18 September 2012

Bolivia: La Paz to Uyuni

No, the blog hasn't died. I’ve been stuck on this post for a long time, and have finally decided that whatever its faults, it needs to be out there. So, here it is, with the remaining half (approximately) of the account—the rest of Bolivia and on through Argentina into Patagonia and back up through Chile—still to come.
The bus to Oruro smells like an old kitchen overdue for degreasing. Two crucifixes taped to the windscreen’s sunshade clash with the Playboy logo on the door. The bus heaves itself out of the station shortly after 9:30 a.m., but an hour later we’re still creeping through the traffic-blocked streets of El Alto and touting for more passengers. Stall owners stand behind piles of carrots, onions, potatoes, clothing, electronic items and almost anything else imaginable, but the most striking are the enormous pyramids of eggs. Perhaps they’re more stable than they appear, but what would happen if some passerby dislodged an egg from near the base? The consequences don’t bear imagining.
Eventually we make it out of the city. I can’t say I’m unhappy to leave La Paz, although it does have charms, particularly the vibrancy of the after-dark street markets — that Blade Runner feel once more — but the central city must be even more polluted than Quito, the stinking diesel exhausts confined by tall buildings and narrow streets. Character, yes; charming, no. Nor am I sad to leave the Loki. While the staff was great, the bathrooms excellent and the beds comfortable, this hostel chain seems to market itself as the kind of place that appeals to people with whom I feel little in common — smokers, partiers, young people trying to out-cool each other, trying to score each other — where everyone’s “stoked” and “like” replaces half the punctuation in every conversation. I did chat briefly with some likeable travellers, but the Loki made me reevaluate my thoughts about authenticity — of all the places I’ve been on this journey, the Loki strikes me as the least “authentic”.
But how do we distinguish authenticity from our own preferences, our own likes and dislikes? Perhaps the Loki represents one facet of the authentic backpacker lifestyle, and whether I like it or not is beside the point. Having gone from appreciating authenticity to finding it everywhere and in everything, then, thanks to the Loki, becoming less convinced that everything can be considered authentic, I find myself confused. I can conclude only that, to be meaningful, the word “authentic” must always be qualified, that one must always say what one means when using it; thus, the Loki might deliver an authentic experience of party-hostels, but has nothing of substance in common with South American ways of life outside the tourist trail.
As we leave El Alto the bus picks up speed. Windows rattle and won’t close. We pass through a stark, hard landscape — small, drab adobe buildings; the glare of high altitude light; low, gnawed vegetation; littered roadsides; small figures shepherding llamas and sheep. The tops of barren mountains peek above the puna’s distant horizon. In one direction dust devils swirl like manifestations of the difficulty of living in such a place; in the other, mirage dissolves the world. How often have I travelled through this kind of country, these grey and brown dusty deserts scabbed with broken rock and studded with small, tough, thorny plants? Most of the world seems like this, and I can recall the feel of the damp Amazon only with an effort, while the tremendous humidity of Ghana, where the air itself seemed liquid, must surely have been a dream. The bus drives on, and I wonder how much more of the world will come to resemble what I see beyond the grimy window.
By the time we reach Oruro we’re looking forward to food, and after a short exploration and a few queries we find a restaurant. Unfortunately, we have almost no idea what the menu represents. Davide and I each end up with an enormous section of the ribcage of some medium-sized animal — mostly bone, thinly covered with semi-mummified meat — on a bed of rice with a small, probably poisonous salad and potatoes that taste like soil. Filippo does much better, with pique macho — a huge plate of boneless meat, sausage, boiled egg, tomato, and chips. He shares it with us. I manage to prise most of the meat off my section of animal, and with Filippo’s pique macho and the rice and potato, at least I’ve had enough to make up for the insubstantial breakfast at the Loki.
The shadow of the train creeps out towards the hills. Later, sunlight slides out from beneath the train, following the long shadows. We pass through a grey and brown and pale yellow world under a blue sky splattered with white thunderheads. The light softens; some of the most beautiful colours I’ve seen in a landscape emerge and, unbidden, memories arise — past hurts now seem of no importance; all is forgiven, none of the hurt matters. I think of Barry Lopez’s words: "It is in the land, I once thought, that one searches out and eventually finds what is beautiful. And an edge of this deep and rarefied beauty is the acceptance of complex paradox and the forgiveness of others."[1] Remembering these words, I realise the true extent of his insight and wish others could too. I could gaze out these windows indefinitely, perfectly happy to appreciate and think and simply wait for whatever the dusk has to offer.
But shortly before 7 p.m., before the windows darken completely, we reach Sevaruyo and the carriage lights come on, trapping us in a bubble of light. The darkness outside turns opaque and the windows turn to mirrors. With nothing else to do, I watch the video. Curiously, the film (Limitless) turns out to be loosely based on the concept of neuroenhancement, an essay topic I’d suggested a couple of semesters ago for a paper I’d tutored. I’d been surprised by the lack of interest from the students and wondered whether the ethical problems so apparent to me seemed non-issues to most of my students.
At Uyuni we find the hostel easily, settle in, then go for a beer at a smokey bar around the corner. A man accosts us, trying to sell us a tour of the Salar. We discuss it at length and Omar draws a map of the proposed route in my notebook. It resembles a wiring diagram for the Large Hadron Collider. We make no promises, saying only that we need first to see what the other operators will offer. Back at the hostel I climb into the cosiest bed I’ve encountered during this entire journey, and sleep until dawn.

1. Lopez, B. (1998). Arctic Dreams. London: Harvill. (Original work published 1986). (Epilogue, p. 410)

1, 2.The spectacular landscape surrounding the Muela del Diablo ("Devil's molar") on the outskirts of La Paz. (See another, looking from the Muela itself, here.)
3. Italians Davide and Filipo, with whom I travelled during most of my time in Bolivia.
4, 5. From the window of the train between Oruro and Uyuni. (More, larger, here, here, and here.)

Photos and original text © 2012 Pete McGregor