The bus driver stopped twice on the way to Uyuni: once to dump some old tyres at the side of the road, and once for a toilet break at a remote house with an outside loo. It was not at all obvious that the owners had said that he could. The women from the bus formed a long line to use the one toilet. The men, of course, pissed where they felt like.
Uyuni is a small town with a frontier feel and the temporary look of a film set. The wind howls down the broad streets, whipping up dust, and you expect, when it clears, to see Eastwood, Van Cleef and Wallach among the filthy jeeps and kids on old BMX’s. It is a staging post for the famous salt flats. Every parking space is claimed by an overland truck with the logo of an ‘adventure travel’ company on the side, or a Land Cruiser belonging to one of the local outfits. Buses arrive as incessantly as planes into Heathrow, disgorging travellers, who struggle down the street under backpacks. Everyone ends up in Minuteman Revolutionary Pizza. It has a happy, hostel-like buzz, but the food is not at all revolutionary. I had spaghetti with ‘pesto’ which came from a jar, as I ought to have realised it would.
The Uyuni salt flats, the world’s largest, extend over 12,000 sq km, roughly the area of the Falklands; NASA uses them to calibrate satellites. The outer edges were still under water from the rains of a few days before, and through some alchemy I would not understand if a scientist patiently explained it, the salt, the sun, the water and sky came together to create a perfect reflection.
The view from the jeep was a view as if from a plane: clouds above, clouds below, and clouds to infinity each side. Without a mountain or another jeep as a reference point, there was no way of telling where the salt flat ended and the sky began.
What used to be the Paris-Dakar Rally before fundamentalists forced it out of Africa had roared through the salt flats a few weeks before and Juanito drove as if training for next year’s event; he had the stickers on the flanks of his jeep already. Further into the flats, the salt was dry and cracked into pentagonal shapes. The sky was a searing, intense blue, the salt flat dazzling white. Flamingos occasionally scrawled a pink line between them.
The conditions induce psychedelic effects. I watched a column of jeeps roll along the horizon and distort into weird, trippy shapes; the bodies compressed, the wheels stretched like elastic, until the jeeps had morphed into a camel train. All sense of perspective goes: someone standing ten feet away looks beyond walking distance. A camera is as easily fooled as your eye, and we spent a giggly hour taking novelty pictures of the sort which appear in the brochures. I held a tiny person in the palm of my hand, then a giant dangled me from his fingertips, a group of us stood in a bowl, resigned to being eaten by a hundred foot man, then a big cartoon dinosaur chased us all away.
Near the edge of the salt flats, there are two long rows of rusting steam trains, sunk into the ground to their axles. They call it El Cementerio de Trenes. The trains were apparently abandoned there when the mines they worked closed in the 1940’s, but someone has gone to the trouble to arrange them artistically in parallel lines and hang children’s swings from a few. Others have gone to the trouble to steal anything worth a few Bolivianos.
We turned south and drove on until late afternoon, then stopped for the night in a one street town with a cluster of houses, a shop and a backpacker hostel. The room smelled like laundry left in the machine for a very long time and the bed felt like concrete. It was concrete. But I slept better there than I often do at home. Perhaps I should build a bed out of concrete; and, when my neighbour asks me what I am doing with the cement mixer, I can tell him I am making the bed.
© Richard Senior 2015