Posts Tagged With: Calama

The United States: My Country, Right And Wrong

Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...

U.S. President Barack Obama

Late on Sunday – actually come to think of it, it was already Monday as it was well-passed 2 a.m. – I decided to watch a movie when perhaps a wiser decision would have been to close my eyes and go to sleep. I’ve been staying up late far too much lately, and it hasn’t been doing my rugged good looks any good. <—- humor.

I was already in bed and just about to shut down my laptop and indeed get some rest, but a web page caught my bleary eyes. It was a web page that purports to offer free movies streamed over the Internet. That fact alone was not what really grabbed my attention. What grabbed me gently by the collar was one particular movie featured on the main page – “The Help“.  A succinct description of “The Help” from Internet Movie Database [IMDb]:

An aspiring author during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s decides to write a book detailing the African-American maid’s point of view on the white families for which they work, and the hardships they go through on a daily basis.

I had heard so much about “The Help” and had been wanting to see it, but such a movie isn’t easy to find in uninitiated Chile, especially in mining town Calama where I live. I thought if I’m lucky, I would be able to see it in larger, more cosmopolitan Santiago, Chile’s sprawling capital. Or in some other more refined South American city. But here it was on this Internet site, and so I said to myself, okay, I’m game, let’s see if this “free movies” site is legitimate.

 After just a click to install an application to view the movie and another click to launch it, lo and behold, the movie started! Well, I wasn’t about to let this golden  opportunity slip by. Sleepy or not,  2 a.m. or 4 a.m., it was movie-watching time!

To be sure, “The Help” is about a particularly troubling period in the history of the United States. It’s about racism and the ugliness of post-slavery segregation and its impact on a particular group of  women – blacks who worked as maids and who took care of  white children when their mothers were too busy playing bridge and gossiping at tea parties, and those white women who behaved as if they owned their maids. These maids, as were all blacks at the time, in which laws were enacted to keep them subservient to whites, were treated worst than dirt. And that’s putting it nicely.

In the United States, mostly in the southern part of the country, blacks were kept as slaves and treated as property. This was the legacy from which African-Americans had risen. This was the struggle they’ve had to endure, even to this day, though there’s no denying much has changed for the better. Heck, we even have an African-American president! Barack Obama’s election stands as a testament to that change, though again, it has also brought to the forefront some pervasive racist attitudes.

In the 10 months I’ve been traveling, I have heard a lot of negative things about the United States. I have met dozens of individuals who have nothing good to say about the United States and its people. I even met some couchsurfers in Medellin, Colombia, who told me when they joined, they as a couple had decided they would not host any Americans. They opened their home to me on the recommendation of a mutual friend from Finland. In the end, they couldn’t have been happier with me, we shared lots of good times and we even became friends. In fact, they didn’t want me to leave!

In Latin America, specifically in South America, people have not exactly been shy about telling me how much they detest the United States. I am sure I will continue to hear anti-American sentiments as I continue my journey around the world. I’ve heard it time and time again. I last heard it two weeks ago in Salta, Argentina, from a woman who gave no reason for her hatred of the United States, but I’m sure if I had asked she would have gladly given me plenty of reasons. Just like her, most of these U.S.-haters have never been to the United States. What they know, they know from television and other media. I knew when I started this journey that I would encounter a fair share of U.S.-haters. But I had long decided that I would not play the role of defending my country or engaging in debate. That I would simply listen and generally that is exactly what I do. Of course, I don’t let obvious misinformation go unchallenged, but I’m by no means on some U.S  cheerleading squad traveling the globe to debate every activist or leftist that comes along. Let people have their opinion. If they ask a question, glad to answer. If they want debate, I’m not their man.

And yet, sometimes a good fight is irresistible.

In Ecuador, I could not help but to take on a very pro-Hugo Chavez leftist Ecuadorian man who didn’t see the irony in the fact he was standing on a bridge built with aid money from the United States, and criticizing the United States as the most evil country in the world. He had nothing good to say about the United States as we stood on that bridge looking at roiling river waters below. The bridge had a plaque affixed to it. It praised the good graces of the United States Agency for International Development – USAID – but the money had obviously come from U.S. taxpayers, some of whom live in cities and towns with decaying bridges. I pointed out to him that his town had a very nice bridge while there are places in the United States with bridges with questionable safety. I first got a blank stare from him, as if puzzled why that is, and then this: “Oh, well, how much did this bridge cost the United States to build? A million? Two million? Maybe $3 million? Whatever amount it was, it’s nothing for the United States! Just a drop in the bucket considering the United States’ economic resources.”

It was at that point I decided there is absolutely no point in trying to convince people when their minds are made up. After all, did he know what that bridge meant to the people of his town? To Ecuador? Perhaps even to its economic growth? Did he stop to think what that “drop in the bucket” could do for a kid in a struggling school in the United States? Had he even considered that the United States sends millions in economic aid to Ecuador and billions more around the world? Can a person be so closed-minded and ungrateful?

After watching “The Help”, I stayed up a bit later thinking about all this. I thought I of all people have every right to denounce the United States, for the history of my people in the United States hasn’t exactly been a parade. At one time in her life, my mother was “the help”. But she managed to advance her education and get a better job in the medical field. That’s the beauty of the United States. I recognize that the United States is not all evil and no good. Sure, even Americans would admit there are some things we are not proud of, but point me to the nation with no scars in its past. We live and we hopefully learn.

Missteps and all, I love the United States. I, of course, don’t  support everything my government does, only a non-thinking fool does that. But as I travel, I’ve also seen the goodness of the United States, such as in the faces of  Peace Corps volunteers in Peru, placing on hold their own lives to help some struggling village far from home. I see it in the volunteers working with a myriad of volunteer organizations around the world. I see it each time there’s a natural disaster and the United States is the first to answer the call for help.

While I don’t intend to be a cheerleader for my country, I will sing its praises if asked. This, despite the history of blacks in the United States. I certainly have cause to be critical of the United States, just freshly having been reminded of the struggles of “the help”, but the United States is much more than a string of negatives. Then, on my journey, I intend to build bridges.

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A Waterfall Thousands Of Years Old Vanishes

The Loa River in Calama, Chile, is where many in the town go on Sunday afternoons to cool off in the river, barbecue, relax.

Until recently, there was a beautiful waterfall on this river. When I arrived there today with friends, to everybody’s surprise, including the locals, the waterfall was gone! All that was left was a big hole with standing water in it. No cascading waters. Just the bone-dry riverbed where the waters once flowed and fell over the edge.

Locals explained that water being diverted further upstream by the world’s largest open pit copper mine – a mine named Chuquicamata– has caused a serious drop in the river levels, resulting in the vanishing of the waterfall that has been there for thousands of years.

Waters from the Loa River would cascade down here, creating a beautiful waterfall. No more.

Since I got to Calama, I had been really looking forward to that waterfall. I had heard so much about it. For now, it’s no more. Residents hope that with the rainy season that arrives in January, the water levels of the river will again increase and the waterfall will return. This is the desert.

It’s the Atacama Desert. It’s the driest place on Earth. Doubtful it will get so much rain that the river will bounce back enough to bring back the cascade. But I won’t discount Mother Nature. She’s capable of  much.

A day on the Loa River with friends

Still, the Loa River was still a bit cold. Some have more tolerance for near-freezing waters than I do. My friends and I only got in up to our waists. The river is born from the snowmelt in the Andes Mountains, which loom in the horizon. The ice-cold water left our legs numb. It’s that cold. But we still enjoyed our lazy Sunday afternoon down by the river.

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Salta, Argentina: Adventure, Fun And Empanadas

Gaucho from Northern Argentina in Plaza 9 de Julio square

As my hulking double-decked bus crossed the border from Chile into Argentina – the arid landscape changing gradually from taupe to green and the immense sky from bright blue to charcoal gray – my thoughts shifted from the sharp accidental elbow to the ribs I had just received from the Brazilian bruiser sitting next to me to the impending rain.

San Bernardo Convent, the oldest building in Salta, dates back to 16th Century

It was with mixed emotion that I welcomed the raindrops beginning to pelt the bus windshield. I had not seen rain since July. Not a drop. The Atacama Desert had certainly lived up to its reputation as the driest place on Earth. But now, I was across the border in another land, another time, another place, another weather pattern. And while I appreciated finally seeing rain, at once I also wished it away. I simply didn’t want it to ruin my plans for this highly anticipated long weekend. Let the raindrops fall some other time.

Argentine blues band Electrohope, performing in Salta. Great concert!

South America blows my mind. Let’s stay with the usually humdrum topic of weather for a moment. I had left the always sunny Atacama Desert to spend a few days in Salta, Argentina. I first heard about Salta from a friend in Calama, Chile, where I am wrapping up a six-month teaching gig. On more than one occasion, he said Salta was a beautiful place worth the 12-hour bus ride from Calama. The road to Salta from Calama winds through canyons, across high desert, and over mountain peaks so high, lungs themselves shift into overdrive.

With my CouchSurfing hosts Lucas and Emi at La Casona del Molino restaurant.

Many travelers unaccustomed to altitudes reaching close to 20,000 feet above sea level, have trouble breathing accompanied with headaches. These are the first signs of altitude sickness, which in a worst case scenario can kill you. Getting to lower altitude as quickly as possible usually takes care of the problem. Drinking coca tea also helps. As a preventive step, your friendly neighborhood pharmacist can also help in the way of medication.

Needless to say, getting to Salta is no Sunday stroll. Some of the roads cut through canyons so narrow and overlook embankments so steep that from the upper level of a double-decked bus it can stimulate a quickened heart and sweaty palms. I admit I’ve had such a fear of going over the edge, but seldom and only when it was warranted: the bus driver takes a curve so fast and so close to the edge of a steep cliff, it seemed that indeed we were about to go over the edge.  That happened once in Ecuador, where sections of the PanAmerican Highway cuts through some of the highest and most treacherous mountain passes I’ve ever seen. But alas, back to the weather. 🙂

Along the way,  the driest place on Earth – that would be the Atacama Desert – was left far behind and progressively replaced with tiny green shrubs I watched llama feed on. Then the brown desert soil stared to vanish under swaths of green grass and canopies of a variety of trees in full bloom.

A night with friends making vegetarian empanadas

The closer we got to Salta, the greener the landscape grew. Then, as a reminder that all this green doesn’t happen without rain, rain clouds stealthily moved in from the east, creating shadows over the mountains. The menacing clouds released their liquid stuff on the valley where dozens of  unburdened wild donkeys grazed and high above tall pines two falcons danced with the wind.  Patches of blue skies returned, but only to give way to fog so thick, it concealed the natural beauty I knew was all around me. The skies remained gray for two of the four days I spent in Salta. On my way back to Calama, about an hour outside of San Pedro de Atacama, the crazy weather got crazier.  In the middle of summer,  in the middle of the desert, on the high plains, a snow blizzard! I just could not believe my eyes. Snow? In summer? In the desert? In the driest place on Earth? Mother Nature having a bit of fun, eh? 

With the falling snow, a nearby volcano belching vapors, and high winds, the bus was forced to slow to a painful crawl. I say painful because 10 hours on a bus with two more hours to go, I was simply dying to be on terra firma.I don’t mind bus travel. It’s the guy who elbows me without so much as an apology that I mind.

Traditional dance on Balcarce street

It’s the guy with a nasty cold who sneezes at will without covering up. Spray your germs, why don’t you? It’s inconsiderate people who think communal space is theirs and theirs alone. They make travel more challenging. You roll with the punches, however. What else can you do?

This was going to be a great weekend. I felt it in my bones. I had heard much about Salta being a beautiful city with plenty going for it. I was ready to see for myself.

Getting transportation to Salta from Calama was a breeze. At least three bus companies – Geminis, Pullman and AndesMar – offer bus service via San Pedro de Atacama. I chose Pullman because AndesMar’s website was not accessible for days – I have no idea why – and Geminis had a string of complaints about its fleet of buses. I had a total of six days for this trip – two for travel to and from Salta. Pullman travels from Calama (and San Pedro) on Wednesdays and returns to both places on Sundays. It’s fleet of buses are not the best I’ve experienced in South America, but it’s fairly comfortable and the nearly $100 round trip cost does include snacks. Two movies in English with Spanish subtitles are shown during the 12-hour journey.

The bus left the Calama bus terminal about a half hour late but made up the time on the road. Processing through customs in Chile and Argentina was a breeze. I had gone through customs in Chile before (traveling from Peru and after to Bolivia) but customs in Argentina was a new experience. Salta would also be the first  place I visited in Argentina. And after experiencing the place, it won’t be my last.

Immediately after arriving at the bus terminal, I was whisked to a blues concert. I landed there with my couchsurfing host Lucas. Dropped off my backpack with security and off we went. It was fantastic! Next day was spent walking around the city.

In Balcarce area with Meike of Hamburg, Germany

I immediately loved the place. Salta has a mix of modern and colonial architecture with some of the coolest bars and restaurants. The main party zone is on Balcarce street. If you don’t like crowds – think New Orleans at Mardi Gras – don’t come down to Balcarce. It is quite the wild party scene.

There are, of course, quieter venues to be found. Plaza 9 de Julio is the hub in the center of town. The square is lined with dozens of restaurants and shops that cater to tourists and for that,  a bit pricey side. Try places just outside of the center, such as La Casona, where locals – as well as well-informed visitors – flock. The ambiance – a huge house converted into a restaurant, with an outdoor patio area – is relaxed.

At the top of Cerro San Bernardo

Locals bring their musical instruments for impromptu jam sessions – mostly folkloric music. And the food is excellent. I had a nice piece of steak – this is meat-loving Argentina after all – but you won’t have trouble finding vegetarian fare.

On my second day in town, I ate meat, chicken and cheese empanadas – a traditional food in this region – but on my third night my host Lucas and girlfriend Emi took me to a hostel owned by a friend, where every Friday night they cook up batches of homemade vegetarian empanadas. They were amazingly good! And of course, the company was great. Spent that evening eating lots of empanadas and washing them down with a $6 bottle of Malbec – Los Morros – I had purchased earlier that week in a fantastic hideaway in the center called Casa Moderna. Casa Moderna has old-country charm and feels family-owned. By the way, just up the street, back at the main square, the colonial cathedral – painted pink – is worth a visit. It’s filled with history and the gold altar is beautiful.

Only 1,070 of these steps to get to the top of Cerro San Bernardo

Salta and the surrounding area offer many activities, including horseback riding, canoeing, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. But you shouldn’t leave Salta without going to the top of the hill – closer to a mountain – by cable car or walking up. Some people choose to go up by cable car – about a 10-minute ride up – and walk back down. I walked up and walked down – twice! You get a panoramic view of the city at the top, and it’s a very relaxing environment, almost park-like. Those in need of adventure can rent a mountain bike at the top and ride down. The downside, in my opinion, is it’s a guided tour down. I wanted to come down the trail alone, but that’s not the kind of business they operate. Also, they need at least two people to sign up to take the tour. Next time, I take a bike up and fly down! 🙂



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