Food Poisoning: Living in Chile part 3

Well I suppose it was going to happen eventually. I’m definitely not the most sanitary person when it comes to food. I scrape mould off food instead of chucking it out and I also eat food I find in bins. So I was surprised when the food poisoning culprit came fresh from an actual shop!

The butcher down the road sells Prietas (Chilean blood sausage) locally sourced from a small-scale producer. Because it’s traditional Chilean food, I decided to give it a try. Now, blood sausage is not for the weak of stomach. As the name suggests, it has blood in it… So logically we decided to eat it with something else equally rough on the digestive tract – Puré Picante (spicy mash potato). A recipe for disaster (see what I did there?).

When I was in high school, one of my mates told me he liked to vomit apple juice, because it tastes the same on the way up as it does on the way down. The same principle does not apply to blood sausage and spicy mash. My throat and face hurt so much I thought my nose was going to fall off. Luckily, I only vomited continuously for 7 hours, so I didn’t have to go to hospital due to dehydration….

Now there’s stacks of info on the web about what to eat and drink when you are recovering from food poisoning. Obviously don’t hop back on the spicy food bandwagon straight away, avoid foods that are complex to digest like fibrous vegetables, and avoid acidic beverages such as coffee. Any of you who know me know I love all of those things so I’m sure you can imagine that I got pretty bored with soggy white rice and chamomile tea rather quickly.

Probably too quickly. 3 days later, having barely eaten anything since I’d been sick, I thought it’d be a great idea to devour a humongous bowl of Chilean-style chickpeas for lunch, which completely knocked me out (literally though, I passed out and slept for 3 hours. Longest ever siesta?) and I couldn’t eat again until the following day.

Of course I didn’t learn my lesson and proceeded to eat a sandwich containing mayo and avocado, not the lightest ingredients out there. Needless to say I felt like I had a giant rock in my stomach and once again I was out for the count. My boss called me a masochist. He’s probably right.

So just over a week later I’m back on the coffee, but still steering clear of the merquén (sad face). I guess things could have been a lot worse. The same guy who told me about the apple juice was once hospitalised with food poisoning which he contracted when he and his mate had a competition to see who could eat the most Chicken McNuggets. He should have sued, I reckon.


Language Barriers: success and failure, but mostly failure

Ick-bin-ein-BerlinerTo be fair, I couldn’t speak much Spanish when I left Australia, besides the standard, “hola”, “gracias”, “dónde está la biblioteca?” and “dame una cerveza”. But I since I arrived I have been pretty diligently studying what to say in situations such as going to the bank, the supermarket, the post office, ordering at a restaurant and many other encounters one would face on a daily or weekly basis when moving to another country, and then going out to practice said situations.

The most important lesson I’ve learned so far is that situations hardly ever play out like they do in the textbooks.

I went to the bank the other day to change my password so I could access my online banking. On the way there I practiced over and over “Hola, necesito cambiar mi clave para transfirir por internet” and the possible questions the banker could ask me which I’d neatly limited to: what’s your ID number; choose your new password; sign here; can I help you with anything else; and have a nice day. What could go wrong? José and I got to the counter, I said my line, and what followed was a stream of Spanish that I could not comprehend for the life of me. What was this guy saying? I admitted defeat and let José take the reins. When we left the bank, José told me the guy was trying to sell me insurance for 2 lucas per month because my account wasn’t secure enough and people could steal my money or something. They don’t prepare you for THAT in Spanish 101.

I’ve also found that if someone asks me something I’m not expecting to hear, then my brain doesn’t make the right connections and I don’t understand them, even if it’s the simplest of questions. José had previously told me not to worry about bringing my passport or ID to clubs and bars because no one asks for ID in Chile. Although I get carded all the time in Australia, I put that idea out of my mind and enjoyed being able to freely enter a venue without being hassled by security. On one occasion, we were buying supplies for an “asado” (BBQ) with some friends of José and I thought I’d chip in by buying a slab of beer. At the cash register I was expecting the formulaic interaction: how much does that cost? I would like to pay in cash. No, don’t give me more bloody plastic I brought my own, reusable, environmentally friendly bag with a picture of a cute animal hugging the earth on it, thank you very much… Here’s your receipt. But the first thing she asked me was “cuanto años tiene usted?” I was baffled. I had no idea what she was saying. She threw me off so badly I didn’t know what to do. So I did the worst possible thing I could do in such a situation: I ignored her completely. After a few seconds of me looking awkwardly through my purse, José once again came to the rescue and bought the beer for me. Afterwards, he told me she had wanted to know how old I was. How did I miss that? I thought. It’s the first damn thing they teach you in the text book!!!

One of the best experiences I’ve had in Chile so far was when I went to the post office to post some documents to Australia. I walked up to the counter and said (in Spanish of course):

“Hi, I’d like to post this to Australia, please”

“What are they?” the women at the teller asked.

“Documents” I replied, with confidence.

“Is the return address written on the envelope?” She inquired, obviously understanding me perfectly.

“Yes, right there” I pointed to the back of the envelope for dramatic effect. “How much does that cost?”

“6000 pesos for normal post which takes 10 days, or you can send it by express. Which would you prefer?” She asked. I sensed that she was challenging me, feeding me such a complex sentence with multiple parts. But I wasn’t fooled. I had this downpat!

“Normal, please, ten days is just fine.” I responded, trying not to sound too pleased with myself, but secretly floating on top of my narcissistic cloud of smug.

“Ok all done.”

“Thanks.” I left feeling like a king. One day I will be able to walk into a shop without dreading that the attendant might talk to me. But for now, it’s those little wins that make it all worth while.

The story of Quillagua: How mining destroyed this little desert oasis

Quillagua is a small oasis in the heart of the driest part of the Atacama desert. The Loa River that feeds through this town is the only flowing river for hundreds of kilometres. Until the 1980s Quillagua was an agricultural town with several hundred people living there. The townspeople prospered, as this was the only place suitable for agriculture in the area.

However, today agriculture is forbidden, abandoned farms and equipment lie rusting, falling apart, and only about 60 people remain in the town.


Walking through the town I passed two men drinking on the side of the road, and they began to speak with me. Seeing I was foreign one of them started to tell me about his life and the town when there was agriculture; a period he simply referred to as “before”. He told me of how happy everyone was, how the town thrived, that people gathered together in the streets to eat and celebrate regularly. You could see him really light up when he talked about it.

He told me how, now, everything’s different. He was crying when he told me how “the company” changed everything. People began to get sick. Then people started dying. This man, a stranger in the streets of Quillagua, fell apart, sobbing as he described how someone he loved collapsed right where we were standing. How he had to carry her lifeless body away…


In the 80s a government company called Codelco accidentally contaminated the Loa River with arsenic, upstream from Quillagua, poisoning the water. The company knew this was happening, but they kept it a secret, not wanting to take responsibility and absorb the cost of a clean up. The unsuspecting townspeople continued to drink the water and use it for agriculture. Soon enough, people began to fall ill, develop cancer and die. The contamination source was discovered and the government was forced to admit fault. Agriculture and water use from the river was banned. The company gave meagre compensation to the affected people, but no punishment was ever dealt to those responsible.

Arsenic levels remain high in the water and surrounding soils today. There are techniques to remove the poison, but Codelco, the top global producer of copper in Chile, claims the cost is too great.

Because for a mining company, even a government owned one, profit always comes first. Even if you have to kill an entire town in the process.


A Sharing Tradition

P1050734My favourite thing about food is sharing. Food is one of the few things that brings people together in this world. Everyone has to eat, and eating together is always better than eating alone. Some of my closest friendships were made over food and the diverse conversation the topic of food can ignite.

So I was delighted to discover the tradition of kefir sharing in Chile. Most of you, especially those of you swept up by the trendy, healthy lifestyle wave, will probably be familiar with kefir. You can buy it in health food shops or organic supermarkets in Sydney nowadays… if you’re willing to pay an arm and a leg. But for those who aren’t, kefir is a drink similar to yoghurt made from inoculating sheep, goat or cow milk with “kefir grains”; a wonderful symbiotic relationship between yeast and lactic acid bacteria. Studies show this is a drink packed with vitamins, minerals and probiotic goodies and it’s super easy to make. Kefir originated in Eastern Europe and potentially arrived in Chile with migrants from the Ottoman Empire. It is thought that traditionally people fermented kefir in skin sacks suspended in the door way so people would knock it when they walked through the door, keeping the grains and the milk well homogenised.


Here, kefir goes by the name of “pajaritos” meaning little birds. It’s common to see them fermenting on someone’s kitchen bench. Normally, if someone wants a starter, they’ll know someone who has, or knows someone else who has, a batch brewing they can get some from. These little beauties grow fast in hot weather, feeding off the sugars and other components in the milk. So in summer it’s common to have excess grains to give away. None of this overpriced, small-packaged nonsense in fancy, upper-class shops! Producers in Australia must be making a packet from those health-crazed Sydneysiders…

If you’re lucky enough to have your own batch of pajaritos, here’s some tips for keeping them healthy and some ideas for incorporating kefir into your day to day diet:

  • For best results and kefir health, ferment in a non-reactive container such as a glass (I have mine in an old jam jar) or ceramic. Same goes for when you are straining them; use a plastic sieve and spoon instead of metal.
  • Fermentation can take between 24 hours and several days depending on the temperature. If you keep it on the kitchen bench, leave it out of the sun to prevent drying and denaturing of the proteins. In summer in Santiago de Chile we’ve been averaging temperatures of 30 degrees so I’ve been straining the pajaritos almost every day, yielding a pretty decent daily supple of kefir. My digestive system is working a treat!
  • If you want to slow down the fermentation process, pop the batch in the fridge. Cooler temperatures result in slower reaction times. This is handy if you are going away for a weekend or your pajaritos are working faster than you can drink.
  • Kefir is suitable for people who are lactose intolerant. Because the bacteria is a lactic acid bacteria most of the lactose in the milk is broken down to lactic acid during the fermentation process. The yeast also converts some lactose to carbon dioxide and ethanol. No, you can’t get drunk off kefir; the ethanol content is usually less than 1 percent.
  • If you’re worried about fat content, have no fear. These guys will ferment full cream or reduced fat milk.
  • There are so many ways to use kefir in your daily diet. I keep stumbling on new recipes and ideas. Here are my favourites:
    • Great, cheap substitute for yoghurt to pour over cereal, fruit or in smoothies
    • Can be used in baking as a starter for sourdough bread or as a substitute for buttermilk (although it will result in a sourer flavour so keep this in mind if using as a substitute)
    • In salad dressings, in cold soups or to tenderise meat instead of yoghurt
    • If you are into soaking whole grains like oats and barley before eating, try soaking them in kefir instead of water. Kefir helps remove some of the phytic acid in these guys which potentially decreases mineral absorption during digestion.
    • Soaking muesli along with apple juice to make bircher
    • Or give your digestive system a morning kick start by drinking a glass of kefir straight up. If it’s too sour you can always add a teaspoon of honey to sweeten things up!

Most importantly, if you have a batch growing in your kitchen, share it with your friends and family! As a recently graduated student I can tell you that there’s nothing like free food. So spread some foodie love and let those pretty pajaritos fly!

Am I a cultured person: Living in Chile part 1

Moving to another country isn’t just about learning the language and how the taxation system works. You actually have to learn social interactions all over again. I feel like I’m in kindy and the teacher is telling me how to play nice with other kids. Except there is no teacher and I’m working it out on my own. Pretty much every day I learn something new through trial and error. But mostly error. Here are a couple of things I learnt about Chilean culture this month:

  1. Everything in Chile is small

Or so I thought. Chileans add the diminutive “-ito” to the end of pretty much every noun. The first time we went to markets to buy fruit and veg, José asked for a “kilito” of cherries. My inner nerd freaked out. How can you have a little kilo of something? It’s a standard measure of weight! And I really want a whole kilo of those cherries, they are so cheap and delicious….

José had to explain to me that, in Chile, everything is small.

For example instead of saying “jugo” (juice), a Chilean would say “jugito”. At first I was bewildered that everyone was offering me small-sized portions. Do they think I’m fat? I know I’m taller than most women here, but geez, gimme a regular-sized juice, please!

I still haven’t quite caught on.

  1. The equivalent of a handshake in Chile is a kissawkward-kiss-little-girl

I am not a shy person. I like to meet new people. I usually have something to say when I’m at a party and enjoy making friends. But since moving to Chile, there’s nothing I can think of that’s more intimidating. Whenever we go to a party I spend about a minute psyching myself up just to say hello.

Let me explain this transformation.

When saying hello to anyone it is customary, especially as a woman, to kiss them on the cheek. Not that this was big news to me, since it’s a pretty common cultural act around the world. However, I grew up in a country where people shake hands a metre apart. So no matter how aware I was of “the kiss” I still cannot get used to going to a party and KISSING EVERYONE. And not just at parties. Once we went to José’s mum’s office and I had to kiss every people in her department.

You may think I’m overreacting, but there is some serious skill involved here, one that I haven’t had the time to hone like everyone else in this country. Here are some ways a simple kiss on the cheek can go horribly wrong:

  • Both participants go in for “the kiss” the same way and you end up doing a Bollywood dance with your head in an effort not to kiss on the lips accidently
  • You go in too hard and end up jabbing them in the face with your nose. Not a good way of making friends, trust me
  • The first time I experienced “the kiss” I mistook it for a hug and the other person kissed me in the ear
  • Hand placement is important, people. A lot of hand-eye coordination is involved with this aspect of “the kiss”. Usually I go for the opposite shoulder to the cheek I’m aiming to kiss and, in my experience, they go for the waist. But I’ve had a few awkward hand-placement malfunctions when the other person went for the shoulder too and we ended up jabbing each other’s hands with our fingers.
  1. Complementing people’s jewellery, clothes etc. is not a good way of making small talk

Chilean mums keep giving me things. So far I have accumulated in gifts: 2 pairs of earrings; a t-shirt; a dress; and a jumper (almost). I’ve been here 3 weeks.

How? By complementing their stuff. Trying to make small talk with people you don’t know is a challenge for most people, let alone if you don’t speak the same language. My go-to polite conversation with new people in Australia has always been “Oh, those earrings are lovely!” followed by some chit chat on where they are from, made-of, signify, etc.

In Chile this tactic failed me. One of the first conversations I had with José’s mum was about how I thought her amber earrings were pretty. That was just about the limit of my Spanish at the time and I wanted to use it.

She gave them to me. Not the outcome I was expecting and a little embarrassing considering I’d just met her. I tried to refuse them but she wasn’t having any of that. Reluctantly I accepted them, thanked her profusely and made a point of wearing them out to dinner.

Maybe I’m one of those people that just never learns. A couple of weeks later we went to José’s mate’s birthday party. All his family was there. Once again, I tried my “fool proof” small talk tactic on his mum. Literally the first thing I said to her after “hola” and “nice to meet you” was “lovely earrings”. It was met with “here have them, I’ve got lots”. I now have a beautiful set of evil eye earrings.

Am I a horrible person? Am I exploiting the people of the developing world, like so many whiteys before me? To be fair, it probably wasn’t very hard for the Spaniards to conquer that part of the world. I’m guessing it went something like this:

Spaniard: I like your gold, it’s really pretty.

El dorado-ian: Seriously? You’re so sweet. Here, have it. I’ve got plenty.

Spaniard: Oh well in that case, I love your land. It’s so lush and abundant.

El dorado-ian: Ah well, um, here, take it.

Spaniard: Don’t mind if I do. Here, have some small pox. Token of my gratitude.

I think I’ll just stick with the weather from now on.