In Porto, Portugal: The celestial Casa da Musica makes an architectural statement

The Casa da Musica is a contemporary building surrounded by more traditional architecture in Porto, Portugal. It was designed by Dutch-born architect Rem Koolhaas.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Smack in the midst of the Boavista section of Porto, Portugal, is a formidable white concrete and glass building, the unusual shape of which has been variously described as “wonky cuboid,” “faceted” and “alien.”

The first attempts were from my guidebook; the second from the architect; and the third from our guide Ricardo, who encouraged us to embrace the idea of what happens when a “meteorite becomes part of the landscape.”

The contemporary building is the Casa da Música, designed by controversial Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. It is home to the 94-member National Orchestra of Porto and three smaller groups, and opened in 2005.

It was to have been part of the celebration of Porto’s designation as a European Capital of Culture in 2001, but as so often happens, it wasn’t finished in time and took six years to complete. The original estimate was 30 million euros; it ended up costing 120 million euros.

From some angles, it does, indeed, look like something otherworldly has hovered, then decided to set down just west of the historic Rotunda da Boavista, anchored by a columned war memorial at its center and ringed by gardens. To say that it doesn’t fit in with the architecture of the working-class neighborhood would be an understatement.

Clearly, Rotterdam-born Koolhaas, winner in 2000 of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, among that profession’s highest honors, was thinking way outside the box. More like: The odder the angles the better.

In his mind, however, he and his firm, OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) envisioned the “continuity and contrast” as “a positive encounter of two different models of the city.”

On one side, stairs leading to an entrance made me think of that scene in the film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” when the ramp of the spacecraft folds down and skinny aliens meet Richard Dreyfuss et al. One could say the aliens’ tonal greeting and accompanying flashing illuminations were in effect music.

A view of the Casa da Musica from another side.

Windows stretch across the upper levels on a shorter side of the building, but one can almost envision a starship captain using this as his viewing screen (or giant windshield) while rocketing through space.

In reality, this is the exterior glass wall of the Sala Suggia (see first photo), the grand auditorium that spans the second through fourth levels. It’s named after native daughter Guillermina Suggia (sometimes spelled Guilhermina; 1885-1950), a renowned cellist.

The auditorium, lauded for its excellent acoustics, can seat more than 1,200. Abundant natural light floods the shoe-box configuration and is said to be so bright that daytime musicians don’t need secondary illumination for their sheet music.

An example of the corrugated glass that’s used in many spaces around the Casa da Musica. This view overlooks one of the secondary performance spaces.

“Generally glass and sound don’t mix,” Ricardo said, but in this space, they do because the windows are corrugated — think curtain-like waves, not flat panes — allowing vibrations to move freely.

Nordic pine plywood, gilded in some places, covers the ceiling and walls, another element to enhance the sound capabilities. The orchestra pit is absent, again a concession to precise acoustics. If an opera production requires a pit, four rows of velvet-covered seats can be removed.

Sala Suggia, the grand auditorium, is where the National Orchestra of Porto performs. The 1,200-plus-seat space is known for its excellent acoustics. 

Rows of seats run the width of the auditorium and are unbroken by a center aisle. The seats slide back so that patrons entering and exiting can do so without having to climb over the already settled concertgoers or asking them to stand.

A smaller, multiuse performance space, known as Sala 2, can accommodate 300 seated and 650 standing. Angular spaces elsewhere are used for rehearsals, receptions, conferences and education. On weekends, even parents with babies as young as 1 year old are encouraged to bring their children and introduce them to music.

There are also two bars, a café, a restaurant (on the top floor) and underground parking.

In the fourth-floor VIP room, Koolhaas has drawn a parallel between his home country and Portugal, with both sharing a centuries-long history of making decorative tiles. Flat panes of glass comprise the exterior facade. The hand-painted tiles cover the ceiling and interior walls.

The Dutch and Portuguese share a long history of decorative tile production. This Dutch aristocracy scene in the VIP Room on the fourth floor has a tile purposely placed upside down. 

One busy ceiling scene depicts the Dutch aristocracy having a leisurely al fresco meal, attended on their terrace by servants. Ricardo pointed out that one tile was purposely installed upside down, “a sign of the humility of the artist,” he said.

It’s contrasted by depictions of Portuguese women queueing for water, battles and former rulers.

This room is often the backdrop for photographs of visiting musicians, holding press conferences or small parties for record releases.

Visitors will know immediately that they’re in for a different architectural experience, whether they’ve stopped by to join the one-hour guided tour as I did one May morning, or come for a musical performance.

Aluminum staircases are sleek and spare.

Instead of an open foyer, where concertgoers might congregate before heading to their seats, a set of shiny aluminum stairs beckons upward. The flow is circular and the decor “minimalistic because color is in the people,” Ricardo said.

The black-and-white tiled roof terrace overlooks the Rotunda da Boavista (the war memorial is in the center-distance of the photo).

The roof terrace, a fine open space for an outdoor gathering or cocktail party, is composed of alternating black-and-white tiles set in a geometric pattern on the floor and ascending sides. It is recessed into the roof, not level with it. From one point, there is a excellent view of the rotunda and its column.

Another view of the war memorial at the Rotunda da Boavista and the neighborhood around the Casa da Musica.

In an aerial photograph I found online, I can’t quite decide what shape the terrace is — maybe a stretched or exaggerated rhombus? In keeping with the space theme, the white tiles surrounding the terrace and making up the roof’s exterior evoke the heat shields that protected NASA’s space shuttles.

With limited time in Porto, my plans couldn’t accommodate attending a concert. But I’m sure it would have been an enjoyable experience at this striking venue.

Quick reference: Casa da Música, Avenida da Boavista 604-610, Porto. 9:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays and holidays. Tours in English: 10 and 11 a.m., 4 and 5 p.m. Tours in Portuguese: 11 a.m. and 2:30 and 4 p.m. Admission: 7.50 euros. Performances take precedent over visitors. Metro lines A, B, C, E and F to the Casa da Musica stop. For some excellent aerial photos of the building and neighborhood, plus more background and schematics, go to


At Mauthausen in northern Austria, former concentration camp is a poignant memorial to Holocaust victims

The Stairs of Death as they appear today at the Mauthausen concentration camp site in Austria. In World War II, some prisoners of the Third Reich were forced to repeatedly carry heavy chunks of rock up these 186 stairs out of the granite quarry.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

The continuous hell that was daily life in the Mauthausen concentration camp was characterized by a starvation diet, forced labor, savage beatings and the constant fear of death.

These monstrous conditions and worse were echoed in other concentration camps, but there was one particularly cruel aspect that some Mauthausen prisoners faced day in and day out: the Stairs of Death.

This is photo of a photo that I took at the Mauthausen Memorial museum. It shows the prisoners lined up on the stairs sometime after 1940.

Hour after hour, tightly bunched horizontal rows of poorly fed and clothed men, growing weaker by the day, were bullied into putting one exhausted foot in front of the other to climb 186 steep steps from the quarry floor to the exterior rim, each carrying heavy pieces of granite in a rigid backpack-like wooden frame. (Some prisoners tried to balance the granite on one shoulder.)

And then driven to do it again, and again and again.

Eleven hours a day in summer and nine hours a day in winter, prisoners extracted granite from the quarry’s cliffs by hand or using explosives. Then those chunks were shattered into smaller pieces for hauling up the Stairs of Death.

Some pieces of granite, destined to comprise administration buildings for the Third Reich’s ambitious construction program, weighed 30 pounds. Others were as heavy as 75 pounds, not much less than the prisoners whose bodies were wasting away.

Needless to say, men already weakened by lack of nutritious food and illness didn’t survive the Stairs of Death for long. Blows from vicious guards rained down on prisoners who stumbled or fell. For some, those blows brought instant death.

Among the most unfortunate were those who “committed suicide by jumping” (that’s how it was recorded officially), and referred to as “parachuting” by the sadistic overseers. In reality, the SS shot or pushed prisoners from the quarry’s rim to meet their death below. If the fall didn’t kill them, they would drown in the lake.

Sadistic guards used to shoot or push prisoners off the cliff tops into the quarry, and if the fall didn’t kill them, they would drown in the lake (no longer much in evidence).

(The quarry floor is overgrown now with trees, shrubs and weeds.)

I visited Mauthausen concentration camp, in the bucolic Austrian countryside, in October 2015. It is just a few miles from the village of Mauthausen proper, so close that it is impossible to believe that residents didn’t know what was going on at the quarry, even before the world was plunged into war. The camp was on a hilltop, and residents would have seen prisoners being marched from the rail station.

Visitors can spend several hours looking at the exhibits in a very good museum, watch a 45-minute film featuring some survivor testimony, and take their time walking around the extensive grounds and buildings. The Room of Names, opened in 2015, lists more than 81,000 victims, though more people than that died here.

The Room of Names lists more than 81,000 victims of many nationalities. The names are the white type on the upward-facing panels.

Like other concentration camps I’ve visited, Mauthausen has been sanitized and downsized. For hygienic reasons, the camp obviously couldn’t remain in its World War II condition. The liberating U.S. Army burned down the camp infirmary and parts of the barracks in a move to keep rampant disease from becoming an epidemic.

However, cleaning up the site does somewhat lessen the impact of the horrors — including mass gassings, executions and twisted medical experiments — that were perpetrated here and at other camps. The gas chamber and crematorium seem to have preserved close to their original states.

Visitors will have to use their imagination in the rebuilt  barracks — meant for 5,000 each but housing 19,000 — to picture the wretched, overcrowded conditions, and what it was like for prisoners to stand in the wide-open gravel area in all weathers when roll call was taken several times a day.

This is a memorial to the children and youths who died at Mauthausen. On the rear right is the memorial from the Germany Democratic Republic (formerly East Germany) and in the center back is the Jewish memorial.

Around the grounds are striking memorials of different shapes and sizes, erected by the diverse countries whose citizens were prisoners. Many of the memorials list names and display moving tributes to the many thousands who lived and died at Mauthausen.

On the fall day I visited, there were few other people on the grounds. I had taken a train from Vienna, and changed in Linz. Total travel time was a bit over two hours. As I was sitting on the second train waiting to depart, a young woman of Chinese heritage was walking up the aisle asking other passengers in English if this was the train to take to Mauthausen. I assured her it was, we got to chatting, and we ended up spending the day together touring the camp.

My guidebook suggested asking the agent at the small Mauthausen station to call a taxi or shuttle service for a lift to the camp. No agent was in sight and neither was a phone.

Before I met Jen, I had originally planned to walk the 2 miles or so from the station to the camp. But by the time I came outside after using the restroom, Jen had commandeered a postal bus. I’ve taken postal buses in other countries — they often go on routes that regular service doesn’t cover — and had no problem.

This turned out to be extremely creepy and unsettling and probably not the smartest thing to do. If I were by myself, I wouldn’t have gotten on the bus. Particularly icky was the middle-aged driver saying out loud “Hitler,” and doing so with a wide and leering grin.

Jen and I sat in the first row, just behind the door, to the driver’s right. Three young dark-haired men were several rows back, and they were not speaking German. They didn’t bother us or speak to us, but I was still uncomfortable.

I watched like a hawk as we were passing road signs indicating the direction of the camp. Thankfully, the short ride was uneventful, and we were dropped about a half-mile from the entrance. We walked up a tree-shaded lane past well-tended houses the rest of the way.

Hungarians are remembered in this memorial. Many of that nationality who died were transported to Mauthausen from Auschwitz-Birkenau or Plaszow, both in Poland.

The number of people who were imprisoned in Mauthausen and its subcamps from 1938 to 1945 were, relatively speaking, far fewer than the death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. But citizens of about 40 countries, in total more than 195,000, were held at the Mauthausen camp system.

From the Room of Names, a closeup of victims’ names, written in their native languages.

At least 95,000 died. More than 14,000 of those were Jews (some sources give a larger total of 38,000).

After the Nazis annexed Austria in the Anschluss of March 1938, they were looking for a site on which to construct a concentration camp that would house Austrian “traitors to the people.”

One of the outer walls and entrance (left) to Mauthausen. The long green buildings inside the wall were barracks.

The secluded stone quarry location, then owned by the city of Vienna, fit the bill, and so in August 1938, the Nazis transferred about 300 prisoners from Dachau concentration camp, near Munich, Germany, to build the new camp.

At the time, most of these prisoners were classified as “asocial” or were political prisoners or convicted criminals. The camp population grew to 1,000 by the end of 1938, and more than doubled by the end of 1939, about three months into World War II.

The new totals included religious conscientious objectors, but at this point, not many Jews; implementation of the Final Solution had not yet begun. From 1938 to the end of February 1944, about 2,760 Jews were imprisoned, though most of them were deceased by the end of 1943.

Roll call was taken several times a day in this area.

Mauthausen was probably the last place that thousands of Spanish refugees had expected to end up. They had fled to safety in France after fighting against General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War and his overthrow of the republic in 1939.

When France fell in June 1940 to the Nazis, about 7,000 of the refugees were deported to Mauthausen later that year and in 1941.

As the Nazi war machine rampaged across Europe, the multi-cultural population of Mauthausen increased. Soviet prisoners of war, numbering more than 10,000, were incarcerated at Mauthausen or its subcamps, as were more than 23,000 civilians.

This is the memorial to Czechoslovakians, thousands of whom died at Mauthausen.

Other large groups by nationality included more than 37,000 non-Jewish Poles, up to 8,650 Yugoslavs, about 6,300 Italians and 4,000 Czechs.

Until 1942, all prisoners were men. In June, 24 women were brought from Ravensbrück, an all-female concentration camp about 50 miles north of Berlin, Germany. They were made to work as sex slaves, installed in a bordello as an “incentive” to service male prisoners and guards.

Larger numbers of women were transferred from other camps in 1944, some ending up in Mauthausen subcamps working in the munitions factories or making viscose, chemically treated cellulose used to produce rayon fiber.

Some women — and children — were just passing through en route to other concentration camps. Records indicate 3,000 women were registered, but 10,000 total spent some time at the Mauthausen camps.

In 1944, Mauthausen prisoners also included 47 allied personnel, most of them affiliated with Britain’s Special Operations Executive, who carried out secret missions behind enemy lines.

Not until March 1944, when transports from Auschwitz-Birkenau and Plaszow (both in Poland) did large numbers of Jews arrive, citizens mostly of Hungary and Poland. For the year, almost 14,000 ended up in Mauthausen.

On May 5, 1945, the U.S. Army’s 11th Armored Division liberated Gusen, one of the subcamps, and just in time. The Nazi SS had plans to dynamite the tunnels and factories where the prisoners worked, but American intervention saved their lives.

Mauthausen was liberated the next day. Several weeks later, a medical inspector commented on the “indescribable filth and degradation” of the concentration camp.

Generally, the Germans were meticulous about record-keeping. But it seems to have been the case that some who passed through or were briefly at Mauthausen were never registered, so the complete number of prisoners or those executed may never be known.

Mauthausen became a permanent memorial and historical site in 1947.

Quick reference: Mauthausen Memorial: March 1-October 31: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mondays-Sundays; November 1- February 28: 9 a.m.-3:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays (closed Mondays). Closed December 24-26, 31 and January 1. Free admission, but you’ll need to get an entry ticket at the Visitor Center/Bookshop. For a fee, you can join a guided tour or rent an audio headset. The website has excellent background information and many other photos of the country memorials.

For train information from Vienna: Austrian Federal Railways, (click Union Jack at top of page for English).



Soldier and civilian: John Paul Vann’s unconventional life and death in Vietnam

Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann (second from right) briefs other U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam in this undated photo, but probably from 1962 or 1963. Library of Congress

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text. All rights reserved.

The media blitz started several months ago for documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’s latest epic project. He and co-director Lynn Novick have been giving newspaper and television interviews well in advance of “The Vietnam War,” to debut at 8 p.m. September 17 on PBS.

The 10-part, 18-hour series, to be shown on consecutive nights, is, Burns admits, his production company’s most ambitious project to date. Forty-two years after the end of the war, the subject still provokes heated arguments and lingering questions as to how and why America became mired in what proved to be an unpopular, divisive, and ultimately unwinnable war in Southeast Asia.

More than 10 years in the making, Burns says his team examined 100,000 still photographs and 5,000 hours of archival footage. They’ve also drawn upon interviews with more than 80 people, from Americans who fought in Vietnam to protestors who opposed the U.S. presence there, to former Vietnamese soldiers from the north and south, and civilians.

One of those interviews was with Neil Sheehan, a former United Press International reporter who later joined The New York Times.

Sheehan knows a thing or two about being in the grip of a topic that won’t let go. He toiled for 16 years researching and writing the superb book “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam” (Random House, 1988).

It won a slew of awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, a National Book Award, and was named to Modern Library’s list of 100 best nonfiction books of all time.

It was also made into a made-for-TV movie (1998), starring Bill Paxton as Vann. I have not seen the film.

For a long time, I had been meaning to read this 800-plus page book. I finally got to it after I returned from a two-week trip to Vietnam (and Cambodia) in March 2016. (See my archive for multiple posts.)

This is the 1988 edition. A new hardcover edition was reissued in 2009.

Harvard-educated Sheehan spent more than three years covering Vietnam. He was there at age 32 in 1962, a time when the American presence was increasing from 3,200 advisers at the beginning of the year to 11,300 by December under President John Kennedy’s Military Assistance Command Vietnam strategy.

Vann, then 37, a lieutenant colonel (and World War II and Korean War veteran), was among the March arrivals. Portrayed as a fearless, supremely confident and capable man, he lost no time in utilizing his management and logistical skills to impress the brass who would determine his assignments and possible advancement.

He believed in the mission — stopping the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia — and America’s ability to help the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to see it through to completion.

But even as early as 1963, Vann was beginning to have doubts, particularly after the Battle of Ap Bac, in the Mekong Delta. Sheehan minutely reconstructs this battle, a microcosm of all that the Vietnam War was to become.

The operation’s target was to destroy a Viet Cong radio transmitter, well-hidden in the hamlet of Tan Thoi, next to the hamlet of Bac, about 40 miles southwest of Saigon. In his advisory role, Vann was in a spotter plane, from where he could see the January 2, 1963, operation unfold.

Fog delayed the ferrying in of the full compliment of infantry, and faulty intelligence underestimated the number of enemy. Further burdens included the ARVN’s disregard of basic tactics, poor leadership and a command-structure breakdown.

Language issues between the ARVN infantry and U.S. advisers, and an inability to maximize the superior, American-supplied ground and air firepower further turned what should have been a successful mission into a humbling mess.

Meanwhile, the 4-to-1 outnumbered enemy, deeply entrenched in foxholes and behind tree lines, and communicating via a protected irrigation canal, conserved its ammunition. When the guerrillas did open fire, they took down five Huey helicopters — at that point an unheard of loss for the South Vietnamese.

The battle’s toll: On the Saigon side, more than 80 dead, 100 wounded and three dead Americans. On the guerrilla side: 18 dead and 39 wounded.

Sheehan and other reporters caught up with Vann in the evening after the battle.

Vann, Sheehan writes, “spoke of how the guerrillas had stood and held despite the assault of the armored tracks and all of the pounding and burning from the air and the artillery. …

“ ‘ They were brave men,’ Vann said. ‘They gave a good account of themselves today.’ ”

For Vann, it was a not-unexpected wakeup call — and should have been for senior officers and American politicians — that strategy would have to change. He took his crusade up the line, but speaking his truth to power did not alter anything. After 20 years in the military, he left the Army in July 1963 — a move that does not seem to have been spontaneous — serving in South Vietnam a little more than a year.

When Sheehan begins to reveal Vann’s background, “A Bright Shining Lie” takes on a second, equally troubling meaning. Despite Vann’s many positive attributes, Sheehan came to believe that he and other reporters had been deceived by the words and actions of a man they had come to consider a trusted source and friend.

In a gripping, 100-plus page section in the middle of the book where Sheehan traces Vann’s pre-Vietnam years, the warrior emerges as an ambitious yet profoundly flawed individual, with more than a hint of Southern Gothic elements in his Virginia background.

The illegitimate son of a 19-year-old job-hopping future floozy and a married trolley driver, Vann’s (the last name of his mother’s second husband) Depression-era childhood was marked by poverty, filth, a frequently unemployed stepfather and an less-than-attentive, unstable mother.

Two benefactors helped the maturing Vann along the way, but the damage done by the depravations and traumas of his hardscrabble boyhood were inescapable. His constant companions for much of his life: self-destructive behavior and an insatiable sexual appetite, ultimately inflicting irreparable damage on his military career and his own estranged family.

When Vann returned to Vietnam in 1965, he did so as a civilian employee of the Agency for International Development. Among its goals: the pacification of Vietnamese civilians.

Over several years, Vann’s titles and roles evolved, consolidating enough tactical seniority to become the de facto civilian commander of one region’s combat forces. His rise is far more involved than that sentence, obviously, and Sheehan spends the last 300 pages or so of the book on this period.

Vann died when, in poor weather, his helicopter crashed on June 9, 1972, in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, after the battle for Kontum. He was 47. I’m not giving anything away here. The book opens with a detailed, 30-page description of his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, attended by a who’s who of now well-known names.

Among Vann’s pallbearers was close friend Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine Corps infantry officer and Rand Corporation analyst who leaked what became known as the Pentagon Papers to Sheehan, then at The New York Times. Also in attendance were Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts; William Colby, operative but not yet director of the CIA; Defense Secretary Melvin Laird; Secretary of State William Rogers; and William Westmoreland, former U.S. commanding general in South Vietnam.

Vann was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom and Distinguished Service Cross by President Richard Nixon, who met with Vann’s family in the White House from 12:44 to 12:53 p.m. on June 16, 1972, a Friday and the day of the funeral. John A. Vann accepted the awards in his father’s memory.

Make no mistake: Reading this book will take a commitment of time, concentration and patience.

But anyone with even a passing interest in Vietnam and America’s involvement should move “A Bright Shining Lie” to the top of their “must-read” list — preferably before “The Vietnam War” airs on PBS.

A chilly, early morning outing to northern Chile’s El Tatio geysers

At more than 14,000 feet above sea level, Chile’s El Tatio geyser field is the highest in the world.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In November 2016, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, I took an unforgettable, two-week trip to Easter Island and Chile. This is the fifth post about my adventures. See June 17, April 10, March 6 and February 12, 2017, for earlier posts about Easter Island.

Take the coat or not?

That’s the discussion I have with myself before nearly every international trip. The coat is midweight, comes to my knees and has a hood. It is water-repellant but not much protection in a downpour.

It has a thin lining, so I can wear a sweater or sweatshirt under it and be comfortable at temperatures to around 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

In that I don’t like being cold, I usually take it, even when the trip is to a destination that boasts a mostly temperate climate.

On Easter Island, I knew I wouldn’t need it, and I didn’t think it would get much use in Santiago, or San Pedro de Atacama, in the Chilean desert, virtually rainless and one of the driest places in the world.

(Little-known fact: Chile is a country rich in lithium reserves — the top producer in the world of the metal. About 20 percent of the world’s output comes from the salt flats in northern Chile. Australia and Argentina are Nos. 2 and 3 in production. And yes, that lithium, the metal used in batteries … and more.)

But in that the itinerary I put together included a pre-dawn outing to the El Tatio geysers, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of San Pedro de Atacama, the small town (population about 4,000) already at an altitude of almost 8,000 feet (2,438 meters), I thought it might be a good idea.

So I took the coat. And I was glad I did — it came in handy during a shiver-worthy morning spent in the Andes mountains.

At about 4:30 a.m., while I was waiting in the lobby of my small hostel to be picked up by my day-trip tour group, I was chatting with some other travelers who had already gone to the geysers and were headed on a different outing to Uyuni in Bolivia. Even at that point I was wondering if I’d need my coat for the day. They said yes, which is also what my guidebook advised.

The white Mercedes minibus was nearly full by the time I got in. It was chilly, but even so, I noted some of the other women were wearing shorts, like they were headed for a day at the beach. I wondered to myself if I had miscalculated, but it wasn’t long before I knew I hadn’t.

Over bumpy, winding roads with few markers or lighting of any kind, we were gaining in altitude, heading toward El Tatio, at more than 14,173 feet (4,320 meters) above sea level, the highest geyser field in the world.

It was still pitch dark and getting colder. The windows had frosted over, but I don’t think we were missing much in the way of scenery at this point other than rock formations.

I already had my sweatshirt’s hood up, but I added a wide acrylic headband under it to cover my ears, and then put my coat’s hood up also. From my pockets, I pulled out my thin gray gloves and put them on. I was wearing every piece of warm clothing I had with me. Added to the heat being generated by about 20 bodies, I’d say I had my gear just about right.

It took about 90 minutes to get to El Tatio, the area of which covers about 3.62 square miles. Along the way, the van was pretty quiet. Many people seemed to be dozing, ignoring the uneven ride and the early hour.

As a safety precaution, we were told to stay to the right of the path delineated by red-paint-topped rocks. 

When we disembarked, the sun was rising into a cloudless azure sky and immediately warming the crisp morning air. Fortunately, it wasn’t windy. My guess is that the mercury was around freezing.

More than 80 active geysers are scattered around El Tatio, the largest geyser field in the Southern Hemisphere and third largest in the world. The highest eruptions reach about 20 feet, so not as impressive as, say, Old Faithful’s maximum of 184 feet in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in the United States.

But the sight is exciting nonetheless, due to the unpredictability of the geysers’ timing and the ethereal beauty of the drifting columns of steam, dissipating like ghostly apparitions not long after they’ve flared from the surface.

I caught this geyser in mid-eruption. You can see the water spurting up in the center of the picture.

Despite the abundance of about 100 fumaroles (gas-spewing volcanic openings), I wasn’t getting the odious whiff of sulfur that would be an expected accompaniment.

Many signs warn about staying on the designated paths, cautioning that the hissing, gurgling, ground-level puddles may look benign, but they could erupt at any moment, spraying scalding water to a temperature of about 185 degrees Fahrenheit (85 celsius). The terrain is often uneven, adding to the necessity of watching where you’re going.

This is no joke. In October 2015, a Belgian woman, concentrating on taking photographs, slipped into a hot spring and was burned over more than 80 percent of her body. She died in a Santiago hospital.

Illustrated informational boards alerted us to some of the flora and fauna of the high desert. We saw a series of spiky, yellow-brown plants, known as coiron o paja brava, that provided great contrast to the drab gray and brown mud pools.

Though in perhaps the driest desert on earth in northern Chile, there is still enough scrub for grazing vicunas.

It wasn’t until we were on the way back to San Pedro de Atacama that we spotted vicuñas (in the camelid family, related to the llama) grazing in the hillsides, a small rabbit-like rodent with a long tail called a viscacha (in the chinchilla family), llamas themselves, lots of species of birds and flamingoes (Chile has three varieties).

The ride back also gave us a glimpse of the yareta, a mounded, slow-growing bright green plant that looks like moss gone wild in shape and size. And lots of prickly cacti.

After we’d explored the geothermal field, we returned to the parking lot where our guide and his wife had unpacked coolers from the minibus and set up the breakfast spread. Cheese, sandwich bread, cold cuts, avocados, cookies and fruit were available, as was juice from cartons, instant coffee, tea and hot chocolate and thermoses of hot water. (The previous day on a different outing, we had stopped at a bakery for fresh rolls. We didn’t have that option for this earlier-departing tour.)

My guidebook said that some tour guides boil eggs for breakfast in the geyser pools. I didn’t see anyone doing this, and considering the advisories to steer clear of the boiling water, I can’t say how accurate this claim is.

The contrast in attire is what’s most notable here: Thermal-pool bathers in swimsuits and non-bathers in layers of clothing.

An outdoor thermal pool with a cabana was our last stop at the geysers. Some people had brought (or worn) their swimsuits and towels, and they took a dip. I didn’t do this but asked one of the women to assess the water temperature. She said that except for one hot spot, the water was quite cold. Although the air temperature was warmer than when we arrived, emerging from the water must have been … invigorating.

Near the small village of Machuca, we saw a small herd of llamas. 

About halfway back to San Pedro, we briefly disembarked at a village called Machuca. I think this was to serve as a bathroom break, and to give visitors the opportunity to souvenir-shop and to taste barbecued meat cubes, which might have been llama. Cold drinks and empanadas were also for sale. Those who wanted to photograph the church or to go inside were asked to pay.

We arrived back in San Pedro at about noon. By this time, I had peeled off all my layers, had put away the rest of the warm-weather gear, and my coat was slung over my arm. It was already so hot that I eagerly thinking about putting on a T-shirt and shorts.

Quick reference: I booked with Lithium Aventura. Calle Caracoles No 419 B-1, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. (Spanish only).

Just about every tour company in San Pedro de Atacama covers this route. If you book an additional day tour with the same company, you may be able to bargain and get a better price. Many companies also insist that you pay in cash in Chilean pesos (if you haven’t made a reservation online). You may book with one company and get picked up by another. This is often done to fill a minivan and group speakers of the same language.

It may be a crapshoot as far as your guide’s English abilities. Despite an in-depth talk with the company rep I booked with in person and assurances of multilingual ability, my guide’s English was not good. He spoke Spanish, and some of my fellow travelers helped get the gist of what he was saying across to me.

Entry fee to El Tatio (not included in tour cost): 10,000 Chilean pesos (about $15). Since 2004, the site has been under the administration of the indigenous Atacameño people.

It’s advisable that visitors spend at least one overnight acclimating to the altitude before going to the geysers. Further, don’t consume alcohol, and eat lightly the evening before your trip. Dress in layers (you’ll be peeling them off on the trip back), bring bottled water, sunscreen and a hat.

Twin fawns join the temporary nursery that is my wooded backyard

This is the fawn I saw first, but from the back. I named it Sunday, for the day of the week of its birth. It will be a week old on July 2.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Sixteen days after the little fawn that I named Friday was born (June 9), another doe larger than Friday’s mother decided that the wooded environment that is my backyard would be a dandy place to deliver her young also.

But this time, it was double the little darlings: I found two fawns snuggling individually but within eyesight of each other. One was settled in the open among the leaves and twigs and decomposing branches. The other was near the base of an oak tree.

I’ve named the first Sunday. I saw the length of its dotted back first and I walked gingerly toward it. I moved around to the right to get a better look at its face and to make sure it was breathing, trying not to snap branches and startle it. That’s when I saw the second fawn. I named that one Sammy.

When I moved around to the right of Sunday, I saw the second fawn tucked in beside an oak tree. This one I’ve named Sammy. You can see Sammy’s ears have far more black on them than Sunday’s, which are light tan.

I’m sure mom was around while I was taking photos and trying not to intrude on the newborns, probably lurking in the woods watching my every move.

Just like with Friday’s mother, for about a week, I kept seeing the larger doe closer to my house and property than normal. She is taller and older than Friday’s mother, and her belly looked heavier too. I thought there was a good possibility of twins.

Like Friday’s mother’s behavior, which I wrote about on my June 10 post, the bigger doe was testing locations in which to give birth. One of the areas under consideration was the patch under the oak tree in the front yard, facing the house. I spotted her around 11 p.m. midweek, and delayed my dog’s “last out before bedtime,” hoping she’d relocate. About an hour later, she had.

Saturday morning (June 24), she was sitting in the backyard, facing the woods, calmly chewing her cud. But she was much closer to the house than Friday’s mother had been, who had chosen a more secluded spot in the corner of the woods for Friday’s birth.

When my canine and I got back from an early afternoon walk on Sunday (June 25), the larger doe was standing on the stairs of our front landing, just as Friday’s mother had done. While the deer visit my yard nearly every day, they don’t usually get that close to the front door.

I caught the larger doe in the act of eating leaves off the top of an azalea bush. She ran off before I could make a determination if she had delivered the fawns yet.

About midafternoon, I looked out the kitchen window, searching for the larger doe. She wasn’t there, and I didn’t spy any fawns either. I think they may have already been born, but I didn’t see them, some leafy branches obscuring my view of part of the landscape. Young fawns also benefit from about 300 spots on their fur that provide camouflage.

The fawns were close enough to see each other, but I don’t think there was much in the way of interaction going on. Except for their gentle breathing, they weren’t moving. Sunday is in the upper left of the photo. Sammy is beside the tree at mid-right.

A couple of hours later, about 7 p.m., I decided to explore at ground level. That’s when I found them. Neither had the “wet” look to its fur that newborns possess after having been licked clean by mom. It’s also possible that they were born elsewhere and relocated to this safe space while mom went off to look for food. There’s even a chance that two different does gave birth, but I don’t believe that’s the case.

So I think they may have been born earlier in the afternoon, maybe around the time when I found their mother nibbling the azalea leaves.

As you can see by the photos, Sunday and Sammy’s ears are distinctly different. Sunday’s are all light tan on the exterior, with soft pink inside. Sammy’s are shaded black from about mid-ear all the way to the tips.

And Sunday is a bit larger in overall body size.

I watched them for about 15 minutes. Then Sunday got up and ran off into the woods on the side of the house. I was losing the light needed for more photos, so I headed back inside.

Sammy was still resting beside the tree trunk.

About midnight, I saw mom and one of the fawns standing on the lawn between my house and my neighbors’. In that my dog was straining at his leash, they turned and ran.

I’ve seen them several times during the week. On Wednesday, their mom must have brought them over sometime earlier in the day. It was late afternoon when I saw them resting in almost the exact same spots where they were newborns: Sunday in the open, Sammy near the tree trunk.

Part of my summer enjoyment will be watching all three fawns grow.

An update on Friday

The first fawn is 3 weeks old now. The day after Friday was born, I saw the fawn and mother in the woods next to my house. From my deck, I could get an extended look at both without either being frightened away.

Friday at 1 day old. The fawn got the logistics of feeding immediately. I took this photo standing on my deck.

Friday was underneath mom, facing toward me. Friday’s tiny head was turned up, feeding from mom, periodically stopping to breathe, then aggressively drawing more mother’s milk. The attentive doe’s head was curled around to her infant, cleaning Friday’s bottom. It’s what does do for their young.

I haven’t seen Friday this week, but I’m not worried about the little one’s well-being. The fawn is just probably deeper in the woods adjacent to my neighborhood or is with its family unit, roaming one of the subdivisions that backs up to mine.