talk to strangers in another language

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Typically, these travel posts recount every detail, but I’m not sure that is the best formula for this trip since some moments felt like someone was driving an ice pick into my knee. No one needs to read about that kind of anguish; the world is full of enough suffering as it is. Efforts instead will be focused on peculiar twists and turns that make traveling worth the hardships. Moments that were made possible because of adherence to a travel philosophy of sorts, one that is irrepressible and cannot be thwarted by an injury. Mapping out so many unforgettable quirks stumbled upon during our journey this summer, it’s easy to link each of these experiences back to some basic ground rules we follow each time our plane touches down.

A drink is in order once you’ve crossed a border – Arrival time is not a factor here. Crossing an international border is always exhilarating. Everything changes with one arbitrary line. Keep that momentum going to the closest bar and order whatever drink it is that sets this country apart from the rest. A pisco sour will do the trick in Chile. An inky Malbec makes sense in Argentina. In Santiago, where our plane landed well after midnight, we ended up in the only place left open near our hotel. We noticed it was packed out with 20 somethings as we entered into an expansive space the size of a concert hall. The air was thick and hazy with cigarette smoke. The music was loud enough to make everything shake much the same way an earthquake tremor might in this part of the world. People were doing drugs on the table next to us. We followed the lead of the locals huddled in groups all around and ordered beer served in 40-ounce bottles. We’d been dropped from the tropics that morning into this seedy winter scene late at night. It was all kinds of insane in there, and we are both entirely too old for all that unfolded, but I will look back fondly on those first few moments in Chile. It sure beats climbing under the covers and going to sleep in our hotel room.

Attend a foreign film festival on the plane – It goes without saying that you should probably learn some of the history and culture as it relates to where it is you are about to set foot. Learning the language is also helpful. I do, however, realize that we are all busy people trying to cram too much into the mere 24 hours that make up each turn of the axis. And I also know the world is vast and infinite, and once you get out into it, it is clear that we as humans are small in comparison and incapable in our mortal existence of knowing everything there is to know. If all else fails, at the very least take time to watch a movie inflight and en route to your destination. A six-hour plane ride gives more than enough time for a double feature, ideally back to back films made in the country where the flight is headed. After boarding our flight on Latam Airlines from Santiago to Easter Island, I perused the movie selection for Neruda. Since that film was not on the menu, I lined up two others that I wanted to see from the choices presented, which included Fantastic Woman (Chile) and El Presidente (Argentina), both countries on our itinerary.  

Forge your own adventure on a foreign land  – I’m not a fan of tour groups. I hate all inclusive resorts. Adventure is rarely found in such slated scenarios. Sometimes it is necessary to travel following the expert lead of a tour guide. Trekking through the Atacama Desert comes to mind; It would be stupid to go the driest spot on Earth alone. Or stargazing in the Elqui Valley, I could never find the llama in the night sky unless a professional was there to point it out to me. But, generally speaking, when it comes to travel, the best experiences are usually had when you forge your own path.

Even better, rent a car and take off into the unknown behind the driver’s wheel. Driving in another country is an adventure in and of itself. Driving all over Easter Island even more so, and renting a car there is a piece of cake. Just step inside any tourist shop and after a swift exchange of a few Spanish words and penciling in of a short form, the car keys will be handed over to you within minutes. The caveat here is that there is no such thing as insurance on the island so any damage to the vehicle will have to be paid in full before leaving. But no need to worry because once you get out of town the island is pure nature in its raw form: untouched, untainted, and unspoiled. The only hazards to be found out there are wild horses. They will block the road from time to time, so either find a way off road and around or patiently wait for them to move.

If you do forgo the tour guide and group, don’t skip reading up on the history. I bought A Companion to Easter Island: A Concise Guide to the History, Culture, and Individual Archeological Sites of Rapa Nui, and it was worth every Chilean Peso. Some of my favorite nuggets on Pascua de Isla that are stranger than fiction can be found in this book. Here are six of the best in a nutshell, and chronological sequence, of course.

1) The first people (around 20) to arrive on Easter Island did so after a 2,000-mile journey by boat from another Polynesian island, packing up all the provisions they would need to begin a new life there. 2) The moai are actually carved in the likeness of recently deceased ancestors to stand erect forever, looking out over the village where their descendants reside. 3) Much of what we know about Easter Island comes from the accounts of European explorers: The first being a Dutch explorer who named the island because he landed there on Easter Sunday, the second a Spaniard who claimed the whole island for Spain but then never returned, and the third was James Cook who found a deplorable scene of devastation and fighting amongst the islanders, leaving many moai toppled and destroyed. 4) Each year rivaling tribes on Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island, would send their fittest and finest athletes to compete in a birdman competition, one that required the men to plummet from a cliff top into the tumultuous Pacific Ocean and swim to a distant islet where they would scale up trees, frantically searching bird nests for the first sooty tern egg of the season. The first athlete to make it back to the island and climb the rocky cliff back up top to the village of Oranago with the egg fully intact and safely secure inside a reed basket attached to the top of his head won the much-coveted title of birdman or tangata manu. Then those drab Christian missionaries came along and put an end to all this birdbrained nonsense. 5) The Spanish raided the islands for slaves to work guano mines along the coast of Peru. Eventually, Tahiti put pressure on the Peruvians to return the islanders to their homeland, and of the thousands of islanders snatched, only a dozen returned safely back to Rapa Nui. 6) And finally, during the 20th century, the entire island was a sheep ranch where 70,000 sheep roamed. The natives were confined to Hanga Roa, the main town, while the sheep had the run of the place.  

Eat where the locals go –  The best places are found by simply asking people who live there. It’s also helpful to have done a bit of research on local dishes to sample before ordering anything off the menu. I had a rough list typed into notes on my iPhone for both countries that included: pastel de choclo, empanada, cazuela, porotos granados, ceviche, humista, chorillana, chacarero, asado, and alfajores. One of our best meals in Santiago was at Galindas in the Bella Vista district. It was recommended to us by a German adventurer who used to lead groups on treks through the Andes but has since settled down and opened a hostel, which became our home away from home since we stayed there multiple times after arriving at the airport in Santiago on three separate occasions. Upon entering the front door, Galinda was elbow to elbow without a seat left in the house and not one tourist in sight, all good signs. We ordered humitas (sort of like tamales) and porotos granados, which is a bean stew with mashed corn, pumpkin, basil, and red pepper and pork sausage. Sabroso!

Tune into the soundtrack of your trip – Inevitably, there is a soundtrack that separates each travel from the next. If it isn’t clear if one exists or not, set out to make one by infusing music with your travel experience whenever possible. Find a festival to attend. Walk into a place where live music is playing. Follow the music and let it lead the way. The soundtrack for Valparaiso, a chaotic kaleidoscope of a city, was extraordinary and enduring. The screeching seagulls while walking the city streets late at night reminded me of a Hitchcock film. Blaring commentary and intermittent cheers filled the city because the World Cup was in full effect. Our most memorable of these experiences took place in Bar Ingles, a place filled to the brim with enthusiastic fans. Argentina was up against France that afternoon and the passion was palatable. Another spot, La Playa Bar, was like a time machine with an old Victorian bar that seemed to extend an entire city block, complete with an equally expansive mirror behind it. Bo Diddley turned up as part of the rhythm and blues line up they were playing that evening. Wes Montgomery belted out Satin Doll when jazz dominated the playlist another night. Hearing both of those tunes was surreal for me, as it presented an unforgettable juxtaposition of two worlds.

Visit a city that wasn’t part of the plan – La Serena was that city for us this go around. We wanted to avoid a 24-hour bus trip from Valparaiso to San Pedro de Atacama. Texting with a friend from Amsterdam, messages were sent advising a stop in La Serena to explore the nearby Elqui Valley. We experienced a good deal of Chile that would have been missed otherwise. Without stopping in La Sirena, we would have never seen the llama in the glittering night sky, one of many dark constellations pointed out to us on a stargazing tour. And since the Elqui Valley is a premier destination for stargazing, due to its high altitude and very dry air, we saw more of space than we will probably ever see again in our lifetime. There would have also been no tour of the pisco distillery if we did not add La Serena to our itinerary. Pisco is an integral part of the landscape and culture in Chile, so definitely worth learning about if on tour there. We also met a new friend from Belgium on the pisco tour who popped up serendipitously throughout the rest of our travels.

It’s always worth waking up early – Some people spring up and shoot out from the bed as the first ray of sunshine beams through the window. I will never miraculously become one of those people. Admittedly, I am a danger to myself and others upon rising due to a condition which I have Internet diagnosed as sleep inertia. A condition that manifests itself by robbing victims of the necessary cognitive and motor skills to operate as a fully functioning human person for at least 15 minutes after waking. This affliction can only be cured with exactly five sips of strong coffee. Unfortunately, we were not in Colombia and any coffee to be found in this part of South America was of the instant variety. With that, it is really important while traveling to fight these not a morning person tendencies with every fiber of willpower you can muster up because sleeping in will put you at risk for missing out on spectacular moments. One such moment on this trip was the Tatio Geyser Field. This marvel of earth science only occurs at sunrise so you have to board the bus at a highly unreasonable 5:00 AM. It will also be well below freezing where you are headed, but that biting chill will be what eventually wakes you up without coffee. Rest assured that the geysers are worth every uncomfortable moment.

Talk to strangers in another language – I am big on talking to strangers. I find people fascinating, even more so when they are from another culture. One of my favorite evenings on this trip began with a spontaneous moment stepping inside a random shop while walking down the street in Salta, Argentina. After making our way along a musty interior corridor inside said shop, which led us to a maze of vast open spaces, one after the other, each filled to the brim with Spanish colonial antiques, a tall and oddly handsome man greeted us out of nowhere–perhaps he stepped out from inside one of the many giant antique relics. He could easily be a persnickety butler from a macabre tale. His Spanish was incoherent and garbled, and not for a lack of comprehension on my part. Something seemed to be impairing his speech, something stowed away inside his cheek much like a chipmunk’s stores a surplus food supply in its pouch. At first, I thought he had a deformity, and then I realized his cheek was stuffed with coca leaves. After a few steps to backtrack where it was we entered this strange world, his enthusiastic friends waved from a tiny room just to the right of the front entrance. They were holding a makeshift party to celebrate Argentina Independence Day. The mottled crowd quickly ushered us in with an invitation to join the party, offering each of us a glass of Malbec, a handful of coca leaves, and lapel pins of the Argentinian flag to attach to our jackets.

We had fun with this cast of characters, and speaking the language truly served as a gateway to a world we would have never had access to otherwise. We were introduced to the polite and intelligent lawyer. Another friendly type with an ear to ear grin claimed to be an actor, admitting that he only landed roles in Chilean B movies. His friend was from Bolivia and worked as a facilitator in the mining business. There was even a poet in the mix, a man of words who sang the praises of Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The Chipmunk man was a chef, but also the sole heir to this deep-rooted family business in antiques. After taking an inventory around the cozy room where we were now seated, the business also seemed to be selling fine wine, handwoven textiles, and various artisan works that included small sculptures of Jesus and duende dolls. But the one item that seemed to really drum up business was coca.

We talked until the twilight street outside, busy with traffic and pedestrians shuffling back and forth, turned dark. At one point Chipmunk left the room to make a homemade pizza from scratch and proudly presented it to all of us to enjoy, complete with gourmet toppings. It hit the spot because everyone was starving. Eventually, we stepped out on to the town to a nightspot our new friends wanted us to visit.

Plan for an opulent escape in accommodations – Traveling for five weeks, it’s important to mix up the accommodations somewhat. A few hostels early on can be tolerated, and are economically practical when traveling to popular destinations where nightly rates can be upwards to $200. A boutique hotel here and there should be strategically booked after that. Add a bed and breakfast to the mix as well just to round it all out. At some point, a luxury hotel is in order. They usually work well after the 2-week mark. By the time we reached Argentina, we’d been traveling thousands of miles well over two weeks without much of a plan. That type of travel begins to take a toll. We couldn’t bring ourselves to slum it in wine country, so we booked a room at a wine resort in Cafayate. The room was luxurious, the kind with high thread count sheets and numerous fat fluffy pillows. A view out the window of majestic mountains, endless vineyards, and Spanish ruins. And a breakfast spread for a king.

Don’t pack your cultural comforts and customs – Part of the beauty of crossing a border into another country is leaving your own cultural baggage behind. All those parts and pieces of habitual routines should definitely be thrown out for the time being, and perhaps reevaluated upon returning home. You will be much better off as a result. Open your mind to all that a new culture has to teach about the way a day on Earth can unfold from sunup to sundown. Everything about daily life is different. What you eat. What you drink. When you do so. How you get there. How you pay. What you say. The list goes on.

In Argentina, people sit for hours in the park at siesta sipping mate. Dinner isn’t served until 9:30 or 10. One evening we found ourselves eating a heavy asado meal at 10:30 at night. Afterward, we went for gelato next door. It was well after 11 PM and the gelato shop was jam-packed with Argentinians satiating their sweet tooth just before midnight, which is just after dinner in Argentina. The good news is blowing up your daily routine also give you a license to splurge. I don’t eat much sugar in my everyday life. I never keep ice cream in the freezer at home. Just look what ice cream did to Marlon Brando. Why take the risk? Who needs to resist that kind of temptation on a daily basis? But I do allow myself to indulge in desserts when traveling. I eat all the ice cream I want on the road. That evening I ordered a decadent scoop of Malbec and savored every bit of it.

Final deep thoughts on finding a Eucalyptus forest – One of my favorite moments driving Easter Island was through the Eucalyptus forest where cattle peacefully grazed on either side of the road as sunlight filtered in through the soaring branches all around us. The whole scene felt like something from a dream. There was no way to fully capture the moment inside a frame, so I didn’t even bother with the camera. Instead, I filed it away inside my mind as an image that will be easy to keep for the rest of my life, aided by the powerful sensory experience of the Eucalyptus scent, which I deeply inhaled after rolling down all the windows. It’s the kind of imagery that ensures you had a life fully lived without regret. Memories conjured up in those later years when you quietly assure yourself, I may have stumbled at times in this life with a few mistakes along the way, but at least I made it to the Eucalyptus forest on Easter Island.

 

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