Monday, July 04, 2005

Chapter 10 - On to Puerto Montt

I left Punta Arenas, Chile on 20 October 1989 on a flight to Puerto Montt in the heart of the Lakes Region of Chile. I had the go-ahead from Karen, so I decided to take the opportunity and head up to Puerto Montt. On the same flight was the NSF Rep Al Sutherland and Bill Spindler. They were heading back stateside and would remain on the plane up to Santiago, during its stopover in Puerto Montt. It was an exciting feeling to think that I would soon be in the air again.

Once at the airport, we got checked in with no problems and had headed up to the balcony overlooking the tarmac to have a view of the runway. While we headed up the steps, we passed a well dressed guy of about twenty or so who gave us a look of amazement to hear someone speaking in English. He came up and introduced himself and told us that he was a missionary from the Mormon Church in Utah. He and his friends had been in Chile for eighteen months and were headed up to Osorno for another six months before returning home.

The flight to Puerto Montt was about two hours and ten minutes. Bill and I sat across from one another and chatted during this time mostly about ANS that type of stuff. Bill was reading the newspapers and translating what he could with my dictionary about the earthquake in San Francisco. During the last couple of days, we have heard many stories of the number of dead and the extent of the damage.

We arrived in Puerto Montt around 3:45 p.m. and the view was just breathtaking. From the air I could see the snowcapped mountains and volcanoes and the sun reflecting off the lakes. I was somewhat nervous about arriving in a place that I knew little or nothing about except what I've read, but somehow I would manage.

I ran into our missionary friends again waiting for my luggage. I think they were surprised that I had no idea where I was staying or going to! They then boarded a bus for Osorno and I hailed a cab headed for the city.

For the first time since I have been in South America, I had to pick up the dictionary. I asked the cabbie to take me to the Hotel Central. I figured that this should pan out ok since the South American Handbook recommended it and said that it had a German owner, Hans.

The cab ride from the airport was great. The two main volcanoes/mountains towered over the countryside---their caps still covered with snow. Spring had already sprung here and the bright sunny color of goldenrod ran rampant. The temperature was now about 65 degrees compared to the 55 degrees when I left Punta Arenas this morning.

Well, we arrived at the Hotel, and the cab driver couldn't break the 5 mil I had (which was the smallest bill that I had!) So we somehow agreed that we could get it changed when I got into the hotel. He rang the buzzer and the door buzzed. Soon enough, we were up the stairs and in the foyer of the hotel. An old woman about sixty or so was now running the place. She and the cab driver were chattering back and forth. From what I caught of the conversation, she wouldn't change the bill for him, but she would change it if I gave it to her as her customer.

She broke the bill and gave the cabbie his money. I thanked him again and he was gone.

The proprietor showed me the room at this time and all I could think to myself was, "What a fleabag motel!!" I knew that I had stepped into it with both feet now, but figured that I could manage this for a few days.

The door to the room was covered with split bamboo poles and was like a set of French double doors. The beds were low to the floor. The room had a sink and shower, but a community toilet. Well, what do you want for 2 mil a night?!

The bare wood floor was buffed with paste wax which made the rubber soles of my gym shoes squeak as I walked across it. The wallpaper was water stained in places and gift-wrapped around corners of the room. The linoleum in the bath area was an ugly blue pattern, curled up around the edges. The shower and sink looked like an afterthought addition to the room!

I was told that breakfast was not included and there is no TV in the room. I also found out about 9 p.m. that the "hotel" had this security system that locked you in your room. So if you had to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom you would have to buzz the buzzer, wake up the dogs who in turn wake up everyone else. I guess if I had to, I could pee in the sink!

If there were no other redeeming qualities to this hotel, the view from the windows of the harbor was captivating. The massive eight foot high by four wide, windows of the room overlooked the middle of Pedro Montt Street and gave a beautiful view of the sea, with the snowcapped mountains as a backdrop. I had already committed myself to staying here and hadn't done any further research, so I stayed.

I didn't want to waste any time sitting around the room, so I quickly sat down with the old lady and asked where to go and what to see in my piecemeal Spanish. Debi, I could kiss you for sending that dictionary! Without the dictionary, life in Puerto Montt would have been difficult if not impossible. I did find out that Angelmo (on-gyel-mo) was nearby and was a good place to buy sweaters. The book had stated this too, but she drew me a map of where to go. She also suggested that I go to Chiloe (chil-o-ay) and advised me that there were bus trips that ran there.

So I was off! The gringo loose in the streets of Puerto Montt. I did find out quickly that although there had been a strong German influence in the city, not much was left of that influence now. In other words, my German did me absolutely no good here!

My first major journey would be to Angelmo. Somehow I took the long way through the side streets and passed a German consulate. It felt great to be able to walk a long haul again after being cooped up in Antarctica so long.

I walked for only about fifteen minutes before reaching the first market stalls that were selling sweaters. The stalls were brightly lit on the sunny side of the street and were typically constructed with cedar or mahogany bleached shingles. I stayed on the other side of the street until I had past the harbor area and come to the market on the shaded side that I was walking on.

I looked in those stalls, and then crossed the street to walk and see the bay area of Angelmo and check out the harbor. A massive cross sat on the top of the hillside across from the harbor towering down and looking out to the open water. Wooden boats lay along the beach due to an apparent low tide. I wished I had brought my camera, but I didn't want to look any more like a tourist that I already was. Besides, Doc, Marcia and Robin would be in the following day. We could get some better pictures then.

Touring through the stalls, I did start to get great ideas for gifts for everyone. But, why load up now? The sweaters were beautiful as was the lapis jewelry. There also was quite a bit of woven type items.

At one stall, I did find a sweater I liked. I struggled through a few words in Spanish until a dark haired girl intervened for me and acted as translator. I surprised to find someone who could speak English so well in such a remote area. Her dialect was noticeably not Spanish. We got to talking and I found out that she was German. She was a student traveling for a couple of months in Chile. We spoke about Germany and Chile for about five minutes or so and then said our goodbyes.

I walked back to town basking in the warm Puerto Montt sun. The wind picked up some off the harbor and it was already six p.m. I wandered my way back to town, past the German Consulate building I had passed earlier and found my way to a bakery in town. That was as good of place as any to pick up a bottle of mineral water with a screw top. I know my body well enough to not chance any change in water!

Walking back to the hotel, I detoured into a leather shop. The salesman was a young guy probably about eighteen or so. He spoke a few words of English, but not too much. I really liked the leather jackets they had and the prices were very reasonable. We were still chatting in his broken English and my dictionary Spanish. I told him that I only spoke German and he then lead me over to another customer in the store. He told her that I spoke German, and she instantly started speaking with me in German.

Turns out that she is a German teacher in the school in Puerto Montt. It felt so comfortable to speak and be fully understood again. English may be my first language, but German works pretty well for me too, no matter where in the world I end up!

I was kind of tired from all of the walking, but needed to write out some postcards to everyone back home. Tomorrow the group would arrive and we would be reunited again after our one day separation. It would be a welcome meeting since I have felt like such a foreigner here. While writing out postcards in my room at the hotel, I was starting to wonder if I wanted to stay in this dumpy hotel and whether I could expect the others to tolerate the atmosphere I was barely tolerating.

I finished my postcards and was anxious to do some reading. I had picked up international issues of the current Time and Newsweek. At Palmer all our magazines would arrive in bulk and usually a couple of months old. Boy, it's great to read CURRENT news, as its happening. Too bad there wasn't any news on the earthquake yet. The hotel manager had a TV that I could hear through the paper walls, but the rooms did not. I turned in around 10:10 p.m.

What the heck is all of the racket?!? I just got woke up out of a dead sleep by a lot of laughing and loud music. I scrambled for my watch and found it was 2 a.m. It sounds like a damn disco is under my bed!

I lay awake until they finally closed up and pulled the gait over the doorway at around 4:30 a.m. Next thing I remember is the alarm clock going off at 8:30 a.m. I was still pissed about being kept up all night and decided that I had had enough of "roughing it." I would shower, dress and go out to look for another hotel. I couldn't stand the noise another night and I couldn't expect Robin, Doc and Marcia to put up with this either.

I opened the handbook and started walking. I smartened up and started asking prices and to see the rooms first. I came across the Hotel Montt and knew after I walked out the door that this was the place I wanted to be. I made my reservations then and there. It may have cost 8 mil a night, but after last night, I would have paid anything for a good night of sleep.

I high-tailed it back to the Hotel Fleabag to grab my bag and check out. I felt relieved at this point and my whole attitude started to change. Earlier in the morning, I felt like leaving Puerto Montt completely and going straight back to Punta Arenas.

The rooms in the Hotel Montt were great and almost reminded me of the Holiday Inn or Ramada Inn back home. Carpeted floors, full bath in the room, hot water throughout the day (not just in the morning between 8 and 8:30!), TV in the rooms, the rooms were clean and the desk people were polite and patient with my inability to speak Spanish. Breakfast was not included, but the restaurant was good and fairly inexpensive. There was also a bar in the lobby and the restaurant.

After I moved my suitcases into the Hotel Montt, I realized that I was hungry and still had not eaten breakfast. I went downstairs to the restaurant and ordered breakfast.

The waiter came over to me and in Spanish asked if I wanted coffee. The thought of a nice hot cup of coffee sounded great about now. I replied, "Si," to which he asked, "con agua o con leche?"

Well, I have always been one to take milk and sugar. I said, "Con leche."

Next thing I know, the waiter has brought over a tray with Nescafe, freeze dried coffee. I spooned out a couple of spoonfuls into my cup and he then picked up the silver pitcher and proceeded to fill my cup with hot milk! All I could think of at that moment was, "Well, this is different. When in Rome...."

It actually reminded me of Ovaltine and still was refreshing for a morning drink of caffeine.

While in the restaurant, I started to talk to another patron. He was from California and quit his job to travel for about six months. We exchanged addresses, but I never had the chance to look him up when I got back stateside.

Now that the move was over with and I had breakfast in me, I could go to Angelmo again and pick up a couple of things before I had to get the others. They would be arriving at 3:30 p.m.

As I was walking down the street, I realized that I needed some more money, so the first bank I came to, I went in. Too many people, so I went to another.

I walked over to the counter and asked the uniformed officer where I could change money. He pointed over to a couple of desks on the other side of the room. When I got there, a Chilean in a black leather jacket said to me, "You don't want to change money here. The rate is only 280---Come with me..."

So I followed him out the door and down a small hallway of storefronts next to a black market cambio. He said the rate was 310 and it was reliable. I thanked him and complimented him on his English. He replied back that he was Canadian!

Now, with money in pocket, I was ready to head off to Angelmo. I only went a couple of blocks away and I heard someone shouting, "Dave, hey Dave!" There are very few Chileans named Dave, but who the hell knows me in Puerto Montt!?

I turned around and there is Vince Kelly, one of the former Polar Duke coordinators. I said to Vince, "I thought you were in Belize already."

"No, I was in P.A. for awhile, then I took the ship from Puerto Natalles up to Puerto Montt. That is the ship over there in the harbor that we arrived on."

Vince and I walked over to Angelmo, a little fishing village nearby and ate lunch. As an appetizer we ordered fresh oysters and sea cucumbers. The oysters were great and really fresh, but I left the sea cucumbers to Vince. There was just no way that I could have choked them down. I had this reflex thing going on in my throat once I saw them! My stomach doesn't get queasy very easily, but to see these things floating in a bowl was quite enough. It looked like a big bowl of snot! Vince kept telling me that these were a delicacy.

We met up with the two other guys he was to meet. One of the guys had been one of his bunkies on the ship. The other was a Canadian from Montreal who ended up as one of the roommates from the hostel they were at - Raul's.

You know, I looked for that place, but it looked like part of a warehouse complex! I ended up going up there with Vince later and met Raul. He was a great guy as Alison Hedberg (the first season Palmer Assistant Cook who traveled Chile when she left back in March) had said.

Raul's boarding house that has rooms for two or three people with a full bath in the room. If you are alone, that's no problem as they will room you with others. Vince ended up meeting a few good people there, but admitted he liked the Hotel Montt much better once he had a look around. Raul speaks English pretty good, likes Americans and is genuinely friendly.

This would be the next best alternative if you are traveling alone and out to meet people. His place is located on 136 Concepcion. Find Concepcion and walk away from the waterfront inland to the end (it's a very short street). Turn right and follow the crushed stone alley-way to the end. I know it looks like a bunch of warehouses, but his door is the last one there or the next to last one.

I scrapped plans to go to Angelmo at this point and tagged along with Vince and the Canadian. We walked up to the tourist center so that they could get more information on the area, and we got the chance to see some of Puerto Montt.

Around 2 p.m., I asked Vince to get me a cab. Vince speaks Spanish, so he had no trouble getting me where I was going. I also asked him if he could get the cabbie to wait at the airport with me, because I didn't want to get taken advantage of again as I had the first time. So we arranged a price for him to wait with me until the others' plane came in.

The plane was on time, but we were early. I tried to make small talk with the cabbie who was only probably about thirty. He didn't speak English and I didn't speak Spanish, so we alternated on using the dictionary to get our points across to one another and carried on an actual conversation. It beat the heck out of charades!

The others arrived on the flight from Punta Arenas and collected their bags. Soon all four of us were crammed into a Ford cab with all the luggage. I kind of felt like a travel agent; picking them up at the airport and taking them to the hotel and getting them checked in, then showing them around town. It was great having at least part of the old crew back together again. It was like brothers and sisters seeing one another after a long time. Staying so long together at Palmer made me a little lost inside when I was separated from them, and we were only separated for one day!

I'm glad that I was able to hold the cabbie. It saved me the trouble of having to get another one along with the worries of whether I would get taken to the cleaners for the trip. I made sure to make up the favor to the cabbie with his tip. The cost of the cab was only three mil, but I negotiated the price up to four mil. I got ribbing from the others about what a "great deal" I made. They reminded me that you are supposed to negotiate prices down!

That night we ate at Matt's Pizza at 65 Pedro Montt. Food was good and the atmosphere was good. Not too much English was spoken, but armed with someone who can speak Spanish or a good dictionary, it's no problem. The pizza was pretty good and Robin opted for the chicken sandwich. He recommends the Aves (Av.), palte, tom sandwich which was chicken, avocado and tomato.

After dinner, we wandered around Puerto Montt just doing some window shopping. The others wanted to see the dive that I had stayed in the night before and find out what night life we were missing. This based off of my description of getting woken up the night previous.

We walked into the door below the Hotel Central and discovered there were families eating and dining together there. The others looked at me strange and gave me more grief.

"So, it's a disco, huh? Dave's Family Disco."

Really, it didn't sound like any restaurant I've been to at 2:30 a.m.!

We settled in for a beer and kicked back for a bit at "Dave's Family Disco" before going back to the hotel to turn in for the night.

The next day, Saturday, we rented a car and made our way down to the island of Chiloe. The weather was beautiful and the countryside was great too. We caught the ferry across to the island. The island reminded me of Wisconsin only more rural. On all the roads on the island and on the mainland, the road is shared with cattle and oxen-driven carts. The goldenrod was all in bloom, so the rolling fields were blanketed with gold. The houses are all made of wood and covered with cedar type shingles that have long been washed out by the sun.

We finally got to Ancud by around noon. Ancud is home to the old Spanish fort, Fuerte San Antonio. The fort on the island was the last Spanish stronghold to be turned over to the Chileans. The museum and the artifacts were interesting.

We ate at a fantastic local restaurant just off of the market square on B. Encalada and Pedeto Streets called the Balai. We were fortunate enough that Curante was being served that day. Curante is a huge serving of fresh steamed mussels and clams from the local beds; served with a spicy tomato sauce on the side, a portion of chicken, a portion of pork rib and two different types of starchy pancake type things that we were unable to identify but tasted good. All this is put together and steamed in the ground. I have never eaten such fresh clams and mussels. They were taken fresh from the local beds which we saw from the fort, overlooking the shallow bay. Of all the meals I had in the Lakes Region, this was probably the best. The Chileans never seem to let you go away hungry.

After all that, we drove another 50 miles south to the city of Castro. Castro is well known for its wool market and for shipbuilding. The big pink church with the leaning steeples are also one of the cities claims to fame. The church looks like it had been built during the Spanish occupation prior to independence.

The houses on stilts as you're coming into town are interesting and are mentioned in the South American Handbook. These homes are built on stilts around an inlet which forms a lake during high tide and is a dry bed during low tide.

Vince let us off at the market and he went up the road to check out the shipbuilding going on. He wants to have a small wooden boat built and shipped north. The island is pretty densely forested and the wooden boats are built locally.

We stopped on the way back home at a pub on the waterfront. As with many other waterfront buildings, the pub was on stilts and jutted out into the harbor alongside the docks. It was a nice place to watch the gulls and catch a beer while relaxing for a few minutes before our journey back to Puerto Montt.

We ended up getting back to Puerto Montt that night around 11 p.m. and went out to grab a bite to eat at 11:30 at Dino's. Dino's was kind of like a Perkins or Denny's and great for a cup of coffee or quick sandwich.

The following day, the other four took me to the airport. They had one more day left, so they headed out on a car tour around the Big Lake. I had made copies of maps and photocopied info about the towns around the Big Lake--Puerto Montt-Puerto Varas-Puerto Octay-Ensenada and back. The mountains and volcanoes are beyond words in this region.

While waiting in the airport at Puerto Montt to fly back south to Punta Arenas, I was starting to regret my decision to return. I came back to reality as my plane taxied onto the runway and we began boarding the flight. Seems there were some bets running back at Palmer on whether I would jump ship before I made it back to Palmer!

Ended up with another day in Punta Arenas since a ship with a container we needed didn't arrive on time. So, I could have stayed the extra day in Puerto Montt after all.

I did have the chance to see the crabbers bring in a fresh load of King crab and load the baskets onto the trucks. That night we went over to one of the local hotel restaurants and had a huge plate of crab meat. Yes, I am very spoiled. If nothing else, I ate very well in Chile.

I seem to have even started to pick up the Chilean habits of eating late. The Chileans eat around 9-10 p.m., party late and don't start work until 10 a.m. Siesta is from around 12:30 p.m. until 2:30 p.m., and they work till 8 p.m.

Had a miserable trip back south. I wasn't "throwing up" seasick, but lay in my bunk most of the time and just read. Didn't even feel like watching videos. The trip wasn't as rough as the northbound crossing, but it was by no means "Drake Lake" like it was when I first came down last year!