Friday, July 20, 2012

Back to where we started from

Well, it's Friday July 20, and we're home.
Home, home. Gringolandía with all the other gringos, ¿cachai?

Home, sweet home.

Now I can't speak for Rachel, but it's taken less than one week for me to fall back in the swing of things, here in the U.S. I have a car again, so no more transportation. I don't have a Nana, so I get to wash my own clothes. I don't live in a city, so it's a lot less noisy. Finally, We're back in the center of the USA, so no more earthquakes.... (well, not usually.)

We're no longer international students, so no more Carlos E. Torres. He's one of the very best people in Chile.

No really, Carlos is the best!

No more ocean-views from a mirador.

We (Colin) could look at the sea forever! "It just never ends!"

No more Chilean host family.
No more exchange-student friends.
No more a thousand little things that made our four and a half months something we'll treasure forever.

Maybe that's the reverse culture shock: realizing things that won't be around any longer that you've gotten used to.

I can tell you this. I'm not saying chao forever. I don't know when, but I will see you again, Chile. While we're on the subject, I half expect Rachel to move down there and become a Chilean, but we'll see.

At any rate, we've had fun getting to know a wonderfully long and skinny country and we hope you've enjoyed reading about all our mishaps, mistakes, and adventures.

To all, to each,

que les vaya la raja.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Machu Picchu: the Peruvian adventure

Our first solo international adventure: Machu Picchu!

The Adventurers:
Colin Dunham and Rachel Davenport

The Plan:
1. Don't die.
2. Don't get robbed.
3. Don't get scammed, swindled, conned, or otherwise cheated out of money. 
4. See Machu Picchu.
5. Make it back to the airport in time for our flight.

The Preparation:
As far as preparation goes, we bought our plane tickets to Arica (in northern Chile) a week and a half in advance, and the choosing of the dates went something like this:

"How about this one? It's the cheapest."
"Ohh, we have a final exam that day. What about the next?"
"Ok, yeah sure. When should we come back?"
"Well, it's usually cheaper to fly in the middle of the week."
"So Wednesday?"
"I hope that's enough time..."
"Me too. Let's do it."

And besides that very well-thought-out flight planning, we knew the names of the towns we'd probably have to take buses to to finally get to Machu Picchu. Period.

And so we set off. 

The Adventure:
Thursday, July 5th
Colin and I packed our bags and met at the bus station to catch a bus to Santiago. This was probably the least scary part of our trip, as it was the only part we'd done before. After a two hour bus ride and a shuttle to the airport, we checked our bags and settled in at our gate to wait. I pulled out my handy-dandy book of brain games (which my awesome mom sent me for my birthday!), and we got so lost in solving them that we didn't notice that they changed the gate for our flight and we almost missed it! Other than that, our flights to Arica were peacefully uneventful.

When we did finally get to Arica at 11-something at night, a nice man named Raul told us he was the last taxi left for the night, so we let him take us to the bus station. He told us all about Arica and lamented the fact that we didn't have more time to spend exploring it. He gave us his card for the return trip and dropped us off outside the bus station. And thus began the scariest part of our trip.

We stepped out of the taxi and toward the outdoor part of a now-closed bus station, in the middle of the night, filled with people milling about an assortment of cars and tiny ticket windows. Before we even stepped through the gate someone waiting there asked, "Tacna?" (the next step in our journey, a town just across the border in Peru). So I said yes and he whisked us off to the nearest little booth and told us to buy the 50 cent tickets they were selling. I have since come to find out that it was essentially a fee for using the bus station, called a  tiqueta de embarque, but it was pretty confusing at the time. Then he ran over to what appeared to be his own car, took our bags and put them in his trunk, and asked for our passports. All the while, I'm starting to regret following him and wondering if there are any less-sketchy options available. But I handed him my passport anyway. Colin, however, was so hesitant to let it out of his possession that his actually fell on the ground as he was handing it over. Heightening our nervousness, he told us to "just get in the car" and ran across the dirt parking lot to another window. Needless to say, Colin and I did not get in the car, but rather watched nervously as our passports disappeared out of sight. He did eventually come back with them, and as far as I know our identities have not been stolen, so I think we survived breaking the cardinal rule of international travel: Never let your passport out of your sight! And the guy was nice enough, he helped us figure out what to do as we crossed the border in the middle of the night, and when we finally got to Tacna at 1am and everything was dark and scary and foreign, he drove us to a nice, relatively cheap hotel. Yes, you read correctly... we were so freaked out we opted for a hotel instead of a hostel. And it was a wonderful choice.

In our safe, warm, cozy hotel room.

Friday, July 6th
We woke up bright and early Friday morning to take what would be (unbeknownst to us) our last hot showers for quite a while. Then we proceeded to wolf down our free hot breakfast since we had forgotten to eat dinner in the confusion of the night before. We took a taxi back to the bus station (which was very slightly less intimidating in daylight), and bought bus tickets from the first guy who yelled "Arequipa!" and gave us a "reduced" price. Still convinced we were going to be robbed, Colin ventured one picture as we waited in the bus station.

Tacna bus station

On our first double-decker bus, we sat in the front row on the top floor: right in front of a giant windshield. We were excited to get to watch the south-Peruvian landscape go by on our seven-hour journey. This is what we saw:

Sand, sand, and more sand.

Fog, fog, and more fog.

When we weren't driving on the road so straight it looked like it would take us right over the horizon, we were whipping around tight curves in a thick fog, taking up a lane and a half, and narrowly avoiding semi trucks trying to do the same.
We did pass a few patches of green along the way, and of course that's where little towns had sprung up.

Despite the less-than-captivating landscape, we did have a mostly enjoyable ride. We were only stopped once to take all the passengers and luggage out at a drug checkpoint, and lucked out in the seatmate category. We ended up with Michael and Susanne, a lovely couple from England who for their fifth wedding anniversary quit their jobs to take a year off and travel the world. This trip was toward the end of their three months in South America, but they still have New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, and India to go before they head home. We shared jokes and stories and memories and plans with them for many of the seven hours we spent on that bus, and we are very grateful we had them there to help us pass the time.

When we did finally make it to Arequipa, we looked for the Oltursa counter (a great recommendation from our good friend Ronald), and bought tickets for the next bus to Cusco. While we waited, we bought a delicious and long-overdue lunch, which we ate for about $1.60 each. (Turns out we should have studied in Peru!) A few hours later, we loaded up once more, on a much nicer bus this time, and settled in for a 10-hour bus ride. They even served us dinner and played us a movie as we fell asleep.

Saturday, July 7th
Want to know the best way to travel? Go to sleep in Arequipa and wake up in Cusco. Granted, I do sleep rather better in an actual bed, and a shower would have been nice, but I'm not complaining. We saved whatever money we would have spent on a place to sleep, and what would have been an entire day of bus-riding. And on top of that, when you arrive at a bus station at 6am, the usual throng of taxi drivers and bus ticket-sellers has not arrived to accost confused travelers yet. So that was a plus. It gave Colin and I a chance to sit down and recover our groggy brains and try and figure out what to do next. I couldn't actually remember the name of the next town we were supposed to go to, and it was too small for any of the bus companies to go to, so we were kind of at a loss. On top of that, I was still worried about being scammed by taxi drivers or anyone else who might be able to make money off of us. We decided to ask a nice girl working for a bus company (that for sure didn't go to this town), what the best way to get to Machu Picchu was. She was very nice and wrote down the next two steps for us: a taxi to Calle Pavitos, and a carro to Ollantaytambo. No wonder I couldn't remember the name. So we grabbed a taxi driver and asked him to take us to Calle Pavitos.

Apparently everyone is very used to tourists trying to get to Machu Picchu, because before the taxi even came to a complete stop, the men at Calle Pavitos were pulling our backpacks out of the trunk and throwing them on the luggage rack on top of a van. We asked the taxi driver as we were getting out if this was the right way to get to Ollantaytambo, and he said yes, not looking phased at all by the speed with which everything was happening. So we loaded up once again and took a two hour ride through the (this time beautiful) Peruvian countryside. We skirted mountains and valleys until we made it to the far side of Ollantaytambo where the train station waited for us.

The view on the way to Ollantaytambo

By this point we were getting used to walking up to counters and asking strangers what to do, so we marched right up to the first window and asked for the cheapest and soonest train to Aguascalientes. It was only barely 9am, so we figured we'd have time to get there and get settled in and explore the town a little, so we could head to Machu Picchu bright and early in the morning. Then the man in the window said "We have no more spaces on the trains till tomorrow.”


Keep in mind step number five of The Plan: Make it back to the airport in time for our flight. We had absolutely not planned on losing nearly an entire day before even getting to Machu Picchu.

We must have looked sufficiently panic-stricken, because the man then pointed out that there are a few other train companies that go to Aguascalientes and showed us where to find them. Needless to say, we were thoroughly relieved to find that there was ample availability on the 10:30 train with IncaRail. The hour and a half train ride through the mountains was pleasant; we spent it looking at the scenery and chatting with a Venezuelan couple who said we spoke Spanish very well. The only downside to the ride was my rising fear that there would not actually be hostels in Aguascalientes and we'd have to pay to take the train back to Ollantaytambo and then to Aguascalientes again in the morning. This is the kind of thing that happens to me when I don't have a plan.

Some ruins we saw on the way to Aguascalientes. Machu Picchu, here we come!

But we arrived in Aguascalientes and there were indeed hostels, so we booked a room in the first one we saw. (A regrettable decision, but like I said, I was fighting a panic attack...) Once we had a place to leave our backpacks, we wandered around Aguascalientes for a while. We looked through the feria, found an ATM so we could take out money, and sat down to eat lunch at a place that offered us the "student discount:" anything on the menu for ten dollars. After some delicious pesto pasta and lamb stew, we went back to our hostel and prepared to face the shower.
Yes, those are electrical wires running through our water supply...

As far as I've ever heard, the combination of water and electricity is a bad idea. I felt like I was going to get electrocuted just looking at it! And if it doesn't look scary enough, vaguely remembering an explanation that involves an electric current running through the water right before it lands on your head made it no less than terrifying. Regardless, after two long days of travel, we didn't really have a choice. So Colin kindly risked his life first, and I waited for the verdict. And the verdict was: Cold. Like, ICE COLD. We tried everything. We flipped every switch and turned every knob, including (accidentally) the one that shuts off the water to our room. Defeated and frozen, we retreated to our beds and promptly crashed for several hours.

When the noise of extraordinarily loud music woke me, I dragged Colin out of his bed to explore the town with me. It turned out we had just happened to arrive the day that Machu Picchu was celebrating its 50th anniversary as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World! So we made our way to the square to listen to the music, and ended up dancing the night away with some Brazilian girls named Raquel and Camila.

Sunday, July 8th
We woke up bright and early (again), and set off to fulfill a dream. We bundled up and took a bus up the side of one of the mountains which encircle Aguascalientes, and after about 40 minutes of switchbacks, we arrived at the gate. Aside from being asked if we wanted a tour guide, we just showed our tickets and were free to go.

When we rounded the corner, the only thought that would fit in my head was "We're really here. This is real life."

Even through the clouds of the morning, the view was breathtaking.

We spent hours walking through every part of the ruins we could.

Colin's Inca-sized too!
Look, I'm Inca-sized!

We even met llamas!

And an interesting animal we don't know... some relative of the jackelope?

Squirrel-rabbit-mouse combo?

After a while we decided to try out the trek to the Inca Bridge. It ended up being only a 15 minute walk with a pretty cool view at the end.

Inspired, we set off to see the Sun Gate too. Only this was an hour long hike. Up a mountain. In the rain. When we finally did reach the top, it was just a few stone walls and a lot of clouds. We waited there under our tiny umbrella for the clouds to clear and for us to catch our breath, then we took a few pictures of Machu Picchu (which is breathtaking even from that far away, and which did indeed make the hike worth it), and headed back down.


By that time all the fog and clouds had finally burned off, so we found ourselves a spot and just sat down to soak in as much beauty as we could.

And of course, by "sat down" I mean "took jump pictures."

When my legs couldn't handle any more climbing and our eyes couldn't take in any more beauty and our stomachs couldn't go any longer without food, we headed back to the bus to go down. In Aguascalientes, we did what any starving American would do: we found a restaurant and ordered a family-size pepperoni pizza. And we ate the whole thing.

We rested much easier that night knowing that we had accomplished the second-most-important step in the plan: along with not having died (yet), we had seen Machu Picchu.

Monday, July 9th
The journey home was infinitely more relaxing than the initial trip since this time we knew how long things would take, what to look for, and that each step was indeed possible. We spent the morning on the train back to Ollantaytambo and then got in the first van that said he was going to Cusco. At the bus terminal, we bought our tickets for the overnight trip to Arequipa and splurged a little, opting for the bus cama (bed bus) instead of just the semi-cama (semi-bed).

We had nowhere to be from 1pm to 7:30pm, so we set out to explore Cusco. We found a decent looking chicken place and ordered the special, which turned out to be an appetizer, chicken noodle soup, and a pork chop with rice for $2.20. That's two dollars and twenty cents. We ordered drinks as well, and with tax and tip thrown in, Colin and I had a three-course meal for four dollars each. We should have studied in Peru.

After lunch, we wandered around for a while looking for the Plaza de Armas, the central plaza in Cusco. Along the way we ran into some ladies decked out in their traditional garb, one with a baby slung on her back, and the other with a lamb on a leash. My "tourist trap" radar is apparently not very good, because all I saw was a baby lamb I wanted to pet. As we walked by, they asked if we wanted a picture, so we took them up on it. I handed the lady with the lamb about a dollar to thank her for the picture, and then she stopped me from walking away and said "for her too?" The smallest thing I had left was a coin worth two dollars, so I may or may not have been swindled out of three dollars. But I got to pet a lamb. :)

We did end up finding the Plaza de Armas and spent a few hours walking around, people-watching, taking pictures, and saying "no, gracias" to shoe-shiners. Like, at least ten shoe-shiners told me in broken English that my shoes were dirty. Thanks. Unfortunately I do not have a heart of stone, so when 11-year-old Rodrigo came by and said it was for his school, I couldn't say no anymore. We found out while he was shining my shoes that he knows the capital of the US and our president, he learned to shine shoes from watching other people do it, and that he wants to be a tour guide when he grows up.

The two churches across the street from the Plaza de Armas were beautiful, and they had some interesting statues built into their walls.

It wasn't actually in the Plaza de Armas, but we stumbled upon this awesome mural of Incan history while meandering around Cusco.

When the sun went down and it got too cold to be outside, we went back to the bus station to wait. And that bed bus was worth the wait. The chairs were huge and comfy and reclined, they fed us dinner, dessert, and tea, and they gave us headphones for the movie. (My Name is Khan, a tear-jerker if I've ever seen one.)

Tuesday, July 10th
If the bed bus wasn't already on my list of recommendations, it would have made it in the morning when they turned the lights on just outside of Arequipa so they could bring us breakfast.

Bus cama, so worth the wait.

The bus from Arequipa to Tacna was not even comparable. We endured nearly six hours of kids alternately screaming, crying, growling, yelling, and singing, our only distraction being a bootleg copy of Ice Age 4 in Spanish. But we survived and immediately hopped in a car to Arica when we got off the bus. Thankfully, the car-across-the-border system felt significantly less sketchy the second time, in the daylight. When we did make it back into Chile, a taxi driver kindly took us to a hostel he knew of, and we spent a relaxed evening walking around Arica, eating our last Chorillanas in Chile, and watching Big Bang Theory. We finally knew we were going to achieve goal number five of The Plan: make it back to the airport for our flight.

Wednesday, July 11th
And make it we did. We got a ride back to the airport and flew uneventfully back to Santiago and then home.

All around, it was the trip of a lifetime, just like this whole study abroad experience. I wouldn't trade a second of it for the world.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

I don't want to say goodbye

Our time here in Chile has reminded me very much of things my parents tell me. I'm not talking about the advice they give you like "don't talk to strangers." I mean the sentimental things like "I blinked and you grew up! Where has the time gone?" With only fifteen days left in our South American paradise, it's hard to believe we've been here four months. Seems like just yesterday we were scared, little gringos stepping off the plane in this long, skinny country. But enough with this sappy dialogue.

J. J. Harting: speaks Spanish, English & German. Loves jazz.
Great news! We scored high enough on the third test in our business class to be exempt from the final! It was an interesting class to say the least, and we learned a few new things. Overall it was just a great experience to meet some new (spanish-speaking) friends, and watch some interesting documentaries we wouldn't have seen otherwise. This experience also makes me smile when I think that we (and by we, I mean me) were worried about doing well on the tests and whether we'd have to drop the class. We'll also never forget that our professor changed the class meeting time halfway through the semester, which enraged us! Alas, as with all things Chilean, you just have to take them in stride.

Ortofonía- we had too much fun learning. Carlos, Brandon, Rachel, Katie,
Allyn, Joven Mike, and me.
As for our other classes, we're pretty much done. We lack a dialogue test with our Ortofonía class, and a final in our grammar class. (If you were wondering how we were going to celebrate July 4th, we'll be taking said grammar test. Happy Birthday, America!) Our classes have all been great, but in different ways. Sometimes the material is the great part. Other times it is the teacher that makes class worthwhile. We'll take something special away from each class, mostly the new friends we've made here!

Now that school is almost over, Rachel and I have been trying to make a list of things we'll miss. (A daunting task, mind you.) However, here are some things/people we'll miss for years to come.

¡Maní confitado! Sugared peanuts, the best snack for $500 pesos.
Doña Raquel is one of the nicest Chilean ladies we've met here. Basically our relationship began with Rachel and I coming by to buy maní confitado every three days or so. She always smiled and exchanged pleasantries with us. After a few weeks we got to the "Do you like Chile? What are you studying?" phase. Nowadays when we go by it's full of hugs and smiles. I'll miss her terribly.... and her sugared peanuts. ;)

Rachel, Raquel, and me!

Me, Macarena, Maria Jose, and Rachel
These are the practicantes (student teachers) we had the privilege of knowing while volunteering at Colegio Paul Harris. They are in college as well, quite close to finishing and they hope to be English teachers at an elementary school someday. It was nice to talk to them and relate as one student to another.

Not pictured are Mauricio and Ricardo. Between the four of them and the two of us, our classes on Thursdays had no shortage of help for English class!

Side note: We didn't have to wear those ghastly orange aprons ever week. They were just for our closing program for volunteering the other day.

Teacher Rodrigo. He's totally boss.
However, our volunteer experience would not be complete without the help and enthusiasm of one man-- Teacher Rodrigo! This guy is awesome! He was welcoming when we arrived on the first day and even invited Rachel and me to his house for once last week. Apart from teaching English at the elementary school, he also teaches a class at a university. He's a lover of all things Beatles and Rock & Roll, and has a flair for technology. I'll really miss some of his expressions like "We have to fly!" and "Let's go lads." (He learned British English in college, so his accent and phrases are colored by the UK.)

From N. Carolina to Chile. She's bacán.
At our school, there are many people who have welcomed us with open arms and hearts. We'll be content to mention two today.

Kathleen Lowry is.... well to tell you the truth, I don't really know her title. Suffice it to say she is a BOSS! She's been able to handle any problem we've thrown at here and she's always ready to fill in as chaperone on the trips Carlos can't make. She's also a fan of chorillanas! (She once took us to one of her favorite places to eat them.) She's kind of like Rachel's role model since she moved down here to live in Chile on somewhat of whim. We'll definitely miss her mucho!
He told us this WAS his smile. 

Don Juan de Dios Gay is the best guard this side of the equator. He's an interesting guy who's worked in Chile, Argentina, and Portugal. He always smiles when walk up to the school. We usually spend a few minutes before class talking to him. He has taught us quite a few dichos or sayings in Chilean.
We have an ongoing argument on whether it's going to rain or not that day. (He usually wins.) At any rate, we've been blessed to know Juan. I only wish I could take him back to los estados unidos with me. I'd sleep more soundly if I knew Jaun was guarding the perimeter.

Poor quality, my apologies.

I have gotten somewhat addicted to juice in this country. I mean, back home I was quite partial to cranberry juice, but here I had to substitute. Luckily I came across this tasty liquid about a month ago. There is almost nothing better than Jugo Naranja-Plátano that I know of to quench a thirst. (Could be the copious amounts of sugar in it.... nah!) Sometimes it is rather hard to find, so it can seem like a treasure hunt. Watts is a Chilean brand so unfortunately there probably won't be this exact juice in the States, but I'll manage... somehow.

A little update: Rachel and I were supposed to go to Mendoza, Argentina this weekend. Lamentablemente, the pass through the Andes Mountains was closed due to all the snow! I feel as though the expression "You snooze, you lose" applies here. We won't get to meet Argentina this trip, but we both have a desire to come back to South America in the future, so we're not terribly sad.
We are most definitely going to Peru next week, however. We leave here on July 5th, and shall return on July 11th.
We can't wait to tell ya'll all about it!


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Beauty from pain

Last weekend, Colin and I had the opportunity to visit something I never imagined I'd see unless I went to Europe: a concentration camp. It's not from World War II and it's not a Nazi concentration camp, but the fact that this camp was in operation throughout the 70s is perhaps even more sobering than if it were something I'd learned about since elementary school. It's a strong reminder that the world is not all as it should be.

Obviously Villa Grimaldi is no longer a "clandestine center for detention, torture, and extermination." Now it's Parque por la Paz Villa Grimaldi (Park for Peace Villa Grimaldi), and it is a very somber version of beautiful. The park was constructed on the grounds of the former concentration camp as a reminder that the fight for human rights doesn't end. Most of the old concentration camp was destroyed in the years after General Pinochet's military dictatorship in an effort to cover up the crimes committed there, but a few pieces have been reconstructed to help people like us understand what went on there. There is an example of the holding cells that prisoners lived in, five people to a cell, while they awaited torture or a verdict on their fate.

The inside of this cell is three feet by three feet

They have also reconstructed the Tower, an isolation center where some prisoners were taken to be tortured. They have sketches on the walls showing the life the prisoners lived here, including some of the specialized torture devices that were kept here.

The bed in this picture is called "la parilla" (the grill).

Most of the people taken to the tower were never seen again, and joined the numbers of the desaparecidos (the disappeared) who have never been found or accounted for. An estimated 4,500 prisoners passed through Villa Grimaldi while it was in operation, and at least 233 of them are now among the desaparecidos.

A memorial listing the names of the 233 known desaparecidos and executed

"El olvido está lleno de Memoria" The forgotten is full of memory

There is a rose garden that was planted in the park not only to mimic the rose garden that was there while it was a concentration camp, but also to commemorate all of the women who were in Villa Grimaldi and then became desaparecidos. When it opened, the rose garden had 36 names planted among the roses, but the monument was so moving that anyone who has a mother, daughter, wife, or sister among the desaparecidos can plant a rose there in their name.

There are several other memorials in the park, built by organizations who had members among the detainees at Villa Grimaldi.

MIR, the Revolutionary Left Movement

The Communist Party of Chile

The Socialist Party of Chile

At the end of our tour our guide showed us the collection of rail ties that was donated to the park by Judge Guzman after they were used as evidence in Pinochet's trials. These rail ties were found at the bottom of the ocean where we now know many of the desaparecidos were sent.

The Chileans have succeeded in creating a memorial that commemorates their loss, reminds them of their wrongs, brings peace to the present, and provides hope for a different future.

To conclude our exceedingly somber day in Santiago, we went to Pablo Neruda's second house, La Chascona. It was lovely, but again there was no photography allowed inside. This one was equally as convoluted as the last, but instead of having a view of the sea, it was built around a tiny waterfall on the side of a hill. It consequently had about sixteen different staircases, several of which were outside.