Thursday 30 October 2014

South America Part 2: Walking on the Moon in Bolivia and Chile

As part of his role as Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, Marek Kukula's role involves visiting schools to give presentations on the subject. A question he is often asked is what is his favourite planet? When pupils may expect him to say Jupiter or Saturn, they get a surprise when he says Earth, just as I did when I had the privilege to hear him speak at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland two years ago. On the next part of my South America adventure going into Bolivia and northern Chile, passing through a diverse range of spectacular landscapes, I could see why the planet we live on is Kukula's favourite!

A rainbow halo around the Sun seen over Lake Titicaca
One of the many reasons why Earth is Kukula's favourite planet is because of such diversity of landscapes and also that, still to human knowledge, not only is it the only planet known to support life, but supports life in a variety of different shapes and forms from plant and animal life to microbiological life forms. When crossing Lake Titicaca, South America's deepest lake on the Peru-Bolivia border, I was met with another reason for Earth to be one's favourite planet, how the elements within its atmosphere interact with the light from its star, the Sun can produce such beautiful sights in the sky. As seen in the Sacred Valley, such interaction produces rainbows, but at Lake Titicaca, I was fortunate to see something much rarer, a rainbow halo around the Sun! This optical phenomenon is created when sunlight shines through ice crystals in the atmosphere, with the crystals acting like prisms, both reflecting and refracting the light to create the shape.

On the surface, the interaction of physical elements together with the obvious abundance of liquid water together with variation in temperature and climate combine to create a diverse range of dramatic natural landscapes that are also found on other planets in the Solar System, something which I saw in action in Bolivia and northern Chile, a relatively small geographical area in Earth terms. I started my journey through other-worldly landscapes with Bolivia's Valley of the Moon, a short drive outside the country's largest city and unofficial capital La Paz in which I saw a landscape of tall spires comprised of clay that many thousands of years ago formed the bottom of a lake that eventually dried up, a little reminder that South America's tropical glaciers may likely disappear within the next 30 years and what the whole planet Earth may look like if its seas and oceans evaporated.

Salar de Unuyi at Sunset, Bolivia, note the distinctive polygon shapes
The next adventure though, crossing the Salarde Unuyi, the world's largest salt flats, in Bolivia was special. Effectively a vast white desert made out of salt, when I arrived at Salar de Unuyi, I felt like I had landed on another planet after just having visited one of its moons! Just like within a lot of human activity, including art and architecture, within nature there are many patterns. Both patterns created by human activity, the salt piles for salt production, and patterns formed by nature, the polygon shapes are visible on the flats. Whereas as humans we like patterns for decoration, consistency or in my case in relation to how I am affected by Asperger's Syndrome, to enable predictability, in nature, patterns unfold as they are meant to, sometimes with distinctive shapes as shown in the polygon patterns on the Salt Flats. These beautiful patterns, which could almost easily be mistaken for human art, form as a result of the concentration of different elements present in the flats including lithium, magnesium and potassium.

What very fascinating to me from a mindful noticing perspective is how landscapes respond to its surroundings, including its response to sunlight and changing weather conditions. naturally white, the salt flats can appear a dark yellowish colour at sunrise and sunset and light blue during twilight hours. During rainy season, the flats flood, forming a natural mirror which reflects the sky. When not attempting photographic stunts with toy dinosaurs or bottles of wine as many visitors to Salar de Unuyi find themselves immersed in, the vast open space and emptiness of the salt flats being away from distractions is enough for one's mirror neurons to turn towards them. Staring by noticing the effects of nature on landscapes as they arise and fade, when we turn the quality of this noticing towards us it becomes much easier to turn to and notice our inner thoughts and feelings as they arise and fade, including noticing how little attention we pay to them and how we may have a tendency to act on them when we are least aware. The emptiness started to fade when approaching Isla Incahuasi, a rocky outcrop in the centre where giant cacti grows and where coral like structures and fossils are present, again showing the continual now of the ever-evolving process of how the salt flats formed, being a deposit of a lake where living coral was present that dried up and how multiple different lifeforms evolve adapt to ever changing conditions, with the cacti having developed to grow with efficient water use.

Sand dunes in the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna), Chile
After Salar de Unuyi, the next dramatic landscape I visited was Chile's Atacama Desert, home of another Valley of the Moon. Coming from the vast white emptiness of Bolivia's salt flats, the blood red sand dunes, lava domes together with the Licancabur Volcano in the background were a complete contrast. Again, it was like visiting another moon. As well as a complete contrast from Salar de Uyuni, it was also a totally different landscape to the Valley of the Moon I had visited in Bolivia, though they have something in common with how they get their name having been visited by Apollo Astronuats Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin who would famously become the first humans to walk on the Moon. Chile's Valley of the Moon not only has features in common with the Moon with its dusty dunes, but also has features in common with Venus with lava domes and Mars with its wind-shaped rock formations.

Sunset over the Atacama Desert
Through a visit to Chile's Valley of the Moon, one can almost have a tour of the inner Solar System without leaving Earth, with the only obvious absence being the atmosphere and weather systems of these three very different worlds. While watching the Sun set over the Atacama Desert, it came home to me about my own and general living existence after seeing deposits of many different elements, including elements present that make up the physical form of the human body, that in contrast to what we say about when we are born we 'come into the world', in accordance with Zen thought, it is more so that we come from the world, from the elements it is made up and in accordance with Hindu death customs as in nature, we go back to when we die. Potassium, sodium and magnesium present in the salt flats which are also present in the physical make-up of the human body and many other elements necessary for life in any shape or form to exist  of enabled by conditions that result the right amount of light and heat given out by the Sun, For the Sun to give out the right amount of light and heat, it must eventually die, another reminder that nothing is fixed or permanent.

Showing the effect of the sunlight on landscape, a dark colour during daylight (top), Licancabur turns red at Sunset (below)

Part 3, the concluding part of my South American Odyssey, will follow soon.


Monday 27 October 2014

South America Part 1: Coca Leaves, Orchids, Micro-climates and Macchu Picchu

After being blown away, including in one instance almost literally by Patagonia's winds, during my first visit to South America, I made a point to return to the continent at some stage after feeling that my first visit had opened me up to a whole new part of the world, with plenty of new experiences to be sought. As I have found from previous adventures, sometimes the location delivers much more than the trip notes, and in this way, my second visit to South America certainly did not disappoint.

Starting in Peru, I embarked on the Inca Trail after visiting Cusco, the former Inca capital, to acclimatise to the altitude. Trekking through nature while passing historical ruins was a fascinating experience. For me, trekking is a good way to practice mindfulness of walking, through noticing the sensations from each step along the path while simultaneously opening up to and noticing the climate and conditions around you. Together with coca leaves, that many living in the Andean region chew on to make up for the lack of oxygen in the high altitude and a favourite with tourists, opening up to the air around you while bringing attention to the breath can help adjust to the high altitude, including taking deeper breaths where possible, enabling as much oxygen to reach the heart as possible.

An orchid in bloom along the Inca Trail
Focusing on the sensations experienced in the present helps one to tune into the present moment, but at the same time, much of the present day trail, which runs through the region known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas, is of original Inca construction, chronologically over 500 years old in some parts. Walking along the paths used by the Incas, including the Inca runners who relayed messages in the form of rope patterns between settlements, one can either almost feel that time has stood still along the route with the distinctive shapes of the terraced Inca settlements having survived intact or with the absence of inhabitation, the legacy of a civilization long since lost within time. But when one focuses attention to the bloom of the present moment, including noticing the variety of orchids in bloom along the route, the notion time compromised of past, present and future interweaves into a continual now, where on closer inspection, the effects of time brought by both human activity and the every alternating micro-climates in the region can be seen.

Rainbow Bridge across Sacred Valley of the Incas
Within close proximity of the Sacred Valley are three different environments including the high altitude of the Andes through which the trail runs, the tropical rainforests of the Amazon Basin towards the East and towards the west the cloud forests, forests shrouded in mist. Whereas in the rainforests the competition among interlocking trees is for sunlight, in the cloud forest the competition is for soil, Peru's cloud forests are also home to the spectacled bear, South America's only species of bear. From this, I found out where 'Darkest Peru' is, from where Paddington Bear came from before finding refuge with the Brown family at 32 Windsor Gardens in London! Each micro-climate in the region brings its own weather, which brings constantly changing weather conditions from bright sunshine to wind and rain, which also brings its effects with it that have been known to play upon human imagination, including producing spectacular rainbow bridges across the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Rainbow bridges were believed by the Incas to connect the living world with the spirit world high up in the mountains, where the souls of the deceased resided, similar to the Viking belief that they connected the living world with Valhalla.

Winaywayna Inca Settlement
It is well-known that many people with Asperger's Syndrome struggle to cope with change, one of the reason why I take on such challenges. In recent years, I have found that by facing up to constant change through being present with it helps me cope more effectively, whereas resisting can lead to high-level anxiety. More recently, I have begun to notice that through facing up to such constant change also helps to notice and open up to thought patterns, which like the Sacred Valley's micro-climates are constantly changing. Observing the terrace formations in the Inca settlements, one is reminded of how sustainability of a civilisation can be enabled through working with physical landscapes and local micro-climates, through adapting to and making use of them. The terraced formation in the Inca settlements not only blends effectively into the mountainous landscape, but also allows for different micro-climates with different amounts of irrigation to take place in which a variety of different crops could be grown, including maize and sweet potato.

The Oh My God Steps
Like with other trekking challenges I have done, including Kilimanjaro, within the challenge itself are many different challenges, which can have effects on the mind, where sometimes the mind sees it differently to how it actually is. When trekking Kilimanjaro, the almost vertical-looking Barranco Wall is one such challenge. Towards the end of the Inca Trail is what are locally called the 'Oh My God Steps', a set of 50 almost vertical looking steps. Such sights can induce doubt in one's mind as to whether they can overcome such a challenge, especially after having done much of the hard work already!

The experience of a mountain trek has been described by some, including myself, as being analogous to one's life, a range of different sensory experiences over a period ranging from a few days to a few weeks together with ups and downs, both the physical ups and downs of the route together with the mental ups and downs experienced throughout the journey. As a person with Asperger's Syndrome, a little reminder this brought home to me was how one is affected by the condition differently at different stages of one's life, as well as how one's relationship with issues that the condition presents changes, including finding ways of coping with it.

After overcoming the Oh My God Steps, I reached the Sun Gate from where Macchu Picchu can be seen in the distance. Whereas during the day, Macchu Picchu, being one of the world's great historical sites, is constantly busy and crowded with tourists, by the time I reached it, it was virtually deserted as it was nearing closing time, almost like it would have been when it was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. After being able to see it so clearly, the following morning when I returned to explore its interior, it was hidden behind mist, which was another reminder of how our thought patterns alternate between being clear and clouded. Mindfulness though is simply noticing this and being present with it.


...and clouded

Part Two of my adventure will follow shortly - watch this space!