Sunday, October 24, 2010

Easter Island Eclipse Trek - Day 5


July 8th, 2010
Everyone was bundled up for breakfast in the dining hall at our accommodations in Putre. Everyone, that is, except for bunk mate Jeff and me. While all our traveling companions and even the hotel staff were dressed for Arctic-like temperatures, Jeff and I wore only a t-shirt inside the eating area which was probably a cozy 40ºF/4ºC. Strangely, we were both comfortable even when we stepped outside in the breeze where the temps were even colder.

(Click on any image to enlarge)

The roads we were to be journeying on this particular day were too small for the regular charter bus to handle, so we transferred into 3 vans for the day. These vehicles had a small center aisle with rows of two seats on either side. A new local guide joined us, giving us one guide for each van: Evan, Raphael, and the new guide (whose name I cannot recall at the moment). As we were to be traveling in a fairly remote and rural area with no services for miles, our vans were in radio contact with one another to coordinate stops and keep an eye one one another. There was not room enough in the vans for us and our luggage, so the bags were sent ahead in a separate vehicle to our final destination for the day, Arica, Chile. We were introduced to a 4th guide, Evan (whom we took to calling Evan 2 or Evan Dos). He, like our bags, would not be traveling with us but instead would be waiting for us in Arica where we'd have dinner in his restaurant.

Our little caravan was not on the road for more than 10 minutes before we made a stop at a scenic overlook. This gave us a chance to get a glimpse of Putre and the valley region where we'd spent the night. This was to be the first of many stops throughout the long day's drive. The next place we came to was the rustic village of Socoroma. Here we got out on foot to walk through the region; the vans were too big to navigate the roads in town so they went around and met us on the far side.

We hiked down along a dirt road where the first thing we encountered on the outskirts of Socoroma was the village's cemetery. It was much more decorated than the cemeteries I've visited in the U.S.; it was almost festive. A short walk later was a large wooden arch which greets visitors. As we approached the village, we were reminded by our guides that the people were not part of the scenery, as it were. If we wanted to take pictures of them we must of course ask their permission. Not long after we told this there was an incident with one of the villagers.

One of my companions had stopped and was snapping photos of a home above her on a small hillside. A woman tending her crops on the hillside became upset and asked not to have her photo taken. Our new guide stepped in and translated. She politely reminded the photographer about asking permission. As it turns out, the local woman wasn't even in the picture. When our guide asked for her permission the woman refused. "Are you kidding?" she laughed and pretended to fix up her hair. "Then I'd have to go inside, wash my hair, put on some makeup..."

After Socoroma we made stops in the villages of Chapiquiña, Belen, and Ticnamar. Each of the villages were separated from the others by miles and miles of twisting, turning roads. And each was ensconced in its own little valley. One thing they all had in common was that each one had its own church. Some of these churches dated back to the 1800s. In the case of Ticnamar, the church had to be relocated from its original site due to a flood that had ravaged the region and destroyed the old one.

In Belen we stopped for lunch at the local elementary school. There they had set out a large spread for us of fresh sliced turkey and other sandwich fixings. And the local school children put on a dance for us. The dance involved two boys and two girls, dressed up as "adults". The boys wore trousers, vests, suit jackets, and fedoras. The girls wore bonnets, dresses, and aprons. When the music started they paired up. In the course of the dance they ended up swapping items of clothing so that by the end, they boys were dressed as girls and vice versa.

Besides the planned stops, we made a few unanticipated ones as well. One involved encountering Carabineros, the uniformed Chilean national police force. We had to pull over and stop at a station house. Here the guides got out and made sure we had permission to use the road in that area. Something was up because our guides looked pretty nervous about the whole situation but kept mum on the topic.

Another stop took place when a "birder" in our van shouted "Stop. Stop! STOP!" The second we came to a halt he jumped out the door to get pics of a large predatory bird sitting atop a power pole. Later in the afternoon a stop was made to check out other large birds of prey which were circling high overhead. Turns out we were witness to a rare sight - Andean Condors. Brief stops were also made to give us views of the Inca Trail, a centuries old footpath that could be seen cutting across the landscape and through the scrub brush.

After leaving the villages and valleys behind, the terrain quickly became more barren. We were headed into the heart of the Atacama desert, the driest in the world. There was little in the way of vegetation. The most notable plant in the region is the endangered Candelabra Cactus, which only grows within a certain Goldilocks range of altitude. The roads in this area were unpaved, bumpy, winding, and hellishly dusty. Late in the afternoon our van was headed west into a golden sunset. The light streaming in the front window highlighted the dust. It made the shadows of the driver and our guide in the front appear to stretch through the air into the middle of the van.

It seemed like forever before we left the hills behind and dropped in altitude to the floor of the desert. The first two vans had pulled ahead and disappeared from sight. Suddenly it was a few of us in our touring van in the middle of an ocean of sand. And just as we were coming out of the hills and dunes, we got a flat. Our guide radioed the others, but no one responded. We were alone, broken down, literally in the middle of nowhere with little water and just a few scraps of food. The van had "dualies", twin sets of tires in the back. It was the inside tire on one set of dualies that was blown out, making the repair that much more difficult.

The driver did the bulk of the work, though a few of the guys pitched in and gave a hand. While our driver was working the jack and removing the tires, the guys took turns working the crank to release the spare; it hadn't been used in ages so the compartment holding the spare was stuck and took great effort to break loose. Once set free, they made quick work of replacing it. All told, we were there for about 30 minutes. By the time they'd finished, our shadows were stretching out well behind us across the dusty road. We watched the sun sink below a low-lying bank of clouds on the horizon and soon the desert around us became engulfed in fog, the only precipitation that reaches the Atacama desert.

Sometime later we broke free of the fog. The sun had long since set and there was only fading twilight to see by. Up ahead in the distance we saw a few moving lights. Civilization in view! O! The joy! As we approached the Pan-American highway, two large objects loomed up ahead; a pair of tutelary figures rising up out of the desert sands. Before our guide could finish asking if we'd like to stop, everyone let out a resounding "No". It seems that the groups' patience had seen its breaking point and now all anyone wanted to do was get some dinner and get some sleep.

It didn't take long to get to Arica once we actually got on the Pan-American Highway. After being in such remote, wide open places, it felt very strange to be back in a crowded city with lots of traffic. The other vans arrived about 30 minutes ahead of us and some of them were still checking in at the hotel. They never did hear our driver radio to alert them to our situation. Once everyone was situated we bid adieu to our female-guide-with-no-name then clamored aboard a bus to have dinner at Evan Dos' restaurant. This meal would prove to be the beginning of a very contentious situation.

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Sunday, September 05, 2010

Easter Island Eclipse Trek - Day 4


July 7th, 2010
Yeah, we may have been on the road again, but we sure weren't singing about it like Hope and Crosby. In truth, Santiago was still two days away. It was Wednesday morning and we were up early. We knew that we had a long ride ahead of us. It was at least an 8 hour journey by bus to Putre, Chile, a former mining town turned tourist destination. The road ahead, while rather bleak looking on a highway map, gave us some unexpected surprises.

(Click on any image to enlarge)

The Altiplano, at an average of 12,300ft (3,750m) in altitude, is kind of like a transition zone between the Amazon rainforest to the east and the Atacama Desert of Chile to the southwest. It is where we'd be spending the majority of our day traveling. After leaving leaving Lake Titicaca and El Alto behind, the road opened up before us and lead across an often-times desolate place. There wasn't much in the way of greenery; it was July, winter in the southern hemisphere, so most everything was dry and brown. Only a few earthen homes dotted the landscape. The two things that were constant were the blue sky overhead and the snow-capped volcanoes.

After about 3 hours driving we made a pit stop at a gas station-cum-curiosity shop. Several people wandered off to a row of questionable little buildings that posed as restrooms. A few were made of corrugated tin siding. Others were made of stone. All were about 5x5 ft square. They reminded me of the 'hot box' in the Paul Newman classic, "Cool Hand Luke". And they looked like the kind of place that would be the perfect home to black widow spiders or psycho killers. Of course it cost money to use the facilities. About the equivalent of $1 USD per person. I think the owners pocketed the money 'cause it sure wasn't being used on up keep.

Inside the market were the typical roadside things you'd expect to find at a U.S. truck stop: postcards, stamps, t-shirts, drinks, snacks, etc. Inside the foyer was a curiosity cabinet. It housed numerous items. Most were jars which held dead lizards, snakes, spiders, etc. There were also things like animal skulls that wouldn't fit in the jars and sat alone on the shelves. But the best part was what was sitting atop the cabinet de curiosidades - an 'actual' Chupacabra skull! Well, that's what the label said. And having never seen a "goat sucker" for myself, I had to take their word for it.

The outside of the market was just as strangely decorated. We made a game of pointing out all the oddities we spotted. There were Halloween-type spider webs, giant rubber spiders, hooded masks from the "Scream" movies, and movie posters in the windows from Frankenstein and The Mummy, just to name a few. None of us knew quite what to make of it. It was all just so surreal.

The next stop was about 50 miles from nowhere. The terrain had become hillier and had more brush than previous areas. Here we encountered shepherds leading their flocks of sheep around. But that wasn't the main reason for our stop. We pulled over to get a closer look at earthen structures meant to house the dead. In a plain sort of way, they reminded me of Gaudi's Church of the Holy Family (Sagrada Familia) in Barcelona, Spain. Both the church and these mummy chambers gave me the eerie impression that they were growing out of the very earth around them. And they seemed to be everywhere you looked. (Earthen burial chambers in eastern Bolivia)

We didn't tarry there for long as people were getting antsy with hunger. As we climbed aboard the bus, there was a run-in with one of the local women. She was angry with one of the Dutch girls. As we pulled away the tiny, ancient woman picked up a potato-sized stone and tossed it at the bus; it struck the side with a dull thump and bounced off harmlessly. Later on I heard a third-hand account of what had transpired. I'm not certain of what actually happened, but my understanding is one of two things took place - the woman was angry because she thought the Dutch girl was taking her picture without permission OR she was angry because she wasn't paid for letting her picture be taken. In either case, our traveling companion insisted she never took the woman's picture. I wasn't sure what was happening when it transpired and from my seat in the back I took a picture out the window of the old woman in the center of the kerfuffle. She had a lot of character and the shot makes a great portrait, but after wrestling over it for some time, I've decided not to post the image.

It wasn't long after we re-boarded the bus that we were climbing back out again. Our stop: Stone City. There were no odd gas stations or creepy lavatories here. There wasn't a single man-made structure in sight. Stone City gets its name from the unusual rock clusters that fill the region. The way they stick up out of the ground and are bunched together gives them the appearance of buildings. This was where we had lunch, among the rocks and desert shrubs. The view was absolutely astounding to behold; immediately around us, the desert, and in the distance, Nevado Sajama, an extinct stratovolcano and the highest peak in all Bolivia.

Sitting atop rocks and boulders we dug into box lunches provided by the tour company. Each kit included 2 pieces of cold fried chicken, an apple, and little desert snacks. At this point in time little cliques had begun to form. The Dutch family pretty much did everything together, apart from the rest of the group. They were tight-knit and kept mostly to themselves. There was also a small family traveling together. They too had little to do with everyone else. The couples did this as well, but often interacted with the clique I was in: the solo travelers. There were 4 or 5 of us and by the end of Day 1 we had bonded. We had so much fun talking and laughing all the time that by and large we did everything together as a group from there on out. (Lunch in Bolivia with the volcano Nevado Sajama as a backdrop)

Alongside the highway at the entrance to Stone City was a very colorfully decorated stone marker. Sadly, this was one of many we'd see throughout our travels on the roads of Bolivia and Chile. It denoted the spot where a loved one had perished in an accident. Some of the ones we saw were merely little piles of stones with a cross atop it or even just a wooden cross pounded into the ground. Others were like this one, with flowers, feathers, beads, and other items attached.

Although the landscape was rather boring and barren, we did see some wildlife, including pink flamingos and vicuña, a wild camelid related to the llama. At one time the vicuña population had dwindled down to 6000 in 1974 and they were declared endangered. Their numbers have since swollen to 350,000. Even so, they are still protected to this day. They are quite nervous and flighty animals with highly sought after wool and will bolt away at the drop of a hat (literally), so seeing them in the wild is a rare treat. We were fortunate to see large herds of them two days in a row. (Wild vicuña at the foot of Nevado Sajama - click image to enlarge)

Hours had passed since we departed the Inca Utama Resort by Lake Titicaca and the group was getting as fidgety as vicuñas. We circumnavigated Nevado Sajama and another pair of volcanoes, then we left Bolivia behind and crossed over into Chile. This was an ordeal that took quite a bit of time and caused frayed nerves. Step 1) Get off the bus and march into a hot, hallway crowded with truck drivers also making the border crossing. Step 2) Wait for what seemed an interminable amount of time in said hallway while customs agents fiddled with papers. Step 3) March across the border on foot, dodging between tractor-trailer rigs and retrieve our bags from the bus. Step 4) Fill out more papers, then let uniformed officers rummage through OR scan our luggage (their choice).

It was here that I was stopped. Small items made of straw which I'd purchased on our first lake outing were being called into question. A reed boat about 6 inches in length was what caused much suspicion. Smaller items (including even smaller reed boats) were okay, but I was told the large one had to be left behind. They thought it might be used for smuggling cocaine in the hollow of its body. Since I hadn't declared it (it wasn't a fruit, vegetable, or wine so I didn't think I had to), I was pulled aside and perp-walked to a small office. I had to fill out the paperwork again, this time signing something that said I knowingly brought illegal products into the country. I was near the back of our group and almost everyone else had gone. I didn't know if anyone had seen me pulled away I was getting nervous that the moment I signed the paper I'd have cuffs slapped on my wrists, but they let me go with a warning. They didn't take anything lightly; I found out later that the reason they were so strict was they had made a HUGE drug bust just weeks before so they were on high alert.

By now it was late afternoon and we still had some driving ahead of us. Our bus pulled into the little mountain pass town of Putre around 7pm and the temperature had dropped considerably. We were told to brace ourselves as the nighttime low was expected to settle down around 5ºF (-15ºC). Putre is a former mining town that was reinventing itself as a tourist location. For as high in altitude as it was (11,400 ft/3500m above sea level), becoming a full-fledged tourist spot was still a lofty goal. Putre didn't seem to have much to offer in the way of things to see and do. The entire town was *maybe* half a mile across and boasted 3 hotels, a hospital, and a cemetery. That was about it.

The buildings which housed our rooms were simple rectangular dorm-like structures with about 8 rooms each. These were scattered about the terraced property and their numbering system had no apparent rhyme or reason to it. The rooms themselves were dark and dingy; I get the feeling that the cold kept any crawly critters away. A small electric space heater was our only source of warmth. Jeff and I kept ours on the Low setting, so by morning our room was probably a balmy 40ºF inside. Dinner was quite interesting. We assembled in the dining area of the main hotel building where they had placed several tables into a giant squared-off U-shape. Here, too, it was cold. You could see your breath indoors. It was chilly enough that even the locals who served us dinner were bundled up in hats, gloves, and heavy down jackets.

Like the dinners at Inca Utama, we had a choice of what we would like to dine on. Our choice that night: Chinese food. And there wasn't a variety of things to choose from, only the one item, doled out of a 20 gallon pot, a noodle/soup dish with chunks of meat. The meat being guanaco, a cousin of the vicuña and llama. The vegetarians in the group had to make do with any energy/snack bars they happened to bring along for hikes. Tom, one of our fellow trekkers said that that dinner in Putre was "one of the most Kafka-esque travel experiences" he'd ever had. There we were, in a remote village high in up in the mountains of Chile, having Chinese food for dinner in a former mining town. It was all very incongruous and funny, though I felt bad for the vegetarians who probably went to bed hungry that night.

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