Andrew M.H. Alexander

August 2008

When I left off my last letter—finally keeling over from the exhaustion of writing such an epic—I said that I was going to go home and try to persuade my roommates to go to a national park that weekend that had “mountains, volcanoes, glaciers, and hot springs.”

Well, that never happened. Turned out the park was closed for the winter “due to snowfall up to nine feet.”

But there’s more than one national park in Chile. And at the same time that I had been thinking about day trips from Santiago, my roommates were having more ambitious thoughts. They were having thoughts of the Chilean Lake District, a land of early-morning fog that rolls off lakes and up forested mountain slopes, where people drink mate and bathe in waterfalls and hot springs. It’s the sort of place where you expect to find a Shinto shrine or a Lord of the Rings film crew.

Daniel and Sam had been pouring over Lonely Planet for days. “Pucon is really popular,” they said. “But it only has one national park. Osorno has two.”

We took a sleeper bus on Friday night and got there just after eight in the morning.

In downtown Osorno an entire block had been swallowed by a grocery store. Tearing down slums and replacing them with polished-metal/plate-glass shopping malls is the current national pastime. Malls are all the rage. It’s like the entire Chilean upper-middle-class is stuck in a 1980s Brat Pack movie. The appeal is the same as in the US: malls are convenient, safe, climate-controlled. They’re a break from tradition, something more than a novelty and less than the cliche they’ve become in the US. South of the Universidad de Santiago a new mall just opened, full of escalators and potted plants, and with a matching office tower next door. On either side of the mall are storefronts selling kitchen utensils and candy and street vendors selling quality-control rejects. To get to the mall from the university you walk through a ten-foot-wide alley between a row of one-story adobe houses. Near our apartment is the construction site for what I can only guess will become one of the largest buildings in Chile, a combined mall/condo/office development that so far is just a giant concrete sculpture the size of a convention center. It has enormous high-rise tower cranes, not one or two of them, but seven. I got lost while running one night and used the blinking lights on the cranes to guide myself back.

The malls inspire national pride. They’re a visual reminder—a domineering one, since their size is an order of magnitude larger than their surroundings—of Chile’s booming economy. One economics blog I read put Chile next to Australia and New Zealand on a list of prosperous and developed countries in the southern hemisphere. I am somewhat more skeptical, since the new construction here seems to be financed entirely with credit—and most of the construction is only one or two years old, so the long-term viability of that financing is not clear. Nobody seems concerned that copper makes up a solid 50% of Chile’s exports—and that the booming economy is largely dependent on the high metal prices of the last few years.

The prosperity has accelerated the government’s anti-poverty programs, including its current initiative to put a roof over every Chilean’s head by 2010. Occasionally you see uniform-clad volunteers collecting money on the street for the program, and there is an endless stream of TV ads and billboards promoting it. There are also advertisements put out by the ministry of health encouraging women to be more involved in physical fitness. The number of public service announcements is surprising—very different from the US, where the government feels no need to market itself. One of the ad campaigns feature 20-something college students saying things like, “I study engineering, but what I really want to build is a more equitable Chile.” Or: “I study medicine, but my passion is curing Chile’s poverty.” The TV ads show people of all ages, genders, and occupations passing to each other a giant silver star (the national symbol) in various urban and rural settings as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony plays. Whether the government’s social programs actually are effective, I have no idea. I don’t even know what they consist of, other than the oft-stated “a roof for all by 2010” goal. But if the advertising is any clue, an important priority is having the entire country unified behind these goals, not just the government. Barack Obama would approve.

The grocery store in Osorno, appropriately named BIGGER, was the size of a Wal-Mart. It was plunked right in the middle of downtown and took up an entire block, with none of the vast fields of parking lots that such a store would require in the US. Actually, there was no dedicated parking of any kind. Everyone walked to it. It had all the trappings of the biggest of the American supercenters, including the aircraft-hanger ceiling whose height served no other purpose than to remind customers that they are in a very, very big building. In the US these de facto atriums must put a big dent into the buildings’ energy efficiency, but in Chile the concept of indoor heating does not exist and so the only limit on the height of the building is that imposed by the civil aviation authorities. Or so I assume. We split up to buy food, and I bought more or less the same things that I would have bought to go hiking in the US, except that the labels were in Spanish. Sam bought empanadas. John found Super Ocho for sale in bulk—$5 for a box of 25. Daniel bought marraqueta, the oval-shaped Chilean equivalent of a baguette. Bakeries in Chile only make two types of bread: marraqueta and hallulla, which has the shape and density of a urinal cake. Luckily it doesn’t taste like a urinal cake, although some yeast would be nice. That bakeries never make anything else is a commendation, not a compliment; I could eat nothing but marraqueta three meals a day. What’s amazing is that in every grocery store—even this giant Wal-Mart knockoff—the bread is always fresh. And by fresh, I don’t mean that they baked it that morning on site. I mean, “still warm.” They make it continuously throughout the day, and half the time when I go to buy bread at our grocery store in Santiago one of the bakers is dumping fresh marraqueta into the bin.

We walked back to the bus station and found a bus marked in the direction we were headed in. I told the bus driver where we were going, and instead of nodding and selling us tickets, he said something in Spanish, got off the bus, and told us to follow him out of the bus station and through Osorno’s central bazaar. At the other end of the bazaar we exited into a second, identical bus station. “Bus station” is a bit of an exaggeration; they were no more than parking lots for microbuses with one or two benches on the curb. This second bus station, though, had an actual office, with a boleteria and everything. The bus driver gave the clerk his receipts and wad of cash, and they talked in Spanish. Next to the window was a list of the departures to Anticura, the stop in Parque National Puyehue that we wanted to go to. The schedule said that buses were leaving and returning every hour. I told the lady that we wanted to go to Anticura. She said that the only bus left at 10:30. “Bueno,” I said. She started writing us tickets. “And we’d like to return at 7 PM.” She stopped, exhaled angrily, and tore up our tickets. “The only return bus is at 4:30,” she said. Then she wrote out new tickets, identical to the ones she had just ripped up but with “1630” scribbled in huge letters on half of them. We handed her a large pile of cash, and she kept most of it.

$18 seemed pretty steep for a round-trip fare on a microbus, but the ticket prices posted behind the driver’s seat confirmed it. Later it became apparent why it cost so much. The bus drove east through rolling hills covered with fields; in the fields were cows grazing. It was still relatively early in the morning and the sky was overcast, balancing right on the edge of rain. We drove through puddles. People wearing rainjackets waved the bus down from outside their homes. It looked a lot like Upstate New York, if Upstate New York had public transportation. We passed some spectacular lakes, and eventually we began rising up into the mountains. We stopped at a hot springs resort, and half the bus got off. We stopped at another hot springs resort, and the rest of the bus got off. Sam and Daniel, who have better judgment than I do, became nervous. “We’re the only people left on the bus. It’s turning around.” So they went up and talked to the bus driver, who said that no, we weren’t in Anticura yet.

A half-hour later the bus dropped us off in a clearing on the side of a hill. There were two driveways, some A-frame buildings, and tiny cabins built on cinder blocks. A chiseled-wood sign read “PUYEHUE NATIONAL PARK—ANTICURA DEVELOPMENT AREA.” We walked around for a few minutes. No one else was there. An old man came out of the Conaf (the Chilean park service) hut, asked us where we were from, and told us that there was a nice hike to an overlook with a view of Volcan Puyehue about an hour away. He asked me if I spoke Chinese. “No, pero puedo hablar un poco de Japones.” The hike was steep enough to be mostly switchbacks, but half an hour later, there we were. We had a spectacular view of… fog. It was actually quite pretty, and a big change from the scrub desert surrounding Santiago. It was nice to see forests again, and the fog gave the vista the feel of an Asian landscape painting.

We hiked down, and Sam went to ask if he could use a bathroom in the office. “They rent cabins here,” he said when he came back. “$32,000 pesos. US$16 per person.”

Better than driving back to bleak Osorno. And the cabin we rented turned out to be nicer than our apartment in Santiago. It also had two gas heaters—a rare amenity, and a useful one, given our soaking clothing. We decided to go on the other hike the ranger told us about, which took us in a spiral that finally ended at the bottom of a waterfall three sizes too big for its cataract. Back in Anticura, we met the driver of our return bus and told him that we were planning to come back the next day instead. Since ours was a special destination, forty minutes off the usual route, our tickets weren’t reusable. He took the tickets, agreed to return at 5:30 on Sunday, and drove off.

By this time we were all quite hungry, and nearly out of food, since we had only brought enough for a short day trip. “I asked the guy we rented the cabin from if there were any restaurants around here,” Sam said. “He said there was one two miles down the road that way.”

“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” I said.

“No, no. He said it was just down the road.”

“There are more trees down the road.”

But I was both hungry and eager to walk more, so I was happy to head off in search of food, even though it was fairly obvious that there was nothing but forest between us and the closest town, 20 miles away. The road was two lanes with no shoulder and no right-of-way; the trees on either side tunneled above us and blocked out what little daylight was left. It was like an Adirondack road. Had we been walking in the other direction we would have reached the Argentine border in two or three hours; instead, tractor-trailers with Argentine plates roared past us at frighteningly high speeds. After half an hour, the road levelled off onto a plain with fields. There was an sign advertising homemade bread and empanadas and pointing to an unlit house 100 meters up a driveway.

“No, that’s not it,” Sam said. “He said it was a restaurant.”

So we kept walking. Somewhere in the distance a cow mooed. Fresh steak? Ten minutes later we came to an illuminated sign saying “RESTAURANT 500M” and an arrow pointing down a one-lane, unlit dirt road. The road was covered in potholes. It smelled like manure. After fifteen minutes we rounded a curve and crested a hill and a landscaped gravel parking lot with pathway lighting came into view. Behind it was a building, apparently a restaurant, that looked like an upscale hunting lodge. There was only one car in the parking lot and no one was sitting in the restaurant. The doors were locked, so we knocked, and a kid who looked 16 let us in.

The interior of the restaurant was rustic in the same way that a billionaire’s weekend retreat in Montana is: a cavernous main dining room spanned by exposed beams. Instead of boards for a roof and for walls, there were entire logs. At one end of the lobby was a fireplace surrounded by chairs and couches. In the lobby was a wrought-iron wine rack. The counter was made out of a single slice of wood with the bark left on the side, and covered in a centimeter of lacquer. The floor was slate, and in the entrance it was covered with a cowskin rug. Seriously, a black-and-white holstein skin on the floor. I can see the sportsman appeal of a bearskin rug, or the fuzzy warmth of a sheepskin rug, but a cow? Behind the counter a man was talking on a phone, and two women were preparing food. The kid who had let us in disappeared, so we stood around awkwardly for a few minutes.

The man eventually got off the phone, and told us that the restaurant was closed. “We open in an hour and a half,” he told us in English. “In Chile people eat very late.”

It was 7:45. We had nothing else to do, and the cabin was forty-five minutes away. So we went back outside. Sam smoked a cigarette. We walked back to the road and, with nothing else to do, decided to keep walking. After half an hour, we turned around and walked back to the restaurant. The door was still locked, but this time we were invited in, ushered to a table, and given menus bound in furry animal hide. The prices, to my astonishment, were reasonable—no more than a moderate-to-nice restaurant in Santiago. The waiter asked us where we were from (“The campsite up the road”) and brought us bread and a series of exotic-looking pates. I ordered a salmon filet, which came with a side dish of chicken stuffed with potatoes. They arrived on the plate arranged as a still life. It was the sort of food that’s already so good that the only way to make it taste better is to improve its presentation. If you are ever looking for a nice restaurant in the Chilean Lakes District, go to El Caulle.

I was still marvelling at how good the food was when Daniel began looking through his wallet. “Do you think this place takes credit cards? Because I don’t have enough cash left to pay for the food, the cabin, and the bus back to Osorno.”

The restaurant didn’t take credit cards—though they were happy to accept checks, they said. I had enough money to pay for everything, and so did Jon, but between the four of us we were short about 3,000 pesos (US$6). We decided to skip desert.

“Maybe they’ll take credit cards for the cabin,” Sam said.

It was well after 11 PM by the time we walked back, and the road was pitch black. Daniel, luckily, had an LED flashlight clipped to his belt; without that, our only illumination would have been the headlights of the tractor trailers coming straight at us.

In the morning we woke up and went on another hike. This one, instead of taking us to a scenic vista or waterfall, deposited us several miles further up the road through the park. The trail itself was muddy, blocked in by overgrown bamboo on both sides, and gullied out nearly four feet. It looked like they had simply tacked blazes up next to a creekbed. I’ve never seen a trail so badly in need of rerouting. It had a nice overlook of Volcan Osorno, though, and towards the end it ran by a pretty glacial stream—with that same dull green, oxidized-copper color. It later turned out that the trail’s endpoint was only a couple of miles from the Argentine border; had we known that, I would have gladly gone a couple extra miles in order to walk across the frontier. Actually, I left my passport back in Santiago, so I guess we would have had to have snuck across through the forest. But that would have only brought me closer to achieving my dream of becoming a combination of Tintin, MacGyver, and Indiana Jones. Replace the Spanish with an Eastern European/Central Asian/Middle Eastern language, and replace “hop across” with “flee across,” and I’d be even closer. Too bad biophysics isn’t controversial enough to warrant political persecution and dangerous escapes. Maybe I should have tried to do something with stem cells.

Back in the cabin, we gathered up all of our coins to see if they pushed us into the black. There hadn’t been much conversation that morning, either because everyone was still tired from the night before or because we were all contemplating our strategies for Survivor: The Chilean Lake District. (“Only three of you will make it back to Osorno.”) Luckily, adding up the coins was easy, since one of my companions had brought—I kid you not—a TI-89 graphing calculator. Seriously, a TI-89. He claimed that he had left it in his backpack “by accident”. It worked spectacularly, because it showed that all told, we had just a hair over the necessary amount. We rejoiced, celebrated by hiking to another waterfall, and then gave a large pile of coins to the bus driver when he picked us up.

When we got back to Osorno, we treated ourselves to dinner at the nicest restaurant we could find open on a Sunday night: a crappy, German-themed chain filled with empty tables. At least they had hot chocolate. No matter. The real treat was the bus ride back to Santiago—and I mean that completely sincerely. Chile is possibly the only country in the world in which bus travel could be romanticized. Everyone pines for the golden age of railway travel, or the good old days when you dressed up in a suite to take an airplane, but no one waxes nostalgic about long-distance buses. Even I find it rather hard to do, given that the last Greyhound I took caught fire in the middle of the night. The appeal is price, and absolutely nothing else.

Not so in Chile.

The overnight bus we took to Osorno was nicer than any airplane, train, or bus I have ridden in. The seats were nearly three feet wide and there were only three of them across the width of the bus—two on one side of the aisle, one on the other. They reclined almost 180º, and had wide, padded armrests. The seats themselves had so much padding that I’m not even sure they had a frame—we may well have been riding on bean bags. As soon as we were underway an attendant came around with glasses of water. Later he doled out pillows and blankets. The pillows were just airplane pillows—not that it mattered, since the seats were so comfortable and cocoon-like that pillows were unnecessary—but the blankets were full-sized and made out of thick polarfleece. There was a movie playing on the TV screens. It was dubbed in Spanish and involved Robin Williams taking his family on some sort of sadistic RV trip through the Rockies. I fell asleep somewhere south of Rancagua, and when I woke up, we were pulling off the Panamerican highway into Osorno. The attendant was passing out breakfast—juice, fruit cup, brownie. Daniel had to be shaken awake. “This is more comfortable than my bed at home,” he said.

Did I mention that the bus was non-stop?

The ride back from Osorno to Santiago, while still nice, was not quite as luxurious. On the way to Osorno we had ridden in the second-highest class of service, the Salon Cama, but those were sold out on the way back, so we opted for the cheaper Semi-Cama instead. (“We’ll be tired from hiking, so we won’t notice the difference,” I said.) For CH$16,000=US$32 instead of CH$23,000=US$46, we had seats that were four-across and reclined only 60º. It was like Amtrak, but with less leg room and nicer leg rests. Still a different world than Greyhound. The bus we were on was enormous—a full two stories high, with seats on both decks. Some of the double-decker buses haul luggage trailers, though ours didn’t. As we stood around waiting to board, men were selling coffee out of three-gallon, stainless-steel percolators strapped to their chests. A kiosk in the bus stop advertised locally-produced cheese. I went out to the front of the bus station to get some fresh air. Someone was selling bars of chocolate out of a cardboard box. A horse-drawn cart was clopping down the street.

If only stagecoaches were still in style.

There are hundreds of bus lines in Chile. At the new bus station in Santiago across the street from where I work, there are little cubicles for each of the bus companies that operate there—probably fifty in all. Some of the companies run buses up and down all of Chile, some operate only in a specific region, some operate only one or two routes. Tur-Bus is the only bus line we’ve ridden in Chile, and on some level I feel bad about this. I should branch out! see if quality or price is better elsewhere! try mom-and-pop bus lines!—but at the same time, the main effect of such a plethora of options seems to be that quality and price are homogenized. A market at work.

Here in Santiago, the local buses put the CTA to shame. Up until two years ago, Chile had a proud third-world system of smog-spewing microbuses. There were dozens of independent operators who would race each other to bus stops to pick up passengers. Then the government stepped in, installed a centralized bus system, linked it up with the subway, and kicked the microbuses off the road. This is all part of Transantiago, the government’s plan to renovate Santiago’s public transportation system. The every-point-to-every-other-point microbuses are no more, and instead there are double-length articulated buses that run up and down the main streets and connect with local, single-length buses. The bus stops all have bright green roofs designed look like the tops of mountains (or, if you’ve been thinking about physics too long, like a diffraction pattern). Highway robbery had been a problem in the past, so the new buses accept only wireless RFID payment cards—cash is dead. At the busiest bus stops, you can swipe your card and line up before the bus arrives; when it finally comes, dozens of people board in only seconds.

Elsewhere in the country, and on the fringes of Santiago, the old bus system prevails. People ride rickety, Mercedes-built microbuses, vehicles that are as far from luxury as Tierra del Fuego is from the Atacama Desert. To collect fares there is a wooden box filled with coins, mounted next to the driver, with rolls of tickets like toilet paper on a spool. Schedules are vague; the line I’ve ridden several times has scheduled departures from each of its terminals—though I had to ask the driver to find out—but when it will pass by its intermediate stops is anyone’s guess. The buses rocket down streets, pausing only long enough to let people on and off, and the driver takes money, issues tickets, and gives change, all while shifting gears and swerving. Street vendors hop on without paying, sell chocolate bars and menthol-filled gumdrops, and hop off a stop later. As more people get on the bus, the standing-room-only crowd becomes so tight that handrails are unnecessary. People who get on by the back entrance have to pass their coins forward to the driver; the driver rips off a ticket and the other passengers pass it back. A bus I took a few weeks ago was so packed that the driver opened the front door for ventilation, leaving me only a pothole away from being thrown onto the street. The fare schedule was a computer printout taped to the back of the driver’s seat. Next to it was the least helpful map I have ever seen. It was a map of the bus route, except all it was was a zig-zag line, with a street name above each line segment. The streets only extended as far as the bus traveled on them, and there were no other geographical features on the map. None. Not even a compass.

You would think that modern buses and wireless payment cards would be a clear improvement, but Transantiago is unpopular among USACH students and faculty. Some of the students live quite a ways outside of Santiago, and the small size of the micros allowed profitability on direct routes between their homes and campus. Now they have to take a local bus, take a trunk line bus, and possibly switch to another local bus to get to campus. Fares have increased. Wait times for the buses are longer. And Transantiago is deeply in debt. That sort of thing would be normal in the US (think the CTA), but here, the government keeps writing Transantiago blank checks (think TCAT in Ithaca). The bailouts bother the Chileans to no end, but I find it fairly remarkable that the government is that committed and supportive of public transportation. The project is a considerable achievement of public administration—a complete overhaul of the public transportation system of a city the size of Los Angeles, done in just a couple of years. You certainly couldn’t do that in the US.

And you also couldn’t ride a subway in the U.S. as nice as Santiago’s metro. The subways run on rubber tires and arrive every forty-five seconds during rush hour. Going back to the El will be a cruel, cruel shock. One of my friends in Chicago spent an day riding the entire length of the El, and I decided to imitate her and undertake a similar adventure on Sunday afternoon. I had ridden all of the metro in downtown Santiago, but I had never been out to the ends of most of the lines. One of the lines—the only one with any significant above-ground portions—runs so far south that the city starts to end in a choking, stuttering way. There are blocks of high rises surrounded by forests and fields. The fields have been surrounded by the city, booked in by streets on all four sides, but not yet overrun by the city. Instead of a continuous decrease from urban density to rural rarefaction through a suburban intermediate, Santiago ends in a patchwork of rural and urban blocks. Japan is similar: a twelve-story apartment building surrounded by three acres of rice paddy is completely normal.

Out here the metro is elevated, and every station is surrounded by a huge corrugated steel tunnel just like the one Mies Van Der Rohe designed for the IIT stop on Chicago’s Green Line. Supposedly the design cuts down on noise. But what really cuts down on noise is the ten meters of bedrock that the rest of the Metro is surrounded by. Unfortunately it also cuts down on views. So I spent most of the ride drawing diagrams of the metro system and wishing I knew something about graph theory. “Fig 7: The Santiago Metro, an example of an undirected, finite graph.” I looked out the window and saw a darkened platform, unmarked on maps and with the exits boarded up. I wondered about how to quantify the observation that trains are most crowded during the middle of their runs and emptiest at the tails. Imagine a system of subway riders in which each rider intends to take the subway for n stops, where n is given by something like a Boltzman distribution. Assuming the stations are independent, then the probability that someone will get on at the, say, second-to-last station is lower than at the tenth-to-last station. I thought about this for perhaps forty-five seconds. Then I ate a half-melted ice cream sandwich and listened to a podcast of a panel at Columbia discussing their favorite Philip Roth books. “I loved American Pastoral!” “Me too! But then there’s The Ghost Writer! I read that every year!” “Yeah! And how about Portnoy’s Complaint? I learned how to masturbate from that book!”

On Saturday Daniel and I went downtown to find a used book store someone had told him about. We eventually found it, and it wasn’t a single bookstore, but rather a whole street filled with stalls of book vendors. In Chile bookstores are hard to come by; there’s no domestic publishing industry, so costs are high. At one store I paid US$12 for a children’s book (“La sopresa de Juan.”). Most new books come shrink-wrapped, which I guess is supposed to show how special they are. Walking home one night I stopped by a bookstore; only later did I learn that it was the largest bookstore in all of Chile. It was no bigger than a typical chain bookstore at a strip-mall in the U.S. It had a special section for “Chilean Authors,” in the same way that U.S. bookstores have sections for “Local Authors”. Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost was displayed prominently in the “New Books” section; elsewhere in “Literature” there was a stack of what must have been twenty copies of his book Patrimony.

We walked through Santa Lucia, a huge pedestrian mall in the heart of Santiago. It’s like the Ithaca Commons, but with more street vendors and fewer head shops. Entire bands are engaged in street performance, attracting large crowds. It’s identical to the bands that perform on the Commons, except these are unscheduled, unlicensed, and are probably stealing electricity from someone. Street performers elsewhere in Santiago vary in quality. Often they are assisted by a backup CD playing karaoke rhythm to their lead guitar/trumpet/accordion. Both the karaoke music and their music are played through an amplifier, which always makes me wonder if they aren’t just miming the whole thing. I walked past a kiosk and saw the shopowner sitting outside playing air guitar to a Red Hot Chili Peppers song on the radio. For the last few days during lunchtime, a guy has been standing in the underground passageway that leads to the metro station near my office and playing a cello in the corner. I gave him some money. On a bus I took a few days ago a guitar-carrying troubadour wearing a wide-brimmed hat and bolero got on and performed in the aisle. He was pretty good, so I gave him some money.

In Santa Lucia a dozen or so teenagers were holding up signs saying (in Spanish) “FREE HUGS” and offering their services to passerby. They were dressed halfway between “preppy” and “circus performer,” the way cast members on a children’s TV show might dress. A guy in a purple-and-green Barney suit was carrying a balloon sword and making balloon animals for children. A block later there was a second Barney, standing around in that anatomically-incorrect pose. (“And not only did T-Rex not stand upright like that,” said Daniel, “he had feathers! Remember what [celebrity U of C paleontologist] Paul Sereno told us when he gave that lecture introducing Jurassic Park at Doc Films in June?”)

We heard chanting and saw a parade of people marching toward us. They were dressed in vaguely Indian costumes—the women wearing sarongs and the men with shaved heads. As they got closer their chanting became clearer: “Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna!” They handed me a plastic baggie with heart-shaped sugar cookies and marched off towards Barney. “Are you going to eat that?,” Daniel asked as I opened it. “It’s food.”

A few days later I walked to Burger King to have lunch. I would rather not admit to spending my time in Chile eating at a place I would be embarrassed to patronize in the U.S., but, well, I was tired, hungry, and didn’t want to think. But I took a slightly different route to the huge mall complex near my office, and instead stumbled upon a clothing bazaar—or, as they say in Chilean, a “Persian market.” It was a maze of a hundred little shops in a building with corrugated sheet metal for a roof and corrugated plastic for skylights. Strewn among the clothing vendors were small restaurants. I sat down at one that had a counter on one side of the aisle and a seating area, filled with plastic lawn furniture, on the other side. I ordered chorillana (french fries, onions, fried eggs, sausage, and strips of steak) and a Bilz. Bilz is one of Chile’s indigenous soft drinks; it’s a bright orange supersaturated solution of sugar and carbon dioxide. It has a sister soda, Pap, made by the same company. The two drinks are advertised together, hawked by red (Bilz) and yellow (Pap) alien mascots that look like Teletubbies. A kid came around—he looked maybe 10—showing what looked like rabbit’s-foot keychains. He put one on my table, and it looked more like a stuffed mouse on a keychain. It was cute. The people at the next table gave him some money for one. He came back to me, and I didn’t have any change—all I had was the 5,000-peso bill I was planning to buy my lunch with—and so he took it back. I wish I had had money for him.

Also near my office, but in the other direction, is Santiago’s main art cinema, the Matacuna 100 (cleverly named after its street address). They’re having a series of Iranian film series this summer (austral winter), and last week, they were showing a movie that was nominated for Best Foreign Film in 1998. I wanted to see it, but I read the schedule wrong and ended up going to a completely different (though still Iranian) movie. At first I thought the movie, Tam e Gilas, was about a man driving around Tehran trying to find a homosexual liaison. Eventually I realized that he was in fact looking for someone to help him commit suicide. The dialogue was in Farsi and the captions were in Spanish; this would have been a problem even if the heads of the people in front of me didn’t completely block the subtitles. It turned out that “art cinema” meant “some chairs set up in a former conference room with a DVD projector.” There was a permanent rustling noise from everyone rearranging themselves to see the subtitles better. Equilibrium would have been nice, but it probably would have required an inclined floor.

I was surprised how much of the (visible) subtitles I could understand; at the same time, the fact that the movie was in a mostly-unintelligible language let me pay closer attention to the pictures than I normally would—something I had been wanting to do since an interesting conversation with Scott a few months ago. “Man, watching movies with my new girlfriend is awesome!,” Scott said. “I always think about the narrative structure of movies, but she’s an art major, so she always focuses on the mise en scene. We have really cool conversations!” This turned out not to be the best movie for such an exercise; the visuals, while interesting, mostly served to support the story and weren’t terribly pretty in their own right. The shots were mostly close, and left a lot unseen. Plus—and I never thought I would hear myself saying this kind of thing—the projector was set to the wrong aspect ratio and the compression artifacts from the DVD were painfully visible. But for 500 pesos (US$1), who’s complaining? I will definitely be back. And this weekend is SANFIC, the Santiago Festival Internacional de Cine. We’ll see what’s playing.

A few weeks ago we had Friday off (for “some Christian holiday,” according to my boss). I had been planning to go to Argentina, which is just a few hours away across the Andes, but instead we got invited to a party in the mountains southeast of Santiago. I was quite excited by this, not least because the party was located in Cajon del Maipo. Now, most of the time in Santiago, you can barely notice that you are surrounded my mountains. The city itself is flat and the smog blocks the view of the Andes half the time. Santiago is a city, with all the urban ugliness that entails. But an hour southwest of Santiago is this stunningly beautiful glacial valley. Cajon del Maipo is a prime weekend spot for Santiguanos, but it somehow manages to feel like a backwater and not a tourist magnet. There are no mansions here; both the weekenders and year-rounders live in densely-packed shacks with corrugated-metal roofs. The road is potholed, and after twenty miles, it turns to gravel. And the mountains are incredible. They are silver. Not gray like rocks, not dirt-brown like the chaparral, but silver. And they are huge (a good 2000 meters above the valley floor) and steep (good luck climbing them without actual climbing).They have no vegetation. The canyon valley is a mile wide, and at the bottom the Rio Maipo cuts a gorge 100 feet into the glacial till. The river is teal-green from the minerals in its glacier source. Up to the northeast of Santiago, rich people have mountain estates in dusty river canyons—but none of them are anywhere near as beautiful as Cajon del Maipo.

One of the physics students at USACH has an uncle with a cabin up in Cajon del Maipo, and apparently the uncle lets the kid host parties in it. For the Chilean students this was a big deal, and I figured it was because of the rural environment. There were two or three parties I went to in high school, located in places in Mecklenburg and Slaterville Springs, that involved barns, bonfires, and a large proportion of the Ithaca High School student body. So I was expecting something like that. A completely wrong assumption, it turned out: it was a simple house party that happened to be located in a rural area. Most Chilean college students either live at home (if they’re from the area) or rent a room (if they’re not), and the fact that there were no figures of higher authority around seemed to be what got the students so excited. “There are no rules here! We can do anything we want!,” one student told me. Then he paused. “Well, there is one rule. When you use the toilet, you must put the paper in the box, because the pipes are too small. But that is the only rule!”

When I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t find the people I had come with, and everyone else was asleep. So I left a note and headed out to catch the bus back to Santiago. The rain had stopped, the canyon was beautiful, and I thought, why not walk for a while? I can always hop on the bus later. Hell, it’s not that far back to the metro station—fifteen miles, tops. The first hour-and-a-half was fun, but the next three-and-a-half were sheer torture. After dancing for nearly four hours straight and only getting a couple hours of sleep, a long walk was exactly not what I needed. I’ve never had so much muscle fatigue in my life. I felt fine otherwise—the groin muscle that’s been acting up wasn’t complaining, I had plenty of food and water—but my legs were in agony. Eventually I managed to flag down a bus. It took several tries, and I rode standing-room-only the rest of the way back to Santiago. Beautiful canyon, though. The clouds cleared up after a couple hours and the sun came out, and you could see fresh snow on top of all the mountains. The rain the night before had set off some small landslides onto the road, and there was one 300-meter section where a small stream, swelled to the breaking point by the storm, had diverted itself onto the road, covering it in nearly a foot of fast-moving water. This proved no problem for the traffic, since instead of SUVs, all the macho men in Chile drive crew-cab pickup trucks with rollover bars in back.

On the walk down Cajon del Maipo I saw a billboard, a public service announcement, telling people not to abandon their dogs as soon as they’re no longer puppies. It had a cartoon of a dog being booted out of a car, looking like it was about to burst out in tears. “But I thought you were my family!,” the dog is saying.”Yeah, that’s what we thought,” say a group of fellow strays. This is routine procedure in Chile: adopt a dog as a puppy, then give it manumission papers once it hits adolescence. The result is that Chilean cities are populated with nearly as many dogs as people—and most of the dogs are not mutts, but distinct breeds. If I knew more about dogs I could describe them better; suffice it to say that they come in every color, size, and shape. I was out running late one night, and a little dog—a fluffy little guy, with an eager, expectant look on his face—started following me. No matter how fast I ran (which, admittedly, wasn’t very fast), the dog was there behind me, trying so hard to catch up. Outside of one of the gatehouses to the university there is a German Shepherd who is always there. Sometimes he is pacing, sometimes he is just lying there. When the dogs sleep, they sprawl. They lie on their sides in the middle of the sidewalk and when I first arrived, I thought Santiago was full of dog corpses. Even now when I walk past them, my eyes linger and I try to see if they’re breathing. It’s hard. Their breaths are very shallow. When it rains, they stand in in doorways and wait for invitations inside, which never come. I was walking through an underground passage in a train station during a downpour. The station was completely packed with people pushing past in both directions, but off to one side, this dog was standing against the wall, soaking wet and looking too pathetic to be miserable.

The dogs live in a strange half-human, half-canine world. Most of the time they never seem to notice any of the thousands of people walking past them. Occasionally they trot around together, or fight each other. Most of the time they just lie on the sidewalk. Sometimes they forage in upturned garbage cans. Outside of one of Santiago’s main metro stations I saw a man carrying a briefcase give a dog half an empanada. Attached to the side of the kiosks near the university is a doghouse made out of cardboard and packing tape. Sometimes I see a dog sleeping in there. Other times it’s empty. When I walk by it late at night, the cardboard door is always closed. Often you see dogs wearing coats. The coats are usually dirty, and they’re always made of a cut-up t-shirt or sweater. Animal lovers donate them, I suppose. Animal lovers oppose spaying or neutering the dogs; this is a Catholic country, and sterilization is immoral. Late at night when no one else was around I saw two dogs having sex in the middle of a sidewalk cafe.

We were invited to a barbecue at the home of Moses Montgomery, an English-teaching expat who has been running some English classes for the physics students at USACH. Moses is roughly my parents’ age and sanity, but with a much nicer house. (“It was a lot nicer before we moved in,” he said. “Besides, the neighborhood is mostly Hispanic.”)

“You’re from where? [Upstate New York.] I lived in New Paltz for a year. Know it? [Sure. Nice college town. Rock climbing.] Yeah. Real nice place. I had a friend I stayed with four days a week, and then I went into New York City for the rest of the week. I had a friend who worked for”—he mentioned some organization affiliated with both the UN and the Quakers, something to do with torture victims—”and she gave me a job organizing their press conferences for $100 a week. I would go in on Monday and call up news organizations—’Hi, I’m with [the such-and-such], we’re having a press conference tomorrow with such-and-such, we’d really love if you could come, here are the directions.’ Then on Tuesday I would set up the chairs and make sure the microphones worked. I never stayed around for the actual press conferences. Grisly stuff. But that was it. A day and a half per week.

“I crashed with friends-of-friends, a different person every week. My friend had a list of all the interns in the UN and their home addresses, and I would call up the ones from, say, Nebraska—rural kids who probably didn’t know anyone in the big city. I’d say, ‘Hi, we’ve never met, but I’m a friend of such-and-such, and I’m going to be in the city tomorrow night, and I was wondering if I could stay over at your place.’ They always let me. I figured they were lonely and wanted some company. One guy I stayed with a half-dozen times.

“The UN had a cafeteria full of incredible food from every part of the world. It only cost a dollar—it was subsidized. You had to be a UN employee to go in, and I wasn’t, but I had this week-long visitor’s pass. So for a week I went in with a friend of mine who was. He waved at the guards, I showed them my ID, and we went in together. After a week I stopped showing them my ID, and they just waved me and my friend through—they knew us. Eventually I started going in by myself. They always let me in. And the food was fantastic. One time the people at our press conference invited me out to lunch with them. They were reformers, liberal guys from [some unstable banana republic]. I declined because, well, I knew I had an even better lunch waiting for me at the UN. A week later they went back to [their banana republic] and were killed. Their murder was all over the news. And I missed having lunch with them just because I wanted to get my UN food.

“Here, have some more wine. I also met Robert Mugabe. I was in the elevator at the Waldorf-Astoria—one of our press conferences was being held there—and he got on with his bodyguards. It was the early 80s, right after Zimbabwe declared independence, so he was all over the news. I had no idea what to say. I was flabbergasted. So I said, ‘You’re Robert Mugabe!’

“Mugabe looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘I know.’

“He got off at the next floor and I could hear his bodyguards cracking up.”

OK, I think this is long enough. (Actually, I thought that after the third or fourth paragraph.) My last day of work was today, and just as I was finishing cleaning up, I broke the most delicate piece of my experiment, a microscope slide with two pieces of a coverslip epoxied onto the end. I stayed late to make another one but couldn’t find the scoring tool, so I used a broken shard of silicon wafer to score the coverslips instead. Then I broke it again when I was installing it. Tomorrow my dad arrives for what is supposed to be two weeks of hiking, but the ever-responsible Iskendrian consul in Santiago has failed to yet nail down a route, national park, or even region.

I think I’ll go get started on that.


(PS—actually, I did end up trying to model the ridership on subway trains. I couldn’t sleep a couple nights after I rode the entire metro, so I sketched out some equations and made some graphs in Mathematica. I TeX’d it all up, so if you’re curious, shoot me a line. Now all I need is experimental data to fit the parameters…)