Bolivia- June 1998
For the Love of Clear Sky
Another night looking like it would stay clouded over, at dinner I heard the book club planning to sacrifice a telescope to the lake in exchange for good weather. Roaming an eye around the room for an owner of an adequate specimen, I pointed out that Vic and I had only brought cameras and mounts. "Oh, I think that'll do just fine... a young, small one will suffice." I corrected Scott to remind him that a lens didn't count as a scope. Now, Scott is apparently and attorney and he advised me that the English language is a delicate creature and we must use it carefully. "I shall strive to". I said. "and you're still not getting my camera." Fred and Bob seemed to now, be concerned about their excursion they had scheduled for later. They were to take the opportunity to hike part of the Inca trail up to Manchu Pichu in Peru. Their tickets had been rearranged several times and they were now worried that their accommodations at the actual hotel at the top may not be secure. Bob had negotiated for hours with all the personnel involved and says the best he was assured was a "same kine mountain- top like hotel". Bob has decided it's another case of "El Bait-o y Swich-o". "But there's only one hotel at the top of the mountain!" says Pat. "What do they expect us to do if they DON'T have reservations? Hike back down?" "I guess we'll be camping that night too." Fred says shaking his head. So we, again wander out back to look at the sky, scratching our heads in worry. Ivan is standing, taking in the view, too. "You're from here, Ivan. When is it going to clear off?" "The weather is..." he starts in, "the .... There is the Cantina" he finishes, politically.
So, now we raid the bar. An emergency bartender is called in and we begin to buy out the remaining house wine in the small establishment. Pat is still clutching her bottle from dinner, determined to bring back a keepsake. She has been trying in the last few days to disguise that she has a hurt ankle that the tepid tub didn't seem to help much. Wendy has now moved from diamox induced rash to shivering cold and everyone in the room obliges her by piling every coat we have with us on her. A few drinks later, Anita Dresden who has never played cards in her life (in Alabama, that was a Sin!) has now taken over the table, winning perpetually. In all fairness, Mrs Mueller and I had the decks swapped and as it turns out, one deck of cards had actually been cursed the whole time. Our friend, Miguel de la Torre from the planetarium arrives with Bolivian calendars of the Mars Pathfinder. Bill Feely has found a very detailed book here highlighting the research that's been done in Andean Astronomy and points out the nice, thirty year old picture of Miguel in the book. Miguel promptly joins us for a stiff drink as we discuss how to get copies of this book and more importantly how to translate it. Seems Miguels' English is about as good as our Spanish. Popular opinion has now moved that we need to find Scott a nice Bolivian girl. and more importantly, that he needs to learn a few key phrases in Spanish as well. The group was very helpful in pointing out some very useful words and phrases for Scott to learn, but I doubt he needed the suggested line, "Can I buy your sister". Then, suddenly and without warning, one of the perpetual checkers who had gone to the window to see about the sky opening up, announced that it WAS! - - Hark! What's this? Ten of us fell over each other getting to the windows and check the sky. "It's just a sucker-hole!" Vic said. "No, it looks like it's clear over here, too." says Lou Alfonso.
Ok, so it's about 11:30 now. We should give it a chance to clear and maybe by about 12:30 or so we'll be able to tell more. With that, the bar was closed and all hurried back to their rooms to prepare for the possibility of a VERY late night. Vic and I scoot outside to determine the truth of this rumor, but looking up, realize that the hotel has so many lights on that we can't see exactly how clear the sky really is. I notice a guard-man in a little room attached to the front gate and as I near his post, he hurries out to ask what we need. In my best Spanish, I told him we need the lights closed down to see the stars. "Which ones?" "All outside lights for now." I said. So, the little old 5-foot-nothing tall man (who I'm not sure wasn't the witch doctor in uniform) scurries around and shuts down the lights. He returns asking if I need the main 2 million candlepower night-sun lamp out front turned off, too. It seems to be wired together with the light in his little room at the gate. "Just for a minute" I tell him. Vic has now concluded that we stand a very good chance for a fully clear sky, but it's not there yet. "Maybe in an hour or two" he says. "Lets go set the alarm for one." and turns toward the room. The little man is now sitting alone in his pitch-black little space listening to horrible short wave garbled radio in an indiscernible foreign tongue. So, sympathetically, I go to tell him he may use his light for now, but we would need it turned back off later. As we are climbing the stairs to the room, I fail to notice the lights being flicked on behind us. Out the window, now I can see him wandering the grounds turning on every imaginable light they own - many of which had probably never before been lit. So much for my Spanish.
At altitude, sleep is never the same, either. Something to do with the brain thinking it's suffocating so nightmares are common and a lot of insomnia occurs. Our alarm clock consists of a tiny, electronic egg timer in a drawer beside the bed. We've put it in the drawer because every hour the thing will beep to let us know another hour has gone by, causing me to bolt wide awake in hysterical disorientation and curse the horrible mattress with a giant lump in the middle. Needless to say, when the clock struck one, I was awake looking out the window at the sky. There weren't as many lights still on as I remembered, but I saw a little red flashlight moving around below. Fred. It had to be Fred moving around by his equipment on the waters' edge. I watched the little light flicker and bob and eventually, return to the hotel. "Still cloudy". I collapsed back to sleep. I think the cleaning crew has learned that astronomers are always still in the room when they come to clean in the morning.
This years' group photo was going to be an interesting feat. Thursday was the day deemed picture day and Vic had decided to shoot it in front of Don Jose de la Mancha's Ra II. In 1971, National Geographic did a story on the effort of scientists to sail across the pacific ocean on a reed boat to test his theory of Indian migration from Africa. Don Jose was in that article. At the hotel, stands a replica of the Ra that he has made, and will with great pride ramble on in half- Spanish, half Aymara about it. In his little sod shop is a weather- worn copy of the edition that you must see - while you shop for keepsakes. So this year Vic had decided to bring a newer copy of the National Geographic and combed closets and collections to find him one. We arrived and telling folks about our idea, discovered that Fred did too, and so did Pat, and so did Scott. Prints were also made of photos taken and published in other magazines of his boat to present to him. So, where's the goodie in being the third one to give him a new copy of the magazine? We joked that perhaps he has a closet in the back. The worn, counter copy is just a front to bring in new versions and he later autographs the others and sells them. No? Not too likely since he doesn't know how to write. So all of us are gathered in front of his ship. All of us, that is except Eli. He's in La Paz enjoying the symphony. He would have to be edited in later electronically. So we left an empty spot beside the ladder for him and just as shutters were about to release, Fran reached down and grabbed up Astrogato. Click.
~ ©1998 Jennifer Dudley Winter