Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Travel Log: Don't Worry, It's a Tourist Town

La Serena, Chile
August 2004

It was the summer of 2004: I had graduated college, was on my way to graduate school in New York City, and feeling pretty good. Seemingly out of the blue, I received an email from a sort of advisor in my astrophysics career. He was the PI (principle investigator) on a project that included my own advisor and me. As a chance to get more telescope observing experience, he wanted to send me on a two-week telescope run at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. And a pretty great summer had just gotten even better.

CTIO, as it is more commonly known, sits in the Andes mountains in the north of Chile. There are a number of increasingly growing observatories in the area as it is perhaps the single best place on the planet to put a telescope. Tall mountains, dry climate--it really doesn't get much better than that. The nearest town, where the base operations for the telescopes are located, is the coastal town of La Serena. I would stay there a few days, and spend most of my time up on the mountain at the telescope.

There was the problem of timing, however. I was due to fly to Chile on the same day I was scheduled to move into my new graduate student apartment at Columbia University, and I had only a couple of weeks to prepare for the telescope, and I didn't speak a word of Spanish, and I didn't have a passport (in those days, I could travel to Canada and Mexico with only a driver's license). So it was a busy couple of weeks quickly preparing, rushing the passport, and, well, not learning any Spanish.

"Don't worry," some other astronomers who had been to CTIO told me, "La Serena is a tourist town. You'll have no problems finding people who speak English." I bought a phrase book, you know, just in case. (I later learned that La Serena is in fact a very popular tourist town--lots of Argentinians travel there for vacation. If I'd known that in advance, I'd have probably cracked open that phrase book a little earlier.)

So on the first day of August I drove across to New York City, dumped all of my earthly possessions into my new bedroom, and grabbed a few hours of sleep by nesting in the pile of all my clothes. Then it was off to the airport.

The next day I arrived in La Serena, Chile--my first trip to a country that required a passport for entry, my first trip to the Southern Hemisphere, and my first trip to a foreign land completely alone. I had been told that a taxi driver familiar with the observatory would pick me up from the airport, as he's apparently the one who always handles the American astronomers on account of his excellent English skills.

He was the nicest man I met in all of Chile, and to this day I don't know a single word he spoke to me.

Quickly realizing that words weren't going to be of much use, we devised a set of gestures, symbols, cognates, and grunting in the car as we left the airport and headed into town. He would take me to the observatory's base of operations, where I'd find a room to stay in, and he'd come back to pick me up for dinner.

Sure enough, just as I was getting hungry after settling into my room, the nicest taxi driver in all of Chile came knocking. His friend had a restaurant, we'd go there. But it was only 7pm, and there's so much to do first! (Chilenos eat dinner around 10pm, I later learned, though it was of little consolation to my stomach that first night.)

First up, he assumed I'd need some provisions. So he took me to the grocery store. Not just drove me to the grocery store, like a taxi driver might, but actually took me into the grocery store. He showed me what was good, helped me find things and check out, and even bought me a bottle of wine by way of welcoming me to his town. Did I mention he's the nicest man in Chile? Oh, good.

Fully stocked for my two weeks on the mountain top, we jumped back in the car. Oh, but it was so early, and I hadn't met his mother yet! So we drove round to his mother's house for introductions and freshly-squeezed lemonade. We--by which I mean they--chatted for a while while we--by which I mean they--discussed something very interesting and fairly amusing, too. Then it was time for dinner, and we were back in the car.

The restaurant was right on the ocean, and my driver-friend couldn't recommend it highly enough. Upon arriving, I learned that he had to go pick up some other people, so he'd come back for me after I'd eaten. I'd be in good hands, he seemed to say, his friend owned the place. Introductions were made, and  I was shown to a table by the windows overlooking the ocean. The menu, my phrasebook being still in my suitcase back in my room, meant very little to me. So I sort of shrugged at my waiter, he and the owner conferred briefly and asked me if they could just bring me things. Sounded good to me, I smiled back.

I wish I could say what it was that I ate, but I'm sure I couldn't do it justice. It was delicious, all three courses and the personal bottle of local wine. The owner also brought me my very first pisco sour--and I will always be eternally grateful for that. After dinner, the owner cheerily showed me around his restaurant and introduced me to everyone else dining there. I shook a lot of hands, smiled and laughed along with the locals....and had no idea any of it was about.

Then the driver came back, and couldn't be more happy that I enjoyed the meal. I thanked him the entire ride back to the observatory base, where I promptly collapsed into my bed. The next day I'd be heading up the mountain to the telescope. It was an incredible two weeks, and I'll never forget it, but the memory that stands out the most is of my best friend in Chile, who took care of a stranger as if I were his oldest friend.

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