Women of the Salt Flats, Part One: “When you see life like this . . .”

“Don’t look at the camera. No. No. No, put the hood back on. Now don’t move. I said, don’t move.” A camera with an intimidatingly long lens emits a clicking sound in rapid succession. Zau, a 33 year-old cooking school owner from Kazakhstan immediately looks into the viewfinder of her camera to assess the photo she’s just taken and nods silently in approval before moving on to photograph something else that has caught her eye. She has become our group’s designated photographer as we make our way across one of Bolivia’s largest tourist attractions and the world’s largest salt flat – the Salar de Uyuni.

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As our jeep navigates an imagery road over an endless field of white salt that seems to stretch into infinity, Zau tells us that this is a place she has wanted to visit for years. She is eager to photograph the part of the salt flat that is covered with a thin layer of water. As we continue driving deeper into the Salar the mountain on the distant horizon starts to play tricks with our eyes. The mountain looks as though its as weightless as a balloon hovering slightly above the Earth blatantly ignoring all the laws of physics and gravity. “We’re here! Can we stop? Can we get out and take pictures?” Zau’s dream is being realized, we have reached the part of the salt flat that is covered in water. Her excitement is infectious. As we tumble out of the jeep to take photos we’re greeted by an immense surreal and incredibly beautiful landscape. It’s as if we were standing on that thin line that separates the earth from the sky.

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While our driver steers the jeep towards a “salt hotel” on the edge of the Salar where we will spend our first night, Zau scans through the tiny thumbnails of the photos she’s taken making a mental note of which photos she’ll keep and which one’s she plans on deleting. She tilts the camera towards us showing us each our own portraits, a chance to see ourselves through her eyes. And much like her photos, which do very little to conceal or alter the reality of what she sees, Zau speaks candidly and voices her opinion without hesitation in a way that I found refreshing . . . though some might find a little too direct.

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Zau is the type of person who isn’t concerned with what other people think of her. She’s independent, strong, open, curious, kind, contemplative, interesting, determined, smart, insightful and creative. In short, she’s the type of person you would be lucky to call a friend. Over our 3 day/2 night tour of the salt flats I was incredibly blessed to learn about Zau, Kazakhstan, and some of her life experiences.

Here’s her story:

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Name: Zau Abisheva
Occupation: Owner of a Cooking School
Age: 33
From: Kazakhstan
Duration of trip: 18 days
Languages: Kazakh, Russian, English, French

Can you tell me why you wanted to come to South America? I started in Brazil. I always wanted to come to Brazil because in my childhood we had in the theatre, movies from this country and it was romantic and also I like nature. I just wanted to come here. I started to read about all the other countries and for me, it’s important to see the natural landmarks and there are plenty here in South America. And I like to go . . . people in our country they like to go Turkey, Egypt, to Thailand . . . you know . . . usual destinations. I like to discover new ones.

You’ve mentioned you wanted to visit the salt flats here in Bolivia for about five years. To be exact it was four or three years, yeah. So you’ve been thinking about this trip for a while? Yeah. I just saw the photos and wanted to go.

And how do you feel now that you’ve been there and completed a goal that you’ve had for a while? It wasn’t the ultimate goal, no. It was just one of the places that I wanted to see. What’s important for me, as well, is that this is my first trip like this. Because before, I had enough money to organize a trip with good hotels and was just laying down on the beach. So for me, it’s the first trip in my life that I’m traveling alone. My first week in Rio, I was traveling with friends and I was a little bit nervous and uncomfortable about how it would be. But I’ve read many travel reports that have said people travel alone and I wanted to . . . it was important to me for personally. So everything just came together . . . you know being an independent traveler without many comforts. Its the first time for me having nights in guesthouses without hot water. Because people in our country . . . with the Soviet Union collapse . . . people didn’t have a lot of comfort or money. And that’s why now they don’t seek extreme vacations or something like this. People want to go to Europe or America. They want nice hotels and all inclusive type places. For me that isn’t interesting.

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You mentioned seeing films about Brazil as a child and having romanticized visions of the country, how was your actual experience of being in Brazil? I don’t know why, but for me when I travel it’s not about “I like,” or “I don’t like.” You know? When someone asks me, “did you like the country?” I don’t know what to say because I don’t think the country can be liked or not, you know? Because it is as it is. For me, it was just important to see something different. Because you live in your small world and you have no clue what’s happening out in the world. As for Brazil, there was the bossa nova music and I love this music a lot. Salvador was exactly what I thought it would be. It was, how to do say . . . a little bit poor, but the culture and the music . . . you walk the street and everywhere people are dancing or playing drums or something. So, its like kinda what I thought Brazil would be like. Rio was nice with the sea, but it’s just a city. Brazil was a country where music is always playing . . .

Would you take another trip like this? Yeah, sure. It’s just the beginning. Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Venezuela, Ecuador . . . I am so addicted to traveling. It was a problem for me because I didn’t want to work or do anything but travel. Now, I understand after three days of these conditions and everything, that its good to travel for three or four weeks, but its also good to have a place to come back too. Where you have better living conditions, you appreciate home a lot.

What sort of things do you appreciate back home? You know, I have a very comfortable and good life in my city. I have all my friends there, nephews, nieces . . . I really like it. I also like that I made my project, my cooking school. It was from the very beginning an idea that now’s a very nice organization. So, I have a very good life there. I can afford anything . . . I’m not addicted to luxury, but if I wanted to go a restaurant or to spa days or something like that, I can afford to go. Because when you see life like this . . . you feel it.

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So you’ve said you’re a little bit addicted to traveling and like to discover new places . . . what else do you like about traveling? Traveling? I don’t know why but I love everything about traveling. Starting from the taxi to the airport. I love airports. You know traveling for me and discovering how life is . . . and the people. You know all people are different and when you see all this life around you and different people you understand that, me . . . my personality is not that important. Every time we are stressed or have conflicts, maybe some problems in a relationship we are so stressed that it seems like we are the most important person in life, but we’re not. When you compare your life to people, or see this nature you understand that it’s just nothing.

Have you found it difficult to travel by yourself as a single woman? You know in my country, Kazakhstan. It’s totally different that in Europe or the US. For example, men always help women – always try to make their lives easier, you know? You know open doors, carry heavy bags, and when you get used to this comfort . . . like here for example, you know it’s not the case. You know many people in my country would say I’m crazy to go to the middle of no-where when I could go to the Maldives and sit comfortably on a beach.

Has this trip taught anything about yourself that maybe you didn’t know before? You know this trip hasn’t led to any big discovery, no. I’ve always known that I could be in uncomfortable conditions. I can have simple food. Simple conditions. So, I just confirmed this. I’ve always known that I could do this, it was very logical and natural for me, this trip.

Can you tell me about your cooking school? You know cooking is a global trend. There are many popular tv shows and books about cooking. I had this idea when I had a cooking party at my house. I never cooked before, so I proposed to my friends to come and we would all cook together so that I wouldn’t have to spend the whole day cooking for them. So everybody came and we all cooked and had wine and after the party everyone was so happy and I understood that it would be cool to have a place where people could have parties like this. And its like traveling in the last twenty years for our people . . . they were so happy to go to restaurants because it was a sign that you had a good life and money and stuff like that. But already people are kind of feeling like . . . enough of this. They are seeking to have some warmer experiences you know? They invite friends to their houses to cook something special or maybe they invite chefs to cook for them, if they are rich enough. So I saw this trend and I had the idea. My idea in the very beginning was to create a place that wouldn’t be a restaurant and it wouldn’t be a school. It would be cozy like home, but at the same time it would be more elegant than home so that people would feel that they were going out. And the idea just worked from the very beginning because the market was ready for this.

Any regrets from this trip? Hmm, no. Not really everything was good.

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