Category Archives: English

Powerful Patagonia

What could I possibly say about Patagonia that has not been said before, or that my pictures won’t say with more power? It is as wild and rugged and impressive as you probably imagine, and as it was hundreds of years ago.  In that way, it is definitely humbling. You definitely feel small when standing here (see picture).

view

Patagonia is big, and legally it is not even really a region with official borders, it is more a common term used in tourism. The term covers Chile and Argentina, but we went to the Torres del Paine National Park. A bucket list destination for sure. The lodge, Explora Patagonia, was bam smack in the middle of the park, with gorgeous views from every room.

We were very lucky with the weather. Apparently, several hiking paths had been closed before we arrived (and some would close again after we left, as it turns out). On our first day, we did a long hike alongside Lago Grey, and in the middle of the walk, the guides radio to the ferry service to check if they can estimate the chances that we can come back with the ferry because it has happened more than once that guests had to make the 5 hour hike back. But again, lucky us, not a gust of wind, just clear blue skies, a grey like (that turned turquoise in the right light), and white ice (that also turned blue when reflecting sunlight). The hike had the most amazing views and the ferry brought us close to the actual glacier, impressive sights if ever I saw some.

IMG_3920

The next day, we witnessed the diversity of the park by heading the other way. While Lago Grey and the glacier we saw up close are in the western side of the park, we now hiked towards the eastern side, crossing the pampa. The hike was focused on getting a good view of the towers, an iconic image. But for me personally, I was happy to see some wildlife: guacanos, amazing birdlife (yes, condors but much more), a fox.. Quietly, I harboured a very strong wish to see a puma but I realized chances were slim – and that is of course part of the attraction of seeing one. Once again, lucky me, we saw two! I was stupid enough to have brought only my short lens because my god that would have been one good shot with my long lens. But hey, we take what we can get and count our blessings: 2 pumas on my first visit! And I have a blurry picture to prove it. And more than one reason to go back. What a place. What.a.place.

IMG_4084

pumas

The Lake District – Vira Vira

For everyone that thinks I travel a lot because I work in tourism, I need to tell you I have an office job. I work office hours. Behind a computer screen. I can maybe tell you the facilities and check-in time of every hotel but not because I have stayed in all of them for a full week. And then sometimes, you have the opportunity to visit a property, and those are perks yes. But when it is an andBeyond property, you know you are in luck, and it is going to be an amazing experience.

A quick geographical intro. Everything in this country is new to me too so I am telling you merely what I have read. So – very roughly speaking – Santiago is in the middle, Atacama is in the North (think desert) and the Lake District is South of Santiago. I guess you could say that this is the gateway to Chilean Patagonia, which is even more South. Patagonia covers both Chile and Argentina.

Vira Vira is in Pucon. The main attraction in Pucon is the lake and the volcano, both called Villaricca. Not only is this region breathtakingly beautiful, it also lends itself perfectly to adventure sports: hiking, rafting, horse riding, skiing… You get the idea. Not surprising: the landscape is defined by lakes, mountains, volcanoes, forests, and national parks. (And if you are not into sports, it lends itself to digital detox too.) It was a bit colder than Santiago but the winter in Chile is slowly making way for spring. We had one day in the snow, on the Volcano Villarrica, and I actually got sunburnt.

The lodge itself is gorgeous. The minimalist, natural decor with big windows turns your focus outdoors, which I cannot praise enough. And just when you are taking in that perfect view, ten minutes later the light changes and a whole different perfect sight appears. I could not stop taking pictures. Without unnecessary frills, the lodge is luxurious. Fire crackling, we had a wine tasting with Chilean wines followed by a 4-course gourmet dinner, with ingredients from the organic farm on the premises. We told ourselves we deserved it all since we had gone up a live volcano in snowshoes. We deserved the glass of bubbles while taking a scented bath too, in case you are wondering. A special mention has to go to the food. What an amazing chef. Granted he has wonderful ingredients to work with but still, what talent, what amazing and wonderful food. At hotel inspections, I often tell myself I need to skip a meal and not over-indulge but that was merely not an option at Vira Vira, it would have been blasphemy.

And I know I have said this about more than one destination but it remains the holy truth of hospitality: the experience was made by the people. The impeccable service of the wonderful people at Vira Vira made the experience what it was. Perfect.

 

 

IMG_3244collage food

 

Pretty Portugal

This post dates back several months, I travelled to Portugal around Easter but since a certain Tanzanian president all of a sudden decided you had to pay to write a blog, I temporarily stopped posting. (The temptation to write he is a paranoid dictator was also very hard to control so I just bit my tongue for a while.)

With a strange mix of excitement and embarrassment, I have to admit that I had never been to Portugal before. Having grown up in a family of 7, we limited ourselves to holidays in driving distance and thus we usually did not go further than France, Italy or Spain, which was far enough considering I had to share a vehicle with teenage brothers, some of whom had gorgonzola feet. (I am expecting come back after this post.) And after college, I developed a taste for intercontinental travel so poor Portugal was ignored by me. My loss, it turns out, because I was very happily surprised.

It was still a tad too cold to enjoy the beach, sun and sea but luckily that is never my priority when I travel. Meditteranean lifestyle and food, however, I will take a flight for that. And Portugal delivered. I was even very surprised with the level of English that the locals speak. I guess the Portuguese are a bit like the Belgians: at a certain point, you have to admit you are the minority and learn other people´s language. The service was also much better than in your average tourist destination, people seemed genuinely happy to welcome tourists. And isn’t that so often the case: the people make or break your experience? Total hit with me, the Portuguese 🙂

In case you want a suggestion on where to stay, I did love where we were: close to Faro, Carvoeiro: Casa Tuia, on a quiet hill. We had the choice between a house or a tent (glamping), and there was a beautiful pool. The atmosphere was very chill and casual and the bar was definitely the place to be – as it should be. I was there with family and friends so you might think I am biased but I am quite sure the atmosphere there is always this relax, and the owners were extremely accommodating.

http://www.casatuia.com/

IMG_7413

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Culture

When you travel, you can prepare yourself in many ways. You google the location, you talk to people that have been there, you buy a travel guide, you learn some words in the local language. So when you move abroad, basically you do this tenfold and plan long term.

  • I took Spanish classes. Okay so I admit this is decades ago so I downloaded an app to revive my limited and long lost skills.
  • I spent hours on google. And if you know me, you know that when I say hours, I mean hours – but hey, that is how I found my apartment.
  • I bought a Lonely Planet. I love my Kindle but not for a travel guide.
  • I am a member of an expat-site. Always an ambiguous one: it is handy to learn from them but you of course want to meet locals and not live in a bubble.
  • I read about the weather – and thus I bought a coat.
  • I have a currency converter on my phone and I am getting used to the money.

But what one can never really prepare for is culture.

First surprise: a normal greeting is accompanied by a kiss. And even though it is a very kind and warm gesture, it takes some getting used to. Especially when it is a pediatrician or someone else you have little connection with. And yes, the French speaking part of Belgium has the same custom. I am sure many countries do. But I am just not used to it. I have to stress that Chilean people are genuinely warm and welcoming, so the kiss just adds to that I guess. In Tanzania, some people had the habit of giving you a handshake and during the entire conversation they do not let go. That was always odd. But no, I never pulled my hand back in case you are wondering (some conversations can be very long though, especially when you have to go through the customary list of 12 greetings). And in a group of expat friends, it has always been a gamble whether to kiss once, twice or 3 times. I go for 3. Greedy me. But with friends I expect to be forgiven.

Second observation: Chileans speak quickly, swallow half of the word and use slang. So basically I could have studied Spanish beforehand until I was blue in the face, I need to learn it here, in the street, in the shop, at home, with real people. (Or so I tell myself when I feel bad that the language thing is going so sloooooow and is frustrating me.) I am waiting for the moment that I am in another country and someone comments that I sound Chilean. That would be success. (A girl needs to set goals for herself. I´ll keep you posted.)

The Mediterranean lifestyle. I have heard the remark once – from an American – that I am so European because I eat late. If it were up to him, we would have had dinner at 6h00. Now, I do not think you can generalize this anyway but I do not eat at 6h, but then again, I also do not want to eat at 22h. Belgians do not take a siesta during the day, and anno 2018, I think less and less countries or people do? Now, when I was in secondary school, I think we had our lunchbreak at 12h. So eating at 13h in Tanzania was already a small adjustment. But since it was a warm country, it didn´t bother me all that much. I have noticed in Chile that most people eat at 14h, and some even only at 15h. By that time, I am starving. Especially because it has been winter, my body needs to warm up and I definitely need to burn some food to do so. But I have horrible eating habits so I realize I am not a reference. But it goes way beyond meal times. I was very surprised to read in a school document that parties usually run from 23h to 3-4am. Like seriously? I felt really ancient, and just – but barely – bit my tongue when I wanted to say ‘what about 20h to midnight’ to another parent. I mean, I went out and partied my fair share when I was a teenager but this was a school pamphlet. I am also always the first one in the office. So I guess I just have to switch my biological clock to start doing everything 2 hours later?

People are animal friendly. I was surprised to see so many street dogs but in the beginning I actually often wondered if they really were street dogs. They all seem healthy and fed. When I think of street dogs, another image comes to mind, in Africa I always said to the girls they were not allowed to touch them, and since they moved around in packs, I stayed away from them with a fair amount of fear. But here, I have the feeling the dogs are taken care of. By random people. On top of that, many people live in an apartment and have a pet. Which means they have to walk it more than daily, which they do. Heartwarming. Overall, I feel there is a lot of respect for animals, even the government pours oodles of money in conservation and pioneering initiatives. I was happy to read that a billion dollar deal to drill for oil was rejected in order to protect the habitat and breeding place of the penguins. Bless.

Santiago is of course a city city. I share these streets that I walk daily with 7 million other people so I should and cannot generalize too much really. I shared a flat with a Colombian lady, work with an Argentine girl, had dinner with a Peruvian couple, had coffee and kuche with a (half) German family… But that is also Chilean culture: an interesting mix of people in a place full of contrast.

Casablanca

The Chilean wine tradition dates back centuries, with the Spanish conquistadores bringing vines into the country during the colonial years (16th century). And the agricultural history should not surprise you when I say the first vineyards were situated in warm areas, close to a major river, thus in central valleys. Maipo Valley, for instance, close to Santiago, with the river Maipo running through it, and is the oldest wine valley of Chile. At first, these wines did not exactly possess award winning quality but a lot has changed throughout time and Chile has become a producer to be reckoned with on the global stage, in numbers as well as in quality.

Casablanca is, all things considered a very young and modern wine area. It is closer to the coast and thus the temperatures are on average cooler. And with the region not having a major river ruining through it, it is not the self-evident choice for a farmer to go. But with the combination of a pioneering spirit to try and farm in cooler areas anyway, and of modern technology such as irrigation, some vineyards were started in this area. And with success, with the soil and climate even contributing to some unique and great tastes.

wine map           And because stories like these are incredibly interesting, I did not only read about it earlier, but I was also extremely enthusiastic when the office organised an exploration of the area in the weekend. The program listed 3 wineries, all 3 with their own different product and approach. We were able to enjoy the beautiful scenery, some sun, insightful tours, tastings, time as a team and we visited 2 guesthouses for inspection. For me personally, the lack of product knowledge is the gap I am trying to fill as soon as I can by reading and studying, but a day like this helps tremendously. Also the Spanish language bath a day like this offers, is extremely useful. Getting to know the team better is of course always a good thing. And you know what, the rolling hills and endless views even reminded me of Africa once or twice.

Bodega RE Bodegas RE

casas del bosques Casas del Bosque

hotel matetic Matetic winery and guesthouse

viewvista

Visitors

I distinctly remember that when we had been in Tanzania for 2 years, we all of a sudden had a wave of visitors. I guess everyone was politely (maybe even unconsciously) giving us some time to settle and as soon as we appeared to have established a life (and were staying?), they decided it was safe to book a ticket and count on our spare room. And for one year, we almost literally went from washing the sheets of the last visitors just to welcome the next batch. It was good timing also, because the girls were small and grew out of clothes and toys like crazy and I was allowed to send my online shopping to these guests’ addresses and they brought it. Since we were still relatively new to the country as well, I researched and discovered some destinations with and because of guests. Win-win.

After that, in the years that followed, there were ups and downs in number of visitors but since I never skipped a year in going to Belgium, the annual friends lunch and the family get-togethers were a consistent thing and so the most important people stayed in my life. Some people never came to Tanzania, and I do realize that Africa might be a required taste. (And let’s not forget: not cheap, especially with a family.) And funnily enough, I was told by 4 families they would be coming in the summer of 2018 and even though they were all coming for their own reasons, it would have been very nice to catch up – but unfortunately I missed them all since I left in June.

Since I am still a tourist in Santiago with a capital T myself I have not stopped to think about visitors yet. But I already sense there is a bigger interest and many friends have already put a flight alert for when prices drop. So I guess that means I definitely need to stock up on spare sheets and towels for year 2! In the meanwhile I am thinking about visiting people I know in other regions of Chile or neighbouring countries, and I have put some flight alerts of my very own.

It can be tricky to stay in touch, and sometimes you have to make an effort of course. (The time zone still throws me also.) But with people that matter, no score is kept. And I have had my fair share of Skype calls these last weeks, and some were totally unexpected. Some stand out because I was so grateful to hear from that person. Positive vibes all the way. So when those people are ready to exchange Skype for the skies, I will have those sheets ready.  In the meantime, thanks for reaching out 🙂 You have to love technology, bringing people to my new living room with ease.

 

Valparaiso

Valparaiso – or ‘Valpo‘ as locals affectionately call it – was definitely on my list so when I was surprised by the news that we had a long weekend, I immediately booked a bus ticket. I remember from a holiday in Peru how easy and relatively cheap one can travel there so I was happy to find it is very similar here.

First and foremost I was extremely lucky with the weather. I can imagine that if it is raining, extremely windy or just downright cold, a weekend like that is less fun. Officially, it is winter time here now but you would not have thought so last weekend. And the blue skies turned out to be the ideal background to take pictures of very colourful and charming Valparaiso. I have a natural aversion to the word picturesque, but when it comes to a town like Valparaiso, the word was made to describe it.

A co-worker had given me some pointers and gosh was I grateful once I got there with those extremely detailed and truthful tips and tricks. Not that I could act as though I belonged, with the sunglasses, big camera and limited Spanish I was not kidding anyone. Much to my surprise, I did not get lost though. Not that the cobbled streets, lack of urban plan and small passeos didn’t lend themselves perfectly to this purpose, but the city centre was overseeable in size and I always ended up where I wanted to be. Not that detours weren’t welcomed. The graffiti on all the walls, the different colours on ever house or step, the whole scene provided me with a pleasant distraction, wondering aimlessly would not have been a waste of time. Some walls were true art. I guess graffiti in general sparks as many gasps of wonder as it does of condemnation, a bit like tattoos. And when I think of graffiti in the sense of a quick offensive word sprayed on the side of a train or a bridge, yes I must agree, but not in Valparaiso.

Based on my co-worker’s advice, I immediately headed for the cemetery. When he said it, I did not even think twice but the moment I was standing at the closed gate, I all of sudden wondered if I was allowed in at all. Let alone with a big camera, clearly not there to honour old relatives.. But it was absolutely fine and in I went. The guard slept and the streetdogs only briefly looked up, to then decide they were not interested in me and put their head down again.

The view was indeed wonderful, but in combination with the eerie and peaceful atmospehere of the white thumbstones and family chappels, it was perfectly amazing. I could not help but take pictures. And how great is it that this particular spot was reserved for the dead? As if in an last gesture the living wanted to give those long lost souls a view for eternity. I could not help but feel calm. I have no clue how much time I spent there.

The next day, I made the effort to take another (short) bus-ride to visit Pablo Neruda’s house. For someone that studied literature, it only made sense? The house still had much more furniture and trinkets in it than I had expected, and therefore it was not that hard to imagine the Great Poet sitting there at his workdesk, writing award winning poems. And probably having a good oldfashioned drinking fest with friends afterwards. The house itself was sort of cool: big rooms and narrow winding staircases, superb views. The house was a prime example of art nouveau and it once again stressed the mix of architecture and styles that Valparaiso has to offer: old European charm, wide boulevards, mixed with bohemian houses and passages in between.

Not coincidentally, I stayed in a Belgian B&B/cafe: Viavia. (Also art nouveau, and thus big rooms.) I did not have my heart set on that, I am all for trying local things, but there happens to be a Viavia in Heverlee, and one in Arusha (or at least there used to be one under the Joker-flag) and it felt only right to stay at this one. Besides, the team that runs it is 99% Chilean so what better place to watch the Belgian football game at lunchtime and have my Pisco Sour in the evening? Not that I lasted long in the evenings. In Valparaiso, I noticed how extremely tired I am lately. With every single thing being new to me, and the need to pay attention to practically everything I do and see, and having all my senses in an alert state all the time, I am exhausted. At work, in the supermarket, in the street.. I am taking in so much information, I sometimes feel my brain might temporarily shut down for a while. On top of that it has been cold (the last winter I experienced must have been 2009), and I am walking a lot. So the weekend was also a good opportunity to catch up on some sleep.

Next time, I will come here with the girls. They will love it.

(N.B. Will post pictures in a separate post)

Saying goodbye

I promise this wil not become a sentimental post, but there are some things I want to say. Because I have said goodbye in my life more than I wish to remember.

When leaving China and the UK, saying goodbye was kind of self-evident, I only went for a short period of time, an extended holiday so you will. In both instances my fellow students left the country at the same time so it was only normal we part ways. And hurray for Facebook, where I can to this day still see what they are up to but do not need to email them weekly to ask. Funnily enough, I made good Belgian friends in both countries. Like I said, I was there for a limited time.

When leaving Belgium, time and again, I never truly say goodbye to anyone, Belgium is my base and I will always return. No guarantees on the regularity of those visits but hey, with everyone’s schedule these days I sometimes see my old schoolfriends at the same intervals that they see each other.

But then we left Tanzania. A whole different ball game all together after 16 years. The person leaving was quite clearly not the same person that arrived in 2002. I had spent close to half of my life there. My kids had spent almost their whole life there. And the majority of the people I said goodbye to, I know I won’t ever see again. And some of the important people in those 16 years had left already anyway. Yes, in an expat life one does become more used to saying goodbye than one cares for. But this time it was me leaving. I know that some people expected a big farewell. I decided not to do one, not a big one anyway. I probably didn’t make myself very popular with that decision. First and foremost, I hate goodbyes, so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it – let alone to stretch out the experience with a big audience and a sauce of alcohol on top of it. Then, let us not forget I did a farewell party in 2008 and had returned. So how often can I do that without losing credibility all together.. Also, in 2018 there was an immense number of people leaving and I had been to so many farewells already, I have to admit I was not keen to add my tick to that list with bells and whistles.

But yes, it was hard. And I did cry. Multiple times. But I need to believe that geography alone does not define the quality of my relationships.

And I know that people without pets won’t fully understand this but the fact that I was forced to leave my dogs behind, broke my girls’ and my heart. You have to know, there were more pets living in my house than people. And we had reached the stage where they got away with murder, sitting on the couch and everything.. I was planning and was all prepared to take them with me by the way. But with the Dane being old and frail, a 15-hour flight, and everyone ending up in an appartment in a big city.. not ideal. Thank god we found good homes for them. I try not to think about them too much, it still sends a painful twang to my heart. (Sorry, I said I was not going to get sentimental..)

When it comes to stuff and belongings, I actually recommend that everyone tries this at least once in their life: a complete and total purge. I am not a materialistic person to begin with (I think?) but getting rid of almost everything is something else. And god, do people gather crap over the years. The girls and I will live from 6 suitcases for the upcoming months. Until we start gathering crap again that is of course.

All in all, I guess I will keep in touch with some people, and the ones you keep in touch with become all the more special because of it. I will make sure we have a foldable couch in Santiago just in case. And of course, hurray for Facebook. Because I can name a list of annoying aspects about it but being able to connect to other global citizens is definitely a plus. And as far as I know, it is not forbidden in Tanzania yet?

Santiago

I have been bombarded with questions such as “what are your first impressions?”, “I can’t wait for you to tell me what you think of the city”, and the simple and straightforward “what is it like?”. But since I keep using the same words to describe it to reply to everyone that asks, I thought I’d share. It is less personal yes, I am sorry.

First and foremost, I am not on holiday. So despite how beautiful the city is and how wonderful the people are, I know I will be living here. So I had to buy a sim card and charge it. I had to buy a metro card and charge it, and then find my way using it. I had to find my way in the supermarket. I need to get used to the currency. I need to practice my Spanish. The list goes on. My point is: that experience is truly humbling. Yes I speak (some) Spanish, but I can safely and truthfully say I have to figure out everything again. No misplaced pride or arrogance here, I can literally say “no sé nada”. But that’s okay, because once you accept that, every single thing is empowering too 🙂 And the people have been wonderful and welcoming as well. My colleagues speak English (I have the feeling your average person doesn’t?) and they have been so incredibly nice. Chilean people also just seem rather chill (excuse the pun), with the amount of traffic you encounter here, I find it amazing no one uses his/her horn? They must be really calm in nature. 

But that of course has little to do with Santiago and you wanted to read about Santiago of course.

First, there is the Andes. They are beautiful, they are omnipresent and I can imagine how they very much define the identity of this city and its residents. I have already figured out that if I want to go North, the mountains have to be on my right. (And yes: South, left.) So I have my eye on them at all times. It is also because of the Andes, that my past 3 mornings started with fog. Today (day 3), I went to the view point on San Cristobal Hill and that was a mind-blowing sight, with the mountains cradling the city. I am sure that at some point, the girls and I will drive in the direction of the Andes and go skiiing. How can anyone not, right?

The city itself is huge. I read that 7 million people live here. I have now walked around in it for the last 3 days and I feel I have not even skimmed the surface. It has an interesting mixture of old and new, history and modern buildings, and every area has it’s own special and unique character. It will be a search for me and the girls to see where we will live. Most likely, on the Eastern side (the side of the mountains) because both the school (North-East) and my office (a bit more South-East) are there. But even that does not pin it down to a specific neighbourhood so stay tuned.

My limited tick list I made before arrival, had “Plaza de Armas” in the top 3. Your typical Latin American city will have a Plaza de Armas, it is the old market square so to speak. And the one in Santiago did not disappoint: some musicians were playing music, old men were playing chess, lots of people were enjoying the afternoon sun on a bench, the police rides horses, pigeons everywhere.. The old city centre is always fun to explore: avenues, parks, statues, fountains, churches, universities.. you can just see, smell and feel the history everywhere.

What I am less used to, is the big shiny malls. That is not only because I just lived in Africa for the past 16 years, but even in Belgium they are more exception than rule. I assume it is the American influence that brought them to South America? Especially the food court on the top floor is a concept foreign to me. I can’t say I care for that very much. But I will be the last to complain to have some first world luxury, and my girls will be over the moon. And today I had a fresh raspberry juice for a dollar and a half on the roof of a mall with the view of the glorious snow caped Andes. The perks.

Yeah.. I think we will settle in just fine. And I still have loads to see.