Monday, December 26, 2011

On top (and inside) of a mountain

Way up a winding road heading into the cordillera de los Andes from the town of Rancagua, south of Santiago, lies the town of Sewell.  Its setting on a steep mountain valley, the sheer and snowy slopes flanking it, the colorfully painted buildings that comprise it, its rich history as a copper mining town, all of this make it an attractive destination for tourists. But if you come, don't plan on spending the night.  Sewell is a ghost town.  Today, no one lives in any of its buildings, and the road that leads you here is closed to all traffic, save that going to and from the nearby El Teniente, the world's largest subterranean copper mine.  Save also tour vehicles like the one parked in the bottom left of the photo, full of tourists like us, seeking a day trip different than your typical wine tour or run for the beach. 

The road to Sewell led directly through the facilities of the mining operation.  I, probably like most people in the world, had never been on a tour that featured a copper mine before, so I took a lot of pictures along the way.  Some areas, with the blue, yellow and red theme, and unusual architecture, imparted a whimsical sort of Willy Wonka's copper factory impression. 

Then you round the bend and see something like this.  Toxic pools, grey concrete buildings under ominous cloud cover, with barren land all around.  That's what you expect massive mineral extraction to look like.  Our guide delivered an endless set of statistics and explanations surrounding Chile's copper industry, and told us that it would be impossible for a mining operation on this scale to not have an impact on the surrounding environment.  At the same time, while Chile has worked hard in recent years to diversify its economy, the exportation of copper remains its single largest source of revenue, and without it, the country would not enjoy its current level of development and prosperity.  So don't expect El Teniente to close any time soon.

In addition to selling copper, Codelco - the government-run mining company responsible for El Teniente's operations - also runs tours.  In fact, not only did our tour lead us around the facilities.  After passing for several kilometers through this kind of industrial landscape, we donned the hardhats and orange reflective gear required by law, and drove straight into the mine itself.

As I mentioned before, this is the biggest copper mine in the world, barring open pit mining.  Chuquicamata, an open pit mine in the north of Chile, is the 2nd largest such mine in the world, matched only by Bingham Canyon Mine, located in Utah.  To give some perspective, since Chuquicamata was opened over a century ago it has cranked out some 29 million tons of copper ore.  In its own right, El Teniente produced more than 418,000 tons of copper ore in 2006 alone.

I've been within the man-made bowels of the earth once before, when I walked with my family a hundred meters or so into an old gold mine in Zaruma.  This particular winter's day in Chile, we drove more than 6 kilometers into one of this mine's many tunnels.  We were merely scratching the surface, so to speak, of the vastness carved out beneath the ground.  Not a tour for the claustrophobic.  This particular leg of the tour can be bypassed for those who'd rather not go into the belly of a mountain.

As this hand-drawn diagram indicates, there are some 7 horizontal levels of tunnels dug into this mountain, each at a different depth, each counting on gravity to bring materials down first from their respective mines.  From there they are carted to the white apparatus indicated on the right, where they are ground up and dropped down to the level where they can be loaded and driven out from the valley below. 

It turned out that the white apparatus in question, known as a chancado, was part of the tour.  In layman's English, we might call it a crushing machine.  The room that houses it reminded me of the place where they filmed the final scenes of Terminator 2.  The crushing device itself looked like a big electric orange juicer, with ground up rocks rather than orange juice pouring down from the spinning blades into a long vertical shaft leading below.  You'll have to be satisfied with my description to conjure up an image in your mind, but I will include a photo of the cavernous and seemingly endless hole in the ground, leading down to the lowest depths of the mine.

In addition to demonstrating the many levels of the underground complex, this photo also reveals the horrid air quality to be found beneath the surface.  It took me a couple of takes to realize that the odd interference in each photo in this room was the result of infinite particulate matter reflecting the light from the flash.

Otherwise unseen, but definitely noticeable from the chalky taste in your mouth, this is the stuff that ultimately ends up clogging the lungs of many career miners, leaving them with a case of silicosis after years and years underground.  That mining is hard on your respiratory system is well known, but seeing and smelling it for myself gave me a more visceral appreciation for the hardship that miners must go through to make their living.  Unlike them, I could go home, rinse off the dust from my body and breathe easy the next day.

Besides the chancado, there is also an underground casino.  But before you start thinking that these miners can gamble away all their hard-earned income before they even see the light of day, I should mention that this term has a far different sense in Chilean Spanish than it does in English.  Gambling casinos are known in Chile, but the majority of the places you'll find bearing this name fall under the category of what we'd call a cafeteria.

After this picture was taken we saw the casino for ourselves, and had lunch there.  Besides the lack of windows, it was your typical working class mess hall.  Soup, rice, meat, sauce, salad, drink.  At least, that's what we saw people eating.  The lunch for tourists ran about $10 more than the regular cost of the tour, which seemed a little steep for what you get.  We brown bagged it.

After lunch we took off our dusty helmets and orange jackets and made our way up to the highlight of the tour, which was the abandoned mining town of Sewell.  The first stop on the guided tour was a museum housed in one of the most well-maintained buildings in town.  The top floor was certainly the best - if most unlikely - exhibit, housing a collection of copper items from around the world.  Copper sextants, copper helmets, copper weights and measures, all beautifully preserved.  And, this copper Ganesh.  It's interesting to note that while Chile is one of the world's major exporters of copper ore, little of it is refined here into pure copper, or manufactured goods.

So it is that the copper used here in Chile may have come from Chile, but chances are it then got shipped as ore and then sent to Asia.  From there it was refined, shaped, included into any number of electronics or other such product, and then shipped out around the world, including back here, to Chile.

This irony is not lost on those in the copper industry of Chile, but when the established infrastructure and cost of labor is such in Asia that finished products can be churned out for far cheaper than here in Chile, there is no economic incentive to do otherwise.  In that light this exhibit, with its collection of artistically crafted copper sculptures, antiquities and other bemusing curios, stands as a microcosm for the curious situation that many countries like Chile find themselves in.

Rich in resources but lacking a tradition of manufacture, we find an economy chugging along nicely on the export of raw materials, but all of the added value that comes later from the finished product earns profits abroad.  I don't know if it was Codelco, with profits from its copper business, or some other entity which bought the fine pieces we pored over that day.  And for a fine price I'm sure, judging from the condition of the pieces.  But whoever the owner may be, they're making some added profit from the trickle of tourism coming to Sewell and this museum, so we've got some locally added value after all.

The rest of our tour took us around the snowy, wind-blown streets of Sewell.  Our guide mentioned one story after another to reveal the curious lives of miners and their families, stranded so far from civilization up here in the middle of nowhere.  Founded in 1904, everything was brought in on a train, including the miners, and once here they couldn't expect to see anything else for months on end.  That set up the typical situation of the company town, where the mining company owned and operated everything.  Once the road to the mine was built, the mining company began phasing out life in Sewell in 1977, which means that there are plenty of people with memories of life in Sewell.

Indeed, since the tour, I've happened to mention to a few Santiaguinos that I was there.  Santiago is not so far from Sewell and El Teniente, and the mining industry is such a big part of the economy that a couple of the people I've told have mentioned that they remember their early childhoods in Sewell.

As you can see from the photos, the weather conditions at this altitude are extreme, and in the few decades since its abandonment and substantial dismantling, the elements have taken a major toll on the remaining buildings.  Now an UNESCO World Heritage site, efforts have begun to restore what's left of the town.  However, many of the structures which have been at least partially restored have already suffered a new round of damage from the long winters and the subsequent effects of significant snow accumulation.

Apparently, plans are in the works to bring some full time employees to the town in order to run an on-site hotel in one of the finer buildings, allowing tourists to spend the night in the ghost town of an old mining encampment.  Does that sound like fun to you?  There's even an old bowling alley...

Built on such a steep hill, Sewell was composed of many levels, both geographically and socially.  Here, on the concrete plateau between flights of concrete stairs, we can see an abandoned schoolyard where dozens of children of miners must have once played.  Further up the hill, and now mostly dismantled, were the well-appointed homes of the English-speaking managers and executives of the mining operation back when it was a foreign holding.

While these wealthy expats would have enjoyed as many amenities and comforts of home as money and the limitations of the time would have allowed, the miners themselves were housed with their families in small rooms stacked up in big apartment buildings like the ones seen here.  The difference in the quality of life of these distinct socioeconomic strata would have been very clear, according to our guide.

Nonetheless, the local miners were afforded a quality of life far greater than at other mines, with enviable salaries and benefits.  Today, the miners can still apparently expect a fair salary for the hard work they do, and most of them live with the modern comfort and nicer weather of the city of Rancagua in the open valley far below.

That leaves Sewell behind as a nearly lost relic of Chile's past, rescued from ruin and now enjoying what could be the beginnings of a nostalgic renaissance.  Standing in the icy air of a ghost town like this one, a colorful oddity amidst the grim machinery of a huge industrial project, puts you in the middle of several levels of contrast.  If you ever go, you could even try and count them, like counting the stairs on the way up the hill.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

In search of snow

This year was the first time I had experienced a real winter since 2007.  I gave winter a miss during my years in Ecuador, which has what is colloquially referred to as a winter, describing the part of the year you might call the rainy season.  I suppose people from different parts of the world have different concepts of what winter looks like.  For me, coming from Ohio, I could never think of it as being anything less than icily cold, cloudy, and often snowy.  But admittedly, after a few years in the eternally springlike climate of the Sierra in Ecuador, my personal tolerance level for cold weather had shifted.  A night in the 50s started to feel downright cold to me, and I had taken to the Ecuadorian custom of wearing a jacket when I left the house on many mornings that in Ohio, around April, would feel practically balmy.

So, once we came to Chile, and the days began getting shorter, I started to wonder just how cold the winter in Santiago would be.  Come July and August, winter had fully set in, and one morning in particular, we awoke to the above scene from our living room window.  Every Chilean I spoke to said that this was highly abnormal, and the TV news that day was full of people marveling over the novelty of snow on the ground.  The snow never made it to our neighborhood, but in the parts of town lying near the mountains, the snow accumulated, much as it had on the hills you can see from our apartment.

Soon after, we opted to take a walk in a neighborhood closer to the mountains, and while no snow remained on the ground beneath our feet that day, the Cordillera de los Andes loomed nearby, replete with a nice dose of white powder laid down by successive snowfalls.

Santiago is one of few cities its size to lie so close to a mountain range that receives such a quantity of snow, and we were fully charmed by them each time we saw them this winter.  Whenever some rain would come down in the city, we would remark that more snow had fallen on the mountains, and made a point to get a look at them to see just how far the snow had reached down the mountainsides.

Having bought a bike for commuting to the various places around town that I need to go for work, I started to wonder if there was a decent place to go riding, to get into the snow in the foothills beyond the city.  Fortunately I wasn't the only one thinking like that, and so I had the opportunity to go with my friends Ruth and Stuart into a conservation area known as El Santuario de la Naturaleza, or Nature Sanctuary, as we might say in English.

In order to get there, we rode through several of Santiago's comunas.  The metropolitan area of Chile's capital is divided politically into many such areas, each with its own mayor, and distinct look and feel.  Starting in Santiago Centro, and then riding along a contiguous corridor of green space and parks through neighboring Providencia, we soon made our way into Las Condes and rode among the many new skyscrapers of Santiago's modern economic heart.  Being Saturday, its wide sidewalks were nearly vacant, and we were able to cruise peacefully along streets that during the week are nearly unnavigable by bike for the number of people on foot and in cars or buses.

We then moved into Vitacura, an upscale residential area I hadn't spent more than a few minutes in until that day, and I was struck by the resemblance it bore to countless upper-class neighborhoods you might find in central California, with its mix of modern apartment buildings, two story homes with grassy lawns, and smattering of high-end stores and restaurants, local or international.

After nearly a full hour of gradual climb towards the mountains, we had reached Lo Barnechea, the most rural and perhaps most expensive neighborhood yet.  The picture above reveals a glimpse of it.  Its rolling hills dotted with bushes, the river valley below, and the occasional rustic estate transported me instantly to the Upper Canyon Rd. neighborhood of Santa Fe, where million dollar homes were not a rarity.  I don't know how much homes in Lo Barnechea will set you back exactly, but considering that the only students I've had who live there are both vice presidents in their respective companies, I have a general idea.

The nice thing about places like Canyon Road and Lo Barnechea is that while the real estate might be priced out of the reach of a lowly teacher like myself, there was nothing stopping us from enjoying it in passing from atop our modest means of personal transportation.  We wound along some dirt roads that took us ever higher into the hills, passing hobby ranches and wooden farmhouses wafting aromatic smoke from tin chimneys.

It was here too that we finally made it to our first sighting of nearby snow for the day, visible at the top of the hillside to the right.  The brisk air full of the pleasant smell of nearby fireplaces made the climb a lot easier, and I realized how necessary it is to get out of the city from time to time, into fresh air and natural surroundings.

I couldn't tell you now what roads we took to get there, but eventually we left the increasingly sparse scattering of rural mansions below us and reached the entrance to the nature preserve.  We had to sign in at a wooden gate with a river to one side and a stone guard station to the other.  Above us, the dirt road was muddier and the hills steeper than those we had already passed, and the snow lying atop them was lying thicker, too.

The climb never got too grueling, but a persistent pain above my knees started intensifying as we made the climb and eventually I grudgingly had to hop off my bike.  It took awhile for me to admit defeat, having ridden up hills far steeper with no problem in the past.  Was it the flu I was getting over?  The copious wine I had drunk the night before?  The lack of physical preparation in the weeks prior?  All those things and more, most likely.  Once I was down, it felt like my legs were going to buckle underneath me, and a few squats didn't seem to help.  But after a few minutes the pain subsided, and fortunately I was able to walk my bike without it coming back.

The same place I finally decided to dismount, a snowdrift.  I was like a kid at Christmas.  Albeit a 34-year-old one, with a pair of aching knees.  Not so bad that I couldn't bend down and scoop up a handful of it for the picture.

We had made it to the snow.  If I was going to have to walk my bike from here, at least I had made it this far on two wheels, into the snow.  Five years prior, I had ridden my bike through the pink-brown mix of snow and caliche in Santa Fe, when it had dumped a foot on the city in the course of a few hours.  I was forced to walk my bike then too, not for my own physical limitations, but for the simple fact that the snow was too deep to ride through.

That was the last snow I had been in, until now.  When things come around full circle like that, how can you help but reflect on who you are now compared to who you were then, and all the things that have happened in between?  That's what I did, as I shook my legs out and pushed my bike up the hill.

From our perspective, moving as we were along the snow-speckled foothills of the Andes, we were afforded ever more spectacular views of the Andes proper.  We were separated from them by a valley, and however high we went along our path, the mountains on the other side would always be higher still, and snowier, and further out of reach.  That is the how the mountains dare us, revealing with their sheer presence the next and greater challenge.  That day, we were happy enough to enjoy looking at them from where we were as we shared a lunch of sandwiches, tangerines and chocolate chip cookies.

That was not to say that we were done for the day.  That first snow drift gave way to more, until the road itself began to be overtaken by ice and slush.  We found this shack, ostensibly abandoned, and decided to take a break.  In the distance, the Andes unfolded above us in their snow-swept glory.  And from an overlook nearby, we were afforded a panoramic view of the city below.

It was truly impressive.  Partly because it revealed just how far we had come to be where we were.  In the foreground, the open hills and occasional homes of Lo Barnechea.  Beyond, the greater and greater density of both the city itself, and the thick layer of smog that obscured our view from the vantage point in the clean air we were enjoying at the moment.  None of the photos I took show much more than this murky, yellowish-gray cloud that appears thicker the further towards the horizon you look.

The naked eye could see lots of landmarks of the city in the distance, which we spent several minutes discovering.  We could also see how the smog spilled out past the limits of the city itself, laying like a blanket on the entire flat basin beneath the mountains, locked in by them.  Which reveals yet another reason why it's important to get out of the city on a regular basis.  Especially in the winter.

From there we continued our climb on foot, along a road now fully buried in snow.  Judging from the muddy tracks, we obviously were not the first to be up it since the most recent snowfall.  Later, we met a pair of Australians, each atop their own personal four-wheelers, taking a break and having a chat in the middle of the road.

Several minutes after we passed them by, the deep silence afforded by the insulating power of a thick layer of snow was broken by the high-pitched roar of their engines in the distance as they motored their way back down the mountain.  There are lots of ways to get up a mountain road, and from my personal bias, I have to say that the ones that you can do quietly are best.

At some point on any day trip, the decision must be made as to where to stop and turn back.  The road we had chosen kept going up, the snow kept getting deeper, and the wind kept blowing harder.  We played for awhile at saying that we would go just one more bend in the road.  I for one was waiting for some kind of other milestone, like the initial snowdrift, to mark the stopping point.  I didn't know what that might be, admittedly, and in the end, there wasn't one that day.  We finally found a place to stop, to sit for a few minutes, to eat and drink.  When we got up, it was back down and not up the road that we went.

Along the way we found this black dog, and he followed us on our walk back to the bikes.  Once we got on our bikes and began the high-speed, rattling downhill, he kept on following us, joyously matching our speed.  He would run ahead, get to a bend, slow down and look back, and then run aside, fall behind, and then back up front again.

Never did he run the risk of getting too close to our bikes and causing an unexpected turn and subsequent crash, and I felt comfortable letting go of the brakes and pushing at the limits of the downhill.  Only once did I find myself in the gravel of the shoulder as I underestimated the angle of a curve, forced to come to stop and reorient myself before starting up again.

Looking back, thinking of the various rides I've taken in the Andes of Chile and Ecuador, this one might have been my favorite downhill ride.  The visibility, the grade of the hill, the severity of the curves and the conditions of the road all added up to a nicely technical ride that could still be taken safely at high velocity.  Other roads might let you cruise with your hands off the brakes all the way, resulting in a fun downhill, but lacking in any great challenge.  Others are so steep and curvy that you're riding the brakes the whole time, or the dirt and gravel is so thick and loose that one wrong move can leave your wheels out from under you.  This one was a nice balance of all of the above, and thankfully my legs let me do it without any resurgence of my earlier cramping in the knees.

Once the thrill of the downhill tapered off into a gentler finish close to the guard station, our black dog stayed behind, and we all regrouped and recounted our respective experiences of the ride.  Then we continued the trip, down from the Santuario, down from Lo Barnechea, Vitacura, Las Condes.  The foregone conclusion of food and beer at a restaurant in Providencia, and then our goodbyes as we went our separate ways home for the day.  All in all, a fine day on a bike.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The end of a chapter

I'll be departing briefly from the usual themes presented here, in order to describe the end of an extended endeavor of mine.  While riding on Santiago's subway this week, I read the final page of the third and last volume of Eduardo Galeano's Memoria del fuego.  On the surface, this might not seem like such a big deal, but in many ways, this series of books has been very much a companion for me during my years traveling in Latin America. 

One of the three volumes - along with my even more dog-eared Spanish-English dictionary -  has been a virtually constant item in my backpack any time I've left the house, whether to go to work, for a weekend vacation, or simply for a walk outside.  In considering what to pack for our trip from Ecuador to Chile, there was no doubt that all three volumes would be making the journey with us, as indispensable as they had become for me.  I've learned countless words, phrases, and colloquial expressions from them.  Grammatical features that once puzzled me as I first began deciphering the first pages have slowly become familiar to me.  But more than that, the books for me have stood as an emotionally-moving teacher that has deepened my understanding of Latin America.

Memoria del fuego is laid out across a total of nearly 1000 pages in its three volumes, presented in the form of short and captivating vignettes.  Each short story reveals one moment in history, applying the very Latin American art of the cuento to the task of defining its history.  Volume I, Los nacimientos, begins with pre-columbian legends of creation and prophecy, before fixing on the three Spanish ships led by Columbus and his superstitious crew on their way towards the inevitable meeting of two worlds.  From that point in1492, the stories march through the long history and expansive geography of Latin America, until Volume 3, El siglo del viento, concludes the series in the 1980's.  As I read the stories, I have also moved my way around Latin America, with the books providing insight along the way.  Today I will trace this journey through Latin America, as defined by Memoria del Fuego.  All the translations in italics are my amateur's own.

As most journeys do, mine began with an idea.  As I described in a previous story from a year ago, the idea to experience Latin America started with the immersion Spanish course I took in Oaxaca, Mexico, at the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca.

Thanks to our teacher Luis and his impassioned reading of Galeano's rendition of the first landing of the Spanish expedition led by Hernán Cortés on the American mainland, I became fascinated by the story and decided I would find my own copy of the book.

Once back in Santa Fe, I soon discovered the Spanish language bookstore Allá, which had a single copy of the book on the shelf.  The owner, Jim, was a kindred spirit in his fascination for Latin America, and his store was a few blocks from where I worked in downtown Santa Fe.  As such, in the coming months I learned from Jim a great deal about Galeano, his occasional visits to Santa Fe, and other interesting and tantalizing pieces of wisdom, as I planned a return trip to Latin America.

In the coming months, any time I found myself alone in a cafe or park I was alternating between story and dictionary, struggling to grasp so many new words and phrases.  At the time I swore I would commit the 60 or so pre-columbian stories to memory, and so I read each one over and over until I had a rough English approximation that I could relate to whomever was willing to indulge me.  5 years later, I'm not convinced that I've maintained such a sharp recollection of those stories, but if you put me to the test, we could find out...

By the time I returned to Latin America, a year after my first time in Mexico, I had made it through the first section of Los nacimientos and was getting into the initial meeting of the Spanish and the Aztec empire.  In a personal milestone towards my goal of reading in Spanish, I revisited the story of Cortés and the founding of the city of Vera Cruz.  At the time I was also finding some new places to read, like these:

I had decided to return to Oaxaca, Mexico in order to complete a course to become a teacher of ESL, through an on-site program through the School for International Training based in Vermont.

I got there about a week before the program started, which gave me a lot of time on my own to explore the city and find my preferred places, like the cafes pictured above, or the upstairs patio of the house where I was staying, here on the left.

I also enrolled in another Spanish Immersion course, this time through the institute that worked in conjunction with the SIT program, called Ollin Tlahtoalli.  This program started a week after the ESL course finished, giving me more time to explore Oaxaca on my own before the course began.

For me it was perfect timing to return to Mexico while also returning to the same section in the book that I had discovered during my first visit there.  Walking around stone buildings and churches constructed during the same time period I was reading about added a dimension to the stories.  At the same time, the stories gave a poignance to my surroundings.  In the streets of Oaxaca, I read as Cortés marched from the coast towards the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán and shrewdly maneuvered his way into victory over the city.  The coming together of two empires, both rising in power, resulted in the abrupt conclusion and supplanting of one for the other.  What resulted was there around me, hundreds of years later.

From Mexico I flew to Cuenca, Ecuador, where I began my experience as an ESL teacher.  I had found work there months earlier and knew I would be going there before deciding to return to Mexico.  In fact, it was a bit of an afterthought and a lucky coincidence to be able to go back to Mexico at all.  The director at the school I would be teaching at in Ecuador suggested that I get a certificate to teach ESL before coming.  Fortunately I was able to find the program in Oaxaca, which would conclude a few short weeks before I was slated to start work in Cuenca. 

As I settled into my more extended stay in Ecuador, and continued poring through my book on the patio of my new apartment, I read about the ongoing exploration and conquest of the territory beyond the Aztec Empire.  I read about the Incan Emperor, Huayna Capac, upon whom depend the fields, the water and the people... While he contemplates the sun, Huaina Cápac decides, "Soon I will die."

I learned that Huayna Capac was born here, in the Inca city of Tomebamba.  Cuenca was built upon its ruins, which have been partially restored.  I also learned that Huayna Capac had expanded the Incan Empire beyond Peru and into parts of modern day Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Paraguay and Chile.  Most likely, he died of smallpox, brought to the Americas by the Spanish.  European diseases often moved through trade routes faster than the Spanish themselves, resulting in the Spanish finding a new group of people already decimated by disease.

After his death, Huayna Capac's empire was divided between two of his sons, and the Incan Empire descended into civil war.  Atahualpa, one of the sons, defeated his brother Huascar and was marching south through Cajamarca when Francisco Pizarro, the Spaniard, came upon him.

In Cajamarca, Vicente de Valverde, a priest in Pizarro's band of explorers, upon meeting Atahualpa, raises the Bible with one hand and a crucifix with the other, as though conjuring a storm on the high sea, and shouts that here is God... the interpreter translates and Atahualpa, high above the crowd, asks:
-Who told you this?
-The Bible says this, the holy book.
-Give it to me, so that it may tell me.
Atahualpa looks at the Bible, turns it around in his hand, shakes it, and presses it against his ear.
-It says nothing.  It is empty.
And he lets it fall.

At this point, Pizarro uses this blasphemous act of dropping the Bible on the ground to launch his surprise attack, capture Atahualpa and hold him hostage in return for the famous Inca's Ransom.  Once the Ransom was delivered, Pizarro reneged on the deal and had Atahualpa put to death after all.  Only after Atahualpa accepted baptism and the Christian name of Francisco, his conquerer.

The same day I read this story while sitting on my patio in Cuenca, I attended a lecture on the musical instruments of the Inca and the other indigenous people of the Andes.  The sounds of rattles, whistles, conch shells and drums, in a culture with no written language, were the means of communing with the divine, much as the Bible is in the Christian world.  So, was Atahualpa merely exercising his own cultural means of spiritual communication by shaking it like a rattle and then holding it to his ear like today we hear the ocean in a seashell?  Or was he truly challenging this lowly but arrogant priest from his position as triumphant Emperor?

More recently, we have come to Chile, and in the meantime I had progressed into modern times in Galeano's series.  This year, as the US remembered September 11th, Chile remembered the military coup of September 11th, 1973.  In another coincidence, I had reached the 1970's in El siglo del viento.  The themes of this time revolve around the storm of military dictatorships and political assassinations that swept over Latin America, a truly dark time in history that Galeano captures with his unapologetic accusations and intimately told revelations of atrocity.

The series abruptly concludes, seemingly, with the year 1982.  Up to this point, you find yourself reading hundreds of stories, one after another, in the inexorable march through time.  When the final story comes and goes and no other follows, you are left with the sense that so goes history, one event after another, in such a way that any attempt to chronicle it will inevitably end, and time will still continue, unpausing, unstoppable.  But why 1982, rather than some other year either earlier or later?  Galeano, in his letter to the editor of the series on the final page of narrative, reveals why not before, or after, I don't know.  Perhaps because that was the last year of my exile, the end of a cycle, the end of a century.

Galeano, from Uruguay, left his country in 1973 as it too was gripped by military dictatorship and the killings, disappearances and imprisonments that followed.  He returned in 1985, having composed all of his epic historical narrative during his time of exile.  These final words, as all his words do, frankly deliver the reality of history, to your heart.  This defines Memoria del fuego against your traditional "history book," which itemizes history, catalogs it, filing it and placing it neatly in your analytical mind.  In addition, it has introduced me to countless figures, moments, concepts, other books, which the coming years will no doubt find me exploring further.  In so doing, these three books will continue close by, having slowly gone from an endless source of discovery to an endless source of reference and light.  The book and I know that the last page is also the first.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Since we arrived in Chile, we've been living in Santiago, its big, modern capital city.  In many ways, it's even more modern than many comparably-sized cities in the US, when you take into account the kinds of apartment and office buildings that are going up in Las Condes, or the constantly expanding subway system, for example.

Living in a city like Santiago has been a great experience so far, revealing yet another angle in the multifaceted gem that is Latin America.  I've remarked before, surely, on the simultaneous unity and diversity of Latin America.  With a common language, history, and certain aspects of both traditional and popular culture, you can visit many places around the region and find common threads.  And yet the culture is so varied that you can go from one country to the next and discover the countless details that make each place unique.

Santiago, for its part, represents Latin America perhaps at its most modern, its most globalized.  Here, you haven't lost the charm inherent in any given latin culture, but you also find yourself surrounded by all sorts of conveniences, and big business.  Fascinating, and overwhelming at the same time.  A topic I will certainly explore further in later musings.  It will have to come later, for today's story starts here in the capital, but ends up elsewhere.

After a month or so of staying in Santiago, once work was lined up and a regular schedule began looming ahead, we thought we ought to get out of town for awhile.  As pleasant as it's been to be in a modern city, both of us come from smaller towns and after awhile, a city this size can start to feel oppressive.  Fortunately, once you leave town you go from urban to rural landscapes very quickly, and there are a number of interesting destinations within an hour or two from the city limits by bus.

One such place is Pomaire.  It has a very small town feel, with no buildings seemingly more than two stories, and most homes with a small but fertile garden.  Many of the houses look to be made with adobe, and either have flat roofs, or sloped and topped off with corrugated metal.  Or better yet, with the red ceramic shingles you can find all around Europe and Latin America.

Further contributing to the small town atmosphere is the fact that the people are much more likely to say hello to you as you pass by in the street, and on the day we went, there was hardly a car to be seen on the roads.

There aren't many destinations in central Chile lacking the ubiquitous grapevine, whether it is laid out in countless rows in a commercial vineyard, or spreading along a trellis in someone's backyard.  Nearly all the homes in Pomaire seemed to be graced with vines of this latter ilk, and since we found ourselves there in the late summer of mid-February, the grapes were getting plump and ripe, and looking mighty tasty.

Grapevines of this sort add an elegance to even the simplest home.  Really, if you're going to grow a garden, why not make it an edible one?

Before going any further, I should mention the main draw of Pomaire, which is its pottery.  Here, you can buy simple, functional and beautiful clay pots for use in the garden or kitchen, plus all kinds of utensils.  Oven-proof and purportedly even stove top-proof, we've been baking pizzas and casseroles in the ones we bought for the past several months.  We haven't risked filling one with soup and throwing it on the stove yet, but every vendor we asked boasted that it could be done.

While some of the shops had attractively designed showrooms, the majority were like this one, little more than an open warehouse.  Walking around a store like this, you had to assume that in the next room over the next round of pottery was being molded and fired by members of the same family who was sitting casually in the storeroom with you.

Pomaire is so close to Santiago that it's a popular weekend destination, a place to shop in some rustic stores and get out of the city, much as we had chosen to do.  So much so that its unmistakable style of pottery can be found in Santiago homes, up and down the socioeconomic ladder.

When you consider the sheer size of our new big city home and the popularity of Pomaire's products, you have to imagine that this town has potentially churned out millions of earthenware goods over the years.  There are dozens of vendors around town, and ostensibly just as many potters turning out the clay merchandise before throwing it in the kiln.  Each of them most likely has their own personal touch or specific technique that makes certain products better than others or unique to the eye of the trained beholder.  But from my layman's perspective, what we saw from store to store conformed to a signature style that is less individual overall, and more demonstrative of a sort of "Pomaire brand."

If my casual assumption is to be believed, we could go on to observe that the collective selling power of Pomaire's goods must be a well-recognized economic engine within the community, and the local potters may well have collaborated in designing such a recognizable style and functional quality.  This would help to guarantee that Santiaguinos keep coming back for more, and rather than one family cornering the market, the entire community benefits from the constant influx of visitors.  In other words, grassroots branding.  Who needs a corporate logo when you define your product with your own bare hands?  

Best of all, it's cheap.  We bought an armload of various clay pots and what have you, plus one of the lamps from the shop here, and a liter of local honey.  Each item ranged from only $3-$10 more or less.  But this also meant that as we made our rounds through the town we ended up spending a decent chunk of money before we were done.  We didn't mind; we were in the market for something to bake a pizza in, and a reading lamp.  Everything else was more of an impulse, truth be told.  But we haven't had any buyer's remorse so far.

The other attraction of Pomaire is the rustic food, baked in rustic clay ovens, and served up in equally rustic-looking restaurants.

We got there too early for lunch, which meant that the bread was just going into the hearth, and the stores were just starting to open.  The lady shown here was in the middle of turning her pan amasado around for an even bake just as we walked by, and was nice enough to pose with her modest yet enviable oven for us.  

Unfortunately, the bread still had some more cooking to do before it would be ready, and we never got back around her way to try it.  Pomaire is also famous for its over-sized empanadas, which can be described roughly as a meat pie.  Imagine a potpie, but wrapped up like a calzone, and you've got the basic idea.  

I've developed an unbridled appetite for the empanadas they sell in our neighborhood, which are big enough to fit nicely in your hand.  The empanadas here were about twice that size.  Or at least, that's what we saw as we walked by the restaurants.

We didn't know there were going to be empanadas in Pomaire until we got there, so we had packed our own lunch before we left home, and contented ourselves with a picnic lunch in the park.  We didn't feel like we were missing out; it's an easy and pleasant trip out of the city, and we'll be making it again.  The next time, we'll try the food.  For the time being, we had some nice sandwiches and corn on the cob, and shared our mealtime with a pack of hungry puppies who wouldn't leave us alone.  Hence lunch on a bench instead of in the grass, safely out of their limited reach.

Otherwise, we were in Pomaire for the day, so we had time to wander the streets for awhile. 

We've been told that Pomaire fills up on weekends, especially on holiday weekends when everyone is looking to get out of Santiago.  But the day we went was a sleepy weekday in the summer, so we got to enjoy the town during one of its quieter moments.  There were a few tourists wandering around besides us, especially after lunch when the weather warmed up, but as close as we were to the big city, I can imagine how different it could be on other days.  

Shopping and eating is what tourists do in a place like this, but for us, having been confined in the big city for more than a month straight, it was nice to simply waste some time in a small town.  That kept us entertained for at least an hour or so.

But eventually we made up our minds to call it a day.  We had scoped out the things we wanted to buy in the morning, and then systematically bought them up on the way out of town.  Once thoroughly loaded down with our weighty earthenware purchases, we found one of Chile's peculiar colectivos, a taxi with a fixed route and a fixed price per destination.  It took us to a dusty bus stop, where a bus quickly came along and whisked us along the highway back to Santiago, through some extensive stretches of agricultural land.

If you grew up in Ohio like I did, and if it weren't for the picturesque mountains in the background, you might be fooled into thinking that you weren't in South America at all when you look at a picture like this.  But that cornfield and barn are as Chilean as wine grapes, and a visit to the vegetable market in summer here will present you with plenty of sweet corn that's *almost* as good as what you can get where I come from.

While I'm on the topic, I'll also mention that on the four different roads that I've taken out of Santiago so far, each has a revealed a vastly different landscape.  The one to Baños Morales took us up a mountain pass that got drier and more deserted the further we went.  This one led through the cornfields you see here, and other crops you could find throughout the Midwest.  The road to Valparaíso runs past vineyards spread out amongst gently rolling hills.  Another, which I'll write about eventually, went along rows upon rows of the fruit trees that comprise central Chile's many orchards.  Maybe I saw the trees that will bear the apples you'll be eating next summer?

We've been talking about going back to Pomaire again soon, now that it's Spring.  We're all out of the delicious honey we bought, and there's a few more things we could use for the kitchen.  We won't see the grapes this time of year, but I imagine there will still be some giant empanadas. We'll be sure to stay for lunch.