Checking in from Manizales, Colombia. We are staying at the Irish-owned Pit Stop Hostel, now in its third week of operation. We have a hot tub, a big comfy couch in front of a flat screen TV with Xbox and Fifa'10, free first-world internet and a prime location, just around the corner from the main strip of bars. We watched three movies today, including Clooney's latest, Up In The Air, which we found to be rather brilliant. Yesterday we went on a coffee plantation tour, so now we know what coffee looks like. It grows on plants planted in rows with beans red or green when ripe. Machines do most of the work, soaking, husking and drying the beans, then this little plantation sends everything off unroasted, in order to preserve maximum flavor and freshness. The little cups we received were indeed overflowing with flavor. Fresh roasted and toasty with a hint of caramel. So we toured, we lunched, played catch with an overripe orange, and lounged in the hammocks. I had time to take a siesta and read a little book called "It's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want To Be". Some nice thoughts in there about creativity and initiative in the workplace. And yet somehow, today I remain unemployed.
The best part of the tour was the ride home. In the morning, we had had 2 trucks to transport 10 gringos to the plantation. These were pickup trucks with benches in the bed and a metal cage over the top. However, on the way home, they decided only one truck was necessary. So we squeezed. Keir convinced our Irish friend Dee to sit on his knee, and I started out sitting with my legs hanging out the back. But there was no padding for my derriere, and I soon found it was far more comfortable to stand on the generous metal step protruding from the bumper. I swear it was less dangerous than it looked. It felt like water-skiing. While everyone was huddled under the tarp, I was enjoying the vistas as we bumped along the road cut into the canyonside. Once or twice a feeble tree branch brushed my face, but I had my protective goggles on (ie sunglasses). Seriously, some of the best fun I've had this whole trip. Such simple pleasure. When we got back into town, we stopped at a light and a police officer on a motorcycle was right behind us. I smiled, gave a little wave and he just laughed. Gringo loco.
Okay I know I've got some gaps to fill. Where were we?
We left Keir in Bariloche for a week of Spanish lessons, and went down to El Bolson. It was a quiet little town with an excellent ice cream parlor. There was some decent scenery - mountains, a river and waterfall, trees, the side of a cliff in the shape of a face, standard fare really - but after Tierra del Fuego and Torres del Paine, we were suffering from severe scenery fatigue. We stayed one night each in two different hostels. The second night was basically in a fancy barn, with a kitchen on the ground floor and bunk beds in the loft. We engaged ourselves in tense political-spiritual discourse with an aging couple of jaded, self-hating-American hippies. The level of disillusionment and self-delusion was underwhelming, and when I insisted on unfailing optimism they resorted to accusing me of naivete (because I'm an over-privileged American, obviously), so then it got really real and the could say nothing in the face of my impeccable empathy and self-possession, so they attempted to debase everything else I said by demanding "proof", employing petty epistemological tactics that accomplished little except to exhaust me, so I politely removed myself to bed. The next day the guy judged me for the size and weight of my backpack. Very mature.
So that was that.
Next stop was Pucon, back in Chile, but first we had to go back North to Bariloche. Of course we missed our connecting bus by 20 minutes, and so spent some 5 hours in the terminal playing chess and eating greasy empanadas. Good thing we always carry hot sauce. Having missed the bus we wanted, we were required to stop for the night in San Martin de Los Andes. This was another touristy little town set on a lake and surrounded by mountains. We stayed at a "bed and breakfast" which was actually just some guys house. He pitched us at the bus stop, and provided a ride all 500 meters down the street to his house, so hey, porque no? Cap and I then set out about town, strolling up and down the main strip in search of the pizza joint we'd been recommended by a dude from Ohio named Remington. Found it. Loved it. Great flavor combinations, just the right spice, and for once some complexity for our simplistic palates. No mushrooms though; not in season we suppose. So pizza was an appetizer, had a mid-course Manhattan at an upscale Irish pub, then enjoyed some black ravioli stuffed with bison in a mushroom cream sauce. Everything good and nothing bad. But where'd they get their mushrooms?
A sunrise bus then brought us back into Chile for the third time. We arrived in Pucon, and once again were greeted by a local, insisting her house was the best place to stay. We said okay. She proceeded to recommended us a guide for the volcano climb, and for this we remain grateful. We were in a group of three (me, Cap and a nice fella from NYC) and our guide, Paco, was a famous mountaineer. He has been to the South Pole 6 times, and is a highly sought after trekking guide. He has worked with many climate scientists, assisting them in various technical areas. We were the last group to start that morning - seeing as we were the only people not to pay the U$15 for the chairlift at the base - and the first to reach the summit. Ever improving the view by moving due North (North is Up; you see, siempre arriba). There were several groups of between 15 and 30 people, mostly Hawaiians, and when they were in our way, Paco created a shortcut, straight up, and we cut them off before the next turn.
We zipped right up, and got going even faster once we put our crampons on. With unlimited traction, we could literally run up the steep, icey slope. So fun. At the top, there was sulfur. Spectacular views, and suffocating sulfur. We were pleased to discover gas masks in our backpacks (another benefit of a small company, we were the only folks with masks). This made the summit tolerable, and we wandered around, peeking as deep into the Earth as we dared. There is some stunning documentation of these events, but obviously I am not ready to post pictures yet. Also, I would tell you the name of the tour company, but I don't remember it. Just know that it's on the main drag, right next door to the best burger joint in town.
Oh, then we got to slide down. The first time, it was an accident. I was running downhill with my crampons cramping, but I tangled my feet and fell and slid some 500 ft down, just letting it ride until I was going scary fast and needed to employ my ice pick. Like a pro. But then we removed the cramps, and strapped on our butt-protectors, and just rode the mountain. Some of the best fun available, I must say. Rather comparable to riding on the back of a jeep, actually, except slower and with better scenery. And more control over whether or not I was going to die. We slid damn near all the way down. Then when the sliding was over, there was a steep section that was covered in deep, loose gravel. Bounding down this bottom section was like moon-walking, I imagine. Very little resistance, just a bit of cushion and some bounce. When everyone was down we drank champagne and shared Doritos.
That smoke you see rising from the volcano is just the dust Cap and I left in the wake of our conquest.
Back in town we bought Paco two beers on the front porch of the Mexican restaurant, had some fajitas and then scuttled back to Sylvia's house to collect our gear and get outta town. An overnight bus to Santiago was just what our stiff legs needed. We refused to stretch, on principle.
Never forget the age-old adage, vaguely inspired by our fellow ex(com)patriot, the late Papa Hemingway: If you wanna get tight, you must first get loose.