Source: Get it? It's a pand—okay fine I'll stop.

Note: I stole the title from an email I received, thanks Kevin!

Disclosures and Disclaimers

I'm not usually one to comment on "current events".

That said, when "current events" are "modern society is looking a little rough around the edges", it's kind of hard not to comment. Of course, I'm talking about limited-edition Shrek Crocs the COVID-19 pandemic. Now I've never aspired to be a source of information or disinformation, and I'd like to keep it that way, so: get up-to-date information from WHO, the CDC, or your local Department of Public Health, not your friendly neighborhood truck man.

With that out of the way, I've been getting a lot of questions about how I'm handling the current happenings, so I'll talk a little bit about what I've been up to, and then more generally about tangential topics, like having good routines, stock market crashes, and how I handle sickness. In retrospect, those should probably all be their own posts, oh well.

It all started…

…a few weeks ago, when my employer instituted a voluntary "work from home" policy. It seemed a bit premature to me at the time: there were only a handful of cases in the entire US, but of course I had never heard of the concept of "flattening the curve" and I wasn't aware of the severity of situations in Wuhan or Italy, so it didn't make a ton of sense to me. In any case, I continued to go into work, because working from "home" isn't really something I have a desire to do. I've told my co-workers I live in a place near campus (true), with a few roommates (not true), and have generally described my home as a place I don't like to spend my time (very true). As such, my desire to continue working from the office didn't seem all that unreasonable or suspicious.

Days passed and the situation changed quickly. Voluntary work from home became recommended work from home, which promptly became strongly recommended work from home, a recommendation I dutifully continued to ignore. I was one of maybe three people in my office; it was lovely and I got a lot of stuff done. With the transition to strongly recommended work from home, the office cafeterias stopped serving breakfast and dinner, which I remedied by biking to my favorite cafes in the morning, making more meal replacement shakes, and leaning a little more heavily on the office kitchen snacks. I ate a lot of Rice Krispies that week.

I had plans to go to Aspen with my girlfriend (who lives in Colorado) and some co-workers. I found out those plans were cancelled…when I landed in Denver. So instead, I spent a few days ambling around a mid-sized Coloradan city, which wasn't altogether unpleasant. I was scheduled to leave Monday night, but then we got the Bay Area shelter-in-place order.

In light of the order, my employer strengthened their language to mandatory work from home. To show how Super Serious they were, they also closed down most of the offices. This sounded like a bad time to be living in a truck, so I moved my flight out a few days to assess the situation, and to play house with my girlfriend in her 400 sq ft apartment. After a week of the two of us working from home mere feet apart and me driving her halfway up a wallkiddinghopefully, I headed back to the Bay. That was three days ago, so where does that put me now?

An exclusive sneak peak at United's new Basic Economy Private Jet Class.
Seriously though, there were like 5 people on my DEN -> SJC flight, which is cool, but also stupendously wasteful.

The Digs

I'm not going to keep you in suspense: I'm at an Airbnb in Oakland. I had originally planned to try and rough it from the truck, but then I realized the gyms on campus were closed (and all gyms in a 50 mile radius for that matter, I checked). This made things difficult for me. You see, the campus gym is my lifeblood: it's got things to pick up and showers, the sum total of which keeps me sane and mostly smell-free.

Now, when I say the gyms were closed, the buildings were technically still accessible; my work badge still opened them. But all of the following conspired against my conscience to keep me out of them:

  • Explicit instructions to not use them - Now I'm all for living at the margins of rules and laws, it's basically my pastime. But outright ignoring an explicit instruction from my employer, an instruction with the explicit purpose of keeping people safe and healthy, that didn't seem like the right move.
  • Security roaming around at a much higher frequency - I'm not trying to make the security folks' lives any harder (by making them deal with me). I also just don't want to have to explain myself.
  • Two fun Covid-19 facts - When combined, these facts make me a liability to the gym (and vice versa):
    1. Healthy people can be asymptomatic carriers of the virus - Meaning I could COVID-up the gym and not even know it.
    2. It can live on surfaces for 72 hours - Meaning anyone who used the gym three days before me could get me sick, and similarly, I could accidentally get any other rule-breaking gym-goers sick up to three days later.
  • I think I could have made the truck work, but it wouldn't have been particularly fun: the constant eating out or deluge of meal replacement shakes would have been either expensive or extraordinarily boring and I'm not about to break my "No Food in the Truck" Rule. And with the aforementioned gyms being closed, there weren't a whole lot of reasons to stay put, all of the resources I normally have were gone. So I bit the bullet and got an Airbnb. As someone who owns very little and travels a decent amount, this effectively amounted to moving. I loaded up my car with my work and personal computers, a monitor I stole borrowed from work, my bike, a few books, five days worth of clothes, and a yoga mat (we'll discuss that later). All together, it looks something like thing:

    Left/Top: I'd never actually had to disassemble my bike before, I learned a thing or two about the brake assembly and the anti-theft wheel lock system, the unfortunately named WheelNutz.

    Center: My new office for the next week. I always keep a water bottle at my desk, gotta stay hydrated in these trying times. Screens feature me working on this post, for maximum meta-ness.

    Right/Bottom: My re-assembled bike and pretty much everything else I own. I borrowed the GameCube controller from the office so my co-workers and I can attempt to play games online together.

    I'll be working from here this week and leaving on Saturday, at which point I'll evaluate the situation and likely get another Airbnb somewhere else, perhaps even farther away. Now, here's a potpourri of tangentially related things that should probably be their own posts.

    Keeping Consistent

    Routine is very important to me. There's lots of research to show that having a solid routine and building good habits has lots of positive ripple effects through the rest of your life. Obviously, working from home for weeks on end or, like me, packing up everything you own and going elsewhere, will necessitate some routine changes. Here's the new routine that I've carved out for myself, effective tomorrow.

    4:45 - 5:25 am Wake up. I'm going to try and keep my existing sleep schedule, though it may be harder to leave my cozy new digs than it usually is.

    5:30 - 7:30 am (ish) Bike ride. I went through quite a bit to drag my bike here, and I intend to use it. In the absence of strength training equipment, long, scenic bike rides seemed like a decent alternative. It's one of the reasons I picked a place so far away. I've already picked and downloaded my route for Monday morning. From my Airbnb, it's a ~30 mile jaunt around the shorelines of Oakland and Alameda. Since the ride coincides with sunrise, I'm expecting it to be quite pretty.

    7:30 - 8:00 am Breakfast. For the first time in a long time, I went grocery shopping for myself. I'm going to attempt to prepare meals without injuring myself or the kitchen.

    8:00 am - 4:00 pm Work. Tippy-tapping on keyboards, Important Business Meetings™, all the standard fare, but with more video calling and "I think your microphone is muted" than usual. Food will also be cooked and consumed in this interval.

    4:00 - 5:00 pm Yoga. I wanted a clear signal to myself that says "you are now done doing work for the day", and I figured an hour of chill yoga would serve that purpose nicely. It's especially important to me now that my "doing work" and "personal shenanigans" computer areas are the same place. I've done yoga on and off for years, I think it's great for mental health and, for me personally, flexibility, which is key for not injuring yourself when strength training. I lost a bet with a friend a while ago, the net result being that I eventually had to write a post about doing yoga in the truck (titled Troga…eesh). I came very near to doing Troga on Saturday when the gym was closed, but thought better of it and went for a walk instead. This is likely as close as I'll ever get to writing that post.

    5:00 - 9:00 pm Assorted debauchery. Errands, books, games, blog posts, and projects.oh my!

    9:00 pm - 5:00 am Sleep. Rinse and repeat.

    I don't expect to stick to that routine exactly, but I'm going to use it as a strong guideline. Without the normal structure of work, it's easy to either work way too much or way too little, so some gentle bumpers will help here.

    Stocks, Stocks, Stocks

    I've been told that the global economic system is presently in free fall. In all likelihood, I've lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in monopoly money. Since I'm not retiring for at least the next few years, this doesn't really matter to me. I'm going to continue to do what I've done for the past five years: buy more stock at every opportunity I get.

    In fact, stock is on sale right now, so I'm going to get more than usual, which sounds pretty good to me. If you aren't planning on retiring in the near future, you probably shouldn't be panic-selling all your stock, especially if it's in a 401k or similar fund that penalizes early withdrawals.

    That's a Generally Bad Idea™.

    In Sickness

    A while ago, in a Q&A post, I got a question about what I'd do if I got a "debilitating case of viral gastroenteritis", which in retrospect is suspiciously specific. Anyway, I answered thusly:

    My primary plan is to rely on my good health, nutrition, exercise, and sleep schedule to prevent debilitating cases of viral gastroenteritis in the first place. But if I were to find myself involuntarily returning the contents of my stomach with regular frequency, I'd probably take off work and grab a hotel room for a few days to sleep it off. Luckily, I get sick pretty infrequently and haven't had to resort to the suite life just yet. Fingers crossed.

    And that's pretty much my all-around "getting sick" strategy: hunker down somewhere and ride it out. I'm fortunate in that I rarely get sick (less than once a year), and when I do get sick, it's usually over in a day, and not completely miserable at that. We'll see what COVID-19 has in store.

Source: I couldn't really think of a good title picture for this post. I didn't want to take a picture of the condensation, because that's gross. You could view this one two ways: the bucket is either supposed to be a desiccant full of the water it sucked up, or it's nature dumping water all over the truck.

Continuing my new trend of discussing Californian curiosities,* let's talk about water. Speaking with only the slightest bit of hyperbole, it doesn't rain in the Bay Area from May through September, but it gets decently damp from October onward. And I'm not just talking about rain; some mornings bring with them a thick layer of condensation, which I've addressed before, a long, long time ago.

Back then, I thought the condensation was, in large part, just me breathing in the boxa lot, which seems kinda silly (and gross) in retrospect. I've since learned exhalation only accounts for a small amount of it: less than a cup per night. The majority just condenses out of the air. Normal folks call this 'humidity', but apparently the word escaped me when I wrote that last post.

One thing that continues to perplex me though is how physics decides which surfaces get covered in condensation. The Wikipedia article on Dew, which is riveting stuff, explains it as:

[Dew] forms most easily on surfaces that are not warmed by conducted heat from deep ground, such as grass, leaves, railings, car roofs, and bridges

…which seems pretty straightforward, but my experience has still been kinda confusing. Here's a brief, informal survey of the various damp and dry surfaces of my truck.

Occasionally Damp Things

  • Soft fuzzy blanket
  • Metal ceiling
  • Glass sunroof

Generally Dry Things

  • Other blanket/comforter
  • Metal storage cabinet
  • EPS foam insulation

I vaguely understand it has to do with heat conduction, but, for example, I'd expect the storage cabinet and the roof to conduct heat similarly, both being metal. And yet, on especially moist mornings, the cabinet will be bone dry even when there are literal droplets condensing and falling from the ceiling.

Writing that out, it sounds kinda bad, things being damp and drippy and all. You'd think everything would get moldy and gross and generally problematic, but in the nearly five years I've been doing this, it's been totally fine (well, now that the leaks are fixed). I think that's in large part due to the ventilation provided by the sunroof, me occasionally toweling down the offending surfaces, and, of course, my liberal use of desiccants.

I've faithfully made the trek to Home Depot every October like a weird, damp pilgrimage, purchasing that mystical cat litter in an increasing variety of form factors. I've got the standard tub under the bed, hanging ones for my clothes rack, and little boxy ones for inside my storage cabinet. The desiccants are definitely doing something, because after a rainy season, they're all full of water that they've pulled out of the truck.

The Splash

One other weird winter weather phenomenon I've encountered is, for reasons I might never truly understand, a deluge of water will just pour through the sunroof. It has happened four or five times, and only ever in the middle of the night. I'll be sleeping, and then I'll hear a sound akin to a lot of water hitting the floor, loud enough to wake me up. I get up and sure enough, there's a lot of water on the floor, probably a few cups worth. I usually towel it off, barely conscious and acting purely mechanically, then hop back into bed.

Because of the ungodly hour this happens, my memories are hazy and incomplete. The sunroof is always open, but I don't think it's ever raining, because I try not to open it on nights there's a chance of rain. Plus, rain in the truck is loud and memorable. My best guess is that the open sunroof is good at collecting moisture, which then drops onto the fine mesh I use to keep out leaves and bugs. Once there's a critical mass of water, surface tension (or something?) breaks and the puddle quickly filters through the net and to the ground.

It's either that, or someone is standing on the roof and pouring water into the truck to mess with me. It's more likely than you might think.

*To say nothing of my other trend: writing posts about wildly mundane things.

Source: I didn't realize it until after I finished goofing off in Photoshop, but if you think of the headlights as eyes and the grill being a mouth, this picture is especially fitting because the truck looks deeply, deeply unhappy at being jounced around.

Truckquake is the poor portmanteau (poortmanteau?) I'm going to use to describe earthquakes that I experience when I'm in the truck.

Earthquakes are a relatively common phenomenon in California. According to the California Department of Conservation, there are ~200 "potentially hazardous" faults in the state, and they generate an average of "two or three" quakes per year registering 5.5 or higher on the Richter scale, which is enough to cause "moderate [structural] damage". Fun, lighthearted stuff.

With earthquakes being common and all, earthquake stories similarly abound: A friend who awoke in the dead of night to their bed swaying; pets howling in confusion. A coworker who was driving when—suddenly—their car takes on a life of its own, veering this way and that, with the rest of traffic following suit. A neighbor who just swears there was a little one last night, even if nobody else felt it.

I'm now going to regale you with my own truckquake tale.

They always happen at night, because that's the only time I'm in the truck. I'm awakened by a sensation like someone shaking the truck back and forth. My first thought: "Is someone jumping on the tailgate?", which isn't as ridiculous a question as it should be, given that it's actually happened to me a few times. But we'll save those stories for another time.

Anyway, back to the sensation: it's akin to being in a car that a group of rabid frat bros are trying to flip over, conceivably because their sports team of choice has lost. Except it's much gentler—think small frat bros. Or maybe it's more like the sensation when another car passes yours at close range and your car kind of shudders in the wake, but on loop.

I'm realizing these descriptions don't sound nice, but the experience isn't altogether unpleasant. In fact, the quake normally rocks me back to sleep as quickly as it woke me, the whole experience being over within 45 seconds or so. One time, I vaguely remember thinking I was being abducted by aliens, which meant I had weirder than usual dreams for the rest of the night. But most of the time, I don't even recognize what happened until the next morning, when I have more of my faculties about me (or a co-worker mentions the quake).

Uhh…is any of that safe?

I've always been curious about how I'd fare during a truly terrible earthquake like, for example, the Big One. Specifically, am I better or worse off in the truck than an actual, honest-to-God building? I figured my biggest concern was the whole truck entering freefall as the ground disappears below it, but after doing the slightest bit of research*, Los Angeles Magazine set me straight:

What if…


…The earth opens up and swallows me whole? Luckily, these kinds of earthquakes only happen in cartoons and the Bible. What you’re probably thinking of is a sinkhole, which is caused by underground erosion, not by an earthquake.

So I guess I have nothing to worry about on that front.

More realistically, my main adversary would be trees falling on the truck. But, for no reason in particular, my bed is on the driver's side of the truck, which means it's closer to the road. That's awfully convenient, because if there are any nearby trees, they'd likely be on the passenger side. And hopefully, as they ripped viciously through the truck in a din of rending metal, some part of the frame would slow them down (and ideally stop them) before they reached my vulnerable, slumbering body, like a scene in a Final Destination movie.

All of the other "Driving in an Earthquake" resources I looked at just suggest pulling over and waiting it out. So if I'm fast asleep in the back, it seems like I'm already doing the best I can do. Plus, it seems like the suspension on the truck smooths out the ebbs and flows of the quake, so I should just sit back, relax, and enjoy the show throe.

*I literally just Googled "earthquake in a car", which isn't even a good way to phrase what I was looking for.

Oh Christmastime, what can I say about you that hasn't already been said?

Literally nothing, so let's just skip the whole "waxing poetic about Christmas" business.

My personal relationship with Christmas is, well, slightly complicated and always changing. I was raised Jewish (as I've mentioned before), but I fell off the Judaism-bandwagon pretty much immediately after my Bar Mitzvah. Not to say that my family were particularly good Jews to begin with — we faithfully celebrated Christmas every year, and occasionally lit our Menorah candles and said our blessings.* But with the advent of my truckliness, my thoughts on Christmas, and specifically, on giving and receiving gifts, have changed pretty handily.

As a kid, I loved Christmas. I loved waking up at an ungodly hour each Christmas morning (much to the chagrin of my half-asleep parents) to see what Santa** had dutifully left behind. My Swiss cheese brain hasn't retained many memories from my childhood, but I do vividly remember seeing that new boombox or Playstation 2, then sitting around and drinking hot cocoa while I set it all up.

Nowadays, I live 3,000 miles away from most of the people I celebrate Christmas with, which has changed the Rules of Gift Engagement™ quite a bit.

The Rules of Gift Engagement

Over the past five Christmases, I've learned little tips and tricks for navigating the holidays with my hometown family and friends, and adjusted my gifting policies accordingly.

Gift Giving

My gift giving policy is simple: I'll give people whatever they damn well want, with a gentle preference for things that are practical and hopefully not too self-destructive. Obviously the amount I spend on a gift correlates with how much I like the person, or at least how much I'd like them not to be mad at me. I'll usually have all the gifts delivered directly to Boston well ahead of time, where they'll stay under the watchful eye of my sister until the time arrives.

For family, my gift giving strategy is to asking them what they want/need, and then I'll just get that. If they say "don't get me anything", you can bet I'm not getting them anything. For my friends, at least for the past decade or so, I've rounded them all up in a room lousy with alcohol and made them compete in a variety of online mini-games for cash, prizes, fame, and intoxication glory. As I've mentioned before, past years' festivities have included online twists on Card Against Humanity, Texas Hold 'Em, Bomberman, Tetris, and Bananagrams, which I usually begin working on each August or September.

Gift Receiving

My gift receiving policy is even simpler. If I had to sum it up in a picture, it'd look something like:

Jim Carrey's Grinch Me at Christmas time.

Image stolen with love from Screen Rant.

I'm a total Grinch when it comes to Christmas, and I can oft be heard repeating my favorite Christmastime mantra, "I don't want any gifts, don't give me anything." You would think this would be an easy request. After all, what's easier than doing nothing? But alas, giving gifts is how some people show their affection, so I've really had to put my foot down in recent years. I've come up with a whole list*** of bulletproof reasons why you shouldn't get me a gift:

  • I can't bring it on the plane - This is my go-to excuse. It's short, it's practical, and it doesn't require a discussion about trucks or my own personal beliefs around conspicuous consumption. Are you really going to give me a five-foot-tall stuffed animal knowing full well I'm going to have to shove it into the non-existent space under my Basic Economy seat on my overbooked flight back to San Francisco?
  • I don't have room for it - I have roughly 128 ft2 of living space. Shockingly, most of it is open and unused, but that's because I'm a curmudgeon-y stickler about things like this. As an added bonus, mentioning the square footage of my abode doesn't necessitate mentioning the truck; people can be left to speculate about whatever squalid and cramped Bay Area housing conditions I must live in to have turned down their well intentioned Game of Thrones chess board.
  • I literally don't have electricity - This is my go-to excuse for smaller gifts, where I can't hide behind my travel or living space constraints. If it has batteries or requires an outlet, it's a logistically difficult gift for me to work with. Sure, I could charge it or use it at work, but I'm not going to plug an Instant Pot in at my work desk, Aunt Karen.

All the above excuses work well because they also don't shift the blame to the gift-giver, who, after all, is just trying to do a nice thing and spread some holiday cheer. These excuses are simply explanations for my own personal failings. But if someone still insists on getting me a gift after the above explanations ("oh it'll just be something small", "trust me, you'll love it", etc, etc), I bring out the big guns:

I don't need anything.

I usually accompany this claim with some variant of the following rant.

The Rant

I've got a pretty neatly-defined process for introducing new things into my life. It works well for me: I've figured out the bare minimum I need to get by (with appropriately comfort-zone-expanding levels of discomfort), plus the set of creature comforts I want (usually in pursuit of my few varied hobbies). It is having that exact combination of things that makes me very, very happy.

Short of funds to build a house and start my early retirement now, I have everything I want or need. If I truly need something, I buy it, plain and simple. I don't write a list or wait for a holiday, I just go and get it. And if I don't need it, I very likely don't want it. Following this to its (il)logical conclusion: come Christmas, I've internalized a steadfast belief that any physical gift will only make my life worse, by taking up space or going to waste or getting in the way or something grumble grumble. Like I said, very Grinch-like.

It's a pretty dramatic departure from childhood Brandon and his foaming at the mouth over the mere suggestion of a new iPod, but my ideas around happiness have changed in the intervening decade or two. Plus, I'm rich now, at least by every possible definition except the most American of them. This excerpt from Doing Good Better sums it up nicely:

If you earn more than $52,000 per year, then, speaking globally, you are the 1 percent. If you earn at least $28,000—that's the typical income for working individuals in the United States—you're in the richest 5 percent of the world's population. Even someone living below the US poverty line, earning just $11,000 per year, is still richer than 85 percent of the people in the world.

If you're reading this blog, a blog chiefly about living cheaply in Silicon Valley, you likely fall into that richest 15% category, if not the 1%. But anyway, that relative richness means that, if I pare down my wants and needs a bit, I can easily have everything I desire to desire, with plenty to spare.

But I'm getting a bit sidetracked, so let's turn the discussion back to gifts and the transfer thereof: what if someone still insists on getting you a gift even after your anti-consumption tirade ruins a perfectly decent Thanksgiving dinner? Or maybe you're on the opposite end: what do you get for the Brandons in your own life without offending their radical sensibilities? I'm glad you asked, here are some ideas, plucked primarily from suggestions I've given my own well-meaning mother:

  • Donation to a charity - This one works well because everyone gets to feel warm and fuzzy. Personally, I'll also offer up a list of suggestions, usually plucked straight from GiveWell.
  • Tickets to an event - Events are great because you don't have to own them for the rest of your life. It's one and done. The recipient might even enjoy it. Personally, I don't even care what the event is—I'm always looking to expand my horizons. You got me tickets to Hungarian throat singing in San Francisco? Hell yeah! I'm about to experience something novel and exciting, and I might even get to drag one of my beleaguered friends along for a unique night out.
  • Passes to some other sort of experience - Give someone a Groupon to cooking or dancing or knife-juggling lessons near them. Or maybe a massage/spa day pass. Or maybe an escape room. Sky's the limit (except in the case of skydiving, which is also an option). Personally, I'll try anything most things at least once (but sometimes exactly once, looking at you Gilroy Garlic Festival).
  • Cash & Gift Cards - The more generic, the better. Let the recipient decide what, if anything, they want or need. Personally, If you hand me some cash, I'm more than happy to donate it myself, or treat myself to a few shares of VTSAX. Worried I'll spend it on drugs? Give me an Amazon gift card and I'll pick up a few eBooks.

A Christmas Kiss Miracle

I'm happy to report that this Christmas, for the first time ever, nobody got me any things. It's been a long road to get here, full of ill-fitting clothes and awkward gift rejections, but we made it. This year, I got a donation in my name, some cash, a few scratch tickets, a handful of protein bars (which I ate well before I left), and I was treated to a play. I know it took a Herculean feat of restraint for certain members of my family (looking at you Mom), so I took pains to express just how much it meant to me. With gifts not taking center-stage, it was that much easier to enjoy some quality time with those I hold most dear.

Happy (belated) Holidays!

*Let the record show that my mother gave up on trying to find the Menorah this year after approximately 30 seconds of searching for it.

**There was no Hanukkah Harry in our household, and I had my suspicions about who Santa actually was, but I can't recall when he stopped being the mastermind behind my yearly One Big Christmas Gift™.

***Just to be clear, any and all gifts and relatives mentioned in this list are purely hypothetical. I've never been gifted a giant teddy bear, Game of Thrones chess set (though I'm sure it exists), or Instant Pot. I also don't have an Aunt Karen.

I want to travel more. It's a well-documented desire of mine. Specifically, I want to plan my own trips, because I've historically been pretty terrible at it. I even made a "process", which I'll paraphrase here:

  1. Wait until a particularly whimsical mood strikes.
  2. Bike aimlessly until you find a book store.
  3. Enter the book store.
  4. Find the travel/travel guide section.
  5. Close your eyes.
  6. Spin around, preferably 3-5 times.
  7. With eyes still closed, pick a travel guide off the shelf.
  8. Buy the travel guide.
  9. Read the travel guide.
  10. Go there. Optional: Be merry.

Using this bulletproof approach, I had picked out a destination, Taiwan. I don't want to say I'm giving up on all of that, because I'm definitely still going to do it…I just went somewhere else first. To explain where and why requires the slightest bit of backstory.

Oregon (aka The Slightest Bit of Backstory)

In 2017, I saw my first total solar eclipse in Oregon, and it left quite an impression on me. The sky darkened over the course of a few minutes, taking on a weird, twilight-esque hue. The temperature dropped by 10 or 15 degrees. Birds started acting strangely. Suddenly, it was very dark, the sky ringed with light on the horizon. I looked directly at the sun (normally an ill-advised thing to do), my eyes meeting a black orb surrounded with the wispy, shifting tendrils of the Sun's corona. I can understand why ancient civilizations believed in some truly crazy gods. Needless to say, I was hooked.

The main barrier to my newfound addiction: total solar eclipses are finicky. They don't happen often (~less than once a year), and they happen over an effectively random stretch of the planet. Post-2017, the next one wasn't until 2019, and it had every intention of passing over a narrow strip of South America, visible in small parts of Chile and Argentina. Even more rudely, this narrow strip (in dark red below, call the "path of totality") had the audacity to avoid most of the major cities that would make viewing it easy.

Pretty and informative diagram from Time and Date.

That said, I wasn't going to let the machinations of a few stubborn celestial bodies rain on my parade. So, a few months ago, I traveled 6,000 miles for an event that lasts approximately, you guessed it, 2 minutes and 17 seconds.


Chile Chile Chile, where do I begin. It all started about a week before I took off…

Preparations (Or a Lack Thereof)

…because that's when I actually planned (and subsequently booked) the trip. I recognize that this was Not Smart of Me™ for no less than 13 different reasons. While I won't enumerate all of them, let's take a peek at a few here.

13 4 Reasons Why Booking My First Solo, Non-Work International Trip One Week Prior to Departure Was a Bad Move™
  1. Stuff gets expensive.
  2. One week isn't a lot of time to plan.
  3. I've made this mistake for every trip I've done in the past.
  4. I knew I was going to do the trip a year and a half in advance.

I've gotten into this bad habit of not really planning my trips, because they're usually for work. That means most of the blanks are already filled in for me: dates of travel, places to stay, itinerary, etc. None of that was true here, and I wasn't really setting myself up for success by not budgeting the time for it.

In spite of my best efforts however, I still managed to pull the trip together. I had churned through enough credit cards to pay for the round trip flight, even accounting for how inflated the prices had become. And I used my solitary week before departure to figure out the absolute basics:

  • Visa requirements (None)
  • National Language (Chilean Spanish, among others)
  • Season & Climate (Winter at the time, but not in the bitter New England sense)
  • Risk of danger? (Not particularly)

After one week of frantic and frenzied Googling, I had all my flights and accommodations and odds-and-ends booked, and a plan that looked roughly like the following:

  1. Get near the eclipse (San Francisco -> New York -> Santiago -> La Serena)
  2. Stay in an Airbnb in La Serena
  3. Watch the eclipse
  4. Take a bus to Santiago
  5. Stay in a hostel in Santiago
  6. Explore Santiago
  7. Get home (Santiago -> New York -> San Francisco)

Okay, I swear I won't make another list or trademark Another Random Phrase™ for the rest of the post.

A pretty basic plan, I'll admit, but it covered all the bases. I'd fly to near the eclipse (three flights), get used to the area, see the eclipse, take a bus to Chile's capital/largest city, stay in a hostel, (perhaps) meet some people, explore the city, and fly home from there (two flights).

The Arrival

My first couple days were fraught with all the hurdles Murphy's Law could cook up. Flights were delayed, phones weren't working, and for a brief, suspenseful, and utterly nerve-wracking moment, I truly believed my Airbnb didn't actually exist. Once everything was all sorted out and I got settled in, the adventures began.

My first order of business was getting some food. La Serena (the largest Chilean city where the eclipse was visible from) is fairly small as far as cities go, and not particularly known for its food. Accordingly, I opted to pick up groceries so I could cook for myself. The reason for this was two-fold: 1) it's a good way to save a few bucks while travelling, and 2) I never get to cook for myself, the truck being devoid of appliances…and electricity…and food.

I took a bus to the local Lider (a chain acquired by Walmart) and marveled at all the little differences and things entirely lost on me in my day-to-day life. Milk was in un-refrigerated boxes, as were eggs. Jelly came in little bags. You weigh your fruits and vegetables where you get them, not at the register. This last one got me good, it took a fraught game of charades for the cashier to explain the concept to me at checkout.

My second order of business was getting really familiar with the buses and the schedule. Because I booked so late, all the hotels in La Serena were booked and I ended up in Coquimbo, ~10 miles from La Serena. I wanted to make sure I didn't miss the eclipse because of my own ineptitude at catching the bus.

Looking out from my Airbnb in Coquimbo. Off in the distance, just barely visible, is Coquimbo's main attraction, Cruz del Tercer Milenio, which is a ~270ft concrete cross.

Settling In

After a few days of learning the ropes, I had a couple basic takeaways:

1) My single, meager year of high school Spanish was no match for literally any conversation I attempted to navigate. Chileans speak far too quickly for my untrained ears, and the Chilean accent kinda drops the trailing sound off a work (like in French), which means things just sound different. Two of my most commonly used phrases (in Spanish) were "More slowly, please" and simply "What?". Hand gestures abounded.

2) Chilean money is infinitely entertaining. A bunch of bananas cost $616, because Chilean pesos use the same dollar sign ($) used for US currency. Technically they do have cents (centavos), but in practice, I didn't see any coins for less than 10 pesos.

3) Chilean buses are wild. I drove buses for four years in college, so I like to think I know a thing or two about them. Chilean bus drivers are on a whole 'nother level, and clearly competing in some bus rodeo that I'm not privy to. They whip those buses around like it's nobody's business. At one point, the bus I was on hopped a median because it didn't want to wait in traffic. My terror was matched only by my admiration.

El Eclipse Solar Total

Perfect eclipse-watching weather.

The day of the eclipse (July 2nd) rolls around, and I'm ready for action. I get to La Serena with plenty of time to spare. My lack of planning (see above) meant that I had forgotten one crucial tool: eclipse glasses. No problem though, everyone and their grandpa is selling cardboard eclipse glasses downtown, at a 10x markup. I fork over the cash and continue onward. Such is life.

Walking around with my eclipse glasses in hand, freshly divorced from ten US dollars, I decide I want to watch the event in relative quiet. There's a big eclipse festival going on downtown, so I start to head away towards a quieter residential area. The city slope downward from downtown to the coast, which means there are plenty of uninterrupted views of the sun. I walk a few miles, then sit down on a stone ledge alongside the sidewalk. And I wait.

I lied (multiple times) when I said that the eclipse only lasts two minutes and seventeen seconds. In actuality, the eclipse was nearly two and a half hours. It's just totality, the part people travel to see, where everything gets dark, that's so fleeting. When I sat down, the partial eclipse was just starting, so I had nearly an hour until the main event.

So there I was, sitting alone on my stone ledge, staring at the sun, paper glasses on my face, when an older lady strolls by pushing a small folding cart, clearly puzzled as to what I'm doing. I've since forgotten the smaller details of our interaction (such as her name), but she was Mormon, and had lived in La Serena her whole life. She was delighted to hear I came from California: her Mormon friend, who she kept an old picture of in her purse, lived there too.

We conversed mostly in Spanish, with very heavy use of a notepad that she would write down words in, and I would translate on my phone. She was infinitely patient. We spoke of the eclipse, the current goings-on in Chile and the US, the weather, and of family and religion. She initially tried to watch the eclipse by putting her flip phone's screen to her eye with the camera app open, which was an ultimately unsuccessful approach. We sat on the ledge for two hours, passing the glasses back and forth to watch the progress of the partial eclipse, sometimes in total silence, sometimes just pointing in delight at the progress the moon was making in its journey towards totality.

She had never seen a total solar eclipse before. In fact, she hadn't even realized one was going to happen then and there. To this day, I'm not sure what I enjoyed more: the eclipse itself, or the look on her face when it finally happened. She was so completely in awe and overjoyed, it was truly a special moment, and I couldn't have asked for (or planned) a better eclipse experience if I had tried.

Eventually, totality passed. My new Chilean friend and I parted ways, the brief intersection in our otherwise disjoint lives now over. I bused back (in obscene traffic) to my Airbnb, reflected a little on the experience, and packed my things for Santiago.


My bus to Santiago was scheduled to leave at 10 am. Out of an abundance of caution (and partially by accident), I ended up at the terminal at 8 am. With plenty of time to spare, I ordered a coffee, opened a book, and partook in my favorite pastime: people watching. Transit hubs are great for people watching, because they're frequently where people are beginning (and ending) different chapters of their lives, and they're full of people from diverse backgrounds.* It makes it easy to come up with grand backstories.

The six and a half hour bus ride was mostly uneventful. My seat was in the front row of the second-floor of a double-decker bus, which afforded me some pretty incredible views as we barreled down the Chilean coast. The TVs were playing clearly pirated rips of some straight-to-DVD movies, featuring such blockbusters as The Christmas Chronicles and The Crucifixion.

Eventually, we arrived in Santiago, and suffice it to say, I was unprepared. I had been disarmed by my few days in the quaint, laid-back La Serena. As it turns out, Santiago is a bustling metropolitan area, with a population larger than Los Angeles. When I got off the bus, I was wholly overwhelmed. It was loud, crowded, dirty, and I was legitimately thinking of shortening my trip by a few days and just heading home. Then I realized that every bus terminal in every major city in the world is loud and crowded and dirty, and it wasn't particularly representative of the rest of the city.

I eventually got my act together, purchased a bus card (bip!), and bused to my hostel. I started researching what there was to do in Santiago, and quickly realized Santiago was basically made for me. It's walkable, and chock full of sprawling public parks, high-quality (and frequently free) museums, cute little coffee shops, and even nearby hiking opportunities. I totally could have spent a month there and barely scratched the surface. After an hour or two of researching, I cooked up the following rough itinerary:

  • Thursday, July 4th
    • Plaza de Armas
    • Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino
    • Museo Historico Nacional
    • Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral
    • ProntoMaticwhich is a laundromat, because I ran out of clothes.
  • Friday, July 5th
    • Hiking at Cerro San Cristobal
    • La Chascona
    • El Hombre Araña: Lejos de Casa
  • Saturday, July 6th
    • Parque Forestal
    • Bellas Artes

I'm not going to tackle each item one by one, because this post is already criminally long. So here are some pictures I took with my standard potato-quality smartphone camera:

From top-left to bottom-right: (1) Palacio de los Tribunales de Justicia de Santiago, where Chile's Supreme Court sits, (2 + 3) the mind-bogglingly massive Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral, (4 + 5) statues in Plaza de Armas and Parque Forestal, (6) the view from halfway up Cerro San Cristobal, and (7 + 8) posters at the movie theater.

Those three days were an absolute blur: I spent a dozen (or more) hours exploring museums and churches, learning a bit about Chile's history (both before and after Europe came knockin'). I checked out book stores and coffee shops and caught a movie and, at one harrowing point, got lost on my hike and stumbled onto someone's haphazard settlement in the woods. They were not happy to see me. Safely back down the mountain, I reached a serious milestone when I successfully ordered an empanada (sin carne), and was then able to pay without having to look at the register display (dos mil dos ciento = $2.200 CLP = ~$3 USD). I made some Brazilian friends at the hostel and we went out for dinner/drinks/dancing. The night included several glasses of a Chilean drink called Terremoto, which literally means "earthquake". It's some unholy concoction of alcohol and pineapple ice cream, and I look forward to never drinking another one again.

When I started planning the trip, it was originally "the Eclipse trip". After my whirlwind tour of Santiago, it's now "the Chile trip". I had dramatically underestimated Santiago as a destination unto itself, but I'm happy to report that it proved me wrong (over and over) in the best way.


Now that I've got my first solo (non-work) trip under my belt, I'd like to refine my travel philosophy a bit. In no particular order:

Doing the mundane things is just as important as doing the attractions. Shopping for groceries at Lider, doing laundry at the local ProntoMatic, or struggling through ordering an empanada, it's all part of the experience.

Pictures aren't a bad thing. I've always shied away from taking photos when I travel (or go to events). In the past, my rationale has been that I want to be present and live in the moment and all that other romanticized garbage. I'm also just cognizant (read: self-conscious) of looking "too touristy" when I pull out my phone and stand awkwardly in the middle of a crowded place to snap a pic. But photos can be useful. For one, they keep my blog posts from being uninterrupted black-and-white-wall-of-text tirades, adding a bit of color and space. And for two, my memory is total garbage. It doesn't matter how "present" or "in the moment" I am if I forget everything a few days later. Pictures last much longer,** and they'll help me remember when my mind fails me.

Learn the damn language. I eked by with my limited Spanish, but I could have had a bunch of more meaningful interactions (and been less reliant on my phone) if I had studied up beforehand. I'm certainly not saying I should be fluent, but ~a month of practicing the basics for nights and weekends would have gone a long way.

Don't book first, ask questions later. I had a great trip, don't get me wrong, but I could have made it even better by planning things out. If I had booked farther in advance, I could have coordinated a hike through the Elqui Valley and sampled local pisco brandy and watched the eclipse from a remote hilltop. But then again, I had a pretty great eclipse experience as it was. I'm still all for spontaneity, but it doesn't work well for events that attract a lot of people.

Obligatory Housekeeping Item

The small-to-mid-sized elephant in the room is just how long it's been since I've last written. I actually started this post while I was still in Chile, over five months ago. My defense: I've been busy. In the interim, I've been to Shanghai (twice***), Chicago, Boston, Orlando, and Boulder, and in the next few weeks I'll be in Boulder (again), Boston (again), Chicago (again), Malawi, and Kenya. I've spent my free time updating the blog infrastructure, reading my usual cocktail of self-help and sci-fi, and getting side-tracked building low-quality novelty sites.

That said, and armed with a new arsenal of organizational techniques, I plan to write more frequently and clear through my backlog of blog email. Well, maybe when I get back from Africa.

*After all, the need to travel from point A to point B cuts across all demographics. Certainly more interesting for people watching than your average yoga studio.

**Barring bad personal data hygiene, of course.

***Technically, my first trip to Shanghai was right before I went to Chile, but let's not get stuck on the specifics.


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