Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Gotas de Lluvia A-Fallin’ on My Head…

So Chiloe Island is about 650 miles south of Santiago – jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean.  In addition to being the termination point of the Pan-American highway (which starts in Fairbanks, Alaska), it is best known for misty mornings, hiking, kayaking, and mountains of shellfish at every meal.  Like if Maine was in Chile.
One should have perhaps thought more about the idea going to one of the rainiest places in the country, during one of the coldest and rainy times of the year.  Like if Maine was in Chile and it was early March.  It was damp – to say the least.  The seaside tourist market was partially boarded up – and many of the remaining stores had stowed the regional handmade knitware in favor of being Americanos (which is what stores selling used clothes are called down here). 

Despite the constant state of mainly-rain, there were one or two days of mostly-sun, so I was able to sneak in a day of hiking in the national park.  It was still early in the season so the trails at points were not that clearly marked (and to be honest I am not sure they ever get that clearly marked).  My fellow hiker and I got a bit lost and ended up walking up into a modern version of the fairy tales that Chiloe is famous for (though their fairy tales see to include a greater incidence of vicious sexual appetites and cannibalism than I remember from your standard Brothers Grimm).  We spotted two adorable little lambs, one black and one white. 

(My traveling companion was Welsh and taking pictures of sheep is apparently a bit of the national pastime – when one is not mining coal or playing rugby.)  We followed them down the path, trying to get a good picture, until we came upon a little wooden farmhouse on a hill.  Out from the farmhouse popped a pair of forest gnomes (okay, maybe not actually gnomes but they were certainly wee).  They led us into a low ceilinged wooden hut, where they imprisoned us until we bought handicrafts.  No joke.  I escaped with my life only by paying $2 for a splinter-throwing hand-carved wooden spoon. 

The best experience of the time in Chiloe though was the sunrise kayaking trip.  In the Chepu section of the park, a husband and wife team have set up a little eco-tourism lodge, with the main attraction of kayaking through the sunken forest at dawn.  (I know, but this fairy tale is slightly more grounded in science.  In 1960 a massive earthquake rocked Chiloe Island.  It caused this section of the coastal forest to suddenly drop six feet.  This proved to be an unfortunately development for the resident tree population as the forest floor was now below sea level.  The ocean rushed in and the trees died.  Now the sunken rotting stumps sticking out of the tidal plane is all that remain. In the misty dawn, this is a really eerie place to paddle around.)   It poured most of the time, but was still worth it.

But while the outdoor activities were a bit of a washout, the bivalves were stupendous.  The town of Castro is known for its pulmay – which is basically a huge pile of mussels, clams, giant mussels, giant clams, all served with (an easily removed) sausage and potato.  The giant mussels were the biggest that I have ever seen.  (Some of these guys had beards that would make the most harden Taliban commander envious.)  This plate was work.  I came in hungry, spent three hours, had three glasses of wine, read a book, picked up a fellow traveler, and I *still* had trouble finishing.

Having completed my twin missions of mollusks and outdooring, I headed north to Puerto Varas.  As far as I could gather from the Lonely Planet, Puerto Varas was a beautiful Alps-like town, nestled at the base of snow covered volcanoes.  Maybe.  I saw a lake and more rain.  Not to be thwarted, I hopped on the local bus and headed out 45 miles to the *really* scenic town.  My cloud friend accompanied me.  I stopped to see the majestic waterfall against the backdrop of the volcano.  I saw the waterfall and Cloud.  I waited 45 minutes trying (unsuccessfully) to hitchhike to the lake town.  Cloud kept me company – patting me lovingly on the head with his raindrops just to let me know he hadn’t forgotten about me.  I finally got to the lake, where I saw lake and Cloud.  I hiked up to the first view point on the volcano trail – where the soggy tourist map promised me an incredible panorama including the lake and three snow capped volcanoes.  I saw Cloud.  I told him to suck it.  This apparently pissed him off because he kicked it up a notch from steady rain shower to outright pouring.  I stubbornly continued to hike up until the trail became a free flowing creek. 
(The trail was not super well marked.  There are nice painted arrows on the bottom, which peter out to arrow-shaped piles of rocks after a mile or so, which further diminish to piles of rocks after another two miles, which fade out completely after that.  Going up was fairly easy – I just took the branch of the trail that seemed most against gravity – with the intention of following my boot tracks in the mud down.  The creek was a major impediment to the successful implementation of this strategy.)  So I gave up.  And stomped down the mountain, soaked to the bone, slipping in the mud the whole way.  Screw you Cloud.  I will have the last laugh.  I can go to places where you aren’t welcome.  I can go to places where it hasn’t rained in *years.*  Oh yes Cloud.  It’s on.

Then the next day I headed back to Santiago for a day of museums on my way back to DC.  I saw a couple of art exhibits and the pre-Columbian museum (it seems pre-Columbian society was really into psychedelic mushrooms and pottery).  And mercifully in Santiago – it was cold and clear.  I was enjoying my first dry day in a good long while.  Then, I shit you not, I almost got fire-hosed.  I was walking around Santiago and came across a couple of guys, in period costume, trying to get a 1864 steam powered fire truck to work.  They had stuck the intake hose into a fountain, had a pile of burning coals on the sidewalk, and were just wailing on this baby will all sorts of wrenches and business.  There was a crowd laughing and taking pictures.  (This is literally in the Chilean equivalent of Herald Square.)  Suddenly the contraption lets out a piercing whistle and the pistons start pumping madly.  The period fire fighters rejoice!  Except for the poor bastard that’s holding the fire hose.  The water steam swings madly across an intersection, broadsides a bus, then arches up and directly for the crowd.  This is the last picture I took before he started taking out bystanders and I was up over the barrier (admittedly into the middle of the street but fortunately there was traffic).   My hair had just dried and I was facing a 14 hour flight.  I’ll take my chances with an oncoming taxi. 

Then, after maxing my allotment of duty free Chilean wine, it was back to DC.  Just in time to meet the remnants of tropic storm Lee. 

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Rapa Nui

Rapa Nui is what the locals call what the Chileans call Isla de Pascua which is what we call Easter Island.  The place is in the middle of no where (a phrase which at this point in my life I do not use lightly).  It is about equidistant from Tahiti and the Chilean mainland - but more than a 5 hour flight to either.   The island itself is about the size of Manhattan south of Canal Street (though admittedly the infrasructure is somewhat less developed).  Rapa Nui is also famous for being the place where humans learned a very valuable lesson about resource conservation.  Once the island was about 60% covered in trees.  The different family groups lived in different parts of the island in relative harmony (or as much harmony as a people that practice sporadic cannibalism can really expect), and built these large stone totems to ask their ancestors for fortune.

But in order to transport these increasingly larger stone statues, the islanders cut down more trees.  This, in addition to thedaily use of trees for fishing and cooking, led the island to run out of trees.  At which time, all hell broke loose,  massive tribal wars started, the stone totems were pulled down either by enemy tribes or by regular people no longer buying what the elites were selling, more than 80% of the island either died or paddled away into certain doom in the blue.  (Least you think that we whiteys are finally off the hook on this this one,don´t worry, we kidnapped,enslaved and basically killed off all that remained.)

Moral of the story: if you live on an isolated outpost in the middle of no where, it is best to be a bit careful with your resources, as it is a long paddle to Mars.

Fast forward a few hundred years (that´s right - this took place only a few hundred years ago), I arrive!  After the blustery cold of Santiago, I am in paradise.  This place is only nominally in South America, in reality it is all     South Pacific.  I spend the day tooling around in a taxi, exploring agricultural sites, taking pictures of statues, climbing around in caves, watching huge waves crash out of the torquise sea onto volcanic rock coastline, trying to teach my taxi driver English - amazingly the man could spend the day serenading me, in English, with Marc Anthony songs but I had to teach him the word for tree (or perhaps not that surprising).  That night he suggested that I check out a traditional dance show.

I am expected some tame hula nonsense with pretty girls in grass skirts and maybe a little ukelele action.  And, indeed, all of those things featured in the show.  What I hadn´t really counted on was the band having a full drum kit and electric bass, and the feathered cod pieces.  Oh yes, that´s right.  The show opens with two almost completely naked men painting themselves with mud war paint.  They are soon joined by a bunch more similarly attired warriors, all of which were either chosen for their ahem... stage presence... or else I believe I just received a profound sociological insight into why the average Rapa Nui woman had15 children.  Much of the show was war dances (think the Haka performed by the New Zealand rugby players) and what I assume were some sort of fertility dances).

At once point during the performence, the warrior leader leaps off the stage, lands in front of me, grabs my neck, and raises his club screaming.  I assume that this would have been both terrifying and the end of my story had I been an 18th century rival tribesman, but instead I just got a giggle spasm because my nose ended up two inches from his feathered stage presence. All and all, this might have been the most entertaining $20 I have spent in a long long time.

I spent the rest of the time in Rapa Nui hanging out, drinking Mahina, and eating ceviche and tuna empanadas.   Exploring more sites, taking more pictures of statues, buying souvenir crap.  It was sad to move on back to the mainland.  My taxi driver came by to give me a hug and traditional shell necklace (a gesture that really touched me until I saw that literally every single tourist on check in line was wearing one), and back to the icy mainland I went.

 I got off the plane at 9 pm, walked upstairs to the ticket sales, asked what they had leaving that night, they looked at me blankly, found someone that spoke English, I repeated my question somewhat less dramatically, and got a ticket south to Puerto Montt.  Where I arrived at 1 am, in the freezing cold, with no hotel reservation and not speaking Spanish.  At one point in my life this situation would have freaked me out but really now was no more than an inconvenience, and this self-satisfaction kept me warm until an enterprising taxi driver interested in a nice tip drove me to an English speaking hostel.