Santiago Summer Staycation – First 2 Weeks

It’s January. It’s January. It’s January.

I have to keep telling myself that because it’s almost 90 degrees F outside today with gorgeous blue skies and a gentle breeze. I’m sitting on our balcony sofa, listening to the neighbor kids playing in their pool. School is on summer break for seven weeks. It should be July.

But it’s January.

We made no plans for this vacation, other than enrolling in Spanish classes. Although I get pangs of jealousy when I see friends on Facebook frolicking at beaches in Asia, hiking in southern Chile, or hanging out with family wherever home is, I am cherishing this time as a way to really get to know our home, our neighborhood, and our city.

Here’s what we’ve done so far as tourists in our new hometown:

We like to move it, move it.
Every day, we either take a long walk or hit the bike trails – or both. Sometimes we stroll through our residential neighborhood, occasionally stumbling upon a café we hadn’t seen before or a hidden little park. Sometimes we join the throngs of commuters and tourists in the busier parts of town, window shopping and stopping for ice cream or beer. We bike up Cerro San Cristobal several times a week with Tony going for distance and me going for time (we both beat our personal records yesterday!). On one of our bike rides, I was determined to reach the mountains. They looked so close! But after a very long time on a trail along the man-made Canal San Carlos, the mountains continued to elude us. (“They don’t even look any closer,” Tony said, as we finally turned around to head home.)

In addition to our walks and bike rides, Tony and I continue to sweat our booties off twice a week in our neighborhood park, Plaza Las Lilas, with trainers Anton and Andrea. Here, Anton helps me with my form as I struggle with the suspension training exercises.

Hop On Hop Off.
My friend Brie and I spent Dec. 27 exploring Santiago with the Turistik Hop On Hop Off Bus. Maybe a bit overpriced, the tour nevertheless featured well-marked stops and an informative audio tour in English (as well as Spanish, Portuguese, German, and French).

We first hopped off in Bellavista to catch the funicular up to the top of Cerro San Cristobal. As I mentioned, Tony and I cycle that hill regularly, but Brie had never been there and I had never ridden the funicular. So up we went after a short wait in line at the Pio Nono station, which was inaugurated in 1925.

At the top, 820 meters above sea level, several painted crosses line the path up to the statue of Mary, but I couldn’t find any information online about who painted them.

I never get tired of this.

The funicular station at the top.

Heading back down.

As soon as we exited the funicular station at the bottom, we saw the Turistik bus approaching and we hopped back on. Our next stop for disembarking came at Plaza de Armas, the original city center established by Santiago founder Pedro de Valdivia in 1541. I look forward to coming back here to tour the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago, the Central Post Office, and the former Royal Palace, which now houses the National History Museum.

At the base of this Christmas tree, there was a life-sized nativity scene. Tourists kept inserting themselves in it for photos, which just seemed wrong.

Among many vendors in the plaza’s park, this photographer snapped pictured of kids posing in costumes on the stuffed horses. Soooo tempting…

Again, it was easy peasy to catch the bus, but we hopped off after a few blocks at Plaza de la Constitución to see the Moneda Palace. The palace was originally a colonial mint; “moneda” is Spanish for coin. It served as the presidential residence for a short time. During the military coup of 1973, troops surrounded and bombarded the palace, where President Allende ultimately took his own life after broadcasting his last speech to the country. Moneda Palace presently serves as the seat of the president and houses several government offices. I’ve since learned about the changing of the guard at the palace, so I’ll be sure to return for that.

By now, Brie and I were getting peckish. Google Maps showed us a nearby restaurant, The Blue Jar, which turned out to be a great choice. We had a nice lunch and even ran into a family from school, who were also touring the city.

Back on the bus, we felt too hot and tired to hop off again, but we both felt the tour offered us a glimpse of Santiago’s hot spots. I’m looking forward to a longer linger.

Masters of public transportation – sort of.
Jonesing for some cherries, I decided we should visit La Vega Central Market. In my quest to master public transportation, I also decided we would take the bus. It was so easy! There’s a bus stop right at the corner of our block. We each have a rechargeable Bip! card, which works on the bus and metro (and, weirdly, even lets me make copies at school), so we caught the turquoise 517, found seats, and cruised straight to the market.

We have also bopped all over town on the metro, with only one peculiar experience. We were waiting for a train, and when it arrived a few people got on and the others in front of us made a solid blockade so nobody else could get by, even though there was plenty of room still on the train. The next train arrived, and it happened again! The third time, we walked around them and boarded the car, which was crowded but not packed. Perplexed, we tossed around some theories … Maybe they were waiting for a train with open seats so they could sit down? Maybe there had been some announcement in Spanish that we didn’t understand?

Anyway, we prepared to exit at our station, but the train zipped right past it.

At the next stop, we jumped off and rode the escalator to street level feeling completely confused. On the walk home, we paused at the pet store to buy cat food. One lady there speaks English, so we told our story and asked why the train didn’t stop at Cristobal Colon. She explained that during certain hours, this metro line runs express trains – red and green – that stop at alternate stations, so you have to get on the green train to stop at Cristobal Colon.
“That’s confusing,” I said.
“It is to us, too,” she said.
“Why do you think those people were blocking us?” I asked.
She shrugged. “There are just people like that, I guess.”
So, mystery partially solved.

Soaring over Santiago.
The same day we bused to the market, we met up with friends, Stella and Ian, and their kids, Mane and Berlin, to master yet another mode of transportation at one of our favorite places in the city. Yes, you guessed it, we were heading back to Cerro San Cristobal, our urban mountain. I have walked, biked, and funicular-ed up this hill, but there was still one way to reach the top that I hadn’t tried: the newly reopened Teleférico Parque Metropolitano, or gondola lift. The gondola opened in 1980, but a series of mechanical malfunctions in 2008 and 2009 shut it down. After an expensive renovation, the system reopened in November.

I stood in a short line to buy tickets, and then we all climbed into a gondola for the 2-kilometer ride.

Without a doubt, the gondola offered the best views of Santiago.

Despite many previous visits to this hill, I had never entered the tiny chapel at the base of the Virgin Mary statue. The little girls and I ran up the steps and sat on the benches in the chapel for a few minutes until the other adults showed up. We tried to figure out the Spanish Bible verses painted on the walls. I can see how this would be a peaceful place of prayer if you weren’t accompanied by two giggly goofballs.

So much museum, so little time!
On Friday, Tony and I took the metro to the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights). Everything was labeled in Spanish, but the English-language audio tour was excellent. In fact, it was so informative that we lost track of time and had to rush through most of the museum or risk being late for our Spanish class. We realize now that this place would take most of a day to appreciate. We’ll be back.

Estudiamos español.
We started Spanish classes on Tuesday at the Goethe Institut, just a 15-minute walk from our apartment. It may seem odd to study Spanish at a German organization, but we had heard good things about the teachers there. In my fantasy world, our class would include fun, outgoing professionals who lived in Santiago and wanted to be our new best friends. In reality, the group comprises mostly shy Chinese businessmen and a couple shy Asian students. However, the teachers really are great, and I already feel more confident using Spanish in our daily life.

Spanish is essential in this city. Here’s an example. Tony took our car to Portillo, the Toyota dealership, Friday morning for routine maintenance. He picked it up Friday evening. On Saturday afternoon, we decided to drive across town to our favorite supermarket. On the highway, a motorcyclist honked and gestured at the back passenger-side tire. I looked in the sideview mirror, and the tire did seem wobbly … but I had never looked at it that way before so I had no basis for comparison. We decided to skip shopping and drive straight to Portillo instead. When another driver honked and pointed, we worried that we shouldn’t continue on the wobbly tire. Tony pulled in to a gas station, and we pondered our options. Obviously, the mechanic at Portillo had screwed up. I wanted them to come fix the problem. I used google translate to write a text, which Tony sent to his contact there, Jorge. He never responded. I called a couple Spanish-speaking friends, who all recommended an English-speaking mechanic, Julio. I called him and interrupted a family party. He was very kind but said he was heading out of town after the gathering. I beseeched him to call Portillo for us, which he did. They refused to send help! Julio must have sensed our desperation because he offered to fix our tire on his way out of town, two hours later. As we waited, feeling guilty and stupid, Tony decided to take a stab at solving the problem himself. He pulled out the car’s manual, figured out the complicated jack, took off the tire and re-attached it – properly this time. I texted Julio to say he didn’t need to come, but thanks anyway, and we resumed our shopping expedition.

So you may be saying, “Well, hey, you got out of that pickle without using Spanish!” But the thing is, I want to be fluent enough to storm into the Portillo office and go bananas on them. I mean, they freakin’ attached the tire wrong! It could have flown off the car in the middle of the highway. And then they refused to help us? Are you kidding me? For now, I can only speak in present tense, and I pretty much only know the vocabulary for describing my family members. But I promise you this: Whether it takes months or even years, I will eventually give Portillo a piece of my mind in Spanish.

Anywho… the staycation continues, and we have plenty of fun on our Santiago bucket list, including a visit from my parents just two weeks from today!

Going Chileno on New Year’s Eve (yellow underpants and all)

The other day, I was reading a book on the balcony when I got a call from Tony. He was out for a walk, looking for a place to get a haircut.

“I am at the Tobalaba metro stop and there are a bunch of stalls selling yellow underwear,” he said. “What is that all about?”

I love this kind of stuff! “Take a picture,” I begged, but he had already walked too far to turn back.

I immediately got online and found out that wearing yellow underwear is just one of many strange New Year’s Eve rituals in Chile. Right then and there, I vowed to do them all. I spent a couple hours researching until I realized all the websites were saying the same thing. The traditions are pretty straightforward, but I struggled to find out the origins. Maybe nobody knows. (Side note: One of the most interesting articles I read about Chilean NYE traditions was unexpectedly found in The China Post.)

Yesterday morning, we made a quick trip to our nearest supermarket to load up on the fixin’s for our traditional Chileno New Year’s Eve. Then we headed out for a bike ride. After all, it’s summer! The ride gave me an opportunity to kick off our celebration, though.

Chile NYE Ritual #1: Wear new clothes!
For Christmas, we gave each other clothes, so this was an easy one. Tony wore his new Adidas T-shirt. I wore my new bike shirt with pockets in the back. That meant I could ride with my phone and pause for a selfie at the top of Cerro san Cristobal.

My new bike shirt pockets meant we could also stop at a street corner on the way home to buy our yellow underwear, and I would have an easy way to transport them home. Apparently, it’s important that your yellow underwear is a gift, so Tony and I parked our bikes in the shade and took turns purchasing panties for each other. You know he loved that, right? This makeshift underpants shop had a surprisingly good selection, but the sizes were whacked. Tony got me size large, and I bought him XXL. Hmmm… maybe they were children’s sizes.

Chile NYE Ritual #2: Wear yellow underwear!
This is what we bought.

Let’s pretend this is me wearing them.

(Ok, I really got that photo from the Daily Mail‘s article about NYE traditions around the world. Don’t worry, I will not post pictures of us in our yellow undies.)

We both stuffed our booties into our respective tiny underpants for the rest of the evening. Why? Some websites claimed the tradition was based on finding love on New Year’s Eve. Others said it was simply a way to garner good luck. There’s actually a website called The Underwear Expert, and it claims yellow underwear is meant to bring happiness and prosperity. Works for me.

Chile NYE Ritual #3: Take your luggage for a walk!
I was pretty psyched to hear about this one. Chile actually has a tradition that promotes travel. How cool is that? If you’re itching to hit the road and hope for an adventure or two in the coming year, you’re supposed to take an empty suitcase for a walk around the block. I’m so there.

Chile NYE Ritual #4: Put money in your shoe!
Legend has it that a luca note (1,000 Chilean pesos or $1.50) in your right shoe will multiply and bring wealth over the next year. I’m sure you’re meant to put the money in your shoe while you’re out partying and painting the town red, but our money and our shoes just sat there all night while we watched Netflix on the balcony. I hope the tradition still pays off.

Chile NYE Ritual #5: Eat 12 grapes!
Officially, you’re supposed to eat one grape for each stroke of the clock at midnight. The grapes represent the months in the coming year, and you make a wish as you eat each one. Obviously, I didn’t wait till midnight to gobble the grapes, but I did take my time and make a wish on each one. I couldn’t find any history behind this ritual, except that it started in Spain. Some websites claim that the flavor of your grape determines the sweetness or sourness of the corresponding month.

Tony doesn’t eat fruit, so he wished on 12 grape-flavored Skittles. He told me this morning his January wish already started coming true. “I wished I would have Skittles every day in January,” he said.

Chile NYE Ritual #6: Eat lentils!
I had to laugh at the supermarket when I realized all the lentil soup was sold out. I was not the only lazy NYE reveler. It was too late for me to buy lentils, soak them, and figure out how to cook them. Not my wheelhouse. Fortunately, I found a packet of instant lentils. My research uncovered various explanations for why lentils might bring luck and good fortune. Several websites claimed lentils look like coins and therefore symbolize money. Another noted the tradition emigrated from Europe, where people would eat a hearty lentil dish to stay warm in the harsh winter. Hardly necessary in sunny Santiago these days! But a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.

Chile NYE Ritual #7: Put a gold ring in your champagne glass!
Prosperity comes to those who drink their New Year’s toast with a gold ring in the glass of bubbly. We plonked our wedding rings (washed first, of course) into the flutes of cheap sparkling Moscato. Our toast came a few hours early, but I’m sure it had the same effect.

Fireworks and all-night dance parties didn’t make the cut for us this year. Also, a local tradition is to eat fish soup for lunch at the central market as a hangover remedy. I did finish off most of that aforementioned Moscato by myself, but I chose to skip the soup ritual. (“If I were hungover, the last thing I’d eat is fish soup,” Tony said. I must concur.)

After all that, the Dents are looking forward to a pretty fantastic 2017. Bring on the health, wealth, and happiness!

Feliz año nuevo, everyone! Any interesting NYE traditions in your home?

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!

Christmas 2016 – done and dusted

We decorated.

We shopped.

We listened to Christmas music.

We exchanged stockings and a couple gifts.

It was nice and everything, but just a little … anticlimactic.

Possibly for the first time ever, we both wished we had some kids around. Not our own kids, of course, but maybe a few nieces and nephews. We missed seeing their excited little faces when they wake up at the crack of dawn to realize Santa had visited and then their disappointed little faces when they’re not allowed to open presents till after breakfast (cinnamon rolls … Dickinson family tradition). We missed playing with their new toys and hauling out our Nerf guns (Christmas War … another Dickinson family tradition).

Anyway, we enjoyed a sunny rooftop brunch with views of the Andes Mountains. And we got some good laughs watching Ella terrorize our Christmas tree. We watched “A Christmas Story” and ate a rotisserie chicken on the balcony for dinner. Really, it felt like just another day – albeit a slightly more special day – in our seven-week staycation.

The mall was a nightmare…just like malls in North America!

Brunch at Hotel Noi.

Ella attacks a Jolly Rancher from my stocking.

She had fun with the wrapping paper, too.

Leading up to Christmas day, we discovered Santiago Starbucks serves up all the traditional holiday coffee treats.

And Santa paid a visit to school on horseback while the preschool kids sang Jingle Bells. Pretty adorable!

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.

Photography in the house was permitted only to shoot out the windows.

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.

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!

I was entranced by the huge pelicans.

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.


Fishermen dropped bits of fish to these pelicans. Check out that one guy’s huge open bill!

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.

The next morning, Craig drove us all back to Valparaiso – with a quick stop to clamber around the rocks at a Concón observation area.




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.









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.


That evening, we hung out at the hotel’s waterfront bar for a stunning sunset.

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!

Tony’s birthday: Unpacking Christmas

For years, we celebrated Tony’s birthday, Dec. 8, by hauling out our boxes of Christmas decorations and transforming our home into a winter wonderland. From Kansas to Turkey to China to Laos, we unpacked our huge Rubbermaid tubs to fill our hearts with festive cheer.

That tradition stalled in India, where our holiday stash never emerged from the storage closet during the five years we spent in Delhi. I can’t explain why we didn’t bother to Christmas-ify our apartment there, but nevertheless, we decided to get back on track here in Chile.

On Tony’s birthday morning, we went for a walk so he could test out his birthday present – new sunglasses. Good thing it was a beautiful sunny summer day! We stopped for breakfast at a little café near our house and enjoyed some chirimoya juice (my latest obsession).



Then it was time to get down to business. Tony uncrated our Christmas tree, while I started digging out the decorations. Ella was keen to help.

As young, broke newlyweds, we filled these stockings (stitched by yours truly).

But they really couldn’t hold the volume of candy and presents we required, so I picked up these beauties when we lived in China (designed by a fellow Shanghai American School teacher out of Chinese silk and maribou).

Since 1995, Tony and I have exchanged tree ornaments every year. Of course, this was my idea, and the intention was to track our lives through representational ornaments: home purchases, vacations, pets, etc. Tony was slow to embrace this new tradition and failed to think about it prior to the holiday season, so he dashed out on Christmas Eve 1995 to pick up this winner at a gas station near our home in Lawrence, Kansas.

Over the years, he has put a little more effort into his ornament selection. Unpacking the holiday boxes, we reminisced about the stages of our life together.

We bought a house in Lawrence in 1995. Tony set up a workshop in the garage to play the role of resident handyman.


In those days, we loved seeing neighborhoods decked out for the holidays, especially the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City.

We sold that house when we prepared to move overseas, but we later purchased a rental property in Albuquerque and a summer home in Michigan (our Michigan Christmas ornament is actually IN Michigan).

In 2001, we hit the road. Our ornaments continue to bring back memories of those wonderful places we were lucky to call home around the world.

Istanbul, Turkey

Shanghai, China

Vientiane, Laos

New Delhi, India

And now, Santiago, Chile.

Other ornaments evoked some of our fantastic trips in the States and abroad.

My sister, Kate, and I traveled to Alaska in 1999 and fell in love with the musk ox.

We visited my sister, Megan, when she and her family lived in Korea in 2013. I couldn’t find a tree ornament, so I gave Tony a luggage tag that year.

Wow, sometimes I can’t believe how much of this incredible planet we have explored together over the years! Here are a few glimpses into our vacation history. Can you guess where they came from?

In addition to the purchased ornaments, we still have shoeboxes full of handmade decorations that adorned our Christmas trees early in this journey. Jingle bells tied with red satin bows, small pinecones with gold glitter, iridescent wrapping paper ribbon curled with scissors … we used whatever we could to create a little Christmas.

We added a new tradition to our Christmas decorating this year. As we settle in a new hemisphere where the holiday season falls in the summertime, it felt right to prop up Santa next to a vase of fresh flowers.

No matter where you are, what you celebrate or which traditions you embrace, may your season be merry and full of joy!

Ode to the chirimoya

As a traveller, I treasure the confusion and anticipation of encountering an unfamiliar fruit at a market or grocery store. Sometimes the fruit is simply too daunting to tackle, such as jackfruit in Thailand, which was the size of a 3-month-old baby. Sometimes the fruit lets you down, such as the popular erik in Turkey, unripe plums that left my tongue sore and my tummy upset. Sometimes the fruit represents only a minor shift from a common presence in your life, such as the tiny bananas of Laos that were far more flavorful than the oversized bunches I knew best.

But sometimes, a special fruit crosses your path – a fruit so exotic and unexpected, a fruit so well camoflaged that you nearly overlook it, a fruit that poses tantalizing questions: Does it have one pit or many? Is it juicy or dry? Should I cut it or peel it? Could something so hideous taste good?

Such was my experience recently with Chile’s ubiquitous chirimoya. I had seen it at the supermarket and even picked one up. Heavy in my hand, it felt like a lumpy softball. Green and nobbly, it intimidated me. On my next shopping excursion, I visited the chirimoya section again. I brought the mysterious fruit home and waited a few days for it to give up some of its firmness, like a ripe peach.

I cut it open and encountered large black seeds and white sections of flesh. Picking out a few seeds, I scooped a bite into my mouth. The slightly sandy texture was reminiscent of a pear, but it was smoother, creamier, like a banana. The flavor exploded with hints of strawberry, kiwi, pear, banana, pineapple … I couldn’t find a perfect comparison. It was possibly the sweetest fruit I had ever eaten, so sweet I got a sugar headache and had to pack up half for lunch the next day. It suddenly made sense that Chileans love their chirimoya juice and ice cream.

Chirimoya is called “custard apple” in English, and several websites quote Mark Twain as saying it was “the most delicious fruit known to men.” It definitely ranked up there for me, too.

Feeling full on our first Santiago Thanksgiving

Like most people in and from the United States, (a) I ate way too much in the last few days, and (b) I found quite a few reasons to count my blessings.

Our school gave us only Thursday afternoon off to celebrate Thanksgiving, which created widespread crankiness. That abated later in the day when we joined some wonderful people for a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner. Hostess Michelle roasted the most delicious, juicy turkey I’ve ever had (she said the secret was an overnight soak in brine – what?!), and the table overflowed with all the traditional fixin’s. It’s spring here in Chile, so we sat outside in the garden under a big sun umbrella.

Tony and I both felt deeply grateful for new friends who reach out and share such heartfelt hospitality.

Saturday, I headed back to school for Kermess, the annual international festival. Nido de Aguilas International School parents showcased their home countries with more than 30 decorated booths selling food and drinks. Children paraded in their traditional costumes, and performers gave us a tour around the world through music and dance. In my enthusiasm to visit all the places I’ve lived, I made the mistake of kicking off my food frenzy with a big Turkish shwarma. I hardly had room for anything else!

No booth for Laos, unfortunately. I would have happily scooped up some larb with sticky rice. It was fun to chat with families from my other overseas homes: Turkey, China, India, and Chile, plus I picked up a beer at the Germany booth (ahhh… high school memories).





Looking around, I felt thankful for the opportunity to teach abroad and work in a community comprising more than 50 nationalities. This is our 16th Thanksgiving overseas, and I know immersion in other cultures has broadened my mind.

After four hours of snacking, I hauled my distended belly to meet Tony for another food-centered social event: Nido Newbie Thanksgiving.

We met at the home of fellow newbies, Travis and Laura, who live in a peaceful hillside cabin in the Arrayan Canyon. We ate more tasty Thanksgiving treats, sat in lawn chairs and chatted in the shade of a huge walnut tree, went for a short hike with false historical narration by Craig, ate some more, drank a bit, and shivered to watch some of the kids – and later, some of the adults – jump into the chilly pool.

On our little hike, looking down at the house and pool.

For the millionth time since moving to Chile, I felt grateful for a group of fun, smart, adventurous people sharing this newbie experience. It’s reassuring to know there are others who get it, who will laugh with you and cry with you and eventually laugh with you again.

We were meant to attend yet another function Saturday evening, but Tony and I had overestimated our social stamina. We both hit the wall and had to send our regrets.

It’s always hard to be away from family during the holiday season. However, our first South American Thanksgiving filled our tummies and our hearts.

MOVInight: the making of a wine snob

You may think all I do in Chile is ride my bike and drink wine. Not true!

Well, OK, it’s mostly true.

MOVInight on Nov. 11 introduced me to a whole new world of Chilean wine. Up to now, I was more than thrilled to fill my supermarket cart with “cheap and cheerful” Chilean wines. (I have read that phrase on several websites, but I don’t know who said it first.) Ten bucks gets you a pretty great bottle of wine in the grocery store – conveniently located next to the cheese aisle! That was good enough for me.

And then I went to MOVInight, a wine festival featuring independent artisans who shared wines crafted by their own hands and poured with love. These innovative producers comprise MOVI (Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes, or the Movement of Independent Vintners in English), an organization of 32 winemakers committed to making wine “on a human scale.”

According to a 2015 article on the website Grape Collective, three huge winemakers sell four out of five bottles of Chilean wine. MOVI was formed to help the small family winemakers access resources and manage marketing.

MOVI is an important addition to the overall Chilean wine industry. There is something very underdog about them in a country where the big dog is very dominant. How can a wine lover not embrace passionate family winemakers making heartfelt artisanal wines from old vines. Now compare the story of the mass produced industrial “value” wines – which is sexier David or Goliath? When we met with Chilean wine pioneer and President of Wines of Chile Aurelio Montes, he was glowing in his praise of MOVI. While they are not fee paying members of Wines of Chile, Montes was keen to point out that they are invited to press events as their story is an important part of the narrative of modern Chilean wine.

As far as wine festivals go, MOVInight felt particularly whimsical and lively, maybe because the winemakers were so eager to share their stories. At the entrance, we received a wineglass for the myriad samples of vino. Food trucks, peppy music, a backdrop of mountains, and well-appointed port-a-potties contributed to an evening of tipsy laughter.

Look at the setting!


We waited a very long time for dinner at one of the food trucks, but it was worth it. Yummy gnochi.



Posing with a rep from Casa Bauzá.

My favorite wines of the night were Villard Syrah 2015 and Flaherty Red Wine (a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo) 2014. But, hey, it’s a pretty rare wine that doesn’t make me happy.

The only bummer about being a wine snob is that I can’t find these MOVI brands at the supermarket. However, I just discovered La Vinoteca, where I can shop for wine online and get free delivery with orders over 19,900 pesos (about $30). Whew!

For more on MOVI, check out this short documentary.

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.

The next morning, Stella and I lingered over breakfast and then lingered some more outside with our books.



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.


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.


A stroll through Estampa’s varietal garden…




… and we were off to our next stop: Montes.

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.



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.




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).

Note the pathetic level of pours… not cool, Montes.

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.

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.

Our little B&B was booked for the night, so we had to pack up and move across the road to Hotel Terraviña.


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.

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.


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.






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.

Adventures in Teaching and Travel