April 29 – 30
WARNING: THIS IS A REALLY LONG ENTRY. YOU MAY WANT TO BREAK THIS UP INTO THREE OR FOUR READING SESSIONS OR, BETTER YET, JUST LOOK AT THE PICTURES.
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.