Inspire Me! blog

Stranger in a strange land?

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Dust devils on the Nazca plateau in Peru, October 2012 – photo: E Jurus

Ten years ago a tiny skeleton unlike anything that had been seen before was found in the Atacama Desert. It’s only six inches long, with a very elongated, alien-looking skull – shades of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skulls!

Recent DNA testing has indicated that it’s a human skeleton, but there are many issues: the skeleton appears to be of someone who was roughly 6-8 years old, and it has fewer ribs than would be normal in a human. The cone-shaped skull could have been the result of a birth defect, but not all the genes matched those found in humans.

There are theories that it was a primate, or a human with a number of birth defects, although in modern history there’s never been a medium-aged child that tiny. Unsurprisingly, there’s also been speculation that it could be an alien from another planet – if you look at the photo in the original article in the Live Science website, you’ll see why people might think that.

I was in Peru and Bolivia last fall, and the landscape in southern Peru, which is sometimes classed as part of the Atacama Desert, is very alien – it would make a great setting for a sci-fi movie! The Nazca Plateau in particular is a fantastic sight, layers of multi-coloured earth covered in the hundreds of strange shapes, both animalistic and geometric, sculpted by the Nazca peoples many hundreds of years ago.

Seeing the shapes from the air is an amazing experience – you can see why the gigantic animal shapes might be used for ritual purposes, but there are also straight lines running in a variety of directions for miles and miles, and huge trapezoids running across the plateau and into the mountains, that don’t seem to make any sense at all.

On the ground, we walked the burning sands around Chauchilla Cemetery, strewn with the house-like tombs of the Nazca dead, and churned by numerous towering dust devils. I’d never seen one in real life before, and they are eerie. In the photo above you can see three at the same time silently whirling around in the distance: one on the left, another in the centre and a fainter third on the right to the right side of the road.

The Atacama Desert is the driest place on our planet and has been compared to the planet Mars. The heat and aridity are forbidding; it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to live there. If you want to experience a truly other-worldly landscape, you don’t need to go into space — just head to the west coast of South America!

The world in a grain of sand

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I live in a small city that’s getting overbuilt. We moved here when I was eight, and I still remember how beautiful the drive was along the southern shores of Lake Ontario, when all you could see was the bright gleam of blue water amid the lush fruit trees that used to line the highway. At the time I thought that must be what Florida looked like. Now the drive is lined by concrete noise reduction walls to serve all the wealthy home owners who chose to build near the highway. There are a few spots where you can see the lake, but they’re getting fewer and fewer. The blight of land developers has spread throughout the Niagara Region, so when my husband and I travel I’m drawn to vistas of endless space, like this drive along the coastal highway in Peru. Peru has over 2400km of coastline along the Pacific, much of it almost barren and other-worldly in feel.

One of the best things about travel to foreign countries is the opportunity to truly ‘get away from it all’ — to leave everything about your daily home life behind and infuse your life with some fresh perspectives. The BBC website recently posted an interesting article about how the Tweets of travellers improve in mood the farther they are from home. Researchers at the University of Vermont set up criteria to measure the mood of Tweeters based on the language used in their messages. Although the sample size of the research only covered the relatively small percentage of travellers who currently use Twitter, it won’t be surprising for those of us who travel that the happiness-level of the Tweeters rose steadily as their distance increased. Travel is one of the most effective ways to blow the cobwebs out of your mind and see things differently, not to mention the beautiful views, fascinating history, great food, delightful encounters with the locals…the list goes on. Check out upcoming posts about how to get the most out of a travel experience. You can find the BBC article here.