Thursday, November 15, 2007

Hola from Atacama, Chile

Courtyard where we stood and shook during the earthquake

Wednesday (Nov 14) - 12:40 exhausted from a 2.5 hour 6k walk. Suddenly there is a 40 second earthquake so strong we all came out of our quarters and felt like we were shimmying without moving our feet. One hundred miles north of Calama the earthquake measured 7.8 but we are a bit south of Calama. The windows rattled, drawers slid out, and Mother Earth danced a salsa . Since we have no TV here, I have no idea if it was major elsewhere - but then, there’s not much to fall or break in this remote desert enclave, except bottles in the bar. Rumors spread that one of the old volcanoes was shaking up. Now I can claim to have been on shaking ground in Johannesburg, in Tanganyika, in Jackson Hole, in San Francisco, in Montecito, and in Memphis. Surely more is to come.

In the beginning (Monday and Tuesday) traveling air machines arrived on time and so did my luggage. Best was discovering American Airlines has BEDS in it’s new business class so I stole a fraction of sleep on a stomach of one Frappaccino, hot nuts, peanut butter pretzels from Peggy, and some of my mother’s cheese straws. My first day’s limited exercise consisted in hauling long distances through airports, pacing at the gate, and crocheting radically and continually. The only negative was that my blackberry won’t pick up anything from Chile, land of lapis lazuli and alpacas, although I paid global rates every month to Verizon. Alas.

Santiago, the city of Allende, Pincochet, and CIA led revolutions, charged 100 dollars to get in and then on exit from the modern new airport (I remember the old one had only one cozy waiting room), one has to elbow through masses of taxi drivers demanding your patronage as you push them aside with your bags. Others hold up cards with names and groups. It took twenty minutes to find the person meeting me, a guide from Abercrombie and Kent.

She took me to one of the most fascinating museums I’ve been in - Museo del Arte Pre-Columbiano, which features important crafts from centuries prior to the birth of Christ, when civilizations thrived on the west coast of Latin America. Special was a Yugo, a carved stone from an Inca ball game where conflicts were resolved and losers had their heads extracted to be used as the ball in the game. (Was this the beginning of polo?) Having just been surrounded by women in gorgeous hats at the COGIC convention in downtown Memphis, I was amused by the statues of smiling women with huge headdresses decorated elaborately, I was told, so that the god above can see not only their beauty but the piercing and tatoos on the statues.

Foto: Statue in Main Square of Santiago

The Mapuches, (people of the earth) indigenous in Chile, were the most ferocious of Pre-Columbian tribes and also the most uncreative in their art forms. When they noticed the Spanish nailing crosses on the tombs of their dead, the Mapuches began a tradition of placing larger than life-size figures carved from wood on the tombs of Mapuche dead. These art works were as simple as a Michelangelo sculpture but with minimalist almost repetitive faces especially spiritual and moving. Representing the cult of Xipe Toltec was a large statue of a man wearing the flayed skin of a creature (it would usually be another man or woman but in this case it was a monkey - you could tell by the hands and feet.) Made me think of our flayed saints.

In this museum, there were even mummies, a tradition that began 2000 years before Egyptian mummification in which the soft parts of the body were removed and sticks and straw stuffed inside. They were buried in the Chilean desert and are still well preserved today. Amazing stuff. The most unusual display was a equipo inaico - an endless necklace (maybe 10 ft long) made of yarn and string and feathers, each string being about 16 inches long or longer. This was considered an important document which kept track of VIP births, of elections, of crops, etc. - the number of strings determined the number of years the necklace had been kept. Inca accountants read them periodically.

We ate lunch at a bar, typical of Chile, and also Uruguay and Argentina. Short men in black and white vests with black bow ties welcome us with great gusto as we agreed to a table. I was introduced to delicious Cherimoya juice (we called it castor apple in Tanganyika), also a typical Chilean dish of fish "planchada" (grilled). Best was the cheese empanada, nibbled with with pebre (hot sauce, not really hot.) (see foto)

Arriving at Calama is such an extreme environmental change that at first I doubted where I was. Flat. Nothing sticks up but a rim of volcanoes and Andes in the distance. It’s all shades of tan. It’s all rocks and dust. It’s miles and miles of cloudless sky bluer than a bird of paradise wing. After a two hour flight in a "no seat left plane," it was finding out (thank you Jesus) my bags made it from Memphis but also that there was another hour and a half haul by van to Explorer’s resort. I rode with a family from Italy. (This place is very international - mostly Spaniards, a few Americans, Norwegians, British, and Canadians.) But already Calama has developed a pollution problem from the copper and sulphur mines in operation. which fragrants and powders the air. That was a bummer.

Atacama, down low in a valley, is a unique place of shadow and color cast by an endless sun and leftover hills looking like soft folded won tons, salt flats and sleepy volcanoes harboring thermal pools. It is a tiny pueblo of one story adobe brick structures and an overload of red dust. Dust would be a common denominator here. The principal "calle" is only three blocks long and is named "Caracoles," (Snails.)
Explora at Atacama

Expora is one of many bases for eco-adventurers. It’s no taller than two stories (a limit in this little pueblo of Atacama). Like other resorts in this area, it's not visible until you get there and pass through the dry mud walls - red adobe brick - touched with some greenery and desert plants. The Explorer driver has to get permission to drive into the grounds (we had stopped briefly to take photos of the salt flats so were a trifle late) and everyone who greeted us is a fit young person who looks as if he/she had just climbed the Tetons or crossed the Sahara in tennis shoes.

From my room I have a tremendous views of the purple volcanic mountains and the local trees. A plate of homemade cookies awaited me with lots of bottles of water. Here you drink water continually, and are warned not to drink alcohol but to take it easy the first day to sign up for the easy walks, which are described by guides at 8 p.m. before dinner. (I dined on artichoke risotto and vegetable mille flores.)

Wednesday - I thought I had signed up for an easy walk. I guess anyone truly fit would call it that, but that doesn’t mean a flat cruise down some paved street or sidewalk. (No such thing here, it’s all pounded down volcanic ash.) After a 35 minute van ride, my group of five hiked up and down rocks and crevices and over streams and through thick cutting grasses for two and a half hours in the hot sun. It wasn’t a walk but a intense rock climbing adventure through Guatin, an out of order snaking canyon through which the Rio Puritama flows in the middle of the desert - you could call it an oasis -but it’s long and forever and a play with rocks and boulders that an unfit visitor wouldn’t undertake - but the guide told me I could do it (?) - I said let me carry my stick. I’m glad I did. It was also a cactus experience - if you are about to fall, don’t grab a plant, please, not the hedgehog-looking "Kumi" (or mother-in-law plant) nor the tall hairy mustard colored cactuses similiar to sequoias spiking tall like ten foot erect phallae. Most of these cactus have thick long roots and are over 100 years old and when the outer layer peels back the "wood" evident is coveted by indigenous people who use it for crafts. (Ideal for flower arrangers). Every living thing in this highest, driest desert in the world rises out of black lava rock, pink rock formed from volcanic ash, and scree as far as you can imagine. You walk on turquoise and other treasured stones everywhere, unpolished of course.
(right: mother-in-law plant)
There were doubtful (is that fearful) moments when I had to go forward because I knew it would be worse turning back. I had to draw up courage I didn’t know I had to complete this trek up a slope called Puritama which is at 11,574 feet - and so kept swigging water so I wouldn’t unfold into a blithering idiot with altitude sickness. (Just in bed sleeping, I am at 3500 metros - that’s many feet high) here. It’s even higher than Jackson Hole and much higher than Memphis. Having only arrived yesterday afternoon, I have been constantly warned, go slow. So YEA, Jim Williams, I acclimatized easily. And Kareem, my legs were spectacular. All those squats, lunges and step ups helped save my life. And Augie, I shook out some of the secrets of rock wall climbing you showed me.

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