Roaming the Chilean North with El Fuerte Day 5

Day five was a bit of a rest day. We woke up and ate some brekky with Mathilde, and began to pack up as she had another guest coming at noon. We descended the hill for the last time with our respective backpacks, and made your way to the waterfront. At this point, we had an entire day to kill so, after getting some instructions on which local micro lines would take us to Viña, we grabbed the public transpo. The route in between Valpo and Viña is known for basically being a high speed race between the micro drivers and time, as they are paid for each load of passengers they deliver. This results in going at neck-breaking speeds, often in an overcrowded clunky can of metal usually while trying than on to some form of luggage. Needless to say, Pops enjoyed it as much as I did my first time visiting the twin cities, and before we knew it we had arrived in Plaza Mexico, the main square in Viña. From there we hightailed it back to the Bus Terminal where we paid to store our baggage until late that night when we had our overnight to La Serena. The rest of the day consisted of grabbing ice-cream, hitting the mall, pops getting a hair-cut, grabbing a chela at the beach, and meeting up with Gabbi and Maria at separate times to say goodbye and thanks. After the mall, pops and I made our way down the main strip and found a delicious looking Peruvian restaurant where we decided to eat. In between plates of lamb, seafood and fresh mango juice we did some male bonding, you know talking and the like. We hit up Maria’s apartment one last time and, after realising that we were going to be late, getting in gear and sprinting to the terminal. Once there we retrieved our stuff and waited for the bus to pull up. As we waited, a homeless guy apparently had a bad trip on something and had to be forcibly removed from the building. The double decker arrived around 15 minutes late in true Chilean fashion, and we boarded it. It turned out to be one of the most restless nights of the trip due to the sweltering heat, uncomfortable chairs, and chulas and flaites (chilean terms, look them up) not being interested in sleeping. Needless to say I drifted off into a fitful sleep only to awake what felt like 5 minutes later coming into the twin cities of La Serena and Coquimbo. After we had a near miss where we exited the bus at the wrong stop and had to be warned to board again, we finally made it to Serena at around 5:30. We set up a makeshift shanty town of bags and coats and tried to get some more shut-eye until my friend Mads planned on picking us up. After a search in vain for an outlet to charge our phones, we ate breakfast in a small cafe on the second floor of the station that I knew about from before (this time unfortunately with the trademark chilean nescafe). Mads ended up coming at around 9:30 or 10:00 and we set out on foot to get to know the city. We walked through the main plaza and a natural history museum before we realised that La Serena didn’t have much going on, which is the story of most Chilean cities. It was a strangely overcast day which I wasn’t accustomed to, living in Iquique and everything, so the air was the kind of brisk that I like. After a quick stop in a cafe, we took one a micro to the other town across the bay, Coquimbo. Coquimbo is home to the largest Christian monument in South America called The Cross of The Third Millennium which even beats out Christ the Redeemer from Rio de Janeiro (the huge Jesus statue) by around 200 meters. We first caught a glimpse of the behemoth coming into the city in the morning, but as we approached it the second time, the magnitude was overwhelming. The gigantic structure of concrete and glass was commissioned in 1999 with the blessing from pope Benedict and was completed just two years later in 2001. Boasting a beautiful chapel and museum beneath its expansive base, the 305 meter cross overlooks all of the greater Coquimbo La Serena coastline. Holding two observation rooms in either wing, the view that we witnessed from its heights was amazing. After grabbing a second micro back to the mall outside of the La Serena terminal, we had a quick bite to eat of Doggis, a quintessential chilean fast-food chain. From there we moseyed on over to the bus terminal and bought the next micro tickets into the Elqui Valley, where I had booked a hostel room for us in the small town of Vicuna. After an extremely scenic trip that ran through the california-esque landscape and past a celeste water aquifer we arrived after about an hour. We checked in to our room, part of a charming hostel with a lovely open courtyard, with a wide view of the dusk sky. After a nap and shower each, we sat down to plan the rest of our evening. Originally I planned on taking Pops to see the observatories in the area, but after waiting a while in line and a chat with an official from the company informing me that reservations were necessary, we reluctantly returned to the drawing board. We ended up going to a local ‘picada’ (family owned cheap restaurants, usually with reputations for good food) and having some pineapple and ham pizza. With our night free, we ended up making a run to the local supermarket and picking up some cheese crackers, and grape juice (for which the region is quite famous), and having a late night picnic on the roof of the hostel under the watch of the valley’s overreaching blanket of stars. It was an amazing sight, the most stars I’d seen at one time, breaking the record previously held in Pisco del Elqui.

Chile, Chilean Spanish, Intercambio, Near kidnapping, Northern Chile, Road trip, Valparaiso, Vina del Mar

Roaming the Chilean North with El Fuerte Day 4

We return to our intrepid heroes were we’ve left them,  holed up in a sketchy Valparaiso flat recovering from a near miss with a (probably) rabid dog. How’s that for a dramatic intro? Anyway, on day 4 we woke up and realised that the electricity had been cut during the night and our french host had wandered off to buy a back up propane tank. She got back post haste and we enjoyed a quick breakfast consisting of some home made bread and preserves made from the peaches, apricots, and strawberries from her small balcony garden. We drank our coffee (the best cup I’d had in months, the cost of being a coffee aficionado in a country where they only have instant nescafe) looking out on to the fantastic view of the bay from the quaint little apartment. At approximately 10:30  we descended the windingly confusing set of passageways, alleys and steep streets that made up Santa Cruz hill and made it to the “plano” or flat part of the city, a few blocks away from the waterfront. I had communicated with the  district director of my exchange program (Luis, or as everyone refers to him Pollo) to pick us up to give a quick taste of the sights and sounds, as he lives in the neighbouring city Viña del Mar. We waited for around 10 minutes at a Copec station until a car appeared honking the horn and signalling us. After some quick introductions, Pollo gave us the run down of his game plan for the day. The first place we hit was the iconic Sebastiana, one of the three homes of the Chilean ex ambassador and nobel literature prize winning poet Pablo Neruda. Pollo drove us to the museum and generously paid for our entrance tickets. After traipsing through the four level mansion, we arrived to the top and glanced out the porthole of a window that took up half of the wall. The all encompassing view of all five cities that make up the greater area of the Valparaiso Megalopolis spread out before us was breathtaking and yes I do realise that I write a lot about breathtaking views). Our next stop was Cerro Alegre and a few other traditional shops and street fairs. Afterwards, our ever resourceful guide Pollo brought us to one of the most classically Valpo sites, the funiculars used to reach the view point perched overlooking the Victory Plaza (home to Emporio la Rosa, one of the top ranked ice cream parlours in the world). After riding the creaking trolley that seemed about to break from its cables at any moment, we reached the top, where Pollo was waiting to bring us to his home to have lunch. We made the 15 minute trip between the twin cities with Pollo and eventually ended up at his apartment complex. Once there, I was reunited with my Brazilian friend Bia who was staying with Pollo’s family as part of a second generation internship exchange through Rotary, and we sat down to eat more ceviche for pops, followed by no doubt some of the most delicious steak I’ve had in Chile ( and that’s not hyperbole, normally chilean meat is cooked like leather). After conversing together for a few hours with Bia and I acting as my dad’s translators (Bia had lived in Colorado for a year through Rotary in 2012/13). I met Pollo and Brenda’s two daughters for the first time, and after we had finished up with the meal, Brenda took us all to the mall where we had planned to meet up with Maria and Gabi.


View from the flat

After a small disaster involving Maria realising her phone had been robbed, we continued along our remade plan of going along the boardwalk to see the beach (Maria is a travelling champ, literally the best person to travel with). Grabbing a a few nonalcoholic mojitos among other things, we walked along the beach until we got to Maria’s apartment to recharge our phones and use the restroom. Once there, my dad had the opportunity to meet Maria’s mother, whose been like an aunt to me throughout my stay here in Chile. We made plans to eat later and went on our way. We walked through the downtown and waterfront, seeing the Castle and the Flower Clock along the way, and dropping Gabi off at her flat. We arrived at the Bus Terminal of Viña where we purchased bus tickets to the city of La Serena for the following night. We scheduled to eat dinner at a pizza parlour called Sergio’s Pizza and began t0 make our way towards our destination. We ended up grabbing a micro and barely mad it in time to meet up with Bia, Maria’s mother, and her best friend. At this time, a huge wave of exhaustion overcame me as we sat eating smoked pizza and watching the Oscar’s. After enjoying dinner, we made a stop by the Casino which is found about ten minutes away from the pizzeria walking. After Maria tried her luck at the roulette wheel for a few turns (she definitely had some mojo).

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My father and I decided it would be best if we turned in for the night. Because of where our AirBnB was, we had to take a cab by ourselves as everyone else was going in the opposite direction.  One thing anyone who has traveled abroad can tell you is that it doesn’t matter if you speak the language like a native, if you look remotely western you will hear all the broken english that is humanly possible. Our cabby was a friendly fellow named Golanzo who was a bit overconfident with his english skills and as it turns out his directions because he ended up dropping us off in the completely opposite side of Valparaiso. Now, normally this isn’t a problem, but a common known fact in Chile is that Valpo is not where you want to galavanting around after the sun goes down, especially if your a gringo. I’m not sure if you’ve all seen that scene in a New Hope where Ben Kenobi and Luke Skywalker walk into the Mos Isla Cantina surrounded by a ton of angry aliens? Well, you guys might not be quite the Starwars buffs as I am but that basically consists of lots of hostile looks and eyeballing, and that was definitely the atmosphere walked through. Anyway, as we made our way around, I decided that our safest bet was to try and find a taxi but there weren’t any making rounds at the time (around 2:00 in the morning) so I ended up approaching a group of some rough looking colectivo drivers smoking in a circle. After asking if hey were open for business, one of the chaps barked back an affirmation and we piled in and pulled out. For a solid 5 or 6 minutes I didn’t rule out the possibility that we we’re being kidnapped until I started seeing some familiar landscape. I hurriedly paid and we embarked back up the steep hill to finally get back to our lodgings. By the time we arrived it was around 2:45, and we immediately collapsed. Although there are like two more days I need to talk about for this “Part 2” to be finished, Day number four of the trip was an extremely busy one. I’ll be adding in the other two days to this tomorrow.


Ready for round two with the rabid dogs

Chile, Northern Chile, Santiago, Uncategorized

Roaming the Chilean North with El Fuerte Days 1-3

On January 25th as the clock draws near to 10:30 AM I wait with my host aunt and cousin at the mouth of the incoming international flights. Soon I catch a glimpse of my very own father exiting with his only article of luggage, a black Rick Steve’s backpack. Excitedly I attract his attention by waving and I wrap him up in a hug. It has been the longest period of time in my life without seeing him in person. We catch up on events as I enthusiastically give him my take on various Chilean regularities that seem unusual to him, such as COPEC gas stations with pump attendants, and the madness of the motorways. The night before I had stayed awake until three, catching a transfer to the airport in time for my five o’clock flight to Santiago. Needless I had not slept much over the past 24 hours. We arrived at my aunt’s apartment in commune Ñuñoa, where we each had the chance to rest up a bit. My dad had had his set of adventures arriving as well, originally having his flight out of O’Hare in Chicago cancelled, and frantically having to rent a car and drive to Indianapolis through a blizzard in order to make the replacement flight. Later in the afternoon my cousin Kevin took us out to see some of the sights and smells that I had experienced over my previous stays in Santiago. We visited the sky platform of the Costanera Center, over 300 meters tall. Afterwards we trekked up Cerro Santa Lucia and visited the Plaza de Armas. We ended our first day in Plaza Ñuñoa, along the the Irrarasabal Strip. We sat down and ate in the same local pub where Kevin took me my first night ever in Santiago. The feelings of de ja vu and nostalgia were strong. We wrapped up the night watching Billy Joel sing at the Vina Festival on TV and trying pisco’s with coke.

The second day was in Santiago. The night before I had ordered a van tour of the city. We went throughout the various districts of Santiago, the tour guide barely keeping up with my father’s numerous questions about infrastructure, pollution, and zoning laws. We passed by La Moneda (the presidential seat) and the museum underneath, as well as the Hippodrome (where the tour guide slipped me her number), the fish market, and were able to make it about half way up Cerro San Cristobal. After a quick lunch in the apartment, my cousins Kevin and Javiera dropped us off amidst bickering at the Causiño-Macul Winery where we had reservations for a bike tour. After an informative tour of the vineyards itself and inside the old winery (with wine breaks sprinkled in between) we finished with a nice wine tasting. We lingered a bit afterwards, chatting with our guides Lu (from Berkley), Mauricio (a native Santaguiño), and Ray (a Chinese PR man on sabbatical in South America). Afterwards we invited the family out to eat Peruvian food in the Plaza. My dad tried his first ceviche, which he assured me was an amazing experience. Following a mix up with another family and a table, we returned to the apartment where I was able to buy bus tickets for Valparaiso for the next day.

And on the Third Day god said let there be Valpo. And there was Valpo. After an early morning escapade involving the multiple micros (small versatile buses) the metro (subway) and a taxi, Kevin guided us to our end of the line destination Chaparitos with enough time to grab a sandwich before our bus arrived. We stocked up on a few snacks, stowed our baggage, and settled in for the two hour ride to the port city of Valparaiso. It was amazing to travel with someone new. Hearing his fresh point of view of things so unfamiliar to him yet so ingrained in my life was extremely interesting. It reminded me of the bus trip from the Santiago to the Rotary orientation in Viña my first day in Chile. On the way we chewed the fat about the state of politics in the states (Feel the Bern!) and so on. I set up a meeting with Maria and our friend Gabi at the Valpo bus terminal. I had already rented a Bed and Breakfast nook in the upper part of the Santa Cruz hill with a young french women I found on AirBnB. While waiting to meet the chicas, I accidentally bumped into a friend from Rotex named Beatriz and her boyfriend from Rotex. It hit me what a small world it really is. Around twenty minutes after we arrived we met up with the girls and initiated our quest to find the extremely confusingly located apartment. After taking a trolley car, and an exhausting trek up hill, we finally made it to the quaint little cranny, dropped off our stuff and went on our way, exploring Valpo with the girls acting as guides. We saw Plaza Sotomayor, Plaza de la Victoria, made our way through various street fairs, ate cotton candy, and took a boating excursion in the harbour. I the sight of all the hills lit up with little lights as dusk set in was something to behold. We attempted some Titanic impersonations, but nothing really did it justice. It was extremely peaceful. We then went to Subida Ecuador, the most famous bar strip in Valpo. We stayed there for a few hours, witnessed a street marching band, which was incredible, and had a few laughs. After grabbing a cab back to our apartment, we realised we would have to climb most of the hill on foot. Thats when the most savage thing happened to us. As we passed a group of señoras drinking whiskey out of tin cups in the middle of an under construction road (it was not the most up right barrio) I was ambushed out of the corner of my eye bye a burly black that ripped into my left calf. I hightailed it after that and it wasn’t until we were both in our room that I noticed he had nabbed my dad as well. In the same spot on the leg and everything. The craziest part is that the only thing that protected us from his saliva was the fact we both wore jeans, although the force of the bite was still enough to break the skin. We almost wore shorts on account of Maria telling us it would be hot! Talk about a close call.

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Very few things beat backpacking around the world with your dad. More for another day.

Intercambio, Iquique, Microatia, Sonríe con Rotary, Surgery, Uncategorized

Sonrie con Rotary

The week before my 18th birthday I had the opportunity to be part of something incredibly special. The week before I had been staying in Tocopilla, a small coastal town around 3 hours from Iquique, to celebrate the birthday of my Belgian friend, Luna. While there I was contacted by my clubs YEO (youth exchange officer). He told me that a group of North American surgeons would be coming to Iquique as part of a Rotary sanctioned program called Sonrie con Rotary that provides free surgeries to those in the community who don’t have the means to afford one. Specifically to treat Microtia (individuals born without external ear cartilage), cleft pallets, and to perform mastectomies. About a week later as I was studying in my house, he reached out to me again and asked if I would like to take part in the program. As the program was through Rotary, my club and their Interact counterpart were present to attend to the doctors in between operations. I ended up agreeing to volunteer Wednesday and Friday. The first day I arrived at 8:00 to set up the refreshments. Around an hour later I met Tom, a nurse from Ohio. We struck up a conversation and hit it off over him being a Villanova graduate (a school I’m interested), and the fact he lived in Spain for a year (something else I plan on doing). He informed me a bit more about the program and I learned it was comprised 100% by volunteers, each of which had paid there own town trip tickets to and from Chile, just to perform these operations for free. After chewing the fat during his break he invited me to watch a surgery take place, and to serve as a translator. I suited up in scrubs, a mask, and booties and followed tom into the operating room. In there I met the rest of his team, including his father, a fellow Ohioan and Notre Dame fan, a doctor from Iowa, one from Nevada, and a Chilean surgeon from Viña del Mar who spoke French and English as well as his native Spanish. During the day I witnessed multiple ear reconstructions, accompanied several American doctors to help translate patient interviews, and communicated with the nurses. At 2:30 my shift as a volunteer ended and I was replaced by some other Interact reinforcements. I repeated that the second day as well, gaining ever more experience and learning about the good work that they were involved in. These types of surgeries are often not covered by Chile’s healthcare program because they are deemed as non-threatening cosmetic surgeries. Without the good people of this programs, these impoverished Children would have no other option but to not receive help. The way the microtia treatment works is a two year process. Since Sonrie con Rotary (Smile with Rotary) comes to Iquique one time annually, normally the first surgery is to make an incision in the torso and extract cartilage from the ribs. It is then implanted surrounding the auditory orifice in the form of an ear. The following year, they then take a skin graft from the patients leg and use it to elevate the cartilage from the head and fully form the new year. All the patients are children from 5-14 years old. It was an experience like no other. I was literally right next to live operations, and helped in the process (don’t worry, I wasn’t wielding any scalpels, just running errands and translating for the doctors). It was truly inspiring.

Camping, Chile, Exchange, Intercambio, Pisco, Road trip, Stars, Study Abroad, Travel, Uncategorized, Valle del Elqui

Valle del Elqui

I write this from a micro (bus) on the way back to La Serena after a weekend of camping organized by Rotex in the 4th region of chile. The trip started for me on Thursday, when Kristin Warner, the other gringo in Iquique, and I caught a 2 o’clock bus to La Serena. The journey in total is about twenty hours long using public transportation, so we spent the night on board, with only two stops in Antofagasta and Tocopilla. We arrived at the terminal at 9:15, where we met up with some exchangers who were already waiting there. After we ate some breakfast, the rest of the students and Rotex staff showed up. We then stopped by a supermarket called Jumbo, (think Chilean target), to stock up on supplies for our approaching excursion. We then took a micro into the valley. Although I’ve seen a number of awe-inspiring sights since I arrived here– from Santiago’s high rises to the raw beauty of Torres del Paine– I couldn’t help but be astounded. From our micro we were greeted by stark sandy colored mountains contrasted with the vibrant green olive fields below. We arrived in the dilapidated but charming town square (which showcased a brightly colored yet slightly peeling church) of the pueblo Pisco del Elqui and from there walked to the outskirts of town. Named after the strong alcoholic drink, Pisco is situated next to two major distilleries, making the valley one of the primary producers in the country. We ended up in Rancho Rodriguez, where we would spend the weekend camping. The night featured a fiesta around a two story bonfire and was augmented by an artificial lagoon equipped with a broken down dock, that doubled as a diving board. On Saturday, we took a tour of the lesser of the two distilleries (complete with free samples of rosé and dry pisco). Afterwards we grabbed some lunch at a restaurant in the town, where I had the best goats cheese empanada I’ve ever had. That is, the best empanada I’d ever tasted, it just happened to be a goats cheese one. We then all went to a nearby river where everyone spent some time swimming or taking in some sun. After that, we returned to the campsite again where we passed the time swimming and preparing food. At eleven the bonfire started and a DJ started. Throughout the campgrounds there were about 200 campers, counting us 26. As the night grew on, more people came out to dance. Although the trip had been packed with plenty beautiful things, nothing compared to the stars I saw on that second night. Millions of pinpricks of light clustered together in an ocean of profoundly dark blue. After making some conversation with some Chileans on vacation, as well as my Swiss friend Alex finding other Swiss vacationers, I went to bed. Now, as I ride out of the valley, facing 22 hours more of traveling before reaching home, I’m struck with the idea of how fast time passes when your not paying attention. In the words of Ferris Bueller, “if you don’t stop and look around once in a while you might miss it”. For me, and for anyone else on exchange, I feel this is especially true. I remember my first days in Chile like they happened yesterday, and I’ve already finished my fifth month here. More to come!

Eating cereal out of old cans (what happens when you are very underprepared)

 Hayden and I in a distillery

 Sunset in the campsight

My German friend Johannes and I at the river

 Inside a distillery

Catching a micro from the ranch

 Leaving the valley by micro



September 16
One thing I can say because of my exchange is that I lived through one of the worlds strongest earthquakes. This year in September during it’s independence day celebrations, Chile was struck by a grade 8.9 earthquake. My experience went something like this. I was in a traditional independence day fair (called a ramada) hosted by my school. My Rotex counselor Maria and two other exchange students were there as well, Kristin from the US and Hanna from Austria. The point of the fair was for each class to set up booth and sell traditional food in order to raise money for the school. My class had a stand for choripan, which is exactly what it sounds like. Grilled sausage inside of toasted bread served with mayo or pebre, home made spicy salsa. During the ramada I was pressured into selling kisses by my class, and later after the school inspector deemed that inappropriate, I sold pictures. The earthquake hit right as I was videotaping my classmate Valentina participating in our schools cueca competition. (Cueca is the national dance of Chile). Now while I said that I survived this earthquake, it’s more like I happened to be in the same country as when there was a big earthquake, because where I live in Chile, we felt nothing. What we did get was alerts on hour phones by the government every three minutes, and public service announcements encouraging people to evacuate to the city’s tsunami safe zone. Basically when this started, everyone in the fair went on panic mode and there was a crush to get to the door. I remember my host mom, who had been helping grill chorizos, finding me and the girls and valiantly leading us out to her car through the crowd of people. I would say that there was pandemonium on the streets but I may be exaggerating. after navigating through people sprinting through the roads on foot, we met up with the rest of my host family at our predesignated tsunami spot at the futbol stadium. After that it was decided that we were going to split up and sleep in the tsunami safe zone, since our house is too close to the beach in case a tsunami did happen. The girls ended up staying at Hanna’s house, and I slept with Maria’s family. And that’s my Chilean terremoto story!IMG_3227

Alexi Sanchez, Asado, Brasil, Chile, Copa America, Futbol, La Roja

Brasil contra Chile

October 9th 2015

Today was my first time watching futbol with Latinos. I must say it lived up to the hype. The game was set to start at 8:30, so Tio Cristian had told everyone to invite friends over to watch the game. I invited Maxi, and Labra, primo Cristian invited four of his friends from la u, even Eduardo (one of the older tenants who lives with us) invited people over. It ended up being around 12 guys eating asado (again) and watching La Roja take on Brasil. Obviously it was set to be a good game. The runner up and past host of the world cup vs the champions of La Copa America. It’s funny, before I came to Chile I had no interest in the sport futbol, I thought it was too slow paced and low-scoring,but since my arrival but its grown on me a ton. The start of the game was fast paced and resulted in a lot of goal attempts from Chile. There was a slow back and forth until at the end of the first half Chile scored. It’s awesome to be in a room and watch it just explode when the ball goes in the net. GOOOOOOOL!!!!!!!! The second half was more of the same until Alexi Sanchez finished it with a second goal. Needless to say, the atmosphere afterwards was electric. It was a quintessential experience of Chilean life.