Summerized Blog

Chilean Graf

We enjoyed the Chilean graffiti, more than most officially sanctioned murals. Angry chickens in Valparaiso…

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And upholstered kitties…

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In Santiago, there was graf of a seemingly more political bent. Since our Spanish isn´t up to scratch, I thought I´d see what Babelfish could clarify. Not a lot, as it happens:

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Er… something about alpacas?

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No to the education of the market?

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To Capitalism it is necessary to give him until it hurts.
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I still don´t know what ¨loce¨ is… But it looks ominous.

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And perhaps a party?

Valparaiso

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Valparaiso is a coastal town, and hour and a half from Santiago. Before the Panama Canal, all ships passing Cape Horn stopped there; the city was quite cosmopolitan and wealthy at the time. As a result, it has lots of great Victorian architecture, as well as some art deco and modernist buildings.

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And some wonderfully bizarre hybrids.

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The town is built on a set of very steep hills by the ocean, and each of them has at least one funicular railroad.

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Homes are perched on treacherous hillsides, supported by rickety-looking scaffolding. Many look like real feats of engineering.

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Valparaiso is a bit shabby, but two of the hills have been cleaned up quite a bit, and have great restaurants and a few shops. There´s also a mural project; noted Chilean artists have painted outdoor murals in and around one hilltop. But we mostly preferred the unsanctioned public art.

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The poet Pablo Neruda considered Valparaiso his home, and had a house built on one hillside. We went to the house/museum, called La Sebastiana, not expecting much. It was actually quite an amazing place. Neruda collaborated with an architect, Sebastian Collado, to create a home with nautical lines. Neruda apparently decorated the interior himself, and it´s quite an eclectic mix of styles and objects, ala Nest Magazine. A painting of Queen Victoria coexists with bright pink and white striped walls; centuries old maps of Chile; a wacky wet bar with tchotchkes; and a taxidermy bird, dyed pink. I´ll have to read some Neruda now. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed.

Like Santiago, Valparaiso has many large stray dogs. And, well, dog shit.

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Santiago

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Enormous, snow-capped mountains tower over Santiago. They follow you all over town — sublime, snow-capped, and surreally high; a perfect home for the Abominable Snowman.

Santiago was a bit chilly when we arrived. Apparently it´s very hot in the summer. The architectural history ´was great — lovely old colonial buildings, Victoriana, Tudor, hacienda-looking homes, art deco, and lots of other styles mixed in. Some parts are well restored, some shabby. A church near our lodging looked like pastel confections with white icing.

The visit began with a three-day Spanish language crash course. Jason is a "natural;" I am not. I suppose this makes up for his "special needs" scuba diving. Jason is now vaguely fluent; I am studying.

We visited Santiago’s Museum of Pre-Colombian Art, considered the best on the continent. There were many more cultures on this continent than we’d realized, and the artifacts show diverse aesthetics. Unfortunately, some of the artifacts are a mystery, as the Incas and Spanish wiped out many of the cultures. We also saw our first human mummies — apparently there are many more on display throughout the continent, which should satisfy our interest in the macabre. The tiny bony hands and fingernails were the most disturbing part.

Chile is the home of Pablo Neruda, so it was fitting that we ate at the Casa Nerudiana one day. The food was great, and I loved the interior. It had this great rough wood framework that looked hand-hewn, and the walls seemed to be made of packed earth. Big, rough wood planks made up the ceiling. Another day, we ate at a Bolivian place, with similar construction, and lots of yellow. The furniture was also rough-hewn, yet had a certain grace. Some old saddle made of a hide was part of the decor. Oh, and the food was wonderful. Another memorable restaurant was Patagonian, with similar construction, and antiques and old Chilean packaging ephemera. I could see this kind of interior design going over well in NYC.

It was at the Patagonian place that we had our dulce de leche revelation. For the uninitiated, dulce de leche is a gooey liquid caramel that seems to be used for many confections, and at breakfast, in South America. And it´s amazingly delicious and gloppy, especially if homemade. If Santiago is any indicator for the rest of the continent, we need to learn portion control fast.

Near our lodging was at an elegant 125 year old place that´s been lovingly restored, and recently reopened. The owner took to us, and came over to talk several times. He loves the US, and modeled the resto after Balthazar in New York. Jason’s abalone chowder was divine. After dinner, the maitre’d took us downstairs to show off the private banquet room and large wine cellar. Did I mention the wine was great in Chile?

And I’ll take this opportunity to mention we’re also enjoying pisco sours — a drink made with pisco, a local brandy, and sugar and lemon juice.

The Andes are so huge that regular mountains are just hills to Chileans. Santiago is built around several of them. We took a funicular (yes, a funicular) railroad up one called St. Cristobal.

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From there, you can see much of sprawling Santiago, and a great view of the Andes. At the top is an immense statue of the Virgin Mary.

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While searching online for an English-speaking chiropractor, I ended up writing a Santiago resident who offered her help to visitors on a travel website. We ended up chatting a bit via email, and she offered to take me to some shopping streets in Santiago. That was how we met Carolina, who was kind enough to show us around her city for a day. After checking out the Providencia neighborhood, she took us to her masseuse, as we were both feeling a bit broken. That evening we had traditional Chilean dishes for dinner — comfort food. My pastel de choclo was so good — like a shepherd pie made with cornmeal, olives, chicken, raisins and spices. We also had vaino, which is an eggnog-like drink made with wine. Mmmm. And we really enjoyed hearing Carolina’s perspectives on Santiago, etc. that day.

The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is a lovely building based on one in Paris. There was a good exhibit of a contemporary Chilean abstract artist on when we visited.

Santiago also has some chic little neighborhoods, shops and restaurants. It has a large number of people with the chunky, dark, rectangular glasses that architects wear. And large, docile stray dogs. And sweatered dogs of various sizes. And they like their penguins sexy.

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Easter Island

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Easter Island (or Rapa Nui, as the original inhabitants call it) is the most geographically isolated populated place on earth. It´s just a speck in the middle of the vast Pacific. You don´t want to get injured on Easter Island, as help is not close. We stopped there on our way from Tahiti to Chile. 

And you can just feel the isolation — waves crash violently on the tiny island´s shores, scant hills are bereft of trees, and from some vantage points, you can see almost the entire island. It takes less than an hour to drive across.

But what’s truly unique about the island is, of course, the Moai, the megalithic carved statues. They make Easter Island the grandest Polynesian archaeological site in the world. We saw our first Moai in the island’s one small town, Hanga Roa, just after we arrived. That evening we had a wonderful meal of fresh fish at a Chilean restaurant — Easter Island was annexed by Chile about 100 years ago.
The next day, setting out in a small SUV across the island, our driving skills weren´t great after eight years of city living. Good thing the roads were empty. The naked hills looked unnaturally hemispheric, and were covered in purple grass and bright yellow flowers. A small stand of trees in the middle of the island comprised the "forest." At a small, pretty beach on the other side of the island, we ate our picnic lunch.
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Apparently the swimming, surfing and scuba is good in the summer.
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Near the beach was an Ahu, a platform made of stones that holds Moai. This one held a group of massive Moai carved from grey volcanic stone with top-knots carved from red stone. Moai were commissioned by individuals to increase their mana, and discourage their enemies. All of the standing Moai on the island have been uprighted recently, most with modern technology. They´d been toppled for many years, as a result of tribal fighting.

A short drive away, were a group of stones set up like a compass, on a rocky shore. Locals considered the middle stone to be the "navel of the earth."

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Tongariki has the largest Ahu with the most Moai. Their backs are turned to a violent shoreline; they gaze at a volcanic crater.
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The crater contains the workshop where most of the Moai were created.
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Hundreds of Moai are still there, in various states of completion. Some are only partially carved out of the hillside, while others sit propped up, awaiting final refinements.
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Ironically, when most people think of Easter Island, they think of these incomplete Moai, with their cro-magnon brows and kissy lips, jutting haphazardly out of the hill. The completed Moai once had eye-whites and pupils, were more refined, and stood upright.
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It was surreal to climb between all the massive, contemplative, "Far Side" heads protruding from the earth.
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Walking along the windswept edge of the crater, we could see the marshy lake in the center. Wild horses were grazing; they´re all over the island.
After carving the mammoth statues, they somehow transported them to sites around the island, some quite far away. There are many theories on how they were transported; it´s one of the great mysteries of the island. What is known is that Easter Island once had much larger forests. Timber was used to transport the Moai (somehow), and over the years the forests were depleted — many species became extinct. An early environmental disaster on a microcosmic level, this is why the hills are nude today. The disappearance of the forest meant that Moai could no longer be created. This led to lots of changes, including increased importance of the Bird-man cult of the island.
The next day, we saw the other major sites of Easter Island, including more Ahu and Moai, by the ocean.
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At one site, there was a shore-side area "paved" with large stones — a canoe launching point.
Some of the islands vistas were so idyllic.
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Jason tested his, er, technical driving skills on the rutted dirt roads. There were lots of volcanic rocks scattered on that side of the island. And wild horses.
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We could see formations that looked like stone walls or piles, created by the Polynesians. We also explored a lava tube cave, where the they´d piled stones in formations.
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Banana trees and other plants in the mouth of the cave, where horses couldn´t reach them.
That evening, we explored Orongo, a shore-side camp important to the Bird-man cult. The windswept site is on a cliff between a large volcanic crater and the sea.
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Ceremonial rock huts were built atop the cliffs.
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Petroglyphs of bird-men and other figures are on boulders at the cliff´s edge (photo by Jason).
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Later, we rode horses to the highest point on the island.
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The view was beautiful; the ride was painful. Standing at the top and turning around 360 degrees, the Pacific was an unbroken horizon, except for one bit of land that broke the view.
Tiny Hanga Roa was having an Earth Day type celebration on our last day. We saw some native song and dance, with traditional electric guitars. These guys had greeted us at the airport when we arrived.

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The local Catholic church incorporates Bird-man iconography.

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At the end of our visit, Raoul, our host at the Orongo hotel, made us an amazing fish dinner. Easter Island was a gentle introduction to South America.

Profiteroles and Palm Trees

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We landed in Tahiti by night, and the air was pleasantly balmy. The owner of the pension picked us up, and later gave us some delicious buttery cake. A huge advantage of traveling in Francophone countries is that they know their bread and pastries.

The next day was unseasonably cloudy; we walked around Pipette all afternoon. There’s not a lot going on in Pipette.

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Lunch was delicious (and expensive) at a place called Zinc. Black pearls were being sold all over town. After cocktails at an open-air Chinese restaurant, we had dinner at an unlikely place: a French brewpub that makes its own special "tarts" — flaky crusted pizza with distinctive toppings. The waiter joked, "It’s better because it’s French." It was.

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Tahiti´s local brew…

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The next day, after a short ferry ride to the island of Moorea, we took a local bus to our ocean-side pension. Moorea is smaller than Tahiti, and looks wilder and more mountainous. It basically consists of steep, jagged, volcanic mountaintops jutting out of the sea — the platonic ideal of a Polynesian island. People only live at the bottom edge.

Our little hut was several feet from the water. Moorea is surrounded by a coral reef, which creates lovely, calm, coral-filled lagoons. We snorkeled several feet from our bungalow, and saw two octopi, a Lionfish, a Pipefish, and lots of other animals. It was better than some dives we’ve had.

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Diving with a local shop, the coral off Moorea looked like a pristine garden of dimpled umbrella-shaped coral heads. On the first dive, we saw several Black-Tipped and Lemon sharks. But the highlight was a sleeping Nurse shark — an eight-footer slumbering with its head under some coral. It was amazing to be within a foot of this creature.

A friendly Hawksbill turtle named Jeannine came to see us several times. Once, I swam through a current, right next to her. Later, the dive-master helped us feed her some sponge.

Assorted Morray Eels, Lionfish, Porcupine Fish, octopus, Pufferfish, Titan, Orange-line and Picasso Triggerfish, and many others were seen.

Moorea diving seems to be about (relatively) clear, warm waters, and mega-fauna. There aren’t many Nudibranches there.

A later snorkeling expedition revealed a large eel and lots of Pipefish.

One night, watching the sunset from the porch, I saw a couple longboats go by, rowed by chanting men.

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We enjoyed playing with this kitten at the pension.

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No account of French Poly is complete without one of these photos:

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On our last day, we took a tour, and saw lots of Black-tipped Sharks and, later, stingrays. The stingrays swarmed the tour group, searching for food, and felt very slippery and flexible. Lunch was an excellent barbecue on a small island. A bizarre number of chickens (forty?) and five cats showed up for a handout. A chicken drank from a cup of rum punch. We snorkeled near the island a while. Rays came near the shore of the island; being flattish, they can swim in just several inches of water.

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French Polynesia left me with some new impressions, though our stay was short. It has a reputation for being unfriendly, but we had only positive experiences. We enjoyed the meshing of French and Polynesian culture and cuisine. Somehow this sign for web design and sight administration seemed particularly French to me.

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And it surprised us to see how small the tourism infrastructure was on the islands, given that the islands have been a famous vacation spot for so long. This is a great thing for a traveler who likes a (relatively) less commercial experience, but probably makes it hard for the local economy to thrive. A positive aspect of the limited tourism infrastructure is that French Poly seems very livable for locals. It´s not completely overrun with tourists, and many businesses are aimed at the local market — the locals seem to continue to "own" their public spaces, unlike some more commercial places we´ve visited. Though I didn´t stay at Le Meridien, and the feeling might be different at that kind of venue.

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