Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Hippie pants, skinned knees, and outer space

I bought hippie pants. They're billowy and floral. They have elastic at the bottom, and if I'm being honest with myself, they're borderline hammer pants. But you know what? I like them. This was a decision I made after pacing in front of the fitting room mirror for about half an hour, examining them from every possible angle and trying to determine how much I resembled my mom in the early 90s. I bought them for the vacation I took this weekend to La Serena, a gorgeous university beach town on a bay about eight hours north of Valparaíso. Just inland from La Serena is the famous Valle de Elqui, a long, fertile valley hemmed in by colossal, dry mountains covered in scrub and cacti. The valley floor is lush and green and if you jumped out of a micro careening on the tiny high roads above the valley (which I was almost tempted to do after I didn't get a seat and had to stand in the aisle and hold on for dear life on the hour-long ride), you would almost definitely land in a vineyard. The Valle de Elqui is the heart of Chilean Pisco country. It's also famous for it's geographic location: if you dug a tunnel in a straight line and crawled through the earth for a few years, you would come out slightly singed right smack in the middle of the soaring, mystical land of Tibet. So, of course, the Valle de Elqui is imbued with all the spiritual powers, crystal vendors, good vibes, and soul-searching, hippie-pants-wearing people you might expect to inhabit such a holy place. I fit right in.

The eight of us arrived in La Serena on Thursday afternoon, and spent most of the day getting settled into our hostels and exploring the town. My hostel had a roof deck, and it was Pisco Sour night, so I stayed up late hanging out and talking with a small group of people from all over the place. I met a writer from Nashville, Tennessee who works as an economist in Santiago, and talked about what it's like to learn a different language with a woman from Germany (who has learned five of them!). People are so cool. The next day, we took a micro to Coquimbo, a town about twenty minutes away from La Serena. If the region of La Serena were a croissant, Coquimbo would be its delicious crunchy southern tip. The city is built on two hills and tapers out to a rocky point that juts into the sea. We walked around the fish market right on the water and I ate the best ceviche of my entire life, loaded with fish and cilantro and onions, for the equivalent of $2! After the market, we hiked through neighborhoods to the top of the hill to see the absolutely massive, futuristic concrete cross built on top of one of the hills that we had seen from the bus the day before. As it turned out, you could walk up a few flights of stairs to an elevator that would take you up to a lookout room in the arms of the cross. The day was gorgeous and clear, and we could see all the way from the ocean to the mountains. On the way back down, I decided it would be awesome and efficient to slide down the banister instead of wasting my time walking (ha! please) down the last two flights of stairs. The first flight was great. On the second flight, however, I started going way too fast and totally wiped out under the unmoved eyes of the higher power whose giant symbol towered above me. And that's how I lost my faith in Coquimbo. Just kidding. I walked away with one skinned knee and some damaged pride, but otherwise I'm doing a great job of being an adult. 

The next day, we took a micro out to Vicuña in the Valle de Elqui. Vicuña is a small, hot, beautiful, dry, Latin American town, centered on a dusty church that faces a plaza. A pretty woman was riding through the plaza on a bike in the sun, selling empanadas de pino from a cardboard box. A somber procession of traditionally-dressed musicians trudged through the center of the plaza underneath low-hanging trees, playing slow music while the man leading the group read aloud from the Bible. It was like David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Wes Anderson had a baby. It was kind of creepy but so gorgeous I wanted to fold it up, put it in a box, and bring it home with me.

On our last night, we had a reservation to tour the Mamalluca Observatory at 1:30 a.m. This was incredibly exciting because 1) The Mamalluca Observatory is a professional observatory that offers astronomy tours to the public 2) Space is totally rad 3) Los Jaivas, a Chilean folk/Andina/psychedelic band wrote an entire album about the observatory and 4) I love outer space. The tour began with a half hour introduction to general concepts in astronomy, and our guide talked about how the Mapuche, the indigenous people of Chile, viewed certain constellations. Then, we split into smaller groups and went out onto the roof terrace. I have never seen so many stars in my entire life. This is what the night sky looked like:

The arms of the Milky Way were so bright and pale, it was easy to understand the Greek myth about its creation. Our guide discussed different objects in the sky and then we viewed them through the telescope. I got to see the nebula in Orion, Jupiter and four of its moons, betelgeuse, sirius, and the sculptor galaxy! And I learned about them all in Spanish! There are so few times in my life when I am confronted with the knowledge of how itty bitty and speck-like I am. I think I tend to side with Walt Whitman ("I am large / I contain multitudes!") on the issue of self-perception. Peering into a spot in the sky that seems smaller than a blood cell but actually contains something alien and beautiful and more enormous than the solar system I live in does something to my sense of scale and perspective. Space is humbling. And all that worldly perspective at 3:00 a.m. makes a girl sleepy. We got back to the cabins around 4:30, and I was asleep in bed by 4:32. 

I returned home yesterday morning, and it felt like coming home. My life here hasn't become boring, but it definitely just feels like life now. I go to school, I eat, I walk around, I read, I make an ass of myself a few times a day, I spend time with my friends, and I sleep. All of those things that felt overwhelming at first are a part of my daily routine now. And just like in North Carolina, sometimes it takes getting away for a while to realize how much a place does feel like home.