Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Cousino Macul Wine Tasting

Before I get to the meat of this blog, a quick bit of advance news:  I will be going to Patagonia tomorrow through March 3rd!  I'm very excited for this, a trip to Torres del Paine was one of the main reasons I decided to come to Chile.  Now that I'm finally all packed up, please consider this blog post your holdover until my glorious return from the southernmost part of the Americas...


One of my longtime private students has taken a 3 week vacation from his job.  In this time, he told me he wants to "focus on building English", so we've been meeting in the afternoons to practice English.  In our last class, he invited me to join him and his sister on a tour at Chile's oldest vineyard, the Cousino Macul winery.  I met them at a metro stop, which turned out to be a little bit of a hassle.  There were 3 different entrances to the metro, and we showed up to different entrances.  And then when we realized there were other entrances, we both walked to different entrances again.  A few more phone calls back and forth, and we were able to figure out what was going on.  After our little scooby-doo chase scene homage, we drove about 20 minutes to the compound.

Upon arriving, we spent a good 5 minutes waiting for the doddering old man behind the gate to confirm us as guests for a tour.  The majority of the time spent waiting was watching us watch the old man shuffle papers around in his little booth, until it looked like he finally thought to himself "ah f*ck it" and raised the gate.

We entered the park 10 minutes late for the tour, so we tried to park in the closest lots that we saw.  However, at each lot an old man would come up to the side of our car and tell us we couldn't park there.  Finally we came up to the side of one of the loading bays for large trucks, parked the car, and quickly exited before anybody could tell us we didn't belong there.  The tour had already started, and we walked in to the middle of the man describing the grapes to us. Portugese.  So, instead of understanding my normal 80% of the discussion, I was relegated to about 40% once again.  It felt like September all over again.  Fortunately Luis and his sister were able to help fill in some of the blanks for me - Portugese is similar enough to Spanish where a native-speaker can understand significantly more of it than a gringo such as yours truly.

The crazy thing about these grapes was their relative size.  Here's a shot of one in my hand:
I felt like a giant eating them.  I would have eaten more, but there were about 2-3 large seeds inside each of them.  The juice was not worth the squeeze, so to speak.

After the fields, we went into one of the large barrack-like structures.  Built in 1887, these buildings were constructed of large bricks and a mortar made of cement, sand, and eggs.  The guy said about 70,000 eggs were used in making the mortar for each of the buildings.  Inside the buildings were huge barrels where the wine used to ferment back in the day.

Nowadays, they use metal containers to ferment and refine the wine.  These new containers reduce the fermentation time from 3-4 months to 1 month.  These particular containers below are where Cousino Macul produces the majority of their high-end wines.
They were all empty when we arrived though, so we did not get to sample any of the raw high-end goods.

We were then taken down into the basement of the main warehouse, where we got to see where the wine is aged in barrels until it is ready to be bottled.

At one point, the lights went out for about 5 seconds.  I'm not sure if it was intentional or not, but it was pretty harrowing.  It was then that I was reminded that Chile gets tremors every month, and occasional bonafide earthquakes too.  I called upon everything I'd ever learned from action movies to ensure my survival.  So I quickly sided up to the most attractive single girl on the tour, knowing that if anything happened, we'd be the last to die.

One other interesting thing at the end of this death hall - there was a caged off room with some apparent goodies inside it:
 1937 Cabernet Sauvignon, anybody?

I asked the tour guide what the deal was with the wine in there.  He told me that it was actually ruined at this point.  It sounded like it had been left to sit for too long, and it had broken down to a point where it had lost all flavor.  Either that, or it was a bad batch to begin with.

(Sort of related note - I've found that now, if I ask relatively short questions, I come across as enough of a speaker to where the other assumes I can follow them speaking normally.  It's a compliment, really, but it leads to long-winded diatribes on the other's part, and I lose track of what they're saying about halfway through.  I need to start asking longer, more complicated questions so they realize I'm still just a gringo in Chilean clothing.)

Upstairs, they showed off some of the old equipment used to bottle wine.  It looked like the tank from of one of those ancient fire engines with a little hand pump and hose attached.

It looked like a pretty ingenious invention for the time, really.  Right next to the old bottling machine hung an old picture from the vineyard of all its employees and a full season's harvest.

That year amounted to about 400 bottles.  It was a record crop at whatever time it was (somewhere in the 1920s, I think).

After that we got to try 3 types of Cousino Macul wine - a blush, a cabernet, and another unknown heavy red that wasn't bad.  I don't think I'll be adding any of them to my regular wine rotation (even though it's a thin roster), but they were still pretty good.  It's funny, every beer or wine tastes a little better after you take a tour of how it's made.

See you all in March!

Monday, February 20, 2012


Wandering through the Bellavista barrio this past week, I stumbled upon a sign for the Zoo in Cerro San Cristobal.  "Why not?"  I thought to myself, checking my pocket for my camera.  (One of the joys of working a rigorous 7 pm to 9 pm daily schedule is I'm able to squeeze in little side journeys like this.) 

Ugh.  I already hate the start to this blog.  Let's just plow ahead.

The zoo at the base of Cerro San Cristobal is not your typical American zoo.  In fact, this is actually one of the places where it was most obvious to me we weren't in a first world country.  Normally, when I'm on the street, it is largely difficult to say that we're in a 3rd world country.  There are more street vendors than you might normally see, and the buildings aren't as tall as in the US, but the place is kept quite clean, and the people wandering around Providencia generally look like they have money.  But at the zoo...

At the zoo, it was clear that this country's PETA chapter was either A) lazy or B) nonexistent. The smaller animals all had quite small cages, with glass windows smudged over by countless little hands and noses pressed up against them.  The bigger animals had it a bit better, but it still wasn't up to US standards in terms of artificial environment.  For example, the elephant pen:
They had a oscillating sprinkler running in the background, and that's about it.  The elephants themselves were pretty majestic though, it's been a while since I've seen one of them in person.

Next up on the tour was the tiger cage.  It was further up the hill, and thus better shaded from the public.  The tigers themselves were hiding from sight, so I took the opportunity to evaluate the cage in which they were held.  This is the "extra tight, dangerous animal inside" fence employed by the park:
Really?  This is your "Death Machine" level of preparedness?  Thank goodness any animal would have to pass 2 major highways, a river, and tens of hot dog stands before they made it to my building.

After this part, there was a walk-in aviary which was pretty cool.  They had a light sprinkle running inside nonstop, so it was a welcome reprieve from the sun's assault.  There were a couple spots where people gathered to look at birds, but I quickly realized that only the laziest and most uninteresting birds were leaving themselves in the public eye like that.  I picked out a couple out of the way spots on the path and caught sight of a couple interesting (and rarely seen, I imagine) birds who bolted as soon as they noticed me.

This one, however, came up right next to me on the path as I was walking by.
Showoff. As soon as he came up, I quickly became boxed in by swarms of little screaming kids and parents following with empty strollers.  Being both gracious and annoyed, I stepped to the back and let the kids check out nature's version of Liberace.

As I got out of the Aviary, this was the scene right outside:

I wasn't quite able to capture this next shot as best as I wanted - the Ostrich has one of the best views in Santiago.  I wonder if he appreciates it.

It was pretty fun wandering through a zoo though, I don't think I've been inside one since Berlin. 

Last thing - you know how all zoos have those signs everywhere that read "Please don't feed the animals"?
Third world, baby.  Third world.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Potpourri #9

One of my favorite things about learning Chilean Spanish is every so often you come across crazy phrases or expressions that give me a good laugh.  For example, here "Devil's advocate" is "abogado del diablo", or "Devil's lawyer".  Another one is for a stingy/"tightfisted" person, you say they have "la mano de guagua", or "a baby's hand".

But I've found a new favorite phrase that takes the cake for me.  I was walking along the street with some friends the other day, and the person who was talking wasn't paying attention to where they were going, and they stepped in dog crap.  Upon noticing this, my buddy starts laughing heartily, points at him, and says "casaste con la reina, weon!"

I have no idea how you get "you married the queen!" from stepping in dog crap.  Only in Chile.


The grandmother of my buddy Marco passed away this past week, and so I went to my first (and hopefully only) Chilean funeral last Tuesday.  It was a Catholic ceremony, and for the most part quite similar to the few ceremonies I've attended in the US.  Also, the priest spoke very clearly and slowly, so I was happily able to understand the majority of what he said to the congregation.

Afterwards, we went to the general cemetery in Chile to lay her to rest.  It was interesting compared to the US cemeteries, as this one was much more of a concrete jungle.  There was practically no grass inside the entire compound.  I didn't take any pictures personally (poor taste in any country), but here are a few shots pulled from the internet:

Of course, just because I was respectful doesn't mean everybody else was.  There were street vendors selling flowers, cigarettes, and cookies and water throughout the cemetary, which seemed a bit out of place.  Also, one of the uncles made a joke as we were leaving - we walked by a plastic trash dumpster, and he told me that was a "Peruvian mausoleum".  (Peru is the Mexico to Chile's USA)

It was a pretty interesting cemetery though, all the erect structures inside were unique.  Also, there is one Mausoleum inside that was about 10 stories taller than all the rest (for firefighters only).  I wanted to take a different path out of the cemetery, but Felipe told me it was bad luck to leave a cemetery by a different route.  Best not to anger any karma gods.


At this point, teaching has lost just about all of its novelty.  Sure, I still have to figure things out as I go along, and there are occasionally those "OH!" moments where students make breakthroughs, but for the most part it's 90 minutes of guided struggle through workbook exercises, and I hammer a paycheck at the end of the month.  But every so often, I find little moments of great joy that help to get me through weeks of teaching with a little smile on my face.

Last week, I sat in on a board exam with a fellow teacher, evaluating a higher-level group of students.  (Side note:  after 8 semesters of classes, it's blatantly obvious which students have been doing their homework, studying on their own, and practicing when they can, and which students have been copying, cheating, and coasting their way through classes.  So we can always look forward to a large range of students in these exams.)  The teacher who I was giving the board with was one of the many Chileans who I suspect is gay, but my lack of cultural calibration throws me off. 

Before we started the exam, we made small talk about Chilean authors we liked, and other things of the sort.  I said my favorite author was Pablo Neruda (total poser answer, it's like saying your favorite music group is the Beatles).  He smiled, and then gushed for a good 5 minutes about a Chilean author named "Isabel Allende", and how she was the new pride of Chile, and her work was so cutting edge, and popular, and was really advancing the culture of the Chilean people.  It was one of those conversations where he clearly felt that he was on the vanguard of culture, and it was people like him spreading the word of worthy artists to simpletons like me that advanced the human race.  Normally I am very open to checking out new musicians/authors/artists, but our chat reeked of self-importance and condescension.  I applied a stock smile to my face and said "She sounds very good, I'll have to look into her." He smiled, and then we began the exams.

The first two students were pretty forgettable - decent vocabulary, but Spanish grammar structures still lingered in their dialect.  The 3rd student who came in was a very bubbly, energetic girl who clearly had been doing her homework for the past 8 semesters.  She used great vocab words like "manifestation" and "imperatives", and save for a few grammatical gaffes, she spoke nearly flawlessly.  My partner, clearly impressed, started probing her about her thoughts on the future of Chile, especially with respect to culture.  She answered very clearly, and always with a smile on her face.  Then he asked her what she thought about popular literature.  And this is how she replied:

"I believe there are many good authors from Chile today, but there are many bad ones too.  For example, Isabel Allende is a horrible representation of Chile.  Her books are simple and uninteresting, and it is very clear to me that she is influenced by many corporate interests in her stories.  She appeals to the lowest group, and that is how she sells books."

I snuck a sideways look at my fellow teacher.  His face had turned beet red, the faint remains of an old smile forcibly retained on his face.  He had puffed his chest out just a little bit, like a pigeon about to get into a pecking battle with an adversary.  His hands were clenched under the table, out of the pupil's view.  But there was nothing he could do - her English was immaculate, and we were not grading her on opinions.  I restrained my mouth from forming a smile, but every other part of my body exuded pure satisfaction, I was a little child who just got everything he wanted for Christmas.

After she stepped out of the room, we gave her the quickest and quietest "95" of any student by far, and equally quickly moved on to student #4.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Watching the Super Bowl

I watched the Latin America broadcast of the Super Bowl on Sunday.  It was entertaining, but mostly for reasons outside of the actual game.

To start, there were 3 announcers in the booth, and they all wore the same outfit - black suit, white shirt, diagonal striped red tie.  The clothes were identical, down to the distance between the gray pinstripes in the black suitcoats, and shades of red in the tie.  Watching this, I pictured some insane latina fashion advisor to the network demanding this outfit, and all of the men uncomfortably going along.  And thanks to her, they looked like three middle-aged children who had to get dressed according to their mother's wishes before the yearly Christmas card photo.

Also, the camera was panned a little too far back in the booth, and we could see that one of the commentators was clearly much, much shorter than the rest of them (his seat was raised up a couple inches higher than the other 2).  I will forever think of him as Latino Mike Tirico.

The pregame consisted mostly of highlights of the 2008 Super Bowl where the Pats and rather, the "Patriotas y Gigantes" met before, and the Gigantes ruined the Patriotas perfect 19-0 season.  I turned up the volume on my TV set during this part, expecting to hear the announcers drop some names of players who were still there from this game, or at least some sort of hacky soccer-esque analysis.  However, once the volume was up high enough, I realized they were explaining the RULES of the game to the viewers #facepalm.

The game started, and it immediately became clear that the Latin American broadcast version was merely a formally pirated version of the American broadcast.  Every time a play would end, we would be treated to about 0.5 seconds of a replay or player bio before the cameras cut away to the latin american announcers, or a shoddily produced segment of their own.  At one point there was a "12 men on the field" call against the patriots, and the cameras went from a high-def picture of the field of play to a much lower-def picture, and Latino Mike Tirico quickly counted to 12 before moving on.  Great analysis, LMT.

I've never been a huge fan of the commercials at the Super Bowl - a good commercial is still just a subversive message to buy Doritos or Bud Light.  However, after I watched the same Spanish commercial for the Euro soccer league superfan TV package, I was dying for any sort of semi-intelligent 30 second spot.  It was a sad statement on how few people must watch this game in South America - that Euro league TV broadcast company clearly got a "buy 1, get 30 spots free" deal from Fox Sports LA.

Truthfully, I found the game itself to be quite exciting.  I thought both sides played exceptionally hard, and that the Giants were just a little bigger and tougher than the Patriots.  Their WRs were able to separate from the Patriots CBs well, and aside from a few hard Patriot hits, they dominated the field of play.  Manningham had a great catch for the Giants in the 4th quarter that reminded me of his Michigan years.

After the game, the Latin American crew on the field had the cameras on them the majority of the time, and it was high comedy to me watching them run around trying to get interviews.  Obviously, the big networks in the US garnered all the high-profile stars of the night's game, but the Latin American crews were just looking for anybody who spoke Spanish.  They found one on the Giants, Victor Cruz, but he had too big of a game to speak with them for more than 30 seconds.  They also found Justin Tuck, but he brushed them off within 10 seconds by saying "I need to find my daddy."  Their biggest get of the night was the white D-lineman from the Giants who intercepted Tom Brady in the first half.  He talked about his family and Jesus for a while, completely ignoring the questions from the reporter.  Clearly he was just happy to have a camera on him.

Also, did you see the halftime show?

Ridiculous.  Almost as ridiculous as the show I was treated to for the other 4 hours.