Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Chilean Adventure Part IV

Much has happened these past few days... Today marks 2 weeks since I left home. Again, it feels as though months have elapsed. I´ve fallen into a whole new way of thinking...a Chilean way of thinking... Mmmmm.

So, I last left you with our glorious night of camping under the stars in Pan de Azucar National Park. The next day I was supposed to leave our little "family", (we really had grown very close to one another - its always said that two days travelling with someone is like a time warp of several weeks in normal life!) and I was growing very sad at the prospect. It was a very long drive to La Serena- we were due to get there at 6pm, and my bus was at 10-30pm. Around 4pm, it hit me! I would stay the next two days...get back to Santiago and then just take another regular bus to Pucon. I´d only miss one day in Pucon, and I´d still be able to jump onto the next Pachamama bus headed south on the Sunday.... Done!

I told Jorge, who thought I was nuts because I´d forfeit a $40 bus ticket, but I thought to myself, hell, I´ve spent more than that on meals back home that I haven´t enjoyed...this was what I wanted. He made all the arrangements, I was overjoyed at my ingenuity and we drove on to the beautiful Elqui Valley and the town of Vicuna.

Our hostel in Vicuna was extremely atmospheric and cozy. It was a dark wood, really old building with beautiful courtyards filled with avocado trees, flowers, and plenty of hammocks for weary travellers. I loved it!! And it had hot showers. I just love how simple pleasures like this fill your heart with joy when you travel.

After a quick shower, and what Jorge liked to call "fashion emergency", we all met up to head over to the Mamalucca observatory. Unfortunately, I had head into town to find an internet cafe, and upon failing to do so, realized that I was running late for the bus. With visions of being left behind, I ran at full speed through the busy streets towards what I thought was the meeting place...and I just made it in time, covered in sweat and breathing hard. What a relief! I didn´t even have a key in order to get back into the hostel!

Chile is home to some of the worlds´most powerful telescopes, and many were found in the Elqui valley due to its unique climate that allows for extremely clear nights to gaze at the southern skies... We all arrived and joined the English speaking tour which was being given by a rather robotic, clearly astronomically nerdy, man. Jorge told me later that the Pachamama guides call him C-3PO. By the end of the evening, the android like way he delivered his English Monologue had me in stitches. Others didn´t find it so funny, but hey, I´m used to that by now!

We all gathered in the dark in the upper levels of the observatory to take turns looking into the telescope, to peer at Mars, Saturn, Orion´s belt, and young star clusters among others....It was very fascinating. We then gathered in the auditorium to receive some astronomical lessons:formation of galaxies, supernovas, cluster galaxies, nebula's, our sun, nuclear fission etc etc etc. You get the idea. By this point it was about 10:45pm and I hadn´t eaten since 1pm. I started feeling rather giddy and stupid - Christina gave me a few minty sweets and that helped my blood sugar spike a little. But it didn´t help the fact that I was finding C3PO funnier by the minute...We were finally "released" around 11:30 - and met up at...wait for it...the CAFETERIA! There had been a CAFETERIA all along!! Jesus. Christine and I bought a sandwich together and wolfed it down in one bite.
We then headed into town for "dinner" - which was ordered at little after midnight like it was nothing unusual. I ordered a very typical dish of Cazuela - chicken, rice and vegetables in a delicious broth. As usual, I ordered the "small" portion and a bowl came that could feed 4 people. I sigh. Luckily, as usual, Martin was there to eat what I couldn´t. Thanks Bru!...for all those times you were my human garbage disposal and helped me not get any fatter!

A little after 1:30am, it was time to go dancing for our Last NIGHT out on the town together. We went to a local discotheque and danced to disco and a very latin American rhythm known as Regaton -kind of a mix between reggae, hip hop and rap. It gets the hips moving without even trying....After dancing for a few hours, I was ready to collapse....but no....we all bought beer and pisco and took it to the back garden of the hostel and sat listening to hilarious stories Jorge told us of previous Pachamama trips that had gone awry -such as the time all of his guests got naked and ran down the streets of Puerto Varas, when someone put superglue in his eyes because he thought the bottle was eye drops, to when his parents joined them right here in Vicuna and got more drunk than the rest of the group, and his friends asked why he was bumping and grinding on the dance floor with the larger older woman? As fucking hysterical as Jorge is: I really want to meet his parents after listening to his stories. It was the kind of night where laughter was completely uncontrolled and tears flowed freely as we clutched our stomachs into the wee hours of the morning. Thank you Jorge - for your AMAZING storytelling. I will recount these for years to come...

The next day we all headed out for a day of "ACTIVITIES"!! We started with a tour of a local Pisco Distillery. Since I was still feeling a little sketchy...talking about alcohol production just made me more queasy. By the time the tastings rolled around, however, I felt ready to try out the new Pina Colada mixes....yum!

We then drove down to Pisco Elqui, listening all the while to Jorge´s narrative about how the area is famous for its UFO sightings. Apparently, hundreds of animals have been found dead in this region, with one hole in their neck, completely drained of blood, and then found lined up in a straight line in the fields the next morning. Very eerie, these "Chupacabras!" as they are known in Chile.

The views in this particular area supported why Jorge had expressed this to be the place where he eventually wants to live, and why it is his favorite day on the tour. 5000m Andean peaks for 360 degrees, and a lush green valley with rivers, grape vineyards and picturesque little villages, such as Pisco Elqui. We were treated to an amazing horse back ride with a true Chilean cowboy, a "huasco". I can´t remember his name, unfortunately, but he looked like a western movie star, complete with Chilean chaps, wide brimmed hat, and massive spurs. His horses were beautiful, and we were all matched according to experience-temperament. Surprise, surprise, Jorge is a gifted horseback rider as well (is there anything you can´t do? - I asked Jorge later, to which he responded, to my relief, that he wasn´t good at ocean sports!) and he gave us some very direct and wonderful instructions on how to control our steeds and get exactly what we wanted out of them, by ensuring they understood who was in charge.

It was definitely the most comfortable I´d been on horseback. It was a surreal experience, riding high up into the hills and then letting the horses gallop free, our hair blowing in the wind, the green valley below. I can´t wait to share the photos with you.

After a few hours we were all a bit sore in the inner thigh, and ready for some refreshment (lunch at 4pm - again!). Jorge took us to an amazing restaurant that made freshly squeezed juices in wonderfully strange combinations such as strawberry mint, and carrot banana (yes, Bru that one was the best!).

We were all a bit knackered at this point and ready to slip into a food and hangover induced coma. A few hours relaxing by a pool seemed the perfect antidote. So we all headed over to a private hotel pool and drank in the early evening shade.

Well, if I had thought that the horse ride was to be the only highlight of my day, then I was sorely mistaken!! We were all a little disappointed at the smaller size of the circular pool that was occupied already by several smallish kiddies, until Ruan suggested that we get in and create a mini whirlpool. I had no idea what he was talking about and I was happy laying on my sun lounger. A few minutes later I looked up to see about 10 of us in the pool, all running in a circle, creating this centrifuge of water that became a moving force in its own right and carried all the human bodies around in a circle at an effortlessly fast pace. It looked like fun - so I jumped on in.

I can honestly say that I laughed for at least 1/2 an hour. It was the strangest thing, to be carried around this pool at high speed and see the little kids finally getting it, and yelping in delight, their parents standing overhead extremely bemused at what they hell we were doing. All I can say is that I got some video footage of this anomaly, and it is definitely youtube material. You can find a copy of this attached to this blog..

Wow- what a day. I can´t believe I was willing to trade this for a 48 hour bus experience. Thank God I changed my mind!

We all were given the evening at leisure, and experienced what inevitably always occurs when you´ve been on a guided tour for a while: getting weirded out because you´ve forgotten how to make a decision for yourself on what to do. Jorge had been telling us when we could pee and¨"caca" (as he liked to call it) for the past week...and now we had an entire evening to do what we pleased! Shilpa and I decided to do some hand laundry and wander into town to an internet cafe...where I wrote Chilean Adventure part III! - before heading back and literally melting into our sheets.

Monday. It was our last day as a family, and the mood was very sombre. We made one stop en route back to Santiago - at the beautiful Frei Jorge National Park, which boasts a micro climate that creates a mini rainforest in the middle of arid desert. Driving back into the city, we were reminded of the bad air quality which was currently being worsened by a huge forest fire raging in Vina del Mar. Shilpa and I got off at the Happy House Hostel around 730pm and said our sad goodbyes. At least I knew I´d be seeing Jorge again on Friday night in Pucon!! Otherwise, Jorge, I would definitely have wept sad tears....

I immediately emailed Tui that I had arrived, and after a quick fashion emergency (I´m using this phrase from now on!) Shilpa, she and I went out for some dinner. We stopped at the Casa Roja in order for me to book my next Pachamama segment from Pucon, and low and behold - the family was there drinking beers! So we ended up spending one more evening together sharing stories and laughter. Tui and I caught up on our trip and her week getting prepared to start her semester of university. I am so very excited for her.

Later one, Shilpa, Tui and I walked to her new house to see what she had done to her room. It was really coming along, and I was glad to see how warm and homey Tui had made it. You´re going to have an incredible year, Tui and I can´t wait to come back next year and go to Venezuela and Ecuador with you!

This brings me to my ordeal of yesterday. After a sad farewell to Shilpa (have an amazing time in the Amazon jungle - I´ll see you the next time I´´m in the UK!!) I took a cab to the bus station for my 11 hour bus odyssey to Pucon. I got settled in my seat and was about to start reading my book, when I noticed a beeping sound, akin to an alarm clock going off at an irritating 5 o clock in the morning. I thought...where is this coming from? Then I noticed this machine that had a scrolling red lettered computerized announcement screen that read, in Spanish of course: we are working hard for your safety. This bus transmits information via satellite as to the speed of the bus." Then, apparently, every time the driver went over 100km per hour, the fucking machine would start beeping, and the sign read "the driver has surpassed the speed limit. Please inform the driver of this, or alternatively, you can report this danger at 660 -6788".

Well, as far as I was concerned, the only danger lay in driving the bus of passengers to homicide by insistently beeping in their eardrums like an alarm clock every 10 seconds for 11 fucking hours. And it didn´t help that there was also a giant sign which read "it is forbidden to talk to the driver whilst the bus is in motion." What the fuck? Within half an hour, I was getting slightly irritated, at two hours I was ready to ask some of the other passengers, to please, for God´s sake bring the matter to the conductor´´s attention, and by four hours, I was ready to use my own fucking Spanglish to communicate my growing anger. I couldn´t believe that I seemed to be the only person who this was driving nuts. At one point, an older woman got up and knocked on the driver´s window, and I thought "Yes! I am saved!¨", only to hear her ask for the air conditioning to be turned off. Great. Now I would be tormented and hot to boot. A nice man took pity on me at hour four, and spoke to the conductor on my behalf. After that the beeps seemed to only come once a minute, and I was able to take a nap. But after an hour, we stopped in Los Angeles, and they changed the bus driver!!!!!!!!!!!!! AH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I have to say, this experience really forced me to take my Spanish to the next level. By the end of my bus trip, I had learned to say:
Please help me. Can the driver please slow down? I don´t care how fast he drives, but I care about this noisy thing! Which the driver can´t even hear!
Please. Everyone else can talk to one another, but this is the only thing I can hear. And theres no radio. And you´re not playing a movie. I am going crazy.
And then understood the response- apparently, the machine was broken, and it beeped anytime the bus went over 85km. Since the driver had to go just under 100km in order to get everywhere on schedule, he had no choice but to set off the alarm...
My response: why punish the passengers for the driver going too fast? And no one is picking up their phones to complain!
OK. Can I please move seats? I can´t take this.

So...I was allowed to switch assigned seats to the very back of the bus, where with the aid of earplugs smashed into my ear canal a good inch further than they´re supposed to, and trying to practice a yogi form of meditation, I was finally able to block the incessant noise from my active consciousness...with only about two hours left in the journey.

On arrival, around 10:30pm, I had calmed down considerably, and apart from a monumentally sore ass.. I was in one piece and eager to find my hostel.

Sorry to write so much about the fucking bus, but I think its a great story and I am still incredulous that it happened.

The hostel is wonderful - like a real family wooden chalet with large sofas, sloped roofs, comfy beds with warm comforters, free Internet (yay!), and a very homey feel. On entry, the owner simply said to me - Ah! You have a reservation. Here is your room, here are the clean towels, bathroom. Help yourself to the kitchen, and enjoy your stay! What about payment? Oh, you can pay on the last day of your stay....no questions, no id checking, no credit card deposit, just pure trust. I was not in Santiago any more.

After a quick trip to the supermarket, I made myself a giant salad (i´ve been eating nothing but carbs and shit for the past two days), watched Chocolat, and chatted to the late arriving south tour Pachamama folks, whom I would have been travelling with had I joined the tour on Sunday as I was supposed to.

Today, I´ve decided to take a day of rest...imagine! I´ve been on "vacation" for two weeks and operating at a pace that rivals any tough week at work!!! (the owner of the hostel has just handed me a giant slice of watermelon...I love the hospitality here!!) I slept in till 10, made breakfast, sent off some laundry and then sat down to write this...hence the length -sorry! This afternoon, I´m heading into town to book my trip tomorrow to climb the Volcano, and for river rafting on Saturday. Friday I´ll go by bus to the nearby national park Huerqueque -home of the monkey puzzle tree for a lovely day hike. For the first time, I find myself alone...but I am quite glad for it!

I will write again in a few days. Hope you have enjoyed travelling virtually around Chile with me.

Ciao for now,
Anita






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