USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

June 25, 2013

Hot chocolate at the top of the world

Filed under: Andean Fossil Hunt — admin @ 8:50 pm

Tuesday 6/25/13
10:40 pm

sunset

It doesn't count if boards aren't missing

It doesn’t count if boards aren’t missing

obligatory rushing river in a canyon deep below

obligatory rushing river in a canyon deep below

Silvia en la Selva

Silvia en la Selva

a wire and wood plank bridge across a river in the jungle near the mine

a wire and wood plank bridge across a river in the jungle near the mine

This is a plunging anticline. The rocks should be in flat layers, but the layers are folded up like a burrito. Truck for scale.

This is a plunging anticline. The rocks should be in flat layers, but the layers are folded up like a burrito. Truck for scale.

Not a bad place to wait two hours for the road to open.

Not a bad place to wait two hours for the road to open.

a mile long line of cars waits for the road to reopen after a surprise that it will be underconstruction, along with the only other two exits from this region, for the next 6 months.

a mile long line of cars waits for the road to reopen after a surprise that it will be underconstruction, along with the only other two exits from this region, for the next 6 months.

Silvia said it's not a vicuna, because the ears are too long. Who are you mystery 4th ungulate!?

Silvia said it’s not a vicuna, because the ears are too long. Who are you mystery 4th ungulate!?

The truck to pick us up from the mountaintop field site was late, and it was getting cold. Etewhaldo suggested we hide from the cold inside one of the miner’s quarters. I thought they were all abandoned. There’s a cluster of maybe four or five buildings the size of mobile homes, each devided into little offices or dormatories, here on the top of the mountain. We’re about 2500 meters up, I checked the schematic of the mine. Yesterday, inside the mine, we were at about 1700 meters. My ears have been busy with popping. A clearing near the top of the mountain contains a big earthmover, the abandoned offices, and a lonely guard tower where a very official and fairly whistful young guy is in charge of checking the names of everyone who comes and goes, appearing suddenly in big 4×4 trucks and disappearing just as suddenly. He doesn’t have a computer, even though that’s where the best internet is (AHAH!) due to a huge aentena. And he doesn’t even appear to be allowed a book or magazine. As Silvia and Etewhaldo and I wait for our truck, now 10 minutes late, I tell them in Spanish about firewatch towers. As an adolescent I felt a whistful romance for firewatch towers in the wildernesses of the west, where a person might spend 4 months alone, watching the forrest, with only a radio and books and an imagination. I was convinced I’d be a famous writer if I could just get a summer job in a firewatch tower. Ed Abbey, Jack Keruac I think… good writers needed to have such experiences. As I explained this to the other two, I noticed the quiet guard peering through the window listening intently to my broken Spanglish, with his bare desk and clean reflective vest, and a sad expression. Etewhaldo found some cookies and candies in his pack for us, and I joked with Silvia that this was dinner. Getting cold, he led us to one of the abandoned buildings to shelter from the wind, as our car apparently wasn’t even on route yet.

The day was a bit of a bust scientifically but not bad all and all. Sort of like a rain day. In the morning Etewhaldo wasn’t at the mine offices to meet us. In fact the whole geology department was closed and locked. Apparently the two preppy guys my age I noticed at the cafeteria last night, sitting apart in colored polo shirts and looking nothing like locals or miners – are the grandsons of the owning family. They popped in for a surprise visit, and this took the geologists away from their other work. So for the morning Silvia and I had an office day. It was good luck, as it took a long time to correctly package all the samples from yesterday’s mining adventure. It was so loud, and so hard to communicate, that the numbing on the samples and the symbols on the mine schematic didn’t match. I figured it out, made notes, wrapped the mudstones in paper and plastic, labeling the samples inside and out, trying to protect against breakage in the bouncy truck. We’ll see how well I did.

I was almost done when the guy from the core warehouse came up asking if we had photos that might reference some markers in the core series. Long story, but the entire sequence was destroyed after we left. It boggles the mind. At least I got descent photos. I spent the next hour making him a massive photomerge in photoshop. Such a shame.

After lunch Etewhaldo came back and took us again above the clouds. He’d had a crew clear off part of a road cut so we could better see the rocks. We asked for about 4 meters. When we arrived, in unusually hot sunny weather, carrying all my junk (bastante equipaje) the roadcut was cleared by about 40 meters! Machete-d leaves and branches all around, and there the rocks we came to see. We looked and sampled and discussed. I felt bad about the plants, but the jungle grows really fast. Its very strange becoming a geologist after being a biologist. Particularly, as a paleontologist, I think in VERY long timescales. I brought screens for the light for photography. I’ve been lugging them around (they’re lightweight but awkwardly shaped and bulky) for days and people keep asking why I have them. Today they worked great; they can mellow the shadows of a bright sunny day into the even light of a late cloudy afternoon. The only problem was refolding the large screens into small circles, which had the three of us laughing and trying again and again. It was a good toy for three grown scientists to feel silly.

After the first road cut we went around the back of the peak, along a road that’s been out of service for some years after a small rockslide. The jungle was so thick you wouldn’t imagine cars once drove there. And the rocks above, with a fabulous overhang, and vines and water dripping down on us… sadly, the wrong rocks. These were the same we contemplated from above on Sunday, and now that we were seeing our destination, it was not quite the horizon we wanted.

And so, with evening coming on, we returned to the guard tower to await our truck. We tried to get into one of the little rooms. Rather than abandoned, inside there were several sleeping mats, a hotplate with pots, and small stores of peppers and food about. Just as soon as we pulled the string on the lock and it broke, the three miners came out of the jungle in their orange jumpsuits. Amusing awkwardness ensued as we explained we busted their lock on accident, but also Etewhaldo harangued them about their machete job above. So these were the guys who cleared the roadcut for us! And now after a long day they wanted to get out of the cold and we had to figure out how to break into the last not-so-abandoned room on the mountaintop.

We kept thinking our truck was arriving, but it was other trucks bringing other workers. They come and go in day and night shifts; the mine never sleeps. Eventually Etewhaldo and Silvia and I set up in an abandoned office to wait out the cold as the workers got into their house and started some cooking. They offered to have us over for dinner but we couldn’t eat into their stores when there was cafeteria food waiting for us below. Inside the office, two large desks, and a bookshelf were covered with dust. On one shelf were the largest moths I’ve ever seen in the wild, and a stack of forgotten accident prevention forms. The miners came by with some hot water and mugs and powders for coffee and hot cocoa. We thanked them and made hot drinks and continued telling stories. In the jungle Etewhaldo told us of his friend who got lost for an hour after taking a five minute pee break on the river bank during a boat trip. The jungle can be dangerous. I told about a winter evening when the metro rail was delayed an hour, so Amir and I huddled in a glass elevator at the elevated station. We spent an hour making friends in the elevator, going up and down, up and down, each time greeting the new member of the society of people waiting for a train that wouldn’t come. A drunk guy drove onto the tracks, and the city needed to cut the power. I was able to tell it mostly in Spanish. It really bothers me when I am lagging in following funny conversations.

The sun set was amazing, in billows of dark clouds marching from over the series of peaks separating us from Lima. Home for Silvia, who misses her husband and teenage son, though she really loves getting into the field. I took some photos. The miners teased the guard to pose for my photos, so he struck one like the construction worker in YMCA.

It was dark by the time we made it down to the main offices, and busses were arriving with nightshift workers. Busses and busses. It’s been really interesting getting so see what life is like here, and getting to know the geologsits. After dinner, Etewhaldo came to our casita to see some slides, and we must have shown him an hour of geology presentations. The poor guy watched half of my dissertation defense. In a sense we’ve done this visit in reverse, explaining why we’re here at the end. But he’s even more interested now, and we’re gradually widening our sphere of people with information to share about our investigation. I was really pleased that he knows Julio, from the mining company that hosted us last year, and who we will see again next week. I showed him thin sections of the microscopic view of a sponge that Julio found.

On our drive we saw two armadillos, and on the basketball court there were bats chasing bugs in the evening. It will be strange to leave the jungle, and head to the snowy peaks tomorrow. But it will be reallllllly nice, hopefully, to see some darned fossils. I don’t know, the next site is also a mine. We’ll see. Either way…

Winter is coming.

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