Posts Tagged With: santiago

(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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And We’re Off….

We are about to depart on our flight to Miami, where we pick up a redeye to Santiago, Chile, for the first leg of our journey. So now would be a good time to set the stage for our destination.

Chile, as you know, is that long skinny country that runs down the west side of lower South America. With the highest GDP on the continent, its main exports are minerals, wine, salmon, and bad puns involving the country’s name. Indeed, Chile is part of a selective UN voting bloc of only three countries, the other two being Turkey and Hungary, representing Countries Whose Names Remind You of Food. (Greece is a provisional member.)

The country is a stable democracy but as you probably know has had a tumultuous history. The first European to lay eyes on it was Magellan in 1520, and in the decades that followed the Spanish did what they were best at in those days, which is that they colonized the place and made it a living hell for everyone. The country was granted independence in 1810 and kind of puttered along with a series of governments into the 20th century.

Things got really interesting in 1970 with the election of Salvador Allende, whom the US did not like, not at all. They feared that he was a Marxist who would destroy the Chilean economy, get into bed with Cuba, and consort with the KGB. Somewhat uncharacteristically, these all turned out to be true. And so the US government did the logical thing, which was to engage him in dialog while strengthening ties with Chile’s neighbors and applying political and economic pressure to exact peaceful change.

Ha ha! Just kidding! We used the CIA to support a coup, of course. In fact, the only surprising thing is that we didn’t actually bomb the country, but that’s probably because Predator drones had not yet been invented. Anyway, the coup brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power in 1973, and as in many such CIA interventions the country settled into an era of comparative peace.

pinochet

Don’t be fooled by the white gloves.

Whoops!  That was a typo, no doubt some kind of autocorrect error. The correct sentence should read “…an era of unparalleled violent political repression.”  Pinochet was a tyrant of surpassing cruelty, whose habit of wearing a white uniform made him look like ironically like a particularly snooty doorman (see photo at left). Plus, his name sounds like some kind of wine. (“Try the Pinochet ’78. It has an oaky nose with notes of vanilla, licorice, and kidnapping and torturing thousands of political opponents.”)

Well, the economy did substantially approve, but at a hideous price. Tens of thousands “disappeared” under Pinochet, and things got so awful that even his own henchmen got uncomfortable. In the late 80’s things loosened up considerably, to the point that Pinochet assented to hold a plebiscite for him to remain in office. The vote was pretty much rigged but Pinochet remarkably managed to lose anyway, and left the country in 1990, and an actual legitimate government was seated. Things have actually gone pretty well since then, with a lot of economic growth and an actual democracy.

Among other things, the country has become quite the astronomy mecca. The Andes and Atacama Desert (the latter being our second destination) are the hosts of the largest collection of observatories in the world. The Atacama site in particular is one of the best telescope sites on the planet, comparable to Mauna Kea in Hawaii. More on Atacama when we get there in a few days.

But first, we will have a day or two in Santiago, the capital and largest city. Officially founded in 1541, it is named after Saint Iago, the highly-specialized Patron Saint of Unctuous Evil Manservants Who Trick Their Masters Into Murdering Their Wives.  No, wait, that’s not right. I may be confusing him with Saint Uriah Heep; they’re a lot alike. Never mind. I am confusing the Dickens out of my Shakespeare.

Santiago is actually named after Saint James of Spain. It has a population of about 4M and sits in a bowl-shaped valley, one consequence of which is that it is known for having the worst pollution in the country. But it is otherwise supposed to be a very pleasant city. I have a lot of astronomer and other friends who have visited here who speak highly of it. But we’ll know more ourselves in a day or so. Stay tuned.

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Heading to the Deep South – the REALLY Deep South

We never do things simply.

We never do things simply.

It’s time to hit the road again, and by “road” I mean “about ten different airline flights to get someplace really really far away.” Our destination is Patagonia, the southernmost tip of South America, named after a line of expensive thermal underwear (or possibly vice versa).

Our route is shown in red on the image above, which in case you are disoriented is the southern part of South America, tilted 45 degrees clockwise to fit in the frame. We leave on Sept 27, starting in Santiago, Chile, and our route follows the red line in a sort-of-clockwise way, with the following high points:

  • Santiago
  • Chile’s Atacama desert, the driest in the world
  • Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Our tour includes a tango lesson, which I look forward to not participating in.)
  • Tierra del Fuego
  • Cape Horn
  • 5 days on a boat through the Beagle Passage from Cape Horn to the southern Patagonia ice fields (seasickness alert!)
  • Iguassu Falls (highest volume waterfalls in the Western Hemisphere – about twice the size of Niagara)

Cape Horn, of course, is the southernmost point in the world outside of Antarctica itself. At just shy of 56 degrees south latitude, it is by a wide margin the furthest south we will ever have been. (Our current record is Lake Manipouri, New Zealand, at 45.5 degrees south.)

We return home on October 19.

Packing for this trip is proving to be a challenge for much the same reason that our Australia/New Zealand trip was a year ago: we will be experiencing a ridiculously wide range of climates. The Atacama Desert will by dry with moderate temperatures during the day and chilly at night; Buenos Aires will be warm and humid; Cape Horn and the boat ride will likely be cold, rainy, and very windy; and Iguassu Falls will be a tropical rainforest with temperatures in the 90’s. And so of course we are allowed only one suitcase, which just about holds my camera equipment.

We will be off the grid for at least part of the trip, but when we are blessed with Internet connectivity I will try and keep the blog updated.

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