04 October 2008 – day 2 – Saturday – Santiago, Chile

Our flight from JFK to Santiago Chile was a long and grueling ten hours. I was uncomfortable and stiff in my seat, so I had a hard time sleeping. I slept a little while, but as soon as I fell asleep they turned on all the lights and started serving breakfast.

The food on Lan airlines was not bad, considering how bad most airlines have gotten these days.

When we arrived at the airport, we had to go through our usual customs and immigration routine. No surprises there. Our luggage arrived as expected and we collected it. We were very tired. When we left the airport, we were greeted immediately by an OAT representative. We were shuffled onto a bus and away we went.

We drove past a shanty town that looked very bad off. Then the bus drove through a very long tunnel that supposedly went under the main river in town. When we emerged, we found ourselves in the richer, cleaner part of Santiago. For being a huge city, this part of Santiago was clean, modern and friendly. Skyscrapers were intermixed with lots of tall trees.

One of the things that immediately struck me as funny was the power lines. In Minneapolis, trees are not allowed to touch power cables. Every year, a huge force of men with chainsaws go around the city and any tree that encroaches on a power line gets brutally hacked back until they appear twisted and deformed, like the monsters in John Carpenter's classic horror movie, “The Thing.” Here in Santiago, they don't seem to care. Power lines are a twisted rat's nest of cables going in every direction, and huge knots of cable disappear into the thick foliage of trees. I wonder how often the trees rub against the power lines until they're exposed. I also wonder how anyone can make sense out of it and figure out what wire to replace if a cable has a problem.

The bus dropped us off at the hotel. The only problem was, we were told we couldn't check in to the hotel until 4:00pm. That story changed to 3:00pm. Our woman guide, Patricia, said that the other guide, Nelson (who had previously sent everyone email) was delayed and would be joining us later in the afternoon.

So Patricia took us on a short walking tour (and orientation) of the area, pointing out various restaurants and stores for shopping. She took us to an ATM and helped everyone get local money, the Chilean Peso, which currently is worth about 540 pesos to one dollar.

We are staying at Hotel Torremayor, which is on Leone street, which is Spanish for Lion street.

Just down the street is an unusual street named “11th of September”. This street was named, not because of the infamous and shameful act of terrorism that brought down the Twin Towers in New York City in 2001. The street is named because September 11 is the day of the military coup that marked Chile's independence.

After the walking tour, when we got back to the hotel, they told us that luckily, our rooms were ready and we could check in. The next thing on the schedule was an orientation meeting at 5:00pm, and it was nearly 11:00am, so that gave us six hours of free time to explore the city on our own.

Naturally, Kathy wanted to paint the town.

I wanted to sleep. So I sent her off and took an hour-long nap, followed by a hot shower. She returned shortly thereafter, but she said, “I've got a pop-quiz on Spanish language: Which Spanish word means “with”? Is it “con” or “sin”? I don't know Spanish any better than I did for our Ecuador trip, but I told her I thought “con” meant “with” and “sin” meant “without.” She said, “Damn; I bought the wrong water.” She had gone to the grocery store to buy some water, but she got carbonated water, not plain water. So I was unhappy that I did not have regular water to brush my teeth.

I got ready and we left the room and walked back through the town. We walked to a place where Patricia told us we could catch a tram ride to the top of the mountain where we had previously seen a statue of the Virgin Mary. Along the way, we saw the fast-moving river through town and a park with some strange sculpture. It was quite different.

We found the tram without too much trouble, purchased our tickets and climbed inside. I was surprised at how small it was. It moved very fast and the view was very beautiful.

We took lots of photos. At one point, Kathy said, “Look at that oddly shaped cloud.” I looked and saw it wasn't a cloud at all. “That's not a cloud, that's a mountain range!” There were mountains in the background, but the air was hazy and brown with pollution, so you could almost not see the mountains except for the stark white layer of snow at the top. The snow almost looked as if it was floating in midair.

At the top of the mountain was a big statue of the Virgin Mary.

We've seen tall white statues like that before in other cities of Latin America, like Ecuador. This statue was surrounded by a garden of beautiful flowers,

and the air was pervaded by the beautiful singing of a woman who reminded me of Annie Haslam (soprano singer of the 1970's group “Renaissance”), except, or course, that this woman sang in Spanish. It was very peaceful.

After a few minutes, the sun passed behind the statue's head, which gave the illusion that Mary had a beautiful halo.

We found a small chapel

near the shrine where there were cool carvings made from the rock walls.

I experimented with the remote control to my camera, taking photos of the church from a tiny tripod we had.

We took the tram ride back down the mountain, then caught a taxi to a famous handicraft market in the city. The prices were a little bit high, but these were real artisans. Most of them were busily carving, sawing, polishing or cutting pieces of their handiwork while we shopped. I bought a small penguin made out of Lapis Lazuli, the national gemstone of Chile. Kathy bought a very nice silver pendant on a necklace.

By then, we were both very tired, so we stopped at a small outdoor restaurant and had a snack while I brushed up on Spanish phrases.

We caught another taxi back to our hotel, then Kathy showered while I shuffled off to find the grocery store again. This time I bought some “real” water.

When I got back to the hotel, Kathy was very tired because she hadn't slept. But at 5:00pm was our OAT orientation meeting and I dragged her to it. Nelson was there and it was actually a lot of fun. Nelson told us that when he was a little boy, he used to watch the old American television show, “Batman” with Adam West, and villains like “The Joker” and “The Riddler”. There was a scene in every episode where the good guys fought with the bad guys, and words like “Pow” and “Splat” would appear on the television screen. But just before the fight, one of the villains would signal the start of the fight by saying, “Yo ho!” So Nelson grew up believing that the English word for “Time to go now” was “Yo ho!” So the first time he led a tour group as an adult, he tried to get everybody to get on the tour bus by saying, “Yo ho!” but everyone just looked at him like he was crazy. But to this day, he tells everyone about “Yo ho” and uses those words to signal when the group needs to start moving.

After the meeting, we walked to a local restaurant at the top of a nearby building, on the 12th floor. The restaurant rotated slowly so that the scenery changed as you ate. It was very nice. The food was outstanding; the main course was Sea Bass. I tried to take photos but it was dark.

One interesting thing we've noticed about Chile is that there are security guards, armed police and military personnel everywhere. You see guards in every store, every bank, every shop and every street corner. In a way, that's reassuring because you feel more secure.

After dinner, we were on our own again. Kathy and I walked to a nearby shopping mall where we changed more money into the Chilean pesos. Then we visited a record store where I asked a store employee to show me some music. Like many places, he didn't speak much English. So he immediately took me to the “folk music” section. I laughed and told him I liked Heavy Metal. Not just any heavy metal, but symphonic, operatic and progressive metal. I rattled off the names of some of my favorite bands: Within Temptation, Nightwish, Epica, Sonata Arctica, Dream Theater. He was surprised (most people are). He pointed out a band I'd never heard of (called “Rata Blanca”) that sings in Spanish, but I listened to them on their music preview system, and I liked them. I ended up buying that CD and the new one by Tarja, the former singer for the band “Nightwish” who I like.

A nice man in the record store warned us to be careful because there was a lot of crime, so at that point we walked uncomfortably back to the hotel.

Well, it's late and I'm tired, so I'm going to stop here. Tomorrow is supposedly a bus tour of Santiago.