Aunt Bertha, Scrooge, and Michelangelo
A toothless man in his mid-thirties with creased, olive skin and chocolate eyes stopped me. “See geysers?” I shook my head affirmatively. “Here ... tomorrow ... four o’clock ... morning ... yes!”
It was still night when I met with a handful of other tourists in San Pedro de Atacama and confirmed the truth: Fernando spoke only halting English and none of us spoke Spanish. Even so, we quickly bonded with the help of elaborate, expressive sign language.
Fernando herded us like a shepherd; our small group huddled together under a sky filled with more stars than I knew existed. He enthusiastically offered small cardboard boxes, poking them toward our hands. “Eat – yes?”
“Breakfast, Fernando? You brought breakfast?”
“YES!” He seemed childlike and genuinely eager to please.
Before climbing into Fernando’s car I swept my arms in circles toward the sky. “I’ve never seen anything like this! So many stars …”
“No pole-loo-shun.” He smiled and nodded vigorously, his greasy hair swinging over his forehead like a black mop.
I dropped the appropriate number of pesos in his hand. He promised, through gestures and broken English, to drive us to a sterile, remote area of the uninhabited Atacama Desert in his four-wheel-drive vehicle to see the geyser field called El Tatio (literally “the grandfather”). This was my first trip to the Andes Mountains of northern Chile; I knew nothing and trusted him implicitly.
As we bounced over mineral-encrusted earth, I sat in the front seat next to Fernando. “Why did we start so early?” His quizzical look prompted me to re-state my question. “Why four o’clock?”
He squinted, hoping to find words. “Early … see steam. Sunrise … winds take away.”
We arrived at the edge of the geothermic field just as the sun’s earliest glow outlined the massive volcanic mountains surrounding us. Columns of steam rose from the hard, lifeless earth, erupting from holes of various sizes – some as small as the drain in my bathroom sink back home, others as large as manholes in the streets of New York City.
Each had a personality of its own. Some blew steam like tea kettles - the Aunt Bertha types. Others boiled furiously - the Scrooges of the bunch. Still others - the Michalengelos - spewed peach, yellow, and lavender-colored sprays into the air as if creating an extemporaneous display at an art fair.
“Eighty active,” Fernando explained. “Some fumeroles, also.” I would soon learn that fumeroles were holes where vapors escaped when water had already evaporated.
Fernando climbed out of the car and gestured for us to follow. “Come!” We tip-toed on stones across a steamy stream to discover pools of acrid-smelling mud bubbling like thick, black oatmeal.
“Thin … careful!” I appreciated the warning to watch for potential weak spots where I might step through the crust and unwittingly become a thickly-coated tar baby like the one that tempted Br’er Rabbit in the Uncle Remus tale.
A few adventurous souls had come without a guide, and were languishing in swimsuits in a rocky pool. “Most boil,” Fernando explained. “Here … warm.”
This was true wilderness: no parking lots or barricaded paths interrupted the landscape. As the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere and third largest in the world, its volcanic eruptions gurgled and glowed in the increasing morning light, spewing and spraying as they’d probably done for eons.
I felt very small, knowing the earth roiled beneath me, and began snapping pictures to capture the height of the geysers’ expressiveness before daytime winds carried the columns of steam away.
First I snapped some Aunt Bertas – small holes where compressed steam spewed and spit in anticipation of a tea party that never materialized.
Then I recorded a few Scrooges – cauldron-sized-holes where water writhed and bubbled furiously with something akin to almost-explosive anger.
Finally, I captured a variety of Michelangelos on video – mid-sized holes where pastel spray-paints created ever-flowing, thirty-inch-tall fountains.
Fernando motioned for us to walk through the field. I stepped this way and that, marveling at each new discovery. No wonder this place was called “the grandfather.” Here in the Atacama, the driest and most Mars-like desert in the world, a fiery primeval stew beneath the earth provided a reminder of the earth’s origins dating to the beginning of time.
El Tatio offered a few glimpses of our planet’s inner secrets that day, through this extended family of Aunt Berthas, Scrooges, and Michelangelos - messengers from earth’s fiery core.
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