Interview with Lonely Planet Writer Sandra Bao

Lonely Planet Writer Sandra Bao by katiealley on Flickr Sandra Bao knows Argentina. For the last ten years, she has traveled extensively throughout the country as one of the lead writers for guidebook publisher Lonely Planet, contributing to the Argentina travel guide, Buenos Aires city guide, and South America on a Shoestring. Born in Buenos Aires to Chinese immigrants, Sandra and her family later moved to the United States, and she now calls the Pacific Northwest home.

She recently breezed through Necochea while conducting research for the latest edition of Lonely Planet Argentina, and I had the opportunity to chat with Sandra about her perspectives on Argentina, travel and writing over a meal at a local restaurant.

Many visitors never venture beyond Buenos Aires on a trip to Argentina, but there's more to this country than the big city. What's your favorite small town in Argentina?

I think that would have to be El Chaltén. It's popular enough as a tourist town to have good travel services but small enough that you can walk everywhere. And its location can't be beat – on a clear day the surrounding scenery is spectacular. Plus, there's all that world-class hiking. El Chaltén is changing quickly, however, so see it while you can.

In your opinion, which destinations in Argentina are currently off the radar for most travelers but are up and coming?

I think northern Argentina has more off-the-beaten-track destinations than Patagonia. Esteros del Iberá has great swampy wildlife. Parque Provincial Ischigualasto has amazing rock formations and dinosaur fossils. The Quebrada de Humahuaca region is worth exploring for its colorful landscapes, and the nearby villages of Iruya and Tilcara are good places to stay.

What would your suggested itinerary be for a traveler with just one week to spend in Argentina?

It depends on what they like. If they like big city life, then just stay in Buenos Aires, perhaps hopping to Colonia or Montevideo as daytrips. If they don't like cities but love hiking, fly to El Chaltén. Nature lovers can fly to Iguazú Falls and to Puerto Madryn (in the right seasons). Like a more hot, dry environment with indigenous culture and desert landscapes? Then go north. Adore wine? Don't miss Mendoza.

Unlike most South American countries, Argentina is – for the most part – a racially homogenous society. What's your take on race relations in Argentina? Do you ever feel discriminated against while traveling in Argentina because of your ethnicity?

Argentines seem fairly tolerant of other races, though they certainly have their stereotypes. Plus, they don't have to deal with them too much – there aren't so many minorities! There are so few local black people that it's hard to get a read on what they think, since few have probably met any. Buenos Aires has many Asians, so they've become fairly accepted. Outside Buenos Aires, however, blacks and Asians are even rarer, and people will stare at them.

I don't often feel discriminated against because I am Asian. I speak fluent Spanish, so Argentines I deal with soon realize I'm on their same cultural level. And I can't say that being from the United States has been bad either. I do think that once Argentines realize I'm an Argentine-born U.S. citizen, they just kind of stop trying to pigeonhole me – it's pretty hard. 

Many people have a rather romantic notion of the life of a guidebook writer. What's the realistic side of travel writing?

You're often alone for weeks or even months at a time. You eat meals at restaurants alone. You travel alone. It can get lonely not having someone to talk to. But if you're lucky, your partner or a friend can join you – on their own dime.

You work 10, 12 or more hours per day, from morning to late night (after all, there are those restaurants, bars and nightclubs to check out!).

While some people realize the importance of what you're doing, others don't care, and it's like pulling teeth getting basic information out of them. This depends on the country, however.

Sometimes your schedule is so tight you can't enjoy the museums or sights fully; you have just enough time to get into a town in the morning, check restaurants, hotels and the bus station, then leave in the afternoon. Sometimes you're in such a desolate, boring or ugly city that you wonder what you're doing there, but it's a transport hub, so you have to stay and work.

You get calluses on your feet from all the walking you do!

What are some of the greatest challenges that you face in your quest to gather facts and stories while on assignment?

I have to make sure the information people tell me is true. Often locals want to give me an answer, even if they don't know it. Sometimes it's cultural (like in some Asian countries) – they don't want to lose face. Or they're eager to please. Or they're just wrong. So when in doubt, I have to double or triple check information given to me.

It's also hard to cover a destination during the off-season, such as a beach resort. It's not easy to review a place if it's closed!

What advice do you have for aspiring travel writers looking to break into the field?

Strangely enough, I don't get a whole lot of people asking how they can be guidebook travel writers (which is completely different from the kind of writing Pico Iyer or Paul Theroux do). If anyone does ask, I tell them to find the link on Lonely Planet's website which explains what the company looks for in potential authors. That might stop 90% of them. Speaking foreign languages, having published travel writing experience and expert knowledge on a destination (or having lived there) are a huge help, but even then you're not guaranteed a job. You have to have the right writing style for the right publisher, and each travel publisher has different requirements. Do your homework. And persevere.

And I always tell them this: This job isn't as glamorous as they might think. You're essentially a traveling fact checker. If they really like to write creatively, this isn't for them; it's hard to be creative when writing a restaurant review in 50 words or less. And finally, you're unlikely to get rich writing guidebooks – unless you own the company!

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Recipe File: Stuffed Round Zucchini | Zapallitos Rellenos

Gourmet thrill seekers on the hunt for exotic fruits and vegetables in Argentina aren't likely to encounter much more than disappointment. A trip to the greengrocer yields the expected, run-of-the-mill selection with which we're all familiar: peppers, onions, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes and corn, among others. The only rare item that consistently turns up at our local supermarket is a young American woman who wanders the produce aisle in search of strange-looking fruits and vegetables…

Zapallitos at the Market by katiemetz, on FlickrDespite the lack of head-turning produce, one veggie that did catch me off guard the first time I spotted it was the zapallito. Also known as zapallito de tronco or zapallito redondo, this native of South America is actually a summer squash with a taste and texture very similar to zucchini. I've always been a fan of  long zucchini, but I must say that I prefer zapallitos for the simple fact that their size and shape make them more versatile. Here in Argentina, they frequently appear in savory tarts and tortillas (Spanish-style omelettes) or breaded and fried as milanesas, but more often than not, they're carved in half and stuffed.

Some cooks choose to stuff the zapallitos with a ground beef mixture. I've tried them this way, and they are tasty; however, I find I like them best when they're filled with a mix of vegetables and cheese. Besides, in the land where red meat almost invariably takes center stage at the dinner table, it's nice to partake in some lighter yet appetizing fare now and again.

Zapallitos Rellenos | Stuffed Round Zucchini by katiemetz, on Flickr [Daniel's mom's version of zapallitos rellenos topped with queso cremoso, a semi-soft cheese similar to mozzarella]

As an amusing side note, when I first moved here I had a tendency to confuse the words "zapallitos" and "zapatillas." On more than one occasion, I gushed to Daniel's family about how delicious the "sneakers" tasted. Thankfully, I quickly learned to stop referring to my dinner as athletic footwear.

At the market, look for firm zapallitos with smooth, glossy, and unblemished skin, and select ones that are all roughly the same size to ensure uniform cooking. Since zapallitos are rather difficult to source outside of this region, try substituting globe, round, or 'Eight Ball' zucchini.

Zapallitos rellenos work well as either a side dish or a vegetarian main course with a salad and some crusty bread. The recipe is flexible and perfect for experimentation, so feel free to add some herbs or diced ham, as is often done.

Zapallito Relleno | Stuffed Round Zucchini by katiemetz, on Flickr

Stuffed Round Zucchini | Zapallitos Rellenos
Makes 8 servings

4 medium zapallitos
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
¾ c. chopped red pepper
¾ c. chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
generous pinch of ají molido [substitute crushed red pepper flakes]
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ c. shredded parmesan cheese [reserve ¼ c. for topping]
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 Tbsp. plain breadcrumbs

In a large pot filled with salted water, boil the zapallitos until tender but still able to hold their shape, approximately 12-14 minutes. Transfer the zapallitos to a plate, and allow them to cool enough to handle. Once cooled, slice them in half horizontally and run a knife around the inside edge of each half, about ¼-inch from the skin, to loosen the pulp. Scoop out the pulp with a spoon, leaving the zapallito shells. Chop the pulp, drain the liquid, and reserve the pulp for later. Once hollowed out, place the shells upside-down on the plate to allow excess liquid to drain.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the red pepper, onion and a pinch of salt to the skillet, and sauté until tender and lightly browned. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute or until fragrant, stirring frequently. Add the reserved zapallito pulp, and sauté 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat, and season the mixture with ají molido, salt and pepper to taste. Allow the mixture to cool for a few minutes, and then add ¼ cup of cheese, parsley, egg and breadcrumbs. Mix thoroughly to combine.

Place the zapallito shells on a lightly greased baking sheet, and fill them evenly with the vegetable mixture. Top each stuffed zapallito with a sprinkle of the remaining ¼ cup of cheese.

Bake in an oven preheated to 400ºF for approximately 20-22 minutes, or until cheese is lightly browned. Serve immediately.

Zapallito Relleno [Close-up] by katiemetz, on Flickr

Are you looking for more Argentine recipes? Click here to browse the entire Recipe File, or try out the visual recipe index Read More......

Back from the Wilds of Northern Patagonia

I just returned from a week-long adventure in Bariloche, Argentina and the surrounding area, accompanied by my stepdad Vince and my sister Marianna. After a brief stop in Necochea, I dragged them kicking and screaming to northern Patagonia as they cursed my name repeatedly. For days on end, I subjected them to dull, uninspiring landscapes such as these:

Río Limay, Provincia de Neuquén by katiealley on Flickr [Río Limay, Neuquén Province, just outside Bariloche]

Rainbow Seen from Cerro Campanario, Bariloche, Argentina by katiealley on Flickr [Rainbow seen from the summit of Cerro Campanario]

I ran them ragged on tours of the most uninteresting places I could dream up including pristine mountain lakes and glaciers.

Marianna and Vince Atop Cerro Otto by katiealley on Flickr [They're crying on the inside. Don't let the smiles fool you.]

And since one unfamiliar culture just wasn't enough, I then sent them packing across the Andes to Chile.

Cerro Tronador from Chile by katiealley on Flickr [Cerro Tronador from the Chilean side of the Andes]

Osorno Volcano at Sunset by katiealley on Flickr[Volcán Osorno at sunset, near Puerto Varas, Chile]

All joking aside, I had a fantastic time with Vince and Marianna. It did wonders for my spirit to see my family again, and being able to share in the unrivaled natural beauty of northern Patagonia with my loved ones made for an unforgettable trip. Even my sister – a fickle sixteen-year-old – seemed to enjoy herself.

I took over 800 shots while we were traveling, only to be outdone by my partner in crime Vince who wrote to inform me that his memory card was bursting with 1500+ photos. Needless to say, I have numerous images to share with you all, but it will take me a while to process the shots and get them up on Flickr. Over the next few weeks, I'll be writing a series of posts about Bariloche and northern Patagonia, featuring some of my best photos from my travels.

In the meantime, feel free to peruse these photos from my previous trip to Patagonia with Daniel back in February 2008.

Travel Blog Sites - Site of the Day In other news, Travel Blog Sites by TravelPod recently featured Seashells and Sunflowers on its list of independent travel blogs. Check out the site to discover some great new reads by bloggers around the globe!

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