I spent the last four days in Uyuni. It is impossible to visit Bolivia without seeing its most famous attraction: El Salar de Uyuni--one of the 25 wonders of the world. Since the trip is only done in groups of six over a span of three to four days, I decided to gather a bunch of my school-mates to go. Before leaving Cochabamba, I received ample warning from the my Bolivian friends, teachers, administrators and my host family that Uyuni is deathly cold, that we were going there in the dead of winter and in the midst of a rare cold-front in South America.
I therefore took precautions and packed my heaviest winter clothes. Rebecca, Kenedy, Alexandra and I took the bus to Oruro. In Oruro we were able to snatch the last four available seats on the train to Uyuni. It took us a day to get there. We had to meet Manuel and Patrizia there so we were staying an extra night in the town of Uyuni.
When we arrived there, I was wearing a spaghetti-strap top, two long-sleeve undershirts, a turtle-neck sweater, my jacket, scarf, gloves, my hat, long-johns, fleece socks and sneakers. Our travel agent David was waiting for us at the train station. He asked how I was feeling, whether it was too cold or not and explained that he had booked a hotel with internal heat (a luxury in Uyuni) for our first night. He spoke Quechua so I was able to practice with him. I told him that I was fine because although I was from the Caribbean, I had gone to college in upstate New York and was amply prepared for the winter. But before I could even finish my sentence, I felt something inside my jacket.
Something that was penetrating my various layers of clothing and entering my lungs.
It was a gush that happened so quickly. In only about 2 seconds, it was in and out of my body.
I finally figured out that it was a strange, silent, piercing wind entering my body. And my mouth was moving but no sound was coming from my being.
Because when that wind touched me, I immediately lost something
that I am
trying desperately to claw back!!
David took one look at my face and he quickly took me to the hotel.
Our first night in the hotel was an absolute disaster because the heat just wasn't working. We slept in most of our clothes and since the hotel was still under construction and our room had just been painted, we were inhaling a strong stench of paint throughout the night. I was feeling sick to my stomach and I threw up in the morning. We decided immediately to check into another hotel. We checked into a place that provides heating by lighting up a small container of gas in your room. The problem is that this gas is unsafe because it emits carbon monoxide as it heats your room. Consequently, they only use it to warm your room for about half-an-hour at night and then take it out. Tourists who have left it on in their rooms throughout the night have been found dead in the morning so we had to be careful. I was sure to take a very long shower in steaming hot water in preparation for our trip to the Salar the next morning since I knew it would be even colder. We woke up early and left Uyuni for the salar in a land-cruiser. There were 6 of us packed in the back with the chofer-guía (chauffeur-guide) Saúl, and the cook, Zulma sitting in the front.
We arrived at the salar through Colchani. The salar was absolutely incredible. It is just miles of endless nothing. It is you, the blue sky and miles of white salt. We went to the island Isla Incahuasi in the middle of the salt planes that is home to humongous cactus and hiked to the very top to take pictures. It was incredible even though there was a strong wind blowing. Then we visited caves, watched the sun set before heading to our little hotel in a tiny village near the salar. The rooms were built of salt. The walls were made of salt and we were walking on piles of salt on the floor. Its amenities were very basic: a bed with 4 blankets on top and a small table. There was also a communal bathroom with a shower with hot water. It was just too cold to bathe. Electricity came on for around 2 hours so we could charge our cameras but spent the rest of the night in total darkness. As the sun went down, a deathly cold started to seep in. I went to sleep in three shirts, my fleece, long-johns, fleece pants and three pairs of fleece socks. I slept inside my sleeping bag under the four blankets on the bed but my face was freezing. I placed the jeans I would wear the next day under the four blankets so it would be warm when I had to put it on in the morning. I eventually managed to stop shivering as my body warmed but I couldn't sleep. Then we all got up at 4 am to leave for the desert and the coloured lagoons.
As we headed towards the Atacama desert, our car started shutting on and off. We had to stop in a village so that Saúl could fix it. He fixed it in about two hours. Then as we drove along towards the border of Chile and Bolivia, the wind from the desert started picking up. It got stronger and stronger and stronger. It was hard to stand outside because it was so windy. Our guide told us that we couldn't go to the Laguna Verde (The green lake) because the little rocks from the wind would hit the windshield and break it. The weather was just too bad. The further we went into the desert was the higher above ground we went. So it was windier and colder. Before we knew it we were at 4,800 mts above sea-level entering the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa. By now the wind had transformed into a sandstorm. The back windows of the land-cruiser couldn't close properly and so we were doused with sand and gushes of wind as we drove along. We finally arrived at a small hostel in the middle of nowhere. The hostels' windows were not strong enough either and so the sand would enter the hostel with every gush of wind. It was difficult to breathe at times. Our guide said he doubted we would be able to go to see the Laguna Colorada but we insisted on trying since it was only fifteen minutes away. When we arrived the lake was frozen.
As I watched the icy wind hovering over the lake from inside the jeep, I turned to Rebecca, handed her my camera and said: "Leave me behind. Go forth without me!" Because it was at that moment, that I accepted my limitations as a Caribbean national.
We went back to the hostel. It was getting dark and before we knew it, it was 15 degrees centigrade below 0. I slept in every single item of clothing I had in my bag: 4 undershirts, a turtleneck sweater, gloves, my hat, my fleece, four pairs of socks, long-johns, fleece pants, a sleeping bag, four blankets. Saúl offered us hot water bags to put at our feet in our sleeping bag so our feet wouldn't freeze. I grabbed mine.
Manuel asked the guide if he by any chance had a small llama that he could also have to put inside the sleeping bag. He was dead serious. When Saúl handed him the hotwater bag, he literally was like, "Uhm...I'll have a llama with that. Yeah I'ld like to supersize my hotwater bag. A baby llama to go please?....No baby llamas?........Ok. Alexandra, do you by any chance have an application on your Iphone that produces furry baby llamas you can put in your sleeping bag? No? Ok"
Other tourists groups put their beds together so they could huddle together for the night. I almost joined them. It was so cold, I was willing to sleep with a stranger just for warmth!!
Anyway I went to bed. I was shivering.
And then the unthinkable happened.
It was around 3am. The sandstorm was at its most powerful. Gushes of sand were entering the hostel.
And I had to pee.
It was in that moment that I knew I had a life-changing decision ahead of me.
I am 25 years old but I asked myself, would it really be that bad if I wet myself at this age? What about the danger of exposing my private part under these circumstances? I mean I would be required to remove several items of clothing to pee. And with all that wind entering??? At 25 degrees centigrade below 0??? Why risk it? Was it really worth risking my most vulnerable, prized possession?
But then I thought, all of my clothes would smell. The sleeping bag would smell. We would all be crammed in the car together for the next few days. I wouldn't have a change of clothes because I was already wearing everything. But it would only be one day and I may never see some of these people again? I mean what happens in Bolivia stays in Bolivia right? Wait but I go to school with a few of them. Everytime they would see me we would have an unspoken awkwardness. But no one would have to know. Oh wait, Rebecca goes to NYU with me and we may have class together in the fall. Damn it!
It was the decisive moment of my silent internal debate. So I mustered all the courage of my 108- pound body and went to the bathroom.
And you know what?
Some things are just better left unsaid...
Some of the tourists returned to Uyuni. They decided it just wasn't worth it and they couldn't see some of the sights due to the wind anyway. We went on to the Aguas Termales, we stopped in a few pueblos, passed through another salar and finally arrived back in Uyuni.
We were exhausted. I was the only one who had showered twice in our four day trip. Everyone else hadn't showered for four days straight. Not that they needed to. Its too cold to sweat anyway.
The biggest problem with Uyuni is not just that its cold. It is that at no point in your time there do you experience warmth. In the First and most of the Second world: America, Europe etc, there is heating in buildings so you only experience the cold when you go outside. You also sleep in a warm bed at night. However, in Uyuni, the cold is a penetrating one that goes through everything you're wearing. Saúl and Zulma explained that it was the first time they had experienced a wind like that. We were really in the midst of a bizarre cold front passing through South America. I say that to explain that its not usually as cold as it was when I was there and that we were in an extremely rare moment. But, I still would NOT recommend going to Uyuni in the winter. Its not worth the risk.
Saúl told me that he was so sorry, that this was just an extremely unlucky moment for us to have come to Uyuni. I told him we had as much of a good time as we could. He said that I should come back in about 2 years at the end of winter to see the things I missed.
Now in Quechua there is a form "puni" that allows you to say something emphatically. So if someone asks how you are doing and you want to say, "I am definitely definitely, always, doing extremely incredibly, amazingly well!" you add "puni" and say "walejpuni" So I used that form and replied:
"Sumaq karqa Uyuni chaywanpis MANAPUNI kutisaqchu! "Uyuni was nice and everything, but I will definitely definitely never, ever, forever and ever, for as long as I live (!!!!!!)) return!"