We all got out of bed in record breaking time. We were practically already dressed as we slept!! At breakfast time, the drivers would listen to their radio, to find out whether the border crossing near the Laguna Verde was opened. No luck. So we drove nothwards again, but on the road more to the west, in the direction of Chile. Though the day's scenery was quite different from the previous one, I can still only describe it to be of more mountains, sky, rocks, lakes, llamas and flamingos. Despite the cold night, I was feeling much better (and even had the scary thought that I may well be a morning person!), and finally enjoyed the tour somewhat.
Seriously though, the landscape was stunningly beautiful, and it was hard to believe we were really driving through these amazing places. Early in the morning, as all the jeeps playfully took slightly different tracks and emerging on the same ones - we did another good deed. We rescued a sleeping bag, which fell off the roof of the jeep we had rescued the previous day. We were speeding across the Altiplano, a huge expanse of flatness, and it would not have felt like the four thousand metres above sea level that we were on, if the clouds weren't hanging so low to suggest it. It reminded me of the bus tour in La Paz, called "Touching the Sky" because of the altitude, and it really felt like we were so close to the sky we could touch it.
We stopped at the "Arbole de Pieda" (Tree of Rock), and the various groups spread themselves out to take photos of this natural formation, or of the desert rabbits (with rat tails) nibbling at some other rocks. It would be interesting to learn more about how they survive in such harsh environment! Us humans have some difficulties, I know! Afterwards we arrived at a few lakes (Laguna Cañapa, Laguna Hedionda, Laguna Ramaditas), where I finally caught up with some silly photos to remind me of the trip. We also entertained ourselves by looking out for the "Face in the Mountain", sighted pretty early on, the snow carving out a baby face waving its right hand. A little later, Maarten pointed out its white wispy moustache, and it was a baby no more. But a mad scientist greeting us. Duely looked around for list of equations scribbled in the snow on the mountain...
Our main point of the day was mainly driving, driving and more driving - towards our final destination. Everyone apart from Gaudi was going into Chile, and at an unmarked spot in the road, all the jeeps grouped together to re-organise their passengers. A Swiss couple took Gaudi's place, and we sadly said goodbye to our photographer friend. The drive to the border was uneventual, apart from some really bumpy bits over the wild mountainous terrain. In fact we didn't even realise we got to the border, until our driver got off, and came back a few minutes later to say we had arrived at the Bolivian immigration. Wasn't very official looking, but we had to part with 15 Bolivianos (US$2) to exit the country.
Then a short drive into No Man's Land, where I spent the longest time so far crossing from one country to another. Our Bolivian drivers cannot cross into Chile, and neither could their vehicles. Of course none of these were explained to us. We were waiting for a busload of tourists coming from the Chilean side - so that we could swap vehicles. We were expected there at about one (but were early - amazingly enough), and the other bus didn't arrive until about three. People started getting bored of reading their Lonely Planets, and those brave enough, went outside to face the wind. After about two hours, Louise decided to walk to the border to find out where our connecting bus was, whilst Sarah, Dan, Craig, Maarten and I helpfully took turns being the Shithead. Bravo to Louise who came back with two buses, and we were freed from our little cramped jeep.
As we changed cars (leaving lots of rubbish behind), I even managed to sell off my new fleece and got some shiny Chilean pesos! Good deal! Once sat on the bus, it did not move. Instead a shrilly voiced middle aged woman climbed on, and distributed us a plate and a fork, and slowly dished out our lunch. It was a painful sight to watch, as we were sure there must have been an easier way of giving us food. But she was having none of our suggestions, and we all eventually started on the cold rice, boiled egg, slices of tomatoes, a little piece of bread and lots of tomatoe sauce and mayo. It was ok for me, but the portion was shamefully small for everyone else, and there definitely wasn't enough to go around. Especially to a group of people who had last eaten at seven in the morning, and it was now pushing onto three thirty.
After lunch, we were able to continue the short distance to the Chilean border - flying a very small flag on a rather bent post. These guys love their country they do! (In fact, that weekend was Chile's National Day, and all the cars in town were flying two flags the same size as the one on the border!) We all queued up outside the office, and five minutes later, an official appeared and opened the door for us. His face said it all, "Why are you people waking me up from my nap?? Another busload of people had just past only half an hour earlier!!" I wasn't very happy when the custom official lazily ticked my tourist card to confirm that, yes, I have spelt my own name correctly, and then thoughtlessly placing a stamp in the front of my passport - right amongst the countries of Central America! Of course the Ecuadorians, upon my entry, believed that they, being in South America, is a totally different continent to the Central American ones - who managed to keep a good chronological stamping order throughout. Ecuador started a new series of stamps in the back. But at least Peru and Bolivia managed to follow suit. I was quite miffed over this trivial matter, and Mona (Hammersmith, London), who was next after me, told me that the now scared official ginergly asked her, if she would like her stamp in South America, and not with the Central American ones. But then, I guess with all the waiting in No-Man's Land, one would believe Chile was a country no-where near its Bolivian neighbour. Before clearing the immigration area, we all dreaded the thought that we would have to open all our bags for inspection, that no Bolivian diary, vegetable etc. products were being smuggled into Chile. Thankfully our new bus driver was skillful enough to obtain a piece of paper verifying that all the bags have been searched, without us leaving the comforts of our seats. Wicked!
Then there was about three hours drive to Calama. Got chatting to Mona a bit more, and found out that she had also gone to Esher College! Though eight years before me, we even shared Sandra, as our Art teacher! If Sandra hadn't already left Esher, it would be fun to send her a joint postcard (a Paddington one, of course) ! By now we have taken the fantastic scenery for granted, and we only stopped for a quick piccie of the firingly red sunset.
As the bus pulled into Calama (where most people decided to make their final destination for the day - and not continue onto San Pedro), we passed by a couple of shopping malls. How all our faces pressed to the window, exclaiming at the "Telepizza!!" Cinemas!! Shops!! More shopping malls! My, sights which haven't befallen my eyes for a few months!! And what a contrast after the desolote wild salar! Ah, all signs to help the transition home, I guess!! As we passed Falabella - the place where I had bought my camera, I decided I would spend the night in Calama, and get to San Pedro a day later. I hoped I would be able to get a replacement cable for my camera!
And so, about twenty minutes later, was wandering the streets of Calama, following Curtis, who led us to a hotel. And my! How steep was the price!! US$14 a night!! Fair enough, it was a single room, nicely furnished and even with a TV - but $14!!! Since there were so many of us, managed to negotiate to US$10, which was slightly easier to handle. Since there were so many of us (practically the whole bus was there), with only two showers (which couldn't be used at the same time), there was a lengthy queue.
Maarten was sensible enough to want to buy an onward bus ticket, and I thought I should find out what time buses were leaving for San Pedro too. On the way out, Joe from Australia joined us, and we terrorised the few bus agencies in town. As it was National holiday weekend, most of the buses were already fully booked, but we managed to secure seats for Maarten to Iquique (near Peru!), and Joe to Santiago. We were hungry, so detoured back into the centre for a bite a eat - and continued the good tradition of securing a sample of the local beer as a priority. The beer was easy enough to order, the food was slightly trickier. Unwittingly, we all tried to order the same things - in different ways and all with different results. By the time it was my turn, the cashier was losing patience (especailly since I ordered the Hot dog, without the dog)... I apologised that it was my first night in Chile, and I didn't understand the currency. It turned out it was her first night too, bless her. Anyway all turned out well, so we were all happy.