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
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.
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
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."
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.