Things are not always as they seem; the first appearance deceives many.
Riding across the salars was an uncanny, unreal, wondrous and deceptive experience. The last adjective also describes much of Bolivia’s food labeling. For example, we’ve encountered:
A can of tuna, boldly labeled in letters the size of the can, “ATUN”, the spanish word for tuna. After opening the can and not recognizing the fish in question, a quick scan of the ingredients revealed that we were actually eating ground sardines.
Excitedly, we purchased a Winnie the Pooh emblazoned chocolate bar labeled “100% Cacao”, expecting some delicious raw chocolate to mix with coffee and sugar. Like the Disney character licensing, the chocolate was bogus, consisting of about 99% sugar, so much so that it was crystalized.
We bought some “spaghetti sauce” (since leaving the USA, packaged spaghetti sauce means really bad watered down ketchup or pureed tomatoes). Skeptically, I started looking at the ingredients (translations in parenthesis) while eating:
agua (water), concentrado de tomates (tomato concentrate), zanahoria (carrots), cebolla fresca (fresh onions), aceite de maravilla (oil of ???) …
I was unfamiliar with the word “maravilla” and was really curious as to what oil our sauce contained. I consulted our craptastic pocket Engrish – Spanglish dictionary, purchased in Mexico. We’ve discovered that it contains no useful words, critical to a traveler, for example terms for food, ailments, tools, camping gear, bicycle parts, etc. I opened the dictionary to the appropriate entry and learned that “maravilla” means:
2) astonishment, amazement
So we were eating spaghetti sauce made from “oil of wonder and/or astonishment and amazement”, which made me wonder if I’d be astonished or amazed tomorrow morning, with the results similar to eating a bag of Lay’s “WOW” chips, containing olestra.
Even though I was hot, being baked by the sun above and from below by its reflection, I couldn’t shake the feeling of riding across ice. My brain was trying to process my surroundings with the only other similar reference it had, that of a large expanse of a white, frozen lake. The lack of ice fishing huts and the warm temperature were causing synaptic short circuits.
Even with sunglasses, I found myself squinting to try to block out some of the brightness. We suffered a bit of snow blindness. The blazing white background and clear sky did provide an excellent backdrop for some photographic tricks.
The ground was so flat, that I could even perceive the curvature of the earth. Distant features seemed to rise up slowly out of the ground as we approached. Objects on the horizon took a maddening amount of time to reach. Like when we rode across Kansas, where a distant grain elevator marked the next town, it could take half a day from the first appearance of a landmark to actually arriving.
We were heading for a distant island,Isla Incahuasi, in the middle of the salar. We spotted the first spec of it about 20 miles (32 km) away. We knew it had food, water and most importantly, shade.
Isla Incahuasi 15 miles away
Isla Incahuasi 10 miles away
Isla Incahuasi 5 miles away
Isla Incahuasi 1 mile away
We arrived at Isla Incahuasi by early afternoon. The island is a major tourist stop and was surrounded by SUVs. Sarah was so hot and tired that she headed for the shade and plopped herself amongst a table of tourists, without regard to our slightly feral nature.
We were a contrast to the throngs of mostly young backpackers that had arrived as part of a multi-day package tour. Despite a regiment of regular sunscreen application, we were a bit sunburnt compared to our pasty shade seekers. Our booger crusted noses, black fingernails, and “homeless chic” attire were evidence of a lack of mirror use and showers compared to all the beautiful people surrounding us.
While cooling down, we answered all the standard questions about our bicycle trip, while learning about the travels of others. After the SUV drivers collected their groups and packed them in we had the table to ourselves. We shared a beer and considered camping on the island. However, a fierce, favorable wind had kicked up by late afternoon. We decided to ride it out, cruising at close to 25 kph (15 mph) barely pedaling, until dark.
Again, we had packed our own rock, making another night of camping under the stars on the salar possible.