Perú, Insects and Ants, Oh my!

The painful Bullet Ant crawling on my arm.

To me, the highlight of Perú wasn’t kayaking at lake Titi Kaka, or visiting ancient Inca ruins, or staying with ‘traditional’ Inca families, to me, the highlight of Perú, was the insects. From holding ants to looking at bizarre centipedes, the natural life is stunning. It is not often you get to hold the world’s most painful stinging insect, on the site of an ancient ruin.

Enter, the bullet ant. Paraponera clavata is the world’s most painful insect, someone who is unfortunate enough to get stung by this insect will feel as if they have been SHOT BY A GUN. The pain lasts for twenty four hours. I HELD THAT IN MY HANDS!

First, some backstory. We flew in a plane to Lima, then Cusco, at approximately 11,000 feet up. Our bodies were not prepared. After fleeing down to Urubamba, we stayed there in preparation for the big trip, Machu Picchu. One horrifying bus ride later, and we all felt like puking our guts out, we walked for two hours to the Disneyland-esque town of Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu, it is where EVERYONE meets. After a tense dinner conversation, more like a confrontation with our tour guide about the lack of tickets, we had to get up at FIVE IN THE MORNING! To get tickets.

We did not and do not like our guide Alex. Alex, you suck.

After a bus ride up, finding a new guide, a much, much better one mind you, we enter the lost city of the Inca’s and it’s off to the races, not actually because they do not like you doing ANYTHING to the rocks and will throw you out (Physically off the cliffs). Hiking through the ruins I do everything in my power to strike up a conversation about ants, which goes surprisingly well! Our guide apparently has picked up and held Bullet Ants and knows first hand the pain that they can cause. We continue the tour, pick up a few more people whose guides abandoned them. He began poking around the ground by a rock in the middle of this city. it’s an ant! He picks it up and puts it on my arm. The rather large frightening ant is crawling all over my arm. I have never respected an animal as much as that one. It could cause me imaginable pain if it felt threatened. I could crush it, but not after it basically shoots me with a non-lethal gun. After a while, he flicked it off, and we parted ways and continued. That was the third one I saw today, I may have even seen a queen.

The hike down was downright painful, but the upside is that I saw my first official leafcutters, not of the Atta genus, but leafcutter’s nonetheless.

In conclusion, the jungle is a frankly amazing place, and I feel so lucky for holding a creature that’s more terrifying than a jaguar. I do hope that I will get to go to Costa Rica someday to hopefully see more ants and more amazing creatures.


El Sapo and los micros!

(The toad and the buses, by Hadley)

Most weekdays, I take a small “micro” bus to the University. This system of small buses, while very convenient, is deeply, deeply confusing!  There are at least 40 different bus lines (for a city that you can walk end to end in about 45 minutes!), and many buses with different numbers drive roughly the same route through the main city, but with important differences at one end or the other (for example, I can take the 501, the 503, the 505, the 506, the 508, or the 510 but NOT the 509).  Bus numbers and details of the routes are noted on cards in the front windows, but these can be very difficult to read as these micros drive very, very fast through the crowded streets of Valparaiso. (For example, here is my favorite bus, the 505, stopped on the street in December because student protesters had braved tear gas to pile desks and chairs in the middle of the street to support the striking port workers!)

My favorite micro, the 510, stuck in a student protest in December.

Normally, the drivers are paid per passenger, so they race from one stop to the next, attempting to pick up as many passengers as possible. (I pay the equivalent of 70 cents to ride a bus about 3 miles to the University. I think it takes about 10-15 minutes).  Sometimes, the buses literally seem to be racing each other in order to get to stops first and pick up more people.  To add to the confusion, people basically get on or off just about anywhere they want. You can wave down a micro as you walk along any street, and they will typically stop for you, even if it isn’t an official bus stop. Similarly, if you are on the bus and decide you want to stop anywhere along the route, you can ring the bell or just tell the driver and they will probably attempt to pull over and stop, or at least slow down. They open the doors well before they come to a stop, and many people hop right on and off buses while they are still moving.  Then again, sometimes the drivers don’t want to stop, and you will drive way past your actual stop before convincing the driver to slow down.  

To add to the fun, people hawking a variety of things will temporarily step onto buses to sell their ice cream, candy bars, selfie sticks, or USB drives. They usually stick around for a few minutes and then ask the driver to pull over so they can hop off again.  Sometimes, there are musicians busking ON the buses! They wander up and down the aisles playing guitars and asking for money. Given the lurching, bone-rattling zooming and bucking that is happening, this is an impressive feat. When there are no buskers on the bus, bus drivers will often play music of their choice over speakers, which creates a pretty festive feeling on the bus.  Combine this with the “mudflap” girl decals they often paste above their windows, and it can feel like a crazy party scene on the bus!

Despite all the wackiness, you typically only need to wait a few minutes for a bus, since they come pretty regularly.  And the reason they come regularly brings me to “el sapo.” Translated as The Toad (or Frog), it refers to “one who is always watching.”  These men essentially volunteer to stand at a spot along the route and keep track of when buses from various routes have last gone by. They carry notepads or clipboard and appear to have developed a fairly complicated system for keeping track of the last time they saw, for example, a 510 bus go by.  The bus drivers stop to consult with el sapo to understand whether they should slow down or speed up. Because the drivers are paid per customer, it is in their best interest to not follow another bus too closely, but instead be as evenly distributed as possible. The drivers will typically pass along a small tip to el sapo for the information.  My understanding is that this is entirely unofficial–these men have just stepped into this role. They aren’t paid by the bus company or the government and they don’t have a salary; they survive on the tips they are given by the drivers. I’m guessing they make several thousand pesos per day (perhaps $10 or a bit more?) It seems like an incredibly dangerous job–they jump in and out of traffic, often standing in the middle of two lanes of rushing buses and cars.

This blog won’t let me post videos, but you can see a couple of videos I’ve taken of these guys at work here:

And here:

And here is a really wonderful recording of a sapo calling out bus numbers and times for drivers in nearby Viña del Mar.  Let me know how you do understanding Chilean Spanish!


Let the Battle Commence!

The nerdiest (and best) store that I have ever been in. Seriously, this place is awesome.

Weeks ago my family and I discovered this: a small game store that sells Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon trading cards. Upon the first attempt to enter the store, I was literally paralyzed with fear at the idea of entering such a small store where everyone could see me. Stage fright take note, you’ve been outclassed by social anxiety.

By the fourth time visiting the same store, being locked out of our apartment and having been pushed to the entrance by my brother (I am just now realizing that the store owner was probably watching me for the entire thirty minutes that it took for me to enter) I finally just gave up and walked into the store. I immediately went for the table and sat down, as my brother walked around to sit on the other side of the table, a person began walking towards us. After a brief conversation in Spanish, fighting the urge to bolt out of there as fast as possible, and a few quick games of magic, we learn that they hold tournaments there every Monday, Thursday, and occasionally Saturday. We thank the person and leave as quickly as possible. (At least, I do, my brother was trying to drag it out as long as possible.)

Next Thursday, my family approaches the store. I have no idea if anyone speaks English. I have no idea what format they’re playing. Is it Brawl? Standard? Modern? Legacy? Commander?! I have no clue! No one besides me even knows what any of those are! It is going to be a disaster! AND I left all my good cards back home. Nice. All the while, we are getting closer and closer, I had no idea what was next.

I enter the store, it’s nice, there’s eight or so people there, but it feels like twenty. My father approaches the front desk and asks if his sons can play. The person running the store (his name is Victor and he’s a great guy) explained what format it was, how to play it and even lent my brother one of HIS OWN decks to play. Victor, you’re amazing!

Needless to say, I was nervous and didn’t want to play, so I just watched Everett lose horribly. (He got last place.) To my surprise, most of the expensive (aka good) cards were in English, and I already knew most of the cards in standard right now. Everett, on the other hand, had no clue what any of the cards did. It was entertaining and I vowed, next week, I would be back.

For the first time, I actually looked forward to going to this little card store. Victor presented us with different decks to play. It turns out that Victor was a professional Magic player (yes, that is a real thing) and has placed in multiple NATIONAL championships. I chose a really fun and aggressive Adeliz, the Cinderwind, which looks to kill my opponents before they can even dream to stop me, and it worked! I fought my way upwards, sword and cardboard in my hand, I managed to place 3rd, only losing once at the very end. It was fun and I got prizes from it! Everett managed to do better (compared to his first attempt) and placed 7th.

The next time I went, people began to recognize me. I placed 3rd again and got more prizes. So far, I have fought in the pits (figuratively, people there are really nice and civilized) three times, and have placed third in all three, somehow managing to best Victor, something which I have not seen before. I hope to back there again tonight. Wish me luck.

La Campana National Park

Image result for hiking near olmue chile

This weekend while my mother was away, my brother, my dad and I decided to take a trip to one of the national parks close to Valparaiso. With plans for an early start in the morning we went to bed on Friday night. However by 10:00 the following morning we were still searching for our hiking boots, filling water bottles, and researching the best way to travel the nearly 60 kilometers to the national park. Finally, after an hour or more of preparation we left around 11:00 with only a vague idea of how to get where we were headed.

We walked down to the metro and bought tickets to the very last station, Limache. After turning inland at the popular vacation destination next to Valparaíso, Viña del Mar, the metro emerged from the concrete urban tunnels to show us the dry and hilly Chilean landscape dotted with small villages. Inside the metro, there are always a busy few vendors who walk up and down the cars selling everything from fresh fruit to flash drives. Once we stepped off the metro at the last station in Limache we asked for directions to Olmué, the town closest to the base of La Campana. We hurried out with the crowd and entered the warm friendly city of Limache. We found the bus to Olmué easily enough, but we were unsure if La Campana was the final destination.

By the time we reached the center of Olmué we were faced with a decision, either stay on the bus despite not knowing its final destination or get off and walk the rest of the way. My father decided for us that we should get off of the bus, but after checking a map we saw that we still had more than five kilometers to go, and it was already well past noon. On my insistence we flagged down another bus and the driver asked where we were headed. We were informed that we must walk a short ways from where we were dropped off up the hill to the national park. An old lady who got off with us was helpful in pointing us in the right direction. No more than twenty minutes later we finally arrived at the entrance to the park.

Image result for la campana chile
Picture credit to Macca Sherifi, check out his blog for some great information.

The most popular hike led to the peak of Cerro la Campana which offers views of both the Andes Mountain Range and the Pacific Ocean. However we were much too late to attempt that hike as it is around four hours to the summit. Instead we decided to explore a loop through the woods with signs explaining the wildlife. Before the trek we stopped in a nice shaded picnic area to have our lunch. We wandered up to the loop and after a comfortable hour of walking we had seen enough of the lower parts of the park. One of the most entertaining parts of hiking in Chile for me has been watching and chasing after all of the various types of lizards that populate the rocks and trails.

As we headed down we stopped to wait at the bus stop. I was joking to my father about hitchhiking because we hadn’t seen a bus in a while when a car pulled up and a middle aged women offered us a ride down to the center of Olmué. After that act of kindness it was easy to catch the next bus back to Limache, hop on the next train and within an hour or two we were back in our apartment in Valparaiso. From the little we saw of the park it looked beautiful and provided a great day trip to get out of the busy city. We definitely plan to make a trip to the summit one of these upcoming weekends, and we recommend La Campana to anyone visiting Santiago or Valparaíso and looking to get out of the city for a day.

Soccer Game

Our section in the stands remained pretty calm, but the section behind the goal pictured here was constantly drumming, singing, dancing or even lighting flares.

I read in the newspaper that the Santiago Wanderers of Valparaíso were going to have a game on Saturday, February 9th. I had learned a little about the Wanderers as it seemed to be everyone’s favorite team. They are the oldest team still playing in Latin America, and many people take pride in that fact. In fact, it is difficult to walk in the city and not see a green Wanderer’s Jersey. I was impressed by the fan base the team had despite being relegated to the Second Chilean Division in 2017.

My family decided to visit their home stadium which holds upwards of 20,000 people. After the visit to the stadium, my family decided we definitely wanted to go and watch a game there.

However, getting tickets proved to be a challenge. The guards at the stadium explained to us that game tickets were only sold at the small Wanderers clothing store downtown. Luckily we had visited the store earlier so we knew where it was. When we arrived at the shop we were directed to a barred doorway where we were asked for identification. We had to go back to get our passports. We got the expensive tickets so that we would not be in danger.

We went to the game on a sunny Sunday afternoon. We saw many armed guards wearing full padding and ready with riot shields surrounding the stadium. As we entered they patted everyone down so that noisemakers or explosives wouldn’t be brought into the game. However even as the players were warming up some people had managed to smuggle flares and fireworks into the game and were lighting them on fire as they sang and danced. They had many loud drums which they played continuously for almost the whole game.

The Wanderers are not the best team as they got relegated in 2017 to the Second division in Chile. However, they are the oldest team in South America that is still playing and their fans take a lot of pride in that. The soccer game was extremely physical at some points looking like a wrestling match. The Wanderers scored a very nice goal on a free kick outside the box. The Wanderers goalie made several mistakes but the other team never scored even when the keeper rolled it out to the opposing teams striker.

In all 8,000 people attended the game and there were almost no fans from the opposing team so there were no problems as we exited the stadium and boarded the busses. It was a good experience. We hope to go to another game and this time sit in the real fan section, instead of the calm one that costs more money.