Huilo Huilo – a forest fairyland

After a Thanksgiving dinner with friends at a high-rise apartment rooftop, we left the big city behind for a weekend in the Patagonian Rainforest. We spent a few days frolicking in the forest like wood sprites or hobbits. And our hotel provided the perfect backdrop for this fantasy.

I traveled with Sam and Hillary (the Thanksgiving dinner hosts) and Nancy. We stayed in the Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve at the Nothofagus Hotel, named for the indigenous trees of the region (one of which soars up through the middle of the hotel itself). We stepped into the hotel and immediately felt transported to a fairy village, complete with confusing passageways and random staircases, a spiraling path from the ground-level restaurant to the rooftop viewing area with a waterfall at the center, rough-hewn beams and unfinished logs comprising the railings and other foundational structures, and views out every window revealing ponds, trees and other greenery, twisted man-made paths, and quirky sculptures and fountains.

It was really impossible to capture the weird wonderful whimsy of this place.

After wandering down long hallways, up and down stairs, and in and out of mysterious doorways, we stumbled upon the pool, which brought us great joy, especially because the lovely staff served us champagne while we soaked in the hot tub.

The only drawback was a lack of restaurants. The hotel’s buffet was pricey with no à la carte options, and the brewery across the road served only pizza. Still, we survived.

Walking to the brewery.

This made me giggle in the brewery bathroom.

The privately owned nature reserve spans about 300,000 acres. While Chile has a dearth of exciting wildlife, thanks to its isolation on the planet (mountains … ocean … you know how that goes), Huilo Huilo is home to the endangered Darwin’s frog (we saw one!) and other special species, such as the tiny pudu deer and the marsupial monito del monte (neither of which we were fortunate enough to spot). Huilo Huilo has put a great deal of effort into the conservation of the huemal deer. Researchers are raising the deer in captivity and gradually releasing them back into the wild. We visited a viewing area to see them.

The area around our hotel featured many trails that were clearly marked by this yellow bird.

I loved how this boardwalk was built around the trees.

Another hotel on the property is called Montaña Magica (Magic Mountain), a cone-shaped structure seemingly overgrown by the forest itself with a waterfall tumbling down between the windows.

These wacko webs looked like the spiders had been partying too hard the night before.

Later, the Cóndor Andino Cableway took us up the mountain to 3,829 feet above sea level for a spectacular view of the glacier-covered Mocho Choshuenco volcano. Back at the bottom, we visited the Museo de los Volcanes, an architecturally stunning museum housing a collection of indigenous items from the area.

The cableway station.

The museum had wonderful displays with English signage. I could have spent way more time there.

We also took a guided tour to a dormant volcano called Piedras Magneticas, named for the rocks that supposedly contain so much iron they confused the compasses of early explorers. Our guide, Rogelio, had a great eye and spotted the Darwin’s frog among the foliage. The most fascinating thing about this little frog is that the father scoops up the eggs and protects them in his vocal sac – that bubble you see under a frog’s chin – until the tadpoles develop. When the froglets are ready to survive on their own, daddy just spits them out. Crazy!

Darwin’s frog … so well camouflaged.

Rogelio also told us the names of many fascinating plants and birds, but of course I can’t remember anything, dang it! One highlight (nerd alert) was the Chilean hazelnut tree. I have been eating these yummy avellanas on my salads, but I had no idea what they were. It was cool to see the tree and to understand better where those nuts come from. We also saw a huge, beautiful tarantula, which Rogelio said was harmless. I wanted to pick it up, but he said we were scaring it.

We crossed this bridge to get to the island for our hike.

We climbed to the top of the volcanic island, and Rogelio showed us the route on a map.

The view from the top.

A baby hazlenut tree.

The friendly tarantula.

One night, we had a little dance party on the hotel roof at sunset.
Friends + nature + wine = happy intoxication.

Sam made this fun video:

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.

Thanksgiving – Lao Style

It is American Thanksgiving … in Laos … which is to say it’s just like every other day.
I’ve tried in vain to find a restaurant in Vientiane with a special holiday menu shouting out words like “turkey” and “cranberry” and “stuffing.” At school today – oh, did I mention we had to work on Thanksgiving? – there were no fixins’ on our plastic cafeteria trays. The other North Americans and I decided we would join forces for an American-Canadian Thanksgiving next year at Full Moon Café, a local restaurant owned by an American guy and his Lao wife. But we waited too long to collaborate on a 2009 holiday meal, so Tony and I hopped on the motorbike and headed to town for a traditional Italian Thanksgiving at a new restaurant owned by a fifth grader’s dad. After enjoying some lasagna and another pasta that I’d never heard of (bucatini), we popped in to Joma, a café serving … wait for it … PUMPKIN PIE!! Halleluiah!
Here are a few things I am thankful for today:
• I am thankful for a family that laughs at ourselves, scoffs at pretense, revels in the spotlight, holds nothing back, values eccentricity, shares in each other’s celebrations but also in the burden of struggles and regrets, and doesn’t get worked up about a phone bill.
• I am thankful for a husband who once scored as my polar opposite in every category on the Myers-Briggs Personality Test but who has stayed the course for nearly 20 years, keeping me grounded and safe when I’m inclined to whirl out of control.
• I am thankful for the title of Aunt Sharon, two snuggly little boys, and the squeaky giggly voice that yells, “Sherrrrryyyy!” when I ask, “Who do you love?”
• I am thankful for the beautiful, strong, supportive, hilarious women in my life. Most of you are way too far away geographically, but I feel so lucky to know you. How would I get by without my BFFs?
• I am thankful for the temples, mosques, cathedrals, monasteries, castles, palaces, fortresses, bridges, cities, villages, mountains, beaches, coral reefs, rivers, jungles, ancient ruins, natural wonders, historical settings, man-made phenomena, museums, galleries, handicraft workshops, art studios, exotic animals, unfamiliar fruits and vegetables, myriad modes of transportation, and the gracious, kind, generous people we’ve encountered in our overseas adventures.
• I am thankful for incredible and fascinating friends around the world, whom we rarely see but truly treasure. The international teaching circuit is a tossed salad of nationalities, and although we may flit in and out of each other’s lives, we know people (from casual acquaintances to dear lifelong friends) in 24 states and 19 countries.
• I am thankful for Skype, Vonage, Yahoo, Facebook, WordPress and every other avenue of interconnectedness that keeps everyone close.
• I am thankful for a career that zings between painfully frustrating and deeply rewarding but offers up something new, without fail, every single day and allows me to give the gift of communication to little people from every corner of the globe.
• I am thankful for the Asian mini-bananas that are golden in color and so much sweeter than any banana that has ever immigrated to America. And if I’m going to get sappy about Southeast Asian fruit, then I have to express my deepest gratitude for Daeng, the young lady who makes sure my fridge is stocked every day with peeled, cut up fresh watermelon, papaya, pineapple, mango, apples, or whatever is in season. I love her.
• I am thankful for the availability of red wine here in Laos, and I can’t help but notice that the more I sip, the more I’m thankful for! How beautiful is that?
• I am thankful for a roof over my head and a big comfy bed … and that’s just too enticing to resist. So off I go.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!