The sunrise over Bolivia's upset proportion. The salted ground was so dry it cracked like hammered plaster, but the rain from the day before left round films reflecting purple, pink, and orange. Dane couldn't tell where the salt flat ended and the sky began, and when he glanced at his sister Jenny she looked like someone thicker. She wore a lot of layers.
“Pues, my friends,” Juan said. “Many many years ago, the mountains here were like people.” He wore a navy blue one-piece snow suit and adjusted a gray chauffeur’s hat before pulling out a bag of compressed green leaves. He molded a pinch of coca with his fingers, and his breath already smelled like hay from leaves steeping in his mouth. “One of the mountains was una mujer, and she had three children and one husband.” He offered the bag to Dane and Jenny. Dane pulled out a pinch and arranged the leaves near his gums, the way Juan had done. He worked them with his tongue and a twig got stuck on his lips. This was his first time out of the U.S. He would try anything.
“But one day,” Juan continued, “her little baby died, and her husband took the other niños away, forever. And when she was alone, she cried, cried, and when she cried—” Juan rounded his hands over invisible lumps on his chest and looked at Jenny, “she cried milk, too, and now the land is all white.” It was the most Juan had said all morning, and when he finished he climbed back into the driver’s seat.
Jenny rolled her eyes the way their mom hated. “Or maybe a giant lake dried up,” she said. She had seemed irritated since they got off the plane three days ago.
“You should try coca,” Dane said. "It's like a cup of coffee." He had heard that somewhere. The flavor of grass nauseated him, but he felt an opening in his thoughts.
“It’s the same plant as cocaine," Jenny said. She sounded tired, even though the night before she had gone to bed hours earlier than Dane. He had taken advantage of the hostel’s bar special — buy one , get one — and learned a complicated version of rummy from an Israeli couple.
He wondered if Jenny had ever tried cocaine. He doubted it, since she barely let herself have a second cup of coffee in the morning. He nudged her and pointed at Claude and Luc, the other two members of their tour group. Luc stood back with his muscular arm around the air, while Claude kneeled on the ground with his camera, aiming at an apple a few feet away. He yelled directions until everything lined up, and clicked; their friends in France would think Luc had his arm around a human-sized piece of fruit. The sky and the ground in the flats were so big that cameras lost perspective. You could make it look like anything can happen.
A spoon from breakfast lay on the bumper of the 4X4, and Dane had an idea. He jogged over to the guys with the utensil, made shapes with his arms since they didn't speak English and he didn't speak French, and the three of them dispersed. Dane stepped back with their camera, Luc stood ten feet from him, and Claude sat cross-legged on the ground thirty feet back. Luc would carry a bite-sized Claude to his mouth on a spoon.
Returning to the truck, Dane saw Jenny stretch one arm over her head and then the other, graceful as a dancer. She said she did yoga four times a week in Denver.
“Wow,” Claude said, and winked at Dane.
“My sister," Dane said, elbowing Claude. Claude put his palms out and said, Sorry, sorry, and the three of them laughed. Dane knew they were messing around. He had seen the boys kiss when Juan wasn't looking.
Jenny was two years older than Dane, and he didn’t know much about her personal life. She drove the four hours home to Gunnison from Denver once every couple of months and stayed on the couch, even though he offered up her old room (he had switched rooms when she moved out because hers was bigger and had a private entrance — then their parents had filled his with art supplies that never got opened). Once she brought home a guy named Jonathan, a PhD student in accounting that Dane and their mom had liked enough but never saw again. She must be single now, since she had planned the trip to Bolivia on her own. She had been talking about going since Christmas, and when it was a month away their mom insisted on paying Dane’s way, on loan, so that he could join his sister. Jenny had travelled alone before in Europe, but their mom seemed worried about her doing the same in Bolivia.
On the drive away from the salt fields, Claude and Luc convinced Juan to let them ride on top of the jeep. Dane and Jenny spread out in the backseat, and the men's shadows danced on the ground out Jenny's window. They shouted invented English words to the tune of I Feel Good, and Dane tapped along on the outside of his door. The air still felt cold, but had begun to warm. studded the endless flats like conical igloos. Teams of men in rimmed hats hacked at the ground with axes then carried shovels of salt towards a budding mound.
“Is that salt we eat?” Dane said.
A truck was parked by one of the piles, and workers on break passed around a thermos.
“They wait for it to dry,” Jenny said. “They cook it and add iodine, then grind it.”
“Si, señorita,” Juan said.
The jeep turned and Claude and Luc's shadows stretched into larger, skinnier versions. Jenny took pictures of their shapes, and Dane squinted at the flats then opened his eyes wide. People at home would think Jenny used effect filters to get the colors so wild; she would have to convince them that the place looked like a hallucination by itself.
“Did you see the monument by the Welcome Center about the disappearances?" she said, resting the camera in her lap.
“What kind of disappearances?" Dane said. Jenny had a knack for noticing details Dane passed by. It was like they were adjusted to different settings, so that wherever they went they saw a different place.
“Five Japanese and two Peruvians disappeared three years ago. They went for a walk and never came back,” she said. “It's not mentioned in Lonely Planet.”
“I bet they made it out but didn't tell anyone,” he said. The lost tourists probably couldn’t separate near from far or high from low. The salt probably ate away their tracks.
She tweaked something on the camera.
Juan slowed the jeep through a narrow street with tables on both sides loaded with jewelry, knick-knacks and traditional clothing, and parked. Claude and Luc jumped down on each side of the truck making two thuds that sounded far away. Juan put the bag of coca on his lap then rolled down his window. He had un-zipped his one-piece, revealing a lumpy hand-knit sweater. “Okay amigos: first you can go shopping, take photos, anything you want — and then we will take lunch,” he said.
The street was empty of people except for Claude and Luc, who raced each other to the end of the market. Jenny wandered away from the jeep with her camera without saying anything. She was sometimes like this at home and Dane had learned not to take it personally. He watched her lower herself to the ground and aim the camera at a little girl hugging the leg of a table. The girl’s face was packaged into a hat with llamas stitched on the sides and long ear-flaps that tied under her chin. He was glad Jenny took interesting pictures. He didn't have a camera.
He wandered in the opposite direction and picked up a paper weight from a table. It was in the shape of Bolivia, with light yellow paint and smeared green letters that said Venga! He looked out at the paved road leading back to Salar de Uyuni, a single gray thread fallen on a desert of white. He was in the middle of the kind of stillness that comes from size.
Someone hummed. An older woman with two braids tied together at the bottom like holding hands bent down to unwrap a shawl she used as a sack.
“Sal," the woman said when she noticed Dane. She approached and pointed at what he held. He had seen older women dressed like her with top hats and bright skirts in the city of Uyuni.
“Perdon?" he said, flexing his high school Spanish.
“Sal," she said. "Todo sal." She pointed at the miniature Bolivia then towards other objects on the table. She touched one of them and licked her finger, nodding at him.
“Salt," he said.
She laughed and showed metal fillings in her teeth. On her table there were shapes of men, women, flamingoes and llamas, all made of tiny grains. Dane felt his body go dry as if all the salt he'd been walking on had seeped into his blood.
“Agua," he said. "Por favor." She handed him a bottle from her display of three waters and two Cokes, and ran her fingers under the elastic of her skirt.
“Nada mas," he said, and handed her coins.
He saw his sister near Juan’s jeep. She lifted something similar to the paperweight from another table, then put it back. He should have gotten her a water, too. She was better than he was at knowing what other people needed. For one of her visits to Gunnison he had brought home pizza from the shop where he delivers: half pepperoni and half sausage and green pepper. He had forgotten she was vegetarian.
Something tugged at his jeans.
It was a boy. Chocolate or dirt smeared around his mouth, and yellow crusted his nostrils.
One of his little hands reached up, grasping towards the bottle that Dane had lifted away from him without realizing it. Dane took a step back but the kid clutched his jeans.
“No puedo.” I can’t. He didn’t know why that was what he said.
Dane turned quickly, hoping to lose the kid as if it were a game. The boy hung a bit, and swung when Dane turned so fast. When he let go of Dane’s leg he stumbled over a rock and fell. Dane looked at him and then at the two black and purple Reebok Classics, size 8. Jenny bent down to the little boy but he got up and ran away, disappearing behind a building.
“What the fuck, Dane?” she said, squinting at him like at someone she'd point out on the street and say, What's wrong with him? He couldn't remember a time he'd heard her say fuck.
“I didn't mean to," he said. Jenny looked like their mom when she got angry, squinted eyes and ligaments showing in the neck. He felt the same way he did in middle school when he didn't latch the neighbor's gate and their husky escaped and got hit by a car.
“Of course you never mean to,” she said, stressing the word mean.
Dane had never accidentally knocked down a kid before, from what he could remember, so she must have been talking about something else. She looked at him like this were the last straw in a series of horrible things he’d done over a lifetime.
“I'm sorry,” he said.
She walked away, passed the stall where he got the water. A chair was tipped over on the ground, as if someone had left in a rush.
An engine rattled down the road and a 4X4 similar to Juan’s crawled towards them. He and Jenny moved to the side and watched it pass. A group of white people in Northface watched Dane and Jenny through the windows, like they expected something big to happen.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said.
Dane watched the jeep park across the road from their own. Theirs had milky swirls of dried salt climbing up its red body. Juan leaned against the door, watching the French guys chat with the new group of tourists.
“I think we should travel alone for a while,” she said. “Maybe meet up at the end.”
The trip was ten days long and they were on day three. Jenny had made the itinerary. The white and gray behind her expanded, as if someone had blown into a balloon.
“Whatever you say,” he said.
She walked back to Juan and the jeep, and he followed. Dry powder netted over their feet and calves like on the truck, so that a part of everything was disappearing.
|© Alison Turner, 2014