Each year the UNC Asheville Study Abroad Office hosts an International Photo Contest where students, faculty and staff can submit photographs they have taken while abroad. Sharing their overseas experiences with the UNC Asheville community brings the world to Asheville and helps the larger community better relate to their experiences. Winning photos are displayed in Ramsey Library’s Blowers Gallery, and one photo is awarded the Chancellor’s Purchase Award. This year UNC Asheville senior Virginia Taylor received the Chancellor’s Purchase Award for her photo from her study abroad trip to Peru, Llama en los Andes. You’ll find Virginia’s story below, and you can hear all the stories behind the award-winning photographs from noon to 1 p.m. on Tuesday, April 9, 2019, in the Blowers Gallery.
Llama en los Andes
By Virginia Taylor ‘19
“Mira!” Pedro shouted from the front seat, pointing with one hand as his other expertly steered our van over a mountain of sand. We craned our necks to peer out the windows, just as an ostrich leapt over a nearby boulder and ran off into the desert, tail feathers shaking and neck bobbing wildly. We watched him make his way through the sweeps of sandstone until a sudden lurch of the van interrupted our focus.
“Lo siento!” Pedro called out, but didn’t slow down. Instead he revved the engine and sent our rickety green van flying over a flat plain of sand, turning up the radio in the process. Bruno Mars blared through the speakers, and we all settled back into our seats to continue the journey.
Nowhere in the study abroad description did it mention death-defying car rides, but in the four months I’d spent living in South America, holding on for dear life in the backseat of a rusty four-wheel drive seemed to be a regular activity. In this case I was flying through the Bolivian desert outside of Uyuni, strapped in the backseat with a woman from Mexico, a girl from New Jersey, and Bolivian-born man named Diego who happened to be living in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Small world.
It was spring break, and two of my companions from school and I had decided to venture out of the Peruvian Andes and into the Bolivian highlands for the week to see the Uyuni salt flats. We’d hopped on an overnight bus from Cusco to Uyuni, woke up in the eerie desert town, and the next thing we knew were flying through the desert with a guide named Pedro, whose only English word was “delicious.” He proudly used it at any given opportunity, thanking us profusely for the apples we’d brought to share. “Gracias amigos, delicioussss” he’d mused every time we stopped for snacks, lisping heavily through a mouthful of apple.
It was our third day winding through the desert in the green van, our first few days filled with desert stars and wild ostriches and boiling geysers spewing steam into the early-morning sky. We’d even spent a night in a hotel made entirely of salt, and although Pedro had warned us not to lick the walls I swore I saw Diego sneaking a quick taste. This morning, however, we were winding through the hills on our way to the Chilean border, bundled up in the backseat after a quick dip in a volcano-heated hot spring. This morning Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” was the song of choice, and Pedro happily sang along from the driver’s seat, clearly not understanding a single word.
An hour later our car skid to a stop outside of a small white house, not much more than four mud-brick walls in the middle of the desert. Our surroundings were striking: snowy mountain peaks towering over my head, a sparkling blue lake dotted with pink flamingos, and not a single other person in sight. To be alone in that way is a rare feeling in the world I knew back home, an impossible feeling at times.
As the others settled into the house for lunch, I took a quick walk by myself, armed with my camera, yellow journal, and a banana for company. I plopped down into a pile of sand by the lake, balancing my journal on my knees as I began to sketch with one hand, occasionally taking a bite of my banana with the other. My camera, momentarily forgotten, sat at my side, resting on a small desert shrub in a position that probably would have made my photography professor fail me indefinitely.
It was when I looked up from my journal for the final touches of my sketch that I saw him. Where he came from still remains a mystery to me, as the endless expanse of desert didn’t offer much room to hide, but there he was, a single white llama staring out at me sheepishly from one of the salt flats. We stared at each other for a moment, him seemingly unaffected by the majesty of the landscape surrounding him and more curious about what I was doing in it.
It was only then that I remembered the camera sitting beside me, and carefully put the strap around my neck as the llama continued to watch me quietly. I slowly moved closer to the bank, careful not to startle him as the sand crunched slightly under my feet. As I took the photo he perked his neck up slightly as if hamming it up for the camera.
“Mira amigos!” Pedro’s voice rang across the desert. “Llamas!”
As more llamas emerged from across the lake, the rest of my companions gathered beside me, snapping photos of their own. Even as more llamas joined him, my llama continued to stare out at me, his mouth opening and closing to reveal long, crooked teeth. He blinked his big eyes at me, then finally lowered his head to much on a mound of grass.
Before I knew it we were back in the van, speeding in the direction of the Atacama Desert. Our journey continued through the Chilean desert, up the Peruvian coast, and back into the winding highlands of the Andes, but of all the photos of unbelievable landscapes captured on the trip, my llama photo remained my favorite. Perhaps it was the unexpectedness of it, a photo captured not at a designated scenic viewpoint but instead at a random spot in the Bolivian desert. It was the appreciation of the beauty surrounding us at all moments, the realization that some of the most memorable instances come when you least expect them.
In fact, my study abroad trip was built of moments like these. While I marveled at Machu Picchu and posed for photos on the Uyuni salt flats, the moments that remain with me to this day took place in the backseats of rickety vans, in late nights drinking coca tea in mud-brick houses, in creating new friends despite languages or cultures or lifestyles. I’ll never forget that llama staring out at me, just like I’ll never be able to get Pedro’s voice singing, “My loneliness, is killing meeeee,” out of my head. Maybe that’s a good thing.