Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The Moon (Three)

Close to San Pedro de Atacama is a valley called la Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). It is an utterly barren and dramatic formation of rocks and sand dunes, that glow red at sunset, against a backdrop of snow sprinkled volcanoes. It is spectacular, but was the least moonlike of all the places I visited in the desert. Everyone who goes to San Pedro visits the valley at sunset. The supposed moon is dotted with white minibuses and camera laden tourists from every corner of the world. You walk up the giant dune to the best look out point for the sunset, one of a great stream of others, and then jostle to find a ledge upon which to perch to watch the promised show, which you must then try to photograph as an empty desolate and dramatic scene, tiny you in a vast and alien landscape.

Monday, 25 February 2008

The Moon (Two)

Three weeks ago I was in the far north of Chile. Five days in and around Iquique, a coastal city (industrial port and beach resort) about 1800km north of Santiago, and then five days in San Pedro de Atacama, a small oasis town on the altiplano of the Atacama desert at 2400m above sea level.
The landscape of the north is out of this world, and is thus frequently likened to that of the moon. Flying over it or driving through it, however you witness it it is hard to accept how vast it is. It is like trying to imagine infinity. And in this vastness there is nearly no life.
There is mechanical fuel powered life, the huge trucks and the air-conditioned coaches that plough up and down the Panamericana (the north south road that runs the length of Chile, but more on that later), but they are always on their way somewhere else.
There are occasional signs of other industrial lifeforms, railway tracks and roads connecting mines in the mountains to the coastal ports; electricity pylons.
There is a fair bit of road side detritus, archaeological evidence of recent human presence - coke cans, fanta bottles and plastic bags that will be beautifully preserved in the gasping dryness of the desert.
There are geoglyphs. More traditional archaeological traces of human culture. El Gigante de Atacama is over a 100m tall, a strange rectilinear creature with a four pronged head, he simultaneously manages to appear very ancient and extremely futuristic. Near San Pedro there were llamas barely bigger than hands carved into the rocks, probably marking livestock transport routes.
There are occasional abandoned villages, abandoned after an earthquake, or as a local mining activity ceases to function. There are many reasons to abandon settlements in this environment.
There are occasional microclimates such as the Pampa del Tamarugal, where scrublike hardy vegetation manages to survive on mysterious waters drawn from deep deep underground.
There are very occasional oases. With bougainvillea, lemon trees and fig trees.
It is not really a sandy desert, there are very few smooth and seductive sand dunes. It is a rocky, stony and dusty desert. It is mostly a greyish brown colour, though when the sun is low in the sky it becomes orange, red and pink.
It is a wonderful and terrifying cinema.

The Sun

Like the moon, the sun in the southern hemisphere moves from right to left across the sky rather than left to right. Of course it still rises in the east and sets in the west. It is a strange phenomenon to get used to because the shade moves in the opposite direction too. On about our third or fourth day in Chile we spent the afternoon at a house with a swimming pool. It was very hot and I settled down on a sun lounger shaded by large parasol. The shade didn't last long though and soon the sun was beating down on my ankles, my knees, my left arm. I felt utterly confused for a second, why was the sun was moving backwards?! Once settled again on the sun lounger, on the other edge of the shady patch, assuring an hour or two more out of the fierce glare of the Chilean sun, I started thinking about the interesting relationship between the sun and the earth... and drifted off to sleep...

Saturday, 23 February 2008

The Moon (One)

The moon in the southern hemisphere is not quite the same as the moon in the northern hemisphere.
I noticed two main differences. First, there is no man in the moon in the southern hemisphere, and second, in the south the moon appears to moves from right to left across the sky, east to west via the north (rather than east to west via the south).
It would appear that in the south one sees the other side of the moon - the back of the man in the moon's head, or under his chin, rather than his face.
After a lot of pondering and a little bit of internet research that just drew me into the complexity of the whole issue (the tilt of the earth's rotation axis / elliptical orbit path / the sun's gravity / and more..) I am still not exactly sure of the orbit path of the moon around the earth and its relationship to the southern and northern hemispheres, but I did discover that the moon waxes and wanes and opposite directions - in the north the new crescent moon is seen on its right edge, in the south the new moon starts on the left.
This is not the place for a technical discussion of the moon's orbital behaviour, more a place to note these relatively small but interesting and particular changes in the stuff that surrounds us. If you look at the same thing from another angle you see something else.

Now that I'm back I imagine I might blog a little more..

Several thousand miles, 1027 digital photos, 4 35mm 36 exposure films, 77 days, countless buses, seven aeroplanes, four trains, three full moons, two bottles of suncream and one earthquake later...
And I am back in the land of winter... Our flight involved a stopover in Milan, and arriving there early yesterday morning it seemed like an exciting and unfamiliar new world of crispy misty air and busy people with important things to do wearing shiny leather boots and smart warm jackets. Winter in Europe seems far more interesting and exotic than I had ever previously noticed.
I guess I am trying to say its not so bad to be back! Though I could have happily spent many many more months in Chile and feel that I have just seen a fraction of it.. But I think we will go back..
In the meantime, I have many blogworths of stories and notes bubbling around in my head and hope to post them up over the next week or so before they all start to fade and blur...
Winter in Europe seems like a place more suited to writing words indoors on a computer than summer in Chile. The notebook and the pen worked better over there, easier to use under a tree or in a hammock or on a bus.
More soon!

Friday, 18 January 2008

the Andes to the Pacific

part ONE : the mountains : about 10km from the border with argentina : about 2000m above sea level : termas del flaco : tinguiririca valley : almost too hot to bear suplhuric smelly and magic all healing water : mud : the valley where the plane with the uruguayan rugby team crashed in the 70's inspiring the film 'alive' : tiny intensely coloured flowers : dust : a wildly swinging and swaying bridge over an icy very fast flowing river : waterfalls and boulders : dinosaur footprints in the rock : a mine : statues of the virgen mary in impossibly desolate locations : impeccably well dressed huasos (chilean cowboys) : scratchy prickly plants : rainbow coloured rocks : stars and satellites : flocks of noisy yellow and blue parrots : condors that remained invisble

part TWO : the central valley : santa cruz : a small town amidst a sea of vineyards fruit trees vegetable fields : bustling and wealthy but also rural and simple : single storey abode buildings : the classic central plaza full of palm trees and monkey puzzles : a museum with a glittering display of mapuche jewelry and just about everything else you could imagine : breakfast of almond cake and a juicy juicy peach sitting in the plaza : the usual lunch of avocado tomato and cheese sandwich in the incredibly friendly panificadora : horses and carts clip clopping down the main street : a constant parade of flat wide brimmed 'huaso' hats

part THREE : the ocean : pichilemu : a seaside surfing town : a chilean newquay : a wide curving bay of dark grey sand : a rocky headland : white frothy waves and a steely grey sea : thick sea fog rolling in off the ocean : outer space monster seaweed : sad llamas with hats being paraded up and down the beach for people to have their photo taken with : empanada capital : a vague air of faded grandeur : a hilltop promenade of palm trees and topiary that has seen better days : an old abandoned casino covered in scaffolding and being done up : arcades : gokarts : a rickety funfair : a delicious dinner of grilled fish and tomato and onion salad with a huge glass of freshly whizzzed papaya juice served by an extremely kind and very old woman with a wicked sense of humour and a glint in her eye

Friday, 4 January 2008

La Isla Helvecia

The island is surrounded by a beach - mostly made of dark grey volcanic rock pebbles, though the far eastern point is brilliant white sand and perfect for swimming. There are pink crab shells everywhere. On the sheltered northern shore some of the grey rocks have been colonised by extremely yellow lichen. It takes about 20 minutes to walk the complete circle around the island.
On the northern face, visible as you approach in the little wooden Chalupa boat (passing dolphins and sea lions) from Calbuco, is a large house, clad in flaking white painted weatherboards, with pale blue window frames. The house was once quite grand, built by Swiss immigrants probably at the turn of the century. In the hall is an imposing oil painting of a smartly dressed gentleman. Today the house is falling apart. The hot water and electricity have long ceased, though there is running cold water from a rainwater collecter, a gas hob and lots of candles. There are several missing windows, woodworm everywhere, and healthy happy families of spiders. A wiry Chilian with a red beard and blue eyes (as Celtic looking as they come) came over with us, he is the son of the woman who bought the house in the 50's, and now lets it out to occasional visitors. The house has everything required to frighten the life out of you, and would be the perfect place to shoot a horror film, but somehow we felt quite safe and sound there - maybe it was comfort in numbers, we were six, and had a lot of red wine and whisky to get through. More than anything, the house had an air of containing a thousand stories, but they were fading, each broken window and rotten beam was a story disappeared.
The interior of the island consists of grassy meadows (kept tidy by the residents - 2 llamas, 3 sheep and 3 donkeys - almost straight from Noah's ark), a dense thicket of vegetation, and a grand old forest of Chilian Oaks and native Arrayan trees. The Oaks have grey trunks and the Arrayans orange. There is an open air stage at the far end of the forest.
To the east is an unbroken line of snowy peaks, stretching far into the south and the Patagonian wilderness. At sunset they glow pink, and a little later reflect the moonlight. The view to the south and west is across the water to higgledy-piggledy Calbuco, small neighbouring islands and ChiloƩ.
We explored, we swam, we feasted, we slept.

One month ago - the last and most dramatic part of a very long plane journey... 30minutes till landing!

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Volcan Llaima

The road trip in the south.
First night near Temuco, in the foothills of the Volcano Llaima. The first real active volcano I have seen, it was beautiful - a perfect conical shape, its upper part covered in snow, and best of all, emitting the occasional puff of smoke! The next day we walked closer to it, through temperate rainforest, coming to a brilliant vantage point across a plateau of intensely green bamboo. We admired it more, and were also a little wary, the puffs of smoke were a warning not to get too close...
Later on that day I read that it was one of the three most active volcanoes in the world.
Yesterday evening at about 6 o'clock Llaima erupted, and continues to do so.

Nuevo ano sin luz

The blog is not quite as active as I anticipated... must be having too much fun!
And computers, let alone computers with internet access, were pretty much non-existant (creatures from another world) when we were down in the south.
After New Year at the beach I am having a few days of doing nothing in Santiago, nursing my swollen mosquito bitten left eye.
New Year itself was fantastic - we were with friends in a rented house a couple of hours north of Santiago on the coast, barbeque on the terrace, countdown to midnight, feliz ano nuevo feliz ano nuevo wooopwoop and then bang! - powercut! Perfect for watching fireworks... The power remained off until the next day, in all the village. It was great, we had all we needed to eat and drink, the stars and the moon were out in force, and the huge pacific waves kept on rolling in on the beach. A pretty nice way to start the year.