Monday, 30 August 2010

Earthquake Before & After


I really need to get out and take some decent photos of how Santa Cruz looks now, 6 months after the quake. Here's what it looked like the day after...

But I was passing through the Plaza de Armas and snapped a few on my phone. When the sun comes out again, I'll take some more.

This is the street that leads onto the Plaza. It was the worst hit street in town- pretty much the entire block collapsed on one side and half on the other. The fabulous Santa Cruz museum was also partially destroyed a few metres further up.

But they've done a fantastic job of rebuilding, apart from where the Sushi restaurant used to be (without going into too much detail- this is a small town, after all- the owner and renter are not in agreement as to how to proceed).

Sushi:

After the quake...



And now still not even properly demolished...


Next door to the Sushi place.


A good friend lives there...you may remember her car... I'm not a huge fan of the colour of the rebuild, but they did a pretty decent job in maintaining the style of the construction.

After the quake...

6 months on...


Both of these banks were destroyed...

After the quake...

6 months on...


Friday, 27 August 2010

Changing Santiago

December 2003, Cerro San Cristobal.

Anyone who knew me or met me more than about 18 months ago might be a little surprised by the fact that, not only do I rent a flat, but I have also bought one to renovate in Santiago. For years, I loathed Santiago with a maniacal passion and made this clear to anyone who would listen (people learned to back away slowly when my rants were just getting started).

Why did I hate it so much? Let me take you back to December 2003. I'd just spent 3 of the most fun weeks of my life in Argentina, my first stop after Ecuador. Argentina in December is probably the most fun you can have anywhere in the world. Seriously. Schools and universities break up for Summer at the end of the first week, the weather's fantastic, Christmas is around the corner and January and February holidays are coming up. The atmosphere and energy are almost tangible. It's an energy I've never experienced anywhere else. If you don't believe me, go out on Aristides Villanueva in Mendoza for the first or second weekend in December and you'll see what I mean.

So after partying and generally having a great time every single day of the week in BsAs and Mendoza, I rocked up in Chile on a Monday afternoon. And I hated it after my first 13 seconds. In Argentina, everyone queues up in an orderly fashion to put bags on and off the bus. There's no pushing, no shoving. Getting off the bus in Santiago, I was elbowed in the face by an 85 year woman and pushed over twice whilst trying to pick up my rucksack by other Chileans who had clearly been trained in the art of social niceties by a pack of rabid chimpanzees (this was, and sometimes still is, my view of how Chileans act in public).

And it didn't really get much better, to be honest. Santiago was, in 2003, possibly the world's most tedious city. There was nothing to do. Bars and restaurants were either not open on week nights or they were completely empty (in Argentina, they were full every single night until early morning). Everything was grey. There was no atmosphere. I was unsurprised to learn that Santiaguinos have one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

And Santiago Centro was sketchy as hell. In the Plaza de Armas, you could literally see the thieves eyeing up their next victims. A friend had his camera stolen from a pew in the cathedral when he looked away for 2 seconds. Cerro Santa Lucia was also really dodgy at that time and I was warned away from it by everyone I met (a German guy in my hostel got mugged and pretty badly beaten up there, which rather reinforced the warnings).

And it wasn't like I was there on my own and didn't know what to do- I had two Chilean friends who were showing me around (and who became increasingly desperate to show me something fun and interesting to do- they failed, quite miserably, until we went to Renaca after Christmas).

I also spent Winter 2004 living in Santiago, in a freezing house on Salvador con Bilbao. That was a truly miserable experience and I spent the entire time desperate to get back to my home in Buenos Aires, a city I adored with as much passion as I detested Santiago (I had come to Chile to see whether a relationship would work- it did for 4 years).

After moving to Valparaiso in January 2007, my hatred of Santiago continued. But it started to change towards the end of the year when my mum came to visit and we spent a couple of days there. We made the obligatory trip up Cerro San Cristobal via bubble lift and came down the other side in the funicular. That was my first time in Bellavista since 2004 and the neighbourhood had really changed. Patio Bellavista had just opened and that development made me realise that there was hope for the city.

Not only that, but the Costanera Norte, which opened in mid-2006 (I think) had a huge effect on the livability of the city. Anyone who arrived after it opened will have no idea of the traffic misery that people used to have to deal with. To get to and from Vina del Mar, for example, pretty much everyone had to go down Alameda. Alameda! I remember getting stuck in 2 hour + traffic jams on Sunday evenings upon arrival on the outskirts of Santiago on a regular basis. Airport trips, which now take 35 minutes in rush hour and 15 minutes at other times could easily take up to 90 minutes. It was hell. The CN took thousands and thousands of cars away from the city centre and improved the lives of millions of people- not just car owners, but pedestrians, cyclists and public transport commuters as well.

And in the past couple of years, Santiago has improved so, so much in terms of decent restaurants, bars and cultural life. The cultural centre under La Moneda is an incredibly beautiful space and Barrio Lastarria and Bellas Artes have exploded in recent times. There are foreign owned businesses catering to expats and the general security in tourist areas is way better than it used to be. Cerro Santa Lucia is now completely safe to walk around and the Plaza de Armas has constant police patrols. And the fact that a lot of banks and offices have moved up to Las Condes and El Golf has reduced the amount of people in Santiago Centro dramatically, making it a much more pleasant area to wander around.

Although I know I could never live permanently in Santiago (the smog is as bad as ever and I prefer living in the country), I do really enjoy the time I spend there now. It's fun to do all the tourist stuff I never did before. That is something I can honestly say I thought would never be true.


Friday, 20 August 2010

The 7 Year Itch

It rather shocks me to say this...but September 1st will be my 7 year anniversary since I left England (not for the first time but this is the longest I've been away) and moved to South America. It was never supposed to be this long. The original plan was to spend 6 months out here, learn Spanish and then move to Spain. Barcelona was high on my list of places I wanted to live.

But things never work out as you expect...and here I am, 7 years later, living in Santa Cruz with a house, a business, 2 cats and 2 dogs and a whole life in Chile. Incredible. But really nice. I really like my life here.

So to celebrate this milestone, I'm going to bore you with a photo tour and commentary about what I've been up to all this time. It's going to take a few posts, so feel free to have a nap.

I started out in Ecuador. Why Ecuador? Well, I wanted to learn Spanish and someone had mentioned that Ecuadorian Spanish is really clear and pure (it is- definitely the 'best' Spanish I've heard down this way). And Ecuador is a small country with a mix of everything South American- tropical beaches, Andean culture, jungle, temperate rain forest, mountains...the lot. The perfect place to start out. Added to that was the fact that when I took the decision to come to South America, I was working in Bournemouth, England as an English teacher to foreign students. Once I decided on Ecuador, I successfully set about making Ecuadorian friends and had a couple of locals to look up when I arrived.

And here's a weird coincidence...I fell out of touch with the friend who was kind enough to pick me up from the airport and show me around Quito on September 1st, 2003. We're friends on Facebook but hadn't actually spoken or emailed or anything for almost 6 years. That was until last week when she borked her Facebook profile and had to create a new one, re-friending me (uh, that's such a horrible phrase and I feel dirty writing it) in the process.

Anyhow, I asked how she was and we got chatting. It turns out she almost died a couple of months ago from a serious case of pneumonia and is taking some time off to recuperate and travel. She said she wanted to visit Chile at some point, I offered to show her around and she's now arriving on guess which date...Yep, on September 1st, I'll be picking Caro up from the airport in Santiago, 7 years to the day she did the same for me in Quito.

So I spent 3 months in Quito. I left sooner than I expected as I got itchy feet and then robbed at gun-point (well, I'm pretty sure it was the guy's finger but I was tipsy, it was 4am and he had 6 friends with him so, despite pointing that out to him, I still handed over the $20 I had on me). But at least 5 other friends were mugged at gunpoint and I got tired of living in fear. Having to sprint the 4 blocks home from a bar or club to avoid getting robbed after dark got old pretty quickly.

Despite the danger aspect, I enjoyed my time in Quito and made some really good friends, some of whom I'm still in fairly regular contact with.

So I bought the cheapest ticket to another country that I could find...and that happened to be Argentina. Which I'll tell you about in another post.

Here are some photos from my time in Ecuador, back in the day when I was 25 years old and had pretty much no responsibilities. How times change. Apologies for the random picture sizes. Long story, too dull to tell.

Caro, the aforementioned old friend who's coming to visit in a couple of weeks, up at some Volcano near the equator. It was cold, windy and foggy and we saw nothing. I ate a guinea pig. A fun day out.

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Me up El Panecillo, overlooking Quito's beautiful UNESCO rated old town.


I can't remember the name but this church had been under construction for something like 100 years...you could climb to the very, very top of one of the steeples and the views were incredible.

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Quito's main Plaza in the old town.

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I lived with some great people and made some good friends in the house known to everyone as La Casa de la Felicidad, on account of the massive, impromptu parties that were always thrown. It wasn't conducive to the 7am starts I sometimes had for work but, hey, I was 25 and could handle it. My leaving party lasted about 3 days. Good times.

That's Arne, Sophie, Gary, me, Frank and Sissy. The hand thing was in honour of that whenever the phone or doorbell sounded, whoever was last to put their thumb to their forehead had to answer. I was incredibly quick on the draw and only answered them about 5 times in 2 and a half months.


Sophie, Zia & Sissy

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Lily acted as my guide on a trip Cuenca (she was a friend of a friend). Despite me not speaking much Spanish and her not speaking any English, we muddled through and got on quite well. Sometimes it's better not to be understood.

She took me with her family up to a tiny, dusty little village high in the hills where they were having some kind of festival (I never understood what it was about). It was weird and interesting. I ate guinea pig again. It's actually rather nice, a little like rabbit. And I really liked Cuenca- such a beautiful town. Apparently, the Cuenca accent sounds like bird-song, but my Spanish was so low-level at the time that I didn't notice. I'd love to go back and see if it's true.

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I also went to Mindo, a gorgeous little town in the cloud forest. I took a lot of photos that weekend. Then I asked a friend to take one of me up in a place where you jump off a mini-cliff into a freezing pool of water. It's next to a waterfall. She walked backwards off the waterfall. And broke my camera. And she miraculously came out completely unscathed. Which kind of annoyed me a little- for a broken camera, I wanted at least a concussion.

And I went to the hot springs resort of Papallacta a few times- it's only a couple of hours from Quito in bus and a lovely way to spend a lazy Sunday. No photos- my camera was wet, remember?

I also spent a weekend in Montanita, Ecuador's top surf town. I took no photos with my new camera on that trip because it rained solidly for 3 days and the town was, literally, knee deep in mud. It's apparently a fun place when the sun comes out.

Next stop was Buenos Aires, where I ended up living for 3 years...

Monday, 16 August 2010

Good Moods, TV & New Project


As anyone who has been following this blog for a while can tell, I haven't really been in the mood to post much over the last year or so. I just really haven't had the desire or energy. I think I'd been in a low-level bad mood for so long, it became my reality and I didn't realise why I felt so low on energy and general bounciness. Not that I've ever been particularly demonstrative...I did go to boarding school in England, after all. Trying to get me to show any emotion at all is something that has driven some past girlfriends to the edge of insanity. :)

After my short trip to Colombia, I feel completely different. My good mood is almost tangible. It's really strange...it's like a physical change. I'm feeling positive about work for the first time since the earthquake hit my business really quite hard (that's www.chileinvestments.com in case you haven't worked it out), I'm feeling positive about living in Chile and I'm loving calling Colchagua 'home'. There's a really great little community here and I'm starting to feel like a real part of it now. That's a nice feeling. And I've rented a small flat in Parque Forestal, Santiago to spend time there when I need a change of scenery (get in touch if you want to meet up for a drink or something- I've never lived in Santiago so don't actually know many people there!).

Something I thought might throw me out of my good mood was what I was doing all weekend. I filmed an episode of a wildly popular real estate show in the US and around the world that I'm contractually obliged to be positive about... :) I thought that a weekend of filming would drive me insane, but it was actually a lot of fun.

The crew were a real laugh and my clients were great as well (I won't mention who right now as she doesn't seem to have mentioned it on her blog so perhaps doesn't want anyone to know...). Anyway, both her and her husband are really fun and I had a fun time with them (despite helping her buy her place a while ago, I did so remotely and we only met for the first time very recently.)

So the show will air in January in the US, most likely, and then in Chile later in the year I guess. I'll let you know.

And finally, I haven't knocked any walls down recently (maybe that's why I haven't been particularly happy?)...but my drought is soon to come to an end. I've just bought a flat overlooking Parque Forestal (around the corner from the place I'm renting). It's a big renovation job and there are two walls that just have to go. I can't wait to get started...hopefully within 2-3 weeks. The plan for this property is to renovate to a really high standard, furnish it luxuriously and then rent it out to tourists, aiming for the high-end hotel market but providing a far better product at a much lower price. Mid-November we should be good to go. Here are some photos...

The 1960s building.



The view of the park is fantastic.

The little, unusable balcony will be incorporated into the living room by getting rid of the first set of sliding doors (see later photos) and replacing the nasty aluminium outer doors with fancy double glazed ones.





And I also like the street view going the other way.



Master bedroom (looks smaller in the photos than it actually is, although it's still not huge- the 2 bedroom apartment is 85m2 total).



Second bedroom.


The wall on the right will go, which will open up the maid's room (next photos), creating a 30m2 open kitchen, dining and living room.



And this wall in the middle...it'll move to the right in line with the door frame, linking up next to that window you see. That'll open up the toilet, which will be converted into the kitchen (also all along the wall on the left). The kitchen will then become a large bathroom.




Lovely carpets, eh? Happily, underneath is the original parquet floor.


Yey, renovations! I've really missed you.

For photos about my previous renovations, take a look at my old Valparaiso house and my house here in Santa Cruz...

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Colombia II: Bogota



As I mentioned before, I had originally planned to spend my entire time in Colombia lounging on a beach doing nothing. I used to love lounging on a beach doing nothing. Turns out, I've kind of grown out of that habit.

After my first 24 hours in Taganga, I knew I wouldn't last more than a few days without going insane. Perhaps if I lived in a city, like I used to, I would have enjoyed the peace and quiet a little more. But I think that the rather tranquil Colchagua Valley has made me see a relaxing holiday as one which involves noise, people and stress.

Now that's not to say I didn't enjoy my beach time. I really, really did. But I just get bored quicker than I used to when doing nothing.

So after chatting to a few people, I decided to change my ticket and head to Bogota for a few days. Well, I didn't change my ticket. I bought a new one with a different airline. Lan's absurd exchange policy meant that this was about us$200 cheaper (the flight cost about us$90).

I arrived in Bogota knowing almost nothing whatsoever about the city. I hadn't planned on going, I had no guide book and I had very little clothing suitable for the permanent Spring weather (due to Bogota being about 2600m above sea-level). I'd booked a cheap room in a cheap hotel and arrived around lunchtime. I didn't really know what to do with myself so I grabbed a taxi, asked to be taken to the Centro Historico and asked what there was to do in Bogota. The driver's enthusiastic response to his hometown made me happy I'd come.

After a short wander, I decided to phone a friendly Colombian girl I'd met in Taganga. She'd given me her number and offered to show me around Bogota if I ever went after we'd got chatting in a restaurant on my first day . I'm pretty sure she did so safe in the knowledge I had no plans at all to go to Bogota at the time. Ha. Little did she know that this is a common tactic of mine- meet a local, wheedle their number out of them and then turn up unannounced asking to be shown around town. "Surprise! It's the annoying Englishman from the beach/plane/bar/supermarket/restaurant/hike/medical convention (don't ask). Drop whatever you're doing and come be my tourist guide." I've made long-term friends in some odd places over the years.

As chance would have it, Daniela was less than 5 minutes walk away at the time and even remembered who I was so we met up in front of the cathedral on Plaza Bolivar, the city's main square in the heart of the Centro Historico. It looks like this:


This second photo was taken in a moment of rare sunshine.


Even luckier was that she was currently on holidays from her studies and had loads of free time to be my personal tour guide. Lucky for me, that is. Not so much for her- she was stuck with this ingles ma├▒oso for the entire weekend (my back was playing up and I was whingeing a lot).

However, despite having lived in Bogota for over two years, Daniela's knowledge of the city was, well, really quite poor. She'd never done anything touristy. Which meant neither of us really knew what to do, apart from wander around looking at the pretty stuff.

And the Centro Historico is bursting with pretty stuff. Most of the Colonial buildings have been renovated, there are bars, restaurants and cafes all over the place and there are some brilliant museums. This is what Valpo would look like if it didn't have a thieving, corrupt Municipalidad running the show.

Look:






And look at this gorgeous Church- so cool:



And the museums...there are 3 all together within the same complex just up from the Plaza. La Moneda with its history of Colombian money (more interesting than it sounds), a really good art gallery and, finally, the best of the lot- the Botero collection. I love Botero. To me, art should provoke a reaction. So much of what is considered 'fine art' leaves me cold. I look at it, scrunch my eyes up, put on a serious face, put my jaw in my hand and feel absolutely nothing.

Botero has always made me laugh and smile. His art is fun. Here are a few examples:

(this is the Mona Lisa, in case you hadn't noticed)






The Botero museum houses the artist's private collection that he donated to the nation. Not just his own paintings, but some fantastic pieces by other artists, including Picasso, Henry Moore, Joan Miro and others. I can recommend a visit to Bogota just to see this, and the other two museums, alone.

Oh, and it's all FREE. How cool is that? The museums are run and maintained by the Banco de la Nacion. More info here.

On one of the days I was in town, the Plaza Bolivar was taken over by a gigantic farmers' market to promote local and indigenous agriculture- most of which seemed to revolve around plantains, tangerines and unripe strawberries, although there was other stuff as well. Actually, there's a supermarket chain that sells predominately fruit. I wish I'd had my camera when I went in as there was so much variety of tropical fruit, much of which I'd never seen or heard of before. Some of it was so big I was able to imagine an end to famine in overpopulated Asian nations.



In the end, I only stayed in the cheap hotel for one night. It wasn't well located and the mattress was actually harder than the floor. Believe me, I tested.

I decided that I should splurge and get somewhere decent in the area in which I'd be going out at night, so I moved to the Hotel Virrey Park (horrible website music alert) a little to the north, just around the corner from the Zona T, Zona Rosa and Parque de la 93, the main nightlife areas. It wasn't too expensive, around us$100 a night. For the location and quality, I actually think that it was a bit of a steal. It's more than I'd usually spend on a hotel, but it was a short time and I wanted to enjoy myself. And I'm old enough to justify not being a scuzzy backpacker anymore.

Nightlife in Bogota is really fun. This part of town is kind of like a mix of Vitacura in Santiago and Palermo Viejo in Buenos Aires. The former because it's all new, shiny, safe and packed with good-looking people of both sexes and the latter due to the style and design of the bars and restaurants. This is a really good mix. Even better is that every place I went to beat both cities for service and style.

The food was also good, better than most of what's on offer in BsAs (apart from the steak, obvio po). And it's about 10-25% cheaper than going out in the equivalent neighbourhoods in both Santiago and BsAs. I was a particular fan of the Bogota Beer Company, a micro-brewery gone large, with pubs all over the city. They have real beer in real pint glasses and the decor is a half-decent approximation of an English pub. I mean, you're not going to think you're down the White Hart, but for someone like me who really misses the whole concept of 'The Pub', it worked well enough.

Apart from the museums, wandering around and going out, I managed to drag Daniela out for another day of turisteando and we headed up The Big Hill, just outside of the Centro Historico. (I'm pretty sure it's not called 'The Big Hill' but I never found out its name and for some reason would rather maintain the mystery). The Big Hill is really similar to Cerro San Cristobal in Santiago- there's a cable car or funicular to take you up and down and a load of religious stuff at the top. The views on a clear day (ha, good luck) would be great. On a cloudy day, they were still pretty cool. You can see about half the city of 7 million inhabitants from up there.





If you go, don't get up too early. They only run the cable car after 2pm so we had to take the boring funicular up and down instead. Silly me for wanting to get out and do something with my Saturday.

That's about all. You can probably tell I rather enjoyed my time in Bogota. I think much of that had to do with hanging out with someone who lived there and being able to talk about the city, ask questions about the country and generally get a little more insight into things than if I'd just hung out and got drunk with a bunch of foreigners I'd met 10 minutes beforehand in a hostel. That second option can be fun, but it can also get old pretty quickly.

So, I've been wondering if I'd go back to Bogota. There aren't all that many cities that I've enjoyed enough to want to go back and repeat. Buenos Aires, Paris, NYC and San Francisco are the only ones out of the many I've visited that have really got under my skin. I think Bogota is pretty close to that but not quite there. I think I'd go back if I got the chance, but perhaps wouldn't make a special plan to do so. I don't know...I'm kind of on the fence with Bogota. Maybe I should give it another go and see which side I end up on. It would definitely be a fun experiment.

If you're planning a trip, though, I would absolutely suggest Bogota and Colombia in general as a fantastic holiday destination. Don't believe the hype about the dangers. Colombia is, generally, a safe place to visit and I certainly didn't feel any less secure than in, for example, Argentina, where I lived for 3 years without a single problem (I think Chile is safer than both, mainly due to the fact there are very few guns here). It is way, way safer than Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. I'm sure there are areas of the country that are sketchy but in the places I went, I felt absolutely safe at all times.

That's it. Back to reality, normality and Winter. I arrived back in Chile more tired physically than when I left. The weekend in Bogota really took it out of me. But I am definitely less tired mentally and emotionally. I really needed a break from my life in Chile to help me put some things into perspective, forget about work and make a fresh start with some stuff that's been bugging me. The trip did its job and I've returned refreshed and relaxed.

That really doesn't often happen with me. I can't usually switch off. So, thanks, Colombia. It was fun.