Saturday, December 17, 2011


Thanks for reading Nate's Notions, Santiago. I have recently moved to Hanoi, Vietnam where the travels and notions continue. You can continue to follow my blog at

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

You've Got to Fight, For Your Right, to Party

Ingenious, is what I thought to myself after witnessing the boys begging for money.  What eloquence of method, as they lowered a small tin can with a fishing pole.  The can had a paper cut-out of a shark on it.  The boys were at school—that is to say they were occupying the school but not actively studying in it—sitting on the balcony begging me to put spare change in the can.  The real intelligence of their plea for funds is that they are children begging for money for their education.  I felt guilty, as naturally any passerby would, and gave them some money.  Brilliant device.
Last month twenty thousand Chileans protested the government’s lack of spending on education.  They started at Plaza de Italia and marched through downtown carrying banners that said private education is killing our dreams, free education is possible, and Piñera, who described education as a consumer product, is the devil.  There have been a series of such demonstrations for the past few months now.  Like the boys fishing for money, these protesters are rallying against the enormous discrepancy between public and private education: a gap that is ever widening year by year.  Children are on the streets raising funds for books.
Some conservative Chileans that I know don’t see what the big deal is.  They think it’s unfortunate that some children receive better education than others, but that it is impossible to change such things.  Last night, at a dinner party, it was explained to me, on a piece of pink stationary with umbrellas on it, how impossible it really is.  My instructor, a leasing agent, wrote all sorts of strange budgetary figures on the paper accounting for all the hardships that have befallen Chile in the past ten years including the devastating earthquake and the expensive rescue of the famous Chilean miners last year.  He then went on to say that the people protesting should work harder instead of protesting, that this would allow them to spend more on their children’s education.  In a final tirade (I just sat and listened politely) he said that they were draining the economy by blocking the streets of people trying to go to work.  He added that since these poor people lived in different communities on the other side of the river, they didn’t really have the right to march in the city center anyway. 
The protests are largely fun and peaceful: people play instruments and chant certain slogans like the ones on their banners, stray dogs bark and frolic along with the march, children walk hand in hand with their parents, the smell of choripans fills the air.  I was told of some rather violent protests in the past; even this year tanks with tear gas attacking the crowds could be seen as well as the use of water cannons.  However, these days both sides are armed with video cameras.  Most protesters have phones with video capability, and many of the police, armed with riot gear, also carry small hand held cameras.  This is in part responsible for the now fairly peaceful demonstrations.
Chile is not alone in this battle.  Countries around the world are struggling with the same largely theoretical questions as budgets are being cut: does every human have the right to a good education?  Should the government be able to take away my right to pay for a better education for my child?  Is it fair that social hegemony exists?  And then, of course, the more practical concerns of how we are going to pay for “free” education.  I’m not Chilean and I can only speak through the voices of others I’ve met here, but I don’t see how any democracy can function without an educated populace.  I don’t see how any country can claim to view each of its members as equal with something as fundamental as education so visibly separating the classes.  I don’t see how anyone can look a child who’s begging for better schooling squarely in the eye and tell them that they don’t think they’re worth it. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Tengo Frio

It’s officially winter here now and I’ve got to say that it’s turning out to be one of the coldest I can remember.  I haven’t bothered to look at any temperatures and, though I’m sure they would tell me that it’s not that cold, I’m not going to.  I grew up in the Midwest of the United States amidst grueling winters that seemed never to end: snowdrifts coming up to my waste, blizzards blinding sight, determined icy patches that wouldn’t melt for four months, and slush (my God that ugly ugly grey slush).  So why on earth, given the conditions I just described, does it seem colder here in Santiago where the only snow I can see is on the Andes?
For one, it’s my house.  This apartment building doesn’t have any heating and so I spend most of my time at home huddled over a small electric space heater that I bought for ten bucks.  It’s an old place and so I won’t try and judge all Chilean dwellings based on it.  It’s so old in fact that I find myself playing Mr. Fix-it quite often.  It’s kind of like a part time job; fixing the plastic piping in my kitchen that looks like it was constructed by a child playing legos, reconnecting lighting circuits that dangle from the ceiling, using electric tape to separate sparking wires in the bathroom (this was a particularly worrying one), and re-calking the sink to the wall.  But I digress, the annoying thing, currently, about this apartment is that it seems to trap the cold.  The thick walls seem to collect the cold from the night and keep the house chilled all day.  It’s a regular thing for me to leave my refrigerator – a.k.a. apartment— and find that outside it’s actually much warmer.
Another thing that makes the cold hard to ignore is that people are dying out here because of it.  I’m sure this was happening back in the Midwest, but I wasn’t as aware of it as I am here.  I read an article in the local newspaper, which reported some surprising numbers of homeless people dying each winter.  I see them, on occasion, building fires in hidden areas of the park or shivering on the steps of a metro station under a collection of dirty blankets; forced to live outside and face the elements like dogs.
Speaking of the dogs; they’ve gone bat-shit crazy.  My only explanation is the cold, but I now hear them running in packs and barking the whole not through.  I got up at four in the morning a few days ago and looked out the window to see a pack of them chasing cars and howling.  It just strengthened my fears that eventually the local dog population is going to get fed up with the humans who are polluting their air and running over their paws with large vehicles; that these dogs are going to start an uprising and turn on us.  That morning I was afraid to leave the house and did peek out the door carefully before walking on those cold, cold streets where the dogs turn to maniacs to keep warm.
But hey, it’s only a few months and how bad is weather really going to get?  I wouldn’t know as I refuse to look it up and regularly ignore people who try and give me figures.  I’ll just get myself some gloves and hide under a duvet until spring.  Hopefully I won’t succumb to the elements like the homeless or the dogs.  At least I’ve got my little space heater.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

If You Feed a Chinchilla a Whole Potato, It Gets Diarrhea

Studying up on Chinchillas

It was four in the morning when we reached Illupel, a small town four hours north of Santiago.  It seemed instantly like I had made a mistake having told all the taxis that I was waiting for Fernando.  Yes, old trusty Fernando who I’d never met, but who had assured me over the phone that he knew where we were and that he would pick us up shortly.  Trusty Fernando who kept asking me the same questions when we talked on the phone; there had been loud music in the background and much clinking of glasses.  It was dark in the town and when I looked up I could see the stars for the first time in months.  I was wary of passersby, just a natural reaction at that time in the morning I suppose, though they were all fairly kind.  In fact one young guy asked us if we had enough to eat or needed a place to stay.  Just asked and when he was assured of our safety continued down the empty street.
Half an hour later, Tali and I were in the back of Fernando’s taxi bouncing up and down on the back roads.  Fernando was drunk.  My first clue of this had been the car load of people who preceded our pick up.  They reeked of a night out and told us Fernando was on his way.  Fernando, to his credit, had convinced a friend to drive with him and make sure he was okay.  Said friend kept translating our Spanish questions to Fernando, whose country dialect was likely hard to understand even when sober—I wouldn’t know.
Thirty minutes outside of the town, having seen no signs of life whatsoever we came upon a locked gate and a farmhouse.  The gate was locked and we’d have to hike from here on in.  Scores of dogs started barking at the car and I was wary about leaving it.  In the end, they seemed more frightened of us…there aren’t many visitors in the desert.  The four of us (my wife, Fernando, his companion, and I) walked around the fence and into the canyons.  Luckily I had a headlamp in my pack, or we would have been left with only Fernando’s friend’s keychain that lit up like a Christmas ornament. 
The Landscape
We were all carrying large jugs of water, which slowed us down.  Occasionally Fernando, who I noticed at this point to be missing some teeth and to be balding, would stop to rest.  On such occasions he would mimic the sounds of distant goats or make jokes about cougars that live in the desert.  During one such rest I asked about the cacti that, even in the dark, were all over the landscape.  Cacti that were larger than a man and had reddened needles that denoted they were about to flower.  Neither of them knew the name for them, though they tried to remember for quite some time.
“No mas sexto!” Fernando screamed up towards our friends in the cabin when we finally got to our destination; it was about half past five and still as dark as midnight.
“Hola Tim, no mas sexto!” he repeated once more to the delight we who had been travelling with him. 
After this, and a few lion like roars, we walked up to the cabin and met my friends Goo and Hadley who were still in pajamas and looked a little groggy.  We sent Fernando and his friend back into the dawn with a few more beers and were surprised we had found the place so easily.  Looking around, there was nothing but cacti, foothills, and a few bushes.  It was exactly as I’d imagined it; a shack in the desert.
Hadley and Goo were spending a few weeks in the area doing environmental work.  The area is a chinchilla habitat, and this particular species is endangered.  About twenty five years ago some lady named Amy who was part of some organization (sorry I never did learn the details) built the shack and began trying to plant more of the woody bushes where the chinchillas usually live.  Amy hadn’t been there for fifteen years and the place wasn’t in the best of shape.  Occasionally, she funds people to stay at the cabin and keep the project going, but overall, it seemed pretty unorganized.  Our friends had arrived to find the shack a mess with unwashed dishes and blankets strewn about everywhere.  There were plastic bottles about the grounds that were melting in the sun and no water coming through the plastic piping.  This, of course, made it rather difficult to water seedlings and try and propagate selected areas with new plant life. 
Hadley and Goo had only been at the shack for about two weeks but had fixed the place up nicely.  Inside was tidy and they’d even built a hanging lantern fitted with candles that lit the place up at night.  Outside they’d started some new seedlings, built a covered shed for tools and materials, and given the place a good cleaning.  It all seemed so much fun, building contraptions and solving simple necessary problems, like Swiss Family Robinson or Robinson Crusoe.  By the end of the weekend I was convinced that I too wanted to live in complete isolation.
The morning of our arrival, it was cold in the desert and I had three cups of coffee and did a few jumping jacks to keep warm.  As soon as the sun made its way over the foothills, however, it was scorching.  So extreme was the difference that I found myself in want of shorts and flip flops.  We fried up some flatbread and ate with the woodpeckers, who were busily searching for grubs in the only tree in the area.  We sat for hours mesmerized by the vast nothingness and watching as the farmer’s goats came in to pasture.  They were left to themselves, no one travelled with the goats except at night; and even then it was a lone dog that rounded them up.
Not wanting to be in our guests way, we helped out with some routine chores.  One of which was transporting water from a nearby spring.  We decided to investigate the piping problem as well and so followed it through the brush, heading to the water source.  Large sections of the piping had been completely ripped out and tossed aside or stolen.  At one point we found about fifty meters of the plastic piping beside a dead dog that appeared to have been shot.  When we arrived at the water source we were able to get a small section of the water system working, but it was clear that someone had come and destroyed the system.  Who?  Why?  Why was there a dead dog?  The whole place was a mystery like that. 
When we headed back to the shack carrying large buckets of water, we came across a few cowboys who tipped their hats and kept their horses from spooking as we passed.  In the absence of any other people in the area one couldn’t help but place them in suspicion.  Also, I remembered a bit of graffiti back at the shack, a pen drawing of a cowboy with the caption “All the water is mine!” above him.  Mysterious etchings and drawings surrounded the place, but no answers would be found.  At least not by me, at least not in the short time I was staying there.  Instead, we drank.
There wasn’t any electricity or means of keeping things chilled so we drank straight whiskey out of metal cups.  We constructed a few things, seating areas, hook systems for swinging windows.  But mostly we just stared into the desert and played shotgun bocce.  Goo invented the game, it’s pretty much like bocce ball except with shotgun shells.  It got quite competitive.
As darkness came upon us once more we dined on mote (a sort of barley that is prepared in a way that has a consistency somewhere between rice and pasta) and a sort of tomato curry.  Given our remote location I was pleasantly surprised by the fine dining by candle light with wine and even music (Goo had his ukulele).  After dinner, boosted by the wine and the successful fixing of a pair of night vision binoculars we decided to search for chinchillas.

Hadley with a cactus

We huddled together in a grotto near some particularly large cacti and took turns with the night vision binoculars.  When we stopped talking the silence was deafening.  I looked through the binoculars moving my focus from area to area; the green tint and the small area of focus made me feel like I was on another planet.  I didn’t see any Chinchillas, at one point even forgot that I was looking for them – they are endangered after all.
The next day we hitchhiked back into town with a very quiet local.  Tali and I were extremely grateful as the alternative would’ve been a five hour walk in the hot sun.  I’d only been in the desert for a day, and Illupel is anything but a large town, still it was strange to be back in civilization.  Like returning to earth.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Morning Walk

Every day I leave for work at 7:45am and enter the still dark streets where the last of the drunken revelers are making their way, slowly, to their homes.  It’s late autumn in Santiago and the nights have a distinct nip to them.  The homeless sleeping in parks are bundled under heaps of blankets to protect themselves from the elements.  One morning as I started my morning walk I saw a thickly bearded man wrapped in plastic shopping bags.  He stripped them off as he walked, like a mummy coming to life, stripping his fetters.
My morning walk to work starts at near Bellas Artes metro station and proceeds to Los Leones.  It’s a straight jaunt through parks and nice business areas.  It takes an hour to complete and when I tell people that I do it, they seem shocked that I give up sleep for it; that I don’t simply push my way onto the subway and reach my destination in a fraction of the time.  But the walk, you see, is often my favorite part of the day.  I like the ritual, the repetitive nature of the thing.  The following is a list of some of the people and things I see every morning that make up that ritual
 In Parque Forestral the cleaners are busy at work raking up discarded beer cans and cigarette butts.  By half past eight the park will be immaculate.  The stray dogs chase each other around here or sit vigilant and watch the streets become busy with people.  There is one old German Shepherd that sits beneath a large clock at the edge of the park, at a busy intersection.  Across from him a female traffic cop wearing some battle armor on her shins whistles and directs traffic with glowing batons.  It’s almost as if they are working together, watching out for the pedestrians. 
Still in the parks, near the large fountain that when active creates rainbows in the mist below its spouts, there is my favorite sandwich lady.  She talks to the pigeons and feeds them crumbs from the bottom of her box.  Near every station there is somebody selling sandwiches; I’m addicted.  They aren’t there after 9:00, so if you want them you’ve got to wake up at a reasonable hour.  They are assorted, but usually have avocado and some variation of meat: strip steak, pulled pork, shredded chicken.  They’re served on a soft roll, somewhat like a baguette.  They’re only five hundred pesos.  I eat one every day.
Past the parks I’m over half way to work.  The streets are filled by now with smartly dressed business people ready to start their day, but there are a few other peculiar characters I see.  One such is the middle aged man with a brown sweater and colorful scarf who zooms by every day with a cloud of smoke.  He rides a bicycle to which he has had some sort of motor attached; it doesn’t look professionally done.  Another of these characters is the Eeyorish beggar who stands in the middle of the road.  He’s bald and stands on a grass island in the middle of a busy intersection.  Occasionally he plays a small electric keyboard (very poorly), but usually this bald man with pale eyes and a large fluffy blue coat, just asks for money.  He’s quite pushy about it.
When I see the pack of adolescent boys in their school uniforms I know I’m near my destination.  There’s a mob of them and I wonder if they meet up somewhere beforehand or if the group gathers members as they approach the school.  There are always a few of the kids sharing cigarettes and singing songs.  They wear navy blue sweaters and collared shirts, usually untucked. 
By the time I’ve reached my workplace I’ve managed to drink a cup of coffee, watch the sunrise, and grab a free copy of La Hora, a paper you can pick up mornings near the metro.  I feel every day I’ve watched Santiago wake up and that I’m a part of it.  Perhaps somebody is right now writing a blog about their morning walk in which I’m an interesting character: that weird guy who wears flip flops and a thick coat and changes into dress shoes near the church.  It’s worth the lost sleep to feel a part of something.

The Crazies of San Cristóbal

There’s a large hill about fifteen minutes from my house called San Cristóbal.  It has, as the name might very well hint, a gigantic statue of Jesus Christ at the top of it.  It’s something of a tourist destination and I’ve heard that there are pools, cable cars, and even a zoo on the hill somewhere.  I’ve yet to do the tourist trek of the mountain; I sometimes see the big buses parking, but that’s not the part of the mountain I visit.
A few times a week I go running up San Cristóbal.  If you stay away from the stairs near the entrance and instead keep to the windy road up the mountain, it’s a pretty isolated run.  You will see a few hikers, the occasional cyclist, and other crazy people slowing jogging up beside the cacti.  After about fifteen minutes one can look down on the city and feel distanced from Santiago in this calm escape.  At the weekend, however, it is a very different place.
If you’re walking you can reach the first picnic area in about twenty minutes.  During the week it’s the home of a few dogs and a park ranger, but on the weekend it is full of BBQs, drinking, and music (the dogs are, of course, still there—happier, I’m sure, for the bones and scraps).  The other day I went up to this picnic area with some friends who were celebrating their engagement.  We brought champagne, strawberries, and sandwiches.  Being fairly drunk before we had even started, the trip up to the picnic area seemed arduous but it was worth the effort.
We cut up the strawberries and poured the champagne on top of them.  The bubbles and booze went straight to our heads and watching the two lovers together I felt light as a feather.  Peeing in the woods and looking down at the distant skyscrapers I felt I might float away.  When I returned from this relieving journey, the group next to us had begun singing and playing the guitar.  A young Columbian man by the name of Julian introduced himself and we started to talk with him.  Before long another from the group, a thirty something year old woman with a leather jacket, came over and had myself and my recently engaged buddy kiss her on the mouth.  She then dragged me by the arm over to the music.
Before long I was talking to an eye doctor about insurance in Santiago.  My Spanish is pretty horrible but we got by for awhile.  Many of their group, including my friend the eye doctor, were Columbian, the rest were Chilean.  They sang folk songs and at one point, on wooden flutes, played Mozart calling it the music of the world.  We drank heavily and danced on tables while the sun set. 
Inhibitions were lifted and at one point the thirty year old woman who had joined the two groups together started arm wrestling people.  She was fun and friendly but she looked like a bruiser, no one wanted to be on her bad side.  She defeated my wife and my friend.  Her tactics changed when facing the man: she pulled down her shirt to distract him.  He said he’d been simultaneously frightened of offending her by not seeming distracted and being thrashed by a possible husband/boyfriend.
The park ranger kept making the same joke about us being there too late and that he was going to call the police.  This, always, before opening a new drink.  The dancing started to get ugly and the locals restless.  My group decided to flee before anything got messy.  We made our way down in the dark.  I was drinking vodka out of a plastic water bottle and wishing I didn’t have to work in the morning.  The next day did prove to be painful.  Strange thing though…Mozart was stuck in my head all day.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Easter Island on a Budget

My wife riding a motorbike on Rapa Nui

As a child I’d once read a book about mysterious places of the world and Easter Island was one of those places featured.  The book held that the moai, or the iconic large headed statues, may have been put there by aliens!  During my time in university I took a class about the collapse of different civilizations; Jared Diamond’s book Collapse:  How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed was on the curriculum and used Easter Island as one case study.  It talked about how the islanders, not aliens, erected the statues to the detriment of their society.  The statues were enormous art projects that tribal leaders would finance in order to gain power.  It led to deforestation, a dark period of cannibalism, and the near extinction of the islanders.  The island, so far from the coastline of Chile and so isolated from any other land masses, has held the imagination of many travelers and explorers, but it never seemed like a place to which I could afford to travel.  This, like the aliens, was a myth.
When my wife and I arrived on the island we were surrounded by wealthy tourists who rented expensive cars and stayed at nice resorts; it felt like we were somehow stealing a rich person’s holiday.  How did we, mere English teachers, afford to get there?  How were we able to get around the island without spending a fortune?  How did we get through the week without starving?  For the South American backpacker there are a few tips I’d like to offer that can make Easter Island a possible destination. 
The first tip is to book a flight early and to be flexible with your dates.  It seems obvious, but since there is only one airline, LAN, which offers flights to the island, a first look at prices can turn you off the entire idea.  Some of the flights are over two thousand USD; we managed to get ours for just over four hundred dollars.  The key to our success was flying from Lima, Peru.  In the past, the only flights to Easter Island were from Santiago or Tahiti, but from the start of 2011 they had just opened the route from Lima.  This alone saved us over a thousand USD.  Keep looking, keep checking for changes, do your research about routes and days.  If you’re persistent, you should be able to find an affordable flight.
So you’re on the island, but you can’t find an affordable hostel or hotel; camping is an option.  For about ten dollars a night, or fifteen if you want to rent a tent, you can stay at Camping Mihinoa (, which was by far the cheapest option we were able to find.  The family that runs the place is extremely friendly and respond to your e-mails in either Spanish or English.  You should book ahead and they will even pick you up at the airport.  It’s a bare bones operation that offers showers and a shack where you can cook – also a big money saver – but for the week or so you’re on the island it’s more than you need.  Likely, you’ll be spending your whole day hiking and exploring; when you come back you just need a soft place to lie down and listen to the crashing waves.
It’s a small island, but it’s not that small.  My wife and I did spend a day literally walking from one end to the other.  We started at the campsite mentioned above, went around Terevaka Volcano, and ended up at Anakena, which has a terrific beach.  This took almost the whole day and while it was definitely an amazing trek, including a few run-ins with bulls, I would only recommend walking if you have enough time.  Also, as there isn’t much shade on the island, it can get pretty tiring. 
For cheap transportation I’d recommend one of three options.  You don’t need to rent a jeep; you can either rent a bicycle or a motorbike for a pretty affordable price.  The motorbikes can get a little tricky when you’re off the paved roads, but if you take it slow, you’ll be fine.  The other, and cheapest option available, is hitchhiking.  Most people are up for giving you a ride if it’s on their way and when you’re heading back to town at the end of the day there is no shortage of available rides.  Sticking your thumb up is free, and on Easter Island, pretty safe.
Lastly, if you really are on a tight budget, stay away from the bars.  It’s the end of the day, you’re covered in red dust from a long day of exploring, and you’re sweaty, hot, and sick of the unrelenting sun.  The temptation to spend four dollars on drink may sound pretty appealing.  There is, however, an alternative.  Buy a bottle of wine from a market and find an alcove by the cliffs (please be careful and find a safe place).  As sunset approaches you can sit on the rocks, enjoy some of Chile’s fantastic wine, and talk over the adventure of the day and your plans for tomorrow.  It’s the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen.
I don’t mean to sound like a tight ass and there are a lot of nice restaurants around the island, but for those of us who don’t have vast financial resources to draw from, a few drinks at a bar on Easter Island are another day of backpacking later on.  It’s about choices and priorities.  Most backpackers I’ve talked to don’t even consider Easter Island because they imagine it’s out of their price range.  It doesn’t have to be.