Saturday, September 28, 2013


I descended from the mountains with a single purpose: to fulfill my promise to Frank (my Ph.D. advisor) to visit Prof. Osvaldo Ulloa at the Universidad de Conceptión. I had been introduced to Osvaldo a month prior via an email in which I was introduced to a stranger as “Dr. Frantz” for the first time in my life, and had promised to get in touch as soon as I had definite plans for when I would be in the area.

Boats in the harbor at Dichato. HDR.

People who know me and who have been following this blog have probably noticed that “planning” when it comes to travel is not my forte. “Impulsive” probably best describes my traveling (and life) style. I go where the wind blows me when passion strikes. Except sometimes; somewhere buried in my subconscious is a fastidious little German that has stuck around despite generations of dilution. The little German occasionally wakes up and freaks the hell out about the lack of a plan and then I spend an exhausting day researching, spreadsheeting, plotting, planning, and mapping until I know where I’ll be down to the hour for the next 15 years. But then, satisfied, the little German goes back into hibernation and the rest of me goes back to ignoring the plan.

The blowing with the wind is fine for me, but when it comes to interacting with other humans things get tricky. If I’m told to be somewhere on a certain day at a certain time, I almost always manage (within a 20-60 minute buffer), but in the absence of someone else planning my life for me, I usually don’t have plans past the immediate present.

Osvaldo = Good Geobio People

Anyhow, all that is to say that I contacted Osvaldo less than 24 hours before I would be arriving in Conceptión, having decided all of 2 minutes prior that it was time to move on from Chillán. Luckily by the time I arrived Conceptión, Osvaldo had responded that, yes, it would be fine if I randomly appeared at his office to meet with him.

I am so glad I did (Frank is always right, Frank is always right, Frank is always right).

Unexpected treat in Concepción: the full-buffet breakfast including juices and cereals and cold cuts and *cake* (the first time I'd had anything other than toast for breakfast all month) at my hostel.

I wandered around most of the Universidad de Conceptión campus, thoroughly lost despite having downloaded a google map to my Kindle and written down Osvaldo’s office information from the internet. But I finally found the building that matched the “new building” and Oceanography keywords that I was working with, told the receptionist who I was looking for, and was immensely relieved to find I had arrived in the correct place. As I waited for Osvaldo to return from an errand it occurred to me that I had only a very vague idea of what the person I was looking for looked like--from his university profile photo online. But when Osvaldo walked in the door, big smile on his face, I knew that he was the geobiologist I was looking for.

Concepción was hit hard by the 2010 earthquake. Nearby beach towns were devastated by the resulting tsunami.

Most of the geobiology people I know are good people, one of many reasons I love the field. Osvaldo threw the geobiologist bell curve in the “awesome and nice” direction. Within about 20 minutes of conversation, he had me seriously considering applying for a postdoc position with him, and that is a hell of a feat, given that I went on this trip in part to temporarily escape having to apply for postdoc positions.

Lota. One of the poorest towns in Chile, but you can't beat that view. HDR.

Frank always says that there are three key factors to consider when choosing a job: the people, the location, and the work itself. And, “You usually only get to choose one, so prioritize.” Something I find incredibly difficult because all of those things are deeply important to me. But the six years in L.A. (where I loved the work and adored the people) taught me that location is something I can’t compromise on. 

I inherited a deep need to be in the mountains from my mother, one of the other reasons for this trip: I went crazy in L.A. and I’m making up for missed mountain time. But Conceptión is only, like, a two hour bus ride from world-class snowy mountains. That’s like a bad day in traffic in L.A. The people seemed wonderful (Chilean + geobiologist was bound to be a winning combination). As for Conceptión itself, it’s a medium-sized city, a little rough around the edges and not particularly scenic, but the university campus itself is beautiful and there are stunning places very close by.

Now I just have to decide if the work is what I want; there’s a potential for it to be exactly what I’m looking for, but I need more information and time to think about it. Exciting regardless, and gives me hope that I actually may want to be employed again in the not-too-distant future.

I <3 Chile.

I began next morning by dropping off some laundry (clean laundry for the first time in a month!!) and buying some emergency clothes since all of my clothes were filthy and needed laundering. Then I headed off for my first excursion: the abandoned coal mine Chiflón del Diablo. Osvaldo had suggested it as an interesting day trip, and I was sold when he told me that the mine actually went out under the ocean. 

After an hour and a half local bus ride I arrived in Lota, one of the poorest towns in all of Chile, crushed by the evaporation of the coal mining industry that had previously barely supported it but attempting (somewhat successfully) to rebrand itself as a tourist destination. I followed signs through residential streets to the mine, hoping to find some of the area’s legendary seafood along the way. Alas, in the end I came up empty and had to be satisfied with a granola bar I had been smart enough to stash in my purse beforehand.

The miner's housing at el Chiflón del Diablo. HDR.

Immediately after paying the tour fee I was swept along with a very nice Chilean family also there for the tour by our guide. Our guide spoke broken English and occasionally translated a bit of what he was saying. Between translations, I desperately attempted to pick out words from what sounded like very interesting and dramatic stories he told to the family. 

The mine is famous for its inhumane working conditions, and there was an inescapable air of sadness inside. Our guide was terrific, and I really wish I had been able to understand him better, but in addition to his stories he had a very good photographic eye and took photos of us along the way. It was awkward: do you smile in pictures at a mine that crushed the lives of so many people? It felt a bit like taking selfies during a concentration camp tour. It was fascinating and I was very glad I went, but I was also very relieved to breathe fresh air once the two-hour tour was over.

At el Chiflón del Diablo. Do they count as selfies if someone else takes the photos?

I went out for beer that evening with Osvaldo and his lab group—a really fun bunch of folks. When I returned to my hotel I was still hungry, went in search of a quick snack (I had a hunger for empanadas). That explains how I ended up in a karaoke bar (they promised that they had empanadas). They didn’t have empanadas (liars!), they only had expensive appetizer platters, but by that point I felt famished and the free Pisco I was given at the door had kicked in and I ordered and ate the entire giant appetizer platter by myself. And then signed myself up to sing “House of the Rising Sun” since, hell, I was there, and obviously somebody needed to start the karaoke party. And then got talked into doing a duet of “Easy like Sunday Morning” (really? Haha) with the bartender. And then went home and crashed hard.

Osvaldo picked me up the following morning to go with him, his son, and a friend to a beach cleanup, which he had mentioned on my first visit with him and thought sounded like a nice way to see the area. What I didn’t know was that the beach cleanup was at the site of the old Marine Science lab, where Osvaldo used to have his lab and which was demolished during the 2010 tsunami. 

The battered shell of the marine research lab post-tsunami. HDR.

Driving through the town (Dichato) and hearing Osvaldo’s stories about the devastation, the homes destroyed, the businesses devoured, the corpses washed up on shore, was heartbreaking and surreal. But what really hit me was arriving at the research station, a place that reminded me so much of the Wrigley Center on Catalina Island or even more the Marine Biology Lab at Woods Hole, and seeing the ruins:

The half-standing lab benches. 
The sea tables with broken tiles.
The sun-rotted shelves that had once held bottles of media.
The pieces of a kelp mural on a crumbled wall.
The debris filling a basement that had once been a culturing facility but now looks like a scene out of a WWII movie, of a bombed shelter, chunks of concrete and metal making an ugly shell out of what had once been a home to world-class science.

Mural still visible on a remaining wall of the destroyed Marine Science lab at Dichato. HDR.

Unsurprisingly, two of the graduate students who had been at the lab when the tsunami hit were traumatized, one never returning and the other returning only after years in therapy. Just seeing the aftermath, three years later, was heart-wrenching.

The 20-some students who had arrived for the cleanup made quick work of the beach. They filled at least as many trash bags full of chunks of rebar, pieces of roof, and lab tiles as they did with the more typical Styrofoam, glass, and cigarette butts. Picking pieces of research lab out of the sand was a hard feeling.

Universidad de Conceptión Students at the Dichato beach cleanup. HDR.

After the cleanup, Osvaldo took me to see his home on the beach in a spectacular spot overlooking the ocean in a quiet village just outside Dichato. We had excellent seafood at a local restaurant as well as “cold tea” which is secret code for white wine, which the restaurants aren’t technically permitted to sell. A breathtaking part of the world, but the homes on stilts and tsunami warning signs were a constant reminder of the horror the region had so recently been through.

Boat on the beach of Dichato. HDR.

I returned to my hostel, stricken by the things I had seen during the two days in Conception, but also impressed by the resilience of people like Osvaldo who had to rebuild their lives (and labs) from scratch after the devastating earthquake and tsunami, and like the residents of Lota, rebuilding and reinventing their lives following the shutdown of the industry that once supported them. Respect.

The next morning I returned to my beloved mountains with a bug in my brain about the possibility for making Chile my home for more than traveling trip through planted.

More photos from Concepción in the Picasa album.

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