Thursday, March 13, 2008

taking it all with a pinch of salt ...

Is it just me, or does anyone else think Mel seems to have shrunk whilst we've been travelling?

Our final destination in Bolivia was the high altitude (3700m) "Salaar de Uyuni" salt flats, where we hooked up with our pal Kate and a few others for a 3 day trip.

The huge unspoilt scenery reminded a little of our trip around Mongolia, but with toilets. Over three days our trip took in everything from steaming fumeroles and geysers, to lakes packed with flamingoes, red lagoons, green lagoons and active volcanoes.

The best day by far though was the first as we headed out onto the salt flat itself. All 1000 square km of it. Trying to take photos, the reflected light was so blinding you almost couldn't see the resulting image on the LCD screen of your digital camera, but it was worth the effort as the unique perspectives allowed for some interesting photographs (see above).

At this time of year the rains cause large areas of Salaar de Uyuni to flood. So I wasn't really expecting it when our driver drove straight our Land Cruiser straight into the foot-deep brine as we progressed to the central area of the flats.

Not that I didn't think the vehicle could cope, just that with salt being a catalyst for rust it's hardly going to do much for the resale value of a piece of machinery that most likely costs more than the average house in Bolivia.

Our next stop was the incredibly unlikely sight of Incahausi Island. A huge rock formation jutting out of endless miles of salt and covered with giant cactus plants.

Despite being well aware of where I was, something about the endless white background was causing my brain to scream "an island of cacti..? in the snow..? you must be kidding!".

After climbing to the top the vistas became even more surreal as we enjoyed unninterupted 360 degree views for tens of kilometers to the mountains surrounding the flats, which, because of the intense light looked as though they were floating on mirages.

Returning to our vehicle we sat down to lunch at picnic benches and table crafted out of pure rock salt. It was all of about a minute into our meal before the obvious joke made it's first appearance of many - "has anyone seen the salt?" I enquired.

And who says my jokes are bad?

After leaving the salt flat we drove to a small village where we had the pleasure of staying in a small guesthouse constructed almost entirely of salt (we were noticing a theme developing). It was a real novelty staying here, but I don't really think it will catch on for comfort purposes.

Quite apart from anything else, I just can't imagine hoovering a floor like this.

You meet some real characters while travelling. Often eccentric and frequently seeking a little direction in life, but in our experience almost universally pleasant people to share a conversation and a beer with.

Not on this trip though.

We started to get the idea that one of our companions was a little odd over dinner that evening as he explained at length that since leaving the US military and spending the last four years travelling, he makes it a rule never to eat with tourists - preferring instead to eat in "places where no one else wants to". The undertone being that food poisoning is for wimps, not tough army guys like him.

Clearly we were not sufficiently impressed by this, so for his next trick he went fishing around in the communal soup pot for the chicken foot we had discovered a few minutes earlier (presumably added for flavouring) and started gnawing at it like a wild animal.

Here was a man who knows how to attract the ladies I thought - and in fact he did attract a few sideways glances from our Bolivian ladies doing the cooking for us.

I think most people would have given up at this point. Yet half an hour later when a selection of tea bags, mugs and a thermos of hot water arrived at our table he decided finish with one final act.

Taking one herbal and one ordinary tea bag he ripped them open and emptied the contents in his mug before adding hot water.

This did attract our attention.

He went on to explain that he had discovered he preferred it this way one time when he "got a bit too agressive" stirring his tea and the bag split, and he seemed utterly convinced that he was "getting more of the goodness this way".

There is a word for people like this, but it's not one I'll be using on my blog.

The following morning provided one of the high points of the trip. As we sat down to breakfast his girlfriend (who rather ironically is deaf) informed us he wouldn't be joining us, due to having spent most of the night making visits to the toilet.

We tried really hard not to laugh.

I'll let you decide how succesful we were.

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