The abrupt Andes

They rise up abruptly. The suddenness is itself intimidating. They are tall, bushy and sprinkled with a scornful animosity for the rest of the world. The majestic Andes Mountains aren’t welcoming to everyone. Neither are they approachable. No wonder that there are such few residents of these dry cliffs. Human’s keep their distance as do most animals.

But behind the thorny exterior is a loneliness which is hard to notice. The mountains have been sandpapered by the misunderstandings of time. Like the Condor which glides around unaccompanied at the roof of the Andes, the Andes themselves have learnt to live by hiding their desolation under foliage of barbed pride. They don’t want any false sympathy, but that’s probably what they get most often. So the absence of obvious fauna is balanced by the diversity of flora, visible only to a trained eye.

We drove up to the Andes from our hotel at Talca. Our plans were altered at the last minute so as to visit the best sites of mountainous vegetation at this time of the year. We went past the Tabano reservoir, driving further up into the Andes toward the Argentina border. We crossed two of the three checkpoints of Chilean border forces. The façade of the Andes mountains changed as we drove higher up in the mountains.

We started with green deciduous Nothofagus forests all around. We felt like we were cutting through a drapery of green and blue with the reservoir on one side and the denseness of the forest on the other. There were pine trees too though they are not native to the Andes and were planted by the Europeans. As we moved higher up, to over 2000 meters, the vegetation became sparser with mostly shrubberies. In far distances we could see the white peaks of the dominating Andes. We weren’t going that far, but just this glimpse was enough to keep us in awe and reverence.

The objective of the journey wasn’t to reach the end but to absorb the essence of the life on the mountains. For me the drive was a discovery in itself. Up there, there was the absence of the cacophony of traffic or the need to measure time. There was a mild symphony proclaiming remoteness in the air – a sense of awaiting mystery in the shadow of every mountain.

To guide us through these mountains was Professor Stephan and Professor Flavia, from the University of Talca. Whenever something interesting caught the eye, the van was stopped instantly and we would set off to learn about the plants and flowers around the area. We saw plenty of plant life. There were pink Alstroemeria, large Chilean Gunneras, dazzling Rhodophialas, uniquely growing terrestrial orchids, herby smelling medicinal Boldo, tobacco plants, black endemic Barberries and other native species.

On one of our longer stops, we walked upto the top of a waterfall. We saw closely how a gentle stream collected its energy to become a vicious and elegant 100 foot waterfall. Seeing a waterfall from the top was a new perspective. Even the plant species near the waterfall were different, as they are fed by thrusts of water from the waterfall below, by occasional increase in winds.

My favorite part of the trip was when we stopped near a stream. Looking for plants, we climbed half way up a steep, rocky hill which had a stream coming down. Resting, we found a pool of water to gather around. With our feet dipped in the cold spring water, and the sun shining on our already tanned faces, we felt for a brief second that we were a part of the Andes.

Hot and cold in Valparaiso

The city of Valparaiso is located about a hundred miles from Santiago. Here nature is an inspiration and man has not failed to be inspired. The city is on the side of a hill with the grand Pacific Ocean at its toes. Natural beauty is matched by the architecture and the street art. The ocean looks tender and blue – without disclosing its true vastness. Poet Pablo Neruda, whose home (now museum) we visited at Valpariaso, had described the Pacific beautifully – “The Pacific Ocean overflowed the map. There was no place to put it. It was so big, unruly and blue that it fitted nowhere. That’s why they left it in front of my window.”

Our host in Valparaiso was Doris Ly (New Projects Developer, Buzzclusters). She was accompanied by her endearing family – her husband Jaime A. Olavarria (Director, de Estudios y Planificacion Estrategica)., their son Tomas and daughter Caterina. Doris is a former student of Professor Mark and took time off on her Sunday to show us around the historic city.

La Sebastiana, as Pablo Neruda’s Valparaiso home is called, is located half way on the hill with excellent views of the city and ocean. I could just imagine a pot belied Neruda resting on his ‘cloud’, as he called his armchair, at the end of the day, with a gentle thread of waning sun penetrating through the stained glass, the smell of the pacific ocean dribbling in through the walls and the sound of honeyed poetry rising up into the air.

As diverse a man Pablo Neruda was, his home is even more intriguing. The Neruda house is best described as imaginatively eccentric. The old oak staircases and stone murals on the walls smell of poetry and revelry. Two golden ladies mark the entrance as though they are inviting you into a joyous carousal. I was almost fooled. Neruda believed that there is a child in all of us and man should never lose his playfulness. His home describes this persona, at least for the period of time he was there. His other homes in Chile and Europe are probably different – people change through their life, so why shouldn’t their homes.

Every item in the house had a meaning – nothing was wasteful and out of place. Today, the home is uninhabited but the furniture and belongings still crowd the room. Neruda obviously liked to be surrounded. He never ate alone and enjoyed entertaining his friends. A carousel horse lining the semi-circular step of the living room, stood out distinctly, tempting you into joining in the Neruda ride.

The rest of Valparaiso is as interesting as La Sebastiana. There is an archaic system of elevator trams to transport people up and down the slopes. These elevators are unique to Valparaiso and are an innovative aid to move around on these steep slopes. The streets of Valparaiso are painted with creative street art everywhere. As we walked through the streets, the color and vibrancy melted the afternoon heat away and we felt like we were in the middle of a Spanish Carnivale. In the few hours I spent at Valparaiso, I felt like I was living in an elaborate musical, with the lights, colors and sounds to qualify.

In the afternoon we went to the beach. As I walked along the beach, and the waves started reaching for my feet, I am surprised by how cold the water was. I remembered what Don Eduardo had told us about the temperature of the water. The Peru-Chile deep sea trench is located not too far off the coast and so the water which reaches the coast of Chile is distinctly lower than the temperature of the beach. The cold water and hot sun makes for a perfect Sunday.

Finding Santiago

Cradled between imposing Andes Mountains on one side and the Coastal Mountains on another side, Santiago is a city blessed with nearly 360 degrees of striking views. Founded in the 16th century, the city carries the weight of the last five hundred years, despite being ravaged by wars and earthquakes. The streets look typically Spanish or European but the city cherishes its Mapuche heritage. The main river running through the city is also called Mapucho.

Fortunately we were gifted a flawless guide, Don Eduardo – a former doctoral student of our Professor (Mark Bridgen) and himself a professor of plant breeding and ornamental horticulture at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile. Don Eduardo could be from no other country but Chile. His kind and ample charm mixes perfectly with the harmless but contagious mirth – a very Chilean trait. Not only is he an expert on plants but has deep interest in his country and city he belongs too, making an excellent and enthusiastic tour guide. Passing on information and delectable trivia about the city and country.

Taking time out from his schedule, Don Eduardo took us for a walking tour around Plaza Italia –– the intricately woven streets and galleries of Santiago’s downtown. While there were buildings dating back two centuries, the area didn’t look like it was fading or gathering dust. Unlike old towns in other cities, Santiago’s old district doesn’t force history onto you, though it does impose stunning architecture (and a non-trivial fear of pickpockets). The Plaza de Arms, which is a crowded and energetic part of the city, isn’t as tourist oriented as you would expect. With the shadows of important buildings falling onto the square, there is a relaxed air of well treasured freedom and liberty.
Nearby stands the Placio de La Moneda or the Presidential Palace. A spectacular white building designed by an Italian architect. Today it stands empty. In the 1950s, the then President decided that he doesn’t need a large palace to stay while his citizens and his staff reside in regular homes around the city. So he shifted his home to a nearby apartment and would walk to office every day. This inimitable and inspiring tradition of staying in your own homes continues to today.

This is where the uniqueness of Chile lies. They have been wise in what they absorb from all the cultures that have entrusted upon them. Whether it was the Spanish, the French or even the Americans, the Chileans have built their own values and beliefs.

Waiting for the noise

Sitting at JFK Airport, I’m still struggling to find some design for the next three weeks. So wide are my expectations of the Chile SMART trip, that I feel the excitement is being drowned by my sneaky nervousness. I’m just waiting for the disbelief of the coming weeks to shout out at me. Now, I’m simply waiting for the noise.

There are a couple of Europeans sitting in front on me, whispering to each other. I can’t make out the language. It could be Danish or maybe Polish, I’m can’t tell the difference. An old man, wearing a sweater vest, is staring emptily, at peace with his restlessness and serenely rebelling against the young generation’s need for portable entertainment. A peripatetic girl with a checked scarf around her neck walks by, confident that her destination will fulfill her natural desire to be on the move. Her gait is assured but her mind is absorbing more than the eyes can see – a trait of a person always in search of something new. I’m seated on the floor, as close as I can to the only available wall socket near my airline gate. Many other travelers stream by, some silently and others stride clamoring among each other. I wonder what all the others are thinking about me. Can they see my nervousness about this trip? Is my soul here naked, like a sticky orange candy without a wrapper hardening with the settling dust?

I spent the first half of my winter break, overcoming my affliction for new languages. The desire to learn a new language isn’t new but the looming behemoths of word memorization, confusing and new grammar rules and unacquainted pronunciations, all were enough to deter me. At least Spanish follows the same written script. So I went about twisting and turning my ‘r’s and putting my tongue in places they have never been before. There was something decidedly stimulating about learning the power of communication. But alas my discipline was wavering and beside some very rudimentary sentences, I remain a complete Spanish knucklehead.

As I wait for Chile to happen to me, I can hear the rising din of adventure beckoning. I already feel much less nervous and much more excited as I write this blog. More soon.