"Can you take one more picture of me?" Under normal circumstances Jenny's request was a harmless one. But I knew the potential igniting power of it in this particular moment.
I quickly and nervously glanced to Tom and Danny as one looks on fearfully and helplessly at a ticking grenade. Tom's face turned bright red and the vein on his forehead bulged slightly, but with all the discipline he could muster, he pursed his lips to contain his wrath. Danny issued a silent and characteristically sarcastic commentary with the roll of his eyes.
After two days of catering to this girls' preferences, her refusal to take a turn in the back seat like everyone else, her barrage of complaints (including but not limited to the use of too many eggs in her specially prepared vegetarian meals), her full-on photo shoots with six different cameras at every stop, and her general disregard for everyone else in our group and the established schedule, no words were necessary; I knew exactly what Tom and Danny were thinking because I was thinking it too.
But Juan, our driver and guide for our tour through the Bolivian salt flats and national park, and the one most justified to issue a full frontal verbal attack at Jenny, obediently and patiently put the car in park, unbuckled his seat belt, and stepped back out into the whipping wind and frigid air to take her picture, one...more...time. Then we proceeded to the hostel and like the night before, we were the last group to arrive.
Consequently, Juan (again) had to unload the luggage from the roof rack, clean the car, and wash the windows in the dark, and then proceed to cook and serve us our dinner. As I sat and sipped my tea to warm up from the chilly end to our day, I watched Juan rush to and fro, his work prolonged by patiently answering Jenny's constant interruptions and demanding questions about her room, bunkmates, the shower and where to charge six different cameras and her computer.
I'm sure Juan felt the weight of the day. While Tom and Danny could occasionally release some of their built up tension by telling Jenny the hard facts of life (like she has to take a turn sitting in the back seat like everyone else), Juan had to continuously bite his tongue, and all of this while being away from his wife and 7-month old baby for 3 subsequent and long days.
I'm glad he had his wad of coca leaves to chew throughout the day. I think it was his secret weapon to provide the energy necessary to keep smiling and cracking jokes with us in both Spanish and English.
At one moment, after Tom and Jenny had a small confrontation, I heard Juan release some of the pent up steam when he whispered under his breath, "I like Tom; he's fair." And although the “people-pleaser” in me would usually be embarrassed by Tom’s frank comments, this time I was proud of him for his keen sense of justice and his willingness to call it like it is. Sometimes the harsh truth is the more gracious than keeping your mouth shut.
Other than our difficult car-mate, our Bolivia Salt Flat tour surpassed our expectations. The accommodations were certainly not 5-star, but our this is the typical and welcomed price we pay to visit sites that aren't overrun by tourists. Only 60,000 tourists visit the Bolivian Salt Flats each year (compare this to over 1 million tourists that visit Machu Picchu in a year).
The tour was three days long with Red Planet and left from Uyuni, Bolivia (about 15 hours by bus from La Paz).
We stayed in rustic hostels. The first was built from salt. The other, running off a small generator with no running water, made up for its lack of modern amenities by its near proximity to natural hot springs which afforded us an evening soak under the stars.
I had heard from several people that the salt flats were worth the trip, but the additional two days of the tour weren't worth the time. I could not disagree more. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of landscapes and sights on days two and three. I don't think the trip would be complete without them.
Our guides drove us around in a caravan of 4 Land Cruisers (7 people to a car including the driver/guide). Our guide even provided props for the characteristically silly salt flat photos. And he took the time to answer all our questions about Bolivia's naturally rich land and culture.
Rich Land, Poor Country
Although the country is rich in minerals and other natural resources, it is, unfortunately, one of the most impoverished South American countries (perhaps another example of the effects of corruption in government). We saw natural lagoons with borax and other naturally occurring minerals and compounds, we swam in hot springs, we traversed 4,086 square miles of the largest concentration of salt, we observed flamingos withstand extremely strong winds, and like most locals we chewed on coca leaves and drank tea made from the coca plant.
Bolivia is one of the few countries in the world where you can enjoy the coca plant legally (in fact, I'm sipping on Coca Leaf tea as I write this post). Before coca was used to make the drug cocaine, the plant was used widely by indigenous peoples in the Andean region of South America for tea and for chewing.
The plant was central to their culture and their religion. Known as “green gold” it was thought to be more valuable to the people of Bolivia than the mineral-rich lands over which it grew. It provides a mild stimulus and historically its stimulating qualities were exploited to increase the productivity of underfed indigenous slaves.
Today, Coca leaves are still enjoyed throughout Bolivia. But there is, of course another use for the plant, which is to make cocaine. In La Paz, we visited a great little museum about the history of the plant and of cocaine.
Experiencing Cocaine Drug Trade Up Close
On day two of our Salt Flat Tour, as we were passing the Andean peaks that mark the border between Chile and Bolivia, we got an even closer look and in-depth lesson on the Bolivian drug trade.
We were the only car in sight for miles, so we were utterly surprised when we looked off to the distance and saw two sole travelers walking through the dry desert with nothing but backpacks. How did they get there without a car? Why would they try walking through such a dry and dangerous terrain?
Try $3,000 for a 5-day trek as motivation.
According to our tour guide, the current going rate in Bolivia to smuggle one kilo of cocaine across the border to Chile is about $300. A typical mule carries about 10 kilos by foot to rake in about $3,000 per trek.
If someone does 3 treks a month, that is about $9,000 per month at starting rates. Just imagine what $9,000 per month can buy you in Bolivia where a 3-course lunch costs less than $2 USD.
So why does Juan, our tour guide, work his butt off around the clock to cater to high-maintenance, Jenny-esque tourists for a mere fraction of the payment he could make as one of these mules?
Juan was shy to share all the details of his past, but he did explain that when he was younger (he is now in his mid-thirties), he was lazy and drank alcohol all the time. He now only has a little to drink in the evening: "enough to warm his belly before going to bed" and works hard to provide for his wife and baby...legally. Avoiding the temptation to make much more money, much faster as a drug mule, he works like a mule in the tourist industry.
He wants to continue this path to care for his family the right and legal way, even if it isn't the easiest way. He sat a little taller in his seat and held his head a little higher as he proudly spoke of his new career in tourism.
In one more year with his company, he will be eligible to buy the car he drives from his company, and the prospect of the forthcoming opportunity for ownership bolstered his posture with pride. He has the finance plan in place and he works hard to maintain the vehicle as if it is already his own.
This is the kind of work that allows a man to sleep at night with a soft pillow and a clear conscience, knowing he is doing what is best and safest for his family.
At the end of our trip, Tom, Danny, and I sat around enjoying some pizza. As we talked about Juan and all his hard work, we acknowledged how tempting it must be for him to throw in the towel and make money the fast way through drug trafficking. He is an inspiration and a reminder that easy is not always best.
*BTW...Don't miss the new Salt Flat Video that I just posted.
I'm Jaime. My husband is Tom. Suburbanites, backpackers, and expats...we've been them all!