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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Elle est comme l'eau vive

Mike met me back at the hotel room after my day of introducing myself to Lima, handsomely concealing any surprise he might have had that I'd made it without anything untoward happening. As some days I can barely do that with our two children on our home turf, let alone in Peru, I wouldn't have taken offense.

That evening we were to meet with two of the most adventurous and likable people we know; April and Royce. Perhaps we like them because they're from the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps it's because they are not only adorable but also well-travelled, (and therefore full of great stories,) have world views similar to our own, and, while they're at it, can swear with accuracy and aplomb.

I should explain that last bit, as it does sound like an odd reason for liking a person. Swearing is a time-honored tradition, and therefore an acquired and necessity skill, when working on an overseas construction site. You either talk trash and swear with the rest of the crew or you get crushed, not terribly unlike being in the military. It's all about being able to use the skill, but in the right place and time. Otherwise, you're simply, pitiably, a victim of your own poor manners.

We met our friends at the Ricardo Palma stop after hoofing it through a good bit of the upscale part of Lima, Miraflores. Especially when compared to most of the rest of Lima, it is a manicured sort of area with cafés, shops and parks, where tourists hang out. The pan pipe and guitar music synonymous with Peru slips out of the stores onto the streets and women walk in clicking heels with large shopping bags.

For some unfathomable reason the concrete of the sidewalks in the area is polished absolutely smooth. This probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but when they are even the littlest bit wet the unwary risk slipping and sprawling. Perhaps it is a subtle revenge of the workers against the pampered. I kept expecting a well-heeled shopper to go sprawling, bags flying, but none did. Perhaps it takes practice.

Along our way were street sellers, my personal favorite being the hat seller who wore two hats upon his head, his many wares laid out all along the sidewalk. He was a bit of a flirt, and gestured that he was willing to have his photo taken when I asked in my awkward Spanish.

After taking the shot I surprised myself by blowing him a thank-you kiss, and he burst into a wide Zorba the Greek grin, spreading his arms and saying...something. Using prepaid cards, through a turnstile, down stairs, we smashed ourselves into the excellent Metro, Lima's urban train. It was reasonably clean, felt safe enough, and while crowded, was obviously far more efficient than braving Lima's roads.

flower delivery VW. We saw many of these with enormous floral displayes lashed to the tops, bumbling down the streets.

Night was falling as we disembarked the train near the heart of Lima headed to El Circuito Mágico del Agua in the Parque de la Reserva Nicely, even my Spanish was sufficient to translate those names. Entry to the park was 4 Peruvian Soles, $1.47.

It was a velvety evening and there were many families out, spending time together and, like us, enjoying the spectacle of many, many water fountains set to lights and music throughout the park. A brilliant show, and one which Lima residents are justly proud. It was also a wonderful place for people watching, laughing with the children who were shrieking in joy, getting gleefully soaked in the fountains and wandering through semi darkness. It had the same feeling one gets going to see Christmas light displays, that uncomplicated happiness and delight in color and sound. Our favorite fountain was one of the interactive ones, where you could walk through an arched tunnel of water.

We were like little kids: "Hey, look up! It makes you dizzy" and threatening to douse one another by misdirecting the streams. Hunger began to assert itself in earnest, so we tore ourselves away from the water fountains and went in search of a restaurant Royce and I had independently read about, L'eau Vive.

L'eau Vive, which means water of life, met our dining desires on just about every level. First of all, we were pretty sure we could find it. Second, it was quirky. How quirky? you ask.

Well, when was the last time you ate a dinner, a gourmet dinner, whilst being serenaded by nuns?

Exactly. This restaurant is...wait for it...run by a French order of nuns, and the money you spend to dine goes to feed the poor. Which is a good thing, having walked past many of them to get there. The French cuisine is also a good thing. A very good thing.

L'eau Vive during the day

But first you have to gain admittance into the place. We were sure of the address, which turned out to be a huge colonial building in the historical district of Lima with an equally huge wooden door. Doors in Peru are either Peruvian-sized, that is to say, tiny, or enormous. This one was the latter. A discrete sign marked it as the correct place, and an intercom seemed the way to proceed. We stood there uncertainly for a moment until Royce took the bull by the horns and pushed the button, enquiring, er, dinner, por favor? There was a crackly reply, which we didn't quite catch, and nothing happened. We hesitantly tried the door, which, not surprisingly, didn't budge.

This gave us enough time for us to wonder if we'd made a mistake after all. Then the door swung slowly open and we were greeted by a cheerful looking, bare-headed woman beckoning us to enter. She was wearing a simple skirt and cardigan instead of the admittedly hoped-for nun's habit. Visions of The Sound of Music, I admit. The interior was wood upon wood; high ceilings and empty spaces, which gave way to a pleasant, somewhat plain dining room with many empty tables. Only one other table was occupied, with that group of four nearly all the way through their meal.

With the restaurant so empty, we wondered afresh if we'd made a mistake. But Royce had heard of the place, and my guide book had sworn that even if your time in Lima was short, that you really should make sure to dine at L'eau Vive.

The menu reassured. Beautiful wines and lovely French cuisine, which, when the latter arrived, (we'd already made some inroads into the former, a ruby Malbec) were artfully and deliciously prepared. I had lapin (with apologies, rabbit) which was tender, richly sauced, and surrounded by golden puffs called humitas, lighter and fluffier versions of the traditional corn-husk wrapped Peruvian corn fritter.

Lordy, it was goo-ood. Mike's French onion soup was perfection, and I can report that the creme brulee really was the last word in creme brulees. It was odd to be the only ones in the echoingly large room, as we dined like lords and ladies, the food and company were so good it proved to be an entirely memorable meal.

There was a rustle of fabric, and in practiced movements, all around the edges of the room and in front of a painting of the Virgin Mary the nuns assembled themselves to sing. One slipped song cards to us. We sat, feeling slightly unsure as to expectations, as they swelled into song. It was not Bach or Schubert, but an entirely new Ave Maria to me, sung sweetly with real devotion, echoing off the ceilings. Here is a YouTube video someone posted from when they dined at L'eau Vive: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKC8RH0djIs if you would like to hear it.

When the song ended we felt a bit awkward; do you clap as though it was a performance, or nod, acknowledging and respecting the expression of worship? We went with the latter, murmuring our thanks as the nuns smiled gently at us and disappeared back into the kitchens and darkness.

We paid with exclamations at the affordability of such a magnificent meal, and went out to try to find the Metro again, mellowed and flushed from the good food and wine, and feeling at peace with the world.

As it turned out, the nuns from whom we asked directions were too kind to point out that the Metro was closed for the night, instead urging us to find a taxi. We eventually figured it out for ourselves. The rattling taxi we found brought us at a good clip from the old beauty of the historical district and deposited us, slightly breathless, at the sleek modernity of Miraflores.

April and Royce, true travellers who have gotten on random planes on the spur of the moment, trekked the world from tiny schoolhouses in Africa to Everest Base Camp in Nepal and beyond, said that it was one of the most unusual and memorable meals they had ever eaten.

Now, there's a recommendation.

Our weekend had began on a high note, and, with an early start the next morning, was fated to continue in much the same way.

Monday, October 10, 2011

This world is awfully big, girl this time you're all alone.

Dame Freya Stark, a particularly amazing Frenchwoman who wrote and travelled fearlessly, once wrote "To awaken alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world."

She has something there. If you get to explore on your own and get to come back to your husband and hotel in the evening, not to mention that the kids are happily ensconced in the doting care of grandparents, you, my friend, have it made.

It is an amazing feeling to have responsibility for no one but yourself. Go where you want, not a thing that you have to do...now that is a vacation.

Mike was out of the hotel at 5:30 am to get to work. Three hours later I got out of bed and drew myself a leisurely bath...in the extensive bathroom. Don't you just hate it when that happens? After washing off residual airplane grime I put on my best Mary Tyler Moore face and headed out to see, well, what Lima was all about.

First things first, I bravely crossed the street.

Perhaps this desription of a most mundane activity has you rolling your eyes in disbelief that I would even bother to write it down, let alone expect you read it. Wait, my friend, wait. If you ever go to Peru you're going to need to know this stuff.

In many places crossing the street is, as it should be, a straightforward and predictably mundane procedure. One does not generally need one's husband to, as mine did, carefully and emphatically in the wee hours of the morning, spell out the dangers of such an ordinary enterprise. But in Lima, things are different.

Since Mike had nearly been run over in the Grand Caymens during our honeymoon -having, like so many tourists, looked the wrong way (I yanked him back from certain death shrieking "they drive on the LEFT here!!!") and then again in New Orleans (oh, wait, that had to do with the necessary and I believe city ordinanced alcohol over-imbibing), I figured he knew what he was talking about and listened. Which in itself is pretty phenomenal, I have to say.

Having your wife smooshed into roadkill on her first day in South America might not be the best way to begin a vacation, one might suppose.

Although I also suppose that depends heavily on the state of the relationship. Let's move on, shall we?

Lima drivers are mad creatures. Not in the least concerned with life or preserving the structure of their vehicles, the take lanes as mere suggestions and hurtle along in their sputtering, fume belching cars, honking incessantly. The noise on many of the streets can be overwhelming. Amusingly, the worst of the vehicles are inevitably decorated with stuck-on Ferarri logos, truly, lipstick on a pig.

With patience, Mike's warnings, and persistence, I made it across without being flattened.

First, however, I had needed to gently but firmly disengage a small boy latched around my leg before attempting the crossing.

With impressive and well-practiced technique a young mother nodded in my direction and her child had flung himself at me, wrapping his arms around my leg and gave me his great dark eyes as his mother confronted me, hand outstretched. "Beautiful lady, pleeeeeease give me." Ten feet from the hotel and already I was expected to pay a ransom for my release. Sheesh.

I patted the smaller of my assailants' head and said no, no, no and no to the mother, then to the child vamos, while giving a little shake of my leg. He let go, looking bemused, and I made good my escape across the street, all the while keeping my purse to my body and looking all around. But projecting confidence. That's supposedly important.

The routine would have been more convincing if that mother hadn't been already carrying a bag of groceries, but you couldn't blame her for trying. She got points for persistence, she continued entreating me even after I was on the other side and walking (confidently?) away.

I was, without apology, a little on the nervous side. Several reasons for this.

Reason #1: the guide books had lots of warnings about crime in Lima. Lots. There are many poor, so, sadly, there is much crime. Some friends of ours, a husband and his pregnant wife, had been waiting at a red light in their car. Doors locked. A man smashed the passenger side window and tried to pull the wife's purse off her arm. She fought the thief, and he husband, a tough Alaskan fisherman when he's not engineering, boiled like a wolverine out of their car. The thief, wisely, in my opinion, let go of her purse and bolted for his life.

This is such a common crime it's described on the US Department of State website. No, really. But it's way down after the narcotics trafficking, guerrilla terrorist and unexploded mines and...OK, it's WAY down the list, past "safety and security" warnings to the "crime" section.

The thought of having my purse razored off my arm gives me the wobblies. True, I had my travel special purse, the one with mesh in the lining and a cable though the straps.

No really, you can buy such things! I love mine. My worry therefore went a little like this: when faced with not being able to get the purse, wouldn't a razor-armed robber be a little upset? Bet it wouldn't be that clean of a razor, either.

And I'm no Alaskan fisherman. More like a cupcake. A rather vanilla cupcake.

Other highly pertinent warnings in the guidebook included: never get into the wrong sort of taxi. Making a mistake like that would get you kidnapped...or worse. My other favorite warning was to not to wear any jewelry whatsoever.

So I needed to walk with purpose and confidence, look like I belonged there, not get lost and need a taxi,not wear any pretty shiny things, be alert, and still have a good time.

To pull this act off I needed a cup of coffee at the very least.

Now, the hotel is nicely situated across the street from Larcomar, a shopping area cunningly built into the side of a cliff overlooking the ocean. There I found my coffee, trying my best to order using that all-important phrase in Spanish, café con leche, por favor.

Reason #2 I was a little nervous: I speak almost no Spanish. I speak Sesame Street level plus a little Rosetta Stone. This does not a UN translator make.

The waiter didn't buy my Spanish for a moment, repeating my order back to me in English and persisting in speaking English to me in a passive sort of rebuke against my Spanish attempts. At least he didn't make that sound Rosetta Stone makes when my accent offends her sensibilities for the millionth time.

She and I are not on the best of terms, if you must know.

The same thing happened in France; there I know I deserved it. It was worse in Dubai, once, during one of those conversations where the Yank has to be the butt of the acerbic British humor. I didn't mind that, it's kind of a rule. What I did mind what being informed that the American accent is painful, offensive even, to the ears of those who speak the Queen's English.

I protested (a foolish thing to do...there is no arguing with the acid Brit, they who have perfected their skills since birth) that my accent is Pacific Northwest, the cleanest of the bunch, the one that is adopted by national newscasters and nowhere near the worst accent to come out of the USA.

Like what? the circling Brits queried.

How about New Jersey? I asked, putting on my worst Jersey Shore, drawing out vowels and probably offending half the East Coast with my lousy imitation.

Can't hear the difference, I was loftily informed, sounds the same to us.

Wud-ever. Lousy toffee-nosed Limeys.

I say that with a level of jealousy that I simply don't have their mad skills. Or accent, for that matter.

Far away from that little encounter, I deliberately put the memory aside to enjoy sipping excellent coffee. Pacific breezes in my face, poring over my little self-made itinerary for our time in Peru.

It was an excellent itinerary, if I do say so myself. I'll tell you more about it later.

I consulted my notebook again for the proper phrase, asked for the check, got it translated back to me, but at least I was ready with my Washington State driver's license number when I paid with credit card. Every time you pay with credit card in Peru you are expected to write your "ID number" below your signature. What good it does, I haven't the faintest, since they don't actually check to see if it matches.

I headed for the beach. I believe the way to battle jetlag is to drink a goodly amount of bottled water and walk and walk and walk. This is stolen wholeheartedly from Ricks Steves , and I think he is onto something. If nothing else, at least you won't be wasting your precious vacation feeling icky in your room. At the very worst you feel icky but get your body moving and hey, you get to see something of your destination.

For me, the beach is the thing. I went down the coast, looking for a possible way to the waves far, far below. Mike had ventured that perhaps my perception of distance was flawed and that it might be a bit further than I thought. The guide book said that some of the beaches were more dangerous places for tourists to go.

But I needed sand for my collection and was going for it anyway.

First I walked south, and rounded a corner to construction workers lounging idly next to the sidewalk. Oh, here we go, I thought, brace yourself for Latino catcalls.

I projected confidence and walked straight ahead.

Not a peep. Nada. What the hell?

The total lack of attention was a bit bad for my ego. I'm in freaking South America and the construction workers don't hoot and whistle? Damn, I need to go on a diet or something.

I walked further and decided I didn't want to risk the long path down to the water that way. There were homeless folks ambling about and no security people. As there had been plenty of security people near the hotel I gave the construction workers a second chance to remedy their obvious oversight and whoop at me coming back the other way.

Didn't even look up. Jerks.

Maybe their boss was visiting the jobsite or something. Maybe it was my safety purse. Perhaps I was projecting too much confidence, like I was packing a weapon of mass destruction in said safety purse?

On the other side of the mall there was a path down to the ocean, with one of those security guards standing next to it. Unfortunately, it had been blocked with a 4 foot wall, which one would have to scale, which I would have done less than glamorously, but there it was. So I asked the guardia de seguridad if I could climb it and go down to the beach.

Aaand of course he said no. Informed the tourist that she needed a car if she wished to go to the ocean. Helpful that fellow, but not surprising. So I kept walking. What else could a gringa do?

The area along the top of the cliff is quite pleasant, with paragliders riding the thermals and manicured parks with interesting artwork, a picturesque lighthouse up the coast. I followed another couple down a long, promising looking pathway among flowers. The way ended up with a dodgy stairway, but the beach was just beyond.

There didn't seem to be any lurkers in the stairway so I hurried through. The trick was to not step in the fetid puddles of urine and not to touch anything.

The beach, with a surf school and noisy stones rattled vigorously in glorious rhythm by the surf, was a reward. Peru is known for its surfing, with huge swells and some of the longest waves in the world. Where we were, though, it was pretty tame, perfect for beginners. Wetsuits were laid out, and surfboards, and muscular, tanned fellows looking to teach.

I plopped down on the smooth round rocks and watched the wobbling students, looking terribly inadequate compared with their instructors who made it look effortless. Pathetically, I was relieved to see few security guards patrolling the shoreline. Amazing how quickly you get used to that sort of thing.

Up the beach there was a young man with his head on his knees in a attitude communicating exhaustion or despair. Photo op.

I got this shot, with which I am very pleased, before this seagull (below) landed and began speaking in what was obviously Seagull Spanish. It didn't sound the least bit like our seagulls back home; its wails were higher pitched and faster, and somehow impertinent.

The young man lifted his head and stuck out his tongue in our general direction, though whether at me or the bird I am not sure. Darned near anything after being shunned by the construction workers was pretty much welcome, as far as I was concerned. So I grinned at him.

Plus, I got my photo.

After skittering back up those stairs and to the top of the cliff again, I spent the rest of the day exploring the area, the lighthouse, the beautiful tiled walls along the parks and paths, watching the paragliders swooping on the thermals, and drinking bottled water.

I made sorry attempts at conversation with a few friendly locals, (confirming once again that my Spanish is horrible!) reveled in a military band who played and sang what I could only assume was the Peruvian national anthem with booming, patriotic gusto, and finally retired back to the room to put my feet up and feel ridiculously proud of myself.

I survived my first day in South America all by myself. No one seemed to even really notice me. Except the seagull.