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.”