Monday, December 07, 2009

Before I Forget I Was Ever Out of Town

I was going to write two more blog entries about our trip to Chile, one for Santiago, and a short one for the plane trip home, but it's been a week that we've been back, now, and the memory, it ain't what it used to be. And, in fact, before I forget, here and here are links to a bunch more pics.

One of the benefits, of course, of waiting a week to write a journal entry is that the entry will take much less time to write than initially planned. In fact, I think I'll sum up the remainder of our trip in a bullet-pointed list. Maybe a numbered list instead.

  1. Santiago was described to me by a friend who happened to have stayed there recently as "pretty First World," or words to that effect. I found it to be very First World, with clean, efficient subways, an honest taxi driver, tidy streets and neighborhoods, department stores and supermarkets, and expensive dining. On the other hand, it has a fantastic, giant market with veggies and fruits and meats of the land in one endless building (possibly several buildings), and meats of the sea in another giant structure. Also, there tend to be bars and gates and security fencing around the nicer houses. And the power did go off in our hotel the one morning we were there, which didn't affect us very much, except it made the coffee cold, and we couldn't grill our breakfast sandwich on the sandwich maker and had to eat it cold, alas. The one part of Santiago that is still decidedly not First World, in my book, is that the river rushing through the center of town is FILTHY and STINKS. But then again, that's true of many a city in a First World country, and so, overall, Well Done Santiago.
  2. Things in Chile cost either the same as what they cost here: $140 for a hotel room with attached bath but no electricity; Two-thirds what they cost here: $136 for a gourmet meal with cocktails, soup, side, mains, wine and dessert; or nothing at all like what they cost here: $0.90 for a one-hour bus ride to four towns up the coast.
  3. Our water was out for several hours one night while we were in Valpo. While I'd like to think that Chile is more First World than not, losing two utilities in two hotels in one week seems to imply that it's a more regular occurrence than not. Oh, also, one of Ian's colleagues from a different part of town also lost water for several hours, on a different day. To be fair, our outage had been planned (although the friend's hadn't been), and the city delivered huge cubic water tanks to local restaurants before the shutoff, so that they could at least continue working.
  4. My quiche is aromatizing the house right now and I'm losing my train of thought, so I'll just skip to the flight home. First of all, when we checked in, the clerk looked at our IDs and then started to do a lot of typing. We couldn't imagine what the problem was, and then he said to me "Mrs Taylor, did you leave an iPod?" And I said, with some degree of shock, "Why yes, I did!" "We have it at the gate for you," the man said. Sure enough, just before we boarded, I was paged to the podium and there was my iPod, tired and sunburned after its days away, ready to clip onto my purse and ride home. Its battery was, of course, dead, which saved me from using it and losing it again. When Ian and I handed our boarding passes to the checker at the gate, she looked at my name, then suddenly looked up and signaled to the security guard. "It's her!" she seemed to be saying, "with the iPod!" He nodded and motioned that I'd already picked it up. And then, the dinner that they served us was from Chile, and we got the beef, and it was not only fantastic compared to most airplane food I've ever had; it was FANTASTIC full stop. The beef was medium rare, tender, flavorful (a woman behind us returned hers for being "underdone"). The salad dressing was not just the same creamy Italian, and even the roll was somehow much moister than usual—you could rip hunks off of it and the rest didn't age 40 years before you got back to it. And the butter was butter. And the dessert, the flan, was also FANTASTIC. I could've eaten it forever.

Full stop.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Our Next Trip, Planned

This morning I was shocked awake at 7:20am by the phone ringing. Any time before 9:30am it must be an emergency, because anyone who knows me (or has known me for the past couple years when my arising time changed from 7 to 9), knows that I am in bed. Ian, who gets up around 7:30, was also still in bed, and also jarred awake. Being me, though, or being female and thus able to change states of being more rapidly, I was the one who leapt out of bed to run to the phone. Alas, I didn't make it, but the caller was TACV, Cabo Verdean Airlines.

Ian and I are planning a long-awaited trip to Cabo Verde in January, a set of formerly Portuguese islands off the coast of West Africa, about the same latitude as where Senegal and the Gambia are. We are flying British Airways to Lisbon (using airline miles), then TAP Air Portugal to Cabo Verde (because we're flying over large stretches of ocean and we weren't sure about TACV for such a lengthy journey), and then TACV internally in Cabo Verde.

TACV has a website, and at first glance it appears to be quite first-world and comprehensive. Dig just below the surface, however, and you see that it is not, in fact, helpful in any material way. Click on "buy here" and you get a list of options. Click on any of the options and you get a definition of that option, such as "E-Ticket: The E-ticket service makes it easier to prepare a trip, buy a ticket and speeds up check-in formalities." Below this is a link to, where e-tickets may be purchased. Clicking this link returns you to this place.

The website also does not seem to include a phone number. Fortunately, our Lonely Planet guide (or rather, the chapter on Cabo Verde from LP's new Africa book which we were able to buy and download separately—cool service, by the way) did list phone numbers—one in Cabo Verde, and the other at the TACV office in Boston. I had also happened to see an ad in the New York Times for a deal TACV was offering, and their Boston number.

Flying is really the only consistent way between islands in the Cabo Verdean archipelago, and yet the only company on which to fly is TACV. Lonely Planet says that flights are frequently overbooked, and thus it is necessary to reconfirm, and reconfirm again, and show up early at the airport, and insist that you board the flight that you've booked and paid for. And yet, they are remarkably vague on when you need to purchase tickets. Before going? Once you arrive? Can you be overbooked at the last minute and still get on? Should you plan ahead and overbook early? At any rate, this all has given trip planning a flavor of exoticism that I've missed a little when traveling in Europe and even, as we just discovered, in at least one South American country.

There are some ferries, but the islands are far from each other, and right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean where the seas and winds are often perilous on longer trips. At least one ferry ride, which is the only way to get to one of the smaller islands, is only scheduled to be weekly, but is cancelled as often as not. We're not going there. Our ultimate destination, Santo Antão, is a ferry ride away from São Vicente, where we are flying to on TACV, but the ferry is regular and daily and we feel at least a meager confidence that we will be able to accomplish our goal: to hike in the hinterlands of an otherworldly place for five days, and make it home successfully.

Anyway. After being shocked awake this morning, I immediately called TACV back, since I knew they were in the office. I again got the voice mail, and I left a message asking them to call back later—like, noon their time—or I would call back later. I had no confidence that this message would be collected or followed, though, so I brought the phone and my paperwork into the bedroom and got back into bed. Sure enough, about ten minutes later, another call.

I was able to book our flights, from Praia to São Vicente and back, allowing a full day in Praia each direction. It was necessary in one direction; only one flight going. In the other direction, it was deemed, by the sales agent, unsafe to take the evening flight back to Praia, just in case we were to miss our TAP to Lisbon, and so we'll be having another day in the big city.

When it came time to pay, I could've sworn Carlos said "We accept MasterCard, and all other major credit cards."

I said "Can I give you a VISA number right now over the phone?"

He said "No, I'm sorry, we only accept American Express. I have to give you the TACV bank account number, and you deposit the amount in our bank account."

"Oh, okay. I can do that."

He gave me the account number and the name on the account, and asked that I deposit the money, then fax them the deposit slip, with my email address on it, so that they can send me our e-tickets. I'll be doing that this afternoon.

I am bemused, and charmed, and eager to go.

This is where we are going. Spectacular, no?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

Before we left for Chile, I was expecting to spend much of my week in Valparaíso horseback riding while Ian was in class. I mean, who doesn't want to spend the bulk of her life on a horse? But the playful, wacky charms of the city and its people sucked me in immediately and I ended up only going for one ride, last Friday, our last full day in Valpo.

I actually had work to do, too, while we were there: my mother has finished her third memoir and I am the editor. We are hoping to get it out by Christmas, which meant I had something to occupy myself with when I began to miss Ian too much, as well as an excuse to rest my legs from all the non-ascensored hills. Nevertheless, there is a large horse culture in Chile that I wanted to sample, and I signed up for a half-day ride amongst the dunes and along the shore at Ritoque Beach, about an hour north of Valparaíso by bus.

I had gone down to the street where I was supposed to catch my bus (#206), a regular urban/suburban route, on Thursday morning after dropping Ian at work, to make sure that I could catch one the next day, to arrive in Concón (the town nearest Ritoque) at 11:00am. After about 10 minutes waiting at the bus stop, I saw a #206 approaching. I smiled and nodded a very slight nod, pleased that everything so far was working out . . . and the bus stopped right in front of me. I hadn't thought the driver could see me, but I was wrong. Oh, well—I could make sure of my destination. I approached the open door, and called up to the driver:

"Á Concón?" I asked, probably in Portuguese. He nodded, and looked expectant. "Mañana," I said, which is Spanish. He smiled, closed the door, and sped away from the curb.

The next day I caught my bus, paid my 90 cents, and enjoyed a long, slow slog through Viña del Mar, the awful, awful tourist town just north of Valpo, and a breathtaking race along the open roads north of that. I failed to inform the driver of my stop but it was, fortunately, the end of the line, and so I was able to get to my destination: the COPCO gas station by the rotonda in Concón, only a little after my 11:00am expected arrival. There was to be a man there to pick me up and take me the 5 minutes farther up the road, but I couldn't see any sign of him. Fortunately, Ian and I had switched out our cell phone SIM cards our first day in town and I was able to call—I was picked up within minutes. I was a bit worried about being late—the last time I had a horseriding adventure where I was picked up, it was in Greece, and if you weren't at the pick up at exactly the right time, you weren't riding. Of course, the woman running the riding was Austrian.

When I arrived at the ranch, there was a large party already there, a group of about 15 people from a local office, getting ready to celebrate their Christmas party with an annual trail ride and lunch. I was to join this group for the first part of the ride, then peel off with an English-speaking guide when they turned back for their food. I had been dropped off at a stable and a man tacking up a horse had gone silently into a shed and come out with some half chaps for me to wear (I was already wearing my usual riding boots). I assumed everyone else must already have them, but it turns out only I got them. I felt proud.

The Chilean Horses that we were riding are very short—only about 14 hands high, which is 56 inches at the withers, or where the neck meets the back. The horse that I rode today in my lesson, for comparison, is about 17 hands, or a whole foot taller. They're incredibly sturdy, though, and were quite happy carting around a bunch of full-sized adults. The adults were also quite happy; one portly man in particular kept trotting and galloping around the group, back and forth, arms and legs waving wildly. We were not given helmets, but then, we weren't very far from the ground. I think I did have to sign some sort of release, but I honestly can't remember. My brain was working so intensively the whole time I was in Chile, trying to understand the language (which I stood a chance to do, which made it harder to simply tune out), take in all the sights, adjust to a different season, etc, that certain things just fell by the wayside.

Anyway, we eventually all set out in a mob across a shallow river. My saddle was small, and my stirrups definitely short, but I felt like I could handle it okay. Once across the first river we all had a gallop, and I got my first inkling of just how fast these horses could go. It was very smooth, for legs so short (hers, not mine). We then crossed the river another time, and suddenly there was a shout and a commotion, and I turned to look and one of the horses was lying on its side in the water, its female rider lying in the river beside it. One of the guides raced over to help the woman up; it turns out that the horse hadn't stumbled; it had simply been hot, and chosen to lie down for a little cool-off (my own horse, Snappy, did this to me once in a creek near my mom's house. Lay down in the middle, saddle and all. I managed to jump off and land on my feet, but the level of the stream was higher than the tops of my boots). The woman good-naturedly got back on, but then Sebastian, the guide, decided that my saddle really was too small for comfort, since I was going to be going much farther (there was discussion with my solo guide about this, and also about the small back pack I was wearing; wouldn't I be more comfortable if they put the things in saddle bags instead? I assured them I was fine . . .) and he quickly exchanged his saddle for mine while the rest of the group disappeared around a bend up ahead. I remounted while he put my saddle on his horse and waited, remembering King taking off and Sikem having a cow in Idaho in September; Sebastian seated himself, nodded to me, and we took off at a gallop.

No, gallop doesn't begin to describe it. These horses were flying. Like jets fly. I could barely even feel her feet touch the ground, my speedy little pony. It was like she had a jet pack harnessed to her rump. I have never, in my life, been on a faster horse, or been more surprised about the speed. Sikem can put on the gas, and Shadow is remarkably smooth, but they would've been left in the dust. It was AWESOME.

Anyway, soon after we rejoined the group, they split off and my guide, Ignacio, and I headed into the dunes. And here is where it got surreal. Along the coastline at Ritoque is a wide swath of glittering white sand dunes. I'm not sure that my estimates of the dune heights are very good, but a couple of them seemed to be miles high. Well, okay, I'm sure that's not true, but they were probably 100-200 feet high. The horses would gallop up one side and reach the top and suddenly I was looking over a knife-edge summit at a long, cliff-like slope heading down. My horse, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, would step over the top and head pretty much straight down the hill in the blinding glare, each step sinking into the hillside, sometimes so far that my feet, in my stirrups, dragged in the sand. It was like riding a camel (or, like how riding a camel looks)—undulating, slow. Sandy. It felt like we were the last creatures on earth, and as if we weren't really going anywhere, just marching in place in front of an endlessly looping picture. A picture with the bright turned up way too high.

Ignacio took my pic, right as we reached the end of the dunes. Note the stirrups, which seem to have highly carved wooden clogs hooked onto them. I don't know why. The tack, also, was all tied on with leather thongs. No buckles for these folks. The reins were also different--a round, braided leather rope, which really chafed at my delicate hands by the time we made it back to camp.

We were going somewhere, however, and we eventually came upon a little oasis in a cleft of the dunes where some scrub trees had grown up (enough for quite a fine piddlery), and there was some grass for the horses to nibble on. Ignacio had been waxing poetic earlier about a particular restaurant on Ritoque Beach that you ride horses to; it's only open in the summer, but has spectacular empanadas.

"You know empanadas?" Ignacio asked me.

"Of course," I said. "I have one in my back pack."

"In your back pack?!?" he asked, incredulously. "I think you don't know empanadas."

"Yes," I said, "Empanada de carne. I brought it to have it for lunch!"

After we'd tied the horses, Ignacio pulled out some cookies to share and I pulled out my cold, but tasty, empanada filled with ground beef and onion. I was starving after my hours in transit and on horseback and in this brilliant, windy, alternate reality, and the snack really hit the spot.

Almost at the beach!

Soon after, we reached the beach, and had another several glorious long racing gallops on virtually unmarked sand. After my initial gallop through the surf, I stayed out of the water; it's late spring in Chile right now, but IT. WAS. COLD. And water spray did not help. The cold is perhaps why I didn't notice that the backs of my hands were burning to a crisp at the end of my long-sleeved shirt. They've changed to brown now, and if I'm wearing winter-in-Seattle clothes, one could assume I got a full-body tan.

An endless (and windy, and cold) racetrack.

After about 3 hours we arrived back home at the end of a huge loop, and my horse started whinnying and whinnying. It's funny to sit on a horse when she's whinnying—her whole barrel shakes and vibrates. Ignacio laughed and said "home!", and then "She has a little boy—what do you call him?"

"A colt?" I asked. "She has a colt?"

"Yes, a colt. She is calling him," he said. Then, "Oh, now, he is calling her! Look, here he comes!"

There wasn't a fence along the sea side of the pasture where the herd of horses was grazing at the ranch, just seaside, and suddenly out of the bundle appeared a fuzzy little baby with knobbly knees, galumphing (not very quickly yet) to meet us.

"Oh my gosh!" I cried. "How old is he?"

"About 2 ½ months," said Ignacio. "Still little."

The little colt fell into step with us, butting against my leg, trying to get his mother to stop so he could nurse. We paused during our last crossing of the river for her to drink; he was right there behind my calf, drinking himself. He didn't seem shy, so I reached down and patted his forelock; he looked up at me, offended, and backed just out of reach. I think he hadn't even noticed me until that point.

Anyway, it was a fantastic experience. I arrived back in Valpo just as Ian's class let out for the last time, and we went to the house of one of his colleagues for assada, Chilean traditional barbeque. The food was mostly meat, the beverage mostly (after a traditional Peruvian Pisco Sour, which all Chileans present agreed was far superior to the Chilean style) delicious red Chilean wines.

The perfect end to the perfect week.

Cute fuzzy baby!

Mama and baby, reunited.