February 06, 2006

Iguazu, Argentina
The Bellybutton of the World

Flights to Easter Island are really expensive.

When people plan trips to South America, they often throw it in there. Giant stone heads in the middle of the ocean – who wouldn’t want to check that out? Then they find out the price, and…hmm, maybe next time.

Yes, I’ve got a budget I’m working within. But I’ve also got an opportunity to visit the places I never thought I’d get to see. In fact, I’ve sort of got a mandate. I talked to Melissa about it and we found a way to make it work; when we reached Santiago, we checked into the Bellavista hostel, loafed around for a couple hours, then I left her to explore the city by herself while I nicked off for a couple days to go dance with the Moai.

She wasn’t particularly fussed about it anyway, and we figured by around that point in the trip, we’d both be able to use some time off.

The moment I hopped in the cab to the airport, I became suddenly bombarded with worry. Am I going to make the flight? Is it an e-ticket or did I leave the paper ticket back in the room? Where did I put my passport? Will they have weight restrictions on luggage? What if the weather’s bad?

I am not, in general, a worrier. I mostly just count on things to work out and fix problems as they arise. It eventually dawned on me that these questions running through my head are the ones I routinely, unconsciously, dump on Melissa – or whomever I happen to be traveling with. By not concerning myself with what can go wrong, I passively obligate those around me to take on the burden.

…okay, behavior identified. Fixing it? That’s gonna take some work. I’m not exactly eager to change in that area – and there are benefits to not worrying. For one thing, I get to keep a full head of hair.

Weird art at the Santiago airport.

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The flight took me by surprise. I expected a 737 with plenty of empty seats. I boarded a packed 767 that flies the route daily, sometimes twice a day.

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The big screen showed our plane’s progress over a satellite image of the region. As we approached our destination, the map zoomed in closer and the screen became an unblemished sheet of blue with only a single, tiny speck, 2200 miles off the coast of Chile. Though the means of determination are nebulous and debatable, Easter Island is often called the most isolated island in the world.

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The in-flight movie was Sky High. Being an unreformed superhero nerd, I must confess to having found it enjoyable.

At each place I go, there seems to be one nationality in particular that is attracted more than any other. Galapagos tourists were mostly American. In Bolivia, it was Argentinians. Germans are crazy for Peru. For whatever reason, Easter Island seems to have been claimed by the French.

I issued no formal surveys. Just going off the folks I encountered.

A particular Frenchman sitting adjacent on the plane annoyed the crap out of me. It is my strong conviction that when a passenger has neither a window nor an aisle seat, as was my unfortunate lot, they are entitled to at least one, if not both armrests. It was the opinion of the Frenchman, clearly, that regardless of where he was sitting, he should get whatever he wants – period.

The armrest to my left was a lost cause. I wasn’t competing with another mere arm, but with rolls of boisterous fat that couldn’t possibly be squeezed anywhere else. The Spanish lady in possession of the fat seemed nice enough, but there wasn't much she could do.

The right armrest, however, was fair game. The Frenchman and I spent most of the flight literally pushing each other’s elbows back and forth across the disputed territory. He pretended to be asleep through this, as if it were some somnambulant reflex. For my part, I felt no need to disguise my intentions, having what I felt to be the moral high ground.

The plane landed close to midnight. The passengers raced off, as they always do, so they could be the first ones to start waiting for their luggage. Once bored with that, they glommed around the phony stone head next to baggage claim to have their pictures taken, as if it was the only one they were likely to see on their visit.

One of the really nice things about giant stone heads: they’re not going anywhere.

A group of Rapa Nui men dressed in loincloths with ceremonial body paint performed a traditional dance to welcome us.

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What I found more interesting was the dancer with the night off, standing to the side with his wife and baby to cheer his friends on.

It took me a while to put my finger on what interested me about that. There was something perceptually different to similar performances I’d seen elsewhere. I finally realized: they aren’t phoning it in. They’re actually enjoying themselves. The guy could’ve been sitting at home doing nothing, but he chose to be there.

Standing next to me in the audience was a conspicuously solo traveler, a decade or two junior to almost everyone else on the plane.

After all the other passengers got their bags and filtered into their buses for their packaged rides to their packaged resorts, I made arrangements with a woman touting rooms at a small guest house for $16 a night. She put me in her car, where I found myself sitting next to the same conspicuous fellow. His name is Dom.

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Dom is from Nottingham, England – as in ‘The Sheriff of __________’. There’s a bronze statue in his town of Mr. Robs-from-the-Rich himself. I asked Dom if there was an actual person who served as the basis for the legend. He had no idea, and was clearly done with the subject.

Dom recently quit his thrilling job at a database company that tracked credit card debt and advised on loan approvals. He took his savings and spent it on a year-long trip around the world, with no idea what he was going to do when he returned home, but a sneaking suspicion that it had to be better than what he was doing before he left.

We arrived on the island with a similarly whimsical approach to our presence there and a similar degree of obliviousness as to how we were going to go about seeing the place. The main difference was that he had more than a week to explore, while I had just over a day. We decided to pool our efforts for the duration of my stay.

Before going to bed, we went into Hanga Roa, the one and only town on the island, to share a drink and both of us determine whether the other was a homicidal maniac -- or an unbearable turd. Also on the agenda was the awkward business of revealing my background as an internet dancing sensation and recruiting him to be my impromptu cinematographer.

I eased into the subject and it went smoothly. His response was along the lines of, “you are the luckiest bastard I’ve ever met. Of course I will hold your damn camera.”

The following morning, the first item on the to-do list was acquiring a car. Easter Island is pretty big – way too big to walk, and the roads don’t make cycling a very tempting prospect. I didn’t want to screw around with my one day there, so I shelled out more than my share and got us a nice 4WD to tool around in.

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Driving on Easter Island is loads of fun. It's basically one big, scenic, off-road racetrack. The only obstacle to watch out for is the very occasional tourist van plodding along.

Our first stop was the massive volcanic crater, Ranu Kau. It has nothing to do with giant stone heads, but it takes up an amazingly large chunk of the island and is worth a visit.

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Here’s one of the many dealers of stone head knick-knacks. They’re hand-carved from the same pumis rock as the big versions, mined from the island’s own supply. I thought that was kinda nifty. It’s slightly more authentic than your run-of-the-mill souvenir, ya know?

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Our next stop was the first of many large stone mounds, called Ahu, upon which the Moai once stood.

…I will now insert Chapter 1 of my spotty, hazily-informed, and probably inaccurate history of the Rapa Nui people.

So they land on this island, sometime, I-don’t-know-when, coming from I-don’t-know-where. They lived for a time in relative harmony, their population fracturing not into tribes, but something called kin groups spread all throughout the island.

At some point, the Rapa Nui got it into their soft, fleshy, real heads to march into the volcanic crater called Ranu Raraku and carve giant, stone, fake heads to represent, most likely, their fallen ancestors. They then hauled these colossal lawn ornaments to the distant shores of the island, employing ropes, pulleys, rolling logs, and probably loads of other methods that you’d pretty much have to be stuck on an island all your life to dream up. The purpose of the Moai, it is thought, was so the ancestors could watch over their kin groups.

Things went on like that for a while, and it would be an interesting enough story if it ended there. But it didn’t. Something weird happened next. More later.

So we get to this Ahu, but where’s the Moai?...that is, coincidentally, the punch line to a very funny Yiddish joke.

Upon thorough investigation, we spotted what appeared to be eyes and a nose on the underside of a particularly large boulder.

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It had been knocked over. That’s odd, we thought. And then we saw the same thing over and over and over.

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It was an epidemic. Why, you ask? Maybe we'll find out in Chapter 2...

One day, the Rapa Nui started running out of everything. The trees had pretty much all been chopped down, probably in the service of moving Moai, so they couldn’t make any more boats to fish with. By that point, the population had swelled to over 15,000. There wasn’t anywhere near enough land to feed everyone through agriculture alone, so things started getting a little tense.

Archaeological records show the sudden appearance of carved weapons all over the island, sometime in the 19th century. Loads of fractured skulls have also been found and dated to around the same time. Kin groups that had peaceably coexisted suddenly started killing each other off. And to add insult to injury, they began tipping each other’s Moai over too.

When Captain Cook landed on his way to Australia, it was shortly before things got completely out of hand. He observed that a few of the heads had been knocked on their sides. Later accounts listed fewer and fewer upright, until finally, not a Moai was standing.

This might be an appropriate place to mention how Easter Island got its name. Ready? It was discovered on Easter Sunday. No kidding. Some guy said, "Hey, look at all those stone heads. I've never seen anything like that in all the world. I wonder what we should call this place...I know! Today's Easter Sunday. Let's call it Easter Island!"

The Spanish gave it the more appropriate name of Isla de Pasqua. Curiously, the Rapa Nui didn't call it Rapa Nui. They didn't even call themselves Rapa Nui. The people from some other island gave them that name. They called their home Te Pito o Te Henua, or "The Bellybutton of the World."

Anyway, at some point in the modern era, after European contact but before we’d really had an opportunity to screw things up, the Rapa Nui culture self-destructed.

And how, you ask, did all this turmoil affect the production of giant stone heads? Good question. That’s actually the most profoundly interesting detail. See, when everything started crumbling, they didn’t decide that stone head production was a frivolous, unnecessary, resource-draining luxury. Nope. It became everything.

Dom and I circled the island until we came to Ranu Raraku – which is very hard to say without sounding like Scooby-Doo.

Ranu Raraku was the workshop where all the kin groups would go to work on new Moai. It was only after completion that they were hauled across the island to their Ahu.

There are more unfinished heads in Ranu Raraku today than there are all over the rest of the island. They’re also some of the most striking and stylistically advanced pieces.

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This is the apex of Moai fever. This is where most of the photos people see of Easter Island are taken. Time for Chapter 3.

The Rapa Nui invested all their hopes for salvation in their wacky obsession. They started making them faster than ever. It was obvious that they’d done something to piss off their ancestors, and the only way to fix things was to demonstrate a more intense level of worship and sacrifice.

…there’s a lesson in there, somewhere.

So Rapa Nui civilization went into drastic decline. They died off quickly and almost completely. In 1877, the population bottomed out at 111. In recent times, a rebound has begun, helped in part by the tourist boom. There are a couple thousand native Rapa Nui living on Easter Island and slightly more on mainland Chile.

The Rapa Nui are soon to be outnumbered on their native island by migrant Chileans. This is, of course, the subject of a lot of tension. Chile claimed Easter Island over a hundred years ago and made its native population their unwilling subjects. How would you feel?

Climbing up Ranu Raraku, it’s hard not to mistake an unfinished head for just another piece of rock. Down by the entrance where the park guides lurk, you get yelled at for even standing next to a Moai. But up top, it’s “Um, Dom, I think you’re standing on that guy’s nose.”

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Back round the front side is the most ambitious undertaking of all; an insanely massive, unfinished piece over 60 feet tall.

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It’s hard to imagine what the sculptor’s plan was for unearthing this behemoth. My guess is his buddies spent their afternoons in a nearby patch of shade, idly mocking him for entertainment.

“Are ya sure that’s gonna be big enough, Mukluk? I hear there’s some guy a few huts over making one twice as big.”

“Uh oh, Mukluk, I think you made the head too big. I’m standing here looking, and from this angle…I don’t know. It just looks a little crooked to me. That’s all I’m saying.”

I was more than content to take a few stills of the more interesting heads and move along. Dom's ambitions were higher. He is a bold practitioner of the "comedy photo," and I was obliged to assist him in this.

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Who am I to judge, really? I'm the dancing guy.

Meanwhile, back on the mainland, Melissa was photographing heads of a different kind. But that's her story, not mine.

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Check out what’s going on at the base of this statue.

Not far from the quarry, someone had the clever idea of standing a bunch of fallen Moai upright in a row. This in no way reflects their original, historical presentation, but it's a nice photo op.

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Their historical presentation looked more like this.

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Eyes painted white with black pupils, and a funny little redish hat on their heads.

If you ask me, the way they used to look was kind of lame -- a little too reminiscent of Bart Simpson. Like the ruins of Angkor Wat, the ravages of time made significant improvements.

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This Moai ended up in a tragi-comic state. It looks to have been strolling through the meadows one day when it tripped on a stone and face-planted, its hat tumbling a few feet after.

Poor thing.

We reached the far end of the island and the one real, usable beach.

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It was generously populated with vacationing Chileans and altogether quite pleasant. Dom and I had a nice tuna steak lunch.

On the road back to Hanga Roa, we picked up a couple of attractive young hitchhiking Chilean girls. I served feebly as Dom's wingman.

Back in town, we regrouped a little bit and watched the locals at play.

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They really are quite good at recreation. The Rapa Nui definitely seem to enjoy life on their own terms. They're happy to have the tourist dollars I imagine, but they're not interested in behaving like servants to anyone. A refreshing mentality after much of South America.

I didn't actually get to see it, but I've gotta mention Bird Man Island.

Back in the day, the Rapa Nui had an annual competition in which the men would jump from a cliff and swim through shark-infested waters to Bird Man Island, a kilometer or so out from shore.

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Once on the tiny island, they had to climb the vertical spire to reach the nest up top. The first one to retrieve an egg and bring it back was dubbed the Bird Man for that year; a title which was, presumably, desirable.

Each year, some would get eaten by sharks, others would fall from the rocks and die. Sounds like great TV, huh? Maybe a sport worth reviving.

We got going again to see the few remaining sites before sundown. Dom dubbed this statue a "Mooai".

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I like this picture.

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We went to visit the mound where the Moai hats were quarried. It isn't very interesting, but next to it is the tallest hill on Easter Island. I ordered Dom to run all the way to the top immediately without stopping. He did.

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You can see him up there at the top if you care to look close.

Dom smokes, by the way.

Feeling slow and weak and old, I decided I had to conquer the hill as well -- but maybe at a more modest pace. I passed Dom along the way.

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And up top there was a splendid view of the island.

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Stone heads aside, it's still really quite a lovely place.

As the sun went down, we returned to town and watched the locals rehearse a dance for the upcoming Rapa Nui festival. Most of the dancers were Chilean, but no one seemed to mind.

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The gyrations were hypnotic.

Some puppies played nearby.

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The day ended.

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We went to dinner. I was exhausted.

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Took a cab to the airport the next morning. The cabbie was female...and young...and attractive. Only time I've ever had a woman cabbie outside the states. Only time I've ever had an attractive cabbie, period.

So there you have it. Gotta go to all the way to Easter Island to find a hot cabbie.

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And that was my one-day trip to Easter Island. I saw the shit out of it.

I met up with Melissa at the hotel in Santiago. She'd been hanging around the city and was ready to move on. We had a few more days planned for Chile, but decided to head over to Argentina early so we'd have time to see Iguazu falls.

We bought tickets to Iguazu at the airport in Buenos Aires, then flew up the next morning.

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Pretty as it is, neither of us were particularly thrilled with the experience. It was the most over-touristed place we've seen on the trip. Throngs of people everywhere, clogging the pathways and hogging the views. No fun for anybody.

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Iguazu falls marks the border between Argentina and Brazil, with Paraguay only a few miles to the west. That's Argentina on the left, Brazil on the right.

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I don't know what this thing is, but it didn't seem to mind people.

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And that's it for this post. Back to Buenos Aires tomorrow. Got a tentative phone-in interview planned with Good Morning America. We'll see how that goes. Then off to New Zealand.

January 31, 2006

Calama, Chile
The Most Beautiful Place I've Ever Been

There is no oxygen in La Paz.

Call me crazy, but I’m obsessed with the stuff. I can’t get enough of it. And at 3500 meters above sea level, in the highest capital city in the world, I’m simply not able to get my fix.

Trivia: La Paz is not technically the capital of Bolivia, but after winning a civil war over the matter, it’s pretty much earned the title.

La Paz is like a methadone clinic for oxygen addicts. After a few days, I could get by on a lot less, but the hankering never quite goes away.

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The city was founded by the Spanish inside a massive volcanic crater to serve as a rest stop on the trail from Lima to Rio. The unusual layout puts the outlying neighborhoods on the steep crater walls, climbing all the way up to the rim on every side.

We arrived with a tight schedule to keep. We needed to continue south to the remote desert town of Uyuni so we could visit the salt flats, then make it back to La Paz within three days for our flight to Argentina.

The plan was blown out of the water on the first morning when we found out the 15 hour bus ride had been stretched by the rainy season into an 18 hour ride. A further update put this time at a barely fathomable 24 hours each way.

Hiring a driver wouldn’t have saved us much time and would have cost a lot. There are no functioning airstrips anywhere near Uyuni, so flying was out of the question. The bus ride sounded so bad, I wasn’t sure we could stand even the first half of the journey – nevermind that we’d have to hop on the same bus back a few hours later.

There is a train to Uyuni, but with Argentinian students on holiday, it was booked solid.

We pondered our options and decided the salt flats would be worth the extra time it would take us to get there. We cut Argentina from our itinerary, cancelled the necessary flights, and booked the next available train. By skipping Argentina, we realized we’d be very close to the border of our next destination, Chile, and decided to make our own way there once we reached Uyuni.

With everything settled, we were left with a day and a half to kick around La Paz.

We went to the massive street market.

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It takes up about 30 square blocks of the city and sells everything your average La Pazian needs. It is in many ways the opposite of Wal-Mart; rather than one company selling everything for ridiculously low prices by bleeding their suppliers dry, you’ve got a million people selling everything for ridiculously low prices because of fierce, shoulder-to-shoulder competition.

I prefer the latter.

We visited the much-ballyhooed La Paz witchcraft market. There didn’t seem to be much to ballyhoo about unless you get excited about mummified llama fetuses and inflated toads with bulging red eyeballs.

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…my expectations were higher.

All the major cities we’ve visited have had what seems to be a single major backpacker hostel. The advantage of staying in such places is their tendency to serve key backpacker needs such as internet access and laundry at very reasonable prices. The disadvantage is their tolerance for horrible guitar-playing.

...If I could just take a minute here to address the male backpacker demographic: please, don't bring your guitar. It's not going to get you laid. It's not going to help you meet people. It's just going to annoy them. No one wants to hear your rendition of "Redemption Song." And speaking on behalf of the flight attendants, they're tired of having to cram your pawn shop treasure into the gutter between 1st class and coach.

Moving on. In La Paz, the hostel of choice is called Hotel El Solario. Many of the people staying at Hotel El Solario were either about to go on or had just come back from a mountain biking trip down “The World’s Most Dangerous Road.” “The World’s Most Dangerous Road” is a stretch of pavement leading down out of the Andes and into the sea-level Amazon basin at a length of only 64 kilometers. It used to be a somewhat-hazardous but not altogether noteworthy road until someone declared it to be “The World’s Most Dangerous Road.” Now hundreds of people have to ride mountain bikes down it every day…myself and female companion not among them.

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The way most people get around the city is on microbuses – similar to the matatus in parts of Africa. They follow general routes which are modified on the fly depending on the destination of each passenger. The upcoming neighborhoods are advertised to passing pedestrians by young men who stick their heads out the side and yell really loud. Everything they say sounds like complete gibberish.

We walked to the upscale part of town and had a fancy steak dinner.

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Each plate cost a whopping 6 bucks. We were the only two customers in the restaurant. The owner was both the cook and the waiter’s mother.

Despite the fabulousness of the meal, it still forced the little man who lives inside my body to pull the big red lever down below. Melissa too. Our big red levers are pulled often. The only food we discovered in Bolivia that’s guaranteed not to cause any lever-pulling is something we call the miracle burger.

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Miracle burgers are cooked on the side of the road in little wooden shacks. They take about 30 seconds to grill and come served with lettuce, tomato, grilled onion, and heaps of delicious spices. Miracle burgers cost about $0.19. For another $0.13, you can have fries pressed under the bun. Miracle burgers are delicious.

We ate a lot of miracle burgers in Bolivia.

Here's me doing what I do most of the time. Feel free to notice the tan and weight loss.

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Up at dawn, taxi to the bus station for our 3 hour bus ride to Uluru so we can catch the 12 hour train to Uyuni. Bolivia’s commitment to their growing tourism business is made very clear by the presence of Kevlar-armored “tourist police.”

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On the bus to Uluru, a man stood in the aisle shouting to all the passengers. With our rusty Spanish, we eventually determined that he was informing them about recent events in local politics. It was a live presentation of the nightly news.

He was carrying a briefcase, which we asked him to show to us. Inside were four soft cover, easy-to-read textbooks for sale. One taught English; one taught about the geography, politics, and economics of Bolivia; one was full of quotes from historical figures like Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King; and one taught how to use Microsoft Office. This is a program that was started a few years ago by the Bolivian government to improve the minds of its populace and make them more able to compete for high-paying jobs on an international level.

An impoverished, third world government endeavoring to better the lives of its citizens. How about that for a change?...How about that?

The train to Uyuni was not as stimulating.

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Not much to say about Uyuni. Here are some dogs.

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Husky

We went to bed, woke up the next morning, and caught a 4WD truck out to see the Salar de Uyuni. First they took us here.

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And then this happened.

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…let me back up a bit.

They took us to a small village on the outskirts of the salt flats. The village used to exist solely to process the salt from the flats into bricks for shipping. Now it’s where the tourists eat lunch.

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The bricks are all over the place. They make chairs out of them, tables, and most of the knick-knacks for sale. You can buy a salt shaker made out of salt.

With our tummies full of flavorless noodles and llama, we left the dirt road and started into the 9000 square kilometers of the largest salt flats in the world.

In this part of the year, the rainy season leaves several inches of perfectly still water on the ground, which reflects the full expanse of the sky as a single, continuous sheet of glass.

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The truck cuts through it like a ship at sea. Before long, the window views were not enough and the intrepid among us crawled onto the roof, completing the nautical illusion.

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I don’t believe I have ever, in my life, felt less like I was on planet earth.

The dark speck on the horizon soon grew to become The Salt Hotel; an unlikely outpost built entirely out of you-know-what. The Salt Hotel is in the process of being closed down after it was discovered how badly the human presence was damaging the surrounding environment. Now it’s just a short stop with no opportunity for eating or bathroom breaks.

I took some pretty pictures of my girlfriend.

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…and yes, I danced.

It's a cliche to say the pictures don't do a place justice. I've certainly had my share of that feeling. For once I can say they capture a spot perfectly. They might even improve on it a little bit, as these don't hurt my feet as much to look at.

The salt forms in an endless stretch of rock-hard hexagons. Every once in a while you'll spot a hole in the ground that you can put a hand or foot through. Just enough light gets in to show that the salt flat doesn't go down very deep, and beneath it is several feet of liquid. Within the hole, the warm surface water turns frigid cold. We found a particularly large one and I lowered Melissa down into it until she started screaming.

Very cold.

We’d planned to move on from Uyuni by train to the Chilean border, but upon investigation, a faster and more interesting alternative was made clear. We booked to go by 4WD to the south through the Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa. It was a 12 hour drive, but it saved us a day and took us through some extremely remote territory – about as high into the Andes as anyone can go without an ice pick or a propeller.

We shared the vehicle with a guy from Belgium named David and his mother. The mother only spoke Belch, but her son spoke English, Spanish, French, German, and Italian. He’d also spent four years touring the world by himself on a bicycle, living on $5 a day. He was also an unbearable asshole.

What is it about the Belch? I’ve never met one I can stand talking to for more than a minute. They're conversation assassins. It must be a cultural thing; when one of us was speaking and he decided he wanted to talk, he’d just started talking. If we tried to ignore the interruption and continue, he’d just talk louder until he’d drowned out the competition. And then when he finished talking, he’d just start over again from the beginning. It was always some piece of wisdom he was dispensing, and he’d dispense each piece about three or four times before moving onto the next one.

Melissa and I both wanted to strangle David. His poor mother, oblivious to anything that wasn’t in Belch, just sat there shivering in the cold.

The driver, Victor, decided he hated my guts when I asked him to turn down his Godawful Bolivian pop music tape. From that point on, he spoke only to David. It was all in Spanish, but we understood a fair bit of it. Much of the conversation centered around how little patience he has for obnoxious, demanding tourists.

We left in the early evening, drove for a few hours, and stopped for the night at the Four Seasons Bolivia.

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We woke up at quarter to four the next morning and hit the road. Shortly after dawn, we reached an altitude of over 5000 meters. That’s twice as high as Quito, where we first got hit by the lack of oxygen. It’s less than a thousand meters shy of the summit of Kilimanjaro, where I vomited my guts out and nearly got rushed down the mountain with altitude sickness.

How else can I put this?...it’s very very high up. But the views were great.

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We passed a strange rock formation that I recognized from photographs as the rock tree. I asked Victor to stop. He groaned at my insolence and gave me one minute to go look at it.

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At a pee break, I took this picture of the truck. I didn’t realize when I was taking it that the Belch guy’s mum was doing her business directly behind the rear bumper, and could be seen bare-assed in the image.

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I don’t really feel too bad about that.

We stopped at some hot springs. I am no longer excited by hot springs. The novelty isn’t very novel. You don’t really get anything out of a hot spring that you can’t get out of a bath tub, except it’s freezing cold when you get in and out and you have to listen to a bunch of Germans who think it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to them.

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There was a green lake that’s green because of some green algae that grows on it, and a red lake that’s red because of some red algae that grows on it. Big deal…I guess I was just sick of listening to the Belch guy. He kept telling us we were seeing the most beautiful scenery in the world. He assumed that as Americans, we’d never been out of our backyards and were too ignorant to appreciate the wonderment. I wasn’t going to bother telling him differently, but I’ll tell you:

Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa is a nice place. It's stark and pretty. But if you die without seeing it, your life wasn’t necessarily a complete waste of time.

We stopped near the border to wait for a bus that would take us across to Chile. David thanked the driver for driving us, hugged him passionately, and waxed rhapsodic to us about how Victor was the greatest driver he'd ever ridden with and should be racing professionally in the rally cross circuit.

I think he may have been overstating things somewhat.

We shared our slice of barren wasteland with a tour group that was making its way through all of South America on a massive overland loop from Quito to Caracas. It was a mix of Kiwis, Australians, Canadians, and Brits, with not an American among them.

What is it with us, folks? All over the world, these kids are finishing school and taking off to see the world. It's a standard rite of passage. And I get emails literally every day from people asking me how I do it.

I didn't invent world travel. I'm not even particularly good at it. There are lots and lots of people out there. It's just that very few of them are American.

We talked to an Australian girl for a while who was finishing up South America and then heading on to Oman. I have an unabashed fondness for Australians -- especially as travelers. They've got a sensibility that makes them really good at it. They're tough, they don't complain, and they can manage to laugh about pretty much any situation, no matter how bleak or miserable.

She drilled us on our traveling plans and kept asking questions until we finally broke and, for the first time on our trip, told a stranger about the dancing video.

"So, someone is paying you to travel around the world and dance wherever you want?"
"...pretty much, yeah."
"You must be a good dancer."
"Actually, I'm really really bad at it."

We hopped on a bus with the tour group. There's Melissa in back looking incredibly miniature.

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We stopped at a funnly little intersection in the desert where the driver told me we could turn left for Uruguay and Argentina, or right for Chile.

We turned right and the bus took us down 2500 meters out of the Andes. It could be the world's most dangerous road, except no one has bothered to name it "The World's Most Dangerous Road." We passed by car after car stalled on the side while trying to go up in the other direction. The steepness of the incline, combined with the dryness, the desert heat, and the decreased oxygen, make it very very easy for engines to break down. The ones who weren't stalled were all going at speeds under 5 miles an hour.

The bus dropped us in the boom town of San Pedro de Atacama. Over the last decade, it's become the tourist hub of northern Chile. Problem is: there isn't really anything to see or do in northern Chile.

Still, the cultural differences with Bolivia were immediately obvious. For one thing, lunch went from costing $.62 to costing $30. Even more jolting, many of the other tourists were actual Chileans. Chileans take vacations and travel. Chileans have disposable income.

This I did not know in advance. But the explanation is fairly simple: Chileans and Argentinians are basically displaced Europeans, bringing with them all the associated advantages. The northern countries, by comparison, are a more indigenous mix.

We booked to see the Tatio geysers; billed as the highest-altitude geysers in the world -- which is sort of like being the hairiest left-handed person in the world, or the albino with the best sense of smell.

The van picked us up at 4am.

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It wasn't worth getting up for.

Afterwards, they kept us enthralled with a trip to a traditional village where the locals served up empanadas and meat on a stick.

And to top it all off, more bathing in hot springs.

We got back in the afternoon. The only other nearby attraction that seemed remotely worthwhile was the Valle de la Luna; a barren landscape that someone cleverly likened to the moon in an attempt to make it seem more interesting.

It's 17 kilometers from San Pedro. We could have easily seen it at sunset with everyone else, but I thought it'd be fun to ride bikes out there on our own.

...

I will never again opt to ride bikes at high altitude in the world's driest desert on a hot afternoon.

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...that was a bad idea.

We made about a fifth of the way there and nearly died. Our only salvation was an inexplicably-positioned bus stop at the corner of Nothing st. and Nowhere ave.

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We hid under it for a good half hour, until our water ran out. At that point, survival dictated getting back on our bikes and sweating our way into town, exhausted and defeated.

My ideas aren't always all that great.

In the evening, we caught a Salon Cama bus to Calama. Salon Cama, we learned, is the absolute summit of luxury in a country that relies heavily on its buses. We were given pillows. Our seats reclined into beds. Curtains could be drawn over the windows. There was a TV playing movies. Fancy headphones descended from the ceiling. There was a bathroom, watercooler, you name it. It was the most comfortable bus trip I've ever taken. I could've ridden it for days.

Calama marks the end of our plan-as-you-go overland odyssey from Cuzco, Peru. Tomorrow morning we fly to Santiago, and in the evening I continue on by myself to Easter Island so I can dance with some giant stone heads.