Small Town Hopping

I had been on my way to San Juan, when I found myself in that cute town of Chumbicha where I ended up staying a couple of days. Finally, when it was time to get back on the road to San Juan, I realized that I was really close to the National Park Talampaya and the Provincial Park Ischigualasto. (It took me a week of stumbling over that name before I was able to pronounce it.)

A French friend that I had met in Salta had recommended those parks to me, but it seemed that getting there and enjoying them without a car was quite a challenge. Was I up for the adventure of finding my way there? Or should I just head straight to San Juan? I figured I could ask for more information in the next major city (La Rioja) and make a decision based on what I learned.

I fortuitously caught a ride to La Rioja with two women from Chumbicha – a medical student and her mom. The mom was dropping her off in La Rioja where classes were starting back up for the semester. We filled the entire 1-hour ride with great conversation so that it felt like it ended too soon.

We joked about many cultural differences between the US and Latin America and between big cities and small towns, including the tendency to fire off personal questions to a stranger. She inquired if it had made me uncomfortable when she asked me all those personal questions, and I realized that I hadn’t even noticed.

I had to think back to realize that she had in fact asked me all the personal questions that might be considered intrusive and offensive to someone from the US culture but are typical of conversations among strangers in Latin America – “Are you married? Do you have kids? How old are you? Have you dated someone from here?…”

I guess I’ve gotten used to it, having lived in a small town in Latin America for 3 years. (I wonder if I have started asking people I recently met very personal questions, without realizing it…)

She reaffirmed what I had sensed about the town of Chumbicha. It’s quiet, there are some problems, but there was no real crime, everyone knows everyone, and everyone comes together to help each other out when there is a problem. Like any small community, everyone talks about anything and everything, so while it can be tricky to maintain a private life, she sets boundaries on what she shares with people. And she felt that people really accepted diversity within the community, in terms of lifestyle, religion, and sexual orientation.

As I walked into the bus station in La Rioja, I reflected on all the incredibly friendly people I had met and that little gem of a place I had found just because I had gotten off the bus at a random stop along the way.

So that’s why, about six hours later, I didn’t even think twice about getting off the bus in a small town that appeared on the map close to the parks where I was headed. I had never heard of it before. It wasn’t even mentioned in all the internet research I had done about getting to the parks. But it was located just 20 minutes from the national park, and the bus driver confirmed that there were places to stay there.

So as I gathered my things I went looking for a place to stay. I navigated away from the signs boasting rooms with personal bathroom and a swimming pool, and found a hand-painted sign “hospedaje” outside a tiny convenient store protruding out of a house. I called out and at first no one responded, but I hung around a minute – I’m not sure why, I guess I just had a good feeling about this place. After a minute, a young woman my age came out and told me the owner had just left to sign her kids up for school and was on her way back.

As I waited about 15 minutes for the owner to come back, I thought about how good I have gotten at this patience thing. Normally I would have been seriously bothered by having to wait more than a minute and I might have moved on. But I had no problem waiting, despite the fact that I was hot from the strong sun and hungry from traveling all day.

Some parrots (“loros”) flew overhead, and I took off my backpacks and stood in the shade of a tree. Suddenly something hit me on the shoulder. I looked around and realized that the fig tree I was standing under had just offered me some of its fruit. What great hospitality! As if it had known that I was hot and hungry!

Turns out that the humans were in fact just as kind and hospitable as the tree. After letting me get settled in a private room with its own bathroom and wi-fi, they invited me to share some mate (pronounced “mah-tay”) and some grapes (and raisins) fresh from their grape vine.


OK, I’ve mentioned mate in other posts, but I haven’t explained it yet. Mate is an essential part of Argentine culture. If you know an Argentine, you should know about mate because 99.99% of Argentines drink mate. (I made that statistic up.)

Mate is not just tea. It is a ritual.

Mate is an herb from northeast Argentina (and Paraguy and southern Brazil).

Mate is also the name for the round little insulated cup that you drink mate from (usually made of wood, a gourd “calabaza”, or metal).

It is drunk from a metal straw (“bombilla”) that is placed in the mate in a special way, with the mate tea poured on top. The hot water is poured into the same spot every time so that it forms a small little indention in the tea, but only in one spot, not disturbing the rest of the mate. When you drink mate, you finish all the water in the cup before refilling it. (I have had to learn all this mate etiquette, and I am still too intimidated to prepare a mate myself.)

Most importantly, mate is shared. It is shared with everyone you are with. But it is also shared with others as a cordial way of being friendly. (I was on a hike and came across a couple drinking mate on a large boulder. I said hi in passing, and they said hi back and invited me to share their mate, as if it was a natural part of greeting another person.)

It is a group activity.
It is an event (“let’s go drink a mate”).
It is a part of every gathering.
It is taken (along with a thermos of hot water) when you travel, on road-trips, on hikes.


While I’ve never been into sharing drinks with people, the gesture of someone offering you a mate is so nice that I admit that I shared a lot of mates before the arrival of the coronavirus here.

Mate is usually drunk “amargo” (bitter) – just hot water and tea. But some people prefer “mate dulce”, with sugar added.


Before I arrived in Pagancillo, I had only tried mate amargo, but there with Marisel and Dario I experienced mate dulce for the first time.** (I prefer amargo but dulce is also nice.)

As we chatted, I learned that Marisel runs the tienda (convenience store) and Dario works at the National Park where I wanted to go the next day. (That was lucky because I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to get to the park the next morning and he said I could go with him!)

The young woman I had seen when I got there was a visiting park guard renting the room next to mine. When she returned from collecting algarroba (carob) beans, we walked down to the river together, taking our shoes off and following the river all the way back to the main road – a hike she hadn’t done before either.

Like many women my age I have met on this trip, she has a daughter that is just starting college this year. She explained that she lived in La Rioja with her daughter but had been doing the park guard exchange here for about a month and had fallen in love with the town. Now that her daughter is in college, she was thinking of moving to Pagancillo, she loved it so much.

Eating dinner at a local restaurant (on the next block over – the town is just a few blocks wide in each direction), I met a Porteña couple – a couple from Buenos Aires. They invited me to sit with them, and we chatted for hours. They were really passionate about the movement to legalize safe abortions in Argentina (all abortions are illegal in Argentina), arguing that many people end up dying from illegal and unsafe abortions, while others end up requiring extensive assistance from the government to care for unplanned children. (It is one of the larger, more popular movements at the moment in Argentina, and I have met many people along my journeys – men and women alike – that are passionate about it.***)

The information I had found on the internet about how to visit the national park in the area was really not very clear, and my new Porteño friends explained to me that there were actually two different companies, at two different park entrances, that led tours into the park…making it all less clear to me.

When I arrived back home late that night and shared a mate with Dario and Marisel, I learned that the majority of the park guards lived there in Pagancillo, and I would be able to take a van with Dario the next morning to get to the park. I had gotten pretty used to just figuring thing out as I go, so I prepared my things to take the next morning and then fell asleep to the backdrop of small town silence.

I had waken up in a random small town that I had never heard of before arriving (Chumbicha), and now I was falling asleep in another cute, small town that I had never heard of before arriving (Pagancillo). In both places I found a peaceful, almost utopian way of life with incredibly friendly people. I decided that small town hopping was going to be my primary travel strategy from now on.



*Mate photo credit: wikipedia

**No photo credit: I failed to get photos with Dario and Marisel.

***The topic surprisingly came up in many conversations where I never would have expected it to. For example, riding back to Bariloche with an older man who was a cell phone tower technician brought it up and explained that while he would never let his wife to have an abortion, he still thought it should be legal and should be an option for women.


We’re Number One!

It happened a lot faster than I expected. I’m not surprised, but I’m still crushed. Sad. Scared. Frustrated.

Anyone who has been watching the trends, (checking the JHU graph every day and reading what the experts have been saying), has seen this coming for a few weeks now.

We knew it was coming. We hoped it wasn’t. And here we are. We now have even more cases than China. Just a few days ago, major newspapers published that Europe was the new Epicenter. And now, (as if the US were obsessed with being first place in everything), we have taken first place in contagion.

It didn’t have to be this way. We got the virus later than others. We had the good fortune to have seen what worked and what didn’t work in controlling the virus. Southeast Asia controlled it by cracking down fast and hard. Italy let it spiral out of control because they waited and didn’t want to restrict freedoms or hurt the economy (understandably). Knowing the consequences of overloaded hospitals and high death rates, we chose to follow Italy.**

And here we are. With a problem now even bigger than Italy or China ever had to deal with.  (And we have less hospital capacity than Italy, with just 2.8 hospital beds per 1000 people, compared to Italy’s 3.2.)

We are now the experiment. We are now risking the lives of family and friends to show whether it was worth it to try to protect economic activity and freedom to move about.

Some said that maybe we could acquire herd immunity if the virus was just left to do its thing, which guided the UK’s weak initial response, but when simulations showed disastrously overwhelmed health care systems under this scenario, they changed course.

Sometimes I ask myself, what in the world motivated US leaders to make this decision? Some say they believed God would make everything ok. My dad always said God gives us brains (in this case, a community of people who have dedicated their lives to studying math, science, and medicine) and if we don’t use them, that’s on us.***

Well, the decisions have been made and I can’t do anything about the past. A wise person told me that dwelling on the past doesn’t do any good; healthy people learn from the past and move forward.

So, my lesson here is that not making swift and informed decisions of prevention is the same as making swift decisions to deal with a bigger, more expensive and extensive problem later.

Now, the moving on part.

Other countries that all acted earlier than us faced overloaded and understaffed and under-equipped hospitals. So, we will have to rise the challenge to address those needs. We will have to use our resources and specific talents to help out where there is need.

It would be nice to have strong federal leadership with a plan, but it is clear that our leadership does not heed advice of experts and their plans seem to revolve around protecting the wealthiest engines of the economy instead of the people that keep that same economy running.

So this is where we come together in a grass roots kind of way, looking towards the experts and community organizers that follow the advice of REAL experts to figure out where we can make a real difference.

This isn’t just about surviving boredom in the quarantine (though that’s important too).**** This is about coming together as a community to help each other out.

I have updated the list of things we can help with from my previous blog, and please let me know if you have others…

What can I do while I’m sitting at home in quarantine? Individual Action – what we need to (and can) do:

“In my experience, success is dependent on how much the public is informed and participates,” Admiral Ziemer said. “This truly is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation.” (b)


  • Plan for a few months of economic disruption the best you can, and if you can, help those that are more vulnerable and those who can’t work from home and won’t be able to receive income during the quarantine.
    • Check for a “Virtual Tip Jar” in your area (google it for your area).
    • Forward your payment to the handyman, keep paying your dog walker or cleaning person if you have one and are able.
  • Share ideas on how to help in meaningful and practical ways, according to your interests and experiences. Many people are giving free online yoga classes. People are sharing at-home kids activities and home-schooling materials.
  • For people with medical training, there’s the Medical Reserve Corps (but if you hear of a better-organized way to volunteer, please let me know si I can add it here).
  • Learn something new, practice singing and dancing, try yoga, try meditation, do home workouts to keep the blood (and endorphins) flowing.
    • Free yoga classes with Ari_NYT – around an hour on weekends and 30 mins on weekdays
  • Read my blogs about my travels to take a break from the COVID-19 stuff. I promise, I will be returning to sharing my adventures in my next posts!

Most importantly, let’s help each other out and take care of ourselves too. Don’t ignore the anxiety and stress from the situation, accept and manage it by giving yourself some self time, by connecting with others – even if it’s phone calls and video chats.

We’re #1! Not because we don’t make mistakes, but because we get back up again every time.


*Just yesterday (3-27), the JHU dashboard showed the number of US cases jumping past China and Italy. However, that is not to say that just yesterday we had a surge in people contracting the virus; actually it means that it happened a week or two ago. Since it takes between 2-14 days to show symptoms, the data today shows us what was happening about a week ago. This time delay means we also won’t immediately be able to tell if the measures we are putting in place are actually working because we won’t see the effects for a week or two.

**The US has been working hard to bring US citizens home, but it has been doing almost NOTHING to make sure those coming home don’t spread the virus. Eight out of 11 people I know who have gotten back to the states in the last few days told me they had absolutely ZERO screening related to the virus as the entered the US. Two of them had their temperatures taken. One of them was asked if they had been to China, but not asked if they had been through Europe, which is actually the current epicenter.

***This paragraph has been updated because its intention could be easily misinterpreted. My intention of referencing this saying was to point out that we have a well-established scientific and medical community of people that have dedicated their entire lives to studying math, science, and/or medicine so that we as a human society can make better decisions,  especially in circumstances like these. The current administration has consistently ignored, downplayed its value, and arrogantly contradicted its recommendations (citing one or two random people that have proposed contradictory theories that go against an entire community of people with evidence), and this situation is one of the more obvious consequences this attitude towards the scientific community.

****I am personally trying to view my time in quarantine as a type of meditation retreat where I am prioritizing time for myself each day and prioritizing time for relaxation. I know this isn’t as easy for everyone, depending on the circumstances, but I encourage everyone to try to carve out some self time. If not now, when?

Thank you to everyone who contributed ideas of how we can help, including: Monica Kang, Emily Tolos, Katherine Buckingham, Melanie Vant, Michael MacHarg, Catherine H. Clark, Stephen Zerfas, Stuart Murphey, Adrian Reif, Alyzza May, Stacy Kane, Nora L, Ari Isaacman Bevacqua, Harvey Floyd II.

COVID-19 Health Info Summary and What We Can Do

I found it incredibly helpful when a friend sent a summarized document with good sources about key information on COVID-19, so I thought I would do the same in case it is helpful for anyone.*

It has been tricky to filter through and find reliable information. However, after many days of intense investigation and the help of other people’s investigations, I was able to find some emerging themes of agreement by the majority of experts (as opposed to politicians and journalists) that I’ve compiled here. I am not an expert, and I have done my best to keep my opinion out of this and only repeat what experts have said.

While the situation continues to change, the trends tell a story of the seriousness of the situation due to the threat of overloading the health care system with the problems from this virus. Here’s my brief analysis looking at the charts from the JHU dashboard.

If you have come across better sources, contradicting information, other ways to help, or additional important information, please let me know so we can keep each other informed and wade through the good and bad information to make the best decisions for our families and communities.

Why we’re worried: Overload of hospitals due to the rapid spread and respiratory problems caused by this virus. (Leading to having to choose which patients will receive critical treatment and which will be left to luck, as they have had to do in Italy. (a))

What we need to do: Quarantine ourselves NOW and prepare to respond to increasing hospital overload – lack of personnel and lack of equipment (ventilators, oxygen, and PPE (masks and gloves) for health professionals). Note that this could last as short as two weeks, but more likely a month or more.

But can’t we just quarantine affected areas?  – To some extent but not really. Why?

  • Symptoms can take more than a week to show up, so seemingly healthy people continue to infect others, and areas that seem to be free from cases could actually have cases.
  • The virus has spread to all 50 states rather than being contained in one or a few controllable areas, due to not being able to test and contain it early on. Since it’s too late to easily isolate it, a more extensive quarantine response is needed to control it.
  • We don’t have enough tests to do widespread testing and be able to isolate all existing clusters.

But do we really all have to stay at home in this draconian measure of isolation? -Well, yes, if we want to minimize the overload of hospitals and extra deaths caused by that overload.(a)

  • For the measure to work, a full quarantine is needed for at least a couple of weeks. At this stage in the spread of the virus, full quarantine is the only thing that has been shown to help slow the spread. (b)
  • Examples of how other countries have handled a late response (Europe’s weak restrictions) show that “the weaker the freeze, the more people die in overburdened hospitals — and the longer it ultimately takes for the economy to restart.” (b) At this point, limited restrictions don’t work and a nation-wide freeze is the only strategy that has been effective in slowing the increase in new cases. (Some Asian countries didn’t use the full country-wide quarantine, but they also acted early and contained the virus quickly. Unfortunately, the US has most likely long passed that window of opportunity.)

“If it were possible to wave a magic wand and make all Americans freeze in place for 14 days while sitting six feet apart, epidemiologists say, the whole epidemic would sputter to a halt. The virus would die out on every contaminated surface and, because almost everyone shows symptoms within two weeks, it would be evident who was infected. If we had enough tests for every American, even the completely asymptomatic cases could be found and isolated.

The crisis would be over.

Obviously, there is no magic wand, and no 300 million tests. But the goal of lockdowns and social distancing is to approximate such a total freeze.” (b)

“Active Cases 3-26”. Southeast Asia, while it used to be the epicenter of the epidemic, is controlling the spread, whereas Europe has exploded as the new epicenter. The US is currently following in Europe’s footsteps in terms of policy actions and rate of increase.

Personal Prevention (for the next few weeks to a month, at least):

  • Quarantine ourselves – practice physical distancing. Don’t visit others. Do video meetings, create social events over video.
  • Wash hands with soap and water often and keep surfaces disinfected. The virus can live on surfaces for up to 9 days.(c)
  • To get groceries (or go where there are other people) maintain 6 feet between people and wash hands with soap and water afterwards.
  • Don’t hug or shake hands with neighbors and those outside of your house – do the elbow bump or wave from a distance
  • Stay home if we are sick or vulnerable to get sick (ask for help and send someone else to do the purchases), (except for seeking medical attention if necessary).


What if I show symptoms or someone I know is does?
Most common symptoms of COVID-19: Fever, Dry cough, Difficulty breathing (c)

  • If you have these symptoms but they are not critical, the ideal thing is to get tested. The CDC is recommending that you stay at home (c) so as not to spread the virus and overwhelm hospitals. If you decide to recover at home, isolate yourself from others in your house to prevent spreading it to your family members. (How to isolate: (Note that 70-80% of transmission in China occurred among families, so experts recommend isolation, as crappy as it sounds.) (b). HOWEVER, If you decide to seek medical care instead of staying at home, I personally think that’s a great idea for your own health, the health of your family, and also because getting tested can be helpful in tracking and controlling the virus.
  • Wash hands with soap and water often and keep surfaces disinfected. The virus can live on surfaces for up to 9 days(c)
  • Notify all those that you’ve been in contact with in the last 14 days so they can be sure to quarantine themselves and be extra careful not to spread the virus to others just in case they were exposed.
  • CDC says: Definitely seek medical care if you have these symptoms: Trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse, bluish lips or face. (c)
  • You can check your symptoms here:


What if I was in contact with someone that tested positive

  • Symptoms appear 2-14 days after exposure (c)
  • Stay in isolation for 14 days, checking your temperature daily. “Finding and testing all the contacts of every positive case is essential, experts said. Contacts generally must remain home for 14 days and report their temperatures twice a day.” (b)


What can I do while I’m sitting at home in quarantine? Individual Action – what we need to (and can) do:

“In my experience, success is dependent on how much the public is informed and participates,” Admiral Ziemer said. “This truly is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation.” (b)

  • Help each other out, have a little more patience and compassion since we’re all going through crazy times
  • Do you happen to have nitrile gloves, hand sanitizer, surgical masks, or especially N-95 masks that could help protect a medical professional? Find a donation center here: and donate N95 masks here too
  • Plan for a few months of economic disruption the best you can, and if you can, help those that are more vulnerable and those who can’t work from home and won’t be able to receive income during the quarantine.
  • Check for a “Virtual Tip Jar” in your area (google it for your area). Forward your payment to the handyman, keep paying your dog walker or cleaning person if you have one and are able.
  • Share ideas on how to help in meaningful and practical ways.
  • Be creative in connecting with family, friends, roommates, etc. whether it be virtually or those with whom you live.
  • Learn something new, practice singing and dancing, try yoga, try meditation, do home workouts to keep the blood (and endorphins) flowing.
  • Ask to your reps to prioritize health worker protection:
  • If you’re into communicating with our representatives, here’s the experts’ thoughts on action at the national level:

Federal Intervention Necessary:

  • Coordinate an effort for the production of ventilators. “The roughly 175,000 ventilators in all American hospitals and the national stockpile are expected to be far fewer than are needed to handle a surge of patients desperate for breath.” (b)
  • Coordinate an effort for an increase in supply and delivery of oxygen. “The United States must also work to increase its supply of piped and tanked oxygen, Dr. Aylward said.” (b)
  • Coordinate a mass scale of training volunteers. “With training, volunteers were able to do some ground-level but crucial medical tasks, such as basic nursing, lab technician work or making sure that hospital rooms were correctly decontaminated. Americans often step forward to help neighbors affected by hurricanes and floods; many will no doubt do so in this outbreak, but they will need training in how not to fall ill and add to the problem.” (b)

“Federal intervention is necessary for some vital aspects of life during a pandemic. Only the federal government can enforce interstate commerce laws to ensure that food, water, electricity, gas, phone lines and other basic needs keep flowing across state lines to cities and suburbs.” (b)



*I found that finding reliable information on the COVID-19 situation is full time work, especially if one actually looks across the spectrum of sources (because unfortunately much of the information is politicized, some outdated, and some misleading.) Here’s the best readable source I found, in case you want to read a doctor’s perspective:

a. Situation in Italy:

Text message received from a contact in Italy (Carlos, Wednesday, 25 March) (translated from Spanish): Here in Italy hospitals are overloaded and don’t have the PPE (masks, gloves, etc) for the hospital personnel, but every day they are mobilizing more to create space in hotels and other sites. The military has also helped build infrastructure for aid. Everything has been closed for 17 days and until April 3rd, though this timeline will probably be extended. Since yesterday, the number of deaths increased but the number of cases decreased. This week is the key week that will tell if the quarantine measures are working and if the decrease in the spread has started.

b. This is one of the best summaries (though still really long) of all the most common conclusions among reliable sources:


d. “As soon as possible, experts said, the United States must develop an alternative to the practice of isolating infected people at home, as it endangers families. In China, 75 to 80 percent of all transmission occurred in family clusters. Instead of a policy that advises the infected to remain at home, as the Centers for Disease and Prevention now does, experts said cities should establish facilities where the mildly and moderately ill can recuperate under the care and observation of nurses.”


Maps visualizing case numbers:

  1. (I find it more helpful to view the tab at the bottom of the map “actual cases” to see the current situation. In my opinion, the most important information is in the bottom, right hand corner, watching and comparing the “Daily Increase” of each country.


Note that Europe is now the epicenter and Asia is controlling the epidemic, with Italy and Spain our examples of the worst case scenarios.


Surprise at Refugio Frey

Bariloche, Argentina. The Swiss Argentina. Argentina’s Boulder, Colorado. An amusement park for adult outdoors enthusiasts. Hippie haven. Patagonia.

There are many ways to describe this unique and beautiful little city of 150,000 people and its surrounding area. And each one gives you a little hint of what it’s like (though of course none of them can fully capture its essence).

Bariloche is a tourist hot spot, for both international tourists and national tourists, alike. (While here, I actually met more tourists from within Argentina (mostly from the capital, Buenos Aires) than international tourists.) It is a city on the shore of an extensive and beautiful lake, surrounded by hills, lakes, streams, and forested areas with trails, protected and accessible as municipal and national parks.

At the latitude of Colorado but in the southern hemisphere, they resemble each other in climate and somewhat in the landscapes too. In autumn (late April), the leaves turn colors, in the winter it snows and boasts a famous ski resort, and summer and spring provide great weather for hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, wind surfing, and surely many other outdoor sports that I just haven’t thought of in this moment.

One of the many things that was recommended to me was to hike up one of the mountain-like hills to “Refugio Frey”, a shelter at the top where one could camp overnight. Though I had just purchased a used tent, I was feeling like sleeping in a bed, so I decided to do the 6-8 hour round trip hike in one day.

While every day so far had been sunny, today it decided to rain. With a rain jacket and a poncho, I didn’t mind too much. There were still amazing views of the lakes and the city below (though I did imagine how much more incredible it might look with the sun shining directly on the lake below), and it was really refreshing to be out in nature.

In the last 40 minutes of the hike, it got a little cold and my fingers started getting numb. Then, in the last 10 minutes, the climb turned into a scramble over large rocks, and the wind picked up. As the path opened up, the wind started whipping so hard that it literally almost blew me over. The wind was cold, and I was wet. I caught site of the shelter and put my head down against the wind and ran to the entrance, which provided a wind break and made a world of difference.

Entering the shelter was like entering grandma’s warm kitchen at Christmas. The atmosphere filled with the warmth of a woodstove and chatter from other hikers sitting around tables, some speaking Spanish and others English. About 8 pairs of shoes were carefully laid out under the woodstove, so I took the cue and took off my wet shoes and left them there to dry.

I sat next to some Spanish speakers and started warming my hands as I took in the scene. A guy next to me asked if I was cold and I explained that only my hands were cold, but a woman on the other side of me told me to go grab the big heavy jacket hanging up and to put it on, explaining that it was hers and it would warm me up quickly. I felt like it was an order more than an offer, and anyway I wouldn’t have turned down her kindness even if I did feel bad for wrapping my wet self in her warm jacket.

She was there conversing with two other men, and eventually I got integrated into the conversation, and they even invited me to share some of their salami and cheese snack. In a previous life I would have been in a hurry to get back down the mountain. That is to say that the thought crossed my mind, with a twinge of anxiety accompanying it. But I reminded myself that in this journey, my goal is to slow down and meet new people and see new things.

Chatting with them, I learned that they had hiked up the night before and spent the night. The hike up had taken them much longer than anticipated, and they had to hike about an hour in the dark, arriving at 10pm! The woman, Dany, and her friend Faby were police officers from a rough neighborhood in Buenos Aires. For their vacations, they were visiting their friend Maty who used to live in the same rough neighborhood of Buenos Aires but was now living in a nearby province. They hadn’t really anticipated doing hikes on their vacation so they didn’t have appropriate shoes or gear and were kind of just winging it. They were on the last few days of their 10-day vacation and had just been going with the flow, and so far they were loving it.

Now that I am writing this about them, it shouldn’t have surprised me what happened next, but it did.

As I shared my story with them, they were surprised that I was traveling alone, that I had hiked up alone, and that I was going to go back down in the same day. I shared a little about my travels, where I was from, where I was going, and I jokingly said that I was always looking for travel companions. “Where are you going next?” they asked. I explained that I was thinking of either going to the mountain “El Tronodor” on the border with Chile or to El Bolsón, a smaller city to the south that had reputation for being cute and beautiful.

“Let’s go to El Bolsón!” one of the them threw out there. Maty pointed out that he had heard that it was “even better than Bariloche”. “Why not?” they half joked, noting that they hadn’t really planned anything and were just going with the flow and changing plans at every turn. The conversation continued to other things as we finished the mate and salami, and then a few minutes later Dany said, “OK, so are we going to camp here another night, or are we heading to El Bolsón?”

And that is how our friendship started.

We agreed that we would all hike down together, do some grocery shopping together, and then they would pick me up the next morning from where I was staying and we would head to El Bolsón together.

On the hike down we had a great time as I got to know them a little better. They were all really genuine people, not afraid to express gratitude for  their friendship and this experience, to share personal experiences and also to be goofy and joke around and tease each other.

Maty was the jokester who always kept us laughing and singing. Dany had an incredible knowledge of the different plants because a naturalist had lived with her for a few years and she had learned all she could. She was a super curious question-asker and a talker.

Fabi was the “guide” who led us down the trail – he was really athletic and able to go just about anywhere, for example finding a way down to the river to fetch water. He was somewhat soft spoken, with a great sense of humor, and was not afraid to let loose into song. Which was possibly my favorite part about the hike down – the many times they all busted out into song, including a wonderful cheesy song about friendship (“Un Amigo es Una Luz“) that was appropriate for the moment.

The 2-hour ride to El Bolsón was beautiful. I used my travel apps to try to find a good place to camp, but luckily our driver, Maty, ignored me and followed signs for camping near a river. After driving down a gravel road for about 20 minutes, we came to a perfect campsite next to a crystal clear river, with a view of a snow-capped mountain in the distance.

As we spent the next 24 hours together, each passing moment I realized moreso than before how incredibly lucky I was to have found these awesome people and that they had let me into their friend circle to share this little adventure.

Jokingly, (but for real), everyone had their roles. Fabi was the cook (even though he’d never cooked on a campfire before, he did an awesome job!) Dany and I gathered firewood. Maty and I set up the tents. I washed the dishes. Dany made sure there was always mate or “te cocido” to drink.

Over the next 36 hours or so together, we went on hikes, explored nearby rivers, lakes, and waterfalls, looked at the stars, cooked and ate together, and spent a lot of time chatting about life and joking around the campfire or in the car.

Our time together came to an end just in time actually, because the government closed the national parks and our campsite for the quarantine right after we left.

As we were driving towards where they would drop me off, they broke out in song once again, this time dedicated to me (“No es mi despedida“), and they all sang along at the top of their voices – a wonderfully cheesy and awesome moment that I will carry with me forever!



Cuarentena en Argentina

In this game of musical chairs, the music stopped when I was traveling from Argentina to Chile. After a night of changing my mind literally 10 times about where I should be for the quarantine, the decision became final when I was halfway to Chile the next day. I had planned to try to make it to Chile to stay with friends, but half-way to the Argentine border city I got news that they were starting to close entry to the city. I still had a long way to go to get to my friends in Chile, so I opted for a closer home base – heading back to Bariloche where I had made a friend who lives outside of the city. There I would be in good company, with access to stores, not in the middle of a major city with lots of people, and with the bonus of being in a beautiful place.

It’s really interesting to be in Argentina during this time, especially because of the perspective of the people I’ve been around, which has lead to their lack of panic and their ability to be pretty calm in the face of everything that’s happening. (Note that these are just the people I’ve been around, I can’t speak for the general population of the country.) They have been through tough times and have come out of it, and that seems to give them a sense of hope or faith that, just like before, things will be crazy but they will be ok in the end.

Argentina is known for going through cycles of economic crisis, and most people have experienced at least one or more serious downturns in their lives (some affected much worse than others). For example, one friend I met was 21 with three kids during the last major economic problem, and for TWO years she suffered, literally getting by with basic survival skills, sometimes only eating corn on the cob so she could feed her kids. As she was telling me her story, she didn’t only talk about how horrible it was but also noted how much she learned and grew from the experience.

Another friend, Daniela, that I met through my travels went 20 minutes out of her way to take me where I was going, and as I thanked her profusely, she responded (in that typical Argentina way) “Por favor!” (Please! It’s not a problem!) I mentioned to her how I had noticed that many people were so flexible here, they didn’t have a problem with changing plans so easily. Her response was interesting – she said people were so used to the economic instability, that people learned to adapt and got used to being flexible, so changing plans was just a part of life. I would add an observation to her assessment that changing plans specifically to help out someone else seems to be a real part of the culture in the people that I’ve met.

Though I hadn’t talked to Daniela since she gave me that ride a month ago, I received a text message from her yesterday asking how I was, where I was, and offering me a place to stay if I needed. The fact that she had looked for my number just to check up on me meant so much to me that I might have even shed a tear.

I also received messages from at least three other Argentines that I had met along my journey, all just checking in on me – a friend I stayed with in San Juan, a couple I had met in a hostel, and a couple that I coincidentally crossed paths with 3 times along my journey.

In addition to learning about generosity, kindness, and hospitality from the people I’ve met in Argentina, I’m thankful to have their help practicing this art of not freaking out, of being flexible with changing plans, and making the most of (and doing the best with) whatever situation comes up. This mindset has helped me every step along my journey, and now it’s really being put to the test.

So far so good (though I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little worried about what the future will hold). I’m sad that I can’t be with family and close friends to help each other get through this crazy time together, but I’m extremely thankful to have contact with everyone and be able to talk whenever we want. And I am thankful to feel safe in a beautiful place with good company, and to even have the opportunity to visit beautiful lakes and hike through the beautiful hills in the surrounding areas. (And, I will have more time to post blogs, so stay tuned to hear about my last few weeks of adventure before the quarantine!)


Diary of the Quarantine:

Day 0 (3-16-2020) – After changing my mind 10 times, I end up in Bariloche, staying with a friend. To de-stress (and to process and appreciate my decision of how and where to survive the quarantine), I run to a nearby beach to swim and meditate in the (cold!) lake.


Day 1 (3-17-2020) – My host and his friend invite me to go kayaking on Lago Moreno, where we kayak, swim, and enjoy one of the last days of summer – a day of full sun – on the lake. (This quarantine thing doesn’t feel so bad in this moment.)

Day 2 (3-18-2020) – A day of meditation, writing, and checking in with friends and family.

On the Road (Santa Maria)

From San Pedro de Atacama to the Patagonia in Argentina, I have been traveling the road of generosity and cultural exchange. In the US, the South is known for its hospitality, and I was lucky enough to have experienced it many times living there. But in my first weeks in Argentina, the culture of generosity that I’ve experienced has outdone even Southern Hospitality.

From hosts who offer me a place to stay (Couchsurfing), kind souls who offer me rides along the way, families who invite me into their homes or along on their vacations, and people who invite me to hang out with their friends and to show me around, the openness and willingness to share, to not only invite me in but to make me feel at home, has been a constant here in northern Argentina.

And it comes at a time in my journey when I most needed it. In northern Chile I almost had my bag stolen so I’ve been a little on edge and extra cautious. After 5 months of traveling I have also started to experience those feelings of loneliness, missing people, and most surprisingly, missing stability, structure, and routine.

So having people be so welcoming and concerned not only about my physical well being but also making sure I feel welcome, included, and at home, has meant the world to me. Interestingly, I don’t get the feeling that people are going out of their way to do it; rather, it seems a very natural part of the culture.

Similar to my last post about Chumbicha, I will continue to share some of my experiences with some the people I’ve met. Today, here’s a little tid-bit from a day in the pueblo of Santa Maria.

A few nights ago, I found myself sitting around a kitchen table eating homemade pizza at 1am in a small town (Santa Maria), chatting with four locals and an Argentine-American couple that I met in Jujuy. It was everything I had hoped for in my travels – a chance to make friends and get a glimpse of not only big cities or tourist hot spots, but also to chat with people from different smaller, less-known-to-tourists towns.

So here I found myself in the middle of a cousin reunion – the friend from Jujuy was visiting his parent’s home after being away for years and all the cousins were catching up. The amazing thing was that I had just met everyone there and yet I felt at home, like just another cousin or a close friend of the cousin.

In fact, we had just met a few days earlier at a birthday party that my couchsurfing host had invited me to tag along to, giving me the opportunity to meet his (really awesome) friends. The next thing you know, we are both in this small town of Santa María, and I’m staying with his family and girlfriend in the family house and hanging out with his cousins.

For me, it was really cool to meet some people who live in a smaller town and hear a little about their experiences and also the contrasting perspectives about life in small town Argentina, the health care system (free for all but not good in the rural areas), education (free universities), crime (not much-drug use was the biggest problem), and even immigration.

For example, I learned that there is ONE black person in Santa Maria. He is from Senegal and everyone knows his name. We just happened to see a black guy in the bus terminal when I was leaving, and we thought, “Hey, that must be Bubba!” (I forgot his real name but it was something like that.) And then we heard someone call his name and sure enough it was “Bubba”.

Everyone at the table had attended university because university is free for everyone. Among the locals was a teacher, an agronomist, a store owner, and and one that works as a kind of notary public or justice of the peace type work (we don’t have the equivalent in the US). They explained that the town didn’t really have problems with security but there were problems with drug use. They were also really interested to hear about me and my travels and it was really nice to share my experiences with them.

It was also really interesting to hear different perspectives on how politics impacts their lives and their situations. One perspective was that the socialist government policies were the driving force for the economic strengths of the country, like a variety of products produced in-country, as well as access to health care and education. Meanwhile, another perspective seemed to blame the socialist policies for problems such as population growth and drug use.

Santa Maria was indeed a very calm and quiet town. Maybe it was because the majority of the people were celebrating Carnaval one town over, Amaicha. (We drove through Amaicha and saw people walking around covered in paint, singing gleefully, and already/still drinking at 5pm. They really enjoy Carnaval in the north!) But I understand that Santa Maria is actually usually fairly quite. When I first arrived to the park and was waiting to meet up with my friends, I started chatting with a random couple in the park and they offered me a tea.

Later, with my friends we walked around and bought a few local products. First was a block of carob paste (“patay”) from a local – the area is full of carob trees, so there are many different carob products available.

I was also introduced to “tortillas” which in Argentina are a nan-type bread (that also comes in sweet or savory).

tortilla normal (savory)
tortilla dulce (sweet)

And we ate “humitas”, which are a type of tamale that come in either savory or sweet flavors. (Not to be confused with humitas in Peru which are only the sweet corn tamales.)

In the garden in the back of the family house where we stayed, there were grape vines, and it happened to be the season for grapes. (All through my journeys through the north, I had access to fresh grapes from the vine!)


In less than 24 hours I was so lucky to get a taste of this great little town and not just peek into the lives of some of the locals, but actually feel a part of it.


Famous footnotes:

If I had had more time (or if I ever go back to the area), I would definitely visit the museum at the town entrance and the nearby Quilmes Ruins.

In the garden in the back of the house, were grape vines, and it happened to be the season for grapes. (All through my journeys through the north, I had access to fresh grapes from the vine!)


Small Town Argentina

In the morning, the sun was shining brightly and Argentina cumbia was coming from the radio. I prepared my breakfast and went outside to sit and chat with the 87-year-old man, “Carlos viejo” who lived there. (His son was also Carlos so in jest he said he was “old Carlos” and the other was “young Carlos”.)

While the sun was strong and made you feel like you were being toasted and all the water sucked out of your body, under the shade it was quite cool and there was a nice breeze. We sat under a “natural roof” created by a vine-like tree that created a roof out of thick layer of foliage that wrapped itself along a wire matrix.

From the moment I met him, I realized that Carlos Viejo was a kind, friendly, and witty man, even if he moved slowly and was a little hard of hearing. He had lived in the town his whole life and had served in the town’s police force for 27 years. Now he had arthritis in his hip and knee and spent his days sitting on the front porch, reading the paper, greeting people who passed by and chatting with his son and the woman who comes to cook and help take care of the house – and today with me. There was probably an equal measure of conversation and comfortable silence – a slow, easy rhythm that seemed to be characteristic of this small town in Argentina. (I’m so glad I learned how to adapt to this slow rhythm, to practice the “art of sitting”, in my Peace Corps service – something that would have been impossible for me four years ago.)

The caretaker came back from running errands and said, “here’s your change,” placing five little candies on the table. She continued by saying that since the 5 mil peso bill doesn’t have value anymore, the store is giving candies instead of bills. At first I thought it was a joke referring to the inflation in Argentina, which has accelerated in the last year (not nearly as bad as Venezuela, but still a marked devaluation.) Later, when Carlos Viejo passed me the newspaper he had finished reading, I learned they were discontinuing circulation of the 5 mil peso bill, and since many people don’t have the 5 mil coin yet, the stores were offering candies as change instead.

Later, Carlos invited me to eat lunch with them – a delicious fish empanada, a second course of chicken soup, and fruits (peaches, grapes, apples) for dessert. In Peru, lunch is usually served with soup first and then a main dish (segundo), but here they served the main dish first and later the soup.

I looked over at the television and realized that the program airing was the Argentina version of “The Price is Right” – El Precio Justo. Given the inflation in Argentina, I thought it was a kind of ironic show to have, painfully reminding everyone how much prices have increased in such a short time. The show is really similar to the American Price is Right – I recognized the same games and rules, and even the big wheel to spin! The host is a trans woman with a sense of humor, and the show seemed to be quite inclusive given the diversity of the participants.

While this small town (Chumbicha) is not on the typical tourist route, it does receive visitors from Buenos Aires, Uruguay, and Brasil. Many passing through for work or traveling through Argentina on motorcycle to see the country. I had arrived in this small town last night, by pure chance. (And a unique sense of adventure I have developed in the last few weeks.)

I had been on a bus to Catamarca – a city that was a few hours out of the way to where I wanted to go (but it had been the best bus option available from the small town where I had been previously.)

Then the bus had suddenly stopped for a few minutes because the copilot was sick. I looked at the map and saw that we were at a small town, and we happened to be at a spot on the highway just before it headed off out of the way from where I wanted to go. The bus wasn’t going to arrive to Catamarca until around 10:30 or 11pm, and I was still going to have to look for a place to stay, so I decided it would be more convenient, safer, and cheaper to stay in this small town if it seemed safe.

I got off the bus and asked a local about the town and asked if there were hospedajes (inns). I got a really good vibe and she called a friend and said he had room in his inn and could even pick me up to take me there. So I said “chau” to the bus driver and headed off to explore a small town in the middle of Argentina, slightly off the beaten path – exactly what I really wanted to do during my journey.

And that’s how arrived in Chumbicha, home of the mandarin and the annual Mandarin Festival in May. The town that all the locals described as “tranquilo…too tranquilo”, or safe and quiet…to the point of being boring.

I arrived that first night at the inn, it was an older house with extra rooms that they rented out. It reminded me of the old country house where my great uncle had lived in south Texas. It had all that you needed, but basic, older models with a feel of about 40 years ago. And it was the same house that Carlos Viejo had grown up in – and was still living in now.

As soon as I arrived, I asked about the town and a friendly young man –  working there (Gonzalo) pointed me to the center of town (3 blocks over) where I could find convenience stores and restaurants and the plaza. An older man sitting on the porch (Carlos Viejo) asked me if I wanted to sit and chat, and I promised I would when I returned (which I did), and I headed out to explore the little town and buy some food for dinner and breakfast.

A few blocks into town I heard what sounded like a sporting event and found women playing volleyball. I started chatting with a woman who was watching and she explained that it was a tournament and this was the championship game. She explained that she wasn’t playing because she played soccer. However, there weren’t many women around the area that played soccer so she trained with the men in the town and played on a regional travel team (someone I could relate to!)

Women’s volleyball tournament

It was 10:30pm, and the stores were just starting to close so I ran across the street to buy some fruits. Even in small towns like this, things stay open late, and it is not uncommon to stay up late into the night chatting. But during the day, from 1pm to 5pm everything closes for siesta, when people go home to eat lunch and often take a nap. It gets extremely hot during the day here, so it makes a lot of sense to have that break. The the work day continues from 5pm to 9pm usually.

In the evenings after 7-8pm when it finally cools off, you see families sitting on their porch drinking mate (loose leaf tea that is drunk through a metal straw), walking, biking, or rollerblading through the street, or hanging out in the park in the middle of town. When you greet them, they often respond “chau” or “adios” instead of the “hola” or “buenas tardes” that I’m used to.**

Later that night I was getting ready for bed, and Gonzalo* said that someone was outside asking for me. I went outside and there was the soccer woman I had met earlier and two other women on motorcycles. They had come to tell me about the times that they buses come through, and we ended up chatting for more than an hour out front. I had only been there for 3 hours and I already felt like I had friends!

The next night, my new friends invited me out for a drink. They were bummed that the one club (“boliche”) in town had just a fire a few days ago so they couldn’t take me there. Instead, they put a lot of effort into finding friends that could come out to hang out with us to show me a good time in Chumbicha. They were also trying  to find out something about “the game” (I was clueless what was going on). We ended up at an ice cream shop and shared a drink (soda) while we played “the game” – a giant version of Jenga!

Later (at around 1:30pm), they gave me a tour of the city on their motorcycles, and I showed them some constellations in the night sky (after a few minutes of convincing them that it wasn’t scary to find a dark spot without lights so we could see the stars, and another few minutes trying to find a dark spot because the town is really well lit and every street has street lights.) Like we were 15 years old, they taught me all the bad words and taboo expressions in Argentina Spanish, and I felt a sense of innocence in them, even though they were my age. (Small town sheltered life?)

One thing everyone agreed on was that the town was full of good people, there was no crime (though there was drug use), everybody helped each other out, and everyone knew everyone else’s business. I definitely felt a great vibe, I felt like everyone I met was a good person that wanted to help out and there was a sense of trust among everyone. Even if it was “too tranquilo” to the point of being boring, I loved it! And it was just what I was looking for – a safe and quiet spot, with Giant Jenga and buena gente (good peeps).


Famous Footnotes

*Chatting with Gonzalo later, I learned that he was from the capital (Buenos Aires) and had come to Chumbicha a few years ago. He said he had been kind of immature and “lost”, and working with the Carloses, they had taught him to do things like house maintenance and taking care of the old man, and they had also made him realize that he needed to be more responsible and be a better father for his little kid.

**In the small town in El Salvador where I worked they had used the same greetings of “chau” and “adios” when someone was passing by, which at first was strange to me since they are typically reserved for “good by”/”see you later” in most parts.