My blog has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 6 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Translate This!

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. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Helped and Hindered

Life in South America has proven to be just like life anywhere else, except that it's in South America instead of North America. And everyone speaks Spanish. And there aren't that many blondes wandering around. And it's hard for me to find a size 9.5 shoe. And the culinary culture isn't that refined. And people aren't really that into spices. And everyone kisses each other on the cheek when they meet, even when they're strangers.

Okay, so life in South America is a bit different than life in North America. (Oh yeah -- tons more stray dogs!) But since I've been able to re-acclimate to life north of the equator, I've noticed a few ways that my life overall has been helped -- and similarly hindered -- by my jaunts down south.

Let's investigate some!

1. My brain learns, but in order to do so, it must forget. And this involves forgetting English. My handle on idioms, cliches and other parts of speech is at an all-time low. This doesn't bode well, as I am beginning a venture to brand myself as a language consultant *cough cough*. Hey -- who knew they were called speedbumps? Roadbumps is just as effective at getting the point across. And my future language consultancy clients will understand this. (syn: road acne)

2. I now have measuring cups for eyeballs. That's right, I see in 3-D AND in 1-tsp increments! Due to the absolute dearth of measuring tools in the kitchen (is it just because of where I've lived and who I've lived with? Or is this an invention that really never made it past the Andes?), I've been forced to eyeball, size up and otherwise scrutinize every recipe I've ever loved including in my eating lifestyle. Thanksgiving 2012 was a prime example, and my forays into Vaguely Healthy Cookie Creation were met with varying results until I finally pinned down the non-specifically-measured ratio a couple months ago.

Well, close enough. 

3. I am a tad more resourceful. Now, I don't want you all thinking that I'd be able to fend for myself in the wild, because I certainly can't, nor can I start a fire, always operate doors or change the gas tank for that damnable space heater in my Chilean living room. However, I CAN think around certain situations where common household items are lacking. For instance, are you making mashed potatoes? Were you scouring your new kitchen for a potato masher, only to find out that not only do you not have a potato masher, you also don't have anything resembling a bowl in which you'd like to mash? No problem! Find one of those drinking glasses with the uneven bottoms and get to work! Serve AND eat the mashed potatoes out of the same pot you cooked it all in, and to top it off, don't use napkins (because nobody buys them) and just use the dish towel. Hey, you might be asking, that's a pretty good idea with the dish towel. Where did that come from? The Argentinians!

4. I speak great Spanish now. Finally. Also, I can understand almost any Spanish you try to throw my way. Thanks, Chileans.

5. I speak hodgepodge Spanish. As in, Mexican-Chilean-Argentinian Spanish. My accent shifts between all three, freely utilizing vocabulary and expressions from three distinct cultures. Someday, this will get me into trouble.

6. I am losing my grasp on normalcy. Some might argue this has been a long time coming, but I assure you, taking the leap has hastened this demise. I suppose 'normalcy' is a term that can be argued until the alpacas come home (what?), but living life this off the grid has certainly shifted (re: completely destroyed) my paradigm. In losing my grasp on normalcy, I am finding more expansive happiness, plentiful creativity and penetrating gratefulness. More things seem possible, life feels limitless, and joy lurks around every corner. This doesn't mean life is some effortless, non-squeaking joint that operates perfectly at every moment. But rather, I've come to appreciate and laud the aches and groans and squeaks and eventual functioning of these joints, because these limbs are carrying me to places -- both physical and emotional -- I've always dreamed of.

7. Questionable metaphors, like the one found in item 6, tend to be more predominant. I don't know why, or how to fix it.

8. I will probably only ever wear black leggings for the rest of my life. No, seriously -- bury me in leggings and a slouchy shirt, because that's all I ever want to wear.

A beach in Huron, OH, complete with sunset, lake,
slouchy shirt and leggings. 

It's up to you, reader, to decide if these items have helped or hindered!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Bus Culture in America (Or a Lack Thereof)

I've lived in the United States my whole life, pretty much (a majority of the 2__ years of my existence, at least), and only this past Monday did I finally get on a bus as a means to travel between two distant cities.

By contrast, I've lived in three Latin American countries and traveled to a whole crapload of other countries, and the general rule in all of them is: get on the bus. Always.

How did this happen? How can this form of transportation be so familiar and snuggly and NORMAL to me in every country except my native land?

Before I go further, let me clarify: I'm not talking about inner-city bussing. I'm talking about multiple-hour, great-mountains-majesty-spanning BUS TRIPS. Ones where you need a meal at some point and part, if not all of, your body goes numb. If you would have asked me to get on a bus to travel anywhere in the US a year ago, I would have balked, looked at you funny, made a comment about Greyhound and asked why I couldn't just drive myself or fly? Yet since 2006 my preferred method of travel through Latin America has been the $1.30 ride on the chicken bus, where neither life nor luggage is strictly guaranteed.

That's a pretty weird double standard, don't you think?

Well, it finally came to an end. I recently visited Chicago for the second time since my American Whirlwind Tour of 2013 began, and I found myself without a ride back to Ohio. As in, I wasn't going to fork over the money to fly, and my own car was nestled comfortably 300 miles away. What does a vagabond do? GET ON THE BUS.

All Latin American Travel Preferences aside, Greyhound has a seedy reputation. Maybe it's changed since I last heard anyone comment honestly on it, but from what I remember, there tends to be shifty types lurking in bus terminals, questionable drug use and a whole lot of on-board harassment (unless that's the free entertainment in the ticket price?). And you could probably get chlamydia, or at LEAST Hep C, from the seat covers.

Enter Megabus, America's first ever low-cost express bus service and the natural choice over Greyhound. I can hear the Backpacker Angels singing from their hammocks in the hostel! The first time I heard about Megabus, I had a chilling flashback to Ryan Air, Europe's notorious discount airline that inspired this article for Vagabondish. But no, I was assured that Megabus not only was cheap AND respectable, it picked you up inside the city and dropped you off at the actual destination. None of that one-hour-away-from-where-you-thought-you-were-landing hullabaloo Ryan Air is famous for! Plus, wifi on board, and power outlets in every seat. What?! Megabus, am I dreaming? Or were you specially engineered to appeal to my budget backpacker, working holiday senses?

Your bold colors and low prices
inspire me to choose YOU, Megabus!

But there's always a catch, right? The first sign was when the bus wasn't there at the scheduled departure time of 4:15pm. A nearby lady muttered, once I had admitted it was my first foray with the company, "The thing about Megabus is, half the time, they're never on time."

The bus showed up around 4:40pm. We pulled away from the bus stop at 5:03pm.

Once I was comfortably nestled in my chair on the 2nd floor of the bus, excited about plugging something, ANYthing into the power outlet and hooking up to that wifi floating around our mobile oasis, I became aware of a nagging sensation in the back of my mind. As I looked around, took stock of my seat mates, listened to the overly detailed explanation about our intended route, I realized that we Americans are definitively and indisputably not a bus culture.

As I mentioned earlier, I have extensive experience with pretty much all forms of transportation apart from hot air balloons and drag cars. And my years of bus travel throughout Latin America have conditioned me to expect certain things from The General Long Distance Bus Experience, which MegaBus failed to provide. Here's why:

**Loading the luggage and passengers was lengthy and inefficient. What is an ongoing and flawless system for large, luxury bus companies between Mexico and Chile, took twice the time for Megabus. On the side of a street in downtown Chicago. In the searing sun. I've seen Chilean double-deckers arrive 8 minutes prior to departure time and load the whole damn thing, passengers and all, with 30 seconds to spare. BAM.

**There's no way to identify your luggage, apart from what might be the very same bus driver pulling pieces from the dark luggage doorway at night, holding it up with eager eyes for all to assess, and then putting it back inside if nobody claims it. Other companies give you luggage tags, which you present to the unloader so that you can at least have some way to really identify if that bag you're lugging home is actually yours -- or its lookalike.

**Being over 40 minutes late and then arriving over an hour and a half late to the destination doesn't bode well, especially in our time-conscious culture. Time is money, or so they say, and I don't think Megabus can get away with this for very long before people start to really complain and choose another service, at least when time is of the essence. Long-distance luxury buses in Latin America arrive and leave exactly on time, 99% of the time. I'm not actually sure how it works, but I suspect there are cleverly placed wormholes throughout the continent that allow for bus drivers to make up for lost time. I've never once taken a bus between cities in Chile that didn't arrive early. Come on, guys. It's possible to arrive AND leave on time.

Ummm, hello? Megabus? Can you come pick us up?

I guess when it comes to discount service providers like Megabus, Ryan Air and so many others, they find their shtick and stick to it. RyanAir's tagline is that they're the on-time airline; which is true, once you overlook things like their airports being in different postal codes and everything except the ticket costing 100 euro. And it seems like Megabus is no different: they promise a quasi-luxurious on-board experience, with wifi and power outlets; which is true, but you definitely won't be arriving on time, wherever it is you're going.

All that being said, will I take Megabus again?

Hell yeah I will.  And you bet your ass that when I go back to Europe, I'm first in line at the check-in kiosk for RyanAir, .01 kg under the weight limit for my backpack and with five layers of clothes on.

Travel Gear for Independent Travelers & DAY PACKS: Free Shipping & Low Prices!

Friday, July 5, 2013

The USA Whirlwind

I've been back to the United States for over two weeks. Not only did I update my blog once (ONCE) in June, I also failed to mention the Great Return Via Steel Bird To Native Homeland. Nor did I adequately expand upon the Period Of Mutual Genius that transpired when Jill and I spent a month in Chile together.

Here are some excuses for my poor blogging behavior, mostly in an effort to rationalize away my personal guilt:

1. I've been busy. This is a lame excuse, but seriously, it's been a whirlwind since I got back to the States. Not only that, I've been really busy enjoying myself! Living in the moment, and all that jazz! My USA schedule is pretty packed -- I gave myself 6 weeks here, thinking that it would be "plenty of time" to do "everything I wanted to do". What I'm finding is that 3 months is a better figure. Next summer I shall aim for this time frame. In my two weeks back, I've visited my hometown, seen a variety of friends and family, visited Cedar Point twice (more on this later...), experienced a healthy amount of thunderstorms, went to a burner festival in Michigan, spent a week in Chicago, passed the 4th of July holiday amongst fireworks and revelry, shopped at Kroger, and had a doctor's appointment. Also, work.

2. My computer broke. AGAIN. It broke the day I got back to the USA when it was just 7 months old. This incident was timely and fortuitous for a number of reasons. Not only did it mean that I could repair my laptop without exorbitant continent-spanning mail charges (and the terror that accompanies leaving expensive equipment in the hands of foreign mail carriers), it also happened while under warranty. The non-timely and non-fortuitous aspects to the situation were that it broke in the first place, and that Sony ended up NOT repairing it due to the fact that it would be "uneconomical". I'm still working on getting a new one. Now I'm paralyzed with indecision facing the surplus of options that I have.

3. I forgot about my blog. What??? No really, I did for a little bit. I think it had something to do with Item #1.

Now that I've expanded upon reasons for Blogging Laziness, I would like to recuperate my street cred with another list!

Things I Forgot About Home:

1. So much English! I can understand barely audible conversations in my periphery, I get the gist of a half-muffled discussion, and no word escapes my ears un-understood. This is normal for us English speakers, but reminds me of the fact that I've been living in something of a quiet language bubble for 9 months. Sure, I hear sounds around me in Chile, but I don't tune in because it's Spanish, and it doesn't zip through my blood vessels on a subconscious level like English does.
2. Free coffee refills. Sure it's the gut-rot variety that they serve in diners and restaurants, but my god they refill the cup before I've even made a dent. Sure beats having to fork over almost $5 for each meager sip of espresso in Chile!
3. Starbucks on every corner. This is not an exaggeration, and especially not in Chicago.
4. Too many options. This is both good and bad. While I'm happy that the majority of America, especially in larger cities, caters to every type of lifestyle imaginable and consistently surprises me with vegetarian and vegan goodies galore, this same principle makes other activities, such as buying contact solution, relatively hellish.
5. Things are easier? This may have something to do with the fact that I and everyone I know has a personal car, which makes trips to the store less of a feet-dragging, ugh-where's-the-change-for-the-bus, its-gonna-take-two-hours-just-to-get-soymilk-do-I-really-feel-like-doing-this type experience.

Some days I feel totally re-acclimated, and other days I'm struggling to remember the phrasing of a particular idiom that seems to have been replaced by Spanish vocabulary. Furthermore, my automatic response in restaurants and stores still tries to come out in Spanish. When I'm in a Mexican restaurant, this is acceptable. In most other places, it's not really appreciated.