Posts Tagged ‘sunset’

By the time that we reacquainted ourselves with our vehicle and our gear, and set out once more for the famous salt flats, I must admit that I was ready to be underwhelmed. Maybe it was just being tired. Our tour had been interesting, for sure, but a lot of driving for only a few real “sights.” There was grumbling among the passengers, and already talk of getting some of our money back for all of the trouble and the lack of sightseeing.

Around lunch time we made it to the first real tourist stop… a restaurant made of salt, replete with a gift store, carved salt figurines, and a roof that looked likely to collapse at any minute. But out front was a collection of many flags ripping in the wind, and they were quite pretty against the white and the blue.

And in truth, the place was starting to get pretty. We drove through a salt-gathering operation where trucks, light machinery, and people were gathering the salt into piles to be picked up and carted away, and the triangular shapes of them were strange and symmetric in an increasingly strange landscape. And we were starting to see our first large expanses of water, too.

But it was probably an hour or so later that the Salar de Uyuni began to show itself as the most incredible sight I was to see inBolivia.

It was explained to me by a tour guide at Lake Titicaca that the salt flats at Uyuni are the leftover remnants of a sea that was trapped inland by the rising mountains of the Andesand evaporated. A similar story to the Great Salt Lake in Utah. But in the case of Bolivia, Lake Titicacais on the same high, flat plateau (altiplano) as the salt flats… and Titicaca is certainly not salty. Apparently there is an outlet down near Uyuni, and over the course of however many thousands of years, the fresh water pouring out of the mountains onto the altiplano slowly pushed the salt water down to the vicinity of Uyuni before things dried out and the whole thing evaporated.

In any case, the take-home message is that the Uyuni salt flats is a huge expanse of salt left over from the slow evaporation of an inland sea. And it is very flat. And it had just snowed for several days in the high country.

All of this meant that there was a 2” deep or so layer of water, let’s call it a sheen of water for poetry’s sake, spread evenly across miles of white salt. And the sky was liberally scattered with beautiful clouds to break up the neverending blue. In the distance deep blue hulks of mountains and volcanoes gathered clouds to their heads before letting them sally out across the flats.

And there was not a whisper of wind.

The salt flats were a giant mirror reflecting all of this.

Now, I suppose you can imagine, perhaps, the beauty and strangeness of this. But this wasn’t just an isolated vista somewhere; this was hours of driving in this alien landscape. It looked like we would reach the mountains at any time, but we were driving for hours in this surreal beauty. At times it was almost too much. I could feel brain cells smoking and exploding as they tried to reconcile the fact that I was sitting in a Landcruiser, but that somehow the horizon had disappeared. There were times when I could feel vertigo and had to stop looking out the window and fix my gaze on something concrete and unchanging. My hat on the dashboard. The steering wheel.

After a few hours of this, one of the mountains on the horizon began to separate itself and creep closer. Incahuasi. Out in the middle of the salt flats there exist a couple of small islands, and one of these islands is maintained as a tourist destination. And it is covered in large, ancient cacti. We were told these grow about 1 cm a year… and some of these specimens were up to 12 meters tall. Old beings.

One of the strangest feelings of the day was when our Landcruiser circled half around the island to reach the trailhead on the back side. After hours of driving on a sheen of water, it truly felt like we were a boat taking a wide berth around the shallows and seeking the safe landing on the back side of the island.

Before long we were safely ashore and snapping photos.

salt "surf"

After our allotted hour on the island, Victor broke the news that climbing Tonopa, the volcano to the north, wasn’t going to happen. We didn’t have time.

What we did have time for, however, was a stop on the way back to Uyuni to watch the sun bid its fiery farewell to the day. As the light faded the clouds took up its colors in a wide spectrum of changing colors and textures that was, of course, reflected upon itself upon the skin of water.

And well after dark we rolled into Uyuni in salt-covered vehicles, found a hostel, and brought our guides and cook out to dinner in Uyuni. And slept well. Very well.

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It all started with a simple observation. As the winter solstice, December 21, 2009, approached, I realized that sunset was already getting later each day. On a whim, I pulled up a chart of the sunset and sunset times for my area, and to my surprise, found that the solstice had neither the latest sunrise or the earliest sunset of the year. This was quite a surprise.

Now in case this makes you furrow your eyebrows instead of raising them in sympathetic surprise, here is why this is strange to me — as winter approaches, the days get shorter. So you expect that sunrises get later and sunsets get earlier. And if you’re like me, and expect some kind of symmetry in the world, you would expect that the shortest day of the year (solstice) would be the coincidence of the latest sunrise and earliest sunset of the year.

But this isn’t so. Curious.

Because i sometimes like playing with numbers, i pulled the sunrise/sunset chart into Excel, and after some wrangling to get a graph that came close to illustrating my point, i came up with this:

(click on it and it’ll be a little bigger)

It’s not perfect, but it gives you the idea… the curve of sunset time and sunrise time do not mirror each other, and do not coincide at the solstice, yet somehow the solstice still manages to be the shortest day of the year. The bumpiness of the curve, by the way, is because the times are only to the nearest minute, so the rounding of time to the minute causes the graph to be a little bumpy (most noticeable in the day length). But you get the idea.

So now, even after the solstice, sunrise is still getting a little later each day. Or is it?

Dissatisfied, i turned to the internet and found this site. After reading it twice, it left me feeling a bit dull and still utterly confused. But the third time something finally clicked. It’s us.

Why doesn’t solstice seem to work like it ought to? Because we are not working with real time. We are working with our best attempt to make clocks and calendars describe the world around us. And we don’t quite get it right. Do daylight savings changes and leap years sound familiar?

In order for the above graph to show two nice bell curves (one inverted) that meet and just touch at the solstice, our “day” would have to be set up so that noon was always exactly centered between sunrise and sunset. But instead, our day is all screwed up to fit our various needs. In fact, looking at a chart of sunrises and sunsets, it is pretty hard to know where the solstice falls. We need experts to tell us.

In other words, this would all make a lot more sense if we were still using sun dials. Before clocks, the “time” of the day was always relative to the sun. The middle of the day was, well, when the sun reached its zenith. Time by measured by the sun is much different than time measured by your cell phone. It actually reflects the natural world, not the human one.

And that’s the problem. When i want to know what is going on outside, i go to the internet, i check my clock, and i look at a calendar. I’ll even check the weather on the internet before i go outside. All of this is a world of our own invention. The real world is right out there, outside the door. Our calendar, and even our watch, helps us to stay a little less connected to the ground under our feet and the way that the world turns.

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