Sunday, January 26, 2014

Postcard Contest 5: Chiloé

Views in Chepu

Chile's Chiloé Island, where I've been spending the month of January working a the Chepu Adventures Ecolodge in Southern Patagonia, is a beautiful, verdant place famous for its nature, distinct culture, seafood, churches, and homes on stilts.

It's also famous for an edible nightshade of which Chiloé Island boasts over 400 native species. Also remarkable is that >90% of the _______es grown worldwide are thought to have originated on Chiloé Island.

The first four people to post interesting recipes (but try to not give away the answer when you do) that use this edible nightshade get postcards from Chiloé!

Rules & Disclaimers:

  • Recipes must be posted in the comments to this blog post.
  • Recipes that use ingredients that are easy to find (in think small rural supermarket) appreciated!!
  • You have to include enough identifying information about yourself so that I know who to contact about a mailing address.
  • It may be a month or two before your postcard arrives, but I will send it!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Adrift in Chepu

I broke down and sobbed in the middle of my work day at the Ecolodge today following a solid week of having to hold back tears. Started crying so hard I had to excuse myself to the bathroom, then sat there for half an hour while I cried and cried and cried. I am in Chile, on an island in Patagonia, in a stunningly beautiful and peaceful place with really nice people. Nothing has changed since I said that this has been the happiest year of my life, there has been no bad news, have been no heartbreaks or disappointments.

If anything, the opposite. I've met wonderful and inspiring people who quickly became like a second set of parents. I've worked on fun projects and am learning a lot. I've had amazing experiences here, like the morning I watched the sun break through clouds as it rose and turn the river pink around my kayak. Or the morning I went for a swim and was joined by an endangered river otter, who came up to within a meter of me and circled me, ducking in and out of the water while “grrrrrr”ing at me for a solid 10 minutes before swimming off. It’s been magical.

Misty dawn over Río Punta and the Sunken Forest in Chepu

But being here in this beautiful place, working at this innovative sustainability project that my wonderful hosts—Amory and Fernando—built with love and passion with their own hands, working with this couple who has the sort of relationship that restores my faith in love and marriage, makes my heart ache.

My dream

Almost exactly two years ago I spotted the image below on Facebook and was charmed. The hobbit house was built by a man named Simon Dale in Wales to house himself, his wife, and his sons on the cheap. It is beautiful. I wanted to live in it. So did my boyfriend.

Simon Dale's Eco Hobbit House

My boyfriend was German and living in Braunschweig, Germany as he finished his PhD in Immunology. I had met him while in Braunschweig working with the esteemed director of the German Culture Collection on a project involving photosynthesis at the lower limits of light that was frustrating, difficult, and probably hopeless, but that I loved. I met my boyfriend at a Christmas party where he was bartending, and by three hours into our first date I was certain I had found my soulmate. He was handsome, a creative thinker, passionate about biology, adventurous, sexy, kind, funny, and it seemed like we shared all of the same dreams.  On our third date he informed me that he wanted to marry me someday. It took me a few dates longer to overcome my realistic doubts, but I soon agreed. We were meant for each other.

So when I returned to the U.S. to finish my PhD work, we started a cross-ocean, cross-continent long-long distance relationship that involved almost daily long Skype chats. When we saw the hobbit house, we talked about it. What it was we liked about it, what that said about us, how we both wanted to build our own house today, what it would look like, how our future children would help, how it would be difficult to build a house while both of us worked full-time, how we’d need to get it finished before we had kids so maybe we should build on weekends, where would we get the money and how long would it take?…etc.

Feral kittens hanging out on the Ecolodge stairs

That night an idea struck me—what if we did the same thing that Simon Dale had done? His house had been inexpensive, since he supplied the labor, borrowed equipment, and took most of the materials he used from the land. Both my boyfriend and I loved building things, and he was particularly skilled at it, a creative and artistic hobby carpenter who had built huge sunken beds, massive wrap-around full-wall sofas, and who later carved me an engagement ring. He was passionate about science, but not about research, and it seemed clear to me that he would be happiest doing something else. Maybe building? What if I got the full-time job while he built our house?

The next day when we talked, I mentioned the idea and after a very brief pause he replied that that that was perfect. He was reluctant to leave me to do the breadwinning, but I reasoned with him that the money he’d save us by doing the building would more than make up for any income either of us was likely to earn. He got excited, and over the coming months he drew up design plans while I dreamed up the practical aspects.

“Build our house” turned into “Build an eco lodge / education center” where both of us could earn a basic living—enough to provide for our basic needs and support the tribe of children we planned to have. We would start by buying a large tract of land somewhere beautiful with generous building codes. Then would build ourselves a hobbit house while I brought in money to support the building and helped out on weekends building and preparing a small garden/farm for growing our own food. Then we would build up other “dwellings” using other sustainable building techniques and install different types of energy systems to make a small demonstration village for sustainable living. The houses would be adorable, charming, and romantic, and we would appeal to tourists and vacationers wanting to live in a treehouse or hobbit hole all while their inner hippies felt good about the eco-experience they were having. We would grow it into a business that could support both of us to work there full-time on new projects. Ultimately I wanted to build a dorm, teaching center, and small lab for running educational camps and for tinkering with methods of energy production, waste treatment, and water recycling.

Wind turbine that supplies energy in winter at Chepu Adventures

While my boyfriend drew sketches of buildings and dreamed, I drew up a business plan, calculated how many solar panels we’d need and approximately how much that would cost to support us in the beginning, priced out composting toilets, estimated loan amounts and rates we’d need to get started, contacted property managers in the Pacific Northwest who specialized in areas that I thought would be perfect for what we wanted to do, and tried to work out all the details. It should have been a warning that while I was reading books on how to write a business plan and sustainable building technologies, he was still in dreaming mode. I thought it was just that I am a detail person and he is not (my friends and family will laugh at this because “detail person” usually wouldn’t be their first word to describe me), that once we got to building was when he’d take over.

In February of that year, I flew to visit him for a month. We dreamed more, worked on our PhD writing, went snowboarding, visited his family, and got engaged. He took me out on a repeat of our romantic first date, then, on top of a tower where we had a stunning view over frozen Braunschweig, got down on one knee, read me a poem he had written, presented me with two rings that he had carved: one for him, and one for me, and asked me to marry him. I said yes, with all my heart, and spent the next month blissfully happy.

My future was secure and it was beautiful. I was going to build a life with my soulmate, and it was going to be the life we wanted. I would have a job that was creative and challenging and that I could feel good about all while being home where I could be with my family and raise the children I wanted to have. I would work closely with my best friend, the man I loved, and we would grow closer in our teamwork toward the dream we shared. For the first time in my life, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and felt a peace that I hadn’t felt before. This was right, it was what I was born to do, and I was with who I was born to do it with.

Dawn over the Río Punta from my kayak

Falling to pieces

It was a high place to fall from.

Just over a month following our engagement, after the visa application had been sent in and paid for, a wedding date in September tentatively set and the campground we wanted to do it in booked, the wedding dress shopped for, the wedding website made and sent around to friends and family, I got a call from my doctor. The test results had come back positive (where “positive” means bad). I needed to go in for more biopsies. The bad news hit both of us hard and led to a fight. The fight led to a worse fight.

And then he said, “I can’t do this, I can’t do this life, I want to be able to go out and party until 6am, smoke when I want to, be myself, I’m sorry, but I can’t do this.”

And that was it. He would hear no protests, no suggestions for how we could work things out, no attempts to understand him and how I could support him, he threw our relationship, our dreams, and me as far away from himself as he could, and we never spoke again.

Mist rising from the forest's edge on the Río Punta

I was devastated, crushed, destroyed. I felt that I had lost everything: I had lost my soulmate, my future, my chance at the life I had always wanted. And I had something ugly growing inside me, rotting me from the inside. I felt disgusting, damaged, unlovable, underserving of love, and broken.

Eventually, with a lot of help from the outside, I got through it. The way the relationship ended made it easier for me to get past him. It took me a long time to forgive him; I spent a good year and a half seething with anger about how he had misled and deceived me (and, I realized, himself), and how he had left me when I was at my most frightened and vulnerable before I could come to terms with why he had to do what he did. But although forgiveness came slowly, after the breakup I didn't spend much time wanting him back. Long before I stopped crying daily I was at least able to feel rationally grateful that the stress had shown the real nature of the relationship and exposed my fiancé for the person he really was—not the person he said he wanted to be. I could be grateful that I had been saved from the same thing happening at a much worse stage in life: after marriage, after giving up everything else to support him and build a business with him, after starting the tribe of children we wanted to have.

What hurt the most and has proved much harder to get over was the loss of the dream, a life and a future that seemed, at the time and still seems in my heart, perfect. It’s been two years, and I’m still not over the dream. It’s been two years and I still haven’t come close to feeling the excitement and sense of “yes, this is my path” that I had with that dream. I keep waiting for the light that fired me to reignite, scraping the bitterness and pain bit by bit from the windows of my heart hoping that will bring it back. It hasn’t come back.

The Río Punta from the Ecolodge


Flash forward to here on the soggy green island of Chiloé. I landed here for peace, stayed to work. It’s beautiful here, with 200° views of the Río Punta and a huge sunken forest that formed when the 1960 earthquake dropped the forest by ~2 meters (!) and the subsequent tsunami drowned the trees. Today the dead trees punctuate the odd and stunning resulting landscape. The wetlands are home to more bird species than my jellyfish memory could ever hope to recount, as well as pudu—the world’s smallest deer (I saw one drinking from the river while out kayaking), and huilin—an endangered species of river otter (one swam up to me while I was swimming the other day).

The ecolodge itself was built up over time out of a dream of Amory and Fernando’s to live in a simpler, more sustainable way. Their whole story was beautifully captured in this article, but began with doubts about their future in Santiago and culminated in the construction of eco-friendly buildings run off of solar and wind power, using only water captured on their land from rainfall. They have won awards for sustainability, green living, and ecotourism, and are featured in Lonely Planet of one of the best places to stay in Chile. Having been here for two weeks now, I can attest to the magic of the place. They are also good people, and happy people. I am so grateful for the warmth they have shown me in "adopting" me into their family, and have learned a lot from them. Most inspiring: the two of them have grown together through their work on this project, and I have only rarely seen a mature couple so obviously in love.

Theirs is a story so romantic, so powerful, so special, so eerily similar to what I had pictured, that at the same time that it is beautiful and inspiring, it is painful to see live.

Moon over the Chepu Adventures Ecolodge

A ship adrift

The pain, I suppose, means that this is good for me. Being here, inside a living version of the dream I had, is drawing out that final bit of stuffed-down pain that I have been carrying with me all this time. Forcing me to face it, stand up with it, and choose to either carry it in a positive new way or let it go.

Building a place like this is not something I could do alone. That is not something I say easily, but building and running a place like this one is an incredible burden of work for two people working together as a solid team. It is too much for one person alone. But also evident is that it is, as I thought it would be, a good life, a life I feel sure I would be very happy with. It is interesting to see what I overlooked in my plans, and what I got right. This has given me incredible insight and the best possible contacts and mentors if I decide to reignite and carry that old dream. I would do it in a heartbeat if I found a place and a partner.

But alone?

Dead, bleached out, half-eaten crab on a log in the river. Not a metaphor for my life.

I have often felt my aloneness on this trip, but it’s usually been a powerful feeling, like during my Navarino trek when, looking around me and realizing that I was the only human in all that vista, I was filled with such joy I felt like I could fly. Now, for the first time since leaving on this trip, I feel lonely. Deeply, painfully alone. The freedom and lack of ties and responsibilities and solitude that I have so enjoyed on this trip suddenly feel heavy. I feel that old emptiness.

I am also nervous, preoccupied and weighed down by not knowing what’s next. I was enjoying this trip by living and loving every moment in the moment, but in a few months I return home, and then what? I have learned and re-learned a lot of things about myself on this trip, but am no closer to choosing a path. I had a north star by which to orient myself once, for that brief blissful period of knowing where my life was going, but it blinked out. I feel adrift.

I am adrift.

Alone and adrift in a big, dark —albeit beautiful— ocean. 

Sunrise over the Río Punta

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

I ran away to Chile and got a temp job at an Ecolodge

After I said goodbye to my family when they went home after Christmas, I had a month and a half to kill before I needed to be back in Ushuaia for…something really awesome (more about that in a future episode). What to do? As nice a home base as Bariloche had been, I was anxious to move on, and besides, there were no affordable beds left anywhere in the city beyond the few days I had booked back at the Green House Hostel. So where to go? The two remaining things on my South America bucket list were 1. Go to the Atacama Desert, see the endoliths and 2. Work for a while at some sort of sustainable/natural farm or tourist outfit.

Spotted on my bus ride out of Bariloche. WHAT IS THAT?? Borg cube crashed into an otherwise nice-looking volcano? Cerro Pantoja at the Argentinian/Chilean border.

#1 – The Atacama – was to satisfy Science Carie, the Atacama (driest hot desert on Earth—some weather stations have never recorded rain—ever!) has been the top of her World bucket list (and #3 on the Universe bucket list after Mars and the moon) ever since I read about the photosynthetic microorganisms that live inside rocks there—some seriously badass bugs.

#2 – Spend time working at a Green Nature Organic Hippie Rainbow Farm Lodge – was to satisfy Treehugger Carie who had dreamed of building an Eco Camp somewhere lovely and mountainous and running a sort of sustainable building and alternative energy demonstration center and laboratory / natural science and green engineering camp for kids. More on that in the post that follows this.

Stuff like this was pulling me back to Chile
Being indecisive by nature, I sent out emails to people involved in Atacama research asking when they were going and if there was any chance of me tagging along. At the same time, I researched Green Nature Organic Hippie Rainbow Farm Lodges in Chile and Argentina advertising a need for help, bookmarked a few that looked interesting (i.e., in a pretty location with people who worked at something more interesting than smoking pot all day and who would feed me), and sent out a few emails, including one to one particular Ecocamp in a spot in Chile I had wanted to visit at some point anyway.

I didn’t hear from anyone for a few days, so I tried to book a hostel room in nearby, but less citified, El Bolson. Still no beds available. Fine, screw you Argentina, so I found a place on the other side of the border in Puerto Varas.

Church in Puerto Varas

And then I got sick. Deathly, wheezy, coughing in a scary rattly way, fever and chills, shit-I-think-I’m-dying-of-pneumonia sick. It had started with a phlegmy cough on New Year’s Eve and wasn’t helped by hiking up a mountain for hours through the rain and freezing cold, then partying until the wee hours of morning, then hiking for hours through the rain and freezing cold back down a mountain. I woke up in the hostel on January 2nd unable to talk and with a horrible-sounding cough, quickly developed a fever, and it was all downhill from there. But that didn’t change the no-beds-in-Argentina situation so I loaded my deathy, wheezy, coughing in a scary rattly way, fever and chills, shit-I-think-I’m-dying-of-pneumonia self onto a bus and wheezed and coughed (trying to be as good as possible about coughing into tissues and wiping my hands down with sanitizer ever few minutes to protect my innocent fellow passengers) my way into Chile. It was another 6 hour trip, which would once have seemed long, but after my 36-hour bus ride to Ushuaia seemed short and I entertained myself by, wheezing and coughing, staring out the window at the stunning views of volcanoes, and wheezing and coughing some more.

Mountains from the bus. That beige triangle is a giant mound of ash on the side of the road from a recent volcanic eruption.
More ash.

I probably should have flagged down a taxi, but being now thoroughly used to being a cheap-ass backpacker the thought never crossed my mind after I arrived in Puerto Varas and then had a few miles to hike with all of my stuff to my hostel. Lots of wheezing, coughing, breath-catching stops, and I arrived dripping sweat and completely exhausted. The upside was that I looked so miserable (and potentially dangerous to others) that a single room was found for me in the hostel attic. It was the cutest room ever, and I quickly set to work napping.

Inside the Cutest Room Ever at the Hostel Margouya in Puerto Varas
Cutest Room Ever would not have been complete without a wood etching of Che Guevara

It was another miserable, feverish night, but I was waiting for a response from my travel insurance company about coverage before I checked myself into the hospital (which would have meant the emergency room, it being a Sunday, and I’m always reluctant to call anything short of profuse blood gushing an emergency), and never got that response so never went and checked myself in. Instead I laid in bed and watched movies that my friends had generously sent to me when I went begging for brainless entertainment on Facebook (I don’t know about you, but when I’m sick I feel like my skull is full of mucus, and my brain stops working) and ate from-scratch chicken soup I made from some chicken parts and veggies I bought at a market a block from the hostel.

That did the trick, and after a few days of that (including another hostel move when I got booted out of the original one), I was feeling better enough to move on.

Bacon Avocado? 
Inside my second quarantine room at another hostel in Puerto Varas

And right about then, I got a response from Amory, the female half of the team at the Chilean Ecocamp I had hoped to work at saying that I could come and see the place and talk about what I might be able to do there. And two days later, I was back on a bus, this time to the legendary Island of Chiloé.

It was a miserable bus ride, and I was two kinds of sick, still plugged up from my dying-of-pneumonia-turned-bad-cold, and also brutally hungover. Yeah, I’m an idiot. It started when I decided to celebrate my last night in Puerto Varas and my feeling significantly better by, rather than eating chicken soup for the 5th night in a row (my kidneys were starting to complain about the sodium strain), going out to the restaurant next door and treating myself to some of the area’s legendary seafood. On my way out, one of the other hostel dwellers told me that I could get $1000 peso beer or wine there with a special hostel card, and although I was at first hesitant to drink anything while still somewhat under the weather, I figured a beer would be good. So I sat down, at the bar because there was no table room (my first mistake), ordered my beer and a ceviche, and started chatting up the locals around me.

Puerto Varas has a large lake and a huge volcano. Making it officially awesome.

There were some great stories and conversations and when one guy insisted that he buy me a wine I didn’t refuse and then another insisted that I try the bar’s pisco sour because they are reallyreallygood, and then the bartender got involved and started having me try things, and…next thing I knew I was god-knows-how-many wines and piscos and whiskeys and and and down and in another bar scrawling my name in magic marker on the arm of a stupidly cute guy from Texas while being gently pushed out by the bar owner because it was 3:30 am and he wanted to go home.

I’m starting to develop a habit of going out for an innocent beer only to stay up all night drinking with gregarious locals. I also only seem to do this when already sick (although, admittedly, my sample size is n=2 at this point). The gregarious locals part is a blast, but the drinking while sick part needs to stop.

My downfall: I took this sign too seriously.

Despite my questionable mental state, I made it back to the hostel without incident (which was conveniently right across the street from the bar, so literally within rolling distance), but was in pretty bad shape the next morning. And I showed up at my stunningly beautiful, peaceful, healthy site of potential temporarily employment—on one of the three buses per week that head out the long dirt road to Chepu from the town of Ancud on Chiloé Island—exhausted, grumpy, still somewhat inebriated, head throbbing, stomach uneasy, having horrible menstrual cramps, wheezy, sniffly, disheveled, and reeking of alcohol. Classy.

And when Fernando, the male half of the Ecolodge team, came out to meet me as I walked down his driveway and said, “Sorry, you can’t stay here, we have no water,” I momentarily considered puking  right there to express how I felt about that news. I didn’t, instead managing to get out a semi-coherent explanation out about how his wife had said I could come, etc. Given the shape I was in, I’m surprised he didn’t throw me out. But he let me stay—for two nights until I could catch the next bus back from whence I came.

Home sweet home in the Ecolodge Dormi
Laundryline in the Dormi

So I checked into the little “dormi” (essentially a non-mountain refugio room) which consisted of a bare room with two sets of bunk beds with naked mattresses), pulled out my sleeping bag, crawled inside it, and slept for a few hours. I woke up feeling significantly, if not quite 100%, better. Then, after dinner with two lovely couples from England and Germany, I went back to sleep. In the morning I was still sick with a cold and still suffering from cramps, but otherwise better. I went for a walk to the dunes at the beach a few miles away, enjoying the quiet, pastoral landscape, the river views, and the birds, and when I came back decided to talk to the owners again about working with them for a while. It was a nice, quiet place, and I needed a nice, quiet place to relax and finally get some writing work done.

View of Chepu Adventures ecolodge from the Río Punta

And guess what? They let me stay!

Two weeks later, I’ve done a little bit of everything:

  • Woken up at 4am to prepare the lodge and get guests suited up and sent off on kayaks for the Ecolodge’s Kayak at Dawn activity, then pulled them back out when they were done
  • Manned the safety radio from 4:45 – 8:30 am
  • Made breakfasts
  • Washed dishes
  • Cleaned bathrooms
  • Ripped the floor out of a rotting bathroom, re-framed it, and rebuilt it
  • Redid their website
  • Made dinner
  • Stripped beds
  • Entertained guests from Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Norway, England, Canada, and the U.S.
  • Folded laundry
  • Done translations
  • Given kayak safety orientations
  • Served coffee

Guests enjoying the sunrise during Kayak at Dawn
Arranging fruit plates for guests' breakfast
Re-building a rotten bathroom floor. Step 1: Rip up cracked tiles. Step 2: rip up moldy, rotten pressboard floor; Step 3: build a new frame to support a stronger floor. Step 3: install new frame. Step 4: put down new floor on top and secure to new frame. Step 5: clean. Step 6: prettify (in progress).

Current and upcoming projects include

  • Making a promotional video featuring their sustainability efforts
  • Programming their beer fridge to keep track of guests’ beverage consumption
  • Installing solar panels on the lodge roof

I’ve also had a lot of fun and some pretty incredible experiences

  • Watching the sun rise over the Río Punta and the Sunken Forest
  • Saw a pudu (world’s smallest deer) drinking from the river while kayaking
  • Watched a Kingfisher fish while out on a run
  • Swam with a river otter, the huilin (an endangered species), when it came up to me while I was swimming and chatted with me for 10 minutes
Sunrise over the Río Punta
Kayaks at Chepu Adventures
Bird! Diana? Helpwhatisit!
Sand dunes at the Chepu beach

It’s been great, a lot of fun, interesting, and peaceful. It’s lovely here.

So glad it worked out.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Feliz año nuevo chicos!

Happy New Year everybody!

I rang it in on the flanks of Cerro Tronador (Spanish for "Thunderer", and it looks as badass as its name...sadly the clouds didn't part for me to take photos of it this time) in a hike-in mountain hut full of fun people where the booze flowed and the music played until the wee hours of morning.

Rather than describe in words, here is the story in photos. And some words, but mostly photos. We like photos, right?

Part I: The miserable, miserable (but beautiful) hike

Anneke and I hiked four hours in the driving rain up the side of Cerro Tronador, climbing up through dripping forest with occasional cloud breaks that afforded us some jaw-drapping views. Within the first half hour, we were soaked to the bone, our water-resistant ski gear not up to the deluge. 

It got colder and colder as we hiked, but we were determined. We had a party to go to. Photo: Anneke on the trail as water pours down the volcanic rock.
We did have some pretty sweet views through occasional breaks in the sky (the breaks were never above us, sadly).
Castaño Overa Glacier on Tronador as viewed from the trail.

Anneke slogging though slush as we approached (finally!!) the refugio, rainbow in the background signalling better times ahead.

The refugio! Wait, no, false alarm. A building, but not the refugio.

The refugio! We decided midway up to stay inside, not in tents, because we were so cold and it was raining so hard and staying inside a warm, dry refugio after all that seemed (and was) infinitely nicer.
(Photo taken the next morning as the drunken revelers departed)

Part II: Safe and warm inside Refugio Otto Meiling

Due to our late start, we were the last ones to arrive at the refugio. We were greeted by a hut full of friendly folks who gave us a warm round of applause when we walked in, dripping and shivering. Drinks were quickly poured.

First order of business (after changing into dry clothes): open the wine Anneke hauled up.

Next order of business: cook dinner.

Table neighbor enjoying a book and some mate (in case you doubted we were in Argentina)
One of many cool mosaic lamps decorating the refugio

Part III: We came to party

We killed the five hours between our arrival and midnight by...drinking. Everything. It was new year's eve, after all...

Anneke gleefully pops the cork off of the semi-expensive (expensive is always a relative term when it comes to grape-derived beverages in this part of the world, God Bless the South!) champagne I hauled up the mountain.

¡Diez! Nueve! Ocho! Siete! Seis! Cinco! Cuatro! Tres! Dos! Uno!  ¡¡Feliz año!!

And then the party started for real. First song of the night: Final Countdown. Then: Carrie. Why? Because the refugieros love me (nobody forgot my name that night).

We danced in our flip flops until 4am. You'd think we hadn't just hiked up a volcano. It was an awesome night. (some of the dancing shots by Anneke)

Part IV: January 1, 2014!

Revelers sleeping off the hangovers the next morning. Incredibly, I did not have one. I may have drank like a fish, but I also drank a lot of water and danced all of it off. My sleeping bag is the red one at the bottom, next to the snugglers. Anneke managed to get a photo of me sleep-drooling in my sleeping bag, but I'm saving myself the embarassment here.

Breakfast in the refugio, watching the snow fall and working up the courage to leave.

Anneke was the first brave soul to leave the refugio in the morning.
But it was fine,and fun. The snow was dry and perfect. Me, backpack on, making a total fail of a snowangel. Photo by Anneke.

The snow was, in fact, so perfect that we had to stop and make a little snowman (Australian Anneke's first!!). Harder than we thought it would be, the snow was too dry to use my normal roll-the-ball expert snowman-building technique. Photo by Anneke.

We hiked down as a big group, I used all my Spanish words. Photo by Anneke.

In good spirits despite the rain and hangovers.

Happy new year!!

Epilogue: Some reflections

This new year marked quite a milestone in the life of this chica: the first new year in quite some time where instead of thinking, "good riddance old year, pleasegod let this new one be better," I rang in 2014 in the coolest possible way, all while thinking, "hotdamn, 2013 rocked!! here's to another one like it!"

2010 was the year I struggled mightily with a hopeless experiment, came down with a bad case of pneumonia, and ended a six-year relationship after years of friendship and fighting.

2011 started off hopefully with an exciting new romance and a new direction in my work, but crashed and burned hard with three consecutive cancer scares, surgeries, and the beginning of my battle with major depression.

2012 was an exhausting roller coaster in which I got engaged, got more bad cancer news, got left by my fiancé and, my heart badly and bitterly broken, I sank into the deepest emotional hole I've ever visited, ending up in a hospital after depression had led me to so give up on life that I stopped eating and drinking; it slowly got better from there as my PhD thesis project started to come together and I deepened relationships with family and old and new friends, but it continued to be an emotional battle.

2013 got off to a rough start with another broken heart, but quickly got AWESOME as I fought off the remnants of the mental and physical health problems I had suffered under the previous year, spent a lot of time working on my favorite desert island in the Pacific, wrapped up my PhD research and wrote my thesis, and then, in an incredible burst of everything going right, got a call from my doctor saying "all clear!" from the latest round of biopsies the night before I successfully defended my PhD dissertation in front of a room stuffed with dear friends and my family. August 16th, 2013, the day I became Dr. Frantz, was the best day of my life. And it kept getting better from there as I drove up the Pacific Coast from L.A. to my parents' house in Oregon, put the finishing touches on my dissertation, then flew to Santiago on a $5 air miles ticket to begin this life-changing and grand adventure.

So, to any of my friends out there who suffered through a rough 2013, I lift my glass to you and hope that 2014 is the year that Everything Gets Better. I know that can ring empty when you are sitting in an emotional well in the emotional dark. To you, amigos, I hope you reach out, I'm only an email away and you have my empathy and love. As Allie over at Hyperbole and a Half so beautifully put it, them's some dead fish, and it sucks. Hang in there.

Proof that life gets better!

And to those of you who had a baller 2013, WOOO!! Keep on rocking, rockstars!

To everyone: wishing you joy, random acts of kindness that make you smile, rain in the desert (but get the hell out before the flash flood, k?), and sunny powder days.

With love,