A Non-Traditional Christmas in the Sacred Valley

Jorge and I are situated this year, both physically and financially, in such a way that going home to spend the holidays with either family was pretty much impossible.

But friends, family and food constitute the holidays, right? In light of the fact that we are new to Cusco, are still partially digesting the Thanksgiving explosion less than a month ago, and love to travel, we decided to have a non-traditional celebration in…you guessed it…MACHU PICCHU.

Due to Jorge’s work schedule, we booked a two-day tour. This option meant leaving Cusco at 8AM, driving for about six hours through perilous mountain roads, stopping once to pee, and then finally arriving at the hydroelectric dam — the last stop on the road toward the base city of Aguascalientes.

Off we go to on our extremely economical and totally

disorganized tour to Machu Picchu!

The tour company made mention of the fact that on the road to the hydroelectric dam, sometimes there are landslides. And sometimes, the roads have to close. And other times, people, you know, sorta die.

Okay. We thought about this for a while. These tour companies don’t want dead tourists because it would mean the death of their business, so we knew at least that this route has heavy traffic, albeit it being slightly dangerous. The only other way to get to our destination would be spend a couple hundred extra dollars to go by train. The Sacred Valley region is entering the rainy season, which puts these high-altitude mountain roads at a higher risk of landslides. Being that the rainy season is JUST starting, it’s not as dangerous as January or February, when these tours sometimes stop altogether.

So, being that it’s still being offered, we probably won’t die, I reasoned. And if we want to go the economical route, there is literally only one road connecting the Sacred Valley with the Machu Picchu area.

One.

In fact, this road starts in the valley area of Cusco — very dry air, pretty high altitude, lots of regular forests and agriculture. You go up, up, up for hours — at the tippy top, when we were most definitely traversing a cloud, I saw a sign that said we were at 4,300 meters. More than 14,000 feet. We were told by the driver that we would not be stopping at any part of this part of the mountain road, due to the altitude and potentiality for getting sick. Way up there, I felt the headache kick in, as well as drowsiness.

Once we crossed the tree line descending on the other side of the sierra, I noticed things looked a little different. Way more lush, much greener and…HUMID. The jungle side of the mountains had begun, and the further along we went, the more I felt like I’d suddenly transported to Costa Rica or somewhere similar. I loved it.

This winding mountain road was completely rife with danger, and I am being quite serious. It seemed to be really just a one-and-a-half lane highway, and we passed several areas where fallen rocks had blocked off one half of the road. Furthermore, the engineers were really working against nature, as the mountain had several outlets of (natural) GUSHING water that sometimes was diverted below the road, but oftentimes, just cascaded over top of the pavement. I honestly thought a few times that the gushing water would carry us away off the cliff.

Spoiler alert: it didn’t. BUT IT WAS STILL SCARY!

During the final leg of our journey, right before we got to the dam, we encountered an interesting skirmish. When rounding a tight bend, our driver nearly crashed into an coming truck that had violated the rules of mountain road driving. The offending driver had approached the curve in the center of the road and hadn’t swung out wide, as you must do. So, we almost crashed head on. Our driver was understandably upset, so he called out to him something to the effect of “Hey, obey the rules, or we’re all gonna be in trouble here!”

Well, the other driver didn’t like being called out. Maybe it had to do with the 13 people piled in the back of his truck overhearing his honor being questioned. At any rate, Other Driver stopped the truck, and got out.

The Rules of Road Rage told me this was a very bad sign.

Other Driver then he came up to our driver’s window. They began a heated conversation that involved a lot of “you think I don’t know what I’m doing?” I overheard them make an actual plan to meet later to physically fight about this.

And then someone punched someone. I’m not sure who it was, but our driver began fist-fighting with this man through the window. It was so ridiculous I laughed, but it didn’t stop. Luckily, people who are better at these situations stepped in to handle it — namely Jorge and two other guys on the bus, who began trying to intervene to get these men to calm down. Finally, our driver put up the window and we drove away like nothing had happened.

We arrived to the hydroelectric dam around 3:00 PM, where the road officially ends. From the dam, there’s only two ways to arrive to Aguascalientes (the base city to Machu Picchu): WALKING or the TRAIN.

We ate a quick lunch (included in our tour payment) after a brief scuffle with the tour guides who greeted us at the dam. Our names had been mysteriously lost from the list, and they had to make a series of languorous phone calls, accompanied by vigorous receipt-demonstrating on our end, before we were led to the restaurant.

After eating, our trek to Aguascalientes began. The trail follows the train tracks to Aguascalientes, so all the paying customers can look at us vagabonds hoofing it along the side. It takes two full hours, walking at a moderate pace. The trek was gorgeous, and the only real difficulty was that, at times, one had to walk close to the tracks, and therefore over unstable rocks which slows progress. We caught a random Jungle Rainbow along the way.

Random Jungle Rainbow Alert!

Two hours of hiking is perhaps tiring but not the end of the world. Though I definitely stressed a muscle behind my right knee from all the unsure rock balancing; nothing major. I was certainly ready to sit down once we got to Aguascalientes, though! We met a different guide in the main plaza, who then took us to our hostel and gave us instructions for where to meet for dinner.

We had roughly an hour and a half before we needed to meet at dinner, 8 PM. So Jorge and I headed to the famous HOT SPRINGS (which the city is named after — “Hot Waters”) where we rested our weary hiker bones in the medicinal waters for about a half hour.

At dinner, the guide explained to us how the next day would go. We could either take a bus at 6AM to arrive at the Machu gates by 6:30 AM, or we could wake up at 4 AM to begin a roughly 2 hour hike of pure vertical steps.

We chose the hike, for a variety of reasons. One was the sheer experience of it — what better way to experience the Picchu than trekking up the mountain like the ancient Incans? Another was physical prowess, as most of my readers know I like to challenge myself in specific ways just to know that I can DO it. And, lastly, there’s the money aspect. Though the bus wasn’t expensive by any means — a measly $10 — it’s extra things like that that add up.

So we got our butts out of bed at 4 AM, and started the hike to Macchu Pichu.

Sunrise occurred around 5:30 AM, once we were past the front gates where they checked our passports. The first leg of the walk to get to the control gate was easy — just getting out of the city. But once we crossed the entrance — across a huge bridge with the angry river roaring beneath — the STAIRS began.

I kid you not, I was out of breath after the equivalent of two flights. I paused. I continued. Then I paused again, after a shorter distance. And then, I began something I like to call “The Tour of Desperation.”

I don’t know how many steps there were in all, but let’s be clear on one thing: I’ve climbed the Steps of Repentance on Mount Sinai, and I repented harder climbing to Machu Picchu. I began my Tour of Desperation once I realized that I had a full hour and a half of climbing these freaking steep stone steps ahead of me, and after only ten minutes I was ready to lay down.

The Tour of Desperation included highlights such as: the particular corner where I sat down for the first time and thought, “Well, damn, it can’t be that high.”; the variety of instances where plenty of athletic and probably bionic people breezed past us, barely panting; the particular stretch of steps where I began imagining all the other places I’d like to be instead of those stairs, including Hawaii, followed by vivid imaginations of receiving a lei upon arrival; the dense corner of vegetation where I considered the possibility that I wouldn’t actually make it to the top; the time I reached the road designed for the buses and I thought the trek was over, only to be followed by four more excruciating flights of damnable stairs; and, lastly, the time I heard voices above us on the path and my innards leapt with joy, only to realize we hadn’t reached the end, and the path would probably never end, and it was all a giant trap concocted by the ancient Incans to capture healthy humans from the future to use as sacrifices in the past.

A shot of Jorge climbing the stairs. The blur might suggest he was moving very fast, but trust me, he wasn’t.

We did finally make it to the top, only to begin a multiple hour tour of the complex. We found our tour guide and, after a quick snack, we began to meander through the ancient city.

The place was incredible. I forget entirely about the fact that I might have to amputate a thigh from overuse and instead, got completely lost in the guide’s explanations of the environs. They estimate the city was built in the 1400’s, and was one of multiple cities in the region commissioned by the then-leader of the Incans. It was primarily a religious center, and also had plenty of astronomical observation centers. One thing I especially liked was the naturally-irrigating agricultural steps, shown below.

They grew things like corn on the different levels.

Our tour lasted about two hours then we had a few hours to wander around and take ample photos. We climbed up to the highest point of Machu, took plenty of selfies, visited with some alpacas, and basically enjoyed the insane views from the mountaintop city. We could see the river down below that marked our starting point — we think we climbed about a mile upward, all told.

Taking some shots around 7 AM, before the morning fog had cleared.

Behold the majesty of the lost Incan city! They call it ‘lost’ because it wasn’t discovered until the early 1900’s — meaning the Spanish conquistadores completely overlooked this gem. And thankfully so!

See that river down there? That’s where we started.

Just enjoying the MAGICAL JUNGLE VIEWS.

Mister Machu. The Incans were most likely freaks, based on the manner of city construction. I’m sure they were 90% thigh, at least. Our guide mentioned that the next Incan city over is roughly 120 km away — a hike that for us nowadays would take 3 or 4 days, but for the Incans, took a matter of hours.

Money shot!

When there’s animals nearby, Jorge must meet them.

Merry Christmas from the tippy top point of Machu Picchu!

We all know what happens next, right? We have to get OFF the mountain. Thank GOD for physics — what goes up must come down. To be fair, we could have taken the bus, but again, chose not to. Besides, going down is always easier than going up. Though our knees were a little worse for the wear afterward, the 2 hour trek up became a 1 hour trek down. Practically a walk in the (extremely humid and steep) park.

But then came our return hike to the hydroelectric dam, where our return bus would be waiting for us. Two more hours walking after a full day of climbing, sweating, and desperate thoughts? Sure. Why not. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore anyway.

We got to the dam around 2 PM, ate a quick lunch, and then went to the pick-up area for the return trip to Cusco. A lot of people milled around, and I overheard a heated conversation between a  tourist and a guide nearby.

Turns out, the disorganization of the tour company had reached another peak. I had mentioned to Jorge at one point of our trip that I didn’t really trust that this company was looking out for us. It seemed like in order for things to get done, we had to be exceptionally on our toes. Making sure we had receipts ready and knowing what came next ahead of time.

And this was the case here. When we arrived, we were told there were no spots for us on the return bus. We reminded the guide that we had paid, showed the receipt, demanded that we be provided with this service. He suggested we just buy our spots on the bus to Cusco AGAIN, which was laughable, considering we had proof of already paying this. He ignored us for a bit, made some phone calls, was approached by other angry tourists. I felt bad for the guy — I know it wasn’t his fault, but rather the whole company’s approach was just poor, and he was the guy on the front lines receiving the brunt of it.

After a tense half hour, another bus did arrive, and we were allowed to board. Most of the other tourists in limbo were also able to board — some had been waiting (and been ignored) for over three hours.

Our return drive didn’t include any fist-fights (unfortunately?), but it DID include an active landslide. Helloooo, rainy season! We watched as rocks tumbled from the mountainside and onto the road, some continuing off the cliff. They weren’t boulder by any means, but one of those to the side of the van would definitely break a window — and possibly a head. Our driver waited tensely until the frequency of the landslide slowed.

And then he freaking gunned it.

We made it through alive, some of us actively trying to avoid peeing our pants (me). Another several hours later, we made it back safely, and dead tired, to Cusco.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS to everyone!!

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How to Host a Thanksgiving Abroad Without an Oven

It might be almost halfway through December, but gosh dangit, here’s my update about our Thanksgiving in Cusco! If you remember our “Gracias Dando” celebrations from the year before, you’ll know that it was an exercise in creative cooking, limited space maneuvering and extremely imbalanced plate-to-guest ratios.

Well, our Thanksgiving in Cusco was a whole new type of holiday creativity. Here are some of the biggest differences:
Instead of a big HOUSE this year, we have a smartly decorated SHOEBOX.
Instead of a “healthy amount of plates and utensils”, we have exactly 2 of EVERYTHING.
Instead of a base-line equipped kitchen with an OVEN, we have a CAMPER STOVE.
And instead of multiple casserole dishes with which to cook those ultra-important Thanksgiving dishes…..we had NONE.
So, how does one accomplish a Thanksgiving with this foundation? Let me provide a handy guide to creating an Ex-Pat Thanksgiving with the sparsest of resources.
Step One: Meet your neighbors, who are delightful ladies working at a local non-profit. Find out they have an oven during a night sharing a bottle of wine. Also find out they have no refrigerator, a resource that we do indeed have. Propose idea for a ‘little Thanksgiving celebration’ and, in effect, an exchange of necessary resources.
The lovely Lucy showing off her beautiful oven.
Step Two: Purchase all the necessary ingredients for the 7 dishes you alone want to create. Make several desperate trips to various markets. No matter what, you won’t be able to find mushrooms, sour cream, or heavy whipping cream each time you go. Begin googling for workarounds.
Step Three: Find the turkey. The main and largest supermarket doesn’t have it, so you have to turn to the black market. Send your boyfriend at 7AM one morning to the bad side of Cusco to pick up a frozen bird from a wholesale place. Let him take it to work with him all day. He’ll name it Cloticio.
Step Four: Realize that baking must begin the night before if anything is going to be consumed the next day, since the amount of baked dishes is astronomical, and the amount of oven space and dishes is next to nothing. Bake apple pie. Don’t eat it.
Pre-apple pie.
Post-apple pie.
Step Five: Thanksgiving morning. Allow boyfriend to prep the turkey however he wants, because as an ex-vegetarian you have no idea what traditions surround the readying of the turkey. Assume he’ll do fine because he’s Argentinian and, well, meat is his specialty. Take the turkey to a “24 Hour Oven” across the street, where a comically hard-to-understand old lady tends a wood oven where she gladly receives Cloticio to cook for three hours.
Jorge and the prepped Cloticio.
Step Six: Resume baking and cooking the remaining dishes: corn casserole, green bean casserole, stuffing, mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, chocolate chip cookies. As friends arrive, make everyone taste the ridiculously tasty mushroom soup. Don’t share the recipe. Move scalding hot casserole from dish into skillet so that dish can be re-used for another baking purpose.
My famous green bean casserole!
Lucy and Kate’s glazed veggies
Step Seven: Remaining visitors arrive, and they help by moving dinner table to the outside patio. Wine is opened. All of the Thanksgiving guests are first-timers (i.e. non-Americans), so the pressure is on. This shit better be good. Neighbors have also contributed delicious foods, native to their own lands. Bring food to table, which completely consumes and overflows off of the picnic table.
Step Eight: GIVE THANKS AND EAT!
Happy Ex-Pat GraciasDando Friendsgiving 2014!
Hope everyone’s Thanksgivings were a rousing success, full of family, fun and love…and that you all had slightly more casserole dishes than we did.

Ex-Pat Re-Cap

Happy Thanksgiving, America! In preparation for my own ex-pat Thanksgiving here in Cusco, I began thinking about holidays spent on the road, and then I began to think about all the different quirky lessons I’ve learned along the way too. Here’s a rundown of some lessons I’ve learned throughout the years abroad.
Your Neighbors Will Always Be There. ‘Getting to know the neighbors’ – whether by name or simply by listening to their habits through your walls – is always part and parcel of living in a new place. And in my travels, I’ve experienced a lot of neighbors: docile, grandmother Luz in Puerto Varas, whose days were a well-oiled machine (and don’t you dare try to sit in her spot at lunch); fun ex-pat Paul in Valparaiso who lived above our house and never complained about the heinous amounts of noise we made during asados, wine clubs, parties and more; the innocuous roommates in Lima who I almost never saw but could always hear them urinating; the boy who lives somewhere in the downstairs vicinity of my current apartment complex and shouts, constantly and repetitiously; and our landlord who lives next to us, and every time she comes home and opens her door, it sounds like she’s breaking into our apartment, because the sound buffer is thatnon-existent. Daily, chest-tightening panic for a second until we realize Oh, it’s just Ada coming home, not a strange person trying to insert a key into our front door.
 
Looking down the line at the various apartments in our complex. 
Classic American recipes, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas times, can mostly be reproduced abroad. Sometimes tweaks are needed, other times not. And sometimes you just have to be hyper-vigilant around an oven with no indicator of whether it’s scorching or lightly caressing your baked good. But it always comes out delicious. And the journey to attempting to recreate it is an adventure all its own, from hunting down specific ingredients that might not necessarily be local, to acquiring the proper cookware, to obtaining a stove if you don’t currently have one (cough cough, CUSCO). There’s pretty much always a way, if one is determined enough and uses enough holiday whiles.
Holidays without family aren’t bad, just different. Prior to moving abroad, one of the aspects that made me recoil was the idea of missing holidays — and potentially a lot of them. I’ll admit, the first Christmas away from home was very strange and a little sad, though tempered by the fact that I had Leslie and Amanda with me, and we spent it in an American-style guest house. My second Christmas abroad was totally unique to the first one abroad, and to every Christmas spent prior. What I’ve realized is that it’s about creating that energy of the holiday, no matter where you are. And it CAN be done, and usually very successfully. Especially if you involve Christmas cut-out cookies with various incarnations of inappropriate shapes. Though, as I’m nearing my third year without family on all major holidays except for July 4th, I’m VERY ready to get home next year and spend some holiday time with my BLOOD. There’s something inexplicably fulfilling about spending Thanksgiving in the crisp November fall time, and the Christmas bustle amidst the snow-covered Ohio backdrop.
Peru wins in the Pisco battle. Sorry, Chile.
Though I am living in tourist destinations, I cannot be like the tourists. Even though I desperately want to schedule all manner of buses and flights to surrounding environs to hit the spots along the tourist trail, I cannot. I am a slow traveler, and this means that I must squelch the urges to dine out frequently, visit tons of bars with the gringo gang, or hit up that last-minute tour to wherever. My budget is not a backpacking one, or rather, one who has saved for a long time to be able to splurge for a short time. I have a regular person’s budget, as I am a regular person who just happens to live abroad. And other people I meet on the road sometimes forget this. Simply being in the same country as tourism seems to imply to some that I am living an action-packed, dollar-fueled adventure. I am not. In fact, I have several jobs and am working most of the time. Most of my friends and family couldn’t just up and take a trip across the USA tomorrow, and neither could I. I have to plan my trips and movement just like everybody else.
Living in a colonial city is really inspiring, pretty much all the time. Sometimes to where I can’t stand it.
San Blas neighborhood (Cusco) at night.
Technology makes the distance WAY more bearable. As in, I sometimes don’t even notice the sheer thousands of miles between me and my loved ones, because we manage to stay in such frequent contact. It’s similar to living in a different city in the same state. Minus the random Sunday meet-ups (because THAT would still involve a day’s worth of travel across hemispheres and international frontiers).
Creative workarounds make the difference. It helps that my boyfriend is a master of coaxing use out of random, disparate household objects. It means we don’t have to fret if we don’t have something, and has allowed me to expand my problem-solving skills in general. Notable examples: constructing a dustpan out of a wine bottle and cardboard. Figuring out how to re-heat food without a microwave, or warm tortillas without…whatever you might normally use to warm tortillas. Unplugging a hopelessly stopped sink with an incense stick (didn’t have to call the plumber on that one!). Using a sewing needle to make a hook to attach to thread to rescue a pair of boxers that had fallen to the patio a story below our window. In lieu of a potato masher, using the rough bottom of a drinking glass. And the more recent controversial coffee-making method utilizing leggings. And on, and on.
I speak like an Argentinian now. During my most recent visit to the USA (September-October), I remember recording a message to send to Jorge via Whatsapp. For some reason, I listened to it after I had sent it, something I don’t normally do, and was horrified by the blatant and excessive Argentinian accent. Yet, when I had recorded the message, I certainly hadn’t remembered talking like that. Could it be that almost two years with an Argentinian has finally, and irreversibly, tainted my Spanish? It must be — because the other day, I used the word vos with Jorge, something I swore to never do. OOPS!

Sharing Forks and Sitting on the Floor: Thanksgiving in A Vagabond House

I live in what I affectionately term a “Vagabond House”.

This is a house which is rented for 3 months or more (sometimes up to a year) by bonafide transients, typically (and in my case) foreigners without legal residency in the host country and with plans to move forward to some destination once said lease is up.

Due to the nature of the “vagabond house”, it doesn’t make sense to invest in too much furniture, because we’ll just have to sell it. We have a stove, a washer, a fridge, mattresses, and some left over surfaces from whoever lived here before. Also, we bought one couch and 12 plastic chairs.

Everything else we have in here was constructed by us (i.e. Jorge, or Martin and Amanda….okay, mostly just not me) from dumpster diving acquisitions: a side table which Jorge nailed together from disparate found pieces, which he and I then lovingly painted wild colors; multiple crates that now hold tomato, chard and kale plants; decorative items such as the rusty children’s bike that hangs suspended from our ceiling, etc.

While the Vagabond House doesn’t have everything in a material sense, it has everything we need. (Well, a real French Press might be nice, but…hey. Vagabonds can’t be choosers.)

But the key word there is “we”; the 5 of us that live in this house.

The Vagabond House doesn’t have everything to accommodate the oh, let’s say, 15 guests who are planning on showing up at your door for an Ex-Patriot Orphan Friendsgiving.

When my friend Peter and I were talking about Thanksgiving plans back in early November, it was a natural decision – yes, the feast must be here!  We have a very large house with an established reputation for fun times and hosting. Despite the lack of accoutrements for said wildly-large-Thanksgiving-feast, I told myself, “Hey. It’ll be fine. It’ll work out somehow.”

It was around one day before Thanksgiving that I realized that it might not actually work out. My guest list was 20+ people, with an established rule that “any American who doesn’t have a place to spend the holiday is welcome to come”, which meant that the 20+ people could swell considerably, depending on how many adrift Americans were found.

Aside from the 20+ guests, I realized something else: only 5 of us live in the house. Which means we bought/inherited our dinnerware based on this number. We have 4 coffee mugs, 9 regular glasses, and 2 wine glasses. There were less than 10 each of forks, spoons and knives; two pots for boiling water; one large casserole dish type thing that wasn’t a casserole dish but could be used as one; and one large bowl for mixing and serving purposes. Furthermore, we have 8 large dinner plates, 6 bowls, and one tiny plate that isn’t good for anything except, well, a pat of butter.

The math in my head went something like this: 6 + 5 + 9! / 17 – 4(x) + 33 =…..DRASTIC SHORTAGE.

The solution? Strongly urge people to bring their own cups. And silverware. And go buy a couple more casserole dishes.

I did these things, and on the morning of our Thanksgiving, we started baking and preparing extra early in preparation for the hassles of transferring dishes into holding bays while certain things were used and then unoccupied and then eventually re-transferred and…phew.

But I didn’t mention the best part—the Chilean stoves. Instead of clearly-defined temperature marks and an ability to know the difference between broil and bake, the Chilean Gas Oven features an infuriating knob with no lines, no numbers, and no indicator as to whether or not you are scorching the crap out of your casserole or just lightly heating it for 12 hours. “Turning it on” requires a terrifying 10 seconds of sticking open flame into two inconveniently placed holes where, once it lights, sometimes you can smell your eyebrows burning.

But you know what? Despite the shortage of items, implements and objects typically associated with Thanksgiving-Without-A-Hitch, despite not having an electric stove or any idea if I was baking at 245 degrees or 750 degrees….it worked out perfectly.

I made a literal vat of homemade mashed potatoes, the Bradford-Famous Corn Crop, AND vegan stuffing. Not to mention Amanda put TWO turkeys into the Chilean Thinly-Veiled-Inferno Oven, and neither were scorched, singed, or lightly caressed by heat for half a day.

Corn Crap Close-Up

It was a wholly successful Ex-Patriot Thanksgiving: made somewhat easier by the fact that the final count came to 17.

My general premise was as follows: any attending American should bring a homemade and/or beloved home dish, and all non –Americans bring something for drinking purposes. This way, we maintain the “typical food” of the holiday while nobody breaks the bank on supplying beverages for so many people. In addition to what Amanda and I created, we also were treated to the following dishes: a basic salad, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie, apple crisp, bread pudding, cheesecake, home made bread, and pumpkin pie with cream. Oh – and a crap ton of wine.

Not too shabby, right?

I don’t know if I would have ever agreed to host even 17 people in the USA prior to moving abroad, much less the original estimate of over 20. I think I might have been too overwhelmed by a perceived “lack” of things for such a big number.

But this year, as I saw the number of guests climb and the number of dinner plates remain resolutely at 8, what became very clear to me was the following idea, which has permeated my life abroad as I follow the regular rhythms of life under very different circumstances:  if I have something to share and you have something to share, we can make something work. Thanksgiving 2013 proved to me just how far you can go with far less than what you’re accustomed to.

Sure, most of my guests were sitting on the floor (re: vagabond housing), leaning against the wall, or otherwise disobeying every rule your grandmother ever set forth for proper dinner etiquette on a holiday. I mean, for god’s sake, there was no autumn leaf-themed napkins!

But we were happy as hell. Delicious food, excellent company, and just enough spoons to go around.

Digging in!

Me and Chelsea went first — no need to delay, we Americans know what to get extras on first.

Happy International Orphan Friendsgiving!

And like every Thanksgiving in the States…there’s always leftovers, no matter how much you stress about feeding everyone. We had enough turkey and potatoes left over to have a Thanksgiving on the Ocean the next day!!

Thanks for a great GraciasDando, Valpo!

Holidays Below the Equator

I’ve never spent a susbstantial holiday away from home, despite my extensive travels. This trip was the first time I’d ever spend all the major ones away from home – Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and then who knows what else in the future – and away from family.

I was slightly apprehensive about how I might feel during these days. Obviously Thanksgiving came and went successfully, complete with Bursting Gut Syndrome yet thankfully free of Black Friday Madness. Christmas was quiet here and save a little unexpected Tearful Joy after talking with all of my family on Christmas Eve, I felt very calm and happy. Even away from family, I can have a successful and fulfilling Christmas.

Me on Christmas Eve! Note I’m not wearing a heavy jacket.
Because there’s no snow here, Ohioans. No snow. 

It helped to have the girl’s here. We opted to spend our Christmas Eve helping out with a dinner at the guesthouse where Leslie works, which allowed us to spend the time together, eat really well, and be surrounded by Americana-type comfort. The guesthouse is really gorgeous and it’s decorated impeccably, so being surrounded by such cozy Christmas touches helped the holiday spirit.

Vicky readying the gourmet salads for the Christmas Eve dinner.

We made the decision to not purchase presents. None of us are really in a position to spend mass amounts of money on gifts, much less ship them around the world. So without the pressure of gift purchases, and the weather indicator (first Christmas without snow and cold – WEIRD!), it was really hard for me to remember that Christmas was even approaching.

Our awkward family portrait on Christmas Eve.

New Year’s Eve festivities commenced with a fireworks display downtown at the beach. Around 11:50pm everyone started shooting off silly string and screaming and cheering and popping champagne bottles on the street. Then right at midnight, a huge fire sign lit up that said “Puerto Varas 2013”; it was really impressive. Then the fireworks started, and they went on for quite some time (far longer than the July 4th Cedar Point fireworks, for the record).

The rest of the Eve was celebrated in typical fashion (partying) but what was different about this New Year’s Eve partying was that I was working. And working really, really stinking hard. We were slammed to the gills with people from 12:30am until the (not so) early morning, and I’ve never run so much at that place as this night. I think the first time I was able to look past the wall of people waiting at that bar was around 5am or so. Two girls were supposed to come in and help us serve drinks that night but something didn’t work out right, because they definitely showed up behind the bar. Amanda, Keko and I served hundreds of people that night. Phew!

Plus I got a sunburn on the beach later that day, and took a dip in the Lago Llanquihue. Invigorating!!

Me and a friend braving the cold waters…
Not a bad backdrop, eh?

Merry Christmas (a little late) and Happy New Year to all my loved ones and dutiful readers! 2012 was a ridiculously fun, magical, eventful, rewarding and inspiring year…here’s to 2013 being all that and more!!

A Grateful Check-In

Here are some of the things that I am grateful for on a daily basis. We Americans love to count our blessings on Thanksgiving, but I am guilty just as much as anyone of not reflecting frequently enough upon the delightful and lovely and delicious aspects of my life. Let me begin:

1. I am grateful for the fact that Leslie convinced me to bring my winter jacket to Chile. Back in mid-October, I was stressing over the amount of luggage I’d amassed prior to our departure. I knew I had to leave something, but what? I begged her to agree with my rationalization for leaving the enormous green parka. “It’s going to be summer,” I reasoned, “I mean, one or two cold nights is fine, but then it’ll be SUMMER.” I don’t remember what the persuasive argument was that changed my mind, but I brought it along (I ended up leaving a fair amount of beads and bead containers behind – good choice) and I thank the heavens above for this everyday, because I literally wear that jacket EVERY DAY. Yeah, it’s spring here, but it’s certainly not like Spring in Ohio. The nights are still cold (though not as cold as when we first arrived), and the daytime temp swings from annoyingly sweltering in the sunlight to annoyingly cold in the shade. There was a hot spell only once, and it lasted three days. I was able to wear my shorts in the daytime on those days, but I’m not sure what happened because that weather has not returned (maybe the hole in the o-zone layer? Seems like a good excuse for any strange behavior in these parts).

2. I am grateful for Chilean Spanish. I never thought I’d say this, but I am indeed very grateful for the fact that Chileans speak too fast, use too many incomprehensible slang words, and barely enunciate anything. Why? My Spanish is getting better at an unprecedented rate, and I can only thank the mumbling locals for this. Once I can understand Chilean Spanish, I can understand anything. But I’m still working on understanding the Chilean stuff…it is by no means at a “mission accomplished” status yet!

3. I am grateful for the basic goodwill of people everywhere.Without all the kindness and generosity of countless strangers, acquaintances and more, I would not be where I am today in this country. People are always willing to help, whether it be with directions to a city, how to find a taxi,  assistance in looking for jobs/office space/apartments, and more. Once you put the word out here, it starts to circulate, and fast. This is exactly how the three of us have come to find our various employment and office space opportunities. There’s always a hand to be lent, no matter how long you’ve known someone. And that’s another aspect of it too – once you greet someone for the first time, there is a familiarity and a general sense of loyalty that extends far beyond the concept of “acquaintances” in the US. That’s not to say that every person you meet is your instant best friend, but acquaintances here tend to be more personal and more giving right off the bat, no matter who you are or where you come from.

4. I am grateful for the lax standards of business. I have never held a job in which so little was expected of me. My job duties at the Garage, the bar I started working at a couple days ago, include the following: show up at 10pm, serve drinks when asked, occasionally empty an ash tray or wash a glass, and have fun. In fact, our boss Keko tends to prefer doing most of the work; he has stopped us on countless occasions from washing dishes or tending to customers. We might just be eye candy there, but that’s okay. There’s good music and I get paid essentially to bump to the music and pour beer.

Amanda and me with Leo, the French DJ.

Furthermore, the other night I responded to a call for help from a friend here, Robert, whose sister owns a local eatery. They were hosting a late-night party for a group of businessmen from Santiago and needed help, stat. Robert and I ended up being the servers for this event, which consisted of Kareoke and an open bar. The owner was very impressed by me, but all I was doing was being a server according to American standards. American standards are intense and over-attentive; think about any time in a restaurant when you’ve had to call the server over to you and the irritation that results from not being well looked-after. Well, that lax standard of service is the norm here. I was going about my business like a typical American server and the Chilean guys seemed confused, even a bit put off. I was being pushy, in their eyes. I had to reel it back, big time. Which means more standing around, enjoying the environment, and being sung to by tipsy salesmen (one of which actually came over and sang to me, causing me to turn 200 shades of red as the spotlight focused in on just us in front of the room of raucous and hooting businessmen). Very good times, indeed! I have found that my American breeding in the job market leads to anxiety about my job performance (Am I doing a good job? Will  I get fired? Does the boss think I’m being lazy?) and a sense of obligation to consistently “prove” my worth in the workplace. These things are useless here, and just don’t exist. It was interesting to realize this difference in work standards. In adapting to the Chilean norm, I am probably unraveling any chance for success in an American workplace in the future. Oops.

5. I am grateful for the internet. Without Al Gore’s classic invention (that’s for you, Dad), I would feel inconsolably disconnected and lost down here. I am able to keep in touch with so many people in almost every hemisphere of the world, and it is this connection that keeps me invigorated and refreshed and in-touch with my home and roots. Being with Leslie and Amanda down here has been a blessing, as the first thing to bother me while being abroad tends to be the lack of someone who “gets me”; but furthermore, having such constant contact with my family and friends back home has proven to be a necessary fountain of rejuvenation for me.

6. I am grateful for Now. Enough said!!

The Universe Provides

Things have been unfolding in a strangely poetic and very satisfying way.

As I’ve said before, we’ve all been on various job hunts. Last week, I began to feel a bit overwhelmed, in a positive way, because I was actually experiencing an overabundance of opportunities. I don’t need the money necessarily, but I had felt the urge to find *something*, just for the added stability. It was a source of conflict for me as I was presented with opportunity after opportunity and forced to really assess what my priorities are here and what, exactly, I want to do with my life and time and energy.

First, a Chinese restaurant here wanted me 6 days a week, 8 hours per day. Minimum wage, splitting the tips between all the servers and the kitchen. I said no; no question. I actually didn’t even interview with them, I went with Amanda, who was looking into the job, and interpreted for her since the manager spoke no English. Taking a job like that would deplete both my time and my energy.

Then came another restaurant gig, someone looking for bilingual servers. Again, no thank you.

Next, I found an opportunity for “sporadic office work”; I met the owner, he wanted someone 2 or 3 days per week, 8 hours each day, to help run his kayak business. This one I really had to think about. It seemed like a good idea – “just what I was looking for”, as I’d said. I thought of how it might fit into my life, my schedule, my priorities, and I eventually turned that down as well. I tend to give 110% of my time and energy to a given project, and he wanted someone for the entire season. As I thought more about it, I realized that that type of commitment, even though it was just part-time, was too much. Between my existing jobs, and my existing dedication to writing in every moment available, I don’t have the time or energy to learn the world of kayaking, rafting and mountain climbing. Plus, all of those things scare me. (Running a yoga studio? Part-time receptionist for an organic farm? Maybe those things. But not activities that actively involve facing death in the wild yond. I still don’t know how to light a fire by myself. This girl scout would be the first to die.)

After that decision, I realized that I needed to find an office space. Less than 24 hours after sending a message to the community about my search for borrowed office space so that I could focus on writing, an opportunity arrived. A young guy with a family-owned rental car business has a small office that he only uses part-time. I met with him and said, Hey. I want to use your space, I don’t want to pay anything, how about I give you my sporadic services however you need me so that I can use your office the rest of the time to be an ex-pat writer? He said yes. It’s a small affair, operated entirely by him and his wife, and he essentially wants me to just be there, in the office, to receive people that stop by, maybe answer the phone, and interpret for the English-speaking clients. SCORE.

So my new colleague/barter buddy has also passed my name along to other people in his area of work. Yesterday I received a call from a man named Marcelo who operates private tours in conjunction with the hotels around here. He had two Americans arriving today who wanted an English-speaking guide to accompany them on their three-day stay. He asked if I would be interested in going along with them on their various tours throughout their stay – full compensation of course, not to mention the free entrance, free meals and swanky private ride to all these destinations. I said, Hell yes, Marcelo!

Today began that adventure. I went to the airport with Marcelo, I held up a sign with a last name written in bold ink, loving the the fact that this was something my family and I do for shits and giggles when we greet each other places, and waited for the Americans to arrive. They showed up, an older ex-pat couple who has been living in Chile for a couple years, doing big farm business up north, but only know basic conversational Spanish after all this time. I got paid to hang with them all day and just look at stuff. And eat clams at the seafood restaurant. And interpret occasionally when Marcelo spoke too fast for the American guy to understand. What I’ll make from these three days will pay a month’s rent. And they might add a fourth day of touring that I’ll be compensated for as well.

Overlooking Puerto Montt, the big city nearby.

Not too shabby.

Leslie has helped me realize that what I am looking for in this phase is projects. I don’t want a long-term commitment, I don’t want to sign a contract, I don’t want to be expected someplace each day at a certain hour. I want a project – a three day companion tour, a random encounter with some English-speaking clients at the airport, last-minute assistance with a catering event, things like that. Just call me Project-Based Bradford. She who drifts between opportunities and one-time events.

Around the time that all these opportunities have been arising for me, the girls have also snagged their own gigs. Amanda is now working part-time at a cool bar downtown that often has live music and is part of the circuit here in town. Leslie took a job as the live-in manager of a bed and breakfast in Puerto Varas. We said goodbye to her at the house with the abuelita, but Amanda and I have “moved in with her” in a sense; the owner knows that we will be in and out constantly and we are, in essence, “lightly co-habitating”. (Blogger says co-habitating isn’t a word but I beg to differ.)

Amanda at work with her new boss, Keko!

It is strange and surprising and exciting to reflect upon the ways in which we have manifested, or discovered, these opportunities that fit us all so well. But at the same time, it is not strange or surprising at all – this is how life tends to unfold. I am so grateful for these new opportunities, for these new ways of flexing creative muscles and using skills and exploring facets of life that were previously unknowable to me. I gave thanks for this yesterday, as well as for all of the people in my life who support me.

Speaking of Thanksgiving, it sure was a micro-American Feast up in Puerto Varas yesterday! I started cooking around noon and by 4pm we had a Starch Explosion – I made the Bradford-famous corn crap (corn casserole), Vegan Stuffing and Shannon’s Mashed Taters. All from scratch, without ANY measuring instruments, AND with only a general idea of what ingredients I was using really were (man, the language barrier sucks when it comes to specific baking ingredients). I sauteed some asparagus to add a little greenery to the landscape, and we topped it off with some German desserts purchased from a bakery downtown.

Despite my concerns and general dismay regarding the consistency of the corn casserole prior to putting it in the oven, everything came out BANGIN’ and FRICKIN AMAZING. It smelled like Thanksgiving in that house all day, and that was maybe the best part of the experience. Also, being able to share this holiday with these girls, in a foreign country, giving thanks and celebrating a facet of our culture that nobody knew was occurring that day (we shouted “HAPPY THANKSGIVING” to every Chilean we could find and the amount of blank stares was, well, comical at best) was pretty fun as well.

I think Chileans have their own version of Thanksgiving, obviously with different historical details (unless, I don’t know, maybe John Smith made his way down here too? Maybe for a winter vacation once?), but it definitely wasn’t yesterday. We left the house later in the day, once our bellies and intestines had been thoroughly assaulted per American Tradition, and were surprised to find everything open and bustling with people. Oh yeah, it’s only Thanksgiving in America.

Also, I didn’t have to suffer through/be tempted with Black Friday Bullcrap, so that was another really nice part of this year’s Thanksgiving.

Vegan Stuffing!! 
Featuring freshly picked herbs from Luz’s garden.

Thank you again to Life, family & friends: for the bountiful amount of love, sharing, reciprocity, mutual understanding, support, creativity, fun, laughter, words, closeness, positive energy, wholehearted Being and more. La vida es buena!