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Monday, December 30, 2013

More Backstory....

This article gets at one of the main reasons why I fled the USA in order to live abroad: I Am Not My Job.

While I wasn't coming from an area as ridiculously expensive as NYC, I find the USA to be expensive in general, and my life there included some necessary evils in order to maintain a functional, productive life. (cars, mainly).

I was in the camp that pursued the day job and relegated my passions to spare time. Which, as anyone with a semi-professional 9-5 can attest, means that you're working far more than 40 hours per week, most likely commuting, and very little of that leftover energy typically goes toward passion-promoting activities. You just wanna sit the hell down when you have the chance.

Which is why my novels went untouched for years and my writing craft totally withered into a crusty shell of its former glory. My dreams were still there, but the time to accomplish them continued to evaporate as the years marched on. The majority of my available energy went into common domestic tasks, socializing with friends, and getting my yoga done (and not even religiously).

The move abroad was necessary for me to feel like I was finally getting a chance to focus. Ditch some of the responsibilities that felt, to me, like they were clogging my plumbing (insurance bills, car maintenance expenses, buying gas) instead of allowing safe passage of goals and inspiration. Some people can feel this way perfectly fine in their hometown or adult landscape. I, however, did not. I felt constantly "busy" and never "productive", as the author mentions in her article. And I needed, desperately, to make a change to more productive and far less busy.

My move to Chile has afforded me this. In a huge way. Although it's a relatively expensive Latin American country, my lifestyle costs are minimal, and I am for the first time living in a way that feels authentic to me. Now when someone asks me what I do, my answer is "I am a writer." I still have a day job (though sometimes writing IS the day job), but the difference is that I feel confident and secure in responding this way because my passion has finally taken precedence in my daily life.

The author of the article says she doesn't advocate that everyone move to the mountains like she did, but hopes that other young creatives can begin to consider different home bases as they seek to pursue their craft. And while I don't think moving to the mountains (or the seaside...or South America...or Chile, for example) is hard and fast necessary, I DO recommend such a move. Move to the Catskills, or the Andes, or Costa Rica, or into a strange commune on the other side of the US, or into a distant uncle's cabin in Oregon, or to the freakin' Phillipines. Try it. See what happens. Because if such a move or adventure is possible, your creativity can only improve because of it. I did have to move my home base to be able to milk the sweet teat of creativity. And look at what has come sputtering forth: heinous analogies.

Now that I've got some of my creative goals underway and I know more of what it feels like to be living a creative life as opposed to waiting for the weekends to maybe re-visit that old story I stopped working on five years ago, I feel confident that I can someday come back to my home country and effectively be a creative writer.

Maybe not quite yet, though.

But someday.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Signs of Change

There comes a point in life when you look around and you realize little things have changed despite your best efforts.

I won't lie, when I started dating the Argentinian Jorge, I wasn't too keen on learning Argentinian Spanish or adopting his customs. I don't know why -- it just wasn't on my agenda. I had come to Chile and that felt to be enough of a cultural endeavor.

Eating lunch at 4 or 5 pm? Dinner at 10? Drinking mate (pronounced MAH-tay) instead of coffee? Bread and/or mayonnaise with every meal? WTF with 'vos' and 'desis'? Sorry, the correct terminology is "tu" and "dices". Thanks. 

Both of us being ex-pats in Chile, it hasn't been too hard to concentrate on learning Chilean culture and Spanish instead of Argentinian. I at least have an excuse to resist mate, I figured.

But then comes the day-in and day-out. There's the fact that the person I hear and speak to most is Jorge, and no matter how hard I wish it otherwise, he will never use the tu form when he speaks. There's the fact that when he gets excited, upset, impassioned or irritated, his Italian-influenced Spanish starts flooding out, and I understand even less of what he's saying (when I'm not giggling). There's the fact that he takes me to his country to meet his entire sprawling Argentinian family, and we spend lazy afternoons sharing mate and getting to know one another and I begin to understand the real meaning of taking mate.

It's the end of the year so I'm looking around at my life, taking stock of where I am and what I'm doing, asking myself if I want to keep doing this or maybe take another leap. Asking myself hard questions (Do I like what I'm doing? Do I feel healthy? Am I happy?), looking at other areas (a move to Ecuador? What about Columbia? Costa Rica?), thinking about other lifestyles I might want to explore.

And while the swirl of questions continues dense like a cloud around my head, I look around my immediate area -- my desk, my plethora of pens, the journals, the craft supplies that I always give away but continue to follow me and accumulate no matter what country I'm in -- and I notice something suspicious.

This is mate. My very own mate.
As in, I own this mate set.

I'm drinking mate, by myself, and I might not have even made coffee this morning.

And maybe some mornings I wake up and prefer mate over coffee.

And maybe sometimes I look at Jorge and in my head I use 'vos' (though I would never say it to his face). (Yet.)

And maybe yesterday I slathered mayo all over toasted bread and then ate it. Happily.

And pretty much every day I eat lunch after 2pm. 

And when I get excited, upset, impassioned or irritated with Jorge, I find his same Italian-Spanish mannerisms and expressions slipping out.

When did all of this happen???

2013 brought a lot of unexpected lessons, changes, cycles and more. It has been, by far, the best year of my life. If I can end the year thinking 'vos' and drinking mate over coffee, then anything is possible. 2014 is on the cusp of existence and I couldn't be more excited for what lay ahead. I lift my mate to you all as we close up this lovely year and embark upon new journeys.


Thursday, December 5, 2013

Sharing Forks and Sitting on the Floor: Thanksgiving in A Vagabond House

I live in what I affectionately term a "Vagabond House".

This is a house which is rented for 3 months or more (sometimes up to a year) by bonafide transients, typically (and in my case) foreigners without legal residency in the host country and with plans to move forward to some destination once said lease is up.

Due to the nature of the "vagabond house", it doesn't make sense to invest in too much furniture, because we'll just have to sell it. We have a stove, a washer, a fridge, mattresses, and some left over surfaces from whoever lived here before. Also, we bought one couch and 12 plastic chairs.

Everything else we have in here was constructed by us (i.e. Jorge, or Martin and Amanda....okay, mostly just not me) from dumpster diving acquisitions: a side table which Jorge nailed together from disparate found pieces, which he and I then lovingly painted wild colors; multiple crates that now hold tomato, chard and kale plants; decorative items such as the rusty children's bike that hangs suspended from our ceiling, etc.

While the Vagabond House doesn't have everything in a material sense, it has everything we need. (Well, a real French Press might be nice, but...hey. Vagabonds can't be choosers.)

But the key word there is "we"; the 5 of us that live in this house.

The Vagabond House doesn't have everything to accommodate the oh, let's say, 15 guests who are planning on showing up at your door for an Ex-Patriot Orphan Friendsgiving.

When my friend Peter and I were talking about Thanksgiving plans back in early November, it was a natural decision – yes, the feast must be here!  We have a very large house with an established reputation for fun times and hosting. Despite the lack of accoutrements for said wildly-large-Thanksgiving-feast, I told myself, “Hey. It’ll be fine. It’ll work out somehow.”

It was around one day before Thanksgiving that I realized that it might not actually work out. My guest list was 20+ people, with an established rule that “any American who doesn’t have a place to spend the holiday is welcome to come”, which meant that the 20+ people could swell considerably, depending on how many adrift Americans were found.

Aside from the 20+ guests, I realized something else: only 5 of us live in the house. Which means we bought/inherited our dinnerware based on this number. We have 4 coffee mugs, 9 regular glasses, and 2 wine glasses. There were less than 10 each of forks, spoons and knives; two pots for boiling water; one large casserole dish type thing that wasn’t a casserole dish but could be used as one; and one large bowl for mixing and serving purposes. Furthermore, we have 8 large dinner plates, 6 bowls, and one tiny plate that isn’t good for anything except, well, a pat of butter.

The math in my head went something like this: 6 + 5 + 9! / 17 – 4(x) + 33 =…..DRASTIC SHORTAGE.

The solution? Strongly urge people to bring their own cups. And silverware. And go buy a couple more casserole dishes.

I did these things, and on the morning of our Thanksgiving, we started baking and preparing extra early in preparation for the hassles of transferring dishes into holding bays while certain things were used and then unoccupied and then eventually re-transferred and…phew.

But I didn’t mention the best part—the Chilean stoves. Instead of clearly-defined temperature marks and an ability to know the difference between broil and bake, the Chilean Gas Oven features an infuriating knob with no lines, no numbers, and no indicator as to whether or not you are scorching the crap out of your casserole or just lightly heating it for 12 hours. "Turning it on" requires a terrifying 10 seconds of sticking open flame into two inconveniently placed holes where, once it lights, sometimes you can smell your eyebrows burning.

But you know what? Despite the shortage of items, implements and objects typically associated with Thanksgiving-Without-A-Hitch, despite not having an electric stove or any idea if I was baking at 245 degrees or 750 degrees….it worked out perfectly.

I made a literal vat of homemade mashed potatoes, the Bradford-Famous Corn Crop, AND vegan stuffing. Not to mention Amanda put TWO turkeys into the Chilean Thinly-Veiled-Inferno Oven, and neither were scorched, singed, or lightly caressed by heat for half a day.

Corn Crap Close-Up

It was a wholly successful Ex-Patriot Thanksgiving: made somewhat easier by the fact that the final count came to 17.

My general premise was as follows: any attending American should bring a homemade and/or beloved home dish, and all non –Americans bring something for drinking purposes. This way, we maintain the “typical food” of the holiday while nobody breaks the bank on supplying beverages for so many people. In addition to what Amanda and I created, we also were treated to the following dishes: a basic salad, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie, apple crisp, bread pudding, cheesecake, home made bread, and pumpkin pie with cream. Oh – and a crap ton of wine.

Not too shabby, right?

I don’t know if I would have ever agreed to host even 17 people in the USA prior to moving abroad, much less the original estimate of over 20. I think I might have been too overwhelmed by a perceived "lack" of things for such a big number.

But this year, as I saw the number of guests climb and the number of dinner plates remain resolutely at 8, what became very clear to me was the following idea, which has permeated my life abroad as I follow the regular rhythms of life under very different circumstances:  if I have something to share and you have something to share, we can make something work. Thanksgiving 2013 proved to me just how far you can go with far less than what you’re accustomed to.

Sure, most of my guests were sitting on the floor (re: vagabond housing), leaning against the wall, or otherwise disobeying every rule your grandmother ever set forth for proper dinner etiquette on a holiday. I mean, for god’s sake, there was no autumn leaf-themed napkins!

But we were happy as hell. Delicious food, excellent company, and just enough spoons to go around.

Digging in! 

Me and Chelsea went first -- no need to delay,
we Americans know what to get extras on first. 

Happy International Orphan Friendsgiving!

And like every Thanksgiving in the States...there's always leftovers, no matter how much you stress about feeding everyone. We had enough turkey and potatoes left over to have a Thanksgiving on the Ocean the next day!!

Thanks for a great GraciasDando, Valpo!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Between Here And There: Part 2

In April of this year, I went to Mendoza on my first official border run, which I wrote about in the original post, Between Here And There. I spent only two days there -- a perfunctory visit as opposed to a sight-seeing, money-spending, OMG-I'm-visiting-vineyards-and-drunk-at-3pm trip like I typically like to have -- so when my next border run came up at the end of October, my boyfriend and I decided to make a vacation of it.

(Did I mention Jorge yet? I apologize, blog-o-fiends -- I have an Argentinian boyfriend. He is lovely, and darling, and sweet, and supportive, and talented, and a total delight in my life. This month we will celebrate 8 months together. This is his face:)

I like his face a lot. Like,
A LOT a lot.

This was not only our first vacation together, but a vacation that would allow me to meet every single important person in his life. I was going to meet the entire family.

Jorge's family is big. They hail from rural Argentina, a total born-n'-bred-on-the-farm type family. Jorge is the youngest of 6 children, and his eldest sibling is over 45 years old. He has 17 nieces and nephews.

Let me repeat that. Jorge has 17 nieces and nephews. And the eldest nephew is ALMOST THE SAME AGE AS HIM. Jorge became an uncle for the first time when he was 6 years old. 

When we first spoke of the trip, I had nightmares about it. Not because I didn't want to meet the family (I did), but the thought of being surrounded by so many of his blood relatives who only speak deep-Argentina Spanish (i.e. mostly incomprehensible) and would be sizing me up as the novia kind of made me freak out.

Also, I'm an only child. I don't have troubles remembering my family member's names, because there aren't a lot of us. My family can comfortably fit into a regular sized living room. We don't have to opt for the warehouse for graduation parties, and instead can choose the picnic table option. I don't have 17 nieces and nephews. I don't actually have ANY nieces or nephews. 

We spent the first leg of our trip with 2 of Jorge's "brahs" in Mendoza, where I got to experience far more Mendoza than the first time in April. There were no pink fountains this time, though there was plenty of city-exploring and Andes mountain-visiting.

Me and Jorge, posing by mountains in Mendoza, 

The next leg of our trip featured Candelaria, the 4,500-resident pueblito where Jorge was born and raised. The majority of his family still lives there, minus two siblings who raise their families in the capital city of that province. This is where the cultural differences started to rack up. Let's use a list, because I haven't made one in awhile and am feeling twitchy:

More cultural differences between Argentina and Chile, and other things that are just bizarre:

1. Remember when I was horrified about chilled red wine, and *hard swallow* the use of ice cubes? Well, readers, things took a turn for the worse (for my palate, at least). There exists a phenomenon called vino cortado, which is red wine with soda water. Sometimes, they mix it with coca-cola. [lengthy pause] Needless to say, this was one cultural activity in which I did not participate. Most family members were horrified by the fact that I drank pure wine. COME ON, IT'S MALBEC!

Nothing to do with Malbec wine; this is part of the 
campo (farmland) where Jorge grew up and helped raise racehorses
and generally ran around half-naked at all times.

2. City planning is...different. In both the USA and Chile, cities are cities and towns are towns and there you go. Not in Argentina. They get a bit grabby with the city planning, and what is called "Mendoza" is actually several cities lumped together but differentiated by different names but still...Mendoza. The same for other cities in Argentina as well. It's kind of like how Brooklyn is still New York City but it's also Brooklyn. For my Ohio peeps, it would be like if Huron, Castalia, Sandusky and Milan were all called their names but technically named and considered Sandusky. Whaaat??

3. News coverage is a little excessive. While it reminded me of news coverage back home at times, especially with a preference for celebrity happenings over legitimate world news coverage, the segments in general were long-winded and redundant. The Buenos Aires news channel devoted a lot of time to the fact that it was drizzling. They sent a reporter to cover the drizzle, and the segment featured voluminous quantities of live footage of people ambling on city sidewalks where no rain could be seen. The amount of time dedicated to this segment was like something I'd see back home where a tornado had touched down in Oklahoma and ruined 35 houses and maybe some animals were injured. But no -- it was just raining. Invisibly. And not impacting anyone's day in Buenos Aires. At all. 

4. Meat, man. Meat. Meat meat meat meat. Meat meaty meatmeat MEAT!!! Argentina is famous for meat -- I knew that before I ever went there -- and while both Chile and Argentina are meat-centric cultures, Argentina wins the award on this one. Though my vegetarianism went out the window with my USA residency, I don't eat a LOT of meat in Chile, despite our frequent asados. I knew that going to Argentina under the wing of an Argentinian would be a, well, intestinal shockventure, since I wouldn't be cooking for myself at all. But I wasn't prepared for how damn GOOD it was all going to taste! Jorge's family killed and cooked a lamb for our arrival. That't not even a joke. I was honored, in a way, but also not sure that I should feel honored, because it's normal for them to raise and then kill lambs and then eat them in large group settings because all they can do is large group settings because there's 17 nieces and nephews. (Editor's note: my bowels went on strike after the third consecutive day of eating meat. My return to Chile -- and return to majority vegetarian diet -- has helped the situation, but there was a good week of alarming inactivity in my gut.)

This is Candelaria, by the way.

5. Americans aren't the only ones struggling with geography. I met plenty of people in rural Argentina who weren't really sure of USA's whereabouts. In a way, this felt good: finally, people who don't CARE that I'm American! In another way, this was shocking: how can you not know where America is? Or that we speak English? I suppose this revealed more of my latent egosim as an American, which is a good thing to get rid of while I can. Small towns are small towns anywhere, I suppose. And in some parts of the world, "America" is just a word you hear on the television. 

We wrapped up the last leg of our trip visiting Jorge's other siblings and their respective families in the capital of San Luis province (which also had an alarming amount of neighborhoods the size of cities grouped under the same city name but still called different names), and spent a lot of time eating meat, hanging out, playing with exorbitant amounts of nieces and nephews, and, well, eating more meat.

Jorge with Bauti, Alma and Tobias
(you guessed it -- nieces and nephews)

Jorge's brother and sister-in-law with spawn,
and us (not their spawn) during our daytrip to
La Florida, a beautiful spot outside of San Luis with
views of the Andes and a lot of gorgeous hues in the air.

We're back in Chile now, happy to be home but a little salty that the vacation is over. It was fun meeting all 3,487 members of Jorge's family -- I remember all of their names, I swear -- and it was great getting a tan that will soon wither in the penetrating gray chill of Valparaiso, but it's also nice to be back home: to Valpo, to our house and its rhythms and its kitchen and the coffee, to frequent and consistent wifi connections, and to regular intestinal events.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

One Year Down

I recently returned to civilization (I.E. regular internet use) after a week-and-a-half stint in Argentina, cavorting through countrysides as my boyfriend Jorge and I made the rounds to visit his extensive family. (More on this later!)

The first day of our voyage via bus through the rocky roads of the Andes led us through border control as we crossed in to Argentina. Once we were safely through customs, I paused to take a gander at my passport stamps, as these tend to excite the giddy traveler girl inside me (*ahem* all of them are Chile/Argentina) and I noticed something odd.

The entry stamp for my trip of October 24th, 2013 was right below another stamp into Chile, dated October 24th, 2012.

I unknowingly celebrated my one-year anniversary of Taking the Leap on the exact date itself, and my passport stamps are lovely evidence of this! I couldn't have planned it better if I tried.


Here's to one full year of living my dream! I raise my internet glass of Argentinian Malbec wine (which I consumed heartily during my trip in Argentina, being that we visited Malbec Country in Mendoza, and somebody remind me again why I didn't know about Malbec before??) to this, as I had no idea on October 24th, 2012 where I might be a year later on Ocftober 24th, 2013, but as it turns out, I'm right where I'm supposed to be: happy, healthy, and having a crapton of fun and transformative life experiences.

A year ago, my best friend Leslie, her sister and now-my-friend Amanda and I started out on this adventure not knowing where life would take us, and our paths have all taken surprising and positive turns. There's something to be said for not having a plan and allowing the wind to take you where it may. In my case, it floated me right into a dream house in a beautiful, artistic city where I spend my days writing, working, learning and loving.

I am so grateful for this year, and for this life, and for all of the things that came before it to lead me to this moment and to who I am today.

Thank you to all of you that have played a part in my journey. I appreciate it so much.

(I'm raising the internet glass of Malbec again -- everybody, lift yours too and say "Salud"!)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Self-Employment Woes: The Battle of Productivity (and a brief trip to Mordor)

As some of you may know, I spend a lot of time attached to my computer.

Not physically, of course, though that might be an option to look into someday, but the bulk of my professional, creative and time-wasting endeavors revolve around this sexy white piece of plastic known as my Vaio.

My main lucrative activity, sometimes referred to as my 'day job' is only possible via computer and internet. My side gigs, mostly copy-editing and translation projects, also utilize the computer 100%. On top of that, my creative brain decided long ago that it was going to forsake the pen and paper and now functions best (and exclusively) in Microsoft Word.

My only non-computer yet crucial activities, outside of things like Having Friends, Regular Meals and Using the Bathroom, include the following: journaling and yoga.

Great. So I stare at a screen for the majority of my days, taking plenty of breaks for movement, exercise, eating and whatnot, but still, the fact remains -- I spend a lot of freakin' time with this computer. And do you know what happens when I'm in front of this computer, readers?

Do you?

Just look at this sun-drenched corner of Mild Productivity!

I waste time.

Anyone who primarily writes or uses their computer from home for a living can attest to the fact that time-wasters and distractions run rampant. Facebook itself is a vortex that swallows you whole before you even have a chance to realize you're being sucked in -- then you look at the time and 45 minutes have passed since you casually ambled over to take a gander at the latest status updates. What the hell???

I've taken various measures to control, thwart and otherwise avoid the negative consequences of being self-employed, self-directed and without anyone to moderate me whenever I open facebook thinking "Oh, I just need to send this message real quick then I'm done". None have been very effective, which is why I was extremely interested to find Maneesh Sethi and his blog "Hack the System".

He wrote an article called "Why I Hired A Girl On Craigslist to Slap Me In The Face  -- And How It Quadrupled My Productivity" which speaks to his attempts to better focus while in front of the computer. Using a combination of friendly slaps when he was observed to be off-task and a program called Rescue Time, which monitors overall usage of programs and applications, he was able to quadruple his productivity according to numbers generated by the program.

My first thought was, "Holy god of crispy things, I need this", followed by "Dear lord above, do I have the strength to face the evidence of my procrastination??"

I didn't care, I needed to know. While the slapping aspect of Sethi's experiment didn't resonate so much with me, I DID need PROOF of my excessive time-wasting and/or moderately productive computer usage. I downloaded the free version of Rescue Time, which analyzes how much time you spend utilizing anything and everything on your computer, down to how much time spent on certain websites. You're able to designate which activities are Very Productive, Neutral, or Very Distracting (and levels in between). Furthermore, it sets goals for you automatically, which you can tweak to your own liking -- for instance, spend less than 90 minutes on social networking platforms overall, and 3+ hours on Very Productive activities.

Once the program was up and running, I felt a little spied on and a smidge of secret judgement from the quiet eye of Rescue Time, unblinking and watching all. I could practically feel the red numbers ticking upward as I flicked over to facebook to send an actual scheduling-oriented message to a friend for that day (RESCUE TIME, I NEEDED TO GO THERE), and noticed a pleasant hum of satisfaction as I stayed rooted in my work tab the rest of the morning.

The Eye of Sauron sees all in Mordor -- similar to the way
Rescue Time quietly and unfailingly witnesses my computer activities.
This picture is an Eye of Sauron desk lamp, which I might need to purchase
as a way to keep myself on task as opposed to hiring someone to slap me.

Once enough hours had passed for the program to collect any meaningful data on my productivity (or lack thereof), I braved my way into the Dashboard to see what the results might be, knowing within myself that I had spent the day thusfar as probably 'decently productive'.

The percentage of productivity that faced me was 32.



One the shock of judgement via arbitrary computer program had subsided, I looked further into my usage. 52 minutes facebook, fine. 4 minutes iTunes, great. But then came a surprising tidbit -- it had categorized my 3.5 hours of Outlook, Gmail and other Legitimate Work-Based Activities as "Highly Distracting".

Rescue Time, no! Bad Rescue Time! That's my bacon, my dough, my fat cash, that's not highly distracting! You've got me all wrong! Contact the database administrator, tell him I've been working, working HARD, for god's sake! Alert Mordor, inform the orcs before they arrive to slap the shit out of me! HURRY!

After spending a solid 20 minutes trying to figure out how to re-categorize computer activities (which technically detracted from my time spent working but I went ahead and classified as 'neutral' because, I mean, this is important), I was able to re-brand certain computer activities and websites from "Very Distracting" to "Very Productive". This changed the number around. It jumped from 32 to 68.


However, still not that productive.

To be honest, I'm not sure what number equates to "a good work day". I don't really care, either. I'm not going to force a number up against my life and expect it to have any meaningful value. But what Rescue Time has been doing for me is shedding light onto my time-wasting activities, allowing me to face the cold hard truth behind my less-productive days and see exactly where 46 minutes here and 37 minutes there was spent when my only real goal was "to work".

I won't beat myself up if I score an 83 versus a 96 one day, nor will I strive to make a certain number each day. I will, however, utilize this data to better inform myself about where most of these hours spent in front of the computer are really going. Knowing is half the battle, especially when engaged in the amorphous world of self-employment from home, and distractions lay a mouse-click or Google Chrome tab away.

So, in summary? I need to stop using Facebook.

(But don't we all?)

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Lessons in Valpo

"There's a couple things you need to know about Valpo," a friend said the other night, after we found ourselves whining about the city over glasses of wine. She's lived here for years, and to boot is Chilean, so that gives her a certain correctness in complaining about the place, a respectability that I am unable to achieve as a freshly-minted ex-pat.

"They cut off the water," she said, "and the garbage workers go on strike."

Both of these 'Valpo Highlights' have been common occurrences lately. It started with the water. A couple weeks ago, I get a friendly message from a Chilean friend saying, "HEY. They're going to cut off the water today at 6pm! It'll be back the next day at 6pm. Make sure you save water! Besitos!"

[insert lengthy pause here]

I'm sorry, what? The water will be gone? Who is doing this? The city can't CUT OFF the water. That's impossible! 24 hours without water, for an entire city? Valpo, are you nuts? 

She was right. Come evening time, all faucets had been reduced to a sorry sputtering drizzle of droplets and then...nothing. The water was gone! Seriously, Valpo??? And without even informing your citizens!

The water came back around the next day as scheduled. But then, a week later, IT HAPPENED AGAIN. The same Chilean friend warned me in enough time for me and my roommates to get showers and stow plenty of water for coffee-making, pasta boiling and more. We're 5 people in this house now, so it's more critical to know in advance.

But wait, readers! There's more.

Valparaiso is known for being rather dirty. Some describe it as 'filthy.' I would instead say it has a gritty charm. Sure, there are scrapes of dog poop on every street, the understandable clash between pedestrians and the enormous amount of stray dogs in the city. Wisps of plastic and paper float through the streets at all times, every day. Certain corners reek of urine, I won't lie.

Common trash buildup in the city.
Is the trash just a physical expression of street art?

BUT IT'S VALPO! Half of it's charm lay in the aura of port-city disrepair.

Garbage disposal is a bit different here. In fact, there's a system that I still scarcely understand, seemingly composed mostly of word-of-mouth and blind faith. I will attempt to explain the system to the best of my ability, but please be aware that aspects of this may be wildly inaccurate.

For starter's, you don't need to call a trash company and pay for service, because there just IS trash service in Valpo. On certain nights, you must leave all of your trash on your front stoop (or at a designated point outside your building if you live in a place with multiple houses/apartments). But not EVERY night, because they only come certain nights, and this information is only available by asking your neighbors. When you wake up, the trash will be gone. People appear in the night to whisk it away, though I'm still not sure if this is accomplished via truck pickup, hired roaming hobos, wild packs of dogs, or obliteration via laser from some of those warships sitting in the harbor.

At any rate, the trash disappears. Usually.

Because sometimes the garbage pickup workers (or hobos, or dogs, or laser beams) go on strike. Which means that all of that unsightly trash you left on your stoop at night will still be there in the morning. And then it bakes all day in the sun. And then the dogs come and poke around. And then one of them finds a hole and steals all of the remains from your asado the other night, leaving a trail of asado scraps and other awkward things you threw away knowing nobody would ever see but is suddenly on display for a quarter mile outside of your house. Like those To-Do lists proclaiming a need for rugs, tampons and soy milk, and other notes to self like "FINISH THE NEW WEBSITE ALREADY".

Garbage workers striking in Valpo is an annoyance itself, but what it does to the city is heinous. This week, they went on strike for maybe the second time since I've lived here. I noticed this only because during my noon-time walk through the city center, there were far more stacks and piles and crumbling pyramids of trash bags than in common. Usually, there are none -- during the day. Night time is different, since that's when everyone telepathically decides to toss, which makes for a striking visual difference depending on when you arrive to Valpo for the first time. Your first impression will be either gritty charm (prior to 8pm) or chaotic, heathen decadence (after 8pm).

The piles of trash lasted for a couple days, and then, governed by the same mystical forces that dictate the water shut off, everything was gone and clean this morning. Including all of my panicked To-Do lists and notes to self.

I'm happy to have water again, and a clean(ish) front stoop. I still don't know when the garbage workers come -- it doesn't help that when I ask Jorge, who is the Bearer of Garbage Knowledge for this household, he responds "Monday, Wednesday,, no, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday. No wait....Monday, Thursday, Saturday" -- but I remain strong in my faith that when I leave my tidy plastic bag of sundry trash on my front stoop, it will eventually disappear, whether by force of stray dogs or mysterious garbage workers that materialize during the night.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Adult Onset ADD something that I might have. I tend to take on too many gigs, and during busy periods is usually when I decide to start new, complex creative projects, which leads to long stretches of the day where I'm flicking hyper-actively between programs and browser tabs, unsure of what I was doing 30 seconds ago and what I was supposed to be focusing on.

Though this doesn't surprise me, given the To-Do Lists I used to come up with as an adolescent during the summers. I think I'm still working on finishing some of those, almost 20 years later!

One of the outcomes of this is my newest website:

Go check it out! It's a cute little meeting point for all the crap I've done. Or rather, the crap I want to put out there in a portfolio sense. (Family and friends will notice Shanonce is absent.)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Reports From the New Window (and Unexpected Cultural Commentary)

My bedroom window faces a house situated "across the street" (these phrases mean nothing in's pure alleyways, terrifying staircases and precipitous streets) but up the hill a little further. I've spent the majority of my first week in the new house settling in, working, and gazing lovingly at the seafoam green walls and the plants in my windowsill. During my frequent PonderGazeFests, I noticed a couple boys hanging out on the balcony of this house, stringing what looked like wire from their balcony to some unknown location in the distance. 

The next day, the boys were back at it. Except this time, I noticed that the wire was in fact a string, which was attached to a kite. Which they were flying.

And then an hour late, still flying a kite.

And then for the next seven hours...still flying a kite.

Sheesh, I thought. Flying a kite is fun but not THAT fun.

Or is it? I must make mention of the last time I flew a kite. It was this summer in Tennessee. My mother suggested we take the kite with us on the boat, so we could fly it as we cruised the lake. Cool, I said, more in an effort to please her. Who flies kites, anyway? I'm not against activities that are deemed "childish" by any means -- I spend a large part of my life trying to consciously incorporate play and childlike wonder into my days -- but a kite? Pssh.

Once we got going on the boat, out came the kite -- a bizarre purple octopus with plenty of tentacles to put on display in the airborne mating ritual. I stood toward the back, tasked with  getting it waytheheckupthere. The wispy, purple octopus that had lain quiet and neatly folded in its packaging only moments before was now a wild animal, tormented and struggling and whipping against the gusts and curls and updrafts as it fought its way higher.

I let out more string. I watched it fly higher. I let out more string. Higher still. And then came the point when I realized...holy crap, this is THRILLING.

I never wanted to stop flying that kite. I don't know WHY flying a kite is so fun. But there is something entrancing, mesmerizing and otherwise holy about the endeavor.

Some of the thoughts that crossed my mind as Octokite roamed free: Oh my god, look at how high it is! This is so cool! Wow, it's beautiful. It's a dancing octopus in the sky. LOOK, IT'S EVEN HIGHER NOW!! This string is really tight, I wonder how high I can get it. What if it goes into outer space? What is the Octokite seeing up there? When it comes down, will it have PTSD? Can you use a kite more than once? Why is this so goddamn fun? SERIOUSLY LOOK HOW HIGH UP THIS THING IS.

Look at that freakin' kite!

We took turns holding Octokite as it struggled to free itself from our grip. We held fast. It continued following us as we zoomed across the lake. Finally, we reeled it in, and the unwavering black smile of the octopus was still there, a silent witness to the joys and secrets of the stratospheric experience, tentacles weathered but accounted for.

So, back to the boys across the street. They've been flying kites everyday, for hours each day, without fail. Even as I reflected upon my newfound-but-forgotten appreciation for kite-flying, I continue to ask myself -- What the hell with so much kite flying?

I mentioned the borderline obsessive past time of the Chilean youth to my boyfriend the other day. He responded casually--as though it were common knowledge, come on, you gringa--that September is Kite Month in Chile. Everyone flies kites, or volantines, during September. It's classically breezy in September! Come on. Go fly a kite. Or volantin in this case.

September also coincides with another important tradition in Chile -- the fiestas patrias, or patriotic holidays. Two important events occurs during September, apart from the historically-perfect kite flying weather: the anniversary of the famous coup of September 11th, 1973, in which former socialist president Salvador Allende was overthrown (giving way to the Pinochet regime), and September 18th, Independence Day (Chile broke from Spain on this day in 1810).

Between the breezes, the political history and the patriotism, the month of September is burbling with activity. Most Americans are familiar with stores decorating well in advance for the 4th of July, or Christmas, or Fall In General or what have you, but our celebrations tend to be limited to observing the day itself, and then perhaps additional celebrations the following weekend once work has ended for the week.

Not here. Daily operations came to a grinding halt at 7pm on Tuesday, September 17th. The majority of the city has been closed since. It's Saturday, September 21st, as a reminder -- that's four days of public quiet, shuttered storefronts and very minimal pedestrians on the streets of Valparaiso. That's some serious reverence.

But that's not all. The public rest might have started on Tuesday at 7pm, but the celebrating started at the beginning of the month. There has been an unusual (almost worrying, really) amount  of asado scents wafting in the breeze, frequent gatherings overheard from neighbors, more dissonance than usual in public spaces, a huge amount of patriotic decorations littering the steeets, and plenty of excuses to get really drunk and really full.

Wait -- did you think that was all? Not only does September herald important political and patriotic observances, it also means SPRING IS COMING! It's the societal thaw; September is here, winter is over, let's get this crap started right by celebrating for a full month.

Jorge and I were wandering the streets on the 18th, discovering new areas and views near our new neighborhood, and we crossed an uncountable number of asados taking place on the sidewalks. It's probably not a surprise to anyone that during our walk we decided to go home and have our own asado because, like, we totally can do that whenever we want now, and as we headed back to the Homestead, we crossed what appeared to be a very heated kite-flying competition. It made us stop in our tracks -- the kites were so, so, so high, just tiny squares of Chilean-flag decorated paper. One climbed higher, the other dipped sharply, then the first one lost its lead while the second soared upward on a fierce gust. Grown men hooted and hollered in the streets -- one grandpa exited his house, wearing white socks in the gritty Valpo streets, carrying a grandbaby in his arms as he cheered on the unseen kite-fliers.

A poor representation of the kite excitement.
The dog watches the spectacle, unamused.

As a foreign observer/peripheral participant in these happenings, I must say that I admire the dedication to patriotic celebrations. It's no secret here that the Pinochet dictatorship left an indelible mark on Chilean history and society. What the older generations lived through - and those that are still around to talk about it -- betray the fact that the wound is still there, healing but still aching. 40 years have passed since the coup, but this is a tender scar on the surface of daily life.. Conversations about living through the dictatorship with those of my parent's age is always fascinating, educational and extremely sad. 

The volantines, at least to my wandering and dreamy eye, serve as a potent and visible reminder of the freedoms post-Pinochet. The citizens are able to soar free, at least compared to prior times, and there is now far more energy, far more breathless hopefulness, than in recent history. Just as children and grown men crowd around to see how high the kite might go, who might win, will the cord break, will it get caught in a tree, will the octopus suffer PTSD, I feel that Chileans are able to turn that breathless, hopeful eye toward the future when before that was only a wild, and potentially dangerous, fantasy. Armed with memory, respect and forward motion, Chile is a symbolic volantin that has the potential to soar high, higher than what was believed even 30 or 40 years ago. 

Once again, I must remind you readers that I am by no means a political expert, nor an apt judge of economic/governmental/cultural conditions. I'm just a writer living in Valpo, inhaling culture and sights and experiences and exhaling personal perspective. 

And beyond that, I'm sincerely curious to know how long it will be before these boys get sick of flying these kites everyday for multiple hours (seriously, don't they go to school or something?!). 

My beloved Valpo! You're so picturesque n' stuff. 

Read more about the Chilean 9/11 Anniversary here: Chile's 9/11: Survivors recall horrors of Pinochet coup, 40 years on

An article highlighting the various current-day opinions on Pinochet's reign: Chile still split over Gen Augusto Pinochet legacy

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

House Hunting in Valpo: An Update

Readers, as it turns out, putting up a post about the difficulty of finding a house in Valpo was all it took to seal the deal.

I must have offended the housing market on some level because the housing option #4 I mentioned in my last post turned out to be the One For Us. Not only did the deal seal easily, we didn't have to fight, prod, poke, or otherwise manipulate to get it done. I'll be the first to admit that I was a little surprised. 

I live in this house with my boyfriend Jorge and two others (another couple) -- Martin and Amanda. We are officially residents of Cerro Carcel (Jail's not as bad as it sounds, really -- it's only named that because the old city jail was here until the city grew so large they had to relocate it further up into the hills. Now the old jail is a cultural center), on a little winding (and sometimes vertical) street that has an abundance of street art, greenery, and ocean views. 

I am happy. We are happy.


My bedroom. Seafoam green walls, ample sunlight,
and lots of room for writing, yoga and happy pondering. 

The enclosed patio. The house came with mandalas
painted onto the walls. That's a pretty good sign, right?

Jorge, looking out from out front door 
to the Valpo scene beyond. 

Our landlord is beyond cool -- he is considerate, "green", friendly and communicative. Furthermore, not only did the house come with mandalas (something I've been harping on for Art Nights here in Valpo for over a month), but it also came with a butt-baring gnome painted on the bathroom wall and a fully-loaded compost bin on the patio. SAY WHAT???? Oh -- you mean the compost bin I've been lamenting leaving in Ohio for almost a year now? It's here in front of my face? Okay. Fine. 

On another note, the house is unfurnished, which seems like a problem in both financial and backpacker terms, but I'll explain why it isn't. Here's a list for our listicle-oriented eyes:

1. We are 4. There4(fore), we are splitting costs 4 ways. MATH, I KNOW! But when you break down the basics -- some sofas, a fridge, stove, washer, and various household accessories -- and split it between 4 people, the price is quite economical. Plus everything is used and found via the equivalent of craigslist here in Chile. What it adds up to, for my math-deficient readers, is: Quite The Deal.

2. We signed a 6 month lease. This means we'll be renting and living here for 6 months (obviously), but the cost of investing in Objects For The House evens out over time. In renting and investing in Objects For This House, I am still saving money overall compared to what I was paying for a furnished ROOM before.

3. We are transients. This means that while we are renting a house and settling in, it's "for a time". We have not closed the doors to future moves, endeavors, ideas or adventures. The 6 month lease can be extended if we decide, or it ends there. All of the Objects For This House are being selected with this goal in mind -- that they are for our use, for a time, until we decide that we no longer want to be here -- in Valpo, in Chile, in South America, etc. They can be resold, gifted, or left on the side of a street. 

This venture in fact has been part of my overarching goal of the Ex-Patriot Drift: to go forth, to discover, to settle in, and then move on. To continually cultivate that which nourishes me, to find this source in new places, new settings...and then to let it go. I have long suffered from an attachment to Objects, Places, Routines and More. Part of my work here involves cultivating sacred home spaces, pouring love and attention and work into them, and then...leaving them. 

This doesn't mean, however, that my time anywhere has a limit. While my Ex-Patriot Drift includes various countries and cities over time, I do not have a plan. I feel the need to stress this, because what ultimately guides me is what feels right. If I end up staying in Valpo three more months or three more years, then so be it -- if I'm following my heart, the wind, good consciousness or whatever you want to call it, that's all I can ask for in this life. 

In several more months, I will know what the next step will be. But for now, I'm excited to upcycle, recycle, compost, and create new collaborative works within the walls of this delightful house in Cerro Carcel.

And, for those of you reading who feel like buying a plane ticket to Chile, your room is already waiting for you. 

Saturday, August 31, 2013

House Hunting in Valpo: A Modern Day Horror Story

When I first came to Valparaiso, renting the temporary house of my dreams seemed like an attainable fantasy. There were room rental signs dangling from every telephone post in a 5 mile radius, spectacular views of the ocean and the surrounding city from almost every point in the city, and the university-centered city is no stranger to transients who rent and disappear. I found my current place within a week, signed the contract, and moved in.

Note: this is not where I live, but it qualifies as one of those
Long Term Ideal Fantasy Houses. Also I frequently go to this
yellow house and drink wine on the terrace. 

I've been living in my current apartment since April, and in this time I've come to realize that the next phase of my Chilean Living Situation is ready to begin. The reasons are varied.

At the risk of sounding whiny and totally hashtag firstworldproblems, let's look at a summary of Why I Want To Move Immediately:

1. This place receives no direct sunlight. Not a big deal, until winter hits and sometimes the frigid outside air is warmer than your bedroom.
2. Things break on a mysterious schedule. Once the shower stops leaking, the calefon is down for a week (re: no hot showers), then the toilet starts running, followed by lights that just...stop working.
3. My landlord makes things up as she goes along. No, really. She does. When I signed my contract, I was told verbally that gas was included, to find out two months later that I had to foot the $100 gas bill myself, only to be told 2 weeks ago that gas IS included. That's just for starters.
4. New rules appear out of nowhere. Most notably, in the form of a framed list that greeted me when I came back from the United States, including rules prohibiting the use of space heaters. The other day I was told we can't have people over after midnight. It continues to get progressively dictatorial.
5. I want a friendly, private space. The setup of this apartment and it's ever-increasing amount of rules creates a non-friendly, walking-on-eggshells environment. The energy of a special home space is important to me, which means not feeling like I'm going to be scolded at every turn for having a friend here at 12:03am or because they caught me using the space heater. Furthermore the landlord enters our house all the time, without knocking, without warning, and this tends to present problems when I'm either in a towel on my way to the shower or using the aforementioned illegal space heater.

All in all, renting rooms in Valparaiso is wildly utilized and the easiest option, but it means that you are first and foremost living in someone else's space. Not just 'borrowing' it while you pay for it, like in the US, but honestly occupying someone else's space with no real sense of inhabiting it. Back home, renting an apartment is like getting the only set of keys to a house and the landlord turns to leave and says, "Well, this is yours for a year, have fun! I'll check back in 12 months" and then they disappear into the sunset and you only talk to them on Rent Day each month.

 In Valpo, my experience has been more like the landlord peeks her head in every couple of days to make sure the sofa still looks good and the desk isn't being used for bread-making, and any infraction on her idea of how the space should be used is corrected via More Framed Rules. It reiterates the underlying theme: THIS IS NOT OUR SPACE. I am paying for my room -- only. That means that my *cough* ridiculously overpriced *cough* rent allows me omniscient governance of my bedroom. Common areas are indeed governed by the Eye of Sauron landlord, however she sees fit, no matter how much my roommates and I agree that we like the table better over there or prefer to use the electric oven as opposed to the gas oven.

Hence the new and urgent search for a house. I began skimming classifieds several weeks ago, pleased at the amount of houses available in the area. This will be a breeze, I thought. Wrong.

My expectations aren't that high, I swear. I'll take the shanty on the right, even.
 Just as long as I have room for my yoga mat. 
Oh, and a patio and a view of the ocean. 
And spacious rooms. ....And lots of sunlight. 
(On second thought, I'll take the yellow house pictured earlier.)

It seems Chile, at least in Valparaiso, has developed a lackadaisical renter's culture. The U.S. is much more straightforward: see listing, visit apartment, sign contract and talk deposit, move in on set date. Here, the process is similar, but imbued with a lot more ambiguity and a ton of un-returned phone calls. I'm not entirely sure the house visits aren't just a discrete psychological evaluation on the part of the landlords. I'll go through each experience we've had and explain each frustrating and confusing demise.

House 1: Two story, master bedroom with balcony, 2 other bedrooms with panoramic sea view, huge kitchen back yard, asado area, beautifully remodeled, safe neighborhood, easy access to everything, and, the kicker, it came with a dog named Lola. AKA: Shannon's Valpo Dream House.
Why it ended poorly: The landlords seemed happy with our situation and income, and we made a plan to meet Monday and sign the contract at noon. SCORE! Monday comes and they ignore our phone calls until 5pm. When we finally get them on the phone, they say they've decided not to rent the house. BUT LOLA IS WAITING FOR US!!!

House 2: Four bedroom, well-lit, brightly painted, no patio, wood floors, even closer than House 1, excellent safe neighborhood, and with a fun view of the downstairs neighbor's bathroom.
Why it ended poorly: The house didn't convince us; we kept it as a back-up option. Watching the downstairs neighbor take a piss seemed like a selling point at first, but we thought twice on that.

House 3: Very high up in the hill but doable, ridiculous amount of sunlight, amazing view of the sea, no patio, enormous living room and office area, 2 bedrooms, huge kitchen, safe neighborhood, huge rooms in general.
Why it ended poorly: The landlord was extremely kind and friendly. We left all our paperwork with him, in an effort to seal the deal and prove to him how responsible and serious we are. He assured us several times, enthusiastically, that we were first in line for the house. SCORE! We planned to meet Thursday and show the house to the other two roommates who couldn't join us on the initial viewing. Thursday rolls around and he can't meet up. Friday rolls around and he's MIA. Finally we coax it out of him via text that he's had a family emergency. We collectively feel bad about pestering him. Then later we find out he's waiting on the response of a foreign family. We collectively feel slighted and bitter. We'd been demoted from first place without being informed, waiting to make other important housing arrangements based on this response. We are still waiting final word on this one.

House 4: Tucked into a little alleyway off of a fun, artistic road about halfway between House 2 and House 3, safe area, two bedrooms with good sun, 2 bedrooms with no windows, big kitchen/living area, indoor patio with sunlight, comes with artwork already painted onto the walls and an abnormally tiny entryway to the bathroom that opens up into a regularly-sized bathroom.
Why it ended poorly: To be determined

House 5: Right next House 4, a smallish but wildly stylish renovated apartment, stone walls, cozy kitchen area, 1 bedroom, and a huge terrace that made my knees go weak, also with a fantastic view of the ocean and ample sunbathing opportunity.
Why it ended poorly: To be determined

Houses 4 and 5 are currently up for grabs. The landlord seems great, and we once again have a plan to send him all our documents and await a decision. We are supposed to know by Wednesday. While we are excited and hopeful, we are all very aware that this could end poorly.

A friend in Valpo once told me, after learning about our search for a house, that it was a nearly impossible feat. I almost didn't believe him, fully confident that the amount of listings I'd found online had to be indicative of an easy rental process. Furthermore, I thought the straightforward and relatively transparent rental procedure was common practice among first(ish) world countries.

But he's right. Houses 4 and 5 may not be the end of the line, or anywhere close to it. The tapestry of confusing landlord behavior continues to grow evermore complex. Who knows when we'll find that house that finally sticks to us. Until then, we are prepared for any amount of frustrating dead-ends, creative wheedling and incomprehensible disappearances on behalf of the landlords involved.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Valparaisan Debut

Friends, family, lovers and others!

I present you with my very first ever creative reading in any hemisphere on the planet!

That's right. That's my name on there.
Also it's spelled correctly, which doesn't tend to happen in Chile.

In Cerro Concepcion there is a tiny little cafe (Cafe con Gracia) that has become something of my favorite haunt. Not only do they consistently have creative and entertaining guests, they also serve hummus. And a variety of other scrumptious snacks. And wine. Can an ex-pat ask for more??

I was honored to be asked to read for this event tonight. Matias (or "Matto" as it reads on the flier) is a poet who I met several weeks ago after his poetry reading. We've been in communication ever since, and when he asked me if I'd like to share my creative output, I seized up, paced my patio for a half hour, ate all the existing nails on my fingers, mentally re-read everything I've ever written since I was 15, and then finally agreed.

I'll only be sharing one piece tonight, something I wrote for an NPR contest recently. However, I'm beyond thrilled to be sharing energy, space and words with lovely people in something akin to my South American debut. I suppose this is just one more step on my path to Taking Myself Seriously As A Writer.

To celebrate this, I'm going to save room in my belly for some Short-Story-Sharing Reward Hummus. And maybe a glass of Public-Speaking-Contentment/Post-Hummus-Consumption Wine. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

De Vuelta: Chile

Hey readers – I’m back in Chile! This means that:
  1. Chilean Immigration Officials let me into the country without issue (this is always stressful, even though I am not smuggling drugs, do not intend to overstay any visas, and am extremely compliant when it comes to international law)
  2. I have an ample supply of red beans and Mr. Smith’s coffee to tide me over for a (short amount of) time, and
  3. I’m back to ex-patriot living!

Coming back to Chile presented an interesting internal conflict. I was sad to leave home, my family, my friends, the SUMMER, the excessive amount of To-Go coffee available and the ease of acquiring hummus (see previous post about Ex-Pat Livability Standards); but at the same time, I was re-energized and excited to embark upon continued South American Adventures. My time at home was a nourishing and much-needed break for me. I am totally invigorated and bursting with motivation and ideas for not only continuing life down south, but making it unbelievably great.

That being said, Chile was a bit salty about my Winter Avoidance Tactics. So upon my return, it had a few surprises planned for me. Just so that I didn’t forget what I had left in the southern hemisphere. Sure, fly home and go north for “the summer”, Chile muttered. But when you get back, I’ll make sure you remember how it really is down here.

Not actually Valparaiso, but, I mean,
sometimes it feels like this. And maybe I'm living 
naked and half-frozen on that island.
(I should quit complaining -- I'm from Ohio for god's sake)

Things Chile Passive-Aggressively Reminded Me Of Since Returning:
  • The freakin’ gas. My roommates and I have had a number of issues with the gas here at our apartment. There once was a week-long period where we bathed using the hot-water contraption (like, for warming up water for tea) and a crock pot. When I left, I thought the latest potential-gas-leak issue had been resolved. Upon my return, I found out that the gas leak issues had multiplied. We only had to go outside to turn on the pilot light for showers before – now, we have to open and close it for cooking as well. And if we forget to close it, the gas smell gets so bad that the neighbors come knocking. This makes me think twice about turning on the stove for re-heating my coffee. The landlord keeps saying someone will come to fix it. BUT WHEN?
  • The freakin’ winter. Yep, I’m wearing parkas again. And my hands and feet are frozen all the time. The daytime sunshine is lovely and conducive to wearing only a short sleeve t-shirt. But, lest you all forget, our apartment doesn’t receive direct sunlight. And since my return, I found out my landlord posted a new set of “house rules” that expressly prohibits the use of space heaters, which was my only link to sanity prior to leaving. *cough*………*looks around*...Sorry, but…I’m using my space heater.
  • The freakin’ water. Washing dishes and hands and faces with warm water is such a luxury. The country is very resource-conservation-minded, which is awesome. But when you’re already walking around as a relatively solid American Block of Ice, the thought of applying any of that frigid water to extremities is terrifying. Even if it’s just to rinse a glass.
  • The freakin' Spanish. That's right, my Chilean Spanish Skills dwindled ever-so-slightly while I was cavorting about in the northern hemisphere. Even a little rust on the ole Wheel of Spanish Comprehension is a dire forecast, especially in this country. But don't worry, my ear is adjusting. Slowly.
All this might just be the whining of an American girl who left summer at its high point and is now back to wearing parkas in August. My return has been nothing short of spectacular – this first week back has been more jampacked with fun, events, activities and new people than my entire time in Chile prior. I made a conscious effort to start getting involved in Valpo, and the returns have been amazing. The amount of art, gatherings, communities and more in this city is incredible. Since I’ve gotten back, I’ve mingled with Chilean poets, seen impromptu live music sessions, seen a super chileno Musical Comedy that made me laugh so hard I cried, been to a yoga class, went to a wallet-making upcycle workshop, attended a Couchsurfing meet-up event where I met a whole slew of lovely people, and have been host to several group meals/asados in my home (the good energy and cooking helps warms the place up, too).

A group lunch featuring America, England, Germany and France.
Also featuring carrot ginger soup, garlic flatbread, 
avocado/tomato salad and Chilean wine.

Me and couchsurfer Karen went to a workshop and made 
some of these (ours are in the mix above).
They're made out of old milk cartons, tape, 
glue, random decorations and love.

And of course, daring cats mixed with street art. 

It feels really good to be back, Chile. Thank you for receiving me with metaphorically-warm-yet-technically-very-cold arms. I am looking forward to spring, and maybe, just maybe, I can take off these winter socks sometime soon.

In the meantime, I’ll keep enjoying all these awesome people and energies. Deal?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Ex-Patriot Living Standards Revised (And, Shannon Admits She's Not A Technical Vegetarian)

Hummus isn’t often used as an indicator for anything except the presence of Mediterranean cuisine or as a radar for locating nearby vegetarians. I maintain that hummus has another conceptual use beyond this, one that satisfies and delights as much as the feel of it slathered across a pita or dripping off your tiny carrot stick.  
Given my pseudo-vegetarian/vegan lifestyle, (the technical ratio is as follows: 90% vegetarian, 80% vegan, a “strike-my-fancy” fish-and-meat-eater, a guilty consumer of beef stroganoff and/or bacon once a year), traveling through and living in as many countries as I have presents its own set of culinary experiments and experiences. We humans love to try to stuff ourselves into neat little boxes, right? “Oh, you must be a vegetarian. You look like one. So you’ve never eaten a hamburger?” Come on. We’re far too complex, contradictory and whimsical for that sort of stuff. And in case you were wondering, reader, here’s my “neat little box”: I am a Tendency Vegetarian. I consume meat when in Mexican restaurants or when experiencing new meat-centric cultures, but when left to my own devices, when following my tendencies, I do not eat animals that much. So, really, not a vegetarian at all. But go ahead and call me one if you feel like you need to.

That said, being back in the United States has been a delightful journey through All The Vegetarian Options. There’s a billion kinds of hummus at Kroger and more meat-alternatives than you can shake a stone ground whole-wheat slice of bread at. Get to a bigger city and the options multiply uncontrollably, like roots on a spud in the windowsill– there’s things I haven’t even heard of, but I’ll try it. I swear to god I will.

Which is why I propose a new international standard, one that can be used by vegetarians, vegans, and pseudo-whatevers across the board to analyze their new international abode. One that is far more effective at analyzing general socio-economic levels, a standard that far exceeds things like “GDP”, “low crime levels” or “varied cultural opportunities” as attractive elements for a vagabond.

Hummus must be used as an indicator of ex-patriot livability.

Dat's some sexy hummus.

As in, is it available? How many flavors are there? What packaging does it come in? Does it taste like hummus? Has it been home made? Is it available in more than one store?  Are other people eating it? Do other people know what it is? Is anyone around you aware of where it came from? Do the people in your immediate vicinity know that a chickpea is the same thing as a garbanzo bean? Will you tell them if they don’t? Will anyone else try the hummus? Here, do you want to try it?

My recent trip back to the United States has shown me that the accessibility of hummus in my day-to-day life has, indeed, heightened my overall quality of life. (Some scientists believe that readily available hummus – a variety of brands, flavors and more – actually increases life contentment by a whopping 33%***.)

It facilitates my snacking, it ensures I avoid other less savory snacks, it nourishes me, it pleases me, it understands me. So why isn’t it more available across the globe?

On a scale from one to hummus, America scores Full Throttle. Sure, there are probably super rural areas where hummus is treated like a foreign disease instead of the savory gift from heaven that it is, but I wouldn’t live in those places and therefore don’t include them. Even in my small city (30,000 people-ish) the options range from original to smoked to pine nut to burn-my-buds-off-spicy. Good god!

On a scale from one to hummus, Chile scores a Meager Climber. I found one hummus option in the small city of Puerto Varas, almost to Patagonia in southern Chile, and that was only because an ex-pat and his Chilean wife had set up the first-ever vegan store in the region. They made their own and froze it. It was good, but not mind-blowing. But yet, it was hummus.

In Valparaiso, I live around the corner from a Middle-eastern restaurant that offers hummus as a topping option. Score! However, the big box stores don’t have hummus, and most other hummus availability occurs on the streets or from the alternative places. Therefore, it is an underground condiment, and constitutes an important part in the thriving counter-culture. Hummus is not only there, but helps me feel like I’m part of the change.

I imagine future ex-pats having the following conversation:

Ex-Pat Patrick: Hey, man, so what’s up with [insert country]? Do you like it?
Ex-Pat Patricia: Yeah, it’s great! I’ve been having a blast, there’s so many beaches and the buses cost like four cents. Also, plenty of toilet paper in public restrooms.
Ex-Pat Patrick: That sounds great, but, I guess what I really need to know is….what’s the hummus level?
Ex-Pat Patty: [heavy pause] There’s a low hummus score. I haven’t even seen it in the capital.


Chile is a livable country by my new standard. Ex-pats, please use this information to your advantage, and propagate the use of hummus as an indicator of ex-patriot livability. Your vegetarian ex-pat country mates will thank you.

(Please have a list of hummus pick-up locations ready for them upon their arrival.)

***this figure is entirely fabricated for purposes of this article.