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Rants & Raves

Kids, Autumn

The season has definitely shifted into autumn, and I’m enjoying the view from our backyard. A little sprinkling of snow on the Andes, crisp air and golden leaves. I’ve always loved fall and the vibe of structure and productivity, change and beginning.

It has been a long transition for us to finally arrive at a peaceful rhythm of school and work. The earthquake kicked us into the distinct mode of get-to-it-ness that has swept the nation. All over the country, Chileans work on reconstructing of roads, homes, churches and businesses.

Meanwhile, our kids are working really hard in school, learning Spanish, and projects at home.

Carlos is amazing. He is so happy, and has surprised me so much this year, really jumping into this reality with a great attitude. Sometimes he misses his old school in China, but as he gets used to the Montessori environment and learns more Spanish by the week, he finds more to like about it. He’s kind of advanced in math, and as it is nonverbal, he continues to make progress. But he also has to do lots of reading, writing and verbal expression to the class, rising to each occasion. It surprises him a bit that he can now understand the Spanish comic books we bought months ago. Now he is writing his own comic book in Spanish, a farce with an anti-Indiana Jones crime fighter who keeps losing his hat. Carlos claims to be motivated solely by money as he wants to sell these masterpieces, but Forest and I are just thrilled that he likes expressing himself this way.

Caetano just turned 7! We had a fun little birthday party with three friends–all bilingual boys. He had to learn the guys’ names to invite them, and realizing he does have buddies helped his attitude about school…a little. Forest and I have had many meetings with the teachers and after about a month we all decided that he can’t handle being at school for an 8 hour day. No surprise there. I didn’t really anticipate however that we would be going back to a pre-school schedule of 8:30-12:30. After lunch he is just a general nightmare to have in the classroom. So now I pick him up, we eat at home, do homework and some Spanish work from a Kumon tutor that meets him twice a week. We do craft projects, bake, read, play a game. Whatever we want! Last week we went to a park in the city and rode bikes for 2 hours. Sometimes he just plays on his own, building a fort out of cushions or curls up with a book. He started an art class that he loves. The school asked us to take him to a psychiatrist to asses whether he has ADHD or Oppositional Defiance Disorder or what. We’ve been down this road before. Same issues all came up in Beijing. I’m doing everything I can, and we are really having a lot of fun. In his own way at his pace, he’s learning a lot, and chattering a lot in Spanish. Funny thing is that he doesn’t have a problem with hyperactivity or defiance when he is in the smaller classes after school. Hmmmm.

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Rants & Raves

Fantasy Freeway of Fast Fun

So I’ve always had this fantasy of being able to drive on a freeway that goes directly from my front door to the front door of my office. The fantasy was intense in san francisco when i had to comment 1hr and 45 miles to redwood city and i had lots of time to think about it while on 280. The fantasy peeked when i lived in Seattle and had a 1hr+ drive to go a mere 12 miles over that bastard of a bridge known as 520, at a snail’s pace that felt Ike the traffic one encounters leaving a MLB post game parking lot. In china i had my first taste of the fantasy with a nearly complete freewAy in the sky, however the illusion was broken by a very gnarly traffic light that was in fwront of our house and could easily a chew up 15 minutes (albeit my private driver suffered the stress whilst i read e nyt aon my iPhone!). However now in santiago the dream has become reality: from my house to my office in Vitacura is a solid 30 minutes of driving, but with an a average driving speed of 75 miles per hour on an awesome freeway at is new, empty, and only marred in perfection by therecent earthquake damage that is under repIr for an eventual return to near virginal purity. What it confirms to me is this–the stress of commuting in a car is exponentially inverse to the average speed of travel.

This posted from my new iPad, my fingers hurt from pecking at the screen for this much text,

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Rants & Raves

Road Trip to Mendoza Argentina

So it was easter week here in lovely christianized south america, and Cristina was itching to get out of dodge so we opted for what we thought initially would be a proverbial “3 hour tour” to cross the Andes mountains over to the Argentinian side of the border, and the fabled city of Mendoza which is famous for wine and great steaks.  Looking at the map it looked like 3 hours of driving, but we added a safe 2 hours to handle the vertical since we would be going from about 3,000 ft to about 10,000 ft at the pass, plus dealing with the border crossing itself.

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Ice-Cream argentina style—really, really good!

Before we left, we set out getting the paperwork in order for our party—both passports for the people and documentation for the car.  This led to a goose chase to track down about 5 different documents that we needed to procure for the car, including a sworn affidavit so we could leave the country with the car since the car is in my uncle’s name (we couldn’t buy the car when we arrived because we needed a RUT #, another wonderful paperchase unto itself); we also needed a international insurance policy (which we bought at a department store akin to Macys), and we needed to find the equivalent of the car’s pink slip (which had been mailed to us in a non-descript envelope that luckily we kept out of uncertainty, about 4 months earlier), and as luck would have it, it was also the time of year to renew the car’s circulation papers.  On the passport front Emilio had to leave the country and come back as he has been here for 180 days without exiting, and we had to dig up and find our “residence permit in transit” papers to show that we are ok to be here for more than 180 days which it has been since we arrived.  Alas, we found everyting, a miracle unto itself, and promised to set off FIRST THING in the morning on Friday so that we could avoid the expected crushing traffic at the border from other weekend trippers heading over in search of great steaks!

imageChecking out the wares at the night market in Mendoza’s Plaza 

A lazy morning and late departure later at 9:30am (as opposed to the goal of 7am) and we had a lovely drive up the valley which is really amazing in how quickly it rises, getting narrower and crazy steep very quickly and culminating in a series of switchbacks that traverse the last 1000 meters of vertical rise in a mere few miles, culminating in a tunnel that goes through the border and into argentina.   The Chilean side topography and flora are completely different than the argentinian side, so it is very dramatic to emerge from one side of the mountain on the other—most notably, the slow and undulating slope down from the mountain on the argentinian side hints of the less violent nature of the mountain formation on that side of the tectonic action.

Then our “3 hour tour” illusion was burst, as we pulled into the joint border processing center, about 5 miles past the border, where we pulled into a nicely compacted line of cars that turned out to be a 2.5hr snail crawl into a large building where no less than 5 different government functionaries stamped and reviewed our various documents—the car getting the worst of it (are there a lot of cross border car thefts?)  The kids were remarkably fine with the long drive in the car, kept busy by Little Lulu books and their Nintendo DSs + some Simpsons episodes on the iPod. 

The remaining drive down the valley and into Mendoza was lovely, along really pretty river terrain but with worsening traffic as we connected with the Mendozino day trippers who had escaped to the mountains for some hiking and river rafting.  We arrived at our hotel after 6pm, a solid 10 hr drive (including a break for lunch).  Yikes!!!  Much more than bargained for.

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Of Mendoza, i’d say: beautiful, large european style promenades, gorgeous old homes throughout town, great outdoor restaurants and ice-cream shops, bustling nightlife (of course!), and delectable Steaks and Pasta!  Really surprised us how nice the city was, significantly more interesting and entertaining than a similarly sized chilean city would be.  The wine culture there has developed a nice tourism halo around it, with lots of wine tours and foodie activities (we were with kids so didn’t fully appreciate).  We had a great saturday walking around town, must have done a good 10km of walking total—kids were troupers although their feet hurt at the end of the day.

imageLovely Mendoza streets, lined with trees! 

And for the ride back—in terror of facing a long border crossing and Chilean car traffic returning from the long weekend, i forced the family to get up and be in the car by 6am, which turned out to be fantastic as we had NO traffic, no wait at the border, and made the return trip in 5 hrs door to door!  I wouldn’t do the drive again on a holiday weekend, ever, as we heard that the border can take 5 hrs to get through just in immigration/paperwork and i think that would have really driven me over the edge of sanity.  Definitely would return to Mendoza, our visit was too short.

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The ice-cream shop had 6 different variations of Dulce de Leche—just like Eskimos have lots of words for snow, Argentinians like their Dulce de Leche ice cream!

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Rants & Raves

Electricity, Electricity!!

Electricity is a great thing, especially when it powers the pump that draws water from the well deep in the earth beneath your home owners group’s shared property.  The swimming pool showers, toilet refills, and dish washing was getting really old. A world without electricity is now much easier for us to imagine—it is one devoid of light in the evenings, of iphone charging during the day, of VOIP telephony to talk to business colleagues in China and the USA, and without the joy of LED powered LCD monitors full of lovely images to watch. 

Carlos had done a unit of inquiry at his 2nd grade class in Beijing last year, and they talked about electricity in other ways—but somehow i think the Chilean Earthquake lesson on electricity was much more compelling?  I know he and his brother will remember the earthquake more for it’s lack of electricity than for its overpowering rattling forces and shattering windows.

Kids are now in school (day 2) and dealing with the crash course of being surrounded by spanish speakers all day long; not loving it so far but who could.  I do think they will adapt quickly, and we should be enjoying spanish only chit-chat in 6-8 weeks time.

Here’s some photos of our house and neighborhood with earthquake destruction (which I hadn’t been able to upload easily without, electricity…)

Here’s the living room window blown out by a collapsing bar.  This and our smashing TV set were the loudest of the glass breaking events in the house proper:

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Many of the walls surrounding farms in our neighborhood were knocked over in long stretches, sometimes for several hundred yards at a time, like this one just down the street.  Good thing it didn’t fall into the street, as that would have cut off our access to get food/water!

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And here’s the toxic cloud of muck created by a explosion at a nearby chemical plant.  The gray cloud is dark dark dark black in a properly exposed photo, and the clear white sky on the horizon was the otherwise clear sky that day.  i’ve been itching my skin ever since, wondering if we have real chemical/toxic exposure!

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Rants & Raves

5 days, no electricity yet :(

So i wanted to start with something positive, so here is a nice picture taken earlier this (southern hemisphere) summer by our friend Jeannie Duisenberg who visited us for a lovely week together with her partner Rich Hlava.  We had so much fun with them, we were sad to see them go!  One of our two kittens is pictured here with us, her name is Bilz.image

Bilz is sister of the other cat, Pap.  Bilz y Pap is a duo of “fantasy drinks” (aka sugar water with carbonation and lots of synthetic coloring) that are homegrown Chilean brands, just like Inka Cola in Peru (which has a coloring additive that is banned in the united kingdom from studies that show that it makes young kids *crazy*).  Here’s a picture of Bilz & Pap cartoon characters, that proudly rep the sugar water to young children and parents everywhere in Chile.  We liked them so much, and the kids the sugar water, that we named the kittens accordingly.

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Ok, with that positive story off my chest (so that this blogroll doesn’t become all doom and gloom), i’ll update you that we are in the minority of Santiago residents that still don’t have electricity, ending day 5 and soon to be going on day 6 since the earthquake.  Thank god for our pool, which is providing lots of water for washing dishes and for the toilets, as well as a natural bath of sorts, albeit highly chlorinated.  We’ve burned through our candles, so I’m off to get some more for this evening.  The kids have been going to bed early with the sun, which is a plus as we get ready for the school year which starts monday (Was supposed to start today, but was moved out because of the quake, since our school, like many, was out of electricity for a while).  Otherwise, we continue to be safe and thankful!

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Rants & Raves

Chilequake Day 3

We’ve been without water and electricity the last few days.  As there is no electricity in our general part of the city (the north) there is also no gas at the stations (no pumps), so we’ve been mostly home bound.  At the house we have the swimming pool water to use for flushing the toilets and for washing dishes, so we’ve been relatively well off.  We bbqed the defrosting meet from the freezer so it wouldn’t go bad, and we have plenty of fruits and vegetables.  We were down to our last bottle of drinkable water, but on a excursion to the ‘hood we found a store open and were able to re-supply with plenty of water.  We’ do have gas for the stove, so we’ve been able to eat well.  We have candles for the evening but basically have been going to bed with the sun.  The moon has been full these last few days, which has made the nights calming.

The aftershocks are very frequent, surely we must have had 50 or more by now… they come with such frequency that sometimes we don’t even bother to mention them.  They are thankfully all smaller and decreasing further in intensity each time they appear.  Sunday morning there was a aftershock that was pretty long, and we jocked that “in a normal climate, that would have been a big one”… we later heard that it was a 6.0 and was nearby in Valparaiso, indeed, a big one by normal standards but for us that is now a baby-quake!

Our immediate family and friends all seem to be fine—we don’t have good phone access as our cell phones are dead.  Today i’m at a relative’s in Santiago so that I can call family in a few hours (when pacific coast wakes up), and reports are that by and large folks are ok, even our cousin and her 6 children from Curico, which is very very close to the epicenter.  Their town (Curico) got pretty flattened, but their house and the houses of their friends and colleagues from the farm were thankfully all ok.

Unfortunately some of our extended family were touched by this tragedy in the worst way possible–a cousin lost two young children to a tsunami wave, they were very close to the epicenter vacationing.  We will try to go to the mass this weekend with other family members.  Our thoughts and prayers are with the parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles.

Thank you to everyone that has emailed us with concern and well wishes—it has been very comforting to receive your notes.  Chile is generally well prepared for earthquakes because they are so common here, but even with great construction codes the devastation is palpable, even though I have seen almost nothing on the television or web (as we have been without electricity), so at this point you all know more than we do.

Forest, Cristina, the boys, and Tata Emilio who is with us.

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Rants & Raves

Earthquake madness

We were awoken last night by the 8.8 earthquake that hit chile. We ran to our children’s rooms after we realized it was not the usual 10 sec shaker which is so common here given the subduction zone of the pacific and continental plate here which among other things produces the Andean mountain range with dozens of sub 20,000 ft peeks. We huddled under the doorways with a kid each in hand. Thankfully our house survived structually, although we could hear shattering glass throughout the house. It seemed to go on forever, reports say 90 secs but if you told me it was 5 minutes I would believe you.

Afterwards we gathered outside in the yard with Tata Emilio who is with us. We managed to get back to sleep eventually and rode out the aftershocks which were impressive unto themselves and super frequent, just had a biggish one again a good 9 hours later.

Our house suffered some damage including lots of blown out shelves, smashed tv, some shattered windows, 18 inches of the pool water level tossed out, etc etc but nothing important, we are thrilled to be safe and to learn that all of our immediate family is as well. However we got news of an immediate horrifying tragedy in our extended family involving loss of life of young children, a visceral reminder of the seriousness of the situation and i’m sure of similar news that will be affecting many folks here and where tsunami lands.

Thankyou to all ofour friends and family that have written with concern and well wishes, we will update more when can, for now we have no phoneor electric or water and cell phone battery is almost dead. Prayers to all those affected. Much love, forest and Cristina and the boys.

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Rants & Raves

Buying a car in Chile–why Latins get called “Lazy”

So i’m trying to buy a car in Chile, and i’m running head on yet again into some of the basic cultural differences between the hyper efficient commercial society of the USA and China (in this regard, China is really on the same page as the USA), and the much more casual and laid back experience of commerce here in Chile.  Here are some maddening and frustrating examples of where my expectations are not in alignment with the society:

  • Closed on Sundays.  Sure, that might be a day when car buyers might flock to showrooms in the USA, but apparently here neither buyers nor sellers want to be bothered on the day God told everyone to relax.  Too bad for me and my family, who drove into town in hopes of taking a look at some cars.
  • Closed at lunch!  Yep, you heard right, at lunch time, the sales guys are all “out to lunch” so to speak, so my phone call to the Audi, Volkswagon, Subaru, and Mini dealers were all in vain.  At least the VW guys answered the phone and told me “sorry, we’re at lunch”, where as the other dealers the phone just rang, and rang, and rang… amazing!  They don’t even have their crap together enough to put a answering machine on the line so they can capture the lead!  When are car buyers supposed to go shopping if not at lunch during the work week, or Sunday on the weekend!  lol
  • Not really interested in negotiating!  So i get a quote for $19m pesos for a Subaru Impreza WRX (about 35% more than the USA), which is fine, so i think “well, i’ll do some comparison shopping and see what the other dealers in town say?”  So i call another dealer, and he tells me he doesn’t have the car in stock, and that he can offer me the same price.  I say, hey, the other dealer has the car, i test drove, and that’s the price he’s giving me, to which he said “ok”.  The guy had zero interest in talking to me about making a deal… this flies in the face of every single ounce of capitalist/commerce instincts that are born into us in the USA.  He didn’t even try to tell me that he could (a) make a better price, (b) offer better service, (c) get me a color or features that I might want more, (d) offer to be friendlier or anything else he could make up.  Nothing… he just said, “ok”.  And that was it.  There’s no real competition here, there is basically a monopoly in every industry, so the Subaru dealer brings X cars to the country each year, and all are sold at good margin, so there’s no incentive to compete with eachother… nasty stuff!
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Rants & Raves

The Eagle Has Landed

Well, time to cool our heels for awhile, stop moseying.  It feels like we have been on perpetual vacation since June.  But now we are settled into an AWESOME colonial-style furnished house in the country outskirts of Santiago. We are a good 20 minutes outside the actual capital and have again found ourselves in a rural part of the world that feels like another era.  It’s like being in a Latin American tele-novela without any actual drama other then where in this big house are Caetano’s shoes when we need them.

No housewarming barbecues until Forest returns from his looong cold trip to Beijing at the end of the month.  Kids don’t start school until March, so it feels like an endless Summer for the Keys.  We are having a great time and have been enjoying the family visits from the States (Andy Casanueva family, Joaquin, Emilio who is staying with us for awhile), re-encountering semi-locals like Maria and Randy, and catching up with the Chilean family.

In case you are wondering how Carlos is taking this all in, here are some words from the little 8.5 year old man himself:

So how was it leaving pisco elqui?

Thumbs up. Well, thumbs to the side because in Pisco Elqui, you can walk to the ice cream store by yourself.  You can walk to school, and back, it’s peaceful and quiet.

Leaving was okay because now I don’t get to walk to the ice cream store, but it was a boring lifestyle.  i didn’t have a book to read (Carlos blew through all the books we brought down for him within our first month in Chile and has been on a steady comics diet).

After Elqui, you spent some time at the beach in Zapallar. How was that?

That was pretty good, we got some Christmas Legos which was our daily play for awhile. Seeing the family was good, fun.  The best part was the presents that they brought (and 100 lbs of Legos we’ve accumulated over the years).  The beach was pretty fun, but not fun to go there every day (we were there for about 2 weeks).  if i could play video games for 3 hours every day, then eventually i would get bored.  Anything if you do it too much it will make you bored.  At the beach i just sat there.  We had some water guns, played with Camila, but I spent 40% just lying there (doesn’t it sound like torture?).

The food?

The food in Chile is not really the best.  I miss Chinese food, dim sum.  The chinese rice.  (For the record, the rest of us like it pretty well).

How is the new house in Chicureo?

It’s pretty good.  It’s fun. We have a separate gaming room with lovely couches, two bean bags. My room is great, it has a nice desk, nice lamps. A big closet with room to store Legos.

How about your summer camp?

Summer camp stinks. i’d rather take up my day with other things, not necessarily video games.  Like jogging, or taking a bike around the neighborhood. Taking a bike around anywhere. Playing Legos, doing the geography book or math book. Other exercises.

But don’t you do some of those things in camp?

In camp, when we go to the pool, you can’t just go for 40 minutes.  you have to stay for an hour and a half, or get out, and sit there.The fact that I am trapped behind metal bars, forced to do activities, without the freedom to just jolly run off from camp when I’m tired, doesn’t work. There’s so many kids, it’s crazy.

I want to go to school. I’m bored of summer, it’s way too long.  I just hope it’s fun.  The small presentation I got, being there for half a day, didn’t give me the full picture.

I think it’s going to be okay.  As for the Spanish, I think in maybe 5 months I might be speaking fluently.  When I start actually going  to school, i might have the opportunity to learn  something.

How much Spanish have you picked up?

Since when I came to Chile i didn’t know anything, I think I have learnt 10% of what there is to know to start speaking fluently.

I miss WAB (Western Academy of Beijing). Back then I hated it, but now I think it was a stupid thing to hate it.  I got told off a lot (so it seemed to him at the time), but other then that it was pretty fun.  I miss my friends.

Will you make any friends here in chile?

Maybe. The kids don’t ask me more then what’s my name how old I am and what school i’m going to.  They don’t ask if I’ve been anywhere else.  I can’t learn spanish if no one talks to me.

They’re talking to you. You just don’t understand everything yet.

Everyone talks so fast.

They do. You’re doing great.

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Rants & Raves

Santa @ the Beach in Southern Hemisphere

In what is clearly the most damning evidence that Santa Claus and Cristianity in general are ill suited to southern hemisphere culture, we are enjoying the pagan winter equinox festival which coincides with the coldest and darkest season in europe, summer equinox style at the beach in Zapallar with family.  Balmy days, sun setting at 9:30pm, and santa arriving at the beach do deliver colorful balloons at sunset while the kids scream and go crazy—good times!

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Happy holidays everyone!

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Rants & Raves

Roads

Only one road goes in and out of this town.  No one goes to work in an office. Kids don’t play organized sports of any kind, and although there is a big open dirt field to play futbol, hardly anyone does. There are three nice bars and 2 divey ones. Everyone hates the foggy coastal city La Serena. I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t do some kind of art, craft or music. You can get Pisco Sour flavored ice cream. When we need to buy one or two things for a meal, we go to the local almacen that has stuff behind a counter. When we want to stock up on meat and produce, we drive 45 minutes to Vicuna, a bigger town that has one store for veggies, one store for meat and dairy, and one for dry goods like beans and rice.  The kids get a comic book  and use their pocket money to buy "Gogos," the latest craze in small, collectible plastic playthings, or maybe we’ll indulge them with a Bilz, the Chilean "Bebida de Fantasia," a bright red soda that tastes like heaven.  We are always happy to come back to the warm embrace of the dry hills that envelope our valley cabana.

In the Greek classic the Odyssey, and in Tennyson’s poem "the Lotos Eaters," Odysseus and his men get mired in a land of languid air and intoxicating flowers which the sailors want never to abandon. Why go back to a land of toil, they ask, when one can spend days looking at the view? From their awesome terrace? Drinking wine and eating cheap avocados every day?? To hell with the crappy internet connection. Oh, wait, what was I talking about? The Land of Lotus Eaters or Pisco Elqui?

We settled in here 2 months ago, and have been loving it.  However, when the boys break for Summer vacation in mid-December, we will take off.  We spent the last month diligently researching areas to live for the next couple of years, and it was a hard decision to rule out Pisco Elqui, on the grounds that Forest’s business will be very hard to manage out here with the internet infrastructure being sub-optimal, adding time to international travel (it’s another 1-hour connecting flight up here from Santiago and only one a day).

Staying with the "Ch" theme, we will move to Chicureo in January:  20 minutes outside the capital, semi-country, semi-urban, great Montessori school, lovely house with big yard.

I’m sad.

I feel like Robert Plant when he sang "Baby, you know I’m gonna leave you. I’m a leave you in the summertime. Leave you when the summer comes along."

People have asked how we are able to do this. Move around. We have our methods. But it isn’t so so so easy.  My feelings get all stirred up. I cry. We talk. And then we ramble on.

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Rants & Raves

Punta Choros and Isla Damas

This weekend we picked the kids up after school and headed down to the coast to explore the Isla Damas national park area, famous for fauna lining the islands just off the coast.  The Humboldt current runs along the coast of most of southern Chile, with icy cold waters that come up in a subduction zone that brings rich nutrients from the depths up to the surface where fish can gorge themselves, and then a sequence of predators can gorge on them and each other in a fantasmagorific orgy of consumption.  Bottle nose dolphins, orcas and other whales, dozens of migratory birds, sea lions and otters, etc. line the coast feasting on eachother.

The drive on yet another dirt road was fun as always, the thrill has far from eluded me (to date), and led to a windswept peninsula/point with the little town of Punta Choros.  I had found some cute cabins on the web earlier in the day, and they were even better in person.

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We were undeterred by the wind and set off for several great hikes along the coast, with mostly clear skies over the weekend and warm temperatures if you could lay down low enough to get out of the wind!

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Sunsets were fantastic as usual, and a local fisherman sold us a dozen LARGE abalone for about $1.50 USD per… it was yet another abalone orgy, as we prepared them with mayonaise, stir fried with pasta, and ate them on little toasted breads.

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The evenings were fun, we didn’ t have internet connection or tv, but we did have our portable electronics and plenty of electricity to power them…

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The highlight was the “3 hour tour” (we explained the meaning of that phrase to the kids, who thought that it sounded hilarious (Gilligan’s Island) to the islands.  As luck would have it, my camera ran out of battery power very early on the outing, so i missed dozens of great wildlife shots of dolphins and sea lions, which were a thrill to see in such high density in their wild environments.  The dolphins were everywhere, jumping high into the air at several points, and following our boats around playfully as usual (we see quite a bit of them in Santa Barbara shores in California).  Here’s a poor stand’in photo wise:

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Just 30 minutes into our drive back home sunday morning, both the boy asked “when can we come back”, so this clearly ranked as a top 10 destination for them—they really like being in beach cabins i guess?

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Rants & Raves

Desert drive to coast, yummier than a Dessert!

Emilio and I did an amazing overland trip from Pisco Elqui.  When you look at a map of chile on Google Maps, you get a very false impression that all roads are created equally.  In our part of Chile, maybe 10% of the roads are paved, so a good local map not only distinguishes between paved/not but also between degrees of “not paved”, which range from packed gravel, to packed dirt, to loose dirt, and then the lowest form of them all, loose dirt SINGLE TRACK, roads that are so gnarly that you not only need a 4×4 vehicle, but also to drive with trepidation because at any moment you could find yourself facing down another vehicle, on the middle of a steep hill with no guardrails.  The first leg of our weekend outing was on such a road, south from Vicuna into the Rio Hurtado valley.

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The first hour we probably were making 40km per hour progress, but then the road got really hard core and we were down to 20km/p/h for long stretches.  It took us over 3 hrs to go less than 40 miles.  But it was the most fun i’ve ever had with a 4×4 vehicle, and the vistas were just incredible… the air is so dry, you can literally see mountains in the distance that are 100s of miles away.

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Once we got to Hurtado the road opened up and eventually became paved, as we made our way into Ovalle for a yummy lunch at the local “Social Club”.  Afterwards we continued along a paved road down to Combarbala, through river valleys and past mile after mile of grapes, avocadoes, and other fruits being squeezed from the desert by modern irrigation marvels (we saw several large irrigation damns).

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The cacti were fantastic, some flowering with bizarre fruits.  Late in the afternoon we hit the coast at Huentelauquen and made our way down to Los Vilos, a windy place to say the least, but still charming.  We found a funky little hotel with a great deck view of the bay:

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and then we walked out to the point of town to catch the sunset, followed by a feast of abalones and wine before snuggling up in our beds (i had forgotten how humid the coast is, i much prefer the dry as bone desert air in our village)

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The next morning we did some exploration of the coast between Pichidangui and Los Vilos for possible property investment, the highlight of which was this piece of land, complete with amazing cliff and ocean inlets—a bit pricey at $130,000 USD for 1.5 acres. 

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On the plus side, it does include water and electricity… unlike other properties we saw that were 1/10th the price, but playfully offered as “eco-lots” because you are on your own to produce solar/etc. for your water and power needs.

Here we are at Pichidangui beach, which tata of course wanted to immediately ravage with a quick swim (i held him off till later in the day, in Totoralillo closer to Serena).

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Categories
Rants & Raves

Halloween in Chile

When i was a kid living in Chile in the 1970s, the lack of a Halloween celebration was one of my biggest beefs with the country (the other two were lack of Root Beer, and no saturday morning cartoons).  So it is with surprise and amusement that we now find that Halloween is a serious event here, even in our imageown little town in the mountains.  I have mixed feelings—on the one hand, it is obvious that kids love the fun and the candy, so it is a great thing for children everywhere to partake in.  On the other, the shameless consumerism of made-for-industry holidays like this one (something like 20% of all candy for the entire year is sold for the event, in the USA) is abhorrent and a bummer to see it so far away from its consumer roots in the USA, infiltrating little villages in the Andes!

 

Check out the little dirt roads in our town, with scary kids in pursuit of mischief and candy + artificial colors.

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Rants & Raves

Pisco Elqui – Mistral Pisco Distillery Tour

Per the namesake of our little town, yes, there is actually some Pisco distillery action in the ‘hood at the Pisco Mistral production plant.  Pisco is a Chilean and Peruvian liquor that runs between 40 and 55 % alchohol levels (80 to 110 proof), and to my untrained palette taste pretty much like a brandy.  In it’s basest form, the stuff is usually mixed with Coca Cola to make a “piscola” drink which gets you drunk in a hurry and at a super low cost.  A bottle of generic Pisco runs as little as $5 USD at the market.  The industry apparently has some hopes of upping the profile of the drink, perhaps because they are loosing out on the “get drunk quick and cheap” market segment to Rum, which is even cheaper still, and comes in from export countries that have a ton of sugar crops which i presume are higher yielding/volume than growing Pisco from wine grapes.  So, towards the end of improving the drink’s reputation and charging more per bottle, the local Mistral distillery has been putting the product into oak barrels to age for a few years, giving it a decidedly woody taste and a yellower color. The tour of the plant is most impressive, particularly in admiring the swanky new “bodega” they have put in place to make the whole thing seem more regal.  Check out the inside:

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The old copper boiling kilns were pretty cool as well, where the grape juic/wine is boiled to extract the alchohol so that it can be condensed and then distilled and later put into the oak barrels.

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But by far, better than the product/pisco that we sampled, was the “disneylandesque” garden and restaurant, which have been built to convey “better than your average piscola” heritage to those visiting:

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Rants & Raves

The neighbor’s porch is insane!!

So our little house in Pisco Elqui is part of a vacation rental complex run by our neighbor/landlord called Cabanas Elquimista, and amongst the little cabins/houses dotting the side of the valley wall is his house itself, which he built and which has a super groovy hippie good-times vibe going on.  My favorite feature of his house is his porch, which has a completely open/infinity-horizon thing going on because it actually has no railing/safety perimeter, rather, it just extends to an edge and then drops about 12 feet down the ravine… a perilous environment or late night drunken accidents to occur (remember, this is the home of Pisco production in Chile, a brandy like booze of 100+ proof, usually drunk with sugary mixes which makes it go down faster and hit you harder than usually prudent).  Take a look at the porch:

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I tell you, it is positively exhilarating to be on a structure that has both a great view, and a palpable sense of imminent chaos of human bodies flying off the edge into the abyss!

The entire property has that feeling to some extent, in that the houses are all built along the break in the valley, giving great panoramic views from most places on the property, including the pool and the terraced cactus gardens (we are in a desert, remember!)  Here are a few more shots of the environs:

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Rants & Raves

Road Trip to Copiapo

This weekend we decided to hit the road, departing from Pisco Elqui (where we have been living in Chile, in case that is news to you!):

(view from our home’s porch, up the valley):

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The valley behind leads down from our town towards the sea and the "city" of La Serena…

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… (which is in the IV Region of Chile) to head north towards Copiapo, capital of the III Region.  A gorgeous drive on the new "coast highway" in the III Region, about 200 miles of "dirt" road that drives like a dream–we could make 60mph+ for long stretches at a time.  We saw 3 cars all day on Saturday, and literally 100s of miles of gorgeous beaches with few to no people on them.  Here’s the road… sometimes straight as an arrow for 20-30 miles at a time.

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the view out the window was captivating, and although we saw many "vicuna xsing" signs, we didn’t see any (vicunas are like llamas… wild in this part of the country)

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Did I mention, the beaches were EMPTY?  Here’s our car parked at the national park parking lot… gorgeous dunes, not a soul in sight!

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At our northernmost point, we hit "Bahia Inglesa", a lovely beach resort with 150 full time inhabitants.  There were about 50-60 beach goers there on the saturday, presumably from the nearby Copiapo and Caldera cities (towns of 50,000 or less, 90  minutes drive from this isolated beach):

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We stayed in the hamlet of Huasco one night, caught the local children’s halloween costume parade, apparently becoming very popular down here in the southern hemisphere.

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we hit a local market for fresh produce on our way back home; Cristina’s keen sense of haggling, developed in Beijing and in Chinese, has transitioned marvelously to the Chile/Spanish…

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and then arrived home sweet home.  All the best from the entire family, from Pisco Elqui Chile (sorry, couldn’t get a picture of all four of us yet–we’ll keep working on that!)

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Rants & Raves

We are here!

Which is where? Pisco Elqui, of the Valle del Elqui, about 6-7 hours north of Santiago, due east of La Serena, close to the Andean border with Argentina.  Beautiful, dry and warm climate.  A throwback to the 70s with Chilean hippies, lots of crochet, and a very non-commercial yet tourist friendly ambiance.  Tiny.  It is 1% the size of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, with the same blend of colonial/rural/mestizo look and feel with a reverence for nature and new age spirituality. No gringo owned art galleries, no outrageously gorgeous jewelry stores, but a handful of tiny shops with local artisanal products, some really cute restaurants, cabins for rent, horses and lots of vineyards.  This is the center for Pisco; two brands that come from the region are Capel and Mistral, the latter taking its name from the famous poet Gabriela who hailed from the region. Not far from here is an organic winery. The valley also houses a couple state-of-the-art observatories with the some biggest telescopes in the world. Can’t wait to check them out, but for the time being, looking at the stars with the naked eye is pretty phenomenal–even with a moon, you can see shooting stars and globs of constellations, 300 days a year.
We live in a funky house that was probably built 100 years ago, but renovated with Balinese flair by Justin, son of Ximena, friend of Jane and Emilio. Justin and his wife Cony lived in India and Bali pre-babies. They’ve been here around 6 years. Very creative folks with cute kids and lots of interests. With others in their community, they helped start up a Waldorf school, part of a branch of alternative schools based on German philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s alternative beliefs about children’s development and education. One of our reasons for coming to Elqui (sight unseen for both of us) was our belief that this nurturing school environment would be the most stress-free way to get the kids immersed in Spanish.  So far, both kids come home jubilant and go to school excited to see what will unfold. It’s only a 10 minute walk and a big part of my day has been getting them both there and back (their days start and end at different times).
That says a lot about the pace of our lives.  There’s not a lot to do or anywhere to go, which is just fine by us.  Forest has been productive in a little office he set up here at the house. When the boys come home we all have lunch at 2, Chilean style.
October has always been my favorite month and Fall always felt like renewal to me, but on the flip side of the seasons, starting Spring on the flip side of life after Beijing, in our own topsy turvy way it all feels right.

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Rants & Raves

When “making the connection” is a bad idea

Cristina and I have been a fan of “making the connection” ever since I first learned of the concept whilst reading a Tom Cahill travel story about “spelunking”, the sport of cave exploration.  In caves, the challenge is to find a way out of the cave that is different than your way in, so that you have “making the connection” through the cave—usually this follows the current/past path of water through which formed the cave structure.  We learned to apply the spirit of “making the connection” to any kind to many sorts of adventurous—car trips, walking and hiking outings, multi-country or city vacations, etc.  The goal is to always return via a different route, the better to see new places/things along the way, and not return via known path.  This has never gone wrong on us, although a few times we did find ourselves on difficult roads, longer than desired outings, and a few times, completely lost and near despair—but nothing serious that wasn’t outweighed by the excitement of exploration and adventure.

However, last weekend things went horribly wrong.

My friend from China Li has been visiting me in seattle, and was desirous of some outdoors time and we agreed on the Olympic Peninsula.  A friend recommended the Storm Ridge Trail at Crescent Lake, about 3 hrs drive from Seattle proper via Puget Sound Ferry crossing.  We left the house at 5:45 am and arrived at trailhead just ahead of 9am.  The ranger at the trail head was not yet open for business, but we caught a few words with him as he was raising the flag on the flagpost, and learned that the trail was “straight up ahead”, that it was “very strenuous/challenging”, and that it should take no more than “3 hours” roundtrip.  A “3 hour tour”, as Gilligan’s Island theme song says…

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Given the relatively short time horizon, we took with us16 ounces of water each, a sandwich, some dried apricots, and were lightly clothed (i in shorts and sandals + tshirt.  This was mistake number 1… new motto in life will forever be “always take 3x the water you think you need”.

We started hiking and were instantly in a happy place—gorgeous day, tall verdant trees and lush ferns all around us, a happy little stream/creek running through the valley that we started to slowly ascend.  Eventually the trail started to get steeper, then VERY steep, and we spent what seemed like hours hiking straight up a never ending series of switchback turns.  After what seemed like 3 hours i was beginning to worry that we might be on the wrong trail… lo and behold, it had indeed been 3 hours!  and we WERE on the wrong trail!  We finally crested the climb and found ourselves at an intersection of our trail with another well signed/indicated park trail.  At this point we looked on the map we had picked up at trailhead (note to self—look at map before starting, not only once realizing you are lost) and found that we had hiked 7.5 miles already (making our current hike a 6 hour project even if we turned back right now), this as we finished the last drops of water we had with us.

So we had a decision to make… turn around immediately and return to the car by trail we just climbed, or… “make the connection”—a path to our left clearly indicated by trailhead signs indicated it was 5 miles down the trail, where another trail would meet and from there 2 miles to the road.  in other words—7 miles back to the road (where we could hitchhike to the car) by a NEW path, with likely better views of the valley and lake than our hike to date had offered, or a retreat in defeat by our first route.  Neither Allan nor I hesitated for a second—we wanted to make the connection, and we headed off on the Aurora Ridge Trail for what would be a fun, if thirsty, second half of our day.  Even now thinking back on that decision, i don’t think we were making a mistake given the information we had available to us.  In the future, the lack of water will be something that would sway me more, but at that time, i felt that i was going to be thirsty one way or another, so might as well see some new sights along the way!

So… 2 hours later (along a beautiful trail i might add), we enter into a meadow and the trail starts to fade out into bushes and tall grass.  This had sort of happened a few times earlier, so we weren’t immediately alarmed, but as the minutes past and we searched high and low, including going forward on promising leads and then retreating to last known part of the trail several times, we increasingly had a feeling of “holy cow, this trail doesn’t continue”.  We were now 12 miles from our car, with a good uphill climb at our backs in order to get to the original trail, extremely tired (cramping in legs was very intense, especially during any increase of elevation/slope), and did i mention—had no water?  What to do?

Frankly, for the next 2 hours I didn’t think once of going back—it was simply to far to try 12 mile hike, when we were only 2.5 miles from the road and safety—if we could just find the trail!  So this is when we made our first real mistake—we went off the trail (NEVER LEAVE THE TRAIL) and started hiking along the ridge and through the forest, whilst visually trying to decipher the topology around us and mapping it back to our extremely low resolution/not topo-map map.  Thank god neither of us broke a leg or otherwise got into trouble at this point, we were stomping around on very steep slopes, over and under big fallen trees, and fortunately did not come across rattlesnakes or bears/etc.  However, now it is nearing 4pm, we are really lost, and the prospect of spending the night in the woods is starting to loom (with no water!)

So we make our way back to the trail, in the middle of a meadow, in the middle of a lovely forest… just 2.5 miles from the road, perhaps just 500 meters from the trail to that road, and have to settle on turning back (not making the connection!) and retracing our steps back up and then down what will total 12.5 miles.

Despite the pain in our legs, the sense of impending doom, and thirst!!!!!! Allan and I both had a remarkably serene outlook…  we were having fun the entire time.  I pushed my body farther on this hike than I did during the marathon in tokyo earlier this year, and there was the prospect of possible injury or worse, but i never lost sight off the beauty of nature, the spiritual stillness surrounding us.  This was a fun day.

That said—in the meadow, looking up and down the ridge, off the trail where we shouldn’t have been, i couldn’t help but ask myself “are you frickin kidding me… how is this happening to us?”  It was “Touching the Void”, “Into Thin Air”, and “Man vrs Wild” all wrapped up in one crazy brain rush.  My wife and kids are in Chile, so far away… and I’m just 2 miles from the road—but i’m LOST without water, in real danger.

Anyways, while there are many more details that are curious and fun to narrate in person, for the blog i’ll share the big finale—we made it to the ridge by 6pm, giving us 2 hrs to return down a 3hr section (before certain nightfall/darkness).  We drank some running water we found (giardia and other diarrhea producing diseases likely found in the water source, be damned!) and tromped down the path to the creek in the valley, where we were hosted to total and utter darkness, the kind where you can’t see ANYTHING in front of you, let alone the path which runs along the ravine, full of precipitous rocks and other obstacles
that would be painful to experience after a fall.

This is where the iPhone came in—my phone had been without a signal all day, and useless as a phone, GPS/map, email, or anything else… but as a flashlight, however dim the screen would otherwise be considered, it was a godsend.  Allan held on to my backpack and i guided us forward like two blind/lost bozos, for what was at least 2 miles.  When we finally saw the headlights of cars on the road ahead we knew we were going to get home that night.

We were on the trail for 12 hrs.  25 miles.  5,000 + feet up (and then down).  Wow.

To repeat, lessons learned:

(1) take more water than you could ever drink

(2) for good measure, always take water purifying tablets (along with a canteen or plastic bottle that could be used for that purpose)

(3) don’t always trust the forest/park service signs… we were on marked paths that turned out to be not very well maintained—we put too much faith in the park service

(4) making the connection, need not always be, the #1 priority!

 

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Categories
Rants & Raves

New Chapters in countries that start with “CH” sound

So we are on to our next adventure, in our quest to live in all the countries in the world that start with the “CH” sound, we have packed our things up in China, passed through Seattle, and are on our way to Chile.  In a few years we plan to move to Chad, completing the trifecta.

Specifics of what we are doing there, how, and where exactly in the country… i will save for when I’m actually there and can write from a sofa wih the laptop in front of me and a cold Pisco Sour in hand.  Suffice to say the primary driver was this—after 5.5 years with Microsoft and working on the same core business (Silverlight & Expression product lines), I was ready for a change in latitude at work… and for the family, it was going to be now or never if we wanted the kids to be indoctrinated in the black arts of the spanish language with a native accent.  As most of my friends and many of my colleagues know, i lived in Chile at a young age and it has markedly defined my personal life perspective, goals, and temperament… i’ve always wanted to replicate some aspect of that experience for my own children, and low-and-behold, we opted to do a flashback and replicate it exactly! 

Cristina and the kids are on the beach in Zapallar as i type, already enjoying Machas Parmesanas, Locos con Mayonesa, Lucuma flavored ice-cream, Chirimoya fruit, and our favorite—Maraqueta bread, fresh twice daily, still warm from the oven when you put the butter on it and a inch of Palta (avocado) with some salt.  It is the 18th of September there tomorrow, the independence day of the country, so she is enjoying celebrating with family and is off to a rip roaring start.

I am finishing up at work tomorrow and turning in my badge (literally), then taking a week to wrap up things with the house and some friends and family, and then voila, off to rendezvous and begin the next chapter.  I’m officially changing the blog sub-heading today to “Chilean Keys”, as Beijing is now so yesterday…

Much more to come, now that Cristina and I can access the blog freely, from an unregulated internet market (no Chinese firewall to get in the way!)