Another Jaunt to the USA

Folks! I apologize for the lengthy and unexplained disappearance. While there were no mysterious fogs that consumed me, nor an unintentional overdose on ceviche, there WAS another trip to the United States of America.

And boy, was that joyous and action-packed!
It started with a harrowing all-the-worst-things American Airlines flight (two delays, flight switching, late boarding, engine failure, flight cancellation, hundreds of angry passengers and no way out of Lima, an inexplicably *closed* Lima airport???, passport stamp cancellations, long lines, sleepless night, to name just a few) that somehow managed to deliver me not to Baltimore as I originally scheduled but to D.C.-Reagan. I made it to my family by the hair on my neck, and we attended my cousin’s wedding as planned. A great time was had by all.

After a few lovely days in D.C. visiting family and the headquarters of my day job for the first time EVER, I flew back to Ohio, which began a whirlwind explosion of friends, family, and fall! 
There were dinner parties, shopping sprees, cleaning sprees, art nights, family visits…

…and road trips…

excellent time with soul mate friends…

good quality OHIO moments…

reunion of best friends…

this dog…

and best of all, a surprise 60th Birthday Party for my beloved father!! And he didn’t even suspect it! 

The time was, as always, a desperately fun and fast-moving, delightful whirlwind. By the time I felt settled in the USA once more, it was time to leave. The only thing that made my departure easier to bear was that a certain Argentinian was waiting (VERY patiently, I might add!) for me in Lima.

Experiencing fall in the USA again was, as suspected, almost too much for my fair Midwestern heart to bear. When I arrived to Baltimore in early September it was basically high summer still, though within a week or so it firmly switched to fall. I was able to drink apple cider, sometimes spiked and sometimes not, touch pumpkins, crunch leaves, and witness gorgeous tree transitions. The crisp fall airs at night, too, were appreciated.

And as though Ohio was making sure I left the country completely satisfied…the day of my departure, it felt exactly like spring.

Thank you, friends, family and homeland, for yet another delightful, inspiring, and nourishing visit!

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A Month In America

Readers, Followers, Lovers and Others,

I apologize for the lengthy delay. I’m not usually SO bad about updating!

But, it must be known, that Jorge and I had one freaking jam-packed month in America!

I’m not just talking busy, I’m talking, DOING ALL THE THINGS.

We went to a 4-day festival in Michigan, he met almost all of the family, we explored Sandusky and northern Ohio, we flew to Nashville and spent a weekend there, we visited parks, we walked dogs, we watched (almost) every match of the World Cup, he met and spent time with 95% of my best friends, we held multiple cookouts for both friends and family, we went to Cedar Point, we had 4th of July celebrations, we went to the beach, we got in the lake, we went to Kelley’s Island, we went to Put in Bay, we had dinner at friends’ houses, we went to a local music festival, we saw a lighthouse, we parasailed, we ate so much food I don’t wanna talk about it, and, most of all…we enjoyed a freaking awesome summer in northern Ohio!

On top of all of this, I was still working (though reduced hours). The only thing I had to put on hold was WRITING. Sigh.

Here’s some photographic proof of stuff!

Lovers on the 4th of July

Jorge checks out Lake Erie and Cedar Point Beach

On a little walk with Storm, my dad’s new pup, through Osborne Park

Jorge showing his prowess in asados

After a great visit in Nashville with my mom and stepdad!

On a daytrip to Put-in-Bay with friends!
Helping good friends install laminate flooring for their dance studio!
A self-portrait of the occasional cameraman

Ex-Patriot Living Standards Revised (And, Shannon Admits She’s Not A Technical Vegetarian)

Hummus isn’t often used as an indicator for anything except the presence of Mediterranean cuisine or as a radar for locating nearby vegetarians. I maintain that hummus has another conceptual use beyond this, one that satisfies and delights as much as the feel of it slathered across a pita or dripping off your tiny carrot stick.

Given my pseudo-vegetarian/vegan lifestyle, (the technical ratio is as follows: 90% vegetarian, 80% vegan, a “strike-my-fancy” fish-and-meat-eater, a guilty consumer of beef stroganoff and/or bacon once a year), traveling through and living in as many countries as I have presents its own set of culinary experiments and experiences. We humans love to try to stuff ourselves into neat little boxes, right? “Oh, you must be a vegetarian. You look like one. So you’ve never eaten a hamburger?”

Come on. We’re far too complex, contradictory and whimsical for that sort of stuff. And in case you were wondering, reader, here’s my “neat little box”: I am a Tendency Vegetarian. I consume meat when in Mexican restaurants or when experiencing new meat-centric cultures, but when left to my own devices, when following my tendencies, I do not eat animals that much. So, really, not a vegetarian at all. But go ahead and call me one if you feel like you need to.

That said, being back in the United States has been a delightful journey through All The Vegetarian Options. There’s a billion kinds of hummus at Kroger and more meat-alternatives than you can shake a stone ground whole-wheat slice of bread at. Get to a bigger city and the options multiply uncontrollably, like roots on a spud in the windowsill– there’s things I haven’t even heard of, but I’ll try it. I swear to god I will.

Which is why I propose a new international standard, one that can be used by vegetarians, vegans, and pseudo-whatevers across the board to analyze their new international abode. One that is far more effective at analyzing general socio-economic levels, a standard that far exceeds things like “GDP”, “low crime levels” or “varied cultural opportunities” as attractive elements for a vagabond.

Hummus must be used as an indicator of ex-patriot livability.

Dat’s some sexy hummus.

As in, is it available? How many flavors are there? What packaging does it come in? Does it taste like hummus? Has it been home made? Is it available in more than one store?  Are other people eating it? Do other people know what it is? Is anyone around you aware of where it came from? Do the people in your immediate vicinity know that a chickpea is the same thing as a garbanzo bean? Will you tell them if they don’t? Will anyone else try the hummus? Here, do you want to try it?

My recent trip back to the United States has shown me that the accessibility of hummus in my day-to-day life has, indeed, heightened my overall quality of life. (Some scientists believe that readily available hummus – a variety of brands, flavors and more – actually increases life contentment by a whopping 33%***.)

It facilitates my snacking, it ensures I avoid other less savory snacks, it nourishes me, it pleases me, it understands me. So why isn’t it more available across the globe?

On a scale from one to hummus, America scores Full Throttle. Sure, there are probably super rural areas where hummus is treated like a foreign disease instead of the savory gift from heaven that it is, but I wouldn’t live in those places and therefore don’t include them. Even in my small city (30,000 people-ish) the options range from original to smoked to pine nut to burn-my-buds-off-spicy. Good god!

On a scale from one to hummus, Chile scores a Meager Climber. I found one hummus option in the small city of Puerto Varas, almost to Patagonia in southern Chile, and that was only because an ex-pat and his Chilean wife had set up the first-ever vegan store in the region. They made their own and froze it. It was good, but not mind-blowing. But yet, it was hummus.

In Valparaiso, I live around the corner from a Middle-eastern restaurant that offers hummus as a topping option. Score! However, the big box stores don’t have hummus, and most other hummus availability occurs on the streets or from the alternative places. Therefore, it is an underground condiment, and constitutes an important part in the thriving counter-culture. Hummus is not only there, but helps me feel like I’m part of the change.

I imagine future ex-pats having the following conversation:

Ex-Pat Patrick: Hey, man, so what’s up with [insert country]? Do you like it?

Ex-Pat Patricia:Yeah, it’s great! I’ve been having a blast, there’s so many beaches and the buses cost like four cents. Also, plenty of toilet paper in public restrooms.

Ex-Pat Patrick: That sounds great, but, I guess what I really need to know is….what’s the hummus level?

Ex-Pat Patty: [heavy pause] There’s a low hummus score. I haven’t even seen it in the capital.

LOOKS LIKE IT’S TIME FOR EX-PAT PATRICK TO RECONSIDER HIS TRAVEL PLANS TO [insert country here]!!

Chile is a livable country by my new standard. Ex-pats, please use this information to your advantage, and propagate the use of hummus as an indicator of ex-patriot livability. Your vegetarian ex-pat country mates will thank you.

(Please have a list of hummus pick-up locations ready for them upon their arrival.)

***this figure is entirely fabricated for purposes of this article.

Bus Culture in America (Or a Lack Thereof)

I’ve lived in the United States my whole life, pretty much (a majority of the 2__ years of my existence, at least), and only this past Monday did I finally get on a bus as a means to travel between two distant cities.

By contrast, I’ve lived in three Latin American countries and traveled to a whole crapload of other countries, and the general rule in all of them is: get on the bus. Always.

How did this happen? How can this form of transportation be so familiar and snuggly and NORMAL to me in every country except my native land?

Before I go further, let me clarify: I’m not talking about inner-city bussing. I’m talking about multiple-hour, great-mountains-majesty-spanning BUS TRIPS. Ones where you need a meal at some point and part, if not all of, your body goes numb. If you would have asked me to get on a bus to travel anywhere in the US a year ago, I would have balked, looked at you funny, made a comment about Greyhound and asked why I couldn’t just drive myself or fly? Yet since 2006 my preferred method of travel through Latin America has been the $1.30 ride on the chicken bus, where neither life nor luggage is strictly guaranteed.

That’s a pretty weird double standard, don’t you think?

Well, it finally came to an end. I recently visited Chicago for the second time since my American Whirlwind Tour of 2013 began, and I found myself without a ride back to Ohio. As in, I wasn’t going to fork over the money to fly, and my own car was nestled comfortably 300 miles away. What does a vagabond do? GET ON THE BUS.

All Latin American Travel Preferences aside, Greyhound has a seedy reputation. Maybe it’s changed since I last heard anyone comment honestly on it, but from what I remember, there tends to be shifty types lurking in bus terminals, questionable drug use and a whole lot of on-board harassment (unless that’s the free entertainment in the ticket price?). And you could probably get chlamydia, or at LEAST Hep C, from the seat covers.

Enter Megabus, America’s first ever low-cost express bus service and the natural choice over Greyhound. I can hear the Backpacker Angels singing from their hammocks in the hostel! The first time I heard about Megabus, I had a chilling flashback to Ryan Air, Europe’s notorious discount airline that inspired this article for Vagabondish. But no, I was assured that Megabus not only was cheap AND respectable, it picked you up inside the city and dropped you off at the actual destination. None of that one-hour-away-from-where-you-thought-you-were-landing hullabaloo Ryan Air is famous for! Plus, wifi on board, and power outlets in every seat. What?! Megabus, am I dreaming? Or were you specially engineered to appeal to my budget backpacker, working holiday senses?

Your bold colors and low prices
inspire me to choose YOU, Megabus!

But there’s always a catch, right? The first sign was when the bus wasn’t there at the scheduled departure time of 4:15pm. A nearby lady muttered, once I had admitted it was my first foray with the company, “The thing about Megabus is, half the time, they’re never on time.”

The bus showed up around 4:40pm. We pulled away from the bus stop at 5:03pm.

Once I was comfortably nestled in my chair on the 2nd floor of the bus, excited about plugging something, ANYthing into the power outlet and hooking up to that wifi floating around our mobile oasis, I became aware of a nagging sensation in the back of my mind. As I looked around, took stock of my seat mates, listened to the overly detailed explanation about our intended route, I realized that we Americans are definitively and indisputably not a bus culture.

As I mentioned earlier, I have extensive experience with pretty much all forms of transportation apart from hot air balloons and drag cars. And my years of bus travel throughout Latin America have conditioned me to expect certain things from The General Long Distance Bus Experience, which MegaBus failed to provide. Here’s why:

**Loading the luggage and passengers was lengthy and inefficient. What is an ongoing and flawless system for large, luxury bus companies between Mexico and Chile, took twice the time for Megabus. On the side of a street in downtown Chicago. In the searing sun. I’ve seen Chilean double-deckers arrive 8 minutes prior to departure time and load the whole damn thing, passengers and all, with 30 seconds to spare. BAM.

**There’s no way to identify your luggage, apart from what might be the very same bus driver pulling pieces from the dark luggage doorway at night, holding it up with eager eyes for all to assess, and then putting it back inside if nobody claims it. Other companies give you luggage tags, which you present to the unloader so that you can at least have some way to really identify if that bag you’re lugging home is actually yours — or its lookalike.

**Being over 40 minutes late and then arriving over an hour and a half late to the destination doesn’t bode well, especially in our time-conscious culture. Time is money, or so they say, and I don’t think Megabus can get away with this for very long before people start to really complain and choose another service, at least when time is of the essence. Long-distance luxury buses in Latin America arrive and leave exactly on time, 99% of the time. I’m not actually sure how it works, but I suspect there are cleverly placed wormholes throughout the continent that allow for bus drivers to make up for lost time. I’ve never once taken a bus between cities in Chile that didn’t arrive early. Come on, guys. It’s possible to arrive AND leave on time.

Ummm, hello? Megabus? Can you come pick us up?

I guess when it comes to discount service providers like Megabus, Ryan Air and so many others, they find their shtick and stick to it. RyanAir’s tagline is that they’re the on-time airline; which is true, once you overlook things like their airports being in different postal codes and everything except the ticket costing 100 euro. And it seems like Megabus is no different: they promise a quasi-luxurious on-board experience, with wifi and power outlets; which is true, but you definitely won’t be arriving on time, wherever it is you’re going.

All that being said, will I take Megabus again?

Hell yeah I will.  And you bet your ass that when I go back to Europe, I’m first in line at the check-in kiosk for RyanAir, .01 kg under the weight limit for my backpack and with five layers of clothes on.


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