Brendon, meet pisco

At the prescribed hour they congregated, sun kissed faces trickled into the room single file.  Thin streams of sweat veined through the dust that masked their lined and weathered faces. Foot-sore travelers entered from the street and the good-natured regulars slapped each other on the backs as they drank.  Each took their place among the dimly lit room,  some sunk into wooden chairs, some leaned against the walls, and the bottle battered veterans stationed themselves along the bar.

 Sprawling messages covered the walls, drunken scripture left behind by drunkards and wanderers from sea to sea.  Grape vines weaved among the lattice of the courtyard, so close you could reach up and pluck the grapes out of the air.  The whole place stunk of men and grapes and dirt, the smell of booze hung to the air so thickly that breathing intoxicated the senses.  “La Piojera”, the flea, the birthplace of the “terremoto”, the earthquake; a drink that just like its namesake, violently shakes the land, tearing the foundations of buildings and rips fissures through the ground that swallows men whole.  So delicious and intoxicating, it is impossible to escape the aftershock, the “replica”, the drink after drink that follows, the way the earth shudders after the initial rapture.

 I sit shoulder to shoulder with stern, bronzed chilenos and bright, eager faced foreigners, straddling the bar stool I hold up a finger and say “uno por favor” in my best accent.  I politely nod to the locals sitting beside me and smile excitedly at the gringos and gringas I am with.  My mouth waters as I watch the bartender scoop a soft lump of pineapple icecream into a tall glass, raise a gigantic jug of fermented wine and finish off the masterpiece with an inky black shot of fernet, stabbing through the heart of the drink with a long straw.  In unison with those around me I thrust my drink in the air, I can feel the earthquake rattling in my grip, “¡SALUD!”, the clink of glasses colliding.  I toss my head back and let the earthquake rumble through my body, ripping away at my insides, tearing me apart piece by piece and putting me back together, putting me back together under a soft glow of pineapple and wine and booze and sun. “Que buena, no?”  says the chileno to my left, another round is ordered among the bar.  The sweet taste lingered, my first experience with the shifting of tectonic plates tasted like paradise and I was ready to let the world convulse until both it and I dissolved into grains of sand.

 I thought about my first week in this unknown land, it had been filled with sun soaked exploration, I had spent my days walking along old streets straddled by colonial buildings that stared at me with the eyes of conquistadors.  I had walked to the top of Cerro San Cristóbal, the miniature mountain that erupts out of the middle of Santiago, crowned with the sun bleached statue of the Virgin Mary.  From the zenith of the city I could see Santiago blossoming out in every direction, surrounded by the ancient giants of the Andes mountains.

 “¡SALUD!”. The “replica” tasted better than the first and as I stirred and sipped the rapture in liquid form I could feel my mind fuzzing over and my body warming with the alcohol coursing through my body.  The locals beside us suggested we try pisco.  Pisco, a liqour squeezed from fermented grapes, a sweet drink that burned like fire the whole way down, but disappeared when mixed with cola, or when made into the infamous piscosour that was popular from the dry plateaus of Peru to the wet lakes of Chile.  A piscola was set in front of me and the bar raised there glasses in a toast and let the smoldering grapes flow through them, ¡Salud, bienvinedos a Chile, salud!”.  Welcome to Chile, welcome to the land of the huaso, welcome to the backwater of the Spanish empire, welcome to the grapes and the copper and the sun.  Pedro Valdivia sits to  my left and speaks of conquest, Bernardo O’Higgins sits to my right and speaks of independence, Colocolo arm wrestles an empire across the ocean, Pablo Neruda recites poetry from behind the bar, Salvador Allende and Augusto Pinochet raise a toast, and a young mestizo tugs on my shirt for spare change.

 Another round of piscolas are raised high above heads and collide together in a shower of cheers ¡Salud!”, ¡Salud gringos! Welcome to Chile gringos, bienvinedos al mundo gringos!” “¿Te gusta Chile?” “¿Te gusta pisco?” ¡Salud!”.  My new Chilean drinking companions ask me of my country “It is cold”, they ask me what I think of Chile “It is warm”.  

Another round of drinks is passed between traveler and local alike, all are the same, all are chilenos, all are gringos, all are warm, all are cold, all are drunk. ¡Salud!” shouts the firing squad and a myriad of bullets of liquid flame and grape find their targets in the bellies of those in attendance.  The sounds of cheers ricochet off the dirty walls like gunshots.  The cheery chilenos to my left asks me what I am doing in Chile, “I am breathing”. ¡Salud!”, another drink.  Valdivia to my left speaks of riches to the south, O’Higgins to my right speaks of crossing the Andes, Colocolo is drenched in blood, Neruda shouts to the pretty chilena across the bar “I want to do  with you what the spring does the cherry trees”, Allende and Pinochet brandish fists, the young mestizo uses my change for another drink, ¡Salud!”.  I am breathing, Chile is warm, I am warm, home is warm, everything is warm, everything is sun, everything is dirt, Chile is sun, Chile is new, pisco is fire and fire is warm.  The sun is warm as I step out of the bar into the light, my legs shake from the succession of earthquakes but I am happy, I am warm and I am happy, I walk back to the hostel with the travelers I arrived with, we all laugh and we are all warm.

Have you ever felt an earthquake inside your head?  There is no clean cut anchor man sitting at his desk inside your television, nervously shuffling his papers while politely telling you to prepare for the worst.  There are no sirens to warn you of imminent danger, except maybe the deranged screaming inside your head and the fireworks that ricochet off the base of your skull.  Scorching flames that sear the self you keep deep down in the depths of your soul, filling your nostrils with the smell of sulphur and the taste of a dying campfire on your tongue.  You can feel the might of tectonic plates within you, they crash and grind and spew molten lava from every pore of your body.  I spent an afternoon drinking earthquakes and in the morning I felt the rapture inside my head, but it was well worth it.

I woke up that morning to knocking on my dorm door, my mind felt like it was floating in boiling water and I couldn’t open my eyes fully for fear of the light.  The young chilean hostel worker asked me if I was Brendon and that my friend was downstairs waiting for me.  Immediately reality came crashing into me and I lurched from my bed to get dressed and collect my things.  I threw my backpack over my shoulder and ran downstairs.  Oliver, my roommate in Ottawa, and fellow adventurer to Chile, was standing at the front desk of the hostel.  We greeted each other with the chilean “Hola weon!”, I hadn’t seen him since we left Ottawa in December and he had come to Chile a month before me and settled into his new home in Vina del Mar, a beach city an hour and half north of Santiago.  During his time here in Chile he had met a chilena who had offered to drive use north to the city of La Serena and further into the Elqui Valley, the fertile valley where the grapes used for pisco were grown.  She had tents and gear we could use to camp out in the country and besides the constant pulsing of my hangover I was excited for my first adventure outside of Santiago.  I greeted her with the customary kiss on the cheek and we loaded my backpack into the car and headed to her apartment to stay the night before heading north in the morning.  We enjoyed home-made Chilean food made by her and her roommate and slept with the anticipation of seeing more of Chile in the morning.  The drive north was dry, dusty hills sprinkled with cactucs straddled the highway and we were forced to make frequent stops to pay the toll booths.

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At one point we stopped in a small ocean front town and enjoyed a cheap meal of fried fish, rice, and the litre beers I had fallen in love with since my arrival in Chile.  Setting off from crisp scent of the ocean we continued through the rolling hills of dust and cactus, passing through the cities of Coquimbo and La Serena, where we picked up food and headed into the Elqui Valley.  After nightfall we came upon a camping area and were able to barter the owner for a cheap spot in the corner of the lot.  In the Chilean tradition we lighted the barbeque pit and had an “asado”, a Chilean bbq, combined with delicious avocados, beer and the popular Argentine drink “maté” we ate and drank and spoke about what we wanted to do while in the valley.

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In the morning we woke and made a make shift breakfast out of the supplies we had, then we set off to the town of Vicuna, the birthplace of the famous Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral.  There we walked around town, eating delicious cactus fruit called “copa” and reserving a spot to go to the observatory at 4am the next morning.  After wandering around the town we headed back towards our campsite and noticed a sign for horse treks along the road.  I had never been on a horse before and was ecstatic at the opportunity.  We spoke to the owner and he led us to the back where 4 horses were relaxing in the shade of the trees they were tied to.  Three of the horses were small and calm, while a large dark brown brute kicked up dust and whinnied isolated from the others.  I assumed the guide would be riding the big guy while we three would take the three musketeers chilling in the shade.  I was wrong.  The old man pointed to the big horse and told me to get on, I laughed and asked him if he was joking in Spanish, he replied with “My 12 year old daughter rides that one every day, don’t be a pussy”.  With my dignity at stake I puffed up my chest and walked over to my archenemy and tried my hand at horse whispering, or more like pleading with him not to kill me.  We mounted the horses, were given a brief lesson on how to make them turn, to go, to stop, and we set off.  Surprisingly my horse was more intent on stopping to eat grass than chucking me off and we got on great.  I asked the guide the name of my horse “Flor de la Montaña”, Mountain Flower, I would have put on a tough guy act if that was my name as well.  He then told us that Oliver’s horse was born on September 11th, and for that reason he had named him Osama bin Laden..  The trek was great, we got to see some of the countryside, pick fresh cactus fruit and I became a self-proclaimed cowboy, or huaso as they are called in Chile.  We headed back to camp and tried to get some sleep before our trip back into town for the observatory.

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At 4am we found ourselves in a small van heading up the mountains to the Mamalluca observatory, there, high above the clouds in the dry desert we could see the constellations and galaxies spread out above us.  We were taken into the large telescope that was aimed at Saturn, which was pretty mind blowing, I was able to snap a picture through the telescope of the ringed planet.

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The next day we headed into La Serena to relax by the beach, it was my first time swimming in the ocean and the joy of running into waves bigger than myself turned me into a giddy 10 year old.  Afterwards we headed to the Capel distillery in the valley, one of the more popular pisco producers in Chile.  There we took a tour of the distillery and learned the process of making pisco and the history of the drink.  The best part was sampling pisco at the end of the tour and heading out with a few bottles of the stuff to enjoy on our last night camping.

The next day we packed up and headed out, on our way we stopped along the ocean to take a boat tour of a nearby island with large seal and penguin colonies, they were a blast to watch swimming around and walking around the island was pretty incredible.

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We headed back to Santiago where Oliver and I parted ways with our Chilean companion and checked into a hostel in the Bella Vista neighbourhood of the city, located among the best Chilean restaurants and bars.  The next day Oliver jumped on a bus back to Vina del Mar while I spent another night at the hostel, drinking with the staff and fellow travelers contemplating where I would be heading the next day.

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