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.

Hiking and free trees

I will continue my story of my adventures in San Pedro de Atacama shortly, but I wanted to take a little break to talk to you about some current events.

First of all, this blog has hit over 1,000 views! I can’t believe the staggering amount of interest and support that represents. Thank you everyone and I will continue to keep you posted!

As of last Wednesday, I only have two months left here in Chile. I realized this yesterday during my walk through the Plaza de Armas with my host brothers and host grandma. I feel very torn, on one hand this place is beautiful and I know I will never have another experience like this one. On the other hand, I do miss the comforts of home: my fiancee and my family, going to class and understanding everything, hearing my language as I walk down the street and feeling like a part of everything instead of an observer. I do feel much more adjusted than when I arrived. A few days I was walking down the street, happily munching on some churros with powdered sugar that I bought from a food truck. I realized that I felt totally confident and sure of myself as I hopped onto my bus, scanned my Bip! card and took a seat without missing a single yummy bite of churro.

This realization also made me rethink about how I’ve been spending my time here. I don’t think I’ve been taking full advantage of this unique opportunity, I can think of far too many afternoons spent not doing much of anything in the house instead of conversing or exploring or experiencing this beautiful city.

To this end, today I got out of the house and went for a hike at Cerro San Cristobal with my friend Anna. Cerro San Cristobal is a small mountain that rises almost in the center of the city, and it houses a zoo and also that gorgeous restaurant we went to during orientation. I also asked that this be a spanish-speaking hike, and we had a very interesting conversation during the steep walk to the top of the mountain in Spanish. On top of the mountain is a huge statue, which I always thought was a statue of Jesus but is actually the Virgin Mary. It rained last night, so the smog was much lighter than usual for autumn and we had a beautiful view of the Andes mountains with their caps of snow.

On the way home, there was some kind of recycling fair going on under a tent, so I stopped by to investigate and they gave me a free tree seedling to plant. My host mom’s boyfriend really likes plants so I brought it home and we will plant it tomorrow.

On the way down, we talked about studying abroad and how important it is. I know I’ll reflect more on this towards the end of my time here but I want to emphasize how important and life-changing studying abroad can be. Many people think it is not possible, but there are resources to help and whether you go for a language or just to experience the world, i highly recommend it!

Stay posted for day 2 of San Pedro de Atacama!

Ghost Tour of the Cementerio General

So on Friday night I went on a nocturnal tour of the Cementerio General with CAUC, which is a student organization through the Universidad Católica to help exchange students make friends and have cultural experiences. You may remember my post about the Cementerio General, the second largest cemetery of South America (Click on the blue text above for a refresher).

The tour started at 9:30 pm, well after the sun had set. The group was fairly large, besides our group there were many Chileans and other tourists so all together we were about fifty people. Our tour guide was an excellent actor who wore a hunchback costume and walked with a wooden plank as a staff. His character was an orphan who grew up and grew old in the cemetery, and he was hilarious, as much a comedian as an educator. I learned much about the cemetery that I would never have known about from visiting on my own.

For example, he told us the tale of the undertaker who was working late one night to seal a fresh tomb when he heard a strong thumping from within. He quickly got out his chisel and cut away the newly spread cement, and when he opened the casket the newly interred “dead man” jumped out, bruised from banging on the walls of his casket but otherwise fine. The guide raised his finger and sternly reminded us that when we lay our friends and family to rest, we should therefore always make sure their cell phone is bien cargado (fully charged).

He also told us about the man who was in a coma when his beloved wife passed away. When he awoke, he was told she was buried in the general mausoleum. He ran up and down the halls, searching desperately for her final resting place. Overcome with grief and despair, the threw himself off the fourth floor to his death. Our guide tells us that to this day his ghost walks the halls, a black shadow who often fills visitors with sadness, panic, and anguish. Our guide then told us we would be embarking on a ghost hunt to try to find this wandering spirit, and so we were asked to turn off all of our lights and we walked through the near pitch-black halls of the huge mausoleum. Cemetery staff members were lurking to jump out, touch our hair, and generally be terrifying. I hated this part, having a phobia of haunted houses, but if you are someone who likes to be scared in the dark it is right up your ally.

We visited the animitas of La Novia and La Carmencita, as well as the graves of some well known singers and writers. We also visited the graves of the unknown dead, assassinated as political enemies during the first days  of Pinochet’s dictatorship and to this day buried without names, two or three to a grave, under a sea of crosses.

At the end of our tour, our guide showed us the most humble section of the cemetery, where the poor lay their dead to rest under crumbling stones, but with flowers and makeshift canopies. He reminded us that the necropolis reflects the metropolis; the dead are laid to rest as they lived, with means and grandeur, or without.

I don’t have any pictures since my camera’s flash is about as useful as a glowstick on a foggy moonless night in a dark cave with a blindfold on, but you can click here to see my flickr album of daytime pictures.

Tomorrow I will post about my adventures in Valparaiso and Vina del Mar, I have SO MANY pictures that I have to upload and edit first. Until then, thanks for reading and ¡Hast Luego!

Modern Art is Just Wierd

¡Hola! I’m sorry that it has been a while since my last post. My classes have started to pick up speed so I’ve been slightly pressed for time lately as I try to keep up with all the reading that comes from taking classes in the humanities field. I have a literature class, a culture class, a religion/science philosophy type class, and an education/art class. My poor highlighters! So much reading!

I did manage to carve out some time this weekend to visit the park at Quinta Normal with a friend of mine in the program. The park itself is gorgeous. It features a pond where you can pedal boat and look at ducks, many fountains, and several museums: the Chilean National Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, the Science and Technology Museum and the Railway Museum.

We took a stroll over to the MAC (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo/Museum of Contemporary Art) and that’s when things got weird. At least I think modern art is pretty weird. Sometimes I think its actually just a contest between the artists to see who can be wierder. Getting in was super cheap for students-only $800 and free with a Universidad de Chile student ID, which I don’t have yet. Its a fairly small museum but worth the visit. There were several of these small rooms with black curtains over the doorway and it was always a little bit terrifying to pull back the curtain to see what was inside. Especially because the first curtain we came to opened into a tiny pitch black room with a projector showing nightmarish laughing clowns with pointy teeth. After that, you get a little thrill of terror every time you pull back a curtain.

Here are the pictures I took, again to see more information just click the full screen button in the bottom right hand corner and then click show info at the top of the screen!

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Semana Santa and Día del Joven Combatiente

¡Hola a todos! I just finished up a delightful long weekend in which I was really busy doing pretty much nothing. Well, I hung out with my host brothers and played a ton of video games with them and put off my homework. Fun!

My long weekend actually started on Thursday. Classes were scheduled, but my program director and my professor recommended I stay home because of the Día del Joven Combatiente. This day, celebrated on the 29th of March, commemorates the murder of the Vergara Toledo brothers Rafael and Eduardo in 1985 during Pinochet´s regime. Whereas most commemorations of this kind are peaceful and involve candlelight vigils, el Día del Joven Combatiente is traditionally recognized with violent clashes between students and police, often resulting in destruction of private and public property, fires, power outages, and many arrests. This year at least two cars were incinerated with Molotov Cocktails and 8 arrests were made. These events occur at night and are concentrated around Estacion Central, which is luckily a long way off from me. Because the 29th fell on Good Friday this year, the ¨festivities¨happened on Thursday the 28th. To play it safe I stayed in the house all day Thursday, as I recommend any other foreign student to do.

Good Friday was also spent in the house, not for any external factors other than there being nothing much to do since everything was closed. I spent some time with my host grandma, a lovely woman affectionately called ¨La Cuka¨by the boys, no one knows why.

Saturday was pretty lazy too until the evening. I attended a Catholic mass at a little church with some friends, which was interesting because I am not Catholic but have attended some Catholic masses during my brief stint (incarceration?) in a private Catholic high school. Seeing the similarities and differences between the two experiences was very interesting. The church had this awesome statue of Jesus that seemed to be floating off the cross on the wall, I was fascinated by it

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After the mass, which ended earlier than advertised but still pretty late, we decided to get a bite to eat so we walked over to La Jardin, an awesome little restaurant that you would have to see to believe. It was absolutely gorgeous, not over-the-top expensive, but you did pay a little extra for the atmosphere. The food was fantastic, I split a shrimp salad and four cheese pizza with my friend and it was delicious. According to my friend´s host parents, the owner of this restaurant is a rich guy who travels the world starting restaurants and incorporating elements from all over the globe in them.

Click here to see pictures of the place, you really should it is GORGEOUS

That´s all the semi-interesting news I have for now, I will keep you updated as usual! Chao!

Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook: The Metro

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In terms of getting around Santiago, the Metro is the easier option. Still, it is not without dangers so here´s my Worst Case Scenario Handbook entry for the Metro. So grab your towel, don´t panic, and let´s go!

Scenario 1: You´re here and you need to be there

The Metro connects most major areas of Santiago, and there are stations everywhere. Once you find one, you can either buy a ticket or charge your Bip! card to pay your fare, which is about $610 pesos, but varies based on the time of day.

There are maps of the network everywhere, including here:

You’ll notice there are 5 differently colored lines, appropriately called Linea 1, Linea 2, Linea 4, Linea 4A, and Linea 5. Each line has two directions, named for the last station in the line. So to head south on line 2 you need Dirección La Cisterna. To switch lines you head to one of the connection stations, such as Santa Ana. All in all, its not difficult.

The only trick that you need to know about is the Express Trains. During peak commute hours, more or less from 6-9am and 6-9pm, the trains on lines 2, 4, and 5 only stop at certain color-coded stations. Navigating this system is fairly easy. The trains are either red or green, and the stations are red, green, or both. If you get on a green train and you want to get to a red station, you’re going to have a bad time. On the wall in the station you will see a list of the stations marked by color, so just double check the lights above the windows above the train and make sure they match the station you want.

Scenario 2: You don’t want to be a public nuisance

This one is fairly simple. Don’t walk slowly in the middle of the flow of traffic. Don’t stop in the middle of everything to take a picture like a tourist. Turn down your music, don’t talk to strangers, and remember that the seats are NOT FOR YOU, unless you are old/pregnant/injured/carrying a baby around.

Scenario 3: You have stuff, and you don’t want it to be stolen

In Santiago, a ladrón is basically a pickpocket or purse snatcher and the Metro is full of them. You don’t have to worry much about physical attacks, the ladrón preys on opportunity. They look for open bags, wallets in back pockets, distracted passengers, and dropped stuff. They’ve been known to form symbiotic relationships with others of their species; one sneaks by with a razor and cuts a slit in your bag, the other “bumps into you” and slips your billfold out.

The best way to avoid falling prey to the ladrón is to not give them the opportunity. When you enter the metro station, your backpack should metamorphose into a BELLYpack. The best purses are those that can be worn ACROSS the shoulders, and the bag should not hang on your butt but in front, where you can keep an eye AND A HAND on it. Fannypacks are actually pretty fashionable, among locals and you can buy them from street vendors in all kinds of interesting fabrics.  And finally its best not to flash around your shiny new Apple product or expensive jewelry, I’m sure the ghost of Steve Jobs will understand.

Scenario 4: That thing you like fell on the tracks

Imagine you are a perfectly normal foreign exchange student, waiting by the tracks for your train to get to class. For argument’s sake let’s say you have a moderately well read blog. And you’re running a shade late. So you pull your cheap phone out to check the time and it slips from your hand, bouncing off the platform and down into the tracks. Crud. Also everyone saw this and some are openly sniggering at the gringita’s misfortune.

Don’t panic, and find an asistante de anden. Luckily they are everywhere, especially in the more busy stations, and one happened to see the whole thing happen. He will ask for your name and RUT number and tell you to come back in a few hours. When you do, find another asistante and let them know that you are the gringita who dropped her phone. Like magic, the phone will be in the station office! Horray!

If (I mean when) more disasters befall me on the Metro I will post them and their solutions here, and stay tuned for more Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbooks!

Keepin it Classy at the Zoo

Yesterday was a really fun day.

First I went to the first class of Art, Museums, and Education at la Universidad Diego Portales. It was an excellent class; its super small (only 8 of us) and the professor speaks really clearly and is mindful of having 2 foreign students in the class (there is also a girl from Germany). For example he mentioned a traditional Chilean dish and made sure we knew what it was before continuing. His teaching style is really progressive, also. We spent the first class jointly constructing definitions for “Museum” and “Education.” I was really excited that the idea I volunteered (Museums are organizations that seek to promote cultural development in society) was incorporated into the class’ definition. It gave me a real confidence boost to feel like people knew I had intelligent thoughts and I could express them in Spanish.

After class I met up with some friends and we went to the Zoológico Nacional de Chile. It was tons of fun. The zoo is built on the side of Cerro San Cristóbal (St. Cristóbal Hill) and is part of the Parque Metropoliano. It houses over 1,000 individual animals spanning 158 species. They have several programs to breed endangered animals as well as one of the leading veterinary programs in South America. The zoo opened in 1925 and to this day is well known as an excellent educational resource.

After the zoo we stopped into the Plaza Bellavista, a very touristy little nook but with interesting artists and souvenirs.