Chile
February 23, 2006 GMT
Santiago Summer

Itīs 8:30 on a Santiago morning and Iīm walking to school. The Chilean sun feels nice on my back. Its cheery yellow light casts long shadows down the sidewalk, showing me the way. Ahead, an old man, wearing rumpled old man clothes, generously waters his part of the sidewalk, and by design or accident Iīm not sure, drowns his flowers, lawn and the trees by the curb. There is no nozzle, the water just pours out and hits the sidewalk in noisy splashes. Daily this ritual of flooding everything occurs and heīs not alone. Many shop owners, security guards and homeowners do the same along my route as I navigate the leafy neighbourhood of Providencia during the 20 minutes to my Spanish escuela. My daily mission, as I walk and study, scribbler in hand, is trying to memorize the 40 words for the two verbs "to be"; the choices depending on gender, tense, plurality, stock market and wind direction. The lawn waterers all are respectful and allow this pale skinned extranjero (foreigner) to pass without getting spashed. Not that water on my bare legs or sandals would ever mind, for even at this time of the morning itīs a pleasant 20 something Celsius.

I share the Santiago sidewalk with a generous smattering of other commuters. Women usually in skirts, men with ties, all dressed smartly. Even when mujeras wear jeans, itīs usually with heels and always looking feminine. Folks are mostly without expression this time of the morning but itīs more like respectful and reserved than unhappy. Even without spontaneous smiles from passerbys, I still feel very safe and welcome. Traffic is busy but not gridlock and the common yellow-over-black taxi is very popular - they must be, for theyīre parked by businesses, residences, parques, at malls, everywhere. I notice Santiaguan cars are mostly Hondas and Toyotas and the rest of the Japanese gang. Europeans (Peugeots, Citroens, BMWīs) come next, the American Big 3 are a distant third.


helado

I like it here. Santiago is a city of 6 million within a Chilean population of around 15 million. This capital city is nestled, it appears to me, within a stoneīs throw of the Andes. The Pacific Ocean is an hour and a half drive to the west. Thirty degrees C in summer with pleasant shirt sleeve evenings; in winter it drops to 15C. Want snow? Then drive to it. It too is only an hour away. How civilized. Is this California?

Although there is a span of economic levels from Hollywood hills estates to the less fortunate slums, there is mostly middle class. Construction is everywhere, surely the sign of a healthy and confident economy. Natural decore of this 505 year old city is healthy and luxurious greenery that thrives like that of Vancouver. Streets are clean (well, more so than Calgary), the metro is eat-off-the-floor clean and efficient, and shoppers are not left wanting. Gas is about $1.20 a litre, a ride on the metro is $0.75, decent wine $ 4.00, a good golf shirt can be had for $8.00. My homestay, with laundry and two meals is $20 a day. Oh, and I am called Moo-ray Cas-tee-yo (castillo is spanish for Castle, and easier for Chileans to say). Fine, I say, just donīt call me tárde for cena (which is at 8 PM).

Speaking of eating, the photo below is the banana split supreme and a reward for two weeks of school. Five of us went after classes for helado (ice cream). With me is Pamela, one of the many fine and talented profesuras in charge of our Spanish fate with their language. Must be 90 litres of helado y fruitas in that bowl and yes, we ate it all. Then we called for a medico and a stomach pump.


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The 500 year history comes from the December day in 1541 when Pedro de Valdivia and 150 of his boys clanked into town and gave the locals an ultimatum: either give us your gold and learn Spanish, or die. The indigenous leaders, not that hung up on gold were OK with that part, but when they looked at Peteīs Lonely Planet books (in Spanish) - well, that was the deal breaker. They didnīt even stop to vote. Not that I blame them. Luckily theyīve had lots of time to sort stuff out before I got here and theyīve enjoyed since then, I think, a fairly solid record of democracy over the last 100 plus years. A few bumps OK, but then havenīt we all?

For six weeks, my life is school from 9 to 1. Then homework, daily guided tours of local sites, and in the evening, more homework. So far I have studied 6 million words, know 200, can use 5 in a broken sentence. AND, while I slave away, my trusty companion, Katie M, sails merrily through the Panama Canal with 20 other of her spoked friends. No doubt sipping on drinks-with-umbrellas, all from under the shade of 10 peso Panama hats.

I havenīt been entirely without fun: one day our patriarch (and school owner) Juan took us estudiantes to a cafe con piernas, or īcafe with legsī. Think of Starbucks with employees with "legs up to their necks", as my friend SonGlenn would say. Juan, being a retired police detective... well, it was his business to know these things. Juan also knows where the vineyard tours are, so itīs not all about palaces and buildings more antique than me.

Katie showed a little of her independant side while we were riding in the Arizona desert last month. While Amigobob and I were out on daily rides in the hills east of Phoenix, Katie decided to throw up all over herself. More than once. Both coolant and fuel drooled down the front of her. Was it the hot desert, the steep switchback climbs on dirt mining roads, the bumps, the spectacular vistas, what? Luckily the good folks at the KTM dealerships in Tucson (OK, we went south east over Mt Lemon too) and in Phoenix traced the bad behaviour, we think, to bad fuel tank venting. With the coolant, not all the air was out the system the last time Katie was serviced. Seems you have to stand Katie straight up on her hind legs to get the air out. That gymnastic manuoevre is not in the service manual, I can tell you.

By the 30th of marzo, our bikes should arrive in the port of Valparaiso and Bob flies in from the Great White North. Weīll collect our bikes and start the adventure up the Chilean coast, the northern target being Cuzco, Peru. Thereīll be time for another chapter before we ride off to glory, cheap wine and dazzling the locals with our sparkling spanglish.

In the meantime, I better get back to figuring out do I say "yo soy loco" or it is, "yo estoy loco". Better check the wind direction again.

Posted by Murray Castle at 06:37 PM GMT
March 18, 2006 GMT
The Streets of Valparaiso

As first port of call for 19th century sailing ships rounding the Horn, Valparaiso was the lo mejor puerto for all of South Americaīs Pacific coastline. Founded in 1536, the city did little until Chile achieved independance in the 1820īs, then the little port flourished until the Panama Canal put an end to the glory days. When Kim and I arrive for a weekend away from school, the picturesque harbour city looks like the streets of San Francisco frozen in time.

We notice the harbour area is new, and are told it is built on landfill, but the city core is long past prime. Overlooking the city centre, century old residences with frontages built on stilts, and stacked like building blocks, climb the steep cerros (hills) surrounding the harbour. Cobblestone streets, narrow and surpentine, climb the cerros, wander aimlessly and charmingly if one is not in a hurry, but may abruptly end without warning.

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Kim, a classmate at Terra Autralis, and I arrive in comfort. Air conditioned Tur-Buses, leaving every 20 minutes from Santiago, and costing less than $10 for the hour and half ride, make the trip too easy. Upon arrival, we take the metro, then find our way up one of the twisty little streets to the Alturo Hotel, on Cerro Concéption. The hotel fronts onto a calle (street) so steep that no cars use it. Rose bushes grow between the cobblestones, colorful murals decorate the street frontage. We can see the harbour from here. Kim takes a sunny room facing the calle, I take one at the back with a northwest view of the Pacific Ocean.

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We explore the city Saturday and Sunday. The hills are made easier for the pedestrian by using one of the 16 ascensores that climb from sea level to the hills above. In baby wooden boxcars, built between 1883 and 1916, a handful of folks at a time are lifted several hundred feet by the cable driven antiques.

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We visit one museum then Kim suntans on la playa while I take the modern metro north to Viņa Del Mar to check on accommodations for April when Bob Bielesch arrives.

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No visit to Valparaiso would be complete without going to Pablo Nerudaīs second home, La Sabastiana. All three of his homes, like his Valparaiso home shown below, were built to look like ships, both inside and out. Nobel prize winner for literature (poetry and prose) in 1971, Neruda was world famous for his love of common things most of us overlook. He celebrated the essence of life with his use of simple yet powerful descriptions. In one lovely poem he described summer as being as round and full of promise as a watermelon. I like that. In La Sabastiana, he had a oil painting of Queen Victoria on one wall but she looked lonely he bought a second painting of a 19th century english gentleman in riding clothes. He hung them close together so they could keep each other company.

Although the film changes the setting to Italy, anyone seeing El Postino will see the essence of Neruda in the actor who plays the poet and mentor to the poor postman. I am told the actorīs appearance and eclectic mannerisms closely represented Nerudaīs own. Neruda died of cancer in 1973, dearly loved by his Chilean countrymen and the world that knew him.

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In the evenings Kim and I chose restaurants with decks and a harbour view. Itīs such a nice change to get away from school, from homework and talking like the village idiot. Speaking English for a few hours is like a tonic. Who would guess?

One night we sit on the steps of our little calle with a bottle of vino tinto and a view of the harbour lights, and talk til the wee hours of the morning. It is a pleasant way to pass the time. In an unexpected way I start talking about things Iīve carried with me since 1972. Although I donīt recognize it til later, itīs like the planets aligning, and Kim, being the skillful listener, becomes the right person in the right place at the right time to talk to. Funny how I have to travel so far in time and place to see something that was within all this time.

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M. Scott Peck:
The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.



Posted by Murray Castle at 06:37 PM GMT
April 03, 2006 GMT
Waiting for Katie

Seems like itīs been years since I said goodbye. I left Katie in a cavernous warehouse in Houston in early February and flew to sunny Santiago. It also seems like years that Iīve been taking Spanish lessons, but itīs only 7 weeks. Now schoolīs out and itīs time for the real adventure to begin. But the clock seems suddenly uncooperative as its little gears slowly saw away the minutes. Minutes become hours as I wait for the freighter to unload Katie M onto the docks of Valparaiso. Iīm so ready to hit the roads and start exploring South America.

My riding partner, Bob Bielesch, arrived a week ago in Santiago. While I spent the last week of school learning pronouns direct, indirect and airmail, Bob was touring the town. While I puzzled through Pretérite Imperfecto, Amigobob was lunching on freshly caught fish and glasses of white wine. All in all, Amigobob had a great reintroduction to Chile. I now have command of a unique version of spanglified piglatin.

Saying goodbye to my gracious homestay hostess Maria is not easy after living in her home for seven weeks. Maria hosts both university students and others, like myself, attending spanish lessons at the Terra Australis Escuela. She has provided me with a tranquil place to stay, meals and clean laundry, all for a very reasonable price. I should be so lucky to stay in places like this in North America. I make it easier (on me) to say goodbye by giving Maria a small gift. As families are very important in Chile, Maria, like women everywhere, sacrifices for the benefit of her family. I choose one she can only use on herself.

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On Saturday we jump on the bus to Viņa del Mar and an hour and half later weīre at the coast. We are expecting the bikes on Monday and arrive a couple of days early as if that would speed up the waiting time. It doesnīt but we take advantage of the wait to tour Viņa and Valparaiso.

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On Friday evening, while freighters ride at anchor, the sun sets a chromatic gold in the west, casting a theatrical and romantic spotlight along the playa promenade. On the black and white tiled sidewalk, a man and woman in black tights dance the tango to the music of their boombox casette player. Their moves are exotic, smooth and in perfect rhythm with each other and the setting sun. A crowd gathers. The dancersīblack top hat, overturned on the sidewalk, gathers coins and bills from grateful admirers. I take a movie with my digital camera and watch their moving language of latin love unfold.

The change of scenery is a nice reward for the weekend. Valparaiso is a photographīs dream if the mission is to find unusual images to capture. Everyday people, like the street sweepers below, are quite often pleased to have their picture taken. The digital camera allows the great advantage of reviewing their picture immediately after taken. They are pleased, so I am. People pictures are important.

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The ascensors, the turn-of-the-century cable-driven elevators, take us half way up the Florida Cerro to the Gato Tuerto, a bright yellow restaurant perched on the cliff edge. From the open air deck we enjoy the sweeping vista of the Valpo bay. I have pollo con arozz (chicken with rice) with a frosty medio litro of cerveza on the side.

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In a day or so weīll meet with the fine folks at the Aduana offices and see what needs to be done to gain possession of our trusty (and I hope not rusty) steeds. It may be some time before another chapter is posted, as itīll take awhile to adjust to the travelling mode and looking for internet shops in all the wrong places.

Posted by Murray Castle at 05:25 PM GMT
April 15, 2006 GMT
Costa y Desierto

Katie is free! We liberate her and her 14 friends from the shipping container by the light of the Valparaiso moon. The first ride with Katie is from the Aduana yard high in the cerros above Valpo back to Viņa del Mar, 30 minutes away. A wide swath of moonbeam shining across the Pacific Ocean far below greets us as we crest the hill. At that memorable moment on the new continent together, I say, "Katie, Iīm sure glad to be together again. That moonbeam is a good omen, now for the next six months carry us safely home".

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Amigobob and I ride our bikes back to Residencia 555, our home for the last few days, then pack til 1 in the morning. The next day we ride triumphantly out of town, heading north up the coast. Or at least thatīs the plan. Instead we make a couple of tours through town trying to find our highway. Maps, discussions and GPSīs are all put to use. Finally we just say the hell with it and use our instincts. Keep the Pacifico on our left and follow the most cars going north. It works. Ah, technology and our brilliance as world explorers....

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Not far from the scene above, General Pinochet had his coastal retreat where he could get away from the hectic life as a military dictator. The coast of Chile also has many faces, from tranquil sandy beaches to crashing surf on rocky ledges. The main Pan American highway, Ruta Cinco, is miles inland most of the time. Amigobob and I prefer the roads less travelled, so finding a lonely stretch of two lane coastal carretera is much more to our liking, no matter whether itīs dirt, gravel, oiled or pavimento. In time, we find road surfaces that pretty well run the spectrum from river bottom to 4 lane divided autopista.

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Our rides sometimes take us inland. Although the aridity of the landscape reminds me of the serious consequences extracted from the careless, it is not a land untouched. At random intervals the delelict remains of a mining operation stands out like bleached bones in the sand. Often we stop and explore. The main prizes, depending on the era, are nitrates, coal, cobre (copper), plata (silver), oro (gold), and sal (as in pepper). There may be more reasons to dig holes in the sand here, including the unexplained desire to do it just for the hell of it (my personal theory).

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Itīs a good thing Amigobob and I decide to bring along camping equipment. We find brilliant little bivovacs, rooms with a view as FY would say. One of my favorites to date happens after a long day on the coast when we ride inland to visit a ghost town. El sol beats us to bed, but we continue riding east on the gravel road into the dark. We arrive at Chaņarcillo, a mining town of 7000 personas in the mid 1800īs. Our friend, la luna, rises over the ridges to the east and helps us set up by her light. Itīs truly a magical place. The desert air is dry and shirtsleeve warm, we put up our tents in happy comfort. Later I take a walk among the ruins. Not a breath of wind. Overhead the Milky Way paints itīs white path in spite of a waxing moon. There is Orion, the Southern Cross and low in the southern sky is a star so bright it looks like a planet but I think itīs too far out of the ecliptic arc. At my feet lies the ghost town, or what remains of its desicated ruins, so quiet I can hear the hum of my own being in my ears. The whole scene is another case of PFM (Pure F..king Magic).

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Most days we start riding about 8:30 am and stop sometimes in a small town (pueblo) to grab a restaurant meal (favorite Chilean food is fish, chicken, and beef, all with rice or papa fritas). Every town has a plaza, usually well treed, green, shady, full of flowers and park benches. Usually somewhere near the plaza we will find a nice meal for $5 to $8, including Coca-Cola for me, Fanta Orange for Bob. Around 8 pm with cena (supper) we each order a medio litro of cerveza, or as itīs known locally, a schop. One must know these things, you know.

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At some time of the morning comes the ritual of stripping off extra clothes, as the temperatures rise from 10 C to 30 C. Even as we stop in the middle of a dusty lot, kids show up out of nowhere if thereīs any sign of habitation within 50 kilometros. The boys are pleasant, honest, curious and modest. It is plain they are typical Chileans, members of a nation I canīt say enough good things about. A remarkable contraction becomes evident, a time warp of tradition versus technological progress. Both boys have few possessions, that is plain, and probably live in a 600 square foot casa along with an extended family. But both pull out cell phones and take my picture as Iīm about to leave. This is the same country where I must carry my own toilet paper for public baņos, then fold up the used paper and put it in a small waste basket there for the purpose (sanitation systems are not designed to handle paper waste - not such a bad idea). A country where remote pueblos received electrification in the last decade. A country with one story adobe buildings, narrow dirt streets and satellite internet, all in the same cuadra. Cool.

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After a scenic ride along the wild coast north of Taltal, we ride into Antofagasta. After sundown, the downtown streets are incredibly crowded with pedestrians. There is no special event, itīs just families, young lovers, old men and mujeres viejos out for an evening social stroll. I find it charming and in comparison to our Canadian lifestyle, reassuring to see a culture that openly values people and family. Street stalls are in abundance. It reminds me of the charm of India or Nepal.

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Itīs in Antofagasta where I meet the man below, Ramon Williams. Working for the small business of Frio and Electronic, he is a talented mechanic and when I show him where my Jesse panniers are rattling loose on the long corrigation roads, he immediately gets the drift and fills in the blanks of my broken spanish. He reads my needs perfectly, even to my desire to have the bolt holes siliconed to keep the maletas sin agua (the bags waterproof). Two hours of dedicated work, where he dropped everything to help me, cost me diez mil pesos and dos litros of Coca Cola (about $20). Muchos gracious, Ramon, Luis Palma y Jorge Monroy.

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In the next chapter at the end of April, I will write about the most remarkable Atacama and the charming pueblo of San Pedro de Atacama (is it the new Kathmandu?). As we ride from sea level to within 80 kilometers of the towering Los Andes, we crest an almost inperceptible height of land. The GPS shows 11,200 feet above sea level! How could that be possible? I never noticed the climb. The vastness of the landscape that lays to the east and south of our highway summit nearly takes my breath away, like that first shock at seeing the Grand Canyon. Never while standing on this planet have I seen so much tierra at one time. To the east and up a massive swell of land that forms the base of the Andes lays the nearest pass at more than 15,000 feet. Snow capped volcanoes along the cordillera look like they belong to Mars. That and more is for next time. In the meantime, Amigobob and I continue to ride the great southern continent as we head north, east, west and sometimes south, but like well meaning explorers, perhaps a cross between Dr Livingstone and Mr Magoo, we move slowly towards the centre of the Incan Empire in Cuzco, Peru. At least I think thatīs our plan...

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And to my favorito hijo, Christopher, Happy 22nd Birthday on 19th of April. I wish you were here to share in this most marvelous adventure.

Posted by Murray Castle at 08:12 PM GMT
February 02, 2009 GMT
Valparaiso Revisited

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Day 26. Back in Valparaiso again, after being here in 2006. But this is February 2009, and Joyce and I should be in the south of Chile by now, yet here I sit again today and look upon the church courtyard of Capilla del Carmen. Granted, it is a pleasant view and one that reassures, in the larger scheme of things, all will be fine. The grand Catholic churches so common in South America tend to make one feel that way. I look forward to when Iīll be healthy again because for the last 15 days I have been confined to our B & B room in Valparaiso, crippled by sciatica.

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But with every dark cloud comes some silverware. Or something like that. In this case, it is the Chilean people who have offered every assistance possible to Joyce and I. We are being immeasureably helped by the owner of Garivalpo B & B, Uberlinda Valencia. Ube, besides being like a mother to us, has enlisted friends to help as well. Like Ramon and Anita Cespedes, who ferry us everywhere, translate and expedite things. Ramon, 30 years with the elite Caribineros, spent 20 years in charge of the guard at the Moneda in Santiago (where the president and ministers of Chile work). A more patient, practical and reliable man would be hard to find. Anita, a retired Grade 3 teacher, can speak some English, so between her English and my limited Spanish we communicate well enough. This morning, as a gift, Anita gave me what looked like a business card. On it was written a prayer to El Senior to help me heal. I will carry that card with me for the rest of this trip.


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In the 17 days before the bikes arrived (and the sciatica), Joyce and I had a great time exploring the streets of Valparaiso. We hired a most extraordinary guide, "The German Pirate". Michael took us on a 10 hour walking tour to small but typical businesses, cottage industries really, where we sampled hand-made liqueurs; watched clothes made using 80-year-old Singer sewing machines; and at the German-Chilean Club, we stood in a tiny room filled with orginal climbing gear from the first attempt to climb Aconcagua in 1883. Interesting too was the badge shop, a dark little room from the early 1900īs with a 20 ton hand screw press. Eric Schindler works the press, making uniform cap and helmet badges for the firefighters of Valparaiso. Eric inherited this 100 year old shop from his grandparents, themselves German immigrants to Valparaiso during the heydays. Eric is a bombero himself. Bomberos in Chile are volunteers and pay for their own gear. They do it for the love of the profession and service to the people.

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Some afternoons we sit by the big window in our room reading, listening to MP3īs or enjoying the vista. On occasion, Joyce sketches a scene that catches her eye.

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Most evenings we sip wine and enjoy the sunset on the cerros opposite us. Since we also have a wee view of the harour bay, we can watch container ships arrive and depart. Seems naturally fitting to welcome the eveningīs arrivals with a bottle of Chiliīs national toasting product, say a carmenere, merlot, cab sav, syrah or sav blanc, to name a few. As the climate here naturally invites a light supper and una botella de vino, we can toast and eat each night for under $10 - for both of us. Like I said, within every dark cloud there is some silver underwear. Or something like that.

Posted by Murray Castle at 06:09 PM GMT
 


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