Friday, May 20, 2011

May 20, 2011

My departure looms. The sense of “be here now” is being replaced by “get this done.” Additional gifts to buy. Airport transport to arrange. Beginning to pack all the stuff into my suitcases. I thought I’d left enough room… sigh.

Wednesday we were at the Trewhela school. Once more I was struck by the class differences between the schools. Chile does not have a very good public education system, so I’m told. So there are lots of private schools. The difference between the rich and the poor here is big. But no bigger than in the United States. I will leave this country with a profound sense that we ought to be doing better.

Of course the name “Trewhela” imparts a definite sense of English aristocracy. There are pictures of the founders on the wall, two women, English blue bloods both. This is a British School, modeling its education on the British System. I’ve been in several British Schools here, as well as German Schools and North American Schools. The German Schools obviously teach German, but other than that it’s not clear to me exactly what the differences are.

Trewhela has a pretty strong sense of discipline, the teachers were actively engaged in keeping the kids in some kind of order. The shows went well. I got to meet the male headmaster, a very pleasant New Zealander who stayed after and had a long chat with me. Carol had to leave mid show to get some errands done for Dream On, so I was on my own to get back. Trewhela is actually pretty close to our apartment so I decided to walk to the metro rather than take a taxi. I came back to the apartment hoping to get some additional gift shopping done. I was able to find a bookstore that could sell me a dictionary and I picked up a couple of Spanish Language editions of some Agatha Christie novels. Carol doesn’t like sushi, so I left her to her own devices and had a final meal at Akbar.

Thursday was an early rise day. We took a long taxi ride to an even wealthier neighborhood and I did a couple of very fun shows at San Benito. Somebody told us that there had been a fire at Los Dominios that morning. I’d been thinking about going back there for a couple of purchases. The English levels at Trewhela and San Benito were definitely higher than what I’d encountered in Antofagasta. It was nice to be able to communicate with words. The students here are very affectionate. Aside from the charming kiss on the cheek stuff, there’s just much less inhibition about touching here. It’s really nice. I signed more autographs, on paper this time, and answered a bunch of good questions. One of the girls called out as she was leaving, “Your wife is really lucky!” It’s just the kind of lift that a sensitive artistic ego like mine needs.

I came back to the apartment and crashed. I wasn’t feeling very well so I took a hot bath. Carol, not realizing how I was feeling, went to considerable effort to make a nice farewell dinner for me. I managed to make my way through it, but I could feel the chills setting in. I took another hot bath while Carol got some aspirin for me. I took some and went to bed.

My final school was Nido de Aguilas (Eagle’s Nest) International School. It’s an expat school, with lots of ambassador’s kids. The compound is enormous. Lots of money and high security. The English level is very high so I was able to do some sophisticated stories. I woke up that morning feeling horrible, but as usual, I was able to rally myself for the actual performances. The middle school headmaster tried to recruit me to their string department. What an adventure that would be, leaving everything familiar that we know and spending a year or two in a different country. Perhaps it will bear more thought later, but right now the thought of staying here just makes me tired. I’m ready to be in some clean air, out of the city, and back with my friends and family.

This afternoon I did some more packing and lots of napping. I’ve surrendered my local cell phone and hotel keys. In a few hours we’ll take a transport to the airport and I’ll be on my way home. I’m feeling a bit better after the naps. But I’ll be taking the aspirin with me just in case.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

May 17, 2011

We took a transport van to the airport instead of a taxi. While we were waiting for it I took some shots of the front of our hotel and the mega construction project that’s going on just across the street from us. Transports are basically big taxis that pick up a number of passengers and therefore cost less. There can be a considerable amount of waiting around for the passengers. During one stop I glanced through the van window and noticed a lingerie liquidation store. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

The Santiago airport isn’t really very big. But they do have a nice display of luggage art. I got a window seat on the plane and was able to get some aerial views of Santiago and the surrounding mountains. You can really see the mountains blocking and holding the clouds back. From that high, the mountains looked like black islands on a white sea.

We arrived in Antofagasta around 6:00-ish. It’s an even smaller airport surrounded by, well…I know that they filmed “Lord of the Rings” in New Zealand, but really, for the Mordor scenes, they could have given serious consideration to the surrounding hills of Antofagasta. It is brown, brown, brown. And there is nothing, nothing, nothing growing anywhere until you get to the city proper, where people have endeavored to plant green things and provide other amenities of survivable habitats. The water appears to be trucked in.

We were housed on the 6th floor of another ocean front hotel. This one was clearly aimed at the well heeled set. Our “room” was a suite with pricey furniture, marble floors, and floor to ceiling windows overlooking the ocean and a nearby harbor filled with “artesanal” boats. The swank amenities were marred somewhat by bizarre shortcomings. The decorative globes for the ceiling lights were housed in the chic cabinet set aside for the dinner plates, so the ceiling lights were bare bulbs. We tried to put the covers on but there were no attaching nuts. The towel racks had, for some reason, been removed from the capacious bathroom, although the less attractive mounting hardware was still there. The toilet paper roll fell off the first time Carol tried to use it. Even less charming, there was no hot water the first day.

Well, but the views were stunning. The Pacific was pitching rollers into the shore with a leisurely power that expressed awe and tranquility at the same time. They were huge waves. Big enough to attract surfers at other times of the year. I know that we Midwesterners like to think of the Great Lakes – and especially Lake Superior – as inland oceans. But really, folks. There’s no comparison. Duluth does not have a Tsunami Evacuation Route.

It was late and we decided to head for the nearest Supermercado to pick up an in-the-room dinner. A couple of blocks away there was a huge Walmart type place that had a depressingly familiar Wallmart type selection of foods. The supermercados of Santiago are really nothing more than Seven-Eleven’s on steroids. They are grocery stores designed to incur the least expense possible in a high, downtown, rent zone. Antofagasta is a mining town. Apparently, one of the wealthiest in Chile. The store, at any rate, was enormous. The shopping carts were housed on the lower level, below the store. You brought them up sloped, power walk ways. With increasingly dead brains we shopped for a passable supper, waited in an enormous line and by the time we got back to the hotel we were famished, and exhausted. I’d been thinking about trying to get in my South Pacific swim that day. But by the time we were settled it was too dark and cold. I decided to try for the next day. I knew it would be my last chance. Santiago is nowhere near the ocean and we were scheduled to leave on Tuesday, almost immediately after my last performance. I consoled myself with taking a night picture of Antofagasto.

Ah, but the next day was my heaviest day of the tour. Two schools, five performances. The first school, Colegio de Chañares, was right next to a military installation. It seemed that I had finally found a school that took discipline issues seriously. But the kids were actually pretty rowdy and I found myself facing students with almost no English ability whatsoever. To make matters worse, the performance was in a freshly built concrete room with the acoustic qualities of Mammoth Cave. I’ve played in lots of cavernous rooms before. But never one so small. My voice was boomy even without a sound system. I got through the performances. The school was happy and I was hoping for something better at the next school, El Instituto Chileno Norteamericano. While we were waiting for the taxi to take us there I noticed that even the hills of Antofagasto are not free of graffiti.

El Instituto Chileno Norteamericano is an older school, the level of English was marginally better, and the performance space was… (wait for it…) the playground! (Rim shot!) Another first. I can tell that I’m ready to be home because my appetite for new experiences is waning.

Among the vague feelings of excitement and adventure that I was harboring before I left for Chile, I had two concrete hopes for this trip. One was to swim in the South Pacific and the other was to see the stars of the southern hemisphere. Santiago, Viña del Mar, and La Serena have all been too bright for stargazing. I could have gotten a swim in at the beach in La Serena, but I didn’t have my suit with me. There wasn’t really a beach in Viña del Mar, and Santiago doesn’t have any oceanfront at all. So my hopes were pinned on Antofagasta. But the day turned cloudy, so no stars that night. And by the time we got back to the hotel I just couldn’t face the idea of hitting the water in the cold and the dark. We ate at the hotel restaurant and crashed. I gave up on the swim and decided to try for an airplane view of the stars during the overnight flight back to The States.

From our hotel window in the morning you could see some kind of vulture hanging out on the light poles near the hotel. I tried not to think about that might portend and turned my attention to our final Antofagasta school, The British School of Antofagasta. It had the best English comprehension of the three Antofagasta Schools, and certainly the best performance space. The surprise was that we only had two programs to do instead of three. That meant we would be finished early enough to head back to the hotel with plenty of time before our flight. Time enough for a SWIM IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC!!! Singing a full throated version of “Bali Hai,” (OK, I’m on the other side of the Pacific, but still…) I changed into my new swim suit and hit the beach. The day had turned sunny and balmy. The man at the desk had assured me that the beach was indeed open, in the way that you might assure a schizophrenic that Yes, of course he is the King of Burma. The beach was in a constructed lagoon area, which helped to cut down on the wave action. This was a good thing because those suckers were coming in huge. Even with the seawall break the waves were big enough. The water was cold, but nothing like a polar plunge. I hobnobbed with the waves for fifteen or twenty minutes, ignoring the pointed stares of the passersby and the brief appearance of a police car. A troop of uniformed elementary kids on some kind of an outing ignored me and went on with their sand constructions. I came out and baked in the sun for a bit. One stroller asked me: “¿Como está el agua?” “Bien fresca!” I replied. I felt great!

Then it was back to the hotel and a change into traveling clothes for our flight back to Santiago. The Antofagasta airport is, predictably small, but there were some surprising passengers in the terminal. Both Carol and I were glad to get back to our familiar digs in Santiago. I have three more schools to do. It’s hard to believe it’s coming to an end.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

May 15, 2011

It was nice to have a Saturday morning. No alarm and an easy pace for what passes for breakfast here: a cup of tea or coffee, maybe a roll and some juice. I’ve gotten to where I’m not really all that hungry in the mornings anyway. This was our day for sight seeing and shopping. Carol had heard about another castle that which was right across from an artisan market that we heard was a bit cheaper that the one I went to on my first weekend here. The castle was only a few subway stops away from our hotel. It was an easy and (need I say?) crowded ride.

The craft market wasn’t open yet when we got there, so we decided to try out the castle first. I couldn’t get over how similar it was to the first castle that I’d visited with Alberto. There was a statue to Neptune, a touristy shop full of indigenous tchachkies, statues commemorating the great patriots of Chile, a garden dedicated to Darwin… Hey, wait a minute! It was the same castle!! Oh well, Carol hadn’t visited it yet so I got to be a tour guide again, get another tour of Castlillo Hidalgo and take some more pictures.

There was a statue dedicated by the local Rotary Club, which my friend Dayle is very involved in. So that went into the camera. After that it was just a matter of taking a second look. There was plenty there for that. The graffiti, for example. I hadn’t noticed it as much before. I was especially impressed by a tree that seemed to be popular with the local amantes. The really cool thing about the castle is the contrast it provides with the surrounding city. There were statues and stone and wood carvings galore with almost no explanation of what they were. One of them was a sculpted mural of a tragic family, trudging with their child and their dog through some dark era of Chile’s past. Again, no explanation. I hope they’re OK.

The omni-present dogs were there. At one point a small pack seemed to be following a couple of the security officers. I think they were drawn to the sense of importance imparted by the uniforms. There was a certain business like swagger to the dog’s stride. But I don’t think they were really connected. I got a shot of one of the canons this time, before it shot me. And the fountains had water in them for a change. After a downhill walk down a dead end path and a much longer uphill walk back, we discovered an elevator that takes you down to street level. Since we didn’t find it until we were already up, we took it down.

By then the craft market was open and we headed in, committed to putting a really earnest effort into being tourists. There were dozens and dozens of little stalls offering musical instruments; Lapislazuli carvings and jewelry; woven scarves, jackets, panchos and what-have-you; food kiosks; leather workers; in short, just about everything you would imagine. There was a cat on the roof of one of the stalls watching the world go by. It seemed disconcerted that I had noticed it. Carol and I both bought gifts and souvenirs and then headed out to walk around some of the Santiago Barrios.

We’d been directed to a nearby barrio that was supposed to have some older houses in it. On the way there we saw a church displaying a really graphic example of as yet un-repaired earthquake damage. We found the old neighborhood, La Republica. But it just didn’t measure up to the charm of Valparaiso. It did feature an old fire-station that’s still in use that was interesting. The reflection from the windows made for a somewhat confusing photo.

Carol wanted to go to Los Dominicos, the much pricier craft market that Alberto took me to on my first Sunday in Santiago. So I got to be a tour guide again for another visit to a place I’d already been to. Like my other second glances, it was well worth it. Los Dominicos is located on an old Monastery. Many of the craft stalls are housed in the spare, small rooms originally used as dormitories for the monks. It was kind of fun to imagine the ghosts of all those monastic acolytes waking from a long sleep in their once spare and Spartan rooms and wandering through the now colorful stalls and kiosks, alive with the sights, sounds and smells of a busy and modern market.

This second time around Carol and I found a whole area of the market that Alberto and I had missed before, and I got to snap some shots of the entrance, and some of the birds. Compared to the one we visited earlier it’s a much more expensive place to get your tourist fix. But it has a lot of charm. There’s an artificial waterway that courses through the whole place that, added to all the trees, shrubs and potted plants gives the place a really lovely ambience. I noticed some fruits growing on one of the palm trees there that I hadn’t seen until then.

We had supper at home again. Carol loves tea eggs and is anxious to bring the recipe home to Argentina. After supper I went up onto the roof and took some night shots of Santiago. Then we both did a little bit of packing for the next day’s trip to Antofagasta.

Friday, May 13, 2011

May 12, 2011

A year ago today Mom died. I’ve been aware, on this trip, of the gap between what I was doing a year ago: attending to Mom in her hospice room; and what I’m doing now: touring Chile. One of the things that I’m thinking about is identity. Here and now I am a sponge trying to absorb the new culture and language around me. The idea of being myself is useless. Either I’m being an entertainer, which is only a very small part of who I am, or I’m trying to learn about the world around me. The idea of just being myself, in this context seems absurd. To whom?

Mom was so good at being herself. It’s an enviable skill. I’ve been thinking about her throughout this trip. And wondering what she would think of it. Right now I’m on a bus headed for Viña del Mar – for the second time. The day is pretty much free and is giving me plenty of time to reminisce and philosophize. Other than checking into our new hotel (thankfully, a different one than the last time), we have no obligations. Carol and I are hoping to catch Pablo Neruda’s house in nearby Valparaiso this time.

Yesterday I played at El Colegio Aleman de Santiago. It was the first time that I arrived at a school which had students with signs waiting for me. Their enthusiasm was quite touching. A lot of times I leave time at the end of my performances to answer questions. One that keeps coming up is: “Are you glad Bin Laden’s dead?” or “How do you feel about Bin Laden dying?” My stock answer is “I’m sorry that there are people in the world with so much hate in them.” But I’d love to have a more complex conversation with somebody (in English). My sister and I talked about it a little when we Skyped. It’s a little surreal being out of the country and at such a distance from the news and goings on of home. Here I’m more aware of the news of Chile (or I have been for the last few days) and of South America in general. Once again I was flooded with a longing to be home.

I’ve often been asked for autographs after the show. This happens at home too. Kids will bring me the most miniscule pieces of paper and ask me to sign them. Lord knows what happens to them. Here, I’ve been signing notebook paper, paper towels, hands and, at El Colegio Aleman de Santiago, arms. That’s another first for me. One kid wanted me to sign his stomach. But I drew the line. I’ve gained six new face book friends from Chile so far, all of them students.

Friday, May 13, 2011
Wednesday night I went out in search of the ingredients for tea eggs, which would make the perfect snack food or breakfast here. I managed to find an herb shop to grab the star anise, and a Chinese owned quickmart-type place where I was able to land some very expensive soy sauce. We already have the tea so I bought a half dozen eggs and laid in. I had to put them in the fridge during the trip to Viña del Mar but I brought them out again when we got back and they’re steeping now. They might be ready to eat when Carol and I have another stay at home supper.

We took a taxi to the bus terminal and were able to see some more protests and riot police. Things seemed to be a bit calmer this time, but I had my camera ready. The return visit to Viña del Mar was fun in an unexpected kind of way. This is Carol’s first trip to Chile. So I’ve been able to be a tour guide for places that I’ve already been to, which includes Viña del Mar. The new, improved hotel that Alberto booked did have a better shower, bed and breakfast. So that helped. And the smell of recently applied insecticide in the room reassured me that bedbugs would not be a problem. And what with the razor wire around the wall of the courtyard in back of my room I was pretty sure that we wouldn’t be attacked by anarchist guerillas. So I slept with a real sense of security.

It’s all in how you look at it. In the courtyard there was also an orange tree with ripening fruit on it. Flowers in another tree and planted next to my room. There was a kind of dingy old world feel to the place that had it’s own charm. Even extending to the tired looking but very sweet dog who seemed to live in our section of the compound.

We checked into the hotel and almost immediately left again, taking a local bus – they’re called micros here – to head for neighboring Valparaiso in our second attempt to tour La Sebastiana, one of Pablo Neruda’s three Chilean homes. Faithful readers will remember that last time I tried to visit Pablo I discovered that the home – now a museum – was closed on Mondays, the very day of the week I was trying to visit. A bus took us from Viña del Mar to Valparaiso and then we took another Ascensor to what I thought would be the neighborhood of La Sebastiana. But wouldn’t you know it, we ended up in Cerro Alegre only a few blocks from good old Tio Pato’s heladeria. Clearly, since it was going to be another long but charming walk to the museum, and ice cream cone was called for. I had Tsunami which was the tiramisu flavor.

It was fun pointing out the sites to Carol and had eyes enough to be able to point out some new ones to me. Like the mural painted to commemorate the tsunami that hit after the most recent earthquake. And the aloe plants in the yard (with flowers!). And the good ship Esmerelda which was apparently lying in dock the time Alberto and I came, but which we completely missed. Not this time!

I got some more pictures of homes and streets and we had a very pleasant walk to the museum which was… Open! Yay!! We had a wonderful time looking through all the rooms. Those little tour recording things were available. I could choose between English and Spanish and went with Spanish which I was able to comprehend pretty well. They didn’t allow picture taking inside the house which was a real shame because there were some wonderful things there, including a mosaic map of South America made of stones on the wall, a picture of Walt Whitman who Neruda admired, distinctive artwork and of course his poetry. I just love Neruda’s poetry. We finished our visit to La Sebastiana and began our trek back towards our hotel. Rather than walk all the way down hill – which is what Alberto and I did the last time – Carol and I were able to ask at La Sebastiana for directions to the nearest Micro. It turned out to be quite near: Micro “O,” which we could catch on Avenida Alemania, just up the hill from La Sebastiana.

I want to take a moment to thank George Westinghouse who, on March 5, 1872, patented a safe air brake. I owe him a lot.

I now know that one has not fully experienced life until one has taken Micro bus “O” down the narrow winding streets of one of the Cerros of Valpariso. Really, I could have saved myself the fee for the zip line at Cascada de las Animas. This bus ride was much more exciting and quite a bit longer. Indeed, there was never any sense that the ride was ending too quickly. On the contrary, there were several points in the ride down that it occurred to me that no hill could possibly be THAT long. The slope was breathtakingly steep. The turns were hairpin. There were sudden, unexpected stops when pedestrians on the street would lift their fingers indicating that they wanted to be picked up – surely they were kidding, I thought, they’re much more likely to be killed – or when stop signs would spring wholesale from the ground, immediately after an impossibly sharp turn.

Once we finished the life changing down hill ride (and elegantly eliminated any need to ever ride a roller coaster ever, ever again) we headed toward Viña del Mar. With shaky knees, we got off the Micro and walked towards our hotel. On the way we spied a man hauling a whole line of bicycles up the hill. I tried to imagine riding a bike up these hills, then began to imagine riding one down these hills. I stopped thinking about it right away. We went out for pizza, got back in time for me to Skype with my family again and crashed.

This morning it was the MacKay school at which there were three of four quadruplets who posed with me for a shot. It wasn’t clear where the fourth was. I did the shows and we made our way back to Santiago. This weekend, my last in Santiago, begins. Tomorrow Carol and I are headed for another castle and market. Sunday it’s the plane to Antofagasta.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

May 10, 2011

One should always start out entries like these by saying right up front: I’m fine. My tour guide, Carol, is fine. Really, I don’t think we were ever in any real danger. And it’s a bit silly, when you come down to it. If I wasn’t fine, I wouldn’t be writing this. That said, it was my first experience with tear gas, and so perhaps deserves a reassuring note at the beginning. I’ve been using the phrase “Every day another adventure!” here a lot.

Monday morning in La Serena we took a taxi to the school we were doing, El Colegio Ingles Catolico. Seems like a long way to go for one school, but that’s the way it got planned. We followed a big, American style pickup truck for a while with an “Obama/Biden” sticker on it. Another photo op missed. And one of many for the day. I had no idea Obama had a campaign office down here.

El Colegio Ingles Catolico was, as usual, completely different from every other school we’ve been to. The auditorium was a large unheated room on the other side of a wall that separated the auditorium from the (very noisy) lunch room. As usual the rooms are practically outside and there is no heat. It was freezing. The kids all wear uniforms, which are multi-layer extravaganzas that do the job of keeping them warm in any room they happen to be in. I’ve taken to wearing my polar plunge hoodie most of the time, with an outer jacket as backup.

The shows went reasonably well as have nearly all the shows I’ve done here. The teachers and administrators seemed to be perpetually surprised that the kids behave themselves. But the kids are probably one of my favorite parts of Chile. They’re affectionate and enthusiastic and they stare at me as if I were an alien visiting from another planet. Which I am. They are eager to communicate with me and when their English isn’t up to the job (I’m not supposed to speak Spanish so I always play dumb) they either: find the kids in the class that are the nerds and are suddenly really in demand because and have actually studied English and can translate; or they find somebody who has lived in the United States who experience a similar sudden increase in popularity for the same reason.

In the middle of my performances I had the opportunity to meet a temporary expat American. Sandra is here with her husband, who is an architect working on some of the observatories that are being built in this area. It being as dry as it is, northern Chile is a really good place to look at stars. I think it would be really cool to be an architect for an observatory. Sandra is no academic slouch herself, sporting a PHD in something like “Art Forgery”. Who knew? Anyway, she was delightful and I’m hoping to: A. reconnect with her (a fellow vegetarian) at El Huerto Wednesday when she comes to Santiago to meet with some friends or; B. get an in on visiting an observatory in Antofagasta. Wish me luck.

From El Colegio Ingles Catolico we went to El Autobus Tur a Santiago. We were leaving a bit later in the day so our arrival was going to be correspondingly later. Another double feature night at the movies! I got to catch G.I. Joe and Nanny McPhee with Spanish subtitles. A startling combination of films. Once again, much more dialogue in the family film. Other than that the bus ride was uneventful. We got to Santiago safe and sound and found a taxi to take us back to the hotel.

At this point I should mention that throughout this trip I had been getting clues for what was about to happen. When Alberto and I were in Cascada de las Animas we saw a sign protesting a dam project that was apparently being planned for some river in southern Chile. And I had been picking up bits here and there – from overheard radio news in taxis and from newspaper articles that I read when I was trying to find out about Osama Bin Laden – that some kind of bill was being considered that would enable the construction of some kind of hydro-electric project somewhere in Chile. I didn’t pay much attention to it.

Well, the bill passed the day we were returning from La Serena. There were massive protests in practically every major city in Chile. The “disturbance,” as one newspaper so quaintly put it, got a little ugly in Santiago. Students and environmentalists rallied at La Plaza Italia, which is an area on the edge of Providencia that one is obligated to go through if one is, say, taking a taxi from the bus terminal to our hotel. Riot police were called. Traffic was snarled.

We knew none of this. It was a balmy night so we were blithely traveling with our windows open. Both Carol and I were pretty wiped from the day’s journey and didn’t notice anything until the cab driver mentioned that there seemed to be some kind of march. I looked up and saw flashing lights, riot police, their corresponding police vehicles, and clouds of white smoke blowing across the street. The protesters were in retreat. I was trying to figure out what they had set on fire because there didn’t seem to be any flames when the taxi hit the smoke plumes. We were lucky. We didn’t get very much of it. And I’m grateful that our cab driver was able to keep driving. It was a little bit worse than a really, really strong onion. It took us a while to figure out what in tarnation was going on. Carol was pulling Kleenex out of her purse and throwing wads of it to the driver and putting other wads of it into her eyes. I just figured it was better to let my eyes water. I didn’t know what to do about my throat. What with being tired and the tear gas wafting into the car, and the riot police everywhere, I somehow forgot to pull out my camera and start snapping pictures. I know, it’s just one excuse after another. I guess my career as a photo-journalist is pretty much over.

Our taxi driver found an alternate route, and once we were out of the smoke, the air cleared and the effects wore off quickly, much sooner than an onion. There were still riot police stationed along the cross streets though. The alternate route was longer, and more out of the way, and, hence, more expensive. Carol didn’t complain. We were glad to get back. It’s not customary to tip cab drivers here in Chile. Still, I hope Carol gave him something.

I decided the next day to stay a little more on top of the news and I bought a paper. There it was, the whole story: A five dam project along a southern river that will provide 2,750 megawatts of electricity for Chile and wreak havoc on the local ecosystems. Oh yeah. And Paul McCartney has arrived in Chile with his current.

After the events of that night another new school seemed pretty tame. Two schools, actually. This was the first day that I’ve had two schools in one day. They were as different as could be. The first, Los Colegios MonteTabor y Nazaret, was in the really wealthy are of Greater Santiago, with ritzy buildings, lovely surroundings, a very low key staff and an intimidating auditorium.

We had to head back into Santiago for the second school, Colegio de Los Angeles. You could really see the smog from the hills we were in. It’s been very dry here and the air is very bad and the soil is quite dry.

Our new school was in a much more middle class barrio, with correspondingly fewer amenities. The kids were on the floor and much more exuberant. They were all good shows. I realize as I’m doing this tour, that I am getting an intensive workshop in making my voice and body communicate at least as well as my vocabulary. It’s an interesting conundrum. How do you keep people interested when they don’t understand very much of what you’re saying?

Carol and I went to another local eatery, practically across the street from us, named Doner House. For students of U. S. pioneer history the name conjures some unpleasant dining imagery. But I’m pretty sure the historical one was spelled with two n’s. I think the Chilean one is supposed to be a Greek. It’s got all kinds of “kebops” on the menu along with the Chilean version of pita, Turkish coffee and (hot damn!) baklava. It was good. And cheap! But (tragedy!) no baklava. Carol and I had lunch there and did dinner at the hotel: wine, cheese, raw veggies, nuts and cookies.

I’m at the point now where I’m thinking “Oh, wow! I’ve only got one more Monday. One more Tuesday. Just like the zip line my time here is flying by. There’s so much to absorb and so little time to absorb it. Like Robert in the story, I know I will be glad I have picked up the stones and sorry that I haven’t taken more.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

May 8th, 2011

May 8, 2011

OK, it’s been a long time since I’ve taken a bus. Before Alberto and I took the bus to Viña del Mar, I don’t think I’d been on Greyhound type transport in more than 20 or 30 years. Karen and I did take an hour bus ride in Taiwan. But that didn’t leave me prepared for how far buses have come. We’re talking WIFI, in-flight… er… in-ride movies, up to the minute reports on the current vehicular speed. Geez!

Carol and I got to the bus station in plenty of time. I wasn’t sure what the on-board bathroom options were going to be so I decided to play it safe by using the facilities in the depot. Ha! We’re talking two flights of stairs up, only to find a pay toilet. And not the kind that you slip your Chilean moneda into either. Nope, they don’t do things that way in Chile. You have to purchase your toilet token from kiosk strategically located between the sala para caballeros y la sala para damas. “A vending machine?” you ask, with more than a tinge of incredulity. Double Ha! No siree. This is a staffed kiosk doing a booming business selling tokens to those in dire need personally. Looking back on it I realize that I missed another great photo op. But I just couldn’t bring my Scotch self to part with the pesos necessary to use the facilities. I decided to take my chances on board the bus and headed back down the two flights of stairs.

Carol is a smoker – a very considerate one – so she took the remaining minutes to get her nic-fix before boarding. We (and especially she) were happy to discover that this wasn’t a nonstop ride to La Serena, and there would be opportunities for breaks (and cigarettes) along the way.

La Serena is a coastal town about a six and a half hour bus ride north of Santiago. Chile changes profoundly as you go north. It becomes much drier and warmer. Antofagasto, where I’m going to be next week is even further north, and is located near one of the driest deserts in the world. The landscape on our ride reflected the change in climate. Lots of cactus started showing up, along with vistas that could have been taken from old issues of Arizona Highways. The driver of our bus was in his own compartment, separated from the rest of the bus. This was not for security reasons. At least not in the sense of terrorist security reasons. It was to keep the passengers from distracting the bus driver by talking to him, or placing loudly screaming children right behind him. Seemed like a good idea.

There were two flight… er… ride attendants to service the passengers. You know, handing out pillows and… um… handing out pillows. Stuff like that. Really, it’s amazing to me how staffed this whole country seems to be. There are the concierges at our hotel (and there are often more than one). And there are the restaurant hawkers who stand in front of the restaurants pitching the daily specials and encouraging the reluctant to come into the restaurant by standing directly in front of them as they try to pass. The attendants on the bus are especially amazing because fuel is very expensive and the tickets are breathtakingly cheap. (Something less than $20 for a six hour bus ride). I suppose the owners must use more money to pay employees and keep less of it themselves. Hmmm.

Periodically during the ride somebody would walk up and down the aisles hawking snacks, drinks and candy. The on board movies were “Something About Mary,” “What Women Want,” and “Tron.” You could listen to them with little ear buds like the ones you use on planes. But they did not have these little ear buds on the bus. Let me repeat that. They did not have these little ear buds on the bus. Not even for sale? Nope. Candy? You bet. Drinks? Up the wazoo. But ear buds? Fuhgetaboutit. You had to buy those in the bus depot, presumably somewhere near the bathroom token kiosk. It was OK with me. It allowed me to get in a couple of extra Spanish lessons by watching the movies and reading the Spanish subtitles. And by the way folks, they don’t call it Spanish down here. It’s Castellano, thank you very much, and since I’ve got plenty to identify me as a Gringo already. I don’t need to be drawing extra attention to myself by saying: “Si, yo hablo Español,” when it should be perfectly clear that everybody is hablando Castellano.

So it was double and a half feature night at the movie (I only got to see half of “Tron”). I paused once in a while – during the action scenes and the long kisses (no dialogue there) – to look out the window and see some great scenery. And dogs. There are dogs everywhere in this country. They sack out on the streets, they get into garbage. They trot from one place to another in between the pedestrians. Everyone seems to ignore them and for the most part the dogs ignore them back.

We arrived in La Serena around 20:30 (Chile is on the 24 hour clock) and got to our ocean front hotel – not to rub it in or anything – around 9:30. This was the Saturday night when the time was scheduled to be set back an hour. (Remember, it’s fall here.) So we were looking forward to an extra hour of sleep. It was a swell room: clean, cute, colorful and comfortable. We wandered down the beach to a seaside seafood place and had a late dinner, then came back and crashed.

Mother’s day was lovely. Carol and I spent the first part of the day walking down the beach seeing the sights and taking a shameless number of photos. The beach was open for swimming. It was pretty cold, but I saw a Heinekens ad that might explain the four takers. Doubtless I would have joined them had I thought to bring my swim suit. But the forecast had predicted cold weather so I’d left it in Santiago. Later it turned out to be a pretty nice day. Maybe I’ll get my chance in Antofagasto.

To celebrate the day, I tried to get some shots of mothers with their children and was moderately successful. But I couldn’t resist taking the shot of the father running along side of his daughter, for an intermediate skating lesson. He looked pretty pooped.

I took lots of shots of birds: gulls, albatross, pelicans and egrets (I think). There were plenty of boats that you could rent to take out. And boats being built. And boats being painted. And boats being used religiously.

There were joggers and folks at exercise stations. Looking at all of that activity made us feel like we should eat so we were stopped by a restaurant pusher and had a meal at a place with the worlds smallest urinal (NO, not on the menu). I think maybe it was from a Barbie accessory set. No laissez-faire aiming on this one, guys.

After that it was more walking around. You see things here that you just don’t see in Sarona, WI. Like the tsunami evacuation route.

Then it was home and Skype conversations with family. I spent mother’s day last year with them, cutting flowers from the hospice’s lilac bush and giving them to my mother. This Thursday will be the one year anniversary of her death. I have the day off, which seems like a good thing. It’s the only weekday I get off for the whole trip. I have no idea what that means. But I’ll be glad to have the day free.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

May 6, 2011

A new day and a new tour guide. Alberto left Carol and I to ourselves, while he took care of the last minute details of leaving for Argentina. But not before putting some more minutes on my phone so Carol and I could stay in touch with him during the day in case anything came up. It was a good thought. But I left the phone at the apartment and didn’t discover the error until we were already well on our way in the taxi. We were going to Colegio San Enselmo, in a suburb north of Santiago proper. This was the furthest we’ve had to travel by taxi so far. It’s a swank expansive campus that reminded me a bit of Interlochen for some reason. Maybe it was the palm trees.

Our hostess was Maria, who participated as enthusiastically as the students in the programs. I got to meet Jason, a tall, dark and handsome Canadian expat from Winnipeg, who had come to Chile back when he was in the wine importing business and never looked back. Since then he’s discovered his true passion: teaching. And the Chilean woman he’s just married. Everybody knows and likes Jason, it seems, and indeed he’s a pretty likeable guy. I imagine the high school girls that he teaches swooning over his long, dark, curly hair. It was a luxury having a full blown conversation in Middle North American Continental English, eh? And talking with somebody who has a pretty good concept of what “cold” and “a lot of snow” really are.

Throughout this trip people have been telling me that I have to try a Pisco sour. Pisco is a very sweet liquor made from grapes. La Serena, where we are scheduled to travel on Saturday, is near the heart of Pisco territory, but Pisco is a drink favored throughout the country. There is, apparently, a vigorous debate about whether Peru or Chile is responsible for the invention of Pisco. This only adds to the sense of rivalry caused by past territorial disputes. Maria, from San Anselmo, is one of a chorus of teachers encouraging Carol and I to find a good Pisco place and sample the national drink of Chile. Since this night was Aberto’s last night we’d been planning on checking this particular chore off our list at a celebratory meal. But first we had to reconnect with Alberto who, you will recall, we couldn’t reach because I had left the phone in the apartment. We borrowed a phone, called Alberto and then summoned a taxi to take us back to Santiago. The taxi that showed up was really two taxis, though we didn’t know it at the time. We were all settled in the first taxi, ready for the long ride back when suddenly he veered into what was apparently a hub where, he informed us, we were to change taxis. OK. Here was another glimpse of something more third world-ish. I killed some time by taking a picture of the ground which was littered with colorful leaves and bottle caps making for an interesting design. We waited and were eventually picked up by a female cab driver, the first I’ve seen in Chile. She was very friendly and, like everyone else, knew Jason (Remember? The Canadian?), So it was a ride full of lively conversation, mostly between Carol and the cab driver. Another opportunity for me to hear a variety of accents. Carol’s accent is Argentine like Alberto’s, but with an underlay of French. (She is Swiss).

Friday night Alberto, Carol and I went to La Ancla (The Anchor) for a seafood meal, oh! and don’t forget the Pisco sours. We had to wait a bit for a no smoking table so we started with the Pisco Sours. They reminded me a bit of Margaritas. Plenty delicious. But not as good as milk and cookies. It was a late night. Today (Saturday) Carol and I are leaving for La Serena, a city to the north of Santiago and along the coast. The weather has taken a nasty turn: gray and cold . For the first time we’re seeing temperatures that are lower than the ones I’ve been tracking at home. People here say that this is much more common for this time of year. I guess I’ve been lucky up to now. I’m glad I brought the warm clothes with me. The shorts that I optimistically packed, remain unused.

I’m starting to get familiar with the neighborhood. I’ve begun to recognize the panhandlers in the area. I know where a lot of the shops and restaurants are. The couple that runs the cheese shop recognize me, as do the concierges. I’m glad for the changes scheduled in the weeks coming up. New tour manager, new locations. Putting down roots is for home. Two more weeks to go. Already Carol and I are reviewing our plans for getting to the airport and I can feel Wisconsin tugging at me. I am steadfastly putting this feeling to the side. Adventure beckons. Long bus ride, here I come.
May 5, 2011

I’ve noticed that in Chile you can tell a good taxi driver from a bad one before they even start driving. The good taxi drivers always have working seat belts. The bad ones don’t. The taxi’s driven by bad drivers are, of course, the very ones in which you would like to have seatbelts. We had two cabs without working seatbelts today. The driver of the first one was clearly in need of an anger management course. He would do little things like feint a cut off in front of a car that he felt had unjustly tried to cut him off. I was glad to arrive at our destination, having cheated death again.

Our destination was Nuestra Señora del Camino and all I can say is, well… each school is certainly different. Nuestra Señora del Camino provided a much sparer performance space than, say, SEK, in Viña del Mar, where I was on Tuesday. Big difference in the English language abilities as well. But flexibility is the name of the game when you’re working in schools and that’s particularly true here. I had three shows to do, but I was done pretty early so there was still a lot of day left. Of course, first we had to get home. Enter taxi sans seatbelts #2. This one had a driver whose method of avoiding collisions was to honk them out of the way. I closed my eyes. I could still hear the horn.

So, Alberto and I decided to recuperate by trying out the Chinese restaurant a couple of doors down from the hotel. A nice, low stress, walk. It doesn’t get any more convenient and the décor was charming. But I’ve got to say I haven’t been impressed with the Chinese food here. I suppose Taiwan has spoiled me for really enjoying any comestible product calling itself Chinese. And there are certainly plenty of other options.

I spent a little time helping Alberto move out of his digs in the apartment and into the hotel across the street. Carol, Alberto’s replacement as tour manager for the remainder of the trip, was due to arrive from Buenos Aires at around 5:00 pm. I was doing my requisite time working on the blog, when suddenly I heard the sound of drums and flutes coming down the street. It put me in mind of the first day that Karen and I spent in Taiwan, when we heard music from our apartment and dashed out into the street to see a funeral procession (at least that’s what we thought it was) in full progress. The Chilean reality – although nearly as noisy – turned out to be much more modest than the Taiwanese apparition. There were a handful of musicians with painted faces parading down the street looking for the proverbial hand out. I gave them some coins, snapped their photo and came back to the apartment, more or less waiting for Carol to show up so we could eat. In the mean time I managed to make my very own purchases at a Farmacia (Toothpaste! Fingernail clippers!!).

Carol’s flight was much delayed and so she didn’t get here until near 8 pm . That got us to dinner at a suitably Chilean time, 8:30 or so. We introduced her to El Huerto where the food was as good as ever. Back at the apartment I got to have a spontaneous Skype conversation with my sister, Michelle, to cap the day off.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

May 4, 2011

Today I did two performances at the Andrèe English School, which is actually a Catholic School. An old style one that put me in mind of the stories I’ve heard from many of my Chicago parochial school veteran friends. My first clue was the picture of Padre Armando that dominates one of the walls. In it we see him carrying an honest to God sheep on his shoulders, presumably an errant member of the flock that he has just rescued. I suppose that the purpose of the picture is to convey the compassion and caring this beloved priest holds for his parishoners. Still, all I could think about was what the photo session must have been like: the smell, the mess, the struggling, bleating, pitiful lamb who, when you really look at her in the photo, doesn’t seem to be very happy. And next to this graphic example of Padre Armando’s determination to save every single member of his flock, is a Chagal-esque mural of the Day of Judgment. The details are a bit vague, due the post-impressionist artistic style. Still, it manages to convey the grim consequences of misbehaving in the classroom. And if the visual message wasn’t clear enough, the English instructor of the school reinforced the message verbally as she was “warming up” the audience for moi, emphatically instructing the students to behave and enjoy themselves OR ELSE!! (Note the previously mentioned picture.) We managed to have a good time and Alberto got some great shots of the students asking me questions after the programs.

In between the first and second shows I was introduced to Jose Luis, a friend of Alberto’s who is a Chilean story teller. After the shows the three of us toodled around Santiago doing some errands for DreamOn, buying new guitar picks for me, patronizing cafes and restaurants, and giving me my strongest dose yet of Spanish immersion. Naturally, most of my conversations to date have been with Alberto, who has a heavy Argentine accent. I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to speak with Chileans, whose accent is quite distinctive. I got a full dose of both trying to keep up with Alberto and Jose Luis. I frequently find myself two or three sentences behind in any conversation as I try to decode words that are unfamiliar. And, hoo boy! There are a lot of them. Chile is known for it’s colloquialisms and its vocabulary taken from the Mapuche, one of the indigenous peoples of the area. But even words that I do know are buried in the dropped consonants and blurred syllables of every day conversation. After a day this intense my mind feels like the hind end of a Sushi roll: wilted, incoherent and unstable.

And speaking of sushi, dios mio, it is everywhere here. By far, the most common sights of Santiago are graffiti and sushi bars. You see it on menus in the oddest places. Like, for example, the Mexican restaurant down the street from the Hotel. Jose Luis was pointing out today that it’s very easy and cheap for Chile to get all of the things it needs for sushi, having, as it does, so much coast line. So Alberto and I finished the day with another visit to Akbar to probe some of the other choices on their menu. Tomorrow we begin the changing of the guard as Alberto begins to get ready to leave for Argentina and I meet my next tour manager, Carol.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

May 1 – 3, 2011

May 1st is a holiday here and many of the stores and restaurants are closed. Sundays are kind of quiet anyway. But the holiday made this Sunday even more so. Or so it seemed until Alberto and I hauled our luggage onto the metro. So that’s where all the people were! It was another sardine ride to the bus station where Alberto and I could catch the bus to Viña del Mar. I was scheduled to do two schools in two days. I spent a lot of the bus ride working on the blog which, let me tell you, is a lot harder to maintain than I thought it would be. I don’t think I ever fully appreciated how much effort my daughter spent in maintaining her blog, really well – pictures and all – for two plus years. Well, I appreciate it now!

Focusing on my blog takes me away from actually experiencing anything, which is one of the disadvantages of expression. But I thought to look up once in a while. I caught a glimpse of this vineyard. Chile is famous for it’s wines. Alberto and I have a couple of bottles waiting for us in the refrigerator, back in Santiago. For now, we are focused on Viña del Mar, about a two hour bus ride from Santiago.

Viña del Mar is a coastal town, affording me my first glimpse of the South Pacific. The weather there was quite different from Santiago: cold, foggy and gray. We settled ourselves into a shabby and desultory bed and breakfasty kind of place. My room had a somewhat gloomy view. Inside it sported dark, cyanotic blue walls. The window in the bathroom didn’t close all the way, so the 45° ambient night time temperature greeted my naked self in the mornings. The shower was the size of a coffin. The shower head (think garden hose) was at just about the right height if you were standing on the floor. Unfortunately the shower itself was located on a about a foot and a half above the floor, offering the bather an excellent opportunity to clean the lower rib cage. The water cycled chaotically through a 15° temperature difference which, due to the size of the shower stall, I was never able to avoid. The shower curtains were long enough to plug the drain if I wasn’t careful. The door slammed into the television every time I came out of the bathroom. And I don’t even watch TV. The bed was concave, the breakfast was Wonder bread and ham, and the whole place was redolent with cigarette smoke, much of it from the owners, Spanish ex-patriots who have found a new home in Chile. They were gracious and friendly and full of advice on where to go and where not to go. Their hospitality more than made up for the shortcomings of the actual building.

After establishing myself in my room and taking a bit of a rest, I headed toward the sea, sea, sea, to see what I could see, see, see. I found a park on the coast where there were some May Day activities going on in the chilly fog, including a puppet show. The fog obscured what would ordinarily been good views. Along the shore there were big rocks, many of which have little homilies or words of advice painted onto them. Bible verses are popular, but other wisdom is imparted as well. I wimped out on trying to order on my own at the crowded restaurant (Alberto and I came back later and had a delicious meal), and opted for walking around some more.

Crossing one of the many bridges in town I was struck by the absence of water in the river below. And really, without water, it’s not much of a river. Apparently there’s more later on the winter. In the meantime why not use the space for parking?

Late that night, after talking with Karen, I got word (through the internet) that Osama Bin Laden had been killed, nearly ten years after the events of 9/11. Alberto tells me there is a Spanish saying (loosely translated): “Killing the dog, does not get rid of rabies.” I don’t have the cure for rabies. I don’t know who does. But whatever the solution is, I’m pretty sure there will be more than killing dogs involved

The schools I am working at are the schools of the well to do. I’m acutely aware of the gaps between the haves and the have nots in this country. What surprises me is that I don’t think the difference is bigger in this country than in ours. On a global scale I’m a pretty lucky guy. I try to remember just how much of my health and wealth is based on good fortune and how much is due to my own effort. Being here is a good reminder of what a huge role good fortune has played in my life.

Monday I did a couple of shows for a German School. That is, they teach most of the subjects in Spanish, and secondarily the students are learning German. English is the consolation prize. Like I said the schoolsThe programs went well and since we finished up early Alberto and I had the opportunity to take the bus from Viña del Mar south to Valparaiso, home of one of my favorite poets and pride of Chile, Pablo Neruda. Since reading about his Valparaiso home in “The Lonely Planet,” I’ve been wanting to visit it. Now was my chance.

We disembarked near the port area of the city. Valparaiso is a much older looking town than Viña del Mar, which has the air of a trendy suburb. Valparaiso is the gritty, tougher and more experienced cousin. The downtown area in particular has an unbathed patina. Graffiti is ubiquitous in Chile, even in the wealthier areas. And much of the time it’s hard to tell exactly what is graffiti and what is a mural. Perhaps here the difference is academic. In any case downtown Valparaiso is thick with graffiti. The distinctive and antiquarian buildings are dirty and carry the knowledge of better days in their stance. We were approached initially by a friendly guy, with lots of questions, who seemed to want to hang with us. Neither Alberto nor I were particularly inclined to trust him. We shook him by indicating that we were headed for Cerro Alegre.

The downtown of Valparaiso is surrounded by Cerros - hills that are effectively neighborhoods - that you get to either by climbing an unimaginably large number of steep stairs or by taking one of the many Ascensores that are sprinkled throughout the city. During last week’s show at Villa Maria school, we ran into a teacher who told us she had an aunt (Josefina) and uncle (Pato) who ran an ice cream parlor in Cerro Alegre and we promised to look them up. So after a quick meal of really delicious and amazingly fresh sea food, we began the search for the Ascensor that would get us to the right Cerro. Valparaiso is a warren of streets, alleys and stairways and finding the ascensores is not easy. After a couple of misguided attempts we finally found the little nook wherein was located our desired ascensor and up we went. Then it was a question of finding the ice cream parlor. All we had was a name. But eventually we found a store keeper (with a great sign out front!) who knew of it and was able to send us in the right direction.

We met Uncle Pato, a man of real bonhomie who encouraged his young, female ice cream server to give me a scoop of his favorite flavor. I don’t remember what it was, but he insisted that it was a powerful aphrodisiac. I demurred and went for one of the chocolate flavors EVEN THOUGH tiramisu flavor was available here too. I like to think of myself as being open minded.

Uncle Pato’s niece gave us spiffy directions to Pablo Neruda’s home, which was donated to the public by his widow and has since become a museum. It was a long walk between cerros and it gave us lots of opportunities to see more of the city. By now the sun was starting to make an appearance and the day seemed brighter and cheerier. One of the houses we passed had bee hives, which you could see right behind the signs advertising fresh honey. There were lots more mural/graffiti examples and we saw one house with its own private ascensor. There were plenty of signs on the power poles indicating the direction to the Neruda museum. Alberto and I kept seeing people that looked like tourists (backpacks, water bottles) and we were sure they were headed the same place we were. It was about a half hour walk down Avenida Alemania (German Avenue, I guess this was the day for things German) to Neruda’s house/museum which, as it turned out, was closed on Mondays. Damn.

Well, resilience is the traveler’s best friend. We decided to walk down the hill back to the bus and head to our quarters del dia. It was a long walk. And we’d already been walking quite a ways. So we were glad to see the bus. This was naïve. The bus ride actually turned out to be more rigorous than the walk. It was packed and we had to stand while we crawled through rush hour traffic, rocking from side to side on rough and sloped streets, inching our way back to Viña del Mar. It was good to get back to the flop house. Fatigue makes any bed look good. I made a nest in the bed, plugged the computer into the wall, and the lamp next to me disassembled itself into two pieces. There was a spark and all of lights in the room went out. Not to worry. Apparently this has happened before. A quick flip of the switch and everything is fine. I folded myself in half, and lay down. Later Alberto and I headed for the sea for our supper and came right back for an early bed time.

Today I was at a school that was not immersion in nature. In other words, English is merely a subject there. This school also pitched me my youngest students yet. So I was a little worried. My anxiety level went up when I arrived at the school. All of the schools have been wealthy. But this place was a palace. Their media center (where I was interviewed for a program to be broadcast later on the school radio station) also included a blue screen room for their video projects.

But my work area was the auditorium. One is introduced to this swank little theater by the mural on the outside wall suggesting the Altamira Cave Paintings in Spain. Inside are 150 soft cushy seats, a small but very nice stage, a tech booth and a sound and light technician. Working with an unknown sound and light tech is always a scary proposition and today was no exception. Each time I did the show he got more excited about the theatrical possibilities my presentation offered, even though he really didn’t speak English so he didn’t have a very good idea of what my presentation offered. By the third show there were sudden inexplicable bursts of reverb coming through the speakers and the lights were flashing on and off, strobe like, giving my stories the ability to induce epileptic fits.

But the students were fun and our host turned out to be a really first rate photographer and grabbed a bunch of pictures that I think I’ll be able to use for future promotion. He also gave us a ride back to our hotel, which saved Alberto the taxi fare. Then it was a walk to the bus station and the trip back to good old Santiago where, by the way, it’s gotten much warmer!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

April 29 – 30

I am standing on a stool, about a foot and a half above the ground. 15 feet in front of me is a ledge. Beyond the ledge is a chasm at least a hundred feet deep, maybe 250 meters wide, with El Rio Maipo somewhere in the middle. The man standing next to me tells me to sit down. So I sit. The stool falls away and the man pushes me, running behind me until we reach the ledge. Then he pushes me into the abyss beyond.

A little over a week ago I was on a more metaphorical ledge. The chasm was deeper and higher and nobody was pushing me. I got onto the plane all by myself. I am aware now – as I was aware this afternoon, crossing El Rio Maipo on a zip line – of how fast this trip is going. How tenuous it is. There is not enough time to notice it all. To absorb and make sense of it. Things happen and they are gone in a flash. The next thing you know there is another event and what happened before hardly seems real.

I completed my first week of story telling in Santiago. Friday was the last of three days at the San Gabriel school. The school has two different branches, each with their own distinctive school culture, which is what you would expect. I’ve spent most of my time in one branch, but I have visited the other once and noted a much lower level of ability in English. It was a much more challenging school to work at. Both Alberto and I thought I had only one performance at that school. We were both surprised to find that I was scheduled to go back to it on the last day.

Let me pause here and talk a little bit about the guitars that I am using for my performances. Bringing my own guitar from home to Chile seemed impractical and expensive, so Alberto has arranged for each school to have a guitar ready for me to use. To tell you the truth, I was initially pretty skeptical about this idea because, who knows what I’ll end up with? But up until Friday I’ve actually done pretty well. The guitars have all been classical ones, which means a much wider neck, and nylon strings. But they’ve been serviceable, tunable, and relatively easy to play. Esthetics had never occurred to me.

Along with failing to acquire the album “The Goldwaters Sing Folksongs to Bug the Liberals” – which I ran across in a record bin at a Goodwill some 20 years ago, and will never forgive myself for not buying – I will always regret not taking a picture of the guitar I was given to use on Friday, at the second San Gabriel location. I don’t know what I was thinking. I can only offer shock, as an excuse. When Alberto hesitantly handed me the guitar, saying it had been borrowed from a student as a last effort in securing one, I could only laugh. Like the others I’ve used, it was a classical guitar. But the owner of this guitar was not satisfied with the plain wood top that comes standard on most guitars. Clearly this guitarist was committed to multi-media expressionism. It seemed equally clear that said owner was a big fan of the Merry Pranksters. The front had been painted in oil. There were flowers, a peace symbol, a yin yang symbol and in general every kind of iconic image that would have done Wavy Gravy proud. A student came up to me after my show, (these were student’s whose level of English was extremely rudimentary) and, looking pointedly at the guitar, surprised me by asking if I was a hippie. Well, it’s a question that’s come my way before, even without the aid of a “Summer of Love” guitar.

They were pretty tough shows. I was working with older students whose English levels were a good three years behind the students I had done the day before. The level of teacher engagement was pretty minimal as well, so getting the students to calm down was a lengthy and energy sapping process.

I spent the afternoon hours after school recovering by doing laundry, and getting to know the neighborhood a little more. There’s a terrific cheese shop right next to the theater that Alberto and I had tickets for that very night. I bought a pedacito of Chilean cheese with ajo and made my way back to the apartment.

Alberto and I celebrated the end of our first week by going to Akbar, a Sushi House about four blocks away from our apartment. This was another Lonely Planet recommendation and a good one it was. You may be thinking “A sushi house? In Santiago?” Well, this is the Big City. And every bit as cosmopolitan as Minneapolis. Sushi, of course, says Japan. But authentic Japanese sushi is pretty rare outside of Japan. What you get in other countries is the local idea of Japanese Sushi enhanced by the culinary ingenuity and skill of the (in this case) Chilean sushi chef. The result at Akbar is pretty tasty. The sushi was uniquely Chilean, with local fish, avocados, and other Chilean specialties, playing a major role in the sushi menu. We promptly snarfed down one order and ordered a second. But an influx of customers delayed the second order enough that we had to cancel it. We had tickets for a show!

“What show?” you ask, wondering what Chilean spectacle I have managed to find. Ah, but it was not my find, it was Albertos. Perhaps a Santiago musical? No. A festival of Mapuchan experimental theater? No. We went to see…

Celtic Legend, an Irish music and step dance show a la “River Dance”. The troupe was from Ireland, and they were great. I’ve seen “River Dance” so I had a pretty high bar. “Celtic Legends” didn’t quite stack up as far as choreography goes. But the quality of the music and the dance was comparable. And it was a good thing we had cancelled our second order of sushi, because I’m telling you, Paddy, those seats were mighty narrow. Still, it was a fabulous show. I confess that “Santiago,” “Sushi,” and “Celtic,” make for a bit of cognitive dissonance in my brain. But the Ulean pipe player did a valiant job of introducing the numbers in Spanish. And the Santiago audience was more than enthusiastic.

Afterwards, on our walk home we stopped at the heladaria, where we had a choice of many more than 31 flavors including Lucuro, a fruit well known to Chileans. It’s not quite in season yet, but that’s no problem for ice cream. The flavor has shown up in a couple of deserts I’ve had, including one at El Huerto. But no Lucuro for me tonight. This parlor had a flavor called Tiramisu. Hard work, fasting and meditation pay off again!!

The next day, Saturday, Alberto and I walked to the Metro and took a train east in a car monotonously bedecked with the same ad for an underarm deodorant that will not leave stains. A few stops down we transferred to a train completely full of a single lingerie ad. The lingerie took us to the southeastern part of the city. No trendy sushi bars here. This was Chile del pueblo, with brightly colored buildings, street vendors and a constant coming and going of tawdry, dilapidated buses destined for outlying sections. We took one. In town, the wheels on this bus went round and round with a lot of noise and seemingly a fair amount of effort. I kept expecting the engine to fall out. But once we were outside of town where the road, no less narrow, began to meander from side to side working its way up into the Andes, well, then she opened right up. We were movin! The hand written sign on the bus mentioned something about 50 kph being the maximum allowable speed. Obviously this was meant only as a suggestion for a starting point. I am writing this as I ride a considerably more modern bus, en route to Vina del Mar, and the electronic sign in front of this bus indicates that we are currently going 99 kph down a four lane. Yesterday’s bus would have passed us, no problem.

As we traveled up the highway the bus would stop so passengers could get on and off the bus. The doors to the bus opened well before the bus stopped, the hope being, I suppose, that the passengers would exit and enter before the driver had to unnecessarily use the brakes. I don’t think the front door ever closed at all. From time to time we would be visited by vendors hawking the Chilean versions of snack food, and charanga and flute playing musicians, serenading us with medleys consisting of Bolivian folk tunes, exerpts from Czardas and Beethoven Turkish Marches. Finally we arrived at our destination: La Cascada de las Animas.

Located far enough away and above Santiago to have relatively clean air, La Cascada de las Animas is a private nature reserve where busy urbanites can enjoy a bit of the outdoors, away from the hectic life…etc. It is located on a geologic formation that is the result of volcanic activity and tectonic plate shifting. Just add water. (Very much like – you guessed it! – Taiwan. Not quite so much water here.) Early European visitors apparently had visions of naked maiden spirits bathing in the waterfalls that the place was known for even then. Hence the name. I regret to say that I saw no bathing maidens.

Unlike the trails in the National, State and County parks back home – where you check in with a ranger (or not), grab a map (or not) and off you go on an afternoon hike – this park is much more restricted in its access. One signs up to stay at cabins, or for guided rafting trips, guided horse back riding or other guided activities such as a hike – our choice – with a group of similarly inclined outdoor enthusiasts. You are led by a guide along a selected route (an hour and half, three hours, two days, etc.). These tours leave at appointed times and Alberto and I had about an hour and a half to kill before our group’s departure time. So, off to the scenically placed restaurant for a bite surprisingly good food.

Our group was eight strong, all wimping out for the hour and a half kilometer climb (the shortest one available) straight up to the cascades. I think three of us were Chilenos. There were a pair of French women. One of the Chilean women came with a boyfriend, fresh from Italy and another Chilena was with a large and shy Dane. Then, of course, there were Alberto y yo. Initially our guide was Gabriel, but fairly early on he handed us over to Nelson, a husky computer programmer who lives and works in Santiago during the week. But on weekends he turns into a guide for turistas at La Cascada de las Animas. He was amiable and solicitous about the Gringo, the most senior member of the group, making it up the climb. Well, the trail was a bit rough. And it was steep. But I’m not THAT old.

Plenty of vistas along this trail. With the occasional signs about the local flora and fauna. The Chilena with the Italian boyfriend had a pretty detailed knowledge of the herbs to be found, as did Nelson. They showed us all a plant called paico; fragrant, common and apparently useful for digestive problems. There were also bunches of flowers brought back to Chile by an overly enthusiastic herbophile who, captivated by their beauty in California, where he was visiting, decided to bring back thousands of seeds and spread them around a bit to share with his native countrymen. The Spanish name for them was something like Dedina del Oro. But I thought they might be some kind of wild geranium. Comforting to know that the U.S. flowers are is doing their bit for the invasive species problem.

Part of the way up, we found a spring where we could refresh ouselves with agua pura straight from the ground. The waterfalls were low key, but pretty. I put my hand in the pool, just for a more complete experience. The Chilena and her Italian boyfriend stayed behind and I suspect he went for a brief dip in the shallow water, while the rest of us started back.

Aside from being a popular camping and general outdoor get away spot, this is also a place where injured animals get a chance to heal from their wounds and be re-introduced into the wild. We saw several members of a local species of eagle awaiting release, as well as various other birds, including a parrot. They also have a puma recuperating somewhere, but we didn’t get to see it.

After our return from the guided hike, it was time to see just how far all that hard work, fasting and meditation would get me. So I bought un boleto for a zip line across the Rio Maipo. Once again there was some anxiousness about the level of my Spanish. But they seemed reassured when, after asking me if I understood them, I demonstrated my fluency by saying, “Si”.

There was the first zip line across the river, a short hike to higher ground, and then a slightly shorter zip line back. I gave all my earthly possessions to Alberto to disperse in the event of my death. My guides assured me of the strength of the line and of the anchors on each end and helped me into the harness, which they said absolutely nothing about, and off I went. It was exhilarating and much too short. Like this trip and, I expect, like life. I returned to solid ground resolved, yet again, to try to pay more attention to the things that are flying by around me and remember the thrill and exhilaration of every moment.

We finished with another visit to the restaurant. This time for a café. And then it was back to the entrance to await another one of the frequent buses that would take us back to the Metro station at the outskirts of Santiago and thence back to the apartment. No advertisements at all on the way back.

We had dinner at Liguria, restaurant named after an area in Italy, only a couple of blocks from our apartment. The walls are bedecked with the photos and portraits of famous. Spock is there as is Jesus, right below the Tarzan family picture. The restaurant was offering a two for one wine deal. So we bought and consumed a bottle of a really excellent Chilean white and took it’s twin back to the apartment with us, perhaps to celebrate the changing of the guard when Alberto turns his care taking duties over to Carol, later this week.