The night I left Sucre it poured down with rain. I was having trouble with my bank cards and, as silent lightning flashed in the distance, was trying every machine in the Plaza 25 de Mayo. The main square of government, 25 de Mayo hosted the House of Liberty, where Bolivia’s declaration of independence was signed, as well as the city’s main cathedral. I remember walking from the plaza to the bus terminal – after successfully having taken out money – dodging the streams of rainwater pouring off the balconies and gutters of the city’s colonial-era architecture.
I had been convinced by some friends to go and see the Salar de Uyuni, the famous salt flats in the country’s south. The town of Uyuni was the hub of the region, but the receptionist at the hostel had told me it was better to start in Tupiza, further south.
The bus journey to Tupiza proved too comfortable, however. The sunrise through the tinted window woke me up the next morning to find that, with my ear-plugs in, I had slept through the Tupiza stop. I was now shortly to arrive at the Argentinian border.
I was on a strict timeline, but as I got off the bus and realized my error it occurred to me to simply keep going until I reached Córdoba. I know some people who would have flipped a coin for it. In the end, though, it was the price of the fare that put me off, and I high-tailed it back to Tupiza in the first minibus I could find.
I arrived about an hour after the Salar tours had departed. I tried to convince the tour agents to send me off to catch up in another SVU, offering to pay more. But none could be persuaded. Faced with spending the night in this nowhere town, I did some quick calculations. Then I thought, ‘fuck it,’ and hoped on a bus to Uyuni.
As I sat in the terminal, waiting to depart, I wondered why it was that the breaking of plans brought me such happiness. It was a feeling like relief, a feeling of freedom, like all those thoughts of the future were the iron bars of a prison from which I had been sprung. I decided on a whim to hop on a bus to some other town, with no particular idea of what might happen when I arrived. I rest only in this moment, where anything is possible.
The ride back turned into a tour of its own, actually. I had a front row, panoramic view of the scenery of the Bolivian highland deserts. I listened to Aubrey Marcus podcasts and scribbled quotes in my notebook from the Book of Luke. We stopped in arid mining towns, cut into the hills, hunching around the rail line that transported minerals through the desert to Chile.
The tour of the salt-flats I embarked on the next morning was the most touristic thing I had done in two months. The three-day adventure was joined by a french couple on holiday, two british best friends travelling the world, and a spanish girl – Sara – studying in Buenos Aires. For three days, our guide, Luis, drove us through the desert, stopping every few hours so that we could take some photographs. We stayed in the guesthouses of little villages along the way. Some were as high as four-thousand metres – a few streets of cement huts huddling in some of the most ridiculously inhospitable landscapes I had ever seen.
It was like a slow roller-coaster through an amusement park, yet strangely, it was while I was stuck on those rails that I was beginning to feel most free. I had been satisfied with the work I had done in the weeks before – at the Rainbow Gathering and then during my time in Samaipata. The first stop of the tour was at the Train Cemetary just outside of town. I had no illusions about the historical or adventurous merit of reaching there – the place just seemed like a giant tourist playground. But I had given myself permission to play and had a ball clambering over the rusted hulks and taking photos with the others.
We scanned along the crystal flats like insects tracing a matrix plane. The only other signs of life were other tourist jeeps, buzzing along the horizon like black radar blips. In the far distance, mountain ranges floated above the earth, circumcised by mirages from the white flats. In places, the whole of the earth spanned flawless. Elsewhere, hexagon patterns were formed on the surface, the product of the columnal structure of the salt that undergirded the landscape.
Trawling across the titanic topography, I began to wonder if this journey up into the atmosphere was not of some psychic significance. If the formations through which we passed were not conditioning some kind of mental journey. This was a place laid bare by ancient geological processes. Volcanic flows had shaped writhing red rock. Tectonic disruptions had opened schism greater than Lake Titicaca. The same forces that birthed the Andes ranges had carved these borax and sulphur basins. To witness it was to witness the graveyard of old cataclysm and to grasp a little the origins and end of things. It was to witness an Armageddon ground.
Not that the trip could be called solemn. The five of us spent the evenings roaring with laughter over games of cards brought (of course) by the French couple. During the long car trips, we belted Coldplay karaoke – though to my chagrin techno was not supported by the group. We visited lagoons white and blood-red with algae, populated by flocks of flamencos. We ate lunch at a little picnic table in the middle of the desert. We took thousands of photos.
Our last stop was a lake nestled between 5000-metre peaks, beyond which the world seemed to fall away to nothing. From the summit, Luis told us, you could see Chile. Argentina was only a little way to the south. There, at the barren crown of the martian world, I had come to the meeting place of three countries. The juncture of my journey, between my past, my present, and a possible future. Under the day-light half-moon, I contemplated the possibilities. One road led to Argentina, to Córdoba, and a Patagonian Summer. The other led to a Spanish winter – back to Sevilla, and who knew what next? The silence was immaculate.
I sat on a rock overlooking the lack and felt free. Freer, I realised, than I had felt in… perhaps a year, since I had travelled from India to Europe. And it seemed to me the feeling had little to do with the possibilities that lay before me. Plans were made and broken in a single bus-ride. Instead, the feeling came from an immense satisfaction with the road I had already taken, the knowledge that I had earned my liberty through staying true to my character. The fact that I could express myself truly in good company and feel at peace with who I was in that moment. This was the true freedom.