We had our packages. Our arms hung with bundles and bags tied together so we could carry more. We broke into the lobby of the Americana hotel tired and out of breath from our day on the streets of La Paz. We were after all a few minutes late and feared the others had started the dinner without us. Before we sat down to exhale, we noticed that we were alone, waiting on the entire remainder of the group. A dinner was scheduled at the top of the most elaborate hotel in La Paz. I was slightly intimidated, but with the others streaming I quickly forgot my discomfort as the elevator climbed to above the 20th floor.
A winding staircase and piano sat in the entrance to our restaurant, but many of us were dressed in jeans. This caused us no lack of service as the wait staff scrambled to arrange our tables. This was the first menu I had tried to read in Spanish yet, here. Strangely, one might expect that since the only menu items in Spanish in America were for Mexican style restaurants, that this would be the selection to expect. Guess what. Filet minion is not something you learn in Spanish class. But with a little help, I had ordered something I felt comfortable with. The prices seemed deceptively high and I began re-counting my remaining cash in my head after my day of shopping. The prices in dollars seemed to be in line with a restaurant of the same class in the US, but too low to be accurate in Bolivianos. So we ate. We ate like kings and the Mutton boys ate like animals. A huge platter was delivered to them piled high with perhaps four or five pounds of various meats. I found it entertaining to watch Anita try to get ice for her tea, then have an entire cooler of ice set beside her glass. Manuel tried to talk Vic out of his portable tracking mount while Scott was describing a travel experience with a cluster of friends. I couldn't resist. "Scott, exactly how many friends make a cluster? Or does it matter if it's an open cluster?" He began to squirm at the inquiry and remarked that it was merely an expression. "Scott. The English language is a delicate creature. You can't just use an undefined word as a unit of measure." Now Fran was agreeing and also poking fun, so Scott was required to generate a classification to describe how many friends is a 'cluster'. I believe it ended up with the decision that when traveling with a cluster of friends that if you're 15 minutes late for the bus, it leaves without you. Vic finally struck a deal with Manuel, but instead it was an exchange of high speed film for his Andean Astronomy book. Vic volunteered to pick up Manuel's tab and I was impressed until I saw the total for all three of us was not quite thirty bucks.
We were allowed another thirty minutes to race back out and collect any last goodies (and to load up on Bolivian chocolate bars). Then all piled back on the bus and compare our new bags of loot. We were tourists again when Ivan took the time to drive us to the historic district of La Paz. We were very tired and ready to return to the hotel since the skies were showing signs of clearing. However, the architecture and style of the buildings made you feel you had left Bolivia, gone back a few centuries and crossed the ocean to Spain. Our short tour was over quickly and we gladly boarded our bus again to hurry home.
Luckily, we had returned just in time. We still needed to photograph Eli in his spot for the group photo and the sun was in the same place giving him the same lighting as the others. "I feel silly." he said, standing alone on the planks of the ship. Vic reassured him that it was going to look fine in the end product and to just smile. Smiling was easy for Eli, for me and for Vic because looking up, we saw only traces of remaining clouds. We would, indeed have one last chance to observe and photograph the sky. One more good night.
At dinner, Ivan issued the bad news. Our flight departed at 7:30 in the morning. The two hour trip to town and customs would require us to be on the bus by 4:00. Worse yet, was the news that the crew would require the equipment and bags to be collected for loading no later than 2:00 am. This was devastating. This would put us with less than 6 hours of observing time. A timed exposure for star trails could take up to 6 hours alone. Aligning the tracking mount to the pole on a good night could take up to 3 hours without a northern star to center it on. Dinner was over and members disappeared in a wink to hurry out and enjoy what observing time they had remaining. Our plan was clear. All our work earlier had left us with six good locations to set timed exposures up for star trails. We grabbed camera after camera and headed back and forth to the site. We passed Scott and John Phelps on our way to set up camera number one. John had a nice open cluster, clear as a bell; and Scott had found an incredibly vivid cross view galaxy. You could see the disk from this side with a bulging circle of light in the center.
We had already set our first camera up in the room above. Our window was propped open, so from that point foreword, we had to turn the hall lights off when entering the room so not to overexpose the film. We put the second at the very edge of the bulkhead. It made me nervous to have it only a few inches from the water, so we barricaded the district with the remaining furniture and warned the others. Camera number three had a special assignment out on the far side of the cabana. A small handmade floating dock had been built and was decorated with herbs and dried flowers. When shooting star trail pictures, it's best to find interesting foreground, and if done right, this would be my favorite shot. We found it difficult to frame the shot here, since seeing the objects in the dark night through the viewfinder was basically impossible. I shined my red light on various parts of the frame while Vic bent and contorted himself behind the camera on a tripod we had tied to a nearby rail. I had my hopes set on somehow also including the reflected image of the stars in the calm water as you could see naked eye, but this would take a calmer night than we had. Camera number four was moved out to the end of the long, long peer. Of course, standing way out there, in the silence of the dark night requires a few minutes of reflection on the peace on this spot. We mounted an 8mm fisheye on this camera and had to be carefull where it was pointed, since the field of view is 180 degrees shperical. It could include the hotel lights in our shot even pointed the other way. We bowed down, clicked the trigger and crept backwards down the long peer. We held hands and stepped high out here. The peer was a raised concrete plateau with draped with ropes and cut-away step openings. It had no rails and to the water temperature made falling in a serious hazard. Camera number 5 was set up in the Andean villiage. The staff was kind enough to have left the gates unlocked and we didn't even need to scale the wall. We tiptoed again with high steps over the cobblstone path, steps and animals to the pile of overturned fishing boats. We were running out of good lenses and this shot became difficult to frame, but I insisted that we try. Checking the time, we knew that we now only had about 5 hours left before we would have to pack the equipment away. So, we warmed up with more Cafe con leche and found Miguel in the dining room. He was going to be working in the site's observatory in the Andean Villiage. We visited the patio again several times and met several very happy ametuer astronomers under the bright night sky. Lou had resigned to share his scope with Nancy and Greg Mueller had even pulled out his medium format camera. I was green with envy. He was cursing the broken zipper on his new snowsuit, but with the possibility of using his new toy it was a smiling setback.
Time check. We figured we were due for rounds to check the gear. I don't know what we'd have done if they had been kicked over or, had dew condense over the lenses. I guess checking made us feel better when we knew the five cameras currently held the entire content of astronomical photos from the whole trip. Vic bumped into Manuel who wanted to know where the camera was so people wouldn't step on. A few minutes later, I found Vic in the Andean village setting number five up for a second shot. "Did we have enough time on the last exposure?" I asked. Not even three hours had passed. "Probably, but if I didn't move it, it would be ruined." I went up to the room and shut down camera number one. It had been open for almost four hours, but the last few were kept open. At least now we could turn the lights on in the room.
We decided to take the opportunity to pack the remaining parts of our bags while we waited for the other exposures. I was only afraid that we would need more duct tape. Our travel trunks were the subject of a great many jokes. Vic has been dragging the same black trunk held together with travel stickers for years now. Although this was the first trip that the trunks actually made it to their destination on time, they were not in any better for wear this trip. It was now up to the power of duct tape to give them enough structural integrity for our long leg home. We bought way too many souvenirs. "What could we have been thinking?" I asked Vic as I was sitting on a trunk to close it. "Do we have that many friends?"
At 1:00 we shut the last camera down. Out on the peer, our fisheye had completely fogged over. We still had lots to pack and had to try to get some sleep before the bus left in three hours. This was the end of our trip. I smiled as we stood together out over the water. The breeze that came up had turned from chilly to cold. But we just sat, huddled closely together in silence, watching the stars a little bit longer.