Onwards to Machu Picchu…+ after

(WRITTEN BEFORE THE INCA TRAIL)

Tis the eve of our Inca trail and I never managed to shake away my sickness. Yesterday I couldn’t avoid it any longer and the hostel called a doctor to come see me in our room. Basically he knew straight away what I had and has given me medication to fix it. I have to take 3 different sets of pills until the 28th but he’s given me the green light to hike the trail. I somehow contracted a type of gastroenteritis during the salt flats tour through eating fresh vegetables. Andy didn’t get it because he didn’t eat the veges! That’s what I get for being a healthy eater… anyway, the doc said I have to stay away from fresh fruit and veges for a while.

Since the last post, we hung out in Bolivia for a while. From Uyuni, we headed to La Paz. La Paz was crazy shit. I thought I would be unphased by it since I have already experienced similar cities like Bangkok and Mumbai. But La Paz was something else. With dizzying steep streets, insane traffic which produced a constant smell of smog, the narrow footpaths, the indigenous Aimara women carrying their babies on their backs in colourful tapestry cloths, the police as traffic light replacements blowing their whistles in incomprehensible messages and us, totally in the middle of it all. I got my camera fixed and we ate a very disappointing meal at an Indian restaurant. I got Paneer Saag and the curry was half melted Mozerella cheese. GROSS.

It came time to say goodbye to La Paz as we caught a 3 and a half hour public bus to Copacabana (it cost us $3!!!!!). It was another experience. As soon as we got out of the cab, we were accosted by people trying to sell us bus tickets. The taxi driver opened the boot and some guys just took our backpacks out and loaded them into their bus. There was another lady standing there telling us to take our backpacks out because her company was better. It was pure confusion. But we made it to Copa in one piece with all our belongings.

(CURRENTLY IN LIMA AIRPORT WAITING ON OUR CONNECTION TO RIO DE JANEIRO)

Yes, I am fail. I never finished this entry before we went on the Inca trail so I’ll just continue from where I left off. ..

Copacabana is a small, touristy town on the shores of Lake Titicaca – on the Bolivian side. We could actually afford to stay in a simple hotel and ate like kings. Everything was just so so cheap.  We took a boat out to Isla del Sol, which is an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca and is the birthplace of the Inca creation myth. It is where they believed the sun and moon were born. There was some random old guy who acted as if he was our guide even though not even the Spanish speakers could really comprehend what he was saying. He just used a bit of broken mirror to point things out on rocks and then demanded his fee at the end of this “tour”. We didn’t really see any exciting ruins but it was a nice day out.

Next, we headed for Puno, this time a city on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca.  We only stayed a full day (the town itself was pretty much a hole) but did a trip out to the famous Floating Reed Islands. Back in the day, the indigenous people built islands out of the reeds that grew in the lake and made their lives out of fishing and trading with the people from the mainland. Nowadays, however, it has become shockingly commercialised. There are some 50+ reed islands on the Lake and every tourist group is taken to 2 of them. It was cool to start off. We disembarked on the island and they explained to us how the islands are constructed. Then we were taken by one of the eager indigenous ladies to her house. She sat us down for about 2 mins and explained how we were going to buy her craftwork. Then she led us to her little stall and bullied us to buy something she had made. It wasn’t cheap but Andy and I both bought something because they only live off tourism now. It did leave me a bit shocked at that kind of behaviour – they are desperate and aggressive to sell. But little did we know, it was a foreword to how Cusco was only to be like.

We took a bus to Cusco the next day. We opted for a service that had stops along the way at interesting sites to make the trip less tedious. As is our luck with transport…somehow the company had given the wrong name to the person who came to pick us up from our hostel. He ended coming back half an hour later and by that time, our bus had already left! The taxi driver had to chase down the coach as it left the city and we hopped onto it, immensely relieved. Turns out Peru is not nearly as cheap as Bolivia and although food and accommodation is affordable, the tourist activities aren’t as much. We arrived in Cusco and didn’t think it lived up to the all the rage about it. People say it’s a beautiful colonial city, but it is still quite run down. We spent the first days preparing for the Inca trail. We were on the Inca trail for 4 days and it was definitely an experience. Despite my sickness, I managed to do it well. It wasn’t much in terms but actual distance of the tramp but the altitude combined with steep climbing definitely took its toll! On the second day we continuously climbed 1,200m and reached over 4,000m above sea level. On the third day, it was a constant battle with steep uphill and downhill but was compensated with Incan ruins and the fact that we were hiking the original trail laid down by the Incas over 500 years ago. Our guides were locals (but spoke really good English) and were mega knowledgeable and passionate about the surroundings and history. We had a group of all English-speakers with people from USA, England, Canada and a Malaysian couple who live in Auckland! On Christmas day we woke at 4am, gobbled down a quick breakfast and started the hike to reach Machu Picchu as early as possible. It is the rainy season in this regions at the moment and we had had rain all the days. The rain, however, held off as Machu Picchu came into sight. We got our classic photos and the drizzle began but it didn’t matter too much. We got guided through the ruins and given the back story and then got left for some free time. As you can imagine, Machu Picchu is awfully touristy and the site got quite crowded. But you can’t blame people for wanting to see it…it is perhaps the most impressive Incan site with loads of interesting symbolism and architecture. Very special place.

On the conclusion of the trail, we returned to Cusco where we spent another few days, recovering and relaxing. I got a massage (SO CHEAP) to relieve the stress but Andrew chickened out, put off by the idea of some random person touching him. We explored different areas of Cusco and the city really grew on us. Despite being very touristy and getting accosted by street sellers every time to turn the corner, Cusco has personality and flair. We were imagining the drive back home Auckland airport and passing through all the lifeless and bland suburbs of Auckland city. I guess everywhere has its pros and cons…

Our New Years Eve involved a lucky evening at the casino and then joining the masses in the Plaza de Armas. Everything and everyone was decked out in yellow, the Peruvian colour for good luck that has become a NYE custom. There were loads of people selling yellow masks, crowns, ties, leis …everything! There was a stage set up with a band and singer to entertain the crowds as local ladies and kids went around selling six packs of the local beer (which is REALLY good by the way). There were young people recklessly lighting fireworks and at one stage I was actually scared. We celebrated with everyone as midnight neared and the official, jazzy fireworks started going off. There wasn’t a countdown, we had no idea when it struck 12 but suddenly we were totally covered in champagne and beer. We assumed the New Year had arrived when everyone started running around the Plaza. Turns out it is custom to run 2 laps in order to run away from the year before and toward the coming one. We had planned to go out afterwards but like New Zealand, the weather packed up and a thunderstorm began!

I’m at a Starbucks in Lima airport at the moment. We had a 1hr and 15min flight from Cusco to Lima and have a 10hr stopover here waiting for our connecting flight to Rio de Janeiro. It hasn’t been bad so far. I’ve been learning Portuguese from our phrasebook and if you buy something at Starbucks you get to sit and use Wifi for however long you want and they don’t even kick you out! So another 3 or so hours to go until we check in …

I don’t know what to expect from Rio de Janeiro. It’s meant to be one of the best cities in the world but we also heard it’s something like the mugging capital of the world. It will be the first and only country on the trip where none of us know how to speak the language and all we have is a pathetic substitute which is a phrasebook! But I can’t help but be excited! I can’t wait to get back down to sea level, I can’t wait to go to the beach! We’ve also procured an additional leg to the trip. We’re taking a detour after Rio and instead of heading straight to Iguazu falls, we’re going to explore the southern Pantanal in central Brazil. The Pantanal region is the largest wetland in the world and rivals the Amazon rainforest in terms of biodiversity. Apparently the rainy season, in opposition to the Amazon, is the high season in the Pantanal because the land mammals are more confined to highlands making them easier to spot and the birds come to breed. We are soo excited to see wildlife…which is something huge South America has to offer and what we’ve missed so far being in harsh regions such as the desert and high altitude mountainous areas. We’ll be doing a 3 day trip there before heading south Argentina-way.

And that’s the haps so far. I’m feeling a lot better vis-a-vis my illness so hopefully it stays that way. I’ve reached the home stretch of my overseas trip and home awaits in 3 weeks. We’ll definitely try and make the most of it.

The coast, the desert, the altiplano

Holaaaa. So I have been a bit fail with updating this but we have been on the run since we left Santiago. Here’s the haps so far:

We took a nightbus to La Serena which is a city on the coast, 7  hours up from Santiago. It certainly wasn’t mind blowing but a comfortable way to ease ourselves into what is backpacking. We did a tour to the Isla Damas and saw the Humbolt penguins (one of the smallest penguins in the world), different species of shags, sealions, pelicans etc. As Biology-geeks, seeing all those animals was mega exciting. We also had a day trip to a place called Valle de Elqui, which is the geomagnetic centre of the Earth. People say it had a mystical/zen energy there but tbh we didn’t really feel anything out of the ordinary. The scenery was stunning but the town (Pisco Elqui) is pretty small and uneventful. It is known as the Pisco-producing region with vineyards scattered all over the rolling hills. Pisco is the national liquor of Chile (I’m sure I have mentioned it many times) and is SO GOOD. New Zealand is missing out. That evening we also did an observatory tour in Vicuña at the Mamalluca observatory. We got to see Venus and Jupiter through a pretty boss telescope and could even see the cloud rings on Jupiter’s surface! We used another big telescope to check out the craters on the moon and our guide told us the stories of the constellations. He got really excited when we told him we were from New Zealand. He had lived in Papakura for 4 years and said it was impossible for him to get citizenship when John Key’s govt came into power. I regretted to inform him that National had been re-elected.

Our next stop was an oasis town in the middle of the Atacama desert called San Pedro de Atacama. It was a 17 hr overnight bus ride…we are getting pretty used to these long trips and keep ourselves entertained by watching How I Met Your Mother episodes on my laptop until the battery ran out. San Pedro was surreal. Everything is dusty and we were covered in dust/sand for both days we were there. We went to Valle de La Luna which translates to “Valley of the Moon” officially named by NASA as the landscape resembles the surface of the moon. We saw the strange rock formations and learnt that the surface is largely salt which is covered in sand. We saw the sunset and frolicked down huge sand dunes at dusk. It was pretty special. The climate was intense. It would get to 35 degrees Celsius under the scorching sun during the day and plummet to 0 during the night. Our second day we woke at 3am to check out the Tatio geysers at sunrise. When we arrived, we were told we were at an altitude of 4321m above sea level (the highest I’d ever been in my life) and the temperature outside was -11 degrees Celsius (the coldest I’ve ever been in my life). I struggled. The altitude really got me…I could barely walk and a shallow climb of 3 metres tired me out as if I’d run 100m. The whole time we were up there, my heart was racing like a rabbit’s to get enough oxygen to the rest of my body. Andrew felt it too and the other people in our group, but I think I was especially screwed by it. The geysers were great and we met 2 girls from University of Auckland! They had both finished Engineering degrees and were spending their summer exploring South America. Hopefully we will see them again in Cusco, Peru.

At this stage, every time we blew our noses, blood came out. And our eyes were red because blood vessels were breaking due to the altitude. We did some desert horse riding on our last day. I have done horse riding quite a few times before due to my dad’s fondness towards horses, but it was Andrew’s first time and he got the worst horse. It was either really old, lazy or sick and just stopped in its tracks for no reason a lot of the time. Andy was given a whip and practised being a cowboy. That day we also confirmed our 3 day tour to the Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni salt flats). That tour is the most complained about in South America. There are loads of agencies offering the tour and when we were researching, we read hundreds of complaints about drunk drivers, jeeps breaking down, lack of tourist information, being ripped off. Because of that, we were very apprehensive about which company to book with. After asking around and info from the Internet, we decided to go with a company called ‘Estrella del Sur’ which is a family company. We struck lucky, that’s for sure.

Our journey began at 7.30am that morning as we got picked up by a minibus and taken to Chilean immigration. We were waiting in line for 2 and a half hours just to sign out of Chile. We hopped back in the bus and got driven to the Bolivian immigration which took literally 10mins and involved filling out a form and getting given a stamp. Apparently it’s so much faster because Bolivia doesn’t have a system. Haha. Then we all got divided into groups of 6 and were taken to the 4×4 Toyota jeep that would be ours. There were a whole lot of Australians who got bundled into one jeep. Andrew and I were with 2 other couples, one from Spain and the other from Brasil. Our driver, Alberto, said he didn’t speak English, only Spanish and Quechua (language of the Incas) and was happy that everyone in the car understood Spanish. I broke the news that Andrew couldn’t but I loyally translated everything for him throughout the trip.

Basically, we had a wonderful experience on the tour and if you are ever thinking of doing it, we can highly recommend Estrella del Sur. We got really good meals 3 times a day. Alberto made an effort and provided us with information about the sites we visited. Alberto was responsible (no drinking) and honest. Our jeep did break down in one of the deserts but thanks to the guys in the jeep plus Alberto, they managed to replace the broken valve and get it going again. It was definitely a “disaster averted” moment. It is all pretty much offroad driving through deserts, dried rivers, rocks and salt so I guess you can’t complain if something goes wrong with the vehicle. We saw some of the most amazing sights in the world. We saw green and red lakes, thousands of flamingoes, cacti, rock formations, smoking volcanoes, thermal pools in the middle of a freezing rock desert. All those sights and the difficulty to breathe due to the altitude contributed to the feeling of being on the surface of Mars for 3 days, not Earth. We stayed in really basic accommodation. We didn’t have hot water for showers on our first night and on the second night we stayed in a Salt Hotel which was exciting because everything was made of salt inside. On our 3rd day we woke at 4am to see the sunrise on the Salar de Uyuni, the largest and highest salt flat in the world – 80km in width. It wasn’t like anything you’ve ever seen. We were in our 1 of 5 biggest places we’re going to be in. We selected Salar de Uyuni, Lake Titicaca, Machu Picchu, Christ the Redeemer, Iguazu Falls as our top 5 highlights and one has been ticked off.

We finished the tour in Uyuni checking out the train cemetery and got dropped off to a hotel. Yep, we decided to stay in a hotel in our one night in Uyuni. Why? Because Uyuni is a bit of a hole. The city looks really run down, but I  really like it. Everyone is so traditional here. Women wearing skirts, stockings, colourful shawls and a hat. They all look so indigenous, like Incas – it’s really fascinating. After arriving, tired and really, REALLY dirty, we needed a bit of luxury. The hotel is basic I guess, with very slow internet but it’s something. I got really sick last night and couldn’t eat. Today I have had bad diarrhoea and have spent most of the day in bed. We asked the guy at reception if we could extend check out time because I can’t possibly do anything.  We are scheduled to go to La Paz tonight but if I’m not feeling better, we’ll spend another night here. I don’t know where I got the stomach bug from. The food during the tour was well made and Andrew hasn’t gotten sick at all. Anyway, luckily we brought medicine and I’ve been popping pills and topping up on electrolyte mixes. During my 4 and a half months in Chile I didn’t get sick at all so I guess it had to happen sometime!

Anyway, I am off to rest a bit more but hopefully when we get to La Paz, the internet will be better and I’ll be able to upload some of our photos.

Until then,

Aiman.

Chau pesca’o!

So, Chau pesca’o in Chilean means something like “See ya alligator” and is directed to Santiago where I am spending my last evening.

It seems surreal that my bittersweet relationship with Santiago has come to an end. And it is ending on a high of 33 degrees Celsius….we were getting cooked I swear. Today was a blur of frantically packing one 50L tramping pack for everything I will need for 7 weeks and dumping all the other stuff I have accumulated over the last 4 months in 2 suitcases.  Packing the tramping pack was tough as we have to pack for all climates and situations. In Bolivia and Peru it will be cold and rainy, but in Brazil and Argentina it will get up to 40 degrees Celsius. South America really does have it all. But it doesn’t help my packing nerves.

Anyway, I’m almost out of time. It is almost 8pm and we will head out at 9ish to get dinner and head straight to the terminal to catch our bus after midnight.

I’m feeling a strange mixture of anticipation, excitement, anxiety and terror. I don’t know what’s out there waiting for us. I don’t know whether I’m forgetting something essential. I’m second guessing everything. But I have done this before. I went to Mendoza and the south of Chile. I know how this is done. That’s what I have to keep telling myself.

We will head to La Serena first – about 7 hours north of Santiago. Then San Pedro de Atacama – a small, oasis town in the middle of the driest desert in the world. Afterwards, we will cross over to Bolivia and visit the Uyuni Salt Flats. We will head up to La Paz which is at like 4,000m above sea level and continue to lake Titicaca before crossing over into Peru. Straight up to Cusco to do the Inca trail and we have a week or so free afterwards to do perhaps explore another place. On the 2nd of January, our plane leaves Cusco for Rio de Janeiro, Brasil!! Very excited about that but also a bit nervous because it will be the only country that I don’t know the language of. We will depart Rio for the south and hang out at Iguazu waterfalls on the Argentine border before continuing on to Buenos Aires. Our flight leaves BsAs for Santiago on the 17th of January and we will enjoy one last day in Santiago before catching the flight back to Auckland on the 18th of January! Due to the weird time difference, we will not be living the 19th, as we touch down in Kiwiland at 4am, 20th January 2012.

That is the plan. But hey, we’re in South America so anything can happen.! This is what I’ve been waiting for. Nothing but the adventure lies ahead. I know it will be full of ups and downs but it will be an experience of a lifetime. I hope to stay in touch with all of you. Keep me updated and I will you!

Here goes nothing.

ALSKDJLSDI

AHHHHHH TIME IS RUNNING OUT!

This week was a blur. Andrew arrived on Monday around noon. It was a mission going to the airport. I had to catch a bus to the metro station. Hop on the metro and then change lines. I had to hop off at the main bus terminal to catch a special bus that does the airport route. He was scheduled to land at 11.40am and I was relieved as I arrived at the gate at 11.15am. I looked to the screen to check for his flight’s details and freaked out when it said it had arrived an hour early. I pictured him wandering around the airport, lost and alone. I decided to wait on a flight of stairs and look around for him while monitoring the gate. I eventually see him come out of the gate, and with his All Blacks jersey, he couldn’t be missed. It was really surreal seeing him and talking to him! And I realised it’s going to be like that with everyone when I’m back home!

Aiman and Andrew

On that Monday, we went for a little walk down my road to keep Andy awake so he would get acclimatised to the 16 hour time difference! The first store we went into, some Chilean sales girls were eyeing him up! He definitely stands out here, much taller than the general crowd and blond, with no Spanish. Although kudos to him, he’s definitely been trying!

Tuesday, I had my last final exam of the semester. I was looking forward to getting it over and done with. We went to a cafe/library in the middle of the park where I usually go to study. Andy came with and did some of his own reading and we met up with Seve there. I took him to “La Fuente Alemana” for lunch where they serve up HUGE sandwiches. And note that these are Chilean sandwiches which aren’t sandwiches in the traditional sense – they are epic burger-type items.

SANDWICH

After cramming enough knowledge about Chilean history, we headed to my campus in the metro. It was the first time Andrew had ridden a metro and he was pretty fascinated by it and a bit surprised by how crowded the train and buses can get! After 4 months, I’m used to the way of life here but having him point out things makes me realise how different it all is here.

My exam went okay and I reckon I have passed all my papers with a relatively good grade. I definitely feel I got a lot out of the University exchange and even though things didn’t go according to plan at the start, everything worked out in the end.

Wednesday, we did a free walking tour of key cultural landmarks in Santiago. The guide, Antonio, was English-speaking (albeit with a strong Hispanic accent and dodgy grammar) and very cool. The tour lasted about 4 hours and even though I’d been to those places before, it was pretty interesting getting some extra history!

La Moneda, the govt HQ

After the tour, we went up Cerro San Cristobal, a huge hill right in the middle of the city which offers panoramic views of the whole of Santiago. Despite the persistent haze of smog, the view was pretty decent! We got some empanadas up top and went and hung out with the huge statue of Virgin Mary. Religion is visible here, unlike New Zealand, where it is more of a personal, private affair.

Smoggy Santiago

Thursday was a full on day. I had to go into the central campus to hand in a document and finalize my exchange. Then, as I had broken my laptop charger the day before, I managed to find an HP store in Providencia and got a replacement. It certainly wasn’t cheap but I felt handicapped without my laptop and had no choice but to pay up. It’s scary to realise how much we really depend on computers and the Internet. THEN, it was off to Las Condes in search for the NZ embassy to place our special overseas votes for Saturday’s election! To our pleasant surprise, the embassy was located on the 12th floor (well, a small part of the 12th floor) of a really flashy, up market building. We had to be “let in” to the lift area by presenting our passports and headed up to the embassy. The lady who assisted us was Chilean and said that so far about 48 New Zealanders had come in to the embassy to vote!

Taking cheeky photos outside the embassy

Next we headed to the mall. This particular mall, Parque Arauco, is GIGANTIC. It has everything; shops, cinema, restaurants, water features, gardens, and even an ice skating rink. The main point of going was so I could buy a tramping pack for the trip we’re going to do and there is a really good outdoor supplies store there (at the level of Kathmandu) where I had seen the perfect pack. I had been told they were going to get the 60L one in November but I keep forgetting I’m in Chile and you can’t rely on anything! So I turn up all expectant and he says they are not getting any in until mid to late December. We try and ask at the Info desk if there are any other stores that sell big hiking packs but got a few vague instructions. After not finding anything, I felt pretty disillusioned and dragged Andrew along to watch Breaking Dawn with me! It was quite expensive actually, like New Zealand rates. Headed to Ignacia’s that night to visit her, give her the pressie Andy brought and say goodbye to her before we leave on Wednesday.

Friday (today), I took Andy to a market where there are lots of souvenirs and little bits and bobs. We bought Peruvian beanies (with ear flaps and all) for the cold in Bolivia. I bought some naughty show pieces for mum and my aunt so they’re going to get a nice surprise 😛
Mum had googled “Outdoor stores in Santiago” and had found some store which apparently had a good website. We headed here out of desperation and managed to find the pack I was looking for! I paid a lot for it but I’m looking at it as an investment. Eek, We are heading out in a bit to celebrate Seve’s last night in Santiago and tomorrow morning we’re leaving for Valparaiso for the weekend! It’s all go and we haven’t had time to get much done to be honest. We will have Tuesday and Wednesday next week as we leave late Wednesday night for La Serena. I’m still debating whether or not to take my laptop.

Also, thank you to everyone who’s been in touch with me, via email, facebook etc. I am always soo happy to hear from you guys and I apologise in advance if I don’t end up having time to reply to you. But I will keep in touch through here and through FB so watch this space!

Much love!

Second guessing

Hi everybody. I always wonder who “everybody” is. Who am I talking to?  Who reads my blog? I wonder if people I don’t know somehow found this. That’s the one thing about the Internet…who never know who you’re talking you…

The general rule of my blog writing has been updating when I do something different, something out of my routine. But I’ve realised that I have never really mentioned my routine; what I do day to day, so here it is:

I have classes at University Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. I only have one class on Monday. I did salsa lessons during the first month I was here. I didn’t have University so I went twice a week to a dance school. When I got transferred to La Catolica, I opted to sign up for salsa classes through the University. It was cheaper, I went the whole semester and was on campus. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out. The classes are unorganised and not taught nearly as well as the previous school. On top of that, because there are so many long weekends here, Mondays would always be skipped and I wasn’t learning anything at all. So I’ve stopped going and am left with the basic steps I learned prior.

Tuesdays I had classes from 10am to 7pm, which a couple of break in between. I say had because the 5-7pm has finished up for the semester and we only have the exam to sit in a week and a half. On my breaks I would normally go to the library to catch up on work. But I would normally end up sleeping, emailing or FB chatting.

Wednesday I have a day off. I would sometimes have to go in to Uni for an odd tutorial but generally I would organise to meet up with friends or stay home and chill. Wednesday night was strongly associated with going out – I’ve talked about Miercoles Po and sometimes we would go get quiet drinks.

Thursday was also 10am-7pm. I’ve had some BAD (Hungover) Thursdays. Coming into my 10am class without makeup and looking like the living dead.

Friday, another day off. Hooray for constantly long weekends! Friday off has been great for going away on small weekend trips.

My classes are now finishing up and I’ve gone a handful of tests to do next week. I can’t wait. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t particularly enjoyed University here. La Catolica definitely is a great University – awesome resources (lots of computers – I never had a problem finding a free computer UNLIKE University of Auckland), great buildings, good places to eat (UNLIKE U of Auckland). They have various casinos through campus where you can get proper home-made type food. You get a tray. Choose a drink and dessert. Then you can choose 3 salads, a type of carbohydrate (Pasta, rice, potatoes) and a main, which is usually hot like meat, vege quiche etc. And the whole thing will cost you at most NZ$9. There’s also loads of small kiosks and nice cafes on campus too. I go to a kiosk to get a HUGE salad for like…$3.80 and it comes with salt and dressing. So in a way, I will miss getting nice, cheap and HEALTHY food. But La Catolica is a semi-private University and in general, houses the upper end of society. These kids are rich. You can tell by how they dress and the cars they drive. I think because of that, they are a little bit snobby. Let’s just say that I, and a lot of other exchangers I’ve talked to, haven’t made any friends exclusively through University. In general, they’re not really interested in getting to know other people. When you get out, you realise that they are a very small sector of society. Most people in Santiago are struggling working class and live completely differently and have a different approach to foreign strangers.

As much as I’m looking forward to University ending, I realised the other day how little time I’ve got left! 11 days of semester left for me. 10 days till Andrew comes. And only 19 days left in Santiago before we leave for the north. I panicked. I don’t feel ready to leave yet. I’ve only just got my mojo, you know! I have made really good friends with the concierge of the building. I know people at the supermarket and my fruit and veg stall. I know the metro stops, I know how the buses work (finally). I can give Chileans directions. I know that sunset is the most beautiful part of the day to be out on the balcony eating dinner and slowly watching the lights come out to play in what will seem an eternal city of lights by nightfall. I love the mountains. I don’t have to exert myself to understand people any more. I can talk to people with ease, I feel confident enough to talk about more difficult topics. I went out this week and was talking to someone for a little while. They didn’t believe me when I told them I was from New Zealand because apparently my Spanish was “too good”. I feel like I’ve come a long way. And not only just in terms of language. A year ago, I was totally interdependent. Now I do my own grocery shopping, cook my own food, do my own laundry, get to places by myself, make my own decisions. It doesn’t sound like much but it’s been a huge step for me and I’m definitely appreciating responsibility. I’m looking forward to coming back home but I also don’t want to leave. Not yet. It’s too soon.

A much needed break to the South

Hello everyone! So, I know I have been a fail at updating but I have skipped class today just to dedicate the day to blog writing and general housekeeping (will head down to the supermarket in a bit).

FIRSTLY, CONGRATS to the All Blacks for bringing home the title!!! I know it’s been ages but that’s how long it’s been since I updated. I know that wherever all of you were, it would have been a tense, frightening experience and it certainly was for me. There is an Irish pub in Santiago called Flannerys that shows the matches (at the absurd 5am kick off time) but is usually saturated with French supporters (there are about 25,000 French ex-pats living in Santiago). Anyway, I got the opportunity to head down to the NZ ambassador’s house with a couple of other kiwis to watch the final. In a street populated with big apartment complexes, the ambassador’s house was a huge, English style villa hidden behind a throng of trees. We go in and are offered juice and champagne. We met the ambassador, Rosemary Paterson, and then headed down to one of many lounges to see the haka on a projector screen. There were quite a lot of people there…about 50 odd…and the majority of them were NZers. At half-time, we were offered quiches, bacon&egg pies, ANZAC biscuits, fruit, muesli, tea, coffee…ahhh it was incredible! Definitely felt homesick watching the match, especially when we won because I imagined what the atmosphere would have been like back home. But I’m so glad I got to be a part of it, however far away I am!

The ambassador and I

The rest of that week was the blur. It involved a lot of Uni work, tests, assignments to be handed in. I was just looking forward to the long weekend! It was going to be the Monday AND Tuesday off due to “El día de los muertos” (The day of the dead). It is well observed in Mexican tradition but also holds in other Latin American countries. Basically, over that weekend everyone travels to visit their dead, be it in other cities all over the country. We had planned to head to the south of Chile and check out Valdivia and Pucón. Well, technically, it’s not even THE south…it’s like mid-south (Chile is epically long). Anyway, we thought we’d be ahead of the game and buy the tickets a week in advance. Turns out there is no regulation on bus companies and they can do whatever they want with the prices, so basically the prices had doubled and even tripled. Ugh, that surpasses capitalism and crosses into plain extortion. Anyway, we paid up and I was happy to escape Santiago for a while.

We took a night bus which lasted about 12 hours. When I opened my eyes, I saw wetness, clouds, green trees (proper green), ferns, small towns, rivers…it was like a whole different world from Santiago! Valdivia definitely is a city but the lifestyle is totally different. It is an old ex-German colony and lies in the mouth of the river Calle-Calle which flows out into the Pacific Ocean. We visited the fishmarket that acts as a restaurant for the sea lions and local birds. We also hopped on the river boat which took us up some of the other rivers in the network and visited some local breweries, including cider and chicha (alcoholic beverage made from apple juice) ones. We took more river boats (lanchas) to more settlements farther out towards the ocean. The highlight was visiting a 17th century Spanish fort (fuertes españoles) in an area called Corral. We don’t have that kind of history in New Zealand so we definitely appreciate it when we encounter it, I think.

Cannons to prevent pirates from pillage gold in the area

Sealions are strange creatures

Our hostel was fantastic – it was clean and cosy and had a huge emphasis on sustainable practices and permaculture. I really like the hostel scene…well I don’t know how it is in NZ but here you really get to know the other guests. While cooking dinner and eating, everyone will share around some wine or beer, talk and exchange travel stories. I have met a lot of people doing the same kind of trip I’m hoping to go on at the end of the year so I’ve got a whole lot of tips and recommendations for hostels. We went out with everyone from the hostel both nights we were there and had a really great time!

Next we headed to Pucón which is about 3 hours inland from Valdivia. Pucon lies on the shores of Lake Villarrica and is towered over by a huge cone volcano, Volcán Villarrica, and has become a tourist hotspot in the last couple of years. It reminded me much of Queenstown, with innumerable tourist agencies offering a wealth of extreme sports. We booked everything through our hostel and they even told us things we could do on our own, which I really appreciated. The natural beauty in the area is magnificent and we visited a couple of lakes and waterfalls. During one hike to a waterfall, I could have sworn that I was in New Zealand. Same type of bush with ferns and similar plants, the soil and its smell was familiar to me. That area of Chile lies on the same latitude as our North Island so climate is similar – a lot of rain too.

NZ-ish

In terms of the extreme sports, I opted for the ziplining, hotsprings and canyoning. It was great fun! Even the canyoning which was INTENSE AS. It was a cold day as it was, and we got given wetsuits and shoes and drove out to a river. We had to traverse the river, rocks and rapids to arrive at the first waterfall. The guides set up the ropes and we abseiled down to the bottom, pretty much IN the waterfall. It was pretty epic. We did 4 waterfalls and walked through various canyons. By the end of it, I was knackered as. Headed back to the hostal for a shower and got a well-deserved vege pizza for lunch. Again, the hostel was so brilliant, with a lot of wine, food and conversation. The first night, there was a little Halloween bbq. I’m usually pretty nonchalant about bbqs as it is a meat dominated activity but we headed out to the patio just to chat with everyone. Met a Kiwi bloke (I asked him if he was Aussie as first) who had been doing a world trip and was heading back home the day after next. It was cool talking to someone who knows all the words you use as hanging around with Americans had made me realise that we use some pretty NZ-specific terms such as ute, “keen as” or “to be keen for something”, jandals, togs, scungy, gumpy (don’t know if this is just me…), mint (to describe something being cool), bach, how we specify kiwifruit where everyone just calls the fruit kiwi, is what I’ve experienced here so far.

Volcano in Pucon. Notice it is smoking.

After a trip like this, it was definitely hard to return to Santiago. Just as we arrived at the terminal and were entering the metro, we saw more people than we’d seen on the whole trip. Everyone looked angry and in a rush. I got pushed out of the way by an old lady while getting into the turnstile. The metro was ridiculously crowded and you keep getting more and more squeezed at every station. I have realised on this trip that big city life just isn’t for me and we are lucky in New Zealand to not have a city like that. Even Auckland, our biggest city, is nowhere near. And at least when you’re feeling the stress, you can head down to the water and eat an ice cream with the sea breeze on your face. Anyway, I need to get out of holiday mode and come back to reality. Less than a month left of Uni and I have assignments, essays and exams to do. As each of my friends achieve temporary “freedom” at home, I can almost taste mine.

Time flies

Hola a todos!

If there’s one thing you can rely on, it is that time will fly. I am almost 3 months into my exchange which means I’ve still got another 3 months to go, HOWEVER I only have a month and a half of University left and the rest of my trip involves backpacking around South America. 37 days until Andrew is here and I can’t believe I started my countdown at 110 days!! Yes, I’m sad, I have a countdown until when my boyfriend comes to Chile. . .

The last few weeks have been eventful though. I went running in a “park”. Turns out the park was tiny and the rest of it was a dirt track in the middle of the road…the smog makes it hard to run at your best but we gave it a good shot. And then we went to get huge sandwiches (which are more like burgers in Chile) at a famous sandwich place called Fuente Alemana.

The day afterwards, Seve and I went for a day hike in the Andean foothills. We had intended to hike to the waterfall (Salto de apoquindo) as a friend had told us about the trail. When we go to register at the entrance, the man tells us it’s prohibited to hike that particular trail. We were really disappointed and he was like “You guys really wanna go? Okay, here’s how you get there…” There were no maps and his directions were “turn right, left, right, left”. It’s a miracle we managed to find the falls! It was such an interesting hike, especially coming from NZ. The terrain was very arid and dusty with only a few shrubs and cacti. I found climbing up really difficult as I had been out of practice and the trail was loose earth and unsecured rocks. Every so often, we would stop and admire the view and how far we’d climbed. Santiago began to look like a brown cloud (smog) as we got nearer to 1000m altitude. It was pretty feral and we managed to get to the falls after 3 1/2 hours and it was totally worth it. We met a lot of people on the trail (that man had obviously told everyone how to get there) and it was so wonderful escaping the big city and being in nature. Never in my life I thought I’d be hiking in the Andes!! It was so beautiful.

Andean panorama - with CACTUS

It was so hard to imagine there being water in such a dry place...but there was.

 

The rest of the week was a blur and then we were off to Mendoza! Mendoza is an Argentine town that lies on the other side of the Andes, and it’s easier to get there than to other parts of Chile! We had bought the cheapest tickets and were going in a minibus. When we arrive at the terminal, the man tells us the minibus had broken down and wouldn’t be running that day *Typical South America moment*. LUCKILY the man had managed to find 2 seats with another company and even more luckily this was a luxury, first class coach. The seats were huge and luxurious, we got given food and drink, watched a movie and there was a toilet in the bus. Unfortunately on the way back, we were stuck in the tiny, cramped minibus. Anyway, they say that the trip through the Andes is one of the best in South America and I can see why. It was a spectacular journey with windy roads, loads of tunnels and amazing views. The only drawback is having to go through immigration and customs right on the peak. You have to get off the bus and wait in line; it is absolutely FREEZING.We made it to Mendoza in about 8 hours and started to look for a hostel. A lot of places were booked out because turns out all the Chileans had gone to Mendoza that weekend. The hostal we did find had 25 Chileans staying there. It was so interesting walking on the street and being able to pick out the Chileans immediately because we’re so accustomed to the way they speak now. The Argentines definitely speak differently but unlike chilenos they speak a bit slower.

Mendoza is a beautiful city, full of parks, plazas, trees, nice shops and restaurants. It was such a relief being somewhere that was totally different to Santiago. People seemed happier, walked slower, smiled more and the curious thing is that people are somehow a lot better looking on that side of the Andes. Ask anyone who’s been to Argentina and Chile and they will confirm it. The only problem I had with Argentina is that they eat WAY TOO MUCH meat. In Chile they eat meat but there are always vegetarian options and nice salads. I was actually told a dish was vegetarian…I bought it and unearthed a big piece of ham. The poor waiter got a bit of a rant from me. Very unkeen to come back to Santiago, especially that a lot of assessments have to be handed in from now until the end of semester. It’s crunch time and to be perfectly honest, I’m just waiting for Uni to be out of the way because Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina await.

The biggest parque in Mendoza which is bigger than the whole CBD itself

 

And just to wrap up now, I have been feeling quite good about my Spanish lately. During the Mendoza weekend, I got a lot of comments saying I speak really well. One Chilean guy said “I would never have guessed your native language was English. I congratulate you”. Was pretty stoked about that. The Argentine lady at the hostel said I had a Chilean accent, which kinda sucks because I don’t like it that much, BUT it means that I’ve absorbed it unknowingly which gives a better sense of fluidity when speaking. I don’t know if I’ll be able to call myself fluent after this trip but I will definitely have gotten a lot more FLUID with less erms and uhhhs, and I feel confident conversing, listening, reading and writing in Spanish now. The principal reason I came to Chile was to hone my language skills and I’m feeling a sense of satisfaction seeing that there has been a noticeable improvement.

Hope all is well back home. Shame to hear about the oil spill and all the sea birds that have died; I hope they are doing everything they can to clean it up. I will be watching the NZ vs Australia game live here with a whole bunch of Aussies so we better win or else I’m gonna get stick from them!!

Saludos desde Chile
Aiman.