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Sunday, January 29, 2012

You say, you don't know, I say: take me out.

Outside of the cathedral, the scene had been transformed  from relatively placid to one of mayhem. Cars and pedestrians jostling over every spare bit of pavement, activity and movement, and above all, noise.

The cacophony of the horns blaring and echoing back and forth between the buildings can best be described as disconcerting. It's a time-honored tradition: all drivers in Lima are honor-bound to aggressively honk their horns. A lot. And by a lot, I mean constantly and without surcease. I think the rule may be something along the lines of: for every car you see, honk once, cars in your way (which includes parked cars), honk until that car is no longer in your way, and then one more blast, just to get in the last word.

Guide books warn that visitors to the city need to be prepared for the sheer volume of noise and people. Some, one reads, also need a break from it all now and then or risk going a bit mad.

I can see why.

On the sidewalks, among the swirl of pedestrians, the only still things were numerous waist-high stands selling, of all things, hard-boiled quail's eggs. The tiny eggs had been cooked and peeled and then were kept warm in water baths until a customer came along. Then they were dipped out with a slotted spoon and presented in a bowl to be munched on the go.

I took what was intended to be a discrete photo and got a really dirty look from one of the egg seller women. Ouch.

It was strangely, piercingly lonely to be in the milling crowd with all that noise and activity, feeling like a gawky giant at 5'4", and as pale as something the had been rooted up from too long beneath a log away from the sun.

There were buses stacking up along the shoulder at paraderos, each one with a bus caller -conductor hanging off the side and calling out their destinations and the price for the trip. Each caller barks out the price they think is the perfect balance of getting what they can while packing the bus as full as possible.  The smaller the bus, the faster and cheaper it is.

Of course, we all know faster and cheaper is not always better. But it can be fun. As much as I would have liked to have caught one and gotten off the street, I wasn't confident that I would end up where I wanted to be; a mistake I wasn't willing to take with darkness approaching.

Plus, and this is vaguely cowardly, I couldn't really understand what the conductors were saying. Better to go back to the regulated trains for a turista like me, I figured.  

So I wove and buffetted a path through the dense crowds, getting in the way, getting some stares, not necessarily unfriendly but not exactly nice either. The storefronts that had been firmly shuttered on my way out were now open for business, the two most frequent being sellers of rotisserie chicken cooked on enormous sword-like metal skewers over vast vats of coals, and purveyors of women's underwear. The latter were held overhead on cross-barred wooden poles by men in hats while being turned this way and that to give full view of the merchandise.

In the confusion of the crowds and the rotating underwear and naked dripping chickens, I took the wrong fork of the road. As the scene was so changed from before, I didn't even realise my error until I realised nothing looked correct. Plus the streets were much cleaner than I remembered them. Almost no poo. Either they were hosed down before rush hour every day or I was lost again.

The latter.

It all turned out, of course. It usually does. I found a freeway, and then a ramp down to the trains, and got to Central Station all right. Then I ended up asking which train to take...the maps for the trains were far inside the gates that  I couldn't make them out to decipher which was going where.  There's nothing like stupidly repeating your destination: "Miraflores, Miraflores por favor"  to take the air out of your deflatable ego.

After thanking the train employee who came to my aid -many graciases- me and my flattened ego smushed in with the rest of the train commuters. It really was quite cozy. So much so that you needed to plan ahead and cooperate with your fellow man, woman, and child if you wanted to get off at the correct station. I found myself at an advantage here...I had longer arms and could snake a path for myself and those nearby through the pressing bodies, and I ended up helping several riders make it to the doors before they closed in their inexorable way.

I was also really glad for Safety Purse. There was no way I could have told the difference between innocent smooshing and pickpocketing. As for the nearly inevitable weirdos that hang out in crowded places to cop a feel...who could tell?! All I knew was that I arrived at the correct destination with all my gear. Can't ask better than that.

By the time the train was in Miraflores I was late. I ran the now-darkened streets trying not to knock anyone over or get hit by a car. Both are considered bad form abroad. Sweaty and tired and feeling incredibly grungy, I mentally rehearsed several apology options offer to Mike. These turned out to be unnecessary...he was late as well.

Puente de los Suspiros, Bridge of Sighs, where, legend has it, a young maiden's sighs could be heard by passers-by after her wealthy father forbade her to ever see her common-born love again.
It is traditional to kiss your true love upon this bridge. Ah, amor.

We took our tired selves and luggage to April and Royce's house in the Barranco district of  Lima that evening, down the coast a little ways, past the Puente de los Suspiros. Our driver, provided by the hotel, was hampered in two ways: he didn't know where he was going and he couldn't drive slow enough to take the turns when we recognised them. So we got the roundabout tour in more ways than one, but finally we made it.

A home-cooked meal of lasagna and much-needed glasses of wine in April and Royce's beautiful apartment later, I was looking around their digs and wondering if we'd made the wrong decision not to live in Lima.

adorable animal figure at Royce and April's

Then we heard yelling and some sort of scuffle below the windows. Without hesitation, Royce and April ran outside to break up a fight in the parking lot; as it turned out, their somewhat elderly security guard was beating the cerviche out of  a young guy who dared park in the wrong spot in defiance of the guard's instructions. Mike joined them downstairs. I stayed upstairs, hanging out the window to watch from a safer vantage point.

I looked around again and decided yup. We'd made the right decision.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A big ol pile of dem bones...

*Vegetarian and sensitive viewer warning! If you might go EW and lose your lunch easily, this may not be the post for you.*

There is a list, undoubtedly compiled by some persons impressively in the know, of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

I'm a real sucker for lists. Any kind of lists. Even my own, banal "to do" lists. Add food to the equation and you have my undivided attention.

We have dined in some darned nice places, but as far as the S Pelligrino list went, we'd managed exactly zero of the coveted spots of ingestion.

Now, I wasn't especially fussed by this fact, but when cross-referencing exactly where in Lima one could try something  I was determined to try: the traditional meal of cuy, Astrid y Gaston came up as not only delicious but nearby. I figured, hey it's on that list, two birds with one stone.

Or in this case, one guinea pig.

Yes, cuy is guinea pig, and in the Andes it is, it is claimed, the thing to eat. I had seen photos of the little rodents, barbecued with their little legs all akimbo, pokey, charred feet and a pepper stuffed in their mouth like a parody of the apple they cram into the large pig version.


That scene is one I was pretty sure I didn't want to take a fork and knife to. I like the idea of eating weird things but I also like the idea of pretending they were plucked from the nearest meat tree, already in saran wrap and ready to go.

If it looks like a critter...I don't really want to go there. And I really didn't want to choose my guinea pig lunch from a squeeking, chirping group of fuzzy cuteness. I mean, I'm such a wuss I don't even like to pick out a lobster from a tank, and they have the brain of a grasshopper.

I admire the folks who are beautifully logical and stand by their convictions, either becoming vegans or raising and slaughtering their own meat, but I'd have to be a darn sight tootin' more hungry to go either of those routes.

Back to considering lunch, Astrid Y Gaston offered Peking Cuy:

Cuy Pekines Acompañado de encurtidos de chifa, hoisin de rocoto y crepes de maíz morado

Er...with Chinese pancakes made from purple corn, shredded something-or-anothers and Hoisin sauce. Like the duck, but with less quacking, more wheeking, and bragging rights.

I mean, if you're the type to be proud of trying guinea pig. Which I am.

I'd  heard stories about some pretty disgusting cuy preparations, but the Peking version sounded doable. I only had one more day in Lima, so I made reservations.

Good thing too, because I'm pretty sure the large man (I didn't know they MADE suit jackets in that size, let alone in Peru,) guarding the discreet door would not have let me in without them.

Inside, a pleasant restaurant, beautiful decor, attentive staff, and a table for one, please.

The meal was the perfect balance of showmanship and quiet enjoyment of the dishes, with a thrilling selection of little breads and a nice Chilean red to start. The wine did double duty, to gird my loins, if needed, to do the deed and eat the little bugger.

It arrived, beautifully plated, crispy and fragrant and damned tasty. The cuy turned out to be fatty like duck and rich like rabbit. Wrapped in the beautifully thin pancakes and dipped in the sauce...well...

It was no hardship to eat it.

I left the restaurant behind with regret but far too full, having also tried the ez diablo chactado ("fish devil breaded and fried"). Cuy is also often prepared  chactado in it's whole state; I figured it would be good to try something that way. I had thought the devil fish would be octopus (did anyone else read Island of the Blue Dolphins ?) but it turned out to be a white-fleshed fish of some kind.  I blame the waiter for my fullness, he having talked me into two appetisers, assuring me that cuy as considered a starter and it alone would not be filling enough for Madame.

I'm such a sucker for being called Madame.

He fibbed, but then, he might have pegged me as American and adjusted the level of food necessary for my satisfaction accordingly. And there's no supersizing cuy.

Now, that turned out well, so I was ready for an adventure. I would leave the now-familiar safe haven of Miraflores and take the railway to another part of the city entirely.

At first it seemed to be going well, but when I got off the train I could not, for the life of me, make where I was jive with what was on the map. I had no idea which way was north, nor could I match up the streets with the names listed in the index.

I stood in a long bank line to try to blend in while looking at the guide book map, in an attempt to not send up the "tourist prey" bat signal. It was pretty pathetic, as evidenced by one woman coming up and offering to sell me drugs, and after that a man lingered nearby until I left the line and then tagged along beside me, asking repeatedly "You need help? I help you! Yes, yes, I help you!"

I didn't think I needed that whatever kind of help he was offering. Fortunately he went away after a while. Unfortunately this also meant that I had walked rapidly off in the direction I thought might be correct and no longer had a bank line to stand in if I needed to reorient myself.

Which I probably did. But I didn't want to be compulsive about it. Trust myself, that was the ticket.

A beautiful blue church stood guard over a small open area with a few benches and scraggly pigeons, and I looked furtively around before sneaking  my camera out of Safety Travel Purse for a shot.

It's not much of a camera anyway, but I'd hate to lose it. Safety Travel Purse always makes me feel better, like I've really prepared for anything. This, of course, is patently untrue, but even delusional beliefs can be helpful in uncertain situations.

The church was cordoned off by a chain-link fence, but didn't appear to be closed down. Curious. What kind of neighborhood was this, anyway?

I kept going, feeling a bit like a lost dog, but hoping for the best. There was plenty of graffiti to look at along the way, the sidewalks were dirty, and, well, they didn't exactly smell like roses. I watched where I stepped.

Further along, the urine-smelling streets progressed to walkways with unmistakable piles of human fecal matter. This was about the time when I started getting concerned about my safety in a real way, not to mention wishing fervently I had worn closed-toe shoes. Eerily, there was no one around.

I knew I had broken every darned rule in the tourist safety book: I hadn't told a soul where I was going, I was alone, I didn't really know how to get where I was going, I had no way to call for help, I didn't have any real way of defending myself, and I know I looked like the Other White Meat.

And my last meal, should the worst happen, was guinea pig. Good Lord, if that ended up on a coroner's report my mother would never buy it. Her daughter willingly went traipsing off all by myself in an unknown city with a stomach full of childhood pet? Conspiracy theories would abound.

I walked and walked and walked. This was taking forever, but, then again, I was being left alone. Probably for the sole reason that I seemed to be the only person for blocks and blocks.
Where was everybody? Surely there were people around; logically speaking, someone had to have left all that poop lying around; it surely did not spontaneously generate.

My only plan was that if someone started coming after me I was to look directly at his crotch, then point and start laughing hysterically. I had read somewhere that this was a sure-fire way to disarm even the most macho jerk in Latin America.

Like parasailing, I didn't get to try it out, and again, probably for the best. If I really were attacked, I'd probably squeek like a cuy and that isn't much of a deterrent.

Finally I was getting into an area where there were some people again, and, notably, the sidewalks were poo free again, thank heaven. This was past another train stop to which I could have ridden had I not followed the instructions I found online as to where one should get off.

Perhaps that website was set up to promote tourist victimisation.

More likely I read the darned thing wrong.

I joined a small gathering of people laughing and pointing up at some workers on who were either doing an impromptu performance of  The Three Stooges en español, or were simply incompetent. Either way, it was a real crowd pleaser of a scene as 2 of the workmen teetered above the street with a third one ostensibly guiding their platform with a cable but in reality unbalancing the entire operation.


The man on the ground was also attempting to hand up a long pole at the same time, adding to the confusion and hilarity.

Finally I was getting into the historical section of Lima, and my goal,  the beautiful and elaborate Inglesia de San Francisco.

Construction of this church began in 1542, a scant 50 years after Columbus sighted the new world. It took 150 years to complete the magnificent building, housing artworks, a library of thousands of antique texts, some from as far back as 1700, and, beneath all its glory, a series of catacombs where the bones of the poor from centuries past are arranged as though to make order of death.

Time was getting short, and as I had no way of letting Mike know if I was going to be late back to the hotel, I was motivated to get a move on. Scampering up to the front desk of the Museo de Catacumbas, after carefully explaining that I was in a hurry and couldn't wait, I paid a scant 6 soles to join an English tour already in progress. We were led through the monastery, learning about the significance of and admonished repeatedly not to take photographs of anything. Which was a bummer, since the great hall had a fantastic painting of the Last Supper, Christ and the Apostles seated at a feast the we were informed  included papaya, yucca, the Peruvian corn beer (chicha) and the main course...cuy.

No way!

Jesus ate guinea pig? Not so much; while a nod to the unknowable ways of God is in order, guinea pigs stayed firmly on the west side of the Atlantic until much, much later in history, when a few Dutch explorers ferried them back home as novelties. Regardless, including them in the meal was a clever and subtle way by the church to make the scene familiar and relevant to local people.

It's important to identify with your savior. Not too much, mind you, but some.

Lastly, we went down stairs and more stairs to the entrance of the catacombs. We were told that the remains of some 70,000 people are interred there. Dusty, a little bit sad, those piles of yellowed bones, skulls and femurs and pelvises, are all separated, like with like, no longer acquainted with the other lasting bits of their original owners.

What struck me the most was the way the catacombs had been designed to withstand the earthquakes that rock Peru. More than two-thirds of the world's large scale earthquakes occur in the circum-Pacific seismic belt, also known as the Ring of Fire. Peru gets her share of these. To combat the earthquakes, there are great wells beneath Iglesia de San Francisco, 10 meters across, like this one:

skulls and femurs

carefully constructed both to aid in stability and to house bones.

To be quite honest, while it was a bit eerie to be beneath ground and thinking of earthquakes while surrounded by the dead, they were so very dead, it was difficult to connect the remnants to real, living, breathing people from the centuries.

This was probably for the best.

For every vacation there must be a regret, and here was mine: I didn't have time to go visit the library.

I was already fretting about being late back to the hotel, so, a little crestfallen, I shelved my The Name of the Rose  fantasies (Sean Connery wouldn't have been there anyway, right?) and went out into the streets, where, suddenly, the whole world had also come out into the rain.

Ah. Rush hour. In Lima.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Well, I got a nickel, have you got a dime, let's get together and buy us some wine...

That evening I distinguished myself in several ways. First, I was the only one in the car on the way to the fancy-schmancy corporate get-together at the Lima Country Club to be hemming  the cuffs of my new pants. While wearing them.

What can I say? It was an emergency.

I only had the teensy bitty hotel sewing kit, but in a pinch, it worked.

Once there, amongst glamorous cream surroundings, chandeliers, and an impressive guest-to-perfectly-groomed-staff ratio, I did my very best trained seal / corporate wife imitation, saying  el gusto es mio "the pleasure is mine" each time I was introduced to a VIP Chilean person. This went over well, being met with real smiles and enthusiasm, though I am sure it didn't hurt that the Pisco Sours were flowing freely.

I like the Chileans who work with Mike's company. They are generous people, both with their humor and  their willingness to take the time to really talk and think and laugh. It also doesn't hurt my opinion one bit that they tend to stock their luggage with Chilean wines when they come to Seattle...and dispense with the loot to the NW employees. So my susceptible heart is theirs forever.

That evening, one particularly jovial fellow, his hair gray and suit beautifully cut, took me under his wing and taught me phrases such as the Spanish version of you'll be sleeping in the doghouse: voy a cambiar la cerradura de la puerta -"I'll change the lock on the door."  In case I needed to use such a phrase on Mike. Thus armed, I attacked the rest of the evening with enthusiasm.

Did I mention Pisco Sours were being served?

This might be a good time to explain the Pisco Sour. I think I have mentioned it is THE national drink of Peru. So much so that they have, I kid you not, a real holiday called, you guessed it, National Pisco Sour Day, which will be celebrated a couple of weeks from now.

The first time Mike came home from Peru he was all ready to try and make them at home, enthusiastically carting along a bottle of Pisco, a grape brandy made in either Peru or Chile. In fact, the Peruvians and the Chileans have a bitter debate as to who came up with the Pisco Sour, but then, those two countries will fight with each other over about just about anything. Historically speaking.

lime tree, Peru

Anyway, centuries of angst aside,  here's what the recipe for Pisco Sours looks like:

2 ounces Pisco
1 ounce lime juice (key limes, we are told, are the closest to the little limes they use in Peru, which, to confuse matters, they call "lemons")
about 3/4 ounces of simple syrup, to taste
1 egg white
and a dash of bitters.

Everything except the bitters is poured over ice and blended until the egg and sugar combine to a frothy foam in a cocktail sort of meringue. Then the dash of bitters is added in an aromatic crowning gesture.

If you drink more than one of these, well, I won't be held responsible. And it is quite easy to drink more than one, but I had been warned and held back.

Which was a pretty good ploy as the dinner was a multiple course feast designed to showcase accompanying Chilean wines. There is one and one area in which even  Peruvians will agree that the Chileans are superior, and that is in making some really lovely wines. Our sommelier for the evening, a cocky young buck wearing the traditional cup of his trade around  his neck, having us play a guessing game as we tried not one but two wines with each course...and the pourers ever attentive at our elbows to replenish the glasses, should there be any indication whatsoever that we might like them to.

I eventually took to acting like I was at an auction, not daring to move, lest an arched eyebrow or careless gesture land me with more than I could afford. 

adding to my STOP sign collection.

The conversation was scintillating, or at least seemed to under the circumstances, and it was certainly interesting to learn the difference between, say, a Carmenère and a Malbec. Having thoroughly enjoyed myself, I went up to the sommelier after we had eaten all there was to eat and started up a (probably) wine-snobbish conversation about Oregon's Willamette Valley and my enthusiasm for its Pinot Noirs. The wine steward seemed delighted to wax poetic with me on this topic, and he got very close, offering his business card, attractively garlanded with a grape motif and saying in a low voice that if I ever needed anything in Lima...

Good to know. Moving on to other attendees, gracias.  Once again keeping my gestures to a minimum.

Perhaps he was just being friendly. Either way I kept the card as a...trophy? Let's call it a souvenir.  

The evening wore down, and, after good-byes and air cheek kisses, all the little groups tried, and failed miserably for quite awhile, to find taxis. What, they don't want to pick up intoxicated passengers? Not commenting on us, though I could have been (why would you want me to incriminate myself that way?); the bar at the Country Club is apparently known as the spot where Peru's opulent stop by for a nightcap...and getting utterly smashed. 

Finally we ended up in a rather nice Lincoln Towncar, a real contrast to the rattle bugs you usually see along the roads of the city. It was a night to rather tiredly and stupidly gather up our things to prepare for moving out of the hotel.

Good-bye, then, to the Marriott Lima.

Soon, the real fun would begin.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Food, glorious food...

That evening in Lima, we went with friends to a dinner place called La Dama Juana that featured "native dances." I was expecting anything from educational to cheesy and got something not too terribly set in the middle. Alongside a buffet dinner, which was nice for us as foreigners to try out different cuisines without too much commitment, ten kinds of dances were showcased, on an elevated stage in the center of the diners, lights flashing and neon glowing like a club, contrasting with the traditional costumes and professional demeanor of the dancers. They demonstrated some 10 dances from different areas and times of Peru, dancing their hearts out for us as we wined and dined and imbibed Pisco Sours.

Some of the dances were beautiful, with stomping boots and flowing skirts, kerchiefs circled in the air, ladies swaying like butterflies, cowboys  clapping their hands, wearing enormous hats courting their Spanish ladies. During one of the dances they invited a few of the audience on stage to try their hand and one tall, gray-haired man danced beautifully with a senorita, showing true old school class.

Other dances were sexy, like the one with bared midriffs and flirty short skirts. To the back of those skirts was pinned a flag of paper that the male dancers tried to light on fire. A few waggles of her beautiful hips and the folds of her skirt extinguished the flames, and the candle as well. Audience members, young and old, were brought on stage to try their luck at the feat, with napkins also pinned to their behinds, and they all ran around with candles trying to set each others behinds aflame while protecting their own rear ends. Quite the game. Of course Royce was chosen to try his luck on stage and we laughed ourselves sick at his attempts...while having our glasses of water at the ready to put him out if the worst should happen.

Amateur firefighting, to be sure. One lady actually allowed herself to be set on fire -I don't think she thought they would actually DO it! -and then seemed blissfully unaware of what was happening to her hind end as she shook it back and forth in a thoroughly white girl version of the sultry waggle. She had her lit posterior first frantically blown upon and then finally slapped out when the flames looked to be about to spread out of control. She was wide-eyed but accepted a hug from the dancer who had both set her aflame and then put it out.

Latin American men and tourist women. It's the same story over and over again, I tell you.

The grand finale was a very, very loud and colorful demonstration of spectacular athleticism called danza de las tijeras, dance of the scissors, from the Andes. I felt rather badly for the fellow across the stage from us in the audience who looked like he had a bad case of food poisoning. Of course, he might have had far too many Pisco sours, but then I think he would have actually been on the floor as opposed to merely looking pained and sickly green.

On stage, all the male dancers held large metal scissors, about 10" long, which they clanged in rhythmic cacophony while harps and violins wailed. They took turns throwing themselves into impressive flips and headstands, which generally concluded each time with heavy and painful-sounding landings on the stage, often enough on their backs to make the audience wince. It made break dancing look like a cakewalk. Apparently in times past, the priests accused such dancers of having sold their souls to the devil in exchange for the ability to do such acts.

I can see why they might have thought that. Or maybe they said it out of jealousy. Who knows?

We applauded all the dancers loudly when the show concluded, and walked out of there more than half deaf and quite impressed.

The next day I had a cooking class to attend at a place called Sky Kitchen, I had talked my friend Dalia into meeting me there. She, in turn, had talked me into going paragliding off the cliffs with her, since no one else would. I decided that paragliding was a great idea, first to Mike's dismay and then to his growing frustration at my refusal to listen to any sort of reason.

paraglider soaring over the cliffs down to the Pacific, Lima.

"You're afraid of heights," he said, ticking the reasons off on his fingers, "paragliding is dangerous, and you have two young children. Not to mention that we're in freaking Peru and I doubt you want to spend time in a hospital here! GOD you're stubborn." 

This of course strengthened my resolve to do something that I wasn't at all sure I wanted to do and would probably scare me to death anyway. "I looked it up on tripadvisor.com," I told him, "it's tandem paragliding with a licensed  instructor, and it seems safe enough. Far better than parachuting or hang gliding." He, in total exasperation, and thinking it might change my mind, told me that if I was going to do this harebrained thing that I would have to write a letter explaining to the kids that if I died it was because I was being pigheaded.

So I wrote just such an email and sent it off to the kids, care of my Mother-in-law. Nyah, I told my spouse.

Or something equally mature.

I don't quite remember what he said at that point. No matter, he was off to work, too bad for him, and I was off being a spoiled something-or-another, on my way to learn how to cook Peruvian cuisine.

Paddington - from Deepest Darkest Peru.
Remember him? Please take care of this bear?
 I had had a hard time finding cooking classes in Lima, so it was really convenient that Sky Kitchen turned out to be within walking distance. Not only that, but I found it with time to spare, much to my personal gratification. The day was gray and drizzly, which someone had told Mike was the way of the Lima winter, "under the belly of the burro." Later,  we figured that same someone was probably telling the gringo a load of donkey poo (caca de burro mucho)  just to see if he would buy it, but it was still an apt description of the weather and a nice metaphor.

The sidewalks, polished smooth as they were, were slippery as all get-out and shopkeepers had placed newspapers in and outside of their entrances to catch the mud and wet. I pushed a buzzer and the gate to an apartment building swung open to my inquiry about the cooking class.

Upstairs were the teachers, Yurac and Christian. Yurac was the chef, a Peruvian who spoke Spanish and German. Christian was his partner, who spoke German and English. Got that?

It gets better. Dalia, my friend, is Mexican. So, when she arrived, all three languages got full usage. But more about that in a moment. First, as our hosts were good hosts, the coffee:

and looking out over the city from their balcony, where they grew herbs, a lovely spot. We would have dined but for the weather. On the roof of one home a few stories below below was a sad, sad dog. I had seen plenty of dogs on roofs...I suppose that's as good of a place to keep them as any...but this doberman was all alone among the trash and laundry lines. Poor dog. At least he had a doghouse.

Dalia and I were the only students this weekday and after we finished our coffee and donned lime green aprons, instruction began in the impeccably neat teaching area. All was carefully set out for us, a good portent as to how the class would go.

 Yurac, a compact, serious fellow with dark hair and eyes, in contrast to Christian's tall German slenderness, taught, telling Dalia what he was doing in Spanish, then Christian and Dalia both would tell me in English. If I had a question about how a recipe was going together, I would ask Christian in English, and he would ask Yurac in German. Yurac would answer in German and I would get my answer in English through Christian. Unless I understood the German. Which, sometimes, thanks to attendance, if not attentiveness, in High School German class, I did. Occasionally Dalia would ask a question in Spanish and then translate the answer to English for me.

It was enough to give a girl linguistic whiplash, but strangely enough, it worked well. We made three dishes.

First, Papa a la Huancaina, which is a dish of boiled potatoes, but yellowish Peruvian potatoes, which are starchier and drier than North American ones,  doused in a spicy aji amarillo sauce  ("yellow pepper"...which, in fact, started out orange but turned yellow in the sauce), combined with fresh local cheese and served with olives and boiled eggs and some of those tasteless giant corn kernels.  Corn aside, this was both incredibly delicious and incredibly filling...and we had two dishes to go.

proudly displaying our Papa a la Huancaina with Yurac

Second, ceviche. Ceviche is the national dish of Peru, or at least coastal Peru. Seafood marinated in lime juice, which, just as heat would, denatures the proteins and essentially "cooks" the meat. Now, I am not a raw fish eater, generally speaking, I eat neither seared tuna nor sushi. But take my word for it, ceviche ("seh-vee-chay") is delicious. The texture is delicate with lovely citrusy overtones. We carefully removed all the pin bones from some white fish, sliced them, learned how to correctly juice limes, added peppers and sliced onions and after just a few minutes the ceviche was ready for consumption. It was phenomenal.

I was feeling dangerously full and we'd really only sampled our dishes. Where was my stomach capacity? We soldiered on.

The last recipe we learned was for Ají de Gallina, a chicken stew in the yellow pepper sauce that had garlic and bread and walnuts blended in, along with rice served in a particular shape, thanks to this cleverly shaped wooden rice ladle which makes a perfect dome of rice with a dimple on top for sauce or a sprig of cilantro:

Immediately Dalia and I decided we had to have one of those. Are you surprised?

No, you are not.

More hard boiled eggs, sliced and served alongside completed the plate.

My stomach was protesting, but I sat down and ate gamely with the others, trying out a really interesting drink made from purple corn that was surprisingly refreshing. As I had only had juice for breakfast, I figured I was actually not full but nervous about going paragliding.

red onion and purple corn, Mercado Ricardo Palma
During the feast, Dalia quizzed our teachers as to where they shop for their foodstuffs. Mercado Ricardo Palma was the answer, the market Mike and I had "discovered" and shown to April and Royce, where I now promised to take Dalia.

We thanked our hosts profusely for the class, promising to recommend it to our friends (which we have, and I am,) and made our way back to the street. Dalia called the director of the paragliding company and was told that there would be no paragliding for the rest of the week unless the weather changed; they needed the warm updrafts to fly; cold drizzle wouldn't cut it.

Which meant I wouldn't have to either. I tried to tell myself I was sad about it, but really, I wasn't.

After all, instead of ticking off my husband and throwing myself to the winds, we went to Mercado Ricardo Palma where we picked up the rice ladles for practically nothing and to the Inka Market, a large grouping of little stores and  reputedly the place to buy handicrafts and souvenirs of all sorts. (See, I like some kinds of shopping!)

Dalia, assigned herself as my guide and keeper, reminded me to keep my purse close to my body, walking us quickly and authoritatively along the streets, and was more than willing  to help me dicker for gifts to bring home. Stuffed animals of softest alpaca fur, slippers lined with the same, sterling silver set lapis lazuli, textiles, a small watercolor of llamas...

Mercado de Inkas

Ironically, as it turned out, they gave me, as an American who could barely ask ¿Cuánto cuesta? "how much?" better prices than Dalia, a Spanish speaker. Go figure. She was more than slightly frustrated with this and when she finally protested in aggravation, the shop owner explained that Americans are used to shopping where the price is the price, but for Spanish speakers the price changes.  

I wondered if it was even worse for Spanish speakers with Mexican accents. Probably.

A full belly and full shopping bags? All in a day's work.


Lima cooking classes at Sky Kitchen contact information: http://www.wix.com/skykitchen/peru

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Black and orange stray cat sittin' on a fence...

Monday morning. Back on my own again, Mike commuting south to the job site in Chilca as he wasn't on vacation yet.

But I was.

My sworn duty, then, was to continue exploring Lima, utterly on my own terms. Return to the hotel by 6 in the evening.

It's good work if you can get it.

First on the agenda: coffee. Easy enough. Latte overlooking the Pacific from Larcomar on the clifftop. Again.

Oh shucky darn.

Did I mention that this was not such a bad gig?

Then, not so fun: clothes shopping. I needed to go find something to supplement my minimal travel wardrobe for a high-falutin night with Company people. I had questioned my spousal unit about this whilst planning packing, as any woman would. Mike had sworn we would not need clothes for that sort of thing....but he was wrong. Wine tasting and dinner at the elegant Lima Country Club with the Chileans. Drat.

So I headed for an area I felt comfortable with,Parque Kennedy; Kennedy Park. As in JFK -his bust is there, smiling gently over the scene. Parque Kennedy is an oval green space in the central plaza of Miraflores District, green grass, flowers and trees beneath the shadow of a beautiful cathedral. Shoe shiners, gardeners, canvases of paintings to buy from artists with wildly varied levels of skill.

And cats. Lots and lots of cats.

Cats of every color up in trees and dug down into the root structure of the same trees, cats in the flower beds, cats peering out from beneath park benches and darting across the walkways. Cats purring and mewing and begging to be adopted, cats drawing back their paw and growling as if to whack your head off.

The ubiquitous dogs of Peru, some stray, some not, snuffed and charged around the park, flushing out the less resolute cats from their hiding places for a moment of chase-the-cat. Some cats held their own, and were left alone.

There was one little boy shrilling gato! gato! pointing up into a tree with a chubby finger, the gato staring disdainfully down at him from its safe vantage in the high branches.

Cats and toddlers don't mix well, generally. Well played, cat.

As far as I could tell, looking at the signs, these were cats that had been dumped at the park, and had made the best of it.

Fortunately they weren't entirely bereft of friends; I saw a woman stride in with a trolley loaded with cat food. Obviously well known to the feline population, her arrival caused a massive flood of cats from all corners of the park, bounding with tails pointed to the skies on the way. A few dignified specimens of cat sat waiting quietly nearby, but most proceeded to yowl at her feet or twist figure eights around her legs as she put out bowl after bowl of food.

This feline lady wanted to come home with me:

as did this one:

Sorry, dear kitties. I have no home in Peru for you. Some ear scritching from me and a few strokes under the chin was the best I could do.

I think they should have gone home with this guy:

Seems like they would coordinate nicely with that outfit.

Yes, I stalked him to get a photo of his pants. So wrong, I know.

But I think I am better than this twit who was photographing some poor guy trying to brush his teeth at the bus station.

This really bugged me for some reason, her utter lack of discretion. I love photos of people, but I also think they should be given space, respect. So I took HER photo. See how I am? How do you like them apples, hmmm?

Leaving the relative haven of the kitties in the park behind, I trudged though several department stores, finally setting on a pair of black pants (because, you know, I so needed another pair of those, but that's what would match the one vaguely dressy shirt I brought.) These were nice department stores, to be sure, but it's a good thing I had coffee and eggs to give me strength first.

Department store shopping on vacation. Bah. People deliberately do this abroad, as entertainment? Ugh. What a total waste, to my way of thinking. Who's with me on this?

There are far better pursuits. Like, say, walking around and eating things.

Those are good.

To soothe my ruffled feathers from having to spend valuable exploration time on shopping and convince the world at large that even with my clothing disdain, I am a girl after all, I went to get a manicure.

Does that seem weird? Here's the thing: I'm not really a manicure kind of gal, but it's kind of a tradition to get one for vacations. Is there a sensible reason behind this?

No, not really. But it's nice to feel pretty.

I'd asked my female compatriots for a good place and gotten recommendations along with directions that were undoubtedly very clear. Probably ridiculously so, but no matter; not a chance of my being able to follow them.

Mike says I have some sort of mental block. Most likely.

My spousal unit is blessed with an internal compass and mind for maps and visualisation. I am blessed with a spouse who has these capabilities. Without him I am a ship adrift. Fortunately I am also the one who has patience and a pretty high tolerance level for not knowing where the hell I am.

So I circled the block, figured it'd given it my best, and went into the first nail salon I saw.

¡Hola! I called, stepping inside a narrow space of plastic chairs and plastic flowers, mirrors and a tiny television bleating Spanish soap opera. The proprietress of the establishment greeted me with much enthusiasm, a small but (as I was to learn) strong woman with hair that must have greyed long ago, restored by chemical means to a raven glory.

I held up my hands, showing my naked, short, less-than-perfect nails and was immediately taken under that good lady's wing. She grasped me by the arm, escorting her new client quickly to one of the stations, as if she was afraid I might change my mind and scuttle back out into the street.

Smiling and nodding as she examined my digits, she asked several questions in Spanish, but seeing my utterly confused continence (I have one of those regrettable faces that shows everything whether I want it to or not), she correctly perceived that I was an out-of-towner and not going to answer easily.

La Casa de la Llama. The House of the Llama. Love it.

De nada, she had her ways of making me talk. She sketched out nail shapes so I could grunt and point to the desired one, then she got to work, chattering away at me and pleased, praising me like a particularly slow child whenever I understood anything she said. This included si.

We decided on the desired shape of the nails (ovalo?) and she understood better than the last person who gave me a manicure back in the States that I did NOT want my cuticles cut. That woman looked perplexed, came at me with the clippers from another angle (OK, so she was Chinese, but who lives in the US and doesn't know the word no?) and even through I covered my hands and shook my head emphatically (this should have been universal), she kept trying and looking hurt until she wore me down and I gave in.

Yuck. Those cuticles are there for a reason, you know. (Once again, I lose my girl card.)

This time I followed up my refusal by explaining that we were going to the Amazon and that I wanted the cuticles left intact, you know, para las bacterias. I did not mention that it would have been reassuring to see a nice container of blue Barbisol or something to indicate that the nail tools had ever been cleaned.

She peppered me with questions: was I travelling alone? Where was my husband, then? How had we arrived? How long ago? Do I chew my nails (no, I like them short. No bonita, she said, but shrugged philosophically and kept on with the creams and soaking and filing.) Were we going to Machu Picchu? We must go to Cusco. Did I have children? What are their names, how old are they, who is caring for them? Do they have curly hair and blue eyes as well?

Virgen Milagrosa Cathedral, Parque Kennedy

This was like a Spanish 101 crash course. I was doing some pretty impressive crashing, but my teacher was both patient with my wipe-outs and encouraging, delighting in teaching me words, prodding me to repeat them until we both figured I understood.

At about the time she finished massaging my left hand and put it in a bowl of warm water to soak, a fly showed up and began its irritating but inevitable circling and buzzing, as flies are wont to do.

"¡las mosca!" she cried, pointing and buzzing, following the path of the fly with her index finger. Then she looked at me, a sly look in her eye. "¡Las mosca es un beeetch!"

Si, si, I agreed, un completo beetch. I was outclassed. I don't know any swear phrases in Spanish, and she not only had that one down but even used it correctly. I resolved to learn some Spanish swearing ASAP.

As it turns out, there are some very creative ones out there, my current favorites probably being Hijo de las gran mil putas, "son of the thousand great prostitutes," Cago en tu leche, "I poop in your milk" and Que te folle un pez , "may a fish have, er, unnatural relations with you."

Points for creativity, I say.

Bereft of my phrasebook, which didn't have any of those in it anyway, I tried to make a joke with my teacher and asked if hombres es un beetch? She looked at me like I was nuts. I dropped it.

I thought poking fun at menfolks in beauty salons was universal. Apparently not. Either that or only the professor was allowed to make jokes in class.

Fair enough.

Either way, I had stumbled upon an excellent teacher. And not a bad beautician either. 45 minutes later she had taught me at least 25 new words and painted my now perfectly oval nails the palest pink, playing with me first as she pulled out a bottle of bright poppy red lacquer, then chuckling at my expression. She could tell I'm not a rojo kind of woman.

I think I'm the first woman in a very long time to choose that pink. She had to use pliers to wrench it open, after both of us tried manually to unscrew the stubborn cap.

The entire time, despite all the hopefull-looking empty chairs in the salon and a decent location, I was her sole client. Once a man stopped by, I think asking for directions, but other than that, it was just us womenfolk chatting away.

The price for all this education? 4 USD. Plus about $2 for a tip. She hugged me goodbye.

Really, you never know what will become a memorable experience, do you?