Posts Tagged ‘water’

By the time that we reacquainted ourselves with our vehicle and our gear, and set out once more for the famous salt flats, I must admit that I was ready to be underwhelmed. Maybe it was just being tired. Our tour had been interesting, for sure, but a lot of driving for only a few real “sights.” There was grumbling among the passengers, and already talk of getting some of our money back for all of the trouble and the lack of sightseeing.

Around lunch time we made it to the first real tourist stop… a restaurant made of salt, replete with a gift store, carved salt figurines, and a roof that looked likely to collapse at any minute. But out front was a collection of many flags ripping in the wind, and they were quite pretty against the white and the blue.

And in truth, the place was starting to get pretty. We drove through a salt-gathering operation where trucks, light machinery, and people were gathering the salt into piles to be picked up and carted away, and the triangular shapes of them were strange and symmetric in an increasingly strange landscape. And we were starting to see our first large expanses of water, too.

But it was probably an hour or so later that the Salar de Uyuni began to show itself as the most incredible sight I was to see inBolivia.

It was explained to me by a tour guide at Lake Titicaca that the salt flats at Uyuni are the leftover remnants of a sea that was trapped inland by the rising mountains of the Andesand evaporated. A similar story to the Great Salt Lake in Utah. But in the case of Bolivia, Lake Titicacais on the same high, flat plateau (altiplano) as the salt flats… and Titicaca is certainly not salty. Apparently there is an outlet down near Uyuni, and over the course of however many thousands of years, the fresh water pouring out of the mountains onto the altiplano slowly pushed the salt water down to the vicinity of Uyuni before things dried out and the whole thing evaporated.

In any case, the take-home message is that the Uyuni salt flats is a huge expanse of salt left over from the slow evaporation of an inland sea. And it is very flat. And it had just snowed for several days in the high country.

All of this meant that there was a 2” deep or so layer of water, let’s call it a sheen of water for poetry’s sake, spread evenly across miles of white salt. And the sky was liberally scattered with beautiful clouds to break up the neverending blue. In the distance deep blue hulks of mountains and volcanoes gathered clouds to their heads before letting them sally out across the flats.

And there was not a whisper of wind.

The salt flats were a giant mirror reflecting all of this.

Now, I suppose you can imagine, perhaps, the beauty and strangeness of this. But this wasn’t just an isolated vista somewhere; this was hours of driving in this alien landscape. It looked like we would reach the mountains at any time, but we were driving for hours in this surreal beauty. At times it was almost too much. I could feel brain cells smoking and exploding as they tried to reconcile the fact that I was sitting in a Landcruiser, but that somehow the horizon had disappeared. There were times when I could feel vertigo and had to stop looking out the window and fix my gaze on something concrete and unchanging. My hat on the dashboard. The steering wheel.

After a few hours of this, one of the mountains on the horizon began to separate itself and creep closer. Incahuasi. Out in the middle of the salt flats there exist a couple of small islands, and one of these islands is maintained as a tourist destination. And it is covered in large, ancient cacti. We were told these grow about 1 cm a year… and some of these specimens were up to 12 meters tall. Old beings.

One of the strangest feelings of the day was when our Landcruiser circled half around the island to reach the trailhead on the back side. After hours of driving on a sheen of water, it truly felt like we were a boat taking a wide berth around the shallows and seeking the safe landing on the back side of the island.

Before long we were safely ashore and snapping photos.

salt "surf"

After our allotted hour on the island, Victor broke the news that climbing Tonopa, the volcano to the north, wasn’t going to happen. We didn’t have time.

What we did have time for, however, was a stop on the way back to Uyuni to watch the sun bid its fiery farewell to the day. As the light faded the clouds took up its colors in a wide spectrum of changing colors and textures that was, of course, reflected upon itself upon the skin of water.

And well after dark we rolled into Uyuni in salt-covered vehicles, found a hostel, and brought our guides and cook out to dinner in Uyuni. And slept well. Very well.


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Being in Boliviafor any length of time has the effect of curing you of any inclination to take a hot shower for granted. It also makes you begin to consider the value of safety laws and building codes. But then the less fearful side of your brain comes back and says… yeah, but it seems to work down here. And it is true… for all of the chaotic traffic, there are few accidents. For all the exposed wires and lack of fire alarms, you don’t hear much about electrocutions or fires. Maybe I should start reading the papers…

When I first got toBolivia, the first showerhead I saw looked much like the one pictured above. And mind you, this was in one of the most gringo hostels I’ve slept in down here. I turned the water on, was pleased with the pressure, but noticed that the water was lukewarm at best. Being an enterprising, curious person, I examined the device. There were three settings. Maybe, I thought, someone had changed a setting. I reached up and clicked the knob to the right one slot, and was rewarded by a somewhat unpleasant tickle of electricity in my finger and hand. Yikes. The water got colder. I braved the lick of current one more time to return the knob to its original position. The water warmed ever so slightly.

Eventually my brain caught up with the world and realized that there were coils inside the showerhead heating water as it passed through, and that maybe, just maybe, if there was less water, there would be more heat. I tried this experiment with success. Less pressure, more heat… more pressure, less heat. And so I was indoctrinated into the culture of standing beneath a trickle of pleasantly hot water… the Bolivian shower.

Since then, I have used many a bathroom and shower in Bolivia, mostly compartido, some privado. The bathroom is usually a small, completely tiled room with a toilet in one corner and a showerhead in the other. Usually this space is less than 6 feet across. In lieu of a shower curtain, there is a 6 inch high border around the base of the shower area. There is a drain in the shower, and also a drain in the center of the room. As you take your shower, the 6” high “curtain” does very little, and you tend to splash water all over the room, including the toilet and the toilet paper, if there is any (which is rare).

There is always some variation, of course. If you look closely, you’ll notice that some kind person has wrapped the water handle with electrical tape… so that you don’t get shocked a little when you touch the metal handle (I forgot to mention that this is also somewhat common and unnerving). And of course, notice how the breaker is conveniently located within splashing distance of the showerhead. At least there is a breaker…

Above is a luxury bathroom. Note that they have installed a shower curtain to shield the toilet from water, and see that brown pipe coming in from the left? That’s hot water! Note the normal showerhead… this shower is fueled by a water heater somewhere. No chance of electrocution here. Hotel Alem inLa Paz… a very good deal at 40 Bolivianos a night.

Sometimes I find it a wonder that there is electricity at all inBolivia. While on a stroll in the nicer part ofLa Paz, I happened to look up at all of the lines crossing and re-crossing the streets. And when I looked at the utility poles, well, let’s just say that being a lineman here in Bolivia looks to be very hazardous and frustrating work…

a typical utility pole in La Paz

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