Uyuni Salt Mining

The Search for Johnny Tito

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Dear Lord, we thank you for this food, and for this company. We beseech you to watch over our friends in their way, that they may make their destination under your watchful eye. And let your own light shine through their eyes as they meet those in greater need, that no one should be without a satisfied belly…”

As Jorge said grace around our last meal with the Parrado family of La Paz, I sat itching my leg. My ankles were already swollen. I wondered what the locals downtown must have thought when they saw this gringo running at top speed down La Paz’ main avenue, each foot stomping down heavily clad with boot. I had to run. The Brazilian consulate was closing and I had only 20 minutes to withdraw $140 dollars, pay it at the Bank of Brasil, and run back to the consulate. I made it in time and when the lady behind the counter said “Hold on, I have to confirm your ticket of departure,” my spine tightened. Brazil requires of us Americans proof of departure. I would be entering Brazil twice, I think, but only the first entry needed the ticket. I wasn’t about to tell her I was hitchhiking. When dealing with borders and visas and all that crap it’s always best to stay square. However, I couldn’t find any international ticket from Brazil to Argentina that cost less than 70 dollars. So I made a fake ticket. Remember Panama?

Fake Return Ticket

A fake return ticket from Brazil to Argentina. I make no claims that this is real.

 

My spine loosened when she handed me my passport, which was already ugly and stuffed with various stamps and visas, but now with a brand new Brazilian visa. My ticket scheme had worked. I might have felt pride at the accomplishment if not for the fact that Americans are the only ones who have to pay $140. Reciprocation for charging Brazilians the same, if not more. I think the U.S. government should pay such fees for its own citizens, since we have nothing to do with the government deciding to make a U.S. visa so damn pricey. That, or we should stop charging so much. The European Union doesn’t fuck poorer country citizens by charging what for them might be an arm and a leg, and it is just as desirable a destination as the U.S., if not more. On the other hand, I dislike the idea of reciprocity when it comes to visas. I get it, the U.S. screws you over, and you’re reading this and you’re thinking “Fucking American doesn’t understand,” well screw off, I do understand, but I see a country charging me the same the that my country charges its citizens and I don’t see the goodness in it. It’s just a twisted and wrong. The idea to pay so much just to ENTER a country pisses me off. Borders ought to be free, ALL OF THEM. So you might be thinking, “serves you right to have to pay to get in to countries, all countries should charge Americans so much…” Well if that’s the case you’re twisted too. Go away, I don’t want you on my website any more.

Luckily for me not all countries charge Americans to enter. Not yet at least. The Brazilian visa, like the Bolivian one, is a roadblock, but in Chile I had completed a project whose ganancias would be meant solely for said visas. Now that I’ve been in Bolivia for a spell, I’ve realized sneaking in would be easy, and no one ever checks my passport. However, if you’re going to sneak into a country, you need to sneak out into a country where you’re already legal, and we would not be heading back to Peru. The same goes for Brazil, the idea has always been onward.

Jorge dropped Mayra and I off at an intersection where we’d catch a bus to El Alto, the high plain part of La Paz. The Parrado family’s kindness would not end there. Jorge handed us a bag of snacks, and Mayra showed me later that Velma had handed her 100 Bolivianos. So it goes. So it went.

It was already late in the day, and in the makeshift “terminal” in El Alto, Mayra and I opted to use some of the gifted money for a 10 Boliviano bus to Oruro, where a CS host was awaiting us (Mayra’s ability to stop cars with her thumb is paralleled by her ability to get us couches through the internet). A bus to Oruro from La Paz’ main terminal runs upwards of 30 Bolivianos a pop. Leave it to hitchhikers, when they opt for buses, to find the cheapest of the lot. It would be my first legitimate paid intercity bus since the bus to Popoyan.

We had the best seats in the house, second floor front row with a clear glass windshield all there was between us and the open air. Driving out of El Alto, I realized how easy hitchhiking there would be. There is only one exit and entrance to La Paz, and rigs lined the way for miles. You could get anywhere in the country from here. To hitchhikers: get a bus to “Reten Achica Arriba” and hitch from there.

The sun smashed against dark rainclouds in the distance, creating an ominous backdrop to the bizarre structures built by the local rich. That is, there were ordinary brick edifices of some 6 stories, but cup in among the roof walls the owners had constructed their homes, which resembled run-of-the-mill suburban 3-floor homes. It was like someone took my home town and plopped it on top of Chicagoan apartment blocks.

Mayra tried to comfort me as I cursed our decision to ride in a bus. Those rainclouds grew dense until they had completely smote all light. It began to rain, each drop smashing against the windshield in front of us. Our own personal IMAX theatre of Bolivian countryside scenes turned into a thunderstorm and vicious bolts of lightning that struck across blackness and greyness. Mayra stared out and her fear and curiosity delighted me-her first thunderstorm. I told her stories of my old room back home, which sported skylights and made for participatory appreciation of such frights of nature as a Midwest storm.

Taking a bus in Bolivia.

Taking a bus in Bolivia.

 

I looked around at the people and melted into a state of philosophical contemplation. Buses are already impersonal as it is. Hitchhiking is good because those who take you want to take you, and you converse. It’s harder to start a conversation in a bus. What do you learn? And there’s no in-between, there’s no stopping point where you’re forced to walk across a city. And yes, being forced to experience new things is often the best way to experience them-what expectations could you possibly have of a place you had no idea existed and never planned on visiting? But the worst thing about a bus is the interconnectivity of fates. I’ve often considered it possible that we each have our own tendencies that can interact with others’. Perhaps traveling with a clumsy person will land you in a situation wherein you are put in danger, or something breaks. Perhaps traveling with someone to whom strange things constantly occur will bring those strange things into your life as well. Some believe that humans each run on a unique frequency, that we vibrate. Perhaps the combination of such frequencies is what I’m trying to get at. Consider a wave in the ocean. It will run its course until something upsets its inertia, but perhaps that something doesn’t break the inertia, but rather transforms it. A second wave, that is, arrives and changes the trough and crest, and slightly or greatly influences the first wave’s velocity and direction. They combine and influence each other. Perhaps each encounter between humans is similar, depending on the degree to which you relate and interact with the second or third party. I mean to say that perhaps your tendency, or your wave, so to speak, is subjectively impacted by someone else’s. The way that this relates to a bus is that you’re all in it together. Perhaps someone on the bus is extremely prone to accidents. Perhaps someone on the bus tends to see scary scenarios. Perhaps the driver’s tendencies will negatively combine with those of all the passengers. Perhaps not. The point is that you cannot know. There are too many people. Traveling with one person, maybe you have an idea of the kinds of things you’re going to experience. You know the other person well, you know that they tend to find the best food in a place, or that they always find a superb place to camp. Maybe you’re with someone who tends to find people to bicker with, or to smash faces. Who knows. On a bus your fate is interconnected with those of the rest, and you have no idea of the others’ tendencies. Drop a pebble into a barrel of water and you watch one wave. Drop 50 pebbles into the same barrel and it’s a chaotic dance of interconnecting and transforming ripples which you quickly lose track of.

By the time I came out of my contemplation, we were in Oruro. It was night. From the terminal we quickly found Juan Carlos’ home, and he showed us into a room in the back of a long adobe corridor. Juan Carlos was a large fellow, and breathed heavily. From behind a set of glasses dark eyes observed us. We stayed with Juan Carlos for two nights. Oruro was a stepping stone to head further into the Bolivian altiplano and the enormous salt flats the country is so well known for.

Oruro itself was unspectacular. Its fame derives from the diablada dance that heads the features of its world-renowned carnival, when locals dress as demons and roam the streets in parade. Outside of carnival, the city is otherwise plain. Mayra and I walked around. We watched medical students protesting against increased work hours from 6 per day to 8, the shocks sent through the air by fireworks shaking Mayra each time. We found the market and she bought a new hat, having left her other one in the bus. Despite having a fabulous memory, she forgets things.

Oruro is also known for its train, which connects to the famous town of Uyuni, the launching pad for tours of the world’s largest salt flat, Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni. We wandered into the train yard and were prompted kicked out. I spoke of hopping trains, and it only served to dissuade Mayra. No matter, after my experience awaiting a train in the cold of La Oroya, I didn’t want a repetition of the same. Our rail experience in Oruro amounted to watching a cargo train chug through the very center of the market area.

The market, like so many in Latin America, was bustling. I could almost see the idea of capitalism being smothered out by so many kiosks selling the same. If anything, capitalism in Bolivia is masked. There’s the underlying feeling of work and movement, and young men in loose fitting suits rush to and from visits and appointments, but there’s also the clear civil disaccord that results from protest against monopolizing conglomerates that would mean the unemployment of many in the already quite informal sector. Large supermarkets are hard to come by, and there is no McDonald’s. I like that. Perhaps it’s convenient to find something familiar to you wherever you go, but it’s destructive in that it homogenizes the urban setting in such a way that discovery is made duller.

Some might attribute the modern Bolivian circumstance to Evo Morales, their indigenous president, the first indigenous president in the country’s history. It makes sense, given that some 80% of the 10 million Bolivians are indigenous. His campaign has been one of new identity and pride in being indigenous. In other countries, the indigenous populations are marginalized, but here they’re popularized. Much can be said for Evo, but then again, many here in Bolivia say they are tired of him. And it is hard to blame coincidence when 8 of the main opposition figures happen to be in jail, and one is in self-imposed exile in Argentina or Brazil or somewhere I can’t recall. The only politician Evo hasn’t dared touch is the head-honcho of Santa Cruz, the country’s second largest city, a jungle city whose identity has nothing to do with the Andean solidarity movement of Evo’s campaigns. In any case, life goes on, Evo recently won a new vote. He controls the congress with 2/3 in his favor, and many fear he’ll go Chavez and change the constitution to retain power… he has already changed the name of the country from the Republic of Bolivia to the Plurinational Republic of Bolivia… you can see it on the old and new coins.

In the market I ate aji de fideo pasta, and later we shared a saltena, that delicious meat-filled empanada. In the central square we sat opposite a group of old men who spoke and spoke and I couldn’t understand much. Bolivian Spanish makes short work of vowels and accentuates the “ch” sound, such that the entire parameter of the language is made swifter and shorter… it’ll come with time, I remind myself.

Oruro Boliva train station travel sketching

A travel drawing in Oruro Bolivia of the train station

 

There was a bizarre edifice built along the perimeter of the square, a tall aqua glass building that once housed a casino aptly called “Las Vegas.” It was remarkably phallic, and Mayra joked: “I’ve never seen a green one before.”

The second night in Juan Carlos’ home Mayra and I cooked curry spaghetti for some 10 people. His father was half Juan Carlos’ size, and was a master of proportioning the noodles. The dining room was humbly decorated. There was a credenza with Chinese porcelain, a painting of a woman reading, and old upholster clinging around a set of couches. We learned that Juan Carlos and his brother run a company that validates and classifies quinoa, a grain that is produced for export in the region. I remembered eating quinoa several times in Oregon, but I’d never seen it. Little did I know where I’d be headed the next day.

Juan Carlos and his father happened to be headed in our direction, and the next day dropped us off at a tollbooth outside of town, but not before inviting us to some llama meat chorrizo sandwiches.

Bolivian Chorrizo

Bolivian chorrizo sausages.

 

We thanked Juan Carlos and wished him well. Soon, we were aboard a big rig with a trucker on his way to Challapata, a crossroads an hour and a half south of Oruro. He let us off in the dusty town and we walked direction Uyuni while he drove off direction Potosi. We bought toilet paper. We walked some more, then bought some cookies. At the end of town a work truck took us in its bed to the next town on, Huari, famed for Huari beer. And who said hitchhiking doesn’t work in Bolivia?

Outside of Huari we sat on our packs underneath a skinny tree. We sat among adobe houses, some with doorways bricked up and some with patios complicated by chickens, dogs and trash. Here we sat together under the brutal high plains sun, munching cream-filled cookies and talking.

“These women, there’s something about them,” said Mayra. “They’re ruda. They’re rough, somehow.”

“I know what you mean. It’s a different culture, a whole different background. But damn, you know, you need one of these big sets of skirts. On the bus the other day I saw a woman squat right there in the road and take a piss,” I said.

“They must not wear underwear,” Mayra replied. She hesitated. “How do you think their sex is?”

We laughed and felt ashamed and then said things to make the cholitas brighter in our minds. We had already interacted with several Bolivian cholitas, and our experiences seemed mixed. They’re a hard personality. I might have said that Bolivians seem to be all introverted, but sometimes we’d come across someone who would yell instead of speak.

“My French professor once said Americans are like peaches because we’re easy to get to know, but always have a hard core. It’s hard to be our good friends. She said the French are like coconuts, that they’re hard to get to know, but once you break through, you’re they’re friend and that’s that,” I said.

“Maybe Bolivians are avocados,” Mayra replied. “No, Peruvians are avocados. Bolivians are avocados too, but maybe the ones that aren’t quite ripe.”

A adobe abode in the Bolivian altiplano.

A adobe abode in the Bolivian altiplano.

 

Two hours later a car finally pulled up. Two old folks invited us in after we explained that we were hitchhiking. We had the initial intention of heading to Uyuni (the town next to the salt flat of the same name) to see about finding work and maybe coming upon a ride into the salt flats, but the couple was headed toward Salinas de Garci Mendoza.

“Well we were headed to Uyuni,” I said. I pulled out my map. I had marked Tagua, a town just south of Salinas and apparently right along the very salt flat we were trying to reach. I must have marked it months beforehand, when I’d planned on sneaking into Bolivia. I had written “buy sheet for sun”.

“I see that Salinas is just north of Tagua,” I said.

“That’s right,” said the man through a set of broken teeth.

“Do you think there’s some kind of public transport that crosses the flats?”

The man looked at his wife. She nodded, the bowler hat on her head moving as though glued on. “Yes,” said the man. “There’s a bus, when does it leave?” He looked at his wife. “I think Wednesday. Today’s Friday. You can take that bus, yes. I think it goes to Uyuni.”

So Mayra and I hopped into the Landcruiser, because if not a Ford Taurus white taxi all cars in this land are Landcruisers. The road was dirt, and we took off down it. And so began a 4 hour jaunt. We soon left the main dirt highway and began down an arduous road that didn’t even merit the title of a track, as it was a suggestive way if anything. Passed the town of Quillacas, the road degenerated even more, and we seemed to be choosing between anywhere from 5 to 20 different tire tracks. It was a treeless land, and dry and arid. Sometimes we came to shallow patches where rainwater had gathered. Sometimes the road broke into miniature canyons and the cruiser pounded over the muddiness without remorse.

When finally we began to pass small communities of gathered adobe homes with adobe walls whose color would hide the enclave from afar, we noticed the land we being worked. Reds, yellows and deep purples filled fields, and the short or tall stalks of grain glowed bright in the sun.

“Quinoa,” said the man. “We all harvest quinoa here.”

And so they did. Fields and fields of it. How could so few people harvest so much? It seemed impossible.

Eventually we heard a pop, and upon pulling over we discovered a blow-out. I helped the man change the tire, having first to force off the lug nuts that some clueless mechanic had machined on too tight. A hour it took, and then we were underway once more. We passed a few more communities before finally coming to a slightly more marked dirt road that the man described as “the direct route from Oruro.” Bit further on we came to yet another community. He we stopped.

Mayra and I climbed out the car and the old man as well. I shook his hand and thanked him. As I was doing so he smiled and said, “Ahora el pasaje. Now you gotta pay.”

“What? No, we’re hitchhiking. We told you we were,” I said. Mayra remained quiet.

“No no no, this is a 30 Boliviano ride each,” he replied.

“Well that’s not quite fair because we have our way of travelling and we explained it to you,” I said.

“You have to pay,” he retorted. From the rather quiet and gentle person he had been, his face turned cold and hard. I felt like crap. I reached into my pocket and gathered all the coins I had. It was some 12 Bolivianos in total. I handed him the money and said that it was all I had, that it would have to do.

The couple drove away and I cursed the air and kicked he dirt. Mayra was calmer.

“Next time we have to say more directly, ‘we do not pay for transportation’,” she said.

“Yeah.”

Perhaps you’re thinking how horrible that we didn’t just pay the man what he asked. Perhaps we should’ve have better explained ourselves, but we were under the impression that we had. Later, we theorized that the man had known all along, but would try us anyway. The whole experience left a sour taste in my mouth and a bitter regard toward this part of the country, so far.

Mayra had left a bag of bread that we’d bought in the car. Things. Where we were was not a town, it was a collection of houses. We approached one house and offered to pay for a meal. Instead the woman handed us two bunuelos without charging us. Bunuelos, unlike the fried cheese bread balls of Colombia, are more like the Peruvian Tarma pancakes, fried discs of flour and egg crisp to the bite. Our spirits were slightly lifted.

The sun dipped behind a hill, and we found a place to camp in a old llama pen among large boulders just north of the community. In the morning we had views of a small nearby salt flat to the east, and to the south a large mountain called Tunepa stood to the right of the beginnings of the Salar de Uyuni. There were no colors but flatness.

The community was empty of people, so our hopes of a meal were forgotten. We filled our water bottles from the communal well, and shouldered our packs. It would be a long haul all the way to the main dirt road that the previous day we’d exited at Quillacas.

Bolivia Poverty

I might not call this Bolivian poverty if I knew for sure that the people would opt to live with a well.

A Bolivian salt flat from where we camped.

A Bolivian salt flat from where we camped.

 

The day unfolded horribly. It wasn’t so much that we had to walk, but that walking great distances would prove to be exhausting to the point of discouragement for Mayra. It began with Quinoa.

“Yesterday I was just bored,” she said. “The car ride was horrible. The only interesting thing was when the man said that those taxis we saw were illegal, and for that they’d taken that long track instead of the main dirt road.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said.

“And the quinoa was pretty, but it just gets boring.”

Later I snapped a photo of Mayra among the pink stalks, but she was not happy. We’d been walking for 4 hours already, and Tunepa never seemed to get any bigger. Small rolling hills hid the beyonds from us, and when we’d summit one, we’d learn that there were only more hills. It went like this for hours more, until finally a scramble revealed a vast view of Tunepa and the Uyuni salt flat before us. We followed the road down into another community, also of adobe houses and also seemingly abandoned of people. The one woman we found we asked to buy food from. Instead she gave us three oranges and two bags of puff snacks. We thanked her and left the community, called Lacata, I think.

Our enthusiasm for reaching civilization was brief, as the road just went on, and we lost the view. Sometimes we saw men far off in the quinoa hacking away. The sun was awful, and burned the backs of my ankles raw. Mayra was tired and spoke nonsense. I might have spoken nonsense as well. We rested more often that we ought to have. We made quick work of the food, and fought. We fought. Badness welled up and we fought, even though we’d never fought before. It was a stupid fight. “Take off your shoes you’ll feel better.” “No I don’t want to.” “Why don’t you just take my advice?” “Because no.” “Because no isn’t an answer, be logical!” “No, why do you have to insist!” “Mayra you should just be alone.” “Maybe I should!”

Eventually we made sense of our madness and shelved all frustrations to continue onward. The “direct route from Oruro” was empty of cars, and indeed of life. Mayra began to hate quinoa, and our feet kept us going without our being aware of them. Around a peak dark clouds formed and burst forth rain. It was a light rain but annoyed us all the same. Oh what wretched land. We began not liking Bolivia, illogically, but real.

Beautiful pink fileds of Quinoa on the road in Bolivia.

Beautiful pink fileds of Quinoa on the road in Bolivia.

Road to Uyuni

Exhausted on this long road to Uyuni.

 

10 hours had passed by the time we finally reached the main dirt road. Unfortunately, there were no cars, no trucks, and no life. The nearby community that we came to rest alongside the road I found to be empty of people. I knocked on all the doors trying to find food. Nothing.

A car approached, but turned off on some side road into different nothingness. Then there was a tractor. It turned off too, but Mayra went to ask if they had food or water. She returned empty-handed. But the tractor turned toward us, rejoined the road int he direction of Salinas and stopped in front of it.

Mayra was ecstatic. “Well, we really want to get to Salinas since we haven’t eaten anything today. How much will you take us for?”

He had a kind face, but it was a fraudulent. “100 Bolivianos,” he said.

I sank my head as Mayra said, “wwhhhhaaat? How far is Salinas?”

“45 minutes in the tractor, about 3 hours walking,” he said, coldly. Then he boarded his tractor and left.

“100 Bolivianos can you believe that?” she cried. “Horrible person, trying to take advantage of us.”

We saw his silhouette turn to look at us. Damn him. Damn him.

Somehow this sour episode in our Bolivian hitchhiking gave Mayra new gusto, and she took her pack to her shoulder despite our legs being completely depleted of energy.

“We’re walking to Salinas,” she said. I smiled and felt pride swell into my eyes as I stared at her. Excellent. We walked.

We walked, and Tunepa grew. Now the beginnings of the Salar de Uyuni were well in view, and the expanse of it all breathed of the earth and created feelings of smallness in me. Tunepa, grow! Grow you, you mound of dirt you damn mountain you! Grow!

The Bolivian Andes' Tunepa, an astounding, lonely mountain.

The Bolivian Andes’ Tunepa, an astounding, lonely mountain.

 

As the blinding sun calmed into a mellow orange, it reached the slope of a distance hill.

“Should we camp?”

“We haven’t eaten anything, we have so little water. I’m fucking parched.”

“We have to camp.”

“Yes we gotta camp.”

A truck. Mayra, your thumb! Use your magic thumb that thumb of yours! It stopped! The truck, the work truck, they’re smiling and laughing how strange these two wanderers, get in you crazies, get in!

In the back of the truck we went, and thus had our ride all the way to Salinas. The people were heading back after a day working in the fields, cutting and bundling quinoa. How strange, an American and a Peruvian. How strange.

We arrived to Salinas de Garci Mendoza, and thanked our benefactors who had not only saved us from the desolation of that road, but had brought us to a town, and restaurants. The town was dirt, the buildings and the road. Around the central plaza, lined with barbed wire and fronting an ocean-themed bubbly church surrounded by regional-typical arches, the road was bricked with hexagons, as though mirroring what I was expecting to see in the salt flats.

The town was filled with indigenous, the women always recognizable with their faldas and bowler hats and colorful satchels that every woman always seems to carry. Most inhabitants were either very young or very old. Was it the powerful sun that would turn skin to leather and wrinkles and make one look years passed their actual age? Who knows.

We found a restaurant and paid 12 Bolivianos each to eat noodles, chicken and fries. It might’ve been less pleasing had we not spent 24 hours hungry.

That night we set up the tent in an empty lot beside the alcalde municipal government building, a small yellow structure with empty cases of beer outside the “Gobierno Tierrra Territorio” office. Dogs barked in the night.

Salinas de Garci Mendoza

Photo of Salinas de Garci Mendoza.

 

“Yes, yes the bus leaves Wednesday I think,” said the man we asked about the bus to Uyuni.

“It leaves from here?”

“Yes, a man lives three blocks that way, Johnny Tito. He takes his bus across the flats to Uyuni.”

Mayra and I walked off, rubbing our hands together.

“That’s a strange name for an indigenous Bolivian,” I said to Mayra. “It’s more suitable for a Chicago gangster. Johnny Tito.”

If there was one thing the town didn’t lack it was buses. Despite its size there were always giant coaches crowding the main plaza. Just to be sure we inquired at the local ticket office about bus prices.

“How much to Tagua?” asked Mayra.

“200 Bolivianos,” the man said. We were speechless. “You can get there for 150.”

Later, Mayra fumed about the man trying to take advantage of us.

“Why is everyone trying to charge us so much? We know you can get anywhere in the country for 200 Boivianos and Tagua is 30 kilometers away! It’s so weird. And the looks, some people look at us so horribly. It’s like, a Bolivian is either wonderful or horrible,” she said.

“It’s true. If it wasn’t for the Parrados, who knows where our minds would be about this country!”

I felt weird, having feelings against a country. It had nothing to do with the poverty of the place. I’d hitchhiked in Nicaragua and loved every minute of it. What was going on? Why were we having either only shitty or only good experiences here in Bolivia? Where was the middle ground?

 


 

“We don’t have enough money,” I said.

“What do you mean?” Mayra asked.

“I mean that I thought I had 100 but I only have 30 Bolivianos. We have to find work.”

And we did find work, eventually, in the bright rosy hostel in the main square. We had stayed another night in Salinas, this time camped south of town with views out over Tunepa and the impending salar.

“I can pay you and give you meals,” said the older of two sisters running the hostel. “I have comforters need washing.”

We went to work in the back of the hostel, working with rubber gloves, freezing cold water and large buckets of suds. I’ve worked heavy in my life, but the washing of comforters tired me surprising. We washed eight and the women paid us 80 Bolivianos, 40 each. In case you’ve been wondering, one dollar is about 6.7 Bolivianos.

We had meals and a small income, but it would have to be enough to pay the bus to Uyuni. We had already looked for Johnny Tito once, and he was nowhere to be found. “His is a big white bus,” they’d told us. “It should cost 35 to Uyuni,” a woman had said. “He’s not here,” when we inquired at his supposed house. “He’s fixing his bus up by the cemetery.” No he wasn’t. Where the hell is this Johnny Tito?

The second day at work we washed 20 thick wool blankets by stomping on them. My middle fingers had been rendered useless by a mixture of overuse and the cold of the water. Incredible shoots of pain shook my arm each time I turned my knuckles in the wrong direction. Instead I watched the soapy foam building around my ankles and thought how chaotic, and how interesting it might be in San Pedro. The women paid us 90 Bolivianos and gave us meals. Rice and saucy meat, sometimes quinoa soup. Mayra learned to like it.

We rested in the fields south of town. A brief hail storm dropped pellets falling sparsely and crinkles in the prairie of dry leaves from two lonely trees. We camped hidden but warm in our bags, the warnings of freezing weather meant really for May through August.

“Are you Johnny Tito?”

The man looked at us and smiled. His wife was writing our information in a notebook. She wanted 50 Bolivianos each for the passage to Uyuni, but we gave her 40 each. Johnny’s look was one more sympathetic than his screeching wife. So it goes.

Tuesday we sat on benches beneath the gentle arms of Weeping Willows like those from my childhood. We watched people watch us, the only foreigners in town. We watched a procession file into the church headed by a plastic Jesus straddling a donkey.

“It’s Domingo de Ramos, when Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey. He was killed a week later,” said Mayra. And so he was.

The last morning we woke early and walked into town to buy supplies for the 7 hour ride to Uyuni, across the salt flats. In the central square we passed women who muttered, “you have to greet the people,” as though our not saying hello was offensive. But if we had said hello would you have reciprocated? And do you say such things to everyone, or is the utterance actually a result of your own prejudice against outsiders? Some people treated us kindly, some did not. Some people responded to us when we would greet them, and some would just stare at Mayra unbelievingly. Damn your eyes that know what beauty is!

The bus roared into gear, bluish smoke blurring the windows. We had shifted seats to the right side of the ancient bus to better see the landscape. We rounded Tunepa to arrive to Tagua on the other side, where the bus would fill with passengers. Every bump yielded dust falling from the headrests. We might’ve paid for our passage washing them.

In Tagua the bus filled. Everyone was Bolivian, there were no tourists, no foreigners besides ourselves. We saw a tour guide from Incahuasi island in the middle of the salt flats enter the bus. An architect spoke with us briefly of his accident on “Camino de la Muerte” from La Paz, that most dangerous of roads. Then we were underway.

All the buildings we passed on the road heading to the flats were made of stacked rocks. The rocks were rounded; the whole place was once ocean. We saw the salt flats from Tagua, and we straddled them up to a point, when the bus made a right turn and we descended to the veritable “shore”. Tagua would be the best place to experience the Salar de Uyuni in general. You can simply walk out onto the flats from the town, if a more broad experience of them was not for you.

It looked like we were entering the ocean, and indeed when the bus first tread over the water, we made a half-foot high wake that sped off in either direction. Then we were underway.

The Salar de Uyuni stretched out; the largest salt flat in the world. It seems an unfortunate irony that in South America’s poorest country, the grandest reserve of salt sits, as salt was once so valuable as to be used as currency. Indeed, the word ‘salary’ itself comes from ‘sal’.

The largest salt flat in the world also boasts the greatest yield of lithium, and here where there was water it is the largest mirror on the planet. And so it was; a grand distance between us and the far mountains was smooth as melting ice and bore the reflection of the land and sky. It was as a room of mirrors where you cannot tell where is what and what is where. The sky inversed itself and became the ground, and it was something engendering of what else but a heaven, enough to at least for a brief moment satiate the soul.

Hours passed and the scene changed from water to dots of salt breaking the surface, and eventually to that hexagonal pattern that crystals of salt are want to form when dried. The Salar de Uyuni stretched into the blindness of distance white white white, and clouds competed for purity with ground until your eyes were worn by the brightness and no more could you stare out.

When finally we came to the end of the salar, it was through an area where they harvest the salt. We found Landcruisers of tourists snapping photos, and I myself snapped one through the window. We arrived to Colchani, where everyone got off the bus and pissed. We bought llama meat with choclo in a bag, and then continued on, eventually arriving, 8 hours after having left Salinas de Garci Mendoza, to the town of Uyuni.

There’s not much to say of Uyuni. It is a large town, filled with tourists and tour operators, Landcruisers topped with gear and gas tanks for their long hauls into the salar. There are dust storms and everything is pretty dusty in general.

We stayed in a hotel. 50 Bolivianos for a night between the two of us. It was the first paid legitimate hotel I’ve stayed in since Guatemala. That’s fine by me. Though, I’m not sure how legitimate it is. The women tried to discourage us when we spoke of hitchhiking. Never has someone spoke so directly and forcefully against hitchhiking to my face as this women. Then she charged Mayra a dollar for coffee, which, here, is abuse.

The saving grace of the town is its train cemetery hidden on the outskirts. Mayra and I walked there, and found the remains, the dead remains you might say, of dozens of old cargo and passenger cars. We touched the metal, knocked on it and listened to it respond. Despite so many tourists in town, the area was void of life, and appropriately so. Only large spikey caterpillars roamed, and indeed made homes of the rusted, twisted metal.

Panorama of the Train Cemetery at Uyuni.

Panorama of the train cemetery at Uyuni.

 

The next day we left. As we walked out of town on the wide stretches of packed dirt avenues, the ancient white bus that we had known came rumbling our way. We saw Johnny Tito and waved to him, and the side of his mouth, we could tell, smiled.

Despite the fears of long waits, we were taken quickly by a Landcruiser 4 hours to the city of Potosi, which my good friend Drew had recommended we visit, and justly so.

Once free to roam Potosi we asked a police officer for the fire station, with hpes t score a bit of floor for the night. We learned that there are no volunteer firemen in Bolivia. It is the police that handle fires. Shit, I thought, that really screws up my theory of firemen being better than policemen.

So here we are, also in a hotel, 40 per night between us. Last night we walked the colonial streets, decided that it’s the most beautiful Bolivian city we’ve visited, and treated ourselves to Lasagna and Spaghetti ala Carbonara. There are pastel colors and old Spanish constructions, the churches among the most exotic and beautiful of them all. I float in a sort of purgatory between the vagabond and the tourist in this place. We might be in a hotel, but it took a search of two hours to find the cheapest of them all. Nothing wrong with a bit of comfort from time to time, and besides, CS has yet to reach the same popularity in Bolivia that it enjoys elsewhere. And I won’t squat with Mayra.

Mayra in Hotel Ferrocarril in Potosí, Bolivia.

Mayra in Hotel Ferrocarril in Potosí, Bolivia.

 

It is All Saints, and the churches are open. The large hill that dominates the skyline of the city is called “Cerro Rico” for its contingent of silver hidden in its belly. Mining lights dot its slopes at night, and its dominance over the city reminds Potosi why it exists as a city in the first place. Perhaps we’ll see “La Moneda,” where they keep a historical exhibit of the region, or perhaps not. In any case, a few days is all between us and the road once more. This time, it’s to the east.

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One thought on “The Search for Johnny Tito

  1. Man, potosi was the most populated and the richest city in the world once, bigger than london, can you believe it? try to see it with these eyes, it was crazy for me. I enjoyed this post. Bolivia is a special place, can be hard most of the times. I enjoyed a lot how you describe you first bus ride there. Crazy metaphore, i am not completely agree, i hope we will have a chance to discuss it. Good road man!

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