“Expect the unexpected, and you’ll be fine.” This is common advice for people embarking on an overlanding expedition through South America. It would be true for any adventure that involves a lot of driving, but it’s especially true when traveling in less developed countries where laws and regulations can be non-existent and infrastructure and resources are lacking. Combine this with angry citizens uprising against injustice, inequality and corruption and you will likely get a mouthful of chaos and uncertainty – two powerful and active ingredients in any recipe for change.
Bolivians have historically been known for exerting their power in the forms of protests and blocking streets. Typically they have been driven by Campensinos, rural farm workers. However, since the inauguration of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, the country had experienced over a decade of stability. Yet, after 3 terms of Evo Morales, and with Bolivia still a poor country, Bolivians found themselves once again fed up. They began to see a political regime trading their land’s natural resources (salt) for less and keeping the rest. With Evo running for his 4th term in a political system that only permits one term, even that of Evo’s most loyal supporters had been suspecting corruption, even those that would still vote for him.
Regardless of Evo’s winning or losing of the election (fair, or unfair) there was going to be an uprise in Bolivia. In fact, it had already begun. For this reason, we needed to be certain we were not in Bolivia on Election Day lest we be stuck chewing on some chaos and uncertainty for an indefinite amount of time. Soured that we were going to miss much of Bolivia, we weren’t about to leave without a taste of its salt: a visit to the Salar De Uyuni (the Salt Flats). This would leave us only one day to cross the border by the hair of our chinny, chin chins.
On our way to the Salt Flats, we ran into a blockade; a political one and an inanimate object. While we were attempting a detour around the blockaded city of Oruro, we managed to bulldoze a cement train staircase straight from the crowbars that stationed it to the ground. Luckily, the recipe of Karl’s humor and his ability to chum it up with the local train workers combined with my dramatic breakdown saved us many more hours of waiting for the manager of the train station to show up and tell us how much we owed for the damage. After paying the train station workers a “guesstimated” amount, we were on our way to wait in the long line of cars and massive semis until the Campesinos left for home.
Two nights on the Salar was well worth its salt in effort. Tossed around like popcorn on the horrible roads of Bolivia, we ran for the Chilean border with mixed feelings. We were blissed out from our stay on the Salar and in Sajama, yet hopeful we’d be escaping Bolivia soon. We wanted badly to stay, but were forced to leave. We made it to a wild camp spot just before the Chilean border and just before dark. We marveled at the stunningly beautiful wild camp spot situated in a massive field of unique canyon rock and boulders dead in the middle of nowhere, and seemingly downloaded from another planet. We pop up our camper and much to our surprise it won’t lift up. Perhaps something came loose on our bumpy ride? We discover that not only do we not have power in the camper, we also don’t have access to our sleeping bags in the camper, and it was frigid. Luckily, we remembered something about our good’ol ACR battery switch under the hood, and thankfully manually enforcing it gave us enough power to pop our camper up.
The next day, we made it to the Chilean border, though not without its own complications. Oz’s paperwork had not been done correctly by SENASAG in Bolivia, and Chile was not about to bat an eye at sending us back to Bolivia. With no power in our camper, no driving on Election Day (the following day) and the very real possibility of being stuck in Bolivia indefinitely, we were desperate to cross. We tried to explain our predicament given the timing with the elections and the political turmoil in Bolivia. No bat of eye was had. Luckily, a nice Bolivian couple that were behind us at the border understood full well our situation. They verified the blockades that were happening in Bolivia and confirmed that they would be happening for an indefinite amount of time even after the elections. The Chilean official appeared to soften a bit, though not enough to turn his ways and change his mind in throwing us back to the wolves.
We had to move to a different strategy – and quickly. We threw all of our cards on the table and moved immediately to Plan Z… getting down on the floor on our hands and knees, begging, pleading and praying at the foot of the Chilean official’s desk, “por favor, por favor, por favor!” Wavering push back. It was a long and sobering hour of silence at the frontera filled with a sense of uncertainty and mixed with a loss of pride and self-integrity. Then. It happened. The official displayed a random act of kindness that looked more like a reluctant and disgruntled act of kindness: he begrudgingly ushered us across the border when his colleagues left their post for lunch. Hallelujah! What a feat! It was a miracle! Whether we made it across (or not), we wouldn’t have – nor couldn’t have believed it. But, this was by far the better of the winning candidates. We thanked the gods, goddesses and spirits and jumped for joy inside as we silently and carefully drove into Chile being not far from wolves with tails between our legs.
Crossing the border into Chile was breathtaking. The drive to San Pedro De Atacama through the Atacama desert was a candiland dream with paved roads and drop-dead gorgeous landscapes comprising of an array of towering red rocks, varying desert scapes, volcanic peaks, massive salt flats and beautiful lakes with pink flamingos. I couldn’t help but feel charmed by every aspect. As we drove through the various landscapes, we were swallowed up by the enormous, red-spired canyons, shot into another universe and teleported to the quaint little adobe town of San Pedro De Atacama. Being in San Pedro De Atacama was like turning back time, and charmed turned into smitten.
After a bookend week of living in an auto repair garage in the hectic city of La Paz, being stranded with mechanical issues many hours from civilization, an all-day tow to La Paz, and then running into a blockade and a cement train stair case as soon as we had movement again, things were finally looking up. Naturally, we found the best place in town to celebrate. I had my first meal out in 3 months after boycotting Peru and Bolivia as a result of their reputation for food born illnesses (and also having gotten travelers diahreah 4 times in 3 different countries). Food I could confidently feel safe eating… After a year of uncertainty and risk, it sure felt good to shake that pervasive anxiety.
As we watched patrons trickle into the bar wearing fashionably high-end clothes; women wearing makeup doted on by their dapper men donning the latest fashion trends, culture shock began to set in. Suddenly, we felt like aliens from another planet. Yet, even in that most precarious of moments, this did not stop us from breathing a particular poignant 12-month sigh of relief. After a toast to a “harrowing” escape of Bolivia and a decadent sip of a trendy “Artesenal” Pisco Sour in the tradition of San Pedro, the tunes of charming and smitten abruptly turned into the noise of clanking metal and shouting. For a moment I was teleported back to my punk rock and heavy metal days. But it wasn’t a band of angry musicians that was the jarring scratch of a record. It was an angry mob of Chilean protesters outside filling the entire block like a flood of water, and stationing theirselves in front of the doors of the local establishments.
Little did we know we were running from one country in political distress to another one in an uprising. We could understand Bolivia, but Chile, a nation with a success story and a country that has had a long standing history of stabilization? What was going on? Day and night there were protests. On one night every restaurant shut down in this charming little town consistently packed with local and international tourists. The nearest city we needed to go to to get Oz’s paperwork done to cross into Argentina was shut down indefinitely along with the government office we needed to get his paperwork from. Little did we also know we would be without power in our camper for a week while we would painstakingly attempt to trouble shoot our electrical issues with our battery system.
Meanwhile, the people of Bolivia and Chile were fighting grossly larger issues of power; a great many with gargantuas less power (and privilege) and handfuls with some or more. One of the main drivers of economic growth in Bolivia and Chile has been mining including the mining of natural resources such as salt and lithium. Bolivia alone owns the largest source of lithium (Salar de Uyuni) in the world. However, in both Bolivia and Chile, the rich are getting rich, the poor are getting poorer and the middle class are disappearing. No one is seeing a return. For the first time in history the middle class in Bolivia and in Chile were some of the driving forces of the protests. In Chile alone, 1 million people gathered in Santiago as a uniting force of the poor and middle classes. Our friends from Chile said the protests have consisted of almost everyone.
“Salt of the Earth” is an expression that can be used to express a trait of reliability. It has also been known to represent our planet whose natural resources reliably deliver us with the elements necessary for our survival and that of generations to come. A painful reality is that sometimes people with the most power fall short of matching this integrity. One of these ways is by using the planet’s resources for profit as opposed to necessity. Worse, it comes at the cost of the lives of our planet and it’s people.
In reality, there are many similarities between what is happening in Bolivia and Chile and what is happening in the United States. Though there’s at least one missing ingredient – and it’s not salt; it’s the power of the people to be informed and engaged and to exert their power by uniting together regardless of differences in order to fight for what is just and moral for their people and often times the planet. In many ways the people of Bolivia and Chile are like the salt of the earth. One can be certain they will do what they can in their power to bring power to the people.
In the end and after much protest, Evo Morales resigned and the powerful recipe for change in Bolivia was a success. The taste of its outcome will be uncertain for some time, though certainly it will be carried with hopes of sweeter times ahead. After a week of no power in the camper we finally got our power back too, though certainly not without the gratitude of the power we had, and the hopes of being able to give it back.