I am an American.  That has a lot of different meanings but, spending so much time abroad really brings it home to you.  I like to think I take other nations’ cultures as is and try my best to live as they live.  But, deep down, you can’t change who you are.

An aside: South Americans do not like when people from the United States call themselves, or are called, “American”.  They have a point.  This continent is an America also.  People from South America could justifiably be called “American” and you will occasionally hear reference to American things here whereby they mean South American.  Or even North and South American.  Like I say, they have a point.  But, being the American I am, I will nod sagely at the expression of the opinions of others and keep doing what I do.  Which is consider myself, and all things from the United States, American.  And, let’s face it, that seems to be the view of the rest of the world.  Canadians aren’t clamoring to be called “American” even if they roll their eyes at most of our behaviors.  Anytime I’m in Europe, I am not asked, “Are you from the USA?” I am asked, “Are you American?”  I’m trying very hard not to use that word around Chileans.  But, in my mind, that’s what I am.

This weekend, I put my American spirit on, sort of.  I rented a car.  I had two reasons to rent a car and I figured that is good enough.  Renting a car is not an unusual thing for me here as this was my fourth Chilean rental.  However, it’s the first time where I meant to mostly stay local and have the car overnight at the apartment.  That’s right.  We’re getting serious, me and this car.

The two reasons were: 1) visit the observatory of the local astronomy club and 2) visit El Yeso Dam and Reservoir and hike around at 9,000 feet, well above the Santiago smog layer.  I will save discussion of the first point for later.  For the first time in Chile, I was clouded out of a potential observation and, so, there isn’t really a lot to report.  Hopefully, especially as I paid good money to join their club, I will get a chance to observe with them before I leave.

Before getting to the second point, though, a word about the car.  It is a Suzuki Alto.  It’s a little known fact that you can build an Alto at home.  What you do is this:  you buy a case of Coors Light.  Set a six-pack aside.  Empty the remaining 18 cans and then, using simple scissors, cut the aluminum into the shape of a car.  Next, shotgun the remaining six-pack as rapidly as possible.  Now, look at the car made of cans: shazam! A Suzuki Alto.

Okay, it’s not that bad and it performed admirably and underestimating its abilities cost me in the end.  But it is very , very small.  I mean, why worry that the guy literally dragged the car from its parking space with one hand?

I would not normally rent a car to go grocery shopping.  There are two stores within walking distance of me.  The Ekono is about 5 minutes away and good for a lot of things.  On the way to the Ekono I pass a produce shop and a bakery so that trip can take care of most things.  The Unimarc is a more upscale store and is my preference.  It’s about 10 minutes away.  Obviously, when walking I only buy as much as I can carry.  So, I visit one of the two every couple of days.  You know how it is, you usually forget something.  It’s city life and it’s fine.  It’s even good for me.  I don’t eat as much and I get some exercise.

However, a little after 2pm on this Saturday, I found myself driving a car, passing by Unimarc.  So I stopped.  And I behaved in an overtly American fashion.  We eat a lot, we Americans.  Not that you can tell, of course.  No, we’re just a big boned country.  And young.  We’ll grow out of it, I’m sure.  In any case, the Unimarc, in a very non-city move, has a parking garage.  So, lots of people drive there.  But they still shop as if they’re the Chileans that they are.  Three, four bags tops.  I filled my cart.  Mostly heavy stuff that won’t go bad.  Lots of bottled water (con gas).  Lots of boxes of milk (it is, indeed, a strange land).  Suffice to say I won’t need to buy TP or shampoo again in South America.  A couple bushels of cereal.   It really did feel like home.  When I got to the checkout, the lady at the register and the bagger sort of goggled.  By the time the bagger was halfway through, a couple of other baggers had wandered over to watch.  I made sure to tip well.  They were very open about their amazement and…disapproval is too strong a term.  They didn’t disapprove, they just didn’t approve, either.  I smiled – damned Yankees smiling all the time – and admitted I had no RUT before I was asked.  The checkout lady chuckled;  I’m not sure she was going to ask this time.

If I routinely had a car, I obviously wouldn’t have stocked up so much.  But I don’t, so I did.  I got it all home and into our parking garage and it took me two trips to bring it all up.  I’m glad none of my neighbors saw me.  It turns out that the university apartment comes with a parking space and a gate opener.  The opener is dead as I don’t think anyone has used the parking space in five years.  I’ve talked with the two previous resident professors and neither have mentioned a car.  The parking space is a convenient thing to have.  I can rent the night before and be off in the morning.

After unloading the groceries, I left for the observatory, briefly stopping to talk to my wife who was standing, or perhaps in some strange yoga pose, atop Angel’s Landing, and then I spent a couple of hours with a bunch of guys and their telescopes all looking at the clouds with resignation.  That part was very like a club observation back home.  Note to Forsyth Astronomical Society club members: they have their meetings at observations.  If it’s clear, they do a quick business meeting and get to scoping.  I bring this up for no particular reason.

On the drive to the observatory, I had a half hour drive each way.  Driving in Santiago isn’t bad.  It isn’t great, I don’t like city driving, but I’ve driven in worse cities in the USA.  I’d rather drive in Santiago than Boston, for instance.  It’s very like a western American (sorry) city in that regard.  Dry, relatively flat, grid like.  Folks generally stay in their lanes and obey lights.

Which car belongs to the American?  Ha! They both do!  Didn’t you read anything up above?  But that’s my ride on the right.  Note, also, the tag is well suited to the program.  Also, my neighbor parks like crap.  Probably because no one has parked next to him for 5 years.  Even the kid’s bike is over the line.  Fortunately, I don’t need a lot of space with this car.

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The second point to the car was to drive up Cajon del Maipo to the El Yeso Dam and reservoir where, I am told, one can find crisp mountain air, good hiking trails and beautiful sights.  The dam is at about 8,400 feet.  We probably ended up passing 9,000 during the hike.  The drive from my apartment is two and a half hours.  It was longer on this Sunday morning because the Santiago marathon/half-marathon/10K was being run and we were inside the loop.  We ended up taking over three hours to get there.  I’d been worried the Alto would not make it but it did fine.

I threw open an invitation to the class and had three takers.  A fourth was considering it as I had said I could take four.  But that was before I saw the car.  I felt bad about feeling so good that the fourth bowed out but she’d have never fit.  We made the drive, the students getting their first look at Cajon del Maipo which is a wonderful drive.  But three hours in a cramped car is a lot for anyone so we made frequent stops.  Gas, a waterfall, a trickle in the road that, with a trick of the light made it look like you were driving into a cave.  Finally, we arrived at the dam.  One of the students had actually done some research and said we should drive to the end of the road to find the trails.

We got to the far side of the reservoir and had to ford a creek.  It was flowing pretty good and I was really unsure of the abilities of the car.  There were a lot of cars parked there so I assumed that was it.  We parked and set off down the road.  I should have kept going.  We set a turn around time a little over an hour later and headed off down the dirt road.  And kept going on the dirt road, being passed every so often by cars smaller than the Alto.  Might have been a guy on a segway.  Ah, well.  We never reached the end of the road so never arrived at the “trails”.  Next time, I’ll ford that stupid creek.

But the walking we did do was great.

We opted to walk back along the Rio Yeso before it hits the reservoir.  Much nicer than the dirt road.  The students trying to keep up with me.

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The colors in the area were spectacular.

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You can’t walk anywhere in the Cajon del Maipo without picking up a dog or two.  This one herded us forward until we turned around.  After that, he herded us back the way we came.  When we left the road for the river he gave up on us and went to herd goats.

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El Rio Yeso

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Unidentified peak we might have hiked to had I been braver.

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The reservoir.  Just had a drink of this.  Tasty.

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