Desert Trust

The white is everywhere. 12,000 sq km of white. Salt, so much salt.

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

Ancient salt. Salt of memories. Salt that stretches down into the ground, 3-8 meters deep depending on the area. Underneath, salt lakes and salt rivers flow down into the core, down to the earth. Salt tears, salt seas.

The Salar de Uyuni.

Leaving Cochabamba, Bolivia, my friend from Chicago and I board a bus to Oruro. The city carries a sorrow right now, underneath the bustle. Only a week+ ago, the footbridge collapsed during Carnival. The bridge is still there, one end of it turned into a memorial. Flowers, candles, memories of the lost. I breathe in with a shallow rattle as we drive past. The shallow, shallow sadness. Not even the Lady on the hill (a huge statue of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus, truly huge) can absorb it.

A quick stop at the Llama Cafe before grabbing yet another type of cheese bread (for lo, I will travel the globe and eat ALL cheese bread), we hop the train. 4 hour bus, 6 hour train. More on the way back… almost 9 due to a delay.
The travel grows into us. The padding of seats, the smell of heated bodies, the cool windows. On buses I devour a coconut ice cream sandwich and pear juice, and choose not to eat mystery meat through the bus window.

Sleep. Collapse. Tell stories. Read. Repeat.

We arrive in Uyuni, a safe tourist city. Tourist cities around the world feel strange, a break from the norm. Head twenty miles to the left or right, and there is the country we speak of. But here is the tourist space. Clear streets. Barely noticeable police with shotguns and smiles. Backpackers from China, Korea, Japan, Germany, Austria.

Walk down the promenade and there are every type of American comfort food, Bolivia style. Chicken soup… with an egg in it. Alfredo… watery. Pizza… get this… with peaches, pineapple, and strawberries. OMG, that last one was amazing… the Tropical Pizza, served by an underage boy in an empty restaurant with a Survivor-meets-American-Gladiator tv show sponsored by a pencil company. Side by side with llama meat, spicy peanut soups, hand-pounded silpancho (pounded breaded meat served with an egg on top and potatoes underneath, with non-spiced onion salsa/salad).

Tourist towns like this are kept safe(r) because the government wants to keep the money flowing. And with one in five people we pass being of foreign origin, Uyuni has clear streets.

Except the dogs. The incredibly polite and beautiful street dogs.

Train Graveyard Swing Set

Train Graveyard Swing Set

The hostel was better than most motels we have stayed at. We pass out, wake, shower, and bundle up for the salt flats. We load into a 4×4 with 3 Germans on a tour break during their multi-country motorcycle ride, and an Argentinian obsessed with selfies.

Train graveyards left behind from when the silver trade collapsed. At the train graveyard, I find a swing set welded into the structure of the rust. The other men in the tour take photos and wander. Tourists climb, pose, take photos. I get on the swing set and pump my legs. Higher, higher, pumping. And then… close my eyes. The wind. The wind. Fire spinning flashbacks, the desert wind. With eyes closed, I hear the desert wind, and stop pumping. Hear the wind, feel the wind, let the wind go as I land once more.

Tourism gift stops (beautiful knotwork supported, because, yeah, fibers). Driving through towns made of coral and salt bricks. Bathrooms at 2 Bs per use (2 Bolivianos = .30 USD). Giant sculptures of salt.

And then, into the white.

The white is everywhere. 12,000 sq km of white. Salt, so much salt.

DSC02158Blue skies light up the white. We drive, stop, take pictures, collect holy water, drive. Drive, stop, take pictures, drive. The pattern repeats until in the distance a hill emerges, floating like a tortoise shell due to the heat. Mountains in the far distance ripple out of view, into view, a compass if you know the map. But the tortoise shell grows bigger and bigger. Finally, a small hill. A large hill. Covered in cactus.

Here in the white, growth. Here in the white, possibility emerging at 1cm per year.

We do not have to grow fast. 1cm a year is okay. Grow at your own pace. I long to grow at my own pace. Among the white snow. Among the white salt.

DSC02195We hike the mountain and see the white from all sides. I build a cairn and thank Pachamama, the goddess of earth in these lands. I see another cairn of rocks, pray at it as well, seeing Pachamama’s face in the coral. In the coral rocks. Sky and salt and stone, I see her face.

We descend the mountains and food is waiting for us. Llama meat, chicken chorizo, peeled cucumbers, quinoia. Our guide says that the prices of the miracle grain have gone to be five times that of rice here in Bolivia since it was “discovered” by the world. Bolivian families can not afford Bolivian food.

DSC02108Blue skies light up the white. We drive, stop, take pictures, drive. Drive, stop, take pictures, drive. We pass salt buildings, salt hotels, flags of so many nations. No United States flag, but I find myself thinking of my Australian and Canadian comrades as their flags fly side by side.

Bolivia was taken for it’s silver. Bolivia was taken for it’s tin. Bolivia was taken for it’s rubber. This place, the salt, so much white… has lithium. We will see what happens.

DSC02212Hilarious shots, because of all the white. Beautiful shots, because of all of the white.

Finally, we head off to another destination, driving into the white.

The driver heads straight, confidently into the salt. As he has the rest of the day. And suddenly I become aware of how much trust I have put in my tour guide as he looks around lost, and turns around.

Oh gods. Inside, my belly clenches up. Behind my dark sunglasses I am blinking and inside I am holding on for dear life. I realize how much I have trusted this man I do not know.

I have headed out into the salt with this man and can’t even remember his name in this moment.

People have died here. People have gotten lost in the dry, lost in the salt. Bodies have been found mummified in the salt from thousands of years ago. And I am in the salt with him looking around, turning around.

I am in the desert, having trusted.

DSC02257The moment passes as he turns around twice and finds what he was looking for – a handful of small holes in the ground that give access to the saltwater below. We dig down into the water to harvest our own salt.

The white becomes mine as my arms plunge down and my fingers are cut on cubic crystals. Salt in my blood, blood in the salt.

I become my own salt, my own trust. I feel the echo of times past fade, and realize that my fear was only based on a moment of looking for four small holes in 12,000 sq km. We were in his expert hands, and I dance into the white.

Into my salt. Into my blood.

DSC02234Ancient salt. Salt of memories. My own salt beats through my veins. My ancient blood, blood of family passed down. We are sitting at tea. We are sharing old tales. We are having lunch, dinner, salteñas. I am taking in stories of the blood, of past presidents.

I am taking in the white.

Salt to salt. Heart to heart. Trusting my way through 12,000sq km of white.


Lee Harrington

Lee Harrington is an internationally known sexuality, relationships, and personal authenticity educator. Having taught in all 50 states and in 6 countries, he brings a combination of playful engagement and thoughtful academic dialogue to a broad audience. An award-winning author and editor on gender, sexual, and sacred experience, his books include “Traversing Gender: Understanding Transgender Journeys,” and "Sacred Kink: The Eightfold Paths of BDSM and Beyond," among many other titles. He has been blogging online since 1998, and been teaching worldwide since 2001. Welcome to his world, and your chance to expand your mind and heart alike.

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