Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Bolivia Broke My Heart

 It was easy to fall in love with Bolivia. Even before I entered the country it stole my heart. I was sitting on the bus driving from Argentina into Chile and I looked out my window at the high peaks with the new dusting of snow and realized that I was looking at the route I'd follow in just a few days towards the Uyuni salt flat. It was one of the rare moments I stopped fidgeting in my seat on the long bus rides and just stared out the window. Everything in this landscape is vast. The plains stretch out for miles and the mountains stretch towards the sky. It's hard to comprehend the scale, especially when the road beneath the mountains meanders at 5000 meters elevation.

A few days later I returned and crossed the border. A haphazard house stood at the crossing and the line wound out the door, mostly foreigners on jeep tours headed towards Uyuni. My friends laughed as I waited and waited to get my visa written and handed over my precious american dollars (hard to come by close to the border). A few minutes later we were bouncing towards the first of the high altitude lakes on the journey.

It was three days of beautiful views. Lake after lake, each one a different color. More flamingoes than I could count. Endless expanses of emptiness stretching towards the end of the world. A smoking volcano. The rock desert that inspired Dali. New friends and familiar faces. A Bolivian who drove this route (there was rarely a road) more than once a week. The priceless moment when I had to translate that the only bathroom for the next few hours was the "Inca toilet behind that rock." The highest geysers in the world. A hostel made of salt blocks. Chess and card games played in mittens.

Highest geysers in the world

Sunrise on the salt flat

And the salt flat itself. In the predawn light it felt like driving on the frozen lakes in northern Minnesota in the winter. White as far as the eye can see with a few hills on the islands to break up the flatness. Except here the islands had cacti. And the mountains that seemed so close never got closer as we raced for an hour across the salt. We watched the sunrise, climbed to the top of the island and tried to see the edges, took goofy perspective photos, dared each other to lick the salt (I think I was the only one who did), and tried not to get blinded from reflections.

Dinosaurs and giants....this place is dangerous....

By the time we arrived in Uyuni I was already mentally rewriting my plans to spend more time in Bolivia.

Then came the drive to Potosí. A few hours of winding in and over the altiplano with spectacular views of the mountains and canyons punctuated by swerving back into our lane when faced with oncoming traffic and braking for llamas on the road. Potosí itself sprawls up the hill towards the Cerro Rico, the hill and mines that sent silver around the globe. With a quiet colonial center but a distinctly hectic market around the bus station, Potosí was my favorite city in Bolivia. It was a city with a clear reason - everything revolves around silver. The richness in the colonial buildings and the old mint, and the poverty as the mine peters out.

New friend in Potosí

My visit to the mine was the capstone to my travels in Chile, where I mostly traveled between mining towns but never got too close to the rocks. Here, however, I could go underground. And I could buy dynamite. I'm not afraid of small spaces. I'm not afraid of the dark. But I have never been so relieved to feel the air move as walking back out the tunnels towards the open air. It was dark and hot and small and hard to breath. It was an hour walking with a bent head (I'm lucky to be small) through puddles along the tracks. Then just two of us started climbing up to where the miners work. It was full on scrambling: climbing with one foot on each wall and eventually a rock face with a rope hanging off it. We tried chiseling holes in the rock. We tried picking up the bags of rocks to be hauled out to the surface. It was fun and intense and almost like a game. For two hours. It was terrifying to think that kids are making this trek everyday. Breathing the dusty air and working for hours on end and hauling bags of rocks down the rope I gripped with two hands. We emerged towards daylight. I want to say some cliche about breathing the sweet fresh air. But actually, the air smelled terrible because there was fresh llama blood on all the buildings from the sacrifice the day before. I felt somewhat chastened though, reminded of how fragile I am. Dusty and coughing and exhausted and starving.

That afternoon was another stunning bus ride from Potosí to Sucre. Across the altiplano and descending into the valley as the sun set. I stared out the window and wondered at the women walking with the sheep. Or sitting and knitting as they chatted. The man walking off into the hill, perhaps looking for his llamas. All these lives that were so different than mine. And I was so excited: I was here and I had time and I could dig into this place in the next few weeks. I was in love. With a landscape, a people, a chance to explore, and the colorful intricate weavings seen on every corner.

But Bolivia broke my heart instead. I arrived in Sucre, the white city of the Americas, and promptly fell sick. I joked about reverse altitude sickness while I worried about how to explore when I was so tired. And I slept and practiced my Spanish and delayed leaving Sucre. It was almost relaxing, to read my book and play chess and try new cafes for breakfast each day. To taste our way through the chocolate festival and laugh at the dancing zebras that monitor traffic crossings. But I would be tired by the time I walked three blocks. And the days stretched and I still hadn't gotten to explore the market, the textile museum, go hiking to the waterfalls.

Incas vs. Conquistadors
Bolivia is full of dinosaurs
There was one more tease - a beautiful day visiting the market in Tarabuco. A smaller town a few hours from Sucre across another winding road with views off the edge of the world. Tarabuco is known for its incredibly detailed weavings. Some with a rainbow shining between white figures telling stories of weddings and carnivals. Some of entwined animals in red on a black background. And the more common geometric blankets in a full spectrum of colors. The bustling vegetable market, the quieter animal market (we considered buying a cow but decided the bus was too crowded), and the narrow streets of clay buildings.

And that was it. I did too much. I tried too hard to be my normal energetic self. By the next day I was back in bed, hating myself for being weak, and facing the harsh reality that if I didn't go somewhere that required less energy to live I was risking another bout of mysterious long term illness. And just like that, my plans changed again. I bought a one way ticket to Ireland, in hopes that somewhere completely different will sort me out again.

The list keeps growing. I have towns I want to see, styles of weaving I want to learn, Spanish verbs I still can't conjugate properly, and mountains I want to climb.

"You're going to Ireland?"
"Yeah. On Tuesday. It was a bit of an impromptu decision."
"Are you excited?"
"Sort of. I don't want to leave."
"Then why?"

How do I answer that? How do you convey the gripping fear of being sick for another few months to someone who has never had worse than the flu? How do you say that sometimes you just don't get better without change and hard work? How do you say that you hate yourself for not being able to go do things? For looking at the mountains and wanting to climb them and knowing that it won't be this trip?

The mountains won't go anywhere. And me? I've spent all year learning how to have fun with no plans. This is just one more adventure.

But Bolivia hasn't given my heart back yet. It aches to look at the mountains around La Paz and wonder when I can come back. Even as I wander through the witches market and the plazas my smile falters. As I sit confused at the Cholita wrestling, staged fights between Aymara women that are meant to be comical, I try to laugh. But instead tears come to my eyes and I blink them back before my friends notice. And again.

Broken hearts take time to mend.

But I wouldn't complain about a little luck from a leprechaun to speed up the process.

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