Thursday, 9 June 2011

Geyseres de Tatio

"Draw the curtains," shouts the tour guide in her piercing yet not wholly grating voice "There's nothing to see for the next two hours." She obviously hasn't noticed the diamond encrusted velvet tapestry that stretches from the weak outline of the mountains to as far as the window will allow me to see. I have never seen such a clear night sky, where the stars seem so close and so detached from their usual, navy blue embedding. There are 2 hours left until sunrise, but the faint light has already begun to betray the mountain's cumbersome silhouette. M wants to sleep, his head is already bobbing so I shift 'Gustavo' (my trusty travel pillow) onto my shoulder and under his head so that he doesn't get a neck ache and I don't get cotched in the ear- both of which would make at least one of us grumpy. Poor fish, 4 a.m. is a cruel state of affairs under any circumstances.

I'm sleepy too. I only slept a couple of hours last night, the rest of the time I spent trembling in foetal position for fear of giant, desert spiders catching wind of my presence and coming to carry me off to their spidey, desert lairs and do me all manner of evil. The hostal owner promised me 'no spiders or your money back'. I didn't see how money would help once I was strung up in web and had had my innards digested...

Where was I? Oh yes, so I'm the only one awake, the lights have been dimmed so now I'm watching the night sky in all its dark, glistening glory. The guide and the driver had previously warned against leaning on the window, and they were right: as we plunge further upward into the 'región altiplana' frost begins to creep up the windowpane, both inside and out. I press my fingers lightly against one of the icy, floral frost-flakes and feel as the warmth of my skin sticks ever so slightly to the glass. Although I am surrounded by 24 odd sleeping backpackers, I feel like I am completely alone in the world. Just me and that night sky. What a lovely sensation it is! The gentle hum of the truck engine warms me from the feet upwards, and provides a soothing background noise to this utterly complete moment.

I must have fallen asleep. Many people are talking, or rather the tour guide is talking with the volume and fervour of a crowd of people. The door opens and Oh my God it's freezing! What madness! Why would anyone open the door to such temperatures? I draw back the curtain (that I don't remember drawing in the first place) and M informs me that we have arrived. I can't see much, at least not much for what we paid for the trip, a hill and some earthy looking ground, but M hands me the small packet of Coca leaves and instructs me to chew on them. He rattles out 3 minutes of instructions about toxic gas, altitude and coca leaves, of which my poor, sleep-deprived mind only absorbs half. I tell him that I don't know what he's talking about, to tell me when we get down off the bus. He agrees and we head out.

I step out of the bus and immediately understand M's insistence on me chewing Coca. I'm going to faint! I feel like there's an elephant sitting on my shoulders! My brain feels twice its size and I want to be sick. M shows me how to gather the coca into one small mass place it on my tongue. There it sits for a minute or so, it's bitter, smokey taste spreading across my mouth. After a minute, M instructs me to push the mass to the back of my teeth and chew, not swallow, extracting the coca juices which have helped ages of Andeans adapt to living at such high altitudes. It taste bitter and tea-like, but the only when the leaves break up into little pieces and get stuck on my teeth and tongue does it feel unpleasant. After 3 minutes or so my tongue and lower lip are numb, and I feel well enough to keep going. Because of the altitude, we are told to move as slowly as possible and not exert ourselves. With good reason; after walking about 5 meters I'm already out of breath!

Around the corner of the bus and we are in another world. The tour guide is prattling on about something to some Americans I overheard asking about Aztecs. I'm not sure if I admire or am wary of anyone with that much energy at high altitude at 6 a.m.. But what matter tour guides and their shortcomings when one finds oneself in such a prehistoric world as this. We are in a valley, or more likely a crater, surrounding by towering mountains casting their shadows and all of us into lugubriousness. To the east, a hint of a golden outline on the mountain top suggests that the sun will penetrate the crater soon enough. But that is not what seems so prehistoric: beneath my feet the ground is moving and warm, and what I thought was earth I see upon closer inspection is dried and dusty ash and what I assume is volcanic rock. Frozen streams of salt intertwine like lace across the ground, which at irregular intervals seems ruptured. From these ruptures, sometimes circular holes, sometimes straight-looking fault lines, bellows clouds of vapour and apparently 'toxic' gas. In a place like this, as big as this, one can truly visualise a herd of brontosaurus ambling comfortably about their dinosaur business.

We wander from geyser to geyser, mesmerised by how powerful the earth beneath us feels. The guide is scuttling from place to place, herding her tour away from the geysers and scolding the many who ignored her safety instructions and are taking pictures jumping over the scalding vapour or leaning into the ruptures. "Let them burn, then they'll learn' mutters M. He wasn't built for taking care of people, bless him. The sun comes out and it's a picture perfect moment as its rays are reflected and magnified by the vapour dancing in the air. With the arrival of the sun the geysers die down and I judge that it is safe enough to unwrap the first layer of scarfing that has been insulating my nose, lips and cheeks. The driver unloads a hearty breakfast, and my heart skips a beat, half for the food and half from the effort it takes for me to turn in his direction. Breakfast is delicious mugs of tea, coffee, coca tea or chocolate milk, bread with cheese and ham, homemade vanilla cake and an odd assortment of cookies and sweets. We help ourselves and perch on the small wall separating the geysers from the carparking area. The sun is warm and the chocolate milk is delicious. What bliss!

We pile back onto the bus to continue our journey to a few somewhat less interesting places. The main attraction was definitely the geysers. We stop at a little Atacameñan village called Machuca, Machuco, Mochuca, or something of the like. It is nestled between several hills, and although picturesque from a distance, we find onl 3 inhabitants and 5 more busloads of tourists. The inhabitants are ready with llama meat (which is deliciously soft and tasty) and an actual llama to pose with for photos at an exorbitant price. The tourists pour out, taking pictures of the people, trying to get into the village houses and leaving noise and wrappers wherever they go. After a while M and I decide we've seen all there is to see, and climb back on the bus for the journey home. Needless to say we both fall asleep fairly quickly and get in a good 3 hours doss before the green roadside sign welcomes us back with a fading 'Bienvenidos a San Pedro de Atacama'.

to be continued...

Northward bound

Nestled in the driest desert on earth, cradled between ranges of salt mountains and scattered oases is the very small town of San Pedro de Atacama. The town itself is very touristic, although having very little within its own, small perimeter to offer the avid deserteer (like a mountaineer but in the desert), it is pleasantly and conveniently situated within (relatively) easy reach of some of Chile's most spectacular, natural attractions.

I had planned to visit San Pedro since arriving in Chile, but given that, as I have mentioned before I think, my contract doesn't afford me the luxury of time-off, planning travel on weekends has proved no mean feat. I was told over and over again that even at a push one would need at least 5 days to enjoy the Atacama in all its glory, but I knew that I would only be able to wrangle 2 days off work at most, arranging swaps and cover for all my classes.

As it turns out, I managed, with the promise of youth, my undying love and confectionery to convince some colleagues to replace some of my classes, and made sure to make the job easier by leaving lesson plans and materials for each one. I booked flights and bought a backpack (yes, one of those awkward, twice-as-high-as-my-head, I'm-carrying-all-my-earthly-possessions-on-my-person fashion accessories) and prepared to head north. Tally ho!

M came with me, as incidentally he had been to Atacama when he was a kid, but didn't remember much. The tickets were also 2 for 1, so it worked out quite well. An added bonus I discovered is when travelling with an Archaeologist, you never have to pay for a guide book or (worse yet) a bubbly tour guide again! M knows everything about everything, and is a good travel buddy as well, albeit a bit disorganised!

In the end I managed to visit everything I wanted to in 2.5 days, without hurrying, mostly because the excursions all started at ungodly hours of the morning. Coming up: tales of my adventures in the Atacama desert, in no particular order or cohesion. Enjoy...

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

At the University

Walking about the humanities campus of the Universidad de Chile I am struck at how little it resembles my own humanities campus back in moderate, apathetic and politically correct Southampton. This place bears a general resemblance to University campuses world over: ripped jeans and 70's-band-Tshirt wearing youths scattered about on the grass chatting and smokingaway , books and backpacks neglected at their sides; the odd guitar player perched on a banister or gate; queues protruding out of buildings suggesting the presence of either an eatery or a bathroom.

The first thing that strikes me are the banners. Draped over every staircase, posted on every wall, doorway, notice-board and the back of every chair. Banners advertising Marches in protests of something or another, inviting Young Chile to join the political group that will eradicate such-and-such by standing up and defeating the beast of insert-capitalist-mechanism-here. Lefties, all over the place.

If one were not in the capacity to read spanish, one would not be at great loss, for the tendencies of these banners and (I assume) the people who put them there is undeniable. On every corner, every building, many notebooks and even on the pavement underfoot are red and black variations of every left-wing symbol you could imagine: red hammer black star; gold hammer and sickle and red star, red star and black sickle, gold star and red hammer and sickle; and all with an assortment of anagrams at the centre. As I begin the 15 minute walk to my classroom I make mental notes some of the symbols I come across to ask some of my more politicized Chilean friends about later. After a minute or so I give up. L.P.D, C.U.T, C.C.C. P.T.C,... There's only so much space in one's head at any one time!

Speaking to the friends I have made here, and some of the students at this University (The best in Chile and one of the best in Latin America), it's fascinating to see how multi-faceted political awareness and activism is here. On the one hand, yes, Latin American and Chilean youth are more politically aware and hands-on when it comes to their education and environment, taking to the streets at the mere hint of reform or policy that is not in their best interest. Yet getting to know these people individually, given that most of the friends I have made here are movers and shakers in their various political groups, there is also a strong element of community at play. Aligning oneself with a particular ideology, and with others who think the same way as you does not only offer a sense of acting in the name of social-justice, but also a sense of belonging, a collective righteousness. This could be why so many of the politically active in the country are under 30. I will not attempt to assess whether this is a good, bad, temporary or unhealthy state of affairs, just that it is the way it is.

The one thing I do know, is I would trade the social awareness and political conciousness of Santiago for the general apathy of the UK in a heartbeat!


Ok so a quick catch-up so that all ye my loyal followers (and the disloyal amongst you as well) are aware of the various changes that have occured in the last month:
1. I've moved house. Due to a major mixup with my housing allowance I couldn't afford to stay where I was, and am now sharing a flat with my friend M. It's working out great as neither of us are ever home so the only time we really spend together is travelling, which is always fun. He's an Archaeologist, and well-handy with a gps or an age-old piece of ceramic. Things were left nice and friendly with my other Chilean family, and I still see them every week or so, which is lovely.
2. Winter is here, and it's freezing.
3. I've been smote with a diverse and exotic cocktail of viruses and flues. Mostly over now. Gave me the always fashionable puffy-squinty eyed look and a deep husk to my voice. I sound like a 12 year old Bryan Adams.
4. Term has ended and the new term starts in 2 weeks. This does not mean holiday. This means two weeks of registration and paperwork, or at least in my case 1 week of paperwork and 1 week of travel, hopefully!
5. My phone got lost then subsequently stolen at work and I am now the proud (and often quite bewildered) owner of my very own Iphone. Yay!

So now you know...

Monday, 6 June 2011


I have been terribly lax. Terribly lax, quite sick and perversely busy, but that is no excuse. Time is a friend to none of us, least of all those who mismanage and misjudge it. I have also been a perfectionist, letting posts sit in my drafts folder because I feel that if I do not check them 10 times before posting them that they are not worth posting at all.

So here we go, some new posts, and some of the poor, neglected posts that have been sitting in my folder waiting for the day where they would, at last, be published...