150 Minutes in Punta Arenas

Welcome to Punta Arenas!

Welcome to Punta Arenas!

In the Antarctica region!

In the Antarctica region!

On 10 April 2015, we flew into Punta Arenas with the aim of heading straight Puerto Natales (where we would start our Patagonia hike). Despite previous attempts, we were unable to book a bus directly from the airport to Puerto Natales, and thus were forced to take a bus into Punta Arenas town and try our luck at one of four bus stations there that service the frequently touristed route. To our dismay, we got one of the bus stations at 1:30 hoping to board the next one, at 2:30. Unfortunately luck was not on our side and they, in addition to all other stations in town, were sold out until 18:30 – apparently the ‘low’ season for Patagonia still equates into a decent amount of traffic. So what to do when stuck in Punta Arenas for the afternoon, a situation that many of us face at some point in our lives (some even daily)? Well, take our soon-to-be patented 150-minute tour of the city of course!

Punta Arenas is really south, like the way deep south. In fact in Chile, aside from some smaller population centers on the island of Tierra del Fuego its the most southern city of decent size, and the capital of the Magellenes and Antarctica region (yes Antarctica, it’s that far south). Looking at how far south it was on a map was enough for me to be astonished walking around – not so much for Christine. Thus we picked up a handy little map of the city, and set out on an improvisational walking tour, taking in all Punta Arenas had to offer.

a lovely park/marshland

a lovely park/marshland

The city itself lies right on the water, stretching up hill the further north to go, and despite its walkability it actually bursts at the seams at either end (who lives here and why? what do they do all day and during the winter? Do they ever hunt for seals and accidently stab themselves in the toe? All valid questions our tour unfortunately did not answer). In addition, on the map were many green spaces which I interpreted as parks – we quickly found them rather to be random expanses of barren marshland. Still adds a nice touch.

Our bus station was fortunately centrally located, so we started by heading down to the main square, or the Plaza Munoz Gamero. There was a tourist office there that was conveniently closed, while the monument on the middle, on Magellenes street was, you guessed, none other than Magellan himself, commemorating his trip around Tierra del Fuego in the 1500s. Otherwise of note, there was a cathedral and old Spanish-colonial type building hugging the wide plaza lanes, given it a distinctive historic Latin American town feel, despite its relatively recent roots (mid 1800s) and extreme distance from anything decent.

Our favorite Magellan!

Our favorite Magellan!

Church at main square

Church at main square

Main square

Main square

When in doubt, head north. We decided to do as much, where the city rises in elevation a bit. Walking up some steps to another monument of sorts for the Selknam people, an apparently extinct ethnic group that dressed up in really scary costumes a la something out of True Detective (Chile is really proud of these folks despite their current non-existence with paintings of them everywhere). Regardless of the impetus for this monument, it provided great views of Punta Arenas down to the coast.

Selknam people tribute

Selknam people tribute

Punta Arenas view

Punta Arenas view

From there we continued to walk north a bit through largely residential areas until we could walk no longer – the start of what we had assumed was a park began. In reality it was a large concrete wall we could not see over the top of. Continuing down it, eventually someone had broken it at one point low enough to serve as a vantage point, where we realized it was not a part at all but more of that barren marshland in the middle of the city. Though there was a large lagoon, that our map told us serves as an ice skating rink (luckily not right now though).

Heading east across the upper part of town, we continued through a weird park of sorts and past a university. Not too much happens here at 15:00 on a Friday afternoon, but then again people mostly stay inside and wonder why they live here (it was probably high 40s, not bad until the wind hits, but its hits often).

Eventually we headed back to the lower parts of the town and came across a series of structures decided to Croatia of all places. The Punta Arenas-Croatian connection is apparently strong, a point to which these monuments in prime real estate in the middle of town attested towards. Some say up to 50% of Punta Arenas-ans derive from Croatians who largely came over in the early 19th century (in fact, Chile actually serves as the largest center of Croatians outside of the Balkans itself, with most settling in the northern and southern extremes of the country).

Croatian monuments

Croatian monuments

Another monument to the Croatians

Another monument to the Croatians

Continuing on this path, we hit up the local cemetery – perhaps an odd place to visit for the non-devil worshippers among us, but the cemetery in Punta Arenas is apparently renown for its intricate and diverse grave sites. Ranging from tall house-sized structures hosting entire families to more simple apartment-style final resting spots, the cemetery hosts deceased from a range of ethnic family names, a testament to the diverse origins of Punta Arenas’ inhabitants. A great number of gravestones from the 1920s and 30s were in English, while of course we found a row of just Croatian names. The layout itself is well preserved, becoming an attraction, albeit a slightly odd one, in its own right.

Cemetery

Cemetery

Cemetery so big it has its own street names

Cemetery so big it has its own street names

Continuing after the cemetery we came across the Maria Auxiliary church, a massive structure. It just so happened to be directly after a funeral, with the church bell ringing out and a procession heading towards the cemetery from once we had just come.

Mariam Auxiliary Church

Mariam Auxiliary Church

Funeral procession

Funeral procession

The church led us back to down town, so we made a beeline south for the coast, where we passed across a Croatian school on Croatia street (this is really getting weird).

Croatia school . . .

Croatia school . . .

On Croatia street . . .

On Croatia street . . .

The coast itself is hugged by a highway, but has a little bit of a beach and even some prime basketball and skate parks. Another monument or two to Magellan is present, while the road continues to the port where we saw a cruise ship in the distance (not sure if they cruise inhabitants were thrilled with the exotically cold locations serviced by their ostensibly discount cruise ticket likely purchased on Craig’s List).

Just another ol' Magellan tribute

Just another ol’ Magellan tribute

Heading back north away from the coast through the center of town leads to another monument or two, until you hit up the main square area once again, and the road with all the bus stations. But the tour doesn’t have to stop there, as no trip is complete without some local delicacies. The town itself comes alive at 5pm, almost instantaneously, transforming itself from a desolate and depressing Siberian output back into an animated Latin American city in mere minutes. Drummers came out, kiosks were set up, and the churros showed up.

Patagonia Churros to be exact, freshly made and filled with dulche de leche cream. Four for 1,200 Chilean pesos (50 cents each) from a locally renown lady. A fitting but messy way to end our makeshift tour of Punta Arenas and 150 minutes well spent (note: I spent the next 150 minutes washing dulche de leche cream off my body). So next time you get stranded for hours in Punta Arenas thinking there’s nothing to do in this remote outpost town, think again and take our 150-minute city walking tour (and yes I will be trademarking this in an attempt to charge royalties every time someone in Punta Arenas walks outside, anywhere)!

Churros by Rio de las Minas

Churros by Rio de las Minas

Patagonia Churros!

Patagonia Churros!

Biking (Mis)Adventures in Middle Chile

One day while in Puerto Varas (a town in the lake region of Chile), Christine said something that shocked me to my core, words I will never forget and probably never get over.

“I think tomorrow we should bike to Frutillar.”

And just like that, lives were changed.

You see, Christine not only intensely hates biking, she is also awful at it, to the point where I and every decent human being alive worry for her safety every time she so much as look as a bicycle (not to mention her lack of tricycle skills). Such inadequacies have prevented us from renting bikes in a number of exotic locales, forcing us to while away at sidestreet cafes, as the world rides by. I am not much one to talk, however, as I can barely ride a bike myself. But that ‘barely’ is what sets us apart by leaps and bounds.

A convincing impression of a biker

A convincing impression of a biker

At any rate, we were staying in Puerto Varas and our day trip options were limited to biking, taking an expensive tour to the volcano (but you cannot get in it or sacrifice goats there, I asked), or kayaking (our usual option of choice, but again we were influenced by high price dynamics, and the water was quite cold). Thus biking seemed to be the most economical choice, and in situations like these (i.e. life), the most economical choice tends to win out, even if it comes to the detriment of our own health.

As for Puerto Varas itself, its a nice little town situated in the shores of Lake Llanique, with two volcanoes in its midst. Quite popular with the tourists, Puerto Varas has developed downtown area (area might be a stretch, maybe more like a 1×1.5 block) of accompanying infrastructure, replete with Patagonia, North Face, Rockford, and more outdoor gear shops. Frutillar on the other hand, was supposed to be a pleasant smaller town a short distance away, still well-off and touristic in its own right, but stripped of some of the externally-influenced comforts found in Puerto Varas.

The oft-covered Osorno volcano, seen from Frutillar

The oft-covered Osorno volcano, seen from Frutillar

Furthermore, many a Germanic folk have settled into this area of central Chile (prior to WWII, diminishing my hopes of starring in a Chilean Nazi hunting reality show), and Frutillar in particular was supposed to have retained much of its ‘Germanic roots,’ more than any of the surroundings areas. So in short, it would make a nice day trip destination from the ‘hustle’ of Puerto Varas, and serve as an interestingly cultural anomaly (though I guess it’s not really so much of an anomaly, as one Chilean worker we met along the bike ride would explain, “all the foreigners [i.e. Europeans] came here and bought the good land, leaving the rest of us with little,” – a similar story the world over).

So the main question of how to get there had been decided, surprisingly by Christine of all people. We visited a few bike rental places before deciding on the one that happened to be in front of us at the time of our decision, and reserved two mountain bikes for the next day. The bike shop employee assured us that we could do the trip and back in six hours (2 hours each way), the maximum amount you could rent the bikes until you were charged for the whole day, increasing the price by 50%. The scenic trip was supposed to be 25km there and 25km back, though there was a shortcut as well. Piece of cake (or kuchen) I figured.

Frutillar? or Germany?

Frutillar? or Germany?

Thinking about cake

Thinking about cake

The next morning we showed up at 9:30 to claim our bikes. The same bike employee gave us a helmet, lock, pump and flat tire gear (I feigned like I knew what I would do with such materials if the situation arose). He took us outside and pointed to the bikes we could use. I took mine out and was unable to adjust the seat; the latch literally didn’t budge at all. That was the point where the bike employee may have realized we were in over our heads here – he showed me how to do it with a quizzical look on his face, then also pointed out that on the makeshift laminated map he had given us, his cell phone number was written there in case we had any trouble – something I gathered he did not specifically point out to the majority of his clientele.

The path was supposed to be some sort of trail that eventually intersected with a backroad shared by man-powered vehicles, but only for a bit. To the north of town are railroad tracks (that I assume are now abandoned, but am not quite sure) – we were to ride along those to start out. We were given mountain bikes, but it was not necessarily to be a mountain biking trip. Or so we assumed.

We made it to the railroad tracks, where alongside it was a thin line filled with thick rocks. Describing it as a trail would be generous, I’d say it was more like a series of skinny jeans-thin areas where rocks were just too tired to pile on each other as high as they had next to it. Tall grass bounded the other side opposite the railroad tracks, so it really was a contained space. We started out by barely avoiding biting it on a number of occasions. We were unsure of if all 25km were going to be like this at this point – we nearly turned around and gave up less than 1km into the journey. But we preserved and made it out after a few treacherous (to us) kilometers, revealing both a sense of accomplishment but also the extremely limited nature of our biking abilities.

After coming onto the trail for a bit, we were supposed to just hug the coast, as the map depicted and eventually wind up in Frutillar. The bike employee confirmed as much, providing little further details on the route, a sense of calm that eased any anxieties we had about getting lost. Nonetheless, after hugging the coast as much as possible, the trail ran right into a thick black sand beach that ended at a grassy field with no worn areas. Probably less than 5km into the trip and we were already lost. A few other odd turns here and there, trying to stay on the coast as much as possible, forced us to back track a bit and confused us greatly.

Chileans, however, are nice people. While stopped at one point and looking at our pointless map, which told us to be next to the water while we were staring at a highway, one young man felt pity for our plight and pulled over in his car. He explained this was the route to Frutillar – the ‘trail’ of sorts was no more, we had to go onto this main road a bit before turning off to another side, but paved road.

While I generally like biking, I hate biking with cars. At the end of the day you are basically trusting other people not to run you over, and I just don’t trust other people at that mass of a rate. Not only that, but this was essentially a small highway, with minbuses and trucks plying down as decent speeds. A mountain trail indeed.

Taking out rented bikes out for a walk

Taking out rented bikes out for a walk

We sucked it up and went down the highway, hugging the right side of the lane as much as possible. After some more confusion we found the backroad to turn onto, which led us back onto the coast. There was still traffic on this road, but significantly reduced. What we were not prepared for, however, was the amount of elevation changes – very steep hills that proved impossible to bike up and intimidating to bike down (Christine even walked her bike down most of them, not even taking advantage of the free speed).

We had been on the road probably about an hour and a half at this point – given the bike employees estimated of 2-2.5 hours (revised a bit once he realized we were small time), I figured we were well on our way. I shortly saw a sign though, telling us Frutillar was 18km away, meaning we had only made it about 7km! It couldn’t be right, but we kept chugging along the road – myself getting quite far ahead of Christine to the point were we could not see each other most of the time, and then stopping every other kilometer to have her catch up. Not really a fun shared experience.

At one point, after a number of steep seemingly mostly up hills, we came to a fork in a road. Both led to Frutillar, and the more gravel path was likely the shortcut the bike employee had filled us in on. He said normally it was unusable, but as it rained last night we could bike on the gravel. That was supposed to be 5km, but it started up hill. The longer path went by the coast for picturesque water scenes. It was along a paved road and began downhill. It was unclear how far it was, but I figured we had already biked a ton by now, we must be close. Opting for the short-term option, we headed right on the paved road, for what turned out to be a short down hill followed by some serious up hill climbs and nearly 15 more kilometers of biking action.

At any rate, we eventually made it to Frutillar, exhausted. We were around 3.5 hours, well over the maximum limit the biker employee had estimated. The other issue probably was there was no way that we could make it back with the bikes in the six hour time frame, meaning the price had just gone up – nor were we even sure given our limited biking experience if it was even physically possible to make it back. I toyed around with the idea of living on the lam with the bikes in Frutillar for the rest of our days, seemingly solving both problems of avoiding the increased bike price and having to make it back to Puerto Varas. While it was seriously pondered for a quick minute, ultimately we shot the idea down.

Success in Frutillar!

Success in Frutillar!

Regardless, we had made it to Frutillar and were starving, so might as well rest and enjoy our time here. It really was a picturesque little town right on the water with a volcano in the distance. The Germanic roots were in full display, via the architecture of the buildings aligning the street and limitless places offering kuchen (an cheesy cake type thing) for dessert. Of course that was all in Bajo Frutillar (lower) along the lake side, the rest of the town up above was more traditional Chilean and less touristy (as our Chilean friend on the trail had informed us).

Frutillar's main drag

Frutillar’s main drag

In fact the bike ride itself, as treacherous as it may have been at times, was beautiful as well. For the majority of the time the lake was present on the right side, with mountains and volcanoes in the distance, while large farms full of free range cows and chickens dotted the landscape on the left. Part of the inspirational statement for us of the journey to Frutillar being a “pretty little bike ride” provided accurate indeed.

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After deciding to splurge and go to a semi-fancy place for their meal of the day (a stuffed tomato followed by fettuccini fresh seafood pasta and a flan-like substance for desert), we pondered our options as the reality of having to make it back to Puerto Varas began to set in. Maybe if we took the shortcut it would cut down the time a bit despite the gravel, but Puerto Varas still seemed eons away. In addition, I was sure we had biked more than the advertised 25km – all the road signs along the way telling us the distance of places did not add up with that figure in mind. So it likely meant at least another 30 km or so to return, a daunting task (for us with limited athletic capabilities).

Wussing out in action

Wussing out in action

There was public transport available, minibuses back to Puerto Varas – a possibility, but Christine did not think we’d be able to take our bike on as there was no bike racks and people didn’t really pile luggage on top of the vehicles here. So we had dismissed that option, but the bus stop was literally next to the restaurant we ate at, and upon exiting we saw a bus getting ready to leave with a sign for Puerto Varas. Might as well ask we figured, as we walked up somewhat dejectedly to the man in charge. He likely had no idea the impact his next words would have on us, when he said it would be easy to fit the bikes in if we took off the wheel, at double the ticket price. At that point, economics had gone out the window!

So we totally wused out, loaded up our bikes, and took the public bus back. There was still the possibility of making it back to the bike office before 5pm when it reopened after its five hour siesta (yes five hours, literally everything in that town closes from 12pm to 5pm), and thus avoid recognition of our stray into the more than six hour rental period. The transport took a while however and we didn’t make it in time, but luckily the bike employee took additional pity on us (a common theme) when I told him we had to take a transport rather than bike back, and didn’t charge us the extra fee.

In short, the attractive ‘biking to Frutillar option’ proved to be a pretty “little” bike ride indeed, and a good way to realize we should probably never bike again. It was a nice day all together though, while the fact that we are still alive is rather encouraging as well.

Graffiti in Valparaiso!

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A few days into our travels through Santiago and Valparaiso I came to realize two things – all stray dogs in Chile must sleep a government-mandated 27 hours per day, with extra credit going to those who choose the most inconvenient locations possible to humans, and that there is a thriving graffiti art scene in the country. Now, normally I don’t really get “art,” and much of the “art” Chile was no different. Against my better judgment Christine and I visited the Bellas Artes (Fine Art Museum) in Santiago (because it was free and literally a two minute walk from the abode of our gracious hosts) – about 200+ paintings of really old people from the 1800s that all looked the same later, I reaffirmed my lifelong plans to not visit an art museum in every country of the world.

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Exhibits A, B, C, and D of infiniti

The omnipresent graffiti, however, was different. While I probably still did not ‘get’ it (with much of it originating as a form of political resistance, especially during the Pinochet dictatorship), perhaps due to a childhood love of colorful cartoons that defined America (i.e. Animaniacs and Where’s Waldo), I did enjoy checking it all out.

Particularly in Valparaiso, the culturally vibrant coastal city about 125km from Santiago, graffiti adorns public spaces. Concentrated in the center tourist district but present throughout the city, some of it is even created in collaboration with the local municipal government as a means of beautifying otherwise boring old walls. At any rate, spread out amongst rolling hills that make up the city, this sort of “art” generally was pleasing enough to me that I actually took some pictures of it. Enjoy!

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Windy & hilly Valparaiso road

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Old people sleep almost as much as the dogs

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Tall grafitti

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This guy’s nose blows smoke

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I named this fish Mr. Squiggles. He did not respond to that name.

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Not my decision to take (and post) a picture of a cat

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Completely my decision to take and post this picture

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This one is famous apparently

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These monkeys later sold me some magic beans

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What my head felt like after the magic beans

Cheese Bread (Khachapuri) in Georgia – Part ერთი of ერთი

Georgia (the independent country that is significantly smaller in population and territory than the peach-filled, southern state) is the land of khachapuri, or cheese bread. When those words were uttered to me prior to Christine’s and my trip there to visit her cousin, my heart skipped a beat. Or maybe it was my overjoyed stomach attempting to swallow my heart – either way something told me our eight days traveling around the country were going to be a delicious culinary treat (words I do not employ lightly outside of your local Fuddruckers). Given my predilection for cheese and the fact that bread is fine but even better when utilized as a vehicle to legitimize even more cheese consumption, Georgia and I seemed like a match made in heaven.

In short, the khachapuris did not disappoint. I quickly made it my goal to try them all – there is a degree of regional variation, and we were going to be traveling around a lot. Our Lonely Planet book named seven different varieties (typically filled with Georgian Imertian or Sulguni cheese), though a few cheese-less ones substitute beans or meat & don’t really apply to the khachapuri purist (or I assume, given my recent status as a self-appointed one). Regardless I scribbled down all their names and made it my mission to see that they all got crossed out (spoiler alert: eventual mission success – thanks in large part to our ever accommodating host).

However, while they were definitely not hard to find (in fact khachapuris are so ingrained in local diets that there is even a national inflation index based solely on the price of these wondrous carbohydrates, a la The Economist’s Big Mac index), what threw us for a loop was we kept discovering new ones! That in and of itself is delightful, but it also meant that trying them all in an eight day span, without overdosing on dairy and having our bodies forever become lactose intolerant as a cruel, cruel response, was going to be difficult. It also makes me unsure of my claim to have tried every Georgian khachapuri – despite repeating that phrase often in past weeks, I am certain it cannot be true (though if you talk to me in the near future, such realities will likely do little to hinder me from continuing to boast it). Other regional variations, or even subtle differences of the same type across different dining establishments, must exist. While we wound up eating 14 in total (or 1.75/day – which for the record is a lot of heavy bread & cheese as these are not small items, but basically pizza-sized pastries), the allure of discovering other potential untouched versions continues to keep me up at night. . .

So many choices

At any rate, on with the khachapuris. We ate them at all sorts of places, ranging from hole-in-the-wall lunchtime establishments, to a typical rest stop on the way to the Caucasus mountains, to an Ossetian restaurant given that the Russians won’t let us go the separatist region to try the original, to an upscale dining center in Tbilisi, among many other locales. A key theme despite type or location is that they were all delicious – in fact I haven’t met a khachapuri I didn’t like to date (as in up until now, not the verb ‘to date,’ although I did feel very strongly about a few of them – luckily Christine did not seem to notice).

The list, in order of appearance into my life:

  1.  Khachapuri on a spit – on a spit I tell you! This is one of the oddest ones, so naturally we wound up trying it first. While it may have a Georgian name, all I know is it’s made on a spit then taken off of the spit, so there is an element of hollow air running through it. Intriguing, but that hole could’ve also been filled with more cheese.
  2. Lazurian – I think this is the right name but we didn’t come across this one that often. However, we should, because it involves three layers of cheese. While others (see below) may just have cheese in the inside, or even just on the inside and on top, this bad boy goes further to add yet another layer of cheese on top. It is simply stunning.
  3. Megruli – a fairly common khachapuri that combines cheese on the inside with more cheese on top. We ate this one at the upscale Tbilisi restaurant Bread House. Despite my natural disinclination for any location with more than three pieces of silverware on the table, they sure do know how to make a tasty cheese bread.
  4. Ploivian – now this one really is a mystery. On our way to Mount Kazbek we stopped at this small town called Pasanauri. There were found a simple rest stop-type restaurant filled with cheery people and good food (also ate many khinkalis, Georgian dumplings, there). On the menu was a khachapuri our dutiful host had never even heard of in her two years in Georgia, and one we never saw again anywhere else (nor had anyone we talked to heard of it). The restaurant proprietor explained that this was a regional khachapuri often found in South Ossetia, the Russian-troop filled isolated breakaway region at the heart of the 2008 war with Moscow, an area that was just on the other side of the mountains found facing westward from the town. While that may explain its scarcity elsewhere, it does not explain its ingenuity. Essentially some Ossentian at some point decided to take your typical heavy cheese and bread dish, and try to add a little bit of health to it, stuffing it with beet greens. While the cutting of the cheese with fresh vegetables was appreciated by some, I was left wondering what it would’ve been like if we had added that extra cheese on top.

    The mysterious and large Plovian khachapuri

    The mysterious and large Plovian khachapuri

  5. South Ossetian – Another Ossentian addition to the list (for a breakaway region, they sure are active in the kitchen)! We had to go to a specific South Ossentian restaurant in Tbilisi’s old city named Alanya to check this one off the list. Another example of Ossentian ingenuity, the inside of the bread is stuffed not just with cheese, but also potatoes – what will they think of next!?
  6. Achma – After making great progress by eating four khachapuris in our first 27 hours in country, we stalled a bit as we took a hiking adventure up north. Upon our return to Tbilisi we revived our khachapuri mission with a reckless abandon, ordering three for lunch one day, starting with Achma. This khachapuri, which I have been informed this is an Abkhazian specialty (another Russian-occupied breakaway region), is akin to lasagna, without any sauce. Incredibly buttery, the cheese is found in between egg noodle-like layers – delicious and went down smooth, but ultimately felt very heavy. This khachapuri was also baked fresh for us, although there was a moment of confusion as I thought my two-word Georgian vocabulary did not accurately convey we wanted just a piece of Achma rather than the whole fresh baked item (about five times the size). Luckily no one ever pays attention to what I say, especially in Georgia.
  7. Phenovani – Part of the legendary three khachapuri lunch that will be the standard for years, this has been referred to as a ‘pocket’ or ‘envelope’ khachapuri as the ends are folded into the middle (still stuffed with cheese of course). The dough we had was flaky, causing Christine to refer to it as a good ‘breakfast khachapuri.’ I personally wouldn’t place such limiting restrictions on this khachapuri, or any khachapuri really, ever.
  8. Kubadari – From the Svaneti region, this khachapuri breaks up the monotony of constant cheese by adding meat to the mix. The one we sampled had small strips of flavored beef (rather than ground beef). A great idea in theory, but the one we tried in practice seemed to be lacking a bit in the meat department, as the strips were spread out few and far between. We probably should’ve supersized it for just a quarter more.

    A three khachapuri lunch day

    A three khachapuri lunch day

  9.  Immeruli – Perhaps the staple khachapuri, this one keeps it simple with just cheese in the middle. Sometimes doing less is doing more.
  10. Lobiani (Rachuli) – Another variation on the classic cheese-bread combination, the Lobiani throws beans into the pot. Georgia has good beans, so why not?
  11. Adajaran no. 1 – Words, or at least my typed words, cannot do this one justice. Shaped in a boat, similar to a Turkish pide, the khachapuri comes out full of cheese and piping hot. But wait, there’s more – much more! On top of the cheese is a raw egg and a slab of butter for good measure. You mix it all together, so the egg cooks and the butter melts, creating an amazing combination. The bread around it is then peeled off and dipped in the middle, until slowly and magically its all gone. Fully cognizant of the fact that I could never live in Georgia as I would eat this on an unsustainable thrice-daily basis, this quickly became my hands down favorite. We tried it first in the western city of Akhaltsike, closer to its origins in Adjara, but our host had her own favorite spot to do it all over again the next day . . .

    The Adjara of my dreams . . .

    The Adjara of my dreams . . .

  12. Adjara no.2 – So good it had to be on here twice (though the fact that I only ate this one twice is an eight span is a minor travesty in itself). Stopping by the town of Mtskheta (say that ten times fast, or even just once), we had this bundle of future heart disease another time at one of our hosts favorite ‘fast food’ spots. A fitting way to end a tour that had to end, for if not I would either die, or perhaps finally become the sumo wrestler I always felt I was destined to be.
  13.  (and 14) Repeats – About four hours following that meal (the typical allotted break time between khachapuris on this trip), we headed to a restaurant called the Black Lion for our final Tbilisi meal, and to meet up with some old favorites. We were told the establishment was a bit of a fusion of Georgian and Western food, replete with interesting options. While we had a Megruli khachapuri for good measure, we also tried an Immeruli one, with a twist. Rather than using traditional Georgian khatchapuri bread, this one focused on regional integration by using the thin Lavash flatbread typically found in Armenia. The lightness of the bread was a nice change of pace from the previous 13 katchapuris, while the cheese was still there. Basically it was a grilled cheese sandwich, and an appropriate culinary finish to our two weeks trip across Armenia & Georgia.

So there you have it, 14 khachapuris in eight days, with 11 varieties. If there are any other existing versions out there that I missed, please feel free to fill me in, as it will give me a convenient excuse to return to Georgia in the near future!

The First Time in Burkina Faso I Almost Died (According to No One Except Me) – Fila

I immediately hit the deck, the deck being a red dirt dusty road. My bag of tomatoes got squished between my chest and the road, while I got a mouthful of dirt. As I had said, there was a 2/11th chance of perishing in Burkina Faso, but I was really hoping it wouldn’t be on my third day in village, the very first time I went out by myself (I had just gotten the place so clean!).

I was still on the ground unsure what to do – those three months of Peace Corps training had not really prepared me for this situation. Should I roll around and do some ‘manvouers’ (whatever those might be)? Should I get up and run zig-zagging in the other direction? Should I throw my tomatoes in his face and charge? Even if I got away now this was not that big a village, surely he would find me later. Would I have to spend the next two years dodging bows & arrows?

While calculating my next move, I began to hear a loud noise. A roar if you will. It was laughter, a ton and ton of laughter. I peaked my head up and saw that the entire town, everyone who had been sitting on either side of the road watching my every move, had continued to watch after I bought the tomatoes and now were laughing hysterically. This is an odd village I thought, how can what is happening be funnier than the Aw ni tile joke?

I was a bit confused so I looked up some more, to see if my tormentor was still there. To my surprise he was laughing as well. It didn’t seem like my life was in immediate danger anymore, so I slowly stood up. The man I thought was going to be the last I ever saw was standing there, dressed in complete rags. He had knotty hair, and in between laughing was trying to sing a song. He wasn’t very good. But when I inspected him further, I realized the bow was indeed still in his possession, but he didn’t have an arrow. And he likely never did.

Still a bit confused, I dusted myself off and tried to salvage what I could out of my tomatoes. A young man approached me, also laughing, but perhaps taking pity on me. “Il faut pas t’inquiéter, il est fou!” – or “Don’t worry, he is a crazy person!” That’s when I fully comprehended the situation. For whatever reason, just like dust and goats, many villages also have a crazy person – a fou (or sometimes a crazy women, a folle). The lack of mental health facilities probably doesn’t help, but they are harmless. Often they amble about, signing songs, telling tales – an almost jester sort of role at times. We had great moments with the one in our training village up north, actually he was quite an entertaining individual (he claimed he had asked the World Bank for 20,000 white people to build an international airport in his village of less than 200, and the four of us in training were the first to arrive – that meant he also considered himself to be our boss in a sort of way, and always carried around the hand-drawn blueprints of the prospective airport design to prove it).

However, they are also crazy. And they do crazy things. And for some reason in this village, someone had decided to give this crazy fou a bow. Luckily, however, they had the foresight not to give him the accompanying arrow. This was all unbeknownst to me, but I was getting a quick education in it now.

So I was alive, but my confidence completely shattered again, and no amount of tomatoes would bring it back. I meekly smiled and tried to say something to the fou. Of course he was laughing too hard and trying to sing when he wasn’t laughing, so it was tough to get anything through. Usually he made people laugh around the village, at least I was able to do the reverse to him. That and the entire village had finally stopped watching . . . no wait, that wasn’t true at all.

It was a bit of an awkward situation, the kind I was desperately trying to avoid, so I resigned myself to failure and walked away off the main road and back to my house tomato-less. There’s no way everyone saw that right, I reckoned to myself. No one would remember that, the fou has probably pulled that trick on plenty of people. This is going to be ok, I bet people in this village hate to laugh.

I spent the rest of that afternoon in my house, not leaving. My counterpart came over that afternoon, to recount the story of ‘The Fou and I,” that he had just heard. Oh well, looks like Day 4 was going to be another cleaning day!

The main drag of my torments

The main drag of my torments

The First Time in Burkina Faso I Almost Died (According to No One Except Me) – Keleng

Before I left to go to Burkina Faso with the Peace Corps, I figured there was a 2/11ths chance I might meet an untimely demise while there. This was based on absolutely no legitimate math or rational information whatsoever, as I had rarely met a fraction I could comprehend, but a number I kept in mind that was just low enough to avoid any justification to back out under concern for such pretexts.

Fast forward to three months later. I had completed our three month training program, and affecté (sent) to my site. I was replacing a married couple in the southwest of the country in a small town known as Sideradougou. However, that couple had left Burkina six months prior, and by the time I arrived in the house I was to be living at, the lack of cleaning over a the past half year in a place where things get very dirty, very quickly really showed. So I spent my first day entirely cleaning up the joint, and then again on the second. It was not exactly glamorous, nor involved saving babies from endemic cholera on an hourly basis as I had imagined, but it had to be done.

However, there was another reason I spent two days cleaning, two more days that I had ever cleaned anything in my entire life combined prior to that. After three months in Burkina, I had become somewhat accustomed to the culture and country. However, during training, which was located on the north side of the country far away from my current posting, I was always surrounded by other volunteers. We split off into small groups of 4-5 where we did language training all day, then came together every 10 days or so as a big group to do more technical training. It was easy to go around and explore with others by your side. Being dropped off in village and realizing you were all alone for the first time in three months was a daunting feeling.

So cleaning in some ways kept me occupied, and delayed the process of exploring my village on my own. However, I couldn’t handle a third day of cleaning, no matter how much I dreaded the first time leaving my house (in addition, given my lack of cleaning prowess and the rapid rate of dust resettlement in Burkina Faso, things were unlikely to get any cleaner. Ever). So on Day 3 I resolved to get out and explore. I didn’t really know what to do, but I figured maybe buying some vegetables would be a good way to ease in to village life. This was another first for me, as I had eaten about three total vegetables in my life to that point (two of them were potatoes). Between all this cleaning and vegetable shopping, Burkina Faso was domesticating me at a rapidly unexpected pace.

It wasn’t market day, but my neighbor told me there were a few stalls along the main road. So I quickly reviewed my local language (Dioula) greetings and headed out that way, my first big trip in little Sideradougou. I walked at a brisk pace and could feel everyone’s eyes on my every move. I was really the only foreigner around, and this was my first foray out – I’m sure everyone was curious as to what the new guy was going to do (I carried similar questions). I tried to greet a few people by but clearly messed it up. They politely tried not to laugh and responded, but I could tell (saying Aw ni tile [good afternoon] when it was instead time to say Aw ni sogoma [good morning] is apparently a classic Burkinabe joke). Oh well, at least I wasn’t cleaning.

After about 10 minutes I reached the main road. I thought there had been a lot of people I had passed already, but that was nothing compared to the amount hanging out on both sides of the road. And every single one of them was staring at me. Or so I felt.

I walked up slowly surveying the scene as I didn’t even know exactly what to do, and wanted to avoid looking awkward and confused (likely 14 years too late on that one), or at least minimize that as much as possible. Luckily I saw a lady by a stall selling tomatoes out of the corner of my eye. Perfect I thought, tomatoes are a vegetable, right? If I just do something normal and get me some tomatoes, then maybe everyone will see I am just like them, that I eat vegetables too. I approached the lady and attempted to ask how much they cost in local language, but quickly switched to French. I had no idea how much they should cost or how many tomatoes was a sufficient amount (since I had never really bought any ever in my life and I didn’t know even what I would use them for), so I just gave her some money and took what she allowed me to.

I felt pretty accomplished, I had just completed my first business transaction in my village (as a business volunteer, I had basically finished my job for the day). Growing more confident, I decided to walk down the main road and explore a bit more before heading back home. This was going to be all right I told myself, I was going to do well here.

I turned around to start walking away from the tomato stall. But what I saw I was not prepared for, and instantly shattered all my new found confidence. A man was standing in the middle of the road and aiming a bow and arrow right directly at my chest, about to launch what would certainly be a deadly strike.

to be continued . . . maybe

A place to buy tomatoes and many other exotic things I had never eaten

The place to buy tomatoes and many other exotic things I had never eaten

Rats in the BF (Part III)

I gagged and looked away. The smell was so strong now, but that couldn’t be the reason, could it? There is no way that a dead rat has been sitting in my utensil jar for two weeks now, rubbing up against the very utensils I use to eat, that I put in my mouth on a daily basis! I looked again and it was still there, as dead and rotting as ever. I couldn’t believe it, it all made sense now why every time I took a sip of ice tea it smelled like poo – the spoon that I had used to stir and then left in my cup inexplicably had been rubbing against this dead rat for some time. I was basically licking a dead rat for the past two weeks!

I came out of a semi state of shock, took the utensil jar outside of my house and dumped its contents in a garbage area of sorts (the previous dead rats, Dimanche had all picked up by hand and thrown over the wall of my house, as I had no plans on touching them). I didn’t know if I should tell Dimanche, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know if I was going to become seriously ill, but then I reasoned that I had basically been licking the dead rat everyday for the past two weeks and not gotten ill, so it must be ok (maybe even good for me?). I was going to call our PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) to ask her, but then I thought, how on earth am I going to explain this? It was probably best to not even try, they might just wackyvac (a Peace Corps slang term for someone who is sent home because they have gone ‘crazy’ to some extent, at least in the eyes of the administration) immediately, since it is pretty odd that I knowingly smelled rotten sewage all over my kitchen but didn’t do much about it.  No, I was still here, alive, and in Burkina Faso, if this was going to kill me, it would have happened by now.

So I did not call anyone or tell a single soul in my village, but spent the next few days on edge, constantly worried that I would fall violently ill. The fact that I didn’t is amazing in itself. I considered throwing away all my silverware immediately, but did not feel like buying new ones either (Peace Corps volunteers are known for being incredibly stingy, something I probably took to the max). So I spent the afternoon washing each of them with bleach, over and over. As soon as I had gotten rid of the rat there was no longer a smell in my kitchen, but that made it even harder to clean since I did not really know when to stop. So I didn’t, for a couple of hours at least.

At any rate, that was not the last time I encountered rodents that needed to be killed in my humble abode. However, that was the largest haul – in total it was five. After having seen four of them the day after we put out the poison, I figured that had been plenty and we got them all. I didn’t think much about it in the following two weeks, but given that the dead ones were spread out across the house, it had been highly likely there were others. I had considered the matter done, but that dead rat hadn’t. In fact, he ensured that he would get the last laugh. Unlike his brethren that laid down to die within a small radius of the poison, this punk rat stumbled onward, looked around for a suitable location, climbed up the table and crawled in my utensil jar to die. He wanted to ensure that his rotting carcass would continue haunt me, and that it did. Alas, though I did learn a valuable life lesson. To this day now, whenever my ice tea starts to smell like poop, I immediately stop drinking it and try to figure out the issue, instead of waiting until after the fact (who says you don’t learn any valuable life skills in the Peace Corps?).

THE END (at least I hope – I don’t think any rotting carcasses followed me back home . . . )

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The sacrifices we make for such goodness