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Ch. 9

California, except it isn't

Smelly as I was, I decided to sit next to the toilet onboard the bus, and that worked just fine. My decision, that is, not the toilet, of course. An uneventful ride through the night turned into a beautiful morning outside the bus windows; The Andes standing tall a bit inland, they are at their highest here, with Cerro Aconcagua being the very top, at 6960 meters, a bit further to the north. At sunrise the mountains could be seen clearly in silhouette, but as we drove into the smog of Santiago and the sun rose, they slowly disappeared from view.

Arriving at the Terminal de Buses Sur, I discovered that today was the first day at the universities, and all the local buses were full of properly dressed students. The YHA/HI hostel was just 3 kilometres away, so I decided to just walk there. I had walked no more than half the distance before I experienced a classical piece of South American big city mentality; I was walking next to a middle-aged man who seemed quite normal and who even had taken a look at me and my backpack and smiled at me, when a younger man in front of us, who was dressed like a stockbroker or something and was busy talking like a machine gun into his cell phone, lost a thick wad of money out of his back pocket without noticing. And when I say thick, I mean REAL thick. I've never seen anyone carrying so many bank notes in a pocket before, and they seemed to be all big value notes, I guess there must have been several hundred thousand pesos in there. I could see the eyes of the man next to me bulge for a fraction of a second, before he threw himself over the money, picked them up and looked at me looking at him, giving me the international finger over lips sh-signal, before miming that we would of course share this unexpected gift from Heaven. It took me a couple of seconds to realize what was going on, and since nobody else seemed to do anything, I instinctively started yelling "¡Señor!". The look of surprise on the older man's face when I did this was only surpassed by the look of surprise on the younger man's face when he turned around and saw me point at the older man, saying "Tiene sus dineros", "This man has got your money". The money changed hands again, the older man looked sourly at me, cursing, and disappeared into a narrow alley, red probably more from anger than from shame. "Buenos dias", I said to the man in the suit, and walked on, leaving him standing there like a big question mark, with his money in one hand and his cell phone in the other, not understanding much of what just happened.

So the day started quite well; Arriving in Santiago before 7, saving a suit's day before 7:30, getting a bed in a very nice hostel before 8, turning all my dirty laundry in before 9 and enjoying a meal at a downtown KFC before 10. It felt like I had been through a whole day already. For the last 36 hours I had not eaten and only been drinking water, as my plan was to see if I could eat a whole KFC family bucket of chicken here. I couldn't, but the main reason was that the bucket concept apparently had not arrived in Chile yet. Instead I ended up eating a normal 3 person meal.

The downtown area of Santiago is incredibly busy, and I discovered that what I desired most, right then, in this city of 7 million people, was some peace and quiet. I also felt I should do something about the three greasy chickens that were slowly moving down inside me. The solution was to walk north, out of the city centre, to Parque Metropolitano, a hilly park where a big Jesus statue faces the city from the peak. I passed the zoological gardens, wondering briefly how you can run a zoo on a 45 degree angle hill and at the same time have anything else but mountain goats in it. The smog may make the location pretty unbearable not only for animals but also for trees, but I still found the botanical gardens, further away from the city centre, a beautiful place to take a rest from the city life. I spent an hour under a cherry tree there, and did not see another person for the whole time, except for people passing by in the funicular, 20 metres overhead. I could even glimpse the Andes again, white-capped peaks in the distance to the east. Further up the hill there's a swimming pool, Piscina Tupahue, ridiculously charging a US$10 entrance fee. It looks real nice, but the security guards doesn't have a very difficult job making sure nobody tries to sneak in, given that there are only 11 people in the whole city who can afford to go swimming here.

I spent the rest of the day walking back to the hostel. Santiago is, except for 2 or 3 small hills, dead flat, so most of the time you don't really have any landmarks that tell you where you are. Hence, I walked 30 kilometres on this day, without ever really knowing precisely where I was. I walked through nice neighbourhoods and definitely bad neighbourhoods, and it got dark a long time before I was back at the hostel again. Now, walking in the dark in a huge city you're not familiar with is not necessarily a good thing, actually it can be quite dangerous. For one thing, the dark makes it almost impossible to see the dog turds that are all over the sidewalks. I say no more.

In the end, my brownian movements through the endlass, winding streets of Santiago brought me back to my now clean laundry at the hostel, and as if that wasn't good enough, I also met two of the guys from the Antarctica ship. Matt Sheepfarmer from Australia, who made a Crocodile Dundee-like point out of consistently wearing shorts in Antarctica, was entertaining the crowd with opening beer bottles so that the bottle caps went up on the roof. On a five storey building. We had a chat, but I was pretty exhausted from my walking and went to bed instead of going bar-hopping with the rest of the crowd. Santiago is a place where in a sense there is not much to do, but it is very easy to spend many days there, just getting up late, have a 4 hour brunch at a cafe, watching people until happy hour starts, and then drink and dance throughout the evening and night, repeat. And that's not what I do.

What I do do, however, is to check out local attractions, such as museums. In the Normal Quinta park early next morning, I became visitor number one that day to the Museo Nacional de Historica Natural. The moth-eaten stuffed animals weren't too impressive, but I did get to meet my first real Easter Island moai, and I improved my Spanish by reading and understanding the signs explaining the objects, which were all in Spanish. Next door was the Museum of Science and Technology, of which I had seen little so far in this country, except for items hanging around the necks of Japanese tourists, so I entered the museum with the same expectations I would have had for a Cairo Viking Museum or a wine museum in Iceland. Still, the Museo de Ciencia y Technologia was a mighty fine little exhibition, thanks to foreign sponsors, and one hour of Internet access was included in the 60 cents entrance fee. Since I was the only visitor to this museum as well, there were no lines either. A very good deal.

I walked through the university campus, and I must say that if I was the author of textbooks meant for the Chilean market, I would definitely have a closer look at what all those hundreds of small copy centers are really up to. They were everywhere! So whichever book you're looking for, I bet you'll be able to literally pick up a copy here.

security People-watching in Santiago can be quite interesting, as there are lots and lots of different faces to see. Most of the places I had been lately only sported different variations over 2 or 3 different themes, to put it that way, due to very limited genetical variation, I suppose. Here, though, there were all kinds of colours and traits to see, so it was easy to spend a few hours just trying to figure out how the population here is put together. After about 60,000 faces, I had had enough and went to Calle San Diego, where there is an infinite number of shops selling second hand books. Unfortunately, their selection was infinitely bad; all the books in English were either 1960's communist manifests or poor quality science fiction. I guess the reason is that it wasn't too easy to import neither new literature nor new ideas after Allende's dictatorship really got started. After buying nothing I walked on, to Parque O'Higgins, where there are lots of stadiums and sports grounds, but today the main attraction was the Radio Colo Colo free open air concert. The concert apparently was a tribute to women, afterall it was the eight of March, UN's international women's day. One slick male singer after another gave their best performance in a row of salsa-like ballads, with very heavy contributions from men with accordions. It was very much like a Norwegian folk music show, except here there were young and old women lined up in front of the stage, singing along and screaming at their idols as if they were The Beatles. Sometimes one sees strange things in faraway places. To ensure that things wouldn't get out of hand, the Chilean Army had been foresighted enough to put quite a few of their armed men on patrol among the audience. Very strange things, indeed.

It was time to move on, and my next destination was Viña del Mar. To me, this had always been one of those mythical places with faraway names, like Timbouctou, Guam and Winnipeg, simply because it was the name of the first pizzeria that opened back in my little childhood hometown in Norway. It was run by a family of Chilean political refugees, with a bit of homesickness, apparently. Thus I had kind of great expectations for it, although they weren't very specific ones. Nevertheless, I soon was quite satisfied.

Viña del Mar is a beach town, a couple of hours by bus straight west out of Santiago de Chile. The beach has good sand, but apart from that it's not too nice; there were some warning signs on the beach, saying we should not spend too much time in the water, without "too much" being defined anywhere. It's not really a problem, as there are plenty of waves here, but they are too large to make swimming for long an option, and too small to be used for serious surfing. Still, if you're at the beach just to get your tan, this is an excellent place for it.

I walked around for a while, trying to find a cheap place to stay. That wasn't easy. Most places would charge from US$25 and up for a single's room, since it was still tourist season, although the end of it was close now. Apart from being expensive, most of the places weren't even a little bit nice. In the end I couldn't be bothered to walk from door to door anymore, and just booked myself in for one night at a horrible place called Residencia Agua Santa. The name itself was quite a mystery; There was no water/agua to be found neither in the toilet nor in the shower, and I am convinced Santa never have and never will find his way to this place; noone staying here, except me, of course, have ever behaved well enough to deserve any presents. High up on the wall in my room there was a huge Metallica poster that was scary enough that it gave me a nightmare, and even though the beds looked like nice, wooden ones, as soon as you lay down in them, the turned into painted metal and said "BONNNGG!" rather loudly every time you moved. The curtain rod had broken in two parts, but it didn't really matter, since somebody stole the curtains centuries ago. I didn't dare look into the closet, but I'm sure there were plenty of skeletons inside. I dropped my backpack as fast as I could, went out, put a padlock on the door and ran out of there.

To cheer myself up a bit, I went to the Fonck museum, which concentrates on anything that has to do with Easter Island. The display was very small and not too interesting, but luckily they had a section with stuffed animals, and I think the woman from Puerto Montt may have been working here as well; A Magellan penguin with the most incredible squinting eyes sent me laughing out of there, in spite of the US$2 ticket price.

Next morning I got up REALLY early, to make sure I was up before the skeletons in the closet. On my way out I rescued two Swiss backpackers who were in the process of checking in, and brought them to another place, Hospedaje Montana, just a bit up the hill. This place had several students staying, which normally is a good sign, especially compared to places that have no people staying there, just people leaving. I got a nice little cabin in the backyard, which I shared with lots of mosquitoes that did not carry malaria, but who didn't really respect my privacy either. So once again I dumped my backpack and ran out of a room. This time heading for Valparaiso.

fishermen at a market near Valparaiso Depending on how you walk, 2-3 hours after leaving Viña del Mar southwards you'll pass into Valparaiso without any further notice. There are houses along the road and beach all the way, but it is a different city you've entered. While the city you left is a typical tourist place, Valparaiso is a real city with lots of distinction. It reminds me a lot about San Francisco, with very steep streets climbing the hills, going straight inland from the seaside, some places so steep that there are elevators, ascensores, to help you get up there, or down. Together Valparaiso and VdM. form a very long and narrow urban area around the beautiful bay, Bahia de Valparaiso. When it gets dark it's even more beautiful, with miles and miles of flickering lights to watch from wherever you are along the bay.

I had chosen a Saturday for visiting Valparaiso, or Valpo as they call it, and that was on coincidence. On Saturdays and Sundays there's a very interesting antiques market on the Plaza O'Higgins, and I was eager to see what was on offer. For some reason, it seemed like the market specializes on items that may have been household items in the homes of Germans any time from 50 to 100 years ago. I guess it means a lot of people emigrated here from Germany in the last couple of years of WWII, which fits nicely into quite a few theories of conspiracy. Anyway, the result is that I found complete sets of military service papers from the SS and Hitler's army, priced at US$90 and upwards, a huge, functioning grammophone, ideal for playing military marches from old, crackling records, that cost two and a half fortunes, and an incredible collection of ancient, Chilean porn magazines, some from as far back as 1999. Something for everyone, in other words.

I bought an American (as in "from the USA") book from the 1950's, about commercials and advertisements, and how they will develop in the future. Almost like following the OJ Simpson trial; you know what really happened. Happy about my finding I walked along the bay, past lots of buildings that must have looked really nice and impressive once, until I had passed all the boats in the docks, and went on the Ascensor Artilleria, one of the 15 "elevators" that take pedestrians up the hills of the city. This particular ascensor took me to a beautiful view over the city, from the entrance to the excellent Museo de Naval y Maritimo; The Naval War Museum. Even though there were no amusing stuffed animals here, this was the best museum I had seen on the trip so far. All cities in Argentina and Chile have streets with the same names, everything is named after liberation heroes like Prat, Roja, Cochrane, Martin, and so on. In this museum you get a compact introduction to the stories behind all of these names, and quite a lot of strange artifacts bizarrely related to the persons are also on display. My favourite piece, though, was a recruitment poster for an English pirate ship from long ago:

God Save the KING
Dollar Bag
Consigned to Boney
The rest of the GALLEONS with the TREASURE from LA PLATA, are waiting half loaded at CARTAGENA, for the arrival of those from PERU at PANAMA, as soon as that takes place, they are to sail for PORTOVELO, to take the rest of their Cargo, with Provisions and Water for the Voyage to EUROPE. They stay at PORTOVELO a few days only. Such a Chance perhaps will never occur again

Of 36 GUNS
At Plymouth
is a new and uncommonly fine Frigate. Built on purpose. And ready for an EXPEDITION, as soon as some more good Hands are on board;
Captain Lord Cochrane
(who was not drowned in the ARAB as reported)
Commands her. The sooner you are on board the better.
None need apply, but SEAMEN or Stout Hands, able to rouse about the Field Pieces, and carry an hundred weight of PEWTER, without stopping, at least three Miles.
Is postponed for want of COBBS
To British SeamenCOCHRANE
Rendezvous, at the White Flag

A 30 cent train ride saved me 3 hours of walking back to VdM. On the train I picked up a newspaper someone had left, and could actually read it. The main story was that the local authorities were stunned to learn that a house in the middle of the city where there had been a big fire only fifty days ago, leaving the house barely standing, all of a sudden had fallen down and killed two tourists in the process. Oh, and there was a report on the major floodings in Chiloe after the island receiving more rain in two days than in the previous 10 months altogether. In other words: I was glad to be going north.

The next leg cost me a bit more, about US$30, but then it was quite a different journey. Realizing I had only one month left I felt I needed to hurry up a bit, and chose my next destination to be Antofagasta, 1300 kilometers up the coast. It was a 20 hour ride in a declining seat, and included low quality video showings of Tomorrow Never Dies, Replacement Killers and Mad City. I found the scenery outside more entertaining. As we started out, the surroundings were slightly barren, California-like, in effect dry, but still nice-looking. Dark fell, night passed with noisy videos, and with morning we found ourselves where the Atacama desert meets the Pacific, and a thick, brownish fog was everywhere. It never rains, but it is foggy all the time. Tough luck, coastal northern Chile farmers and tourist operators! The only life to be seen is where fresh water trickles its way on and below the surface on various rivers coming down from the Andes, most of the time everything is just sand and rocks, grey and brown.

After the monotonous landscapes of the Atacama, Antofagasta comes as a pleasant and lively surprise. It's a mixture of the typical Chilean town and the typical British colonial city. There are lots of stylish, old, wooden buildings, there's a replica (very much down-scaled) of Big Ben on the Plaza de Armas, and there's even something reminiscent of ancient, Indian culture, namely huge geoglyphs in the hillsides. Here, though, instead of the Indian animals and men in spacesuits, the geoglyphs depict messages like "Jesus lives!", the phone number to the local taxi central, in ten metres tall numbers, and military insignia. I was also pretty convinced I was seeing my first Inca ruins ever, but they turned out to be the Ruinas Huanchaca, the remains of an enormous British-Bolivian silver-refinery, a hundred years old but looking much older. (And explaining the British colonial look of the city.)

I quite liked walking around in Antofagasta. There are many colourful fishing boats, annoyed fishermen and ravenous pelicans to be entertained by, and every now and then there's a jet fighter passing over the city, making everything and everyone vibrate thoroughly. I guess the military presence must be to make sure the area does not become part of Bolivia again, like it was a hundred years ago. But the soldiers are friendly towards people who do not look too Bolivian, so it's okay.

US$10 bought me a decent room at Hotel Brasil, with shared bathroom but a private TV. I used it to watch US sitcoms in Spanish, and improved my Spanish while at the same time mending a touch of homesickness. For dinner I went to a nearby restaurant that seemed ok, but then I discovered it was one of those places where you can open the menu and find names like Fred Chicken and Gordon Blue in the cast, I changed my mind and treated myself to KFC yet again.

One night in Antofagasta was all I could spare this time, because I had to go inland before the weekend, to one of the biggest holes in the world.

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Ch. 9