(Fire) Truckin’ Back to Santiago

Yesterday was our last day in Santiago, and today our first in Buenos Aires. It wasn’t a huge touring-around day, but it had its share of ups and downs. First the downs:

The oldest member of our group — June, age 83 — has with some gentle encouragement from Julio pulled the metaphorical ripcord and decided (correctly) that she has bitten off more than she could chew in selecting this trip. She has traveled around the world multiple times on QE2 cruises, but the physical rigors of this trip were way too much for her; she’s the one who nearly fainted on the street on our first day in Santiago, last Sunday. A stout, grandmotherly woman, she was a real sweetheart but always a few steps behind the rest of the group both physically and conversationally. (She does not have a cell phone or email, and asked Alice what the simplest smartphone would be for a techno-naïf. Alice suggested an iPhone and she responded, “What’s an iPhone?” So you know what we’re dealing with.)

Julio spent a fair amount of time scrambling around yesterday getting her booked on a flight out of Santiago today. She flies home this afternoon (Friday), to her own — and to be honest, everyone else’s — relief.

Our second bump in the road was a delay in our flight from Calama back to Santiago, due to heavy fog at the latter airport. (Which was strange to hear, since Calama is up in the Atacama desert and the skies were cloudless there when we were informed of the problem.) But one of the virtues of this kind of group travel is that once you write the check you magically transform such glitches into Somebody Else’s Problem. We had nothing waiting for us in Santiago yesterday afternoon, any logistical rearrangements were Julio’s job, and so we took the news with Zen-like equanimity. The airline shuttled us all to a nearby hotel where we had a nice buffet lunch. So no biggie.

But in between those two events we enjoyed one of those offbeat experiences that are the rewards of traveling with an open mind. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut (in Cat’s Cradle): “Unexpected travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” And in the words of Julio Llamos, our tour lead: “You gotta bring the magic.”

It happens that Mario, our driver in San Pedro, is a volunteer firefighter in that tiny place. He is rightfully proud of that, and asked (via Julio, since he speaks no English) whether we would like to see the fire station en route to the airport in Calama. The collective sentiment was sure, why not? And this turned out to be quite the gem of an experience.

When I asked for a pole dance, this wasn’t what I had in mind

The fire station was small but modern and well equipped, thanks to a government grant and a number of fund raisers. Mario showed us the break room (complete with pool table), the crew quarters, and the garage with the trucks. And then the real wonderfulness started, for the entrance to the garage was on a mezzanine overlooking the engines, which you could get to either by walking down a ramp or — and who among us has not wanted to do this — sliding down a fireman’s pole. And so like screeching 6 year olds we slid one by one down the fireman’s pole, thereby checking off a bucket list item that we didn’t even know we had. It was great. See Alice in action at left.

Mario next marched us into the equipment room, where we got to try on the stuff. This was also cool in the extreme: I got to don the whole ensemble: boots, coveralls, coat, oxygen tank, and mask. Here I am in full regalia.:

Burning building, anyone?

Finally we climbed onto one of the fire trucks, and Mario ran the siren for a few moments to complete the experience. The whole thing was a like a decades-buried childhood fantasy, and everybody loved every minute of it. We all donated some money to the station as we left, which was very gratefully received. We definitely brought the magic.

We arrived at our hotel in Santiago at 6:30pm or so, about three hours later than originally planned. No matter. The hotel desk gave us a list of recommended nearby restaurants, and at about 8:00 — people eat dinner here very late — Alice and I struck out on our own to find a seafood restaurant that was on the list. We failed; turns out the place was no longer there. So we ambled around the area looking for someplace suitably inviting, and eventually settled on a tiny and very authentically local place where no one spoke a word of English but where we were heartily welcomed. We had a perfectly nice seafood dinner for about $30 for the two us and, feeling very self-satisfied, retired back to the hotel.

I am typing this on our flight to Buenos Aires, about a 90 minute hop from Santiago. But that 90 minutes takes you straight across the spine of the Andes, and the view is dramatic. Here is a shot that I took with the iPad a few minutes ago while typing this:

The Andes from above

When we arrive in Buenos Aires we will meet up with the rest of our group, another 13 people, for the main leg of the trip. That’s sort of a shame, since it’s been really enjoyable having an intimate 8-person group this far, small enough that everyone gets to know each other and Julio very quickly. But I will at least no longer be the youngest person in the group: Julio informs me that the larger group includes a couple traveling with their 43 year old daughter.

I have not said much about the our fellow travelers, so I’ll belatedly introduce them now. (This isn’t going to be very travelogue-y and is more for my own mental record, so feel free to stop reading here.)

I have already described Julio, our tour lead, who as it happens turns 34 today. (I am planning on exhorting the full group into singing a doubtless painful rendition of Happy Birthday at dinner tonight.) He is a real gem, and addresses us as “team”. Every briefing begins with the words, “Okey dokey, team…” When I return home I plan on having an “Okey Dokey Team Julio” tee shirt made for him as a belated birthday gift. On the back it will say “Bring the Magic”

I also described poor June, who bailed out this morning. In addition, we have:

  • Dick (75) and Jean (75), from near us in Maryland. Jean is compact and bustles around, and by virtue of their long history (22 trips, as I mentioned earlier) often has some interesting anecdote to contribute from their own experience. Dick is tall and fit-looking and appears to be filming practically every moment of the trip on video. He speaks almost not at all — it’s so extreme that we actually tease him about it — but is genial and knowledgeable on the rare occasions when he actually opens his mouth.
  • Christie and Becky (~65, inferred from a conversation about high school classes), close friends from Boise whose husbands/significant others declined to make the trip. Becky has about the same physique as Alice, while Christie is taller and thinner. Both have short gray hair and glasses, and since I am genuinely lousy at names and faces it took me two or three days to tell them apart. Before my prosopagnosiac brain (look it up) finally sorted them out, I simply referred to them as “the Boise girls”. They’re lively, good-humored, and outgoing, certainly the ones we’ve connected with most strongly so far. Christie is a dedicated diarist, always writing in a notebook and always asking for details to include. (Last night after firelding a bunch of questions about an observatory in the mountains that we passed in the van — the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA — I commandeered her notebook and wrote a 4-page treatise on millimeter-wave astronomy and how ALMA works. This sort of thing is a regular occurrence on our trips.)
  • Lynn, mid- to upper 60’s at a guess. She’s divorced, with short curly gray hair and a wry sharp tongue and an appealing (to us) “do not suffer fools gladly” outlook.

So that’s who we are. It’s a good group, and I hope the remaining 13 click as well. We’ve arrived in Buenos Aires since I started typing this (weather is upper 50’s and cloudy with some light drizzle) so I guess we’ll find out tonight.

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