pergamond: ([Bleach] Ichigo // -.-)

The shale tumbled and crunched under my walking boot as I gingerly took another part-step, part-slide down the mountain side. This steep decent from the look-out point consisted of crumbling flinty pieces of rock that made a compressible surface that you still wanted to avoid landing on with anything short of a thick-soled shoe. I was moving down carefully, with one walking pole anchored in front of me, the other behind as I maneuvered sideways down the route.

Our pace on this walk had been fast, so much so that we had caught up with a second group from the hotel that had left half an hour before us. Within this second group were a young family with two girls, aged 9 and 7. Completely unperturbed by this death-drop decline, they bounced passed me, laughing wildly.

"They have a different sense of gravity," one member of our group suggested as the two blond heads shot passed him.

"They have a different sense of mortality," corrected his wife.

The smaller of the two girls turned out her toes in a ballet-esque first position. "Happy penguin feet!" she declared.

I caught up with my Dad as they disappeared out of sight.

"You don't have happy penguin feet," he said, sounding fractionally disappointed.

If it was possible to look even more unimpressed than I had been two minutes ago, I just achieved it.

Sugar rush

Feb. 21st, 2011 05:28 pm
pergamond: ([Random] kitten // rar)
It was crazy talk.

We were perched on a cluster of rocks at the end of the French Valley in Chile's Torres del Paine national park. Just behind us was a spot known as the Italian base-camp; now a free camp ground for tired hikers. Ahead of us, the path wound upwards to an area known as the plateau and, beyond that, the climb increased to reach the British base-camp. The route ended there and climbing ropes had to be employed if you wished to continue.

Judging by the names, nothing much had stopped the British and the walk to the highest base-camp was the hardest offered by the Explora hotel. The Italians, meanwhile, must have hiked the length of the valley before setting down while the French seemed to have entered the valley, viewed the peaks, declared "Mon dieu!" and cracked open the sauvignon blanc.

Personally, I felt the Italians had it about right, although there was a lot to be said for eating a picnic lying sprawled in the valley. Our group, however, seemed to feel the plateau needed to be considered. This meant I needed to eat more. I polished off my sandwich and moved onto a brownie followed by a chocolate bar. Sugar was the key.

While our previous hotel in Argentina was all about comfort, the Explora hotel in Chilean Patagonia is all about the hikes. Based in the centre of the national park, the hotel provides everything from accommodation, three meals a day, drinks, snacks and --its main feature-- daily expeditions around the park. The guides lead groups of up to eight people, providing direction, local information on geology, plant and wild life, first aid and, it transpired, extra lunch. Miraculously, a hot Thermos of soup had appeared. I downed it with my chocolate.

The seriously hefty price-tag of the hotel meant that it attracted a certain clientèle. We were currently walking with a couple who were both past the age of retirement but showed no indication of stopping working. They were in medicine, working near Atlanta, with the husband researching diabetes and the wife in clinical trials involving cancer genes. The wife also --in her free time-- played tennis three times a week and competed in Grand Prix horse competitions. The other couple with us worked for the World Bank and were currently based in DC, although the husband was Austrian and his wife British. They had lived all over the world, including Jamaica and Nigeria. It was about half-way along this route I became exceptionally glad I had a career to talk about. Fortunately, astronomy sells well to even the harshest of critics: stars, twinkle, pretty. Everyone likes it.

I swallowed my last mouthful. OK, major sugar high! Let's go! Behind me, a pow-wow was in progress which broke up to announce that the plateau was perhaps a stretch too far, since we'd end up returning late to the hotel.

Sugar sugar sugar sugar....

I hopped down the rocks and bounced around for about half an hour as we decended before the whole effect completely wore off and I had to be permanently plugged into my water bottle to make it the rest of the way back.

The plateau probably wasn't the best idea. Turns out I only have the ability to control my energy levels equal to a seven year old. 

Perfect

Feb. 21st, 2011 03:52 am
pergamond: ([Blackadder] You cannot be serious.)
"... and we'll take a bottle of the sauvignon blanc."

"Perfect!" The waiter at the hotel in Buenos Aires seemed ecstatic with our dinner order. Clearly, we had not only picked the absolutely best choice on the menu, but we had combined the starter, main dish and wine choice in such a way that not even the chef himself could have imagined such a fantastic combination.

We left the table with full bellies and even fuller egos. Why, all restaurants should be hiring us for their set menu design!

As we moved south to Patagonia, we discovered that not only was our dish selection second to none, but in fact all the choices we made for our trips and outings were equally 'perfect!'. Evidently, we were experts at this travel business from beginning to end! I began to be concerned that returning home might come as an unpleasant shock to the system, especially when faced with the referee report on my next paper.

At the start of our second week, we left the Argentinian side of Patagonia to cross into Chile. This was a slightly strange process since the border control posts for Argentina and Chile were separated by several kilometres. If the roaming guanacos were tempted to pick-pocket passports, you could end up trapped in a no-man's land in a cross between the TV show 'Surviver' and the movie 'The Terminal'.

Having beaten off the thieving wildlife to successfully make it to the other side, we were met by the organiser for the transport to our new hotel. She caught up with our group in the border-stop cafe just as I was using the restrooms.

"Where is Elizabeth?" she asked, having ascertained that three out of the four people she was expecting were in front of her.

"She's just using the toilet."

"Ah, perfect!"

You know ... that's maybe taking it a bit too far.
pergamond: ([Toy Story] Buzz // wibble)
"You should leave early, since I'm not sure what time the boats leave."

I looked up quizzically from the large slice of home made pizza I was devouring. "Can't we just google it?"

"No," I was told. "This isn't something you can google."

This wasn't something you can google?! How was this possible? Was this a boat trip off the ends of the Earth? I just wanted to see some penguins. Surely you can google penguins.

By the time we'd driven two hours across the rough desert road to the small seaside Chilean village, I had to admit that a fully interactive webpage where you could view a timetable, book and then pay for your trip with your international credit card was perhaps a trace unlikely.

The village was in the middle of nowhere and that was after it redefined my definition of 'nowhere'. For miles around there was nothing but dusty beige hills on which cacti emerged in roughly even spacings like a particularly unpleasant version of chicken pox. The town itself consisted of squat wooden huts and a pile of small fishing boats pulled up against the shoreline.

This then, was the Chile I had been expecting! Why, there was bound to be an alpaca around the next corner. In fact, we'd probably find our car had been replaced by a four-seater alpaca by the time we came back.

Awesome! Wonderful! Gre....

Then I saw the boat we were to be on for the next two hours.

It was been held by a mooring rope as it bounced wildly in the waves by the pier. The size of a large row boat, it seated maybe a dozen people on benches going across its width with a motor on the back. For reasons I didn't understand, the particular vessel we had signed on with was also flying a pirate flag.

I swallowed.

The crewman holding the pier end of the mooring rope decided it was too rough and loosened it, allowing the boat to be buffeting out into the sea before trying once again to pull it back in. Up and down. Up and down.

I started to back away up the pier.

"It's not as rough in the open water," I was assured.

Unfortunately, images of a boat ride equivalent to the WORLD'S WORST ROLLER COASTER had now firmly seized my mind. We would all die. Worse, we wouldn't die, but be made to endure two hours of hurricane-level sea conditions in which the small dingy would be hurled up to a height of at least 90 meters before dropping below the surface of the Earth to smolder in the molten lava only to rise again and loop-the-loop on circular waves that had taken on a nightmarish corkscrew formation.

Look, I wasn't too sure of the exact mechanics but that was totally what was going to happen.

I tried to explain rationally that, since I didn't wish to suffer unrepairable mental trauma, it would be best if I just waited here on the dock and.... tried to lower my heart rate.

My friends --being disinclined to use physical force against a girl they all knew was capable of howling like an abused three year old when she got irrationally scared-- reluctantly nodded their understanding. The Spanish-speaking crewmen, however, knew none of this, were unable to understand my hand gestures for 'unbelievably-scared-of-this-water-roller-coaster-of-death' or 'meeeeeeep!' and gabbled at me in excited Spanish that almost certainly translated to: "Yes, you will die, but get on this pirate vessel anyway", before leading me onto the boat.

Meep.

The boat set off. I clung to my friend and tried to decide if I'd picked the right religion and if it was too late for a change.

Away from the pier, the sea went calm.

Then there was a whale. Followed by dolphins and sea lions and penguins and a nest of baby fluffy birds and a strange island with a rock formation that looked like a super ugly woman and bird dung that is apparently so valuable that countries fight over the right to collect it.

Then we ran out of gas.

After refilling from a spare container, we headed back to land where I ate a large empanada with shrimp.

It had been awesome. I was relieved. My friends, doubly so.
pergamond: ([Bleach] Ichigo // -.-)
"Where are you from?" The stall keeper addressed us in English as he stepped away from his small display of fruit and vegetables to intercept to us as we walked towards the exit of Santiago's Central Market.

America, my friend replied in Spanish.

"And you too?" The man turned to me.

"No."

It was a terse answer and one which the stall owner responded to by turning back to my friend and bombarding him with questions: What was he doing in Chile? Had he travelled around much? Did he like it? Did he know what all the fruits at his stall all were? Had he pushed to know my own origins, he might have realised that I was liable to possess an innately suspicious nature of any stranger talking to me that meant while he was busy distracting my friend, my own attention had remained firmly fixed on his friend.  

While Santiago is considered a very safe city in terms of violent crime, pick-pocketing is rife. Two of my friends had previously had possessions depart their person via the aid of light fingered passers-by, while another had worked in a store where even the close circuit TV cameras had not been able to halt the shop lifting. The Central Market, with its close packed stalls and narrow lanes, had to be a prime pick-pocketing location.

The market itself had been quite something. Fruits and vegetables poured from boxes stacked in stalls that had included chunks of pumpkin, cactus fruit, corn the width of your bicep, multiple types of avocado and small orange potatoes. Next door to the produce was the meat market; a long covered alleyway where you could buy raw chicken hearts by the scoop. At the far end of this, we had ducked past two workers man-handling a cow carcass to enter the fish market where open containers now displayed octopus, huge flaps from the top of squid and shrimp between a further 80 stands offering seafood dishes to the public.

Photographs were frowned upon in the meat market, possibly over concerns surrounding hygiene standards, although it had all appeared clean and fresh to me. Cats and dogs did wander freely through the produce aisles though, in the hope of a treat or comfortable resting spot.

Chileans, I discovered, love dogs. However, they don't seem keen in caring for them long-term, resulting in a large stray population of canines in every place I visited. Neutering your pet is also apparently an appalling concept, so inevitably the problem is self-perpetuating. At first I found this slightly alarming. If necessary, kicking off a vicious feral cat would not be too hard a task but an attacking dog is quite another matter. The animals though, seem to be friendly and well fed with decent looking coats implying a fairly high standard of living despite their owner-less status.

And thinking of owner-less statuses, back at the market stall my wallet was apparently considering another home. My eyes followed the red-shirted young man who had previously been talking with the stall keeper before the latter had leaped to engage us in conversation. He appeared seemingly uninterested in our chat, but casually stepped away in a path that would take him right behind us and close to the rucksack I had on my back.

As it happened, he was going to be disappointed however this went down. My wallet and phone were in a zipped compartment within the bag, so dipping one hand into the main pouch would cause me to part with nothing other than my sun screen.

I needed my sun screen :|

Turning, I kept the man in view as he sauntered across the aisle to start talking to the opposite stall owner. We didn't make eye contact, but my gaze remained pinned on his person. Eventually, my friend managed to disengage himself from the conversation and we left the market.

"I don't know what that was about," he said to me as we went to find a freshly squeezed juice. "The questions were very random."

Humph. I should have stolen a melon.
pergamond: ([Futurama] Bender // Applause)
"Guess what? I'm going to be on the news!"

I felt this was a surprising statement, seeing as I'd only been left to my own devices for about 10 minutes at the stop for the tour bus I was taking around Santiago. The fact neither of my friends showed any great astonishment was either a reflection on my ability to cause enough trouble to hit the headlines in a very short amount of time or an insiders knowledge of Chilean reporters love of Gringos.

'Gringo', incidentally, is a Spanish term for 'foreigner' and, as an accurate description, is of course not insulting. In exactly the same way that 'gaijin' isn't in Japanese. Yes. >.>

My appearance on channel 11's news that night, however, was not for any nefarious dealings in the Chilean capitol but rather due to a roving reporter looking for visitors' views on the city. While slightly taken aback to have a camera suddenly focussed on me, I happily waxed lyrical about how great I'd found Santiago and how I'd recommend this clean, blooming city to everyone back home.

It was true too. Santiago is blooming, both in its glass tower high rises, the swaths of flowers in their summer glory and the people; a surprising number of which seemed to be pregnant. Chile's money comes primarily from copper which appears to have suffered less in the current economic down turn that other commodities. The previous president, Michelle Bachelet, was also allegedly careful with funds, putting aside a pillow for difficult times that had clearly paid dividends now. If it wasn't for the palm trees (some of which were actually disguised cell phone signal transmitters) and the mountainous backdrop, I could have convinced myself I was in any exceptionally wealthy western capital city.

I attempted to convey my enjoyment to the reporter without sounding flat-out astonished. Possibly I failed. Before coming here, my previous knowledge of South America was ... um ... the presence of a bunch of telescopes, the fact that Santiago could be full of smog, that a friend had spent a summer building ovens in rural Peru and an Oxfam alpaca another friend has adopted on my behalf as a birthday gift. I therefore naturally concluded that ALL of South America consisted of oven-less huts where people rode around on alpacas which appeared as two giant eyes in the fog filled landscape.

The fact that I had six friends all living in Chile for the last few years had not over ridden these assertions. They were observational astronomers; obviously they knew nothing. Also, they probably spent all their time at the telescopes. Which they reached via mountain-climbing alpacas. Yes.

I'd like to point out that NONE OF THEM had expressly told me I was wrong.

Santiago's impressive facade had therefore been rather unexpected. Nor was this attractiveness only skin-deep. Only last year, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake had hit the region, causing my friend's apartment on the 23rd floor to swing by over 1m and the roof-top pool spew its contents over the side of the building (apparently an intentional design, since it's preferable to having the weight of the displaced water elsewhere on the structure). The visible damage to the neighbourhood though, was a few tiny cracks in the plaster work and a single pane of cracked glass in an area packed with transparent buildings. The market downtown had taken more of a battering, but it was being replaced with something stronger and better. This infrastructure was for keeps.

All of this I had been admiring from my tour bus which was one of the ones that zoom around London. No really; it was a expatriated London bus, in the traditional brilliant red. The only difference was the enthusiasm for passengers to sit on the open top deck; a position rather better suited to the Santiago summer. From my view point, I could see the alpacas were sadly lacking from the paved streets, although I did see a mobile information booth attached to a Segway which was rather pleasing. The smog turned out to be more factual than the camelids, but only occurs in winter when the mountains trap the air over the city.

I had disembarked my British ride just outside ESO: the European Southern Observatory campus. Currently, I was just after lunch, but the following day I would be giving a talk. The buildings were decked with photographs of the telescopes they ran. I thought that possibly, like the smog, their presence was a fact I had not made up about South America. Then I saw a large photograph of an instrument not in existence and decided to group them in the same class an alpacas for now.


--
'Gaijin' translates to 'foreigner' in Japanese and, likewise, is not technically insulting, but the way it emphasises your difference leaves the point rather clear when liberally used.

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