The knock on the door beat through my huddled dream. I was the first awake in the room and through the fog I struggled to understand the Spanish coming from outside. The others around me started to make waking noises and I check my watch. It is quarter to four in the morning, pitch black and freezing cold. From the bed beside me Sonia gets up and stumbles across the room, weaving between the other beds. She opens the door to our driver.
“Come and take photos,” he says, “they are fighting, they have been hit”.
It only takes a few words to figure out that he’s incoherently drunk. I hand Sonia my camera and she follows him out into the night. The rest of us try to make out what is going on from the yells filtering through the walls. She returns shortly to report that four of the drivers are drunk and fighting outside in the sub zero Bolivian desert night. We converse briefly about how we are meant to climb into a car in a little over an hour with a now drunk driver With few options, we turn out the lights again and go back to sleep.
Two days earlier, the desert town of Uyuni does not give good first impressions. Almost constant wind blows dust and garbage through streets of crumbling adobe. As we had piled off the bus from Chile, we had been met by a handful of insistent women: Hotel? Salt flats? Good price. Agua Caliente. This kind of greeting never fails to leave a bad taste in my mouth, but nevertheless we end up following one of them through the main town square past small shops piled high with colourful textiles.
Despite it’s desolation, Uyuni is one of the must-hit spots for tourists in Bolivia due to its proximity to the vast salt flats of the same name. Tour agencies squeeze in shoulder to shoulder around the main square, all offering the exact same thing. Most everyone arriving to Uyuni plans to set out on a three day salt flat tour. This, despite the stories of drunk drivers, faulty vehicles, terrible food and bitter cold that get passed from traveller to traveller over beers in hostels all the way from Colombia to Argentina.
We are no different, and within an hour of arrival are booked to leave the next morning for three days of four wheel driving through the Bolivian desert.
Things don’t get off to a good start. We are ten minutes from town and our driver addresses us for the first time.
“If you all behave, we will get along, and things will all go well. If you don’t, then it will be a bad time for everyone”.
The six of us in the car exchange glances. We laugh nervously and I try to break the ice by asking about his family. No dice.
We drive for seven or eight hours through truly spectacular country. Every couple of hours we pull over beside a lake or under a snow capped mountain and brave the freezing cold outside for the sake of a few photos. As we pull up to the refugio where we will spend the night the sun is setting over Laguna Colorado and the sky is deep blue and pink.
Our group is multicultural – french, basque, catalonian, english, italian, argentinean, russian, canadian – and in an effort to stay warm and positive we share our respective national dances inside of the cold adobe building. No one believes me when I insist that Canada has nothing that even resembles a national dance.
Fast forward a few hours to the predawn dark with drunken drivers fighting outside and no one is dancing. Our options are limited even as the sun breaks over the top of the ridge and backlights steam rising from geisers across the lake. This place is beautiful, to be sure, but we’re in a bit of a bind. At seven o’clock, three of the four drivers are found slumped over inside the jeeps, passed out. There is vomit on the floor and empty whiskey bottles on the ground outside.
One driver rallies enough to convince his group to get into the car and away they go. As the day truly begins, we huddle in small groups trying to figure out what to do. A couple of things are clear: first, no one is interested in getting into the cars with the drivers and carrying on with the tour; second, what the fuck else are we going to do?
By nine o’clock a second driver has come forward to his group. He is appropriately embarrassed and begs their pardon. He tells them he will sleep until eleven, at which point he will drive them back to Uyuni where things can be further settled.
At this point there are eighteen of us milling around in the middle of nowhere. Six have just received notice that they have a way out, but the rest of us are still pretty stuck. Our drivers have not even spoken to us since the four am call for photographs.
At about ten, they finally come forward to tell us that they will drive us back to Uyuni at noon. They are still visibly intoxicated and no one feels relief at their announcement. To make matters worse, as soon as they are done mumbling to us, they get into one of the jeeps and drive away. Among those of us remaining, the general conclusion is that nothing good will come of a) their absence, which will most likely involve more alcohol or b) their return, which is bound to be tense and may not result in our safe return to Uyuni.
At this point, the plan that had been put forward by the Italian some hours ago starts to move from the realm of the totally crazy to that of the possible.
“They’ve left us here in the middle of nowhere,” he argues, “and the keys are inside the one remaining jeep. I say we drive ourselves back to Uyuni”.
Told in retrospect, this might not seem that radical. However, in the moment nothing could have been more wild west. The route in had been long, complicated and totally epic. The cars are four wheel drive for good reason.
The Italian is insistent and confident. Pretty soon he is standing on top of the jeep calling for people to pass up their bags. The driver who had gone to sleep it off is back preparing his own group for departure, and after some negotiations he agrees to lead us back and testify as to the situation we had been put in. By eleven the decision has been made to leave with the jeep and everyone is running on double doses of adrenaline. Everyone glances frequently towards the road the drunken pair had driven away on. No one wants confrontation, which is a certainty if they arrive back in the midst of our preparations to leave.
After a flurry of luggage packing and body distributing (there are too many people to fit in two jeeps and so jeeps from another tour and flagged down and begged to accept the two extra), we all climb in and drive away.
Nerves are raw and even though the Italian claims to have experience no one is ready to trust him right away. Gentle and not so gentle driving suggestions are thrown forward from the back seat as we navigate the first couple of hours of challenging terrain. Nothing has felt more epic.
Four hours later we stop for lunch and sit huddled in the sun. The members of the flagged down groups eye us with suspicion and maintain their distance. Soon after lunch we hit the main road again and everyone lets out a big breath. We still have a solid three hours of driving left. The rough route behind us, the stereo system finally agrees to work and the chilled out strains of reggae fill the crowded space.
From the very backseat, I watch the desert stream by and struggle to keep my eyes open. The last of the adrenaline leaks out of my system and with my eyes closed it’s hard to remember where I am. What started out as an epic stolen car getaway in the middle of the frozen Bolivian altiplano by the end of the day from the sunny, reggaed backseat of this crowded four by four ends up feeling like a roadtrip with too many friends.