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Christmas In Chile

We have had a very good time in the past ten days that we have been in Chile. It is the third time that I have visited this country, and Jess has been here once before, but perhaps we return to Chile because of its charm. That is highly likely, as this is one of our favorite countries.

We have also returned to Chile during this trip in particular to visit our friends that we have here. I´ve known a family down here for almost eight years. Back in 2002, I came down to Chile for the first time with a high school friend who was visiting family. After more than a month of being in Chile, which was the first country I visited solo, I was getting a little desperate for a little English. I didn´t speak a lick of Spanish, and no one in the tiny town of Maullin that I was staying in spoke any English besides my friend, who had more to do than translate for me. Then a trio of Claudio´s cousins came through the town to visit, as they had been a bit more south on the rustic island of Chiloe camping and decided to visit their family. Hence I met Carolina, Carla and Rodrigo, and when they offered for me to come with them to their home in Loncoche, I jumped at the chance (Carolina was studying to be an English translator). Nearly a decade later, I still enjoy their friendship and generorsity immensely, and it was a no-brainer to spend the holidays with them this year.

It was to Rodrigo´s apartment in Santiago that we found ourselves after our trip from New Zealand. We haven´t been to Santiago since January, 2008, but getting from the airport to his apartment was surprisingly easy, though we had to take a bus and then catch a metro ride, all after dark. We even knew how to walk from the metro station through the neighborhood to reach the apartment. It was nearly like coming home. It was nothing like my first trip to Chile, where I realized about an hour outside Santiago how big it was (as I opened my Lonely Planet guide for the first time); I must have been quite a humorous sight on the bus into the city, frantically trying to figure out a place to stay, looking around in a panic as I noticed there wasn´t a word in English to be found. Arriving in Santiago this time was more like arriving at a home airport, very relaxed and comfortable; it was the first time in four months that we have felt so chill walking out of an airport into a city of millions of inhabitants.

We ended up staying in Santiago for about a week. We kept busy most of that time, but we struggled a little in that it seemed like we were stranded. We´ve been continuously on the move for four months now, as of December 26th, and we have rarely stayed in the same spot more than a few days. So, being in Santiago, a city that we´ve visited no less, seemed like we´d lost the wind in our sails. That sounds very dramatic, but it was a strange change of pace, even though we were only there for a week. At the same time, we were shifting from being in the West Pacific time zones (i.e. Australia and Asia), where we were eighteen hours ahead of the East Coast of the US to Chile, where we´re only two hours. That meant that suddenly we found ourselves staying up until two or three in the morning, then sleeping until the afternoon. I´m not going to lie and say that we get up super-early every morning, but typically we are up and moving by 9 am at least. It´s a shock to get up at 1:30, especially when you realize that most of the day is already over. This trip is flying by too quickly as it is to waste any time.

We struggled a bit with that, but as I said, we kept fairly busy, particularly in the evenings. Santiago gets a bit of a bad rap, as people tend to compare it to Buenos Aires as the two most developed capitals in South America, saying that Santiago is more of a worker´s city while BA is the beautiful, bohemian capital. We haven´t reached BA yet (though we will be there by the end of January), so I can´t make the comparison, but I´ve always liked Santiago and found it to be amply exciting, lively, and beautiful. Carolina is always a good host, and this time she took us out most evenings. We went to a tango bar one night, a classic night out in S. America, and probably my favorite in Santiago. The folks dancing in the bar obviously have spent a great deal of time working on their tango skills, including one old couple decked out entirely in white (they always dress in a single color); those two took their tango back to the early days of the dance, when it was being created in the dark, sweaty brothels of BA. Watching a couple likely in their 70s spicing up the floor with the kind of inappropriate grabs and dramatic flair that most of the other (younger) couples wouldn´t try was great. Besides, what I really like about tango is that the ambience of the dance takes you back in time, so despite the modern dress of the dancers, you can easily imagine being back in the 40s and 50s (the club was more than a bit old-school as well).

On other nights, we went out dancing, or to see a live band, or to eat a midnight empanada or completo (the delicious Chilean hotdogs, which are loaded down with sauerkraut, mayo, guacamole, ketchup, and other unhealthy condiments). One night Carolina had a friend over who does pedicures and manicures in a little shop in a metro station. The idea was for Jess and Carolina to have their nails done. Somehow, this girl, Sylvana, decided to tackle the issue of my feet. In the best of times, the bottoms of my feet are a tortured landscape of callouses and dry skin, and four months of being on the road hasn´t done much to improve that. Sylvana tackled the challenge without hesitation, breaking out an electric drill fitted with a spinning emory board to get the first several layers off, then working on it by hand. She shaved off what looked like the tissue equivalent of a toe, and I assured her that I´d do my best never to let my feet to return to such a desolate state again. Then we all went out for completos.

Despite how much fun we were having (or perhaps because of it, as we tended to be up very late having fun), we eventually came to the point that we felt like we needed to get out of Santiago for a day, to feel like we were still on a long trip. So, we made a day trip to the city of Valparaiso, about two hours away on a bus from Santiago. There we spent the day exploring this city, which I was told to visit on both previous times I´ve been in Chile but never did. Valparaiso has a bit of an edge to it, for even the LP guide states that some of Chile´s worst slums are on its periphery. Still, it is a cool city, with a very artsy bohemian character, which is best found by riding one of its many funicular cars up to some of the hills in its center. There, wandering through the brightly painted wooden or corrugated metal buildings, with a grand view of the city´s center and the ocean beyond, Jess and I happily spent a day, exploring alleys and shops, eating a huge plate of pork, eggs and fries called chorillana, and dusting six days of dust off our shoulders. We just had to remember to turn back when the neighborhoods turned from funky to really funky.

On Christmas Eve, we headed south, catching a ride with Rodrigo in his car. The trip took more than eight hours, but we talked and laughed the whole time, which made the journey go by very quickly. The road down to Loncoche was a very impressive, smooth, four-lane highway; I was a bit surprised by the large number of tollbooths that we had to go through, each charging $4US, which became expensive quickly. We arrived in Loncoche around 10:30, to find that everyone was waiting for us, including Carla´s son Luciano, who turns 5 in a month. We ate a huge meal, of chicken, beef, lamb, salad, potatoes, and more, which made the four of us travelers very happy after our trip. Then we took Luciano outside to look for Santa, though he is getting to the point that he is very suspicious of Santa. Once Carla had put the presents under the tree, "Santa" called Rodrigo´s cellphone and we hurried back to the house, where flour footprints led to the tree. Luciano of course took the biggest haul in terms of gifts, but even Jess and I received some nice presents, from our South American family.

Christmas was a very lazy day, though it wasn´t so warm. Since we arrived in Loncoche three days ago, the weather has been quite cloudy and cool, requiring sweaters for outdoor ventures. So, technically our plan for a warm Christmas didn´t come through, for the weather seemed more like that of the northern hemisphere. We ate a couple of times again on Christmas, and Jess and I walked off some of our Christmas calories around town. Christmas in Chile is the same as what most people would expect it the world around - time spent with family and friends. We were very fortunate (and happy) to have had the opportunity to be here with this family for Christmas, because although thanks to the creators of Skype we were able to chat with our families in the US, the distance can still definitely be felt, and I think that hanging out in a hostel somewhere would have been quite depressing.

As for our communication skills, Carolina has been giving both of us Spanish lessons. I´m more impatient and some might say lazy, but Jess has been working quite hard to improve her Spanish skills. Of course, being in South America for what looks like the next two months will provide plenty of opportunity to improve our Spanish, but we won´t have Carolina along with us to teach all of the intricacies of the language that we need, or to make the frequent corrections. In fact, we have purchased tickets on the Navimag ferry that travels from Puero Montt to Puerto Natales. We´ll leave Friday, January 1st, and arrive in the Patagonian town on the 4th. Our brief sojourn with our friends here in Loncoche is quickly coming to an end, a fact that is neither lost on us nor one that makes us happy. Still, we´ve had quite a good time with our friends here, ensuring this won´t be the last time we see them.

Until next time, be safe.



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