In Bolivia. There was a fork in the road: one way, paved, painted and pointing towards Argentina—the other, a wide expanse of desert with numerous tire tracks going in one somewhat general direction…Bolivia! We have paid 60 dollars to a company in San Pedro to provide a man named Armando to pack us up in his falling apart Toyota Land Cruiser and cart us across the border. Not only that, but he will foray along in this roadless desert for four days, cooking for us, taking us to remote places to spend the night, and most of all, giving our eyes a feast of nature never seen before. Armando works hard, is stocky and has a temper but his eyes twinkle when he plays with his wife and two year old son who share the passenger seat together. There is one tape in the car with eight American songs on it, all 80’s music, and Armando lets it roll over so we seem to hear “Forever Young” every twenty minutes.
Not too far after we chose the road less traveled did we arrive at the Bolivian border. The customs house looked like it was hung over from a rough night before and only had enough room for the customs “agent” and the traveler standing expectantly with an open passport. The rest of us had to wait outside. Nothing hung on the cement walls inside. There was only a desk and a single chair and one lonely man in a battered Bolivian uniform. The Bolivian flag did wave proudly on its roof.
The bathroom waited ominously for me outside. Before walking in, there was a huge tub of water with a little bucket floating around. Not knowing what the water was for, but seeing that the toilet bowl had no water in it, I dipped the bucket into the tub and poured a nice amount into the bowl. I did my business and tried to flush, but there was no handle, not even a string to pull from the ceiling or a foot lever. Just the big tub of water with the bucket in it. Then it dawned on me—I did it backwards: business first, bucket of water to flush it all down second. The worst part was there was a girl waiting behind me, and it wasn’t Emma!
That was a few days ago and I am now well-versed on the Bolivian method of bathrooms. The Bolivian method of doing a lot of things is strikingly similar, however, in its simplicity. Take the food, for example. The meals given us consist of sliced tomatoes, hardboiled eggs, rice and spam. Everyone says not to eat anything that has been washed with the water, but it is either eat what they give us or go hungry. We are taking our chances, despite the back of the Toyota which triples as cargo area, convertible kitchen and home to many, many flies. I like the simple nature of things here—reminds me that you just don’t need all the bells and whistles. They are nice to have, but you don’t need them.
Constantly we gain elevation and the air gets progressively drier. Our bodies haven’t seen a shower since Santiago. I just found some sand hiding in a fold of my ear leftover from camping in the desert. My hair feels like a foreign substance, stiff and wire-like, almost like a starched shirt. Word on the street, rather in the hostels, is that Bolivia contains some of the most stunning scenery in the world, but unfortunately for the Bolivians, their country is so undeveloped and dangerous that people hardly know where it is on a map. Thus, the southwest corner of the country, the barren land through which we drive, is deserted except for thousands of bright pink flamingos. We have the world to ourselves it seems. There are mountains layered with seven different pigments, volcanoes growing tall with snow topping them off like ice cream cones, electric blue lakes with currents the color of rust next to currents the color of key lime pies. The wind blows hard this high on the Earth, and at night the ¨starry host¨ is really made real.
Armando keeps stopping the car and looking at us through his rearview mirror and saying, “Photo?” At first we all tumbled out and took four different versions of the same scene, but as the days wear on I’m dismayed at our apathy! Does it take such a short time to grow accustomed to such beauty? Our eyes stay peeled outside but when he stops the car we all grunt an appreciation and wave him on…sometimes I feel like the only reason we go to these extremes to see the world is for the sake of a few pictures. In our hands are these contraptions that are supposed to capture how we feel, how it smells and how the wind blew hard, so we snap the shutter and move along, forgetting to stop and experience it all, internalize the beauty until we feel it in our very toes.