Wednesday 16 May 2012

'Towards the Salt Flats' by Alan McMonagle

I was at a bus station in Sucre, Bolivia. It was early, already warm. Flies kept landing on my head. A smell of rotting meat was making my stomach lurch.
I wanted to buy a ticket to Uyuni, further south - gateway to the Salt Flats. I had read about the Salt Flats when I was very young. Seeing them would fulfil a childhood ambition.           
The only other person queuing for a ticket that morning was an old lady. As yet, no one was manning the ticket office. A stack of wicker coffins rested to one side of it. I was getting worried as my bus was due to depart.            
‘Don’t worry,’ the old lady said. ‘The bus isn’t going anywhere. Not until it is full.’           
I turned to her and thanked her. Then I turned around again. Sight of the empty coffins, however, was starting to unnerve me. And so, one more time, I turned around to face the old lady.           
She was wearing a black bowler hat and matching black poncho. Her face was the colour of leather, a network of dirty fissures scored into her from long life and too much sun. She reminded me of one of the ladies I had seen at Witches’ Market in La Paz. Sure enough, she confirmed my suspicion.            
‘I have a piece of ground on Calle Linares,’ she told me. ‘I sell sugar, reading glasses and iPods.’            ‘How much for an iPod?’ I asked her. ‘Mine was stolen last week.’           
‘They are not cheap,’ she conceded, ‘but my reading glasses are going for a song.’
We exchanged reasons for our being at the bus station on this hot morning. I explained my desire to see the Salt Flats, mentioned youthful reading, my discovery in a book of a twelve-hundred-mile expanse of solid salt. I wanted to see it, I told her. The old lady was travelling to Potosí, a mining town about halfway to Uyuni. She was going to a miner’s funeral, she said. It was her first time home in five years.
‘Did you know the miner?’ I asked her.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘He was my great grandson.’
‘How old was he?’ I asked next, the words were out of my mouth as soon as she’d mentioned her relationship to the dead miner.
‘He was twelve. His lamp stopped working and he lost his way. It must have been very dark when he died.’           
Two hours later we were sitting on the bus, waiting for the driver to fire up his engine and begin the journey south. In this time the old lady and I had swapped some more talk about La Paz, but eventually we had run out of things to say. Every so often one of the wicker coffins was loaded onto the bus.           
‘Who is going in those?’ I silently wondered, glancing from the coffins to the old lady, but she just smiled faintly, reluctant, this time, to supply a response to my unspoken concern.

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