A Travellerspoint blog

Epiphany in a Laotian Tuk-tuk

sunny 28 °C
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Today an important word is redefined in my mental vocabulary. When I left New York City, 'independence' wore a vintage wool beanie and Nike high tops. As of an hour ago it traded those in for a straw sun hat and goes barefoot.

To start, although I don't want to blame the way I've previously seen independence on my country, it's hard to deny that the US encourages people to fend for themselves. Going from 'rags to riches' and 'pulling yourself up from your bootstraps' are frequently used, positive cliches associated with independence that to me epitomize what Americans aim to do. The top student in a graduating class is commended for their hard work, singled out above the rest as the brightest. The "most successful" will apply to the top universities with a resume that boasts all their best qualities. If someone lends you money to start a business, as soon as you have the means it's expected that you pay your sponsor back. If your friend takes you out to dinner, you offer to take them out next week. If someone gets you a birthday present, you make sure to mark down their birthday and buy them something of equal or greater value. Sure, most of us don't do all these things, maybe because we don't have the means, maybe because we don't care. But if you could be the BEST at everything you attempted, wouldn't you be satisfied? And if you could reciprocate every time someone did you a favor, wouldn't you?

Essentially what I'm trying to say is that it seems to me that growing up I idealized the person who rose to the top because of their own determination and talent. I believed that it was important to return the favor to anyone who helped me along the way. After all that if I achieved my goal, I had gotten there independently, and that was commendable.

Being a woman deepened this mindset. Growing up I was always involved in athletic activities and loved math and sciences. Part of the thrill was competing in a man's world, proving that being a woman wouldn't keep me from winning a 100 yard dash or finishing an algebra test first. If I didn't understand something in a class, you can bet that I would never ask a boy next to me for help. Often times, I wouldn't even ask the teacher, especially if he was male. I had to be an independent woman who could achieve anything a man could without assistance. If someone did help me, I'd be sure to watch out for the second they needed an explanation to something I already understood.

Traveling adds a third dimension. A solo woman traveler, an even more complex one. Try telling your friends you are going alone to Colombia. Worse yet, try telling them you are going to the Brazilian Amazon. How many men did I meet traveling alone that didn't have to worry about being out alone at night? How many male couchsurfers didn't have to screen for sketchy subscribers? Tons. Yet I did it anyway, because again I was out to prove something. To prove that I could make it around the world, as a woman, alone.

So how did this affect my day-to-day? Tremendously. In Colombia, an old friend of mine took me out to dinner one night. Per usual in Latin American countries, if you're a woman, men pick you up, you choose the destination and they pay for your meal. And drive you home. I had a hell of a time being okay with that. Leo, my friend, one night explained to me a fundamental difference he saw between European women and Latin women. 'They are too proud,' he said of the Europeans, 'they act like they don't need men around.'

In Porto Velho, Brazil, a 23-year old woman Tati took me to her home to stay the night after our boat docked from the Amazon. I knew her family was poorer than I could ever imagine, but nevertheless she insisted on having me as a guest in her house, meaning I couldn't pay for anything. I gave her kids bracelets from the US (which I had actually brought as tokens of appreciation to couchsurfing hosts) and played with them all night although I was sick. I knew I couldn't give her back anything close to what she had given to me: security and friendship when I needed it most. So I did the best I could with bracelets, and endless thank yous. My blog post about her was a tribute to her generosity. And to this day I feel badly for not having been able to express to her--verbally or materially--what her gesture meant to me.

Fast-forward a dozen more examples to my first week in Thailand. A Sweedish friend I met in the ferry to Koh Phangan offered to carry my backpack up to the bungalow. Too proud to accept, I carried my own pack. In that moment accepting would have conceded that I was a weak woman traveler incapable of carrying my load. Ridiculous, I know, but that's how I'm accustomed to thinking.

And then today at the end of a hike in Laos something changed. I was at the top of the mountain, stone-stepping in a lagoon where the waterfall began. Bamboo and palm tree canopies, crystal green-blue water with perfectly round rocks at the bottom. I went to step from one rock to the next, flip flops in my hand and camera ready, when a Lao girl offered me her hand to balance better across the lagoon. I hesitated. A thousand thoughts went through my head, each as ridiculous as the next: I can do this alone, I've stepped stones a million times; I probably do more trekking than her shouldn't I be the one lending her a hand? But I'm behind her, even if I take her hand out of courtesy I won't be able to help her in return...

It dawned on me that I can give as many gifts, favors, donations as I want, but I could never for the life of me accept any of those things 'for free', even something as small as what this Lao girl was offering me. In economics they say that 'there's no free lunch', but life doesn't work like economic theory. And independence has absolutely nothing to do with doing everything alone. I took her hand and we crossed the lagoon together.

In the back of the tuk-tuk on the way to the hostel, I realized how many times this trip--and obviously before this trip--I've felt guilty or unsatisfied accepting things from others. It's a real handicap of mine, but I have a hard time believing I'm the only one suffering from it. As a westerner, as a women, as a traveler, I'm giving up this bullshit definition of independence ingrained in my head. Swallowing my pride. Life is not a fucking competition.

Posted by pack_it_in 02:45 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

A Chang on a Jungle Mountaintop

Trekking in Thailand

sunny 30 °C
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I might have thrown out my hiking boots in Brazil, but on my second day in Chiang Mai I boarded a tuk tuk for the jungle regardless. Kai, our local guide, would be with us through our overnight visit to a remote village a ways outside the city. I easily won the competition for the lightest luggage: my mini day-pack contained just a change of clothes, a towel toothpaste and a toothbrush, some soap, and a camera. And 200 Baht, which amounts to about 10 USD for water along the way. 200 Baht is quite a lot for water, but it would be hot. And in the jungle, as I learned back in the Amazon, we're not talking about dry desert heat.

The beginning of the adventure was not exactly what I thought I was signing up for. Kai brought us to an elephant reserve where we were supposed to be going for a little ride. They were about twice the size of a horse, which was smaller than I expected, and were strapped with metal saddles and some had chains around their necks. It was heartbreaking. I thought about denying the ride, on the premise that it seemed cruel to ride these creatures that would surely be better off in the wild. In the end I boarded my elephant, deciding that even if I didn't ride them someone else would. Kind of like when I stopped being a vegetarian--if I don't enjoy that medium steak...with a nice glass of Malbec... that won't stop the butcher from killing his cows and serving it to the guy next to me. In any case, the elephant ride was way less enjoyable than Argentine asado. It was interesting to feel the muscles of the elephant working below you, its giant hooves heaving every step, landing solidly and crushing the jungle vegetation below. It was funny to watch from above while their trunks sopped up water from the river like a straw. But it wasn't worth riding them just to feel that. The Pad Thai lunch probably topped the ride to be honest.

After lunch we set off down the trail, suddenly surrounded by crazy vegetation and bamboo canopies. It could have been Colombia or Brazil, except that the trees here seemed more fragile. I don't exactly know how to describe the difference... I suppose that in the Amazon there were more strangely shaped flora, like the cage/walking tree and the mother of the forest (See earlier post, Monkey Business, for details). Kai told us we'd be walking uphill, but he didn't really explain how steep of a hike we were actually getting ourselves into. We might as well have been climbing stairs. There were boulders, trees in the path so you could hoist yourself up, and stones that looked like they had been arranged to mirror the Inca Trail. The 2pm heat didn't make things easier, nor did the fact that we were all carrying backpacks. I was glad for my light packing.

3 hours of that. My calves were burning, a reminder that I had hardly done any exercise since I could remember. It was the kind of hike where you know with each step how sore you will be when you get up the next morning. Satisfying but painful. The last stretch wasn't so bad. The trees shrunk, leaving us with an incredible view that made the whole trek worth it. We were overlooking a valley of palm and banana trees, greener than ever, and a river flowed quietly down the middle of two mountains, one of which we had just conquered. The village was just a bit further. Before continuing Kai stopped us to give us a brief history of the place we'd spend the night. It's a small village of 150 people, who came over from Myanmar just 40 years prior. They were escaping the violence plaguing their country, and ended up in the mountains just over the border, where mosquitoes are hardly a bother and the soil is good for planting. They speak their own language, and the majority of the population is under 5 years old.

The last bit of the climb was simple in comparison to the rest of the day. We shuffled through tall grass, so tall that it obstructed our view of the darkening sky, for another half hour. Mild incline. Soon we saw the huts, made from grass and bamboo, just a few hundred meters ahead. We all breathed a sigh of relief and asked our legs to take us just a bit further. A few wooden steps and we were on a patio, also made from bamboo, overlooking the valley from the highest point yet. Totally beat, the rest of the night was spent taking ice cold showers, sipping Chang beers (local brew of Thailand), and watching our campfire crackle. Around 8pm, a wave of exhaustion swept over our hut. One by one, people abandoned the camp fire for our home for the evening: a simple hut, 10 thin mattresses on the handmade floor, a small pillow and a wool blanket for each of us. Mozzie nets draping the ceiling, to be lowered for westerners' comfort but totally unnecessary considering the temperature and the altitude.

I was too cold that night and slept terribly. But the smell of coffee (!!) the next morning stirred me out of bed. The first sip, accompanied by a hard boiled egg, gave me just what I needed to hit the trail again for day two. This time, we were going downhill. Sigh of relief. Contrary to my expectations, downhill might have been harder. My quads were the ones complaining this time.

I must be out of blogging practice because I'm losing steam. So instead of forcing the less-than-exciting rest of the trip, I'll make it short and sweet: 3 hours down, stopped at a waterfall. Didn't compare to Iguazu. Sorry, Thailand! We had a short bamboo raft ride back to the tuk tuk station. Fun, but not life-changing. Except that the other raft flipped over... suckersssss!

Posted by pack_it_in 00:05 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Spoiled in Thailand

Southern islands and the train to the north

sunny 28 °C
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I spent the majority of my first week in Thailand basking on some of the most beautiful beaches I've seen since Colombia. Koh Phangan, an island on the east side of the Thai peninsula, is predominantly known for hosting the Full Moon Party, a tourist shit show where people drink as many buckets as possible and dance on the beach until dawn. I can't deny that the FMP encouraged me to make the 15 hour trip south of Bangkok, but it didn't turn out to be a highlight of my island vacation. On the contrary, it made me ashamed of my age group's drinking culture when I saw the aftermath of this raging festival: the beach was littered with broken bottles, cans, buckets, and people had vomited and urinated in the ocean so many times that no one would swim there for weeks. Absolutely disgusting.

Luckily for me, my friends had chosen to stay in bungalows 45 minutes from the FMP site. Every morning I woke up to a panoramic view of the northwestern shore of Koh Phangan. White sand beaches, turquoise water, deep blue skies and fluffy clouds on a good day. After a good night sleep I would hop down the 84 steps from my bungalow, sit in a hammock with a banana juice, and wait for the others to get up so we could head down to the beach. We'd bring a set of racquetball paddles, a frisbee, and our sarongs and set up camp between the massage hut and our favorite oceanfront cafe. I'd read my freshly exchanged book, soak up some rays, then go for a dip with my goggles to explore the reef just 100 meters from the shore. When I got tired of wading around in the water, maybe I would plop back down on the beach, coping with the grains of sand that wiggled through the weaving of my sarong to stick stubbornly to my salty skin. Or maybe I would just float in the calm water, hoping the rain cloud in the distance wouldn't come our way. It didn't really matter. Days Koh Phangan are longer than everyplace else, so even if you spend an eternity on the beach you'll still be home too early for dinner.

I must have settled into vacation rhythm now because after a few days of Koh Phangan-ing I was ready to hit the road again. My backpack hadn't been unpacked and repacked for 4 days. My clothes didn't smell anymore. I was constantly clean. It was time to go.

The following morning at 7am I was moved out of the bungalow, and although still in beachwear, sunglasses, and stolen sandals (someone took mine at the Full Moon Party so I was forced to steal someone else's...) I got in a pickup truck taxi to catch the ferry. My driver had no teeth and smoked cigarettes rolled in bamboo paper. I tried to count the number of times he went 'CHHHHHH!!!' to clear his throat, then opened the window, and spat an enormous glob of mucus out the window, but I lost count about halfway to the pier. 'Smoking too much?', I asked him. He shook his head and pointed to the air conditioning.

When I got to the pier I put on my red sticker that read 'Bangkok'--in Thailand they label you with your destination and then tell you where to go according to what color you are wearing--and got on the boat with my last island banana juice. Three hours later we docked at Chumpon. All of us with red stickers were hustled to a bus bound for Bangkok. I slept most of the way, until about 3 hours outside of Bangkok, finally back on a fast-moving highway, our bus stopped suddenly. I looked outside and saw a man laid out flat in the middle of the road, his right leg twisted strangely underneath his body. 10 meters away, his helmet had shattered to pieces. His motorcycle was on its side, engine still running, wheels spinning. Seconds later several men had gathered around him, one was holding his head and talking to him softly. Another had started to move the bike out of the road. I imagine the third, who had a radio, was phoning the police.

I looked at the clock: it was 18h, and my night train was leaving in four hours. Part of me wished the bus would keep going, but the better half knew that this man's health was a million times more important than my agenda. What worried me the most was his leg--it looked bent backwards unnaturally. Moments later an ambulance pulled up, a team got out of the back, efficiently moved the injured man into the truck, and drove off. Our bus stayed put for a while, probably while the driver talked to the police and left his information. It was almost 19h when we got on the road again. Would I make my train? There was no way to know. If I asked the driver he would probably say 'yes' regardless of whether or not he understood what I was saying. I've learned not to get upset when I can't communicate, or when people say what they think I want to hear rather than the truth. Instead I sat back, read my book, and decided that if I got in after 22h I would just get a room for the night, hang out in Bangkok the following day and rebook my night train.

Beyond all my expectations, we magically disembarked at 21h. And the American girl I had met at the ferry station had just finished One Thousand Splendid Suns on our delayed commute from Koh Phangan. I would make my train AND I traded for a new book!! Happily, I jumped in the first metered cab I could find and headed to the train station. 15 minutes later I found my cabin. The train was probably built in 1920. It was the width of an SUV, and small bunk beds were squeezed in on both sides of the aisles. The only privacy you were allotted was a curtain you could draw to shield yourself from the aisle. The problem was, the fan was in the aisle (and my top bunk had no window), so if you draw the curtain you get no air. Good planning. And unfortunately for me I had been given the bed right next to the bathroom. Or to describe it more accurately, a metal hole in the ground with a sliding door that swung open every time the train made a sharp turn. If I could access the lavender extract I had bought in Buenos Aires, I would have drowned my pillow case in it and slept face down. Too bad my pack was suspended from the ceiling in the middle of the aisle. Plan B: pop my last Brazilian sleeping pill, read the first chapter of my new book, and hope I don't wake up until we get to Chiang Mai.

Mission accomplished. I was shaken up by a smiling Thai woman at 10am, telling me I needed to wake up because they were converting the beds to seats and tables so we could have breakfast. 'I don't want breakfast', I said, still feeling the effects of the Brazilian remedy. 'Swiss man yes,' she says. I realized she was referring to the guy sleeping in the bunk below me, so I acquiesced and clumsily swung down from my perch. A couple hours of lazy reading and we were in Chiang Mai. Time to see some temples, some elephants, do some trekking and then cross to Lao.

Posted by pack_it_in 03:14 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

International Airport Hopping

From Buenos Aires to Bangkok

rain 28 °C

Getting from South America to Southeast Asia was small potatoes. After heaps of confusion surrounding the departure time from Buenos Aires, I made it to the airport plenty early for a 2h30 flight. Had a nap in the airport, then boarded the flight only to pass out for another 12 hours while flying over the Pacific. I woke up to a stunning view of the south island of New Zealand, and after an acceptable airplane breakfast we disembarked in NZ to refuel. An espresso later we were back in the air via Sydney. It was 9h30 local time, but I had already been traveling for almost 24 hours.

Arriving in Sydney was a traveler's dream. My luggage was one of the first off the plane, customs was effortless (after they got over the fact that I was flying in from Argentina with a French passport, speaking with an American accent and asking for a 1-day visa to Aus), and it was a 13 minute commute door-to-door from the airport to my hostel. It did, however, cost 15 aussie dollars for the train ride... inflation.

By the time I checked in, it was midday in Australia, although my body clock was so messed up from crossing the dateline and so many hours of travel that it hardly mattered. So I dropped my bags at the front desk, got a map of the city, and set off to the Botanical Gardens to get rid of my throbbing airport headache. 20 minutes later I felt like I was back in the tropics. Palm trees, vibrantly green grass, signs begging you to 'Please step on the lawn' and 'Don't touch the bats' that adorned many of the trees. It was a gardener's paradise. I walked through aimlessly with my sandals off in good Aussie style, finding my way to the harbor on the north side of my organic playground. I spent the rest of my afternoon strolling the walkways next to the harbor, visiting the famed Opera house and then weaving my way back down Sydney's pristine streets to the hostel. It was pleasant, sufficiently tiring for my exercise deprived legs, and exactly what I needed before heading back to the airport for the third leg of my transcontinental journey. Tomorrow I would be in Bangkok.

Yet another smooth ride. Thai Airways, boasting impeccable eastern service, ushered me out of Australia so seamlessly that it didn't even feel like travel. I had my first Pad Thai outside the United States, watched 4 bad movies that I hadn't wanted to pay for when they were in theaters, and even had a power nap. To top things off, a friend gave me a copy of The Road before I left Buenos Aires, so I read about half the book while riding moving walkways from the gate to the baggage claim (it's a huge airport). And of course my backpack was waiting for me on the conveyor belt. All I had to do now was find the Sky Train for my Southeast Asian adventure to officially begin.

The Sky Train is a well kept hybrid subway, kind of like the L in Chicago in that it goes both below and above ground. There are a few lines that serve a good bit of Bangkok, but the majority of the city is best accessed by Tuk Tuk, taxi, or bus. With my pack on though I was lucky to be on the Sky Train-- it's not easy to board local buses when your pack is the size of most Thais. I had to pay for tokens with my new Thai Baht (about 28 baht to the dollar) and make two connections to get to the hostel, which turned out to be three because I missed my stop. I was too busy staring out the window at rush hour traffic and the lonely cow standing next to the traffic light, that by the way, no one pays attention to. Conveniently when I stepped off the Sky Train at the National Stadium stop, I saw the sign for the hostel I was looking for right across the street. If all travel could be the way it had been for the last two days, I would be on the road for the rest of my life.

I didn't do much in Bangkok. That night I went out for some cheap Japanese food, though expensive by Thai standards (120 baht for chicken katsu), tried my first bucket with some friends (a bucket is a literal sand bucket with a small bottle of liquor inside and a can of coke/sprite/redbull, and ice. You are supposed to pour out all the contents inside the bucket and then drink from it with a straw with a friend or two), and got a good night sleep in one of the cleanest dorms I've seen since I started my trip. I woke up the next day with the girl sleeping above me, turns out she's an American from Denver, laughing in her sleep. At least she's not snoring, I told myself. People who snore should be required to sleep in a separate dorm.

The next day I woke up energized and ready to get my first real taste of Thailand. I was horribly unsuccessful. I spent the entire day in the mall across the street replacing my entire wardrobe, most of which still smelled vaguely of the Amazon. It cost me less than 30 USD total, but a hell of a lot more in energy and sanity. The mall was a nightmare for people like me who hate bright lights and shopping. 7 stories. Thousands of stores and people. The same t-shirts being sold at every stand. And they NEVER tell you the right price, although I should be used to that by now having been in Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia. I walked out of that mall around 14h30, feeling like it was after 19h, with a plastic bag full of cheap cotton items the best of which was a Lil Wayne t-shirt.

I spent the rest of the day resting in the lobby of the hostel, popping ibuprofen, throwing out old clothes and repacking my bag for my trip to the islands. By 19h I was back on the street, with a bag of fresh pineapple (20 baht), waiting for a lift to the bus station. This dirty looking backpacker comes up to me to ask the way to Khao San, the same place I was headed. 'Es el colective 15', I tell him still assuming everyone in this country speaks Spanish. Turns out he's French. Strike 1. 'I think we can take the 73,' he says. Hm, I thought you didn't know the way, I say to myself. He's probably just playing dumb... trust the foreigner, I decide, you're new to this country anyway. So we board the 73, and the driver confirms his bus goes to Khao San. We relax in our plastic chairs and chat about Cambodia, and I ask nervously every couple minutes if he recognizes where we are, aware that I'm already 30 minutes late for bus check-in. He reassures me and we keep trucking along through traffic, until suddenly the bus stops on the side of the road and the conductor lights a cigarette. It looked like the end of the route: we were the only ones on the bus, and traffic was moving in the next lane over. Strange... so I get up and ask the conductor about Khao San, pointing to the place written on a piece of paper to alleviate the risk of irreparably mispronouncing the name. 'I no go to Khao San', he says, and he points off to the right in the direction we had just come from. I grab my bag and motion to get off the bus, heart pounding when I look at my watch and realize that my bus leaves in 30 minutes. 'Qu'est-ce qui se passe?', the French idiot asks. I don't say much but he gets the idea that he pointed us in the wrong direction, and that if we don't get a cab quickly I'm going to pop a cap in his ass. We weave through cars to the first available cab, load our stuff in the back and I point again to my paper for the driver. He speeds away. 'How long?', I ask. 'Two hour.' Bullshit. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. He can't possibly understand what I said. It can't take two hours. I can't miss this bus. It's prepaid for once.

As usual, everything works out. I get to the station in 20 minutes (cab driver clearly had no idea what I was asking), part ways with the Frenchman after listening to him spit racist comments about Thais and their inability to understand anything you say to them--to make up for his bad bus choice--grab some Pad Thai in the street and get on my bus right on time. Phew. Destination, Koh Phagnan, one of the most beautiful islands on the east coast of the Thai peninsula. Travel time: 12 hours, but my novice days are over. Next time we talk I'll be sipping banana juice on a white sand beach, sweating out the Bangkok pollution.

Posted by pack_it_in 21:53 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Dreams of the Andes and Vino Tinto

Visiting Antucura, near Mendoza

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Many of us travelers are dreamers: we dream of a new city to wander, the next time we’ll see the ocean, the smiles on our friends’ faces when we come home, a job we’ll hate enough to hit the road again, or the ideal place to retire when we have the money. That’s a pretty damn good self portrait, but most of the people I meet in bus stations, in hostels, and occasionally at vineyards can also fit that frame.

A young french student tempted with a semester abroad, Anne-Caroline embarked for the new world, Argentina, to finish up her degree. A few years later, working for a porteño publishing company, she ambitiously quit her job to open her own firm. She was 24. Still living in Argentina, now having started a family, Anne-Caroline had a new dream. So she went out to arid Mendoza, the fourth biggest city in Argentina, to scout potential stomping grounds for her young family and perhaps a vegetable garden. In the heart of the Uco Valley, exactly 100 km from Mendoza, Anne-Caroline fell in love. She fell in love with the Pre-Cordillera of the Andes, white-capped giants looming over a vast expanse of undeveloped desert. And she fell in love the 85 hectar property, its pine trees, its cluster of rundown houses, and its heaps of eerily round rocks of varying size and color.

Raised a city girl, planting was an afterthought for Anne-Caroline. But nevertheless she decided to plant some vines, seeing that her neighbors had some success. It was an experiment: some Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Pinot Noir, and of course the signature Malbec all purchased from Argentina. A perk to planting in Argentina: you can import your plants if you sign all the right papers. So staying true to her roots, Anne-Caroline went back to France to find good Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to populate the rest of her property. Okay, so she had to go to Buenos Aires to fill out some paperwork, bring in the crops through Chile, and truck them refrigerated across the Andes all the way to Mendoza. Kind of a hassle, but shouldn’t be the end of the world, right? Wrong. Argentinean formalities are, from my experiences, more professional than what one might encounter in Brazil or Bolivia, but it’s not Europe. Not even close.

The frozen Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon container was timed perfectly to cross into Argentina just in time for planting, which in this hemisphere happens normally in September through late October. Anne-Caroline and her truck got to customs in timely French fashion, but encountered a bit of immigration trouble. Apparently, she was missing a form. ´You can leave your truck here at the border while you go to the customs office in Buenos Aires,’ offered the official generously. Having been in Argentina long enough to sense bullshit like this when it crossed her path, Anne-Caroline insisted. In all fairness, she had no choice: her plants were frozen and there was no time to ‘just go to Buenos Aires’. Plus, if she waited any longer, the planting season would pass and the crops would be ruined. But cops are cops and sometimes you just have to roll with the punches.

Anne-Caroline ended up having to wait until November to get her Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot all the way to her property. Beyond annoyed with what had happened at the border, but realizing that she had no choice but to plant, her team got to work. Against all odds and expectations, the French vines blossomed perfectly. Not only had her dream of moving to her dream property come true, she now had a vineyard and would soon have grapes to harvest. Only one crucial piece of the puzzle remained: she had to name her property. After the impressive number of rocks that make up the land, Anne-Caroline called it Antucura. ‘Sun stone’, in Mapudungun, the indigenous peoples of the Uco Valley.

Posted by pack_it_in 14:58 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Going home to Montevideo

One week of relaxation

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The 2-hour flight from Rio to Montevideo already set the mood. For this leg of the trip there would be no 23-hour bus rides, no long immigration lines, no sketchy walks to hostels... no hostels at all in fact. Instead, I strolled through customs (there were 3 people ahead of me), picked up my bad (the 2nd on the conveyer belt), and walked right into Fanny and Claudio's arms, my adopted parents. Actually, they are my friend Matias' parents, my closest friend from university, but you would never know by the way they embraced me in that airport. The funny thing is, I've never met them before. Well, not in skin and flesh, but we have Skyped a few times! And emailed!

Gaston, Matias' 10-year-old twin, came running from the other side of the terminal, gave me a kiss on the cheek, and we went off in search of the car. It was like I had known this family for years. They asked me about my trip, I told them details I wouldn't go into even with friends. I asked them about the other two members of the family, they regaled me tales from the last few days at school as if I had only been away for a week. It was so comfortable I forgot I was in the car with strangers. Mostly because they weren't strangers at all. They were already my family after ten minutes.

Arriving at the house was equally surreal. Nacho and Balta, the only two missing at the airport, welcomed me to the house the second I walked in the door. Fanny handed me a key to the front door, showed me to my--formerly Matias'--room, and told me dinner would be in an hour. I was home.

Ever since that first day, I've just been getting used to my new home life. I've met a few of Matias' friends from high school, had some drinks with them in Montevideo, wandered the city, explored the bus system, gone running in the park, but most of my time has been spent here at the house with Balta, Gaston and Nacho. My typical day goes like this: wake up at 10am, joke with Nacho about how he's supposed to be 'studying' for his IB exams, and eat breakfast. We have coffee and home-made bread with jam. Or cheese and ham if we feel like it. Then I watch some cartoons with Balta and Gaston. If I feel like it, I'll put on my new bright-orange-Montevidean Converse All-Stars, head to the bus stop, catch the 147 into the center of town and go for a walk. I always make sure to be back before 6pm, for merienda , to tide my stomach over until dinner around 10pm. Fanny and Claudio come home. We chat in the kitchen over another cup of lemon tea. Mine is the only one unsweatened. Then we hang out (while Nacho 'studies') until dinner, either empanadas, pasta, or torta de jamon y queso, topped off with a late-night dulce de leche treat.

Matias, just so you know, you can't have your family back. I know we Skype with you once in a while, pretending you are in this room with us, and I wish you were, but they are too wonderful and I don't think I'm ever leaving. As a token of my appreciation, I'll send you the remains of my French-American self: my passport.

Just kidding, I'll need that Wednesday when I'm off to Argentina :-)

Posted by pack_it_in 18:40 Archived in Uruguay Comments (0)

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