Into the Atacama Desert

See all the pics from San Pedro de Atacama here…

Valparaiso, in the days post-earthquake. Even with the current situation, I could tell the Pata Pata hostel owners were getting a little tired of me ringing the bell, using their kitchen and being a wifi parasite – all under the pretense that I was visiting Alessandro, my friend who was staying there. After only sleeping at Pata Pata for one night, I’d moved to another place around the corner where I had my own room and avoided their screaming child, all for only a couple of dollars more. So in a cunning move, after a couple of days of ‘hanging out’ in their cozy lounge, I bought them gifts of chocolate and wine; this offering was well received and prevented the imminent and awkward ‘what are you still doing here’ conversation.

The TV news coverage of the earthquake became increasingly more dramatic as the situation in Concepcion spiraled into what resembled civil war. People were looting and burning stores, the military were enforcing a curfew by firing shots into the air and numerous buildings were in a state of collapse, all while the death toll continued to rise. I looked into options of heading south to offer my help but was told that the addition of my non-fluent and hungry mouth might not be the best help in this situation. However, my Chilean friend Matias suggested I share link a for people to donate and I promised to post various options here… Even if you can spare only $5, that would be a huge help!

Alessandro had finally heard news that his friend in Concepcion was safe, but the off-road Bolivian trip they had been planning for months (and had invited me along on) was seeming less and less likely. Amid the chaos in the south, his friend had managed to steal a small amount of gas but the infrastructure was still too rough to negotiate and he couldn’t get out of town. We waited a couple of days, just in case the story changed but finally we bought two tickets north, promising to wait for him if he ended up making it out. On my final night in Valparaiso, I worked late into the night in the Pata Pata lounge, catching up on some LA work that I’d been neglecting. On of my remote tasks is to create and send out the mass-mailers, in this case one for Mindshare LA’s next event and one for Syyn Labs and OkGo’s video release. I always find it to be a bizarre feeling when I finally press ‘send’, imagining the almost 5,000 emails that get shot out in a matter of minutes to each list. That ethereal action alone propagates so many impossible-to-track interactions and serendipitous exchanges; it blows my mind every time. Just before logging off, I got an email from the non-profit organization that I had worked with during my charitably debauched 30th birthday party; 1700 nets had just been delivered to a slew of villages in Ghana, Africa – and all thanks to a week of eating cake and drinking champagne! I closed the laptop, more than a little burnt out and looking forward to a handful of offline days.

As the bus left the station the next morning, a cute Chilean girl moved down the aisle to her seat.

Ciao.” Alessandro said, as she looked at him oddly. ‘Ciao’ happens to be Italian for hello and goodbye, whereas in Chile ‘chau’ is only used for ‘goodbye’. I infomed him of this and told him that this was certainly the only reason that she looked at him oddly.

No problem. She is bona, but I like a little more pork.” Alessandro said. And as was quickly becoming standard in our exchanges, the conversation suddenly turned to girls. Of course man similarities exist across cultures, but there are also unique idiosyncrasies to get used to. For example, to get the attention of Chilean girls requires a much more assertive attitude than the typical western man projects, but this is no problem for Italians, Alessandro assured me:

In Italy, if a bellisima girl walks, everybody stop and look. Many times I almost crash my car. What I can do? It’s in my genes.” The nice thing is, that even if a girl is not so into you, she’ll find a polite way of expressing it; a refreshing alternative to the swaths of western females that think the world, and its male inhabitants, should bow before their stunted femininity. And what’s even more sad is the men that happily assume this role, thus continuing the emasculating trend. We talked about the girls we’d met at the Valparaiso club and even though they were early twenties, Alessandro, who is thirty two, said they were too young for us. Somewhat surprised by the combination of his Italian genetics and sudden morality, I informed him that the existing standard for ‘dating age morality’ is the simple equation of ‘half your age’ plus seven. According to this system, as a thirty year old man, engaging women under twenty two is morally questionable, so I believed I was in the clear. In any case it had only been an innocent encounter, any potential passion cut short by the world’s 7th most powerful earthquake in recorded history.

After a couple of hours we arrived in Santiago, where we were scheduled to catch a connecting bus that would take us twenty-four hours north to San Pedro de Atacama. As we waited, we drank some coffees and watched TV in the terminal. It was refreshing to watch ‘TV Bloopers’, a favorite Chilean TV show of social pranks filmed by hidden cameras, instead of more earthquake coverage. For example in one skit the sound of kittens-in-distress came from a bunch of cardboard boxes and when people got closer a man in an alligator outfit jumped out, scaring the hell out of them. You get the idea, simple but hilarious. In fact we were laughing and chatting so much that we missed our bus, which was in fact at 7pm, not 7:30pm, and had departed from about 10ft away, directly behind the bench where we were sitting. Alessandro, who had identified the problem when he went to confirm the ticket, is just the kind of person you want to travel with; on his return he was smiling, showing no indication of stress:

So, we missed the bus.”

I spun around like an idiot at first, somehow assuming that this might make the bus reappear – after all they’d been the last two tickets departing that day, but soon followed his calm lead. For an extra USD$10 we booked a bus for the following morning and to appease our feeling of stupidity, we both agreed that we must have inadvertently avoided some mangled alternate destiny. I made an unexpected call to my friend Matias, who generously said we could stay at his house and proved, yet again, to be a very welcoming host. After exchanging earthquake stories (he’d been with ten of his closest friends at a party at a 10th floor apartment!) I played with his pug (not a euphemism, see picture above), jumped in his pool and his housekeeper cooked us an excellent meal. The next morning he dropped us at the metro station and after hustling to the bus station, and waiting for our delayed bus, we finally began the twenty four hour ride towards the Atacama, the driest desert in the world.

Chilean buses, while not quite as plush as their Argentine counterparts, are pretty fantastic affairs. You can book the cheap clasico, which is a little tight but good for a strict budget, the semi-cama, which provides deeply reclining seats or the plush super-cama whose seats recline fully into beds. To assist the driver there is a steward, who passes out blankets and serves snacks. And of course there are flat screen TVs that project movies and TV shows for the duration of the trip. As we left the city, somberly noting some collapsed structures and cracked pavements that passed by, David Blaine, arguably the world’s most famous magician, appeared on the TV. ‘Street Magic’ is a show in which he walks around town, when he’s not busy publicly freezing or drowning himself, and drops the jaws of passerbys with his magic. In one illusion, he gives a basketballer a deck of cards and asks him to pick a card, and to show it to everyone except him. At that point he asks the suspicious man to shuffle the cards and finally to throw the entire deck into the air. As the cards lie on the ground, Blaine feigns the typical yet suspense building monologue: ‘Oh damn, this isn’t going to work… I think I messed it up…’ etc., but finally he approaches a basketball that is near the edge of the court. He rolls it over to the man, and handing him a knife, asks him to cut the ball open. To the amazement of the crowd that has gathered , the man cuts it open and reveals the contents: his card. In another illusion, he coaxes the wedding ring off a nice old lady who said she’s never taken it off since her marriage, and then he promptly bungles the handover and drops the ring down a New York sewer grate. ‘Oh, so I’m sorry.. Oh that wasn’t meant to happen! I don’t think this can work now… How much can I pay you for your troubles?’. Of course at this point her expression is one of fearful hope, exclaiming that this must all be part of the act, and just before she really gets upset he walks the lady, and the crowd, down the block where he picks up a tiny glass liquor bottle, which impossibly contains the ring. Tears of joy from then woman, applause from the crowd.

Of course these are amazing illusions and never fail to shock the witnesses, one man even fell to the ground laughing and exclaiming that Blaine ‘is a real goddamn magician’, but with each illusion Blaine is actually displaying that what appears to be magic is actually completely possible. As we left the city and sped through valleys blanketed in vineyards I considered that as humans, we so often mistake our extremely limited perception for ultimate truth; I can’t help but wonder what are we fooling ourselves about on a daily basis?

A little time later a horrendous smell reached my nostrils. It was the smell of damp feet. I turned up my nose, amazed that someone could be so rude in such a confined space. The guy in front of me even put his seat in the upright position and the cute, busty girl next to me turned to look out the window; it was at that moment I realized, in a terrible flash of guilt, that the smell was emanating from my very own flip flops. The last time I had worn them was in a hygienically-uncertain shower some days before, after which I had packed them without letting them fully dry. The moldy-funk had now been officially activated and was a shock even to its owner. At the next rest stop I walked barefoot through some sand, and upon returning to the bus, hid the offensive flip-flops in the only place I would really need them; the bus toilet. On my next trip to the toilet however, I noticed they had been removed, presumably upon complaint by a fellow passenger. Eventually the steward, probably seeing me barefoot at one rest stop, handed me a knotted plastic bag containing my flip flops. I mangle together an apology but he didn’t seem impressed. What a filthy backpacker!

By sunset I was amazed by the shear amount of climates and diverse scenery that we’d traveled through. It’s not really that surprising, Chile is about the same size north-to-south as the US is east-to-west, and we were covering almost half of that on this bus trip. Farms sprang up that used closely grown together cacti in place of fences. As we left the valleys, we passed rocky coasts and slowly the lush greens turned to arid browns as the vineyards and trees were replaced by dusty shrubs and barren expanses..

For the fifth time, an advert for sandwich bread appeared on the TV, followed by the media company’s pitch to attract more advertisers; happy to publicly indicate that their clients were guaranteed an ‘audienze cuativa’ that was not able to change the channel, thus ensuring the viewing of their advertisement! The honesty was impressive, but since I was only mildly interested in sandwich bread I decided to get some work done on my laptop. Being a functional Technomad, I had activated Gmail offline at the beginning of the trip and so even while I had no wifi signal, I was able to spend the subsequent five hours replying to neglected emails from friends asking if I was still alive and smoothing over the inevitable business nags. After that and still very impressed with my netbook’s battery, I watched two great videos that I had downloaded the previous night; one on the future of gaming and how it’s positioned to enter all sorts of unexpected areas of our lives and the TED talk of Sir Ken Robinson, who was lamenting the currently archaic structure of education that does not take advantage of a student’s natural gifts. As he received a standing ovation, my battery ran out and I fell asleep, happy that there was so many great people in the world, but as is always my concern, a great idea is a great idea, but the real measure of success comes with an idea’s execution.

I awoke to a bright, cloudless day, whose sunlight fell upon an austere desert, ringed by snow capped volcanoes and mountains that looked like they’d been touched by the brush of an abstract painter, brightly reflecting streaks of red and white mineral deposits. By the time we disembarked, between my social compulsiveness and Alessandro’s Italian charm we had befriended a good portion of the bus, including a cute English girl and a wonderfully sweet Australian couple with whom we walked towards the main street. Every structure in the little town of San Pedro de Atacama was adobe styled, made of baked bricks of mud, which gave the town a wonderfully rustic charm. Just below the surface however, San Pedro is a blatant tourist mecca, brimming with packaged adventure tours and delicious restaurants centered around fire-pits; but still, it made a welcome stopover.

As we went our separate ways on our hostel hunt, we made plans to hook up later, explore town and to research tour agencies advertising expeditions to the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats. Eventually Alessandro and I checked in to the Eden hostel which had clean rooms, spacious bathrooms and a charming, shaded courtyard which provided a welcome refuge from the sun’s intense rays. After showering and both leaving our shoes outside, we met the others for freshly squeezed fruit juices before hitting the dusty streets in search of the next adventure. Susie, a cute girl from the north of England, took her recreation quite seriously indeed and suggested that we book three excursions over the next thirty-six hours:

It’s nice to have it all planned, and then we can relax for a day before leaving for Uyuni” which she called anything but ‘Uyuni’: Uuni, Unuyi, etc. Alessandro and I still held off on the Uyuni portion, hoping that his friend might still make it north.

Later that day we hit Valle de La Luna, where we were shown strikingly bizarre mineral formations, climbed around and stood at the base of huge cliffs of quartz and salt infused rock. As the heat expanded the minerals that had cooled during the chilly nights, the cliff let off the sound of tired and heavy cracking. Large piles of discarded rock lay uncomfortably close to the minuscule tourists. We decided to move on.

On our second day, deftly led by Susie’s delegation, we woke up at the ridiculous time of 4am so we could catch the sunrise at some local geysers. It was intensely cold, and a fine layer of frost covered much of the ground. I remember thinking that there was no way that it was going to be like the picture the slick tour agency had shown us – which was obviously snapped on a perfect day and then Photoshopped. However, as we arrived at the geysers, a giant valley of smoking vents unfolded before us. It was a glimpse of a different planet, one where fleshy humans surely could not exist! Our guide told us about the different types of geysers and was even able to predict seconds before one erupted in a giant, steaming column of super-heated water. He pointed at the mountains that encircled us on every side, telling us they were in fact fifteen volcanoes, five of which were still active. From the volcanic destruction of Chaiten, to the earth rattling mayhem of the recent earthquake in Concepcion (which NASA was now blaming for a significant shift in the earth’s rotational axis), I couldn’t help but feel incredibly tiny and vulnerable amid the natural power of this seismologically active country.

After returning to San Pedro for lunch, we found out that Alessandro’s friend, who was also Italian, was being sent directly home by his company and so the chance of him joining us was now impossible. We decided to book ourselves on the same 3-day Uyuni tour as the others; thankfully the agency had been kind enough keep two spaces for us. To celebrate we decided to spend the afternoon taking fun pictures on the slat flats, splashing around in local hot springs and buoyantly bobbing in super salty pools; getting wet in the middle of the world’s driest desert seemed like a perfectly decadent way to spend an afternoon. Incidentally I think ‘perfectly decadent’ would make a great epitaph, but since I intend to be cremated and spread across the earth by a hand picked group of my most adventurous friends, it might have to just be the title for my auto-biography. Our guide was a chubby and wonderfully friendly local called Danilo who regaled us with stories of his youth in San Pedro and his departure after Microsoft had seen some of his software engineering work and offered him a job. After a couple of years in Redmond, one day he’d just stood up from his desk and left the building. Later that day he was on a flight back home:

That morning I had no idea that I was going to do it, but over coffee I saw a brief glimpse of my future in the faces of some of the old employees. I didn’t like this future. A few days later I was back in San Pedro and had enrolled in a outdoor leadership program. I’ve been leading groups in the outdoors ever since.” He grinned broadly, “Now, I am so happy, every day!” Then he turned to me and quietly confided: “And do you know, it is many times that a Dutch or Australian tourist girl asks me for a personal tour around town after the official tour is over!” He laughed loudly, startling the skinny French girl next to him. “It’s a good life!”

Danilo told us more facts about the Atacama, and said that in some places there had never even been a drop of rainfall recorded. “The dry heat preserves everything. The buildings last for a long time, even though they’re made of dirt. Even bodies! The indigenous people had a technique of mummifying their deceased relatives – and you could visit them – until the tribal people complained. But I saw them before, very strange!” Danilo explained the mummification technique which included replacing the organs with mud and sticks, and adding a wig of human hair before allowing the body to dessicate into human jerky under the desert sun, before finally wrapping it and burying it.

Before we parted ways, Danilo expressed his excitement for the upcoming “Running the World” competition that was coming to the Atacama in a few weeks. Every few years a handful of closely vetted runners attempted to complete a circuit of the world’s most challenging runs, one of which being a marathon across the Atacama. The last time, 300 runners had started the race but only 15 had completed it; the most surprising completion by a blind Korean man! No matter how hard you think you can push yourself, there will always be that blind Korean man to make you feel like a pussy.

On our last night in San Pedro, Alessandro made yet another amazing pasta dish for the group and afterwards I showed them the music video that Syyn Labs had created with the band OkGo; it was on YouTube’s homepage and had almost reached 4m hits in 3 days. It was in fact the first time I’d been able to watch it and I quietly felt a rush of pride for the team that I’d helped put together. I may not always be the most book-smart guy, but when it comes to seeing value in people and putting them all in the same place, I’m pretty on point. In my absence the team was getting interviewed by CNN, had been posted on all the biggest blogs and even Stephen Colbert was asking if a Rube Goldberg machine could work on his set!

The next morning we awoke early and packed, extremely happy to have a bag of freshly washed laundry to bring with us into the desert; it was going to be 3 days of very tight conditions in a 4WD Jeep. Alessandro smiled, which always made him look like a mischievous devil with angular features and dark eyebrows, and happily exclaimed:

Aaah, it’s great! Today I change my panties!” I laughed out loud and explained the specifics of underwear in the English language. We left the delightful Eden hostel, walked down the dusty road, past colorfully clad local women and leather faced men, to a bus that was waiting to take us to the Bolivian border. I changed the last of my Chilean pesos and a sense of excitement bubbled inside me as we bobbed away from San Pedro, down the desert road.

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