A non-ode to sopaipillas pasadas, tales of failed expat experimentation in Chilean food

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Every rainy day in winter, Chileans coo, “que rico,” and head to the closest supermarket, casino (cafeteria) or grandmother’s house to get their sopaipillas pasadas on. Sopaipillas, which you might know from other Latin American cuisines, are round disks of dough, deep fried. In Chile, sometimes they are enriched with squash, though not always. They are a teen and college-aged treat late at night on street corners, eaten with a sweet mustard, and ají, a spicy sauce.

But on rainy days, visions of different sopaipillas, the hand-patted ones, slightly irregular, certainly squash-enriched, and smothered in a sweet syrup dance in Chileans’ heads. And I am left to chalk this up to nostalgia. Nostalgia for a food eaten as a child, for warm kitchens and special treats and your hair dripping down your back even while someone hands you a hot mug of tea and you know that you are warm, and that somebody loves you.

But sopaipillas pasadas don’t mean that to me.

And here’s where I admit something that could even cause problems for me later on, if ever apply for Chilean citizenship (mostly kidding about the troubles, my main challenge will be the national anthem). Until the day before yesterday, I had never eaten sopaipillas pasadas. I was convinced by a friend once to try picarones pasados, which are similar, but more ring-shaped. The sauce that makes them pasadas, made of chancaca, a dark brown brick of sugar that in this case is dissolved in water, and boiled with orange peels, cloves and maybe cinnamon, is not to my liking. It’s thick and syrupy, and I like my fried things crisp, not sodden. What’s the point of all that oil if it just collapses back onto itself, I thought?

In the time since then, I have written about sopaipillas pasadas on more than one occasion, even developing a recipe for them, but suggesting that they be dipped in, rather than soaked in the syrup, but that is a personal preference, and I have been told by several Chileans, is just plain wrong. I was at a talk by Pebre, a group that promotes homestyle Chilean cooking at a recent event at Ñam, and the cooks were basically crowdsourcing, asking Chileans what was special about the Chilean table. And you could almost feel a ripple of nostalgia. No one puts down as many salads as we do, no one dresses their salad with lemon, no one serves the kind of bread we do. All this over the smell of carbonada cooking, a kind of brothy soup made with stew meat, layered over the Chilean sofrito, this with peppers and onions and ají de color (paprika), and cumin seed, parts of a type of Chilean garam masala, if you will, which we call aliño completo (complete seasoning), which contains only these things, oregano and garlic, as if you would never need anything else.

And I got to thinking again, about a longstanding pet project of mine, talking to people about food nostalgia. Because the things you eat aren’t just what they taste like, they are what they remind you of, of the context in which you first (or last) ate them. They are my Chilean friend in Montreal biting into a completo (Chilean hot dog, with avocado, mayonnaise, tomatoes, ketchup and mustard), and drinking a cup of hot tea, closing her eyes for just a second, and I know, even sitting across the table that this completo has hit the spot. They are a friend holding a camping cup full of tea after a long hike that has deposited us beside a waterfall in complete darkness, and saying, “Que reconfortante,” (how soothing). It doesn’t matter what is in her hands, or in his cup. What matters is that there is this enveloping sensation that settles down like a warm blanket, that says, “you are home.”

But like the Tren de Los Recuerdos, which I joked was the train of other people’s memories, this dish, sopaipillas pasadas, was not designed for me. As part of Ñam, there was catering, and they made very tiny sopaipillas and doused them with the aforementioned sauce, and set them out on a table, and everyone first asked what it was, because the sopaipillas were so small, and the format could also have been mote con huesillo ( a drink which I actually do like, and have even created my own nostalgia for).

I took a dish and went outside, to try my ridiculously delayed bite of sopaipillas pasadas. I had to fight a little, as the sopaipillas were not entirely soaked through, and when I finally took a bite, I sort of got it. There’s still a little crunchy layered flakiness to the sopaipilla, a spiced warmth to the goopy syrup. I tried to receive the nostalgia of the hundred or so people around me, all eating the same food. But it was not raining, and there was nary a grandmother to be found, or at least not mine.

So what I got instead of that community nostalgia was, tastes like chinese noodles in duck sauce.

But not to Chileans it doesn’t. To the ones who love sopaipillas pasadas it tastes like rain and winter and comfort.

I could sit and lament my lack of connection with the sopaipilla pasada lovers, how I’ll never understand Chile, never get the nostalgia of the food, despite living here for so long. Or I could, like I generally do, surround myself with like-minded people, including Chilean friends who, upon hearing this story, said things like “the world is divided between those who like sopaipillas pasadas and those who like them plain. Luckily, the latter are the majority,” and my favorite of all comments, which sounds better in Spanish, so I’ll type it in the original first, “me cargan las sopaipillas pasadas.” (I can’t stand sopaipillas pasadas). Makes me wonder as a sub-sub project, what other nostalgic foods are out there that have a upstream contingent that can’t stand them, either.

Possible future project: finding Chileans who don’t like marraquetas (the semi-official national bread, similar to French bread rolls).

PD (PS), Ñam has a market of products from all over Chile as well as food trucks on Friday, Saturday and Sunday (April 17-19, 2015), on Cerro Santa Lucía, enter from Alameda. I can’t speak to the quality of the food trucks, but the market has been interesting in past years, and the people selling goods quite willing to chat. Starts at noon.

 

 

Feria Report, Montreal Version (Sami Fruits), with bonus text

Some dear friends of mine moved to Montreal last year. It was a big loss for me, they were some of my closest neighbors, and good friends, one of them someone who I often refer to as my cousin. We’ve lived in a bunch of the same places, had many same experiences, but it wasn’t until we moved to Chile that we met. Montreal is far from here, and frigid in the winter, but the stars aligned just so (wedding in Chicago and family trip to the Southeast), and I was able to run away for a few days to spend some time in Montreal with them in their cozy, well-lit apartment decorated with art old and new, including portraits in progress which I am not allowed to post on the internet, but trust me, they are fabulous.

So I got to Montreal, whereupon I discovered what winter really is. Winter is really biting your calves and thighs if you wear jeans that are even a little bit loose, and pain on the face where it’s exposed, and generalized brrr. It had been a long time. We ended up renting a car to go to Quebec city for one night, and trying and failing to visit an érablière, a sugar shack that is doing sugaring, not serving pork-laden meals (that is a cabane a sucre). We did make it to the érablière, they were not running the machinery because it was still too cold out during the day for the sap to run. Which did not stop us from taking a tour or trying some syrup, but I never did get a tire, which is the thing where they boil syrup to about the soft-ball stage and lay down a strip for you to wind around a popsicle stick and then eat, frozen face be darned (pictured here, from the shack near my friend’s closest metro station, not a real sugar shack).

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On the way back into Montreal from Quebec city and the failed érablière stop, my friends were excited to stop by Sami Fruits (8200-19 Ave Jarry), which seems like the best place to buy fruit and veg in the city, and also a great place to learn about all the things that grow in this earth that you didn’t know about. I could have stayed for hours and asked everyone what they were making with what they were picking up. I also drank an avocado pineapple smoothie, which was confusing and delicious and allergic all at the same time.

And I took photos. Of you know, the squash-n-aloe section.

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And the cardoons! we never get these whole in Chile. We call them penca, and eat them as salad.

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And then there’s my friends’ haul, as listed below:

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4 tomatoes, CA$1.29 a pound=$1.02 US
6 lemons, CA$1.79=$1.42 US
3 bunches mint, CA$1.25=$.99 US
2 mangos, CA$1.98=$1.57 US
2 green peppers, CA$.77=$.61 US
19 small zucchini=CA$9.01=$7.15
1 head garlic=CA$.34=$.27 US
grapes=CA$2.07=$1.64

Total= CA$20.70=$16.43

You may wonder what they were doing with so much zucchini. It’s probably one of the most commonly eaten vegetables in Chile, where it is very cheap (in season, you can get five giant ones for less than $2.00). They’re often eaten as a stew, linked here on PIlar Hernandez’ En Mi Cocina Hoy. Some recipes are translated, not sure why this one isn’t, but in general, an outstanding site on traditional Chilean cooking, and she has a cookbook, too.

We also went to posh-town markets with tomatoes the color of tulips and garlic that cost 4x as much as that at SamiFruit, and I also really enjoyed that visit (see below).

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But in the end, Sami Fruit is where you get the best deals on quantities of vegetables, and a great place to get an eye for who has emigrated to Montreal in recent years. Also, do not stand between a Chilena and her guisos. They were quite tasty.

And now, a gratuitous photo of bikes left to rot in Montreal’s amicable winter weather.

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Did someone say stew?

 

Skies of yestercity

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There’s a certain kind of broken sky we never get in Santiago. A weak northeastern sun that fractures the space above into clumps and sheep and defrocked pillows. This sky whispers directly into my head. It says you are waiting for the B49 bus on Ocean Avenue, your curls frozen in the chill winter air, and they will melt while you stand and review geometry lessons for a test through which, as a freshman in a sophomore class, you will surprise a group of people you are terribly afraid of, because at fifteen they know everything, and at thirteen you are sure you know nothing except how to solve a proof in eight steps (or fewer).

The sky today, like then, is struck through in parts with the twiggy branches that elementary school students draw to show the four seasons, spindly tree fingers stretched out above, striking poses, one hip jutting out, winter, spring, summer, fall.

But in these kids’ drawings there is never a sky, as though no one cared what hung above, as if to say, don’t memorize it, because one day you will live in a place where the sky doesn’t break like that against shades of grey and the blue of promised sunshine, and you will miss it without missing it until you see it on the El ride one morning on the way to yet another city, even farther away, 5000 miles now, where friends from your unbroken sky city in South America have made a new home.

And you ask yourself if it means something that the sky calls you so loudly on a winter morning in Chicago, and what that has to do with where you once belonged, where sophomores were scary and Brooklyn and the sky above it were your whole world. Or if maybe the answer is in those gangly, reaching trees, who exist just to scratch that sky, and the nostalgia they awakened.

 

What’s in a feria? The Valdivia feria report

On a recent trip I took to research two different stories, one short and one long, I knew that one of my hotspots would be the diminutive feria fluvial or riverside market in Valdivia. Valdivia is lucky enough, or smart enough or pretty enough (not sure which) to be run through or passed by by a river, which is plied by boats taking you hither and yon, and also sea lions, which occasionally tumble like clumsy ferrets out of the water and then lie about yawning and barking and howling and paying only minimal attention to the signs behind them that say “lobos marinos animals mordedores mantenga su distancia,” or “sea lions biting animals keep your distance.” The people also pay minimal attention to said signs.

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But not me, I took this with a zoom lens. Ever since the last dog bite, I stay away from semi-wild animals, rabies shot be darned.

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The sea lions are here because they want fish guts, like the ones that can be thrown to them from the riverside market, by fishmongers who are processing fish for customers walking by.

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I never talk about the fish or seafood available at the market in Chile because I don’t generally buy or cook either, but it was notable that the selection here was good, and inexpensive, and occasionally doused with water by their sellers.

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Also on offer, rounds of cheese, a lot of elephant garlic, which we call ajo chilote, though I have no way of knowing if these actual garlic cloves were grown in Chile. People often make a spreadable mild garlicky paste out of this garlic, and in fact, I have never seen it prepared or eaten any other way, though I’m sure you could experiment if you could get your hands on some.

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And there was ulte, which is the part that holds cochayuyo onto the rocks, where all those words mean something about seaweed, though ulte is the meatier of the bits. I have eaten this a couple of times, once in a fancy resto in Puerto Montt (believe it or not), where it was very tasty. In this area it is also called lunfo, thus the sign, that says ultes o lunfo.

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No walk down the Chilean seafood lane would be complete without piures, or red sea squirts. The first time I ate one, I thought to myself, “I have just eaten the caleta,” where the caleta is the fishing cove, and all the smells that go with it. Here they are in a bag.

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and dried, hanging. People say they have great medicinal powers, but they are very high in iodine, and taste (if you ask me), like they are trying to kill you.

 

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And there were these items, which you might confuse for some vegetarian form of lobster claws if you didn’t know differently.

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But they are actually chupones, or an edible part of the Greigia Sphaecelata, a crazy, wild-haired looking plant, which the forager who sold them to me told me, these pieces must be wrested from the plant with pliers, but this does not kill the plant. You bite off a fleshy white bit at the end, and suck (thus the name) the sweet flesh and juice out, getting many, many seeds in your mouth, which you spit out. The juice is clear, and the flesh is creamy-looking, but the taste is Welsh’s Grape Juice, as far as I’m concerned. Very tasty. Only the third time I’ve ever had them, and this was the closest to the source, and the best. I am currently drying the seeds on my windowsill, and recently offered them to my followers on Twitter (@bearshapedspher). I have no idea if they will grow in Santiago or nearby, as they need a lot of shade and water, but might be a neat experiment. They are in the bromeliad family, like the puya (chagual). which believe it or not, I have written about not once, but twice. Because they are so beautiful, how could you not.

Much of the time I was in Valdivia, it was a bit overcast, and then suddenly, it wasn’t. As though the sea lions and river and chupones and all the other cool stuff there was to look at and talk about weren’t enough, the world started looking like this. The low building in the foreground is the market.

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I have a new urban crush. Which is surprising, because the last time I was in Valdivia, it was raining so hard, I woke up thinking “they have a train here?” They do not have a train. But sometimes they have horizontal rain so hard you have to change hasta los churrines (even your undies) when you get where you’re going. So be warned, and pack Gore-Tex, or your local equivalent.

 

The things you learn about dogs and cats in the supermarket (in Chile)

How do you call a cat?

In the United States, we make kind of a psss psss psss psss sound. I often make a more of a clicking sound, which one time in Cuernavaca, in Mexico, I was told by a groundskeeper, is how you call a rabbit. Which seems odd, because though cats may seldom come when you call them, rabbits tend to be terribly indifferent to people, unless they are pets. At any rate, just like how animals say different things in different languages, or are at least spelled differently, looking at you meow and miau, and woof and guau guau, the things you say to call them are different, too.

For example, if you say pssss psss to a cat in Chile, he or she will not pay you any mind. Or will look at you once to see if you seem dangerous and then look away. The thing you want to say in Chile is, coincidentally (or not), the name of this cat food:

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Though it turns out, it’s not quite as easy as that. It’s not cu-CHEE-tow. It’s c-ch-tu, or c-ch-t-c-ch-tu. It took me alot of practice to be able to say this semi-correctly, and the thing that finally solidified it for me, believe it or not, was Dub FX, specifically, this video:

In which he explains that beat boxing starts with words, (start at :57) such as bouncing cats, or baboons and pigs, where he emphasizes breath and consonants, eventually mainly dropping the vowels, just like cuchito. He, of course, sounds like a musician when he does these, and I vaguely sound like a person that may or may not have a cat turn around, or also a bit like the sound on my printer when it is trying to find paper in the paper tray and there is none. As it happens, cats don’t really pay that much attention to humans anyway, but on occasion, they have been known to stop and look at me with my new found c-ch-tu. Your mileage may vary, on a recent trip to Argentina, I had mixed success with c-ch-tu.

But what about dogs? Dogs in Chile (when they are not biting you) are so friendly, that you don’t really need to call them, as in, request that they come close. But there is still something to be learned from supermarket wares re: dogs. The generic salutation for an unknown dog, of course, seen here:

 

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You don’t say c-ch-pn for a dog, so much as when you see one, you can greet it by saying “hola cachupín,” or “que lindo que eres, cachupín.” Though sometimes you will greet a stranger’s dog on the street, calling it “cachupin” and you will be corrected by the owner who tells you “es cachupina.” Dog gender politics. Looking forward to the google searches on that.

And speaking of correcting, and things that are made for dogs, consider this food, available at the market in bulk, to be bought and brought home, cooked and fed to dogs:

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Although I believe that technically, those should be “fideos para perros,” unless you think that a) the dogs are the owners of the pasta/noodles or b) the noodles are made of dogs. I may only recently know how to call a cat in Chile, but I’m pretty sure that pasta is not made of dogs, though depending on what you feed them, your cachupín may be made (at least partially) of pasta. And now I find myself trying to say “fideos para perros” as fast as I can and see what I come up with. So far, nothing good. I wonder where Dub FX stands on the trilled r.

 

What’s in a park? Parque Fluvial Renato Poblete, a new park in SCL

When I first moved to Santiago in 2004, the Mapocho river, in a word, stunk.  We used to call it the Ma-stink-o in English, and it may be what someone was talking about the first time I heard the word hediondo (smelly). But times have changed, and the river is cleaner now, though it still looks chocolatey brown due to the silt it carries down from the mountains. We have a bit of a relationship with the river in that we notice how much water is in the bed as we walk over it to get to (for example) La Vega or Bellavista. Answer is often: not much. So I thought we had reached a kind of detente with the river, where now that it didn’t smell so bad, we were all free to ignore it.

And then there was a rumor of this park. A park that capitalizes on the river location, has water in it that will one day have little boats in it, and which is also part of a larger plan to make a 42k-long beltway more or less through the city of bike paths. I heard about it, and then I more or less put it in that part of my brain where tasks like filing and studying French live.

But it opened last week, and there was some fanfare, and it’s in Quinta Normal, which isn’t far from me, is an underserved area greenwise (though it is home to Quinta Normal Park, recently renovated), and the next thing I knew, I was trying to find it. Trying to find it because no story about it actually gave an address, it was just “at the end of Parque de Los Reyes.”I went, and then I stuck this handy pin, so you would know where it is. Basically, go down Balmaceda til it turns into Costanera Sur, then keep going, keep right. If you end up at Maturana, you’ve gone too far.

Handy pin:

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But why are you going to this park that no one will tell you where it is, next to a formerly stinky river? Because it looks at times a little like Parque Bicentenario and at times like a whole ‘nother country. And well, it just looks like this:

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Map

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overview

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long shot of the water feature

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amphitheater seating, notice people huddled under still-small trees and the little shade they give. Also unfortunate? How much these white blocks kind of look like tombstones on a hillside. The trees will grow, and I will learn to associate the stones with something else.

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another overview

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a different, stiller part of the lagoon

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bike path (skating potential=high) Brown river to the left. Notice the similarity in color to the bike path. On purpose?

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rayitos de sol! One of my favorite things about summer here

 

 

January Feria Report, nightshades and salad greens, and an almond milk obsession

Salad is upon us. With the Peruvian stalls having well-priced berros (watercress) and rúcula (arugula), and the new hydroponic lettuces leafy and light, it’s a fairly amazing time for salad in this world. Tomatoes are good, as are eggplant, and the mangos (imported, a guilty pleasure) are perfectly unstringy. Here’s what this week’s haul looks like, with tips for a new (to you) bulk shop, which I don’t think I’ve mentioned before, actually in the Vega, very close to the magical cheese shop with the sheep cheese. I will try to explain with great precision where it is, but let’s be honest, it’s not so simple sometimes! This time I used Whatsapp to save the approximate location, so maybe that will help. At the bottom, after the vegetable blather. Peso is currently at 628 to the dollar. (good for dollar-holders, not so good for peso-holders)

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basil 500 CLP=$.80
eggplants 1000 CLP=$1.60
lemons 500 CLP=$.80
eggs 1900 CLP=$3.02
1/2 kilo arugula 500 CLP=$.80
1/2 kilo water cress 500 CLP=$.80
2 heads hydroponic lettuce 500 CLP=$.80
1 container blackberries 1000 CLP=$1.60
2 mangos 1600 CLP=$2.55
4 tomatoes 600 CLP=$.95
5 onions 500 CLP=$.80
1/2 kilo “aceitunas amargas,” a kind of “bitter” olive, closest to kalamata we have, 800 CLP
1/2 kilo almonds 6000 CLP=$9.54

15,900 CLP=$25.29

The almonds were a splurge, I’ve gone on an almond milk kick of late, and using the flour in making pancakes and such. See: pomegranate madness (as in, there is little I will not try at least once in the kitchen).

Also, as promised, cheese store, and almond purchase spot. This is the the whatsapp coordinates of the cheese shop I talk about here: cheesy goodness. If you stand where my pin was (near Antonia Lopez de Bello and Nueva Rengifo), it is inside the building, on the NW corner (more or less. To get to the place I bought the almonds and olives (and they sell loads of other items in bulk), stand in front of the cheese store turn left and walk about 20 feet, and it is on your right.

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So you think you want to be a guidebook writer?

Ever since I started writing about travel, there are a couple of things that seemed holy grailish. National Geographic. Conde Nast. Guidebooks. I was 0 for 3 for a long time there, working on what I normally work on, regular contracts that pay well enough, that I enjoy doing, but some of which have a low wow factor. I wanted more wow factor. (I also have some stuff that feels wowy to me, but it comes slowly at times). So when I heard through various channels that a guidebook was looking for someone for Chile, I threw my hat in the ring.

My hat (and resume, and experience) were caught, and a contract winged my way. In it, it said I couldn’t work for another guidebook publisher at the same time. I thought to myself, how could I, I am keeping up with my regular work and adding literally 400 things to my to-do list. Please reread that: 400 things. And then then reread the part where I said, “how could I” and please insert a whole lot of exclamation between the how and the could.

What you don’t know about guidebook writing, of at least guidebook writing in my case, is that the book you are working on may last have been updated many years ago, and the city you live in/are writing about (for me those are one in the same) may have changed substantially in that time. What you also don’t know is that, at least in this publisher’s case, there is a world of information that underlies the actual guidebook, long troves of text and a content management system in which you update each individual file on a website that may or may not be cooperative at all times. In that content management system, you may be asked to plot points on a map, when said map always thinks you are in (for example) Pennsylvania, despite the fact that you are many thousands of miles away, which means you have to zoom out on google maps and then zoom back in, such that your pinching and unpinching zooming fingers might turn into a permanent claw.

But hey, you’re writing a guidebook. And that is exotic.

See?

Eileen working on Easter Island

That’s me working one cold morning on Easter Island, before everyone else woke up, because the only way I was going to get everything done that I wanted to get done, was to economize, by which I mean not sleep enough. And also take the extension that my editor offered me because believe me, there was no way to get all of this work done in the allotted time. And then not go to Argentina (but you read about that already)

And I got to go to Easter Island. Which was fabulous, and kind of crazy. I got the gig because I’ve spent time there before, which in a way seems unfair. I mean, shouldn’t someone who has never been there get to go? But it was a pretty unmissable opportunity. I took an awesome hiking tour of the north coast, and I had to drive all around to the fancy hotels, in addition to seeing everything else, and there are four of them, and three of them are far-flung, and so I rented an ATV because I am not a comfortable driver, and it seemed somehow like that would make it better.

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Which, do not get me wrong, it did, because it turns out zipping around on nearly unpopulated roads at an unspecified speed and without a gas gauge but with a helmet, because I am not careless, is crazy good fun. I loved having a task to do on Easter Island, a reason to ask a million questions. It was gratifying. It was interesting, and it was stark and wave-crashy and moai-filled and I ate a lot of fish, but not as much as I should have, because I missed a couple of meals, but at the Hare Noi, they gave me this to eat because they’d just been posing it, and I was not going to turn town a free lunch, though there may have been bacon in the yucca purée, and whatever, I’m trying to be more open-minded.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I also gave a ride home one night to a woman I recognized from my hotel breakfast, which was nice, because I am endlessly getting rides from other humans and not the other way around.She was Uruguayan, a solo traveler, and about my mother’s age.”Do I just get on and put my arms around you, she said?” “Pretty much,” I said, careful to deposit us both carefully back where we were staying. Plus the ATV made me  look pretty cool , which I am not, particularly, which makes looking that way extra special.

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But it wasn’t just Easter Island. I love, love, loved wandering around Santiago. I have a fairly extensive, or some might say obsessive knowledge of certain things in Santiago, and this was totally the right job for me, or I the right human for it. I spent about eight days (plus ten years of living here) combing the streets of my Santiago, your Santiago and many Santiagos in between, in hotels and restaurants and cafés and museums and on streets and talking to construction workers and hotel managers, sometimes even wearing a hardhat, which made me feel strangely powerful, because maybe I’m just into hats.

The wandering and the info-collection was, as recently-returned Australian friend would say, ace. It was fantastic. It was everything I want out of work, with wandering and exercise and lots of coffee, and good food, and meeting people, and talking to everyone and views I’d never seen before and so much information, which I adore.

And then came the data entry.

At which point being a guidebook writer was alot like working for a very grumpy boss on a task that requires many phone calls, much corroboration, and much dealing with a set of files that are not organized how you would organize them. To be clear, my editor was mainly absent, save a few back-and-forths, and he was lovely the whole time. I was the grumpy boss. Remember the 400 things? Well, in travel writinglandia, we talk about POIs. Points of Interest. And that is what there were so many of. Some of them were super easy. Statues that haven’t moved in hundreds of years, except to fall down and get put back up again, that have no opening and closing hours. Other were restaurants or buildings that had burned down, moved, disappeared, closed, or were otherwise no longer recommendable, or had errors in their records. And there were dozens, if not a hundred new things that I wanted to include in the book. But you can’t include everything. Your job (or my job) was to winnow out what you think is important, what you think people will like, what you think will make someone’s experience of your guidebook as good as it can be (except that it’s not your guidebook, there’s just a little photo and a weird third person bio you wrote yourself).

I was so careful. I am nothing if not conscientious and thorough. To the right of my desk looked like this while I was organizing all the papers.

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behind me looked like this:

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See those pretty books? Butterfly is for Santiago, sailboat for Easter Island. See how tidy (the books are)?

Meanwhile, my living room looked like this. Please notice sunscreen, lip balm, water bottle (from a hotel I have never stayed at, was left to me by another travel writer who was working on another guidebook at the time) and phone. Yay, traveling office.

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But my main problem was not the state of affairs and papers on various horizontal surfaces, it was the fact that I was not aware of how much behind-the-scenes work there was for a guidebook, and how long even basic things would take to find out, and enter in the system. I also thought that I had a major jump on anyone else that would be writing a guidebook about Santiago because I know it so thoroughly. That may or may not be true. On the one hand, ask me where to do, get, buy, photograph or look at something in Santiago, and I probably know. But do I know the cross streets? The name of the manager? The fact that the salsa lessons are only free on Tuesdays (given that I don’t dance salsa, no, I did not know that). On the other hand, I am also so curious and so interested in knowing nearly everything there is to know about my city, that I got distracted by every single shiny thing. And there were many shiny things.

Like the hotel that I got to review last week because I met the general manager because I walked by the hotel and saw it was under construction, and took a tour then, and then reached out again, after talking to a glossy magazine about whether or not they’d like me to review it. And I got to eat dessert with chañar (a local fruit) in it, and that’s going to be the topic of yet another story.

What about the money? Every publisher is different. Some give you a budget for the travel you’re going to do, and some don’t. I have helped travel writers make a budget for Chile for the former. I was in the latter group. I was paid a lump sum for Santiago, and another for Easter Island. How expensive or cheap it was for me to investigate those places was on me. Easter Island paid disproportionately well because of the costs associated with flying and staying there. Buuuuut, I do other work for a company that I know that is trying to promote EI, and so some arrangements were made on that front, which made Easter Island more lucrative for me, though it did take me out of the land of reliable internet and away from my home, and it takes seven hours to get there, all told between the getting to the airport and waiting, making the hourly rate perhaps not actually that great. Also, some hotels and guides on Easter Island were interested in possible coverage in a guidebook, and I was able to work some magic on that front, which I didn’t even try in Santiago, because I like my house, papers and all. This, by the way is perfectly legal and considered in the text and annexes of and to my contract, and does not require me to write nice things about the places that put me up or fed me or gave me juice. Everyone wanted to give me juice. Perhaps I looked parched. Perhaps I was. Maybe it was the sun.

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Or the wind. Or the fact that at this nameless hotel, they made me wait a really long time before taking me around. But the juice was tasty, and they returned my phone to me when I left it behind, which would be unlikely at best on “the continent” (mainland Chile).

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I was also offered to write the guidebook on another piece of Chile which I was not able to take, because I was out of town working on a different project for part of the timeframe. It was also for a part of Chile I don’t know as well as some others do, it seemed it would not be a great fit for me (out on the coast, far from home, POIs quite spread out, no ATV rental available). It also turned out that what I really wanted was the feather in one of my many hats that says, “Eileen Smith, travel and guidebook writer,” not “Eileen Smith, master of all the knowledge of everything within five hours of Santiago and also suffering from work-related collapse.”

Before I took the part of the gig that I did take, I asked three different people who I know and trust about guidebook writing. All three of them write or have written for different publishers. One I asked for very specific advice, and she gave me some that had to do with having a purse-sized notebook with a waterproof pen. One said point blank, “Not worth it,” and another said, “you have to love it to do it.”

Here’s what I would say to you about whether or not to work on a travel guide. Consider the answers to the following questions.

-Are you are interested in having the information that you will cram into your brain in the time that you are working on the guide?
-Do you want to go to or explore the places where your assignment will take you?
-Will this assignment somehow circle back to be to your benefit?
-Can you cross purpose/multitask (within the purview of your noncompete clause) your research or photos?
-Do you mind asking for free things and running around like a madhuman?
-Do you have to give up other work to take this work, and if not, can you turn in other stuff either early or late to clear your calendar?
-Do you mind losing somewhere between a month and two of your regular life? (really? your friends and family might miss you, mine claimed to).
-Do you mind becoming simultaneously pale and sun kissed, ill-fed and doughy?
-Do you want to be briefly, flash-in-the-pan famous, or possibly raise the ire of people who will disagree with your recommendations?
-Do you hold the (possibly ill-informed) belief that guidebook writing is fancy and or goal-worthy?
-Will guidebook writing advance your career in a way in which you’d like it to be advanced?

It’s also important to note that your work is not done when you turn in the files. Your work is done when your fact checker releases you, but not before dinging you for having conflicting information, arguing with you about vocabulary (seriously, I’m still baffled re: crow’s nest) and suchlike. Also, if you live a paperless life, you may have to jump through some hoops to get the deposit made to your account.

If I had known everything I know now about this assignment, I still would have taken it. Because of the answers to the above, and because I wanted to know more about the industry I mostly work in, and because I’m working on savant status for Santiago info (hoping to get my propellor beanie any day now).  I would have interspersed the data entry better between exploration days, or done half exploration, half data days, and by doing so, I would have circumvented a few snafus I caused myself re: missing information, which I had to recheck. Overall, it was a good experience, and tested my “dislike of telephone in any language” like nobody’s business.

Another very important consideration is whether or not you have a tendency to get lost, as I do, once outside of Santiago. This is not always bad, but it can be time-consuming, if gorgeous.

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Photo taken upon glimpsing the beach, which I was not supposed to be seeing, as the people at the Explora hotel were awaiting my arrival significantly further inland. Whoops. Also, vroom.

 

On the Eighth Night of Chanukah, My Father Gave to Me

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJust before I receive my big, last-night Chanukah present, my family gathers in the front room of our Brooklyn house, where the wind leaks through the front window panes and blows the flames on the menorah candles to the side, rushing them through burning, as if we were in a hurry for this coziest night, eight candles strong, to be over.

Which part of me is, because I can’t wait to see my biggest present, and if I’m right about what it is, ride my brand new bike for the first time the next morning.

It’s 1977 and I’m six. My father, often warm and cuddly, but also quick to growl, looks down upon the training wheels that came with the schoolbus yellow bike that he had picked out for me. “You can use them for now, but you won’t need them in a week or two,” which makes him sound like he can see the future.

And, what seems like only a week later, my bear of a father, with wide-knuckled hands, a long, round torso and hairy legs, makes the decision. I come outside one morning to find him using my favorite of his tools, the clicka-clicka-clicka socket wrench, taking off the training wheels and the brackets they come on.

“Hop on,” he says.

He has been telling me it was time to take off the training wheels for a couple of days, but I still feel tippy and insecure, and I was hoping maybe he might forget. He’s holding the bike from the side, handlebars and the metal bar at the back of the seat, and looking at me.

“I’m not ready. I want the wheels back.”

“I didn’t buy you this bike so you could ride around the neighborhood with training wheels.”

“One more day.”

“If you don’t ride it, I will take it away, and give it to someone who will.”

I grit my teeth and get on the bike. At first he steadies me from the side, and as I pick up speed, he runs behind me, holding the bar on the back of the flowered banana seat. And then like a snapped cable, I can feel that he is no longer there. Three pedal strokes, and the world goes slanted, rushes up to meet me. My knee is stinging from the impact, blood beginning to flow beneath thick denim.

I drag the bike back to where he is standing, and drop it on its side.

“See?” Pre-cry, the word comes out creaky. It is my first ever confrontation with my father, and it won’t be my last.

He picks up the bike and gets on, contorting himself small, to fit. He rides it back towards the house, the bike impossibly small, his legs splayed out wide, the yellow streamers blowing out ridiculous, a giant bear on a tiny toy bike.

When I see him on it, I forget to cry. I want it back.

Almost 30 years later, on the south island of New Zealand, I complete a 600 mile ride over terrain that is rolling and purple and yellow lupin-lined and occasionally has giant turquoise lakes that fill the entire left (or right) side of my field of vision. It also has parts I have nicknamed “the climb of death” like the Crown Saddle, where in 10 ten mile uphill back and forth stretch through blowing golden tussock grass, I climb some 1800 feet. When I see the cycle computer turn to 1,000 kilometers (600 miles), as I roll into Oamaru, I can vaguely imagine my father by my side. I would have said it again, no creaking this time. “See?”

My ride ends here, and next I’ll take a bus to Christchurch, and north, back towards Auckland. Now that the ride is over, I’m looking for something else to do, to hold onto that feeling of accomplishment and pride that I get from pushing myself.

In this steampunk town, there are Victorian-dressed ladies as if I was the anachronism in beige zip-off travel pants. I decide to try my legs at a penny farthing, the name for a bike with a giant wheel in the front, and a tiny one in back, the seat resting at the top of the big wheel, which is as tall as I am. There are no brakes or gears, and there’s no way you could possibly put your feet down in case you start to lose your balance, and there are definitely no training wheels. From where I stand, the world-gone-slanty probability is very high, and yet, I’m intrigued.

I get on the bike, and Bruce, from the shop that rents the bikes is behind me, making sure I don’t fall. I’m holding on a pole for balance, when he says, “and you’re off.” And I am. I feel him steadying the bike, and I’m pedaling. The tires are solid rubber, not inflated, and I feel the occasional crack in the asphalt through the hard leather seat. I am riding higher than horse-height, and the world sails smoothly by, full of trees and a town square, and the occasional car, and now, Bruce, jogging next to me.

“What are you doing over there?” I ask, surprised to find I am doing this alone.

“You’re all right.”

And I am. I can ride bikes big and small, on continents far and near. My father left a lot of unfinished business when he died at exactly the age I am on this bike ride—39. He didn’t finish raising his daughters, and he didn’t celebrate many more Chanukahs in the front room of our house with the leaky window that always burned down the candles too fast.

But maybe his job never was to keep me protected. Not when he let go when I was riding a two-wheeler for the first time, and not later, when I was ten, and he was gone. His lesson was something else. Sometimes you fall and get injured, and sometimes, with a guy named Bruce running beside you, you slow the bike, and come back to the tall pole where you started, place a shaking foot on the dismount pedal before coming back to the ground.

Either way, you stand up again.

This year I’ll be celebrating Chanukah with friends at my home in Santiago, Chile. We’ll light the menorah, and eat latkes, and my father won’t be there to steal one right off the plate, before they come to the table to be served with homemade applesauce and sour cream. But if I’m lucky, and it’s not too hot out, I just might get in a bike ride.

This piece is excerpted from a memoir in progress. All rights reserved. For inquiries, please write the author at 39thememoir at gmail.com or use the blog’s contact information.

 

A new kind of feria report, December version and a Boladero cheese dato

How many times can you look at photos of food arranged on my living room table (yes, you read that right), coffee table or balcony table? Many, judging by how long I’ve been at this. Thought I’d do something a little different today, details to follow.

But first I must wax southern hemispherish about how hot and crowded La Vega was today. And that’s on the Sunday of a three-day weekend (assumption of Mary Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Thanks, Frances)). I wisely wore closed-toe shoes, and shuffled very slowly, and did not shout at or step on anyone, nor did I get pickpocketed. All good then. Today’s mission, in addition to the regular veggie-stock up was to find a different good cheese place, recommended by another cheese lover, where they sell the Boladero feta that has revolutionized how I feel about cheese in Chile. Previously I had found this cheese at Colmado (coffee rec, a ojos cerrados, which means just go already), or the fancy Jumbo at Lo Castillo, which is much more upscale than the one at the Costanera Center, evidenced by the presence of this cheese, as well as phyllo, and the street-selling fruit vendors who wanted 3,000 pesos for cherries the other day (see Vega prices below). But now I can go to other places to get that cheese. For example, La Vega.

First, let’s look at these gorgeous cheeses.

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Well, that’s a display. You can’t really get anything from that, can you?

Cheese from Patagonia, sheep. Tasty, sharp, crumbly when it’s supposed to be. Fuerte. But where to get it?

The describing of where things are in La Vega is a bit like playing I spy with a person who has never been in the room you are describing. You know the place with all the peppers? ok, not there. You know the guy with the grey cat who sells the envases (paper packaging)? You know where the pig’s head usually is? Across from there on the south side, near the… It’s a royal pain. One day we will figure out a way to fix this, though I am only partially inclined to, because I kind of like the sleuthing. But in this case, for cheese, I will make an exception.

After la Vega Chica (coming in from Cal y Canto side), go in the right hand entrance, walk about 30 meters, and see this sign:

boladero cheese shop in the vega

And then behold, get cheese that tastes like what you remember cheese tasting like in the old country, approved by foodies from three countries, USA (not me, a different foodie, who is more of a foodie than I am), France, and Australia. Prices are listed by the quarter, range from 1350 to 2700 ($2.20-$4.41 per 250 grams, or roughly the half pound). Also, as far as I can tell, this is the only feta commercially available that actually tastes like feta. We get a Danish one that tastes almost nothing like feta (not tangy, cow’s milk, etc) that people who don’t know better think is feta. Trust me on the cheese, already, ok?

The rest of the trip contained:

1 kilo Ranier cherries =1,000 CLP= $1.63
1/2 kilo giant blueberries= 1,000 CLP= $1.63
1 kilo spinach=1,000 CLP= $1.63
1/2 kilo arugula=1,000 CLP= $1.63
1 tray watercress= 300 CLP= $0.49
1 bunch cilantro=300 CLP= $0.49
1 bunch mint=500 CLP= $0.82
5 onions=500 CLP= $0.82
3 heads garlic=300 CLP= $0.49
1/2 kilo kumquats=1200 CLP= $1.96
2 avocados=600 CLP= $0.98
bag of cardoons (penca)=500 CLP= $0.82

8,500 CLP=13.88 (dollar is at 612)

Whereupon I have eaten a giant arugula salad and made blueberry lemon muffins from this recipe, and I have not yet tasted them, but they look fantastic. This is such a good time of year for everything fresh. And cheese. Have I mentioned the cheese? Varieties tried are the Ricotón (like ricotta salata, but sheep), Feta and queso de oveja maduro. (As opposed to queso de oveja madura, which would mean the sheep was old, not the cheese). Grammar lesson=free.