The great thing about overnight buses is that if it´s too early in the morning, you can sleep in the bus until it´s daylight. Our bus was two hours early to Uyuni, so we stayed in our warm blankets until 7 am. The restarting bus scared us into getting off.
Immediately, we were accosted by agents of tour companies, ready to take us to Salar on a one day, two day, or three day trip. One such woman offered to take us to her office on the plaza. A free ride to the plaza in the biting cold? We couldn´t refuse.
So we ended up taking a tour after all, for three days. It started at 10:30 am. Well, she said to be at the office by 10:30 but the jeep didn´t leave until 11 or so. Our first stop was within two minutes of driving, to a train cemetery. Our 4-D jeep parked next to the seven other such jeeps, carrying six or seven passengers each. The cameras popped out instantly as people climbed on top of the rusted grafitti-marked trains, striking a pose. I chose to walk along the tracks that carried the first train in Bolivia. If one ignored the camera flashs and take-my-picture-while-I´m-jumping scenes, the cemetery was kind of nice. Metal tires were buried halfway in the ground. Jumbles of metal scraps lay curled in a huge ball, polluted with Coke cans and styrofoam non-perishables. We didn´t spend long at the cemetery, maybe twenty minutes. After all, we had many other stops to make.
The next stop was at the magnificent Salar itself. Not wanting to enjoy it amidst tourist pollution, we requested the driver to park a bit farther than the cluster of jeeps. He did so willingly. Walking in an endless desert of salt was surreal. It was a never-ending terrain of shimmering milky whiteness. Even though it looked like hardened snow, it was salt. Yes, I checked. Putting a granule in my mouth probably wasn´t the safest idea, but I couldn´t resist. Affirmative, it was definitely salty.
In the rainy season, the salt flats become glassy and merge with the horizon. This was the dry season, so irregular polygonal shapes made up the landscape. Their crusted ridges shattered like grainy glass when I stepped on them. Some regions of Salar were tinged in reddish-brown; it was from the dirt the salt mining trucks and tour jeeps brought into the pristine flats. I must have wandered off farther than the others, because the jeep had to come get me after everyone else was already in it. Time to move on.
An hour later, we arrived at a cactus-filled mountain called Fish Island. Don´t ask me why it´s called that, I have no idea. It was an unusual sight in this white nothingness, but I knew we were in the right place. A horde of jeeps were standing in what very well may have been a parking lot for a Salar shopping mall.
I watched the people in the distance, doing the ritualistic "perspective pose": you stand in front of an object, and it looks like you´re holding it. It´s quite mortifying, and yet Nikhil was insistent that we take one, as it´s the tradition here. I relented.
Our jeep had eight people: the driver and the cook in the front, the three of us were in the back, and the middle seat was taken by a couple from Holland, Frank and Stephanie, and a French guy named Stephan. During lunch, Stephan asked me if he could interview me for a documentary he is making on immigrants. At first, I felt uncomfortable, being the center of attention and all. Thirty minutes later, I agreed. There I was, in the middle of Salar, sitting on hexagon shaped salt blocks, talking about my life. It wasn´t bad at all. In fact, I enjoyed the experience. So now you know where Pragya started her climb to fame- on French television.
Due to the filming, our jeep was the last to leave. We reached our hotel accomodations while the sun was just about to set. The hotel was constructed entirely of salt bricks and the ground was carpeted in salt grains. The hotel was well furnished, with beds, bathrooms, and clean showers. If I breathed with my mouth open, the salty dust made my mouth, for lack of a better word, salty.
Our small group took a walk up a dry mountain strewn with shrivelled grass and cactus. The remoteness of Salar was evident in the lack of any sign of life; no chirping of birds or crickets, only the gentle whoosh of the wind rang in my ears. The mountain was getting steep and the sun had already set, so we decided to head back halfway through our climb. We were walking down the dirty road when in the flat horizon, someone noticed a glow. It was faint, a dull brown against the dark blue sky, but very prominent. We were fixated by the glow. It wasn´t the sun, for it was already dark. Was it growing brighter? No, it wasn´t. Wait, yes, it was definitely brighter and bigger, but still just a glow in the horizon. What could it possibly be? A fire? Maybe an incoming car...a UFO perhaps. It was a bit frightening, seeing a halo arising from the ground and not knowing what it was as it increased in size.
The brown glow turned yellow, then orange, and I saw a line of bright light. It was as if someone had lined up ten bright LEDs that were tightly packed together. It was definitely not a car. By now, we had stopped dead in our tracks, hypnotized by this strange phenomenon in the middle of nowhere. Then, the light became even brighter, and a convex curve emerged. Someone shouted, "It´s the moon!" Yes, it was the moon, I saw it clearly now. Half the dome was visible and it smoldered a bright orange-yellow. We sat down right there on the ground to witness the rest of this spectacle. The mmoon rose gracefully, slowly, all the while the stars were showing themselves above us. Soon, the moon was no longer yellow, but a pale white. I held on to that moment. Fifty years from now, I might forget Salar and Machu Pichu. But this, my first moon rise, I will always remember. Always.