Monthly Archives: Dec 2011

On top of the world

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Having accepted that Canadians are the only people wise enough to declare Boxing Day a statutory holiday, Sara and I awoke the day after Christmas fully prepared to put in our six hours’ work in the strawberry field. Thoughts of lazily sitting by a fire with good books were far from our mind.

This was probably a good thing.

Halfway through our morning, our French friends wandered over to us and said that there was not a lot of work to be done that week, and our hosts had given us permission to take off for a few days and explore the area. They asked if we’d like to join them on a hike up to one of the many mountain refugios nearby. They seemed to already have it very well-organized (keep in mind that Jean was a Boy Scout, and that Judi works as a shepherd in the French Alps), so we enthusiastically agreed.

We packed our bags full of food which they had already bought (two boxes of white wine seemed to me an odd thing to carry up a mountain, but hey, I guess some cultural stereotypes have to be respected!) and set out to El Refugio Motoco.

What followed was by far the most physically grueling experience of our lives. These two Manitoba kids were very unaccustomed to walking straight uphill at the best of times, let alone in +35°C weather, let alone for six hours straight. When we explained this to our dear French Alpine guides, who would bound up cliffs like mountain goats and look back at us with curious concern, they replied (very apologetically!) that they thought all Canadians lived in the mountains and did hikes like this everyday. Desolé, mes amis!

Sweet nectar of life: Our grueling trek was made immensely more refreshing by many stops to drink from the crystal-clear mountain streams
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One of many precarious log bridge crossings:
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8000-year old Alerce forests:
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It wasn’t until the final kilometer of the trek, however, that we encountered the greatest obstacle of the journey: a herd of over a dozen wild cattle, forming a impenetrable wall across our path. This was Judi’s (the alpine shepherd) moment to shine, as he plucked himself a long branch of bamboo and plowed through the bovine barrier. Argentina is a camper’s paradise, with neither mosquitoes nor bears nor wolves to worry about… but they do have wild cows. :S

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Dark was closing in on us as we finally arrived at el Refugio, a log cabin situated next to a burbling mountain stream. We were greeted by the log cabin’s sole inhabitant, a kind man named Luis who was surprisingly normal for someone who has spent the last four years living as a literal mountain hermit, as well as his massive dog, Loba (meaning ‘she-wolf’), and his two ridiculously fluffy kittens (the latter seems to be a theme of this trip, much to Sara’s endless joy). We talked with him for quite a bit, and as soon as he heard that Sara and I were married he disappeared back into his shack and emerged a moment later with a bottle of wine, “para tu luna de miel” he said. Apparently Argentine hospitality continues even at 1500m above sea level!

Jean and Judi got to work right away building a fire and a tent, both out of the bamboo that grew thick around us. We enjoyed a delicious supper of pasta, sardines, and, yes, white wine which was now even more in abundance, and fell asleep under the stars.

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We awoke the next morning to Jean asking us if we wanted to go for a six-hour hike up the mountain. Déjà vu, I thought to myself, but he was serious. Apparently another six hours would take us to the summit. Sara and I looked at each other with a bemused “well, we’ve come this far” kind of look, and prepared for another trek.

Upwards we went, encountering sparkling beaches of red stone, precarious wooden footbridges spanning death-defying canyons and rapids (hum the Indy song to yourself here, because we did a lot of that!), thundering waterfalls, majestic lookouts, and huge patches of knee-deep snow, until finally we saw the pole which marked the summit.

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With renewed vigor, we scrambled up the scree slope until we reached it…only to find that it was only a ledge, with the mountain continuing mightily higher. We repeated this process two or three more times, until finally we crossed the mountain’s rocky spine and saw the opposite side drop down into a churning panorama of peaks and valleys. We had gotten so used to looking at the beautiful view behind us that seeing the world stretch on in all directions was dizzying. From our new vantage point, Jean told us, we were seeing over the border into Chile, and more mountains than we could possibly count. We ate some cookies and began the journey home.

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100km of hiking and 2km of altitude in 3 days. Not our usual Boxing Day routine, but one we will never forget.

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Granja #3: Strawberry fields forever…

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Wow, it seems like we haven’t written in this blog since last year!

* Pause for all the Melnyk clan to laugh appreciatively *

Happy 2012 to you all! I don’t know how the northern hemisphere is faring, but down here, Josh & I are still married and doing very well, so if Winnipeg actually did get an Ikea, I will assume the world decided not to end after all. (For the confused of you, ask Josh one day about some of his favourite EA stories :P)

After leaving our farm full of nuevas experiencias (if you missed it, read about it here!), we were suddenly left without anywhere to go, because our illustrious “friends” (yes, of the lumberjack, strawberry and rainbow variety) completely disappeared. We took a week as a mini-holiday and stayed in various hostels and campgrounds around El Bolsón, meeting some incredibly interesting characters and trying to find a new farm to take us in.

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Applying for university from our campground in Argentina… Just another normal day while traveling! 😛
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We ended up receiving a cryptic but friendly reply from a WWOOF farm we had emailed awhile back: it said merely, “¿Tienen carpa, chicos?” (“Do you guys have a tent?) We got picked up the next day by Carlos and driven out to a strawberry farm near Lago Puelo, a small town about 30 km from El Bolsón. “¡Hay un montón de WWOOFers aquí!” Carlos said, laughing… And he wasn’t kidding. There was a veritable village of tents set up around an outdoor kitchen shelter and seven other WWOOFers sharing the space.

Our tent overlooking the strawberry fields (forever…)
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It was quite a change after being totally on our own for the last week, and after living in the middle of nowhere with only one other couple for company for the last month. It was such a change that I hid in our tent for the first hour, trying to muster enough sociability to get out and join the throng. But, as Josh kept reminding me, it would be very good practice for living at camp, so eventually I faced the music (literally: there was constantly a guitar floating around) and let myself love and appreciate and be challenged by our time there. The crew included Jean and Judi, who were both from the South of France but hadn’t met until this farm; Roxane (French) and Robbie (Dutch), who went to university together in Belgium; Arlette and Faylin, recently graduated from high school in Illinois; and Alec, who majored in Yoga and Sitar at his Buddhist university in Colorado.

Every morning, we’d get up and breakfast together, then pick and sort strawberries until 1:30pm. After lunch, it was too deathly hot to be working in the sun, but also too hot to siesta in our tent, so we’d cool down by the little stream that ran by the house or walk to town for popsicles. The sun would finally relax around 8pm, so we’d work until around 10pm. When it was finally too dark to see if you were picking up strawberries or slugs, we’d go and make dinner. Jean, who had been a Boy Scout for years, was the self-appointed chef, leaving the rest of us with not much else to do but chop veggies, play cards, and cuddle with the two farm kittens while we waited for dinner.

Waiting for dinner with Chef Jean:
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It’s amazing we managed to fill the buckets, what with the amount of snacking we did while working!
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For Christmas, as previously mentioned, we decided to have a potluck where each WWOOFer would make a dish from their home country. On Christmas eve, all of us WWOOFers sat around the kitchen all morning, preparing our dishes for the potluck that night and watching 30 Rock – it felt just like Christmas holidays at home! Suddenly, Faylin and Arlette came running into the kitchen, demanding to know if we could all stop cooking for a bit. They then chucked scraps of paper in the air and sent us on a farm-wide scavenger hunt, which included shimmying across the river on a log bridge, braving the bee hives, and chasing down the host’s son who had a clue in his pocket. When we arrived back at our kitchen, panting and swimming in sweat after running around for an hour in +30C, there were juice boxes and cookies as prizes on the table!

The party started that night around 11pm, as we all carried our contribution to the feast out to our hosts’ backyard. Les français made crepes and tomato quiche, Robbie painstakingly crafted a triple-layer coffee-butter cake, the Americans made mac-n-cheese , and Josh and I concocted a glaze out of Patagonia honey and oranges for the Christmas ham. Carlos insisted that each of his kids try some of the “ham from Canada” (which, I believe, were some of the only English words he learnt). We then got to watch the kids open their presents, and they all got bathing suits for their Christmas trip to the beach… Where were the wool socks and new flannel pjs? 😛
Paola, our other host, passed out our gifts: huge jars of strawberry jam that we had made the day before. (And a month later, we’re still enjoying it!) The evening wound down with a Regina Spektor singalong around the fire – not exactly caroling, but close enough!

Jam-making with Paola:
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Carlos serving our international feast:
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Christmas jam sesh:
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Christmas day, Josh and I got up early, decorated the kitchen with streamers left over from my birthday, and left a tub of dulce de leche for everyone from Santa. Then, we walked into town and went to a little church we had seen the week before. It felt a bit like the Ukrainian church: all the kids (from adorable toddlers to awkwardly adorable preteens) put on a little pageant, and then at least three different “brothers and sisters” got up to “give a word” to the congregation. The people were so friendly (we got kissed and blessed too many times to count!), and it was wonderful to be in a church community again. No matter what language you speak or culture you find yourself in, there is a sense of home and of family within a church.

For lunch, we bought sandwiches at the YPF gas station, which was literally the only place open on Christmas. We ate our Christmas lunch of milanesa sandwiches sitting on the boulevard, and afterwards walked another 2h to el lago of Lago Puelo: a gorgeous, clear, turquoise blue lake surrounded by mountains. We lay on the beach all afternoon, and I ended up getting a tan for Christmas!!

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For dinner, we were planning to just go back to the gas station to get food (so classy, I know, but it was the only place in town that was open!), but on the walk back, we found a little restaurant on the side of the highway that reminded us of our favourite restaurant in Kenora – and it was open! The owner came over and explained that he had misplaced the menu, but he could still tell us what he had. So he started to recite: “Pizza, thirty pesos. Milanesa, twenty… No, twenty five pesos. Empanadas, twenty five pesos.” Then he looked at us expectantly. It was possibly the most adorable menu I’ve ever encountered!

We walked back home under the stars, in the still-warm night air. It was a very, very merry Christmas!

We wish you a ¡Feliz Navidad!

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It’s so hard to believe that it’s Christmas time, and that at home, there is snow and Christmas carols and family gatherings happening. We will be spending our Christmas in Lago Puelo, Chubut (Patagonia), living on an organic strawberry farm in a tent village with seven other WWOOFers: 3 from the USA, 3 from France and 1 from Holland.

Tomorrow night, our host family is cooking us an asado and each WWOOFer is making a dish from their home country. Josh and I are attempting honey-glazed ham and peanut-butter cookies (filled with dulce de leche!) However, Argentina doesn’t have peanut butter, so we will try to make do with Thai peanut paste. Wish us luck!

As amazing and fun as it is to travel around this beautiful world, there is really no place quite like home at Christmas, so please know that we are thinking of and missing you all!!

Since we knew it’d be +30C here in Argentina at Christmas (which it is!), we captured a bit of Southern snow to share with all of you at Christmas. Click here! 🙂

(or copy and paste the following in your browser:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7tdgWoR21w&feature=youtube_gdata_player )

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

much love from,
Sara & Josh

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Granja #2: “¡Una experiencia nueva!

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Our second WWOOF farm was located 500m above El Bolsón, accessed by a winding gravel road up the mountain, and was literally in the middle of nowhere. Our host had left home at sixteen and made his way to the mountains where, along with his brother, they found a mountain spring and built homes around the water source. Starting with two sheep, he now has forty-four, along with four goats, three horses, two dogs, four hilarious cats, and as of last month, four kittens. All the vegetables come from their garden, all the milk for coffee and cheese and dulce de leche comes from their goats. Our host and his compañera live completely off the grid and are working to become completely self-sufficient, partly because they truly love the lifestyle, and partly because they are practicing anarchists.

¡Es una otra nueva experiencia! (“It’s another new experience!”) was our motto and oft-repeated phrase this past month as we lived and worked on our second farm. Our hosts were some of the funniest, friendliest, and most generous people we have ever met, and were always ready to answer our endless questions and let us be involved in the many parts of their life which were brand-new to us. Our new experiences started our first night there, when one of the cats (Pelulita, who looks exactly like a long-haired Bria!) started giving birth on the kitchen floor as we were finishing dinner. And so began our month of learning!

Our time on this farm could also be called “The month of babies.” My sister’s first baby was due mid-November but decided to be two weeks late. Since we could only make the trek into town once a week (town being a 4h walk from our farm), these two weeks saw us eagerly anticipating our Thursday town days, where we would impatiently check our email for news from home. While we were waiting for my sister’s baby to be born, the farm had all kinds of other babies to distract us!

Baby lamb born our first day there:

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¡Gatitos! (I took just a few pictures of these ridiculously adorable things)
(editor’s note: when Sara says “just a few” regarding kittens, it usually means I had to drag her away from them to do simple things like eating, etc.)

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Yami

And our niece Cedar Smid was finally born on November 27, 8:05 pm. 🙂

Tent within a tent:
We’ve spent most of the last three months living in our tent, but never before has our tent had a tent of its own! We used our hosts’ tent for storage and living space, and our own little tent for bug protection, with the end result being a luxurious tent castle!

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Milking the goats:
This milk would be carried up to the house, and immediately heated up for our morning café con leche. The remainder would be poured into a massive pot, and by nighttime, there would be four new jars of dulce de leche.

Shearing the sheep:
After he had matter-of-factly sheared one sheep, our host then turned to us and gave us the shears. “You saw what I did, right? Shear this one now.”
Um… Sure?
Shearing a sheep, for the record, is much harder than an expert demonstration makes it appear. Sheep are huge, their wool is endlessly thick, and they don’t always appreciate you sliding sharp things along their legs, so they tend to kick you unless you lie down on top of them and pin them to the ground. As I was doing so, our host tapped me on the shoulder.
“It’s your turn for mate!” he announced.
So, like any good Argentine farmer, I had my mate lying atop a sheep.

Very efficient shearing (and poor baby lamb trying to nurse!)
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Team-effort shearing!
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Our gracious hosts 🙂
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The car/Getting to town:
I put those as two separate things because being in the car did not necessarily mean you would get to town. Their car was a 1979 Renault… or at least what was left of a 1979 Renault. There was no floor (only milk crates to keep rocks from flying in), no dashboard, and no ignition – it was started by jimmying the engine with a wrench. (We’re not quite sure of the mechanics of this. Our host merely shouted the word “¡Pistón!” and proceeded to punch the air by way of explanation.) The car, shockingly enough, broke down the second week we were there, which meant getting to town was accomplished by walking (25K) and/or hitchhiking if we were lucky.

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Getting towed by a kindly neighbour after the car broke down on the way up the mountain:
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Hitchhiking!
We got picked up by many kind and/or interesting characters, but the most memorable was definitely when Josh and I were walking to town a few weeks ago, melting in the heat because we had left way too late in the day, and we finally got a truck to stop. In the truck cab was crammed a grandfather, his son, and his grandson, and as thankful as I was to have a ride out of the heat, I could not imagine where we would fit. I didn’t have to wonder for long: they pulled back the canvas of the truck bed and ushered us in to sit amongst huge bags of animal feed. Bumping along the dusty mountain road in the back of the feed truck, we felt like maybe all our fantastical visions of travel in Argentina hadn’t been too far off the mark! 😛

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La salita de salud (“The little health centre”):
Our hosts were so awesome that we not only got to share their home life with them, but one day, our host took us to work with him as well! Partly to earn money for equipment needed on his farm, and partly because healthcare has always fascinated him, our host got a job as a health care worker in the rural areas around El Bolsón.
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At home, when we go to a doctor’s appointment, we go to the reception desk, give our name, sit reading terrible magazines in the waiting room until our name is called, see our doctor alone in their office, then leave. Here, when people showed up to the centre, they were enthusiastically kissed by our host, the doctor, and us random Canadians, then were invited to sit and have a mate in the waiting room. The doctor passed around the cake she had baked, and we all chatted about their families and health concerns and plans for the week. After about twenty minutes, the doctor invited then into the tiny examining room, and their “appointment” continued, with one of us popping our head in to pass the doctor the mate.

In the waiting room:
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In the afternoon, we accompanied our host house to house, where he distributed medication and took blood pressure, while we watched tv with the “patient”‘s great-grandkids. It was amazing to see our host doing a job so very different from herding sheep, but so equally suited to his gifts and personality.

Digging and digging and digging and hauling and hauling and hauling…
While we’ve both done physical labour, at least to some extent, there has never been such a crucial purpose for work before! We spent several days building a wall out of cement and rocks to prevent dogs and foxes from getting into the chicken coop, and several more days digging multiple kilometers of sanja (trench) to bury the water hose leading from the spring to keep it from freezing in winter.

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Josue macho man

Sheep-slaughtering and butchering:
One day, Josh and I returned from digging trenches to find a sheep hanging by its foot on a hook, completely devoid of its skin. “I wanted some meat!” announced our host, who then proceeded to saw off the head of the sheep (still sporting bared teeth and a head of hair) and throw it into a soup pot already filled with an assortment of lungs and intestines (the dogs were VERY happy with their dinner that night!) Our host then slung the sheep carcass over his shoulder, told Josh to grab the liver, and carried it all into the house, where him and Josh then butchered the sheep on the kitchen counter. See “¡Feliz cumpleaños!” for a description of how that meat was used! 🙂
Also: liverwurst from a store = disgusting. Homemade pate = amazingly delicious.

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Impatient kittens...

Cooking without recipes on a wood stove:
It was amazing to see how something that is such an occasion at home (ie. baking homemade bread) was something that was accomplished without fanfare every day. Here’s Josh receiving instructions – mas o menos – on how to bake bread.
“So, how much flour?”
¡Bastante! (“Enough!”)
“And… Yeast?”
Bastante.”
“Water?”
Bastante.”
Etc… 🙂

Having floury hands is no excuse for missing a mate:
The baker's mate

Jewelry-making:
One of our hosts made jewelry and sold it at the feria (artisanal fair) in El Bolsón. It was so fun to come inside the house and hear her upstairs, sawing and welding silver pieces, and then go visit the feria on our days off and feel truly part of the town since we actually knew people at the fair!

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It was incredibly hard to leave this farm, since it was not only a beautiful place with so much to learn, but we became such good friends with our hosts as well.

A nuestros anfitriónes: ¡MUCHISIMAS GRACIAS! por su generosidad, tu amistad, y por todas las “experiencias nuevas” 😛 ps. Da abrazos a los gatitos para mi 🙂

¡Feliz cumpleaños!

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Birthdays are always exciting (so much so that I usually try to claim an entire birthday week to celebrate!) but this year, being several continents away from home lent an extra-special air to each of our birthdays.

November 03: ¡Feliz cumple JOSUÉ!
Josh’s birthday took place in Antarctica.

I feel like little more needs to be said about why it was amazing.

However! While any birthday (/any day at all) spent in Antarctica is guaranteed to be absolutely incredible and unique and mind-blowing, Josh’s birthday managed to be even more eventful than expected. His birthday celebration actually started on November 01 (two days before his actual birthday), when all the lights went off in the dining room and Hector the chef walked in carrying a blazing cake and singing happy birthday.

My first reaction was one of panic – I had been planning to talk to the kitchen the next day to see if they could arrange a special dessert or at least find a candle to stick in Josh’s dinner. Now, someone had beaten me to it… and they were two days early!

Josh’s reaction was one of bemusement – it wasn’t even his birthday, but everyone was urging him to blow the candles out, so he did.

“¡Feliz cumpleaños, Stefan!” beamed Hector.

“Stefan?” questioned a startled Josh.

“Um… It’s actually my birthday,” said a confused voice from the other corner of the dining room.

What are the odds of two twenty-something, shaggy-headed guys wearing white toques, with birthdays two days apart, both being on the same boat to Antarctica? Apparently once you’re in Antarctica, anything is possible! 🙂

We had to spend the next two days trying to convince people who jokingly wished Josh a happy birthday that his birthday really was coming up! Josh’s actual birthday was spent cruising fields of icebergs in the zodiacs and exploring Neko Harbour, home to an old emergency supply hut that is now overrun by a colony of curious Gentoo penguins.

Zodiac exploration:
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Our snow penguin:
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Gentoo penguins:
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That evening, we were eating dinner when, surprise! The lights went out and there was Hector, bearing another cake, this one, finally, with Josh’s name written on it!
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December 05: ¡Feliz cumple SARA!
When we were trying to plan our trip to Antarctica, we had two possibilities: we could either plan to celebrate Josh’s birthday in the white continent, or mine. We agreed that the November trip worked better… But I warned Josh that the standard was now set pretty high for my birthday! 😛

As always, my amazing husband did not disappoint! I was woken up at 6am (it was still a workday, sigh!) on the morning of my 24th birthday by Switchfoot’s “24” playing in the tent, which was decorated with streamers and balloons. As it happened, both our hosts had to go to town for the morning, so we had the house to ourselves as we worked, meaning that after weeks of very fun but unfamiliar Argentine punk music, we finally got to play U2 at full volume! Having a house to ourselves for the morning was maybe the best present I could have asked for: I absolutely loved our hosts, but you don’t realize how much you appreciate being able cook for yourself until you haven’t had your own kitchen for three months! My 24th birthday marked the occasion of me making my first mate, as well as cooking my first meal over a wood-stove (risotto – needs tweaking, but wasn’t too bad!)

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When our hosts returned home, I showed them Josh’s present to me, which was a pair of beautiful Mapuche earrings handmade by one of our host’s friends. But my birthday surprises still weren’t done: our host then gave me a necklace she had designed and made for me. It turned out Josh had gone to buy a necklace from her for my birthday, but she was already planning to make one for me specially, so she told him to go find something else! 🙂

Beautiful jewelry and kittens… What better birthday presents could there be?!
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We then saw our other host dragging a huge pile of firewood to the back of the house, which then was transformed into a huge roaring bonfire, which soon became a huge asado of Patagonico corderito (“lamb from Patagonia” aka world famous BBQ), which we had watched him slaughter the day before. For my birthday dinner, they cooked the lomo (tenderloin), which is ¡el parte más rico del animal! (the most delicious part of the animal!) We stood around eating lomo with our fingers until it grew dark, at which point our host brought out the nuez y dulce de leche cake she had baked for me.

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For lack of a candle, they had me blow out the burning end of a massive piece of firewood. Around 3am, we all finally stumbled off to bed.

It definitely wasn’t the same as celebrating at home, and all our lovely family and friends were definitely missed. But our birthdays this year were definitely very happy! 😀