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4 am. The world still dark and sleeping, but when I stumbled out of the half-finished quarters Victor was already on top of the Landcruiser getting ready for a day on the road. The engine purred, warming forced air to release the frosted windows from winter’s touch. And somehow, magically, we managed to get everything packed up, including the groggy tourists.

Two hours to Uyuni’s quiet morning streets, another half hour approaching the salt flat… and a misty light was growing on the eastern horizon. You could sense the beginning of something beautiful. And then up ahead, vehicles with hazard lights flashing. The Bolivian army.

It seemed a routine check. Raoul’s ‘cruiser was ahead of us, but our army man seemed satisfied with our papers pretty quickly and waved us on. And we almost made it. We were partway past Raoul when some shouts and another camouflaged man waving at us to stop again. And meanwhile the steady sun was gathering its colors for a morning appearance.

And suddenly we seemed to be the focus of a small, disorganized military operation. Two more truckloads of soldiers pulled in from further down the road. Seated in the back seat, watching the commotion ahead of us, I could see a drawn pistol silhouetted briefly in the hand of a soldier. Suddenly this seemed very serious. And it seemed like we were going to be pulled over at this spot, just short of the famous salt flat, for a bit of time.

The word was that there were stolen cars being driven toChileon this road, and they wanted to be sure that these vehicles weren’t hot property. Unfortunately for us, the registration papers weren’t in the vehicles. According to Ema and Victor, they had never, in years of tours, been required to have registration papers for the vehicles. This argument did little for the soldiers. Apparently the requirement was new. It all seemed a little strange – I just couldn’t wrap my head around why they would think that the rigs were stolen if they were chock full of tourists and their equipment. Stolen tourists, too?

But soldiers aren’t trained to think for themselves.

We waited while one drove off to find cell service to call the agency in Tupiza. He came back and apparently whatever he found wasn’t good enough, for soon enough we found ourselves a part of a small train of vehicles and camouflage headed back to Uyuni. We even had our own, quietly threatening soldier ride in the passenger seat with us to make sure there was no trouble.

Victor sneaks a look at our camouflaged (and masked!) companion

I don’t believe that Uyuni is a good place to spend much time. It is one of those towns that seems to have just sprung buildings up in the sole need of occupying a space for tourists to arrive and depart for their towns. It reminds me of a railroad town out west.

I can say with surety that a curb just outside the gate of a military compound in Uyuni is a very poor place to spend hours of your time. And this is where we spent the next three or four hours. Waiting. Tupiza Tours was faxing the registration papers to the military, and until they received said papers and matched them to the vehicles, our trucks were locked inside the gates of the compound while we waited outside.

Unfortunately, since we didn’t know when the Landcruisers would be released, we couldn’t even wander far from the gates to spend our time more productively. Léa borrowed my cell phone to get in touch with Tupiza Tours to express our disapproval of our morning being ruined by them not having the papers in their vehicles. Spirits were pretty low. And it only got worse when a small contingent of camouflaged army men came outside the gate to practice their military band skills. Luckily, their efforts seemed to tire them out and there were long breaks between songs.

Eventually – and I don’t exaggerate when I say I think it was four hours later… they released our vehicles back to our possession. Apparently the caveat for the new law about carrying your registration papers was that if you didn’t have proof of ownership, the military was allowed to confiscate the vehicle for their own use. So it would seem that the situation was less about tourists and vehicles being stolen and driven toChile, and more about soldados hoping to get themselves some stylish rides. An hour or so later we passed the spot where we had been stopped. Not a soldier in sight.

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