06 October 2008 – day 4 - Monday

Today we went on an optional tour, which basically means OAT charges us more money to fill the day, otherwise we are left on our own to explore. Most of the group went on the tour too, so only a few people decided not to spend the money.

We got up early and got on a tour bus and headed for the coast. We passed a huge copper mine that is supposedly the largest open-air (strip) copper mine in the world. We really couldn't see much from the bus.

Next, we drove through a small village just to see how the people lived.

One of the interesting things about Chile is that there are all kinds of people here. If you go to Turkey, you can see many people who have a typical Turkish face. If you go to Peru, you can see many people who have a typical Peruvian face. But if you go to Chile, there is no single characteristic that stands out. The people are as many and varied as I've seen in the United States. The exception is that there are extremely few black people and oriental people here. Other than that, there is a wide variety of skin colors, hair colors, eye colors, body sizes and shapes and facial shapes. You see all types. I didn't expect that.

Anyway, the bus drove straight West down a beautiful, clean, new freeway through some absolutely beautiful valleys. The first valley was suburbs and copper mines. It was more desert-like, and there were some very tall cactus plants that looked just like saguaro cactus to me.

One interesting thing is that the people prefer to live in the valley rather than the hills. We were told it was merely a case of supply and demand. Unlike the United States where everyone wants to have a house on the hill, in Chile everyone wants to have a house in the valley. So the poor people buy houses on the hills that are made out of wood. The richer or middle-class people buy a brick house in the valley. They called this Casablanca valley, but it didn't look much different from Phoenix Arizona.

Then we went into a tunnel and when we emerged, the second valley consisted of rolling hills and grapes for wine and Chicha. People who read my Peru travelogue may recall Chicha being a special beer made from corn that was invented by the natives. The guides told us that in Chile, the Chicha is made from grapes. I don't see much difference between that and wine, but whatever. We stopped at a little roadside shop and had a sample of the Chicha. It tasted like wine to me. The scenery was pretty and they had a llama in the back to show visitors.

We got back on the bus and drove through to the third valley, which was green and had tall, beautiful pine trees and eucalyptus trees. As we drove, the trees gradually turned into the palm trees like we saw yesterday. Patricia told us that they can live up to 1000 years old, and they don't bear their first fruit (a coconut) until they are eighty years old. The insides of these palms is filled with a sweet syrup, but the only way to harvest the syrup is to cut the tree down. The syrup is so good that the poor trees were destroyed by the thousands. Finally, the government stepped in and made it a protected species and now cutting the trees down is forbidden. Still, there are a few companies who harvest the syrup in a way that's careful to preserve the species, and tiny cans of the stuff are sold in all the grocery stores. They keep them right next to the bananas because that's the traditional way to use the syrup.

All in all, the bus ride was about two hours long, but it was pretty countryside.

When we reached the coast, we entered the town of Valparaiso, which is a port town that is separated into 45 different hills, and each hill has its own identity and unique charm. At the bottom of all these hills was the port, which was a bustling fast-paced city like many others.

We got off the tour bus and shuffled onto a city bus, which was the public transportation. There were cute schoolgirls on the bus who were 14-15 years old, and they were laughing and giggling. It was great fun. Our guide, Nelson, was asking them questions and translating for us, and there was lots of laughing.

They called the girls “penguins” because they all had to wear the same black-and-white uniform to school. We asked them about themselves and they said they were from different tribes. This was just the word used, and the tribes were friendly with one another, so perhaps they were more like girl scout troops.

Their first question for us was simple: where were we from? We said The United States, but they were curious to know more, so we took turns telling who came from which state. The second question out of their mouths—and this shocked me—was: Which presidential candidate were we going to vote for, Barack Obama or John McCain? We all laughed at the thought that they would even be interested in the election at that young age. Of course, none of our group would talk about politics and certainly would not say who we would vote for.

I asked some of the girls if I could take their photo and they agreed. I raised my camera and asked them to smile. Suddenly, for some odd reason, they all dropped their smiley, giggly, happy faces and they gave me their best sultry, adult, cool, sexy magazine faces. It was rather unexpected and amusing.

Our first stop was a busy square, complete with a monument. This one was so important it had a permanent navy man guarding it.

There were several big beautiful buildings nearby. The most notable building apparently belonged to the Chilean Navy.

Another nearby building was a very odd grafting of old and new; it was a big modern glass building, completely encased in the facade of the previous building that stood there.

There was also a weird underground shop in the square that had more of a hatch than an official door.

There was also a very interesting statue. It was a classical statue of Lady Justice, but instead of balancing scales impartially, she held the dismantled device at her side with a look of defeat. We were told a story about a man who donated the statue after he felt he had been victimized by an unfair judicial system.

Nearby, I spotted a glass building. The reflections from adjacent buildings and the occasional open window made the building appear distorted, as if it were in the process of crumbling.

We walked to a special lift called an “Ascensor” or something like that. This is a big cage that was maybe nine feet (three meters) square, and a huge pulley system pulled the thing all the way to the top of the hill. It was extremely steep, so it was fun to do. We had to split up into groups because only eight or so people could fit in the cage on any trip.

When we got to the top we looked around, we were surprised at how slow and layed-back life was at the top of the hill. It was a completely different world from the port city below. There was a small park nearby, and two men in uniforms that looked like police sitting on the park bench. We asked Patricia what their story was, and after talking to them, she told us they were kind of like United Nations peace keepers; they were employed by some international organization (I don't remember which) to sit around all day at the park and do nothing.

Unlike anything in the United States, the buildings were all unique. I don't think there were any two that looked the same.

They all had beautiful pastel colors; red, blue, purple, green.

It was a rainbow of color and it was beautiful. Many of the walls were painted with graffiti-like scenes in vivid colors.

The houses were all sided with corrugated metal, and we were told that it was recycled material from huge oil containers. It actually looked quite nice.

Even the churches and buildings had that same steel siding. Each house had its own little garden, often with colorful flowers.

We even saw a huge aloe plant; probably the biggest aloe I've ever seen.

And wysteria plants hung around filling the air with their wonderful perfume.

Many of the buildings were oddly shaped and/or precariously balanced on timbers, due to the huge rock hills they were built upon.

Compare that to suburbs in the United States where there are rows after rows after rows of houses that are all beige in color and all built to look identical. How ugly, boring and unimaginative we are!

We saw several things typical of this town, such as the truck that had a man banging a kettle like music, but he was selling small tanks of butane gas to heat the homes. The hills apparently make running gas lines impossible, so nobody there has a gas supply inside the home.

We also saw a typical newspaper vendor who had been a paperboy for the past 40 years! It was all very interesting. He looked like a very strong man.

One unexpected thing we saw was a woman wearing a Green Bay Packers sweatshirt! Now how in the hell did she acquire that?

The streets were very narrow, so people parked their cars literally a few inches / centimeters away from walls.

Because the houses were built on the side of the rock, electrical lines were not buried. So like Santiago, there was an undecipherable rats nest of wires.

When were were done walking around, we got back on another one of those lifts and headed back down into the valley. This lift was the oldest one, and it was more than a little scary. It went down much quicker than the one that pulled us up.

Next we climbed into several taxis that were waiting on the street. The taxis took us up a different hill where we had a very nice lunch in a family's home.

It was very good. For dessert, we each had a small bowl of “locuma” ice cream, which is made from a local fruit that looks very much like an avocado. The ice cream was good; it tasted like butterscotch to me.

After lunch, we met the family and Nelson acted as translator while we talked with our guests.

After lunch, we took the taxis back down the hill, through the twisty-turny narrow roads—at breakneck speed. It was a white-knuckle ride, and seat belts were not available. After a break at the Banos (bathrooms) we got back on the bus and headed back to Santiago.

After we returned to the hotel in Santiago, we had about an hour of free time and then we got a lecture about the history of modern Chile, and who was Salvador Allende (a Marxist leader) and who was Augusto Pinochet (the dictator who ruled Chile from 1973 until 1990. It was a very interesting one-hour lecture. People in the audience were on the edge of their seats.

After that, we ate dinner at a nearby restaurant with two people from our OAT group, Bob and Glena. We had a great time laughing and talking.

Tomorrow we've got to get up at an Ungodly early hour and fly to another city, so I'm going to end this here and go to bed.