Tuesday, 29 January 2013

riesgos, paciencia...y recompensas

and now for the continuing storrrrrrry of a vacation that's to be expected of me...

el riesgo (the risk): while still in santiago, i booked an Aerolineas Argentinas (in and of itself a risky airline!) flight from mendoza, argentina to montevideo, uruguay, via buenos aires. faced with two options: arrive at the domestic airport (aeroparque) and take a 40-minute shuttle to the international airport (ezeiza), or spend $100 more dollars to have a shorter connection at the same airport (the "international" flight to montevideo is half the time, 35 minutes, than the domestic from mendoza). with a three-hour stopover, frugal-by-nature me took the airport transfer option.

la paciencia (the patience): checked flight status at hotel around midnight before having to leave at 4am to catch the 6am domestic flight. wouldn't you know it, but aerolineas decided to delay the domestic flight by 2 hours, thereby rendering my connection therefore impossible. despite trying to reassure myself that everything would work out, there are more z's in "ezeiza" than i saw for the proceding 4 hours. just in case, i arrived at MDZ as scheduled, and sure enough...no 6am flight.

la recompensa (the reward): 90 minutes after i arrive, aerolineas check-in staff arrive. first in line by, oh, half-an-hour, i explained the dilemma. result? with smiles and multiple hands of help, aerolineas changed my montevideo-flight to the $100-more "aeroparque" connection flight i had originally wanted - at no extra charge!

thus, as written in the previous blog, taking risks on this trip have seen incredible stresses, but a heck of alot of patience has yielded some pretty cool rewards. a life lesson indeed.

join us next time when our weary traveler notes:

in bold letterhead, the aerolineas argentinas in-flight magazine proclaims: "NATIONAL GOVERNMENT TO INCREASE POLICE PRESENCE IN KEY NEIGHBOURHOODS"

immediately facing, and looking like a continuation of the same article, the tourism argentina ad caption reads "WELCOME TO ARGENTINA."

bienvenidos a la argentina indeed...

Monday, 28 January 2013

riesgos y la paciencia...

having been infected by the travel bug from my first flight to vancouver at 6-months of age, there are many reasons why i don't seek medication for this lifelong affliction. in each adventure, i have the blessed opportunity to see new sights, encounter unknown cultures, enhance my skills at or learn a new language, sample untasted foods, and explore exiting libations. 2/3 my way through this south american journey, however, i have come to understand a more primal motivation for my travels: los riesgos y la paciencia. in other words, i've uncovered the thrill of taking risks (riesgos) and the benefits from patience (paciencia).

as you may have read in previous entries, my journey since leaving Curico last week has not been an Argentine side road - bumpy to say the least. my third time in chile and argentina, staying in santiago and here in mendoza is comfortable. far from being a local, i can still navigate my way through bus terminals, side streets, and restaurants with relative ease. leaving this relative comfort zone, however, has proven a huge challenge. what more, i'm not the late-20s backpacker as i was during my first trip when youth was on my side to deal with challenges that may arise.

a summary of the challenges since leaving Curico include fully-booked buses that have delayed my journey, holed-up in Temuco with a bout of the "revenge of the mapuche," visa-trouble at a remote mountain border crossing, missed winery appointments, no vacancy hostels and above all, fatigue. faced with the stresses of recent days, upon my arrival to neuquen i began to doubt weather the jaunt south was worth the trouble. clearly, someone was looking over my left shoulder and telling me this was a bad idea and to just head bag to the relative comfort of santiago. dragging a 24kg suitcase 10 blocks along uneven sidewalks in the heat of the afternoon sun certainly gave voice to this angel.

but then i looked to the angel on my right shoulder who told me to be patient; things will work out if you just hold on for a little more. the light at the end of my tunnel was the De Paseo Hostel. just slightly above my price range, spotless rooms, comfortable bed, friendly staff, and free wi-fi (which, fyi, exists everywhere here in south america; a lesson the "developped" world could learn) were an oasis in my desert. throwing fiscal caution to the wind, a private tour the next day brought me to south america's largest dinasaur dig and to the familia schroeder winery; arguably one of the best tour days i have ever spent (what can go wrong with dinosaurs and wine in one day?!).

this spectacular day shed new light on the recent week of woes. had i not headed south, i would not have come to know a little about the Mapuche culture (they held of Spaniards and Incas for centuries). Although sick, the extra day in Temuco turned out to provide me with the needed rest and time to work. Crossing the Andes, i got to see groves of Araucana, or "monkey-puzzle trees;" something i have longed to see since i was a child. yes, the visa issue was VERY stressful, but i have an interesting story to tell - and am covered for a return visit to argentina in the next 5 years. finally in mendoza, i honoured my long-delayed appointment to Familia Cassone (www.familiacassone.com.ar); an extraordinary day visiting their winery, sampling their obra prima line, and having a long parrillada lunch.

none of these experiences would have happened had i caved at the first sign of trouble and head back to a relative comfort zone. in short, a lifelong lesson in the rewards of taking risks and baring patience to see it through to the end; a parallel to leaving one's stable job to take on a failed opportunity, only to be rewarded with everything i wanted in a job in the end. but that's another story...

Thursday, 24 January 2013

on the buses...

a much needed glass in hand of a merlot/malbec/cab-sauv blend from Fin del Mundo ("End of the World") winery, it is a locally-produced wine from here in Neuquen, the gateway to patagonia. dark-fruit character with medium-full body, medium tannins, and medium-plus acidity, it is exactly what i need after what has been a harrowing 3 days of busing in south america.

for the record, long distance bus travel in most south american countries is among the best organised, most comfortable busing experiences one can have. hard benches, crammed aisles, and roof-tops piled with luggage and livestock are nary to be found. instead, lengthy leg room, wide seats that recline to near horizontal, and "in-bus" services that include meals and coffee on long trips with rotating movies or, in one case some years ago, a rousing game of bingo (the prize was a bottle of wine), are the norm. in short, air canada and westjet could learn a thing or two from spending just 7 hours on a chilean "tur-bus" or argentine "andesmar."

despite the oxymoronic luxury bus travel experience, i've recently come to understand that certain ettiquette is required. this goes beyond the general confusion of trying to negotiate any of santiago's main bus terminals (you'd think "main" and "terminal" would be one place, but again, that's an oxymoron); a multitude of vendors calling out destinations, or one company with several booths depending on destination. instead, i am refering to on-board behaviour: what may seem like a good deed to one culture may not seem so to another and likewise, what seems like a pain is actually perfectly normal.

take for example boarding a bus. it has been my general observation that south american cultures are very respectful of the elderly or parents with small children. for example, one napping young man on the santiago metro got whacked in the knee with a water bottle from a middle-aged woman to wake up and give his seat for an elderly woman (i was further away, so missed on this social prompting). he seemed embarrassed he didn't automatically do so, and was very apologetic to the women and eagerly gave up his seat. in another situation in argentina, where bank lines of more than half-an-hour are perfectly commonplace, a woman with an infant was immediately escorted to the front of the line by staff and no one thought anything of it.

you'd think, therefore, that when lining up to board the bus with other polite-minded chileans, one should allow passengers-who-may-need-assistance-with-boarding without a moment's thought. well, you'd think wrong. if said person is a man with cans and borderline senile, apparently women still have the right to go first, and don't stand in their way if you know what's good for you.

and what happens when, despite a language barrier, you feel terrible for the hobbling octogenarian and make way for him and his bags, supporting his back as he negociates the steep, narrow steps to his seat? you get yelled at for holding up the line, that's what happens. redemption can only be found when other observant passengers yell back to the impatient matriarchs in equally sharp language to mind their manners.

the elderly aside, what of passengers traveling with small children, forced to sit on their knees for 10-long hours in a fully-booked bus? and, as mentioned above, foreign backpackers with little regard for beyond themselves recline their chairs to the maximum, thus taking up precious space? first, as a parent, you disregard it and accept it as the way things are. (this is in complete contrast to the generally accepted airline caveat that "all incidents begin with reclining seats"). but, as a gentleman, when a seat becomes available, you offer to move so the mum and son can stretch out for a well-deserved rest. instead, after this happens a second time, the mum gets yelled at by above-mentioned impatient matriarchs to know her place, respect her seat, and stop telling people to move. what ensues is a borderline catfight and said gentleman imploring he was just trying to be as caballero as possible. (30-minutes of reassurances "you've done nothing wrong" ensue).

finally, punctuality is not something i'd expect much of a developing country, but the bus schedules here are relatively accurate. thus, passengers are used to arriving at an expected time, give or take minor incidents along the way. this could be construction, an accident, or maybe, just maybe, the only canadian on the bus completely unaware that, say, argentina implemented a law last week that requires canadians (americans and australians too) to pay a "reciprocity fee" (i.e. "revenge visa" for charging south americans similar fees), and the only way to pay is on credit card over the internet but, for arguement's sake, you're at a rural border crossing with very limited internet access? and let's just say that this process takes well more than an hour, thus delaying the entire bus-load, forced to sit in the middle of nowhere on a hot morning and watch "transponder 2". given the earlier reactions, you'd expect the worst. instead, you're greeted with smiles from everyone, delighted that in the end, you are alright.

notes to self when managing wine tour bookings for this year. oh yes, i suppose you don't know about that either? but again, that's another story...

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

aresti-ed development...

as much as i love to live a life that seeks the pleasures of wine, food, and travel, i forget that within this personal holy trinity lay demons that throw things off-balance. hence, i'm holed up here in Temuco, the largest city in southern chile.

it all started simple enough. after my perfect day in Santiago, i headed south to Curico Wine Region and it's namesake city, Curico. not as well known overseas as the wine regions surrounding Santiago (Maipo, Colchagua, and the previously-mentioned Pablo Morande's baby, Casablanca), Curico offers oenotourists a chance to explore an off-the-beaten-vineyard-path wine region. vineyards are plenty, but tasting rooms are few, so an appointment with Aresti (www.arestichile.cl) and their head winemaker, Jon Usabriaga was in order.

although the facility is large enough and easily situated near the city to welcome visitors, Aresti is much like most wineries in Chile: by appointment only. as one of the lucky few, i had an excellent time touring the grounds, seeing their winemaking process, as well as their bottling line. when you've done as many of these tours as i have, there is always something new and exciting to see. for me, sad as it may seem, it was seeing how bag-in-box wines are bagged-in-boxes. for the record, this is a very small percentage of Aresti wines and is instead intended for markets in eastern europe and scandinavia; Aresti produces excellent wines from the cheap and cheerful "estate selection" line (i'm having one of their merlot's now) to their top-tier "family collection" red blend that is capable of prolonged aging.

also of note is how much aresti is, well, developing. at a production rate of 9-million litres per year (that's about 1-million cases), Aresti is but the 18th largest winery in chile and is considered "mid-sized." and still growing with additions of new vineyard space on sloping hills near the property. sauvignon blanc is the key to curico success, so many vineyards will be planted with this varietal as well as chardonnay and viognier.

with a guided tour of miguel torres chile afterward (they basically pioneered modern chilean winemaking and, most recently, wine tourism - no reservations required here), my vino-stay in Curico ended monday. time to book a trip to Temuco and onward across the Andes to Neuquen, Argentina. fortune, however, does not always favour the thirsty for it is from here that my own vacation development has been arrested.

first, it is mid-summer here in south america, and is it turns out, south americans like to vacation too. as such, bus spaces fill up fast. unable to book onward trips to argentina from chile, i needed to do so here in Temuco. the intention was to make a quick stop (no wine here, no need to stay) and connect onward. such was not the case as the next available bus is at 3:30am thursday morning. the early bird will drink the wine of Neuquen, so it seems, but in the meantime, 2 days in Temuco is on the agenda.

it is in Temuco that chile once ended and the unconquered lands of the Mapuche began. a proud and strong people, the Mapuche were able to fend off not only the Spanish but also the Inca and other tribes for millenia. i learned this at the Museo Regional Araucania (the local museum), which was a nice break from wines. however, for me, it seems the "Mapuche Revenge" has taken its toll in this once hinterland of chile, and i have ventured little beyond the nearby plaza for water, bananas, and a visit to a hygenic museum.

so in the end, it seems that this Temucan trail-block is a blessing in disguise. i'm much happier stuck near a hotel washroom than one at the back of the bus, which is where i would have been had the buses been booked. also, it has given me time to write this blog, enjoy a glass of aresti, and catch up on some of my office work.

office work while in chile? oh yes, i didn't get into that. but that's another story that continues to develop.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

greatest hits: santiago style...

one activity a friend and i discovered in barcelona some years ago is to spend the last day of a vacation revisiting local spots we most enjoyed; a "greatest hits" of barcelona, if you will. with this in mind, i spent my last full day in santiago revisiting favourite spots from this and from previous trips.

first stop, a cortado grande at one of chile's iconic coffee shops, Cafe Caribe.along with Cafe Haiti and Cafe Curacao, Cafe Caribe is known as a cafe con piernas, which translates as "coffee with legs."   perhaps mentioned in previous blogs, Cafe Caribe a cafe con piernas is the chilean coffee answer to Hooters; wings and cleavage are replaced by espresso and legs. in all honesty, it is for the really good coffee at great prices that i make my daily visit; a little flirtation on the side is just the extra shot for the day.

from there, i make my way through the paseo ahumada pedestrian mall to La Vega, Santiago's massive market. every fresh ingredient you can think of is available here, and it is rated among the world's top marketplaces. for me, it is for a few sopaipillas piled high with spicy aji sauce and creamy salsa americana. a fresh-squeezed juice is the perfect way to wash down the spice, and on this trip i discovered the exotic chirimoya. although translated as "custard apple," the pink-skinned juicy chirimoya has a taste more similar to a cross of orange with lychee; in other words, it tastes like an alsatian gewurztraminer.

taking the safe and effecient metro, i make my to the breezy, tree-lined wealthy suburb of vitacura to visit what is among my most favoured wine shops in the world, Wain. here, 3 floors are filled with the best wines chile has to offer - and there are alot! not a bottle of gato negro or basic castillo del diablo is to be found, but you will see an array of boutique brands ranging from CDN$10 (that's moderately priced here!) to $100. don't forget to visit their chilean craft beer section, as well as an excellent selection of pisco, the famous brandy of chile and peru. weight and tax restrictions kept me in line, so i left with just 3 bottles: the Casas del Bosque Selecciones Pequenas Syrah, the Undurraga T.H.-series Carignan, and a Mistral Reserva 40 Pisco.

the afternoon heat really starts to kick in now, so it is time to take a break from the heat. two options are available: visit one of santiagos many museums, or indulge in an afternoon siesta. for me, there is nothing wrong with both. this time around, i took in the national museum (they strangely don't say much about pinochet), which is one of the many museums in santiago's wealth of colonial buildings. on my back to the hotel for a siesta, it is also worth stopping off for an ice cream. chileans love an afternoon scoop, so best to join in.  and while it may seem i am wasting the part of a great day, in my opinion there is nothing wrong with an afternoon siesta; i love siestas, so it should very well be part of my perfect day in santiago.

another reason for the siesta is that by north american or european standards, chileans are late diners; 8:30pm would be an "early-bird" special time. as with anywhere i go, deciding on where to go and what to have for dinner is a lengthy process. fortunately, i know of two great neighbourhoods within walking distance, and can this have a little here, a little there.

first stop is the Lastarrias district. named for the central, small street, Lastarrias is the latest in spot for hungry and thirsty santiaguinos. numerous trendy restaurants that could take on the best of europe or north america have sprung up, and my choice for the night is Bocanariz. innovative by chilean standards, bocanariz is santiago's first real wine bar, offering tapas meals to pair with a massive wine list, many of which are available by the glass. for my perfect day, i go for a ceviche of reineta (a "white fish" is the best i can do) with avocado and passionfruit, paired with a riesling from the san antonio valley. riesling is relatively unknown in chile, but the san antonio region shows much promise, producing a very australian-like riesling of lime cordial and mineral notes.

first course done, it is time to head on to the Plaza Bella Vista, a long standing centre for santiago nightlife. and although i am in chile, i can't help but head to the iconic peruvian restaurant, Berandarian for their skewered heart in spicy jus. i've never liked heart, but this plate revolutionised my opinion of heart and, more important, of peruvian cuisine.  naturally, i have a simple cab-sauv to go with the heart, but i certainly couldn't pass on a glass of pisco sour to start.

now past midnight, things are just starting to get going in santiago but, alas, it's an early start for me the next day so it is time to head home. my perfect day in santiago has reached its end, and another greatest hits album is complete. this is especially true when you throw in the randomness of  protesters disperesed by water cannons, and stray dogs that obey street signals better than pedestrians. all in the day's work of santiago.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

some pinot noir with your foot?...

I just came back from a day in Casablanca and thought you’d both find this story particularly interesting. Having taken the bus from Santiago and arriving 2 hours before my appointment at Casas del Bosque, I took a taxi to what I thought was to be a welcoming visitor experience at “Loma Larga,” some 3kms back from the highway on a lonely country road.  The fare paid, I entered what was nothing but an office and surprised staff who informed me the latest tour was already well underway and they wouldn’t be able to accommodate until 4pm (which would be in the middle of my other appointment). Instead, they directed me to the winery “R.E.”, 1.5km back down said road. Not familiar with the label, the mentioned it was a part of the Morande family; a label that I know very well in our market. A nice stroll in the end beside young berries, and fortunately the misty clouds famous in the region were keeping the temperatures cool.

Cut to 1.5km later as I enter the gate to a fancy SUV about to leave. Obvious disappointment flashes on my face; an prosperous-looking early arrival to Casablanca damaged by heavy autumn rains. The surprised-faced, healthy mid-fifties gentleman asks (in Spanish), “where have you walked from today?”

“Vancouver!” I answer, and explain my failed Loma Larga attempt and hopes that a second attempt at a visit won’t be for naught.

After joking chatter about how long it takes one to walk from either Vancouver via Loma Larga, the gentleman responds with “The tour guide is currently at lunch, but I can get you a wine while you wait if you like.”

At this point, thirsty and tired, I am more than thrilled to have a seat and sample, melba toast dipped in olive oil as a welcome lunch.

En route to the winery, I notice a “Morande” emblem on the spotlessly white polo shirt. I think to myself “must work here. It is, after all, part of Morande.”

As we approach the doors, I realise I forgot to properly introduce myself.  “Me llamo David Munro,” I say, offering a hand to shake.

The response?

“Me llamo Pedro Morande.”

As in THE Morande of Morande Wines; founder of the Casablanca wine industry and, arguably, one of Chile’s most celebrated winemakers.

If anything, there is nothing like a first impression, and I have a feeling we will remember each other on future encounters.


Wednesday, 16 January 2013

dining out chilean style...

at home, it is rare that i make the effort to dine out. i figure that my repatoire of global styles can take on any restaurant, so on the rare event that i do eat out i am - and have been told this more than once - "fussy." unless the menu has either of my default favourites that are lamb and duck, i will invariably choose something that i otherwise would not or could not reproduce in some capacity at home.

when traveling, however, my approach to food opens up. as the title of this blog would lead you to believe, my travels revolve around exploring the wine (beer/spirits count too) and food cultures of the many countries i visit. when in rome, have pasta and chianti. when in vienna, have schnitzel and gruner veltliner. when in australia, have kangaroo and shiraz.

but what of when in chile? with the exceptions of the exotic tropical ingredients of brazil and the magical fusion fare of peru, south american cuisine is not that particularly exciting. the wealth of fresh ingredients from the fertile central valley and 4,000km of pacific coastline,however, help define chilean cuisine; the seafood is exceptional and the avocados the juiciest i've ever had. nonetheless, chile does have some staple items that must be enjoyed while here.

first, there is the ubiquitous empanada, which is shared as a national food in neighbouring argentina, and in turn it's neighbour, uruguay. half-moon shaped pastries are either oven-baked or deep-fried, and are stuffed with a host of different possibilities and combinations: cheese, ham, chicken, seafood, and of course, beef. it's as simple as making your own pie-dough-ish crust and filling it with whatever you like.in chile, the local specialty is an empanada de pino: a beef-based empanada with olives and hard-boiled eggs.

then there is the sopaipilla which i discovered on my previous trip (and i think was in a blog some months ago). what is elsewhere in latin america a deep-fried pancake topped with sweet sauces, in chile the "pancake" batter is made with pumpkin and can be served sweet or under a spicy tomato sauce with guacamole.

then there is my new discovery into the ultimate in chilean luxury: the churrillo. onto a base of what looks like a kilo of fries are piled an assortment of cubed meats and sausages, lovingly topped with eggs sunny-side up. poutine to the extreme.

so, which of these culinary classics welcomed my grumbling stomach after more than 16 hours of travel? well, the answer is none. instead, i resorted to my old habits of ordering something i would never make myself. and since i have more than once made empanadas and sopaipillas, a chicken and pepper salad sandwich on wonder bread was my bienvenidos brunch. when traveling, nothing can compare to eating like a local.

Monday, 14 January 2013

season premiere...

one of my favourite things about my favourite shows is when a long awaited season premiere occurs. characters, stories, and immunity challenges that have been missing in my life are welcomed back with much anticipation, and usually a drink on-hand to savour the moment of the first scene and build-up to the first cliff-hanger/tribal council of the season. apart from a few blogs about meals had, wines paired, and travel memories inspired, little has been said about what is really going on in my life. basically, if you are a follower of the wtf-winetravelfood show, the first season finale ended with a big write up on how i am off to doha to teach wine studies to qatari airway flight crew; an infidel with zinfandel, if it were. as this is my first official blog of 2013, why don't i set up the scene for the season 2 premiere of "wtf-winetravelfood."

the sun is low in the sky, a pale amber hue stretching from the horizon across an unknown body of water. the sound of cackling seagulls can be heard in the background. panning back, we see a sloping bronze-coloured sandy beach. the absence of cawing crows, tall pines, and tidal pools tells us the scene is most likely not shot in the pacific northwest. an air of the exotic is created.

fade to an image of me hunched over my laptop. dressed in a slightly too-large-sized but very cumfy speight's t-shirt (it's an nz beer) and grey, aeropostal "have-never-seen-the-inside-of-a-gym" gym shorts, those in the know realise i am in the unofficial summer lazy-at-home wear. a faint bruno mars' "lazy song" in the background emphasises this point. most important, the shot-from-behind shows me reach to my left, returning to the screen with a glass of red wine in hand. we therefore know that, worse comes to worse, our subject has wine so he's doing alright. but what wine is it?

the sound of a tap at the door. "cabellero! sus toallas...". i get up, open the door, and retrieve towels from a dark-haired, young-20s man in black polo shirt and khaki pants. "muchas gracias," you hear me say, "no se porque no hubo toallas en el bano..." the conversation drifts off in spanish.

pan back to the lonely laptop. it sits atop lime-green bedsheet. to the right, an oxford mini spanish dictionary, and to the right of that, chilean pesos are organised in neat piles according to denomination.

chilean pesos? what of qatari rials? why the spanish dictionary and room service?

i guess this season is going to have its share of surprises and flashbacks.

stay tuned...