Friday the 13th

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

(Note: I wrote this a couple of months ago, in Ecuador. And yes, it really was Friday the 13th.)

We live on the margins nowadays. I realize this, and that’s mostly fine by me. I wander through the world, watching from the outside, but never feeling as if I belong. There are disadvantages, of course—the community that I actually feel like I belong to is mostly in my phone—but for an introvert like me, it’s sort of okay. I get to see how the rest of the world ticks, but without getting too worn out by it.

Most days.

Sometimes, though, we find ourselves in a place that just makes me want to go somewhere normal. I want to bury my head in the sand and forget that the world is full of, among other unpleasantnesses, the kind of interesting characters who make you question reality. Puerto Lopez, it turns out, is definitely one of those places.

Our Airbnb host is a good example. He’s a Canadian man who retired (very) early, built himself a gigantic house on a hill overlooking the town, and spends his days puttering around the property. I guess I can understand that, maybe, but getting into town requires walking down that rutted dirt road, running the gauntlet of stray dogs between the cardboard-and-plywood shacks where the neighbors live. And even I need occasional forays into humanity.

Apparently there’s a wife, but she’s in Canada for something like 5 months, and I fear the stress of isolation is getting to him. Cracks are starting to show. At least, I think they’re cracks? Maybe this is just what passes for normal around here.

Yesterday was a good example. I was sitting on the back patio, writing, when he wandered back to check that everything is going all right. This is a sometimes occurrence, but it’s unpredictable. Sometimes we’re asked several days in a row, sometimes we’re ignored for several days in a row. Whatever. We’re low maintenance.

But yesterday, during the how’s it going chit-chat, he randomly asked what bank we use to get cash. It threw me off so much that I wasn’t even sure what he was asking. I stammered a bit, and he went on to say that his bank is closed for construction, and he needs cash.

Every red flag and alarm bell in my head went off at that point. Maybe it’s just Puerto Lopez, getting to me. I’m normally a very trusting person. I assume most people, the world over, are just living their lives, like I am, and no one is trying to rip me off or steal my stuff or hurt me (except taxi drivers—they are probably definitely trying to rip me off). But we’ve heard more stories here about one expat preying on another expat, or this local ripping off that tourist. [For reasons that I don’t understand, most of these stories have to do with the purchase/ownership of property, which brings me back to there’s no way in hell I would buy land here absolutely not no way, but apparently other people look around and see paradise? I don’t know—to each his own, I guess.]

Or maybe it’s the cumulative effect of two weeks of tiny, almost imperceptible inconsistencies. Admittedly, I have a memory for details, so if you tell me you’re going to pay for the cleaning woman once a week, on Fridays, I think to myself, okay, I have to pay for Monday-Thursday, then you’re going to pay on Friday. When that payment is not forthcoming on Friday, I notice. I don’t care, because it’s $6 (yes, the maid makes 3 dollars an hour) and that won’t exactly break us, but I remember. Because details matter. Precision matters. Okay, maybe I’m a little tightly wound.

There was also that one very inappropriate joke, wildly inappropriate, so off-color that when I texted Lane about it, they said WHY DID YOU REPEAT THAT TO ME? DON’T EVER SAY THAT AGAIN!

(After our landlord told me the joke, which I can’t quite bring myself to repeat, he high-fived me, which just made it so much more disturbing.)

Anyway, the general unsavory nature of the expat population is starting to make me wary, so I was hearing those alarm bells in my head, and mumbled something about Lee being back soon, and that was the end of that. I texted Lee, because misery loves company, or weird gut instincts are better shared, or something like that.

Fast forward an hour or two, and Lee has come back, and we’re getting ready to go into town for lunch. The cleaning woman comes at 1, so we try to get out before then. Yesterday, she was arriving as we were leaving, and the host accompanied her to our front porch, where he hung around for a few minutes, chatting. 

He kept throwing out comments about banks, and credit cards, and getting cash, and what kind of daily limit our debit card has. We kept changing the subject, but somehow he kept going back. He seemed to be throwing off energy, taking up more space than usual. It was quite odd, so we left for lunch, leaving the cleaning woman in the apartment.

When we got back a few hours later, the furniture had been rearranged. Like, everything except our bed had been moved. And not just a little bit, either. Not just shifted over by a few inches. Completely rearranged. There had been two chairs together, facing the television, and a couch off to the right. Now the couch is facing the television, one chair has been tucked into the far left corner, and the other is off to the right where the couch was. Everything has been moved (and this is a fairly large apartment, with quite a lot of furniture).

There’s no way the cleaning woman did it, at least not by herself. This is big, heavy stuff. There’s no way it’s an inadvertent shift, like you might do to mop under the chairs, or maybe when there’s an earthquake. I seriously considered that, for about 2 seconds.

It’s as if you’re staying at a Hilton, you’ve settled in for a few days, unpacked your suitcase, and while you’re out sightseeing, the front desk staff has come in and moved the bed to the opposite side of the room, facing the other direction. And not mentioned it.

Remember last time you rented a beach cottage, how disorienting it was when you went out for dinner and came back to find that the whole cottage had been completely reorganized while you were out? No? That didn’t happen to you? Of course it didn’t. IT’S NOT NORMAL. The word gas-lighting comes to mind, but it’s weirder than that, because it’s so unsubtle. It’s just … surreal.

Anyway. Lee says the expats who come here are edge cases, people who live on the margins. He’s right, of course, but I think there’s more to it than that. It’s something about this town. David Lynch totally ought to make a movie about this place. When we went whale-watching, a woman fell off the top deck of the boat, screaming the whole way down (she was fine, once they fished her out, just cold and wet, and minus one mobile phone). When we went for a walk on the beach, we had to walk around a huge dead turtle, rotting in the sun. Nothing quite fits within my mental framework of normal.

Also, that thing I said in the first paragraph, about how we live on the margins nowadays? I totally take that back. These people, though—they definitely live on the margins.

Take care,


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Happy Thanksgiving From Argentina

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

So often, what we learn in school is taken out of context, fed to us as a list of facts and dates, battles and documents and geopolitical borders.

Yesterday, I went on a walking tour of San Carlos de Bariloche, a smallish town in the Patagonian Lake District of Argentina, led by an amazing local historian named Diego.

He told us about three distinct waves of German migration to this area, beginning in the mid-19th century. The Argentine government, having expanded the country’s borders to include the massive area of Patagonia, put out an international call for settlers. Anyone who came here, built a home, farmed the land, and stayed, would be given 600 hectares, free of charge. So Germans came, as did people from Switzerland, France, Britain, Portugal—all over Europe. Wherever the ‘old world’ was declining. In other parts of Argentina, the massive numbers of immigrants were Italian or Spanish.

Sound familiar? If you grew up reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, it should. Our pioneer story—our immigration story—looks incredibly similar. I loved those stories when I was a kid: all those Germans and Norwegians homesteading on the prairies of Nebraska and South Dakota, fighting the hardships of crop failure, blizzards, wildfires, and loneliness.

Diego told us that his grandfather had come from Spain, his grandmother from Italy. There was one other Argentine couple on the tour; when he asked them about their ancestry, they were more like 3/4 Italian, 1/4 Spanish. I remarked that I’d had no idea; I fumbled over the words a bit, not knowing how to phrase it, but he saw where I was going and jumped in to save me.

“Yes,” he said, “we are, like the US, a nation of immigrants. We have many of the same problems.”

I had no idea. When I was a kid, learning about all those vast migrations to the New World, New World really meant the US. The picture books I read to my children at this time of year, about how we all came from somewhere else, and joined together in one big melting pot of gratitude at Thanksgiving—the pictures in those books were of the Statue of Liberty in the harbor of New York, not Buenos Aires or Santiago.

It never crossed my mind that some of those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” landed in Argentina. I guess I just assumed they all—we all—were drawn to the US, because it was the place that welcomed immigrants. I mean, we called our most famous symbol the “Mother of Exiles.” Of course we welcomed all comers. It’s how we like to think of ourselves.

That’s certainly how I came to be an American. My ancestors were Scottish highlanders, part of the wave of refugees who fled Scotland after the Jacobite uprising, when the English were doing their best to (brutally) obliterate all remnants of highland culture. I don’t know much about what my specific ancestors left behind—all we have are names and dates—but I’ve read enough about that time, and learned enough about the broader world context, to know that they must have been refugees in the truest sense of the word.

Because it really is all about context. A name and date in a record book give us no texture, no details about what misery that person left behind, or what hopes and dreams carried them to an unknown shore, but context can help.

I was raised on a family mythology about my Scottish ancestors; one of the few items that I put in storage when we left the US was a thin, hand-typed book—a family tree assembled by some distant cousin—that traces my people back to their arrival on the shores of the newly-minted United States. But the narrative that I was raised on never mentioned what they were fleeing from: war, violence, defeat, poverty, and discrimination at the hands of a cruel, repressive government.*

Learning about European immigration to Argentina shed a much broader light on the very concept of immigration—it’s not just an American story. There have been periods in history when vast waves of people had no choice but to pull up stakes and move around the planet. My ancestors were part of one such wave. Lee’s ancestors were part of another wave, but one that had its roots in the same problems: war, violence, defeat, poverty, and discrimination at the hands of a cruel, repressive government. (Aside: for Thanksgiving one year, we took our kids to New York, where we visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and went to Ellis Island. We found their great-great-grandmother’s name on a ship’s manifest. Yeah, I was that kind of mom. #EducationalTravelRUs #CanWeGoToThePoolNow)

Am I glad my people wound up in the US? Undoubtedly. But we are not the only nation of immigrants in the world. From where I sit right now, outside of the US, I worry that we spend this one day of the year claiming that our melting-pot diversity makes us special and unique, but ignoring that identity the other 364 days.

Where did your people come from?**

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

—The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus

*If you’d like a fun exploration of the post-Jacobite Scottish migration to the US, try the Outlander books by Diana Gabaldon. You’ll get plenty of misty, kilt-clad (and unclad) Highland texture. Unless you’re my mother, in which case, stick with Monarch of the Glen reruns.

**For the record, Argentina also has an indigenous population, as does the US. The history of relations between that minority group and the government/majority population sound strikingly familiar, but that’s another story for another day.

Take care,


P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to subscribe.

A David Lynch Kind of Day

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

When I get up in the morning, there’s a small dead gecko on the kitchen floor, ants swarming over the body. I find a broom and sweep it out the door, then go sit on the patio to eat my breakfast. A dead gecko before breakfast must be some kind of omen, right?

Later I shower, reach for my towel, & a giant roach crawls up my arm. Lee has to come kill it because I don’t have my contacts in yet, and I’m suddenly having a nervous breakdown.

We leave our apartment and walk down the hill to head into town. The road is a dirt track lined with wooden shacks, chickens, sad hungry kittens, & barky dogs. We walk along next to a garbage-choked gutter. Children play with a stick at the corner. It’s the full-on developing world scenario.

At the coffee shop by the beach, we sit down next to the older couple we chatted with yesterday, whose names are Israel and something—Liot? Maryam? Can’t remember. But they’re intense and energetic and 70 years old, and he lost one leg in Sidon, in the 80s, just above the knee. They’re overlanders, but they go home to Israel for about 4 months a year, & spend the rest in South America. I get the impression he’d like to see more of the world, but she insists on South America. I’m not sure why—she doesn’t like cities, or crowds, & seems uninterested in nature (they don’t hike, because of the prosthetic leg). As far as I can tell, she likes having pseudo indigenous experiences—like getting their van repaired, going on day tours, and hanging out in the coffee shop. Apparently (I was in the bathroom) she expressed surprise/disappointment to Lee that there are only foreigners & tourists in the coffee shop.

WTF? Locals don’t go to coffee shops & pay $2.50 for a cappuccino. THEY DON’T EVEN HAVE ELECTRICITY.

[Just to be clear, I highly approve of coffee shop sitting. But I am under no illusion that such behavior is in any way bringing me into contact with ‘the locals.’ It’s absolutely not.]

Anyway, we got sucked into a long chat with them yesterday (they told us all about a young woman they met at one point who was riding her bike all over South America with her boyfriend, although they broke up after a while, so now they give her donations occasionally for her ‘work with the Amazonas people.’ Uh-huh.), so today, when there was a young man & his wife & kid sitting with them, I thought perhaps we could avoid a super long chat. The guy & his wife or whatever turned out to be even weirder, which is saying something. They’re Belorussian, although his family moved to Australia after the Soviet Union broke up. The wife & 5 year old speak no English, so he held court while they sat on the sidelines. So awkward.

He told us all about the documentary film he’s making about one of the local guys who carries boxes of fish from the boats to the market. We heard the guy’s whole life story. Note: there’s no there there, & when something like that starts with “to make a long story short,” maybe go order another coffee. Or announce that your parasite’s acting up again, & just leave. I wouldn’t watch that documentary if you paid me.

He also suggested the old folks overland across Africa, then proceeded to explain just how badly they’d be robbed. Well all right then. Definitely advise the one-legged old folks to go where they’re most certain to be carjacked & probably killed.

Central Asia, he said, would be less dangerous, but the weather would suck. “It all depends,” he said, “how you want to die.”

Then he launches into a whole thing about how SE Asia doesn’t feel like an adventure anymore.

He’d never heard of Suriname, French Guiana, & Guyana (which the seniors loved, because indigenous people), & when we said we’d decided not to go there because it was too logistically difficult, he suggested we take the bus. When the older couple crossed the land border from Brazil, they had visa problems, coupled with the worst roads they’d ever encountered. Awesome. Sure, we’ll take the bus. What could possibly go wrong?

Whatever. I could feel his desire for a pissing contest crackling through the air, but Lee didn’t bite, or worse, blunder in, so we wrapped it up before too long & went to get lunch.

We sat down at a place called Aloha, which we’d been trying to go to for days, but it’s apparently only open for lunch on the weekends. Google really has no idea around here.

My fries were stone cold in the middle. That was suboptimal. Lee said he thought the young woman sitting outside had been at the same restaurant as us the day before; I couldn’t see her, which was fine, because I hadn’t been able to see her the day before either. Whatever. I’m just going to sit here and eat my barely-not-frozen fries and wait for a dog to walk in with a human hand in its mouth. That could 100% happen here, because dogs wander in and out of everywhere, all day long, then they bark all night.

Then a very fat American man came & sat down at another outside table, along with a much older woman who seemed quite unstable on her feet. After a while, a young American woman (Really? I haven’t seen another American since we got here, and now today they’re popping out of the woodwork) walked by, & stopped & talked to them. She was quite loud, so we heard all about how she’s a missionary, has been riding a bicycle through Central America for 2.5 years, to 10 countries, & is continuing on south from here. (Okay: why do missionaries feel compelled to convert CHRISTIANS to Christianity????) She finally left, thank goodness, but then it got worse when a guy set up a speaker in the entrance & started singing. I asked for the bill so we could get the hell out of there.

But by the time we paid, he had finished singing, so for some reason, Lee felt compelled to stop & chat with the poor woman who’d been at the restaurant the day before, which she definitely had been. She’s Irish, training English teachers over in Montanito. She loves Puerto Lopez, & comes as often as she can. Puerto Lopez has everything! Even a proper grocery store & a great market! Okay—maybe if you’re from Ireland? I mean, it’s fine if you like shrimp, but otherwise the food is abysmal. All those “fresh juice” bars, down by the beach? They’re serving Tang. I bought cocoa powder the other day that literally has wood fibers in it. I made woody brownies. They were not my finest brownies, but when you’re eating your feelings, needs must.

While we were standing there talking to her, the elderly woman from the next table finished her cigarette and came over & said “Hi, I’m Pam,” and just jumped right in. She and her son (who is at least my age) are staying at the Victor Hugo Hotel, they’ve been living in Cuenca for 6 years, but they came here to check it out, & they loooooove it, it’s so tranquillo, so they’re gonna switch from their 2-bedroom at the Victor Hugo & get 2 one-bedrooms, & figure out whether they want to buy land, or build, or rent, or what. She had the deep, throaty voice of an old woman who’s been smoking for 60 or 70 years, and a very bad bowl cut. Later Lee wanted to know if she was male or female. She looked like Maggie Smith in The Lady in the Van, or at the beginning of the 1st Exotic Marigold movie, seriously haggard & elderly. The son came over as well, scratching his beefy arms like crazy & sweating buckets.

Me? I’m still just waiting for that dog to run by with the human hand in its mouth. I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone.

They left, saying they were going to the grocery store.

We were planning to go to the grocery as well, so we decided to take the long way around, giving them time to go & get out. [I will go to great lengths to avoid having to chat in the grocery store—any grocery store—up to and including hiding out in an Ecuadorian fishing village.]

But about a block down the street, the missionary walked up to us, asking if we were American, & wanted to know if there was somewhere ‘safe’ she could get something to eat. She’d gone in somewhere, ordered, then gone to the bathroom, only to discover they had no water in the bathroom sink, so she freaked out and left (really? You’ve been in Latin America for two & a half years, & you think every restaurant you’ve been in had running water? Seriously?). Lee tells her to come with us, & we’ll show her some places that haven’t made us sick (yet).

She immediately launches into her routine about her missionary work, spreading yada, yada.

At this point, I realize she has a substantial goiter on the left side of her throat. I think, honey, maybe you should just go back to New York & get that checked out. Lack of sanitation in Puerto Lopez might be the least of your problems.

We walk her down the block and around the corner, to where some sort of construction has dug the ‘street’ into a giant mud puddle, & point her toward the pizza place, which appears to be open. She asks if we’d like to make a donation. I look around at the squalor of this village, here in nowheresville Ecuador, where people live in shacks that are made of plywood and cardboard, & mangy dogs lie around all day in the rutted dirt that passes for streets, while children wander barefoot, and I say, in my most spineless southernese, “No, not today, thanks.”

We did indeed run into Pam & her son at the grocery store. I had run out of tolerance for weird at that point, and while I couldn’t make myself be straight-up rude, I think I did manage to sound brusque. I certainly wasn’t sorority-girl chatty—I was busy looking for baking soda. I never did find it, which is unfortunate, because I wanted to make chocolate chip cookies, with wood flecks. I need to do some serious emotional eating.

Take care,


P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to subscribe.

Chile: Never a Dull Moment

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Our time in Chile is drawing to a close—we’ve only been here two weeks, but it seems like a lot longer. It has been many things, but it was not dull. Here’s a brief recap:

We arrived on Thursday evening, in the middle of a long holiday weekend that we had no idea was happening. But Santiago was quiet, so we sort of assumed that meant the protests were calming down. We settled into our hotel and spent the first few days running errands and stocking up on chocolate (Santiago has great chocolate). We rode the cable car to the top of San Cristobal Hill, where there’s a lovely park, a shrine, and a spectacular view out over the city. Santiago was definitely winning us over.

On Monday, the city seemed to wake up from the holiday with a jolt, as if it had overslept and needed to work extra hard to make up for the downtime. Protests flared up in the city center; Lee watched the livestream on his computer. He gave me the play-by-play as the police began to break up the crowd with tear gas and water cannons. 

Suddenly, our room began to shake—we’d felt earthquakes before, a couple of tiny ones, where you look at each other and say, did you feel that? and you’re not quite certain. But there was no doubt this time. The curtains swayed and everything rattled; I ran around the room, squawking and looking for my flip flops. Lee pointed out that we were on the 16th floor, and you’re probably not supposed to use the elevator in an earthquake. I sat on the end of the bed, and we waited until the curtains finally stopped moving. It turned out to have been a 6.1, about a hundred miles from the city. No one seemed fazed, except maybe me.

Okay, earthquake: I can check that off the life experience list.

On Tuesday, we were again lounging around in our room in the evening (I accept that we are boring old fuddy-duddies, but in our defense, the sunsets from our room were kind of gorgeous) watching the protests online, when I see a huge plume of smoke rising from San Cristobal Hill, which is about half a mile from us. We watch as fire-fighting helicopters get to work, dumping water all over the hill. It took hours to extinguish. While we watched, a massive bicycle protest pedaled by on the street below. I was glued to the window; there was so much going on I had trouble knowing what to watch. We never figured out definitively whether it was a wildfire or protest-related arson, but we were glad we’d already gone up the cable car, because now that was closed like every other tourist attraction in the city.

On Wednesday, the hotel boarded up all the ground floor windows, and everyone went into defensive mode, as the protestors made themselves heard in our neighborhood (which, for the record, was a couple of miles away from the center). It’s a good thing we like hanging out in a hotel room, because that day we were truly stuck inside.

Thursday was quiet-ish. But the respite was short.

Friday, we went for a long afternoon walk, thinking we’d go check out the main square in the center of town before the protests ramped up for the evening. Um, not so much. I can now verify that tear gas smells, tastes, and feels just like the pepper spray I once accidentally sprayed in my face. When our eyes started burning, we beat a hasty retreat to the safety of an Uber.

The temperature had been steadily creeping upward all week, and by Saturday afternoon, I was ready to check out the rooftop pool at the hotel. I dumped my stuff on a lounger, kicked off my flip flops, and walked across the concrete pool deck. By the time I got to the steps, my feet were burning. I was moving quickly, trying to get into the water, and when my foot landed on the top step, it slid out from under me and and I went down hard, hitting my back on the sharp edge of that concrete deck. It was a long evening; a doctor came to our room, but then she sent me for x-rays. My ribs are bruised, but not broken. That doesn’t mean they don’t hurt like hell, though. Also: Chilean ERs are just as crowded on Saturday evening as American ones.

Sunday we flew (bruised ribs and all) to a small town in southern Patagonia. By the time we arrived, I realized I was coming down with a cold. (Pro-tip: don’t get a cold when you have bruised ribs. Trust me on this.) We found an open (albeit boarded-up) pharmacy to fill the prescriptions I’d gotten at the hospital the night before, and I stocked up on tissues while we were there.

There are protests here as well, but they seem to consist primarily of people marching in the early evening, chanting and banging pots, then later a convoy of cars drives a loop around downtown, blowing their horns. For hours.

At least, that’s what Sunday and Monday evenings looked like. Tuesday was altogether different.

We started hearing the chanting and banging and horns in the late afternoon, like usual. I needed “a brisk 3-minute walk” to close the exercise ring on my watch, so because I’m just a wee bit obsessive, I stuffed some tissues in my pocket and went for a quick spin around the block. There were families carrying signs and waving flags. I saw a toddler with a vuvuzuela. Little old ladies strolled along, chatting and banging pots. It was all so civilized and festive.

But around nine, as the sun started to set, I glanced out of our window, only to see another huge plume of smoke. And this time, it was the building next door.

The fire raged, a mass of black smoke and orange flames. We were absolutely stunned, going back and forth from our room, with its view on the back of the building, to the front of the hotel, where we could see the front of the building, as well as the protestors. They had massed on our block, and had smaller bonfires burning up and down the street. The pop of teargas being fired into the crowd was constant. Little groups of hotel guests milled around the lobby, and every now and then someone would open the front door, letting in a draft of cold, smoky, teargassy air that stung my throat and made my eyes water.

When the fire department showed up, they raced through the hotel, banging on doors and yelling at us all to get out of our rooms. Lee and I grabbed a few things and raced outside and across the street. When we stopped to assess, we figured out that we had brought our passports, Lee’s computer, my purse, and our dirty laundry. Don’t ask.

It took us about two minutes to realize that riot police with shields and helmets (and teargas) were running every which way, all around us, so we decided we’d be better off taking our chances with the fire, and we went back into the hotel. Guests had gathered in the lobby—one young couple had pitched a tent on one side of the room—again, don’t ask. It was a crazy evening.

All’s well that ends well, I suppose. For us, at least. We finally got the all clear, and headed back up to our room. Between my ribs, my stuffy nose, the adrenalin, and the sirens, I didn’t get much sleep that night.

The building next door was gutted. We found out the next day that it had been targeted because it was the headquarters of a pension fund administration company.

We’re in a different, smaller town for the weekend, and this time our hotel is a couple of miles out of town, on the edge of a lake. It’s quite lovely, and very, very peaceful. I can’t imagine anyone protesting out here; there’d be no one to protest to, except the seagulls.

I’m now beginning all my texts to our kids with “WE’RE FINE, but . . .”

So yeah, we’re fine. Here’s to peace and quiet. Less coughing would be good, too.

Take care,


P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to subscribe.

Shattered Glass and Gas Masks

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

We’re in Santiago, Chile, which is a truly beautiful city, nestled into a valley at the edge of the Andes. I’m utterly in love; I can easily imagine settling here, to the extent that we want to settle anywhere (don’t worry; we still don’t).

Ten or twelve days before we were planning to arrive, we started seeing news reports of mass protests happening all over the country, but primarily in the capital: Santiago. We didn’t think much of it, at first.

Then the reports—the photos, the videos—got worse. A state of emergency was declared. A curfew was established. We did a little digging, and concluded it was only mildly concerning, but worth watching.

So we did. Our last few days in Panama were pretty well consumed with should-we-shouldn’t-we conversations. We made various phone calls. We confirmed airport-immigration-transport details far more carefully than we usually do. We dug around for real-time input from other tourists (you’d be amazed what you can find online, if you know where to look; without our smartphones, this life would be So. Much. Harder., but that’s a topic for another day).

People were worried, asking if the city was safe, how they’d get from the airport to their hotels, canceling trips. We tried to synthesize all of this information and panic, and make a decision based on rational data, rather than fear and sensationalism. We decided to change hotels, so we’d be a mile or two away from the center (we were initially booked into one that is literally a block and a half from where most of the action is happening—turns out it’s closed down indefinitely anyway), but we weren’t going to scramble around for a different destination entirely. Santiago is huge; surely the whole city wouldn’t be disrupted.

And it’s not. The neighborhood we’re in is gorgeous. Wide, tree-lined boulevards, tiny jewel-box chocolate shops, well-kept parks and playgrounds. I’m sitting in a pastry shop as I write this, having a pain au chocolate and a pot of Damman Freres tea, which is my second-favorite French tea brand. It’s all quite lovely.

Aside: rereading this, I worry that it’s a bit tone deaf. It wasn’t my intent to come across as some kind of unsympathetic elitist, more concerned about tea and pastries than about the problems of the working class. But I’m here as a tourist—I barely even speak any Spanish. I tried watching the news, but I couldn’t understand it. I can barely even figure out what’s open and what isn’t. All I can do is observe.

The protests have been pretty focused on the city center (that’s where the government buildings are located, I believe). It has been a complete non-issue for us, except that the Beaux Arts Museum is closed. I don’t tourist a lot, but I did want to wander through there. As far as I can tell, most of the things tourists would want to do are closed for the foreseeable future. No worries, though—there’s an awesome mall about three blocks from our hotel, and I wanted to replace a couple of items anyway.

And then.

Yesterday, the protesters gathered at said mall. We were on our way back to the hotel after our late lunch when we found ourselves skirting the edge of the crowd. We kept moving at a pretty good clip, even going so far as (gasp!) ignoring the don’t walk light at the corner. By the time we were a block or so past, we started hearing the pop of tear gas being shot into the mass of people.

But another block or so down the street, things were more or less back to normal. Sidewalk cafes had moved their tables and umbrellas indoors, but people were still eating inside. The coffee shop on our block was still open (we got a frozen coconut mocha that was out of this world). Our hotel had boarded up the ground-floor windows and slipped a note under our door, warning us to stay inside for the evening, but from our perspective on the 16th floor, there was nothing at all scary. We had internet and strawberries and a brownie. That’s pretty much a typical evening for us.

Some protesters (maybe a hundred-ish) marched by our corner, banging pots and pans, blowing whistles, snarling traffic for ten or twelve minutes. We watched as one young woman whipped out a can of spray paint and painted all over the multi-level monument across the street. A couple of young guys went down into the lower level, and later I realized (with the help of binoculars, I admit) that there was shattered glass all over the bottom of the monument.*

But I also watched as a young woman pushing a baby stroller crossed the street at that corner, and the protesters all quickly stepped out of her way, giving her a comfortably safe passage through. I watched as the young men who were blocking traffic stepped out of the way as soon as the last protestor was on the sidewalk. And because our room is on the corner of the building, with windows looking in two directions, I knew that a block away, there were no protestors at all.

And here I am this morning, sipping my tea and looking out at the fresh spring leaves, that bright lime-green shot through with sunlight. A few years ago, Lee was in Bangkok visiting Toby during a round of mass protests. I remember watching the news while he was there, and calling in a bit of a panic, worried that it was dangerous. He laughed. No, he said, everything was fine. The news only shows you the dramatic stuff. You don’t realize that just around the corner, women are pushing baby strollers and people are hanging out laundry and going to the 7-11.

Normal, everyday life doesn’t make good news. But it goes on, all around the little pockets of drama. This city has a population of six million people—as far as I can tell, the vast majority of them are just going about their lives. If that little group of protestors hadn’t marched past our corner, we never would’ve seen any “drama.” And even that wasn’t very dramatic. I watched a small act of vandalism as it happened: it was a woman with a ponytail and a can of spray paint.

It’s easy to watch the news and feel like the world is exploding. It’s easy to absorb that message, all day, every day. I think, though, that the subtext of that message is that we should all be afraid. That people are bad. That the world is scary and dangerous.

Fear is insidious; it gets into our heads and self-perpetuates. We don’t realize how much it colors our days. If I’ve learned anything from four years of travel, it’s that fear does nothing but make my life smaller and emptier and a lot less fulfilling. The people we’ve interacted with here in Santiago have been some of the nicest we’ve encountered anywhere; I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

*The day after we arrived, we walked over to the monument to check it out, and laughed about the glass—there’s a ledge, surrounded by a waist-high glass wall, that we found sort of alarming. It would be all too easy to smash into it, especially in the dark. So when I peered through my binoculars, that carpet of shattered glass was not very surprising.

Take care,


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