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Minneapolis, and “Liquid” Existences

Peace Rock Garden, Minneapolis

Dear Friend,

You wanted to hear about my experience living in Minneapolis for a few months after getting back from my backpacking trip in South America; you also wanted to hear what I planned to pack for my new life abroad as you pack up yours for a move back to Minnesota. I’ve combined the two answers into one post; in the end, they go together. I’ll do my best explaining my transition into the nomad’s life.

The book I’ve been contemplating amidst all this movement is, suitably, Modern Liquidity by Zygmunt Bauman. The unique anxiety that comes along with flexibility, and fluidity in living choices, as he terms it, is trademark of our era, and my life, so it seems.

An Incubation Period: Minneapolis, Minnesota

Being back in Minnesota was a re-organized, revived version of my life a year ago, before I traveled through South America for seven months. Although I had no plans of where to live or work during my short stint back, these pieces fell into place snugly during my final month traveling as I reconnected with friends and coworkers.  At a friend’s house, a snug yellow room filled with books and a garden view became my homespace, and my work consisted of covering a former coworker’s maternity leave at The English Learning Center, an organization I’d worked on and off for the past seven years. At the age of thirty-four I sometimes wondered about the fact that I am floating between rented rooms like a college student; but at the end of the day, the fact of my life’s levity right now gives me contentment.

I relished settling into a routine—going to the gym, meeting friends regularly for dinner, taking leisurely lake walks, playing music in parks, sneaking hugs from my three-year-old nephew, enjoying green smoothies at Zoe’s Café in the mornings while I wrote and listened to the café’s murky, soft jazz tracks. Lessons with a local jazz saxophonist helped me get into a practice routine again.  I’d spent seven months being an amorphous individual—a backpacker; now, back in Minnesota, I reverted back to living within routines and systems.

Wonderful coworkers, Habiba and Hayat, for a 3-month stint at The English Learning Center, an organization that provides free English classes to adult immigrants and refugees.

Routines and systems provide the structure needed to create and thrive on a regular basis; the open-ended time traveling stimulates creativity. They work in pair with each other, at least for me personally. The fact that I could change up a routine for a different one; to dissolve one life’s structure for a traveling life and then gather up again a different structure in which to rest awhile is one of the boons of my life today.

Allergies, Memories, Failures, oh My!

Enjoying a Flowering Catalpa Tree with a friend.

Not all was pleasant in Minnesota–seasonal allergies hit me almost as soon as I stepped off the plane mid-March, plaguing me with fatigue and sinus headaches through mid-June. My life in Minnesota has always consisted of sinus headaches, infections, rotating allergy meds, steam face baths and sinus rinses. Illnesses, I should say. A friend wondered if feeling so ill in Minnesota had anything to do with the general uneasiness I felt with returning to a place where I’d felt unhappy for so long. It’s probably true; the immune system is never as strong when under stress.

Part of the experience of being back in Minneapolis therefore involved accepting and reframing the familiar, and somewhat heavy physical and emotional landscape it presented, and cutting through the haze of dense emotions that at times triggered my mind and body into more depressive moods. Reminders never ceased to drift in and out of my mind’s windows: of a failed marriage, my first, painfully awkward dating experiences post-divorce, reminders of grad programs I never got into; reminders that the novel I finished last year didn’t cut it, and sits in a box now somewhere with the few belongings I have left.  If not for the gentle envelope of friends, my wonderful interim job, and my friend’s house where I lived, I might have felt completely ground under those months back in Minnesota.

Considering the life I had previously, and everything that’s changed in the past two years since my divorce—all the necessary lessons, the not so agreeable consequences from the mistakes I’ve made—the road I’m carving out has felt like a Herculean endeavor at times.

Insecurities hinder my decision-making process, and anxiety blankets my chest and body at times—breathing, even just four breaths in and four out, is truly a tool worth mastering, I discovered.

Grounding myself in the necessary ambiguity of my current life, celebrating it, and letting go of all the elements I feel have been missing, or that I “ought” to have organized and developed in order to be happy, became a practice while in Minneapolis. Better stated: I’ve started to feel a bit of a relaxation in “goals” and “aspects” that I used to think were so important. It was when I was unhappiest, and deeply unconscious of that unhappiness, that I grasped as hard as I could to goals and aspects that I considered essential to being myself. For example, at times I feel a jolt of anxiety that perhaps I’ll never publish a novel, or never make very much money, but then I look around and don’t see why it should matter, given my strong tapestry of friends, my comfortable places of living, and the books and music I always have access to.

Related to this idea of fulfilling goals and aspects of myself, I was afraid to make decisions because I wasn’t sure they would be the “right” decisions. Sometimes it felt to me like life was a game of chess, and I hadn’t been properly taught the rules or strategies—so every step I took felt monumentally important. And wrong.

Ultimately, I’m coming to believe that living life is not a game a chess; it’s a dance of finding balance between relaxing into my life’s routine without stressing over whether it’s “absolutely right”, and also being true to one’s natural trajectory, and being reasonably open to the possibilities out there given one’s circumstances.  It’s the sweet spot of making a decision based on both logic (do I have money and resources to actually do this thing?) and emotion (does it excite me/properly frighten me to do this new thing?).

Recently, one of my favorite questions to ask a friend is: What would you do if you had no fear? After my divorce—I was able to start living with less and less fear because deciding to end a marriage was the most frightening decision I’d ever had to make. And then I was—yikes!—fired from my first, and I’ll be honest, horrible, job post-divorce.

Suddenly, I was very and uniquely free, and had to make some huge decisions fast. That meant packing up and moving to South America, what I always wanted to do in the first place.

Liquefaction — of everything?

“That work of art which we want to mould out of the 
friable stuff of life is called ‘identity’.”
Zygmunt Bauman, Modern Liquidity

While at first I balked at Bauman’s seemingly simplistic explanations of “liquid” and “solid” states of human existences, the more I read, the more I had to admit, that to a certain extent I perhaps epitomized this concept. All my anxieties, the plethora of choices (or illusion thereof?), the nervousness that comes with wondering whether I chose correctly or not; or whether I will feel content doing what I am doing…uffdah.

It’s true, after my divorce I’ve liquefied much of my life, literally and metaphorically. I’ve chucked most of my physical belongings in preparation for a lightweight future (if you consider 150 lbs of instruments and luggage filled with books lightweight, chuckle).

And yet, as I’ve been unpacking boxes I’ve had stored at my parents’ cabin, selling items, I’ve been feeling more and more settled in my liquid, nomadic state. I’ve contemplated how content I feel to live so simply.  I feel like a child, the physical parts of my former adult life (house, pets, marriage) now set aside. And there’s relief: I get to build a home and life based on a better foundation and understanding of myself and my needs. In fact—I’m grateful for this current phase of liquefaction, and the fact that it is possible for me to do what I am doing—instead of being stuck in structured life that was not right for me for many reasons.

Now the question you asked, Mere, is what I will pack in my carry-on luggage and two checked bags? Well, here is my list:

  • Saxophones, alto and soprano (brought as carry-on luggage)
  • Books (at least 10 lbs worth, all of them in Spanish)
  • Chess set (given to me by a German friend’s dad, made in Romania)
  • Wireless keyboard and laptop stand and mouse
  • Noise machine (Medellín is a loud city; I’m a very light sleeper)
  • Grammar books for teaching; flashcards
  • Blanky, AKA my childhood blanket (watch my sister cringe!), which is basically now a witch’s shawl (I would’ve brought a my little stuffed wolf pup but I couldn’t find him before I left), because it still gives comfort
  • Asus Laptop
  • Kindle
  • Samsung Galaxy S8 phone
  • Wireless Speaker
  • Numerous cables, chargers, mini HDMI cord that fits my laptop
  • Vintage print of wolf in snow
  • Extra pair of Crocs tennies, pair of sandals
  • Toiletries, cosmetics
  • Camping gear including backpacking inflatable mattress and chair
  • Water purifier
  • Clothes—whatever fit, the rest were donated

There you have it. Condensation of my life. It feels right to me right now and offers the opportunity of expansion in the future years to come.  

Communities in a Liquid Age

Bee community in Minneapolis.

Bauman writes that we are sinking into a new kind of individuality that prompts observation as opposed to involvement. He frames us as “individuals” and “consumers” as opposed to citizens; the consequences being that the private sphere is what we inhabit more and more, the public sphere less and less.

Bauman’s observation that liquid nomads such as myself tend to focus on individual needs over civic is probably correct—but not because I mean it to be. I do think I have, even if I’m a “liquid modern”, responsibilities, and what those are perhaps will morph depending on which community I am living in. One of my challenges, therefore, is to—despite my light existence—to get involved in the communities in which I live.

Incubation Over

A birthday party for my three-three old nephew, replete with Mickey’s and Minnies, and 4th of July spent on the mid-summer lambent lakes with friends and family ended my 4-month residency in Minneapolis, MN.

My time in Minneapolis completed, I’ve set foot again in Medellín, Colombia, and I know the decision to pursue my path—though at times opaque like the great Mississippi—is correct. I know for certain I’ll be in Medellín for six months, perhaps longer; I’ll also be on my way to Buenos Aires again, perhaps to play music with new friends late into the night, a glass of wine at my side.

Besitos, Cici Woolf

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Colombia, and Why I’ve (Mostly) Given up Chocolate (For Now)

Making artisanal chocolate in Ecuador.

On the train ride to Machu Picchu, I found myself enveloped in the warm conversation of several Colombians sitting around my table. Having spent the last few days alone in Ollantaytambo, one of the lovely, small Incan villages in the Sacred Valley, I welcomed the prospect of connecting with people from a country I had such fond memories of.

After a few minutes listening to them speak in Spanish, I introduced myself. Patty, the woman sitting across from me, asked what I did for a living. I told her I was an English teacher and a writer. And that I was really interested in chocolate at the moment.

Her attractive dark eyes widened. Her sister and brother-in-law were getting into organic, artisanal chocolate making, she explained. “You should come visit and try the chocolate!” We exchanged contact information and a few months later, while thinking about chocolate in Argentina, I decided to take up her offer.

The thought of returning to Colombia, the country in which I’d started my journey in August of 2018, pleased me. I couldn’t wait to see the emerald green mountains again, and my friends in Medellín.

My friend Patty, at the university where she works as a professor outside of
Bogotá.

After meeting up with Patty my first day there, we went to her family home in Bogotá, where her mother lived, and where the family convened on Sunday afternoons after church to make chocolate. Inside the two-story townhouse in a quiet neighborhood, they brought me to a bedroom on the second floor. A balcony looked out onto a garden and patio where a coffee tree grew along with other fruit trees and flowers.

Gloria–Patty’s sister– and her husband Alberto, toasting cacao beans in the kitchen.

After church the next day Patty’s sister and brother-in-law began the chocolate making by toasting beans in a pan on the stove. After the toasting was finished, we sat at the dining room table to peel off the shells. Then we put the beans into a metal grinder to make a peanut butter like paste. We processed the paste three times, until it became shiny and syrupy enough to pour into heart-shaped molds.

Foreground: Cacao beans ready to be ground into a paste. Background: coffee tree in the courtyard.

This is artisanal style chocolate. There’s no sugar added, and no time spent conching, refining, or tempering, processes normally important in chocolate making. You can read about refining and conching here, shared by one of my favorite chocolate blogs, Chocolate Alchemy. Refining happens over one or two days–depending on how smooth you want your chocolate; conching is a heating and stirring process that has more to do with teasing out of specific flavors and adding in additional flavors, such as vanilla or milk powder, to the chocolate. Tempering is the process by which you heat and slowly cool chocolate to a specific temperature so that it crystallizes in a way that produces a bar with good shine and snap. I enjoyed this video on tempering and what it does for chocolate made by the French Cooking Guy, Alex.

Sunday afternoon chocolate making.

The experience of taking an afternoon to make chocolate from scratch is unforgettable. The smell, the textures, the peeling process is delightful—though long.

The following weekend, Patty drove me with her mother four hours southwest of Bogotá to Los Llanos, an agricultural region where her father manages a small farm. After he showed me the cacao and mandarin trees on his land, a trail of ducklings followed him as he walked around the house. He also showed me a pile of beans that’d been fermented and dried, now ready for roasting.

Pile of fermenting cacao beans.

The family enjoyed fresh hot chocolate with slices of mozzarella-like cheese—and no sugar. The bitterness was a bit too much for me, and I felt a bit shamed as the family scrounged around the kitchen at the farm to find a bit of sugar for me to add.

We spent the entire day Sunday together driving around. I felt like I was part of the family. First we ate a hearty breakfast consisting of beef and fish stew and patacones—the latter is mashed, flattened and fried plantains. We drank espressos at Patty’s father’s favorite café and then we visited the cacao farms. Besides Patty’s family farm, we went to Granja Rinconcito, where the cacao beans recently won a chocolate award in Colombia. Strikingly—and as per the norm—the caretaker, the farmer on site, had never tasted chocolate made from his beans.

Patty’s father showing me a cacao tree on his farm.

The style of fermentation in both the cacao farms I visited is done in a mountain-like heap under heavy plastic coverings. Read this article from the Chocolate Journalist and read about what fermentation is, and how it affects flavor.

In Bogotá, I had the chance to peruse a few independent coffee roasting shops and find locally made chocolate brands there. Lök Chocolate, a French-owned company with a factory in Bogotá makes a smooth and easy to enjoy 70% dark chocolate bar. It was the first chocolate bar I’d eaten since Ecuador that I wanted to keep eating (I often gave away the chocolate I bought to people at my hostels because I couldn’t finish the bars).

Check out this fabulous bar of dark chocolate! (Pardon the coffee shop background noise).

So far my favorite Colombian brand has been Caofiori’s 70%–they have a wonderfully smooth mouthfeel, appealing cacao brown color, and a malty, caramel, steady flavor. Carlota Chocolat 72% Nariño region was also very good, smooth, fruity, with a bit of honey.

I still like chocolate, just not every day.

When I went to a coffee shop the other day and saw they had Dandelion Chocolate, a craft brand based out of California, on display at $10 a bar, I shrugged and passed by. Didn’t feel like having chocolate. I still haven’t bought a bar since coming home—though I did enjoy some 70% Equal Exchange chocolate chips, which I used to make cookies for a friend. But after those were finished I did not buy more.

I’ve been asked by nearly everyone since returning to Minneapolis how this ambivalence is possible. I’m the one who used to eat a bar a day of 70% dark for the past ten years. Perhaps I overdid it; after all, I tried a lot of chocolate–mostly because I was searching for a good bar of it.

Below: Much of the chocolate I tried while traveling in South America. These bars represent every country I visited except for Brazil. Unfortunately, I did not like most of them.

Still, when I taste a dark chocolate with a flavor that is pleasing to me—then YES, I enjoy it. But overall, my desire for chocolate has waned as my preference has become more refined. So much chocolate today has a flat and short flavor profile, contains vanilla—a loud ingredient that covers more than it adds—and soy lecithin, which also muddies the true flavor tones of a piece of a chocolate.

The other odd thing? I started to get itchy, burning lips and mouth after eating dark chocolate, and a stomachache soon after. So perhaps it’s time to back off for a bit and enjoy the other fruits of the earth.

Chocolate dreams to you,
Cici Woolf

At Patty’s house, with my favorite dog in the world, Cookies.
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Wandering in Argentina

Nahuel Huapi National Park, outside of San Carlos of Bariloche, Argentina.

Argentina went by too quickly. I spent three weeks there, and wish I’d had a bit more time to see Mendoza and visit its bodegas. Of course, when you are traveling for seven months you begin to think this way—three weeks is not enough, etc.. Nevertheless, I found no lack of cheap, good red wine in Buenos Aires—Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon—among other delicious foods to try.

Bariloche, Mountains, Chocolate

Enjoying churros and hot chocolate at Friends Cafe in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina

My Argentinean journey started in San Carlos de Bariloche, a town surrounded by sapphire blue lakes and sharp, jagged mountaintops, laced with snow. A feast for the eyes at every angle, and filled with chocolate shops, to my surprise. I lost count of how many lined the main streets of that city. Furthermore—in every café you can find a warm jug of hot chocolate churning in a vat, waiting for its next customer (me).

Truth be told, I didn’t much like any of the chocolate I tried there, but that is a different story altogether…the story of how I don’t like chocolate anymore, which I’ll explore in a later post.

Valdivia, Chile.

How did I get to San Carlos de Bariloche? I took a bus from the verdant, neat-trimmed town of Valdivia, Chile—a place that reminded me vaguely of suburban Minneapolis in July, which felt both strongly unsettling and vaguely comforting. In Osorno, I changed buses; and from there the bus took me through the mountains of northern Patagonia—the Lakes Region—to San Carlos de Bariloche.

From Osorno to Bariloche I was reminded how decadent very long bus rides can be when traveling in new countries. Along this route, towers of mountains covered in green pines border pristine turquoise lakes on the shores of which fly fishermen work their magic. With a good musical playlist—lately I’ve been cycling through Birdy, Julio Jaramillo, and playlists of folk and Americana songs—the hours dreamily melt away.

As for the crowds of trees: my body gladly soaked in the arboreal images. After spending several months in high altitude places—Peru, Bolivia—and in desert climes, such as northern Chile, my eyes were thirsting to see green.

Maipo River Valley, Chile. Beautiful snow-capped mountains…
but no trees.

For example–a distinct ache bloomed in my head when I arrived to hike in the Maipo River Valley, Chile, another area of tree-barren, rocky terrain characteristic of high altitude places. I realized then that I like mountains, but I’ll trade the smaller, emerald green gems of Colombia for the majestic but chilly slopes of high altitude ranges in Chile, Bolivia, and Peru.

My first night in Bariloche was spent in a somewhat rundown hostel in the middle of town. I didn’t mind; I was out during the day, and at night, simply stuck myself in my bed wrapped in blankets watching the Netflix series, “You”—a series I quickly became enamored with, as I enjoy unreliable narrators.

My first evening in Bariloche I discovered that Argentinians stay up REALLY LATE compared to Minnesotans (For us dinner is at 6pm; bed at 10pm). My first night I zonked out at ten, about the time the locals—including a group of very good-looking lads—were getting out pots and pans to start cooking. I swore to myself the next day I would eat late, drink a beer, and be sociable, maybe flirt a bit—but after a long hike, I zonked out around ten again, when the lads were starting to cook up meat and other things which smelled quite nice. Same story my third night.

Another interesting tidbit, which of course I’d known about beforehand, but had never observed firsthand, is that Argentineans drink a helluva lot of mate. Gourd-like cups filled with sucked out semi-dried light green yerba leaves are everywhere, along with the thermoses filled with water. Straw-like silver metal filters called bombillas are in every gourd; without one it would be impossible to drink the brewed tea. Sidenote: The word “mate” is used in reference to the whole setup: bombilla, gourd, hot water, and herbs.

San Carlos de Bariloche on a clear day.

San Carlos de Bariloche is a ski town in winter; and though it was summer, it often rained and hailed and even snowed occasionally. It is not a town for outdoor picnics at the lakefront!

Toncek Lagoon, Nahuel Huapi National Park, Argentina

Fortunately, the weather was splendid the day I hiked with a friend to Refugio Frey, a popular trek. Refugio Frey is a stone shelter that sits on the Toncek Lagoon, about a seven hour roundtrip hike from the Cerro Catedral ski resort, where the bus stop is. The bus (#55) doesn’t come around very often, once an hour, so we had to wait.

I spent my three days in Bariloche with a new friend from England named Grace, who like me, enjoys learning and speaking Spanish and has experience teaching English. At the age of twenty-five, she’s already worked in Barcelona for two years as a teacher and translator and is now traveling South America for many months. Dressed smartly in black jeans, and a fitted black turtleneck, she spoke to me about her life and work in Barcelona; I was likewise fascinated to hear how her family, and especially her mother, had encouraged to spend these years abroad working and traveling. Her mother, she explained, also had Wanderlust, and spent her twenties living in Mexico. Today her mother works in bicycle tourism—planning cycling tours around Europe.

Grace looking out at Lake Nahuel Huapi on an overlook during our bike tour.

Given cycling is a pastime for Grace’s family, she suggested we do the bike tour called Circuito Chiquito the day after our hike. Although our legs were sore and we groaned our way up some of the steeper hills at the beginning of the ride, we loved it. The views along the way, and the viewpoints over the lakes and mountains atop those steep hills were breathtaking. It was handsdown my favorite activity in Bariloche, and one of the best experiences in my trip through South America.

Soaking in the Vanity: Buenos Aires

Evita on the Ministry of Health Building. Avenida 9 de Julio, Buenos Aires.

Traveling, and especially backpacking, is exhausting. There are long bus rides, late nights, early mornings…lack of healthy food options unless you can spend $12 on a salad at a fancy restaurant in the evenings…the like. Plus you begin craving all sorts of junky foods when your daily rhythm is off (at least, in my case). By the time I got to Buenos Aires, I was ready to settle in for a week of pampering, relaxing, and healthy eating. And resting my foot, which has continued to plague me with its flare-ups around the area where I had a fractured sesamoid bone removed last year.

In the light-infused, tree-lined streets of Palermo, where I had a heavenly Airbnb rental awaiting me, I sank into a reverie of reading and simply being. My friend Najet came over for a day of work, and at the end of it, we watched a movie on Netflix on the TV on the wall—not something I’d done in six months!

Dreamy Airbnb rental in the Palermo neighborhood.

One afternoon my friend Najet and I experienced firsthand how rainy Buenos Aires can get—on our forty-five minute walk to a salon we thought was closer, the rain completely soaked us to the skin. The last half hour we were wading in glee through calf-high pools of water in the streets.

When we arrived the salon staff kindly gave us multiple little white towels to help take the edge off while we got our nails done. I decided to go back the next day and do something I’d never done before: go blond. Truth be told, I don’t always care about how I look, but occasionally I go through phases where I do something bold, and it’s fun. The next morning I commenced a two-day process of lightening my hair.  It takes a damn long time to get your hair lightened, so I learned, and both days I was running to get to my afternoon Spanish lessons on time.

Most people I met the day of my blond transformation and after commented that they thought it was my natural hair color—I credit that to Perla, who chose the shade and highlights.

With my excellent colorist, Perla, at Cerini Salon. (There wasn’t time before Spanish class to style my hair!)

My teacher, Alberto, didn’t comment at first on the transformation of my hair—because he wasn’t exactly certain what he was seeing—until I told him that yes, my hair was definitely getting lighter, and he wasn’t crazy. 

One of the sillier situations I experienced that week had to do with meeting two British men, David and Paul, who lived and worked with their partners in Rio de Janeiro. Before they arrived, I was taking advantage of a completely empty dorm room to re-organize all my things. I’d bought new cosmetics as well as clothing, since most of latter I’d been traveling with was starting to fall apart. All my newly purchased clothing—along with bags of the old, plus the contents of my gutted backpack, lay all over the floor. Cue the entrance of David and Paul, who were a bit surprised to see a traveler with so much stuff—Paul, who had the bunk below mine, set his bag down and said, in his kindly British accent, “I’ll get out of your way” when he realized he couldn’t get through.

The next day when the three of us went out for dinner, Paul confessed, somewhat sheepishly, he thought that perhaps I was a little crazy and/or not very intelligent, traveling with what looked like “5 kilos of make-up”. (It’s true, I had the new and old spread out and it looked like I had a LOT of make-up). “And a lot of stuff, a lot of clothes,” he said, laughing.

While walking back to the hostel after dinner, he added, “I said to David I didn’t think you were a very smart person, because of the 5 kilos of make-up, but David said he thought that you were actually a very smart person.” I laughed pretty hard at this, and took it as a complement when he told me I was one of the most fiercely intelligent people he’d ever met.

Even still, I received further ribbing from the my British friends (and friends in general) when I admitted I hadn’t had time to do anything cultural, like go to a museum, because I’d been sitting in a salon most mornings during the week getting my nails and hair done.

My favorite afternoon drink: Cafe Irlandés .

My favorite treat in Buenos Aires was not, as many would guess, an alfajor. In fact, I didn’t like this type of cookie too much—the texture of it was not my style, and I can’t digest dulce de leche—a caramel made from sweetened condensed milk—very well (I’m lactose intolerant). But I did stumble upon the coffee drink of my dreams, which I enjoyed in the afternoons before my Spanish class: the Café Irlandés. A splash of whiskey, almond milk froth, espresso, and pieces of dark chocolate made this coffee a daily fixture during my 1-week stay in Buenos Aires. You’ll find it at the Café Martinez on the corner of Chabuco and Avenida del Mayo (I tried two other locations–it wasn’t available).

Alfajor.

What else did I do besides drink coffee, get my hair and nails done, and study Spanish? I went out for steak, of course. I rarely order this dish in the States, where it can easily cost thirty or forty dollars. But in Buenos Aires, a full meal with drinks cost around $20 per person (of course, we tourists love the cheap prices…but it isn’t a good thing for those who live and work in Argentina). As a person who doesn’t usually enjoy steak that much, I have to say–I was left wanting more.

La Cabrera, in Palermo, Buenos Aires.

The one tour I did go on, or attempt to go on (I left early out of boredom), was the Boca walking tour, supposedly one of the most interesting places to visit in Buenos Aires. It disappointed me. What I observed was a large mass of tourists taking pictures in a working class neighborhood painted in bright colors. (I’ve come to notice that many low-income neighborhoods in Latin America tend to be painted in bright colors; and tend to attract tourists, including myself, in hoards…). Perhaps I was too information hungry for the likes of that tour—being dropped off among fifty vendors selling magnets of the neighborhood I knew very little about was not exactly enlightening or enjoyable.

La Boca neighborhood.

I did learn it was the locale of immigrants and artists in earlier times, though now it seems to be a neighborhood with a famous street lined with restaurants and shops catering to foreigners.

Later that afternoon I was grateful when my Spanish teacher Alberto offered to take me on a historical tour of the center my last afternoon in the city—a much richer experience, and insightful. Plus, we finished our lesson by chowing down on a variety of facturas, or pastries, as they’re called in Argentinian.

Sketch of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

My last afternoon in the city I spent with a new friend named Leo, an engineer and artist, who lived near the airport. I met him while out the day before with his cousin, who an American friend connected me with.

I asked him if I could spend my last afternoon drawing with him, and he kindly complied. On his balcony, overlooking white buildings tucked in between plentiful green trees, we sat sketching the cityscape while discussing Buenos Aires, the crumbling economic situation of Argentina, creativity, and other things.

My talented friend Leo, with his drawings.

Córdoba, and the Pressing Heat of Puerto Igauzu

Iglesia del Sagrado Corazon in
Córdoba, Argentina.

In Córdoba , where lovely UNESCO protected buildings line the streets in the Jesuit Block, I wandered a street market with antique trinkets and puppies, tried the bitter, herbal liquor called fernet and took my first Zumba class. The instructor—a tattooed man who was intensely into hip hop—inspired me with his dancing zeal. Frankly however I could not keep up. Najet, who teaches Zumba in Medellin, Colombia, was rocking it, of course, and laughing at me, the white Minnesota gringa who can’t shake her hips.

Iguazu Falls, from the Argentinian side (which is better).

I ended my Argentinian adventure in Puerto Iguazu, a stiflingly hot and humid town next to a park that contains the absolutely impressive Iguazu Falls. I visited this park in the morning, did a long hike to see the falls from all possible viewpoints, and then returned by 2:00pm, before a tropical storm set in. The heat and humidity was so intense I passed out for several hours that afternoon, and the next day as well.

Ironically, while I lay passed out, sleeping in my own sweat (pleasant, I know), my friends and family were suffering through a polar vortex in Minnesota. My parent’s electric company was shutting off power intermittently, forcing them to heat the house using the wood-burning fireplace in their basement. My mom’s text explained, “We are managing to survive burning wood in the fireplace downstairs and running a little heater…They [the electric company] tell us people will have to burn wood…our gas backup isn’t working either…Back to primitive times, I guess. I’m staying inside… But we have had these before so us Minnesotans aren’t freaked out…” And really, for my parents and others, it wasn’t really that big of a deal (in Minnesota parlance)—we have had these vortices before.

Gelid beauty. Alexandria, Minnesota.

Even though I spent my afternoons panting like a dog on my bed, I must say being in the spectacularly forested and sauna hot clime of Igauzu Falls was preferable to being in a polar vortex…

That’s all for now, friends.

~Cici

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The Great Escape: Traveling

March 1, 2019. Note: I decided to update this post after discussing Brianna Wiest’s blog post, “Travel is Not How You Find Yourself, It’s How You Escape Yourself” with a friend. Thank you Brianna, for the thought-provoking post.


The Perfect Instagram Post. Isla del Sol, Copacobana, Bolivia.

It’s an escape, and something more, folks

Occasionally I hear this sort of question from people when talking about my current trip of seven months in South America: “But isn’t this just an escape for you?”

Escape from what, I begin asking myself, feeling instantly self-conscious and nervous. A city I didn’t quite fit into? Perhaps. A job market that no longer suited me? Yeah, probably. Life post-divorce? Certainly. The cold and dark of Minnesota winter? Hell, yeah! (Question: Shouldn’t I try to escape those things?)

The truth is, the first few times I heard someone ask me whether I’m “just escaping”, it stung, because it was subtly critical of a decision I’d made. That is, the decision to follow through with a dream I’ve had since college, or even before then: to travel long-term around the world and to live abroad.

I can see why others might think of my trip as an escape, and it has been a distraction in some respects—but a very helpful and transformative one. Transitioning from married life into a new and single life post-divorce, one marred by too many moments of raw loneliness and awkward, sometimes painful dating experiences (I’d never dated before getting married), has been surprisingly challenging. Spending time improving my Spanish and considering different ways to teach English abroad has been a superb way for me to indulge myself and my career, and get my mind off of divorce, and the fact that I feel old for the career stage I’m in. Traveling has allowed me to fill my mind with new faces, experiences, and triumphs, and let go of some less-than-pleasant memories and rigid, negative beliefs that I’ve wasted a portion of my life.

Spent a pleasant, rainy afternoon exploring the historical parts of Buenos Aires with my Spanish teacher, Alberto.

Patronization is alive and well

Traveling long-term can be the beginning of something radically new in your life. Or it could be a long-term binge vacation. Honestly–whether it is simply a long-term distraction of drinking and reveling in exotic bars, cycling through Instagram’s greatest hits and shuffling from one hostel to the next…or a healthy life choice (that may incorporate elements of the latter, of course!) depends exactly on who you are.

My friend Najet in front of a UNESCO protected cathedral in Cordoba, Argentina.

Recently I asked my friend Najet if people back in France, where she is from, considered her lifestyle abroad as a form of escapism. She said yes. Yet I have seen firsthand her chaotic life as a reporter in Medellín, Colombia, where she is based. It doesn’t look like escapism to me; it simply looks like she found her niche. Which she had to travel to find.

Nomadic Matt–one of the most popular travel bloggers around–has faced the “escapism” branding. As he explains it in this wonderful post, people accuse him of running away from being an adult. Which makes me wonder: Why is traveling inherently wrong? Does it have to be considered “escape?” What if you make money while traveling, or settle in a place you find your niche in…?

I get the sense that perhaps people saying that I am “escaping” may also wish they could do what I am doing. And this is certainly something more complicated–I am privileged to have the means to travel as I do. I am by no means wealthy but I had just enough money post-divorce to pack up and go on a 7-month trip through South America. My budget will allow me enough padding to get me started again when I decided where to settle. Even still I’ve met travelers with no funds; they are the truly nomadic folks who work as they go.

More often I believe that people who say my this simply don’t quite understand the purpose of long-term travel. They believe that whatever happened to me, my job, my Minneapolis life, must have been so awful that I now need to “escape.” This was the general discussion I had with Najet—this idea that we are escaping something in our respective homes by traveling for months, and living abroad. I suppose it’s a question of perspective and also patronization.

As in: I am not doing what I “should” be doing. Or handling my life correctly.

To that I shrug (somewhat wearily). I’m used to being patronized. I’m a woman who grew up in a conservative small town in Minnesota. I’ve had family members tell me I’ll come around to being more politically conservative someday because what I think now is wrong—I’m young (and therefore silly). I’ve had religiously inclined friends express concerns over my lack of faith in my adult years, explaining that if I have kids (which I may not have—which is, of course, another aspect that is “wrong” with me) I’ll probably want to attend church again, and that really, there is no sense in the world without a God. (Therefore I have no sense).

Magnificent Iguazu Falls, from the Argentinian side.

I actively work toward trusting my intuition and intellect—and it seems to me that what path I’m on now is the one most fulfilling to me.

There certainly is a tradeoff for this kind of nomadic existence, whether it lasts a few months or years: financial instability, smelly clothes, illness on the road, just a backpack to call my home. I do not have gadgets, a house, children, pets, a kitchen…all those things which give us wonderful learning, comforts and joy. And yet, I couldn’t feel more content with this phase in my life.

And I’d encourage anyone (but perhaps not everyone) to give it a try.

Go! Go! Go!


Refugio Frey, San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina.

To bring this back around to those who decide to take the long-term plunge. I’d encourage you to think of long-term travel as an exploration and a transition period—a time to think and reflect on who you are, and what you really want to do. That’s what this journey has done for me. And it needs to be long—really, really long—because after only one month you haven’t changed, you’ve been on vacation; after three months, when you’ve gotten sick or your heart is broken by that person “back home” (this is a very common trend, my friends—even happened to Che while on his motorcycle journey), when you’re uncomfortable by all these strong emotions and foreign foods and bad water that sends you to the toilet every ten minutes; when all this makes you want so badly to return to the place you came from (but needed to leave, for whatever reason)—that is when you must keep on going.

You’ll want to return to comfort but you can’t, it’s only a mirage at this point.  After five months you adjust to the new self, the moody but buoyant adolescent emerging through the experiences you’ve endured and enjoyed. You’ll reflect proudly on the triumphs you, and only you have brought upon yourself.

As Cheryl Strayed wrote in “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar,” if you feel the need to go, GO! (She said this in various forms, and once I get the page numbers, I will share them! Or, Meg Egg, if you happen can find the pages, I’d be grateful; or even better, I highly recommend everyone read this book).

You must get outside of your current reality, which is perhaps suffocating you in ways you can’t understand—and won’t understand, until you are out of it.

Copacabana’s Cerro Calvario, Bolivia.

If you travel for all these reasons, this is not escape. In a way, it’s a full-on confrontation. When I lay in the jungle for two weeks without Wi-fi, I confronted all the junk rolling around in my psyche. There were so many opportunities for me to consider who I was, and whether everything I’d done in my life had been a mistake—I’d hardly consider this escapism.

For some, long-term travel, or living abroad for a while will give clarity and reason to go right back to what they were doing. Perhaps they will know exactly what it is they need to tweak, a change they couldn’t see before, when they were stuck in their daily rhythms. And for others, like myself, it will give the strength to keep walking into a new life, the one we’ve had in our dreams far too long.

And it’s also true that for others–perhaps traveling is just one more mode of consumerism, bringing nothing but the joy of purchase for a short while.

Sometimes flying is exactly what you must do.
Condor, Sacred Valley, Peru.

So then, is traveling for seven months considered the Grand Escape? As in, on March 13th, 2019, will it be my time to return to “reality”?  Sure. I’m escaping into new realms, new ideas, new dreams—and a new location to call home. I’m discovering realities that utilize my love for language, offer places to live in sunshine and jungle year-round, and give me a sense of meaning. It doesn’t matter where you end up living, in the US, or Colombia, or China—what matters is that you feel you have the ability to change your life, to escape that old one. For me, travelling has always been the key.

PS: Thank you Jenne and Matt, for allowing me to finish this blog in your wonderful home in Dourados, Brazil, and use your excellent Wifi. You and your family abroad have been an inspiration for me, and a restful haven.

Jenne and Cici in Bonito, Brazil. We are Escape Artists! (You can too, in whatever way you want to be).

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Thoughts and Feels of a Long-term Solo Traveler

The double-edge sword of traveling solo…I get the entire slice of cake. Yum. (Later: Oh, are my pants starting to feel tight?)

Backpack friendships

Traveling solo for months on end is tough at times. It is “vacation” but it isn’t. It is fun, exciting and overly stimulating at times, and sometimes not. Sometimes you get bored when you’re stranded somewhere for too long; you are stressed when a flight is missed or you have to change plans due to illness. Or if you get really sick and have to find a hospital—alone.

Twice I was a click away from buying a plane ticket back to Minnesota, even though I had no idea what I’d do once back there. In the first occasion, I was lying in a bed bug infested hostel bed, itching horribly from microscopic mites (AKA scabies) that had made my skin their breeding place, and an intestinal illness that had me running to the bathroom every ten minutes. My foot ached terribly as I’d somehow re-injured it in the previous weeks. My heart was broken by a friend back home and by the fact that I’d left the Amazon earlier than I’d planned, because it was too isolating and uncomfortable for me to be living there.

I experienced all of this physical and psychic turmoil alone in a hostel bed, my only companion a little bed bug hobbling its way across the white sheet.

In the second occasion, I felt exhausted and stressed from managing a rigorous travel schedule as well as making and maintaining friendships with folks I was traveling closely with. It is a challenge, no matter who you are with, to travel with friends (or partners, as I’ve learned) for weeks on end. During one segment of my trip I was sharing rooms with two other travelers, and we were seeing each other every waking hour of the day for several weeks. At another point, five of us rode in a car for 3 days, blazing across a barren salt flat. When we finally arrived in San Pedro, Chile, my introverted lizard brain made an impulse buy to fly to Santiago so I could be alone for a week, sinking into café shops and talking to no one.

Both situations warranted Whatsapp calls with close friends back in Minnesota. These friends did the wonderful job of reminding me why I was traveling, and asked me if there were ways I could better my situation. Basically, how can I solve this? Would it actually be better to be in Minnesota, and give up this dream of backpacking South America, just because I felt stressed in the moment?

Andrea, a long-term traveler I met in Quito when recovering. She spent a lovely weekend with me in Mindo, Ecuador, and helped me start fresh.

I’m so happy I didn’t give up. So, very very happy. Traveling forces you to be assertive, kind, and firm in your needs. It’s truly a microcosm of the real world.

Meeting locals helps ground you in a new city and culture

One afternoon while I was sitting alone in my bunk bed at La Princesa Insolente, my first hostel home in Santiago, trying to figure out the best way to explore Chilean wine country, my friends started group texting about Tinder dates in Argentina. I joked: “How is it you have any time to do Tinder? To date? I’m sitting here trying to find a bus!” Travel planning fries your brain sometimes. They kept joking and sharing details of their dates and hookups with various people in their hostels. After pondering all this, I decided to sign up for Tinder and try it out, at least so I could get coffee and practice Spanish with someone from the city.

Although I liked the vibe of Santiago, and felt comfortable with just about every interaction I’d had with people there—I’d say I even felt at home, as if in Minneapolis—I never guessed I’d meet someone to date. In fact, some of my interactions with men in Peru and Ecuador left me completely cold and mistrustful of dating in Latin America in general (a hefty prejudice, I know). But it happened. I perused the Tinder profiles and paused on a young man’s profile who had written “seeking people who are intellectual and feminist, and like going out into nature on the weekends”. He had an easygoing smile and two adorable monkeys perched on his head. That seemed about right to me. After a swipe right, Sebastian and I matched, chatted on and off for the evening, and then met for dinner the next day. Our evening began at five with a beer, and ended with a stroll and a shared slice of hazelnut cake.

Seba wasn’t sure this was the right kind of pic for Tinder. Um, he’s wrong! Adorable monkeys? Yes please.

My time in Santiago was lighthearted and thoughtful after that. Sebastian invited me to hang out with his friends for an evening at the lake in Pucon, where we chatted and played cards for hours; he invited me to the beach, where we walked and ate seafood; we went out to trendy bars and restaurants. We even danced and sang karaoke one night—he sang Queen; I was going to sing Bob Dylan but they cut me from the list. Toward the end of time together, while we were sitting in a park listening to duos of teenagers perform rap competitions, Sebastian asked me, “Is this the longest relationship you’ve had since you got divorced?” He was laying on his side, smoking a cigarette he’d rolled himself.

Yes, actually, I laughed in response. And two weeks was about all I could afford to spend in Santiago, Chile, unfortunately, before moving on.

Surprise! Friends, all over the place

I met Najet, a radio and TV journalist, in Medellín, Colombia last August.
We met again in Buenos Aires, five months later.

I’ve been traveling through South America for five months now, and have two more packed months before I fly back to Minneapolis, MN. What have I learned? This: the longer you travel, the more friends you collect, no matter where you go. So have no fear, solo traveler! You will not be alone.

Peter, a long-term traveler I met in Quito, dragged me up a gorgeous mountain in Bolivia.
I will be forever grateful to him.

I’ve repeatedly bumped into friends I’ve met in hostels or tours in a different city or country. Last night I got to catch up with Paul, a firefighter from Ireland on sabbatical for the year. He’s traveling the world, and happens to be traveling in the same direction as me: toward Rio de Janeiro for Carnaval. We initially met in La Paz at another hostel. While lunching in Valparaiso, Paul recognized me and came over to say hello.

Enjoying a bus ride with Priya, who I met in Bolivia. We spent Christmas together in Santiago.

In Buenos Aires, two girlfriends contacted me via Instagram because they saw I was in the city, and we all met for a steak dinner, which was fabulous. Feasting on succulent, tender char-grilled Argentinean steaks with fellow female travelers was a such treat. Such an occasion felt celebratory for me, and the result of me sticking to my seven-month long journey, and maintaining connections with people.

Michele and I met in Cusco, and bumped into each other in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.

At the beginning of my journey, I had no idea where and with whom Christmas would be spent. As it turned out, both my friends Peter and Priya would be in Santiago for the holidays. The two of them bought food and cooked so that we could all enjoy a meal together on Christmas Day in the hostel. To Priya’s annoyance and the delight of me and Peter, Harry Potter played nonstop in Spanish for the day.

The fruits of my friends’ cooking: a scrumptious Christmas Day meal.

For New Year’s, Peter rented an Airbnb in Valparaiso—a splendid occasion, as the city puts on one of the best fireworks shows in all of Latin America. The whole city was alive for the evening; there were empanadas, papas fritas, and churros everywhere, people playing music and dancing, and of course, a lot of pisco!

Traveling for a long time takes some practice

There is a knack to traveling long-term. Just like moving abroad, it takes some time to adjust. Once you do, you get the most out of the experience. For example, you get used to hearing different languages and accents; you get used to (though you may not like it) wearing earplugs and sharing a sometimes hot and stuffy room with five other traveler strangers; you learn to accept your changing body as you realize it’s been a month since you’ve done any kind of meaningful exercise besides walking; you accept the strange welts on your body from insects you’ll never see; you understand that getting a crush on a man you’re having drinks with from the hostel will likely manifest in Instagram texting for a few weeks and then taper off, as real romantic relationships while traveling are nonexistent and I’d say mostly impossible, mainly because you are both there for the same reason, to wander and eventually settle in the place best for you, as a single person right now, not as a unit—

Moreover, traveling is not the same as being an explorer. One can explore via traveling, it’s true, and I do try to do this. This kind of exploration is more about a cultural learning and exchange. I am visiting other people’s homes, their cultures, and I must pay attention to that. How do I sound and appear to them? Am I rude? Am I attempting to understand their way of life?  Am I learning something about them, and about myself that can make me a better, and wiser person? Finally, what can I give back, whether in something tangible in the moment, or in the future, through my behavior and profession? Those are the questions I grapple with as I travel through cities, towns, and countries.

I’ve alternated between longer stays (a month in Mindo, three weeks in Medellin, for example) and “superficial” stays, for just a few nights, in various cities where in that time frame the only thing to do is a city tour and eating out before moving on. The latter is hard for me; what is the point of breezing through a place and seeing it only from a hostel’s point of view? It led me to create this list, upon reflection:

Backpack traveling today is…

  • Having an Instagram account on which to post wanderlust-inducing images, and to stay connected with other travelers
  • Seeking Wifi at all costs
  • Staying in hostels for on average, 10 USD/ night.
  • Drinking a lot; going to clubs
  • Tours: city tours, museums, adrenaline tours like bungee jumping, cultural tours like visiting ruins
  • Spending loads of time on cell phones texting folks and scrolling Instagram pictures and booking the next flight and/or hostel
  • Tinder: Most everyone I’ve met traveling uses Tinder to meet locals, either for dating, hooking up or making friends

Of course, traveling can be more than this, especially when you stay in one place for a while and do volunteer work. It’s my opinion that doing at least one homestay or volunteer work exchange is a good idea as it gives you a deeper link to the community you are visiting.

What are your thoughts on traveling solo, and on traveling in general?

Marco and I testing out a very large dinosaur slide in Bolivia.

Hugs to Peter, Priya, Marco, Michele, Najet, and Seba, for being a part of, and enriching my journey these past five months.

~Cici

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Street Music in Santiago, Salt Flats and Contradictions

Ancient saguaro cacti, Uyuni Salt Flat tour.

I don’t know why, but it’s been hard to get myself to write this week. Perhaps it’s because so much has happened since my last post, or perhaps it’s because I’m content to be hanging out in Santiago, Chile, sipping espresso and reading poetry—contentment sometimes being the killer of writing. Or perhaps I just needed a break; after all, pondering my future and all the possibilities that await me when I return to Minnesota in March often wakes me in my hostel bed at night—you can only think and process a finite number of ideas, memories, hopes, and dreams at once, much less write them all down.

To catch you up: After spending a few days in Maipo Valley (located about an hour in bus south of Santiago, Chile), I’m back in Santiago, Chile, at a quaint café called Café Forestal, soaking up both sun and a laid back, artsy city vibe. Staff here make a tasty mocha using almond milk and very dark chocolate—thumbs up.

What is Santiago like? Besides sunshine, views of white-tipped mountains and a plethora of comfy coffee shops, there are musicians. Here, skilled classical musicians—flautists, opera singers, string players—flaunt themselves in the afternoons and evenings amidst colonial architecture for change in a basket. A saxophonist serenaded café customers near the Plaza del Armas. There’s so much music I’ve been inspired to buy an instrument small enough to travel with from an Aymara man from San Pedro de Atacama. It’s called an ocarina.

Music, books and coffee in the Lastarria neighborhood of Santiago, Chile.

Just the other night, my friends and I listened to a chamber group of college-aged string musicians in the street of Lastarria; their specialty was the waltz. There was no conductor; they simply picked a tune and all started playing together. That evening I’d bought a cigarillo flavored with organic chocolate tobacco, and I must say, I was in my element, enjoying the music and that earthy flavored cigarette.

Chamber musicians jamming streetside.

Another reason I haven’t written, I suppose, is that I’m constantly researching the next place I’m traveling to–and Patagonia looms wild and large as the next segment of my itinerary. When on a trip like this one—seven months, seven countries—you are on the move every few days, and you must constantly plan ahead. I like it and I don’t sometimes. It’s exhilarating and it’s exhausting and it challenges your ability to live in the moment.

Let’s move back in time two weeks to San Pedro de Atacama, located in the north stretch of Chile just across the border from Bolivia. Here I stayed a night and went with friends to observe the stars where the tour guides used a badass powerful laser to show constellations and nebulae. Stunning, that was.

In the days leading up to stargazing, I was riding in an SUV for three days across Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni. This place feels like another planet–not Earth.

Moises, our guide, is good at taking silly perspective shots.

Surprisingly, three species of flamingos hang out in these otherworldly parts, in the steaming, poisonous, audaciously colorful lagunas filled with the chemical arsenic, along with minerals. Geysers and smoking volcanoes are plentiful.

Both nights my traveling comrades and I stayed in salt hotels; you walked barefoot and could feel the white culinary pebbles crumble. Salt is everywhere, obviously. And in the middle of a salt desert, you definitely had to pay for a hot shower.

Backtrack to Potosi, Bolivia. My friends and I toured the Cerro Rico mines, where silver and other metals have been mined for hundreds of years. To watch miners who voluntarily choose to do this work, sometimes starting it in their teens, effectively guaranteeing a shortened lifespan due to the hazardous conditions of working in a mine (most develop silicosis, for example) was, needless to say, a sobering and informative experience.

Before Potosi there was Sucre, the pearl white gem city of Bolivia and its original capital, where chocolate shops adorn many corners, well-kept parks and gardens are ubiquitous, and a large dinosaur footprint park looms just outside the city.

When it was time to go, we had trouble getting out of the city as it was shut down for protests—some citizens are not in agreement of extending Evo Morales’ ability to be elected again—though given the results of the court ruling, it seems the people have decided for him after all. As a close friend from Colombia elucidated for me: His situation seems to be one of contradiction; he wants to nationalize and protect his nation against foreign interests that would exploit resources and take income away from his people; but in order to develop the country there must be roads built through indigenous, sacred areas.

Contradictions, I’ve realized, are the truth of life. If I cannot embrace contradiction and its ubiquitous presence, I am living in a dreamworld. I don’t have to agree with the contradictions that abound in life, from politics to my own personal psyche, but I have to learn to live with them.

The juxtaposition of opposing realities and ideals reminds me of an earlier sentiment I’ve experienced, the reality of wanting two opposing things at the same time: to be stable and to travel; to be free and single and to have a partner to share my life with; to be alone to think and to be in company with close friends. To continue traveling because I am in love with places and cultures different from what I know; to go back to Minnesota immediately because I am sometimes utterly exhausted.

At times I wonder if I am going mad; I wonder if any of these oppositions will come to resolutions, or if my life is meant to be a juggling act. And I also wonder: Do others feel this way? Or is it only me leading a pack of contradicting wolves in my head?

Christmas will be spent with my traveling friends Priya and Peter along with others in Santiago, Chile. So far it looks like we’ll indulge in some fine Argentinean wine, a chocolate cake (if I find an oven!), and other goodies, perhaps out in one of Santiago’s many leafy parks.

I have to confess, though I’ll be missing my family I haven’t missed Minnesota winter once (GASP!) during this time. I certainly look forward to celebrating Christmas Eve in Chilean summer sunshine.

Your fan,

Cici

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Huayna Potosí? Sure, I’ll Climb That!

Zongo Dam, and Mt. Huayna Potosí

Heya dearest,

I thought of you when I was axe-picking my way up the mountainside of Huanya Potosí last week. You’ve told me of all the adventures you had while living in Ecuador, including a story about climbing Cotopaxi using an ice axe which I’d thought was, let’s say…badass adventurous. Nothing I thought I’d end up doing during my travels.

So it happens that this mountain, Huanya Potosí, part of the Cordillera Real range in Bolivia, with a summit reaching 19,974 feet, appeared as a bit of a surprise in my travel itinerary.

A new traveling friend who is climbing his way down South America had it a part of his itinerary, and he needed a second person to make the tour possible. I don’t think he ever really asked me to go, but at some point while listening to him talk about it, I said, “I’ll go with ya.”

In my mind, I was like, “Why not? I’ve never climbed a mountain.” I’d been stuck in a slightly depressed thinking rut lately after getting sick repeatedly and having to be hospitalized in Cusco. It was time to plunge into something different–and challenging. Climbing a mountain seemed like an excellent way to get my mind on to something radically new.

Peter, my traveling friend, was surprised to hear me I’d come with him, and proceeded to give me the facts: “It’s going to be at a really high altitude. Do you have medicine to take? And you’ll have to use crampons and an ice axe. There might be some crawling and/or climbing toward the top. It’ll be three days—we might be sleeping in tents the second night, at high camp. You OK with all that?”

It’s true, I was in a bit of denial when I shrugged and said, “Sounds fantastic, I’ll do it.” Anyway–isn’t that the way you should go about life? Being open-minded? That IS the way I go about life, and as my older expat friend Claire pointed out to me in her kitchen in Mindo, Ecuador, that means life can bring great highs and great lows—more so than for those who do not take risks at all.  

In La Paz, where I was already gasping for air just walking to the tour office, Peter and I met Marcus, a German, as well as Eduardo, our sturdy and soft-spoken guide. Eduardo is from the La Paz area and speaks English, Spanish, and Aymara, an indigenous language of the area. He’s also been doing climbs for over thirty-eight years.

The refugio, an unheated lodge alongside Zongo Dam.

We reached the refugio,an unheated lodge near a dam at the base of the mountain, and settled in for the afternoon while we waited for the sleet and hail to let up. Eduardo was going to take us out to a glacier about a forty minute hike away and teach us how to use our ice axe and crampons. Peter and Marcus had both used them before, but I hadn’t, so I was glad for the lesson.

Eduardo teaching me the proper way to walk on a glacier with crampons and an ice axe.

After we returned we had dinner, which was savory vegetable soup, bread, and a savory pastel de quinoa. The latter was the Andean equivalent of lasagna using quinoa instead of pasta, and it was delicious. We bundled up for the evening in our gear and I went to sleep in my coat and overall snowpants, wondering what the hell I’d signed up for.

The visceral anxiety didn’t really set in until the next day after lunch, when again we waited for the weather to clear, and I compulsively ate cream crackers in my room all morning, not having much else to do, and dozed on and off in my bed, always fighting off a chill, and waiting for Eduardo to call us for the ascent.  At some point Peter woke me up and it was time go.

Besides our cook, a round woman who kept her head covered in a knit hat, there had been only men so far on this expedition, including the guides and the other groups staying in the lodge. I was secretly pleased to see a woman named Eva, also from Germany, waiting to come with us. She immediately helped me fasten my ice axe properly to my bag and offered one of her trekking poles for me to use, which I was happy to accept. Then we set off: Peter, Marcus, Eva and I along with Eduardo and his nephew Umberto.

Eating dairy in the morning, my friend, is not recommended before a strenuous high-altitude hike. It took the kind of minute-by-minute marathon running mentality for me to complete the three hours amidst stomach pains and ahem, bloating, up the mountain to the high camp. Once there, Eduardo, stared me down with a concerned, hard look and said, “You must look at your condition. You must see if you can climb in the morning. It is four hours to the summit, but then we must climb all the way down. You must really look at your condition.”

Later, while sitting on the rocks overlooking the clouded mountains that semi-buried the Bolivian Cordillera Real range, I pondered whether I really had the “condition” to climb up to the summit. Was it my indigestion or my fitness causing the problems? My lungs still burned after the hike up. I’ve always been fit, having been a runner for many years, and also someone used to doing yoga and moderate weight lifting; but I had to admit, I felt like crap climbing up that day. Marcus persuaded me that I should at least try a little. He himself was not certain of his ability to get to the summit, and so we decided to pair up in the morning.

High Camp, at 5200 meters, or 17,060 feet.

“Morning” of course means waking at midnight after a night of labored, shallow breathing and a struggle to stay warm. Climbers from the day before returning to the refugio warned it was nearly impossible to sleep at the altitude—you felt like you were heaving for breath the whole night—and I found this was true for me. Eduardo, over soup, rolls and hot dogs the evening before, told us to simply “rest our bodies”, if possible.

So that’s what I did all night in the orange shed outside of which the gelid wind howled—a familiar sound, given I grew up in Minnesota. I rested and heaved and dozed on and off. At midnight I got up and dressed with the others, because I’d already decided hiking in the snow would be preferable to lying in a dark shed in the clouds unable to sleep for the next five hours.

When we woke at midnight, Eduardo and Umberto heated water and suggested putting in half cold and half warm into our bottles, which we did. We ate some dry bread, had some tea and coffee, and then put on our gear—layers of warm winter wear, including my overall snowpants, crampons, a helmet, a harness for the ropes that would keep my group of three–Umberto, Marcus, and me–together, my backpack with my water bottle. Eduardo roped up with Eva and Peter, the two experienced climbers in the group, and took off; Umberto, who I could tell right away was not excited to be guiding the “slow” group—namely Marcus and I—reminded us to consider our “condition” even after we’d only been trudging the snow in the dark for half an hour. I felt my normal self, actually—my digestive tract having cleared itself of the last of the dairy molecules it could not digest.

What I discovered is that, if you find a slow pace and a rhythm for your breath, you can do just fine. Yes, you feel like you can’t go on sometimes, and your lungs burn and long for dear ol’ oxygen, but for the most part, you just keep moving.

A narrow footpath in the powdery, dark shimmering snow along the slopes led the way, and I was reminded of my time playing in winter as a child—hours upon hours in the same kind of sparking material, even after the sun set. It felt like I was playing again, even though this was much more strenuous.

We used our ice axes to anchor every step, and our pace soon transformed into a walking meditation: sink axe in, left foot forward then right, lift and sink again, left foot forward then right; so on and so forth. For hours in the dark we marched to this beat and as we ascended under a half moon and a spread of stars and their clustered constellations. As we rose higher, La Paz emerged in the south, a deep orange blanket of lights, cradled between the black silhouettes of neighboring mountains.

It took somewhere between four and five hours to reach the summit. We paused often; and each time Umberto asked us if we were tired, and we said yes, and he would ask if we wanted to continue, and we said yes. He would often complain of wanting to sleep, rolling onto his back when we were taking a water break, which I would roll my eyes at. Later I found out that some guides try to tire out or persuade clients to turn around when the hike got tough, so their day was shorter.

The details of the hike and those four hours are somewhat washed away in my mind; however, I do remember hiking up precipitous slopes where we had to sink our axe in well lest we slid down the slope for a very, very long time. At one point my crampon got stuck on the cord of the other foot in one of these precipitous places; Umberto, not understanding I was stuck, kept yanking at the rope uniting us and urging, “Vamos, vamos,” which became the general refrain to both Marcus and me whenever we slowed down.

Somehow we made it the final wall filled with narrow, powdered switchback trails. At several points we had to haul ourselves up around rocks, which really catches your breath and gets your heart pumping; Marcus paused and stared at us with wide eyes for several moments halfway up while Umberto yanked the rope and urged “Vamos, Vamos”; I heard two German women behind us start to wail behind us, asking their guide if they were almost at the top, and when he assured them they were, they still cried and held each other and said, “We must finish!”

We three made it to the summit, and Umberto snapped a few photos of me holding up my ice axe. And we were damn lucky: the sunrise was magnificent, and the sky clear with just a smattering of clouds burying some of the mountains around us. The two German girls stopped crying and began celebrating at the top and before our eyes peeled their shirts off for a topless backside photo op.

I felt victorious: my mind and limbs rejoiced as I paused to take in the splendid view from the summit. I’d never climbed a mountain before.

The way down was quicker but still difficult: our legs were wobbly, and the steep parts caused us to slide and lose our footing. Once, on the only segment that our group agreed was perhaps a little bit tricky, perhaps unsafe due to a steep and very long slope and a few small crevasses, Umberto reminded us to“concentrate” and go “slowly.” For some reason I slipped here immediately, and on impulse threw my axe in the slope above me while Umberto drew up the rope to stop my slide with a snap of his arm. I laughed but Umberto scolded me, asking me why I didn’t listen to him.

“I thought I was concentrating,” I said, laughing because I couldn’t help it, and thereafter I tread carefully down the slope. We reached the final stretch of mountainside that cut horizontally across toward our high camp, and found our crampons filling with melted, crusty snow. Marcus slipped and we held the ropes tight as we slid down onto his belly and took a moment to catch his breath. Again, Umberto yanked the ropes and said, “Vamos, vamos,”. Marcus lay defiantly for several minutes more on his belly, glaring at Umberto, before pulling himself up by his axe onto the path again.

When we made it back to high camp, I tore my crampons off and lay in the sun on a rock laughing deliriously, my body swimming in endorphins and my mind flooded with images of the trail, of the views, of the German girls crying and then ripping their sweaters off at the summit. The morning had been an absolute success.

Hours later we sat for soup and Pringles in the chilly refugio, all of us still a bit stunned at what we’d done that morning. Eva, in her late thirties, told us of her love for mountaineering and climbing. She and I talked briefly about how few women had climbed the mountain that morning, and we couldn’t help but feel proud to have done it.

We rode back in our bus to La Paz in dozy, pensive silence.

Mal, I felt changed in some way after climbing Mount Huayna Potosí; I definitely surprised myself completing the climb, as it was probably the most physically demanding event of my life. The endorphins certainly lasted for days after; and I think all four of us were still in a daze of accomplishment at what we’d done when we went for dinner. Supposedly the climb is not “hard”, and yet I’d say we all felt it was extremely challenging due to the high altitude.

I thought you might be proud of your bookish friend for climbing a mountain. 

Lots of xoxo,

Cici