Category Archives: Travel Journal

A Contrast of Two Quiet Secrets


The other day I fancied a wander. – I think I should increase my use of the word “fancy” as a verb. – Having had such fancy come over me, I packed a bag o’ stuff for the afternoon including a camera, water and some tiny oranges. I had a head full of ideas of where to go, but nothing set in stone and wandered off through the hot Santiago sun in the direction of downtown, eventually following my footsteps to the Paris-Londres Barrio. It’s really just two lovely streets that wind around each right smack in the middle of the bustling city center off of the main street Alameda. As I approached I noticed the Museo de Arte Colonial de San Francisco (Alameda N. 834) calling me in, having passed it on foot countless times. I was in for a treat. This place is a giant, unexpected space of peace, tranquility and creepy art from the 16th through the 18th centuries. The center is a large square with benches and plants that happens to be home to cats, chickens and peafowl. I heard the male squawking in a tortured way before I saw him. Who knew such a lovely thing to behold makes such an ugly squeak?


Three of the four sides surrounding the central square are filled with paintings and sculptures, many of which feature the typical church fare of centuries gone by including decapitated John the Baptists, disembodied baby heads that are likely angels plus all manner of virgins, Biblical scenes, strange miracles, floggings and self-castigation. This particular church being dedicated to San Francisco de Asis has a large hall filled with 44 paintings of his life that were commissioned in the 17th century and done by a Peruvian artist. Each is about 2 by 3 meters in size and have descriptions of the scene in an older version of Spanish. One small room is dedicated to Gabriela Mistral, the Nobel winning poet who was also a schoolteacher and later in life an ambassador for Chile.

The ‘saint’ statues dressed in multicolored robes provoke both the heebie-jeebies and the uncontrollable desire to laugh. The wooden choir benches were hand-carved in the 18th century out of Chilean cypress trees.

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In addition to viewing the art and relaxing in the oddly peaceful plaza, they also frequently offer religious concerts. A mixed vocal choir was practicing as I roamed about. I asked about going to the second floor and they informed me that it is the monks’ convent. Still! From here I took an immediate left when exiting the church and found myself on the beautiful street called Londres. Currently it houses a large number of boutique hotels, coffee and tea shops, a couple of educational institutes and a few government offices. I thought I’d have a beverage when I noticed these little squares on the cobblestone street.DSC_0525

I saw that after all the names – a fairly 50/50 mix of male and female – they all said either MIR or FP after the Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionaria [Revolutionary Left Movement] and Frente Patriotico [the Patriotic Front] respectively. They were leftist groups that were working against the government post-coup d’etat of 1973 and it was pretty clear that the names on those squares are for people that were disappeared intentionally and never found. It was then that I saw the entrance to “Londres 38”, a memorial center that opened to the public in 2010. It housed detainees who were tortured for information and then killed and either dumped into the sea or into mass graves, many of them in the endless Atacama desert of the north.


Side note: Nostalgia de la Luz is a fascinating documentary film that contrasts and compares astronomists’ search for the origins of life in the northern skies with family members still to this day looking for – and now finding – shared graves where there loved ones bodies were dumped throughout the military dictatorship. Initially the link between the two searches is unexpected, but the piece unfolds elegantly. Another interesting film is called La Ciudad de los Fotógrafos and documents the experience of photographers in Santiago right when the ‘golpe de estado’ was first news.

There are a number of memorial centers throughout Chile, which are mostly just former homes that were turned into extra-judicial holding cells where thousands of people were tortured. This particular location also undertakes social activities such as protest art creation groups, photo exhibits, short documentaries and provides space for reflection. They are currently involved in an effort to get thousands of secret documents made public. They are part of a larger conglomeration of groups marching at La Moneda [the equivalent of the US White House or Argentinean Pink House] this Wednesday December 10th, 2014 at 1 PM calling for open documents and respect for human rights.  DSC_0534 DSC_0527 DSC_0538This last image is script taken from a letter written by one young woman named Muriel Dockendorff Navarrete to another named Sandra Machuca who were both detained at Cuatro Alamos. The letter was dated October 1974 and the author was disappeared after its writing. It says “Me recuerdo cuando te conocí en la casa del terror… En esos momentos en que una luz era un sueño. O un milagro, fuiste luz en esas tinieblas. Fuimos una en un revés. Hoy miles de reveses. Más tarde te veo como entonces como sé estarás hoy, en Algún sitio, siempre mirando al frente. Nos encontraremos a través de la niebla que despejaremos. No me olvides.”

In English: “I recall when I first met you in that house of terror… In those moments in which light was only a dream. Or a miracle. You were light in that place of darkness. We were one in that tragedy. Today, thousands of tragedies. Later on I’ll see you as I did then, as I know you will be today, in some place somewhere, always looking straight ahead. We will find each other through the fog that we’ll dispel. Don’t forget me.”

Her words cut through me and slice up my heart into little pieces.

Outside there are people wandering, leaving work on a Friday evening and meeting friends on the patio cafes. I snap some more pictures of these harmonious streets and I’m amazed by the fact that during all of these centuries this convent with its monks was right there in the middle of downtown maintaining their daily life in the midst of political tumult, a darkened detention center only a two minute walk away.

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Mendoza, Argentina


Many foreigners spending time in Chile think of Mendoza, Argentina as a place to do a visa renewal run and little more. I believe now you can pay a fee and extend it without traveling, but Mendoza is still worth a visit. Unfortunately, the Argentinean government is desperate for cash so they’ve expanded the entry tax fee from only airports to any means of entry and you have to prepay online. This covers Australians and Unitedstatesians traveling for tourism or business, and Canadians traveling for tourist purposes. If you are a resident of a MERCOSUR country but not yet a citizen, and your identification states that you are from one of these three countries, they will still charge you. The payment lasts for ten years, even if your passport doesn’t. You can just give them the number and they’ll look it up and confirm you’ve paid if you no longer have the original. If prepaying online here, print out your PDF to bring with you. Scroll down to Online Instructions under Tasa de Reciprocidad.

Manos Tijeras

Manos Tijeras

This place feels like Chile and Argentina had a romantic fling that resulted in a mini-city. This hybrid nature is most easily recognizable in the linguistic blend. They’ve got the ‘cachai’ and ‘huevon’ variants of Chile, but choose ‘vos’ and put the accent on the penultimate syllable in the imperative, leaving out the stem-change as Argentines do. Instead of ‘siéntate’ for example, they say ‘sentáte’. Of course that last accent mark is superfluous; I just put it there for emphasis.

Yerba Mate with flavors; passion fruit, pear and mint.

Yerba Mate with flavors; passion fruit, pear and mint.

Mendoza also looks like a small version of Buenos Aires with pasta, pizza, steak and fernet everywhere served in unique cafés that have much more style than does Chile. Fernet is one of the most consumed alcoholic beverages in Argentina, originally from Italy. The liqueur itself is made with a number of bitter herbs and is technically a digestif, but most drink it as a mixed cocktail with cola. The soda makes it sweeter. It’s a unique taste that can’t be compared to anything precisely, but is similar in style to other stomach-soothing herbal liquers. The coffee in Mendoza and Chile is bad. Tea is more typically drunk in Chile, while yerba maté is the thing in Argentina as well as southern Chile. I think that accent mark in the English spelling serves to distinguish it from ‘friend’ or rhyming ‘mate’ with ‘ate’. However, the stress is on MA.

Hot water dispensers for mate on the go. Nice.

Hot water dispensers for mate on the go. Nice.

The center of the city is Plaza Independencia, a very large square with two indoor theaters as well as two outdoor staging areas for live music and kids’ shows. Artisans line one entire strip of it, extending for several blocks where talented improptu rock bands and evangelical Christians share space. I like these evangelicals. They set up shop and are there to talk and hand out literature, but don’t get in your face with microphones while shouting about Satan. How refreshing. These particular artisan offerings are honestly the most unique, quality pieces I’ve seen so far in any Latin American country. I got myself a handcarved mate cup made of Algarrobo wood. It’s got one of the typical Argentinean keys folded onto the side as a handle, like those old school ones seen in children’s animated movies.

There are four smaller plazas found equidistant from the central one: Chile, San Martín, Italia and España. Each has a unique design and setup. It’s worth it to walk around the different barrios to find the various art museums, beautiful buildings and food districts. The Sarmiento strip that cuts through the central plaza is the size of a street, but for pedestrians only. This is where you’ll find a lot of bad coffee and average food. Walk on by. Las Heras street on the northwest side near the Plaza de Chile is the center of the Tenedor Libre spots, or all-you-can-eat. Don’t make my mistake of going there in the late afternoon. This city shuts down for siesta time. I forgot about siesta, because it’s not a thing in Santiago. They have distinct lunch and dinner hours. The best meal we ate there was on Arístides Villanueva moving westbound, passing up Plaza Italia. Marce and I had two bottles of delicious Argentinean syrah, and dinner that included two empanadas as an appetizer, juicy steak, salad, side and dessert plus a fat tip for about 35 USD total. That’s nuts. Great service as well. The area is considered a “gastronomic zone” and you can wander up and down the street until you find something that suits you on one of the spacious outside patios or hip interior spaces.


There is plenty of lodging, but I will definitely recommend where we stayed. It’s near the bus station on Don Bosco called Alojarse en Mendoza. Not too original on the name, but the space is an old family building converted into lodging with high-ceilinged private or shared rooms. I had booked a private room with shared bathroom via email and didn’t have to put down a deposit. When we arrived they gave us a room with a private bath and patio as well, simply because it was available – and at the same price. It was about 45 USD per night and included an excellent breakfast of yogurt, granola, dried fruit, various teas, croissants with dulce de leche and hot ham breakfast sandwiches, a wide variety of teas, juice and yes, instant coffee. They prepare it for you at the hour you wish. If you want to be ignored, don’t stay here. They will help you plan any tour or give you tips on anything you’d like to do or see. Alicia will also engage you in long conversations if you let her. But as she’s funny, interesting and a joy to talk with, that’s not a bad thing. When we left we told her we’d be seeing her the next time we return to Mendoza. She says that we can stay even if we don’t have any money and then just pay her whenever we can. Who says stuff like that?


Mendoza is the heart of Argentina’s wine-making region, and I’d like to return for the vendimia [grape harvest] sometime. This trip we spent time listening to live classical music instead. The International Classical Musical Festival is a ten-day event each April with a variety of artists playing in the city and at each of the different wine bodegas. The tickets are only offered in exchange for powdered milk. No cash, no online sales. So we bought the milk and found the office to trade it in and we were told they had no more tickets. Not cool. Well we went to four concerts anyhow. After they let the ticketed folk in, if there were seats left, they’d let us in. There was always plenty of available seating.


From Santiago, Mendoza is only six or seven hours by bus, as long as the mountain pass isn’t closed with snow. If traveling in winter, you’ll likely have to fly. The view driving through the mountains is spectacular. The leaves were changing into fall colors and many of the peaks are naturally pink in color. There are restaurants, shops, horses and small businesses dotted throughout the drive. Oddly, I had expected to see little en el camino. There is nothing better than staring out the window at gorgeous scenery, watching it all shift and twist as you snake through the Andes.


Ghost Towns, Earthquakes and Fires


If you’ve been paying attention to Chile in the news, you’ve likely heard about the recent earthquakes and aftershocks in Iquique in March. I happened to be there the week before and saw the street I stayed on near the beach being evacuated on TV, a strange feeling indeed. The people in the northern towns headed for the hills with the calm and organization of people who have done this before with very few injuries. No major tsunamis were reported. A wall of a women’s prison fell down and over 300 escaped. It’s been said that many of them went to check on their families and then voluntarily returned to jail. Many are still free.

The rumor mill told me that Humberstone, a closed saltpeter mining town listed by UNESCO on the List of World Heritage in Danger had fallen flat to the ground. It seems that is not true, but that structurally the place is in a more precarious position than before. Before I headed north last month, I thought it might be interesting to check the place out. That’s an understatement. The place is astonishing. You can enter dozens of former houses divided into sections according to family type: single men, young couples or families with children. They were also separated according to “status”, with workers occupying the humble sites and the British owners and “professionals” [dentist, doctor, etc.] in the spacious structures with tall ceilings and a tennis court. It opened in the 1870’s and closed as recently as 1959. As you walk through the area, past the living quarters and tour through the former mining areas, tailings ponds and what looks to be a small jail you can imagine people moving through here. There are dozens of rooms showcasing the old tools, children’s simple iron toys, railroad and phone equipment developed over the years. It is much more than a museum; it was a real place where thousands of people lived, worked and died. I can’t think of a better name than ‘ghost town’. It feels like there is unseen activity going on undetected as the places and tools for doing so still stand, but nothing is in motion. It’s a strange juxtaposition.

When Humberstone first opened, there were no amenities and all the workers were payed in scrip that they could only use in the company store; no cash. Food was brought in from the south, as this is the driest desert area on earth. This essentially meant that no one was going anywhere. We could debate the proper use of the term slavery, but this hardly seems to represent a free and open agreement between boss and worker. Later on, around the turn of the century things changed for the better. Schools for the children were built as well as a theater, cinema and swimming pool and the employees were paid in cash that they could use anywhere if they wished. The fortune of this and other saltpeter mines in the area was cyclical in nature, depending on worldwide demand. Chemically known as potassium nitrate (KNO3), it was used as fertilizer, a food additive, a gunpowder component and more. The common belief that it was used in jails to curb inmates libido seems to be a myth. German scientists ultimately invented synthetic versions of KNO3 and the saltpeter mines in South America closed down around 1960 as demand dropped off. I refer you to these pictures, as I have very few. Camera battery issues.

In other news, a huge fire that started in a garbage pit area in the upper hills above the port city of Valparaíso where the city’s poorest live last week has left 12,500 or so people without homes. The death toll was quite small, but the injury rate much higher. It began as a small flame that was whipped up by the winds and garbage piles, then carried through trees to various hilltops or ‘cerros’ where homes are made of wood. Many of the precarious and informal encampments do not have any water networks to help control fires, and the area is hard to access due to narrow roads, so hundreds of people quite literally lined up and handed off buckets of water between on another to try to help control the fire. Chilean and Argentinean helicopters also dropped water from above, but for several days due to visibility issues even that tactic was of little use. Over 2,900 homes have been destroyed.The fire has been completely tamed now, and thousands upon thousands of volunteers have been collecting clothing, food, diapers and other essentials for donation while thousands of others are busy picking up remnants of lives and clearing destroyed buildings.

This isn’t the first fire to affect Valpo and much of it has to do with poverty as well as wooden construction, faulty infrastructure and high winds. Most articles I’ve read don’t talk much about that. They have some sound bites of politicians saying how they will rebuild as before, and I suspect this means they would permit people to cobble together ramshackle huts once again. President Michelle Bachelet seems determined to not let the poor encampments simply be reconstructed like they’ve been in the past without concern for safety and infrastructure. She left her first term in office immediately after the huge 2010 earthquake in the south and has resumed her second term (President Sebastian Piñera in between her terms, as they are not allowed consecutively) with a major earthquake in the north and the largest fire ever experienced here. It seems she is the kind of person with a true vision toward the future, and this won’t be just a band-aid situation. This article talks in greater detail about the poverty link and class lines surrounding this issue. When tourists visit the beautiful, historic port city named as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, they don’t see these parts of town, but they’re up there, precarious and temporary. And when they set on fire, the winds carry dust and fog to the capital city that lights the sky in red as the sun sets.

Days Designed for Dawdling in Chile’s 4th Region


We took to the beach over the holidays, hitting La Serena first. It’s about a 5 hour drive north of the capital passing through scrub-covered, dusty mountains as you near the coast. I knew little about the place before we arrived, and I was pleasantly surprised. It is quite serene, as its name suggests. But there are plenty of things to do, buildings and churches to look at in the city center and long stretches of beach. It was jellyfish time. Fried cheese-filled seafood empanadas abound. DSC_0037DSC_0024DSC_0003

This bookmobile serves as a bringer of literature as well as a place to stay for its owner. We found him reading outside on a Sunday so the shop was closed, but he let me snap photos inside anyhow. What a great life plan!

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I found this ad posted on a wall in the plaza for a Santa Claus in case anyone is running low in the jolly big guy department. I admire his business sense.


The next town south of La Serena – 25 minutes drive – on the seashore is Coquimbo. The number of bars with live music is surprising, the drinks strong and the people friendly. Head to Tongoy during the day if you want to see multicolored beach houses sitting below the high hills with a host of restaurants to choose from lining the shore. A properly made pisco sour here will give your sunny afternoon an extra glow. The waters at this latitude are apt for dipping.

After several sleepy, sandy beachy days we moved inland to the Valle de Elqui, Elqui Valley, where Chilean pisco is made. It is a grape brandy only found in Perú and Chile. Everywhere you look the valleys are laden with sweet, pisco grapes. Their sugar content is increased by the powerful sun striking the hills.

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We stayed here at a place called El Refugio Alma Zen, a play on words. Almacen, or store, is what it sounds like. But written as it is means zen or peaceful soul. Technically it’s located in Cochiguaz. They have newly built small apartments on the top of the hill near the pool, as well as a few larger houses or domes down below by the river. Cop a squat by the river with a book or snag the hammock. The rest of the noisy world melts away here, cheesy as that may sound. Get yourself a good brain cleanse in these here hills. If you stop by, go to the pool at night and stare at the 3D star show. It’s one of those things I just don’t see enough of. “When you see the southern cross for the first time, you understand why you came this way.” Every time I see it I think of that Crosby, Stills and Nash song.

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While you’re in the pisco valley, there is an interesting tour at the Fundo los Nicho artisanal distillery, the oldest in Chile. You’ll learn about the pisco making process, the history of the distillery and the founding family. The patriarch used to host friends in the basement, men only. They built “niches” (hence los nichos) that looked like acrosolia to age the sweet wine in the cellar. The friends decided to “claim” a niche to house their remains after they died, so committed were they to their fraternity. Each one has a witty rhyme explaining the man’s alcohol-infused life and death. I can imagine the shenanigans that went on down there.

DSC_0222 DSC_0200DSC_0207 DSC_0211 DSC_0215As you can see, it’s a prize-winning pisco. I am not a big fan of pisco, well, I wasn’t before this. The craft that goes into this smooth and delicate liquor is notable. Pisco sour with freshly grated ginger is a distinctive pleasure. The prices are incredible as well. The price ranges from six to ten dollars. No joke. They also bottle a sweet, red wine if that’s your thing.

The Pueblo de Artesanos de Horcón is not to be confused with the coastal town of Horcón. This place is a peaceful craft oasis along the road side, just a ways down from Los Nichos. People rent out little spaces in the roomy woven huts to sell their wares; jewelry, food, home decorations, clothing, etcetera. It’s a great place to steal ideas about making recycled crafts.

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We had ten fantastic days here, a medium hop from Santiago. The Fourth Region is sleepy in places, a bit rowdier in others but there is never any hurry.

Great Company in Isla Negra, Chile


Ideally, I try to leave Santiago for one weekend a month at a minimum. This past weekend Marcela and I grabbed a bus with really no plan other than to head to the sea. From the city, it’s only about an hour fifteen to get to the central coast. We hopped off the bus in El Tabo, and there was a lady waiting to rent out rooms in her house. I hadn’t felt like reserving anywhere, so we took her up on it. We figured she’s nice, the price is right and it’s simple enough. It’s not quite high season [December – February] so lodging options abound if you are looking to comparison shop.


From the house on the peninsula between El Tabo and Isla Negra, we wandered down the hill toward the sea, over the bridge and onto main street for a pan-fried merluza. Then we thought it was time for champagne on the beach. After searching three shops, we found a chilled bottle and the pedestrian path to the waterfront. On our way down walking past the artisans selling their craft, we happened past one of Pablo Neruda’s houses, which is now a museum. He had several homes in Chile, and they were all filled with knick-knacks, trinkets and collectables. The word on the street is that he would help himself to stuff in people’s homes that he liked. They say he asked of course – didn’t just fill his pockets at will. We noticed they were setting up for an event inside. Turns out they had live jazz for free at 7 PM. Excellent! We are both big jazz fans so we happily had our next plan of action.


The name Isla Negra, or black island, chosen by Neruda seems to come from the giant, black, mottled boulders lining the beach. It isn’t an island though, but a sort of peninsula. This isn’t the kind of beach for lolling around with a book or playing volleyball. The rocks are jagged and awkward, so you have to strategically position your bum for maximum comfort. It’s the kind of beach for staring at the salty waves and contemplating if your life is where you want it to be. I feel like it washes my brain free of cranial debris. It’s really easy while relaxing here to decide to build a cabin in Patagonia or a stilt house on the beach. If I have internet, I can live nearly anywhere.


As we are in Latin America, we figured the live music wouldn’t start on time. We were wrong, so the doors were locked. It can be hard to plan when to arrive on time, and when to show up late in this country. We decided to sit for a bit in the little park next door on the chessboard-covered picnic benches. A white-haired grandfather strolled up to greet us. After his “having a picnic?” opening, we moved on to talk about travel, history, politics, family and food. I love meeting such friendly folk who enjoy a quality, random hour-long chat that ends with bear hugs.


Not to be outdone, we met Isabel and Ivan, a truly delightful couple who make fantastic fresh empanadas – mostly fried, some baked – and serve homemade meals, including vegetarian ones, roasted chicken and dessert all at great prices. Their restaurant is right where the bus stops in downtown Isla Negra, which makes their to-go dishes quite convenient. Not only is their food wonderful, their disposition is incredible. From a simple food stop, we ended up talking with them for nearly 3 hours. I had no idea so much time had passed. That’s what happens when conversing with sincere people. They shared their perspectives on the region, tourism, language, culture and much more. Truly, heart-warming individuals. They offered us some Cola de Mono, a tasty alcohol-based drink with cloves, cream and other spices. It has the same texture as an Irish Cream. We will definitely be seeing them again, and you should, too. Try the Empanada Chilena. It’s filled with cheese, perfectly sautéed onion, cilantro and a touch of tomato in a flaky pie crust.

From there we went to The Eighties Bar for a good local brew and some hilarious karaoke. My karaoke stylings are usually limited to when I hang out with my parents. My dad’s nickname is Tom Jovi. My mom loves to sing Pussy Control by Prince. But this evening Marce and I couldn’t be stopped! Except for closing time. After that we wandered back home and woke up with a hankering for a good Mariscal. We found it in San Antonio on the caleta, or dock. There are numerous restaurants right on the sea, but be aware that if you get a table with a view it won’t be über economical. But oh, the freshness!

That’s it. We installed ourselves on the bus full and happy heading back to the city so that Marcela could vote in the presidential election. Go green party! Although we all know Bachelet will be the next president. She could appoint Sfeir as Minister for the Environment. Just sayin’…

Así de simple, you can get outta the city even for 24 hours, have great food, smell clean sea air and meet kind people. And what’s not to love about looking at foamy waves crashing on ebony-colored rocks?


Museo de Chocolate, Lima Perú


ChocoMuseoIt was clearly a lure to get us in the door at the chocolate “museum”, but it’s a sweet enough, innocent lure. My partner is a chocolate junkie so we had to go. I’m usually pretty immune to the stuff, but this chocolate was on a whole ‘nother level. When you enter La Casa del Chocolate at Calle Berlin 375 in the Miraflores neighborhood of Lima, it’s a cute café set-up to have snacks and coffee. Off to another side is the shop with kitchy chocolate items [Save the Planet, it’s the only one with chocolate!], bars and beverages. Cocoa tea. It’s taste-tastic! It’s made of cocoa bean shellings and a touch of sugar. It is quite amazing how much it tastes like chocolate without any dairy or fat additives – not that I am against some yummy fat, to be sure. The lovely women who work there are fully equipped in Spanish, English and French. Very friendly, helpful and informative.

There is a mini-museum that holds some over sized cocoa plant replicas and some posters and pictures. Another area shows the chocolate-making process. They also have workshops to learn how to make the chocolate delights. I bought a dark chocolate bar filled with espresso beans. Hands down, this was the best chocolate I’ve ever had in my life. I say this without exaggeration. It was quite silky, not too sweet with a distinct fruit overtone to it. I have to get some more! The first sign of addiction.

You can find out about their tours, classes and other locations (Nicaragua, Guatemala, Dominican Republic and Cuzco) on their webpage. Perú: Good coffee, great chocolate.

1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – Ponte a Jugar! On Being Broke in a Strange Land


Chile isn’t excessively expensive, but more so than I had thought back when I planned to come here. The economy started sinking near the end of my undergrad studies in the States, and the tips weren’t flowing like they had been in either of the bars I’d been working at for years. I landed here in Chile, found the cost of living higher than I expected, the tips a joke and my Master’s program way overpriced. In short order, twenty dollar steaks at my neighborhood pub were no longer on my agenda, and neither was school. I was broke – and it was good. Yes, it teaches a person things. One: Weird ways of earning money always pop up. No, I’m not talking about the Cafés con Piernas. [Coffee Shops “with Legs” – exactly what it sounds like]

The funniest “job” I’ve had was this ridiculous game show. It was called Muralla Infernal (Hell Wall, or the Infernal Wall if you will) based on a popular Japanese show.  I had no idea what I was getting into when a friend asked me if I’d be his teammate on the show. I was to don a sparkly, full-length silver body suit complete with elbow and knee pads. Across my helmet was emblazoned Sharlene, although the hosts called me Char-lay-nay. I took one look at myself in the size small suit suctioned to every crevice of my body and promptly requested the large. The staff tried to convince me I looked hot in the small one. Ha! I told them. You are all so funny. In the end, after I was thrown off the moving walkway into the pool full of freezing water it mattered not. That suit was fully glued to my skin and I spent weeks listening to men mention how much they liked my outfit and that it must have been cold in there. Gross.

The game was on and we were pitted against two other people. We had to answer trivia as well as fit our bodies through humanoid shaped cutouts on a moving wall. If we couldn’t fit, we’d get swept into the pool. At the start and close of commercial breaks very sexy male and female dancers shook their barely clad bottoms to this ridiculous song, while my pasty white counterpart and I tried not to look bored. I love to dance to most music, but this song is just intolerable. In the end we won, which meant we had to return. I had not been informed of this beforehand. By our third night we found the backstage bar was open for us during breaks. Nice.

So in order to pay us for acting like fools on live national television for three nightly events, we had earned several hundred dollars apiece – payed to us in grocery store check cards! Hell, I needed them, so I stocked every last shelf in my kitchen and sold the remaining tickets at a 15% discount for cash exchange and paid my rent. That saved me. The other nice thing about living broke was I learned how to make nearly everything from scratch and invented several weird recipes that turned out to be delicious. Case in point, I was down to a potato, an apple and a slice of cheese. I baked and mashed up the produce, added garlic and tarragon, topped with cheese and broiled. Fantastic! I now make all my broths, stews, bean burgers and such from scratch. I haven’t had a canned soup in years. When I start getting tempted to be lazy and buy the stuff, I think about how much healthier the homemade is – not mention cheaper in this land over-flowing with fresh produce – and I slowly back away from the processed food shelves. I’d rather save my health and my cash for traveling.

My last point is actually traveling. Of course it’s nice to stay in fancy places and have a fancy meal on occasion, but I have met the most interesting cast of characters from traveling on a budget, like the guy who lives in a tiny boat on the Caribbean coast. Or the happiest person I’ve ever met who was not able to speak, but we got along famously. I don’t mean that fun can’t be had with money, but the need to be creative without it can really make things more interesting. Take Cuba for example. I went there after I purchased a flight in cash in Venezuela. My friends and I were told how much would be a good amount of dollars to bring (no using ATM’s of course), which turns out was not enough. The tourist section was terribly pricy and looked like a museum, a lovely museum. Drinks in Hemingway’s bar cost enough to feed four people in a clandestine home “restaurant”. After my only friend to bring excessive money spent it on a case of bootlegged puros, we had no choice but to stay in a casa particular (cheap private residences authorized to accept guests) in the non-touristy neighborhoods. We walked up the 8 flights of stairs in the apartment building along with the 80 year-olds who took intermittent breaks on the landings. The elevator only ran from 2 to 4 PM on Saturdays and Sundays. We ate where the Cubans ate, listened to live music in the plaza and spent many evenings in people’s homes having a rum or a coffee. I walked through the nearly empty stores and understood why there is no violence. There is nothing to steal and nobody has weapons, plus everyone has free, quality healthcare. This would definitely not have happened if we had stayed with all the Europeans safely tucked into the old historic district. This was a much more real way to do it, mothered into existence by low fundage.

Granted, I am not poking fun at real poverty. I would also find it hard to give up the material gifts my life has given me, but I try not to take more than I need or whine when someone else has more stuff. I just want to say that being low on money can spur creativity and lead to fascinating situations and lessons in life, and for that I am very thankful.