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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Your own personal Jesus...

Right there, between the street and the cliffs and the ocean, he stood.

A largish man in a velour tracksuit and sneakers, he stood in front of the statue of the Virgin, his arms outstretched, palms and face raised to the heavens in an intensely personal moment of faith.
In the States it's quite possible he would have been dismissed as a zealot. At the very least this display, so trusting and open, would have made some uncomfortable to be around.
But here, in Peru, it was utterly right.
It was a morning for gladness, to be sure; a clear, sunshine-filled Easter morning. Mike had made it through the airport and to the apartment before midnight the night before; record time, despite carrying technical work gear that had to be declared to Customs. Apparently his paperwork was thoroughly in order.
I had assumed Mike would be jet lagged and exhausted that first morning and guiltlessly had arranged to go for a run along the amazing coastline path with John. But no, he was invigorated and ready to go. Unfortunately he's too smart to run, so with a pang of guilt I left him back at the apartment, sipping coffee and hollering hellos and half conversations to coworkers on nearby balconies.
I went anyway. He's a big boy, right?
Complete and utter happiness: running with an old and true friend in a beautiful, foreign land.
Oh man, have I got it bad.
It is rather pretty, is it not?
We followed the Malecon cisneros, the road along the top of the cliff, up the coast and talked about nothing and everything, as we always have. Sometimes we ran on the running path, sometimes in the bike lane or over the neatly trimmed grass. But we got the heck out of the way when, from the other direction, large packs of fleet, determined-looking runners came swiftly toward us in the throes of marathon training.
They have it "more bad" than I do. Ha! A sense of normalcy is reintroduced. We were going for 5 or 6 kilometers, nothing major.
It felt amazing.
I had been filled with seemingly sourceless happiness more times in 3 days in Peru than I could remember in the entire last year. It was as though worries and cares were swept away by Pacific breezes.
We went, past exercise classes being held on the lawns, boom boxes whomping away, dogs looking adoringly up at their masters or being exhorted to chase a frisbee, little kids blowing bubbles or eating ice cream at 8 in the morning, soccer games, yoga devotees...
It felt alive to be there. Like waking from a long, tiring sleep and seeing the sunlight streaming in a window.

Almost too soon we turned back around. I could have gone forever, it seemed, though the niggling thought that Mike was waiting for us back at the apartment saved me from such whimsical, silly ideas.
And probably a pulled hamstring.
Nearing the end we were beginning to pant, and there, in the deep green grass, were some nice, athletic-looking folks in designer workout clothes handing out cups of Gatorade to passers-by.
John didn't hesitate, took one and then looked sideways at me.
 I hesitated. "I dunno, John," trying to do mental actuarial tables, "this could be one of those mistakes."
The drink was out of a cooler, not bottles. Therefore reconstituted. Tap water.
Asking for it.
Everyone I know who has gotten sick in Peru, the Montezuma's Revenge sort of sick, has said the same wretched and very telling thing: I thought I was going to die.
We carry antibiotics now, when we travel to South America. Our doctor cheerfully prescribes them with a chipper, "hope you don't need them...but if you do...!"
When Mike had gotten terribly, worryingly sick in Peru, a few trips (for him) ago, he'd staggered out to buy Gatorade in the bottle, grabbed a purple pink one labelled "Gatorade Grenada", and had ended up with pomegranate flavor, which even in his desperate state had refused to drink.
There were about 300 reasons not to drink that stuff.
But I was thirsty. And I have an overdeveloped sense of macho...for a gringa.
Aw hell, I thought and grabbed a cup. "Bottoms up!" I clicked paper cups with John and threw back the orangy liquid, hoping for the best.
It was obviously a morning of miracles that day; neither of us got the least bit ill.
It probably didn't hurt that I managed to catch the end of an Easter service after I showered and changed and we slurped down our coffees so I could slip into the sanctuary of the beautiful Iglesia de la Virgen Milagrosa, full of songs or praise.
 stained glass in the Iglesia de la Virgen Milagrosa (Church of the Virgin of Miracles)

There, worshipers wearing everything from their Easter best to yellow spandex worshipped side by side. Outside the street had been roped off for a sexy Sunday class of Zumba led by two enthusiastic fellows on an elevated stage.
Anything went, it seemed. All were welcome, body and soul, to worship as they wished.
fashioned from palm fronds
Not at all what I had envisioned for an Easter Sunday in a devout country. I as expecting seriousness. But this was joy. It was OK to run, or play with your dog, or go to church, or soak up the sun...whatever you liked. And I liked it.
I liked it a lot.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Let's just go out and ride, talk about the things we try...

Herman Melville famously had his character Ishmael in Moby Dick describe the capitol of Peru as "tearless Lima, the strangest, saddest city thou can’st see."

It's too bad he could not come back and see Lima today. Perhaps he would like it better.

Once again I was meeting my friends John and Shuko and their kids for another adventure, this time in a company truck. While Shuko declines to drive in Peru,  John has been at it for awhile, and I must say he nicely avoided what would have been a nasty accident on the way to lunch. Having already been in an accident with John (many of us can claim this slightly dubious honor) I suppose it would have been old hat. Certainly business as usual in Lima. The taxi that he managed not to hit by the smallest of margins when it darted and stopped in front of us owed him big. As in, "not crushed into a tin can and then thrust into oncoming traffic" big.

I rather think Shuko is wise to not take the wheel. Who needs that level of stress? Not I. The role of trusting passenger is perfect for me; I have relaxing in the face of death or dismemberment related to wheeled travel down to a science.

Not that I was really worried about either. See what I mean?

scarlet flourish of bougainvillea

First we were off to the Barranco district of Lima, described in guide books as either bohemian or laid back, depending on which one you pick up. Either way, I like Barranco. It has personality. It's relatively safe, certainly welcoming and beautiful, and it has a restaurant that expats speak of in reverent tones: The Burrito Bar.

I had first heard of the Burrito Bar from my friend April when I asked what I should make sure to do in Lima. She raved. She ranted. She moaned. She tried to give me directions over the phone as I scribbled frantically. These included points such as "there's no sign but it's the only one with red walls inside" and "if you manage to find the street just sniff and you'll smell the burritos and find it."

I had little hope of finding the Burrito Bar by myself, but since every single person I had talked to had insisted it was a "can't miss" meal, I mentioned it to Shuko and John and they were more than on board with the plan.

Oh, yeah, you HAVE to eat at the Burrito Bar, they enthused, we'll take you there.

I couldn't have been happier; a rave review burrito was something I was going to have to investigate further. Better, the place is run by a Brit. What on earth could a British fellow know about making burritos that has the expat community on their knees in supplication to him? I mean, I remember Brits in Dubai who had never heard of tacos.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Sure enough, it was a little hole in the wall, but a very nice hole in the wall. As advertised, it had red walls and smelled wonderful. After ordering at the counter, we waited at a heavy wooden table for the food to arrive. John leaned over and conspiratorially whispered "This is where all the Mormons on their missions come to eat."

I must have looked incredulous because he spread his hands wide and said, "No really. I don't know how they know about it, but you watch, they'll be here."

It wasn't three minutes later that the first clean cut, white-shirted young man came in, followed by a group of his fellows.

John did Groucho Marx eyebrows at me, "See? Told ya!"

I couldn't help but smile.

The burritos arrived with limeade. Not lemonade. Lemons are unknown in Peru. In fact, Mike is determined to take one down there on one of his trips to show to the locals in the office on the job site. Peruvian limes are small and sweet and, in this case, nicely refreshing in a cold drink with mint and sugar. But the burrito...

The burrito was toasty warm and large, tightly wrapped in silver paper. I could get both hands around it, but only just. I unwrapped it to find a corn tortilla rolled around black beans and rice and mildly spicy meat, some peppers, onions in there somewhere. The juices had soaked into the freshly made and perfectly thin, warm tortilla a little. I took a bite.

Sweet Jesus. No wonder the Mormons come here; this was a spiritual experience. Wait, was it? Chewing. Swallowing. My God, it was.  

Another bite, a big bite. Angels singing. Pure heaven. Simple. pure good food. It was going to be hard to eat this thing with any sort of decorum. I wanted to face plant into this burrito; it was that good. I was obsessed with this perfect, amazing burrito.

It was so good, in fact, that well into stuffing this thing bite by divine bite into my mouth I only barely managed to force myself to stop eating it long enough to take a photograph; I realized that if I didn't do so soon my burrito would be gone from this earth entirely.

If Herman Melville had had a bite of that burrito, I think he would have had and entirely different opinion of Lima. In fact, he might not have written Moby Dick at all. He might have written Moby Burrito.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Sade dit moi, qu'est ce que tu vas chercher?

Everyone was out on the streets of historical Lima. This is something  I really love about Peru's capitol. People are outside. People don't exactly...go...outside in Seattle. I mean, we do; we hike or garden, but it's an event, and we tend to keep to ourselves. Being outside in a crowd, walking everywhere or sitting on the porch and watching the world go by? Not really. We're a car culture. Something to do with the rain...and the hills.
But in Lima the streets were absolutely packed and everyone seemed pretty darned happy about it. There was an infectious, lighthearted vibe

There were people from all walks of life; beggars, sellers, tourists, local families.  The policia in front of the President's Palace were sporting machine guns and riot gear, but appearing relaxed. Not a bad policy.

Flags were flying and the music of spoken Spanish was everywhere. It was a dance break in the walk of life. The people watching was fantastic.

Despite the crowds, I stopped dead to snap a photo of this guy gawking at the...brave outfit this young lady was sporting.

I'm not entirely sure what the woman with him thought of his nearly breaking his neck to get a closer look at what didn't really need a closer look to be entirely apparent.

Usually I hate crowds, but sometimes in the thrall of travel everything becomes amusing and interesting; even a urine-smelling corner of the Plaza made me smile. Actually, what made me smile was that my friends said "Hey, we're almost to the piss stink spot," and sure enough, they were right.

I doubt you can find that moniker and location in your guide book. Such is the benefit of exploring with companions who are also familliar with the area.

At the Lima Cathedral I encouraged my friends' children to try out the knocked on one of the huge, regal doors and then shrieked at them to "Run away! Run away before somebody comes!"

They did so, giggling like maniacs. Well, what are honorary aunties for than to stir up a bit of naughty fun?

While Shuko and I had both been to the Monastery San Francisco, the stunning baroque church from the 1600s, John and the kids had never been, and I was more than game to go again---the last time I'd managed to miss the convent's library, the oldest one in South America.

As we entered a beautiful room with skylights, romantic spiraling staircases and the parchment smell of books containing old secrets long forgotten, the guide explained that the library contains some 25,000 antique texts, some predating the church itself. The skylights were important: these books had been studied hundreds of years before the light bulb and one could not take candles into such an area.

Today, one could not take photographs either. I had to settle for buying a postcard of the library...and taking a photo of that.

The monastery is full of riches; carvings and silver, marble and gold and many, many paintings and frescoes; the large painting of the Last Supper where Christ and his Disciples dine on guinea pig and other South American dishes garnered a chuckle from us, and I found myself explaining to John's daughter why many of the saints were carrying their heads and to John what the Stations of the Cross and stigmata are. Somehow I had become the expert on Catholic faith for these good God-fearing Texans.

Detail from the front of the monastery,

The riches were all well and good, but of course what everyone was really looking forward to was the catacombes beneath the earth, and, the children twittering nervously, we went down the stone steps to the world of the dead. 70,000 souls rest there, their bones sorted by type into piles upon dusty piles; femurs and skulls and nothingness. The light is dim, the air old and dry.

John was especially into it. He'd managed not to crack his skull on the low ceilings, despite his height, had edged himself through the small doors and he was determined to get a photo, despite the guide.

I'll cover for you, I hissed, and lingered behind as the group continued forward, standing guard at a corner while behind John fiddled with settings and swore at his camera as seconds crept by.

I heard the guide coming back and burst out after her, saying "disculpe, disculpe" in my most innocent tone. She gave me a hard look but said nothing as she led me back to the group, not realising my subterfuge.

How she hadn't noticed that John the giant Texan and former US Marine was missing is beyond me, but it worked.

Well, sort of.

He sneaked back to join the group as well after what seemed like an achingly long while. I'd murmured to Shuko where he was and shushed the children who were starting to crane their necks and look for him as well.

"Well?" I asked beneath my breath.

"Nah, couldn't get it to focus and I didn't want it to make a noise and get caught," he said, looking down into the most famous ossuary in the catacombes, one with circles of skulls and bones radiating outward in rings.

Damn, those bones are badass! He exclaimed.
I turned a laugh that threatened to explode out of me into a smothered cough. "Badass bones?"
Oh. My. God. I figured that if I laughed now the guide would take a femur to me and tried to compose my face.
We managed to finish the tour without any other eventualities and emerged back into the rest of the world, vibrant and alive.

John ponied up for souvenirs for his wife and the girls, I got my postcards and we all wandered into the night, admiring the lights of the warm evening in Plaza Mayor, Lima's central square; horses and carts clopping by, pigeons clapping their wings as they headed to their nighttime roosts.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Oh love

I've said it before and I'll say it again; the quickest, and I think most pleasurable way to learn about a place is to go grocery shopping there. No museum or culture show can match the neighborhood market for teaching you what the people who live there are actually like.
In Lima, it seems the way to get your everyday foods is to go to a bodega. These are tiny, family-owned stores tucked into other buildings, and they're all over the place. You'll be walking along behind someone, oblivious, when suddenly they duck to the left and disappear into an open doorway.
 Follow them in and you will find what is generally a cramped but not unpleasant little space that contains all sorts of things. The tiny one nearest our apartment was a bit dark, but not so much that I couldn't see the fruit stand just inside the door positively groaning with beautiful piles of produce.
"Our" bodega. Note the Virgin Mary up above.
It was the enormous mangoes that caught my attention. I hefted one; heavy, even for it's size. Immediately a young man in an apron was gesturing to me to give him the mango, and I did, along with another one and some passion fruit, and two apples. He weighed them, nodded, wrote something down on a little piece of paper and carried this and the fruit into the second area of the store. There were containers of bottled water in several sizes next to the stand, and I grabbed some of these.

My policy of following the travel books' recommendation and not drinking tap water in Peru has worked well so far. No reason to mess with it.
The second space, past a display of jewelery to the counter, behind which was what appeared to be much of the rest of the young man's family; another young man, an older man and woman with squinty but kind eyes looking up at me, and then shelves and shelves of dry goods and sundries of all kinds, as well as canned food and eggs and several types of bread.

The store is perhaps 15 feet deep and 10 feet wide. You have to cooperate with the other customers to navigate.
To the side of the counter was a cooler with tidy small packages of cheeses and meats, and then a rack with all sorts of chips and soda pops.
OK, here we go. What could I buy?
Again going with what works, I asked for the things I knew how to say. Or could point to, or could cheat and read how to say by the label.
I ended up with sliced ham, despite pronouncing the j (jamón), a small round of cheese, (queso) butter, (mantequilla), some white bread (pan blanco) and some eggs (huevos). The eggs were a bit of a puzzle; the older man hefted up a large plastic bag of eggs. A lot of eggs. I wasn't sure how many were in there, but it was quite a few, maybe 30. Necessito piquito? I asked, and considering this was total gibberish (I should have said necesitará pequeña?) these folks get bonus points for customer service; he smiled and got out a smaller bag of only 10 eggs.
Perfecto! I said, instead of having to be told three times how much everything cost, the total was written down on a piece of paper and all I had to do was fumble with the 1, 2, and 5 soles coins.
The five pairs of eyes smiled patiently. Everything was carefully bagged and handed to me, and I put the packages into my shoulder bag.
If it wasn't clear earlier what an amateur I am with this sort of thing, let me just say that I wasn't out the door for more than 30 seconds before I spotted a Virgin Mary tile that I wanted to photograph. So I leaned up against a brick wall for stability while I focused...and crunch. There went two of the eggs in the bag over my shoulder.
Messy. The photo didn't turn out either.
Some bodegas had more to sell than this one, some less; in some neighborhoods the cashier was behind bars. We were a little more cautious in such places, just like you would be in the States. Often there were small children, too young to be in school, with their parents or grandparents, playing contentedly in the doorway or on the floor behind the counter.
fruit cart, Miraflores
Also in the streets were the snack vendors, and the fruit carts, the latter of which smelled wonderful; a just-broken open watermelon being hacked into rough chunks, bananas, bunches of coriander and mint and other herbs, pineapples, more elongated than the ones from Hawaii, strawberries and tomatoes, the list went on. And of course, the mangoes.
Back in the apartment, I cut into that first mango.  There was none of the fibrous resistance I'm used to. The scent of the sweet juices and that smooth, soft flesh was intoxicating.
In comparison, the overpriced, hard mangoes that go from rock to rotten more often than not in the US grocery stores must be embarrassed to even call themselves mangoes. There's simply no comparison.
I was happily surprised to find that half of a mango was the perfect amount for breakfast. By the time I was done eating this first one I had crescents of orange beneath every fingernail and was questioning the way we eat in the United States. Which was not a good sign since, you know, I live there.
There are other places to shop; similar to the sort of grocery stores that we are used to in the States, and the Mercados, open air markets, which I love. More on those later.
And of course, if there is some small something you are missing, you never know who might be just around the corner to help you with that.
Shoe brushes, cotton balls, Q-tips, all specially overpriced for the Gringa.
The cheese...was horrible. It was not what I would call mozzarella, no matter what the label said. The ham and bread and butter went uneaten. It was those mangoes and bottled water that I went back for again and again. Mangoes for breakfast, bottled water for drinking and brushing teeth  and carrying around as I explored.
Perhaps shopping for groceries told me more about myself than it did about the people who live there.