Good bye, Paranal
Everything, sooner or later, comes to an end. This is my last day on Paranal, and it is quite unusual. In fact, last night we started off with a very strong wind, coupled to an extreme humidity. The inversion layer was just crossing the top of Paranal, and dense clouds of vapor were passing through. All telescopes were of course closed. No way we could even think about opening and observing. So, after watching a weird sunset, we all came down to the control room, waiting for something to happen. The temperature was rapidly dropping, it crossed zero, and eventually reached -6 C. Ice started forming on the metallic surfaces of the building on the top. After a while, we received the order from the Safety Engineer to evacuate the control room: the risk was to get ice on the road down to the base camp, and to get stuck on the top. So, although quite reluctantly, we gave up, packed our stuff and down we went, with a feeling of defiance and incompleteness.
Observing in this season, when the nights are still long, can be quite tiring. It is not just to stay up all night long; it is the psychological stress coming from the awareness that one is operating one of the most sophisticated and expensive ground-based astronomical facilities of the world. Every single minute of telescope time is valuable, no time losses can be afforded. And the thing is under your responsibility. At the end of the night it always takes me at least one hour to relax, before I can finally get asleep. For this reason, after a week, one starts looking forward to the end of the shift. Nevertheless, similarly to what happens to people under detention (as they tell me), at some point you start loving your torturer, so that in the end you even regret having to leave… Or, at least, this is what happens to me. It is maybe also the atmosphere that builds up after many nights shared with your colleagues, the relationships that strengthen with time, maybe because of isolation… A bit of all of this. So that, on the last day, one is just a bit sad. But we all know that this will be gone, once sitting in the airport of Antofagasta, in front of a cold La Serena Libre
There is one last thing I wish to mention here. Last night, when we had to come down, we all had dinner together, and the atmosphere was quite cheerful. Jokes about science, astronomers, our purpose in life… But before going to sleep, I felt like something was still missing. Although the wind was blowing strong and cold, I pulled out my binocular and went out into the desert, just in front of the residencia. Damn cold, but beautiful. Like diving into the Milky Way. Do you remember that feeling of loneliness I had the other day when I strode down to desert valley? Well, now it was amplified a thousand times, and accompanied with fear. It is not completely clear why, though. In the past I had always felt at home in front of the night sky. But now it seemed to me like an abyss, I and felt like being suspended over the edge, on the verge of falling, hopelessly, into nothing. Maybe it was just the cold. I could not feel my fingers anymore, frozen on the icy metal of the Zeiss binocular… Again, entering the tropical-like atmosphere of the garden brought me back to this planet.
Tonight I fly to Santiago, and tomorrow back to Europe. It is going to be a long way home…
Good bye, Paranal.