SOARing Through Chile

SOARing Through Chile

Photo Credit: Aly Moser

[From left: Me, Jaclyn, Delaney, Aly]

The plane glided across the crest of mystical mountains that coalesced into glacial waters as we descended upon La Serena, Chile. My eyes were wide in wonder as I peered out the window at the terrain beneath the plane’s wing. I couldn’t believe that only three months prior to this moment, I was visiting South America for the first time. And now I was back. Only this time, as a journalist rather than just a tourist.

* * *

A little over a month ago, four of us approached the UNC School of Media and Journalism with an international travel proposal. The group consists of Aly, Jaclyn, Delaney and me. We’re in a class this semester titled Media Hub, where we combine our concentrations in the Journalism school (public relations, broadcast, reporting and photojournalism) to create stories for news outlets.

The Media Hub tagline is “Our Ideas. Your Stories,” and you can read stories written by current and former students here. The class has really pushed me out of my public relations comfort zone, and allowed me to try my hand at reporting. For the first time in my college career, I’ve had to find the story rather than the story finding me. It’s been new, challenging and exciting all at the same time.

Only a few weeks into the semester, Aly found out about a telescope (the Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope, aka SOAR) based in Chile that was developed by a group of UNC astronomers. We couldn’t believe that this state-of-the-art telescope with origins in our college town was largely unknown by most of the student body. We immediately decided to pursue the story.

We figured it was a long shot.

Sending a group of journalism students on their own to navigate Chile – a country 4,500 miles away with an entirely different language and culture – to attempt to produce a story or two? Yeah, right.

But there was no harm in trying, so we submitted our proposal and an estimated budget, and within a week, we received approval from the J School.

We were beside ourselves with excitement! This was truly an opportunity of a lifetime. Not to mention it was entirely on the school’s dime, so there was no financial burden. All we had to do was show up and work our butts off that week.

* * *

The weeks leading up to the trip required a lot of planning. Five of us were going on the trip – our four-person Media Hub group plus Vijay, a computer science student who would focus on drone footage and 360 videos at SOAR. No faculty or staff members were accompanying us, so it was up to us to figure out travel logistics, accommodations and an agenda.

Before we left, we conducted interviews with current and former UNC faculty members that were involved with the development of SOAR, including the two astronomers behind the ideation and creation of the telescope. Next, we needed to assemble stories, videos and photographs to help educate others about this remarkable feat.

I won’t bore you with every detail of the trip, but I’ll share some of the highlights. 🙂

* * *

Within the first hour of arriving in La Serena, we came across something very unexpected. We dropped off our bags at the Airbnb (which was conveniently located 100 yards from the beach and had stunning views of the entire town) and took a moment to rest before exploring.

Within minutes of walking out of our condo and onto the beach path, we stumbled across multiple dead sea lions.

At first, we couldn’t tell what the giant lifeless lumps in the sand were. A large pile of seaweed? A fishing tarp covering a small boat?

But the birds flocking above confirmed our suspicion. The sea lions were strewn across the beach, 10-15 feet from the water, and clearly expired from the looks of their gnawed off skin, likely due to the vultures and maggots.

Jaclyn immediately looked excited.

“This could be our second story!!!” she exclaimed.

We all looked at her like she was crazy.

The thought of spending our days photographing and videoing giant dead animals sounded dismal and disgusting.

Before we could protest, Jaclyn began approaching random passersby and asking them if they knew why there were so many dead sea lions in the area. Her and Delaney cobbled together some questions in broken Spanish (it’s a littttttle bit tricky communicating in another language about dead animals), and got a few responses that spiked our interest.

The fishermen kill themthey kill the fishermenpollution leads to their deaths. There was a variety of answers, and we were determined to figure out what was going on with these sea lions.

We thanked the people for their time and continued on our way.

Little did we know that the sea lions would end up becoming the stars of our second story, and we’d spend many hours at the nearby fish market, venturing around the sea on a local fisherman’s boat and falling in love with the (alive) lions of the sea.

Okay, so maybe Jaclyn’s fascination with the dead animals wasn’t so crazy.


Interviewing the local fishermen and interacting with the sea lions

Filming a sunbathing (and very much alive) sea lion

Later that evening, our group talked about what we would do if a sea lion hopped into our boat, which sometimes happens to fishers and puts their lives in danger. We all said we would scream, consider killing the animal, jump out of the boat, etc.

Jaclyn’s deadpan response?

“I would hold the camera steady.”

No one is surprised that she already has a successful broadcast career in Virginia. 🙂                    

Stray dog attempting to intimidate a sea lion

* * *

On our first evening, we ended up at a quaint restaurant, Tio Coco, where we had our first pisco sours! The drink is native to Peru, but very common in Chile. It consists of Chilean pisco liquor, lime, syrup and occasionally egg whites. It quickly became my favorite drink of the week. We clinked our glasses, chanted “Salud!” (“cheers” in Spanish), and said how happy we were that we made it to our destination safe and sound.

The extensive menu was all in Spanish, so we used Google Translate to assist us in making sure we ordered something satisfactory. All our dishes turned out as expected…except one.

Aly, the picky eater in the group (yes, I definitely used to own this title), ordered a ‘loco queso’ empanada that we all assumed just meant a cheese-stuffed bread pocket.

Ohhh were we wrong. Very wrong. Out came a white, rubbery stalk with a cheese-like substance in the middle.

“That’s definitely cheese,” Vijay said, as he inspected it before taking a bite.

He sunk his teeth into the mysterious food.

“…Now I’m not so sure.”

The next day, we found out ‘loco queso’ empanadas are actually sea slugs stuffed with cheese.

Ya live and ya learn, but we made it through day one relatively unscathed.

* * *

The days began to blur together and all of the sudden it was Wednesday, meaning we were halfway through our trip. Aly and I spent the morning strolling through the streets of La Serena. We began our day in a quaint cafe, where we communicated with the cashier by pointing to pastries in a glass case and attempting to pronounce our drink orders correctly, with a hint of a Chilean accent.

Just by luck, a man waiting for his coffee next to us spoke English and was able to translate a few of the fancy coffee drinks for us so that we didn’t end up with another sea slug. We thanked him, dumped some bills on the counter, and found a corner table.

. . .

Aly and I have been close friends since the second week of college. Funny story actually – she stumbled into my dorm room in search of food. Long story short, a mutual friend of ours had sent her to my room because his leftovers were in my fridge. I was sitting at my desk in a frantic state as I struggled through my geology homework, and Aly wandered in as I held my head in my hands.

We settled our state of disarray once the leftovers were in Aly’s belly and we realized we were both in Geology 101. From that day on, we became best friends and study buddies, pouring over the relentless lab work each week and spending way too many hours observing rocks and minerals. I don’t think either of us would’ve guessed that we’d end up traveling to South America together, and working on a science-related story as journalists, nonetheless.

. . .

Aly and I talked about everything under the sun that morning, from friends to school to politics. It was the first time in a while that we’d been able to talk about things that didn’t revolve around Media Hub! Once we polished off our croissants and coffees, we set off to explore more of the city. Aly snapped photos along the way as we visited a beautiful cathedral, journeyed through artisan markets, passed about a dozen hair salons all within one shopping center, bought some fresh fruit on a street corner, and grabbed lunch.

The lunch spot was extremely cozy. Aly and I settled in a small nook tucked away toward the back of the restaurant. Artwork lined the sky blue walls, collages of magazine clippings decorated the tables underneath the glass surface, decorative throw pillows were placed along the dining benches, and the furniture and structural pieces were made of beautiful wood and bamboo.


Aly and I decided we needed greens after living on a diet of meat, potatoes and rice all week, so we ordered a salad, quiche and fruit juice, followed by manjar ice cream. It was delectable!

Typical Chilean meal:

Aly and I’s lunch:

The kind server then advised us to catch a bus back to Coquimbo, where Jaclyn and Delaney had been interviewing fishers and filming all morning. Aly and I nodded our heads, half-understanding the directions given to us in broken English, and headed out.

After walking a few blocks, Aly shouted, “Hey, that bus says Coquimbo on it!” Without thinking twice, we hopped on, laughing about how well we’d managed to get around all day on our own in an area where we could barely communicate with anyone.

* * *

My stomach wasn’t feeling so hot as the van zig zagged up to the top of Cerro Pachón, a Chilean mountain that houses two major telescopes (including SOAR), and a third on the way. All I saw around me were sloping hills, dirt and a few shrubs. A rolled up hoodie served as my pillow and I forced my eyes shut to avoid car sickness.

After two hours of curvy roads, we began the climb to our final destination – the Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope, aka SOAR. As we reached the top, I saw metal domes sprinkled atop the mountains, and SOAR was perched at the end of a dirt road. The van lurched to a halt and the driver began to unload our bags.

We made it!

I planted my feet on the ground, standing 9,000 feet above sea level and 4,500 miles from my North Carolina home. The panoramic views were unreal. Rocky mountains and rolling hills enveloped the landscape in hues of browns, oranges, reds and yellows. Snow-capped mountains appeared in the distance and giant rocks were piled up just beyond the SOAR barricades.


Views of the landscape surrounding SOAR

* * *

The astronomer flicked off the lights inside the entrance to SOAR.


“Your eyes need to adjust to the darkness before you go outside,” he explained.

We stood in silence for several minutes, letting our eyes slowly adjust. The sun had sunk below the horizon just over an hour ago. In a few seconds, we were about to witness one of the top stargazing spots in the world.

He slowly opened the door that led to the star-studded sky.

I couldn’t even see my own hand in front of my face. It took almost ten minutes before my eyes were fully adjusted. Each time I blinked, more stars became visible. Vibrant specks of light slowly dotting the sky. Soon there were thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of stars twinkling over my head.

I could barely see the outline of my group members as they approached me. Aside from the stars, everything was pitch black. There was no light pollution atop Cerro Pachón. We couldn’t even use the flashlights on our cell phones because it obstructed the astronomers’ work, and there were three astronomers observing the sky that night. Drivers couldn’t turn on their car lights either, which was slightly terrifying because the trek from SOAR to the mountain hotel was a narrow, unpaved, curvy road.

I sprawled out on the ground and stared up at the astounding, luminescent sky. I had seen photos in National Geographic of places like this, but never thought I’d actually see a starry night like this with my own eyes.

One astronomer, Kathy, pointed out all of the remarkable features of the sky’s kingdom. We saw countless shooting stars, constellations, magellanic clouds and even the outline of the Milky Way.

The stargazing experience was surreal, and our amazing photojournalist, Aly, was able to capture the vast sky’s beauty.

It was a truly unforgettable trip, and I can’t thank the UNC School of Media and Journalism enough for the opportunity.

Check out more of Aly’s photos from our time at SOAR here!

And here are a few quality iPhone5 photos of mine 🙂

Arrival at the Santiago airport   Hiking to the top of Cruz del Tercer Milenio

Our hard-working crew

Downtown La Serena  

Opening my arms to the city of La Serena


Beautiful murals in Elqui Valley 

Artisan markets tucked away in Elqui Valley


More photos from exploring Elqui Valley


The fruit in this picture is misleading; we ate almost no fruit. This is just one of the many Chilean markets

Corridor of windows inside Cruz del Tercer Milenio


Views of Coquimbo and La Serena

Majestic sunsets


More meat and potatoes

Creeping on sleeping Vijay 🙂


Breathtaking sunset at SOAR

So this is what it’s like to literally live under a rock…


Aly purchasing an aloe plant at a local market in order to heal her sunburn



Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *