On 1st August 2009 I stood on the salt flats of Uyuni; one of the driest places on earth.
I almost didn’t get there.
The Salar De Uyuni is in Southwest Bolivia, and formed millions of years ago when two prehistoric lakes dried out. A crusty metre-thick layer of salt now covers over 4086 square miles.
I woke up the previous day in Sucre, Bolivia’s constitutional capital.
Sucre isn’t too far from Uyuni by Bolivian standards, but it involves a 12-hour bus journey over largely unmade roads. I had to change buses half way in the mining city of Potosí.
I arrived at the bus terminal in Sucre six hours before my connecting bus. Sucre to Potosí is a popular journey. Women around the gates of the terminal were frantically selling bus tickets, trilling a high pitch “PotosíPotosíPotosí! Potosí ahora!”
I bought a ticket and embarked on a brisk walk to the apparently soon-to-depart bus. Bay four. As a rounded the corner the bus came in to sight. It was deserted, with no driver and the engine off.
I sat on the bus ready to go, watching the minutes pass. Bus departure times in Bolivia are arbitrary and subject to ticket sales, driver availability, wind direction and various other factors.
Eventually a driver turned up chewing coca leaves. A few other people wandered on board. “Vamos maestro!” Someone shouted. With a slow ‘chug chug chug’ the ancient engine spluttered into life. I glanced at my watch. Still plenty of time to make the connection.
As we pulled out of the terminal gates in the opposite direction to Potosi, tinny Bolivian pop music (sample) began to blare out from hidden speakers.
We didn’t leave Sucre for another hour and a half. Instead, we drove in circles around town collecting more passengers.
Buses in Bolivia stop anywhere for anyone, whatever they are carrying. Every mile or two we would stop in the Andean wilderness to pick up another woman carrying a HUGE sack of corn, five children and some chickens. Two minutes later she would want to get off, prompting a jovial cry of “esquina, a la esquina por favor!” (at the corner please).
There was no corner to stop at, but that doesn’t matter when you are the only passenger on the bus in a hurry.
After six hours of runaway chickens and Bolivian party music we pulled up in Potosi. The lit up outline of the Cerro Rico mountain dominated the dark skyline in the background. Needless to say, I had missed my connecting bus. No more Uyuni buses until tomorrow.
I thought briefly about cutting my losses and heading to a hostel. I knew a decent enough place to stay in Potosí, and a decent enough bar too.
No. I had a salt flat tour booked to leave tomorrow morning from Uyuni, and tomorrow was the only day I could do. Perhaps ever. It had to be tomorrow.
Many big cities in Bolivia have shared taxi services running between them. A few taxi drivers were standing near the bus terminal, trilling “Sucre! Sucre! Seis Bolivianos a Sucre!” If it cost six Bolivianos to get back to Sucre in a shared taxi, I wondered how much it would cost to get to Uyuni by myself. I went up and asked.
The question caused a brief silence among the taxi people. The woman in front of me looked at me questioningly. “Uyuni? Hoy?”
“Hoy.” I said. Today.
After a moment’s reflection, she came up with a number. “Mil quinientos”, she said. One thousand five hundred. 1500 Bolivianos is about £130, or $200.
If that sounds like a lot to you imagine how much it is in Bolivia.
I tried to bargain, but they weren’t moving. Fifteen hundred Bolivianos it was. I shoved my bag into the back of a taxi under the watchful eye of a suspicious looking taxi driver. We stopped at a cash machine, then set off.
The road from Potosi to Uyuni is barely a road. Huge craters litter the surface. At one point the car bonnet bounced so high I thought we had lost a wheel.
My overwhelming feeling as I sat there in the car was regret, intermingled with fear. Fear that I didn’t really know where I was going, and fear that I had decided to ride into a desert alone with two thirds of a typical Bolivian annual salary in my pocket.
At three in the morning we finally arrived at Uyuni. I paid my driver, and exited the car before he had finished counting the money.
Uyuni at night is unlit, bitterly cold, and stray dogs patrol the streets. I could hear dogs howling nearby. I scurried into the first hotel with lights on.
Was the quest worth it? I would say so. Uyuni is one of the most distinctive places I have ever been.
Today’s story plot was ‘the quest’. The key feature of the quest is it involves a physical journey to a faraway place.
On-route to that place there must be seemingly insurmountable challenges. Missing my connecting bus in Potosí should have been an insurmountable challenge to a rational human making sensible decisions.
A classic quest plot will also be littered with temptations – singing mermaids and so forth. I was tempted to give up in Potosí and head to the bar.
A quest plot will normally have a cast of comrades or helpers. In Lord of the Rings the helper characters were Sam, Merry and Pippin. If I was to rewrite my Bolivia bus story with a degree of creative licence I would add in a travelling companion for this role.
The role of the helper is always to counter-balance the weakness of the main character. When temptation calls it is the helper who saves the day and keeps the quest on track.
I struggled to think of a business example of the quest plot, which is why in the end I told you a personal story.
I think we should be clear about something. The stories you tell in your nurture emails don’t always have to be about business, or be directly about whatever it is you do.
You can tell personal stories, and the way to make a personal story relevant to your business message is to use a reconnect. I talk extensively about reconnects in my Nurture Email Mastery course.
The parameters of the quest plot are very clear. It must be a journey. The journey must be an ordeal. There should ideally be temptations and helpers.
I can think of one or two clients whose businesses are ideally suited to the quest plot. If your work involves going out regularly ‘into the field’ you might well end up telling a lot of quest stories.
If like me you spend most of your time in your office the quest plot is probably of more occasional use. When you do find a good quest story to tell I think it is an engaging, enduring plot.