Monday, April 23, 2012

Finally Fall!

I've been back in Santiago for a little over a week and its been a complete whirlwind of catching up on readings, internship interviews, parties, class, and trying to fit in some siesta time. This gringa is exhausted. But, it's been a great week. For one, I scored an internship at the Centro de Estudios de Justicia de las Americas (CEJA). I'll be interning there on Tuesdays and Thursdays starting tomorrow. Although I'm sad to see my free time on Tuesdays and Thursdays go, it'll be good to have some more structure. Also, the type of work CEJA does is right up my alley.

I also had my first Conversation Partners session last Wednesday. Conversation Partners is a program run through UDP's American Corner (which in turn is run by the US State Department) that connects American and Chilean students who want to practice their Spanish and English, respectively. I go once a week for 45 minutes and so far it seems really rewarding. Everyone in my group is excited to talk and get to know each other. One of the downfalls of my program is that 3 of my 4 classes are with AU students, even though we have Chilean professors/they are taught in Spanish. It sometimes limits our ability to meet Chileans. I've been lucky enough to meet lots of really friendly Chileans who have included me in their lives and introduced me to their friends. Conversation Partners gives me another venue to do that.

New friends at a birthday party last week
Ina, Jesse's host sister has been super super nice and always invites us out with her and her friends

Gringas go out!

Yesterday Jesse invited me to lunch with a friend of her Dad's from grad school, Fernando. He is Chilean but has spent most of his life in Spain and the US, returning to Santiago a year and a half ago for work. He has a really nice wife and five super cute children. They fed us gazpacho, tortilla espaƱola, ceviche and chorizo which are some of my favorite foods of all time. Fernando had grown up in the Basque country in Spain so we talked a little bit about northern Spain and my time in Burgos. It brought me back to my first abroad experience, which reminded me of a. how much better my Spanish has gotten and b. how grateful and lucky I am to have had all of these amazing experiences.
Today was the first day where Santiago really felt like fall, and people were really bundled up. At first I didn't understand but then I got to school it was SO COLD. There isn't really central heating here so buildings just stay well, cold. Can't wait for winter. I think I'll be heading to Calle Bandera where there a bunch of thrift stores to pick up another leather jacket and some more scarves. 
Teresa and I rocking our fanny packs, purchased on Bandera, the best thrift shopping in the city.

Santiago is such a unique city and while I am still trying to get to know it better, there are some major differences I've noticed. Some are awesome, some are frustrating, and some are just funny. 
  1. People here walk so slow. SO SLOW. SO SLOW. I am not a particularly fast walker but I am constantly passing people on the street and getting stuck behind slow walkers. It makes me feel so aggressive but I'm not! I just really really can't walk that slow. 
  2. Crossing the street is sort of like playing Russian Roulette. Cars do not want to stop for you, so they generally only stop when they're actually about to hit you. And if you think you can stand on the sidewalk waiting for cars to slow down before you start to cross you will legitimately spend your day on the sidewalk. Also, it's very common for cars to step on the gas the second you walk past them, which means I spend a lot of time turning around and freaking out, thinking I'm about to get run over. 
  3. PDA (public displays of affection for you old folks) is 100% acceptable in 100% of the places. The metro, the library, the middle of the sidewalk and as I learned last week, the classroom. Cuz making out in front of your professor is so romantic. On the other hand, maybe I'm just bitter. But seriously, I'm trying to get off of the metro and also I can see your tongue(s). 
  4. Earthquakes are not a big deal. I've been in 5 in the last 2 months. Most of which have been around 6.0 or 7.0 on the Richter scale. The most recent one was reported in USA Today and the Washington Post. Which to me was insane because I basically slept through it and Santiago legitimately just goes on with its business after an earthquake. 
  5. People are generally so much friendlier than they are in DC or Boston. Last week Claudia had pneumonia and sent me to the grocery store. No problem except I had to go the deli and the grocery store which involved me having to interact with like, real Chileans. And as soon as my number was called at the deli I realized I had no idea how to say "slice" (hint: it's lamina). The woman at the counter was so friendly and helpful. She didn't care that I was clearly confused by the large number of cheeses and varieties of turkey. And then at the bakery I asked the woman in front of me a question and she began this whole conversation with me about all of the different kinds of bread in Chile. So great.
So, despite the slow walkers and the making out on top of me in a crowded metro car, Santiago has truly grown on me. Tomorrow will be exactly two months since my arrival and I couldn't be happier. I feel so taken in by all of the Chileans I meet, I'm beginning to think in Spanish without translating to English in my head and oh, did I mention, I just booked two more trips? This weekend I'm headed to Chiloe, an island that's a 15 hour bus ride south of Santiago famous for its beauty and also its penguin colonies! And at the end of May I'm going to Buenos Aires! I can't wait to eat steak in Argentina. 

I have my first midterm Wednesday, so ciao for now!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Exploring the Pacific: Easter Island

Oh hey world! I'm back from the last leg of my crazy 2-week "spring break" at Lollapalooza, Torres del Paine, and finally, Easter Island. I slept for roughly 12 hours last night and am currently procrastinating the mountain of reading that has piled up in my absence. Yay school!

On Wednesday morning I dragged myself out of bed to the airport to meet up with the group for our flight to Easter Island. This trip was through the program so it was more structured and planned than my time in Patagonia which was a nice change of pace. I was also really excited to see my friends who hadn't gone to Torres del Paine with me.

After a smooth five hour flight over the Pacific (shout out to the personal entertainment systems on LAN, I got to watch Modern Family the entire time!) we landed in Easter Island at the smallest airport I've ever been to. Our tour guide gave us all leis (yay!!) and we headed to the hotel to explore and grab dinner

Easter Island, called Rapa Nui in the language of its native people, is the most remote inhabited island on earth. While some people think it was settled by aliens (hence the giant statues) most anthropologists believe it was settled by people for other Polynesian islands, mainly due to similarities in language and some traditions. Today, Easter Island is a part of the Chilean state which is somewhat controversial. Some Rapa Nui believe that the island should be independent since it is so different from mainland Chile. They feel that the Chileans who represent them in government are so far removed from Rapa Nui society that they cannot possibly serve their needs. Our tour guide told us that this was true but that most Rapa Nui would actually just like more autonomy from Chile and that "independence is a big word". Because Easter is so far away from mainland and has very little agricultural or other industry, an overwhelming majority of its products are imported. As a result, the island's relationship with Chile is very important.

The next three days were spent exploring the different ruins around the island. The most well-known attraction of Rapa Nui is its moai statues, which were constructed during the islands heyday to represent deceased family chiefs. The statues stand on a platform and below that the bodies of the chiefs are buried. Over time, the varying tribes on the island began to fight each other. At first the rival tribes would build bigger and bigger statues to represent their power, but towards the end of the war warring factions began knocking down the moai of their rivals. When European explorers reached the island in the late 1700s no statues were left standing. Since then some have been resurrected by archeologists while others remain toppled.

I'd never been to a tropical island before and I have to say I think Easter Island was a great place to start. It's absolutely beautiful and rich in history. This week it's back to a routine here in Santiago which, while sort of a letdown after the last two weeks will actually be really nice. I miss my daily commute, exploring the city, and just hanging out with Claudia and her family.

Until next time--ciao!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The End of the World: Torres Del Paine

If you know me at all you would probably assume that a week camping, hiking, eating ramen, and enduring snow, rain, and strong winds might not be up my alley. I definitely seem like more of a long day on the beach drinking margaritas kind of girl. If you knew me in my Girl Scout days (what up lifetime member right hurrr) you would know that I actually love the outdoors and camping. Also I'm pretty lazy so any excuse not to shower means I'm pretty much down. All jokes aside, I really enjoy spending time outdoors and camping so when my friends and I began discussing a trip to Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile's southernmost region, I was onboard. We decided to hike the "W" trail which is the most popular trail in the park and takes about 4 or 5 days to complete. It's the beginning of fall here right now so we knew we were cutting it close weather wise, but the guidebooks and word of mouth about Patagonia convinced us that we should brave the elements.

We booked our tickets, went food shopping, bought lots of warm clothes and tried to break in our hiking boots in preparation for the trip. I was particularly excited to wear my Patagonia brand raincoat in Patagonia. Lame. But the truth. Also I wanted to finally wear my North Face jacket on an adventure instead of with my Uggs en route to work during winter in New England.

Here's a quick summary accompanied by some amazing pictures, some of which are mine but most of which are Jesse's or Teresa's since they are way better at remembering to take pictures/forcing people who don't want to take group pictures to take said pictures than I am. 

Day 1: April 3
The nine of us headed to the airport at 4 AM to make our 6 AM flight from Santiago to Punto Arenas. Most of us passed out for the entirety of the flight since we were just coming off of a crazy weekend at Lolla. Upon arrival at Punto Arenas we discovered that the bus doesn't come to airport unless you have a reservation so we took a taxi to the bus station and bought tickets to Puerto Natales, the city closest to the park entrance. We wandered around Punto Arenas while waiting for our bus and discovered it was a pretty cute quaint city. It reminded me of a small town in Maine or New Hampshire.

It was pretty cold, so I knew I was going to be pretty freezing sleeping outside in the park. Time to enjoy the warmth until the trek started. In Punto Arenas I also had some delicious pizza with aji on it, the spiciest food I've had since my arrival. Food in Chile is great but a little bland so I was pretty pumped for some spice. Around 1 we hopped on the bus to Puerto Natales. After 3 hours we arrived at our hostel, a super cute place called Erratic Rock, run by Canadian ex-pats. They specialize in helping trekkers prepare for the "W" and even rent gear. They were able to answer all of our questions and help prepare us for our journey. It was great to have some people around to answer our logistical questions. After a trip to the grocery store to pick up some perishables and some stress over if we had packed too much or too little, we headed off to bed. 

Day 2: April 4
Around 4 AM I woke up in the hostel to the sounds of howling wind and pounding rain. I rolled over to go back to sleep and wondered with I had ever thought this were a good idea. After a delicious (included!) breakfast at the hostel it was time for another 3 hour bus ride, this time to the park entrance. Once there we ate a quick lunch and headed to the catamaran which would take us across one of the park's many lakes to the first part of the W. We disembarked and began hiking, hoping to make it to the free campamento next to the glacier by nightfall. Loaded down with tents, sleeping bags and food and a large group of 10 with different hiking abilities, this proved to be more difficult that expected. After about 5 hours we reached Refugio Grey and decided to camp there instead. Refugios offer both camp ground and hostel-like amenities and cost money, even to camp, while campamentos are more basic but are free. Feeling exhausted, we set up our tents, cooked dinner over camp stoves and headed to bed. It was cold outside but with all of my layers, I was actually okay temperature-wise. I spent most of the night awake because the strong wind and rain made it sound like the tent was going to blow away. I would soon learn that this type of rain and wind occurs pretty much daily in Patagonia, from 1-3 PM and 10:30 PM-7 AM. Forgiving climate huh?

Day 3: April 5

Our group woke up determined to make up the ground we had lost the day before. We realized we needed to move faster with more of a rhythm instead of stopping when anyone needed a break. This worked well initially and we started off at a good pace, back to the catamaran stop where we would lunch and then continue on to our next campsite. About halfway down the trail, overlooking the glacier and ice bergs, snow started to fall. And it started to stick. My parents major concern was that I would die in a snow storm or an avalanche never to be heard from again so all I could think was that hopefully they weren't checking the weather. We decided to get to the catamaran stop before the weather got worse and reevaluate. Within the hour, the snow had stopped, the sun was out, and everything was melted. Gorgeous again. A quick lunch and we were off again. And then it started to rain. Oh okay Patagonia, your weather patterns make so much sense. We arrived at Campamento Italiano excited that we had reached our goal for the day and happy that there were flush toilets--better amenities than expected! Dinner was cooked and I was in bed by 8 PM. 

Day 4: April 6

As I write this I realize that maybe it doesn't actually sound that fun. Rain, snow, cold, tons of hiking. The thing that makes it rewarding is the amazing scenery that is the context for this crazy weather. From glaciers to mountain sides, to forests and lakes, everything is beautiful. Thursday dawned and we ate our usual oatmeal breakfast. Most of us decided to hike as far up into the Valle de Frances as time would allow while some of the group was feeling tired and headed to the next refugio where we'd planned to spend the night. I decided to hike up to the valley, mostly because we got to leave our packs at the campground. Three hours without my backpack? Hell yes. I was glad I did. Although we didn't make it all the way into the valley, we saw more waterfalls and glaciers and had time to take tons of pictures. On the way down it started to rain and we dreaded putting away our tents. We did that quickly, sat in the wind shelter to eat lunch when it started to snow again. Awesome. The decision was made that we needed to reach the next refugio before the weather got bad. We had heard the hike ahead was easy and we started off. Hiking in the snow is one of the most surreal things I've ever done. The steam coming off of the lakes, the snow covered bushes. On a negative note, we were getting wet. As a New Englander, I knew that even though the snow was sticking on trees it wasn't sticking to the path, so we were safe. My biggest concern was what would happen to the snow overnight--would it melt or turn to ice? We made great time to the refugio and arrived in high spirits. Our friends had been there for a few hours and had decided they wanted to stay inside for the night because of the snow. It was pretty costly ($40 for a bunk bed) but our tents were soaking. Six of us decided we should rent tents because then the refugio would set them up for us and they would be mostly dry. Turned out to be a great decision. We hung out by the fire for the afternoon and headed out to our tents to cook and try to stay warm through the night. Things were going well until about 3 AM when then tent next store screamed bloody murder. I was 99% sure they were being attacked by a puma. Turned out there was a rat in their tent which they proceeded to scare away with their screams. Oh okay Patagonia. You win again.

Day 5: April 7
The thing about Patagonia is that it does things like snow really hard one day and then the next day it redeems itself. Saturday was absolutely perfect. I climbed out of my tent once again in awe of nature. The refugio provided a great view of Los Cuernos, one of the bigger rock formations in the park. Watching the sun rise over the Cuernos and the lake next the refugio I had the motivation to keep going. Some of the group decided to head back to Puerto Natales that day because of injuries and other things, but Jesse, Mark, Kevin, Teresa, Erin and I stayed on, hoping to make it to the famous Torres by the end of the day. We ate a leisurely breakfast and headed off down the trail. This was my absolute favorite day. The weather was perfect, my pack was starting to get lighter because I had eaten my food, and we weren't in a rush. The entire hike I was able to take a look around at my surroundings and take everything in. The six of us had a leisurely lunch, finishing off our salami and bread and making delicious nutella and peanut butter sandwiches. Around 5 PM after the most difficult part of our trek yet, uphill along a windy mountain side flanked by a valley, we found the refugio we had planned to stay at closed. Now, friends and relatives, before criticizing our poor planning, please remember that Torres del Paine has very few rangers and they are only located at the refugios. When we had left Refugio Los Cuernos that morning, Refugio Chileno's camp ground had been open. It appeared it no longer was. The six of us stared at each other and decided the only thing we could do was head down the mountain to the next campsite before dark. We were exhausted but it was the only safe thing to do. The hike that followed gave me so much respect for all of my friends on that trail. We stuck together, kept a steady pace, helped each other out, and occasionally sang some Girl Scout songs (what up Erin!). When we made it to the campground at the foot of the mountain, we collapsed with relief and pride. We weren't going to be able to see the Torres at sunrise, but we had done it. We set up our tents, made a great dinner on our stoves, and broke out some wine to toast to Kevin's 21st birthday. All in all, the perfect day.

Day 6: April 8
We planned to wake up at 7 to watch the sunrise over the Torres from our campground but Patagonia decided to be cloudly so we slept until 10, made another leisurely breakfast and prepared to head back to Puerto Natales. We were dreaming of showers and food that did not come in the form of 5 minute risotto. Refugio Los Torres was beautiful that morning since Patagonia gave us another great day. We were in great spirits as we packed up to leave. Arriving at the hostel around 5  we returned our gear, showered, and headed out for a victory meal. Chorizo pizza and locally brewed beer. 

Days 7 and 8: April 9 and 10
The next day was spent showering again, bumming around Puerto Natales and the hostel, watching Pulp Fiction, reading up on Easter Island (our next destination!) and waiting around for our bus to Punto Arenas. We took the night bus (my first since my little Mexico robbery incident! and I survived!) and slept in the airport. Surprisingly comfortable. It was especially nice to wake up at 4:30 AM to the people waiting in the security line staring at us. After two flights, we arrived back in Santiago. I metroed home to Claudia's loving arms and a plate of pork, mashed potatoes, and a fresh salad. Thank you Claudia. 

If you've read this entire post, congrats! You're also probably my mother or one of my grandparents. Anyway, before I sign off to pack again, I want to acknowledge the important role my Girl Scouting experience played in my ability to backpack for 5 days. I'm one of the "girliest" girls I know but I learned at a young age how fun and rewarding it can be to camp. I also learned how to be self-sufficient and make decisions in wilderness situations. The last week has been one of the craziest, up and down, and rewarding experiences I've had and I honestly don't think I could have done it without both the emotional/mental and tangible skill sets my Girl Scouting experience gave me. Here's to continuing to explore!