The modern life is a distracted one, so as travelers, we consider ourselves lucky to be treated to conditions that demand our full attention. Sometimes this is a lack of cell signal, complete solitude or the energy of a crowd gathering to take in the same experience. For me, it was a problem.
The Uyuni desert in Bolivia is filled with world-class landscapes, including a population of Flamingoes made famous by Sir David Attenborough and the world’s largest salt flat. It was here that “the problem” opened my eyes to the unreal views around me.
But before we get to that, we must touch on the travelers’ anxiety that was my primary distraction. It wasn’t the crippling sort, but it was gripping and borne of the internet. On the one hand, the web inspires us and opens our eyes to places we never knew existed. But once you get to the planning stage of wanderlust, the internet reveals its less encouraging hand holding out forums and mixed reviews. This can be helpful until you spiral out of control into a thread that mentions ‘injury’, ‘’scam’ and ‘death’ more times than you’d like to read. The rational part of my mind will try to remind me that perfect reviews seldom make it online, but it isn’t as loud as the thought of my tour likely ending up in disaster.
Bad reviews are water off a duck’s back when planning a short trip. But we were about to embark on a multi-day tour through the remote desert of Bolivia, in a 4-wheel drive with the added thrill of a border crossing. According to my “research”, the list of things that could go wrong was varied and extensive; drunk drivers, dishonest sales people, lack of safety equipment, lack of food, border scams and being taken on a tour that is different to what you booked. Hence the anxiety I nursed for days.
My usually cool, calm and collected travel partner felt equally uneasy about the decision. So disorienting was our anxiety that we found ourselves debating whether dogs at a sales office were more of a good omen than Kiwis booking the same tour. In the end, we booked with the Kiwis. The sound of their pinched accents upon departure was welcome; at least our omen wasn’t a lie. We made it past obstacle one.
Shortly after, my broken Spanish got me past Bolivian border patrol without being charged the mysterious fee. So far so good. Back in the van and out of the bitter cold, our group discusses who fell prey to the fee and who didn’t. I nervously watch a driver inflate one of the 4x4s flat tires with a hand pump as we wait.
Once everyone has crossed over, we’re driven across the parking lot to two waiting jeeps, and a table set up with some much-needed breakfast. At least this morning we wouldn’t go hungry.
During breakfast, I allow myself a moment to take in the astonishing views in between watching the guides organize themselves. I couldn’t see the name of the tour we’d booked on any of the jeeps and it definitely wasn’t on the one we eventually got into. Neither we’re the Kiwis, but they were in our convoy which was close enough.
As we drove through the striking desert landscape, I found myself in a mental gymnastic routine that flipped from being amazed at where I was, to worrying about what could go wrong. This was a bad sign. If appreciating a landscape that looked like it was dreamt up by Salvador Dali played second fiddle to worse case scenario, then I was most certainly destined to have the worst trip ever.
It appeared that my body had gone on holiday, but my anxiety hadn’t.
As the tour went on, so too did my mental checklist of promised sights delivered. Each amazing view, delicious meal, and good night’s sleep took me one step closer to climbing out of the rabbit hole of bad reviews that trapped my mind.
And then it happened.
The morning of our last day was to be spent enjoying the tour’s crowning glory: a sunrise visit to a mirrored salt flat. We saw our path go from a narrow gravel road to a vast expanse of white to a giant pool of water. The image I’d dreamt of for months was about to unfold when our car did a U-turn. We drove to the other jeep which was parked, but as we got closer I could see that the rear tires had sunk deep into the water. With that, the perfect mirrored sunrise in Uyuni was shattered. I couldn’t help but feel like the anxiety I’d been harboring had manifested into something real.
We parked beside the other car and listened as the guides talked about the situation. The other driver was in the water, which was past ankle-deep and was standing in the mud that captured his car. Around us, other convoys drove into the distance to find their spots as the sun slowly started to illuminate the view around us.
We were trapped in the jeeps. Our views of the sunrise limited what we could see out the window and tainted by worry. My anxious mind was now in overdrive and worsened with each failed attempt at a solution to liberate our trapped companions.
The bright light on the horizon alluded to the coming sunrise when the drivers announced their next solution. We would go from our car and sit on top of the trapped jeep while they drove into town for help.
Adding weight to the sinking car and leaving the group never crossed my mind as a good option, but alas this was the plan.
I was in full fight-or-flight mode when I took a barefoot step into the freezing water, and when I got half-way between the two cars I decided that flight was definitely the way to go. The water was frost-bite cold. I quickly clambered onto the roof of the trapped jeep and slid onto the hood to make room for the others.
We watched from our makeshift island as our guides got smaller on the horizon, and eagerly awaited the sunrise; no longer for the view but for the warmth that we desperately needed.
There’s plenty of room for panic in a situation like this. But when you’re literally stuck, it doesn’t make it better. The mood on jeep-island was surprisingly positive, considering we were trapped and freezing. But the view from the top of the car was beautiful; much better than what the inside of the car could afford.
After taking pictures there was nothing to do but watch, which brought silence to my mind. Something that hadn’t happened all tour. I was living a negative review with no possible way out, but luckily I was also in the company of positive people.
As the sun began to peer through the horizon we marveled at the way the lake caused the sun to split into two. We were treated to a sunrise in the sky, another in the reflection of the lake and from inside the jeep the Kiwi’s rendition of ‘Here Comes the Sun’.
It was one of the most tranquil experiences I’d ever had.
Like the wind needs the desert to show off its beauty, I needed an impossibly frustrating situation to lift me from the spell of traveler’s anxiety. Being stuck in the mud liberated me from being stuck in my mind.
I’m sure this relief won’t last forever. Unfortunately, it’s in my nature to worry. But I’m grateful for this negative review realized as a reminder that bad things happen, most of these things are out of our control, and if we’re lucky they’ll unravel and we’ll come off unscathed. All you can do in between is search for serenity by letting go, surrendering to the adventure and getting stuck in each and every moment.
P.S. The guides eventually returned, and despite being stuck for a while longer, both tours continued. For this writer, sans anxiety.