countries

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South America | Bolivia

Uyuni / Traversing the Zig-Zag Road between Pain and Pleasure

why well-being is underrated – putting happiness and suffering in perspective

   Tears of joy are a scarce elixir. I have seen but few in my life and shed fewer yet. But here they were, pearls of liquid gratitude rolling down my cheeks to toast a moment so mundane that it would have evaporated into oblivion’s ether on any other day. A moment earlier I had been too miserable to think of betterment, of feeling well ever again, let alone rejoice at life. Goddamn valley, you made for one sweet sweet high.

It all started with gentle baseline content on day one of our three-day trip into the white – Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. A car packed with good people, driving straight into the right place and time – heaven by the looks of it, but certainly unforgiving if someone were to strand in this burning, salty vastness. That’s why we, five friends and a stranger, had opted for a tour despite our general tour(ism) aversion. It was just one of these few places where DIY is no longer a marker for indie-travel, but a sign of recklessness, like walking into the Amazon without local knowledge. This here was the polar opposite of a green, dense labyrinth filled with animals, but just as perilous without knowing your way around. Given that the Salar is bigger than Lebanon and almost void of visual anchors for orientation, crossing it by yourself with spotty GPS and cell phone reception is for gamblers.

"[...] like a surrealist dreamscape it seemingly existed detached from all the rest of space and time, somewhere somewhen.”

 

 

 

Our driver navigated the even white all around us most instinctively, like a bird that just knows. With the sun high above now, the Salar was a shining emptiness filled with enough salt to cover the fact that it was once a gigantic prehistoric lake. Miraculously, it was the utter monotony, the one-colored landmark-less flatness that made for the lost lake’s spectacular beauty, and like a surrealist dreamscape it seemingly existed detached from all the rest of space and time, somewhere somewhen.

We would stop for the occasional photo op, like all turistas before and after us. But, to the obligatory perspective shots this white stage is famous for (think tiny person in giant’s palm) we said: “Not us, too cool.”

Adhering to our tight tourist schedule, we took a lunch break at Isla Incahuasi, a cacti-covered outcrop and former island in the heart of the salt pan, where the vistas were pretty and abundant, yummy horizons on all sides.

If I remember correctly, we spent that night at a salt hotel, where a mirror revealed my true colors: crab-red with a hint of pink. I had turned into a Crustacean. That cunning sunburn delay. By the time you see it, it’s there. I guess 3,500 meters of elevation and a reflecting crystal ground hadn’t helped with the fierce sun of a cloudless day. Being inside my skin felt like being inside a balloon crackling with electricity and just about to burst – a level of discomfort that was still bearable and couldn’t put much of a dent in the happiness of a day that felt like being hugged and loved by mother nature herself. Unbeknownst to me then, the red alert on my face was a foreboding warning signal for more pain to come.

"Bolivia’s altiplano is like a pocket in the world filled with otherworldly strangeness, as though another planet had collided with ours and left an imprint on it.”

 

 

Day two was a sightseeing marathon that had us in a comical loop of hopping in and out of the 4WD at a dizzying frequency. Bolivia’s altiplano is like a pocket in the world filled with otherworldly strangeness, as though another planet had collided with ours and left an imprint on it. Somewhere, a stone tree grew from the desert, somewhere else lagoons with absurd water-colors attracted a wealth of flamingoes smitten with their minerals, here a sulfur-cloud, there a volcano. The only mark of civilization we saw all day were some lonely train tracks that seemed to come straight out of nowhere and head off to nowhen. Without light pollution, our nightly swim in the hot springs was under an undisturbed sky – a front row seat to the milky way. Nature’s gifts were generous out there, away from it all. And life was still good, and I was happy, and, perhaps more importantly, I was well. I was well, but I didn’t know it, because you never do until you don’t.

"Nature’s gifts were generous out there, away from it all. And life was still good, and I was happy, and, perhaps more importantly, I was well. I was well, but I didn’t know it, because you never do until you don’t.”

"Pain, be it physical or emotional, is not up for debate. It just is."

 

 

 

 

That night we stayed at a guesthouse even more remote than the last. Painfully remote as some other guests would learn that night. After what felt like the longest day, we inhaled dinner and fell into our bunks. I woke up in the early morning hours with a feeling like my stomach lining was twisted inside out and then turned upside down. I wasn’t the only one. Funny enough, two years into my journey at the time and feeling immunized against food poisoning, it was a meat-free and most Western dish – Spaghetti with tomato sauce – that had ignited the carousel in my guts. Considering my travel seniority among my friends, the fact that it had hit me hardest, felt like betrayal on life’s part. Not that I would have wanted them to be sicker, or that it would have helped me, I'm just saying life, just saying.

Over breakfast, those of us still standing learned the dimensions of the outbreak and that another group had been hit bad – as in hospital-bed-bad. People had been carted off to the nearest clinic in the middle of the night, so severe was their condition. Couldn’t have been a fun ride, but at least it was behind those poor devils by the time we heaved ourselves into the jeep, where our ordeal was only about to begin. I felt sick like a little child does: helpless, hopeless, grave, worse than an adult could comprehend, worse than anyone has ever felt before. The bumpy ride through what felt like a minefield on Mars didn’t help. It was the mean kind of nausea, the one that is all-absorbingly bad and constant without ever peaking into a point of relief, smothering you with dull discomfort much nastier than an outright, honest pain.

As always in these moments, it was hard to imagine that things would get better again, and probably very soon, despite knowing this for a fact. Knowing isn’t feeling. Pain, be it physical or emotional, is not up for debate. It just is. And when it is, it is hard or even impossible to focus on anything else, to rationalize, to pivot one’s perspective towards the positive or what could be even worse, to see the larger picture in which life is still mostly generous, or to find comfort in the anticipation of a better future just around the corner.

Feelings, may they be positive or negative, pain or pleasure, emotion or sensation, are never illusions. When they are, they are and when they aren’t, they aren’t. They can be based on misconceptions, but the feeling itself is true as long as it is felt. One might argue that feelings are actually more factual than knowledge in that sense, as the latter can be deceived easily with a simple lie, magic trick, or optical illusion.

"With all the pain I had ever felt in the past for now, all the pleasure was ahead."

 

 

 

 

It seems unfortunate that pain trumps pleasure when it comes to our attention (which also means that losses loom larger than gains, as psychologists know). The mind is caught in the one place where it hurts, no matter how well or even pleasant the rest of our body or mind or experience feels. Mine was caught in my stomach for now and no beautiful landscape or comforting word or memory or hope could change that. But I guess life has a good excuse for favoring pain over pleasure: pain is linked to our survival more directly and critically. If something hurts, your life might be in danger; if it pleases, it might just be the cherry on top of the cake. Of course, none of that occurred to me then, nor could it have appeased me if it had.

Fortunately, I was with Americans and Americans always have powerful medicinal nukes that wouldn’t be OTC anywhere else. When that pink drop kicked in, I was saved instantly from the miserable depths within me. That sugary bliss of just being fine, of not being sick anymore. With all the pain I had ever felt in the past for now, all the pleasure was ahead. I had been somewhere between content and happy throughout the trip, but this moment was one of my life's happiest. All the dopamine that had been buried under the suffering was now released at once and flushed my system like a torrential stream. My not feeling bad felt so incredibly good and the landscape was so indescribably beautiful and life so loving that it moved me to tears. Maybe that can be of comfort to us when nothing else can in pain-ridden moments: not only will we bounce back from that valley, but when we do, we’ll fly way beyond the baseline to an extra pure and high high, soaked with sunny awareness and appreciation.

 

"Ah, good old well-being, soft on the bones, but hard to appreciate."

 

 

Like so many times before, I thought to myself: we should throw a party every night just for being well and then another for not being unwell. And like always, I would brim over with appreciation for the moment, until I was emptied of it again, back to baseline content, back to taking one of the most valuable things, health, for granted just some hours later. Ah, good old well-being, soft on the bones, but hard to appreciate. Adaption-level theory explains this phenomenon: you don’t perceive what you are used to. Only once an outside or inside impulse changes, it becomes noticeable, until it becomes the new norm, which usually happens fast. It sounds sad, but it seems necessary for our survival in that it grounds us. The heart couldn’t take a permanent adrenalin rush induced by being overly excited or terrified. And so, balanced content with gentle happiness and bearable pain excursions seems not only a prudent and good place to be, but the only permanently habitable one. Likewise, a baseline without outliers cannot exist because it cannot be perceived. The balance needs the extremes to define itself and be, as much as the extremes need the middle to keep themselves in check. What a ride.

 

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