Goodbye Santiago

1 02 2010

I woke up in the morning with no idea what I was going to do on my last day in Santiago. At breakfast I chatted to a few of the people there about their experiences of Santiago; also trying to work out if anyone had any ideas of what I should do that day. As one of the girls pointed out all the museums closed on Mondays so that was a non-starter.

When I listened to some of them talking about going out till 4am in the night-life area, Barrio Bellavista, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d missed out on some of the fun of the city. Although since I’d been up early for the horse-riding, my trip to Valparaiso, and the wine tour I’m not sure how I would have fit that in. My flight to Easter Island the next day was at 09:30; meaning I’d have to be up early to get to the airport on time so there was be no chance of that happening now… at least that’s what I thought at the time.

That day I got to put some names to the faces that I’d seen around the hostel and also learn a bit more about where people were travelling. There was Julia, a Swiss teacher who was also traveling to Buenos Aires later on but would be there at a different time to me; Laurie, a Dutch girl who was staying in Santiago for a year as part of her anthropology course and was sitting in the kitchen trying to learn Spanish, two older English sisters who were doing a whistle-stop tour of Chile with just a few days down in Patagonia because they needed to get to Rio in time for carnival;  and I also met “the cougher” in my dorm: Kevin from Ireland. It turned out that Kevin was on the same flight as me to Easter Island so we agreed to share a taxi to the airport.

Whilst I was arranging the taxi at reception they said that I still owed them money for my laundry and my extra night’s stay. When I said that I’d already paid it he wanted to see the receipt but at the same time he handed me my receipt for the first three nights I’d paid. It was the first receipt I’d seen in the hostel! I did point out that I thought I still needed to pay an extra night and he agreed so I paid that but I don’t actually know if they ever found the record of me paying for the other night.

I decided to head into town and see what I encountered. I began in the centre at Plaza de Armas and wandered through the shopping streets. I probably needed some new shorts but my heart wasn’t into shopping so I tried to find some of the places that I’d not found on the walking tour the first time. The stock market proved very easy and I then stopped off in a café for some lunch and a coffee. Whilst there I read about the other coffee place from the tour that allegedly in the area and was even more intrigued. It turned out that it was a café con piernas. And to quote the LP: “Whilst literally ‘legs cafés’, these coffee shops have waitresses who often bear a bit more”. Although I’d already had a coffee; this sounded like a convivial way to enjoy a cup of Joe and I determined to locate this establishment – primarily, of course, to broaden my cultural understanding.

Unfortunately, even after looking up and down the building in case this caffeine paradise was on an upper storey and not easily visible from the street, I once again failed to find it and eventually had to give up. I’m not even sure that the street address the LP gives even exists. I then decided to head over to Barrio Bellavista so that I could see what this nighttime spot was like. En route I did find the joke shop that I’d also missed but it was closing-down so I think the LP walking tour definitely needs an update now!

I wandered around the barrio and decided that it would be really buzzing of an evening. After wandering for a bit I decided to stop off for another one of those great $3 for a litre of beer specials. Whilst sitting on the terrace, the two English sisters that I’d spoken to at the hostel that morning pulled up right next to me in taxi. They were heading off shopping and wanted to know where the funicular railway was for later. I didn’t even know there was a funicular there but I looked it up in the LP and, after telling them where it was, decided that I’d go there myself.

When I got to the funicular it looked distinctly closed so, thwarted once more in my efforts to find something to do on a Monday, I headed back to the hostel. There I bumped into Kevin again – he was just heading into town to visit one of the parks and mentioned that he’d be back later because a few of them were heading into town at about 9 and I was welcome to join if I fancied it. I was definitely up for that and decided that I could always sleep on the flight.

I had a few drinks at the bar and asked one of the guys there, Sean, if he fancied a game of pool. He beat me – although both of us were struggling as usual with the irregular surface of the table and the erratic pockets. He also said he was off out later and it sounded like he was going with the same crowd of people. Sean also asked me if I’d visited one of the special coffee houses and then told me about one that he’d been to right by the Plaza de Armas.

Whilst at the bar, Julia, came by and mentioned that they were heading into town later if I wanted to join them. At nine I was the only one ready but, after a bit of a wait for Kevin to get ready; Sean, Kevin, Julia and I finally headed off. The Dutch girl, Laurie, was also meeting us later after she’d had dinner. We went to one of the bars in the inner courtyard of the Bellavista area and had a few beers and pizza there. Sean was telling us how one of the guys in their dorm was masturbating the night before (in a vocal manner) and that pretty much set the bar for the level of conversation that evening. This coupled with reciprocal jibes against our respective countries made for a very funny and entertaining night. When it looked like that place was dying we headed off in search of a new venue.

We walked down the main drag of Pío Nono for a bit but after Sean asked the proprietor of one of the bars which was the best bar to drink in and being surprised when he said “This one”, we walked on a bit further past the park. Eventually we found another bar which seemed the liveliest on an otherwise somnolent Monday evening and settled down for a few drinks. This time even Laurie, who up till now had been on soft drinks, indulged in a pisco sour although I think they must have distilled the grapes from scratch because they took so long making them. After a few more amusing conversations – including when Julia had told Sean that she was a lesbian and he’d spent ages elaborating on how some his best friends were lesbian; and a chat with a merry local student who’d just finished his semester and was interested to hear where we were from (to which we mostly lied: Russia and Bulgaria were mentioned) – we decided to head back home. Although I think we could have gone on to the local disco, Laurie was feeling tired.

An Englishman, two Irishman, a Swiss and a Dutch girl go to a bar... there has to be a joke in there somewhere

When we got back to the hostel it was already 4am and rather than go to bed and get two hours sleep I decided it would be better to carry on drinking so we propped ourselves up on the hostel bar with a few more Escudos. At 5, Kevin decided that he’d just get an hour’s sleep anyway. At six o’clock according to my watch, Julia and I decided to head off to a night shop that Sean told me was just two blocks hence although I’ll never know whether it actually existed or whether it wasn’t open at 6am on a Tuesday morning.

When we got back to hostel the taxi was already there and Sean and, particularly, Kevin were in a bit of a panic. It seemed that my watch had chosen the inopportune hour of 6am to stop working and in my drink-addled state my perception of time was not good enough to notice that it had been 6 for more than half-an-hour. The guys had already loaded most of my bags into the taxi and after quickly grabbing the rest of my belongings from my locker we set off to the airport. Once there we had a very efficient check-in and could relax knowing that we had plenty of time till our flight to Easter Island (at least according to my watch)

Horse riding in the hills

31 01 2010

I can’t get the WiFi to work for toffee today – I think it maybe a bug in the latest Snow Leopard because all the settings look good but either the DHCP or then the DNS doesn’t work properly so I’m writing this off-line in the hope that I can post it later. The other access point that I found at the hostel that always worked is no longer seems visible in my browser either.

Had yet another crap night’s sleep last night. This time it was due to music from the bars and cars and one of the guys in the dorm having a major coughing fit throughout the night. The girl who had moved into our dorm got fed up with it at one point and suggested, in what I think was a Yorkshire accent, that he should go and get a glass of water. He didn’t take this sage advice and continued to bark for another half hour or so.

I spoke to her in the morning whilst I was getting my stuff ready for horse-riding. She’d just come from Easter Island and was enthusing about the festival that is on there at the moment. Apparently it’s totally awesome. This made me even more nervous about the fact that I still hadn’t sorted digs out there yet and now I hear it’s peak season and a festival. She was also telling me how she thought she’d broken her nose on a headboard in a previous hostel whilst inebriated. Neither of us could work out how she had managed to break the bridge of her nose on a headboard whilst lying down – perhaps she wasn’t telling the full story.

At 10am, Susanna picked me up for horse-riding. With her was another Dutch expat, Claudia, and we then also picked up Amy, also an expat from York working for Balfour Beatty, and her Chilean boyfriend, Marcello. We then headed off out of town towards the horse-riding place in the altiplano. En route, the Dutch and I picked up some stuff for lunch – some bread, cheese and ham – it was just like the self-made sandwiches in the Telfort canteen.

The horses were absolutely gorgeous and – like the Zimbabwean ones that I’d ridden before – quite small. They also looked better cared for with the most amazing coats and not a tick in sight. My saddle was really comfortable and had a sheepskin covering and I really liked the enclosed stirrups since it meant you could never put your foot in too far. Even better was that we didn’t have to wear those stupid white helmets they insisted on at Antelope Park so you didn’t look a complete tit riding along.

Once we were all mounted we set off into the foothills with Susanna’s dog, Spanky, and another ex-street dog, Honey, in tow. The landscape was absolutely stunning and we rode up and down really steep, stoney hills. Unfortunately the incline meant that we were mostly walking – since a trot or faster would have been tough on the horses who had to find their way through the rocky landscape.

I did try to get my horse to gallop on a level piece of ground but I couldn’t really get him past a canter but it was still good fun trying. At lunchtime we all went for a swim in the stream – we’d put our towels and swimming costumes in the saddlebag – and it was bloody freezing! I assume that the water was probably coming off some glacier somewhere uphill.

You can take a horse to water but you can't make it drink

The sun was really blazing hot at points and I was starting to wonder whether the once-a-day factor-20 sun cream that I’d put on was really enough. After lunch, Spanky the dog decided to rush towards Claudia’s horse just as she was trying to take a photo which was, of course, catastrophic timing. Claudia’s horse decided to find 4th gear for the first time all day and set off into a gallop leaving her dangling backwards out of the stirrups. Inevitably she fell off the back – hitting her head and bruising her legs badly enough to get a big egg on one of her shins. Maybe those ugly white helmets would have been a good idea…

I think she was okay – more shocked than anything – but it put a bit of a dampener on our return trip which was very, very long under the oppressive heat. I still loved it: there’s something magical about going through the countryside on a horse. Afterwards I think Susanna had wanted to invite us all to sit round her pool but her live-in landlord who was away for a week had sent her a crazy, dictatorial email the previous night saying that she wasn’t allowed any visitors whilst he was gone so that was a no-go. Instead she dropped me back off at the hostel whilst Claudia dropped the others back off in the wealthy suburbs. I’d seen a whole new side to Santiago that day – the outer suburbs have absolutely gorgeous houses worthy of any first world country.

When I got back I was very tired but spent a long time trying to get the WiFi working on my laptop. I eventually gave up and logged on to my mail on the shared computers and saw that I now had some accommodation sorted for Easter Island.

There is an annual festival in Santiago, featuring gigantic puppets walking through the streets, that was only on this weekend but I thought that the board in the hostel said that it started at 11am. It was only when it was too late to get there that I realized that it said 17:00 and I could just about have made it. I tried to do some work on my blog on the shared computers but the Spanish keyboard configuration was quite annoying so I gave up and wrote it off-line on my laptop instead.

At dinner time I wandered around the area looking for a restaurant but most of the usual suspects were closed because it was Sunday. I decided to continue my theme of eating local and went to one of the many Chinese restaurants dotted around (these were open on a Sunday at least). As could be expected from Chinese food in Chile it wasn’t really that great and once again I remembered how much better such food had been in America. At least from the Chinese restaurant I got to see the gigantic puppet show: albeit on the television.

After stuffing myself with Chinese – the strangest shui mai I’ve ever had and a Mongolian beef dish I headed back to the bar at the hostel. Alejandra, one of the hostel staff, was keen to see the pictures of me with lions having heard about them from Ed, so I showed her a selection on my laptop and had a few beers whilst watching Ed and Nathan (from D.C.) shooting some pool.

Since there was nothing much going on I decided to turn in for the night.

Wine and Sushi

29 01 2010

I had a pretty lousy night’s sleep at the hostel. Most of it was my fault – definitely had plenty to drink last night and didn’t take any water to bed with me. So I spent most of the night thinking I should get some water, feeling dehydrated, and stuffed up. I slept with the balcony doors open but that let in lots of noise including a cavalcade of ambulance sirens going off around 3am. At 6am Frans, my dorm-mate came in (it turned out we had an 8-bed dorm between the two of us – quite why they then put us in the same bunk I’m not sure) and switched the light on. Frans had been in bed at 9pm when I’d gone out for dinner so I’d assumed he was in bed when I got back. It looks like he was just having a disco nap before going out later. I wish I’d know he wasn’t in when I went to bed: then I wouldn’t have needed to be quiet (in a way that only drunk people can be).

Eventually I got up and had the complimentary breakfast – toast, coffee, yoghurt and fruit – and got ready to go on the wine tour with the 3 Australians. It turned out that Susanna, the Dutch tour guide, was going drive us for the day too. We went to the oldest winery in the area, Viña Cousiño Macul, – founded in 1859 – where they had a museum of all the old presses and casks. A coach load of American tourists joined us too. Unfortunately we couldn’t go down to the cellar because there was a local power outage and it was way too dark down there without any lights. We then got to try some wines: a rosé and red – both from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. They were both quite palatable but I think the rosé could have been more chilled – perhaps the power cut had meant they couldn’t refrigerate it enough.

After this we went to a much younger vineyard, Viña Aquitania – founded in the early 90’s with some French backers. The tour guide was very enthusiastic and informative and since there were just the four of us it felt more like a private tour. Here we got to see the women manually putting the labels on the wine and got to try 3 wines: a rosé, a Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva and a special Cabernet Sauvignon-Carménère combination. All of them were really good and this time the rosé was much better chilled. I would have liked to have tried the unoaked Chardonnay which had won some awards too but unfortunately that wasn’t on the cards.

Rachel, Emma, Dave and I in front of the Viña Aquitania vineyard

Afterwards Susanna took us to a local restaurant where we had pisco sours (as if 5 glasses of wine wasn’t enough) and really great food. The owner brought us round some dried chillies to show us how the restaurant had got its name. I decided to bite into mine which made me quite red-faced for a few minutes and diving for my water. This earned me the name of gringo tonto for the afternoon.

Me eating a chilli

The restaurant was in a little enclave of lots of artisan shops – although they were such hippies that the shops didn’t really have regular opening hours and none of them were really open. We spent a lot of time feeding the stray cats and dogs too – there are a lot of them in Santiago and most of them are really affectionate and just need some human attention. I’d read an article the day before in a new newspaper for the English-speaking expats in Santiago about an American woman who had recognised the plight of the local dog population (most of which are rejected pets) and was busy sterilising them and getting them good homes. It really struck a chord with me and since then I’ve been friendly to every dog I’ve seen (as long as it wasn’t drooling rabidly at the mouth).

When I got back to my dorm in the hostel Frans was apparently gone and no one else seemed to have moved in so it looked like I had an 8-bed room to myself that evening.

At about 8:30 I knocked on the Australians’ door and asked if they fancied a bite to eat. They were all busy packing for their early flight tomorrow but I think Emma was quite happy that I’d given Dave and excuse to go to the bar for half-an-hour whilst she finished off their packing without his “supervision”. We’d all eaten lots at lunchtime so none of us were very hungry but I suggested that we grab a light bite at the sushi restaurant around the corner that Susanna had recommended earlier.  Since Emma and Dave didn’t eat any fish this was probably not the world’s best idea but we managed to find some non-fish options on the menu. It’s probably the first and last time that I’ll ever eat chicken sushi (don’t worry, it was cooked chicken!)

Emma was also not exactly adroit with chopsticks – something that shocked me because I thought that since she’d lived in Sydney the home of Pacific Rim fusion cookery it would practically be an essential life-skill. I gave her a few pointers and by the end of the meal she was actually using them quite well. Since they were leaving so early in the morning, I had one quick beer with Dave and then we called it a night.

As it happened a couple of people turned up late in the night to my dorm so I didn’t have it completely to myself.

Hot Chile

28 01 2010

The flight to Santiago was quite long but I was not really able to sleep because it was still too early. This was a shame because although we landed at 01:40 Los Angeles time it would be 06:40 in Chile – meaning that the hour night’s sleep that I managed to get on the plane didn’t exactly leave me well-rested. It’s not like I passed the time watching any worthwhile movies either – instead I watched Brad’s ex’s (or future ex’s) in the bland Jennifer Aniston film, Love Happens, and the much more enjoyable Mr & Mrs Smith – which I was quite shocked to realise I’d not yet watched.

Apart from that I dozed off to the musical accompaniment of Florence and the Machine although I later decided that I should have put the Spanish language lessons on in the hope that I might absorb some of it subconsciously. I got to the airport with every intention of getting the bus into town but one of the taxi drivers was so friendly that I decided to go with them. As it happened, he was just the airport agent and someone else drove me. He still expected a tip and having nothing smaller than 5000 CLP (just under 10 USD) I had to give him that. It didn’t help that I didn’t know the exchange rate so when my taxi driver expected 50000 CLP I thought that was okay – it’s only about 4 times what the Lonely Planet (LP) said a taxi should cost from the airport!

I got the taxi to the Happy House Hostel which had a good write-up in the LP. I’m not really used to staying in hostels (I’ve spent most of my recent years in 5* hotels) but I decided that I needed to stay in them to a) save money – especially if I’m fleeced by taxi drivers every time I arrive in a country a bit tired and b) to meet people since hostels are much more communal and friendly.

I hoped that they might have a single en-suite room so that I could get the hostel atmosphere without the hostel accommodation but these are in limited supply. When she said they’d only got doubles I said I’d take that but as it turned out I got a place in a dorm. I took up the 3-day special although I was originally only going to stay 2 days. I hope that’s not too long! Oh well – at least the dorm has lockers to stow my laptop. I couldn’t go to my room until 12 o’clock which gave me lots of time to kill beforehand. I decided to head into the centre and explore.

Not really knowing what Santiago had to offer I decided to follow the LP’s walking tour. First of all I had to get into the centre. I accidentally found the metro stop right next to the hostel and went down there. I wasn’t sure what I should buy but it looked like it was one fixed price per trip (like the NY Subway). With lots of muttering and hand actions I got my ticket at the counter (although in retrospect I think it should have been un billete de metro). After that it was a case of guessing where in town I needed to start the walk and changing trains to ensure that I got there okay.

I got out of the metro at Santa Lucia and promptly walked South instead of North (hey, we don’t all have iPhone 3GS’s with GPS and compasses, you know) but corrected myself and headed in the right direction. I then promptly walked straight past the library where that the café starting point was and had to double-back again. When I got there the café looked closed – although a coffee would have been good. Next stop was an open-air market with tattooists but I couldn’t find that either. So then I went into the National Park and ascended the staircase to the top. They were really nice gardens with lots of cool statues and views over the smoggy city.

Further down the road towards another park where the art museum was – I meant to see a joke shop with Pinochet T-shirts nearby but missed that too. Then I doubled back to the Plaza de Armes which had lots of cool old buildings on it. I then went past the museum of pre-Columbian Art and then to a fast food joint called El Rapido which sold empanadas. I ordered an empanada pino which I assume was chicken. After eating it I still assume it was chicken. (Although for all I know it was a big blue Sesame Street bird – for those not acquainted with the Dutch Sesamstraat: JFGI). The server then said something about bebidas. I tried this word out for size and repeated “¿Bebidas?” We did a few iterations of this I think before he gesticulated to the Coca-Cola etc and I realised it was drinks. I should have known really – I knew the verb was beber.

One of the buildings on Plaza des Armes

The payment there was quite strange for a fast food eatery. You got a bit of paper from your server and took it over to the payment desk and paid there. Unfortunately he wasn’t handing the bits of paper out automatically so I’d need to ask for it. After 5 minutes scouring the phrasebook I was actually able to ask for la cuenta, por favor and get out of there.

From there I walked to the Presidential Palace (the scene of Pinochet’s bloody coup in 1973) and allegedly past the stock exchange – although that was on a side street and I didn’t head down there. The walking tour ended at a coffee-house which I also couldn’t find. After such a successful walking tour I headed back to the hostel to get my room.

I finally had a shower – I’m sure that getting off a long flight having not slept and then walking through the hot and sticky Santiago streets must have made me a bit whiffy by now – and then started updating my blog. This took a bit of ingenuity – there was WiFi at the hostel but even after she gave me the WEP key the DHCP wasn’t playing ball. As Sam at Antelope Park knows that doesn’t really stop me and I managed to connect okay after looking at the settings on one of the PC’s.

I met Frans briefly, an Austrian who was staying in the same dorm, and then I tried to have a bit of a siesta but the hostel is quite noisy and it’s very humid so I probably only got an hour of shut-eye. Oh well, at least that doubled my sleep quota for the evening. I then went and booked a winery tour for the next day with Susanna, the dedicated tour representative – who it turned out was from Leiden, so I ended up talking to her in Dutch too. Although I think she doubted my Dutch proficiency to begin with because our first Dutch conversation went a bit like this:

“Dus, spreek je wel Nederlands?” (So do you speak Dutch?)

“Ja”. (Yes)

“Echt waar?” (Really?)

“Ja” (Yes)

“Kan je iets anders zeggen behalve “Ja”?” (Can you say something else other than “Yes”)

“Ja…” (Yes)

Afterwards I went to the bar and had my welcome drink, the local tipple Ponche, which is white wine with peaches. I followed that with a few Coronas and the local beer Escudo. For a while I was the only one at the bar but eventually some Australians turned up who were also doing the wine tour with me the next day – Dave, Emma and Rachel. I had a couple of games of pool with Dave – both of which he won and then we went to dinner at a local restaurant which the hostel had recommended.

I had jamon con plata (ham and avocado – although the ham had more of a spam consistency) to start and some kind of Chilean bean stew for main. I warned the Aussies not to sit downwind of me on the wine tour the next day! Afterwards we went back to the bar and played some more pool. I somehow beat Dave in all 3 games (it was more a war of attrition than skill) to win the best of 5. I was feeling somewhat drunk and very tired when I eventually turned in.