Category Archives: On the Road

Easter? Easter Island! …er… Rapa Nui!

When we first moved to Chile, we were hanging out with our friends Kelly and Jake (and their kids, Veda and Aadi), who we knew in India. They mentioned that they were spending Easter at Easter Island, and we said, “We want to join you!” And so we did.

Although the island was annexed by Chile in 1888, the locals connect deeply with their Polynesian roots and prefer the traditional name of their homeland: Rapa Nui. One of the most remote inhabited places in the world, Rapa Nui is located in the Pacific Ocean, more than 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile and more than 1,000 miles from the nearest inhabited island (which actually boasts less than 100 residents).

Various theories attempt to explain how people first migrated to the island, but anthropologists today generally believe Polynesians first arrived around 300AD. The UNESCO World Heritage List website says those islanders “established a powerful, imaginative and original tradition of monumental sculpture and architecture, free from any external influence. From the 10th to the 16th century this society built shrines and erected enormous stone figures known as moai, which created an unrivaled cultural landscape that continues to fascinate people throughout the world.”

Needless to say, this mystical, isolated island has been on my bucket list for ages.

After a six-hour flight from Santiago, we arrived on Thursday afternoon and were met at the airport by a driver who draped flower leis around our necks. The whole island is only 15 miles long, and the tiny airport is located right next to the only real town, Hanga Roa. I was surprised at the size of our plane – a Boeing 787 Dreamliner – in relation to the size of the thatch-roofed airport. Later, I learned NASA had extended the existing runway to create an emergency landing destination for the space shuttle.

In just a few minutes, we reached our lovely resort, Hare Noi. “Hare” means “home” in the Rapa Nui language.

Our room was one of four that opened into a nice common space with a sectional sofa, heavy wooden table with benches, and kitchenette area. Perfect for when Tony woke up in the middle of the night. He could work on his report card comments without waking me up. The back door opened to a nice deck with chairs and tables and a view of the property. The pillars holding up our building’s roof were unfinished eucalyptus tree trunks, and our deck connected to a lighted boardwalk that led up the hill to the pool, spa, and restaurant, as well as a few more rooms up the hillside. Fat, colorful chickens occasionally wandered past, harassed by a handsome black-and-white rooster. Low walls of pockmarked volcanic stones ringed a few garden areas. In one, heavy bunches of bananas ripened on the trees with fat magenta blossoms dangling from thick, long stems. Other trees offered up guavaba, a local fruit whose delicious scent permeated the vicinity. (Soft and round with yellow skin and firm fuchsia flesh, its flavor most definitely did not live up to expectations.) Our spacious room included some interesting features, including a huge volcanic rock just outside the shower door. Toe stubbing threat, but cool nonetheless. The dome-shaped restaurant’s “walls” were really accordion doors that opened up the whole space to fresh, tropical breezes.

The path from reception to our building.

Enjoying the pool.

The population of Rapa Nui likely peaked around 15,000 in the 17th century. Today, the island has around 6,000 permanent residents, and about 60 percent are descendants of the aboriginal Rapa Nui people. According to the Polynesian Cultural Center website:

Like many of the other Pacific islands during the 18th through early 20th centuries, European diseases and indentured labor practices decimated the population. For example, as many as 5,000 islanders were carried away to work in Peru, and only a few ever returned. About 1875, 500 more were taken to work the sugar plantations in Tahiti, where a small number of Easter Islanders remain to this day. At one point in the early 1900s there were only 111 Rapa Nui people left on the island; and while the slowly growing population has managed to hang on to much of their Polynesian culture, a great deal was also lost forever. For example, the people of Rapa Nui may have been the only Polynesians to have something akin to a writing system in the form of their rongorongo tablets, a few samples of which have survived to present times in widespread museums. The ability to translate them, however, seems to have been lost forever.

More than 40 percent of Rapa Nui is a protected national park. Its dormant volcanoes, stunning shorelines, windswept denuded plains, herds of roaming horses and cattle, Polynesian culture, and delicious food were plenty to keep us fascinated and content, but the real reason people flock to the island, of course, is to witness the mysterious moai. Carved between the 11th and 17th centuries, around 900 moai were commissioned by wealthy families to honor ancestors. Ranging from six to more than 60 feet high, they were carved from scoria, which is hardened volcanic ash. Debate continues regarding how the massive sculptures were moved from the hilltop quarry to their seaside destinations and raised atop the stone foundations called ahu. Our island guides insisted the moai “walked” on a path to reach the ahu, which aligns with the most popular theory that islanders used long ropes and log pulleys to tip the moai and rock it from side to side and slowly forward, like we the way we move a refrigerator.

Topknot Quarry
Our visit kicked off with a tour of Puna Pau, the quarry that yielded only the massive circular blocks representing hair tied up in a topknot. Our guide Jojo said the red pukao would have been cut from the quarry and rolled down the hill. Stone masons would then carve and decorate the topknot before placing it on the moai’s head. The presence of a pukao indicated the moai came from a royal family, he explained. A sign at the quarry offered a couple theories as to how the 10-ton pukao was lifted to the top of a statue that could be more than 60 feet high. One theory was that workers rolled the pukao up a huge stone ramp to the statue’s head, but Jojo strongly denounced that. He said his family’s oral history confirms the other posted theory: Workers used their engineering prowess to devise a system of levers and pulleys, using huge tree trunks and heavy ropes, to raise the pukao. According to Lonely Planet, about 60 pukao were distributed to moai around the island, and another 25 remain in or near the quarry.

Meet the Moai
During our stay on Rapa Nui, we explored the sites of many ahu, raised stone altars that served as the platform for the moai statues. At some locations, the ahu was all that remained standing. At others, re-erected moai stood watch once again over the remnants of former villages. Although the original European explorers in 1722 and 1770 reported standing moai, all moai were toppled by 1864. American archaeologist William Mulloy spent 23 years leading efforts to study and restore the moai, and since then many organizations have undertaken conservation projects.

The scoria is not a very durable stone, so there is plenty of evidence of erosion. Not much keeps tourists from chipping off their own souvenirs, either. In fact, a Finnish tourist lopped off an earlobe from a moai in 2008 and was fined $17,000. Small artifacts on the ground are surrounded by a single rail fence, which does nothing to keep people out. The ahu are ringed by a barrier of thin twine and small warning signs. Our guides over the weekend told stories of ridiculous tourists who climb on or break pieces off the statues.

Ahu Akivi includes seven moai restored in 1960 by Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl and his crew of professional archaeologists. Each moai is about 16 feet high and weighs about 18 tons. While most ahu are found on the coast and face inland to watch over the villages, this one is unusual for its inland location and its mystical link to astronomy – the moai stare directly into the setting sun on the spring equinox.

Our first encounter with waterside moai was a collection of three restored ahu on the west coast. Ahu Tahai stood in the middle with a large moai. On its north side is Ahu Ko Te Riku, a moai sporting the red topknot and restored eyeballs made from white coral and obsidian. Apparently all the moai once had these eyeballs, which gave them “mana,” or a spirit empowering them watch over their clans.

On the south side is Ahu Vai Uri with five moai.

All moai faced their family’s villages, and these were no exception. On the hill leading down to the water, Jojo showed us ruins of traditional village structures. A chicken coop looked like a garage made from stacked volcanic rock with just a chicken-sized opening, where the birds would enter in the evening. The villager would put a rock in the hole to keep them inside, and nobody would be able to tell which rock was the “door.” We also saw the foundation of a typical refuge, known as hare paenga. Shaped like an overturned canoe, the heavy perimeter stones featured large drilled holes for holding a frame made of tall sticks that were covered in leaves and grass. The villagers wouldn’t have had actual homes (by today’s standards) because they spent most of their time outside, Jojo said. These refuges were only for sleeping or escaping inclement weather.

A reconstructed stone ramp led into the ocean, where villagers would have launched their boats for fishing.

Vinapu is the site of two crumbling ahu. One has mortarless blocks similar to the Incan ruins, which Thor Heyerdahl saw as evidence that Rapa Nui people originated from South America. He even built a traditional raft and sailed 8,000 miles from Peru to the Tuoamotu Islands to prove his highly disputed theory that people could have migrated from South America to Easter Island. Jojo showed us a couple moai faces poking out of the earth. He confirmed that the exposed moai are slowly eroding. One face had a piece of basalt sticking out that wouldn’t have been visible 100 years ago, he said. One of the ahu included a red block, which was a recycled top knot from a previous generation, Jojo said, explaining that when moai fell, the people would often reuse the stone to create new moai or use them for other purposes.

You see this rock everywhere. I mean, everywhere.

Right at the shoreline, the Hanga Poukura ruins included an ahu with barely distinguishable moai. But the real attraction was the tide. Huge waves crashed on the rocks. Jojo told stories of playing here as a child, riding horses bareback and encountering tourists. He and his friends would take tourists to the archeological sites in exchange for candy.

When Jojo saw how much we loved the waves, he drove us to another spot, where the waves were crazy high. They crashed dramatically over a rock and then immediately died down, creating a perfect backdrop for photos. Beach combing was also fascinating here; the rocks were weathered into lacy blocks and delicate towers.

Quick stop on the way to take pictures of the horses. Cows and horses roam freely, looking for grass among the rocks.

A sunrise visit to Ahu Tongariki is on every tourist’s to-do list here. Unfortunately, (a) at this time of year, the sun rises a little to the east of the moai, so it’s not as spectacular as it could be, (b) we were advised to go WAY too early so we waited in the dark for about an hour, and (c) I had left our national park tickets back at the hotel. Fortunately, (a) it was still a pretty spectacular experience and (b) worth the wait, and (c) a kind guard heard my plea in pathetic Spanish and let us enter without tickets.

This is the largest ahu on the island with 15 moai. They were all toppled during clan warfare, and then a 1960 earthquake triggered a tsumani that dragged the moai almost 300 feet further inland. According to Rough Guides, a Japanese news program aired footage of the Rapa Nui governor saying they could save the moai if only they had a crane. A Japanese viewer took action and ultimately set up a committee that spearheaded a five-year restoration project, completed in 1995.

We re-visited Tongariki later in the day with our guide, Tito. He swore the moai second from the right represents his grandfather. “The best one?” asked a skeptical member of our group. “Yes!” he exclaimed. I choose to believe it.

On the southern coast, we poked around the village remains next to Ahu Akahanga, where tradition holds the first Rapa Nui king is buried. Here, we saw several of the aforementioned canoe-shaped foundations of homes, as well as a pit that would have been used as an oven, a cave formed by a lava bubble, the remains of four ahu, and many fallen moai.
Tito describes how islanders cooked with hot stones in a pit.

Looking out from the lava bubble cave.

At one of Rapa Nui’s two sandy beaches, Anakena, we saw Ahu Nau-Nau and its seven moai, and Ahu Ature Huki with the first moai re-erected by Thor Heyerdahl in 1956.

From a NOVA article on the PBS website:

According to an Easter Island legend, some 1,500 years ago a Polynesian chief named Hotu Matu’a (“The Great Parent”) sailed here in a double canoe from an unknown Polynesian island with his wife and extended family. He may have been a great navigator, looking for new lands for his people to inhabit, or he may have been fleeing a land rife with warfare. Early Polynesian settlers had many motivations for seeking new islands across perilous oceans. It’s clear that they were willing to risk their lives to find undiscovered lands. Hotu Matu’a and his family landed on Easter Island at Anakena Beach.

I wore my swimsuit under my clothes for our visit to the beach, but it was a brutally windy day. I doubted I would brave the chilly air to take a dip in the ocean. However, after checking out the moai and traipsing through the powdery sand to the water’s edge, I couldn’t resist. Tony and I played in the waves with Veda, who shrieked and laughed and shared my enthusiasm for the rough water. At one point, the grey sky broke open and pounded us with cold lashing rain, but then the clouds cleared and we had warm sunny skies for the rest of our short romp.

Photo courtesy of Kelly.

Rano Raraku – the Moai Birthplace
After exploring ahu and checking out moai – both standing and fallen – all over the island, we finally visited the quarry where moai were excavated from the volcanic tuff. Tito first led us to the crater lake, site of an annual traditional triathlon. He said men had to run around the lake on foot while carrying a pole over their shoulders loaded with heavy banana stalks, swim across using woven-reed boards, and canoe in a small reed boat. About 20 moai stand partially exposed inside the crater.

The path along the outside of the crater wound past hundreds of moai in various stages of completion. Tito explained that carvers would cut the moai shape out of wall, leaving it attached by just a band of rock. After they finished, they would sever that piece, letting the moai slide down paths on the hill to begin its journey to an ahu. Tito says the moai tradition was abandoned quite suddenly, which would explain the presence of so many unfinished and forsaken statues. Some remained secured to the volcano’s walls, while others poked out of the earth at odd angles, pinned by erosion up to their necks, hiding up to two-thirds of each statue’s body.

Guide hogging, as usual.

Posing with a couple unfinished moai who never made it off the hill.

This moai, Tukuturi, is a mysteriously unique kneeling statue. Older than the others? A representation of one of the master carvers overlooking the quarry? Nobody knows.

Orongo: From Stone Men to Birdman
Deforestation, food shortages, and tribal warfare led to the decline of the ancient Rapa Nui society. According to the World Monuments Fund:

The ceremonial village of Orongo, in the south of the park, is considered to be among the most spectacular archaeological sites in the world. It is perched on a narrow ridge, with the crater of the Rano Kau volcano on one side and cliffs that fall 300 meters to the sea on the other. Orongo contains dozens of petroglyphs and stone houses dating from the Huri-Moai period of Easter Island’s history (c. 1680–1867). The self-contained, dry-laid houses featuring sod roofs were built into the topography of the site. The ceremonial center of Mata Ngarau in Orongo, center of the Tangata Manu (Birdman) cult that succeeded the moai culture, was the site for the annual games that represented the transfer of power between competing clans. By the end of the nineteenth century, most of the Rapa Nui culture had perished or had converted to Christianity; the Tangata Manu cult collapsed and Orongo was abandoned.

The Orongo visitor center included many interpretive posters and photos of the artifacts found at the site and the cult’s worship of the god Makemake. Jojo explained the bizarre ceremony that decided the island’s ruler each year during this era. After years of horrific warfare, the population had dwindled and people were tired, frightened, and ready for peace, he said. One sign of peace was the sooty tern, a bird that nested on the nearby islands. In an Amazing Race-style competition, men climbed down the hillside and swam out to the smaller islands using floatation devices woven from reeds. On the islands, they searched for nests of the sooty tern, in hopes of getting an egg. They wore a headband with a small pocket in the front to securely carry the egg back to Rapa Nui. The first warrior to return with an intact egg won, and his clan ruled the island until the next year. (Spoiler alert: This story is about to get crazy.) As a prize, the swimmer – painted in ceremonial colors – got a woman, chosen from seven beauties for having the biggest clitoris. Jojo told us the clans believed a big clitoris was associated with pleasure, and thus fertility. That was important because they needed to rebuild the population. There are even petroglyphs of symbols that represent the vulva. I am pretty sure that was the first time I ever heard a tour guide say “clitoris” or “vulva.”

Tony as a birdman.

Just outside the Orongo visitor center, we marveled at the Rano Kau volcano crater. Almost a mile across, it slopes down to a lake covered in floating totora reeds, one of only three natural bodies of fresh water on the island. Even the local dogs seemed to appreciate the view.

Jojo told of growing up near this crater. He ran around barefoot, chasing wild horses and picking fruit inside the caldera. When it was time for him to go to secondary school in “Chile,” he had thick calluses on his feet. He also reminisced about working on Kevin Costner’s film, “Rapa Nui,” which came out in 1994. He said many islanders participated, dressed in traditional costumes and racing up and down the volcano’s steep hillside to re-enact the birdman competition. (Side note: The movie wrongly depicts the birdman ceremony happening during the era of moai carving. The moai had been abandoned by the time the birdman cult arose.)
From IMDb.

A Taste of Culture
In addition to our island excursions, we enjoyed a lovely dinner at a waterside restaurant, Te Moana, on our last night in Rapa Nui. I had a tuna steak on a bed of mashed sweet potato and topped with an incredible medley of pineapple, veggies, and a vanilla-coconut sauce. I actually can’t stop thinking about it.

After dinner, we attended a a traditional dance show. Kari Kari featured highly spirited dancers in fabulous costumes. Women wore bras of feathers or coconuts with skirts made of long feather garlands, grasses or just a cloth wrap. Somehow they managed beautiful relaxed smiles despite coordinating crazy hip shaking with gentle undulating arm movements. Men wore variations of a loin cloth – feathers, leather flap, or just a cloth sling, and not much else. For different songs, the men swapped out their props and accessories. They wore bands of feathers on their heads, upper arms, below the knee or around the ankle, or individual grass skirts hanging from their knees, which they shook pugnaciously. They carried big threatening sticks, wore face paint, and sported many tattoos that spread over thighs and abdomen. Their athletic dances includes lots of scary gestures and facial expressions, but they always smiled and laughed between numbers, as though to reassure the audience that they weren’t going to kill us. A couple times, they pulled people on stage for an embarrassing competition. (Tony and I ducked low in our chairs to hide.) It was pretty hilarious.

Here’s a video from the Kari Kari Facebook page.

According to the website imagina Easter Island, “Most of the Easter Island music and dances are of Polynesian origin. The Rapa Nui ancestral dances have been lost or merged, though it’s still possible to find indigenous music rooted in the orally-transmitted legends that are songs and dances dedicated to the gods, spirit warriors, the rain or love.”

Easter on Easter Island
Veda and Aadi were pretty excited to find a little Easter gift from the hotel staff waiting at their breakfast table. While they ate, their dad played Easter Bunny and hid a bunch of plastic eggs filled with chocolates and raisins. (Ha! That clever bunny and his healthy habits.) The kids were adorable as they hunted for the eggs, counted them, and opened them up to find the treats. Surprisingly, the chocolates and raisins elicited an equal amount of joy.

Flying back to Santiago, Tony and I agreed this had been a wonderful trip. One tiny island managed to offer much of what we love in a vacation, and its mysterious history continues to fascinate us.

Writing this post, I found many interesting articles about Rapa Nui. Even though I wrote a ridiculously long post about our trip, there was so much I didn’t include. If I have piqued your interest, you may want to read more!
National Geographic – Easter Island, 2012
NOVA – Pioneers of Easter Island, 2000
Live Science – Easter Island (Rapa Nui) & Moai Statues, 2012
History of Rapa Nui – From Genocide to Ecocide, The Rape of Rapa Nui by Benny Peiser, Liverpool John Moores University, Faculty of Science, 2005

Chiloé: Summer Staycation Get-Away, Day 4

For our last day in Chiloé, Brie and I visited the island we could see from our cabañas: Quinchao. We took a car ferry across the short channel and then drove to the southernmost point of the island to see another UNESCO church, Iglesia de Quinchao.

These little kneeling chairs lined one of the walls.

The church underwent several restorations since its original construction in 1880. In 2006, its tower was meticulously reconstructed. This is the original.

Next stop: Achao, which was celebrating the Encuentro de las Islas del Archipielago, a festival featuring the folklore, handicrafts, dancing, and food from various islands in the archipelago. Unfortunately, rain fell in buckets during our short visit. I would have loved to hang out, watch the performances, mingle with the locals, eat some asado (grilled meat), and make some impulse purchases, but it was just too dang wet.

A little further north: Curaco de Vélez, where we found another small handicrafts market and food stall. We learned that chochoca is a potato pancake wrapped around a big wooden dowel and cooked rotisserie style over hot coals. Here I am cooking one!

The town is supposed to have a nice walk along the water, but it was low tide and kind of skuzzy, so we drove on to Dalcahue.

Jorge had recommended Cocinerías de Dalcahue for lunch. It turned out to be one of my favorite places in Chiloé. Housed in a huge warehouse-esque building on the water’s edge, it held eight kitchenettes offering up individual menus of authentic Chilote fare. Hungry guests packed in to sit at bars along the perimeter, crowded tables, and stove-side counters. Each section had room for about 30 patrons and featured a number and a woman’s name, suggesting she would be the one slaving over the stove. Brie and I ate lunch at Doña Carlita (No. 7). I had a nice merluza fish with potato salad. Here was my view, out one of the porthole-style windows.

I went to Doña Lula (No. 8) to get take-away seafood empanadas for dinner, and this guy made them while I waited. Lula must have been busy with something else.

Just outside the building, a wonderful jumble of handicraft booths awaited. A sign claimed that all goods sold there were locally made. Other markets were rumored to sell knock-offs made in China. Of course, I wanted everything: knitted sweaters, tapestries, rugs, wooden platters, baskets, knick-knacks.

However, I am in non-acquisition mode, in part because our apartment in Santiago is too small to accommodate one. more. thing. Seriously.

Back on the car ferry.

I almost didn’t write about this because it’s so embarrassing, but then I thought, “That never stopped you before.” So … when we got back to our cabañas, I ate my yummy empanadas, packed for our trip home the next day, and got ready for bed. It was pretty chilly but too late to text Jorge for a fire. Plus, who doesn’t know how to start a fire? Firewood was stacked just outside my cabin door, and Jorge had left some little pieces of cardboard from his quick and efficient fire-building visit last night. I stacked the wood in the stove, shoved the cardboard in there, and started striking matches. I am not lying, I think I threw about 35 lit matches onto that dang pile, all for nought. The cardboard flared up for awhile, but the firewood remained stubbornly fire retardant. I found a paper bag, so I twisted it, lit in on fire, and tried to pass the flame to one of the logs. No luck. I became obsessed. More matches. More bits of paper. More wood.

Somehow – unsuccessful in my fire frenzy – I slept. In the morning, I tried to fish out all the matchsticks, but I left the wood in the stove. In retrospect, I should have put some smaller kindling under the larger logs. Anyway, live and learn.

Our trip back to Santiago was uneventful (except for the parking lot arm that plopped down, almost hitting the hood of our rental car when Brie tried to park at the Chiloé airport). And just like that, our “summer vacation” is over. Teachers return to school tomorrow; students come on Monday.

#feelinggrateful

Chiloé: Summer Staycation Get-Away, Day 3

On this overcast morning, we set off on a journey mapped by Jorge and texted to Brie. After a long, slow stretch of road construction, Google Maps finally told us to turn right on to a narrow rugged country road.

Fearing our Google Maps voice was developing a spiteful attitude (see yesterday’s post), I asked, “What’s our final destination?”

Brie started to say, “I actually don’t know!” But before she could get all the words out, a sign loomed over an archway: Las Cascadas de Tocoihue.

“That’s it!” she said. “The waterfall.”

We pulled in, parked, and paid a small fee. The waterfall is located on private property, and the owners have the developed a nice park with a path down to the water and a viewing platform up the hill. They also have a camping area, cabin, and restaurant. Brie and I traipsed around a bit, imagining how fun it would be to play in the water in warmer weather.

Leaving the park, Evil Google Maps Voice told us to take a sharp left, which was different than the way we had come in. At first, we were relieved, thinking this could only be better. Wrong. Here’s the map.

The blue line is the “highway.” The dotted line shows the path we took to get to the waterfall. It’s obviously so small, it doesn’t even register as a proper road. The dirt road looks so much better maintained, right? We turned on to that road and immediately realized it was full of potholes and worse. At times, one whole side was washed out, creating a sort of cliff. I drove quite a way, dipping and scraping the undercarriage, until finally we reached a point that looked unpassable. At that moment, another car approached from the other direction.

There was no way to turn around, so we decided to back down the hill and take the other route. I struggled to keep the car on level ground and ultimately backed it right into a ditch. I tried driving forward, but the wheels spun in the wet sand. I tried driving backward, but it seemed to entrench the car even more. My clutch leg shook uncontrollably as panic set in.

A man and woman got out of the other car and walked over to check on us. Speaking no Spanish, I sat in the driver’s seat and let Brie relay our dilemma. Then she got out, and the three of them tried to push the car while I gunned the engine. No luck. Eventually, I got out, too, and the man took over, alternating between shoving rocks and sticks under the wheels and climbing over the passenger seat to the driver’s side, which was smashed up against thick thorny branches. The woman also jumped in to help, scrambling through the prickly bushes to find bigger sticks. While Brie and I stood on the sidelines, the two of them cooperated, got dirty and certainly scratched to bits, and finally maneuvered the car out of the ditch. The man even backed it the rest of the way down the hill for us and then looked over the car to make sure it was fit to drive.

Tongue-tied, I felt so frustrated that I couldn’t express my appreciation in my usual effusive way. I simply said, “Muchas, muchas gracias!” with hugs and handshakes and hoped they understood how grateful we were.

The rest of the day, one or the other of us would suddenly remark, “We are so lucky they came along!” or “What would we have done?” I regretted that we didn’t get our rescuers names or email addresses. We didn’t even think to snap a photo.

We drove into the town of Quemchi, but didn’t stop to see anything, and then doubled back to Aucar, where a 500-meter wooden bridge leads to the tiny island of Isla Aucaur. A wooden arch at the entrance to the island says, “Isla de la Almas Navegantes” or “Isle of Sailors’ Souls,” a title bestowed on the island by Chilean writer Francisco Coloane. Some say Coloane thought the island looked ready to set sail at high tide; others say he was referring to the sailors buried there.

A path circles the island with signs identifying the trees and flowers. The small chapel and cemetery date to 1761. I saw some older photos of the chapel online and was surprised to see it had fallen into serious disrepair. During our visit, a carpenter was planing new pillars in the chapel, and his tools and piles of wood shavings suggested restoration work continues.

All of the churches we visited had cemeteries like this.

Leaving the church, we spotted a group of elderly tourists practically climbing a tree and pulling down tiny purple berries, called maqui. One of the men tore off a small branch and handed it to Brie. Soon her violet smile matched those of the berry pickers.

We later found out that maqui berries are one of the new hot “superfoods.” The Medicine Hunter website says this:

The Mapuche native people have been eating maqui berries and drinking their juice for centuries. And other non-native people in Chile have done the same for a very long time as well. Even in an environment in which the market is literally flooded with so-called super fruits, maqui stands head and shoulders above most of them in terms of benefits.

Quicavi was our next stop. Fodor’s Travel calls Quicavi “the center of all that is magical and mystical about Chiloé.” An evil clan protected by horrendous deformed monsters was rumored to operate out of a cave here, and the region is steeped in superstitions. I just finished a novel that takes place in Chiloé, Luke Coles and the Flower of Chiloé. It included many fantastical creatures and stories, which I thought must have been inventions of the author, Josh Walker. In fact, they are an integral part of Chilote culture. Fodor’s again:

Superstitious locals strongly advise against going anywhere near the coast to the south of town, where miles of caves extend to the village of Tenaún. They believe that witches, and evil ones at that, inhabit them. On the beaches, local lore says, are mermaids that lure fishermen to their deaths. (These are not the beautiful and benevolent Pincoya, also a legendary kelp-covered mermaid. A glimpse of her is thought to portend good fishing for the day.) Many Quicaví denizens claim to have glimpsed Chiloé’s notorious ghost ship, the Caleuche, roaming the waters on foggy nights, searching for its doomed passengers. Of course, a brief glimpse of the ship is all anyone dares admit, as legend holds that a longer gaze could spell death.

The Quicavi church was closed, and we couldn’t find any mystical caves, so we headed home. On a whim, we turned off the road to check out the Iglesia San Antonio de Colo, another church on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

There, eating lunch at a restaurant terrace overlooking the church, was our roadside assistance team! I was so happy to get their names and contact information and to thank them again for their extraordinary kindness. Brie told me Marcela asked, “What you have done if we hadn’t arrived? Just cried and prayed?” Well, yeah.

Thank you, thank you, thank you Marcela and Mauricio! (And thank you to their friend, Maria Paz, who took the picture.)

It was starting to rain as we left the church. We had eaten a big lunch of grilled fish and decided to pick up something small for dinner rather than dine at another restaurant. I did a very Chilean thing: I pulled over to the side of the road, turned on the hazards, and waited while Brie ran in to this little shop to buy empanadas. They were perfect!

Back at the cabañas, we ate our dinner, and then Jorge built fires in each of our wood-burning stoves. We were toasty and cozy until we took off for the next day’s adventure.

Chiloé: Summer Staycation Get-Away, Day 2

This is embarrassing. I never knew until this week that penguins lived anywhere other than Antarctica and zoos. Guess what? They live here in Chiloé, too! Of course we had to go see them.

With our destination pinned in her phone, Brie and I set off for the penguin colonies of Monumento Natural Islotes de Puñihuil. The protected natural monument comprises three rocky islets just off the coast of Puñihuil in the Pacific Ocean and hosts breeding grounds for the Magellanic and Humboldt penguins. Apparently, this is the only place in the world where the two penguin species nest together.

According to the website PenguinWorld, the two birds differ physically in that the Magellanic penguin has an additional black breast band and less exposed facial skin than the Humboldt penguin. Their breeding ranges just barely overlap. The Magellanic penguin “breeds around the southern tip of South America from 40°S in Argentina to 37°S in Chile, as well as on the Falkland Islands. The largest colonies are found on the Atlantic side of South America.” The Humboldt penguin is “endemic to the Humboldt Current, breeding range extending from 5° S in Peru to 37°S in Chile, with isolated colonies existing as far as 42°S near Puerto Montt.”

Here are photos taken from PenguinWorld for comparison:
Magellanic penguin

Humboldt penguin

The Humboldt penguin is considered a “vulnerable species,” so it’s no surprise that we didn’t see any on our visit. However, we saw lots of Magellanic penguins, mostly just hanging out at the shoreline. Some frolicked in the water; others waddled up or down the rocky hills. They were brilliantly camouflaged, and our boat kept a respectful distance from their nesting sites, so it was hard to get a clear shot of the birds. Still, it was one of those special encounters with nature that inspires renewed wonder and curiosity about the world (hence my fall down the rabbit hole of penguin websites just now).

Heading down to the water from the parking area.

The little islands were not far offshore.

The tour operators rolled us out to the boat on this platform so we wouldn’t get wet. I don’t know why it cracked me up so much.

The light-colored penguins are juveniles.

As I mentioned, Brie had this destination pinned in her phone. As a lifelong world traveler, I can hardly remember navigating unfamiliar cities or locating obscure attractions in the days before smartphones and Google Maps. Many times, I bowed down to the Google gods in profound relief and appreciation. This was not one of those times.

Google Maps got us most of the way to Puñihuil with no problem. Then, just as we realized we were about to reach the coast and a sign saying “pinguinera” pointed straight ahead, that smug voice told us to turn left. Brie took a chance and drove straight anyway, but she came to the sandy beach with a rivulet of water running down from the hills into the ocean. We both figured we weren’t supposed to drive across the beach, so Brie backtracked to the left-hand turn, and off we went on a narrow, gravelly, twisty-turny little road that ultimately took us over and around the hills … to the other side of that little beach!

Check it out:

We had lunch at one of the Puñihuil restaurants, overlooking the water, and then we took off for Ancud, 25 kilometers northeast. There, we walked along the waterfront and poked around a crafts market, where I bought a chunky knitted poncho. Thinking about our impending chilly winter and lack of central heat, I wanted to buy all the gorgeous wool sweaters, socks, hats, and blankets. But I restrained myself.

Back at Rucalaf for dinner, I had the grilled octopus. But the real culinary surprise of the day was the murta berry. In English, it is known as Chilean guava or strawberry myrtle. I enjoyed the berry in a cocktail and a fabulous dessert.

Even the wine bottles have funky hats in Chiloé!

Chiloé: Summer Staycation Get-Away, Day 1

With just two weeks left in our “summer” vacation, I took off with my friend Brie for cooler temperatures, fresh air, and adventure in a different part of the country. We flew to Chiloé, an archipelago off the southern coast of Chile about 765 miles south of Santiago, and stayed in cabins on the largest island, Isla Grande de Chiloé.

I honestly couldn’t remember the last time life was this peaceful. Hanging out at my cabin at Cabañas Origen Chiloé, I looked out at the Gulf of Corcovado and another island in the Chiloe archipelago (Quinchao), and I heard only the sounds of birds and cows, tree branches brushing against the roof, and the gentle hum of the kitchenette fridge.

Brie and I took this selfie on my cabin’s back porch.

Each evening, the property owner, Jorge, brought us a breadbox full of breakfast for the next morning. He said everything, including the butter and cheese, was made from scratch by his wife. There was always a delicious dish to be warmed up in the microwave: an empanada (pastry stuffed with savory filling), chochoca (potato flatbread wrapped around pork chitlings), or milcao (a stuffed potato pancake). The breakfast box also included a couple types of bread, butter and jam or cheese, and something sweet, like an apple tart, a buttery coffee cake, or an alfajor (a sweet cookie sandwich filled with manjar, carmelized milk similar to dulce de leche). The only disappointment was the lack of good coffee. Instant would have to do.

Jorge also welcomed us to eat the apples off the trees.

After checking in and getting settled in our cabañas, Brie and I drove the short distance to Rucalaf for lunch. The restaurant had a sweet little playground in the front, but any kid who dared to tackle that steep wooden slide surely hit the ground with a bootie full of splinters!

I ordered chochoca rellena, which was described in the menu as “a traditional dish of potato dough stuffed with the daily seafood catch and a sauce of white wine, butter, Chilote garlic, and smoked mussels.” What a special treat!

Brie got the pulmay de la Casa, a form of curanto cooked in a pot. Curanto is probably Chiloé’s most famous traditional dish: A hole is dug in the ground and lined with hot stones. Seafood, meat, potatoes, vegetables, and just about any other edible item can be tossed in. The whole mixture is covered with rhubarb leaves held down by chunks of earth, and left to steam.

Obviously, there would be no need for dinner.

Our first destination in our Chiloé exploration was the city of Castro. According to Rough Guides,

“Castro has had its fair share of difficulties through the centuries. It was sacked by the Dutch both in 1600 and then in 1643, destroyed by earthquake in 1646, by fire in 1729, by earthquake again in 1739, by fire again in 1890, by fire once more in 1936, and most recently by earthquake and tidal wave in 1960. Anyone else would have given up and moved long ago, but the Chilotes keep hanging on.”

In Castro, we visited Iglesia de San Francisco, one of 16 Catholic churches in Chiloé listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. When Jesuits landed here in 1608, they used local carpenters and ship builders to construct churches entirely out of wood. Of the more than 150 wooden churches that once dotted the archipelago, only about 60 remain. UNESCO says the churches “are outstanding examples of the successful fusion of European and indigenous cultural traditions.”

The Iglesia de San Francisco burnt down and was rebuilt several times before this version, which was completed in 1912.

Brie and I walked down the steep hill to the harbor to check out the famous palafitos, buildings on stilts along the water’s edge. We were ushered aboard a small boat full of tourists in lifejackets for a short cruise along Castro’s coast. A tour guide shouted anecdotes to the group, but the wind swallowed his words, and Brie struggled to hear him well enough to translate.

Waving to people in the palafito restaurants.

Colorful palafitos.

After a stroll through Castro’s main plaza – which was lively with buskers, food vendors, backpackers selling jewelry, stage performers, picnicking families, and even a police officer demonstrating his dog’s tricks – we took off to check out the Iglesia de Santa María in the small town of Rilán.

Records of a church on this site date back to 1760, but the existing building was constructed in 1920. We had to pay a small entrance fee, which was supposed to help defray the ongoing costs of restoration. The caretaker let me climb the stairs to the balcony. Seeing the ceiling up close, I felt the influence of the archipelago’s shipbuilders on the construction of these churches. It felt like an upside-down ship hull.

Parading through the churches and snapping photos, it was easy to forget the real purpose of these historic structures. Most continue to offer mass every week and otherwise meet the spiritual and pastoral needs of the community. This group of mismatched chairs circling a music stand helped me visualize a choir filling the sanctuary with music as worshippers crowded on to the hard wooden pews.

Driving back to our cabins, I couldn’t get over the gorgeous landscape. Every rollercoaster drop and hairpin turn of the road revealed another postcard-perfect view. Afternoon sun bathed the hillsides in glorious hues of gold and green with ubiquitous glimpses of the coastline and the denim-colored sea. I wanted to shout out the window to the fluffy sheep and fat grazing cows, “Do you know how lucky you are to live here?”

Here’s where we were!

Christmases Past and Present

After more than 16 years of living overseas, I often struggle to remember where we went or what we did for any given holiday. Fortunately, I started this blog to act as my memory (a little too late, unfortunately). Sometimes I find it useful to touch base with the Ghost of Christmas Past. In 2012, I recapped all the holiday breaks since our move overseas in “Twelve Years of Christmas.”

Here’s an update.

During our years in India, we had three weeks off between semesters.
2013-14: We visited my sister, Megan, and her family in Seoul, Korea. Check out those posts here. Then we popped by Koh Chang, Thailand on our way home. Check out those posts here.
2014-15: We explored Jordan. Check out those posts here.
2015-16: We traveled to Florida to hang out with my parents and my sister Kate’s family. On our way home, we spent some time in Dubai. Check out those posts here.

In July, we moved to Santiago, Chile. In this hemisphere, our summer break comes in December, which is really messing with our minds! With seven weeks off school between semesters, we didn’t want to head to Michigan like we usually do in the real summer; it’s winter there. Too busy settling in to our new city, home, and jobs, we never made any plans. And so, for this first summer/winter break, we have hunkered down for a Santiago staycation.

So far, so good!

First trip to the coast: An introduction to Valparaiso

Despite the fact that school was about to wrap up for a seven-week “summer vacation,” we couldn’t very well hold classes on Immaculate Conception Day, could we? So that gave us a four-day weekend in early December!

Tony’s birthday was the first day of the long weekend (see my previous post). The next day, I ditched him and took off for the beach with some friends. Craig’s cousin, Leah, was visiting from the States, so he had planned a trip to Concón. Brie and I tagged along. Tony stayed home to catsit.

Less than two hours from Santiago, Valparaiso rises up from the Pacific Ocean and undulates along the coast. Estimates vary, but most travel sites claim the city covers about 45 hills. In the mid-1800s, “Valpo” was a key seaport for international trade. A major earthquake in 1906, followed by the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, struck a devastating blow to the city’s economy.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the “Historic Quarter of the Seaport City of Valparaiso” is noteworthy for three reasons, according to the UNESCO website.

The outstanding nature of the historic quarter of Valparaíso results from a combination of three factors, all associated with its role as a port: its particular geographical and topographical environment; its urban forms, layout, infrastructure and architecture; and its attraction to and influence by people from around the world. The character of Valparaíso was strongly marked by the geography of its location: the bay, the narrow coastal plains (largely artificial) and the steep hills scored by multiple ravines together created the city’s amphitheatre-like layout. Adaptation of the built environment to these difficult geographical conditions produced an innovative and creative urban ensemble that stressed the particularities of each architectural object, grounded in the technological and entrepreneurial mindset typical of the era. Consistent with its pre-eminence, the city was populated and influenced by people from around the world. The urban fabric and cultural identity of Valparaíso are thus distinguished by a diversity that sets it apart from other Latin American cities. From an urban perspective, the result of this challenging geography, modernizing impulse and intercultural dialogue is a fully original American city with the stamp of the late 19th century upon it.

Next time I visit, I will make a more conscious effort to explore more of the historic neighborhoods. This time, however, I was eager to see one of the homes of the eccentric Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda. Brie drove up the steep, winding road of Cerro Bellavista, and we walked in a light drizzle to La Sebastiana, Neruda’s five-story home named for the architect, Sebastián Collado. An excellent audio tour brought the house to life. As we strolled through each room, pausing to appreciate the harbor views, it was easy to imagine Neruda mixing drinks behind the bar, waxing philosophical at the dinner table, reading the newspaper in bed, and hunkering down in the leather armchair he nicknamed El Nube (The Cloud) to scratch out his powerful words in green ink.
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Photography in the house was permitted only to shoot out the windows.
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I didn’t know much about Pablo Neruda before this visit, but now I’m intrigued … possibly a bit obsessed. I just started a novel called The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero, and I’m reading everything I can find about Chile’s beloved poet. I saw the movie “Neruda” in Spanish (accidentally), so I look forward to watching it again when it’s released with subtitles. I worry that words have lost some of their power in today’s information-overload society, so I am particularly fascinated by a man whose art generated such an uproar around the world. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about Neruda as I get to know him better.

Cool steps near our lunch restaurant.
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After lunch, Brie and I drove about 30 minutes to another waterside town, Concón. We checked in to the Radisson Concón, where our room included a balcony that jutted out over the water. Later, salty sea breezes and the sound of waves crashing on the boulders would lull us to sleep.

This was our view!
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I was entranced by the huge pelicans.
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We walked along the shoreline and found a depot where fishermen were bringing in the day’s catch. Cats, seagulls, and pelicans kept close watch for any unattended treats.
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Fishermen dropped bits of fish to these pelicans. Check out that one guy’s huge open bill!
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We met up with Craig and Leah for dinner at Tierra de Fuego, a beachside restaurant. I ate conger eel, a typical Chilean dish, and was surprised at how not slimy and slug-y it was. It tasted like a mild whitefish, and in typical Chilean fashion, it was pretty bland. Still, you couldn’t beat the setting of this place.
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The next morning, Craig drove us all back to Valparaiso – with a quick stop to clamber around the rocks at a Concón observation area.
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In Valpo, Craig led us on a route he had learned from a friend, up and over a few hills. Famous for colorful homes, brilliant murals, and ubiquitous graffiti, Valpo’s hills are best explored on foot.
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At one time, 26 funicular railways transported residents up and down the hillsides. Only a handful operate today. After traipsing around for awhile, we boarded the Ascensor El Peral funicular – built in 1902 – for the 52-meter descent at a 48-degree gradient.
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That evening, we hung out at the hotel’s waterfront bar for a stunning sunset.
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As a tag-along on this trip, I had done no research and was unfortunately uninformed about where we were going or what we were seeing. I have a feeling this is a place I’ll re-visit many times while living in Chile and I look forward to bringing visitors here, so I vow to be better prepared in the future!

Santa Cruz’in for the long weekend

Less than three hour’s drive from Santiago, the world transforms from concrete and glass into mountains and vineyards. The Colchagua Valley dissects central Chile, from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the Andes Mountains in the west, and boasts a perfect climate for growing grapes – particularly red wine varieties.

As it happens, I love red wine. And mountains. And four-day weekends.

Friday after school, fellow newbie Stella and I ditched our families and road-tripped to Santa Cruz in the Colchagua Valley. We encountered heavy congestion on the Pan-American Highway, but I absentmindedly followed the car in front of me, which crossed the median into a lane closed to oncoming traffic and opened to those of us heading south. We whipped past miles of standstill traffic and finally merged back onto the correct side of the highway, breathing a sigh of relief that we hadn’t missed our exit. At a big toll plaza, we waited in line while scores of vendors in fluorescent orange vests hawked drinks, bread, and empanadas.

Finally, we arrived at Vino Bello, a small bed-and-breakfast owned by a former Nido de Aguilas teacher and her husband. Surrounded by vineyards, the 1930s manor house was renovated in 2003 and featured simple but comfortable accommodations. We met the owner, Janine, at the nearby Vino Bello restaurant and enjoyed chatting with her about common acquaintances and her transition from educator to business owner.

It didn’t take long for my usual food-induced joy to surface, and after a pisco sour, a glass of wine, delicious beetroot ravioli stuffed with butternut squash, and an apple crumble de frutas, I was blissfully sleepy.
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The next morning, Stella and I lingered over breakfast and then lingered some more outside with our books.
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The hotel clerk helped us make arrangements for the day, and we eventually headed out to the wineries.

First stop: Viña Estampa, where Fillipe entertained us and poured samples for tasting. He told us that Estampa specializes in blends. According to the Estampa website:

The technique of blending consists of carefully combining two or more varieties to craft a single wine. Each variety contributes its finest characteristics to the blend to create a beautifully balanced wine with unique personality.

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Fillipe tried to explain the origin of the winery’s name, but I didn’t understand until I read the story online. The family-owned winery traces its agribusiness roots to a flour mill called “La Estampa Mill” in what is now the Indepencia neighborhood of Santiago. The mill was named in honor of a legendary estampa – or pocket-sized prayer card – with a picture of Nuestra Señora del Carmen (Our Lady of Mount Carmel). More than 200 years ago, the picture allegedly circled overhead for about 15 minutes before flying across the Mapocho River and landing next to a woman teaching catechism to her children. A Catholic grotto, and later a chapel, was erected at the site.

We tasted three Estampa blends:
2014 Estampa Reserve Carménère-Malbec,
2014 Estampa Fina-Reserva Carménère-Syrah-Cabernet Sauvignon,
and 2013 Gold Estampa Carménère-Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc-Petit Verdot.

They were all delicious, but we chose the middle-range wine to take home.
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A stroll through Estampa’s varietal garden…
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… and we were off to our next stop: Montes.
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After a tranquil, tasty lunch overlooking the vineyards and hillsides, we met up with a couple from Puerto Rico and a family from Brazil for the winery tour.
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Our guide, Maria Angel, explained that Montes doesn’t irrigate its vines in this valley. Dry farming yields smaller bunches but higher quality grapes, she said. She took us to the roof, where ladies sort the grapes, and equipment separates the stems before dumping grapes down a hose into fermentation tanks below. She also showed us some examples of feng shui principles incorporated into the building’s design.
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For our tasting, we sampled:
2015 Outer Limits Sauvignon Blanc,
2013 Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon,
2014 Montes Alpha Carménère,
and 2015 Outer Limits CGM (Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre).
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Note the pathetic level of pours… not cool, Montes.
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I picked up a bottle of the Carménère and another blend we didn’t sample but I know I like – Montes Twins (Malbec-Cabernet Sauvignon).

Hanging out with one of the winery’s founders, Aurelio Montes. He’s so crazy.
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The cellar holds 800 French oak barrels, arranged in a semicircle. Gregorian chants echoed off the walls, creating a spiritual setting.

Panorama from the Montes patio.
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Our little B&B was booked for the night, so we had to pack up and move across the road to Hotel Terraviña.
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We read and snacked outside until dinnertime, when we walked through the vineyard to Casa Colchagua restaurant. My dinner of pork ribs with quinoa risotto was rich and hearty. I only wished we hadn’t pigged out on the hotel’s cheese platter beforehand.

The next morning, a cold fog had descended on the grape vines.
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After breakfast, we decided to head home a little sooner than planned with one more stop on the way out of town.

We drove to Viña Laura Hartwig, a family-owned boutique winery. According to the website:

In 1966, Laura Bisquertt receives the Santa Laura estate from her father, who had purchased it in 1928. The land, as was customary in the area, was devoted to seasonal crops and livestock. Between 1966 and 1971, Laura’s husband, Alejandro Hartwig Carte, a civil engineer, manages the estate by farming traditional crops and running a diary farm. In 1971, he decides to look for new job opportunities abroad, thus joining the management team of German pharmaceutical Boehringer Ingelheim, in Montreal, Canada. The family lives in Canada for 10 years. During that time and due to multiple trips to United States and Europe, Alejandro becomes a great wine enthusiast and connoisseur. He recognizes North America’s growing demand for classic French wine varieties. He decides to take advantage of the excellent weather conditions of the Colchagua Valley and the increasing appetite for wines from the New World (wines from Australia and California had started to become popular around this time), and develops what he calls his “Retirement Project.”

Stella and I had planned to pick up a bottle or two and hit the road, but it turned out the winery offered horse-drawn carriage rides. How could we not do that? With Geronimo in the driver’s seat, we rolled through the gorgeous vineyard. The fog had burned off, revealing a bright blue sky and a perfect backdrop of verdant hills.
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With the long drive ahead, I couldn’t partake in a wine sampling. The shopkeeper informed us that Laura Hartwig was known for producing 100% Petit Verdot, a variety that was usually used in blends, so Stella sat down with a glass while I poked around and took some photos.
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We both bought a bottle and then we took off for home with slim hopes of finding a restaurant for lunch.

In general, Chile shuts down on Sunday. As we drove through towns and slowed down by highway exits, it seemed nobody was out and nothing was open. Then we encountered Juan y Medio. I almost drove right past, despite Stella’s GPS directions. There was no exit, just the driveway into the restaurant straight off the highway lane (speed limit: 75 mph). The parking lot was already packed. We were fortunate to get a table, and we enjoyed tasty Chilean sandwiches. When we returned to the parking lot, we found all the cars’ windshields had been covered with cardboard to keep the interiors relatively cool in the pounding sun. Crazy.

Back in Santiago, Stella and I were both psyched to remember that we still had two days off work. Santa Cruz was the perfect weekend get-away. Great food and wine, plenty of downtime to read and relax, beautiful scenery, fresh air and sunshine, fun company … did I mention the wine? I have a feeling this wasn’t my last visit to Colchagua Valley.

Making Michigan memories in a blink

When we were lounging lakeside back in June, we bemoaned our brief summer break. Accustomed to about eight weeks of downtime in Michigan, we resented having to go back to work in just one month. Our school in India wrapped up June 1, but we had to report to our new jobs in Chile on July 3.

“No fair!” we cried. “We’ll just come back in September when we have a week off!”

Well, that was a stupid plan. I made it even stupider by screwing up the flight reservations. I must have been using last year’s school calendar when I booked the tickets for Sept. 24-30. In fact, the break was a week earlier. When I realized my mistake, I phoned the airline, cried and pleaded, and got the fee waived. However, I still had to pay the difference in the fare, which was about $700 total … and we had to wait till Saturday night to leave Santiago … and our flight back to Chile had two stops. Awesome.

That meant we had a total of four full days in Michigan at the rate of about $700 per day, counting airfare and car rental. Kind of ridiculous.

Anyway, it turned out September was a wonderful time to be there. Trees were just starting the transformation from green to scarlet. The lake was still warm enough for a swim, and the weather was perfect. With school in session, our neighborhood was practically deserted. Sitting on the deck with my coffee in the morning, I watched the ducks frolicking in the lake and listened to the chattering of birds in the willow tree. Maybe it was worth the money?
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We didn’t have internet or phone service at the lake, so we spent a little time each day using the free wifi at McDonald’s. That was the only way to contact my sister Kate to make plans for the day.
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Tony enjoyed pottering around the house, but I spent most of my time hanging out with Kate and 3-year-old Jack. His big brothers were in school, so he got a lot of attention.
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We had a little fashion shoot with Chilean vests, hats and flags.
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It might not have been the most fiscally responsible choice to fly home for less than a week, but it was lovely nonetheless.

Spring Break 2016: Finding peace in Rishikesh

I barely had time to unpack my suitcase, do laundry and repack, and I was off again.

Spring Break!

Before I knew I would chaperone the high school mini-course, I was craving a traffic-free get-away to nature. I got that, unexpectedly, with our trip to Krishna Ranch last week, but I had already booked a trip with my friend Alli for the following week. We took the train to Rishikesh and stayed at Atali Ganga, a peaceful little eco-resort on the shores of the Ganges River (Ganga in Hindi).
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Atali Ganga stretches up the hillside on the east side of the river. From the main road, a short steep driveway takes you to the reception area, which includes a pool and climbing wall. Stone steps and pathways lead to the Green Deck, a grassy lounging area on the second level; Café White Water, where we ate all our meals, on the third level; and then to individual cottages on five subsequent levels. Alli and I were neighbors on the fifth level, 85 knee-jarring stairs from the lobby.

My cottage.
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View from the restaurant deck.
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Trees, shrubs and potted plants lined the paths and surrounded the buildings. Small tables and chairs, shade umbrellas and loungers were tucked here and there, providing ample spots for reading, napping, writing, or chatting. My cottage far exceeded expectations with its stone tile floor, comfortable bed, hot shower, and screened windows to let in the fresh breeze. I didn’t even notice all the special touches until I needed them, like when I realized the bamboo ladder just outside my front door was meant for drying my wet clothes, or when I spotted the yoga mats provided in the room just as my weary muscles needed a stretch.

I also appreciated the eco-friendly efforts: Signs offered gentle reminders to preserve water and power; linens were laundered only every three days; soap and shampoo came from wall-mounted dispensers instead of disposable containers; and housekeepers refilled glass bottles with fresh water each day.

On our first afternoon, we joined Sonita, one of the activity directors, for an introduction to the Ganges in an inflatable kayak. Alli and I took turns as Sonita piloted us upriver a bit and then floated back down. We both hopped out of the boat and into the icy water at the end. It was exhilarating! Afterwards, we plopped down in the riverbank’s powdery sand to enjoy the view and a cup of chai.
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That evening, the hotel served snacks by a fire pit and set up a telescope for us to look at the moon and Jupiter before dinner.

The next morning, we joined a group for whitewater rafting. This was my virgin voyage, and I have to say the “safety talk” kind of freaked me out. I was feeling pretty nervous by the time we set off on our 24-kilometer ride. Our boat mates included a nice Indian family with two sweet children.

“Well, it can’t be too dangerous if they’re letting the kids do it,” I said, thus jinxing our journey.
After 4 kilometers, we rowed to the shore. “What are we doing?” I asked.
“Dropping off the kids,” answered our guide. “We’ll pick them up again after the big rapids.”
Oh crap.

We rowed and floated down the jade-colored river, which was calm enough at times for us to pause and check out the tree-covered hillsides, mysterious little caves, sandy beaches and paths winding through the forest. But the calm was quickly broken by 14 Class-2 and Class-3 rapids that doused us and got our hearts pounding. The rapids had funny names, such as Three Blind Mice, Golf Course, Rollercoaster, Black Money, and Return to Sender.

During one stretch, our guide encouraged us to ride along on the outside of the boat. Alli and I both hopped in the chilly water, held on to the raft’s safety line, and let the current tow us along till our limbs went numb.

Shortly before the end of our trip, we met the two children, who had been trucked downstream, and brought them back on board.

Big sigh of relief.

So I survived my first whitewater rafting experience, and it was fantastic!
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Because this stretch of the holy Ganges River looks nothing like the brown, toxic sludge that creeps into the holy city of Varanasi, I falsely assumed that riverside cremations were prohibited up here. However, we actually saw two on this day. One had just finished, and the family members were brushing ashes in to river. The other was just getting started with a pile of wood and a body on a pallet nearby. That was a little disconcerting.

Back at the fire pit that evening, under a full moon, we chatted with Manoj Biswas, the owner of Atali Ganga. He explained that this section of the river was the most holy for North Indians, and riverside cremations were not only allowed, they were sacred. If you can’t cremate your loved ones in nearby Haridwar, then you at least find a way to bring their ashes here to put in the river, Manoj said.

He also helped us understand which mountains surrounded us. There are three Himalayas, all with profound Sanskrit names, he said: The upper Himalayas (Himadri, which means “respect the snow”), the middle Himalayas (Himachal, which means “shrouded in snow”), and the lower Himalayas (Shivaliks, which means “locks of Shiva’s hair”). Atali Ganga sits in the shadow of the Shivaliks. He also said the pronunciation is Him-AL-ya, which translates to “abode of snow.” When we say Him-uh-LAY-uh, it has a different and unrelated meaning.

Why are the lower Himalayas called “locks of Shiva’s hair”? According to Hindu legend, the gods wanted to send the goddess Ganga down to earth to provide water for people. However, they feared her impact when she fell from the heavens would cause total destruction, so Shiva offered to catch her in his hair and then squeeze the water out onto the earth. Sure enough, pure water pours down the Shivaliks to join the mighty Ganga River rushing through the valley.

A sunrise hike got our next day off to a peaceful start. Alli and I climbed to the top of the Atali Ganga property to meet Robbie, one of the resort’s activity guides, who led us on a 2.5-kilometer walk on a boulder-strewn path. We saw barking deer (and one barking dog), peacocks, wild chickens, trees full of langur monkeys, a little flock of red-cheeked parakeets, and a few other birds, although most stayed hidden in the foliage. Robbie noted that winter, with its naked trees, is the best time for birding. Still, we could hear their chatter. Here’s a recording of peacocks.

We crunched along a carpet of dry leaves, past several termite towers, through a narrow gully that fills with water during monsoon season, near a small village (with only four houses and a field of wheat) and down to the road, where a van hauled us back to the hotel.
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Robbie showed us these hard little seeds that were used as a unit of measurement for weight before the British showed up with their drachms, ounces, pounds and stones.
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We had planned to play on the resort’s high ropes course, but we opted instead for a lazy day of lingering over coffee and reading in the shade. After a quick dip in the pool and more lounging around, we decided to pop down to the river. We waded in the water and sat in the sand, watching other guests kayak and swim.

Day four started as a repeat of day three and turned into a whole lot of trekking for me. I joined Robbie for another early morning hike, climbing up and down the rocky paths. We didn’t spot any animals, but we heard lots of rustling in the bushes. Wild chickens, Robbie said. I asked whether people eat them. “They are very fast walking,” he said. “If people can catch, they eat.”

After crossing a nala, a dry gully that fills with monsoon rains, we fell in line behind a village woman. She trekked up the precarious hill in worn flip-flops, holding her long purple skirt with one hand and balancing a large brass pot of water on her head with the other. She said “namaskar” to me and chatted in Hindi with Robbie as she climbed. Later, Robbie told me the woman was surprised to see us hiking so early in the day. She and other women out collecting wood yesterday had seen a bear at that nala, so she warned us to be careful.

Robbie led me through a small farming village. Cows and water buffalo looked up from their breakfast to check us out.

After a bit of reading and lounging, Alli and I headed to the river for a while. It was blazing hot with no shade, so we didn’t last long. I decided to join a group going on a 4-kilometer afternoon hike.

Led by Sonita, we crossed the river on the Malakunti suspension bridge and trekked along the mountainside. (Mala means necklace, and kunti means pendant. The village of Mala sits up the hill, so the bridge is like its pendant hanging below.)
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Along the way, we spotted pink and green stains on the dirt path, signs of local celebrations. It was Holi, a holiday that welcomes the arrival spring, when revelers toss colored powder or water on each other. The path rose and fell, sometimes ominously narrow with a sheer drop to the rocky beach. We often scrambled over piles of pale flat rocks, and looking up, we could see where they had broken free from the hillside.

I kept taking my phone out to snap a photo and then slipping it back into my pocket. I didn’t realize every time I did that, I butt dialed someone in the States. So sorry about that!
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Eventually, we reached Sonita’s village, Sirasu. There, we saw ladies working in the fields, and Sonita showed us the different crops: wheat, chickpeas, onions and garlic. She also pointed to the big group of men and boys playing cricket in the distance. Women generally run the farm, care for the livestock and manage the home, while men have jobs outside the village, she said. We stopped at her mother’s house for chai. Children from the village hid behind a wall to spy on us, and a calf tied to a metal ring snorted at us and nibbled at the grass. An old woman walked by, doubled over by the load of hay on her back. I put my hands together and said, “namaste,” and she stood up, gently set down her load, and returned my greeting with a wide grin.

Sonita leading us through the wheat fields.
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Animals next to her mother’s house.
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Cricket game.
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After finishing our tea, we set off again. Just past the village, bamboo scaffolding encased a huge ashram and temple under construction. Rishikesh is a magnet for spiritual pilgrims and yoga enthusiasts. This National Geographic Traveler story takes place at an ashram next to Sonita’s village and does a nice job describing the vibe of the area.

It was getting dark by the time we saw the second bridge. A precipitous path cobbled together with pale purple stones zig-zagged down the mountain. I asked Sonita if the color was natural, and she pointed across the river to where purple-tinted rock rose out of the water and blended into the hills. We walked across the bridge and up another steep hill to the road, where our bus waited to drive us back to Atali Ganga.
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Our final day in Rishikesh, we had to check out early, so we spent most of the day in the open-air reception area, reading and writing. I felt my usual melancholy settle in, knowing I had to leave behind beauty and fresh air and face the reality of Delhi’s smog and traffic. What a perfect week, though. And, seriously, what an amazing month – so many Incredible India experiences!

That’s it for a while, though. My next big journey will be a life-changer as Tony and I wave farewell to India in just two months, travel to Michigan for a quick visit, and then move to new jobs and a new home in Santiago, Chile.