Entre Tongoy y Los Vilos

As in English, where there’s an expression, “in the middle of nowhere,” Chile has its version. A place of minimal interest, or where there is nothing going on, is often said to be “entre Tongoy y Los Vilos (between Tongoy and Los Vilos), two towns on the coast roughly north of Santiago and south of La Serena. I have friends that have camped in Los Vilos, and I have been to Tongoy, but what lies along the coast is mostly what people drive past, including Los Molles, a pretty beach town with a restaurant everyone raves about (El Pirata Suizo), and a little nature area (Puquén) that was blooming with pink chagualillofenvirs and fuchsia pato de guanaco, and loads of other flowers. High season is said to be mid October, though I’m sure it varies from year to year.

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Los Molles is technically not between Los Vilos and Tongoy, but part of the trip, and in some senses, is in the middle of nowhere, though it’s close to the allegedly amazing and mythic Empanadas Huentelaquén, which are, you know, fried cheese empanadas, so how much you will love them is related to how much you love cheese empanadas in general. Me? not so much. Also, ran into friend’s father-in-law there. Unexpected, but such is Chile.

Anyway, the whole reason I was up in this area was to go further inland to a town that is in the proverbial middle of nowhere, called Combarbalá. I first found out about Combarbalá in a store in Los Dominicos in Santiago, where they sell little stone boxes and decorative items out of a stone called combarbalita, a marble-like stone with patterns of lavender, pink, brown and cream. The stone is lovely and smooth when worked, and every now and then I get a town stuck in my head that I want to visit, and here I had a willing accomplice, and so we drove north.

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There is just so much emptiness, so much space. It’s amazing to me that humans could live in such vastly different environments, like in Pucón or Puerto Varas or Puerto Natales in the south, and where I was recently, or Santiago (where I usually am), all within one country.

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The town of Combarbalá is fairly small (urban population about 5500), and seems like a nice place to live, people reasonably friendly, lots of stone detail, including in the central plaza which also has free wifi. And a few stores selling mortars and pestles (unpurchased by me), and jewelry and trays and bowls and such. Also, a big yellow church.

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And the winner of the buildings-I-love competition for this trip, with an unfair advantage based in being painted colors I like, creative font on the sign, abbreviation, awesome combination of items (sweets and birthday party supplies), pretty door, multiple colors, zinc roof and diagonal shadow. There really was no contest, actually.

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While we (M and I) were shopping on one of the combarbalita stores, a flyer caught my eye. Observatory. To be fair, if I’d done any research at all, I would have known that it was there. See: the story about the Last Supper in Milan and how I failed to see it because I did not know it was there, the planning is not strong with this one. The sky in the north of Chile was not “perfect” on this date as it was close to the full moon, but we waited until it was good and dark (9 PM, and then) trundled out to the Cruz del Sur observatory and their 14-inch telescope. As soon as we got there, the guide told us that normally they do movie, telescope and then talk, but he wanted us to stop in and peep through the telescope first (and then again later), because Mars was just about to drop behind the horizon. We got to see Saturn (hello, rings!) at this time as well. It was only the two of us, so we got as much telescope time as we wanted

I had a fight with my tripod here, but a couple of night shots never hurt anyone, blur be semi-darned.

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We also saw two stars that rotate around a point, and that are orange and blue, the surface of the moon, and many constellations, including one that is meant to look like a teapot (hello, English influence!), and of course, the Southern Cross. I also found out that in Australia, the Big Dipper is called the Saucepan, pronounced sauce-pin.

The day after the observatory visit and after some punitively-priced coffee, because this is what happens when you want foreign comforts in mining towns re: pricing. We went into a small mine, the name of which is not depicted on the following sign. That mine is closer to the enclave of Los Rulos, though how anyone’s hair could stay curly in that dry windy heat, I have no idea. Certainly it must refer to something else. m, generally speaking you can’t just go into a small mine (though you can visit El Teniente and Chuquicamata, and I should write about this someday), but we know a guy who knows a guy. And guy number two (got that) explained to us that women were not traditionally allowed into mines, since mines are named with female names, and as such would get jealous of the presence of women. Oh sexism, we barely missed you! Also, on the pop etymology of why the word mina is used in Chile to mean a mine and also a woman, because they are “ricas” (where that means rich in minerals, or beautiful/delicious). Worry not, men are also called minos, and I am sure this does not fix anything, but it will impress your Chilean hosts if you know it.

Moving right along.

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Mines are dark and rocky, occasionally wet, and sometimes have large vehicles driving into them. You should get out of the way. We did.

 

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See, women’s name. We did not go into this mine.

 

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And this is what a living fence looks like when you live in a place where it’s pretty much cacti everywhere you go. In foreground and the ridges behind, all made of cactus.

So the answer to the question Combarbalá yes or no? I say yes. There are also some petroglyphs and an archaeological route nearby, as well as solar panels, many, many goats (and goat cheese) and great photogenicness. As usual, this trip makes me think of taking off and tooling around more rural, only semi-touristed (mostly by Chileans) Chile someday. There is so much more to this place than Santiago. And if I seem to have a preference for the south, well, I do. But little by little the north is creeping into my subconscious. Even if the arid air and the desert sun are trying to shrivel me into a human-sized raisin. Sunscreen not optional.

Anyone got another small town they want me to visit? Up in this area, if I’d had more time, I’d have checked out Monte Patria, where it turns out a friend’s grandmother is from. Because if you ask around enough, nearly everyone has an interesting, non-Santiago place their people are from. True story: I kind of want to visit them all. Especially the ones where they make pretty things. And yes I know, I have not included a photo of anything made of combarbalita. I will try to remedy this or you know, google.

Also, thanks to LM who pointed out that I had the expression worded the wrong way around!

 

 

In which, surprisingly, I am asked if I speak Mandarin Chinese (spoiler: no)

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As you may know, I grew up in New York. And my parents were adventurous eaters. I have fond memories of walking through neighborhoods far from home where my father would hold up different food items in a store and ask simple questions. “Soak first?” or “salty?” These were foods marked with signs in languages we didn’t read. Chinese for example. And this was our normal. Smells of spices dried a continent away, or loops of noodles dried into little nests. I have always loved going into neighborhoods that are not designed with me in mind, and learning just the tiniest bit about another culture. Food eaten, clothes worn, that the people from that country feel that their dish soap/toilet paper/ice cube trays are worth importing, despite the apparent (to me) availability of versions of these items in the new country.

Since leaving New York, I have never had the luxury of the concentration of different cultures in such a small space. When I lived in Portland there were few paltry pockets, and while in DC there were a few more, they were mostly in the suburbs, where I wasn’t. It seemed like for me, that just is New York, and isn’t any place else.

There’s a funny thing that happens to me with Santiago, which is that it makes me feel a strange nostalgia at times for my 80s Brooklyn. Something about the light, pollution, old fonts on signs, sometimes peeling paint and brick buildings, the occasional coca cola out of a glass bottle. It feels like someplace known.

I was home working the other day and (as I’ve been trying to do every day lately) went out for a a walk. I set out walking to the east, down towards Estación Central, an area full of shops and import stores and school supplies and crockery and stands and stores that smell like incense and that sell those multi-clothespin apparatuses designed to hang socks and undies off of on your clothesline, which I need, but seem to never find the perfect one of.

I wandered around a bit, and then decided I’d stop in at one of my new favorite import stores, called Orient Market. What’s special about this place is that they have some local farmer who grows all kinds of vegetables that I don’t really know what they are. A few times a week, at around 1 PM, these vegetables come in, and two hours later, they’re gone. I happened to get there at just the right time, and bought something I know as “Chinese Broccoli” but which surely has another name. I picked up some tofu as well (far from the cheapest place to buy it, but I was there, and seldom buy tofu anyway). I have bought these items from this store before, and although I remember the man who sells them to me, I’m sure he doesn’t remember me. The first time I was there, I asked him what the vegetable is called. This led to some back and forth confusion, but I never found out, because we didn’t really have any languages in common. So I thanked him, and kept walking. This time I didn’t ask, just walked out and started back towards home, happy with the smell of someone else’s spices and visions of packages of I-don’t-know-what in my head.

As I was getting closer to home, I thought (as I sometimes do), bubble tea. I should have some. There’s a bubble tea place (actually a little fast food place/restaurant) near my house. And then I thought, hmmm. Just how tight is the Taiwanese community? I turned plastic bag from Orient Market around so the name was visible, and went in to order “Te rojo con leche con tapioca,” as I do. The guy at the second place saw the bag and said, “El es mi paisano,” talking about the owner of the first store. This a) is true, and b) is not how you say that in Chilean Spanish. But this family, who own the bubble tea shop used to live in New York, where we do use the Italian word for “compatriota” on occasion. And we had a little laugh and smile. I pulled out the vegetable to show him what I’d bought, and he told me what it is called in Taiwan, which I first repeated (probably incorrectly), and then promptly forgot.

“You have to cook it in a hot pan, with ginger and garlic,” he told me and I nodded, and then said, “I actually used to eat it as a kid.” I’m from New York, I explained. “New York…” he said. The whole time we were having this conversation, he was on the phone with someone. “Did you know that they were also from my country?” he said, pointing to the bag. “Yep,” I said.

And then I asked, “do you also know the people who own Te León?” (another Taiwanese tea food and tea shop in Patronato, which I have failed to get to while it’s open, since I usually save my wanderings over there for weekends, and on Sundays many things are closed). He pointed to the phone, and said, “I’m on the phone with him right now.”

I could tell he was talking about me on the phone. “word word word New York word word” (Word is where I don’t know what he was saying). “Tell him I’m going to come by and see him soon, I want to visit his shop,” I said.

“word word word word Te León word word New York.”

And the man at the counter looked at me and said, “Do you speak Mandarin Chinese?”

I was surprised. I have never been asked this question before.

I have to assume it was the question of the guy on the other side of the phone, who could not see me. Me with the curly hair, and freckles and utter ignorance of how to say anything, not even the name of a basic vegetable in Mandarin Chinese.

“No, just English and Spanish,” I said.

He finished up his phone call, charged me for my tea and handed it to me. And I walked out drinking/eating it and recognized a glimpse of New York, or Chinatown, mixed with Chilean semi-friendliness to curious foreigners and a feeling of self-sufficiency and slight pride in knowing where to get hard-to-find food products, and the first expression that came to mind was in Spanish. I was “en mi salsa,” which is to say, “in my element,” and I still have no idea how to say that in Mandarin Chinese. I might have to go over to Té León and ask.

Tea shop in my neighborhood= Chicken Tea, Sazie 2069, closest metro República
Tea shop in Patronato= Té León, Eusebio Lillo 398B, closest metro Patronato
Taiwanese Food shop= Orient Market, Grajales 2950, closest metro Estación Central

Pictured above: urban garden on Domeyko. Most of what you see is ortiga (nettles), which is/are edible when cooked, but not eaten in Chile. Also, that is a fine looking bunch of the monster swiss chard we get here.

 

Feria report, now with lúcuma, a weak peso and Chico Trujillo

Dear Internet, It has been more than a month and a half since my last feria visit. My penance is that I feel like I have been through a nutritional wasteland with short visits to the paradises of the land of fruit and veg.

Let me be clear. I am not an adherent to the cult of the busy. I think it is destructive, competitive, unfun and wreaks havoc on both my social and my self-life (self-life? is that like shelf-life?). But I find myself in these waters all the same, with a deadline that will hopefully relieve some of the pressure come Monday. I am coming back out of my isolation, taking breaks from work now (to scrub the kitchen floor, but still), and yes, retomando (resuming) my habit of feria reports.

Food is expensive! The peso is dropping against the dollar, but even so, I have never seen potatoes, tomatoes and avocados so expensive here. Or not in a long time. I am fortunate in that a couple hundred extra pesos either way is not going to make or break me, just noticing the price jumps.

Here’s what it looks like:

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And here’s what it is:

1 bulb fennel/hinojo =500 CLP $.84
1 bunch chard/acelga =500 CLP $.84
1 kilo green apples/manzana verde =600 CLP $1.01
1 kilo mandarines/mandarinas =1000 CLP $1.68
1 small bag walnuts/nueces =1000 CLP $1.68
3 tomatoes/tomates =600 CLP $1.01
1 bunch cilantro/cilantro =300 CLP $.51
1 bunch parsley/perejíl =200 CLP $.34
4 tiny red peppers/morrones =200 CLP $.34
1 bag of olives/aceitunas =1300 CLP $2.19
1 lucuma/lúcuma =300 CLP $.51
1 kilo lemons/limones =600 CLP $1.01
1 head broccoli/brócoli =700 CLP $1.18
1 head cauliflower/cauliflór =700 CLP $1.18
3 sweet potatoes/camote =600 CLP $1.01
1 kilo potatoes/papas =450 CLP $.76 LAST
2 artichokes/alcachofas =700 CLP $1.18
1 cucumber/pepino =400 CLP $.67
2 chunks squash/zapallo =600 CLP $1.01
2 small red onions/cebolla morada=300 CLP $.51

11,550 CLP = $19.28 (dollar at 593.66)

It is worth noting that these artichokes were overpriced, but gorgeous, and I am going to eat the lúcuma raw, even though nobody ever does, because supposedly it has a strange aftertaste (so it says in the Spanish wikipedia article). People generally cook it into a purée and then it goes into dessert, It’s pasty and tastes like sweet potato mixed with maple syrup, more or less. But again, I have the luxury of spending $.51 on a lark, and so I did.

And lest you feel that the fact that you have learned Spanish vocabulary, your 593.66 times tables and what a lúcuma is has not been a good use of your time, I now also leave you with the following.

1. The dollar is stronger than we have seen it in years. Years, I tell you. Screen capture from google.

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2. When you are at the feria, you will hear songs like “Conductor” on the radio. This is a song by the band Chico Trujillo, from the “nueva cumbia chilena” style of music. The main words are “Que le pasa que le pasa a mi camión,” which would lead you to believe that the song is about a truck that “no arranca” (it won’t start). However, the first lines make it clear that we’re actually talking about the singer’s girlfriend, not a truck. Because a woman that you can’t start up is songworthy. It’s a damn catchy tune, regardless. You’re welcome. If you want to sing along, or toss these lyrics in a translator, here’s the letra.

And to listen to the earworm song, here it is:

 

The time I didn’t go to Argentina

I have not gone to Argentina on many occasions. But this time is different.

July and August are rough months in Santiago. Bleak, rainy, smoggy, cold. The kind of cold that has you hugging your hot water bottle as you walk around the house. That kind of cold. Some people have heat and double glazed windows and live in places where they are not cold. I am not one of those people, but willingly accept invitations for tea from people who are.

So I often run away during the southern winter. But this year plans were different, and I did not go to the states as I often do during this time. And when I saw that I wasn’t going anywhere in August, I thought, I will go to Argentina for a week or so in September. You see, at the moment, the economics of traveling in Argentina with dollars is fantastic. I have also been trying to go to Salta (northern Argentina) for a long time, and had finally figured out a route I thought made sense.

And then, sometime in late July, everything happened.

First, I got a house-sit opportunity in Pucón/Villarrica. Some people I don’t know, with a cozy house, a dog and two cats and a view of the lake needed someone to sit on their couch and feed the fire and pet the animals and eat farm-fresh eggs. Of course I volunteered. And while I was there, I wrote a first draft of my (memoir) book proposal, which is weird, because the book is already “finished,” but so goes the industry. That process was hard and good, and I’m not finished yet. I also did a crazy hard jigsaw puzzle and looked out the window and walked down to the lake and it rained with all the power of the sky, and when the sun came out, it looked like a fairy land.

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Also while I was there, I got an email from an unexpected place, from an editorial group I have not worked with before (but we have tried), asking if I could go further down (and west) to take a boat and write about it. So I stayed a couple of extra days at the housesit (now with part of the family), and then headed to Puerto Varas, hanging out with some Santiago friends who had moved there, but staying at a hotel where I had this view.

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From there, I got on a the Navimag boat, whereupon I saw intense beauty and flying trays of food and very few tourists and a whole lot of truck drivers and the cutest little sea lions you ever did see, popping up their shiny heads and leaping, sleekly through the air like salmon hopping upstream beside the ship.

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And then we got stuck in the Golfo de Penas (with accompanying riotous seesawing ship motion), and were a day late, and the ship’s captain had to reschedule my flight back to Santiago. But first I spent the day in Puerto Natales, where my crush on all that is southern Patagonia flourished.

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And then I came back to Santiago, and hit the ground running, researching for a guidebook. I spent nine days out of the house all day long, talking to hundreds of people, and and taking photos of paleontologists working in little terrariums, like this one at the Museum of Natural History.

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And then spent several more doing data entry, talking to no one, when lo! It was time to go to Easter Island for the same guidebook. Not complaining.

And I was there for six days, and I rented an ATV and saw but did not stay in all the 5 star hotels, and skipped many meals, and dunked myself in the ocean at Anakena, where for the second time in my life, I got to look at the back of ahu Nau Nau and the moai that stand there, and think, holy crap, this is my life?!

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And went on a hike with Marcus, and if you’ve seen the House Hunters International episode where they go to Easter Island, he and his lovely wife Alicia and their adorable kid are on that. He hasn’t seen it, and neither have I, but the hike was tremendous, north coast, so isolated and interesting, and I got some lemon grass to flavor my water and ate fish and kumara (sweet potato) cooked on hot rocks.

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I came back to Santiago on August 30th, and immediately asked my editor how flexible my guidebook deadline was, because we had set it earlier because I was going to Argentina on September 4th. Turns out he is out of the country until the 13th, and wasn’t going to look at my work before then anyway, so now I have more time to do data entry, which is good, because see: connection on Easter Island a bit fair to middling.

And this was an incredible month, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat, and I got to see so many very beautiful things, but now it is time to let my brain catch up to my body, and my writing catch up to my brain, and to eat home-cooked meals and see friends and sleep in my bed, and wash the eucalyptus smoke out of my clothing and brush off the dirt on my waterproof ski pants, and tromp around in fur-lined winter boots I bought because I realized I did not have warm enough shoes for the boat, which later (not while I was on it) sank, which caused much confusion in terms of the piece I was writing. And in the midst of all of this, another magazine which I had pitched and never responded to me asked me for a short piece on something entirely different, and I thought, “this is the dreamed-of month, when everything happens.”

And that’s why I don’t have any space in my brain right now for Argentina. I still have miles to go before I finish the guidebook updates. I am a duck of tremendously fortunate proportions, and I have worked hard to create the kind of platform that says, “hire me, hire me.” Which they did.

I am the kind of person that needs a stable base from which to compare all the greatness I see in the away-times. Not everyone is like that, and I do not hold it against them. I am also slow to process what I’ve seen, seldom blogging in real time, while others are almost a conduit, from what they see to what they tell you. What I have found for myself is that I just have to be silent and listen to what I need. And what I needed right now, was to not go to Argentina. If you need me, I’ll be bundled up, listening to the sound of rain and writing about places I am, and places I am not. Cozy. And home in Santiago. For now.

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Disclaimer: a bunch of this stuff was provided to me free by companies I was working for. Special thanks to Marcus Edensky and Alicia Ika from Easter Island Traveling for the best hike I’ve been on in a long time.

 

Mental archaeology

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat jogs memories free? Like money in the pocket of a jacket you’ve checked a hundred times for change, and found nothing, until one day, there it is, small, yet important. Today I misplaced a pen I’d been using, and reached into my bag to get another, and thought about how good a thing it was that I had another pen.

And I remembered mailing one of the rare postcards I sent when I was traveling around Central America in the 90s, this time from Guatemala. The mail slot in the post office in Guatemala City was a few fingers wide, and had a sign above it that said “al extranjero.” I wanted to make sure to put my postcard in the right place, lest it make the rounds of Guatemala endlessly, unable to get home. As I chose where to put it, and slid the card through, I felt my pen, the only pen I had, slip out of my hand. It had pale green ink and I’d written all my postcards with it, in tiny letters the wrong way across the card to fit more text, and in my journal, too, in all caps when I was feeling confident but staid, and scrawly when I was annoyed, or unsure or lonely.

If I’d had a better command of Spanish at the time, I might have asked for it back, asked someone to go through the basket where my postcard to home had landed to please get my pen for me. But it fell, together with the postcard it had written, through the slot and into the basket and I felt nostalgia for it. This pen that had been with me for eight weeks already, writing big messages in small letters. I’m ok! I dry my underwear by looping it on the spinning fan! Today we saw an overturned bus! I am so sick of being sick! The pen had gotten tacky to the touch with the use of high-concentration DEET in some humid town, and now it was gone.

But I walked away from it and I must have gotten another, and have not thought about it again until today, when I reached into my backpack, and I suppose, into my brain, and pulled it out, the pen and the memory, one of which I suspected I had and the other one I had no present day consciousness of.

A memory jostled, unpacked from wherever it was hiding by the simplest task. Part of me wonders what else will get jogged or jostled or loosened in the coming days, and if it will be from the same geologic time, the same memory strata, or perhaps from some other era, entirely.

* Yes, that is really my handwriting (and this piece). I actually wrote this longhand. You know, with a pen.

 

Whereupon I walk in the rain, and manage to not get wet, and talk about panty’s, without mentioning underwear

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As I was wandering through Villarrica in what shall heretofore be known as my “expedition suit,” which is comprised of a goretex jacket that I bought new, and goretex lined ski pants and semi-fashionable waterproof boots, both of which I bought at the “ropa americana” (used clothing) store in Santiago, I got to thinking.

Specifically about stores that claim to sell one thing, but also sell another. For example, a botonería that sells thread. But really, where else are you going to sell thread? There is no hileria, just like in Chile, there is no empanadería, these being sold at an amasandería, which means they sell kneaded things, unlike a pastelería, which sells cookies and cakes.

What about a calcetería? You’d think it would just sell socks. Not this one. This one also sells panty’s, which you can tell by the sign up top. This is a combination that-doesn’t-mean-what-you-think-it-does, where panty means tights and the apostrophe-s-as-plural so commonly found around these parts. Plus you know, Danny’s Panty’s. Has a ring to it.

In other news, I’m in the south. And the not-secret about the south is that they heat their homes. It is an incredible thing. You just, you know, wear clothes. A normal amount. I think when I finally get back to Santiago, people will find me tall, since I have not been crunched into a ball for the last week. Instead, I have been with some pets. In a house. It has been lovely.

 

Me importa un comino (I couldn’t care less)

Me importa un comino means, literally “it is as important to me as/ I don’t give a cumin seed.” Cumin seeds, as you may well be aware, are quite small.

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And yes, I really did set up the light box (made out of materials purchased at Sodimac (like Home Depot) and a local stationary store, and such materials include three table lamps, cardboard and sheer curtain) just to take that picture. Apparently I’m in a no-craft-too-great mode (remind me to tell you about the homemade marmalade and tahini projects, both a raucous success).

Cumin is one of those flavors I might not have associated with Chile, where flavors are mild, and typified by onions (rinsed, so they don’t taste too much) and oregano. Newly, there is interest in the Mapuche spice mix merquén (which I’ve written about, easy enough to find, or look here, but many people aren’t fans of spicy food, or still find it “exotic,” despite it actually being from here and cumin, well, not.

Cumin is from far far away, from the Nile valley even, and is related to fennel, growing in that stalk-and-star combination I love. I don’t know how it got here. It could have come with the Spaniards, or perhaps with the British. One of my long-standing unfulfilled projects is to research this, as well as other influences that have worked their way into the Chilean kitchen, where cumin, despite being quite foreign, is important.

Cumin is important, oh, it is! It is part of “aliño completo,” an herb and spice mix in nearly everyone’s kitchen, and which, according to one of the distributors, is “a mix of the best-known spices and condiments, oregano, garlic, cumin, pepper, cilantro and salt.” They think you should “use it to brighten the flavor of all of your meals.” It’s kind of Chile’s masala, or curry if you will. A pinch of it can show up in porotos granados, in meat, empanadas, etc. I don’t have any in my kitchen because well, I have a ton of cumin seeds, and think they taste great toasted and ground. If there were proprietary mixes of it that someone’s grandmother made, I’d be all about it, but otherwise, I keep my money for myself and not for Marco Polo. Which is of the brands of spices here, because well, he traveled around the world and brought spices. Maybe cumin, even.

So why a cumin seed? Because they’re small. Or because apparently “the Greeks defined as a miser one who counted cumin seeds” (The East India Company Book of Spices by Antony Wild, p 44), though that would indicate that actually they ARE important. Maybe it’s a case where the saying got convoluted, like how “I couldn’t care less” is sometimes mis-said as “I could care less,” which means it is important to you, when that is not what you said.

But I’m guessing we’re going for the size of a single cumin seed, in which case it is insignificant because, see (above), tiny.

And if you are anti-cumin (contra comino! which is very funny because it sounds like you are against roads, which are caminos), then worry not, because there are many other things other than comino that can “importarte” when what you really mean is that the thing is not important to you at all.

To wit:

Me importa (it is as important to me as/ I don’t give a …)

un pucho (a cigarette butt)
un carajo (a damn)
un rábano (a radish)
un pepino (a cucumber)
un bicho (a bug)
un chorizo (a sausage)
una mierda (a crap)
and my personal favorite, un bledo (a small, insignificant thing)

But it turns out that a bledo is a name for amaranth. Although I don’t have any amaranth seeds on hand, trust me when I say that they are extremely tiny, far smaller than all of the above items.

And I suppose it’s possible that this whole discussion is nothing more than a diversion for you, which doesn’t importarte at all. At least now you’ll be equipped to tell me in Spanish, should you run into me on one of my supply-gathering missions.

(There is also “un pito,” and “un coco,” which in these cases are used to refer to the male anatomy, though a pito is actually a joint in Chilean Spanish). I don’t think it’s my place to discuss the relative value or size of these items, plus, you know, PG-13.

 

For the love of a sweet potato, AKA, me querido camote

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere was a time when getting sweet potatoes in Chile required a trip to the very back of the Vega, to the Galpón de Chacareros, and even then, they’d mainly only have them in season (fall), or mayyyybe a little later if they’d been hand-harvested so they didn’t get bruised and rot. This caused much consternation as people tried to recreate Thanksgiving here in Chile (now a much easier task) in springtime.

But not now. Now you can find sweet potatoes anywhere Peruvian goods are sold. Or where Peruvians shop. Or really, almost where anyone shops. They have transcended gourmet or old country or even international, and now you can find them easily. These are not the dark orange sweet potatoes of your youth, and for all I know, these might even be yams. The squashy flavor is not quite as strong, but they caramelize nicely in the oven.

Which brings me to when sweet potato does not mean sweet potato.

First, there is dulce de camote, which I wrote about in that link there. Grainy, hypersweet, loved by children. In the United States we don’t usually make candy out of sweet potatoes, but now that there’s all kinds of mint green tea sorbet with basil chips and a kale reduction, I’m sure someone will.

Second, there is when a situation “se pone camote.” I first heard this expression while watching the Chilean movie “Taxi Para 3,” which I highly recommend for learning Chilean slang. My suggestion: watch it with Spanish subtitles, and the Chilean Spanish dictionary or resource book of your choice, and stop as necessary. Budget at least 20 additional minutes for all the looking up, more if you want to practice along with the dialogue.

But what does it mean? My handy version of one of the two main pop-culture resources for Chilean slang detangling called “How to survive in the Chilean jungle,” describes it as adj, annoying, disagreeable, n difficult problem. I’ve spoken to a few friends, and they like it more for a difficult situation, than a problem, but sure, sweet potato. That’s rough.

The other use of camote is “piedra de tamaño medio que puede ser cogida y lanzada por una persona,” this from the Diccionario de uso del español de Chile. So… a medium sized, throwable rock. I’m sure you can picture one. If you’ve ever had the need to throw a rock, maybe you even have a physical memory of it. Was it sweet potato-sized or shaped? Do tell.

And somewhere in the middle, the book Chileno Callejero by Emilio Rivano Fischer and published by the department of Linguistics at the Universidad de Concepción brings the two seemingly off-spec meanings together, by saying that camote can be a brawl or a beating, which I suppose, might or might not involve rocks. It also says that camote can mean “coito.” which I have no idea how it is related to any of the above except to say that though I don’t have time or inclination to do the study, I suspect that Chile has more frequently-used double entendres referring to sex than many other countries, so I am utterly unsurprised to find this in the list of meanings.

So there you have it, 2 tubers, 3-4 meanings, 1 movie recommendation, 3 resources. Also: lunch.

 

 

 

Availability of goods in Chile re: workarounds, or yes, I really did make pomegranate molasses

At the risk of pulling rank, I will not entertain you with tales of times of yore, or as we like to call them antaño, from when you couldn’t get cheddar cheese in Chile to save your life, tortilla chips were something special, and you had to eat local junk food like Tu y Yo or Super 8 or some Tritón cookies (which always sounds like trembling to me, but that’s tiritón). I won’t do that, because we get Waitrose (no idea what that even is), and Lider was bought by the store that sounds like All Cart now carries American ice cream, which I don’t buy because my freezer kind of stinks, and also, I don’t really need ice cream most of the time.

While I won’t regale you with that, I will regale you of the searchy searchy tale of gringos looking for their foodstuffs. When they are raw ingredients, I kind of get it. It is pesky that most of the brown sugar we get here is slightly coarser than what we get at home, and is also dry. But mix a drop of honey or molasses (or reasonable equivalent, of which I’ve found two, Peruvian algarrobina, or Chilean arrope de chañar), and you’d be hard-pressed to know the difference. There are other things that people want that you legitimately can’t get, and either there are no substitutes for, or I don’t know what they might be. Fresh fenugreek leaves, for example. Or anything not super popular out of season.

But what baffles me is when people are looking for things that either there is a good substitution for, or something that you can easily make at home. Chocolate chips! My god, what the hell with the chocolate chips? They are not even good chocolate. Buy a chocolate bar and cut it into pieces, and call them chocolate chunk cookies (though then add more flour and maybe more leavening, because the butter here clearly has more water in it than what we get at home). I specifically recommend a brand called Karina, German, which, for reasons unknown to me, lives at the supermarket in the gringo and freakish food products (see: Nutella, sometimes pretzels), and not with the chocolate. 2.5 bars is plenty, mix and match dark and milk as you like.

And then there are other easily-made things, and things you can make better home-made. They want flavored cream cheese (en serio?) steel cut oats (just whir whole oats in the coffee grinder), biscuit mix, ranch dressing (now available), graham crackers for smore’s or crumb crusts, packaged dinners with chicken cordon bleu, I don’t know, they want all kinds of things. And it’s fine to want.

But much as I never applied for the job, it has come to my attention that I am the bailiwick of things that one cannot get here, but can easily make. Two weeks ago it was ricotta, before that, paneer. Which is my way of announcing that though I’d never even tried commercial pomegranate molasses, I decided I had to have some. A friend suggested I could order some over the internet. But why involve fruit going from the farm to the deseeding plant, to the cooking place, to the bottling plant, to the United States, to the warehouse, to the transportation, bus, plane, boat or whatever), finally ending here with my postman bringing it to my building on bike. (If it ever got here, there is a long story about items being lost in space and me having to go to the post office office to get them for failure to have left a tip in the past). But digress. I also figured I could probably just make some, with a bit of elbow grease (de-seeding), and reducing, how long could it take?

Here’s what that looked like. First you must go to the feria. I went to the Vega, whereupon I bought about 4 kilos (8 massive fruits, 700 per kilo) of pomegranates from some vendors who were not Chilean. This happens more and more lately, and together with my Venezuelan friend, we decided that we think they are Dominican. The people, not the fruit. Anyway, so, eight monsters, like this:

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But how to get at the delicious seeds? First you must cut off a hat. You might make the hat larger if you hit a whole bunch of pith like I did. Cut it on an angle, like you’re carving a jack-o-lantern, and you want the hat to sit on top when you are done, not fall through.

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Then score down the skin, straight down along the outsides, and pull it apart.

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Dislodge the seeds, and eventually you will end up with a bowl about this big full of seeds and some pith. Fill the bowl with water, and scoop out the pith, which floats.

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Seeds into blender (I did this by about 2 cup measures). Don’t whir too much, they say! You will get cloudy juice they say! I don’t know, I blended until they seemed blended, but the seed interiors were still intact. Then I strained them. I got about 8.5 cups of juice, or about a cup of juice out of each fruit. Which I set to boiling, together with a tiny bit of lemon juice and some sugar, as instructed in this fine recipe by Alton Brown, who I trust with such things.

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There was a whole lot of boiling. About 75 minutes worth, during which time I also made coconut dulce de leche out of coconut milk, because while you’re boiling one thing, you may as well boil another.

Then I let the boiled pomegranate juice chill, while I tidied up a bit. Lots of skins, peels, pith, and a bit of juice squirting on the wall, but not too bad.

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The result is not a lot of pomegranate molasses, about 1.5 cups. The seeds I ate a couple of, but robbed of their juicy exteriors, it seemed like I was eating animal fodder, so I stopped. I have no idea what I need this molasses for. They say Yotam Ottolenghi will want me to use some in some of his dishes (I have a couple of his cookbooks), but yesterday I put it over “greek yogurt” (regular plain yogurt that I strained myself, because actual strained (as opposed to thickened) yogurt costs $7.50 (and no that is not a typo) for 500 ml, and they only sell it at Jumbo, and only sometimes (that’s about 2x what you pay in the states, fwiw). It was incredible, tangy, umami-filled. I don’t know if it was order-it-from-the-US wonderful, and it was way more expensive to make it than buying it would be if I were in a place where it was sold, the internet tells me. But I am not in a place where it is sold, and so like many things, if I want them badly enough, and they take more time than finesse or materials I don’t have, I will make them. If I wanted chocolate chips badly enough (and they ARE available, just not always, or the brands people crave), I might melt down the chocolate and pipe them out on a baking sheet. But you know, chunks. And mixing and making things yourself. I swear this is something I do not understand.

Disclaimer: working parenty folks with kids and house and job and no help and all, I get why you don’t want to make everything from scratch, but I still think there’s always room for a bit of innovation (or traditionalism), plus making new traditions.

Caveat (different from disclaimer): when you want something that doesn’t actually taste like food, like Doritos, I totally get why you want them, and I might even ask you for one. Or seven. To accompany my diet coke, which is poison. That’s why I need the pomegranate molasses. Antioxidants, don’tcha know.

I have already put together a list of tostadurias (dry goods shops) where you can get many a peculiar ingredient. One day I will make a list of other types of shops that sell theoretically hard-to-find items.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button in Santiago?

I recently stepped on a sweater of mine. And by me telling you this, you now know two things about me. 1. sometimes my clothes are on the floor and 2. I don’t even pretend that that’s not the case, and then proceed to step on them. There’s a specific place in my house where they end up, in a closet/bathroom/bedroom intersection that’s the perfect place for pulling off a sweater, and then not putting it away. And stepping on it, apparently.

Stepping on a sweater should not cause damage. But if you step on the button of a sweater, and said button is not exactly flat because it is made of some kind of shell, it will go crack and break into two pieces. And a broken button? Not a button at all.

Oh hell, I thought. I tried on the sweater (a cardigan) missing a button. Looked buttonless. Thought about just sewing it shut. Then I thought, well, I guess I’d better go to the button shop.

And you probably think I’m kidding, like I’m probably going to the sewing store or the crafts shop. Nope. Just buttons. I happen to know that there are some button stores on Rosas, in Santiago Centro (not far from the Mercado Central). I was aiming for the Rey de Los Botones (yes, button king!), but got waylaid by this shop, in a galería (like a shopping arcade) on Rosas, called, “Las Rosas” (the galería, not the store).

There were about seven people waiting, and two people waiting on them, so I snapped a pic or two of what the inside of the stand looks like. I felt some kind of a compulsive desire to go in there and organize all the buttons, but the women working there seemed to have everything under control. But seriously, look at all the drawers!

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And then I explained my plight, whereupon I was given a couple of sheets of possible buttons, looking to match the actual buttons I already had, or if not, buy a bunch and just replace all of them.

This is what that looked like.

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I picked my button type from the sheet, and was handed a jar. A jar of buttons! Three year old me was screaming in joy (my current me was thinking, I have GOT to wash my hands).

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And then I picked some out

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The woman who was helping me was very confused. She was like, oh, you’re looking at them. I said, sorry, was I supposed to wait? I didn’t know. She was like, no, that’s fine. I promised her I wouldn’t steal any, and I didn’t. All those buttons and all that experience for less than 3 dollars. It’s hard to believe a business can employ 3 people (two helping customers and one at the register) selling just buttons.

For those of you who aren’t friends of mine on FB, just yesterday I wrote the following:

After all this time, when I pitch a new outlet, and find myself writing “bla bla South America,” or “bla bla Chile,” I still get a thrill. I live in South America. It’s been ten years. I wonder if it will ever wear off. (Hope not).

And that was even before the button foray. Who else has a silly errand involving finding something tiny? Let’s go find the street where there are ten stores that sell only that. Also, the sweater? Looks good. No more stepping on it, I hope.