The only way to get off an overnight bus is to stagger. It’s early, the sun isn’t even fully risen and the wind blows cold and dusty through empty streets. Only one place is open and we go there to wait in an unfinished room, nibbling on a syrupy fruit cocktail and instant coffee. I watch a large metal sculpture out the window, a person made of steel scraps, chains and car parts, arms outstretched towards the desert. I glance away and then back, did she turn her head? Take a small step?
The towns crumble as you move towards the outskirts. It’s impossible to tell if the buildings that are only half there, are being built or torn down. Rocks the size of my head, used in the construction of the foundations, lay in jumbled heaps nearby.
Our dusty Toyota stops alongside a line of 4×4 vehicles. It seats seven including the driver and seven of us pile out to explore the crumbling trains. They list drunkenly in rusting lines, running roughly parallel to the tracks they once transported goods on. Dozens of tourists walk on their skeletons, through them, laughing and running through rib cages, taking selfies and photos of each other. We rush to join in on the post-apocalyptic playground. I find an engine I like and fit one shoe into a rusty hole to clamber up, tearing my jeans in process. I feel a little guilty and glance over my shoulder, half expecting to get yelled at by a teacher. I suppose Pinocchio didn’t get scolded on Pleasure Island. Matt’s already on top of cylindrical car, his feet resting on rivets the size of my palm. I pretend to drive the train and pose for pictures. The tide of tourists slowly ebbs and we race to crawl back into the Toyota. The train graveyard has the kind of ghosts that only come out when you’re alone.
We drive further, the town of Uyuni and it’s graveyard are swallowed by the desert. Slowly but surely the world is replaced by something more surreal. Felix pulls to a stop and I crawl out of the car, into something that reality has barely touched. I take a few big steps, half expecting to be bounced several feet in the air by a sudden loss of gravity. My steps seem normal. I glance around and surreptitiously jump, just a couple inches. Nothing. I push my toe into the ground. It feels hard and sharp. I press a little more firmly on the fragile looking crystals but they don’t yield. They push back, I can feel them on the bottom of my foot through the sole of my shoe. I crouch down and touch it between my fingers. It feels cold but not the yielding cold of ice or snow, not the kind that gives way to heat. I pinch a loose crystal and hold it up, just to be sure. It pulls on the warmth of my fingers, like sitting on a shadowed rock. It just doesn’t seem like it should be salt. I can see it extending outwards like a vast frozen sea, but not like a sea at all. It’s too still. Too quiet. Too flat. Too lifeless. Over their entire 4,000 square miles the salt flats only vary within one meter. There’s no sense of the restlessness of a sea underneath it. It’s an eerie, this is a landscape that belongs in the outer reaches of space.
Many believe the Bolivian salt flats were formed 30,000 to 42,000 years ago when a giant lake dried up and created two major salt deserts, the Salar de Coipasa and the Salar de Uyuni. Others say it is the dried tears of Pacha Mama, mourning the loss of her baby; stolen and thrown into the sky to become the moon. Maybe it’s why she made this place, to resemble her lost love, the moon.
I look up from my crouch. The blue of the sky is so big here. Sometimes you can see the sky almost like this, over an ocean or the plains of the prairie. The emptiness of the sky bigger when it’s set off by the life of the grass or waves below it. But here, this blue seems freed to expand outwards. This blue isn’t stopped by life, it just changes into a vast and silent, pure white. It doesn’t pause on the horizon, it’s just suddenly white and rushing straight at you, pushing the crystals up under your feet. I run my hand lightly over the unforgiving sky and push with the tips of my fingers as I stand. Things seem further away than they should be. Maybe you shrink when you enter the salt flats. I wonder if marshmallows feel giving under the feet of ants. I frown at the vast plains and then at myself, hoping no one has noticed me being a weirdo.
We drive into the night, stopping at islands of strangely shaped formations. The rough rock shapes can’t quite be pinned down. Maybe coral-like… if it was made of wax and then melted, distorted by massive malevolent hands and hardened to rock. We pause on an island of cactus, seeking refuge from the salt. The rust colored rocks and green cacti are very pale against the brightly colored jackets of the visitors. We sleep in rooms made of rock, they’re unheated and we huddle in our sleeping bags against the cold.
We keep driving further into the Dali painting that is southern Bolivia. Through fields of sharp, swiss cheese, rock sculptures, cracks spewing steam into the frozen air and past green lagoons with ice shining on their surface. I keep an eye out for melting clocks and long legged elephants. We stop again and I reluctantly leave the warmth of the car, huddled in every layer I have brought with me when I realize there are birds in the lagoon. There are FLAMINGOS in the lagoon. In the desert. In winter.
Honest to god, flamingos. I walk to the edge of the lagoon to watch one ferreting through the mud less than 6 feet away from me and pinch myself. IT’S PINK. Like really, really, vividly pink. Shades of pink, from the soft pink of an Irish woman’s blush, to cartoon panthers to punk-rebellion hot pink, color their feathers. My nose and cheeks sting with cold as I try to process this. I stare open mouthed until the flamingo gets creeped out by me and inches away. They’re scattered around the lagoon, standing out as bright spots of color with curved yellow and black beaks against the frozen backdrop. Their heads swivel on long graceful necks as they strut over the ice and through the water on legs with knees hinged backwards. Snow smudges the rocks around them. A couple stretch out into long lines and fly across the water like Aphrodite’s arrows. I realize the annoyed and slightly worried flamingo walking away from me is absolutely one of the most beautiful and incredible sights I’ve ever seen.