Expanding on the last post, here are lots of pictures of stone walls, loosely mortared together with rambling commentary.
These two are from buildings in Ollantaytambo. The old town is mostly as it was in Inca times, with narrow cobbled streets. The old buildings typically have a single storey, with monumental stone walls about ten feet high. On top of that is either adobe or modern brickwork, and occasionally a thatched roof (but, more often, tiles or corrugated iron).
We were admiring one of these walls when a woman came out of the house and invited us in to see their guinea pigs (definitely food not pets) and buy souvenirs. Susan came away with a rather lovely miniature silver llama for S/30, so everybody was happy with that deal. Note the double door jamb: this often means that the door was to somewhere important.
These are repeated from the last post: two closeups of extremely fine work on the Temple of the Sun in Ollantaytambo, where you really couldn't get a razor blade between the stones, and one from a terrace there, which actually shows that quite a lot of shaping work has been done rather than just throwing raw fieldstones together to make a wall.
This set shows some more parts of the Ollantaytambo fortress. First is an oblique view of the Wall of the Six Monoliths: identical 50-ton slabs that have been fitted together perfectly. Next is a drainage channel in one of the terraces (presumably a less important one, as the stonework's much rougher). Finally, we have the "bath of the princess" - a ceremonial fountain with some rather nice carving.
We now move on to Wiñay Wayna, a few hours' walk before Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail. The first two pictures are from the Temple of the Rainbow. It's not clear whether the name comes from the fact that it has seven windows, or that stones of slightly different shades seem to have been chosen for different areas of the wall. Our guide said that it was both, but the first one seems very suspicious to me: the rainbow was definitely very important to the Incas, but I thought that Western tradition only holds that it has seven colours because Newton thought it should match the days of the week, the objects in the solar system, and the notes in an octave. It seems surprising that the Incas should independently come up with the same number.
While we're off on a tangent about rainbows, you should be aware of the difference between the seven-striped flag of Cusco and indigenous Andeans, and the (usually six-striped) LGBT pride flag. There are not as many gay bars in Peru as a naive observer might think.
The third wall is just a wall that I thought looked nice - probably part of the agricultural terracing, and so is just fieldstones set in mortar. The stones in the temple walls are dressed and laid in courses, but not as finely worked as the houses in Ollantaytambo, despite being part of a temple.
These are from Intipunku, the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. It was probably the final military checkpoint on the way from Cusco, and it's the final landmark (as well as the end of walking uphill) on the Inca Trail. Viewed from Machu Picchu, the rising sun passes through it on the summer solstice. These walls aren't part of the main gate, which looks like it's been extensively restored, but would have been part of nearby buildings, perhaps a guardhouse. I rather like the enormous boulder.
At Machu Picchu itself, there's a very visible difference between the important religious sites and the rest of the sanctuary. Here's a representative bit of terracing, and two closeups of one of the terrace walls. I'm struck by how much more informal these are than the terraces at Ollantaytambo, where quite a lot of work has gone in to shaping some of the bigger stones.
The Temple of the Sun stands out for just how carefully everything was finished, although it's still not quite as perfect to my eye as the work on the temple in Ollantaytambo. The big gaps on the first picture are because the blocks have shifted during earthquakes in the last 500 years.
There are lots of interesting anti-seismic techniques in ancient Peruvian architecture: the Moche were building enormous temples out of loosely-coupled stacks of adobe bricks almost two thousand years ago, but I'm getting ahead of myself. For now, let's just note how most of the doorways and windows are trapezoidal, and how it's common to see walls that are quite a lot thicker at the bottom.
Here's some more sacred architecture from Machu Picchu: the main temple, the Temple of Three Windows (well, two of them), and the Intihuatana, carved from the mountain to point straight at the sun at the solstices. It's hard to get a sense of scale here, but the big stone between the two windows is at least two metres on each side.
A lot of the finer Inca stonework is impressive for the number of angles that get fitted together perfectly. There's a twelve-angled stone on a street in Cusco that's almost impossible to walk past, day or night, because of the crowds of people taking selfies. Much of colonial Cusco is built from Inca stone taken from the hilltop fortress of Sacsayhuamán by the Spaniards. There are still three enormous terrace walls there, probably because the stones (the largest are estimated to weigh up to 200 tons) were too heavy to be moved.
Sacsayhuamán has one feature I haven't seen elsewhere: enormous stones that have been carved to go around the inside of corners:
Finally, here's a view from beneath Sacsayhuamán's Intipunku: those little steps there are at least normal size, if not larger.
"So how was Machu Picchu", you're probably asking by now - but we're mostly doing this chronologically, and there are a few more steps before we get to the big famous stuff. All the guides make a very big thing of saying you should acclimatise to the altitude for at least two days before doing the Inca Trail. Most people seem to do this in Cusco, as it's where you fly in to and where all the tour agencies are, but we decided to go to Ollantaytambo, about half way down the Urubamba valley. This turned out pretty well: it's high enough to get used to things (around 2800m above sea level - higher than Machu Picchu and a significant 600m lower than Cusco) but not so high as to be a huge shock to the system, although we both had minor headaches for the first day. It's also where the train to Machu Picchu goes from, so we were spared having to get up so early when we did go.
The modern town of Ollantaytambo spreads along the lush valley floor, surrounding the Inca-era centre, which has some of the oldest continually-occupied houses in South America. An amazing amount of the hillsides were clearly terraced, although most of the terraces are no longer used for farming.
The first photo above is of the Pinkuylluna storehouses, about half an hour's climb up the side of the mountain to the north-east of town. They're built on a very steep slope for ventilation: apparently huge quantities of food were stored here in Inca times. We walked up to Pinkuylluna on our second day in town to get used to the heights and saw almost nobody.
On the north-west side is the remnants of the Inca fortress, built up a hill with a commanding view of the valleys below. This site is on all of the tours, and so the best time to go is when it's actually raining, otherwise there will be hundreds of people climbing everywhere. There's a lot of old remains that are now mostly buried beneath several feet of silt that was washed down from a mountain in a torrential storm a couple of hundred years ago. Some of them have been partially excavated: enough to understand that there was some very sophisticated hydrological engineering going on, but not enough to understand it fully.
Inca stonework is rightfully celebrated: the religious sites have incredible masonry with enormous blocks fitted together without any visible gaps. Most of the stonework, though, is more like the one on the right (which is actually from Machu Picchu). In the middle is one of the terrace walls from Ollantaytambo, where you can see that some of the stones have been shaped to fit together better, as it's a high status site. I should really have made sure that there was something for scale in these pictures: the large stones are three or four feet across. The largest stones go up to 50 tons each, and were moved from quarries that could be miles away, using only log rollers.
Here's a picture looking down the Urabamba valley towards Ollantaytambo. The mountain on the left looks pretty barren - I think this is because there's a microclimate there that means it doesn't get as much rain as the one on the right, which seems to be getting all the rain here. It also has signs of old terraces a good 500m above the valley floor, and diagonal paths leading up to them: this marginal-seeming land isn't farmed any more, but it seems as though the Incas took every opportunity to grow crops that they could. Not far behind where I was standing to take the photo, however, the landscape changes to rolling hills vaguely reminiscent of the Swiss Alps.
This looks very fertile and productive - and it mostly is, except for the fact that it's actually too high up to grow corn: only potatoes and quinoa will survive up here at 3500-3800m above sea level. There are now small, rather sad, mountain towns, and also the Inca ruins of Chinchero. Most of the economy there seems to be subsistence farming, with a good sideline in selling hand-woven alpaca fabrics. You can go and have a tutorial in spinning, dyeing, and weaving, and if you buy something the ladies will sing and dance you to your car, no matter how embarrassed you are.
Finally, some notes on logistics: we went to Ollantaytambo from Cusco by shared taxi. This took around two hours and cost us 60 soles, because we rented the whole taxi rather than waiting for two more people to share it with. It would have been a pretty cramped ride (one in the front and three in the back of a small car) but it's 15 soles each if you do it that way.
The easiest way to get into the fortress is with a boleto touristico that costs 130 soles and is valid for 16 sites in Cusco and the Sacred Valley over 10 days. You can buy partial tickets for 70 soles a pop, but they're only valid for one or two days, so it really makes sense to cough up for the whole package. We had to show our passports when buying the ticket, but never again afterwards.
We actually spent five nights in Ollantaytambo: two before Machu Picchu, and three afterwards. We should really have done this the other way round, to have more time to acclimatise first, but it worked out fine. There's definitely enough in the neighbourhood to keep you busy for two or three days if you want to pack it all in as quickly as possible.
There are two ATMs in town, but they won't let you take out more than 450 soles at a time, and charge a hefty S/18 commission, so if your hotel is the type that slaps on 5% extra for paying with a credit card you might want to stock up on cash in Cusco.
Food notes: Apu Veronica does great, reasonably priced local food. Chuncho, on the Plaza Mayor, is the only high end option in town. The bakery on the corner of the square makes great empanadas - just be ready to chat to the baker while your order is prepared.
It's been more than a month since we left Santiago for the final time. I've been meaning to write something about how things were there but have been finding it quite difficult. Part of that, I think, is the contrast between Santiago and its messier neighbour to the north, Lima. I don't want to damn Santiago with faint praise, but it's hard to summon up a huge amount of enthusiasm for the place. That's not because we had a bad time, at all - we went on long walks through city parks; the public transportation is efficient and cheap; the weather was warm and dry with brilliant sunshine (but not too hot); and pisco sours are plentiful and inexpensive. Rather, I think that we stayed a little bit longer than would have been ideal: a couple of weeks would have been great, but three was a little too much.
One reason we didn't get out too much in Santiago was probably that we needed some time to adjust after Morocco and Kenya, and especially to recover after the marathon flight from Nairobi. We had a pretty nice AirBnB in a pretty nice area of town - walking distance from both Lastarria and Barrio Italia - and spent most of the first week staying at home. We got out for a few walks, and then realised over the rest of our time in Santiago that we’d walked past most of the interesting places in our first couple of days there.
Santiago has good views of mountains and the Palacio de Bellas Artes
Lima, on paper, should come out much worse: it’s constantly overcast and humid (even though it hardly ever rains: thank the Humboldt Current for that); the public transport is much more limited; and quite a lot of the whole city smells of piss. (Not sure whether it’s canine or human, but I’d guess both, after seeing the number of (a) stray dogs and (b) signs prohibiting orinando en la calle). However, we loved the place. We messed up our apartment reservation and so stayed in the wonderful Casa Falleri hotel in Barranco for our first two nights, before moving up the road to the apartment for three straight weeks. This actually turned out very well: the hotel organised a car to pick us up at the airport, and the staff fed us drinks and told us all about the neighbourhood so we had an idea of where to go and what to do. After moving out, I would actually plan routes to avoid walking past the hotel, as it got too embarrassing for me to keep having to have little daily conversations with the front desk guy telling him how we were getting on.
The Barranco district of Lima was a 19th century beach resort for the rich and powerful.
Statue of Paddington Bear by Stephen Fry; donated to Lima in 2015
I noticed the first big change when crossing the road straight outside the hotel: in Santiago all the motorists are unusually considerate, and will sometimes unilaterally slow down if they think you’re about to cross the road. Lima is much more aggressive: even if there’s a red light in your favour and you’re on a well-marked crossing, it’s best to double-check that there’s nobody about to mow you down. Once we’d made it across the street, though, we had amazing options for eating and drinking: Isolina does enormous helpings of rustic-style Peruvian food (but you can ask them for personal-size portions); Canta Rana gave us what was possibly the best ceviche we had in Peru, with black clams and a topping of sea urchin; and the bar Ayahuasca is just around the corner. It’s not getting on to the World’s 50 Best Bars list any time soon, but it was nice to have a cocktail for the first time in ages. Some of this definitely comes down to choosing the right place to stay (thanks for the recommendation for Casa Falleri, Beth & Tina!), but there didn’t really seem to be an equivalent neighbourhood anywhere in Santiago.
Talking of those overhyped top 50 lists, there’s a little more competition in the high-end restaurant world. Lima does take the first, second, and eighth slots on this year’s San Pellegrino list of the best restaurants in South America (Maido, Central, Astrid y Gaston, respectively), but Santiago does have Boragó at number four. I’ll leave our restaurant reviews for another day, but let’s just say things didn’t turn out the way I expected there. Even if we ignore the ultra-high end, though, it’s noticeable how restaurants in Lima consistently came out cheaper and tastier than in Santiago.
Grocery shopping in Santiago (top) and Lima (bottom)
We were primarily self-catering in both cities, but ate very differently. Santiago offered us a wide range of enormous pieces of (Argentinian and Brazilian) meats at ludicrously low prices: that three-pound chunk of beef was around SGD 12, for example. Everything else wasn't terribly exciting, though: the cheese selection was terribly sad, and it's apparently impossible to buy milk that hasn't been sterilised for a long shelf life. We did start eating huge numbers of avocadoes (which are palta not aguacate) of all varieties.
Lima had much more varied and interesting food. Our local supermarket had four kinds of potatoes plus one sweet potato, several kinds of corn, lots of chillies (both fresh and pureed in handy packets - the rocoto is one of our best discoveries), and several kinds of vegetable that we'd never seen before. The fish selection was fresh and varied, too - something that we didn't see in Santiago. Chile definitely has more, better, and cheaper local wine, but I think it loses the age-old rivalry over who makes the best pisco.
Lima's colonial centre really shows how much treasure the Spanish plundered. The Plaza de Armas is huge, and surrounded by amazingly opulent buildings. One of them is the Government Palace, so there are often quite a few (remarkably friendly) riot police just hanging around in case they're needed.
Did we like Lima more because we’d taken the time to relax in Santiago and got a bit more used to the way of life down here, and if we’d gone the other direction we’d think the opposite way? There’s definitely some truth in that: I have definitely become more confident in Spanish, and more comfortable navigating (I don’t want to go as far as saying “streetwise”). Susan found a language exchange group in Lima, which turned out remarkably well: we managed to speak some Spanish, and also made some friends who we went out for a drink with after we came back to Lima from Cusco. These groups probably exist in Chile, but we didn’t seek one out. I definitely didn’t have the psychic energy to go and speak bad Spanish to somebody then, for sure. Maybe that’s the important thing to notice: not how different places are, but how passing through different places changes you.
We'd been carrying around way too much stuff for too long, so after coming back to Lima from the altiplano we decided to take a box of extra stuff to Serpost and send it to Singapore. The process of Marie Kondo-ing in order to stay inside a 23 kg baggage allowance isn't terribly interesting (the Maasai blanket does bring joy, but it's also very bulky and weighs a fair bit, so into the box it goes). Before I forget, though, here are some things that may be useful to anybody trying to post things in Peru:
The final approach into Cusco is quite amazing. Our plane went around Huanacauri, the smallish mountain in the foreground (although not really that small: the peak is 4089m, around 700m above the city) then took a sharp left and dropped like a stone to land. The airport is surrounded by houses, and has a remarkably long runway so that aeroplanes can get a good run-up to take off. It's somewhat reminiscent of the old Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong, in that you can look up out of your window while landing and see hills and houses well above you. And, like Kai Tak, it seems as though it's going to be replaced: they're building a new airport at Chinchero, half an hour out of town and over 400m higher.
Somewhere in the background is Sacsayhuamán, an Inca citadel that sits at around 3700m and has a wonderful view of the aeroplanes coming in to land just a couple of miles away, as well as magnificent stonework.
We flew back to Lima from Juliaca, the highest airport in Peru and (according to Wikipedia) the ninth highest commercial airport in the world, at a literally breathtaking 3826m above sea level. That's around 648 mbar - so there's just under two-thirds of what I'd consider a normal amount of oxygen in each breath. Straight after takeoff (or possibly even just before, when the engines were spooled up to full power) the cabin pressure started increasing steadily until it reached 760 mbar around 20 minutes after takeoff - so much like a normal flight, except that the pressure increased rather than decreased at the beginning. The landing was like any other, with the pressure gradually increasing back to sea level as we descended.
I took the readings with an iPhone app called Bar-o-Meter. It's free, and is just functional enough for me not to go searching for an alternative. It would be much better if it was possible to export the raw data as CSV, and also if it could be set up to take periodic readings. It does have a "Trend" display (which is where the graph came from) that says it records data every 2 minutes, but this doesn't seem to be true: I had to keep waking my phone up every so often in order to get it to take a new sample. Still - definitely worth every penny I paid for it.
I thought it was time to share my Spanish learning curves, since it's pushing almost six months now and I've learned quite a lot, mostly what NOT to do. So here goes, this is a list of everything I use to learn Spanish.
I'll expand further on these individually in no particular order, but before I do, here's a list of stupid things I tried and decided they were too ambitious:
Progress in a nutshell :
How long since I started learning: August 2018
Apps used currently: 3
Online tutor: 1 (his name is Camilo)
Online course: 1
Mistakes: many but not enough
Lingvist recorded that I've learned 541 words thus far at an average of 75% accuracy, and 20 new words per day.
The Spanish intensive language class in Barcelona was 5 days a week from 1 pm to 5 pm for 2 weeks, with two different teachers who’re only allowed to speak Spanish and teach in 100% Spanish, with the occasional slip into English here and there when charades failed and we looked lost and confused. The course comes with two large and heavy text books. Our teacher called them the Libro Bonito (in full colour) and Libro Feo (the “ugly book” of exercises, in black and white).
Our class was made up of five to six students which consisted of 2 mainland Chinese girls, a couple of Swedish students, and us. I say 5 or 6 because not everyone would always be present every day. The first half of the class was taught by the funny and goofy Bea and the second half was taught by a serious sandal-wearing Spaniard called Moha. He loved throwing a little soft ball around for our counting exercise. By day 4 of that first week, we dreaded the existence of that ball so much and Tom started calling it "la pelota de perdicion" (the ball of doom). What made it worse is that sometimes Moha just wanted to fill the 5 minutes left on the clock with something to do instead of letting us go early, and that’s usually when the ball came out. One of the reasons I hated la pelota de perdicion was that he often wanted us to count backwards, or even skipping two numbers each time, so for example "uno, cuatro, siete…." which seems like a deliberate and unnecessary torture for a beginner-level Spanish class. Nevertheless, that was the beginning of my Spanish language journey.
While in Barcelona, we didn’t really get to practice that much, because everyone speaks enough English, and nobody really wanted to wait for me staring at the ceiling trying to come up with words. The best I could do was order “una croqueta” by pointing at the plate of croquetas on the next table in the cafe, or say "para llevar" (which means “to go”, or “ta pau” if you speak Singlish) after two weeks of ordering the same cafe con leche during the break. Thankfully we were not the worst in the class: Tom knows some French and has a memory twice the size of mine, and with better retention it seems. The mainland Chinese girls were doing so poorly that we felt bad for them but they were slowing down the class progress, while the Swedes were at best 50% absent. What did I learn in the two weeks of intensive beginner class? That it’s hard to be a student again, and Spanish is hard when you don’t manage your perfectionism.
The next thing I did a month or so later was buy an online course. It is Olly Richards’ “Spanish Uncovered” course on iwillteachyoualanguage.com. He sold it as learning through reading a whole book with a story line, instead of banging out grammar and vocabulary exercises without context or relevance. I get that, and I like stories. The course is 20 chapters and each chapter is a page of the story book titled “the man in a hat”. The course was well organised, very professional and costs $300. Which isn’t exactly a bargain but I thought if it’s going to help me learn at my own time and I can download it offline to study while on the road, that’ll be very good. In the first month after I bought the course I got up to chapter 6 officially, and browsed up to chapter 10 of 20. I do like this course, although Olly talks too repetitively about each point and loves the sound of his own voice a little too much. It’s broken into sections per chapter where I will be listening, reading, and watching videos about grammar and vocabulary, a short pronunciation video, and then exercises to wrap the whole chapter up. Downloading everything on an iPad was not so straight forward, and with patchy internet connections in some countries, like Morocco, it took longer than expected to get a whole chapter downloaded, and then to actually use it is another matter. I finally managed to get a system working where I could actually mark up the exercise sheets as PDFs and toggle between the pages directly on the iPad without having to print anything out. Olly Richards ended up being a hard seller and spammed my inbox with so many emails I had to unsubscribe. He’s not happy with just selling me the Spanish course, but wants to sell a coaching service to help me be the best Spanish learner I can be. Don’t even ask how much the coaching sessions cost. It is ambitious but I am definitely the wrong target market. I was by this point quite put off, and haven't done anything on it for the last two months. What did I learn in buying this online course? That effort pays off, and there’s no gain without pain. Pain here is a frustrating experience that can be mitigated by patience that comes after lots of cursing out loud and even more mumbled underneath my breath. I will pick up Olly Richard’s chapters again: I am determined to make money spent worthwhile, and since then, I believe I’ve gained more vocabulary and grammar using language apps.
The apps I currently use on a rotation are Duolingo, Lingvist and AnkiApp. I will be honest: I use the Anki App the least, mainly because I don't know how to use it that well and didn't want to waste time figuring it out. It helps that Tom is also using Duolingo daily. It felt like I’ve broken most of the A1 level comprehension’s back and gone a little further down the spine of this Spanish camel. I don’t think I’ve broken the back of it entirely but it felt like I’ve gone past a small hump at least. Duolingo is excellent because it makes me feel accomplished when I haven’t killed myself with mistakes by the end of 15 minutes. Lingvist is surprisingly great for memory retaining because it involves repetition. The idea is to fill in missing words within sentences. The free version limits you to 20 new words a day, but they really drum it in, and it gives you new words once you’ve repeatedly entered the same thing over and over again for about 5 times. After Duolingo-ing, I would Lingvist for about 15 - 45 minutes and then I would go to Anki cards, where I can download packs of words and phrases I want to learn, and go through them by flipping the cards from English to Spanish. The idea of Anki cards is to be honest when you rate your own failure and success based on how you did. It tracks your progress similarly to Lingvist, but the difference is you can manually repeat the same deck of cards as long as you want, while Lingvist automates it. Currently I am using two of these packs: Latin American Spanish Level 1 and 1001 Most Useful Spanish Words and Sentences. What I learned from these three apps after using them for about 3-4 weeks is that repetition works, and the more you do, obviously the more you remember. The more you remember the more you want to do. I do love the feeling of going from when I felt I was not improving at all, to gaining traction and confidence and eventually feeling more confidence and slowly wanting to be on these apps longer and longer, to becoming slightly obsessed.
Meanwhile, I have also started to use iTalki, which is a platform to match up tutors and students of languages from anywhere in the world to have online one-on-one Skype classes. At the same time I also signed up for conversationexchange.com which is even more informal. It is a meeting place for people who want to practice languages to meet each other worldwide. So far I’ve used iTalki to meet three different teachers/tutors for trial 30-minute sessions and then I can choose one to stick to on a regular basis. It is quite inexpensive, especially if all I want is someone to practice with who can correct me and offer useful tips to improve. I have chosen to stick to what’s called a community tutor, which is someone who doesn’t have formal language teaching credentials but is an enthusiastic casual tutor and a native speaker. I chose to try a few South American tutors and found Camilo, a guy from Chile who lives in Brazil and decided to stick to him. He is very enthusiastic about learning languages and is warm and shares a lot of tips he used himself. The last time I spoke to him, he was learning German and Italian. These apps I mentioned currently using were all his suggestions.
At this point, since those classes in Barcelona in August, I felt that what I needed was speaking confidence, and to work on that instead of perfecting the language itself. I felt the improvement will come when my confidence is up. I felt right now, while I am in South America, I needed to work on reducing the fear of speaking, and to increase my listening skills. Since arriving in Chile, Tom and I found out that Chilean Spanish is probably the most difficult of all kinds of Spanish because they skip letters and speak incredibly fast. Even native Spanish speakers have a hard time here. Well that’s a good start to feeling better about the slow improvements. Now that we've arrived in Peru, the Spanish used here is much more normal speed.
Conversationexchange was confounding, I’ve been exchanging messages with quite a few people, so far they all seem to be male, mostly from somewhere in Spain, and a few from South and Central America. Is this app used as a kind of dating app I wonder? I kinda don’t really know how to use conversationexchange to my benefit yet. Everyone who’s messaged me so far wants to improve their English, at the same time offering help to improve my Spanish. I find texting not really the best way to learn, or at least for now, it is not what I need because I’ve been relying too much on Google Translate on text as it is. The one time this seemed to work in a slightly sluggish way was when a guy who turns out to be a K-9 police officer in Bilbao sent me a recorded WhatsApp audio and asked me to send him a voice recording in Spanish so he can correct me. That was interesting. Perhaps that is the way to do it? Right now I enjoy texting with one or two people there but it is definitely not a regular thing. What did I learn? That this could also be a way to make new friends,... maybe?
Finally, my dad Bernard suggested the Lirica app, which is learning Spanish through songs. It’s very silly, and I cannot say I like their playlist, most of all when Enrique Iglesias is on it. I know it shouldn’t matter who sings, but it does matter when the song doesn’t sing to me. Plus I maintained what I’ve always thought, that Enrique can’t sing, unlike his dad Julio, he mostly moans into his lyrics. I just can’t learn with that. So thanks Bernard, I think for now I’ll stick to the apps that work for me. I love Spanish songs, but the songs I like aren’t in these play lists so I’ll have to learn Spanish from songs manually.
What did I learn here? There’s such a thing as too many apps.
I'll use what’s already working and the songs by osmosis will translate itself eventually, here’s an example of a song that is irrelevant to daily use:
Oye Como Va
Which basically translate to:
Hey how’s it going?
Gonna enjoy it
Mulata (Light skinned Latina)?
Sin embargo, vamos seguimos escuchar y hablar. (However, let's continue to listen and talk)
We watched the Life Of Brian on Netflix the other day (what? not Christmas-ey enough?) - mostly because Susan had never seen it before, but also for the scene half way through where Brian's Latin is corrected. Spanish isn't quite that bad, although I'm now learning more grammar, so imperatives and subjunctives are cropping up disturbingly often.
There was a language exchange thing on in an Irish bar in Miraflores tonight. It wasn't terribly Irish (no Guinness on draught, but also no "antique" street signs or shamrocks), and I had stage-fright going in, but we put on little flag-badges to say which languages we wanted to speak, ordered a couple of drinks, and struck up a conversation. This worked remarkably well: not only was it the first time I'd managed to say something in Spanish longer than dos cervezas por favor without either getting terribly confused or the other person switching into English, but I think we actually made ourselves mostly understood. Of course there was a lot of umming and ahing - it's interesting how often I use words like "because" and "so...", and also how hard they are to remember when you're on the spot. Also, it's interesting that they started to come out in French after the second beer. The word of the day is chela - apparently this works for "a beer" from Mexico to Peru. In Chile, of course, they have different words: a draft beer is a schop there.
It seems (to me, at least) to be much easier to be a bit flowery in Spanish: Susan was asking about Peruvian slang terms tonight, and I wanted to know whether a new word had negative connotations. When you can't remember how to say "bad" it's sometimes easier to bust out peyorativo and hope it doesn't sound too weird.
And finally, here's Eddie Izzard talking about how silly Latin is.
Several years ago, I had a watch with a barometer in it - presumably designed for people who ski a lot, and want to know how much they've gone up and down in a day. I forgot about it completely the one time I went snowboarding with it on, and mostly used it to time how fast lifts went, and to try to figure out which airlines had the best air pressure at cruising altitude. I never made notes, but I vaguely remember that ANA kept the pressure equivalent to being just below 2000m above sea level. Singapore Airlines were 100-200m higher, and budget airlines went up to about 2300m equivalent. The flight we took on SKY from Santiago to Lima on Boxing Day went to about 750 millibars, or 2350m above sea level, according to the free app that I downloaded on my phone.
Which makes one think: what happens when the place you land is higher than the cabin pressure? Does the airline only pressurise the plane to that level, or do they have do let air out before they can open the doors? This is relevant because San Pedro de Atacama is not only a literal oasis in the driest desert on earth, but also around 2450m above sea level, so the air there is very much like being on a plane, all the time. Apart from the smell of the digestive systems of your fellow passengers, and the crying baby in the row behind you, but you get what I'm trying to say, hopefully. The humidity is negligible: maybe as much as 30% on what passes for a damp day there, and water boils at around 92 degrees C, so it's hard to make a good cup of tea, and everything dries in a heartbeat. When you get out of the shower everything evaporates and it's remarkably cold for a few minutes; similarly any small spills in the kitchen dry rock-hard and have to be chiselled off the counter unless you keep a hawk-like eye on everything. The dew point is well below zero, too, so unless there's dry ice or liquid nitrogen in your drink there isn't any condensation. It does make it very easy to survive with minimal gear, though: you can hand-wash anything, even thick wool socks, in the evening and have them ready to wear again by dawn - and if you're used to Singapore's humidity then it's nothing short of magical. The amount of moisturiser we went through was unbelievable.
Actually, pretty much everything about the Atacama desert is magical. The first night we were there we sat under the stars and watched meteors stream through the heavens (we only saw three, but they were pretty spectacular). We quickly decided that it was sensible to stay indoors during the heat of the day and only go outside in the afternoon, and then only with lots of water and sunscreen.
The Big Red Truck, the Tulor pre-Columbian settlement, and sunset
After coming back from Pucón, where we realised a little too late in that a car would be useful, we booked a massive pickup truck to pick up at the airport in Calama, and cancelled our hotel transfer. It had air conditioning and four wheel drive, and was absolutely enormous, although I managed to parallel-park it first go the one time I needed to.
There's something about the light and the wide open spaces that's impossible to capture on camera. I decided to go for B&W, with a red filter (or, rather, what my trusty Fuji X100S says that does to a digital picture) to cut out the haze of the dust and darken the skies the day we climbed the Pukará de Quitor, which seems to have worked pretty well.
Chile is, at least to my limited understanding, geologically a pile of rocks that have been pushed up by the Nazca plate subducting under the South American plate. The most obvious result of this is the Andes themselves, but westwards of that there's the Intermediate Depression and then the Chilean Coastal Range of mountains. The Atacama is part of this depression, bordered on both east and west by higher mountains, which means it's very unusual for any kind of moisture to make its way over from either the Atlantic or Pacific. Everybody tells you it hasn't rained for over 400 years there, but that's not strictly true: most parts get a few millimetres of precipitation (dew, snow, and rain) per year, although there are weather stations that have never recorded any rainfall.
We went on one full-day trip up to the Lagunas Altiplanicas and to the Atacama salt flats. Again, not having read the guidebooks carefully in advance, we were a bit surprised by the number of times our ears popped driving up to the lakes, and even more to find that we were around 4200m above sea level when we reached the lakes. The highest I'd ever been before that was the summit of Mount Kinabalu at a mere 4095m: here we were quietly driving along with absolutely enormous mountains rising miles above us - actually some of the highest in the Andes, hitting over 6000m. The wildlife up there is very interesting: we saw nesting Tagua Cornuda by Laguna Minique, and some random vicuña just hanging out grazing.
Back down (over a mile down) to the salt flats, we found Andean flamingoes almost close enough to touch. The landscape is totally alien: encrusted with salt and looking as hostile to life as anything I've ever seen, but apparently there are small brine shrimp and other small crustaceans living there. Enough to support a lot of flamingoes, anyway. I wanted to taste the water to see how salty it was but Susan sensibly stopped me. Note: that's now three species of flamingoes we've seen in two months, and Susan's videos are now featured on the Flamingo Specialist Group's Facebook page.
The Valle de la Muerte, or Valley of Death, is apparently a misnomer: it's supposed to be the Valley of Mars, because it's just around the corner from the Valley of the Moon. If you're driving from San Pedro, then it's really badly signposted: there's a tiny sign that you can't see until you've gone past it, and the next turn is miles away. We managed to find it by taking the next turn, though, and (although we probably shouldn't have) managed to park just a few minutes' walk below the viewpoint above.
The Valley of the Moon is also well worth it. We were very glad to be under our own steam here: some parts were overrun with tour groups, especially the Salt Cavern, which wasn't the best place to get stuck behind 20 people. There's a lot to see there, including some old disused salt mines.
Here's a map: we flew in to Calama; the lakes are south of Socaire just by the marker that says "23"; and that's Argentina over on the right and Bolivia up north.
San Pedro itself is a bit of a strange town. There's a small vegetable market where we discovered rocoto peppers and wonderful local garlic, but we couldn't find anywhere else to buy supplies except for a very strange supermarket with no fresh food at all. Maybe there are more shops on the other side of town, or everybody who wants fresh bread either drives 100km to Calama to get it or bakes their own.
The Museo del Metorito is a few minutes' walk past the supermarket on the north side of town, and has an amazing selection of meteorites in a geodesic dome. The Atacama desert is apparently a very good place for meteorite hunters, as there's neither vegetation to hide them nor water to rust or dissolve anything. The English translations are sometimes a bit quirky: one rather beautiful pallasite was described as resembling a tutti-frutti. The other museum in town is the collection of Gustavo Le Paige, a Jesuit priest who collected pre-Columbian artefacts from the Atacama region. There was apparently some controversy about the presence of mummies: these are no longer on display. There is an interesting collection of pottery, some fabrics, and a remarkable collections of tools for preparing hallucinogenic snuff.
The big thing we failed to do was going for a star-watching expedition. These are advertised all over town, but shut down during the full moon because of the light pollution. The first couple of days we stayed there had beautifully clear skies and not too much moon, but we didn't book until later in the week, when it was too late to get a slot. I suspect that the operators had decided to stop a few days early to take a bit more time off before Christmas. The Lonely Planet suggested that we could book on line for a tour around the La Silla observatory, and I was extremely excited when we got a last-minute confirmation. I was then very confused when Google Maps showed that La Silla is 1100 km south, closer to Santiago than San Pedro. Perhaps they meant the ALMA radio observatory?
The rest of the place seems to be aimed at tourists: there are hostels, restaurants, and tour operators, all selling variations on the same few packages. We had a very good meal at Baltinache one night (where we had the fancy pisco sours from two posts ago) and a pretty passable pizza on our first night somewhere on the main tourist drag. The most notable thing about that place was that they were playing Peruvian pan-pipe music when we arrived but then changed to playing 80s hits half way through the meal. We stayed longer than we probably should have waiting for La Isla Bonita, but only got Rick Astley.
The town of Pucón is a good ten-hour bus ride south of Santiago, nestled between lakes and volcanoes in the Araucanía region of Chile. All the guidebooks make it sound like a bit of a tourist disaster from Christmas through to February, but our week there at the end of November was very peaceful and quiet.
Double-decker sleeper bus, pictured in the oh-so salubrious Terminal San Borja, and Volcán Villarica looming over the suburbs
We stayed at the lovely Okori Hostel. It's a wooden building that reminded me a little bit of a ski lodge, nestled in the forest outside town. There's a big communal kitchen/dining room with a proper cooker and an amazing bar-table that's made from a single piece of wood that must be a good 5 meters long. The only thing I'd complain about is that they make you wear Crocs indoors. We cooked a lot there, and sat around the table talking with the other guests most evenings - that is, when we weren't trying to talk to the grandmother (who understands English better than she can talk; about on a level with our Spanish) or the evening when 30 Mapuches descended on the hostel (precisely why, we never found out) and barbecued, sang and danced until well into the night. That evening we were invited to Samuel and Karin's BBQ, so that we didn't get in the way in the kitchen, so we ate crispy pork and tried to persuade Abuela to help us finish off the bottle of Fernet that I'd bought earlier that week.
We had a ten-hour overnight bus ride there, from the San Borja terminal in Santiago. We managed to navigate the websites in Spanish to book the tickets without any problem, but then realised that we had to print out the tickets to get on the bus. [This was recorrido.cl, booking for Pullman Bus: I think that they have an app for the other bus lines - but the Pullman station in Pucón is much more convenient than the Turbus one, so it sort of balances out].
We went for Salón Cama on the bus both ways: this gets you big business-class style reclining seats, no champagne, and a big sign in the loo saying it's solo para orinar. There's a large LED sign to tell you how fast the driver's going (about 1 km/h under the limit at all times) and how long he's been driving, and they give you a small box with a wafer and a juice box in the morning half an hour or so before arriving. Ten hours on a bus is clearly merely a short jaunt for Chileans, but it was enough for us.
From the Pullman terminal (the Turbus one is half a mile out of the middle of town) we went across the street for breakfast and then to the local bus terminal next door, and climbed onto a minibus that we were fairly sure was going in the right direction. Thankfully, a combination of good signposting and watching our journey on Google Maps like a hawk meant we could tell the driver to stop at the right place, and we jumped off the bus for the long walk down the gravel road to the hostel. Not terribly fun with roller-bags, but we managed it.
After we'd checked in and figured out our bearings, we realised that Okori is a bit (well, 5 km or so) further out into the wilderness than we'd thought while booking it, so we flagged down the next minibus back into town and scored a remarkable deal on the smallest car I've ever rented: a little white Japanese thing that it took me three days to stop banging my elbows on the door when steering around corners. It turned out to be an excellent idea: it was technically possible to do some of the things we did by public transport, but it would have involved getting the bus timing exactly right. It also meant we could drive to the shops to buy supplies: the Okori website suggests you buy food in town before coming, and they're absolutely right.
Driving is quite interesting: the main roads are paved, and mostly well-maintained, in that almost every journey we took involved at least one wait of 5-20 minutes to get through big sections of roadworks. We did quite a lot of driving on dirt roads too, especially up in the mountains. The tiny car managed everything we threw it at remarkably well, although we definitely weren't the fastest thing on the roads. I'm very thankful that my driving instructor years ago taught me how to do hill starts (as much as one can in Cambridge, which isn't known for its hills), and even more thankful that I'm not going to be paying to replace its clutch.
We did a lot of spectacular walking: up to Lake Caburgua (north-east of the marker on the map - almost empty when we were there but it looks as though it'd be full of jetskiers in summer) and then to the waterfalls at Les Ojos de Caburgua; to Huerquehue National Park (which should really be easier to pronounce, and where I got extremely excited because I remembered I could use my iPhone to get altitude readings: you go from around 800m above sea level at the car park to just under 1300m in a couple of hours' hard climb, then there's a kind of plateau with some lovely lakes nestled in trees); and up the awesome Mirador Los Cráteres walking trail (go out of Pucón on the way to Villarrica, turn left to the volcano, and then be happy you're driving a rental car until the end of the track several km later (and about 800m higher), where we had fantastic views and saw only three people (one of whom was hiking with some kind of loudspeaker-equipped rucksack, alas).
Lake Caburgua, waterfalls at Les Ojos de Caburgua, and that volcano again
Where there's volcanic activity, there's often hot water. The Termas Geometricas are the biggest thing in the local hot spring scene. There are seventeen pools, varying in size and temperature, connected with an "asian-inspired" walkway (by which I think they mean it's painted red). All the pools have their nominal temperature posted on a little wooden sign, but it rarely seems to be accurate. It's quite interesting, too, to see how the hot water gets fed in from where it gushes up in (well fenced-off) pools, and mixed with the cold stream water. If you get there before noon or after 6 pm it's slightly cheaper to get in, but it's a 2-hour drive from Pucón with the last 17 km over a pretty battered dirt track. Oddly, it seemed to be most crowded at around 5 pm: I think that several tour buses arrived together.
There's a wide variety of adventure activities that we didn't do, like white-water rafting or climbing the volcano. A woman from Colorado, who was also staying at our hostel, went up and down with guides, and said that they only had to take two of the group back down early, one for some unspecified medical reason and one for a panic attack. She was clearly a hardcore climber, though, and had done many mountains all over the world.
I saw some people having a competition on social media recently. Simple rules: when you hear the Wham classic "Last Christmas" you're out; everybody still in by midnight on Christmas Eve wins. Playing from Chile would probably be an unfair advantage, though, as there's been remarkably little in the way of Christmas music here. What I've heard has mostly been in Spanish (unsurprisingly) or instrumental versions of classic carols (thanks, Santiago airport). I'm more thankful that there hasn't been any Slade, though.
An interesting, non-seasonal version might be to see how long you can go in South America without hearing a version of El Condór Pasa. So far, three weeks in Pucón and Santiago yielded zero sightings, but last week in the Atacama desert, not all that far from the Peruvian border, we heard it twice. Neither was the Simon and Garfunkel version, but we did hear a pan-pipe version of The Sound Of Silence at Baltinache. That's where we got that pair of fancy pisco sours (one with rica rica, one with chañar) and crab claw with cochayuyo (or possibly an un-Googleable desert plant with almost the same name), above.