Richard Shaw / Photo
Filming on the Salar (world’s largest salt flat).
By Richard Shaw
The immigration officer looked at me carefully and said something that sounded important, in Spanish. “No habla espanol,” I replied, weary from the overnight flight.
He said something else, that might have translated to “Welcome to Bolivia,” or not. I shrugged and smiled. He shrugged, stamped my passport and pointed to the exit.
I was glad that my traveling companions included native Bolivians and one other fluent Spanish speaker. Bolivia is not only a foreign country, it’s remote, mysterious, desolate, arrestingly beautiful and alarmingly poor… and next to nobody speaks English.
I found myself there at short notice but with sound professional reason.
I had recently agreed to work on some marketing projects for a leading importer of quinoa (say “keenwa”), a grain-like crop from the Andes Mountains of South America. I was buying coffee at the QuikTrip on a Saturday night when Sergio called from San Francisco.
It was time for the quinoa harvest in Bolivia. He wanted to buy me a plane ticket to La Paz, the capital, leaving from Miami one week and a few hours later.
Driving home along Highway 53, my wife and I discussed what I had just agreed to. Over the next few days she helped me to obtain hiking shoes, hepatitis shots, pants impregnated with bug repellent and other things I might need while exploring the far side of a distant planet. Many of them turned out to be useful in Bolivia.
My eight-day visit was spent on the Altiplano, the high plateau that runs the length of the country at 13,000 feet and upwards.
Even with altitude-sickness pills, the difference from Jasper, at 1,200 feet, was dramatic at first. The scenery was equally breathtaking.
Snow-covered mountains, jagged rocks and canyons… the vivid colors of street markets, the honking mayhem of traffic in La Paz…. The world’s highest golf course was closed for play when we stopped by, so we could only imagine how far our drives would soar in the super-thin air.
We attended a conference and applauded a speech by the Minister of Rural Development -- in Spanish, of course, with occasional whispered summaries from Sergio. My mind wandered to the quinoa fields, four hundred miles to the south.
By the time we left the city, I was one of a party of ten that included a four-man film crew, two representatives from a fair-trade organization and two local guys to act as drivers/mechanics/bodyguards such as we might need on our expedition.
The Sequoia and Patrol we had rented were soon stuffed with people and baggage, with bulky cases of film equipment lashed to the roof racks.
The 140 miles to Oruro was slow going due to tolls, diversions and caravans of overloaded, grime-crusted trucks groaning up hills, daunting if not impossible to overtake. Alongside the existing road for most of its length, two new lanes are under construction, a few miles here, a couple more there, adding confusion and dust clouds. Maybe one day all the pieces will join up.
Farther south, the pavement disappeared and other traffic became scarce. We passed occasional groups of adobe huts, not many llamas and even fewer people. Random boulders and potholes threatened our progress across the rugged gray-brown terrain. Not a good place to break an axle, we agreed.
On either side of the road, splashes of gold and red began to appear. We got out to take a look. Sturdy plants growing from three to five feet out of the ashy soil, topped by dense clusters of seeds that looked like millet. Quinoa!
For three days we watched families cut quinoa with sickles and stack it in neat bundles. We walked with farmers as they walked their llamas from pen to pasture and back, a ritual that bookends every day. Llama dung is critical to raising quinoa. Ostriches can be a pest, we learned.
Pictured at right, On the remote Altiplano, most quinoa is still cut by hand, photo by Stefan Jeremiah
Our hosts were Aymara, a native people who were growing quinoa before the Incas arrived, let alone Columbus. They talked about the wind, water supplies and tractor parts, familiar-sounding farming issues in an exotic location. We visited a first-grade class that was reassuringly like a first-grade class at home. Doctor and president were favored future career choices.
One day was spent cruising across the Salar, the world’s largest salt flat, a crystalline sea dotted with harsh, rocky islets. The sun blazed through the briny air and dazzled off the salt. Even with protection, lips cracked and noses bled. It was intense and surreal, the perfect place to film an interview about quinoa. With darkness falling we found our way back onto a “road,” having seen no other living creature for seven hours.
We spent the night at a kind of ski lodge in Uyuni, an unexpectedly funky town that’s popular with adventure tourists. We enjoyed indoor plumbing, hot water and electricity, luxuries sometimes absent along the way. We ate pizza, drank beer and bought souvenirs. We realized our adventure wasn’t going to last forever and ordered more beer.
The next day found us northbound with plenty of ground to cover. We had been charging through potholes and swerving around stray animals for a couple of hours when flashing blue lights suggested we stop. The officer was waving a speed gun and wearing a smile as he approached. Sergio got out to greet him with impressive calm.
This was our third such encounter since leaving La Paz and prospectively the most serious, given our alleged speed on this occasion of 110 kilometers per hour – close to 70 mph – in a construction zone with a notional limit of 30 kph (under 20 mph). Lack of signage seemed a weak defense.
Five minutes, ten dollars and no ticket later, we were back on our way across the vast, empty landscape, racing the setting sun with Johnny Cash crackling on a far-off radio station. Sergio grinned. It was a far cry from the well-regulated highways of Pickens County -- and just another case of life in the weird lane, Bolivian style.
Just as the weird was starting to seem sort of normal, of course, it was time to leave for home, a dozen hours and a million miles away. And then, thanks to American Airlines and Mrs Shaw, there I was… here I am. Glad to be back, grateful to be in one piece, energized by the experience, uplifted.
Would I go again? Well, my visa is good for five years and it cost $135. I need to get my money’s worth. And I think I know someone near here who will give me a few Spanish lessons.
[Richard Shaw has lived on a farm in Pickens County since 2007. He helps his wife to look after a number of horses and supports his clients with marketing advice, writing services and seasonal vegetables.]