Thursday, October 21, 2010

Headin' Norte

After a minor blogging hiatus, I've returned.  So my loyal fans can relax, because this traveling chica's back.  These last few weeks I've been under the weather.  It was bound to happen at some point and ended up knocking me on my butt and caused La Miss (a recent nickname by students) to miss school. 

But it all came about after a glorious trip seven hours north of Valpo to the magical land of Valle Elqui.  A group of us wrapped up classes and hopped on a bus late on Thursday night.  Now when you hear seven hours on a bus north I know many would automatically think, "sick" but quite the opposite.  I rode in a fully reclined seat that gives flying first class a run for its money but not really because it's way cheaper.  Chile totally has a handle on luxury bus travel. 

We arrived at La Serena, a coastal town, at 6 a.m. and knocked on the door of a groggy hostel owner.  Just an example of how hospitable people are here, the sleepy hostel owner did not have a room but proceeded to call other hotels and even walked us down the street to another accommodation.  La Serena is known for its many churches and is the second oldest city in Chile.  Despite all of the build-up, I wasn't blown away.  To me it just seemed like another touristy, commercial coastal town but the people were incredibly nice which definitely gives it bonus points.  The next morning we met up with other friends and took another few hour bus ride inland to Valle Elqui. 

My first thought was THE ANDES ARE INCREDIBLE.  The mountain range practically touches the sky and is baren - with little to no trees.  Nestled between the ranges is a lush, green valley that harvests Chile's famous alcohol, Pisco.  Each morning the valley collects a layer of clouds and the day quickly becomes toasty as the sun breaks through. 

When we arrived at Pisco Elqui all stresses seemed to melt away and I felt super tranquila.  Pisco Elqui is a tiny town - like one road and the church is the center of town tiny - but attracts bohemians and tourists alike with unique restaurants and artisans.  Our hotel was perfect, complete with fluffy white comforters, high ceilings, rustic furniture, fruit trees and a beautiful pool.  The only down part were the spiders the size of golf balls.  I especially loved when a woman from the hotel tried to capture one beast spider with a plastic bag.  The spider was not having it and jumped on the woman's hand and was then flung into my bed.  Awesome right?  Luckily that sucker couldn't hide forever but I think he called his friends for back-up.

A trip to Valle Elqui wouldn't be complete with some star gazing since it's one of the best spots in the world for it, as well as being known for magnetic powers and UFO sightings.  Although we couldn't make it to the observatory, we went on a tour in an astronomist's backyard where we viewed the Milky Way, star clusters and Jupiter all the while sipping homemade pisco sours.  Did you know about Light Pollution?  I didn't but not looking so good Cali. 

Star gazing and all, we were fully emersed in our bohemian weekend (sans UFOs).  We also went pisco tasting at a 100 year old vineyard thanks to our new friends, Martin and Kayla, who used to live in Jersey and were willing to cram six girls into their Jetta to take us to an authentic Pisco tasting.  At night we went to our favorite night spot with live music and fire pits (also owned by Martin's familia) and sipped on terremotos (strong wine and pineapple ice cream) and snacked on alfajaros (cookies and manjar dipped in chocolate). 

As I rode back to Valpo, I reflected on my perfect weekend feeling calm and happy.  Sitting next to me was my doppleganger (if I was a Chilean male) - a PR student who loved the same music and movies as me.  We also were wearing matching outfits and happily reclined in our seats to watch "Just Like Heaven" en Espanol.  It was weird but still a funny way to bring a great weekend to a close. 

Views of Valle Elqui

Fresh Pisco Mangos at our Fave Pizza Place

The streets of Pisco Elqui

Incredible Mural in the Center of Town

The Girls Pisco Tasting

Allegedly Haunted?

Pisco Vineyard Art


Sunday, October 3, 2010

The 1,000 Drums That Brought Tears to My Eyes

It has been awhile since my last post and I've definitely been out and about.  Last weekend I took a trip to Maintencillo, a sleepy beach town about 2 hours north of Valpo, with some volunteer amigas and stayed at the highly recommended, Cabanas Hermansen.  We ate fresh seafood, drank wine and went horseback riding on the beach.  It was the perfect getaway to relax and check out the beautiful coastline.  I also took my English Taller (English elective class with Sophmores) on a boat tour around the Valpo Harbor this week - a highlight of my teaching experiences here.  I really got the chance to talk with my students and with only a few months left of my trip, I'm already feeling sad about having to say goodbye.  My favorite quote of the field trip was, "I don't like you (long pause).  I love you!"  Life has been moving along at a fun pace and there's so  much to share but I wanted to focus my post on a cultural event this weekend in Valpo, Mil Tambores.

Mil Tambores or 1,000 drums is annual event that kicked off with a parade in the hills on Friday.  Performers from all walks of life march through the hills of Cerro Allegre.   My friend Lauren and I hiked up the artsy hill of Cerro Allegre, grabbed a delish scoop of homemade cherry ice cream, and went to check out what all of the buzz or drums were about.  I have to say that the hippies were out in full force and there was a happy mood among the mucho gente.  The crowd ranged from dreadlocked drum circles, naked girls painted with murals on their bodies, children on stilts, giant puppets and of course a giant parachute.  It was completely bizarre but fully charged with creativity and free-spirited fun.  The drums were soothing and music filled the air.  It was a wild parade but I wouldn't expect anything less from Valpo. 

Afterward I went home to relax and decided to meet up with some friends in town later for a drink.  The streets were bustling, since many people came into town for the weekend-long event.  Of course one drink turned into a long night of dancing fun and we left at the wee hours of the morning.  Us Valpo girls stuck together since theft can be problem here and planned on getting to the area were we could take collectivos (shared taxis) to our homes.  As the lights cast a orange glow on the streets it started to look hazy and before we knew it people were running quickly at us.  In an instant my eyes and throat started burning and somehow I quickly yelled "Tear gas.  Run!"  It felt like it was out of a movie where we were running down the street in slow motion not sure what to do.  This is when a kind soul stepped into to help us.  His name was Mauricio and I clearly remember his green, Peruvian sweater that I imagine was a big hit among his peace loving amigos.  He quickly said "I speak English.  Go this way," and guided us to another street.  Unfortunately, this street also had rioters as bottles were being thrown and garbage was being lit on fire.  Throughout this experience we were more afraid of the police who were freely spraying tear gas.  We made it to a safe street and Mauricio negotiated with a cab driver to give us a ride to the hills, since none of them wanted to drive through the rowdy streets.  I ended up staying at Steph's house since I couldn't get a ride to my house in the centro. 

Perhaps it was because of the Ron and Cokes but throughout the experience, I knew we would be ok.  It was a good reminder to not get too comfortable in my new surroundings.  I was also touched at the kindness from a stranger who went way out of his way to help us out of a dangerous situation. 

And knowing now that everything turned out ok, it will make for a great story for years to come.  The day when 1,000 drums brought me to tears from tear gas.  Here are a few photos from the vivid parade: