Valle de la Luna / Atacama Desert

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A sort of homecoming

March 2013

Hello everybody,
We are back blogging - because we went back to Chile!  We took a couple of weeks to visit our friends and "Family" in Castro, on the island of Chiloé, after an absence of a year and a half.  It was wonderful!  Much to our delight, we remembered everyone, everyone remembered us, and we had better weather than we had any reason to hope for.

The first change we noticed: Our little town of Castro is now served by LAN, the Chilean national airline!  They have a few flights a day into a new little airport just north of town.  Unfortunately for us, flights there from Santiago and Puerto Montt sold out in a matter of hours - so we got to relive our first arrival in Castro, but with much more knowledge and much nicer weather.  It was better this way...

After 24 hours of travel by car, planes, and car again, we finally arrived at Tía Victoria's Sunday evening for an asado.  A lot of the family was there, and everyone looked the same - except for Diego: his time as a conservatory student in Santiago has inspired him to grow a big beard.  Victoria cooked up some yummy lamb, potatoes, and Chilean salad - it was as if we had never left.  Surprisingly, we found that we were able to understand everyone's speech as well if not better than when we left two years ago, but after all the traveling, our speech wasn't coming as easily.  We took our leave and headed down to Margot's house in Chonchi, which we used as a base of operations for our visit.

Anyone who has visited my sister Anne's house or knows Lisa's friend and colleague Lori is familiar with the concept of "Chaos House": The door is always open, cousins and friends wander in and out at all hours, and it's the social center of the family and the neighborhood.  Margot's house is Chaos House of Chonchi, bolstered by the fact that Margot's sister and brother and their families live in houses on either side of hers - so there are lots of cousins who come over to play every day.

 It was a fun way to stay, and we got to know their lives better.  They have a nice view of the church from their house.  Roberto enjoyed some quality time watching TV and playing video games with Chelo and Nacho, and Gabi got to help the cousins make a birthday cake for Pity (Margot's husband).
  After spending Monday recovering, sleeping in and catching up. we headed in to Castro Tuesday after a leisurely brunch  to attend to a few errands (get the cell phone working again, check out the tourist info center for special events) and visits (the Frutería Tía remembered us and gave everyone gran brazos = big hugs).  The cathedral got a new coat of paint! and everything looked fresh and shiny.  We hung out in the Plaza de Armas to see if we could recognize anyone.  We were not disappointed: Within half an hour, several of Lisa's former students came through, along with two friends with their families, including the bus driver Jose who took Roberto under his wing.  Jose has a better job now driving an employee bus for a salmon company.  We checked out the local micros and recognized only two of the drivers.  Unsurprisingly, it's a high-turnover job.
The empenada ladies recognized us too.  Also Roberto's friend Jose Luis from his 1st grade class and his mum.

On the way back, to get some nap time for the kids, we drove along Mike's favorite bike ride way up in the hills along a ridge to get a fantastic view east across the islands and the Golfo de Corcovado to see the jagged mountains and snow-capped volcanoes of the Cordillera de los Andes.  Lisa got a chance to see why Mike liked this particular ride so much, and Mike recalled learning and enjoying the peaks: from Volcán Yates in the north, to the big rounded dome of Michinmahuida, with the still-steaming peak and bare gray fire-blasted slopes of Volcán Chaiten just to the south, to the near-perfect jagged peak of Corcovado looming over the water and the snow-capped peaks of Volcán Nevado and Melimoyu in the far south.

Wednesday we went to Margot and Pity's house on Lago Huillinco, to hang out some more on the beach. Roberto's friend Jose Luis's family has a house two doors down, so he came by with his cousins and the kids played on the beach and in the tower that Pidy built for Nacho and which is shared by everyone.  Lisa and Mike took kayaks out for a quick paddle around the area.  A great time was had by all!

We came back for a surprise birthday party for Pity - what fun!  The next day we went back out and stayed overnight.  During the day we headed out to Cucao and Rahue to enjoy the beach.  Cucao was overrun with mochileros (backpackers) - it's a Thing to Do for college-age kids to hitchhike their way across Chile down to Chiloé and out to the beach, where they can pack into campgrounds with hundreds of their fellow travelers.  The locals are not thrilled at the invasion, because the kids don't spend any money: they hitch rides and cook on the beach.  It was quite a scene, but now that we're parents, we're really not part of that scene any more...  Generally nice folks, though.

We took advantage of the fact that we had a car and went a few miles south to Rahue, which is famous for fossils. 

We came across two or three groups of men panning the beach gravel for gold!  They told us that the early Spaniards had supposedly found a little gold there, so now there are still a few hardy prospectors sifting the mud for a few flakes.  We enjoyed the nice weather and the baby horses in a field next to the beach.

It was nearly a full moon, so the tides were higher and lower than usual - which means that it's possible to gather machas, another variety of clam. They're sort of between a razor clam (navahueta) and a regular clam (almeja) and are yummy in their own way.  The time to get them is during a full moon or new moon when the low tide is very low, as they live in deeper water than the other clams.  We asked a random person waiting for the bus where we might find someone selling some, and he just happened to have a big mesh bag full.  For a few dollars we got more than we could possibly eat.  We took them back to Huillinco and cooked 'em up - yum!

Friday: Paddle Lago Huillinco some more, then return for Date Night!  We relived the glory days of local babysitters.  Margot watched the kids while we headed into Castro to hang out at our favorite spots.  First, a Kunstmann Gran Torobayo (schopp = on tap) at Otto Schopp.  They'd gone a little upscale, with brighter lights and new menus, but the rest of the experience was the same: just a comfortable hangout bar.  We saw a few acquaintances walk by and exchanged hugs and kisses.

We then headed over to our favorite restaurant Sacho to see our friends Sandra, Maria Eugenia, and Mabel who wait tables there.  Sandra was out sick, but Maria Eugenia and Mabel welcomed us with the usual Pisco Sour split into two glasses.  They also informed us that the restaurant had changed hands and that they were the new owners!  We couldn't be happier for them...  They brought us yummy appetizers: our favorite crab in cream, and typical dinners of congrio (conger eel) and salmon.  It felt like old times...

Our friend Sherry, who owns the house next to Mike's in Somerville, is on a yearlong trip here and there around the world (though so far only in South America - why would anyone want to go elsewhere?) - and was in Punta Arenas.  We invited her to join us, so she hopped on a flight to Puerto Montt, and we met her at the bus station in Castro!  She joined us at Sacho for dessert and introductions to our friends.  She spent the next week with us - and she and Margot got along so well that she stayed on at Margot's house for a few days after we left!

Saturday we had to revisit another old routine, so we went to the Feria Campesenal to meet Lisa's fish lady and her family and so Sherry could experience the craziness that is Castro's market.  (Another part of the routine: It was raining.)  We picked up some yummy jams - rhubarb/raspberry, grosella (like gooseberry), and murta (like lingonberries, sort of).  It was also a fun reminder of the time when we lived here.

Later we headed out with Sherry, Margot, and Gabi to Cucao to try to dig our own machas. The way to find them is with your feet: Twist your legs to work your feet into the sand and feel for them with your toes.  It's the macha dance!  Unfortunately, empty shells feel the same as machas...

We each found three or four and got pretty wet in the process.

Two other men harvested a large bag of them, but we noticed that they were wearing wet suits and were in water up to their shoulders...

We went back to Chonchi, where Margot made a yummy soup from our hard-earned and easily-purchased machas.

We were just about to head back to Huillinco when Margot reminded us that it was the end-of-summer full moon fireworks!  It was raining at the scheduled time, so they didn't go until midnight.  Friends and cousins came over to watch, so of course there had a party afterward.  Pity and his friend Pepe asked themselves the question: Does Mike ever get drunk?  They were feeding Mike a steady supply of the Jack Daniels that we brought Pity for his birthday, good Chilean wine, cheap Chilean beer, and the local liqueur, which is a bit sweet, quite good, and rather sneaky, hoping to get him desordenado (out of control).  Nice try, guys...  A good thing that came out of it is that Pepe offered us an overnight at his beach house in Lelbun, southeast of Chonchi along the shore.  We took him up on it the next day!  More on that in the next post.

Diciochera en el estilo Cambridge

Chilean independence day Sept. 18
Fogón in the back yard
Leg o' lamb and pork shoulder
Things didn't go exactly as planned
But they went well enough.
Our Chileno friend Julio said it was the best diciochera asado he's had in the States.

It has since become an annual event!  Look for more soon.

Mike's not-so-excellent adventure

Lisa watched the kids so Mike could have a ski day!

But, midafternoon, the lift broke, so he and lots of other people had to get rescued!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

People's Republic of Valparaiso

We felt right at home! We spent 2-1/2 days in Valparaiso, the naval base and port closest to Santiago, a beautiful city with a long history of its own.

Valpo is reknowned for its hills and its ascensors, little funicular railways that take people up the hills. Unfortunately, Valpo's best days are behind it, and most of them have fallen into disrepair, including the famous one that's more like an elevator; but we had a ride on a working one. The view from up on any of the hills is spectacular!

Valparaiso is also known for lots of public art, including lots of graffiti and impromptu art. Pablo Neruda, Chile's poet and Nobel laureate, had a house here. We enjoyed strolling through the nearby Museo de aire libre (open-air museum: murals on houses and decorated lampposts). Every morning when we walked downhill from our hostel, we passed Salvador Allende striding confidently forward.

Down the street from our hostel was an iconic image that we saw often reproduced on T shirts and sold next to soy burgers on street corners. Two television sets piled on top of another with "Apaga la Tele, Vive tu Vida" (Turn off the TV, Live your Life) painted on them. In the day of so called reality TV, our sentiments exactly!

We took an afternoon to take the train to Viña del Mar, playground of the rich and famous. If Valpo is Berkeley, Viña is Orange County: neat, tidy, organized, expensive, hard to get around unless you have a car – the antithesis of Valpo. Bert spent a fun afternoon playing on the beach and in the water while Lisa tried vainly to get Gabi to nap in the baby backpack.

While we were in Valpo, we took in one of the America's Cup games: Chile vs. Venezuela, who had advanced to the second round on the strength of a last-second (literally; look it up!) tie with Bolivia. We found a pub that was no-smoking and therefore kid-friendly and settled in to watch another glorious victory by la marea roja (the red tide). Alas, it was not to be: Chile was bouncing balls off the crossbar, but Venezuela's shots were going in. (The Venezuelan goalie was spectacular and virtually inpenetrable; Chile's goalie looked like an amateur.) 2–1, Venezuela. The streets were quiet after that, but maybe that's best for the kids.

We found more of the spectacularly nice folks in Valpo: As we were roaming the hills near our hostel after an unsatisfying breakfast, we passed by a little (makes an apartment bathroom seem spacious) panaderia near one of the fancy hotels. The lady running the place took a shine to us and gave Bert a free empenada. What a great country!

If we were to go back to Chile for another extended time, Valparaiso could be an interesting place to live - we'll see! For now, we've settled for some fond memories. Back to Santiago for the home stretch!

Friday, July 15, 2011

On the Farm

Our friend Isabel was concerned that we would find her country house too rustic. After the earthquake in February of 2010, her 100-year-old adobe house had fallen, and she and her husband where living in the as-yet-unfinished new house. She should not have worried! With a warm welcome, good conversation and beautiful surroundings, it was just fin - we loved it!

We had met Isabel on our February cruise to the San Rafael glacier. We were traveling with my mother who spoke no Spanish and Isabel was traveling with her granddaughter and relished an opportunity to practice her English. At the end of the cruise addresses were traded and invitations were extended.

Isabel & her husband Jaime's ranch is about an hour southwest of Santiago in Paine de Valdivia (nowhere near Torres de Paine). This painting shows the house before the earthquake. The ranch has chickens, sheep and dogs, but the main purpose is the horses. Jaime is a former top-ranked rodeo competitor who breeds and trains Chilean rodeo horses. (Rodeo is to Chilean what riding to hunt is to the English, a sport with country roots and moneyed participants.) We counted 16 horses that Jaime either owns or boards.

Within hours of arriving at the ranch, Roberto had struck up a friendship with the son of a neighbor, also named Roberto. The two Robertos made big fun of shooting water at the hapless chickens and then each other. One thing you can say about our boy, he has mastered the vocabulary of dirt, mud, play, chase, water, throw and all other things of boy outdoor fun.

The gringos got a lesson in Chilean Huaso culture. A huaso does not wear blue jeans or a baseball hat. A huaso is chivalrous to women, be they young or old. There is not much around the ranch that a huaso cannot do, from preparing an asado for 30, to building a house, to killing the chickens for la cena, to absolutely anything that involves a horse.

Mike tried on Jaime's best huaso poncho and hat for a photo by the saddle in the living room. Lisa thought he looked handsome enough that if we were in Chile another year Mike would have his own boots, hat and huaso outfit. (Mike thinks he's not fooling anyone.)

At night the temperatures dropped to close to freezing just to remind us that these beautiful clear days were still wintertime. Mike ducked out to get a shot of the sunset colors reflecting off the Andes across the central valley.

The next morning was foggy which made the horses galloping about look all the more beautiful.

While Berto was catching frogs, sliding down dirt piles and chasing chickens, Gabi was charming Isabel and Jaime's niece. In fact on our third and last day, Arriana come over with her son Cristian. I think she might have been hoping that Berto would give Cristian an opportunity to practice his English. Ooops, given the choice of playing or teaching, Berto would much rather run about. We'll have to send Cristian down some English books for practice.

As the day warmed up, Gabi had fun throwing oats and hay into the corral for the horses. Lisa got to hold the halter of a horse while a neighbor put new shoes on the gelding. For someone who has been on a horse, not counting fair pony rides, all of 4 times; this was a thrill. It doesn't take an expert to see why these horses are so prized throughout Chile.

Since Lisa was not up to speed to ride spirited rodeo horses, she contented herself to checking out the chickens with an eye for a Cambridge campo. Jaime had the usual mix of red, white and brown black chickens pecking about. But what caught our attention was the flock of all white birds with exceptionally large crests. They looked like cartoon chickens come to life. Jaime explained that the breed is an old one and not very common in Chile anymore. I did not quite follow the rest of his explanation of the big-cresters' uniqueness.

For midday dinner we enjoyed a pair of the common birds in a cazuela. About the connection between lunch and yard fowl: Gabi was clueless, Berto was mildly curious, Lisa joined in the plucking, and Mike studied Jaine's technique. Hey, if we are going to have backyard birds in Cambridge...

Thursday evening as the sun went behind the Andes, we said thank you and goodbye, piled all six of us into Jaime's king-cab truck for a ride to town, and caught a taxi and the bus back to Santiago. The next morning Berto declared at breakfast that he wants to be a farmer because "I like the sound of the animals". There's your answer, Isabel: the house and the campo are just perfect!