“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Gastronomy in Lima: The Real Man vs Food

So many plane rides.  So many hours on buses.  By the time we returned to Lima, we were beat.  South America wins.  UNCLE!  We had two full days in Lima before returning to Chicago, so we decided not to make many plans.  Monday we walked up to the Miraflores district to look around and shop.  We had dinner reservations for the next day, so we scouted out the place first so we'd remember where it was and not be late.  From Barranco we walked up Avenida Larco to the ovalo, back east to Parque de Amor, then south along the coast to shop at Larco Mar.  This was a great oceanfront outdoor shopping mall.  I found some cute things here that I brought home, including a fabulous blouse.  Earlier we had stopped for lunch at a sandwich place, where I had a baguette of freshly-made chorizo, and fresh-squeezed orange juice.  From South America, it's possible I may miss the fresh juices most often.  OJ and guava from Easter Island.  *sigh*  I don't eat fruit often, but I do appreciate a good juice so perhaps I may look for these most often in Chicago, and start getting some of my vitamins properly.

That evening we were checking our email in the lobby of our hotel, and met a two friends from Seattle who quit their jobs and were traveling until their money ran out.  We decided to take the conversation on the road and went around the corner to La 73, a place we visited 2 weeks ago that was very comfortable with some unique food on the menu, great wines, and most importantly: not playing and folk music.  It was nice to spend a dinner learning about other people's adventures and swapping our best crazy stories of our travels.  I realized this point in Dubai when I dined with a few other travelers.  I appreciate that we may all be on our own journeys, but when our paths cross for just a few hours and you share something almost familiar and intimate with perfect strangers ("Where are you from?  Why are you traveling?  You paid how much for airfare??") it was as though - for that moment - we were all on the same journey. 

We were staying in the Barranco neighborhood, known for its cafes, night clubs, and artists.  Around the corner from our hotel was a building that my friend Nancy recommended, then later recommended by the hotel.  It was called Delado, a artisan marketplace that was housed in an old mansion where each room hosted the works and wares of a single artist.  We should have brought more suitcases and  fatter wallets.  Not that anything was very expensive, but that we wanted everything we saw.  There were housewares, plates, tea sets, sculpture, paintings, jewelry, books, furniture, clothing, and all number of accessories.  It was an artistic candy store and were the little kids.  We practiced some restraint: Carrie bought 1 shirt and I bought a necklace and ring.  She did have to talk me out of a number of other things I had already mentally purchased.

On Tuesday we had 1 more thing we decided we HAD to do: eat chicken.  There is a church and a KFC on every block in this town.  If it's not KFC, it's Roky's, Norkey's, or some other fried chicken chain.  Why all the chicken? we wondered.  In every town, on every street there was a polleria.  We had to find out what all the hype was, so Tuesday would be our final day to run errands, have a light lunch, and dinner at Astrid y Gaston.  At any rate, we stopped at Roky's thinking it was like a McDonald's or KFC.  Walk in, order, pay, wait, sit or leave.  Here, when we looked at the menu up front, a gentleman led us to an inner large dining room.  He put down a paper placemat, some utensils, and took our order.  So in a way, it was more like a Denny's or other chain diner.  We ordered a meal for 1 since we'd just share it, as we discovered that dishes in Peru are alarmingly large.  Oh boy was that good chicken.  Some of the best rotisserie chicken I've ever had.  Salty and juicy.  Now I know what all the fuss was about.

Sadly I never had an opportunity to go salsa dancing.  But our scheduling was also off, as were never in Lima on a weekend, and in Cusco we were too beat and too far out of the center of town to wander about.  Perhaps one of these days I can salsa in a Latin country.  We still had our opportunity to dress up for dinner, so I donned some nice jeans, heels, and the new cute blouse I bought the day before, and headed to Miraflores.  It felt good to dress up again, wear jeans, and feel close to normal and not like a frumpy traveler.  I felt as though I were back in Chicago.

We stepped in and immediately let it be known to our waiter that we wanted the tasting menu - regardless of what's on it - with wine pairing.  He picked a good red and a white that we alternated throughout the meal, which paired well with the degustation.  I won't detail all the food we ate since Carrie covered it thoroughly in her blog, but I will comment with some brief thoughts.  I was crazy about the ceviche, as I was an immediate fan since we ate at El Muelle two weeks prior (two weeks!).  The ceviche and other dishes incorporated citrus and other fruits from the jungle, and we appreciated how special it was that we may never eat these ingredients again, since we're dining at a place between the ocean and the jungle.  Fruits from deep within the Amazon were enchanting us.  I had sea urchin once before but this one came in a shot glass and was accompanied by black noodles and a soft-boiled quail egg.  This was the dish in which I had to exercise mind over matter.  At this point, we were also getting very, very full and we were only just past the halfway point.  What was 12 courses on the menu was 17 in reality.  I really don't think you need desert 4-5 times at the end of a meal, but maybe that's because I'm not a dessert person.  But that's a bit excessive.  If I liked desert, this may have been great (Carrie caught her second wind at desert, however), but I'm not complaining about the restaurant's quality of food at all.  It was simply fantastic.  I loved their use of local ingredients that were twists on traditional cultural dishes.  I especially enjoyed that we got to relive cuy again but in a different form: this was a bit on a crepe with sauce.

This gastronomic journey was an delicious but tough ride.  THIS was the real Man vs Food, not just a show about Americans over-stuffing their gullets on greasy food.  This was the meal that challenged what we'd eat (octopus, guinea pig, sea urchin, squid, and indigenous animals).  Paired with sweet potatoes and quinoa in all forms, we were delighted, and although 17 courses was a difficult push for our stomachs, we relished in the idea that we may never eat these types of foods again.  We had to push through, finish every bite (or close), and rejoice at the end that we just completed the 3.5 hour tasting menu at the 42nd-best restaurant in the world, Astrid y Gaston.  We may have gone on a lot of physical-grueling and geographic adventures, this night was just as challenging an adventure as any we've had.

Our trip back to Chicago was on Spirit Airlines, and, well, you get what you pay for.  $400 round trip to Peru should have been the tip-off, but we went with it anyway.  Heck, it got us there.  But I've never been on a set of more cramped or dirty planes before.  The worst was the 5.5 hour, broken middle seat from Lima to Ft Lauderdale.  Lord help me, not even medication kept me out long enough.  I'm exploring fares for a trip later this year, and I'm leaning to pay for the decent airlines and not the ones subcontracted through Panama.  Note to self.

Dennis and Allison picked me up from the airport, which is exactly what I needed: two smiling, familiar faces I hadn't seen in a while, and the comfort that I'll be transported home in quite luxury of their backseat and not battling public transit and wait times at midnight, let alone finding a cab.  It's the simple things to come home to that mean the world.  I opened my front door to find Jude, pleased as anything to see me, and has been joined to my hip for the past 4 days.  I saw some more great friends, went to a street festival, and had every intention of writing this entry poolside today, but it's too chilly.

I've learned a lot of things on this trip, but I am taking away one gem in particular: that South America is closer than I had thought, easier to get to, and is an entire continent full of the same language (Portuguese is close enough).  If I had relative ease moving around Peru, I want to try Brazil, Argentina, Columbia, Equador, and while we're at it, let's check out Central America, all Spanish-speaking as well!  I feel as though we're so close to this untapped gem.  While it seems so many Americans are headed west to Europe, this extraordinary continent is just south of us and full of precious experiences.  South America is calling me back.  Me encanta.  Stay tuned. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Easter Island: Once in a Lifetime

Inside the Gran Hotel Bolivar
We checked into the Gran Hotel Bolivar in Lima Centro. It's like a cross between the Palmer House Hilton and the lodge in The Shining.  It was so old I was giddy with picture-taking.  Although old, it was silent, and exactly what I needed for a full night's sleep.  Yesterday we explored the catacombs of San Francisco church.  It was gorgeous, but it made me uncomfortable to see all the silver and gold go to waste in altars and crosses for the illusion of wealth and power.  But the catacombs were neat. We caught the tour in Spanish - no idea when the English tour was - so I was able to translate some, but Carrie was great in catching the gist of things and reading some English translations.  She's done an awesome job of picking up some Spanish here, if even understanding.

Iglesia San Francisco
Our next flight was to Easter Island with an overnight layover in Santiago. I managed to catch a few Z's here, but hell, it's a cold airport.  And it's winter. Luckily Easter Island is more tropical so we stepped off the plane to sunshine and warm weather. It's a small airport, with no gates, just the tarmac and a small terminal with a grass parking area.  After checking in to our hotel and some lunch, we a rented a little Jeep. There is on town on the island, and it has a frontier feel, very sleepy. It also has a Polynesian feel, with some locals  sporting island features, native clothes, and we overheard some rapa nui language.

Driving. Best idea ever.  And I love to drive, so this would be fun.  On Saturday, our full day of sightseeing, we were able to stay ahead of the tour groups and be independent.  We got up and out early and started at the nearest volcano to own.  Volano! It was dormant, but at the top was the ancient ceremonial village of Orongo, and the rocky outcrop offshore where men would lie in wait each year to claim the first bird's egg. This was the birdman ceremony.

Next we skirted the southern coast, stopping at select Moai, and definitely pictures of the ocean crashing against the rocky black shoreline. We only had the jeep until 4pm so we had to be selective in what we saw, but we knew what the "must see" places were, so we had a plan. At Ranu Raraku we stopped to see Moai in varying state of quarry, and it's the image you see most often of the heads nestled into a grassy hillside.

As we rounded a turn, we saw the 15 Moai lined up at the site known as Ahu Tongariki. When we drove up and stepped out, we realized we were the only ones there! They were toppled in the 17th century, then in 1960, a tsunami triggered by an earthquake in Chile pushed them further inland. When a Japanese businessman saw the administrator of the island say they'd restore the monuments if they had a crane, the businessman organized a team to lead the restoration.  Now they stand majestic, 15 in a row with the ocean to their backs.

 Further up the road was Anakena beach.  Tall palm trees, green grass, bring blue ocean, black volcanic rocks, and fine white sand.  Postcard picture perfect with a row of Moai and some wild horses.  This had to be the most remote beach on the most remote island on Earth.  I wish we had another day to lie on the beach and relax.

Lastly we began our final drive into town. The windows were down, sun shining, and we were slowly dodging cattle and wild horses that were lingering on the roads. In some cases, those roads were just dirt paths.  Cruising along in 4th gear, approach a gulley, downshift quickly, and attempt to navigate around craters and trenches. I was really a lot of fun despite the jolting. It felt more like an adventure, even when we were the only ones in sight on those roads... Er, cow paths. We saw beautiful vistas of the expansive sea, and hillsides covered in purple and yellow flowers, and eucalyptus trees with that minty aroma.  It was perfect.

Sadly we had to return our trusty jeep. Afterward we explored an area of the village we hadn't visited yet, and we heard was the hub of local activity.  Near the harbor was a soccer game with the obligatory hecklers on the sidelines.  At the harbor, children were climbing on fishing boats and the mooring ropes. We bought some street food from two ladies that were grilling up some meat and veggies on a skewer our of a makeshift 55 gallon drum turned into a grill.  And old man nearby commented that it was delicious, especially with a beer.  We held off on the beer, but when the meat was done, we sat on a curb facing the harbor and the lady handed us a large skewer, a plate, tore off some chunks of bread, and gave us a bowl of sauce/salsa for dipping. We tore into it with our fingers, watching the kids play, an team prepare their outrigger canoes, and the soccer game across the street.  It was marvelous in its simplicity, as one of the ladies shoo'd away dogs waiting for our scraps. We completed our snack by stopping for some ice cream (Carrie) and fresh squeezed guava juice (me).

We walked to a nearby playground where we sat on a bench by the water and watched the sun set and the surfers offshore.  A perfect end to a perfect day. Our flights back to Lima would be the next day.  As I complete this entry, we're between Santiago and Lima, leaving Easter Island behind. I can't wait to sleep in, send out some laundry, find some more ceviche for lunch, and perhaps more street food for dinner. Two more days in Lima to relax, recover, shop, explore, and eat before heading home.