24 Oct 2011

Hasta la vista

Today, the moment to say goodbye to Chile, and to return to the frosty climates up north, has at last arrived. Sitting here at the airport, waiting for my flight to depart, I am in two minds. Sad to leave a place where I have been very warmly welcomed and which I would enjoy exploring more, but at the same time happy to return to the place I've worked hard to make my home.

So, pending a more distanced look back on the last few months, I'll leave you with two videos encapsulating my current state of mind:


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14 Oct 2011

Brand new

Who am I? Where do I belong? What is the purpose of this all? These and other fundamental questions have preoccupied mankind since time immemorial. Philosophers, occultists, theologians and psychiatrists have all been trying to provide answers, with various degrees of success over the centuries. But in today's consumerist society, the lumninaries have lost a lot of their eminence. These days, when people look for guidance, they turn to a brand.

The brands of this world are well aware of this role bestowed upon them, and reach into the toolkit of yesteryear to deliver meaning. When my employer executed its global rebranding last week, it was hard to miss similarities with a religous cult. For months, anticipation and excitement had been built up with various cues, messages, and even a "brand roll-down" session, during which we were educated on the corporation's positioning, the core values we stand for and of course the bold vision our new marquee was going to proclaim - all without actually revealing the name itself. It reminded me of psycho-tease kids suffer with an Advent calendar: Continuous small jolts of excitement building up to a big date, by which the little rascals are inevitably so wound up that they just have to enjoy it.

Much to my chagrin, the build-up period even included collective tinkering with perforated "brand value cards" in a challenge to come up with the most creative structures. Anyone who has ever received one of my primary school arts-and-crafts Christmas gifts can appreciate my talent.

When the big day finally came, the mood in the congregation of workers was positively festive. The office walls were decorated with colorful prints, just short of ornaments. We were treated to a lavish breakfast and the promise of spa treatments after, before being corralled into the boardroom to watch a live webcast. A televised countdown and atmospheric tunes left no doubt: Something big was going to happen soon!

And then our CEO appeared, in Apple-esque fashion, on a stage in front of a big video screen, and started preaching to his flock near and far. How we had grown, how global we had become, how this new name was going to unite us all, give us a purpose and make us the recognized leader in our field. The stars would align, our time had come, and we were all together now. It all sounded so good, so sensible, so palpable, that we hardly noticed that the new brand, when it was finally revealed, was an artificial word, a palindrome that means nothing at all. Amen.


4 Oct 2011


The contrast could not have been more stark. Less than a month ago, I was visiting one of the wettest spots on earth. This weekend, I found myself in the most arid desert on earth: The Atacama in northern Chile. Amongst the many attractive destinations the country has to offer, I prioritized this spectacular place for one of the few weekend outings I can squeeze in. I had expected it to be different from anything I had seen before, and I was not disappointed.

From the moment the plane touched down on a sandy airstrip near a giant copper mine, I felt like I was visiting another planet. Had I arrived on Tatooine? Sand as far as the eyes can see, bizarre rock formations, barren ridges, dusty trails and hardly a shrub lined the road to San Pedro de Atacama, the oasis town that has grown from a small trading post into the hub of tourist activity for the region. Today, its compact center of adobe huts seems to host only tour agencies, eateries and handicrafts merchants, with gringo visitors duly shuffling from one to another.

With the sun beating down, I felt it wise to apply a generous layer of sunscreen before joining them, and as I reached for my bottle of lotion, I found it so bloated it was about to burst, thanks to the change in air pressure from Santiago to this 2500m desert valley. Yet this was only the beginning: The Andean altiplano was calling.

Spoilt for choice but pressed for time, I opted for a tour that took me out into the vast salt pan (something I only knew from an iconic Orange commercial), where flamingos waded through the brine. Pictures taken, our little van stuttered upwards past roaming vicuñas to reach the crystal clear twin lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques, some 4200m above sea level. In the absence of any precipitation, what would be an icy wonderland in the alps presented itself in its sheer barren beauty here, with the volcanos of the Andes gently puffing away in the background. Climbing up a little boulder, I immediately felt the shortness of breath, but sitting down on a rock, taking in the panorama and snacking on the summit supply of Ragusa, I decided that this was mountaineering to my taste.

In comparison with these sky-high adventures, the following day's bike ride through a desolate canyon named valle de la muerte, at a mere 2500m, seemed like a cream puff. Armed with nothing more than a bottle of water, a pocket knife and a mobile phone without signal, I pedaled off into the wilderness. With the tour groups not scheduled to hit this spot until much later in the day, I was soon completely alone in the overwhelming landscape. The silence, solitude and big sky felt liberating and meditative at first, but as the sun rose and the water level my bottle sank, I increasingly started contemplating the significance of the de la muerte bit in the area's name. Hmm, what if....

I abruptly turned around and cycled back to civilization. Being squeezed in with the crowds at the back of a plane never felt quite so reassuring as it did that night.

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