A Taste Of Home – Part II

Following on from Part I of this two part special, it’s time to tackle the Indian meal I had last week.  Indian restaurants are very difficult to track down in Santiago, but luckily there was one about a ten minute walk from my hotel, and so that seemed the easiest place to go.

It’s situated on Av. de 11 Septiembre, which is the same road as my hotel, but it’s much further down.  I’m by Pedro de Valdivia metro station, whereas this one is nearer Tobalaba (two stops on line one to the East).

I opted for the set menu, for about £6.00 or so.  With that you got a starter of cheese balls, with a main course of “Chicken Curry”, rice, and naan bread.  Quite what type of curry “chicken curry” was, I wasn’t certain, and I ended up having a bi lingual chat with the waiter (with me resolutely sticking to Spanish, while he opted for English). Unfortunately I also got a menu primarily in English, but fortunately it wasn’t a shambolic Google Translate job (unlike one incident I recall in a hotel in Bayeux, where the English menu offered “roofing tile” for pudding.  I still don’t know what that could have been – if you’re ever in the Bayeux area, definitely check out the tapestry)!

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Anyway, I enjoyed my chicken curry very much, although again, it’s not as good as curry in the UK!

Life On Mars?

Not only an excellent David Bowie record, and a superb BBC drama series, but also possibly (not really) what it’s like in the desert.  To be fair, parts of it have been compared to the conditions on Mars, except I doubt that Mars has any wifi, or a ready supply of orange juice!

So, what is it like, to live in a camp in the desert?  Well, ironically, the food and communications are much better here than those at the mine.  I have good wifi, and as the camp is so small (a maximum of eight people live and work here at any one time), the food is excellent. I won’t talk about the food at the mine, as there is a review of that on the way, but the difference is unbelievable!  We have a dedicated chef here, who makes delicious meals.  I’ll do a dedicated post of the food here too at a later stage.

The desert camp in its entirety

The desert camp in its entirety

The camp consists of five containers, and a tent, which house the bathroom, canteen, kitchen, storage facilities, bedrooms, and office. There is a satellite internet connection, as well as a phone and tv, and there is plenty of hot water (although the water supply gets cut off at 8 pm, as otherwise it freezes up the pipes).

A view from my front door (with Volcano Palpana in the background)

A view from my front door (with Volcano Palpana in the background)

Owing to the fact that space is at a premium, the office that I work in also doubles as my bedroom.  It does mean that my commute is the sum total of about 30 cm, which I don’t really mind.  It certainly is extremely handy!

Working from home, or living in the office?

Working from home, or living in the office?

However, having been here for a day or so, I am feeling more used to the altitude.  Last night, I slept appallingly, and this morning, woke up really dehydrated (compounded further by the desert air) with a rotter of a headache.  However, my addiction to water has started to wane, and my headache has decided to cut its losses and naff off.  Hopefully I’ll sleep much better tonight!

A Taste Of Home – Part I

Last weekend, I was having some time off in Santiago, and I thought that now I’ve been in Chile for six weeks, it’d be nice to have some food from home.  Clearly, the only option was to get a Chinese and an Indian, which is exactly what I went to do.

Chile, not really having much experience in either Empire-building or Colonialism when compared to Britain’s efforts out in India and Hong Kong, has a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to foreign foods.  If you want your American fast food chains, then Santiago is full of them (McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Subway, etc. – although not that many Starbucks interestingly enough).

Anyway, yesterday was time for Chinese for lunch, so I duly went on a explore to find a restaurant.  Stumbling across one in a side street, I ventured in.

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The menu wasn’t especially diverse, and the classics that everyone has in the UK (such as sweet and sour/crispy duck) were conspicuous by their absence from the menu.  I went ahead and ordered some spring rolls, followed by “mixed rice”, and “Peking chicken”, which duly arrived nice and promptly.

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Peking chicken and mixed rice

It was nice, with a very generous helping of chicken, and at the end I was very full.  Overall, it was a solid meal, but I get the impression that foreign food here is more of a novelty, rather than something serious.  I guess it’s a bit like it must have been in the UK in the 70s.

High And Dry

The fact that you’re reading this (and I’m writing this) means that yes, there does happen to be wifi at the camp, which ironically means the facilities in my room here (which is a shipping container) are actually better than those found at the mine itself!  I did have all the backup posts lined up, but I’ve postponed some of them (I’ll publish a couple about food though soon).

So at 4:30 this morning, I got up, and headed to the airport for my flight to Calama.  I managed to get a window seat which was brilliant. First, I got to sneak another peek at dawn over the Andes, which is always nice.

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Brrrr, wouldn’t like to get lost in that!

I also flew over the Atacama, and so was able to see it from the air. It looked so desolate it was unbelievable!

The Atacama Desert from the air

The Atacama Desert from the air

Shortly after, I arrived in Calama, and disembarked the plane.  The city is at about 2200 metres of altitude, which equates to the same amount of air pressure roughly as inside the plane whilst airborne, and so there was no need for ears to be popped on the descent.

Calama Airport

Calama Airport

My boss was waiting for me outside, and soon, we were driving off to the field camp.  It was about 100 miles away from the city, and the scenery was incredible.  It was very flat, with nothing at all, just sand and rock, and a tiny bit of snow on top of the highest mountains.  We drove past San Pedro, and San Pablo volcanoes, the summits of which are about 6000 metres or so.

San Pablo and San Pedro volcano.  You can see a lava flow to the right hand side (the black horizontal bit) and a new cone developing to the front.

San Pablo and San Pedro volcanoes. You can see a lava flow to the right hand side (the black horizontal bit) and a new cone developing to the front

We kept driving, and eventually made it to the camp, at an altitude of 4100 metres.  The altitude means that the air pressure is only about 620 mbar (about 62% of that at sea level), which also means there is significantly less oxygen (and 72% blood oxygen saturation). However, for the time being at least, I feel completely fine, so I hope that doesn’t change.  It is exceptionally arid up here though, and you can physically feel your lips drying out which is interesting!  More details about the camp to follow in the next (not Santiago themed) post.

The Courage Of Your Convictions

I’m a lucky guy.  Ok, not the luckiest bloke, but I have been lucky enough to have inherited my father’s rather nifty sense of direction (if you’ll excuse some rather uncharacteristic boasting on my part)!  A few weeks ago, I decided to walk home, rather than get a taxi (as a cab is just a waste of money right?).  I didn’t know the way, but knew which way roughly was my hotel, and walked it, based solely on my thought of “I reckon that way is east”, and a very basic knowledge of the map of the Santiago metro.  Two kilometres later, I got to my hotel, without any faff/muggings/murders (an exercise I have repeated twice more since).

A similar thing happened tonight.  It was 5 in the morning, and JD and I decided to follow a group who said there was a bar open until later (as our favourite haunt – En Secreto had shut at this point).  Sadly, this turned out not to be true.  So what happened next?  We walked east, until we got to a road.  A road that was easy to follow home (Avenue de Pedro de Valdivia).  Unfortunately, we went south, rather than north, which wasn’t ideal (I needed around number 100, but we ended up at about number 3100).  At this point JD decided to ask for directions, and decided to go east, while I looked at the numbers of the buildings, and returned north (to my hotel).  In other words, I decided to trust my instinctive sense of direction (ta muchly father dearest :D).  It was at this point that we parted.  I decided to back myself (a favourite motto used within the Sedgwick Club), based solely on my sense of direction, and made it back fine (although it was a decent walk of at least two miles), augmented by solar navigation (as dawn was breaking at this point).  Turns out JD opted for a cab in the end, which was a good shout, although much more expensive (£4+ vs. £0.00) 😛 hehehe, (although to be fair, I only had the equivalent of about 50p on me at this point and hence had no real alternative)!

I have however made errors with solar navigation in Santiago in the past, as the first day I was here, I forgot that in the southern hemisphere, the sun is to the north (rather than the south) at midday, which is different to the northern hemisphere (and hence different to London), a forgotten piece of information that made me get a tad lost! Seriously, solar navigation is really helpful.  It might not be the most accurate, but it does give you a vague idea of what direction you’re going in (as long as you know roughly what the time is too), which can be invaluable!

Tough Times

Now that my itinerary has finally been sorted for my trip to the north, it’s time to address the main issue of the Atacama Desert, namely, the environment.

Not only is it the driest hot desert in the world, with some parts having an average yearly rainfall of 15mm (or 2.5% of London’s average), however some parts are so dry that they’ve been compared to the environment found on Mars, and soil bacteria don’t even live there.

If that’s not challenging enough, the camp I’m staying at is at 4000m altitude (13000 feet ish for those of you who are still in the 19th century), which equates to an air pressure of 0.63 atmospheres, and an oxygen saturation of 70% or so.  The possible effects of altitude – swelling of the lungs and brain – can be fatal, however drug treatments include Sildenafil, or viagra as it’s more commonly known.

The final bonus is the altitude means there’s a high level of ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

All this, in my home for the next two weeks (from Monday).

Into The Unknown

Today is my last day at the mine (at least for the next three weeks), and I’m all packed and ready to go.  On Monday morning, bright and early, I’ll be flying to the city of Calama, from which I shall be driven for a few hours to the camp in the middle of the Atacama Desert.  It’ll be very interesting, and I’m excited, although I have no idea what to expect (apart from a lot of sun and sand).  However, today is quite quiet.  This morning, I had a mine safety induction (so that for my final two weeks, when I’m back here at the mine, I may go and visit it), which should be interesting!

I do have another free weekend in Santiago to look forward to, which will be great.  I get an extra day this time, as tomorrow is a public holiday, and so nobody is at work.  Anyway, all this week, the other geologists are at a training course in Santiago, and my boss is in the north doing some field stuff, so it’s been just me with the field assistants for a week.  I’ve enjoyed it, and haven’t spoken any English for ages.  I think I’m starting to take up Spanish a lot more, as I’ve had to stop myself writing some Spanish words when messaging my English speaking friends!

A Grand Day Out

Yesterday was spent back in the field, which is good, as that’s the best part of being a geologist.  Yes, you could spend your whole working life stuck in a stuffy office, or alternatively, you could go out and explore the mountains, kind of like a real life treasure hunt.  We were somewhat delayed entering the field, as part of the track had been washed away by rain, and so, arming ourselves with spades and pickaxes, we had to do some casual road building.  Once we’d done this, and got to the top, it was time for lunch.  Nothing quite says exploration like eating a salami and cheese sarnie, gazing out over the coastal mountains to the west, with the Pacific Ocean in the distance, while nearby, Andean Condors fly majestically below you, while on the radio, Time Warp is playing.  Ok, so the last bit doesn’t really add much to the scene, but hey.  (On a brief aside, mainly for the benefit of any members of Team Dalradian who are reading this, the Chilean field assistants are huge fans of Oran Na Cloiche after I played it to them)!

The shop where we buy our field lunch

The shop where we buy our field lunch

 Anyway, we spent the afternoon ambling through the mountains, looking for copper as we went.  At the end of the day, it was time to go home.  There is nothing more satisfying than climbing back into the truck to go home after a busy day in the field, with beautiful mountains and valleys to look at out of the window as you go.  At this point, there’s a philosophical question to be asked.  If a Toyota Hilux is blaring The Beach Boys out in the middle of nowhere, and nobody else is around to hear it, did it really happen?

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After reaching the valley floor, we came across a surprise, and had to rescue a family who’d become marooned (a rescue executed in a naturally extravagant display of gallantry and self sacrifice of course, so much so that it’ll be a tale that resonates throughout the ages).  That might have been a slight exaggeration, but the internet is full of hyperbole anyway, so a small addition to that on my part won’t really make any difference.  Essentially, they’d driven their truck onto a rock and were stuck, so after a bit of digging, we managed to tow them out with a steel cable.  That having been sorted, it was time to head home.

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Today, I was going to go to the mine to see what’s what, but unfortunately, that’s now not happening.  If it’s raining, field work is cancelled, and the mine stops working too (makes a nice change from last summer! – again, a comment directly aimed at Team Dalradian).

I Used To Be A Geologist Like You…

But then I took a cactus to the face.

Ok, so I rehashed a (now old) internet meme simply for the purposes of a new title.  I haven’t actually taken a cactus to the face yet, hence why I am still a geologist (although I’ve come quite close on several occasions).  The cacti around here are vicious, they have massive spikes, that are pretty tough (although I did see a camel eating one at the Santiago zoo – the cheeky smug git).

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I must admit, the working environment of a mine is much more dangerous than your average office.  The mine itself has lorries that can carry 300 tonnes of rock each driving around, as well as blasting everyday at 5pm (which makes a loud bang, and the office building shakes for a few seconds).  The processing plants are risky places too, where you’ve got giant rock crushing machines, and 20 metre deep “swimming” pools of sulphuric acid (it’s ok though, as I’ve got safety specs).

Overall, it makes working in the field seem a lot safer (at least it certainly seems that way).  I’m spending these days out doing fieldwork, and one of my colleagues warned me about an insect that I was unlikely to come across, but you never know.  It’s known as a vinchuca, and apparently likes living on rocks, although it’s winter, so there might not be any.  Of course, there is a twist (isn’t there always a twist?).

Some of these vinchucas are apparently infected with a delightful little parasite that causes something called Chagas’ Disease.  Often, this is symptomless.  Doesn’t sound so bad?  Well, it’s also incurable, and for those for whom it is not symptomless, things can get a bit… unpleasant.  Things along the lines of an enlarged heart, or intestine.  Sudden death 30 years down the line is another possible option.  Charming!  The only piece of good news is that after digging around the internet for a bit, it appears that Chile has managed to eradicate transmission via these charming chappies. I’ll avoid the little critters anyway though if I see any, just in case!

Anyway, the field is great, it’s much more like proper geology (walking around the mountains looking at rocks is more fun than reading papers and reports).  The weather yesterday was lovely, topped off with a few Andean Condors flying around the area.

Hey Mr. Condor, how's it going?

Hey Mr. Condor, how’s it going?

I had a surprise when I got home though, as on the front door was a very large scary looking notice, written with lots of red capital letters and a rather fetching skull and crossbones motif in the top corner.  Not quite what I was expecting.  Essentially, for some reason (of which I hadn’t be told, rather worryingly), a company had popped in to give the place a nice dousing in pesticides.  Quite why this was needed I have no idea, hopefully it wasn’t a plague of Chagas’ infected vinchucas!

Wasn't expecting to see that on my front door!

Wasn’t expecting to see that on my front door!

 Today is an office day for me, as the field assistants have a few things to do down at the drill core storage facility, and we wouldn’t have enough time to get to the field (it’s a 2-3 hour drive each way).  I’ve got some stuff to read about alteration textures, and have the Fourth Ashes Test scores up too, with a nice cup of tea on my desk too of course, so I’m sorted!  I did get a lie in this morning, which was marvellous (I didn’t have to get in until 9am)!  Hopefully the same will apply for tomorrow!

A Big Challenge

Those of you who know me, as well as those of you who have bothered to read the About Me page will notice that I like books.  Indeed, my post entitled Groundhog Day mentions my ordering a book about Cambridge University Library.  Anyway, with that thought in mind, and by looking through my travel bucket list, I realised that although the country of Bhutan fascinates me, and in spite of my trawling wikipedia relentlessly for Bhutanese topics, I still know very little about this most enigmatic and isolated of countries.

You can imagine my delight when I came across a book (published 2008) that reviews said was very comprehensive, and full of information about this country.  Not only that, but it was written by a former Bhutanese diplomat, and so ought to be pretty accurate (and is endorsed by the Queen Mother of Bhutan).  Should be a decent read then, but where to buy it?

It was at this point that it got a bit tricky, because it seems like you can’t buy it.  “I shall find it in the UL!”, I thought.  They don’t have it either.  The same story applies to the British Library (which boasts 150,000,000 items in its collection).  I even bit the bullet and checked the Bodleian Library (but luckily it’s not there either).

After an exhaustive search (Blackwells, Waterstones, various Hay-on-Wye establishments, etc.), I elected to hunt down the publisher.  However, they don’t have a website.

My next desperate attempt was to have a look on WorldCat, which is a catalogue of the collections of libraries from all over the world.  The three nearest (and only) public libraries that have a copy of this book are in New York, Washington D.C., and Singapore.  However, they all have it down as reference only.

After a lot of digging around, (and I mean a LOT), finally I tracked down one new copy for sale.  There is only one on the whole internet it seems.  A shop in the US is selling it.  So, there are two options.  Either, pay lots more money than I’d normally be willing to for a book, or write to the publisher in Thimphu by post (as there’s no website/email address, or even a fax) to see if they’d sell me one?  Hmmm, I’ll need to have a think about it.