Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Atacama Part I

I have been to a lot of incredible places and had many unforgettable experiences on this South American Adventure of mine, but all great things must come to an end and the end of my trip has finally come. But not before one last big adventure.

Mountain Carie will argue this point, having had probably the most moving experience of my life while out trekking at the end of the world in November and, in February, having fallen madly, desperately, incurably, heartbreakingly in love with Antarctica, but Science Carie thinks that I saved the best adventure for last.

I spent three weeks in the Atacama Desert. The Atacama Desert. THE Desert of deserts. A desert stretching 100,000-130,000 km2 (depending on how it's defined), about the size of the entire state of Virginia, across northern Chile, Argentina, and southern Peru.

Marsscape in the Atacama

Sandwiched between the glittering beaches of the Pacific Ocean and some of the tallest, baddest mountains on the planet. Long considered the driest place on Earth (the ice-free McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica are actually the driest, but I’m sort of reluctant to count anything in Antarctica as being on Earth). There are places in the Atacama where rain has never been recorded. And it’s been a desert for millions of years. The Atacama is peppered with active volcanoes, spewing geysers, immense salt flats, bizzare shallow lakes—some of the most extreme environments imaginable. It’s Mother Earth’s badass, mean, absolutely non-nurturing, stab-you-in-the-eye-socket-and-steal-your-lunch-money side.

It’s an astrobiologist's dream come true. It’s Mars on Earth.

It’s a place this geobiologist has dreamed of visiting ever since I first read a paper about how, although the soil in the direst parts of the Atacama are essentially sterile (unlike everywhere else on Earth) since life needs water and water is absent, there are cyanobacteria partying it up while buried inside salt crust fortresses which, because salt draws water, provides just the teeny amount of moisture sucked from the extremely low humidity in the air that lets life eek out an existence. Life living inside a salt crust. Because it’s more hospitable than the outside world. That, my friends, is badass.

Microbes chillin' in salt crust because, whatever, they like it there.

Getting there

Although technically I first entered the Atacama desert a month earlier en route to Peru, and was in her again while puking in the air over Nazca, I consider the start of this adventure to have been when I got off of a flight from Lima in the sketchy Peruvian border town of Tacna.

I had been dreading this part of my journey. Peru had me on edge ever since my welcome mugging in Lima. Up until Lima, I had led a largely charmed travel life, my experience reminding me that people everywhere are kindand nice and enjoy making human connections and are mostly to be trusted. That strangers are friends you haven’t met yet. My experiences with strangers in Peru were largely quite different. There were wonderful exceptions where I interacted with truly lovely, warm, interesting, good-hearted people. And I recognize that there are tragic reasons that things are the way they are in Peru. And I know my whole perception of the country and its people was soured by that first hour in Lima. But interacting with Peruvians felt like interacting with a bunch of ravenous thieves who would happily slit your throat in order to empty the contents of your pockets. It was stressful.

View from my hostel room in Lima

I still want to go back someday and give Peru a second chance, see more of some of the incredible landscapes there, eat more of the amazing food, and hopefully have more interactions with the Good People who I’m sure also inhabit the country. But this time a few weeks was enough. Being in Peru had me sleeping with one eye open and walking around with my hand on mypocket knife and it wore me out. So when I read warnings about how Tacna was a den of thieves and drug smugglers and that travelers should be on their guard at all times, I took the warnings seriously. And I wasn't thrilled that my travel plans for the day required:
  1. Getting a taxi from my hostel in a sketchy neighborhood in Lima (and horror stories about Lima taxi drivers abound) to the airport.
  2. A flight from Lima to Arequipa to Tacna (at least, I hoped, the flight would be reasonably safe? hopefully my neighbor isn't going to pick my pockets if I fall asleep?).
  3.  Getting a taxi (but don’t trust taxi drivers, who are liable to kidnap you) from the Tacna airport to the international bus terminal (a den of thieves, drug dealers, and other miscreants) on the other side of town.
  4. Finding a “collectivo” (= car full of strangers, hopefully ones who aren't thieves, drug-dealers, rapists, or others willing to slit your throat for a buck) ride across the Peruvian/Chilean border (entry point for narcotics smuggling, potentially dangerous), hopefully to the bus terminal in Arica, Chile.
  5. At the Arica bus terminal (bus terminals being, again, dens of thieves and drug dealers, with border-town bus terminals being the worst of the worst), hopefully getting a ticket for the overnight bus to San Pedro de Atacama, if not, I’d have to find a place to spend the night in Arica (and where?).
  6. If successful, entertaining myself in Arica, hopefully without getting mugged, until my 10pm bus departure (hanging around bus terminals late at night? Not safe).
  7. Taking an overnight bus (hopefully my busmates, again, aren't thieves or rapists) to San Pedro.
  8. Walking to my hostel, which does not show up on any maps and which I may or may not have a reservation for, in a town with no street names or addresses.

And as if all that wasn't enough, I woke up that morning running a high fever, with a splitting headache, horrible body aches, and a sinus cavity completely filled with mucus. I prayed for everything to please, please please please, go smoothly, and help me survive the next 26 hours, ideally with my luggage and virtue intact.

Miraculously, smoothly is exactly how everything went. My Lima hostel arranged a driver to the airport for me, and the pre-arranged price was fair and when he dropped me off he didn't demand anything extra (unlike how it works with every other taxi driver in the history of Peru). Check-in was painless. My closest neighbor on the flight was another young female tourist from Italy who was blissfully non-talkative, and we had a full empty seat between us. I was able to get a credential-carrying airport-licensed taxi driver to the Tacna bus terminal, again at a reasonable price, and he was friendly and gave me tips for how not to get taken advantage of at the bus terminal.

The Tacna bus terminal was a confusing shitshow and as soon as I arrived I was mobbed by hawkers of collectivo rides, all of whom seemed equally desperate and aggressive and sketchy, and was literally pulled around the terminal to pay various fines and fees that seemed questionable at best but I had no idea what the hell was going on. I ended up herded against my will and better judgment into a car with a rotund, handsy, and particularly aggressive Chilean driver.

Please, sir, I just want to go to San Pedro.

But it all worked out. He was completely crazy, but fun crazy. The nice older Chilean couple I was sandwiched between during the hour and a half ride across the border cracked jokes with me about how crazy the driver was while he loudly belted out one cheesy Peruvian love song after another between stops when he’d roll his window down and try to convince female pedestrians to come over and kiss him. The absolutely incredible part of these scenes was that they worked! Baldness, advanced age, and a shape approaching spherical must be to Chilean and Peruvian women what height, a rock-hard set of abs, and a shiny new Porsche is to women in the U.S.

Once safely delivered to the bus terminal in Arica, Chile (which, I’ll add, looked remarkably unshaken by the magnitude 8.2 earthquake that had hit Northern Chile just two weeks prior), I made a beeline for the Tur-Bus window to see about the availability of overnight bus tickets to San Pedro. I was in luck: there was one seat left, a window seat, which is what I always prefer. And there was a special deal going on so I got the seat for significantly less than the normal price.

Ticket in hand, I dropped my giant backpack off at luggage storage, walked across the street to a seedy but acceptable restaurant to get an early dinner. The way people smiled warmly at me when they walked into the restaurant made all of the stress I had been carrying start to melt off. I was back in Chile. Where people are nice to gringas. I managed to offend the hostess at the restaurant by not eating everything—I tried to explain that I was sick and my appetite was tiny, that the food was very good but I just couldn't eat all of it—but that is an unacceptable excuse in Chile. I had forgotten, back in Chile also meant needing to bring an appetite. But I think she forgave me by the time I left.

Back in the Arica bus station, it was every bit as sketchy as I had feared and I witnessed at least two drug deals, but my luggage was safely in storage and I had my bus ticket in hand. I sat down on a flight of stairs with my head in my hands and waited the final hours before my bus. I collected my bags at the last minute, hopped on the bus, and of all the miracles that day this was the best: my seatmate didn't show up. I had the row of seats to myself. Oh, blissful luxury! I sprawled out across the two seats and conked out. Slept like a champ the whole way to San Pedro.

I was gently woken up by a neighbor who alerted me that we were getting close, and wasn't it a pretty view! Then, once in San Pedro, a nice local woman offered to walk me the mile to the hostel, since it was close to her house. And when I arrived, the hostel hostess, who was sitting out in the dusty yard, greeted me by name. She had been expecting me. Apparently the reservation had gone through; she had just not had the internet connection to respond to my emails. I had a single room, set back away from the street toward the end of the long motel-like row of rooms set off of a dusty central yard strung with hammocks and buzzing with lazy flies. My little room, with mud brick walls painted white (except for one wall painted an oddly fitting shade of pastel orange), a rattan roof, linoleum floor, and a door that swam in its loose frame, a beat-up dresser missing a drawer, a ratty little nightstand, nails stuck as coat hooks into the cracks between the mud bricks, and a tiny little twin bed piled with a dozen thin blankets, all to myself. Relief washed over me like the rain the town was thirsty for. Finally, I could rest.

God bless Chile.

Cat, shredding the crap out of a pigeon it caught right outside my hostel room in San Pedro.

San Pedro de Atacama

Since I arrived with a fever and other trappings of the flu, I spent the first several days in San Pedro de Atacama resting, which consisted of sleeping anywhere from 9-12 hours, lying in bed doing python (the programming language) tutorials (yay! fun!), watching whatever TV or movies the ultra-slow internet connection at the hostel could manage to download, and occasionally walking the 10 minutes into town to get some food. I have so rarely rested on this trip that it felt glorious.

But I soon got antsy. I was in the Atacama desert after all, a place I had been dying to go for many years, and I was not content to sit in my hostel room and be a vegetable. So even though I was still a bit sick (but on the up and up!), I woke up one morning, made a PLAN (I am OCD about making PLANS), and then spent hours wandering around town trying to find the best deals for various activities.

My first order of business: the Tatio Geyser Field. This involved waking up at 3:45 am to catch a 4:00 am bus, which actually meant that I was so worried I was going to miss the bus (since, my phone having been stolen, I no longer had my normal alarm clock and was relying on my laptop to wake me which always makes me nervous) that I got up at 3 am and proceeded to wait for the bus until 4:50 am when it finally showed up. I am decidedly not a morning person, and require a minimum of 8 hours of sleep for full mental function (9 being closer to ideal), so needless to say I was a zombie: brain-dead, exceedingly grumpy, and hungry (but not for brains, having now actually tried brain, I consider it not a breakfast dish). I attempted to sleep during the hour and a half bus ride, and failed, but quickly started to wake up once we arrived and offloaded (and got some coffee and food in me) and I saw…

MICROBIAL MATS!! Wheeeeee!!!!

Me petting a nice, green, gooey, thermophilic mat.
Colorful thermophiles! <3

Not to mention the geysers spewing boiling arsenic-laden water everywhere. Unlike Yellowstone National Park (one of my favorite places on Earth, for many reasons), there were no boardwalks and eagle-eyed park rangers keeping people from crawling all over the geysers and dunking their hands in them (incredibly, nobody in our group fell through the crust and was boiled as tourist soup…something that unsurprisingly occasionally happens at Tatio), which meant that I got to pet all the microbial mats I wanted. I went from grumpy zombie to bubbly five year old within five minutes of arriving at what was essentially Disneyland for astrobiologists.

Once the sun rose (did I mention it was freezing? It was literally freezing. Cool to see the boiling water exit the geysers, flow downstream a bit, then freeze) and everyone snapped their tourist shots, I was reluctantly dragged away, but only because the guide promised me that if I liked bacteria, I’d love our next stop.

Beautiful steaming Tatio at sunrise

The Tatio geyserfield

Our next stop was a hot spring, full of things like brightly colored carotenoid-rich thermophiles and massive ropy streamers of greenish brown somethings and gooey slimy walls covered in, among other things, brilliant green cyanobacteria. And we got to swim in it. I had died and gone to heaven.

Swimming with the thermophiles
Colorful thermophilic phototrophs

The guide literally had to drag me away after that. Probably for the best, since my pale self wasn't holding up too well to the sun. The sun in the Atacama, especially at high altitudes like where we were (over 4300 meters = 14,100 feet) is no ordinary sun. The Atacama has been compared to the surface of the Earth prior to the development of an ozone layer 2.2 billion years ago due to the ultra-high UV flux that fries the Atacama because of its high latitude, extremely high altitude, and lack of cloud cover. Standing around in the high Atacama is like standing under a UV sterilizing lamp (not quite, but close…). Don’t tell my dermatologist I’m here, please.

I was exhausted from all of the day's excitement, but it was Easter, and I got talked into attending the Easter Saturday Night service (didn't know that was a thing) at San Pedro's historic church. Considering that I was raised in a Protestant family I have been to quite a few Catholic services in my life, but interestingly none of them in my native language, and this was no exception. The church was beautiful with its white adobe exterior and cactus wood ceiling, but the service was an exercise in endurance, beginning with a bonfire-side prayer at 10pm and going until shortly before 1am following lots of sitting-standing-sitting-standing, badly-sung hymns, a half-assed and rambling sermon, and the parading around of a shockingly campy plastic Overenthusiastic (considering he had just become zombified following his being nailed to a cross) Jesus. I thought the whole redeeming feature of Catholicism was their masterful pomp and ceremony and perfectly executed music, and this was a sort of disaster. It struck me how utterly non-spiritual the experience was for me when I've had so many beautiful spiritual experiences on this trip--all of them while outdoors and not around a crowd of halfheartedly worshiping humans. I thanked God when the whole thing was over and I could walk back to the hostel and sleep.

San Pedro's church

My next adventure was to go sandboarding. A group of about 20 of us met outside the office in town at 4pm, were handed boards, boots, and a bar of wax, and driven out to the sand dunes in the Valle de Muerte (Death Valley…and it looked quite a bit like California’s Death Valley). The handful of us who said yes to whether or not we had experience snowboarding in powder before were set loose without lessons to go hike the dunes, strap our boards on, and hit the sand. Having watched everyone who tried it quickly faceplant as I was first hiking up I expected to have a rough first few runs before getting the hang of it, but, except for having to wax the crap out of the board before every 10 second run, was very much like boarding in really wet, heavy snow. I quickly scoped out the one jump-like object on the dune, a big rock with a conveniently-placed sand ramp, and spent the rest of our time there amusing myself with that. After the first time I hit it, a guy approached me on my hike back up the dune and after complimenting me on my mad sandboarding skills, introduced himself as a mountain guide and asked  if I wanted to go get wine with him after he got back from his next volcano trip he was just leaving on. I perked up at “volcano trip”. The next guide asked me out to dinner. I was holding out for volcano trip.

Me, sandboarding.

Video of the whole group put together by the agency that took us out.
I'm in there at 3:04, 4:46, and 8:54.

Volcano trip didn't end up materializing (sorry dudes, no volcano, no date), but I did get to see more cool stuff. My next excursion, after a few more days of troubleshooting python, was a trip out to a series of hypersaline ponds (lagunas) in the Salar de Atacama, the large evaporitic basin rimmed by mountains at the edge of which San Pedro sits. The lagunas are fed in part by groundwater, in part by the little rain that sometimes falls in this, the driest non-polar desert. Although the swimming was fun (higher salt content than the Great Salt Lake, so even more floaty), the real highlight was scoping out some of the microbial mats and colonized gypsum crusts around the lagunas. One, Laguna Tebenquiche, had stromatolite-like gypsum domes colonized on the interior by a rainbow of photosynthetic organisms in the textbook orange-green-purple spectral stratification sequence. Living in salt, using it as a safe home in this terribly arid, high-radiation environment. As someone passionately in love with phototrophic bacteria and fascinated by extremophiles, it was the most beautiful thing Science Carie had ever seen. Another place where the guides had to drag me from the scene.

I later found the one paper that has been published on the endoliths I saw. Strangely, they claim to have found Bacteriochlorophyll e in the gypsum domes, which are only produced by the brown-colored green sulfur bacteria (my favorites), but green sulfur bacteria did not show up in their DNA sequences. Suspicious.

Desert crawler used to get to the Lagunas

Selfies on the Salar

Endoliths!!!! :-D Yay!

That night I went out to see the Atacama's legendary night skies on a tour with a Canadian astronomer who also had access to a bunch of nice telescopes that were pointed at Mars (if I squinted I could sort of imagine I could see the polar ice cap), Saturn with its rings, Jupiter with its layers and moons, and some star areas of interest. It was awesome.


My final Atacama excursion was sort of my spiritual goodbye to South America. I filled my backpack with water, some food, and my camping equipment, and wandered out into the desert. I had spent some time looking at Google Earth and talking to locals about the area and decided on where I wanted to go. My trip was cut short by a Calama-bound taxi driver who picked me up just as I was leaving town and gave me a free ride to where my planned path left the main road heading west a few miles out. He was really nice, and after he dropped me off I felt pleased that at least my Spanish had progressed enough in the eight months of travel that I could now have real conversations with the people I hitched rides with.

I surfed down a steep sand dune to get down from the plateau we had driven up to the desert floor below. At the bottom, the ground was a salt crust, and it made crunching sounds as I walked that reminded me of walking on ice-sheeted snow crusts, the sort of “whoompf” that makes my stomach auto-drop because it hails avalance conditions. Except instead of snow, which reforms over the course of seasons, this was rock, and while the occasional scant rain in the area no doubt re-dissolves and moves the salt around a bit each year, I realized that my footprints were not footprints in snow that would be gone with the next melt, and stepped carefully.

Salt. Salt salt salt.
Volcano and gypsum crusts.

I wound my way around a salty riverbed that crunched underfoot. The going was much easier than I had expected, so I was moving way too fast for my plan, which meant that I would soon enter the protected Valle de la Luna in which I knew I was not allowed to camp, so I turned 90 degrees and headed into the labyrinth of ravines that makes up the Cordillera de la Sal, spending the next hour picking my way slowly upward. Eventually I arrived at the top of the Cordillera and, walking along a ridgeline, found the perfect spot with a view of the Valle de la Luna and the two other Cordilleras. It was exposed to the wind, but the views were unbeatable. So I set up camp, which meant I laid my tent out on the ground as a tarp with my leaky sleeping mat (post-repair attempt #20) on top of it and my big fluffy sleeping bag on top of that, since chance of rain was exactly zero.

I snapped a bunch of photos and read a bit while watching the sun go slowly down. I got hungry, and pulled my dinner supplies out of my backpack, and that's when I noticed that my stove was missing from my mess kit. Given that dinner was supposed to consist of spaghetti and soup and all I had was dry noodles and powdered soup, no stove meant no dinner. Luckily I had brought lunch for two days, so I made myself an avocado sandwich and munched on half of a bell pepper while I wondered where my stove could possibly have run off to (I later found it in a grocery bag back at the hostel). The sun set behind the cliff that marked one end of the Valle de la Luna, and I curled up in my sleeping bag to watch the stars come up.

Sunset, as viewed from my Spot.

My spot.

But long before stars, it was the wind that came up: first a breeze and then a howl. I decided to move camp to a calmer spot out of the wind, and quickly before twilight gave way to the black of a moonless night in the desert. I found a spot down the hill a bit tucked into a shallow gully. The gully was narrower than my sleeping mat, so after laying down the tent again as a protective tarp over the sharp crystalline edges of gypsum that made up the gully's walls, I folded in my leaky mat and burrowed myself with sleeping bag into a sort of camping taco.It was surprisingly comfortable, but I couldn't sleep.

The high altitude, cloudless skies, and remoteness made for quite a night sky show. First came Jupiter and Saturn and Mars accompanied by a handful of other bright stars. Then, as the sky faded from gold to purple to black, I was able to spot Orion, the Southern Cross, the stars of the Zodiac, and then the Milky Way and Magellanic Clouds. The moon was below the horizon, but the sky seemed almost bright for starlight. I watched satellites race each other across the sky, saw several shooting stars, watched as Scorpio crawled its way slowly up from the horizon as Orion chased Leo below it. When I looked directly overhead such that the dark masses that marked the cliffs that were my home for the night disappeared, I could imagine that I was floating in space, spinning slowly as I watched the stars punctuating the blackness of the universe.

Stars starting to appear at twilight.

Our planet is quite a spaceship, and we are lucky to have it as it zooms at 67,000 miles per hour in circles around the giant, glowing nuclear fusion reactor that powers the machinery needed to maintain the activities of the spacefaring organisms that it houses. Our spaceship, the reactor it orbits, and unknown hundreds of thousands of other spaceships that range in size from too small for a human to ride (but fine for a microbe) to over 300 times the size of ours, are, in turn, zooming around in a massive collection of other power plants, many of which have attendant spacecraft as well, some of which may or may not have passengers we would recognize as living. We are all together as a group racing other groups of varying configurations and sizes outward, ever outward, from the heart of our universe where all matter began.

As someone who grew up wanting to be an astronaut (a dream that grew out of my elementary school dream of wanting to be a "scientific engineer at NASA," whatever that means but which, young Carie would be amazed and proud to know, is pretty damned close to what I actually am now), the thought struck me that getting into a little metal capsule to spin like a flea around the stunningly beautiful and brilliantly comfortable life-supporting spaceship that I'm already traveling on wasn't so much more exciting than what I'm already doing.

But wonder gave way to philosophical terror as it always does when I look too long at the stars and think too hard about how I am just a tiny and transient sack of water only 0.00021% as old as the universe. That as precious and amazing as this life I have is, it will be over soon, long before I have seen even a significant fraction of my own spaceship, let alone understood it, let alone seen, experienced, or understood the rest of our vast, vast, and mysterious universe. That everything I value and experience and want and am is only a flash of electrons being transferred among atoms in a particular configuration that allowed me, for a brief and wonderful moment, to exist. And that I, and everyone and everything I know and value except the universe itself, will cease to exist. According to the belief system I was raised in that's all okay because I posses an immortal soul that, when I die, will float up to some alternate existence that it supposedly came from, having grown in empathy and wisdom or at least amused itself for a time during its brief adventure on Earth.

It's a nice thought, but small comfort on a starry night.

Milky Way snapped from my sleeping bag on the Spaceship Earth.

Timelapse videos from the night camping in the desert
More Atacama photos up on the Caridaway Album

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