Challenging Journey

pano laguna blanca (sm)

Today sees us back in San Pedro, ready to move to Chillyfornia to start working at our Chilean sites. Our stay at the refuge will have lasted only four days, four days during which we roamed the altiplano back and forth to Uyuni for a visa and waited to hear about an authorization to start work that is not coming. We entered Bolivia counting on the authorization arriving last Tuesday, then Wednesday, then… I had to make a decision as we could not waste much more time waiting. We had already lost three days and could not afford more.

Our Bolivian scientific partners are sorry about this situation but they do not have the power of decision. Apparently, bigger forces than science are at play here and the relationships between the US and Bolivia have been tense in the past few months. We are just caught in the middle of a situation much bigger than us. Our Bolivian partners are still trying to make it happen and we are extremely grateful for the support we have received from the Park Rangers, the Institute of Ecology, and SERNAP in trying to resolve this visa problem. Meanwhile, I am taking the team back to Chile and we will start our investigation from there in a few hours. At this point in time, it is just a matter of flipping our program: Chile first, Bolivia second. We can accommodate the few days loss. If things get resolved in Bolivia, we will return to the refuge in about 8 days and climb Licancabur; if not, we will have time to make an in-depth analysis of the Chilean sites. Despite politics, science will still come out a winner.

Politics has not been our only challenge. A nasty bug has struck the team at various levels and our doctor has been very busy. One of our team members, unfortunately, has been stuck in San Pedro for most of the time now, recovering. We will see if antibiotics can resolve the bug or if we are dealing with a virus, in which case, going back home could be the best solution for him.

The silver lining of these first few days is definitely the behavior of the team composed, for most part, of young scientists, grad, doctoral, and post-doc students. For them, this is their first expedition and their first time in South America. They could already see the complexity and the challenges that can accompany such an endeavor and they have taken with them enthusiasm and patience. I am the captain of a strong ship, an even stronger crew who is not afraid of challenging waters…but who said exploration had to be easy?

On a more personal note, I would say that our administrative trip to Uyuni to obtain a visa was a blessing in disguise. Uyuni is 400 km from the refuge, the dirty trails of the altiplano soon being replaced by, well, the altiplano. Volcanoes, rocks, dust, springs, and high desert. Blue lakes alternate with the blood-red waters of Laguna Colorada.

Uyuni Desert

I know this place. I crossed the altiplano with the 2005 expedition but still, the feeling of recognition is deeper. Maybe Mars could have looked like that some 3.5 billion years ago. Kilometers of trails soon turn into tens of kilometers of trails. No habitations, no structures, only the altiplano…or maybe not. Coming out from a curve, the car passes a woman carrying her baby on her back. She is dressed in typical inca clothing and obviously is coming back from the river where she gave her baby a bath. We still drove another 15 km before seeing the first house. I could not help but think that in case of an asteroid striking the Earth, I have a good sense of who would survive. The image of this woman brings me back to the reality of why we are here.

Looking all around us, in the altiplano, life is a matter of survival, whether at microscale or at macroscale. The simplest living species, such as the cyanobacteria colonizing the springs here and they are now sharing the same expand of land than the most advanced being Earth has ever carried: The Human species. In the altiplano, I am not sure which one is doing the best but both have learned to survive with what they have.

-Nathalie Cabrol