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Train cemetery

Sunday, December 18th 2005

Uyuni is a dusty town surrounded by desert and salt plains in the middle of the Altiplano. There's not a whole lot to do there. My immediate problem was that it was a Saturday, all the banks were closed, and none of the cash machines would accept my card. For a while I thought I would be sleeping on the streets, but after much asking around I found one exchange place that would give me Bolivianos in exchange for my debit card and a fearsome 10 per cent commission. Money sorted, I checked into a hostel, ran up the two flights of stairs to my room, remembered that I was at 3500m above sea level and collapsed on to the bed wheezing, while everything turned purple and starry for a bit.

I hadn't wanted to spend any time in Uyuni, but the following day was the presidential election and for reasons I couldn't entirely understand, this meant that no long-distance buses were running. I bought a ticket to Potosí for the day afterwards, and spent the day of the election at the Cementerio de Trenes, Uyuni's one famous sight. It's an incredible place - about a mile out of town along the rusting railway tracks, a huge area covered by decaying trains. I walked to the Cementerio with a few other travellers I'd met, and as we started out the weather was hot and the sun fierce. In the distance we could see what looked like very heavy rain, which was slowly moving towards us. As it got closer we could see it was not rain but a sandstorm, and it was actually coming quite fast. We wondered whether we should head back to Uyuni, but I thought it would not reach us, because there was a warm wind blowing from behind us towards the storm. But even as I was saying the words, the warm wind suddenly dropped to nothing. A few seconds later, a strong cold wind came at us from the direction of the storm, and it was clear we'd be in it in a few minutes time.

We were closer to the trains than to Uyuni, and with the dust storm just a few metres away we decided to find some shelter in the trains. We rushed to an old carriage, got inside, and watched as the cementerio became an apocalyptic scene, with bits of debris flying about in a bizarre brown half-light. I'd never seen a dust storm before, and now I found myself right in the middle of one. After a while the wind dropped and we headed out to look around, but we had to take refuge again when it got stronger. Eventually the storm thinned out and we headed back to Uyuni, against the strong cold wind that was still blowing.

That evening, the town was lively as the election results came in, showing Evo Morales in a decisive lead. Evo would be the country's first indigenous president, and his victory was popular in Uyuni. The owners of my hotel were in a good mood when I chatted to them briefly, and on the streets of the town, brass bands were leading noisy parades. I was pleased to be here at this time, to feel the atmosphere of change and hope that was just part of a much wider Latin American shift to the left. A few weeks later, the elections in Chile saw a left-wing victory, and during the following year, six years after I'd been in Nicaragua during a campaign that saw them fail narrowly, the Sandinistas returned to power after 16 years in opposition.

As the bands played and the people partied, we went out for a meal in a busy restaurant. I tried llama, an essential Andean cultural experience, but it was extremely tough and didn't have much flavour. I chewed on the leathery meat watching the street parties, and decided that if I was going to try llama again, I'd probably want to pay just a little bit more for it than I had done.

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