Water water everywhere, but not a drop to drink in much of Santiago

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Rain, rain and more rain in Santiago. What’s a city to do?

The first year I lived in Chile, I was caught unawares by many a rainstorm. First of all, because rain here seems to have a higher ceiling than it does in Portland or other places I’ve lived, where the clouds usually hunker low before starting to rain. There was also the issue of me not having internet or a television at home, and smartphones did not yet exist, so my idea of doing a weather check was sticking my head out the window. I remember one fateful day, when I’d gone to visit a friend in Ñuñoa, and while biking to my classes downtown, it started to pour, and my chain fell off, within minutes of each other. It was my first day of that class that night, and I spent the minutes before trying to scrape the bike grease off my hands with hand soap and cold water (there is seldom warm water in public bathrooms in Chile), and blotting the ends of my dripping hair with toilet paper. I don’t remember a thing about the class, but the other teacher who surprised me in the bathroom that day and I became good friends, and last March I went to her wedding in Chicago. It was glorious and sun-dappled and involved neither bike grease or rain.

What’s got me thinking about that day is the last couple of days of downpour. Let me say that again. Downpour. We are not really set up for days and days of rain in Santiago, and we are especially not set up for warm temperature mountain rains. There’s also the question of whether the construction of a hydroelectric plant up in the Maipo valley is what’s causing the mudslides, which have sullied the water, such that a great percentage of the city has been without running water for days.

The first thing I did upon hearing of the pending water cuts, was set up an in-house animita to the Correa Difunta. Folk saint blasphemy aside, when you drive in Andean Argentina (and some places in Chile), you often see piles and piles of water bottles at roadside shrines. These are in commemoration of a folk hero who was said to have nursed her child even as she lay dying from dehydration. Latin America loves its mothers, see, and the madre abnegada (she who denies herself something for the benefit of her children) most of all, and so this woman was entered into the popular canon (though not recognized by the church). I wasn’t really celebrating the Difunta, so much as I was juntando agua and standing the water bottles up like little sentries around my kitchen. Later I switched to the plastic tubs that make up part of my clothing and other stuff storage in that weird closetified closet I have, mostly shelves, not drawers, such that the only logical way to store things like scarves and gloves and also hammers and zipties is in large plastic tubs, which sit on the shelves. And which are handy for filling with water for flushing, etc.

So I collected all the water I could, and then put on my best waterproof gear, which had gone largely unused on the recent trip to Patagonia, save boat trips and a single day on which an insistent drizzle fell in Caleta Tortel. And then I headed out. For those interested: First layer is always the lamb suit. Merino wool long underwear, tops and bottoms, which an ex-boyfriend used to call thusly. Also wool socks. Then a fleece, and a raincoat, and rain pants, which the store where I bought them were quick to point out, were not pants, so much as “cubre pantalónes,” or “pants covers,” which they then asked me how to say in English. Rain cover? Rain pants? Waterproof pants? Waterproof layer? I think I left the store more confused than when I started. Also significantly shorter of cash. Someone should bring down the price on Gore-Tex without involving slave labor.

And for boots, I wore a pair of very funny old lady squishy-heeled Totes-brand boots with furry lining and an embroidered snowflake on the outside of each boot, that I bought at the ropa americana (used clothing store) about two years ago. They are great for rain coming down from above, but eventually started leaking a tiny bit as I waded through puddles with impunity. Alas. Still, eight bucks well-spent.

Oh! but weren’t we going outside? We were! And what did we see?

 

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We saw traffic light outages, and doused police officers guiding the few cars on the road.

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We saw poor drainage in front of the Moneda Palace. It boggles the mind that no one thought to put drains in the plaza here.

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We saw couples walking in the rain. Awwww.

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And tourists shod and unshod in front of the cathedral in Plaza de Armas.

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A swollen river with many people just going about their business. There is an artificially large number of people on this bridge to access the Vega (main market) because they closed another bridge some time ago. Not shown: Colombian sweet bread vendor nor Peruvian ceviche sellers.

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Given the likely causes of the landslides and water cuts, this river-side mural seemed relevant. Buses running more or less as normal, though with fewer passengers, because most people stayed home.

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Super outfitted people walking together. I followed them for about a mile, and was most impressed with the zippy coverall.

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Water not deep enough to prevent transit, though not sure it was advisable. The water is carrying a lot of silt, which means it came out of the river somewhere, but maybe at the canal de San Carlos? Definitely not down near where this photo was taken, near Bellas Artes, where there are many feet between the water and street levels.

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New photog/cyclist buddy lending his bike to the Japanese tourists who wanted to cross the street, but found themselves quite unprepared. He was loving it.

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The left side is the bike path, which was apparently designed to be flooded. Or to withstand flooding. The first part is definitely the case. We’ll see about the second part when the water recedes.

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I petted many, many sodden street dogs while I was out and about. I think of this one as Rufus, though we did not really introduce ourselves. I think he likes me, though.

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Pay what you like. This man is working hard for his money. That water is cold!

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As are these. If getting your feet wet or being cold really gives you a cold (as people in Chile say it does), half the city is going to have bronchitis by the time I post this.

When last I peeked, Aguas Andinas said 68% of the city had water again, but school is cancelled today. There have been many hilarious and snarky memes about the flooding, including a couple about arks, and of sharks swimming in the first floor of the Costanera Center, which flooded (maybe just the basement?) due to a nearby construction project. It’s all fun and games for me, but I hope those whose homes are not watertight, or who live close to swollen rivers and canals are doing ok. Sunshine forecast for tomorrow. Fallout and complaints about bad RFPs (licitaciones) processes ongoing.

In Which I Owe the Argentine Government $14

Detailing the most rookie of mistakes, which you, upon reading this, will not make. Considering the number of borders I’ve crossed in my life, I consider the fact that I’ve gotten this far a minor miracle. Also, photos, and Patagonia love.

When I planned my trip to, as I like to call it, the “way south” of Chile, I made a pointed decision not to bring my US passport. I am free to travel within Chile on only my Chilean carnet (ID), and I wasn’t planning on leaving Chile to go to Argentina. It’s not that I wasn’t interested, it’s just that between carrying two passports (will explain in a minute) or no passports, it just seemed easier to carry no passports. And so I didn’t.

The reason I have to carry two passports to go to Argentina is the following. In 2010, Argentina instituted a reciprocity fee for US passport holders (even if they have Chilean residency). First it was $135, and later $160, and I was not particularly excited to pay it, but you know, their country, their rules. I ended up paying it when I came back from New Zealand to Argentina instead of Chile because Chile was still in crisis after the giant 8.8 earthquake in February of 2010. But in the past six years, it has served me well, and I have crossed the border several times. But in that time, the passport in which the sticker was stuck also expired (later on it was a separate piece of paper, but it started as a sticker, which is what I had). And since in the US, our passport numbers change when we get a new one, and they don’t keep track of the correlation between old and new passport in Argentina, it is easier to bring both passports when crossing the border into Argentina. Not a terrible hassle, but on this trip, going to Argentina was not my goal, so I left the two passports at home. Less hassle, one country, no big deal.

To go on this trip to the way south, I left Santiago, and took an overnight bus to Puerto Varas. There I had two spectacular days of good food and hikes through hours and hours of sand on a hike in the Vicente Perez Rosales National Park. The name of the hike translates to the “Desolation Pass” but what is should be called is “hours of hiking in volcanic ash and river silt,” though I guess that didn’t have quite the same ring to it. Stunning though, see? Plus I ate so very much murta, which I love.

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After those two days I then took an overnight ferry from Puerto Montt to Chaitén, which I had not been to since before a rather large volcanic eruption, which destroyed part of the town, but then many people moved back, and if you didn’t know, you might not notice anything was amiss. There’s a long story here about what the government wanted vs. what the people who lived there wanted, but in all, it was a short visit and I didn’t do too much investigating.

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Most of the trip was in darkness, but when the sun came up it was lovely.

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Inside, this had a few hundred bus-type seats. Not the best night of sleep I’d ever had, but the water was smooth, or as we say in Chile “a teacup of milk” (una taza de leche).

I knew I had about 4-5 days to arrive in Coyhaique from Chaitén before beginning a photography tour, and I was pretty open as to where I was going, so long as it was roughly in the right direction. I kind of thought I might like to hop over to Futaelufú, a gorgeous little pocket-sized town built among granite peaks. It is also near one of Chile’s most gorgeous rivers, which I once rafted, and in my memory, the water is so fresh it tastes like cucumbers.

Luck went my way, and after arriving in Chaitén at 8 AM, I had only four hours to have a leisurely breakfast with some people from Futaleufú, none of whom could agree on their gentilicio, or place-name. Futaleufinos? Futaleufenses? Either way, they sound like smurfs (pitufos) or like maybe part of the lost tribe of the US (our gentilicio is “estadounidenses.”). It was two older women, a young woman and me, and we talked about plants, and taking cuttings, home remedies and other topics (including the all-important art of jam-making, and I am not making fun here), before I found out that one of the women, whose name sounds very much like mine, is a geologist. When she told me, I told her she’d been born among rocks, so it didn’t surprise me. Her name, just a sound or two off from mine, means “to be/being happy” in Mapundungún (a local indigenous language, though not particularly local to Futaleufú), but which I took as a great sign.

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The four of us hopped the bus to Futaleufú, a long and mostly lovely ride, past giant lakes and wide-palmed nalca (a relative to rhubarb) plants (see above), and occasionally got off the bus for roadworks. I wandered as far as I could wander in the town, and remembered that the last time I was there it had been the rodeo. I walked up the 200-something stairs to see the mirror lake from above, took pictures of it from down below, walked along the road to nearby rivers and let my feet soak in their cool waters. But all the while, I was conscious of the fact that I had to get out of Futaleufú, back to the main “highway” (really a misnomer), which would eventually take me down to Coyhaique, and the start of the photo trip.

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There was a bus out on Sunday, but when I arrived on Friday to the post office/clothing store/bus station to buy a ticket I was told that the señora who works on Fridays had taken ill, and that someone should be there the following day. Saturday morning I milled around at the post office/clothing store/bus station, but nobody came to open it, and I walked around some more, inquired about rafting but the river was low, and I didn’t really want to replace my old amazing memory of rafting here with a different one. Somewhere along the way, I got online and saw that during Obama’s latest visit, Argentina had dropped the reciprocity fee for US citizens. Which meant that even though I’d left my two passports at home, I could still hop across the border for a day visit.

This was not where I ended up owing Argentina money. That would come a bit later in the day.

I wandered out of the town, to a gas station where a lovely Chilean family picked me up, and I hopped in the back of their pickup to the border with Argentina. It was all snap-happy perfect, the perfect black asphalt, streaky blue sky, forests and granite peaks. And a cow in the road.

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As we got to the Chilean border, we went through formalities, and when we heard that the road was awful from the Argentine side through, I piled into the back between the daughter and son, in their 20s or 30s in the back seat.  Mom and dad drove us all towards Trevelin and Esquel. Just as we were crossing the border, traffic stopped, and a man came by with fruit, giving it away, because you can’t enter Chile with anything of plant or animal origin. We all enjoyed our good fortune, some bananas, a pear, and on we went.

At some point, the son said, “hey, are we in Argentina yet?” and we all said, “We must be” and gave it no further thought. I thought to myself, there are borders where two people from the different countries sit along the same counter. Maybe that’s what happened here? Surely this family wouldn’t have entered their car illegally into Argentina. Everything must be ok. I settled in and enjoyed the view.

If in Chile in this region, the landscape is like a pair of folded hands, holding the landscape tight, in Argentina they are held wide open. Narrow chasms give way to open fields and expansive views. The foliage changes completely, from forests to pampa, with its long, yellow grass that waves in the ever-present wind. Down here, you have to turn your head to see everything Chile has to offer. But Argentina has a horizon.

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We whirled through the town of Trevelin, which looked grassy and happy and small, and moved onto Esquel, a decidedly bigger city, where many of the shops took siesta, and where signs against mining were prevalent.

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Here I left the Chilean family, or they left me, as they headed to Bariloche for the night before crossing back into Chile. I tooled around some, took a few photos, and then decided that Trevelin was more my style. I walked further out of town, back from whence I’d come, and two boina (beret)-wearing men in a slow, low pickup truck the color of pampa grass picked me up. They were both called Jorge, father and son, and worked in construction. They asked me where I was from, and seemed nonplused by either of my countries, or the fact that I was hitching alone. Because in this part of the world it is not a big deal at all. It’s sort of the unofficial bus. They even insisted at stopping at a look out point so I could get a few good photos, before dropping me in Trevelin, at the door of the tourism information office. I got a giant map and instructions on which were the most popular tea houses. Trevelin was a Welsh settlement, and its name is a corruption of the words for “wheat mill.” I also heard about some museums and decided to check one out.

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Of course, it was steps before I got to the museum that I realized I had only Chilean money and US credit cards. I went inside to see if they could take either, and of course they could not. Repealing the reciprocity fee solved one of my travel problems, but not all of them. Of course since we are so close and travel there is easy, I have some Argentine money kicking around. It lives in the drawer with my two US passports. Most foolish. But the women at the museum seemed to really want me to see what their exhibitions were about (Welsh settlement), and they let me in, lack of money notwithstanding, loaned me a locker for my backpack, and wished me a warm goodbye when it was time to go. I told them I’d pay double the next time I go to the museum, and we all had a good laugh.

I wandered around some more, and heard that the Chile-Argentina border closed at 8. It was maybe 4:30, and the border was about 1.5 hours away, so I started the long walk out of town to where the only reason someone would be driving was to head toward the border. It was hot, sunny, thirsty, dusty, but still expansive and lovely. I was told at the tourism office that the hitching spot is La Anónima, a supermarket on the outskirts of town, so I walked a few more miles to there, and stopped in to buy some supplies. Crackers, a vanilla yogurt, some water. Go, credit card.

And I waited.

And waited.

There is a complicated set of hand signals that people flash at hitchhikers, and I must admit that I don’t am not sure what any of them mean. Sometimes they do a both hands off the wheel, “I’m innocent” gesture, which I guess means they would, but they can’t. Other times it’s a finger in the air making circles, which I have come to believe may mean “I’m going, but I’m coming right back.” Sometimes the gesture across their face with a pointing finger, which could mean, “I’m going thataway.” There were a bunch of other ones thrown in that I found nearly indecipherable, and as the shadows grew longer, I found myself saying out loud, “I don’t even know what that means!” and getting progressively more worried. It wasn’t the worry of “I’m going to die,” it was the annoyance of, “I’m going to have to stay here at someplace that will take a credit card, while I am already paying for a place to stay in Futa, and I am very likely to miss the one bus a week that goes directly to Puyuhuapi from Futa, and why did I even come to Argentina?” I was imagining walking back to town, the discomfort of not even having a toothbrush, the annoyance of the fact that by that point in the day I’d already walked about 12 miles, and I would soon have to walk a few more to get back into Trevelin to my imagined credit-card accepting hotel.

I decided that if no one picked me up by about 6:30 PM, I’d head back into town to lick my wounds, and eat my crackers.

But then a car stopped. Inside was a couple from two different parts of Chile, central and south, and as I got in the car and said, “oye, me salvaron” (hey, you saved me), they both said, “chilena!” and I knew I would like them. Because though I am not Chilean, I am definitely more Chilean than Argentine, and who doesn’t like some positive language feedback.

But you want to know about the $14, cierto? So we drove along, the couple and I, and the road was awful, and we made small talk, and we stopped, and I took pictures of them, and they took pictures of me, and we exchanged email addresses. And then we got to the Argentine border. And I quickly took out my Chilean carnet, pleased to no longer need my 2 US passports to make this transaction that should have taken less time than the cracker/yogurt/water purchase at La Anónima, and free of the no Argentine cash problem for the foreseeable future.

And here’s where things went not quite right.

Argentine border official-“Where’s your tourism card?”

Hapless gringa- “I don’t have a tourism card”

ABO- “You lost it?”

HG- “They didn’t give it to me.”

ABO- “They gave it to you.”

HG- “No, they didn’t.”

Here I started to think, hey, wait a minute, didn’t something happen with the crossing into Argentina?

“When did you leave Chile?” she demanded.

“This morning,” I said.

“Give me your carnet.”

And I did, and there was a wait, in which it became clear to me that I had accidentally evaded the border on the way in. I had a vague recollection of a barrier across the left side of the highway that we passed blithely in the car with our bananas and my new pretend brother and sister in the back of the pickup.

It became clearer still to me when the shouting started.

“EVADISTE LA FRONTERA” (you evaded the border)

Which was totally true, so I didn’t argue. But then she wanted to know how.

“CÓMO EVADISTE LA FRONTERA?”

I explained about the toll booth-like barrier and how it was an accident, but it turned out that:

“NOT EVADING THE BORDER IS MY RESPONSIBILITY”

Which was also totally true.

Here there is some cultural stuff going on. First of all, the familiar form of tú in Argentine Spanish is “vos.” In Argentina, “vos” is nice. It’s what you say to friends. In Chile, we mainly use it to tell someone off.

“VOS EVADISTE LA FRONTERA”

might be a) a normal speaking tone in Argentina and b) very polite by Argentine standards. In Chile it was like I didn’t hand in my book report on time and my 4th grade teacher was PISSED.

Still, I remained calm, because she was right and also, because I was expecting a totally different kind of problem, a too-much-walking, credit card, bus-missing problem. No one told me a young woman would berate me in Spanish at the border. It hadn’t even occurred to me, so I had neglected to worry about it, and now found myself unable to panic about something I had not yet worried about (which bears thinking about in the future).

“NOW I HAVE NO WAY TO ENTER YOU IN THE SYSTEM. HOW CAN YOU LEAVE A COUNTRY YOU ENTERED ILLEGALLY?”

So true. And the truth was, I didn’t know. I couldn’t imagine the solution would be making me live in Argentina forever, and in fact, at this point she said, “and now you’re going to have to pay a fine.” To which I said, “de acuerdo,” which means “I agree/You’re right.” I mean, can you imagine if I’d illegally entered the United States? They might call the National Guard. It would be an international ordeal, with hours of questioning, and possible banishment. I would not want to be on the wrong side of that equation. In this situation, despite the yelling, it seemed like this accidental issue could be solved with some paperwork and paying a fee. I thought about the fine for evading the border into Argentina. What could it be? $75? $200? I was going to have to pay it, regardless. I hoped it wouldn’t be too painful, but was also just pleased when she started speaking to me in a normal tone.

Then she showed me on the website where I have to go to pay the fine, because she is not authorized to receive the fines, and because apparently, this happens with some regularity. It was going to be 200 Argentine pesos, or $14 US. In addition to being unavoidable, it seemed reasonable, especially since I’d traveled free to and from Esquel, taken all the pictures, met the guys with the berets, eaten the banana, and gone to the museum for free. The border official printed out a piece of paper with the instructions, and then I asked her how long I had to pay the fee. She said I just had to do it before entering Argentina again, which I will, despite the fact that I could also enter Argentina with my passport, as opposed to my carnet. They don’t keep track of which passport belongs to which carnet belongs to which person, and I am essentially three different people to Argentina. No obstante (the foregoing notwithstanding), I totally plan to pay the fee. I made a mistake, it was my fault, and I am lucky that the fine was so low.

Which we talked about in great length in the 2 or so km to the Chile border crossing with the couple who had picked me up in Trevelin, who did not much enjoy the shouting and wondered how serious trouble I had gotten into, and also (I imagine), whether they should just abandon me at the border.

“If that had been Chile,” I said, “they would not yell at you. They would say, oh no, there’s a problem, and you have to pay this money, and pucha, what a bummer, but here is this form.” And we all agreed and had a good laugh about it. I then went through the Chilean process, and came out to find the couple standing by their car with the trunk open, accompanied by a man from SAG. SAG is Chile’s agriculture department, in charge of protecting the borders from products of vegetable or animal origin which could damage Chile’s production and economy. The man moved a blanket that was in the trunk.

Man from SAG- “And those pinecones?”

Hapless Chileans- “Oh no,” the woman said, “we picked them up yesterday in Chile”

MfS- “And why are they hidden here?”

HC- “Oh, they’re not hidden, they’re just there in the corner of the trunk because they must have fallen.”

MfS- “You can’t import pine cones into Argentina”

HC- “They’re Chilean pine cones.”

MfS- “I have bad news for you, I have to confiscate them. They could have bugs in them.”

And he folded back the baby blue blanket they were under and picked them up gingerly with two hands, and threw them in the trash can of things to be destroyed, which he told me, when I asked him, “mostly had apples in it.” The fines for importing vegetable or animal products without declaring them for inspection is about $200, and is routinely charged to people who fail to heed the signs at the airpot in Santiago. Legally, the couple should have been fined.

Instead, the man from SAG shook the man of the couple’s hand, agreed it was a bummer that they’d lost their pinecones, and wished them a good trip, and didn’t fine them at all. At no point did he raise his voice, nor speak angrily. And we all got in the car to drive the rest of the paved road back to Chile, whereupon I found the post office/clothing store/bus station was open, and I was able to buy my ticket to Puyuhuapi, the next stop on my trip further south. I later had pizza and a microbrew beer at a little rustic outdoor food patio.

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I had made some foolish choices, and gotten distracted at exactly the wrong moment due to near complacency about living in South America for so long, and probably also the confusion of switching into the interior of the truck with the family. As a consequence I got yelled at, and owe Argentina $14. But I also made it back to Futaleufú, had a good laugh at cultural differences, and was able to continue on the next part of my journey the following day, which was all I really needed. Sorry Argentina, it really was an innocent mistake. And I really will pay the fine, TE LO PROMETO (I promise).

* The usual disclaimers about being very fortunate to be able to travel, to not have wronged the wrong country, etc. apply.

Tales of a Very Aggressive Vegetable in Suriname

In the stultifying heat of Paramaribo, Celeste and I needed lunch. It what our first day together in this city that we both happen to love, for no real reason except that everything about it says, “hey, why are you here?” and “welcome.” Everything from umbrella-carrying ladies who couldn’t care less if you are behind or in front of them, to a woman who opened Brazil nuts with a knife and instructed me on how to do the same at a local market. The faraway mercantile store you could die of heat exhaustion to get to, but when you do, you can buy the best hammocks for a good price, and people have come in from the interior of the country to buy their plaid fabrics (used as wraps, shirts, and skirts), their kitchen whatnots, their needle and thread. Long walks in the sunshine, boat trips across the way, warungs (Indonesian food) if you like it, frosty coffee if you’re having a “Rituals” (Caribbean Starbucks clone) moment, and for the most part “creole food.”

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Creole food, as I’ve come to understand it, is anything in Suriname, French Guiana and Curaçao (and other countries I’ve never been to) that’s a mix of African and something. It’s saucy, curried, oniony, strong in flavor, usually a little oilier than you might eat at home. In Suriname, it’s what you’re eating if you’re not eating at a Warung, a dumpling place, or a roti shop. Sometimes side dishes of it show up besides bami, or nasi, noodle and rice dishes, a sort of combo. And for the most part, it suits me just fine. The last time I had been in Suriname, it was a different time of year, and I remember clearly that the only vegetables I ever saw were green beans, squash and the occasional pepper. When I was in the interior, I was also served a leafy green that was served really sugary. I asked about the sugar, and they said that non-locals don’t like the bitter flavor, so they serve it with sugar for foreigners. I asked them to leave out the sugar for me the next time, and found it tasty. Bitter and spinachy or maybe dasheen-like, but totally edible.

Which is why when we came to the riverside creole/Indonesian lunch spot in Paramaribo and I ordered a dish that came with a vegetable I didn’t recognize the name of, and was told it was bitter, I said, “bring it.” Or actually, I said, “ok, sounds good to me.”

And the food arrived, and we were hungry, and also possibly dying of thirst and desire for refreshment, so we started off the meal, like you do, with a ginger juice. Highly sweetened, and next to Suriname cherry juice, my favorite thing to drink when I’m in Suriname (and I hope to return).

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And then there were the noodles. A bit greasy, totally acceptable, fried plantain on top, and my plate with two vegetables. Traveling as a person who loves vegetables is dicey. Depending on where you go, sometimes you can’t have any, unless you consider Sprite a vegetable (and I generally do not). Here I was, traveling in Suriname and I got to have two, plus the salad. I was thrilled. The spinachy one was spinachy, a heart-shaped leaf, they told me. The second, was a bitter vegetable called “antroewa” or jiló (maybe in Portuguese, or a local language), and it looked a lot like an eggplant. “This is the bitter one,” the waiter said, when he set the plate down, with all the artistry of a person setting down a fragile vase.

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So I dug in, a forkful, and I put it on my mouth.

Oh. My. God.

Bitter is not the word. Bitter is when your tongue says, oh, this is slightly medicinal. Think, a baby aspirin, maybe a grapefruit skin. This was a full on attack, the bitterness turned up to eleven, a fever pitch of bitter.

“How is it?” Celeste asked, probably looking at my face in concern, though I couldn’t see. I could barely hear. I could only taste.

“Aggressive,” I said.

If the human palate has adapted to not eat bitter foods because they might be poisonous, I have not the foggiest idea how how this got into the rotation. You know how when you do wine tasting they explain that you feel tannins here, astringency there? I’m used to tasting things on my tongue, on the various parts, on the interior of my cheeks. You know where I had never tasted bitterness before? In the gums surrounding my molars. I had no idea there were even taste receptors there.

She tasted it, and agreed that it was notably bitter, and wisely stepped back. I kept going. Out of stubbornness? Out of confusion? curiosity? It was like pressing on a bruise. I bit, it bit back. Eventually I gave up, both because I was full, and because it seemed to be injuring me. It also started raining like someone unzipped the sky, but perhaps that’s not that notable in the tropics.

Later on on the trip we spied the vegetable, this time in the markets of French Guiana, 1 euro for that whole plate.

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I did some research, on the base of the name I was given in Suriname, and figured out that in English, it is called the scarlet eggplant. It turns red when ripe, but is generally eaten when green. By whom I cannot say, though I imagine this is not a starter food for young humans. I have to assume that when you are habituated it it, it becomes one of those flavors you miss with your whole soul when you can’t find it. Because I have never tasted anything like it before, and doubt I’ll ever find anything like it again. It is originally from Nigeria, and I can imagine that when the first crop came up, on the coast of South America, people were thrilled, because I bet to someone out there, it tastes like home.

I was not precisely thrilled to try it that first time, but I know somehow that if I were to see it again, I’d try that very aggressive vegetable. Because I’m a sucker for nostalgia. Even when it’s not mine.

** I’ve been meaning to write this for a long time. I’m glad I finally did. Taste anything crazy lately?

Signs of the times, a parable of snark, kindness and visual input

The other day, I was walking down the Alameda, which is the main street in Santiago, such as it goes from Plaza Italia, down to join highway 68, which, if you are lucky, takes you to wineries and the coast. The Alameda (real name: Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins) is a large thoroughfare, sometimes six lanes wide, and down where I live, you have to take a running leap if you want to try to cross the whole avenue in one change of the traffic light, as opposed to getting stranded in the mid-block “calzada” or park block/traffic island (depends on where you are).

It was here on the Alameda that I came across this lovely hand-chalked sign at the café beside the Cine Arte Alameda.

The Cine Arte Alameda is a place I have great fondness for to begin with. They show indie movies, occasionally host craft fairs, and two of my friends have screened their documentaries there. They have bike parking inside, and occasional concerts upstairs in a part called “El Living” (the living room).

And this sign:

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Inviting nursing mothers to come in and have a seat, and nurse babes in arms (or on feet) as they like. What a nice sign I thought! I had seen a photo of a similar one, and I thought then (as I did on this occasion), yes, it’s hot and sweaty and tiring to be out on the street, and you should be able to find a peaceful place to feed your baby. I don’t have a baby, but I appreciate this kindness extended to strangers. What a lovely sign, that makes you stop in your tracks and take a picture, thinking about the buena onda (sort of like “good vibes”) in the world, even if they’re not meant for you, precisely.

The sign was especially poignant because the day before, I’d been at a decidedly more uptown location, a restaurant with a fancy wine list and French food, and if you know the place I’ve said enough, and if you don’t, it doesn’t really matter. At that place, I saw this other sign.

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Which, translated says “Dear Tourists, this is Chile (we’re in Chile), and we invite you to practice your Spanish.”

How… something. Cozy? no, that’s not the word. Welcoming? No, that’s not it either.

Okay, so first of all, this restaurant gets beaucoup tourists, because it is in every guidebook and every website that covers Santiago. Tourists come and spend money, and tip well. So it’s not bad that they’re there, right? You’d like them to speak Spanish. Fair enough, it is stressful to be spoken to in a language that you don’t understand (presumably some of the staff). But how about, “Hey tourists, we promise not to make fun of your accent if you speak Spanish,” or “Don’t be shy, speak Spanish!” The way it’s phrased, it sounds a bit like “Speak Spanish or go home.” Also, with the exception of Brazilian tourists, the tourists that are not speaking Spanish probably cannot read the sign. So what does the sign accomplish?

Does it make tourists feel good? No.

Does it make expats feel good? Tampoco. (not that, either)

Does it make me want to patronize this restaurant again? Not particularly. The sign just seems mean-spirited, and generates a wave of microaggression, rather than offering something helpful. How about some Spanish lessons?

“Por favor, quiero el X” (Please, I would like the X), or whatever it is that people are not saying correctly or at all in Spanish.

And speaking of Spanish lessons, I have one for you, passive aggressive sign-writer: The names of languages are not capitalized in Spanish, which means tourists are not the only ones that could use some practice.

And to my irony-inclined dinner companion (who speaks Spanish) who walked up to the hostess and asked her point blank, and within inches of the sign, “Where’s the bathroom?” This one’s for you.

Feria report, with tomatoes with real tomato taste

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There are times when you go to the feria obligado, you go because you have to, because when you open the fridge there is more space than stuff, and when dinnertime comes, you think, “I could eat rice and yogurt and lemon pickle.” (Just me?) Then there are times that you go because you think, yay, Saturday, I get to go to the feria! That’s what happened to me today.

Notable moments included discussions by the woman who sold me grapes (who, as we were talking, was buying change rolled up in graph paper taped with Scotch tape from a man who is going to Chiloé on vacation, but just with his wife, leaving he kids behind) talking to the across the way fish lady about the right kind of aloe vera (apparently not the Chilean kind) that has the right kind of medicinal properties, according to her doctor to help with some back pain she’s having. I though about telling her about my new lower body stretching routine that is helping my back, but then I just bought the grapes and continued on. Another repeated theme today was cars missing parts. I saw one car that was shedding panels as it went, driving through the feria, a large, copper-colored station wagon that had more clang than umph, and on the bike ride home, one car missing the back bumper, and one missing the front one. Cars look naked and toothless in this condition, and you have to wonder how prudent the drivers are, so maybe it works to keep them out of future accidents, I’m not sure.

But you came here for the vegetables! First, here’s a little sign on a basket. People in Chile wax nostalgic about a mythical tomato from antaño (yesteryear) that tasted like tomatoes. The ones now, especially the ones from the supermarket are said to either “have the flavor of nothing” (not taste like anything), or to taste like plastic. I have eaten better and worse tomatoes in my life, including the ones we used to eat fresh from the backyard garden, while actually still standing in the garden, saltshaker in hand, which smelled and tasted and felt like summer, so I can totally relate to what this sign says, which is “Fresh juicy tomatoes with real tomato taste,” though this is not actually where I bought my tomatoes today.

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But you came here for the vegetables!

In the haul above, we have the following. 1 USD=713 CLP at the moment

cauliflower, one large 1000 CLP=$1.40
iceberg lettuce 600 CLP=$.84
radishes 500 CLP=$.70
1 kilo lemons 600 CLP=$.84
800 grams white grapes 800 CLP=$1.12
500 grams strawberries 400 CLP=$.56
1.2 kilos tomatoes 800 CLP=$1.12
1 bunch assorted herbs n greens 500 CLP=$
1 bunch fresh thyme 500 CLP=$.70
4 small onions 300 CLP=$.42
8 carrots 400 CLP=$.56
1 dozen farm-fresh eggs 1500 CLP=$2.10
1 bunch scallions 400 CLP=$.56
“american” corn 2 ears 500 CLP=$.70
1 kilo cranberry beans 800 CLP=$1.12

Total 9600 CLP=$13.46, and a couple of good stories. Enjoy! Also, if anyone knows what you’re supposed to do with fresh thyme, I’m all ears. It was just so pretty I couldn’t not buy it.

Rethinking Valparaíso

The allegedly soon to be repaired Cerro Mariposas funicular.

The allegedly soon to be repaired Cerro Mariposas funicular.

If there’s one city in Chile that I have a complicated relationship with, it’s Valparaíso. On the one hand, it’s an easy place to get to from Santiago, often sunny and cheerful, colorful and bright. On the other hand, it’s impenetrably confusing, like a map had a baby with a bowl of spaghetti, and then someone threw it down a flight of stairs, and then up again. And I have no sense of direction at the best of times, and I’m always two hills over from where I’m trying to be, and there’s a giant ravine between me and where I’m trying to go, and it’s often full of trash.

But then there are glorious parts of Valparaíso. A freeze frame of years ago, the bakery on Condell and somewhere with little cookies like the ones we used to get in the red and white string tied bakery box from my childhood in Brooklyn. And shops that sell nothing but springs and bolts, and then the boastful nature of colorful houses, each one brighter than the next on the few hopping hills that everyone spends time on, Cerro Bellavista, Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción. I think I’ve figured out what bothers me about Valparaíso is the ways in which it reminds me of the have and have nots in Chile. There are places where it seems like muggings are more likely (or I in fact, know of people who have been mugged there) and there are spots where it always smells like sewage. But this is life. The difference is that in Valparaíso it’s all a bit jumbled up together, and I can’t precisely choose to go only places that I feel comfortable. And that being said, I have a pretty wide range of areas I feel comfortable in, there’s just something about being semi-lost and a little concerned for my safety that triggers my get-me-out-of-here gene like nobody’s business.

But in Valparaíso, especially up in the hills, people say hi to you. “Buenos días,” they respond, if you call it out, or even just “buenas,” especially if it’s early in the morning, and you’re alone. And it’s a small gesture, but it feels welcoming, and it’s not something typical of the city I live in, though due to the great key misplacement of 2015, which I will one day tell the story of, my neighbors all know me and say hi.

Anyway, I was in Valparaíso today on a fact finding/work research mission, and I have to admit, I probably haven’t been since February of 2013, when I last shot the crazy downhill bike race. I brought a medium-sized, less-showy camera than I might have to some other places, and wore sturdier shoes, because I wasn’t really sure what the day would bring, other than (in part), a construction site. And I ran up and down a trillion stairs and the two people I’d gone to meet were incredibly helpful, and I ate really, good food (if you click here, you will get to the instagram that I share with a friend wherein we run around and eat really good food, and the fish is on me, and the meat on her, because that’s how we roll).

A tiny preview of said food (details in the insta).

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And I also thought about the fact that one of the people I was talking to today reminded me that if you don’t hire someone to paint a mural on your outside walls in Valparaíso, people will tag it. So people pay artists to paint murals, and there are many different kinds of motifs, but one of the ones you see a bunch includes scenes of Valparaíso. That’s right, this is a city that is decorated with pictures of itself. All three murals show the funiculars, few of which are still working, but plans are afoot to get some of them up and running again, including the Cerro Mariposas one there’s a photo of above. For what it’s worth, the all-day overcast weather was not typical for this time of year, I even got drizzled on.

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And as I ponder the reductive nature of, do those murals of Valparaíso have murals of Valparaíso on the walls within (not that I can see), I have to admit that maybe what made me love Valparaíso more than usual today (aside from the food) was the fact that I was talking to porteños. And they love their city so much that they hire people to paint pictures of it. With so much New York/London/etc. paraphernalia everywhere in Santiago, it’s kind of nice to see a city that believes it’s the center of the universe, even if much of it appears to be perched precariously on hillsides that are secretly laughing at me because once again, I have no idea where I am.

Chile food hack, s’mores version

My ire for those who search high and low for exact replicas of the homeland food products is irrationally great. Particularly when they are from the same place as me, and insist time after time after time that they must have: graham crackers! regular cheerios! or whatever! This time of year everyone is a-twitter with cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes, and come camping season, surely will come the s’mores request.

Wherefore I provide to you the following, the Chile s’mores hack.

You will need:

1 bar Karina milk chocolate, bought in the gringo foods section in Santa Isabel, Lider and other supermarkets, not with the rest of the chocolate, I don’t know why. Buy Hershey’s if you must, but the Hershey’s we get is formulated to withstand the heat of Brazil, where it is made, and it tastes even more like wax than usual.

1 bag marshmallows. I have never noticed a difference in marshmallow taste from one brand to the next. There, I have said it, I am not a marshmallow expert. Please unfollow if necessary.

1 packet “Vino” crackers. They are not graham crackers. They do not taste the same. But they are the right shape, and they are crunchy, and unless you want to import them yourself or make crackers, half of which will end up on the ground, because yo, s’mores break easily, just use the vino crackers. You can also use galletas Maria, which are a closer taste match but a) round b) harder to find and c) often have grasa bovina in them. I’ll stick to the mashed up cowsey and horsey bones in my marshmallows, that’s enough for me, thank you.

Here is what your assembled snackarrific “ingredient” pile will look like at 10:30 PM when you get home from the supermarket, and whereupon you realize you have no idea what language your brain functions in anymore, when you mishear “at 10 PM, the supermarket stops selling bebidas alcohólicas” as something about meatballs (albóndigas). This was through headphones, hearing’s not that bad yet, thank goodness.

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From there you know what to do. Toast, smoosh, eat.

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Also, if you notice vastly different lighting conditions, you are very observant. I have officially spoiled all my meals of the day and had a s’more for second breakfast. No regrets. Also, finally a food that doesn’t look jaundiced against my “screw my security deposit-colored” walls.

When in doubt, make it yourself. The detergent report.

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Amid recent reports of price fixing among of all things, toilet paper manufacturers, I return time and again to the things that are difficult, impossible or expensive to buy in Santiago. I had always noticed that toilet paper seemed disproportionately expensive, at somewhere around 80 cents US a roll, but what am I going to do about it? It’s not like I’m going to keep a cloth in the bathroom and… do I really need to finish this sentence?

So when the reports came out that there was collusion in pricing, as there had been among pharmacies a few years earlier, I was not surprised. I was also not surprised that proposed penalties don’t even come close to covering the ill-gotten-gains of the perpetrators, never mind punitive damages, or the chilling effect it might have had on other independent makers or sellers of same. hmmm, I thought. I won’t make my own meds. Or my own toilet paper. Guess I’m just locked into this system.

But then a while ago I took a course on natural cleaning products, which I figured would look like this: use vinegar. Also, baking soda. And while it did, the instructor has a PhD in molecular biology and she also gave me some other ideas, including, why exactly am I not making my own laundry detergent? It seems so easy, smells like nothing (unless you want it to). Also, with my new surprise allergies (surprise! I have allergies, every year!), it seemed like using low-allergen detergent to clean the actual allergens out of my linens and clothes was a no-brainer. I had taken the course at Huerto Hada Verde, and they teach lots of courses, and you should go check them out, and say hi when you get there. We’re old friends.

So yesterday I rode my bike over to the chemist, where I mean the actual chemist, where they sell chemicals, which in my case was Distribudora Cientifica (Aldunate 1475), and bought a kilo each of borax and sodium carbonate, which if you live in the US, is called washing soda, and they sell it in the detergent aisle. I duly brought these home and then followed a recipe similar to this one, for natural laundry detergent, and had great fun with the grating and mixing and stirring and such. I used Ivory soap, because I bought some last time I was in the states, for just this occasion (and because I use it to wash clothes when I am traveling at times). The total cost for the chemicals was 3090 CLP, or about $4.41. The soap cost maybe 50 cents, as I bought a large pack. I have about 800 grams remaining of both of the chemicals, which I can use to clean various things in my house, or, in FIFTY SIX washes from now (for about a dollar?!) I can make more laundry detergent.

This is probably part of a larger rant about questioning what we buy and are sold. You can and should buy whatever you want. But you have to ask yourself who’s getting soaked (ha), when a 5 kg box of my formerly favorite laundry detergent costs $21, and even washing more than twice a week, I won’t have to buy more detergent for 6 months, at a cost of a single dollar.

I can’t wait for the next price fixing story to come out. I hope it’s not for the tin foil I’ll need for my hat. Though who am I kidding, I buy my foil in the states. Also, the washing soda is a controlled substance here, for reasons I don’t quite understand and am not planning on looking up, but when the very nice woman who was helping me at the chemical supply shop asked me for my ID, she explained, and I asked her if I should tell her what I was doing with what I was buying, she told me to basically, “save it for the (local version of the) FBI.” I only hope I’m doing laundry when they pop by.

I give you: the beansnake, or the midweek Vega report

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Beansnake?

I was on my way home from the doctor today, for the long-fought asthmapalooza extravaganza, and decided to pop into the Vega. Bought a bunch of stuff, as I am wont to do, and rejoiced at the price of overripe tomatoes, because I am constitutionally incapable of staying away from this homemade tomato soup that I love. I also bought a bunch of the usual, because it’s the usual, seen above, with prices below.

But what I really want to talk to you is about the beansnake. There are certain ways certain things come packaged. In Chile, for example, many foreigners have trouble finding tomato paste because the can is like can-of-peaches shaped, not Redbull-shaped. (it’s also called concentrado de tomates, not pasta de tomates, but I digress). We are used to seeing certain foods in certain formats. And there is a very specific way that habas, or fava beans are sold in Chile. In a bag, a little taller than it is wide, tied at the top. Peas are sold the very same way.

How they are not sold is in a long snake. As they were today. In fact, I didn’t even really want habas (except actually I do, because they are so delicious and proteiny), but could not resist their allure in this ridiculously snakey, draft-catching format. I posed with them as a stole, or necklace for a bit, before putting them in my bag, imagining that someone had bought the wrong shaped bags, and then thought to himself “qué tanto?” (what’s the big deal). And I wonder what else they could have made me buy if only they’d packaged it strangely. Alas, everything else was standard, except for the fact that I was at the Vega on a Tuesday. And the seldom-seen shitakes (see below) were sold loose.

Prices, where 1 dollar=700 CLP (OH MY GOODNESS, I haven’t seen that since 2004, I think).

1/2 kilo arugula=1000 CLP/$1.43
1 bag watercress=500 CLP/$.71
1 bunch cilantro=300 CLP/$.43
1 bunch parsley=300 CLP/$.43
3 giant scallions=400 CLP/$.57
broccoli=700 CLP/$1.00
shitake mushrooms=300 CLP/$.43
1 snake worth of fava beans=1000 CLP/$1.43
1.5 kilos semi-overripe tomatoes=600 CLP/$.86

5100 CLP/$7.28

Not pictured, tip given to the boys laying down airflares and freezes like it was 1982 at at Roll-a-Palace. Breakdancing reference. Also a Brooklyn reference.

The world tastes like so many things, Bogotá market report

You would be forgiven for thinking that all the things you have tasted fill the entire book of your palate’s possible trigger points. That every taste could be described in terms of other tastes. That’s what wine lovers will have you believe, with their hundred and something recognized tastes and smells of wines, and I recently found out that coffee people have one, too, which I smelled and failed and smelled and failed at again on a recent trip to Colombia.

What I did not fail at was eating fruit in Bogotá. I went on a tour (organized by the hotel, organized by the magazine, bla bla bla, not that interesting, and anyway, people in Colombia are nice enough, if you go, and you pay for the fruit, you can do this by yourself, too). I started the day by scarfing down some avocado because I had been so throughly fed the day before that I am still full, and therefore did not eat any breakfast, but yet was hungry. I know, the sense it makes is not great.

And then we set upon the market with knives.

No, actually we set upon it with pocket change, and the fruit sellers were the ones with the knives. The well-manicured hands are not mine. I don’t favor red polish, and also, impossible to hold fruit with two hands and take photos at the same time, turns out.

First there was a pitaya, which was so much juicier and fruitier and more interesting than the sad, underripe one I once had in New Zealand. Sorry NZ, I love you, but you are far from the tropical fruit zone. Plus the guy cut it into a flower.

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And then there was the anon, which is similar to the cherimoya or guanabana, but a little grainier.

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Then we took a break and had some baked goods, pandebono with guava inside, and a melty cheese thing no one could remember the name of.

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Followed by a juice stop for curuba, borojó, and what was essentially fruit salad. Borojó was meatier than I expected. it’s the red one. And tangier. I didn’t exactly like it, but I wasn’t sure why.

 

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My first ever mangosteen. How could it be?
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This showed up later in a little ice lens on my fancy mocktail in celebration of the elections, because ley seca. The name could refer to many of a series of fruits. It’s very cute, but not as tasty as Chilean maqui, and a bit acidic.
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My word, SAPOTE, where have you been all my life?
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And these are one of many palm fruits I’ve eaten or drunk or tasted in ice cream in recent weeks. They are called chontaduro, and there’s a part of me that wants to compare them to dry, bready, buttery, artichoke hearts. Or you know, perfection. So tasty.
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There were also chickens, egg depositories, and flowers-a-bajillion. I wish I could have spent more time there, but I’m a broken record with the markets already, and I know it. Got a market? Can I go with you? take pictures? eat stuff? I’m sold.

Plus they had good signs at this market, like the one, that said, “the avocados are ripe, if you need to squeeze something, try the coconut.” Saucy.

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The actual articles when they come out will be much more well-heeled, and they will have me staying in fancy places and eating things not cut with a pocket knife with someone else’s hands in the pictures. But it takes all kinds, and I have no desire to have to choose between the two experiences, I’m happy and lucky to fit them both in. Now where was that market?