06 December 2012

Bolivia: Uyuni and the Salar

[See Bolivia: La Paz to Uyuni for the preceding post.]
The ruins of other moments
At 6:30 I rise, sneak quietly out of the dorm and head to the lounge to write. Sunlight cuts through the silence, reflects from the varnished wooden table, bounces around in the cold, brightens black ink on cream paper, enhances the quiet. A woman walks into the room. "Buen dia," I say, and she smiles, says "Buen dia," and carries on into the kitchen to begin preparing breakfast. The owner arrives, we exchange greetings, and he goes to the kitchen and talks with the woman. I return to my writing and the room continues to brighten.

Outside, the sky, pale blue and brilliant, hints at bitter cold.
Davide [L] and Filippo wait for José 
outside the Quechua Connection office 
in Uyuni.
Breakfast turns out to be café con leche and a couple of good bread rolls — not the cotton wool sort provided by the Loki in La Paz — with peach(?) jam as a welcome change from the ubiquitous and overly sweet strawberry.

After breakfast, Davide, Filippo and I visit several tour agencies and listen to sales pitches until the pattern becomes clear: in short, we need more people to fill a jeep. Some of the agencies already have indications from other people that they might sign up, but the catch seems to be that none of the prospective clients will commit until they know they'll have a full group and can be on their way immediately. Rather like us — everyone in a hurry. I'm glad I'm with Filippo and Davide because three of us make up half a jeep-load; on my own, who knows how long I'd have to wait. On the other hand, I seem to be more content than most people to hang around doing nothing in particular (which is different from nothing at all, but the difference can be elusive).

Finally, we sign up for a four-day tour with Quechua Connection, with Vincent, Jean-Baptiste and Eugenie, all from France, making up the necessary six people for the tour. We attend to a few things in town, I book a night at the hostel for my return — only Vincent will be coming back to Uyuni with me; the others will leave us on the final day to transfer to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile — then we meet as scheduled at 11 a.m. at the office.

José still hasn’t arrived. We go into the vacant office to shelter from the sun and wait and wonder whether we’ve made a mistake signing up with Quechua, but the doubt proves unwarranted, right from the moment José finally arrives and begins loading quickly and efficiently and we warm to his good humour.  We squeeze into the Landcruiser and just ten minutes later  stop on the outskirts of Uyuni at the train cemetery. This turns out also to be a plastic bag cemetery and a graffiti park. Some of the tagging’s thoughtful — “Stop mass consumption!”, “Think!”, “Stop using oil!” — but much is the usual mindless scrawl of names, dates and the like, and one piece in particular is acutely embarrassing: a couple of names with “New Zealand” in enormous letters on the boiler of one of the engines. Other jeeploads of people cruise around, photographing; many photograph each other striking poses on top of rusting engines, peering out through old latticed iron; a few wander alone like me, prowling for pictures. In the glaring midday sun the contrast between light and shadow is extreme, and I photograph without hope — hope, which seems to have fled this place of endings and despair.

Filippo looks out over the Ojos de Salar. The ground seemed
solid and I heard no reports of tourists disappearing into
the subterranean lake.
We stop next at the salt factory, where José rises further in my estimation when I see he’s taken the trouble to peel the tomatoes and cucumber which we eat with quinoa and a tasty lamb chop and follow with an apple and lollies. During the coming days we realise we’ve made, whether by chance or not, an excellent choice of guide, not least because of the meals he produces. One evening we hear another group chatting in less-than-complimentary terms about their food, yet shortly afterwards, José brings our dinner: succulent, tasty, roast chicken. In the Landcruiser the next day I ask him how long he’s been guiding on the Salar. Now, as I write, I’ve forgotten his reply and at the time failed to write it down, but one thing I do remember — he began on these tours, he said, as a cook.

We stop briefly at the Ojos de Salar, the Eyes of the Salar, upwellings where bitterly cold water bubbles through small holes in the salt, reminding us we’re driving on a crust of salt over a liquid lake, then carry on to the original salt hotel, now a museum — and a circus, with a good dozen jeeps parked outside and tourists everywhere doing the “crazy photo” thing. Because the almost featureless plain and sky provides little visual perspective, a person fifty metres away viewed with one eye closed or through a camera lens appears indistinguishable from a mouse-sized person close by; hold your hand out, palm up and get someone to frame the photo so your hand’s level with your distant friend’s feet, and the photo will look as if you’re holding your miniature friend on your hand. Everyone’s doing it, but, perhaps because of that, I feel an aversion to trying to produce a photograph identical to the countless others framed here over the years.

Instead, I wander off and photograph the photographers and the jeeps, thinking of something a friend once told me, years ago.
    “Awareness of awareness is not the awareness,” she’d said.
This can be as much a curse as a route to deeper understanding: being conscious of being happy can sometimes ruin the happiness, and analysis often seems opposed to spontaneous delight. Not always, but the danger exists, and I wonder whether now, walking away from the crazy photographers and the rows of jeeps, and a couple of days ago as I grumped inwardly about the Loki, I might have lost the ability to lose myself and simply take delight in what’s happening now.

A room (for display only) in the salt hotel. The yellow light
results from the colour of the skylight in the hallway.
But I turn and face away from the crowds and look out towards the apparent emptiness of the vast white plain. On the shimmering horizon, faint shapes of low mountains tremble as if insecure in their own existence. This is why I came to the salar.

After a desultory inspection of the interior of the repurposed hotel where a few parties of tourists eat lunch, we drive to our accommodation at Coqueza, stopping occasionally for photographs. José collects everyone’s cameras to record a group “crazy photo”, but for some unfathomable reason and despite several attempts he can’t work mine — or at least he manages only a couple of motion-blurred, overexposed shots of his feet and someone almost unidentifiable (later, after extracting what little information could be recovered from the blown-out image, I recognise someone I think might be Vincent). I don’t mind; I’m far less interested in having a crazy photo of my own than I am in photographing the crazy photographers, and if I did want a copy, I should be able to get one from Davide or Filipo. Besides, the camera’s refusal to cooperate seems to vindicate my curmudgeonly attitude — a theory proved beyond doubt later when I photograph Filipo photographing Davide; now that the camera no longer has to cooperate to photograph what its owner doesn’t want, it works perfectly.

Crazy photographers
Before dinner we have a couple of hours of free time. I wander to the shore, a muddy strip of land between the close-cropped, rucked-up pasture and the immense plain of the salar. Flamingoes step and feed in shallow ponds; a couple of species of shorebirds and some kind of flycatcher forage for invertebrates; an Andean lapwing, an Andean gull, and a pair of stilts fly past. On the salt flats near the village a Landcruiser pursues a fleeing vicuña, and I wonder what the passengers think: are they enjoying the thrill of the chase, the possibility of a closer look, or are they mortified by their guide’s harrassing of the animal?

I lend my binoculars to an elderly French woman and later to Jean-Baptiste and Eugenie so they can see the flamingoes better. The reaction in each case: “Oh!”

On the way back to the hostel, a movement on the bank of a tiny stream catches my eye. At first, it looks like a large beetle, but when I look closer, I see it’s a tiny, charcoal-grey, almost black frog. Another, even smaller, half-swims, half-crawls upstream through the silty water and algae. How can these tiny ectotherms survive here? At night here at almost 3700 m the temperature sometimes drops to minus nine degrees Celsius[1] and although during the day the frogs’ dark colour presumably helps them absorb the sun’s warmth, surely they risk being frozen at night? Do they burrow below the level of the frost, or do they have the ability to let their bodies cool below zero without freezing? Can they, like some other animals in similarly extreme environments, freeze then thaw without dying? Some frogs can indeed freeze, albeit only partially[2,3,4] and perhaps these little frogs can also manage this remarkable feat, which seems less like survival and more like a miraculous resurrection. This ability of life to survive in places apparently unsurvivable — its resilience and sheer tenacity — constantly astonishes and delights me.

A less publicised aspect of Salar de Uyuni tourism: some of the
vehicles outside the salt hotel while we visited.
What also delights me is the peace and tranquility of this place. Sitting by the edge of the salar, I can hear almost nothing except the occasional croak-honk of the flamingoes, the high-pitched, rapid calls of shorebirds, the far-off sounds of kids playing football. Every sound enhances the silence, and even the presence of other visitors wandering around slowly and quietly, as if similarly affected, can’t disturb the wonderful feeling of relative solitude.

Towards sunset we drive a short way onto the salar to watch and photograph the sun going down, the shadows lengthening, the colours changing. In the distance, white clouds cap the faint shapes of mountains on the far side of the salar; the clouds gradually turn pink and orange then fade into the violet-grey dusk. Someone during these first days on the salar says something about the purity of the place.

The word might not be perfectly apt, but I know what he means.

We stayed at Coqueza on the first night, watched over by Volcán Tunupa (in the background) and free range llamas.

Notes: 1. Salar de Uyuni. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved 2 December 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salar_de_Uyuni#Flora_and_fauna
2. Can frogs survive being frozen? (2012). Retrieved 2 December 2012, from
3. Costanzo, J. P. (2012). Extreme cold hardiness in ectotherms. Nature Education Knowledge, 3(10), 3. Retrieved from
4. Bazin, Y., Wharton, D. A., & Bishop, P. J. (2007). Cold tolerance and overwintering of an introduced New Zealand frog, the brown tree frog (Litoria ewingii). Cryo Letters, 28(5), 347–358.

Photos and original text © 2012 Pete McGregor