Monday, March 30, 2009

Mysterious Afflication Wrap-Up/Update

Sitting here in my lovely backyard, enjoying what is surely one of the last fine days of the season, I am finally hunkering down to update you. When I last left you, I had just arrived at my new home in Valparaiso. Within a few hours, I was invited downstairs to join an asado, Chilean-style BBQ, with my new family. Afterwards, I went to the beach with three of my new “brothers.” Things were starting out just swimmingly. EXCEPT, for this weird affliction that engulfed my body in about 2.5 seconds.

The week before, I noticed some bites on my arms but I didn't really pay much attention to them as I was sleeping in hostel beds, scaling mountains and so on. That meant two things; first that I didn't really have time to be preoccupied, even if I wanted to and second, bites didn't seem to be out of the ordinary. Until my entire back erupted. Then my arms and fingers. One of my new housemates nodded knowingly and said “Ah sí, pulgas.” If you don't know what that means, God bless you. It means fleas. Chile seems to have quite the flea problem but my roomie assured me they usually die down in the winter. Great, because winter was still a good two months away. I was none too thrilled about this but I thanked my stars that the fleas at least left my face alone. Then my cheek started itching. And my face erupted. Now, for those of you who know me well, you may have picked up on the fact that I can be slightly hyperbolic but I promise you that it is no exaggeration to say that I was acutely afflicted, a veritable monster. Seriously, I scared small children on the subway. It looked like someone attacked my face with a meat tenderizer.

The next morning, I headed straight to the pharmacy, held up my arms and lifted my protective curtain of hair in front of the poor woman working the counter. She winced and called for backup. The man who had the misfortune of being head pharmacist in charge shoved some Allegra and calming spray at me and fled.

In the meantime, I had to catch a bus to Santiago to meet my beloved sister at the airport. She was to arrive the following morning and I was spending the night at my friend Monika's so I could get up and early and fetch Nika. The woman who sat down next to me on the bus took a closer look and promptly got up and moved. Awesome. I was kinda worried that Monika would not be very thrilled to see a cube steak ringing her door bell instead of me but she handled the situation the tact and grace by telling me that she had a friend with leprosy. Or something that made her a total freak, just like me. We had a grand old time eating dinner and looking up bed bugs, fleas and other things on the internet.

In the morning, I hopped a bus to the airport and drank a crappy cappuccino while waiting for Nika to arrive. We shared a huge hug and she appraised my face and said “it's not that bad.” Then I lifted my hair, which I had cunningly styled to hide the 50-plus bites on my right side and she said “oh.”

We got the rental car with no hassle, except that it was a piece of junk. No matter, we blazed onward to Valparaiso with my valiant sister at the wheel. I'm not quite sure how she managed that after 20+ hours on a plane but I suspect she has super powers. Once we got home and Nika further inspected, we decided it was time to go to a hospital, the situation was getting dire. Fortunately, my landlord Rocio was able to join us and we went all over the place, looking for a doctor to see me. Welcome to Chile, Nika! I'm sure that wasn't on her list of things to do in Chile but...desperate times! The homeopathic doctor who finally saw me said I was having an acute allergic reaction to a few bites and wrote me a script. As of that evening, my affliction started to fade, I don't know if it was psychosomatic, the homeopathic remedies or the Allegra or a combination. However, it still looked pretty bad until about a week later, when I was finally able to pull my hair up into a ponytail and show my face. (Three weeks later, the marks are still there but I am sure they will fade someday. In the meantime, it just looks like a mild case of total body, adult acne.)

Anyway, that's the status on my little problem and considering the myriad other things that could have happened to me, this is relatively innocuous, if not a bit inconvenient and totally embarassing. Forgive me for a picture-free post, fear not,
I have plenty but I think we can all agree that this is one entry that really does not beg for visual illustration.

Monday, March 23, 2009

This is One Reason I Love My Friends

The following text is from an email sent to me by a friend this weekend. I love these kind of messages, in fact, emails like this were what nudged me towards starting my blog. Actually, it was my sister nudging me, perhaps because I sent one too many emails like this and she said "Start a blog already!" Anyway, it sounds amazing and I will always welcome emails of this nature, keep 'em coming!


Yesterday, we ate out twice- once for lunch (Sofra) and once for dinner (Oleana). If for whatever reason you come to Boston, you gotta go to these places. Both places are owned by the same lady, who's big into North African-type stuff. The lunch place is a small cafe and makes some of the most beautiful baked goods you've ever seen. Everything is done with an expert touch, and you can tell just by looking at the pastries that you could basically order anything, and be happy.

For lunch, a lamb shwarma with pickled cabbage and this really good flatbread that they then grilled on some kind of Moroccan domed griddle- I forget what it's called. The lamb had been braised prior to being shwarma-ed. Simple and slammin.

But that's not enough to write you, right? The real reason was dinner. A 6-course vegetarian tasting menu at her fancy restaurant. Beautiful:

1. Meze plates with two preparations on each plate of standard meze fare- but everything was done to perfection. We each had different things: baba ganouj with dill, warm hummous w/tomato and olive confit, red pepper dip with spicy chiles, walnut pate (amazing), some kind of tomato conserve with other stuff, and I forget what the sixth was.

2. THIS. COURSE. WAS. AMAZING: Parsnip hummous with chickpeas on top and beautiful olive oil (or melted butter- I'm not sure), yoghurt, cilantro tabouli, and the best crisp flatbread ever. It's weird for me to be so hyped up about this course, because it was basically hummous and tabouli- nothing out of this world, but again, the beauty was in the preparation. On top of the hummous were just some plain old chickpeas, but I had to do a double take, because however they were cooked, they tasted so rich and milky- and I even asked the waitress to find out if they had been cooked in evaporated milk, because that's how prevalent the milky flavor was. She checked, but apparently that wasn't the case. I'm not sure if they were punking me, or what, because I swear to God I knew what I was tasting...

3. Spinach Falafel with micro greens, beet puree, fresh pickle on house-made flat bread. Lovely. Expertly executed.

4. Savory garlic pancakes served on spinach and some kind of creamy concoction. SLAMMIN.

5. Fideos and chickpeas cooked in a vanilla saffron broth with some other stuff that made the one spoon I ate heaven. By this point, we were all so stuffed we could only taste one bite- but the good news is that we packed it up and are having it for breakfast today with some omelets. HOLLA!!!

6. Three desserts: walnut tart with a walnut gelato and something else (the best!!!); chocolate frozen mousse or semi freddo or something with cocoa nibs (slammin); some kind of fruity floral frozen dessert with pomegrante granita and a rose cream, or something (lovely- but by this time I couldn't keep the ingredients straight, lol).

To accompany the meal, we all drank a beer created especially for this restaurant- it was lovely and crisp, but not overwhelming- and scented with the three Cs: cardamom, cumin and coriander. I could drink this stuff all summer long.

In short- it was slammin.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What I'm Eating

As you know, I haven't been too impressed with the food here in Chile. However, now I am home in my own place and can cook so it's not as much of an issue. Although I am limited by inability to find certain items (breadcrumbs, seriously?) and a meagerly furnished kitchen, I still manage to crank out some good eats.

The market here is great and cheap. For example, today I bought a kilo of oranges, celery, half kilo of carrots, two zucchini, two things of swiss chard, a head of cabbage, about a bushel of basil and a stack of hot peppers for about 3 dollars. Not too shabby. Anyway, I've been on a real beet, carrot and squash kick here, often slicing them all up, dousing with olive oil and sprinkling with merquen, a Chilean spice that is kinda smoky and hot. I toss the roasted vegetables with some brown rice to make a warm rice salad, squeeze on some fresh lemon juice, top with toasted walnuts, golden raisins and some cilantro and I am good to go. Simple pleasures.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Ain't No valley Low Enough

I really love the outdoors and seeing beautiful scenery but I'm not an adventurerer per se. Nevertheless, I always seem to forget this and agree to go on multi-day camping trips and several hours long kayak trips, only to conclude at the end that I really hate that shit. I'd rather appreciate it from a calm boat ride or a lift. Camping eludes me; I hate sleeping in tents, it smells, it's stuffy, I really don't get the appeal. I hate being dirty, I like to hike though, and by that I mean take a walk on flat ground for an hour or so. Mind you, I'm in good shape, I work out several times a week and I am fair game for exploring a new city by foot. But climbing a volcano at a 60 degree angle for four hours just really isn't my cup of tea. Let me take you on my journey....

I paid 80 USD, which is a bit steep (haha) but oh, it would be so worth it, right? The fee included a guide and all my gear; backpack, gloves, gaiter, windbreaker, snow pants, some butt protector thing (more on that later), metal clamps, boots and an ice pick. Yeah, it's when I saw the ice pick strapped to my pack that I thought this might not be a great idea.

Anyway, my dumbass is still all excited, Giulia is nervous and I'm telling her she'll do great. Which of course she did. I on the other hand, climbed for about 15 mintes, my lungs raging and my heart ready to explode, I had to stop. I was so mentally unprepared for this expedition that not only did my body need a minute to adjust but now I was scared. I did a little crying because we all know I do that so well and then I told myself to man up and keep rolling. I hate looking weak in front of people. I can' tell you how terrifying it is to be 3,000 meters up a mountain, and digging your feet, which now weight about 15 pounds each thanks to the boots, into volcanic ash, and sliding back with each step. Because of the crumbly nature of the sand and ash, taking one step forward often resulted in two steps back. Finally, I think after an hour or so, although I had no sense of time during the trek, we came upon snow. “This will be better,” I thought. “I'm from Buffalo, I can DO snow and ice.” I thought if I planted my feet firmly in the snow, I'd do a lot less sliding backwards. Which was mostly true for about ten minutes until we hit real ice and then it was a slip and slide free-for-all. In addition, we were now engulfed in a full-on gale, threatening our balance and making a fall off the side seem very plausible. At this point, I was feeling the Tourette's coming out in me, I let the f-bomb slide out a few times, muttering and cursing to myself as I inched facefirst in the ice up this goddamn mountain. I thought I'd really much rather let someone waterboard me for free, keep my 80 bucks and spend it on a nice bottle of Veuve and some oysters. This climbing shit was for the birds.

What could I possibly think about to distract myself from this hell? My mother told me about a writing practice she had done the week before in which you answered three questions. What surprised you today? Inspired you? Motivated you? I get the subtle difference between motivate and inspire but it didn't really seem all that different to me on last Thursday or Friday or any other day I had it in my head. But ohhhhh, I saw the difference on that hellish Sunday morning. What surprised me was how f-ing hard it was it climb this goddamn mountain. The tour companies, likely eager to sell, don't forewarn you about much, don't ask if you have asthma, a heart condition, nothing. I'm pretty active and I'm fairly young so I did NOT think that I would be having such a hard time. What inspired me? Giulia's 22-year, Swiss self scurrying up the mountain like a damn billy goat. Not for nothing, but that girl smokes like a chimney. Damn! What motivated me? Honestly? Fear, pride and chocolate. I was terrified of falling off that mountain and being left alone so I stuck with the group. My pride would not let me quit in front of others and the promise of an enormous chocolate gelato after the climb really paved the way.

Did I mention that it is high summer right now in Chile? That means the sun is hot as hell but you're on a mountain with snow and wind and you've got to stay covered up to avoid sunburn and illness. So we're all sweating like animals and I would venture to say the gear they gave us wasn't washed after each use, rendering a distinct and altogether unpleasant aroma. Also, you have to put on sunblock every 12 seconds or so or else the sun will scald several layers of your skin off. Try slapping some SPF 70 on a sweaty face with pebbles stuck under your nails and volcanic ash coating your hands and I dare you not to get any in your eyes, producing an unbearable stinging, profuse eye-watering and clutching of face for at least ten minutes. When it subsides, repeat immediately.

After what seemed like hours, we finally reached the top, well, almost. Our guide told us that the volcano was spewing too much gas, which is toxic, so we'd just wait 15 minutes or so. Great, because I was not really convinced that the toxicity levels would have plummeted in a scant 15 minutes. But make it to the top we did, where I most certainly ingested my lifetime recommended intake of sulfuric gases. Anyway, we started to make our descent, where things got a lot more interesting. We strapped on those butt protector things, really high-tech diaper-like contraptions slathered with duct-tape, and made our way down the mountain on our butts. There were all these paths carved out by millions of other peoples' weary butts and I begrudgingly admit I had a ball cruising down the mountain in this fashion. They told us to keep our legs out but all that surface area would slow you down so of course, I pulled my legs in and went for the fast ride. One woman in our group didn't understand the mechanics of physics very well so she kept getting stuck and then we would have a sort of snowy-mountaintop bumper car thing going on that was also quite funny. We now were shrouded in clouds and there were times where you'd be hurtling forward with no one around you and the snow and clouds eating up every sound, the ash creating an eerie, grey veil on top of the snow, it was really quite incredible.

We finally made it down the mountain,looking bedraggled and exhausted, except for Giulia of course, who looked all smiley and accomplished. It's amazing how quickly you forget the pain because an hour later I was showered and enjoying an ice cream cone in the sun and feeling quite pleased with myself. Yes, I know that it is good to challenge yourself mentally and physically and in retrospect, I suppose I was glad that I did it. The day was really a lesson in patience and humility and while I don't regret it, I think I've had my fill of conquering the great outdoors for now.