Un lugar es un ciclo de lugares
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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.