And now for the second part of my epic journey into Mexico…
So after a night’s sleep that I feel was well deserved after having been awake for about a day and a half previously, I left my hotel to meet my supervisor (after a rather epic Spanish-fail in which the cleaner came to my room and ask if I wanted… well, my room cleaning. I wanted to show off that I could speak some Spanish, only to realise halfway through that I entirely lacked the vocabulary to do that. So in the end it just came out as a rather embarassing “Estoy… err… checking out.” Serves me right for trying to be a smart-arse).
We took the trolley (as mentioned in the previous post) down to the boarder at the end of the line. A bit of an odd experience! We crossed the boarder into Mexico on foot. You can also drive through in your car, but this involves sitting in a queue for several hours and looks genuinely soul-destroying, particularly from the Mexican side. On the Mexican side, the traffic is at a complete stand-still across 3 lanes. It’s in fact static for so long that food/drinks carts that are normally found on the pavement at the side of the road are actually set up in between the lanes of cars, and drivers leave their cars to buy stuff. Literally all going through on foot consisted of was getting off the train, crossing the road via a footbridge, walking for about 5 minutes through an enclosed area going alongside the road… And into Mexico. No passport control, no bag checks. Nada. The most exciting bit was when we were coming to the exit into Mexico, and there was some sort of security-esque bloke at a table to my left looking in the rucksacks of a couple of Mexican women. As I walked past, he shouted to me to come back – which I did, thinking he wanted to look at my stuff after all. But he said:
“Push this button.”
“Please, push this button.”
…and pointed to a small button sat on the desk. So I did. It doesn’t beep, there’s no light, nothing. He says “Thank you”, and lets me go on my way. I say it was ‘exciting’, but I think just ‘purely baffling’ is a better way of describing it. I’ve never had someone genuinely confuse me like that before. Myf and I looked back at it and couldn’t even figure out what it was connected to, or what possible reason there could have been to make me (and only me, not Myf) push this mystery button. I’ll have to check the news for that day and see if there was some sort of missile attack somewhere else in the world… ++
So once officially in Mexico, it was then an hour’s bus ride to the town of Ensenada where we were due to spend our next night. The first striking thing you notice about Ensenada when you arrive are the pharmacies. Pretty much every other shop is a pharmacy (or rather, a “pharmacy”, as I seriously doubt the credentials of anyone working behind the counter!) selling things like penicillin and vicodin over the counter for “LOW, LOW PRICES! Just like America!” Very, very disturbing (also just like America).
We dumped our stuff in the hotel and went out for a walk along the sea front to kill some time before dinner. There was a large plaza just by the marina, with the usual touristy-type stalls and grassy areas, where some clowns had gathered a crowd to entertain the kids (and me).
Of course, there were the usual boaty-type things. And there were sea lions! Being very noisy and getting ready for a bit of a siesta on the jetty.
That evening, we met up with one of my supervisor’s collaborators who has a permanent position at the University in Ensenada… and who owns his own vineyard! So we went out for dinner (to a wonderful Thai restaurant. Yes, I’m cultured. Even if it is the *wrong* culture.), accompanied by one of his lovely bottles of red. After the meal, we ventured out in an attempt to catch a partial solar eclipse that was underway. Sadly a) there was no way to get a photo of it, and b) it disappeared behind a mountain top fairly rapidly… But at least I did catch a glimpse! They’re always a nice little experience, and we both regretted not booking to go up to the observatory a day earlier to watch it from there with a clear view. This oversight wasn’t surprising, given that we both had a “quick in and out” mentality about the whole trip. And is something my body-clock would hate me for by the end of the week!
We ended our second night away finishing Alberto’s wine with our feet dangling in the hotel pool, ready for the next leg of our journey the following morning (after yet another monstrously-sized breakfast, of course). We were picked up at 9am by an observatory pick-up truck (travelling in style):
And so began our (non-air conditioned) 240km, 4-hour ride across the Mexican countryside/desert/generally middle-of-nowhereness in what can only be temperatures vaguely resembling the surface of the sun. Think all of us pretty much just passed out in our seats for the duration of the journey! But it was all very pretty and scenic, especially when we hit the San Pedro Martír National Park itself…
The park is breathtakingly beautiful, in perhaps one of the most literal senses I’ve experienced. The “Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Mártir”, as it’s called in Spanish, covers 170,000 acres and is one of very few places where you can find a pine forest in Baja California.
The ‘sierra’ is a mountain range that runs north-south along the middle of northwestern region of the peninsula, with its highest peak – “Picacho del Diablo”, or “Devil’s Peak” – being found at 3096m.
We pulled up at the ‘residencia’ to find ourselves slap-bang in the middle of said pine forest. To finally be in clear, clean, cool, mountain-fresh air with the smell of pine trees all around was truly wonderful (despite what is quite possibly the lowest humidity I’ve ever experienced: 3-5% on the first night!). It must be one of my favourite smells, reminding me of my La Palma days (and of the red squirrel reserve in Formby back in England!). One of the funniest things you’re greeted with when you get out of the car are the ‘igloos’:
There are about six of these in close proximity to each other, which used to serve as the astronomer’s accommodation! I SO wish it was still used! Instead, most of them aren’t used which is a great shame. No-one gets to live out their Hobbit fantasies. Instead, we stay in a newer building which isn’t as interesting and is fairly observatory-standard inside (except for the bat that was sleeping on the wall in the corridor. That was new one.).
There are also a couple of “Cabañas” dotted around, which I think are also out of use:
The other little quirk about this observatory is that, where in La Palma we were given exceedingly crappy Seat Ibizas to drive around, here we were either going to get a huge pick-up truck, or a VW Beetle! Sadly, we got the pick-up. So like my Hobbit fantasy, my Herbie fantasy died a death, too.
There are just cracking views all around at this observatory, and the chance to get a nature-fix was too tempting to pass up on. So on one of the afternoons before observing, I decided to go walking around and scrambling over rocks to take a load of pictures of the surroundings:
Oh yeah, and there were some telescope-type things there, as well… 😉
So there are 3 main telescopes at the San Pedro Martír (or SPM from now on) observatory: the 0.84m, 1.52 and 2.12m, and we were there to use the latter. The observatory, and all it contains, has been owned and operated by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) since 1929 (it moved to this site in the late 1960’s).
The 2.12m control room has recently had a massive upgrade, so looks all new and shiny with cool “whooshy” sliding doors. It was also possible to go up onto the walkway that wraps around the top of the building, and so I got to watch sunset from up there – very pretty indeed.
We were observing three different planetary nebaule (PNe) for all three nights. The instrument we were using is called the Manchester Echelle Spectrograph (MES), and my supervisor actually helped to design and build it as part of her own PhD! I got to have a little play with it in the set-up, which made me miss my Support Astronomer days! (I was a little insulted when my supervisor asked me “have you handled filters before?”, given that’s what I had just spent a whole year doing…). MES has previously been installed on telescopes in Australia (AAT) and La Palma (INT), and has been at SPM since 1995.
On the final night of observing, the internet on site went down – nooooooooooo! Every astronomer’s nightmare! Not only does it mean that you can’t look up important information with regards to your observations, but most forms of entertainment to help with the long hours go with it. I found myself greatly amused watching how people coped with this, including myself (I resorted in having an attempt at *working*, for crying out loud!). But I was about to have a reprieve for a couple of hours…
Not content with having a go at breaking one telescope, I was invited over to the 0.84m telescope by another astronomer whom I’d met at a conference the previous summer, Paco. So I got to take some images over there – and it’s such a dinky little telescope! The second smallest professional telescope I’ve used in fact (if we include the 0.5m telescope I used on Tenerife as an Undergraduate). So I managed to get two telescopes for the price of one out of this trip 🙂
Paco tried to numb the pain of not having internet by looking at all the webcams situated across the observatory. Bearing in mind it was 11pm, shockingly there wasn’t much to see. Thinking that he was about to lose the plot entirely, I finished my little observations and headed back to the control room of the 2.12m, where I was greeted with music which I have already described to some people as “Awful ancient hymns on flute and panpipes” (from what I could infer based on the content) emanating from the telescope operator’s computer. It started to remind me of one of those zombie films where everyone, under great stress, starts to go a bit doo-lally before they all crack and start murdering people. I was especially worried at the prospect given the notice written on the control room door:
Thankfully, normality resumed when we got our internet back at about 01:30 in the morning.
After our last night of observing, we were allowed a whole 2 hours of sleep before we then had to catch the transport back to Ensenada – that was painful, I can tell you! Except this time, we didn’t spend the night in Ensenada before heading back to San Diego… So we had the 4 hour drive, followed by the hour bus, followed by the boarder (and the Americans did actually check our passports, unlike the Mexicans… No freaky buttons to push, though), followed by the trolley, before finally collapsing into our respective hotels. Once again, I must have been awake for something pushing 30 hours before I made it to bed that night – all ready to be up the next day to catch my return flights and 18-hour journey back to Santiago. Needless to say, I slept for 13 hours the night I got back to my own apartment… 🙂
This is most likely my last observing trip until I go to AUSTRALIA next January! But is by no means my last trip abroad between now and then… This Thursday, I’m flying out to Barcelona for 9 glorious days for a “Cool Stars” conference, followed by 2 weeks back in the UK to catch up with friends, family, and my cat. And I am very excited. No doubt there will be lots to talk about after I return to Santiago on 17th July!
Hasta la proxima,
** As quoted from a quality video called ” ‘Que Hora Es?’ The Mexican soap opera for people who only had 3 weeks of Spanish in the 4th grade.” By tradition now, all La Palma students have to watch this at some point. It’s all the Spanish you ever need to know. OCHO!
++ Upon further research, stories that button is potentially responsible for include:
- The Italian earthquake
- Marks & Spencers staff finding out that their bonuses will get slashed due to a fall in profits (oh, the horror!)
- Chelsea winning the Champions League (the true tragedy)