Thursday, March 09, 2006

Space Aliens

We have been in Santiago de Chiquitos for a couple of days. We drove down here on Friday, looking for a quite place to hide during the crazy Carnival weekend. Last year we went to Concepcion. Not a good place to be during Carnival. Santiago is smaller and though there were several comparsas marching around this weekend, most of the partying was done in their houses and not right on the main plaza. It was interesting to see them dress up and come dancing and playing in their little bands around the plaza. We are staying in a new “five star” hotel called Hotel Buela. I don’t think it is quite five star, but it is surprisingly nice for a small rural community of this size. It has a great restaurant, and clean well appointed rooms with a great bathroom. Santiago de Chiquitos is a difficult 10 hour drive, mostly off-road, from Santa Cruz. I won’t give complete details of our trip, but suffice it to say it was quite muddy and slow and bumpy and we were all at each others throats by the time we arrived in Santiago. It would probably be better to take the train next time.

Santiago is at about 1500 feet elevation, and 1000 feet above Robore, a regional city on the train line to Brazil. Robore is notoriously hot most of the year, but Santiago is surprisingly cool and fresh. I don’t think I will recount all of the details of our stay, but I did want to document a hike I took this evening. My memory is growing progressively worse as I age and if I don’t write it down I will probably not remember it in five years. Vanessa amazes me with the detailed memories she has of events that happened years and years ago. She can remember the dialog of our conversations when I cannot even vaguely remember the situation or event.

Vanessa and the kids went to visit our friend Katharine Whittaker on her dairy while I took off alone up to the ridge above town, hoping to get some good pictures of the rock cliffs and towers at sunset. We had gone hiking in this area several days earlier with the kids and it was a lot of fun, but I didn’t get in the photography I wanted to because we went in the middle of the afternoon. The light was bad and it was hard to move around the rocks and cliffs with Isaiah in tow. So this afternoon the light looked promising—patches of sun and a few dark clouds rolling through. I got on the trail with just about an hour and a half of good light left. The trail climbs through a forest and rock crags before emptying out onto a large flat grassy plateau with magnificent views of cliffs, rock towers, and the Toluma valley. You can see a hundred kilometers across the valley to a distant range of mountains that hides the community of Santo Corazon where World Concern has some micro credit groups. The road I came up actually crosses the Toluma valley and makes its way over to Santo Corazon 140 kilometers away. The road is in such poor condition that it is impassable by vehicle. Other than flying, the only way into Santo Corazon is on foot, mule, or to hitch a ride on an occasional tractor. In any case it is at least a two day journey with an overnight stop in the wilderness. There are no settlements or people living between Santiago and Santo Corazon.

On my way up through the crags I spotted no less than a dozen toucans (like Toucan Sam of Fruit Loops fame) flying through the trees. I wasn’t able to get a picture of one because they were too high in the canopy and I couldn’t spot them until they were already on the move. They look so awkward sitting in the trees, but they really are beautiful in flight. When extended, their huge hollow beaks look like the front of a fighter jet. Their short little wings flap quickly; their flight looks inefficient, but they are obviously uniquely adapted to their environment. I climbed on up to the plateau, maybe 500 vertical feet above the truck, and began photographing the rock towers and cliffs. The clouds were moving quickly overhead so I waited for just the right light on the formations and distant mountains. On the very top of the plateau was a 50 foot high rock island that looked like a man-made fortress topped with trees and cactus.

I was working my way around the fortress when I heard a strange and out of place, almost otherworldly noise. It sounded like a kite crashing to the ground—the loud flutter of fabric or perhaps sails against the wind, and then silence. Then I heard it several more times. The hair on my neck stood on end and in my mind I began imagining strange and perhaps invisible extra-terrestial crafts playing games with me. I could feel the adrenaline rushing through my body, unconsciously preparing itself for fight or flight. My fears were calmed when I finally caught a glimpse of what was causing the noise. Birds were literally falling out of the sky, twisting and turning as they dove with incredible speed into what appeared to be solid ground. I walked closer to where they were vanishing and saw that they were actually diving full speed into a crack in the rocks. The crack was no more than one or two meters wide and filled with trees and bushes along the edge. I peered over the edge and could not see the bottom, only a dark twisting chasm. In another place I could see the bottom but it appeared to be at least 200 or more feet down. This fissure in the rock began on the cliff edge and ran parallel to the cliff line maybe 50 meters from the edge. It ran all the way to another set of cliffs maybe half a mile further down the range. These birds, small to medium sized brown or black birds (I didn’t get a good look at them), must have been roosting for the evening. It looked like some form of play. They purposefully flew with as much speed as possible, and making as much noise as possible, into the thinnest and deepest of cracks. I could hear them whistling and calling to each other in the depths of the crevasse. It looked as though I might be able to scramble down through passages through the cliffs and enter crack from one end. But the sun was setting quickly so I will have to leave that for another day.

I walked on down the ridge and sat on a rock overlook where I had a magnificent view of the whole mountain range. It looks like a series of waves that are slowly rising to a peak and are about to crash down into the Toluma valley. Essentially, this might be what is happening, but on geological time scale beyond my perception. I found a unique little tree on the edge of the cliff that I wanted to use in the foreground of a landscape picture, but the light was not right. A dark cloud was passing overhead and I was afraid it would not clear before the sun set behind the ridge to the west. It began to rain and I worried about keeping my camera dry. The storm passed as quickly as it had appeared and then moved out over the ridge into the valley a thousand feet below me. Patches of sun, shadow, and rain raced across the vast valley floor. Just five minutes before the sun set behind the ridge, the sky cleared and a bright ray of sun lit up my little tree, then a huge rainbow appeared out over the valley before me. It was the biggest, brightest and most intense rainbow I have ever seen. It was almost three quarters of a circle, beginning far out in the valley and arching over to a green plateau among rock ridges no more than a kilometer down the range. My adrenaline began flowing again as I haphazardly ran in circles on top of the ridge trying to find the best vantage to capture the rainbow along with my little tree and the mountains in the background. The rainbow faded after about five minutes, but the magical light continued for another half an hour or so. I got some beautiful pictures of condors playing the air currents on the ridge line and of the setting sun. I snapped over 300 pictures in less than an hour. I suppose “out of context” all of this sounds a bit corny, but it truly was a unique spiritual experience—a too rare commune with God in his creation. To be honest, I was a bit spooked as I descended into the forest in complete darkness. Every sound I heard caused me to pick up the pace and I literally ran back down to the trail head where I left the car parked. It’s difficult to describe in words the emotion I experienced as I heard and saw the beauty of God’s creation this evening. I hope I got some descent pictures that can even half way represent what I experienced. I will probably be as disappointed with my images as I am with this written narrative. Hopefully they can serve as reminders so I do not forget the true experience of living in the moment.

You can see a few pictures from San Jose and Santiago de Chiquitos at

1 comment:

bradj said...

To call this a "killer shot" is an understatement, and I love the story, too. Are you selling your work?