Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Atacama Dreamscape?

Even now, as I start to tap out these thoughts, so it is almost as if I am still slightly unsure that I am 'actually' awake- it is 03:23 of a Tuesday morning. This posting may read as a tad self-dramatic, but I thought that I should quickly note the experience, before some significant detail is whisked away and is gone from my grasp. By the time that it is posted the 'moment' may already lie several weeks in the past, but at least it, or that vital essence of it, will have been 'captured.'

To clarify, I am referring back to a dream that I have just had (31st October 2017). It was quite so 'real' as to have left taste in my mouth and a sense of arid sandy soil between my toes and upon my clothes, a sun-scorching sting to my eyes. More, it was one of those dreams from which one may awake more than once, as I believe that I did, and to be left unsure that one is not still quite dead to the world.

Track to Parinacota.

I believe that I awoke at the very least once before, to find myself still asleep, yet also fully enveloped within the afore-alluded-to dream. Such dreams- I have not reliably had one so vivid since I was a child, or at the very least a far younger adult- may leave one so stricken as to warp one's belief as to quite which is real and which is not.

Atacama Sunset.

Elon Musk is undoubtedly but one of many souls to have speculated that we are far more likely virtual than real. "There's a billion to one chance we're living in base reality," he has claimed. At least a decade prior to this, Nick Bostrom pondered that we might 'simply' be, "living in a simulation," in which case of greatest concern should be that "our 'future selves,'" might simply, "switch us off." In its various guises the idea dates back at least as far as a speculative 17th century. Many of the variable musings as to the degree of reality, or not, that we might perhaps inhabit are not even those of the chemically adjusted mind... and who's to contest that even this mode of thought might not be some form of enhancement to significantly better our perceived understanding?

The Andes at dawn.

Encapsulated within this concept, we may also find a far more credible space for humankind's various guises for what sometimes passes as God. Would he, she or whatever then really much care which particular model we chose to adopt or to pseudo-worship? There is not seriously the acreage here for even merely my own ponderings upon the very tenuous nature of 'reality.'

Church at Parinacota.

Except to briefly mention a still quite vividly recalled 'moment,' back in the late summer of 1996. I had woken some time in the dead of night and had, upon an inexplicable urge, been drawn to the bedroom window- at this time I lived opposite a church, and within a village uncursed by street-lighting, so would sometimes not bother to pull the curtains closed of a night.

Flat plain
Having, in the small hours, just climbed from my bed I knew that I was 'awake,' yet I had somehow carried with me some fragment of the 'dream' from which I had just awoken. Lit by the moon, the church opposite had been transformed into a 17th century (another 17th Century reference?) white-washed Chilean church, and all about its walls had been the gently-ruminating, dusty Atacama Desert. I still well recall being both fascinated and perplexed, unsure whether to somehow further explore this phenomenon, or else to ease myself back into that 'real' world?

Andean Sunset.

To commit the experience properly to paper is and has always proven quite impossible, a credible explanation also requires being able to search within my pleading face and eyes, to be assaulted by my insistent voice. Even then I doubt I would be properly believed. It was as if I had somehow woken into a moment which was untethered, neither of this world nor of that one. A listener, or reader, would surely assign the moment to one of perhaps sleepwalking, or else to some such other similar category. But there would surely have to be left just that tiny element of uncertainty?

So, round-about-the-houses, and back to 'last night's' dream.


This alternate reality took me back, again, some twenty-now-years to that same holiday in Chile. I was again at altitude upon the volcanic plains about Mount Parinacota, secreted within the Lauca National Park. The altitude sickness, which incidentally has pursued me from dream to this reality, was with me, the taste of vomit still unfresh upon my tongue. A couple of concerned Israeli fellow travellers had earlier expressed much concern when I had opted to be dropped off at the sandy junction to some half covered track, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. But also there was this wild excitement at having found myself, during the following days, seemingly almost-virtually alone at some 4,500 metres, fully immersed within a cornucopia of Andean wonderment. There was the constant presence of arid soil between my toes, the dust in my eyes and upon my clothes, a sun-tightened feel to my face and a certain altitudinous wild sensation that lingered about my nostrils.

I had daily risen prior to the sun, whilst its presence was just barely evident at the eastern horizon, and I had leap-frogged out into a freshwater lake, the shallow waters held in abeyance via a certain volcanic rockscape. The freezing temperatures of the night had hardened the various mossy bofedal clumps, enough that I might venture just far enough from the shores. And I had sat within the magical puna landscape and filled my notepad with all manner of detail, and my camera with just a tiny taste of the High Andes.


Once again, referencing my notebook, running along uncannily parallel to last night's dream, I am now reminded of the sheer radiance and of the burgeoning aliveness of the place. I had noted the eruptive joy that I had felt at the moment that a small wading bird had alighted just a few metres from where I was sitting; it duly commenced to completely ignore me as I sketched away. The Diademed Plover had lain close to the top of a long list of hoped for wildlife, and had duly set the day upon a perfect course, excepting the pounding headache which never quite left me during my days at this altitude. I am reminded also of a niggling nose-bleed that would never quite relent.

Route out towards the lake.

The list of wading birds, the slightly less-buoyant Andean Swallows and Andean Lapwings, the various species of flamingo, the ducks, the various coots, the vast array of finches and other species, is both as immense in the notebook as it was in the dream. For this I am thankful, but also slightly curious.

Lake shoreline.

I had made the questioning observation that the higher-altitude Silvery Grebes could not possibly be of the same species as those I had seen two weeks previously, bobbing as a small raft upon the Pacific. The note, unknowingly 'supported' via far more copious and scientific observation, has since come to just fruition. I had, hours later, padded less assuredly back towards the lake's shoreline- the bofedal was fast softening under the quickening heat of the morning. A gem-like Andean Negrito flashed its primary flight-feathers, before dropping to the plain and substituting a zipping run for the labours of the air, a rich rufous-earthy back upon a muted charcoal body. The drier landscape was already quite awash with all manner of grey ground-tyrants, many sporting their own specific cap-come-nape-patch as a clue to species, many not. Somehow, defying the significantly enhanced drag of gravity, way up in the eye-scouring blueness, a pair of juvenile Mountain Caracaras were whirling to no immediately apparent purpose. The far more handsome, and thus absent, adults were having none of it!  

Receding peaks 

Even the most seemingly insignificant minor-slopes were able to conjure a throbbing heat to the temples, drawn from the dull ache at the back of the skull, but the effort was quite rightly deemed worthy, merely for the greatly enhanced proximity of a resplendent Black-hooded Sierra-finch. Surely these creatures had somehow thieved something of the essence of the setting sun upon their backs? Even so a scuttling Vizcacha might still set the heart to yet greater pounding, and the skull to yet greater pain, as it scaled a sheer slope as if 'twere horizontal; nether rabbit nor mouse, instead some bizarre other rodent-type, equipped also with a miniature beaver-type-tail to waft at the air in departure.

Moss as hard as pumice.

Defying the almost prickly-pumice qualities of the strange mountain-moss, I sat to permit the pounding to subside, becoming aware, as I did so, of a family of humbug Puna Tinamous, neither bustard nor grouse, but either way appearing instantly very akin to a snack-upon-legs. "Such plump and vulnerable-seeming birds will certainly have evolved their own peculiar means of surviving," I considered, although at this sort of range none was immediately evident. The flashing flight of the earlier noted White-tailed Shrike-Tyrant again animated the puna-desert-dreamscape. Although perches were at a premium this bird evidently had a greater claim than did most other species; there was a multitude of ground-tyrants and shrike-tyrants from which to choose. No sooner had it alighted than it was beating ten bells out of some uncertain former lifeform.

Andean Flicker nest holes.

I had already noted the 'unlikely' holes, drilled high into the ridge, but it was the echoing call which finally drew me to the ground-feeding activity of several Andean Flickers. Although the landscape was quite immense the absence of sound was, at times, almost more so. I had watched the towering twisters wandering intermittently across the desert but, even then, it wasn't until I had determined to stand and embrace the form as it whipped about my ears that I could actually hear the fine scattering hiss of sandy particles, severely chastising any areas of exposed flesh. The experience left me with sand-choked hair and much grittiness about my face, ears, hands and clothes, in the ears and especially in the mouth!

Andean sunset.

I had planned to spend the best part of the final day walking to Lake Chungara, but opted instead to abandon the effort when yet another semi-feral dog set about snapping at my heels. I had heard the beast drumming across the sands from more than half-a-mile away, and that was before it had commenced barking its war cry into the void. The distance afforded me just time enough to arm myself with a few meatier stones. Our brief engagement saw me landing at least two significant blows upon the damned creature, before a sharp whistle brought the whole affair to a much-appreciated conclusion. Whatever the damage, clearly I hadn't, at least not significantly, damaged the bugger's legs. I know that one stone thudded into the side of the ultra-angry face- I think that I had winced at the sound of stone upon tooth- but far better that unsightly mess than my ankles, I had reasoned. Whatever the damage, the unseen whistler never thought to question my hastily-elected approach to evading dog-attack. At lower altitudes I had grown accustomed to arming myself with any from the most thorny of boughs, but up here this more benign and defensive manoeuvre had been denied me.

Route to Cotacotani.

It was at the point of perhaps greatest isolation that I was, I had initially thought, once again to be 'challenged,' but this time it was by a virtual dot at the foot of a low line of arid hills. Thankfully this beast remained put. Upon closer binocular inspection this transpired to be another of the lama-like Guanaco- I was impressed that the creature had so distantly and instantly recognised me as a potential threat, even though I was far from this. I took the time to sit for a while, by the icy crystal stream which I had been tracking, and there I noted my only Red-backed Sierra-Finch. It was instantly separable from the wealth of alternative finch species that had earlier been on offer, a stunningly rich-red saddle, set behind a soft grey neck and head. I had known that such a sighting was almost a 'gift,' but had not yet realised quite how sought-after these jewels had become. I know that I was able to spend fully fifteen minutes studying the bird, as it scraped about at the edge of a chiselled bank. And all the while my presence was punctuated by the distant bark of the solitary Guanaco.

Atacama Desert.

A decidedly more substantial twister was seen to be gathering strength some distance off to the west. I watched with mounting interest as the rising cloud slowly resolved itself into one caused by a wandering Land Rover. I think that I must have watched the vehicle's approach for well over a minute and a half before there was even the faintest hint of a mechanical growl- all the while my sentinel was echoing 'his' warning into the vastness. It was only as the engine became a background constant that I thought to look more carefully at an 'islet' of isolated boulders rising at the centre of the valley.

Track to Parinacota.

Upon a far closer inspection of the rocky cluster I noted that the shadows here cast, such as they were, had now assumed rather more of a fluid presence, seeming almost to ripple across the surface of the nearest and the most sheer of the visible surfaces. Assuming the strange spectacle to be some sort of trick of the rising heat, I watched on, almost absent-mindedly awaiting some sort of credible resolution or further clarification. The shadow, almost dreamesque at this juncture, appeared to lengthen and then it twisted and thinned outwards, stretching itself almost to breaking point before contracting into the form of some sort of creature... a cat maybe?

So, this had been the cause for alarm, and all the while I had been unaware. Had the approaching jeep not drawn my attention back towards the outcrop it is most unlikely that I ever would have spied the feline. It transpired that the 'shadow' had in fact been more cat than shadow, albeit more visibly liquid than solid, and so I concluded this to be the form of a black Jaguar. I pressed my eyes to my binoculars, as if attempting to push them clear through the lenses and ever closer to the beast. I caught the eyes ever so briefly- green, I thought- and in that moment it was evident in such casual behaviour, that the beast had all the while been watching me. As the Land Rover drew level with the mound so the ripple shimmered one final time and then simply 'melted' into the flat surface of rock.

Before shaving and drinking heavily, or perhaps after drinking heavily?

I mentioned the sighting to my driver, Gary, before we set off down to the lower altitudes of Putre, where the altitude sickness would thankfully decline to follow. At first he reacted sceptically, but would not completely write off the likelihood of such a cat. So, before setting off, we slowly circled the mound, which conspired to be rather more diminutive than it had at first appeared, certainly no higher than ten feet at its peak. We twice drove round the perimeter and at such a slow and meticulous pace, never once glimpsing so much as a dubious shadow, but still Gary remained adamant upon us staying put, securely inside the jeep.

Framed within one of the vehicle's wing mirrors I was confronted by a vaguely familiar face, spied for the first time in several days, and I was curious to note that so much unkempt hair and patchy beard had afforded it something of a 'different' persona. All that it needed now was some sort of beret, maybe the barrel of a rifle peeping out from behind a right shoulder?

A far more benign Putre.

Scratching away at a mat of unaccustomed facial hair, I squinted into the light; suddenly so much older those features appeared in the bathroom mirror. Head cropped tight, and jawline uncharacteristically clean shaven? Instantly, I regretted having glanced at the offending wing-mirror.

Best get some of this down, before the memory fades...

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