Thursday, 17 December 2015

Patiperro Australiano

Puerto Varas.
“No man is brave that has never walked a hundred miles. If you want to know the truth of who you are, walk until not a person knows your name. Travel is the great leveler, the great teacher, bitter as medicine, crueler than mirror-glass. A long stretch of road will teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of quiet.” A quote from a book I recently read, written by Patick Rothfuss, which I think sums up travel. It teaches so much, about yourself and the world, and if you are open enough for this, you can and will learn from it, becoming a better person and hopefully wanting to make the world we all live in a better place. It also makes sense in the way that not all travel is wonderful - it's so much more than the glamorous photos that we post on social media. There are many words and phrases for people who feel the 'need' for travel - the feeling is often called 'wanderlust' in English (but came from a German word). people talk about being 'bitten by the travel bug,' having 'itchy feet,' but here in Chile they call it 'Patiperros.' All terms for people who need to explore, who need to get out there and be in different places, face new challenges, live through the good and the bad, but know that 'easy is boring' and that life should be a challenge.

Osorno on a clear day is something to just stop and admire.
Happy little street dog.
Just chilling.
Chileans have a way of making up slang and idioms, often related to animals, and this one is my favourite. Patiperros basically means to walk to streets like a dog, it's for people who don't like to stay at home and are lead to explore new places by their curiosity. If you have ever been to Chile, you may understand this more regarding the reference to dogs - street dogs in Chile are unique. Street dogs are everywhere and very friendly, they'll walk you home, chill at a cafe with you, but always go their own way in the end. So, in Chile this is how people describe restless travellers, and now I use it. After working in Conce for the last 9 months, it's time to hit the road and head south. I have a rough plan sorted out (worked out and drawn on a whiteboard at a company I taught at), and the first stop is Puerto Varas.  I would then slowly work my way down, jumping to the island of Chiloe, then back to the mainland and following the Carretera Austral, jumping in and out of Argentina as sometimes there are no roads in Chile this far south. Lots of hiking and beautiful scenery to come, including the Torres del Paine. From the south of Chile, possibly even as far south as you can go, Cape Horn, it would then be north through Argentina proper. This is the first leg of my South American Journey.

Greetings from Puerto Varas!
Taking the other path.
Wooden church in Frutillar.
Puerto Varas is just 30 minutes north of the main city of Puerto Montt, where the Calbuco volcano erupted earlier this year, and it's a real adventure sport town - hiking and rafting in the summer and skiing in the winter. The buildings have that ski town feel, the wood and stone, and people walking around in hiking gear. The town itself is small, and you can easily walk around it in less than 30 minutes, but the most striking thing about it are peaks of the volcanoes that straddle the lake. The weather wasn't fantastic the first day I arrived, Sunday, but I met up with a friend who lives locally and got the guided tour. Although the clouds didn't leave the peaks of the volcanoes on the first day, the second day I got some luck. When the sky is blue and clear, this is the real Puerto Varas - mountains and water, the best combination. I went for a walk around the lake, following the train line up to the next town, enjoying the warm sun and the peace and quiet.

Fishing off an old railway bridge.
Osorno seen from  Todos los Santos Lake.
Lake and Volcano.
The South is very different from other parts of Chile - the bus drivers know everyone and aren't jockeying for paying customers like in Conce, people are friendly, and it's all a little more relaxed. The churches down here are also something to note - old and wooden, all very un-South American, and much more European. My walking took me to the town of Frutillar - there are two parts of town, the one on the hill which is like any other town, and the lower part on the lake which is just like a little German town. Slightly over-done, it feels a little fake, like someone had built the town based on a fairytale. The lake just shines here, you can clearly see Osorno, and I was tempted to swim but the wind was very chilly. Being myself, I didn't bring any kind of food and it was now lunchtime, but sadly, due to the tourist trade, there are no supermarkets, only over-priced themed bars and restaurants. I found a small convenience store and was content with bread on the beach before heading back home. Out on the town later on, it is a must to have a Terremoto (Earthquake), and the best place in town is a little place called "Entre Amigos" or "Amoungst Friends." A terremoto is fermented wine and pineapple ice cream mixed with either vermouth or grenadine. A tall glass, nearly a pints worth, is 2500clp ($5) and after two you are more than ready to rumble!

Rapids at Petrohue.
Calbuco hiding in the clouds.
I decided to get out and see and do a bit more further away from town the next day, and take advantage of the great weather - it usually rains every day here. I jumped on a local bus (2000CLP/$4) and rode it for an hour to the Saltos de Petrohue (Petrohue waterfalls). Although the little bridge was being repaired, getting ready for summer, you could still get a good of the rapids and the wonderfully and nearly unbelievably blue waters. I continued up 6kms more to the lake to have yet another cheap gypsy lunch sitting down enjoying the views. This part of Chile, it's sometimes hard to remember where you are - no beeping car horns, no dogs barking, no rubbish... just pure nature! After a great day out, heading back to the hostel to cook wasn't sounding like that much fun. Luckily there were some really fun people at the hostel, and we had loads of fun hanging out. The hostel also has a sweet little dog called Sophie, who after only a slight hesitation, was my new best friend and sitting on my lap whenever she could.

Canoes on lake Llanquihue
Dream a little...
The road can be lonely sometimes. If you want to do it, you can't always wait for people. I you wait for people, you will end up waiting your whole life for something to happen - you need to make it happen. It's true its usually better with someone, and if you are lucky enough to have someone special to travel with it can be, but you have to do it anyway. Being by yourself can also be a great thing - sitting alone on a mountain, just contemplating and enjoying the moment. It's probably overstated in today's world, but I feel we are too attached to devices. People don't look out windows anymore - they're too busy trying to find something to do on their mobile, checking that work email, playing that time-wasting game. I say 'look up' and see the world - even if it's the same bus journey to work, open your eyes, look out the window and enjoy the view, dream a little, talk to someone.

Sailing on lake Llanquihue.
Next stop on the trip is over the border into Argentina and into the Lake District to visit San Carlos de Bariloche. I'd never heard of Bariloche before this trip, but just checking out photos made me want to go. It means crossing the border, a long windy bus trip, but I am sure it will be worth it.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Last Days in Conce

Ciao Conce!
Conce at sunset.
Conce at peak hour.
So ten months have passed in the blink of an eye. That's what it feels like anyway. I moved to Chile in February, and Concepcion in March, and already it's time to pack up and hit the road. I've finished working and am spending my last bit of time here trying to enjoy the company of good friends and the sun at good beaches. Teaching in Chile has been tough at times - students don't really have a great attitude towards learning, even less with English. The poor teachers get paid very little here and have to deal with 40 or so kids in a class and very few resources. Apart from this, the Uni students always seem to be on 'toma' (strike) for things such as free education - yes, free everything would be nice right? How about stop playing your bongo drums in the square, sitting around drinking and smoking and actually go to class and learn? Wow, maybe I'm getting old... Anyway, I hope I have made a small difference to my students here, the kids and adults alike - it's important to have fun while learning in anything you do, otherwise you won't enjoy it and won't learn much. If you're not having fun, why are you doing it?

How I feel after a year of teaching...
Everyone knows that living in a country is very different to just passing through on holidays. Italy is a great example of this for me - I lived there in 2009/2010 and didn't have a great time. It was expensive, I earned crap money, bad working conditions (regularly late/wrong pay/drive a million miles for a class), terrible drivers that I had to face every day and a cold, dirty little house that was so cold that the water froze in the pipes during the winter. On the other hand, travelling around that sun-drenched countryside that is Tuscany, seeing places like Pisa, Florence, Venice and Rome (ah Roma!), just doesn't seem real sometimes, even when you have photos to prove it. Chile, sadly, can draw comparisons with my time in Italy, and there are quite a few things I won't miss about living here - but it was a big part of the experience right? There are whole Facebook groups for foreigners who are complaining about living conditions here in Chile - everyone needs a vent, and I am the first to complain about my own country too, so it's only fair!

Pelicans at Talcahuano.

Throw the wood!
Sailboats at Talcahuano.
The infrastructure here, even in a fairly modern city like Conce, is quite bad. The roads, as I have mentioned before, are badly built, flood with a drop of rain, and full of holes and bumps in which the buses seem to deliberately aim for. Rubbish is another beef I have here. There are garbage trucks, and they drive past my house at around 1am, but there are no real rubbish bins - plastic bags are either left on the ground (where the dogs eat from them and spread it everywhere), put in cage-like containers on the street (which the dogs still get at) or hung on your gate. Dogs also roam the streets at all hours, and although some are very sweet, packs of hungry street dogs are not, and can be downright scary. I have been 'escorted' home by a nice bunch of dogs on occasion - including my two favourite dogs - Peluco and Dennis. 'Hairy' and 3-legged 'Dennis (Hopper)' are just a few of the exceptions, as the rest wander around eating rubbish, peeing and whatnot everywhere, and barking - day and night, all day, every day. I read recently that street dogs here only live for a year on the street - a very sad story indeed, but nothing something people here concern themselves with much. There are a few other things that seem to annoy the hell out of me, but doesn't phase the locals. The car alarms here are ALL the same... that amusing-at-first, flash back from the 90s car alarm, which gets really annoying really quick. A good night's sleep is never a sure thing - late night drive-bys by flaite's playing the same 3-beat regaton tune, dogs barking or a car alarm.

Lobo Marinos at Tome beach.
Boats at Tome.
A sea lion enjoying the sun on the beach at Tome.
As the weather is finally better, the beach is the obvious choice for something to do on the weekend - although most people here stick to the malls on the weekends. Being on the coast, there are quite a few nice beaches, but all of them are cold. Being on the West coast of the continent, the current brings cold water from the south, so you just have to either stay out of the water, or do what I do and sprint in and deal with it! Being from Australia, where we basically worship the sun, I am used to people swimming and sunbathing - not so common here. The 'Chilean Bikini' as I like to call it is pretty much a jacket, jeans and shoes. They don't like to swim, and when the sun comes out and it warms up to 20c, the people in Conce hide in the shade and complain that it's too hot... this after nearly 6 months of cold, rainy weather (and complaining about that). I'd been waiting since June to lay in sun and feel warm, and so I jumped at the chance to do this on the green of the Uni before work - and was the only one. Their loss. It's generally the same at the beaches - kids swim, but the adults sit under umbrellas fully clothed. Tome is the standard go-to beach for most people here, but it's noisy and not the cleanest, but there are shops and places to buy food. I prefer places that are quiet and have good, clean sand - like Punta de Parra. No wind, a few waves, and no hordes of beach go-ers and dogs to annoy you! Just relax and soak it up - just like the Sea Lions do when they can, but the poor ones at Tome are constantly harassed by stray dogs.

Punta de Parra, with Tome in the background.
Near Conce there is the port town of Talcahuano, and actually forms part of the greater Concepcion area. It is home to many fishing trawlers as well as Chile's Navy. Not much to look at really, and not a safe place to be at night unless you like to be robbed and stabbed. On a sunny day though, wandering around down by the port is quite pleasant - pelicans swimming around looking for scraps off the local fisherman, lobos marinos (literal translation is "Sea Wolves" but we call them lions) baking in the sun and trying to sleep, and small craft sailing around. There are also still signs of the 2010 tsunami that hit this part of the coast pretty badly. There are still overturned ships in the harbour, and some have been pulled in and tied up and just left to rust and rot. One ship that is still in good shape though, and is far older than the rest, is the Huáscar. This ship, a 19th Century, British built Ironclad, was captured by the Chileans in the War of The Pacific (but not the WWI one...) fought between Chile, Peru and Bolivia. The war was over taxes imposed on a Chilean mining company in the north by the Bolivians. Peru got dragged in as they had previously signed an alliance with Bolivia - so the three of them duked it out for 5 years with Chile the eventual winner. Coming up trumps, the winners took land - everything north of Antofagasta, including the Atacama Desert, now belongs to Chile because of this silly argument, and Bolivia also lost their access to the sea. Wars.

The spoils of war - the Huáscar. Bolivia won't be needing it anway...
The crazy Colo Colo fans.
The lone Conce fan. Be afraid...
For my last week of a 'normal' life before I head off travelling, I visited a friend in Santiago and got the chance to see the most popular team in the country play football. The team, Colo Colo, have a huge following, but mainly consist of 'flaites' and troublemakers. Flaites are basically people of low social status, who have a reputation for drinking cheap beer (Escudo), smoking weed and getting tattoos - 'Bogans' in Australia and 'Chavs' in the UK. They also love a bit of bling, basketball shoes (usually Nike Air) and their favourite tattoos are of their children (names and/or pictures) and their football team (Colo Colo of course!). There was a big crowd to get in, 31c heat, plenty of flag waving and singing, and people selling everything from hats and flags to drinks and 'putitos,' the very smelly 'meat' sandwiches they love here - don't ask what the meat is though. The game was a good one, even though I was expecting some problems from the local hooligans. The stadiums here in South America have more high walls and barbed wire than most prisons in Australia - there to stop fans from jumping into the expensive seats and also to stop them from getting onto the pitch. This does not stop them, and in fact the kick-off was delayed due to people climbing the barriers. Colo Colo won, and 99.99% of the crowd was ecstatic - the lone fan for the other team (which happened to be the University of Concepción!) quickly took off his jersey and ran. I met some of the other fans outside, all giving the Colo Colo salute (3 fingers, not 2 as that is the sign of their enemy University Catolica), and they were very happy for me to snap some pics of them - probably because I was dressed as one of them for the day!

My new friends at Stadium Monumental - thanks for the awesome photo guys!
Street art in Conce.
Eating a 'putito' sandwich.

Ok so I'm a bit tired of the city life and of working - but that's very normal after a year of teaching - time to hit the road. It has been tough in Chile, the noise, living in a student house with 1 bathroom and 8 other people who don't clean anything, the cultural differences and language, but this feeling of needing a big holiday happens every year for me. It's teaching that does it. Work for 10 months, then travel for two, then start again. That's the usual equation, but this time it's different - I have worked hard, scrimped and saved, eaten pasta and rice for months, all so I can have a big South American trip for 4 or 5 months! This will be my last post in Conce, the next one will be on the road somewhere down South!

"With the blonde and some Cristal (beer), we are the beach!" Ahhh summer advertising in Chile!

Monday, 2 November 2015

Vamos a Valdivia

Valdivia' from the river.
With Spring in full swing here in Chile, I thought it would be time to get out and go away for the weekend. The thought of another overnight bus trip sent shivers down my spine, but there is no cheaper way of doing it. Chile is a very long country, 4,300kms from North to South and only an average of 180kms wide, so everywhere you go is up or down, and a long way. I love hot sunny weather, and to top that off would be an ice-cold beer (or three), so why not go somewhere they make beer! The decision had already been made - Valdivia it is! Roughly 600kms south of Concepcion (which is about 600kms south of Santiago), sits the little city of Valdivia - the place all the Chileans I know say is beautiful but have never been there. I went to check it out for myself.

Pedro de Valdivia - Father of Chile and founder of Santiago, Conce (Penco) and Valdivia.
Founded in 1552 by Pedro de Valdivia, it was then the southernmost city in the Spanish Empire. Valdivia founded Santiago, moved south, built Concepcion (which was Penco at the time, then it was moved and renamed), and went onto secure the south too - a very busy Conquistador! The city sits on the 3 rivers, Calle Calle, Valdivia and Cau-Cau, making it easily defensible, which was very important at the time as the native people of Chile, the Mapuche, weren't overly happy with the Spanish marching in and taking all of their land. A fort was built, and the town fortified, but the Mapuche people attacked and burnt the city a few times, and even after Valdivia's death (at the hands of his Mapuche manservant Lautaro), the War of Arauco continued with leaders such as Caupolican and Colocolo - now street names in every Chilean town and city (along with Spanish leaders like O'Higgins and Prat), and also one of the most popular football teams in the country. By 1684 the city was fortified properly and made secure, and was then used as a base to explore and conquer the south.

A seal at the fish market.
Vultures also waiting to be fed.
The view from he fort in Valdivia.
Today it is famous for it's beauty, wildlife and beer! I arrived early in the morning, and found my hostel really easily - it's a small town and only took me 10 minutes from the bus stop, then 5 more minutes to the waterfront. At 6am I wasn't expecting too much activity from a city this size, only 127,000 people, but it was at the Feria Fluvial (Fish Markets) where I found the action - in the form of Sea Lions. These enormous animals, which I have seen at zoos and aquariums before, really amazed me. There is nothing like seeing an animal in it's natural habitat - but these creatures were also living side-by-side with people and both parties seemed to be benefiting from it. The fishmongers were setting up shop, cutting up and preparing their fresh produce, while the seals were setting up shop too, just behind the workers - waiting for scraps. One creature was within a metre of a man preparing fish, but instead of barking at him (yes, they bark) or even being aggressive, he sat their waiting patiently. These South American Sea Lions were the biggest I have ever seen - longer than a man is tall, and easily weighing as much as 5 rugby players. Yet, they did not bite, weren't aggressive, and were actually quite cute. They were also quite happy to sit and let people take photos of them too. A local mentioned to me that last year they were seen wandering the Plaza - 500m from the fish markets. Wow!

A man multi-tasking at the Feria Fluvial (Fish Markets).
I want my dinner!
Drive through seafood restaurant.
The town itself is small as I've said before, and it has a slightly different feel to it than Concepción and Santiago. Part of this is due to the early Spanish colonisation, and the big German influence in the mid 19th Century too. There aren't many old or historic buildings to be seen, and this is because of the earthquake in 1960. The Great Chilean Earthquake, as it is now known, registered 9.5 on the Richter Scale and lasted for 10 whole minutes. It is still the largest quake ever to be recorded. It's such a sad thing to see all around Chile - so many things have been destroyed by quakes or tsunamis here, it's a wonder why people keep building things back up. Wandering around town, there is a boat-building industry here, but everywhere you look are trees - the forestry industry basically keeps the region running. Something to be seen down here too is the new bridge that spans the Cau Cau River. I love bridges, from The Sydney Harbour Bridge to Tower Bridge and also the tallest bridge in the world in France, The Millau Viaduct, but I wanted to see this one for a different reason. It is Chile's first ever drawbridge, and was due to be opened already, but sadly the construction has been delayed due to a major 'technical error' - one half of the road has been installed 'up-side down.' It is a laughing stock in this country and everyone knows about it - you say you went to Valdivia, and people will ask you if you've seen 'that' bridge. I guess you can laugh about it as a Spanish company built it, but still it was a big waste of $30m!

Patiently waiting to be fed, even though this seal weighs more than 5 times this man.
Vultures soaking up the sun.
The 'Broken' bridge - Chile's first drawbridge.
A place where you can see the big German influence in Chile is the Kuntsmann Brewery down here. 5 kms from the centre of the city, it's a big tourist attraction, and probably my main reason for visiting. In 1850 Germans came to Chile, fleeing from political persecution, seeking a better life. The Germans also fled to America and Australia at the same time, bringing hotdogs to the States and their wine-making skills to Australia. When they arrived in Chile, they turned their hands at making beer - God love the Germans! It was set up and run by the Anwandter family, and the beer was made to the strict Bavarian recipe from 1516 which was a standard to purification - and uses 4 ingredients and nothing else, those being hops, barley, yeast and water. The Duke of Bavaria brought this law in, making this beer different from ale, and less likely to get a belly ache. Sorry England, but you're drinking bacteria! The brewery was passed down the generations and made beer until 1960. Guess why? Yup, that earthquake. The factory was lost and was only rebuilt in 1991, but hasn't missed a day of making beer since then! The tour was interesting, and they still have the original recipe book, along with many glasses and bottles of the different beer they've made over the years, but one thing that was amazing was a crate of a dozen beers. Back in the good old days, beer in Valdivia was delivered to your door in crates of 12, just like milk not that long ago, and they still have the last remaining bottle, still with beer in it, to have survived the quake. On the tour you can also east the barley they use - blond, caramel and toasted. All with a different taste, all yummy, and even more so with beer! Needless to say, beer was drunk that day too - lots of it.

The last bottle from 1960.
Welcome to where the beer is made!
Valdivia is a beer drinking town, and the brewery runs a yearly Oktoberfest in town. They hold beer drinking competitions, and two Chileans currently hold the record for the fastest litre downed - the male champ did it in 4 seconds and his female counterpart holds the best time at 6 seconds - wow! One of the owners of the Kuntsmann brewery, which is still all family controlled, comes in once or twice a year to concoct a special brew. No records are kept of his creations, it isn't bottle or mass-produced, and is only served there - once it runs out, it's gone. Must be a mad uncle. There are numerous bars around town too, but I managed to find a cool little cider place, a pub that was recommended by the locals too. You can bring your own jug to get filled up and taken home, or just sit at the bar, drink the 6.5% strength goodness, and try not to worry about the stagger home. This little place was called 'The Growler,' and I enjoyed a nice pint of cider there. The owner brews his own stuff too, and so I asked about if he bottles it or not. The lovely barmaid said he tried, but tends to drink all that he makes before it gets in the bottle. Awesome!

Don't do it! Street art in Valdivia.
I did a fair bit of walking around, and there is quite a lot to do. Numerous boats leave from the marina on tours of the rivers and surrounding wetlands, and there is also an iceberg tour. I didn't do any of these, but instead just wandered around town, seeing what I found. I came across a submarine which you can go in and see for $4, a German cemetery dating from 1851, and also the fort. The fort was free to get in, and although not much to it, was still interesting. Right at the mouth of the river, it has a commanding view, and there is a smaller fortification on the other bank as well - no wonder this spot was chosen a defensible position. Something that you probably wouldn't know about unless you had local knowledge, or go drinking with locals, is that there is a boat sitting out in the reeds that used to be a nightclub, but has now fallen into disrepair. So many more things to do here, but no time - bus back to Conce for work the next day!

The fort at Valdivia.

Monday, 19 October 2015

A Little Bit Of Lota

Lota - home of the Chiflon del Diablo, the World's only undersea mine.
The weather is getting better here in Conce - you can actually say that it's Spring now. The sun is out and temps are hitting 18c, flowers are coming alive, and the poor street dogs are getting some respite from the cold, wet weather. The same goes for me, as I need to dry out thoroughly from the wet months in this city. With another long weekend in Chile, there was the temptation to go far a field and use the three days to their fullest, but I decided on something a little more local - see what I can here before the big trip. Yes, that big trip is coming - the countdown has began, and it's less than 2 months away!

The centre of Chile!
A monument to the miners of Lota.
My weekend jaunt this time took me to a coastal town called Lota, about 35kms south of Concepcion. Sadly Lota is not much to look at. There is a beach, La Playa Blanca (White Beach), but the beach front was empty of people and had a dilapidated and run-down look about it - closed restaurants that haven't been opened in years if not decades, the cold ocean always pounding in at the sand, and the occasional wandering dog. Lota wasn't always a forgotten place somewhere in the middle of Chile. In fact, it IS the geographical mid-point of the country (not including the territory that Chile owns in Antarctica), and there is even a sign announcing this fact to all the tourists (just me). Am I the only person who is interested by these things? I have stood in the dead-centre of Spain (which happens to be in Plaza Meyor in Madrid), the most eastern part of mainland Australia (Byron Bay), Greenwich in London and the old 'Time 0' line in the Canary Islands. Aside from this interesting fact, Lota is also home to the World's only under-sea coal mine which was written about by Chilean writer Bladomero Lillo in his 1904 novel 'Subterra,' and also featured on the big screen in the 2003 film of the same name.

Entering down into the Devil's Breath.
Selfies all round!
The local store.
The book, and movie, talk about the dangerous and hard working conditions that the workers faced in the mine. The mine, called 'El Chiflon del Diablo,' translated as 'The Devils' Breath,' operated between 1857 and 1990, and was built and run by Matias Cousiño Jorquera, and in it's heyday it was pulling up 250 tons of coal per day. It's 850 meters deep and due to it's inclination is one of the few naturally ventilated mines in the World. I have been down a mine before, Big Pit in Wales, but it is always exciting and different. I was expecting all of my electronics to be taken off me as they did in Wales, but we were allowed everything - just asked to leave lighters above ground, but nobody checked. So, being Chile, there were selfies to be had, and had they were - in the changing room, helmets on, on the lift ride down, and down the mine... basically everywhere. It was difficult going down there, as it was a very confined space even by Chilean standards where the buses aren't my size. Go went down, 6 people packed in a 1 m2, slightly shaky metal lift, water dripping around us, and into the Devil's belly.

The miner's village that was recreated for the movie Subterra (2003).
The guide gave a good talk, and took us to a few places in the mine and explained many interesting facts about the mine. The reinforcement used in the tunnels are from Eucalyptus trees, chosen for their resistance to the downward pressure and also their flexibility. As per most mines, safety wasn't really an issue for the owners - canaries were used to test the level of toxic gases - if tweetypie dropped off his perch, you ran or did the same. Workers did 7am - 7pm shifts, 6 days a week (Sunday was for church) in complete darkness usually, and basically never saw the sun. Kids also worked down the mine, and started at at 11. The guide also did the usual things of asking you to turn off your headlamps (and mobiles!) to see what it would have been like - the phrases 'can't see your nose in front of your own face' fits perfectly. It is complete pitch darkness, no two ways about it - like the Devil himself swallowed up the light. The village where the workers lived was partially rebuilt for the movie and is still there to allow you a glimpse of the past. The local store is also there, with all the old packaged products, and was the only place you could use your vouchers that you were paid in - you bought everything there, so all the 'money' went back to the mining company. The mine was declared a National Monument in 2009 and opened it's doors to the general public. It was also damaged in the 2010 earthquake, but has since been repaired, but all the time I was down there I was trying very hard not to think about it!

Up on the hill in Lota and out on a peninsula is Parque Isidora. This park was started by Matias Cousiño, the mining magnate himself, and was taken up after his death by his son Luis. A very noble gesture, Luis decided that the park would be a gift for his wife Isidora, and brought in plant species from Europe. It was designed by an Englishman, and has statues, small gardens and fountains. One small pond in the park has no fountain, the water sitting like glass, and the tiles are black - this is to reflect the stars at night for easy viewing. There are numerous statues, 20 in fact, including a "Diana The Huntress" and an interesting one of a child pulling a splinter from his foot. The latter is called "Niño de la Espina," and is a replica of the 1st Century AD sculpture in Rome, and is said to represent the Roman shepherd Gnaeus Marcius , ordered to deliver an important message to the Senate who ran a long way ignoring the thorn from his foot until he accomplished his mission. The house that the happy couple were to live in was also built in the park, but sadly Isidora died in Paris, presumably shopping for a door handle for the house with her best friend, before she had the chance to live in it. The park has a commanding view of the sea and of the beaches of Lota, and there is even a lighthouse, but sadly the house is no longer there - it was damaged in the 1960 earthquake and then completely demolished by the mining company.

What are you looking at ugly?
A dog with nothing to do and nowhere to go.
2 small boats in Lota.
I have spoken before about the 'real' Chile. Lota is the real deal. There are loads of poor houses, they look like they have been built by the people living in them by scrounging anything they can find - tin sheets, planks of used timber, wire. Hungry dogs wander the streets and kids play on dirt football pitches, vultures soaring around the cliffs looking for food. The seaside is supposed to be a happy, warm place, but sadly due to the Pacific bringing up the cold Antarctic current, Chile will never have warm beaches. Imagine the water was warm. All of the poor villages, the big factories and oil refineries that now slump on the coast would be replaced by caravan parks, holiday-makers getting drunk and burnt on their rented deck-chairs, bad souvenir shops and big resorts... ok, so maybe it isn't too bad to have a cold ocean. It is still sad to think about though, as it could be absolute paradise with the mountains in the background too. Sadly, anything that people touch in Chile pretty much gets ruined.

Mapuche graffiti on a wall in Conce.
A filter for real men!
A collapsed highway in Conce from the 2010 quake.
In saying this, I have to admit that sometimes what people do in Chile actually brightens up the place. I have mentioned before all the graffiti in Valparaiso, but it's not limited to one city - even Conce has some pretty cool artwork. Wandering around on the weekend, just enjoying the sunshine and some music through my earphones (to block out the noise of the city), there is far more than you realise. I walked from my house near the University of Concepcion down to Vega Monumental, the big fruit and veg market in the city. You can get a bus no problem, but I wanted to walk and enjoy the relative quiet that is Sunday here. Along the sides of, quite frankly, ugly apartment buildings, there is cool and imaginative graffiti turned art work. From the usual socialism/communism slogans and pictures of girls and boys from the factories chanting for better rights, to some guy called Kroma who does Banksy-style stenciling, to funky and strange things I'm not even sure what they are, to Mapuche icons and flags. Sometimes things here are strange and you're not sure why they happen or hey they work, but sometimes you just look at something and take it for what it is and appreciate it.

A mural in Concepcion.

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...