Monday, September 30, 2013

Volcán Llaima

This post is dedicated to the four of you who swore for years you'd join me on this trip and ditched. Well guess what, your loss, suckas.

Beautiful Llaima. Also, check out the monkey puzzle (Arucaria) trees.

Meet Llaima (pronounced jai-ma). One of Chile's largest and most active volcanoes: "frequently erupting" with the last big blow in 2008 and known for "spectacular lava fountains" in Chile. It's also the prettiest volcano I have ever seen, and I fell in love her the minute I laid eyes on her from my bus to Malalcahuello. So of course the first thing I did when I arrived at the beautiful Swiss lodge (with cheap dorm beds, yay) I had planned to make my base camp for the week was to weasel my way into a ride to Llaima the next morning.

Me + splitboard in a truck caravan of Argentinians on an epic Chilean Volcano ski tour. Excellent day.

View of Chile's Sierra Nevada volcano from Llaima, with more Arucaria trees.

Confession: I didn't make it *all the way* to the top. But I did make it within a few 100 meters. Since my dad talked me out of bringing my crampons and ice axe on this trip and I wasn't able to rent or borrow any, I was not equipped to summit. If I had attempted to go any higher than I did it is unlikely that I'd have lived to tell the story. The guys with ice gear barely survived the experience. So I hope y'all will let me count it.

Growing up in the Ring of Fire I've seen my fair share of volcanoes. Llaima is the prettiest one I've ever seen. Llaima is Chilean for sexy bitch. Fact.

And she was both.

Llaima, sorry I didn't stick around for dinner, but you were smokin' love.

Like, literally smoking. Note the horizon at left and the steam coming off the top. This baby blew in 2008. Google Llaima. Lava everywhere. This is all pumice.

Climbed as high as I could with the splitboard. Definitely noticed when I had left the skirt and hit the cone, the climbing went from normal good hard effort to placing every step carefully: step, load the skins, shift weight, step, load, shift, step, load, shift, feeling my heart jump into my throat every time I felt a slip.
At the point where the guys who had given me a ride to the mountain roped up and put on crampons, I didn't think I could safely climb any more so I scootched my way to a pumice talus field, ditched the board, and started to hike.

Hiking is a generous term. I was attempting to walk up a pile of crushed pumice at a 45° angle, boots slipping at every second step. Still, I kept parallel with the guys until the talus mixed with melty ice and it became clear that the mountain wanted nothing more than to crumble down to the valley, sweeping me with it. I stopped, ate a cookie, took in the views, and made my best attempt at a careful descent, popping ibuprofen on the way to reassure my screaming old lady knees. Only casualty: a few new holes in my hands (and gloves) from the sharp pumice.

And then the snowboarding. Snow was icy, then crusty, then wet, but it was great.

Hell yes I did

Little to say, much to show. Enjoy! :)  (also more photos here)

Saturday, September 28, 2013


I descended from the mountains with a single purpose: to fulfill my promise to Frank (my Ph.D. advisor) to visit Prof. Osvaldo Ulloa at the Universidad de Conceptión. I had been introduced to Osvaldo a month prior via an email in which I was introduced to a stranger as “Dr. Frantz” for the first time in my life, and had promised to get in touch as soon as I had definite plans for when I would be in the area.

Boats in the harbor at Dichato. HDR.

People who know me and who have been following this blog have probably noticed that “planning” when it comes to travel is not my forte. “Impulsive” probably best describes my traveling (and life) style. I go where the wind blows me when passion strikes. Except sometimes; somewhere buried in my subconscious is a fastidious little German that has stuck around despite generations of dilution. The little German occasionally wakes up and freaks the hell out about the lack of a plan and then I spend an exhausting day researching, spreadsheeting, plotting, planning, and mapping until I know where I’ll be down to the hour for the next 15 years. But then, satisfied, the little German goes back into hibernation and the rest of me goes back to ignoring the plan.

The blowing with the wind is fine for me, but when it comes to interacting with other humans things get tricky. If I’m told to be somewhere on a certain day at a certain time, I almost always manage (within a 20-60 minute buffer), but in the absence of someone else planning my life for me, I usually don’t have plans past the immediate present.

Osvaldo = Good Geobio People

Anyhow, all that is to say that I contacted Osvaldo less than 24 hours before I would be arriving in Conceptión, having decided all of 2 minutes prior that it was time to move on from Chillán. Luckily by the time I arrived Conceptión, Osvaldo had responded that, yes, it would be fine if I randomly appeared at his office to meet with him.

I am so glad I did (Frank is always right, Frank is always right, Frank is always right).

Unexpected treat in Concepción: the full-buffet breakfast including juices and cereals and cold cuts and *cake* (the first time I'd had anything other than toast for breakfast all month) at my hostel.

I wandered around most of the Universidad de Conceptión campus, thoroughly lost despite having downloaded a google map to my Kindle and written down Osvaldo’s office information from the internet. But I finally found the building that matched the “new building” and Oceanography keywords that I was working with, told the receptionist who I was looking for, and was immensely relieved to find I had arrived in the correct place. As I waited for Osvaldo to return from an errand it occurred to me that I had only a very vague idea of what the person I was looking for looked like--from his university profile photo online. But when Osvaldo walked in the door, big smile on his face, I knew that he was the geobiologist I was looking for.

Concepción was hit hard by the 2010 earthquake. Nearby beach towns were devastated by the resulting tsunami.

Most of the geobiology people I know are good people, one of many reasons I love the field. Osvaldo threw the geobiologist bell curve in the “awesome and nice” direction. Within about 20 minutes of conversation, he had me seriously considering applying for a postdoc position with him, and that is a hell of a feat, given that I went on this trip in part to temporarily escape having to apply for postdoc positions.

Lota. One of the poorest towns in Chile, but you can't beat that view. HDR.

Frank always says that there are three key factors to consider when choosing a job: the people, the location, and the work itself. And, “You usually only get to choose one, so prioritize.” Something I find incredibly difficult because all of those things are deeply important to me. But the six years in L.A. (where I loved the work and adored the people) taught me that location is something I can’t compromise on. 

I inherited a deep need to be in the mountains from my mother, one of the other reasons for this trip: I went crazy in L.A. and I’m making up for missed mountain time. But Conceptión is only, like, a two hour bus ride from world-class snowy mountains. That’s like a bad day in traffic in L.A. The people seemed wonderful (Chilean + geobiologist was bound to be a winning combination). As for Conceptión itself, it’s a medium-sized city, a little rough around the edges and not particularly scenic, but the university campus itself is beautiful and there are stunning places very close by.

Now I just have to decide if the work is what I want; there’s a potential for it to be exactly what I’m looking for, but I need more information and time to think about it. Exciting regardless, and gives me hope that I actually may want to be employed again in the not-too-distant future.

I <3 Chile.

I began next morning by dropping off some laundry (clean laundry for the first time in a month!!) and buying some emergency clothes since all of my clothes were filthy and needed laundering. Then I headed off for my first excursion: the abandoned coal mine Chiflón del Diablo. Osvaldo had suggested it as an interesting day trip, and I was sold when he told me that the mine actually went out under the ocean. 

After an hour and a half local bus ride I arrived in Lota, one of the poorest towns in all of Chile, crushed by the evaporation of the coal mining industry that had previously barely supported it but attempting (somewhat successfully) to rebrand itself as a tourist destination. I followed signs through residential streets to the mine, hoping to find some of the area’s legendary seafood along the way. Alas, in the end I came up empty and had to be satisfied with a granola bar I had been smart enough to stash in my purse beforehand.

The miner's housing at el Chiflón del Diablo. HDR.

Immediately after paying the tour fee I was swept along with a very nice Chilean family also there for the tour by our guide. Our guide spoke broken English and occasionally translated a bit of what he was saying. Between translations, I desperately attempted to pick out words from what sounded like very interesting and dramatic stories he told to the family. 

The mine is famous for its inhumane working conditions, and there was an inescapable air of sadness inside. Our guide was terrific, and I really wish I had been able to understand him better, but in addition to his stories he had a very good photographic eye and took photos of us along the way. It was awkward: do you smile in pictures at a mine that crushed the lives of so many people? It felt a bit like taking selfies during a concentration camp tour. It was fascinating and I was very glad I went, but I was also very relieved to breathe fresh air once the two-hour tour was over.

At el Chiflón del Diablo. Do they count as selfies if someone else takes the photos?

I went out for beer that evening with Osvaldo and his lab group—a really fun bunch of folks. When I returned to my hotel I was still hungry, went in search of a quick snack (I had a hunger for empanadas). That explains how I ended up in a karaoke bar (they promised that they had empanadas). They didn’t have empanadas (liars!), they only had expensive appetizer platters, but by that point I felt famished and the free Pisco I was given at the door had kicked in and I ordered and ate the entire giant appetizer platter by myself. And then signed myself up to sing “House of the Rising Sun” since, hell, I was there, and obviously somebody needed to start the karaoke party. And then got talked into doing a duet of “Easy like Sunday Morning” (really? Haha) with the bartender. And then went home and crashed hard.

Osvaldo picked me up the following morning to go with him, his son, and a friend to a beach cleanup, which he had mentioned on my first visit with him and thought sounded like a nice way to see the area. What I didn’t know was that the beach cleanup was at the site of the old Marine Science lab, where Osvaldo used to have his lab and which was demolished during the 2010 tsunami. 

The battered shell of the marine research lab post-tsunami. HDR.

Driving through the town (Dichato) and hearing Osvaldo’s stories about the devastation, the homes destroyed, the businesses devoured, the corpses washed up on shore, was heartbreaking and surreal. But what really hit me was arriving at the research station, a place that reminded me so much of the Wrigley Center on Catalina Island or even more the Marine Biology Lab at Woods Hole, and seeing the ruins:

The half-standing lab benches. 
The sea tables with broken tiles.
The sun-rotted shelves that had once held bottles of media.
The pieces of a kelp mural on a crumbled wall.
The debris filling a basement that had once been a culturing facility but now looks like a scene out of a WWII movie, of a bombed shelter, chunks of concrete and metal making an ugly shell out of what had once been a home to world-class science.

Mural still visible on a remaining wall of the destroyed Marine Science lab at Dichato. HDR.

Unsurprisingly, two of the graduate students who had been at the lab when the tsunami hit were traumatized, one never returning and the other returning only after years in therapy. Just seeing the aftermath, three years later, was heart-wrenching.

The 20-some students who had arrived for the cleanup made quick work of the beach. They filled at least as many trash bags full of chunks of rebar, pieces of roof, and lab tiles as they did with the more typical Styrofoam, glass, and cigarette butts. Picking pieces of research lab out of the sand was a hard feeling.

Universidad de Conceptión Students at the Dichato beach cleanup. HDR.

After the cleanup, Osvaldo took me to see his home on the beach in a spectacular spot overlooking the ocean in a quiet village just outside Dichato. We had excellent seafood at a local restaurant as well as “cold tea” which is secret code for white wine, which the restaurants aren’t technically permitted to sell. A breathtaking part of the world, but the homes on stilts and tsunami warning signs were a constant reminder of the horror the region had so recently been through.

Boat on the beach of Dichato. HDR.

I returned to my hostel, stricken by the things I had seen during the two days in Conception, but also impressed by the resilience of people like Osvaldo who had to rebuild their lives (and labs) from scratch after the devastating earthquake and tsunami, and like the residents of Lota, rebuilding and reinventing their lives following the shutdown of the industry that once supported them. Respect.

The next morning I returned to my beloved mountains with a bug in my brain about the possibility for making Chile my home for more than traveling trip through planted.

More photos from Concepción in the Picasa album.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Nevados de Chillán Day 5: Aguas Calientes

The shiny feather in the cap of my unforgettable stay with BackChillan in Shangri-La (see the posts from Days 1-4) was our trip to Aguas Calientes. Aguas Calientes is exactly what it sounds like (if you don’t know what that sounds like, the literal translation is “hot waters”), only radder. It was a nice mellow climb up from the top of the Nevados de Chillán resort, followed by a nice long descent to what looked from a distance like a creek--and was actually a creek, except a very special creek full of steaming hot water because it sits on the side of a volcano riddled with fumaroles.

Fun with BackChillan at Aguas Calientes

 Aguas Calientes was like my personal heaven: glittering snow and stunning mountain landscape on all sides, nice hot water to soak myself in (scalding hot baths are my favorite, and the temperatures suited me splendidly), and extremophilic phototrophs everywhere!! Lots of different types of cyanobacteria and algae and who-knows-what-else forming mats, ropes, streamers, muck, biofilms…glorious. Absolutely glorious.

It was a busy day at Aguas Calientes; according to Manu (BackChillan guide and group photographer/webmaster, responsible for their awesome promotional videos) the busiest he’d ever seen. “Busy” meant that there were all of 20 people in an area plenty big enough for each person to have their own personal bathing pool. Also noteworthy was the high concentration of pro skiers. If you count ski patrol and guides (i.e. people who ski as their profession), I suspect everyone there except me was a pro skier.

We all claimed ourselves comfy spots with our butts deep in extremophile muck and sat and drank beer, ate our sandwiches and chocolate, and chilled (or rather, steamed). Geobio people reading this will know that I am not at all squeamish in getting all up in microbial mats’ business. But the idea of sitting my bikini-clad body in a foot-deep fluffy layer of brown algae took a good few minutes to overcome. It took, shall we say, some easing into. But ease in I eventually did, and now god help any mats I come across in the future: I now have nothing stopping me from diving straight in and rolling around in them, labrador-style (you are welcome for that mental image).

Me, getting down with the thermophiles at Aguas Calientes

I set off on my own to explore the pools and enjoyed some solitary soaking, watching the steam make patterns against the sun and the algal streamers wave in the current before it was time to head back out. Or rather, time to get dressed and hang out while the biggest blunt I’d ever seen (granted, I have lived a sheltered life and am not wise in the ways of the weed, but it was approximately the size of my forearm) was passed around.

The climb back out from Aguas Calientes was spectacular. Shining snowfields on all sides, a giant bowl of white guarded by rocky rims. Tom and Ellen having kicked my ass into shape the week prior in Las Leñas, I noticed that the limiting factor in my climbing wasn’t my fitness but my equipment, something that would become even more problematic on future trips. My handmade splitboard (handmade in the sense that it is an old board that an ex-boyfriend sawed in half and converted into a split using a kit back in the days before splitboards were commercially available) technically has inside edges, but because I haven’t sharpened the edges of the board in some 5 years, it really has no edges, which made any sort of traversing impossible and some of the icy patches downright scary.  Some heart-stopping slippage while trying to traverse caused me to experience, for the first time, “I wish I had skis instead of this splitboard”. Sorry splitboard, you will always hold a special place in my heart, but I am afraid you will be replaced as soon as I can afford a good randonnée setup.

The climb out of Aguas Calientes

We descended next to a smoking fumarole (socool…also, geobio people, LETS GO HERE!!), went home, I made “American food” (handmade burgers, fries, and a California-style salad), and we drank beer and wine and more beer until we all passed out. Or rather until I passed out. Chileanos are crazy—out partying until 4am and still ready to rock another snow day bright and early in the morning. They must have special coffee I was missing out on.

Having decided that it was time for this nomad to move on, the following morning I hitched a ride with Pipe, Manu, and Panchi to Conceptión via Chillán, where they were headed to take part in the official ceremony for the receipt of the small business grant they had won. Saying goodbye to them was like saying goodbye to family, the brothers I never had, and two weeks later as I finally write this I miss them. I couldn’t have asked for a better group or a better place for my first snow-stop in Chile, and I left them sad to say goodbye but having re-found my happy, and excited about the adventures ahead.

For future travelers looking for a great time at Nevados de Chillán, regardless of season, give BackChillan a call! I promise they will show you a good time!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Nevados de Chillán Days 2-4: Shangri-La and the Markets of Chillán

Following the incredible powder day that introduced me to the magic that is Nevados de Chillán, I slept great and woke up early ready to rock another snow day. However, as we rolled out in the truck caravan we noticed strong winds on the mountain, wind that turned out to be so strong that the resort shut down, wind that blew all that great snow right off the mountain, turning it into an icecake. Booo.

Puelche wind blowing the snow off of the mountain
Apparently this particular type of wind has a name: Puelche. They are warm winds that blow over from Argentina and have the nasty effect of blowing any fresh snow off of the Chilean mountains and then melting a layer (that later freezes) as a final kick to the nuts of skiiers in the Chilean Andes before retreating a few days later. Argentina, I know you are jealous of Chile’s superior snowfall, but do you really have to be such a jerk?

But the BackChillan guys had other adventures up their sleeves and we reversed direction and headed deep into Shangri-La for a mellow tour in the sunshine. We climbed through forest, past gorgeous mountains, through a volcanic landscape that Panchi (one of the BackChillan guides, also unofficial Grillmaster) pointed out looked like an Oreo Blizzard (I don’t remember what he said since I’m pretty sure there are no Dairy Queens and therefore no Oreo Blizzards in Chile, but I immediately knew what he meant) because of the snow on the black volcanic rocks, and out to the recently collapsed Refugio Shangri-La. Where we stopped and ate lunch and drank beer. Which was glorious.

Suiting up for the Shangri-La tour

Photo shoot with Manu in Shangri-La

Collapsed Refugio Shangri-La

On our return, Spanish Amazon Maria, a friend of the BackChillan guys and ski patroller by profession who spends her European summers snowbirding in Chillán, made Spanish Tortilla, which despite the egg allergy I tried a bite of and enjoyed thoroughly (Benadryl chasers have been my survival tool here in Chile), and Xavier, another friend of the group, made “barber’s spaghetti” (apparently his nickname is “the barber” although I never found out why).

Since the strong winds put a kink in any touring plans, we spent the next day in the city of Chillán, a 2 hour drive away, a place known primarily for its sausages (Longaniza). The guys took me through the Chillán market, a huge multi-block partially open-air market that sells everything, especially meat (like, there’s a whole block dedicated to meat, meat, and more meat). I of course loved it. And bought a lot of meat. They also got me to try Cazuela (a sort of hearty soup/stew involving a broth with vegetables, a boiled potato, and a large chunk of meat) and I had my second "mote con huesillos" (the first having been sprung on me with glee by Ignacio in Santiago), which is like a liter of supersaturated sugar with rehydrated peaches and grains inside. It looks as vile as it sounds and tastes delicious. The guys somehow gulped theirs down in all of 10 seconds, and it took me the better part of half an hour to finish mine, after which I had that “oh god, what have I done?” sugar overdose feeling (but oh, was it good).

Cazuela de Pavo (turkey)
Mote con huesillos

The primary purpose of the Chillán trip was to pick up a shipment of five brand-spanking-new mountain bikes that the guys had purchased on government start-up grant money in order to help make BackChillan a year-round venture (and therefore support their mountain hut-living lifestyle year-round, something I both completely understand and fully support). Five beautiful shiny mountain bikes, which we loaded into the back of their truck to cart back to Shangri-La.

Panchi and Pipe with their truck full o' bikes

And of course once we returned to Shangri-La, the first order of business was to assemble and test out the brand-spanking-new mountain bikes on a few mellow trails around Shangri-La and Las Trancas. The bikes came back nice and dirty, officially deflowered and ready to be rented to future visitors. That evening dinner was a giant rack of mutton ribs that the guys had pilfered off of an Asado at the local bar the previous night. Like, they literally brought a very large sheep’s rib cage home, intact, and plopped it down in the middle of the dinner table. A massive, dry heap of mostly bone and broiled fat. It was ridiculously tasty. And fat makes excellent touring fuel.

The next morning we were back on the mountain for the tour I had been most looking forward to: Aguas Calientes.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Nevados de Chillán Day 1: !&%*$#@ POWDER!

I knew I had found the right bus when I saw international freeskiing champion Drew Tabke waiting next to it. Tall, handsome, carrying a ski bag, from Seattle, friendly and mellow, pretty much like every other PNW mountain enthusiast I ever met before the hipsters and skittle kids started to infiltrate the niche. It was definitely a good sign.

Beyond "tall Seattlite skier" I didn’t know who he was until after he had helped me figure out how to get a ride to where I was going when we were informed that the bus we were on wouldn’t be able to make it all the way up the hill because of the snow (snow!) on the roads. After we had waited half an hour on the side of a dark road in a snowstorm together. After his local friend, a badass in his own right, sandwiched the two of us into the cab of his tiny truck for a bumpy ride out to where I was headed in Shangri-La. After they helped me carry my gear into the cabin, lit only by the headlamps of the still-strangers at that point of the people I’d be staying with, and hugged me goodbye with a “good luck and see you up there”. After they shut the door and one of the guys at the cabin asked me if I knew who that was. “Yeah, he’s kind of famous. Like, really famous.”

And that is how I arrived in Shangri-La at the mountain home of the BackChillan crew.

The BackChillan cabin in Shangri-La, the Nevados de Chillán volcanoes in the background. HDR.

Ending up in Shangri-La was the result of a long chain of serendipity that began when MIT geobiologist Julio Sepúlveda came to give a seminar in the geology department where I was finishing my Ph.D. As I gave him a mini-tour of campus, our conversation quickly turned from science to Chile when I told him my dream of ski touring in Patagonia after graduating. He told me to get in touch with his brother, Felipe, who was starting BackChillan--a Chilean-run guiding company based in Chillán. Get in touch I did and Felipe (Pipe) is ultimately to blame for my still, over a month into the trip, not having been to Patagonia, spending time instead in the central Andes and land of beautiful volcanoes of which Chillán is one of the powdery epicenters.

The original plan was to start the trip with him and his crew in Chillán and then head directly south to Bariloche, then Patagonia. Instead when I arrived in Santiago to a rainy Chillán forecast, I went to Las Leñas, got stuck there, and finally made it to Chillán in the middle of Week 3.

Getting myself dumped off at a dark cabin deep in the woods full of guys I’d never met before (my only contact being a few emails with Pipe) was a definite leap of faith, especially following the deeply uncomfortable experience I had just escaped from. But with my fingers crossed, faith in my mountain people, a good snow report ahead, and a “conditions are great, get over here” email from Pipe, I jumped on that bus from Malargue with my fingers crossed and faith in my experience that mountain people are good people.

My faith was rewarded.

Powder day at Nevados de Chillán

Pipe and the BackChillan guys set me up with a headlamp, bed, and beer (important) and got me pumped for the morning by showing me the weather forecast (powder) and photos from their recent tours. I woke up the next morning to the smell of toast in a house full of skis and nice people with a fresh layer of snow coating the mountains which wrapped around the cabin porch like a giant snowporn poster.

Asado. Along with snow, mountains,
wine, and the people, one of the reasons
Chile is amazing.
Loaded up with breakfast and coffee we loaded our gear and bundled-up selves into a truck caravan and headed to Nevados de Chillán, the local ski area, arguably Chile’s best for powder.

Then we rode without pause for 7 straight hours, hitting every stash of untracked snow we could find, stopping only briefly at the end to rest our legs and enjoy some live entertainment before making one last run before the lifts shut down.

And then my first Chilean Asado. Asado is Chilean for BBQ. Like Chilean wine, which is called wine but is actually distilled straight from the blood of angels and spiced with hellfire and tastes nothing like “mere” wine, Asado is like BBQ only at least twice as awesome.

The Escape from Malargüe, and Santiago Redux

My debit card finally arrived! And the evening it did, I got the f*ck out of Dodge. No offense, Malargüe. You are a charming little town in a truly stunning location, but when Las Leñas closed and bus service to the mountains stopped, my reasons for staying were not many, and with Creepazoid prowling about my reasons for leaving were many.

My card arrived at around noon. I snatched it out of the arms of the FedEx guy, tore the package open, ran to the nearest ATM, and withdrew as much cash as it would let me. Just enough to pay for the hostel stay, not enough to pay for a bus ticket out. So I hit every ATM in town, and then started making an ATM cycle every hour, until finally I was able to pull out more money, enough for the 2am bus ticket to get me out and back to a place with snow.

Elated, I wandered through town, loving everything in sight. I loved the birds. Loved the dirt streets. Loved the buses rolling through town honking their horns and blaring sirens celebrating the return of the high school Judo champions, loved the friendly people, loved that my Spanish had improved to the point where I could sort of talk to people and make myself understood, loved the views of mountains in the distance.

I did a final round of sink laundry, put my clothes out to dry, and treated myself to a fancy dinner ($35 for a three-course meal involving locally-sourced goat meat, pasta, and wine-soaked pears as well as my own personal bottle of wine), spending two hours eating and drinking alone in a state of pensive ecstasy. I returned to the hostel around midnight to a horrible smell, which I traced to the ball of goo on the heater that had once been my ExOfficio anti-microbial underwear. You can't win them all.

The dessert course of my celebratory fancy dinner
My melted panties

At 1:15am, with the taxi I thought I had ordered nowhere to be found, I began the long lurching journey from the hostel to the bus station, rattling down the otherwise silent gravel streets of Malargüe with my 50lb snowboard bag, 40lb backpacking backpack, 20lb work backpack, and a purse slung over my neck full of food and wine for the journey ahead. About 10 minutes in, one of the wheels broke off of my snowboard bag, making the movement even more difficult, and progress far slower than I had hoped. It was exhausting, but I had to make that bus, so rattle and lurch I did, sounding like an earthquake, sweating despite the freezing temperatures in my t-shirt, grunting, lurching, panting, and lurching all the way to the bus stop. I arrived just as the bus was pulling away from the terminal. I dropped my bags and sprinted to the bus, yelling and waving my arms. I caught it, slapping my hands on the doors, the windows, whatever I could reach as I ran alongside. The bus stopped. I showed my ticket and pointed to my bags and the bus driver scolded me (or something, I didn't understand except the tone), but I retrieved my bags, put them on the bus, and collapsed, dripping sweat, into my seat.

Woke up to this view. Not bad.

I arrived in Mendoza at 8am, having almost sort of slept on the bus, and spent the hour between bus connections eating most of the food I had brought with me (since I knew it would be confiscated at the border crossing). Then with significantly less drama than the first departure I got on the second bus for a reverse of the Paso Los Libertadores trip of two weeks prior. Except Chileans are waaaaaay pickier than Argentinians about what is brought into their precious, disease-free, unjustly beautiful country so where the border crossing took about 40 minutes on the way to Argentina, it took close to 2 hours complete with bag searches, luggage scans, and questionings. 

Me, post-pat-down
Portillo ski resort. The U.S. ski team trains here in summer. Poor suckers.

Oh, and as the sole North American on the bus, I was singled out for an on-bus pat down and thorough bag hand search. Racial profiling at its finest: hey light-skinned girl, hand me your passport. Oh you're from the United States? Gruff voice! Stand up! Empty your pockets! Eagle position! Give me your bag! I think the guy was disappointed not to find anything, although I was sweating bullets because I had a pretty rock in one bag pocket that I worried would get me into trouble. But the pretty rock was never found, the one pocket he didn't search. Rock aside, I decided that the special treatment was acceptable. It's only fair that I, racially privileged white blonde girl (the red has been sun-bleached almost completely out of my hair now), be treated in the darker-skinned part of the world the way all too many darker-skinned people are treated when they arrive (and when they live) in the U.S.

Anyhow, I made it safe and sound with no rocks confiscated and no fines levvied and no arrests made back in Santiago, descending into the city just as a squadron of what looked like 20-some F-16s roared in formation overhead in honor of the Armed Forces Day part of the September Fiestas Patrias celebrations.

Fiestas Patrias. Biggest holiday in Chile. All the stores and restaurants were closed and I had eaten all my food.

But it was okay, because I arrived at my hostel (having left the wheel-less snowboard bag in bus terminal storage) to a wonderful group of friends-I-hadn't-met-yet and they fed me in exchange for the bottle of Argentinian wine I had. The conversation ranged from the best places in Chile, to engineering special beer fridges, to safety tips for visiting Brazilian Favelas ("Oh, the people are super nice! I love the Favelas! I hang out there until 3am all the time! Oh yeah, but if you don't speak Portugese and know people there, you'll probably die."), to strategies for the cultivation of soil fungus, to earning a living via travel blogging. I got to my dorm bunk bed and crashed hard, sleeping like the proverbial rock.

Food! Glorious food! And a creep-free hostel! Good folks at the Princessa Insolente Hostel in Santiago.

And the next day, I ate mind-blowingly delicious seafood empanadas (have I said yet how much I love empanadas? mmmmmm empanadas), filled a bag full of more empanada (you can never have too many empanadas, I have determined, but you can always have too few. my stomach thinks I have too few right now), and went to go chase more snow. This time to the Chilean side of the mountains, to Nevados de Chillán, the place I had originally intended to go first before the rain drove me across the Andes to Argentina.

OMG <3 Empanadas!!!
My stomach is growling just looking at this picture. Ohsogood.

And sweet, sweet baby Jeebus, I hit the jackpot.

(but you'll have to wait to hear about my awesome snow week until the next post)

Postcard Contest 1: Santiago

I arrived in Santiago yesterday afternoon following a reverse of my Paso Los Libertadores trip two weeks ago, once again chasing snow.

To celebrate over 1000 blog views (wow!!) and get people to start leaving comments on the blog, I'm going to run a series of contests where I ask geography, regional culture, trivia, etc. questions. The prize for the first person to answer correctly will be a postcard from wherever I'm at.

So, without further ado, Question Number Uno!

When I arrived yesterday in Santiago, nearly all of the stores and many restaurants were closed, making it very difficult to feed myself. Why?

View from the hostel I stayed at in Santiago

Another view from the hostel,
this time playing around with spiffy new HDR software.
Like it?

Again, first person to leave a comment here (not in your head, not in Facebook, not by email, here in the comments section, those be the rules) with the correct answer gets a postcard! You do have to leave your name so I know how to contact you and get your address. Let the fun begin!

Disclaimer: I can only send you a postcard if I am able to get your mailing address. I will announce winners when I have internet access, which may be as long as a week after the contest is announced, so be patient! Also, I make no promises as to when I will send the postcard. As of yet--almost 3 weeks into my trip--I have yet to see any places even selling postcards. But, at some point, I will send it, pinky swear.

Monday, September 16, 2013

My Hovercraft is Full of Eels: Adventures in Argentine Banking

I have no cash, it's snowing (actually objectively beautiful) in town, the ski area just closed for the season, the bus service to the mountains shut down, the bike shops don't accept credit cards...essentially, I'm stuck. Stuck until my ATM card shows up. So at this point I'm just blogging to keep myself amused.

But I had a VERY DRAMATIC, SUPER-RAD, EXCITING trip to a bank today! Read on for the full, uncensored, shocking account!

Completely out of cash, and with my Emergency Express debit card replacement not scheduled to arrive for another week (two weeks after ordering it),  it was time to try other options.

I had half jokingly asked a few places around town for temporary employment, but after a few very confused looks and one prostitution related response, abandoned that line of inquiry.

This was at lunchtime, when the place started to
clear out, but this is one of eight sets of seating
areas in the bank, and that was the only row of
seats that wasn't full in that particular moment.
It's Monday! Party in the bank!
Having money wired via Western Union or other agents (I keep hearing Xoom is great in Argentina, but only has 40 offices in the country and none even in the same state as where I am) wasn't an option:there were no offices in, or anywhere near town. I didn't have a PIN to use with either Visa card I brought, and Visa claimed there were no bank locations within 75 miles that worked with Visa where I could maybe get a cash advance.

But I was desperate, and determined to at least ask. So, after spending an hour looking up phrases I might need and copying them into my notebook, I headed to the town bank. And it was packed. At one point I counted 76 people (not counting 5 babies) waiting to be helped.

A22: The Winning Ticket?
I arrived at 11:30 and took Number A22, at which point the screen read E65. I took a seat and desperately hoped the ticker didn't run all the way through Z. An hour and a half later of playing with learn Spanish apps on my phone, I heard the familiar 'ding' announcing the next number being called, and was immensely relieved to see it go from E99 to A01.

Since it had taken an hour and a half to get from E65 to A01, I calculated that I now only had approximately 56.6 minutes of waiting left. But lo! only half an hour later, at A11, the Lunchtime Effect set in and as there was no A12, A13, A14, get the point...I started to clutch my ticket, get all of my important documents tother, and brace in a sprinter's crouch to be totally ready lest the the quick flipping of numbers stymie my chance to speak to the man behind the glass wall. A22 was called at 1:34pm, and I scurried up to the window just as the man behind the glass wall had his finger ready to call for A23.

Screenshot from my very helpful
Learn Spanish phone app.
I was ready. Sort of . Clearly whatever my opening line was wasn't making any sense (maybe because of things like the photo at right), so I passed my notebook with a carefully-written translated explanation of my situation through the hole in the plexiglass shield to the teller, and he read, and chuckled, and read, and chuckled, and read, looked up, and said....


I protested, "But I have two forms of I.D.! My visa card! I have no cash! Pleeeaaase?"


"Is there anyone, anywhere else in town who might be able to help?"



"No." And with that, he waved me away, and A23 approached the counter.

At least I tried?

This is unrelated to the post, but if
anyone reading this is a bird nerd,
what is this cool dude?
Spotted him while walking at the
edge of town. He looked sort of
like a falcon, was about 6" big,
plump, beautiful gray-tan, white,
and black markings.
I returned, defeated, to the hostel, where Creepy Dude from the previous post was waiting, so I snuck out the back door and scurried off to wander aimlessly through town, letting the falling snow calm me down.

In an effort to cheer myself up by giving myself something to look forward to, I stopped by the bus station to see if there was any possible way I could pay for a ticket to Las Leñas with credit card since I had literally no cash (something they had scoffed at before). They replied that it was a moot point, Las Leñas  had just closed for the season and there was therefore no more bus. 

Even more dejected, I moped in circles around town until I was famished, my being famished falling conveniently at exactly the time when everything in town closes for the afternoon, but chanced upon a restaurant tucked quite a few blocks from the main part of town, that, like some celestial gift of mercy, had a Visa sticker on its window. And I drowned my frustration in a mini bottle of very excellent local Malbec while eating some very excellent local trout (a regional specialty), and decided that if I could just learn a few key phrases (like whatever "If you touch me again I'll feed you your nuts, creepface" is in Spanish), I could deal with this situation.

At least lunch was good. Excellent, actually.
And not only was that bottle of wine adorable,
it was also muy delicioso.
And, belly happy, I returned to the hostel, where creepface was gone, and here I sit, blogging, to decompress from what's been an upsetting and frustrating few days.

Except I have excellent news for tomorrow: I explained the latest news in the ongoing saga of my debit card and consequent inability to pay for my room at the hostel to Ramón, who once again was very forgiving. I asked him for advice on what to do to pass the wait time until the card arrives, and he again said "no problem" and offered to loan me his bike (for transportation to cool places) and his cell phone (in case I get stranded somewhere) and sending me off on an adventure to go see something awesome tomorrow. Once again proving that there is at least one shockingly, unnecessarily nice person for every creepface out there. Ramón, you saved my day. Thank you.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

On Week 2 of being a solo woman traveler

I am not new to travel, but I am new to traveling alone. When I told my plans to family and friends I met with a lot of concern and heard "be safe" a lot more than "have fun". Sadly, there's good reason for that. As a woman traveling alone, I am a target. I wish that wasn't the case, wish I could ignore that that is the case, but I can't.

Two weeks into my trip and there is already absolutely no doubt in my mind that traveling alone is way different than traveling as a group or a couple, and traveling alone as a woman amplifies and adds all kinds of problems. I knew that would be the case when I left, hence no small deal of anxiety about the trip as it approached.

When planning my trip, I read several blogs by women who travel solo, most notably a little adrift. One thing that struck me when looking at their packing lists were three items that appeared over and over: the DivaCup, a whistle, and a doorstop.

I'll probably talk about the DivaCup at some other point, but trust me ladies, it's awesome (once you convince yourself it isn't any grosser than what you already use...and for the record, my experience with it was significantly less Macbeth-ish than this Jezebel poster's...).

Then there's the whistle. I always carry a whistle when I backpack, but it's to protect myself from bears and help people find me if I'm lost in the woods. These women weren't backpacking in the woods though, they were traveling in urban environments. The whistle was for protection from other humans.

My doorstop
Finally there's the doorstop. The "put this behind your door at your hotel/ hostel/ guesthouse/ family stay so that nobody can come in and rape you" doorstop. Because that's an issue? Men breaking through flimsy hostel locks to rape women? Am I the only one who things, not, "oh, great idea, I'll get a doorstop," but "WHY THE FUCK IS THE WORLD SO MESSED UP THAT THIS IS NECESSARY??"

I got a doorstop.

And I was damned glad I had it last night.

Last night, when a 40-something year old man staying at the hostel latched onto me, standing close to me while I cooked and touching my arm and asking me questions, most of which I didn't understand, and when I communicated that I didn't understand, would get closer to me, stroke my arm, and slur his Spanish even more in what I'm sure he thought was a sexy voice but which I thought was creepy as shit. Then sitting right next to me at dinner and insisting that I drink with him (I drank from my own glass from my own bottle of wine, and stayed sober), smoke with him (heeeelll no), telling me repeatedly that I should go out dancing with him, asking the others at the table to tell me that he wanted me to dance, making kissing noises and following me when I went to wash my dishes. Afraid he would follow me to my room, I stayed at the table until he disappeared to use the restroom, then bolted to my room, locked the door, and stuffed the doorstop in. Sure enough, later that night he stopped by, knocked and said something, and I ignored. He tried the door, which was locked. He knocked more. Eventually he left, but I had that whistle ready and was glad for the extra level of security the doorstop added, since the lock would not be hard to pick and the door easy to bust open. Later that night I overheard two girls saying that "the creepy guy is asleep on the floor". Awesome.

I stayed in my room until late the next morning, hoping that if I came out late enough, he would be gone. Backfired. Just as I was eating breakfast, he arrived and sat with me. Pulling the same arm stroking (yanked away arm, he didn't stop, said "No!", he didn't stop) and one-way conversation shit as the night before. I stood up, and walked to my room. He followed me. I was glad I had left my room unlocked so that I could slip right inside and slam and lock the door before he got there behind me. He knocked, stayed at the door. When I ignored him I heard him walking back and forth down the hallway, probably pretending not to be standing at the door since the hostel proprietor was nearby.

I sat silently on my bed in my room for at least an hour and wept into my pillow, pretending to be invisible, doing the whole turtle thing I always do when in situations like these. I felt helpless, terrified, trapped.

But a little voice said, "This is BULLSHIT. Bullshit that I am locked in a room because of some sleazy creep. Bullshit that I am here, in Argentina, wanting to have an incredible time and enjoy some life after 6 years of grad school, and am afraid to leave my room. B-U-L-L-S-H-I-T.

So I grabbed my whistle. And I left my room, locking it behind me so he couldn't surprise me inside when I returned. I walked to the hostel lobby, and with my translate app on my phone told the hostel proprieter that the guy wouldn't leave me alone, and asked when he was leaving.The proprieter looked concerned and assured me that the guy would be leaving later that day. And then I sat in the lobby and worked instead of hiding in my room like before. And that time when the guy walked in to bother me, the proprieter was there, so he didn't. And I felt just a little bit better, a little bit stronger, and a little bit proud of myself for not letting the creep confine me to my room. I actually did something, even if it was a small something, a huge departure from my usual curl up and cry and try to disappear until the perpetrator leaves the scene routine.

I've got a long way to go before I really feel good about the way I stand up in situations like these. There's a balance to strike between being paranoid, and being safe. Between provoking a physical conflict that I am not likely to win (I'm feisty and will scratch, claw, bite, kick, and scream if provoked, but mass simply isn't on my side) and responding in a way that makes me feel weak, small, and defeated. Between being rude and offending people who are simply used to different cultural standards of behavior, and accepting and encouraging behavior that I feel puts me at risk. Between being the warm, open, caring, and friendly human being I want to be, and being cold and rude and treating people like they are invisible to me in order to make my lack of sexual interest completely clear.

And that's the heart of the issue. It makes me angry that I have to, by default, treat every man I come across in my travels and my life as a potentially dangerous dick on a stick until I get to know him well enough to trust him. That I have to be wary, have to be mistrustful, have to be careful not to smile too often, not to make too much eye contact when I talk, not to ask too many questions or express too much interest in the person--another human being who I would like to get to know, learn from, understand--because too many men in my life have taken that friendliness and genuine interest and basic love for my fellow humans as sexual willingness.

So I'm just going to put this out there: No. Blanket no. I don't care who you are, how attractive you think you are, how much better you think you would be for me than anyone else I've ever dated, how awesome you think your dick is, how sexy your voice is, how well you dance, how well you cook, or how romantic are the sweet nothings you creepily whisper into my unwilling ear, the answer is N-O. I'm not on this trip to pick up your nasty STDs or even to pick up a perfectly wonderful boyfriend. I'm here to be alone, I know it's hard to believe, but I want to be alone. So if it's sex you want, stay the hell away from me, I don't want it. If you try anything I'm going to blast your fucking eardrums out, and god help you if you harass me again while I'm chopping vegetables, because you'll be eating your own Rocky Mountain Oysters. [insert threatening Carie face here]

With all that said, I am glad and very grateful to be here. In numbers I have had far more good experiences here with people (including men) than bad. Women face this shit wherever they are, not just while traveling, and I am seeing things I've always wanted to see, doing things I've always wanted to do.

Not going to let creeps stop me from enjoying this.

By throwing myself into a situation where I'm bound to face some of my greatest fears and be constantly made uncomfortable, I'm forcing myself to either become who I want to be or go home (and I'm no quitter!). I am, every day, becoming a little bit more confident and comfortable in my own skin. And that's one of the goals, isn't it?

A few travel observations on my 2 week Travelversary

I've been in South America for exactly two weeks now. In that span of time, I've managed to:
  • Visit two countries
  • Stay overnight in three different places (way more if you count naps on the bus)
  • Make several new friends
  • Lose my debit card and barter credit-card-purchased groceries for cash for survival
  • Go snowboarding, hiking, caving (the lite version), and scramble up several mountains
  • Survive a bout of diarrhea
  • Work off my Thesis Bauchlein (great German word for a little belly)
  • Learn a whopping handful of Spanish phrases, and learn to speak them poorly
  • Keep my 4 pairs of underwear relatively clean
When traveling, you expect to have stuff happen that is uncomfortable and/or unexpected, and you roll with it. But there are some surprising things I haven't managed to get used to yet. The biggest ones:

  • Spanish. I don't remember traveling without speaking the local language well being so difficult from past travels, but maybe it's because I've never done it alone before. It's taken me a full two weeks to stop being intimidated by just going to the store without a translator. My Spanish is way better than, for example, my Greek or Croatian or Polish, but I feel like I've had way more problems communicating with people here than I ever did while traveling around Europe. I'm trying to learn, but I've been stymied by my terrible memory compounded by my brain's bad habit of finding German words when searching for Spanish words that I've learned.
  • Throwing used toilet paper in the trash, not into the toilet. This is a required practice here in Malargüe, because supposedly the sewage system can't handle T.P. At first I found this extremely gross, then I reasoned it's no more gross than throwing used tampons in a trash can vs. the toilet. Still, old habits die hard and I keep praying my toilet doesn't overflow at some point from my occasional slip-ups. It already occasionally burps up unholy smells.
  • Dr. Bronner's. I remember it really being the magic soap while backpacking and camping in the past, so I brought a bunch with me to be my all-in-one shampoo, body wash, laundry soap, hand soap, etc. It only took 4 showers with it for my hair to start forming dreads. I'm tempted to run with it (plus it smells so good!), but I'm already almost out from doing sink laundry every few days...
  • Not having a desk. I never was one to do the whole "take the laptop to a cafe" thing, even if there were cafes with WiFi here or even if my battery would last long enough to get anything done. So the work I've done getting paper manuscripts revised, photos edited, and these blog posts written has been from sitting in bed, attempting the best posture I can manage, where I have some peace and quiet, power, and internet.
Nothing major, nothing serious, but interesting, the things that I didn't see coming, vs. the problems I expected. Travel...always an adventure!