Natalie Jing Ma is a biotechnologist and hapa from a loving Michigander mother and Chinese father. She spent her childhood running wild and free, picking up bugs and hanging out in nature (and maybe eating dirt). After participating in the American Legion Youth Environmental Leadership Program, she pursued Environmental Science and Conservation Biology at UCLA, where she studied how plants and bacteria help each other grow and marine biological diversity in Mo'orea. To pursue biological solutions for the environmental problems she studied, Natalie then pursued a PhD at Yale University in synthetic biology. Working under Dr. Farren Isaacs, she studied the "Jurassic Park" problem of engineered organisms potentially escaping their confines and created biological safety mechanisms to address these problems.
When not studying science, Natalie can be found cooking, baking, photographing nature, or dreaming up the future. She loves public speaking, science communication, and the future of space travel. Her favorite animals are the jumping spiders of the family Salticidae.
The La Cigale Farmer’s Market is our first stop in Auckland – literally. With our Airbnb host at work until 5 pm, we’ve got nowhere to go and four hours after hitting the tarmac we’re walking up the steep streets of Parnell toward the market site.
We haven’t been to a farmer’s market since we left the U.S., at least not as most people in the developed western world would imagine them. There are countless markets in South America where farmers bring their produce for sale, and we’ve wandered such markets in countries from Costa Rica to Chile. But in South America they were just called markets, and it’s not where you went every Saturday morning with baby and stroller in tow, it’s where you got food to make meals for your family or customers in your restaurant. That often meant you weren’t buying just one carrot, but one hundred.
That’s a bit rough when you’re only in a place for a week at a time, but finding fresh produce at local mom-and-pop shops was also less of a problem. Here in Auckland, we’re back in the world of supermarkets, with their thousand-mile-travelled veggies that look a bit past their prime. And for most of us living in cities in the Western world, that’s where farmer’s markets fill the gap. Fresher food from nearer places and friendly people happy to chat as much as make a sale, all for a moderate premium on price. Oh, and pastries astronomically better than you’d find at any supermarket.
Did I mention that moderate price premium? At the end of three hours we’ve spent $55 NZD, which is about $40 USD and more than double our daily food budget through most of South America. Traveling in New Zealand will take some adjusting.
New Zealand got off to a pretty rocky start for us. We arrived exhausted from our travels, and we hit our first snag at immigration. We figured we’d rent a car and drive around the country’s North Island for a couple of weeks, then head on to Australia, but the last few days in Chile were so hectic that we hadn’t yet been able to fully plan it.
Our mistake was mentioning that to the immigration agent upon entry. She asked what we were going to see and misunderstanding it for polite banter, we answered that we weren’t sure yet. She paused, and then asked what we were doing here then. “We’re here to visit New Zealand,” I replied. “And you don’t have your trip planned?” she asked with suspicion. I realized she was evaluating us as visa overstay risk, and I wanted to respond with “Look, I’m sure your country is nice, but we really don’t want to be here for more than a couple of weeks, lest I go insane from an overdose of pastoral scenery.”
But you don’t say that to an immigration agent. Instead I told her with an exhausted sigh, “Look, we have a rough plan. We’re going to rent a car and drive around the North Island for two or three weeks. Then we’re going on to Australia. Did you want me to write out our rough itinerary?” “No, it’s fine,” she said. She stamped our passports and handed them back. “Most people arrive with a more detailed itinerary,” she added. Ouch.*
Eager to put the immigration agent behind us, we moved on to customs where we stood in line to declare that we had a tent. Most countries in the world take customs and introduction of invasive species seriously, but New Zealand takes this stuff very seriously. If you’ve got a tent or camping equipment that may have dirt on it, they ask that you declare it at customs so they can perform an examination and cleaning. When we got to the front, we opened our bag and pulled out or camping equipment, which all passed inspection as dirt-free. Our tent was the only thing that needed cleaning.
The customs agent took our tent, tagged it, and handed us a paper. “Go through the exit, then wait at the window outside. We’ll call the number on your tag when we’re done cleaning it.” That seemed super nice of them, and although we knew it was in New Zealand’s best interests to do these cleanings, I also appreciated it. “Wow, it’s so nice you give free tent cleanings,” I said cheerfully, “Thank you.” The agent didn’t smile or look up. “But it’s not free. It’s us taxpayers that pay for it, but really we should be charging you,” he replied. I didn’t try to make conversation again after that.
Everyone else at the airport following these interactions was absolutely lovely. A whole team of airport employees, including a couple of off-duty customs agents, helped us find some important medical documents we forgot while moving through customs. The young Maori guy who sold us bus tickets to get to the city had a warm smile and a great sense of humor. And our bus driver was the sweetest guy, making sure everyone got off at the stop they needed. But it’s hard to forget first impressions, and after all of the hype around New Zealand as one of the friendliest places on Earth, it was a surprise to find that not everyone here is friendly after all.
* I have since found a much easier way to handle immigration agents, whose primary goals are to determine if you’re a threat to their country or a visa overstay risk: tell them you’re on a trip around the world, and list a few countries you’ve been to and where you’ll go next. This gives them both the reason you’re visiting their country and confirmation that you’ll be leaving for a subsequent destination (assumedly before your visa expires). They’re also usually tickled by the idea of meeting a round-the-world traveler, so it spices up their day.
It’s time for us to say goodbye to the American continent and move on to New Zealand! While there are plenty of flights to Auckland from the U.S., there are fewer from South America and they’re far more expensive. When we booked our tickets from Santiago to Auckland, they cost a jaw-dropping $1,500 per person. Our only consolation was we paid for most of it with credit card points, leaving only $1,000 for us to pay in cash.
Our flight isn’t straightforward, either. We must first fly from Santiago to the Buenos Aires airport of Aeroparque Jorge Newbery (AEP) via Aerolineas Argentinas. We then have four hours to collect our baggage, take the bus across the city to Ministro Pistarini International Airport (EZE), and check in with Air New Zealand. Thirteen hours and a hop over the international dateline later, we should be in New Zealand.
The bus to Santiago’s airport is a breeze, and we arrive at the airport ready for our day of plane scramble. When we check in with Aerolinas Argentinas we get a free upgrade to seats with more legroom. That’s awesome for me, but for Stoytcho it’s a near-necessity; his 6’4” self doesn’t fit well into most airline seats, and we’ve had more than one passenger in front of him become angry when they realize they can’t recline an inch.
Despite having only a couple of hours on this flight, we get a snack of ham-and-cheese sandwiches and an alfajor for free. This is somehow even better than flying JetBlue, and I find myself wishing that flights in the U.S. were as nice as this.
Two hours after takeoff, we’re down on the tarmac in Buenos Aires for our shortest visit to a country yet: we have a mere four hours in Argentina and with traffic still dodgy from rush hour, we have zero time to explore. We head downstairs to look for transit to EZE and I notice a sign proclaiming 50% off of the TiendaLeon airport transfer bus for Aerolinas Argentinas passengers. We ask the TiendaLeon attendant if that applies to us, and she nods. SCORE! It saves us $10, or a meal for the two of us.
We pile on to the bus with our huge backpacks and settle in for the hourlong ride across Buenos Aires, the city we’ll only see through a bus window. It’s already night, but as we roll along we can make out huge cranes resting on the waterfront, parts of new construction zones, and new highrises. We pass several modern gastropubs and a brewery. As we veer away from the waterfront, we pass older buildings, more decrepit with peeling paint for skin and wildly askew antennae for hair. Like everywhere we’ve seen, there’s a distinct upper and lower class here.
Though we arrive at EZE with more than two hours to spare, we experience a brief moment of panic when we encounter the chaos of the airport. There’s a huge hangup in immigration to exit the country, with lines stretching for hundreds of feet. We’re worried at first that we won’t make our flight, but after thirty minutes of shuffling along in line we approach the front and get the Argentinian exit stamp in our passports. In and out the same day, in less than four hours. Argentina, we’ll have to come back for you.
Now we face the long leg of our trip: the 13-hour flight to New Zealand. It’s bad enough that it’s the last part of our trip (somehow, a long stretch followed by short hops always feels better to me). But to make matters worse, the check-in attendant wouldn’t give us seats with extra legroom, citing company rules. She said our options were to either purchase a seat upgrade, or we could opt in to a new program that let us “buy” an empty seat next to us at a discount for our exclusive use. Both cost some absurd amount in the hundreds of dollars that we didn’t have, so we were stuck cramming Stoytcho into a standard airline seat.
There’s not much to say about a flight across the Pacific except that it’s long and unpleasant. As an overnighter, the cabin crew served us a meal and rushed to dim the lights and get us to sleep. We both slept a few hours, waking up with our necks twisted at odd angles or drooling onto the tray table. The woman in front of Stoytcho was not pleased about being unable to recline, and he acquired a couple of knee-bruises in her attempts. To add insult to injury, the entire emergency exit row a couple seats in front of us sat empty the entire flight. No one had ponied up the extra money for them, and we sat staring at the empty seats and resenting Air New Zealand. I know that “add ons” are the standard model for Western airlines and they argue that it makes economic sense, but after how much we already paid it just feels so bad.
Thirteen hours, some interrupted sleep, and several episodes of Planet Earth later, our plane lands and we stumble off into the New Zealand sunlight at a chipper 7:00 am. We’ve survived the discomforts and knee-assaults and we’ve made it to a new continent!
We’re supposed to rest and catch up on blog posts during our two days in Santiago, but it’s hard to work in a city when you haven’t seen any part of it. There are so many things we could be doing, seeing, being. So on our second day, we take the metro over to Los Dominicos, an old church that now serves as a site for an artisan craft village.
It’s a weekday, so the village is mostly quiet. When we walk in the front, we’re greeted by a flurry of wings and bird calls. This area of the village houses pet sellers and seems to specialize in birds of all kinds, from chickens to parakeets to peacocks.
Further in, craftwork stores appear and dominate the landscape. There are more than a dozen jewelry stores, sporting works of silver and selling Chile’s primary semiprecious stone, lapis lazuli. Though many of the pieces are mass-produced, several stores also sell unique handmade works. These stores always have a work area behind the display case or in the back of the shop, where the shopkeeper spends most of their day creating new pieces, looking up only when someone steps into their shop.
Beyond the prolific jewelry stores, there are stores dedicated to leather crafts, hand-knitted clothing and art, musical instruments, and the standard souvenirs. We pass a few shops selling toy llamas in all sizes. Stoytcho manages to buy a leather bracelet at one shop, adding to his increasing bracelet collection from South America. At the music shop, we find something we’ll have to come back for: a beautiful handmade charango. With ten strings in five pairs, it sings with the resonance of a mandolin at the register of a ukulele. But with its size and $250 price tag, we can’t afford to get it now.
Realistically, there isn’t much we can afford at Los Dominicos as backpackers. Santiago has costs very similar to a U.S. city, and it’s expensive for us to just sleep and eat here, leaving little to spend on local crafts. We’ll have to come back when we’ve got more money, when we’re not traveling on to the (expensive) countries of New Zealand and Australia.
But there is one thing we really do need: some kind of perfume. Repeated hand-washing never really gets all of the smell of sweat and skin and stains from our clothing, and after traveling for three months we’re acutely aware of how we must reek in comparison to your everyday person that has a stable place to live, to wash and dry clothes, and to change into more than two pairs of pants.
We travel through several stores looking for something that will act as perfume, but most sell only scented oil that would leave stains on our clothing. After a few hours, we finally come across a body care and soap shop, Regalos de Campo, and blissfully, they sell water based perfumes. They even have small bottles available! At least, the testers are small bottles. While we browse scents, we talk with the woman running the shop and explain why we need the perfume. We’ve got nine months left of travel around the, and we’re already stinky. It’s not getting any better, so we’re hoping to hide the funk with some lovely floral scents.
After perusing the perfumes, we pick out a couple that we like and ask the woman how much they’ll cost. To our surprise, she shakes her head–they don’t sell anything in the size of a tester! They only have large bottles, the kind we can’t take on flights and will be hard to carry in our packs. It’s unfortunate, but we’ll have to stay stinky.
As we turn to leave, the woman stops us. She gathers some of the testers from the shelf and hands them to us. “How much?” we ask her again, but she smiles and tells us not to worry about it. They’re gifts: regalos.
We were elated, and couldn’t thank her enough. It was such a random act of kindness, but it means that our future travels will be much more pleasant, for both ourselves and everyone around us.
P.S. We were so excited about this, I realize that now we forgot to take a picture of the perfumes. They’re still with us though (three continents later), so I’ll update this post when I get a photo.
It’s been a mad dash to reach Santiago in time for our flight, and we’ve arrived with only two days to spend in Chile’s capital. This means we don’t have much to share with you from Santiago, BUT we did find these two culinary gems to share with you:
Here is THE MEAT of Chile, a heavy semi-shredded served up with fresh veggies and several spoonfuls of its own juice on a bun. Imagine making a hamburger but replace the ground meat patty with the most amazingly juicy pot roast you’ve ever had and you’ve got a good approximation.
These are expensive by our standards; two of these sandwiches cost about $15 USD, but we’re coming from three months of spending less than $10 for the two of us on meals.
They’re also insanely filling. I finished about two thirds of mine, while Stoytcho decided the bread was unnecessary and hacked it into less-photogenic bits:
We went back the next day (our last day in Santiago) for breakfast, but alas! The king of Mechada (Cafeteria Bam Bam) is only open for lunch and dinner. Next time, Mechada.
Craving your own carne mechada? I’ve found a recipe for you. Note that it requires some rather involved “stabbing the meat and shoving vegetables in it”, but that’s apparently how you make the true Chilean version of this dish.
Mote con huesillos
Fresh/homemade drinks are a big thing in South America, and here in Chile the made-to-order summer drink is Mote con huesillos. Sold by vendors on the street, the drink is a combination of mote (a local grain) and boiled dried peaches.
I can’t think of any similar drinks in the U.S., although the combination of a sweet drink with chewy bits reminds me of boba and bubble tea. While re-constituting dried peaches for the drink might seem odd, the really strange part of this drink is the mote. There’s no English equivalent for the grain, though the vendors explained it to us as “triga”, or wheat. But in actuality, it’s wheat boiled with lye, then rinsed and dried for sale. I learned all of this from this super-interesting analysis of the drink that winds through Mesoamerican history, nutrition, public health, and cooking; you should read it too.
Mote con huesillos vendors are out in force in the summer, and you probably won’t be able to walk a block without running into one. A mere USD $1.50 gets you a cup of the stuff, perfect for cutting the summer heat.
Want to make your own mote con huesillos? Here’s a recipe to try (Spanish). For a recipe in English (and the aforementioned fascinating tidbits on American history, nutrition, and culinary tradition), visit this page.
We left Arica last night on an overnight bus and though we have our bus routine down by now, we never get a fully restful sleep. When we arrive in Calama at 9 am, we stumble off the bus dazed. We’ve got only six hours before a flight from Calama to Santiago–an unfortunately already-booked holdover from when we originally planned to visit San Pedro de Atacama.
For most people, Calama is a stop along the way to the famed San Pedro de Atacama, so there isn’t much tourism infrastructure here. The town’s primary industry is copper mining and the metal appears everywhere, from embellishments in the sidewalk to souvenirs available in the shops. As a complement to copper’s reds, the sun’s rays here cast an intense orange hue over the desert town.
Here are the photos from our scarce six hours in Calama:
I’m not a huge fan of day tours, because it usually involves cramming as many things to see in as little time as possible with not much thought given tho how enjoyable it is. You spend the day piling into and spilling out of a van, while someone explains things to you that (for me at least) don’t have enough context rooted in the area for you to remember it. This isn’t a criticism of day tours from Arica specifically, but my view of day tours in general.
BUT these tours do make for some gorgeous picture opportunities. So here is the second half of our photos from our Arica day tour: