Patagonia the Sequel: The Adventure Continues

While I was visiting Casablanca, I was trying to figure out what to do next, and I came across a deal to Antarctica that I couldn’t pass up. On February 2 I will embark on a cruise to the white continent! But what to do until then? My new friend Paulina said she had always wanted to go to the marble caves located in the Aysen region of Chile in the heart of Chilean Patagonia. They were on my list of things to see in Chile as well, and I needed to head south anyway, so we made a plan to go see them. And by “made a plan” I mean we bought a ticket to fly to Balmaceda the next day and booked a room for one night in some lady’s house and nothing more. I have never travelled so spontaneously, but so far I have really been enjoying the adventure.

We arrived in Coyhaique and made it to Maria Elena’s house. I took it as a good sign that her name was Maria Elena, just like my mining town in the north. Since she immediately offered tea upon arrival, my streak of being well taken care of by Chilean Maria Elenas continues. Coyhaique is the regional capital, and is a good base for exploring the surroundings if, like me, your definition of adventure doesn’t include camping and trekking. There were a few companies in town offering day trips, and the town itself was worth walking around. We decided to stick around town and since we liked Maria Elena we asked if we could stay a few more nights. No problem!

We went on two day trips from Coyhaique, one to the marble caves of course and one to Queulat National Park. I had never heard about this park before, but it had a beautiful hanging glacier with a waterfall over a lake. We opted for the less strenuous hike (which was a path that looked like it passed through Hobbiton), took the boat ride on the lake, and watched as a few giant pieces of ice fell off the glacier. The marble caves were equally spectacular and well worth the trip down here. You have to cross a pretty tempestuous portion of Carrera Lake (the second largest lake in South America) to get there. The ride back was like a roller coaster, with the small boat jumping and tossing and turning in the waves. But that is the price you pay to see all the beautiful rock formations and colors in these caves.

In Coyhaique, we found a wonderful lookout point that offered beautiful views of the river below, passed by the Indian rock, and did a tasting at a brewery on the edge of town. Another nearby national park had us hiking all day, passing by many lagoons and peaceful forests. To cap off all this adventure, I got a little taste of something I had always wanted to do but had never tried: hitchhiking. Hitchhiking, is a fairly typical method of transport here where buses are infrequent and few connections exist up and down the Carretera Austral.

The park was only a few miles outside of town, so we did not hitchhike far, but boy did it feel strange. First of all, just standing by the side of the road waiting for a car to pass can take a while. It is so disheartening when you see a car and you hold out your thumb and they pass by without stopping or even looking at you. Do I look particularly dangerous or dirty??!! Some hitchhikers wait hours for a ride, which does not seem to me like the best way to spend the day. You really have to have time and be flexible in your schedule (and willing to wait…and wait) if you are going to try and travel the entire Carretera Austral “a dedo.” But many people do it.

Fortunately for us, after just a few attempts, Nelson stopped and gave us a ride back to Coyhaique! We immediately engorged ourselves on pizza and beer as a way to celebrate a job well done and the end of this leg of the adventure. Pauli returned to Santiago and I continued up the Carretera for a few days.

Casablanca: The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

After summer camp, I went to the home of my new friend Paulina’s house on a whim. Upon learning that I did not have any particular plan of what to do after summer camp, she immediately invited to come out to Casablanca to stay with her at her parents’ house for a few days (Chileans are the best, y’all). She lured me with promises of wine and beach, and after spending all week in bustling Santiago it was an easy sell.

So we went out to Casablanca, which I probably would have never made it to on my own because getting a bus to stop there on the way from Santiago is a disaster. You would think no one ever goes there, but by the end of our hunt for tickets we had formed a little pack of people looking to get off there. Apparently all the buses head straight to Valparaiso or Vina del Mar and don’t want to be bothered with stopping on the way (and they did not seem excited that I would be bringing a suitcase that would need to be unloaded either). But we found someone who would leave us on the side of the road and we finally made it after “un taco terrible” – taco, as I have learned, is the Chilean term for traffic jam. Much less appealing than my understanding of tacos.

I spent five days enjoying the small town of Casablanca. We went for some lovely walks in town and around the countryside, hung out drinking beer in the square, and went out for some lazing on the beach at Algarobbo.  I also got to hang out with her parents, and we would have lunch or tea together every day. Her parents seem totally fine with her bringing strangers home, and in fact probably prefer it. They just finished hosting a Japanese foreign exchange student into their home for a year, and have been known to welcome couchsurfers into their home as well, so they seem to enjoy the international flavor.

Fortunately for me, Casablanca is also home to vineyards and wineries. I am a lover of all things wine, and Chilean wine is known to be some of the best in the world. You can go to any supermarket or store here in Chile and get a good bottle of wine for less than $5. However, I would have to say that the Chilean winery experience leaves some to be desired. Although Virginia is far from being the world-famous wine producer that Chile is, I would say our wineries offer a better experience. I love going to wineries at home. You show up and get a tasting to sample everything (sometimes with a cheese or chocolate pairing), then buy a bottle and sit and sit and enjoy live music, play some cornhole, or otherwise enjoy the environment.

This is not the case in Chile. From the first moment their wineries are not particularly welcoming. You have to pass through a guard at a gate to enter. We went to three wineries near Casablanca, and they all had a guard. You want to do a tasting? Well, that isn’t really all that possible here. You have to make reservations to do a tasting, and it lasts like an hour and costs a small fortune to taste four wines. If you just show up, they do not seem that interested in helping you.

Kingston vineyards were not able to help us at all – they only offered us the option to buy wines by the glass. We tried to order one off their menu… and they didn’t have it. So we just left. Vinamar had a couple of “tastings” by which I mean you could order a set of three or four full glasses of wine, most of which were not produced by Vinamar. We got the only tasting set that included Vinamar wines, and it ended up being free since all the staff just left. At Casas del Bosque we were finally greeted by a welcoming staff that hosted us for a free tasting of a few wines in the shop and told us about their process. All three had spectacular grounds, though.

Even worse, I even tried to go to a winery in Santiago because I was intrigued that there were wineries you could access on the metro. I checked the website for the hours before I left, and they were supposed to be open and welcoming visitors. Well I went all the way out there to be turned away by the guards at the gate saying the winery was closed. When I asked why, the answer was because everyone left. Ok…

But enough whining about wine. The five days I spent in Casablanca were amazing, the scenery gorgeous, and the company couldn’t be better. I feel really lucky to have a new friend in Paulina, who I am traveling with in Patagonia for a few days after I spent a few days in Santiago. More on that in the next post!

casablanca grapes

“I Just Wanna Go Back – Back to English Summer Camp!”

I am sitting in Casablanca, Chile right now at the home of a new friend. Casablanca is a small town in one of Chile’s wine producing valleys, and it is the perfect place to sit and ponder what my next move should be. I literally have no plan for where I go next and it is causing me some angina, but I’m trying to pull an Elsa and let it go because it is also incredibly freeing and exciting to just see what comes my way.

But before figuring out what is next, I need to reflect on the week that was. Last week I volunteered at an English summer camp here in Santiago. The camps are also run by the English Opens Doors Program, which offers free summer and winter camps for students around Chile. The camps are staffed by a mix of Chilean facilitators (which is how I met my new friend, Paulina) and international native English-speaking volunteers. We had folks from the UK, New Zealand, Cameroon, Nigeria, India, and more working in the camps in Santiago.

My camp was Conchalí, and we were a team of seven and a small group of about 26 students. You could tell right away that it was a special group of students. They immediately took to each other on the first day, becoming fast friends with the other campers. This in and of itself was impressive, as I remember being in high school and being terrified of meeting new people (I still am!) But they quickly connected through their love of English, and singing and dancing a long to all the latest pop hits… and High School Musical.

During the week we had so much fun playing games, dancing, singing, telling stories, and working on group projects. The theme of the camps was movies, so the students worked on a couple of short films of their own during the week. I helped groups of students put together an adorable film about going to a magic school and a story about friendship being the key value to preventing bullying.

The main feature of the camps is the lipdub, where all the camps across Chile competed to put together a music video to the song 1999 by Charli XCX. The day was at times crazy, hectic, and frustrating but in the end we put together something really cute (even though we didn’t win). At the end, the campers all sang “I just wanna go back, back to English Summer Camp” to the beat of the song (which had the original lyric “I just wanna go back, back to 1999”).

On the last day of camp, the kids banded together and took over. We were a little nervous at first, but they ended up being better facilitators than we were! They decided what activities they were going to do, and also worked together to put together a nice surprise farewell message for us. At the end, we held a little graduation ceremony, complete with certificates, snacks, and farewell speeches. Even though I am exhausted, it was definitely a week that I will never forget.

It’s Like Coming Home

Just as a new year was dawning, I got myself on a flight back to Chile. And I was confronted immediately with this weird sensation. For me home has usually meant being with my biological family – and it has always meant Virginia. Home is a place that makes me happy and is where I feel comfortable. I am always sad to leave home and excited to return to it. So as you can imagine, I felt quite a conflict of emotion when I was both leaving home AND coming home at the same time.

Because regardless of the fact that I have not mastered the language and there are plenty of things about life here that baffle and frustrate me, Chile has become home as well. Part of that is because I feel like I have come to intimately know Chile. That relationship only grows as I learn more about Chile’s geography, history, current events, writers, musicians, food, dances… all the culture that makes Chile, well, Chile.

But of course, the largest part of feeling at home is the people. I spent the first few days of my return hanging out with friends in Quilpue, exploring Valparaiso and Vina del Mar. I got to stay in their family’s home and engorge myself on homecooked meals that were entirely too delicious (including finally FINALLY eating pastel de choclo). I spent four days hanging with the fam – and I mean the ENTIRE fam, because its parents and grandparents and kids and nieces and nephews and uncles and aunts all hanging out with each other. I feel so strange not knowing when… or if… I might see them again.

Es asi cuando dejas tu corazon por todos lados. I have travelled many places in my life, and I am fortunate that I have been able to spend solid chunks of time in a few places. Pieces of my heart are scattered around this world. My heart is rooted in Alexandria, but Florence will always have a big piece of it. I definitely left some behind in London. And now Chile has staked its claim. Home is where the heart is, after all. And it feels good to be back.

From Chile to Chilly: Home for the Holidays

Happy New Year everyone! When I set out on my journey last July, I was not sure if I would be coming home for Christmas and New Year’s. But with the magic of airline points, I managed to score round-trip flights to DC from Santiago for $50 – money well-spent to avoid the inconsolable homesickness that inevitably would have been Christmas Day alone in South America.

Being at home was certainly full of its own emotions as well, not the least of which was trying not to vomit as we began to watch our 20th sappy Hallmark movie channel Christmas movie. It is so wonderful seeing all my friends and family again, and I have always loved and will always love DC and Northern Virginia. Fortunately while I was here I was able to squeeze in some nice holiday traditions and go to some of my favorite places. I went to the holiday pop up bar Miracle on Seventh Street, which as become an annual tradition, hit up the local wineries with mom, and ate nachos at Murphy’s. But I about cried when I turned onto King Street in Alexandria and was hit with an overwhelming feeling of “you don’t live here anymore.”

The thought of coming back home is certainly appealing, and I was reminded of everything I take for granted when I am here. There is much about home that I missed while I was away, not the least of which is waffles, dishwashers, dryers, and being able to flush toilet paper. But Alexandria has been around for 250 years – it’ll be here when I decide to come back. The time at home afforded me plenty of opportunity to think about the year that was and prepare for the year ahead.

2018 was a big year for me. I lost my job, became homeless, and had to leave the country. Well, not quite. I am fortunate enough to be in a situation that allows me to live my dreams (and, in a fun fact that seems to surprise everyone, extremely capable of saving money and planning ahead to do so). I may not know exactly where I am headed, but I know I am not there yet. Although I may not have arrived at the finish line, the sense of accomplishment I feel in actually doing something I have thought about for seven years has already been such a great experience. Plus I am having fun and seeing so many new places and things. PLUS I might be able to pull off this whole learning-Spanish thing after all.

In 2019, I have very few firm plans – and I like it that way. The feeling of freedom and opportunity that I have right now is truly remarkable, and something that I have never really felt before. I am having so much fun coming up with ideas of what to do with my nomadic life. My general plan is that I want to spend the first half of the year in South America, traveling to new places and working on improving my Spanish. I would like to spend at least a month at home in the summer, and then the second half of the year should see me in Asia visiting friends in Malaysia and Korea (and finally crossing Southeast Asia off the bucket list).

But who knows?!? Everything could change. I look forward to seeing what it brings – for me and you. Happy New Year!