Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Chillin' in Chile

Better to be late than never, right? Well… testing that cliché, I’m finally now getting an opportunity to share the highpoints from my Chilean adventure. And for me it’s like opening up a time capsule although I guess three weeks doesn’t afford too much perspective. But hopefully my feeble memory has already subconsciously screened out any of the dull moments.

My journey to Chile was so much more than simply an opportunity to dust off my high school Spanish (but Señora Wagner would’ve been proud). I was emboldened by my spontaneous trip to Japan over winter break and I wanted to join Ricardo (a transplanted Texan) and a select handful of the more adventurous classmates to visit my first country south of the equator.

Quick geography factoid… Chile is stretches further south by latitude than any other country. The capital of Santiago is approximately the same latitude as Cape Town, South Africa and a bit below Sydney, Australia. Thus, the flight takes a long time and it typically is a red eye.

Quesito (me) getting creative or maybe just sleep deprived.

Being eager Stanford MBAs, our itinerary was to fly all the way to Punta Arenas (almost the southern tip of Chile located on the Strait of Magellan) and then rent cars to drive into Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia. The good news for anyone contemplating the trip here is that they have invested tons of $$$ to pave the roads into the park… the bad news, is that we had almost continuous “desvios” (detours) for the second half of the 5 hour drive. The flip side is that we could regroup, share some laughs and reenact old Toyota commercials…

Driving in the middle of nowhere, there aren’t too many salient things to share. Perhaps, the one exception is good radio stations. Chile has these in spades, airing GnR, Foreigner, Bon Jovi, INXS, and what must be their national anthem… anything by Phil Collins. The “Argentinian” stations actually are even one rung better playing a more eclectic mix of music… but they go barebones… no DJ’s… no commercials—well, the got nothing to sell. Of course, the “Argentinian” radio stations might actually be another car’s iTrip with an iPod. :)

Sorry Kristof, Rebecca and Jason for the prank, although this prank could only work if you were tailgating.

We eased into the first evening of our trek by staying at a “refugio”—which are fairly inexpensive hostiles inside the park providing a bit more than the bare necessities (bed, warm water, and option for a cooked meal). Most importantly, they have tables and chairs for some competitive card games, like hearts and spades.

Recommenation numero uno. When ordering meat, “medio” does not mean medium. “Medio” means rare and “a punto” means medium. Order “lomo a lo pobre” (which translates to the best possible meal before embarking on a weeklong trip in the wilderness; a.k.a. beef with eggs served on a bed of French fries with grilled onions) “a punto.” You will not be disappointed!

One extreme highlight was our assault on the glaciers. Perhaps, the only letdown was the liability waiver which was as sparse as the desolate drive into the park. Once armed with an ice axe and crampons, we followed our intrepid guides over the ice riddled with crevasses and false surfaces. We rocked the ice climbing, culminating with a kiss of the Carabiner (or a french kiss by Noah, fortunately he went last).

We set up camp on the shores of Lago Grey. Scooting into the sleeping bag that night was the first of many times I was extremely thankful for the top of the line equipment from Scott (supplemented by an REI shopping spree the day before I left the States).

For the uninitiated, the “W” is the most popular way to experience Torres del Paine. On the enclosed map, I’ve taken the liberty of drawing in the green “W”—we started the trek on the far left of the map, hiking from Camp Grey through Camp Pehoe (pronounced like “pay*hway”… not pronounced like a directive to a prostitute on how to take a drug test) to Camp Italiano to Camp Cuernos to Camp Chileno, ultimately exiting at the Hostería las Torres.

I believe the pictures do the best job of capturing this part of our trip. If you want to see some revealing shots of Mother Nature in her full splendor, surf to:

A few stories… Mister Chile, Ricardo (although technically he is a NewEnglander born in Boston and spending 6 years of his formative years in Texas), was absolutely right on with his recommendation that the feature of the trek would be Frenchman’s Valley. (actually, almost all his recommendations were spot on.) We did a daytrip up to the “mirador” (lookout)… and then decided that the view would only get better if we ad-libbed another 30 minutes up the mountain. And, man, we lucked out! At this plateau, we were almost overwhelmed by a stunning panorama stretching from some peaks bracing the backside of the Torres, to the depths of Lago Nordenskjold almost 3,500 feet below to some permanent glaciers in the bowl of Los Perros.

Hey, since the weather was nice and there was more altitude to climb, our curiosity insisted that we push further. At this point, the trend was:

1,200 meters in elevation = good view
1,400 meters = GREAT view
1,700+ meters = ????

Kristof (eagle scout) and I (life scout) shelved our lunch and embarked for an unnamed pass (at least on our map) nestled between the peaks of Cabeza del Indo and Escudo. We hoped for a view of the backside of the Torres to serve as a harbinger for our climactic climb to the Torres two days hence. We were making great time up a difficult terrain which was a mix of tundra and boulders until.

“cuatro estaciones sobre una hora” – the local saying is that there are four seasons in an hour. And we didn’t fully appreciate these words of wisdom until what was a 65 degree partly cloudy day transformed into sleet plus gale-force winds in a matter of 15 minutes. So much for our grand ideas of a picnic! I vaguely recall telling Kristof that I would never regret turning around before summiting… but those pictures would’ve been sweet! We raced back down to our camp and opted to postpone the next leg of our trip until 5:30 am the following morning. And we got to spend the afternoon playing hearts with Hamish, Rule Book Rebecca (aka The Book), and Jason… the first of many serious card games.

Quick hits on the remaining days in Torres del Paine:
* Most fellow trekkers speak English and sometimes Spanish. They typically do not speak Japanese or Afrikaans. (We tested by playing a game where the first person would say “Hello” followed by the second person greeting “Hola” then “Kaneecheewa” and finally “Mortar!”)
* The orange spots mark the trail. The black speckles peppering the rocks do NOT mark the more advance trail. The green circle, blue square, and black diamond designations only hold with skiing terrain.
* You can do a pre-morning hike to attempt to see the Torres right when the sun crests over the horizon. Theoretically, they will appear pink. But, don’t forget the “4 seasons in an hour” and it will tend to be winter during the all important break of dawn.

* Get the “lomo a lo pobre” as your first meal out. You need the calories!

Although the Argentinian radio station 88.7 was no longer broadcasting (Noah and his iTrip left a few days earlier), we made the return trip to Punto Arenas in record time. We made one stop off at Masay and they serve the most gargantuan sandwich ever for less than $10. Not that the cost mattered since we played a round of hearts to determine who would pick up the bill for the high stakes subgroup (Hamish, Jason, Kristof and I).

My unlikely favorite bar of Chile was down in Punto Arenas. Even though it was a Sunday night and we had a 6am flight to catch, we froggered across the street from our Hotel Isla Rey Jorge to the bar, Lunáticos. The etymology could not be more apropos, we must have been suffering from madness! The bartender had us bumping in our barstools as we were treated to a nonstop blitzkrieg of mashed up hits from the 70’s through today. Right before shutting the bar down, we were able to negotiate to buy the Classic Project 2 and the Classic Project 3 for $4. Oh, and the 25 or so beers cost less than $50. Increible!!!

We spent the next couple days in Pucon (the Lake Tahoe of Chile) with the imposing Volcano Villarrica (andale a la foto abajo). We were unable to get a good picture of the ominous smoke rising from the mouth of the active volcano, but we attempted to compensate by doing an impression of the top-down view by making a volcano face.

Although my Froto feet could not have protested another day of hiking more vociferously, they reluctantly spent one more day in their two coffins, err I mean hiking boots. But the reward was spending the evening in some natural hot springs at Thermas Geometrica and soaking out all the various injuries.

How much does it suck when you have a flight delay? How ‘bout a 5 hour flight delay? And when the airport is more like a bus stop with a tiny cafeteria??? Well, as long as we had a table, 4 chairs, and a deck of cards, we were happy. We had ratcheted up the bar in our hearts game to playing to 101 points (100 points resets back to 50). Incredibly, the delay wasn’t sufficient as we had yet to finish by the time the plane was ready. Fortunately, we found some spare moments in Santiago to wrap things up appropriately.

After an abbreviated night of sleep, we hired a driver and a tour guide to take us on a day trip to a few wineries and Valparaiso (the Sausalito of Chile). The whites were buttery, the reds were earthy… the pairings with the cheese (whites) and the chocolates (reds) were absolutely divine. For the afternoon at least I was a wine drinker trapped in a beer drinker’s body. With our metabolisms still kicking from the week trek, we rambled all over Valpo, sometimes with the assistance of elevator cars serving as chair lifts to summit the greatest jumps in elevation. This seaside city was absolutely breathtaking – serene, quaint, picturesque. So of course, it was a great place to take a nap.

Continuing with our theme of walking and eating, we strolled to a hole in the wall diner that served only one entrée: a dish containing French fries, fried onions, cheese, and carne. Our run rate on calories was probably upwards of 5,000/day so we didn’t feel too guilty about taking down 4 portions of this scrumptious dish.

The climactic evening on the adventure was a BBQ generously hosted by the Uauys. So if you look at a world map, Chile is contained in a single time zone. However, there really should be two time zones… but not based on geographic coordinates. One time zone should be for all travelers which is the actual time. Chilean time for locals is adjusted by two hours. For example, a BBQ that was supposed ot kick off at 9pm actually begins at around 11pm. When I say begins, I should say when the first Chilean guest arrives. Hunger might be the best chef… but the food was scrumptious. We ate so much that 4 of us suffering from food coma took naps in the middle of the dinner party!!! The troupe rallied for one more late night city party at a random spot in the center of the city. The parties are passed via word of mouth and the best ones are triangulated from several independent sources.

On the last day, I made one last attempt to support the local economy. I was stoked to find a shoemaker who would make a custom design shoe fit to the outline of my foot drawn onto an 8½” x 11” piece of college rule paper. I couldn’t be more excited for this purchase since I haven’t found a replacement pair of leather boots that I wore on my first day of high school. (yep Skate, the ones you got for me to go with the blue button down shirt and braided leather belt.) Unfortunately, it would take him a few days to finish up the shoes but Ricardo would be able to fly them back to the States. WOOHOOO!!!

Late addition: If any of you are in the market for slim, size ~9 US custom made leather boots, drop me a line. They’ve never been worn since they didn’t quite fit my size 10.5 wide feet :)

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Jamba Juice Feeling the Squeeze from Swollen Hands

Jamba Juice employees have just filed a class action lawsuit against their employer due to hazardous working conditions. The suit charges that the Jamba Juice process requires their employees to beat the sides of the blender to initiate the "calving" of the smoothie into the styrofoam cups. The repetitive thumping results in severely distended hands as can be seen in the attached pictures.

Jamba corporate has yet to provide an official response... which makes some sense since this post is an April Fools'.