Sendero Group Travel Blog

Follow Sendero travelers on their adventures using accessible GPS.

Friday, August 19, 2005

 

Permanent Ties to Chile

As we begin our 24-hour series of return flights from Santiago to Sacramento, I have pangs about leaving this country where my grandfather is buried and where I have cousins living. There just wasn’t enough time to deepen connections and at the same time, I am so grateful for the time we had and the opportunity to share these connections and this country with Jennifer and the boys.

In spite of the language barrier, it was fun to see Wyndham and Carson playing games with their Chilean cousins and children of friends. My cousin Carolina and her husband Jorge had us to their house for dinner. Our boys understand Spanish pretty well but speak it reluctantly. After being pretty good table guests, they happily ran upstairs with their three cousins. We wished we could have been flies on the wall to see just how they communicated. The same was true when we had lunch with friends and our kids all migrated to the trampoline and computer games. We hope some day the boys can stay long enough to really connect and to become fluent speakers.

May family in front of the tomb

We hoped to see our cousins again before leaving on the last day but we had time only for a quick visit to the Santiago general cemetery to locate the tomb of my grandfather, Origen James. I had visited it before but had no idea what its location was. Our friend Andrea Mujica and her mother enlisted the help of staff at the cemetery and after wandering its many streets, we found the building owned by Codelco, the company which bought Braden Copper company, with whom my grandfather was associated. The gate to the tomb, which contains my grandfather’s coffin, was completely made of copper. He died in the 50’s. I recorded a GPS mark so it can be located more easily in the future although there was talk that Codelco would be selling the plot and moving its inhabitants.

As we wound our way back out of the cemetery, Andrea pointed out the resting places of her family and friends and those of famous people from Chile. This would an important symbolic walk through the past but also the future in a place that is very much a part of me and consequently, part of Carson and Wyndham. I hope they and we return for more ski trips and exploration of the beautiful country and to reconnect with friends and family.

We visited the Cousino Macul winery near Santiago but will have to do more Chilean wine tasting on a future trip. We were very pleased with the Vitacura Radisson, which was our base for 5 nights in terms of service, the staff, the price, the location and the room.

Monday, August 15, 2005

 

The route to my roots: Coya, Chile

From Los Lingues, near San Fernando, my GPS told me the small mining town of Coya was 47 kilometers northeast as the crow flies. This said nothing of course about the distance or directions to travel by road. Here in lies the real adventure.

My Grandfather had a business selling goods to the mine near Coya. This is where my mother was born and raised until the age of 18. Their house is now owned by the mining company, next door to the house used by the Chilean President for holidays.

We got directions in Spanish from the receptionist at Los Lingues. We had no specific address nor any road names, just general directions and the GPS coordinates for Coya from my city database.

The only help I could offer my wife who was driving was an indication if we were headed in the correct direction or not. I have had a lot of practice using this getting warmer method but it has its short comings. Off we went.

The highway signs and GPS got us to the nearest large city, Rancagua but we gave up on the written directions because there were too many ambiguous signs and round abouts. We were soon relying on my simple point to point GPS heading. When we came to the junction of two small roads where it appeared that we were going up someone’s driveway, we stopped to ask some guys on the road for directions to Coya. They gesticulated and spoke in rapid Spanish from which we gleaned that we should take the dirt road. I distinctly remember hearing that the road to Coya was paved so this made me very skeptical, but again, off we went on the dirt road, 10 kilometers line of sight to the Coya GPS point.

As the road got narrower and muddier, the knot in my stomach got tighter and tighter. My wife hates getting lost and we were definitely in the boonies, nobody to ask directions of and no likely destination in the direction we were traveling.

I began to seriously doubt the accuracy of the Coya GPS point. We were headed down a long dirt road depending upon the unproven GPS point and the questionable word of some guys alongside the road.

After half an hour of driving, we hadn’t seen a single car. There were occasional boarded up houses and a few signs but none for Coya. The pressure grew, especially when we reached 1 kilometer from Coya, the GPS said it was off to the right and then it started getting further and further away and still no sign of civilization.

Suddenly, we came over a rise and intersected a paved road, probably the highway which had been paralleling our dirt road. Talk about a sigh of relief but the journey wasn’t over yet.

The sign toward Coya said left and off we went in that direction. In another few kilometers, we came across a pretty run down town. There were two narrow lanes through the town of Coya just wide enough for one car and 3 horses. At a single lane bridge, cars would take turns crossing.

Now that we had found Coya, and believe me I marked it for future reference and every junction on the way, now we were searching for the “country club”, a very unlikely establishment in the mountain mining pueblo.

The front gate of Mike's grandfathers house, with the circle J

Eventually, we found it a few K out of town and from there we got directions to what is called Casa 100, the presidential retreat. Turns out we had wandered near it earlier but the gate was closed and there were many warning signs about trespassing.

This time, the gate happened to be open and with much trepidation, we boldly drove in. Several cars were parked and we drove passed them to my grandfather’s house designated by the Circle J for James on the iron gate. We took some pictures and were debating if we should walk around when a man came up to the car. We explained our story in Spanish and he said very nicely in English that we were welcome to look around. He introduced himself as the Vice-President of Chile. He returned with a key to the house so we could look around inside as well. It seemed amazing that he wouldn’t have body guards. He even invited us into the main house where he and his family were spending this Monday saint’s day in Chile. We declined not wanting to interrupt any further. I don’t suppose they would want me publishing the GPS coordinates of that house but I have them for future reference.
Mike and his sons in the garden at his grandfathers house
We of course still had to find our way back to Santiago, not a simple feat, but the main adventure had been accomplished. The moral of the story, navigating with a GPS point is better than nothing but be prepared for a pressure-ridden experience. Had I to do it all over again, I’d hire a chauffeur.

 

Los Lingues (chateaux/estate) San Fernando/Pelequen, Chile

When I plan a trip, I am always looking for the “alternative” places to visit. It is good to take in the famous tourist sites but the unique hidden locations in a country are the places I seek out and treasure afterwards.

A really special find is a hacienda about 90 miles south of Santiago in the heart of the Chilean wine country. Los Lingues is supposedly the oldest operating hacienda in the western hemisphere. It was given to the mayor of Santiago in 1599 by King Phillip of Spain and has remained in the same family since. It has over 2000 acres of pastures, vineyards, fruit trees and riding trails.

Mike riding a Aculeo

the brave Yorkshire Terrier


Los Lingues is famous for a breed originated there called, “Aculeo.” As I discovered for myself on two rides these are well trained three quarter sized horses. I even used my BrailleNote GPS for the first time. As it turned out, I didn’t need to navigate as a huaso named Nelson was our guide, short on words but the quintessential image of the Chilean cowboy. His spurs were so big he had to walk with his ankles rolled out. He told me there are 75 horses here and 50 staff. We couldn’t count the number of dogs, 10 at least followed us everywhere we walked and many came on the ride including the most intrepid Yorkshire Terriers you can imagine. They chased every chicken or neighbor dog we passed by.

The hospitality and food are extraordinary. Members of the family mix with the guests. The lady of the house arranged for us to visit the mining town and former house where my grandfather and mother lived and worked.

Despite the 22 guest rooms, we felt like we were welcomed into the home of good friends or family. The antiquity is mixed with modern amenities so you have beautiful antiques in the bedroom but also a telephone and even wireless. It felt so strange to be using Skype Out on my computer to talk to family and colleagues back in California within these 400 year-old walls. Picture too the Chilean cowboy talking on his cell phone as we ride through the hacienda.

The food here is simple and exquisite, if having 5 glasses and 11 utensils qualifies as simple. We had our first lunch in the “Red Room” all by ourselves. The other meals have been taken in the dining room, one grand dining table seating 6 to 8 people while we have been here but capable of seating 16.

Lunch has been four courses and dinner seven. The wines come from the immediate region. The desserts are fruity, light and once, chocolate. The main courses have been fish, beef and ostrich. The soup and minor courses have all been delectable, always a pleasant surprise. Amazingly, the boys have been trying everything, another treat for us parents.

The rooms at Los Lingues are reasonably priced but you do pay for the excellent food and service. There was no menu with prices so the bill was a bit of a shock when we checked out.

Los Lingues is definitely worth the trip for a special occasion. For more information, go to Los Lingues Website

When traveling south on Route 5 from Santiago, it is tricky to cross East to the left exit for Los Lingues. There is a small opening in the middle of the highway where you can make a U-turn. If you miss this as we did, you travel another several miles before finding an exit where you can turn around. Should you have a GPS, this opening is at:
34, 29, 35.196 S. 70, 54, 48.258 W.

The exit for the road to Los Lingues is .78 kilometers north of that opening and the small roads to Los Lingues are marked pretty well the rest of the way.

The General Manager Jorge speaks very good English as does the owner, Maria Elena. We were happy to use our Spanish and that worked well with the rest of the staff.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

 

A tribute to Russell Smith from Mike and the Sendero Group: (Reflections and thanks)

I am currently on a ski vacation in Chile. As I plunge down a slope, there is a knot in the pit of my stomach, not from the speed of the descent but from the terrible feeling of loss of Russell to his family and to those of us who had the privilege of working with him.

I first got to know Russell when I traveled to Christ Church in 1995 to see about Pulse Data being an Open Book dealer for Arkenstone. Russell Smith and Mike Pedersen exemplified New Zealand hospitality. Russell has been described as the Bill Gates of the adaptive technology industry and although this may be true in many ways, I can’t imagine that Bill Gates is as approachable or accessible as Russell was. Even when I met Russell casually prior to that trip, he would always let me know he was around at the various conferences we would attend. He and Mike were genuinely appreciative that I would come all the way to Christ Church to court their business. Russell’s hospitality and personal touch beginning with that trip to New Zealand forged a business and personal connection that would have a huge impact on my life and on those who would in turn benefit from the company I would start in 2000.

On July 4 of 2001 at the NFB convention in Philadelphia, Russell and I had our first meeting to evaluate the feasibility of taking the accessible GPS we had developed on the laptop and putting it on the very successful BrailleNote. I met the same day with Dick Chandler of Freedom Scientific to discuss the same for their Pac Mate, still on the drawing board. I continued to meet with them both over several weeks, the most memorable of which was a meeting with Russell at a hotel in San Francisco. He had a list of questions to ask me. I would give him an answer and then there would be a pregnant pause. I couldn’t figure out if I should say more or just wait for a response. I soon learned that Russell was very contemplative and he was simply pondering my answers.

He must have liked what he heard. In September 2001, Pulse Data and Sendero Group agreed to collaborate on a BrailleNote GPS project. Within 6 months, we had version 1 ready to show at CSUN and it was shipping soon thereafter, in April 2002.

Since that time, I have made a trip to New Zealand as has Charles, both of us enjoying the hospitality of Russell and his team. The BrailleNote GPS has graduated to version 3.3, none of which would have happened without Russell’s support behind the scene. GPS has always been on the pioneering edge of technology and its benefits not obvious to all. Everyone enjoying the benefit of this technology today should give some thanks to Russell for recognizing the value of accessible location information. Sendero is largely still in business since its inception in 2000 thanks to the success of the BrailleNote GPS and the trust and support of Russell Smith. His impact will carry on in a very tangible fashion as we continue to improve the BrailleNote GPS beyond what either of us imagined 4 years ago.

Monday, August 08, 2005

 

Skiing in Valle Nevado Chile

Mike and family skiing at Valle Nevado
For six days, I am mostly taking a break from GPS activities if not completely from Email. This is probably a record since I started working on accessible GPS 10 years ago. In those days, I was dragging a 12-pound backpack to Chile and now I have the 1 pound BrailleNote PK, small enough to actually ski with.

I have been to Chile a half dozen times over the past 20 years both to Portillo and to this area, closer to Santiago. Valle Nevado, where we are now staying and skiing, one of four ski resorts perched in this section of the Andes. I have skied at the others, La Parva, El Colorado and Farellones, but this is the first time to ski Valle Nevado.

Seventy percent of skiing is the same no matter where you go in the world, snow, lifts and a fairly up-scale clientele. It is not an inexpensive sport. One thing different here is that all the skiing is above the tree line. This is fine when it is clear and sunny but unnerving when skiing in white-out conditions. I remember being in just that situation with my friend and ski guide, Ron Salviolo, at La Parva. There wasn’t a soul around and we/he could not see 10 feet ahead. We could tell which way was downhill but little more. There was a real danger of getting into a low area we couldn’t ski out of and a remote chance of an avalanche. These days we ski with a cell phone and two-way radios, mostly to stay in touch with the rest of the people we are skiing with but also in case of emergency.

Valle Nevado peaks panarama

Not much chance of a white-out this week. It has been sunny and in the 50s most of the day, every day. Other than Sunday, the slopes have not been very crowded. Valle Nevado mostly has intermediate skiing terrain. I’d term the runs medium in length and they wind around a lot. The snow quality is good and they groom extensively. I could really get used to this business of someone taking my boots off and putting all the gear away each day after skiing.

Valle Nevado has a couple high speed quad chairs and a few triple chairs. They have far too many poma lifts and T-bars. I clench my teeth the entire tense ride up one of these contraptions. I have had two bad experiences many years ago in France and Switzerland with a poma lift. Once, there was a double poma and the two units got twisted together with me riding them like a bucking bronco. Another time we skied past a poma and a riderless poma smacked me in the helmet, cracking the plastic but fortunately not my head. I suppose if you used these things every season , one would learn the technique of riding a poma but they are rare in the U.S. and I haven’t fortunately been on one for many years. It is just the allure of steeper and deeper snow in other areas of the resort, which gets me on a T-bar or poma at all.

A blind skier is a very unusual sight here in Chile. I forget how unusual this is because we are such a common sight at our home resort of Kirkwood, CA, where there will be 2 to 20 blind skiers on the slope any given day. My bright orange bib says blind in English, French and Spanish. Crowds of people will collect at the top of a run to watch us ski down. And yet, there are reckless people who ski right between me and my guide, close enough for me to tell what they had for lunch. I don’t think it is that they need blind displayed in another language, they are just clueless. Most other skiers are thrilled that a blind person is on the slopes sharing the exhilaration of skiing and the beauty of the mountains.

Once, I was skiing up to a very full lift line and the lift operator shouted to me as I approached, “Hola Ciego.” (Hello blind guy). “Tiene grande huevos.” (You have big balls). The entire crowd in line cheered as I skidded to a stop, nearly running over my guide.

Just like the streets of Santiago or the small towns, it is the people and the experience of skiing that makes the trip here worth it. For the sake of skiing alone, I prefer steeper and longer runs like those in Portillo, Kirkwood or especially Telluride, CO or Blackcomb/Whistler in Canada. We also love being able to practice our Spanish here in Chile and in Argentina where I have also skied. I hear good things about Las Lenias in Argentina, which we will have to try on another trip. For now, we will savor the wonderful snow, sunshine and Chilean hospitality, not a bad combination for 6 days of vacation, skiing, eating and socializing.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

 

Vacation to Chile

It is quite the production to travel from California to Chile. According to my BrailleNote GPS it is 5975 miles line of sight so to speak from Davis California to Santiago Chile. In order to take advantage of United frequent flyer tickets, we were routed through Toronto Canada for a total of over 7700 miles. Add two airport transfers and delays and the trip takes nearly 24 hours. Probably a quarter of the air time was bumpy and that makes the trip long and stressful.

So why would one go through such a production for a holiday? As I sit on my balcony at the Valle Nevado ski resort over 10,000 feet in elevation, we are on top of the world. It is strange for us Northern hemisphere folks to experience winter in the midst of August. The snow stretches in all directions. We are above the tree line and beyond the endless snowscape are mountain peaks up to 22000 feet.
On our way to skiing in South America, we stopped for two days in Santiago. It is much like other big cities. It is in a bowl so it can be smoggy like Los Angeles but our timing was very fortunate, not a cloud in the sky with that wonderful contrast of crisp winter air and warm sunshine. Mostly we wandered around, eating and looking at people and doing some shopping.

The marketing here of goods is an intense form of one on one sales. People have all sorts of techniques for getting you into their restaurant or shop. I liked to listen to the different pitches as it was an opportunity to learn what was around and to meet locals.

We took the subway to the Central Market during what turned out to be a huge rally for a priest being canonized. There was a Christian rock band playing and thousands of people dancing, singing and throwing confetti. All the time we were walking, I was of course marking GPS points for future reference.

Mike and Wyndham cozying up to a llama

In one plaza, there was a guy with two llamas, and for 1000 pesos, the equivalent of 2 dollars, we had our pictures taken with the white llama, Sofi I think her name was. Her back was at my waste level and I was picturing a guide harness on her. Llamas are known for their fur and as good pack animals. I doubt they are bright enough to do much guiding. Still it was a funny thought to picture a guide Llama along with my GPS navigation.

People in Chile are among the friendliest on earth, right up there with Dublin but with Latin passion. I am talking about the taxi drivers, the shop owners, the hotel staff and the people I have gotten to know over the years in Chile. My mother was born and raised here so I am predisposed to this country. When I was VP of Sales at Arkenstone, I got an adaptive technology dealer started in Chile named Jean Paul Ohaco. He and his family have treated us like family. I have seen him several times over the past 10 years since we met and he has guided me skiing. We are still close friends after he nearly impaled me on a fence post. He is actually a snowboarder and his wife an excellent skier and member of a national Chilean sailing team. His family skis even more than ours.

Another wonderful friend is Andrea Mujica and her husband Dietrich. I met her through my mother’s side of the family and she has been incredible about staying in touch by email and very helpful in setting up our trip. It is amazing to be able to see someone after many years and instantly connect. These connections and the opportunity to ski amidst another culture is why it is worth the long trip to get here.

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