February 13, 2006 GMT
10th February 2006 - Ovalle

0 kms

As we've had another rest day, with little but a fine haircut and beard trim, which was carried out better than you'd get at home and for considerably less, we thought it might be good to highlight one or two things we discovered in our travels that otherwise wouldn't be covered.

Language - After trying to learn some basic Spanish on previous trips to Spain we knew how different a language it is to ours. I spent a year at night classes just a few years ago, and although I found it very difficult, I persevered. Bev spent many hours going to and from work with CDs in the car, and learnt a surprising amount before we left. When we arrived we hardly expected to be fluent as neither of us is anything like a natural at picking up foreign languages, but we did expect to return with - probably unrealistically - fairly reasonable Spanish conversation.

Well, we have been disappointed! We were doing OK up until we got to Chile I'd say, but here it's like another language again. Each country has different dialects and wholly different words, but at least you can make yourselves understood. OK at some times we have really struggled in the other countries, but here we have hit the blank stares more times than I can understand. Tonight we had the greatest of difficulties when just getting something simple. We are at a loss to explain that. In Uruguay and Paraguay we seldom struggled, and never really have difficulties in Argentina, but off the beaten tracks in Chile it seems totally different to the off the beaten tracks in the other countries.

We can get by, but we are far from being able to hold a conversation. I remember the point, fairly early on, in Argentina, were I had a total conversation with a guy about where we were from, what we were doing, were we were going, and how we loved the trip. Obviously it was because at that point he said ' Chau' and that was it. But I remember that as a real success. Since then we seem to have gained naught. It's very strange, as we can't use English, and we aren't relying on other people.

Lets see how we get on for the remainder of the trip.

And finally on language, a bonus! We've mentioned before how some words are similar, or very similar.

Hey kids, it's competition time.

Here’s some words, try to think of the South American (in case anyone picks me up) words for:-
Cement
Rhubarb
Magnetic
May

Well the answers are :-
Cemento
Rhubarbo
Magnetico
Mayo

So there are some advantages, but it works far from every time. Beero for instance will get you bugger all in the way of beer, and barco....well it isn't Spanish for dog! You can see were the Scorchio sketch comes from in the Fast show for sure!

Toilets - I've not raised this one up until now. Those that have been to Greece (we haven't) may be familiar with the small bore sewerage systems and their requirements, but for those unfamiliar, you don't flush paper etc down the toilet. The paper you use is put in a receptacle next to the toilet. This is common to virtually all South American toilets. It takes some getting used too, and I'm not sure what happens to all that paper. You’d hope it was burned rather than going into the bins, but we've no idea.

The standard of toilets, as you can imagine, varies considerably. Virtually no 'Turkish' style ones though. Just cleanliness. Some have been out of this world disgusting. When you find really clean ones it is a surprise. Chile gets a thumbs up here as they are above average. Hell, there's usually paper and hand cleaner. But in many of the other countries the toilets, even in good establishments, can be truly awful.

As there is virtually no maintenance carried out on most things - something all of us travelers have picked up on - you often find no door locks, or even doors that won't close. All things that could be fixed in minutes, but just no one ever bothers.

You'll be pleased there's no photo's with this one!

Hopefully when we return we will adapt to the norm, but as a precaution, I'd` remove your toilet side bins if we're visiting in the first month or so of our return !

Bottles - Now this is an important topic! There is a real problem here with getting bottles of beer, and one we have all encountered at some strange and cannot figure out. When you go to get a bottle (litre size) of beer you often find you cannot buy it! After a couple of times you figure out it is because the bottles are returnable and you have to take an empty back. Fine, great idea, but. How do you ever get the first bottle? It's a chicken and egg one isn't it. You cannot get the beer you want without an empty unless some charitable soul charges you the deposit, or just gives up trying to explain.

There must be some heavy fines or something as in Paraguay for instance we literally couldn't get a bottle of beer in a shop. You can buy Bud in little bottles (not bloody thanks) beer of any type in cans, but not the one you really want in a litre bottle.

It does vary, as here there are 'throw away' bottles (as everyone does judging from the hedge backs) but they are never the nice brands you want. They do some fine ales around and about and a few 'malt' ones that are dark and very much to our taste, and nearly always bloody returnable ones.

We would just like to know how to get that first bottle.

There is even the same problem with the large bottles of fruit juice etc sometimes.

Gringos - Well, obviously we know we stand out, but it's unbelievable how much. People literally stand and stare even when we're dressed casual and walking around town. Often we are off the beaten track and you’d expect some interest, but it's amazing. It's how the first West Indians must have felt in the UK (I'm talking a long time ago here) there is no malice; it's just a surprise. It’s not always where all the indigenous peoples are otherwise it would be more understandable, but generally it is. As soon as you get away from the more popular centers you find there are less western faces, particularly so here in Chile, but also in the other countries we've visited.

We've never suffered real Gringo problems like over-charging (or have we?) and we've only extremely rarely felt uncomfortable about any charges we doubted.

The one positive discrimination you come across nearly everywhere that is annoying is at parks and heritage sites. Apparently it is entirely correct to charge none residents substantially more than residents, this means when you go to say Moreno Glacier you are charged at least three times more, and at other sights it can be six times more, just for exactly the same thing.

Some locals say 'it's just like when we go to London' but of course it isn't. It’s expensive for them, but they are paying the same price we do.

It's all a bit odd in our book, and we've met several folk who have had a good old go at putting that point across. Of course the people collecting the tariffs have no say in it, but it strikes everyone as pure Gringo Pricing and I think it is. It's not like it's the difference between say 70p and £3, it's the difference between figures like £5 and £20 which is bloody considerable.

Directions - here's a good tip. If you want to find somewhere in a medium sized town, give up on the wandering around fruitlessly (particularly after dodgy local directions) take a taxi - after checking price. It’s 50p well spent, and you can walk back when you discover it's only round the corner from were you were at some point previous. Here there are 'collective taxis' that pick up anyone, not just you, and stick to a route, like the tube, going round and round. Somehow you'll figure out which number to pick and it saves hours! No good on the bike though - though I have considered asking 'how much to' and then following them!

Anyway that sounds like more whinging, but I can assure you it isn't, it's observations that might forewarn or be helpful..


Saturday 11th February 2006

Ovalle - Vicuña, via, Coquimbo & La Serena

167 kms

Leaving this morning it was uncharacteristically cool and grey, too cold for jacket and trousers without liners but we couldn't be bothered stopping to put them in.


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Leaving the hotel, tight squeeze, but secure


The bike slipped out the way it had come from the courtyard via a just wide enough doorway. We had a quick look up the road back towards toward to admire how much of an oasis this place is, quite impressive irrigation over centuries.


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The oasis that is Ovalle, arid beyond the valley


The ride up to the coast was on some nice twisty roads at one point, but views shrouded in low cloud and then it was the normal main line drags until we neared habitation.

The two towns are quite large, and almost joined. Coquimbo was the smaller on an impressive headland giving it a great harbor that was very busy with a market as we rode in. It was a little run down and rough, but had quite a lot going for it on the historic buildings and history front, but we didn't want to stay - it wasn't even mid-day. We followed a street to a headland and discovered a little fort type thing with great views of the rocky prominantry, breaking waves, a single Sea lion, and Pelicans amongst other seabirds. First time we've seen Pelicans and very nice too. More colourful than we expected with blues, yellows and reds on their beaks. It gives us the opportunity for one of Bev's quotes, "The Pelican, a bird whose bill can hold more than his belly can'. A great saying and so appropriate.


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Pelicans at Coquimbo



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Blue Footed Boobies (stand by for usual comments!) at Coquimbo


The other thing in town of interest is a church designed by Gustav Eiffel (of the tower) made of steel. We looked hard and thoroughly and found nothing! Shame, as by complete coincidence I was given a book a few years ago based on the building of it, I had no idea it was in Chile (short memory) so was weird to realise it was here (somewhere).

The second very weird thing was there was a small coffee bar playing some great ambient music that we both really liked, similar to something - Jah Wobble - we like in UK. I asked the guy to write down the name, Cafe de Mar a mix by Jose Padilla. I thought it was Chilean, and then remembered - I'm obviously getting old - it too was something I had heard a few years ago in UK and tried without success to find, how weird is that!

We actually went to a shop in a Mall to try and get it as the guy said they had it, but couldn't find it. Should be able to get it in UK, but weird eh!

La Serena was another good looking, but bigger, place. We would probably have been better staying in one of those for two days rather than were we did, but there you go! You can't do it all. There were lots of lovely historic building there and things to see.

We left the chaos of traffic, and it was, to head inland and by time we were half way to Vicuna things had heated up and it was roasting again.


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Blue Vicuña, another oasis town. Pisco grapes and fruit


The towns are now taking on the style of Spain with low stories and inner courtyards and trees on footpaths. The place is baking and the surrounding hills are sparse of vegetation and bare. The area nearby is apparently on good lay lines and there are lots of alternative therapies and different life styles so it is a bit more of a chilled place. Lots of interesting hand made jewelry - i.e. not imported from Peru or Bolivia, and as only about 8000 population and with more tourists (not many European or US) it is a nice little spot.

Gone mad on the accommodation front price wise, but nice place, and we want two good nights as tomorrow we will have a late night as we are visiting the Observatory Cerro Mamalluca for a night visit to see the stars and view their telescopes which is something we are really looking forward too.

The one thing I never mentioned about the night sky here is that for the first time ever I have discovered there is a blank patch in the Milky way - you can actually see with the naked eye and area with no stars, never seen that before. So the skies have certainly lived up to and beyond expectation already, fingers crossed tomorrow will bring even more amazement....don't expect any photo's though!


Sunday 12th February 2006

Vicuña

Spent today chilling really, had a nice walk up to a viewpoint overlooking the town. It’s another Oasis ands they grow the grapes for the national alcoholic drink, Pisco, here. The way they get the dry land irrigated is really impressive.


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Another, a stiff 30 min walk for view


The skies have heavily clouded over this afternoon and we have great reservations about what we really came here for. This valley is heralded as ´the greatest stargazing place on earth´….can you bloody believe it 


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Grapes drying in the sun


However, last night they had some live local music (very Mexican, strong links with Chile for years) that was OK but not outstanding. Tonight? Rock concert. The bands have been tuning up and setting all the car alarms off like our bike does and they sound pretty good. Can’t think what the locals will think though as they are heavily into the traditional music and dance. It shows how we have lost that tradition when you see that nearly everyone can dance here….and no, I can’t, have to leave that to Bev.

Some great handicraft places around making some really nice stuff, particularly jewelry. It’s nice that it is made, as so much is from Bolivia or Peru generally.

It is hot here mind, cool breeze occasionally, but in thirties, and they get very little rain, under 120mm a year, except for tonight………

Posted by Simon McCarthy at February 13, 2006 08:31 PM GMT
 
 

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