Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"Every Day is Like Sunday"

“Everyday is Like Sunday.”

Thomas, my host for the month – along with Sandra and their son, Mateo, reminded me that this is how life is at the Patagonia Hostel.  I became amazed at how true this phrase became. 

View of Rio Simpson from Piedra del Indio

The day after I arrived in Coyhaique, the family left for a rare mid-season vacation to Rio Tranquilo, and trusted Meló (a volunteer from France who was finishing up her month) and myself to run the place.  This meant I got some very fast on the job training.  I had a blast working with Meló and happily took on the task of cooking for us – something I hadn’t done since September!  I was sad to see her move on to her next adventure after only a week of getting to know her.  But at the end of this first intense week, it led me to conclude that hospitality is a place where I totally feel in my element.     
Melo and I toasting our bread making ability

Butternut Squash Risotto, How I've missed you!

Can you guess which plate is the Frenchie's? 

A typical day in the life went something like this:

8:30 am – Wake up to prep breakfast for guests. 

9 – 10:30 – Guests eat at their leisure.  This means serving the tray of ham and cheese, refilling the bread basket, homemade jam, milk, cookies and oranges as needed.  When there was a lull, I’d chat with guests, or sit and enjoy my morning coffee and bread while journaling about the events of the previous day and catching up on headlines and emails.

11:00 – Clear the table; fill the dishwasher (the first I’ve seen since September – as well as hot water to do dishes by hand!  That’s what you get when German ex-pats are running the show!) We head upstairs to turn over the 10 beds – 2 double rooms and 6 beds in the dorm.  Each bed has a duvet cover.  I used to hate changing duvet covers but after changing up to 10 a day, I’ve become a pro.  (The secret: Turn the duvet cover inside out, grab the end corners and then grab the comforter while pulling it right side out again. Voila! Duvet covers, we can be friends now!) Then I’d clean the bathroom.  I also used to hate cleaning showers because of all the nasty soap scum on the door… but not anymore!  (The secret: Clean your shower door everyday!)  Start laundry.  Vacuum. 

Noon – We were ready to check in guests!  Often there would be guests waiting who were turned away the day before but made a reservation for the next day.  Patagonia Hostel is a pretty popular place (getting the only “Top Choice” designation in Lonely Planet for Coyhaique lodging – that is Gold in the tourism world!).  We had a full house – sometimes more than full – all but about 5 nights during my month there.

1pm – Hang laundry out to dry.  Often I’d run to the grocery store down the street for Sandra while she prepared our lunch (the main meal of the day). 

Afternoon – Generally there seemed to be downtime after lunch but I found that as long as I was hanging around the hostel, I always found there was something to be done – bring laundry in, empty the dishwasher, check reservations, re-fill the hot water, etc.  But I really didn’t mind.  I found a little time to do some reading – “Slaughterhouse 5” by Kurt Vonnegut – what?!? But not much else as this was definitely my busiest workaway stint.  But again – I loved it and I was thankful for the opportunity to learn and work hard to see if this is what I really wanted to do. 

Evening – We kept track of our arrivals and once everyone had checked in, we would all toast to a full house – including 4 year-old Mateo who would fill up his glass of homemade apple juice.  Eventually bread-baking would commence.  Sandra has perfected her recipes for multi-grain and white bread over the last 15 years and insisted that this recipe not be shared with anyone living in Chile.  I’m not sure I could recreate it in the U.S. – especially at altitude in Colorado but it will be worth the try.   We would make 2 loaves of each kind.  And as the bread was baking, we would prepare the meat and cheese plates for the next morning – and then set dishes out for breakfast.  And then suddenly it was midnight. 



So there was a lot to be done, but somehow it was all completed in a laid-back way.  After all – we were in Patagonia!  And this was the feeling of Sunday. 

This is the life that Thomas and Sandra have created for their family.  They moved to Patagonia 15 years ago – spending the first 10 years living in a tent.  They started as tour guides for kayak trips and then opened the hostel as a way to get more clients for the tour business.  But quickly the hostel alone became more lucrative.  They are both originally from Dresden, Germany – in the East.  And they both reminded me several times as I was awed by their creativity and their resourcefulness, that this was learned from growing up in East Germany.  When I asked about their experience growing up, they said it was a great childhood because everything was simple and they didn’t know the difference.  Thomas is an electrician by trade but can fix or make just about anything.  Right now he is working on rebuilding their 1992 Lada Niva, a Russian car, for their 5-month family road trip to Colombia in May.  One afternoon two guests showed up with their disassembled bikes (ready to be shipped home) in grocery carts.  A couple of hours later, the grocery carts were magically transformed into the coolest grill I’ve ever seen. 
Thomas' handiwork
 One of the pièce de résistance in the house is a bathtub remade into a surprisingly comfy couch in the common area.  But Sandra’s creativity easily rivals Thomas’.  Her big thing is “up-cycling” clothes.  One day she had taken a skirt she had for a decade and refashioned it into her sundress for their Colombian adventure.  She loves making clothes for Mateo out of other clothes that have been worn out.  And when the oven wasn’t working right in the midst of making a raspberry cheesecake for Meló’s going away, she jimmy-rigged some crazy contraption out of string and a 2x4 to keep the oven temperature button pressed so we wouldn’t have to hold it for the entire hour that the cake was baking.  And then there is Mateo.  The apple clearly doesn’t fall far from the tree.  He’s a huge helper when it comes to cooking, and monitoring the laundry (running to turn off the machine which beeps until someone turns it off), and making the most joyful noises while whizzing around the house on his bike or playing with his vast collection of toy cars – something he and Thomas do together every morning.  I loved my time with this fun and fascinating family.  I think we just scratched the surface on hearing about their lifetime of adventures.  But hopefully our paths will cross again – and more stories will be shared.    
What is left of Melo's going-away cheesecake.  Bringing Barefoot Contessa Goodness to Chile!

In the midst of the hostel madness during the busiest part of the year, I managed to have a few adventures of my own.

Friends of the family, Lucho and Aby, asked if I wanted to join in on a raft trip down the Rio Blanco.  Although there were only about 10 minutes of rapids, the float was in beautiful wilderness.  The drive alone was amazing!  Conclusion - come to Patagonia with a car.  There is so much to explore that it is difficult to navigate with just buses.  And the cost for this trip: a homemade peach pie.  Awesome!
Never made a pie this good-lookin'!  Maybe it's in the genes after all!  Thanks Shells Bells!

A week or so later, they also invited me to enjoy their family to spend the day at a Chilean Rodeo – the national sport.  This was a wild experience!  Again, the 2 hour drive to El Gato de Nireguao was beautiful.  We started with some coffee in the tourist center which was basically a meeting hall.  And then a neighbor busted out a Tupperware full of sausage to be shared with everyone.  Meat is definitely the mainstay in the Chilean diet.  Maté, the local tea-like drink, rounds it out.  Meat and Maté is about all you need.  Oh… and maybe some red wine.  We watched a few horse races (2 horses at a time racing down a narrow stretch of grass) as we waited for the bucking broncos to start. These guys have no padding.  And in Chile, you have to ride for 12 seconds for it to count.   Wild is all I can say.  But watch for yourself. 

During the drive back, I found myself looking for little plots of land that could fit a few tiny houses.  Opportunities abound! 

One afternoon I set out to climb Mount Divisidero, the backdrop to Coyhaique.  The path is clear but rumor had it that there were a few barbed wire fences that had to be navigated.  Rumor turned out to be true.  Someone clearly doesn’t want people to cross over onto the public road that is the start of the trail head.  But I managed.  3 hours later I had beautiful views of the Rio Simpson Valley.  It was definitely worth the trouble.  But I would be reminded of the trouble of the uphill for a few days to come with sore muscles.  This turned out to be good training for another adventure in the not-so-distant future.
3 hours later I was at the top of Mount Dividero - all the way up there. 

Some crazy green stuff growing on these trees reminded me of the Grinch

Coyhaique from above




One morning, as I was sipping my coffee, waiting for guests to join for breakfast, I decided to try to join in with a couple of girls who were going horseback riding with Lucho and Aby.  I sent a message to Lucho on his way to pick them up to see if they could saddle another horse.  Not a problem.  So I had a lovely morning riding through the Patagonia wilderness.  The cost for this excursion: a batch of cookies.  I like this currency system.  But I think I’ve made out on the better end of the deal.


Kristin and Caroline (recent high school grad from Indianapolis) and me riding Pansy!

Life is good.  Pops... you ready for this in a month??
(Dropping the hint of adventures to come... stay tuned for "Moms and Pops South American Adventure" coming March/April 2015!)
All of this lead up to the last big adventure – a 4 day trek around Cerro Castillo, an area some have called the next “Torres del Paine”.  I had been wanting to venture out to really experience the greatness that is Patagonia but I was waiting for the right opportunity, which basically meant, waiting for the right guest to stay at the hostel, who was heading in that direction, who wouldn’t mind if I tagged along.  Time began to run short and I only had a window of opportunity of a few more days when Kristin from Germany showed up at the door.  She seemed desperate for a room.  I told her we were full, which we were.  But then she mentioned being from Germany and that she really wanted to stay there because she heard the owners were from Germany and she seemed really nice.  So, I offered her the extra bunk bed in my room, something Thomas and Sandra reminded me I could do only if I really wanted to.  I was happy to help them make some extra money and sharing my room with others is something I’ve become quite accustomed to in the past year or so.  So Kristin was grateful to have a room.  The next day she was on the horseback trip when we both started talking about the possibility of doing Cerro Castillo.  The only problem was that neither of us had a tent or a camp stove, and I didn’t have a sleeping bag.  Lucho and Aby to the rescue again!  They had gear that they were willing to let us borrow.  The cost for the gear: TBD as I hope to be able to help them out when they visit Colorado this summer!  They are looking for a volunteer gig (working in exchange for room and board) with horses or rafting during the month of July and/or August.  Any Colorado peeps with connections or ideas, let me know! 
Lucho and Aby want to come to Colorado and work/volunteer as raft guides or horse guides in July.  Ideas?


So the afternoon after horseback riding, I went shopping for 4 days worth of food and we set our departure for the next afternoon - Monday, February 16.  Lucho showed up with all our gear, minus some gas we needed to buy before we left town.  We packed our packs and headed for a busy crossroads in town to wait for our transportation.  By this I mean we went “a dedo” which translates “by finger”.  
Ready to go!

All buses were booked and so this seemed to be our only option.  Many others had the same idea – as we had quite a bit of competition in trying to find some friendly drivers who would give us a ride.  3 cars and about 3 hours later we were at the trail head.  Right as we were about to start our trek – I stopped in my tracks and looked at Kristin.  “We forgot gas”.  (This is one of those stories that you don’t want to tell people, especially experienced trekkers as these are the kind of stories that people judge you for by saying “you aren’t the type to be in the wilderness”.  But Kristin had just come off of the 9-day “O” trek of Torres del Paine and I feel that I’ve had a considerable amount of experience during the past year to trust that we would be just fine.)  As we are deciding whether we are able to survive on dry pasta and forgoing the comforts of hot coffee and tea in the morning, a truck passed by.  Rather mindlessly, I stuck out my hand and gave a weak attempt to wave him down as we still hadn’t decided if we will go to the nearest town, Villa Cerro Castillo, to get gas.  To both of our surprise, the truck pulled over.  Our decision was made.  20 minutes later I was running around town trying to find gas at any of the “supermercados” which could barely pass for a quick mart in the US.  None had mini-cans of propane.  How can this be?  People only come to Villa Cerro Castillo to camp in Cerro Castillo – where gas is pretty much a requirement – as campfires are illegal – supposedly.  Then Kristin tried her luck by asking fellow travelers if they had any gas to spare.  The first people she asked were just finishing their trek and had a full can to spare.  It only cost us 3,000 pesos!  (This sounds like a fortune but it’s the equivalent of $4.75.)  Now the task was to get a ride back to the trail head.  
Kristin - a hitchhiking pro, insists that the sign helps.  Apparently being female does too.
(Cerro Castillo - our destination in 2 nights in the background)

To complicate matters, the same couple who sold us the gas was headed in the same direction – so we felt bad “competing” with them for a ride.  But after an hour of waiting, a truck pulled over that they had flagged down, and then another traveler joined them, and so we ran hoping to squeeze in as well.  After convincing our new friend Omar that we only had to go 20 minutes, he let us pile in.  Victory!  The journey was NOW about to begin… at 7:15 at night.  This is not exactly the best time to begin a trek.  However – we had daylight until about 9.  We decided to hike for an hour then look for a campsite.  The solo guy ended up having the same plan as we did, so Juan Carlos became our new trekking buddy.  At 8:30 we happened upon the perfect campsite: flat land, near the river with a campfire ring already made and a huge wood pile nearby.  
Campsite on Night 1 at Dawn

 After setting up camp, we got out our stoves to start dinner.  We asked Juan Carlos, a Chileno, about making a fire but he told us it was “prohibited” and that if a park ranger came to check on us we’d get kicked out.  Not worth it – and we now had gas – so we started our stoves. Just as our water was starting to boil – a man showed up – whom I’m still not convinced wasn’t an angel.  Jorge approached us as we were circled around an untouched campfire and asked us why we hadn’t started the fire.  We said we thought it was illegal.  He explained that this was private land and that fires weren’t illegal as he started to tear down branches from nearby trees, throw them on the fire and start it in about 20 seconds.  AND he had a box of Gato wine under his arm with a cup to share.  He gave each of us extremely healthy pours and reminded us that the fire and red wine should warm us up from the rather cold Patagonia night.  WHAT?  Seriously – Jorge was an angel.  But he claimed to just be keeping watch over the 450 cows during the summer months.  He had a little hut nearby with a full-on stove where he offered to join him for coffee in the morning.  So – we may have had a bit of adversity for our start but I think it all worked out in the end.  Just like the rest of our hike.


We had beautiful weather minus the short rain shower the next afternoon that started just as we finished putting up our tent and ended just as we woke up from a much needed nap.  The infamous winds of the region were rather mild as we crossed over the pass on our second day and again from our highest point, right under Cerro Castillo on our third day.  The views were simply incredible all throughout – forests, glaciers, rivers, streams, waterfalls, lakes, vistas, boulder fields.  Simply amazing.  Photos don’t do it justice (even though you can't help but try).  Come see for yourself. 

At the end of Day 1 (and 1 hour)

An afternoon side trip up to a glacial lake

Day 2 nearing the pass.  Camp was down by that river a few hours before.

Marking the way
I learned this at RMR - June of 2013

Top of the pass!

Enjoying our "Summit Cookie"!  We thought this was our tough day.  Should have saved it for Day 3.  Whoops. 

The tiny lake in the distance on the right is where we would make camp about 4 hours later. 

Cerro Castillo Glacier and runoff

View from my "bath tub"

Sunrise hike before the hike

Sun shining on Cerro Castillo

This lake was the coolest blue

The view reminded me of "The Land Before Time"

Cerro Castillo and the valley below.  AMAZING!

A different perspective

View from the "bath tub" on Day 3 - New Zealand Camp

In the end – this 4 day (and one hour) trek was definitely the highlight of my month here.  It also sealed the deal that I will be back one day.  The Patagonia legend has it that if you eat berries from the calafate bush, you will return to that spot some day.  Despite the bushes being all over this land, the only place I ate a berry was in the Cerro Castillo wilderness.  When I inquired, I found out an acre of land in this barely touched wilderness is going for about $10,000.  Very tempting. 


I already have a game plan for my return to Patagonia.  I will come back with a car, with a tent … and Lord-willing… a boyfriend/husband.  The time frame for this plan is yet to be determined but I look forward to the adventures that await!

I spotted this cool dude in a store during my first afternoon in Coyhaique.  I was the creepy old lady that asked for a pic.  Pretty sure he has no idea where Illinois is.  I tried to explain to him.  He seemed very  interested, clearly.