Monday, 7 April 2008

Clay reckons he got about three hours of sleep in before that wake-up call rang at 3:30am and we were up again, rubbing our eyes and stumbling around. Claudia met us downstairs and we made our way to the airport through dark, empty streets. Even though it was hard to get up that early, even though the only breakfast we got was a Dunkin Donut and the airplane snack of peanuts, a brownie, and a cookie, it was worth it to see the sunrise up in the clouds. As we took off, Santiago looked beautiful, like Christmas, all the streets lined with golden lights. It truly looked like an Incan city of gold. In perfect rows, a golden crop.

We continued to climb through darkness, the smallest bit of light illuminated the clouds. When we broke through the top of these clouds, I could see the tops of the Andes Mountains piercing through the clouds, like islands in the sky. Santiago was now very small beneath us, I could see it through holes in the clouds. I could see how it nestled in a ring of mountains, those mountains that kept it shrouded in pollution. It now looked like a golden lava flow. Okay, I’m done with the similes and metaphors. It was just so pretty, I leaned my tired head against the window, knowing I should sleep, but wanting to keep my eyes open to watch as the sun rose and turned everything golden. For a while it was a sky sandwich, white clouds on bottom and pink clouds on top with a sliver of blue sky in between. Okay, one more metaphor.

As the sun brightened up the sky and we continued north, we began to see the desert. It was amazing, barren hills stretching as far as you could see. Big, naked hills, some covered in sand and some in rock, but nothing green anywhere. We neared the city of Calama, where a tidy group of houses, painted all different colors, stood like a child’s building blocks. We landed at a small airport and were met by a guide from our hotel, his name is Gonzalo. He has shoulder-length gray hair and eyes that wrinkle from looking into the sun, and he has a soft and gentle voice I immediately liked.

Gonzalo told us those building block houses were a miner’s community, there is an enormous copper mine nearby. It is an open mine, not underground, and it is so huge that it can be seen from space, just like the Great Wall of China. It has been mined for over a hundred years and is still producing. As we drove to the town of San Pedro de Atacama, we passed a herd of wild American camels. I learned something new, I never realized that alpacas and llamas are actually camels. They are the two domesticated kinds of camels in this region, and they have two wild kinds as well. The camels we passed were grazing on scrubby little bushes, that is all they eat, and they get most of their water from them as well. There were a few babies among them, with huge brown eyes and pretty little faces.

In the distance we could see mountains with snow. The village of San Pedro is on a flat expanse at an altitude of 8,000 feet. Gonzalo warned us of altitude sickness and cautioned us to drink lots of water and take it easy our first few days here. That will be hard to do, there are so many excursions we want to take. We are saving some of the higher altitude ones, we’ll go to 13,800 feet on Thursday. The desert here is very different from the Sahara in Morocco. The sand is full of chunks of rock, mostly a layer of volcanic ash that has been heated and cooled until it broke into thousands of pieces. It does not look like a good place to run around barefoot.

We arrived at our hotel about an hour later, it is called Awasi and it is wonderful. We were met by the manager, Rodrigo, who was very welcoming and introduced us to the staff, offered us some lemonade with mint, and then showed us to our rooms where he offered us special herbal tea that can help with altitude sickness. He showed us the property, it is a small hotel with only eight rooms, we could be happy just spending all four and half of our days inside the adobe walls of this beautiful place.

While the kids played chess we planned out our days with Gonzalo, who will be our guide each day on excursions. Someone from the kitchen brought the kids a plate of cookies and sweets, along with fresh squeezed juice. Beautiful. The dining room is next to an open kitchen, it looks like a kitchen in someone’s home, so you can watch them cook your meal right there. This is a homey place that has paid a lot of attention to detail, we keep looking around and noticing things. The ladder leaning against the wall in our little courtyard was the perfect place to dry our underwear after a quick wash in the sink. Did I mention this is one of the driest places in the world? Those undies were dry less than two hours later, baking in the desert sun!

We decided to walk through the city of San Pedro in the morning, then try to nap, and do an excursion that afternoon to Moon Valley, a place that the guide said looks a little like the lunar landscape. We wandered into the town, down dusty dirt roads between adobe walls that cracked and peeled. It is a very small town, just one main road. Many of the doors were painted bright blue, shops were open across the front and you could see, in their shadows, people milling about. Nobody hassled us to buy their things, we could wander and look without being harassed. I remember in China, the rule was no eye contact, don’t look at anything for very long, and never touch it, unless you wanted to be hassled into buying it.

We went to a small museum, consisting of a collection put together by a local priest a long time ago who had an interest in archeology. There were a few bones, lots of stone tools and arrowheads, and some examples of textiles and things people had dug up in the desert. I enjoyed walking through the town more, we walked past an old church built with white adobe, a blue door and blue window frames, with a tall bell tower silhouetted against the blue sky. We found a café with picnic tables and feasted on a delicious lunch before going back to the hotel for a self-imposed nap. The kids were not happy about this, Clay and I divided and conquered. Alayna and I slept in the big king size bed, Clay went next door with the boys where they each took a twin bed, shut the blinds, and fell asleep. It was a good nap.

We met Gonzalo around 4 and drove to Moon Valley, which did indeed look like a lunar landscape, even more like a Mars landscape with the hot sun shining on the strange orange shapes of rock and sand everywhere. It seemed totally desolate, no plants or animals to be seen anywhere. We’re lucky to visit in autumn, the temperature is not bad, even in the middle of the day. In the summer, it can get to over 120 degrees. We stopped the car and climbed a tall sandy incline to reach the top of a dune and take in a sweeping view of the spectacular landscape. It was our first real experience with how the altitude would affect us, we were all huffing and puffing by the time we got to the top.

To one side was a beautiful sand dune, all smooth sand like the ones back in Morocco, and the kids were itching to take off their shoes and slide down, but Gonzalo said it was forbidden. The dune was being allowed to recover and reshape itself after too much traffic. But, as we crested the hill, we found a different sand dune on the other side. The kids were thrilled. They threw off their shoes and dropped down to wallow in the sand a while. They drew palm trees and baby feet with the heels of their hands, just like the camel driver back in Morocco had taught them. Then they rolled and tumbled down the dune. We followed with the shoes. About a quarter of the way down, I shed my shoes as well, and began to run in long, loping steps. I felt like superwoman as I soared down the dune, Clay had the same experience behind me. He was taking giant strides with a huge smile on his face. The kids looked like a little line of alpacas, clouds of dust coming up from behind them as they raced each other down.

We returned to the hotel where we were served the first of many fabulous meals. Nate was feeling a little crummy, his stomach was bothering him. We weren’t sure if it was the altitude or just plain being tired, he sure did exert himself on the sand dune earlier. Clay finished his meal and took Nate back to the room. We followed about twenty minutes later, and Nate was already fast asleep. I decided to sleep with Alayna and Nate, just in case Nate had to throw up in the middle of the night. Benji snuggled into our giant king size bed with Clay next door. It was a good day, we were good and tired.


Tuesday, 8 April 2008

This morning we met an interesting face in the street during breakfast. An older couple from Switzerland said hello, and the man, 86 years old, engaged Clay in a conversation. Maybe I should call it a monologue. He told Clay all the places they’d traveled, declaring that much of the US was boring, and they should know, they’ve traveled 87,000 miles across all 48 continental states. He gave him some financial advice, said the only place worth seeing in Texas was the panhandle (!), and he hated Germany and most Germans. Clay managed to extricate himself so he could eat his cereal before we met Gonzalo for our morning excursion. The kids were really curious about the guy, and Clay told them, “There are some people that you just sit back and listen to, and don’t try and talk.” Just another face in the street, his wife said he was in perfect health partly due to his diet. He eats no red meat or chicken, and lots of fish and soy. He was sharp as a tack, from his mind to his demeanor.

We met Gonzalo and took a fifteen mile bike ride to the Cejar Pond, actually three ponds with a very high salt content. It took a while to get everyone fitted with the right size bike, and we discovered there were no bikes that would fit Benji. It was probably for the best, with a fifteen mile ride over unpaved roads, so we decided he would ride on Clay’s bike. Benji got it into his head that he would be straddling the front tire, facing Clay, holding onto the handle bars from the front, and he was actually okay with this arrangement. He said something like “That will be good, because I can tell Daddy if there are any cars coming from behind.” I wasn’t sure what he was talking about until we actually got him seated on Clay’s bike, and he explained what he had been thinking.

What we did, worked just fine. Benji straddled the metal bar in front of Clay’s seat, held onto the handlebars, and kept his feet up high out of the way of the pedals. It worked even better when we wrapped a towel around the metal bar several times to give him a bit of a cushion. Clay looked a little bow legged from behind as he pedaled, adjusting his stance for Benji, but he said it wasn’t so hard. The first part of the ride was on a smooth road, made from salt, but then we went off-roading on a sandy road that the kids thought was awesome. Nate was constantly in search of jumps he could do, or paths he could take, that would send him skidding through thick sand and then back onto the trail. Alayna said it reminded her snow skiing, when we leave the trail for a while to ski through the thick powder on the sides. Benji would giggle and squeal with all the little bumps and skids Clay encountered. I tried to video and stay on my bike.

Two cars followed behind in case one of the kids got tired. One of the cars would take the bikes back and the other would take us back, so we only had to pedal one way. When we got to the pool we stripped off our clothes (we had swimsuits on underneath), slathered on some sunscreen, and hurried to the salt pond. The water was cold, Benji drew the short straw and had to go in first, but he only splashed in and came right back out. I was next, I took the plunge and turned onto my back, and experienced the most bizarre sensation. The water is so thick with salt, you cannot sink. I floated so far out of the water that half my legs were exposed. It was cold, but the sun warmed the parts of my skin that were showing so it wasn’t too bad.

I tried to put my feet straight down but the water wouldn’t let me, it forced my legs up. It kind of felt like sitting on a rubber ball in the swimming pool, where you’re forced to tilt one way or the other. Clay plunged in, then Alayna, then Nate, braving the cold just to experience the strangeness of it all. Clay looked hilarious, paddling himself around on his stomach without any effort, only using his hands because his back end was entirely suspended with no kicking necessary. Benji even hopped back in, paddling a bit and then hopping back out. He doesn’t have nearly enough body fat to keep himself warm in that kind of water.

None of us could stay in more than fifteen or twenty minutes, Gonzalo was ready and waiting with fresh water to splash on us to wash off the salt. The water had been sitting in the sun and it was nice and warm and felt wonderful. Once all of us were rinsed, the kids decided to check out the gooshy salt and mud puddles around the edges of the pond. Benji’s would sometimes sink to his knees, they had a thin layer of salt on top but when you stepped down your foot would sink into the smooshy stuff. Alayna said it felt like wading around in cake icing, the kind that gets hard and crusty but stays soft in the middle.

We finally drug them out so we could get back to the hotel in time for lunch, our first excursion of the day had been a total blast. After eating another amazing meal, asparagus soup and a beef filet with some sort of potato cake with white and red potatoes layered under a flaky crust. We had some time to rest and read that afternoon before our next big outing with Gonzalo, this time a hike in Kari Canyon.

We hiked for two hours, first along the edge of the canyon on a skinny little path, where one bad step would send you to the rocky bottom far, far below. I held Benji’s hand and tried to keep my eyes focused on the path. Once we were off the skinny path, Nate and Benji threw rocks down into the canyon, watching them break into little bits at the bottom. We came to a small dune and the kids took off their shoes to do a replay of the day before, running and rolling down. At the bottom, we put the shoes back on to continue the hike. We crossed an open area, and funneled into rocks where we could stretch out our arms and touch the rocks on either side. Most of the formations were made of salt, white and brown. With the brown, to know if it was salt, you had to just stick out your tongue and taste it, as Gonzalo demonstrated.

We had the giant canyon to ourselves, not a soul was in it but us. When we were quiet, we could hear the salt popping all around us as it cooled off from the heat of the day. It sounded like drizzle on a tin roof, like at any moment some huge slab of rock would break off and smash us to smithereens. It added an element of excitement to the excursion. We hunched over and walked through a small cave, we climbed up piles of broken rocks like mountain goats, we marveled at the strange formations all around us. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen.

We made it back for dinner, salted salmon with sautéed broad beans and creamy lemon sauce. Have I mentioned how much I love the food here? The hotel is split by a quiet street, on one side are the rooms and the other is the dining area, pool, outdoor fire pit, and living area. As we crossed the dark street to get to our rooms, we looked up into the inky black sky, pierced by thousands of stars. The desert is a quiet, beautiful place.


Wednesday, 9 April 2008

This morning we set out for an all day excursion. We took two pick-ups because the large car was already being used. Alayna and Clay rode with Gonzalo, the boys and I rode with a guide named Sergio, who played great Spanish music and helped me translate.

We stopped in a small town called Toconao at their square, to admire the ancient bell tower. It had a tiny door made from the wood of a cactus plant that grows in the Atacama Desert. Gonzalo told us the story of three mummies, found at the top of a volcano we could see in the distance. They discovered that these three kids, a girl and two boys, were children of a wealthy family from the Incan capital of Cuzco, and were sacrificed by the Incas to their gods. The mummies were so well preserved they still had skin and hair on them.

Archaeologists have determined that the kids were given something to make them sleepy, then left at the top of the volcano, where in the winter the temperature can plunge to 30 below zero. The dry air and freezing temperature killed the children that night, and eventually mummified their bodies. One of the kids they discovered was burned on half his body, they determined that he had been struck by lightning, long after he had died. It was a great story, I wish I could figure out a way to make it into a children’s book, but it doesn’t really have a happy ending . . .

We let the kids run a few races against the clock to get their energy out, then continued to an even tinier town of Talabre. On the way we passed a primary school where they had painted the rocks out front bright colors, I loved their creativity to make this barren place a little brighter.

Fewer than a hundred people live in Talabre, there are seven children who attend the city school. We drove outside the city to the edge of a gorge, where we began our hike. Gonzalo pointed out amazing petroglyphs, drawings carved into the stone face of the cliffs. Most were pictures of llamas, we also saw a hunter and a puma and some square masks. The drawings are from 2,000 to 5,000 years old, and there were no ropes or barriers to keep us from getting up close and putting our fingers in the lines carved so long ago.

I wondered about the ancient people who once lived here, hunting the wild camels for food, living with a sand floor at the foot of the gorge. Water once ran through the middle, we pointed out places where we thought they might have had houses. To think, even in a lifestyle where survival took most of the waking hours, these people found time to carve pictures in the rocks. For beauty? To mark their territory? Humans across the ages want to express themselves somehow, want to leave their mark in a place.

More than the petroglyphs, what the kids will remember about this hike are the bones. As we walked along the gorge, they kept finding bright white bones in the sand, hidden among the rocks. Benji renamed the gorge “Bone Valley”. They began to collect them, Benji being the primary Sherpa. They wrapped the bones in Alayna’s jacket and Benji carried his precious load just as carefully as a wise man, bearing his gifts to Jesus. I do wonder if that boy will become an archeologist someday, with his fascination for bones. They found vertebrae, femurs, jaws, a donkey hoof, and ribs. Nate found the jaw, including teeth, of a chululo, sort of like a mole. The collection grew as we continued, we kept having to tell the kids to “vamos”, we had a two hour hike to accomplish. Benji found one particularly interesting specimen, he was convinced it was a fossilized dinosaur egg.

We found one “fresh” goat lying across the path. It hadn’t entirely decayed, it was still covered in hair but a hole in its stomach revealed that all that was left was the rib cage. It was totally disgusting, the kids loved it. I spotted a small animal hiding up in the rocks, a viscacha, the only live animal we came across that afternoon. It was kind of like a rat, Gonzalo explained, I thought it had the face of a rabbit and the tail of a wallaby and was much cuter than a rat. It was about two feet tall, and could jump among the rocks amazingly fast.

Benji begged to be allowed to ship all their bones home, but we settled for arranging them at the end of the hike and taking a picture. He asked Gonzalo what he thought the “dinosaur” bone was, and after examining it, Gonzalo declared it was a melted piece of plastic. Benji was a little disappointed, but he got over it, and I breathed a sigh of relief that we wouldn’t be carting his precious dinosaur bone across South America.

We scaled the side of the gorge, using our hands to help us over the wall of tumbled down rocks, then got back in the cars and drove back to Talabre for lunch. Gonzalo asked permission from a farmer to set up our lunch in his small garden, watered through an aqueduct system that ran down from a spring in the mountains. A bathroom break had not been accounted for, which wasn’t a problem for the boys, who could just go to the nearest rock. After four hours of hydrating so I wouldn’t suffer from altitude sickness, I felt like I was going to pop, I asked Gonzalo if he had some Kleenexes or napkins, but he had none. So while he went into the small town of 100 citizens to knock on doors and find some paper product, we walked over to some llamas in a nearby corral. They were much bigger than I thought, and they all looked like they were about to spit. I kept my distance.

Gonzalo finally returned with the prettiest toilet paper I’ve ever seen, square napkins decorated with colorful flowers. I gratefully accepted a small stack, not even embarrassed anymore, I was so desperate. While he and the driver went off to set up a table and chairs and get the lunch set out, I set off to find a hidden spot. I was worried some farmer might come upon me, squatting in his garden, so I finally wove my way through some tall plants and found a spot hidden in the middle of these nice people’s garden. They won’t need to worry about irrigating for awhile. When I made my way back to everyone, Clay said I reminded him of our dog Molly, looking for the perfect place to pee. I never thought I’d be relieving myself in the middle of a stranger’s garden in Chile.

We had lunch in a small apple grove and we feasted on cheese and tomatoes and avocados and sautéed peppers and wine. It was a pretty, peaceful spot to take a breath and relax. Too soon we packed it up and headed to the foot of a nearby active volcano. The elevation was 12,600 feet, we’re working our way up, and nobody seemed to have any problems with it.

On the way, we stopped to peer over the edge of a cliff into a ravine, the former village of Talabre. We looked down at the ruins of the village, the outlines of stone corrals and empty houses, and speculated about why they moved. One reason could be that the animals ate all the surrounded vegetation. They could get water more easily at their present location, there was always a danger of falling rocks being in the ravine, and they were awfully close to that active volcano. I forbid the kids to get close to the edge, it was a straight drop off and a long, long way down. Back in the car, I talked to Sergio about that small village of less than a hundred people. What would happen to them? When the kids turned 12, they would go to San Pedro for school, staying with families or friends that live there. Most likely they’d move to a bigger city to find work, would Talabre disappear?

There wasn’t much to do once we reached the base of Lascar, the volcano, other than look at the wisps of smoke escaping the crater up top. The kids settled on the rocky sand to chisel away at stones, making arrowheads. Clay and I took turns throwing rocks at a target, guess who won. Benji practiced throwing rocks with Clay, Nate tried to chisel all the way through a large piece of pumice stone, and Alayna created a white arrowhead out of chalk rock with a hole in the middle “to attach to a rope”.  We decided it was time to “vamos” so we could get home and rest a while before dinner. Corn and chicken batter-filled cannelloni pasta with tomato and basil sauce, while the fire pops outside and we cozy up in our pillow-filled corner niche. Tomorrow, we see geysers. Gonzalo calls them “geezers”, and I picture us driving up to a group of grumpy old men in the desert. I can’t wait.


Thursday, 10 April 2008

It was cold at the geysers! We met Gonzalo at 5:45am so we could get to the geysers just as the sun was rising. We wore long pants, long sleeve shirts, our fleeces and our rain jackets, he warned us it would be cold. After a drowsy hour and a half drive through the early morning desert, dark except for a faint light blue behind the mountains where the sun was waiting for us, we arrived at the geysers. Gonzalo informed us it was 12 below zero (Celsius), and handed each of the kids a knit hat.

We shivered our way from geyser to geyser, staying on the marked path after reading the sign about dangerous boiling water just under the ground. They were much different than the one we saw back in New Zealand. For one thing, nobody was pouring soap into them to make them explode. There were maybe twenty of them, and they were mainly big piles of steam rising up into the morning air. When we got close, we could hear, and then see, the water bubbling up from the crust of the earth. The water never spurts more than four or five feet high, we never saw one bubble up higher than about three feet. What was impressive were the columns of steam, and the sound of that bubbling water. It sounded like it was sizzling in a frying pan, Gonzalo said people who have fallen have died from the burns, it’s so hot.

The kids were freezing, and I was reminded of China, when I shivered on the outside and the inside. After making our way around them all, we headed back to the car where we had a picnic breakfast. Avocado and ham sandwiches, ham and cheese sandwiches, some cookies and yogurt. Best of all, hot tea. Once the sun broke over the valley things warmed up considerably, Gonzalo wiped a section of the car clean on the back and told Benji to warm his hands on the warm metal. Smart guy, it worked! Eventually the kids all huddled up in the car, still a little cold, while we finished up breakfast and got on our way.

This time we could see where we were driving, we passed a marsh where coots (just like back home) and geese paddled around in sections that weren’t frozen over. Gonzalo said some morning they just have to wait until the sun hits it before they can get in and swim, the entire marsh freezes over. We also saw a viscacha, up in the rocks, it hopped three or four feet in one bound and hid behind a big rock. We also passed some vicuña, a wild camel that looks more like a deer with a shorter neck and smaller body than a camel.

We turned off the main road and entered what Gonzalo called a “highway”, mainly because it was very, very high. It was one of the scariest roads I’ve ever been on. It was very thin, just one lane, a very steep descent, and on one side a huge drop off to the rocky canyon below. On the other side of the car was a jagged rock wall, and the road itself was just made of crumbled boulders, some bigger than others. Our car rocked back and forth as we inched forward, rocking and rolling over the rocky road, praying we wouldn’t fall to our death.

At the bottom we were rewarded with three hot springs. What a difference the sun can make! We all changed out of our warm clothes and into swim suits, then hopped into the pools. The water was crystal clear, one pool had a waterfall, and except for flies that swarmed to naked skin and unidentified floating black and green bits, it was awesome. The kids found a bank of reeds with a small stream running through them into our pond, and they went exploring, pushing through the reeds and going as far as they could before the way was blocked. Clay and I lolled in the pool while the kids explored and played strange games where they each became parts of a boat and pushed each other around. Funny, nobody joined us in our pool . . .

After an hour or so, we dried off and headed back to the hotel. We washed some clothes in the sink, and after lunch, just an hour and a half later, they were all dry. The desert sun and dry air does wonders for drying clothes. Clay and I snagged a short nap, then we all took a walk into the city. Alayna and I were intent on finding some small dolls just like the ones the hotel used to decorate our plates each night at dinner, Benji wanted a stuffed llama, and Nate just wanted to buy something, his souvenir money burning a hole in his pocket. Clay was a real trooper, he tagged along while we examined each doll in the covered market, making sure we chose the perfect ones.

Clay went to the ATM while we went back, and when we came home he had a story to tell. As he ducked into the bank he saw a herd of sheep approaching. He punched the numbers as fast as he could, but just as he finished, he heard the sound of clicking hooves. He turned around to see the first of a couple of hundred sheep come trotting down the street, followed by a woman no taller than five feet, herding through the middle of town. He said she was dressed just like one of the dolls we bought in the market, she had a stick in her hand and she was smacking the sheep with it, keeping them moving. She had one hand over her mouth, to keep out the dust, and she seemed totally unperturbed by all the tourists that ran to get their cameras. Clay said he’s in a lot of tourists’ photos, following a few feet behind the woman as he made his way back to our hotel.

Tonight we’ll eat dinner, go to bed, and in the morning we’ll drive back to Calama to board a plane to Buenos Aires. We will miss the desert. The people are nice, there are times for naps, it is quiet, and everywhere you look you see something beautiful. We never traveled more than two hours from Awasi hotel, and we saw sand dunes, geysers, volcanoes, hot springs, petroglyphs, a salt lake, and there is so much more to see. I want to come back here. If you ever come to the Atacama Desert, stay at the Awasi, ask for Gonzalo, and bring me with you.