Yo Ho, Yo Ho, the Expat Life for Me!

In an earlier post, I promised that I’d write an entry about some realities of being an geologist expat abroad. Admittedly, my stint is only a few months long, so it’s not especially representative of what it’s like to live for a few years, but it’s something to write about.

It’s easy to take a lot of things from home for granted, and the old saying of “you only miss it once it’s gone” is quite true, such as hearing this everyday (a rough calculation for how many times I’ve heard it gives an estimate of around >5,000 times in my life so far)! Luckily while I was in Santiago recently, I popped into Whittard’s, and bought 50 teabags of Assamese tea, so that ought to tide me over for the next fortnight! There’s no milk at the mine, but beggars can’t be choosers! I’ve already mentioned the tea aspect, but what else would I bring with me, were I packing once more?

First of all, I’d definitely have packed my short wave radio. The internet at work blocks lots of stuff, including online radio (I foolishly assumed that this would not have been the case, hence why I didn’t pack said radio), and so a short wave radio would be super handy, as it would enable me to listen to the World Service (I’d die for the Shipping Forecast right now – theme tune, and one such forecast).

Secondly, (applicable only to geologists I’m afraid), I’d have brought my DHZ with me. To those of you unfamiliar with this acronym, it stands for Deer, Howie, and Zussman (not the initials of my friends to whom I often refer – makes a change eh?), who are the authors of a rather helpful book. Essentially it is a guide to minerals (the clue is in the title “An Introduction to the Rock Forming Minerals“), and in geology, it’s difficult to live without it. Those Collins Gem “Rocks and Minerals” books (or those of a similar nature) are nice to read, but geologically, they’re pretty worthless. Yes, emerald and topaz look nice, but let’s be honest, how many rocks have you actually seen with emeralds in? Exactly. They have a tendency to omit the more common minerals, such as plagioclase, k-spar, or biotite for example (all of which are likely to be knocking about your granite kitchen work top), and useful information (such as how the extinction angle relates to the % Albite : % Anorthite in your plag crystal – ok, admittedly I’m not looking at any thin sections here, but DHZ does have lots of stuff about hand specimen appearance, as well as details on paragenesis). DHZ has all the useful information on the important minerals, and so to say it’s handy is rather a large understatement.

To the geologists reading this, imagine trying a GSB/C2/O9 practical that lasts for 3 months, when the nearest copy of DHZ is 8,000 miles away. Not a nice thought right? Does it make your skin crawl? Yes, I thought it might! Clever me for not bringing it is all I can say (although I’ve managed to get a copy of the pdf of the C2 handout – not easy when university sites for some reason are blocked on the company internet – don’t ask why, as nobody knows), so that’ll do the job….ish! To those of you who are not geologists, an appropriate analogy is to imagine yourself as a vicar, and attempting to write a sermon without a copy of the Bible. Fortunately, there’s a book that is a bit like DHZ that they use in Chile, which isn’t bad, although it’s written in Spanish (obviously), so reading it takes quite a while!

Another couple of books I’d love to have brought with me (which only those of you with whom I was at school are likely to know) are Caminos 1, 2, and 3. These were the textbooks with which I was taught Spanish from First Form, to GCSE (in Fifth Form), and so, now that I’m in a Spanish speaking country, having these to hand to do some swotting would be rather good.

The other aspect you need to contend with when living abroad is sorting out everyday chores. The SIM card problem has been resolved, but what about more boring things, such as laundry? There is no laundry at the mine, as very few people actually live here. Neither is there laundry at the hotel. Luckily if you Google “Lavanderías en Santiago” you get a list of places you can go to. Not the most fun way to spend an afternoon, but if you run out of clothes (as I shall in a couple of weeks), there’s not a lot of choice!

An Exciting Weekend

Well, it’s the end of my free weekend in Santiago.  Tomorrow morning (at 5:45), I shall be leaving for the mine for the next 11 days.  I’ve had a great time this weekend.

Friday night with JD was a lot of fun.  We went to Barrio Bellavista, and had a quick and cheap meal, with a couple of terremotos [link in Spanish] on the side (we decided not to go to the crazy bar as we’d been warned by lots of people that going at night was definitely not a clever move).  Terremoto is an interesting drink, and a very potent one at that.  It’s very good though, and I’ll try to get the recipe, so I can introduce it to the UK!

After that, we went to another bar, and had a chat with some Chileans, who were very charming indeed.  JD can’t speak Spanish, so I was interpreter.  Not the easiest task after two terremotos, and a litre of beer, but hey, I like a challenge!  They left, but then the people at the next table chatted with us for a while.  Then they took JD and I to another bar down the road (called En Secreto – Google Maps, you can see it on Street View), which was tiny, but absolutely packed.  There was karaoke galore there, and we had a fun time talking with all the people we’d met.  At about 4:30 we decided it was time to go home, and walked for ages.  Turns out it was completely the wrong direction.  We asked some people for directions, and they said it was 40 blocks away.  Nice!  We cut our losses and just jumped in a cab.

Saturday morning was a complete write off, but in the afternoon JD and I visited Pueblito los Dominicos, which is in the outskirts of Santiago.  It’s a group of artisan craft shops, and it was lovely.  I bought an alpacan wool scarf, and a bombilla (although I’m not quite sure how to use this yet – I’ll ask my colleagues later).

After dumping our stuff, we essentially repeated what we did on Friday night, and ended up at En Secreto again (after the compulsory terremotos and litres of beer), and had a chat with some new friendly Chileans.  JD and I decided to do a little karaoke ourselves, so I ended up doing a rendition of Sultans of Swing (admittedly a pretty poor one).  The advantage of Dire Straits though is that most of their songs only involve Mark Knopfler saying the words rather than actually singing (thereby mitigating any issues with being out of tune on the karaoke front)!  We went home at about 3 ish, this time getting a cab all the way.

Today was pretty quiet, and consisted solely of my buying of some tea from the Whittard’s down the road (in the large shopping centre by the massive new tower).  No more Té Club for me anymore!

A sleepy street on a Sunday in Santiago.

A sleepy street on a Sunday in Santiago.

I then met JD, had some tea in a café (the same café where I wrote the postcards on Friday, at a shopping centre near my hotel), grabbed a burger for supper, and went home.

The biggest burger I've had in my entire life.  Beef, 3 cheeses (blue, mozzarella, and cheddar), mushrooms, red onion, and lettuce. (Click to enlarge)

The biggest burger I’ve had in my entire life. Beef, 3 cheeses (blue cheese, mozzarella, and cheddar), mushrooms, red onion, and lettuce. (Click to enlarge)

Back to Santiago

First off, my form has been found, so I’m not going to be an illegal immigrant. Wooo!

Anyway, enough of that nonsense.  Last night I returned to Santiago for my free weekend, and it’s going really well so far.  After I arrived, I met up with JD, who’s the other intern based in Chile (although he’s at a different mine), and we went over to an Irish bar for supper near his flat.  We had fajitas and cheesy chips (good combination, you should try it some time), and had a good chat before heading home.

Today has been very busy.  I got up, and left my hotel at about 9:45. First I bought some postcards, and then went to a nearby shopping centre, to get a nice cup of tea.

Ahhh, lovely!

Ahhh, lovely!

I wrote the cards (to my family, TKC, PC, and LB), and got them all posted off at the nearby Correos.  After that, I topped up my phone with more internet, and then decided to go and see what Barrio Bellavista was like, having been recommended to go there.  I decided to get the Santiago version of an Oyster Card (called a tarjeta bip! – presumably because of the beep noise the machine makes when you scan it), and took the metro to Baquedano station.

El Metro

El Metro

I found the Patio Bellavista quite easily, which is a small area, with lots of shops and bars/restaurants.  I had some lunch, grabbed some cash from the ATM, and bought a large Chilean flag as a souvenir.  Then I went halfway up San Cristobal hill to Santiago Zoo to see what they had.

At the bottom of the hill.  Because llama.

At the bottom of the hill, in Bellavista. Because llama.

It was quite interesting.  In addition to the usual elephants/lions/giraffes/penguins/etc., they had some native Chilean animals (such as flamingos).  However, what I thought was great, was the fact that they had bog standard mute swans, and guinea fowl (for the latter, luckily I wasn’t hungry, as I’d just had lunch).

Yes, those are just normal swans.

Yes, those are just normal swans.

There was quite a good view from the zoo too.

Santiago from halfway up San Cristobal hill.

Santiago from halfway up San Cristobal hill.

Afterwards, I took the metro to Tobalaba station, which is past my hotel, as I wanted to walk back through all the various small shopping centres that pepper the area.

On the way back to the hotel from Tobalaba station.

On the way back to the hotel from Tobalaba station.

There was a huge amount of variety, and several were themed.  A couple consisted mainly of normal shops, that people use for everyday chores (e.g. cobblers, greengrocers, etc.).

Normal, small, local shopping  centre.

Normal, small, local shopping centre.

I came across a couple that were several floors high, but the floor was a helix, so it wound up and up.  Theme wise, there was a LOT of variation, including electronics, computer games, and… well, what made me think I was in Soho in the 1970s… (no photos of THAT I’m afraid haha)!  The electronics ones reminded me of the similar ones in Mong Kok in Hong Kong, with all the tiny shops selling cameras etc.

Oooooo spirals!

Oooooo spirals!

Anyway, I’m now back in my room, and will be meeting up with JD shortly to go back to Bellavista for the evening.

Well This is Awkward!

Good news everyone!  My passport and work visa have arrived!  Unfortunately, that’s where the good news stops.  Essentially my work visa is valid for a month, after which it gets renewed (and then renewed again each month until I go home).  While in itself that’s quite simple, with no hassle at all, there is a minor problem.

When you enter Chile as a tourist, you have to fill in a tourist immigration form.  When applying for the work permit, your passport and this gets sent off.  Finally, you need this form to leave Chile, as it’s a record of your arrival and departure from the country.  All in all, this piece of paper is quite handy, and not something you want to lose.  Except that’s the problem.  Someone has lost it.  I last saw it as I handed it and my passport over 10 days ago in Santiago (both of which were needed for the work visa application, ergo, it cannot possibly be in my possession), and now my passport has returned without it.  Nice!

What does this mean?  Well, that’s anyone’s guess.  Maybe I can’t renew my work visa?  Maybe I’m soon to be an illegal immigrant?  Maybe I’m stuck in Chile forever, having to adopt a secret new identity, living in a cave in Tierra del Fuego?  Who knows!  I asked what happens if they don’t find it, the answer I got was “I don’t know”!  I promised myself I wouldn’t write this in my blog, but #YOLO! (hehehehe).

The Great SIM Card Hunt

Today is a public holiday in Chile, and so the geologists weren’t in.  Yesterday, as their computer was very slow, a couple of them decided to decorate a large cardboard box as a coffin as an office prank, and leave it (in an ominous fashion) in the field assistants’ office.  This morning, the field assistants promptly responded by writing the geologists’ names on the coffin, and leaving it for them to find.

Anyway, after all the fun and games this morning, it was time to find the SIM card again.  We first went to a small town called Nogales, but nowhere was open.  We did however see a large church procession with dancing and music going along one of the quiet streets.  Anyway, after that, it was back to La Calera, and, while most shops were shut, one telecoms place was open.  As luck would have it, they had the right sized SIM for my phone, so I bought it.  Good stuff.  Finally I could chat to some people back home – hooray.

Afterwards, we had some lunch back at the mine, followed by a bit of drill core examination.  Now I’m back in the office, sorting out plans for the weekend with the other intern (who is currently in Santiago, as he is based at a mine near the city, so has an apartment from which he commutes in each day).  He’s probably around this weekend, so we’ll be visiting an interesting bar if all goes well.  It’s quite famous, with a drink called terremoto (lit. “earthquake”) – allegedly because it’s difficult to stand up afterwards.  I’ll let you know on the weekend whether this is true or not.

The End of the Week

Sunday passed quietly.  In the morning, after checking my emails, we headed into a small town called La Calera.  The wooden houses with their corrugated iron roofs sprung up as we left the Pan-American Highway.  We stopped outside a small corner shop, and they went in to get lottery tickets.  A cat snoozed on the shop counter, and the proprietor was dusting the shop surfaces with the aid of an old rag and spit.  On the street outside, it was very relaxed, almost what you’d read about in a book.  The warm wintery sun was rising over the hills, and a sleepy village was waking up.  People were going about their daily lives, buying bread, smoking, and generally having a chat.  A few stray dogs were outside playing with an old plastic bottle they’d found, while street cleaners were sweeping away the dirt with broomsticks.  Overhead, the telegraph cables wove a spider’s web throughout the town.

La Calera

La Calera

One thing that was unusual did catch my eye, namely a homemade convertible.  It was just a bog standard small car, a sort of old Fiat Panda/Vauxhall Corsa job, except someone had put the front half of the roof on a hinge, so it could be folded back onto the back half as a convertible.  I have a feeling it wouldn’t pass its MOT, but it was an interesting sight to see. 


Seems legit… (click to enlarge)

The field assistants kindly took me to some shops where I could get a Chilean SIM card, but unfortunately, as it was a Sunday, most of the shops were shut.  The large department stores that had electronics sections were open, but none had the correct size SIM for my phone, so the search had to be abandoned.  The shopping experience was a little awkward at times, as my safety steel capped boots set off all the alarms in the shops, so I got a few strange looks.  Not ideal.

La Calera

La Calera

After lunch, I looked at the core for a while, before we called it a day.  Pretty quiet overall.

Time to Explore

Before I begin, the more eagle eyed readers amongst you would have noticed that I never mentioned that I’d found a source for some UK tea (Whittard’s in Santiago), in spite of saying that I miss it.  That’s because I’d forgotten, and it took me until supper last night to remember.  Anyway, after supper last night, the field assistants very kindly showed me where to see Crux in the night sky (as I happened to comment on the way back that I really wanted to see it before I went back to the UK.  Now that I’ve seen it, that’s one thing on the proverbial bucket list to tick off.

Today was the visit to the exploration site, and is the first time I’ve been into the field properly as a proper Exploration Geologist (a job has elicited responses that include “very macho”, and “like Indiana Jones” – beautiful irony that any of you who know me personally will appreciate).  After breakfast we set off, descending through the clouds, just as the sun was rising over the foothills of the Andes, to the Pan-American Highway.  Once on it, I saw the most stereotypical South American sight you could possibly imagine.  Yes, it was a bloke on a horse, riding down the hard shoulder, complete with hat and woolly poncho.  Brilliant!

We stopped off in a small village called La Ligua, to get some sarnies.  The difference between this place and Santiago was huge.  Gone were the glass office blocks and high rise flats.  Instead, slightly tired clapboard bungalows were in their place.  On the side of the motorway were small stalls, their owners flagging down cars to purchase their trinkets and fruit.

A street in La Ligua

A street in La Ligua

We pressed on, and left the Pan-American far behind, and climbed into the mountains, leaving all civilisation behind.  Driving up a beautiful valley along a “track”, it felt very remote.

It was only after we’d forded the river where things started to get interesting.


As we drove up the mountains, the “track” was blocked in some places.  Not ideal.  If you think your commute is tough (maybe if there’s been a signal failure, or ASLEF/RMT are on strike again), at least you didn’t literally have to clear the road of rock with your bare hands.

The track in the hills

The track in the hills

Anyway, we climbed higher and higher into the mountains, crossing several more rivers in the process, and the scenery was stunning.  Breathtaking in fact.  Almost literally breathtaking (give the large drop in air pressure from the ascent).  We were much higher than the whole of the UK, and kept going, before stopping at an abandoned mine.  It was interesting to visit a creepy, abandoned, flooded Chilean copper mine, but we didn’t go in very far for obvious reasons (maybe 10 metres at most).

Creepy abandoned mine entrance.

Creepy abandoned mine entrance.

Over the top of the pass we went, until we got to the final stop (by this point, the “track” was more of a scree slope), a viewpoint that overlooks the whole of the mine that I’m staying at.  It was a spectacular sight to take in.


Not too bad a view for your work environment! (Click to enlarge)

After this, it was time to head home.  As we descended, a group of Andean Condors were spotted (right at the very top of the mountain) just flying about.  Apparently they only live at 2,000 metres or higher.

Andean Condors flying about

Andean Condors flying about