The Astromaid Chronicles

Slow Travel, Creative Living, and Speculation

Tag: south america (page 1 of 2)

Commence the Candelaria! (South American Wedding Voyage Pt. 2)

After a long and somewhat (re: totally) hungover Wednesday in Mendoza, we managed to scrape ourselves out of bed and into the pool, wander the magnificent parks, and then finally head to to the bus terminal around midnight for our late bus to San Luis.

Leaving from Mendoza at 1AM, the plan was to arrive to Quines, a town just 15 minutes outside of Candelaria, around 8AM the next day. We’d save a night’s rent in hostels, and we’d be like, magically closer to our destination with only the blink of an eye.

If only sleeping on buses involved the blink of an eye. Instead, it involves the torturous, endless non-blinking of sleep attempts, sleep failure, and all around discomfort. But hey! We saved a night’s rent in hostels! We arrived to Quines around 9AM, one hour later than expected, where Jorge’s father dutifully waited.

In Candelaria, where it was approximately 95 degrees, only slightly hotter than Mendoza, we began the endless rounds of familial greetings. I remembered what it must have felt like for Kelli, the endless revolving door of new faces and relatives that can only be distantly recalled from one meeting to the next. Sometimes I still feel like that.

Here’s the thing about our arrival in Candelaria: I, the novia/bride, was arriving almost a full month after Jorge, the novio, had shown up to begin the formal wedding preparations. He’d been working tirelessly to arrange details, contract the DJ, find the cake(s), settle the location, etc, etc, etc. And more etc.

Much like I had been the Primary Reception Organizer in the USA, Jorge was now manning the wheel of this crazy wedding train by himself…while I sat back and relaxed. Because that’s what equality in marriage means, goldernit! I’ll handle the North American affairs, and HE handles the South American affairs!

That said, here are some of the more interesting details behind our Argentinian Affair:

1.) THE LOCALE. Jorge wanted to host our wedding reception at the local pool in Candelaria. Except, they don’t rent to people. Like, ever. Turns out, his parents are good friends with the mayor. So they asked the mayor, who oversees the public pool, if he might make an exception this once. “If I win the re-election, it’s yours,” he said. And if he didn’t win the election? Well, then our Plan A would be Plan Crap.

Around November of last year, we received word that our beloved mayor did, in fact, win the re-election. That meant our open-air locale was golden…pending any rain storms, that is.

Balneario, Candelaria, Argentina

2.) THE ACTUAL WEDDING. Jorge and I wanted to marry in both the U.S. AND Argentina. Like, you know, sign documents and shit. Make it legal, ceremonial, and legit. However, when Jorge went to the civil registry in Candelaria to inquire about setting a date for this, they told him they’d never seen a case of marrying a foreigner. It’s true, I may be one of only several North American gringas to ever grace the fields of Candelaria. They had to call the capital city, where there was similar confusion, which ended up in a very firm “Sorry, she can’t marry you on a tourist visa”. So…I’m supposed to wait until I’m a legal resident of Argentina? Yeah, sorry, that’s never going to happen, guys. So, the “legal signing” part of the wedding=called off! Legal in one country is good enough, amirite?

3.) THE FOOD. Somewhere around week 2 of Jorge’s time in Candelaria, I began to hear conflicting accounts of what food would be served. First it was a full range-asado, then it was only cow, then it was empanadas, and then it was pork. Confused, I asked Jorge what we were actually going to have. My original vision of the party was something a bit macabre, I admit–like swinging loins of puma, pork and more. But here’s what actually went down: Jorge’s father gifted him (re: us) a cow. Jorge sold this cow, and with that money he bought 7 piglets. These 7 piglets were what our 100 guests ate. 1 gifted cow = 7 pigs. Talk about a rural transaction, ya’ll. 

Once we got to Candelaria, it was a whirl of mate, naps, and sweltering heat. And then in the evening, we drove to San Luis, about 1.5 hours away, to go pick up some of our friends that were arriving via bus from Chile at 10PM.

Meet Facu...Jorge's nephew!

Meet Facu…Jorge’s nephew!

These were friends of ours that we had not seen since leaving Chile in mid-2014, so the excitement was running high. Once we rescued them from the bus terminal, we immediately congratulated ourselves with pizza and wine. After this delightful, late-night dinner, with storm clouds swirling in a Midwest-reminiscent way overhead, thunder echoing in the distance, we began the haul back to Candelaria.

About mid-way through our trip home, rain happened. Except, it was really strong rain, and really sudden. We waited it out, wowed by the electrical storm in the distance, interspersing clenched precipitation anxiety with lighthearted conversation. Closer to Candelaria, though, the storm really picked up, so much that we had to slow to a crawl, teeth gritted against the hail that had begun to pelt the truck.

We dropped off our friends where they’d be staying for the night, and then brought Kelli back to Jorge’s parents house. The rain poured so hard we could barely cross the road to take her to the hosteria, or local hotel, which was  right across the street from Jorge’s parent’s house. It was THAT insane. Jorge had to drive her in the truck just to cross the street.

But the lady on duty didn’t hear the pounding on the door over the sounds of the storm. Kelli and Jorge returned to the house, where we all retired to bed.

The storm grew worse. And worse. And worse. Winds swirled and moaned and tore through the foliage outside. When a break occurred, the storm only grew fiercer moments later. The roof began to creak, like it was struggling to stay attached. It continued this way for hours. I couldn’t fall asleep, despite my most excellent falling-asleep-in-raging-storms skills.

This storm was different. It was intense in a way that made me rigid with anxiety. Was this a tornado? Every sign seemed to point to YES.

I won’t lie–I was a piece of plywood in bed that night, listening to all the sounds around me, struggling to discern whether the roof was actually seconds away from detaching from the house, listening for any signs of the tell-tale freight train sound, only breaths away from leaping up out of bed to scan the dark horizon for a funnel cloud.

Outside, it sounded like a free-for-all. Random things blew and blustered in the wind. It seemed like errant objects crashed against the side of the house. At one point, I was fairly sure a side of the house had shaken loose and drifted half-attached in the fury. Something outside our window banged and clanked. Shit was getting real out there.

Around 5AM, I heard it–the freight train. I seriously did. I shook Jorge awake. “Do you hear that?” He didn’t seem to share my concern. Not a Midwesterner, obviously.  I waited it out, easing nervously back into bed, listening with perked ears for every flinch and moan from beyond the windows. Finally, the winds receded. I drifted to sleep.

The next morning, our friends came over for a late-morning mate. We were all bleary-eyed zombies after the storm. My friend Samantha, who is also from the midwest, but from the more tornado-prone region of Missouri, commiserated with us over our sleeplessness the night before.

She, too, had heard the freaking freight train. At exactly the same time. And a Missouri girl knows her tornado signs, even better than Ohio girls!

Candelaria has no basements, let me add. This was one of the primary points of concern as I imagined a tornado ripping its way through the farmland. Where the hell do you go then? The innermost, windowless place, I suppose!

We spent the rest of Friday washing glasses, drinking mate, and running errands. And, of course, speculating about the crazy, freak tornado we had miraculously survived the night before.

candelaria storm argentina

Washing glasses in preparation for the wedding…while reliving the horror that was the crazy storm of the night before!


South America Packing List: Winter 2016 Version

About this time last year, I was hopping planes from Peru to Chicago to India in order to celebrate the wedding of my good friend Kalit. Kelli and I made the voyage together from Chicago to India…but this year? We’re going from Cleveland to South America, to celebrate my own wedding.

This Saturday, we’ll head to the C-L-E for our summery Argentina & Chile excursion. We’ve got plenty of things on the docket: Mendoza wine tour, all of Jorge’s extended family (including the far-flung relatives I’ve never met), our wedding reception RURAL STYLE, bus rides through the Andes, and the lovely VALPARAISO, with all the graffiti, sea shore, and hill climbing we can stand.

Much like last year, I’m facing the problem of what the hell do I do about the different temperatures in all these places I’m going? Because right now, in Jorge’s homeland, it’s like 100 degrees. And in Ohio, right now, it’s 18 degrees.

One thing is for certain this time–I can at least leave my winter jacket behind in Ohio. It’ll go like this: my dad will pull up to Departures…he’ll slow to a crawl, keeping an eye out for the police officers who want to shoo everyone along before they’ve had time to even cough…I will shed my soon-to-be-unnecessary jacket, feigning I’m-about-to-unload-officer motions…I’ll glance heavily at the snowfall around me…and I will barrel roll out of the car with my backpack already strapped on, gathering momentum until I feel the whoosh of hot air as I glide through the sliding doors of the Check-In area.

VICTORY. No winter jacket…no hypothermia…no ridiculous, laden bags.

For my four week trip out of the USA this year, I am packing light. Or, as light as I can muster given that I need out-of-the-ordinary things like jewelry for my wedding dress and various flats in case I change my mind last minute.

Jorge warned me the other day to be prepared for the heat. I mean, it’s a valid warning, though my immediate reaction was “Pfff, OK. Like I need to prepare for that.”

But I do. I mean, if you get somewhere that’s 100 degrees and you don’t have a single pair of shorts or a single sleeveless shirt…that’s a special kind of hell already. Your limbs gotta breathe.

That said, I’m prepared for the damn heat. I have like, three summer dresses, two pairs of shorts, all of the tank tops I’ve ever laid eyes on, and two bathing suits. I’m prepared for the heat.

But I’m also prepared for other things. Let’s take a look at this snapshot of my packing progress today.

Yeah, yeah, it looks like I've only packed five things. I swear there's a backpack with other stuff in it.

Yeah, yeah, it looks like I’ve only packed five things. I swear there’s a backpack with other stuff in it.

What are we looking at here?

Sunglasses: check.

Passport: duh. Check.

Bindis: check. You never know when you’ll need a bindi to color-coordinate with your outfit at your Argentinian wedding.

Rattle: check. This is a magical rattle and was part of a larger rattle from my best friend Heather, so this is either self-explanatory or more confusing.

Mermaid leggings: check. I may very well not put these leggings on, especially since they are skin-tight and made of a fabric that seems like it would induce epic sweating. But, let’s be real…if I get to South America and there’s even one moment where I WISH I had these leggings and I DON’T? I’ll have failed as the resident Astronaut Mermaid. After all, it’s wise to plan for a little bit of space in your luggage…and whether that space ends up fitting mermaid leggings or bootlegged bottles of Malbec wine on your way back into the country, or BOTH…hey. That’s your call.

Those are the essentials….so far, at least. Luckily, my wedding dress is already in Argentina, waiting for me, probably sweating on my behalf in the San Luis heat. That’s one item you wouldn’t want to forget for your wedding in South America, but thankfully I sent it ahead with my personal husband courier.

Oh, and don’t forget to check back for more updates on our wedding, Southern Hemisphere Edition…there’s more Wedding Woes and Wonders ahead! Signing off, for now…

Adventures in Coffee: Argentina Edition

I REALLY LIKE COFFEE. And sometimes this leads to varied (and desperate) adventures with brewing coffee on the road (the true peak being sifting coffee through a pair of leggings). Like clockwork, another strange speed bump cropped up throughout what is an already sort of unusual winding road through Coffee Land.

We started our voyage into the rural midlands of Argentina with a jar of ground coffee. Regular stuff – some Columbian beans I had left over from Cusco. But as all ground things come to an end, before long I was eyeing the bright green packages of whole Peruvian coffee beans with something similar to a caffeine-induced hunger.

Audrey and Chevi bestowed upon us the generous gift of COFFEE before we left. Our bags were so stuffed that I had to cram three of these packs into my purse. Made for an awkward bag-search when we crossed the border, let me tell you (who carries three pounds of whole coffee in their purse?)

Once our ground coffee reserves came to a delicious end, I wondered how we might begin sampling the Peruvian jungle beans. Jorge’s parents live in town these days, but they still have a pretty rustic lifestyle when it comes to household appliances. I knew a proper coffee-grinding appliance was out of the question – I might not be able to locate one of those for 300 miles. But a blender? Those are pretty common place. And they’ll get the job done in times of coffee grinding need, even if it is a bit cringeworthy for certain types of coffee snobs.

But hey – when you’re out here in the farmland, you make do with what you have.

Except *record screech* they don’t have a blender. I was so sure they would, too. Turns out, they had a blender, long ago, but it broke, and was never replaced. (BUT WHAT ABOUT SMOOTHIES?!)

Fine. So let’s turn to our resourceful farmhand whiles. What this house does have is a mortar and pestle. And a pretty bad ass one at that – something of the mortar and pestle of my dreams (though not quite as large as ones I’ve seen in the Incan museums. Nor is it made of stone. Or forged from ancient remembrances.)

I asked myself if I could grind coffee with a mortar and pestle. And then I realized, how silly. You can grind ANYTHING with a mortar and pestle, especially one this size. I could grind my own teeth if I wanted. Even if they weren’t out of my head first.

So we got to work with the experiment. We poured in a small handful at first, to see how it might work. And then, voila – tantalizing aromas, more fragrant than anything I have smelled in my entire life, wafted from the mortar and pestle. The smell was truly sublime.

Grinding coffee with mortar and pestle

Here I am, using an antique mortar and pestle, happy as a coffee-grinding clam.

And though the grounds weren’t exactly even, it got the job done.

The resultant coffee was a DELIGHT.

In my never-ending journeys through unlikely and often-times very hillbilly methods of brewing coffee, I have unwittingly come across something that pushes me into the coffee snob end of the spectrum: GRINDING BEFORE YOU BREW IS OTHERWORDLY.

I’ve heard about this plenty, though mostly in reference to picking on the ubiquitous hipster and all the infuriating cultural quirks therein. (“Sorry, I can’t drink coffee that hasn’t been freshly ground, the taste is just sooooo much different.”) And yeah, maybe I’m afraid the hipster missile will seek me out, even down here in the South American pampas. But you know what? The taste is just sooooooo much different. (Though, all you experienced coffee drinkers knew this already, didn’t you??)

I’m definitely going to grind the rest of the bag like this, most likely in the serene breezes of the mild San Luis fall mornings, listening to the insane bird squawking like a goat in the neighbor’s house, or the roosters who literally crow at all hours of the day, beginning at 4:30AM. I recommend trying this with deeper mortar and pestles. Shallow ones would allow too much room for the coffee beans to jump out and otherwise avoid their untimely, flattened demise.

Not only is it an unexpected meditative time-out, the ‘I-just-ground-this-shit-right-now’ coffee experience is a subtle explosion of joy for the palate. Even if you have to do it with a mortar and pestle.

Now go try it and tell me about it! Seriously, share your results below. Did a coffee bean shoot out and lodge itself in your eyeball? Or were you wooed and seduced by the fragrant aromas wafting from the kitchen? 

A Love Affair with Toro Viejo

Oh, querida Argentina! The land of red wine, the surrogate mother of Malbec!

We’re back in Argentina visiting Jorge’s family for the month. There are a lot of things we look forward to during our yearly pilgrimage to the homeland. Things like: the bread. The meat. The melodic sing-song vos and desis. The relatives, and the chance to get back to rural roots. And perhaps, most of all (sorry parents)? THE RED WINE.

But even though Argentina is known for its delightfully fragrant varietals, not all of Argentina shares the high-browed love of the bodegas. While some Argentinians pass time discussing legginess and obscure fruity undertones, others are content with whatever legally passes as wine.

Red wine in most other places is known by it’s varietal: the merlot grape, the cabernet sauvignons, French Malbec versus Argentinian Malbec. Every bottle gleams with the proud pronunciation of what wine and what year.

But Candelaria is remote, and very rural. And in the biggest grocery store in town, there are only two options for something that isn’t just blanket-statement Red Wine.

So everyone drinks a brand called Toro Viejo down here. Let me be clear: IT IS NOT GOOD WINE. It is boxed red wine dressed up in a glass bottle. It’s passable, at best, but only because I’ve acclimated after several visits now. The first time I came, I was horrified. How could a wine not even make mention of its parent grape? How could it be packaged and sold without making mention of its birth year?



Well that’s Toro Viejo (translation: Old Bull) for you. 700 ML will run you less than $2.00.Talk about value! The cheapest bottle of wine I ever bought in the States was $5, and so disgusting I threw it away after one sip. (Note to self: Bargan Bin wine shopping is to be avoided!)

But living in wine country means even the refuse is guaranteed to be tolerable. It’s sold in 6 packs, because I guess drinking an entire bottle is equivalent to a Nati Light beer in the USA. About as cheap, at least. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a natural spring gushing Toro Viejo wine instead of water somewhere in the sierras.

But Toro Viejo has its perks.

First of all, it’s ubiquitous. You can find it everywhere, literally everywhere. There will be Toro Viejo wine available for years after the Apocalypse, I can assure you. Jorge’s family are cultural wine drinkers, so the bottle of Toro Viejo is at every meal, no matter what. You will NOT find the Avila family without their tried and trusted Toro Viejo. And it will always, always be chilled. This is a natural fact, a law of the land, as implicit as bathing or wiping your ass.

Secondly, it seems the marketing department for the Old Bull brand had a flash of inspiration, one that very well might rock the whole of Argentina. They started a campaign where on random cork bottles, you could win a chance to win millions of bottles of Toro Viejo. I don’t know if that would be wine heaven or hell – but damned if I’m not scouring each cork for the chance to win.

My relationship with this barely-tolerable red wine has grown from one of side-eyed distrust to that of family members who used to fight a lot but now mostly get along. A week and a half into our stay in Candelaria, I’m salivating for the chance to sniff a robust Malbec…but, I can stand another glass of Toro Viejo, I suppose. And come dinner time, I just might have a couple.

A Journey to Coffeelandia

As Jorge’s and my time winds down here in Cusco, we thought we’d trigger the transition phase between “Mostly-Settled & Living Somewhere Mode” and “Full-Time Backpacking Mode” with a little trip into the Peruvian jungle.

Our friends Chevi and Audrey, a married couple with two beautiful young daughters, own a coffee farm in Quillabamba. Audrey’s mother, Magda, grew up in Peru and bought this property from her sister many years ago. In about 2007, Audrey and her mother came to visit it, after having spent nearly a lifetime in the USA — and they found not only a gorgeous 15-acre plot of heaven in the heart of the jungle, but also a ready-made coffee farm.

With the help of family members and hired workers, they’ve been working to reinvigorate production of coffee beans on the land, as well as bring other sources of income to light: things like selling the fruits that grow plentiful and abundant on the property, such as bananas, oranges, papaya, and more.

When Audrey and Chevi offered to take us on a three-day whirlwind trip into the jungle to see this property, Jorge and I said HELL YES.

So off we went — in a more-than-necessary 4×4 truck. Without it, you’d have no hope of maneuvering the perilous mountain roads, crossing stream beds that look more like white-water rapids, or navigating the often-unpaved paths that still exist in place of city-maintained roads.

Our 4x4, loaded with necessary, survival, jungly a grill and pool floaties

Chevi says hey! Here’s our 4×4, loaded with necessary, survival, jungly things…like a grill and pool floaties

One of our views from the road to Quillabamba

One of our views from the road to Quillabamba

Warning: hair pin curve ahead!

Warning: hair pin curve ahead!

The road to Quillabamba is the same one we took to get to Machu Picchu — the one that crosses so high into the mountains that stopping is a generally bad idea, since altitude sickness sets in swiftly. Jorge and I knew what awaited us, and the road is not easy. 6 hours of curves, constant jostling, and a distinct sensation that you might just fly off the next unexpected twist in the road. Crosses and flower arrangements dot the side of the highway, a testament to the difficulty of this road.

But all journeys come to an end; and despite many stops for nausea and motion sickness, we did in fact make it to Quillabamba. Passengers, grill and pool floaties intact.

Once you cross the mountains, the air changes from dry and cold to hot and humid. Mosquitoes instantly devoured us in Quillabamba. Suddenly, I realized the brightly colored alpaca socks were the worst decision I had made; perhaps in life. It wasn’t until after the upward jungle climb that I could take them off. I hadn’t realized ankles could sweat so much.

Freshly arrived in Quillabamba, severely regretting the alpaca socks decision from earlier that day.

Freshly arrived in Quillabamba, severely regretting the alpaca socks decision from earlier that day. Don’t let the small smirk fool you — it was hot enough that I wanted to melt.

Let me be clear on something: I consume a lot of coffee. You’d think that for consuming so much of the dark nectar that I’d have some inkling of the story behind it. But I had no idea, prior to this trip, where coffee even came from. For being such a slave to the bean, my idea was that it grew on some sort of tree (sort of correct), looking mostly like it did in the form we purchase from places like Starbucks or Krogers (very wrong).

As we began a long, uphill climb from the dirt road to their coffee farm, Audrey began to point out different varieties of coffee plants. And they didn’t look anything like I expected.

100% Arabica coffee beans, grown in Quillabamba, Peru!

100% Arabica coffee beans, grown in Quillabamba, Peru!

Each coffee bean matures at different times, meaning that machine-picking is impossible. You need a human hand to discern which beans are ready, and which ones need to stay on to mature. Once the ripe and ready red beans are picked, the green ones then begin to turn over. Several visits to the same coffee plant are needed throughout the season.

A local worker picks the ready coffee beans.

Local workers pick the ready coffee beans.

But picking the bean doesn’t mean it’s ready to roast. Oh, no, fellow coffee drinker. Hold your frappuchino horses. Once picked, the beans need to dry for up to a week. You’ll know they’re dry, Chevi told me, when you squeeze the bean between your teeth and the inside cracks instantly. Once dry, a sugary shell is formed on the outside, which is then shucked away to reveal the raw (and ready) coffee bean.

From there, the beans are perhaps sold to an interested party, or roasted and then packaged to sell at a storefront, like what Audrey and Chevi do back in Cusco. Their farm in Quillabamba employs various local growers and workers who help with the entire process. This is “direct trade” coffee.

The life of a coffee plant is not eternal, despite what our coffee addiction in the USA might suggest. After about 5 to 7 years, the plants need to be hacked to the roots. However, they regenerate on their own, sprouting (perhaps magically?) new seedlings nearby that will grow into a fully functioning coffee plant. One plant can yield about a kilo of beans in a season. Multiply that by 15 acres? Those are some sexy stats for someone thinking about raising coffee plants in a lush, humid jungle somewhere *cough*.

But the journey from mostly-wild jungle property to a fully functioning farm is a long one. Though their farm was producing coffee long before Audrey and her mother got there, it’s been years of work to get it to where they are today. Even just a few weeks of slacking means the jungle reclaims its land; vigilance and hard work is not only necessary but mandatory. Life on a coffee farm is no small feat, especially way out there in the depths of Quillabamba.

A shot of the path leading to the coffee farm.

A shot of the path leading to the coffee farm…what we might consider “the front walkway” in a suburban neighborhood in the States.

A panorama of the coffee farm -- but only a mere fraction of the 15 acres of land!

A panorama of the coffee farm — but only a mere fraction of the 15 acres of land!

Coffee beans, nearly dried after a week of sitting out.

Coffee beans, nearly dried after a week of sitting out.

The vision that Audrey and her family have for the coffee farm is exciting, admirable, and fascinating. Much work remains to be done, and ideas for improvement and expansion are never-ending. With 15 acres of gorgeous, fertile land, it seems that nearly anything could become a reality.

But more than that, the jungle of Quillabamba left Jorge and I completely enchanted. On our second day back in Cusco, we are already pining for the sweet sting of humidity, the crunch of banana leaves beneath our feet, the pleasant hum of unknown creatures in the distance.

Everything, pretty much, except the 1,472 mosquito bites that serve as the last reminder of our whirlwind trip to the Peruvian jungle.

The Difference A Few Pounds Makes

I’m approaching That Time again: the seasonal shift or moon cycle or Chinese New Year when my partner and I pack up all of our belongings into a couple backpacks and say ADIOS.

Moving out

A shot from our move from Lima to Cusco, November 2014. The third backpack had household goods, like cheap pots and cutting boards, things we had purchased in Lima and carried with us to Cusco — not your typical backpack contents!

We leave Peru on May 1st, where we’ll head to Argentina to spend a month visiting Jorge’s family (the yearly visit where we lounge in the rolling, rural climes and soak in every manner of melodic Argentine Spanish, cookouts, and way better bread options). The first two weeks of June we’ll be in Chile, visiting friends and that house we founded together, yet another very important stop on our Farewell, South America! Tour of 2015. I’ll be working on the road, as always, struggling to fit in my hours and convince my editors/bosses I’m serious about what I’m doing. And then…it’s the USA, baby!

I’ll be honest: there’s a lot of cool things about my lifestyle. As slow travelers, we get to experience new places in a way that isn’t jam-packed with sightseeing, tourist prices, and frenetic bus schedules that would make even the most hardy traveler weep with sorrow and exhaustion.

But for all the cool things, there are some downsides as well.

I’ll save all the downsides for a different post. But one of the most irritating, and tiring, downsides, is that of carrying your life’s possessions on your back. We both have home bases in the sense that we have a childhood home to return to. But other than that? Everything we need, in any moment, in any part of the world, is WITH us.

This reality of slow travel is made harder for me by the fact that A.) I like to travel with a literal library of books (I’M A READER AND WRITER, WHAT) and B.) I am what could be called a struggling minimalist.

Some people might look at Jorge and I and say, “Oh please, I couldn’t fit my possessions into two bags if you paid me in gold doubloons and ancient Incan pottery.”

And yes, true. I’ve been in that boat. While I couldn’t fit all the possessions that remain in Ohio in two backpacks, you COULD pay me in doubloons or pottery to accomplish it.

Prior to moving abroad in 2012, I had a month-long garage sale to shave off unnecessary shit that had been accumulating in a spare room in my childhood home for years, like an unwieldy and completely useless appendage that nobody ever looked at or needed.

What’s worse is that every year when I go home to visit, I spend at least a week paring down those remaining objects MORE.

I have inherited PACKRAT genes, and I am aware of it. That’s what counseling is for, right? Why do we SAVE so much STUFF? (That answer might be for another post, as well!)

At any rate, the packrat effect has subsided in recent history. My travel endeavors are a direct result of my attempts at non-attachment to physical items.

I realized, in my mid-20’s, that I had a lot of REALLY strong emotional attachments to a lot of really PHYSICAL objects. And that these emotional attachments were not something that had sprung up, unbidden, in my adult years, but rather it was a slow simmer of a companion, something that had grown and evolved alongside me since my formative years.

Scraps of paper, gifts, old clothes, you name it. I was afraid of getting rid of these things because I felt that, somehow, in ridding myself of the object that I would rid myself of the memory. Of the pleasant feelings. Of the better times.

That’s completely untrue, I came to find out, once I started a little task called ‘throwing things in the garbage’. Not only did I not lose my memories, or my childhood, or my school years, or any manner of personality aspects, I felt considerably BETTER.

Lighter. Freer. Able to breathe a little easier, in fact. I hadn’t realized the sheer weight of the memories I surrounded myself with, the chokehold these scraps of the past could wield.

Trying to detach and otherwise disassociate from my emotional connection to things doesn’t mean it’s a perfected art or that I’m any sort of guru. But rather, it’s a journey. Attempts, often laden with failures.

But I keep trying.

And I keep losing more and more weight.

(In my backpack, that is. I’m not physically whittling away to nothing, don’t worry.)

Our slow travel lifestyle helps me take stock of my possessions, anywhere from once a year to every couple of months. And though it can be a drag, literally, to divorce myself from my City Of The Moment, to sell off my belongings, to skim the chaff of my worldly possessions…it’s also a helpful, centering practice.

To take a hard look at what I have in my personal space and then, by default, my MENTAL space…that’s pretty important to keeping a clear head and light innards. And by innards, I mean guts and also the heart space.

Things come and go. Cars, furniture, houses, neighborhoods, clothing, books…they’re all neutral objects that can leave our lives as quickly and easily as they appear. Some are necessary, for at least a period of time. And that’s okay. The problem is not in having things, but rather, the sometimes sickly relationship we maintain with them.

The things are not me any more than I am my things. But I spent many years placing a lot of emotional stock in my possessions.

(FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m still a little reluctant for my dad to get rid of the couch in his house, even though he’s been ready for a full five years to haul it to the dump. Why? Because I grew up with that couch, and it’s insanely comfortable, and MEMORIES! But alas, Astromaid…it is just an object.)

So, as we face yet another tide change, another country hop, another cultural shift, I look around my mini-apartment and my backpack and imagine the improbable yet inevitable ways in which these two halves will form a cohesive equation.

It starts with questions.

Do I really need to keep these 5 books I read already but didn’t really like? No. It’s okay to give them away (even though I sort of have a strict “Keep Every Book You Ever Touch” policy….I’M WORKING ON IT).

Do I really need the various Cusco advertisements and street offers that somehow remind me of living here, and I intended to paste into my journal but still haven’t, even though I am surrounded by ample amounts of evidence that I have lived here? NO. Please god, let’s just throw these away right now.

Do I need the clothes I picked up somewhere along the way but am hesitant to get rid of just in case I might need a pair of hot pink shorts? No. Give them away.

Do I really need the six pairs of leggings? …Well…I’ll get back to you on this one.

Some long-term travelers do it way skimpier than I do. And that’s okay. They might be happy with their laptop, a phone charger, two pairs of pants, three pairs of underwear and a water bottle (AND THAT’S IT). While I will forever envy their ultra-tiny backpack and the way they never have to check a bag ever again or trudge 2 miles in the highlands of Bolivia in the freezing cold with a backpack the weight of a dead man…I also know that I am striking the best balance I can.

At the end of the day, I can fit all my things into a backpack, and still have my worldly comforts, like a small library of emerging American fiction writers at my fingertips.

Otherwise it just wouldn’t be my life, no matter where in the world, no matter how many things on my back. The important part is in remembering that I can also survive without whatever is in my backpack.

“Hey Fatty!” and Other Affectionately Offensive Commentary

In the same vein as my last post about the plethora of identical nicknames, I have to bring up the tradition of totally direct and mildly offensive commentary throughout Latin America.

It’s not that anybody intends for it to be direct and offensive — it just is. To me. Because I’m from MURRICA and up there, you don’t comment on someone’s weight under penalty of death (stares). 

But down here? Everyone from abuelitas to acquaintances comment on my weight or appearance (“You look really swollen”, “Ah, you’ve gained weight since the last time I saw you”). It’s not done so out of ill-will or an attempt to make me feel bad about myself; it’s just how the culture is.

It’s normal to state blatantly obvious facts about weight, physical appearance, and changes since the last time they saw you.

When I first was introduced to the Latin American Honesty Policy, there was a fair degree of shock, horror and recoil.   But dealing with these comments made me realize that I was actually fighting a battle against my own culture – it showed me just how obsessed we are with weight, image and prettiness in the USA. And that my own foundation and cultural construct have been formed by these ideals, even though I’d never consciously agreed to it.

And it’s not that Latin American countries don’t have their own particular and peculiar battles with image, prettiness and femininity. It’s just that every country does it a little differently. And the Latin flair, in this case, does not necessarily hold ‘thinness’ above all other categories.

Despite my awesome mother counseling me at a young age (I think around 7, if not younger) that all the pictures I saw of women in magazines were photoshopped to look more perfect –that real women didn’t necessarily look like that, even though our senses are saturated with the ideals — it’s hard to escape the sweeping radar of Image Obsession in America.

But rationally knowing about my cultural construct and the presence of rampant photoshopping in advertising doesn’t mean that it acts as any less of an influence in the unspoken undertones of my home country.

Even though I’ve lived in and out of various Latin American countries since 2006, these direct, weight-focused comments still sometimes surprise me.

Let’s use a recent trip to Argentina to visit Jorge’s buddies as an example. We arrive to his friend’s house, and within thirty seconds there is ample commentary about how much weight Pablo* has gained. “Man, look at this stomach! You’re such a fatty!” Everyone proceeds to pat it and otherwise jostle him about his belly. “Dude, you’re losing all your hair and gaining all the gut!”

Hold up a minute. Where I come from, this is totally offensive and pretty rude as well. Granted, my partner and his friends have a certain style of humor that only long-term, intimate friends can access. Even still, where I come from the only acceptable form of weight commentary is when you’ve lost it. Any gain is usually commented on behind the person’s back, or in worried whispers from across the room.

And any reference to loss of hair or weight gain is usually only acceptable in a self-deprecating approach, as in, if Pablo were from the USA, only he would be able to joke about his hair loss or weight gain. He’s the only one allowed to mention it, bring it into the conversational sphere, or otherwise put it on the table.

The other acceptable way of commenting on weight? When it’s animals! (“GOSH, what a fat kitty!” “Your dog is a beast, he needs to lose weight stat”)

Otherwise, in the USA it tends to be used as a comparative or degrading tool (“Did you see how much weight Suzie gained? Ugh, what a cow” or “I’m so much skinnier than him, I eat way better”).

Which is why I have countless memories of those record-stopping moments throughout my travels in Latin America: where someone commented on my weight, past or present, and my jaw dropped a little and I watched them for a moment just completely shocked by their brazen commentary. The reaction cycle went something like Shock, Offense, Self-Criticism, Embarrassment, Self-Counseling, Ruminating, and then finally Getting Over It.

It takes some time to get used to.

But in Latin American culture, it’s just a commentary expressing a physical fact.

You are fat, or you’re skinny, or you’re pale, or you’re losing hair, or you’re dark-skinned, or you’re extremely hairy, etc.

It doesn’t carry the same weight (no pun intended) as it does in my home country. Calling someone fat isn’t an insult. 

Some of these characteristics are culturally subjective and change over time — like what was ‘skinny’ in the 1700’s is now considered ‘slightly overweight’. Or what is ‘overweight’ in one country nowadays is seen as ‘healthy’ in another culture.

Skinny was a thing to avoid, in another time and place!

Despite the way these comments can sometimes sting, whether directed at me or I overhear them and feel stung on their behalf, like Jorge’s friend Pablo….I think they’ve got it right.

They’re just physical qualities, some of which change over time, some of which are interpreted differently according to culture.

Fatness is a loaded term in the USA. We equate ‘fat’ with any multitude of things, and a lot of people internalize secret beliefs they have linked with characteristics they deem undesirable. Commentary on a physical quality can mean anything from “ugly”, or “undesireable”, or “unloveable”, etc. Someone who has freckles and desperately wants to not have freckles can take a comment about the existence of her freckles to mean that she’s never going to be able to find a worthwhile partner.

Logically speaking, it’s ridiculous. But I’m willing to bet every human being has harbored some secret belief like this at one point in their life. Though our human intellect has discovered distant galaxies and is capable of high-level reasoning on a daily basis, we’re stunningly adept at holding ourselves prisoners to illogical beliefs and fallacies.

Physical characteristics have nothing to do with any of these secret beliefs we may hold about ourselves. Really, the commentary is just serving to highlight what it is that we need to address on the inside. The way it makes us feel is a good clue about where our insecurities lie…and WHY.

Being fat, tall, thin, balding, hairy, too-dark or too-white…These things don’t actually say anything about your worth, your intellect, your contributions, or who you are on the inside.

And that’s something we really tend to confuse in the USA.

We are so much more than the sum of our physical qualities. In fact, the physical has nothing to do with the pure, spectacular perfection that exists on the inside.


*Name has been changed because nobody except for Jorge has really ever agreed to appear in this blog. And really, now that I think about it, Jorge hasn’t agreed to be in this blog either. I better go ask him real quick.

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