Saturday, April 3, 2010

La Tierra Del Sol y Cobre

So it has been quite a while since I've updated this! I'll try to be more regular with my posting - sometimes it feels like life here is on fast-forward. I can't believe I've been here for over a month already!! In any case, I have a lot to catch up on, so I'll cut to the chase!
Following my last post, my program took us on an education excursion to the north. It was nice to get out of the city for a few days, plus it was absolutely beautiful up there! We had to fly to Antofogasta (which by bus is apparently a painful 26 hour trip -- good motivation for us sleepy college kids to be on time to our 7:00 AM bus ride to the airport!) And by airport, I actually mean the parking lot of the airport.
It was quite impressive really to see such a large operation in tents next to the runway. It was even complete with white boards of flight arrival times, an overpiced Chilean knick knack store, and best of all a temporary Dunkin Donuts stand! (Did I forget to mention that Chileans run on Dunkin? No joke, Coolattas are new frappachino... yum?)
We breezed through check in and security to find ourselves literally on the runway. It felt very Air Force One to walk up to the plane, plus the sun was just rising over the mountains so I was a fan.

Just looking out the window of the plane I could tell I liked where we were headed. We landed in what looked like a complete desert wasteland. But on our bus ride down to where we staying, we veered east to the coast to see the ocean. It was definitely weird to see so much water so close to completely arid desert.
In any case, upon arriving to Antofogasta, we definitely realized we were out of the metroplotan bubble that is Santiago. Antofogasta is the fifth largest city in Chile, and mainly exists due to the large scale copper operations that speckle this otherwise desolate, desertland.
We had the rest of the afternoon to explore the city, but ended up not finding much apart from a sketchy circus next to a giant mall that puts the Carousel to shame. It was odd to see such a sparkling center of commerce in a city that, at least where we were staying, seemed pretty low-income and run down. We copped out of braving a local restaurant after we had a slightly lunch experience (although it did include straight from the spicket, fire-roasted chicken, yum!) for a trip to TGI Fridays, where even in Chile, the waiters are required to wear flare. Thank you United States of America -- your contributions to the world are countless. The following day we headed to Universidad Catolica del Norte, a school perhaps not as used to foreign exchange students as the institutions in Santiago, as people literally stopped in their tracks upon seeing our group of overly pale Americans. Nonetheless, the campus was beautiful (it had some sweet grafiti!), plus we had some great lectures about the mining economy in the north.

Next we drove across the desert to Calama, which had some breath-taking desert scenery, and we got to see giant mining equipment go hurtling down the highway. The next day we actually got to visit Radomiro Tomic, the largest mine of CODELCO, the largest state-owned mining operation. We spent the day driving around the dusty site with our cheery guide Carlos Gomez to learn about the extraction and refining process of this precious metal. I had forgotten how water intensive this process is ... which is interesting to think about when you consider that this mine is in the middle of (what our guide claimed as) "the most arid desert in the world." Also comical was the size of the tiny ecological center in charge of public outreach ... I got the vibe it was more of a PR kind of thing.

Anyways, I'll dismount my environmental high horse to tell about my time in San Pedro de Atacama, my favorite stop on the excursion by far! A very traditional-looking, small touristy town, this pueblo was absolutely pictursque. After checking into our funky-chic hostel complete with an open air courtyard and whitewashed walls, we explored the dirt-road streets to find a place to eat.
It evident that much of the stores and restaurants existed mainly due to the inpouring of tourists from every continent. Travelers are drawn here by the amazing natural scencery, which we experienced as we watched the sun set over the desert our second night. We also met a lot of cool people - I am proud to say I sat down to dinner with a group of Argentineans, Spaniards, Italians, and even a Slovenian, all at the same table. This was the same night thatI learned that the cool nickname of my name is not "Flo" but "Floppy," at least according to a group of guitar strumming Argentinean geologists, that maybe (just maybe!) have been pulling my leg.

Nonetheless our stay here was highlighted by amazing views in the Valle de la Luna. And although getting up early on the final day was a rough start to a Friday, we got to watch the sun rise over the desert. Being there made me realize how much I miss California, especially Modoc National Forest.

We made our way back to the 'ago by plane from Calama (at a cutsie little airport with about one and half terminals.) Disembarking back onto the Santiago blacktop, you could feel the difference in humidity from where we had just come from. Also, the baggage claim was set up in a line in the parking lot - it kind of looked like a jumble sale free for all.

Since being back in the city, I have learned that my father will be in town soon for a conference! I am really excited to see him again and my host family is eager to have him over for dinner.

Thanks for reading! I'll be posting again later this week to catch up on all of my stories!


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