Sunday, April 3, 2011

To a new country

 For the last wee while I have not had the internet here at the lodge, but I have written a little bit of stuff, amongst other things. So for the next couple of days I will be adding some new things. Here is the first:

Everyone I have ever talked to about long distance plane trips has not had much positive to say about the experience. It isn’t hard to see why; being stuck in a cramped metal tube with wings in an even more cramped seat for hours on end isn’t many people’s idea of fun. But I didn’t find my flight from Auckland to Santiago to be too bad.

Flying LAN airlines, our flight left at 5.40 in the evening. In eleven and a half hours time we would be landing in Santiago, Chile. Our arrival time was 4 and a half hours before we left, something which took me some time to get my head around. I got to basically live the same day twice. The trip covered 9661 km’s at speeds of up to 1000km/h.

Before the flight the crew met up for the first time. These were the people I would be almost exclusively spending the next three month with. Fortunately they all seemed to be pretty good sorts. Some of them already knew each other from trailbuilding trips past, with five of the eight lads on the trip having done some digging for the company before. As we were all seated in different parts of the plane, getting to know each other better would have to wait.

Soon we were blasting down the runway for takeoff. Reality began to set in: this was to be the last time I would be in New Zealand for six months. As the flight proceeded I became more and more aware of just how far away from home I was going to be. Still, there was no turning back and it was pretty exciting to know that everything was going to be a new experience from here on out.

The flight itself was pretty mild. My seat was in the middle of the middle section of the plane, far from idea. On my right was a guy from Argentina who owned a firm which did work on wind turbines. He was originally from Australia which meant he was fluent in English, a bit of a rarity on the flight. This was good news for me, both because it gave me someone to talk to and because he could translate for me when the air hosts came around. On my left was an empty seat, which meant I could dump my stuff on the seat and stretch out a bit more. One left again was an Chilean guy with whom I wasn’t able to have much of a conversation.

The bike box after a quick retaping,
 it's seen much better days
I think I slept for about half the flight and then watched movies for the other half. The food was surprisingly good and the service on point. I got into my first Chilean beers, a brand called Cristal. It was very drinkable.

When we landed in Santiago it was just after 1 in the afternoon on the day we had left. All of the boys looked a bit ragged as we rolled into customs. This was a bit of a battle as we collectively didn’t have much Spanish under our belts, but we were soon through to baggage collection. Nervously we waited for the bikes to come out, and of course it was my bike that was hanging sadly out of my munted bike box. Looks like the bikes got some pretty rough treatment and despite a pretty heavy tape job my box was basically toast. Fortunately pretty much everything was still in the box (although my bottle cage was lost to the void) and nothing looked damaged.

The baggage checking over here is pretty lax, none of the bike boxes got opened or anything. Everything just got rolled through the scanner. Then we strolled across the road from the terminal to our hotel, the Holiday Inn. While our rooms were being readied we chilled out in the hotel bar, and then hit a much needed shower. We taxi’d into Santiago proper, probably getting ripped off horribly in the process. They could see us gringos coming from a mile away.

Street art in Santiago
Walking around Santiago was interesting. We started in a kind of poorer, less ‘touristy’ area with lots of locals and street art on every building. Some of this art was mind-blowing. Then we moved into more of the main centre of town for a feed. The meals were pretty heart, with most of the boys opting for a plate of fries covered in meat and cheese. From looking at the menu, it seems Chileans aren’t shy on the meat and carbs in every meal. We washed down our feeds with a massive litre of beer each.

During tea we had a bit of a downer as one of the lads had his camera stolen from right under his feet. It was a pretty vivid reminder we weren’t in NZ anymore and it meant a night battling language difficulties in the cop shop for Dan. Even though Chile seems like a pretty developed place, especially in the main cities, it is still pretty critical to show some extra caution over here.

We strolled through to the main square, which was surrounded by some pretty amazing buildings. It was a good place for a bit of a sit and some people watching. The boys were pretty knackered though (I was having some sad naps on the park bench), so we headed back to the policia to pick up Dan and then hit back to the hotel. A few quick emails were sent and then it was time to hit the hack before a 8am flight the next day.

The next morning we all dominated the smorgasbord breakfast. The spread was pretty impressive; as well as fruit, cereal, bacon, eggs and toast there was also a pretty good spread of deli meats, cheeses, pastries and fresh juices (think melon and strawberry). Quite a few plates went south before we headed back up to the rooms to pack. I also spent a bit of time doing my best to reinforce my mangled bike box.

Our plane to Balmaceda.
Getting onto the flights was a bit of a mission as we had a hard time checking our luggage in. We got it done and got on the planes for an hour and a half flight to Porto Montt. After a half hour break to swap some passengers and refuel we were off to Balmaceda. These flights were pretty miserable for me as I had managed to get sick since leaving Auckland, and was feeling pretty gunked up. The change in altitude was quite painful as my ears weren’t popping like they should and for the rest of the day after we landed I still couldn’t hear properly.

When we arrived at Balmaceda we all tried to not look at the baggage handlers unloading our bikes as they clearly didn’t believe in doing anything gently. Fortunately everyone’s gear arrived intact and we soon headed into the nearby town of Coyhaique to sort out our work visas. Then it was a 2 hour drive into the hills on some very marginal gravel roads. The scenery in the area is rugged and stunning (more about this another day).

Eventually we wound our way down into the valley that was to be our home for the next three months, and moved our gear into the lodge. The rest of the day was spent settling in, putting bikes together, and meeting the existing crew who are a few days from leaving. The lodge is mint and the area incredible, so all the boys are eager to get into it in the next few days.

The valley and lake. The lodge is on the flat bit top right

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