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.

 

A semi-unconventional feria report, Huellas Verdes version

Winter. Seriously. I went sledding the other day. The snow came up to my mid-thigh. I am of relatively short legs, but still, that’s a lot of snow. It was up in the mountains, true, but still, winter.

Winter is not a season that is kind to growing, so do not judge what I am about to show you on the basis of the summer bounty that may be gracing your outdoor balcony table while you freeze your freckles off in the weak sun and cool temps. As an aside: though you may think it is cold enough out to wear long underwear under your pants as you go out for a 2.5 hour walk on Sunday in Santiago, it is not, and man, is that ever sweaty.

Oh right, feria. So I have these friends (who took me sledding!), and they belong to the CSA Huellas Verdes. It’s a coop-CSA, so members do some volunteering, either on the farm in Colina (N of Santiago) or at the drop-off point as part of their subscription. You pay in at the beginning of the season, and get “dividends” 48 weeks of the year. My intro about winter was related to the fact that hey, it’s winter, and winter is not their biggest bounty.

Also, these friends are going to be out of town for a host and bevy of reasons, so they asked if I’d like to pick up their nibbles while they are gone. To which I said, but of course! The pickup was at this place in Bellavista. And the people (not pictured) were incredibly lovely.

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There are 48 productive weeks per year, and this week was week 44. Here’s what we got (all organic or in transition):

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That’s:

3 sprouted red onions
4 oranges
bag of arugula (can’t remember weight)
garlic ramps or scapes or something
mint
310 grams of broccoli (with leaves! good as gold here!)
half a yellow squash
one giant sweet potato
2 heads chilean garlic (not white Chinese garlic, much better)
green tomatoes (I could have taken as many as I wanted, I took the ones pictured here).

total cost (amortized): 6,600 CLP= $12.00

Members pay into Huellas Verdes for 320,000 a year (coming season) for 48 weeks worth of deliveries, which works out to about 6,600 CLP, or about $12 a week. I realize it’s a premium to pay for organic vegetables, and it probably wouldn’t get a family very far for the week (you’d have to supplement), but it’s grown by people you know (if you’re a member), and also, did you see that tender broccoli with those leaves? Gold, I tell you! The eggs featured (free-range, ten of them) in the photo are not included in the weekly shipment, looks like. There was a potato option, but my friends had not bought into it for this year, so no papas for me.

I belonged to a CSA in DC many years ago, and loved it. I like the idea of paying people well to do something that is good for them (presumably they like to work the land), and where I’m dealing directly with farmers, no brokers or middlemen in between.

I’m still not sure if I’d join for the season (you can also join to do your pickups every other week), but I’m more than happy to stand in for my friends while they are in places north. If you want to know how else you can get organic vegetables in Santiago, check out the Eco Feria La Reina report from a while ago.

 

What does your country taste like? In Chile, it’s tomatoes and onions

So I came back from some time away, and saw that the flavor of Chile had been settled upon, at least until the end of the World Cup. Chile tastes like onions and tomatoes. Specifically, those two items as they are combined into “ensalada chilena” which means the onion will have been sliced and rinsed, to wash off some of the flavor, and it will have had oil poured on it. Be not jealous, your country’s flavor profile may already have been settled upon as well, as in the case of Peru, where the nation tastes like roasted chicken (I would have thought something more saucy or ceviche-like, but maybe those don’t go so well with the underlying papas fritas flavor). Brazil, predictably, tastes like feijoada, and Spain (because Spain is in Latin America?) tastes like Iberian sausage. Don’t believe me? I don’t blame you.

Wondering what I’m talking about? Here’s some visual explanation.

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I want you to know that in order to take these photos, I risked the running up of a security guard to tell me “you can’t take photos here,” like they occasionally do when you take photos in the supermarket. Long ago I was stopped, and they told me it had to do with competition. So I’m (secretly) telling you now. The supermarkets in Chile? They look like supermarkets.

But back to what your country tastes like. What do you think American chips should taste like. Pizza? Hamburgers? meatloaf? chocolate chip cookies? For what it’s worth, I wish we also got potato chips that taste like whatever country thinks it tastes like chile and lime, which I think might be Mexico or Costa Rica. Still no word out there on what those nations are supposed to taste like.

Also worth noting, I think all flavored chips tastes like someone opened up a tiny laboratory inside and threw engineered flavors all around. Because you know, they kind of did). And as a final note? The flavored potato chips we get here that taste like soy sauce and onion? No.

 

More Cheese! Or as a Chileno might say, “Mas que eso”

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Muletillas means “little crutches,” where muletas are crutches (may you never need this word, and also not cabestrillo, which is a sling, which is not related to this post, but may you never need one of those, either). So muletillas would be little crutches, following the -ito/a or illo/illa is the dimunitive rule. Though sometimes it seems to mean kind of a variation on a theme, as in zapatillas, the word we use in Chile for sneakers, which are not really smaller than shoes (zapatos), and yet they have that -illa.

Muletillas are little catch phrases, like um, well, so, etc. In Chile there’s o sea, and in some Central American countries it’s este. You toss them in where you’d have a verbal tic in English, and no one is any the wiser.

But there are also these phrases that come up so often that to learn them is to get 50 more points and an extra life in the game of Chilean Spanish. They’re the kind of things that sneak up on you, that you don’t notice that you say all the time, until someone else points it out to you.

For example, así que. I had no idea I said it all the time, until a Canadian guy I knew and I were walking around at BioBio (the flea market, not the river, nor the region), when I first moved to Chile, and he kept on hearing me say it. What is “asikay?” he said. Asikay? I have no idea, where did you see it? I said. Noooo, he said, you keep on saying it. And then when he heard me saying it he jumped in and said, seeee, “asikay.”

Ahhhh, I said (we used a lot of double and triple letters then, it seems), así que is a kind of “so,” I said. Why, I used it just yesterday.

Eileen, walking up to the police forming a roadblock, the smell of teargas fresh in the air.

Disculpe, vivo en la otra* calle, como llego a mi casa?” (Excuse me, I live on the next street, how do I get home?) * we use “otro” to mean next sometimes in Chilean Spanish. Next Tuesday would be “el otro martes,” for example. Sometimes it also means a day in the past, like “El otro día“. It is probably pesky to have a single word mean next and in the past, but it generally works out. Yay verb tenses.

No puedes caminar por acá, está cerrada la calle.” (You can’t walk this way, the street is closed.)

Asi que tengo que dar toda la vuelta para llegar?” (So, I have to walk all the way around the block to get home?)

” (Yep)

Worry not about the protests and teargas, it’s kind of par for the course.

Mas que eso is another one of those hear-it-all-the-time phrases in Chilean Spanish. To the gringo ear, when pronounced by a Chilean, it sounds alot like like mas queso (more cheese). There’s a tiny dip in the e that ends the que, before the e in the eso, but it’s not particularly noticeable, and a change like that in English might not be important. So, more cheese. But not.

Más que eso, means “more than that.” And you wouldn’t think you’d hear it so much, but you’d be wrong. In Chile, it often begins a phrase.

Quiero ir, pero más que eso, quiero que me inviten” (I want to go, but more than that, I want them to invite me.)

Or you can use it to end a phrase.

Quiero ser amigos, no más que eso” (I want to be friends, no more than that. Or if you hear it wrong and don’t parse it right, it’s I want to be friends, no more cheese.) Like the thing with otro meaning both next and something in the past, this is one you can usually figure out from context.

And as a bonus, if you are wondering, the difference between más and mas, is that you need más, and you don’t need mas. Well, a slight exaggeration. Más (with the accent) means more, where mas (no accent) exists as two different kinds of “but” (pero and sino). But that’s for another day. It’s freezing cold after two days of rain and snow in the mountains, even the dogs are wearing sweaters (see above), and it’s time to drink some . (tea, because te with no accent would be “you,” and that’s just weird, plus I really only want to be friends, no more cheese).

 

Early June Morning Feria Report aka: Where have all the berries gone?

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My new upstairs neighbors have given me a gift, with which they have occasionally taken away my sleep. They start riotously laughing sometimes at 7:30 in the morning, on you know, a Saturday. This, as you might expect, wakes me up. And you would think that after the laughter and early wakeup on Saturday, Sunday would be a more somber affair. And it was. Except I woke up early again. It is the gift that keeps giving.

Thus bestowed with morning awakeness, I spinned (spun? biked, I mean), over to the Sunday morning feria in Yungay, as I often do. But I was so early that on my first run through (I do a hither and yon walk, usually), not everyone was even set up, and lots of folks were still eating breakfast (probably second breakfast, the people who work at the feria wake up in the very wee hours). This makes going to the feria early quiet and very, very quick, and uncrowded, because everyone knows that it’s not really lively until later, and also because most people smartly sleep in on a Sunday.

But I didn’t, and now I’m back, and I once again have this stupidly privileged problem of why did I buy so much food? I went with specifics in mind. Ginger, passion fruit, cauliflower, avocados. I accidentally also bought potatoes, tomatoes, a sweet potato, limes, lemons, one ear of corn and clementines (or local equivalent) and brussels sprouts. And walnuts. Which are from Peñaflor, so close to Santiago they practically could have rolled here.

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Broccoli 700 CLP = $1.27
Cauliflower 1000 CLP = $1.82
Onions (5) 500 CLP = $.91
Walnuts 1,000 CLP = $1.82
Avocados (1 kilo) 1400 CLP = $2.55
Clementines (a little over 1/2 a kilo) 500 CLP = $.91
Lemons (1/2 kilo) 500 CLP = $.91
Passionfruit, limes, sweet potato and ginger 1500 CLP = $273
Tomatoes (less than 1 kilo) 450 CLP = $.82
Brussels sprouts (1/2 kilo) 700 CLP = $1.27
1 ear of corn 400 CLP = $.73
2 kilos potatoes 500 CLP = $.91

The dollar is at 549.75
Total=8,950 CLP/ $16.28

And now I have visions of aloo gobi and papas a la huancaina in my head.

On my way back from the market I was thinking, “go spokes, go” about my recently rebuilt wheel, which wheel mainly needed rebuilding because I carry heavy feria bounty home on the bike. I zigged and zagged, like I do, and took the Bulnes ciclovia (bikepath) for a couple of blocks over to the Alameda. I am not entirely anti bikepath, I am just against bikepaths that are dangerous or otherwise unpleasant. This one is fine, if short. Ahead of me, there was a guy about my age, maybe a little older, on a bike with giant wide handlebars with a rear view mirror at the end of each one. He saw me coming up behind him, and moved over in the bike lane so I could pass. As I did, I said, “buen día.” Like you do. Or I mean, you could. Don’t say hello to everyone you see in Chile, they will freeze up their back from holding onto their wallets and purses so hard. But sometimes you feel a sense of camaraderie with a stranger, because you are both on the bike path and it is so very early, and neither of you are out for exercise, just transportation.

So I said (like I mentioned) “Buen día.”

And he responded, “Hola hola,” which is not a general hello, so much as it is a hello you’d say to a friend. I don’t know why doubling it makes it friendlier, it just does. Someday I will record all the may ways you can change the way you say hola to change it into something that carries a much bigger message than it seems it should.

And then he said, “buenos días, buenos días,” which was not un-nice, so much as it was a little odd, and reminded me of the goose in Charlotte’s web, who said everything three times. Doubling hola is normal, if extra friendly. Doubling buenos días is just odd.

And so as I passed him I said “Igual, igual.” (same to you, same to you).

(The topmost photo is not of the feria, but of one of a set of vendors that sets up near the street Nueva York downtown, with their fancy vegetable cutting accoutrements. I did not buy anything that would help me to make this cucumber shark, but am considering carving the sweet potato into something equally adorable. Or maybe I’ll just make sweet potato oven fries.)

 

The thing about cachai, and other ridiculously easy questions about your Chilean Spanish

These bivalves and crustaceans are not bored. But not all sea creatures are so lucky.

These bivalves and crustaceans are not bored. But not all sea creatures are so lucky.

Manejas el cachai?

Whether you like it or not, your Spanish, as compared to other people’s Spanish, whether or not they are present, is a frequent topic of conversation in Chile. I have a friend that says that when people tell you you speak Spanish well, it means you don’t. I have not had that experience, but she’s probably right. I speak well, and sometimes people comment on my Spanish (but more often on my accent, which is slight, but evident, specifically in the pronunciation of s, j and r (but not so much rr)), but I have no reason to think that they’re being either facetious or polite. In fact, as I write this, I have just spent a week in La Serena with a friend, in Spanish without great drama, except for when we were watching the videos of people eating surstromming, because the friend is heading to Sweden for midsommar, and that is a thing, the little putrefying herrings in a can. I did finally learn the word for slimy, which is ligoso, which is handy, as previously I’d been stuck with chicloso, which means gummy, mocoso, which means snot-like, and viscoso, which as you might guess means viscous, but none of them have the well, sliminiess of slimy. Like I said, handy. I shall use it with vigor.

Speaking of using words, and your Spanish, Chilean Spanish is famous for being heavy in slang. We have random Mapundungún words, like huincha, which means measuring tape, or tape, though we have a perfectly good expression for this in Spanish, or huacho, which means bastard (as in a child), or a single (as in a sock), not to be confused with huachita, which is a term of endearment. There is also coa, or jailhouse slang, and from this we get words for the various money denominations, gamba is 100 pesos and quina is 500, and luka is 1,000, and also the word for the jail itself, which is la cana, which leads to expansion to things like “se fue a Canadá,” when the person in question did not, actually go to Canada, but is in fact, in jail. Which is pretty funny when your friends actually do go to Canada, but I digress (surprise!)

And there are expressions, oh! there are expressions. I have dictionaries full of expressions and a brain full as well. Del chincol al jote, from a to z (or sparrow to buzzard), meaning the gamut, without any specific criteria. This was another gain from this weekend. A word to the wise, you do have to look at the source of your slang, to know how urban or rural it is, or how old-timey. I have several friends from “regiones” (from outside of the metropolitan region) who have a veritable quiver of country expressions, like “se me fue en collera,” meaning, it all went to crap, or got out of control, but is actually rodeo talk, for when that pesky calf gets away. Igual se entiende. People will understand you. But it’s still a little weird, like calling jeans dungarees.

I don’t know if Chilean Spanish has more slang than other Spanish. Perhaps it does. As I tried to explain to my friend the (admittedly) ridiculous expression in English that is also related to draft animals, “I don’t have a horse in that race.” It doesn’t matter to me at all if Chilean Spanish is more or less slangy or intelligible than other kinds of Spanish. I trust in the human animal to develop words and expressions and ways of expressing ourselves, on matter what the method of communication or language we share. Go evolution.

But back to Chilean Spanish, and how well  you speak it. When it is revealed that you speak Spanish (well, or at beginner level, or in between), the conversation then turns to whether or not you understand Chilenismos. Some of which are admittedly unrelated to the very thing they mean to express, like how “matar la gallina” means “to have sex,” or not something you’d have thought of before, like “aburrido como ostra,” which means “as bored as an oyster.” To be fair, English expressions win no prizes either, and in the freshness department, Spanish beats English with “fresquita como lechuga,” over “fresh as a daisy.” Lettuce being more indicative of freshness than daisies, at least the way I see it.

And yet the public test of whether or not you understand Chilenismos is unrelated to any of these expressions. You don’t get credit for understanding (or saying), “tengo pa rato” (I have to wait/do this for a long time before it ends), or saying, “me comí el medio sandwich,” where, almost inexplicably, that means you ate a giant sandwich, despite the fact that medio would seem to mean (and sometimes does mean) half.

No.

The thing everyone wants to know is whether you understand the word “cachai,” and implement the semi-nonword/verbal tic “po.”

Cachai comes from cachar, an imported verb that has come to mean “get it/understand/realize.” Chileans will try to tell you that it comes from the English “to catch,” but I personally, with some years of English-speaking under my belt, would say that cachar is more similar to “to get,” than to catch, except in the expressions “I didn’t quite catch that,” and “Did you catch that?” which is more about hearing than understanding anyway. It acts mainly as “get it?” or “you know?”

The uses of cachai are numerous. It acts as a tag question “No quiero ir, cachai?” I don’t want to go, you know? Or so signal something important, “Cacha la wea!” Check this out (usually something yet to be told). wea and huevón etc will have to be for a later entry, or search around, and you’ll find plenty of exposition). No caché means “Oh, I didn’t understand, or I didn’t  notice that.” No había cachado? I hadn’t noticed.

Cachar is also one of the very first expressions that you hear when you move to Chile, as people are constantly checking in with you both as a person and a foreigner, to see if you “get it.” I would say it was probably at day .5  (not 5, but 0.5, as in about 8 hours in) when I started to notice el “cachai,” and since it occupies the same place in the language as “you know?” or “get it?” or “understand?” it was a) almost impossible not to assimilate immediately and b) very evident what it means, and how to use it.

Po is also very simple. It follows both yes and no nicely “Sí po” or “sipo,” and No po (which almost never appears as nopo). Again, not grammatically stymie-ing, just a little tic, like saying “Yep” and “Nope” instead of “yes” and “no.” Po also acts as a bit of verbal punctuation, and often comes at the end of a sentence, perhaps when you don’t want to say “y’know?” but want to give a little punch to what you said. “No quiero ir, po.” is more “I really don’t want to go.” than just “I don’t want to go.” Again, a first-order Chilenismo, the kind of thing you notice after about 5 minutes of talking to a Chilean. You do not have to be taught these things, they just seep in, like whatever slang all the hip kids use in the US these days (which I have no idea about for a generation and several thousand kilometers worth of reasons).

So why do people ask, when trying to evaluate how well you have assimilated Chilean Spanish into your world, whether you understand (or use) cachai and po? It’s an extraordinarily low bar, like asking someone in English if they got it when you said “you know,” or “um.”

It would be easy enough to build a test consisting of a complex sentence filled with truncations, slang, expressions, and using the rule-bending conjugation that doesn’t exist (except it does), that turns the 2nd person singular ending for cachar into -ai, instead of -as as it should be. FWIW, not just cachar, also andar as in “dónde andai?” for where are you going, and pretty much every other verb (but ojo, the ending for -er and -ir verbs is just -i as in no te preocupí for don’t worry..

And yet (in my experience) nobody does this with the complex convoluted sentence of impenetrable Chilenismos. Everyone asks you this incredibly low-bar question about cachai and po. For a long time I thought it was because they didn’t know that those things about Chilean Spanish are incredibly easy to absorb, and couldn’t figure out how to ask something more complex, or didn’t even know what that more complex thing would be. But coupled with the “you speak good Spanish,” comment, applied to people whose Spanish, by most metrics is, in fact, not particularly good, I have come to a different conclusion.

Rather than a real test, I think it is a way to include, rather than exclude you. By asking you something simple and silly, your answer is likely to be in the positive, “yes, I get that!” and “Yes, I know how to use that,” both of which build community, like asking people if they think the south of Chile is pretty or if they like the beach. It also serves as a way for Chileans to establish that they feel there is something special about them, something unique, worth noticing, such that if you mixed a room full of Spanish-speakers together, Chileans would still be easily identified, and perhaps most importantly, would be able to identify each other. And you too, if you can use these two words like a pro.

Cachai?

***I do not doubt that every single one of my friends and everyone I’ve ever met in Chile could put together a sentence I wouldn’t understand, or that only a longtime resident of Chile with constant slang immersion might understand. That is why this question about whether I understand low-order Chilean Spanish words was so baffling to me.

 

Hiking to El Roble, the recipe for a 10-hour sleep

I took the day off yesterday to hike up to El Roble, not far from Til Til, home to prickly pear cacti and the fruit they bear (which we call tunas), olives, avocados and other things that enjoy the heat and sunshine. Unlike me. But we shall get to that later. First, see that tiny thing up at the top of the hill in the background? That is the Entel communications tower, and beside it (not visible in the picture) is the El Roble Observatory. That is our goal. Six kilometers, assures one of our party. I think it’s ten, says another. Who wins? (ten, according to some km-markers on the route).

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If you are a long, long-time reader of this blog, or a stalker with an excellent memory (hi stalkers!) you may know that I went to this spot 5 years ago, on an ill-advised bike ride with a whole passel of very young men, all of them much better cyclists than me, and with bikes more appropriate to the terrain. It was painful. And freezing. But visually arresting, as Chile so often is.

Which is why it didn’t occur to me that it would be like 80 degrees and sunny yesterday on this uphill slog. No matter, with views like these (and a group of four master hikers keeping me motivated), it was well worth it.

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There is a trail, but we ended up hiking up the road (see above, and those plants are called chaguales, if you were wondering), with the idea that the view would be better. This may have been where the six-ten discrepancy came in. But view? Yes. However, what is missing from my life (from all of our lives?) is a peak-naming app. We figured out which one was Aconcagua (tallest mountain on the continent, perhaps not a very challenging test), one of our group named a couple of other peaks, and we listened to one of the guys from Entel tell us which ones (other side) were La Campana and Ocoa. He seemed to want to make conversation with us, though three-plus hours of uphill walking does not generally a great conversationalist make.

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We saw many un-named (to us) peaks and features, such as an expansive glacier just to the right of Aconcagua, which we decided was not San Francisco, El Morado, or any of the other semi-close to Santiago glaciers, because it was not in the right spot. I wondered if it was in Chile or Argentina (Aconcagua is in Argentina), and remembered that a territorial dispute between Chile and Argentina were decided by the “high peaks” as opposed to “boundary waters” (wrong term, should have said “fluvial watershed”), method. I thought the decision was much older than it is. Turns out it’s just from 1902. If you want to read more, about the Cordillera of the Andes Boundary Case 1902, give a click right there.

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And when we asked the guy from Entel what the large flat (clearly glacial) feature was, he said, “oh, that’s a glacier.” He needs the app, too, seems like, despite his oriundo (person from the place you are, kind of like the word “local” in English) knowledge . He was, however, able to tell us the name of the tame fox that hangs around the communications tower, because they give him “pancitos,” which could mean bread, or little sandwiches, but I’m guessing he means bread.

His name is Claudio. The fox, not the guy.

There are no photos of Claudio, nor the other two foxes we saw on the way up, which I believe were zorro culpeo, but I could be wrong. We also saw and heard a lot of birdlife, but the only one I really got a fix on was a dove-like bird commonly called a “torca” or “torquita” or “turquita”, which has a patch of white on its neck/chest, and fan-like tail that sticks up at the back. It made a trilly sound, half pigeon, half quail. It’s in the dove family, not surprisingly. And we saw a lone aguilucho, which is of the hawk family, but it’s not clear to me what species it was. They’re common enough, and if you’ve never seen a condor (whose wingspan, or envergadura (one of my favorite words in Spanish) is 10 feet), you might confuse one of these small birds of prey (wingspan about 3 feet) for one.

Oh! and a snake! Saw one of those as well.

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This is only the second time I’ve seen a snake in Chile, and it was moving slowly, like it didn’t want us to notice. I thought it was non-venomous, but it turns out to be only semi-venomous. Do you only half-die if it bites you? Must investigate. We still gave it its space, nobody likes to be hovered over. Oh, and the name of this snake? Long-tailed snake (culebra de cola larga). I hate to dither over taxonomy, but how do you decide which snake has a long tail and which doesn’t? It kind of seems like snakes are mainly comprised of head and tail. But if I have demonstrated nothing in this blog post, it is that I am not a wildlife biologist.

But look: pretty.

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I also learned that there are two kinds of muscle contractions involved in hiking, one of which, the one which you use to set something down gently, or to brake yourself from flying down the mountain and onto your face is called eccentric, and it is this kind of contraction that is excellent at producing the microtears that build muscles. So if you see me, please tell me what large tibialis anteriors I have. Because they are kvetchy today.

And that, my friends is how two almond-butter (and salt) sandwiches, some grapes, four friends and not quite enough water led to me sleeping a solid ten hours last night. Difficulty: “easy.”