Saturday, January 03, 2009

I'll have a Moai Christmas without you...

I love Christmas in Canada. I know it's over-commercialized and kind of stressful at times, but the decorations, excited kids, xmas baking... can't get enough of that festive spirit. I usually start listening to Christmas tunes in November to ensure a full month of it all.

However, this year I opted to stay in sunny South America for a warm winter and it's just so expensive to fly home. In fact, Santiago has been so hot and summery, that when I noticed Starbucks serving gingerbread frapuccinos and playing Bing Crosby 'Let it Snow', I almost fell over. The next few weeks continued to show American-style decorations, including an enormous Coca-Cola Christmas tree across from La Moneda, the government building (chileans are the biggest coke consumers in the world), but nothing felt like Christmas to me. I knew it was going to be difficult without family at that special time and there wasn`t much work for me, so I booked myself a ticket to Rapa Nui, otherwise known as Easter Island... 4000 miles west in Polynesia, though considered part of Chile.

I arrived Christmas eve, after a long week of work and saying good-byes to students, etc. The only thing in the town open was an internet cafe so I called home where they were watching old home videos, and, I suspect, eating mom`s fudge, Chandra`s cookies, or Aunt Lorraine`s poppycock. What I would have done to be there with them... munching on one of mom's butter tarts... despite it being -30 in Saskatchewan.

After crying myself to sleep, I woke up remembering I was on a beautiful island and probably saved myself 20 extra pounds this year.

I stayed in family-run hostel, where there was only one other guest. At breakfast we were invited to go the beach with the family. The island isn't that big.. only 30 km long and 12 km wide, but the beaches are at the other end of the island so we took the opportunity since there wasn`t much else happening Christmas day. I had forgotten to bring a towel, so searched the few shops that were open for a sarong to use. The island is super expensive.. they really know how to capitalize on tourists. I finally found one fairly reasonably priced and just the right size in a bright shade of sky blue.

Unfortunately, the hostel owners,who have four little girls all under 4, were in the midst of a domestic dispute when the the time came to leave. My fellow traveler and I waited uncomfortably nearby and eventually went with only the disgruntled dad.
My new friend, Kaethe, is sitting in front of my first-seen set of moais on the ahu platform near Anakena beach... what an amazing thing to look at when floating in the water. It was terribly hot that day so spent a great deal of time in the water then laid on the beach with a good book. Ah Christmas! After a couple of heavenly hours, while reapplying sunscreen to my gringa skin, I discovered a strange shade of blue on my stomach. Upon further inspection, it turned out my whole body and clothes were covered in blue dye from my reasonably-priced sarong. It certainly didn't spoil my day, but I did spend several hours later trying to rinse out the sarong and scrub it off myself. In fact, it took 3 days to lose it off my hands. I literally had a 'blue' Christmas.

I went to church, but missed the mass later on. There were beautiful wood carvings and fresh flowers making it smell wonderful.

There is still a lot of mystery pertaining to these gigantic statues, including how they were erected. They're made out of volcano rock and the tallest one is 33 feet and weighs almost 30 tonnes.
Kaethe had rented a car so invited me along the next day to tour the island and check them all out.

This one is my favourite. It's been restored to what they believe was a finished product, with large white eyes and top knot, possibly depicting the hairstyle of the 10th century. Most of them are right along the coast, but facing inland, maybe protecting their villages.

I bumped into a couple of my buddies from work who were also enjoying Christmas there. Not too tough to spot these gringos.

The quarry where all the moais were made is a mystical place - almost like a graveyard with so many different, unfinished moais. It felt like they were looking at my while I wondered around them.

Maybe this one is my favorite. I like his lips.

The ahu on Topanagi is very impressive. It's named after a Japanese company which restored them... most of the moais were damaged from tsunamis and war. My plane was filled with Japense people... apparently it's been a hot destination spot for them for the past two years.
See the horses? There are over 6000 horses on the island which are all branded, but most run wild.. getting into people's gardens and on the highway. Some of them aren't doing so well, and sadly, I saw two dead ones. Apparently, because they don't have enough water in the summer, and all they eat is grass, there's too much of chlorophyll which causes them to commit suicide.
Aren't they important looking!

More than horses and moais, the island has a lot to offer, including a site of an ancient civiliazation complete with petroglyphics, caves, and this crater lake, which has fauna of citrus trees, olive trees, and rumour has it, sweet-tasting water. Lonely Planet said I could hike around it, but I had to turn around at the edge by the ocean. No worries, was a lovely view and at one point, I could see the pacific ocean in three different directions.

I had the privilege of meeting some local Rapa Nuians who were having a fish bbq near this spot. I was even serenaded by a few guys while watching this amazing sunset.
Most of them are pretty friendly, seeming to appreciate the tourism, although a few of the women weren't too keen on me. I won't speculate. On my last night, I was invited to a farewell party of a guy who is going to Paris to participate in an exposition, showcasing Rapa Nui dance, music, and wood-carving. When we arrived, they were listening to Bryan Adams and getting high. Later on, when the party really got going they put on some Don Williams. They love country music here.

Anyway, can't say enough about this magical place. I'd love to go back some day, and, though it didn't feel much like Christmas to me, there's definitely a spirit in Rapa Nui of it's own. Iorana and peace be with you.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

San Pedro de Atacama

Here`s one I've been forgetting to post...

Winter holidays in July gave me the opportunity to go to Atacama desert in the north of Chile, the driest desert in the world.

Some of my work collegues had planned this trip and asked me to come along shortly after I arrived in Santiago. Closer to the time, I was wary of spending eight days with all these 'crazies', but eager to get away from the pollution and bleakness of Santiago's winter.

We stayed in San Pedro, a small town, seemingly made solely for tourism. After eight days, we knew everybody in town and saw pretty much all there was to see, but I certainly could have stayed longer. It was so nice to see the big sky again. The scenery was stunning, and I managed to get some time out on my own, too.

So long ago now that I can't remember the reason behind this thermal spring, but it was very deep and only the top part was hot and from my waist down, it was freeeeezing. Very strange. Although it was salty enough to float, we had to keep treading water to stay at a nuetral temperature.
Jen made us these crazy hats and scarves... we stood out, but they certainly kept us warm.
Geysers... springs shooting out of the freezing cold ground... at least my feet were freezing. We had to leave at 4 am to get to the site and see the steam.
A couple of hours later... geysers still very cool.
Vicuña.. endangered and lovely to see, but they blended quite well into the rocks.

Me gusta flamingos!!

Small community where we stopped for a llama bbq. Poor llama... but tasty!

Karen, who is somewhere around the 65 or 70 mark (she won't say for sure) was more active than the rest of us... even taking a side-trip in a 4x4 to Bolivia. Where that girl gets her drive I`ll never know.

When I saw these horses galloping in the desert, I knew I had to do it too. I went to tourist agency and said in broken Spanish 'I want to gallop in valle de muerte'. When I arrived the next day, I saw the team of old, almost dead horses and one very spirited horse. The other riders were beginner's, not unlike myself, but they had saved a special horse for me. This horse did not like being behind any other horse and often took off despite my pulling on the reigns. There was no galloping, it seemed more like it as running for it's life. At one point, I had to be saved by the guide as my saddle was falling sideways and my foot loose... must have been a site. No wonder it's called 'Death Valley'.

Sandboarding is all the rage with the young hipsters. Most of them couldn't get down the hill without falling... like in slow motion. Funny.

I really do love flamingos!

Valle de Luna, Moon Valley, really does look like the moon.

Did I mention my fondness for flamingos?

Not sure I've ever seen such beautiful scenery as in the Atacama desert. It was good to get to know my colleagues, despite my inability to kep up with them as far as drinking goes anyway. Amazing scenery and memories to last a lifetime.

Monday, November 10, 2008

First Impressions

Hola amigos, I'm back! After so many months, I'm trying to reflect upon my start in Santiago, Chile, which has been my home since May 2008. Dad was bugging me to put up a few photos at least so here are some from autumn in the southern hemisphere. The first is the entrance of a pretty park from the late 1800's, Santa Lucia hill, which I found by chance on my first weekend here.

Let me catch you up. Enroute here I was still pumped with enthusiasm from Guatemala and quite pleased with myself and my new language skills, and also very excited to start this new adventure into the unknown.

I arrived at 2.30 a.m. after a long flight with three stop-overs and went directly to the shuttle desk to get a ride to my accomodation which had been arranged by my new employer. 'Quiero ir a la providencia, por favor' I said to the desk clerk. He responded with 'blah blah blah... blah blah blah'. My Huh? was followed by more 'blah blah blah'. Defeated, I replied 'no entiendo' I don't understand. Thanks to the piece of paper I had the address written, not to mention the obvious context, there really wasn't a problem, only my wonderment. I tried again with the shuttle driver, but got more of the same... fast, slurred, undeciferable expressions. He seemed nice enough though. When we got to the address, there was no such apartment number. We were both baffled. I was tired. He was not patient (another Chilean characteristic one would never suspect of a latino). Luckily, I had written down the name of my director and eventually crashed at her place for what remained of the night.

This is Salvador, who jumped into bed with me the next morning, mistaking me for his mom. He freaked out, but we've since become great friends. He and his mom gave me my first tour.

Entonces... meet the Mapocho River. Smelling as bad as it looks, it flows east to west through the city, making me long for the beautiful Alberta Bow river. I was horrified at first sight. Some of my students have tried to tell me it's from the soil which is full of minerals, but common sense and wikipedia tell me otherwise. However, I have noticed outside of Santiago the same murky colour of the rivers.. even the pacific ocean has brown waves on the beach. hmm
Santiago is in a valley surrounded by mountains, including the Andes to the east. At times, the skyline is beautiful, but for most of the winter, June to September, it's filled with smog and pollution unless it's raining. It's flat, apart from a few hills, like the one I'm standing on for this picture called Cerro San Cristobal, where everyone flocks to on the weekends.

I can't say for sure, but I believe it was the pollution which initiated my affliction of bronchitis. I started coughing up phlem two weeks after I arrived and continued for the next two months. I couldn't walk or talk without going into fits (Dad, I know how you feel now... and how annoying I must have been to others). The worst part of it was that at night (while trying not to choke to death) I just could not get warm. Only the rich in Santiago have central heating. Outside it wasn't so bad, but after working in a drafty classroom in the evenings, I would come home and be chilled to the bone, unable to warm up. Most people have portable gas heaters that they huddle around, but I didn't. Sometimes I went to bed fully dressed, including a winter coat, under a down duvet, sleeping bag, and quilt... all of which I had to buy. It was depressing and added to my frustrations of this city and job. My students recommended getting a pololo (boyfriend), but that story is for another post.

My visit to the medical clinic was pretty funny. The doctor loved practicing his English on me, but only knows it through songs... 'put your head on my shoulder', 'don't worry, be happy', and then would laugh hysterically. It was also weird kissing my doctor on the cheek when I left. We just don't do that sort of thing in Canada.

The address mixup of the first night was only a premonition of things to follow. I have never in my life seen a more disfunctional place of business. At first I thought I was losing it or something, but alas, no... not yet anyway, it's just one of those places - one of those countries. I've heard that Chile has the lowest productivity per amount of hours worked of any other country. They used to have a 48-hour work week but now it's down to 40... still makes for a long day if you have an hour or so commute. The inefficiencies really got to me at times, so much so that I quit my job... twice. But they kept talking me into staying and now I'm glad I did. Recently a girl from Toronto started working with us and my director asked me "what's with you Canadians and having to be effecient?" Now, I'm becoming a master at tolerance and patience.

There's no place better to practise paciencia than the streets of Santiago. Gosh these people walk slow.... and not in a straight line. It's almost impossible not to bump into them. It's like shopping with mom. And when one crosses my speedy-trying-to-avoid-collision path and bumps into me, she'll look up at me... way up as they're very little people...completely offended as if it were my fault. I'm not exaggerating this in any way. Walking down the stairs in the metro when a train is coming actually pains me. I can see the train and the way to it, but can't get past all these little people who are going every which direction. They're busy talking to their friends or day-dreaming. What's funny is when they finally notice that the train is coming, like when it's right in front of their faces, they race as fast as they can (which isn't very fast) to get on the train. Then they stand right at the entrance, blocking anyone behind them (namely, me) from getting on.

Anyway, despite these minor cultural characteristics, it wasn't all that bad, and the promise of a great summer kept me wanting to see it through. There are some fantastic old colonial buildings which kind of remind me of Europe. Most are decrepit and, sadly, lots are being replaced with big, boring apartment and office buildings since they can't afford to maintain or refurbish them. Although the Chilean economy has been fairly strong the past few years, it's still a developing country and, living in my neighborhood of gringoland and malls, it's hard to remember that at times.
Here's a morning view from my last apartment. The snow is almost gone now.
This is looking out towards Santiago from the outskirts where I went for a hike. We couldn't even see the city from above the smog and we could smell the petrol fumes when we were coming back down. Disgusting.

The next day some of my students didn't show up for class because the city had declared a state of emergency for gas emissions, restricting particular car license numbers from driving for the day. As well as the 'emergency' days, the government recently revamped the Trans-Santiago system by cutting the amount of buses in half, although they're still plentiful from what I can see. The drivers are sheer crazy, too... driving like maniacs, sudden braking which knocks old ladies, including me, to the floor from time to time.

Despite the hazards on the bus, I enjoy a ride from time to time. There's usually a someone busking for coins with an 'original' gig, though not necessarily talented. The various street performers are at most traffic lights, too. I see a 'juggler' practicing in the park outside my building every morning.

I arrived in time for Corpus Christie day. Chile is predominately catholic. This colourful sawdust went on for several blocks. Luckily, this time of year doesn't produce much wind, but I did see a street dog 'messing it up'.
I haven't been to church here yet, but I did go inside one. This one. on the left.

There was a month-long student strike in July and one of my classes was at the University of Chile, our school's biggest client, where it was initiated, although other universities and even high schools were involved as the curriculum for entering uni was being challenged. Despite plentiful universities here, the education system isn't very good and most students can't afford to attend. Without it, they get jobs worth on average $350 per month. The campus where I worked was actually taken over by the students... a lock out of administration. They made me sign a petition to get in for the classes.

Here I've already come to Chile's Independance Day, 18 de Septiembre without even mentioning the food (next post maybe). Suddenly, the sun was shining and small breezes were blowing the pollution away. Spring had sprung.. There were Chilean flags everywhere and people on the street had warm smiles and greetings. It was like I'd stepped into a different country. Obviously, weather has much to do with people's moods.

The previous week was the anniversary of Chile's 1973 Coup d'etat. Our classes were cancelled that afternoon so people could get to the safety of their homes. Traffic was backed up for hours. I couldn't even get on the metro so had to walk home. All the shops closed. I didn't witness any riots, but my friend who lives in the suburbs where the action generally takes place, got caught up in what seemed like a war zone. He flagged down a police car to help him get home, fearing a molotov cocktail land on his head.

This is La Moneda government building where the former communist president, Salvador Allende, allegedly killed himself. The country is still very divided politically. They're either socialist or ultra conservative.. there's no middle ground.

I went to a music concert in a park on the other side of this building during the September long weekend called Salvador Allende: 100 años, 100 canciones. A popular folk group who had lived in exile in France during Pinochet's regime, sang 100 songs continuously in honour of what would have been Allende's 100th birthday. They were very good.

There were historical videos playing on the stage and a lot of red flags waving. It was quite emotional. It's hard to believe that in my lifetime, in a country that seems so modern to me, they had to survive communism and a dictatorship with horrible acts of terror and murder. Even more surprising is the different perspectives of the Chileans on the events. My students at a Chilean financial company where I have most of my classes weren't all that impressed when I related to them the next day that I'd been there.

Salva came with us. He likes getting his photo taken.

My room-mates at the my current home held their annual Miss Spring contest. Alejandro and Claudio are on the right, Mariela is somewhere else. The three of them speak only spanish so it's been good for me. Although a lot gets missed in translation, I've learned how to coordinate bathroom time quite well. The others in the photos are friends who I often hang out with.

Alejandro won the contest and I came in 2nd, along with the two gorgeous Columbian guys I'm standing next to.

Santiago certainly isn't what I had expected of a latin-american city, but it has it's own unique characteristics which I've come to appreciate. The red wine is cheap and fantastic. Cheap street food... empanadas (meat-covered pastries), sopillas (fried squash), fresh-squeezed orange juice, completos (hotdogs stuffed w/ avocado and tomatoes and whatever else you want (my personal favourite). There's a guy on every corner selling fresh produce; lemon trees; people singing while walking along the street; and pisco sour. Taxis are cheap and plentiful, though I need to be in the right mood to respond to their questions starting with 'how old are you?' and 'do you have a husband?'. I love the kiss on the cheek greeting, and my lovely students could not be more fun. It's also fun trying to learn a new language... Chilean... I'll try for Spanish in my next country.
Thanks so much to all my friends and family sending emails, phone calls, and facebook 'pokes'. Means so much. Thinking sadly of recently lost friends, dear Vi, Lorne, Ashish, and Alan F. RIP. My thoughts are with you and your families.