Sunday, December 26, 2010

Snow place like home!

I am curled up in my pajamas at home now, and my dad and great uncle are watching the Bears play against the Jets on TV.  It is snowing outside, and we have heating so it is nice and warm despite the cold weather.

It is a nice feeling being back home and being surrounded by what is familiar to me: my dad's house, driving around the neighborhood, the last school I worked at, and visiting family and friends.  It has been a really nice experience catching up with some of my friends and their families, and they were eager to hear about my experiences.  I've gotten to see most of my family also, and it's always nice catching up with them too.

When visiting my brother's work, I was surprised to hear how many of his employees have been reading my blog.  One of them asked me, "So you're the guy that did the bungee jumping?"  It almost made me feel like a celebrity, and it was flattering to meet people that I didn't know before that are readers.

And of course it has been great being home for the food.  I've been enjoying turkey, ham, oven browned potatos, stuffing, gravy, pumpkin pie, Philly pretzels, and other foods that I have been missing for the past year.  It has been so nice having home cooked meals and sharing them with family and friends, as it is something I always look forward to at the holidays.

I've also enjoyed nabbing some great after Christmas deals.  I got a new pair of jeans for $10, and a new pair of corduroy pants were $15.  I'm hoping that some stores will have shorts and jeans shorts before I go back to Santiago, as I really need some new pairs.

Being back has magnified some of the cultural differences between Chile and the United States.  I think the biggest one I'm noticing now is with materialism and shopping.  In general it seems that material possessions are considered more important in the States, and it's not common to go out shopping even when you don't need anything.  It's also very easy to buy things using a credit card and not worrying about it until the bill comes in the next month.  I've certainly been guilty about this plenty of times before.

In Chile it seems that people usually only go shopping when they need something.  Prices for clothing and electronics are usually higher in Chile than the States, and sales don't seem to be as good there as they are at home.  From the Chileans I know, it seems like they have far fewer material possessions and smaller apartments than we have in the States.

When I went out shopping for the pants I bought earlier today, I found myself wandering into video game stores and feeling tempted to buy some used games before realizing I would probably only play them for a week or two before they would collect dust.  I also only brought cash with me, and I'm realizing that paying in cash makes you realize how much you are paying as opposed to credit card.

Considering the cultural differences, I can't blame people in the States for spending the way they do.  After all, prices are so much lower.  Since things are so affordable buying things on a whim doesn't have the financial implications that it might have for a person in a similar financial position in Chile.

I'm also trying to find things to do during my time home.  Unfortunately things didn't work out for me to be able to substitute at the last school I was at, so I'm looking for some opportunities to do some tutoring for Spanish, German, or elementary school.  I'm also going to take advantage of a boxing gym's 7 day free trial, then hopefully a Bally's 14 day free trial in order to counteract the weight that I will probably put on with all of the delicious food.

Luckily I will be visiting friends in Los Angeles for a week in January thanks to my dad's gift of frequent flyer miles, and I'll also visit a friend near Harrisburg another weekend.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Home Sweet Home

After a 2 hour delay, I boarded my flight.  I touched down in New York at 7:30 this morning, and after a 2 hour drive home (luckily there wasn't any traffic) I made it home!

It feels really good to be home.  The time so far has been spent with my dad and great uncle.  Going to the grocery store was a strange experience due to seeing prices in dollars, the huge variety of everything, and the astonishing amount of cookies and junk food lining all of the aisles.

I've already seen a few people I know at the local Starbucks and the Shoprite, and I'm looking forward to catching up with more friends soon.

Monday, December 20, 2010

So I spoke too soon....

So my flight was supposed to take off at 10:30 PM, but it's not 11:15.  The screens say that there is a minimum one hour delay. 

I'm hungry and hoping that we will board soon, as the flight included dinner and breakfast.

Wish me luck!

Almost There....

I'm at the airport in Sao Paulo.

I got to the airport in Santiago at 10:45, with my flight leaving at 1:15.  There was a 5 minute wait to check in and a 5 minute wait to go through security, so I had plenty of time.  The flight was uneventful, and I had an empty seat next to me.

When we touched down it was raining and there was some thunder, so I'm hoping it won't affect my flight to New York.  It looks like it is clearing up now, so I should be fine.

Now just til kill another three hours or so until I leave.  See you soon everyone.

Flying Home

So I'm leaving for the airport in about an hour. 

My flight leaves Santiago at 1:15 this afternoon, and I arrive in Sao Paulo to a nearly 5 hour layover.  Then my next flight leaves around 10:30 tonight, and I will touch down in New York at 5:30 AM Tuesday.

I was going to arrive at the airport at 11, but a friend told me the airport was crazy so I'm arriving there at 10.

Goodbye Santiago (for now), and thank you to all of the wonderful people here that I've met.  Some of you I will see again upon my return to Chile, but for others of us will have to wait until some other time in the future to meet up.

And also thank you to all of the people that have been reading my blog.  When I hear about people reading from my dad, it gave me the encouragement and willpower to keep posting.

See you soon USA.

Friday, December 17, 2010

3 days and counting....

This week went by really quickly, and I fly home in 3 days.  I've been talking about it with family and friends, and while I am saying the words it has not yet become a reality for me.  I don't think it will until I am leaving for the airport and stepping onto the flight.

The week has been spent finishing classes, packing, cleaning my apartment, and starting to say my goodbyes.  I will genuinely miss my classes with my students, as it is rewarding seeing their growth in English.  But more than that, it has also been great getting to know them as people.  I also said my goodbyes at work and passed off my classes to the other teachers that will take them over, and that is another group of people that I will genuinely miss.

I also spent time tying up loose ends with my health insurance and gym membership.  I unfortunately had two situations in which Chileans weren't being honest in order to try and make more money off of me.  Luckily I had a Chilean friend that was available, and we went around and got my health insurance plan changed to a cheaper one (it turns out that the one I was sold didn't have a gym membership included as I was led to believe) and got my current gym membeship frozen for my vacation at half the cost of what it was supposed to be.

These experiences have left me with a sad but true lesson: No matter how fluent your Spanish is when you are in Chile, it is always a good idea to have a native Chilean present for any type of business transaction to prevent people from trying to take advantage of you.  I am a pretty nice guy (sometimes too nice) and possibly too trusting for my own good, so this is a good lesson to be learning.

The rest of my weekend will be filled with an all you can eat buffet, going out with friends, taking pictures of Christmas trees and decorations in summer, saying some more goodbyes, and packing the last of my things.

Monday, December 13, 2010

We´re off to see the penguins.... The wonderful penguins of Chile

In case if you haven´t figured it out, the title is my attempt of trying to come up with a catchy title that you could sing along to the music of The Wizard of Oz.

Punta Arenas is a small town, just like Puerto Natales.  It´s just as cold and windy, but more populated.  I was crossing the street and almost got hit by a car, as I had been used to much fewer cars and no traffic lights to signal when cars or pedestrians were to pass.

I also noticed another thing as I wandered around these cities: the lack of American commercial influence.  I haven´t seen a single McDonalds or Burger King since I have been down here, which is a stark contrast to Santiago.  I have also not seen a single movie theater, and I remember a friend who lived down here telling me that she had to take a bus to another town if she wanted to see a movie.

This was my first time traveling down here going to a city without having a hostel prebooked online.  I´m a pretty organized person and like to know what I´m going to be doing and where I´m going to be staying when I´m traveling.  I reserved my first hostel in Puerto Natales online for one night and planned to extend it once I arrived if I didn´t find an overnight tour to Torres del Paine, but when I went to extend it they were overbooked.  They helped me find another hostel that was actual 1.000 pesos (about $2) cheaper per night, but it turns out it didn´t have a kitchen to cook.  So that hostel referred me to another place that was another 1.000 pesos cheaper per night.  So I ended up saving about $8 in the end, which doens´t sound like much but living on a Chilean income it actually is a nice savings.

When I arrived in Punta Arenas I checked out a hostel that was in my Let´s Go guide, but they wanted 10.000 per night (about $20).  Then I tried another hostel around the corner and I hit the jackpot: $5.000 per night, not including breakfast.  I have a bed in the "Special Room", which kind of has a bunk bed configuration.  I have the top bed, which reminds me of the loft bed I had in my first apartment in Los Angeles.

The guy who works at the hostel was friendly and helped me find a good tour to see the penguins, and he told me I shouldn´t pay more than 15.000 pesos.  When I went to the company he recommended, they wanted 22.000 pesos, but when I mentioned his name and the hostel name, that price suddenly dropped to 13.500.  It´s kind of funny how people will try to take advantage of you pricewise until they realize they could be called on it or that you know what a reasonable price is.

And so I got to see the penguins at the Otway Sound!  Here are some pictures:

It sounds weird to say, but I´m actually getting kind of tired of traveling.  The buses, the waiting, the hostels, and the general uncertainty of situations that I usually enjoy or don´t mind is starting to get a bit old.  After seeing the penguins I was content to simply relax at the hostel and eat some dinner, get a good night´s sleep, and prepare for my return to Santiago.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Torres del Paine

So I can now say that I made it to Torres del Paine.  It has been on my to-do list since before I left the States, and it took me until the end of my year to get here, but I made it.

I was glad to have found a good deal for a full day tour: 15,000 pesos (about $30) not including lunch or the park entrance fees.  Every other tour company wanted 20,000 pesos, or about $40.

As I waited for the tour van to show up, I chatted with a woman working at the hostel.  When I showed her my ticket, she told me that the price was so low becuase it didn´t include a tour guide.  The van then pulled up, and the driver confirmed that there was no guide for the tour I bought.  I was pretty upset seeing that I specifically asked the woman who sold me the tour what was included and what was not included and she never brought it up, but at this point there wasn´t much that I could do.  I could either take the tour and make the best of it or complain and not go on it and risk not getting my money back and lose the day.  I decided to take the tour and make the best of it.

The park was actually about an hour from Puerto Natales, and then to get to the sights it´s about another hour after that.  The first thing I noticed after the beauty of the moutainsand landscape was the extreme wind.  It difficult to walk without losing your balance, and it must have gusted easily to 50 miles per hour.

Along the way we stopped to take some pictures, and we also came across some wildlife.  Here are some guanacas (a type of llama), and we also came across a herd of cattle.  We had to stop and wait for them to pass, and their incessant mooing was an interesting event I wasn´t expecting on the tour.

In the park we got to see mountains, rivers, waterfalls, glaciers, beaches, and caves.  The beauty of the area was amazing, and it was interesting to see such a mix of all these geographic features all in one area.  I think the most surprising thing for me was seeing glaciers in the ocean and then seeing chunks of ice washed up along the shore.  Some people decided to save some of the ice in plastic bags to bring back with them. 

To get to the beach with the glaciers we had to cross a suspension bridge.  At the start of the bridge there was a sign that I thought was pretty clear:

Yeah, that says that there is a maximum capacity of 6 people at a time on the bridge.  It sways to the left and right based on the weight on each side and how people are stepping, and some people thought it would be fun to jump up and down on one side and then the other side.  Others laughed at the 6 person maximum warning and stepped on the bridge behind me as the 7th and 8th people.  On the way back for some reason people were carrying wheelbarrows with luggage and backpacks with them, and others carried suitcases over their head.  They also proceeded without any hesitation across the bridge, going over the recommended limit.  I made it across safely each way, but not without my heart skipping a beat a bit each time.

After that we also visited a cave called La Cueva del Milodón (The cave of the sloth).  It reminded me of when I visited the caves of Nerja during my semester in Granada in 2004, along the Mediterranean Coast.  The cave was open-air and absolutely huge.  Stalagtites (or stalagmites, I´m not sure which) hung from the ceiling, and water dripped from some areas above slowly.  The sloth used to live here until it was extinct 10,000 years ago.

I´ve spent the rest of my time here just exploring the town and drinking hot chocolate at various cafés to keep myself warm.  Horseback riding tours here are ridiculously overpriced, as most places want $50 for a 3 hour tour.  I also got some grilled lamb for dinner last night, and I also got a semblance of a bagel with it:

I´m not normally much of a bagel guy, but seeing something reminding me of home was a welcome sight.

Tomorrow I´m catching the early bus back to Punta Arenas, and I´ll have the whole day there before my fligh back to Santiago Tuesday morning.  I´m hoping to get to see some penguins on a tour that is hopefully not overpriced, but we´ll see about that.  And after that I will have 6 days until I fly back home.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Hola Patagonia

I´m typing this post from the computer at my hostel in Puerto Natales. 

The trip to get here was an adventure, as always.  I booked one night at the Yaganhouse hostel in Puerto Natales, and my thought was that I could always extend my stay there for two more nights if I didn´t find a tour with a few nights in Torres del Paine.  I tried to reserve a seat on the bus from Punta Arenas (where I was arriving) to Puerto Natales (the city closest to Torres del Paine), but I did not have success at first.  This is what the phone conversation with Buses Fernandez sounded like (translated into English):

Buses Fernandez: Hello?
Me: Hi, is this Buses Fernandez?
BF: Yes.
Me: Can I get a reservation for the 8 AM bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales?
BF: We don´t do reservations by phone.
Me: Ah ok.  Well perhaps you can help me with this.  I´ll be arriving on a flight from Santiago at ...

I then hear music and realize that I was put on hold.  I waited a few minutes, and no one ever came back to me.  I then tried calling back, but I got no answer.  I wanted to explain that I was arriving early in the morning and was wondering if a bus could pick me up at the airport since they pass by there.

I took a friend´s advice and called my hostel, and they purchased a seat for me on the 8 AM bus with Buses Fernandez.  (Or so I thought, read on to find out what happened)

My flight from Santiago was at 1:25 this morning, and since I wasn´t sure when the last shuttle to the airport was, I left my apartment around 9:45.  I made it to the airport by 11, and so I camped out for a few hours before getting my flight.

The flight was uneventful, and I arrived in Punta Arenas at 4:40.  For some reason I thought I was going to arrive at 5:40.  I camped out and slept until 8:15, and I stood outside waiting for my bus.  When they arrived I told them my name, but they said that there was no reservation and asked me what seat the hostel purchased for me.  I told them that the hostel didn´t give me that information and called them, but they didn´t answer.  The bus attendant allowed me to board anyway.

After about half an hour, the hostel called me.  They wanted to confirm that they had purchased a seat for me on the 11 AM bus with Buses Pacheco.  I told them that I was already on the 8 AM bus, as that is what they told me about yesterday.  The hostel told me that the bus company said they don´t pass by the airport, so they had to go with another company and that there weren´t any seats until 11.

I can laugh about it now, but the whole process seemed very confusing.  I mean, why would you confirm with someone that they have a reservation on a bus if they didn´t?  And if something changed, why wouldn´t you call them to inform them of the change?  I can smile about it now and I arrived without a problem, but this is one aspect of Chilean culture that bothers me a bit.

After getting checked into my hostel, I dropped my bags and decided to walk around and explore Puerto Natales.  It´s a small sleepy town, and since I¨m so close to the South Pole it´s actually pretty cold here.  It will be between 40 and 60 my entire time here, and the wind is pretty strong.  The city is pretty small, and it´s along the lake.  I was walking along the shore, and the brisk air reminded me of La Serena. 

I settled on a full day tour of Torres del Paine (a famous national park here) for tomorrow, and I visited a few souvineer shops and peekd into some restaurants.  After coming back and making lunch, I went out walking again and got some hot chocolate to warm me up. 

As I was sitting and writing some postcards, a woman started up a conversation with me.  It turns out that she´s from Santiago and owns a jewelry shop in the Radisson where my dad will be staying in February.  She´s an avid traveler also, and we talked about our travel adventures and exchanged contact information.

I´m excited for the trip to the national park tomorrow.  And I almost forgot that today marks 10 months of traveling since I left home.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Counting Down the Days

14 days.  That's all I have left until I fly home for the holidays.

I'm going through a mixture of feelings: excitement for returning home and seeing family and friends, sadness at leaving what is familiar to me in Santiago, and also anticipation as I count down the days and look forward to the change from my normal routine.

I've started preparing things for my return here.  I've signed up for health insurance with Cruz Blanca, and it's pretty amazing coverage.  Almost everything is covered 90% or more, and there are no copays.  I just pay about 65 bucks a month, and it also includes a gym membership.  And did I mention that after 18 months I am eligible for free laser eye surgery?  I feel like this coverage is going to be so much better than anything I ever had back home.

On a different note, it's a strange thing to see Christmas decorations in the middle of summer.  I found out that Paris (one of the main department stores here) is having a Christmas parade here, and it's actually the first time they are having a Christmas parade in Santiago.  My students didn't know what it was, and after I explained it to them they had mixed feelings about how this American tradition was entering their society.  I won't be in Santiago to see it, but here's an advertisement for it:

I have my last two weeks pretty much planned out.  My time will be divided between finishing classes, traveling to Patagonia, and spending time with my friends before the holidays.  On the weekend I had a get together with friends that I hadn't seen in a while, and it was refreshing to be spending time again with the people that I started this experience here in Santiago with.  There were fun times all around.

I also had a going away dinner for Julie at Patio Bellavista, and it was a nice way to see her off.  They had some free karaoke going on, and I entertained everyone with a round of It's My Life by Bon Jovi.  And everyone got to see why I got rejected from Glee Club in college when they told me that they didn't reject anyone.  I'll add some pictures once I have them from Julie's camera.

To help organize my thoughts, here are a few lists, in no particular order:

Things I will miss about Santiago:                                    Things I won't miss about Santiago:
1. Public transportation                                                   1. Public transportation during rush hour
2. My friends here                                                          2. All of the smoking in public places
3. My coworkers and the laughs and smiles they             3. People violating your private space in public
    bring to the office                                                           places in ways you would never imagine
4. Exposing my students to the wonders of Papa John's  4. The Chilean concept of punctuality
5. Summer in December                                                5. The lack of Mexican food
6. Having such few material possessions to worry about 6. Unreliable internet access
7. Cheap buses to and from other cities                         7. Having an only half functioning washing machine
8. Fresh bread on a daily basis                                      and no dryer

List of things to do before leaving:                                  List of things to do upon returning
1. Take Christmas pictures                                            1. Eat American food
2. Do Christmas shopping                                             2. Gather more teaching resources I forgot at home
3. Pack                                                                        3. Visit family and friends
4. Finish up classes                                                       4.  Play DDR and Wii
5. Go to Valpo once more                                            5. Magic the Gathering Marathons
6. Get more of a tan                                                     6. Watch the last episodes of The Amazing Race

14 days.  Before I know it I'll be on the plane.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Valpo, Oprah, Thanksgiving, and The Largest Pool in the World

So I now find myself at the end of November, and on the edge of my last month in Santiago before returning home.  I have 22 days left, with my flight leaving December 20th.

I have been taking full advantage of the summer weather here.  This has included hanging out at the pool with friends, a trip to Valpo, and an overnight trip to the world's largest pool, San Alfonso del Mar.

My last trip to Valpo was when I was sandsledding in May, and I didn't realize that that much time had gone by so quickly. I also forgot how much I enjoy taking a daytrip there.  It's nice just exploring the area, walking up new hills, and seeing the city from different perspectives.  It's also a good workout and didn't make me feel guilty for not making it to the gym that weekend.

I didn't do anything special on Thanksgiving Day.  It isn't a holiday here, and so I had all of my classes, and it was a normal workday.  But then there was a Thanksgiving Dinner on Friday night, hosted by a fellow teacher and her boyfriend at their apartment.  When making the plans, someone said that it was an Orphan Thanksgiving since we weren't with our families, but it was misunderstood by most people as an Oprah Thanksgiving, and so she became the unofficial sponsor of the dinner.  It was complete with pictures of her hanging around the apartment and a gift of a metro ticket under each of our chairs, just like what she does for her audience members.

As you can see, we had many of the staples for a Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, stuffing, gravy, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, and apple pie.  Sharing a meal with my coworkers was something I am truly grateful for, as I feel like I got to know them better than I have while socializing at the office.

The day after the Opah Thanksgiving I was on a bus to the town of Algarrobo, which is home to San Alfonso del Mar.  There is a hotel resort with the largest pool in the world.  Here is the website if you want to check it out for yourself:

I got in around 1:00 in the afternoon, and since it was reserved in somoene else's name (There were 18 of us between 2 rooms) I relaxed on the beach while I waited for everyone else to arrive.  After that we hung out at the beach, then prepared another Thanksgiving feast.  Thanks to Julie and her amazing baking skills we not only had a pumpkin pie but also a delicious cheesecake. 

A few months ago I saw a friend had visited here, and I wanted to go.  But when I saw the price (about $260 a night) I thought I would never be able to make it there.  It turns out that the rooms have enough beds and space to sleep 10 people, and so one of my friends organized the entire trip.  It only ended up costing us about $28 per person, and it was such a nice time with everyone.  It was another night that made me grateful for the friends that I have here, and I think I'm going to make a trip there a Thanksgiving tradition.

My first year here is slowly coming to an end.  I'm now buying my Christmas gifts to bring back with me, and I'm cleaning through my closet and making all of the necessary plans for my return trip.  Yes, I'm sad to be leaving the warm weather and what is familiar to me in Santiago.  At the same time, I am looking forward to the modern comforts  from home that I will not have had in over 10 months.  5 weeks will be a long time at home, especially in the winter.  Luckily I will be close enough to visit friends from Santiago that are also returning home for the holidays, and I think that will help pass the time more quickly.

Until next post...