Little Fatty and a Homemade Grill

A perfect little Colombian outing, I took a break from writing to meander down into town for some lunch, no plan, just looking for something simple to take care of my late afternoon hunger. I stop at a restaurant on the side of a dirt road that was offering, of course, a menu casero o menu del dia. This is so typical in Colombia and many countries in South America…you can order from the menu or you can just have “The menu”, which is a basic fixed price meal that often includes a sugary drink, a first course of soup (or perhaps ceviche if you’re in Peru), and a main course of your choice of meat, chicken, or fish accompanied by a side of rice, papas fritas, and maybe a few forkfuls of salad: iceberg lettuce, a tomato slice, maybe onion or carrots. A simple tradition and full stomach for about $4-5.

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So I’m sitting there at a wooden table in front, shoeing some flies away, sweating in the intense sun. Not far away there’s a local man with his t-shirt rolled up and resting on his belly like a shelf, airing out in the sweltering heat, as is so common and yet so unattractive. It’s not quite evening, but he’s already sipping on aguardiente, the cheapest way to get drunk here. It is tastes like anis, is so potent that it almost seems to vaporize in your mouth before you swallow and is often shared around in tiny plastic shot glasses that resemble the cups used for cough syrup.

A rather large woman sits at a table nearby using her teeth to tear chicken from a bone that she’s picked out of her soup. She comments to my friend after trying 3 or 4 times to get his attention…

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Write Till You’re Wrong

When I followed him up the stairs and onto the terrace, I knew I had I found the perfect Caribbean writer’s haven before he even opened the door. It was up a hill with a balcony overlooking a tiny bay with mountains that held the blue sea in a sweet little embrace. It was dry season, so the hills were a rusty, brambly tangle of bare branches and tall cacti…not the tropical green I was expecting. From my vantage point, the tree tops hid the shabby town below and hosted big iguanas that would sometimes climb to the top branches. The place was small, open air with a beautiful view, and it was my retreat. It was so wonderfully situated that the sun set over the sea even when I imagined we were facing east. Magic! This is where I would write my book, in Taganga, Colombia.

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Holy Mangos!

I had the brilliant idea of waiting until Good Friday to do the pilgrimage up to the little church on top of Montserrate, the backdrop mountain of Bogotá. And it was a brilliant idea if you like to participate in what the entire city is doing at once. It was holy week and people were eager to be holy. If they weren’t there, they were spilling out of the churches into the plazas or visiting the salt cathedral, which is 180m underneath the ground. I still feel holy from having been in Bogotá for holy week. I even scheduled my bus just on time to catch a procession going past my hostel with drums and incense, men and children in dark purple, silk robes, carrying huge statues of the stations of the cross. I watched them walk past by candlelight, saying prayers, and made it to the station just on time for a trip to the coast.

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I was headed for Palomino, a beach town on the Caribbean Sea near Venezuela that was written up in the book as a chilled out, long, dreamy stretch of beach with a strong current that backs up to the jungle. The current actually ended up being just the right strength for me to swim against, perfect for a daily workout if I didn’t mind the occasional salty wave in the face. “Town” was one street with casual, local restaurants, fruit shacks, and pool halls lining each side and a sandy road that leads you to the beach in fifteen minutes.

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Passion for Passion Fruit

When I left Argentina, I had a gut feeling that I would be back soon. I still had quite a bit of pesos that would be useless to me once I left and I hung onto them anyway specifically because of this feeling. I spent the night at the Lima airport leaving a sign leaning up against me saying something to the effect of, “My flight leaves at 8:00am. If you see me still asleep here at 7:00am, please wake me up. Many thanks.” When the flight landed in Bogotá people cheered and they turned on some loud bumping salsa music to escort us off the plane. I traded my neck cramps for a smile.

My plan was to stay in Bogotá for a week and then head straight to the coast to find a writing haven, lest I be tempted to start exploring the entire country. Bogotá took me by surprise. It was chilly and overcast, modern and hip…none of which I expected although I’m not sure I knew what to expect.

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The first thing to catch my attention and my heart (via my taste buds) was all of the fresh fruit carts everywhere. Coconut (fresh or candied), mango (2 types), watermelon, pineapple, plums, mora, guanabana, guayaba, papaya, avocado, the tart passion fruit and its sweet sister granadilla, those tiny sweet bananas, cantelope, “tomato tree” fruit as directly translated…not coincidentally, this would eventually become my weekly shopping list. It is one of the best and cruelest parts about traveling, to experience something so completely amazing and eventually have to leave it behind when you move on. And so I dove fully into the “completely amazing” part of this tropical phenomenon and had fresh fruit juice and fresh fruit several times a day. I would love to fly my sister to meet me in Colombia and we would just sit on a curb in front of bright and wild graffiti putting the ‘passion’ in passion fruit, eating it until our tongues are puckered as puckered can be and can’t handle a single bite more. Tart, crunchy, tropical vacation in edible form, and I am biased towards its name…passion fruit (maracuya) is a truly wonderful fruit.

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I am happy to report that even the Colombians seem to draw the line at frying their fruit, because I promise you they seem to fry just about everything else. They have restaurants where you get plastic gloves given to you at the table to help manage the grease.

At least they just own it… “We fry things, take your gloves, buen provecho.”

Corn empanadas…fried, arepas: basically corn dough patty filled with eggs, sausage, meat and such…fried, papa rellenos: mashed potato balls filled with meat and egg…fried. Deep fried and exactly what you want out of street food, yum. Much of our time in Bogotá was spent wandering and eating, trying to catch the sunlight at that magical, golden hour when the colorful buildings of La Candelaria district would glow.

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We bought a box of wine (I wish I could tell you it was the last time we did that; “Toto, we’re not in Argentina anymore” – Dorothy) and leaned up against a wall of a small plaza to people watch. Hipsters came through with their skateboards, students gathered around the platform where a storyteller was engaging the crowds, and in front of us sat a couple of guys with guitars. As the sun set, the police came to shoe everyone out and we naturally followed the stragglers who were following the guitars. We ended up in another little plaza, sitting in a circle on the grass, grinning at the jam session we were now a part of. More and more people showed up and they started singing. A couple of bikers joined in, using their helmets as drums. And then two guys who could just as easily have been crashing a wedding, pedaled up on bikes wearing suits, with a saxophone and melodica (thank you Wikipedia) in tow. At this point I thought to myself, if I do not join in I will forever believe this is just a dream. I found a pouch in my purse I use for make up and loaded it with keys and coins and jingled my heart out.

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Since I arrived in Colombia, I had had nightmares about being robbed and my body had been a mess, perhaps because of the fried food, but I feared something much worse…I had made a mistake in leaving Argentina. I realized that I had been like a young lover comparing this new love to an old one, Colombia vs. Argentina. This moment naturally put me in touch with part of my process for going through a change…create something. It was exactly the kind of experience that I needed to let the melody carry away my fears and put me in the present moment with that warm and fuzzy feeling of a special, serendipitous adventure.

Solo Luz, Solo Amor in this Mountain Community

I felt like I could just as sensibly be communicating by carrier pigeon as I told the guy at the bus terminal shop that I was looking for Emilio’s community and asked if he could kindly tell me how to get there. That was about the sum total of information that I had…that I needed to go see this man in the mountains and I should just ask for him at the bus station and go from there.

“Ah, si, si, la communidad del Milo. Bueno…” and he proceeded to tell me how to walk a few miles down the street and cut through some brush to the dirt road that would lead me there. It would be the first time I was showing up at a stranger’s house, unannounced, expecting to stay for 4 days; I suppose the walking would’ve brought welcomed time to think through my introduction. I opted for a taxi instead, albeit out of character for me, I felt nervous enough about the scenario ahead and didn’t want to start off by getting lost.

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Fruits of the Harvest

The first thing I do when I am getting ready to visit a new country is to research what festivals they have. There are so many festivals that I’d like to go to worldwide, and I’m sure there are many more that I just don’t even know about yet. It was quickly obvious that the cream of the crop festival in Argentina is Vendimia, the harvest festival in Mendoza. As is often my luck with timing, I had just missed it by a month last year when I first arrived in Mendoza. Now that I was living here I was determined to soak in everything ‘harvest’ this year, most definitely including the festival itself.

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Road Trip!

It was hard to say goodbye to my Dad and admit that this trip we had been planning for so long was over. We were down to just us two girls, my Mom and I and our little “shopping” trip. My Mom is a weaver and I knew it was essential to take her to the north of Argentina where the artesanias abound. Llamas, guanaco, and vincuña wander the landscapes and their wool is naturally dyed and fills the shops and markets.

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In Awe of Iguazu

With my aunts and my uncle reluctantly returning to the bitter polar vortex going on in Chicago, it was now just me and my parents. And we did the opposite. We headed to the jungle in the very north eastern tip of Argentina to see Iguazu Falls. I was so excited to show them my Argentina, and it was especially cool to start out with a place that was new for all of us. Iguazu Falls are at the tri-border of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, although most of the falls are in Argentina. There are supposedly 275 drops (not sure how that is determined) with the height reaching up to 269 feet.

There are all sorts of facts comparing Iguazu to other famous waterfalls, but no impressive facts can substitute for a day directly in the company and awe of these spectacular falls. It felt so good to be back in the jungle, hearing too many sounds of birds and insects to count, smelling the sweet fresh air, surrounded by so much life and green that you almost feel you are glowing green yourself. The jungle consumes you like that. IMG_0535

Iguazu is one of those sites where you have to just accept the crowds and understand that they are there in such abundance because the site is just that impressive. So we came up with our game plan for following the trails and walkways to soak in the falls from every angle. We headed on the higher trail, which took us to a platform directly over one end of the falls. From this angle we could see the water flowing gently, but swiftly to the cliffs edge and then powerfully plunging over where it appeared the earth had just stopped. Some flowed more gently and then there was one section of the falls that was the beast. Water did not flow or pour over the cliffs there, but seemed to simultaneously erupt and consume everything in its path. There was the massive force of water, but looking closely it seemed that there were fireworks of water, a million waterfalls within one giant one. Hawks swooped overhead and I couldn’t help but think what a fortunate, fantastical location these birds and trees were born into.

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We took a small boat out onto an island where we could hike to more of a landscape view of the waterfalls. There were brave lizards along the path and crossing it, and the raccoon-cat looking hybrid coatis that were all over the place, tails up in the air, noses stuck in the ground hunting for food. I think we may have thought they were cute had we not already seen signs with gory gaping wounds from coati attacks, should you try to feed them. Every now and then a butterfly would flutter along side us, sometimes occasionally landing or posing for a picture. From this view, you could feel the mist grace our faces.

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This was just a tease for what we’d do next. We got on another boat that took us to different sections of the falls, including into a waterfall itself. That was so intense. Like what a good water ride at a theme park tries to do when it imitates nature, but could never quite match. The water just pounded us and everyone was cheering and giggling and whooping so loud in a screaming match with the roar of water. We also went to the bottom of the falls that were spread out like a great theatre curtain waiting for the big show. Although I can’t imagine a more spectacular show; this was my favorite part…camera tucked away for a bit, looking up from the very bottom of the biggest, broadest waterfalls that I’ve ever seen, feeling like paradise is a secret, magical place for nature to show off in all its glory and I am physically in it.

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Foodie Argentina

With Spanish checked off the list on Night 1, I wanted to show my aunts and uncle what I love about Argentina, the chilled out lifestyle with good food and wine. We had a day of wandering the super hip, bohemian, muraled port city of Valparaiso in Chile, and then headed to Mendoza, the perfect city to wine and dine. Wine, dine, pool, repeat. No problemo.

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We spent a day in Valle de Uco, the darling of Mendocino wine country. Due to its more remote location at the base of the mountains, there’s the extra punch of flavor and complexity that you get from the grapes who bear the higher altitude. We started out at Salentein, a larger vineyard with a dramatic aesthetic to its wine cellar (pictured below). I had been writing for The Vines of Mendoza blog, and wanted to share this experience with them. And so we moved on to a long, lazy lunch at Siete Fuegos, the new Francis Mallmann restaurant at The Vines. I’ll let the pictures do the talking. It was a special and ‘elevated’ experience, pun intended.

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Our paths were wonderfully crossing for one night with my dear friend Trinity from California and her husband Jeff and quite possibly the happiest baby ever, their 1 year old Ivory. I planned ahead for our laughter/volume level and reserved us the table in the wine cellar room at one of my favorite restaurants. We had the room to ourselves and could conveniently get up to choose another bottle of wine from the racks of the “wine list” at our leisure. Which we did. Frequently. The party continued back at our hotel where we gathered to play guitar, sing, and drink more wine. Who knew we were so naturally Argentine!

When we didn’t have anyone joining us for dinner, we made friends with the chef himself. After a day wandering around the parks, plazas, and cafes of Mendoza we went to Siete Cocinas, a restaurant in town that immediately feels like home when someone answers the door and guides you to whichever room your table is in. We did a tasting menu of the 7 regions of Argentina, highlighting that you can have exquisite food from each region without having beef. For example, even the pallet cleanser was divine…a frutos de bosque sorbet that tasted like each of my taste buds was a culinary magnifying glass for the essence of the berry.

Perhaps this would’ve been another night to have our own private room though. A massive storm moved in, overflowing the deep gutters that resembled moats throughout Mendoza in a matter of minutes. Luckily we had already befriended Chef Pablo, who I can only assume found us highly entertaining, as he kept us happy with spontaneously mixed cocktails and dessert wine on the house. Games were played, we watched cars fly by sending walls of water up, giggled like kids and extended invitations for the Chef to visit us in the States. We’ve been feeling so inspired by the generosity and friendliness we were experiencing everywhere.

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In the spirit of continuing our shared experiences, we came back from a day in the mountains to meet another dear friend of mine, Carmen la artista, who I met as she was painting beautiful murals and I was working on my writing. We had a happy hour picnic in the hotel with the food and wine we had forgotten to take into the mountains with us. From there we were headed out to dinner and ran into John, a friend who we had met on the plane from Santiago and then continued to run into at the winery and again in our hotel. So this motley crew headed to dinner together. John is opening a winery here in Mendoza, and already oversees two wineries in Oregon and Napa, so we got a free lesson in wine tasting and our very own sommelier at the table. We toasted to all of us living our passions and serendipitous friendships.

From here we moved on to Buenos Aires and waited for my parents to arrive. Eager to invite them immediately into this culinary ride we were on, we had dinner plans for a closed door restaurant that night, Colectivo Felix. My friend Nick had lived in Buenos Aires with the chef of this unique restaurant that is run out of someone’s home. We were invited into the garden to have a fresh herbal twist on the caipirinha cocktail and meet the other guests. We then moved into the small courtyard for the rest of the meal, which had candlelit tables and white lights sparkling, colorful flags flying above. Vegetables and herbs grown right there from the garden we had just come from highlighted the unique flavor twists and seafood. It was so fresh and delicious. All of this eating was wonderful, but it was time to shake a tail feather.

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We spent the day wandering through the San Telmo market, one of my favorite ways to spend a day…taking in all of the art and craftsmanship, stopping at cafes, enjoying the buskers. Of course we had to head to la Boca too, not only to see the colorful houses, but also to take in some tango, as we’d be trying it ourselves later that night. I convinced my family to head to La Catedral for a tango lesson and as I took photos of them being led through the warm-up exercises, arms in the air, hips moving side to side, I was so happy and proud of how fully they embraced the entire culture. And it turns out we’ve got some talent! Well, maybe I shouldn’t include myself in that, but by the end of the night, they could genuinely say that they can tango. Considering the first exercise involved learning how to walk, I was so impressed to see them glide across the floor, trying out different moves in time to the mysterious and dramatic tango music.

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Solita en Bariloche

So with a few weeks to myself in Bariloche, I decide how dreamy it would be to build an A-Frame house with a writing tower, 360 degree windows, on the lake, cozy fireplace with an alpaca rug on the wood floors. I sketch it and imagine myself inspired, writing there, taking breaks to kayak or ski, depending on the season. Maybe after I write a best seller… 

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Until this dream can be realized I decide I can still head to a mountain hut to do some writing. I plan a 4 day trek, staying at two refugios (simple mountain huts where you can pay a fee for a mattress and use of the kitchen). The first day goes well, but reminds me that I’ve been away from mountains for a few months now. The hike is easy, but a steep walk up Cerro Lopez for a few hours with panoramic views across this massive, mountain-lined, deep blue lake. Parque Nahuel Huapi, one of my favorite places. I have time to read and write and talk to the couple who run the hut and their curious son. A simple life preparing meals, running up and down the trail with supplies, talking with the different guests who pass through, drinking lots of mate of course. There was a huge group of about 50 pre-teens that must’ve been about 10-12 years old. I was rather surprised to watch as they were served the highly caffeinated mate as well at about 9pm. Start em young I guess! I thought they’d keep me up all night, but can only guess that they were packed so tightly into their room that they couldn’t possibly even talk. This isn’t that big of a hut. 

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I knew the next day would be challenging. Within minutes of starting the trail, I was using all fours trying to keep my balance with my heavy pack on my back, my short legs fully extended in a reach to hoist myself up and over boulders, a trail hardly visible. So hardly visible in fact, that I lose the trail. I know from other hiking that I have done here before that sometimes the “trail” is across, up, or down a scree field and not entirely clear, so I follow what I think is the trail. I hike across a stretch of loose rocks, across snow, up to a ridge. At this point, I see a gorgeous, still, turquoise lake that looks as if it has been painted on the earth. Gorgeous and yet there isn’t supposed to be a lake there. I’ve gone the wrong way. I’m trying to get my bearings with the map, thinking to myself, “Where am I supposed to go?” Just then, one lone condor comes up over the peak, flies passed me over to where I am supposed to be, loops back around to fly directly over my head and away into the distance. I think, hmm, that was interesting timing and strange. I study the map again and realize that it flew exactly where I needed to be. Great news! I also realize that I am now about 3 hours out of my way by the time I get back to where I should’ve gone. Bad News.

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It was still early in the day and the middle of the summer with a 10:00pm sunset, so I went for it. This was a crazy tough hike. I ended up with bruised hands from how much I was lowering myself down, pulling myself up, slipping here and there on everything from loose gravel to chunky scree fields to having to use ropes to rappel down large boulders. Remember doing the crab walk as a kid? When you’re on all fours, butt towards the ground? That is what it was like to get down these peaks, to stay balanced with a pack on. I enjoyed the challenge immensely, but to enjoy the nature I had to stop and take it in. Every step I took required complete focus on that step and nothing else. I spent much of the time mentally encouraging myself while also reprimanding myself for going alone. I know you are not supposed to, and while I did see other people along the way and knew I would be ok, I had no desire to become another movie plot line, having to cut my leg off and crawl out or something. (In the photo below I had come from the other side of the pass behind me and then across the valley up to where I am in the photo)

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After 10 hours of hiking crossing two passes, hiking through a pretty valley, across several ridges with views of Cerro Tronador in the distance, I made it to the next refugio on an elevated mountain laguna. Laguna Negra. I spent two nights and days reading and writing and dreaming about my future Patagonian A-Frame cabin.

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The rest of my time in Bariloche was overcast, crazy windy, and chilly. This actually ended up being a good thing in terms of hunkering down with my journal and toying around with the guitar that I’ve been wanting and finally, finally bought! I befriended a French/Swiss guy, Igor and we’d have lingering breakfasts enjoying the view out over the lake from our 10th floor hostel. A good friend of mine had just been guiding kayak trips in Antarctica and our paths were able to cross for a few days to do some day hikes and share meals with other travelers. So good for the soul. It was definitely the right choice to spend this time in Bariloche.