November 28, 2005

Soyan vs. the Volcano

…And the volcano won.

Promises of seeing flows of hot lava, peering into an active volcano crater, and the ability to slide down in carved ice chutes led us to hike up Volcan Villarica, located in the Villarica National Park in Pucon, Chile. It´s a perfect, cone shaped volcano, snow capped with smokey white fumes coming out of the top.

This was by far one of the toughest hikes I have ever done.

We went with a tour company with about 20 people, 8 of us f rom Hostel Victor (had a really pleasant stay there meeting nice people). They provided all the gear, outerwear, boots and backpacks, so each group trekking up the volcano looked like serious, uniformed mountaineers. I was excited to use crampons, which attach to the bottom of your boots and consist of 2 inch metal spikes to allow you to walk directly on ice. By the end of the hike, I fervently thought they were one of mankind´s greatest inventions. I also learned to use an ice axe. These scary looking things are useful to help walk up in ice, as well as indispensible for stopping you if you should slide down a mountain.

In just 5 miles, we climbed 3900 ft straight up . It was extremely steep (it serves as a ski resort in the winter), covered in snow and ice, with a fresh layer of snow that had fallen the night before. We had bad luck with the weather that morning as well, as the winds were so high that the ski lifts could not run, which added an extra 1.5 hrs to the hike to the summit. We braced ourselves as gusts of wind would whip snow and small pellets of ice at us. Clouds and fog swirled among us, alternatively giving us glimpses of sun, fog, and complete whiteout conditions. I had never experienced a whiteout before- it really is so white that it´s impossible to tell the difference between the surface and air. People in my own group disappeared from view only 5 ft in front of me. It was so windy (30-40mph) that we had to camp out in a shelter for 30 minutes to wait for it to clear.

Despite all this, there were some amazing things on the volcano. It was the first time I had hiked up above the cloud layer, and was rewarded by sun and a clear view of the volcano peak, with its plumes of sulphuric smoke. I experienced more types of snow than I thought possible in one hike :powder, corn (looks exactly like little styrofoam balls that break off bigger chunks), slush, thin layer of ice over snow, thick layer of ice over snow, packed snow, etc…

One of the coolest sounds I will remember is that of the tinkling cascade of ice shards down the volcano every time the crampons dug into the thin ice layer on top of the snow.

When we got closer to the top, a funny burning, acidic feeling in my throat and lungs appeared. So, this is what it was like to breathe sulphur fumes. Pretty unpleasant, and tough going as we were working very hard to hike up. We were then told that the winds were too strong, blowing the gases further afield, so we wouldn´t be able to make it any closer to the crater. To add insult to injury, we also wouldn´t get to slide down the ice chutes either. By that time I was less interested in reaching the top, and completely devastated by the overwhelming burden of actually having to walk all the way back down the volcano. In total, it was 7.5 hours straight up on ice, slush and powder, plus 3 hours to return to the bottom.

I am glad to have done it, but I don´t think I have the heart of a mountaineer in me. It struck me more of a journey of personal determination, and of browbeating myself to continue and not give up. There was nothing to look at on the way up except my feet. No birds or trees, plants or even lichen. Just perfect, icy, whiteness.

November 20, 2005

Easter Island, Moai Madness

I have always wondered what it would feel like to be in the absolute middle of nowhere.

The sad truth is… I felt a lot like being at any other major tourist spot, surrounded by backpackers, badly dressed British and German tourists, and enterprising locals.

Easter Island is in the middle of the Pacific ocean, 2500 miles from both Chile in the east and Tahiti in the west. It is a volcanic island only 20 miles long and 10 miles wide, with a few trees, about 3000 locals, and of course, the famous stone statues of the giant heads, the Moai. To avoid the hordes and tour buses (and to get some cool photos without a million people in them), Jonathan and I rented at 4X4 jeep and drove on the only road in search of the different sites.

The Moai were full of surprises for me. I learned that all of the statues were destroyed or toppled during a period of civil war sometime in the 19th century. There are a few restored Moai, but the majority remain fallen and crumbly. And contrary to all the photos I´ve seen, the the Moai are not only heads…they have torsos, and hands with long fingers wrapping around their round bellies. They sometimes also are adorned with huge topknots made of a reddish stone, quarried from a different part of the island. Furthermore, I also didn´t expect that there so many of them. We saw at least a hundred Moai in different stages – half carved, carved but half buried and sticking out of the quarry, transported but not erected, or erected but toppled over. They ranged in size as well, with some as tall as 20 meters, weighing over 100 tons.

The 15 restored ones at Ahu Tongariki are imposing, facing inland to watch over the island. Why they were made, and how they were transported and erected remain a subject of speculation. I learned an immense amount, and the Moai are very impressive.

And the Moai had another surprise for me…it almost a let down to be physically seeing the statues, after all the photos and the buildup. Easter Island lived in my mind as some far off place I never expected to see, and yet I was there, and it didn´t feel so unusual or exotic, even though there were these mad giant stone heads. I walked into the supermarket and was able to buy more products with brands that I recognized (Doritos, Cadbury, etc) than I could find in small towns in Argentina. They even had soy and oyster sauce for sale!

On our second day, we were excited to explore a different side of the island, the northern face. We were told that there were no roads there, so we took a taxi to the other side of island, and hiked back. When we started, we had some sort of trail, but that soon disappeared into farmland, and we found ourselves climbing over barbed wire fences, gates and stone walls to stay close to the coast.

While the views were spectacular, with the rough Pacific ocean waters crashing onto the black volcanic rock, the 12 mile hike was more notable for the most horses and cows I have ever seen in my life. They were everywhere on this side of the island, hundreds grazing or taking naps, and newly born foals and calves fumbled after their mothers. I couldn´t believe that being in the middle of nowhere would be so…normal. I felt (unreasonably I know) that there should at least be some exotic wildlife, unique to the island. Horses? Cows? Heaps of cow and horse crap? This was Easter Island?

I think that my fantasy of being in the middle of nowhere has been blown and needs to be revised. I think that¨middle of nowhere¨ probably isn´t related to geographical isolation anymore, especially with our global economy and ease of transportation. I´m looking forward to the rest of the trip to see what else I will find.

November 5, 2005

The best $2 car wash ever

Before returning our rental car, we decided to get it washed. After driving on dirt and unpaved roads through mountain towns for 6 days, it looked really grimy, and we wanted to make sure it didn´t look like it had scratches before returning it to Hertz.

We pulled into the small rural town of San Augustin de Valle Fertil, and found a car wash (Lavadero). We were thinking of a quick rinse on the outside, just to remove some of the dirt and mud. When we were quoted a price of 6 pesos (US $2), we thought, fine, expecting a 5 minute wash.

We got out and stood waiting while he started with a hose. Then, he opened the doors and handed me my backpack and asked us to remove the things inside. We looked at each other, and realized he was going to clean the inside of the car as well.

After we stood for 15 minutes in the hot sun, we saw that he started to take out the floor mats and wash them. At this point, we began to grow concerned. Wet carmats would take time to dry. We told him that we were going to buy some water across the street, and he said fine, it would only be THIRTY more minutes.

Two men washed, soaped, rinsed, vacuumed and detailed the car for over 45 minutes. They cleaned the trim around the internal gasket of the trunk, the rearview mirrors, the door frames. We couldn´t believe the attention that the car was getting. I was so used to machine Scrub-a-Dubs, and those cost $10 just for a quick run through.

The car was spotless and gleamed beautifully – what a shame that it was only a rental!