When The Driver reaches the shack on the Chile-Bolivia border at 0800, just as the sun creeps over the horizon, he is met by a wall of minivans. Each one is carrying a group of tourists who are waiting to get their stamps from the infamously grumpy guard.
He turns off the engine and gets to work setting up the breakfast included in the price the tourists have paid to visit Salar de Uyuni, a roughly 50km salt flat in Bolivia’s south-west corner. He is the driver, the caterer and the mechanic. The meal is simple: bread, cheese and ham with either coffee, tea or hot chocolate. He pools his breakfast together with the other drivers to make sure there is enough food.
Once the tourists have eaten, The Driver gets his group, bundles them into his 4×4 with the attitude and efficiency of a man who views his job as a job. He introduces himself as Max. It’s not his real name, most struggle pronouncing his real name, so he picked a simple English one. He’s 24, has two kids and has to get paid. Three days with people speaking strained Spanish isn’t too bad, even if he does have to put with their annoying tourist shit and bloggers doing yoga poses in an exotic location for the web hits.
“I like my job,” he says* with a smile. “I don’t like desks.” As he drives, he points out landmarks and Lagunas, waiting patiently as the tourists take pictures of the flamingos. At certain Lagunas he stops and lets the tourists wander free. This is when he sits back in his seat and relaxes.
The company call us, ask if we want work and off we go
A knock on the window jolts him up and he opens the passenger-side door. The travel company keeps the drivers in pairs in case of an emergency. Such an emergency has arrived. The other vehicle has broken down, something is wrong with its front axle. Max gets out his toolbox and scrambles under the 4×4 to take a look.
“The jeeps are not owned by the company. We own the jeeps and pay for their upkeep,” he says. “The company call us, ask if we want work and off we go.” He starts wrenching at something. The creaking metal isn’t comforting. Luckily, the tourists are still looking at the interesting volcanic rock formations. Max says he has never turned down a job because there isn’t “much to do” in Uyuni, the small town on the edge of the salt flat that is basically a one-night stop for tourists. “It means we need to fix them or go without work.
“The company gives us some money for the food, everything else comes from us,” he says. Later, the boot of his jeep will be turned into an improvised table covered in bread, jam and a maize cereal popular in South America. The other jeep is fixed and he rounds up the tourists with calls of “listo, listo, LISTO”. They set off to see more flamingos and landscapes that look they belong in a science fiction film.
This lot like Despacito
For his amusement, he has two dinosaur toys for perspective shots on the salar. He likes to stage them as if the dinosaurs are eating the tourists. “I love dinosaurs,” he says with a finality that settles the argument (as if there was one).
If you take the tour from Chile, you climb from 2500m to 5000m within the space of a couple of hours. This isn’t advised and some travellers come down with altitude sickness. At one stop, a sick tourist whose head is pounding returns to the jeep early and climbs into the back. “Gringo,” says Max. “Vente minutos!” The tourist is ruining his peace. It’s a cycle he repeats. “Some [tourists] are nice. This lot like Despacito.” Their fondness for the Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee song, pre-Bieber version, has endeared this group to him, but some aren’t so lucky. Whatever the group though, The Driver always checks the 4×4 and gets them to their next location.
*Editorial Note: The interview was done through an interpreter who spoke poor Spanish