Writings: Chile Journals

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May 30–31
June 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22–23


This is now my sixth visit to the Atacama. There is really little to be said now in terms of introduction. The correct nomenclature of these journals is now firmly established and my faithful readers know the setting, the theme and many of the characters. I can only point out that there is a rival chronicle from my brother who is doing a bicycle tour across Canada: Dinosauropedia. The title of the website is but a glimpse into his very unique sense of humour.

30-31 May 2009

My travel itinerary this time around was ideal. The LAN Chile flight from New York direct to Santiago is the most reliable and comfortable choice. I swopped seats before take-off with a young woman so that she could sit with her newly-wed husband—they had apparently entered into the matrimonial state only the day before and were departing for their honeymoon. After I had agreed to the switch I realised that it had put me right next to the toilet, which I anticipated might keep me up with flushing noises in the middle of the night. It turned out not to be so bad: the main disadvantage was that a pong wafted out the door a couple of times, but I was not severely offended. I watched Valkyrie, a better film than all the press coverage had lead me to believe it would be and it had a very strong cast.

The flight touched down in Santiago just before seven in the morning and the first thing that struck me was that it was still fairly dark outside as winter is approaching here. I went to Gatsby's for breakfast and did some work on my laptop there, though was unable to connect to the internet. Just before ten, there was an announcement that there would be a mass in the chapel, which was a pleasant surprise since to-day is the feast of Pentecost. It was a cosy affair with perhaps two dozen of us in the tiny chapel on the first floor, the existence of which I had previously been ignorant. For some reason I had always thought that airport chapels were an American invention. But now that I think about it, I recall that I happened across the "meditation room" in Schipol Airport last year, next to the display of the history of KLM.

Rolando, who has been back in Santiago for a while now, came to the airport at about noon and we drove into town for lunch. It was a very nice place by the river a bit outside the downtown -- the food was rather dear but it was a very pleasant meal and their pisco sours were excellent: Peruvian in style.

The flight to Calama was pleasant enough. On the transfer to San Pedro I was on the Southern Cross side of the van; a half-moon to-night. I arrived at about eight-thirty and was greeted by Suzanne, who was just on her way out to visit some reporters who are going to visit our telescope to-morrow. I had dinner with Paula, who is the other ACT person here. It feels good to be back here. I am in the same room I was in the first time I was here; on that visit, it had just been finished the morning I arrived. It is also on the side of the facility that consistently has warm water.

1 June 2009

My first full day here was a long one. It began with a shower which, despite my smug assertion yesterday, was cold and came out in a puny dribble. Though the shower was miserable, the rest of the day was not.

Our generators have been giving us trouble so Paula had contacted a technician to come and service them. This morning, to our pleasant surprise, they were up bright and early and had left Calama at about eight in the morning, so she and I headed up right after I was done breakfast.

Suzanne, on the other hand, had already left. There is a film crew in town filming for an upcoming documentary on the Discovery Channel about the early universe and to-day they were visiting our telescope, with her to show the way up the mountain. When Paula and I arrived, the generator servicemen had also just gotten there and the film crew was still setting up.

The rest of the day was spent supervising the generator maintenance (which was neither difficult nor time-consuming because they were quite reliable) and helping the documentary crew get the shots they needed. They began by taking shots inside the telescope itself; then moved outside to take pictures from within the groundscreen of the telescope in motion. This all took a few hours. In the meantime, it being my first day up, I took things pretty easy, working a very little bit on a computer that had a hard drive problem, and moving the telescope for the film crew.

They wanted to do an interview with Suzanne somewhere outside, but after scouting for a good location concluded that not only was it too cold, but also that it was too windy for the sound. So over about the next hour and a half, the equipment room was turned into a television studio. Lights were put up, a tarp was procured to cover the window, a microphone boom was assembled and Suzanne was miked up. I loaded some picturesque images on the computers in the background of the shot. The interview itself went well: it will be interesting to see which snippets will be included in the final product. The day wrapped up with them filming us `working' at the computers, mainly discussing our camera's cryogenic cycle for to-night. However, at their request, we included the word "CMB" a few times in our discussions in what I think was a relatively uncontrived manner.

It is interesting the fine line documentary makers must have to walk between blatant staging and candid realism. None of the shots (that I am aware of) were completely unscripted, but on the other hand, they were all representative of real situations.

We did not leave the site until about seven, so it was a long first day. I have noticed, however, that one gets a second wind after about three hours, though I had a headache when we left. Back in San Pedro, dinner and soon to bed. To-morrow the documentary crew will be back at the site, but this time to take exterior shots and will be able to work without our help.

2 June 2009

I had a good sleep last night, and this morning the shower was hot, even if it still only came in a dribble. Paula and I did various administrative tasks in the office before leaving for the telescope at about ten. Near the big switchback on the dirt road we passed the documentary crew who were taking some landscape shots. Later, they told us that they had seen viscachas in the area.

When we arrived, we switched to our south generator, the one which had been serviced yesterday. Our whole time there it ran at eighty degrees, which I believe is nominal and a marked improvement. While we were working on the daily check-list, the crew arrived, but were only filming outside and didn't require any help. After they had driven up to the old sulphur mine to film some long shots, Paula and I were finished at the site, and we escorted them over to the QUIET site, their next location. This was not only to show them the way, but also because ALMA security like all visitors to be escorted on their property. So we got a brief visit to QUIET before driving back to San Pedro.

The afternoon was spent on our own work, although I did spend about an hour working on our internet router which had been blocking traffic to our webserver on the regular port. Or so was our hypothesis: now I am convinced that the ISP has blocked this port, so we will have to make what had been a temporary work-around permanent.

One of the devoted readers of this journal has previously requested that an RSS feed be provided. This time, she has taken taken the bull by the horns and made a fan RSS feed. The webpage she used states: `This simple web service aims at bridging this gap between the RSS savvy web readers like you and the archaic websites that haven't put up RSS feeds yet.' The internet truly has something for everybody.

3 June 2009

To-day there were some errands to be run in Calama. Paula and I thought that it was a one person job, so Paula went and I stayed behind. She did have some company, however, as a member of the QUIET collaboration hitched a ride with her. One important errand which she managed to get done was having Hertz change the tyres on our truck—the old ones were pretty worn and didn't have much tread left.

I spent most of the day doing my own work. When lunchtime rolled around and I saw that there was no food in our fridge, I hopped on the bicycle and headed straight for the rotisserie chicken shop in town. This is the closest thing to fast food in San Pedro: a quarter chicken and fries for 1750 pesos: a tasty, greasy affair. The chicken has very nice seasoning on it, and as you wait you see a couple of dozen mouth-watering chickens roasting on automatic rotisseries in a big oven behind the counter.

Paula got back in the late afternoon and we headed to the telescope soon thereafter. It was dusk as we drove up the highway. A few minutes before the dirt-road turn-off, a spectacular shooting star fell right in front of us. We both thought it was close: I think I was able to actually resolve it and see burning fragments pouring off. I also thought that it might hit the ground. But it burned out about twenty degrees above the horizon.

It was a short visit to the site since all we did was complete the daily check-list and leave. The highlight of the visit for me was seeing our newly-installed window cover in operation. This is a solid cover which a motor can slide over our camera windows, so that during the day outside light doesn't warm up the cryogenics inside. A few weeks ago back in Princeton, I programmed the logic to make it open and shut, but this was the first time that I saw it working. It moved in the opposite direction than I had expected.

Quite a good seafood lasagna for dinner: the best meal so far this trip, edging out the chicken lunch I had earlier to-day.

4 June 2009

Paula and I left for the site at about two-thirty, having spent the morning at our own work in San Pedro. There have been some concerns about our camera refrigeration which the folks at the University of Pennsylvania had a close look at, and when we arrived there was a teleconference to discuss what had to be done. The conclusion was that we should leak a little bit of the helium out of one of our compressors. This was a relatively straightforward operation, but it was still somewhat stressful because a small mistake could be very costly. Nevertheless, we brought down the pressure without any hitches, and now only time will tell if it causes an improvement.

There is a new telescope on Cerro Chajnantor, a neighbouring peak to Cerro Toco, called MiniTAO, eventually to be replaced by a much larger telescope, called, as one might guess, TAO. They recently achieved first light. Paula and I have noticed that you can see it from the road approaching our own telescope: at first we thought it was a weather station on a nearby peak, but the angle is such that the top of Chajnantor rises just barely above the closer mountain.

This morning we finally received a shipment of hard drives which was sent by DHL from Philadelphia almost two weeks ago. We really have had a lot of trouble shipping things here as they seem to get lost in a black hole of bureaucracy in Santiago. The way they ended up coming to San Pedro was by bus—Turbus, to be precise, which I had only known before as a coach service for people.

5 June 2009

When I woke up this morning, Paula and Pablo, another Chilean, were watching the French Open since their compatriot Fernando Gonzalez was playing in the semi-finals. We left when he was down two-love in sets, but when we arrived at the telescope he had won the third and the fourth and was leading in the fifth. As we settled into our work his lead slipped and slipped and suddenly the match was lost.

Continuing our work to improve the refrigeration, we put the camera cryostat on a vacuum pump when we arrived. Like letting pressure out of the compressor yesterday, it was a simple job but one where we had to be quite careful not to make an error, and so we called Danica in Philadelphia to make sure we were on the right track. Once on the pump, we did a clean-up of the equipment room; I vacuuming the floor and Paula cleaning up our workspace. Then for the rest of the day at the site we did our own work, leaving the cryostat on the pump the whole time, until we left at about five.

This was Paula's last day here, and to replace her, Omelan, from Princeton, arrived this evening. Cristobal, one of the QUIET engineers, was having a house-warming party, so soon after Omelan arrived we left for that. It wasn't until about ten-thirty or eleven that the coals were hot and there was meat on the grill, but it was quite a feast once it all got going. The weather is pretty chilly here these days and we spent most of the time around a bonfire, sitting and chatting until close to one o'clock, when Paula, Omelan and I returned: Paula to pack for her early flight to-morrow, and Omelan to get a well-deserved rest after more than thirty hours of travelling.

6 June 2009

It was a fairly overcast day in San Pedro, with clouds coming from over Bolivia, though skies were clearer in the South. They did not seem threaten rain or snow, but only made the day a little darker. Omelan and I drove up before lunch. It was his first time at altitude and he did remarkably well, only showing signs of fatigue near the end of our four hour stay. Again we put the receiver on the vacuum pump and then continued with the daily check-list.

By the evening, the skies had cleared a bit, although there were still enough high-altitude clouds to make a beautiful Moon ring. We also observed this last night. According to folklore, it is a sign of an impending storm, which we certainly hope is not the case.

When we went in for dinner, the QUIET group was watching the end of Chile's 2-0 defeat of Paraguay in a World Cup qualifier. Afterwards, I looked to see if we could get the hockey game, without success.

7 June 2009

I was up late last night and slept in a bit this morning. At noon Omelan and I rode into town and went to mass, followed by a cheap, local lunch. After we had left the restaurant, I realised that I had massively over-tipped the waiter, leaving about fifty percent in addition to the bill. I think the currency conversion confused me. Omelan reassured me that it is impossible to give too large a tip, but I remain sceptical.

When we returned we departed for the site. As we were leaving I decided to make a brief detour so that Omelan could refresh his skills of driving a standard transmission. The roads near Don Esteban are flat, straight and devoid of traffic, making them perfect for this endeavour. He caught on fairly quickly and will practice a bit more before taking us all the way up the mountain.

Our time at the site was pretty similar to the last couple of days: we put MBAC on the pump and did the daily checklist. It was decidedly colder to-day, with a bit of a wind. The skies remain partially overcast. As we drove back down, I kept mistaking the moon in my rear-view mirror for a set of head-lamps following us.

One of my readers, in response to the introduction of the newfangled fan RSS feed, wrote me the following encouraging letter:

You may be pleased to know that I have not subscribed to the RSS feed. I am relying on my carefully honed procrastination skills, which will no doubt keep me abreast of your happenings. (You may feel free to apologise to your other reader on my behalf.)

I wonder if each of them can guess who the other is?

8 June 2009

The prediction by the moon-ring seems to have been false, at least for the time being. It was a typical San Pedro day with clear, blue skies and a fine temperature. Being Monday, Omelan and I completed the weekly checklist at the site, which includes a few more items than the daily checklist, such as measuring the fuel level in our large tank and filling up the elevation bearing grease. To-day, we added a new, much-needed item to the list: a vacuuming and cleaning of the equipment room. Though Paula and I had cleaned only a few days before, we did this chore again to-day to set a good example for future weekly-checklist doers.

Some readers may recall that on my last trip here, Ryan and I listened to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. This trip it seems that it shall be The Silmarilion, an audio version of which Omelan possesses, read very well by a narrator whose name I do not remember. We listened to the first part, the `Ainulindalë', which was short enough that it finished exactly as we were pulling into our parking spot at Don Esteban.

There was a new dish in our fridge this evening: a chicken stew with noodles. Unfortunately, there is no longer a menu posted in the dining room, so I cannot provide its Spanglish name.

9 June 2009

This morning at the site, instead of putting our camera on the vacuum pump, we tried running on our recently-serviced generator. Its temperature remained steady at about eighty degrees, so I am fairly confident that it is in good working order again.

When we were switching over the generators, I remained in the receiver cabin to watch the equipment and Omelan did the flip in the generator cabin. We had walkie-talkies for communicating, and each of us thought at one point that the other had called when in fact no communication had been intended. It seemed quite like someone else was using our frequencies. Soon after, I spotted a couple wandering around the outside of our fence. I approached them and they said they were just taking a look around: they didn't seem interested in coming inside: the man looked at the telescope and asked what it was and my answer seemed to completely sate his curiosity. I think they looked around at the scenery and then drove up to look at the sulphur mine. Perhaps they had walkie-talkies on a similar frequency to ours, but I didn't ask.

Down in San Pedro, we wrestled for a little while with the transport discs which we use to take data back to North America. The disc we were using kept coming unmounted and we came to the conclusion that it was from a bad batch. We replaced it with one from the new batch that recently arrived. Omelan is making it one of his priorities to make our transport disc system more robust.

Continuing the RSS saga, the creator of the fan feed wrote me with a with a very perceptive response to the reader who continues to visit the webpage without the use of any intermediate technology:

Who is your other reader who doesn't use the RSS feed? The most revealing phrase is "carefully honed procrastination skills," but that applies to way too many grad students to identify the reader.

It sounds like a snippet from Piled Higher and Deeper. I think I'll let them guess for a little bit longer.

10 June 2009

There was a strange noise outside the equipment room soon after we arrived at the telescope this morning. It sounded like a short siren burst. Omelan and I went outside to investigate, and saw two policemen walking through our gate, one brandishing what appeared to be a very automatic weapon. However, they were quite friendly, asking where we had come from. I tried to indicate the old mining road that we had come up, but they kept pointing in at what looked like the back road which comes up via Pampa la Bola. Eventually I was able to explain our route with the aid of a makeshift map drawn in the dust on the ground. They asked how long we had been there; we said five minutes, and one of them felt the hood of our truck to make sure. They seemed quite satisfied, shook my hand, and left.

We are still not sure what they were looking for. Afterwards, we remembered that we had seen a police van a few hundred metres down the highway just before we turned off onto the dirt road. Perhaps they followed us from there. Most likely they were looking for smugglers and thought that perhaps we had taken a detour to avoid them. When we returned in the early afternoon, we spied them again sitting by the side of the highway, but this time they did not pursue us.

Chile is playing Bolivia this evening in a World Cup qualifier. I perhaps would be watching it now, if the prospect of bed were not so appealing.

11 June 2009

To-day we had an epic contest with our generators. Both were due for oil changes, which we do every 400 hours, or roughly semi-monthly. Normally the changes are out of phase with each other, so that we only do one at a time. The recent troubles with our south generator, culminating in the servicemen's visit on my first day here this trip, threw this schedule off.

All told, it took pretty much the whole day to do the oil changes. There were several factors: the hoses on the pump for extracting clean oil from our 200 litre drums were too short and needed to be replaced; the pump was excruciatingly slow; we had a small spill (though it was on the concrete rather than on the ground); and so on. On the south generator, the oil filter was so stubbornly stuck that Omelan broke the tool that is used to remove it. We had a similar, larger tool, but that only ended up crushing the filter. Next, we tried piercing through it with a screw driver so that we could use that as a lever for unscrewing it, but the screw driver only kept ripping through the metal sides as we attempted to rotate it.

Luckily, Omelan had worked on similar filters before and knew what the solution was: to pull it to shreds with a pair of pliers and thus remove it bit by bit. He was the chief labourer in this endeavour, which took him the better part of an hour. Thus it was not until the early afternoon that we were able to pour fresh oil into the south generator and switch it on.

The north generator oil change was more routine, but still took at least a couple of hours. We were barely able to remove the oil filter on this one with the back-up tool. Our theory on why its partner was so difficult to remove is that before the servicing, the other generator was running too hot, bonding the filter to the threads and the seal.

But in the end all was accomplished. We all got a considerable amount of oil on us, both clean and dirty, and the clothes we had on are now definitely work clothes, even if they were not before.

12 June 2009

At the site to-day we ran another test to understand our refrigeration system. It was quite simple: we switched off one of the radiators in each of our water cooling systems, and then recorded the temperatures of both the water and the cryogenics. To remind us every fifteen minutes that the data was to be recorded, Omelan set up an alarm on one of the computers which said, for some bizarre reason "green vegetables" over the speakers when the time was up. It was funny every time it happened.

Our evening was not so funny. One of our most important computers here in town, where we store data waiting to be shipped back to North America, is failing. Its RAID (redundant array of independent discs) appears not to be redundant enough. The system is poorly documented, so Omelan will try contacting any technical support he can to-morrow. It has been a most frustrating turn of events that sucked our evening away.

13 June 2009

This morning I awoke at about seven-thirty and went on the first bicycle ride I have been on this visit. I took one of my tried-and-tested routes that goes in a fifty-minute loop south of San Pedro. It was chilly morning and I did the about the first ten minutes of the ride with my hands in my pockets. My hands are quite dry these days and the cold air stung the cracked skin on my knuckles as I gripped the handle bars. But eventually as I got into open road and the slanting sun was no longer obstructed by walls or buildings, it got pleasantly warm.

I worked in the office for the rest of the morning. Omelan investigated our computer problem from last night, but it turns out that we're going to have to wait for technical support to open on Monday morning before making progress. Nevertheless, we have another computer which has been pressed into service as a back-up, so our data backlog is being diminished and the our observations have not had to let up.

We went only briefly to the site to do the checklist. It was quite a pleasant day up there.

In the evening to mass in town: this evening and to-morrow is the feast of Corpus Christi. Afterwards to dinner at Tierra, one my favourite places to dine here. The prices there have been raised along with the rest of the tourist restaurants: gone are the days of a full meal for 4500 pesos. It is a chilly evening, perhaps six or seven degrees outside.

14 June 2009

It was a day with little incident. I lay in for a little while this morning reading, and then spent the rest of the time until lunch working on my own things in the office. Omelan was watching drag racing when I went in for lunch, which I had never seen before.

Our trip to the mountain was brief but pleasant. On the way down, I showed Omelan the back road that goes via Pampa la Bola where the other experiments are located. We passed our friends the policemen on the highway near the Bolivian border but they did not make pursuit.

It continues to get colder. In town during the day it is still quite pleasant, but the nights are cold, and it was bitter on the mountain this day. If I had more free time, I might devise an apparatus for automatically turning the pages of my book so I could keep my arms beneath the warm covers when I am reading in bed.

15 June 2009

If yesterday was a relatively calm day, to-day we were greeted by misfortune upon misfortune. It started in the morning when our second RAID computer, which we had been using as a back-up while the other was being repaired, decided that it would be a convenient time to fail. We were suddenly stranded with nowhere to put our data.

While Omelan continued working on the first computer, I applied myself to the second. With some helpful emails from colleagues in North America, I was soon able to figure out how the system worked and roughly what was wrong with it. One of the drives in its RAID needed replacing, which I did. We suspect that the Seagate discs we have been using are the cause of our woes, so we have been switching to Western Digital.

It took a paragraph to write, but a few hours to solve, and it was mid-afternoon before this was all done. Omelan was well on his way to bringing the other computer up, meanwhile. The RAID takes a few hours to repair itself when a new disc is added, so we headed to the mountain while we had the chance. Just before leaving, the fuse in one of our important transformers blew, cutting our internet gateway machine off of the network. We didn't have any spares that we knew of in town, so resolved to bring some down from the site.

At the site we did the checklist as quickly as we could, but were waylaid by the grease sprayer on our telescope azimuth gears. It had gotten cold enough that one of the gauges was frozen solid. We stayed a bit longer to test that the grease was actually flowing, which it did seem to be, albeit grudgingly. We turned up the thermostat on its heater and left, though we will have to check it again to-morrow.

As we drove down, we decided that we needed to purchase some beer, and we stopped at our regular grocery store to pick some up. Then back to nurse our computers to health.

Mine seemed to be doing well until about midnight, when it failed just before the repair was done. I have restarted it to continue through the night, and will see if I can keep copying data down from the mountain in the meantime, where the discs are filling up fast. As for me, I shall sleep.

16 June 2009

Another fifteen hour day of work. Most of the day was spent getting one of our RAID's back, which I was finally able to do late this evening. It was too late to clear the backlog of data off of the mountain in time to observe to-night, but it is a relief to have it working, and I hope it remains that way. We also realised, during the brief time we were able to snatch at the mountain, that the grease sprayer is not working properly as we hoped it would after we increased the thermostat temperature yesterday. Given its importance for the telescope motion (it keeps the gears lubricated) it is perhaps not a bad thing to be giving the experiment a rest for one night. And on the subject of rest, it is probably not a bad thing for this experimentalist to also take some rest for the night.

17 June 2009

To-day was much less frenetic than yesterday. The new RAID survived the night, and even restarted without complaint after a a power outage in the night which lasted long enough for our UPS batteries to run out. So we are cautiously optimistic that we have a robust system.

Driving up to the site to-day we passed some cyclists going in the same direction. They are not the first that I have seen and I am always impressed. We saw them when we returned near dusk setting up camp about halfway to Cerro Toco.

At the site we devoted most of our energy to fixing the grease sprayer. Turning the thermostat up a couple of days ago turned out not to be the best idea because the grease had become too hot and turned runny. The plate in the grease can which is supposed to sit on top of the grease had sunk to the bottom and we had to fish it out. Naturally both Omelan and I got fairly greasy in the process. We decided to leave the plate out overnight, turn down the thermostat, and wait for the grease to firm up a bit overnight. Next, we checked that it was still spraying onto the gears. Three out of four nozzles were working well but one was having difficulty getting a good spray. The grease would squirt out like toothpaste from a tiny tube but not get picked up by the air blast. We couldn't quite see in the failing light if the blower is misaligned, but suspect that there is a gelatinous build-up near the end of the nozzle that might get pushed out overnight, because occasionally a small blob would get propelled outward.

Given our recent record, the day would not be complete without something new going wrong. Soon after hitting the highway as we were driving down both Omelan and I heard what sounded like our vehicle going over rumble-strips on the road. Of course we knew that there was no such thing on the road. Stopping the truck we found that on two of our tyres there was a prominent bulge on the side, as though one of the metal ribs had popped loose and was about to burst through the rubber. With only one spare, and cautious lest we should have a blowout, I did not exceed sixty kilometres per hour for the rest of the drive. We got Rolando to contact Hertz and we hope that they will be able to deliver a replacement to-morrow. In its current state it is unsafe to drive.

18 June 2009

Because of our damaged tyres, we were unable to go to the mountain to-day. Although the list of things we need to do there keeps growing, no item was so critical that we absolutely needed to address it immediately, so we did not need to hitchhike up. Staying down actually gave us a much needed breather. I had a lot of my own work that needed to get done and I had a fairly productive day; Omelan made excellent progress on the remaining faulty RAID.

There is a new group which is going to be just up the road from us near the old sulfur mine. Run by NASA, I believe (and perhaps some other government laboratories), they will be releasing balloons for atmospheric studies. Their personnel have started arriving and to-day I met a couple of them. To-morrow they plan on dropping by to get to know the neighbours. They are very friendly and have been asking lots of questions about logistics: oxygen (or lack thereof), which roads to take, whether there is cellphone coverage, etc.

During the day, Rolando kept up the pressure on Hertz to get us a new truck. He called at noon, and then had to wait until four for our agent to get back from "lunch". But we were in the end promised a replacement truck to arrive later in the day, although it would have to be a Dodge Dakota with automatic transmission—not the most ideal for mountain driving, but the only option. It was supposed to get delivered to us between eight-thirty and nine-thirty and I stayed in the office during that time in case the phone rang. Every time a vehicle pulled into the parking lot, I looked to see if it was ours; but nine-thirty came and went.

At about nine-forty the phone range. Our Hertz agent said that the driver was in San Pedro at Don Esteban. I responded by saying that I was at Don Esteban and I hadn't seen anyone: was there some mix up? So she told me she would call back. I went outside for another look, and to my surprise there was the new car with the driver sitting inside. It seemed he hadn't bothered to come and knock on our door, and somehow I hadn't heard or seen him park there.

It also turned out to be another Mitsubishi rather than the Dodge we had been promised, which suits us very well. The driver left with our old car once I had signed the paperwork. He didn't bring replacement tyres and I hope he makes it back to Calama with only one spare. If both blow, at least he has a cell phone. Later I realised that he had left behind a loose spare in the back of the new truck and now I wonder why he didn't take it with him.

19 June 2009

When we arrived at the site this morning, Omelan noticed that there was a lot of oil on the ground below our north generator. After switching to the other one, we investigated as well we could. The dipstick showed that the oil level was very low and we concluded that we have a major leak — about four gallons have leaked in only a few days. The curious thing was that we could find no obvious places where the leak might be. At any rate, that kept us busy for the whole morning and part of the afternoon. I think that we will need to get a technician in to figure out what is wrong.

We had a longer lunch break than usual because our new neighbours from up the road came to visit us. We had lunch together, and then we gave them the grand tour of our instrument. They had come up using the ALMA road and had been given a large, flexible "ALMA" magnet which was stuck to the hood of their truck.

It wasn't until later in the afternoon that we could work on the grease sprayer system. The grease was still pretty soupy, so we left the can as it was. As for the malfunctioning sprayer, we discovered that its airflow is much less than the other three. We realised that we would have to disassemble it to make any progress and by this time we only had an hour of daylight left, so we have postponed it until to-morrow. Thus we arrived back in town having been busy the whole day, but with little really accomplished on the mountain.

Dinner this evening was new: some kind of curried chicken with a good dish of rice.

20 June 2009

Omelan and I left early for the mountain in order to finish with the grease system. The highway was very busy this morning: we passed sixteen vehicles that I counted and I think I missed a couple. I'm not sure it was the time of day or if there has been a sudden surge in trade between Chile and Argentina.

We pulled the grease sprayer nozzle off of the mount, brought it into the cabin, and Omelan took it apart and cleaned everything. Sure enough, one of the air ports was clogged. Once back together, we went to put it back on the telescope. As we were doing the last turn of the spanner to tighten it into place, it sheared in half and was thus destroyed at the very end of our labour. After searching for a while and making a few calls to North America, we realised that we have no back-ups at the site. So we capped the air and greases hoses and are now running on three out of four sprayers.

We returned to San Pedro feeling that we had taken a step backwards rather than forwards. The one item of progress was Omelan's discovery of the oil leak location on our generator. It appears to be a slow leak dripping off of the bottom of the oil pan and probably coming from a bad seal above.

Back in town I worked for a couple of hours, and then went to the seven o'clock mass in town. It is cold everywhere, and everyone in church was in coats. Three girls were baptised. After the service, people gathered in front of the church and there were sweets thrown in the air so that the landed everywhere on the ground where children scrambled to collect them.

Matthew Hasselfield arrived this evening from the University of British Columbia. He had just arrived when I got back. After I greeted him he expressed disappointment that I hadn't reacted to his "Christmas presents". Indeed, I had not noticed that there was a pile of new equipment on our office floor which had arrived in his luggage: some disc parts, a web camera, tools for our generator, and other exciting goodies.

June Solstice 2009

To-day, the first day of winter in the southern hemisphere, was my last full day in San Pedro. Because of this, and since I had not taken any time off since arriving, we took the morning to visit the Laguna Chaxas. I have been there before, but it is one of my favourite destinations in the area, and neither Omelan nor Matthew had visited it yet.

After spending a couple of hours about the lakes we returned, stopping in Toconao to have lunch in the main square. It is a charming little village with a prominent bell-tower in the square in front of the church, which is attached to a convent.

In the early afternoon we went up to the telescope. We did the daily checklist and made sure that the grease sprayer was still working and that the south generator was not running too hot. Needless to say, I got quite greasy again looking at the former of these. I think it will be a few days before my hands have no trace of black on them.

In the evening we went to town for dinner, going to La Casona. It was quite quiet for some reason, and we got a seats next to the fire outside. This restaurant has a large wine cellar (where, two years ago, I bought a bottle of bubbly) and I feigned oenological expertise as I blindly chose a bottle of Carménère to go with our dinner.

When we were done, we walked back in the cold beneath the long, brilliant swathe of the milky way. A shooting star burned brief and bright as we turned into Don Esteban towards the warm light of the office.

22-23 June 2009

On Monday I rose at five in the morning in order to be all packed up and ready for the transfer at six. The shuttle was completely full after all the passengers had been picked up. As we left San Pedro it was still dark, except for some smoky-pink clouds above Licancabur and Cerro Toco signalling that the sun, "in russet mantle clad", was close to the horizon.

The trip to Santiago was routine. There I was greeted by a Gonzalo, a Chilean friend from Princeton who is spending the summer at home. We drove downtown where we met up with Rolando at a Peruvian restaurant for luncheon. The food was really quite excellent and we took our time over it. Much of the conversation revolved around the Chilean election due to be held later this year.

When we were done eating Rolando departed as he had to get to some work. Gonzalo and I spent the next couple of hours walking about the city. It was a very nice, informal tour he gave me: I saw many landmarks to which a more conventional tour or guidebook would not have led me. When, at about five o'clock, we arrived back at Gonzalo's car, I was becoming footweary, especially after having such an early morning. But the day in Santiago was a very nice end to my time in Chile.

My flight to Miami left in the early evening. The in-flight film, She's Not That Into You, educated me on certain aspects of the western Zeitgeist which, in my life of scholarship, I am sometime apt to forget. When it had finished I managed to get two or three hours of sleep before we arrived at five in the morning in Miami. Since we were an early flight there were no lines at immigration and I passed through very quickly. There was little benefit as my connecting flight was not until a quarter after ten, but it is preferable to be sitting in a café eating breakfast than to be waiting to speak with an immigration officer.

Torrential rain swept through Miami a couple of hours later. This diverted a great number of incoming planes, including the one which was supposed to be used for my connexion. The boarding area where we all waited for updates on our flight status was next to a little enclosed courtyard, the one place in the airport where smokers are permitted to sate their cravings. The poor creatures were faced with a difficult choice: either to get wet puffing in the downpour, or to remain dry but without satisfying their tobacco lust. Many of them hung, haggard-faced, next to the door, like divers on the edge of a icy lake unsure whether they wanted to take the plunge.

At about one o'clock, the flight finally took off, about three hours behind schedule. I returned to Toronto rather than New Jersey in order to have a brief visit with my family. The weather when I emerged from the terminal was pleasantly warm and humid and I embraced it after the perpetual cold of the Atacama. But, dear reader, my stepping out of the airport at my journey's end signifies my return to private life and the completion of this chronicle. Though your narrator is absent, life in San Pedro and on Cerro Toco continues: the telescope still observes its chosen patches of sky, seeing deeper and deeper with each passing night, all the while quietly spooling data to disc with cosmological information we can now only eagerly anticipate uncovering.