Thursday, December 2, 2010

Wolf-whistles and dynamite in Ouyuni

The town of Ouyuni lies at the edge of Bolivia’s great salar, 12,000 square kilometers of blinding white salt. Like the surrounding plains, it is a flat, beaten-down place, harsh, dusty, and windswept. Coming in on one of the daily bus services from Postosi, your first glimpse of the town is a field of rubbish, tattered plastic bags half sunk in the dust like some hardy desert shrub. Bolivia has yet to come to terms with the problems of sustainable waste disposal.

Tourism has breathed some life into what was once just a one-trick salt town, but the smattering of cheap hostels and eateries doesn't change its pioneer-town feeling. There's one automatic teller, a couple of internet cafes with agonizingly slow access, a military base, and the usual colourfully clad, bent old women selling miscellaneous wares from cramped stalls. A motley farrago of dogs stretched out asleep on the pavements or turning nipping circles with one another in the street.

I know I've reached the end of the world when a gaggle of Bolivian girls at the entrance to my hotel are sent into a state of tittering excitement by my arrival. I'm even wolf-whistled. After I leave the reception desk I hear a jabber of excited, hilarious Spanish break out, the only word of which I can pick up is 'atractivo'. Yep, it’s a desperate town.

I am woken in the early hours by a tremendous blast that shakes the windows of my grubby but functional room. I nearly die of fright. There's a moment's silence then a series of smaller explosions begin to crack and sputter. It sounds terribly close and my sleep-addled brain leaps to the direst explanations: outbreak of war, accident at the military base, terrorism. Then, rumpty-tump, a marching band strikes up. Bassoons and timpanies and inaptly-named euphoniums. I incredulously check my watch. Five a.m. I swear out loud at the bloody Bolivians and their explosion-crazy ways as another fearsome blast rocks the room. In the morning I ask the tittering girl on reception what the hell it was all in aid of. Anniversary of some victory or other, apparently. But at five a.m.? I protest. Es un poco loco, I say, twirling a forefinger at my temple. Such a nice phrase in Spanish.

There’s not much to keep me in Ouyuni, unless it’s the dubious novelty of being wolf-whistled by Bolivian peasant girls, so I sign up for a three-day tour of the salar and altiplano region the next day. I haven’t met many Australians so far, but my group consists of five Australians, myself included, and one unfortunate Hawaiian, who has a stomach bug and spends the tour either crashed out asleep, or shuffling about with exquisite caution as if his shoelaces were tied together.

Two of the Australians are gangling blonde girls taking a break after finishing medical school. Having doctors on board is handy – especially when they tell me that the ibuprofen tablets I’ve bought at the local pharmacy are four times the normal Australian dose, and taking two is likely to punch a jagged hole in my stomach lining. Thanks for pointing that out, Mr. Bolivian Pharmacy Guy. But didn’t I already…? I pull out the blister pack, and sure enough, two are missing from last night’s bus headache. Shit. Just don’t do it again, the girls tell me.

This was going to be my altiplano blog entry, but I’m telling peripheral tales instead. That’s because it’s a job for a Whitman or a Neruda. My courage is failing me. Mañana. I shall try to find a language for it mañana.

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