Though this is only my fifth day since arrival, I feel as though I have already compiled a year´s worth of memories and experiences. This country, its people, and the times had thus far have more than exceeded my expectations. I look back and remember my trepidation at coming out here on my own, and I laugh at it. To any of you out there, even remotely considering having a lengthy travel experience, but you are wary of going alone- all I can say is "just go". I had forgotten what it felt like, but the moment I got off the plane in Santiago, a distant yet familiar wave of reassurance came over me as I remembered "ah yes. This is travelling. I can do this."
My flights went surprisingly well- my connection was very tight, literally walking off the plane in Dallas directly onto the plane to Santiago. And I experienced one of travelling´s most exceptional joys- sitting in a row of seats and not having another passenger sit down next to you. Ah – sleeping horizontally on a plane- there are no words for the joy of it.
On arrival, I grabbed a colectivo into the city. On a last minute whim, I decided to tell the driver to take me to the "Happy Holiday Hostel" instead of La Casa Roja where I had a reservation. I don´t know why – but I just felt that I should choose the former. How can a vacation go wrong staying at a place called ¨"Happy Holiday¨"??
Well, I soon found my validation for the impulsive change of heart. After paying for my dorm bed, I went into my room to prep for a needed shower. There was a girl asleep across the other side of the room. Her name is Tui – a Maori name. Tui is a Kiwi who lives in Sydney, Australia. And she has become a fast and loyal friend in a very short time…
After freshening up, I asked Tui if she´d like to join me for lunch? And we´ve been together ever since! Tui is the most mature 21 year old I´ve ever met (except for Jeremy!) and has had the kind of travel and life experiences that would make a person twice her age proud. She had moved to Santiago five days prior to study Spanish and Political Economy for a year at the Universidad Catolico. We hit it off immediately- Tui and I are extremely alike and we travel very well together. She is incredibly smart, fluent in Spanish, and has remarkable insights into international socio-political issues. After only two days, and ensuring she was "settled" into her new Santiago apartment, I convinced her to continue travelling north with me.
That first day in Santiago involved packing down the greasiest but most delicious slab of cow I´ve ever consumed, wandering the streets of the downtown Plaza de Armas and various "Barrios", and taking a jaunt up to "Cerro San Antonio" - a prominent hill in the middle of the city that one climbs in a rickety old Funicular. At the top of the hill is a botanical garden, zoo, restaurant and a very large statue of the Virgin Mary. Chile is still very Catholic and there are churches spotted around the city with as much regularity as a Starbucks in Seattle. The view from the top was spectacular, albeit obscured from the smog that hangs over the city like a choking blanket. The weather was hot – around 80 degrees. So strange and wonderful to be wandering around in flip flops, shorts and a tank top again! Woo hoo!
After copious amounts of coffee and cake at the top of the Cerro, Tui and I took little cable cars down the mountain, and then hopped and skipped over to the nearest very modern metro station. I have not seen a metro this modern or efficient anywhere in the US or Europe. On the way there, Tui and I were conversing on how her name neatly fits into the word "Intuitive" and ¨Tui remarked on how mine can start a sentence…"Anita comb, Anita some food, Anita Man…" to which a very smartly dressed older man turned around with an eager expression and asked us " You need a man??!!" I found this hysterical, and all the more so when upon recovering discovered that Tui thought the man had asked if we were from "Allemagne" (Germany)!!
Which brings me to my first observations of Chilean people-
1 – The men are extremely forward and aggressive. More so than the Italians – and that's saying a lot. They have absolutely no shame for staring at your tits, nor in fact, holding a conversation with them.
2 – Saying that, the men are HOT. Well, many of them at least. It's a joy to just walk down the streets of a city and see so many beautiful people (yes, the women are pretty too)
3 – The kids here are absolutely adorably cute. Painfully so.
4 – The WOMEN look the "gringo" women up and down as well! It appears that they are rather protective of their gorgeous male populous and are none too thrilled at the idea of sharing. I think theres plenty to go around, but that's just me.
5 – My God they can talk! And not just the women. Our tour guide and our bus driver have the most intense, loud, and LONG conversations! Using full sentences! Not at all like the ¨"Hows it going¨" ¨"Uh…Good Man" stuff you get back home. It is very entertaining.
6 – Everyone wants to talk to you. They are an extremely friendly and happy people.
Ok more observations to follow.
That first night in Santiago involved helping Tui move into her apartment, and then watching the sun set with a lovely glass of Vino Tinto on the roof of my hostel with a bunch of other travellers. I had forgotten what an instant bond can be struck between a group of like minded independent backpackers, despite various nationalities. It was a lovely evening and we all felt like a family by the time my head hit the pillow.
Friday took Tui and I to the Unesco World Heritage coastal city of Valparaiso. It was an hour´s bus journey to get there, and I was impressed at the comfort and efficiency of the service.
The main town at sea level was not all that impressive- you typical Latin American city with the obligatory parks, fountains and of course, a Plaza de Armas. However, what makes Valparaiso so unique is its 13 hills (somewhat like San Francisco) with multi colored homes dotted across its steep streets, alleys, and cobbled pathways that interconnected the areas. To access these hills, one must take the ¨"Ascensurs" – very very old incredible feats of engineering that carry you up the hills and the streets below at a surprisingly fast clip. Whilst the contraptions themselves resembled rabbit hutches in their sturdiness, they made for a very fun ride – especially on the way down!! Standing looking over the cables down below at the moment the ascensur began its descent, resembled the kind of stomach flip one can get at the "Tower of Terror" in Disneyland – but for only 25 cents!
The neighbourhoods that dot these hills are out of this world. So beautiful, so historic, so quaint. I could have wandered around for hours – so we did, stopping only for photographs, and the obligatory espresso under a parasol looking over the city and the ocean. I left a little of my heart in Valparaiso and imagined returning there in my retirement to rent a little posada to write my memoirs in. It had that kind of an inspirational feeding the soul kind of feel to it.
That evening was characterized by our dorm room "family" going out for a late dinner in Santiago and being serenaded by classical guitars as we ate. Oh, and also by one particular asshole American guy who claimed to our entire group that he had just gotten out of prison for stabbing a guy in a bar brawl – only to admit four hours later (after I had gone to bed) that he had made it up and thought it funny. How is THAT funny? What a complete creep.
Saturday morning- time for an early start and the beginning of my 7 day Atacama-Chilean Northern coast adventure bus tour with Pachamama!! Our guide picked me up from my hostel at 9 and we drove across the Barrio to pick up Tui (she agreed to come along for the first 3 days!) Our group consists of 15 people and 11 nationalities…and it is an extremely fun group!
We spent most of the first day driving, stopping at the beach for lunch and then the evening and night in La Serena.
I am finishing this email now as I´m out of time at the internet café. To be continued….