Bolivia: To UyuniOliver Briscoe
The darkness was at its deepest before the twilight and at two, my weary eyes shut in their own darkened vision. My spirit exhausted by rolling fantasy, that of obscure expectation which the unknown conjures. Trying to picture a country I had hitherto only been half-conscious of; its name evoked very little more than that. I had gathered that Bolivia was efficient in two things; c-sections and indo-agrarian socialism, and with some Spanish; they were the broadest of brushstrokes with which to paint the place. Viru Viru was not Spanish though, it means ‘flat plain’ in the local indigenous dialect, and is an old, rotten-looking airport, decayed by a humidity immediately felt on the tarmac, which dissipates into sweat across the body.
I was there because, dissatisfied with my first two years at Bristol University, I wanted to challenge why exciting lives were the reserve of others. As these things sort themselves, I met Liam at the shooting club that winter; one of the solid boys amongst the eclectic foreign crowd, the unremarkable privilege, the ‘Aga hunters’; the products of affluent neglect. A month later he agreed to tour the sub-continent with me; he pimped a fast, gilded life, a personal story of political injustice, and simply said ‘yes, we can use my truck’ when I said I wanted to drive to the Cape and back.
I made my way inside, which was no cooler, and prepared for my first encounter with the State whose corruption I heard much about, but whose motivations were too base and incompetent to fear. I felt grimy. The filth of long haul travel was under my fingernails, and coated my cheeks and tongue. I was also disturbingly conscious of my breath, and sickened by the gnawing hunger that comes from a day’s flying.
In a final effort I rehearsed my lines like a funerary chant. Despite all the macaronic humour the Englishman can imbue in a situation needing mastery of a foreign tongue, when the time came to deploy my sentences to the stern, pit-faced, moustachioed Latin guard, there was nothing humorous in my simple competence, my school-boy Spanish. He took my yellow fever card and passport with barely a glance. I was not at all embarassada.
My searching eyes were dog-tired, and it was Liam who clasped my back first, relieving me of my bigger bag. We embraced and he welcomed me with his usual exuberance, a little too much for my bleary ears at that quiet time. Following him happily with renewed excitement, he took me to his car and plied me with altitude pills, friendly conversation, and apologies for the same day flight to Uyuni. At least landing at two and leaving at five would sort out my jet-lag. Waiting in the slow tired talk of early morning, listening but looking elsewhere, I took time to notice my surroundings. Through the open window I felt the fresh breeze across the grasslands of Santa Cruz; a blossomed tajibo swayed lightly in a carmine band, under a celestial expanse of purple.
At departures I met Liam’s mother Carolina and his older brother Danny; with a handsome face, sharper than his, and the trademark smile–dentistry is one of the family businesses. We rushed our introductions, no one was in the mood for fawning and extended politeness at this hour. I kissed Carolina on both cheeks, in Bolivia they kiss only once.
The Boliviana de Aviación plane made up above the clouds as day broke. First heavy and thick, they thinned as the ground suddenly swelled into a maroon chain of ridges, rippled like velvet cloth across a tailor’s station. The peaks, covered in sparse snow, tipped up to the plane window, and the little clouds left lay couched between some of the tallest pinnacles, disgorging as if from the spray of a cataract. The higher we rose, the rockier the earth, shorn of vegetation. The stream of clouds dried up, amidst the rubble El Alto appeared; quiet and dotted with rectilinear, orange street lamps, which barely glowed in the pallor of a rising dawn, I could see a land infertile, flat and dusty. The crenelated peaks around the plateau kept it like a dzong fortress, blocking the sunrise, still shaded in the ink of a Chinese illustration. Most prominent of the shadowed outcrops was the Illimani mountain, a great ridgeback of a beast, hunched as if morphing back into naked man at the touch of sunrise. Across the city I noticed the houses were mostly built of hollowed orange cinder-block, many windowless with the top floor left unfinished, if roofless; left so the inhabitants pay no income tax.
Another half an hour in the plane and I was faced with the stark expanse of the salt flats; giving length to distance traveled. Only a day ago I had sidled the sprawling metropolis I call home, my mind rushing with the glide of the Piccadilly line. From Hammersmith to Heathrow, I had passed the suburbs of London which are only ever seen from the train tracks. The naked indecency of kitchen extensions and over-grown gardens. Where the line straddles a glimpse of a high street; the Tudor revival, timbered, jettied eves with backlit signs ‘Dosa’ or ‘Hyderabad’. Around them, in the same way trees grow taller to reach sunlight through the canopy; new builds. Tainted in my mind’s eye by endless print from the Piloti and Rotten Boroughs pages of the Private Eye. Stories of nefarious contractors, plans of plain stupidity and covert, craven arson, traceless and damaging beyond repair. Negating the strong protestations of unfavourable judgements, which in the face of collapsing timber and charred brick are only spasmodic fits from an uncoordinated Justice system, confined to its courtroom, unable to keep abreast of the cut-throat realities in local politics, and the business of well-recompensed middle men with middling power. If one were to look at the map of the UK, one would see great loss dotted about; fire by fire, corrupted councillor over passive council; each a fresh strike to the crumbling rock of British architectural heritage.
At that time of day, about eleven on a Friday, Terminal Three had been filled with groups of travelling foreign pensioners; for which I believe the collective noun is an accented noise. Weaving through, swapping the confusion of the nearly dead for peace in death, out of sight, I had slipped into the tobacconist. Every surface shone with white sterility. One man attended in silence. He did not proffer a greeting or even turn his head. I felt as if exalted to one of those modern conceptions of Heaven, where an officious, laconic St Peter stands by the gate in natty tails, with a white shirt and white-tie. I must have drawn poorly; my St Peter was a corpulent Indian in a shapeless grey suit with thinning, oily hair, swept back in curls.
The humidors stood in a hemicycle at the back of the room, dark and dimly lit. There was something rather comforting in this mortuary air, where everyone glided, perusing with ease and slight embarras around cancer inducing cartons. Not just inducing but guaranteeing fatality, so as not to leave one in the doubt that comes with a healthy life. I politely picked and payed for a half dozen cubans and as if returning to conciseness in resurrection, rejoined the duty free zone, leaving in my trail the unvoiced sentiment that smoking heaven was not to be my final resting place. Nor was the psychedelic, olfactory overload of designer toiletries; so I made straight for the gate, here on earth.
I had boarded without nerves, dispelling from my mind the recent story of the young men who had died on the Salar de Uyuni, ‘nineteen’ ‘trip of a lifetime’ ‘going to Bristol’.
A couple of weeks earlier I had received a message from Liam about a dream, and how the enormity of our endeavour had dawned on him. Fortunately that dream augured our safe return, contradicting the one of the week prior, where I crashed us into a lorry.