Sunday, 28 February 2010

43. Chile's earthquake, ain't no such thing as a natural disaster

Since I arrived in Antofagasta last week, I have been staying with my host and fellow cyclist, Jorge.  A couple of nights off has turned into more and yesterday morning we woke up to the news that a very large earthquake had occured in southern Chile around 3.30 a.m. and Jorge's hometown of Talcahuano is one of the worst affected. He was able to contact his mother and sister and determine that they were safe but communications have since gone down again. Much of yesterday was spent watching the scale of the damage unfold live on various local channels and this morning the modern day wonder of reality TV is at the action before the authorities are, reporting on the looting of supermarkets in the city of Concepcion. The takes are looping though and if you watch for a few minutes you have seen it all. The police arrive, tear gas is fired, and now calm again. Jorge was worried last night about his mother and sister being alone in the family house as there was a fear looting would escalate. Looking more closely at the images, however, and you see that the majority of people are running away with milk, nappies and essential food. Only the odd person deeming a 42 inch plasma TV an essential item in this electricity-less period. A woman falls and her non-purchases splay across the carpark, a policeman now beside her. But he packs everything up and hands her the bag back. Now that's nice.

Fatalities are currently estimated at over 300 people and the limited loss of life is remarkable considering the scale of the earthquake (Magnitude 8.8 at the epicentre) and comparisons with Haiti are quick to emerge, where a 7.0 quake recently resulted in approximately 230,000 deaths. The difference in political, social and economic development being the difference in being able to take onboard the historical experience of large-scale tectonic events and to put in place preventative and reactive structures to cope with one of the largest events on seismic records.

So while the Chilean people deal with the aftermath of the earthquake and begin to rebuild their lives and houses, let's hope that lessons can be learnt and adopted and vulnerability reduced in other regions through continued recognition that these disasters are not natural events but events whose impacts are determined by the ability of a population to cope with and respond to the threat. Research into social vulnerability has clearly demonstrated that the most important root causes are economic, demographic and political processes, which affect the allocation and distribution of resources between different groups of people. So by being aware of these linkages and supporting empowering causes that aim to create a more just and equitable world, we can all do our part to reduce social vulnerability and the impact of events, such as Haiti and Chile have recently experienced. 

Antofagasta, Chile

Thursday, 25 February 2010

42. To the Pacific and the Atacama

 Storm approaches Refuge No.2 on the way to San Francisco pass

My final two-point-something Argentinian pesos refilled my petrol bottle and earned me a few sweets that were gone before I had left town. One kilometre out of Fiambala and it was back to the stony, bald and sun -beaten landscape. Gone were the irrigation channels that bring water from the high mountains and provide a life support system for what would otherwise be a patch of gravel but can now harbour trees, vineyards and small vegetable patches and grazing ground. Gone too are the fridges, the shelves of food, the ability to decide on a whim that you need something and that you can go and buy that item. A packet of biscuits, an ice cream, a cold beer. Things that normally don't have any importance but seem to assume gigantic importance in the empty vastness. Upon emergence from this sand-filled, fructose-free environment , 480 kilometres hence, all three will be consumed almost simultaneously beside a bemused old man on a shady bench, who I can see wondering whether melting chocolates and a bottle of cold beer really go well together. Indeed they don't but at least they kept my mind focused for forty hours in the saddle.

Flamingo at Cortaderas

The Catamarca provincial government had the exceptional foresight a couple of years back to build six refugios along the 200 km stretch between Fiambala, Argentina's last settlement and the top of the San Francisco pass - the frontier with Chile - and these provided shelter from inundation, tempests and below zero temperatures. Leaving Fiambala (approx. 1500 m.a.s.l.), the road climbs steadily to the southeast before veering north on a more level trajectory after 60 km. I reached Refuge No.1 shortly before 6pm but decided to continue on to the second refuge (approximately 20 kilometres further up). With a young rattling Bono and humming Edge urging me on, the refuge came into view across a large plain. Lightning was poking the ground through the dense clouds on the high ground beyond and by the time I covered the remaining few kilometres the storm had reached the refuge. A night in an exposed tent, with little chance of finding shelter would have been rather unpleasant and I was quickly learning the value of the refuges and waxing lyrical in  my stillborn Spanish in the comment book, encouraging other provinces and nations of the world to adopt such humane practices. Presently a motorbike appeared through the storm and a fellow entered,  carrying several parcels wrapped in plastic. Friendly smiles all round and it turned out that he was from Fiambala but grazed his sheep and cows up here. His family come to visit him for one month a year and they have a cottage a few kilometres up the road, on the other side of the small river. He then said something about milk and tea, which I initially assumed was a self invitation to breakfast the following morning but on reflection I am not so sure. I said si a couple of times in any case. He departed once the storm cleared amidst the last dramatic rays of sunshine shining through the clouds, as I piled up his plastic parcels on the petrol tank. He nodded and smiled in agreement about the beauty around him. A couple of hours later, just as a carrot, onion, potato and scoop of soya granules was reaching near perfection, a car pulled up in the cold darkness outside. Having successfully colonised the small shelter I wasn't particularly excited about the prospect of having to share the refuge for the night but the two men and two young sons who were up on a weekend fishing trip soon had a fire going with the wood they brought and I didn't mind sending Rocinante outside for the night. A 5 a.m. sharp the telephone alarm of the father had us all clambering around in the cold and dark and a couple of hours later,  full of warm porridge and with the sun beginning to make an appearance, I headed north.

Near an oddly placed and inexplicably abandoned  new hotel complex at Cortaderas,  three men were standing by the back of the pickup truck having breakfast. Also up for a day's fishing from Tinogasta,  they shared their coffee and bread and invited me to lunch if I should happen to time it right, later in the day. As we parted, the driver, decked out in Levi´s and large leather gaucho boots, was stuffing some coca leaves into his mouth and then offered me a few. A renowned remedy for high altitude ailments in the Andes, dried coca leaves are legal in many South American countries, with Bolivia being one of the primary producers. Hardly a performance enhancer, but the combination of caffine, sugar and a slightly numbed mouth from the chewed leaf,  had me covering the 94km to Refuge No.5 at 4000 metres by 6 o'clock. A platter of barbequed chorizo's lay left like entrails on the grill but when I gingerly explained that I was moreorless-a-nonmeateater these days to the three very friendly but uncomprehending Argentine carnivores, an enormous bag of grapes was produced instead. The wind picked up as the sun fell and once more I was thankful to the refuge gods.

10km before the Argentina customs post at Las Grutas (4000m)

On the morning of the third day from Fiambala, I reached the Argentine customs post, 21km shy of the pass. I got stamped out whilst explaining to the young Gendarme from Jujuy that William Wallace was in fact Scottish, not Irish. A quick historical sketch of Irish political history, the Las Malvinas war and British imperialism with the customs man, and another friendly chat with the road maintenance guys who filled all my water bottles, and I continued west towards the pass and into the wind. The 800 metre ascent and fierce headwind though had me once again back to a crawling pace. A few hundred metres would be attempted before the little available oxygen would deflate me and then another rest. Sometimes a push. Another few hundred metres. And so forth. Five and a half hours later I had covered the 21km to the top of the pass, consumed all my not-so-fresh bread and cheese,  and decided to stay at the final refuge, No.6, just beside the top of the pass. A shiny new GS1200 appeared and the owner was from Copiapo in Chile. He was tucking his large stash of coca leaves deep into his jacket pocket, explaining that Chilean customs could give him problems if he left them in the panniers. Handing me a small bottle of warm coke he roared off into Chile, while I went back to gathering scraps of wood that had been left by others for fuel.

San Francisco pass, Chile/Argentina (4726 metres)

Some cardboard sheets provided additional warmth and I kept a fire going most of the night and was up at 5am reigniting it, although I didn't intend to ride until the sun came up. I headed off at 8am with most of my clothes on but even then the temperature hadn't risen sufficiently for my hands not to become painfully cold after a 3km descent and  I wasn't able to brake. So instead I wrapped a couple of pairs of shorts around my fingerless gloves and headed down to Laguna Verde looking like a pedaling clothes line. Down at the cobalt blue lake I filtered some water from a stream, although I was later told it has a high mineral content and its not advised that you drink it. An attempt to gain the attention of a policeman at the carabineros post by the lake proved fruitless so I just pedaled past. At the turn-off to the thermal springs the road began climbing steeply again, to the second high point that I had only discovered the day before whilst browsing through a route description I had. Yet again there was a 21km climb, this time to just under 4600 metres and with a stiff headwind the day's intended target of the Chilean customs post, 110km from the top of the pass, looked very ambitious. It didn't look any more likely by 3pm, when after another five hours of pushing and pedaling four kilometres per hour, I reached the high point (4598m) and then the road began to descend slightly through a zone of very steep badenes (dips in the road for drainage). As I passed a site where earth-movers were sculpting the gravel landscape in preparation for a new tarred road due in three years time,  a minibus came out after me. Ismael was from southern Chile and asked me where I was going and where I intended to spend the night, as it looked like I wouldn't make the descent to the customs post this evening. He offered me a bed and dinner in the workers compound, 55km ahead, beside the customs post and the prospect of another frozen, windy night above 4000 metres had me accepting the offer reluctantly and so Rocinante was unpacked and then loaded into the back of the minibus.

 Laguna Verde, Chile

An hour later, at the end of the working day, the twelve workers from the site boarded the bus and we bounced for an hour down to the customs post and the workers compound. Ismael had been in the Chilean military for a few years before deciding to supervise on construction projects and earn more money. Shifts are 12 hours long, for twenty continuous days, followed by ten days off where the workers return to all of the various parts of Chile that they're from. A bed in the prefabs wasn't possible after a discussion with his boss, but Ismael invited me back for food after I sorted out my passport and a space to lie down for the night with the customs post. The post closes at 7pm but I was offered three old, worn and comfortable chairs by the x-ray machine by a detective who looked like a cross between a surfer and an extra from Starsky and Hutch, with bermuda shorts, long hair and droopy moustache. Grateful to be indoors, as the customs post was still at over 3700 metres,  I headed back for a dinner of banana, courgettes and rice with a hundred road workers, served up by guys wearing surgical face masks.

 Contamination from El Salvador copper mine tailings on the Pacific coast at Chanaral

Breakfast the following morning looked like something you would leave out for the birds as I put all my remaining seeds and honey into a bowl of porridge, before the Chilean customs officer stripped me of all prohibited foodstuffs. After Rocinante was given a full cavity search, the friendly Mauricio brought me over to the staff house for a second breakfast of eggs and coffee. Approximately 280 kilometres remained to Diego de Almagro, where chocolates and a cold beer could be found, amongst other non-essential items like water, fruit and vegetables. Yet again though the wind gods cursed me and progress was slow by the Pedernales slat flats but the views were fantastic. Side tracks in the gravel led off  to small  invisible mining camps. The largest mine in the area, at El Salvador, is one of the most important copper mines in Chile.

El Salado

Six days after leaving Fiambala, I forced my way into Diego de Almagro against a stiff wind and while initially considering heading back out to camp, a night in the hotel on the main plaza for $10 was conceded to. The old lady running the place asked was I very dirty, apparently an obvious question to pose to new arrivals, and expressed concern about me carting my gear into the room. After assuring her though that I wouldn't sleep with my panniers and they would stay on the floor, I headed out to find some pizza, my craving for sugar and fat not yet abated. A little pub with pictures of the former President Salvador Allende (overthrown in 1973 during a coup led by General Pinochet, among others), Che and other mineworker heros graced the walls. My vegetarian pizza arrived with three different species of domesticated animals on it.

Truckstop on the Pan American highway in the Atacama

The following morning I headed for the Pacific coast at Chanaral. Again the westerly picked up so that I was forcing my way downhill but the Pacific came into view along with a big smile at what felt like another important milestone. An inaugural dip in the Pacific would have to wait, however, as the copper mine tailings that were dumped into the bay during the 1970s and 80s have provided enough contaminants to kill off the bay's aquatic life and keep swimmers away. I loaded up with supplies for the ride north to Antofagasta, through the Atacama (well it's all the Atacama) and then headed out to camp on the beach near the entrance to the Pan de Azucar national park. A quick visit to the park the following morning and then I continued on through the park, heading inland, to join the Pan American highway northbound. The 400km to Antofagasta was interspersed with a couple of posadas or truckstops where water could be stocked up on. Four days later, the large cement factory on the southern outskirts of Antofagasta came into view.

Mano del desierto

 Prior to 1879 I would have been in Bolivia already, but the city that was originally part of Bolivia was taken over by Chilean troops in an event that marked the beginning of the War of the Pacific over mineral rights in the region, with Chile against Peru and Bolivia. Landlocked Bolivia has maintained a navy and its aspiration that it will one day recover the coastline and recent social conflicts in Bolivia over resource exploitation, especially natural gas, stem in part from the theory that the loss of the coastline has stymied Bolivia's economy. All contributing factors that led to the election of Bolivia's current president, Evo Morales, in 2005.

Arriving at La Negra, southern outskirts of Antofagasta

Antofagasta, Chile
Trip distance: 29,751 km

Thursday, 11 February 2010

41. Getting naturally high

"The sherpas start down immediately; they, too, seem oppressed by so much emptiness. Left alone, I am overtaken in that northern void – no wind, no cloud, no track, no bird, only the crystal crescents between peaks, the ringing monuments of rock that, freed from the talons of ice and snow, thrust an implacable being into the blue. In the early light, the rock shadows on the snow are sharp; in the tension between light and dark is the power of the universe. This stillness to which all returns, this is reality, and soul and sanity have no more meaning here than a gust of snow; such transience and insignificance are exalting, terrifying, all at once, like the sudden discovery, in meditation, of one’s own transparence. Snow mountains, more than sea or sky, serve as a mirror to one’s own true being, utterly still, utterly clear, a void, and Emptiness without life or sound that carries in Itself all life, all sound. Yet as long as I remain an “I” who is conscious of the void and stands apart from it, there will remain a snow mist on the mirror." from The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen (1979)
My latest reading material is Matthiessen's classic account of a two-month journey in the Dolpo region of Nepal in 1973, with the naturalist George Schaller. Matthiessen infuses the narration of the journey, whose primary purpose is to document the elusive snow leopard, with his own reflections on the search for meaning in matters of life and death and his studies in Zen Buddhism. All very relevant as I headed off on my own mini-expedition to the high mountains, back across the Agua Negra pass that links the Coquimbo region of Chile with San Juan province in Argentina!

Descending to Vicuna

One night at Crazy Jamies' hostel in the small town of Ovalle somehow turned into seven. A cheap dorm bed in a hostel that I was the sole occupant, no sign of a crazy Jamie, a desire to sit still for a few days, and with the internet to myself, I began researching routes north and decided to incorporate another couple of the high Andean passes that line the frontier with Chile and Argentina. The road less traveled always being more rewarding, if also usually being either very rough, very steep, very hot, very cold or a combination of all of the above.

In contrast to the Paso de Los Libertadores, which I crossed over a couple of weeks previously, the next two passes, Agua Negra (4775 metres above sea level or 15,666 feet) and San Francisco (4748 metres) require slightly more planning in terms of food and water as the distance between the town of Vicuna (Chile) and the village of Las Flores (Argentina) is approximately 270 kilometres, and in the case of next week's pass, Paso de San Francisco, the distance between supplies (i.e. a place to buy food) is about 450 km (for all you readers considering Paso de Agua Negra, note that there is a shop, comedor and a garden to pitch your tent in at Huanta village, 40 km west/downhill from the Chilean customs post). Ordinarily not mega distances to consider except that there is a big hill in between. However, carrying water not food is the major factor to consider in long distances, and it being the mountains, with plentry of snow-melt fed rivers about, this was no problem either. In fact it really just means buying several days worth of  porridge, lentils and soya granules, and hope that it doesn't snow. Looking at other cyclist's experiences of the routes (especially Jeff Kruy's detailed account of several Andean passes between Argentina and Chile) and talking with a German biking couple, Michael and Jolenthe, whom I had met in Vicuna four days after they crossed Agua Negra (after having to wait a couple of days in Las Flores for the pass to reopen following a snowfall the previous week), it was clear that water wouldn't be a problem. In fact, there's nothing to it really. It's just a bloody big hill...

As the elderly Chilean hippies manoeuvred their thundering VW Beetle around my tent in Vicuna, precariously close to the guy ropes and metres from now very awake head, I decided on my cunning plan to take Agua Negra pass. I didn't want to race up it, indeed there is little fear that 'race' will ever be associated with any of my cycling endeavours, but rather to go slowly and acclimatise to the altitude. Part of the motivation, in fact, for the high pass diversion rather than the straight run up along the Pan-American highway in Chile, was to test myself and equipment at high altitudes before taking on other routes further north in Chile and Bolivia. If I was to get water on the lungs like the other German cyclist I met, for example, this would be a bad thing. I already knew that I my other gear was not up to the task at hand. Michael and Jolenthe said that it had not been that cold when they camped at 3700 metres on the Argentinian side of the pass - "just about minus 5 or so". In the glaring headlight of the Beetle I made out the recommended low temperature for my sleeping bag, plus 4 degrees celcius.

I decided on breaking the 175 km journey from Vicuna (alt. 600 metres) to the top of the Agua Negra pass (4775 metres) into a three-day journey of 90/60/30 kilometres. Gaining roughly 1500 metres the first day, 1800 metres the second day and finish off with about 800 or 900 metres on the last day, hopefully with enough time to camp down at a warmer altitude on the Argentinian side on the night of Day 3. And that's pretty much how it panned out. I did 92 km the first day, having left Vicuna at 1pm after a nutrient rich lunch of chips and cheese empanadas, camping in an abandoned shelter just before the Chilean customs post. I turned up at the Chilean customs post at 8 o'clock the following morning and was quickly stamped out. I filled my water bottles up from the taps in the bathroom as advised. Took a initial sip and then a nice big gulp of the pretty gruesome looking water, thinking to myself that the streams looked cleaner yesterday, and then the border guard came over and recorrected his English. He meant the tap outside of the bathroom, the one with the mineral water bottle attached to it, finishing his conversation, as he wandered back to his desk, with something in Spanish that translates into "whatever you do don't drink the water in the bathroom". Several other employees walked past and seeing my water bottles also told me not to the drink the water in the bathroom. Great.

Loaded up with mineral water, I handed my receipt from customs man to the policeman, who eventually appeared from the toilet and waved me out of Chile. He obviously didn't spot that his two finest sniffer dogs were hot on my trail and proceeded to follow me 20 kilometres up the valley towards the pass. I began to get concerned when the big fellow, remarkably kind to cyclists apparently, but charged like a raging canine devil at passing cars, began to bleed around his paws from keeping up with me on the rough stones. Eventually the carabineros pickup shot around the bend and screeched to a halt behind me, yelling at the dogs to get in. I gave my smiling idiot wave reserved for authorities in uniform but only received menacing glares through two sets of designer sunglasses.

La Laguna

By lunchtime on Day 2 I had made it to the artificial La Laguna, a large saline reservoir perched over 3300 metres high, 30 km uphill from the Chilean border controls. I was blown around the side of the lake by the gusty west wind and decided on a sheltered spot for lunch but quickly reconsidered when four wild mongrels began to converge, from both edges of my field of vision, on their roasted leg of Irishman. Moments before impact a toothless man emerged from behind a boulder and whistled restraint to the beasts with remarkably swift effect. He and his son came out to gander at the passing freakshow and he asked me a fairly simple question in Spanish, which unfortunately I still didn't understand. Did I see something, but I wasn't sure what the something was. Shrugging my shoulders in apology I headed on leaving the waving father and son to once again whistle the dogs back. By the evening of Day 2 I had covered 58 km and pitched my tent in a fairly sheltered spot just off the roadside and just under 4000 metres, with only 28 km remaining to the top of the pass. I anticipated a cold night and putting every item of clothing on and my sleeping bag inside my Nigerian maize bag, settled in for a cold one. In fact, it didn't get really cold, inside the tent at least. I awoke every hour or two, the lack of oxygen noticeable when breathing and apparently not allowing me to sleep soundly. At 4am I clambered out, unable to refuse my pleading bladder any longer, but quickly retreated to the tent after getting instant relief in the bright starlight.

The following are excerpts from my journal entry for Day 3 of the pass...

6.25 am Wake up and begin mental preparations for getting out of warm sleeping bag. Momentarily consider the option of going downhill instead. This is a recurring theme for the rest of the morning.

8 am Ready to roll after double portion of porridge and peanut butter. No direct sunshine in the valley yet, only on the snow topped peaks at the end of the valley. Very cold though and soon begin to feel slightly queasy (altitude?) and sluggish. Pass by a short-wheel based Landrover and tent a couple of kilometres up from my campspot. A waving hand appears from the doorway and then retreats. 

9.20 am Regain feeling in my extremities. The day is looking up. Amazing colours.  

11 am Long (plus 5 km) switchbacks start to wind up the mountain after 4200 m. Great going with the wind, not fun against. Managing 2 or 3 km now before taking a break. Eat a half-pack of biscuits. Quite a few cars passing now, most wave, some stop to see if I need anything. A psychiatrist? Landrover catches up and have chat with father and son from Valparaiso.

2 pm Nearing the top of the pass now, under 4 km to go. Man and wife on motorbike are descending. Pulls out a video camera and starts shooting. Nice guy though, from Cordoba. Moments later another car descends and pulls to a halt and without a wave or a hello a woman starts taking pictures. Normally I am not bothered by the attention but they say altitude can make you edgy and aggressive. Driver doesn't see another car behind and it skids to a stop just before pushing them over the edge. Can't help laughing. Driver behind waves and smiles.

2.40 pm What was a distant dream a few hours ago... reach the top of the pass. Fantastic, though very windy and cold. Put off lunch in favour of getting lower down and descend into Argentina seeking warmth.

Top of the Agua Negra pass, between Chile and Argentina

Having had as an emotionally-balanced, indeed high-spirited three-day climb, as one could expect, on the ride down I had a sudden and brief interlude of self-questionning about the trip and the purpose of spending so much time alone, away from family and friends, away from a more purposeful life perhaps. What nonsense brought this on I wondered, as I tried to avoid particularly bumpy sections and large rocks on the road? Thoughts that I imagined I had under control but which can apparently reappear from time to time. And perhaps, why shouldn't they? And then I stopped and ate lunch at 5pm and by the time I had reached the tar road and the first police post, 54 km from the top of the pass, I was giddy again with the joy of freewheeling down. I covered the remaining 35 km to the customs post in under an hour. Down in the warmth of San Juan province, I finished the final pages of The Snow Leopard, where Matthiessen chronicles his descent to the Nepali lowlands and his impending return to New York...
"Remembering the depression of my first descent from Tarakot into the Bheri Canyon, I have convinced myself that the sudden loss of altitude is the main clue to my veering moods. A change is taking place, some painful growth, as in a snake during the shedding of its skin - dull, irritable, without appetite, dragging about the stale shreds of a former life, near-blinded by the old dead scale on the new eye. It is difficult to adjust because I do not know who is adjusting; I am no longer the old person and not yet the new ... Already the not-looking-forward, the without-hope-ness takes on a subtle attraction, as if I had glimpsed the secret of these mountains, still half-understood. With the past evaporated, the future pointless, and all expectation worn away, I begin to experience the now that is spoken of by the great teachers." from The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen (1979)
Meanwhile I know I am back in Argentina now because last night at 11.30 pm the digital thermometer display read 30 degrees Celcius in Chilecito's main plaza, as I sat eating my ice cream with five grannies, watching the world go by.

Chilecito, Argentina
Pedaled/crawled: 28,520 km

P.S. Thank you very much for the several recent donations made by friends and fellow travellers to the Peter McVerry Trust. Dig deep folks and experience the joy of giving! ;)