The first time I saw the Salar de Uyuni, I was sitting in the waiting room of my doctor’s office, with a fractured right arm. I was 16-years-old, tall and skinny with a big afro – I looked like a pencil with a big eraser. Wouldn’t have taken much to snap a bone in my stick-figure body, and indeed it didn’t take much effort when my childhood friend Dickey pulled my arm right out of the socket at the elbow.
We were walking home from school and we spotted a cigarette lighter on the ground. It was one of those cheap plastic ones that come in a variety of bright transparent colors. With its transparency, the fuel inside was visible. This particular lighter was orange and judging from the amount of fuel, it was brand new.
Deep in conversation, Dickey and I walked along Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, toward home. The conversation came to an abrupt end when we spotted the lighter. Our reaction? He looked at me, I looked at him and without a word, we both made a mad dash for the lighter.
Dickey was not as fleet-footed as me. He was beefy bordering on fat, but he could move fast when pushed. On this particular day, he wasn’t as fast as I was. I got to the lighter about a second ahead of him and snatched it up, scraping my knuckles against the concrete pavement – ouch! He only managed to grabbed my fist clutching the cigarette lighter. He tried to pry my fist open to grab the lighter, which was sticking out a bit. Had I had it solidly in hand, maybe he would have backed off. Instead, he continued to pry the lighter out of my hand, but I did not budge. Our struggle for the lighter became a full on wrestling match in the middle of Flatbush Avenue – and you would think some adult would intervene? – people instead just walked by as if nothing.
Then it happened. Dickey yanked on my extended arm so hard that it popped right out of the socket at the elbow. All I heard was a snap, crackle then a pop! I dropped the lighter in anguish.
I never had experienced such pain. Dickey and I walked the rest of the way home, he with the lighter in his pocket, me clutching my arm. The next day my arm was so swollen at the elbow, my mother took me to the doctor. The doctor at first determined that the arm was not broken. I could still move my fingers. He sent me home with an order to ice it. Then the next day my doctor’s office called to say the X-Ray had revealed a fracture and that I needed to return to see the doctor. That day I left my doctor’s office in a cast that extended from my wrist to my armpit. Nice going Dickey!
Okay, the truth is both Dickey and I were both at fault. We were two dumb teenagers horsing around. And when that happens, sometimes someone gets hurt – boys will be boys, you know. He did feel bad about it. And every chance I got, I reminded him that he owed me big time! He didn’t fall for that. We went on being friends, as if nothing.
In some strange way, I have Dickey to thank. Had it not been for that fractured arm, I never would have landed in the doctor’s office with the Nat Geo subscription. There on the table in the waiting room, there were several month’s worth of Nat Geo magazines. I picked one up and started to thumb through it and there it was – the Salar de Uyuni – or in English – the Uyuni Salt Flats. I thought, where in the world was this place and how could I get there – like soon?! Like most images in Nat Geo, the photographs were absolutely stunning. I then read the text: Bolivia.
Uyuni has since been embedded in my head. This desert where instead of salt the land is an expanse of blindingly white salt – often under inches of water that reflect sky and mountains during the rainy summer seasons – has crept into my dreams. I have long wished to visit Uyuni, and every time I have met someone lucky enough to have visited, I peppered them with questions. And now, living in Calama, Chile, a few hours away from Uyuni, I think my decades-old dream to visit is near. Or so I hope.
I am determined to visit Uyuni, but tit-for-tat global politics may have something else to say about that.
I EXPLAIN: The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, hates the United States. As if to drive that point home, he has aligned himself with avowed enemies of the United States. He has also used Venezuela’s oil riches to influence other countries in the region, one of which is Bolivia.
The president of Bolivia walks in lock-step with the president of Venezuela. When Venezuela is mad at the United States, Morales feels the need to show his loyalty to Chavez by, frankly, doing something stupid. That stupid thing – which amounts to shooting himself in the foot and hurting the Bolivian people – was to make it more difficult for U.S. tourists to visit Bolivia. Morales imposed a $135 visa requirement on U.S. citizens, placed strict limits on how long they could stay in Bolivia, and imposed other rules that work like a charm to turn away Americans. It’s not that Morales wants Americans to stay away – au contraire – he wants Americans to continue to visit and pay a “reciprocal” visa fee, about the same amount that Bolivians are required to pay to gain a visa to enter the U.S.
Only problem with Morales tit-for-tat approach is Bolivia – the poorest country in South America and one of the poorest in the world – needs those millions of tourists dollars it once got from visitors from the United States. There was a time when 1 in 5 visitors to Bolivia was from the United States. Since the new requirements that number has dropped. Some Americans don’t mind paying the fee – frankly, some who are backpackers on a budget can’t afford it – but what makes Bolivia even more a country to be avoided are some of the other roadblocks Morales has put up, aimed at just sticking it to the United States.
As I started researching what is required to enter Bolivia as a U.S. citizen, I literally got a headache. I mean, for instance, must bring a photograph of a certain size with a red background only? If the background of the photo is anything other than red expect to be turned away and sent back across the border or on the next plane. For a country and a people badly in need of tourism dollars, how stupid is that? Politics.
Now, I believe in reciprocity. Brazil, Argentina, Chile and others have such laws in place. These laws state we charge your citizens what you charge our citizens to enter your country. But in some of these countries, Chile for instance, you pay nothing if you cross the border by land. In other words, low-budget backpackers are not hit with a large fee. When I crossed the border from Peru into Chile, I paid nothing.
And some countries only require the fee, not that you jump through hoops, as Bolivia does. Foolish, if you ask me.
So, I must make sure that all my I’s are dotted and my T’s are crossed as I make my way to the Bolivian border in coming weeks. I am taking no chances. I will be marching down to the Bolivian Consulate in Calama, Chile, to inquire exactly what they need from me. Would be a shame to come this far and only come as close to Uyuni as that National Geographic Magazine spread my dear old friend Dickey unwittingly led me to.