Twenty four groggy and cold Americans boarded the bus this morning. The sun was just coming up on June 21st and it was barely 45 degrees outside. The colors didn't seem as bright and the noises didn't seem as sharp, plodding wearily to our seats to find our warm, woolen travel blankets waiting. We quietly watched a team of small, dark, uniformed men hike bag after crate up the side of the bus to strap them above. "Water can be purchased inside the airport here." our guide announced. Ivan Blanco spoke with reassuring authority and the first unaffected English we had heard since we boarded in Miami.
He hosted the bumpy ride through El Alto and across the 2 hours of suburb to countryside on our way to the Inca Utama Hotel as heads bobbed in and out of sleep. Blurry images from other places I'd seen only in magazines and television flashed past the window. I sat, wide-eyed like a child, wanting to soak up every color in each blanket thrown over the working women's shoulders and every interesting hat mothers had found and strapped under their children's chins. Outside of the large town, as traffic stopped for a checkpoint, crowds of women gathered closer and closer to the passing trucks all calling out their goods in a monotone chant. Looking down past the bright colors painted on the sides of the stands, I wondered how anyone would eat the strange, dried, colorless bits of meat grouped on the dirty wooden crates. More bumpy roads lead us through smaller and smaller towns built of handmade brown bricks spattered with livid paint and color, on our way to our new home. Gates opened and the bus pulled into our picturesque, clearly first-class compound of buildings.
Announcements and shuffling shoed everyone from the bus heading toward the dining room for breakfast. Our first meal here proved to be comfortably familiar. Seems the only question was if you preferred your eggs scrambled or fried. A glass of viscous orange guava juice, a warm crisp handled bread loaf and choice of two drink specialties accompanied our breakfast. Veteran Southern Skies Star Party travelers agree that the cafe con leche (coffee with cream) or matte de coca (tea of coca leaves) were one's main sustenance during the visit. - I smelled the tea and personally finding it to smell more like a fish tank than what I was familiar with for tea, opted for the coffee. Ivan introduced us to the facilities, the schedule and in an attempt to encourage us to rest and adapt to the altitude, recited their famous saying. "Comer poquito, beber poquito y dormir solito". Which meant eat a little, drink a little and sleep alone. We were each now issued our room rocks. Several theories exist as to why a half-pound carved rock was attached to each room key. Decoration, easily locating the key, defense... we couldn't be sure.
Outside, the same team of small men was now unloading the bags from the bus roof as if they'd ridden along on-top with them. "These bags go here." "That's my 'scope." "Where do you want this?" Gear was separated from luggage and routed to the observing site behind the hotel. A true star party had been planned for that night and arrangements needed to be made. The hotel staff had notified the locals and were expecting from 100 to 200 people. Once Vic found the case with his equipment, he was off with the others to stake a claim on his territory. Left with the other trunks and a suitcase, men asked where to take our things. I told them room 37 and being the modern woman that I am, took the suitcase in hand and carried it in the direction of the room. We hit the stairs and the helper realized that the trunks would have to be carried. I leaned down to grab one end, but he vehemently refused my help. I gladly accepted the hospitable gesture and began climbing. Seems that 37 meant third floor. Now about out of steam, we found the room and set the bags in it. Once the last was in the room, I sat and realized perhaps I should rest and catch my breath. After about 5 minutes of extreme heaving and puffing in repose, I realized that they weren't kidding about 13,000 feet having no air.
I collected myself, caught my breath and returned to the site with the supplies I needed to assist in preparation for the star party we were now throwing the locals. Now, teams of people had come out of the woodwork to prepare the grounds and the buildings, all awaiting our command. - If only we could speak well enough to give them. Windows were covered, wind and light- breaks built, equipment assembled, power lines run - or should I say draped... and the 10 inch dobsonian telescope from the hotel's observatory was brought out to the site. After dinner, Fred Espenak, our resident professional astrophysicist had prepared a nice slideshow and materials for us citing what objects would be visible this night. Admittedly, many of his slides not only had detail and color only seen by timed exposure, but some of these had even been greatly enhanced on his Macintosh. We definitely enjoyed them all the more. The overall plan was to have the visitors divided into 3 groups. Our friend, Miguel de la Torre from the Planetarium in La Paz would show the Andean astronomy presentation in the observatory to one group while Fred showed his slideshow to another and the remainders would come down to the observing site and we could show them some objects in the scopes there. Then rotate...
As I feared, the use of translators was looking grim. Quickly, before Ivan slipped away, I asked if he could tell us the Spanish word for star. "Estrella" he said and was gone. Now, the crowds had begun to form. Vic and I found ourselves at the 'house scope' and quickly directed it at Alpha Centauri. "It looks like one star, but look here and it's really three" I managed to sputter and they seemed to be able to make sense enough to repeat and gesture this to each other. I was pleased. I may not be astronomer enough to tell them much about the sky, but I could at least convey some descriptions told to me.
The magic had begun to happen. Here we were standing on a patio over 4000 miles from our homes, barely able to communicate a handful of words to these total strangers, but we all knew exactly what the other was talking about. We all looked up and pointed at the same sky with the same awe and wonderment. It wasn't hard to recognize the beauty of the sky here. At this altitude, there wasn't much in the way of atmosphere, pollutants or city lights to obscure the night sky from it's truest form. The black of the sky was so dark, the brilliance of the stars was so bright. The detailed glow from the milky way streaked directly overhead like a bumpy, curved spine and when it reached the horizon at the edge of the lake, it cast a glow reflecting off the water as bright as moonbeams. Hushed murmurs and awed gasps reverberated from the hundreds of people young and old as they came to look in the telescopes. You'd swear that some children looked as long as they were allowed only to step down and return to the end of the line.
As cold as it was, we each returned to the dining room for refills on hot cocoa, coffee or tea as the night wore on. On one of these visits up front, after perhaps 3 hours and 200 visitors, I heard a gateman shout to another "Hay mas!" - - "There are more!" As the hour approached midnight, we were now entering the third calendar day we'd been up with no real sleep. More. Now I was beginning to realize the true meaning of cafe con leche. I stumbled around into the candlelit dining room only to find a crowd of nearly 100 Brazilian tourists watching a stage show with traditional musicians. So, I decided to try and find Fred and the others. I opened door at the front hall only to find 3 men, presumably locals, on the outside with heads pressed against the door listening to the music, trying to get a glimpse in.
Returning to the deck, Vic is now grasping at straws. "Help!" "How do I tell them this cluster is Omega Centauri?" I offer my pitiful version of a translation and they all seem to be very happy, nodding and repeating "Omega Centari" among themselves. We showed them perhaps only 5 well-known objects in this scope, but with the help of at least 3 others doing the same, many were able to go away seeing more objects than a layman might see magnified in a lifetime. I saw the star, Antaures for the first time, sparkling and shining with the brilliance of a diamond in sunlight and thought it was the most beautiful celestial object I could imagine. That is until I saw the Jewel Box. I know it's impossible to perceive depth with a single lense, but I would swear that these gorgeous, bright stars were actually nested inside the confines of others. I may have left Bolivia able to attest that I'd seen both the rare and elusive large and small Megellantic Clouds, but I'm more fond of the sight of that handful of gems nested inside each other.
Our friend, Eli Maor has been both helping and questioning at the same time. It's time for us to get some warmth again, so Vic says "Eli, you're in charge!" Squirming, Eli protests that he doesn't know how. Only Vic reminds him that for everything he knows, he can't tell the kids more than the name of the star. "Point and say Eta Corina." says Vic. We head up to where Fred was presumed to be only to find a room full of Aymara indians. We had walked into the room where the hotel was providing a meal for the visitors. I pointed to the tanks on the table and asked for coffee. None of the few people here appeared to be workers of the hotel, but three of them fell over each other trying to help us to a cup of coffee. I asked for sugar and three more started laughing. "It has sugar" they said. Huh? Vic and I exchanged confused looks and tasted the drink. It had sugar. It had so much sugar, that I still wonder how it was suspended in the liquid. Someone held out two of the pita bread looking sandwiches they had all been eating. "No thank you." I smiled. Now, we are standing together all staring at each other waiting for the next thing to say. - of which there is none. We weren't about to go back outside just because nobody understood us. It was 25 degrees outside and 70 inside. We were going to finish our coffee. About this time, a tiny tot broke free of mothers' grasp and began to run rampant, squawking in garbled spanish. Such a miniature person couldn't possibly be big enough to be making words, but sure enough, she was running, talking as cute as you please and posing for strangers' attention with her little pink knit hat. We had completely forgotten we were the strangers in the room.
We returned to find Eli directing the children's attention to a blank space in the sky and calling it Eta Corina. Vic moved the telescope back on target and I loudly directed the visitors not to touch the scopes with their hands, only eyes. We held out for another hour or two before our fingers began to get tingly. As we were contemplating leaving, we saw commotion among the remaining locals. A woman with her child in wrap over her back was protesting. Her friends were trying to prod her foreword without much luck. We asked if she'd like to see. This seemed to be enough coaxing and she stepped up. She looked briefly into the eyepiece only to turn almost immediately around. Vic pointed to the eyepiece and said "Here". After three times, she didn't turn. Then I noticed that she wasn't trying to look herself, but was showing the stars to her baby boy tied to her back.