Friday, August 5, 2011

Uyuni - the salt desert

This is one of the most amazing places I have ever seen in my life. It is a 10,583 sq meter (4,086 sq miles) salt desert on a plateau at 3,656 sq meters (11,995 ft) above sea level in the mountains of Bolivia.
It is absolutely breathtaking. The sad part: few Bolivians get to enjoy it because tourism is a concept that only those with extra income can enjoy; this is not the case for many Bolivians. Therefore, mainly foreigners who can afford to visit it and spend in dollars can enjoy this beautiful place.
It is a shame, but this is true for all of South America. During my travels I was one of few Colombians. I encountered a few Peruvians and many Argentineans, but not one Bolivian traveling for pleasure. Not only the resources of South America are at international disposal, the landscape also seems reserved for foreign enjoyment.
The salt desert, like much of Bolivia is a great natural resource. 50 per cent of the world’s lithium reserves are there. Reason why car companies, such as Mitsubishi, who are looking to mass produce electric cars, have their eyes set on it; lithium is essential in battery making.
I learned during my visit that in the past there have been attempts to allow concessions to international companies to extract the lithium, but the community, along with the current president Evo Morales, have resisted. This is good news because international companies exploit much of Bolivia’s resources, benefiting only the already rich and generating international profit rather than local. This is the case with many of their mines.
Going back to the point…Uyuni is pretty amazing…here are some photos and videos.

When I left Uyuni I headed for the border with Argentina. I was sitting on the isle of a super-packed bus for six hours swallowing dust as we advanced on the unpaved roads in the mountains of Bolivia. I made it to the bordering town around two in the morning and waited until sunrise when the border and bus companies opened. I was so exhausted I took the first option of transportation I found to Buenos Aires. I was 24 hours away by bus and the guy at the agency promised a smooth trip if I just took a bus on the Bolivian side and went straight to Buenos Aires. He said the bus would stop at the border and the process would be simple. Under different circumstances–I like to believe–I wouldn’t have been tricked into doing this. But the lack of sleep didn’t allow me better judgment.
The bus left an hour later than supposed to. Then stopped at the border, maybe three blocks away, and lo and behold I learned the process of migration for Bolivians.
The border was a pretty simple one. I have crossed multiple borders during this trip, so it is a process I am used to. I was the only tourist on the bus I had taken. I would quickly learn why.
As I sat in the agency waiting for the bus to leave I observed the man who had sold me the ticket have conversations with the other passengers, all of them Bolivian of indigenous descent or campesinos who work the land. I quickly realized that traveling can be very stressful for people who barely leave their piece of land and all they know is how to cultivate and work hard. I could see blank stares on peoples’ faces when he explained paperwork and laws and the migration process. A routine process for me was a much more complicated one for them.
We get on the bus and get off shortly after, right at the border. We are given instructions and told that the whole process will be done together, as a group. Odd enough for me, but I didn’t question it. We get out and stand in line for quite a while, like everyone else. After officially exiting Bolivia we are told to wait on the bridge, as a group, while the process unravels. As I wait I see the people who were behind us in line continue on to the Argentinean office and, in less than five minutes, be on the other side. This keeps happening for a while and I start growing more impatient by the minute. I didn’t understand what was going on. Why were we standing there without an explanation? After an hour and a half had gone by I was able to find someone from the bus company and asked what was going on. He said we had to wait until the Argentinean office was ready to receive us. I was then more confused than before.
I let another while go by and then asked again, now a bit more impatient. The guy tells me we will go into the migration office in 20 minutes. 40 minutes later we were actually standing in a different line waiting to continue the process. After we get our passports stamped we are told to stand in another line across the street, this line went nowhere, but no one questioned it. I was looking around completely flabbergasted. Was I the only one getting desperate? I could see everyone else cross the border easily, why were we stuck? I had had enough of it!
Of course, as someone that lives in the U.S I am used to a completely different dynamic. I felt I had the right to complain and even ask for my money back because I could just cross the border myself and get a bus on the other side rather than stand here and then there waiting for god-knows-what.
So I approach the guy once again, this time ready to talk to whomever I need to talk to get myself out of there. It had been FOUR hours and we were still on the border, having 24 more to go. At this point I had slept close to nothing in three days and I was about to burst with frustration and tiredness. So I tell the guy no one had informed me this would be the process and that I wanted my money back and I’d be on my way.
That's when I learned I had done business with a third person party that tricked me into buying an overpriced ticket with a false promise. I was stuck there because no one could return my money and we were waiting for the bus to get checked top to bottom by border police before we could move on; there was still another bus to go through customs before ours. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to kick myself for not being on top of my game that morning and falling for such scam. But there was nothing I could do about it.
The bus had literary left from three blocks away. It would’ve been much simpler to just cross the border alone and then take an Argentinean bus, but we didn’t know any better. For me it felt like a mind spasm moment what had led me there, for the rest of the passengers it’s just how things are, always.
Apparently, if you cross the border as an individual, it is just like any other border: you get your passport stamped, maybe answer a question or two and you’re on your way. But a bus full of Bolivians is a different story. They had to wait endless hours until the authorities checked ever person, bag and the entire bus. Some people had to go into a medical screening room to get checked for I don’t know what. They had to wait and wait and wait while everyone else went through in just a few minutes.
As I sat there totally frustrated I looked around and questioned the passiveness of those around me. Had this been the U.S or even Colombia, passengers would have lost it one hour into the whole ordeal. But no, the people around me were just sitting there, taking it. I was clearly the only one claiming some sort of right as a passenger to at least know what was going on. Every one else just sat there and waited without complain, except one lady who was evidently frustrated but did nothing about it besides commenting it with me.
I went from being frustrated to simply accept that is how things were going to be and then started processing the scene before my eyes. I realized I was living a day in the life of many Bolivians. Sadly this is what they are used to. It was a clear abuse, but they took it without complain. Why wouldn’t they? I thought. Their way of life is the result of hundreds of years of abuse. Why would they think they have the right to complain to a bus driver about being stuck on the same place for five and a half hours while everyone else isn’t? When they have been robbed of their land, their culture and their identity for hundreds of years. What would make them think is not OK to get different treatment than everyone else, if all their lives they’ve been considered second class citizens for being of indigenous descent? Why? With that though I took a deep breath and was thankful for having had the life I’ve had, but tearful for realizing the cruel reality of others’.
In the end everything went better than expected because although it took me around 40 hours to get to my destination I was happy to have lived that experience. I came to South America to see life as it is, not to pass by and simply get a superficial, touristy view of the place. So this was just a tiny part of what reality is for many on this land and I was lucky to get that perspective. Therefore, I have nothing to complain about. I am very fortunate in many ways. And for that I am thankful.

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