Tuesday Jun 24, 2008

Living within Our Means




We spent the past week in one of the more remote spots on this planet – the Atacama desert in northern Chile (photos coming soon). Known as the driest place on earth, it presented lunar landscapes, active volcanos, towering sand dunes, oases, thermal springs and the most spectacular night sky you can imagine. Aside from the obvious deficit of rain, there was one other thing notably lacking in this high desert: oxygen.

Our lodge was at 8,000 feet, with hikes and horseback riding taking us up to 13,000 feet. I spent a lot of time gasping for breath, and two hours of ascending a steep, rocky path in a narrow canyon up to the thermals was just about the death of this sea-level girl.

I couldn't help but notice the number of areas that were terraced but not farmed. The villages that were built and deserted, unable to survive in the harsh climate. The town of San Pedro, where we stayed, owes its existence to an oasis created by runoff water from the Andes and to its shaded position between two mountain ranges.

In Atacama, the severity of its climate and location mean a limited and fragile environment that cannot support many people, wildlife or plant life.

A quick but related change of topic... One of the real pleasures of time away from work is limitless reading. On the flight to Santiago, I was completely engrossed in the book, The Unheard, a Memoir of Deafness and Africa. Its profoundly deaf author, Josh Swiller, writes about his experiences as a volunteer for the Peace Corp in Zambia. It's a fascinating story, and one I won't soon forget.

But going to Atacama after reading this book created an interesting juxtaposition – Josh's placement is in the tropical, poor village of Mununga, where the population is sustained, albeit barely, by fish from Lake Mwere. Life in Atacama is limited by the dry, harsh climate. Tourists bring pesos (good) but also put pressure on the environment (bad). Growing populations can bring damage to a fragile ecosystem (like Atacama) and worse, chaos and violence to a poor village with little governance (Mununga). Lessons that apply to all of us. The world is indeed a very small place.

One last thought. Saturday night we spent the evening with an astronomer, who talked about the night sky in this remote location. We had the luxury of using the facilities of the finest private planetarium in South America, where we saw the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter. We talked about the beginning and the end of our galaxy, and the unique conditions on our planet that made life possible.

It gave me a dizzying sense of wonder and reminded me of the fragility of what we have today. It won't always be here – we are but a time-limited speck in the universe. How privileged we are to live in this time.

A great vacation all in all.

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terrymckenzie

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