A jolt in the road, roused from a sleep so deep I feel drugged, I peek one eye out from the curtains of the bus carrying me into northern Chile. The thought occurs to me for the first time. It strikes again several hours later when, travelling by daylight on a second bus, I slowly clock up over 17 hours of travel.
Where am I going?
Now, after just three days in this place, a place magnificent in its desolation, I find it difficult to believe that this terrain does not coat the earth. How could it cease, how could it possibly change, sprout a town, a city, a forest? An ocean is inconceivable. The Atacama Desert has become my world, and how could it not, when the word endless fails to describe it?
My first morning in the strange, sleepy village of San Pedro de Atacama holds a wonderful surprise: a friend. Australian and a policewoman, her positive energy, sense of spontaneity and adventure, and companionship has breathed new life into my already happy travels. My mother’s voice echoes in my ears: life is for sharing, and though I have developed a preference for travelling alone, it is only because it allows me to interrupt my times of solitude with unexpected and welcome characters.
I am grateful for Belinda’s company as we explore this otherworldly landscape. I think I need it. I need someone to hear me say, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before,’ or, better yet, to hear me say nothing at all – for all the words I’ve learnt stall in my mouth when I try to describe this particular patch of planet.
The novelty of this place does not end at its scenery and the feelings of vulnerability and joy it brings out in me. For the first time, I swim in a lake with a 40% concentration of salt. The sensation of not being able to keep your body underwater is counterintuitive; the salt that is deposited all over your body, but especially on your hands and lips, uncomfortable and dehydrating in the extreme. The heat and salt have meant that I have more than lost my seaside curls, and my hair lies limp and lifeless.
But these aesthetic trivialities are forgotten before the Atacama’s salt flats, which overwhelm and humble. The Salar de Atacama are the second largest in the world. Tomorrow I begin a four-day journey to visit the largest: the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, something that has long been on my ‘to-experience’ list.
It is worth mentioning that I have made another friend during my time here. She doesn’t say much, but she’s very friendly.