Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Heaven is in Chile (but so are Earthquakes)

It’s times like these that we feel guilty.

Backpacking is supposed to be uncomfortable. It’s supposed to be difficult. We should be in a run-down hostel in a nasty part of some third world city, right?

Instead, we found ourselves in a tiny Chilean fishing village renting a studio apartment with a massive balcony high on a cliff over the Pacific Ocean. 

I'll just throw it out there now: this post might contain a lot of bragging.

And this after three relaxing, fun days in Santiago, basking in the hospitality of our friend Devin, a buddy from Columbia who has been living in Chile for two years. I’ll cover our time in Santiago in a later post, as we are going back there again this weekend.

For now, I want to wax poetic about Valparaiso and brag about our stay in Heaven, I mean, Horcon.

From Santiago, we jumped on a bus heading to Chile’s 2,700 mile (4,300 km) long coast. More specifically, we went to the city of Valparaiso.

A few months ago, we met an American guy, a travel writer (lucky bastard…), who had fallen in love with Valparaiso and told us to spend as much time there as we could. Apparently he had found a welcoming home in a nice hostel there and stayed for two weeks. He told us about eating local fish every day, drinking too much wine on the hostel's patio at night; there had been a girl- you know how that can be- and the city for him was as its name implies: paradise.

Our time there was less paradisaical, but still interesting enough. 

First off, it’s a genuinely cool city. Think of Valparaiso as that hippy girl who is actually average-looking, but whose cool, quirky personality makes her seem really pretty. She is nice to look at, but more for her unique style and colorful airs than for her aesthetic beauty. She’s natural, and as a result, can be a little dirty, even stinky at times, but somehow that rawness only makes her more attractive.

Beyond the cheesy metaphors, Valparaiso is a coastal city that flows up into the hills just beyond the port in a colorful, crazy, jumbled wave of brightly-painted houses and buildings. Ugh- why can’t I stop writing in metaphors?!
Just a random salsa band playing professional renditions of Buena Vista Social Club songs on a sunny Wednesday morning in Valparaiso.
For us, the few days we spent in Valpo (as the much-cooler-than-us locals call it) was defined by two things: graffiti and an earthquake.

First, the graffiti. Valparaiso is covered in it. I’m not talking about small-minded, anti-establishment tags. You know, someone’s name scrawled sloppily in spray paint on the side of an historic monument as if writing in cursive makes it any less trashy. 

No, I’m talking about art. Intricate, creative, unique public art. Everywhere. I’ll let the pictures do the talking, but it was vibrant and intriguing and made the whole city come to life. 

Tell me you don't want to dance down those stairs. 
Now that's my kind of civil disobedience.
Did Dr. Seuss live in Valpo?

And as I said before, we had an something of an earthquake situation in Valparaiso.

We were in bed in our thankfully sturdy hostel and had just fallen asleep when there was a deep rumble all around us as our bed started shaking, waking us up immediately. The entire world was moving: the walls, the groaning doorframe, the rattling stain glass skylight right above our bed (Helloooo, safety hazard…). 

You all know by now that I’m a giant drama queen, so I’ll just say it: it felt like the world was ending.

It lasted about 30 seconds, which doesn’t sound that bad, but believe me, when you think you are going to die, 30 seconds is a LONG time. We were both just paralyzed, pinned to the bed with fear and confusion. I had vague ideas of getting under the bed or moving to the supposedly-more-stable doorframe, but instead I just lay there, frozen, repeatedly yelling, “Oh my god. Oh. My. GOD!” until the shaking finally stopped.  Heroic, I know.

We felt two aftershocks in the minutes following the quake (which ended up being a 6.8 on the Richter Scale) and those slight rumblings, coupled with my waning adrenaline, broke my nerves completely.

I cried.

Kind of a lot.

But enough about natural disasters, let me tell you about our little slice of heaven that we found after that!

To counterbalance Valparaiso’s craziness, we took a bus up the coast through a series of small towns until we came to Horcon, a tiny, tranquil, colorful fishing village with absolutely nothing to do that would attract any other tourists. We rented a studio on a cliff overlooking the ocean and were the only gringos in town.

It was what we had wanted Valparaiso to be: paradise. 


The view down the coast from our balcony

Horcon was heaven. Every morning, we woke up to the sound of the waves below and to the view of those waves through the floor to ceiling window at the foot of our bed.

After coffee and breakfast on our balcony, we would meander down to the port to watch the fishing boats come in (and then be pulled up onto the beach by horses!), knowing that our dinner was aboard.

We bought the freshest shellfish from a beachfront fisherman’s shack and if we were feeling especially decadent (which we usually were), we would grab some seafood-stuffed empanadas and a cold beer from one of the nearby food stands before heading back home. Evenings were spent on our balcony and in the kitchen, cooking up and devouring our daily purchases.

We basically didn't move from here for four days.
A little too excited about his seafood feast
One of our few restaurant meals: Paila, a Chilean seafood stew
Basically, we did absolutely nothing besides eat seafood, sleep, and bliss out on our balcony. Actually, that's not true, we did go to a deserted beach one day, which was nice except that within 30 seconds of being there, I almost literally stumbled across the decaying corpse of a long-dead seal, half covered in sand and rotting in the sun. Charming. We ran back to the seal-free safety of our balcony soon after that.

Our four days in Horcon was perfection (minus the seal). It was like vacation, only instead of having to go back to work afterwards, we had to go to Easter Island.

I’m trying to think of something humble or negative to say to soften my bragging, but I got nothin'. 

Dead seal, anyone?

Monday, 16 April 2012

On the Road Again

After a month of cozy hospitality (and good ol' hard work) in El Bolson, Vincent and I are back to backpacking.

In the hope of helping ease our re-acclimation to life on the road, we decided to head straight to Argentina's biggest wine region, Mendoza, to try to drown our sorrows of leaving Rosie with bottle after bottle of Malbec. Perfectly acceptable behavior for two adults, right?

Mendoza is a large city surrounded by smaller wine-growing communities, best known for its Malbec, which, if you have never tried it before, is a really drinkable red wine. Too drinkable, actually.

Mendoza itself didn't particularly captivate us, but the stay was worthwhile because we were able to explore the wine region during a day-long biking wine tour. If that sounds dangerous, it's because it is. Four wineries, three or four wines to taste (read: drink) at each, over the span of eight hours and 20 kilometers in the hot sun. It was so much fun.

Biking was really the way to do it, both for the views of the vines and the Andes beyond, and for the rush of adrenaline we got every time a massive truck nearly pushed us off the road. But the upside of multiple near-death experiences during a wine tour is that we were both too tipsy to really notice the danger we were in, and the day passed with nothing more unpleasant than a headache towards the end of the afternoon. We tasted some delicious wines and bought a bottle to take with us at each stop.

It was a blast.

Only the second winery and we're already having trouble holding it together...
Kidding ourselves into thinking we could eliminate all of the wine we drank over our three days in Mendoza, we decided to head up into the Andes near the Chilean border to do some hiking. We chose the village of Uspallata, on the Ruta de los Andes, since it was on the way to Santiago, our next destination. In high season, Uspallata might be considered a sleepy mountain village, but when we were there, it was positively comatose. We rented a cabin on a campsite just out of town (meaning, away from the town's one intersection) and had the entire campgrounds to ourselves. The main reason, though, that we chose Uspallata was that it was a good jumping off point for hiking around the Aconcagua mountain, which at 22,800 ft (6960 m) is the American continent's highest peak and the tallest mountain outside the Himalayas.

To explore this monster, we took a bus further into the Andes to an even smaller village called Puente del Inca, a veritable shit hole if I've ever seen one. The guidebook tricked us into thinking there was something worth doing in the town itself besides hiking as far away from it as humanly possible. There is a "sight" so to say: a natural bridge over a gorge, its stone surface yellowed by sulfuric gases from hot springs below it. That sounds kinda cool, right?

Well, it isn't.

In reality, it's a jaundiced rock arch that competes for view with a decrepit shell of a concrete building where hot spring baths used to be. While walking on a trail by the gorge, we saw a dead horse, which was infinitely more interesting.

Making the site even more underwhelming was its location behind stand after stand of the cheesiest tourist crap I think I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot of tourist crap. There were at least ten stands, all selling the exact same assortment of sculpted figurines made of the yellow stone- everything from The Virgin to a life-size replica of a leather boot. Who, please, tell me, who would buy a full size boot made of yellowed rock? And what would they do with it if they did???

I was baffled by it. Still am.

All of this is to explain why we spent no time in the village itself and instead high-tailed it out of town to the Aconcagua park trail head, which is in a stunning location in a valley between the snow-capped, craggy peak of the Aconcagua mountain (and a few of its lesser peers) and a line of lower sandy mountains seemingly painted with swirling hues of pink, beige, red, violet, gold, green and blue. While we were supposed to be hiking towards the Aconcagua, I couldn't help but spend most of the time looking back over my shoulder at the vivid display of color behind us.

We spent two nights in Uspallata before saying goodbye to Argentina and crossing the border into Chile (where Vincent got pulled out of the Customs line and interrogated because his bag contained popcorn, which is apparently considered to be a dangerous foreign foodstuff in Chile. While he was explaining his ignorance to one official, another one took out the little guitar Vincent bought in Bolivia and proceeded to play it. So bizarre).

We had spent nearly two months in Argentina and leaving it really solidified the realization that our time in South America is coming to a close. Just one more week in Chile and one week on Easter Island, and then we take a plane across the Pacific to New Zealand and another continent altogether. We have already done almost one third of our trip!

Time is going by way too fast.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Rosie's House

I have been meaning to write this post for several days now, but I just couldn't seem to get it done.

It may be because I haven't had the time. When we weren't working, we were usually at the table having leisurely meals full of excellent food, wine and conversation with Rosie, our host. It may also be simply because I didn't know what to say. How do I explain this experience in a way that does it justice?

Someone recently asked me what has been the highlight of this trip so far, which got me thinking: what do I consider a "highlight" among a collection of experiences, sights, people and moments that are all memorable, whether they are good or bad? Trekking to Machu Picchu was certainly unforgettable, but so was the night in Sucre when we sat around our hostel courtyard with new friends and drank a case of wine, laughing and sharing stories until early morning.

Our most recent highlight falls into the latter category, that is, the experiences we have that are memorable because they are so human.We spent the last two weeks volunteering in the same region of Patagonia where we worked previously, but this time, at the home of Rosie, a middle-aged British woman who has been living in Argentina for over 30 years. Rosie lives by herself in a small wooden house on four remote acres of land and takes in a few backpackers a year to help her with gardening, fruit picking and landscaping. As "payment" for the work, she provides room and board.

But that exchange, manual labor for basic hospitality, isn't the point. Far from it.

Yes, we worked, but that part of the experience was largely forgettable. What made this place, and this person, a highlight of our trip was the exchange that went far deeper than work or meals. The true exchange took place when we would all cook together, Vincent and I clumsily learning to fold the dough to close our homemade empanadas, or watching as Rosie took yet another of her fresh fruit crumbles out of the oven. The exchange happened at the end of the meal, as one of us would serve the others another glass of wine, the conversation flowing easily. It happened when the three of us went out in town to watch a Spanish guitar concert at the small venue run by one of Rosie's acquaintances and then discussed the musical styles we like on the drive home. At those times, no one was counting work hours or making sure everything was perfectly equal. It wasn't a work exchange; it was a friendship.

And it was an opportunity for us to learn. We learned about a lifestyle that is far removed from our own- one of simplicity, little waste, sustainability and community. Rosie lives in a house smaller than our old apartment; a house heated by a fireplace enclosed in brick so as to radiate heat throughout the little area. She cooks on a wood-burning stove, which also acts as a heater, as well as an oven. She line-dries her clothes and doesn't own a TV, a dishwasher or a microwave. Her car is old enough to vote.

Rosie produces only one small plastic grocery bag of non-recyclable trash a week. Organic waste is composted, paper is burnt, glass and aluminum re-used or recycled. Her sink and bathwater are drained directly back to the land for irrigation. She and the neighbors in her small, rural community swap and share the various goods they produce: homemade jams, chutneys, juices and beers.

Rosie eats almost exclusively whole foods, often organic and mostly local, but not because it is a current trend. She doesn't buy these products to feel self-righteous about being a responsible consumer. She buys them because it's economical and ecological, and in doing so, she is supporting local producers, like herself, who are trying, often in vain, to live off the land. Her lifestyle is not easy, and part of its simplicity is a result of necessity, not ideology. Yet despite its perceived discomfort or inconvenience, there is something deeply appealing about the idea of only having what you need.

Witnessing Rosie's lifestyle and the simple comfort of her home has made us re-evaluate what we need in order to have a good quality of living. Do we really need a microwave? A dryer? Do any of us really need two or three guest rooms in our house? More than one car per adult, or a new car instead of a used one? It's so easy to confuse what we want, or what other people have, with what we actually need, and often, the more we have, the more unsatisfied we are.

While traveling, we have witnessed whole populations living with much, much less than what we consider necessary in our own countries. We have had a taste of living more simply just by backpacking with the bare essentials. But living with Rosie has been our first opportunity to experience the reality of it. It's the first time we have been able to ask about the benefits and drawbacks, to really understand what it means to simplify. And it has given us a lot to think about.

That's not to say we are going to go all Thoreau on you and go live an isolated life in the woods. It's not even to say that we will change the way we live or consume when the trip is over. It is certainly not to say that you should change your habits. I don't have the answers for myself, so I won't even begin to pretend that I have the answers for anyone else. But it has made us reconsider the way we live and the way we want to live.

Our time with Rosie taught us countless other things too. We have learned about Argentine and British culture, as well as how this particular region has changed over the last few decades. We have learned about the effects of tourism and immigration on a place, the tensions that run deep among a diverse population. We have learned a new style of cooking, which, I have to say again, is amazing. Rosie is truly a superior cook and after two weeks of eating her masterpieces, I have the thighs to prove it. We have learned the art of conversation from a host who is intelligent, funny, engaging and thoughtful.

But above all, above the endless conversations about politics, religion, environmental awareness, wine, Facebook, cooking and every other topic imaginable; above the cultural exchange and the appeal of the simple life; above everything else, we have learned that true hospitality, in its purest, most generous form, is possible.

Rosie welcomed us into her home in the fullest sense, making us feel comfortable immediately. Within a day, we felt like we were visiting an aunt or a family friend, someone whom we had known for years. Some days, when we would come in from work to find tea and cake sitting out for us or when Rosie would rub clay on my wasp stings to draw out the poison and soothe the pain, we felt like little kids at Grandma's house. It was comfortable, and comforting, and was the most "at home" we have felt since we started traveling.

To realize that this complete stranger opened her house and herself to us so readily was to witness a kind of humanity that one rarely, if ever, experiences. It is humbling and inspiring, and it makes us realize just how much potential there is by simply opening oneself to other people.

We could all stand to learn a lesson or two from someone like Rosie. I only hope that we have been able to share with her even a portion of what she has taught us.

Although if we haven't, I know she isn't keeping score.

Hard at work bunching lavender
One of our daily lunches in the garden (homemade vegetable tart and salad)
Purple Peruvian Potatoes (say that three times fast...)
The empanadas we helped make

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Don't judge me

This isn't an actual blog post. I wish it was, but it isn't.

Instead, it is a pathetic "Dear Mom"-style play by play of our weekend. I'm hoping the pretty pictures will distract you from the painfully uninspired writing, but even I'm not convinced of it.

It's not that I have nothing to say, it's just that all of the interesting things I want to share are still jumbled up in my head, not ready yet to come out. The problem is that this past week has been the most enlightening and thought-provoking yet, and as a result, I have too much to share. Since I prefer to communicate in coherent sentences (most of the time), I want to get my thoughts together before I try to put them on paper (and by paper, I mean my computer, which has nothing to do with paper. See? This post is worthless.).

In the meantime, here's a little something for you to look at while you are procrastinating at work until I have collected my thoughts and created an actual post worthy of its name.

This past weekend (we are back to thinking in weeks and weekends after three months of not knowing what day it is. Bizarre.), V and I packed our backpacks with clothes, snacks and borrowed sleeping bags and went up into the mountains for a two-day overnight hike.

Seeing as neither of us are so hardcore that we would just take our packs and camp in the woods, we picked a trail that sloped up through a canyon to an isolated mountain refuge where we could have a meal and a bed. The hike was beautiful, leading us through dense forest that opened up to spectacular views of mountain peaks, Andean glaciers and the turquoise water of the river far below.
Behold, a whole bunch of pictures of me (see if you can figure out who is the photographer in our couple...):

At several points in the trail were these crazy swinging bridges, made from dilapidated wooden planks, many of which were broken completely, and suspended in the air by rusted cables. It was terrifying and hilarious, and we were both humming the Indiana Jones theme song under our breaths has we inched across.
Duh duhduh duuuh!
Duh duh duuuh!
The real highlight, though, was the refuge, run by Atilio, a semi-hermit who had lived up there- a three hour hike from the nearest road- all his life. The building is a small, fully independent log cabin, heated by a wood-burning stove and dimly lit by a generator. It defines simplicity and sustainability, yet remains cozy and comfortable.

As we approached the refuge, which is surrounded by forest and flanked by mountains on both sides, we were greeted by horses, roaming freely on the grounds, as well as cats and sheep. Behind this impressive gang of four-legged things was the little cottage, with a welcoming plume of smoking drifting up from the chimney.

Arg! I don't even like animals!

That evening, we feasted on homemade beer, sausage and bread, followed by the house pizza, which went perfectly with the bottle of Malbec that Vincent had lugged up the mountain in his pack. Between the beer and the wine, I barely even noticed later that night in the common sleeping loft when Vincent and the Argentine cowboy on the mattress next to me started what could only be described as a snoring contest.

The next morning, we awoke at the crack of 9:30 and after a hot breakfast, got back on the trail. We walked up a bit further to the beginning of the canyon before heading back down- six hours in all- to go home.

And the fact that I called it "home" begs another blog post, a real one this time, don't you think?