Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The hidden agua of the Atacama

(San Pedro de Atacama, part II...)

One of the reasons for San Pedro's beautiful and varied rock formations are its volcanoes, which, owing to its location on the Tierra del Fuego, are plentiful. Here's a view of one, through the grass:
However, the same seismic activity that empowers these mighty architects of the barren landscape also holds the secret to its shocking ability to still maintain life: Hot springs! Geysers! and lots of them...

(from the NYT:) "The barren, super-dry places are just part of a landscape whose open secret is water. A line of snow-laden, Fuji-form volcanoes rears abruptly along the eastern horizon. They feed a lacework of narrow, lush stream valleys, oases and salt lagoons, which sustain native Atacameño hamlets with meticulously kept colonial-era churches. Flocks of scarlet-orange flamingos blazing like sacral pyrotechnics rise from the lagoons."

Visiting the geysers meant a certain level of sacrifice. First, I had to abstain from rich food (red meat and wine, Chile's specialties) the night before the trek in preparation for the rapid and disorienting leap in altitude that lay ahead (from San Pedro's already-high 2000m altitude to the 4,300m peaks of the geyser plateaus). I also had to sacrifice the night's sleep, as our peppy hippie guide arrived at 4:15am sharp to herd sleepy tourists into the minivan.

The sleepiness and slight, hangover-like buzz of an altutude headache was worth it, though. We arrived at the geysers just in time to watch the full moon set on one side of the sky as the new sun arose on the other:

That tiny silhouette is me, basking in geyser steam:

At the high altitude and early hour, it was pretty chilly. After the hot bike ride of the day before it felt surreal to be donning gloves and scarves and layering up on pants and socks :
By the time we had reached the hot springs, it had warmed up to a brisk 8 degrees Celsius or so. Even still, it was only the promise of the warm, sulfuric waters that convinced me to shed my layers and go for a quick dip:
The pool is a mix of ice cold mountain runoff (left side of the photos) and boiling hot geyser water (right side--as evidenced by the steam). Everyone congregated on the warmer side, although the inconsistency of Mother Nature's heating system made that a bit hazardous. If you put your feet on the silty ground, you could actually feel the bubbling pressure from the heat underneath the rock, and a spot that had been cold seconds before would become a surface hot enough to literally vaporize the water touching it in mere moments.

On the drive back, we stopped off a few times for photo ops. We saw a lagoon with the very earliest flamingos of the season, but unfortunately, my increasingly-finicky camera was feeling uncooperative at that point in the day.  I did manage to capture this shot of a vicuña, though (a smaller and softer-furred relative of the llama):

Every direction you looked in was picture-worthy, and as usual, photos failed to fully capture the magnificence of the place

Just as I failed, in a mere two days, to absorb all of its experiences. 

Picking and choosing activities among the plethora of options was difficult, and although I loved what I did and don't think I physically could have done more, I was a bit sad to not have tried sandboarding, or to have made it to the salt flats or the true flamingo lagoons.

I guess that just means that I'll have to come back someday...

Monday, October 24, 2011

Part of the Superlative

A few weekends ago, I turned my back on Antofagasta's beaches and headed inland, into the heart of the Atacama desert, for an active vacation in San Pedro de Atacama.

When I was prepping this post, I happened upon an appropriately timely article by Stephen Paul Nash in the New York Times travel section. He expresses the same simultaneous dulling and heightening of the senses that I experienced in the midst of a dust, ubiquitously tan world, but since he does so in a much more poetic manner, I thought I'd share:

"The town’s main thoroughfare, the Caracoles, is closed to cars, with the result that an inviting languor prevails. Narrow dirt streets are flanked tightly by high adobe walls. The walls are taupe, the color of the ubiquitous chusca dust of the enfolding desert, as are the buildings of the little business district, our hotel, and many of a legion of amiable street dogs. But eyes adapt to this kind of seeming uniformity, just as they do to darkness. Slowly, chroma and variation emerge. Occasional flashes of high color — the pigments of flowers, a ragged cobalt sky, an old shirt in a herder’s abandoned hut — can prompt something close to sensory overload"

We spent our first day cruising through the flat, parched landscape on rented bikes:

Along the way, the ground was so dry and cracked in places that it looked more like shards of ceramic than earth.

Stephen Paul Nash: "The Atacama is so dry, in fact, that NASA has chosen it as a research analogue for Mars, testing techniques for how to detect life in a seemingly sterile environment. (There are said to be children who have grown to adulthood there without ever having seen rain.)"

We encountered a woman herding goats:
We eventually made it to the Pukara de Quitor ruins
They were a lot of fun to hike around, although the hilly climb and view from the top was quite literally breathtaking with the thin air at the higher altitude.

Just around the corner, there was a cool arch and face carved into the rock. Between the desolate dessert setting and the feminine face, it reminded me a lot of the laser-eyed sphinxes in The Neverending Story (I feel like I'm outing myself as an 80s baby by making this reference). Luckily, I had enough self confidence to make it past and live to tell the tale.
The opposite side of the face had crumbled away, leaving a profile that was arguably more striking than the original:

The next day was dedicated to valleys. The Valley of the Moon (which is also where I was when I was maniacally jumping on a dangerously high cliff face in this post's first picture):
A hike along the boulders and through the river in Cactus Valley:

According to our guide, these cacti only grow a centimeter or so a year, so this bad boy is quite the grandfather cactus:

And finally, the Valley of Death for a beautiful sunset:
See tomorrow's post for the continuation of this trip: volcanos and geysers and hot springs: oh my!

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Since there were more pictures from Iquique than could fit in the Fiestas Patrias post (and not all were really patriotic, I thought I'd do a second entry with some random shots I took while out and about around town. First, a picture of the main highway by the coast and its ridiculously huge Chilean flag:
As is the case everywhere in Chile, in Iquique, there was little transitional territory between the luxury and the gritty, and a two minute walk from our upscale condo complex found me in a port area with weathered boats, a local fish market (dishing out the requisite cheap cups of ceviche from overflowing tubs as sea lions bobbed for scraps below) and this rather picturesque (I thought, at least) abandoned shopping cart:

A mural by the sea with erotic mermaids and a cute, camouflaged niño:
More of the mural. I liked the perspective that had all of its characters staring at you as you walked by.
The Iquiqueña coast line:
Surfers, who were the only ones braving the chilly early-spring waters:

Iquiqueño counter-culture, from a beach-side skatepark:


Fiestas Patrias

We're now in October, meaning Chile's month-long national holiday is finally over. Officially, the Independence Day el dieciocho is, as the name implies, a mere day (the 18th, to be precise). However, the handkerchief-waving national cueca dancing (shown here at an interactive booth in the mall), the wearing of frilly floral-pattered traditional dresses (for the women) and ponchos, hats and silver-spurred boots (for the men), the asados (bbqs) chock full of empanadas and choripan, the proud displays of flags on every possible surface, and the chicha (a sort of weak grape cider) cheering lasted a full month. 
What a glorious time to be a gringa in Chile!

My school, like all others, was strung with banners of red white and blue and "felizes fiestas patrias!" posters. Classes were a bit disrupted for the preceding week, as my older students preformed cueca dances and traditional patriotic songs and my younger students organized themselves into group to present cuisine from particular regions of the country at a school-wide tasting. I tried humitas (corn mush tamales wrapped in corn husks, pasteles de choclo y papa y carne (casseroles of corn, potatoes and steak), a coconut/carrot cake from Easter Island, guava con leche (guava smoothie), ceviches, emanadas, and all manners of manjar (dulce de leche, or caramelized condensed milk) desserts.

On the big day itself, my lovely host parents (pictured below) kindly brought me along to Iquique, a beach town about a 6 hour drive North up the coast from Antofagasta, where they have a vacation apartment. Joining us were my host grandparents and host brother (who, in his hat, looks like Jason Mraz--see below) and sister-in-law, plus a cousin and her brooding teenage son.

From what I experienced, Independence day in Chile is more comparable to an American Thanksgiving than a 4th of July. Our weekend consisted mainly of a lot of family time coupled with even more eating, which was great for my Spanish (if not for my waistline!). The main even was a Saturday night Asado (barbeque) on the 27th floor roof of the apartment complex. Monino, my host grandpa, was our chef extraordinaire, and we stuffed ourselves full of his spicy choripan sausages, steaks, pastel de choclo, and homemade pebre (a spic tomato, cilantro and onion relish), as we sipped traditional chica (grape brandy), chilean vino tinto (red wine). We ate until we couldn't eat any more, retired downstairs to moan about how stuffed we were, then immediately started to nibble on the leftovers. ¡Que rico!

We even enjoyed some champagne, both in honor of the anniversary of the country as well as that of Monino and Mimi, who were celebrating 29 years together. I cheersed their union as joyfully as the real family, because I think theirs is one of the happiest and most enviable I've ever seen. They remain health and active and seem as adoring of each other as ever, they have raised three successful children and one granddaugter, they have a close-knit family, and they own beautiful apartments in Antofagasta and in Iquique. They also have rich independent lives and continue to be successful in their careers, using their savings to travel to exotic destinations every chance they can get. In short, as I begin to transition to the more authentically adult part of my adulthood, they are my inspiration, and proof that everything I want for myself is indeed possible.

The actual day of the 18th was cause for celebration--which in Iquique meant beach picnics and family kite flying! The sky along the shoreline was dotted with hundreds of rainbow tributes, which were charming but which proved difficult to catch on camera. Here are a few attempts:

Some of the kite flyers were even decked out in patriotic attire, such as this girl and her brother, who were both sporting traditional outfits in national colors.

As a random end for these post, here is a pigeon nest I found in our apartment's window box. I'd always wondered where pigeons go to make their babies. Now I know. I also found out that pigeons are pretty negligent parents, however--I perhaps saw the momma bird twice the entire weekend!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Francophile Friday: franglish movie titles

It should come as no surprise to those familiar with my overenthusiastic photo-taking paired with lazy blogging that I have a lot of un-blogged material still on my computer from Paris. I have therefore decided to steal an idea from fellow blogger and smcm alum Morgan over at la Chapstick Fanatique and institute Francophile Fridays! Ooh-la-la!

Today's topic are ridiculous French movie titles. And by this, I don't mean titles of French movies but the French titles of American movies. There is a bizarre and inexplicable tendency in recent French cinema to re-title American blockbusters. At first, this may seem to be perfectly understandable behavior--after all, "Retour au futur" would make more sense to a French audience than "Back to the Future," just as "La Guerre des étoiles," while less catchy, is at least more readily understood than "Star Wars." However, the trend I'm referring to is not a translation of English titles into French, but rather a translation of English titles into different English titles, and usually with a very poor usage of English.

Take into consideration my first example, Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher's trashy "Friends with Benefts." The French version does away with polite euphemisms and cuts right to the sexy chase:

Had the marketers decided to translate the title, one of the equally vulgar options to describe this sort of relationship that would have been available to them is "plan cul," or "ass plan" (as in "I'm going to get some ass tonight"). Ahh, the language of love.

Next up, the college frat boy smash hit, the Hangover, whose French title manages to evoke both the physical and psychedelic journeys in the movie but whose clunky English still sounds like an elderly Chinese man's description of the movie ("dey took a velly bad tlip!")

Now it's time for Date Night with Steve Carell and Tina Fey:
In this case, I'd say that dropping "date" from the tile is due to the fact that it can be a false cognate in French (it translates in the scheduling sense of 'today's date' but not in the romantic sense. But crazy night? Granted they look a bit disheveled, but really?

Nicolas Cage's ever-popular National Treasure films didn't become Trésor national but instead took its cue from the protagonist's rather humdrum name. If it weren't for the intense font, this could easily be the story of, say, an accountant:
Last but not least, here's my personal favorite, because my first semester in Nice, France a few years ago featured a huge, wall-sized poster in our university cafeteria advertising the original, which is the story of a high school step team, and in English, goes by the title "Step Up"