Thursday, November 29, 2012

Human vs. HAL: Chile, you win this round!

This post is part of a series “Human vs. HAL” highlighting a peculiar trend we’ve noticed in Chile. There are many jobs here that are done by people that would be done by machines in the US. We are trying to take photos and notice as many as possible to document here!

We flew to Peru to visit Machu Picchu last weekend (read all about it here!), and we noticed this at the airport:

Oh yes, that is indeed a projected, taking video of a person onto a cutout silhouette screen. "Her" job was to tell us the instructions for going through security. Seems like Chile has found a way to use machines for a job that would normally be done by a person in the US! You win this round :)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Machu Picchu - totally worth the trek!

If you're thinking "wow, you guys look tired" then you are totally correct
This past weekend, Caroline and I traveled from Santiago in Chile to visit Machu Picchu, a famous lost city of the Incas in the mountains of Peru. Machu Picchu is a truly spectacular sight, and I think part of what makes it so special is that it is very remote and hard to reach. Of course, the downside is that it is very remote and hard to reach!

Our adventure to go see Machu Picchu was even more complicated than usual, and I will tell the whole story below. However, if you want to just skip ahead and see the photos, here's the album:

 There will also be more pictures shared by Caroline.

Now, onto the story.

Our plan was to spend Friday traveling from Santiago to Aguas Calientes, the small village at the base of Machu Picchu (which is at the top of a mountain). Even under the best of circumstances, that trip would require 2 flights to get to Cuzco, then a taxi, a bus and a train to reach Aguas Calientes. Here's a map that will help:
Our flight took us to Cuzco, but we ultimately needed to reach Aguas Calientes
The reason that this route is so complicated is because there are NO ROADS that go to Machu Picchu. That's right, you cannot drive there at all. The roads go as far as Ollantaytambo, but to complete the last leg of the journey you must either take a train (as we did) or hike (the famous Inca Trail) or I suppose take a helicopter. If you like flow charts, this might help you:
OK, so our plan was to reach Aguas Calientes by Friday night, stay overnight in a hostel and then wake up super early on Saturday to hike to the top of Machu Picchu.

Our flight landed in Cuzco around 1pm, and we ran to the Peru Rail ticket booth to book seats on the last evening train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, around 9pm. Unfortunately, it was sold out and the only seats available were on a 3:30 train! Could we make it on time? We had to try!

After negotiating with a cab driver, we decided that even after we got him down to 140 soles it was too much to take a cab, so we got into a collectivo (a shared van shuttle) going to Ollantaytambo. We didn't realize, but this was a much slower option because we had to stop and pick up more people along the way, including some folks who were really late. We arrived in Ollantaytambo just a little after 3:30pm, so at this point there are no trains to Aguas Calientes on Friday.
Our hostel in Ollantaytambo

"That's fine," we figured. "We'll take the first train in the morning and hike up a little later than expected." We bought seats on the 5am train, and also bought return tickets for the 6:45pm (this turned out to be a crucial and awesome move). We found a cheap hostel to stay in that night, got some dinner and went to bed very early.

The next morning we got on the train, and everything was going well. They served us some tea on the train, which was nice. However, as we got closer to the destination, Caroline started feeling motion sick, and we also realized that the tea might have been made with Peruvian tap water (which isn't so good). We arrived in Aguas Calientes at around 6:30am, and at this point all Caroline could do is get off the train and huddle in a ball on the side of the road, moaning.
The view from the train

After puking into a street drain, she was still not feeling so good, but she had a great idea. We had originally booked a hostel in Ag. Cal. for Friday night - maybe we could use the room this morning even though we didn't arrive on time to use it the previous night! We found the hostel and the people there were so nice! We explained the situation (in Spanish) and they were happy to give us a room. Caroline napped for three hours and I sat and talked to other travelers.

The start of the hike up to Machu Picchu
It actually turned out to be a good thing we started later (around 11am) rather than at 6am as we had originally planned, because it rained all morning! When Caroline woke up she was feeling much better, and now the only thing that stood between us and Machu Picchu was a 2 hour hike up stairs covering 400m of elevation. There is an option to pay for a bus, but with Caroline already feeling motion sick, we thought a bumpy bus ride was a bad idea.

The hike was tough, and a lot of stairs, but we made it to the top and it was wonderful! At first it was cloudy and misty, so the whole thing looked magical. As the day went on, the clouds lifted and we had beautiful sunshine. We felt so lucky, especially because November is the start of the rainy season and so we knew that we couldn't count on good weather. Also, because it is the rainy season, the tourist crowds are smaller than during peak season, so we even had some moments to ourselves among the ruins when we could enjoy them in peace and quiet.
What a beautiful view. And the ruins behind look pretty good too, haha

After a few hours exploring, we made the hike back down. We were SO GLAD that we had a late return train, so that we weren't stressed or rushed even with the late start. We reversed all the steps from before to make it back to Cuzco, stayed overnight in a hostel and then flew home first thing in the morning. We were back in our apartment in Santiago by about 6pm on Sunday.

So, can you see Machu Picchu in a weekend? Yes. Was it awesome? Totally. Would I recommend it? Well, I'd say you're better off with a longer trip so it isn't so rushed, but if you have the choice to do it in a weekend or not do it at all, definitely go.

Human vs. HAL: Weighing produce

You wish it were this simple to buy apples!

This post is part of a series “Human vs. HAL” highlighting a peculiar trend we’ve noticed in Chile. There are many jobs here that are done by people that would be done by machines in the US. We are trying to take photos and notice as many as possible to document here!

Grocery stores in Santiago are very modern, and quite similar to grocery stores in the US. There are even some Chilean grocery stores, such as Jumbo, that are bigger and offer more items than what I'm used to at home. However, as we've seen in many other parts of Chilean life, the grocery store also features some extra jobs that wouldn't exist in the US.
The produce weighing guy
At every Chilean grocery store, buying fresh produce or fresh bread is a complicated multi-step process. If you put a bunch of bananas in your cart and go to check out, you will be redirected back to the produce section, because you missed a step! You have to take all your bags of produce to be weighed and labeled by a person who works a scale in the produce section. Same deal for bread: you make a bag of fresh bread rolls, take it to be weighed and labeled, and only then can you check out

I surmise that this came to exist in days before digital scales at check-out stations. At that time, I suppose you had to weigh your produce before going to checkout and you'd get a little ticket so the cashier knew what to charge you (maybe it used to work with way in the US?).

But these days, in the US, the scanners at the check out line also have built-in scales so all of this can be done in one step. In Chile, you have to visit a few different people before you can go to the checkout line!

Bonus story
If you want to buy bread at a smaller bakery shop, the process is even more complicated! Usually it works like this:

  1. Wait in line to be helped at the bread counter, and then tell the person what bread you'd like. They make a bag and hold onto it for you.
  2. Go wait in another line to pay. At the front of this line, you tell them what you ordered and pay, and then you receive a ticket in return showing what you've paid for.
  3. Go wait in another line with your ticket and hand it over to get your bag of bread.
If this sounds ridiculous, it really is!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Awesome performance by the Korean Navy

So I mentioned in the Viña del Mar post about this performance/welcome ceremony by and for the South Korean Navy.  It was awesome!  First they paraded in, including a marching band:

Here's a video of them parading in:

Then there was a welcome speech by some Chileans (not sure who they were, but they were probably city officials):

Then the Korean Navy band played some songs.  First was this medley of a bunch of famous songs - see how many you can identify!

Then they played a mix of a bunch of different Beatles songs, but the video file was too big and I couldn't get it on the blog.  Sorry Laura!

Then the best part was their excellent rendition with movements of Rock Around the Clock:

Then these guys (does anyone know if they're famous?  I can send a closer picture of their faces if it helps) introduced some things:

This part was also especially awesome.  These guys had hats with rods and then ribbons that they flung around with their heads while drumming and dancing in a circle:

Here's a video of that:


And a little bit more:

And then of course they had to do Gangnam Style, but unfortunately the microphones weren't working very well:

Sorry it took so long to post this, but it was awesome!  Next up, some more recent stuff :)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

We're going to be heading over to an American friend's apartment for a Thanksgiving meal with a bunch of Americans.  It's not the same as being at home, but it will be really nice.  Also, work was nice enough to give me the whole day off, even though I just asked if I could leave early for the meal.  So thanks, MIM!

And we're leaving first thing tomorrow to go to Machu Picchu!

Also, the Lady Gaga concert was extremely awesome, and I will post some blurry pictures and a report about it later :)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Biking in Santiago

For my family and friends reading this: I'm writing this post more as a guide to other visitors to Santiago who are interested in cycling here, and less as a diary of what Caroline and I have been up to.

Santiago is sort of in the "uncanny valley" of being a good biking city. If you haven't heard of the uncanny valley, it's the idea that when a robot or animation is really close to the real thing, it actually starts to look creepy and worse than something that is far from the real thing. For example the sketch of the baby on the left looks way less like a real baby, and it's kind of cute. The dancing baby on the right is much closer to looking like a real baby, but sort of creeps me out.

As another example, perhaps Mitt Romney is so off-putting because he's so close to being a real human being :)

When it comes to biking in Santiago, it's kind of the same way. The city actually has a ton of dedicated bike paths. Awesome! It's a flat city with few hills. Fantastic! The streets are wide and straight, and drivers follow traffic rules. Hooray!

It all sounds really good, but it just doesn't quite add up to a great biking experience, and because it's sooooo close, it almost ends up being more frustrating. Hence the uncanny valley of biking cities.

But there are plenty of good things about biking in Santiago. If you want to bike in Santiago, and you are coming from a decent biking city in the US, here's what you should expect.

Who are the bikers here?
There are a decent number of bikers here, enough that you can occasionally find yourself waiting at a stoplight with a short line of other bikers. The bikers tend to fall into two different categories, and you can easily tell them apart by the type of bike. About 75% are casual riders using a bike for transportation, and they are usually on cheap-o mountain bikes or cruisers with baskets. The last 25% are fairly serious cyclists out for exercise, either on fancy road bikes or high-end mountain bikes.

How do I get a bike?
This is one of the frustrating things - there aren't really good choices of bikes here unless you want to spend a LOT. The second-hand market is pretty low on supply, so as a result the second-hand bikes are much more expensive than you'd expect based on the prices in the US. It's hard to find anything decent for less than around $100 US, and decent is probably being too kind. Ultimately, you have a few choices about how to get a bike:

  • Bike shops - you can find a lot of bike shops in the San Diego bike district (map). Depending on your knowledge of bikes and your knowledge of spanish, you might come out with a great bike for a great price, or you might find that every day brings a new surprise and a new problem with the bike. Bike shops are probably your best bet if you want something really high end.
  • Second hand websites - of course there's craigslist, but the listings are limited. Instead you can try, or, which all have a bit more traffic here. Same caveats apply as above. Additionally, make sure that you arrange to see the bike before you buy it, and don't feel pressured to buy it just because you're at the meeting. We did that twice and ended up with two lousy bikes as a result :(
  • Department stores - if you just want a cheap bike for a travel abroad stay, I think this might be your best bet. Make your way to a Jumbo (the equivalent of Target here), and you can find new mountain bikes for around $100-120 US. Obviously they won't be amazing bikes, but it's a good price for a brand new bike.
Another important thing to note: high prices on the second-hand market also helps you when you are selling your bike at the end of your stay. In the US, if you buy a new bike, you probably would expect to sell it second-hand at around 50% of the original cost, but here you can get 75% or more.

Where should I bike?
You have three choices here: bike on the sidewalk, bike in the street, or find dedicated bike paths (here's a map with bike paths). The bike paths sound like the best way to go, but many of them are sand or dirt paths, rather than asphalt. Even the asphalt ones can be kind of tricky. They often run alongside a sidewalk, but if there is a tree in the way it's the bike path that curves around, so you do a lot of swerving back and forth. If your route does use a good bike path, that's probably your best bet.

Biking on the sidewalk seems to be pretty accepted here, but comes with caveats. For some reason, Chileans never seem to get out of the way of each other, even if you ask and say "permiso." If you are walking, this isn't a huge deal because you can just step to the side. But when you are on a bike it get's pretty annoying (I'm sure it's annoying for the pedestrians too). The other problem with sidewalks is that in many areas, you won't find ramps at the intersections, so you have to stop and lift your bike down and up over and over.

Biking in the street is my personal choice in Boston, but it's pretty tough here. I have not seen a single street with a striped bike lane. Many busy streets do not even have a shoulder or a parking lane, so you are riding right in the far-right lane. To make matters worse, that's the same lane that city buses use, and getting passed by a bus is not fun. There just aren't enough cyclists out there on the street to feel like you have a critical mass, so cars aren't really looking out for you. Definitely wear a helmet if you are biking in the street.

What else should I expect?

You might not notice it just walking around, but the entire city of Santiago is on a slight grade, going downhill from east to west, coming down from the mountains. It's so slight that it doesn't affect you much on foot, but on bike you'll definitely notice it. Trips west are waaaaay easier and faster than trips east.

All the usual guidelines about locking up your bike apply here as well - use a U-lock, don't leave it out overnight, etc. Similarly, it's a good idea to wear a helmet and when biking at night, get some lights.

We have heard there is something like Critical Mass here, with thousands of riders taking to the streets for a couple hours to ride together in a big group. It happens about once a month, and Caroline might actually go tonight to check it out (I can't go because of tutoring). If she does go, we will be sure to post pictures and a report.

In summary...
Santiago does seem like it's on its way to being a great biking city. It's clear they are trying hard to create good infrastructure for cycling, but right now the paths are too disconnected and in some cases too rough to add up to a good experience overall. There does seem to be a growing bike culture, but it's far from normal to be riding in the street, which means that cars aren't very aware of cyclists. From everything I've read, getting more cyclists out on the street is the number one way to make a city safer for cyclists, so Santiago - I'm cheering for you!

How does this all compare with your city in the US? Or if there are any other Santiago folks reading this, any additional tips or advice you'd offer to new cyclists here?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

An international event at an international school

This was good practice for when we go to India in February!
If you've been reading the blog, you already know that I do a lot of tutoring for students from the international schools here. Specifically, my students all come from one particular school called Nido de Aguilas, thanks to the parent coordinator there who sent out my tutoring info to all the parents.

This past week, I started hearing from all the students about a big festival coming up on Saturday. I learned that it is an annual event where students and families host a booth to represent their home country with food and decorations, and there is a central stage for cultural performances. Nido has students from a HUGE range of countries, so that means lots of booths and cool displays. One of the families I tutor for was nice enough to invite Caroline and me to catch a ride with them, so off we went!

We didn't know entirely what to expect, but hopefully the photos and explanations below can give you a feel for it.
The Chilean booth seemed very similar to the displays we had seen at Fondas on 18 Septiembre, their independence day
We didn't get a good count, but there were at least 20 different countries represented, and I think maybe even more than 30. In addition to all the expected nations, we also got to see a sample of food and culture from some places we didn't know so much about: South Africa, Malaysia, Taiwan, Venezuela, and more!

The whole "production values" of the event was extremely high, which wasn't too surprising because the families are mostly very upper class and the school caters to that. The event did cost an entry fee plus tickets to buy food, so I guess that money helps them put on such a high quality event. All the booths had wonderful decorations, and the event was organized and run very smoothly (often you can't say that for things here!).

The performances were great too:

Two students as part of an arabian-style dance. These wing things were spectacular, though it's sort of hard to appreciate them from the photo.

This looked like a chinese dragon to me, though I didn't see the start so I can't say for sure what culture it represents. I think it would be very uncomfortable to be the rear end of this dragon.

And of course, the Korean students did a Gangnam Style dance. This was by far the most popular performance of the day, so we couldn't get very close.
I wonder if the Korean kids are sick of this song, or if it is still a really cool feeling for them to have a world-wide pop hit that people know and get excited for?
The people were nice, the weather was great, and we had a very fun time at this event. There are more pictures from it that I will post later.

I know you are all dying to know what they had at the USA booth. I'll tell about it in a future post. For now, leave a comment with your best guess about what foods the Americans had to represent the good ol' US of A.

Friday, November 16, 2012

AHH, I'm being eaten by a T. Rex!


Just kidding, this is Braulio, the T. Rex at the museum!  He wouldn't eat me!  But this makes me wonder, do all science museums have a giant T. Rex model?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

We're going to India!

We bought our flights last night, and we're going to India!  We're flying into New Delhi, arriving on February 6, and we'll be there until February 19.  It's not as long of a trip as we were hoping for, but it's the best we could do working around our work schedules and India's weather.

Anyway, we're really excited!  We haven't planned anything yet, but we're tentatively thinking of doing the Golden Triangle and Kerala.  For those of you who don't know, the Golden Triangle is a common tourist route that includes Delhi, Agra (where the Taj Mahal is), and Jaipur (the capital of the state of Rajasthan).

But we're definitely open to suggestions!  Have you been to India?  Do you have family or friends there?  What would you recommend we make sure to do?  What is overrated that we should skip?

And by any chance, are any of you going to be in India during that time?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

I wouldn't have worn flip-flops if I knew I was meeting the Chilean president

Last Monday was the opening of the newest room here at the Museo Interactivo Mirador.  The room is called "Y se mueve..." and it's about the Earth, earthquakes, tsunamis, the Earth's core, and more along those lines.  It's a pretty awesome room, and I knew there was going to be an opening ceremony.  But I didn't know that the Chilean president, Sebastián Piñera, was going to be there!  If I had known, I definitely wouldn't have worn flip-flops!

Here are the important people sitting in the front row.  On the left, in the tan jacket, is Andrés Allamand, the Chilean Minister of Defense.  People at work told me he is very likely to be the next president of Chile.  Next to him, the woman is Cecilia Morel Montes, the director of Fundación Tiempos Nuevos, which is the organization that funds and oversees the MIM.  And would you believe it, sitting next to her is her husband, the president of Chile?  That happy-looking guy in the suit is Sebastián Piñera.  To finish out the row, we have Consuelo Valdés, the director of the MIM, and a woman whose name I didn't catch, who was the director of this project of the new room.

You can't see me, but I'm off to the right of this picture in the back.  Not that far from the president!

The picture below is Consuelo Valdés, director of the museum, giving a welcome speech.  Two main differences from how this would happen in the US stood out for me about this event, besides the obvious fact that the president was at the opening ceremony of a room in a science museum.  First, he got there before the event started and sat through other people's speeches before and after his.  In the US, if by some weird circumstances the president were attending an opening ceremony for something on this level, I would guess that he would show up late for his speech and leave immediately after, because of having so many other things packed into his schedule.  Second, there was no security process that I had to go through to be there. I did notice the Chilean version of the Secret Service with those curly cord ear thingies, but I didn't have to go through a metal detector or get patted down or anything.  I just showed up for work, and at a certain point my coworkers told me we were going downstairs for the opening ceremony.  In the red shirts are some small fraction of the museum guides:

Here's the president giving his speech:

The ribbon-cutting ceremony.  Apparently the two little girls who held the ribbon weren't important enough to make it into the picture:

Inside the room, there are a lot of cool things.  This, however, is not one of them.  I don't think I ever saw this potentially cool touch surface table working properly.  When people touched it, it would mostly just freeze.  Also here you can see an example of the types of uniforms that all students wear here in Chile.  There are all different color and pattern combinations, but they're all more or less some athletic pants with a jacket and some variety of shirt:

This is a model of the Earth that shows the core (the núcleo in Spanish).  There are those heaters that you see at outdoor seating at restaurants inside, so it feels hot so that you can imagine that you're inside the Earth.  I like that effect a lot!  I haven't seen too many museums using ambient temperature to convey information before:

Here's an exhibit that shows how tectonic plates moving have created the Andes mountain range:

And probably the coolest part is the earthquake simulator room, where you can go to experience an 8.8-magnitude earthquake, like the one that happened in Chile in February 2010.  That earthquake was extremely destructive and killed 525 people.  It's one of the biggest tragedies Chile has had in recent memory.  However.  Experiencing the same magnitude of earthquake in the simulator did not really do it justice.  We were sitting down, expecting it, knowing it was fake, and knowing that outside the simulator everything was just fine and not shaking.  So the experience felt more like going on an amusement park ride than truly experiencing the terror that an 8.8 earthquake really causes.  I wonder if it felt more meaningful to people who were here in Chile for the actual earthquake.  Still, it's extremely cool that the museum has such a good simulator:

Monday, November 12, 2012

Vina del Mar (Long weekend part 2)

After Valpo, we spent the rest of last weekend in Vina.  We took the train/metro between the two cities.  Here's the view from the train:

It was really easy to get between the two cities.  They're really pretty much as adjacent as Boston and Cambridge.  If you walked between them, I'm not sure you would notice when you left one and got into the other, but I could be wrong.  Anyway, when we got to Vina, we started walking from the metro stop, and we walked through a really smelly area.  And then I looked up and saw that this was the street name:

For the non-Spanish-speakers who read our blog, that street name can be translated as "The Bathrooms," though I suspect it's probably more accurate to interpret it as "The Baths."  Anyway, it was hilarious when it happened.  (FYI, the arrow just indicates the direction of traffic on the street, it's not pointing to anything).

This picture is for Isaac, who is really into Star Wars.  I got my picture taken with a Storm Trooper!  Check it out:

One of the most touristy/photogenic things in Vina del Mar is the flower clock.  It's made entirely of flowers!

Sam noticed and took this picture of these really cool flowers.  Don't they sort of look fake?

This is a gorgeous view of Vina as we were walking along the water towards our hostel:

And another (note the castle-looking thing in the middle):

I didn't like this because it seemed like needless killing, but I had to admit that these starfish and other sea creatures were pretty cool-looking:

We had non-sea-creatures for dinner (aka veggie sushi).  Some of them have hearts of palm, and the stuff that looks like it could be fish is actually tomatoes!

Probably I told Sam his first smile wasn't vigorous enough, so this is what we got after that:

This picture is for my mom, who has a thing for rock piles.  This was at our hostel in Vina.  The weird-looking thing next to it is covered in tiny beads:

On our beach day, we saw some really amazing sand art:

And a guy with a metal detector:

Then we had falafel (me) and "soy shwarma" (Sam) for lunch, thanks to a place we found through a guidebook at our hostel in Valpo.  It was quite tasty:

This is going to get its own whole other post, but while we were walking around, we randomly encountered a welcoming ceremony/performance for and by the South Korean Navy:

We had cotton candy that we bought on the boardwalk, which at first looked like a very silly beard on Sam:

This was so cute, in our hostel on the tables in the dining room:

We also randomly encountered another musical performance that evening, by a group that we think were the new graduates of a university in Vina or Valpo.  Dad, you would have loved this!

This was on our menu at the sushi place.  FYI, salsa just means sauce in Spanish.  But does anyone need any extra Gary?