Sunday, June 7, 2015

We went to Machu PIcchu!

So, I arrived back in Rio on an early Saturday morning (think 5 am), and after a painful 40 minutes waiting to have my passport examined at the airport, I jumped into a cab and ran home to see the boys. In the next four hours, I had to empty my two huge suitcases and re-pack them because that same day, at 3 pm, the Diplomat, Son and I left for Peru for vacation. I am proud to say that we made it to the airport with time to spare and with perfectly packaged luggage.

Lima is a lovely city with incredible food. Everyone has been talking how in the past few years Peruvian food has been one of the best and the most innovative in the world. And it is! Besides cebiche (oh, my God, the cebiche!!), I can’t really say what is typically Peruvian food. Each restaurant has a chef trying to outdo everyone else with creative, at times odd combinations of ingredients, presented exquisitely to the eager eater. One of the nights, I took the Diplomat to dinner for his birthday at one of the fanciest Lima establishments, Maido, featuring Nikkei cuisine (that unique Peruvian-Japanese combo that is, errr, unique? Think cebiche sushi. Yeah, can’t explain it. Anyway). After we overdosed on cebiche and pisco sours, and listened to Son complain for 3 days straight that he was too tired to walk around the city (he was not, blasted child was just bored), we flew to Cusco to begin our amazing Machu Picchu experience.

Now, you might have heard that Machu Picchu is so high up that ordinary tourist folks (like us) suffer from the high altitude. We armed ourselves amply with soroche pills, offered to me by a stone-faced pharmacist in Lima, and were sure to take them before getting on the plane in Cusco, as advised. We gave Son the child equivalent. Either the pills were full of crap and I am amazing, or the pills worked only on me because, folks, let me tell you – altitude sickness hit the Diplomat and Son like a ton of high altitude bricks, while all it did to me was to make me out of breath when climbing steep streets, which was more probably due to my ever expanding posterior rather than rarified air. We started off with a mistake by beginning our tour in Cusco. Cusco is 3,400 m (11,200 ft) above the sea level (at which we live in Rio, by the way), and Machu Picchu itself is at 3,200. Oddly, 200 ft make a difference!

Exactly 8 minutes after we arrived, the Diplomat decided he was already badly affected and began complaining. Son complained too, for good measure. We piled into a cab from the Cusco airport, and went to our fabulous digs at the Sonesta Hotel, a most amazing, cheap hotel in the middle of it all. I was excited and giddy to be there. I had been dreaming my whole life to go to Cusco and Machu Picchu. I was actually on my bucket list. It was all so exotic and ancient and ruin-y and enchanting, and very much lacking in oxygen as far as the Diplomat and Son were concerned. We were greeted by copious amounts of coca-leaf tea (nothing to write home about, so don’t get excited) and some of the most hospitable people I have ever seen this side of the ocean. After we dumped our luggage, I put on all of our sweaters (you must know that I detest being cold; I revel in heat and humidity and shiver the moment it falls below 20 Celsius) and marshaled the gasping Diplomat and the unwilling child to climb through the enchanted steep streets of Cusco to have dinner at the acclaimed and romantic Pachapapa. All through Son kept complaining that he was not feeling well (I did not believe him), and the Diplomat kept stopping and rubbing his chest (I did not believe him either). We pushed through and had a lovely dinner. We took a cab back.

In the middle of the night I was woken up by loud noises in the bathroom, and was son told that Son had just thrown up. Son is 6 and a half years old. He has thrown up exactly one other time in his entire life. Clearly, he was not faking it. I suppose it was possible the Diplomat was not faking it either. So, the next morning, after I took both of my weakened men to breakfast, I decided to leave them to recuperate in the hotel room and go see the local ruins by myself with a promise to come back at lunch. I hired a cab and set out to explore old Inca ruins above the city with amazing names like Sacsayhuamán. During the trip I got a great taste of Inca architecture, acquired two alpaca sweaters and took a side trip on a horse (my first time on a horse, actually). Happy and slightly out of breath, I came back to the hotel to pick up the men, sure that they were in much better shape and ready for lunch. Instead, I found the Diplomat morosely drinking gallons of mint tea, and Son wearing a giant oxygen mask, playing a game on the Diplomat’s kindle in the hotel lobby. A sorry sight indeed. Everyone eventually pulled themselves together and we managed to see the city in the next two days and to eat even more amazing, creative food.

From Cusco, we hired a cab and took the 2-hour drive to Ollantaytambo, a cute little town from where one takes the train to Aguas Calientes, the starting point for Machu Picchu. Oddly, there are two different companies running trains to Aguas – the Inca and Peru Rail, and arguably one is better than the other. I can’t say – it is a one hour journey through fabulous scenery and unless you are booking the Hiram Bingham express (which is a fancy train with a 5-course meal), I’d think that all you care about are the cost and time of the train. We ended up with Inca Rail, purely as a function of those two factors. Perhaps here is a good time to mention that I managed to book the entire trip online, from the hotels, to the trains and to the tickets for Machu Picchu itself. If your travel plans are more or less firm, I’d recommend you do the same for peace of mind and in order to use a credit card. 
Here is what you need:
·         From Lima to Cusco
o   Star Peru - http://www.starperu.com/
o   Pervian Air - http://www.peruvian.pe/en
·         From Cusco to Ollantaytambo
o   Hire a cab, 3-4 hrs – 100 pesos (about $30)
·         From Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes
o   Inca Rail - http://incarail.com/
o   Peru Rail - http://www.perurail.com/
·         From Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu park
o   Shuttle bus from town center, buy tickets the night before to avoid long lines, $19
·         Machu Picchu - http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/
Or you can climb the whole thing. I am sure it’s fun.
While we were sitting in the restaurant at the train station in Ollantaytambo, waiting for the train, we stumbled upon none other than Son’s first grade teacher. Coincidentally, he had spent the last 2 days complaining how much he missed her and looking to buy her a gift. In fact, we had just spent 30 mins explaining to him who we could not call her from Peru (1. Did not have her number, 2. Would be really weird). So, meeting here there was fairly surreal.

The train ride up to Aguas is enchanting, as the tracks wind along the lovely Urubamba river, surrounded by tall, stark mountains and lush vegetation. We got there, settled into a cheap hotel, ate a really bad dinner in the next-door restaurant and fell into a coma, anxiously anticipating the next day. We got up at dawn and ran to the bus up to Machu, ostensibly to avoid the crowds up there. The thing is, everyone does the exact same thing so the result is that you end up with the crowds anyway. Frankly, my recommendation is to get up like a normal person, have a good breakfast, pack a lunch and head out around 10 am. Unless you are climbing one of the mountains there, you’ll have plenty of time to see everything, have a picnic lunch (secretly!), and climb around some more.
It is tough to describe Machu Picchu, frankly. Y’all have seen it in pictures, and as I write this, I am watching a National Geographic story on it (which happened thoroughly randomly, and the coincidence is freaky!). It looks exactly the same in real life. What is astonishing about it is the extent of preservation of the construction, the phenomenal engineering thought behind it, its purpose and its location. Frankly, it seems to me that there is no consensus on the purpose of the place – our tour guide told us that MP was largely a science laboratory, which on an average day had about 200 scientists and a bunch of support staff, with families staying elsewhere. There were agronomists (the Incas were mad about growing quinoa and corn, for example, and those terraces that you see in the pictures were used to saw things and see how they grow and experiment with cross-cultures); astronomers, physicists, engineers, all kinds of educated folk. Naturally, the King and his retinue hung out there a lot as well. There are temples and granaries, and living space, and all is incredibly well preserved. It seems that it was largely built during the reign of a king whose name I can’t remember even if the preservation of the human race depended on it (it has more consonants than a Polish word), and it seems to have been perfected and finished in the span of 3 generations of people (then again, keep in mind that the average age of death back then was 45 – too much quinoa, I suppose).

After the guide left us a couple of hours later (yes, I do recommend getting a guide), we ambled around pleasantly and decided to climb towards the Sun Gate (a rather un-challenging hike, which we were told would take less than an hour). Plus, Son needed to use the bathroom urgently and the only official bathroom is actually located outside MP. So, if you have gone all the way down to see the lower parts of MP, and then the roasted guinea pig from last night (oh yes, it is a local delicacy, you didn’t know??) decided to remind you about itself in your stomach, that means that you have to sprint all the way up to the entrance of the park, pushing eager tourists aside, gasping for air, fumbling your ticket for re-validation and trying to find pocket change to pay your way into the bathroom (of course it is not free, whoever has heard of such absurd concept as a free public toilet!). Instead, we decided to go for a hike and find a nice secluded spot for Son to enrich Mother Nature. With that successfully done, we panted through another 30 mins or so up, being passed by spritely old ladies and grandpas in khaki shorts, large white sneakers and climbing poles. At that point, the Diplomat was theatrically clutching his chest, gasping for air, Son kept running around like a billy goat and I decided that I will leave the Sun Gate for the next time I go see Machu Picchu. Relieved, we all went back down and just as were nearing the exit, it began to pour down.

Few hours later, we were back on the train to Aguas Calientes where we were to spend the night at a funky B&B I had found on Airbnb.com. The room I booked couple of night before that was pretty much the only one available in the village that night. I was a bit apprehensive as it did mention that it had a shared bathroom but it seemed that there was only one other room on the same floor, so I was OK with that.  We arrived at 8 pm, in total darkness, and were taken to the B&B by a rickety auto rickshaw (up, in Peru, it exists). We entered into the funkiest entrance, which was clearly designed and adorned by a bunch of drunk hippies on a creative high, and were greeted by two teenagers, one of whom was higher than Bob Dylan during Woodstock and the other was a French girl, who apparently was there on a two-week student work-travel exchange, which seemed to constitute of her sleeping with the stoner Pervuan teenager, smoking pot for breakfast, perfecting her highly accented Spanish and providing dubious guest care. Incredibly exhausted by a day at Machu Picchu, all I could do was ask for our room and the bathroom. Then, incredibly, Peruvian Dylan, who could barely say a word straight, turned around and opened a door to a room, which was separated by the rest of the entrance area by mere glass and severely dirty curtains. Inside were two sets of bunk beds, all made of unpolished wood and covered by the most fantastic colorful blankets, which were probably washed last year.  Then he pointed to the bathroom. It turned out to be a tiny thing with a toilet seat and a shower, to be shared by anyone who happened to be on that first floor and the reception. At that point, the French youth cheerfully went to make me mint tea. It was surreal. Son, however, was happy and immediately chose the bunk above my bed.

Eventually, the Diplomat and I went to our respective bunks and I tried to fall asleep only to be woken up by the French girl, who (30 mins later) had brought me my tea. I didn't drink it, it tasted like pot. I fell asleep again and I woke up, frozen to death, around 7 am and decided to go for breakfast. To my dismay, there was no electricity in the whole village. I cannot say that Ollantaytambo was a great success in our book, although the tiny main square was certainly picturesque and the Diplomat swears it was the best sleep he had gotten on the entire trip. From there, we went back to Cusco, stopping by Pisac to see some more excellent Inca ruins, and then by our old hotel to pick up the rest of the luggage we had stored there before leaving for MP (you can’t take much luggage on the train up). Once we landed back in Lima, and I got off the plane and took my first full breath of polluted air, I realized just how rarefied the air had been in Cusco. It was glorious to be able to breathe oxygen again.

Overall, Peru was wonderful and I highly recommend it to everyone!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

From Rio to Beirut, with a sidestep to Cyprus

I am currently on that elusive Holy Grail of the Foreign Service – the TDY, or a “temporary duty assignment.” TDY means that an officer is posted temporarily to a post other than her permanent one in order to help out said post due to shortage of officers there for whatever reason. Posts that can spare officers at one point or another send them to help out a short-staffed one for 3 to 4 weeks at a time, and after that the wandering soul returns to the warm folds of her permanent assignment. I was lucky enough to be sent to Beirut, Lebanon for 4 weeks, to help out their consular section.

Massaya Winery restaurant
While Beirut may sound very exotic to my reader, I have to tell you that life at Embassy Beirut is not the easiest, mainly because of the many restrictions Embassy folks face due to the security situation in the region. I have been insanely lucky though since I happen to have one of my A100 partners in crime, K-G, serving here and making sure that I am having a fabulous time. I cannot thank her enough. Largely thanks to her, I managed to see ancient Roman ruins, the museum of the famous Khalil Gibran, visited the charming Massaya winery and drank their incredible wine, went shopping for (unreasonably pricey) gorgeous Lebanese antiques and crafts, and even flew to Cyprus for a weekend where the ambitious K-G ran a 5K race, while I cheered on and sat comfortably on the grass. She has also opened her kitchen to me, which means that I get to have home-cooked meals every night, something the rest of the TDY crowd here can only dream of (they tend to eat their meals at the cafeteria).



I live on the Embassy compound, in a so-called hotel, which can be best described as a co-ed college dorm but with a bar and bigger rooms with their own bathrooms and TVs. Because of its size, Embassy Beirut needs a lot of TDY help, which means that the hotel is always full. I am currently the only woman on TDY, which makes everyone hilariously uncomfortable when I go to do laundry in the basement. On the positive side, the room is very comfy and the commute to the consular section is 45 seconds as it is across the street from the hotel.

I left the Diplomat and Son to fend for each other in Rio. Naturally, Son, a very healthy child knock on wood, chose to get quite ill a week after I left. He developed a viral infection, accompanied by 104F degrees fever and strep throat, and entertained the Diplomat with it over the 3-day Easter weekend and a couple of days after that. Apparently, he decided to wake up multiple times per night, as well as have a couple of his infamous nosebleeds (I hear the Turkish carpet took a blow) while testing the Diplomat’s excellent daddy skills. After a short trip to the children’s hospital over the weekend, he was given antibiotics and slowly put on the mending path. I will now take a moment to discuss the immense increase in free communication methods over the past few years. In the past 3 weeks, the Diplomat, Son and I have spoken and seen each other over Viber, Gmail chat, Skype, Facebook voice and chat, and Whatsapp. It is astonishing how much the world has progressed in that respect despite the really bad internet service I get at the hotel here. So, while Son was ill, I would spend an hour daily entertaining him over Gmail chat. I have to say that Skype fails miserably every time the internet connection is not perfect while Gmail chat has always been, if at times grainy, a winner. To pass the time, I’d ask the morose child to dance while I play music for him and dance on my end, after which we would both collapse on each side of the ocean laughing hysterically. God bless technology. I miss my family.

Again thanks to K-G, I also managed to go out to dinner at several fabulous local restaurants. Lebanese cuisine is superb and I can never get tired of it. (OK, I CAN but it will take a while). A particularly exciting night took us to the legendary establishment of Em Sherif, which took over a week to secure reservations. The moment we entered, we instantly knew that we were woefully underdressed and under-make-uped for the restaurant. As we poured out of the Embassy vehicle onto the front steps, a tuxedo-ed guard gave us a stern look, clearly disapproving of my jeans and a sweater (in my defense, I had no idea where we were going and it was a solid 55F outside). With distaste written all over his face, he showed us inside what appeared to be a small banquet hall clearly prepared to host the post-wedding reception of Kate Middleton and Prince William. So many silver plates, so many embroidered napkins, so many sparkling wine glasses. And no other customers – we were the first ones for the night. After we announced that we had a reservation, the maître d' reluctantly led us to a spectacularly laden table for four and disappeared for a while. Finally he re-appeared, bent over and intently asked, “You eat?” Sure, why not buddy, since we ARE in a restaurant, after all, might just as well eat. We asked for the menu, and I swear, I heard the entire staff of the place let out a collective gasp. “NO MENU!,” snapped the indignant waiter and stared at us defensively. In case you wonder, we were confused as the “no menu” part was not immediately obvious to us. “We bring food, you eat!” he said menacingly and waited to see if we would object to that. We dared not. We just sat there, blinking, beginning to expect amazing things.

He disappeared again, and a new guy materialized at the table and asked in a high pitched voice, “You drink??” Absolutely, my friend, we drink. Bring it on! Thankfully, this time he brought a menu and stood there, imperiously looking at us to hear our wine choice. We chose and he went away. All of a sudden food dishes began to appear at our table with lightning speed. In under 50 seconds, there were over 20 plates with various scrumptious appetizers (or shall we say, meze) ready to be sampled, with more on the way. I am not going to lie - the food was superb and we ate without a drop of grace!
In the meantime, more people began coming in the restaurant, which was soon quite full with people all seemingly dressed for the imaginary wedding. Now, let me tell you about Lebanese women and fashion. There isn’t a shoe with heels as high in Kim Kardashian’s closet as there are on every gentle Lebanese female foot. Platform pumps 8 inches high are complemented with astoundingly tight dresses and hair so perfectly coifed that any geisha would hide in shame. Lebanese women as quite fashion forward and carry themselves with a respective poise. For example, this weekend, as I was climbing the super steep stairs to a Virgin Mary statue high on a hill, there were at least 6 women in said heels climbing the same steps ahead of me with the grace of mountain goats. But I digress in my fascination.

As I was staring at and oohing and aahing over the fashionistas, suddenly a super famous and quite fetching music star (Ragheb Subhi Alama) walked in the restaurant and all the ladies simply lost it. All ran on those high heels and congregated around him. From who knows where, a paparazzi photographer popped up and began snapping photos of the exquisite ladies and the famous dude. The noise and the chaos were contributing to a happy circus, which combined with the excellent food and the second bottle of Masaya Reserve made our severely underdressed party of four feel a happy part of the fabled nightlife of Beirut. 

Getting back to Lebanese food, I must pronounce it outstanding. It is, in fact, very healthy as it consists of a lot of grilled meat, fresh salads and cooked vegetables with rivers of yogurt and mountains of pita bread. I also had the happy chance to try Armenian food, which, truth be told, resembled Lebanese in a lot of respects apart from the pure Armenian specialties. If I could pack a kilo of hummus, I would, but I can’t. Instead, I have set a goal of eating a kilo of hummus per day on the spot.

I was lucky enough to be here over two Easter weekends – the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox ones – which made for a very festive environment for most of my TDY tour. Beirut has quite a few churches, which coexist happily right next to lovely mosques, thus representing the very diverse religious make of the country (it has a fairly even mix of Shias, Sunis and Christians) and even managed to get myself into the main Greek Orthodox church this past weekend, right in the middle of the Easter service.

Beirut is a city in constant construction. Ruined in the span of several wars, most recently in 2006, the city is constantly rebuilding itself and the landscape includes hundreds of giant cranes and the skeletons of new buildings going up. I would be so curious what it would look like in 10 years. It has the glamorous areas with the obscenely expensive designer boutiques, the streets cluttered with bars, the expensive hotels. But it also has the Corniche, the lovely seaside promenade where people in the evening to jog, get together with friends, smoke a hookah, listen to loud hip hop in Arabic, streaming from the stereos of the cars parked nearby, make out with your date, walk your dog or hang out with your large family while all the kids roll about on bikes. It also has a petrifying Teleferique, or a gondola lift, which takes you 650 from the sea level up to the steep hills towering over Beirut, in a tiny little cabin, within a mere 9 minutes. It does offer stunning views of the city, that is, if you dare open your eyes during the journey. At the top, there is further climbing up to see Our Lady of Lebanon (where I observed the aforementioned high-heeled ladies prancing about the stairs of the monument), from where one can see a spectacular view of the city.

The dizzifying teleferique
Yup, Lebanon is an incredibly versatile city and I loved being here – thank you for making me feel so welcome, Embassy Beirut!


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Rio Carnaval and How I Thought I Was Going To Die

You know, I do promise myself to write more often. I used to write like, twice a week back in the day. But it was Carnaval in Rio and you gotta be here to understand! CARNAVAL IN RIO! Sounds positively fabulous, and frankly, it IS. Carnaval itself has a few days of shows at the Sambadrome (yup, they have a stadium made especially for Carnaval, that’s how big it is), where various samba schools will put on a massive show and slowly parade in front of the spectators. Depending on which day you go, you can see the B-list or the A-listers. Usually, folks go on one of the two nights the A-list schools parade – the shows are on TV as well and run all night. One school parade would take up to one hour and 20 mins (anything more, and the school gets point subtracted from its overall score) to parade down the 700 meters of the Sambadrome, and there are 7 schools per night. The shows start at 9ish and as you can figure yourselves if you do the math, that means that the night is over at about 7 am.

Part of the Swiss themed school:
Alien was designed by a Swiss guy. Who knew?!
Each school would have hundreds of people in it, a bunch of floats and a theme. The themes can be creative or, frankly, puzzling. For example, one school’s theme was Switzerland and so each group of dancers and floats represented various aspects of Swiss life. Yup, Switzerland. Because if there is anything that screams Carnaval in Rio it is that rowdy country of Switzerland. Another school’s theme was the End of the World. I must say it was rather entertaining – with the message, “if tomorrow were the end of the world, what would you do?” Each group of dancers (there are about 50, I think in each marching group) kept marching with messages like, “Did you eat enough?” “Did you stay stuck in traffic?” “Did you see the world?” and yes, as you can imagine, also “Did you have sex enough?” This last one came on an actual float (there are usually about 5-6 large floats in each school), which had several nice, residential house doors, painted in bright colors, from which suddenly about 50 butt-naked people jumped out and started making out right in front of us.
A Spectacular Float


To be honest though, a large part of the performers in Carnaval don’t exactly come with much on anyway – pasties and glitter is considered a fairly decent outfit there. So yeah, it is entertaining all right.
Various costumes, all part of one a school - a float in the back
The Diplomat and I had bought some pricey tickets for the first night which allowed us to be at the ground level, right next to the marching schools, and could touch and yell delightedly at everyone. Also, apparently our box was right underneath the box for the judges, which meant that each school would stop right in front of us and perform their numbers (rather than just walk). Which would explain why the whole naked scene unfolded uncannily smack dab in front of our eyes. The night did not start well –as we were leaving home, it began to pour and continued to do for the next 4 hours. It does not rain like this in Rio. Ever. Undaunted, we got there and bought the thinnest, most inefficient and cheap plastic raincoats possible. While trying to adjust it over my head, I ripped it on the neck, which meant that for the next 3 hours, I had water slither down my back. So fun. But the show must go on and the samba schools paraded with smiles so big you’d think it was raining gold.

We were lucky to go with a bunch of good friends, including a good buddy of mine from my A100 class who serves in neighboring Ecuador and got enticed to come and see this fabled Carnaval business. We had a blast but due to general fatigue had to leave around 4 am. Apparently, I had so much fun that, in a fit of suicidal enthusiasm, I decided that it would be a phenomenal idea to go and watch the second night of the parade and that time, folks, I was determined to make it all the way till the end! We had some fabulous friends visiting us from Jamaica who had left too early the previous night and were game to go with me as well. The Diplomat stayed back to babysit. And sleep. We managed to score some tickets online, but sadly, those were in nosebleeds and let me tell you – it was not the same. True, you can see the action sort of as a big picture, but the excitement and hysteria of the nearness to the sweaty costumed screaming, dancing and singing bodies was not there. We did make it to the end, though! We managed to get back home by 7.30 am, where I greeted the wide-eyed and Diplomat and Son who were just sitting down to breakfast, and passed out till 2 pm. Verdict – Carnaval was awesome and everything they say it is!

The very next weekend I had to fly back to the U.S. for 3 days for a doctor’s appointment and that is when I thought my time to die had come. After my appointment, I ran to Costco, that Mecca of consumerism where I bought everything I could possibly need in the next 34 years, and then some more that I positively did not. Thankfully, all flights from and to Brazil allow you two suitcases 70 lbs each! Then I rushed to Marshalls and bought shoes for the men (things like that are beastly expensive in Brazil), and then off to the malls for some more useless stuff. I have to be honest, it was great to be back home! Fantastic service, any possible cuisine that you might desire, big portions, and most of all – cheap! Exhausted but excited to get back to the boys back in Rio, around 9 pm on Sunday, I checked in my giant suitcases and boarded the short 40 min flight from Orlando to Miami, from where I was going to catch the 11 pm to Rio. Once we took off, and after the pilot announced that due to the shortness of the flight there would be no service (LAZY!), I tiredly ruminated whether it was worth falling asleep or should I just read my book. As I was cracking my book open, suddenly the plane shook with a massive thump. Then 10 seconds later, again. And again. And again. At which point I noticed that the left engine was engulfed in flames. Bright, happy, yellow flames. The engine kept thumping for what seemed like forever, and then I noticed that no one but me seemed to be noticing the situation. All I wanted to do was scream – “THE PLANE IS ON F-ING FIRE!!!!” But I didn’t, I am not that kind of a gal. I am cool and composed, and very, very calm. So, instead, I burst out in tears. Finally, people started talking loudly and stewardesses and some dudes that looked like pilots (which made my wonder who the hell is flying the plane) started running frantically about the aisles.

It did occur to me much later that most people had no idea the engine was on fire since they were sitting away from it. I, on the other hand, had the fantastic privilege to be sitting right in the line of sight, where I could see it bright and engulfing like 4th of July fireworks. Then finally the flames were out (later on I learned that there is a way to extinguish the fire internally). Eventually, the captain decided to say something, and told us that we seem to be having a bit of a mechanical issue, no big deal really, practically routine and the plane seems to be flying just fine. JUST FINE??????
After prattling cheerfully about it for a minute or so (while we were plummeting to our death as it seemed to me), he said that he is thinking of turning around to go back to Orlando to check it out. You know, no big deal or anything! By then, I was NOT the only one crying in shock. So was the 22 year old Brazilian dude next to me with biceps so big, he could probably fly on his own had he decided to try it. His dad was between us and was calming both of us down. A stewardess came and told us all how normal it all was and how it was just a precautionary measure. 

At which point, the captain suddenly spoke again, this time sort of yelling at everyone to stop talking, hunker down in our seats, shove everything underneath and prepare for emergency landing. I am no expert on human emotion, but folks, that dude sounded petrified! Which, naturally, did wonders for our mood in the back, and now half of the plane was filled with the howling of hysterical middle-aged women, myself proudly included. The plane made a sharp turn (and so did the insides of my stomach along with it), and began a sharp descent with the cabin in full darkness. It was all very sinister and pretty much everyone was freaking out  and praying. All I could think about were all those recent plane crashes and how I really, really did not want to die. Truly inopportunely, right at that moment, all the TVs on the plane lit up and a perky blond stewardess began to thank us profusely for flying American Airlines. The pilot swiftly turned it off, but then it obstinately re-appeared again, this time emphasizing what a pleasure it is for them to have us onboard. Finally, someone had the brains to turn them all off. We landed in 10 minutes and they were some of the longest in my life. We were whisked off the plane and then stood there, wondering what in the hell to do with ourselves. If you’d think that anyone from the airline came to say – “hey, we are sorry this happened, is everyone OK?” – then you are a naïve fool. As a matter of fact, as we were standing there, asking the lady at the desk what to do next, she yelled at us not to crowd her. Good job, American Airlines, you are SUCH a star airline!


It took over 4 hours to be re-booked on the same flight the next day, and by 1 am, I was beyond exhausted. I returned to Brazil the next day without incident. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

India (briefly) and the beginning of Carnaval 2015

Well, by now enough time has passed that so many interesting things are happening in RIO that I’d rather talk about that than the India trip. Which is a shame. Hm, ok, a couple of paragraphs on India!

We spent the first three days in Varanasi – a one of the oldest cities in the world, and the religious capital of all Hindus . It sprawls on the banks of the Ganga river and every devout Hindu wants to go there to bathe in the river before they die.  Another goal is to actually die there because apparently that will ensure eternal peace of the soul (called moksha) and no more irksome reincarnation. Thus, quite a few people who feel it is their time to die soon, say their goodbyes to the world and move to Varanasi to stay in a “liberation house” and wait to die. Sometimes they come with family, often – alone. When they die, they get burned on a funeral pyre on the banks of the river and that is that.
As you can imagine, all that means that Varanasi is quite the unique city. The access to the river is through the so-called “ghats” or piers, of which there are about 100, all built next to each other by various former rulers, politicians and other VIPs. Almost all are “bathing” ghats, where Hindus go at daybreak to bathe ritualistically and pray before they start their day. On the same ghats, at sunset, they come to perform or to listen to the night prayer as well. There are many priests who perform the ornate prayer ceremonies, but some of the ghats feature especially spectacular night prayer (the night aarati, also known as the light ceremony). Only 2 of the ghats, Raja Harishchandra Ghat and the Manikarnika Ghat, are authorized to have funeral pyres, and the fancier of the two, Manikarnika, is controlled by the wealthy Dom family. The Doms belong to the lowest of the Hindu casts, the “untouchables,” and they perform the cremations and care for the grim business of dying on the banks of the Ganga. The current head of the Dom family, the “Dom Raja” is a multimillionaire because it seems that his family charges quite a pretty penny to have you burned at their ghat. In exchange, he will provide you with the 5 starter logs of mango tree to start the pyre that will grant the soul of the departed the coveted moksha. The ghat is indeed a grisly sight. During a lovely leisurely walk along the river, watching the sunset, being watched by the local peddlers, the Diplomat, Mom and I stumbled upon the Harishchandra Ghat quite unexpectedly. So much so that I practically stepped on the listless, rather dead arm of a burning body on a pyre. You see, I always thought that the whole funeral pyre thing was supposed to be this elevated, beautiful, ethereal affair. Rather, the dead body is brought on a bamboo stretcher, put on the ground on the bank of the river, a bunch of wood logs are stacked on top and lit on fire. For some reason the pyre does not include the protruding limbs and head, which are later on pushed under the smoldering body. There are anywhere from 10 to 25 pyres on each ghat at any given time of the day. There is nothing elevated or ethereal about it. It just is.

The next morning, desirous to observe the sacred bathing rituals at dawn, Mom and I rented a rowboat for what turned out to be an excruciating 2-hour slow, breezy float up and down the river at 5 am, at 5 degrees Celsius (40 Fahrenheit), while wearing a t-shirt and a sweater for me, and a light jacket for her. It was still pitch black outside, the ghats were completely deserted save for the occasional local bather (see, December isn’t exactly the tourist bathing season in Varanasi given the intense cold) and, to enhance the effect, there was thick fog spreading over the river. It was absolutely fantastic, despite the fact that my fingers got frostbite and Mom slipped on the ghat steps when we were leaving the boat since her legs were so stiff from the cold that she was unable to lift them up the stairs of the ghat. We still managed to see quite a few devotees bathing gamely in the freezing waters, dipping fully inside and then brushing their teeth with Colgate toothpaste, all with river water. I was impressed – just looking at them made me feel even colder.

From freezing Varanasi, we went back to freezing Delhi where we took Mom to the spice market and Karim’s for lunch, while Son was terrorizing the InLaws in the hotel. We also managed to squeeze in the Diplomat’s 20th college reunion which fortuitously was happening right when we were in Delhi, and a brief wedding reception hosted by a couple of our best friends from Dhaka for a family member, again fortuitously happening while we were visiting.

From the freezing north, we finally flew into the enveloping warmth of the gorgeous Kerala state. While the InLaws went straight back to Chennai, the Diplomat, Mom, Son and I spent three wonderfully warm days in Kochi and its surroundings. One of the things to do there is to spend the night on a houseboat, and I was hell bent on doing just that. It all sounded just so romantic – to sail on a regal-looking houseboat through the peaceful, verdant tributaries of the Kerala backwaters, having food cooked fresh on the boat, and then sleeping to the sound of splashing waves. My ever obliging Father-in-Law promptly arranged a boat for us, and so on the morning of our second to last day in Kerala, all four of us piled up on the lovely boat, and soon were gently rolling through the backwaters. So were 93 other boathouses as well. Turns out, there are about 3000 such boats in the backwaters, and they all take more or less the same route. At the same time. The net result is that wherever you turn your head as you lazily stretch on the rattan sofa on the front veranda of the boat, there inevitably will be another boat with another tourist lazily spread on just the same rattan sofa, staring all the same at you.  Determined to keep the romance of the situation alive, Mom and I succumbed to the upselling of the boat captain, and stopped to take a one-hour canoe ride on a side tributary. The canoe guy mist have been about 112 years old, and rowed like his life depended on it. It was actually delightful to be able to explore life on the small river, and to glimpse into the simple, rural life in the houses strung along the river banks.

Another upsell included a one-hour Ayurveda massage at a different stop for only $25. I can always stop for a good massage so we agreed. Apparently, so had the customers of another 35 boats. What was supposed to be an idyllic, holistic massage in a small village (a business apparently owned by the brother of the boat captain), turned out to be a regular tourist circus. It was in a village alright, and the massage parlor premises were in a small, one-story building. Business wasn’t apparently too good since the building wasn’t even painted. In the somewhat dingy inside, several Indian ladies of respectable age were sitting on cement benches, probably waiting for their turn. Outside, a posse of urgent-looking middle-aged men was standing around the front door seemingly without any particular function save for staring at the waiting women. Right next to the parlor was a rabbit coup with several cute bunnies. Which, while very cute, also smelled a bit. After a brief family discussion, we politely but firmly declined the massages. In the evening, the captain moored the boat for the night right next to the village mosque, and the imam entertained us with his evening call to prayer at 7 and 9, and then at 4.30 am as well. The food on the boat was delicious indeed, and included fish with every meal, appropriately spiced. We were sent to bed at 10 pm. Overall, I would recommend the boat ride but the overnight part is perhaps overrated.

From Kochi, we flew to our final destination Chennai to spend a few days with the Diplomat’s family. I have always loved his Uncle’s family and we had a blast there as usual. It also happened that we were going to spend the New Year’s Eve in Chennai as well and so the Diplomat and I decided to leave parents and child behind and spend the festive night at a good party in a fancy hotel. After some perfunctory research, we chose the Taj Vivanta Connemara where we were promised a banging party by the pool. We were by the pool alright, except that the party was inside and if we heard a song we wanted to dance to, we had to ditch everything and run inside to catch its last few tunes. I was the only white person there, and every time I made an appearance on the dance floor, I was closely monitored by a large gaggle of teenagers who erupted in unbridled laughter whenever I tried to bust a Bollywood move. Needless to say, I was discouraged. I was even more so discouraged when the party ended at 12.30 am. Apparently, no establishment in the city can party (officially) after that. Happy New Year, party poopers! I flew back to Brazil the following day by myself (the Diplomat and Son stayed an extra week and Mom went back to Bulgaria) and spent a week doing a juice cleanse and binge watching Downton Abbey. A week later, a very jet-legged Diplomat and Son returned and life was soon back to normal. Another epic Indian journey was over.

I am happy to report that social life in Rio has actually picked up palpably. These past few weeks have been a considerable madness. Among the more exciting events were the opening of a new burger restaurant in Leblon, the OMG Burger Lounge by a fellow Indian American (spectacular burgers, home-brewed beer(!)); a fabulous  at-home “surprise” dinner cooked by a gourmet Canadian chef (the idea is that you go to his house and he cooks a surprise 5-course meal for a group of 6, we were happy to be some of the chef’s test bunnies as he works on the concept); an incredible rooftop party for some of the sponsors of the Olympic Games; a goodbye dinner at our house for a departing colleague (homemade mushroom soup, made from scratch pappardelle with lamb ragu, decadent homemade tiramisu – yup, I can cook too!); an all-night Carnaval dress rehearsal for a Samba school with a bunch of colleagues; a classy reception by the British Consulate and an afternoon BBQ on yet another rooftop terrace. In the midst of all this it turned out that I had managed to pick up a parasite who lived happily in my belly for some time, causing me to eat massive quantities of food and no little amount of pain. So, for about a week, I survived on anti-nausea pills and parasite medication. My spirits, however, were not dampened!

As of this past week, we are officially in Carnaval mode, which means countless organized street parties, aka blocos, festive mood and, of course, Carnaval itself. A bloco is in essence an organized street madness with a defined route of 3-4 streets, a medium-sized float made up of a truck and a bunch of VERY happy people on top of it, a theme and booming music from the top of the float, anywhere from 10,000 to 200,000 people following the float drunkenly around the streets (median age is 23), and a lot of foul-smelling Port-a-Potties. The level of excitement is incredible and the point of the bloco seems to be to drink for the sake of, well, drinking, hanging out with friends,and possibly even listening to the music. Some of the blocos are famous (for example, today we have the Sgt. Pepper-themed bloco featuring Beatles’ songs) and are attended by hundreds of thousands of people who drink, sing, dance and are generally super merry. Almost everyone is in costume of some sort and about 98% of all men are shirtless. It is common practice for a guy to suddenly grab a girl (randomly met in the crowd) and French-kiss her while his buddies are screamingly delightedly “beijo, beijo, beijo!!” (which means “kiss” in case that wasn’t obvious). Yup, there is a lot of love in a bloco. There is also an extraordinary amount of beer.


I have been incredibly impressed with the city of Rio, who obviously have this Carnaval/bloco thing down to a science. As you can imagine, the amount of trash generated by such happy party-goers is staggering. Completely undaunted, the city has trash trucks and a small army of street cleaners following the end of each bloco, and most of the time, a mere hour after it is over, there isn’t a trace of it on the streets save for the streamers up in the tree tops. 

I will tell you one thing though - it has been an interesting experience going to work in this environment. All the blocos mean that half of the city streets are closed off, and my uusal 40 min commute to and back from work turns into a 2-hour one. Woo-hoo! But Carnaval or not, folks want their visas and so work we must!
Tonight, however, off to the Sambodromo for night 1 of Rio Carnaval 2015! 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Our Big Fat Indian Family Vacation - Part 1

So, we were due for our annual Rest and Recuperation vacation and decided to go to India. Now, you would probably think that typically people who serve in India would go rest and recuperate in Rio de Janeiro. Not us. We are not that kind of people, thank you very much. That is not how WE rest. Indeed, we scoff at rest (no, we don't). Actually, the reason for the trip was that the Diplomat’s mom was not well and we decided to go visit her en masse and raise her spirits. To add to the fun, my own Mom decided that it was high time she visited India and the InLaws – we have been planning this trip ever since we got married 11 years ago. The logistics were daunting:

1.       Mom flies to Mumbai to stay a week with InLaws before we arrive.
2.       We fly to meet Mom and InLaws in Varanasi, using a Rio-London-Delhi-Varansi route = 3 flights.
3.       After 3 days in Varanasi, we, Mom and InLaws fly back to Delhi for a 3-day stint = 1 flight.
4.       InLaws fly to Chennai to wait for us, while we and Mom fly to Kerala for another 3-day tourist stint = 1 flight.
5.       Mom and we then fly to Chennai to be with InLaws and selected other relatives = 1 flight.
6.       Mom and I return to Bulgaria and Rio respectively. I fly Chennai-Delhi-London-Rio = 3 flights.
7.       The Diplomat and Son stayed for an extra week in Chennai, and then came back.

So, if you counted, that is 9 flights per person to India, which was enormous fun. I found particularly fun the satisfying succession of a 9.5-hour flight to London and a 12-hour flight to Delhi, followed by a rapid and hair raising cab ride from the international to the domestic terminal there (a mere 7 km) in order to catch a fairly close domestic flight to Varanasi. I am flied out.

Folks, air travel is not as much fun as it used to be. I know this is a truism, but I still need to say it. It is NOT fun. For one thing, pre-boarding has turned into a farce! “Welcome to flight 666 to London. At this moment, we would like to invite the Queen of England to board. Then we would like to invite our diamond members. Now we invite ruby and sapphire members. Then the platinum ones. Then our gold, silver, copper, nickel and dime ones. Then the peeps with kids. Then those with cats. Then those with really large carryon bags so that they can take up the entire overhead storage bins quickly. Then we invite those of you who appear important. Then those who are really, really hot. Is there anyone else left? Oh, yes, and now the remaining 4 people lurking about the gate hopelessly can finally board. We sincerely hope that we have managed to show you just how unimportant you really are. If not, we will demonstrate that to you on board plenty when we repeatedly ignore your requests for water or the non-vegetarian meal option.”  

Once you are on board, you begin to ponder the 12-hour flight in front of you as the plane begins to taxi off. 12 hours! That is LOT of time to kill. You start by reading the magazine you smartly brought with you while simultaneously trying to convince your child that it is time to sleep for the next 12 hours. After some mutual unpleasantries, that works and Son is soon deeply asleep, freely prostrated across your lap. Clearly, this is very comfortable and adds to your amazing flying experience. That takes you through take-off until you reach the coveted “cruising altitude.” Then they activate the movie screens and you begin to frantically shuffle through the “Latest Releases” selection in hope to catch up on all those Golden Globes and Oscar winners you’d missed while you were busy working and all that. You’d think that the selection of movies in a 12 hour flight would be at least decent. Sadly, you discover that half of the movies are action thrillers of the Spiderman variety, and the other ones you have never, ever heard of in your life. Not to mention that they have been released at least 10 years ago. Almost none of them appear to be romantic comedies unfortunately.  Finally, you find a movie that sounds at least remotely familiar and resolve to watch it. This is when you find out that your headphones don’t work. Also, the child sleeping in your lap has wedged his head against the arm rest, thus making it impossible to open your tiny table tray to eat your tiny airplane dinner. You wiggle creatively for some time until you manage to somehow bend over without squishing your prodigy, and grab his headphones. Which also do not work in the left ear. You press the airhostess button to ask for new headphones. Naturally, she does not come. Your husband is next to you, pretending to be asleep. You try to read a bit more of the magazine with dark resolve. Finally, the drinks cart has come and you immediately order 2 scotches. Since this is British Airways, they happen to be Glenlivet. Your whole perspective changes suddenly. Also, the stewardess (are we still allowed to call them that??) finally brings you new headphones with a frown, and they actually work. Well, you hear much better in the left side, but who’s checking – you can now watch a movie!

We are blessed since Son tends to sleep like a log on planes and usually our long-haul flights are not that painful for both us and him. The Diplomat – not so much. Me – after 4 small bottles of Glenlivet, one unidentified piece of meat on top of pasta and two hours of Hugh Grant on a tiny screen, I fell sleep for solid 5 hours. Once in London, we were facing a 9 hour layover, which I thought we can use wisely by going downtown and meeting two very close friends. Two hours later, and we were still in the line for immigration check at the airport. I began to question the whole venture. Finally, we were free to roam the British land and we hurried to store our hand luggage and find the fastest way into London.

And then it hit me that in London, it was winter. Like, REAL winter, not winter Rio style. That was a small element that I had overlooked, and for which was woefully unprepared. Actually, I had taken a sweater and coat for Son, and a sweater for the Diplomat, but nothing except a long-sleeved summer dress and a woolen scarf for me. Not to mention that I was wearing sandals. So, we were quite the sight when we presented ourselves at Piccadilly Circus where it was 6 degrees Celsius and people were wrapped up in woolen coats and scarves and boots like it was the end of the world. We scoffed at it, and braved the cold to marvel the cuteness of pre-Christmas London. The Diplomat, who had never been to London before, was enthralled. I was not bothered by the cold anymore since 80 seconds after coming out of the Tube, I lost all sensation in my extremities. All this lasted a solid 4 wonderful minutes until Son, still sleepy from his 45 minute nap on the way from the airport on the tube, began to whine that he was cold and resolutely refused to walk just about anywhere where it was not inside. So, we picked the first pub that crossed out path and bravely walked in to dine on fish and chips, burgers and excellent local brew. Everything was exactly as I remembered it from 15 years ago when I spent a year studying in London. Except that now I actually could afford to be INSIDE the pub, and not staring at them mournfully from the outside, on my way back from school. I was a rather penniless student at the time.

After an hour and half in the warm, enveloping insides of St. James Tavern, we hurried back to the airport to catch the next 12- hour flight to India. All went well, and exactly 35 hours and two days after we left, we landed in Delhi, India. Where it was cold. AGAIN! For the love of Pete! You’d think this would be the end of our trip, but why should things be that simple? We landed at about 10.30 am on Saturday, and had a local flight to the old sacred city of Varanasi in about 3 hours. I those 3 hours, we had to collect our voluminous luggage, hop into a cab so that we can get to the domestic terminal of the airport (which happens to be 7 km away??), check in again and make it to the flight. Well, we made it. In Varanasi, we were greeted by the team of grandparents who were ecstatic to see us (well, mostly Son really) and we were all whisked away in a couple of Innova minivans to the stately Taj Varanasi, courtesy of my fantastic Father-in-Law.


Next installment will give you some details from the next 2 weeks of frenetic travel and sightseeing – I promise to spare you all the gritty details and only regale you with the more “fun” parts. Among those – a 5 am, 4 degree Celsius loooooooooooooooooooooooooong boat ride on the Ganges, a 20-year college reunion, an overnight trip on a houseboat in Kerala, along with a sumptuous cockroach and the call of the muezzin at 4 am; a peculiar New Year’s Party in Chennai and how to leave your mother alone in the middle of the night in an largely unknown large Indian city in the hands of a savage looking cab driver who has no idea where he is going.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Chile in 5 days

Our wanderlust will bankrupt us. Honestly, I think we spend more money traveling than eating (which is curious, given that I continue to gain weight – I think I manage to gain weight simply by looking and thinking about food, frankly). Our frequent travels also raise suspicions among our non-State Department friends and other colleagues from different sections about how much we really work. Rest assured, taxpayers of America – we work. We work plenty when we are at work. We have simply chosen to go places every time there is a 3 or 4-day weekend, to which we tack another 2 or 3 vacation days, depending on where we want to go, which results in a nice, quick getaway.

So, we recently went to Chile. For one, they are the 9th largest wine-producing country in the world; for another, it was a $240 4-hour round-trip; and for thirds – there was a 4-day weekend which we simply could not let go. This was my first time using AirBnB and honestly, apart from the annoying service fee it charges, I was impressed. I found a lovely and rather cheap apartment smack in the middle of the city, the owner was responsive to my endless inane inquires and the apartment was exactly what it said it would be. This time around we decided to take an early morning flight on Saturday, which worked out well as we slept most of the night. Well, sort of. The previous night we went to a fabulous private rooftop party in Ipanema, where the hosts had built two massive brick ovens – one for grilling meat and one – for pizza. Naturally – why would you bother having just ONE measly oven when you can have two! The rooftop also had a swimming pool (of course), and a chic bar from which even chic-er drinks were flowing. With tears in my eyes, we left at 10 pm, since we had to get up at 4 am to get to the airport.

It was a mere 4 hours flight but for some reason it seemed like forever! Son woke up briefly as I carried him from his bed into the taxi to the airport, then perked up unnecessarily inside the airport, and 3 minutes after he sat in the plane and serenely buckled himself up, he was snoring again to wake up 10 minutes before we landed, fresh as a cucumber. The child was BORN to travel!

Santiago is a nice, modern city with a couple of older neighborhoods. There are several areas with excellent restaurants where the cuisine is innovative and frankly, delicious, especially when washed down with copious amount of pisco sour and ruby Carmenere. Our favorite was Barrio Lastarria, which is literally stuffed with amazing restaurants. I especially recommend Mulato, which is in the middle of a tiny square favored by street musicians. Thus, you also get excellent entertainment. Close to it, there is the so-called Paseo Barrio Lastaria, which is literally a massive courtyard in the open air housing a whole bunch of fabulous eateries. Each one has something different to offer and features cuisine from all over Latin America. Patio Bellavista in Barrio Bellavista is yet another massive congregation of various restaurants with a bit more modern feel.

Santiago has a lovely park in the middle of the city, which has a funky old “funicular” – an old tram that goes virtually vertically up the slope into the Parque Metropolitano with fantastic views of the entire city. The parque is actually quite huge, and has even a wine-tasting panoramic restaurant, which however is about a 20 min hike up and down and there wasn’t enough wine in the world to entice us to do that in the heat of the day.

This was the first time in my life when I actually decided to take organized tours in and around the city using the hop-on, hop-off bus company, which in Chile is called the rather non-inventive Turistik. Since we were going to be there for such a short period of time, and city is a bit spread out, we decided to live it up for about $38 or so per person and see the city in style, on the top of a double decker. We bought our vouchers excitedly, and the next day, armbands in hand, cameras and water bottles ready, we went to one of the bus stops that was closest to our apartment and began to wait for the big red shiny bus. Except that right at that moment about 300 people ran like mad people through the street and we realized that it was the day of the Santiago marathon (can someone explain to me why people run marathons???). Which, of course, meant that the street on which we were standing haplessly awaiting the damn bus was dutifully closed. As buses pass every 30 mins or so, we did not want to wait too much to get on one, and so decided to run for the initial stop of the bus, which wasn’t that far away. We figured that at least Stop 1 should be in operation. Except that it wasn’t – in fact, it was the starting and looping point for the stupid marathon. The Turistik office was nearby and soon after, I flew inside, all touristic rage and indignation, demanding my rights to get on board of the so-far unseen bus. The Diplomat and Son dejectedly were dragging themselves behind me, Son particularly unimpressed and bored with the whole adventure. I irritably lectured the calm clerk who sold us the tickets the previous day, telling him the stops were closed off, which he surely must have known yesterday and yet somehow omitted telling us. He feigned total ignorance and suggested we make a run for stop #3 on the itinerary, which was supposedly a mere 10 min walk from there (but the bus should be reaching there in 5). We ran faster than the marathon people, leaving many of them ashamed in our dust. We finally caught the elusive bus and embarked on a lovely tour of the city. 

The one advantage of this bus is that it will take you to the farther district of Sanhattan – yup, the name is a mix of Santiago and Manhattan, and the housing is more like fancy Arlington, but nevertheless, rather fancy. Through its midst runs the wide Vitacura avenue, which is filled with lovely restaurants.

The next two days we went to three more of Turistik’s trips, all with mixed results. We split a day between the beautiful Undurraga winery, where we were introduced to the intricacies of making Carmenere (and treated to yet another winery tour) and a trip to a ski resort high up in the Andes, where we saw several condors, the largest flying birds in the world. Both the Carmenere and the condors were spectacular. Then the following day we set out to what promised to be an exciting tour of Vaparaiso, Chile’s famed seaside city. Built on the 45 hills surrounding the ocean, Valparaiso boasts also 15 functioning funiculars (well, actually only 5 after the recent massive earthquake of 2010) and fabulous colorful houses alongside it capriciously meandering cobble-stoned streets. I was super excited to spend a day there as I love this style of architecture.

Now, you must know that each bus of Turistik comes with a tour guide, who seems to think that a minute of silence on the bus is a minute lost in our lives. On a 45 min ride to the Andes, that is OK. On a 2 hour ride to the coast, with a piercing high pitched female voice speaking bad English, it is not. On top of this, each guide wants to speak Portanol (as the majority of tourists are Brazilian), which is a terrible mixture of both Spanish and Portuguese expressed in repeating everything in both languages in rapid succession. Since we understand Portuguese and Spanish (by virtue of Portuguese), hearing the same info twice, and then one more time in terrible yet patronizing English was excruciating. On top of this, it turned out that we were going to stop at Viño del Mar, another smaller coastal town where apparently we were also going to have lunch. The guide strongly suggested we eat at the buffet at the local casino, and pretty much for the next one hour all she could talk about was how we were going to eat till we drop dead at the casino (her words, not mine). Call me fastidious, but we seceded from the group and had lunch at a nice tapas place. Overall, Viño del Mar did not excite us too much and we were impatient to get to Valparaiso. Off we went finally.
The bus began to climb up to the top of the hills and did a big loop around the neighborhoods. Then he stopped and to my utter horror, it turned out that we were going to go around in a group with Ms. Piercing Bad English as our guide. I pointedly asked whether we could meet the bus in an hour and was dismissed immediately like a naughty student asking to pee too many times in class. Then she yelled at me for walking on the street (vs. the sidewalk) – I had sinned in my desire to take a better photo of the fabulous colorful buildings. Then she took us to a funicular and ordered us to all cram inside, go down and stay frozen and wait for her (her words again) as we had to go down in batches. God forbid she left us 2 mins to enjoy the scenery from above the city. Once down, she gave us generous 10 minutes to walk around and be back or else…Valparaiso is beautiful and reminded me a lot of Marseille but with more color. Too bad we did not have a chance to really explore it better.

Overall, Chile was a lovely experience. The country is modern and well organized, and has fantastic wine and food. Naturally, we bought again 24 bottles of rather inexpensive Carmenere to continue our expanding wine store collection.


In other news, I bought a bike! People, where have I been all these years??? Last time I rode a bike was when I was 12. It is amazing, I can’t get enough. If I could, I’d go to the bathroom using my bike. For now, I just invent various unnecessary tasks for myself in order to go by bike. Except that I don’t have a bell, so errr, I am a bit of a menace on the road. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Magic of Mendoza – Argentina Part II

Mendoza is not an easy place to taste wine. Extensive research revealed that there are 3 main wine regions around it, with wineries clustered in each of them – Valle de Uco, Luján de Cuyo and Maipû. The last two are about 45 min drive from Mendoza city, and Uco is more like 1.5 hrs, and most wineries are kind of spread out. You can’t just walk into a tasting room and demand to taste some of their delectable wines. You need to call at least 24 hrs in advance and book a tour – apparently, winemakers of Mendoza consider it a crime to want to just try wine and not take an extensive tour of their indisputably unique winery and cellar. Frankly, after you tour two of them, whether in Mendoza or elsewhere in the world, as we had, you get tired of looking at giant steel vats or admiring French oak barrels (medium toast!), and walking through old basements being told how wine is made pretty quickly. I know how it is made. I know because the three other wineries I visited this very day each explained it to me in minute detail in excruciating Portanõl. Not to mention the three I saw yesterday. Just give me the damned wine!

Extensive research also revealed that we should either hire an expensive cab driver to ferry us around, or book an organized tour (about $300 per day) but we should NOT, under ANY circumstances, rent a car and drive ourselves around as the roads are poorly marked and the wineries tricky to find. So, we went out and rented a car. In our defense, the other options were just so unnecessarily expensive and inflexible that we figured that renting a GPS will do the trick. Clearly, we also rented from the cheapest place possible, and as a result the Diplomat spent the next 4 days driving a tiny car with no power steering through some very, very dusty unpaved roads. But we had a GPS and got lost, like, six times only! It took some time to get the whole operation organized since we also were a little late to the whole “booking a visit” party. Finally, I figured that if we were going to stay in a nice hotel (the Sheraton), we might as well use their concierge to do our job. I dumped a list of my desired wineries to a very perky youngish thing at the desk and asked her to work her magic. Then the Diplomat, Son and I set out to the only winery in the whole region that would see us without an appointment – Familia Zuccardi

One hot wine tour later, and our Mendoza adventure had begun. On the way back, the Diplomat found the local golf course and much to my chagrin, went and hit the driving range with Son while I sat down and read a magazine on the grass. Well, in all honesty, it was mostly him trying to convince Son to hit the balls with the stick (did you know that a golf stick in Portuguese is called a "taco"??) instead of kicking them around like a football. But still golf was played. I watched for some time and I have to tell you – I just don’t get golf. It is literally a bunch of guys, all lined up in a row, whacking a ball with a stick and trying to see how far it can go, all the while wearing silly checkered pants and squatting like ducks with osteoporosis. Ball after ball after ball. Whack! After a while I got so bored I watched a couple of stones grow for a change.

Finally, we went back to the hotel and the whipper-snapper gal at concierge proudly handed me our wine-tasting schedule for the next two days, including a wine-tasting lunch at one of the wineries. She did good. The next day, a Thursday, I believe, was spent in blissful tastings in Cuyo. We started at Bodega Luigi Bosca (only the name is left of the original founder – after he started the winery, he sort of disappeared from the picture and 100 or years later, it still has the name but the Bosca family gets squat from the place). At Luigi Bosca, we stumbled upon a group of carousing neurosurgeons who apparently were in Mendoza for a conference, but the pull of the wineries proved to be stronger than the riveting presentations of their learned peers. Then we felt hungry and decided to find a place to eat. The nerve we had! You try finding a working restaurant in the dead of siesta hour, in the middle of nowhere, Mendoza valley. This is when one begins to appreciate little miracles in life. We did, in fact, stumble upon a most peculiar establishment, a working restaurant that resembled a farm house of sorts, with many little dining rooms and twisting and turning staircases up and down a largely misshapen house, that has been built on each side and on top so many times that the builders must have lost track of what made sense in the end. We were offered a sprawling old wooden table somewhere deep in the basement, laid with dozens of little salads, cured meats, cheeses, olives, vegetables, fruits, breads and a never ending supply of home-made Malbec. Friends and family! I have never experienced anything like this in my life. It was almost like out of a story of 1001 Nights – honestly, if suddenly a couple of odalisques had shown up, scantily clad, with large horns on wine on their heads, ready to pour us when needed, I would not have been that shocked. And all of that for the grand price of $20.

Mightily fortified, we soldiered on to Bodega Chandon – an old love affairs of ours, ever since the Diplomat and I “discovered” Chandon back in Napa Valley during our very first wine-tasting tour together when we were merely dating. I think Chandon was the very first winery I had ever visited in my entire life, and I fell in life forever in the enchanting surroundings and its crispy, delicious sparkling wines. Later on we learned that Chandon is indeed owned by the Evil Empire, also known as Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, and that they owned a sister winery in Mendoza valley. Well, it felt like going back home. I should add here that because Argentina and Brazil are in an economic commonwealth of sorts called Mercosur, one can bring alcohol from one country to another in much larger quantities than is usual between countries, namely 12 bottles per adult (or was it 12 liters?). Thusly, we were on a mission to purchase 24 exceptional wines and were acquiring bottles at each winery at an astonishing speed. At Chandon alone, we bought 6 bottles of fabulous sparkling wine, all methode champenoise, nothing less! and they are currently resting happily in our apartment. I don’t remember much after Domaine Chandon, to be honest. I do think we went back home and slept all the wine off. Including Son.

You might, indeed, wonder what the indomitable child did do during all this wine-related gallivanting around the countryside. He did what Son does best – run around uninhibited all over the vineyard, and then hide around the wine barrels (French Oak, heavy toast, 500 euros each), jumping out in the darkness at the unsuspecting neurosurgeons and scare the crap out of them. He also acquired an extensive collection of pebble stones, which I continue to find hidden in the various pockets of his shorts. Everyone noted how exceptionally well behaved he was. Um, ok, sure!

The next day, Firday, started SO well. We went to the farthest wine region of them all, Vale de Uco, with first stop the new and eclectic Atamsique winery. In fact, it was so now and eclectic, that we missed it a few times until we finally stumbled upon a dusty suggestion of a road, which we bravely took and finally found the famed place. We were taken on yet another SUPER interesting wine tour (“ooh, look, we have CONCRETE vats, we are such pioneers!”) which culminated in a rather substantial wine tasting. So substantial, in fact, that as we moved on towards the next winery and faced the necessity to gas up our antique vehicle, I generously offered to the Diplomat to stay back in the car while I get out and fill it up. Men around the world should know that if a woman offers such a sacrifice, then she must be either about to ask you for some money later on or that she is more or less drunk. Let’s say that I did not need money. Instead, I happily got out of the car and started pouring what I thought was the cheapest gas. At 20 liters I decided to cap it, which was lucky because, as the gas clerk (who had just arrived running from the office afraid that we were going to drive away without paying) pointed out to me, apparently I had just poured in 20 liters of diesel fuel into a car that only takes regular gasoline. I did not see what the big deal was. After all, I was born in a country where in the past people habitually stole gasoline late at night from other people’s cars by siphoning it out of their reservoirs using the simple but effective combination of a plastic tubing, their mouth and gravity. No one seemed to agree with me though, and, highly concerned about the gringa and her stranded family, four burly men from the gas station pushed the car gently 20 meters down to the mechanic’s garage. Yey, how lucky, no? No, because the damned mechanic did not show up until an hour later, thus causing us to miss our next appointment at the famed Salenstein winery. Finally, 2 hours later, after the mechanic and his 2 buddies meticulously wiped every last drop of diesel from the car, we were ready to move. Except that the mechanic now wanted to socialize. He took us into his office and for the next 30 minutes proceeded to show us his album of newspaper clippings about his fledgling career as an amateur race car driver, pictures of his four children, his military cap from the Falklands War (I still think he was a bit too young to have been in that war, but perhaps it was lost in translation or Malbec) and some other military and car paraphernalia. In the end, he ran out of things to show us and we were free to go. Just in time to catch our next appointment – a wine pairing lunch at the spectacular Andeluna Cellars.  

The lunch was the cherry on the top of our trip. The setting itself was amazing, in a large room with an open kitchen, overlooking the vast vineyard, cozy and elegant. The food was interesting and delicious and wines, of course, amazing. Except that they keep bringing in more wine and it all just sounded like SUCH a good idea at the time. The poor Diplomat, who was driving, just stood there watching me “taste” more and more wine, rolling his eyes. After we left, he apparently drove us to the golf course, where I rested gently under the deep shade of a tree and the two men went to hit some more aimless balls towards the nothingness in the driving range, along with a posse of similarly-minded, very interesting older men. Whack!

Mendoza overall is a lovely town with a bustling street life and about a zillion trillion cafes. We completed our wine purchases in the famed Vinoteca Sol y Vino, who packaged our precious cargo of 24 bottles of exquisite Malbec and 6 Chandons. We capped the trip with one last dinner of parilla (or Argentinean BBQ) at the elegant Ocho Cepas and went off to bed happy. The next day we successfully transported ourselves, a sleepy Son and our 24 bottles back to Brazil, and on Monday morning, all reported back to work and school. One thing is for sure – I love Malbec. Oh, and another is for sure – we are going back!