‘Tsak…’ the florescent lighting of the night sleeper blinked, turning darkness to light in a flash. Passengers started to stir, slowly looking around with squinted eyes, trying to make out where and when they were. As if small animals waking up from a hibernation that had lasted too long, their look was confused, their movement clumsy, their talking mumbled, yet to get back to their normal liveliness.
It was Boxing Day. The evening before, I had a piece of stale bread as my Christmas dinner, and departed from La Paz to board this overnight bus to Uyuni to see the famous salt flat.
I looked out through the window. Darkness still reigned. My watch told me the time was 4:30 a.m.. This struck the alarm in my sluggish brain. The bus was supposed to arrive at Uyuni at 6:00 a.m. The fact that the bus arrived 1.5 hours ahead of time was not entirely good news.
My blurry eyes once again peeped through the window. Our night sleeper had pulled up on one side of a street. Straight and wide as it was, the street lacked any character at all that it could just be anywhere. Shrouded by the colour of darkness, one-story no-frills brick houses lined the street side. It was hard to tell exactly if the houses were constructed for people to live in, or to do business, or both. Further ahead, rims of dim light from the streetlamps weakly lit up the stretch of plain-looking street, until infinite darkness.
I tried to move as slowly as I could when I got up from my seat, but I could not hang in there too long. The fact that I did not have anything to gather and pack compelled me to be the first few to get down from the bus.
Once my feet touched the pavement, all I could do was to stand by the side, pretending to be waiting for someone still on the bus.
I had to, because I had no plan for my accommodation for the night; or to be exact, I had some plan, but there was no chance it would turn out as I wished.
I had already noticed, back on the bus, that the scene I expected when the bus hit Uyuni did not fall into place. I had been told by fellow travelers, back in La Paz, that when the bus pulled up at the terminal of Uyuni, a boisterous crowd of local agents would have been waiting on the pavement, jamming around the bus door, arms waving frantically to beckon passengers to stay in the lodgings they worked for. It would be chaotic, they said, and I would need to push my way forward to follow one of those agents to leave the terminal to the place I chose to stay.
Now, right on the pavement, all that welcomed me was the arid, cold air, a sleepy town and gloomy darkness.
I had not the slightest idea where to go next, so I waited to see what everybody else would move. Flocks of passengers slowly descended the bus, taking pains to dig out their luggage from the messy pile in the compartment. Most of them came in groups, so it took some hassle for them to grab all their bags. And they seemed to be unusually at leisure. As they started to revive from sleep, they chatted and joked by the side of the bus. After a time that seemed long enough to me, they still did not seem to have any intention to move. Yet it was quite clear that they looked assured, not to be bothered by the unexpected early arrival at all. Apparently they knew where they would go. I felt left out, being the only one who looked concerned and confused.
By then, I saw a local lady standing not far from me, some kind of brochure in her hand. Would she happen to be an agent? My heart lightened up immediately. I walked to her and asked if she would have any place to recommend for lodging. She was helpful, but her answer was disappointing. She said that the receptions of all lodgings were closed at this early hour. But she took out one brochure from her hand, flipped its back to show a tiny sketchy map with just a few strokes outlining the streets, and pointed to an asterisk at the far end of a skimpy line. She said this hotel might have a reception that was open at this hour. She was expecting some passengers still on board, so this was all she could do for me. Lacking any sense of orientation of a town that was still new to me, I asked her to show me the way to go. She pointed right.
I decided to stop the aimless waiting. There would be no luck standing at the terminal. Without further thought, I set off to the right side of the street, as directed.
Right at the start, I already knew that I was anxious, as I was grabbing the map unnecessarily tight. I was not good at map-reading, even more so at night. Amidst the feeble lighting, I dug my head close to the map, my index finger moved on it correspondingly as I crossed each junction. I also counted out loud to myself: first, second, third, fourth, as I was worried that I would miss an intersection and got lost.
But for my counting and my own breathing, it was quietness all around. Ahead, the street pointed to further darkness. Except for the traffic lights at the street corners that blinked rhythmically in orchestration, and the moving silhouette of the two stray dogs afar, there was not a sign of life in front of me. I looked around, the houses were shabby and downcast. Looking back to where I came from, the bus was still there, but it was already too far away to fathom if there were still people hanging around. That did not matter, though. All I knew was that there would certainly be no help for me if anything dismal happened in the deeper darkness ahead.
A sudden panic hit me. ‘It is unwise to go on. Turn back, now!’ There was no other friend more trusty than my instinct when I travelled.
So I turned back, in a state of nervousness, scurried hastily to the bus stop.
Back in the terminal, people had almost dispersed. Only a few backpackers who were particularly slow in motion remained. I was not up for striking a conversation with anyone, but I decided that I could follow them to wherever they stayed, and to try my luck. Just at this time two male backpackers were ready to set out, and I pretended to be walking in the same way by coincidence, following them at a little distance behind.
They took the way perpendicular to the one I had trodden down fifteen minutes ago. They strode unhesitatingly, seeming to know exactly where they were going. Not long, I knew that they were right. Despite the street’s desertedness in the small hours, this side of the town appeared more central. The façade of the houses looked more like shops than homes.
By now, the sky had turned murkily bright, the first sign of dawn.
Walking further for five minutes, signs inscribing ‘Hotel’ or ‘Hostel’ began to be spotted frequently. Finally, the two guys stopped in front of one of the two-story houses.
They pushed the door, against which a hanging sign said: ‘Hostel Oro Blanco’.
I sneaked in after them through the corridor. A flight of wooden stairs came into view, and a small reception hid further back right next to the stairs. A guy stood behind the reception counter, looking a little weary. One of the backpackers flashed his phone with the online booking information. In no time, the reception guy gestured them to push through a door next to the reception, saying that they could stay in the dining room for as long as they liked until they felt ready to check in after noon.
It was my turn. The reception guy asked for my booking record.
‘I do not have any. Can I book and pay now?’
‘No. Today is full.’ He answered matter-of-factly.
‘Well then. Do you know any other place where I can stay?’
‘No. The whole Uyuni is full. Go to Hotel Avenida just across the street if you really want to try.’
So I crossed the street, knocked on the door of Hotel Avenida. A while later, an older guy opened the door, looking displeased. ‘Full!’, he said roughly, and slammed the door in my face.
I walked on the street up and down a little more, pondering my options. The day tour that I had booked to the Salt Flat started at 10:30 a.m. For the coming few hours, I could find a nook anywhere to kill the time without any safety issue, as it would soon be dawn, and I could find a restaurant when breakfast time came. But what about tonight? If I failed to find a bed somewhere, would there be a nook that was safe and warm enough for me to spend the night? I glanced around. No, there was no place on the street that looked safe to sleep for a night, and given the meagre supplies that I had brought with me, I stood no chance of surviving the dropping temperature by night in the open-air.
It became clear that there was just one last thing I could try to save myself from misery. I retraced my steps back to Hostel Oro Blanco.
I calmly walked close to the dining room door next to the reception, expecting to be stopped by the receptionist. I was prepared to pay a fee in exchange for a few hours’ rest there. But the receptionist was idly playing with his phone, not bothered at all to look up or to ask anything. So I went straight in, and asked the two backpackers for the wifi password to get access to the internet.
I typed ‘Uyuni’, and tried a few major booking websites. It was true. All the websites showed that no more room was available for the night. Just when I was about to give up, though, I tried as a last attempt the one website that I always detested for its poor customer service. And bingo! The website showed two properties which had rooms available in Uyuni. Wait! The first property listed was: ‘Hostel Oro Blanco’, the very place where I was sitting.
The website showed that Hostel Oro Blanco had two available rooms. I swiftly made online payment of the booking of a room, and felt relieved to have barely escaped a miserable night in the street of this sad-looking town situated on the verge of the barren salt flat. I should have been furious, for the receptionist had deceived me and denied me of a room. But now I was so overjoyed I did not care anymore. I secured a bed tonight without his help.
In the last golden hue of the falling sun, our 4×4 raced across the broad salt flat to the way back to town.
It was already 10:00 p.m. when I returned to Hostel Oro Blanco with my stinky outfit, caked with crumbs of salt here and there after running wild on the salt flat all day.
There was a new guy at the reception counter. Self-assuredly, I showed him my booking record.
‘I do not have your record here in my computer.’ He pushed his glasses slightly, adjusting the position as if he needed to see more clearly.
‘I have paid already, don’t you see?’ I felt something ominous looming over.
‘When did you do the booking?’
‘Ugh….this morning.’ I answered uneasily, seeing that a judgment not in my favour would be soon handed out.
‘It can’t be possible. All rooms have been booked up a few days ago, and we don’t have your booking record. This booking website always has some thing or other to go wrong. It is not the first time they showed rooms available when we had none.’
‘So, what can I do now?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe you just look around in town,’ he shrugged.
‘But people say everywhere in Uyuni was full tonight.’
‘That’s true. We have lots of people flooding in these few days. All full, no doubt.’
Hearing this, the anger fueling up inside me extinguished, replaced by a flush of amusement. If he knew that all places were sold out in the whole town, what was the point of his asking me to roam around in town in this late hour?
After rambling some parts of South America in a few solo trips, I had already managed to come up with a few ways that worked around most problems or tricky situations on the road. The time had come again to try out one of them – humbly asking for sympathy. This sounded simple, but this worked almost without fail, as South Americans were one of the most amicable and warm-hearted people I had ever known. Their generosity always amazed and moved me.
‘It is really late now. It won’t be possible for me to find any safe place outside. What good would it do for me to wander around in the quiet streets at this hour?’ I muttered worriedly.
‘What about this? I would be setting off again next morning at 3:00a.m. to watch sunrise on the salt flat. All I need is a safe place to stay for a few hours. Would there be a little cranny that I can sit or snuggle up until then? Anywhere will do.’
The guy thought for a while. ‘Yeah that will do. You can stay in the sofa of our dining room. Won’t be a problem. Stay as long as you like.’
Indeed, this was exactly what I was dreaming about when he told me the bad news about the failed booking. The sofa would be just what I needed tonight. I could not thank him enough.
Just when my body was about to limp on the battered sofa, the reception guy came in the dining room, a thick blanket in hand. He placed the blanket on the coffee table next to me, gently telling me that I could use the toilet in the dining room, and get as much hot drinks and snack from the counter as I liked. He even scribbled the wifi password to me and said I could use at will.
Now I was utterly touched. It was no obligation of him to be so kind to a stranger who had come uninvited and would leave in a few hours. My sofa was comfortable, my blanket warm, the place safe. I would have a few hours to catch some sleep before seeing the sun surface from the horizon of one of the most magical landscapes on Earth.
I was lucky.