Archive for February, 2010


February 28, 2010

As you are probably already aware, we suffered a pretty bad earthquake here in chile early saturday morning.  i am very shooken up and still jittery 1.5 days later, but i am totally fine.  the hotel i am in suffered only cosmetic damage and still has power, water, food and helpful invaluable staff.  I´ll try and relate my story.

Friday i decided to rent a car and see some of Chile while my friend Kevins was still in town.  we ended up with a truck and set off to explore the coast some.  we left santiago for San Antonio and then followed the coast up to Valpraiso.  We inched our way to Vina del Mar through heavy holiday traffic and then had some delicious food.  we decided to look for a place since it was getting late.  it turned out that every place was fully booked, and after a few hours of looking we headed back to santiago.  i made it to my hotel about 1 am and fell asleep by 2.  I thank God I am here and not some old hostel in a city i don´t know anyone in.

I woke up to a siren going off.  i felt something was amiss but didn´´t  know what was going on.  then my bed starting shaking, and i thought that was a bad sign.  then it stopped shaking and a second later the entire hotel started rumbling and shaking.  it was like an airplane hitting really bad turbulence, but remove the plane and replace it with a 17 story concrete and steel building.  i jumped off the bed and curled up into a ball to reduce my footprint in case the building collapsed.  i was so nervous tho i got up and looked out the window.  i wish i hadn´t.  it was a moonlight night, and i could see pretty good, but all the building around me (15 to 25 stories) where lit up by arcing electrical lines.  in the brief flashes of light i could see all the buildings swaying like crazy, like palm tree´s in a hurricane.  it was the craziest and scariest thing I have ever seen.  I was sure they would start collapsing one by one, but they just continued to sway.  i got back on the floor and rode it out there. 

i seemed to last an eternity, but once it started slowing down i grabbed all my clothes, wallet and passport and ran to the stairs.  no one else was around, and in a few seconds i was in the lobby.  there where a few people there, but i busted ass outside.   I think i was the 5th person out, and probably the most dressed.  people slowly filtered out and soon we had a crowd.  none of us knew what to do, we where all just standing there.  i walked as far from the tall buildings as I could and socialized.  people on the higher floors had it way way worse.  some of their doors jammed shut and they had to pry them open.  the water from their toilets spilled out onto their bathroom floors.  even the rooftop swimming pool leaked into the top floors!  but no one was hurt and the hotel staff did an admiral job of keeping order and comforting everyone. 

after 2 hours or so most people filed back into the lobby where the hotel staff handed out blankets (i was freezing and had only  a tshirt on) and served an impromtu breakfast and coffee.  i can´t say enough about how great this hotel is.  the make sure our needs are met even though they must be concerned about their own family.  Thank you Hotel El Bosque!

Eventually some people went up to their rooms, but i stayed in the lobby with maybe 50 other people.  i didn´t get more than a half hour of sleep, and every aftershock sent me running outside (yes, i know thats the wrong thing to do but its hard to ignore your instincts).  About 7 or 8 I finally went up to my room and relaxed a little bit.  i organized my stuff, used the restroom, and watched TV.  Then the biggest aftershock hit.  It wasn´t bad, but it started out like the big one so its hard to tell how hard it was going to hit.  I booked it down the stairs and out into the street again.

Once daylight hit I took a look around, but it was hard to see any damage.  Some broken windows and minor debris down, but nothing else.  I called Kevin up to see if he was OK.  He was on the 13th floor and very jittery, but otherwise fine. 

I would spend the rest of the day chatting in the hotel lobby and randomly walking around to calm my nerves.  Some traveler´s from the US and I ordered pisco sours, but the waiters nerves where shot and they spilled 2 rounds of drinks!  We eventually got our alchohol and food, and Kevin stopped by.   More time was spent in the lobby trying to laugh off incidents (one guy was in his boxers and nothing else and he wouldn´t go back up!), but we where all still a little freaked out.  We had dinner at the hotel, it was probably one of a few places open in Santiago.  I spent the night again in the lobby, but this time there where only 3 of us.  I just couldn´t fall asleep in my bed.  Every aftershock is amplified by the 5 stories up my room was, but hardly anything was felt in the lobby.  So i slept like a baby.

Sunday was more of the same, but more people are haning out in their rooms.  More shops and restaurants are opening up, and i expect things to return closer to normality tomorrow.  i have some pics, but nothing spectacular.

For the meantime, i am just waiting to see what happens next.


Random Santiago

February 21, 2010

I’ve been back in Santiago for a few days now and I thought I would share some random pics:

Starbucks in Santiago

Now, before anyone gets upset at American business invading Chile, know this: almost all other coffee here is instant.  Yes, thats right, Nescafe rules supreme here.  Starbucks is a much much welcome addition.  Although I didn’t make it to this one today because it was inexplicably closed on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.  Instead I got a delicious Latte at Juan Valdez cafe (?)

Next up is how they wash skyscrapers in town.  Scary:

Window washing, hardcore

Friday I went out looking at apartments.  I went with a real estate agent / expat assistant and looked at about 6 different places.  I kind of knew as soon as I got to the first one that was the place I wanted, but I suffered through all the other places just to assure myself how much nicer the first one was.  It was located in an older part of town, in a neighborhood full of bavarian style houses.  It was fairly spacious and had a nice balcony and a laundry room.  There are two bedrooms in case any guests want to stop by (hint hint) and two bathrooms.  There is also a nice yard for the whole complex and a little swimming pool as well.  Its an older place and needs some painting, but I’m pretty much sold.

The biggest drawback is that the apartment is not furnished (meaning no refrigerator or washing machine, but does include an oven and toilet!)  All the other places where furnished (down to the silverwear and bedsheets!), but in the long run its cheaper to go unfurnished.  Plus the other places were  big buildings (30+ stories!), located on busy streets, way more expensive and without any views.  Oh…did I mention the first apartment has a beautiful view of the city and the mountains?  🙂  Also, there are several parks and running paths nearby, not to mention a metro station.  I think I will like it there.

The Derek goes for a hike.

February 21, 2010

Sorry for the title, couldn’t help myself.  Anyways, work progressed pretty good and by late Sunday afternoon (7pm) we decided to go for a short hike.  There aren’t much in the way of hiking trails, but there aren’t much in the way of tree’s to get lost in either; so we just chose a direction and went.

Taking a picture of my shadow in the Atacama Desert.

The big attraction near our work site are the numerous canyons that you can explore and climb through.  Most weren’t too big, but we would follow the canyon up for a few hundred yards and explore.  We wondered when the last time water flowed here.

Kevin taking an alternate route around a canyon.

There were cairns marking the best route across the canyons, although we didn’t always look too hard for them.

Rock Cairn in the Atacama, about 4 feet tall

Although the sun was setting, it is still an extreme climate and the chance of my pasty white skin burning to crisp was at the forefront of my thoughts.  We are at 10,000 feet, there is no shade, little moisture and an extra thin ozone layer.  This is great for astronomical conditions but bad for avoiding skin cancer.  I hadn’t really expected to do any hiking on my first trip to the site, so I had to improvise my clothing.

Hiking in business casual attire

Since this is the desert, you can see for quite a ways.  Its amazing to be able to see forever, but at the same time you never feel like you are far from camp;  it was always within view.  Also in view is the road up to the observation site.  This road is about 48 km long and goes from 3,000 meters to 5,000 meters.  Here is a pic of it winding its way up to the Chajnantor Plain:

Road up to Chajnantor Plain

The mountain to the left is lower than the observation site, but there are dormant volcanoes within view that are over 20,000 feet!  This is one of the chief attractions of the area and there are daily tourist excursions near to the top.  Maybe one day I will have enough time to go up myself.

Art, Kevin (co-workers) and myself finally came to a canyon we couldn’t cross.  We went up and down looking for a way to cross, but it proved elusive.  Finally we found a sketchy way down.  There was a lot of donkey tracks and poop, but no wild burro’s I had heard so much about.  I wondered what they were doing in the canyons in the first place, but then I could see some wet spots were water might have pooled in the morning and I thought that’s where they might get their drinking water from.  Maybe pool is a strong word for it, probably more like dig around in the mud for a murky drink?

Art and Kevin exploring a canyon

We explored the bottom of the canyon a little bit, and then found a cairn that marked a much easier path out of the canyon.  At this point the sun was beginning to set and we decided to head back to camp.  Luckily it was always within view and easy to find our way back to.

The work site from afar

In the picture above, you can see the large building that I work in.  This is actually the subcontractor’s building, but it’s where I spend most of my time.  There are actually 3 different assembly points in the left half of the picture,  one for the American telescopes, one for the European telescopes, and one for the Japanese telescopes (all working on the same overall project).  The Americans were the only ones to build a real building, and its quite huge.  We have some telescopes inside being worked on, and some others outside being tested.  Having a building to work inside is certainly a plus.  Also in the picture to the right are the main offices for the ALMA site operations.  This is where the telescopes have their final assembly and testing done before heading to the high site and where all the facilities are.

Back to the hike, we still were exploring on our way back.  We kept on running into these deep holes located randomly in the canyons we came across.

more canyon stuff

Some of them looked like lava tubes, but I think they are more likely formed by old waterfalls. Hmmm?

We finally made it back to our work site just as the sun was setting.  Question: how many buildings here are made out of old shipping containers?

Housing quarters

Answer: pretty much all of them.  Okay, so my dorm room I will usually stay in is an actual building, I did stay in converted shipping container for a few days. It really wasnt that bad.  Also to the right in the picture are the water storage towers and a water delivery truck.  Water is delivered several times a day every day.

Shipping Contianer House

Our other non work adevntures (limited due to the fact we work most of the time) included going into San Pedro de Atacama, a tourist town about 45 minutes away.  The have nice restaurants there, a neat downtown to walk around, and lots of silly tourists to make fun of.  I still don’t understand the attraction of bringing your whole family from France to a big desert, but I guess you run out of interesting things to do when you have 8 weeks of vacation a year (might be a slight exaggeration?)

Anyways, a few more days of work and then I was released back to the civilized world of Santiago.  Next adventure: finding an apartment!

Working Man

February 11, 2010

I left Santiago Monday afternoon and after a 2 hour flight and a 2 hour bus ride I made it to the ALMA worksite, where I will be working for at least the next 2 years.  I will be working a turno shift: 8 days (including travel) at ALMA followed by 6 days off in Santiago.  My job title is “North American Antenna Engineer”.  I still am processing what that means, but basically I am part of the team that approves Radio telescopes for use.  So I will not be using the telescopes, just making sure they are assembled and working correctly.

I’m a little wore out to describe much more, but suffice to say I made the right decision in taking this position.  The thing that strikes me most here is that the people here are passionate about this project and dedicated to its success.  A little different from other work environments.  Also, the site itself is alien and extreme yet beautiful and amazing too.  We are in the highest driest desert.  The assembly site is at 10,000 feet and no humidity. The final operations site is at 16,000 feet.  I feel like I’m working on Mars.  I work all day, eat all my meals with, and sleep at night within snoring range of my co-workers.  Lucky everyone is really easy to get along with.  I feel lucky to work on such beautiful machinery too.  The radio telescopes (imagine large satellite dishes) are at the cutting edge of all technology involved and I’m in awe the more I learn about them.

I will leave it at that for tonight.  I promise I’ll take some pic’s just as soon as I learn whats safe to take pics of (proprietary technology, can’t let any secrets out.)  I’ll talk more about what its like to work and live at 10,000 feet in the desert (Mars).  Now its time for bed (I have my own little dorm room suite).

It’s true about Chilean Sea Bass

February 8, 2010

There’s a restaurant across the street from my hotel I have avoided.  Strictly based on the fact I thought it would be lame not to venture out and try someplace far way from where I sleep.  Well, tonight I didn’t feel like venturing far, so I gave it a try.  It was quite a fancy place, I was feeling a little out-of-place but not too much.  Everything on the menu looked extremely appetizing, but I’ve always heard Chilean Sea Bass is one of the most delicious fish out there.  I also ordered an avocado and heart of palm salad.  The salad wasn’t really a salad (just yummy avocado and heart of palm) and it came with my meal.  It was good, but the sea bass kind of blew my mind.  Served with some sort of wine sauce and crab, it was easily the best meal I’ve had since arrival.  It’s too bad I’m leaving tomorrow afternoon, I would go back there every night. I would rank it in the top 10 dining experiences of my life.

So, I fly out of Santiago Monday and up to the OSF (operational site facility?).  This is where I will be working for the next two years and it promises to be interesting.  Lance (I hung out with him last week) says the sunsets are amazing, the people are pretty cool, and the food isn’t bad.  I really don’t know what to expect, but I’m excited to be working again.  It’s been almost 20 months since I resigned from my last job and in a weird way I miss it.

Tourist time

February 6, 2010

Thursday morning I was finally feeling well enough to venture downtown Santiago.  Alina would of course show me around, I wasn’t adventurous enough to go on my own.  We hopped on a bus (using our BIP! cards) and almost made it downtown  before it pulled a u-turn.  We where at Plaza Italia anyway, so we just got off and walked the rest of the way.  Alina is a great tour guide and explained the history of all that around us, from pre-Columbian times to present.  It’s too bad I forgot it all, but at time I found it very interesting.

We weaved our way downtown between different construction projects and finally ended up at Santa Lucia.  This is a rocky hill that rises above the rest of the city.  It was turned into a park in 1872, but before that spent time as a fort, look out point, and a cemetery.  Its filled with lots of beautiful fountains and old buildings.  I think you can rent it out for special occasions like weddings too, which must be amazing at nighttime.

Santa Lucia Fountain

We kept on climbing these amazingly sketchy stairs, with new levels of the park appearing every so often.  There where lots of amazing views of the city pretty much everywhere.

View of Santiago from Santa Lucia

We eventually made it to the top and had a panoramic view of the city.  I am still amazed at how slippery and dangerous the stairs going up where.  I even slipped once or twice on the way down.  Everything is made out of stone and has been worn slick by over a hundred years of use.  We managed to survive and treated ourselves to some sort of local drink consisting of sweetened water, sun-dried peaches, and some sort of grains at the bottom.  This is sort of an energy drink the locals use to stand 3pm lunches; it would prove a wise choice for us.  We sat next to a pretty waterfall with views of the top of Santa Lucia.

We then departed Santa Lucia and made our way to Placio de La Moneda, or mint palace.  This is the presidential palace and was the site of a coup on September 11, 1973.  It still serves as a government institution of some sort and also has an underground museum.  Alina and I decided to check it out.  For about $2 we got to see a special exhibit from the Ming dynasty, mostly the terra-cotta figures that surrounded the tomb of some emperor.  It was fascinating, but also entirely in Spanish so I had to have Alina translate.  No pictures in the exhibit, but I did my best to look like a stupid tourist outside.

Ming Dynasty Statue. And Derek.

Our next stop was Plaza de Armas, which is where Santiago was founded and is still considered the heart of the city.  Lots of people, street vendors, entertainers, tourists and weird statues.

Plaza de Armas Statue

We didn’t stick around very long here, I was getting pretty hungry.  Alina weaved here way through the streets and bridges and we made it to one of her favorite restaurants, of which I promptly forgot the name.  I also forgot the name of the dish I had, but it was delicious and amazing.  It consisted of large amounts of sweet corn (like cream corn, but better), chicken, beef, egg, and black olives.

Great company, delicious food, and amazing weather. Thank you Santiago!

It proved to be way too much food for me, but I was able to take some home.  This turned out to be the end of our day.  I was still tired from my digestive ailments and decided to go back to the hotel.  First we had to cross this crazy bridge though:

Steep pedestrian bridge in Santiago

We made it to a bus stop and Alina and I said goodbye.  I survived my first bus trip alone and made it back to the hotel safe and sound.  It was a good day.

Getting better all the time

February 5, 2010

Eggs sin refrigeration

I have one word for international travelers: yogurt.  If you plan on traveling outside your home domain, its a good idea to consume a gallon or two of yogurt before you leave.  So said a very well traveled friend of mine who never got sick despite dining on things like 100 year old eggs.  I, however, neglected to follow this advice and paid the price.  Despite never suffering from drinking soda in Mexico with ice cubes or, even worse, eating food from street vendors in pre-earthquake Port-Au-Prince,  I was never-the-less ravaged by the local fauna.  The past week was mostly spent in my hotel room, to afraid to venture very far without a bathroom nearby.  I apologize for the lack of updates on this blog, but there really wasn’t anything to tell.

I did manage to venture out Sunday afternoon to a local mall and meet with Lance, an astronomer working on the ALMA project.   I’m still not comfortable with the bus or subway system, so I ended up walking.  At least I’m getting lots of exercise this way!  It was nice to spend some time with another American and pick up any tips he had for surviving Chile.  Lance spoke fluent Spanish, so I think things are going a little bit easier for him.  He was able to order furniture, pay for it, and have it delivered to his apartment.  I still can’t buy ginger ale from the grocery store without getting yelled at by the cashier.  Anyway, I spent a few hours with him walking around the mall and asking questions.  The more I get used to being here, the less different it feels.  The mall was similar to a mall back home, only much much nicer.  The furniture store was a dead ringer for IKEA, and the grocery store was similar except for unrefrigerated dairy products and an abundance of carbonated water (aqua SIN gas, por favor!).

Lance and I parted ways soon after, and I decided to break down and stop at McDonalds.  I really wanted to avoid eating anything “american” down here, but it was a little late for lunch and too early for dinner and I thought I could get a quick snack.  Unfortunately, the concept of fast food is a little different down here.  Both people ahead of me inline had a 5 minute conversation with the cashier, none of this “I’ll have a #1 with a coke”.  Not that having a meaningful conversation with people is a bad thing (I look forward to adopting to this once I can speak the language), its just taking me a while to get used to it.  I concluded that this was all too complicated for a big mac, so I left and picked up some tomatoes and avocado’s at a local convenience store on my walk home.

That pretty much ended my adventures in Santiago for a while.  I spent the next few days in the hotel room, not eating and sleeping.  Alina eventually convinced me to get some medicine and I recovered.  Hopefully my body is used to the local food and I can explore Chile without worry.  More to come…