I am on holiday. An actual, proper, holiday.

Not a trip to see relatives that involves traveling the length and breadth of the entire country five times in three weeks. Not a day off to see the city on the day no-one I know is presenting at a conference. Not an exhausted and guilt ridden afternoon out from field work, where you finally go visit that great big tourist attraction in the center of town everyone assumes you’ve already seen 6 months ago, because you’re obviously just here on permanent vacation for a year, right?

No, I am finally on an actual proper holiday for three weeks, and have refused to do any work whatsoever. Bring on the cocktails, the enormous meals, the frivolous shopping trips and the trashy trashy novels! Hurray!!

Its also great to see my friend Carly, whose house I Paraguay I am spending these weeks lounging about it. Given that both of us are stranded in this part of the world together over the festive season, we made a plan a few months back to spend Christmas and New Year together. Its wonderful to finally have someone to talk about my work with, who knows my project well and is great at giving both insight and encouragement. Carly also has the knack when it comes to persuading me I really do need to buy myself a very expensive pair of gorgeous 6 inch high heels to show off my new bright red pedicure. I’ll be taking a splash of Paraguayan va-va-voom back to Germanic Santiago with me after all.

Carly is doing fieldwork in Ciudad del Este, on the border of Brazil and Argentina, and has a wonderfully homey apartment here that’s a lovely relief after my somewhat spartan rented room in Chile. We decided to spend the week of Christmas here and the New Year on a beach in Brazil. The original plan had been to spend the whole time on the beach, but we eventually decided it would be more fun to take advantage of her apartment to cook an enormous and extravagant christmas dinner, and of course indulge in the most glitzy, tacky, over the top christmas tree we could muster. Although I really can’t get used to the idea of a summer christmas being “really” christmas, the sheer quantity of glittery bling we have smothered this apartment in helps get us half the way there. I’m a particular fan of the neon pink “present” tree ornaments, that have holograms of kittens in santa hats on them. Carly is more enamored of the shiny plastic champagne bottles ornaments, that are testing the strength of our poor bedraggled plastic christmas tree to the limit. (It was the last one left in the discount store on christmas eve, and it looks it.) We’ll be finding glitter in our hair for months to come.

I’ve never been to Paraguay before, so its been great to get to know it through Carly, whose detailed knowledge and experience of the city is testament to her skills as an ethnographer. After the subdued urban chic of Santiago, Ciudad del Este reminds me a lot more of my experiences in Peru or Bolivia, but not so much it feels familiar. For a start, the heat and humidity are overwhelming, as are the intense colours: the thick vegetation that smothers the city in lush greens; the rich red earth that seems to be seeping out of every crack in the pavement, sticking to your clothes and skin to follow you into the house. Plus Carly has the most fantastically bright yellow VW beetle that has a habit of breaking down in odd places, adding its own rather inconvenient splash of sunshine yellow to the landscape.

Paraguay is one of the few countries in South America where the entire population are bilingual in both Spanish and the indigenous language, Guaraní. Everyone from the president to the kids on the street speak both languages, code switching back and forth between them all the time. While other countries like Bolivia have large proportions of the population who are bilingual, its always the case that Spanish is the dominant language of power and elitism. That just everyone here is bilingual is remarkable. Not to mention that most people in Cuidad del Este are also fluent in Portuguese, because of the constant movement over the border to Brazil, and many also have some Arabic and/or Chinese because of the very large populations of migrants who have become permanent and prominent parts of the city. Talking to one of Carly’s friends last night, who speaks Guaraní, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Japanese and a little German and Italian, I felt really very ashamed of my ungainly Spanish.

There is always something quiet fascinating about border towns though, not only in the kind of linguistic and economic fluency they require of people who constantly juggle 4 different exchange rates and 7 different languages in their head. But also the very particular sense of space and movement they provoke.

Not long after I arrived we took a shopping trip to stock up on ingredients for our Christmas dinner. 40 degree heat be damned: we were cooking roast duck with prunes and red cabbage, roast potatoes and carrots, English christmas pudding with rum butter and English christmas cake with all the usual decorations. This involved heading out from our house in Paraguay mid morning, stopping off in Argentina for wines and some lunch, a visit to the super market in Brazil to get a frozen duck, almonds to make marzipan and some high-heeled Havanahs, eventually making it back home just around 5ish for tea. The whole afternoon involved two time zones, two languages, 4 currencies and nearly 3 pages worth of stamps in my passport.

Sometimes its not so easy. Saturday was a particularly hot day, so we decided to head to a shopping mall on the Brazil side of the border to hang out in the air conditioning and look for white clothes for new year. The road to the bridge that crosses the river-border between Brazil and Paraguay was chocked with traffic, and once we were trapped in there was no possible way of getting out. We sat there in the non-airconditioned bug for nearly 2 hours, in temperatures in the low 40s. It was so slow we had the engine off most of the time, lurching 2 meters forward in a tiny spurt of activity every ten minutes or so.

Once we finally got over the border and into Brazil, the poor bug collapsed at a traffic light, something ominous having happened to the clutch that caused the pedal to suddenly fall off mid-motion.

Two hot and bothered gringas in high heeled flip flops pushing a bright yellow Beetle down the road is probably not a typical Brazilian sight. But I’m happy to say its one that caused several guys on motor bikes to screech to a halt beside us and offer assistance. Sometimes a macho culture has its advantages. The only good thing is that we didn’t break down on the bridge itself, or in that impenetrable traffic jam. But then there is the complication of trying to arrange getting a mechanic from one side of a border to connect with a broken car on the other side, all without arousing the suspicion of twitchy border guards hot on the look out for car smuggling.

Hopefully the bug will be resurrected in time to take us to the Brazilian bus station tonight. We have a 16 hour bus journey booked to take us to Florianópolis in southern Brazil, where we’ll be spending the new year on a beach. I’ve never in my life had a beach holiday, and I’m not entirely sure what one is actually supposed to do. But I have a few James Bond novels and some recipes for rum cocktails, so I’m sure I’ll be able to figure something out. In fact, I think this holiday m’larky could be something I may develop a knack for.

I had the most amazing steak and kidney pie I’ve ever eaten last night. Here in Chile, of all places!

I’m a tad embarrassed about where I went, though. For the last month I’ve been walking past this very tacky looking “English Pub” near my house called The Phone Box Pub. Of course, it has a big red phone box on the patio, just like you can’t find in England. Plus an exciting range of revolting bitters, just like those I tried for so many years to avoid back home. Every day I roll my eyes at it, in the condescending way that people who live abroad for a long time like to.

So its quiet amazing that I ended up there last night, given my own snobbishness. Even more so given that I absolutely hate going to bars or restaurants on my own in the evening, something that’s a bit of a draw back if you spend a lot of time travelling on your own. I don’t mind eating lunch or other innocuous meals on my own in public. Though given that lunch is the main meal of the day here, I’ve been getting some very odd looks for sitting on my own reading a book or writing notes over my sandwich and coffee. I’ve become something of an amusing quirk in the little street of coffee shops I spend most of my time hanging out in. I’m usually the only person there on their own. Still, I would usually rather go hungry, or sit on my own in my hotel room with something depressingly portable like a cold sandwich and a cuppa soup, than sit alone in a restaurant at night.

But I’ve had an ongoing cold for three weeks now, and its really been wearing me down. I am not a good cook at the best of times, and living with someone else’s (very tiny) kitchen, I tend to resort to the most basic of meals. I’ve been subsisting on toast and omelets and egg sandwiches and iceberg lettuce salads and fruit, usually followed by those addictive little pots of vanilla “flan” and packets of bitter-orange chocodonut cookies.

I think some part of my brain snapped last night and craved great big chunks of meat. I was in that place and ordering the steak and kidney pie before the rest of my brain had time to work out what was going on.

And meat I got. Its taking me a while to work out how to order meals here. Like I said, lunch is the only really large meal. Breakfast is quite small, the evening meal rarely more than a light snack or a sandwich. And then there is this odd (but delightful) meal called “Once” which consists of tea, cake, and light sandwiches, eaten around 6 or 7. Yes – they have elevensis at 7. Go figure.

The few times I’ve tried to eat a larger meal in the evening – including last night – I’ve been thrown off by how the meal arrives. Namely, wysiwyg. So for example, I went out with some friends my first week here, and I ordered the prawns.

What I got was a bowl of prawns. But just a big bowl of prawns. Unadorned with bits of lettuce, or some kind of carbohydrate, or anything in fact – other than more prawns.

The next time I went out I tried to pre-empt a protein overload by ordering a side of roast potatoes with my steak. What I got that time were two large bowls – one filled with potatoes and the other with chunks of steak. Which were lovely. But a bit heavy.

For my steak and kidney pie event, I was curious if the “English” pub would produce a meal based on the English grammar of food serving – i.e., meat plus carbs plus some small veg based component on the side. Nope. I got a big bowl of meat, covered in a thin pie crust. With complimentary ketchup. And still I think it was the best steak and kidney pie I’ve ever eaten!

So ok, why was it the best steak and kidney pie I’ve ever had? Well, not because of the pie-ness of it. The crust was basically an large circle of empanada dough stretched over the top of the dish. But the inside… oh my. It was amazing. None of that gloopy, commerical-gravey tasting sauce you would usually expect (and which I usually have no overpowering objection to – steak and kidney pie is one of my favourite British foods). It was insanely rich in flavour, had huge great big chunks of really amazing meat in it.

And – I began to suspect – actual kidney! I don’t think I have ever had a steak and kidney pie that actually had kidney in it before! I’m strictly a non-offal-eating kind of girl. But this thing was just amazing. I even managed to get over the texture of the chunks of kidney – the flavour was just so incredible!

So there you go. The secret to the best steak and kidney pie in the world is to use kidneys. And probably better steak than will ever be available anywhere in the world other than Argentina and Chile. Plus, one has to get over one’s “I’m-not-going-in-to-that-tourist-trap-and-anyway-I-hate-English-beer” snobbery.

I arrived in Santiago yesterday, and so far things seem to be going well! Despite the fact I was flying through Atlanta, and on the 4th July weekend, the trip was pretty easy and remarkably uneventful. I had two little girls kicking the back of my seat and giggling for 9 hours, but hey, that’s the joy of airtravel.

Arrived at my hotel around 9, but then had to hang around till 12 when the room was ready. Santiago is nowhere near as cold as Chicago or La Paz in the winter, but after an hour of wandering about waiting for cafes to open so I could get a coffee I was pretty cold. Not having got much sleep on the plane (thanks to the brats) didn’t help either. I stumbled about as a wide eyed, shivering little bundle of confusion for a few more hours before crawling back to the hostel and collapsing in bed.

Its strange, because I didn’t think I Santiago was that high, but I could have sworn I got a little altitude sick yesterday. I thought at first I was just reacting to that evocative smell of pollution, or maybe having a psychosomatic reaction to the experience of being in a South American city again. But I got that mildly queasy, dizzy, headachey feeling not long after I landed. Weird.

But today I’ve been feeling much more sprightly, and even managed to have my first coherent exchange with a stranger in Spanish! (The guy who owns the shop next to the hostel showed me how to use a payphone, and then we chatted a little. He understood me… ish.) My feelings of total linguistic inadequacy are going to haunt me for a long time methinks, but it makes each semi successful conversation feel like a small victory!

Longer term than working out how to cross the road or use a phone, my first aim is to find an apartment, and so far today I’ve seen two.

The first is a room in a house shared with around 6 other people, that is advertised as gay-friendly and multicultural. The walls are painted various bright colours, the neighbourhood is full of bars, there’s an english language ex-pats drama group that meets downstairs, one of the owners gives dance lessons each evening in one of the larger rooms, the bathroom is small and rickety, they claim to have late night parties only at the weekend, and most of the bedrooms had either tie-dyed wall hangings or burning incense when I visited.

The second is a room in the house of a Swedish-Chilean couple, who live on the 10th floor of a luxury apartment building that has two pools, a gym, and a very sweet concierge. Its calm, clean and very stylish. The building next door is a designer wedding dress shop.

While the pool is enticing, I’m perversely tempted by the first. It could be the hippy student experience I never had. A have a few more to see later, but want to make a decision by the morning so I can move in as soon as possible.

So I’m hanging out in Arequipa at the moment, meant to be taking a few days off on holiday. But I’ve got a horrible cold, and the last few days have been a bitch. I got screwed over by a guy in Arica who robbed me blind, one of the best advisors I’ve had emailed to tell me she’s got a new job, I have spent the last few days trying to get back several hundred dollars from the LAN website after they charged me twice for a ticket I didn’t need, and half of my PhD project collapsed around me – all in one weekend. My reaction has been to stick me head in the sand and feel sorry for myself. So rather than wandering through the streets of this rather lovely little town doing sightseeing and what have you, I’m sitting in a very comfortable hotel room eating biscuits and reading trashy novels. Somehow I feel I ought to be doing something more exciting and stimulating. But frankly, I need a break. I just realised on my bus over here that my last holiday was a week in Mexico in Nov 2006, and even then I was officially there to help with a museum exhibit. The fact that I didn’t do any of the work makes it the closest I’ve got to going away on holiday rather than for work or family since… er… maybe a trip to Barcelona in 2002 or something. Jesus, that’s so depressing.

So I’m having a holiday, for three days. And my ideal holiday is to sit in bed and do nothing. To not feel the slightest bit guilty about not working, and to not feel obliged to walk anywhere, look at anything, or think about anything more demanding or interesting than a paperback thriller. Which I’m sure makes me sound not only ungracious, but also kinda dumb. I don’t care.

Traveling, apparently, broadens the mind. So people say, but Ive seen plenty of tourists who travel from one end of the world to the other, only to demand exactly the same kind of food, accommodation and company that they are accustomed to back home. If they really wanted to meet new people and have a new outlook on life, they could do that in the poor neighbourhoods of their own cities, rather than traveling half way across the globe to hang out with other tourists. Traveling to new places is only interesting if you are doing new things there, or meeting new people. Which you could probably do just as well back home.

No, I used to think that traveling to new places would my life more interesting. But my life is just as undramatic as it ever was now that I hang out half way around the world most of the year. The problem is that its not places but people that make life interesting. Hanging out in a new town is no fun if you don’t know anyone, no matter how beautiful or exciting that town may be. Or if you are basically bored with yourself at that particular moment in time. My ideal holiday right now would be to be back home with my friends, but with time to spend with them. If I could be with the people I’d like to be with, with the time to enjoy it – to relax with them, have some fun, do things in our own city we never have time to do, have conversations that don’t have any purpose other than to connect. That would be my ideal holiday.

I noticed a while ago I stopped taking photographs when I go away somewhere new. A pretty doorway here, a mountain range there. What’s the point of recording it? But I do still get a thrill when I meet someone new who I have a great conversation with. That’s the kind of thing that’s hard to find, and worth savouring. What I need is a holiday that gives me time, not new places, and time spent with people I care about and who make me and my life interesting.