Total Solar Eclipse

The 2017 total solar eclipse over the United States was not, technically, part of my Southern Cone experience.  But I’m writing here about it with several justifications:

  1. We observed a partial solar eclipse in February from Argentina.
  2. Planning for watching this solar eclipse began well in advance and continued through Southern Cone.
  3. I had not, strictly speaking, closed the circle, as I flew back to the United States through RDU rather than GSO.  Thus, this trip brought me back to GSO for the first time since leaving for South America in January.
  4. I want to.

Mary and I traveled to Nebraska to get a better chance than the Carolinas offered at clear sky. We met others in the family who joined us in fretting about the very not clear sky we found upon arrival.  Not to give anything away, it all worked out.  Below is what I wrote about the experience.  As usual, photos follow.

August 21, 2017

I first noted the date August 21, 2017 in the late 1970s when I read in an astronomy book that there would be a total eclipse in the United States when I was old. As August 21, 2017 came closer I found myself living in the southeast, less than 100 miles from the path of totality and not yet feeling quite as old as I’d thought I’d be.  Having lived in the southeast for some time by this point, I didn’t at all trust the sky to be clear. So, I made plans to be further west and managed several hotel rooms in Grand Island, Nebraska, virtually on the centerline in a place that, historically, has a good shot at clear skies.

My wife and I met family at the airport in Omaha in a rain storm.  Throughout our drive to Grand Island the day before the eclipse, the skies were cloudy. At times the clouds were thick and at others thin. But the sky was never clear. We discussed plans to decamp westward where chances for clear sky seemed better.  I slept fitfully, my plan for a 4 AM weather check becoming an hourly check. It looked like we needed to drive 7 hours to Wyoming to find clear skies and a big part of me wanted to pull the trigger. But it was 4 AM, I needed to wake a lot of people and then I’d have to drive through fog, rain and, potentially, jammed highways. I’d like to tell you I didn’t think we needed to but, really, it was 4 AM and I was sleepy and I was lazy.  Anyway, I tried to sleep but it came in bits as I grappled with the strong chance that an event I’d looked forward to for four decades was going to be a bust.

At breakfast a few short hours later we decided on traveling northwest to a town called Ravenna and then playing it by ear. I’d noted Ravenna as being the nearest place I thought likely to be sufficiently far west and the most experienced eclipse chaser in the group had settled on it as well.  We were off.  Ravenna is a town of about 1,500 and had put together a wonderful festival.  There was a BBQ hut, a really nice concession stand, and lots of vendors of kitsch, all in a peaceful, comfortable setting. We parked, eyeing the clouds uneasily. I remained tense and ready to flee farther northwest if it looked like we needed it.

We enjoyed the festival, heard a song written specifically for Ravenna and the eclipse and passed the time.  A few folks had BBQ that looked and smelled fantastic and it is a testament to the state of my nerves and anticipation that I didn’t even think of joining in.  At first contact, we whooped with hundreds of others and noted that the sky had improved.  Far to the northwest, slowly moving toward us, was a fairly thick band of cloud but the rest of the sky was either clear or sprinkled with high cirrus.  It looked good. Between first contact and second – that is, between the start of the partial eclipse and totality – it was an impressive astronomical event. I set up a scope, polar aligned a camera mount, installed filters and generally went about the business of looking at and imaging stuff in the sky.  It got colder. We snacked and watched for clouds. Suddenly, the bees disappeared. Crickets chirped. Trees made crescents.

When the sun was at last less than a crescent, just an arc, I realized my automated imaging setup wasn’t going to start on time. I thought of trying to fix it but realized I’d either screw it up, miss the eclipse or both so I let it be.  I heard a few gasps and stood, holding my eclipse glasses to my eye in time to see a very tiny arc slip away. I saw that a large section of the cloud bank to the west, extending across a quarter of the horizon, had suddenly disappeared. I removed the glasses and watched as the high clouds around the sun shimmered, finding it hard to hold their form, and then with a spark, the light went out and there was a hole in the sky.

In my memory, there was a sound when totality began but it may have simply been the blood pounding in my ears.  The horizon was pink and the sky a beautiful, frightening shade of dark, dark silvery blue.  I will never forget the color of that sky. I have yet to see it adequately represented in photographs and I doubt I will come close with words. It was as if a thin slice of the night sky during full moon was peeled away and pasted over the sky of a high mountain dawn an hour before sunrise. The air had stilled and grown cold and ordinary objects developed a hint of threat and promise of magic.

I remembered our video camera and dashed around to turn it on but hit the power button, turning it off instead. I removed the solar filter from the telescope and knocked it far from alignment. I gave up on it instantly, having just enough sense to know that I was no longer functioning correctly.

Turning back to the hole in the sky, I tried to remember my observational techniques and note what I was seeing. I could not. I did see streamers extending on two sides far from the gaping hole and pink ringing that hole, first on one side and then the other but utterly failed to use averted vision to trace the streamers far from the eerie disk. I watched the people around me, mouths hanging open. I saw tears streaming down my wife’s broadly smiling face.  We shared binoculars and, I was told later, I kept shouting out locations of prominences loudly enough to be heard dozens of yards away even over the yells of others.  I vaguely remember their exclamations and cheers. The prominences, which I’ve often watched in deep red monochromatic light, were an unbelievable striking pink against the brilliant whiteness of the corona.

Suddenly a large arc of the gaping disk bloomed bright pink and I could tell it was nearly over. But it couldn’t be! We were to have 155 seconds of totality and it had just started! But, no, with a snap an impossibly bright star appeared on the edge of the disk and the clouds shimmered back into shape. The Sun was coming back and we would all live. For an instant, a brilliant diamond ring hung impossibly in the sky.  As desperately as my rational mind didn’t want it to end, the irrational, instinctive piece buried deep down under modernity felt a bit of relief that it did.

After decades of study, I was completely prepared for what I would see but was in no way prepared for how I would feel. What had been, right up until the first diamond ring, a fascinating astronomical observation became, in that brilliant flash, something other, something much deeper and primal. The world in which we stood was suddenly alien, a different sky, a different terrain, a world without a Sun, a coldly beautiful world in which I was hopelessly, joyously lost. It was a dreamlike world that seems impossible to describe or accurately recall afterwards.

In the few minutes after, as we cheered and cried and hugged, we realized that the very nearly completely eclipsed Sun which had enthralled us five minutes earlier was now fairly uninteresting.  Much more meaningful were the presence of others we loved and the realization that the world would continue as we’d known it:  A Sun and Moon chasing each other through the sky as they were meant to, as they always before had. But we now knew the one could catch the other and both longed and feared it ever happening again.



The partially eclipsed sun about ten minutes before totality. My images were made with a Canon T2i and 200mm lens riding a Polarie tracker. I used a program called SETnC to automate image capture so I could enjoy the show. It worked flawlessly. However, garbage in, garbage out. I failed to correct our coordinates after we drove northwest to find clear skies and the program started capture of totality about a minute late. As with the rest of the day, I got lucky and managed many images with which I’m pleased. It would only have taken one. Not even that many, really.


We walked through Grand Island the night before the eclipse and got a neat tour of an old renovated theater.

group grand island theater

The series of images I recorded spanned a huge (12 stops) range of exposure. Here is a 1/1000s exposure at f/4 (ISO 100).  Note the pink prominences on the right.


In front of what we feared would be the only sun we’d see eclipse morning. Marnie made excellent shirts for us which attracted journalists from all over.

group days inn

The festival in Ravenna had many wares for sale. I jumped on the eclipse koozie bandwagon early. I think Mary was happier about the water.

mary coozy

Working on gear during the partial phase. Neither group was successful with the project shown.


The short tube was great for the partial phases. This is the scope I knocked from alignment right at the beginning of totality. Would’ve been nice to see the prominences through this.


Backup gear that worked.P1060494

Duct tape, rubber bands and ingenuity.P1060496

A hint of the clouds that hung around and the breeze that went away.P1060499

A longer exposure (1/250s) showing both the extent and shape of the corona around the dark lunar disk and the high clouds through which we observed totality.IMG_5680-bright-w-cloud

Jay watching totality with binoculars.

jay binoculars

The group watching totality. Note the bright horizon in the dark sky.totality

Pink fringe as totality draws to a close.IMG_5699-pink-fringeIMG_5700-pink-fringe-bb

Almost caught some Bailey’s beads. IMG_5701-decon

Diamond ring effect as a tiny sliver of the sun peeks out at the end of totality.IMG_5702-DR

A deeper exposure of the diamond ring showing the high clouds and last glimpse of the lunar disk sliding away from the sun.IMG_5703-cloudy-ring




If you’ve followed this blog much at all you’ve noticed that most of the pictures, until this week at any rate, are of desert and mountains. As I wrote yesterday, however, the vast majority of my time has been spent in Santiago. Similarly, you might think from the blog that most of my time has been spent with a telescope out in the boonies. The fact is, the vast majority of my time has been spent either with, thinking about or preparing for the students on the program. They are, after all, the point of the entire program. I haven’t discussed them much for obvious reasons. There are privacy and ethical issues – they didn’t ask to be discussed in public. Also, a lot of people work with students and, in many ways, my work here has been indistinguishable from the work I, and many of you, do with students on a typical American campus.

Of course, in other ways, it has been very distinguishable. I socialized much more with these students than any other group save my other study abroad group in 2014. That experience was much of the reason I signed on again.

This was a great group to work and travel with. People like to stereotype (I’m doing it there, for instance) and the only way to break through those stereotypes is to engage with the individuals you’re generalizing about. I’ve written before about the human tendency to seek homogeneity and age is a huge factor. People don’t immediately like folks from groups of significantly different age. Today the pejorative is “snowflake” but the comforts of our age were not designed by today’s college students; they were designed by folks my age or older.

Breaking bread has been a recognized as important for millennia and it is no different today. When I spend 4 hours a week with students it’s easy to dismiss their worries as immaturity or, worse, weakness.  And, to be sure, that exists. But it has always existed. I had immature friends when I was 20. I was, at times, immature when I was 20. I made the worst decision of my life when I was 21, for example. I’m hardly in a position to criticize their character and I doubt you are, either.  When I sit for a meal with students I see that their hopes and dreams, worries and fears, are my hopes and dreams, worries and fears, just expressed differently due to the inevitable cultural gap created by the age difference. That difference is enough that translation takes a little time. Conversation on deep, meaningful topics with someone less than half your age is at least as difficult as ordering pizza in your second language. If you don’t slow down and listen carefully you’ll think they’re ignorant and they’ll think you stupid.

Anyway, as I say, the group was great. Given the arrangements of the program, each student had an experience fairly different than one another. In London, everyone lived together and the experiences were far less varied. Here, they met for class and then scattered, occasionally recombining at a club late at night or the gym early in the morning. Listening to them, I had the fascinating advantage of getting a peek at many different Santiagos.

So, thanks to the students of this program and congratulations on the successful completion of one more semester. Good luck as you make your way.

Easter Island Southern Conestudents at Easter Islandgroup hike apoquindoP1060164Students in front of Tres Marias, Valle de la LunaDSC_068620170630_13190720170310_120810students love chocolateimg_5702


The vast majority of my time in South America has been spent in Santiago, Chile’s capital city. Santiago dominates Chile in a way that no city in the United States does. Eight million (or so) of the 18 million (give or take) Chileans live in the Santiago metro area. The city was founded in 1541 but there isn’t a lot of architecture surviving from that time. Recall, the earth moves here.

I’ve enjoyed my time here despite not really being a city guy. I find cities a lot easier to take when they give in and act like a city. That is, there is good public transportation and ample distribution of food sellers. A lot of American cities, because they grew up from small towns and we tend to revere the small town more than most countries, try to retain that small town feel by making everyone drive and having isolated shopping areas. That works great if the city is sufficiently small but, past a certain point, you need to transition to city life. In my opinion, way too many cities in the United States are past that point and either can’t or won’t recognize it.

Speaking of driving, I have driven in Santiago a fair amount and it’s fine. It’s no worse than driving in Washington D.C. Which is to say, it’s hell. But it’s a normal type of driving hell: a lot of traffic that moves slower than you’d like. However, drivers obey the rules, stay in their lanes and, generally, don’t drive too fast or slow. It isn’t like Buenos Aires, is what I mean, where the drivers are insane and if you told me it was a legal requirement to drop acid before getting behind the wheel, I’d believe you.

With that said, clearly the way to get around Santiago is by metro (subway) and bus. These cover the city pretty well. The very poor aren’t well served because, well, that seems to be the way the world works, and the very rich aren’t well served because they don’t want our kind there. This left a few students with an odd problem. At first they seemed lucky because their homestay was in a rich household. Their homestay families had cars and used them for their primary transportation. But, of course, the students didn’t have a car and so they faced long (30 minutes) walks to a metro station or bus stop.

I used the metro every day to go to work. I had about a 15 minute walk to the station, an 8-15 minute ride and then another 10 minute walk. I found the metro to be excellent. Despite constant warnings that I’d be robbed if I didn’t hug my possessions to my body, no one ever gave me any problem at all on the train. Chileans like less personal space than we, Americans from the United States, do so they get more people on a train. A few times, especially at Tobalaba, I wound up picked up by a mob of people and surfed my way onto a train I would never have considered trying to board in New York or DC.

I’d love to tell  you the character of Santiago but, like any place this big, it doesn’t have one character. I don’t know how big a city can be and have a single character but Santiago is clearly well above that line. Emphasizing this point is that there is no explicit Santiago city government. The city is divided into 37 communes, each with its own government. If you think this makes for smooth and efficient city operations, you’re wrong. There is a lot to love about Santiago and Chile and a lot of words one could use to describe them. Smooth and efficient government (or anything, really) are not among them.

Each commune has it’s own character and, in this, Santiago is like any large city. I’ve been to 25 of the 37 communes but spent most of my time in Santiago (work) and Providencia (home). Santiago is the old city center and, itself, varies considerably combining government, business and academics along with living space. Providencia is a pretty typical middle/upper middle class residential area. There is business, to be sure, but it’s the sort of business you’d expect to find intermixed with a lot of residential space.

An aside: I’m obviously basing the above paragraphs, and the entire post, on my own experiences. Providencia alone has a population of 120,000 and covers several square miles. The point is, I’m generalizing considerably.

Santiago (city) stretches up into the pre-cordillera and the richest folks in town live near, or on, the mountains with the population growing steadily poorer as the land gets lower and closer to the coast. Soon after the coup, Pinochet moved the poor out of the richer parts of town and into their own slums. They had been squatting, more or less, in the nice parts of town. Pinochet is thus credited by some with “ending poverty” because, you know, if you can’t see them…

Aside again: this was told to me by one colleague in particular and backed up by a few others I talked to. Pinochet isn’t exactly popular here, very much not overall, but it is possible to find people still quite willing to back up his regime as necessary and good for Chile. These folks tend to be older and richer. Some estimates put support for Pinochet around 15-20% which, while not huge, is pretty high for such a regime.

Whereas the streets of Santiago run smoothly and according to clear rules, the sidewalks do not. Most walkers in Santiago walk very slowly by my standards and there is no convention of walking on the right or left. There is also no convention against moving three or four abreast or simply stopping as a group and blocking the way. When friends or colleagues greet one another or say farewell, they hug and share bezos (kisses on the cheek). This is clearly more important than keeping the flow of traffic open.

If you know me, you know that this sort of thing really annoys me. I spend much of my time between home and work wishing everyone would get the hell out of my way and then feeling guilty that I feel that way. After all, I do believe ensuring your friends know you’re love and your colleagues your respect is more important than getting to work five seconds earlier. There is a clear focus on family and friends in a way we don’t seem to have in the United States. The reason businesses close here on Sunday and holidays is that people spend their time with those friends and family. This deprives business of customers and the business owners themselves are keen on their own friends and family. It all reminded me of growing up when many fewer businesses were open on Sundays and holidays.

I’m rambling. Here are pictures.

santiago chilesantiago chile

Mercado Centralsantiago chile

La Vega Centralsantiago chile

San Cristobalsantiago chile

Sage advice along the Rio Mapochosantiago chile

Colombia Cafe and gradingsantiago chile

Concha y Toro20170425_160220

Hey, buddy, need a lift?santiago chile

On the walk to San Cristobalsantiago chile

View from Costanerasantiago chilesantiago chilesantiago chile

Believe it or not, this is the common area outside one of my classrooms.santiago chile

An 80s cover band outside Salvador station on a Friday night.santiago chile

santiago chilesantiago chile

Museo Artes Bellossantiago chile

View from my roof20170610_173142santiago chile

Costanera Centersantiago chilesantiago chile20170611_123706santiago chilesantiago chile

Beats granolasantiago chile

A couple of dogs in Parque Bicentennialsantiago chilesantiago chilesantiago chilesantiago chile

My neighbor’s cat.santiago chile

I’m sure there is a reason to sell LED bulbs from a van but I haven’t yet uncovered it.santiago chile

Looking west from Santa Lucia marketsantiago chile

Plaza de Aviacionsantiago chile

A favorite dog who lives between me and Manuel Monttsantiago chile

The view from my window as fall started.santiago chile

Outside the national library.santiago chile

Igelsia San Agustin. The church was one of a very few buildings to survive the 1647 earthquake and witnessed a miracle. The crown of thorns that had been on Christ’s head slipped down around his neck (you can kind of see it) despite being far too small to do so. I accidently went to mass here. When I arrived at noon on Tuesday there were a lot of people entering and I thought, “Hey, a big tourist spot!” I sat in front of the miracle and then, all of a sudden, mass started. I was raised right so I did my best to follow along but I slipped out when they passed the hat.santiago chile

Street market near Mercado Central.santiago chile

La Piojerasantiago chile

Parque ForestalIMG_7010

Looking toward Cerro Provinica over the Rio Mapochosantiago chilesantiago chilesantiago chileIMG_7016

Cerro Plomo was visible in the distance along the right but didn’t make it to the photo.santiago chilesantiago chile

A year ago May I spent four hours in this park, on the bench to the left of the lightpost, waiting for my hotel to let me checkin. Less than half a mile from my current apartment.santiago chile

The handpan guy. The metro stations have areas for performers who have to get permission to use them. With that little bit of a barrier, the quality of performers is actually pretty high. In my opinion, this guy is the best.santiago chile

The walk home.santiago chile

No idea what this is but I’ve seen it every few days for months and I like it.santiago chile

Quintosantiago chile

A little nature on the walk home.santiago chilesantiago chile


Astronomy and Fireflies

I did not make much of a secret, nor could I have for those who know me well, that a big part of the appeal of a work assignment in the southern hemisphere was access to the southern sky. The Earth is round(ish), you see, and so if you’re on one side of it you can’t see what is visible from the other side.

Additionally, Chile has much to offer the astronomer. I’ve written about the inversion layer that stretches much of the length of the nation. The Humboldt current, just offshore, brings very cold water from the Antarctic, which cools the air above it. This leaves a smooth layer of warmer air sliding over that cool layer. It also traps out a lot of dust and grime, both natural and unnatural, close to the ground. Now, if you’re under the inversion layer, that stinks. Sometimes literally. But if you’re above, it provides very clear, dry air. The trick is to get above it. Fortunately, Chile is a very, very steep country and not too far inland, you can be standing on mountaintops well above the inversion layer. The result is that Chilean peaks have frequent clear, steady skies.

This is not lost on astronomers and many of the world’s largest and most advanced observatories, in all wavelength regimes, are located (or are being built) in high places in Chile.  Amateurs follow along and dream of coming here. Travel for astronomy is fraught with peril. Not the “you might die” kind of peril but the “you might spend a lot of money to look at the bottoms of clouds” kind. Chile offers, perhaps, the best bet in terms of clarity. The altiplano outside San Pedro and Antofagasta receive as many as 330 clear nights per year. Of course, that still leaves something like 10% of nights that aren’t clear but your odds are much better in the Atacama than, say, Peru. Or Argentina.  (The Australian outback, likewise, is competitive in this game).

I’ve written here about why I enjoy viewing the sky as much as I do. My family will tell you it isn’t a mere pleasure but something I’m driven to do. Sometimes to an annoyting extent. There are, believe it or not, a lot of stories in the amateur astronomy community of people losing everything in trying to spend every clear night out with ever increasing expenditures of time, money and energy. Pretty much everyone loves a dark, clear view of the universe with the naked eye or telescope. But very few end up drawn to it as amateur astronomers are. I admit that at times, it may not be healthy. But, mostly, the sky serves as a constant bearing in a swirling, chaotic life.

All of which is to say: I would have come to Chile to see the sky at some point. It was very convenient that my employer offered the chance to spend a lot of time down here. I had expected to get out under a dark sky at New Moon twice, maybe three times. I ended up logging 16 nights of observing, only being clouded out 4 nights. That is far better odds, and far more observing in the given time frame, than I usually log at home in the southeast of the United States.

Probably my best write up of one of these efforts is here: Observations from Hacienda Los Andes.

So that mission was a success. I now feel I know the southern sky, at least the bits that were well placed while I was here (Earth, alas, circles the Sun) pretty well. Not as well as the lanes of the universe I’ve been haunting since I was 12 but well enough.

And now the pictures.

Wide angle shot of the Milky Way behind a windmill at my Airbnb south of Buenos Aires.


Crux, the Southern Cross, and Carina with a 50mm lens.eta-crux-ps-stack-of-30-no-flats

Small Magellanic Cloud with a 50mm lens. Bright blob below it is the globular cluster 47 Tucanae.BLOG-SMC-PS-stack-of-44x60s-no-flat

Though it’s hard to imagine now, my two nights in the pampas were in the middle of summer. It was hot, even at midnight, and the fireflies were out in force. I happened to catch them in frame twice. Most of the photos you see on this page are “stacked”. I took many (30-150) 1-2 minute pictures and then had a computer stack them all; basically, each picture was added together with some digital calibration (ask if you’re interested in detail). The result is a picture akin to what you’d get with a single very long exposure. In any case, the two pictures below are single shots where a firefly asked for a mate while on camera. Cheeky devils.BLOG-LMC-and-fireflyCNBLOG-SMC-and-two-fireflies

I next went to the Hacienda Los Andes in the Hurtado Valley outside La Serena. This was a fantastic weekend at a wonderful inn that keeps it dark and rents telescopes. My visual observations were made with the 12.5″ Portaball shown below.Hacienda Los Andes

It’s hard to share visual observations but the best way is by sketching. astronomy sketch hacienda los andes amateur astronomy

Wide angle (18mm lens) shot of the Milky Way centered on Crux, which is upside down just to the lower left of the Coal Sack, a dark nebula dead center in this frame.ps1-Crux-43x180s-no-flat

50mm shot of the Eta Carina nebula.Carina Hacienda Los Andes

50mm shot of the Large Magellanic Cloud.Large Magellanic Cloud Hacienda Los Andes

200mm shot of the Rho Ophiuchi complex. Antares is the bright orange star lower right.Rho Ophiuchi

200mm shot of the Large Magellanic Cloud.ps1-stack-of-107x45s-no-flat

200mm shot of the Eta Carina nebula.Eta Carina nebula

Mosaic of four 18mm shots of the Milky Way. Orion is in upper right.Milky Way

200mm shot of NGC 5128, Centaurus A. This is a crop.  This is also not a good way to approach astrophotography but you dance with them that brung you.NGC-5128

Cropped shot of Omega Centauri, from the same image as above.Omega Centauri

I next went to SpaceObs outside San Pedro de Atacama with a friend and observing buddy from home. I shot this with a 200mm lens waiting for dark.PS-FLAT-MOON_LIGHT_Tv1125s_100iso_f4_20170429-18h53m53s129ms

Our setup at SpaceObs. My 8-inch travel Dob is in the foreground. Behind it is the 20″ reflector we rented and then the lodge where we stayed. Volcan Licancabur is in the far background.two.scopes-L

50mm shot of Crux and the Coalsack.Crux and Musca

Another 200mm shot of Eta Carina; remember how I described “stacking” images. I’d hoped to add to the above photos of Eta Carina and (see below) the Rho Ophiuchi complex. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the fields exactly lined up and the two sets couldn’t be combined. Grr.Eta Carina nebulaRho Ophiuchi Antares

35mm shot of Scorpius and the Milky Way.Scorpius

Soon after Steve and I went to the Atacama, Mary and I went to Easter Island. It isn’t a great place for observing due to all the clouds and humidity but I managed a couple of shots of stars with Moai.Easter Island oriondark-IMG_4140-dark

Hacienda Los Andes was closed in May so I booked a room in a very small town, Rivadavia, in the Elqui Valley. I managed two nights with the little scope and this shot of the “Dark Doodad” a neat little dark nebula in Musca.Dark Doodad

I was back at the Hacienda in June but, safe to say, I should have returned to the Atacama. The Atacama is a tougher trip (longer and more expensive) but, in winter, is much more likely to be clear. As it was, I was mostly clouded out at the Hacienda. I did manage these two shots through their 8-inch refractor. The first is Omega Centauri and the next two are a) zoom on the Jewel Box and b) the full

In Chile, the universe gives a lot more than it takes. The week following my return from the cloudy trip to the Hacienda was clear in Santiago and I got out to Cajon del Maipo twice and recorded these images along with over a dozen hours at the eyepiece.

Small Magellanic Cloud and 47 Tucanae with the 200mm lens.Small Magellanic Cloud and 47 Tucanae

Emission nebula IC 4628 and many star clusters including NGC 6231 (bright clump center left) with the 200mm lens.Zeta Scorpii and IC 4628

Open cluster M7 with the 200mm lens.Open Cluster M7

Nebulae M8 (the Lagoon, center) and M20 (Trifid, lower right) with the 200mm lens.Lagoon (M8) and Trifid (M20) nebulae

So that’s it. I had actually hoped to maybe squeeze one more night in this week but it’s to snow at my spot along the Maipo and I really don’t want to miss that plane.

If you’re interested in more astrophotos, click here: astrobin.












Before I recap Chile, I need to relay a more recent outing. The weather today is beautiful. Enough to make me regret sending all my shorts home with Mary. I’d love to see the look on people’s faces if I went out in shorts in July!

Anyway, I took a long walk, hitting a few places for the last time, bidding farewell to the Andes (it’s to be cloudy the rest of the week) and picking up a few trinkets. Between Santa Lucia and Plaza de Armas I was asked for directions by a Spanish-speaker. I must have passed for a local. A couple of blocks later, I was very much taken for a tourist as I had to fend off an attempt on my backpack. A foul smelling substance resembling bird poo was tossed on my back and then I was kindly offered tissues. Now, my friend Steve had the same thing happen to him back in April in just about the same place. Fortunately, he had heard of the scam where someone offers help to clean you up and, in so doing, a partner comes by and liberates your belongings. He’d heard of it so was on guard. He told me so I, too, was on guard.

I told the first man, “NO,” in firm voice and walked briskly to a corner which I wedged myself into. I took off the pack, brushed it clean where needed and put it back on. A second man came up, also with tissues and water, offering help. I straightened to my full height, balled my fist and again declined forcefully. I really hope he was part of the scam because he recoiled and fled. I’d hate to think I threatened an innocent helper. Somehow I’m not terribly worried.

Anyway, I will summarize Santiago another time. Today’s recap is of Chile outside the capital. I’ll take it south to north.

Punta Arenas, Penguins and Mount Tarn

Our first trip during our first week in Chile was to fly as far south as possible, to Punta Arenas. Mary had said she wanted to go to Patagonia and then turned it over to me. Because I know everything, I did very little research. It turns out, if you want to go to “real” Patagonia, you need to take a bus (or car) from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales. You also need significantly more time than the two days we had allotted. However, we regrouped, found a lovely guide named Fernanda and saw penguins and retraced the steps of Charles Darwin on a beautiful hike. It was also an excellent, that is, slow and quiet, introduction to negotiating hotels, food and cars in Spanish. Monte Tarn

Los Pinguinos Natural MonumentMonte TarnMount Tarn Monte Tarn Punta Arenas Chile


As we are all wont to do, we’ve been discussing what our favorite place on the trip was. A few votes for Easter Island and San Pedro but Pucon makes a very respectable showing. Five students are adamant that it was the best place they went and everyone who went there acknowledges it is a strong candidate. Rainy Chile

Villarica in clouds Puconvillarica

Cajon del Maipo and Embalse El Yeso

I made seven trips into Cajon del Maipo. My local astronomy inn was here and the Yeso reservoir was a beautiful place to hike and picnic.

Los Nogales Roan Jase

Embalse El YesoEmbalse El YesoEmbalse El YesoEl Yeso reservoirEl Yeso reservoirEmbalse El Yeso Santiago ChileEmbalse El Yeso Santiago ChileEmbalse El Yeso Santiago ChileEl Yeso reservoirEl Yeso reservoirCamino El VolcanCamino El VolcanBanos Morales

Valparaiso and Vina del Mar

We made a program trip to Valpo and Vina almost as soon as we arrived from Argentina. It’s an easy and cheap bus ride and a students made this a pretty frequent weekend trip.

Valparaiso funicularValparaiso ChileValparaiso ChileValparaiso Chile

Parque Natural San Carlos Apoquindo

This was my “local” hike. I could get there by metro and bus so did it often. It got me above the inversion layer and afforded a great view of the Andes beyond the pre Cordillera. Back to the mountains

Parque Natural San Carlos ApoquindoParque Natural San Carlos ApoquindoParque Natural San Carlos ApoquindoParque Natural San Carlos ApoquindoSantiago

Easter Island

An incredible place without the Moai. With them, truly awe-inspiring. Isla de Pascua


Elqui and Hurtado Valleys

I ended up making three trips here, two by air and one by car. It’s a great site for astronomy but has a cloudy/rainy season in winter. Elqui Valley, Part 2

Hacienda Los Andeshacienda los andesHacienda Los Andes Hurtado Valley ChileElqui Valley ChileElqui Valley ChileP1060057Elqui ValleyElqui ValleyHacienda Los Andes

Antofagasta, southern Atacama Desert

My latest, er, last trip from Santiago. The Atacama is a barren, colorful, beautiful place and hard to describe though I’ve tried. Pictures are better but they lack the sense of size and openness one has when standing alone with nothing living for miles around. Antofagasta

AntofagastaCerro ParanalMano del Desierto Antofagasta ChileCerro ParanalAtacama DesertAntofagastaHuanchaca RuinsLa PortadaLa Portada

San Pedro de Atacama

My furthest trip north was to Calama, an airport about an hour northwest of San Pedro. I went twice, once for astronomy with my friend Steve and once with the students. San Pedro sits at about 7500 feet, above the coastal inversion layer, and gets something like 320 clear nights per year. The altitude and relatively low levels of light pollution make it an extraordinary place to do astronomy. The Atacama was also surprisingly beautiful. And dry.

Valle de la Luna, San Pedro de AtacamaSan Pedro de Atacama ChileAtacama DesertAtacama DesertValle de la LunaValle de la LunaValley of the Moon, Atacama Desert, ChileVulcan Licancabur at sunsetLaguna TebinquincheValley of the Moon, Atacama Desert, ChileLaguna Chaxa

Rural Chile, as I’ve written, is quite isolated. Most of the smaller towns don’t have grocery stores or gas stations. That held for any town smaller than about Pucon. Often, towns would be over an hour from groceries or gas. I was talking with Dad last night about the efforts the United States has made to bring technology and convenience to rural areas. I grew up in a very small town but can recall no lack of modern convenience. I don’t know if no effort has been made in Chile or if I never figured out how to negotiate rural Chile but, while beautiful, peaceful and amiable the lifestyle differs enormously from the city.

Chile is also unique in its thinness. At its widest point, it’s only something like 120 miles from coast to the Argentine border, high up in the Andes. It is very difficult to go by land across the Andes, a lesson many have learned the hard way. I never quite pulled it off. That gives the landscape a steepness and allows a rapid transition from coastal lowlands to rough mountain terrain. The lack of vegetation presents a clear picture of Chile’s geological history which is continuing to unfold, as felt often by the floor shaking.

I clearly saw a lot of the country but missed the very far north, the lake district and most of Patagonia. Ah, well, another time.












Cerro Paranal

I spent just over 36 hours on the ground in Antofagasta and managed to pack quite a bit in. First, let me just admit up front that I was not in a particularly good mood during this trip. I wasn’t in a bad mood, per se; I suppose a good word would be “fussy”.  Perhaps “whiny”. I was tired, I had a lot of work to do, I’ve traveled a lot, I still need to pack, etc. Basically, little stuff bugged me.

So that could be the reason I thought the following: Antofagasta is a weird place.

It sits on the coast in the southern reaches of the Atacama desert. The city itself is under an almost perpetual inversion layer as, it seems, is most of the Chilean coast. The city is about the size of my home city, roughly 350,000, but, like a lot of coastal cities, it mimics Chilean geography by being narrow and long. Antofagasta is a huge center for mining and construction and has the highest GDP per capita in Chile. It has also been booming the last 10-15 years. Therefore, I expected a newish, happening kind of place. And, like I say, I was not there long and didn’t spend a lot of time exploring the city but it was nothing like I expected. There were many abandoned buildings falling into ruins. In the section of town in which I stayed (the southern part, just a few blocks from the casino, which opened in the 2000s and looks exactly like I imagined the whole city would look) nothing was open on Saturday night and the feel of the place gave me a bad vibe. If you told me I was in a city that had fallen into ruin 25 years ago I would have believed you.

Sunday in the city was entirely different. I walked first a couple miles south along the coast. There were hordes of runners and cyclists on the wide sidewalk up from the beach, many with families in tow. In the north of the city, they had shut down the southbound lanes of Ruta 1 to provide a few miles of seaside biking, running and skating territory. Under a bright winter sun at the Tropic of Capricorn with families out on the street, the city seemed much different than it had the previous night.

Again, I didn’t venture out much or for long. My quick take could be completely wrong. Perhaps I just booked into a lousy part of town. Hopefully. Certainly the countryside surrounding the city has the otherworldly beauty that I’ve come to associate with the Atacama. There were places where I could easily convince myself I was on Mars and the usual palette of color was evident everywhere. Of course, there was also a lot of industry in places and it was clear that this desert was a busy desert.

I think it might be best to do the rest of this in pictures. Briefly: I went directly from the airport to Cerro Paranal, location of the European Southern Observatory and four 8.2 meter telescopes. It was an incredible drive and I really blew it by not coming to this stretch to observe. I then spent a few minutes looking at the Hand in the Desert. I spent much of Saturday night grading in my hotel room. I walked the beach Saturday morning and then drove a long, lazy loop in the desert. I ended up back on the beach at La Portada where I hiked a couple miles north through the party region of the beach. I then did another long lazy loop on a peninsula before spending an hour trying to find gas.

Cerro Paranal

The telescopes of Cerro Paranal sit at 2600 meters (about 8,500 feet) above sea level, well above the inversion layer that hugs the coast.  From the mountaintop, you see islands of other peaks surrounded by a sea of cloud. The drive is about two hours from the airport and the last half, really three quarters, is premium Atacama. Hardly any vegetation, wild streaks of color and a clear, blue sky. This is the third major observatory I’ve visited. Mauna Kea and McDonald are the other two. Mauna Kea is incredible because it’s at 15,000 feet. Our visit there wasn’t really an observatory tour but a visit to a high mountaintop for sunset (which is incredible) followed by descent to about 8,000 feet for observing. The visit to Cerro Paranal told me two things about myself: I’m not keen on visiting huge telescopes under beautiful skies when I am not, in fact, going to be allowed to use them. I was very sad to drive back down the mountains to the city knowing that great telescopes under a clear sky were so close. Second, I miss being in lab. This trip is the longest period of my life since January 1990 that I haven’t been in, or around, a lab. Part of the Cerro Paranal tour is to the control room with many offices with obsessed people doing all kinds of frustratingly difficult things. I miss that place.

The “hotel”. I had mistakenly thought you could actually stay here and was really bummed not to have. But, it turns out, it’s just for staff and visiting scientists.  Okay, I wouldn’t mind being one of those, either.

Hotel at Cerro Paranal

The four domes for the identical 8.2 meter telescopes. They can be used singly or in network using an interferometer.Cerro Paranal

One of three instrument packages at the Cassegrain focus. The primary mirror, 8.2m in diameter, is just above the photo.Cerro Paranal

Looking up at the secondary mirror which, admittedly, is hard to see here.Cerro Paranal

The control room.Control Room at Cerro Paranal

The view from the control room.Control Room at Cerro Paranal

A look down at the inversion layer from the mountaintop. The ridge in the clouds is, roughly, the coast. The observatory is only 12km from the ocean.Cerro Paranal

The big dome holds one of the 8.2 meter scopes. The little dome to the right holds a 1.8 meter scope.  That’s a 70-inch scope, folks. Used as a “helper”.  Sigh. Couldn’t I just borrow it for a couple of hours?Cerro Paranal

A model of the 8.2 meter primary mirror. Unfortunately, none of my photos of the actual mirror (which I really saw!) turned out.  The mountaintop and four big domes are visible in the background.Cerro Paranal

Mano del Desierto

I’m only a little ashamed to admit that this was the driving force in my choosing Antofagasta as a last hurrah in Chile. It is in my guidebook, you see. The hand in the desert is a sculpture by Mario Irarrázabal who also did a similar work in Uruguay, which I’m now sorry to have missed. It’s a hand “emerging” from the ground, though, to me, it seems more a hand grasping to escape the earth. Half-full / half-empty, I suppose.

Mano del DesiertoMano del DesiertoMano del DesiertoMano del Desierto

The Atacama Desert is incredible, as I’ve written many times. Often I’d find myself in a place where there was no vegetation of any kind. If I’d been braver, or had a better car, I could have found places with no vegetation or signs of humans. I keep saying “otherworldly” but that is what it is. It is an environment that seems completely at odds with what you know about living on Earth.  And, indeed, if you tried to live here on your own, you’d likely succumb pretty quickly.

Atacama DesertAtacama DesertAtacama DesertAtacama Desert

After an enjoyable night of grading, I rose for a stroll on the beach. I stayed at the southern end of the city right on the shore.


I got a bit of a funny story here. To get to the beach from the little church next to the hotel, I had to edge around a bit of very old fence. As I wrote above, there was a lot of old, ruined stuff around and I just assumed that this was one more example. I walked awhile on the beach, wondering why no one was there – it was a nice stretch. I was also hemmed in by the raised sidewalk about 30 yards inland. I finally saw an access lane and exited to street level. Turning around, I saw this:


If you’re having trouble reading that, it says, “Propiedad del Ejercito de Chile.” Translated, it means, “Property of the Chilean Army.”  Gulp. I was momentarily worried but then I thought, look at the state of the sign, look at the state of the fence, that can’t be true. But, no, walking back to the hotel, I passed this:Antofagasta

It was Sunday morning so it must be okay.  Right?

I was just down the hill from the Huanchaca Ruins Museum. I really blew it here as the museum was open on Sunday and is reputed to be an excellent presentation of the history of mining in the region. The ruins were a giant smelting plant around the turn of the 20th century for, mostly, silver, which came in from the surrounding area. Antofagasta was a Bolivian port city until its capture in the War of the Pacific and was crucial in the export of mineral wealth from the region as it still is.  It is also the site of a lot of tension between government and companies on one side and workers on the other, with the former killing the latter on occasion. I would really have liked to see the museum but had known from the start it could only really be Sunday and I foolishly assumed it would be closed. When I walked up to take a picture, it was clearly open. I checked and discovered they were closing for lunch and I decided to continue my plan to tour the countryside.

Huanchaca RuinsHuanchaca Ruins

On the way up the hill to the ruins, I passed military housing for the Chilean Army’s First Division. It was more impressive when the wind unfurled all the flags at once. Sadly, I didn’t capture that.


After this little romp around town on foot, I headed back out into the desert. I’d hoped to make it to the famous Escondida mine but there is a guard post at least 30 miles before you get there and a very nice older gent carefully explained that I didn’t want to go there. He offered up all sorts of other things to see in the desert. He never explicitly said I wasn’t allowed but he also blocked my path. We eventually agreed that I would head back to Antofagasta. His constant smile got even bigger. Ah, well.

I circled around Antofagasta, passing enormous and busy industrial areas supporting the region’s many mines. Eventually, I made my way back down to the beach to the famous landmark, La Portada – a sea arch north of the city, near the airport. It really is very cool. I walked north along the beach for a couple of miles. It’s a very dirty walk as there is a lot of off-road biking and 4-wheeling and it’s clearly a party spot. Lots of bottles. A few discarded bits of clothing. You get the idea. But if you stay focused on the sea, it’s beautiful.

La PortadaIMG_6950Near La PortadaNear La PortadaLa PortadaLa Portada

After lunch along the coast, I drove up the peninsula to the end of a couple of roads. This was, perhaps, the strangest part of the drive: I was clearly in the Atacama Desert but, right there, look!, was the Pacific Ocean.


With that, it was 4pm and I needed to gas up the car and get to the airport. I’m not sure I’ve written much about it but finding gas in Chile can be difficult. Most small towns do not have gas stations. When I was in the Hurtado Valley, the nearest gas was Ovalle, over an hour away. In Antofagasta, the airport is about 25km north of the city and I had to drive well into the city to find a station. Basically, the assumption is you will return to the city to refuel. I’m not sure how rural citizens deal with it except for the fact that a lot of them don’t have cars. Buses run frequently in the countryside and many just use that. They need to return to the city in any event to do other shopping. The gist is that rural Chile is much more isolated than what I’m used to in the United States. Or, perhaps, I never got the hang of it here.

The airport was another odd experience. Most of the Chilean airports I’ve been to have had very good free public wi-fi. Not so Antofagasta. Additionally, cell service was quite poor, as it was throughout the region. Pretty much everyone was struggling to access data in the airport. In what is described as the richest Chilean region outside Santiago and at an airport through which an army of mining and construction workers (and executives) pass daily, I’d have expected better.

As I wrote at the top, I was never in a grand mood on this trip so that could have colored a lot of it. I certainly enjoyed the weekend overall – I don’t know how long I could spend in the Atacama before being bored by it but it’s more than the week I’ve had so far. But Antofagasta itself just struck me as a bit odd, not quite what I expected nor did it fit the descriptions I’d heard.


Well, that wraps up the traveling unless something really crazy comes to pass. I’ll be recapping the program the rest of the week and packing up my apartment.

And I am almost done with grading.









I leave for the United States one week from today.  Due to some stuff from outside the blog, I won’t be headed straight home but I’m happy to report that that issue is looking up. Well done, Texans.

It also looks like my last gasp weekend trip is going to come off, after all. I managed to put away a good bit of grading yesterday and, while I will still have to grade on the trip, I won’t have to grade for ALL of the trip. So that will be nice.

When I thought of writing a blog during this program my main goal was to put down a record so I could remember things later. The six week study abroad trip in London in 2014 was packed and wonderful and I had trouble remembering everything by the end. I figured for nearly six months, I’d have no chance. I also thought it would be a good way to let anyone interested in my activity keep themselves up to date. I really only figured about three people for regular readers but a couple dozen other folks I thought might want to check in. I never did exactly figure out how to use WordPress stats so I was always confused when the link on my Facebook page would have comments from more people than WordPress said read the piece. And then sometimes it would blow up. As I was really mostly trying to avoid writing long emails to people who didn’t want them, I wasn’t too worried about it.

However, an interesting thing happened along the way. I picked up readers and followers who were otherwise unknown to me. I’m sure many/most of you were one-offs. I tend to write stream of consciousness so you might see a post about med school, get interested, and then discover I’m mostly writing about astronomy or hiking. Or vice versa.  Or worse, I’d write about grading.

Anyway, at this point, I have, according to the little number up in the corner, 34 followers and have been read, at least once, in 46 different countries. Through those WordPress links, I’ve found some excellent reads and very interesting people. That number of followers is, in today’s world, tiny, but for a blog that was mostly written to family and close friends (if not to myself), surprising. So to those of you who have dropped in occasionally to follow the program, cheers.

Usually the blog is whatever pops into my head in the morning or when something interesting happens. However, I pretty much have the last few posts set. I won’t spoil them but, as for any show that is past its sell-by date, it will be heavy on flashbacks. On Monday, there will be a lot of new cool stuff, I hope, from this weekend. And then I’ll take a look back at the last six months. There will be pictures.











What Must They Think?

As I wrote for the Fourth, this was not my first national birthday spent abroad. I ended up musing on the status of my home and it may be of little to no interest to you.  If, as you read, you decide this is the case, you can skip down to the big, bold, red “Here” which is a funny bit with pictures.

This was the 5th time I’ve spent the 4th of July on foreign soil but the first where I’ve thought maybe it was not such a bad idea. From a distance, we’re not exactly looking our best at the moment.  I’m not specifically talking about the president, who the world sees as unstable and unserious, but the fact that we have a country that many seek to emulate if they can’t simply move in, a country with an average standard of living that staggers the imagination of most in the world and a country that dominates the world stage as few others have in human history and, yet, we’re all sort of cranky and bitchy with each other and most of us are insisting that things are terrible. We simultaneously insist, rather arrogantly, that we’re the greatest country on earth and, neurotically, that we’re going to hell in a hand-basket. This leaves many people looking at us from the outside confused and bewildered.

Hey, I tell them, if you think it’s confusing from the outside, you should try to being on the inside. The one thing that most Americans have agreed upon since well before there was any evidence for it is that we are the greatest nation on earth. Ever. Full stop. No debate allowed. But there the agreement ends as there are are approximately one million different reasons put forward as to why we’re the greatest and you can find a sizable minority that will insist that any particular reason put forward is, in fact, evidence that we’re not nearly as great as we think.

Which is, itself, one of the big reasons I put us forward as among the greatest (hey, shoot me, I’ve traveled a bit and read a bit and there are some fantastic countries out there, right now, much less throughout human history) is the way we have dealt with large scale diversity. I’m not arguing we have exactly handled diversity well, we clearly haven’t. And you may well deduce from my writing that that I am a white man. But we’ve handled large diversity better than most. Humans, in my experience, don’t instinctively like diversity in anything. We generally are most comfortable with people like us whether that be in race, gender, creed, or thought. When placed in a heterogeneous group we seek out those most like us. This preference for conformity is so strong that even if you put us in what seems like a completely homogeneous bunch, we’ll poke and prod until differences are uncovered and then, if we’re not careful, we’ll start killing each other over them. It’s not a particularly attractive human trait but it’s hard to deny.

However much the United States has failed its ideals – and that is a lot – we at least have those ideals and have generally striven to achieve them. Or at least make the country better aligned with them than we found it.

Looking in from the outside, I also think we’re confusing because we’re not totally sure who we are anymore. National identity changes periodically – it’s hard to argue that the United States that existed from 1776-1861 bears much resemblance to the country that we are today, for example – and I think we’re at a junction. Where we go from here will take some time to sort out, if we’re allowed it. Or, if a major crisis appears, we could be forced one direction or the other. There is, in fact, dispute among us as to whether 9/11, which took place over 16 years ago, was such a crisis. I’m speaking in vague generalities because I obviously can’t see the future. But it appears that the post war United States is now well and truly gone. In some ways that may be a good thing for us and the world. In other ways, it may well be disastrous. The United States, for good or ill, has been a source of international stability for 75 years. Many of our people cling to that world order and many others are pushing hard to change it. A whole lot of other people clearly want to cherry pick the past. What that split eventually means for us is a political process that should, rightfully, take some time to play out. The worrisome thing to me is that our political attention span is so short that we aren’t really debating big issues. Much of our politics, too much, is dealt with on twitter and facebook and we tend to post before we think and seldom listen to cooler heads. Even our greatest political thinkers, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Lincoln, etc. needed more than 140 characters to lay out their genius.

It doesn’t help that our political leadership seems much more focused on staying in power than leading us anywhere but, really, that isn’t exactly new and is, perhaps, the one unifying thing throughout our entire history and something that ties us to other democracies around the world. So, today, we sort of sit and stew. Sooner or later, we’ll get up and go somewhere. Let us all hope and pray that the path we choose is a good one.

I do think there is a unifying reason that even the most enthusiastic Clinton supporter would agree with the wildest Trump supporter on why the United States is the greatest country on earth: It is home. It is where those we love and who love us are. It is where we learned to be who we are and achieve whatever it is we will achieve. It’s where we can find a delicious meal cooked by people who know our name without any conscious thought. I’ve learned on this trip that home is a powerful force and one that is hard to overcome with statistics or words on paper. Of course, we rarely cite this reason because it is shared by people all over the world. I would expect a Swede to prefer Sweden or a Chilean Chile for the same reason. One of the saddest things I’ve ever experienced, and it is far too common, is talking to people who have had to flee their country; even when it is crystal clear that their country is not great and may, in fact, be trying to kill them. No matter the current state at home, it is their home and a big part of their soul still leans toward and reveres that home.  To not feel safe at home may be the worst curse possible.

Anyway, I’m sorry to have missed the fireworks, hot dogs and baseball. I’ll be there next year.  I’ll be there in a couple of weeks.


Anyway – did you stick with me through all that? If so, let me examine a specific point in terms of how we’re viewed by outsiders.  If not, you didn’t miss much.

When I wrote last about astronomy I mentioned renting a car. I rented the car, Friday afternoon to Sunday morning, for about $50 USD. It was a Suzuki Alto, which I’ve written about before. It’s the kind of car that you can put in neutral and then push around like a lawn mower. For all I know it’s a car body sitting on a lawn mower. But it’s also fantastically efficient. I rented from Chilean Rent-a-Car which is a reputable budget chain. They have nicer cars on their website including some big SUV type vehicles. I’ve yet to see evidence they actually possess these cars. They also aren’t real fussy about how much gas is in the car when you get it. I think you get however much gas was left by the last guy.

In this case, the car was on “2” out of 10. I was not sure how much gas I would need but I guessed more than 2. I was also told, sternly, that I had to bring the car back on “2” or face a penalty. Okay, sure. I gassed up immediately, putting 18,000 pesos in the tank which rendered the tank nearly full.  I then drove to Los Nogales Roan-Jase after loading my astronomy gear in the car. A word about that. I have very little, to my way of thinking, astronomy gear here in Chile.  And, yet, I had to leave some stuff behind as it wouldn’t all fit in the car. I bet I looked funny driving this tiny thing (I am a large human).

After my all-nighter on Friday, I drove around El Cajon del Maipo for a few hours. I’ve written about trips to Embalse El Yeso here and here. To get to the reservoir, you have to make a left off of Camino El Volcan a few miles past San Alfonso.  Well, this time I didn’t turn left and, instead, drove to the end of Camino El Volcan. Okay, the end of paved Camino El Volcan. Unpaved Camino El Volcan climbs into the Andes and to an illegal border crossing with Argentina and is, at this winter date, buried in about eight feet of snow. The Suzuki Alto was not equal to this challenge. I was not equal to this challenge.

After reaching the end of the road, having stopped to take many pictures, I turned back and then made a left to go to the end of Cajon del Maipo. Back on Camino El Volcan, I made a right and went to the end of the Rio Colorado. That’s right, they have a Colorado River, too.  And, like the one in the United States, it is dammed all to hell. I passed three different hydroelectric plants in a 20 mile stretch which generates a lot of Santiago’s electricity.  There aren’t many pictures of that.

So, below are the pictures from the drive. Like everywhere else I’ve poked into the Andes, it’s otherworldly beautiful.

But, first, I need to finish the story about the rental. I pulled back into the rental agency a little after noon on Sunday. The gas gauge sat on “7”. I had badly miscalculated how much gas I’d need in such an efficient car. I rationalized it as being worth the money not to have to worry about filling the tank but, really, I was irritated with myself.

And then perhaps the most incredible thing to have happened to me in South America happened: THEY REFUNDED ME 12,000 PESOS FOR HAVING MORE GAS THAN I STARTED WITH. I briefly argued with the poor lady because I had, naturally for an American, interpreted it as them charging me for coming back with more gas. It never occurred to me that they’d give me money. She corrected me and finally I understood.  They were giving me money.

If you’ve never rented a car in the United States, that probably simply sounds like a fair deal. But, in the USA, rental agencies insist on you returning with a full tank or, generally, they charge you the price for an entire tank and at their arbitrarily inflated price. Elsewhere in the world you’ll certainly be billed for coming back with less fuel in the tank but they’ll charge you only for the missing gas and at the market price. In other words, rental car companies in the United States are explicitly trying to screw you. How must foreigners react when that happens? I bet that doesn’t endear them to us at all.

I have now rented cars in Chile, Argentina, England, Canada, Iceland and the US Virgin Islands. The experience in the USA, US Virgin Islands and Canada is the same: terrible and you must constantly be on your guard against being cheated. In the other countries, it is a very pleasant and fair experience. So, I hate to report that the United States is clearly not the greatest country in which to rent a car. Maybe we’ll never solve health care but would it be too hard to get a fair deal on a rental?


Okay, pictures from my last – really, I mean it this time – trip in El Cajon del Maipo.

Looking toward the end of Camino El Volcan

Camino El VolcanCamino El VolcanIMG_6807Camino El Volcan

The pavement ends just by the red roof on the lower right. An unpaved track continues up the snow capped mountain, switchbacking up to the right between the foreground mountain and more distant.Banos MoralesCamino El Volcan

Everywhere in the pre-Cordillera you find places with a burst of color and streaks of various stone.Camino El VolcanCamino El Volcan

The village of El Volcan.El VolcanCamino El VolcanCamino El VolcanRio Maipo

Rio MaipoRio Maipo

An incredible little slot canyon on the Rio Maipo.Rio MaipoIMG_6845Rio Maipo

I think I have one more quick trip planned. But it only comes off if I finish my grading which, I’m sorry to say, is considerable. If anyone out there is interested in reading some papers, please let me know.











When it Rains, Throw a Party

Well, the party had been planned for some time but it sounded as if I was not the only one who found the weather and distance from home sad and frustrating yesterday. The students – my students and the students we’d been paired with from another American University – started showing up around 2pm. For awhile we occupied the apartment because Fellowship of the Ring was on and those of us who were there early didn’t want to give it up. Me because it is a comforting ritual that Mary and I repeat fairly often: find one of the LOR trilogy on TBS and drop everything to watch it, despite owning the DVD sets and having seen each of them a dozen times or more. For the three students it is because they’ve read, and loved, the books but not seen the movies.

I felt a bit like Bilbo there.

However, once we passed 20 in number, we adjourned to my building’s general purpose room which is much larger and was more comfortable. The party rolled on until 8 or so and my “grilled” dogs were a hit. I used a cast iron pan to grill them. Not quite charcoal outside under the sun but better than boiled.

The hit of the party was the body art. One of our students took a Public Art class here in which she could substitute a public art performance for the final paper. Easy choice, right? As I’ve written, last week was beautiful so she undertook her project on a bright, warm sunny afternoon. The idea was quite simple: she wore, basically, a bikini and wrote, in body paint, “Pintarme!” (only she used the upside down exclamation point on the front, as is correct but I can’t find on my keyboard) inviting passersby to have a go at art on her body. I had to pass by them on my way to pick up the rental so I stopped by.

Here is the scene:


She was well covered by the time I arrived but someone had written “Bang” on her shoulder so I added my version of art next to it.20170630_132256

She got a great turnout and a lot of little kids who were overjoyed to paint the gringo.  There was also at least one little tyke who was very excited to paint her until some large idiot standing nearby started speaking English and scared him away.

So, this student brought her tools to the 4th of July party and offered American flags to one and all. They were pretty good. Unfortunately, we never got a photo where everyone had their flags turned to the camera at the same time. The urge to look straight ahead is far too strong.


We have our “official” farewell lunch this afternoon. However, several students still have finals to take and I’m missing quite a few final papers. They have until Friday.  But our fifth student leaves this evening so it’s clearly winding down. Never fear, though, I still have a good story about rental cars and some more pretty pictures to come.












Worst 4th of July in Living Memory

No worries, this is not to be an epic political rant. I will entitle that post differently, to draw you in. Mary and I have spent two cold Fourths, one in Canada and one in Ireland but at least we were on mountains in beautiful places. Another Fourth I recall was the day I arrived in London for my study abroad stint there. I’d have probably ranked that one lowest before today. I arrived jet-lagged and late so that the folks who opened the house for me were just pulling out as I arrived, lugging heavy bags up what seemed an incredibly steep hill. Fortunately, it was in the 60s with a breeze so I wasn’t too uncomfortable. But the house was cold, I was far from home and I was surrounded by people who I wanted to feel humiliation at our great victory but who were just going on about their day as if the loss of the colonies was a minor political scandal in the distant past.

Today just doesn’t seem like the Fourth of July. I’m farther from home and it is about 40 degrees F. The heavy clouds hang just a few hundred feet off the ground and there is a stinging wind from the south. It spits rain constantly and, every now and then, it pours buckets. It is, in short, a pretty typical early January day in a temperate locale. Except it’s July 4.

I have discovered that not one but both of my regular shoes have holes in the soles.

And my plan has been foiled. I had planned to sit at home this morning drinking tea (Mr. Jefferson said nothing about giving up tea, I checked) grading in an attempt to keep the pile from getting out of hand. Perhaps I should hire some Huns? But to do this (grade, not hire Huns), I need my computer (come to think of it, I bet I could use the computer to hire Huns) which I conveniently left in my office last night. It was a bad few minutes until I could get someone here to confirm it was in my office and not lifted on the subway.

Point is, I’m not in an entirely celebratory mood. I could probably cheer myself up with a grilled burger and fireworks but I have no access to a grill and all my Chilean friends obstinately refuse to tell me it’s okay to blow things up. I could, you know. I’m a chemist. So you all have fun. Blow some stuff up and bring your cardiovascular event a few weeks closer. I’m going to go see if I can find hot dog buns anywhere. And turn on my heater.

Happy Birthday, America. Looking forward to seeing you again.