Sabbatical [Day 5] Skiing with Brazillians

Last night, wandering around for probably about an hour trying to find a place to eat (Santiago is in dire need of Yelp), Alex and I stumbled across a Ski trip place. We had planned on going on a ski trip – which, it turns out, would be my first time ever really skiing. On a whim, we wandered in to check the pricing. It turned out to be cheaper than the one we had originally planned to go to, and more importantly they noted that we would have to have already picked out our rental gear before the vans took off in the morning, which basically gave us time to make an immediate decision on the matter.

Done.

Ski trip it is. Picked our boots, picked our coats, snowpants, goggles. Then we went in the back room and were assisted by a guy who looked oddly like Jack Black in selecting some skis and poles. He slowly worked at adjusting the skis for our boots, and haphazardly converted pounds to kilograms (which I think he did incorrectly, with some decent falls my skis never detached). Our names were written on the skis in permanent markers, and we were told to be there in the morning.

We were. Along with an entire van full of Brazilians. I’m convinced that this particular outfit must have been featured in the Lonely Planet – Portuguese Edition or something. Their logo even had the Brazilian flag, and the guy helping us was from Rio. Alex and I immediately take notice of our immersion language experience, and are only more excited for the Brazil portion of the trip.

Off we went, late as scheduled. Within 30 seconds of the bus/van taking off, we were already in trouble. One of the store employees was pounding on the windows of the bus, telling the driver to stop. The Brazilians made a big fuss about it and laughed. It turned out that we were running into a road sign. And perhaps even the bus behind us.

A crunch and a smash later, we were un-parallel-parked later, and on our way. Thirty minutes into the trip, we began ascending the Andes. Forty minutes into the trip, we began our winding roads and hair-pin turns up to the summit of El Colorado Ski Resort.

Nearly every hairpin turn was taken at roughly 30mph. There was minimal braking. There was suggestive yielding to oncoming traffic. There were very small rail guards. It seemed that every 45 seconds we were either facing running directly into a cliff, or directly off of a cliff.

Each turn, the Brazilians showed us how to express fear in Brazilian Portuguese. I believe it went something like “OOOeeeeEUeoEeee!!!!” Hopefully, this knowledge will not come in handy in Brazil.

We made it.

I was amazed at the frenzy at the base of the slopes. Nearly all of the skiers seemed to be Brazilian. What? Why? Where are the Chileans? No Americans? Any English Speakers? Nope. Then, 75% of the skiers seemed to be about 75% of my age – and height, for that matter. This should prove to be humiliating.

It was – for a bit.

Alex tried showing me some basic moves. He kept talking about Pizzas and making a pizza and doing pizza turns and though I knew where he was going with it, I think it turned my mind to food and I was falling more than I was moving along any particular vector in euclidean geometry. Then he went up to actually ski, and I got my professional instructor for an hour to teach me how things are done. It turns out that he was from Japan. Masuke… Maruke…  Marusake… I can’t remember his name right now. But, his English was slightly better than his Spanish, so that is how he told me basic directions. Laughing at my errors, however, was shared in a universal language.

Within the hour, I learned how to sort of slow down (as much as my lanky hip flexors would allow), turn a bit, and look slightly pro while doing it. He assured me that with a few more days training, I would be ready for Olympic tryouts. Encouragement goes a long way when skiing is one of your biggest fears.

So the lessons ended, I made it down the big bunny slope hill without dying or piercing my instructor, who encouraged me to press my ski poles into his chest while he skiid backwards and slowed me from flying down the Andes at 800kph.

Then, Alex had the fortune of skiing with me. More like spectating, I guess. And he photographed me – while skiing backwards. Then videotaped me, while skiing backwards. At some point, he caught me skiing ever-so-overly-fast, directly into a “slow down” sign, thus knocking it over. Oh, the irony.

So we had some breaks. Alex went off to do real skiing while I did my best to not die. I succeeded, and I even started to get the hang of it by the end. My hip flexors and back said “thats enough”, as did my watch.

Brazilian’s watches run precisely 10 minutes slow. We sat on that bus, waiting for everybody to get back on at the designated 5pm. Nobody… nobody, nobody….. then, 5:10pm and suddenly 20 Brazilians pile onto the bus at once. It turns out, I don’t even think they were a big group of people who knew each other – its just how it is.

We went down the scary hills and switchbacks, which at this point was actually quite slow from all of the ski-evacuation traffic. Again, we did not fly down or into a cliff, despite the driver’s numerous attempts.

The day was a success, ended by a rather disgusting Chilean sandwich. I wonder if this is how many Chilean’s days go. They have fairly terrible food here in Santiago. Lots of  hotdogs, hamburgers, and other nasty things. Figuring it seemed to be the national cuisine of Chile, we went for one of these things after the trip. I got a vegetarian equivalent of “El Completo” which normally carries a hot dog – but in my case they just removed that integral ingredient. Mushrooms, onions, peppers, about 2 cups of guacamole, 1 cup of mayo, all slathered into a hot dog bun. It was the messiest, most mediocre and fulfilling thing I could have eaten at that moment. I was hungry. Tomorrow, I expect to have cholera.

Chilean Merlot, some craft beers, some chores of doing laundry, and a long skype chat with Alex’s girlfriend, Lindsey, ended our last night here in Chile. Tomorrow, we are off to Montevideo.

So long, oeste de America del Sur!

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Sabbatical [Day 3-4] Santiago de Chile de Hotdogs

Santiago. It was interesting to arrive into a large bustling metropolis after a quaint colonial city like Valparaiso. It felt like we were in New York. Or Mexico City. Or Barcelona. It felt like everywhere, but different. It was night-time when we arrived. The metro was super clean and quiet and efficient. When we submerged from the underground, people were out and about on the streets everywhere. The streets seemed pretty clean and the buildings well-kept. There wasn’t dog poop everywhere, which was an improvement over Valparaiso. We got to our trendy, tiny apartment – though it was substantially more roomy than our hostel which had room for two bunks and a bean-bag chair, but that’s about it.

We walked around forever trying to find a restaurant, but nowhere seemed to be serving food. Chileans eat late, but it was already fairly late and still everywhere seemed to just be cafés. People drinking beer or coffee, but no food. Oh well. We found a cool little pizza place that knew what they were doing, bought a bottle of wine and chilled at the apartment for a while. Pizza always feels like such a cop-out. Sometimes, it’s just what you need.
The next morning we woke up decently early to walk around the city. The first thing we noticed was the smog. Mmmm… smokey. Alex felt like he was back in Beijing, but I was reminded of DF, Mexico. Santiago is located between the ocean and the gigantic Andes mountain range. Essentially, the moisture and warmth from the ocean traps a layer of smog in the valley, and it is disgusting. Anybody who doesn’t think that humans are capable of changing climate needs to spend a couple of weeks in a place like Santiago. When your snot turns black and you constantly feel like you have the flu from a sore throat, you realize just how much our polluting vehicles and factories really affects the environment we depend on.

There are mountains surrounding Santiago. You can’t see them, despite there being 10,000ft peaks just a few miles away. Part of this is because you’re nearly always surrounded by highrise or midrise buildings – similar to the claustrophobia feeling in New York City. If you do catch a space to peek through, though, it doesn’t matter. The smog blocks the rest of that view. Lovely.

Walking around, Alex was excited to try some good coffee from South America. It turns out that there is some phenomenon called “café con piernas” or “coffee with legs”. Basically, think of Hooters, but instead of serving food tha baristas wear somewhat scandalous outfits and serve coffee to lonely old business men. Its pretty disgusting, and horribly machismo, but we had to go. At first, like any such establishment, we felt dirty for even opening the door. But then, half the businessmen walked out and then some women came in with their kids. I guess café con piernas is a family destination as well.

We walked around some plazas. Plaza de Armas. It should really be called Plaza de Hotdogs. Santiago has some of the most disgusting food I’ve come across in all of my travels. Nearly everywhere seems to have signs to boast their sandwiches – be it hot dogs or hamburgers or sloppy meat sandwiches with who knows what kind of meat piled over the sides of boring bread that could put the most overdone Arby’s sandwich to shame. Oh, and the mayo. SO MUCH MAYO. On everything. Cups of mayo. Mayo could give the hotdog a run for the official food of Santiago.

Back to the plazas and city. Plaza de Armas has an entire side of a block dedicated to hotdog stands. Each hot dog stand seems to offer exactly the same things as the stand next to it. Some stands are clearly more popular than other stands. What sets them apart, we’ll never know.

Just a few blocks away exists a very similar phenomenon where on a single narrow street, there are around 20 or so very small small appliance repair shops. Each one displays its replacement blender pitcher arrangement proudly in a glass case, along with various other parts. It would seem as though all they could possibly repair were blenders, but some had other random appliance parts from can openers, coffee makers, hair dryers, and other small appliances that would never ever ever be worth your time and money to repair. But there they were, all doing exactly the same thing, competing with their immediate neighbors for the same business.

In the neighborhood which we stayed in, Bellas Artes, there seemed to be maybe one restaurant within blocks to eat at. Everything else was cafés. It was the Café quadrant. In Bella Vista, just across the highway, there were tons of restaurants and some bars, but not so many cafés. A few blocks from that were sketchy bars and nightclubs, but no restaurants.

The layout reminded me of how I’ve heard of Brasilia described. Restaurants in one quarter of the city, hotels in the opposite quarter, and shopping in some other quarter, with a taxi required to get in between them all. Santiago may not be quite as bad, but its not so great to just wander outside of your hotel and find great things.
We continue to walk around, exploring various pockets. At one point we see this amazingly different building with a grid-like rusty structure around it. It may have been a museum. Maybe it was a shopping mall. Or probably a college. We should go in, though, naturally. So we do. And we find a security guard. Alex asks “que es este edificio?” She gives us this look like we had just spoken blasphemy. In Spanish…

“This Building? This BUILDING is the Culture Center. You know, culture? Arts, theater, cinema, photography…”

and basically stopped mid-sentence and shook her head because she thought we weren’t worth the time and were clearly so uncultured that we wouldn’t know what culture was if it smacked us in the face. We learned a bit about Chilean security guard culture, and decided it was time to immediately leave.

We climbed a hill. Then we climbed a bigger hill and took a funicular down. You might think this was the wrong order, but if you saw the line to take the funicular up, you’d agree with our decision.

We walked around a lot, took silly photos of street art and funny street signs and stuff like this:

To the grocery store. I took a photo of the hot dog aisle.

My friend, Christine noticed this photo and said she took the same photo. She did. And she wrote a gerat article about hot dogs in Santiago here. We picked a bottle of delicious and inexpensive Chilean wine. Some cheese. Breakfast things – because we decided we could do a better job cooking eggs and placing them on bread than any non-existent non-hotdog-breakfast-stand could hope to. (which, it turns out, Alex did quite well at). We went through the checkout line, which was of course slow and obnoxious, and then required me to return to the back of the store to weigh the bread we had placed in a bag, despite there being a scale right on the checkout counter in front of the cashier. Slow.

But then, it was all made up for when the supermarket music switched to the next track – Careless Whisper by George Michael. The girl bagging our groceries started giggling, and told the cashier “la canción!”, pointing to the overhead speakers. Alex and I also began to laugh, knowing exactly what it was that was so entertaining. “Por el video Youtube?” Sí.

Some things are funny no matter what hemisphere you are in.

Sabbatical [Day 1-3] Valparaiso & Vina del Mar

I don’t know what to say about Valparaiso other than that it is probably one of the most picturesque cities I have ever been to. Taxco, Mexico may be a very close contender. They are both UNESCO heritage sites. If you don’t know what UNESCO is – I suggest you look up their list of cities worth visiting. They are. We expect to see a few more on this trip.

Hilights of the city visit include:

  • A roller-coaster taxi ride by a crazy cab driver who was tired of being stuck in traffic and wanted to show us how his car could handle cobblestone streets that have a 45degree grade.
  • Arriving at our wonderful hostel, Adlafken and being greeted by several people. The main lady was a fantastic host, who would often be found wearing a surgical mask and speaking in words faster than we could possibly understand.
  • Taking terrifying funiculars up very steep grades to get from A to B to C to D. They were fairly cheep – about 60 cents for the more expensive one.
  • Being there on a national holiday which nobody seemed to have any idea why it existed, other than “algo religioso, no se”. It did end up involving some people dancing to some horribly repetitive music in front of a church, and then some procession of some military guys up a big hill which we watched a few minutes of, then became a part of, then ran in front of to avoid.
  • Having good food at some cool touristic restaurants
  • Taking lots of scenic photos of sloping roads, stairwells, and street art
  • Playing music on top of an amazing rooftop terrace at the hostel.
  • Drinking amazing Pisco cocktails at Bar Pisco
  • Drinking more pisco with our buddy, Hernan from the adjacent hostel rooftop
  • Feeling not so great the next day after drinking lots of pisco while wandering around less interesting Vina del Mar

Yup, that pretty much wraps it up, I think.

Sabbatical [Day 0] The Great Voyage

If  I had to pick one question to never hear again in my life, I think it would be “So, are you all packed?” The only time that somebody could ask me this question and hear an affirmation is if you are in the car with me on the way to the airport.

As anybody who’s traveled with me (or been unfortunate enough to be near me before traveling) may know, packing stresses me the hell out and tends to bring out The Hulk in me. Over the last few years, I have slowly created and added to a huge packing checklist in Google Tasks to try to eliminate some of the confusion and worrying that I may miss something. It helps to a point, but at the same time the mere site of the list can be daunting. Regardless, having to get all of my digital life in order on top of physical things ads an entire new level of bit-packing that seems to just take longer and longer. Did I copy all of the movies I want to watch on the plane? How about music I may want to listen to? Did I unlock my cell phone? Download offline maps? Get a translation app? Dictionary? Ebooks? Spotify sync? Windows updates? GAAAAAH!

After a night of drinking some beers and getting late night food with some close friends, I finally calmed down a bit and could do my general packing. Literally, by bags weren’t packed to satisfaction until about 5 minutes before my ride to the airport arrived.

Alex and I had a flight that left Austin at 7pm on a Saturday. I realized this may be my favorite time to travel. The airport was nearly desolate – no lines at security or anywhere, really. We grabbed a nasty veggie burger for dinner, walked over to the terminal and right onto the plane – despite us not being late at all the plane had almost entirely boarded and was quite empty. Off to Dallas. Insert indifference sound here.

The next flight to Santiago would be 9 hours long. It was in a very outdated 1970’s American Airlines tin can edition 767. Entertainment features included 5 15″ CRT televisions, and we were lucky enough to have power in our seats – except the power was a cigarette lighter plug.

The plane did not experience sudden depressurization or faulty engines on takeoff, cruising, or landing. This may have been a small miracle in and of itself.

American Airlines provided several actually delicious airplane meals. Most importantly, they give you free wine and beer on international flights now. The flight attendants and I had a conversation that went something like this:

Attendant 1: “What would you like to drink?”

Me: “I think I would like a wine. What kind do you have?”

Attendant 1: “White or red.”

Me: “Oh, I mean what type of grapes?”

Attendant 2: “I don’t know, red grapes or white grapes. Its free”

Me: “Oh, I know, I just don’t know what kind of white it is”

Attendant 2: “Sir, its free. You don’t get to choose the kind of grape”

Me: “I know that, I just want to know what kind”

Attendant 1 to Attendant 2: “I think he wants a red”

At which point they hand me a decently sized bottle of delicious Merlot Cabernet blend from France. Why couldn’t they just read me the bottle? Or show me the bottle? The fact is, I actually did have the choice between grape types. I guess I must be the only person to ever fly on an airplane that would pick a wine based on the varietal, and not the color. I wanted to know what would pair with my 5 forms of cheese and carbs that were on my plate.

The wine was way too good for an airplane. I got the white too. So, lesson learned, when they offer you choices of free wine on an American Airlines flight, the correct answer is “both, please”.

American Airline Wine Selection

Two delicious options aboard American Airlines Coach

Some 9 hours after taking off , we had breakfast of cheese and carbs, and quickly found ourselves landing in Santiago de Chile.

Finally, we are here. Alive.

Upon de-boarding, we were shocked to not see any guys in berets holding fully automatic weapons to greet us. Are we in Latin America? Concerned.

Baggage took about 45 minutes to show up on the belt after we had already spent 45 minutes getting off the plane and going through customs. Confirmed: we are in Latin America.  Just a bus ride and a bus ride and a traffic-jammed then rollercoaster cobblestone taxi ride away from our hostel in Valparaiso.

Por fin, llegamos!