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!