Gazing at Glaciers

On Saturday we pulled on our hiking boots and backpacks once again and set off for the El Morado National Monument for some trekking and learning with a natural history professor named Patricio. El Morado National Monument refers to the 30 square kilometer privately protected park, specifically we went to visit the glacier and to see the evidence of the geological forces that shaped Chile to what we see today.

From Santiago (A) to Baños Morales (B)

From Santiago (A) to Baños Morales (B)

Our hike started in the tiny village Baños Morales, nestled between the towering mountains of the Andes. The village only has around 200 year round inhabitants, and survives on a mixture of natural tourism and plaster mining. We signed in at the trailhead and set off, within minutes we could see the little group of houses laid out in the valley below us.

The trail wasn’t anywhere as rough as Cerro Manquehue; it rose gently as we followed the valley towards the glacier. Every so often we would stop and our guide would point out interesting geological features. For example, he told us that the horizontal bands of color we could see on the exposed mountainsides are made up of sedimentary rock that used to be an ancient sea floor, and so formed horizontally. We know this today because these mountains are rich with fossils of ancient sea critters and plants. Over time as the tectonic plates pushed together to form the Andes mountains, the pressure was so great that these chunks of sea floor were pushed into their current horizontal position.

File:Mountain by reverse fault.gif

We couldn’t actually get to the glacier because recent snowfall in the area made the last third of the trail too dangerous, but we still trudged through the snow as far as we could before settling in a bare patch of ground for lunch. We perched on rocks and ate while we talked about how unbelievably close we are to the end of our time in Chile. We discussed our host families, we made farewell party plans and we bemoaned our upcoming finals. We took pictures in front of the glaciers and goofed around in the snow and threw snowballs at each other.

Condors, the national bird of Chile, circled above us as we made our way back down the mountain. The sun had caused the snow to become soft so we often sunk in up to our thighs, and all of our shoes and socks quickly filled up with snow. We saw some puma tracks in the snow, and we we happy to reach the bus and pull on dry socks and shoes. On the way home we stopped for empanadas, which were delicious as always! When i get home I definitely want to make Chilean food for my friends and family, it’s so good!

Hiking pictures!



Climbing Cerro Manquehue

My legs and feet seem to be attempting to secede from the United Republic of Abby’s Body in protest of the unjust taxation and abuse they suffered today. What they don’t know is that I’ve already vetoed their petitions. I suspect civil war to break out when I wake up tomorrow morning.

The reason I’ve subjected my lower half to such torment is because today we climbed Cerro Manquehue, the tallest point in the Santiago valley at about a mile above sea level. It is actually an extinct volcano and has an estimated geological age of 19 million years. Another interesting fact is that it is an unruly and harsh monster to hike.

To get to the trail, we first had to walk through a super wealthy neighborhood and hop a fence (which I did with my usual catlike ninja grace). Then you walk through a huge horse paddock and pick up the trail. The first third of the trail is pretty steep; even as an experienced hiker I was winded. Then there’s a fairly even stretch with some gentler undulations in the land. And then the fun begins. Here, fun means about 45 minutes of punishing uphill climbing with such a steep grade that your hands get well acquainted with the rich dark earth. The path seems to follow an old stream bed and features delightfully surprising patches of loose gravel that slide out from under your sneakers to clatter down the mountainside.

From start to finish the hike was about two and a half hours, but we made slow progress because we had to stop often to rest. It was worth it for the reward of the view. As we ascended we were able to see the city laid out below our feet. At least, we could make out bits of it through the thick layer of smog that hangs over the city. Because Santiago is situated in a valley the mountains around it trap the smog and keep it from dissipating. As a result, the pollution concentrates and seeing the thick cloud was startling and worrisome. Santiago is well known as one of the most polluted cities in South America; although updated public transportation vehicles and better policies have made improvements it still frequently reports double or triple the concentration of airborne pollutants that is recommended by the World Health Organization.

Santiago also the list of top 10 cities with worst air quality, right behind Bejing and New Delhi on a recent report by 24/7 Wall St.

Squinting through the thick haze, trying to make out familiar landmarks, I was struck by a very deep concern for our future as a species if we do not start making healthier decisions now. I imagined a future in which every city is like this, smothered and sicked by its own poisonous halitosis. Two of my three host siblings have asthma, many of my friends have reported increased migraines since arriving in Santiago, and I find myself more tired and worn down than usual. The World Health Organization warns that high levels of air pollution can cause a cornucopia of health issues, from clumped veins and pneumonia to increased number of fatal heart attacks and negative effects on fetus in pregnant women. Looking out over the city I didn’t need to see the actual statistics to know that what I was looking at was not healthy by any means.

Turning 180 degrees, we could see the peaks of the Andes Mountains that make up the Cordillera. They were capped in fresh white snow, and we could see tiny ski lifts snaking up the sides of some. They were wrapped in fluffy white fog, blissfully clean and cool. In comparing the two views, I thought about the two directions our future as the human race might take. On the one hand was the city choking and coughing in its own filth, on the other was the pure, clean mountains.

I believe that we are at a critical stage in our development as a species and the decisions we make, or don’t make, will have a profound impact on what the human experience will look like in 50, 100, 1,000 years from now. Will we continue to suffocate and poison ourselves and our children and our children’s children or will we dedicate ourselves to a healthy and sustainable humanity? I also believe that we are capable of choosing the latter, that we can successfully apply our enormous collective intelligence and creativity to solving these problems.

The decent from the mountain was no less treacherous as the steep angle and loose gravel made our footing shaky. I think I made 80% of the return trip by sliding along on my backside. I owe my jeans a thank-you card; they held up remarkably well given the jagged rocks and gravel. Still, my muscles twitched and complained with every step down the mountain, to the micro, and home. Tomorrow I will pay dearly for the perspectives I gleaned on top of Cerro Manquehue, but the pictures at least help make it all worth while.

A Cheeseburger in a Happy Little Box

I’m not normally one for fast food but since I walk by a McDonald’s every Friday on the way to class I thought I would give Chilean Micky D’s a try. I got a cheeseburger Cajita Feliz (a Happy Meal, in Spanish it translates to “happy little box” which I think is adorable). It’s very interesting to see the mix of American and Chilean influences, even in a company that has become the face of globalization and hegemony, or at least that was my justification for ordering up some fresh McGrease!

The inside of the McDonald’s restaurant looked exactly like the ones in the US, with plastic tables and the thick smell of french fries. As I waited in line among the crowd of chatting hungry university students, I looked up at the menu. I saw lots of the stables we are used to in the US, like the Quarter Pounder with Cheese and Chicken McNuggets. I noticed the addition of several menu options featuring avocado, a staple here that gets smeared on or sliced into almost everything. For example, beside the regular McWraps was the Avocado Snack Wrap featuring crispy chicken, lettuce, tomato, onion, mayonnaise and avocado. A very Chile-influenced option was the McPollo Italiano. An Italiano is a very popular hot dog here that has tomato, mayonnaise, and avocado; the McPollo Italiano is a McChicken with these ingredients. On the breakfast menu, there was a lack of those artificial egg and cheese sandwiches. Instead, a ham and avocado sandwich was featured, plus a ham and cheese sandwich.

McPollo Italiano with tomato, mayonnaise, and avocado

So, as I mentioned before I ordered a Cheeseburger Cajita Feliz. It came with a kid size soda, a cheeseburger, a serving of french fries and of course a toy, which in this case was a little book about sea creatures. Right now McDonald’s Chile is doing a pro-literacy promotion so every happy meal comes with one of four little books on science topics. Straight to my hoard of authentic materials! As a future Spanish teacher I hoard any and all spanish-language “realia” with magpie like enthusiasm.

In comparison with McDonald’s food I’ve had in the US it was pretty much the same. The soda tasted better, but it always does in  South America. I’ve heard that they use real sugar here instead of high fructose corn syrup and that’s why, but I’ve never confirmed that. The cheeseburger and fries were exactly the same as I remember in the states, fatty and salty and oh so good but oh so unhealthy. Just like in the states, the cheeseburger consisted of a burger patty, cheese, onions, and ketchup on a bun. The other Happy Meal options were the same, McNuggets/Cheeseburger/Hamburger with Soda/Juice and French Fries.

If you’re curious and/or want to learn some Spanish food words, the McDonald’s Chile website is linked here! Or if you want to see other Spanish-speaking country McDonalds, I’ve put together a link list here (Plus a very good online Spanish-English dictionary).

Campamentos: The Other Face of Chile

Today I did some volunteer work with an organization called Desafío (Challange). I like to give back and help whenever I can so I decided I would present myself as an able body. I was assigned to a team of about 12 people to help out in Peñaflor.

Peñaflor is a campamento, a small slum or shanty town. The residents of these small communities do not own the land they are living on, and they lack one or more basic services such as electricity, drinking water, and sewage treatment. All the same, the people in this terrible situation tend to bond together to form a community to make decisions and share resources.

A campamento much like Piñaflor

I was amazed as we pulled off the highway and into Peñaflor. Until now I had not seen this level of poverty in Chile, it was like we had suddenly turned into a third world country. The houses were constructed from found materials: I saw houses with walls and roofs made of pallets, leftover plywood, sheets of corrugated metal, tarps lashed to chain link fences. None of the windows had panes of glass, they were open to the breezes or covered with makeshift curtains. There was one paved road that ran along the border of the collection of homes, the rest of the ground was bare earth still muddy from the rains. Trash was everywhere, litter and debris heaped against houses or else flattened into the earth from passing feet. Some old railroad tracks cut the campamento in half, with more trash in little piled between the rails.

Upon arrival we split into groups; some people began to help prepare a hot lunch for the community members, others began to fold and sort donated clothes and supplies for distribution. I went with a group to hand out bags of charcoal to the families and sweets to the children. We went door to door with one of the full time volunteers from Desafío, not only offering charcoal but also a listening ear to the problems and needs of the community. I talked to one single mother as her little girl peeked shyly around the hem of her skirt as she told me with pride how much she had sacrificed to make the best of the situation and to give her daughter as many opportunities as possible for a better life. An elderly señora expressed her frustration that the community was not polled for the recent census. Her adult son told us about his constant and fruitless search for work in the city and in the surrounding towns.

I had an excellent conversation with a six year old little girl, who was sharp as a tack and full of optimism about her future. “You have to study first,” she told me seriously, her hands on her hips, “Study and study and study and study so you can get a good job and make money. Then you can have a house and maybe a car. And then if you want to you can get married and have kids. But before any of that stuff you have to study hard.” She wants to be some kind of doctor, maybe a veterinarian or pediatrician if her horse riding and fashion careers don’t work out. She also wants to learn another language, maybe English or French. Lack of education has always been an issue in the campamentos, 30% of heads of households in campamentos never completed elementary school. This little girl has the fortune of a good nearby public school, but I can’t help but worry about her trying to do her homework in a house where electricity is unstable at best and the wind whistles through the walls.

We invited everyone to share a hot lunch of hot dogs and rice with us, and a great deal of community members attended. This was for me the most powerful part of the experience. As we talked and listened to one another, the more it became clear to me that these people were just that: people making the best of a terrible situation, not statistics or numbers. Too many times people fall into the false idea that poor people are in some way intellectually deficient or lazy. But as I got to know the community members of Piñaflor I could see quite clearly quite the opposite.  They were very smart, smart enough to survive on next to nothing and find ways to solve their problems with very little support. They were hardworking, constantly searching for work or else working at whatever employment they could find while trying to raise their children in order to enable them to leave this cycle of poverty.

One of my university professors once made the following analogy: imagine a race with two runners with the same physical prowess, speed and pace. Now imagine if you started one runner twenty meters further back  with no shoes and placed hurdles in his path. Which runner is going to win the race? Imagine if the spectators all shook their heads and muttered among themselves about how the disadvantaged runner clearly didn’t train enough, or didn’t try hard enough, or shouldn’t have been allowed to compete at all. ¿Cachaí? (Get it?)

There are 657 campamientos like Piñaflor that have been identified throughout the country, with 83, 862 Chilean people living in third world conditions and extreme poverty. Besides the obvious discomfort and unsanitary nature of these living conditions, 70% of families live in imminent physical danger from floods or landslides. Many organizations like Desafío are working to build relationships with these communities, to discover what they need to raise them out of their impoverished situation. I hope that through outreach and education, we can not only better the situation of the community members, but also better the attitude of the general public towards those living in poverty so we can all move forward and improve as a society and a species.

I didn’t take a ton of pictures, I didn’t want to invade these people’s private lives and make them feel uncomfortable but here are the ones I did take.

Sopaipillas, Amigas, and Spanish

¡Hola a todos! I had a really fun day today, despite waking up to a torrential downpour outside my window. I reluctantly hauled myself out of my cozy bed and onto the micro to class, grumbling at the sky from under the umbrella I bought from a man outside the metro station for 1.500 pesos (USD$3.00). Class was interesting as usual, but nothing too exciting.

After class, my friend Tabea invited me to her house to partake in a traditional rainy day Chilean pastime: making and eating sopaipillas. Sopaipillas are a kind of fried dough made with squash. They can be topped with a variety of things or eaten plain; we made ours plain with pebre (a spicy salsa) and also soaked with chancaca (a sweet sauce made of raw unrefined sugar crystallized with honey and flavored with orange peels). I’m a terrible chef so I was more of an observer while Tabea made the dough from scratch and fried them in oil, and made pebre and the chancaca to top them with. If you want to try your hand at sopaipillas, here’s a good recipe.

More than the sopaipillas, which we delicious, I enjoyed the company and the conversation. Because we have different native languages the temptation to speak English (or in her case, German) wasn’t an issue, and for me listening to non-native but fluent speakers is easier because they tend to speak more slowly and deliberately than native speakers.

The temptation to speak one’s native language when abroad is strong and requires a great deal of willpower to resist, especially with a group of people who are also native speakers of your language such as in my exchange program. Many an evening or outing has started in Spanish only to quickly deteriorate into English. It’s only natural to want to express oneself with the ease and precision that one’s mother tongue offers, and to want a momentary sanctuary from the foreign culture that you are immersed in night and day. All the same, it is of vital importance that you resist the urge and make friends who do not share that language with you so that you won’t be tempted. Living with a host family helps with this immensely, of course, which is why I highly recommend it to anyone who is serious about improving language skills and learning about the cultural context in which it is spoken.

Thinking about my own language skills, I am extremely impressed at how much I’ve advanced over the semester. Sometimes my brain doesn’t even notice which language I’m reading/listening/speaking/writing/thinking in at the moment, and it is an exhilarating feeling to realize you’ve been planning your day effortlessly in Spanish without even noticing. On the other hand, as I am writing this I have to continuously proofread for little Spanish words, especially prepositions, that have started to sneak into my English. Tricky prepositions!

Another encouraging sign of my improvement are those words that, unbidden, spring to your lips when things go wrong. For example, yesterday I woke up and blearily squinted at my phone. Realizing that I should have left for class five minutes ago, I swore loudly in Spanish. It was only after my frenzied dash out the door, onto the micro to the metro and then to class twenty minutes late did I realize what I had done. In my moment of panic, my mind still clouded with sleep, the first word of the day that my brain reached for was Spanish and I didn’t even notice! Now to you kids out there, I’m not condoning swearing, but I think the words your brain reflexively reaches for to express fright or pain or panic speak volumes about its subconscious processes.

That’s all I have for now. Tomorrow I’m going on a volunteer excursion to help some of the folks affected by the rainstorm we had a few days ago that experienced some flooding issues so it’s off to bed for me! ¡Buenas noches!

San Pedro: Leaps of Faith and Walking on Water

Every adventure has an end, and Sunday was the end of our adventures in the desert. But we went out with a bang, or more accurately a splash. I had a bad case of the sniffles for a week afterwards, but boy was it worth it! If you missed the beginning of my adventures in San Pedro de Atacama, you can click here to read from the start.

Once again, we set out for the day wearing bathing suits under our clothes. Our first destination was a salt laguna like the ones we visited on Saturday, except this one was much smaller and much, much deeper. The salt level in the water was around 30%, around the same concentration as the Dead Sea, and absolutely frigid. Why would anyone in their right mind decide to immerse themselves in a freezing, super salty laguna in the middle of the desert? Why, to float of course!

Because of the high salt content, the water in the laguna is denser than regular water, and much denser than the human body. I had heard about people floating with ease in very salty water, but I was still surprised when I got in and found that I didn’t have to swim at all. Once I got used to the freezing temperature, it was an extremely bizarre sensation to float effortlessly supported completely by the water. I could orient myself into a standing position and put both hands over my head and barely get my chin wet.

When we hauled ourselves out, teeth chattering and gasping from cold, we were all covered with a thin crust of salt. Our guide had brought a jug of lukewarm water to rinse off with, and we wrapped ourselves in our towels and headed out again.

Our next stop was called Los Ojos del Salar, or the Eyes of the Salt Flat. These were two lagunas, almost perfectly round, in the middle of the desert. The water level was about ten feet below the ground level above. The mystery of the Ojos de Salar is that they are not as salty as all of the other lagunas, and the source of their water puzzles geologists. I believe that empirical evidence is the best evidence, so I took a hands-on approach to the investigation. By hands-on, I mean we took turns making a running leap off the edge of the desert into the water below. It was cold, as cold as the salt laguna before, but much less salty.

Our final destination was a laguna where our guide assured us we would be able to walk on water. There is a legend that the local Atacameños, warned that the conquistadors were stealing gold from native tribes, buried all of their gold under this laguna. We got out of the van and, with bare feet and rolled up pants, tentatively stepped out onto the laguna. We found we were indeed able to walk easily, supported by the salt in the water.

I may be exaggerating the truth a bit. Shame on you for believing everything on the internet! The truth is that the laguna was only about a half inch deep all the way across, and instead of sand the bottom was made of white salt. The effect was stunning, the shallow water and the pure white bottom reflected the mountains and gave the illusion of walking on water. We had fun in the pleasantly warm water, taking pictures and goofing around.

Back at the hostel, we sadly packed up and headed out to catch our flight back to the hustle, bustle, noise and smog of Santiago. I wanted to breathe in the tranquility and serenity of the desert, absorb it like a sponge for when I feel the stress and anxiety of the world start to overwhelm me. Before I thought the desert was just emptiness and blank sands, I had no idea how refreshing  a little emptiness could be!


Saturday in San Pedro part 2: Thoughts from a Desert Cemetery

Now I will continue my recounting of our Saturday in San Pedro de Atacama from where we left off, which is hauling ourselves, dripping and shivering, from the hot spring and back to Incahuasi B&B. After some welcome hot showers and lunch, we went exploring in downtown San Pedro de Atacama. If you’re new here, you can click here to start reading my adventure from the beginning.

As I’ve mentioned before, the town is adorably small. We went for a guided tour in the local arqueological museum, called the Museo Arqueológico R. P. Gustavo Le Paige for the founder of the museum. It is dedicated to preserving and educating visitors about the pre-colombian Atacamaño culture and so we saw some interesting artifacts that were explained to us by our very knowledgeable guide.

After the museum we went for a stroll through the local cemetery. It is the only cemetery in town, and has been serving the population for at least a hundred years based on the dates I saw on grave markers although many of the older graves were marked only with plain wooden crosses so it could be much older.

This cemetery is a bit different from any others I’ve visited, and much different from others in Chile (click here to see my Cementerio General de Santiago post). For one, as I’ve mentioned, many graves did not bear any identifying information, just simple painted crosses of various sizes. Isa, our program director, pointed out that in a town this small, you know exactly where your loved ones are laid to rest. For another, this cemetery follows an ancient Atacamenian tradition of also marking the graves with a small mound of earth. Besides the ground burials there were several above-ground mausoleums, a few of which were modeled after the style of homes in the pueblo.

Walking around the cemetery as the setting sun cast long orange rays of light over the little mounds and cement slabs, I considered, as I had in the Cementerio General, how the way we treat our dead reflects many of the attitudes, values, and culture of the living. I have long held the opinion that death rituals are not for the dead but for the living; we make sense of the terrible but necessary phenomenon of death through the lens of traditions.

Here in this little cemetery the dead were surrounded by obvious signs of care from the living they had left behind. Almost all of the plaques and crosses were obviously handmade, the same hands that once held and hugged the deceased carefully etched the letters of their names into wood or concrete or clay. There were some with spelling errors in the names of the months, evidence of poor rural education in decades past. All of the graves were carefully maintained, even the anonymous ones were free of debris.

Many of the graves had these little glass-fronted cubbies filled with photos, souvenirs, candles, and other mementos of the things that the deceased had enjoyed in life. Even graves from decades ago had recent offerings, I saw a family lovingly reorganizing the cubby of a deceased family member which laughing and sharing stories. We heard an 8-bit rendition of Fleur de Lis repeating over and over again from a musical mother’s day card propped open to show a message of love. On one grave, weighed down with a pebble, was a carefully folded note written on notebook paper in what seemed to be a teenage girl’s handwriting that read “For you because I miss you Uncle” on the front. I was curious but I didn’t pick it up, the words inside were clearly not meant for any eyes on this earth.

This cemetery spoke volumes of the love of a community for its members that had been whisked away into the arms of oblivion, expressed through handmade gifts and remembrances and care. I think there is something extremely healthy about this practice for a society. In realizing these works of love the living are able to open conversations about death, ask questions of themselves and others, accept and demystify the cultural and social processes of death.

In our culture, that is to say the United States culture, I think that we have put an unhealthy distance between death and ourselves. I am not by any means trying to say that we do not grieve the loss of our loved ones any less, that the sting of having someone you cared about wrenched from our loving embrace is any less terrible, or that we love those who have left us any less. However, I do think that in our industrialization of death we deny ourselves the opportunity to openly converse about death, to accept it and understand it as best as we can. In the United States, we pay an average of about $6,500 for strangers to wash, dress, embalm, layout, and bury our loved ones (NFDA). We then pay for their graves to be maintained, the grass cut and fertilized and the trash and dead leaves kept clear. We pay for laser-cut headstones and etched cremation urns and factory made stainless steel caskets.

We pay through the nose to keep our hands off because we are afraid of death, and I would propose that we are afraid of death BECAUSE we keep our hands off. In the San Pedro de Atacama cemetery, there is evidence all around of the loving hands that have worked to keep the memory and respect of the dead alive, and in my opinion evidence of a healthy understanding and acceptance of death. I believe we have much to learn, and I hope to see more hands-on funeral practices in the future in the US as we move toward a healthier mentality about the Great Unknown.