The emails I have received from many of you have changed tone over the past few weeks, going from questions about what I've been up to in South America to questions about why you haven't heard a single whit from me in a month. Evidently none of you were worried that I had been kidnapped by right-wing guerrillas. And I am sorry for not writing sooner, but Chile is experiencing a severe shortage of knotted strings to write messages on. Plus, the llamas are on strike, so I had to trek all the way over the Andes on foot to relay my message in Mendoza. There are no rest stops on the glaciers and I had nothing to sustain me but mate, alpaca milk, and jerky made from the skin of Inca mummies high on Aconcagua.
The reality is a little different. The llamas aren't on strike, but the students are. They're all back on campus now, but there was some shouting outside earlier today, and when I left to go to lunch, I was immediately met by the sight of soldiers clad in riot gear and the nostril-burning odor of tear gas. Someone was chaining shut one of the gates to the school and there were puddles of water on the ground, presumably from water cannons, but the street vendors were still selling candy and people were still walking down the street, as if the twelve-foot-tall armored personnel carriers weren't there.
Just another day at the Universidad de Santiago de Chile, I suppose.
The students started striking a month ago over proposed changes to Chile's education law. I don't entirely understand the details, despite considerable effort—everyone is eager to talk about the strikes and about what a horrible new law it is, but specifics have been conspicuously absent (even in the few English-language news articles I've been able to find). As best I understand it, the story goes something like this: Pinochet, in the twilight of his dictatorship, promulgated a law which reduced funding for public education and increased subsidies for private schools (both K12 and collegiate). This destroyed what had previously been a pristine public education system, if you are to believe the protestors. Sixteen years and umpteen reforms later, Pinochet's education law still existed. So in 2006, students decided to express their support for an updated law by doing exactly what they had been taught to do in civics class: they went on strike. The immediate cause was an increase in the college entrance exam fee, and soon enough, high school and college students across Chile were striking, protesting, and occupying buildings. At the height of the protests, something like 800,000 students were marching against the educational system. And they succeeded, sort of, since eventually the government of President Michelle Bachelet (a single mother running a male-centered country, note) consented to drafting a new education law.
Two years later, the new education law is finally up for a vote, and the students, unhappy that the new law is not a carbon copy of their Port Huron Statement, are striking again. The protests haven't come close to the size they were two years ago, and they've mostly wound down by now. Still, when I arrived at USaCh (Universidad de Santiago's acronym), students were still occupying one or two buildings, having blockaded the entrances with piles of chairs and desks. No one else was around, except for professors and some grad students—and apparently they had been locked out of their offices until shortly before we arrived and unable to work. Every building on campus was covered in graffiti with slogans like "LA REVOLUCION ES LA SOLUCION" and "NO A LA EDUCACION DE MERCADO!" and "Si la educa$ion la transformaron en mercancia los estudiantes EN REBELDIA!"
The professors I've talked to have been skeptical about the student protests—one of them complained that the students "don't understand how a market economy works." Nor do most of the U of C kids here (all four of us) seem terribly sympathetic towards the ideals of our fellow students—maybe a consequence of the Adam Smith we have to read. I got an email a few days ago, sent to a bunch of Chilean students and cc'd to the Chicago students, inviting them to come to a bar and have drinks "con los 'Chicago Boys.' " I was confused by the English and quotation marks but thought nothing of it. A few days later, the Cambridge History of Chile clarified the passage: apparently "Chicago Boys" was the name given to the group of University of Chicago-trained economists, led by Milton Friedman, whom Pinochet hired to liberalize the economy in the 70s and 80s. I guess our university's reputation precedes us. But we have protests at Chicago, too—just a year ago, I was one of several hundred students demonstrating against the College's (despicable, impeachable, treasonous) switch to the Common Application.
The 1960s spirit that the protests invoke goes nicely with USACH's campus architecture, which consists of one-and-two story stucco and concrete buildings apparently built in the 60s and 70s and not maintained since then. Santiago is, generally speaking, a colorful city; USACH does not acknowledge this aspect of its host. The buildings are white with blue trim; between the brown grass and gray sky, the blue is the only hint of color anywhere on campus. Instead of providing a much-needed burst of hue, the blue trim mocks the lack of color, as if to suggest a tantalizing escape from the black-and-white world and end up being only a tease. All the large buildings have "UNIVERSIDAD DE SANTIAGO DE CHILE" written in enormous letters on the top (painted blue, of course). There are vast, empty plazas with weeds growing through the cracks in the cement. There are empty fountains, drained for the winter and turned into enormous central cavities. And there are fences and gates everywhere, laid down seemingly at random, as if to confuse rather than to protect. Sometimes a guard will demand identification to enter; sometimes he won't. Sometimes I'll go out to get lunch and a gate will be open; I'll return, and it'll be chained and padlocked shut. Meanwhile, a gate halfway down the block will be wide open. My lab is in a converted classroom with butcher paper on the windows. I saw a line in the professor's grant proposal allocating money to buy window blinds. We have a microscope that probably cost more than the entire building. Everything is unheated. It makes the typical American state university look like a masterpiece of architecture and urban design.
This is a dystopian portrait, so I should probably add the disclaimers that a) my work is actually quite awesome (more on that later), b) Santiago doesn't look anything like this monstrosity of a campus, and c) Chilean science doesn't actually all happen in Soviet conditions. The labs at UChile, USACH's considerably richer and more prestigious cousin, are quite nice and look like anything you would find at Chicago. (They even have French postdocs!) UChile's physics and engineering campus (where two of the Chicago students are working) looks like Columbia, actually, with huge stone neoclassical buildings densely packed around urban quadrangles.
I have slowly been adjusting to the major cultural differences between the U.S. and Chile: the lack of free water in restaurants and the lack of free public toilets. I am a big fan of the carbonated mineral water waiters bring you when you ask for "agua," but not such a big fan of paying for it. And the toilet thing irks me, even if they only cost one or two hundred pesos ($.20-$.40) per use. I try to wait for the toilets at work or at home, but these present their own problems. The toilets in the lab never have any toilet paper, which at first I thought was part of the student uprising, but when a couple days passed and the toilet paper was still missing—despite the cleaning lady being there half the time when I had to go—I realized that the toilets in the lab are simply not important enough to merit toilet paper. So now I either head over to the toilets in the main physics building or "borrow" Kimwipes from the lab. (The irony is that in each of the stalls in the lab bathroom are not one, not two, but three holders for toilet paper.)
The toilets back at our apartment are not much better. Our main entertainment for the past two weeks has been the ongoing saga of the plumbers, the result of which is that we have not two usable bathrooms but one. There was water all over the floor of the larger bathroom when we moved in; the landlady said, after she took our rent money, that she was going to call a plumber to fix it. A plumber showed up a day or two later and ripped out a pipe from underneath the bathtub. (And I do mean ripped—the amount of damage done was quite impressive.) Then he left, saying that he needed more tools. Every day since, the plumber has been scheduled to reappear and finish the job. Usually we find out about this when the doorman knocks and we spend a solid five minutes with our bad Spanish and his fast Chilean trying to understand each other. And usually the plumber doesn't show up. Sometimes he does, though—and it's usually a plumber we've never seen before and will never see again—and he goes into the bathroom, looks around for a few minutes, says something unintelligible in Chilean, and leaves. This morning, though, it was my turn to wait around for the plumber, and not only did he show up exactly on time, but half an hour later, a second plumber showed up! When I left, they were demolishing the tile floor of the bathroom with large hammer drills. I'm optimistic—and hopeful, since the other bathroom, with a shower, toilet, and sink, is roughly the size of a row of economy-class seats on USAir. It's so small that I have to sit sideways on the toilet.
We found our apartment through ContactChile, a "cultural management agency" that rents apartments to clueless expats like ourselves. The apartment is in a building that seems to be half apartments and half apartments-turned-offices; right next door to us is a proctologist. The building is right above a metro station on the main street in Santiago; the neighborhood, Providencia, is rather trendy and described by another one of the students here as "downtown Chicago, but in Spanish." That's unfortunate, but oh well. It was rather difficult finding an apartment to fit four people—the availabilities seem to be single rooms or one- or two-person apartments. This apartment has four beds but only two and a half bedrooms—a bedroom, a double bedroom with bathroom access, and then another room with a bed that serves as an antechamber to both the double bedroom and the second bathroom. Not spacious, but for US$200/person/month + utilities, I'm hardly complaining. We also have a living/dining room, complete with downward-sloping balcony, cramped loveseat, and TV for practicing Spanish by watching dubbed versions of The Simpsons and 24. The fluorescent light in the kitchen gives us a light show each time we turn it on: five seconds of darkness followed by ten seconds of rapid-fire lightning as the bulb rages to turn on. It makes ordinary flickering look pathetic—were it not omnichromatic, we could advertise it as a light show and charge admission. The kitchen is furnished but didn't come with a knife, so we've been using my Leatherman to cut meat and vegetables (consecutively, in that order). There's a sink that's slightly narrower than my PowerBook, and a gas range that—to my absolute terror—has to be lit manually. It came with its own butane lighter for lighting the stove, but the lighter only lights every tenth try. So my current procedure for using the stove consists of filling a pot full of water, igniting a wadded-up paper towel, lighting the stove while standing as far away as possible, and then dropping the flaming paper towel into the pot. (Then I boil the water and make charcoal bouillon.) Unfortunately this is the procedure I have to use for the oven, too. The gas burners in the oven are more or less identical to the ones you see on barbecue grills, except they have to be lit by hand, and while the gas flow is in theory variable and controlled by a dial on the range, good luck with fine temperature control.
So much for souffle. But the ravioli we've made has turned out fine, as have my experiments with making curry and with deep-frying Chilean pastries. Chilean food, much like our oven, does not have much in the way of subtle distinctions. Just like quantum states of matter, it can be resolved into discrete categories, except there are only two. There is meat, huge slabs of meat piled up and doused in grease and covered with onions and french fries and fried eggs, and things like empanadas (deep-fried pastries filled with meat, eggs, cheese, onions, etc.) and sopaipillas (deep-fried biscuits). They have an obsession with hot dogs that is even more befuddling in light of the fact that Chilean hot dogs aren't even any good. Then there is sugar. There's the Chilean national candy bar, the Super 8, a surprisingly light Nestle bar made out of chocolate-covered wafers; delicious, and only CH$120 (US$.20). There are the obscenely large bars of chocolate that every street vendor sells in large quantities. There are chocolate-covered cookies and chocolate-covered balls of chocolate covered with chocolate sprinkles. You can buy sheets of marshmallow the size of a slice of bread intended as a snack. The fast-food places have separate lines for their ice-cream; McDonalds here sells a Cadbury Creme McFlurry. The supermarkets sell flan that's not quite as good as Japanese flan—but hey, it exists!
The country is a dentist's nightmare. I have been trying to burn off some of the calories by walking back from work every day—two hours, but a straight shot down Santiago's main street, the Alameda. Of course I just end up buying food at the many kiosks and stands along the way—a couple Super 8 bars, maybe an empanada, maybe some honey-roasted peanuts. The street vendors are my favorite part of Santiago. Every block has at least one and sometimes as many as six kiosks that shutter up during the night and look like bus shelters covered in sheet metal. During the day they unfold and come alive, selling candy, snacks, newspapers, drinks, and so forth. There's a nice one right near the lab that sells various (apparently home-made) chocolate treats, and has these especially tasty cakes filled with sweet peanut butter. People stand on the sidewalk and sell lukewarm, cooked-elsewhere empanadas from mini-coolers. I bought an egg roll (CH$100, US$.20) from a woman who was selling them out of a corrugated cardboard box in which the egg rolls were piled up like logs. There are carts with built-in deep fryers for cooking up hot sopaipillas, empanadas, and spring rolls. There are carts that sell honey-roasted peanuts still hot from the roaster. I guess this would be less exotic if I were from, say, New York. But I'm not, and so it fascinates me.
Food is not the only good for sale: on the sidewalk outside USACH, a veritable clothing store opens up during the day, as a half-dozen vendors set up tables and sell dirt-cheap socks and scarfs and wool hats. These are serious operations, not just card tables with one or two things—they have displays with quantities and densities rivaling what you find in stores with walls and a roof. At night, it all disappears. People sell pirated CDs and DVDs on blankets with strings threaded through the edges; if they spot a police officer, they can whisk it up, stuff it in their backpack, and disappear into the crowd. There was a guy standing inside the metro station at work selling mini LED lights on keychains for a few days; he was just standing there, waving the keychains around and hawking them. I suppose he eventually sold out. The vendors run the whole gamut, from permanent kiosks to carts to people reselling candy from a huge box they bought at Sam's Club. I went to a concert a few weeks ago in honor of what would have been Salvador Allende's 100th birthday and people were walking around selling cans of beer out of their backpacks.
I was about to say that I admired the entrepreneurial spirit—but that obscures the fact that most of these people, like the guy who hangs around my subway station holding a box of Super 8, are doing this not for amusement but for sustenance. Poverty is not a tourist attraction. At the same time, the vendors give the city a distinctly different feel than—okay, I don't know any big cities very well. It's not small-town Ithaca, certainly, or semi-urban Hyde park. They make Santiago feel alive—but not in a vibrant, active, growing sort of way, not in a way that makes you feel as if every Santiguano thinks they're living in the best city on earth. The economic reality and the stark background of concrete apartment blocks and steel shutters on storefronts make that clear. Rather, it gives a transparency to the city that is absent from a world where everything takes place inside buildings, a world where you have to walk across a plaza and then ride an elevator just to throw your gum wrapper away. Here, everything spills out of the buildings and floods into the streets, spreading right up to the gates of the university and right up to the turnstiles in the subway station. It is impossible to get away from people—not just impossible to get away from crowds of people walking from one place to another, but impossible to get away from people interacting with each other.
As you go east and head into the wealthier districts, the street traffic disappears and is replaced by car traffic. Instead of selling candy from kiosks, vendors keep a pile of flowers on the curb and walk up and down lines of cars at red lights selling bouquets. I went out for a walk late one night and a guy had one left that he was trying to sell; an hour later, he still had it. What I noticed was not that he had failed to sell his bouquet—it was, after all, very late—but that he had sold all the other bouquets that he had presumably started out with. Sometimes people sell newspapers or candy. And then there is the entertainment at red lights. Someone will come out into the crosswalk and juggle clubs or a diablo (possibly on a unicycle), performing for just long enough so that they have time to collect donations through driver-side windows. I once saw a half-dozen people performing a routine straight out of a cheerleading revue that involved tossing a pigtailed girl into the air. They caught her successfully, and got quite a few donations from people heading off to jobs in the financial district.
In Ithaca we have Lou the hot dog man on the Commons, and I've always thought of him as a sort of novelty. But here, it's not a novelty. People actually do buy kebabs cooked on a charcoal brazier perched nervously on a shopping cart, or fresh-squeezed orange juice from a guy who has a juicer instead of a briefcase full of licenses from the health department. There are steel-and-glass skyscrapers, and then there are guys with a box of chocolate bars and a "1000 pesos" sign. The city happens on every scale.
Santiago does not have much in the way of physical geography beyond a couple of rocky bumps that jut abruptly above the plain. One of them is topped off with a 50-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mary. The statue is fully illuminated at night and serves as a kind of giant Catholic lighthouse. There is also a central drainage ditch, the Rio Mapocho, tamed to run at just a trickle across a concrete bed surrounded by a fifteen-foot cinder-block bathtub wall. Santiago has effectively replaced the river, so central in the plans of cities like Paris and London, with a parallel street, the Alameda, and subway running a thousand feet south. (I'll admit I have a slight bias in saying this, since my lab and apartment are both located on this street, some seven miles distant, and I have no reason to ever leave it. Still, Lonely Planet agrees with me on this, and god knows a foreigner and a guidebook written by foreigners can't be wrong.) Chicago has adapted to its peculiar combination of flatness and Great Lake by radiating out from the Loop; Santiago has adapted to its complete lack of topography (in itself rather ironic, given the conspicuous presence of the Andes nearby) by adopting a linear organization. And once you get away from Avenue Liberatador Bernardo O'Higgins (as the Alameda is officially known), Santiago sprawls. It sprawls and sprawls until it hits the mountains, forming a metropolitan area nearly half the size of greater Los Angeles.
And the smog turns your snot black. Santiago, like Los Angeles and Tehran, is surrounded by mountains that lock in every greenhouse gas and acid rain component. From the mountains Santiago is invisible, trapped beneath a thick brown cloak. Conversely, you can see the Andes from any east-facing vista, but only on a clear day, and even then they float above the smog, huge pyramids of rock and ice without a base. USACH has an electronic billboard at the entrance displaying atmospheric statistics—everything from temperature to sulfur dioxide concentration—but it doesn't work, and so I have to guess at the air quality by the number of people on the subway in the morning. When the pollution is especially bad the city restricts automobile use, forbidding cars with license plates ending in a certain digit from driving. And so the Santiago Metro turns into Tokyo's Yamanote line, with commuters stuffed in like the granular matter some of the other students here are studying. Other than the crowds, the system is quite fantastic—certainly far better than Chicago's CTA. The trains are spaced every sixty seconds during rush hour, they run on rubber tires (a smooth, vibration-free ride), and the cars are articulated, meaning that you can have an eight-car train that's effectively a single, 200-foot long car. Rides cost 400 pesos (US$.75), and almost everyone has the RFID payment cards that have become so popular in the US the last few years. The government started a major project a few years ago, Transantiago, to improve its public transportation and cut down on smog, and it is just starting to produce results. In the U.S. we wonder about how to get more people to use public transportation; here, they can't add bus routes or build subways fast enough to keep up with demand. People line up at bus stops. The bus stops have queues built-in, like Disneyland, and people line up in them, often spilling out half a block down the sidewalk, as if on the bus were copies of the eighth Harry Potter book.
Now, this all builds to the important stuff: what exactly are your tax dollars paying for me to do here? As part of the U of C physics department's Chicago-Chile Materials Exchange, I'm working for a young USACH biophysicist, Roberto Bernal, who studies the mechanical/physical properties of cells. His last project was a study of the elasticity of axons. Axons are the long, thing part of the neuron that stretches out from the cell body, and the basic question was, how stretchy are they? how will they deform if we try to stretch them out? how fast will they contract back to their original length? how can we model that using basic mechanics (damped springs in series, etc.)? That in itself is kind of cool, but what makes it even more interesting is that you can use these bulk properties to learn more about the molecular/biochemical basis of cell elongation and movement. What makes the axon a good model system for this is that it's more-or-less one dimensional—it's just a long pipe, essentially. (Whether his work has actually shed more light on cell elongation, I don't know—I had thought it was reasonably well understood—but I really love approaching problems from interesting angles like this.)
His latest project is to study how fibroblasts and osteoblasts (bone cells) respond to small stresses—work which could shed light on how microfractures in bone form and are repaired. I'm dong some preliminary studies for the project using soft lithography and optical methods of stress analysis. Basically, I've been casting rubber slides out of a material that has this amazing property: if you stretch it out or poke it, and look at it under the right combination of polarizing filters, you can actually see the stress waves in the material. It sits there under the microscope, completely opaque, and then you poke it with a needle, and you see this bright wave of activity radiate out from where you poked it. (It's basically the same thing that happens when you poke the LCD screen on your laptop and see funky colors.) This has a lot of applications in engineering prototypes—you can, for example, build a model of a bridge, coat it with this material, stack model cars on the bridge, and then see where the structure is under the most stress (and where it's most likely to break). Roberto's favorite technique is to poke a hole in the center of a rectangular sheet of this rubber; when you stretch it out, you see this butterfly pattern of stress around the hole. It's very pretty. Of course, our sheets of rubber are simple enough that one can calculate the stress just as easily (and by "one" I mean "not me"), but the optical technique is a nice experimental confirmation of the results. The eventual goal is to grow cells on these sheets of rubber, stretch them out, and watch what happens. Quite cool.
Roberto's grant proposal was due a few days ago, so he gave me the draft to proofread. The proposal was going to Fondecyt, the Chilean equivalent of the National Science Foundation, but was written entirely in English—the internal as well as external language of science in Chile. Reading it was a total blast and reminded me how much I love editing things. I probably could have spent all day with it, but it was due in a few hours, and he had only asked me to proofread, so I mostly capitalized things and added more em-dashes. Every one of his verbs disagreed with the subject. Perhaps he should buy a better grammar—but then, I have no right to say anything, since my Spanish consists of "Quiero un Super 8!" I've been studying for an hour or so a night but it's still, as they say, muy mal. I can say pretty much anything I want to say—but only as a combination of German verbs, Latin nouns, Japanese adjectives, and Spanish prepositions. The only people who can understand me are World War II-era Axis diplomats. (This dovetails nicely with the image processing I've been doing for work: I need to write scripts in MatLab, and I keep trying to call functions from Mathematica or Python.)
At least in Japan, no one expects you to actually speak Japanese. Say even the most malformed, most disguised-English sentence possible, and a Japanese person will immediately respond with highest praise: "Nihongo jozu ne!" ("Your Japanese is excellent!"). Not so in Chile—let's face it, learning Spanish is not such an impossible request for a foreigner. This makes my lack of Spanish even more humiliating. I went to buy a pastry from the street vendor outside of the lab the other day. I asked him how much it was—nothing is ever labelled—and he said, "dos viente." I gave him 200 pesos, smiled, and paused to see if that was enough. He smiled back—I had been buying a lot of pastries from him, and maybe my gringo incompetence was endearing—and said, "viente mas." I smiled, said "gracias," and left. Only when I had turned the corner did I realize that I had happily robbed him of 20 pesos.
The Chilean students all speak fantastic English by comparison. In January a half-dozen of them will come to Chicago to work at U of C physics labs (the other half of the exchange), and in order to prepare them linguistically, we've been doing some informal English teaching with fifteen or so interested students. So far this has mostly consisted of chatting with them at their favorite holes-in-the-wall near campus, places where you can buy 1500 peso ($3) meals big enough to hibernate on. It's been fascinating, and the perfect opportunity to meet Chilean students in the name of "work." One of them spent a half-hour re-enacting the decisive battle in the War of the Pacific using coffee stirrers and crumpled-up paper towels. Another student asked me whether English speakers pronounce IP addresses "two hundred fifty five point one hundred sixty-eight point..." or "two five five point one six eight point..." I told him I had no idea, and he looked disappointed.
Chilean students also get a tremendous amount of ass. (Superficial, I know, but it deserves mention.) Everyone in Chile between the ages of 15 and married has a boyfriend or girlfriend. And I mean everyone. You can't walk through a park without seeing five couples making out. You can't get on the subway in the morning without seeing people touching each other for reasons other than how crowded the car is. The male grad students in my lab are dating the female grad students in my lab—and this is completely normal. It seems to be encouraged by Chilean greeting rituals, which involve male-female cheek-kissing in lieu of handshaking. Every bookstore I've been in, no matter how mainstream, has a huge selection of sex manuals (usually placed right in between the kids' books and the Catholicism books—really, I'm not making this up). Is Chilean and American hookup culture the same? I have no idea, but I should probably make inquiries...
Anyway. What else have I been up to? I went skiing a couple weeks ago with some of the grad students in a neighboring lab. There are ski shops in eastern Santiago that rent equipment, sell lift tickets, and then drive you up to the mountains in 10-person vans, all for CH$34,000=US$68. I suppose the price is dirt cheap compared to what the equivalent would cost in the US, but after so many years of driving to Greek Peak and then skiing with my season pass and my own skis—skiing for free, it felt like—I cringed when I took out my wallet. That they were ferrying people to the ski resorts in vans instead of buses confused me—there were dozens of people at this one shop; wouldn't it be cheaper just to send one or two buses instead of a dozen vans? As it turned out, no bus would ever have made it up the road. We drove east out of Santiago into the Andes, rising almost 10,000 feet along a barely-paved, heavily-traveled road the width of a driveway. At first the road followed the river up out of the city; when the canyon eventually ran out, the road went straight up, with switchbacks only an epsilon under 180 degrees.
The ski resort we went to, El Colorado, was one of three in a small area. It's way up in the Andes, adjacent to the mountain on which some of the first Inca mummies were discovered, and only a stone's throw from Argentina. ("Good thing I bought that UV filter for my camera," I thought. "Now, if only I hadn't left that sunscreen back in Ithaca.") I was somewhat underwhelmed at first, until I realized that the ski resort had been built around the entire circumference of the mountain. The resort is above the tree and snow lines, and in the high-elevation limit classical definitions of a "run" begin to break down. If you get to the top of the mountain, you can go down any way you like. So much for glades. And unfortunately for me this meant sticking to groomed territory, since I have never mastered turning in powder. (Actually, I can't manipulate my skis in powder at all—it's rather embarrassing.) Not a problem, though—there were plenty of groomed runs that were quite steep. The mountain is concave, so the difficulty of the slope increases as you get further away from the base lodge. Only the easier slopes on the lower part of the mountain are graced with chairlifts—though "graced" is the wrong word to use, since they were the nastiest chairs I have ever ridden. They didn't just run fast; they /smacked/ loading passengers. Elsewhere on the mountain there were only t-bars—a technology that I thought had gone the way of the fax machine and FORTRAN. I had only ridden a t-bar once before, in third grade, and it had ended with me falling off, my dad overcompensating from the change in weight distribution and also falling off, and then both of us sliding into the skiers behind us. Luckily Greek Peak got rid of the t-bar a couple years later and installed the Alcamene chair. The t-bars at El Colorado, though, were fantastic—certainly far better than the chairlifts, and pleasant in and of themselves. They were widely spaced, with at least sixty seconds in between, and the t-bars were attached to the cable with a 20-foot-long retractable cord—like those phone cords that automatically retract and extend as you need them. You grab onto the t-bar as it passes and stand there adjusting it as the cord extends. Eventually it reaches its limit and starts pulling you up the mountain. And really, that was the best part—you're skiing uphill! How often do you get to ski uphill? Plus, you never stop skiing—none of that silly sitting around that chairlifts involve.
Then, last weekend, Enrique Cerda, the USACH coordinator of the program, took us hiking. (Enrique, incidentally, won an Ig Nobel prize last year for a paper on how wrinkles and folds appear in bedsheets.) Every time I go to the mountains—real mountains, not Adirondack hills—I am overwhelmed by their beauty. The Andes were no exception. The folds in the terrain are thousands of feet deep, and there are no trees, so you can see everything. The hills are covered with patchy vegetation against a background of sand-colored dirt that gives the landscape the texture of film grain. There are cactuses. It looks just like Southern California. (This probably isn't surprising, since Santiago is at the same absolute latitude as Los Angeles, and has the same physical geography and chaparral biome.) The hike took us up a never-ending series of false summits, which just made me happy ("we're not there yet—more to hike!"). And we saw a condor—three times. He (or she) was circling on thermals, flying without ever flapping its wings. It passed so close overhead a couple times that you could hear the air rushing through its wings. ("I guess I didn't need to buy that zoom lens after all.") Maybe that's not so impressive—they're enormous birds. I did some calculations using the photos I took, and assuming a nine-foot wingspan, he was about 100 feet away at closest approach—it sure seemed like a lot closer than that, though, which is a testament to how enormous they are. The last time there were two of them, dancing thousands of feet in the air with the snow-capped Andes in the background. Or smog-covered Santiago, depending on the perspective.
OK, this is long enough. It rained last night and the sky is perfectly clear, so I'm going to walk home in the shadow of the Andes and try to convince my roommates to head to a national park this weekend, a place an hour southeast of Santiago that has mountains, glaciers, volcanos, and hot springs. We'll see if my continuing adventures merit further missives—I'm sure you all can't wait to hear about the pros and cons of various edge-detection algorithms. I'll try to send postcards. (And, as always, feel free to pass this on to anyone who is bored enough to be interested...)