The Hamman Family Comes to Chile!
02.02.2010 -6 °C
"Laura no esta, Laura se fue..."
The Hamman Adventures
Day 1: A Glorious Reunion
On Friday, January 22nd, a momentous event occurred in the life of the traveling, blog-writing teacher: Julie and Joe Hamman made their first trip to South America! Before arriving, my mom booked the whole expedition with Chile Quest, an action met with no complaints from their ever-planning daughter. By a stroke of pure luck, my parents booked their first two nights in a hotel a few blocks from my Chilean apartment. On the day of their arrival, I arrived early at the hotel and nervously paced up and down the lobby, feeling like an expectant mother. Finding a worn copy of The New York Times, I read up on China's plans of global expansion by 2020 and decided that Chinese would be the next foreign language I tackle.
Suddenly, a familiar voice roused me back to the present moment and I jumped up and ran to hug my mom for the first time in six months. No matter how grown up or worldly I have become, I still feel that same sense of security in my parents’ embrace that I felt as a small light-haired tot in diapers and a Minnie Mouse t-shirt. Perhaps that is what keeps my wheels a-turning from Egypt to Spain, Texas to Chile, knowing that my home is not a plot of land, a city, or a country; home is, simply, where I find my family and my friends. And, the more this gringa treks around the world, meeting new people and experiencing new cultures, the wider my home becomes.
After the smiles and hugs, my parents and I hurried to check into the hotel and get ready for the day’s whirlwind tour around Santiago and the nearby port towns of Vina del Mar and Valparaiso. Though I love living in Santiago, I have come to discover that all of the touristy sights can comfortably visited in an afternoon (however, what it lacks in cultural hot spots, it makes up in fine-dining, cute cafes, and all-night discotecas). For my parents’ agenda, experiencing Santiago consisted of driving by the Plaza de Armas and La Moneda, the presidential building, and perusing artesania at Los Dominicos over warm empanadas de pino y queso. I convinced our driver to stop by the school where I teach, Saint George, and we had the good fortune of finding unlocked classrooms for exploring and the rector of our school, Father Pepe, a Chilean priest in his mid-forties with a kind eyes, a friendly smile, and an undying passion for Notre Dame. After a quick chat and the generous gift of a hardcover book about Saint George, we were off to the coast!
The narrow, tortuous roads of Vina del Mar and Valparaiso were navigated by our driver with intermittent braking and jolts of acceleration, making for a bumpy ride but allotting time to admire the eclectic graffiti which ranges from single-hued scribbles to elaborate seascapes. Vina has long been the tourist capital of Chile with long stretches of sandy shores and high-rise apartment buildings occupied by santiaguinos who come to escape the summer smog of the city. Valparaiso, its neighboring port town, lacks beaches but thrives as the biggest port in Chile and a vital trading hub with Asia. The city is a mess of colorful clusters of houses jammed along winding cobblestone roads, each jostling for a better view of the ocean, and maintains a charming, bohemian feel.
Our destination for the evening was Pasta e Vino, a tiny, elusive restaurant with no more than fifteen tables, nestled among the rainbow-hued homes in the hills of Valparaiso. I had luckily snagged a reservation a few days prior by promising to arrive at 8:00PM and be finished by 9:30PM, a request that would seem unnecessary in the States where restaurant meals rarely extend beyond an hour or two, following the accepted regiment of quick seating and drink orders, periodic checks to ensure that the diners are satisfied, clearing the plates as soon as the fork hits the table, and dropping off the bill before diners finish the last bite of chocolate cake. This system perceived by Americans as efficient, good service, Chileans view as rude and pushy, believing that dining out should be an unrushed, relaxing experience in which the waiter comes once to take orders, again to drop off food, and waits to be summoned by an elaborate waving of arms before bringing “la cuenta,” the bill.
Pasta e Vino was no exception to the Chilean dining culture, though service was rather quick considering we were the first customers in the restaurant. There, food was served in a manner more artistic than pragmatic, and we marveled at the delicious pasta creations brought to the table. Joe and Julie Hamman also experienced the best of Chilean beverages: Carmenere wine, a deep red wine unique to Chile, and Pisco Sour, that sweet and smooth concoction of pisco (grape brandy), fresh-squeezed lemon juice, sugar, and egg whites. With a hearty “Salud!” and intense staring into each other’s eyes—abiding by the Chilean superstition that the lack of eye contact while toasting incurs seven years of bad sex—we celebrated their first night in Chile.
Day 2: Mas Vino?
The next morning we woke early for breakfast at Hotel Atton and then began our day’s work: touring Chilean vineyards. Our first stop was Concha y Toro, the largest wine producer in the country. Founded in 1875 by Chile’s former Minster of Finance Melchor de Concha y Toro, the large estate and vineyard stretches as far as the eye can see, abundant with flower-laden gardens and tree-lined passageways. The tour ranged from interesting facts like the “cal y canto” technique of building strong cellar walls with limestone and egg whites and blatant appeals to tourists like the red-lit image of Satan projected on the wall of the Casillero del Diablo, the “Devil’s Cellar.”
After a few glasses of wine, we packed back into the van and headed for the nearby Vina Santa Rita, Chile’s third-largest winery. We realized we had some time to kill when our the driver began a snail’s pace along the dusty road, nearly driving my mother—and all of the cars speeding by us—wild with impatience. Despite the driver’s best efforts, we still arrived early so we stopped by the Museo Andino, a collection of poverty, weavings, and gold and silverwork from pre-Colombian Chile. Always intrigued by symbology, I asked a friendly guide about the abundance of ranas (frogs) on the gold jewelry from Northern Chile and learned that a frog symbolized fertility because, in the desert, where there are frogs, there is water, the essence of life. I imagined Chilean natives chasing frogs across a barren desert for a sip of musty water and was decidedly happy that my “life-giving” beverage would be served in a glass goblet.
With minds filled with indigenous culture, we went to fill our stomachs with tender sea bass, rich chocolate cake, and a few glasses of Santa Rita’s finest wine. An amusing painting in the elegant dining room portrayed a cross-laden Christ stomping grapes with two angels waiting at the bottom of the barrel with a golden chalice, an excellent example of the intermixing of Chilean culture and Catholicism. Afterwards, we were led on a comprehensive bilingual tour of the wine production, and I reveled in the ability to understand both languages and catch any slight variation in translation, which I promptly shared with my increasingly uninterested parents. On the tour, we learned that in 1814 the owner Dona Paula Jaraquemada had supposedly hid revolutionary leader Bernardo O’Higgins—the Chilean equivalent of George Washington—and 120 of his men in the wine cellars to protect them from Spanish troops. Today, the event is commemorated with the “120” wine label, a tribute that far surpasses a fancy statue or plaque. If I go down in history with some ounce of fame, there would be no greater honor than generations of wine-lovers sighing with satisfaction as they sip a merlot carrying my name.
After the tour and some wine, we headed back to the city for the Laura Hamman Exclusive Santiago Adventure Tour. We began with a twenty-minute metro ride, during which my father’s nervous, defensive eyes never left the face of the man sitting next to me. Happy to get my parents off the metro, I led them through the neighborhood of Bellavista, animated by patio bars filled with pre-soccer game drinkers and vendors selling tiny dinosaur figurines, colorful glass pendants, and paperback books. We arrived at the base of Cerro San Cristobal and rode up an aging funicular, essentially a train with inclined tracks. Any fears we had about the safety of our transportation were instantly alleviated upon reading a small golden plack informing passengers that Pope John Paul II himself had ridden up the funicular on his visit to Chile in 1987. A blessed funicular can’t fail, right? At the top we snapped a few photos of the smog-covered city of Santiago—extra thick in the steamy summer months—and drank mote con huesillos, a typical Chilean refreshment made with syrupy peach juice, wheat grains, and dried peaches. My parents loved it and I felt a surge of joy in sharing a bit of my Chilean experience with “mis viejos.”
That evening, I took my parents to my favorite restaurant in Chile: Tiramisu, a bustling pizza parlor with an active dinner crowd that arrives around eight and lingers until midnight. We shared a few laughs and a few pisco sours, which had quickly become my father’s favorite Chilean beverage. After a lengthy process of flagging down the waiter, we paid the bill and I walked my parents back to their hotel before heading for my apartment, a strange role reversal that had me feeling extremely independent in my little Chilean world.
Day 3: Heading South
The next morning, we woke early for our flight to Punta Arenas, one of the southernmost cities in Chile. Unlike the States, in Chile “going south” does not conjure up images of palm trees and sandy beaches; on the contrary, Southern Chile is a wind-whipped, desolate plain that dips down towards Antarctica. In other words, we had exchanged the warm Santiago sun for glaciers, frigid winds, and penguins. This region of Chile is called Patagonia, a word meaning “big feet” that stems from the colonists’ first impressions of the supposedly giant-sized indigenous people that lived in the area. Considering the small stature of the average Chilean, I wager it was the Patagonian people who were the normal-sized folk.
Arriving in Punta Arenas, we had our first taste of bad travel luck—my luggage was MIA and the van that was supposed to pick us up had gotten into an accident. But, as I have learned over and over again through my too-frequent traveling mishaps, things often have a way of working themselves out. Two hours and several cups of coffee later, my luggage and my housemate Heather arrived on the next flight from Santiago just as our new driver showed up.
Mom trying to look calm
To compensate for arriving late, our driver agreed to take Heather along too so the four of us piled into the van and headed straight to Seno Otway, home to a colony of Magellanic penguins. These curious birds were quite different from the typical glacier-dwelling penguins shown on Discovery Channel specials; instead, they live in an intricate system of burrows that span the long-grass flatland. The fierce wind nearly knocked us over but the penguins seemed unfazed. We marveled at their speedy waddle, like curious toddlers in elegant black suits, pausing intermittently to pluck a feather or acknowledge a passing bird. During this season, the fluffy chicks were almost as big as their parents, prompting my mother to draw lines of comparison between “pinguinos” and Chilean young adults, who generally live at home well into their mid- to late-twenties. I had to admit she made a good point…
After filling our cameras with penguin photos, we were back on the road, heading for Puerto Natales. We stopped at a small restaurant on the way for a quick “once,” the typical Chilean meal taken between four and seven o’clock in the afternoon. The story behind the “once,” which literally means “eleven,” is that Chilean men used to drink a glass of liquor or “aguardiente” at five o’clock in the afternoon. To hide the face that they were drinking liquor during teatime, they used the number of letters in aguardiente—eleven—as a code word. As time passed, teatime and “once” became synonymous, though liquor is generally not part of the meal; today, the typical “once” includes bread, crackers, jam, manjar (a caramel spread), butter, avocado, eggs, coffee, and tea. Our “once” was a little smaller—a couple cups of coffee, scrambled eggs on toast, and a beer, for my dad.
As we neared Puerto Natales, we passed by several impressive mountains, prompting Heather’s question of what sentiment a mountain evoked in each of us. “Climbing to the summit,” I mused, recalling my recent ascent of Cotopaxi in Ecuador. “Taking a deep breath,” sighed my mom, seeming more relaxed in just saying the words. “Running alongside it!” Heather chirped. And my dad? “Drinking a Busch Beer.” Classy as ever.
We arrived in Puerto Natales at an ego-friendly hotel that was literally built into the ground, with a grassy mound as the rooftop and small windows in earth-tone walls that peaked out towards the lake. I half expected to see Bilbo Baggins peering out of the front door. Thankfully, the inside was quite modern with all the typical hotel conveniences. We bid farewell to Heather, shared a few warm appetizers and pisco sours and then got some much-needed shuteye.
Day 4: Familia unica
My dad and I woke early the next day for a breathtaking run along the calm, pristine inlet of Ultima Esperanza, or “Last Hope,” which received its name from the weary captain Juan Ladrillero, desperately and unsuccessfully seeking the Magellan Strait, a watery route to the other side of the continent. With graceful black-neck swans drifting along its waters in the early morning light, nothing about the inlet seemed hopeless. We paused for a goofy photo with a Milodon statue, a prehistoric animal that supposedly lived in nearby caves, and then were joined by a friendly, mangy dog for the remainder of the run. My father, true to form, snapped plenty of photos.
Back at the hotel we ate a quick breakfast, met our new tour guide, and drove to the dock to board a ship called “21 de Mayo.” This date marks a pivotal naval battle in 1879 during the Pacific War between Chile and a united Bolivia and Peru, a national holiday in Chile but still a source of tension in the latter nations, which lost significant areas of coastal land. The boat took us on a beautiful tour through towering mountains on crystal-blue waterways. We passed powerful waterfalls with mist that extended towards our boat like a long, flowing white dress. After about an hour, the boat entered into turbulent waters and, reminded of my weak stomach on the Ecuadorian humpback whale tour, I prepared myself for another seasick venture; surprisingly, my stomach didn’t concede to the seesawing ship and I kept down my breakfast. Other passengers weren’t so fortunate. A Swiss man a few seats away looked positively green. Between a strong, pale fist he clutched a plastic bag and, every few minutes, he flung his face inside, let out a wretch, and, well, you get the idea.
Thankfully, the turbulence passed and we soon arrived at Glacier Balmaceda, a thick layer of ice the color of blue raspberry freeze pops. After surfing the Internet to find the reason for this intense blue, I learned that glacier ice is distinct from regular ice because of its density—as layers of ice are compressed, air bubbles are squeezed out. When light enters, it is not reflected as with snow, but penetrates into the ice. Due to the thickness of the glacier, the colors red and yellow are absorbed, leaving only the blue end of the visible light spectrum. This is why thinner ice appears clear but thicker ice takes on a rich blue hue. Though I found this very informative, I’m still partial to my freeze pop comparison…
We arrived an hour later at Glacier Serrano and were able to hike close to its edge and snap a few pictures. Then, our boat took us across the bay to a small restaurant where we enjoyed the view of the glacier from the comfort of a warm room and delicious fresh fish. The last part of our journey was on a Zodiac, a large, inflatable boat with a roaring motor. We strapped on life vests and covered ourselves with thick, florescent orange coats; not a moment too soon, since seconds after we took off, the rain began to pour. Our Zodiac skipped smoothly across the surface of the river like a puck on ice, as we, despite our oversized jackets, were drenched in the chilling rain. Some of the other passengers looked positively miserable but I felt as giddy as the rain-soaked Allie Hamilton in The Notebook when she stops trying to fight the falling water, tosses her wet hair back, and laughs. My dad fell asleep.
Off the Zodiac, we piled into our third form of transportation that day—a large, white van that took us on the gravel path winding through the National Park Torres del Paine. After two hours of creek-crossing, pothole-bouncing, and corner-speeding, our ill-equipped van finally came to a stop at the Hosteria Las Torres, a high-class resort that seemed out of place in the towering mountains, rolling grass plains, and crystalline lakes of this wild terrain. Still, we had no complaints as we jogged from the van to the front door, trying to ignore the envious glares of wet campers huddled under the dripping ledges of the resort.
At dinner in the hotel restaurant that evening, I put my gringa charm to work and was able to convince our waiter, Walter, to give us half-price on the buffet if we promised to just use one plate, or “plato unico” as he called it. When I passed Walter with a plate of food piled precariously high, he went to the back and brought me an even bigger plate. My parents and I laughed heartily at our good fortune as we watched the full-paying crowd go back for seconds with their tiny ceramic plates. I recalled the advice given to me when I first became a teacher: it pays to befriend the food service.
Day 5: The Hamman Family Takes on the Torres
I had been anticipating the next morning since the day my parents arrived in Chile. Today, Joe and Julie Hamman were going to go on their first official trek in the mountains! Determined to give them the full experience, I had insisted on purchasing bags of tuna and mayonnaise for lunch and leaving early so that we would arrive at the base of the Torres around noon. As we munched on breakfast, both of my parents seemed a little nervous but they never said a word about it—too stubborn or too naïve.
We set off in the morning mist, which quickly became a morning rain, but, nevertheless, hiked onward and upward towards the Albergue Chileno. About halfway up, my dad made an innocent remark about how my “Hamman-size” calves made me an effective trekker. With the unpleasant image of mammoth-size leg muscles in my mind, I decided on a no-mercy rule and set a brisk pace up the mountain. By the time we got to the edge of the Bosque Lenga, the rain had let up so we took a quick water break and then entered the smooth, dirt path of the forest. This part of the hike was relatively easy, mostly flat and with few rocks, and we moved quickly. My mom gasped a few times as we crossed over raging rivers on rickety wooden bridges, but I still never heard a single complaint.
The last part of the climb was a steep, rocky incline to see the famous Torres, or towers, up close. The path wound up, up, up with the top always just beyond our reach. My parents slowed, but when a high-stepping team of grandmas and grandpas began to gain on us, they picked up the pace. A few more steps to get over the windy ledge and there they were, the Torres, partially obscured by clouds but looking just as prestigious as we had imagined. Under a light snowfall, we crouched against a giant rock and ravenously ate our tuna packets and crackers.
The wind picked up and we decided it was time to head back down. My mom found two “abandoned” walking sticks at the top—a rather nice euphemism for stolen goods—that she and my father employed as balance poles for the tricky descent. We paused to let two runners pass by, a man and woman dressed in tight spandex tanks and shorts, and were surprised to see them sunning themselves on a rock not long after. A few minutes later, they passed us again, only to stop for a stretch a few hundred meters below. My dad mumbled something about the Tortoise and the Hare and I sighed, knowing we represented the bumbling half-shell racer.
With just an hour to go, we stopped at the Albergue Chileno to grab some coffee and eat chocolate and trail mix. The crowd inside the refugio, or warming house, was decidedly younger, but my parents had proven that they had every right to be sitting there too. My face shown with pride—and sweat, no doubt—in having parents who were able to fight the wind, rain, and snow to hike up a mountain and back again. We finished off the evening with another half-priced plato unico and, of course, pisco sours.