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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.


  1. I admire your bravery in trying Peru's national rodent, but I can't help but imagine that Schmoo and Schwartz and the other guineas that used to live at our house were glaring from the great beyond as you downed every bite.

    Keep the adventures coming.

  2. What an adventure! Guinea pig eh? You crazy world traveler! Loving these stories!