I want to travel more. It's a well-documented desire of mine. Specifically, I want to plan my own trips, because I've historically been pretty terrible at it. I even made a "process", which I'll paraphrase here:
- Wait until a particularly whimsical mood strikes.
- Bike aimlessly until you find a book store.
- Enter the book store.
- Find the travel/travel guide section.
- Close your eyes.
- Spin around, preferably 3-5 times.
- With eyes still closed, pick a travel guide off the shelf.
- Buy the travel guide.
- Read the travel guide.
- Go there. Optional: Be merry.
Using this bulletproof approach, I had picked out a destination, Taiwan. I don't want to say I'm giving up on all of that, because I'm definitely still going to do it…I just went somewhere else first. To explain where and why requires the slightest bit of backstory.
Oregon (aka The Slightest Bit of Backstory)
In 2017, I saw my first total solar eclipse in Oregon, and it left quite an impression on me. The sky darkened over the course of a few minutes, taking on a weird, twilight-esque hue. The temperature dropped by 10 or 15 degrees. Birds started acting strangely. Suddenly, it was very dark, the sky ringed with light on the horizon. I looked directly at the sun (normally an ill-advised thing to do), my eyes meeting a black orb surrounded with the wispy, shifting tendrils of the Sun's corona. I can understand why ancient civilizations believed in some truly crazy gods. Needless to say, I was hooked.
The main barrier to my newfound addiction: total solar eclipses are finicky. They don't happen often (~less than once a year), and they happen over an effectively random stretch of the planet. Post-2017, the next one wasn't until 2019, and it had every intention of passing over a narrow strip of South America, visible in small parts of Chile and Argentina. Even more rudely, this narrow strip (in dark red below, call the "path of totality") had the audacity to avoid most of the major cities that would make viewing it easy.
Pretty and informative diagram from Time and Date.
That said, I wasn't going to let the machinations of a few stubborn celestial bodies rain on my parade. So, a few months ago, I traveled 6,000 miles for an event that lasts approximately, you guessed it, 2 minutes and 17 seconds.
Chile Chile Chile, where do I begin. It all started about a week before I took off…
Preparations (Or a Lack Thereof)
…because that's when I actually planned (and subsequently booked) the trip. I recognize that this was Not Smart of Me™ for no less than 13 different reasons. While I won't enumerate all of them, let's take a peek at a few here.
13 4 Reasons Why Booking My First Solo, Non-Work International Trip One Week Prior to Departure Was a Bad Move™
- Stuff gets expensive.
- One week isn't a lot of time to plan.
- I've made this mistake for every trip I've done in the past.
- I knew I was going to do the trip a year and a half in advance.
I've gotten into this bad habit of not really planning my trips, because they're usually for work. That means most of the blanks are already filled in for me: dates of travel, places to stay, itinerary, etc. None of that was true here, and I wasn't really setting myself up for success by not budgeting the time for it.
In spite of my best efforts however, I still managed to pull the trip together. I had churned through enough credit cards to pay for the round trip flight, even accounting for how inflated the prices had become. And I used my solitary week before departure to figure out the absolute basics:
- Visa requirements (None)
- National Language (Chilean Spanish, among others)
- Season & Climate (Winter at the time, but not in the bitter New England sense)
- Risk of danger? (Not particularly)
After one week of frantic and frenzied Googling, I had all my flights and accommodations and odds-and-ends booked, and a plan that looked roughly like the following:
- Get near the eclipse (San Francisco -> New York -> Santiago -> La Serena)
- Stay in an Airbnb in La Serena
- Watch the eclipse
- Take a bus to Santiago
- Stay in a hostel in Santiago
- Explore Santiago
- Get home (Santiago -> New York -> San Francisco)
Okay, I swear I won't make another list or trademark Another Random Phrase™ for the rest of the post.
A pretty basic plan, I'll admit, but it covered all the bases. I'd fly to near the eclipse (three flights), get used to the area, see the eclipse, take a bus to Chile's capital/largest city, stay in a hostel, (perhaps) meet some people, explore the city, and fly home from there (two flights).
My first couple days were fraught with all the hurdles Murphy's Law could cook up. Flights were delayed, phones weren't working, and for a brief, suspenseful, and utterly nerve-wracking moment, I truly believed my Airbnb didn't actually exist. Once everything was all sorted out and I got settled in, the adventures began.
My first order of business was getting some food. La Serena (the largest Chilean city where the eclipse was visible from) is fairly small as far as cities go, and not particularly known for its food. Accordingly, I opted to pick up groceries so I could cook for myself. The reason for this was two-fold: 1) it's a good way to save a few bucks while travelling, and 2) I never get to cook for myself, the truck being devoid of appliances…and electricity…and food.
I took a bus to the local Lider (a chain acquired by Walmart) and marveled at all the little differences and things entirely lost on me in my day-to-day life. Milk was in un-refrigerated boxes, as were eggs. Jelly came in little bags. You weigh your fruits and vegetables where you get them, not at the register. This last one got me good, it took a fraught game of charades for the cashier to explain the concept to me at checkout.
My second order of business was getting really familiar with the buses and the schedule. Because I booked so late, all the hotels in La Serena were booked and I ended up in Coquimbo, ~10 miles from La Serena. I wanted to make sure I didn't miss the eclipse because of my own ineptitude at catching the bus.
Looking out from my Airbnb in Coquimbo. Off in the distance, just barely visible, is Coquimbo's main attraction, Cruz del Tercer Milenio, which is a ~270ft concrete cross.
After a few days of learning the ropes, I had a couple basic takeaways:
1) My single, meager year of high school Spanish was no match for literally any conversation I attempted to navigate. Chileans speak far too quickly for my untrained ears, and the Chilean accent kinda drops the trailing sound off a work (like in French), which means things just sound different. Two of my most commonly used phrases (in Spanish) were "More slowly, please" and simply "What?". Hand gestures abounded.
2) Chilean money is infinitely entertaining. A bunch of bananas cost $616, because Chilean pesos use the same dollar sign ($) used for US currency. Technically they do have cents (centavos), but in practice, I didn't see any coins for less than 10 pesos.
3) Chilean buses are wild. I drove buses for four years in college, so I like to think I know a thing or two about them. Chilean bus drivers are on a whole 'nother level, and clearly competing in some bus rodeo that I'm not privy to. They whip those buses around like it's nobody's business. At one point, the bus I was on hopped a median because it didn't want to wait in traffic. My terror was matched only by my admiration.
El Eclipse Solar Total
Perfect eclipse-watching weather.
The day of the eclipse (July 2nd) rolls around, and I'm ready for action. I get to La Serena with plenty of time to spare. My lack of planning (see above) meant that I had forgotten one crucial tool: eclipse glasses. No problem though, everyone and their grandpa is selling cardboard eclipse glasses downtown, at a 10x markup. I fork over the cash and continue onward. Such is life.
Walking around with my eclipse glasses in hand, freshly divorced from ten US dollars, I decide I want to watch the event in relative quiet. There's a big eclipse festival going on downtown, so I start to head away towards a quieter residential area. The city slope downward from downtown to the coast, which means there are plenty of uninterrupted views of the sun. I walk a few miles, then sit down on a stone ledge alongside the sidewalk. And I wait.
I lied (multiple times) when I said that the eclipse only lasts two minutes and seventeen seconds. In actuality, the eclipse was nearly two and a half hours. It's just totality, the part people travel to see, where everything gets dark, that's so fleeting. When I sat down, the partial eclipse was just starting, so I had nearly an hour until the main event.
So there I was, sitting alone on my stone ledge, staring at the sun, paper glasses on my face, when an older lady strolls by pushing a small folding cart, clearly puzzled as to what I'm doing. I've since forgotten the smaller details of our interaction (such as her name), but she was Mormon, and had lived in La Serena her whole life. She was delighted to hear I came from California: her Mormon friend, who she kept an old picture of in her purse, lived there too.
We conversed mostly in Spanish, with very heavy use of a notepad that she would write down words in, and I would translate on my phone. She was infinitely patient. We spoke of the eclipse, the current goings-on in Chile and the US, the weather, and of family and religion. She initially tried to watch the eclipse by putting her flip phone's screen to her eye with the camera app open, which was an ultimately unsuccessful approach. We sat on the ledge for two hours, passing the glasses back and forth to watch the progress of the partial eclipse, sometimes in total silence, sometimes just pointing in delight at the progress the moon was making in its journey towards totality.
She had never seen a total solar eclipse before. In fact, she hadn't even realized one was going to happen then and there. To this day, I'm not sure what I enjoyed more: the eclipse itself, or the look on her face when it finally happened. She was so completely in awe and overjoyed, it was truly a special moment, and I couldn't have asked for (or planned) a better eclipse experience if I had tried.
Eventually, totality passed. My new Chilean friend and I parted ways, the brief intersection in our otherwise disjoint lives now over. I bused back (in obscene traffic) to my Airbnb, reflected a little on the experience, and packed my things for Santiago.
My bus to Santiago was scheduled to leave at 10 am. Out of an abundance of caution (and partially by accident), I ended up at the terminal at 8 am. With plenty of time to spare, I ordered a coffee, opened a book, and partook in my favorite pastime: people watching. Transit hubs are great for people watching, because they're frequently where people are beginning (and ending) different chapters of their lives, and they're full of people from diverse backgrounds.* It makes it easy to come up with grand backstories.
The six and a half hour bus ride was mostly uneventful. My seat was in the front row of the second-floor of a double-decker bus, which afforded me some pretty incredible views as we barreled down the Chilean coast. The TVs were playing clearly pirated rips of some straight-to-DVD movies, featuring such blockbusters as The Christmas Chronicles and The Crucifixion.
Eventually, we arrived in Santiago, and suffice it to say, I was unprepared. I had been disarmed by my few days in the quaint, laid-back La Serena. As it turns out, Santiago is a bustling metropolitan area, with a population larger than Los Angeles. When I got off the bus, I was wholly overwhelmed. It was loud, crowded, dirty, and I was legitimately thinking of shortening my trip by a few days and just heading home. Then I realized that every bus terminal in every major city in the world is loud and crowded and dirty, and it wasn't particularly representative of the rest of the city.
I eventually got my act together, purchased a bus card (bip!), and bused to my hostel. I started researching what there was to do in Santiago, and quickly realized Santiago was basically made for me. It's walkable, and chock full of sprawling public parks, high-quality (and frequently free) museums, cute little coffee shops, and even nearby hiking opportunities. I totally could have spent a month there and barely scratched the surface. After an hour or two of researching, I cooked up the following rough itinerary:
- Thursday, July 4th
- Plaza de Armas
- Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino
- Museo Historico Nacional
- Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral
- ProntoMaticwhich is a laundromat, because I ran out of clothes.
- Friday, July 5th
- Hiking at Cerro San Cristobal
- La Chascona
- El Hombre Araña: Lejos de Casa
- Saturday, July 6th
- Parque Forestal
- Bellas Artes
I'm not going to tackle each item one by one, because this post is already criminally long. So here are some pictures I took with my standard potato-quality smartphone camera:
From top-left to bottom-right: (1) Palacio de los Tribunales de Justicia de Santiago, where Chile's Supreme Court sits, (2 + 3) the mind-bogglingly massive Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral, (4 + 5) statues in Plaza de Armas and Parque Forestal, (6) the view from halfway up Cerro San Cristobal, and (7 + 8) posters at the movie theater.
Those three days were an absolute blur: I spent a dozen (or more) hours exploring museums and churches, learning a bit about Chile's history (both before and after Europe came knockin'). I checked out book stores and coffee shops and caught a movie and, at one harrowing point, got lost on my hike and stumbled onto someone's haphazard settlement in the woods. They were not happy to see me. Safely back down the mountain, I reached a serious milestone when I successfully ordered an empanada (sin carne), and was then able to pay without having to look at the register display (dos mil dos ciento = $2.200 CLP = ~$3 USD). I made some Brazilian friends at the hostel and we went out for dinner/drinks/dancing. The night included several glasses of a Chilean drink called Terremoto, which literally means "earthquake". It's some unholy concoction of alcohol and pineapple ice cream, and I look forward to never drinking another one again.
When I started planning the trip, it was originally "the Eclipse trip". After my whirlwind tour of Santiago, it's now "the Chile trip". I had dramatically underestimated Santiago as a destination unto itself, but I'm happy to report that it proved me wrong (over and over) in the best way.
Now that I've got my first solo (non-work) trip under my belt, I'd like to refine my travel philosophy a bit. In no particular order:
Doing the mundane things is just as important as doing the attractions. Shopping for groceries at Lider, doing laundry at the local ProntoMatic, or struggling through ordering an empanada, it's all part of the experience.
Pictures aren't a bad thing. I've always shied away from taking photos when I travel (or go to events). In the past, my rationale has been that I want to be present and live in the moment and all that other romanticized garbage. I'm also just cognizant (read: self-conscious) of looking "too touristy" when I pull out my phone and stand awkwardly in the middle of a crowded place to snap a pic. But photos can be useful. For one, they keep my blog posts from being uninterrupted black-and-white-wall-of-text tirades, adding a bit of color and space. And for two, my memory is total garbage. It doesn't matter how "present" or "in the moment" I am if I forget everything a few days later. Pictures last much longer,** and they'll help me remember when my mind fails me.
Learn the damn language. I eked by with my limited Spanish, but I could have had a bunch of more meaningful interactions (and been less reliant on my phone) if I had studied up beforehand. I'm certainly not saying I should be fluent, but ~a month of practicing the basics for nights and weekends would have gone a long way.
Don't book first, ask questions later. I had a great trip, don't get me wrong, but I could have made it even better by planning things out. If I had booked farther in advance, I could have coordinated a hike through the Elqui Valley and sampled local pisco brandy and watched the eclipse from a remote hilltop. But then again, I had a pretty great eclipse experience as it was. I'm still all for spontaneity, but it doesn't work well for events that attract a lot of people.
Obligatory Housekeeping Item
The small-to-mid-sized elephant in the room is just how long it's been since I've last written. I actually started this post while I was still in Chile, over five months ago. My defense: I've been busy. In the interim, I've been to Shanghai (twice***), Chicago, Boston, Orlando, and Boulder, and in the next few weeks I'll be in Boulder (again), Boston (again), Chicago (again), Malawi, and Kenya. I've spent my free time updating the blog infrastructure, reading my usual cocktail of self-help and sci-fi, and getting side-tracked building low-quality novelty sites.
That said, and armed with a new arsenal of organizational techniques, I plan to write more frequently and clear through my backlog of blog email. Well, maybe when I get back from Africa.
*After all, the need to travel from point A to point B cuts across all demographics. Certainly more interesting for people watching than your average yoga studio.
**Barring bad personal data hygiene, of course.
***Technically, my first trip to Shanghai was right before I went to Chile, but let's not get stuck on the specifics.