susys running away to sea

"The rigors (sic) of an expeditionary lifestyle"

Friday, May 19, 2006

Breathless in El Tatio

It's up at 3.30 in the morning to catch a minibus to see geysers in a volcano, and geezers in a pueblo. Famous, these geysers, spouting steam in the early morning sunshine (that's why we're up so early), where you can also swim in warm water after admiring these underground kettles. Ok - swum in a volcano in Antarctica - no prob - well travelled, world weary - old news. But take the cozzy. Oh, and by the way, it's cold, so dress up, hats, gloves, and so on. Ok, ok, done the cold bit too. That advice was from a couple in a motorhome. More of them later. The tour place didnt mention the cold - not good. This time, a different driver, a different minibus, both pretty decrepit. As was I after a two hour trip along roads which first of all shook the eyes out of my head, then the teeth out of my jaws, then decided to pulverise my bones into the finest powder.

When we arrived, the moon (same moon we saw at the Valle de la Luna, just a few hours ago) was still full and high, but by then I couldnt see it through the frozen condensation on the inside of the bus. Frozen? Yes, thick ice. Mmmm - gonna be cold, then? Colder than cold? Yup! Hats on, hoods up, gloves on, zip up the coats, wind the scarves around the faces, and out! Groan - must be old, have to unfold myself, reassemble the bone powder in the wobbly legs. 'Have a walk' says the bored guide, turning on the heating as we leave the bus - thanks for that, chap - don't try pointing out the "Tips not included" notice later. Off we go - wow it is cold here, we've come so high - four and a half thousand metres above sea level, two thousand more than San Pedro. The steam is starting to rise. Then ...

'I'm going back! Absolutely knackered! Go on - you go on! Can't do this!'

Golly, is this me? I'm snapping at R, who looks astonished. My legs are about to give way under me. This is what comes of getting up too early, nothing to eat, horrible bus ride, squashed, shaken to bits, freezing bloody cold, travelling around with someone younger and much fitter - hate everything! Back at the bus, I can hardly pull the door open - no help or even acknowledgement from the driver. Thoroughly fed up and cross and breathing heavily, I manage to haul myself on board, and fall into the nearest seat. Grumpy still, I look through the iced-up window. Bunch of bloody kettles. Steam, huh, so what. Breakfast - stale crust-only bun and a rubber slice of cheese, cup of cold tea - is horrible. Can't eat that, won't eat that.

Eventually, I pull myself together, rub a hole in the ice and decide to admire the geysers - well, that's why I'm here. And as the sun rises, they put on a show, steam rising and rising, and if I look hard, I can see small spurts of boiling water at their blowhole bases. With the dawn, comes a dawning - I've got altitude sickness! How dare that happen to me? But it has. After a while, I feel fine.

R comes back with beautiful photos - most of those in the Chile bit of this blog are hers - so I try again. Within a couple of steps outside the van, my legs feel weak, and, as the old joke has it, my breath is coming in short - and long - pants. My nose feels constricted, and my lungs feel deflated. It's not scary, but it's definitely not nice. It's OK if I do nothing - so nothing is what I do, and I can manage very well on that. R is worried - which I don't want, and I toddle slowly out for a photo. It's extremely disappointing, especially when I take a wider view - no future trips to mountains over 2.5 thousand metres, therefore, no Nepal, no Tibet, no Macchu Picchu. Bugger. Oh well, for a blog with 'sea' in the title, it's as well I like things at sea level and below. R takes a dip in the pool-ette, and I get to paddle. It's warm, but most of it is 'like the end of a shower' as someone else puts it. And you have to get out into the cold. Shame really - I would have gone in, even so, but taking my shoes off and then putting them on again is more than enough. Feels like last stages of emphysema - where's my oxygen bottle?

On the way back, the scenery is amazing - vaste altiplano sweeping and swooping, the rocky road a pale grey thread through the brown desert. Then gradually down, and round, grey-green bushy shrubs cover the land - llamas with pink and red woolly tassels in their ears - they must belong to that mud hut clinging to a ledge in the hillside. Then shy vicunas - pretty camels! I didn't expect to see them - not many of them about. And a stop - still feeling feeble, but better, as we're a bit lower. This is the pueblo - hmm - government identishacks in a row, graveyard, great little church (adobe, white painted, with big white cross on top), but locked (R went up to see it, I sat in the sun), and a minor fleece-the-tourist outfit - banos (loos) and drinks, or should that be the other way round. A couple of the drinks, dispensed by a dreary couple of local geezers, are meant for altitude sickness - looked like wee, tasted like, well, I can't say wee, or you'd think I'd tried that, but foul and undrinkable. Anyway, I was going down, so it got chucked. We went to a real pueblo later, not this dreadful apology.

Later, in the hostal car park, we reintroduced ourselves to a couple of English couples sitting outside their motorhomes. Olwyn was the one who had told R it would be freezing at the geysers - millions of thanks for that, O. They are Peter and Janet, and John and Olwyn known to themselves as OJ!). They don't just go away for the weekend, oh no! They travel the world in their motorhomes, away for months and months, all round S America, the Silk Route - you name it and they've either a) been there, done that, or b) going there, doing that. I nosily invite myself in and have a poke around. New plans for my future waft across my brain ... You never know ...

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