Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Peanut butter in Patagonia

Where do I begin? I went to Torres del Paine National Park (see map below!) last week with three other exchange students from the US. I have never been so surrounded by natural beauty in my entire life, and I was left speechless so many times by the sights in front of me, behind me and above me. It is one thing to enjoy the sheer loveliness of something with a city close by or other tourists in tow, but to feel completely alone with 3 friends in the wilderness...that is an entirely unique experience. The quiet we experienced at times is undescribable. No purring of motors or humming of lights or chatter of voices-just you and the wind and, every once in a while, maybe a bird. Coming to the park in late autumn (southern hemisphere) as we did, we avoided the droves of backpackers that come in the summer. We were certainly taking a risk with the weather, but I'd say we were more than lucky. It rained only a little our first morning and the cold was certainly present but bearable. We trekked 45 miles in 4 days, and I've maybe never been so proud of myself and my friends in my whole life.

To the right of the word here, that is where the park is. We went to the end of the earth, almost. And it was nothing short of breathtaking.

We flew into Punta Arenas, took a 3 hour bus north to Puerto Natales, and after spending the night in an awesome hostel there, we took an early morning 2.5 hour bus ride into the the Torres del Paine National Park.

The first day when we hiked in, we all had on our large packs in the back and then our day packs in the front-basically a bunch of pack mules. So we walked over 10 miles like that through golden pastures and alongside hills and up and down craggly rock, rejoicing at the thought of eating the food that was weighing down our packs!

The blisters are intense folks. I took pictures of my actual feet, but decided not to gross you out with that. You can see from the uneveness of the inside of my left foot that I have a monstrous blister there that is currently hindering my ability to wear shoes. Not to mention my heels, which remain a raw mess. Last night my host mom walked in my room and looked down at my feet-"Still so swollen??" she said. I looked down and realized she was right, so I've relocated to my bed to work on homework and emails with my feet nicely elevated.

I think mountain scenes photographed in antique mode are really beautiful. When I look at this picture I hear John Denver songs begin to play in my head. That may be categorized as a dorky association, and I'll thank my mother for that :)

As nice as the antique effect is though, color is better! The contrast of the golden grasses and the green hills, tinged with oranges and reds of leaves in their autumn glory, backed by sharply chiseled snowy mountains...can't be beat.

Water boiling on our little stove for the highly anticipated dinner #1! This is a little misleading since I took it with the flash on, but it was pitch dark outside. The sun rose at about 8 each morning and set at about 5:30, so breakfast and dinner were made in the dark. We ate pasta and tomato sauce the first night, with boxed white beans and boxed mixed vegetables mixed in, in two batches of course, due to the size of our pot. We used our headlamps to light the rickety picnic table, enjoying every bite of our dinner eaten out of our plastic Disney princess bowls. Later we drank hot chocolate and looked at the stars with a fellow camper, literally in jaw-dropping awe of the beauty of the night sky in the Park. We could see the Milky Way...clear as anything!

Our tents-two two-persons for the 4 of us. We did have a tarp underneath them although you can't see it here. We slept in mummy sleeping bags on top of thin sleeping mats and huddled close for body warmth. The question of the week was whether or not you should sleep naked in your mummy bag to get the maximum benefit of the rated-for-cold bag. After hearing various campers' responses I think the answer to that question is yes, although I wasn't about to try it in a rented sleeping bag after the many bed bug discussions we also had with trekkers. The logic is when you wear little to no layers, you're body heat can do play its part and heat up the sleeping bag which is made to retain the heat and in turn heat you. It was 0 degrees C in the coldest hours of the night, however, so I slept in fleece pants and a thermal top with my hat on, fully zipped up in my bag. In the tall grass behind the tent, that's where the mice live! Yep, not kidding. We could hear them outside the tent as were falling asleep and one chewed into Rebecca and Sarah's tent during the day and went after Rebecca's socks. Ahhh, nature. Ohh and just behind the grasses, that's where the mountains live! Sooo beautiful.

Our second day we hiked from our camping spot into the French Valley, taking advantage of the glorious sun that lit our way up and down hills and past enormous lakes reflecting the snowy mountains.

Sun sparkling on a frost covered boardwalk on the hike into the French Valley

It’s not everyday that a girl gets to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with this view. This picture was taken from a rocky spot in the French Valley where we stopped to have lunch. To get here, we literally hiked up a stream, hopping from rock to rock. The slippery uphill journey was well worth the effort, however. We could hear the thunder of avalanches in the distance as we shivered through our lunch!

Glacier Grey

I wish my camera could capture the characteristic blue color of this glacier better, but you'll just have to take my word for how magnificent it was. We hiked here day three, and the wind came with us! On the way back from the glacier, the uphill trek was made easier by the sheer force of the wind that pushed us from behind.

You don't find that color blue just anywhere in nature.

We hiked down to a rocky beach alongside the lake that leads up to the glacier. While we were there, we witnessed big iceberg chunks that had broken away from the glacier and were floating down the shore past us. The water is super clean here and the park rangers and guide books tell you you can fill your waterbottles in the streams. So, we all had some glacier ice!

We had bought some brandy in Puerto Natales to take a swig of at night-warming effect of course. (We regrettably couldn't find whiskey). Anyways, we carried some glacier ice from the shore back in bags and had brandy on the glacier that evening. I apparently don't like brandy outside of sangria, but it was a fun idea nonetheless. Notice the Disney Princess cup once again :) In hindsight, the princess cups and bowls did make us look a little less, hmm, hard core. We may have been made fun of by fellow campers, most of which were 25 year old European men on treks of the globe. Oh well, I am who I am!

Rebecca, Tatiana and Sarah relax by Lake Pehoe in the Paine Grande Camping Area where we stayed after returning from our long trek towards Glacier Grey.

The blue of the lake here is nice, but not quite the same as in real life. The wind was whipping when I took this picture, literally gusts that could knock you over if you didn't have your feet planted firmly. Tati had a glove half sticking out of her pocket that blew out and into the water, long gone by the time we reached the shore.

So deserted, so peaceful, for miles and miles and miles.

"Do we have to leave??"

When we arrived back to the park administration building from our last day of hiking, this is the gift of a view that awaited us as we planted ourselves in the grass and enjoyed...take a more peanut butter sandwich! Although we were tired of our camp food, smelled horrible, and winced with a combination of pain and exhaustion with each step, we all wished we had more time in the park. We did get a little more time though, in the form of 45 minute late van service out of the park. This turned out to be a perfect bonding opportunity, however, with a friendly young French couple that we had met on the van ride in and seen a few times over the course of our trekking. We talked about their studies and our majors and their travels, speaking in English to each other as they opted for French between the two of them and we all switched to Spanish when the park ranger approached. They shared that they had brushed up on their Spanish by working in a vineyard in Mendoza for a month; it was obvious that they enjoyed their time in Argentina and the opportunity to know the people and learn their language. Hmmm I may have to add something to my life list...

This is what rewarding yourself looks like! Unfortunately, good beer made in Chile is fairly difficult to come by in the central part of the country where I live. Austral, however, is made in Patagonia and you can taste the heavy German influence in southern Chile with every delightful sip. We enjoyed the 50th anniversary edition at the Punta Arenas airport before heading home. I may not be able to choke down meat and potatoes much to the dismay of my relatives and in opposition to my German roots, but I have no problem enjoying a good beer :)

I have to say I feel like I learned alot on this trip, so much more than I thought I would. The physical challenge itself was incredibly difficult yet rewarding, but what really struck me was the kindness and the stories of all the people we met. From the two Chileans working at the incredibly eco-friendly, homey backpackers hostel to the French couple to random Germans and a funny Canadian girl, a kid from Denmark and one from Tokyo, and the concerned young Chilean that rented us our tents. We were welcomed with the southern hospitality I know in the US, but taken to the Latin extreme in which literally no one is in a hurry, everyone has time to chat and even as foreign exchange students from the US, people found some way to relate to us and make us feel at home. We met so many Europeans on global treks too, with Round-the-world airline tickets, who were six months into a loop around the world, with tales of Asia and Australia and New Zealand, Northern Chile, Argentina, Bolivia. When I came back from Buenos Aires, I was relieved to be back in Valparaiso. When I came back from this trip, not so content. I have a travel bug! I have a little over a month left of classes, and then possibly a couple finals. After that, I'm itching to hit the South American roads, or lack thereof. My latest idea? Bolivian salt flats! Google them, seriously soooo insane. My sister Emily is planning to join me in late July for a grand finale in Cusco, Peru...Machu Picchu here we come?!?! Can I travel forever, porfa?
"Experience, travel, these are as education in themselves." -Euripides

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A little bit of everything

Yeah this was in Europe, not Chile, but lately I've been trying to think about times when I was cold and I was happy, to have a more positive association with cold. It's kind of working? A girl just gets kind of glum after having fall/start of winter in Knoxville, deathly cold winter in Europe, winter in China(although it felt like fall honestly) and now fall entering into winter here, and then knowing when I get back in August fall/winter will be coming. I mean, is that bad for my Vitamin D production? Perhaps my mood too? Hehe, anyways, I'm a dork. And I'm spoiled rotten I just realized as I read back over that paragraph! I haven't shared many Europe pics though, so perhaps I'll work some of those in over the next few months. This picture is from Dec. 09-me and my best friend Haley in Salzburg, Austria. Honestly, this was one of my favorite parts of the trip. We were staying in a hostel in Munich, Germany and got up early to make a day trip to Salzburg. We did the Sound of Music guided tour-with lots of happy Australians, Asians, and a highly entertaining tour guide who looked perfectly Austrian with his little hat. We stopped the bus (and paused the Sound of Music soundtrack!) here long enough to take some pictures of the snowy valley as we went towards the little suburb outside of Salzburg that houses the church where Maria and Captain Von Trapp were married in the movie. Needless to say, it was freezing! But we were both happy as clams.
I love this picture. It was the background on my laptop for quite a while, and I think the lovely inescapable ambiance of Paris really shines through as dusk settles in on the Seine River with Pont Neuf (the bridge) and the Île de la Cité (island that houses the Notre Dame Cathedral) in the background. I took this shot on our first day in Paris, lagging behind the group for a moment after we came up the stairs from walking under the Pont Neuf and along the Seine, taking a moment to soak up the city. We did a 3 hour walking tour that first late afternoon, strolling from the Latin Quarter and along the Seine, over to the grounds of the Louvre and finishing off at the top of the Champs Elysees, which was all decked out with lights and stalls selling crepes and chocolate and giant waffles doused in powdered sugar. I'm feeling happy just thinking about it.

And this is where I live now! Valparaiso is in the first plane, Vina in the second, and Renaca in the far distance. I feel like it's difficult sometimes to take pictures of cities that aren't woefully understated, you know, like how do I capture what I am looking at for you?? But I think this one's not too bad.
Now I need to share a little about my weekend. On Sunday I was in my room doing some reading, waiting patiently for almuerzo (lunch). About 3 o'clock rolled around and I went and ate some fruit since my host mom still was not home from El Lider-aka Chilean Walmart (literally, Walmart owns about 50% of it, and they have great value brand in few things). Finally, she and my sister get home at 3:30 or so with a car full of groceries. I rejoice, because we tend to run out of groceries in a house of 6 and you have to buy a lot of paper products and cereal to last the whole week. On Saturday, we were down to one roll of toilet paper to be used for paper towels and napkins and in the bathroom-so my mom had to break out the emergency roll from upstairs! hehe So hoooray we did at least have a delicious lunch by the time we ate it at 3:45. My host dad is an awesome cook, and he made a homemade eggplant lasagna, using eggplant in place of noodles. Mine was made especially for me, with soy meat rather than real, which was very nice :) Afterwards my host brother walks in with a bag of marshmallows, and then these little kabob sticks, and then I realized-we're gonna roast marshmallows in the fireplace!!! That isn't even the best part-Disney music was involved! My host sisters began to sing Hakuna Matata, and I got ready to join in as they continued, but promptly stopped when they continued in Spanish rather than English...Disney songs en espanol? That's what I call fun vocabulary building. So my sister broke out her laptop and the whole family sat around in the living room eating marshmallows and listening to Disney songs in Spanish on youtube. We laughed as I inquired the translation of various Disney titles for the Latin-American world. Peter Pan was Pedro Pan, so I'd say we can all appreciate the humor in that. :) Joy and contentment with my family on a chilly sunday evening in the living room-yes I felt it! And of course we were drinking tea too, because we always drink tea after almuerzo. Usually I have "aguacita" which is what they call hot water with herbs or herbal tea. We grow mint in the backyard, and the nice back to nature process of picking the mint and washing it and drinking it has made "aguacita de mente"my favorite for quite some time. My mom bought some herbal tea at the store though in all sorts of fun flavors, so I was excited to give that a try. I chose plantain on Sunday-amazing!!! It had this nice spicyness that felt really familiar and comforting, although I knew I'd never had it before. I drank it again tonight, holding it up close to let the aroma really surround me. All of a sudden I found myself back in the presence of Trish Mitchell-one of the most amazing ladies I have had the privilege to know, whom my family and I miss so much. I don't think she drank plantain tea, but the uniquely Trish combination of essential oils lingered in the house and always accompanied her presence, and I promise plantain tea is an incredibly close match to her signature scent. Who would have thought such a special gift and reminder would come in the form of plantain tea...I wish you all happy weeks wherever this little update finds you!