travelers-tales

By Lisa VanderVeen

Eighteenth Annual Solas Awards Gold Winner in the Adventure Travel category

The night is black. I can’t read your features, but I know you’re scowling. We’ve been held captive behind your blockade for the past six hours and we’ve found a way around it. You threw rocks at the car that came to rescue us and now I’m running to it, through the frigid Bolivian desert, clinging to my suitcase. We don’t speak a word to each other–I don’t speak Spanish, and you don’t speak English. Your anger transcends words, though, and in the end, I understand: It’s not about me. I’m a pawn, and I’m terrified.

The day our paths crossed, I was on a bus from La Paz to Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia’s remote salt flats. Expecting an eight-hour drive, I tucked into the snacks I’d purchased at the market the day before, read a book about Bolivia’s colonization, and napped lurchingly on the bumpy road, watching the urban landscape give way to dry earth, spiky plants, and adobe houses with thatched roofs. Cows, sheep, and donkeys grazed on what plants they could find while our driver grabbed a handful of coca leaves and stuffed them in his mouth to help him stay awake. His wife sat beside him in the passenger seat, hoping to sell her brightly colored, striped, wool blankets at our destination.

The mountains to my right formed a natural border between Bolivia and neighboring Chile. This terrain was once the floor of the great Lake Titicaca, and its sediment created fertile soil. I was curious to see vegetation at 12,000 feet, in such a barren landscape. Our guide, Wendy, explained that it was quinoa and that Bolivia grows seven types of the superfood.

“The land is drying up down here,” she said quietly, as green turned to straw-colored, Seussical tufts. “We need the money from quinoa, salt, and lithium production, but mining takes its toll on the environment.”

The quinoa was lovely, like a popsicle bursting through the earth in a rainbow of yellow, reds, and purples. Against the backdrop of brown earth and blue sky, it felt hopeful to me. To you, it was probably a stark reminder of what you’d lost.

“The farmers can’t afford to eat their own crops,” Wendy said. “The quinoa fetches too big a price.”

From my vantage point at the front of the bus, I could see that traffic had stopped suddenly. There was a line of trucks on the two-lane road ahead, and no traffic approaching from the opposite direction. Protests were common here. I knew that, having witnessed a teacher strike in La Paz the day before. My pre-trip research had warned me to avoid protests as a matter of caution and to never bypass blockades.

Wendy got out to speak with you. You stood in front of three enormous mountains of sand that served as a barricade, effectively blocking the road. Your arms were crossed over your plaid flannel shirt. Your aging face wore a mustache and, behind it, you were glowering. She returned after twenty minutes with an unconvincing half-smile.

“He says he’ll move the sand in a couple of hours,” she said.

We’d been on the bus for seven hours at this point, with only a few bathroom breaks and no meals. I was looking forward to reaching our destination and stretching my legs. A few passengers from the back of the bus walked past me and disembarked. I yearned to do the same. It felt somewhat safe to do so–you didn’t confront them. Respectful of your glare, I bought a pink, hand-dyed wool blanket from the bus driver’s wife and we sat on it, in the middle of the road, petting a puppy from the truck in front of us. The probability of our leaving dimmed with the sunset.

Why won’t you let us pass? I wondered, not understanding. Why don’t the police make you move your mountains of sand? Why are you so angry?

Two hours later, Wendy tried again to reason with you.

“I have a bus full of tourists. This is their first time in Bolivia. Is this what you want them to remember?” She asked.

“Where are they from?”

“United States,” she said.

“Cerrada,” you replied, gruffly. The road is closed. You turned your back, ending the conversation.

The air in the bus began to feel anxious, or maybe resigned. A sigh, a shuffle, my leg bounced up and down. Out the window, the bus headlights hit your face, illuminating you. I took a long look.

You were diminutive. Much smaller than I’d painted you in my mind. I noticed your shoes. I wore pricey new hiking boots, while you labored with dignity to maintain your old brown leather dress shoes, scuffed by the sand you kicked across the road. In La Paz, I’d noticed the abundance of shoe shine stalls. You clearly took pride in your shoe ware, while mine were an expensive afterthought. My stomach clenched as I realized how high these stakes were for you.

Your face registered hostility at your interaction with Wendy. I felt the currents of your fury and imagined myself in your well-maintained shoes. From your vantage point, I saw myself as an ignorant tourist, belittling your barricade and choking your voice with my unlettered hands. Perhaps even taunting you.

Frustrated at the stand-off, Wendy called the drivers of the 4x4s she’d booked to transport us through the salt flats the next day. They had the capacity to go off-road through the desert; they could attempt to bypass the blockades. While she waited for their response, she explained your position, compassion thick in her voice even as she struggled to find a solution for her own business–her tourists.

“They’re protesting lithium mining,” she said. “Bolivia is a rich country full of poor people. There are millions of tons of lithium under the salt flats. Its mining should fuel our economy–and your iPhones–for the next hundred years. But the money isn’t going to the locals.”

Bolivia, Wendy explained, holds almost twenty-five percent of the world’s supply of lithium. Nicknamed “white gold,” it’s a critical ingredient in batteries for cell phones and electric cars–in other words, an essential piece of a green future. I’d later look into it–maybe you’d approve of my doing so–and learn that it’s difficult for Bolivians to access the lithium, for a confluence of reasons, including lack of technology and your country’s location beneath the salt flats, which flood in the rainy season. In a race against lithium-rich Chile and Argentina, your government negotiates with corporations in the US, China, and Russia, granting contracts that pluck mining opportunities from your hands.

I visited the Cerro Rico silver mines in Potosi earlier on this trip and witnessed the devastation that centuries of exploitation wreaked on the families still working there. I saw orphans playing on the roof of an abandoned miners’ shack, dodged the holes in the mine’s floor, and shrunk from the arsenic dust lining the walls. I was grateful to escape after 200 meters, but Bolivia’s sons, your sons, still mined those mines, dying of silicosis before they reached fifty.

You watched other countries pillage your lithium, like the silver, tin and salt before it. You watched your lakes dry up and your crops die, swallowing the environmental impacts of the mining without ever reaping its gains. You had no recourse, no voice. The way you spoke was by heaping sand across the road.

Who can blame you? I thought.

My inconvenienced travel day was you taking back your power. Saying “Enough!” to a bus filled with privileged citizens of a government negotiating with yours to rob you of your lithium.

A woman approached our bus. She wore traditional Bolivian dress: a brown bowler hat, a puffy skirt, and a striped blanket around her shoulders. Offering boxes of empanadas and salteñas, she found a stroke of luck in our misfortune. Wendy spoke with her, then translated.

“They opened the road at noon,” she said. “They won’t open it again until tomorrow.”

The thought of sleeping on a bus in the desert didn’t appeal to me. Standing in front of your sand mounds all night probably didn’t appeal to you. Still, here we were.

Wendy’s phone rang.

“The 4x4s are here,” she said, hanging up. “They’ve made it past the semi-truck and will go around the sand. Stay put. I’ll be right back.”

An eternity later, she climbed back on the bus.

“I need you to listen to me,” she said, her face grim. “The cars made it around the semi, but they couldn’t get to us. The protestors threw rocks at them. They had to go back behind the second barricade, which means we must walk.”

We nodded in silent agreement.

“You will carry your luggage,” she said. “It’s a forty-minute walk. I need you not to be

silly. Don’t laugh, don’t talk, don’t engage. Be polite. You understand?”

Nodding again, we took our suitcases from the belly of the bus. It was cold in the desert night but the stars were the most vibrant I’ve ever seen. In the midst of this turmoil, we had stars, rainbow quinoa, and a beautiful sunset. I hope you noticed it, too. You’d had a difficult day.

We walked toward you. My backpack was heavy, and the wheels of my rollerboard ground against the craggy road. I wished I had a headlamp, for the moon was on hiatus and the darkness jostled me, as if picking a fight. We passed the stranded trucks and arrived at your sand mounds.

Our eyes met, and I itched to offer support. To encourage you to keep fighting. To tell you that even though I’m American, I’m on your side. I stayed silent, feeling like a coward, too scared to speak. I picked up my suitcase, looked down and walked past you. Please don’t hurt me, I prayed. I have a daughter.  Do you have a family? I wondered.

Passing the sand, evading your barricade as my research warned not to, I dropped my rollerboard back onto the uneven pavement. I stayed close to the group, as instructed. I could make out a campfire, just to the right of the roadway, smelling the smoke. Your colleagues were silhouetted, raising bottles to their lips and warming themselves in the shivery air.

Without warning, percussives whistled in the darkness. “POP!” “POP POP POP!” It sounded like gunfire. But no. You were throwing firecrackers at us. I began to jog, gripping my suitcase tight. The lump in my throat made it difficult to breathe as I glanced in panic to make sure I was still with the group. I was. They, too, looked spooked. No one spoke as we dashed through the desert, putting distance between you and us. My adrenaline-fueled legs wobbled as I ran, feeling the horror of the moment. Still, they kept going, carrying me from your reach even as you continued to throw your weapons.

Our act of defiance had rendered you impotent, cracking our previously nonviolent interaction wide open. The firecrackers lit up the sky, manifesting your passion.

I don’t know how close your weapons came to hitting me. How close to danger I was. I only know they didn’t. I was unharmed.

I imagine your frustration, watching us defy you. You had thrown rocks at our 4x4s, warning them away, and yet, snubbing you, we ran to them. We were transitory there, in your reality–our solution awaited just down the road. 4x4s. Your solution was not so clear. This was your home–you couldn’t leave, didn’t want to leave. You simply wanted to keep what was yours. How dare we stage a protest against your protest, with such irreverence? I heard your unspoken voice in the crack of the explosives.

If I were you, I might have thrown firecrackers at me, too.

The firecrackers stopped, the silence of the desert screaming their absence. I looked up, repeating my prayer. Thanking you for not harming me. The stars shone back. The milky way was so distinct there, without the light pollution, that it looked like a carpet unfolding before us, ending at two flashing lights–stars in their own right. Our savior 4x4s. We frantically tossed our bags on top of the cars, secured them with a tarp, and sped away, lights off, through the desert. You didn’t follow us. “Gracias,” I whispered. You didn’t respond.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Lisa VanderVeen is a school administrator by day and a writer by night, winning a Solas award for travel writing in 2023. She enjoys stretching far outside her comfort zone, adventuring in over 40 countries (often solo) and pursuing her many hobbies which include photography, distance running, memory keeping, hiking, and spending time with her cats and beloved daughter, Sophie.