Sabbatical [Day 6] Bankrupt Airline

Go directly to Buenos Aires. Do not pass Montevideo. Lose $500

Alex and I couldn’t seem to find the check-in station for Pluna Airlines at the Santiago airport. Finally, we decided we should ask at the information booth. We were told “I’m sorry, Pluna doesn’t exist anymore”.

What? Our airline doesn’t exist? No puede ser! I asked again – she again said something to the same effect. The airline went bankrupt two weeks ago, and there are no longer flights to be taken. They were supposed to be calling passengers to arrange alternate travel arrangements, but we were certainly never given any notice. No e-mail, no phone call, nothing. So much for basic customer service.

So here we are, at the airport with a phone number of a now-defunct, employee-less airline. I bought travel insurance, but Alex didn’t. We have different credit card travel insurance coverage. So, now what? I don’t want to spend another day in Santiago trying to figure stuff out or wandering around a smoggy city. We went to a random (TAM) airline and asked how much it was to go to Montevideo or Buenos Aires. They directed us to LAN, where a very friendly lady explained the Pluna situation in a bit more detail, and offered us a round-trip flight to Buenos Aires for about $400/person. Considering the circumstances, we weren’t in a huge position to complain about that price or availability, and made the reservation which we had until 12am to decide whether or not we actually wanted to pay for.

Off to a cafe with wifi. Cortado y té caliente, por favor. What does one do without internet in a situation like this?
Alex called the Buenos Aires hotel to re-book it to today via Skype. I called the Montevideo hotel to cancel it for today via T-mobile’s wifi calling. For this change, we may still be charged a night penalty. I called the credit card company to see about cancelling the charges to Pluna airlines, which they seemed to suggest would be no problem. We’ll see whether or not my travel insurance or credit card covers the price difference for the plane, or cancelled hotel reservation costs or anything.

So, travel disaster was mostly averted. We’re out some extra cash (thanks, Argentine reciprocity fee!) Our Montevideo/Buenos Aires itinerary seems to be reversed. We don’t yet know how we’ll be getting to Rio de Janeiro since that, too, was supposed to be on Pluna airlines. Here’s hoping we find something fairly inexpensive last-minute.

This was all a very eye-opening experience. Several years ago, I was baffled when I heard that Mexicana Airlines failed, and suddenly completely stopped service. No flights were in operation, employees went jobless, and brand new airplanes sat unused, essentially seized by the government. In the US, our airlines seem to go bankrupt every 15 years or so. You could probably set your calendar year by it. However, when our airlines fail, we provide a safety net called Chapter 11 Bankruptcy which allows the company to continue to operate under a highly regulated and monitored mode. This way, people don’t lose their jobs, passengers don’t lose their transportation, and the repercussions aren’t felt throughout the hotels, airports, taxi services, and entire tourism industry.

As costly, awful, frustrating and annoying as it is when companies go bankrupt, I’m now convinced that letting large companies like that fail is absolutely the worse way to go for both the social being and economic welfare of a state. Perhaps that little piece of law is part of what makes the US such a strong nation. Way to go, lawmakers & economists!

So long, Santiago. And so long, Pluna. You inconsiderate and incompetent cabrones.

Sabbatical [Day 5] Skiing with Brazillians

Last night, wandering around for probably about an hour trying to find a place to eat (Santiago is in dire need of Yelp), Alex and I stumbled across a Ski trip place. We had planned on going on a ski trip – which, it turns out, would be my first time ever really skiing. On a whim, we wandered in to check the pricing. It turned out to be cheaper than the one we had originally planned to go to, and more importantly they noted that we would have to have already picked out our rental gear before the vans took off in the morning, which basically gave us time to make an immediate decision on the matter.

Done.

Ski trip it is. Picked our boots, picked our coats, snowpants, goggles. Then we went in the back room and were assisted by a guy who looked oddly like Jack Black in selecting some skis and poles. He slowly worked at adjusting the skis for our boots, and haphazardly converted pounds to kilograms (which I think he did incorrectly, with some decent falls my skis never detached). Our names were written on the skis in permanent markers, and we were told to be there in the morning.

We were. Along with an entire van full of Brazilians. I’m convinced that this particular outfit must have been featured in the Lonely Planet – Portuguese Edition or something. Their logo even had the Brazilian flag, and the guy helping us was from Rio. Alex and I immediately take notice of our immersion language experience, and are only more excited for the Brazil portion of the trip.

Off we went, late as scheduled. Within 30 seconds of the bus/van taking off, we were already in trouble. One of the store employees was pounding on the windows of the bus, telling the driver to stop. The Brazilians made a big fuss about it and laughed. It turned out that we were running into a road sign. And perhaps even the bus behind us.

A crunch and a smash later, we were un-parallel-parked later, and on our way. Thirty minutes into the trip, we began ascending the Andes. Forty minutes into the trip, we began our winding roads and hair-pin turns up to the summit of El Colorado Ski Resort.

Nearly every hairpin turn was taken at roughly 30mph. There was minimal braking. There was suggestive yielding to oncoming traffic. There were very small rail guards. It seemed that every 45 seconds we were either facing running directly into a cliff, or directly off of a cliff.

Each turn, the Brazilians showed us how to express fear in Brazilian Portuguese. I believe it went something like “OOOeeeeEUeoEeee!!!!” Hopefully, this knowledge will not come in handy in Brazil.

We made it.

I was amazed at the frenzy at the base of the slopes. Nearly all of the skiers seemed to be Brazilian. What? Why? Where are the Chileans? No Americans? Any English Speakers? Nope. Then, 75% of the skiers seemed to be about 75% of my age – and height, for that matter. This should prove to be humiliating.

It was – for a bit.

Alex tried showing me some basic moves. He kept talking about Pizzas and making a pizza and doing pizza turns and though I knew where he was going with it, I think it turned my mind to food and I was falling more than I was moving along any particular vector in euclidean geometry. Then he went up to actually ski, and I got my professional instructor for an hour to teach me how things are done. It turns out that he was from Japan. Masuke… Maruke…  Marusake… I can’t remember his name right now. But, his English was slightly better than his Spanish, so that is how he told me basic directions. Laughing at my errors, however, was shared in a universal language.

Within the hour, I learned how to sort of slow down (as much as my lanky hip flexors would allow), turn a bit, and look slightly pro while doing it. He assured me that with a few more days training, I would be ready for Olympic tryouts. Encouragement goes a long way when skiing is one of your biggest fears.

So the lessons ended, I made it down the big bunny slope hill without dying or piercing my instructor, who encouraged me to press my ski poles into his chest while he skiid backwards and slowed me from flying down the Andes at 800kph.

Then, Alex had the fortune of skiing with me. More like spectating, I guess. And he photographed me – while skiing backwards. Then videotaped me, while skiing backwards. At some point, he caught me skiing ever-so-overly-fast, directly into a “slow down” sign, thus knocking it over. Oh, the irony.

So we had some breaks. Alex went off to do real skiing while I did my best to not die. I succeeded, and I even started to get the hang of it by the end. My hip flexors and back said “thats enough”, as did my watch.

Brazilian’s watches run precisely 10 minutes slow. We sat on that bus, waiting for everybody to get back on at the designated 5pm. Nobody… nobody, nobody….. then, 5:10pm and suddenly 20 Brazilians pile onto the bus at once. It turns out, I don’t even think they were a big group of people who knew each other – its just how it is.

We went down the scary hills and switchbacks, which at this point was actually quite slow from all of the ski-evacuation traffic. Again, we did not fly down or into a cliff, despite the driver’s numerous attempts.

The day was a success, ended by a rather disgusting Chilean sandwich. I wonder if this is how many Chilean’s days go. They have fairly terrible food here in Santiago. Lots of  hotdogs, hamburgers, and other nasty things. Figuring it seemed to be the national cuisine of Chile, we went for one of these things after the trip. I got a vegetarian equivalent of “El Completo” which normally carries a hot dog – but in my case they just removed that integral ingredient. Mushrooms, onions, peppers, about 2 cups of guacamole, 1 cup of mayo, all slathered into a hot dog bun. It was the messiest, most mediocre and fulfilling thing I could have eaten at that moment. I was hungry. Tomorrow, I expect to have cholera.

Chilean Merlot, some craft beers, some chores of doing laundry, and a long skype chat with Alex’s girlfriend, Lindsey, ended our last night here in Chile. Tomorrow, we are off to Montevideo.

So long, oeste de America del Sur!

Sabbatical [Day 3-4] Santiago de Chile de Hotdogs

Santiago. It was interesting to arrive into a large bustling metropolis after a quaint colonial city like Valparaiso. It felt like we were in New York. Or Mexico City. Or Barcelona. It felt like everywhere, but different. It was night-time when we arrived. The metro was super clean and quiet and efficient. When we submerged from the underground, people were out and about on the streets everywhere. The streets seemed pretty clean and the buildings well-kept. There wasn’t dog poop everywhere, which was an improvement over Valparaiso. We got to our trendy, tiny apartment – though it was substantially more roomy than our hostel which had room for two bunks and a bean-bag chair, but that’s about it.

We walked around forever trying to find a restaurant, but nowhere seemed to be serving food. Chileans eat late, but it was already fairly late and still everywhere seemed to just be cafés. People drinking beer or coffee, but no food. Oh well. We found a cool little pizza place that knew what they were doing, bought a bottle of wine and chilled at the apartment for a while. Pizza always feels like such a cop-out. Sometimes, it’s just what you need.
The next morning we woke up decently early to walk around the city. The first thing we noticed was the smog. Mmmm… smokey. Alex felt like he was back in Beijing, but I was reminded of DF, Mexico. Santiago is located between the ocean and the gigantic Andes mountain range. Essentially, the moisture and warmth from the ocean traps a layer of smog in the valley, and it is disgusting. Anybody who doesn’t think that humans are capable of changing climate needs to spend a couple of weeks in a place like Santiago. When your snot turns black and you constantly feel like you have the flu from a sore throat, you realize just how much our polluting vehicles and factories really affects the environment we depend on.

There are mountains surrounding Santiago. You can’t see them, despite there being 10,000ft peaks just a few miles away. Part of this is because you’re nearly always surrounded by highrise or midrise buildings – similar to the claustrophobia feeling in New York City. If you do catch a space to peek through, though, it doesn’t matter. The smog blocks the rest of that view. Lovely.

Walking around, Alex was excited to try some good coffee from South America. It turns out that there is some phenomenon called “café con piernas” or “coffee with legs”. Basically, think of Hooters, but instead of serving food tha baristas wear somewhat scandalous outfits and serve coffee to lonely old business men. Its pretty disgusting, and horribly machismo, but we had to go. At first, like any such establishment, we felt dirty for even opening the door. But then, half the businessmen walked out and then some women came in with their kids. I guess café con piernas is a family destination as well.

We walked around some plazas. Plaza de Armas. It should really be called Plaza de Hotdogs. Santiago has some of the most disgusting food I’ve come across in all of my travels. Nearly everywhere seems to have signs to boast their sandwiches – be it hot dogs or hamburgers or sloppy meat sandwiches with who knows what kind of meat piled over the sides of boring bread that could put the most overdone Arby’s sandwich to shame. Oh, and the mayo. SO MUCH MAYO. On everything. Cups of mayo. Mayo could give the hotdog a run for the official food of Santiago.

Back to the plazas and city. Plaza de Armas has an entire side of a block dedicated to hotdog stands. Each hot dog stand seems to offer exactly the same things as the stand next to it. Some stands are clearly more popular than other stands. What sets them apart, we’ll never know.

Just a few blocks away exists a very similar phenomenon where on a single narrow street, there are around 20 or so very small small appliance repair shops. Each one displays its replacement blender pitcher arrangement proudly in a glass case, along with various other parts. It would seem as though all they could possibly repair were blenders, but some had other random appliance parts from can openers, coffee makers, hair dryers, and other small appliances that would never ever ever be worth your time and money to repair. But there they were, all doing exactly the same thing, competing with their immediate neighbors for the same business.

In the neighborhood which we stayed in, Bellas Artes, there seemed to be maybe one restaurant within blocks to eat at. Everything else was cafés. It was the Café quadrant. In Bella Vista, just across the highway, there were tons of restaurants and some bars, but not so many cafés. A few blocks from that were sketchy bars and nightclubs, but no restaurants.

The layout reminded me of how I’ve heard of Brasilia described. Restaurants in one quarter of the city, hotels in the opposite quarter, and shopping in some other quarter, with a taxi required to get in between them all. Santiago may not be quite as bad, but its not so great to just wander outside of your hotel and find great things.
We continue to walk around, exploring various pockets. At one point we see this amazingly different building with a grid-like rusty structure around it. It may have been a museum. Maybe it was a shopping mall. Or probably a college. We should go in, though, naturally. So we do. And we find a security guard. Alex asks “que es este edificio?” She gives us this look like we had just spoken blasphemy. In Spanish…

“This Building? This BUILDING is the Culture Center. You know, culture? Arts, theater, cinema, photography…”

and basically stopped mid-sentence and shook her head because she thought we weren’t worth the time and were clearly so uncultured that we wouldn’t know what culture was if it smacked us in the face. We learned a bit about Chilean security guard culture, and decided it was time to immediately leave.

We climbed a hill. Then we climbed a bigger hill and took a funicular down. You might think this was the wrong order, but if you saw the line to take the funicular up, you’d agree with our decision.

We walked around a lot, took silly photos of street art and funny street signs and stuff like this:

To the grocery store. I took a photo of the hot dog aisle.

My friend, Christine noticed this photo and said she took the same photo. She did. And she wrote a gerat article about hot dogs in Santiago here. We picked a bottle of delicious and inexpensive Chilean wine. Some cheese. Breakfast things – because we decided we could do a better job cooking eggs and placing them on bread than any non-existent non-hotdog-breakfast-stand could hope to. (which, it turns out, Alex did quite well at). We went through the checkout line, which was of course slow and obnoxious, and then required me to return to the back of the store to weigh the bread we had placed in a bag, despite there being a scale right on the checkout counter in front of the cashier. Slow.

But then, it was all made up for when the supermarket music switched to the next track – Careless Whisper by George Michael. The girl bagging our groceries started giggling, and told the cashier “la canción!”, pointing to the overhead speakers. Alex and I also began to laugh, knowing exactly what it was that was so entertaining. “Por el video Youtube?” Sí.

Some things are funny no matter what hemisphere you are in.