Monday, November 24, 2008

Down South:

The first of November presented an idea, a business plan, an adventure: Paul & I decided to take a trip to Chile. We would meet with current and prospective customers of the BioWorks FirmTech Fruit Firmness Tester, and have a lot of fun in the meantime! And so, 15 days later we were winging to the Southern Hemisphere:

We made it to Santiago w/out too much trouble. Getting through Chilean Customs was a lengthy process, in part because of the FirmTech, and in part because of the prunes I took through Customs w/out declaring. I spent an hour declaring the prunes, and Paul spent an hour declaring the FirmTech. We were supposed to leave the instrument at Customs for the University of Chile (the purchaser) to pick up, but the Customs man gave it to us because of an upcoming strike of all Chilean government workers; this man seemed to think Customs would be closed for a day or more. He was right!

The government strike was timed to coincide w/ the cherry season’s first strong week of produce. (Fruits and copper mining are considered the largest exports in Chile.) So the orchard growers we met with were very concerned, since the strike meant there would be no ships/planes/trains/trucks exporting cherries last week. Very bad for the orchard growers and everyone who works for orchards, right down to the pickers. By Friday the strike was nearly settled, and the cherries you see at Costco this week, and at Wal Mart next week, I think, will be from Rio Blanco, one of our customers.

Directly after leaving Customs (w/out my prunes), we headed south for our first orchard. Really pretty, w/ the Andes as a backdrop to the cherry-laden trees. We were given a tour of the packing facility, and that was really interesting and fun. We were required to don Oompa-Loompa outfits (white coat and white hairnets) in every packing facility we visited. Cleanliness is very important in these facilities, and everything is painted white and everyone wore white. Not only did we look like Oompa Loompas, but the packing facilities were remindful of Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: cherries were washed in a special bath, then moved through the entire building by means of chutes & ladders powered by water streams. There were several means of quality control along the way – size, color, blemishes. At the end of the cherries' journey, they were dropped into overhead baskets, moved down the packing line to white-lit belts where lots of Chilean women (only women) would hand-sort through the cherries, not unlike the I Love Lucy episode of Lucy & Ethyl at the chocolate factory. From there the cherries were dropped into the packing boxes and bags for shipping, and were wrapped w/ controlled-atmosphere plastic, ready for shipping to Asia & the US. What happened to the cherries the Chilean ladies culled? They are sent into the Chilean market. What cherries does the US receive? Just the run-of-the mill cherries, no particular color or size sorting for us. What about Asia? The Asian market is very profitable for the Chileans. They are willing to pay twice what the US pays for cherries. However, they are particular about size and color of their cherries. Chinese importers are only interested in large, deep burgundy-colored cherries, and particular varieties of cherries are sent to that market. Taiwan importers pay for large, bright red cherries.

Where does the FirmTech (our instrument) fit into all this hoo-hah? ( The FirmTech measures the firmness and size of cherries (and other fruits). Orchard growers and packing houses use the FirmTech to collect data on varietal selection, determination of firmness, and size. They have to figure out what variety of cherries, what size, what firmness and when to put cherries on a slow boat to China (a shipment of cherries to Asia takes 2 weeks.), in order for the cherries to still look and taste good at their final destination.

Our days in Chile were long. We stayed at a couple of wineries and Bed & Breakfasts along the Chilean countryside. (Note: hotels are few and very far-between in Chile.) The breakfasts were very nice, for someone who is used to coffee till 10:00am: fresh mango juice, lots of fruits (I did not even know what some were.), and breads & cheeses. And one day we were served something some people would not even had ventured for, maybe, but was good: some sort of pig meats in a gel aspic, trimmed w/ pig fat. Really - it was tasty! Muy bien! It was a good thing we had hearty breakfasts, because after such, we would head out to an orchard or packing company, would miss lunch (do these Chileans EVER eat lunch???) and return back to a hotel or Bed & Breakfast no earlier than 7:30.

One night we stayed in a beautiful old hotel in Santa Cruz. The hotel is part of a legal deal concerning a Chilean arms dealer who was in cahoots w/ Charlie Wilson (you might have seen the movie Charlie Wilson’s War) and the Afghanistans. Anyway, the Chilean arms dealer was found guilty of dealing arms, so the story was told to us, and as part of his sentence he had to forfeit this property (really old and tropical) and a museum and can't leave Chile. Unless he is not living anymore.

It was hot in Chile, and people said summer had already begun. The orchard growers were happy about the hot mornings: something about cold nights and hot mornings the last week of cherry season makes the quality of cherry even better. I am not sure if they meant the color, or the sugar content. Anyway, they were happy. I, on the other hand, was not. Our dinky standard-shift car had no air conditioning. I think Paul & I drank 2 liters of water whenever we got to a hotel for the night. Our clothes would be soaking wet. We would wash them out in the shower as we showered.

We met w/ 2-3 orchard growers or packing facilities each day. This left very little time for the regular tourist routines. But I think we saw a part of Chile perhaps the visitors on tours may not experience. Towards the end of our week in Chile, we took part of a day off to venture into the Andes to look for condors. We were told to look above the trees for what would look like small airplanes. (Condors have a wingspan of up to 10 feet. Their lifespan can reach 50 years.) Paul spotted the sole condor we got to see. It was high above the mountains, maintaining a perfect position in the wind. It did not waver for minutes –it just held its position.

We spent our final day in Santiago. It is a bustling city of more than 6 million people. I loved it! Paul, the driver, loved it after we parked the car and hoofed it for the rest of the day. Throughout our stay in Chile, we were always met with helpful, friendly smiles. We did not have any bad experiences. We were warned at the onset of our visit about pickpockets in Santiago, but we never met any. We don’t think. My Spanish was minimal and rusty at the beginning of our trip, Paul’s was nonexistent, but by the end of our stay we could navigate quite nicely through a basic conversation. No doubt I was using wrong verb conjugations and mistaking my nouns, but in my opinion one should at least TRY the native language, and not expect the native speakers to accommodate you. Besides, it makes them laugh.

When our flight back to Kansas City was over, a fellow passenger across the aisle announced to whomever would listen that he and his wife had just returned from a week in Santiago, and the entire trip was awful. Paul & I glanced at each other and smiled. For whatever experiences they had, ours must have been wholly opposite.

I am surely looking forward to our next adventure in Chile.

1 comment:

mawlenduh said...

Que fantastico! Me gusta mucho la historia. Eres una escritora buena.

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