The Steam Fountain
The blessed particularity of the last day was the diversity of its particulars. Officially we left before dawn for the Geyser del Tatio valley. I was lightly dressed and the cold was biting into my bones. The valley is up in the mountains at around 4300 meters.. I kept the eyes closed most of the time in order to avoid an accident. I was afraid that if I will open them I will slaughter the driver. In spite of my outstanding humanist education i am a dangerous criminal. Scores of people are getting terminal under the dome of my head. Certainly i do no touch children, old people, women of all age and dogs. But others, beware….Basically, the chauffeur was a nice guy, but from time to time he was taking himself for a drone driver and not a tourist car motorist. Some forty years ago while i was boarding the Ticabus, the famous carrier of Central America, somewhere between Honduras and El Salvador and i got this feeling, gut feeling of a flying bus. There were a lot of crosses on the edge of the ravine indicated that many people made it and some didn’t. Whatever, when i opened my eyes after some hours of torment i was in a valley that had the shape of a cauldron, many valleys prefere this shape, surrounded by volcanoes in variegated state of excitement.
The geyser we come to admire was exhaling high columns of steam and boiling water spreading to the east. The geysers are alternately in action and sometimes they seem to go on strike…or in very long cycles..The intervals are determined by the necessity of the subterranean cauldron laying on the magma bed to refill, partially from the liquid it expulsed minutes before. The effect is dramatic but you cannot cook an egg or two in the apertures or nearby.
A superb little bird caught my attention. It is called “come tocino del norte” said the guide – the ham eater from the north. I immediately had an elegant discovery. (Immediate discoveries are generally rubbish, that one not less than another, but you never know). It sounds like this: North American Indian or The Natives Americans or the First Nations, how they are called now, you can use whatever appellation you want, their state remains the same, they are basically on DOLE and overweight . But once they were tremendous raiders and riders, slim, ferocious (culturally) and among the best producers of dry meat in the world. They cut it in stripes and dried it in the sun after hanging them on bushes a certain number of days. Much better than any meat preservation method used by coeval Europeans. Most probably the little bird was nibbling the exposed pemmican. (To tell that I photographed him after a doggy pursuit, 10 kilometres further from the place that I first meet him? Better not, these kind of details interest only the ones who went through)…Then little by little, the little bird colonized the south American territory caring with it the name of its feeding habits…Brilliant, isn’t it?
Not further from the bird a big grey rabbit gazes to me with little interest. Rodent it is, but rabbit not. Its straight ears and long coiled tail design it being a viscacha, a cousin of the precious chinchilla predator. Condescend, it allows me take some various stills. We are leaving the fuming area and drive to a kind of enchanted plains. This partially flooded plains (still in high altitude) generously irrigated by my rivers, rivulets and endless streams are with their luxuriant vegetation and picturesque array of ponds and channels an animal paradise. We stop to salute a colony of distinguish flamingos, further a flock of noise producing fat alpine geese, identify here and there a cunning fox ( zorro) and consider with awe the small groups of the noblest of all camelidae, la vicuna which is an embodiment of grace on legs. Tame large herds of soft spoken alpaca share this earthly grazing Eden just to prove that some animals can coexist in peace with the condition that the foul smelling apes are not IN SIGHT!
The bus then plunged to a lower level where aridity began to show its yellow fangs and we reached another valley probably some thousand meter lower decorated (god’s will and nature blessing, or vice versa) with small bushes and giant columnar cactuses. An ultimate stop is provided and some chosen ones are asked to stand beside the giants. The others shoot, a few with cameras the rest using their magic phones. Giant thrill! The vegetal column, Echinopsis atacamensis, is a leafless typical xerophyte, perfectly adapted to desert life. It often reaches eight times the size of an average person, a height of circa 10 meter and 70 to 100 cm of diameter. It can weight thousand kilograms or more and live beyond hundred years. It has ribs which contract and expand, a kind of living accordion, according to the quantity of water the plant contains. The trunk is covered with areolas from which protrude huge thorns that may come into 30 cm ( ai !ai !). Its very sophisticated chemical factory, continuously busy to produce sugars, it is provided all along the trunk with little pores, stomata, which permit the passage of carbon dioxide and which the plant opens and closes at WILL. For a very short time it gives large rose-white flowers and big succulent fruits that, if you are coming in the season, can share with bats and ants. With age it has the tendency to become wooden, treelike, like some people. I asked around how such a giant stands up but nobody advanced an answer. I always thought that some of the tourists should be flogged and the others put in confinement. For the moment what it happens to know is that this enormous vegetal has a strong and deep taproot and a set of radiate superficial roots. I should attack a tired plant with a spade or at least a hoe and check by myself, but they are protected, and that puts a certain limit to my curiosity. To put it straightly Echinopsis atacamensis has such a rich variety of qualities and adaptations to difficult living conditions that even without to go into the complexity of its structure one can consider it as a marvel of CREATION or of EVOLUTION, at choice. Then, we boarded again the bus and this day of marvelous encounters with both CHTHONIC and VEGETAL powers came to a meaningful and peaceful END.
The morning of the next day I made a FOOL of myself and a terrible row because the absence of the hired bus that should bring me to the Calama airport. And that under the eyes of the appalled lovely German girl guide who was going early in the morning with a new group on the trek. I learned after that the plane I booked was flying only one month later…better late than never as they say revered guardian angel.