Archive for June, 2010

Isla de Pascua

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2010 by racheltobias

As I sit aboard the LAN flight to Easter Island, Chile, I marvel sadly at how little the world has changed, after all of its mistakes and pitfalls. The history of the island I am about to explore is tragic, marred by the depletion of natural resources, and further destruction of the population by warfare and culture clash with the conquistadores. My flight is jam-packed, ironically, with a group appropriately named “Conquistadores Aventuros” a Seventh Day Adventist missionary group, seeking to “civilize,” in a way, not unlike European and South American predecessors as they pass out booklets entitled Tiempo de Esperanza, (Season of Hope) to the locals. Later, I will leave the island with chunks of obsidian dug from a crater’s edge, shells collected at Anakena, the sole beach on the island, and bones rescued from tidepools along the coast, as well as with photographs of natural and human creation which astounds even my Nikon. Along with the missionaries sitting around me, I struggle with the idea that we constantly continue this pattern of taking without asking permission and giving without considering whether or not we should.

And onward we fly.

By some unfathomable stretch of human strength, intuition and survival, a boatful of Pacific Islanders, likely Polynesians, made their way an estimated 2,000 miles across an empty and desolate ocean to an island called Isla de Pascua. No map, no compass, no GPS, perhaps they didn’t even have a destination in mind; it was simply the boat, the stars, and that dear hand of providence.

This is, at least, the presumption of how the Rapanui arrived on Easter Island.

Life on Rapanui proved to be something south of Paradise. Although nobody knows for sure exactly what happened to the Rapanui, archaologists and historians are nearly certain that the downfall of the civilization was a result of a rape of natural resources both by the locals, initially, and later, foreign intruders. What used to be an island of lush forests was transformed, over years, into barren plains on which nothing of use to its inhabitants can grow. This island may have simply been hostile to the demand, without the supply to satisfy a population; however, it is theorized that these islanders wasted thousands of trees in the transportation of the moai, the large stone tribal icons scattered around the island, to the coast. Without wood to burn and food to cook, the Rapa Nui are presumed to have resorted to tribal warfare and perhaps cannibalism, their population further decreased after wars with the Spanish.

Destroyed by disease and warfare, less than 3% of the Rapanui remained by 1877. Along with the more than 1500 people killed went the culture and traditions of the island, something that has been barely re-stitched together by the current population, a blend of Chileans and Polynesians.

The island itself is beautiful, despite the lack of forest life, which is easily forgotten when presented with the panorama of lush green hillsides, yellow and purple wildflowers crouching in bunches, and giant, pensive moai admiring the turquoise surf crashing against twisting volcanic cliffs.

Isla de Pascua is approximately 15 miles long by 8 miles wide, and claims a tip of the Polynesian triangle, which includes Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island. There are two main roads; one curves around the eastern coast, while the second cuts through the middle of the island. The west coast above the main town can be accessed by mainly gravel and dirt roads, although most of the action (“action” being a relative term) is on the east coast. Volcanic caves and lava tubes can be found along the northwest coast, and moai are visible everywhere, both standing and fallen, broken and whole, although the most exciting spots are the Rano Raraku volcano and rock quarry, and Ahu Tongariki.

The town of Hanga Roa is the only town on the island. Its main street has a number of car, motorcycle, and bicycle rental stores, a plethora of restaurants, and numerous “supermercados.”

Supermarket is also a relative term.

The Rapa Nui people are striking, especially the women. Their beautiful, long, jet-black hair frames their exotic Polynesian features beautifully. What I heard of the Rapa Nui language, I liked; apparently it is quite similar to other Polynesian languages. However, I did not find the people to be very friendly; I’m not really sure if I blame them:

Tourism is the sole source of income for this island; Isla de Pascua must import the majority of its food and resources. Without the moai, it is likely that this island would have been abandoned long ago. I constantly wondered, as I failed to encounter very much joy and friendliness among the local people, if they lived with a slight resentment, a resentment etched into the stone faces gazing into the distance, which we furiously clicked away at with our cameras, as if the scene was ours to capture, pocket and take home. I can understand the frustration that the Rapanui must feel, as tourist after tourist, with deep pockets full of pesos and ignorance, march obliviously across the island for a couple of days, and then are gone, not likely to return. It occurred to me that the worldview of an islander, most of whom have never been to the mainland, must be quite interesting in comparison to the wide scope of information and experience we encounter on our giant, seemingly boundless continents.

Sure enough, I felt the “those damn tourists” vibe as we posed in front of a moai on our first day, apparently too close, and were yelled at by a Rapanui on horseback policing the archeological sites. I felt only slightly less foolish than the Finnish tourist Benny read about in our guidebook, who was apparently caught trying to remove an ear from a moai to take home as a souvenir.

For my fellow travel and monument-sighting junkies, Easter Island is a must-see. It is a trek, about 5 hours east of Santiago. But it is worth it. However, I must warn anyone with the inkling that it is horrendously expensive; if I had been warned of this before my trip, I would have only stayed 2 days, which is plenty of time to see the whole island. Everything is marked up, since, as I mentioned, this is the island’s only source of revenue. For example, to get into Rapa Nui National Park, which you must do to see the main archeological sites, is $60 USD. Also, we never had a meal for less than $50.

One night, in an attempt to save money, we decided to cook, since our hostel had a small communal kitchen. Cooking turned out to be more of a hassle and almost as expensive as eating out.

1 cucumber + 1 onion = $4.00

1 bunch of basil = $2.00

1 potato = $2.00

1 small bottle of olive oil = $7.00

3 tomatoes + 1 head of garlic = $4.00

1 package of tomato sauce = $1.00

1 package of spaghetti = $2.00

And this didn’t even include meat. We ended up with some decent spaghetti and a half-decent salad, although our kitchen had no pepper or spices, and barely any cooking utensils.

Benny decided, after our disappointing cooking experience, which is usually one of our favorite activities (as a young and broke couple), that we needed to put together an emergency cooking kit for all future travel. This is what we came up with (inspired by everything we lacked during The Easter Island Spaghetti Fiasco:

Emergency Travel Cooking Kit

– OLIVE OIL

– BALSAMIC VINEGAR

– PEANUT OIL (this was Benny’s idea; he is quite particular about his oils)

– MATCHES (we ended up lighting the stove with Benny’s flint fire starter, which I had made exceeding fun of him for for bringing on the trip, certain that he would not need a fire starter; turns out I was wrong)

– SALT

– PEPPER

– OREGANO (we’re spoiled)

– TABASCO

– ZIPLOC BAGS (I had to throw away a whole salad, which I gladly would have put in the refrigerator and eaten the next day

– CAN OPENER

I also thought it would be fun, since we were on an island!, to do something islandish and make pina coladas. We bought a $5 bottle of rum, a $5 can of pineapples and a $5 can of cream of coconut. Very excited for my afternoon treat after a long day of scuba diving and hiking, I rushed to the kitchen. I found the blender covered in fruit flies, but refusing to get discouraged, washed it off (the kitchen had no hot water and no soap), and powered through. I put in the pineapple and the rum, and went to retrieve the ice from the freezer, then discovered someone had spilled papaya juice all over my bag of ice (this was not a closed bag of ice). Still undeterred, I salvaged ice from the bottom of the bag and threw it in. Finally, I went to open the coconut, and found that it was thick, almost like jello. Keep going. As I scooped it out, I discovered the bottom half of the can was brown, which really didn’t look right to both Benny and I. The hostel owner walked in and I asked him what he thought. After looking at the expiration date, he said it was fine, and then looked at the expiration date of the pineapples, and informed me that they had been expired for one year. I wanted to cry.

We threw out the pina coladas and settled for rum.

Aside from our cooking debacles, the rest of our stay was quite lovely. We spent our first day driving around the island in our rented “jeep,” finding many platforms of fallen moai along the coastline. Our hostel, Hostal Akapu, was about a 15-minute walk from Hanga Roa, and the walking path sat next to several ahus, or moai platforms. One moai, which we could see from our cabin porch, was the only one on the island I saw with bright white eyes. Another ahu, a few minutes walk past this one, had four slightly deteriorating moai. So, by the time we got in our jeep and bounced along the innumerable potholes to see more coastal moai, the facedown fallen statues seemed to lack very much excitement.

Just as disappointment began to set in, we made a sharp turn off the road toward Rano Raraku, a volcano and rock quarry, according to my map. As soon as we approached, however, I realized that the dark spots I had seen on the hillside of the volcano were not shrubbery, as I had assumed, but moai, hundreds of them.

This quarry is where the Rapanui harvested the stone for the moai; from here, they transported them to the coasts and created the ahus, or ceremonial platforms. Archaeologists have postulated that the moai signified deified ancestors, most likely chieftains and other powerful males. The moai, were probably created from around as early as 1100 A.D. by the Ancestor Cult, and ended in the 1860s, during the Birdman Cult and the arrival of Europeans and slave traders. These moai number 887 throughout the island, although only 288 of them made it to their final destination at the ahu. The rest lay scattered around Rano Raraku and throughout the island in-transit and unfinished, yet no less majestic. Moai range in size and can be anywhere from 15 to 70 feet tall. The biggest moai weighs 145 tons, but the average weight is usually around 15 tons.

The trail at Rano Raraku winds around the side of the volcano through individual and unfinished moai which stand towering and erect beside the trail. The scene was truly quite incredible, with the powerful dark statues standing upon green and yellow fields of grass, covered by some of the most incredible arrays of clouds and blue sky I have ever seen. It made for some lovely photography. After finishing the trail, a second trail takes you to the less famous crater lake of Rano Raraku, which was surrounded by wild horses and more moai.

After the rock quarry, we drove further along the main road to Ahu Tongariki, the most famous ahu on the island, and the one you have likely seen in pictures advertising Easter Island. It is a row of 15 moai, each unique and different. It almost reminded me of a portrait of some old businessmen from the before-smiling age of photography: all standing, serious, looking at the camera, some short and stout, bellies hanging out; others tall and thin, one even with a version of a top hat, some with more distinctive facial features, others less extraordinary. They made me giggle. We decided to return to Ahu Tongariki the next morning early before the sun rose, in order to capture the majestic statues against a warm orange morning sky.

It was on this day that we discovered just how expensive this island really was. Our first meal on the island was nothing special: we ate at a small café called Café Ra’a (Sun Café). I had chicken curry and Benny had a fish sandwich. We ordered 2 Cokes. The bill was $50. It was yummy, but not 50-dollar-yummy.

(Photo by Benny Haddad — bennyhaddad.com)



After lunch, I was dying to get to the beach, so we headed back across the island to the one and only beach, Anakena. It was a beautiful white sand beach, flanked by palm trees and a lawn packed with wild horses, guarded by an ahu of smaller moai all wearing those funny red hats, which we still do not know the significance of. Wehad a lovely afternoon reading on the beach and sitting under the sun, although the water was not quite warm enough for a pleasant swim. As we watched the sunset, Benny snapped away on his camera and I headed to the tide pools to collect sea urchins and bones and shells and other “treasures.” Of course I could not forget to fill a water bottle with the white, dainty sand for my mom’s famous sand collection.

(Photo by Benny Haddad — bennyhaddad.com)

On the way back to Hanga Roa, while the sky was still tinged with light, we pulled the car over to watch a group of wild horses galloping across the island plains. It was beautiful. I have always wanted to see wild horses run.

That night, we had an incredible dinner at a restaurant called Varua. It had an express menu for 9 mil pesos, or about $18 per person, which included a salad, an entrée, a pisco sour, and a fresh squeezed juice. When our salad came, we were overjoyed, since we had been desperate for vegetables after a diet of mainly bread and cheese over the last week and a half. We had a lovely Mediterranean veggie salad, I had grilled chicken, Benny had delicious steak skewers and we each had fresh squeeze pineapple juice. We couldn’t have felt like our money was better spent.

The next morning may have been my favorite part of our trip. We woke up at 5:30,while it was still pitch black and the millions of stars still twinkled above our cabin. We still had the rental car, and we packed up a blanket and a pseudo-picnic of canned peaches and oatmeal cookies (the “supermarket” was slightly lame in the way of breakfast foods) and headed back to Ahu Tongariki. Racing against the sun, we made it to the ahu just before the sun started coming up.

We took pictures for about an hour and watched the sky change against the row of moai, first black, then dark blue, then purple, then orange, and finally a lightershade of blue pocked by glorious white fluffs of clouds that seemed to love the day. After we had taken our fill of photos, which actually never quite happens, we sat down on our blanket to eat our canned peaches and enjoy the cool morning air.

Not soon after that, we saw an old disgruntled Rapanui woman heading towards us. In Spanish she tells us that we are not allowed to camp here, she is pointing at our blanket and yelling to the point that I got completely lost in her words. My stomach knotted up with embarrassment and slight fear as I tried to explain to her that we had not camped we had only just arrived earlier that morning, but she didn’t believe us. Finally we told her we would just leave, and we folded up our blanket and left. A rough end to a perfect morning, but a good story nonetheless.

Exhausted from an early morning, we spent the rest of the day exploring Hanga Roa close to home, shopping for our pricy spaghetti dinner ingredients, and collecting obsidian, Benny’s favorite island treasure, as we made our way along the trail that led back to our hostel.

Earlier that morning, we had met the 6-day old puppies that had been abandoned by their mother at our hostel. They were still shaky from being born, and as adorable as they were, seemed to have a dim chance of survival since nobody really had the means or time to care for them. When we arrived back to the hostel that day, we met our second friend, a tiny little kitten who snuck into our room and curled up at the foot of our bed as we uploaded pictures and napped. Joined by all of our animal friends, we cooked dinner and curled up to watch Groundhog Day, excited at the next day’s prospect of scuba diving.

(Photo by Benny Haddad)

We dove with Scuba Mike, one of the two scuba outfitters on the island. I chose this one over Orca Dive only because there was a delicious homemade ice cream place right next door called Mikafe, and I really wanted to have ice cream after our dive! Benny was the most excited out of the two of us, mostly because he had his brand new underwater casing for his Canon G11, and was anxious to add someunderwater pictures to his portfolio.

It was just Benny and I and two dive guides. We dove to about 25 meters, a short dive of only 45 minutes or so, but exciting nonetheless. There wasn’t a ton of sea life offshore, but there were some nice coral gardens, giant black sea urchins, an eel that looked like a giant cobra, and a variety of colorful fish. We also swam by a moai underwater, which looked incredibly well preserved and out of place; we were pretty sure it had been placed there specifically for tourist scuba diving. It was neat, anyway.

(Photo by Benny Haddad)

Scuba diving rejuvenated us, and after ice cream (of course!) we set off in search of the caves that supposedly were common on the west side of the island. One of the adult dogs who lived at the hostel took a keen interest in our walk and guided us the whole way. When we finally did reach Ana Kakenga, a small cave, and disappeared into it, his loyal and protective vein kicked in and he hesitantly followed us, but definitely wasn’t happy about it. At first, controlled by my claustrophobia, I was just as reluctant to go into the cave; granted, from the tiny lava tube entrance it was impossible to know if and when it opened up. But finally an island guide and another couple arrived and went right in, and I knew I couldn’t let myself pass it up. We followed them in, luckily I had brought my headlamp, and ended up in a cave that had two separate openings to the sea, right on the edge of the volcanic cliffs and the striking turquoise water. If the dog could do it, I had no excuse.

After a long walk home, unwilling to spend exorbitant amounts of money on a snack, we boiled the potato left over from the night before, sprinkled it with salt, and snacked on it along with potato chips and fruit cocktail. Very healthy. We were simply conserving for yet another meal at our favorite restaurant, Varua: this time Benny tried the ceviche and I had the most delicious (white) sweet potato fries I’ve ever had…don’t forget the free piscos!

Our last day on Isla de Pascua was a lazy one, just what I needed. We convinced ourselves yet again to rent a car to drive up to the Rano Kau crater, the most famous of the island’s volcanoes, which ended up being quite lucky since it proceeded to rain for the rest of the day. You can also hike to the top of the crater to find a lovely panorama as you hike higher and higher. At the top of the crater, which is filled with a swampy and overgrown lake and surrounded by patches of bright yellow flowers, is the ancient village of Orongo, build by the Birdman cult, which began after the Europeans arrived in the mid-1700s, and ended after Catholic missionaries began to construct churches on the island in the last few decades of the 1800s.

The Birdman cult was characterized by the “Birdman” competition. During springtime, the sooty tern, a type of seabird, would arrive to lay eggs on the Motu Nui islet. When this tangatu-manu competition began, chiefs (or their representatives) of different tribes would climb  to Orongo and prepare for the annual competition. After climbing down the cliffs of Orongo and swimming the great distance to the islet, the hopu would wait for the arrival of the birds. The first one to collect an egg, swim back to Easter Island, and once again climb the cliffs to Orongo, would be called tangata-manu, a sacred title which he would hold for a period of one year, until the next competition. I couldn’t help but wonder why this tradition has disappeared; perhaps it was because so many died from the fatal falls off the treacherous cliffs, or were claimed by the sea in drownings or shark attacks. Valid reasons, to be sure. Isn’t it interesting, though, that very few of the people who are given power around us had to prove any ability whatsoever. I think I’d rather have a political representative that could retrieve a sacred bird egg than could talk and B.S. his way to the top. Plus, he’d be fit.

We ended our day at the restaurant nextdoor to Varua (apparently we like to stay close to home), called Te Kape Restraurant, which had a similar express menu for only 8990 pesos instead of 9000…a deal! It turned out to be slightly more impressive: the best part were the bright purple mashed sweet potatotes; apparently the purple sweet potato is native to Easter Island and does not grow anywhere else. Too bad for TSA, or I could have introduced it to the lovely gardens of South Central L.A.

After dinner, we saw what was described as an “not-to-be-missed” (of course)traditional Rapanui dance and music show, which actually was very entertaining. Through a story told in the Rapanui language, men with gorgeously toned bodies  covered by feather loincloths (yes!) and voluptuous hula-dancing girls donning colorful hula skirts and coconut bikini tops danced and sang. Of course I was brought on stage twice to dance, my worst nightmare, made only slightly better by the fact that Benny had to come dance the second time as well. The gyrating hips and sweaty chests that I struggled to both dance with and avoid touching all at the same time made an interesting end to the night.

With the vacation coming to a close, we enjoyed one last night and one last cold shower in our slightly mangy hostel, glad to be headed home. However, since I had perhaps the best company in the whole world, I could not have asked for a more amazing trip, far away from big cities, bright lights, pollution and noise, surrounded by only the starlight, the full moon, the lapping waves, and the protective eyes of a lost and ancient civilization.

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Santiago de Chile

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2010 by racheltobias

Un lugar es un ciclo de lugares

Así,

Otros ambientes son irrelevantes

La distancia no existe

Y el sentido Occidental de la dirreción y el espacio se hace innecesario.


A place is a series of places

Therefore,

Other areas are irrelevant

Distance does not exist

And the Western sense of space and residence becomes unnecessary.

And so we meet Santiago. At first glance, quite similar to any other familiar urban sprawl, despite the difference in language, among other things. As we explored the city, and I encountered the art exhibit of Juan Downey (see above quotation), I pondered the question “what is travel?”

Where am I?


Am I in a completely different place? Foreign? Unknown? Distant? Strange? What is home? Do I have one?

I think I may have the heart of a nomad. A few nights ago, I counted the number of times I have moved in the past 12 months: 9 times. The house of my family is of course home in terms of heart and history. Yet, I have had so many physical homes, both short and long, that it seems to have become a blurred concept.

So, when we travel aren’t we really just entering an extension of home? What if, when we traveled, we simply considered it as an introduction to a new room in our “house,” a new view from the porch? Why not?

Is distance only a figment of the human imagination? Something we created so that we could send boats and planes and trains tumbling across the sprawling lines of latitudes and longitudes? A way to package this massive space into something our brains can comprehend and manage, in a way?

Perhaps.

Chile does not necessarily feel like home sweet home, but it does not feel strange and exotic either, a pattern I have begun to notice in my travels of late.

SANTIAGO

Anyhow, wherever my Soul Sister is might as well be home.

It was a joyful reunion between KK and I, as she showed us her new life, her new home. We spent time visiting the different barrios of Santiago, including Bellavista, which was a glorious array of vibrantly painted apartments and homes: bright purples, greens, turquoises, and oranges. When did our lovely American suburbs decide that color was to be avoided at all costs?

Color changes everything.

One of our favorite discoveries of the trip occurred in this colorful barrio: Yogen Fruz. We were famished upon our first taste, so perhaps I exaggerate the goodness (but really, it’s quite wonderful). Apparently Yogen Fruz has more than 1000 locations across 25 different countries (including Los Angeles! Yay!), and has a concept even simpler and more graceful than the million other franchises dotting our street corners like Starbucks in this new Age of Frozen Yogurt. You simply choose two or three different fruits to be pressed with a block of plain frozen yogurt, and voila!: a beautiful cone of frozen yogurt. My flavor of choice: piña y frambuesa, pineapple and raspberries.

Other than Yogen Fruz, we lived mostly on empanadas or other bread/cheese concoctions; understandably Yogen Fruz was a much needed breath of fresh air on many occasions.

While in Santiago, we stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast called the Vilafranca, which aside from the loud and creaky staircase (not surprising for a building of such age), was a wonderful experience. Although the owner felt more motherly than concierge-y, she was very helpful and very sweet.

The introduction to KK’s life abroad in Santiago was so much fun, and opened my eyes to a completely different kind of study abroad experience. Of course, Santiago and Egypt consist of two wildly different cultures in terms of history, religion, and language. I spent my time in Egypt mostly with Egyptians, and had very few American friends whom I spent time with, which accounted for a lot of my frustration and homesickness, a result of not always being able to identify with or articulate my feelings to my peers. However, KK has an excellent mix of both Chileans and Americans, which seem to get along together perfectly, encouraging each other to improve acquired lanuages, whether Spanish or English, and introducing each other to the cultural wonders of Chile!

For example: don’t ask for pico de gallo. It means, well…something you definitely wouldn’t want on your dinner plate.

Another example: Chile is a democratic republic. However, this is a new development, one which the Chilean people are still growing accustomed to. There is much skepticism of democracy among the population, which the government seems to work fiercely to dissuade. Walking past any bookstore in the city, the front windows are filled with books of civic laws, available to the public in a display of national transparency. The Palacio de la Moneda, the Chilean version of the White House, is completely open. Unlike the White House of the U.S.A., anyone can walk right up to the front door. What a curious thing, to have no enemies, no fear that someone will leave a bomb on the front doorstep of the residency of the President of Chile, or threaten a public building in any way. Sure enough, the economy of Chile is booming and the country is the most stable and prosperous in South America.

Benny pointed out how former Presidents, long before international threats and modern-day weaponry of today, used to host public parties at the White House. President Andrew Jackson, even went so far as to leave a 1400-pound block of cheese, a gift, in the foyer of the White House with an invitation for any and all to snag a piece. Going through a security check later on our trip, of which there was virtually no security check at all, I wondered what it must be like to live in a place without the constant fear of attack, any kind of attack. Perhaps not noticeably in our day-to-day activities, but 9/11 completely changed the way we operate in the United States, and I think also, in large part, the way we, as Americans, view the world. While I understand the impossibility of a wide open White House in the United States, I envy the freedom and the ability of Chile to live free from fear and in pursuit of individual freedoms.

We spent the week visiting KK’s different universities: the public Universidad de Chile, and two campuses of the Universidad Catolica, the main campus and the fine arts campus, reminiscent of Hogwarts. I’m still convinced it was a school for wizards, but KK has yet to divulge this secret.

We spent each night in the company of her amigos, both the gringos and the Chilenos, both which I supremely enjoyed meeting. Unlike the group of American study abroad students I encountered abroad, all of KK’s friends were motivated and driven by culture, language, friendship and experiences.

Each night we went to a “pre-party” at someone’s house, which starts at around 9 or 10pm. Benny and I go to bed around 11pm in real life, so this was a bit of a shock for us. We tried to hang in there as long as we could most nights, but ended up only making it out to a club/bar one night, and still then retired by 2:30am, only the beginning of the night for Chileans.

Call me old, but I am.

However, I did very much enjoy the casual nature of Chilean nightlife: no high heels, no slutty get-ups, just whatever you’re comfortable in. And no judging eyes from hundreds of competing sorority girls either. We also got to try our first

PISCO SOUR!

apparently the national drink of Chile, as they love it any time of day! Pisco is not quite similar to anything I’ve had before, but it is a type of alcohol that they mix with lemons, sugar, and some other ingredients to make what tastes more or less like a margarita.

Other Santiago discoveries:

Lapis lazuli: a blue stone found in Chile, a deep, royal blue, variation of turquoise. My new object of desire.

Nescafe is the drink of choice. Brewed coffee is rare and difficult to find, hence the French Press and ground coffee beans I brought to KK, along with other coveted American items not to be found in Chile: Oreos, Reese’s Cups, Stacy’s pita chips, mini hair ties, and fiber, very difficult to come by!

Productivity: Chile might have discovered a solution to unemployment, although it was certainly more frustrating than efficient. In order to employ the most people, businesses assign a person not to do one whole job, but to be in charge of pieces of jobs. I will demonstrate with the Dunkin’ Donuts example. Benny, desperate for some real brewed coffee, surely to be found at Dunkin’ Donuts (not so), decided to try the reliable American chain, since everything else was closed on this particular day, a national holiday. (Also different, every single thing closes on holidays. Everything.) Below is a diagram of the Dunkin’ Donuts purchasing experience:


As you can see, a little bit excessive. It took three people to do what usually one person is perfectly capable of doing. Experiences like this were common in all kinds of different retail and food stores in Santiago.

My ability to speak Spanish: I didn’t know I had it in me, but apparently Spanish comes much easier when one is forced to speak it. By the end of the trip, I just automatically went to Spanish; I even got so good as to have to remind myself to speak English to my boyfriend. I was particularly proud of the lunch KK arranged with her host family in Macul, a charming suburb of Santiago, where KK resides in a lovely neon green bedroom with a stern yet loving mother, an eccentric Spanish father, and a gorgeous Chilean sister. They were kind enough to invite us into their homes for lunch: vegetable soup and fettuccini, which, according to KK’s mother, is the one dish everyone everywhere likes. I must say, I quite prefer fettuccini to stomach lining, which KK’s mother cooked for her earlier in the semester. Nevertheless, she was an excellent cook, and we were quite thrilled to have a break from the empanada / Yogen Fruz rampage we had previously been surviving on.

Even better than the home-cooked meal was the fantastic company. Also invited were the family’s elder son and his wife and daughter. They showered us with appetizers, champagne, a round of pisco sours, and finally wine. We discussed our approaching jaunt to Easter Island, the recent earthquake which had left Brother’s house badly damaged but thankfully everyone safe, and the television show preferences we shared. Although by the end of the long lunch I was exhausted from speaking and listening in a second language, I relished the experience of being able to converse freely and well about complex and compelling topics.

CAJON DEL MAIPO


Since KK had tests and school during the week, and we were anxious to do something active, Benny and I took off for the Andes in search of some hiking. At first, we had planned to take a bus to our hotel, but opted at the last minute to rent a car. This turned out to be a really good call, since Cajon del Maipo, our destination, proved to be in the middle of nowhere, and virtually empty in the low season.

Despite driving into the middle of nowhere, Benny somehow managed to get us to where we were going without getting too lost. I am convinced that if you were to examine a cross-section of his brain, you would find a detailed and comprehensive view of Google Maps. Thank goodness for Google-Maps-Brained-Boyfriend because the GPS that came with the rental car was as useless as my sense of direction.

It was a beautiful drive through wine country, trees beginning to turn crimson and golden with the onset of fall. Farm animals strolled along the road; rarely did we glimpse another human being. We had trouble deciding whether or not this was a popular destination, even in the high season, but resolved that it must be due to the volume of closed, but existent restaurants and hostels that lined the road.

Finally we arrived to the hotel Altiplanico, which I had been anxious to see, as its website and apparent presentation looked wonderfully quaint.

The Altiplanico exceeded all expectations.

It was a comfortable mix of Eastern style, a Big Sure Eco-lodge, and a quaint bread and breakfast. We were met by a darling woman who sat behind the front desk, who later made sure we had box lunches (2 sandwiches each, cookies, fruit, and trail mix!) for our hike through the Andes the next day. The hotel’s backyard sat right above a river which cut through a glorious valley of towering, snowcapped shadows. The yard was painted with flowers and crisping trees, and had a couple of patios which I would have likely taken advantage of had it not been the beginning of winter. What I found most incredible about the hotel was the wonderfully thoughtful and creative interior design. It reflected the design techniques of an old soul and worldly traveler; each detail had been carefully considered and planned. Each material, the beautiful log mantleplace and ceiling, the seashell / pea pod light fixture, the pillows decorating the sitting room lounge, the seashells cemented into the wall to resemble a piece of art, the symmetry of the triangular windows in one wing of our bedroom, the carved teak mantle art filled with peacock feathers like flowers in a vase, all were perfectly placed and well-appreciated. I had so much love for the time and creativity that went into each element of the design and décor of the hotel, and plan on hiring the same designer to plan my own house one day.

Although I could barely tear myself away from the intricate Tibetan wall hangings,

Benny and I still had an urge to be active and go explore the wilderness surrounding us on all sides. We dropped off our bags and got back on the road. Our Citroen, a little tiny red box of a car, was soon forced into the role of an off-roading vehicle (we were so proud of her!), and we followed a sometimes nerve-wracking dirt road for 30 kilometers or so until reaching our afternoon’s destination, Embalse el Yeso, a resovoir full of gorgeous turquoise water, flanked by snow-covered peaks. It was quite beautiful, although freezing, especially after sticking my hands in piles of snow. At the time, it seemed like a good idea.

After our Citroen got us safely back to our hotel, our “be active” drive had subsided for the evening, and we were content to curl up by the fire with a hearty glass of Chilean Carmenere and read: me, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which would prove oddly prophetic of the admiration of nature I would have the next day.

Sure enough, we awoke early the next morning, strapped on our hiking boots, our layers, and our backpacks, and set off in our poor Little Red Car That Could  into 4-wheel drive territory yet again in search of a trail that would lead to El Monumento Natural El Morado, a giant glacier in the Andes. If you ever take the beautiful trip into Cajon del Maipo, make sure you have a car and a valuable map, as it is easy to get lost, and there aren’t many people around to ask directions.

Before finally finding the main trail, we were stopped by some sort of mountain police, who informed us that we could only “caminar”, not “escalar” which I struggled to understand the difference between in the flurry of rapid Spanish and handing over license documents. Eventually I realized he was telling us that we could not hike, as the National Park is closed after May due to the onset of snow and cold weather. Since I did not quite understand that, nor did we really care to pay attention, we moved onward, in search of our trailhead.

The drive on the way was beautiful, the sun burning a golden crisp into the landscape, with towering sycamore trees bright yellow standing in neat rows every few kilometers, shading nibbling horses and cows from the high noon heat. Chickens, goats, and other farm folk jabbered across the road and greeted us as we sped along in our red trooper, and boy was she a trooper. After I insisted that the trailhead was one way, (I, of course was right, although it turned out to actually be gated and locked), Benny insisted on going a different way, and since he is Google Maps, I did not object too strongly.

Our poor car overcame obstacles it never thought it would have to bear, and we were so proud. As we bumped and jostled over uneven ground, I cringed with every oversized stone that shot against the bottom of the car like a bullet, and held my breath as we drove through puddles and creeks, sure that Citroen would get stuck in the land of No Other People Anywhere In Sight. Luckily, we made it safely to what was a pseudo-trailhead. We figured out later that it was a sort of back way, and we were lucky to have found it since the main entrance was closed anyhow.

We hiked for about 4 hours, getting closer and closer to the towering glacier, which breathed whisps of snow at its tips, almost as if it were impatient with its blanket of white. The colors of the mountains were breathtaking, stripes of orange and green from the copper-infused soil ran through the mountains, along with reds and yellows, complementing the deep emerald water of the river below. After a couple of hours we had reached the snow level. The sun was high and heavy, and I enjoyed a natural snowcone treat to cool off when we took a walking break. We eventually decided, after not reaching the expected glacier lake, that we had ended up on a wrong trail, and climbed upon a rock surrounded by an Andean panorama to eat our sack lunches and enjoy the snowy breeze. We were soon comforted by the sight of a pack of mountaineers emerging from the same trail we had been pursuing; they must have snickered under their breaths at us with our sandwiches and me in my almost-warm-enough Lacoste marshmallow jacket, as they trudged away with their trekking poles, ice axes, and weather-ready sleeping gear. Perhaps there was a reason the park is closed in May.

Exhausted after a cold, windy trudge back to the car, I settled into my UGGs, and we snacked on the Oreos I had brought for KK, but which she had dangerously left in my possession until she had a more convenient time to take them home. We would later meet KK that night at Starbucks, after barely escaping from paying for the dent left in the hubcap of the Citroen undoubtedly from a large flying rock, for a nice warm American cup of brewed coffee (only place to find brewed coffee in Santiago) and a yummy American slice of orange glazed cake.

VALPARAISO


KK’s tales of accordian-playing gypsies, acensores to the sky, and colorful murals on every inch of wall, as well as her own feeling of kinship to the place, made me certain that I would fall as deeply in love with Valparaiso as she. Sure enough, we arrived by bus, about 2 hours outside of Santiago, to Valparaiso, a Chilean town built halfway on the sea and halfway into the hills. It is the place which inspired the heartbeat and pen of Pablo Neruda, a place covered by houses elbowing for space, painted every bright color imaginable. The story goes that sailors would paint their homes a bright color so they would remember which house was theirs upon arriving back from a long voyage at sea.

Sure enough, I felt at home in the strange, colorful bohemian wonderland. We took the funicular up to Concepción, a graffiti filled area of the Valpo hillside. We wove in and out of pasajes, admiring the diversity of wall art from the political to the artistic to the mildly frightening. There were stencils of Che Guevara, Amelie, The Blues Brothers, political slogans, Communist commentary, paintings of voluptuous naked women, scarved Eastern women, silhouettes of women, children, and men, colorful swirls and symbols in bright reds, greens, yellows, blues, and every variation of the color wheel. One of my favorites was a giant hand throwing paper airplanes, almost as though one could jump up off the sidewalk and grab one in mid-flight.

After a long sleepy bus ride, my coffee addicted amigos needed a boost, so we found the most amazing little café tucked into a side street called The Color Café. KK and Benny ordered their rare brewed coffee, and I got a hot chocolate, rich, thick, and creamy as it should be, all served in darling handmade pottery mugs. The café was cemented over with knick knacks of all sorts. From about eye level down, every inch of the wall was covered in napkins, written on by former customers from all over the world with little poems, anecdotes, thank yous. KK leafed through a giant album full of even more napkins. Above the napkins were strange toys, clowns, hanging butterflies, Abbey Road posters, old French illustrations, flowers, baskets, seashells, pinwheels. The place was full of the life and love of interesting souls, as if pieces of people had been left behind for years and years. Bohemia certainly came to nest in the Color Café: it’s own personal garage filled with the amazing and useless.

Despite the overcast day, the colors of Valparaiso still blazed brightly, and they were everywhere.


I felt so happy.

We ventured up to Pablo Neruda’s house, in another corner of the city, a five story apartment which overlooked the ocean, filled with old maps, quizzical art, a giant life-size painting of Walt Whitman, and intricate wood carvings from around the world. The house was apparently shared between him and another artist couple. An interesting anecdote:

After Pablo Neruda died, the sculptor’s husband, who also occupied the house with Neruda, heard a noise coming from Neruda’s empty sitting room a couple of floors above. When he went to see what the noise was, he found a giant eagle flapping around the room. It was unclear how the eagle could have possibly entered the room, since none of the windows were open. The man let the bird out.

At that moment, he recalled how Neruda had once told him that in his next life he wished to be an eagle.

I can only imagine how beautiful an eagle’s view would be of the magic of this place.

Valparaiso, and Santiago alike have claimed a piece of home in my heart.

Distance, I decided, really does not exist.