I once heard somewhere that “you haven’t seen fall until you’ve seen fall in Vermont” – or words to that effect. Well, I can’t claim to have seen fall in Vermont, but I did see it two years ago in the magnificent Ouachita Forrest (Arkansas) – so I guess this will have to do until I do finally get to Vermont. Mind you, Vermont will have a lot to live up to…
During our time in Santiago one restaurant in particular became something of a regular stop for us, both for its fairly priced good local food (the roast partridge was our favourite) and the fact that we became friends with Sergio, the guy who ran it.
So friendly did we become with Sergio that one Sunday he invited us and some other of our new acquaintances to visit him at his cabin in the countryside south of the city. There he would show us his small holding where, in addition to growing all his own herbs and vegetables, he also raised rabbit, chicken and partridge for the restaurant. The idea was that we should get to him mid afternoon so that after looking over the farm he would feed us a leisurely Sunday lunch of his own roast suckling pig.
Unfortunately we never got to see Sergio’s farm or eat his Sunday lunch. The girl driving us was an old friend of his and should have known the route as she claimed to have been to his country home many times, but for whatever reason, she became hopelessly lost soon after leaving the main road. So, instead of dining on roast suckling pig and washing it down with copious amounts of the excellent local cab’ we spent hour after hour driving along the dirt roads between the rural towns of Rancagua and San Fernando. By the time we returned to Santiago later that evening, weary, hungry and thirsty, the main memory of our aimless tour had been getting stuck behind a pair of Holstein cows fornicating in the middle of the road – a formidable sight I have never seen repeated, even on the cow-strewn roads of India!
(Sergio, true to his kindly “sympatico” nature, rather than be angry, took pity and gave us a complementary slap-up dinner at the restaurant the following evening…)
Our final excursion from Santiago was a day-trip to the famous port city (and the seat of Chile’s parliament – an astonishing example of late 20th century brutalist architecture) – Valparaiso.
Most of what I thought I knew about Valparaiso was from old novels and black and white movies. But modern Valparaiso had about as much in common with those preconceptions as does Casablanca with its 1942 Hollywood counterpart.
So imagine my reality shock when walking into a “typical sailors'” bar (as described in our travel book) on the port itself and instead of seeing a scene from To Have and have Not – with a Hoagy Carmichael-type gently tinkling the ivories in a corner, while a Lauren Bacall lookalike leaned against the piano, wiggling her hips provocatively, warbling a soft, sexy accompaniment – we were confronted with a dysptopian, murky prediction of the bar set from Blade Runner. Admittedly, there were no androids (at least I don’t think there were) and no actual freaks of human nature; but this was the most intimidating, grim and unwelcoming drinking establishment we had ever encountered. Not only was there no Humphrey Bogart-like character in the bar, Bogart at his toughest would have been fearful of entering. The thing I remember mostly now was the greyness of the place – everything was either painted or coated grey – and peering through an almost tangible fug of cigarette smoke towards a bar, at which were seated about half-a-dozen men who looked as if they had been selected from central casting, under the “maritime-thug” label.
As a seasoned traveler I’m well used to entering bars and pubs where one’s presence is made to feel surplus to requirements, either by the regular drinkers, the tavern-keepers or both. But never – not in deepest Wiltshire, not in the roughest part of Marseilles and not even as a Pom in an Aussie pub in Perth full of Aussie miners, with an Ashes cricket match on the TV – have I felt the level of sheer dread, merely at the thought of approaching a bar, that I experienced that day in Valparaiso. Needless to say, we went somewhere else…
As a fitting to finale to our trip, on our very last day in Chile, Dido had somehow arranged for a meeting with Chile’s top academic in the field of South American folk music and dance. Among other things she was keen to learn more from him about the native dances of Chile, especially the history of the national dance of Chile, the famous Cueca.
The good professor – who shall remain nameless – manifested as a human whirlwind. A cross between the Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil and a classical ballet dancer, from the instant he welcomed us into his small office at the University of Santiago until the time it came for us to leave he was in perpetual motion. We never sat down during the hour or so we were with him and neither did he and I don’t recall seeing a single chair in the room. In fact, thinking about it now, I don’t think that the professor was physically capable of sitting down, any more than a goldfish can stop swimming. Occasionally, as he considered one of Dido’s many queries, he would momentarily hover on one leg balancing himself by making elegant conductor-like movements with his outstretched arms. Then, as an answer came to him he would pirouette back into spinning mode, all the time grabbing papers and pamphlets from the top of shelves and filing cabinets – before seemingly in one motion, depositing them in an ever-growing pile in Dido’s grateful arms.
Like his beloved Chile, the professor was quirky and rewarding in equal measure, and we will never forget him or his equally weird and wonderful country.
AN ECLECTIC POTPOURRI OF IMAGES FROM HOTEL ROOM WINDOWS
– (see if you can guess the hotels in question)
5 VARIATIONS ON A THEME
A few hours following our brush with the youthful vigilantes our car broke down. The good news was that we had only just passed by a small town so the walk back for assistance wouldn’t be too long – the bad news, was that it was a Sunday and we didn’t have high expectations of finding a mechanic who would be working. As it happened, our ballet friend spoke good Spanish so Dido sent the two of us off back to town on foot while she stayed to mind the car.
The walk back to the town, including a fruitless hunt for a mechanic, took us around an hour I guess, and we were both in low spirits as we began the traipse back to Dido with the bad news. Our despair turned to puzzlement however as soon as our car came back into view. At first, we both thought that the shimmering heat-haze rising from the distant tarmac was playing tricks with our eyes: We thought we could see our car with its bonnet raised, and several motorcycles with flashing blue lights parked behind it; and then as our pace instinctively quickened and we got nearer, we thought we could make out two policemen ostentatiously directing traffic passed our car; and then (by now we had broken into a jog) we thought we could make out a line of traffic cones placed around our car. And as we got closer, and realised that our eyes were not deceiving us, our puzzlement was increased by the fact, that of Dido, there was absolutely not a trace…
When we reached the car, we passed by three parked police motorcycles, and approached the fist of the two cops directing the traffic. Our ballet friend asked him what had happened and he merely gestured with his head towards the front of the car and as we walked round we at last understood why Dido had apparently disappeared: In what remains one of the most surreal scenes of all our many weeks in Chile (which the drawing below barely does justice to) she was in fact immersed beneath the bonnet, leaning into the engine, together with a third policeman on he left and a man in bluejeans on her right.
What had apparently occurred was that twenty minutes after we left for the town, the three motorcycle cops appeared on the scene. After Dido – doing her “best blonde damsel in distress routine” – explained the problem one of them took a look under the bonnet and diagnosed a loose alternator belt. A few minutes later they hailed down a passing truck belonging to a local mechanic. Although he protested that it was his day off and he was on his way to his mother’s for Sunday lunch they insisted that he fix our car first. He grumpily confirmed that it was the alternator belt, but that without the kit from his garage he would need two spare pairs of hands if he was to fix the problem in situ.
It seemed that, in common with their Guardia Civil Traffico cousins in Spain, the Chilean carabineros had an ethos that cars broken down on the highway must be got moving again at all costs. Hence, Dido coerced into immersing herself in car engine together with a policeman, holding on with all their combined might to a clamp, while the mechanic tightened the belt sufficiently for us to make it back to Santiago.
After many weeks in Chile we remained uncomfortable around the carabineros, and so it took a while for the fact to sink in that we owed those three cops an enormous debt of gratitude…
We met several wonderful people during our stay in Chile, and made some enduring friendships. Perhaps the most exotic and exciting person we met was Georgina Gubbins, an English-born woman with a truly international upbringing, who had ended up with Chile as her’s and her family’s primary home. Craftswoman, artist, author and beautiful mother of three equally beautiful daughters Georgina was (and is still) one of those energetic people whose bristling enthusiasm is truly infectious, so that she has this knack of getting her friends to do things they wouldn’t normally consider in a month of Sundays.
I can’t quite recall what prompted Georgina to suggest we try going up in a glider over Santiago – bizarrely it might have had something to do with me telling her about the acute flying phobia I was suffering from at the time – but I can honestly say it was an activity which neither of us had ever before contemplated. Anyhow, one afternoon towards the end our trip, somehow, and before we knew what was going on, she had driven us to a Santiago gliding club and convinced us both to “have a go” in a powerless aircraft.
I should point out at this point, before readers get too alarmed that these were two-seater gliders, and that we were in the hands of experienced pilots. Nevertheless, as we were towed thousands of feet up into the sky by a single-engine biplane I’ve rarely felt a greater thrill.
Like most people who had only ever viewed them from terra firma I had always had two firm conceptions about gliders and gliding, both of which were dispelled the moment we were released from the towrope. Gliding is neither silent nor smooth; quite the opposite in fact! The air whistles and howls around the cockpit canopy, and the wind buffets and jolts the wings and fuselage with each and every movement of the aircraft for the entirety of the flight . So much so, that my pilot was forced to yelling at me when he wanted to point out all the gob-smacking sights and vistas beneath and around us.
Most of the flight was over Santiago’s sprawling eastern suburbs, but we also skimmed past the western edge of the neighboring Andean wall of snow-capped mountains, the tallest of which in the very far Argentinian distance was the mighty Aconcagua. Towards the end of the mini-voyage we flew over a large compound that comprised the dwelling of the retired dictator, Augosto Pinochet, and shortly after that the pilot gave me control of the glider. The picture below describes what happened next – or at least how it seemed to me at the time, when in my over-excited state I put the glider into a virtual role. Thankfully, my pilot was unfazed by my surprise maneuver and instantly regained control to land us safely back at the gliding club.
My amateur aerobatics notwithstanding, the brief glide over the outskirts of Santiago remains a vivid and treasured memory from a trip already rich in awe-inspiring memories. Thank you Georgina!
(Readers interested in learning more about the remarkable Georgina Gubbins can visit her website here: http://www.georginagubbins.cl/)
So mortified was I from my disastrous jet-lag experience at the start of the trip at the Italian restaurant in Antofagasta, I still had misgivings about entering another such establishment some ten weeks later. However, we’d reached that stage again where we were keen for an alternative to Chilean cooking and thus decided to chance our palettes on a highly-recommended uptown tratoria.
As things turned out the food was indeed excellent and I managed to avoid losing consciousness for the entire meal. But even if I had suffered a freak recurrence of that temporary narcolepsy I doubt very much that I would have actually fallen asleep at this particular restaurant; for this particular restaurant was “blessed” with the presence of a singing maitre d. And the singing maitre d didn’t merely sing the occasional refrain from a popular tune; he didn’t restrict himself to the odd verse from o sole mio; this was no mere gondola crooner; no, this guy fancied himself as the real, full-on, operatic deal.
The only time he stopped singing was when he had to talk to his guests, and even then he didn’t so much talk as warble in a form of recitative – whether recommending a wine or pointing out the way to the toilets.
At first, both the novelty of the experience, and the fact he did have a decent enough little tenor voice meant that we didn’t find the singing too intrusive upon our dining – which was after all, our primary reason for being at the tratoria. But after about half-an-hour it began to irk, and then it began to grate, until by the time he warbled to us the deserts of the day we were ready to throttle him – but then something much better happened.
A diner at a neighbouring table, with a far bigger and better tenor voice decided to sing back at the maitre d. The maitre d in turn, not getting the message, and not knowing when he was beaten sang back – louder! This then descended into an all out competition, culminating in the two men not so much singing at each other, but actually screaming. It ended eventually- much to the relief of everyone in the restaurant – when the maitre d’s voice finally cracked, breaking down into a pathetic croak…
One of Dido’s most onerous tasks during our Chile trip entailed her working with a group of mentally and emotionally handicapped teenage boys, several of whom had what these days we euphemistically refer to as “challenging behaviours”; in truth, one or two of the lads turned out to be downright psychotic. To help her share some of the organisational and practical load Dido enrolled the assistance, for two weeks, of a former ballet colleague whom she had flown down from Los Angeles. But however difficult the forthcoming days with the boys would be, nothing could have been more “challenging” than the act of merely meeting said-colleague at Santiago Airport.
I wonder how many people reading these adventures remember the delirious scenes of joy and celebration on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv following the dramatic rescue of the hostages from Entebbe by Israeli commandos in 1976? Well, the arrivals hall at Santiago was that scene, but on steroids, and was happening when we arrived to meet our friend, and continued without abatement until the time we left – some three hours later – having failed in our endeavour. Fortunately, our friend – another seasoned traveller – on failing to meet up with us in the melee, used her initiative and made her own way to our hotel. As for why the arrivals hall was in such a state of continuous delirium, we never discovered…
Before the three of us began what would be an intense five days of work with the kids, we hired a car and drove up north to the small coastal town of Tongoy. Set on broad sands at the south tip of a spectacular bay it seemed like an excellent place for enjoying a few days by the South Pacific. But as with just about every feature of our Chilean adventure whatever our preconceptions or expectations had been before we arrived at a given location, the reality always had surprises in store for us. In Tongoy, as with so many of our previous destinations, it was our hotel which offered the biggest shock to the system. But in this case at least, it wasn’t a detrimental shock – no Nazis, no squalor, no shared butter and no gravity defying showers – but rather a jolt to our visual senses: For our hotel was decorated to such a degree of kitsch, it was like walking into a cliché. Each and every surface was coated, draped, carpeted or covered in garish, luridly decorated flower motifs – every facade clashing dramatically with its neighbour; Every chair, table and bed, painted, lacquered or otherwise coated in every colour, shade and tone of the spectrum and beyond; Each and every shelf and windowsill densely “adorned” with myriad pieces of chintz and fake ivory, such that if “ivorine” came from “real” plastic elephants, then plastic elephants would surely have been as an endangered a species as their actual living-breathing inspirations. And to cap it all there was the owner of the hotel: A movable temple of kitsch in her own right, who, as she strolled proudly through her establishment: With her stiffly set blue-rinse; down through her heavily painted, rouged and lipsticked face; to her violent-pink, be-flowered, polyester dress to her spangle-encrusted, patent turquoise stilettos, she resembled a chameleon in a psychedelic forest…
As we had a car for a few days we decided to explore the Coquimbo region. At one stop we received a lesson in “car-parking vigilantism” Chilean-style. We’d parked up by some roadside cafe miles from anywhere and were about to go inside for a snack when three boys – of disparate age and stature – appeared from behind the building. Before we had a chance to get out of the car they had positioned themselves around the vehicle in a manner that I can only describe as casually menacing. The largest and oldest of the three boys leaned against my side of the car and tapped on the window. Nervously, I wound the window down and in my best Spanish asked him what he wanted. He asked me if we intended to park the car here, to which I replied, yes. He then asked me; ‘But who’s going to protect your car while you’re in the cafe?’ to which I ingenuously replied; ‘Why do we need the car protected? There’s nobody here!?’ He then smiled wryly at me, with an expression far too cynical for a lad of his tender years, and said knowingly; ‘Well my friend, you never know do you? You never can tell what could happen, even in a place like this…’ then he revealed – as if by magic – a long piece of wood, an old bat of some kind, with a jagged nail protruding from its tip. He swung it nonchalantly by his side with his wrist then added; ‘But of course, with three trusty guys like us guarding your car, I can assure you that nothing will happen to it…but if not’ he continued, waving the bat more vigorously now, ‘I would be very concerned…’
We wanted to just drive on, but the next stop was over three hours further down the road, so with a mixture of repressed rage, fear and frustration I dug out a handful of pesos from my jeans pocket and placed it in the open palms of the smallest boy whose hands were reaching up towards me.
To be fair, the big lad was as good as his word, and they did indeed guard the car for the entire time we were in the cafe, and nothing bad happened to it…
Typical! My first ever visit to the States and as I was about to take my first shot of the trip the shutter jammed on my old Nikon FE . I know! Nikon FE’s don’t (or didn’t at least) jam – yet somehow mine did, and the only thing I could afford as back-up was a disposable Kodak. To add to my irritation, it turned out I had inadvertently purchased a wide-angle disposable Kodak. Never having used any kind of disposable camera I was ignorant of the fact that there was a choice of lens configurations and had just picked up the first one I saw on the shelf of the corner shop. Looking at theses images now however, more than 20 years later, I think that it was a happy set of accidental circumstances. There’s something appealingly technicolor and fresh about this basic Kodak film, and the wide views of fabulous Seattle and its environs have an almost Robert Burks-like cinematographic quality (Burks created the look of most of Alfred Hitchcock’s American-made movies). Ultimately I think they capture a sense of vivid “Americana” which I’ve struggled to repeat on all my subsequent visits to the US, with far superior cameras…
Germans had been colonizing the Lake District of Chile since the mid 19th century but somehow we were totally unprepared for just how much their presence influenced the region.
This was a break for us from Dido’s work and represented a chance to have a few days r&r and for that reason we decided to splash the cash and stay at a decent hotel. Our Lonely Planets guide suggested a timber-faced chalet-style establishment on the edge of Villarica Lake, but what it omitted to describe was the intensity of the Teutonic atmosphere within the building. As our luck would have it, the day we arrived was some sort of German related holiday and the entire staff together with all the German guests were donning national (Bavarian) dress, with all the men resplendent in lederhosen and feathered hats, and their “wenches” in dirndl. I’d ski-id as a youth in Austria, so I was used to this festive sartorial tradition. But what I wasn’t used to and hadn’t expected – at least not quite so overtly – was the proud and brazen identification of the hotel management with their Fatherland’s recent military past. Of course, I knew all about Nazis fleeing to South America at the end of the war, and about Eichmann and Mengele, but somehow I’d always connected this sort of thing with Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. I was rudely disabused of my ignorance however, just after we had checked-in and the bellhop took us into the elevator, which, instead of the usual mirrors was decorated with numerous photographs of Panzer crews posing on and about their tanks. Amazed and naively thinking that this was some sort of retro decorative gimmick – albeit in alarmingly poor taste, but essentially innocent – I asked the bellhop who these soldiers were?
‘Ach!’ he exclaimed, putting our bags down on the the floor, obviously thrilled that I had shown an interest; ‘This vas mine faater’s Panzer groupen” he said in an accent which was all German without a trace of Spanish,
‘Das man here’ pointing at the largest of the photos at a black-uniformed soldier leaning nonchalantly against his vehicle, ‘das man here ist mine grandfaater. A hero ov ze Eastern front!’
‘Oh gosh’ I replied limply.
‘Ya! A great hero – unt all his camaraden – all heroes!’ he added, gesturing expansively about the elevator. ‘Such gut fellows – yah…’ he suddenly tailed off in sombre contemplation.
‘He was a great man for sure’ I said trying not to betray my total insincerity.
‘But no! Nicht vas my friend!’ he responded.
‘What do you mean?’ I queried, fearing the answer.
‘Nicht vas‘ he repeated. ‘You just met him – zer olt man at zer reception…’
As he walked us down the corridor to our room I pondered what was worse: That I had just shaken the hand of a Nazi “war hero”, or that he had our passports in his possession…
The Chile trip was our first and last experiment with Lonely Planet travel guides. While most of gripes with the book could be regarded as somewhat subjective – e.g. our constant disagreement with the guide’s descriptive terminology, such as “basic”, when they really meant “squalid”; “faded” when they really meant “decrepit” and; “comfortable” when they really meant “incredibly uncomfortable” – the several times they got essential facts wrong were far more serious. The worst example was when we decided to hike the five miles from our old hotel on Lake Villarica to another hotel out in the country. We knew it would be a long hard yomp, carrying our rucksacks and that was fine, because we wanted the exercise and most importantly, because we also “knew” – from our Lonely Planet Guide – that the hotel was open and that because this was the beginning of the season there was absolutely no need to phone first to reserve a room. Sadly for us, the hotel didn’t in fact open until the following day. The picture tells only half the story as we had to walk all the way back too!
We decided to end our visit to the Lakes region of Chile with a day-trip to the famous Island of Chiloe – famous among other things for being the original home of the potato. However, when we’d planned the excursion we hadn’t realised that the ferries which conveyed people and their motor vehicles from the mainland to the island were converted military landing craft – apparently of 1940’s vintage. As our bus rolled onto the craft we were perturbed when we noticed no safety gear of any kind – no life-jackets, no life-rings and certainly no life-craft. Our anxiety was increased by the fact that even with the front part of the boat on the landing ramp we were already being buffeted by an extremely rough sea. Once again, with our recent flirtations with mortality still fresh in the memory, after a mere exchange of looks we were off that bus, and off that boat before you had time to say “Herald of Free Enterprise”! Chiloe would have to wait for another time…
In 1978, my oldest friend Simon and I spent the summer as volunteers on a kibbutz in northern Israel. Although our labour was voluntary we were paid a weekly amount to cover basic needs such as cigarettes, booze and staples from the kibbutz general store. Fortunately, we didn’t smoke; the beer was cheap, and we were sufficiently content with the food produced in the members’ dining room that we’d spent relatively little, and by the end of the stay had a reasonable amount of money saved up. We decided to pool our savings with another couple of English guys, Tim and Ben, hire the cheapest car available (which happened to be a typical 70’s yellow Fiat 127) and drive down south to spend a week in the Sinai Desert.
The Sinai was still under Israeli rule in those days and free to roam almost all the way to the edge of the Suez Canal. Little did we appreciate then, that a uniquely peaceful era in the modern history of the Sinai was nearing its end and that we were about to enjoy privileged access to virtually the entire peninsula.
These days, most travellers associate the Sinai primarily with its exotic beach resorts and scuba diving and snorkelling. And little wonder, as the peninsula is blessed with a sublime coastline both above and beneath the waves. Even now, the beach at Dahab remains the most beautiful I have ever seen, and the Sinai’s coral reef―as regards accessibility, scale and quality―is more than a match for any other in the world.
But for me, from the moment we passed through Eilat and entered the peninsula its superlative watery attractions notwithstanding, the feature which most grabbed my attention was the equally extraordinary landscape. The combination of desert plains and craggy mountains in a myriad of different colours; from white, to golden ochre through deep umbers and sienna, and culminating in blues and purples, was simply astonishing. The changing light; the chromatic sunrises; the intense sapphire of the day and the copper-tone sunsets reacted with the multi-surfaced sand and rock, presenting an optical feast of shifting tones and colouration.
In the south of the Sinai Peninsula in particular it was easy to see how its awesome visual dramatics gave birth to Yahweh―the eventual supreme divinity of the Israelites, and which would gradually evolve into the monotheistic Judeo-Christian concept of “God”. And funnily enough, of all the many remarkable aspects of the Sinai, the one which struck me most had an appropriately biblical reference: I recalled, even back then, the passage (Exodus 19:12) where Yahweh warns the Children of Israel not to touch the sacred mount (Mount Sinai / Horeb) “or they shall certainly die”. Until witnessing for myself the “biblical wilderness”―familiar then, only with the mountains of Europe which have nothing like defined parameters, but rather evolved from their neighbouring foothills which themselves slowly emerged from undulating plains―I had always found that to be an odd warning. I even recalled as a child in Synagogue on a Saturday morning, when first reading the relevant passage, asking my grandfather how the poor Israelites were supposed to know where the sacred mount began. But now, looking at the actual mountains of southern Sinai, thrusting forth from ironing-board-flat plains like dark icebergs on a gravelly, sandy ocean, I could immediately attest to the voracity of the biblical author’s knowledge of the geography he was describing. And it sent a shiver down my spine.
Presented here are a handful of the dozens of photos I took on that trip with my trusty old Cannonet 28 on high-speed Ektachrome film. Sadly, most of the transparencies were too damaged to convert, but I think these few―with the help of some digital enhancement―begin to convey to sheer wonder of what we saw on that wonderful trip to that “great and terrible wilderness”.
Finally, and on a lighter note, I recommend viewing these images to the sound of America and their iconic track The Horse With No Name . This song became a kind of unofficial anthem to our trip, and thus the adoptive name of our trusty little Fiat…