Red, white and blue

Day 117 - Salar de Uyuni

Traditional Bolivian recipe -
Take 1 large, flat plain (about 4000 square miles)
Add a few pinches of salt (about 1 trillion)
Leave to bake under a hot sun for a few years (about 10 thousand)
You're done, tourists will eat it up.

The salt flats south of Uyuni are a remorseless sheet of crystalline white formed by the drying of a lake. Perpetually clear skies mean the sun bounces blindingly off the highly reflective surface and wearing sunglasses is a near necessity in this sterile emptiness. We stood outside the office where we had booked our 3 day tour awaiting our fellow tourees, people came and people went though two parents and their 3 boisterous children seemed to be lingering, how I prayed it it wouldn't be them. When our 4x4 did arrive it was preloaded with 3 girls and a boy of similar ages to ourselves, no guarantee of good times but a welcome start nonetheless. Darren and Dee were a couple from Ireland, Teresa and Sofia sisters from Germany. Myself and Darren discovered quickly that we both supported football teams from the north of England who wore red and were managed by Scots. Alas he had chosen poorly but I resolved to treat him with the kindness and respect that have always marked English-Irish relations. After a scenic graveyard of trains and a little too long staring at the flats the evening was drawing in. The place we stayed for the night was a ghost town in all but population (though I include stray dogs in the census). The building itself was a simple concrete hall with dorms leading off it and fronted by an enclosed courtyard for vehicles. The toilets flushed by means of a jug of water and the fact that hot showers were charged for allowed me to continue my soap dodging for another day. Our group seated itself at one of the tables in the *ahem* dining room and feasted upon a welcome snack of tea and dry crackers. we were eventually served a proper meal and having sourced some social lubricant in bottles stayed up talking about families and the Irish gave us an overview of the little town in the Emerald Isle from whence they came (and its eclectic cast of characters). The generator flicked off but the conversation continued by torchlight while outside a starscape of startling density covered the sky. A thousand twinkling dots broke the black canvas and my eyes swept back and forth without cease over the universe's infinite light show. It was an eloquent, wordless explanation of mankind's drive to explore space. Morning came to Nowheresville, Bolivia and found a tour party starting forlornly at a stricken 4x4. Luckily it was not our tour party but another one who had shared our breezeblock palace for the night. Our tour guide Pedro (no not the same one) endeavoured to assist in their hour of need. Deducing that it was a battery issue his solution appeared to be to remove the working one from our vehicle and give it to them. To collective relief (from one group anyway) he was only using it to jump start the other car with a couple of spanners and his body as a human electrical conductor. The second day of the tour took in rock formations carved into bizarre shapes by grating winds. Pedro never missed an opportunity to point out their vague resemblance to native animals. Lagoons provided occasional respite from the deserted land. They took a variety of hues though variety is probably too strong a term, after seeing our 5th green-blue pool of water Pedro's inquiry of "photograph?" was met with a resounding "no". One lagoon was different though. The colour of sacrificial blood dripping down the steps of an Incan pyramid, icebergs of white borax ringed its shores. Flamingoes stalked the shallows filtering out whatever goodness they could find in the seething water. It was a justly rewarding sight for enduring the (relative) monotony of the other lagoons and one I shall not forget. Our evening's rest would be taken in a building of striking similarity to the one of the previous day. The major difference being that it lacked any kind of town surrounding it. It lacked any kind of anything surrounding it. Isolated though we were Darren and I had located the the corner shop cum off-license within 10 minutes of arrival. Our group reconvened around the dining table and wearily munched on more dry crackers. The next table along had been laid out for a tour group that had yet to arrive and it had a noticeably higher class of biscuit on it. Theft is perhaps not the most appropriate word, a temporary and highly subtle switch was effected though. Anyway it was clear by this point that we had no good will to lose. The girl in the kitchen met the simplest and politest request with barely suppressed contempt. Our cheery (and slightly ironic) smiles as she passed the table actually elicited a snarl. If I were being charitable I might say that the fact she had to share a room with Pedro that night may have been weighing on her mind. The previous evening's leftover food was presented to us as dinner (I cannot prove this) and the night played out much the same - wine, laughter and mild, good-natured racism. Darren shivered in a sleeping bag in the front seat, Mike wrapped himself in a picnic rug in the back and and all of us wondered what what earthly purpose being up at half four in the morning in freezing temperatures could serve. The purpose, it turned out, was hot geysers, gas bursting from the earth with a sulphurous tang. We gladly huddled around one to feel its warmth. Next stop was a hot spring whose steaming surface promised respite from the frigid air. There was only the small matter of stripping off behind a hut to change into swimming shorts. Dee led the way and spent a quarter of an hour trying to persuade the rest of us it was a worthwhile experience. And it was. Warmth seeped back into my bones as the sun rose over the horizon. The tour was almost done, we were bearing down on the Chilean border where Pedro would leave us. Far less that the sights it was the sounds that will define my memories of these 3 days. The sounds of bottle tops popping and laughter erupting.

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