Tuesday, June 16, 2009

---> Rocking the north of Chile

For the past 11 days I have become very, very scarily accostomed to living out of a suitcase. The reason? The 2009 AFS tour of the north! There were 37 of us students from around the world (USA, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Finland, Denmark, China, Thailand and Russia) together on a bus for 10 days. We had awesoe tour guides, Jorge and Alejandro, 2 very nice AFS volunteers, Pato and Carmen Gloria, and two other New Zealand teachers, Aroha and Uenuku to accompany us. It was one of the best experiences of my life, and I had so many memorable moments and made even more friendships. But like everything in exchange, it's bittersweet - I found out I would not be seeing many of my friends again, as they are the ones that are only here for 5 months, and our next orientation is not together.

So here's how it went:
I caught the overnight bus to Santiago on Thursday (4th June). As usual it was late. It was the type that has bigger seats and can go back further. Fabian and I from Copiapó went, but I was on the bus by myself because Fabian was already in Santiago for the holidays.

Day 1 [getting together]
Waiting at the bus terminal in Santiago was Rodrigo from AFS and the students from Temuco and Valdivia (in the south). Laura from Germany, Sebastian from Denmark, Anastasia from Russia, Stephanie from the USA and Stephanie from NZ. We waited for ages at the bus terminal for more students to arrive, then were taken in a mini van to another place, which turned out to be the place where we had out first ever orientation in Chile.
It brought back a lot of memories, and arriving there for a second time we all thought about how much we'd grown, experienced and changed in those 3 months. For the next few hours we lay on the grass and listened to our iPods, and talked. While we waited more and more students turned up. At about 2pm, we went into the dining hall to eat lunch. It was so exciting to see one another again. Finally after everyone arrived, the AFS people called us into a room to talk to us about safety and give us hand sanitizer and these awesome blue jackets. We then got on the bus - the bus we would be in for the next 10 days, and drove (a very slow journey, because the traffic was horrible) to McDonalds. AFS had reserved the upper level, and we suppered on hamburgers and french fries. I have now become accostomed to dipping french fries in mayonaise AND ketchup, and opening the hamburgers to add mustard. 
They said we could go to the mall after maccas, so we walked along to the mall, and I hung out with Analisa and Emily from the USA, Martta from Finland, Stu from NZ, Michael from Germany and Sebastian from Denmark. We had to find something to do to fill in the time, so ended up going to Falabella (a department store) and us girls picked out an outfit to make Sebastian the Denmarkian look gay. Epic fun. He even did a catwalk for us. 

We went off to the supermarket and to buy gelato (it's amazing here) and ended up being the last ones to get back on the bus, because we thought the time we were given was a different time. Therefore I ended up sitting in the front of the bus with one of the bus drivers, and was a little bit annoyed because I was expecting to be sitting there the entire overnight journey to Caldera. But thankfully things have a way of sorting themselves out, and at about 11.30pm, we stopped for 'dinner' at a very nice restaurant, with tables all laid out ready for us. 

Then our first overnighter commenced. And overnighters in buses aren't fun. You can't lie down properly and stretch out, and I think although everybody appears to be asleep, they're just lying there with their eyes shut. We also got stopped at about 2am to use the bathrooms and buy stuff from a petrol station. There were other stops along the way, the bus drivers have to check in at these police checkpoints, I'm not sure why, but that's why the bus was stopping. 

Day 2 [beach life]
Finally we arrived in Caldera, had breakfast and a chance to shower and change. We walked to the cathedral and had a look around the markets and in the afternoon went to Bahia Inglesa, where some brave boys swam, and my friends looked for a place to buy coffee/ice creams. 

Iris and Erika (USA) at Bahia Inglesa

Me, Niklas (Germany), Nic (Australia) and Laura (Germany) at the port of Caldera

In the evening we had dinner, which was soup, chicken and rice, and fruit for desert, then went into Caldera and walked around the town at night, and I went on a mission to find Bon O Bon's, a sweet here that I really like. It's a nut truffle centre, then a wafer, then covered in chocolate. They cost 30 cents and are soooo good!

Kiwi Stephanie and I got back earlier because we both wanted to shower, and after then others got back we all went to bed, because we were exhausted, and had to get up early the next morning for the trip to San Pedro de Atacama.

Day 3 [bus times]
San Pedro de Atacama is a very very very long way from Caldera. On the ride we stopped at El Mano del Desierto, which is a giant hand sticking out of the desert sand. The distances in the north are very long, everything is extremely spread out, and for miles and miles all you can see it blue sky and yellow desert sand, so it was nice to have a bit of an interruption. The heat was amazing too, and the dryness (the Atacama desert is the driest desert in the world). 

El Mano del Desierto (with the Denmarkian, a German and a girl from the USA)

To keep us entertained on the bus, our guide Jorge got us playing a game, where each side of the bus was a team, and we had to be the first side to pass a quantity of something forward on the bus, like 10 sunglasses, 5 shoes, that kind of thing. We also had a competition to see how many clothes we could get someone wearing, and a fashion parade/competition for when we dressed Simon the Frenchman as a women, and Sebastian the German too, then Sofi the Austrian and Olga the Finn as boys. It was hilarious when Simon and Sebastian were doing the catwalk down the aisle of the bus and the music playing was Katy Perry 'I Kissed a Girl'.

At night we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, and it was freezing cold, but dry cold. It's 2600 metres above sea level and I discovered that we were at a very high altitude when I got my brush out of my toilet bag and noticed it was covered in a mix of face wash and shampoo. Altitude makes liquids expand. We also noticed that our skin was very dry, and it was very cold. The hostel room had two bunk beds (very creaky) and one bathroom, with a scary shower that would wait for a while then suddenly shoot water out, and it was funny because everyone who had a shower always screamed when it happened! We had a walk around San Pedro the village but were tired so went to bed.

Day 4 [San Pedro and salt]
Another early morning (after a late night) and we departed for Laguna de Chaxa. On the way we passed some tiny desert villages, and a plantation of trees, and llamas. No single llamas though, they were all in groups. These were to be the only wild llamas I saw on the trip. It was very flat, and because San Pedro is really far inland, we were driving alongside the Andes, a few hours drive away was Bolivia and Argentina. We also saw a smoking volcano in the Andes range.

The lake wasn't one huge lake, but lots of small ones. For as far as the eye could see was salt, so it was blue and white, then mountain ranges then sky. It was absolutely breathtaking (literally too, because of the altitude). My photos just couldn't capture the sheer wonder of it all. In the lakes were flamingos, and they would fly over us a few times. At the bottom of this page I have included a photo I havn't reduced in size, just to show how amazing it looked. Click on it and you will be able to see it full size. 
There were little paths of salt underfoot that crunched as we walked, just like snow. And with the Andes in the background, wow. They say life shouldn't be measured by the number of breaths you take, but the number of times it takes your breath away, and I'm definitely alive!


Toconao was a small village, and instead of having a market, people sell stuff in shops inside their tiny homes, and we had a little walk around the village to see what was sold. In a small village near the Andes, the standard of living isn't as high, there were not sealed roads, the houses were tiny and made of mud and straw (they don't need to be watertight, because it never rains, and smaller is easier for keeping in heat at night, when temperatures can drop below zero). The people were more Peruvian looking, and had more leathery skin, because the sun can take a toll. I couldn't imagine living in such a small, isolated community. But it was beautiful, and the plaza and church were very pretty. 

We had a very yummy lunch in a restaurant in San Pedro  - cafes don't really exist in Chile, and it's safer to go to the more expensive restaurants, rather than little eateries, because of the risk of food poisoning. Lunch was a vegetable lasagne, which everyone loved. Once we finished lunch, we were free to wander around San Pedro, which is incredibly touristy, full of people speaking differend languages, and shops selling overpriced goods. I bought postcards, a Chile flag badge and a warm hat, but nothing else because I'd seen them for cheaper prices elsewhere. 
San Pedro de Atacama

In the afternoon, we visited Valle de la Luna, which is supposed to look like the moon in twilight. But before it got dark we went for a lovely walk through a long rocky cave. In the dark. But with the different levels of sunlight it was very dramatic, the craggy rocks beneath the deep blue sky. 

When twilight was about to come, we drove to a sand dune, climbed it - which took ages! This was to see the sun set on the valley, at it was yet again breathtaking. The colours of sunset came up on the rocks in the distance, and the white part of the valley began to glow. We waiting more and more for the moon to rise, and we had timed it perfectly with the full moon, which illuminated the valley and made the scenery very dramatic. And it was cold, too. (Clever me who left my warm polar fleece on the bus!)

Then after that, back to the hostel to have dinner and shower then go to bed, ready for the long trip to Iquique the net day.
Valley of the Moon

Day 5 [the wheels on the bus go round and round]
Another long day of travelling. A few students were very tired because they had gone sand boarding then night before (something I wish I had done, but didn't know anything about it till it was too late!) We began the drive to Iquique, but stopped for lunch in a gorgeous desert village called Pica, where they grow a lot of fruit. It was very green and flowery for a desert village, because it is an artificial oasis. 

Another stop we made was to see the hieroglyphs, where NZ Stephanie and I had a very creative way of using our blue jackets to stop us getting sunburnt. 

It's like an umbrella!

After lunch we went to a hand made ice cream shop and I tried quinoa ice cream, becuase quinoa is grown there. Then we went to the nearby village of La Tirana, to go to the hot pool, which is thermally heated. I didn't swim, but the students that did looked like they had fun. 


In the desert it is very isolated, so they try to attract people to live there - one of the things the council does it to have free wi-fi in public places!

After, we visited a church, which was special because the ceiling of the church was covered in gold stars. When someone wants to donate money to the church, a gold star gets put on the ceiling. It was a beautiful church, too.

The church

There wasn't much in the way of markets there, but Stephanie, Allie (from the USA) and I got some shaved ice. It was quite funny because after we ordered it, I remembered it's not a good idea to drink water that's not bottled, and there was not way of knowing where the ice came from! But luckily I saw the man put ice cubes in the machine from a plastic ice cube sealed bag, so we were lucky! 

We continued the bus ride up to Iquique. One of the things we have to do before we arrive in the hotels is allocate the rooms, because normally there are rooms of 4 and 5, and sometimes 6. My AFS buddies were the two other Kiwi girls, Ashleigh and Steph, then Allie and Stephanie from the USA, so we liked to get a room of 5. Sitting in the front of the bus was handy though, because we were normally up there first.

The arrival to the hotel in Iquique was very exciting because the hotel was so flash! When we went up to our rooms, the doors were opened with a card, not a key, and we each had a card. It was the flashest hotel we stayed in, and had a gorgeous view of the sea and the city, and the clock, which was a giant digital clock on the dunes that surround Iquique. When we arrived at the hotel we all ran around screaming because the rooms were so nice! We walked on the beach for a bit then had dinner and went to our room, where we watched TV then went to bed. 

Day 6 [surprise time]
Pato, our volunteer, had lived in Iquique and been to school there. We had been told earlier that there would be a surprise for us in Iquique, but we weren't sure what. We got in the bus and headed off downtown.

The place we arrived at was a school, a school for the arts. The courtyard was all set up with chairs. Students at the school performed traditional Chilean dances for us, with their own band playing, wearing proper costumes. It was great, very polished, and they looked to be about 12 years old too. The highlight was when the dancers grabbed the hands of some of us to dance with them.

It was embarrassing though, because after the Maori teachers who were with us performed the haka, the New Zealanders (Me, Ashleigh, Stephanie and Stu) were asked to come up and perform Pokarekare Ana with them, in front of an entire school - and I can't remember the last time I listened to, let alone sang, that song, before the trip!

We visited classrooms in the school, because the school is an arts school, it has the 4 art focuses - music, dance, visual and drama. One of the classrooms for visual arts was amazing - there were kids sitting there painting their own versions of masterpieces, like Guernica by Picasso and Salvador Dali painings, and they were very very good. 

We did some more dancing with the students, and also, lots of the girls crowded around one of the blonde haired germans asking for his email address.  

Before we left the school, we were given some Chumbeque, which is a bit like a Shrewsbury biscuit, to take home.

Next stop was the museum, where there were very old mummies. The architecture in Iquique was very colonial, and lots of stuff was made from Oregon Pine. 

We went to the town square and a market, and also a chocolate shop. Lunch was in a restaurant, where I talked to Sofi, who came here last year, about a camp she went on with AFS in Chile for community service, which sounded amazing, and hopefully I get a chance to go one one too.

The town square plus me and Allie

We had free time to go to the beach once we got back to the hotel, so we went and walked along the beach and played in the sand, then walked back to where the hotel was, ready to go to the huge duty free mall, Zona Franca. Iquique and Punta Arenas both have duty free malls to try and encourage more people to live there, because they are so isolated. The Zona Franca was a bit of a disappointment, it wasn't a nice mall, lots of the stuff was cheap and junky looking, but some students managed to make good purchases.

Me, Ashleigh, Allie, Stephanie, Iris and Stephanie at the beach in Iquique

Iquique was a really nice city by Chilean standards, it had a really nice waterfront area, with a little llama park and a turtle park. Although it has a population of about 220,000, it still is really compact, and surrounded by either dunes or sea. 

Posing in the sunset

Day 7 [the bus life]
This day we were allowed to sleep in a bit, as long as we were ready to leave by 11.45pm. Breakfast was until 10pm, and my room was the first to go down to have brekkie! After that we got our bags ready and went to the supermarket, then everyone met at the bus and we boarded for the drive to Arica, the northernmost city in Chile. On the way we stopped at a ghost town, called Humberstone, which was an old mineral town, but now is completely deserted. I must say it was really cool and freaky, and it definitely would have been scary at night! Lots of the stuff there was made from iron, and there was like a refrigeration building, which despite the heat of the desert, was really chilly inside.

The swimming pool made from shipping containers

A grave yard in the desert. The crosses are decorated with iron flowers.

In the bus we watched The Others, which was a thriller movie, and oh how the guides loved our scared faces! One of the roads we drove on was cut into a huge huge desert sanddune, with a huge gorge on our right hand side, and along the road were cars that had gone overboard, and the little memorials for people who had lost their lives on the road. When it was sunset, the gorge was absolutely spectacualer. I was stoking it because I was the first to notice how beautiful it looked through the curtains, then more people started looking until everyone was over the right hand side of the bus with their cameras! 

We arrived in Arica and had supper, and who came after supper but our New Zealand friend Chris, who is hosted in Arica. He hung out with us that night, when we went for a walk all together down to the markets and after just talking at the hotel. It was great to see him again, since we hadn't s
een him since February.

Day 8 [sleepiness and museums]
This was the day I was the most tired, probably due to the late night before. On the bus I was nearly asleep, but we arrived at this museum and our guide gave us a tour of it. I was so tired I can't remember much from it! Outside was really beautiful - there are lots of brightly coloured flowers in Arica! The museum was in Valle de Azapa, where lots of fruit is grown.

Chris, Stephanie, Ashleigh and Allie outside the museum.

We went to a place where we could look out over Arica, because of the coastline, we could see Peru as well - a first for someone who could never before see another country from her country!

Lunch was in the fast food place called Roly's, recommended to us by Chris. The special thing about Roly's, is that everything it GIANT! The hot dogs and churrascos were so big, I ate just under a half of my churrasco. Then we went a-marketing.

The markets in Arica were amazing, and I bought a lot of gifts there. It's good to see the markets vary from city to city!

We boarded the bus for the overnight trip to Antofagasta after dinner. I never will be a fan of overnight bus rides.

Day 9 [grunginess]
Grunginess pretty much describes how everyone feels after overnight bus trips. We used the same bus for the whole trip, so it wasn't the cleanest either, although it did get cleaned during the trip. Antofagasta was cloudy, and that seemed to bring out the dirtiness of the city. But what was cool was seeing people playing rugby in fields by the beach!

After breakfast, we went to a train museum, where the first train between Chile and Bolivia was. We visited the town square, where I made friends with a lion.

Meet my new friend. I'm scarier.

Lots of students had bought these pajama-like trousers, and a group photo was taken of them. Unfortunately I didn't get a pair. I should have. We went to the mall next, and I am glad Copiapó doesn't have a mall like in Antofagasta, because it had heaps of nice shops. I didn't buy anything thought, because I had set myself a budget for the tour and wanted to stick to it.

After lunch, which was at the same place we had breakfast, and where the fries were really good, we started the journey to Caldera, to stay the night. On the way in the bus, we danced to Chilean Reggaeton music, which is the perfect music to dance to. And not only reggaeton, bus also the Macarena! Good times, good times! Everyone was really tired though, and we slept in the bus earlier.
Tired people

Can you see cars? Because I can't . . .

Supper was ready on arrival in Caldera, in the same place we stayed at the first night. The adults had food and stuff, so we could have a party, but it never really got off the ground. The mood started to die near the end of the trip, it was so good it should have gone on forever.

Day 10 [finality]
In the morning we left Caldera for La Serena. Only a six hour bus ride. When we arrived, we had a choice of doing sightseeing, but everyone was too tired and we opted for relaxing and going to the mall for supper. Immediately after we arrived, we went to a buffet for lunch, and after a walk downtown.

W went to a cathedral, one of the many in La Serena, and shook hands with the Archbishop of the region. It was a gorgeous church, with amazing stained glass windows. The market was next, because Chilean markets are amazing, then back to the motel to chill before the mall.

The motel was across the road from the beach, so we went there and spent time at the beach, me, Ashleigh, the Stephanies, Allie and Iris. It was so fun, we were on a bit of a high and walked along the beach signing and taking photos. We ate churros (donuts, which are so yummy!) and talked. Then back to the hotel to get ready to go to the mall for supper.

The AFS gals at the beach - Me, Stephanie from NZ, Iris and Allie from the USA, Ashleigh from NZ and Stephanie from the USA

Supper at the mall was pizza. After our supper, we went to the supermarket and bought chocolate chippie mix, butter, milk, marshmallows, chocolate, milo, wine biscuites, lollies and milk. We wanted to do something special to celebrate the last night of being together, and decided to make cookies, hot milo and s'mores. (The motel had cooking facilities in the rooms). The volunteers laughed at our purchases, becuase they were kind of random!

Before we made our treats, we gathered, all of us, to elect the person with the best spanish (Sofi, who had been here for nearly a year), the nicest girl (Erika, who is really nice), the nicest boy (Michael, who is from Germany and nice), the most punctual (Pan, from Thailand) and the latest (Pinja, from Finland). 

Back to our rooms, and us AFS BFFs began to make the chocolate chip cookies and the milo. Nobody was really hungry for s'mores after the supper, and we had a huge conversation about everything exchange related, and it was good to talk to people who fully understood, to let out a few whines and just do what girls to best, which it talk. It got cold, so we all went to the double bed and sat under the duvet and carried on talking, till the wee hours of the morning, when we decided it was best to get some sleep.

Day 11 [the end]
After our suitcases were loaded in the bus, we went back to our rooms to have breakfast, then get on the bus for Santiago. The very very end. On the way we stopped at a place and got cheese empanadas. The students that live along the way got dropped of, and the rest of us arrived at the bus station to wait for our buses. It was a really weird feeling of being in limbo. We were all a bit depressed because the trip had ended and we weren't going to be seeing some of the people again, but also happy because we had had such an amazing time. So it was weird. But finally it was my and Fabian's turn to board the bus, and it was a double decker bus and we were on the top deck, which was cool.

I had the best time on the trip, and I am so glad I went. It is filled with good memories that I will never forget, and the chance to spend time with other exchange students is also amazing. I'm back in Copiapó now, but in my head I'm reliving the good times from the trip.

Here is a large photo of Laguna de Chaxa, click on it and it will get bigger.
Edit: sorry, it didn't work.

1 comment:

claire said...

Wow. I was going to print this off at work so i can take a hard copy to Mother in Auckland when i fly up tonight (and to read on the plane) , but I think I will be clogging up the printer for ages and my colleagues will complain! Set the flamingo picture as my desktop. I am anvious of seeing you swimming and wearing t-shirts when it was 0 deg C thismorning and a stiff white frost! lots of love, Mum