Nighttime on high

30 Sep, 2012 | Wan Joo Teo

Urban living, Nature and Tourism

Working Through the Day, So He Can Stargaze – and Make a Little Money – at Night!


The question ‘What do you do?’ is fairly innocuous, but for 30-year-old Gabriel Flores, there is no simple answer. Convention dictates he tell you, in response, that he leads mountain mountain-biking trips on the infamous Death Road. To be fair, that is what takes up most of his daylight hours. In high season, he tends to be assigned four or five trips a week, and with a start as early as 6 am, his hours are as long as those of a typical office worker. Outside of June through September, however, the number of times he gets paid a week is more variable – business can get quite slow.

So Gabriel also referees motorcycle races. And he also designs company logos, publicity pamphlets, book layouts. ‘Whatever needs to be done,’ he says, ‘I do it.’ With the number of day jobs he has – sometimes all at once – you would think his nights would be reserved for rest, for friends, for curling up with wine and a book. But Gabriel regularly gives up his weekday nights, sometimes even the football Mondays he’s set up with buddies, to work yet another job. And for all the variety of his days, his nights are uncharacteristically occupied by a single mission.

Three months ago, with friends Coco and Christian, Gabriel set up Moonlight Trekking, a company that offers, among other guided treks, one that takes tourists up a mountain at dusk. Around each full and new moon, Gabriel and his two partners climb what they call Tata (‘Grandfather’) Achumani, a mountain near the Achumani district near Zona Sur – ‘It probably has an official name . . . I don’t know it,’ he says – on a route they devised through their own treks, and watch the sun set over El Alto. By the time they reach their campsite, it is completely dark and the city below is at its glittering finest. Christian busies himself with grilling burgers, and Gabriel and Coco set up the telescope. All three are self-proclaimed ‘fanatics’ of stargazing, but it is Gabriel who does most of the explaining. He points out Alpha Centauri, and tries his valiant best to join the dots, with his finger, of the ‘shopping cart’ that I have trouble seeing.

A systems engineer by training, I ask how Gabriel how he got interested in astronomy. ‘Did you take a course?’ I venture, ‘or was your father an avid stargazer, perhaps?’ ‘No, no, no,’ he shakes his head. ‘I have a very nice book.’

He shows it to me. Published in 1978, it is full of brightly coloured drawings and diagrams, and instructions for DIY experiments for kids: Make Your Own Moon Crater! Construct ‘The Star Spy’! ‘My mother bought this when I was little,’ he says, as he flips through its pages. ‘This one,’ he says excitedly, pointing to a step-by-step guide to constructing sun binoculars with everyday items, ‘I’ve done.’ I am about to ask him if his parents encouraged his experiments back in the day when he adds, ‘Yeah, did it last year.’

At age 10, Gabriel purchased his first telescope. ‘Once you see through a telescope you say, “Wow, I want to do that again.”’ And so he did: He taught himself about the skies with voracious reading, abundant use of the Internet (‘That’s all we need, isn’t it?’) and visits to a planetarium. Years later, in the Netherlands, he was over the moon when he chanced upon a telescope he’d been coveting for a long time at a whopping 75 percent off.

So he already had the equipment. But while setting up the company, a lot more had to be done. Gabriel and his partners had to explore different trails – could emergency vehicles access the route? Was there enough light on the path? – procure safety equipment, make and distribute flyers for publicity and pool some money to fund the bonus T-shirts they provide to their clients. All this work was undertaken in their spare time, at nights and on weekends.

Right now the young company is still getting off the ground, and after dark they’re still busy working out the kinks. They’re in talks with a minibusero about a transportation contract so Gabriel doesn’t have to keep borrowing cars, hailing cabs or getting his aunt to drive customers to and from the mountain. They’ve just begun the arduous journey of navigating the paperwork that comes with registering a company in Bolivia. On full or new moon nights with no customers, they go out anyway, hunting for new routes, concocting plans for new stargazing options: ‘Once we’re more settled, we’re thinking moonlight biking, moonlight hiking . . . ’ They’re working on generating more publicity. And of course, their first priority is to procure another telescope – they’re channeling all Moonlight Trekking income into a new one they estimate can be purchased in three months, but if that fails, Gabriel’s birdwatcher mother has one he intends to steal.

Gabriel still bikes the Death Road on a regular basis, and despite how much fun every ride is, juggling that with his new company is no walk in the park. Moonlight treks tend to end around or after midnight, and if there’s a bike trip the next day, he is expected at the company workshop to load up equipment at 6:40 am. ‘It’s tough,’ he says. ‘Sometimes you’re very tired, but you just have to put on a happy face and keep going.’

But it is clearly worth it. His fervent appeals for me to ‘tell all your friends about us’ and to ‘remember to like our Facebook page’ reveal the high hopes Gabriel has for his fledgling company. Presently they’re getting about ten customers a month, but in six months they’re hoping to hit that same number per week. When that happens, Gabriel will have successfully turned his amateur passion into a thriving business, and plans to halt his daytime pursuits. ‘If I want my company to rise, I have to put all my focus on it,’ he says. Then, there’d be no more holding down six different day jobs, no more leading biking trips on five hours of sleep. It would be a dream.

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