Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sand, With Water Or Without

After saying goodbye to Harry on the Santiago Metro, I had a few more stops before arriving at the bus station with hopes of catching a bus to Pichilemu, a small fishing and surfing village about 3 ½ hours southwest of Santiago.

Terminal Alameda was a bit of a monkey house, but shockingly I stumbled upon the two bus companies servicing the route after a few twists and turns through the crowds (without whacking anyone with my backpack amazingly). I should have learned my lesson from Argentina, but of course I didn’t since the other lesson of the last 11 months is that things just happen to work out.

Okay, so I can’t get the express bus. Oh, I have to wait hours for the next slow bus with a seat. Ugh! Wait, a wave from the man at Pullman del Sur and the driver who will take me on the 4:15 bus (even though it’s 4:25 now).  He even escorted me to the bus and gave me seat 2, which may have been the helper’s seat since he wasn't as welcoming.

The bus wasn’t great since it had no AC, but I was still thankful they let me on since the later ones would have been just as hot. I also learned what the women on the side of the road sell (Harry and I couldn't figure it out)- all sorts of baked goods; it is the strangest system as they sell their goods on the bus and then get off wherever when they are finished, somehow making it home at the end of the day. Seems to work for them, maybe we should start selling pastries at toll booths?

After 5 ½ hours I arrived at Pichilemu's Natural Surf Lodge which is super nice. I was warmly greeted by Martin, his wife and Manu, their bulldog, and quickly got into the laid back beach vibe.

It was a pretty quiet weekend with just me and David, a lovely Brit with a bad back.

The plan was to spend a week surfing and learning Spanish, so I first had to meet Chris (originally from Ohio) at Pichilemu Language Institute to take my placement test. He then nicely pointed out all the good places in town and sent me on my way for $3.50 fish and seafood ceviche on the beach (near the trailer washed up at a strange angle by the recent tsunami), fresh off the fishermen’s boat. Yum!!!!!!

I was slightly intimidated to surf on Sunday when the place was super crowded so instead walked the 2km down beach to watch people who know what they are doing at Punta de Lobos-- Chile’s most consistent, long left break (it seemed like people rode that wave for 10 minutes).

My primary mission of the day was to get the TV working to watch the Superbowl, which is so not the same in Spanish, without the commercials and yummy food and alone. A few Americans checked in mid game, so that was a little better and I was so happy Green Bay won- take that Farve!

With the start of the week it was time I motivated, now with my new amigos Jackie and Louis who joined me for lessons and the 4km bike ride to and from school (on pretty crappy bikes that Louis did his best to fix). Awh, so cute biking to school! :-)

Day 1 went pretty well. The Spanish lesson wasn’t so bad and I was feeling pretty confident even though the Chileans are impossible to understand (and people told me the Argentines talked funny). Our surf lesson with Ulysses was also pretty good, even if La Puntilla was super crowded and I feared I was going to crash into someone. Ulysses also enjoyed himself with my waterproof camera; perhaps that is why he didn’t really teach us so much?

Day 2 was still okay- a lot of what Rosetta Stone thought would just sink in now made sense.

Day 3 was a little downhill- future tense and getting a little brain overload, but not terrible. It was all forgotten once I ate the best empanada ever baked in the backyard of a shop with adobe ovens, rejuvenating my spirits for our solo surf venture to the far waves of La Puntilla away from the crowds with our Danish lodge mate, Simon.

This was also a little less successful since some of the waves were terrifyingly big for my beginner status and those in between weren’t strong enough to surf. The first attempt was at least amusing (it took a while to get all the way back to shore, followed by a long walk back to where you paddle out), but after a few dunks in the washing machine and frozen feet I had about enough.

A trip to the market looking for something to eat and a bottle of good, cheap Chilean wine would thaw me. OMG, this supermarket was insanity, but they had chips and salsa!

Day 4 was flat out not good; perhaps wine doesn’t help my Spanish comprehension? My back was killing me from surfing (am I too old to start?) and Spanish class was totally discouraging (past tense today). Why are there so many exceptions? Do words really need to have a gender? Too much info to digest!

But I was a glutton for punishment and decided I couldn’t leave without surfing at the famous Punta de Lobos. Another mediocre lesson on a soft board (which I hate). I was about to quit in frustration due to the board, but then really quit when said board whacked me in the nose. Perhaps this really is not my sport???

To recuperate a bunch of us from Natural Surf Lodge went to the best place in Pichilemu for Pisco Sours at sunset. It was a fun night out with Ryan and Val from Australia, Simon, Louis and Jackie. Too bad we declined the surf shops offer to pick us up in their VW van for their late night beach party.

Last day in Pichilemu! Last Spanish class before heading back to Santiago. Needless to say, at this point I was pretty frustrated and just kinda gave up. My brain hasn’t been in school for ages and it was probably too much to cram all that grammar into vacation brain in one week. Oh well!

Damn, again I should have booked a bus ticket in advance- will I ever learn! Same story, long bus ride, but this time they gave me about 10 minutes to hoof it to the bus stop--- ouch, my cramping calves!

Santiago was easy this time since I knew exactly how to get from A to B on the Metro and even found a place that served cheese fries which I haven’t had since I left home (and they were pretty tasty). If only I could find somewhere to sleep in San Pedro de Atacama where I was flying early the next morning on Sky (their maybe questionable, but way cheaper airline).

A third of Chile’s length is actually desert, the driest desert in the world in fact. According to Frommer’s, NASA has conducted Mars experiments here since the sand is so red, dry and totally devoid of life.

Upon arrival in Calama I had every intention of grabbing the shuttle to San Pedro. Ah, sold out- really! Luckily there were three other slackers, two Brazilians and an Italian who never spoke, with whom I shared a taxi for the hour drive through the desert. The driver had no idea where the guesthouses were once we arrived, but eventually I found my way.

San Pedro de Atacama is a dusty oasis town with a couple streets lined with adobe houses, located on the Tropic of Capricorn. For the most part the town is just a bunch of restaurants and tour operators catering to tourists, but there were a few interesting spots in the old square (which had Wi-Fi amazingly!):

• Archaeological Museum with a collection of pre-Columbian artifacts including a lot of tablets for hallucinogenics, hummmm. They were also supposed to have a “Miss Chile” mummy and deformed skulls but damned if I could find them.

• The Church of San Pedro, a pretty adobe church from colonial days and a national monument in Chile.

• A house of Pedro de Valdivia, built by Francisco de Aguirre in 1540, which was of particular interest to me since I was in the middle of Isabelle Allende’s book about Pedro and his mistress. It could use a new roof.

While in town I did want to hit a few tours.

The first was with Space for a tour of the stars using the largest diameter telescope available to the public in South America. Too bad the tour was canceled due to cloud cover since people the following night saw Saturn. And now I would probably know how to find the Southern Cross (thanks again Andy!).

It was okay; coin- cidentally Michele, who I met in Montenegro last July, happened to arrive that night so I had someone to meet for pizza and beer at the #1 rated restaurant, Adobe (cute place, ok pizza).

Michele and I did manage to leave on an afternoon trip to the Valle de la Luna (thanks to a lovely woman who called all over to get us spaces).

As the name suggests it is more like the surface of the moon-- wacky rock formation, huge sand dunes, canyons, areas where literally nothing lives-- all with snow-capped volcanoes in the background.

It is pretty cool seeing the desert meet the snow covered volcanoes, especially at sunset atop a giant sand dune when the mountains turn lovely shades of pink and violet.

The real reason for coming to San Pedro was to hook up with a tour operator for the 3-day trip to the salt flat in Bolivia. I got a little taste of what was to come while inside a salt cave in the Valley of the Moon.

Online reports of tour operators are terrible, so I did some research and then stopped by the three that seemed reputable. Cordillera Traveler won the business since they appear to compensate their staff well and reported no accidents. It was actually pretty easy to choose since the first only had two Spaniards booked (I didn’t want to spend 3 days with no English) and the other told me they were too busy to chat and I needed to come back (typical quality service).

All to do now was stock up on some snacks, grab another empanada and hit the hammock! The trip to Bolivia starts early tomorrow.

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