As a graduate student, I finally had the opportunity to work on a project in southern Bolivia. Although I had spent previous summers camping alone while conducting fieldwork in remote areas, this was to be my first journey overseas, to a country known variously for coca growing, revolution, and the final resting place of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
La Paz is nestled in a series of steep valleys that are eroded in a jagged, blasted moonscape of sun-baked volcanic rock. One of the city parks is called “Valle de la Lunas” or Valley of the Moon. The city has sprawled up the valley slopes onto the Altiplano, or high desert. As my taxi drove from the airport over the lip of the high desert, the city was spread out below, partially obscured through a haze of heavy smog. After finding the company office, a driver took me to a hotel in the old part of the city, popular with young, dominantly British and Spanish backpackers. Left to my own devices for several days, I taught myself the phrases and words to order breakfast and dinner, and wandered through the open-air market to practice my nascent Spanish skills on vendors of flashlights, jeans, and trilobite fossils. I found Bolivians to be the friendliest of people, who seemed to delight in talking to a Norteamericano. At first, I felt no ill effects from climbing the steep streets in what has been described as the World’s highest-altitude capitol city. After several days, altitude sickness left me with a feeling of exhaustion and constant headache in spite of six weeks of hiking in the Colorado Rockies.
At last I was to depart for the exploration camp in southern Bolivia, as the pickup laden with fuel drums and survey stakes arrived to collect me. My driver, Nicco, guided the pickup through the bustling, chaotic streets of La Paz and we rolled south on a two-lane, newly paved highway toward Oruro, a hot, dusty, windblown town that represents the end of pavement. There, the sun-baked main street was covered in a one-inch layer of dust that was excited into whirling vortexes as lines of Volvo flatbed trucks trundled through. Gray, windblown silt covered the cobblestone street, sidewalks, building facades, and withered decorative trees to produce a desolate dreamscape devoid of color. We rolled through a featureless landscape beneath an endless expanse of blue sky and mercilessly bright sun. As the daylight began to wane, the highway degenerated into a pair of deep ruts across the featureless desert, passing desolate adobe towns. We forded streams of frigid meltwater from the Cordillera Oriental, often breaking a thin film of ice. Night fell and still we rolled south, now across the Salar de Uyuni salt flat. Despite the heater in the Mazda 4×4, the cold crept in, and in the ghostly play of the headlights, the shimmering white deposits of salt might have been snow drifts. Time dragged, with only the constant rumble of the tires on hardpan marking a cadence in the darkness that surrounded the small, heated compartment of the pickup. At last we reached a town, a sign of human habitation in what seemed increasingly like a harsh wilderness. Not a single light bulb was evident as we thumped slowly over the cobbled streets. Dark shapes shuffled along the sidewalks, and the shadows of adobe buildings rose and fell, capering in the glare of the headlights. Stars, bright and brilliant as diamonds, but equally as cold, seemed to provide the only other light. Amidst this scene of harsh desolation, the corpses of dogs littered the streets, frozen stiff where they had ultimately succumbed to the uncaring elements.
After another three hours of crawling through the frigid darkness, the road seemed nothing more than a gully, with sagebrush whipping the sides of the truck. Almost imperceptibly, we left the desert and a sheer rock wall suddenly loomed out of the darkness. The truck climbed the rapidly rising road, which clung to the side of the cliff, and the engine whined in protest at the exertion caused by the steep grade and thin air. In the days to come, my own heart and lungs would register a similar wheezing protest. We passed through a looming cleft in the rock wall, beneath towering ramparts massed in the impenetrable gloom. Suddenly, the truck stopped and we had arrived. Arrived where? In the dim light, I could barely discern an adobe wall. There were no lights, no sound of people or animals, and no hum of machines that we have come to expect virtually everywhere in North America. In the dead quiet, pitch black surroundings, I might have been standing in a cavern instead of in front of the quadrille where I would live for the next four months. I had arrived in Bolivia.