´t talk much, often not at all.
When the Argentinean girl in my 4-people jeep (Lexus), asked about the use of what seemed to be a smoking pipe sold by a 60+ woman in a tall hat with a sack on her back the size of her whole body, the woman after some time starring at her answered: ¨If you don´t know, don´t ask.¨
Not much can grow by these villagers.
Most people attend to flocks of llamas that run around grazing in the rock slopes -- 100% organic, free range.
Oh, and the llamas.
Surely they take the top 3 crown for the cutest animals.
They come in all shades of tan, often half of their bodies perfectly divided into white and brownish/grey.
But, when they run, it just doesn´t get old. They are so awkwardly funny, as if you are performing a bad imitation of a galloping horse that looks more like a baby camel on wooden stilts.
Unlike the flamingos that flocked many of the colorful lagoons that we saw, the llamas were not afraid of us and let our giddy selves approach as they purposefully hopped to some surely important bush of grass.
At 5km altitude, we came upon geisers -- pools of bubbling liquid that to me looked like spilling vomit.
They say you can watch water and fire forever, but, also, you can stand gazing at a boiling vats of vomit wondering when the alien´s hand will finally reach for you and end this futuristic nightmare.
But of course the highlight of the 4-day trip that made the 10-hour daily jeep rides on Bolivian ¨roads¨ worth it were the salt flats: Salar de Uyuni.
We decided to treat ourselves and spend the chilly night at a luxurious hotel ($55 per person for a suite), entirely made of Salt.
The walls, the sofas, the tables ... You get the picture.
In fact, even our bathroom walls were made of salt, but in an afterthought were covered with plastic shield, for obvious reasons.
And yes, of course I had to sample the various objects in the hotel to confirm that, indeed, they were entirely made of salt.
We spent the evening watching the sunset descend on the flats, where the vastness of the salt fields played a trick on the eye and it seemed like you were standing on the edge of a sky, about to fall down.
After dining on the stake of llama (yeah, yeah, animal rights, vegetarian lifestyle), I was the only one to wake up and watch the sun rise, sitting on a table made of salt, wrapped in a blanket stolen from my suite.
And then, we drove into the flats.
Kilometers and kilometers of white salt. Nothing else. Salt. Just salt.
Our guide said that the salt, in layers of salt and water, goes 100 meters deep, and then he reached down, made a whole in the watery part and peeled off balls of crystallized salt.
I felt shaken and actually frightened; like this was some kind of foreshadowing of what the future Earth will look like.
But now, I am in the town of Sucre, with its white rows of pretty houses with red roofs, winding up narrow streeps up steep hills that open up onto breathtaking vistas of hills, mountains and quaint white churches. Come to think of it, Sucre remarkably look like Siena, Italy.
I guess that´s Bolivia.
I drink my 50 cent cafe con leche at the super touristy cafe at the top of the hill, and the land of luxurious Argentina, with its drinkable tap water and clean, tasty empanadas seems like a sci-fi planet from the future.