"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...