Friday, May 16, 2008


I have wanted to visit Valparaiso, Chile, ever since I found out years ago that Pablo Neruda lived here. As an important port town, it is the oldest city in Chile, now chalked full of art, amazing architecture, and history. Although only about half a million people large, it is considered the cultural capitol of the country and is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight. The best parts are the hill neighborhoods or cerros, where you have to climb steeply through cobblestone streets, windy staircases, beautiful graffiti art, crumbling buildings, cute bars, haphazard walls, stained-glass churches, and hole-in-the-wall artist studios. You get lost in the labyrinth of streets, whose designers clearly didn't believe in right angles, and find your way not by street names, but by the artwork. "I know I've seen that horse mirror mural, but never the winged lady..."

Here's an approximate recipe for the city of Valparaiso...

* a Tim Burton film set
* massive amounts of brightly colored paint
* many of Chile's artisans and visual artists
* garbage and industrial grime
* a handful of slick, petty thieves (they got another wallet of mine, dammit!)
* old port area with precarious stacks of shipping containers and military vessels
* stockpiles of pisco (white grape brandy) and hot mulled wine (vino navigante)
* a dozen colleges and subsequent students (who by the way, have a very distinct style- sort of makes me think of if The Clash moved to South America and got into hip hop and plaid scarves)
* clouds and fog of the Bay area

--Combine ingredients and pour onto steep coastal hillside. Let contents settle and enjoy for 500 years!--

A few other random facts about Valpo- it can claim Latin America’s oldest stock exchange, the continent’s first volunteer fire department, Chile’s first public library, and the oldest Spanish language newspaper in continuous publication in the world.

So about Chileans in general- they are so hard to understand! I've been studying and speaking Spanish for over 10 years, and I had little trouble communicating in Peru, but here it's a constant, "Como? Como?" Oh, maybe it's because they don't finish their freaking words! They take the 's' off the ends of words and drop it like it's hot. For instance, 'mas o menos' (more or less) becomes 'mah o mayo'. There are words here I have never, ever heard of that they don't say anywhere else. I was struggling to understand a man at the store the other day, and his coworker said it well, "The poor girl speaks Spanish, not Chilean!"

I am staying with a high school friend, Elizabeth, who is living here teaching English at a college for a year. It has been absolutely wonderful for several reasons. It's great to see an old friend, and one who speaks Spanish and has similar interests. Her apartment is amazing- centrally located, beautiful bay view, and q u i e t. I have slept better here than I have in all of South America (excluding the quiet of camping on the Machu Picchu trek).

She also is a fabulous cook and has kept me well fed. To back up a little, I have to say that my taste buds have been seriously neglected the last month. After I left the fresh seafood and tropical fruit of the northern Peru coast, the cuisine took a turn for the worse. Through southern Peru, Bolivia, and northern Chile, my standard diet has been (dubious parts of) chicken and plain rice, with a lot of gummy boiled potatoes and sometimes fried fish... Some meat soups, an alpaca steak, mushy spaghetti, and occasionally "salad" which is a lot of raw chopped red onion with a tiny bit of limp lettuce. I generally eat where locals do, at little restaurants, stalls, or markets because the food is cheaper and more authentic than the touristy places and usually delicious. It's funny that the ONLY time I got throw-up sick on this trip was from a nice gringo restaurant in Huaraz when I thought the chicken curry and mango chutney would be a nice change of pace. I had a night of sleeping by the toilet to regret that decision. Later, for more variety I tried some nachos in a gringo restaurant in Copacabana, and they were so bad. The tortilla chips were stale Doritos covered in cheese and greasy shredded chicken.

Anyway, here with Elizabeth I have finally found redemption- she's made hearty egg and hashbrown breakfasts (including bacon, which we had to go to 3 butchers to find, and finally ended up paying $18 for a half kilo, apparently it's rare here), curried garbanzo and spinach pitas, salmon lasagna, bruschetta, and green salad. There are really good restaurants, some foreign-owned- all with ocean views or great ambiance or funky decor-and we've had Spanish tapas and wine, seafood soups, tofu burritos, and saffron rice balls. Well, it hasn't all been that varied or healthy. Elizabeth did have to introduce me to Chorillana- a quintessential Chilean dish which is a HUGE pile of french fries with chopped onion, beef, and fried egg. No condiments. If you ask for ketchup or anything they just stare at you. There are restaurants that serve nothing else, and is often the Sunday family meal after church. You can only order by number of people, so we obviously had to get a Chorillana plate for 2, which by my personal calculations could have easily fed 5.

Finally, I have to mention some of the big current events going on. There's a drought, and subsequent power shortage since much electricity comes from hydro plants. There are big student protests going on in Valpo about transportation and other things, and a bunch of colleges are "en toma", or in take-over. The students literally have seized control of the schools, keys and all, and some haven't held classes in over a month. Finally, the volcano Chaiten is erupting after being dormant for thousands of years. The nearby cities are having to evacuate, and relief has been a national effort. We donated to a victims of Chaiten food drive yesterday. Here's a picture of it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Some Good News

1) I brushed my teeth with my injured hand for the first time in over a month! Fine motor skills are returning!

2) Chile has toilet paper! The days of perpetually carrying my own roll of TP in my purse are over...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Blue Dawn Geysers to Saturn's Rings Night

What a surreal and beautiful last few days...

I just took a jeep trip from southern Bolivia through the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. There are islands of cactus in the middle of the salt plains, and frozen colored lakes with pink flamingos. The landscape changes constantly, from puffing volcanoes to jagged rocks to dry rolling hills. Yesterday we set out at 5am, in the dark and cold, arriving at a geyser field just as the sky was turning a lighter blue. It was 4,900 meters, or almost 15,000 feet, the highest I have ever been. Grey mud boiled and lurched under steam in this other-worldly place. Then as the sun was rising, we arrived at hot springs, taking a dip before breakfast.

The jeep left me at the border of Chile, where I took a bus to San Pedro de Atacama. We dropped about 2,000 meters, a welcome relief for my struggling lungs and cold, tired body. I took a nap before heading to a stargazing tour in a private home outside town. An astronomical French/Chilean couple have huge telescopes in their yard and do star talks. I saw the closest star to earth, the spot on the moon of the first landing, nebuli, another galaxy, and the rings of saturn.

The day that started on another planet ended there as well.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Potosi History

"The city which has given the most to the world and has the least," said an old Potosi lady.

I have been fascinated with the Bolivian city of Potosi ever since I read about it years ago.

Uruguayan historian and author Eduardo Galeano writes about the rich and exploitative history of the largest silver mine in the Americas, the basis of extreme wealth for the Spaniards in colonial times. In Open Veins of Latin America, he writes:

"They say that even the horses were shod with silver in the great days of the city of Potosi. The church altars and the wings of cherubim in processions for the Corpus Christi celebration in 1658, were made of silver: the streets from the cathedral to the church of Recoletos were completely resurfaced with silver bars. In Potosi, silver built temples and palaces, monasteries and gambling dens..."

"...By the beginning of the 17th century it had 36 magnificently decorated churches, 36 gambling houses, and 14 dance academies. Salons, theatres, and fiesta stage-settings had the finest tapestries, curtains, heraldic emblazonry, and wrought gold and silver; multicolored damasks and clothes of gold and silver hung from the balconies of houses. Silks and fabrics came from Granada; hats from Paris and London; diamonds from Ceylon; precious stones from India; pearls from Panama; crystal from Venice..."

Towering over Potosi is the Cerro Rico, or Rich Hill. Apparently, it was an indigenous man who discovered that the hill was full of silver, but once the Spaniards found out, they flocked there to start mining. Not that THEY started mining, but rather that they began to take indigenous people from all around Potosi to force to work in the mines as slaves. They would often have to work for one or 2 days straight, with almost no food, only coca leaves to chew on. At the Coca Museum in La Paz, I learned that the Spaniards banned coca use when they first arrived in the Andes, claiming that it was a devil's plant and interferred with a godly life. But then about 20 years later, when they realized that coca helped the miners' productivity in Potosi, they allowed it again, by decree of Philip II.

Galeano continues:
"Only 28 years had passed since the city sprouted out of the Andean wilderness and already, as if by magic, it had the same poulation as London and more than Seville, Madrid, Rome, or Paris. A new census in 1650 gave Potosi a population of 160,000. It was one of the world's biggest and richest cities, ten times bigger than Boston..."

Potosi is a classic lesson of colonial economics.
"The colonial economy, supplying rather than consuming, was built in terms of- and at the service of- the European market."

And so what happens when that raw material slows down, when they can no longer supply?
"The regions now the most underdeveloped and poverty stricken are those which in the past had had the closest links with the metropolis and enjoyed periods of boom. Having once been the biggest producers of goods exported to Europe, or later to the US, and the richest sources of capital, they were abandoned by the metropolis when for this or that reason business sagged. Potosi is the outstanding example of this descent into the vaccuum."

And finally, Galeano says:
"Potosi society, sick with ostentation and extravagence, left Bolivia with only a vague memory of its splendor, in the ruins of it's churches and palaces, and of 8 million indigenous corpses."

And even though there was constant mining for hundreds of years, and so many indigenous killed, there are still 20,000 miners working in the Cerro Rico today. Although there are only trace amounts of silver, miners still eke out their living from lead, tin, and zinc. I did a tour of one of the cooperative mine shafts with an ex-miner, and it was truly horrifying. The men in my guide's family have been miners for generations, and all have died from mine-related lung diseases. Though the workers are part of a cooperative, they are essentially independent in their work, so if they want any safey equiptment, they have to buy it themselves, at prohibitively expensive prices. They breathe gas in the unventilated mines with no masks, touch arsenic-ridden walls and rocks with no gloves. Inside the mines, there are dangerous drop-off cliffs, and wooden beams haphazardly holding up rock avalanches. Blasting times are from 10-noon and 4-6pm daily, you can hear and feel the blasts shake in the tunnels. "Don't worry," my guide said, "That blast is at least 100 meters away." Um, that's only about 300 feet between me and unchecked dynamite.

My guide also said,
"Outside we are Christian, and worship God. But inside the mines, we worship the devil. We have to, to survive."

The devil god's name is Tio, possibly from the Spanish "dios" meaning "god"- but in the miners'language of Quechua, there is no d sound, so the word was altered. Even today, most of the miners are indigenous and Quechua-speaking. Tio was invented by the Spaniards to put an other-worldly presence in the mines as a form of control. Every cooperative tunnel has an abandoned gallery with a statue of Tio, a horned man-beast-looking god. And on Fridays after work, the workers make offerings to Tio for continued health, safety, luck finding new veins, or any other desire for their daily life. They sit around his statue, and place on it coca leaves or cane sugar liquor, and light cigarettes for his mouth (he only likes one certain brand). Then they drink the 96% liquor in the dark of the gallery.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Things You Don't Plan

The last month since I turned 26 has been a little rough. Right after my birthay I cut my right hand badly, and it is only very slowly that I've been able to start to use it again. Still no brushing my teeth or picking up heavy things. And my 2 fingers above the cut are still half-numb and swollen. But at this point I've talked to 4 different Peruvian doctors and 2 American medical students, and they all say the hand looks good and that the nerve recovery takes a long time.

Then there was getting robbed on the bus, then a sketchy incident with people I thought were my friends, then a bus breaking down and being stranded for hours on the desolate highway, then harsh Bolivian border people...

Oh, then the WORST bus experience of my life from La Paz. It was supposed to leave at 8pm, but they wouldn't tell me a gate where to catch it, though they had already loaded my backpack. They said instead, "follow this guy!" So I ran to keep up with this guy, through the lobby, to the dark back bowels of the station, then outside... and across the street. What? The point of buying your ticket at the station is safely boarding there. But luckily, other people I had seen buying tickets were all waiting on the corner, so at least I was with a group. Then they said the bus couldn't stop there, so we should walk to the next curve. So the whole group of maybe 30 or 40 starts tromping down side of the HIGHWAY in a procession, indigenous women with bright woven bags on their backs, mestizos with sacks of fruit and plastic woven luggage, and a few foreigners with backpacks. It was quite a sight. We stopped after about a mile and waited. I was worried I would never see my backpack again. Finally around 9:30 the bus arrives! It's an overnight bus and my seat is broken- to the point that if I lean back at all, I go all the way to the lap of the person behind me! And then the window is broken and doesn't close all the way- remember it's night and around 12,000 feet, like being on top of Mount Baker. I am so cold I can't sleep. Then the bus breaks down. 3 times. And there is no bathroom. The bus stops in the middle of this random town, and I get off to pee, in the middle of the street like everyone else. Anyway, I find out later that there had been protests in La Paz, and people were blocking the highway, which was why the bus couldn't get to us.

And on top of it all is a broken heart, and having to say goodbye to Ata. I already stayed in Peru much longer than planned, and had to get moving south. But then again, life is full of those things that you don't plan.