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My Life with Migraines

My children pause briefly in the hallway before tiptoeing into the dark bedroom. As they lean down to kiss me their hair, still warm from the sun, brushes my face, and I catch the smell of damp soil and sweat on their skin. I lie unmoving under the blanket with my head, which feels as if it will split open, cradled in my hands. My son climbs under the blankets and presses his body against my clammy two-day-old pajamas. In his best approximation of a whisper he says, “Mama, can I just be here with you for a while? I promise I’ll be very quiet and still.” I don’t really move or speak because either of those things will make the pain worse. My daughter climbs in on the other side of me and breaths a similar promise into my face. At first they are still, but soon they begin to squirm, jockeying for more space, more blanket, more of my body touching theirs. The slight movement of the mattress makes my stomach churn and the bile rise in my throat. Risking the pain, I order them to be still.

My son finds a book left behind from a previous visit and begins to the turn the pages. The whisper of paper touching paper sounds unbearably loud. There is a physical feel to the sound that causes a sharp pain in my inner ear. I ask him to stop.

My daughter gets up and goes to the window. She pulls back the curtain and the late afternoon sun fills the room. I cover my face and cry out in pain. My son scolds her and, alarmed, she jumps on the bed and shouts at him. I am crying now. Weeping, really. And cowering away from them.

My husband bustles in, chiding the children for bothering me. He reminds them for thousandth time in two days that I have a migraine and need to be alone. My daughter howls in protest at being told to leave. She screams my name as she is carried downstairs and away from me. Again. My son sighs heavily and kisses me gently. “I wish you weren’t always so sick,” he says as he closes the door softly, though not softly enough, and joins them downstairs.

Through the floorboards I hear my daughter’s tears turn to laughter as my husband distracts her with a game. I smell the beginnings of dinner. I vaguely sense the day passing around me. I feel guilty relief at being left alone in the dark again.

This isn’t a rare scenario in our house. This is normal life for us. Three or four days out of every week, sometimes more but rarely less, I am suffering from a migraine. Many other days I feel the tell-tale neck stiffness, the irritation behind an eye, the churning nausea, the racing heart, or the mental and physical irritation that indicates an attack is imminent. Sometimes I can avert a migraine with medicine or rest or dumb luck. Other times the medicine doesn’t work, or I’ve already taken too much medicine that week, or the migraine comes on too suddenly, and then I am swallowed up by the pain. The few days each week I don’t have a migraine are spent recovering, recouping, and picking up the pieces of a life put on hold.

I was in my early teens when I my head started to throb and pound for several days out of each week. The pain was most often centered deep behind my right eye. I would have the discomfiting urge to temporarily dislodge my eyeball in order to relieve the pressure. I was in enough pain that everyday activities like school, reading, or just interacting with other people felt overwhelming. Ordinarily inoffensive smells (like food cooking) and ordinarily inoffensive sounds (like book-pages turning) were nearly unbearable and overpowering. I was constantly nauseated and had to force myself to eat. I couldn’t understand how my friends had so much energy while I only looked forward to going back to bed. Pain relievers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen did so little to ease the pain that I was convinced they were nothing more than modern day snake oil.

I didn’t know then that I had migraines. Unfortunately, it turned out my family doctor didn’t either. There is no blood work, brain scan, or other test to see if someone has migraines. Rather there are a collection of symptoms (throbbing head pain along with an extreme aversion to light, smells, touch, or sounds, nausea and vomiting,  and dizziness) that define a migraine. My doctor, however, pinned his diagnosis on my lack of visual or physical auras; a symptom affecting only about 20 percent of migraine sufferers. Twenty-five years later I still remember the way the paper rustled in the otherwise silent exam room after I answered no to his question of whether I ever saw flashing lights or felt numbness in my arms before my head hurt. I just wanted an answer that would explain and maybe even end my pain. I remember the way my stomach sank as he gently shifted the conversation away from my physical to my mental health. I was a physically healthy young woman, he said. The tests didn’t find anything wrong with me, he said. Maybe I was depressed or stressed or lonely, he suggested. As a teenager living in chronic and undiagnosed pain I was certainly all these things, but I was also physically sick. He recommended I avoid stress, rest more, and find things that made me happy.

His prescription left me worse off in many ways. I spent years believing the problem was me. I believed that everyone’s headaches felt this way and I was simply too weak to cope. I believed that if I could just find a way to be happy enough or calm enough or balanced enough the pain would subside. The pain, I thought, was clearly caused by my own weakness, so I pushed myself to work harder and be stronger. I went to class day after day and year after year when I could barely keep my head up. I pressed my thumbs into my orbital bones, or the base of my skull until I saw black, enjoying the way the self-inflicted hurt temporarily blocked out the otherwise all encompassing pain. I pressed my head against windows and walls for the momentary relief provided by their cool touch. I ate in tiny portions to try to control my nausea. I spent night after night unable to sleep because the pain was too great. And every time I hurt I castigated myself for always being so tired and so weak. I tried not to allow myself to cave to the pain because I was sure I wasn’t really sick. I told almost no one about how awful I felt almost every day. I believed all of it was my fault; and I was deeply ashamed.

Ten years later, when I was finally diagnosed, the neurologist said with a shrug that my symptoms were textbook migraine. At last there was a name for the days and days of agony, but I still didn’t consider myself to have a condition or a disease. Instead I saw each migraine as an isolated event caused by something I could have avoided. This time I wore the wrong sweater and was sick for three days. That time I forgot my sunglasses and had a migraine for two days. Another time I laughed too hard and too long at dinner with friends and spent the rest of the weekend in bed with the curtains drawn. Some other time maybe it was because I got too hungry or I drank a glass of wine or I did push ups or  overslept or my hormones fluctuated or I got my teeth cleaned or I was anxious. Encouraged by doctors and the internet, I compiled a list of things I noticed triggered a migraine. At first I felt empowered by the exercise, but the list grew and grew until it looked something like this:

Constrictive clothing, ponytails, alcohol, chocolate, sugar, television, reading, dehydration, under-eating, overeating, maybe some cheeses, maybe some dried fruits, over exercising, under exercising, carrying heavy things, allergies, bright sun, squinting, humidity, rain, overcast days, glare, overheating, shivering, strong smells from gasoline to flowers, lavender, loud noises, loud music, nasal congestion, coughing, laughing, crying, yelling or cheering, talking too much, long car rides, air conditioning, too little sleep, too much sleep, vacations, traveling, fluorescent lights, flashing lights, too much caffeine, too little caffeine, sex, hormone changes, and my menstrual cycle.

In the end, knowing my triggers provides only a frustrating veneer of control. I don’t drink red wine or whisky and thereby avoid migraines directly triggered by them. However, short of living inside a pressurized bubble, weather and odors are nearly impossible to avoid. Then there are some triggers, like sex and laughter, where I simply choose the risk of indulgence over the austerity of avoidance. Triggers aren’t always dependable either; and they can change over time. Even when I do live a nearly puritanical life under sunny (but not too sunny) hormonal-free skies I still get migraines simply because I am someone with the unlucky genetic disposition to get migraines.

For me, a migraine often starts as pressure and tension coiled in my neck and shoulders. From there it snakes up the back of my head before finally striking behind my eye with sharp and piercing pain. Like so many migraine sufferers I often fantasize about self-taught lobotomies and bringing back trepanning. The pain is often so severe that I only move when absolutely necessary, walking doubled over or crawling from place to place. During other attacks the pain is manageable, but the secondary symptoms of nausea, sensitivity to sound and smells, dizziness, and weakness make me seek out solitude. Symptoms are not always predictable either. Sometimes I can’t speak in coherent sentences; or my face twitches uncontrollably. Other times it feels as if I cannot see properly; or as if my eyeballs are set too far back in my skull. Occasionally, my scalp tingles and stings for hours or days after a migraine. I often feel confused and have trouble following simple conversations. Almost always when I have a migraine everyday sounds feel painful. A spoon clinking on a bowl reverberates like a tuning fork has been struck against my skull. A glass being set down on the table rings loud like a church bell. Paper crumpling or a pen scratching on paper feel like my eardrum is being scraped. There are migraines–heartbreaking migraines–when the pitch and cadence of my children’s voices makes their words sound garbled and unintelligible; when listening to my children talk causes me physical pain. At times like these my daughter singing a song near my ear, or my son explaining his latest video game can make me feel panicked and confused.

There is no cure for migraines. The handful of drugs specifically designed to treat the pain and nausea of migraines can often cut an attack short, but they can only be used a maximum of twice a week, they don’t always work, they are expensive, and insurance companies limit the number of pills prescribed. All the daily medicines to prevent migraines (used for people who suffer 15 or more attacks a month) are borrowed from another disease or condition. Anti-seizure medications, beta blockers, nerve blocks, Botox, muscle relaxers, and antidepressants, for example, all happened to reduce some patients’ migraines, but none of them are designed to target migraines. These medicines also come with a host of side effects, ranging from annoying to debilitating, and only have a moderate chance of success. One drug made my hands tingle constantly and was likely to impact my word finding capabilities. Another made me so prone to panic attacks that I hardly left the house, but I still had migraines all the time. Most recently, I willingly let a doctor inject a mixture of anesthetics and steroids via a large needle directly into the occipital nerves located at the base of my skull; a process that sounds far more like medieval torture in theory than it is in practice.

Over the years I’ve also been diagnosed and treated by acupuncturists, chiropractors, homeopaths, massage therapists, and random strangers with well-meaning advice. I’ve followed extremely restrictive diets meant to reduce the yeast, the damp, or other perceived impurities in my body. I’ve meditated, huffed essential oils, yoga-ed, and had glass bowls suctioned-cupped onto my back (Gwenyth Paltrow does it, too). I’ve taken chinese herbs, vitamins, tinctures, homeopathic remedies, and minerals (very few of which are scientifically shown to reduce migraines). Some of it–-like the maddening game of word association I played while being videotaped by a practitioner who promised my subconscious would lead her to a holistic cure–-sounds utterly ridiculous in hindsight, but the promise of freedom from crippling pain easily overrides logical reasoning and the scientific method. None of it has made more than a maybe slight and short-lived improvement. The one tie that binds the medicinal, the alternative, and the absolutely ridiculous remedies together so far is that my migraines have always kept coming regularly and without fail.

People are often quick to point out that migraines are not life threatening. They are not cancer or even diabetes. They will not usually cause a stroke. They do not cause lasting damage. This may be true, but migraine is a disease. And one that makes it difficult to have any sort of a life with frequent attacks. When I have a migraine I am either partially or completely debilitated. When the medicine works I may be back on my feet in a few hours to a day. When it doesn’t, I’m usually incapacitated for three days. The day or two after a migraine I feel lethargic and hungover, so even when the migraine has passed it can be hard to get back to daily life. With only a few days between migraine attacks it can feel like I’m caught in an inescapable cycle of pain and convalescence. It feels as if there is hardly any routine to my life, except the routine of chaos and damage control.

If we’re judging by the cardinal rule that consistency is of the utmost importance in raising children, then migraines make me an utter failure as a parent. I often cancel plans with my kids at the last minute; and I routinely break my promises because I’m too sick to follow through. Often getting them a snack is such a physically demanding ordeal for me that they feel compelled to apologize for being hungry in the first place. I miss hearing about their days, eating meals with them, reading with them, playing with them, or hugging them even though I am home. I am absent even though I am right beside them.

When I am ill, housework goes untended, social plans get canceled, work and volunteer commitments are dropped, and deadlines are missed. My life is littered with with projects left unfinished because of migraines. When I am sick my husband takes on all the household and parental duties as well as caring for me. He tries to balance his own full-time work and my responsibilities. He makes my apologies for our sudden absences, of which there are many. He never blames me for being sick, but I see the way it exhausts him to carry so much of our lives for so long.

Repeated last minute cancellations take their toll on other relationships as well. I’m fortunate enough to have a very understanding core group of friends, but those casual friendships people develop by consistently running into each other at the park, school pick ups, meetings, the post office, the grocery store, and at social events are much harder for me to develop and maintain.

Each day, each week, each month, each year feels like it’s made up of a million tiny compromises and wagers. If I choose to clean the bathrooms and vacuum, I run the risk of needing to go to bed before dinner. If I go out for dinner with friends, it’s likely I will have to spend most of the next day in bed. Choosing to go to a meeting under fluorescent lights comes with a high risk of waking up sick the next day. Joining a committee, taking on new work, or even making an appointment for a haircut is taking a terrifying leap of faith that I will be well enough to follow through. I tend to resist making too many plans, or striking up new friendships because chances are good that I will have to cancel more often than is socially acceptable. I wouldn’t fault someone for thinking I must be exaggerating, but I’m not.

I’ve understood that I have migraines for nearly fifteen years now, but it’s still  hard for me to understand that I am sick. I  sometimes only see what gets missed, canceled, and left undone. I catch myself trying to push through and ignore the pain, the nausea, and all the other symptoms. In days after a migraine it’s easy for me to wonder if it was really that bad. Maybe I was just being melodramatic, I think. It’s easy even for me to forget that migraine is not just a headache, and that pushing myself unfailingly makes it worse. It’s easy for me to think about how many people have it worse than I do and who appear to do more. I keep a running masochistic mental list of very accomplished people who also suffer from migraines.

It’s harder for me to acknowledge the physical and emotional toll migraines take on my life, my health, and my relationships. It’s much harder for me to look at what I manage to accomplish between and during attacks. It’s harder to admit that I am chronically ill.

And yet, I wake up each day with some hope that today will be better than yesterday; that next week will be better than last week; and that someday the future will hold less pain than the past. I remember that I am not alone. There are 37 million people–the majority of them women–in the United States alone who also suffer from migraines. I remind myself again and again that a migraine isn’t just a headache; and that it’s not all in my head.

 

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Freddy the Fish is Dead

Our fish died last week.  It is especially embarrassing to admit in the wake of his death that, at first, we didn’t really want him.

Three years ago when our babysitter, who was graduating from college and leaving the area, asked if we’d be interested in taking her fish I said, without any reservations, “No, thanks.” It wasn’t that taking care of a small, iridescent blue and purple betta fish would require so much work. It was that it felt like caring for a four year old, a baby who rarely slept, and ourselves pushed the limits of our capacities. It was only recently that we’d killed all but a single sprig of a low-maintenance houseplant through pure neglect. We were not people who needed more.

“I’ve looked into taking him with me on the plane out West, but it’s just really complicated,” she said.

Living in a college town you hear the horror stories of dogs left locked in closets,  pets abandoned outside the pet store, and much worse done by probably well meaning, but clearly clueless and immature students. Here she was researching the options to bring a $3, three year old fish home with her.

I immediately said yes.

We grew used to having Freddy around, even fond of him. It was as soothing to watch him swish and swirl as he swam in circles as it was terrifying to find him napping inside his ceramic shark, when only his tail, flopped out flat and perfectly still, was visible.

At the kids’ insistence I made him a tiny Christmas stocking while they constructed a faux mantle to hang behind his bowl. The girl went through a phase when she kissed his bowl every morning and night. They argued feverishly about who would get to place the grey rocks back in the bowl during water changes.

Admittedly there were times when his water got cloudy before it was changed and a meal was missed here and there, but that wasn’t any worse than the kids fared with missed washings and  yogurt occassionally passing for dinner. It was hard to tell what Freddy thought about the whole thing, but he kept living, which we took as a good sign.

Because he was a betta fish beyond his prime, I had be preparing for his death pretty much since he came to live with us. Before leaving for Uruguay we told the kids that chances were good he would be dead before we got home. 365 days was a long time for a fish. He wasn’t dead. Our neighbors had managed to nurse him through the polar vortex in a poorly heated house.

In the end, like it almost always does, death caught us off balance. There was no chance to prepare the kids with pep talks about mortality, the circle of life, or of flesh eventually turning into the dirt that feeds life. One morning last week there was just a dead fish in a bowl.

The kids were sad, but quickly practical. “All animals die,” said the boy to his sister. “We’ll die someday because we’re animals, too.” The girl now calmly points to the empty bowl stowed on a shelf and informs visitors that Freddy is not in it because he’s dead. Then, because she is three, she will lie down on the ground and pretend she too is dead. When she pretends to be dead she also asks that you put her in the freezer, which is a story for another time.

What are you supposed to do with an aquatic pet when they die? The kids had opinions about his funeral arrangements, but neither of them wanted any part in the actual internment. I buried Freddy in the backyard and covered the spot with a couple of bricks to deter the neighborhood cats from making a late night snack of him.

And then I cried. Not the tears of gasping, gulping grief, but a misty sadness of saying goodbye to something we hadn’t wanted, but ended up loving; and a creature we kept alive and healthy at a time when we thought we couldn’t.

 

 


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Inside of a year

From the outside a year seems like so much time. And it is a lot of time. 12 months. 52 weeks. 365 days. 8765 hours.

It’s long enough to conceive and have a baby. Long enough to buy land and build a house. Long enough to go into remission from a disease. Long enough start a new career, like becoming a realtor. Long enough to plan and leave for a sabbatical. Long enough to learn a lot of language. Long enough to get inches taller. Long enough to forget most everything about home (if you’re three).

But when you’re on the inside of those months and weeks and days and hours, a year can feel like no time at all.

It took five months to get temporary residency organized. Longer to get pay checks fully worked out. It was nearly six months before I could hang laundry outside our tenth story windows in a strong breeze without feeling like I should follow it up with a stiff drink.  Almost nine months passed before the portero casually mentioned that “everyone” knows the water from the garden spigot is the best for drinking. It was ten months before the kids settled into close friends and frequent play dates. At eleven months I found a friend for coffee dates. There are days when, after almost twelve months, it feels like life here is just finding a groove. That we’re just really getting started.

Then there are days when a year feels endless and home is the only place we want to be.

Either way, here we are almost at the very end. Back to the beginning of the calendar, but nowhere near where we started.

As quickly as people here asked, “Why come to Uruguay?” when we first arrived, they now ask, “You’re leaving so soon?”

We will miss being surrounded by Spanish. We’ll miss pastafrola, ice cream, fainá, and pizza. We’ll miss roaring buses that take us almost exactly where we need to go. We’ll miss the Rambla and the wide expanse of blue sky and brown water beyond. We’ll miss the store downstairs where, when we’re running late , he lets us take what we need and pay later. We’ll miss the almost daily find of some new knowledge (that soda moves east in the summer, that alcohol sales are prohibited on election day, that it is illegal for restaurants to have salt shakers on tables, that children’s vitamins just don’t sell here).

The kids will most certainly miss the porteros who chase them, tease them, bring them gifts, and never ever let them feel ignored. They’ll miss their schools where every single person knows their names. And where kids now stop Nathan and I to look up at us with the most forlorn expressions and ask, “Why do you have to leave?” I will miss walking past the boy’s school and catching a glimpse of him yelling and running after some giant six grader, his voice lost in the cacophony of kids at play.

I will miss kissing on the cheek as a way of greeting; that brief, intimate contact that humanizes even a passing exchange. I will miss this even though it often means waiting forever to be served because the person helping you must first kiss every single coworker and acquaintance they pass between them and you.

There are things we certainly won’t miss: dog feces, neighbors fornicating at 4am, the involved process of paying bills, and the sour smelling mold that blooms in our walls.

I think we’d all agree that we’ve enjoyed Uruguay a great deal. In some sense we wouldn’t mind the chance to stay longer, but it’s time to go and so we’re ready.

We’re ready in large part because over there, on the other side of the world, is home and friends and family and community, which I admit I never stopped missing.  Not missing it in the choking way that makes it impossible to enjoy the here and now, but in a way that is comforting and reassuring. And here’s where I get stuck in translating emotions into words. Phoebe is far better at expressing thoughts on friendship and distance.

Look, maybe it’s as simple as this: The experience we’ve had here this past year has been made richer and warmer by the support, friendship, and foundation we have there; and for that we are profoundly lucky.

 

 


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When My Husband Turned into a Shoe

People have a lot of advice about raising children. A lot.

This is especially true about sleep. All the sleep books that I read were guilty of using scare tactics couched as evidence to convince sleep-deprived parents to stick with a particular method. Using an opposing method either meant that you and your child would become so unattached that he or she would become a sociopath, or you would become so attached that he or she would never ever be capable of independence. Either way you’d be screwed in the long term, and still so sleep-deprived in the short-term that you would be a complete jerk. I speak from experience on the jerk part. Then there are the well-meaning advice givers who parrot back advice from one of the books you recently hurled into a wall. They have the added benefit of telling you long-winded, unsolicited stories about their own children’s sleeping (or lack thereof) habits. As parents we’re almost all guilty of this. I know I’m guilty of this because reliving the trauma of sleep deprivation is very cleansing for me. Less so for the poor schmuck, like you, stuck listening to me.

The thing sage advice givers and slick books don’t tell you is that whatever method you choose probably won’t work forever. Babies grow into kids. Needs change. Expectations change. Suddenly, the dark is scary.  Night terrors happen. Extra books will need to be read. Pre-bedtime extreme dehydration, which can only be resolved by a cup of water that should be from the fridge and served in the Monsters, Inc. cup (which is most certainly dirty and likely missing) because only an ass would bring it in the plain white cup, will need to be addressed.

In our house we sometimes fail to stay ahead of the curve of evolving needs and wheedling.  We give into some request for a short-term gain, but that leads to a long-term loss.

When it got colder here and was dark by dinner it was so easy to give in to the kids demands for extra snuggles at bedtime. It was warm under those blankets and they were finally quiet and still. What could it hurt this one night to stay a little more?  It couldn’t for that one night, but then one became two and two became three and three became a week and a week became a month and a month became an expectation on the kids’ parts that we would always stay with them until they were asleep.

After a while it felt like all we were doing was getting children to sleep or rousting them out of bed in the morning for school. Staying with the kids until they were asleep also meant that I was asleep, which meant that Nathan and I saw each other alone approximately never. It’s not that I don’t love time as a family, but trying to have every household conversation in the presence of the Why-Monster and the Interruptasouras Rex is maddening. Also, never spending time alone with your partner can mean seeing them more as an amalgam of all their annoying habits than as the person you do actually love and respect. So I was a pile of clothes on a chair  to Nathan, and he was his shoes left in the middle of the entryway to me.

Please note: This photo is a dramatization of actual events.

Please note: This photo is a dramatization of actual events.

Finally, we decided enough was enough, and one Friday night over dinner, all Bearenstain Bears style, we had a family meeting. We laid out the plan, which was clear and simple. Read. Brief snuggle. Leave. Children sleep.

The girl mulled this over for a bit while picking her nose. The boy immediately began to look for loopholes. Do you mean every night or just once? How long a snuggle? What exactly do you and Papa need to talk about?  The girl continued to pick her nose.

We held our ground because consistency is important, because children need boundaries, and because we really wanted to finish watching the third season of Sherlock, which we had started long before we got ourselves into this mess.

Now it’s 9:30 on the first night under the new regime. The kids have moved through the stages of denial and negotiating. They are in their beds with the lights off, but they’re still awake.

The music ostensibly lulling the girl to sleep suddenly switches, meaning that she has again stood up in her bed to retrieve the iPod off the shelf. The boy is groaning as he flops from one side to the other. When no one immediately responds he increases his volume.

The new music hits a crescendo and the boy reaches his breaking point. “Does anyone think I can sleep with that wailing music?” he yells, sounding much like a Florida retiree annoyed by the teenagers on his lawn.

We intervene to negotiate the lowering of volume,  the partial closing of doors, and to offer a gentle reminder that the girl is not to play club DJ at bedtime.

There is relative silence.

“Paaaaatito,” comes the forlorn cry from the girl’s room. “Want Paaaatito.” The stuffed duck is procured.

Silenceish.

“Ow. Ow. Ow. Ooooooow,” howls the boy. “My foot. It hurts. I can’t sleep. Ow.”

We can only hope this is a last ditch effort because he can’t help but slur his words.

Silence. Then snores.

One and half hours from bedtime to sleep.

Nathan and I then spend ten minutes alone together (mostly talking about the kids) before I fall asleep mid-sentence. It’s not much time, but it’s enough to make him look distinctly less like a shoe.

This night has been an unmitigated success.

 


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Ranching Like Tourists

The thing about being vegetarian in a carnivorous country is that you rarely go hungry. People are so concerned about making sure you get enough to eat, and concerned that the foods you eat seem entirely unsatisfying to them, that they keep offering more food until the table (and your waistband) are groaning.

This was definitely the case for us last weekend when we headed into Uruguay’s interior to visit a ranch.  Uruguay has many tourist ranches, which range from very fancy to basic. This one was a family run working ranch with 1000 head of cattle, several horses, chickens, two geese that mysteriously disappeared during the weekend (only their feathers remained), and a number of sheep recently diminished by preparations for a large group lunch.

To get there we drove three hours into Uruguay’s interior mostly on a tree-lined two-lane highway that cut through gently rolling green fields populated by cattle, horses, sheep, birds, and outcroppings of rocks. There were some cultivated fields and places where farm buildings were visible. Occasionally we watched gauchos ride across fields or farmers maneuver huge farm equipment across the highway.

Somewhere between Trinidad and Durazno there was a faded sign pointing down a rutted dirt road toward the ranch. The road dipped down to cross a stream and on the other side cattle stood knee deep in swirling early evening mist. The ranch itself was a few white washed one story buildings with thatched roofs and some outbuildings surrounded by manicured lawns with nothing but pasture beyond.  We were greeted by five barking dogs who chased our car down the winding drive. They were intimidating until we opened the car doors when they promptly stopped barking and prostrated themselves before us, waiting to be pet.

Our room was attached to the main house and was accessed through a walled garden, which was crowded with flowering plants and small trees. A porch ran along one side of the house, dormant wisteria vines climbing up the poles and over the roof. The door to our room, as well as doors to the kitchen and entry way, opened off the porch. Our room was a clean, high-ceilinged, spartan space with three beds covered in wool blankets, wooden shuttered windows, stone walls, and a moldering armoire filled with dusty extra blankets.

Before we had our coats off Mariela and her assistant Iris were feeding us. We ate our meals in a small room with a thatched ceiling, a sturdy wooden table and carved straight-back chairs, a huge fireplace (which was the only thing keeping the damp chill at bay), and two pink armchairs that felt like sitting inside a warm hug. The room was dark and cold away from the fire, but also appealing and cozy.

Mariela and Iris always brought us soup in a traditional cast iron pot with white bread and butter on the side. This was followed by delicious, but rich, dishes like canalones de choclo, milanesa de berenjena, and  zapallitos rellenos.  And this was followed by dessert. They made other dishes that would please the kids as well, but in quantities large enough for several busloads of children. Two meals in Nathan and I realized we were eating past hunger and on into guilt. No matter how many servings we ladled onto our plates, we didn’t seem to make a dent in the spread. Yet somehow after every meal, as we waddled out of the room, they worried that we were leaving hungry.

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To work off the food we explored outside. We watched the sheep who, understandably, were not so fond of people. The kids picked the pink flowers that grew in the yard. We rode horses around a bucolic field (bucolic as long as you didn’t look down at the sheep skulls chewed clean by the dogs and bleached by the sun). The kids climbed on the various tractors. The fact that it was a working ranch, not just a tourist destination, was always apparent. At one point I found the boy staring transfixed at piles of sheep skins hanging from a rafter in the barn. Trying to rationalize it, he suggested maybe they had been able to remove all the fleece so it just looked like a skin, but the sheep were still alive. There was a disappointing experience with milking that involved a year old cow, her still nursing calf, and a very sticky udder.

The ranch had plenty of entertainment to offer, but we also managed to tear ourselves away long enough to see some other sights. Outside Trinidad is a large, well-kept, and free animal reserve. We spent a few hours there looking at carpinchos, monkeys, alpacas, rabbits, snakes, deer, goats, and the cutest swarm of guinea pigs (including baby guinea pigs).

Some twenty kilometers down a bumpy road  in Flores are the Grutas del Palacio.  Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Grutas are 70 million year old naturally occurring limestone caves. Columns of stone and curved archways formed by millions of years of erosion give the impression of some intricately planned architecture. There are places where, with the help of a guide, you can walk back into the caves, stepping over puddles of water and into ancient history. Given the chance there are many reasons you should visit them, but our kids will tell you the best part was the flashlights they got to carry while exploring the caves.

On our last day at the Ranch, still well-stuffed from lunch and not yet ready for dinner, the owners took us for a drive to see some of the cattle and their property. They pointed out their cattle, distant property lines, and birds while we all made awkward conversation. A short way into the drive we discovered three yearlings who had escaped the pasture. We followed them in the pick up truck, Mariela leaning out the window making the same huffing noises cows make. Eventually, for some reason neither Nathan nor I could discern all three calves decided to plow back through the barbed wire fence into the pasture. Across the road curious cattle gathered to watch the show. Mariela knelt down in the ditch again making soft blowing sounds and grunts, which urged the cattle forward. We all stared at each for awhile as the light turned golden.


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168 Hours in Santiago de Chile (When You’re Lazy Tourists and Have Kids)

We are terrible tourists. That’s probably an exaggeration, but I do find those “36 hours in…” articles in The New York Times more exhausting than inspiring.  So maybe not terrible tourists, but probably lazy ones. We try to find a few things that appeal to all of us, see them and then spend time napping, hanging out, wandering around, and eating.

The kids and I spent a morning hiking up the Cerro de Sta. Lucia, a large hill and park in the city with green spaces, fountains, ornate building facades, and a whole lot of stone steps. We climbed halfway up on a sidewalk that skirted a steep drop before the kids thought they might be done. Admittedly, the views were pretty nice even from there and the climb was steep for short legs, but they were also particularly whiny that day. Promises of castles and towers were enough to convince them to keep walking. Stone steps, worn completely smooth in some places, led off to the right and we followed them up and around as they stopped or turned or forked. We didn’t pay much too much attention to where we were going as long as we were headed up. At the very top there was a clear and breathtaking view of the entire city and the mountains beyond. I don’t have many pictures from this trip since making sure the girl didn’t fall off the edge or into the fountains or moat took all of my concentration.  She only fell halfway down one flight of fairly gentle stone steps. A victory!

What you couldn’t see from so high up were the narrow side streets lined with cafes, trees, and stores. Some were pedestrian streets and others just lightly trafficked by cars. Places like this always make me a bit melancholy for times when traveling meant plopping down at one of these cafes for a coffee and a rest without answering 5,326 questions about the waiter’s every word or without treating the other patrons to a full-length dance performance by our children.

On our way to the Plaza de Armas, which was largely under construction but still beautiful, we passed through a restaurant gallery. It was a long passageway lined with hot dog stands on one side and sit down restaurants (still serving a lot of hot dogs) on the other side. Even at the 10 in the morning people were leaning against the stands’ counters eating hotdogs mostly hidden under the layers of toppings; a thick layer of avocado and a quarter inch deep squiggle of mayonnaise being the two most visible.

We also passed through here on our way to the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, a place that is totally worth the effort of visiting, even for very lazy tourists. The museum has recently changed locations to a refurbished building housing new exhibits of ancient artifacts. Inside, the walls and floors are a mixture of white and warm, deep grey, which creates a calming background to the three floors of pre-Columbian art that is organized by cultural areas.  Through a revolving door in a corner of the second floor is the textile room. Think about the awesomeness of that. I mean, I have sweatpants from five years ago that are disintegrating. These textiles were found well-preserved in very dry and dark caves and are now preserved in a dark, climate-controlled room behind plates of glass. Motion sensor lights turn on to spotlight a shirt made of feathers or a fragment of intricately woven fabric. There are drawers that slide out with the push of a button to give a closer look at things like dying techniques.

The Parque Forestal, a long, largely unbroken span of green space in the city, was the perfect place for some touristing with minimal effort.  The Museo de Bellas Artes  is located there. We never made it inside, but even from the outside the building was beautiful. We couldn’t argue with missing the art museum when there were two full-equipped playgrounds to explore. Montevideo’s playgrounds–with their wooden and metal slides and flagstone paving stones under the swings–are entirely charming, but a little variety in the way of soft landings and complex climbing structures was exciting.

On the other side of the Parque Forestal is the Cerro de San Cristobal, which has an incline railway you can ride to the top. After seeing the line that snaked on for what must have been over an hour wait we decided to go on foot as high as we could. That turned out to be zoo level. I won’t bore you with my navel gazing about the pros and cons of zoos, though the the animals in this one appeared to be extremely well cared for and the zoo has a mission of protection and education. The kids had a great time running up and down the terraced paths, which made it possible to be almost eye level with a giraffe, and looking at every animal they could fit into the hour before the zoo closed.

Animals also showed up in unexpected places, like the Centro Artesanal los Domínicos, a sprawling market of wooden stalls at the foot of the Andes selling a wide variety of handmade goods.  The crafts ranged from nice to kistch and we ended up buying nothing, but the space itself was nice with a couple of cafes, a stream, wandering cats, a large cage of birds, and two pet stores. While there we tried sopaipillas dulces, a fried flour dough served with a sweet syrup of chancaca. It’s a Chilean version of the various fried doughs that exist in many, many parts of the world.

Last on our lists of sites was the Museo Interactive Mirador, an interactive educational museum with a large outdoor playground and cafe. There are museums like this around the world and our kids would happily visit them all.  This one was done well with activities suited to lots of ages. The girl enjoyed making things move and light up while the boy was more curious about the why and the how (though he was too overwhelmed with excitement to really absorb the information).

And that, my friends, is just about it.  We ate some delicious Indian food and some mediocre Indian food (but still Indian food!). We had some sushi. We ate ice cream. We shopped at a grocery store that had so many things we’ve been missing (like better yogurt). We never got around to trying mote con huesillo, a traditional drink made of peach nectar mixed with cooked husked wheat.

Valparaiso burned while we were there and signs went up everywhere encouraging people to donate goods or money. A Chilean woman I met in Montevideo explained that all Chileans felt impacted by the fires. It overshadowed the also recent earthquake in northern Chile.

We came home via the SeaCat, but in first class this time because that’s all that was available. Lest you be concerned this made us full of ourselves, you should know that we boarded the boat via the port’s storage shed by way of a parking lot and that SeaCat first class is higher in altitude, but not actual class (not even the plastic glass filled with something like champagne they served will sway me on this point).


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Getting to Santiago de Chile

The Buquebus Ferry from Uruguay to Buenos Aires is like a cruise ship. When the sun catches its perfectly shiny outside as it glides across the river the whole thing seems to glow.  Even its name, Francisco, in honor of the Pope, sounds regal. They require you wear white booties (like those of crime scene investigators) onboard so your philistine shoes do not damage the boat’s pristine floors. Inside it has plush chairs, deep carpeting, sweeping staircases, a well-stocked snack bar, and a duty-free shop the size of a small grocery store. The boat is so large and so weighted with people, cars, luggage, and duty-free Toblerone chocolate that you barely feel it moving.

This was not the boat we took.

No. On the day when meteorologists were predicting 60 mph winds, we took the SeaCat, which is a glorified pontoon boat where luggage is lashed to the deck and covered with tarps. I admit that watching it bounce and skip into the port caused me a low level of panic. Watching passengers around us ready their bright white, plastic barf bags for the journey did nothing to calm me. And when they slammed the doors shut and told everyone to sit tight because while the journey might not look or feel safe it definitely was, I may have turned to Nathan and told him I wanted to get off.  I didn’t get off, mostly because I couldn’t.

The televisions proudly told us that the boat traveled at a speed of 30 knots.  It did not tell us how much air space there can be between your bottom cheeks and the seat when the boat hits waves at that speed.  Several is the answer.  It also did not tell you how loudly people may shriek, in both fear and joy, when this happens. Really loudly and shrilly with the notable exception of the gentleman who just groaned as if he were dying. Our children responded in their usual ways. The boy said he wasn’t pleased, but it certainly didn’t stop him from eating or talking.  The girl spent her time singing and pointing out to our neighbors that we were on a boat! On the water!We made it to Buenos Aires and spent an evening with an Aunt and an Uncle before heading on to Santiago de Chile.

I’m not usually one to get worked up about seeing something just for the sake of seeing it, but have you seen the Andes from 30,000 feet? I felt a little like the girl, wanting to nudge people around me and say, Look! Big mountains! With snow!  Judging by the way the Chilean woman next to me (who I’m just going to wildly speculate had seen the mountain range before and possibly even from high altitudes) kept leaning over to take pictures and videos until the flight attendant told her she really, really had to shut it down for landing, I don’t think I’m exaggerating their awesome beauty. Really, my feelings didn’t change much once we were on the ground. Walking around in the city we’d look up and catch sight of the mountains–sometimes snow-capped, sometimes frosty with fog, sometimes glowing pink in the sunset, and sometimes just massive and brown–and gasp. There is something very humbling about being in a city of 5 million people, of being surrounded by crowds, traffic, skyscrapers, restaurants, and all the fine trappings of modern civilization, and having all of it dwarfed in magnitude and beauty by some ancient rock and dirt. Check yourselves humans.

Montevideo, both in area and population, could fit into Santiago’s  hip pocket, so it’s entirely unfair to compare them.  However, I’m not going to let that stop me. Chile is very different than Uruguay.  That should be obvious, right? They are different countries with different histories, different climates, different cultures, etc. I shouldn’t even need to say it, but both Nathan and I were caught off guard. I think having only traveled between Uruguay and Argentina in the past 9 months it was easy for us to lose sight of the bigger picture.  Argentines and Uruguayans will spend any amount of time telling you about how different they are from each other.  And they are. The accents are different enough that you can distinguish them.  Argentines use a kettle for their mate while Uruguayans tend to use a thermos. Argentines eat lomitos and Urguayans eat chivitos. I’m joking a little of course, because there are real differences between the two countries, but things are also similar enough that both cities feel familiar.

Chile was a different story altogether.  In the airport I heard people talking and briefly wondered what language they were speaking.  We were so accustomed to the lilt of Uruguayan Spanish that the harder and completely distinct sounds of Chilean speech sounded entirely strange.

The Spaniards didn’t manage to kill off all the indigenous people in Chile like they did in Uruguay, so there was a much broader mix of people. In fact, there were people (and foods) from all over the world.

We ate Japanese food (without any cream cheese added!), Indian food, spicy food (oh, spicy food!), Chilean-style ice cream and so many avocados (hot dogs are even served with a thick layer of avocado). According to a PSA we saw, Chile is second only to Suriname in its sugar consumption, which may explain why when we ordered juice we were served uncarbonated orange Fanta.

Ice cream

The streets were cleaner in Santiago. Less trash blew around and there was so little dog poop on the sidewalks that I almost forgot to look down while I walked.

Santiago also felt somewhat less child friendly.  Of course, this is an observation based on limited time and experiences. One of those experiences did include a woman insisting that the girl give up her seat on the subway. I can’t imagine that happening in Montevideo where people practically leap out of their seats to make room for kids. To be fair, Uruguayans are particularly accommodating to and appreciative of kids. It’s rare to make it through an entire outing  in Montevideo without our kids being patted on the head, chatted with, pressed for a kiss, or offered candy by people young and old alike–and that’s even when they are being totally obnoxious. Maybe, though, it’s just a difference of living in a place versus being a tourist for a brief time.

And we were tourists Santiago. More on how we touristed in a bit.