Six Days in Helsinki

I had never given much thought to visiting Helsinki until my friend Erica said she wanted to visit her daughter, Sophie, who is studying there. For some reason, I said, “Let’s go.” Even after she told me we would have to visit in mid-April when temperatures would still be hovering in the 30s and 40s and not one green leaf would be in sight , I still said, “Let’s go.” So, we did.

Sophie, like a seasoned member of the paparazzi, greeted us at the airport snapping photos as we emerged from behind the doors of the customs area. We all laughed and hugged as bewildered Finns looked on. Who are these people they must have been asking.

Once outside, the chilly crispness of early evening woke me up from my airplane stupor. Jumping on the bus we headed downtown. As we rode along, first through uninteresting suburbs of one nondescript apartment building after another and then through the city streets, memories of Boston suddenly started popping into my head. I remembered how long the month of March seemed, how we would drag themselves around, our eyes softening, our lips giving way to faint smiles only at the sight of a daffodil in a window or a crocus in a jar. There would be nothing much left of winter but dirty piles of snow here and there and the dusty, gritty residue of winter-long sanding covering the streets, sidewalks, and windows. Even the black branches of the trees making lacy patterns against the deep blue sky would have lost their loveliness. Where are the buds? Where are the leaves? Where is spring? Surely, the Finns must be asking, too.

Once at the hotel, the only thing we could think of was getting something to eat and staying awake long enough to justify falling into bed. We succeeded.

Once in bed, Erica fell in love immediately, with the bed that is. It was one of her favorite things about the trip and so comfortable that she, a reportedly poor sleeper, slept ten-to-twelve hours every day. This was well-deserved rest because as an big-city middle school teacher she needs all the rest she can get. So enamored was she with her bed, she even stopped by a Finlayson store and priced what it would cost to buy one. True love.

I’m sure you are asking what makes a Finnish bed so special? Well, they are amazingly comfortable, not just because of the down comforters and soft pillows but also because of the unique mattress system: A sheeted mini-mattress sitting on a box spring of sorts. A nest for resting, the Finnish bed is that perfect point of repose, all year long, during long winter nights and endless summer days, dark and light, yin and yang.

Actually, you never know what you’ll end up falling in love with when traveling; that’s part of the mystery and fun. On this trip, spending time with Sophie topped my list. She’s smart and generous with a cynical wit; a talented photographer and writer, she’s also a great cook and made two delicious meals for us.

Her vegetarian casserole with a gluten-free béchamel was delightful as were her seven-hour roasted cherry tomatoes and everything else she made. Yum! Sophie, thank you for your warm and caring hospitality.

Second on my list are the Finnish people. OK, so they are dour looking on the street, their mouths taunt and slightly turned down, their pale eyes looking straight ahead. But, ask any one of them a question and the biggest smile emerges and the eyes shine. Still, they aren’t exuberant talkers. Nothing is volunteered. Ask a question and straight-away you get a to-the-point answer, nothing more, nothing less. On the other hand, they seem grateful for each question and are more than happy if you keep on asking. So ask I did.

Next come the baby buggies. In Helsinki, elaborate baby buggies are everywhere. For a country with less than two children per family, this was surprising, but then, Helsinki is a university town with about 39,000 students attending the University there. Besides, a broad and rich social support system for families, including paid parental leave and free health care for all children, makes the decision to have children easier for young couples. But, back to the buggies. They come in all colors and styles with hoods and umbrellas against rain and sun, winter weather protection, accessory bags, fur interiors, and sturdy wheels. And inside, the cutest children you’ll see anywhere.

So many florist shops! On just about every block you’ll find a florist shop stocked to the brim with plants and flowers arranged in seasonal bouquets. The Finns take flowers seriously and when invited, almost always arrive with a bouquet or plant. This goes for university students as well as the older generation. Being Easter week, all the shops were decorated with little chicks and rabbits, the pastel colors of spring, Easter egg trees, and spring flowers. There were even pop-up florist shops.

Architecture. What struck me about the architecture in Helsinki (and I’m not talking about the band of this name) is that apart of the buildings of Aalto, including Finlandia Hall and the Academic Bookstore, 18th and 19th century styles predominate in the city center giving it a low-key vibe that invites you in from the cold.

I especially liked this turret high above the esplanade where I imagined myself gazing out over the rooftops of Helsinki as the sun sets over the Baltic.

But it was two little red wooden buildings that stole my heart.

The first, a devilishly small cafe on the harbor just a stone’s throw from the beautiful monument to Sibelius. Inside, this miniature ode to a fishing shack, two young women filled orders for hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls freshly baked in a tiny oven just behind the counter to a steady stream of customers. While some preferred to sip their hot drinks inside huddled on benches around cramped tables, others headed outside with drinks in hand and a warm blanket taken from a stack by the door under the arm. Either way is delightful and everyone was happy here.

The second charming little red building, I found in the garden of Hvitträsk, the home of Eliel Saarinen, the father of the great mid-20th century American architect, Eero Saarinen, in the town of Kirkkonummi on the shores of Lake Vitträsk. Originally designed as the studio home for the members of the Finnish architecture firm Gesellius, Lindgren, and Saarinen, the Saarinen family lived here until immigrating to the United States in 1923. Sitting alone in a still mostly winter-brown garden, I imagined the delight of curling up inside this little gem to take a spring nap in the sun.

Last on my list are the women, statues and carvings.

Starting on the Esplanade, look for the statue of J. L. Runeberg, Finland’s national poet. At his feet is a female figure, the patron muse of Finnish Poetry, wrapped in a bear skin, its head covering hers, she stares out at you from her deep and wild eyes. Woman, animal, muse. Beautiful.

Continue walking to Kauppatori (Market Square) where in the center of a fountain is Havis Amanda, a nude mermaid. Having just emerged from the sea, she stands on seaweed with fish and hungry sea lions around her feet. I like her uncertainty as she emerges in her natural form from her native environment into the unknown. Built in 1906 and erected here in 1908, the statue, originally called Merenneito, or The Mermaid, was designed by Vile Vallgren to symbolize the rebirth of Helsinki but caused quite a raucous. Women’s rights groups said that the statue belittled and objectified women. Today, the statue is the object of university students pranks and rituals including the placing a graduate hat on her head at the start of May Day festivities at 6PM on April 30. But, for me she in her innocence is finding her way in the universe.

From Havis Amanda turn right and walk past the cruise ship-sized ferries that shuttle people to St Petersburg, Stockholm, and Tallinn, to the south harbor where you’ll find the statue of a lithe young woman standing high above you. She’s young; free; perhaps, a bit naive, and also another object of controversy. Erected in 1968 by the Finnish people as a symbol of the peaceful coexistence between Finland and the Soviet Union, she came under friendly fire by Finns who disapproved of her message. But not knowing the history, I like her very much as she looks out at the Baltic as the wind sweep across her.

Finally, back at Hvitträsk, in the basement of the museum, I found several stunning carvings of women that originally were pedestals for furniture. They are exquisite and reminded me of the dances of Isadora Duncan. Beautiful.

All original content Copyright 2011 Mary E. Slocum



Frutillar and Puerto Octay

Today, we’re heading up the western shore of the lake to Frutillar and then to Puerto Octay for lunch. The day starts out cloudy and chilly. I don’t mind though because cooler temperatures are always better for running. It’s amazing just how much heat the human body can generate even at a much less than marathon pace.

After my run I convince Antun to come with me to the heated pool on the top floor of the hotel. The pool is small—really more like a gigantic hot tub— but the big windows, providing amazing views of the lake regardless of the weather, more than compensate for its smallness. Resting our forearms on the deck we gaze out over the shifting layers of gray. It would be quite easy to fall asleep here, but the little clocks in the back of our heads are keeping time. It’s time to go least we be late for our rendezvous with the rest of the tribe.

Our plan is to drive over to Frutillar via the highway. There we’ll meet our friends Desi and Jorge and they will guide us to Puerto Octay and the restaurant, Espantapajaros, over a gravel road that follows the shoreline of lake.

I remember staying in Frutillar in February 1979. We took a room at a hostería run by a German lady. She wasn’t really German, she was Chilean by birth, but that hadn’t helped her Spanish any. Certainly a descendent of the colonos, she easily grew up in the region without much need for the Spanish language, but given our five-word German vocabulary, it certainly made our conversations with her brief and to the point. On the other hand, who needs to talk when being plied every morning with kaffee mit milch and the most delicious cherry kuchen I have ever eaten.

The village hasn’t changed much in thirty years except for one striking new thing: El Teatro del Lago. The theater juts out over the lake like a giant palafito housing several performing spaces. Recently the main performance hall has been completely redone to perfect its acoustics and allow for larger productions.

We meet Desi and Jorge at the café in the theater. Jorge, a native of Frutillar, asks us if we would like a tour of the theater. “Yes, of course,” we reply. He instantly disappears and shortly reappears. “Let’s go. They are starting now.” The younger generation, ravenous from sleeping in that morning, bow out telling us they will meet us at the restaurant. Haydee and Desi have also disappeared leaving three of us, Antun, Jorge, and I for the tour.

A man in a corduroy jacket and chinos greets us. “We don’t usually give tours but I am the architect of the new concert hall and I’d be happy to give you a short impromptu tour,” he announces. We nod our heads in approval. He’s charming, speaks impeccable Spanish with a funny accent, (Later we learn this is because although a German he has made his home in Chile for over sixteen years.) explains what has been done and why and even takes us backstage where work is underway on the scenery for an opera soon to open.

Time flies. Our lunch reservation is at two o’clock and it is already close to that now. We pull onto the gravel road; it winds around hiding the lake, then revealing it. I try hard to enjoy the sights as Jorge points out this house built by his father and that one built by his grandfather. But, I can’t. Stones fly, blind curves throw out oncoming locals going at breakneck speeds, steep hills send us hurtling down as though gravity has gone crazy. Finally, the road softens and bends away from the lake. At the intersection we turn right onto the asphalt for a couple of kilometers. Off to the right we see the sign Espantapajaros and pull into the driveway.

Inside Luci, Pancho, Nico, and Maria are already seated at a window table with potential views of the still hidden-behind-clouds Osorno. Although hungry, they haven’t already served themselves at the buffet but have ordered drinks to stave off their hunger. The Espantapajaros isn’t for everyone. The format is buffet and the specialty is wild bore but vegetarians will especially enjoy their braised red cabbage and salad selection. Good, simple food, friends, family, and a menagerie of animals–baby llamas and ostriches—in the backyard, and, then, suddenly sunshine, the clouds vaporizing, and the perfectly sublime Volcán Osorno comes into view on a late summer afternoon.

A perfect day.

All original content copyright 2011 Mary E. Slocum

Day-Trip from Puerto Varas to Lago Todos Los Santos

The same glaciers that carved out Lago Llanquihue also gave us Todos Los Santos. Lying up against the border with Argentina, its name comes from the Catholic feast day of All Saints celebrated on November 1st, the day of its discovery by Jesuits who were searching for a pass through the Andes. They probably got wind of its existence from the locals, los Huilliches, who had used it as a commercial route across the cordillera for hundreds of years before any European ever set foot here.

On the day of our trip the clouds depart early leaving us with brilliant sun. As we leave Puerto Varas, following Route 225, the scene opens up to wild flowers and blackberries against a backdrop of green pastures, farm houses and vacation homes, stands of evergreens, and the deep blue of Llanquihue. There is always a volcano, either Osorno or Calbuco, in sight and sometimes both are visually present depending on which way the road bends.

Following the eastern shore of the lake, we arrive to the village of Ensenada where we turn away from Llanquihue towards the cordillera where the landscape changes to yellow-green forests and black volcanic rock.

The heavy rain of winter peeling off Volcán Osorno brings with it rivers of loose black soil that during the winter flow across the only road up to Todos Los Santos and down to the Petrohue River on the other side. In these places the road is not asphalt but is concrete to better withstand the raging water and black volcanic soil.

The excellent condition of the debris-free road lets us make good time. To our right, the Petrohue River rushes down in the opposite direction, not to the Llanquihue, but to the Estuário de Reloncaví that cuts deep into the continent to the east of Puerto Montt.

A sign announces we are entering Vincente Perez Rosales National Park and like everyone else on the road, we stop at Los Saltos de Petrohue, that although are waterfalls appear more like really fast and treacherous rapids that zig zag their way through sharp outcroppings of volcanic rock. The water from Lago Todos Los Santos gives the river its emerald green hues while the eruptions of Volcán Osorno provide the rocky obstacle course. It feels good to stretch our legs if only for the duration of the short walk from the parking lot to the saltos.

The crystalline, rushing water is stunning but my attention keeps shifting to the volcano in the distance. It’s always there. You might think I would grow tired of it but I don’t. It’s perfect beauty is matched only by its power.

After hovering over the railing to snap photographs or paying for a ride on the river to a point just below the falls, most people turn back here. This is the end of the paved road, but we continue on the dirt road for six kilometers to Petrohue, at the western edge of Todos Los Santos.

We have the idea that we can take a catamaran down the long finger-shaped lake to Peulla on the eastern shore and then across the Argentinean border and on to San Carlos de Bariloche on Lago Nahuel Huapi. We discover that while true there is only one crossing leaving in the morning and we’ve missed it. Alas, if you’re up for the adventure check out Cruce Andino, the company that runs the crossing every day of the year.

Our only option to satisfy our desire to be out on the water is to take a short ride-for-hire on the lake. We find the boatman down on the beach; he points out his boat, a wide-bottomed, canopied-top boat with a small motor. We’re in, that is except for Luci who gets motion sickness. She takes a look at the boat and says, “No way.” We coax her. She teeters between yes-and-no. She even boards the boat but its swaying to-and-fro makes her think better of her decision and she disembarks with instructions to make a reservation at the hotel for us to have lunch.

A few off-the-grid cottages and boathouses dot the shore of the lake. Built by the colonos as the Germans who settled in this area in the mid-1800s are known, most are today in the hands of wealthy families who have the wherewithal for their upkeep which can be a challenge given that there are no roads in and out. Boats are the only means of transportation. Pointing ahead, our boatman shows us the only island on the lake. Like the cottages, it is privately owned although the rest of the surrounding land belongs to the national park.

To our right is what looks like a floating boathouse. “This,” our boatman tells us, “is a miniature house with all the amenities including a chemical toilet.” The owners move the floating house around the lake as their desire dictates. Somehow it doesn’t look that enticing to me. I’d rather stay on land and boat around the lake.

Our boatman is eager to please supplying us with more facts and figures. We learn that emerald green color of the lake comes from its high levels of copper sulfate and sulphur and that the lake at is deepest is 337 meters (1105.6 feet). The lake is home to trout and salmon for those inclined to dangle a line. In the distance, we see what we think is smoke; we ask about it and he tells us that this is steam coming off the hot springs. “Hot springs? Can we go?” we ask. “Yes,” he tells us. “But, it is too late.” We would have had to start early in the morning as they are a five hour trek from the other end of the lake and that’s a two-to-three hour boatride depending on the vessel.

The stunning Volcán Osorno is always with us but now our attention shifts to the rugged spiked-peak Volcán Puntiagudo that only five intrepid climbers have climbed, we are told. As we zoom in with our camera we can understand why. Further in the distance the glaciar-covered Tronador looms.

This is a place for seeking no-nonsense adventure or doing nothing. You can swing through the rain forest or kayak down rugged rivers, or you can sit on the black sand beach and read a book or take a walk along the shore of the lake, that is, if the Tabanos let you. These flying black insects populate the humid forest regions especially during January when they take over the airspace flying at up to thirty kilometers an hour and attacking people as well as horses and other large animals. Even out in the middle of the lake they are plentiful, although our boatman assures us that in a week or two they will become even more numerous and aggressive. The bite of a Tabano can leave some damage: Pain, inflammation, and even infection that must be treated with antibiotics. Lucky for us, although a nuisance, we are spared their bite.

After the boat ride, we notice our empty stomachs and walk towards the Petrohue Hotel . Luci is nowhere to be seen until we reach inside. There she is sitting in a comfy chair nursing a big glass of orange juice.

The hotel is the only place to have lunch here. Of course, if we had been lucky to get to the other end of the lake, we could have lunched at Hotel Natura Patagonia in Puella, but we didn’t.

We are happy where we are and because we’re the only diners for lunch at this later hour, the wait staff and manager are all ours. Some opt for sandwiches like the famous Chilean Barros Luco, a concoction of thin slices of steak with melted cheese or the ave palta, slices of white chicken with mashed avocado, while others go for the steamed salmon with papas asadas. While we’re finishing lunch with a cafecito, another couple stops by for an afternoon beer and as we leave a mini-van carrying a dozen tourists arrives. The lucky ones, they will spend the night here. I imagine them watching the stars in the quiet darkness before going off to bed.

Once back in Puerto Varas we take a walk in town to admire the catedral up on the hill, a quaint little red house, a lovely early 20th century house, la casa Puma Verde, restored by Thompkins of Parque Pumalin fame, and the big half-moon high up in the blue sky before walking over to our favorite cafe, Café El Barista for onces.

All original content copyright 2011 Mary E. Slocum

Going To Chiloe

Chiloe is a large island of pastures and woods just off the mainland southwest of Puerto Montt and across the Canal de Chacao. The channel is notoriously turbulent. Thirty years before we had experienced just how fierce it can be. The ferry taking us back to the mainland was unable dock stranding us in the channel for more than one hour. Finally, after much maneuvering, the ferrymen got us to the dock but the situation was too precarious to unload and load the local buses—one going each way—so passengers were swapped instead.

Today, the Channel is relatively calm. A ferryman dressed in bright orange directs the cargo—huge transport trucks, buses, motorcycles, and cars—and passengers onboard.

Engines are cut and everyone descends to watch penguins, birds and ducks swim and dive for fish. The rambunctious penguins are too quick but a floating sea bird is patient enough for our camera.

In the distance the outline of buildings on the island come into focus. We watch as a distant little red church grows larger with our approach to the island. The passengers sense that we are almost across and hurry back to their vehicles.

Safely across we are on our way to Ancud on the northwest coast of the island. There is an active oyster farming business just north of the town; to the south along the rugged shore, the word is that the surfing is good but difficult to reach.

Ancud is today a sleepy little town; the market is empty except for a few vendors of artesania whose wares hardly excite us as we stroll through the almost empty aisles that fill up briefly only when the big tour buses roll through town. Thirty years ago I remember a bustling market where vendors sold an abundance of seafood—everything from seaweed to mariscos (shellfish) and fish to exuberant locals and adventurous travelers. I’ll never forget the pungent odor of strings of dried clams hanging like heavy curtains from rafters or the delicious empanadas made from them.

We have lunch at the hosteria and explore the ruins of a Spanish fort.

Remains of Spanish Fort at AncudBuilt to protect the supremacy of Spanish navigation around the tip of South America especially from the British, the fort remained under Spanish control until the island of Chiloe was finally united with Chile in 1826 with the Treaty of Tantauco. The islanders, known as Los Chilotes, are even today fiercely independent and when crossing the channel to the mainland talk about going to Chile.

From Ancud we travel south to Castro. Everywhere are bushes full of yellow blooms. No one can name them but they are pretty and make the ride interesting until we are stopped by a carabinero. “License, registration, and insurance certificate,” he commands. Haydee is driving and digs into her large pocketbook for her license. Antun opens the glove compartment to look for the registration and insurance card. The other car driven by Luci passes by and disappears. Antun doesn’t find the documents but pulls out the packet given to us by Herz from whom we’ve rented the car. The documents aren’t there but he hands the packet over to the carabinero to buy time while he looks further for the missing papers. Needing to do something, I jump out to check the trunk. Nothing there either. We’re stymied. Smiling, the carabinero reminds us that he’ll have to impound the car if we can’t find them. We look surprised as though we aren’t aware of this nasty little rule of the Chilean road.

I’m getting panicky. We are nowhere, know no one, and have nothing but a cell phone. Where, I wonder, is Luci? Is she and the three others sailing merrily along? Are they waiting for us up ahead? How will we all fit in the tiny Suzuki she’s driving? Collectively and silently we curse Herz for not putting the documents into something big and sturdy, something that can be easily found. Again, Antun calmly searches the dark recesses of the glove compartment with his fingers. They find something wedged into a crease. It’s the registration and insurance certificate folded up into a very little square. He hands them over. The carabinero checks them and hands them back. He waves us off. We sigh relief and are on our away again. Just over the hill, Luci has stopped the other car to wait for us. Everyone smiles with relief and waves as we meet up again.

What was a sleepy little town thirty years ago, Castro, has turned into a bustling big one. Hordes of young people hang out in the central plaza, La Plaza de Armas; shops are busy; cars clog the intersections.

As we stroll around the Plaza, the sun disappears; gray descends. But the steeples of the cathedral are beautiful in the mist. It’s just past five in the afternoon but we’re tired from driving and sightseeing.

On the Internet, Luci finds us a café that serves espressos. A blogger recommends it to those who are not fond of instant Nescafe. That would be us, so we stop there for onces, the Chilean equivalent to British teatime. Although the tradition is fast disappearing as the pace of life quickens, when on vacation everyone indulges in the ritual, not just to drink coffee but also eat pastries laden with fruit and cream, and catch up with friends. At Cafe Ristretto (Av. Blanco 264) the espressos and cortados (espresso cut with hot milk and served in a glass) are delicious as are the “pie de limon” and kuchen de nueces.  Fortified, it’s time to drive back up the island to catch the 8PM ferry to “go to Chile.”

If there was little traffic other than big rigs that work the fish farming business on the way down the island, there is less on our return. We are making good time and are sure we’ll make the ferry until… We’re stopped again by the same carabinero. Haydee is still driving and looks at him with amazement as he commands once again, License, registration, and insurance certificate.”

She looks at him ernestly. “But, Señor, you just asked me for my documents a couple of hours ago.”

He squints and looks back at her hard. He seems to recognize her, clears his throat, and waves us on. We make the ferry just in time and get back to Chile without another hitch.

All original content copyright 2011 Mary E. Slocum

The Lake Between Volcanoes

I’ve fallen in love with this place, this lake between volcanoes in the south of this long skinny country with endless vistas of sea, desert, and mountains.

Lago Llanquihue con los volcanes Osorno y Calbuco al fondoThe lake, called Llanquihue, covers more than 300 square miles and sits just to the west of two volcanoes, Osorno and Calbuco. Of the two, Osorno’s 8,000 feet tall snow-capped cone is more elegant than Calbuco’s craggy flat-top, but both are beautiful in their own way and are among the most active of the southern Andes.

On our first morning here, we awake in Puerto Varas on the lake’s southern shore to gray and stillness everywhere.

From the window in my room that opens onto the lake and mountains I watch as faint light like so many streamers drifts through layers of clouds down to the quivering surface of the lake. The volcanoes and their neighboring peaks lie silently behind the gray. As I get dressed I wonder what the day will show us. One never knows here in this rainy maritime climate, but I’m hoping for sun and big views.

As I go by on my morning run the beach is empty but for a lone fisherman.

A single sailboat drifts by.

Now, a few other runners join me, but most visitors are still snug in their beds having dined and retired late. The natives, however, are up and out, walking or biking, or taking the bus to work. It’s common here, even in this rural place, to walk and take the bus everywhere. Years ago, more than thirty, I rode all over the south of Chile on the local buses. I’m sure that even today this is possible, but we’ve rented cars so I won’t find out this time. As I run up a hill away from the lake a grizzled skeleton of a man emerges from a thicket of blackberries wakening me from my daydreaming. For an instant I am frightened but then realize that this is his home and he is about his morning routine, just as I am.

As I reach the top of the hill, the wind springs up from the south.

Within five minutes the sky is turning blue and in the distance the snowy top of Volcan Osorno emerges.

Within half an hour the gray has vanished and both Osorno and Calbuco are resplendent in the sun.

The wind scurries across the lake making white caps. Instantaneously, sailboats and windsurfers take to the lake. Nature and people are at play.

We are seven on this trip: Antun and I; Haydee; Nicolas and his girlfriend, Maria; and Luciana and her boyfriend, Francisco.  Nicolas comes here from time to time to go fly-fishing with friends but for the rest of us it’s either our first trip in a long time or first trip ever to this place. We’ve come to explore and enjoy being together away from the congestion of the city and the routine of every day. This, our annual trip sandwiched between Christmas and New Year celebrations with the rest of the family in Santiago, affords us time, we decide, for three excursions: One to the island of Chiloe to the southwest, one to Lago de Todos Los Santos to the east, and one to Frutillar on the western shores of Llanquihue to meet friends for lunch. The rest of the time is for doing nothing or something, whatever presents itself in the moment.

Doing nothing gives me the gift of just being here. Everywhere is soft gray.
Then a rainbow suddenly appears. I am immensely happy.

Memories awake. I hadn’t thought of this when we were planning the trip or even when flying down here, but now I do. More than thirty years ago when I first came to this part of the world, I was so tightly wrapped in the grief for the child I had lost and the mother I could never be that this place and its beauty alluded me.  Whoosh,  I feel a powerful release.  This place and people I love surround me. With deep gratitude for my family and the adventures we share, I am here in the moment. I give thanks.

All original content copyright 2011 Mary E. Slocum

Downtown Santiago

When in Santiago, I rarely go downtown, preferring to stay in my leafy neighborhood with vistas of la cordillera around me, but sometimes a trip down into the heart of this ever growing, ever changing city is necessary. The occasion was a visit with our father to his lawyer to leave Christmas greetings and a box of her favorite chocolates.

A new family rule is when going downtown take a radio-taxi or private car. This is for the benefit of our ninety-one year old father who would be quite happy taking public transportation, but for one thing. In late September while taking un colectivo, a sort of hybrid taxi-bus with defined route and space for four to five passengers at a time that one hails in the street, he was injured when the driver ran a red light. A day in the emergency room complete with plastic surgery to his forehead and several weeks of recuperation was the impetus for the rule.  Of course, when we’re not with him, we have no idea how he gets around and we suspect that he still evades the more secure mode of radio-taxi for the hurly-burly of hailing a taxi or colectivo or muscling his way onto one of the always over-crowded buses. When we discover such  antics we feign severe disapproval in his presence but mostly we are happy that he is well and independent at his advanced age.

This time we took a radio-taxi that dropped us off in front of the lawyer’s office. Years ago an office of lawyers was called un bufet de abogados, now it is called un estudio de abogados. Time has a way of changing how we speak and also the cities in which we live. How changed downtown is. Everywhere rising out of the dusty mostly late nineteenth century and early twentieth century buildings are modern columns of cement and steel. But, it’s still dusty.

Built at the bottom of a depression that’s hemmed in on three sides by la cordillera de Los Andes and the coastal mountain range, la cordillera de la costa, the pollution of modern life hangs over downtown. Even with eco buses and strict regulations for other motor vehicles, the smog lies like a veil obscuring the sky above.  But, the streets are teaming with people and activity. Lately, there has been an invasion of sorts into the heart of the city. People from Peru and Brazil have been pouring in mixing up the Chilean streetscape with a variety of new physical appearances and customs.

It’s the people that draw my attention. As we sit down to lunch at a window table in a small restaurant that serves, according to our father, the best gnocchi, I am drawn to the activity of the street vendors before me. There are four of them lined up on the sidewalk, their wares carefully laid out on cloths in front of them. One is selling sun glasses, another small packs of tissues and cigarette lighters, another CDs, and a fourth cocktail rings made from plastic beads. This little community makes small talk, shares cigarettes, and greets family and friends. One woman seems to have a bevy of children who one-by-one suddenly appear to receive a hug from their chain-smoking mother, the vendor of sun glasses, before disappearing again into the crowds. Customers peruse the merchandise. Men chose quickly and are gone. Women take their time trying on various styles and colors. A hand held mirror suddenly appears from behind a tree. The women study themselves and by their facial expressions I know when a sale is forthcoming or not. So do the vendors.

Suddenly, I notice a most curious ripple of chatter and movement. The vendors pick up their ears and look cautiously down the street. Quickly gathering up the corners of the cloths, they  stash their merchandise into bags that appear out of nowhere. The woman selling sunglasses, is fast and sure in her actions. Her merchandise safely in the bag, she tucks it under her arm and strolls casually away. For a moment I can’t see what has set the vendors fleeing but I suspect it’s the police. Sure enough, a minute later two green-uniformed carabineros walking side-by-side pass by. I wonder what would have happened if the vendors hadn’t been fast enough. Handcuffs? A trip to jail? A fine? I think of the woman’s kids. Where are they? And how did the vendors know? They don’t seem to have cell phones but they must have a network of lookouts that pay attention to the movement of the police. I note their organization, efficiency, initiative, and their ability to know who will buy. I see how they take care of one another and their children. They have something to teach us.

All original content copyright 2010 Mary E Slocum


Summer Solstice Lunar Eclipse, Santiago, Chile

I didn’t plan on seeing the first solstice lunar eclipse in 372 years. While having dinner with friends around 11PM we looked out from their 10th floor terrace towards the east to see the full moon hanging in the sky just above La Cordillera de Los Andes. The summer solstice full moon was so beautiful that it got us talking about setting our alarms for the big event, but the thought of waking up at 3 o’clock on a Tuesday morning seemed a bit much to everyone, even to me who had already started a vacation of sorts having let go of my early morning writing schedule.

Shortly before midnight we said goodbye and half an hour later were at home. I stood on the balcony of our apartment to say goodnight to the moon before falling into bed. Not withstanding the jet lag and the late dinner I was exhausted and fell quickly asleep. Then I woke up. Slipping quietly out of bed I went out on the balcony. I had no idea what time it was; there was no sign of the eclipse. The moon was still big and beautiful and so bright that it hurt my eyes.  I noticed that it was approaching Cerro Manquehue to the northeast just across the Rio Mapocho on its trajectory across the sky. I went back to bed and fell asleep again.

I awoke a second time and once again went out not the balcony. The moon had passed over Manquehue and was now a shadow of its former self with a third of it darkened by a black smudge that turned rusty at its edges. It’s on its way I thought but sleep had its grip on me and I went back to bed.

The third time I awoke and went out onto the balcony, the black smudge of the earth had moved to the moon’s center. It was still beautiful but eery. Circling its dark center was a rusty corona and around this was another pale yellow ribbon. I noticed how quiet it was, even at this early morning hour when one expects quiet.  I looked again to remember it and then fell back into bed and asleep.

The next morning, I excitedly shared my story. No one could believe that I had seen it. “You really set your alarm?” they asked.

“No, not at all,” I said. “I just woke up. I have no idea how I kept waking up; I just did.”

They laughed., still not believing me. I smiled. The experience was all mine.

All original content copyright 2010 Mary E. Slocum