March 30, 2006

A Jaunt to Argentina and Back Again

Well, I´m back in Santiago again. Just spent 5 days in Mendoza, Argentina which was great! Im really looking fwd to getting back to Argentina again, but it could be a while before that happens. I´m moving at a snail´s pace at the moment, and should have been in Patagonia AGES ago. Now its getting really cold and if I want to see it I need to hurry. Tried to book the NAVIMAG during the week..thats a ferry that takes you on a 4 day trip from the Lake Distrrict in Chile down to Puerto Natales which is the gateway to Tierra del Fuego. What I didnt know is that it only sails once a week, and the next available place is on April 10. So, I decided to come back to Santiago for a few days and do some serious job-hunting. Ive made quite a few friends here now and I actually missed the city for the 5 days I was away. Once I get back from Patagonia, Im really hoping to find a teaching position and stay here until August or September, so fingers crossed!
Spent a few very relaxing days in Mendoza. Its quite a big city but has a vcery small town feel and its very pretty with lots o sycamore-lined streets. Most backpackers in the city are there to tackle Acongacua or do some serious adventure sports. I spent my first day there wandering around the city and just hanging out in the hostel. The next day I booked a full days horse-riding which was fantastic! A group of about 10 of us spent hours riding in the desert and finished the day with a long lazy 3hr bbq. (the food in Argentina is to die for, especially the steak!) Met a very nice English couple that day and we decided to tour the wineries outside Mendoza the following day. We hired bikes which becmae very interesting after a few glasses of vino! The most famous wine in Mendoza is Malbec - very very good!
And so, yesterday I decided Iseen and doine what there was to do in Mendoza and got on the bus back to Santiago. At the border, there was a bit of commotion on our bus as a female passenger was taken away, her ags were searched and when she finally got back on the bus she was guarded for the rest of the journey! I think everyne just assumed she´d been cuaght with drugs or something, but in fairness, the Chileans would nearly arrest you forcarrying an apple over the border! They are super-strict!
The bus journey over the Andes is spectacular - I havce never seen anything to equal the beauty of the Andes. Its coming t the end of Summer, start of Autumn here and the colours arejust amazing.
It looks like Im going to be here in Santiago for my birthday which im glad about because a few of us are going to go out and celebrat, and im really looking fwd to it.

March 25, 2006

A Full Heart

Happiness is..
A kiss from a gorgeous guy who might love you if you didnt leave
Crossing the Andes with a lovely old woman
Silently sharing her chocolate mints,
Watching the sun set in a blush of pink
And feeling free.

March 21, 2006

A Lazy Week in Santiago

Tomorrow I leave Santiago for Mendoza in Argentina. I am sorry to be saying goodbye to Santiago. Having initially planned to stay just a night or two here, it has become difficult to leave. Its a fantastic city and a surprising one. All the guidebooks I read hadnt many good things to say about the city, but I really like it. With its leafy tree-lined streets and population of 6 million, its like a cross between New York and Madrid. Every day has been spectacularly sunny and hot and its been such a treat just lounging around soaking it up.
Ive had an eventful week and half in terms of meeting new people. For example, the HI hostel here has a resident American ex-pat called Monty who´s a bit of a character and has had a cvery interesting life. Spent alot of time hanging out chatting to him. During the week, three French men (all called Pierre and all gorgeous) arrived and caused a bit of a stir in more ways than one! Not oly were the female population of the hostel fighting over him, they got drunk every night, cuased a lot of trouble, and it ended with them getting forcibly ejected this morning but not after a huge scene at reception! They were actually very funny guys and we´ve had a hilarious week there. Also met a couple of girls from Dublin and a bunch of guys from Mayo. Paddy´s Day was great craic of course - everyone converged on the only Irish pub in the city. Whyen we got there it was pretty dead but it wasnt long before we livened it up. All the Chileans looked a bit afraid at first but we got them up dancing and singing and it was a great night.
During the week I went on a lot of city walkabouts and saw quite a lot of Santiago centre which is a great place to wander about. I visited the Mercado Central where there is a fantastic fish market and I had an outstanding lunch there! On the same day I took a funicular and cable car high over the city and spend an hour or two in the hills enjoying a panoramic view of the city with the backdrop of the Andes (which is quite obscured by the pollution cloud that hangs in the air). Many days I walked the shopping streets and visited the Plaza dArmas, ate icecream, visited the city´s churhces and museums. One of my favourite things was taking a tour of the poet Pablo Neruda´s house. He and his wife have the most amazing collection of memorabilia and books - a very cool place. I had hoped to take a day trip out to the coast to Valparaiso and Viña del Mara but Ive been enjoying the city too much to really get around to it.
Almost had my bag picked here one day. Got caught in a bottleneck of ppl all converging on a set of traffic lights, and I suddenly heard a "ziiiiippppp" sound (thats my impression of a zip opening by the way) so I WHIPPED around to find this middle-aged woma with her hand on the front pocket where the bulk of my money is. I stood right up agaisnt her and just stared her out of it and then SHE called me a bitch and took off. Other than that, no bad experiences and Santiago feels like quite a safe city for the most part.
Theres a great area here just where the hostel is situated called the Barrio Brasil which is full of interesting cafes and barsn - its very bohemian and residencial and a very nice part of the city to stay in for a while.
So anyway, thats the update on Santiago. Itsbeena apleasant surprise, if an expenisve one, and I would love to come back again some day. Tomorrow morning I cross the border into Argentina and then back again in a few days before I head south to Patagonia and hopegfully Tierra del Fuego.

March 13, 2006

The Navel of the World

Sunday morning and I´m back in Santiago. The sun is beating down, the sky is blue an I spent the afternoon sitting listening to an open-air concert in the cenre of the city. Kids are swimming in a fountain beside me and ppl are out walking their dogs. It´s a perfect Sunday .
Arrived back at Santiago airport last night after3 blissful days in Easter Island. I can see why its called "the navel of the world". Its the most remote place Ive ever been, and certainly the most mysterious! Had an early start on 8th to get out to the airport. Things run pretty well here in Santiago and it was effortless, helped by thefact that the airport bus left from just near my hostal. The 5 hr flight to the island was so comfortable (LAN are great to fly with!) and the sea below just got bluer with every hour we flew.
Our huge Boeing 767 landed at a little airport the size of Knock airport. I was metin the arrivals hall by Patti, the girl who runs the residencial I stayed at, with a beautiful garland of yellow flowers. It aws a short drive to her place, and when she showed me my cabana, I nearly passed out! It was looking right out on the Pacific Ocean with its wn little terrace. There were little yellow flowers strewn around the room and it was like walking into a honeymoon suite.
Once I got settled and had a quick shower I headed out into the 35 degree heat to get my bearings. I walked into Hanga Roa, which is the only settlement in the island, so its where everything happens really. I stood for about 30 minutes looking out at the sea with my face turned up to the sun, mentally pinching myself because I couldnt believe I was really there. All the locals were smiling and saying hi, and I felt so welcome there. This place is HEAVEN - blue blue skies, hot, sunny, totally surrounded by the Pacific, thousands of miles from anywhere. Everything and everyone is so laid back. The biggest, and maybe only drawback, is that everything is SERIOUSLY EXPENSIVE. Internet access for one hour is $US6 - bit of a shock after Peru and Bolivia! But you just hae to tell yourself that this is a once in a lifetime experience and you just have to go with it. Anyway, after walkingf around for a couple of huors and getting my bearings, I went to a little fish restaurant looking out on the ocean. There I met two really sound American guys who were in Easter Is. to climb the volanoes. Wandered home late with a bottle of wine and just sat o the terrace wathcing the sunset.
The sundoesnt rise until about 8am in Easter Island so you get a great nights sleep. I woke the next morning and found a huge exotic looking breakfast waiting for me on the table outside my cabana. I have to tell you about this breakfast because it is the best Ive eve had. First I was presetned with a weird looking black bowl of red didnt look very appetising but "when in Rome..". Once I tasted it, I realised it was passionfruit - it was delicious! Then I was given deep-fried banans followed by little rolls with avocado, turkey and cheese. THEN came a sort of doghnut like creation with apricot jam followed by little strips of fruit, all washed down with watermelon milkshake and loads of coffee.
At 9:30 I was sort of feeling that I might be able to think about walking again! when Jerome, my tour guide for the day, arrived. He is French but now lievs in Easter Island. He landed here when he was in the military years ago and fell in love with a local Rapa Nui girl. He has been here since. So, we picked up two other girls, one English, one Canadia, and headed off for a full day tour of the island. I hugely enjoyed it, although Jerome wasnt the best guide in the world. He just looked so bored but he was a ncie guy. We covered pretty much all the island that day, saw all the important Moai sites and quarry where the photo for the Pink Flloyd album was taken (see photos!). Jerome also took us to see some pretty interesting caves. The Moai are very strange mysterious looking figures and must have been very intimidating to non-islanders when they were all standing in their full glory. The Rapa Nui people constructed lines of them at various points all along their coastline, but later tribal wars resulted in most of the Moai being knocked down from their ahu (platforms). Many have now been restored but the island is full of fallen and incomplete statutes. The islanders were also cannibals at one point, but I´m pretty sure there are none left now. So, we had a long but very interesting day seeing the island with Jerome. He dropped me back to my place at 5:30 whereupon I had a COLD SHOWER STRAIGHT AWAY!ª The heat is something else!Chilled out for an hour reading and then went to meet the two girls at 8 - we went for some food and spent the evening chatting.
The next morning I woke to the sound of a raging Pacific storm outside. I opened the door and was greeted with howling wind, big waves crahsing up against the rocks, and pouring rain. DISAPPOINTMENT! It could have been opening the door at home! Patti herded us all indoors for a communal breakfast and I ended up chatting to a really ncie Swiss couple. By the time our lazy 2 and a half hourbreakfast was over, the storm had miraculously all but gone! ANother hour later, it was like it had never happened, apart from a few grey wispy clouds fleeing with the wind. So, I decided to hire a jeep for the day and revisit some of the spots we´d seen a day earlier with Jerome. I swang by the hostal to see if Jenny and Kat were up for a bit of exploring, which they were, and aftre getting some supplies for lunch and lots of water, we headed off. We had a really nice day. Kat and myself jumped up and down in the huge waves for hours while Jenny sunbathed on an almost deserted perfectly white beac. Bliss. In the afternoon, we drove to an ancient Rapa Nui settlement for a bit of a history lesson.
Dropped the jeep back by 7 and we then went to see a screening to the Kevin Costner movie "Rapa Nui", but it was in French, which was disappointing.Instead we went for dinner to a really nice place and watched the spectacular sunset. (again, see photos to see the colours!)We got chatting to some people, so a group of the only backpackers on the island (there are very few to be found there. Its mostly rich American couples...) headed back to a hostal nearby and we spent the evening just hanging out and laughing at each other.
After breakfast the next morning, I went for a walk along the coast to savour my last hours on Easter Island. Patti drove me to the airport and gave me a present of a lovely ethnic necklace which I will treasure. The local people there are fantastic - thy are so warm and generous. I would LOVE to think I will go back to Easter Island some day, but its unlikely. It really is a once in a lifetime experience!

March 9, 2006

Soaking Up the Sun in San Pedro

And so a not so merry band of us arrived in San Pedro de Atacama - hot and tired after our 3 day off road adventure at the top of the world! When we were assailed by the hoards of accommodation touts at the door of the bus, we went easily with the first one that seemed to be offering an okay price. We were thrilled to be taken to a cosy little hostel with hammocks, decent showers, a LAUNDRY service (hurray!) and seriously comfy beds! One thing I have started to notice in what is now my 3rd month on the road is how easily pleased you become.
After a doze in the hot afternoon sun and some showers, spirits were high again. We all went for some pizza and beer and met up with a German couple who had just come from Argentina. After dinner, I really needed some ME time. Having spent about a week in the company of the same ppl, I just felt like doing some solo of my favourite things to do when I land somewhere new.
San Pedro is a really cool, laid back place..although very tourist oriented. It also feels exteremly safe and I felt myself just relaxing after 2 and half months of really watching my own back. Stayed up quite late that night chatting to the ppl in the hostel and swopping stories. Many of them were heading the way we had just come, so we were able to help them out. Slept like a BABY for the first time in a few weeks.
The next morning some of my group went sandboarding, but myself and a Danish girl chose to go biking instead and we ended up spending a really relaxing afternoon chatting and drinking beers in a really cool restaurant. It was a good laugh, I got on really well with her and Im now going to stay with her and her boyfriend in their apartment in Santiago for a few days when I get back from Easter Island.
That night I boarded a bus for Santiago - a 24hour bus journey!! As we drove out of San Pedro into the Atacama desert the sun was setting over the mountains, and it was one of the most beautiful sights of my life. The guy who sat beside me had no English and we managed to have a conversation for 2 hours using gestures and laughing at the state of each other until I finally crashed out. The bus journey was very very long, but better than I thought it would be. We had plenty of movies and food to keep us happy. The CHilean bus services are like airplanes - the attention from the stewards is excellent and everything is very comfortable - so overall the journey was fine. We arrived in Santiago yesterday evening at 7:30 - I went straight to the local HI hostel (which I highly recommend!!). I ended up sharing a room with 2 really sound girls from England. We szpent the night in the bar chatting and we met a guy from Ireland who was great craic.
Life doesnt get much better than this.

March 8, 2006

Onwards to Uyuni

Getting to Uyuni
Another long uncomfortable bus journey to contend with from Potosi through the Bolivian desert to Uyuni. Shortly after leaving Potosi, the bus stopped outside a penetenciary, which aroused the interest of everyone on the bus. Tourists and locals alike gaped in amazement as six guards with guns boarded the bus. A prisoner was handcuffed to one of the guards, while the others carried another guy who had been drugged especially for the long journey. They all went to the back of the bus with everyone staring open-mouthed!! Only in South America would convicts be transported on a public bus!!
The journey was not hugely interesting as the landscape did not vary at all. When we finally came into sight of the Salar after hours of desert and cactii, it was like seeing the ocean. Uyuni is a very strange little town, very flat, but I sort of liked it and Im not sure why. Maybe it was because the carnival was finally over and we could actually walk around again without getting soaked!
Later that night, after successfully booking our tour of the Salar and the desert, we made our way to the Minuteman , a restaurant which is highly recommended in all the guide books. It is run by an American who is married to a Bolivian, and there I had some of the best pizza Ive ever had! We met a huge group of backpackers and it turned into a great night. We ended up ina little pavillion in the centre of the town listening to two of the guys playing guitar - one of the best nights out Ive had so far.
Salar de Uyuni
The next morning, two 4WD jeeps set off from Uyuni (way later than scheduled but no-one really minded. Things move at a snails pace here! You just have to accept it). Our first stop was the Salar and it is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen - A huge expanse of white salt which stretched for over 12,000km and can be seen from space. Everyone went kind of nuts taking all sorts of crazy pictures. For me, it seemed like a little piece of heaven after the gloom and hellishness of the Potosi mines. Our guides cooked lunch there and we ate a little tables set out on the white salt. The food throughout the tour was great - that day we had llama steaks (which taste like a cross between pork and lamb), salad, and quinua (which is a locak type of grain..not dissimilar to rice). We spent quite a long time at the Salt Hotel (yes, the hotel is constructed entirely from salt!) and stopped along the flats to take various photos. Unfortunately, we had to miss what is a regular part of the tour because at this time of the year huge holes form in the salt, making driving in certain parts of the salar dangerous. So, instead of visiting an island of interest on the salar, we drive back to Uyuni for a short time and some munchies, before heading off again into the desert altiplano to our hospedaje for the night. We also stopped at an abandoned train yard, and I was in heaven taking shots of all the weird defunct machinery - I love that stuff! We drove for hours off road, all of us bouncing around the jeep - I spent about 2 hrs mesmerized watching a lightning storm happening right beside us. Huge bolts of fork lightning hit the desert on the left of the jeep causing sand to rise into the air, and thunder boomed at us as we sped away from the storm. Spent that evening playing cards at the hospedaje and everyone got an early night as had an early start the next morning.
Desolation and Flamingos
The next morning, we rose to heat at 8:30 in the morning. We drove at a height of almost 5000m across the desert altiplano. This is one of the most desolate parts of the world I imagine and it felt as if you were thousands of miles from civilisation. Along the way, we stopped to see some amazing rock formations - the rocks have assumed the strangest shapes from constant battering by the high winds. Again, got some great photos. This day also involved hours of driving. At lunch, we stopped by a lagoon full of beautiful pink flamingos. We passed an active volcano, whose name I forget now, and we drove along a multicoloured lake...which goes red in the evening due to algae disturbance. The long hours in the jeep were punctuated with many stops to get out and just take in the beauty of it all. Our hospedaje for the second night was more basic, but by now everyone was used to roughing it and we thought it was the Ritz! Again, the food was outstanding and after more crazy card-playing everyone crashed early.
Geysers, Boiling Lava and Thermal Baths
On the third morning, we all froze the minute we got up out of bed. I havent experienced this kind of cold since Killington! Layers of clothes were donned and we all huddled together in the jeeps as we set off at 5am to the geysers. The minute we got there, however, it was easy to forget about the temperature. I cant do justice to the scene really, but Ill try. (The pictures say it all). As the sun rose over the horizon, we saw huge jets of steam gushing into the cold morning air. Getting a good shot was really difficult. A few yards further on, we came across huge craters full of boiling mud - it was actually boiling and gurgling and spurting right ther in front of us, and the heat coming from the holes was enough to keep us all there until the sun came up. When we´d been sufficiently amazed by that, we hopped back in the jeeps which took us to the nearby thermal baths. When everyone had soaked for about an hour in the 30 degree heat in the company of the flamingos, we had breakfast sitting by the lagoon. An amazing setting - something that will be hard to forget.
After breakfast, our guides drove us to the Bolivian/Chilean border where those of us heading to Chile boarded a minibus. We said goodbye to the rest of our group and to Bolivia. In the space of one hour we dropped from an altitude of 5000m to 2400m and from bone-chilling cold to the searing heat of the Atacama desert. The layers were quickly shed!!
A restless hour was passed in line at Chilean border control as we waited to have our packpacks searched. The Chileans are VERY strict and thorough, althoguh the officer who opened my backpack took one look at the chaos within and grinned at me. He did a cursory search and let me go with a big wink!

March 7, 2006

Into the Jaws of Hell

Well, I made it to Potosi after a near heart attack leaving La Paz! After waiting patiently at the station for 2 hours for my bus, the driver told me as I was boarding that I should be getting on another one. Of course, having next to no SPanish it was really difficult to figure out what he was saying and I just ended up running off in the direction he was pointing. Every bus driver I asked said they were not going to Potosi and I was running around the station like a lunatic with my enormous pack on my back. When I eventually managed to ascertain that I had been getting on the correct bus initially, it was pulling out of the station, and I had to run after it shouting and waving. The journey was long and overnight and, as usual, uncomfortable, but I´m starting to get used to it. We arrived at the bus station in Potosi as the sun was coming up. I got a cab to a hostal that I had been recommended to me, but when we got there I found a sign saying that they were full up on the door. When I tried to get the taxi driver to drop me somewhere else, he just hopped in and sped off, leaving me in the deserted morning streets. There was nothing to do but start walking. I felt very unsafe, but within minutes I came across another hostal. I rang the bell, and after what seemed like hours someone answered and let me in. Luckily they had a room, and so I just crawled into bed, clothes and all, and slept for a few hours.
Later that morning, I headed to the center of the town in the hope of booking the 2 oclock tour to the Potosi mines, but found that everything was shut due to the carnival being on. I got soaked BADLY twice walking along the street and ended up running into a nearby cafe for refuge. While I was sitting there, a couple of Canadian girls and Dutch girl came up and asked if they could sit with me. We decided to all do the mines tour together the following day.
The Potosi Mines
So, the following morning we all piled into a rickety minibus - our driver and our guide were both hammered (I mean, really hammered!) and as we wound our way up the narrow mountain tracks we all feared that we were going to go careering down the cliffs at any moment! We stopped for a few minutes at the Miner´s Market at the edge of the town where we bought sticks of dynamite and bags of cocoa leaves for the miners. Further up the road, we stopped at a sort of big shed to get suited up with overalls, hardhats, boots and headlamps. Far from sexy attire, but you´d probably die down there without it.
The mines are the most inhospitable and frightening environment I have ever been in. It was tough, really tough, and its very hard to believe that this is somewhere they bring tourists! Its even harder to swallow the fact that children as young as 14 work in this place. The air is thick with dust, arsenic, asbestos and god knows what else! You can feel your chest and throat tightening as you go deeper into the bowels of the mines. The terrain underfoot changes from thick squelching mud to deep water to crumbling rock. At many points, we had to get down, not just on hands and knees, but acutally in a lying position and manouevre our head and limbs through these tiny narrow passages, hitting the roof above and knocking little bits of rock. Fear grips your heart as you imagine what it would be like if the roof caved in - you´d be a goner - an awful way to go.
Also, the deeper we went, the hotter the mines became - unbearably hot, and the guys in our group were even becoming very uncomfortable and anxious.
About half way through the tour, our guide instructed us all (in his slurred speech) to turn out our headlamps. In pitch blackness we huddled, as he sparked a single cigarette. Everyone jumped as the face of the devil lit up in the corner in front of us. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we saw a full figure which had been created by the miners, bedecked with streamers (to mark carnival time), and complete with horns. Our guide sat beside it and lit another cigarette which he placed in its mouth. He then began to "pray" to it, asking for long life for the miners and for the members of our tour group. He explained that the miners believe that the devil is the "god of the earth" and so they pay homage to this figure every day. I felt slightly disturbed initially, but then got a fit of the giggles at the state of our guide, who had continued swigging beer throughout the tour and was talking total shite to this lump of clay sitting on a wall. It was all kind of ridiculous! lol.
We clambered and stumbled through 5km of tunnels with our headlamps finally fading to mere glimmers in the darkness. Managed to get some photos in there, and when we finally emerged into the daylight again; I felt glad that I had put myself through the experience. Visiting these mines was a profoundly moving experience, if not a horrifying one in many ways.
Back Up in the Land of the Living
When we got back to Potosi, I decided to move hostels and stay with the Canadian and Dutch girls. A German guy from our Mines group also decided to come with us. We have all decided to travel to Uyuni together and maybe even book the same tour once we arrive there. After a lot of racing around the city this evening, we finally managed to book a bus out of here tomorrow morning.