Posts Tagged With: andes

Not The End of the World, But You Can See It From Here

This will be a short post (postscript: apparently not), and definitely our last for at least 5 days and possibly longer since as of tomorrow evening we will be aboard ship rounding Cape Horn and heading up the Beagle Passage to the Patagonian ice fields.

We flew today to Ushuaia, at 55 degrees south latitude supposedly the southernmost city in the world. It is a town of 65,000 people squeezed in between the bottom of the Andes and Ushuaia Bay. Here is the view from our hotel room:

This is one of THREE mountain ranges separating Ushuaia from the rest of civilization

It might have struck you that “Ushuaia” is not a very Spanish-sounding name. That’s because it isn’t: it means “westward-facing bay” in the language of the original indigenes, the Yanama. And where are the Yanama now, you may ask? Silly question: remember that the Spanish colonized this place. The natives were wiped out by imported disease, conflict with the settlers, and over-hunting by the settlers of the sea lion population, which was the Yanama’s primary food source.

After another dramatic flight over the southern Andes we arrived at about noon today and started exploring the area. The town itself as you can see from the picture looks sort of like a ski resort from the Pacific Northwest, and there is indeed a ski resort here (though the season is just over, it being early spring here). We got lucky on the weather, at least for today: it is partly sunny with temperatures in the low 50’s. We are assured that this is unlikely to last. The wind is extremely gusty, which we are told is typical.

Our hostess exhorts us to share, and pretend to enjoy

Our first stop was lunch at a private home, a beautiful chalet-style house on the hillside overlooking the town and the mountains on the other side of the bay. The hostess and her family (husband and two small daughters) prepared a wonderful lunch — lentil stew with achingly sweet tres leches cake for dessert — and gave us the run of the house so we could chat with the family and admire the view. Afterwards we were presented with the Argentine equivalent of the Japanese tea ceremony, in this sharing the communal pot of Yerba mate. In case you have not heard of it, mate (pronounced MAH-tay) is a very bitter herbal tea made from the Yerba shrub that grows in the northern part of the country. There is a whole social ritual and vocabulary associated with partaking of it; our gracious hostess explained all this whilst preparing it, and we passed around the communal cup while pretending that it did not taste like pencil shavings soaked in motor oil.

Good grief, St. Charlie Brown!

Our first stop after lunch was at a bizarre collection of shrines along a roadway just outside of town; the prevailing style seemed to be Snoopy Doghouse, as you can see at left. Some are much more elaborate, though: as a bastion of a particular idolatrous form of Latin American Catholicism, Argentina has a couple of favorite saints that seem to generate a proliferation of shrines and legends. The

Don’t kill Gil

 first is “Gauchito Gil” who lived a virtuous life in the north as a landowner and sort of  Robin Hood figure, fighting against the evil Paraguayans and corrupt local sherriff. When finally captured he warned his killer-to-be that if he (Gil) were murderd then the killer’s son would also die. The killer reconsidered and checked up on his son, who was indeed suddenly gravely ill. So he prayed to Gil, his son recovered, and the lesson learned was Don’t Mess Around With The Gauchito. So now Gil’s got big roadside shrines about the size of beach cabañas, all draped in red, which was his symbolic color. The deal is that you offer him some wine by pouring it out of the bottle while making a wish. I’m not sure where any of this occurs in the Bible but we did it anyway. Julio warned us not to wish for good weather because that was probably a lost cause, so Alice wisely asked to be protected against seasickness. At right you can see her making her offering in front of the Big Red Shrine.

Arguably even more bizarre than Kill Gil is the shrine to La Defunte (“Deceased”) Correa, a woman beatified for breast feeding her baby while she herself starved to death in the wilderness. The child survived, and her shrine consists of many, many statuettes depicting her corpse cradling a baby. You make an offering of drinks to her too, and her shrine is copiously littered, both within and without, with hundreds if not thousands of empty bottles, mostly one- and two-liter soda bottles. Tell me that this isn’t an inspirational scene:

Becoming a saint really works up a thirst

OK, I think I’ve spent enough words on the local religion, at least the supernatural one. The other local religion — more accurately, one of several national obsessions — is obsessing over the 1982 Falklands War. But you damn well better not call it the Falklands War: those islands are the Malvinas in this country, and no substitute name is accepted.

“Yep, we lost.”

The Falklands/Malvinas were originally colonized by Argentina but conquered by Britain in 1833, and Argentina has been pining for them ever since. Problem is, under standards of international law once you own a place for 150 years it is well and truly legally yours, and the clock was running out. So at the 149 year mark — this is all true — the Argentine government decided to increase its abysmal popularity by making a grab for them, figuring that (a) Britain wouldn’t respond militarily, and (b) the US would support Argentina. Wrong on both counts; Margaret Thatcher wanted to increase her abysmal popularity too. Final score: the British lost about 230 men, plus 100 or so taken prisoner; the Argentines lost 649 men and 11 thousand taken prisoner; and the Falklands are still owned by the UK. Thirty two years later, Argentina is still gnashing its national teeth and trying to think of a clever comeback.

And so it came to pass that our last event of the day was an interview with a Malvinas war veteran, a pleasant 50 year old man who served on a naval vessel during that war when he was only 18 years old. His ship was sunk, and 300 men were lost out of a crew of about 1100; he survived in a covered lifeboat for 44 hours with 22 other men, huddled together for warmth. He related his experiences through our latest local guide, Laura, who acted as interpreter. It was interesting to hear, but in the end (a) he was only 18 at the time and (b) c’mon Argentina, get over it already.

Dinner tonight was a serious treat: King crab is found in these Antarctic waters, and so we went to a seafood restaurant where you can pick live ones from a tank for steaming, just like lobsters at home. If you have never been to either Alaska or Patagonia then you have probably never had fresh king crab, which is wholly unlike the frozen stuff you get in every store or restaurant or home. It’s like a transcendent experience in your mouth. Dessert was a stroll into a local ice cream store; remember that Argentines do a really good job on ice cream. So all in all a great end to the day.

So that’s been our introduction to Patagonia, here in Ushuaia. We’ll be off the grid and o’er the hopefully-not-too-bounding main starting late tomorrow afternoon. I’ll keep up my notes offline and post the batch of them the next time we have Internet access. Till then, our best regards to everyone!

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(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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Santiago vs Coney Island

What, you may ask, do those two titular locations have in common? The answer is: hot dogs. Santiagans (?) just love hot dogs. (And I am warning you now, I better not see any “Chile dog” puns in the comments section of this post.) 

We arrived at our hotel well before 10 AM, hours too early to check into our room, and so our tour lead Julio (about whom more later) had arranged for a local tour guide, a pleasant mid-30ish woman named Miriam, to talk us out of our fatigue — we had left our house 18 hours earlier and flown through the night — and lead us on a few hour walking tour of downtown first. And so we rode the subway downtown and saw the government palace, the main square, a church, and a large number of hole-in-the-wall hot dog restaurants.

Ya got your hot dog, your hot dog, and your hot dog.

No joke. We were solemnly informed that Santiagans’ favorite food is sandwiches, and hot dogs are the sandwich of choice. As nearly as I can tell from their menus, all such hot dog joints offer the following: the “Italiano” (includes tomato, guacamole and mayo toppings to duplicate the color of the Italian flag, and no, I am not kidding), the “Completo” (tomatoes, relish), and a combination platter that is two hot dogs, being (wait for it) an Italiano and a Completo. That’s it. No fries, no salads, no anything. Ya got your Italiano and your Completo and that’s it. Don’t like the choices? There’s another hot dog place half a block away with the same menu. The hot dog lobby is apparently really influential here in the capital. Our particular choice of dining establishment is shown at left. (Note the crazy-looking prices: there are about 600 Chilean pesos to the dollar, but just to confuse things they use the $ symbol. The total tab for lunch was six bucks.)

I should add that while the hot dogs themselves were unremarkable, the rolls were excellent, yeasty fresh Italian rolls like you might get on a good cheesesteak in Philadelphia. Miriam informed us that Chileans are real bread snobs and eat a lot of it.

But let me now turn back the clock to several hours earlier. Our flights were uneventful except for the guy who keeled over in the aisle between Alice and me for causes unknown. He just fell over with a loud thump, stared semiconsciously at the ceiling for a minute or so while everyone went nuts, and then with some help got up, apparently none the worse for wear.

The red eye flight from Miami to Santiago was on the much touted spanking new Boeing 787, which you may recall from news items a few months back is notable for being quieter and more fuel efficient than most big jets as well as (a) having more frequently circulated and better humidified air inside, and (b) being grounded with regularity because of its high-tech lithium batteries’ predilection for catching fire. I can report that it is noticeably quieter and less dry than most jets, that the batteries did not catch fire, and that it still felt like a cattle car with no legroom.

We arrived in Santiago at about 7:30 AM and were met by our tour lead, the almost-34-year-old Julio (he’ll turn 34 next week when we’re in Buenos Aires). Julio is slight of stature, cheerful as you might expect, and speaks lightly accented but essentially perfect English. He has an elfin face that makes him look like a young, Latin Martin Short. For this Santiago and Atacama leg of the tour there are only eight of us besides Julio; we will join up with the remaining dozen in Buenos Aires. I not unexpectedly am the baby of the group, who appear to range from mid-60s to late 70s. There is only one other couple in the group, a mid-70’s pair who as it happens are practically our neighbors, hailing from just over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Their names are Jean and Dick. Jean (75) is outgoing, Dick (77) is taciturn, and they are both extraordinarily well-traveled: this is their 22nd (!) trip with our tour operator (Overseas Adventure Travel, OAT).

This makes me the Young Buck of the group, an unfamiliar status. Other than Dick, the remaining travelers are all ladies of a certain age, all pleasant enough. Alice and I were however both concerned about one robust, kind-looking, and somewhat out of it lady who had a lot of difficulty keeping up with the group; our fears came to life about a half hour into our downtown outing when she came close to fainting on a street corner and had to be taken back to the hotel. Happily the rest seems to have revived her, or it was gonna be a long few days in the Atacama.

Downtown Santiago is pleasant though not especially photogenic. It is a mix of shiny skyscrapers that would be at home in any American city, and smaller and more ornate government buildings in a European colonial style. The streets are broad and, we are told, crowded with commuters and pickpockets on crowded weekdays. (Today is Sunday, so the city was very uncrowded.) There are scattered pleasant pedestrian walkways lined with shops and restaurants, also very European in appearance. There are American-style homeless people and lots of stray dogs, the latter being very popular with locals, who sort of adopt them without ever taking them home.

I should mention something about one of those shops in the pedestrian area. We passed a coffee shop that had a lot of waist-high outdoor tables but no chairs; the patrons all stood. Our city guide Miriam said that such places were called “coffee shops with legs”, and could we guess why? Obviously because the patrons are standing, we all said. Nope, explained Miriam, look at the waitresses inside.

Hmmm, the waitresses were wearing little micro-miniskirts, sort of a cross between Hooters and Starbucks, hence the “legs” part of the sobriquet. In fact (Miriam explained) there are more such coffee shops in somewhat less public venues in which the waitresses wear significantly less. Those places are called “coffee shops with milk.” And finally, in reaction to both of these, a group of women opened a chain of places served by scantily-attired Chippendale-like men — think Speedos and bow ties. But instead of attracting women — and you knew this was coming — they became gay hangouts instead, a concept with which Chileans are a whole lot less comfortable than Americans. So the experiment failed… but not before they became hilariously known as “coffee houses with three legs.” 

Airtight security on horseback

The government palace faces a large unadorned square, and seems rather thinly guarded: two sentries at the front, a couple patrolling the square, and two ornately-dressed mounted soldiers. All seemed friendly; the mounted guards allowed people to pet the horses and have their picture taken between them. At the edge of the square stands a memorial statue to Salvador Allende, decorated with a few recently-placed bouquets of roses. The coup and subsequent Allende era are, needless to say, a rather sore subject that few Chileans wish to discuss: despite an era of South Africa-like “truth commissions” designed to effect reconciliation and put the past to rest, those who lost loved ones to the disappearances and violence — and there are many of them — understandably feel that the past is being whitewashed.

After our walking tour we returned to our hotel for a desperately-needed shower and nap. Much refreshed, Julio then took the eight of us out to a fine dining restaurant on the 16 floor of a nearby building. The menu was seafood (a Chilean specialty)  and we had hake, which was excellent. The real treat, though, was the setting: the restaurant rotated about once per hour, offering a comprehensive panoramic view of the nearby Andes mountains on one side of the city and the lower coastal range on the other. Here’s a bit of the view at sunset:

The Andes plus fresh seafood, viewed from 16 stories up. What’s not to like?

The foothills of the Andes to the east of the city are Santiago’s high-rent district; there’s more or less an affluence gradient as you move from west to east, starting with the lower economic end at the coastal range, moving through town, and then east into the Andes. Our city guide Miriam informed us that it’s the ritzy neighborhoods that get all the good restaurants, noting sardonically that these included Ruby Tuesday’s and Applebee’s. (I wonder if I can still get my Goddard discount at the Santiago Ruby Tuesday’s?)

And that, gentle readers, was our first day of the trip. We’ll be back in Santiago in a few days, but tomorrow morning we fly north to the town of Calama, then go overland to the village of San Pedro de Atacama, in the desert of the same name.

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