On a recent trip to the north of Chile with my illustrious mother, we had the great fortune to go to the El Tatio geyser field, which at over 4,000 meters is the highest geyser field in the world. Watch this space for a missive on superlatives in Latin America, but for now, let’s stick to the geysers.
The trip up to the geysers starts with a 4:00 AM pickup in the frigid desert morning waiting outside your hotel. Twenty minutes of wending in and out of the dusty streets fills the little tourbus, Europeans and the occasional moneyed Chilean, and of course, me and my mom. Ice forms on the inside of the windshield, and everyone is wishing for a lap blanket, a spacesuit, a giant warm armpit to climb into, anything to beat the biting insidious cold that creeps into your bones.
But this entry is not about going to the geysers, even though it could be. I could talk about the spitting and the fuming, the pale yellow that fills the sky and the big puffy clouds of vapor that waft by and hide your fellow tourists. I could also talk about the big splatty fall I saw a very unfortunate French woman take, right into (thankfully) a puddle of cooling geyser water and ice. People have taken false steps and died here. But this piece is not about that either.
In American English, geyser sounds like guy-ser (forgive me linguists, for I no longer remember the IPA well enough to transcribe what I hear). Guy-ser. Like a person you’d like to visit, friendly and nice. Maybe he wears a baseball cap. Then we started hearing people say gay-ser. Gay-ser didn’t sound bad, maybe you could attend his wedding in California in the coming weeks, or go out for a beer with him and his partner. We weren’t sure what he looked like, but he certainly sounded nice enough.
But then there was the South African pronunciation. And this is what made us laugh. Gee-zer. Geezer. Old. Crochety. Bad mood, unpredictable, geezer. A derisive term for a person you used to like but who’s become unpleasant. A hyperbolic example of what happens to you later in life than you want to think about. Think of the movie Grumpy Old Men, but fifteen years later. This is a geezer.
And you know, with the chill in our bones and the wheezing with the altitude and the stiff-legged gait we all exhibited at five degrees Fareinheit snapping pictures of noxious clouds of smoke and the people that stood before then, in addition to the terrible fatigue from the 4:00 AM pickup and consequent 3:30 wakeup, well, maybe we all felt a little like geezers.
Here’s a guy named Asencio. His job is to vigilar (oversee/watch) the geysers and make sure dumbass tourists don’t fall in. Don’t laugh. It’s happened. And that’s why this area of the geyserfield is called Sector Asesino (danger zone lit: killer sector).