The Atacama Desert is the driest on this planet. The Bickfords had a chance to venture into this natural wonder during our time in Chile. We led several brave expeditions in a relentless Suzuki Samurai, one of the stealthiest creations from Japanese automotive manufacturers. There is no greater comfort than this four-wheel beast, especially when sitting in the solid steel back seat. Most of our adventures had my father as the captain at the helm (steering wheel if you prefer), my brother as the navigator reading our detailed road map (tough job as everything just looks like one vast sand and dust pile where roads were buried) and my Maman and I in the back. Although we played a more passive role in the expedition, our bottoms absorbed a full-out attack from the myriad of bumps and holes on the road having the fluffy metal floor of the jeep as a cushion. Perhaps this vehicle is the primary reason why I suffer from motion sickness till this day. The Chileans were not cheap in infrastructure for their motorways, but who really wanted to invest in a super highway going through a desert. By its actual definition, not a whole lot of people lived out there, so the road demand was not a top priority. Why would anyone in a deserted place need reliable roads? Why would foolish diplomats even go into these lands?
|The Suzuki Samurai: Road Warrior|
Calama, the remote town of approximately 150,000 inhabitants, predominantly of indigenous decent, served as our HQ for one of our missions through the indomitable Atacama. The airport consisted of an airstrip and a small terminal that resembled a city bus station, surrounded by a great deal of nothing. Dry and dusty nothing. One of the major sources of employment for the town was the nearby mine of Chuquicamata. This Copper and Gold mine was the second largest open pit mine in the world and possessed a name I enjoyed repeating on a regular basis. Chuquicamata. Besides being awe-struck by the depth of this mine, I was amazed by the size of trucks used in the extraction process. These resembled a toy Tonka truck that I had grown attached to as a child. My brother and I admired this toy as we could stand on it and use it as a skateboard and it still somehow remained intact. Before heading out to continue our sightseeing, my parents had all the safety and emergency preparedness measures under control. We stocked up on food provisions, as there were no service centres or restaurants to grab a bite to eat, gas cans, in case our loyal Samurai ran out of fuel and plenty of drinking water. We had out replacement tire bolted to the back door of the boxy car, following the stylish American Jeep fashion. The Bickfords followed my 9th grade teacher’s three rules of debate: 1) be prepared, 2) be prepared and 3) be prepared. The distances on the dirt roads would make our trip longer and slower. Therefore, we needed to schedule everything in order to avoid being stranded in middle of nowhere come nightfall. My parents were experts in timing and structure, even when it came to hypothetical situations. I never understood how they managed to come out on top every time, but I like to think I inherited this fine quality.
Once we were fully stocked and on schedule, we commenced our exploration of the region. No Las Vegas out there I can tell you that. This huge desert provided a sense of how unimportant and powerless our human race is in comparison to our mother Gaia. We paid our homage to the salares, a distant memory of what used to be lakes, reduced to pure salt, pre-Colombian fortifications of Pukará de Quibor, remains in the sands of indigenous settlements forgotten in time, such as the Aldea Tulor. Bodies of water disappeared, people migrated to the bigger cities and some fauna disappeared due to many years of continuous erosion. I felt as if we were the first ones to discover these places untouched by generations. The mighty Atacama Gods ruled these lands and decided who was welcome within the realm. Natural rock formations and sand dunes remained to share their own stories. The Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) was named after its moon-like landscapes, the Valle de la Muerte (Valley of Death), a valley replete with towering dunes and gigantic rocks and the Licancabur volcano, keeping watch over San Pedro de Atacama. We had even stumbled upon a dried out bay with exotic stone piles, which was a treasure all in itself for my brother, Brian. He had a great rock collection he had built up for years, and my Dad seized the opportunity to add to my brother’s stash. As we approached the distant yellow piles, and as we got closer, a foul egg smell engulfed our Suzuki. The first reaction of male adventurers was an accusing look to one another, visually investigating who could have been the culprit of such stench. We were then close enough for my father to notice it was a sulphur pile and no one’s bodily functions. I can tell you that I do not wish for my worst enemy to smell this corrosive odour.
We ventured into the metropolis of San Pedro de Atacama, (about 100 kms away from Calama on the dusty trail referred to as road) which could have been used in a sequel to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. A national census dated from 2002 estimates the population at slightly fewer than 5,000 inhabitants. I hardly believe the population underwent a significant boom since the early 1990s, but I was under the impression there were at the most 100 people living there at the time. Our hotel was located in the downtown core (not to be confused with the affluent suburbs of the village). It was called the Hostal San Pedro de Atacama, at the time owned and managed by an Australian woman. We all stayed in the Presidential Suite that was a cosy room with hard rock floors, the smallest single beds in the world, builder’s standard wall paint dating back to the pre-Colombian era and a rough duvet as bed linen. Our shared bathroom had a trusty porcelain toilet and a shower with a great personality. The shower-head was a hose-like tube with a massage setting, similar to the common garden hose with someone stepping on it limiting the flow. At night after our adventures in the surroundings, we needed to be sure to get our dinner in and set up for bed as soon as possible, because at 10:00 pm every night it was lights out for the entire urban area. This made me appreciate the middle-class lifestyle I had grown accustomed to.
|Brian, Maman and I in the Valle de la Luna|
The locals attractions in town were few but priceless as a gateway to the local history. San Pedro de Atacama houses the Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological Museum, holding many artifacts dating back to the pre-Colombian era and the ancient Atacameño culture. There were also some mummies on display, and a caretaker in the museum had dubbed the best-preserved mummy as Miss San Pedro de Atacama. This was truly a highlight of the visit, as I could not believe I was admiring an actual person who had lived way before I set foot in this world. At the same time, I felt a sense of discomfort out of respect for the body, as I would not have wanted my remains on exhibit. The next attraction was the Church of San Pedro, which was actually more of a local historical monument. I had probably been locked up in order to better preserve the building, but we admired it just the same from the outside. This place of worship was constructed with adobe, a natural building material usually composed of water, sand and clay. I found it amazing that no matter where the Spaniards had gone, they managed to leave their mark by building churches. It was incredible for me to notice how civilizations have always wanted to leave a mark for future generations to see and remind them that they had been there, ensuring a sense of immortality through memory. Before arriving at the Atacama desert, my ideas about deserts were based on the various Hollywood movies about the Mojave or the Sahara and soon realized the Atacama was much more under populated than I had originally expected.