Around only ten per cent of Bolivia’s roads are paved, the rest are tracks fashioned from: varying thicknesses of sand, compacted and soft dirt, dire corrugations, rocks and largely ungraded gravel. A portion of both the tarmac and trails are occasionally: blockaded in protest by the locals and a playground to drunk and half-wit drivers thereby forcing the hard shoulder of dirt to become your favourite ‘Go to’ place when things go awry.
They are sunbathing spots for cattle and llamas alike, runways for raging feral mongrels with a death wish to intercept every passing motor vehicle and go figure, site to the odd ill-fated dog whose entrails have slid out like a nest of greasy eels, its life blood staining the road. Such ‘roads’ are sporadically broken up by the hillside’s fallen rocks and boulders – forget riding at night, I wish we had – and unusable sections exist to keep you on your toes where Doozer styled workmen have dug up your lane leaving swimming pool-sized potholes and gone elsewhere, thereby giving you no road signalling assistance to the oncoming traffic ahead. Namely, no option but to join the fray, assume the wrong lane on the brow of hills and around blind corners.
Bolivia’s roads are also disrupted by a succession of toll kiosks whose staff sometimes relish the opportunity to rub their index finger and thumb together demanding a few Bolivianos. Goodness knows why, the money isn’t being ploughed into the upkeep of the roads. And now seems apt to mention the gasoline stations whose attendants may blankly refuse you fuel as a foreigner, be inclined to refill your petrol canister if they don’t spot your wheels or more likely think nothing of charging you three times the local rate, clobbering you for gringo tax. Forget to ask for a receipt and they’ll probably pocket the difference. Although who could blame them, Bolivia is one of the poorest if not thee impoverished South American country. Nonetheless, that is a very expensive skin colour you’re wearing Miss Morris. Welcome to Bolivia!
Why would any life-appreciating, level-headed human ride the beast that is Bolivia? Once you crawl through her underbelly without allowing her to consume you whole, digest all of the above – albeit with your wits set to high-alert – her heart will open up to a whole world of wonder. What lies within will burst your gut, calling for a boldness of spirit to embrace the cultural, historical and spiritual depths of one of Latin America’s most indigenous nations. There are ‘at-risk’ languages and cultures that could disappear within our lifetime, and traditions and beliefs that stretch as far back to the days of the Inca kings and Tiwanaku cosmologist priests. Home to the rich and poor, educated and underprivileged; at every corner a new image, a new understanding will disrupt every stereotype, preconceived idea and paradigm you ever had.
At Hotel Casa in Tupiza, an apathetic-faced adolescent greeted us. Too much time wasted in a virtual world?, I wondered. Hostel Compania de Jesus in Potosi saw a strikingly similar reception from a young woman as did Hostel El Salvador in Uyuni. Oh well, at least they could all safely accommodate our bikes even if the rooms were all on the pricey and shabby side. Because the main road from the town of Uyuni was under construction, we rode the bobbly bumps over deep corrugations and tracts of sand to reach the largest salt flats on the planet. Panic curled and flexed under my ribs and within heartbeats I started to worry about screaming out my fear, which brought a wary reality back to roost in my soul.
Not again! It’s Groundhog Day, AGAIN; the relationship I’d worked so hard to forge with the sand flitted like a leaf in an autumn wind. Grit your teeth and just keep going, Pearl urged. Blunder through with the throttle positively open but don’t resist. Simply go with it when Pearl’s back end flutters out now and again in a state of tremulous excitement. The sand is not out to hurt you, toss you into jeopardy nor will Pearl put you in peril. Work as a triangular team and it’ll pan out okay.
Salar de Uyuni. The most magnificent pure white expanse of the greatest nothing imaginable on Earth; just crazy-paving patterned ground, azure sky and you. It felt like we were on another plane not just on the flawlessly flat, rather in another space; evocative and surreal in its 12,106 square kilometre entirety. Between 40,000 and 25,000 years ago, Lago Minchin evaporated, its area lying dry for 14,000 years before the appearance of another lake lasting for around 1,000 years. When that one – Tauca dried up, two large puddles emerged as did two major salt concentrations, one of them being the supersized white condiment that is Salar de Uyuni.
The vastness, austerity and crystalline perfection of the salt flat effortlessly created a defining moment. It was just Jason, Canadian Matt, whom we’d met at a petrol station on his KLR that morning and me. Intoxicated, we all just looked at where we were, my mind triggering a series of reactions and feelings but I too was unwilling to break the spell by speaking. Ululations of joy soon broke out on all sides. We behaved like overexcited children for an hour. A recent acquaintance had all but railroaded me into riding the salt for ten seconds with my eyes tightly shut. What the heck, I thought and managed about two seconds. After a succession of riding big arcs, spiraling curves and flittering from deviation to deviation with no purpose but to enjoy, we reached the salt flat’s island. Matt had bought me a sandwich bag brimming with the local corn, potato and beef; it was all my puerile sense of humour could do not to make me mouth, “Be a doll and pass the salt.”
The outward 16 miles undergone was more than worth the salty site gifted to us. The return 16 miles of challenging terrain took me once again by surprise. A pleasant rather than an unpalatable one. Pearl added nectar to my hopes, which leapt within me like a fountain of honey. My heart hammering with anticipation, Pearl started to rise and fall over the rugged terrain with the grace of a cat. Hello, big fellow, I purred as I readily reacquainted myself with the loose stuff. This sand business was starting to become a ‘going concern’ and I was decidedly profiting from its steady dividend.
It’s only when we allow ourselves to experience the divine presence of each moment that we live our lives to the fullest. That’s the challenge we all seem to face. The primary purpose of a miracle is not revelation. It’s redemption. A by-product is enlightenment. It gives us opportunity to look at what has been created, a ‘summons to wonder’ that we all so often turn our backs on. Why are we too busy – leading a life of over-activity – to be mindful, too much of the time? Is it for a future we’ll never experience? It’s only the now we will ever experience. As well, why don’t we listen attentively to our body as opposed to blindly ignoring it whatever the cost. I let the glory of Salar de Uyuni’s creation fill me, felt it throbbing in my nerves and pulsing through my veins. I might have been a child again charged with the sheer joy of being alive.
The following morning’s start saw an unsettling ache in my soul that continued to muddle my thoughts. Jason wished to revisit the Salar although a hasty wind blasted me into the thick sand, caught me unawares plummeting both my riding ability and Pearl’s front end into the loose stuff. Disconcertingly, fear bloomed within me like a lotus glowing bright in my veins. My heart hammered in my ribs, a stricken look etched on my once-indomitable features. My skin was hot with the prickle of nervousness, making my soul squirm like writhing worms. With a leaden heart, I started to feel tendrils of clarity.
There would be many a day more when the situation dictated the process of ‘learn by doing’. Presently my energy was used up and I felt wrung out. Why was I in such a lather about declining a two-wheeled afternoon venture? It was a self-pressurisation I refused to cower under. The sky was overcast, grey with a thick bank of clouds that threatened a storm. Unbeknown to me, mini-twisters could be seen from the salt flats, ever brooding in their spiralling force. Guilt seemed to grip the bottom of my throat but I had to remind myself, patience is the straightest dart in a hunter’s quiver. In a flash of understanding, I decided my destiny on sand could wait another day. Sorry Jase, you’ll have to go without me.
Late afternoon that turned to dusk saw the weather oust the wind and retreat into a calm light. It invited an idyllic sunset – no further excuse required for the three of us scoot over to the train cemetery three kilometres outside of Uyuni. The afternoon sun sent shining bars of light through gaps in the milky white clouds as they drifted across the sky. I had expected an eerie, creaking series of railroad carriages casting ghostly shadows – whispering to one another at every turn. What we received was a picture-perfect scene of disused trains against a sandy expanse in the setting sun. Mother Nature radiantly painted the evening sky with a display of red-orange, a fire spun through the clouds. The western horizon – glowing like a liquid blaze – outlined the distant peaks in black silhouette. I stared at a little dog that watched with faraway eyes, tinged by the same wistful look as we had.