Fall Has Arrived in Santiago

While we were away in San Pedro de Atacama, the “Driest Place on Earth”, where it rained buckets and hailed teacups, fall officially and actually arrived in Santiago.

Behold! In the distance, snow on the Andes and skies cleared of smog by two days of cool rain.

Fall in Santiago
The construction cranes have yet to migrate north for the winter.

Santiago is at 1700 feet in elevation, so the climate is not exactly like Los Angeles. It’s a little bit cooler, with the highest high temperature never getting above 100 degrees, and with fall coming in a little more promptly than in LA.

By the way, you’ll notice in the photo above, there are now two construction cranes operating across the street. The smaller yellow one appeared over the four days while we were gone in the desert. Fans of industrial safety will note that the smaller crane sits within the lift footprint of the larger crane, meaning our friend Crane Guy has to be careful not to swing a load into the smaller crane, something that would presumably have disastrous results.

The Abecedario in English

As someone who has a terrible time pronouncing certain letters in Spanish correctly (all of them), I now take time to remind you that Spanish speakers have a terrible time with certain letters in English. In fact, here’s a chart for children from a site called El Abecedario en Ingles that shows you just how hard it is:

The Abecedario in English

As you can see, Spanish speakers mostly have a hard time with the same letters we do in Spanish, “G”, “H” and “J” being particularly difficult. I don’t have much problem with the Spanish “J”, probably because all of the Arabic I’ve studied has developed my ability to produce glottal fricatives to a nearly supernatural level. However, “H” and “G” habitually kick my tail, as does getting the correct accents on the penultimate syllable, or worse, getting it right when the accent isn’t on the penultimate syllable. (It took me ten years to learn how to correctly pronounce the word ejército, “army”, because I had never paid attention to the accent on the second syllable.)

The best way to sympathize with people who don’t speak English well, is to study another language yourself and labor through process of learning the alphabet all over again.

Chilean Spanish: Huaiquimán y Tolosa

Huaiquiman y Tolosa


Whenever I think I’m getting better at understanding Chilean Spanish, I watch some Chilean television and am reminded that, yo, this stuff is hard.

Embedded above is the first episode of a popular Chilean private detective show from a few years back, Huaiquimán y Tolosa, a show that hits all of the usual low-rent private eye tropes, but with a Chileno flavor.

Watch a little bit of it and you’ll see why two minutes in and I’m already shouting at the characters to slow down and stop using so much slang. Chileans talk at a million miles an hour, dropping various consonants (especially s’s) in the service of speed. And their slang (frequently profane) is famously opaque. For example, the universal “you know” appended by Chileans to the end of sentences is “cachai”, a word that seems have its roots in the English word “catch” as in “did you catch that”, cachai?

Add to this mix peculiar floating particles, such as “po“, and a vocabulary filled with indigenous Mapuche words, and you’ve got the makings of dialect with substantial differences from Castilian.

I Remember When Astronauts Were Cool

Sam Shepherd as Chuck Yeager
Astronauts dressed as jedi
Chuck Yeager wept

This does nothing to dispel the belief that NASA is wasting our money, nor does it help put any of the glamour back into space exploration. Instead of heroes of exploration, we’ve got astronerds on their way to a SciFi-Con in Dayton.

If you’re too young remember when astronauts were cool, your homework is to read Tom Wolfe’s masterpiece, The Right Stuff, and then watch the movie of the same name.

After that, read Andrew Chakin’s A Man on the Moon for the definitive account of the moon program. And for the true, primary-sources history geek, here’s NASA’s public archives. (Check out the First Lady Astronaut Trainee program.) These recommendations would only be a starting place for someone who was interested in this topic as a research project, as there are thousands of things worthy of attention, from astronaut autobiographies to film archives.

The history of manned spaceflight is heroic. Astronauts cos-playing characters from children’s movies is not.

I Felt This One: 6.3 near San Luis, Argentina

6.3 Earthquake near San Luis, Argentina, February 2015
On the other side of the Andes, but still perceptible.

This quake felt like someone had given the bed a hard shove, followed by the mild swaying of the apartment building for a minute or two. My wife, who was in the kitchen making a pot of tea, did not feel it.

From what I can gather, the Chileans would call this sort of thing a “seismic event”, rather than an earthquake (or, in Spanish, terremoto, which sounds cool and Japanese-y), as minor bumps like this would hardly be worthy of acknowledgement.

Santiago at Dawn

Santiago Chile at Dawn
Santiago at Dawn
You can actually see the Andes in the (not very great) distance

I took the photo above this morning at dawn (Sunday, 7am). I wanted to show you that you can see the Andes before the daily smog cover accumulates. Compare this to the photo I showed you in yesterday’s post, which was taken at around 8:30am on Saturday morning.

Here’s another beauty shot from this morning, marred by that construction crane:

Santiago Chile at Dawn
More mountains, in fact, mountains all around.

Santiago, with it’s balmy Mediterranean weather and urban sprawl, gets compared to Los Angeles a lot. It’s a fair comparison. Los Angeles is at 34°03′N and Santiago is 33°27′S on the western edge of their continent, where a cold current runs just off shore in the Pacific. Both are also economic powerhouses for major agricultural regions. And both have a long history of poor air quality.

Unfortunately for Santiago, its topography isn’t as forgiving as Los Angeles’s. LA is surrounded on three sides by mountains, and the fourth by the Pacific Ocean. In the winter a stiffish offshore breeze blows any smog away from the city.

Meanwhile, Santiago is at 1700′ in altitude and surrounded on all four sides by mountains, including the terrifically tall Andes. Effectively, the city sits in a bowl, and in the winter months, June and July especially, temperature inversions keep the smog pinned in place, with no sea breeze to blow it away. Yes, that’s right, as bad as the smog is in summer here, it’s much worse in the winter.

One more thing, Los Angeles has a couple decades head start on dealing with their smog problems, and have done amazingly well at cleaning up the air, at the expense of outdoor barbecues, fire pits and leaded gasoline. Chile is just getting going, and has yet to figure out how to deal with the fact that a significant portion of Chilean passenger cars have diesel engines spewing tons of particulate matter into the air. I’m sure the Chileans will eventually get this problem solved, in the meantime, it’s 10:30am and I can’t see the mountains that were visible just three hours ago.

Crane Guy Goes to Work in Santiago

Our apartment is on the 17th floor and we have a great view to the north of the Gran Torre de Santiago, the tallest building in South America. The Torre sits directly on top of the fancy-pants Costanera Mall, almost exactly one mile north of where we live.

Exactly one block north, 100 meters away, is a construction site, and six days a week, shortly after 8am in the morning, this happens…

The song playing in the background is a famous Chilean ballad called Si vas para Chile (“If You Go to Chile”), in which a homesick Chileno tells a traveler to stop by and deliver a love message from him to a woman in a little town called Los Condes. You can actually see Las Condes in this video. It starts at Gran Torre Santiago and goes eastward for a couple of miles.

Las Condes is now one of the two richest communities in Chile, the other being Vitacura, which is just to the north of the Torre. We live in Providencia, just to the south, which is the third richest. In terms of annual household incomes (in dollars) here’s how they rank: 1) Vitacura, $76,155; 2) Las Condes, $67,672; 3) Providencia, $53,767.

To an American, those numbers don’t sound especially outrageous, but you have to remember that the average household income in Chile is $13,762, and that the minimum wage is 225,000 Chilean Pesos, which at today’s exchange rate is a little less than $360 a month for a 45 hour work week. Undoubtedly, Señor Crane Guy is doing better than that. This newspaper report from last year, says that Chilean tower-crane operators average around 1 million pesos a month, about $1600. Not a lot, and certainly less than the $100,000 an American construction crane operator would bring home with overtime, but still almost five times the Chilean minimum wage.

P.S Apologies for the shaky camera work. I’m a novice with a camera. Here’s a still photo to make amends.


Up the Cajón del Maipo to Termas de Valle de Colina

Termas Valle de Colina

At first look, the bus that was going to take us up a narrow mountain road into the Andes was not confidence-inspiring. It was an aged, silver Mercedes, a dinged up, dusty rattle-trap with a dented rear side panel and seats that were permanently lodged in a semi-reclined position, neither fully up, nor fully down. Not exactly the sort of South American bus, overladen with paisanos y pollos, that habitually plunge over 3,000-foot cliffs in Bolovia, but close enough to make me worried. Nor was I comforted by the the driver who would pilot this machine. Haggard and thin, with a pock-marked face and a furrowed brow, he had seen a few hard miles himself, and was clearly not the sort to offer false assurance to his passengers.

But, by 8am on Saturday morning, we’d stowed our luggage and lunches, climbed aboard, and juddered off for the Termas Valle de Colina, a famous hot springs at the far end of Cajón del Maipo.

Cajón del Maipo is one of those close-to-the-city places, like Long Island or Malibu, that figures bigger in a nation’s consciousness and culture than it does in its geography. A narrow slice of canyon lancing south-eastward from Santiago into the cordillera, the Maipo’s been a weekend getaway for Santiagueños and a source of fresh fruit and odd legends for more than two centuries.

Because of its ready access to water and a decent climate, the prehistory of the Maipo valley goes back at least 10,000 years, with Indians and Incans, copper smelting and rock art. Its recorded history, begun when Valdavia arrived in Chile in 1542, is mostly stories of prospectors, herbalists, and stockmen running cattle and sheep up into the high meadows in summer. By 1792, the silver mines in the valley were pulling out enough metal to justify the foundation of a town, San Jose del Maipo, at a spot about 30 miles out from Santiago.

Most of the big events in the area happened in the early 19th century. In January of 1817, a tiny detachment of the Army of the Andes crossed the Argentine Paso de Portillo, at 14,200 feet, and the Paso de Piuquenes, (now on the international border) at 13,220 feet, and descended the Maipo so as to divert the attention of the Spanish, allowing the rest of the army to cross further to the north. The ruse worked, and the liberator José de San Martín was able to join up with the other liberator, Bernardo O’Higgins, and win independence for Chile. This high-lonesome route is now popular with people who take a week and do it on foot, mountain bike, or horseback.

Speaking of recreating the trip, in 1835, Charles Darwin left Santiago, went up the Maipo and over the mountains along the same route to Mendoza, Argentina. His observations on the geology of the Andes proved to be, as most of his other observations, ahead of their time and fairly accurate. Here’s a sample of Darwin on the Cajón del Maipo:

“On each side of the ridge we had to pass over broad bands of perpetual snow, which were now soon to be covered with a fresh layer. When we reached the crest and looked backwards, a glorious view was presented. The atmosphere resplendently clear; the sky an intense blue; the profound valleys; the wild broken forms; the heaps of ruins, piled up during the lapse of ages; the bright-coloured rocks, contrasted with the quiet mountains of snow; all these together produced a scene no-one could have imagined. Neither plant nor bird, excepting a few condors wheeling around the higher pinnacles, distracted my attention from the inanimate mass. I felt glad that I was alone: it was like watching a thunderstorm, or hearing in full orchestra a chorus of the Messiah”

Rattling up the road out of Santiago I didn’t get much of a chance to validate Darwin’s observations, concerned as I was with my own observations of Chilean bus-driving techniques.

On the one hand, the Chileans are the most cautious and responsible drivers in South America. Their police are good, their DUI laws strict, and their paved roads moderately well maintained. Compared to Argentines, for whom every traffic sign is a challenge to their masculinity, every pedestrian a potential hood ornament, Chilean drivers are the proverbial little old ladies.

Compared to American drivers, however, the average Chilean bus driver is Dale Junior’s evil twin, drafting into the sweet spot behind Kia subcompacts, playing the maestro on a symphony of horn. And yet, after an hour of gripping tightly to the broken arm rest of my broken seat, I began to relax.

God was with us, and our driver, a man who had appeared at first glance to be a cough syrup addict, was revealed in truth to be a skilled practitioner of the art of driving over rough terrain. By the time we left the paved road, at the head of the canyon near the village of San Gabriel, it had become clear that his skills were mighty indeed. The weaving back and forth I had taken as a sign that the Robitussin was kicking in, was actually a strategy designed to prevent the bus from bottoming out on the giant boulders that littered the roadbed.

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