Chile (12/2008 – 01/2009) [Part 1/2]

2009 December 8
by Jon

FRI 12/26/08 – TUE 12/30/08
Written 03/08/09 – 03/14/09

Friday, December 26 - so excited to go! Nervous, but excited!

Deciding to leave our cars parked in snow emergency-compatible spaces, I took advantage of the relatively mild, sunny morning and walked to Davis Square to go to the Bank of America there and withdraw a load of cash for the journey. After returning home we made sure we had everything we needed and decided to head out a bit before noon – just to get a move on – even though our flight wasn’t until the early evening.

The trip to the airport on the T was pretty uneventful, aside from a nice Argentinian old man on our brief Green Line transfer telling us we should take the Silver Line instead. He was gentlemanly and grandfatherly enough that I didn’t take offense (yes, I know about the Silver Line. It is the Myanmar in the UN of my MBTA map: I won’t recognize its existence until they admit it’s a bus, not a train. Because it is a bus).

At this point, the fact that my dad got us First Class and Business Class tickets all the way through really paid off. We skipped ahead of the line chock full of people who couldn’t figure out how to either print their tickets at home or use a kiosk and into our own Special People Line. Which is to say, Special People Area because there wasn’t a line to speak of. The lady there seemed concerned that we wouldn’t make the 30-minute layover in Santiago – a concern I shared – so she priority checked our bags all the way through to Easter Island. That would be the last we’d see of our baggage in 4 days, it turned out.

We made it through security and to the gate. The flight – to Atlanta – was delayed by about 45 minutes. No matter, I thought, our layover in Atlanta was nearly 3 hours, we were perfectly fine. I still felt a sense of teenage immortality inspired by the oncoming adventure and the first class tickets; this couldn’t possibly go wrong. We went and got some burgers for a late lunch/early dinner. The guide books said that one could expect fish, fish and more fish in Easter Island, so I figured it was a good time to get a slab of bleeding cow while I still could.

We got back to the exit and sat down to wait. Only a few minutes after this, our little world where everything was going well was interrupted. The gate attendant announced that due to a conflagration of the remnants of a storm leaving epic fog in Atlanta and one of their main incoming radar systems being knocked out, their capacity to take incoming flights had been severely hampered and we’d be lucky to get off the ground 3 hours late. This left our layover at… oh, that’s right. Nothing. I explained our situation to the gate attendant. This would be the last time the “it’s our honeymoon” excuse pulled any traction; it never did work in Chile. Not once. Here, though, this lady pulled just about every string she could to get us as many options as possible. Out of a plane of 120 or so people, she spent at least a half an hour working on our case alone. We had plenty of options in case we didn’t make our connecting flight to Santiago that all said we had confirmed tickets to Easter Island on the next day.

The plane got off under the best-case scenario – which is to say, 3 hours late – and we made it to Atlanta. And sat on the tarmac for over 20 agonizing minutes. Upon exiting we just ran. We were only one terminal away from our gate to Santiago. We ran like we were being chased by Darth Vader and we made it to the Santiago flight just as boarding had begun. It, too, was delayed due to the ongoing mess, but as a result of being both international and outgoing, it was only a half-hour behind schedule. Still panting and sweating, we made it to the jetway, only to be halted by the agent, who saw the immense number of flags on our itinerary and proceeded to clear them all out, as we’d successfully made our Santiago flight. Only later did I realize I should have asked him to leave one giving us tickets on the next flight to Easter Island as this plane to Santiago was also delayed. I don’t think it’d have made a difference anyway, I really don’t, but it just bugged me given what transpired upon our arrival in Santiago.

Still, the flight to Santiago was fantastic. Great seats, great food, comfortable and without incident. We toasted to successfully resurrecting our dashed hopes upon sitting down on the plane:

We settled in and watched some of Wall-E, falling in and out of sleep.

Saturday, December 27 - we arrived about 45 minutes late in Santiago. I had already printed out our boarding passes for the Easter Island flight in Boston just in case. We rushed through immigration and customs as fast as we could, just in case we could still make our flight. We hit the baggage claim area. Not air conditioned. But hey, it was warm. And just offensively sunny. I realized that, if our plane to Easter Island was still on the ground, it would be purely due to mechanical problems; the weather couldn’t be better. Infinite ceiling.

We figured out that, despite our bags being checked through to Easter Island, we’d need to claim them there and send them through customs. They explain this to you explicitly upon arrival back to the US if you’re making a connection, but it didn’t seem immediately obvious to us here, especially considering that Santiago’s airport is only a single terminal split evenly between domestic and international flights. However, the customs agents, who spoke decent English, graciously helped us to figure that out.

So we waited a bit for our bags. It was growing increasingly likely that we would not be getting them. I wanted to continue waiting, but Becky wanted to get a move on. Turns out she was right; our bags would not come that day. I decided to go with her will, figuring that the slim chances we could still make our flight to Easter Island was getting ever more minute. So we tried to find a LAN agent to listen to our situation.

It was obvious from the get-go that our plane to Easter Island was long gone. But getting tickets on the next one – that is, the one the next morning – was trickier than we anticipated. Expecting to deal mainly with the Rapa Nui – who generally speak English about as well as they do Spanish – we didn’t bone up on Espanol more than a bare minimum. Which didn’t help. We got the no habla Ingles switcheroo a few times right off the bat. This was one popular trick, along with the ubiquitous “come back in 15 minutes.” Given the level of fluency in English we saw from service people elsewhere in the airport and the very limited vocabulary needed to understand what someone wants when it comes to air travel, I highly doubted they couldn’t understand us. But we tolerated being jostled around in what was obvious to me was a “here, you make these people go away” sort of way because we were desperate and didn’t smell all that pleasant at the moment.

Finally, it was resolved that LAN could not of their own accord give us confirmed seats on the next flight – which, they were able to convey to us, was full, save a couple of seats in business – we would have to contact Delta and get them to acknowledge that it was their fault we missed our flight and we could be given said ticket transfer at their expense. No problem, we thought! Hell, they were willing to bend over backward for us back in Boston, this should be a simple matter.

It is then that we started the adventure that was being associated with Raul Gonzalez, Busiest Man in Santiago. We walked over to Delta’s offices in the adjacent office building. The building itself was nearly abandoned, the offices nearly all locked. I had to remind myself that it was both Saturday and the day after Christmas, so that wasn’t as unusual as it seems. But there was a man there at Delta. Raul. We explained our case and he said, okay, no problem, can you wait outside for bit? He’d be right back, he said.

So we waited. And waited. And waited. Simmering in day-old underwear I hadn’t had a chance to change yet, despite having a fresh pair in my bag just-in-case. Well, “in-case” had happened and I really wanted a chance to shower and put on some fresh drawers and socks. Which is more or less all I could think about for the next hour and a half, until Raul returned.

When he did, all seemed well. He took in our case. He called up our reservation and made several phone calls. He was in charge and getting things done. He seemed, at one point, literally seconds from giving us what we needed. Then his tone of voice changed. We looked at each other, crestfallen. We knew something had gone wrong. He explained that that half-hour layover we were supposed to have was too short and LAN contended we never would have made it anyway and, as they were already booked, did not want to give us new tickets. Not to worry, though, Raul said, things would be okay. There were two flights the next day – one in the morning, 24 hours after the one we’d missed, and one in the afternoon – and he got us standby on both. He assured us that, between those two flights, we stood a very good chance of getting our way over to Easter Island. I was uneasy, but in between his command of English and his command of the situation, I figured he knew what he was talking about.

What about our bags, though? Another flurry of phone calls. They’re lost. Probably never made it out of Atlanta but he’d let us know. He put out a missing bag claim and we’d hear soon, he said. Of course, I figured.

So, for those keeping track, the score was now: foreign city, no knowledge of language, no tickets out, no shower in 36 hours, no luggage and, oh yeah, no place to stay. Better take care of that last one. There was a Holiday Inn directly across from the airport. It was only a year old and, when we got there, they were still putting on the finishing touches in the lobby. It was there we received the best news all day: yes, they had a room and we could check in immediately.

We were let through the security gate by an albino guard and trudged up to our room. Clean and perfectly decent, it was just what we needed. The water pressure in the shower was absolutely glorious. I felt alive again. We rested for a bit, discovering for the first time the South American obsession with The Simpsons, and headed back to the airport to get some dinner, as we had completely missed lunch in the day’s fuss. We ate at the airport Gatsby, a buffet-style deal. I thought it was alright; Becky was in love with it. I got a few hundred dollars transferred into pesos while we were at the airport, figuring we might need them, and started using them to buy some local candy and soda. We took them out back into the long-term parking lot situated behind the hotel and had a picnic:

By that point in the mid-evening it had cooled down to a dry 80 degrees or so and was absolutely wonderful outside. We sat around for a bit, watching the guards patrol the near-empty lot:

Which is not to say the airport wasn’t busy at times; people just didn’t seem to drive and park there. The airport is sort of like Dulles in that it is situated on the far outskirts of town and only accessible by a half-hour bus ride down the highway for those without cars. Our heads were still reeling and so we decided to not try to adventure into seeing Santiago proper that day. Instead we headed back into the hotel. I snagged a few complimentary wireless code cards from the front desk and tried to fire out as much info as I could. In the process I alerted my father of the change in plans but neglected to tell him where we were staying, specifically. This would add to the frustration of the next day. But for that day, we settled back in to watch some more Chilean television while the sun took its sweet time going down below the horizon, and then went to sleep very early, aware that the next day would be, one way or another, a very long one. Oh how right we were…

Sunday, December 28 - having gone to bed extra-early, nervous about the next day, we were both up and wired at 5 AM. I showered once more, just in case I wouldn’t have a chance to in some while, and because it made slipping on the same grimy shirt and pants I’d be wearing for the third consecutive day a slightly less-loathsome experience. We washed some underwear and socks in the sink to get them a little cleaner but it wasn’t much more than a stopgap of feeling like a homeless person, not really an act of refreshment.

We checked out of our hotel, hoping to not have to check back in, and walked over in darkness across the empty street to the airport; the lazy Chilean sun doesn’t rise until nearly 7 AM to make up for dipping below the horizon after 9:30 PM.

On a mission, we went over to LAN right away and flagged someone down. We were starting to recognize people from the previous day and they recognized us as well. I feel like we probably stuck out fairly well; the airport wasn’t so big as to accommodate multiple pairs of lost wayward gringo tourists at the same time. We arrived 3 hours ahead of time before the flight to ensure that we could get our actual standby ticket; until then we had only the good word of Raul Gonzales. With less trouble than usual, the woman behind the counter printed us our temporary standby tickets and told us to come back 40 minutes before the flight. We were pretty sure we were on the top of the standby list. “Okay,” we thought, “all we have to do is hope that just TWO passengers out of, like, 300 don’t show up and we’re as good as on this plane, luggage or not.”

So we had some time to kill. First, breakfast. In the outside of the International area there was a Dunkin Donuts. Let me repeat that. There was a Dunkie’s. In Santiago, Chile. People outside of New England don’t appreciate how they don’t exist on every street corner, mall and subway station outside of the Northeastern United States but, there one was, 8,000 miles from home. Of course, the woman behind the counter didn’t speak a lick of English. Fortunately, most of Dunkie’s made-up words and portmanteux and portmanteau-of-made-up-words are pretty much the same in Spanish. Unless you pronounce them like someone speaking English would pronounce them instead of someone speaking Spanish. Consequently, my Coolatta became a latte. Just what I wanted at 6 AM when it’s already in the mid-80s. A piping hot latte. I choked it down and sweated it out for the caffeine and we kept wandering around, first to the book store with the hopes of finding something decent on Easter Island – no luck – and then to the pharmacy.

It was pretty evident that Chilean pharmacies are nothing at all like Mexican pharmacies in that instead of getting handed fistfuls of Viagra and Ambien, we got questioned – in Spanish – if the ibuprofen we asked for was for adults of children. Good thing Becky brought her own Excedrin because I’m sure we’d have gotten a cavity search for asking for those. It was also then that I picked up the key difference between “agua” and “agua sin gas.” Didn’t make that mistake again. (Hint: flat water – also known to Americans as “water” – comes in the red-capped bottles and the bubbly junk in blue-capped bottles)

After that we decided to wait around to see if we could track down Raul again. No such luck. So we wandered around some more, having seen just about everything there was to see in the Santiago Airport and then some. Finally, it was time to wait for the flight to board to see if we could get on. So we waited. And the lines kept coming. Every time we thought, “that’s it, there’s the last person on the plane,” someone else would show up.

I got frustrated with the whole process and decided, “screw it, I’m going to see if I can purchase those extra tickets in Business Class. It’ll be hell of expensive but that’s what my dad would do, given the situation, so he actually won’t be as angry at me, I hope.” Here we got kicked back and forth an epic number of times, told to come back in 15 minutes no fewer than 2 times, and watched as a woman went into an office that was ostensibly a walled-off kiosk, talked to a shady, unseen figure for at least 10 minutes, and came back telling us that no, they can’t give us those tickets. Later my father explained to me that air travel regulations insist that they have to leave x-number of seats open in case of emergency travel by dignitaries and the like. LAN made no attempt to convey any of that and, in fact, most didn’t seem to understand why they couldn’t sell us those seats, only that it wasn’t possible. This, of course, did nothing to calm us.

It got to 40, 30, 20 minutes until departure. A man in a cheezy Armani suit and cheezier Gucci glasses carrying a supremely cheezy satellite phone with an honest-to-God entourage cut in and took, at a moment’s notice, what I presume to have been those last few business-class seats. Oh, and by this point we were not the only people standing around looking hopeless, but were amongst a group of about 6. Needless to say, things did not look, in the very least, good. We were completely distraught.

I needed to get hold of someone who could do something. I frantically grabbed a pay phone and jabbed in the number of the credit card my dad gave me for emergencies to make a call back home. I figured it wasn’t likely to get to become any more of an emergency any time soon. I got the answering machine at my parents’ house again, just like the previous evening. It was only then, though, standing in the terminal near hyperventilation, that I realized why. My parents weren’t in New Jersey at all; they were in West Virginia spending the days after Christmas with my ailing grandfather. As far as I knew, my father never got the message I’d left him before.

This, of course, didn’t make me feel much better. I called his cell phone, got no answer, and left a rather distraught, incoherent message, the gist of which was “fix it fix it fix it.” Then I tried calling every number I had to reach them. Finally I was able to get hold of my sister, who, as it turns out, was at my parents’ house that morning but had not been answering the house phone. She gave me the number of my uncle’s house in Charleston where they were staying and I was finally able to reach my parents. But not before the flurry of international phone calls resulted in the emergency card getting frozen. So I pressed on with one of my own cards.

Upon reaching my dad, it turns out that he wasn’t exactly happy. Turns out that my sister had relayed my message from the previous evening, the one in which I’d neglected to leave contact information. Turns out he had been trying to reach me but couldn’t and was pretty frustrated himself. Clearly this wasn’t working out. He calmed down some when he heard that yes, I had tried to flat-out buy new seats and we were able to agree to try what we could on our own ends. It was a start.

I next grabbed some change out of my pocket and tried to call the number that Raul gave us the previous day for Delta’s baggage service to see if we could get an update. Surprisingly, when I dialed the voice that picked up was that of none other than the mystery man himself, Raul. Never have I been so happy to hear the voice of someone who was, until only hours before, a complete stranger as in that moment. It was the lone assurance that maybe the Universe wasn’t completely out to get us. Raul said that he’d check for our bags and I could call him back in a few minutes. I did and, still no bags, but at least it was a start.

By this point it was almost noon but it felt like we’d been in the airport all day. It was still well before the check-in time at the Holiday Inn but we thought that, maybe if we were lucky, they’d let us check back into our old room. It turns out that, not only would they do that, they’d let us get a new room for the same price. So back we went, no better off than the day before, and retreated to a new room to recollect ourselves.

Over the next few hours we tried to relax and ate lunch in the hotel’s restaurant absolutely alone; it was only 1 PM and no one seemed to eat before 2 or 3 there. I also grabbed some more of those wireless codes and tried to use what precious battery power I had left to try to do what I could with email. I had bought a 110/220 volt converter – a good one, too – for the trip but foolishly left it in my suitcase, which, of course, I didn’t have.

Somewhere along the line of that time in the hotel, in between calls from my parents (whom I made sure had my contact info by that point), we were able to come to terms with the realization that we weren’t going to Easter Island. The next plane with free tickets wasn’t until January 4, the day after we were scheduled to leave to go home. The afternoon plane wasn’t likely to be any better than the morning one, too. It seemed like we had to make do with what we had.

Still, we tried to wait for it when it came time. This time we did not check out of the room. We even left an article of clothing or two there, figuring we might be able to tickle fate enough into swinging our way by offering up a few sacrifices of inconvenience. Nothing doing, though. By now we knew the drill, and we were ignored by the LAN employees who were trying to herd throngs of backpack-sporting tourists of all shades and leathery-skinned island natives pushing taped-up coolers full of seasonal fruits pass the check-in point. There were more people waiting around pensively along side us for this flight than for the morning one. We didn’t speak, silently agreeing either that it wasn’t worth being friendly in case one of us were to get on and leave the rest bitterly behind – or that announcing our preference for English might somehow reveal us to be unworthy of a spot on the plane.

Sure enough, nothing. By this point, though, the tears had passed and it was just time for us to try to move on with our lives and make the best of our time in Santiago. We left the airport after consulting with LAN as to how to get our tickets refunded. We returned to the hotel room we’d tried to abandon and resolved to do something about the fact that we had no clothes aside for those on our backs and the underwear slowly drying on the shower rod. We asked the woman at the desk what to do about this. Considering it was Sunday evening, she said, our best bet was to go to the Parque Arauco mall on the other side of Santiago. She gave us directions, and off we went.

First a half-hour journey on the Centropuerto, a privately run bus line that does nothing but travel back and forth from Santiago to the airport. Round-trip tickets were all of $4 each and it was pretty comfortable. We missed the stop the woman at the Holiday Inn told us to get off at – bus stops there seemed to largely depend on you knowing where you’re going, which, of course, we didn’t – but fortunately it continued in our correct direction of travel and we got off at the next stop with no ill effects.

From then we got on L1 – or the red line – of the Santiago Metro at Universidad de Santiago:

I was pensive about the whole process of getting tickets. The Holiday Inn woman told me to just say, “dos billetos, por favor.” I held out a 2000-peso bill and got a bit more than “dos” out before the woman behind the glass yanked it in and shoved out two tiny tickets and a few coins. As I said while we were there, the Metro is roughly as extensive as the T, but costs 580 pesos – about 70 cents. The cars were relatively new and clean, too. Conditioned only by the passing air from the train moving, but it sure as hell beat walking and hotter, stuffier, smellier cabs.

We went all the way to the end, Escuela Militar. From there we tried and failed to get a cab and decided that, since it had cooled off, we would just walk the mile or so to the mall.

The mall itself was, disappointingly, like any mall in the States. Chock full of teenagers with bad haircuts. Plenty of trendy clothing stores, many of which were the same as ones in the US. It was like any mall I’d ever been in before, except everyone had a better tan and wasn’t quite as fat. Other than that, it was hard to tell we were foreigners. Still, in my 3-day old clothes and generally unkempt look from such a long day, I felt like I stuck out like a smelly sore thumb the entire time.

First things first, underwear. The pairs of drawers I bought there are the best underpants I own. They were a godsend in the days of walking around that were ahead of us. Apparently, my butt is South American. Good to know. Unfortunately, the emergency credit card was still frozen and so I was forced to use the pesos I’d converted over the day before. We didn’t buy much but it went fast; prices there were as expensive if not slightly moreso than in the US. Considering that nearly everything else was cheaper – sometimes a fraction of the American cost – it seemed like highway robbery, though. Not that we had much of a choice.

I gave Becky about 80,000 pesos and we went off on our own. Becky saw some stylish bagpipes at an H&M-like store:

See? Could be in the Natick Collection for all you know.

I went into a Calvin Klein store; figured I’d go for what I know. Unfortunately, the guy working there seemed to think it best to pester me the entire time. My attempts to explain I don’t speak Spanish seemed to somehow translate to him – and, in all of our time there, him alone – to be “I am retarded. Please speak slower but still in Spanish and continue to bother me more now since I obviously can’t tend to myself.” When I picked out a fairly awesome pair of shorts, he shoved a similar pair at me, but with a smaller waist. Apparently I failed to convey “maybe in June but no way in hell will that fit after the holidays, buddy” by my look alone but, whatever. I graciously was able to check out with someone else and got out of there with said pair of awesome shorts and a decent shirt, too.

I met back up with Becky and we agreed that we’d grown sick of the mall in short order and decided to go back. The evenings there are glorious, so we walked to the train station despite our weariness as the sun set. We took the train to the station the Holiday Inn lady told us to get off at – Pajaritos – and waited for the Centropuerto to cash in our round-trip tickets. And waited. After 20 minutes – considering that it was now very much dark and we didn’t seem to be in the best section of town – we decided to take one of the cabs parked in front of the bus stop back to the hotel. The advantage of being near the airport was that we had no doubt that saying “aeropuerto” would get us where we needed to be.

Even the cab ride was, like, twelve bucks. Would have been $30 here. I tipped him a good amount since he stayed quiet and didn’t ask questions – two things I like in cabbies – and he leaned back and said something that sounded like “mint?” Later on I read that tipping cabs, while nice, is not customary, so giving the 20% tip I left, considering that Beck and I were whispering to each other in English, probably lead to the assumption that we miscalculated the amount due. Oh well; spreading a positive world view of Americans, I suppose.

We got back to our room to hear the good news from a message from my dad that he had secured us a room in the Hotel InterContinental in downtown Santiago and we could check in immediately. Not just a room, a suite, he said. Well, we figured, it would probably be nice to be pampered a bit and it would be even better to not have to look out our window and see the airport – by this point our mutual Unhappy Place – so we decided, sure, let’s go for it. And so, after a late dinner at good ol’ Gatsby in the terminal, we checked out of the Holiday Inn in favor of nicer digs.

We’d heard about sketchy cabs in Santiago: guys who drive regular cars as cabs without medallions. Mostly common around the airport, mostly there to prey on tourists. Not very much actually dangerous in the wake-up-in-a-bathtub-of-ice-with-one-fewer-kidney sense, but liable to rip you off. Still, the fact that there was a whole lot of nothing in between the airport and Santiago didn’t make us feel better about the prospect of taking one. So we found a guy standing next to a regular cab and agreed to take him. Imagine our surprise, then, when he lead us away from the cab, into the garage, up the stairs and to a private car. Oh Lord. Just what we needed. We were too nervous and tired to do anything about it, though, so we rode with him, scared to talk to each other most of the time. In the end he charged us $30, the standard airport-to-city fare for those private cabs, I read later on. And he did not steal our kidneys. The bellman at the InterContinental – who spoke impeccable English – did not seem in the least pleased to see him, though, and he left with the 20,000 pesos he asked for and not a cent more.

The bellman also asked for our name and information and, sensing that something was wrong from our lack of luggage, asked if we’d lost it. He then offered to have it taken care-of for us and took our names. Already we felt better off. We checked in and trudged up to our room, the time now being a bit after midnight.

The room was immaculate. A large main room separated by double-doors from the bedroom, leading to a huge, glass-walled bathroom. It was larger than our apartment, or at least had more bathrooms. Two of ‘em. So you could poop while your partner took a whirlpool bath. Oh yeah, there was a whirlpool bath. And a bidet:

Becky called it an elf-toilet. I called it an ALF-toilet in response. She didn’t get it. I think I prefer that she didn’t, too.

As you can see, she went for the robes rather immediately. I went for the half-bottle of Chilean Merlot they left on the table for us and proceeded to enjoy it while making immediate use of the whirlpool tub. For the first time since our touch-down in Santiago 40 hours previously, everything was finally okay. As an added bonus, the hotel offered network cabling and 110-volt power on the desk, allowing me to plug in my poor, drained computer for the first time in days and have the promise of Internet in the morning. We crawled into bed shortly before 2 AM – having then been going for 22 hours straight – and slept a deep, sound sleep.

Monday, December 29 - we slept like the dead after the hellish previous day. It was sometime between 11 and noon when we finally drifted back out of sleep and later than that by the time we managed to get up and shower and put on our brand-new, not-filthy clothes. Still no luggage, but, hey, clean clothes are clean clothes.

Having missed the hotel’s complimentary breakfast service, we elected to start off the day by eating in the bistro adjacent to the lobby. It was shortly after their 12:30 opening and, once again, we were the only ones there:

V-necks aren’t usually my thing but since it seemed to like to get up into the 90s every day there I decided to try something different. The glass bottles of soda and water are standard. Oh, and we learned quickly to ration out each bottle as flagging down waiters to get refills is normally next to impossible. But the food. I am salivating right now just thinking about it. For reals. It’s braised pork wrapped in a crepe and covered in baked Gruyere and is definitely one of the Top 5 Things I Wish I Was Eating Right Now.

After covering ourselves in a thick coating of sunblock and raiding our minibar for all the agua sin gas we could carry, we set out in the hot Santiago afternoon sun to find something to do. We walked down the main road the hotel was on for a mile or so, stopping toward the end to get yet more water and sunblock. Oh, and a half-dozen candles for a dollar. Things were slowly starting to get more interesting than the business district we started in; it’d be sort of like starting to walk from Government Center toward Allston; things do get more hip by degree but it takes a while. We wanted to cut to the chase. So we hopped on the red line at a station called Los Leones. I wonder why:

Note that the Leon is presently engaged in the act of wrestling a crocodile, which is certainly symbolic of the Chilean peoples’ struggles. Or something.

We got off at Baquedano, as it seemed like that was where we needed to go to find the zoo and the large statue of Santa Maria that looms over the city, both of which we figured were good targets to start off with. But surprise! In the act of walking to where both are located we found Bellavista, the “bohemian” neighborhood! “Bohemian” being used very much in the same sense as it’s applied to Allston! Except without annoying BU students! As we passed by rows of local pubs offering dollar pints and 4-dollar pitchers (took me a while to work out the double-conversion on that but I’m sure the math’s right) we figured we’d found a place where the young folks hang out and do young folk stuff. A relief considering the stuffy, button-down business neighborhood our hotel was in, full of 30-story glass towers and little else. We made a mental note to return when we felt more at ease with the city; we were still a bit too green to be acting all local-hip just yet.

When we arrived at the park at the base of a hill a woman accosted us and shoved poorly-photocopied poems in our hands. Which should have been a bad sign right off the bat that she’d found a mark in the tall paleface gringos. But she offered a ton of helpful information in good English before suddenly demanding $10 US. I shoved it at her to make her go away and figured it was our tax on avoiding street peddlers from then on.

We got to the zoo to find that it was closed on Mondays. We figured we’d return another day and instead walk up the winding foot path that led there, seeing as how on any other day it would most likely be choked with school children on winter break and we would be able to at least get a decent view of the city. Like so:

A group of teenagers walked by us as I took the shot of Becky in the aloe plants along the side of the path. Lord knows what they thought we were up to, but I’m sure it made for a good story.

The zoo itself was locked up tight and we couldn’t see much but we elected to come back another day anyway, as zoos in foreign countries are always an interesting cultural prism. So, instead of the zoo, we decided to try to get up to what Becky dubbed Santa Maria Gigante. Turns out that this was best accomplished by the funicular that ran up the mountain. It should be noted that I’m pretty sure “funicular” is a fantastic word in any language.

For about $3.50 I was able to get us both round-trip tickets on the rickety single-cable cart system that pulled itself up and down the hill at a 45-degree angle to an elevation of 300 or 400 feet above the base:

I’m not afraid of heights in the least, but if you are, that part where the track splits just in time for the carts to pass one another might not be your most favorite moment ever as it even gave me a bit of a start.

At the top of the hill there was a mini-village of snack stands and tourist trap stores. Above that, a huge nativity scene:

Above that, at the summit, was an even huger Santa Maria:

Or so I was told. It was around there somewhere, I think.

Now, I know you’re thinking, “poor Santa Maria Gigante! She’s all alone up there!” But don’t worry, St. Peter was there to keep her company:

It was from up there that we were able to get the best view of the city:

Apparently that’s considered light smog by Santiago standards and apparently back when all the buses used to be diesel it was way worse. I can’t imagine.

Now, Santiago, by virtue of being in the massive expanse that is Latin America, has dogs all over the place. Unlike in Mexico – Becky tells me – they’re not all dead, but still all over the place, even in the sterile business district. It’s the single trippiest thing about being in Santiago, I found; the city looks so developed and 21st century and cosmopolitan, but there are street dogs, riddled with worm scars, running all over the place. Well, not so much running as lying down to keep cool. Some had owners. Some didn’t. Some seemed to get by in a sort of doggie co-op of the good graces of the neighborhood. Becky decided to photograph as many as she could see:

Perro.

Perro.

Perro.

Gay bar.

Perro.

And so on. The dogs carried us down the hill where we got some ice cream and I paid 100 pesos to use a dang restroom. Given, that’s, like, 15 cents, but still. Didn’t even get a lousy wet-nap. We walked back through Bellavista and stopped at an artist’s barrio to check out the wares. Becky got a wool-knit winter hat for about $2.25. Must be hard to sell those when it’s 95 degrees outside. Fortunately we knew what we were returning to in Boston so we were quite happy to buy it.

We dragged ourselves back to the hotel, cleaned up and settled in with Los Simpsons until we were ready to get dinner and, more importantly, Santiago was ready to serve us dinner, at around 9:30. We debated where to go, combing through our guidebooks, finally settling on a place that both sounded good and, as it so happened, was basically right next door to the hotel in the opposite direction from where we’d headed out.

It was a nice, mid-range restaurant, not too classy, not too dumpy, just right. And it was busy enough that we wouldn’t draw attention but not so busy that we’d get ignored. Perfect. I got a couple of rounds of the perfectly decent Cerveza Austral to compliment Becky’s pisco sours. We shared a huge pan of paella that, while not as delicious as my lunch, was still fantastic. And was also like $9.

Content, we wandered around the area for a bit, finding a little traffic light for elves:

Perhaps it is meant to direct them to their toilet.

We meandered back to our room and tucked into bed, content that we’d had a successful first real day in Santiago. And we didn’t see the airport. Not even once.

Tuesday, December 30 - after having a successful first real day in Santiago, we decided to try to get up a bit earlier and make it out and about before the sun got too terribly intense. We did so and started off the day with complimentary breakfast in the hotel. A decent spread, but I especially kept my eye on one tourist woman who insisted on speaking English to everyone. Didn’t even make an attempt to speak Spanish. The next day she asked one of the waitresses if she could have an omelet. Instead of attempting to look up the word for “omelet” in Spanish – if there is one – she held one hand out palm-up and circled the other one palm-down about 3 inches above it. As if that was ASL for “omelet.” All this while there was more food laid out than you could hope to cover in several breakfasts. To say I wanted to punch her was an understatement. I have a thing against people who visit other places in the world and then expect the entire population to bend to adapt to their culture and language.

At any rate, after breakfast we returned to the room to stock up some more water and I checked Delta’s lost baggage website to see if there was any news. Surprise! They finally found our bags in Atlanta and they were on their way! The knowledge that we would be re-united with our luggage made going out for another day in sink-washed clothing much more manageable.

First things first, we walked down to Los Leones again to visit the LAN office there and process a request for refunding our tickets. This went much more smoothly than trying to get new ones, though we had to talk the lady helping us down from giving us the litany of “oh, did you try [insert way to get to Easter Island here]?” Yes. We tried that. For 2 days. Really, she was trying to be helpful, though, and we got out of there feeling like at least we hadn’t wasted too much money on the whole debacle.

We then hopped on the Metro again and headed back down to Baquedano, with the idea of going to the zoo when it’s actually open. Along the way:

Perro.

Perro.

Perro.

Disgusting sandwich that I’m sure is still disgusting even with a $4 pitcher of beer.

“Punks not reds” [sic]. No, no it’s not. Good call.

The zoo itself was deceptively large based on the modest entrance, as it sloped up the hill lengthwise for some distance but wasn’t that wide. Admission was a stupidly cheap 3,000 pesos. Like, $4.50. Considering the price we were expecting it to be pretty darn lame but it was actually quite impressive, considering that it is wedged onto the side of a mountain between Santiallston and Santa Maria Gigante. We spent a good 2 hours wandering around. Aside from the animal names that were funny to us in Spanish (eg, “seal” is “lobo marina”) it wasn’t terribly different from what we see here in the US, though, so Becky didn’t take all that many pictures. Oh, and, as per requirement of any day visiting the zoo, it was 98 degrees so we wanted to keep moving. She did get one of a smiling lizard, though:

Most likely smiling because it was enjoying the blazing hot sun. Stupid cold-blooded animals think they’re so cool.

I also got into a staring match with a turkey buzzard:

I think it won.

Having seen everything we could of the zoo, we got some ice cream at the base of the hill and started to walk back to the train station. On the way there we noticed people going in and out of an alleyway that seemed to have some shops, so we ducked in, too. We found there the Bellavista they talk about in the tour books: all full of tiny shops with souvenirs for tourists to buy. Dozens of ‘em. You could tell it was the gentrified section of the neighborhood because it had Art with a Capital A:

The sort of thing that would be used by passing drunkards to relieve themselves upon after a night of drinking if it were placed only 2 blocks away. Still, we resolved to return there toward the end of our trip, as we needed gifts for the family and it looked to be way more in line with finding stuff of that nature than the plywood-encased barrio across the street where we’d gotten Becky a hat the day before.

We decided to keep heading on down the line to Cerro Santa Lucia, an old colonial-era castle built upon a hill that juts up 200 feet above the valley-level of Santiago but occupies only a couple city blocks. The guidebooks all recommended it so we were skeptical it’d be rather boring but it actually turned out to be a really neat place, how it was built up so vertically and at different times in schizophrenically-different architecture styles. In the hot sun we definitely became winded by walking up to the crow’s nest at the summit but water bottle carts along the way kept us going. We got some pretty fantastic pictures in the process:

As you may have noticed, a strikingly large number of street dogs in Santiago look like this:

Medium-sized, German Shepard-based mutt. I think that alone is proof of evolution in action: left to their own devices, dogs genetically collapse into the most viable form to survive and fend for food. Not too big to require too much food to live, and not too small as to be out-hunted. Good pack demeanor, but good survival instincts. What you get, then, from over 200 breeds of dog, is the practically uniform street dog. Population genetics is an awesome thing.

Everywhere in Santiago we saw ads on bus stops that looked like this:

For obvious reasons, I dubbed her Zombie Orange Lady. On our way out of Cerro Santa Lucia, there she was in real life:

That she was selling nectarines did not fool us nor trick us into giving her our sweet, mushy brains.

We headed back to the hotel and, when there, I set about to check on the progress of the luggage again. It took me several minutes to notice that, surprise! They were sitting right there in the room! They had been delivered while we were out! Oh, Raul Gonzales, you sly fox, you! We rifled through our stuff, happy to see that all of our clothing and accessories had finally, after 4 days in limbo, caught up with us.

We managed to get into touch with Manuel, Nate H’s friend from working cruises and a local of Santiago. Manuel works at a radio station in Santiago and, in addition to speaking English fluently is also in his late-20s and a Cool Person, so we figured he’d be the man to meet in order to hear about what’s going on in his fair city.

He agreed to pick us up around 9 PM. In the mean time we decided that, since it was our honeymoon, if we weren’t going to demolish the mini-bar, we were missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So we took care of that. The chips and candy and drinks helped tide over our hunger from not having eaten a proper lunch. Good as, when Manuel brought us to a favorite Peruvian restaurant of his, we wound up having to wait an hour for a table. He assured us that it was uncharacteristically busy for a Tuesday, and I believe him. I think a lot of people went out as they had the next day off from work. Not that we knew any better. Still, very good food, on par with Machu Picchu in Union Square here, except a lot cheaper.

We talked about differences between the US and South America, the Presidential election and the reaction to it in Chile (overwhelmingly positive), the lingering bitterness about Pinochet even 20 years after he was deposed, and Iron Maiden. Good stuff. Nice guy. He took us to see the radio station where he worked and then dropped us back at the hotel. He asked us to join him in Vina del Mar to go to the big, 2 day-long New Year’s party there. We initially accepted, but upon talking about it amongst ourselves, decided it might be a bit much for us weary travelers. Still, we decided to sleep on it. So sleep we did, until it was time to experience our very first New Year’s in the middle of summer the next day.

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