*I feel compelled to link to this video at the beginning of this post: Chilean singer/songwriter Violeta Parra seems to perfectly capture the essence of Chile, and I was reminded of her music many times while travelling through San Pedro de Atacama a week and a half ago.
At precisely 11:30 pm, I stood on a dusty street corner in the middle of the village of San Pedro de Atacama. The town’s stray dogs wandered around, picking up crumbs from the night’s dinner as my husband and his friend and I chatted with a Belgian and an English tourist. Despite the lingering heat from the day still radiating from the packed earth under my feet, I was dressed for a light snowfall in Canada: three layers including a sweater, boots that are good in below-freezing weather, a warm alpaca scarf and gloves that I picked up in the central square’s craft market earlier that day. (When I “tested” a few other alpaca gloves and scarves this past January in Canada, I determined that they were much warmer than wool; needless to say, I am now stocking up.)
Soon, our ride arrived, and drove us out of town.
It is not every night that you hop on a bus in the middle of the night and are driven through the pure darkness of a desert salt flat. It is also not every night that you wind along a private driveway toward a few low clusters of buildings standing at the feet of the Andes, with all of their lights duly turned off as not to disturb the deep black night with light pollution. It’s a unique experience indeed when you step out into the chilly midnight air and gaze upon the snow-capped peaks of the eternal Los Andes and 1200 stars and a brilliantly lit moon meet your eyes.
It is also not every night that you are “guided” around the crystal clear night sky by a humorous French astronomer and his charming wife (who offer you a cup of traditional maté tea to take the bite out of the chilly night air), telling funny anecdotes, everything from the early history of the world, Incan and Greek astronomy, quizzing you on which way is north (Psst: yours truly was the only person in the group who could answer that correctly! Yes, that’s right, I know my directions, even in the middle of the Andean pre-cordillera, hundreds of miles away from a “modern” city)
It’s not every night that you take advantage of the crystal clear skies to gaze through state-of-the-art telescopes that this French astronomer/hobbyist has set up in his yard, gazing upon the moon (in great detail), orange Saturn and its rings, faraway clusters and nebulae, flashy Sirius (the star, not Black).
I have rarely felt such an intense calm, and in such an endless open space, no less. Normally, the desert makes me nervous. I suppose that sounds silly, but to someone who grew up in the tight green woods and rolling landscapes of Michigan, next to the bright blue glimmer of lakes and rivers all around… the desert can seem void, desolate, too mysterious and too harsh.
On the other hand, under the cover of night and the company of the spectacular array of twinkling stars and fascinating constellations, with the comforting and humourous tones of our French guide as he spoke, I felt supremely at peace.
More peaceful still was that the normally ominous shadow of the great grey, desolate volcano called Licancabur that stands at the border between Bolivia and Chile and follows you hundreds of miles as you journey in the region, which somehow looked friendly under the cover of night with its snow-capped peak glowing brightly under the moonlight. Under the veil of darkness, it was hard to imagine that it lies on a border (between Bolivia and Chile) that has experienced a share of turbulence over the years.
The night under the stars was educational in more ways than one. I finally learned how to find the Southern Cross, a feature of the sky in this hemisphere that I had never been able to locate on my own. I was amused by Orion, who lies on his side here and is lower in the sky than I had seen him three weeks prior, standing fully upright and higher at my parents’ house in Michigan.
The people of this region have a lot to be proud of, of course: their spectacular landscapes, their abilities to farm and raise livestock in such a challenging environment, their arts and crafts and their overall ingenuity, which has allowed their civilization to flourish for thousands of years in the nearly-empty desert.
But experiencing space in a new way that night, with the darkness all around and the Andes mountains looming nearby, I realized how special their world really is. It takes on a new personality at night, one that is somehow majestic and strangely comforting (at least to me). They have clean, fresh, clear air (and I hope it always stays that way), and little to no detectable noise or air pollution. It allows you to personally get much closer to nature and away from the hectic artificial fabrications of modern life.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not ready to leave my creature comforts behind and run off to live a life in the Atacamanian wilderness. I can, however, assure you that having a taste of such a unique, spectacular and special environment that I hope remains relatively untouched forever, is a way to feel a bit closer to this part of the world, its people and its history, and a reminder of simply the history that we all share as people under the vast starry sky.
(To those who may be planning a trip to San Pedro de Atacama, find more information about the SPACE astronomy tour I took here: www.spaceobs.com -note I am not affiliated in any way.)