Archive for October, 2007

I need broccoli

October 25, 2007

After two weeks straight of eating red meat and potatoes in the staff mess hall, I had three free days in a row, which meant … VEGETABLES!

I took a bus to Puerto Natales and camped out for about two hours at Concepto Indigo, this chic restaurant/hotel overlooking Seno Ultima Esperanza, or Last Hope Sound. Unlike a lot of Puerto Natales, which is pretty utilitarian, the restaurant is very sleek and modern: Hardwood floors and white walls, cylindrical lamps hanging over the tables, rows of low brown couches accented with bright-colored pillows. It’s the perfect haven for someone who wants a bit of pampering. I arrived early and just kept eating.
To start: A shot-glass-sized cup of coffee, accompanied by four slivers of cake (They don’t really ‘do’ coffee in Chile. The instant stuff is about all you can find anywhere.)

Then, to warm up for real: A salad topped with smoked salmon, carrot and apple slivers, fried cheese squares and dressing

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Third, and mainly: Polenta, topped with skewers of grilled mushrooms, peppers, onions and tomatoes. A wine-flavored paste on the side.
And to finish, with a bang: Two brownie domes filled with liquid chocolate and accompanied by berry ice cream.
I accidentally spent $27 on the meal (it’s amazing how those Chilean pesos get away from you when there’s good food involved). But you know what? It was worth it, because tonight, it’s back to meat and potatoes.

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A night out

October 24, 2007

The trail to Refugio Chileno climbs the side of the snow-capped Almirante Nieto and enters Valle Ascencio at Paso de los Vientos, or the Windy Pass. As soon as you round the corner into the valley, you have to brace yourself against the powerful gusts that, if blowing in the right (or wrong) direction, could knock you off the exposed mountainside and into the thundering river below.

After a long day of work, I started the hike with John, an American in the park to help with trail maintenance, as the sun was setting on Saturday. I was eager to get out of the office and into the park, if even for a few hours.

The climb up the side of Almirante Nieto was tough on my calves, especially since John is 6’8’’ and takes half the mountain in a stride. But once we entered the river valley, we saw the Torres del Paine, the trio of towers that gave the park its name, in the V formed in the distance by the valley walls. They served as an excellent reason to keep walking forward.

We reached Refugio Chileno around 9 p.m., about an hour and a half after we started. The hiker hostel sits on the opposite side of the river from the trail approaching it. It’s a wooden building with a windowed dining room, bathrooms with showers and about six bedrooms packed with 2- to 3-story bunk beds.

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We took off our boots on the stone front porch and padded inside to meet Christian Morales, who was already there, two visitors from Germany and the refugio staff.

After a dinner of garlic rice, lamb and fried potato wedges, Pato, the refugio’s manager, taught us some Chilean slang. Patagonia has more regionalisms than I’ve ever heard before and the slang changes fast, which might explain why people can be so tough to understand. Rest assured, I can now say “Que rica cola” (“What a nice ass!”) and “Ella es como quieres” (“She’s hot!!!”) like a pro.

Refugio Chileno has a good feel to it. I think it might be my favorite of Fantástico Sur’s hiker hostels because it seems the most comfortable and laid back. At night, gas lamps mounted on the walls cast a warm glow about the dining room and a wood-burning stove heats it against the wind howling outside. The staff usually plays music over an old CD player and is quick to share bits of their culture or invite you to a game of chess (which, by the way, I lost tragically. To quote my opponent, Freddy, as he points to the pieces he’s taken: “I have a cemetery over here!”)

I slept a few hours in one of the bunks and arose for toast and eggs the next morning. Then, I hiked out of the valley and into the office for another day of work.

Day at the office

October 17, 2007

I did not break out in hives today, as was expected. I survived a 2.5-hour horseback ride without any symptoms that would tempt me to shove an Epinepherine pin into my thigh. My throat didn’t itch, my eyes didn’t run. I didn’t even sneeze more than the normal amount.

I joined Christian on a journey from home base to Refugio Cuernos, the hiker hostel 12 km east of here. His purpose was to entertain a business consultant; my purpose was to see the refugio in order to write about it later; and the purpose of the pair who shuttled us there and back was to re-supply the refugio with two cases of Cabernet Sauvignon, six cases of juice mix and two cases of hot chocolate.

To get there, we took a Zodiac boat across Lake Nordenskjold, whose water is the color of the weathered, translucent Coke bottle pieces you find on the beach sometimes. The rocky hills on the opposite shore, muted gray figures, stood out starkly against the white, raining sky. It was a cold trip, and I couldn’t effectively tighten the drawstring to my raincoat hood with my glove shells on, but that didn’t matter. The scenery was beautiful.

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We took our boots off in the front entryway of Refugio Cuernos and padded inside to dry off by the wood-burning stove. The refugio employees served us a hot lunch — bread, a bowl of bean, pasta and sausage stew and tea to finish — and we — rather, they — talked business. I listened in and out and nodded some.

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Afterward, one of our shuttlers decided the water was too choppy for a safe return via Zodiac. While a few hombres returned to Las Torres for horses, I learned how to play the Chilean card game Quince with Ricardo, a refugio employee on his day off, and another refugio guest. (Should I blame the language barrier on my inability to add to 15?) Though I was never clear on how to score the game, I think I ended up winning.

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I was pretty happy to get the horse named Gata (Cat) and not the one named Sin Corazón (Without Heart). As you might guess, I am no expert at riding on horseback, but during our ride home, I gained a great appreciation for horse judgment. ‘You think your hoof will hold on this wet rock? … Okaaaaay….’ We were always fine.

After I grew accustomed to the feel of the horse body below me, I began to enjoy the ride, which took us over rolling, rocky terrain through Nothofagus forests (I think it’s basically deciduous beech). It snowed some, it rained. We forded a couple of rivers of glacial runoff. I rode a cantering horse without screaming.
The view of Lake Nordenskold to our right, the gray hills on its opposite shore and the snow-capped Andes Mountains in the distance, basking in the only sunlight anywhere, was absolutely stunning.
While I imagine most of my working days won’t be as spectacular and will probably consist of sitting in an office in front of a computer, I can only hope for exceptions like today.

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Hold onto your lugnuts

October 17, 2007

The wind blew so hard today that I walked to work at a 45-degree angle, with tears blowing out of my eyes and spit blowing out my mouth. Cyclones of dust rose from the ground and hit me in the face at periodic intervals, and I got blown off of my path and into incoming traffic more than once. I learned later the wind velocities reached around 80 miles per hour — and as I sit on my bed ten hours after that walk to work, I can still hear them rushing against the sides of my house.

The people here are not nearly as alarmed as I am about this situation. As a matter of course, buildings are constructed to withstand 200 km winds and in towns like Punta Arenas, the central plaza contains rope fences for people to grab onto during especially gusty weather. On days like today, when walking to work sends me into helpless hysterics, Patagons simply zip up their windbreakers and say, “Es normal.”

If only my luggage had knees…

October 13, 2007

As an employee of the Las Torres Hotel single-handedly carried my two 40-lb bags from the bus to the room where I’ll be staying, I noted in Spanish, “This would really be much easier if my luggage had kneecaps.”
I don’t think that’s the sort of statement you can agree with, even just to be nice. The bag carrier, who could speak some English as it turned out, kindly corrected me.

“Rodillas means kneecaps,” he said. “Ruedas is wheels.”

All that’s to say, I have arrived at the Torres del Paine National Park, where I’ll be living and working for the next eight months. And I can’t stop looking at Almirante Nieto, which rises 8,760 feet over my new home. Every time I walk outside or glance out a northwest-facing window, I have to stare. The mountain is tremendous, and right in my backyard. There’s so much going on up top, what with the patches of snow, the glaciers and occasional avalanches, the clouds that move in and out throughout the day. As an added perk, the three towers that gave the park its name peek out from behind Almirante. I need to go on a long hike.

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The day I arrived, my boss Christian Morales drove me around the property in his gray pickup truck. He showed me around the pricey Hosteria Las Torres, which anchors the property, as well as the pump sheds and stables that keep in running.

Then, my assignment was to “get to know” the refugio where I’ll be working — the people, the business. I started by heading to the kitchen, where I was first offered a cup of coffee, then to share a plate of fries, hard boiled egg and sautéed meat with a group of employees. I accepted. The experience of eating everything I was offered, I’d say, really taught me a lot about the company.

Really, it did. Fantastico Sur is a Chilean company that runs four refugios, or hiker hostels, in various locations in the park. The refugios, named Chileno, Cuernos, Torre Norte and Torre Central (where my office will be located), house between 32 and 54 beds each, bunk-house style, plus a restaurant and bathrooms with showers. In Torre Central, where I’ve spent my time these last two days, there’s also a sitting room heated by a wood stove that has bean bags and a huge hammock — for hanging out, you know.

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In two weeks, Christian said Torre Central will add two sunken Jacuzzis to its front lawn, so guests can soak in the water and sip wine as they stare at Almirante. Renting a bed for a night costs around $33. Breakfast sets you back $8, lunch $12 and dinner $14. Camping in the sites near each refugio is another option, one that costs around $6.50 a night.

You might think that’s all, but it isn’t; Fantastico Sur also organizes guided treks, birding excursions, etc. for its guests, AND it publishes nature guides about birds, plants and albatrosses. The idea is to help educate tourists about the environment and how to safely interact with it. That is the message I will be in charge of getting out.

I’ll be living in a wooden cabin crammed in a mini-valley with about five others that belong to park guides, maintenance people, cowboys, etc. My place is one of the three still under construction, and the builders can’t exactly find the keys to the locked bedrooms, one of which I will share with a roommate. But they expect to finish building in a week or two — and find the keys. My living situation looks like it will be much cozier and spacious than I expected.

To protect myself from pumas, the main predator here, Christian has advised me to run wherever I go and “baaaah” like a sheep. I have nothing to worry about, he said, if I follow those directions. Pumas can leap over 21 feet, I learned from a documentary video I watched Thursday morning. I think that means I need to run extra fast and “baah” extra hard.

A lively afternoon in the cemetery

October 11, 2007

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Is it smart to spend your second day alone in a new country in a cemetery? Maybe not, but that’s what I did. I strolled the manicured aisles of the Cemetario Municipal, where the tombs decorated with rosaries, photographs and flowers and the plots lie shoulder to shoulder as far as you can see.

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And, after shuffling back and forth between offices, I have almost secured a work Visa. My employers were right in telling me not to stress; it’s been a fairly easy process. Just fill out a few forms, present a passport, immigration card, letter from my employer and a work contract, get four pictures taken at the corner Kodak store and voila! — permission to work in Chile. (I must report though, the man drawing up my work contract tried to slip in a salary lower than what he knew I was promised. Lesson: Read the fine print, especially if those writing the fine print are doing so in Spanish — or are otherwise in positions to take advantage.)

Question: If a man visiting on a senior citizen’s tour from Santiago tells you you’re dressed like a ranger, does that mean your outfit’s too drab?

15 hours in Santiago

October 9, 2007

My seatmate on the red-eye flight from Miami to Santiago appointed himself my tour guide/body guard during my 15-hour layover in Chile’s capital city. We stowed my bags at the airport and his bags in a hostel across the street from the Tur Bus station downtown and set out to see the city — me, for the first time ever, and him, for the first time in a year.

Mauricio is a 35-year-old native of Santiago who had been at sea for the last 12 months, working the bar on a Disney cruise ship. He was back for a two-month vacation before heading to the Caribbean in December for another year of work. He speaks five languages — English included — and is used to interacting with foreigners.

Mauricio

The marked difference between the rich and poor in Santiago makes for a good deal of petty crime — pickpockets, mainly — Mauricio said. The city is safe during daylight hours, when police are abundant, but he advised me to hide my digital camera in the poorer parts of town, keep my hand in my pocket if I carried anything of value inside and always watch my back.

We walked through the courtyard of the Palacio de la Moneda, the presidential palace, and stopped into the Catedral Metropolitana, a neoclassical church overlooking the Plaza de Armas, on our way to el Mercado Central for lunch. We chose Galeon, a mid-priced restaurant on the second floor of the fish market, where each marble-topped table holds a plate of four lemons to complement the cuisine. The mixed seafood plate we shared featured nine types of pescado caught off Chile’s outrageously long coast. All of the dishes were very tasty —not nearly as scary as they could have been (by that, I mean no fish heads watched us eat).

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Afterward, we took a cab to the Cerro de San Cristobal, the hill of Saint Christopher, a vertically-oriented park capped by a 14-meter marble statue of the Virgin Mary. Many choose to walk or cycle the curvy road leading up to the statue, but we went by funicular.

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And fun it was. The train creeps 485 meters up a track, much like Chattanooga’s Incline Railway to the top of Lookout Mountain, and stops at an overlook of sprawling Santiago and the snow-capped Alps beyond it. It’s the view is the best around, though it’s clouded by a bit of smog.

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Later, we rode the teleferico , a gondula-style operation, along a wire to a station near the north end of Pedro de Valdivia Norte Avenue 200 meters away. Dangling hundreds of feet over the city, we got a view of a different part of town, where the skyscrapers were taller and the homes had backyard pools.

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The day was punctuated by drink stops in parks, cafes and restaurants. In some cases, I had what you’d expect of me — water (sin gas), coffee, Sprite. I also tried some Chilean specialties, though, most notably mote con huesillo, a sweet mixture of peaches, peach syrup and boiled corn kernels, of all things. It was good, but so sugary I could feel my teeth decaying after half a cup.

Later, I had a Corona on the patio of La Casa en El Aire Libre, an international café in the funky Bellavista neighborhood, which I’d highly recommend. Then, it was off to El Romano, our final stop, a hole-in-the-wall bar Mauricio remembered from his younger days. In a room lit by a single bulb, we sipped a couple of cheap but good Chilean beers. Mauricio requested Toto’s “Africa” on the jukebox and sang along. And then Juan, Mauricio’s best friend, arrived to drive me to the airport for the last leg of my journey to Punta Arenas.

While I’m sure I could have managed Santiago alone, I would not have felt so at ease or welcome to the country without the company someone as eager to share as my companion for the day. Gracias, Mauricio!

From me, a resounding ‘No sé’

October 8, 2007

The most common response I give when people ask me the specifics of what I’ll be doing in Chile is, “Ummm, I’m not really sure about that.” Sometimes, I try to piece together the things I do know into a short paragraph:
“I’ll be living in staff housing, and I’ll be able to put my valuables in furniture with a key.” (That’s the English translation of “mueble con llave,” right? I’m thinking a trunk.)

Or, “I’ll be leading visitors on trips in the park… How long? Ummm. One day. Or maybe three, or four. I’m not really sure.”

“A work Visa? I shouldn’t have problems getting one… The Chilean consulate says I need an FBI background check, an HIV test and to be pre-approved, but my employers tell me I don’t need any official documents, and I get it once I’m in Chile. I’m going with the latter.”

So, that’s how it goes, me describing my future. Basically, yo no sé.

I got as many answers as I could when I talked with my future employer over the phone that one time (in Spanish, which perhaps explains some of the black holes). In subsequent e-mails, I asked many questions, usually organized in bullet points, but I usually had to satisfy myself with an answer like, “It’ll all work out. No te preocupes.”

I’m not used to operating on so little information and such blind faith, but I hate to let a few unanswered questions hold me back from the chance to live and work in Chile.

As I sit at gate E11 in the Miami airport, behind newlyweds returning from their honeymoon, I wonder if I’m putting too much trust in people I only vaguely know. Once my plane lands in Punta Arenas 29 hours from now, I’ll begin to find out.

Adios Chattanooga, hola Chile!

October 3, 2007

After more than two years of writing for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, I quit my job. No longer will I write about what the children of Hamilton County are learning in their classrooms and whether the school board thinks seatbelts on buses improve safety.

I am moving to Chile, to the Torres del Paine National Park way down at the Southern tip of the country. Someone I met there two years ago when helping repair the park’s most damaged trails offered me a job — actually, two — last month. I start on Monday.

I will be marketing for Fantástico Sur, a Chilean company that arranges treks for hikers and naturalists. As part of it, they have asked me to start a bi-lingual magazine, which I have happily agreed to. I’ll also be guiding for AMA, a company that educates visitors about the park’s environment and helps them complete projects that conserve it.

In addition, I hope to publish some travel articles on my own… and soak up the language and lifestyle.

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Deciding to leave Chattanooga was incredibly tough, and I went back and forth with it for weeks. I loved my full-time writing job at the paper, which allowed me to interview, for example, the governor and a first-grade teacher in the same day. I enjoyed hiking, cycling and paddling in and around Chattanooga, and I knew I’d miss lounging around my sunny apartment on Saturday mornings and listening to my friend’s bluegrass band practice on her porch. Plus, I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving my friends and boyfriend.
But I decided to take the leap, to find out what I don’t know and to let the experience take me where it will.

I found this passage in the 2001 Best American Travel Writing, which I picked up at McKay’s Used Books in Chattanooga the other night:

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring ourselves what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and to fall in love once more.

Pico Iyer, from “Why We Travel” in Salon Travel

I may encounter frustration and loneliness in the far Southern reaches of the world, but I may also have experiences that change how I see the world and live my life. I just don’t know, and that’s the fun part.

And now, for some fun facts about my destination, for my sake as much as anyone’s:
* Chile is tall and slender, stretching along the southwestern coast of South America. It’s as long as San Francisco is from New York, but only 150 miles wide at its widest point.
* The northern part of the country is desert, the mid-section is a fertile river valley, and the southern landscape is made up of a string of rivers and volcanoes that dissolve into a labyrinth of fjords, inlets, canals, peninsulas and islands. The Andes Mountains border the country to the east.
* Chile is a republic. Michelle Bachelet is Chile’s first woman president, elected in 2006.
* About 85 percent of Chile’s population lives in urban areas. About 40 percent live in greater Santiago. Most have Spanish ancestry.
* The local currency is the Chilean peso.
* About 89 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, about 11 percent is Protestant.
* The average Chilean expects to live about 76 years.
* Chileans are required to attend 12 years of school, and 96 percent of adults can read.

I have three short days before my plane departs for Santiago. Time for the business of shuffling boxes and realizing exactly how much stuff I have accumulated.