Thursday, April 22, 2004

Somewhere round the 20th of April

Yes, I´ve fallen way behind with this journal, so I´m going to skip over quite a bit (which I´ll catch up on later), and provide an update. Right now I´m in Caldera, on the coast about halfway between Santiago and Calama. Caldera is a tiny port town, and down the road is Bahía Inglesa, a busy beach resort in the high season. At the moment, both are well and truly off the beaten track. Chile´s first railway line went to Caldera, from the nearby copper town of Copiapó. It´s not historical interest that´s brought me here, though, rather a recommendation from Connie, a receptionist at Hostal Bellavista in Santiago. She suggested it as somewhere nice, off the tourist trail, and a place to investigate voluntary work - since Habitat para la Humanidad has some projects here, where they help local people to build houses. Plus the fact that her cousin Alex runs a hostel and associated operations at Bahía Inglesa.

The bus ride here was a little over thirteen hours from Santiago, and much worse than it should have been. It was a "semi-cama" bus, with super-comfortable seats which fold back to 65 degrees. For comfort and value for money, Chilean and Argentinian buses are, in and of themselves, unparalleled. The only problem is the insistence in keeping the heating wacked up at night time, to maintain an interior temperature of no less than 28 degrees (I know this because the temperature alternates on a digital screen with the time and the availability of the bus´toilet). With near-zero humidity and general passenger body heat, this dehydrates the hell out of you and makes it near impossible to sleep. Or at least for me. The accumulated light snoring of those who had dropped off didn´t help either - including that from the bloke who occupied the seat next to me from about halfway through the trip and immediately begged for some of my water - he said he´d been sitting in the terminal eating and drinking a little beer, and was terribly thirsty.

When we started off, about 8:00 pm, the heating was way up. After about 20 minutes into the journey, when it became clear it was likely to stay that way, I asked the guy who comes round to clip the tickets if they could turn the heating down. He said yes, they would fix it in just a bit. Sure enough, they turned it down, and the temperature came down to a much more comfortable 21 degrees. But about 10:30, when the movie finished and they turned off the lights, it was whacked up once more.

Conversations with people today and previously suggest that this is standard practice, so the "viejecitos and guaguas" (old people and babies) don´t get cold. But, as we all agree, a temperature close to 30 degrees where it´s impossible to to sweat is at least as unhealthy. I´m thinking of writing to the bus company and asking them to justify their rationale.

Am I sounding like some kind of middle-aged American or something? What a wuss, I can hear people saying. Wait till he gets to Peru and Bolivia, where equally long or longer trips take place in ancient buses with uncomfortable seats, jammed full of pigs and chickens...

It´s always a little daunting, arriving in towns like Caldera as a traveller, especially in a semi-conscious state first thing in the morning. There you are, bien gringo, getting off the bus with your blue and purple Great Outdoors backpack, generally in the dusty outskirts where the bus stations tend to find themselves, no idea where you´re going. Subjected to double-take looks from local people, like, what the hell is he doing here? And you don´t really know the answer yourself...

Still, weird as it may feel at the time, out of the way places tend to leave a disproportionate impression on you, even if you´re only briefly passing through. I have quite vivid memories of, for example, Comitán in Mexico, a pretty but nondescript town near the border with Guatemala, where I felt like practically the first foreigner to visit.

The best way to get equilibrium in these situations, I´ve found, is to buy a pack of cigarettes. This serves a couple of purposes. It immediately involves you in a couple of transactions with local people - the first in the store or kiosk where you buy the cigarettes, subsequently with anyone who tries to bum one off you - which proves that you´re not actually an alien being, and can speak the language. It also gives you something to do as you walk along and makes you look slightly less geeky.

I found a place to stay in a residencia by the plaza, which is listed by both LP and a Chilean booklet. It´s pleasant enough, but the owners are rather the opposite of gergarious; they´re an elderly couple who seem rather ambivalent about having guests at all. They have a "salón de belleza" out front (a hairdressers, really), and seem a bit irritated by the guests.

Before getting some lunch, I talked to a Colombian girl who was selling necklaces and other artesanías by the plaza. She said she was from Cali, and had travelled down through Peru and Ecuador to Chile, selling her things along the way. She had a beautiful, soft accent, and I felt kind of pleased to meet a fellow traveller. She said I should definitely go to Cali, where "they treat you well". I didn´t want to be pressured into buying anything; I showed her my pounamu necklace and said that was all I need to wear, and now wasn´t yet the time for buying presents. Anyway, I was really hungry. She said "bueno, comes; después hablamos". I went to eat and then snuck out of the diner to avoid talking to her again. But later I thought that one of her shark-tooth necklaces would have made a great present for Meghan or Ben (step-niece and nephew), for only 1,000 pesos ($1.30 U.S.); I could easily have mailed them home. I looked for her later in the plaza, but she was gone.

After lunch I walked to Bahía Inglesa. It took longer than I thought - they had told me "half an hour, tops" in the diner - but was worth it for the landscape. The area around Caldera is completely, romantically, desolate. Especially today when the sea fog had come in early and stayed all day in a low-hanging drab overcast above the coastal desert. From the town outskirts, in the typical Latin American urban fringe textures of tin, concrete, dust, graffiti and litter, the desert stetches off - sand, a little rock, and the most rudimentary and occasional forms of scrub, towards the fog-shrouded mountains and grey sea. Boy, you could make some dialogue-light existential films here.

Monday, April 19, 2004

After two days in the Barrio Paris Londres, I moved to a hostel in Barrio Bellavista area, to try out a different area and be somewhere a bit livelier at night. Bellavista is on the north side of the Rio Mapocho (rio? qué rio? – it´s more like a huge drainage canal with a little water rushing down the middle between concrete walls, rubbish strewn along the sides and an unpleasant smell drifting up). Bellavista is another “bohemian” barrio, relaxed, pretty, tawdry round the edges. The main street, Pio Nono, heads north to the nearby Cerro San Cristobal (about which more later); market stalls selling fried empanadas and artesanias line the roadside on the first couple of blocks, and the streets are full of students drifting back and forth from the law faculty building of the Universidad of Chile (a concrete building of Mussolinian classicism). The streets are narrow and a little dirty, the buildings mostly brick and stucco, some crumbling, others freshly painted in what I´m terming “Latin earth” colours – lapis lazuli, ochre and terracotta. Tired-looking oaks and maples line shade Pio Nono, almost meeting in the middle of the street. Restaurants and bars crowd together, and at night there is a crush of people in white plastic chairs sitting out on the pavement while others file past. Hosts and hostesses from the various restaurants and bars practically beg you to come in or take a seat. When I went to walk up Cerro San Cristobal it was late afternoon and the sun was still up, but the restaurants were already touting for business. At several places they offered me a table despite me striding along purposefully with a backpack and sweaty t-shirt. When I said I was just off to climb the hill they gave me plaintive looks: “But when you get back…?”

I moved into a hostel called Hostal Bellavista, two blocks off Pio Nono. This turns out to be one of those “home away from home” hostels – not necessarily the quietest or the most comfortable, but immediately friendly, with all the right feng shui. Balconies onto the street, a terrace at the back with a view towards the Andes, free internet, cable TV, etc. Everyone talks to everyone else, as if that were normal in real life.

When I arrived there, a British couple were trying to check in. Only the woman who I guessed was the one who cleans and makes the breakfast was there. She was trying explain the prices to them and ask how many nights they wanted to stay, but they did not speak one word of Spanish. I, standing in the doorway with my large pack still on my pack, had to translate the entire transaction. After that, the cleaning/breakfast woman (whose name is Sofía) and I became quite buddy-pally. She is gregarious - her favourite saying is "Aquí todos son de confianza! Es como tu casa!" ("Here, everybody can be trusted! "It´s like being at home". She´s also a little needy, though this becomes quite understandable once you know her story.

Sofía is from Peru, and has been working in Chile for about seven years. She says she had a daughter at age fourteen and the bloke in question (guess what) ran off. Her daughter is now twenty and is at university studying to be a nurse. Sofía came to Chile to get work to support her daughter, who lives with Sofia´s mother in Peru. Despite the seven years here, she hasn´t been able to pass through many of the graduated stages of Chilean residence and citizenship yet, because apparently you have to work for two years in the same job to get to the next stage (Sofia has only been at Hostal Bellavista about four months). But there´s kind of a happy ending to the story. The daughter has a boyfriend whose parents emigrated to France, and he can get French residence. She is thinking of going to work as a nurse in France when she graduates. Meanwhile, however, Sofia keeps sending money home, but hasn´t been able to see her daughter for two years.

Do I believe every word of this? I suppose I should, but she does look quite a bit older than the reported thirty-five years. Though this too is quite understandable...

The hostel is owned by Gonzalo, a Chilean who lived his first eight or nine years in the U.S. He is still in his twenties, I´m guessing, but has that blingual, dual-cultural ease and confidence plus, I have to say, a great and eclectic taste in music. It seems that his parents have set him up with the business. Judging by the success and "buena onda" of Hostal Bellavista, he´s on the right track so far.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Graffiti on a wall in Barrio Brasil: "Nos hacen usar uniformes porque nos quieren uniformar". I presume this was written by high-school students, who all wear uniforms here. Couldn't help thinking that you'd be unlikely to see this kind of commentary from kids in New Zealand, tying a personal hassle to the wider ideological context. I used to really admire the political awareness and involvement of students and young people from Latin countries, and think the apathy and ignorance of their English-speaking counterparts a real defficiency. Now I'm not so sure - I wonder if it's not a symptom of the troubled histories of their countries, rather than any greater innate thoughtfulness. The sad fact seems to be that the societies that work out the best are often ones where people can't be bothered to argue about ideologies, and just unimaginatively get on with trying to make money.

There are lots of stray dogs in Santiago. I only noticed this on Friday and Saturday, when there were fewer people around because of Easter. Apparently a lot of people here get dogs as puppies, then ditch them when they grow up. They are mostly quite big dogs, cross breeds. Mostly they seem quite clean, and the majority aren't too skinny. The most notable thing, though, is how casually well-behaved they are. They sleep anywhere, seeking out bus stops, telephone booths, or any other suitable spot. They look before crossing the road, aren't excessive about following people who have food, and just generally behave like reasonable citizens. Someone I talked to agreed that they are probably better-behaved than domestic dogs. A lot of the nastiness and annoyance that comes from dogs seems to be due to their territorial nature, and desire to defend their designated enclave. But with the whole city to roam in, it´s all public space, and no one feels too threatened most of the time.

Santiago is also full of embracing couples. On Cerro Santa Lucia there are kissing lovers esconced in alcoves all the way up the hill. But even on the main streets it´s common to see effusive public displays of affection, people stopping for a hug and a snog. I don´t know whether this is something intrinsically Chilean, or a reaction to it being frowned on or forbidden during the Pinochet years (it´s not really the kind of thing you can ask people). Either way, you can´t help feeling rather envious.

One more prevalence that I´ve noticed in Santiago is that of the police, or "los pacos" as they´re called here. Mostly young and intense-looking, their rakishly-cut light khaki uniforms and holstered pistols give them a vaguely menacing paramilitary aspect. They often seem to move in groups, and there are clusters of them by the government ministries around the Plaza Constitución. Almost nobody stops at pedestrian crossings here, but one time when I was waiting to cross there was a policeman standing at the same crossing; two cars that had considerable momentum ground rapidly to a polite halt and let everyone cross.

Street vending seems to be officially illegal but generally tolerated here. The other day I stopped to talk to some guys selling their homemade necklaces, earrings and bracelets laid out on a little blanket on the pavement. They had wanted to bum a cigarette, and then we got into a conversation about where I was from, where I was travelling,what I thought of Chile, etc. One of them reached into his pack and offered me a glass of beer, which was great as I was pretty thirsty. As we were talking, some police on motorbikes approached, and the vendors started rolling up their blankets and making as if to walk off down the street. The pacos slowed right down, frowned meaningfully, then drove on. The two guys turned round and rolled out their blankets again. I asked if it was prohibited to sell things on the street. They shrugged. "It´s just that you have to show them some respect" said one. Apparently, they would have been more concerned about any drinking on the street (which at that time only I was doing). But, they said, "they´d never do anything to you, never". Why I asked, because I´m a turista, and they nodded yes.

Monday, April 12, 2004

8 April, second day in Santiago.

ok, so maybe my understanding of chileno is not all that crah hot after all. Stopped in the Plaza de Armas near a big crowd watching two guys doing comic street theatre; I vaguely followed it, but every time everyone laughed I had a completely blank expression. Mind you, I was behind five rows of people, and their voices were muffled. Later, I watched the evening news and, though I followed the stories, I missed quite a few details. This is annoying, because when I watch CNN en espanol I understand it pretty much word for word.

Another new food word: "manjar", which is a kind of dulce de leche. I bought some buns from a bakery, on impulse while I was out walking, and didn't really know what I was getting. I asked the woman who served me, but by then I had already paid for it. With the already sweet bread, manjar is overpoweringly cloying. I don't think I'll get it again.

Oh, for a telescopic lens. I walked down to Cerro Santa Lucia, which is a hill in the middle of the city with rocky steps leading up it, a couple of leafy plazas and a "torre mirador", a kind of turret lookout point. There are great views towards the Andes, and over the city to the hills and mountains to the north, west and south. The massif and soaring peaks of the cordillera inspired me, and pretty much everyone standing in the torre to whip out our cameras. The sense of being awestruck by a landscape - artificial or natural - is one of the principal pleasures in life, and a reason to go travelling and seek out new places. The first time I came into Paris and was struck by the sheer magnificent scale of the Hotel des Invalides, for example, was such an experience. In time it fades, and you become blase. Unfortunately, as soon as I got the mountains into the viewfinder, they were diminished. The whole vista - city, foothills, cordillera and peaks - has to crowd into a small rectangular box, and you just know the photos will be a disappointent. A flow-on effect was that, looking at the mountains with naked eye afterwards, my brain couldn't help referencing how they looked through the view finder, and they seemd already less impressive. I felt a little cheated, as though I'd short-circuited the becoming-blase process.

Coming away from the Cerro Santa Lucia, I was accosted by two students who were seeking "donations" in rereturn for a (truly awful) poem printed on a slip of paper, and a hard-luck story about how fees had become exorbitant since Pinochet privatized the universities. I'm still eager enough to talk with just about anyone, so I gave them a small donation in return for an enthusiastic discussion of New Zealand, Lord of the Rings, etc. They made out to be offended at how token it was - "this is for our university studies!" but I pointed out that, bloody hell, yo tambien ando medio pobre, I'd saved four years for this trip, and fees in New Zealand were also substantial (they'd assumed university there was cheap or free). Anyway, the poem was crap.

Friday, April 09, 2004

After a hot and sleepless flight, flew into Santiago with a breathtaking view of the cordillera sitting massively above the dry patchwork plains of Central Chile, the highest peaks snowy and jagging into the sky. Santiago itself was completely invisible under a blanket of brown smog. On the ground it was still, cloudless and getting rapidly warmer, well into the mid-20s. We were waved through immigration and customs, and I then had to fight off a flock of offers for special buses, taxis, accommodation and rental cars. There´s something about me that attracts touts and those seeking to sell something. Maybe it´s the vague, disoriented look and air of vacillation. If only they knew it was permanent. Eventually got on the bus which goes into Santiago, on the long boulevard Avenida Liberatador Bernardo O´Higgins (la Alameda) which runs into and through the city. From the outskirts it changes from industrial to wholesale retail, to more upmarket commercial nearer the centre, moving from looking like Mexico to looking like Europe.

Everything is a hassle and a trial when you´re newly arrived, and I think I do tend to handle these things worse than other people. The buses, the metro (where do the lines go, which direction is which, ah, what do you with your ticket to get through the barrier, god, you should have seen me blundering around), the money - Chile seems to have had similar bouts of hyperinflation to Italy and everthing is in hundreds (small change), thousands, tens of thousands, all the notes in similar colours. Lesson #1 - there is no 5,000 peso note; do not give people a 10,000 note for something small - I did this twice, which produced panicky and exasperated efforts to give the right change while other customers banked up. Language lessons also: avocado here is called ´palta´; yes, they know very well it s aguacate in Central America, but not here. A ´churrasco´ is what in America would be called a sandwich and in New Zealand a burger (i.e. stuff between burger buns). A completo is a small American hot dog.

Ended up in a hotel on the calle Londres; more idiocy - at first decided not to stay there because the price was significantly more than it said in the LP, then went back because it turned out to be better than anything else in the area anyway. The proprietor was tolerant and amused. A beautiful street - cobblestones, and magnificent three story buildings of stone with arcaded balconies, arched windows and wrought iron. Little plazas with shady slim trees with reddish leaves (have to find out what they´re called). The area is like a cross between Barcelona and Paris - though without the rubbish or dog turd of either.

I like the look of the central city - classical style stone buildings side by side with supermodern glass sky scrapers, wide boulevards of traffic with paved pedestrian malls running off. East along la Alameda the huge peaks of the Andes poke above the skyline. Barrio Brasil to the west of the city is downbeat and "bohemian", as says LP, the stone and stucco buildings more eroding and dishevelled, a nice plaza of date palms and market stalls at Plaza Brasil.

I like the people too, or at least what I´ve seen of them. They stride along purposefully, but with a touch of joie de vivre and without the robotic blankness of a city like London. And the streets are full of adults in their twenties and thirties! How one misses that in New Zealand, where outside the 9-5 workday the streets are owned by teenagers. People are super friendly and helpful when you ask for directions, but not over helpful - apart from at the airport, you blend in and don´t get hassled or strange looks. The general populace seems to be much like Carolina, Ignacio et al (my Chilean friends from Wtn). So far, no problems with el español chileno either - obviously those drunken nights at Latinos have helped (plus having a Chilean lecturer - thanks Lorena).

Still suffering from jet lag, though - beat in the middle of the day and awake at 5 am. I´m off now to do LP´s "walking tour", and hopefully will make it through to the late evening before crashing.

Saludos a todos

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Early on a Thursday morning, my last in Wellington, two guys from the Salvation Army knocked on the back door, somewhat earlier than I had expected them. I helped them carry my bed, mattress, and computer table out the back door, and they loaded them into their truck. My chest of drawers and little bookshelf (which I had inherited from other people anyway) I left for Avril, who is always a little avaricious for furniture and other junk. The entire rest of my life I was able to fit snugly into a Toyota Celica. Of these items, there was one computer in several boxes, which I have now given to Sophia. She and Jeremy also inherited my two guitars (one to mind, one to sell for their own profit). With my parents, I’m leaving one box of books, a little pile of clothes, 30 or 40 CDs, and a small collection of papers and computer discs (my works in progress). In return, I managed to get rid of over half of my stuff which had been sitting in boxes in their garage. So they made a considerable net gain on the transaction.

Pretty much everything else – including my new Kathmandu hiking shoes - has fit with surprising ease into my backpack and detachable shoulder pack. My entire existence contained within a few square feet of Great Outdoors canvas. Hardly ever do I feel so secure and complete than at moments such as this.

I’m flying out today and feel extremely nervous.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Saturday April 3 2004 – Sophia’s wedding day

The day when my youngest sister became the first of four siblings to tie the knot arrived with a morning of implausible perfection. Friday was a warm 27 degrees with a gusty nor’wester which died towards evening and shifted off that quarter. By Saturday morning it was cooler but clear, steel blue with only the gentlest of zephyrs. The wedding ceremony was to be at my uncle Tom’s place at Robinson’s Bay, on the road to Akaroa. Tom and his wife Rosemary have a wooden cottage there with a sloping front lawn, framed by young ngaio trees, which looks south-west over the Onawe peninsula and Akaroa harbour.

Mum, Sophia and the bridesmaids had stayed the night at a motel in Akaroa. Dad and Cecilia headed over there at 10 am so Cecilia could do Sophia’s makeup. I decided to take myself over to Robinson’s Bay in my own time. I was dead keen to stay out of the way of the mounting, ill-directed stress emanating from both my parents. This tends to take different forms: Mum works herself into a self-perpetuating flap of obscure worries and unfocused nervousness; Dad makes an explicit effort to seem calm and controlled, but nevertheless suffers from occasional attacks of anxious authoritarianism. I was a little worried that Dad might have a problem with me going over by myself – “Why? There’s plenty of room to come with me”; “No, we’re doing this as a family”; etc. – but to my relief he was fine with it, and I was happy to be able to take my time getting ready.

The drive out there was spectacular in the intense sunlight, winding around the rocky bluffs where the peninsula hills meet the plains, then climbing up the steep valley above Little River. I had to grit my teeth at being stuck two vehicles behind a dangerously timid driver who practically ground to a halt on some of the tighter bends, but eventually we hit the hilltop and a breathtaking view of Akaroa harbour, opaque turqouise in the dead calm.

At Tom’s place Dad was marshalling cars into parking spots. He issued instructions like a nervous military commander: Rebecca’s boyfriend Tim would continue directing cars; Cecilia would hand out the programmes; I would pour out and serve drinks to arriving guests. But of course we weren’t to feel constrained to remain in these exact roles; we could interchange them as we saw fit, as long as there was always someone at each post…Then Dad had to rush off to Akaroa to pick up Sophia and the bridesmaids. Meanwhile Mum was working herself into paroxsyms of nervous worry – it was one o’ clock, and where was Jeremy! He was needed to set up the sound system. And I definitely shouldn’t put the champagne flutes on a tray – she couldn’t possibly carry them; she’d drop them and break them (this despite the fact that * I * was supposed to be serving the drinks).

People started arriving: Sophia’s friends and work colleagues, musicians from the Folk Club, aunts, uncles and cousins from both sides of our family. Cecilia had worked her way through four glasses of champagne and was greeting everyone effusively. To Gran’s friend Pam, a rural district nurse from Waverley: “Pam, you look * great * in pink! Pink is, like, totally your colour”

We decided that Tim should call Rebecca and tell them to hold off coming for another fifteen minutes. Not all the guests had arrived, and we were a little worried that Dad might interpret the concept of the bride arriving fashionably and suspensefully late as meaning an entrance at 2:03 sharp.

I was starting to feel a little nervous myself – I was to read out a sonnet by Shakespeare, his 16th (or 116th?), as practically the first act of the ceremony – so I had a glass of champagne, then another. Tim, Cecilia and I stood out on the road and had a cigarette.

The mixture of people put me in a slightly surreal position. Now, I’m not necessarily that au fait with my extended family, but Gran was asking me to point out the aunts, uncles and cousins from Mum’s side, while both Tom and Mary asked me sotto voce who the various members of Dad’s family were. Meghan came by with her friend, chuckling “So, I guess you’re going to be my step-uncle now” Despite being about the least “family-oriented” person I know, all this seemd oddly nice.

Everyone drifted from the brick courtyard by the front door down to the lawn. I was still organising my grip on my camera, champagne flute and the weathered little book of poetry I was to read from, when the proverbial hush descended and Dad appeared, leading Sophia, Rebecca, Moata and Sonja down the slope to join Jeremy and his entourage under the trees at the bottom of the lawn. Girls, the bride was wearing a simple cream dress with a green sash – the effect was ‘mediaeval Irish princess’. The bridesmaids wore dresses of a, uh, soft creamy mint green (??), which matched Sophia’s sash.

The marriage celebrant was a smiley middle-aged woman with short hair. She gave a brief, ecumenically Christian introduction (I found myself thinking “ah, a progressive Anglican”), then I had to read the Shakespeare poem, which I did with solemnity.

The rest of the ceremony I and the approximately twelve other self-appointed photographers shuffled about, trying desperately to capture all the important moments against the stunning backdrop of blue harbour, vivid sky and contoured hills. Despite my distraction, the nervousness and sincerity of both Sophia and Jeremy were palpable. Their vows were lumpen-throated and barely audible against the punctuating whirr of automatically rolling film and the whisper of the breeze.
“Do you take Sophia to be your wife…” said the marriage celebrant.
“Yes” said Jeremy.
“I haven’t finished yet” laughed the celebrant.
I almost think I had to take more photos to hide the fact that I was quite moved by it all.

Jeremy’s brother Simon made a speech incorporating a compendium of quotes, also from Shakespeare, on the theme of marriage. Sophia and Jeremy went into the house to sign the register, came out again, then everyone went inside to attack the finger food and drink more champagne. After a while Mum, in imitation of her late father, decided it was time for everybody to go and shooed them off, while Tom and Rosemary stood grinning by their piano.

After we all had a weary cigarette on the balcony, I took Cecilia, Moata and Sonja back to Akaroa to get their things from the motel, then, in the sinking afternoon sun, we started on the long and winding road back to Christchurch.