Friday, October 25, 2013

Homework? Ain't nobody got time for that

You know what's really awesome about Chile? That even though I have a ton of homework right now, I can still have adventures. Holla to the 620 pages of reading, 2 presentations, group project, and essay, all in Spanish, that I have to do in less than two weeks. With more down time this would be manageable, but I have an exchange program excursion tomorrow, Vito's National Rugby Championship game in Santiago on Sunday, and a week-long vacation to Lake Region in the South starting next Monday (blog posts to come on these adventures!). How will the homework get done? Your guess is better than I mine. But it will.

As you can probably tell it has been a bit of a hectic month, which is why it's been a while since my last post.  Let's work backwards through October, shall we? This week was the week of birthdays in my house- my host sister Camila turned 20 on Sunday and my host mom turned 38 (again) on Tuesday. We celebrated my host mom's birthday with an early breakfast, about which I had no complaints because there is no better way to start a day than with cake and cookies. Camila celebrated with a masivo, or big party, last Saturday on my host family's countryside land parcel about 40 minutes away. She is pretty popular, so there were quite a few people there, as well as a bonfire and dance music. It was really fun! I also got to watch Vito's semi-final rugby game last Saturday, which was great because it wasn't even close- they destroyed the other team. Let me just say that my host brother is the coolest. I tried to wish him good luck on his way out the door, but he just said, "No! Luck is for the weak! Victory is for the strong!"

The week before included an asado, or BBQ, on my family's land parcel that lasted all afternoon and was wonderfully relaxing. I must be a Colorado girl because my soul just feels at peace when I'm back in the open horse pastures near the mountains.

I also watched some fútbol games, in one of which Chile officially qualified for the World Cup. Let's just say that even if you hadn't watched the game, you would know we had won by the large quantity of people driving around, honking their horns, yelling, and flying the Chilean flag out their car windows.

And now we have arrived to the beginning of October and my trip to Norte Chico, or the Mid-North region of Chile. Chile is a massively long country- if you were to drive it from top to bottom, it would be as far as driving from New York to Los Angeles- so I like to conceptualize it in 5 basic regions: the Great North, the Mid-North, the Central region (where I live), the South, and the Far South. Before I leave Chile I will actually get to travel to all 5 of these regions, which is really cool! Of all the regions, Norte Chico/the Mid-North is the most under-appreciated and least touristy, so I am glad I got the opportunity to see a part of the country that not many people get to see.

We spent our first day in Combárbala, home to Combarbalita, a beautiful type of stone unique to the area. Of course we went to see some artisan stone carvers do their thang.

We also visited a goat herder's ranch. The ranchers in this arid region still continue the centuries-old tradition of herding all their animals to the base of the Andes mountains every summer when the streams dry up. I had a pretty profound connection with this baby goat, although it would appear that it tried to attack my finger at first:

While on the ranch we saw petroglyphs that have been around for a few thousand years:

I said this one below was a man dancing. Turns out it's a woman giving birth. Oops.

This one is really interesting because it demonstrates the astrological awareness of the indigenous peoples of the region. Our guide is holding a picture demonstrating what the mountain behind him looks like at full moon, and if you look carefully, there is a perfect illustration of this on the left edge of the rock.

Speaking of astrology, the skies in Norte Chico are the clearest in the whole world. The atmosphere has extremely low humidity and there is practically no light pollution in many areas, so there is nothing blocking the view. We went to an observatory, and it was such an incredible experience. Walking outside and seeing the sky literally brought tears to my eyes. There were so many stars, and they were so brilliant. Obviously the constellations are different in the Southern Hemisphere, so you can actually see an arm of the Milky Way! I loved getting to look through the telescope too. My favorite thing to observe was "una estrella chispada," or a star so far away that its light gets distorted in its journey and it ends up looking like a sparkler, scintillating and shooting off glittering particles.

Watching the stars was one of my favorite parts, and the other was the next day when we did a bike tour through Valle del Elqui, a scenic valley filled with wine and pisco vineyards.

We stopped off at the Guayacan cervecería, or craft brewery. It was definitely one of those "you know you're in college when..." moments because the boys in our groups rode their bikes back with one or no hands so that they could hold the 12-packs of beer they had just bought.

For day three we hopped over to the town of Andacollo. It is recognized as one of the most contaminated areas of Chile because of the sketchy practices of the copper mine right outside the town limits, which we went to go see.

We then saw a presentation from an environmental coalition started by the concerned citizens of the town. Many of them are miners themselves, so they understand the economic importance of mining in Chile. Rather than protesting mining completely, they sit down with the mine management and the government and talk though issues until they can come up with solutions that allow mining to continue while protecting the environment and people's health. It was an amazing example of community organizing- my inner Leadership student was so proud and inspired.

We also observed a perquinero's workshop. Perquineros are the traditional miners who mine for precious metals such as gold completely by hand. I can't even begin to describe how hard they work for the little amount of yield they get (both referring to the quantity of metal extracted and their personal income).

Finally, we saw a religious festival for the Virgin of Andacollo. Back in the 1500s a statue of the Virgin Mary somehow got buried in the hills of the region, and a few natives unearthed it right in the middle of the Conquest of Latin America. It became a symbol of the Catholic quest in Chile. The original statue was destroyed in a fire, but a replica still serves as a sacred object for people from all over the region. They come to ask her for favors, or mandas, and bring valuable objects to increase their persuasiveness. They might also show their devotion by traveling the distance to the chapel walking on their knees. They will return the next year with more gifts to thank the Virgin for answering their prayers.

To be honest this entire process is a little uncomfortable for me, as it runs very contrary to the grace- and relationship-based Christian faith I hold. I can say their fervor certainly made an impression on me, as did the Cathedral of Andacollo, the second-largest cathedral devoted to the Virgin in all of Latin America.

That night, we watched the procession as the Virgin was transported from the museum in which she resides for most of the year to her cathedral. The procession was led by Chino dancers, who mix traditional indigenous instruments, dances, and costumes with their Catholic faith. The music was a little bit less than pleasant at points (lots of shrill flutes), but the dances were pretty legit.

And then came the Virgin herself, blazing in glory:

Finally, we returned to La Serena, the coastal city where we were staying. We spent a late night on the beach, playing card games and listening to the guys have a jam sesh with their guitars. In the morning we had just enough time to see a Japanese garden before we headed back to Viña del Mar.

So, there is a condensed version of my October! I will try to be a little more punctual in writing my blog posts, not because I think you as a reader care per se, but more for the sake of my own recollection. Peace out homies!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Celebrating Chile's Heritage in the Desert

Now that we have reached October, I now feel capable of writing all my experiences during Las Fiestas Patrias! Well, that and I just didn't get around to it until now. September 18th may be the day chosen to commemorate the state of Chile, as it is the anniversary of the day on which that the first governing body of Chile came together (though true independence was not achieved until years later), but the entire month of September is full of patriotic celebrations. We had the entire week of the 16th to the 20th off school, so my friends and I took advantage of the opportunity to travel to the Atacama desert in the northern part of Chile.

Every time I told a friend or family member from back in the States that I was going to a desert for what is more or less my spring break week, they always seemed puzzled and asked, "Is there anything to do there? Is it a pretty desert?" The answer to both of these questions is Yes! Or at least, there are some very cool sections of the desert, including San Pedro de Atacama, the small town we visited. The rest of the desert is very much how you would imagine it to be: dry, sandy, dusty, rocky, and lined with land masses that are too short to be properly labeled mountains but too large to be called hills. Let's just say I am very familiar with the landscape of northern Chile since I had a 24-bus-ride in each direction to fully soak in its vastness. 

Honestly, 24-hour bus rides are not as bad as I thought they would be. When you are a college student traveling the world, buses are actually your best friend because 1) they are cheap, 2) you can travel through the night and therefore save the cost of one night in a hostel, 3) if the trip is short enough you can travel exclusively by night and thereby avoid wasting a precious day on travel, 4) you get to see endless landscapes at no additional cost, and 5) you are more motivated to finish that awful book your lit teacher assigned you over your break because there is quite literally nothing else to do. Your other best friend is hostels. The key to enjoying a hostel is to lower your expectations- if you don't expect it to be clean, for the toilets to function, for the water in the shower to always be hot, or to be able to shower for more than 3 minutes, and if you anticipate the crazy loud partying right outside your room until dawn, you will actually quite enjoy the experience. You will even get to meet cool people from all over the world! Throughout the week we meet travelers from Spain, Finland, Brazil, Mexico, and England, just to name a few. And best part is, the jacked up, high season rate was only $16 US per night.

Ok, back to the story. After a long journey we arrived to the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama, which has been home to indigenous peoples for centuries. Nowadays it is more of a jumping off point for sightseeing tours than anything else. We ended up taking four different tours, each to a breathtaking section of nature that was completely distinct than anything I have ever seen before.

First up was El Tatio, a collection of geysers situated at over 14,000 ft elevation. We arrived at dawn so that we could see the steam rising before the rising sun warms up the air and shines its rays, both of which make the geysers less visible.

The device you see in the center of the above photo is a failed effort at harnessing geothermal energy. It was quite controversial because los Atacameños, the indigenous people native to the region, believe that the geysers are a sacred place. They believe that Pachamama (Mother Earth) was deeply graved by this failed project, and as a result Chile experienced the devastating earthquake of 2010.

Just after the sun rose, while those with more common sense stood bundled up in parkas, we went swimming in some thermal springs. The water was lukewarm at best, and getting in and out was really cold, but it was well worth the effort.

Driving out of the national park we got to see some pretty neat wildlife, including a desert fox, vicuñas (a cousin of llamas), wonderfully fluffy goats, and- you guessed it- LLAMAS!

We also got to eat llamas. They taste really good, kind of similar to lamb.

Our next excursion was to see La Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) and La Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). The rock formations there are very unique because they are actually not rocks at all; they are mountains of pure salt covered by a thin layer of dust brought in by wind and cemented on with the rain that occasionally falls in the region. We were lucky enough to see the same area from multiple perspectives, including from above: 

from below in a cave:

from the side while watching one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever witnessed:

and through the middle when we returned on bike later in the week.

Tour number three was to the Salar Atacama, or Atacama Salt Flat. Unlike the valleys we had seen which were covered up by dust, the salt formations were exposed and covered the whole ground:

The lagunas in the salt flats have a high enough salt content to contain crustaceans, which means they also have FLAMINGOS! And here you were thinking there were only flamingos in tropical places.

Then we went to see another set of highland lagoons which were equally scenic, but in a different sense:

Our last tour was to Laguna Cejar, which has such an incredibly high salt content that you can float without effort. May I also add that it is jarringly cold. Although there were tourists from all around the world present speaking a variety of languages, I am pretty sure they all understood the choice words in English that came out of my mouth when I jumped in. Once your muscles all went nice and numb, though, it was actually very soothing and peaceful:

And I looked like a badass grandma for the rest of the day with all the salt dried into my hair:

I have to say the most amazing moment of the whole week was driving back from the salt flats that night. We saw this weird glow coming from behind the mountain and thought it was the lights from a town or the like. Then, just a few seconds later, this massive glowing full moon emerged from behind the mountain peak. The moon, hanging low in the sky, looked several times its normal size, and it was glowing with this softly fierce illuminating force. I don't really have words to describe it and my camera couldn't capture it, so you'll just have to take my word that it was a moment that quite literally stole the breath right out of my lungs.

Looking back on the tours, they were cool not only because we got to see so many places, but also because we had awesome guides! They were all bilingual, or rather, they all knew enough English to be able to conduct a tour for any tourists in our group who didn't speak Spanish. This caused some really incredible moments for my friends and I linguistically. Sometimes we would be listening more passively because we were appreciating the scenery- you know that kind of listening where you are just absorbing what the person is saying without having to focus consciously?- and then we'd get really confused because the guide had started to repeat everything he had just said. Then we realized that he was merely saying it in the other language, and we hadn't even really noticed which language he was speaking in because we were so comfortable with both. Needless to say this was very exciting for us considering how much we have struggled (and sometimes continue to struggle) to communicate with native Spanish speakers.

Even though I loved getting to see so many incredible places and interact with our guides, I was a little disappointed that all we really did was get on and off the bus. Since I am a Colorado girl through and through, I am used to enjoying the outdoors through movement, be it on my feet, a bike, or some variation of a board. Therefore Friday morning we decided to rent bikes and move a little before our long bus ride back. As I had mentioned above, we went back to see Valle de la Muerte from the inside. We saw this amazing looking dried mud. 

My friend Helen gave it a poke and realized that the outer edges were not actually dried at all. I saw that crystallized-looking part in the center, decided that certainly that part had to be dry, and that if I just jumped out to it I could take a really cool yoga-pose picture in the middle of it.

Clearly I was mistaken. One of our bikes also got a flat tire on the way back, so Helen and I had to put our heads together and figure out how to change an inner tube on the side of the road even though neither of us had done it on our own before. It was quite the adventure!

All in all, we had an incredible 18th week! San Pedro de Atacama is not typically considered the ideal place to spend las Fiestas Patrias because they don't have as many of the big celebrations. Nonetheless, I did get to enjoy some Chilean traditions. One was watching a roving cueca band parade through the streets on San Pedro (la cueca is the national dance of Chile, I've blogged about it before so I won't bore you by repeating myself). I was a little bummed that I didn't get to participate myself because I had been practicing and I had bought a pañuelo (handkerchief) and everything! However, seeing these little cueca cuties made up for it:

The characterizing factor of 18th celebrations is the asado (BBQ), which essentially means excessive consumption of food and alcohol. I didn't feast all week long in the same manner as my friends who stayed in Viña del Mar/Valparaíso, but I still got to try several traditional foods including:
1. Empanadas de Pino- empanadas filled with beef and onion, slices of hard boiled egg, and an olive with its pit still inside. Some versions also include raisins, although I have never tried this type.
2. Choripan- a chorizo sausage on a bun
3. Anticuchos- a meat kebob containing chorizo, chicken, and/or beef
4. Prieta- or blood sausage. Quite literally, it is blood that has been cooked until it thickens into a cakey texture and shoved inside a sausage casing. Sounds disgusting, but it was actually very good.
5. Chicha- apple or grape juice that has been fermented but not distilled, meaning that it still has a very high fruit content. I liked it ok in small quantities, but a big glass of it was too sweet for me.
6. Churros rellenos- like the Mexican churros that we have in the United States, but oozing manjar (dulce de leche/caramel)

Finally, after we got back from the desert we ended the week by going to a fonda, which is the Chilean version of a carnival. 

They had lots of food stands and shops selling clothing, jewelry, etc. There was a big tent with people dancing the cueca that was expensive to get into or I would have been all over it. Finally, there were carnival games and rides! Since the concept of liability doesn't really exist here, the rides are much more dangerous than in the US, and therefore more exciting as well! For example, the pirate ship rides do full circles:

The guy who helped us pull down the shoulder restraint over our heads couldn't get them to come down all the way, and after a couple seconds of trying, he shrugged his shoulders and said they were good enough though they were quite loose. So, as the ship got up to the top of it's swing, my butt completely lifted out of my seat and I was holding on for dear life praying that I wouldn't slide out of my shoulder restraint, and I was laughing like crazy! 

Well, just as my night in the fonda was a wrap on my 18th celebrations, this will be a wrap for this blog post. All I have to say is that life is good, and I feel blessed to be here in Chile and to experience everything I'm experiencing :)