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!

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

Weather Whining and Other Truffles, Part One: EARTHQUAKES

Every place in the world has its own special terrifying natural event that will completely uproot the fabric of existence every once in awhile.

In Ohio, it’s tornadoes. In southeastern USA, it’s hurricanes. In Alaska, it’s snow and ice for 8 months and grizzly bears.

Haaay, Ohio funnel cloud!  Time to go collectively shit our pants.

But down here? In Chile, the natural disaster of choice is earthquakes.

When I first moved to Chile, I didn’t really know a lot of earthquakes happened down here. That was mostly due to my own ignorance. But then as time wore on, especially once I moved to Valparaiso, I would hear comments like, “Did you feel that tremor last night?”. And I’d be confused. Because I never felt any tremors.

They usually occurred at night. Strong enough to feel and comment on — for most people at least. But I slept through them.

In retrospect, this doesn’t surprise me. I hit Snooze roughly 8 times every morning without knowing it, and I sleep so deeply I always had a sneaking suspicion I could sleep through the ground moving.

But I felt gypped. If I live in earthquake land, I want to at least recognize that something is happening with the ground and seismic and tectonic and stuff.

You know what they say…Ask and you shall receive.

Approximately three months ago, I started to feel tremors. And it is not as fun and thrilling as I thought it might be.

It is terrifying. It is counter-intuitive. It is completely jarring. It is a cold fear that creeps across your entire body, starting in the pit of your stomach and going in all directions at once. It is a horrifying realization of ‘Where…the hell…do I go?”.

And to be perfectly honest, I still haven’t even felt a big earthquake. All those feelings right there? That’s just from tremors.

Tremors make me think this is happening below me.

The first tremor I ever consciously acknowledged was during the day — about 5-7 seconds in length, enough for me and all my roommates to run into the common area and scream “OKAY, NOW WHAT?!”. That was about 3 months ago. But about three weeks ago, they started increasing in frequency, and all at night, around midnight or 1am. There were a couple small ones. At this point, nothing to get ruffled about.

But then about a week ago, there was a big tremor. And when I say big I mean the thought crossed my mind that this would probably be the time I had to go crouch in the doorway and crap my pants like all my Chilean friends had instructed me (well, they instructed me on the doorway part, at least). I was prepared for more, like let’s get ready to hear glass crashing and steel warping because the earth isn’t just clearing its throat, it’s vomiting.

That little tremor on March 6th, 2014 turned out to register 5.3 on the Richter scale. Nowhere near the earthquake that hit Chile in 2010 (8.8) or in 1960 in Valdivia (9.5, also the number one earthquake since like, the earth was born).

This happened in Concepcion in 2010. This was at the epicenter.

Let’s just restate the obvious: I cannot imagine what either of those feel like.

The tremor on March 6th inspired me to write a goodbye email to my family, just in case something happened and they never heard from me again. I mean, hey, if enormous seismic activity were to strike three days after that and they never heard from me again, I’d be happy I had the foresight to send them a little bit of love before I was gulped into the earth.

But, that hasn’t happened. And though it could, I’m not sure it will. Valparaiso is pretty dang prepared for this sort of stuff.

Every place is prepared for their own natural disasters, after all. While tornadoes would have a field day with everyone here, in Ohio we got that covered — BASEMENTS. But no basements in Valparaiso! Yet if you turn the tables — earthquakes in Ohio? — you’re screwed. Buildings aren’t prepared for that sort of movement the way they are here in Chile. These buildings are BUILT to sway, rock, tremble, move and otherwise resist up to something pretty high on the Richter Scale.

After all, my house is still here, and it’s way older than 2010. It survived the effects of that 8.8 earthquake, and the cracks in my kitchen prove it. There was a battle — but the building won.

CHILEAN STORY TIME: A good friend of mine, a porteno (i.e. from Valparaiso) named Bernardo, has lived here his whole life — and lived through the 2010 earthquake personally. I pestered him with questions recently, fascinated to know what an 8.8 earthquake might feel like compared to the measly 5.3 sneeze from the other night.

Bernardo told me that he remembers being woken up in the night, and his first thought was that it was just a tremor — like they usually are. But it didn’t stop after the normal amount of time. And it kept getting stronger. And stronger. And then he got out of bed, and noticing the floor was undulating. Like the waves in the sea. His ears were filled with the sound of creaking, grinding, crunching. Light bulbs started to explode.

I.E. TIME TO GET OUT.

My thought in response to an earthquake used to be get the hell out of the house, go outside and plead helplessly into the sky, but according to Bernardo this is not the recommended course of action. He says it’s best to go for doorways, but if on a higher floor of the building, GO DOWN — and then to a doorway. That way, if roofs cave in and things otherwise collapse on top of you, the doorway protects you.

That night, he was on a higher floor of a multi-level building. So he bolted for the stairs. And on his way downstairs, he saw the staircase moving back and forth in the air, which he says looked like the stairs were dancing. Bold and fearless (I’m imagining him like a superhero in his pajamas at this point), he careened (or perhaps hopped like a character in a video game, because this is what it’s sounding like by now) down the staircase, crouched in the doorway at ground level, and waited.

It finally calmed down. And once it did, the next phase of events began: the streetlights flickered out, water lines began to explode. And what remained for him was the moon, which seemed to hang low and huge, enough to illuminate the night even without electricity.

But the earthquake protocol doesn’t end there. That night, Bernardo stayed at his house (with no light, and no water). But people in other areas of the city — specifically, closer to the sea — were abandoning their houses and fleeing upward into the hills.

Because, you know, that’s just one of those things you have to think about after an earthquake on the ocean coast.

Tsunamis.

These Chileans are seasoned veterans when it comes to earthquakes. The tremors that make me write goodbye emails to my family are they same ones they laugh at and roll over to go back to sleep.

Though it’s just part of really living in a region.

I think back to plenty of severe thunderstorms in Ohio, evenings that went from sunny to pitch black in ten minutes, the heavy weight of humidity and pending doom in the air, something close to funnel clouds in the distance, and me, sitting on the front porch watching it all with a glass of wine and enjoying the cool breeze of the rainfall while the tornado siren wails tirelessly in the background.

Maybe Chileans there would be wondering about basement protocol.

But we Ohioans know what’s scary and what’s not. We know to wait for that unnerving stillness in the air.

It’s all about where you grow up.

Greenwich Vs. Candelaria

I know I already wrote about Candelaria, the tiny pueblito from whence my boyfriend comes, but there’s more to be said. For this round of Contemplations On My Boyfriend’s Hometown, I’m going to compare Candelaria, Argentina to Greenwich, Ohio (the village where my mother and the family were raised).
It deserves this extra post because when I went there, I was intrigued by how similar the place feltto the hometown of my mother, aunts and uncle. The more I got to know the city, the more weird similarities I found.  And then when I started researching deeper, the similarities multiplied like single-celled organisms and this blog post was born (or perhaps spawned spontaneously).
Population Background: Candelaria’s population according to Jorge is around 3,000 people. Greenwich’s population estimate for 2012 was around 1,500. City-Data.com calls Greenwich “100% rural”. Interestingly, City-Data.com has nothing to say about Candelaria.
CANDELARIA!

GREENWICH!
Realtime Family Background: All of Jorge’s family was raised on the outskirts of Candelaria (not even seen in the map). Jorge is the youngest child and was the first child to be born to electricity in the house in 1986. Three out of his five siblings continue to live and raise families in ‘downtown’ Candelaria (two left for the capital city). Of the four children my grandparents raised in Greenwich, all left to pursue families and careers in other cities and states. All of them were born to electricity in the household throughout the 60’s and 70’s.
Other Facts: Candelaria (in the state of Ayacucho) was founded in 1870; Greenwich’s first settler arrived in 1817 but it was formally incorporated in 1879. 
Now let’s get to the good stuff…

Valley Beach vs. El Muro: Looking for a fun summertime spot to while away the blistering Ohio/Argentinian peak weather? Valley Beach sits about 15 minutes outside Greenwich in a city called Norwalk, Ohio; and about a 15 minute drive outside of Candelaria sits El Muro (in English, “the wall”) in Quines, Argentina. Both are dedicated to daytime grilling, summer passage of moments and cooling off in bodies of water. Valley Beach features grills scattered along the landscape, while El Muro has one dedicated asado center which looks more like a mausoleum. Valley Beach is flanked by deciduous forests, and has cement pools with an exciting array of diving boards, slides and ancient ropes for swinging into said bodies of water. 
Valley Beach: Whoo Hoo, Childhood!

El Muro, however, is flanked by the unimpressed and unmoving  face of the Sierra (Andes mountains); bathing options include natural rivers and inlets that end in a waterfall that apparently everyone knows not to go over (lifeguard usage is unknown). Editor’s Note: El Muro would be expressly forbidden if it were in America.

Totally fine and permissible unsupervised waterfall area
at El Muro in Quines, AR.

Another view of El Muro — truly a spectacular daytime hangout.
Mausoleum-style asado area not featured here.

The Green Witch vs. La Heladeria: Need a spot to cool off, sit down and eat some damn ice cream? Both countries got this one. The Green Witch in Greenwich kills two birds with one stone, allowing patrons to both buy ice cream AND wash all those sweaty summer undergarments at the attached Laundromat. 
Best dang Oreo Flurries in the land.
Not so sure about that peach shake, though. 
Or whether it doubles as laundry detergent.
In Candelaria, the local Heladeria offers no such multi-tasking efficiency, and their tasty treats have nothing on the Green Witch’s exciting array of both hot and cold consumables (note: does not include the laundry detergent next door). La Heladeria only offers about 10 flavors of ice cream. Both establishments are run by the daughter of someone your grandparents are close to, and both maintain that weary air of one regretful owner trapped in a small, dark room amongst the whirring machines in the peak of summer.
Well, it’s better than nothing, I guess.
In true first-world problem style, it looks like you’ll have to
wash your sweat-encrusted unmentionables outside of the establishment.
Soy Vs. Soja:  Candelaria’s list of growables (and whatnot) includes: berries, watermelon, wheat, soy, corn and potato. The town also has a startling amount of sheep, cows, horses, goats, and chickens.  Jorge’s family alone deals with the majority of these items. Most of the people operating these farms and businesses are recently immigrated Italians or purebred Argentinians (which means, of course, partially Italian, and prone to excessive gesturing and consumption of Fernet).  
Farmland in Candelaria, Argentina.
In Greenwich, the production is mostly the same—soy, wheat, corn, hogs, chicken, and dairy operations. The majority of the farms fall outside of the village limits, and are run by one of two camps: the Mennonites, or the Children of People Your Grandparents Taught.  
The sprawling farmlands of Ohio.
Siesta Vs. The Food Coma: Americans don’t participate in the siesta (basically translates to “socially acceptable adult nap time”) on a cultural level but for a couple times a year: July 4th, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Shannon, what the hell are you talking about, you might be asking. I’ve never taken a siesta in my life. But you have, my dear American friends! The American Food Coma is the closest approximation we have to the siesta. And I point out July 4th, Thanksgiving and Christmas as the most definable moments of when you overeat yourself into a coma and then crash on grandma’s couch for a couple hours afterward. And in Greenwich this occurs without fail, especially for July 4th celebrations and that ridiculous amount of GMZ Deviled Eggs/Potato Salad/Anything Fried from the Downtown Festival.
The Siesta in Latin America falls between 3 to 5pm (give or take), and occurs after lunch—right when you were getting sleepy anyway. This works out in Candelaria because that time of the day is also the hottest – and we’re talking a heat where even if you wanted to do something, you couldn’t. Air conditioning is not utilized. Add onto that the ridiculous amount of rural, home-cooked Argentinian food, plus red wine (BECAUSE IT’S ARGENTINA), and, well…you’re looking at waking up in the early evening with a thick layer of sweat and a desperate need for a shower.
America Smalltown vs. Argentina Smalltown: Both towns in question feature population’s small enough to allow easy face recognition for anyone that passes by, along with at least one juicy bit of common knowledge family history. Whenever I call to the local floral shop to order surprise flowers for my grandparents for a variety of occasions, I only need to say the first fifth of the address before they exclaim, “Oh, you must be the granddaughter of…!” And while the residents of Candelaria might remember me for awhile due to the fact that I am gringa and have dreadlocks,  I heard plenty of similar exclamations amongst locals while I was there: “Oh, you’re the second cousin of…!” And as in much of smalltown America, in Candelaria as well the weather is the first topic of conversation – always.
Another big difference?
Greenwich and Candelaria hit summer at opposite times of the year.
January 14th: high/low in Candelaria: 96F/67F, winds N, sunrise 6:31AM, sunset 8:32PM.
January 14th: high/low in Greenwich: 42F/24F, winds SSW, sunrise 7:53AM, sunset 5:26PM.
Sources:

and REAL LIFE, MAN. 

De Vuelta: Chile

Hey readers – I’m back in Chile! This means that:

  1. Chilean Immigration Officials let me into the country without issue (this is always stressful, even though I am not smuggling drugs, do not intend to overstay any visas, and am extremely compliant when it comes to international law)
  2. I have an ample supply of red beans and Mr. Smith’s coffee to tide me over for a (short amount of) time, and
  3. I’m back to ex-patriot living!

Coming back to Chile presented an interesting internal conflict. I was sad to leave home, my family, my friends, the SUMMER, the excessive amount of To-Go coffee available and the ease of acquiring hummus (see previous post about Ex-Pat Livability Standards); but at the same time, I was re-energized and excited to embark upon continued South American Adventures. My time at home was a nourishing and much-needed break for me. I am totally invigorated and bursting with motivation and ideas for not only continuing life down south, but making it unbelievably great.

That being said, Chile was a bit salty about my Winter Avoidance Tactics. So upon my return, it had a few surprises planned for me. Just so that I didn’t forget what I had left in the southern hemisphere. Sure, fly home and go north for “the summer”,Chile muttered. But when you get back, I’ll make sure you remember how it really is down here.

Not actually Valparaiso, but, I mean, sometimes it feels like this. And maybe I’m living naked and half-frozen on that island. (I should quit complaining — I’m from Ohio for god’s sake)

Things Chile Passive-Aggressively Reminded Me Of Since Returning:

  • The freakin’ gas. My roommates and I have had a number of issues with the gas here at our apartment. There once was a week-long period where we bathed using the hot-water contraption (like, for warming up water for tea) and a crock pot. When I left, I thought the latest potential-gas-leak issue had been resolved. Upon my return, I found out that the gas leak issues had multiplied. We only had to go outside to turn on the pilot light for showers before – now, we have to open and close it for cooking as well. And if we forget to close it, the gas smell gets so bad that the neighbors come knocking. This makes me think twice about turning on the stove for re-heating my coffee. The landlord keeps saying someone will come to fix it. BUT WHEN?
  • The freakin’ winter. Yep, I’m wearing parkas again. And my hands and feet are frozen all the time. The daytime sunshine is lovely and conducive to wearing only a short sleeve t-shirt. But, lest you all forget, our apartment doesn’t receive direct sunlight. And since my return, I found out my landlord posted a new set of “house rules” that expressly prohibits the use of space heaters, which was my only link to sanity prior to leaving. *cough*………*looks around*…Sorry, but…I’m using my space heater.
  • The freakin’ water. Washing dishes and hands and faces with warm water is such a luxury. The country is very resource-conservation-minded, which is awesome. But when you’re already walking around as a relatively solid American Block of Ice, the thought of applying any of that frigid water to extremities is terrifying. Even if it’s just to rinse a glass.
  • The freakin’ Spanish. That’s right, my Chilean Spanish Skills dwindled ever-so-slightly while I was cavorting about in the northern hemisphere. Even a little rust on the ole Wheel of Spanish Comprehension is a dire forecast, especially in this country. But don’t worry, my ear is adjusting. Slowly.

All this might just be the whining of an American girl who left summer at its high point and is now back to wearing parkas in August. My return has been nothing short of spectacular – this first week back has been more jampacked with fun, events, activities and new people than my entire time in Chile prior. I made a conscious effort to start getting involved in Valpo, and the returns have been amazing. The amount of art, gatherings, communities and more in this city is incredible. Since I’ve gotten back, I’ve mingled with Chilean poets, seen impromptu live music sessions, seen a super chileno Musical Comedy that made me laugh so hard I cried, been to a yoga class, went to a wallet-making upcycle workshop, attended a Couchsurfing meet-up event where I met a whole slew of lovely people, and have been host to several group meals/asados in my home (the good energy and cooking helps warms the place up, too).

A group lunch featuring America, England, Germany and France.
Also featuring carrot ginger soup, garlic flatbread, 
avocado/tomato salad and Chilean wine.
 
Me and couchsurfer Karen went to a workshop and made 
some of these (ours are in the mix above).
They’re made out of old milk cartons, tape, 
glue, random decorations and love.
And of course, daring cats mixed with street art. 
It feels really good to be back, Chile. Thank you for receiving me with metaphorically-warm-yet-technically-very-cold arms. I am looking forward to spring, and maybe, just maybe, I can take off these winter socks sometime soon.

In the meantime, I’ll keep enjoying all these awesome people and energies. Deal?

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.

Helped and Hindered

Life in South America has proven to be just like life anywhere else, except that it’s in South America instead of North America. And everyone speaks Spanish. And there aren’t that many blondes wandering around. And it’s hard for me to find a size 9.5 shoe. And the culinary culture isn’t that refined. And people aren’t really that into spices. And everyone kisses each other on the cheek when they meet, even when they’re strangers.

Okay, so life in South America is a bit different than life in North America. (Oh yeah — tons more stray dogs!) But since I’ve been able to re-acclimate to life north of the equator, I’ve noticed a few ways that my life overall has been helped — and similarly hindered — by my jaunts down south.

Let’s investigate some!

1. My brain learns, but in order to do so, it must forget. And this involves forgetting English. My handle on idioms, cliches and other parts of speech is at an all-time low. This doesn’t bode well, as I am beginning a venture to brand myself as a language consultant *cough cough*. Hey — who knew they were called speedbumps? Roadbumps is just as effective at getting the point across. And my future language consultancy clients will understand this. (syn: road acne)

2. I now have measuring cups for eyeballs. That’s right, I see in 3-D AND in 1-tsp increments! Due to the absolute dearth of measuring tools in the kitchen (is it just because of where I’ve lived and who I’ve lived with? Or is this an invention that really never made it past the Andes?), I’ve been forced to eyeball, size up and otherwise scrutinize every recipe I’ve ever loved including in my eating lifestyle. Thanksgiving 2012 was a prime example, and my forays into Vaguely Healthy Cookie Creation were met with varying results until I finally pinned down the non-specifically-measured ratio a couple months ago.

Well, close enough. 

3. I am a tad more resourceful. Now, I don’t want you all thinking that I’d be able to fend for myself in the wild, because I certainly can’t, nor can I start a fire, always operate doors or change the gas tank for that damnable space heater in my Chilean living room. However, I CAN think around certain situations where common household items are lacking. For instance, are you making mashed potatoes? Were you scouring your new kitchen for a potato masher, only to find out that not only do you not have a potato masher, you also don’t have anything resembling a bowl in which you’d like to mash? No problem! Find one of those drinking glasses with the uneven bottoms and get to work! Serve AND eat the mashed potatoes out of the same pot you cooked it all in, and to top it off, don’t use napkins (because nobody buys them) and just use the dish towel. Hey, you might be asking, that’s a pretty good idea with the dish towel. Where did that come from? The Argentinians!

4. I speak great Spanish now. Finally. Also, I can understand almost any Spanish you try to throw my way. Thanks, Chileans.

5. I speak hodgepodge Spanish. As in, Mexican-Chilean-Argentinian Spanish. My accent shifts between all three, freely utilizing vocabulary and expressions from three distinct cultures. Someday, this will get me into trouble.

6. I am losing my grasp on normalcy. Some might argue this has been a long time coming, but I assure you, taking the leap has hastened this demise. I suppose ‘normalcy’ is a term that can be argued until the alpacas come home (what?), but living life this off the grid has certainly shifted (re: completely destroyed) my paradigm. In losing my grasp on normalcy, I am finding more expansive happiness, plentiful creativity and penetrating gratefulness. More things seem possible, life feels limitless, and joy lurks around every corner. This doesn’t mean life is some effortless, non-squeaking joint that operates perfectly at every moment. But rather, I’ve come to appreciate and laud the aches and groans and squeaks and eventual functioning of these joints, because these limbs are carrying me to places — both physical and emotional — I’ve always dreamed of.

7. Questionable metaphors, like the one found in item 6, tend to be more predominant. I don’t know why, or how to fix it.

8. I will probably only ever wear black leggings for the rest of my life. No, seriously — bury me in leggings and a slouchy shirt, because that’s all I ever want to wear.

A beach in Huron, OH, complete with sunset, lake,
slouchy shirt and leggings. 

It’s up to you, reader, to decide if these items have helped or hindered!

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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The USA Whirlwind

I’ve been back to the United States for over two weeks. Not only did I update my blog once (ONCE) in June, I also failed to mention the Great Return Via Steel Bird To Native Homeland. Nor did I adequately expand upon the Period Of Mutual Genius that transpired when Jill and I spent a month in Chile together.

Here are some excuses for my poor blogging behavior, mostly in an effort to rationalize away my personal guilt:

1. I’ve been busy. This is a lame excuse, but seriously, it’s been a whirlwind since I got back to the States. Not only that, I’ve been really busy enjoying myself! Living in the moment, and all that jazz! My USA schedule is pretty packed — I gave myself 6 weeks here, thinking that it would be “plenty of time” to do “everything I wanted to do”. What I’m finding is that 3 months is a better figure. Next summer I shall aim for this time frame. In my two weeks back, I’ve visited my hometown, seen a variety of friends and family, visited Cedar Point twice (more on this later…), experienced a healthy amount of thunderstorms, went to a burner festival in Michigan, spent a week in Chicago, passed the 4th of July holiday amongst fireworks and revelry, shopped at Kroger, and had a doctor’s appointment. Also, work.

2. My computer broke. AGAIN. It broke the day I got back to the USA when it was just 7 months old. This incident was timely and fortuitous for a number of reasons. Not only did it mean that I could repair my laptop without exorbitant continent-spanning mail charges (and the terror that accompanies leaving expensive equipment in the hands of foreign mail carriers), it also happened while under warranty. The non-timely and non-fortuitous aspects to the situation were that it broke in the first place, and that Sony ended up NOT repairing it due to the fact that it would be “uneconomical”. I’m still working on getting a new one. Now I’m paralyzed with indecision facing the surplus of options that I have.

3. I forgot about my blog. What??? No really, I did for a little bit. I think it had something to do with Item #1.

Now that I’ve expanded upon reasons for Blogging Laziness, I would like to recuperate my street cred with another list!

Things I Forgot About Home:

1. So much English! I can understand barely audible conversations in my periphery, I get the gist of a half-muffled discussion, and no word escapes my ears un-understood. This is normal for us English speakers, but reminds me of the fact that I’ve been living in something of a quiet language bubble for 9 months. Sure, I hear sounds around me in Chile, but I don’t tune in because it’s Spanish, and it doesn’t zip through my blood vessels on a subconscious level like English does.
2. Free coffee refills. Sure it’s the gut-rot variety that they serve in diners and restaurants, but my god they refill the cup before I’ve even made a dent. Sure beats having to fork over almost $5 for each meager sip of espresso in Chile!
3. Starbucks on every corner. This is not an exaggeration, and especially not in Chicago.
4. Too many options. This is both good and bad. While I’m happy that the majority of America, especially in larger cities, caters to every type of lifestyle imaginable and consistently surprises me with vegetarian and vegan goodies galore, this same principle makes other activities, such as buying contact solution, relatively hellish.
5. Things are easier? This may have something to do with the fact that I and everyone I know has a personal car, which makes trips to the store less of a feet-dragging, ugh-where’s-the-change-for-the-bus, its-gonna-take-two-hours-just-to-get-soymilk-do-I-really-feel-like-doing-this type experience.

Some days I feel totally re-acclimated, and other days I’m struggling to remember the phrasing of a particular idiom that seems to have been replaced by Spanish vocabulary. Furthermore, my automatic response in restaurants and stores still tries to come out in Spanish. When I’m in a Mexican restaurant, this is acceptable. In most other places, it’s not really appreciated.

High School Marching Bands: Chile Style

My family on my mother’s side has always been enmeshed in music. My grandfather not only met his wife (the famous G-M-Z) in band during college by bumping her chair with his trombone (not a metaphor), he then went on to be a career band director for their local school system. They raised their children (one of which was my mother, the other famous G-M-Z) in a hotbed of music. I’m fairly certain that my grandfather’s heartbeat, when observed during doctor’s visits, sounds exactly like a metronome at 120bpm.

The grandkids, aside from maybe actually every single one of us excelling at an instrument during our school years, also grew up with The Classic Band Stories. Ranging from summer lessons mishaps on Seminary, to pregnant grandmothers scaling the stands during Marching Band season, to every sort of reed failure imaginable, my youth was firmly enmeshed in actual music and memories of music.

Which is why when I stumbled upon a high school marching band in Valparaiso, I had to film it, share it, critique it, and immediately email my grandfather.

Here’s the thing. They were good, and very Latin American Music-y, but there were a couple aspects to the show that differed so greatly from any high school band performance I’ve ever witnessed in the United States that I felt I had to formally comment. Here it is… Things That U.S. High School Band Directors Never Have To Deal With:

1. The salsa-reggae-cumbia-whatnot blend of music the kids were playing really brought out the crazies. Valpo has a healthy roster of crazy hobos, and I don’t mean this in a flip, derogatory way. More like, there are actual mentally people who roam the streets and most likely have no home. Some beg, other wanders and interact with birds, and occasionally they will approach and make incoherent conversation. They are harmless in my experience, but sometimes they get too close or start speaking in tongues, which is the cue to walk the other way. The music down here being naturally infectious and inspiring, it’s easy to see why the frenetic drum beats similarly make the crazy resonate a bit stronger in everyone…but especially the crazies.

2. Going along with item 1, the music meant that the crazies, who notriously do not abide by social constraints, also do not adhere to appropriate performance etiquette. The band director at one point had to wrangle a man who had wandered into the drum line and carefully guide him out of the performance. The student dancers up front didn’t even bat an eye or miss a step.

3. Similar to item 2, the other group that doesn’t obey societal rules is The Strays. During the performance in the plaza, a rogue retriever wandered into the drum line and contented himself sniffing the ground amongst the gyrations and beats of the band. Nobody really cared — not a single student reacted, which is probably very different from what would happen during any band performance in the States. I can see entire horn sections giggling and making eyes, drummers missing the beat and flag girls dropping poles in response to even one unexpected animal on the field. Not here. It’s just part of the show.

4. Mid-way through the performance, one of the front line percussionists wandered out of the drum line, tiny multi-cymbal instrument in one hand, cell phone in the other, eyes glued to her phone. She paused near the periphery of the performance, intently texting. [long pause] Really??? Mid-performance? How could she even hear that she’d gotten a text with all that racket around her?

5. There is a very distinct sound that accompanies some genres of Latin American music, like a whistling-type noise that punctuates the music and gives it almost a Caribbean feel. I’ve never known (and still don’t know) what this instrument is called, but during this band performance I spotted it. It is essentially a small, hollow drum that the student was, well…fisting. It was funny to watch for a variety of reasons. The student playing the Unknown Instrument seemed pretty pleased with his performance, too.

6. In the States we have the flag girls or the baton twirlers, typically in eye-catching, flashy uniforms with impressive skilled routines. In Latin America, there are girls dressed simply but with a jaw-dropping, booty-popping choreography. With musical roots the likes of salsa, cumbia, bachata and more, each with their own unique dance but almost all involving a surprising amount of hip movements and flair, it makes sense culturally that the student dancers would dance like that. But outside of hip-hop culture in the States, you just don’t really see that. Especially not fronting a band, and especially not when under the age of 18.

Here we catch a glimpse of a stray dog wandering into
the performance, the pleased-with-himself student mentioned
in Item 5, and a brief look at some dancers near the front.
Unfortunately, no crazies in this shot.