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Yellow Plantains, Green Palm Fronds and Blue Skies

September 26th, 2012 No comments

The fast-becoming characteristic colors of Nicaragua are so very, very agreeable to me.  All of Nicaragua is agreeable to me, in fact, so much so that its agreeableness extends even to the process of getting here.

It started will our taxi ride from Miraflores to the Lima airport, generously arranged street side by the woman from whom we rented our apartment (apparently only about 1 in 10 taxis in that neighborhood have the appropriate licensing to be able to enter the airport for proper passenger drop off; our hostess hailed and subsequently waved off seven that didn’t make the grade before finding one that did).  From the airport we proceeded to move smoothly to our gate, and I burned through some of the leftover time and local currency savoring six pieces of tuna nigiri at the airport sushi bar.  Then our six hour flight, which seemed to fly by with tunes, e-books, and an episode of Sherlock.

Upon exiting customs we were greeted with immaculate timing by our Miami hosts, Katie and Ryan, a couple that Tracy photographed a few times back in St. Louis (including their ’07 wedding) and who were so bold and generous as to answer Tracy’s facebook post, a simple note about our pass through seeking whomever might make our 22-hour layover more pleasant in exchange for the company of some vagabonds with tales of travel to share.

Man did they make our 22-hour layover more pleasant.

I’m talkin’ a ride from the airport, choice snacks back at their lovely home (including a Colorado micro brew or two), laundry privileges, and a guest room so comfy and well appointed it made a delightful reminder of how nice the standard of living in the US so often is.  On top of that, it turns out that for me (who was meeting them for the first time) they were ready-made friends, absolutely the kind of couple we should hope to have double dates with whenever in the same town.  It was all we could do to buy dinner and offer up a gift of a tin of Vizios, super tasty chocolate covered almonds smuggled in from Peru.  With other nuggets like water bottles ready for us as we got in the car, an offer for a Target run in case we needed anything, and the house wi-fi password written up on the chalkboard the whole situation was a show of some serious hospitality, the kind that inspires Tracy and I to up our own game as hosts1.

In the morning we were blessed by another instance of being taken care of by rad people.  Greg, my best friend from childhood, came down to pick us up for some hang out and catch up time, ending with a ride to the airport to see us off to our next country2.

At the airport I still had a handful of soles, coin form which neither travels well nor can be exchanged.  Luckily, just down from our gate, a flight to Peru had its passengers congregating about.  After a miss talking to a small family in awkward Spanish (who was actually going to Honduras), I found a nice group of older women who were playing cards and were, in fact, Peru-bound.  “Yeah, I’m about to fly to Nicaragua and they won’t take these for exchange.  It’s like five bucks US, I figure better to give these to someone who can use them.  Would you mind?  Cool, yeah, have a Cusquena on me–it’s the beer from Cusco, really tasty.  Thanks, have a good trip!”

“Did they think you were trying to sell them your soles?”  Tracy asked after overhearing the exchange.  “Oh yeah, that would explain their initial reluctance.  Wow, I didn’t even think about that.”3

Our flight to Managua was swift, and our progression through customs and immigration was the fastest I’d ever experienced.  Back in a Spanish speaking country after a 22 hour hiatus my Spanish seemed well rested and ready to roll again, and it got its first practice in negotiation with the cab driver who insisted that the price to the bus station just happened to be the most common note in an American’s wallet, $20USD.  “Bueno, pienso que esto es un poco caro, entonces me voy a pergunta un otro manihar de taxi.”  Okay, I think that’s a little expensive so I’m going to ask another taxi driver.  $18.  “That’s still a lot.”  $17.  Sigh.  “Fifteen and we’ve got a deal.  If that’s too expensive I completely understand, and I’ll just go ask over there.  And who knows, if it turns out that $15 really is too cheap, I’ll be right back here and we can go at $17.”  Pregnant pause, lasting I’d say about 8 seconds.  Ok, $15.  “Bueno, vamos.”  But I don’t have any change, so you need to have exact change, our driver stated.  Turns out I had a five and a ten on me, so no worries.  He seemed a little defeated to learn as much.

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that locals pay something closer to $5USD from the airport, but it still felt good to stand my ground and chip away a relatively steep gringo tax, all in Spanish.

From the airport we were taken to the bus depot, where two fellows immediately started vying for our business, yelling in sync “Granada, Granada!” but literally pulling me in opposite directions, one towards a conventional bus and the other towards the express bus, a mini-van, both a dollar4.

The callers for this sort of transportation are amazing.  As our mini-van got on he was hanging out the side calling his war cry, “Granada, Granada!” to anyone on the street who looked even remotely interested in going to Granada.  And before long he filled that mini-van.  It felt like a striking model of efficiency of carpooling, self organizing in real time with driving and caller working together, and ultimately getting a lot of folks to their destination with a just single vehicle5.  I found myself rooting for him to get people even though if meant cramming more into my seat.

Granada was suggested to us by Gene & Terry back in Agaus Calientes, a charming colonial town that had much to offer while being plenty cheap.  It did not disappoint.  Our meals were all quite good, my favorite being the dishes at El Gordito6.  One example: a pile of pork on a pile of fried yucca root, topped with a shredded cabbage salad and served upon a banana leaf.  Add in fresh pinapple banana juice and charge 80 cordobas for it all (about $3.50) and you’ve got me quite happily as a regular.

This would be an experience which I label as having a high “Thunder Quotient”.  The “Thunder Quotient” is my own device for rating experiences7.  It’s the absolute amount of awesome/goodness/flavor/enjoyability/whatever that you get from experiencing something, and then divided by the dollars you paid to experience it8.  So, for example, if you have a darn good steak but paid $50 for it, that’s a low Thunder Quotient.  But if you have a darn good pile of pork on some fried yucca and pay $2, the Thunder Quotient is quite high.  I find I generally experience more happiness from high Thunder Quotients than from high raw enjoyment, probably because my brain extrapolates future enjoyment for things that are cheaper, because given finite cash one can do those things more often.

So far Nicaragua seems to be really high Thunder Quotient all over the board.  After a really great lunch with sandwiches and smoothies ($6 covered both Tracy and I) we were welcomed to loaf in the hammocks in the gorgeous courtyard of that colonial estate.  Late one night I went out for a snack and $2 got me plantain chips, sweet fried bananas, and a piece of chicken all wrapped in a banana leaf.  Throw in the entertainment of begrudgingly sharing with children asking earnestly for a bite and turning down prostitutes who assure me it’s okay that I’m married, and you’ve got another wicked-high Thunder Quotient night.  These experiences keep coming up.

Topping it off quite literally are the blue skies.  Apparently we’re here in the off season, most tourists cleared out two weeks ago due to the now regular rains.  But it only seems to rain for maybe an hour in the afternoon, and maybe again at night.  And it all happens out of big, blustery clouds that roll in, do their thing, and then move along again.  None of the incessant dreariness of Lima’s winter to speak of, most of the day is bright and sunny with blue skies and superb sandal weather.  For visuals on the situation, see Tracy’s photography of Granada.

Yeah, I’m quite liking Nicaragua indeed.

Notes:

  1. This game may have to wait a year to be exercised again, unless someone takes us up on our offer to come stay with us wherever we are whilst World Touring about.
  2. He was also a sport and indulged us a run to the local FedEx office, that I may send off my alpaca slippers to their new home in Chicago with my sister.
  3. It’s fun to make  the world a little weirder, like dabbling in the unexpected realms of the expectations of others.  Exchanges of random, reason-less generosity are as good a way as any to do just that.
  4. To put our 15-minute private cab ride into perspective, this dollar was the price of a 40 minute ride on shared transportation.
  5. In the US just 2 people in a car earns the perk of the carpool lane.  In comparison to this, that seems like a paltry excuse for carpooling.
  6. Literally, “The Fat Kid”
  7. The roots of the name lie in Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library TV, where he reviews and rates wine.  Dubbed “The Thunder Show”, he expresses the awesome of wines by how much “thunder” they pack.
  8. Probably better to divide by dollars plus one, so that your brain doesn’t explode from infinite delight when you divide by zero for enjoyable free stuff.
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Legs Fully Recovered from Machu Picchu

September 21st, 2012 2 comments

The disappearance of soreness took a while–that was ten days ago.

Aguas Calientes turned out to be a well-oiled tourist processing machine, and with the rivers that run through and lush mountains in every direction it is a pretty one at that.  A flood of well appointed restaurants promising the same deals like menu completo and 4 for 1 drinks lined the main drags.  Strangely some 60 or so percent of restaurants seemed to think it vital to maintain and promote a suite of Mexican food offerings, in addition to the Peruvian dishes.  Pizza and Italian were close seconds in the race to pander to foreign tastes.

The morning of our tour we awoke at 4:45am to catch 5am breakfast in our hotel lobby.   There we found an older couple also assembling their breakfast plates from the spread.  After exchanging good mornings I had the surprisingly good sense (considering the hour) to ask point blank: “Would you guys like some company this morning?”

This was a good move, for Gene and Terry turned out to be exactly the sort of folks Tracy and I enjoy meeting in our travels: they’ve been to 177 countries together1, and are still (clearly) at it.  As bon vivants the phrase role models seems quite fitting: living within their means, traveling well on the cheap, and generally having a lovely go of life.  They even had stories to share about traveling while raising their one daughter, good nuggets worth tucking away for the future2.

In Aguas Calientes the first bus up to Machu Picchu leaves at 5:30am, and there is a sort of magical air about the city at that time.  Here as darkness slowly fades you have this unidirectional flow of traveler types from all around the world, converging from side streets onto the sidewalk that goes along the river, and walking eagerly towards the nexus of the bus system.  The buses are all lined up, and as one bus fills and starts up the winding road the next one pulls forward into loading position.

The road up consists of something like 16 switchbacks as you ascend about 1500 feet.  When you get off it’s you and a hoard of other tourists awaiting entry as gate agents check tickets and match them to passports.  For me it was deja vu of the excitement to enter a Six Flags first thing in the morning, so you could make a beeline to the Batman roller coaster before a huge line formed.  Here instead of Batman we had sunrise, which upon ancient city set against impossibly tall mountains and deep valleys was easily every bit as worth waking early for.

Machu Picchu was voted in as one of the new seven wonders of the world, and I reckon it deserves its place. Now that I’ve been there I get the hype, and agree that, if you have the means, you gotta see it.  The scale, the stonework, the terraces that transform steep hills into arable land all lend the site a sense of real wonder. The build site alone would qualify even a modest fortress as impressive: it’s so greatly elevated from its surroundings that the logistics of building anything of scale must be a feat.  There are no shortage of locations where, if you got a good running start, you could jump off the edge and fall more than 1000 feet before the steep grade of the land caught up with you again.

Oh, and yeah, it does look really cool when this vast architectural expanse is bathed in the first light of morning as the sun climbs above the threshold of the next mountain over.

To be more hardcore, Tracy and I paid more in our admission tickets for the right to be of the 400 people that day permitted to climb Huayna Picchu, the emblematic rock overlooking the city which you’ve seen probably countless times in the classic postcard photo of the site.  Huayna Picchu is a course of perhaps some 2500 stone steps roughly carved into the side of the mountain leading to a ruins site at the very top and offering quite excellent bird’s eye views of the ancient city below.  At a net ascent of about 1100 feet it’s quite a climb, and again 1000+ foot falls are thoroughly available to those keen to running starts.  One of the rocks at the top features a little groove carved in, perfect for sittin’.  I’m struck to think that my butt has now set perched on the same groove as at least a few ancient Inca Kings3.

To be even more hardcore, Tracy and I paid less in our bus tickets for the right to walk down from the site back into Aguas Calientes (i.e. we bought one-way tickets).  While on Huayna Picchu we made some friends, and those friends let us know about mid-way that it was about 4000 steps down, steps rough hewn into the rocks of the mountain and very much non-uniform.

After enough steps going down is every bit as hard as going up, and uses different muscles that are not so often worked.  Wobbly, jello-like legs marked most of this part of the day’s hiking, and it took a lot to prevent a misstep or a fall.  Had we to do it over again, we would have stopped short of the walk down, content with the hardcore points earned on Huayna Picchu.  Our companions it seemed were faring better with the fatigue, and since they’d climbed these very stairs earlier that morning I was given cause to miss being in my mid-twenties4.

Tracy’s got beautiful photography of the whole scene, check it out.

Back in the city we managed only one small beer with the gang before hunger and fatigue set us off for a quick meal and a nap back in our room.  The remaining 24 hours Aguas Calientes are a blur, basically us biding our time before our train, hobbling about to a restaurant as needed, hopefully not up or down too much hill.

When we returned to Cusco it felt like coming home, back to streets and venues we knew, a climate that was familiar, and prices back to normal (I found I could pretty accurately guess the price of commodity items in Aguas Calientes by tacking on 50% to the typical Cusco price).  It was with bittersweet nostalgia that the time back seemed too short when we headed off to the airport the next day5.

Now we’re back in Lima, this time for a 9 day stint.  With its always-63ish-degree weather it’s much nicer for sleeping, and with its always-cloudy-and-gray state of the sky it’s much less nice for exploring.  Aside from a few world-class ceviche and grade-A sushi meals, and a lovely night walk through a park with lit up dancing fountains,I haven’t found much to recommend about the town.  It’s winter here, so the endless cloudy days is apparently a fixture for about 8 weeks–I’m sure it’s better with sunlight (although yesterday we did see some in the afternoon, which I took to be Lima’s birthday present to me).  Beyond that, it feels like any big town in the world, visible in all its glory from our 9th story high rise apartment.

Tomorrow we head off again for Nicaragua, and only a 22 hour layover in Miami separates us from diving into our next country.  I’m excited to bask in the sun again, and I reckon my sandals will be happy to get out and about again as well.

  1. I honestly thought there were only around 160, shows what I know.
  2. “Gene & Terry” seem awfully close to “John & Tracy”, which I take to be a nudge and wink from the universe for me to pay attention to the insights and perspectives they have to share.
  3. Mainly I wonder if their spirits are at all pissed about the situation.
  4. Now at 33 this feeling is still a rare thing–we’ll see how long that lasts
  5. A feeling which I may as well grow fond of, since I hope to experience with every place we call home for the next year.
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Open Air Markets and Other Choice Dining Experiences

September 10th, 2012 No comments

It was during our ten-hour tour of the Sacred Valley that I finally dove into the culture of what I’ll call “Peruvian micro restaurants”.  By this I am referring to the common setup of a (typically older) Peruvian woman having a picnic table at which they’re putting on lunch for whomever should come by and take a seat on the bench.  It’s just a step or two up from street side food vendors in terms of formality.  These women make a rice, potatoes, meat, salad, and soup in bulk and will serve you up a plate and hand you a set of silverware, often within 30 seconds of you sitting down1.  The cost is between 3 and 5 soles, or under $2.

After experiencing and delighting in this a few times, the model of the conventional restaurant is starting to look like a little, well, oddly inefficient and isolating.  At the picnic table the food you get is really delicious (these women know what they’re doing in Peruvian cuisine: it’s like your mom feeding you a nice home cooked meal, as opposed to having your order slapped together by some line cook who may or may not hate his job), the portions are ample, it’s super cheap, it’s super fast, and you get to meet and mingle with others in shared table/come and go atmosphere.  The obvious cons: you don’t get to pick what’s being served today, any more than you could order something different from your mom when she lays out dinner for the family2, and you don’t quite have the privacy and ability to exclusively choose the company at your table.  Health and sanitation concerns are also present, for just as your mom doesn’t need to take laborious measures to meet OSHA and FDA requirements, well, neither do these Peruvian ladies3.

So indeed, conventional restaurants have their place: when you have a particular taste, have a date or other social purpose, or are the type to keep a bottle of Purell at your desk and don’t trust anything with less than a 4-star government sanitation rating.  It’s just that after experiencing this way of going out for a good meal I’m a bit crestfallen that this model, with its massive efficiency and down-to-earth charm, is so thoroughly absent in the US.

While in the Sacred Valley visiting the sites of Incan ruins we stopped in a colonial church dating back to the Spanish conquest.  This church, with its centuries-old blend of ornate and dank, gave me the creeps about this particular slice of Christian history.  Topping off the feeling was learning that devotees had adorned statues of the virgin Mary and Jesus with real human hair, and that even one of the statues of Jesus back in Cusco has some human teeth in it, taken no less from the mummies of pre-Conquistador Incan rulers.  Our tour guide implied that this was a way of honoring the native Incans by including them in the artwork of the new religion, but I like to think that, coming from a conquering people recently descended from the Spanish Inquisition, the gesture was at least in part to remind the natives who’s boss.

See Tracy’s blog for full pictorial coverage of our visit to the Sacred Valley.

Ten days ago we did a cooking class taught by Erick, a local chef who owns several restaurants in town.  As part of the experience he took us to a market and told us about various plants, fruits, and other products were available that might be otherwise invisible to our gringo eyes.  The class was great and we made some fantastic dishes, but what I find most worth telling about is my learning of coca leaves4.  Erick mentioned some of the history and cultural importance of chewing coca leaves, and the beneficial effects on digestion, nutrient absorption, and metabolism.  “It was a tragedy when someone worked out how to make cocaine from the leaves, because then the world went crazy about this very important and beneficial crop.”  I was intrigued by the benefits and asked if I might get a few to try.

And this was when it started to feel like I was making a drug deal.  “Sure, there’s a woman who sells them at the end of the market over here.”  We walked.  “How much would you like?  Half a pound?”  Um, sure, I guess?  The woman filled a bag chock full of leaves, big enough to barely fit in the pocket of my hoodie.  2.5 soles, or $1 for what looked like a ridiculously huge stash.  Then she broke me off a piece from what looked like a stick of gray chalk.  Erick narrated like a pusher explaining to a first timer: “You take a little bite off of that, the calcium carbonate allows the oil of the coca leaves to better absorb.”  How many leaves should I, um, chew?  “Take 3 at a time, chem them but don’t swallow, and then spit them out and take 3 more.  Do this for like an hour.”  I was assured they were completely safe and non-addictive.  Oh, and that I had best not take any back to the US, as customs might not be too keen.

I tried chewing a round of 3 finally a week later.  For me it was a mild stimulant, and gave me mouth a sensation like when novocaine wears off.  Other than a that and a few cups of coca tea, my stash languished on the counter of our apartment kitchen.  I found the whole experience was a very visceral glimpse of how arbitrary drug criminalization seems.  Here my bag was a cheap commodity, a commonly enjoyed and completely accepted substance.  To fly back to the states (or many other countries) with my one dollar purchase in tow might well get me in a heap of trouble.

Speaking of substance use, the other day at a cafe I met a fellow who just returned from five months in the jungle, having just undergone an extensive vision quest under a naturalist shaman.  When we met he was six hours away from his bus back to Lima, en route to pick up life again back in the US.  On ascertaining what an interesting fellow I was talking to, plus his current condition of just killing time, I believe my exact words were “Well fuckin’ A, why don’t you come over and have dinner with my wife and I?”  Talk about a great dinner guest. He told of many ceremonies involving Ayauaska (a plant with hallucinogenic properties), and the resultant insights, visions, and vomitings he underwent.  From my western vantage point I find this a fascinating branch of medicinal wisdom and practice.  It is not clear if such an adventure will present itself on a sufficiently silver plate to entice me to experience it firsthand, but if nothing else the practice of inviting a stranger to dinner is most welcome, and suggests a skill well worth cultivating.

I did have one memorable moment of experiencing more traditional medicine just yesterday, however.  The Healing House was having a “Dia del Bienestar”, or “Day of Wellbeing”: a smorgasbord of hour long classes including yoga, tai chi, reiki, and a fire ceremony meditation.  I partook of four of them throughout the day: tai chi, Pranayama, Ayurveda, and the meditation.  At the Ayurveda class I acquiesced in the opportunity to have my nostrils violated.  They had this little pipe where the short end is shaped to fit up a nostril and filled with a brown powder of ginger and various Indian spices.  The practitioner rests the butt of the pipe on your forehead and chants a brief blessing5.  Then the pipe is moved down, and the short end positioned in your nostril.  Then he or she blows.  In this moment, even though they’ll assure you there is not, you would swear there was cayenne pepper in the mix.  This, they say, clears out the sinuses, cleanses the frontal lobes, and awakens the mind and spirit.  Check, check, and check.  (Well, probably on the frontal lobe cleansing.)  They advise you to wait two or three minutes before you (mercifully) blow your nose.

After the fire ceremony Tracy and I got dinner at a restaurant.  I’d been meaning to try cuy, a.k.a. oven roasted guinea pig, for a while now: it’s on all the menus of fancy restaurants around Cusco, and at 50 soles is about double the cost of most nice entrees.  I wanted to like it so much, but alas I would not recommend eating guinea pig: they bring it out to you whole (for a photo op), and then cut it into six pieces.  I found it to be not very meaty, and not very tasty.  Couple that with very poor sides and it turns out my last dinner in Cusco was the very opposite of everything great about the micro restaurants.

This morning we moved out of our apartment, all our possessions in tow.  Despite last night’s cuy fiasco I’m leaving Cusco on terrifically good terms.  Now as I write this we are on a train to Aguas Calientes, the city that, I suspect, exists only to serve as a base camp for visitors of Machu Picchu.  The slow train through the valley is gorgeous, and we are excited to see what’s next.

Notes

  1. Actually if there’s soup they’ll serve you soup first, and, like a fine meal broken into courses, have your main dish in front of you when you’re a few spoonfuls shy of finishing.
  2. Although the workaround for that is simply to go to the next table: in markets you can usually find at least 5 such establishments to frequent, all cooking up their own thing.
  3. This is the reason I took so long to try a sit at such establishments: after our first week illness I was a bit gun shy about anything which might require a strong stomach.
  4. Mostly because Tracy already has great coverage of the event.
  5. This part is kinda like when Tyler Durden kisses Ed Norton’s hand before giving him a chemical burn in Fight Club.
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