ALMA – Not a Typical Telescope

The Atacama desert is the driest and highest in the world, and that’s one of the main reasons that we built “ALMA,”* the largest radio telescope in the world here! I say “we” because it was an international collaboration – an example of us humans working together to better understand the universe in which we live.

“The purpose of ALMA is to study star formation, molecular clouds and the early Universe, closing in on its main objective: discovering our cosmic origins.”

To most of us, a telescope is an apparatus of lenses pointed at the sky to see stars, (or far away visible light in the sky). But the ALMA telescope is not one, but 66 antenas pointed at the sky! Just like we have 2 eyes that give us a single image of the world, the telescope has 66 eyes to give us a single image – it’s like a mom that has eyes in the back of its head. Or like a fisheye camera.

The other unique thing about the ALMA telescope is that it isn’t viewing light in space like an optical telescope, it’s looking at the dark and cold part of space, capturing radio waves* emitted by stars and planets.

One of the antenas undergoing maintenance

That doesn’t mean that stars and planets are broadcasting songs. Radio waves are emitted by the cold and cool matter in the universe that doesn’t give off light and so can’t be seen with our eyes (or with optical telescopes). But the ALMA telescope can receive these signals and tell us about that matter out there in space.

For example, the ALMA telescope was able to detect sugar molecules around a young sun, indicating a good possibility for a life-supporting planet to develop in that solar system.**

In some cases, scientists can combine the information from an optical telescope and ALMA (and x-ray and infrared telescopes)* to give a fuller picture of a solar system or galaxy, and to “see” what’s happening in the dark spots of the sky.

Also, since it’s not optic, ALMA can point at the sun and study the sun’s atmosphere without burning.

For me, one of the most interesting abilities it has is to study the early universe – it has found evidence of the earliest known solar system – suns that formed just 250 million years after the Big Bang. (Sounds like a long time, but it’s only 2% of the universe’s current age, which is about 13.8 billion years.)

I know, this is a lot of high tech modern science stuff. But according to our guide, the basic principle behind the antena design is actually something that was used hundreds of years ago by the pre-Incan culture, the Tihuanacu.

Just outside of La Paz, you can visit an archeological site of the Tijuanacu. Then you can head a thousand miles south to the ALMA observatory in northern Chile to see the modern day use of this technology studying the origins of the universe!

While the tour to the observatory is free, it takes a bit of luck to get there. To be on the official list you have to reserve online, usually 6 months to a year in advance. If you don’t make the official list, you might be able to get on the online waitlist. But since the list fills up so far in advance, a lot of people on the list end up not making it on the dates they reserved. So you still have a chance to get on the “hope list” the day of the tour. The bus leaves at 9am, but people show up sometimes 2 hours early to wait in line to be on the “hope list”. If there are any empty spaces from people who didn’t show up from online reservations, next priority goes to the wait list and then to the hope list, in order of arrival. It makes it that much more exciting to get chosen from the hope list! It’s like winning the lottery!

Famous Footnotes

*The ALMA – Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array – captures electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths in the range of milimeter wavelenths in the electromagnetic spectrum.

(There are also other non optical telescopes that exist- infrared and X-ray telescopes that capture information from other non visible light parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.)

**https://www.almaobservatory.org/en/press-release/sweet-result-from-alma/

Bolivian Andes (Part II)- Glacier Lake and Spanish Gold Trail, Sorata

After a ridiculously cold and uncomfortable night (the first night camping is always the hardest), I was happy for day break so we could start hiking to go find the glacier lake.

If the first day was pure climbing, the second day was pure rock scramble – my favorite way to hike (and I’m not being sarcastic).

Add the fact that there was snow on the ground, and I was in heaven! Actually, it was more like hail or frozen rain because it was tiny little white ice balls, like I’d never seen before. But whatever it was, it was white and beautiful and made that wonderful crunching sound beneath our feet.

We climbed up and down (mostly up), over about 4 ridges on the side of a mountain, crossing a few landslides, literally climbing on the face of the mountain much of the time, and it was exhilarating. I fell once but I caught myself and didn’t die! Win!

We didn’t talk much because we needed all the air for breathing, as the air was getting thinner and thinner as we gained altitude. We both were chewing coca leaf to keep from getting altitude sickness.

As we crossed over the side of the great peak Illampu, the view suddenly opened up to reveal the beautiful glacier lake.

The grand Illampu rises over the left of the lake, while Ancouma rose over the right side (though Ancouma was hiding in clouds).

At the far end of the lake, the snowy side of a mountain seemed to be constantly feeding the lake with a glacier and avalanches.

The lake created an optical illusion such that it was actually much larger than it seemed; after 20 minutes of hiking I still hadn’t arrived to the far side where the snow and ice was falling into the lake, so I headed back since my guide was a little anxious to get back.

Every few minutes I would hear the distant sound of avalanches, but I could never find them when I looked up into the mountains.

The next day, we headed across the mountain pass to see some ruins, a couple of overlook points, and the Spanish Gold trail. We were walking in the clouds the whole way down, so unfortunately I didn’t get to see some of the amazing views. Despite the fog, I still loved it!

We normally would have hiked about 5-6 hours and camped one more night, with a campfire at a mirador, but with all the fog and my stomach acting up, I convinced Eduardo to to do an 8-hour hike that would bring us all the way back to Sorata in one day. Turns out we would have gotten rained on in the night if we had camped, and I didn’t have the most waterproof tent. Win #2!

The day was long and challenged my glutes again, but I enjoyed it just the same.

We hiked along the Spanish trail or the Gold trail, which is the trail that was used by the Spanish colonial rule to deliver gold from a mine in the mountains down to Sorata, carried by the locals who were used as slaves in the gold mining business. (My first night in Sorata I had stayed in a hostel that seemed like a really old house, and I later learned that it used to be the place where the slaves (indigenous people) delivered the gold to the Spanish.)

Walking along the Gold Trail, glutes screaming, sore shoulders, I thought about how this would be torture if someone was forcing me to do it, (especially for their own profit and not for me). But since I had chosen to do it, and I could go at my own pace and enjoy the scenery, and I was not doing it every day, it was something I actually paid to do. Privilege.

Eduardo continued to tell me the history of Sorata while walking this trail. He explained how the Spanish enslaved the locals not only for mining but they also set up the big haciendas, where the Spanish “patron” treated the locals like slaves to work the land and produce crops as efficiently as possible while the patron then got rich from selling the products, sometimes on the international markets that he had access to. The conversation invoked memories or reading Isabel Allende’s “House of Spirits”.

Eduardo went on to say that there came a time when the young rebelled and received a few more rights so they weren’t so much like slaves, but it wasn’t until later with the big land reform policies that the patrons left and locals could own their own land and reap the benefits from it.

Since then, he said, the community has organized itself so that each person owns their land where they live, and then the land in the hills above the community is common land so that anyone in the community can farm it. They meet once a month to resolve community issues and they rotate the leader of the community every year. Anyone with land in the community is registered on the “roster” and therefore has rights to farm the community land and also has the responsibility to serve their rotation as leader of the community for one year.

As I arrived back to Sorata, I could not believe that we had walked that entire distance. I had left behind the busy world of getting everywhere fast, and I had reunited with the age-old tradition of walking. I was just stunned at how two legs, two feet, could take me across massive hills and high up into the mountains, across distances and through terrain that seemed impossible, or difficult at best, to cross. It was a reminder how much I appreciate my feet and also the power of the human spirit and body.

Bonus Content: What do the kids do in the evenings in Sorata? As I made my way back to my hostel, all along the way, kids were playing with the same top-like toy in the streets, so I stopped at one group of kids and asked an older kid to show me what they were playing. He was super shy at first but I finally got him to show me on camera, and he let me try a few times too.

(Unfortunately I am having technical difficulties uploading videos here, but you can find the video on Facebook).

Sorata to Lago Chillata – Adventures in the Bolivian Andes

As I was walking on Isla de la Luna in Lake Titicaca, I caught my breath as I looked across the lake and saw grand white peaks rising out of the horizon.

If you know me, you know that I have a love affair with mountains, and especially those majestic white, snow-covered mountains (“nevadas”). The mountains seductively said to me “You’ve hiked in the Peruvian Andes, are you up for the Bolivian Andes?”

So after leaving Copacabana, instead of taking the usual route to La Paz, I got off the bus early and caught a few cars to get to Sorata, a small mining town of about 4,000 people about 3 hours from La Paz and a starting and ending point for a few different treks through the Bolivian Andes.

I had heard that Sorata was a mining town, but I was still blown away when I saw a sign in a store off the main plaza that said “I buy gold. I sell mercury.”

I had laughed when my uncle heard I was going to Bolivia and told me to take a metal detector and to look for gold…but turns out he knew what he was talking about!

Other than the sign about gold, the town reminded me of any small mountain town in Peru. With a nice plaza in the center,* the main church and municipality building off the plaza, and shops filling the streets around the plaza. And because the town is on the side of a mountain, the streets off of one side of the plaza were an incredibly steep climb up, while the streets off the other side were a steep descent.

I arrived on Sunday when they had their “feria”, or market day, when people from the surrounding areas bring their products to sell – potatoes, acacha (a long, skinny, knobby potato), habas (a big, protein-filled bean), snap peas, herbs, carrots, green beans. Similar to Peru, they would bring their big colorful “manta”, spread it out on the ground and neatly arrange their products to sell. Common to all markets I’ve ever seen in Peru and Bolivia, there were many different vendors, all selling the same things.

I had sought out a local, Sorata-based guide association and “Eduardo”, a local guide met me in the plaza when I arrived and introduced me to his wife and daughter who were enjoying a Sunday walking in the plaza.

I was fascinated with the option of doing an 11-day trek through the Andes that included climbing a snow-capped peak and ending in the “Yungus” (the lower altitude, warm climate of the jungle on the other side (east) of the Andes, but I wasn’t able to pull together a group to do it with. Since it would be just me and the guide, I decided to do a 3-4-day trek to a glacier lake between two snow-capped peaks, “Illampu” (Aymará for “fat of the llama”) and “Ancouma” (Aymará for “white snow”).

 That evening we bought food and supplies and the next morning we started off from the town’s center, which is located low in the hills at 2,600 meters above sea level (8,500 ft). Eduardo pointed to the mountains in the far distance. I could not believe that we were going to arrive all the way there walking, (and with 15-20 kilos in my backpack) within a day. But he confirmed that we would do it. So I just put one foot in front of the other and waited to see what would happen.

It happened to be “Día del peatón”, or “Pedestrian Day”, the one day of the year in Bolivia where cars weren’t permitted to drive, which was lucky for us because our hike started along a dirt road, and when cars (illegally driving that day) did pass by, they kicked up a ton of dust which didn’t help breathing through the uphill climb.

Finally we got off the road and the smell of eucalyptus (one of my favorite smells of all time) filled the air and I realized we were walking through a eucalyptus forest.

Fun fact: Eucalyptus is an invasive from Australia that sucks the water and nutrients out of the soil…. But it produces wood quickly so people keep it around.

Later, the climb got steeper and the smell changed to muña. Another smell that I love, and this time there’s no worry about it being an invasive species. Muña is native here, it’s used in tea and is helpful preventing and alleviating the effects of altitude.

The first day was pure steep, uphill climb, like climbing stairs for 6 hours, without any flat parts to rest, so we took breaks every 30 minutes or so. It reminded me of the constant climb up Volcán Misti in Arequipa, including the burning glutes with every step (yep, for 6 hours).

My guide is a really nice guy who’s been a guide since 1993. He started as the front desk staff at a hostel that did tours. Trekking tourism started to boom in Sorata and one day they needed a guide so he went out with a group, and he loved it, and they loved him. He knew his way through the mountains because as a kid he used to take sheep out to graze through the mountains to make cash and as a curious spirit, he would go exploring new parts every time.

As more and more tourists flooded to Sorata to do treks, he formed the Association of Guides in Sorata, which ultimately had 30 guides and 20 arrieros (donkey handlers), all professionally trained. He loved meeting people from all over the world, learning from them, and exploring with them. He especially loved learning about new foods and ways to cook in the mountains. He picked up English and even a little French and Hebrew.

Everything was great until 2003. That’s when the Bolivian gas conflict exploded, with the country divided between plans to build a gas pipeline to export gas to the US and Mexico and a growing movement calling for Bolivia to build a local processing plant to get more value from their product and to meet internal gas needs before exporting. Between internal protests and international relationship problems, the booming tourism suddenly halted.

Since then, tourism in Sorata is starting to pick back up, but now most of the tours are dominated by agencies out of La Paz that charge double or more and often contract local guides anyway. When Eduardo goes out with big groups, his wife sometimes comes along to help, and his sons had come along a few times too, (but they didn’t enjoy it as much).

We ate lunch at 3,800 meters (12,500 ft), (the same altura as lago Titicaca), and then after about 3 more hours of climbing, we arrived at our campsite at at 4,200 meters (13,800 ft), a mountain lake “Lago Chillata”.

“Chillata” is Aymará for “the sacred lake where people go to pray, sobbing for help from the divine”). Or, to the Incas before Catholicism, the lake was called “Kotaato” – Aymará for “the lake in the middle of the rocks”.

Here, the clouds roll in thick around 4pm every afternoon and the fog hangs around until the middle of the night, where it clears up and the temperature drops below freezing.

As the clouds are rolling past, visibility sometimes would clear for just a few seconds, leaving an incredible view of the sun setting on the great white peaks of Illampu and Ancouma. (Many times I ran to a high point to get a photo, and within 10 seconds it was already covered in fog again by the time I got there.)

 

Tomorrow we’ll be able to leave the heavy stuff at the campsite as we head towards the great peaks to find the glacier lake that is tucked between them.

*Famous Footnote/Bonus content:

While wandering around the plaza the night before the trek, I saw a group of people speaking English in the plaza. I approached them and learned they were a chapter of Engineers Without Borders doing an Eco-bathroom project in a nearby rural town! I find my people all over the world!