Chilean morning send-off: under the Andes with Atacama minions

Cerro Tololo, Región de Coquimbo, Chile

Valley morning fog below Andean foothills

The morning creeps gently forward, up and over the desert sky. Sounds? What sounds? What scarce sounds there are, they pierce the silence with soft whistles and drawn-out wails. Alternating light and dark horizontal streamers, known also as “the rays of God,” mark the first light of dawn. Small clumps break loose, as the overnight shroud of valley fog pulls back slowly from view.

The sun climbs higher, the shadows grow shorter, the cotton patch dissolves. It isn’t long until a spectacular sight is revealed. This is what you get from a height of 7500 feet above sea level.

Dry river beds twist and sweep and stretch along canyon floors. Cactus and desert scrub carpets the surrounding hills in faded greens and dusty browns. To the east rise jagged rocky teeth capped with white frosting, fixing the location of the Andes along the Chilean spine.

In this desolate and isolated part of the world, I’ve often wondered about the few brave souls who make this place their home. They’re prospectors, miners, even some farmers, all of whom carry their burden for financial endeavour. People have been digging around in these parts for centuries, whether it’s plant, mineral, or some kind of monetary paydirt.

But there’s another human enterprise with different rewards, a quest that asks questions on a much larger scale.

How do planets take shape?
How do stars form?
How are galaxies assembled?
Is there life elsewhere in the universe?

These issues occupy astronomers from all over the world. Many astronomers go up onto mountains, just like this one, onto the summit of Cerro Tololo, peering into the skies. The telescopes point straight up, reaching out like outstretched hands, wanting more.

Cerro Tololo, Región de Coquimbo, Chile

Illuminated telescope domes on Tololo

I’ve been coming here since 1995. I’m never bored of Chilean sunrises, impressive in the daily entrance over the tall Andes mountains. I’m never bored of Chilean sunsets, providing as always some measure of peace in the daily exit over the waters of the Pacific.

And so, I’ve witnessed hundreds of Chilean sunrises over the years, but today, this special sunrise stands out from the rest.

Today, I’m leaving the mountain for the last time. Soon, I’ll leave Chile, my residence of 5 years. Soon, I’ll leave behind astronomy, after 15 years in the making.

I’m fortunate I recognized change was coming in my life. All the signs were present, even though trying to stick around was undoubtedly the safer choice. Any despair I had about leaving astronomy has transformed into something resembling relief. I have no regrets about astronomy; it’s time for something new.

I have a new journey to take on: one full year around the world. I’m okay with jumping into the unknown; I get to ask different questions, even if I receive few answers in reply. I’m reminded the journey itself will be the most important thing.

Some furry four-legged creatures have arrived to greet the sunrise here on the summit of Cerro Tololo. A scruffy mountain goat moseys up, lifting its head to gauge my morning mood. Three desert foxes about the size of small dogs have also joined the party. They all leave disappointed; I have nothing for their attempts to beg for food.

It sounds strange, but this all seems to fit as my way of saying goodbye to Chile.

But a ‘goodbye’ to the old implies there’s a ‘hello’ to something new.

Well, what’s it going to be?
What am I going to be?

Recovering astronomer.
Language collector.
Aspiring writer.
Enthusiastic traveler.
Passionate photographer.

We are all the same, under the same sky.

Cerro Tololo, Región de Coquimbo, Chile

Mountain goat (cabra) on sentry

Cerro Tololo, Región de Coquimbo, Chile

Yappy desert foxes (zorros culpeos)

More from Chile

•   Fotoeins Friday: Asleep at the Atacama view
•   Chile’s Elqui River: World Tourism Day

I made all of the photos above. A version of this story appears on World Nomads (May 2014). This post appears as part of the Sunday Traveler series. Appearing on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com, the present version is a transcript of the reading at the Vancouver launch for Debbie Wong’s book, “The Same Sky” on 30 July 2014.

24 Responses to “Chilean morning send-off: under the Andes with Atacama minions”

    • fotoeins

      Hi and thanks for your very kind comment! i miss being up at altitude, that’s for sure! Thanks for stopping by; i hope you’ll come back for more.🙂

      Like

    • fotoeins

      Hi and thanks, Chanel! Sometimes, the silhouettes work better than the actual objects or creatures themselves!🙂

      Like

    • fotoeins

      Thanks, Angela! It’s interesting to recognize how unique are our place and our function as astronomers, and the ability to travel to and work in remote places. As with many things, it’s sometimes difficult to recognize and value where we are, while we’re in the middle of the action, and it’s not until after we leave do we truly appreciate just how good the experiences have been. As you’re in Seattle, have you check to see if the Astronomy department at the University of Washington has any nights for the public to visit? Just up the I-5 here in Vancouver, Canada, the planetarium and the University of British Columbia have public nights. And I’m sure you know there’s lots of beautiful places to visit in the Canadian Southwest and the Pacific Northwest!🙂 Thanks for stopping by and for your comment!

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    • fotoeins

      Hi and thanks, Maria. That last day was a little tougher than usual, yes. I didn’t exactly weep, as I was very ready to leave Chile, but looking back at my photographs brings all of the memories back. Thanks again for your comment1

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    • fotoeins

      Thanks, Adelina. A lot of courses, hard work, and a little bit of luck go a long way for folks in the astro biz. The scenery helps though, at least for those who like going to faraway observatories for work. Thanks again for reading and for your comment!

      Like

  1. Anna | slightly astray

    I know how hard it is to leave what you know behind (I felt grief, and then relief as well), but it sounds like you’re going on a very exciting journey! I wish you the best of luck, and I’ll be looking forward to following your journey!

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    Reply
    • fotoeins

      Hi, Anna, and thanks! Cheers to you from Vancouver, along the Pacific coast to you in southern California!

      Like

  2. Rajlakshmi

    your description of the place is even more beautiful than the pictures, which themselves fabulous. Now I feel like viewing a Chilean sunrise myself

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    Reply
    • fotoeins

      Hi and thanks for your kind comments! In Chile, especially at altitude, the sun rises over dramatically the Andes (wow factor), and later in the day, the sun sets over the Pacific (wow again). Those are two aspects I miss about Chile! Thanks again for reading!

      Like

  3. White Postcards

    I can feel your mixed emotions in your writing. Best of luck Henry as you embark on your new journey! I’ll be back to check in on your wonderful photos and adventures. -Ginette

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    Reply
    • fotoeins

      Hi, Ginette; thanks for your kind comments! How does the saying go? “The end of something is another way of beginning something new.” 🙂 Thanks again for reading!

      Like

  4. Aperture Of My Soul

    Very special tribute to your last day in one world and new day into another. Traveling for a year (or longer) is my dream. Very excited you are getting to live that dream. Your photos are lovely. I don’t think you were going for ‘lovely’ with the telescope photo . 😉 Looking forward to hearing more about your journey!

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    Reply
    • fotoeins

      Hi, Nancie! As a recovering astronomer who spent a lot of time at telescopes, many of my (former) colleagues as well as telescope fans will likely take a “shining” to that telescopes photo above. 😉 Thanks again for reading and for your kind compliments!

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  5. Debbie Wong

    Henry this was so beautifully written and introspective too. I felt I was there with you! I think this is definitely a heart-warming piece that would resonate in all our hearts as we think about life’s changes while taking in peaceful mountain views. Thanks for this!!

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    Reply
    • fotoeins

      Hi and thank you, Debbie! I find it hard sometimes to step back far enough to see if a story or a set of photographs can deliver the emotional impact I’m intending; I guess everyone has similar problems. I’m more than thrilled that you captured some of that essence through those words. Thanks again for your kind comments!

      Like

  6. Vicky

    I love this post and the strength behind that decision. Astronomy is great and traveling the worls is a reflection of freedom.

    Like

    Reply

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