Thursday, October 25, 2007

from San Pedro to Uyuni: the smell of raw

They say that smells carry your memories. Smells are like little turtles, carrying secrets on their backs, secrets of the past, secrets that escape in wafts and whispers. I sit at my desk, and I smell in the dark a wintry London night of 1998, when I was only eighteen, on a senior trip. I can see the hotel room flickering in, the beige carpeted floor, the expansive window opening up screenless to let the night inside. I sit here at my desk in a soft blue bathrobe, fresh from a hot shower, lotioned and scented like a perfume ad: comfortable.

Some smells are bottled or pushed into candle wax, to be released in a room far away from the source of the scent. My eucalyptus lotion used to tell me about its history via its presence: I would not have purchased such an expensive treat for my skin, my old boss had given it to me after rescuing it from his wife’s attempt at tossing the brand new bottle into the garbage. Now the smell of eucalyptus awakens my hunger and spreads an immense calm over my body as I remember my time on Isla Amantaní on Lake Titicaca. Eucalyptus wood is used in the kitchen’s fire, and the smell of it burning will always bring me back to this paradise of an island.

The second chapter of my trip from Chile, through Bolivia and Peru is marked by the journey away from people and into nature, where smells, colors, and landscapes cleaned my senses and offered them something new. Choosing to cross the border on a tour instead of the “death train” or the midnight bus from Calama, my friend Lena and I made a good decision. We signed up in San Pedro for a four day three night tour in a 4x4. With six passengers and a driver, people filled up the jeep, and our food, water, fuel, and personal belongings were stored on the roof. After living in a city of six million people for nearly a year, spending time in crowded neighborhoods and feeling the soot of pollution invade my pores, this thrust into nature delivered a much welcome shock.

We passed the Laguna Verde, spent a night at Laguna Colorado and visited geysers at over 4,000 meters above sea level; the stench of the sulphuric belches of the earth carried on the smoke billowing from craters in the rocks (see large photo above). I had hours and hours for reflection, for daydreaming, for inventing or learning the magic of the land. In an environment completely new to me, I dispelled my ignorance of southwestern Bolivian landscapes, and discovered profound beauty in the dry hills, sandy deserts of stone sculptures, and mineral rich soil. I remember the raw smell of earth and the rainbow colors in the sand, as if in their carefully structured patterns they told not only the story of their past but that of my future. The rare alpacas and llamas we saw provided us with sporadic sparks of entertainment, and I grew quite fond of the small, yellow spike plants. Lena and I, without high tech sleeping bags like the rest of the passengers, cuddled under as many alpaca blankets as we could find but still, as the electricity turned off, could not get warm. Perhaps it was our rather gradual path of altitudinal incline, the morning and nightly doses of coca tea, or just luck, but any hint of altitude sickness completely passed me by. Flamingoes wade in the mineral rich lagoons and lakes, and as we made our way to the salt flats outside Uyuni we stopped to see them, random volcanoes, rock formations, and any other passing item of interest. That afternoon, at the salt hotel, I was the only lucky one whose shower temperature fulfilled my lengthy pleas. The quinoa soup the first night was delicious, but I still remember the quinoa soup at the salt hotel, on the salar’s rim, as totally doing me in. I can still smell it now…

Waking before dawn, I stood on the edge of the salar and felt as if I were standing on the moon. I know I have heard this description before, but of all the times in this trip through the southwest of Bolivia I felt that I was on another planet, the salar wins at convincing me that this was truly the case. The largest salt flat in the world, you can stand in the middle of a white plain and see nothing but white extending around you as far as you can see. As the sun rose, the salt turned from black, to grey, to turquoise, to a glittering white. I kept reaching out to touch it, expecting it to be cold, like the frozen Minnesota lakes of my childhood. The salt played tricks with your mind and with your eyes, giving perspective a new meaning and toying with your silly ideas about distance. Our guide told us that underneath the layers of salt there is still water, the remains of an old salt lake, and we visited Isla Pescado, an island shaped like a fish, made of coral, and home to hundreds of enormous cacti.

While on our journey we had visited a couple of very small towns that look to Uyuni as a kind of central city for the area, it still registered as a very small city to me. Our tour ended in Uyuni, and Lena and I said goodbye to our fellow passengers from the 4x4. I liked Uyuni, to be sure, and I wish that I could spend more time there. All said, I wish I could spend a lot more time in Bolivia as a whole, the country captured me and my curiosity. But unlike in Chile, where a female walks onto the Metro and any male will willingly insist she take his seat, where arms are lent to steer down stairs and doors are held open, I felt a distance between Bolivia and me. I questioned the motives for my photography more than ever, I felt intrusive, and found myself arguing ethics in my head, arguing many things actually, and feeling challenged to come up with satisfying answers. The frigid nights on the altiplano, the same clothes layering on day and night to fight for warmth, dirty hair, scratchy skin, it seems so far away now in this fuzzy bathrobe, with my lotion, with my memories.

See more photographs here.