My heart hammers in my ears. I attribute it to one of two things: either its the whopping altitude I suddenly find myself at, or it’s the fact that I’m fighting with a Bolivian border official about my passport in a language I barely speak. For a moment, I feel flustered and anxious, until I realise that the altitude isn’t really affecting me, and that I am going to be allowed into the country illegally. Be still my beating heart, and welcome to Bolivia.
Journeying to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world, has been a priority for me for some time, and knowing that I would not get to see them after I broke my foot was a major disappointment. Fortunately, significant geographical phenomena don’t tend to disappear overnight – not without the involvement of McDonalds at least – and the salt flats are still waiting for me a year later.
From Chile, the trip to the Salar takes two days. Two days of lakes the colour of milk and rust; of deserts made of sand and rock and nothingness; of flamingoes, awkward and elegant; of odd llamas and dainty vicuñas; and, at the end of the second day, of tragedy.
Of the 17 people that were bundled into three 4X4s on our trip, Belinda, my Aussie travel companion and I, got lucky. Not only were the four other travellers in our car a particular breed of wonderful, but our driver’s warmth and energy kept us both happy and in front of the pack. Ovido would tell us a little bit about each place we stopped at, allowing time for either myself or the Swiss couple in our car to translate as best we could. Our collective Spanish being basic, we mostly smiled gratefully at his explanations and resorted to excessive photograph-taking. And if ever there was a place in the world that demanded to be photographed, this was it.
As the shadows on our second day grew long, as the heat blasting from above and below subsided, as the fact that none of us had showered for almost 48 hours began to feel uncomfortably acute, Ovido’s cellphone rang. We were nearing a small village, our home for the night, and it was probably the first time we had had cellphone service since our trip began. He pulled over, answered, and we waited patiently, our realisation that something was wrong only registering when the volume of his voice rose and the tone of his repeated “¿Qué?” “‘¿Qué?” “¿Qué?” went from disbelieving, to shocked, to choked with tears.
Ovido’s wife died on the second day of our journey. And we, a bunch of tourists he had known for a little over a day and a half, were the first people he told. I don’t know if he had children, I had never asked – though it was a question I could easily have constructed in Spanish – but he was young, mid-30s perhaps, and when he dropped us off at our little hostel the features of his face looked like the pieces of a puzzle that wouldn’t fit together.
Staring at the salt flats the next day was overwhelming for a number of reasons. It being the rainy season in Bolivia, they were flooded, and the sight was nothing short of divine. I felt alone and vulnerable, exhilarated and happy, guilty and sorrowful. And I felt grateful. Grateful for the company I found myself in, for the life of relative luxury I lead, for the people in my life who have supported my every decision. Grateful for being here. Now.
Ovido, the morning before he received his phonecall, indulged me a photograph or two.