The morning after Solstice I awoke early to methodically assemble the colorful jumble of my belongings into my trusty pack. While we were feeling cautious of Bolivia’s tendency to reconfigure reality, I was optimistic, despite bus station rumors that a road block had manifested along the route to our next destination. Nonetheless, we loaded our bulging backpacks onto yet another bus, which was to carry us to the scrubby town of Uyuni; located on the edge of the salt flats and surrounded by a series of surreal desert landscapes. Our Bolivian luck had not yet turned, however, and the bus stopped at least 10 kilometers short of our destination… there was a humble line of rocks scattered across the sweltering desert highway. This, we were informed, was the beginning of a Bloqueo, a road-block staged by protestors from the desolate town of Uyuni.
Being a bit of a revolutionary myself, I was eager support them, so I repeatedly asked what the intention of the protest was, but got only vague, random answers about government promises and housing issues. The mysteries of Bolivia continue… In the spirit of the adventure, I strapped on my pack and made cheerful conversation with the other passengers as we slowly made our way on foot over the mountainous road and down into the shimmering valley of Uyuni. The town looked like a mirage: tin roofs reflecting a blazing sun, white salt deposits stretching to the horizon, our destination seeming to move farther away, the longer we hefted our bags in it’s direction.
I maintained the bounce in my step, sharing fresh fruit with fellow travelers, and even stopping for tea and cookies amidst the desert scrub. My smile was undefeated by the deteriorating plastic bags snagged in almost every shrub, the occasional enshrined crucifix, or even the bloated, dead dog (which I only noticed after I had sat down to rest for a moment). Eventually we made it thru the other side of the bloqueo, and a rowdy woman there informed me that the mayor had promised them land for housing and (until he made good on his word) the only way out of this remote, derelict tourist-trap was by air or on foot. So, I contemplated the precarious balance of power, justice, solidarity and rebellion as I trudged the last few kilometers into town, all the local taxis passing me by in solidarity with the protest.
Luckily, all our efforts were rewarded when we embarked the next day on a tour, by jeep, thru the incredibly unique and diverse landscapes of southern Bolivia. Here is where the gems of this trying country are tucked away, where only the most adventurous (and comparatively affluent) will ever see them. Salar de Uyuni and the Reserva Nacional de Eduardo Avaroa are like the (almost) undiscovered Yellowstone parks of South America. Hot springs, exotic animals, and rare foliage are the norm; we experienced viscacha (related to chinchillas!), ostriches and the magical yareta plants. The yareta has minute leaves that look like thousands of tiny succulents growing in a brain-like coral pattern, and it secretes a piney sap that is good for sore muscles (imagine our eagerness to smear the sticky, spicy substance all over our recently burdened backs!).
The next few days were a blur of wild and wondrous sights, punctuated by a thousand photos. We saw red, green and white lakes full of blushing flamingos that trolled the grey mud for microorganisms. We gazed at enormous volcanic peaks spouting vapor, and vicuñas who appeared to be grazing (though the rocky, arid soil bore nothing green or apparently edible for miles). One of my favorite views had fleecy, plush llamas munching on miniature grasses beside a lake with rusty red waves, bold white borax deposits streaked along the shore, pink flamingos soared thru a stormy sky, and thermal geysers were spouting steam in the distance…
We also took the classic optical-illusion-photos in the vast blank canvas of the salt flats, where distance and proportion are easily warped by perspective, (if only you can convince your camera to focus on two things at once!). Many of the painted mountains and wind-sculpted rocks were reminiscent of the southwestern landscapes of the U.S., and one such desert was actually named for Dali (in honor of its surrealistic, gallery-worthy formations). We harvested handfuls of chunky salt crystals from the desert floor and spent two nights in hostels made from blocks cut directly from the flats- I licked the walls and can verify that every brick was authentic.
All in all, It was an awe inspiring journey, and an incredible way to close this chapter of Bolivian adventures. Luckily we had the pure magic of the Isla de la Luna and the miraculous vistas of the deserts to bookend our rather rocky journey thru this unique country. In the end, the Bloqueo contingency was negotiating with the mayor, and we were allowed to explore the surrounding desert and depart the country. For me, there were many lessons on how to flow with gratitude and humor thru less than ideal situations. To have deep compassion and forgiveness for a people who have faced many struggles, and have often been stuck in cycles of poverty and conflict for so long that they’ve become apathetic or dishonest.
I am very grateful to have been able to move thru this tumultuous land with grace and have had the resources to leave as soon as I was ready. In parting, I send many prayers to the Bolivian land and people: prayers for rain in this time of drought, prayers for the pueblos in their struggles for land and justice, prayers that these unique and sacred ecosystems remain intact and uncontaminated by tourism, industry or greed. The problems that Bolivia faces are actually global issues, and very soon we may find the comfort of our own countries contending with the realities of scarcity and doubt. I also believe that there is a lot we could learn from and teach to our Bolivian brothers and sisters regarding how and why we manifest protests against unjust government decisions. In such moments of struggle, global communication, personal connection and respect for another’s way of living can help protect our planet, salvage our cultures and heal our hearts.