Fun, Feasting, and Final Farewells

It’s time for another alliterative title for a post, and it’s been a busy week this week.

I turned up on Tuesday morning to find one of my colleagues smiling at me, and telling me to be careful when I opened the packet my tea’s in.  I was intrigued, and upon entering the office, saw that the lid was kept shut by the addition of a small rock.  Foolishly I assumed that he’d probably put something like one of those spring powered joke snakes that burst out when you open the lid.  How wrong I was.

Being a cautious fellow, I took the rock off carefully, and tentatively opened the lid, very slowly.  Inside, I saw a leg, and thin, brown, hairy leg.  I should have guessed.  A tarantula (of the same type as I saw on the weekend).  I took the box to my colleague’s office laughing, and asked if it was alive.  It was, and we released it onto the desk, before picking it up.  While the tarantula was rather intimidating, it was perfectly harmless, and a couple of minutes later, we released it unharmed outside.

My new friend

My new friend

 Anyway, moving on.  Last night was my final night at the mine, which was rather sad.  On the upside, we had a big barbecue, of sausages and a huge slab of beef (along with salads etc.).  One of the field assistants was in charge of cooking, and given that he used to be a butcher, was the perfect man for the job.  He cooked the meat perfectly, and it was delicious.

A brilliant barbecue

A brilliant barbecue

After eating, my colleagues very kindly gave me a gift, of some traditional chilean games, including a trompo, which is a traditional chilean spinning top, which you power by throwing.  I wasn’t very good, and definitely need a lot of practice, but apparently it often takes a few years to be good at it, so I wasn’t discouraged.  We played this for a while, and had a lot of fun, before calling it a night and heading to bed.

Anyway, all good things must come to an end, and sadly, today is my final day at the mine.  However, there’s an exciting week ahead, as on Monday morning, I’m off to Easter Island for the week, and I’m looking forward to that a great deal.

Special Edition: Football’s Coming Home

(Author’s Note: This post isn’t particularly special in itself per se, however, it is a long one, and there are plenty of anecdotes in it, but anyway, I digress.  Oh, and if there are any typos, please let me know, as at over 2,000 words, I’m bound to have missed one!)

It’s not possible to visit South America without playing football, and so that’s what I got up to last night with some of the guys from the office, in the form of an hour long four a side match at a small indoor stadium in the town of Nogales.  At prep school, I discovered that football was not one of my talents, and in the decade that has elapsed between then and now, my prowess could not be said to have improved.  As the match went on, the dismal skills of yours “might as well not have had legs for all the difference it would have made” truly became more and more apparent, and things weren’t helped by my difficulty in understanding various colloquialisms my teammates said to me, while out of breath, in a dialect of my third language.  Add this to my rather impressive hand-eye coordination skills, and you’ve got a winning combination.  The bloke whose job at the mine is to organise stuff like this came on to help our team halfway through, so we had one extra player, although seeing as I was worth about -2 players, our fortunes didn’t improve too much.  It was a laugh, but I was rotten from start to finish, but hey, at least I’m consistent.  However, at the end, we all got some excellent empanadas to eat, which was a nice surprise!

Empanada

Empanada

 

Unfortunately, my rather dismal performance is not just limited to football.  Most sports are beyond me, well beyond me.  While I am able to do stuff like play the bassoon, or write a sonnet (if suitable incentivised), sport has never been one of my talents.  So let’s have a summary of my extensive expertise.  Sit back, put the kettle on, and relax, for we’ve got a lot to get through!

We start off in the late 1990s, while I was at prep school.  Most of my time there was spent playing football, my skills of which clearly need no introduction.  Typically we were split into two groups during lessons, with one side wearing the home shirts of the school (a rather deep shade of maroon), and the other donning the away colours (maroon and white stripes).  Often this was done on an ability basis, with the two groups being taught separately, and the stripes were usually worse (no prizes for guessing which shirt of mine was used more often).

Cricket was a sport that I played in the summer of prep school, under the excellent tuition of a (sadly now late) Mr. Johnston (who was liked by all, and an absolute giant – over 2 metres tall, which to an eight year old is huge).  I’m not being sarcastic, he really was a lovely bloke, and was extremely patient, teaching me the rules of cricket and how to bowl.  One game on a summer’s afternoon that sticks in the mind was especially memorable because I attracted the ire of my fellow fielders when I and JF (another friend), who were supposed to be fielding, missed the catch (and therefore allowed the other team to score about 10 runs), because instead of paying attention, we were sitting on the grass having a nice chat (probably about Pokemon, seeing as it was at its peak at that point).  To be fair, it was a gorgeous summer’s day, and my school was in a heavily forested valley in the Surrey Hills.  Idyllic doesn’t even begin to describe the scene with any justice (or rather, the scene before my friends conceded quite a few runs – although to be fair, my friends on the other team were delighted. Every cloud eh?).

I recall that after prep school, when I moved on to the senior school (yes I was educated privately my whole life, “haters gonna hate” and all that), football was abolished, and we went on to play rugby.  Once more, this was not a sport that I was any good at, and the Saturday morning turnouts and pre-season training sessions were the bane of my life (and were very quickly abandoned, in spite of my mother’s attempts to bribe me with a cooked breakfast if I attended them).  My father once said that he was very proud when he watched me “play” in the U12 C team match (we only had one fixture that year), in spite of me doing essentially nothing.  After this introduction to the sport, the C team (who rather interestingly, with respect to the boys who’d been at the prep school, was mainly composed of former stripe wearers) was disbanded, and from Second Form onwards, we were reincorporated as a group known as the Legends (one of those delightfully sarcastic in-jokes that private schools love dreaming up).  I never really had any affinity to rugby, although being in the Legends didn’t really help matters for two reasons.  Firstly, we didn’t actually play any proper rugby, and secondly, most of our time was spent up on the hill fields, crawling through mud in the middle of winter, in the rain and gale force winds, wearing only a thin shirt and shorts.  That’s often how it is with sport at private school, lots of doses of very cold weather and broken limbs – for my unfortunate friends at least, I was fortunately exempted from the broken limbs aspect of this (presumably owing to my attaching a greater importance to self-preservation than to any sporting awards).  In fact several friends got frostbite once on a Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award expedition several years later, but that’s an anecdote for another day.  Things didn’t improve much in the Spring Term, which was dedicated to hockey.  Yes folks, I was a member of the Legends for that too, (as were most of the other rugby Legends too now that I think about it).

A couple of years later, I took up golf at the local club, and in spite of having weekly lessons for several years, never really managed to improve my game.  After becoming a member, I was given the worst handicap possible (as was customary for new members), which I could then improve by playing in competitions weekly.  Well, I was supposed to be able to improve it, although it’s somewhat difficult to improve on something if you can’t actually achieve the base mark.  Yes, I never once managed to reach my actual handicap.  The proverbial icing on the cake came when I was playing a casual game with a friend of mine (JS), who was much better at me than golf.  We’d agreed to play medal, which essentially means you can’t abandon a hole.  That was a big mistake.  On my local course, the fifth hole is a par five, with a large lake breaking up the fairway.  This lake was the recipient of a large number of my golf balls, so many in fact, that I ran out, and had to borrow some from JS.  I eventually holed the ball, with a respectable score of 54 (funnily enough, my handicap was 54 too, although that was for the whole course…).  It was after this incident that I invested in a lake golf ball retrieval device, and JS and I often only played the front nine, before spending the afternoon on the back nine, in the woods, scavenging lost golf balls, instead of playing the second half of the course.  One occasion we did this, he accidentally concussed himself, went a bit crazy for a few hours, and subsequently got angry with a tree for “annoying” him, but, like the D of E frostbite story, that’s an anecdote for another day.

Once Fifth Form came around, there was much more freedom in the choice of sport we could do.  Well aware of my limitless ability for failure, I elected at first to go to the gym.  It must be said at this point that I despise the gym as a place.  The atmosphere and environment I find highly unpleasant.  So why did I choose it?  Essentially for two main reasons, firstly, most of the Legends did as well (after four years together, we were loathe to split up, in spite of the Legends officially being disbanded at the end of Fourth Form), and secondly, it was an extremely easy way to be able to appear to be busy without actually doing anything (which is something I am good at!).  Luckily, the staff supervising the gym were rather gormless gap year students, who, when they did finally notice a my penchant for laziness and came over to berate me for it (often with a self satisfied smirk on their face), could be dealt with rather easily by employing a few sarcastic rejoinders.

Sixth Form then came around, and I decided to take up épée fencing.  This was a sport that I actively enjoyed, and was slightly better at than the others (not that the bar was set especially high – and, while we’re on the subject of bars, high jump was another unsuccessful venture of mine).  It was a lot of fun, and you learn how to fight someone with a sword, which is pretty exciting, so Lower Sixth wasn’t too bad.

By the time Upper Sixth appeared, I’d had enough of enforced sport, having experienced it and been appalling at it for well over a decade by now, and so I contrived a plan to deceive the system.  Essentially the way it worked was that at the beginning of each term, everyone signed up for a sport, and the list of names for each then comprised the register for each.  Clearly it didn’t take a genius to work out that if you failed to sign up in the first place, your name would not feature on the register, and therefore you would not be missed.  The plan worked perfectly, except once, when the staff conducted a year wide audit of who was and was not present, at which point my scheme was noticed (although the following week, and all subsequent weeks it worked perfectly again).  Luckily for me, due to a highly unfortunate bout of amnesia by the head of Sixth Form (who, to be honest, could not realistically or truthfully be described as competent by any stretch of the imagination), my name was not entered into the detention database on the school IT system (although to be honest, if it had, various friends could have removed my name from said system anyway using a selection of nefarious means to do so, hence it would never have been an issue really).  So instead of wasting time in the gym etc. I spent many enjoyable afternoons up with my friends (primarily ZKZ and KLL) who lived in the boarding house (being from Hong Kong and Guangzhou, it would have been rather difficult for them to have been day boys), drinking squash, eating biscuits, chatting with the matrons, and generally wasting time in a fun and sociable way.

I did however do some sport in the Upper Sixth, I wasn’t completely bone idle.  Cross country was what I opted for in the end.  I’m sure that it surprises you greatly to hear that, especially once I say that it was the least popular sport in the school, and one that was almost universally hated with a passion by pretty much every pupil.  However, all is not as it seems.  The bonus was that it was unsupervised.  This meant, once you were out of sight, you were essentially free to do whatever you desired.  So our plan consisted of running up the road and round the corner (until we were out of sight of the school), at which point we walked, chatted, and generally had a laugh.  Once we’d entered the woods (at a leisurely pace of course), we spent the afternoon enjoying fun pursuits such as playing hide and seek.  We almost went to the local pub once, which was down the road from the woods, but none of us remembered any money, so alas that plan didn’t come to fruition.  Who was in this band of miscreants you wonder?  I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that it was us boys who formerly made up the Legends.

Wild Tarantula Appeared!

As with all “Wild x/y/z appeared” things, you do need the compulsory Pokémon fight music in the background.

So there I was, in the pickup truck, on my way to supper, when all of a sudden, the field assistant yelled “¡Una araña!” [A spider!].  Ok, so he didn’t actually yell, but it fits the narrative better than “remarked” or “commented”, and adds to the generic sense of tension and excitement.  Anyway, I digress.

He stopped the truck, and I jumped out to have a closer look.  I spent a minute looking, but to no avail.  I assume it was because I was looking for something more similar in size to our UK house spiders.  How wrong I was…

One of my colleagues then came over and pointed out what it was that I was supposed to be seeing.  Let’s say it wasn’t a sight for the arachnophobic.  This chap was massive (about the size of the palm of my hand), and furry, oh so very furry.  My colleagues then informed me that in fact it was only a baby (awwwww), and the adult ones are really much larger (probably around twice the size).  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo as I didn’t have my phone on me, but after a chat, my colleagues said it was Una Araña Pollito, or a Rose Hair Tarantula to you and me.  Here is a good picture of how large these guys can grow [NB: If you don’t like spiders, I would strongly advise against clicking that link]!

A Trip To The Mountains

Hello again everyone!  I know it’s been a while, but nothing really happened while I was in Santiago on Monday and Tuesday (I spent most of my time watching videos on YouTube and eating takeaways).

Anyway, on Wednesday I went to visit another mine owned by my employer, which is in the mountains behind Santiago.  It’s about 3600m above sea level, and is very different to my mine.  For a start, it is much much larger, and secondly, there’s no vegetation, merely lots of snow, wind, and rock.

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It was an interesting place to visit, and it was a good opportunity to see more of the business, and more mining operations, but I have to admit, I prefer working at my mine!

Returning To Civilisation

All good things must come to an end, and for me, my desert adventure is sadly over, and my flight will be departing in a few hours.  It’s been a brilliant experience, and very surreal in places, but it’s been fantastic overall.  So, I think this final desert based post ought to be dedicated to the things I shall and shan’t miss about living here.  So, without further ado, let’s take a look!

Things that I’ll miss about living in the desert:

1.  The scenery  

Yes of course this had to feature.  Admittedly it’s not quite as verdant as the Surrey Hills, but there’s nothing like waking up each morning, looking out of the window at a massive volcano, blue skies, and sand everywhere.  Very different, but beautiful too.

2.  The sense of adventure  

I mean, my office is literally a desert (at least when I’m not writing up rock analyses on Excel).  What do I do at work?  I go out and collect samples.  I work outdoors, and what could be more exciting than exploring?  Life is all about exploring, whether it’s who you are as a person, or the world, or ideally both.  I admit that living in pretty inhospitable conditions might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for me personally, working in such a place as the Atacama Desert is a brilliant adventure.  Also, it’s quite a “manly” job I guess (an attribute that those of you who know me personally know I most certainly lack), and people have said I must therefore be “very macho”, and “like Indiana Jones” (although Indiana Jones didn’t benefit from a Toyota Hilux carrying him around everywhere).

3.  The ease of the commute

Everyone hates having to travel to work, but for me, all I have to do is get out of bed, and I’m there.  Couldn’t be easier!

4.  The unpredictability

For most people, going to work is pretty similar day in, day out. Something along the lines of: Get up, travel to office, work, return home, eat and sleep.  Repeat Monday to Friday.  After my experience in the desert, one thing I must admit is that you can never tell what’ll happen next.  While I’ve been here, my bedroom/office has been hit by an earthquake in the middle of the night, and I got snowed in for two days when a random snowstorm decided to make an appearance.

5.  The dark skies

Coming from the UK (and near London to boot), the difference between the night sky there and here in the Atacama is astonishing. There is no light pollution at night (aside from a couple of lights in the camp, but you can go behind the containers to eliminate their light). No town exists within 100 miles, and the high altitude, and cold temperatures only add to the clarity of the skies.  It really is stunning.

So that’s the list of five things I’ll miss about the Atacama, but what about the things that I won’t be missing?  Well, here we go!

Things that I’ll not miss about living in the desert:

1.  The lack of constant running water

We all take access to running water for granted, but up here in the desert, it’s not so constant.  Only available during the day, at night you’re on your own.  Not got a bottle of water to hand, but need to clean your teeth/shave/wash your hands/flush the loo?  Tough luck sonny, you’ll have to wait until morning.

2.  The lack of any humidity whatsoever

While out in both the Far East, and the United States, I knew what high temperatures and humidity meant, namely hot, sticky, sweaty, clammy yuckness!  As a result, I’m not a fan of high humidity. However, very low humidity is pretty horrendous too.  Not got a chap stick?  Sucks to be you then!  Without that, you’ll have a rather unpleasant and painful time.  After my first few days, my lips were completely ruined (but luckily with a chap stick I managed to salvage the situation a bit).  I was tempted to take a photo, but it would have meant me having to pull a “duckface” in order to illustrate my point (hahaha, like that was ever going to happen)!

3.  The cold

I’ve probably already mentioned this, but at night it gets extremely cold.  Getting up in the morning is really really difficult, and when you want to take a swig of water, but find your water bottle frozen, it illustrates the point rather nicely.  By looking at my computer’s internal temperature sensors, it appeared that my room was a rather delightful -5°C when I woke up.

4.  The fact that you can’t use the loo properly

Sort of related to the first thing I won’t be missing.  Essentially, when you use the loo, you cannot put loo roll down it (as it apparently buggers the system up).  Instead, the loo roll has to go in an adjacent bin.  And yes readers, that does unfortunately include after you’ve had a dump…

5.  The altitude

To be honest, I won’t really not miss the altitude, as (aside from the first couple of days) it’s been pretty kind to me.  However, the first few days (with the headache, constant dehydration, and very bizarre dreams with interrupted sleep) were not ideal.  The main issue I have with the altitude is that physical work can be pretty tiring.  Seeing that walking up hills carrying rocks probably counts as “physical work”, it can be a little exhausting (although let’s be honest, it’s probably more to do with my general lack of fitness instead).  On the upside, I had no Acute Mountain Sickness, or a Pulmonary/Cerebral Œdema, so I can’t really complain!

One Last Trip

It’s Friday, and so it’s the penultimate day I have in the desert (I’m not counting Sunday, as most of that will be packing and travelling to the airport in Calama).  I was filling in a map, when my boss and the assistant said they were going out into the field, and asked whether I’d like to join them.  Obviously I agreed at once, and I’m very glad that I did, as it involved new and even more spectacular scenery.

The main objective was to see where “roads” could be built, in order to access new exploration areas, but there were lots of cool things to see on the way.  First of all, we arrived at a point with an incredible view.

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I thought I’d seen how desolate the desert looked, but after this view, I had to change my mind!

Anyway, after that, we headed down into a valley (which is to the right of the photo – out of shot though), and I was shown an abandoned village.

The abadoned village of Chitigua

The abadoned village of Chitigua

Apparently it was composed of two families, and all that can be seen today are a few buildings.  The village was abandoned in the 60s.  To be honest, I don’t know why anyone would live there, as it’s probably the least friendly place you could possibly decide to build a house.

Further along, we came across what was originally a farm (presumably this is where the inhabitants of Chitigua grew their food.

Abandoned terraced fields in Chitigua

Abandoned terraced fields in Chitigua

Overall, the scenery today was brilliant.  There’s not a lot else to say really!

Restaurant Review: La Cantina

I’ve been considering blogging about the restaurants that I visit for a while, and so thought that I’d use this post as a pilot for the general idea (as I’m not totally convinced whether I can pull it off, comments would be appreciated).

Anyway, to kick off this new (probably terrible) feature, we’ll be looking at the canteen of the desert camp.  I don’t think it’s actually got a name, so I’ve arbitrarily given it one.

The restaurant

The restaurant

The first thing to notice is that it is literally a tent.  However, it is always nice and warm inside, which is definitely a huge bonus (as the desert winds can be pretty cold to say the least)!  There’s only one table, as there are only about six people at any one time in the camp, and so we all sit round it together.  It does have satellite TV, so there’s usually something on (although I have to be honest, Chilean game shows are very odd indeed – however, they have a long way to go before beating Japan’s efforts in that particular department)!

The menu is simple, and there is no choice (due to there only being six people to cook for), but the food is varied and of very good quality.

The first course of the first meal I had.

The first course of the first meal I had – mussels and salad.

At every meal, there is bread provided.  Lunch is three courses, supper two, and breakfast is pretty bog standard.  Even though we’re in the middle of the desert, it’s not uncommon to eat fish and shellfish, (as well as meat).  Often there is soup for the first course, which is pretty good.

I only have one criticism of the food here, and that is that almost everything comes with a garnish of coriander.  I’m not a fussy eater, and there are very few foods that I don’t eat (few enough to be counted on one hand), but unfortunately, the thing I hate most is coriander!  However, as all you Brits who read this will undoubtedly understand, one doesn’t make a scene, so I take it on the chin! (Luckily one of the effects of altitude is to reduce the sense of taste and smell)!

Don’t get me wrong though, the food here is excellent!