A sea of white extended as far as the eye could see, pierced here and there with brown mountains far in the distance. Patterns like on a turtle’s back covered the salt crust and glimmered in the desert sun; The Uyuni Salt Flat was immense. We had been warned not to ride in too far because of the proven risk of becoming lost and never finding our way out, but it was tempting nonetheless. A plaque near the edge commemorated the various parties that had died in that vast empty space. Without a GPS, we wandered the periphery, keeping sight of cacti dotting the land.
The ride through Bolivia started in Villazon, on the border with Argentina. From Tupiza we took a dirt road leading northwest to Uyuni, 200kms away, with the worst corrugation I’ve experienced so far. We were on the altiplano, and within the first 50kms I felt sick, dizzy and migrained. Tom was ahead and out of sight, but I pulled over and sat in the dirt anyway, cradling my head. He quickly noted my absence, returned and wrapped me in the tarp like a taco. I fell asleep in the shade and warmth of my plastic blanket. He woke me up later in the afternoon, and feeling much refreshed, we struggled on.
We made it to the next town and had the option of two equally dumpy hotels, but at $3 bucks each, it was hard to complain – but not impossible. There was no heater, no shower, no flushing toilet, and no curtains. I covered the bare window with the scarf given to me by a student before my trip, and slept 14 hours beneath 50lbs of woolen blankets.
Bolivia is a land of women in brightly colored knee-length skirts and bowler hats; a custom picked up from the colonial days in Latin America. With shawls wrapped around their frames, they carry rainbow bundles tight to their backs. If you look closely, you’ll often see the sleeping face of a baby.
On our way to Potosi, via another 200km of winding mountain roads, my bike suffered the same altitude sickness as I, and could only crawl along at 40km/h. Riding until dark, we saw lighting clouds approaching and pulled into a rural village where a small store offered lodging. Our room had three beds, concrete floors and a poster of a half naked lady on the wall (this was even worse than the Barbie poster at the hotel in Villazon). It was a rough night, and was like sleeping on the corrugated road of a couple days before. The bed was hard as a rock, with lumps running the width of the “mattress” right at the shoulder, hip and knees.
Daybreak came too soon, and with it, a huge family party gathered in the patio outside our room. Children ran around shouting and screaming, catching bunnies and kittens that had suddenly appeared for Easter festivities, grandmas in funny hats cooked enormous quantities of rice, meats and corn in ceramic pots on an outside mud oven, someone slaughtered the goat Tom had seen munching the hay, and all around people were sitting and chatting. By the time I emerged, the goat carcass was hung up and bleeding over a couple kids’ bicycles.
And in the middle of it all, two gringos rubbed the sleep out of their eyes and wondered where they were.