Two years ago, after I was laid off of my job, I wanted to change my life. I started gathering every interest I have ever had and began the process of sorting out my life in order to build a new life that reflected me and not what I thought I should be doing. For my 31st birthday that year, I took myself to Sedona, Arizona to be alone. To think. It was one of the best birthdays I have ever had…and it made up for my pitiful 30th birthday that for the most part went uncelebrated. In Sedona that year, I set the intention to travel abroad and I have now finally realized that. And so, this year I took myself to the desert again…but in Chile. Last week I went to San Pedro de Atacama for my 33rd birthday, a two hour plane ride to the North of Chile.
The day prior to the trip was quite strange. My Brazilian friend Alzinete flew to Santiago from Sao Paulo to celebrate my birthday and to accompany me on my trip; however she had been having health problems and thought it best to not go to such a remote place and be so far from a hospital. Instead, she stayed in the city for my birthday dinner and decided to go to the beach to relax while I was in the desert. This was also the advice of one my friends who had had similar symptoms to Alzinete in the past. Oddly enough, during my birthday dinner Roxana was the one who became ill at the restaurant. She had to leave immediately, but kept calling me to make sure I was okay because she felt she had ruined my birthday. At the doctor’s office, she told the staff that she had a plane to catch. Apparently, she had planned to surprise me at the airport the next morning to go with me to Atacama. The doctor’s response must have been something like….ummm…you aren’t going anywhere. I had no idea until the next day when she called me with a fragile little voice telling me that she had been planning this for months with another friend of mine named Farzad who would be meeting me in San Pedro later that night.
Despite all of the unusual circumstances, just the thought of Roxana planning this in addition to having my Brazilian friend visit me really made me feel amazing.
Traveling to the North gave me a different perspective of Chile. For one, I was feeling more confident traveling on my own since I have been learning the language. This gave me more reassurance and more desire to connect more with the country.
I also was so happy to finally get away from Santiago. People always ask me if I like Chile and up until now I could only give an unfair response as I only really knew one area. I’m just not a big city person and therefore not a huge fan of Santiago. But also, I love the desert. It has to be my favorite environment and it was my most loved place “to breathe again” when I needed a break from the endless suburban California coast. Some people think of the desert as being a flat, stark place…but I think of open space, invigorating sunlight, and unique and bizarre landscapes that seem to transform themselves by altering their color depending on the time of day.
The morning of my actual birthday, I flew from Santiago to a small city in the North called Calama and from there I shared a taxi with two people I met at the airport to the bus station, where we all took a two hour bus ride to the town of San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro is a very small touristy town of all adobe buildings filled with restaurants, hostels and tour offices. The first day while I was still alone, I joined a tour with three other people from Germany and Brazil to see some of the Lagoons and Salt Flats about an hour outside of the town. The first day was so mellow. I found the hostel that my friends had reserved, had dinner and waited for Farzad and his brother.
Some of the Salt Flats……
End of the First day……Sunset
Farzad and his brother from New York finally arrived around midnight. We managed to find a restaurant that was still open and probably waited an hour and half for the pizza we ordered. Service appeared to be the same as in Santiago. Because we had no sleep the night before, we missed all of the early morning tours. We also realized how it’s practically impossible to leave the town without joining a tour. Farzad almost threw his Lonely Planet guide in the trash when he discovered the real cost of taking a taxi out of the town was at least ten times the amount listed in the book. The first day with all of us seemed to be about walking aimlessly through the town and watching the Independence day parade. September 18th is Chilean Independence Day, but it is celebrated for the entire four day weekend, day and night.
But, by four in the afternoon we were able to find a group to see a part of the desert called the Valley of the Moon. This place resembled Death Valley in California and even had its own Valle de Muerte. The heat was so intense in this place. We were baking in the sun. The Atacama desert is supposed to be the driest place on earth and I was having major allergy problems from all of the dust and sand that I was breathing in.
The walls of the canyon were covered with this texture…
This rock formation is called the “Three Marias,” except that we were told that four years ago a French tourist broke one of the Marias while hugging it to take a picture. (I’m thinking its the one on the left?)
By the end of the day we were so exhausted from walking in the heat and my allergies were making it difficult to breathe. We had enough energy to have dinner and drinks and then we were out. Farzad (who speaks maybe just a little less Spanish than I do) and I actually made a good team of putting all of our vocabulary together to ask questions and understand the people we met on the tours, at the hostel and in the restaurants. The next morning we woke up to both the distant sounds of people still partying for the Independence Day as well as a rooster. This rooster did not stop making noise for at least two hours. I always thought roosters weren’t supposed to awaken people until the sun came up. Farzad kept commenting that he was going to find the rooster and lock it in a room and turn the lights on. When we finally did get out of bed, we met with a group of people to visit what is called the Lagunas Altiplanicas which included a National Reserve for Flamingos that existed in the middle of Salt Flats and water.
Gradually we made our way towards higher altitude which started to make me feel really sick. Sometimes my love of nature makes my mind wander into these unrealistic fantasies of say….devoting all of my free time to learning every trail in the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California and becoming an expert on plant life. It’s just not going to happen. Nor am I ever likely to hike the Appalachian Mountains or do any other such great hikes that have always fascinated me. Five minutes out of the van on our hike at high altitude and I was nauseas and immobilized by the cold weather. The scenery was incredible, but I’m sure I would have enjoyed it much more without the sudden migraine and dizziness. I had to remain in one place while my friends walked on.
The next morning we woke up at 3:30 in the morning for a tour that only left at 4am. This is because we had to take a two hour drive to see geysers that are only active for about two hours or less in the early morning. This morning I wouldn’t have minded the rooster so much. I tried to sleep a little on the way to the geysers, but I could not find a comfortable position as I sat next to the window in a freezing van. I couldn’t get warm. For some reason, we decided to wear our bathing suits under our clothes thinking we were going to go to hot springs and not really understanding what we were doing that day. Thankfully, I was wearing many layers and brought my heavy coat. The guys didn’t. Once again we were in high altitude. I left the van to walk around the geysers but couldn’t wait to return to the van. This was the coldest I had felt in some time and once again, I felt some nausea from the altitude.
After the geysers, the three of us sat in the van and propped our heads up against the seats in front of us and fell in and out of sleep. When I woke up we came to this small village to eat homemade empanadas and sopaipillas.
I just knew at the end of the day that I’ll never be the type to really put my backpack on and face real challenges in nature. The extremes of experiencing the desert sun and then the ice and the wind in addition to the altitude changes really wore me out. But something about this exhaustion caused me to think about how maybe I don’t need to push myself anyway. I actually felt pleased with the idea of going back to Santiago to rest. I mean usually I am notorious for planning my next trip or wanting more adventure…more time away, but this time I just felt like four days in the desert was enough. And I also felt fortunate. I saw some amazing places that maybe some people will never see. I don’t need to be the authority on nature or the great adventurer. And in relation to other parts of my life, I thought about how I also don’t need to be the great artist or teacher. Much of my time in Santiago has been spent sort of pressuring myself to reinvent myself and recover for all of my years not going after what I wanted. If anything, all I was really feeling at the moment was weak. In regards to coming to South America, My friend Roxana likes to tell me that we don’t need the gold medal and that it’s enough that we showed up. The desert knocked me out. The thing on my mind most was how much I wanted to take better care of my health especially before attempting big hikes or adventures and especially after seeing my friend black out without warning before I left.
Leaving the desert, I realized how I actually feel satisfied for once in my life. I have enough, is a little phrase that kept playing in my head on the way home. Maybe it’s that I am finally really adjusting to being in South America or that I have been away from my life in the States long enough to let go of a lot of things.
I think mostly what I’ve come to terms with lately is that I don’t need to do it all. That I’m really happy with what I have done and what I am doing. Having my friend come all the way from Brazil and having Roxana plan such a great surprise for my birthday also made me feel satisfied with the people in my life. I’m not sure I have ever felt this way. That in itself is the biggest accomplishment for me. Two birthdays ago in Sedona was much different.