Passengers in this week’s entry have trotted the globe. One of them touts the benefits of solo traveling. Another recounts his experience eating momos while living in Bhutan, a little-known country in Asia with the world’s lowest carbon footprint and a population smaller than that of San Francisco’s.
Driving a Chilean woman to the airport for her flight to Santiago spurred recollections of my own time there back in 2013 eating delicious pastel de choclo and watching stray dogs be treated like royalty.
A college kid with a sun-burned, self-professed Elmo face recounts the highlights of his cross-country road trip (which included an artist’s colony in New Mexico and an 1800s western bar in Texas that still had bullet holes in the wall from the days of yore).
Still others were putting on explorers’ boots and tourist glasses in their very own hometowns.
It may not be safe to hop on board a plane just yet but in the meantime, read on to travel to some exotic places without leaving your seat.
A passenger headed to the airport to visit her family in Chile has me reminiscing on my own travels there in 2013.
“My mom makes the best pastel de choclo,” Marie says, her voice filled with with anticipatory excitement.
I hold fond memories of pastel de choclo, one of Chile’s traditional dishes. Basically a big bowl of cornbread stuffed with raisins, meat, dates, a bit of sugar, and hard-boiled egg, pastel de choclo quickly rose to the top of my list of favorite Chilean foods– the perfect union between sweet and savory. Marie will eat pastel de choclo with her parents alongside terrimotos, the standard cocktail of Chile that consists of pineapple ice cream blended with sweet white wine and fernet. Like the earthquakes (“terrimoto” being the Spanish word for them), the terrimoto drink is strong.
I tell Marie what I loved about Santiago: how the hills and mountains surrounding the city provide a respite for the eyes. Seeing kids splash around in the fountains (public bathing in parks and squares is legal in Chile). How the city takes good care of its its stray dogs (referred to as “quiltros”). Step foot into a park and you’ll likely find a few sleeping inside one of several public doghouses, while others feast on food offered up to them by adoring locals.
I once saw a woman give a dog a five-course meal on a series of paper plates. The pooch dove right in for the ham, using his snout to push aside the bread slices before scarfing the meat in two bites. Next he snouted his way through the salad, neglecting the lettuce in favor of the onion slivers, and finally moving on to experimentation with the tomato— which involved a tentative initial bite at its less liquidy perimeter followed by a progression towards its juicier innards.
After a few more exploratory snout nudges, he wagged his tail and bounded off, likely in pursuit of the next round of gustatory explorations—which in Santiago, he could rest assured would not be too hard to find.
Marie looks forward to spending time in the nearby artsy neighborhood of Bella Vista, where several of her friends live and where colorful murals of subjects ranging from snowy white tigers against a teal backdrop, to tribal flame-throwers against a black and orange background beautify the walls.
World traveler, but also sort of not
“My job as a conductor has me traveling a lot. My passport has over 43 countries on it this year–but I didn’t have much time to explore them,” lamented Mark, a bearded fellow with glasses who exuded an instant air of sophistication when I picked him up outside a sushi restaurant in the Inner Sunset district of San Francisco.
“I can tell you in-depth about the hotel room I stayed in or the music hall. But as far as the country itself, I could only fill a post-it note with my impressions. There’s just never enough time on those trips. Conducting is time-consuming and all-encompassing.”
Bhutan and Uruguay
Brown hair tied back in a ponytail, torso snugly blanketed by a black sweater-shirt, passenger Simon reflects on his experiences living in Bhutan, a little-known country in Asia whose population is smaller than San Francisco’s.
“They have the world’s lowest carbon footprint, so it was suuper green and super serene,” he says in a calmly reverent voice.
He asks me if I’ve lived anywhere cool, and I tell him about having taught English in Uruguay for fourteen months back 2013.
“Uruguay, shit! They’ve got that awesome president.He’s like the poorest leader in the world, I read somewhere. Don’t he and his wife grow flowers and sell them for a living?”
“They do!” I confirm excitedly.
“What a cool guy.”
We get to comparing Uruguayan and Bhutanese cuisines. After Simon tells me that Bhutan uses a lot of spice in their food, I share with him that Uruguayans react in terror to the slightest drop of Tapatio.
“They use entire chili peppers,” he explains. “The size of green beans. WHOLE lot of spice.”
“A Uruguayan’s worst nightmare,” I reply.
I drop him off in front of his school, where he’s studying to become a psychologist. His movements from the car to the building match his speaking cadence: slow, gentle, and methodical.
The benefits of solo traveling
“I noticed a seagull picking meat out of a crab carcass– his evening feast. You had to look closely to tell that that’s what he was doing. I wouldn’t have noticed it had I been with a group of friends. I observe more details when I’m alone. I think careful observation requires silence sometimes.”
-Female POC passenger in her mid 20s. I relate to this, as someone who also enjoys taking solo trips.
Road Trip Across the USA
“My face is hell of red right now,” were Toby’s first words to me as he got into the car. He’d forgotten to apply sunscreen while on a snowboarding trip with his friends that weekend, and now his face suffered the consequences. After getting that disclaimer out of the way, he put his seatbelt on over his navy green hoody, and our ride began.
As we drove I learned he was a student at UC Berkeley whose home town was Raleigh, North Carolina. A couple years ago he’d taken a road trip from there to California with the woman who’d been his fiancé at the time.
“Which was awesome,” he exclaimed, “because the South in general really just has a lot of sweet hidden gems that no one thinks of visiting.”
Among those gems were a town in Texas that he’d forgotten the name of but described as “super old school,” with a single main road that looked to be straight out of a western movie; Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, where cajun and creole eateries abounded; and Taos, New Mexico, a town with fresh mountain air and extensive Native American history, located about one hour outside of Santa Fe.
“This bar we went inside, they told us it was over 150 years old, even had gunshots in the walls from way back then,” he excitedly remarked of the ‘old school’ Texas town.
He also spoke with passion about Taos: “Total artistic vibe down there, just full of artists living inside adobe structures. They’ve been forming colonies since 1899. Some of their studios have been preserved since then.”
Though settled into school for now, Toby’s travel palate had yet to be sated. On his next trip he planned to head through Denver and Salt Lake City, then up north into Canada.
After we reached his destination and he’d thanked me for the ride, he announced he was about to “go dunk his face in a bucket of aloe vera now.”
His saying this for some reason conjured an image of Slime Time Live, the 1990s Nickelodeon show where green slime rains down on participants, submerging their entire face and body. Maybe because both are gooey substances?
I laughed and Toby asked why, so I told him– and he exclaimed that he’d loved the show as a kid. Later that night I found an old clip of it on Youtube and wondered if, like aloe vera, the slime had a soothing, cleansing effect on the skin. Or was it sticky and unpleasant?
Googling gave me an answer. According to delish.com, “The slime is simply a mix of vanilla pudding, apple sauce, green food coloring and a little oatmeal.”
Applying a tourist’s mindset in one’s own hometown
“Sometimes it’s harder to notice a place you think you know well; your eyes glide over it, seeing it but not seeing it at all. It’s almost as if familiarity gives you a kind of temporary blindness,” writes Susan Orlean, author of The Library.
Passenger Sydney was challenging that temporary blindness and pushing herself to explore familiar surroundings she’d previously overlooked. The other day she’d gone to Sutter’s Fort, a place she never even knew existed in her home city of Sacramento.
“Until I actually have enough money to travel, I’ll start here,” she said.
Advice for traveling in Egypt
“The two important things I learned: don’t ever get tear-gased if you can help it, and I’m a foot taller than most Egyptians.”
— A woman passenger’s takeaway from her trip to Egypt (she went during some kind of riot I’m guessing?)
Excursions through Mexico
I picked up Marcos, Linda, and Jesus– a jovial, cheery group of Latino-American 20-somethings, in front of a bar in downtown Menlo Park. They were now headed to their next “boozing up” spot.
Not long into the ride, Jesus (seated in the front) and I got to talking about the different places we’ve lived in throughout our lives.
“I lived in Mexico for two years,” he said. “Had a grandma down there with dementia, so I was helping out. She had forgotten who everyone was.”
After his grandmother passed away, Jesus traveled all around Mexico. While in Oaxaca he worked for a month in construction, which he described as “really intense work.” His travels eventually took him all the way down to the south of the country, where he taught English to elementary school kids.
“Think I’ve gotten all the wanderlust out of my system, for now at least,” Jesus said. “I’m ready to start anew here and settle down, plant some roots.”
He’d had a girlfriend for a year and was taking classes to become a physical therapist–work he’d chosen as much for the job’s high projected growth as for his interest in it.
In the meantime, he was working part-time for Google directing the white buses.
“I’m the one who takes the calls in the morning from the angry techies asking where their bus is. So the work’s not anything I’m too psyched about. But, it pays the bills ’til I can finally do what I really want.”
“Thanks for drivin’ our drunk asses!” Jesus’ friend slurred to me at the end of the ride. “We don’t do this every night, just so you know. Tonight’s special though, we’re celebrating this guy’s birthday,” he said, gesturing to Jesus.
“A week late. Because these fools forgot,” Jesus quipped back.
#LyftDream: A Fiasco in Uruguay
**The #LyftDream series recounts some of the wackiest night-time cinemas concocted by my mind that involve driving Lyft.
I’m driving Lyft down in Uruguay, the country I lived in for 14 months from 2013 to 2014.
Streets that years ago I traversed on foot and by bike, I now witness as a LYFT driver from the vantage point of inside my Toyota Corolla.
One passenger eats from a tub of dulce de leche, rubbing his hands on my glove compartment and leaving traces of it behind as we drive past the coffeeshop Yenny, where cafe-goers can choose from hundreds of books to flip through while enjoying a strong espresso and watching the waves through the expansive floor-to-ceiling window.
Another passenger is headed to the Sunday tambores drum festival, where a giant mass of people, some dwarfed next to their large drums, others dancing while gulping from enormous bottles of Stella beer, proceed slowly and deliberately on foot down streets of colonial style-buildings covered in bizarrely imaginative graffiti art.
In one, an elephant showers a woman with his trunk. In another, a message grafiti-ed in Spanish says, “Yo tampoco se como vivir…estoy improvisando” (“I don´t know how to live either…I´m improvising just like you.”) Dogs chase soccer balls next to them. The rhythm and energy of this environment overtake the cumbersome thoughts in my mind.
A third passenger wants to be taken to one of Montevideo’s many farmers markets, or the Feria as they call them, where fruits of vivid colors spill from wooden crates next to vegetables glowing bright beneath the sun. Cats nap under the shaded tables.
It’s after dropping this passenger off that I begin to encounter trouble; all the roads seem to be blocked off. Every turn I make elicits angry honking or wild gesticulations from the surrounding drivers.
Driving down here is hard, I start to realize.
Somewhere in my efforts to turn around after encountering a closed-off road, I lose control of the steering wheel, which sends my car and me barreling down the streets in somersaults before finally landing in the Rio de la Plata (Montevideo’s river beach).
Once we’ve come to a full stop, I look up to see a group of gawking Uruguayans gathered around my demolished car.
One, his eyebrows furrowed and lips turned downwards into a frown, mumbles admonishingly, “Es por eso que no deberiamos dejar que los gringos manejen aqui”(“This is why we shouldn’t let gringos drive down here”).
My alarm rescues me from the hassle and financial fallout of filing an accident claim in a foreign country wherein I am not insured.
*Check back next week for more Lyft stories!