Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Peruvian foods I will (and won't) miss

In one month in Peru, I can safely say I’ve tried quite a list of foods and drinks I never even knew existed. This was obviously very exciting for me, and I’ve developed a number of new favorite dishes I can’t wait to try again. At the same time, there are a few I’ll have no problem never tasting again.

Foods I will miss:

1. Lomo Saltado

The lomo saltado is nothing short of legendary. It is a stir-fry, in which beef, tomatoes, peppers, and onions are blended in a pan with soy sauce and fried potatoes. It is perhaps the most popular dish in Peru, and easily my favorite.

2. Anticuchos

While I may have been the only one on the trip to try these, I am certain everyone else made a huge mistake. I had my first skewer from a street vendor for just 2 soles, and there was no looking back after that. Usually made from cow hearts, anticuchos are cheap and absolutely delicious.

3. Palta Rellena

It’s hard not to make something good when avocado is the main ingredient, and the palta rellena is no exception. It is basically half an avocado stuffed with whatever the chef feels like. It is always delicious.

4. Pisco Sour

The GOAT of Latin American cocktails. Order a pisco sour (or seven), sit back, and enjoy.

Foods I won't miss as much:

1. Andean Cheese

Just don’t. Everything else on this list you can try and see for yourself, but do yourself a favor and just don’t try andean cheese.

2. Mazamorra Morada

The best description of this lovely dessert came from one of the members of our trip. He describes it as “corn/robitussin/melted candle/3rd party off brand gummy bear plasma.” Take that as you will.

3. Chupe de Camarones

There’s nothing I love in this world like shrimp and prawns, but this soup is one of the only things hat can make me hate them. Imagine a bowl of milk, hot sauce, and shrimps. Now throw in a hard boiled egg and some of that good old andean cheese. Now some more milk. You have yourself a chupe de camarones. Buena suerte.

4. Inca Kola

Look, I’m all for Peru having its own signature soda, but if I really wanted bubblegum flavored toothpaste, I’d go back to my 7th grade orthodontist.

The Day I Climbed a Skyscraper

     The highest altitude we reached during our trip was the town of Chinchero, where we stayed for a couple of nights. The town is situated at a lofty 14,000 feet, quite a bit higher than Nashville. On our second day there we did a lot of walking, and I definitely felt the effects of the altitude. First thing in the morning, we got up and helped harvest potatoes out in a field down the road. When it was time to leave, we decided to hike the scenic route back, past a lake and through some other local farm fields. This would not have been too difficult of a hike for me down at sea level, but I was struggling a bit. However, that hike was just a warm up.

     After we got back and had lunch, we decided to hike out to visit some waterfalls nearby. We didn’t really know what to expect, as we had gotten mixed information about how long the hike would take. Regardless, ready for an adventure, we set off. The way there wasn’t too bad. It was almost entirely downhill, with only a few treacherous parts, and the views of the nearby mountains and valley were absolutely stunning, some of the best from the whole trip. After about an hour of hiking, we reached the falls. I was expecting the falls to be pretty cool, but they turned out to be incredible, way bigger than I had anticipated. They were at least 100 feet high and gave off a nice, refreshing mist. We rested there for a while and took in the sights, while Adam decided to be adventurous and take a dip in the water.

     The hike back was when things started to get tough. This time, the path was uphill. The “steps” didn’t help very much since they were still at a pretty steep incline and didn’t give your legs a chance to rest. Even at sea level, this would have been a difficult hike. However, being at 14,000 feet made things even tougher. It seemed like I had to stop every couple hundred feet or so to try and catch my breath. I would rest and feel ready to go, but not make it very far at all again upon restarting. Profe had it the worst out of all of us, as his body was not handling the altitude well at all. The trip back took over twice as long as the trip there, and we had to complete the second half of it in the dark since the sun set on us. This entire struggle was completely worth it though. The views from the trail were amazing, the waterfalls were incredible, the darkness of the backcountry gave us undisturbed views of the stars and planets above us, and it was great exercise. When I got back to the hotel, on a whim I pulled out my iPhone and checked the health app that tracks my daily activity. What I saw shocked me. I had climbed 106 floors. To put that in perspective, One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the US, has only 104 floors. So, I can say that on that day I climbed the equivalent of a skyscraper, and got better views. It is and experience that I will never forget.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Over the mountains and through the woods (and across the desert and ocean too)

     Before coming to Peru, I knew I was in for an adventure. I had never seen large mountains before (unless you count the Appalachian Mountains – I sure don’t now) and was really looking forward to staying in the Andes, namesake of one of my favorite mint chocolates and the longest continental mountain range in the world. Peru certainly did not disappoint. On my flight to Cuzco from Lima I was glued to the window as the plane passed over the mountain range. Upon landing in Cuzco, my jaw dropped as I took in the view. The city is surrounded by small mountains on all sides. I was thoroughly impressed, but things kept getting better from there. As we took our side trips all over the region we kept encountering taller and taller mountains and getting better and better views, including expansive valleys and towering snow-capped mountains, like the one pictured below.
     I fully expected to see mountains during our trip, due to my extensive Google searches of the Cuzco region during finals week as an outlet and means of procrastination. However, there was so much diversity in the geography of Peru that I did not expect to see. In Lima, I got to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time. The city perched on the cliffs overlooking the surfers catching waves was a sight to behold.
     Then, as if the mountains and ocean weren’t enough, we took a trip south of Lima, to the desert Oasis of Huacachina. Yes, desert. This trip also marked my first time being in the desert, which provided incredible views and tons of extreme entertainment. Riding in a dune buggy and sand boarding are up there with some of the most fun things I’ve done in my life. After all that excitement it was nice to lay back and watch the sun set over the dunes.
     Peru is incredibly diverse and home to many environments, animals, and cultures. I was able to experience a lot in one month, but know that there is still so much that I have yet to see and do. Visiting the rainforest and Lake Titicaca are on the top of my to-do list for the next time I visit Peru, which I absolutely would love to do.

Back in America but With a Peruvian Eye

I was driving with my mom on the highway when I noticed a large flatbed truck to our left carrying three huge pieces of cement. My legitimate first thought was "the Incas really could have used that." I sort of laughed under my breath after I realized that I would never have had that thought before the trip. Just a month ago I hadn't been thinking about the Incas, let alone how they transported the massive stones they used to build some of the architectural wonders we saw. It still absolutely amazes me that they were able to engineer such lasting buildings and terraces with such simple tools and I wonder what things they would have been capable of with the resources we have today.

The truck carrying the large blocks of concrete

The next day I walked into the grocery store with my brother to get some milk and oreos. In Peru I tried to stay away from drinking straight milk because of my history of lactose issues so I was excited to hopefully appease my stomach and get some good lactose free milk at home. Naturally my brother wanted to tag along to get some Oreos to go with the milk. Being summertime, there was a massive bin full of corn right when we walked into the store. I was immediately struck by how small the kernels were until I remembered that I had been thinking of choclo for a month and had forgotten how small the corn we are used to is in comparison. I am sure I will be in for another surprise the first time I take a bite of this corn, not quite anticipating the sweet flavor that I haven't had for over a month.

Our super small corn

I can say without a doubt that this trip has changed the way I think about things back home. Everything from our lack of freshly squeezed orange juice to seeing my dogs run around at home reminds me of the amazing experiences I had and the even more interesting things I learned. Until next time Peru!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Looking Back at Machu Picchu

     Looking back at our second week, we went to the ultimate destination that for many people is the sole reason they go to Peru. We had the amazing opportunity to visit Machu Picchu this past Sunday, which represents the remnants of a vast and intelligent culture that displays genius engineering, arquitecture, and agriculture. Before arriving to Machu Picchu, we stayed in a town for one day that was built solely for tourists to stay in before Machu Picchu, which was called Agua Calientes. Unfortunately, the town is built in an area where it was not meant to to be. As a result, all of its goods have to be shipped in and this causes expensive foods and products. Also, the food was some of the worst we have had in Peru so far. Nevertheless, we still had a good time in the town and the hotel we stayed at was very comfortable.
The next day, we woke early for a 6:30am breakfast, so we could get to Machu Picchu early and beat the enormous tourist rush that begins around noon. Despite all of us being tired, that immdiately went away as we passed through the ticketing area and were able to finally the site that attracted many of us to this particular maymester. Much of the ruins were from the original material made in the 16th century with only about 30% of the ruins needing to be restored as a result of time and weather. At first, we took a short hike to what is called the Puerta del Sol or Gate of the Sun, which was an upward climb where at one point we were within some of the clouds. Once we arrived at the top, we had an amazing view of Machu Picchu down below and also saw the beginning of an Inca trail that leads from Machu Picchu to Cusco. We soon learned how long it takes for various people to embark on the trail. For the average person not acculamated to the altitude, it would take about 3-4 days, the average local takes around 12 hours, and the record for the trek is a little under 4 hours. From this information, we understood that it was an extensive path. Afterwards, we relaxed and then took a guided tour through Machu Picchu where we were able to learn about some of the sacred sites within as well as see what typical rooms were for those that lived there. Looking back on that day, it baffles me how they were able to create such a place in the middle of the mountains. The mere fact that they were able to transport material and build upon a mountain is fascinating and a testiment to the intelligence of the Inca culture.

Below are three pictures I took. The first is a view from right outside the door of our hotel at Agua Calientes. The second is when we relaxed after the hike to the Puerta del Sol with a view that overlooked Machu Picchu, and the third is a closer picture of the ruins.

A Random Act of Kindness

     On the last Thursday we spent in Cusco, we had the pleasure of taking a chocolate class where we were able to learn about the process of how chocolate is made, the different ingredients you can put into it, as well as the cultural and health benefits of it. After the class, we had a brief break during which we ate while the chocolate solidified a fridge. A few of us decided to choose McDonalds as a quick, cheap solution to our hunger and while we were waiting in line Paloma decided to help out a local. There was a boy selling keychains outside of the McDonalds that all of us except Paloma walked by without a second glance. There are of many people along the street selling items that we do not need or want, so we do not always stop to think. She took the initiative to ask the young boy, who reminded her of her little brother, of about 5 or 6 years old if he was hungry, and when he responded yes she offered to buy him a quick meal. This resulted in our dinner being accompanied by John Marco. The young boy enjoys Regae music, knows more about U.S. geography than most of us would know about his home country, and encouraged us to speak spanish. What was a seemingly simple act helped the rest of us leave our comfort zone and engage with a boy we would only have the chance to while in Cusco. All of us agreed that it was a very considerate, unselfish random act of kindness that we hope to mimic sometime in the near future.

To roughly quote Paloma,

"I mean, I could have bought one of his keychains, but that isn't going to change much. A meal has a much bigger impact on him."

Last Night in Lima

As the Maymester came to a close, it was sad to know there was only one night for us to spend together as a group. That being said, it was a great opportunity to enjoy the great city of Lima for one last night. We first walked to the crepes and waffles restaurant, where we enjoyed savory crepes. I never would have thought a pizza themed crepe would be so delicious. Afterwards, it was only right that we would all enjoy one last pisco sour before heading home. We went to a nice Italian restaurant and sat at the bar, where we all ordered exotic and nicely designed drinks for ourselves. If there’s one thing I know about Peru, it’s that they know how to make some nice looking cocktails. We then grabbed a table and enjoyed a delicious nice dinner together where we told some jokes and shared some of the highlights of our trip. It was the perfect way to end an amazing trip.

Lima was one of the more amazing cities I’ve visited. It provided the perfect combination of the urban lifestyle, traditional culture, and beautiful natural landscape. With so much opportunity for shopping, relaxing, touring, eating, and having fun at night, Lima was the perfect way to spend a 
week before heading home. I can’t wait to visit again.


Saturday, May 30, 2015

This wasn't on the syllabus...

While I attempt to be adventurous, I tend to stray away from planning wild activities. I am much more of a 'relax and chill' type when on vacation. When presented with an opportunity, however, I do take advantage and seize the day. In this case, days. Our last side trip was action-packed with adventure that I would never go out of my way to try. At least not before this maymester. I am glad that Profe planned these activities for us because they were hella fun but also because I think it was a great way to close out a great month. Nando provided us with unforgettable experiences.

From the sandboarding in the desert that left me with 4 big bruises and many potential desktop backgrounds
to the boat ride in the Pacific that allowed me to see penguins, sea lions, and dolphins in the wild

and even the romantic yet laborious leg day on the "oasis" with dad
After those two days, I think that I will try to venture into things that seem extreme. Even though I am not a swimmer and am terrified of drowning, white water rafting was possibly one of the best experiences of my life. The dune buggy roller coaster was so much fun and looking back, I'm surprised I didn't scream more. ATVing with cows at face-level was just madness. Ask Conor. I can honestly say that this maymester has made me reconsider vacations. I want to try everything because I now know of the fun I am missing out on. So thank you Nando, Profe, and Aventuras Peruanas. You have changed my life.
Sun setting on my Peru adventures.

“Olive” You, Peru

     One of the things I had looked forward to the most before coming to Peru was getting to try all kinds of new and delicious foods. Peru certainly did not disappoint. Alpaca steak, beef hearts, fresh ceviche, gas station empanadas, and all the wonderful exotic fruits are some of my favorites. Andean cheese and that terrible pizza from Aguas Calientes will forever haunt me, but can be overlooked due to the countless other delicious food options that Peru offers. However, there is one food that I was surprised to find in Peru. When I think of olives, I don’t think of South America. Italy and the Mediterranean region come to mind, but Peru sure doesn’t. Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that olives are a part of a decent amount of Peruvian foods. After doing some research, I discovered that olives were brought to Peru from Spain during their conquest and have been integrated as one of the agricultural products of the country.
     Many restaurants offered olives with the bread before meals, one had an olive dipping sauce, and olives were one of the main ingredients in many of the foods we ate. In fact, during our cooking class in Casa Elena we stuffed olives (among other ingredients) in our papas rellenas. Luckily for me, I was one of the only people in our group who liked olives. This meant that every time we were served olives, they all went to me. As such, I ended up eating quite a bit of olives during my time in Peru, and enjoyed every bite.
     I went into Peru with an open mind and a determination to try all kinds of new and strange foods. My palate was certainty put to the test as I expanded my culinary limits. After putting aside my dislike for seafood, I found a new favorite in ceviche. Ignoring the cuteness of alpacas, I was able to discover one of the most delicious meats I have tasted. I found out that gas station food doesn’t always have to be revolting and/or probably toxic, but can at times be delicious (in Peru at least). However, it was always nice to be able to take a break from my gastronomic adventures and return to a classic favorite of mine: good old olives.

Me encanta Lima

If I ever had an online dating profile, one of my interests would be long walks on the beach. Hours before our inevitable and sad departure from Lima, Steve was kind enough to take us a beach side stroll/power walk. Still full from Parado’s chicken and sorbet, I had to trot to keep up with. Steve led us through park after small park, some filled with parents supervising kids and playing with dogs, others filled with people staring out into the ocean or at each other. He explained how when he visited Lima previously, he and Vanessa (I hope this is how you spell her name) had walked along the same trail. Despite the car horns, building and ubiquitous pedestrians, the shore of Lima reminded me of Chincheros, of the serene hike, waterfall and starry night we were rewarded. Both filled my ears with the incessant flow of water and made me consider how vast the world was, one by looking up into the constellations, using modern day Iphone apps to pinpoint the location of Jupiter or Venus and the other by looking across the ocean toward another continent. Stumbling among the jagged and slippery rocks, we skipped stones, played chase the tide and touched the pacific. Lima is truly an amazing city, allowing one to experience the urban bustle of shopping and late night entertainment in the downtown areas of Miraflores as well as the tranquility of nature all within walking distance. It exhibits an obvious western influence with Avengers shown in English and name brands like Steve Madden; yet, is also representative of evolving Peruvian culture with downtown plazas that date back to the 1960s and catacombs buried in cathedrals. There are certainly tourists but it isn’t like Cuzco and the ones that I did meet were all incredibly and interesting. For instance, at the airport in Lima, Andrew and I met a tall, lumberjack looking American that was a NatGeo photographer who had just finished the trip of a lifetime doing everything we had done but also had explored the Amazon. I am also an avid fan of Chifa, which is Chinese food influenced by Peruvian cuisine. 
To sum up my experiences in a sentence all I have to say about Lima is scenic beach, indoor/outdoor modernized malls, delicious buffet food such as cowheart and other foods sin leche, ability to buy alcoholic drinks/gamble responsibly, humid, great empanadas, name brand shirts at a discount, walking, overcast, cars, sea level, touristy and homey.

The Two Realities of Cuzco

     One of the first things that I noticed upon arriving to Cuzco on the first day of the trip was how dense and bustling the city was. Cars were zigzagging every which way, tourists and locals alike packed the narrow sidewalks, and vendors and shop owners competed for attention and sales. In some areas of the city, especially near the central Plaza de Armas, the touristy side of the city dominated. On a 10 minute walk from the hotel to the San Pedro market, one could expect to be offered 15 massages (of questionable quality and possibly legality), 6 “baby alpaca” hats, 23 llama key chains, 4 pairs of knock-off Ray Ban sunglasses, menus to 8 different restaurants, and an uncountable number of other goods.
     At first this was great, as it was all new and exciting. However, by the second week in Cuzco it became tiring. It becomes evident that all the vendors are selling the same things. The last thing you want to see right after finishing a meal is a menu for another restaurant. If you’re wearing a rain jacket, it should be obvious that you don’t want a rain poncho, but they still shove them in your face. After seeing the same painting by “Pablo Picasso Junior” for the fifteenth time, you begin to question whether there is actually any original artwork in the city. The vendors can be ruthless, following you for blocks if you accidentally show a hint of interest in their product. However, this is not the only reality of Cuzco.
     On a few occasions I got the chance to venture out a little farther to the less touristy areas. Avenida el Sol and the nearby streets are noticeably different. The gift shops and street vendors were replaced by things residents actually need, such as barbershops and shoe shiners. You can walk in peace down the street and not have to worry about someone getting in your face to try to sell you something. People went about their daily business, and it seemed just like any other small city I have ever visited. This was really refreshing, taking a break from the tourist-dominated historic center of town to get a glimpse into how the real residents of the city lived.
     However, one thing which I really appreciated from the touristy area where we stayed remained constant throughout the rest of the city. The streets of Cuzco were all pedestrian friendly, and the shops and businesses were all densely packed. One would not have to walk more than a minute at most to find a bottle of water or some snacks at the nearest convenience store. Nearly everything one could need was within walking distance. Since the streets were in fairly rough condition and traffic was almost always heavy, it’s a very good thing that the city was so walkable.
     Cuzco has a lot to offer, but it’s easy to get stuck within the touristy area. I highly recommend to anyone that visits the city to get out and explore some more, because there is so much more to Cuzco than the countless gift shops and the Plaza de Armas.