Score! Another great match with Trusted Housesitters

Ella’s companions for the Dieciocho holiday were Marca, Ashley, Evan, and Kieran, a family we found on the Trusted Housesitters website, which matches pet lovers looking for a free place to stay with pet owners looking for housesitters while they travel. Marca and Ashley were international teachers in Thailand and Saudi Arabia, but they’ve taken off for at least a year of travel and “world schooling” with their two boys. We gave them a tour of our school (in case they ever want to settle down again) and took them out to dinner before heading off to San Pedro de Atacama.

We knew we had found the right family when the younger boy showed up for dinner with a T-shirt reading “Purr-ito” and a picture of a cat face sticking out of a burrito. My kind of people.

I asked them to take a family photo with Ella. No small feat. She is terribly uncooperative.

I’m glad we told them about Ella’s secret hiding place! They sent this pic when she disappeared for awhile.

It seems Evan was Ella’s BFF.

When we got home, Ella was more interested in playing in the luggage than actually reconnecting with us.

Not only did this family treat our baby with love and kindness, they also left our home in perfect condition. Actually it was even better than we’d left it; Ashley fixed our broken kitchen faucet. Everyone said they enjoyed their stay in Santiago, so it sounds like a win-win!

Dieciocho 2017 – Day 5 – Termas de Puritama

For our last full day in San Pedro, I think we chose the absolutely most fantastic thing to do: soak in some natural hot springs.

Our driver, Oscar, picked us up at 2 p.m. for the 34-kilometer bone-rattling drive to Termas de Puritama. Once we arrived and paid the entrance fee, he tried to explain some of the bathing protocols, but most of it was lost in translation. Oscar waited with the van at the top of the ravine, and we walked down the steep path to the springs.

The name Puritama means “hot water” in the indigenous Kunza language. The water’s temperature ranges from 25°-33°C or 77-91°F, cooling off as it flows downhill.

The water spilled from pool to pool, creating entertaining waterfalls and occasionally strong currents. Raised boardwalks connected the eight pools and branched off to restrooms, changing rooms, and a covered picnic space. I later learned the site is maintained by the Explora company.

This place was a gajillion times better than I could have anticipated. Although quite busy, the pools never felt uncomfortably crowded, and everyone seemed thrilled to be there. Big smiles all around. The positive energy was infectious.

View from the top.

Tony and I reached the parking lot first at the end of our visit. I tried to chat in Spanish with Oscar, the driver. Turns out he was a big fan of Ray Charles, the Beatles, Elvis, the Four Seasons, and other stars of the oldies stations. He played some of his favorites during the ride, and we sang the whole way home.

Back in San Pedro, we went out for our last dinner in Atacama. Nancy and Jim ordered this giant pile of meat, and we shared a pitcher of terremotos, a traditional Dieciocho drink made from pipeño wine and pineapple ice cream.

Dieciocho 2017 – Day 4 – Geysers del Tatio

At 4:30 a.m., I drowsily sipped a cup of coffee and hoped today’s attraction – the world’s highest geyser field – would be worth the sleep deprivation. It did not disappoint.

When our group tumbled out of the bus at 4,300 meters (14,100 feet) above sea level, the sun remained tucked behind the surrounding mountains and we were grateful for our long underwear and wooly hats. Our guide, Felipe, warned us not to wander too close to the steamy plumes and hissing puddles, noting that two tourists had lost their lives in the scalding water.

He pointed out a nearby mountain, which resembled the profile of an old man looking up to the sky, and told us indigenous people named this area “grandfather who cries.”

The geysers and fumaroles form when cold water comes in contact with hot rocks deep below the earth’s crust. The pressure blasts hot water up through underground conduits to erupt at the surface, up to 10 meters (about 33 feet) high. Early morning chilly temperatures ensure the most dramatic billowy reactions as the 80+°F water bursts out to hit the icy air.

I had never seen a geyser in person before, so the ethereal landscape felt particularly special. As the sun rose, the sky turned from grey to cerulean. Bright sunlight illuminated the green and rust colors of the mineral formations and created silhouettes of the tourists against a backdrop of vertical clouds.

The gurgling, whistling, bubbling, whooshing sounds further contributed to a surreal, magical experience.

I asked whether anyone had ever tried to tap the geothermal energy here, and Felipe said that was a touchy issue. Many locals have been protesting the government’s quest for geothermal power since a 2009 blowout during the testing of an old geothermal power well, he said.

According to Wikipedia (and confirmed on several other websites),

In September 2009, a failed prospecting drill for geothermal exploitation in the (1960’s) Nº 10 well near the El Tatio area, by the Geotérmica del Norte consortium – formed by the Chilean state owned ENAP and Codelco Mining companies in association with Italian state owned ENEL – caused a 60-meter high artificial fumarole to develop, with the company unable to seal it for several weeks. The eruption of the fumarole was followed by strong subterranean noises, and a notable decrease of all but the most active geysers in the area.

A 2015 article by the Inter Press Service News Agency quotes indigenous people, who have mixed feelings about geothermal power exploration.

The Alto El Loa Indigenous Peoples Council got ENAP and ENEL to sign a series of agreements for the implementation of social development projects in the local communities in compensation for the impact of the geothermal project, and especially the power line.
For the inhabitants of Alto El Loa, scattered in remote areas in the Atacama desert, if the project is sustainable and benefits their communities, it will be a positive thing. But they say they are concerned that their way of life may not be respected.
“I would like to see more help, and if this is a good thing, then it’s welcome,” Luisa Terán, a member of the Atacameño indigenous group from the village of Caspana, told IPS. “Sometimes we feel a bit neglected and isolated.
“But it has to come with respect for our traditions, and it is our elders who are demanding that most strongly,” she added.
Others, however, reject the project as “anti-natural” and “violent” towards the local habitat.
“If you hurt the earth, she will in one way or another get back at you,” tourist guide Víctor Arque, of San Pedro de Atacama, a highlands village 290 km from Ollagüe, told IPS. “It can’t be possible to drill kilometres below ground without something happening.”

For now, the project is on hold, and more than 100,000 visitors each year can enjoy the sights and sounds of El Tatio geyers like we did.

On our way back down the mountain, we stopped at the tiny Andean village of Machuca. About 20 houses built of adobe and straw line a path leading to stairs up the hill to a small church. An LA Times article says the families of Machuca subsisted on terraced farming for generations, but the climate has become too dry. Today, residents raise llamas and barbecue them on skewers – a treat known as anticucho – to sell to the tourists traveling between the geysers and San Pedro.

We had booked an afternoon of salt lake swimming in Laguna Cejar, but Tony and I spent the afternoon reading on the hotel terrace instead. After traveling to Jordan in 2014 and swimming in the Dead Sea, we felt like, “been there, done that.”

Craig went but only waded. Nancy and Jim said they had a great time thrashing about in the lake.

Dieciocho 2017 – Day 3 – Red rocks, flamingos, high-altitude lakes, and lots of salt

Our Atacama adventure continued on Tuesday with a full-day of high-altitude happiness. Craig opted out, but the rest of us piled into a van with a few other tourists at the crack of dawn for the journey up to 4,400 meters (14,435 feet).

Our driver, whose name I have regrettably forgotten, was extremely enthusiastic and knowledgable, and he spoke clearly and slowly so I could understand quite a bit of his Spanish. Good thing because the guy who tagged along as our English interpreter was sweet and friendly but unfortunately didn’t actually speak English. For example, here’s the explanation of how the salt lagoons formed:

At one point, we pulled off the road for a photo shoot. I ate some Altiplana snow; couldn’t resist. God only knows how long it had been there.

The driver pointed out vicuñas as we bounced along the mountain roads. I can’t tell a llama from a guanaco; they are all adorable. Vicuñas are protected in Chile, but poachers herd them across the border to Bolivia, where it’s legal to kill them for their meat and wool.

At our first destination, Piedras Rojas – or Red Rocks, we strolled around the smooth-sculpted terracotta-colored rocks and marveled at the snow-capped Aguas Calientes volcano reflected in the glassy aquamarine lagoon.

From there, we drove to a small village and crowded into a tiny restaurant (or someone’s home?) patriotically decked out for Dieciocho.

Sitting in plastic chairs, we clasped our mugs of steaming instant coffee while smiling ladies served up toast and scrambled eggs. The driver sat next to me, and I used all my Spanish to have a good chat with him. He introduced me to rica rica, a thorny shrub that grows in high altitude. Considered a medicinal herb, it can help with altitude sickness, cure tummy aches, strengthen your circulatory system, and provide many other health benefits, the driver told me.

I tried the rica rica tea at breakfast and found it very soothing. Back in San Pedro, I sampled some refreshing rica rica ice cream and even bought a branch of rica rica at the market (although I ultimately gave up on packing it to take home).

After breakfast, we hit the road again. We visited two more lagoons: Miscanti and Meñiques. Each lagoon sits at the foot of its namesake volcano, and together they cover almost 11,000 hectares. They are fed by an underground water supply and serve as breeding and nesting sites for many highland birds.

Laguna Miscanti

Laguna Meñiques

One more quick roadside photo shoot before heading back to the village for lunch…
Jim’s awesome shot.

Lunch was soup, followed by a meat dish. When Nancy asked what the options were, our “interpreter” explained that she could have “meat or kitchen.”
Nancy: You mean chicken?
Interpreter: Yes, kitchen.
Nancy: You’re saying “kitchen,” but you mean “chicken,” right?
Interpreter: Yes, kitchen.

We were dying. And this placemat didn’t do much to stifle our hysteria.

After lunch, we walked outside, and I looked up at the mountains. “Is that salt or snow up there?” I asked.
Interpreter: (quizzical look)
Me: Esta sal o nieve?
Interpreter: Nieve.
Me: Snow? But it’s so dry here.
Interpreter: Invierno …
Me: Winter?
Interpreter: Si, winter… before, no … after, no … because, no … verano …
Me: Summer?
Interpreter: Si.
Me: Ohhhhh…

Although most of our day had been spent exploring areas encompassed by the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos, our next stop – the Laguna Chaxa Visitor Center in the Soncor Sector – put us face to face with those gorgeous pink birds.

The Convention on Wetlands, called the Ramsar Convention, is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. The Soncor Hydrological System is a Ramsar site that promotes the rational use of wetlands, primarily as a habitat for migratory aquatic birds. According to Ramsar, “Located in the catchment area of Salar de Atacama, this site is characteristic for presenting a crust of different types of salts, mainly chlorides and sulphates. There is also a hydrological system conformed by a series of superficial channels and lagoons, that together constitute a perfect habitat for waterfowl, many of which are endangered such as the three High Andean flamingo species …”

Here are the three flamingo species found at Laguna Chaxa (from the website BioExpedition). I’m newly obsessed. I started to post an obscene amount of information about flamingos, but you can click the links to read more about them.

Andean Flamingo

James’ Flamingo

Chilean Flamingo

The Visitor Center offers an interpretive trail through the bizarre crunchy crusty salt flat, which includes four lagoons full of life forms adapted to highly saline conditions. The micro-algae, brine shrimp, copepods, and daphnias serve as food for flamingos and other water birds. The pigmented algae is believed to be the source of flamingos’ rosy hue.

On our way back to San Pedro, we stopped at the village of Toconao, mostly so everyone could get some ice cream. The traditional Andean town is known for its houses constructed from a light-colored volcanic stone called liparita. The church, Iglesia de San Lucas, and its separate bell tower date from 1750.

Whew! That was a long, incredible day! Off to bed to dream about flamingos and salt.

Dieciocho 2017 – Day 2 – Valle de la Luna

On our second day in San Pedro, we took off for the moon … well, the Valley of the Moon. Named for its moon-esque landscape, the Valle de la Luna featured craters, cliffs, sand dunes, caves, and other stunning landforms composed of salt and rock, first created by the buckling of the earth’s crust and then carved by wind and floodwaters over thousands of years. The valley is located at the northern end of the Cordillera de la Sal, the Salt Mountains range of the Andes. Dried-up salt lakes appear to be dusted by frost, but up close you can see chunks of salt crusting the rocks.

The valley was designated a national nature sanctuary in 1982, so its massive dune (known as the Anfiteatro because it resembles an outdoor amphitheater) is now off-limits for hikers and sandboarders.

One of the driest places on earth, some parts of the valley haven’t received rain for hundreds of years. NASA even tested a prototype of the Mars Rover here.

Our guide, Mauricio, did a decent job explaining the sites in English. I was able to understand just enough of his Spanish to know he wasn’t giving us as much information as he was sharing with the Spanish speakers, but no biggie. We didn’t need many details to appreciate what we saw.

Tony caught me guide-hogging Mauricio.

First, Mauricio led us through the Cavernas del Sal (caverns of salt). Naturally, I encouraged everyone to lick the walls. Nobody listens to me. At least Nancy pretended

The trek included some tight spots and emerged at a hilltop with a spectacular view of the valley.

The bus took us to see a natural sculpture known as Las Tres Marias, which apparently once resembled Mary from the Bible in three poses. Thanks to erosion, they really should rename the sculpture, “Three Salty Blobs.”

We walked along the top of the valley, seeing some abandoned mining sites. Chile was once the world’s top exporter of nitrate, which was used in the production of fertilizer and explosives. During World War I, German scientists developed synthetic nitrogen, which ended demand for natural nitrates. Although nitrate ghost towns dot the desert, the mining industry in Chile got a reprieve with the discovery of copper.

A short stop gave us time to snap a few photos of the valley before heading to Mirador de Cari to watch the sunset.

Our sunset viewpoint was far from private. A gajillion tourists grinned and jumped for selfies dangerously close to the cliff’s edge. Still, if you could block out the throngs, you could find some zen in the crimson creeping across the valley and the transformation of the distant volcanoes from beige to golden to pink.

After this tour of Valle de la Luna, I can safely say that it might be nice to visit the moon, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Dieciocho 2017 – Day 1 – San Pedro de Atacama

Chile burst into celebration this week with Fiestas Patrias – commonly known as Dieciocho, a catch-all name for two important dates: Chile’s independence day on September 18, and Armed Forces Day on September 19. Chile’s actual independence from Spain occurred on Feb. 12, 1818, but Dieciocho recognizes the town meeting that led to Chile’s first governing body in 1810.

For the week-long Dieciocho holiday, we headed north to explore the Atacama Desert, a 600-mile-long stretch of land sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains. The desert bleeds across Chile’s borders into Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. Tony and I flew to San Pedro de Atacama, along with our friends and fellow Nido teachers, Craig and Nancy, and Nancy’s fiancé Jim, who traveled to Chile from England.

San Pedro de Atacama, a small town comprising dirt roads lined with squat adobe buildings, served as our jumping off point. We joined a surprising number of tourists strolling through the warren of restaurants, souvenir shops, and travel agencies, pausing in the town square to snap a few photos of the church, and popping in to the crafts market.

The 5,916-meter Licancábur volcano watches over San Pedro.

Poking around the shops.

When we stepped off the plane in San Pedro, we had gone from an elevation of 520 meters in Santiago to 2,408 meters. The impact was subtle. We all reported feeling out of breath if we tried to walk too fast, and some of us experienced short bouts of nausea.

We stayed at Parina Atacama, a small hotel off the beaten path, in part because we thought it would be quieter than staying in the middle of town. It was not. San Pedro’s Dieciocho fonda was in a field right around the corner. A typical fonda features dancing the cueca, playing traditional games, eating asado (barbecue), drinking terremotos (pipeño wine with pineapple ice cream) and lots of loud music all night long. (One morning, we were waiting on the corner for our tour bus at 7 a.m., and several people came stumbling down the street from the fonda.)

Anyway, the hotel had comfy beds, hot showers, and a big terrace where we could all hang out, so no complaints.

In San Pedro de Atacama itself, I really only wanted to check out two sites: the renowned archaeological museum and the little church in the central plaza.

The Museo Gustavo le Paige was named for a Belgian priest who arrived in San Pedro in the 1950s and amassed a significant collection of ancient artifacts. Unfortunately, a walled-off construction site is all that remains of the museum. According to a notice posted by the Universidad Católica del Norte, the museum structure had deteriorated to the point that the collection was in danger. The items were moved to safer temporary storage, starting in 2014, and the museum was razed with plans to build a new, more modern facility. However, the project has been stalled for some reason.

At least we got to visit the church. According to Lonely Planet, the Iglesia San Pedro “was built with indigenous or artisanal materials – chunky adobe walls and roof, a ceiling made from cardón (cactus wood) resembling shriveled tire tracks and, in lieu of nails, hefty leather straps. The church dates from the 17th century, though its present walls were built in 1745, and the bell tower was added in 1890.”

We booked a four-day tour with Sol Atacama Expediciones to see the region’s highlights. Were we even still in Chile? It felt like another planet! Stay tuned …

Stress free travel with Trusted Housesitters

When we lived in India, most expats had household help who were happy to pet-sit during school holidays. Our maid, Raji, would stay at our apartment whenever we traveled and often said she loved our cats like they were her own children.

Here in Chile, we no longer have that luxury. We left Ella at a local “pet camp” twice, but both times she came home a little shell-shocked. Cats just don’t love communal living like dogs do.

At the recommendation of my friend, Sarah, who teaches in Dubai, I decided to check out the website Trusted Housesitters. I set up a profile and posted our travel dates: mid-June to mid-July. Assuming I would have to beg for someone to spend a whole month in Santiago, I was surprised at the number of responses. People in England, Wales, Argentina, and two U.S. states expressed interest in babysitting Ella during our trip to the States.

We ultimately chose Kyle and Desi, a young couple from South Dakota. He is a running coach, who consults online and works from home, and she is a Spanish teacher. They flew in a few days early, so we got to introduce them to Ella, show them the apartment, and treat them to their first pisco sours. We liked them right away.

Not wanting them to witness the mania of our last week of school, we sent them off to Valparaiso for a few days. They came back to Santiago for our last night, and we took off for Michigan feeling secure Ella was in good hands.

Over the break, they kept in touch, sent screenshots of our bills, and posted photos on Facebook. It was clear they were taking advantage of all Santiago has to offer, despite the chilly winter weather. They even experienced the city’s biggest snow storm since 2007. Although ringed by snow-capped mountains, Santiago rarely experiences snowfall. Tree branches fell on power lines, cutting electricity to many neighborhoods, including ours. Kyle said the power was out for several days. No fun.

Our return flight was delayed in Atlanta overnight, so we didn’t cross paths with our pet sitters upon arriving in Santiago. They had taken off for a short trip to Vicuña to explore the Elqui Valley (a 5-hour drive north of Santiago), but they came home for one overnight before flying back to the States. When I opened the apartment door to let them in, I was happy and yes, maybe a little jealous, that Ella quickly ran to brush up against their legs. She will miss them.

I should also report that we found our apartment in excellent condition: clean litter box, trash was taken out, no dishes in the sink, linens changed, everything in its place. Couldn’t ask for more than that!

So our first experience with Trusted Housesitters was fantastic. Cross your fingers that we find future caregivers for Ella who are as wonderful as Kyle and Desi.

Summer (winter?) vacation – same same but different

This is for Sam, who reminded me that I haven’t posted in awhile…

We left South American winter for North American summer in mid-June for a stay at our lake house in Michigan.

Our school calendar includes only a month’s break with a new school year kicking off July 24 (tomorrow!). That meant we had to cram in a year’s worth of house maintenance and family fun into four short weeks.

Annesley perches on the wall in front of our house.

My sister, Kate, lives nearby with her family. My other sister, Megan, drove from Texas with her family and stayed with us for three weeks. (Her husband flew home for work, but he came back for a few days at the end of her visit.) My brother, Mike, stopped by Michigan with his family en route from England to their new home in Korea. And my parents roadtripped from Florida. Seventeen of us in all, including seven kids ranging in age from one to 10. We are a pretty tight-knit family, even though we migrate to various global destinations, so I was thrilled to spend this time together.

Kate’s friend, Gary, kindly and patiently staged a family photo shoot for our gang of nutballs.

As Tony said, if you want to know what our summer was like, you should read any summer blog post from the last few years. But here’s the scoop.

We have some standard summer activities…

Lake fun, of course!

Biking on the Paint Creek Trail. We almost always see a few deer.

Playing in the creek at Rochester Park.

Jack got soaked, so I gave him my sweatshirt.

Jumping on giant rubber food in the play area of the Great Lakes Crossing Outlet Mall….

… followed by lunch at the Rainforest Cafe. (I’m not really sure why we keep coming back here as there is always at least one kid who is scared to death of all the loud, animated animals. This year, it was poor little Max.)

Flare Night is a Lake Orion tradition with a fabulous party at our neighbor’s house. Unfortunately, I had to make an airport run that night to pick up Tony, who was returning from a conference. So no photos. The Fourth of July fireworks were pretty spectacular, as always. We watched from our deck after a fun day of splashing in the lake.

Other summer snapshots…

Kate’s new house features a fantastic basement playroom, where we sent the munchkins to build with legos, play Monopoly, hold nerf wars, watch movies, and whatever else kept them busy.

They also set up a badminton court in the backyard, which was a huge hit with children and adults.

Mike is always good for a little rough-housing, but he might be getting a bit old to take on all seven at the same time.

When my dad babysits, this happens.

We watched Moana a lot. Meg bought these costumes at the Dollar Store, but her kids soon fought over who got to be Maui.

Jack turned four and celebrated with a party at the Burgess-Shadbush Nature Center. Everyone learned about and touched several animals, including Madagascar hissing cockroaches, a small snake, a bearded dragon, and a couple turtles.

Party highlights:
When Kate was setting up the party, her balloon bouquet escaped into the woods.

Getting out the ice cream, Summer found some tarantulas in the freezer.

The bearded dragon snacked on a crunchy beetle, and the turtles shared a worm. Yum!

The superhero masks were pretty funny.
Birthday boy, Iron Man.

The Hulk (Will) eats some pizza.

We also celebrated my parents 43rd wedding anniversary, a few weeks early.

Tony and I spent a day at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Detroit. We picked our favorite cars (1955 Corvette roadster for me; 1965 Mustang convertible for Tony), marveled at the massive old trains, strolled down memory lane at an exhibit called “Your Place in Time,” and toured the aluminum Dymaxion House.

As part of a powerful exhibit on transformative moments in U.S. history, we saw the original bus where Rosa Parks took a stand and the chair in which President Lincoln was assassinated.

In a less evocative moment, we posed with the Wienermobile.

Overall, it was same same but different … another wonderful – albeit fleeting – summer.

El Tabo beach weekend: shaky start, but no surprises

Less than a week before heading to the coast for a three-day weekend, I stood in my kitchen making butter chicken for dinner when the sliding glass door to the laundry balcony began to rattle. I thought it was the wind at first, but then a cheese grater fell out of the dish drainer onto the floor and I realized everything was shaking. Tony poked his head in the door and asked, “Is this an earthquake?” He had been lying in bed rocking out to Van Halen and assumed what he felt was “Eddie bending his Floyd Rose,” whatever that means. It was in fact a 7.1 earthquake with an epicenter just 35 kilometers off the coast of Chile.

We dashed to a bathroom doorway, which we now know was the wrong thing to do. On Friday, another coastal earthquake, measuring 5.9, reverberated in Santiago, sending teachers and students under tables to “duck, cover, and hold.”

Those quakes were among more than 280 temblors created by the shifting ocean floor in Chile’s waters, just as we were preparing for a long weekend at the shore. Those red dots? Earthquakes. That blue pin? Our airbnb rental.

Although earthquakes are scary, our real fear was of a tsunami. With a few friends, we had booked a house right on the Pacific coast, where we could relax on the deck to the sound of waves crashing on the rocks. Unfortunately, an offshore earthquake could send a really really big wave right over those rocks to wash us off the face of the earth. We were all getting a little anxious about our trip.

One colleague said, “Don’t go! Why would you take the risk? The small quakes mean a larger one is on the way.” Another insisted, “Don’t worry! These little quakes don’t predict a bigger one. They are actually releasing the pressure.” One Chilena told us a renowned earthquake prognosticator swore “the big one” was coming this weekend, and another dismissed our concerns, saying everything was just fine at the beach.

In the end, the deciding factor was our nonrefundable airbnb payment. So, we packed up the car and drove to the coast as soon as school let out Friday afternoon.

Our house in El Tabo was old but comfortable. We laughed at the owner’s vast collection of breakable knick-knacks teetering on narrow shelves, a seemingly odd decorating choice in such an earthquake-prone zone. Tony and I claimed an upstairs bedroom. Looking out the window, we could see the small pool below (which would be wonderful in warmer weather), the rocky shore to the north, and the Pacific Ocean stretching from just below our house to the horizon.

After unpacking, we drove to a nearby restaurant. The chatty waitress, Maria Paz, said there had been 14 earthquakes that day. I asked if you could see a difference in the sea during an earthquake, but she said the most noticeable difference was the sound. “It’s very noisy,” she said.

As we watched the sun set, Craig asked Maria Paz what time the notoriously late-dining Chilenos would arrive. “Because of the earthquakes,” she said, “they will stay home.” That was disconcerting.

Back at the house, we chatted and played cards. At one point, we all felt a quick jolt, the first temblor we noticed since we had arrived. We nervously joked about our tsunami evacuation plans and made sure Travis parked his car facing out of the narrow driveway so we could make a quick get-away. I slept with my shoes next to the bed in case I had to walk through broken glass in the morning.

The next day dawned peacefully. My LastQuake phone app repeatedly buzzed with reports of small quakes off the coast, but we never felt them.

Our sunrise view.

We spent the morning lounging around and strolling on the beach.

After Stella and Ian arrived, a few of us toured the nearby Casa de Isla Negra, the seaside home of the late poet Pablo Neruda, which has been transformed into a museum. Neruda had two other homes in the region: La Sebastiana, which I visited in Valparaiso earlier this year, and La Chascona in Santiago, which I have yet to see.

Neruda bought the property and a stone hut in 1938 after returning to Chile from diplomatic postings in Europe, and he began a long process of building and renovation. All materials were transported in ox carts across the estuary. He left Chile again as Consul to Mexico, and when he returned in 1943 he was elected to the Senate and joined the Communist Party. The Chilean government soon moved to the right, outlawing communism. Neruda went into hiding until 1952 when the order to arrest leftist artists was lifted. He married his third wife, Matilde Urrutia, and spent the next 21 years living and writing at Isla Negra. He died on Sept. 23, 1973, just 12 days after a military coup toppled Chile’s democracy. In 1992, at the end of the dictatorship, Neruda’s remains were moved to Isla Negra and laid to rest next to Urrutia, fulfilling a wish expressed in his poem “Disposiciones”:
“Friends, bury me at Isla Negra,
before the sea I know, before each wrinkled stretch of stones,
and before the waves my lost eyes
will see no more…”
(Canto general, 1950)

According to a 2014 article on the BBC Travel website about the Isla Negra house,

His personality is evident throughout. A closet-sized bathroom is filled with vintage photos of women in various stages of undress, and frightening masks were hung above the door to scare women away from using it. A stuffed lamb rests on his bed, and the house is packed with swords, bottles, masks, pipes, bugs, butterflies and an entire room filled with seashells. For a communist, Neruda was quite an obsessive shopper. And thankfully, most of his collectibles have survived. After the coup, soldiers raided the home. “Look around,” Neruda told them, “there’s only one thing of danger for you here – poetry.” They left without confiscating any of his priceless items.

The house at Isla Negra reflected Neruda’s eccentric lifestyle and appreciation of all things nautical. The layout evokes a ship with narrow rooms in a single file, creaky wooden floors, huge wooden figureheads looming over the rooms, shelves filled with ships in bottles, framed maps and astrological imagery, and windows revealing the frothy turquoise waves pounding the rocky beach. A large anchor in the yard seems to secure the house to the hillside. An audio tour shared many fascinating anecdotes about the poet, a complicated, passionate man who saw beauty in the mundane world around him. Over the years, he wrote odes to the tomato, his suit, bread, a box of tea, and so many more random items. The cluttered chaos of his home seemed to emphasize his need to be surrounded by interesting things.

Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the house. Here are some outside shots.

This quote means something like, “I return from my travels. I sailed building joy.”

After our visit to Neruda’s waterfront home, we returned to our own, where some other Nido teachers had popped in for a visit. They were staying at another house in the same neighborhood. Later, we climbed around on the rocks (which I think is now officially a sport called “bouldering” … that sounds so much more athletic) and then enjoyed our own version of the Chilean asado (barbecue), including steak masterfully grilled by Ian.

A view of our house from the shoreline.

Posers. Me …

… and Craig.

Hanging out on the deck after dinner. Photo courtesy of Travis.

We awoke Sunday to a chilly, foggy morning. Despite my app’s occasional announcements of off-shore earthquakes, we still hadn’t experienced anything dramatic. After a lazy morning of huddling by the space heater with a mug of tea and shivering at the sight of surfers in the icy waves, I was happy to see the sun burn away the fog. Tony and I enjoyed some more bouldering, although we mostly climbed to a good spot and then sat on a rock to watch the crashing surf. The deep blue water swelled until its crest appeared bright teal, spilling over with the white froth and ultimately pounding into the towers of volcanic rock with a dramatic explosion of spray. I found myself clapping and giggling like a toddler. I hope I can channel that joy at work this week.

Laura snapped a few photos of us from the deck of our house.

For much of the afternoon, Travis, Laura, Craig and I played a card game called Dutch Blitz while Tony graded papers.

Today, the skies were gray and drizzly at the coast. Rather than linger till our check-out time of noon, we all decided to pack up and hit the road. I won’t lie to you: After all the earthquake drama of the previous week and predictions of tsunamis, I was surprised and deeply relieved that our journey to the earthquake epicenter (or close enough) was uneventful and mellow. Whew!

Back home in Santiago, we’re counting down to the end of the year: 34 more school days!

Easter? Easter Island! …er… Rapa Nui!

When we first moved to Chile, we were hanging out with our friends Kelly and Jake (and their kids, Veda and Aadi), who we knew in India. They mentioned that they were spending Easter at Easter Island, and we said, “We want to join you!” And so we did.

Although the island was annexed by Chile in 1888, the locals connect deeply with their Polynesian roots and prefer the traditional name of their homeland: Rapa Nui. One of the most remote inhabited places in the world, Rapa Nui is located in the Pacific Ocean, more than 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile and more than 1,000 miles from the nearest inhabited island (which actually boasts less than 100 residents).

Various theories attempt to explain how people first migrated to the island, but anthropologists today generally believe Polynesians first arrived around 300AD. The UNESCO World Heritage List website says those islanders “established a powerful, imaginative and original tradition of monumental sculpture and architecture, free from any external influence. From the 10th to the 16th century this society built shrines and erected enormous stone figures known as moai, which created an unrivaled cultural landscape that continues to fascinate people throughout the world.”

Needless to say, this mystical, isolated island has been on my bucket list for ages.

After a six-hour flight from Santiago, we arrived on Thursday afternoon and were met at the airport by a driver who draped flower leis around our necks. The whole island is only 15 miles long, and the tiny airport is located right next to the only real town, Hanga Roa. I was surprised at the size of our plane – a Boeing 787 Dreamliner – in relation to the size of the thatch-roofed airport. Later, I learned NASA had extended the existing runway to create an emergency landing destination for the space shuttle.

In just a few minutes, we reached our lovely resort, Hare Noi. “Hare” means “home” in the Rapa Nui language.

Our room was one of four that opened into a nice common space with a sectional sofa, heavy wooden table with benches, and kitchenette area. Perfect for when Tony woke up in the middle of the night. He could work on his report card comments without waking me up. The back door opened to a nice deck with chairs and tables and a view of the property. The pillars holding up our building’s roof were unfinished eucalyptus tree trunks, and our deck connected to a lighted boardwalk that led up the hill to the pool, spa, and restaurant, as well as a few more rooms up the hillside. Fat, colorful chickens occasionally wandered past, harassed by a handsome black-and-white rooster. Low walls of pockmarked volcanic stones ringed a few garden areas. In one, heavy bunches of bananas ripened on the trees with fat magenta blossoms dangling from thick, long stems. Other trees offered up guavaba, a local fruit whose delicious scent permeated the vicinity. (Soft and round with yellow skin and firm fuchsia flesh, its flavor most definitely did not live up to expectations.) Our spacious room included some interesting features, including a huge volcanic rock just outside the shower door. Toe stubbing threat, but cool nonetheless. The dome-shaped restaurant’s “walls” were really accordion doors that opened up the whole space to fresh, tropical breezes.

The path from reception to our building.

Enjoying the pool.

The population of Rapa Nui likely peaked around 15,000 in the 17th century. Today, the island has around 6,000 permanent residents, and about 60 percent are descendants of the aboriginal Rapa Nui people. According to the Polynesian Cultural Center website:

Like many of the other Pacific islands during the 18th through early 20th centuries, European diseases and indentured labor practices decimated the population. For example, as many as 5,000 islanders were carried away to work in Peru, and only a few ever returned. About 1875, 500 more were taken to work the sugar plantations in Tahiti, where a small number of Easter Islanders remain to this day. At one point in the early 1900s there were only 111 Rapa Nui people left on the island; and while the slowly growing population has managed to hang on to much of their Polynesian culture, a great deal was also lost forever. For example, the people of Rapa Nui may have been the only Polynesians to have something akin to a writing system in the form of their rongorongo tablets, a few samples of which have survived to present times in widespread museums. The ability to translate them, however, seems to have been lost forever.

More than 40 percent of Rapa Nui is a protected national park. Its dormant volcanoes, stunning shorelines, windswept denuded plains, herds of roaming horses and cattle, Polynesian culture, and delicious food were plenty to keep us fascinated and content, but the real reason people flock to the island, of course, is to witness the mysterious moai. Carved between the 11th and 17th centuries, around 900 moai were commissioned by wealthy families to honor ancestors. Ranging from six to more than 60 feet high, they were carved from scoria, which is hardened volcanic ash. Debate continues regarding how the massive sculptures were moved from the hilltop quarry to their seaside destinations and raised atop the stone foundations called ahu. Our island guides insisted the moai “walked” on a path to reach the ahu, which aligns with the most popular theory that islanders used long ropes and log pulleys to tip the moai and rock it from side to side and slowly forward, like we the way we move a refrigerator.

Topknot Quarry
Our visit kicked off with a tour of Puna Pau, the quarry that yielded only the massive circular blocks representing hair tied up in a topknot. Our guide Jojo said the red pukao would have been cut from the quarry and rolled down the hill. Stone masons would then carve and decorate the topknot before placing it on the moai’s head. The presence of a pukao indicated the moai came from a royal family, he explained. A sign at the quarry offered a couple theories as to how the 10-ton pukao was lifted to the top of a statue that could be more than 60 feet high. One theory was that workers rolled the pukao up a huge stone ramp to the statue’s head, but Jojo strongly denounced that. He said his family’s oral history confirms the other posted theory: Workers used their engineering prowess to devise a system of levers and pulleys, using huge tree trunks and heavy ropes, to raise the pukao. According to Lonely Planet, about 60 pukao were distributed to moai around the island, and another 25 remain in or near the quarry.

Meet the Moai
During our stay on Rapa Nui, we explored the sites of many ahu, raised stone altars that served as the platform for the moai statues. At some locations, the ahu was all that remained standing. At others, re-erected moai stood watch once again over the remnants of former villages. Although the original European explorers in 1722 and 1770 reported standing moai, all moai were toppled by 1864. American archaeologist William Mulloy spent 23 years leading efforts to study and restore the moai, and since then many organizations have undertaken conservation projects.

The scoria is not a very durable stone, so there is plenty of evidence of erosion. Not much keeps tourists from chipping off their own souvenirs, either. In fact, a Finnish tourist lopped off an earlobe from a moai in 2008 and was fined $17,000. Small artifacts on the ground are surrounded by a single rail fence, which does nothing to keep people out. The ahu are ringed by a barrier of thin twine and small warning signs. Our guides over the weekend told stories of ridiculous tourists who climb on or break pieces off the statues.

Ahu Akivi includes seven moai restored in 1960 by Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl and his crew of professional archaeologists. Each moai is about 16 feet high and weighs about 18 tons. While most ahu are found on the coast and face inland to watch over the villages, this one is unusual for its inland location and its mystical link to astronomy – the moai stare directly into the setting sun on the spring equinox.

Our first encounter with waterside moai was a collection of three restored ahu on the west coast. Ahu Tahai stood in the middle with a large moai. On its north side is Ahu Ko Te Riku, a moai sporting the red topknot and restored eyeballs made from white coral and obsidian. Apparently all the moai once had these eyeballs, which gave them “mana,” or a spirit empowering them watch over their clans.

On the south side is Ahu Vai Uri with five moai.

All moai faced their family’s villages, and these were no exception. On the hill leading down to the water, Jojo showed us ruins of traditional village structures. A chicken coop looked like a garage made from stacked volcanic rock with just a chicken-sized opening, where the birds would enter in the evening. The villager would put a rock in the hole to keep them inside, and nobody would be able to tell which rock was the “door.” We also saw the foundation of a typical refuge, known as hare paenga. Shaped like an overturned canoe, the heavy perimeter stones featured large drilled holes for holding a frame made of tall sticks that were covered in leaves and grass. The villagers wouldn’t have had actual homes (by today’s standards) because they spent most of their time outside, Jojo said. These refuges were only for sleeping or escaping inclement weather.

A reconstructed stone ramp led into the ocean, where villagers would have launched their boats for fishing.

Vinapu is the site of two crumbling ahu. One has mortarless blocks similar to the Incan ruins, which Thor Heyerdahl saw as evidence that Rapa Nui people originated from South America. He even built a traditional raft and sailed 8,000 miles from Peru to the Tuoamotu Islands to prove his highly disputed theory that people could have migrated from South America to Easter Island. Jojo showed us a couple moai faces poking out of the earth. He confirmed that the exposed moai are slowly eroding. One face had a piece of basalt sticking out that wouldn’t have been visible 100 years ago, he said. One of the ahu included a red block, which was a recycled top knot from a previous generation, Jojo said, explaining that when moai fell, the people would often reuse the stone to create new moai or use them for other purposes.

You see this rock everywhere. I mean, everywhere.

Right at the shoreline, the Hanga Poukura ruins included an ahu with barely distinguishable moai. But the real attraction was the tide. Huge waves crashed on the rocks. Jojo told stories of playing here as a child, riding horses bareback and encountering tourists. He and his friends would take tourists to the archeological sites in exchange for candy.

When Jojo saw how much we loved the waves, he drove us to another spot, where the waves were crazy high. They crashed dramatically over a rock and then immediately died down, creating a perfect backdrop for photos. Beach combing was also fascinating here; the rocks were weathered into lacy blocks and delicate towers.

Quick stop on the way to take pictures of the horses. Cows and horses roam freely, looking for grass among the rocks.

A sunrise visit to Ahu Tongariki is on every tourist’s to-do list here. Unfortunately, (a) at this time of year, the sun rises a little to the east of the moai, so it’s not as spectacular as it could be, (b) we were advised to go WAY too early so we waited in the dark for about an hour, and (c) I had left our national park tickets back at the hotel. Fortunately, (a) it was still a pretty spectacular experience and (b) worth the wait, and (c) a kind guard heard my plea in pathetic Spanish and let us enter without tickets.

This is the largest ahu on the island with 15 moai. They were all toppled during clan warfare, and then a 1960 earthquake triggered a tsumani that dragged the moai almost 300 feet further inland. According to Rough Guides, a Japanese news program aired footage of the Rapa Nui governor saying they could save the moai if only they had a crane. A Japanese viewer took action and ultimately set up a committee that spearheaded a five-year restoration project, completed in 1995.

We re-visited Tongariki later in the day with our guide, Tito. He swore the moai second from the right represents his grandfather. “The best one?” asked a skeptical member of our group. “Yes!” he exclaimed. I choose to believe it.

On the southern coast, we poked around the village remains next to Ahu Akahanga, where tradition holds the first Rapa Nui king is buried. Here, we saw several of the aforementioned canoe-shaped foundations of homes, as well as a pit that would have been used as an oven, a cave formed by a lava bubble, the remains of four ahu, and many fallen moai.
Tito describes how islanders cooked with hot stones in a pit.

Looking out from the lava bubble cave.

At one of Rapa Nui’s two sandy beaches, Anakena, we saw Ahu Nau-Nau and its seven moai, and Ahu Ature Huki with the first moai re-erected by Thor Heyerdahl in 1956.

From a NOVA article on the PBS website:

According to an Easter Island legend, some 1,500 years ago a Polynesian chief named Hotu Matu’a (“The Great Parent”) sailed here in a double canoe from an unknown Polynesian island with his wife and extended family. He may have been a great navigator, looking for new lands for his people to inhabit, or he may have been fleeing a land rife with warfare. Early Polynesian settlers had many motivations for seeking new islands across perilous oceans. It’s clear that they were willing to risk their lives to find undiscovered lands. Hotu Matu’a and his family landed on Easter Island at Anakena Beach.

I wore my swimsuit under my clothes for our visit to the beach, but it was a brutally windy day. I doubted I would brave the chilly air to take a dip in the ocean. However, after checking out the moai and traipsing through the powdery sand to the water’s edge, I couldn’t resist. Tony and I played in the waves with Veda, who shrieked and laughed and shared my enthusiasm for the rough water. At one point, the grey sky broke open and pounded us with cold lashing rain, but then the clouds cleared and we had warm sunny skies for the rest of our short romp.

Photo courtesy of Kelly.

Rano Raraku – the Moai Birthplace
After exploring ahu and checking out moai – both standing and fallen – all over the island, we finally visited the quarry where moai were excavated from the volcanic tuff. Tito first led us to the crater lake, site of an annual traditional triathlon. He said men had to run around the lake on foot while carrying a pole over their shoulders loaded with heavy banana stalks, swim across using woven-reed boards, and canoe in a small reed boat. About 20 moai stand partially exposed inside the crater.

The path along the outside of the crater wound past hundreds of moai in various stages of completion. Tito explained that carvers would cut the moai shape out of wall, leaving it attached by just a band of rock. After they finished, they would sever that piece, letting the moai slide down paths on the hill to begin its journey to an ahu. Tito says the moai tradition was abandoned quite suddenly, which would explain the presence of so many unfinished and forsaken statues. Some remained secured to the volcano’s walls, while others poked out of the earth at odd angles, pinned by erosion up to their necks, hiding up to two-thirds of each statue’s body.

Guide hogging, as usual.

Posing with a couple unfinished moai who never made it off the hill.

This moai, Tukuturi, is a mysteriously unique kneeling statue. Older than the others? A representation of one of the master carvers overlooking the quarry? Nobody knows.

Orongo: From Stone Men to Birdman
Deforestation, food shortages, and tribal warfare led to the decline of the ancient Rapa Nui society. According to the World Monuments Fund:

The ceremonial village of Orongo, in the south of the park, is considered to be among the most spectacular archaeological sites in the world. It is perched on a narrow ridge, with the crater of the Rano Kau volcano on one side and cliffs that fall 300 meters to the sea on the other. Orongo contains dozens of petroglyphs and stone houses dating from the Huri-Moai period of Easter Island’s history (c. 1680–1867). The self-contained, dry-laid houses featuring sod roofs were built into the topography of the site. The ceremonial center of Mata Ngarau in Orongo, center of the Tangata Manu (Birdman) cult that succeeded the moai culture, was the site for the annual games that represented the transfer of power between competing clans. By the end of the nineteenth century, most of the Rapa Nui culture had perished or had converted to Christianity; the Tangata Manu cult collapsed and Orongo was abandoned.

The Orongo visitor center included many interpretive posters and photos of the artifacts found at the site and the cult’s worship of the god Makemake. Jojo explained the bizarre ceremony that decided the island’s ruler each year during this era. After years of horrific warfare, the population had dwindled and people were tired, frightened, and ready for peace, he said. One sign of peace was the sooty tern, a bird that nested on the nearby islands. In an Amazing Race-style competition, men climbed down the hillside and swam out to the smaller islands using floatation devices woven from reeds. On the islands, they searched for nests of the sooty tern, in hopes of getting an egg. They wore a headband with a small pocket in the front to securely carry the egg back to Rapa Nui. The first warrior to return with an intact egg won, and his clan ruled the island until the next year. (Spoiler alert: This story is about to get crazy.) As a prize, the swimmer – painted in ceremonial colors – got a woman, chosen from seven beauties for having the biggest clitoris. Jojo told us the clans believed a big clitoris was associated with pleasure, and thus fertility. That was important because they needed to rebuild the population. There are even petroglyphs of symbols that represent the vulva. I am pretty sure that was the first time I ever heard a tour guide say “clitoris” or “vulva.”

Tony as a birdman.

Just outside the Orongo visitor center, we marveled at the Rano Kau volcano crater. Almost a mile across, it slopes down to a lake covered in floating totora reeds, one of only three natural bodies of fresh water on the island. Even the local dogs seemed to appreciate the view.

Jojo told of growing up near this crater. He ran around barefoot, chasing wild horses and picking fruit inside the caldera. When it was time for him to go to secondary school in “Chile,” he had thick calluses on his feet. He also reminisced about working on Kevin Costner’s film, “Rapa Nui,” which came out in 1994. He said many islanders participated, dressed in traditional costumes and racing up and down the volcano’s steep hillside to re-enact the birdman competition. (Side note: The movie wrongly depicts the birdman ceremony happening during the era of moai carving. The moai had been abandoned by the time the birdman cult arose.)
From IMDb.

A Taste of Culture
In addition to our island excursions, we enjoyed a lovely dinner at a waterside restaurant, Te Moana, on our last night in Rapa Nui. I had a tuna steak on a bed of mashed sweet potato and topped with an incredible medley of pineapple, veggies, and a vanilla-coconut sauce. I actually can’t stop thinking about it.

After dinner, we attended a a traditional dance show. Kari Kari featured highly spirited dancers in fabulous costumes. Women wore bras of feathers or coconuts with skirts made of long feather garlands, grasses or just a cloth wrap. Somehow they managed beautiful relaxed smiles despite coordinating crazy hip shaking with gentle undulating arm movements. Men wore variations of a loin cloth – feathers, leather flap, or just a cloth sling, and not much else. For different songs, the men swapped out their props and accessories. They wore bands of feathers on their heads, upper arms, below the knee or around the ankle, or individual grass skirts hanging from their knees, which they shook pugnaciously. They carried big threatening sticks, wore face paint, and sported many tattoos that spread over thighs and abdomen. Their athletic dances includes lots of scary gestures and facial expressions, but they always smiled and laughed between numbers, as though to reassure the audience that they weren’t going to kill us. A couple times, they pulled people on stage for an embarrassing competition. (Tony and I ducked low in our chairs to hide.) It was pretty hilarious.

Here’s a video from the Kari Kari Facebook page.

According to the website imagina Easter Island, “Most of the Easter Island music and dances are of Polynesian origin. The Rapa Nui ancestral dances have been lost or merged, though it’s still possible to find indigenous music rooted in the orally-transmitted legends that are songs and dances dedicated to the gods, spirit warriors, the rain or love.”

Easter on Easter Island
Veda and Aadi were pretty excited to find a little Easter gift from the hotel staff waiting at their breakfast table. While they ate, their dad played Easter Bunny and hid a bunch of plastic eggs filled with chocolates and raisins. (Ha! That clever bunny and his healthy habits.) The kids were adorable as they hunted for the eggs, counted them, and opened them up to find the treats. Surprisingly, the chocolates and raisins elicited an equal amount of joy.

Flying back to Santiago, Tony and I agreed this had been a wonderful trip. One tiny island managed to offer much of what we love in a vacation, and its mysterious history continues to fascinate us.

Writing this post, I found many interesting articles about Rapa Nui. Even though I wrote a ridiculously long post about our trip, there was so much I didn’t include. If I have piqued your interest, you may want to read more!
National Geographic – Easter Island, 2012
NOVA – Pioneers of Easter Island, 2000
Live Science – Easter Island (Rapa Nui) & Moai Statues, 2012
History of Rapa Nui – From Genocide to Ecocide, The Rape of Rapa Nui by Benny Peiser, Liverpool John Moores University, Faculty of Science, 2005

Adventures in Teaching and Travel