Thursday 1 November 2007 - Sunday 4 November 2007 26 °C
We took our last and longest COPA-IFSA-Butler-sponsored trip this weekend to La Serena, the largest city in the Cuarta Región, which lies just to the north of ours. It took about 6 hours in bus from Viña to La Serena (including a not-so-pronto stop at a fast-food place called Pronto) before we arrived at the lovely Gran Pacífico “Apart-Hotel,” just a block from the beach.
Eliza had the great idea to have a potluck style dinner that first night, and I was very impressed with what we all managed to whip up. The gentlemen took care of making dozens of anticuchos (kabobs), we had a curry rice, fruit salad, Monty’s famous salsa, and our group decided to make mashed potatoes just to lower the excitement quotient a bit (we didn’t want people getting TOO excited).
It was a lot of fun to have a big group of young people all together cooking, since we’re now all so accustomed to having our Chilean moms cook meals for us at least twice a day. Not to mention that the food was RICA.
Our first full day in La Serena, Friday the 2nd, we had a free day to wander around, so a group of us decided to take the free bikes from the hostel to ride into town. We were all surprised that the hotel would lend out bikes free, not give us any locks, and not even make us sign any forms. Well, we soon realized why: all the bikes were extremely old and beat up, too small, possibly with bad seats, and probably with a flat tire.
NO OBSTANTE (nevertheless), we rode those suckers along the beach and over to the lighthouse before making our way to the tranquil Japanese Gardens (yes, we were surprised too). I think my knees were kept in an acute angle the entire trip there (Heather was sweet enough to trade bikes with me on the way back).
After strolling around in the park a bit (and coaxing Andrew to come down from the trees he climbed every few seconds), we made our way further into the downtown. La Serena is known to have a more colonial layout, with older style buildings facing onto plazas, narrow streets mixed with boulevards, and very old churches. The weather was beautiful on Friday, so the streets were crowded with tourists and other folks, and vendors had set up their tents along all the major streets.
We headed for La Recova, one of the larger clusters of vendors selling jewelry, pastries, sweaters, handicrafts (including some from other countries, such as India), and a few selling brain teasers (I hadn’t seen anywhere else… you know, those “impossibly” assembled wooden blocks or bent wires… I managed to solve one (that I’d seen years ago!)).
We then wove through traffic to the Museo Archaeológico a few blocks away to see the “cabezas chiquititas” (eensie weensie heads) that Dave’s family had mentioned to him. The museum had a small but diverse collection of artifacts from different Chilean cultures, including a moai from Rapa Nui / Easter Island / Isla de Pascua (depending on your language). We spent a long time looking at a drawing or some old fashioned people (not cavemen, but almost) in loin-cloths out on rafts riding furious waves while trying to spear an enormous whale whose was so large it could not be seen in its entirety. An artist’s rendition, no doubt, but we spent awhile looking at it and thinking how plausible a situation might be and how, if killed, the whale might ever make it to shore. Would they have to tow it? Would it wash up? Perhaps these are questions with no answers.
Moving on… later that day Dave, Elsie, and I decided to ride the MICRO (we dropped the bikes back off) to go into Coquimbo, which had been recommended to us a few months back by Manuel at the Cajón del Maipo hostel. [By the way, the MICRO bus was really more of a MACRO… why is it that the busses are larger in the smaller cities?]
Coquimbo : La Serena : : Valparaíso : Viña del Mar
… that is, the first one is the port city while the second is the upscale counterpart. So we headed straight for the port of Coquimbo, where we were sure to find fresh-off-the-boat seafood. I am fond of approaching random Chileans to get directions to get places (I mean… they know the city; why not ask them?), so I asked a parking attendant to recommend a place to eat and out of nowhere a kid walks up and says, “I’ll accompany you.” Stunned and slightly chuckling, we followed the kid, who was about 4 feet tall and just finishing a cigarette. He told us his name was Francisco and that he was 14 (MENTIRA!).
In any case, he led us through the pungent fish market to the end where there were 4 almost identical restaurant areas shoulder to shoulder, and within about 8 seconds, each one had sent a waiter representative to try to woo us. “Delicious seafood!” they said. “Table by the window!” I think the 3 of us just started laughing because we had no idea what their menus were, and they all looked so similar! How were we supposed to choose?
Finally, we just asked Francisco to tell us where to go. The fat waiter kind of grabbed his shoulder and said, “Do you see how big my stomach is? It’s because the food at my restaurant is the best,” so Francisco told us to go there. But for some reason Elsie wanted to go to a different one, so we went to the one next to it.
It’s funny how often about half the items on a menu are unavailable. It’s happened to me where there are two sections with sandwiches: a section of white bread sandwiches with palta (avocado), chicken, or turkey; or baguette sandwiches with shrimp or cheese. And the waiter will say they’re out of baguette bread, so I’ll ask for shrimp on the white bread and the waiter says I can’t have that either. I find that funny.
After our fresh seafood lunch (we were the only people in the restaurant who didn’t get fried fish), we strolled around Coquimbo, including near some derelict sites and along the port where various ships were docked and kids swam nearby.
That night we headed to the Cerro Mamalluca astronomical observatory. Once again, my travel buddy Tracy was in heaven (or… in the heavens?). I remembered quite a few things I’d learned on our astronomical tour in San Pedro, but I always enjoy listening to the stories about the stars and how the differ from those visible in the northern hemisphere. The evening concluded with a folklore/jazz concert put on by the people who minutes before we explaining the telescopes to us… and finished at about 2 am. I think all of us went right to sleep on the 2 hour bus ride back into La Serena!
The next day COPA took us to a neat restaurant to the east of La Serena in the Valle de Elqui, where all the food is cooked in sun-heated ovens. The food is cooked between 9am – 4pm, the hottest parts of the day, and it’s run by a collective of 26 women who have now made solar cooking a viable means of income for the people in the pueblo.
Later we headed towards Vicuña, the main town of the valley, first to the pisqueria Capel (pisco being the national drink of Chile) which included a degustación (tasting) of various types. We then stopped at the museum of Gabriela Mistral, one of two Nobel winners from Chile (the other being our good friend Pablo Neruda). Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve read anything of hers, so I wasn’t able to glean as much as I might have been able to from visiting the museum. After a bit we decided to stroll through Vicuña, and Caitlin and I ran into a TVN network television crew, who asked to interview us about our perceptions of Valle de Elqui for a segment that was to air earlier this week.
When I got on camera (this was my 4th interview here, by the way… 2nd on television), he asked me some expected questions, like how long I’ve been in Chile, what I liked most about Valle de Elqui, etc. But then he popped the question, “What is the biggest difference between Valle de Elqui and the United States, and which do you prefer?” I nearly burst into laughter on camera. All I could think to say was, “How can I even compare the two?” Not that one is better, but it’s like comparing… well, a mystical rural valley in Chile to a massive country composed of thousands of towns and millions of people. I added vaguely, “I would like to spend more time here,” which was true.
[the above photo reminds me of a certain Scandinavian country...]
On our last day in the Cuarta Región, on the way back to Viña del Mar, we stopped at Parque Nacional Bosque Fray Jorge, which is famous for its camanchaca, a natural phenomenon owing to the condensation of coastal clouds along the mountains, resulting in a hanging cloud all through the day surrounded by desert. It was a very unique landscape, and we managed to see an owl (lechuza) and several foxes (zorro chilla) eagerly sniffing near us while we ate lunch.
It was a really great trip, though I am definitely feeling somewhat down about the semester drawing to a close. Today my Espacio Urbano art teacher told me that the Spanish and Portuguese perceptions of nostalgia are distinct, and that for the Spanish it is related to sadness, while for the Portuguese it is looked upon with happiness. I told him that I think I have both.