Bernardo: Hombre de Bolivia

Sometimes you meet the most interesting people in the most unexpected places. If you don’t look carefully, you may also miss something that is really important. I’ve found that to be true in many places that I’ve traveled to. Therefore, Bolivia should be no different. But is WAS different, mostly because of a very special person I met there.

I glance backwards at the door of the Hotel Mitru Annex. I look up the staircase leading to the second floor and take a moment to be grateful for such a restful refuge from days of hard traveling. It was by far, the best six dollar hotel I have EVER stayed at! Fortified by a hearty breakfast, I close the front door and hoist up my heavy backpack for the three block walk through downtown Tupiza.

Hotel Mitru Annex

The air is cool and crisp. Although the climate is noticeably warmer than the frigid Altiplano region of Bolivia, I have to remind myself that I am still nearly nine thousand feet above sea level. After one block of walking with the pack, my heart is already beating faster than that of a parakeet being chased by a cat. Is is solely a function of altitude, or due to the anxiety of what I will encounter in the next week? I am early for my appointment, so I slow my pace.

Strolling down Avenida Avaroa, I cross the street and make the left turn onto Calle “Las Chichas”, the Spanish name for a fermented drink. I did not see much evidence of chichas this early in the morning, but I did spot a couple of Cholitas, Amerindian women in bowler hats who were sweeping the streets and sidewalks. Shopkeepers are already out and preparing to open their stores for another day of sales.

Cholitas with Bowler hats

Dirt of all colors is everywhere—brown, red, gray and white. I can see these same colors in the sedimentary layers of rock that surround this desert valley. On the side of the street are a few parked cars, although rarely do you see one driving down the road. A cowboy rides his horse down the middle of the street, passing me in the opposite direction. If one were to remove the few parked cars from this scene, you would have a hard time guessing what year it was. Tupiza, after all, is the town where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid pulled their final bank heist. This fact is one of the reasons which brought me to this out-of-the-way sleepy little town.

On my left is the pastry cafe where I met two Canadian girls two days ago. We tried unsuccessfully to put a group trip together to the Uyuni Salt flats. I wanted to climb a high volcano on the trip and they were just interested in a jeep ride. Sometimes it takes a couple of days to find like-minded travelers to put together a group trip to split the cost of the excursion. Today however, I was on my way to fulfilling my dream, with a group of French tourists who were waiting for me another block and a half away at the Tupiza Tours office. I wondered if the Canadian girls had any luck in finding someone to put a group tour together.

There is a blue Toyota Land Rover parked by the curb just outside of the Tupiza Tours office. A short, stocky Indian man is standing on the roof and shuffling tarps. There is also another white van parked outside. I wonder if either one of these vehicles is the one we will be riding in. I step inside the office and meet the group of French tourists I will be climbing a high volcano with. There are three men and one woman, all in their twenties, speaking French to one another. We had not met each other yet, but had inquired independently at the agency, so we knew about each others’ plans and agreed to do a group trip.

I don’t speak French, so when I dropped my backpack, I introduced myself to the group in Spanish. The young woman named Dorothee responds in nearly perfect Spanish—a great sign! We begin to have a conversation, when her husband Hugo interjects in English. “Maybe we should agree to speak English among ourselves”, he says. It seems that three of the four French tourists speak English pretty fluently and only Dorothee speaks Spanish well. It seems that our lingua franca will be English and Dorothee and I will use Spanish when talking to our guides.

I lobby them to take an extra side trip to San Vincente, to the site of Butch Cassidy’s grave. It costs an extra $25 to make the side trip there. Only one of the Frenchmen, Christophe, has ever heard of Butch Cassidy. I agree to pay the whole $25 fee myself if they don’t mind the side trip, but they agree to split it five ways, making it only an extra $5 per person. The only caveat is that I have to tell them the history and the stories of the famous American bank robber who fled to South America to escape the law, only to become an infamous bank robber in Bolivia.

After signing the paperwork and paying for the excursion (cash only), we are instructed to go outside and take our belongings to the Blue Land Rover. The squatty, bow-legged Indian man is still perched atop the vehicle. He is wearing an orange and blue vest over a dilapidated beige sweater with numerous holes in the sleeves. He bent his head down keeping his gaze fixed on the roof of the vehicle. He is wearing a tight-fitting baseball hat pulled down over his forehead, which keeps his face in the shadows. One by one I hand him up our backpacks. He was not one for much conversation, but appeared to be efficient and hard-working. When I handed him up the last piece of our luggage, he stood up straight to stretch out his back muscles, and the sun highlighted his face. That was the first time I saw that he had one eye missing. It was hard to tell how old he was, as his face was very weathered and his hand were calloused. His jeans looked as if they had been washed and then hung out to dry during a dust storm. He, like many of his fellow countrymen, is a product of living in a poor, land-locked South American country, and in a harsh physical environment. I’m sure that he would have some interesting stories to tell, but I doubted that I would get to know him, since he was just there to load the stuff on the vehicle. He folded all of the tarps over our packs and tied everything securely to the roof rack. As he was tying the last of the water jars and spare gasoline cans, he told us that we would not be leaving just yet, as we were still waiting for the cook to arrive.

A few minutes later, a young woman arrives, hurrying down the street carrying a box in her hands. She was our cook; her name was Delfina (meaning dolphin in English). All of the rest of the food had been already secured on the roof of the Land Rover, but Delfina had gone out to get some last minute fresh food from a local store. We were now ready to go, except that the driver was nowhere in sight. Such things are to be expected in a place like Bolivia, so we sat on the curb and waited.

The one-eyed man climbed off of the roof of the vehicle. Immediately he and Delfina started fussing at each other. He was scolding her for being late and holding up the foreign tourists. He admonished her that Europeans and North Americans had different mindsets on time than did South Americans, and that keeping a departure time was important to tourists. She did not take well to his complaining and had a few choice words for him. The French people were now discussing something among themselves and did not get involved in the conversation. Perhaps Delfina and the one-eyed man thought that the foreigners could not understand their arguments in Spanish, but they were wrong about this. I thought it best to intervene before the argument became too heated.

“Relax”, I said in Spanish. “Besides, we are still waiting for the driver to show up.”

Surprised that a gringo tourist was speaking to her in her native tongue, Delfina pointed to the one-eyed man and looked straight at me. “He IS here”, she replied in Spanish. “HE is your driver!”

The one-eyed man introduces himself to the group as the driver and guide for our 5-day trip through the Bolivian outback and across the Uyuni Salt Flats. Dorothee and I interpret for the rest of the group. The man’s name is Bernardo. I didn’t exactly understand what the French tourists were discussing among themselves at the time, but from their tone of voice and body language, it seemed like they were nervous about the prospect of placing our safety in the hands of Bernardo and Delfina for the next week. We will be traveling over rough, remote mountain roads through some of the most desolate country on this continent and we will be totally dependent on an old Land Rover driven by a one-eyed man who is accompanied by a teenage cook who is not happy about being here.

Pausing momentarily, I gaze into Bernardo’s eye, trying to gauge his emotional state. I sense some uneasiness on his part too. Was that he doubted himself, or was there some other reason? I try to empathize with him and put myself in his shoes. I used to be a wilderness guide in Alaska, so I tried to look at the situation from his vantage point.

I imagine myself as Bernardo. I have just spent the morning doing hard labor and I just meet five foreigners who speak another language than my own. They have all come from far away exotic places that I could only dream of but will never be able to visit. I was born into poverty in Bolivia, so I will never be able to be like them and afford to hire someone else to provide for my needs. The foreigners have each other on the trip, while I have to spend time away from my family. Their customs are different than mine. They also have money and I do not. As far as I can tell, they have no disabilities either. I have to spend the next five days with them, ensuring their safety and making sure they have an enjoyable experience. I will be driving a vehicle that I hope will not break down and leave us all stranded in the middle of nowhere. If I need their assistance, will I be able to count on them to come through for the whole group? Will they even care about me as a person, or just view me as poor hired help? Also, I am not happy about the young girl the business decided on sending along as a cook for the group. She is the only one that speaks my language as his/her first language, so I’m not sure how much conversation I will have on this trip. These are the things I imagined were running through his head at the start of the trip.

After contemplating things from Bernardo’s perspective, I decided to forego any preconceived judgements about him, and give him the opportunity to prove himself. Bernardo might just turn out to be the kind of person that you underestimated at first glance, but would come to appreciate more fully the more you got to know him. Over the next week, we would share some memorable experiences, and I would come to truly appreciate the uniqueness of his character.

The Land Rover had a capacity for eight people; a driver and seven passengers. Delfina sat in the front passenger seat, and there were two rows behind the driver, with room for three passengers in each row. Christophe and Philippe sat in the back row, and Dorothee, Hugo and I sat in the middle row. The geography of our seating allowed for the segregation of languages, with two interpreters nudged between them. The front row spoke Spanish. The back row spoke French among themselves. The middle row, acting as interpreters spoke English, French and Spanish….whatever was needed between as a go-between for communication in the vehicle. It felt like a United Nations summit.

We headed out and at the edge of town we pulled up to a police checkpoint. This is common practice in Bolivia and many other countries around the world. Anyone traveling by road has to register with the police. It seems like a lot of resources are spent in this poor country on staffing roadblocks, but some of this money comes from the USA in their efforts in the “War on Drugs”. Usually, police are routinely checking for insurance papers and registration, but often times require a bribe for motorists to pass. We get through the roadblock unscathed and immediately start heading up a steep dirt road into the outback. The scenery of the desert landscape is dramatic.

On the trail of Butch Cassidy in Bolivia

After driving about 20 miles and gaining more than 1000 feet in elevation, we pull off to the side of the road and take in the expansive view. A sinuous, dry arroyo lay in the base of the canyon hundreds of feet below. Cliffs of jagged rock fins rise steeply from the valley floor on both sides of the arroyo. The fins are the result of wind and water erosion on the highly jointed sedimentary rock. Different color bands are present in the rock that has not yet been eroded, while the arroyo consists of deposited sediment from the eroded cliffs carried by ephemeral streams, which are dry this time of year. The myriad of side canyons offer multitudes of hiding places for outlaws such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I could picture them heading through this very canyon on horseback after they pulled their last bank heist in Tupiza. I recounted some of the history of these two outlaws to the rest of the group….some in English and some in Spanish. Dorothee and Hugo then translated what I said into French for the back row.

A dry stream bed near Tupiza

I turned toward Bernardo. “Have you ever been to the Southwest of the United States?”, I asked. He replied, “No, I’ve never been outside of Bolivia.”

“Take another look at this landscape, because this is what the state of Utah looks like.”

Bernardo was the kind of Bolivian who was interested in the rest of the world, even if he knew he would likely never travel out of his home country. I told him about Butch’s hideout in Hole-In-The-Wall, Wyoming and of the other hideout in Utah called “Robber’s Roost.” He smiled, pleased with his vicarious vacation to the Southwest of the USA.

An hour later we stopped at another viewpoint, where we saw a species of barrel cactus which could survive the cold temperatures at high altitudes. They resembled the Saguaro cacti of the Sonora Desert. “Do you know what this place reminds me of?”, I asked Bernardo. “This is just what the state of Arizona and the province of Sonora in Mexico looks like.”

“Now I’m feeling like I’m on vacation too”, he replied.

We got back in the vehicle and headed towards San Vincente, the supposed place where Butch Cassidy and Sundance met their fateful end during a shootout with the Bolivian army. The road became rougher and we had to hold onto the grab handles near the ceiling of the Land Rover to brace ourselves. The steep road had no guardrails on the sides of it. I was beginning to think that bringing a bicycle helmet on the trip might have been a good idea. Bernardo said that this is a particularly bad section of the road, and the reason why the company charged extra for the side trip.

“How do you say ‘bad road’ in English?”, he asked me in Spanish.

I told him how, but he had a hard time pronouncing the r. “Bad load”, he said, struggling with the English r as much as English speakers have trouble with the Spanish “rr” double r.

I reminded him to keep his eye on the road and that I’d be happy to help him with his English lessons when we were done driving. Bernardo was however, the kind of driver who could navigate a perilous road and multi-task.

About half an hour later, we finished climbing and the road leveled out a bit. Suddenly Bernardo let out a shout. He screamed “ñandú!”, and sped up the vehicle. Just ahead were two ostriches running down the road. I hadn’t realized before that South America had indigenous species of ostriches. I had only associated this bird with Australia. Looking at this flat desert landscape with ostriches running through it, one could easily picture themselves in the middle of the Australian Outback. We followed the birds for about a kilometer as the curiously continued to run away from us straight down the road, with the Land Rover in hot pursuit.

Ostriches

“Have you ever been to Australia?”, I asked him.

“No, I have spent my whole life in Bolivia, except for a few recent trips to Utah and Arizona.” Bernardo had a quick wit about him.

“Take in this view and remember it”, I told him. “Because this is like being in the Outback of Australia!”

“I didn’t think I could see so much of the rest of the world within my own country,” he exclaimed.

Later, we finally approached the village of San Vincente. It was nothing like I had pictured it. We had climbed to an elevation of almost 14,000 feet, and the land was barren of any vegetation. The “village” was simply a silver mine consisting of a few long one-story buildings, surrounded by slag heaps of mine tailings. Very few people were present, presumably because most of them were underground at the time. Having seen the 1969 Movie starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman, I expected San Vincente to be more of a town. That movie was filmed in Mexico, and not Bolivia. There was no true town square as you would find in most Latin American towns. A cemetery was on the edge of town was the only thing that resembled other Latin American towns. So, that’s where we headed, to find the graves of Butch and Sundance.

“Downtown” San Vincente, Bolivia

A crude wall made of stones and dried mud surrounded the cemetery. Since the ground at this elevation was frozen most of the year and was difficult to dig into, everyone was buried in above-ground tombs. Burial practices included building small brick walls about two feet high and long enough to fit the body in, and then covering the tops with stone and placing crosses on top, made of either stone or iron. Very few graves had names on them. I walked around looking for any clues as to which ones might be the graves of Butch or Sundance.

Bernardo was having some “down time” outside of the walls of the cemetery. Since he was the only other person around, I went outside to ask him which ones belonged to the outlaws. He motioned to the large open sepulcher near the middle of the cemetery. It was the only open and uncovered grave-site. Bernardo explained that several years earlier, forensic anthropologists from the United States came down to do some DNA testing on the remains to see if it could possibly be that of Butch Cassidy, since there were unconfirmed rumors that the outlaws had been seen in Montana years after they were supposedly killed in Bolivia. DNA tests confirmed that the body was that of a man of Anglo-European descent, but the results were not 100% conclusive that it was Butch Cassidy. So, the legend continues, although most people believe that he was killed in the shootout in 1908 and these were his remains.

Looking for Butch with Christophe and Bernardo

I told Christophe and Hugo about my visits to Butch’s hideout in Wyoming, and how my friends back home went to many places associated with the Hole-in-the-Wall gang. Christophe took a picture of me sitting in Butch’s grave, which I would share with my friends back home to “one up them”. They had teased me about missing a trip to Robber’s Roost in Utah. I don’t think either of them will ever make a trip to Bolivia, so a picture in Butch’s grave should keep me ahead of the curve. Two years later, I would also pass by Butch and Sundance’s cabin in Cholila, Argentina.

Butch Cassidy’s grave

The sun is getting lower in the sky and the temperature is dropping fast. Bernardo rounds us up and we head out toward the village of San Antonio de Lipez, where we will spend the night. The town consists of a few ramshackle adobe brick one-story houses and one beautiful white washed church on the other side of the street. The Frenchmen decide to go down to visit the church and take some pictures of kids playing in the street, while I decided to take a stroll and climb the small hill behind the town. Delfina announces that dinner will be ready in half an hour, so I don’t go far.

San Antonio de Lipez

Almost immediately after beginning to walk, my heart is pounding. The lack of oxygen at this altitude is debilitating. I start to worry that I might not be able to climb the volcano we plan to hike in a few days. I pause to rest several times as I climb the minuscule hill behind the town. Once I make the top, I head back down, so as not to be late for dinner.

Delfina prepared a tasty soup and there is a hearty salad to go with it. We all agreed that this was a good first day and the group seems to be getting along well. As I turn out my headlamp at bedtime, I try not to dwell on the anxiety of climbing the volcano in a few days. I remind myself that where I am sleeping is already at a higher altitude than the top of Mt. Rainier, and a few more days at this altitude will help my oxygen-starved body acclimate to high elevations.

Suddenly, the sound of a cock crowing wakes us up. Bernardo is already up and about. We can hear the hiss of the stove and realize that Delfina will soon have hot water for coffee and tea. For breakfast, we will have Locro, a Bolivian soup, made up of meats, lentils, and quinoa. After my obligatory first cup of morning coffee, I switch to drinking coca leaf tea. Bernardo explains that drinking it will help alleviate “El Soroche” (altitude sickness). The coca leaf is part of the culture of the people who inhabit the Altiplano. Most chew the leaf, which has the effect of a mild stimulant, similar to drinking a cup of strong black coffee. Many people also use the leaf for tea, which besides alleviating El Soroche, combats hunger pangs as well. The taste is somewhat bitter, so the Frenchmen drink the tea with sugar and llama milk, while I take mine plain–the way I do with all of the coffees and teas I drink. If this works as well as Bernardo says it does, not only will I learn to like it, it just may help get me up the Licancabur Volcano in a few days. The local people have a saying about coca…”La hoja de la coca no es una droga”, which translates in English to “The LEAF of the coca is not a drug.” This saying hopes to combat the idea that chewing coca leaf is not the same as consuming cocaine. One should not equate them as being the same thing. How do you think that the popular soft drink “Coca Cola” got its name? The original recipe had coca leaf in it.

After breakfast, we head out through landscapes seemingly more and more desolate, with high, barren mountains rising on both sides of the road. The tops of these mountains approach twenty thousand feet above sea level. Bernardo turns to me and asks a question. “Mick, we’ve already been to Utah, Arizona, and Australia. What does this place look like to you?”

I gazed around and replied, “This looks like Bolivia to me!”

Twenty minutes later the road began to drop a bit in elevation. Just ahead, at a bend in the road lay the remains of a former town. As we stopped to explore this Ghost Town, the only remaining residents we found were Vizcacha; a strange Andean rodent. Imagine that if a rabbit, a squirrel and a chinchilla had a three-way, the offspring would resemble a Vizcacha. They have the face and ears of a rabbit, but have a long bushy tail. As we snapped a few pictures of the “town”, it seemed like the ghosts of the people who drowned in a freak flash flood decades ago were still wandering around this place.

Eerie Ghost Town on the Alitplano
A Vizcacha

Further down the road, Bernardo stopped at a small monument on the side of the road, which marked the road’s high elevation point. I took his picture next to the sign, which read 4,855 m.s.n.m (meters above sea level). That measurement equates to an elevation of 15,928 feet above sea level. This is about 1,500 feet higher than the tallest mountain in the lower 48 USA. It is also higher than Mount Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps. This elevation was a personal record for all of us, even though we would be attempting to climb nearly 4,000 feet higher in a few days.

Bernardo seemed uneasy being the subject of the picture, although he did let us take a picture of him. He positioned himself so that the brim of his baseball hat would keep his face in the shadows. Behind him, the thin line of the road seemed to go on forever; crossing dry salt lakes and traversing low, barren hills until it disappeared into the horizon.

” At this moment you are higher than anyone in my country”, I told Bernardo.

Bernardo sheepishly smiled. “All men are created equal. I am not above anyone else simply because of my elevation.” Bernardo was definitely not arrogant or self-absorbed. His statement revealed much about the humility of his character.

Bernardo at 15,928 feet above Sea Level
A Bolivian “Interstate Highway”

The dangerous climbs and steep roadside cliffs were now mostly behind us. We would spend the rest of the day covering huge distances to get us to the base of the Licancabur Volcano (elev. 5,960 meters—-19,668 feet), which we are scheduled to climb tomorrow. Licancabur means “People from Above”, in the old Atacama dialect. We would encounter many different sights during this long drive to the base of the volcano. all of us needed as many diversions as possibly to ward off the impending feeling of doom of climbing such a high mountain.

Later in the day, we stopped at a checkpoint marking the entrance to the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve. We got out to stretch our legs as Bernardo went inside to complete the obligatory paperwork and pay the park entrance fees. The national reserve, established in 1953, takes its name from a Bolivian War hero from the 1800s. This reserve is one of the most important biologically protected areas in the country. According to Conservation International, it is part of the Tropical Andes biodiversity region. This region extends from the highlands of Western Venezuela down the spine of the Andes Mountains through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Western Bolivia and into the northern reaches of Chile and Argentina. The variety of altitudes and slope aspects has led to the evolution of an amazing diversity of micro-habitats and species diversity. Conservation International lists the Tropical Andes region as one of the most diverse eco-regions on planet earth. What appeared to be lifeless and barren to us at first glance actually is home to 190 species of flora, and unique fauna which have adapted to the extreme living conditions in the region. The reserve is home to nearly 80 species of birds. Out of six species of flamingo that exist in the world, three of them are only found here, and they are found here in large numbers. The endangered vicuna and the Andean Cat also live here, but are found nowhere else on the planet.

Entrance to Eduardo Avaroa Andean Preserve

Bernardo whistles loudly for us to come back and get ready to ride again. He knows that we are feeling a bit cramped and that we still have a long ride ahead of us, so he does his best to keep our minds of the discomfort of the road (that’s what guides do). So, he asks us to solve a riddle.”

“Name something that is as big as God and as bad as the Devil”, he says. “Besides, rich people don’t want it and poor people already have it.”

We all brainstormed what would meet that criteria, but could not come up with an answer that would satisfy all of the clues.

“NOTHING”, is the answer, he said. “Poor people have nothing; Rich people don’t want nothing, and nothing is as big as God nor as bad as the devil.”

Bernardo’s tactic worked. Soon, we were all telling jokes or coming up with our own riddles. Again, it felt like a U.N. conference in the Land Rover, with riddles and jokes being discussed in three languages.

Even Delfina, who was normally quiet and shy except for the times she was fussing with Bernardo, participated in the conversation.

“I have a riddle for you that should be easy”, she said. “I bet you can’t remember what my name is.”

I played along. “Hmmmm, let me think. I know that it is something that swims in the sea”, I replied. “Is it Foca? (Seal)……..no wait a minute….how about Tiburon?(Shark)

Delfina smirked. Bernardo chuckled.

“Okay, don’t tell me…..I know…..it’s……it’s…….TRUCHA! (Trout)

Bernardo laughed so hard he had tears in his eye. “Trucha!, Trucha!”, he repeated. Delfina glared.

Not wanting this to end badly, I pleaded for one last guess. “How about Delfina?”

Delfina’s smile was as wide as if she resembled her namesake, the bottle-nosed dolphin. She just wanted to know that she was acknowledged.

We continued to share stories, riddles, personal histories, etc. and laughed at the missed translations, while we genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. The miles passed by easily….we were starting to become friends. A little while later, Bernardo pulled up to a small roadside shack, which lay adjacent to a pool of water.

It was a glorious hot spring! The waters were clear and only a few feet deep. The site had been enhanced by the building of a small retaining concrete wall at ground level. There was a small outlet on the opposite side of the pool from the source of the spring, which fanned out into a couple of rivulets. These rivulets, in turn, fed warm waters toward a small shallow lake about half a mile away from us. We could barely make out the outlines of pink flamingos sifting through the shallow waters of the distant lake. It was sort of an idyllic place where your troubles melted away and washed downhill into the desert flats. The hot water washed away the residue of our formerly dust-caked skin. Water in any desert is a precious resource. How much better is HOT water? It was hard to say which was better…..being submerged up to our necks in hot water, or standing up in the dry desert air and feeling the effects of evaporation through the recently opened pores of our skin. The experience was both cleaning and rejuvenating! Bernardo and Delfina patiently waited for us on the sidelines. We invited them in, but they declined.

We could have stayed there for the duration of the trip and been satisfied, but we had a “schedule” to keep. Bernardo, playing the role of adult in the family, had to round up the “kids” and move on. It was getting later in the afternoon.

A Jewel in the Altiplano

Reluctantly, we climbed back into the dusty Land Rover and continued on the journey. Another short stop down the road gave us views of more flamingos in small ponds. Another stop was near the “Dali Desert”, as the appropriately named surreal landscape where differential erosion of the landscape left behind a series of “Sculptures” behind. The more resistant rock stood up above the sand, which was the less resistant already eroded material. Coming here late in the afternoon only enhanced the surrealism of the landscape, as the shadows of the rock outcrops created an “Artful” scene.

El Desierto de Dali en el fondo

A few minutes after our photo stop at the Dali Desert, a huge conical shaped mountain came into view toward the horizon. Even though it was further away than the high mountains around us, it still seemed to tower over the others. It got very quiet in the vehicle. In a moment, Bernardo would confirm what we all feared to be true.

“There is Licancabur”, he said. “Tomorrow, you will be on top of that mountain. I secretly hoped that I would, but had some lingering doubts. I think the Frenchmen did too.

Volcan Licancabur in the distance…..19,668′

The climb we did the next day is a story in itself. It was exhilarating, excruciating, ethereal, exhausting, expeditionary, exotic….all of the superlatives (both positive and negative) wrapped up in one experience. However, that is another story to be told on another day. This story is about Bernardo.

Bernardo said that he would like to climb the mountain someday, but that he had work to do on the vehicle and that he needed some rest before driving again, so he stayed behind. He was there, faithfully, at the trail-head, waving to us as we descended toward him.

“How was your day?,” I asked him. “I hope you haven’t spent the whole day working.”

“Well, after I did a full inspection of the vehicle, I wrote down all of the English words that you taught me, and I’ve been practicing,” he replied.

I switched to English and addressed him. “Well, how’s that been working for you? Are you ready for a conversation in English?”, I asked him.

Bernardo stood there speechless. The few moments of silence seemed like it was much longer. Finally, he replied in his native tongue. ” I guess I will need to know more than just the names of things before I can talk English. Will you help me write down phrases in my notebook?”

“Of course I will. However, let’s do it after dinner and not while we are driving. Then, I’ll help you learn English phrases.”

After packing our stuff into the Land Rover, Bernardo hit the road with reckless abandon. We were speeding across the dirt roads of the Altiplano, heading in a northerly direction. Now that I was getting to know him, I could visualize his thought processes. I saw his speeding as a method for us to arrive earlier, so that he could get more time with me to study English.

Bernardo meets us at Laguna Verde……Licancabur in the fondo (background)
The Road North

Later, Bernardo pulled off the main road and headed down a rutted path. “Where are you taking us?”, I asked.

“I’m going to show you the Geyser Basin”, he replied.

“Bernardo, do you want to know what the English word is for Geiser?”

“Don’t tell me, it’s probably Geiser too”, he replied.

“Actually, it is. We just spell it differently. We spell it G-E-Y-S-E-R”

“I didn’t know that is was an English word. Lot’s of our words are similar”, he noted.

“Actually it isn’t an English word. It is a word that comes from the Islenska language, the language of the country of Iceland. As a matter of fact, there was no word in English for this geological phenomenon, because geysers are very rare. There weren’t any geysers in lands that the English settled. Then, as Americans were moving westward, they came across the largest basin of geothermal activity in the world, in the present day state of Wyoming. Today, the United States made the area a National Park- it’s called Yellowstone National Park. When the first explorers saw fountains of hot water and steam shooting up in the air, they did not know what to call them. When they reported what they had found, it sounded like a similar place in Iceland, which had these phenomenon located near the town of Geysir. Therefore, the English language pilfered an Icelandic word and brought it into their own language.

“Now I can add Wyoming and Iceland to the places I’ve been to”, joked Bernardo. “Also, when I get home, I can tell my family I can speak in two new languages!”

Late that afternoon, we pulled into the “hotel”, a makeshift adobe walled structure with six filthy mattresses to each “room”, located near the shores of Laguna Colorada, a red-colored lake in the desert. After a meal and before we turned in for the night, Bernardo led us on a field trip down to the water’s edge, where flamingos were wading and feasting on brine shrimp. His explanation of the ecosystem showed that he had a bit of scientist in him. He continually impressed us with his knowledge.

When we got back to the “hotel”, Bernardo spoke. ” I know you all have had a long day climbing the mountain and traveling. I see that you are tired. We can wait until tomorrow night to continue our English lessons.” Here he was again putting the group’s needs before his own.

In fact, we all wondered in Bernardo did really ever get any sleep. He was always still awake when we went to bed and was always up by the time we woke up. He rarely ate with us, as he was always tending to some chore. Where did he get his energy?

Laguna Colorada
Flamingos at Laguna Colorada

Bernardo was also good at solving problems on the fly, which is essential when you are in remote places far from outside assistance. Once, when we were out on the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world, we came across another Land Rover. It was from another tour company and its hood was up. What a horrible place to be stranded! There was nothing but salt flats in all directions for at least 20 miles. Depending on which way you went, you might have to walk for close to 100 miles before reaching help.

The driver of the vehicle did not have a chain with him. Bernardo pulled out one long, rubber strap which was about 30 feet long.

The driver of the other vehicle lamented that the strap was too thin to pull that much weight and that it was pointless to try to use it.

With astonishing deftness and speed, Bernardo doubled over the strap a couple of times and then twisted the shortened strands and affixed them to the bumper of each vehicle. We then pulled that vehicle, with all of its passengers nearly 20 miles until we came to the next night’s hotel. It was a hotel made entirely of salt blocks. If Bolivia had a TV version of the show “MacGyver”, Bernardo would be the star of that show.

Bernardo MacGyver to the rescue!

Several groups from other companies were also staying at the salt hotel. Most of the drivers hung out together, away from their guests. Some were separated from their guests by either a language barrier or a social class barrier. Bernardo was the exception.

A Salt hotel
Walls, tables ,chairs and beds…..all made of salt blocks

In the commons room, Delfina and the other cooks served up tasty meals, while guests chatted with each other in German, English, French and Dutch. After dinner, Bernardo pulled out his notebook, as we stayed up late and worked on his English lessons. In the meantime, we discussed an eclectic assortment of topics; the etymology of words, physical geography, cross-cultural communication differences, and the world at large. I shared with him that I too, used to guide tourists through dangerous lands. We talked as peers and as friends. We shared stories of trips we had taken and memories of people we had met along the way.

I took Bernardo’s notebook and made three columns; one for Spanish, one for English and the other for the phonetic pronunciation of the words. This way, Bernardo would not have to worry as much about pronunciation by just trying to read the word. We filled up page after page of the phrases that he wanted to learn to communicate with his future guests. I wrote down some of the strange rules of English for him so he would understand the differences in the structure of the language (placement of adjectives before nouns in English). In between chatting among friends, we continued the lessons. We didn’t realize how long we had been there until we looked up and realized that everyone else had already gone to bed.

“Go sleep?”, Bernardo asked (in English, no less!)

“Si, tengo sueno”, I replied. (yes, I’m sleepy)

“Pues, hasta manana”, said Bernardo. (Well, until tomorrow then!)

I tiptoed down the hall of the salt hotel, hoping not to wake anyone. I went into the room where my four French roommates were already comfortably asleep. The air was extremely chilly. I pulled back the piles of heavy blankets (we’ll need them tonight!) and saw that my “mattress” was also made of blocks of salt. It seems that you put one blanket over the salt blocks to cushion the blow, and use the other pulled over you to keep you warm. As I fall asleep, I hope that Bernardo is not up too much longer continuing to study. If only every teacher could have such motivated students! I drifted off to sleep with visions of red lakes, flamingos, vizcachas, and the beautiful Andes.

We all awoke with a jolt. “Lezz Go!” someone was shouting at us. “Okay yous…..Lezz Go!”

Dorothee’s eyes opened wide in disbelief! The voice sounds like Bernardo’s but he was speaking to us in English! Were we still dreaming? Although Bernardo was outside of our door and out of view, I could picture him grinning about his shocking the tourists.

“We’ll be right there”, Dorothee replied in English. No answer.

We hurriedly packed our bags and got dressed while it was still dark. The sun was not jet up, but the sky was getting light in the East. Bernardo was already outside tying up the gear on the roof of the Land Rover. He explained (in Spanish now) that we’d have to hurry to catch sunrise out on the Salar, which would be the best time to take pictures.

Bernardo perched himself up on the roof as we handed our gear up to him so that he could safely secure it. I don’t know how he did it, but each night we would pull out our gear after a long, dusty drive in the desert, and our packs would be clean and relatively dirt-free. Racing against the rising sun, we packed in record time. Bernardo tied down the ropes faster than a cowboy could rope a steer at the rodeo. In record time, we sped out onto the Salar.

We stopped a few miles out onto the Salar. The top of the sun was about to peek its head over the horizon. We piled out of the car and lay face down on the frozen salt flat, in order to get an ant’s eye view of the rising sun and to watch our giant shadows stretch miles to the horizon once the sun came up.

It doesn’t look so flat from the Ant’s perspective
Morning has broken

It was fun to see our miles long shadows move on the Salar as we danced around. “You are all giants among men”, Bernardo joked. We danced, shadow-boxed and acted like children again, chuckling at seeing our huge shadows. Soon, the sun rose higher and our long shadows shrank like snowmen on a warm spring day.

Bernardo’s playful childlike side came out now.

“Give me your cameras. Now that the sun is higher, we can play a new game. I can create funny pictures, making you look either big or small.” We each handed him our cameras. For the next 45 minutes, Bernardo barked out directions on where we should position ourselves. On the Salar, there is nothing to give the viewer any depth perception, so by moving himself or others forward and backward, each person can take on a different size. A professional photographer shooting supermodels wouldn’t work any harder than Bernardo did, but I doubt that they had as much fun as he did. He chuckled every time he got the shot he wanted.

That’s one HUGE Puppy!
Some of us have big shoes to fill
Hurry and take the picture….these people are heavy!

Bernardo proved to be a gifted photographer, even though he was too poor to ever own his own camera. How many more surprises could he reveal to us, had we had unlimited time to spend with him? Like the peeling back of layers of an onion, he continually revealed something new with each layer pulled back.

Another special place he showed us was the Incahuasi island in the middle of the Salar. It was a biological island surrounded on all sides by the expanse of the salt flat. On the island, barrel cactus, which resembled Saguaro, rose all over the island. Vizcacha roamed here. How they got here and survive on this lonely outcrop, one can only imagine.

Incahuasi Island

On the way toward the town of Uyuni, we stopped at the edge of the Salar and saw men working in the sun piling up salt for export. They only make the equivalent of about $1 for a full day’s work. Talk about toiling in the Salt Mines!

Salt works at the edge of the Salar

On the way to Uyuni, we stopped by a little village with a half-constructed church made of what else?….Salt blocks! Outside was a llama tethered to a pole. We stopped for a brief rest and Dorothee wanted to pet the llama, but the animal was too skittish.

“Let me show you a trick”, Bernardo told her. “The llama is a coca addict.” He handed her a bag of coca leaves. “Keep the bag in your left pocket and pull them out slowly with your right hand and feed the llama. Just make sure you keep him out of your left pocket.”

Dorothee did as instructed. She and the llama became fast “friends” and she did not burn through her supply of coca too quickly either. We had adequate time to take photos of the encounter.

A church of Salt
Coca addicted llama

Parting ways after a bonding experience is always a difficult thing. Upon arrival at Uyuni, we checked into our last hotel and invited Bernardo out for drinks and a meal (our treat). Saying goodbye is not like saying “see you later”. We all lived thousands of miles away from each other. The likelihood of a reunion in the future was slim.

“Mick, the next time you come down to visit, you’ll have to bring your wife with you”, Bernardo said. He knew I usually travel to new places instead of visiting familiar ones when I had a chance to travel abroad.

I replied, “She doesn’t speak Spanish like I do, so you’d better be fluent in English by the time I come back. If not, I’ll have to bill you for translation services”, I joked.

“Not only will I have notebooks full of English phrases by the time your return, but I will be reading books in English by then. Also, I will get an Atlas and learn about the world, so that when someone from a far-away place comes on a trip with me, I can speak with them about their country.” I fully believed that not only was he capable of doing that, but that he would follow through, as best he could.

Even though we both secretly suspected that we would not see each other again in this lifetime, leaving the slight possibility open would give us a reason to better ourselves as individuals, so that we could be proud of one another when we saw each other again. Isn’t that what friends do for one another? An old proverb states, “as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”

Friends also are honest with each other. We did not want to part without anything left unsaid.

“Mick, I want to thank you for teaching me about the world and for spending time with me and helping me learn some English. Most of all I want to thank you for treating me as an equal human being. Most of my clients do not do that, even though most are nice people. I needed to tell you this in case you take too long to come back. I might not be working for Tupiza Tours by then.”

“Bernardo, I also want to thank you for all that you have shown me. You are truly a unique and amazing person. If I come back to Bolivia and see that you are no longer working for Tupiza Tours, then I will make sure I find you, wherever you might be. Bolivia is a special place, but even more so because you taught me so much about it. And, I made a special friend there too.”

As Bernardo drove away, we waved to one another for the last time. Although there were no streaks of tears running down anyone’s faces, I’m pretty sure that there were three eyes moist with emotion. I can personally account for two of them.

Since I met Bernardo, I am less apt to make snap judgments about other people. In addition, I think my French climbing partners would agree that our excursion with Bernardo changed the way we view the world and the people in it. Our first impressions of him were far wrong. Later in the trip, Hugo confided in me that the group was considering asking for a refund and cancellation of the trip when they first encountered Bernardo and Delfina arguing in the street at the beginning of the trip. By the end of the trip, we all agreed that it was one of the most memorable experiences of our lifetimes. Some of that had to do with the climb of Licancabur volcano; some had to do with the ethereal landscape of the Bolivian Altiplano. Most of all it was a factor of getting to know an extraordinary individual from another culture, and learning more about ourselves in the process.

3 thoughts on “Bernardo: Hombre de Bolivia

  1. What an incredible journey. I have traveled a bit myself and suddenly feel like I have yet to leave me home, except through your storytelling. Really fascinating. Bernardo reminds me of a few of the characters I have met along the way Mahoun who has run our primary field site in Indonesia for years, and then reflection on Mahoun leads be to so many others who have shared their experiences along the way, kept me safe, provoked me to push myself just a little bit further…. Sanyoto, at Prambanan in Central Java, Bambang navigating the train systems of Indonesia, Chen who sheparded me an my family around both the Great Wall of China and Red Square in Beijing, and 25 years ago with Entang , who is now a close friend taking me on a bus ride in Bandung to try one of his favorite foods, water buffalo brain. Your story has provoked, so many voices, stories and experiences resonating in my head, many from names I can no longer remember . . . Like Bernardo’s “trips” to the U.S., I feel I have now visited Bolivia through Bernardo, without needing to step out my front door.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bernardo was truly an exceptional person, as were those who he reminded you of. Maybe you should tell a story about one of them…I’ve never tasted Water Buffalo Brain…what was that like?
      Thanks for reading! I’m glad you got to take a vicarious trip to South America….

      Liked by 1 person

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