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Chilean summer in December

Written by Emmy on 2 February 2012

Never ones to sit still for too long, the Liss family took off for another adventure in late December. With everyone miraculously off from school and work for the week, we set our eyes south — way south. Very late on Christmas Eve, an evening when JFK is particularly concentrated with traveling Jews, we boarded a flight bound for Santiago.

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On our whirlwind tour of Chile, we planned to cover a lot of ground. We landed in Santiago early in the morning with plans to connect to a flight headed south. First we had to claim our bags, go through customs and re-check them. Simple, right? Well, as documented on many checkpoint adventures, a picnic basket for the plane is crucial. And the Liss family is always prepared. However, the Chilean border control was not so thrilled by our picnic basket of clementines. Our lengthy layover suddenly became a lot shorter once my father was finished with his official interrogation.

Finally we arrived in Puerto Varas in the southern lakes district, surrounded by mountains, volcanoes, lakes and national parks. We claimed our Chilean SUV and piled in, headed further south. Because Chile is so narrow, we passed as many signs for Argentina as we did for domestic cities (prompting my father to continuously sign the central refrain from Evita’s “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”).

We arrived in the picturesque town of Villarica in time for a very late lunch by the lake. Following our long day of travels, we all took a rest by the waterfront under the delightful summer sun.

The town sits under the shadow of the volcano by the same name, which is still very active. Even from a distance, once the light was quite right, we could see little sulfur clouds puffing up from the snow-topped peak. Our hotel was situated just between the village of Villarica and the slightly larger town of Pucón just a few kilometers away. We explored Pucón later that day, taking in some light fare at the adorably named Mamas & Tapas and contemplating our adventuring options for the coming days.

Despite its regular activity, Villarica is a very user-friendly volcano. During the winter it serves as a ski slope and during the summer as a place for climbers, though it always maintains a thin layer of snow and ice. Climbing the whole things is an ordeal largely because of the snow. You need to start very early in the morning in order to finish before the daily melt, which can be incredibly dangerous. Most people sled down after reaching the summit.

We opted to climb from the base just up to where the first snow could be spotted, walking next to the chairlift operational the other half of the year. One of my sisters likened the experience to walking up a ski slope (which we were, in fact, doing) because of how steep the brief climb was. The view of the Andes from the (semi-)top was incredible.

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We took a quick lunch break before heading out into some more nature. The region is filled with national parks and having explored the volcanos, it was time for the lakes.

Chaz and I noted while out west that America’s national parks had the bare minimum in signage; just enough to make it clear where you’re going, but not so much that it’s overbearing. Chilean national parks take a much more relaxed approach, by which I mean: there are no signs. No signs in English, no signs in Spanish, and only sheep to seek directions from.

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After several wrong turns, we found what sort of looked like a hiking trail. Once on it, the signage was still pretty unclear. We knew we were walking to a lake, but we had no idea how far it would be nor did we have any confirmation that we were actually going in the right direction. We hiked for a few hours, and it’s not clear that we found our intended destination, but the scenery along the way was still pretty breathtaking.

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After making our way back to the car — using not quite exactly the same route we had taken to get there — we returned to the village of Pucón for dinner. Chileans are big on grilling; most restaurants have a large sign outside advertising the parilla. We chose one such place and ordered fresh fish and steaks. I was served the largest, most aggressive piece of salmon I have ever seen. It could have easily served three people. My father took his extra steak back to the hotel to make it into a sandwich for the car the next day. We also had grilled tomatoes with parmesan cheese, which were excellent.

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The next morning we set off in our vehicle for points further south. During the early part of the 1900s, for economic and political reasons, Chile experienced a mass migration from Germany, Austria and surrounding nations. As a result, some of Chile’s little villages look more like they belong in the Alps than the Andes. Cafes offer German coffees and cakes served alongside little wooden bridges and lakeside cottages. We stopped in a few villages for sightseeing and refreshment.

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Our drive wound through the various lakes and volcanoes of the area and as the fog lifted, we could see Vulcan Osorno rising in the distance. Osorno is one of Chile’s largest, though it has not had an active eruption in a few decades.

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During the early part of our drive Osorno had been shrouded in clouds and so when it finally emerged, we were quite pleased and turned a little bit paparazzi.

We kept driving until we hit Puerto Varas, one of the larger lakefront towns in the region and where we would be staying that evening. We planned to keep driving a bit further to one of the more famous of the region’s lakes, but decided to pause for lunch while in town.

Chileans love empanadas, which I had assumed, given that this is their place of origin. So we had a few of those and they were pretty delicious.

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But what I was intrigued to learn upon our arrival down south is that Chileans love sandwiches. Sandwiches here are big and delicious and filled with things I love. Avocados are sold by the barrel down here (literally) and cost absolutely nothing compared to the going rate in the U.S. Chileans also seem to be pretty religious about their bread making. Pan casera, which translates to “homemade bread,” is found in warm, delightful abundance. Small rolls graced every table we sat down to and the larger versions were stuffed with sandwich ingredients, like my chicken, avocado, tomato delight from Dane’s in Puerto Varas.

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Like most food items we had in Chile, we discovered after ordering that we could have easily ordered half as many entrees and been, collectively, just as satisfied. There is definitely a go-big-or-go-home mentality to Chilean eating.

Fighting off our sandwich-induced food coma, we piled back into the car and headed to Lago Todos Los Santos, one of the largest of Chile’s lakes and a featured item in the New York Times’ must-see in 2011 list. (We squeezed it in just under the wire.)

We arrived at the lake, which is inside another large national park, and encountered the same scarcity of information that we had dealt with the day before. The welcome station was closed (despite signs indicating that it should be open), there were no brochures available and the one posted map had been all but destroyed. We found the park’s emergency medical clinic and I tried to extract some logistical information from the chief medic. Meanwhile, my father located the boat launching station and by waving a few bills and his key Spanish vocabulary words, secured passage for the five of us.

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The lake is large and beautiful, surrounded by the nearby volcanos and mountains. The lake is also quite long and if you sail its full length, will eventually find yourself in Bariloche, Argentina. However, that would have taken quite a few hours in our little motorboat and so we just puttered around a portion of it.

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Had we continued further south from Todos Los Santos, we would have come to the national park found on the island at Chiloe — the furthest point north where penguins can be found. I have wanted to see penguins in their natural habitat ever since “March of the Penguins” (and also “Happy Feet”), but Chiloe was several hours away. We decided to save the waddles for another visit.

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We headed back to the town of Puerto Varas for dinner. The majority of restaurants open for dinnertime bore close resemblance to the little cafe where we had eaten our colossal lunchtime sandwiches. We found a nice Mediterranean restaurant among the casual cafes and three-fifths of us ordered a stewed chicken with vegetables and a pea puree, served with the same familiar basketful of warm local rolls.

We retired to bed and early the next morning hopped back in our SUV, ending our brief, adventurous jaunt through the southern Chilean wilderness.

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Understanding the capital of Siam

Written by Emmy on 18 June 2011

IMG_1368Bangkok wears its history on the surface, with wats and prangs as plentiful as its shopping malls and pad thai carts. The Thai people demonstrate enormous respect for their past, a fact which became even more evident on our day trip to Ayutthaya on Monday.

Ayutthaya, situated about 70 kilometers north of Bangkok, was the historic seat of Thai power. Beginning in the mid-1300s, kings from five successive dynasties governed the Siamese people from the palaces and temples of Ayutthaya. Sacked by Burma, Siam’s constant enemy, in 1767, Ayutthaya was later abandoned as the capital in favor of a more geographically secure city: Bangkok. Though much of Ayutthaya was destroyed in several battles with the enemy, what remains has been preserved for tourists — Thai and foreigners alike — to come explore.

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We began our trip at Bangkok’s major train station, where we were offered the opportunity to pay 20 baht (less than $1) for a third-class ticket to Ayutthaya. We opted to pay a slightly steeper fee in order to enjoy much-needed air conditioning. After a 90-minute trip through the Thai countryside, we arrived in Ayutthaya and made our way to a small pier. The old city is separated from the train station by a narrow river, which must be crossed by boat. We paid a total of 8 baht in order to board what was generously dubbed a ferry.IMG_1409

Once on the other side, we purchased an all-access pass to the many ruins. Fragments of the once glorious temples remain, and though the stone towers and walls are punctuated by overgrown grassy fields, what still stands serves to demonstrate the impeccable craftsmanship that went into building Ayutthaya so many centuries ago.

IMG_1401After all of our touring around, we’ve learned a couple helpful hints to better decipher the temples and ruins of Thailand. For example, a Buddha with the left hand extended means “Stop fighting.”

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In Ayutthaya, many of the ancient Buddha statues are still intact, but the majority had their heads cut off by the Burmese invaders, leaving rows and rows of headless bodies. In contrast, one of the most famous Ayutthaya sites is the bodiless head of Buddha, encased in tree roots.

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We trooped around the old city, pausing in our historical journey only for a brief lunch of pad see ew and chicken with cashews.

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Appreciation for the wonders of Ayutthaya is still very fresh in Thai minds. Only recently, excavators discovered a crypt inside on the more majestic temples. I got a little creeped out by the steep, deep staircase, but Chaz went down to check it out for himself. The piles of golden Buddhas and other relics found in the depths of the temple are now on display in Bangkok’s National Museum, which we were able to visit on Wednesday before heading out of the capital.

We walked the entirety of Ayutthaya’s ruins, but caught a glimpse of Thai transportation history: elephants paraded around near the ruins, carrying tourists on their backs.

Toward the end of our day, all the walking began to take its toll. Though we did not board an elephant, we did partake in another feature of Thai life: a tuk-tuk. All week in Bangkok, we kept encountering these strange vehicles. An alternative to taxis, tuk-tuks look almost like golf carts from the front. Some have only a small bench for passengers, while others look like they could seat eight people. In Bangkok, tuk-tuks stopped every time we tried to hail a cab, but we waved them all away, opting for safety and air conditioning. In Ayutthaya, conventional taxis were nowhere to be found and we were a very solid walk from the water. So we hopped into the backseat of a persistent tuk-tuk driver and held on for the bumpy ride. There’s no meter, so we had negotiated a price beforehand. We most definitely paid more than a local would, but for less than $2, not an awful way to travel. Still, we disembarked in agreement that once was enough. (But I have since learned that apparently in Chiang Mai, taxis can be hard to come by and tuk-tuks are the way to go. We’re hopeful the city’s small size will make it easily walkable.)

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On our way to the boat, we walked through an open food market: the first signs that Ayutthaya was still a flourishing town of any kind. But just as we were getting into the trenches of the fish display, the sky opened up. Big, dark clouds had begun to emerge in the later part of the afternoon and the moment of monsoon had definitely come. Only problem: we had to cross the river. Putting everything we had with us into my bag and then under my raincoat, we ran for the ferry and made the adventurous crossing.

Despite the insane weather, our little train managed to get us back to Bangkok on a relatively timely schedule, wet, but a bit more cultured.

Our ultimate conquest

Written by Emmy on 2 June 2011

“This weekend reminded me that eating is basically my favorite part of traveling. Therefore I think we should go to Thailand. Not next week or anything, but at some point.” —me, in an email to Chaz, Oct. 2009

 

Reporting live from Detroit! We’re here on a layover en route to Hong Kong, making a perfect opportunity to more thoroughly explain what we intend to do on this trip and, especially, on this blog.

We both love food. We have spent hours trying to make it, and even more time eating and experimenting with it. In particular, our friendship blossomed over a joint love of ethnic — and especially Thai — food. We undertook a quest to find the best pad thai in metropolitan Washington D.C., with a little help, and sampled nearly every dish on a Providence menu.

Going to Thailand is the ultimate conquest of our culinary voyage, and something we’ve discussed for a long time. Somewhere along the way, our interest moved beyond just the balance of tangy and sweet flavors, and onto the deeper significance behind the unique qualities of a nation’s food.

A big focus of our voyage to Southeast Asia is to explore each nation’s culture and history through the lens of its cuisine. In Hong Kong and Singapore, where the populations are becoming more and more international, we will investigate the enduring traditions that still survive. By spending time with locals, we will gain a glimpse into the role that food plays in their everyday lives, from market shopping to special family festivals.

In Bangkok, we’ll visit the bustling marketplace and sample from the famous street stalls. Up in northern Thailand, in the city of Chiang Mai, we will attend cooking school and partake in several local customary meals. The legacy of communism still reigns strong in Hanoi, where a midnight market that developed out of the government eye has become the must-see food destination.

Though food was the original impetus for our trip, we’re also planning to do a lot of other sightseeing and explore the nightlife (parents: while staying safe, of course). We’ll continue to share all of our adventures with you, dear readers.