Archive for the 'Culinary' Category
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Setting sail from the shores of Lake Titicaca feels like passing through a veil into another world. A series of small islands, just minutes from the mainland, awaits, with their own language, culture, and traditions. Scads of tour operators from Puno run daily tours to the islands, but the best way to experience these distinct communities is by taking the local boat solo and seeing life up close and personal for oneself.
We first boarded the local boat, a tiny skiff anchored in Puno’s harbor, to Uros, the famous Islas Flotantes (Floating Islands). We were the only gringos on board, surrounded by locals apparently on vacation. After passing through a gauntlet of spring green reeds, we reached what has to be the world’s coolest Coast Guard tower, a mammoth thing constructed entirely of reeds! Soon we were floating amongst the remarkable Floating Islands, patches of woven grass – some no bigger than a few meters wide – that float gently on the lake’s glassy surface. The islands were first constructed during Inca times, when a group of villagers, tired of the warring factions between Incas and Spaniards, created a refuge on the lake.
While the islanders traditionally earned their living through fishing, tourism now provides their primary income stream, which is evident from the moment the boat reaches shouting distance of the island. A group of women, dressed in colorful skirts and blouses, ran to the reedy edge to greet us, smiling, laughing, and greeting us in Quechua, the islanders’ first language. Before we knew it we were tromping on the slightly squishy “ground,” being shepherded to a bench constructed entirely of reeds to learn more about the islands’ construction (the root systems on the undersides of the reeds are bound together and anchored to the lake’s floor). Small group of families live together on an island, sharing resources and income generated from the beautiful handicrafts they create.
After spending the morning hopping lazily from island to island, our appetite was whetted to journey farther afield, so we made arrangements to spend the following evening on Isla Amantani, one of Lake Titicaca’s least touristed islands. We considered taking an organized tour to the island, which promised ease of planning, but opted to take the risk of going it on our own and arranging a trip through the local boat system. After dodging touts at the entrance to the public dock, we managed to find our way to the office that manages trips to the islands, with each island maintaining their own ticketing system (a benefit of buying directly is that more profit passes directly to the islanders, rather than a tour company taking their cut).
We presented ourselves to the dock early the next morning, quickly realizing that we really were on the local boat. We sandwiched ourselves between clutches of dark and weathered women dressed in brightly colored, traditional garb, from hand-stitched tops to flouncy wool skirts. One of a handful of tourists on the boat, we settled in for what promised to be a long boat ride. In traveling the world, I am constantly amazed at the patience that everyday people exhibit. Some napped. The women chatted in small groups, filling their skirts with handfuls of puffed Andean grains, snacking and laughing. One man, donning an outrageously colorful hat, sat reading Cosmic Conflict. Another woman listened to an old school iPod, a set of modern earbuds attached to an ancient transistor radio. A little girl with a sweetly round face and wide set eyes, wearing a blue chenille jumpsuit, started intently at us for hours, undoubtedly spooked by the white ghosts sitting across from her.
Four hours later the boat glided into a lovely stone harbor under sunny skies, and we were greeted by a group of women dressed in traditional clothing, with large, black shawls draped over their head, embellished with stunning embroidery. Each tourist was quickly assigned to a “host family,” waiting on the shore, for our evening’s stay. Sonia shyly shook our hands and led us along the rocky shoreline, zooming up the hill ahead of us as we huffed and puffed, still struggling with any type of physical exertion at 13,000 feet. Sweeping views of green farmland stretched in every direction, and I jogged ahead to ask Sonia what the deep purple plants sporting small pearls atop, looking like broccoli, were. “Quinoa,” she replied, simply. I should have guessed. There were also leafy potato, oca, and habas (lima bean) plants, arranged in tidy rows.
We quickly settled into our room, complete with a woven straw box spring, heavy wool blankets, and candles (although wired, there is no electricity on the island). We met Elvy and Delia, Sonia’s two darling kids who were smiley but shy and, like us, spoke Spanish as their second language. Lunch was brought to our room: quinoa soup, jewel-like potatoes, a fried strip of salty local cheese, rings of ruby tomatoes, and fluffy rice. Simple but simply delicious. Muna tea was served to help with the elevation, purportedly more effective than coca.
Eager to begin exploring the island, we asked Sonia direction to the ruins that dot the island. “Take the main road,” she said, and we laughed when a simple stone path emerged out of nowhere. “This is the main road?” I asked, incredulous. We made our way towards the modest town plaza, where small groups of islanders sat chatting, and poked our heads in the public health clinic (a list of islanders still in need of vaccinations graced the windows). Villagers passed up, always pausing to smile and say “good afternoon.” We continued up the hill: rustic rock walls corralled colorful crops, like stone stitches on a green quilt. Passing under impossibly old stone arches, I felt like I was living a scene from Mama Mia.
Night falls early in Peru, and after a long walk, we returned back home in the waning light, where Sonia was busy preparing dinner. We huddled around a roaring fire in the rustic adobe structure that served as a kitchen, asking her a million questions about food preparation as she grabbed handfuls of this and pinches of that and added them to boiling clay pots. Soon we were joined by Vidal, Sonia’s gregarious husband who asked us a million questions as we dined on free-form dumplings and a steaming bowl of diced potatoes, carrots, and rice. He asked us what we thought of President Obama, how to make a website, and where Switzerland was located. Apparently, an islander had recently married a Swiss woman, who had lived on the island for a few months, and returned to Switzerland to live. Talk about a world away! Dinner ended at 8:30, and although it was still early, we fell asleep quickly, listening to the complete and utter silence that enveloped us wholly. It was one of the best nights of sleep we’ve enjoyed in weeks.
After a quick breakfast of fried egg stuffed in a delicate pillow of Peruvian bread, paid our bill: three meals and a night of accommodations ran us $15! We dashed off to the dock, which would transport us to Taquile, a neighboring island with its own set of traditions, where we reunited with the tourists from the day before, including a couple from Lima and a lovely family from British Columbia. As cattle ranchers, it was the first trip the family had taken abroad since their children, aged 10 and seven, were born. I so admired this experience they had given their kids, and couldn’t help but wonder what their memories from this very memorable overnight stay would be. It also renewed my faith in not only the ability but the joy in traveling internationally with children, who seem to be a magical talisman in connecting with locals. After a brief stop on Taquile, which was dampened by a soggy day, we spent the four-hour boat ride back talking with the Canadians and the limenas, language not posing much of a barrier. Hellen passed around photos from their ranch, and extended an invitation to stay with them in the future. I couldn’t help but think, once again, how we had met the most interesting people and had the most fun during one of our least expensive excursions. It was Big Kids’ Summer Camp all over again.
As we reach the end of this trip, my thoughts turn a great deal these days towards my life back home and how I want it to be different. I have been reminded so many times during this journey of how much I have, and how little I need to be happy. In fact, the less I have, the happier I seem to be. My greatest hope is that I can carry a piece of this feeling back with me.
Photos from our trip to Amantani and Taquile Islands are posted at the end of our Lake Titicaca album. Enjoy!6 comments
Monday, February 16, 2009
In Patrick Symmes’ book Chasing Che, he refers to Lima, Peru, as The Scorch, a heaving South American capital city choked by people and pollution, whose oppressive heat and humidity is a constant companion to the arid landscape. It wasn’t a place we wanted to spend any time, but after our plans to fly to Bolivia were smashed to smithereens, an overnight stay was in order before we could catch a flight the next morning to Cusco. It was also where we would meet up with Maikael’s mom, Cecilia, who will spend the final month of our trip with us. We booked a cheap hotel near the airport and looked forward to catching up with Cecilia, who would arrive a few hours before us, before getting a good night’s rest. We were going to start Peru off on the right foot.
Getting to Cusco required four days of travel over three countries, involving four buses, three plane trips, three taxi rides, and hours of waiting in airports. By the time our plane touched down in Lima on day three, we were not fried but scorched. After clearing immigration, we spied my luggage spinning down the luggage carousel. “Yours will be probably be out any minute,” I said to Maikael. We watched as bags and suitcases were quickly plucked from the conveyor belt, and after thirty minutes, a small clutch of people without baggage remained. Something had obviously gone wrong with the transfer of luggage in Santiago. Maikael fought his way to the front of what appeared to be the Misplaced Luggage line, and was assured that more luggage from our flight had been located. Within minutes a heap of luggage was wheeled through a mysterious back door, which then reduced the group to three persons still awaiting luggage. Another flight from Santiago is arriving in five minutes, we were informed: not to worry.
An hour later, as the luggage from the final flight of the day whirred in lazy circles, every person’s baggage was claimed…except for Maikael’s. “Your luggage is lost,” I said with finality, believing that his bag had never made it off our final flight and was probably bound for New York, its next destination, at that moment. By the time the lost luggage form was filled out it was 1:30 am, although with the time change it felt like 3:30 am. We had arranged for a pick-up from our hotel, but since two and a half hours had passed since our flight landed, we assumed the taxi was long gone. After being shuffled through customs and deposited in the arrivals area, we were greeted by a mass of humanity holding hand-lettered name placards and touts screaming, “Taxi!” Maikael pushed through the bulging crowd, quickly confirming that our taxi had departed hours ago.
We had been warned to take an approved, pre-paid taxi from the airport, as kidnappings and violent assaults, especially at night, are not uncommon in Lima. Following the airport signs to the pre-paid taxi stand, we were informed that a 10-minute taxi ride would set us back $50 US, amounting to nearly half of our daily budget. Undoubtedly seeing the looks of appalled shock register on our faces, a cheaper option was proposed, this one, after an unsuccessful negotiation, costing $25 US. We knew a taxi should cost about $10. We knew we were being ripped off. But it was late, we were exhausted, and we were out of options.
After begrudgingly shelling over our cash, the dispatcher asked us our location. We knew the name of the hotel, but hadn’t thought to write down the address or the phone number, since we had arranged an airport pick-up. “Not a problem,” she assured us. We climbed in the taxi, and our driver immediately asked us the address, obviously having never heard of our hotel. Nevertheless, he confidently zoomed off towards what looked like a slightly dodgy area of town, the avenues lined with strip bars, fast food restaurants, casinos, and darkened buildings. Soon he slowed to a snail’s pace, straining to see the address. The he manuvered a complete U-turn, racing back towards the airport. “He has absolutely no idea where we’re going,” I whispered to Maikael across the back seat.
Numerous calls to dispatch revealed such helpful advice as, “It’s in San Martin, I think.” That’s like saying to someone in Seattle, “I think the hotel is located somewhere in the University District, but I don’t have a street address.” Maikael suggested stopping to ask a cop, a fellow taxi driver, a gas station attendant. “They never know anything,” he responded, assuredly. By now it was 2:30 am, and we had been driving around in the taxi nearly an hour. We were getting nowhere fast. Maikael had seen an Internet cafe open and suggested returning so that he could check his email and copy the address of the hotel from the confirmation we had received. By the time we returned to the cafe, it was closed.
Luckily, the Internet cafe was attached to a hotel, and the owner was kind enough to let Maikael check his email and make a phone call to the hotel, which revealed that Maikael’s mom was worried sick and had returned to the airport with the hotel’s driver to look for us. We set off towards the airport once again. Twenty-five dollars and an hour and a half later, we were exactly where we had started.
Within minutes we were reunited with Cecilia and the driver. Apparently, he had waited two and a half hours for us at the airport, and when we didn’t exit with the rest of the flight, the driver called the hotel. Everyone was convinced we had taken a gypsy taxi and been kidnapped, and Cecilia was ready to call the embassy. The driver returned to the hotel to pick up Cecilia at the same time we had exited customs. It was 4 am by the time we arrived back to the hotel, shelling out another $40 to the driver, who had spent his entire night at the airport. At a combined total of $65, our taxi rides cost more than our hotel room.
We awoke an hour and a half later, hoping to arrive at the airport to change our flight to an earlier time and check the status of Maikael’s luggage. We were shuttled back and forth between two ticketing counters and were finally issued a change moments before the flight boarded. The luggage was still MIA. By the time we arrived in Cusco, I was exceedingly tired and cranky. I wanted nothing more than to take a long nap, but we hadn’t booked a room in town. Having been warned, once again, to avoid unmarked taxis, we hired an “official” airport taxi to take us to a few places we had earmarked in our Lonely Planet guide. The result was an overpriced taxi ride and a hard sell to stay at one of the hotels he was obviously in cahoots with.
Four days after our journey began, we ended up at the very lovely Amaru Hostal in the San Blas neighborhood, offering sweeping views of the Sacred Valley. As our plane descended out of the clouds the Valley appeared below, an expansive swath of towering green hills which tumbled into even bigger valleys in the distance. It was exactly as I had always imagined, a tidy city cradled in the arms of a gentle green giant. Cusco was a terra cotta tongue that snaked through the valley floor, colored by the red tile roofs that dominate the city. Undoubtedly sensing our exhaustion, the hotel promptly produced a pot of mate tea to help revive us and ease our acclimation to the high altitude.
We set off on foot to explore the narrow warrens and cobblestone streets of Cusco, a city that was once the seat of the great Inca Empire. Although its buildings have long been stripped of the sheets of gold facades that once defined this city, grand stone walls and doorways remain. The town somersaults down the hillsides to the lovely Plaza de Armas, filled with flowers and lined by impressive churches, remnants of the Spanish invasion. Women dressed in traditional Andean garb pick their way through the streets, donning tall bowler hats and colorfully flouncy, knee-length skirts on top of thick knee socks. Even the old women’s hair is braided. Groups of mothers and daughters prop themselves on ancient stone steps, petting baby llamas and encouraging tourists to take photos (for a few nuevo soles, of course).
At the recommendation of our hotel we sought out El Granja Heidi, offering nuevo andino cuisine, a culinary style defined by a fusion of traditional Andean dishes with other cultures, or simply a modern twist. For 18 nuevo soles (about $5.50 US), we were treated to a three-course meal and a drink. I chose chica morada, a traditional Peruvian drink of fermented corn with an arresting purple color, tasting like a light mulled cider. Maikael chose a classic pisco sour, a perfectly frothy version dusted with cinnamon. The sopa de quinoa followed, an Andean grain with a cous cous-like consistency. The tender kernels floated in a delicately spiced broth with bits of Andean cheese binding the dish together. Next, a large, stone dish was presented, bearing perfectly-cooked rice, green salad, roasted beets, and cabbage curry, all fresh and expertly executed. A rustic pancake with local honey rounded out the meal. It was the healthiest lunch I’d had in months, a far cry from steaks and heaping bowls of pasta.
Dinner revealed more culinary treats, including perfectly steamed tamales and a traditional Pervian salad of diced tomatoes and gigantic corn kernels, studded with fresh fava beans and cubes of salty, local cheese. Fresh papaya and pineapple juice washed down spicy nuevo andino pizza, cooked in an outdoor clay oven. I was in heaven. It was 10 pm when we finished dinner, the final guests in the restaurant, world’s away from our midnight Argentine meals when things were just heating up at that hour. The streets were deserted as we made our way home through the chilly night air, the lights of Cusco twinkling in the distance. It was hard to believe that one of the worst days of our trip, only 24 hours earlier, was now a distant memory. That’s the thing about traveling: the worst memories are quickly wiped cleaned and replaced by something better. And there’s always something better just around the corner.6 comments
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
After the frenzied pace of Bariloche we decided to head south and chill out for a few days in El Bolson, a hippy dippy hangout set against a backdrop of sweeping mountains and dusty farmland. El Bolson translates as “The Big Bag,” so named for the towering valley walls that surround the town. But El Bolson also means big bags of artisan beer (nearly 75% of the country’s hops are produced here). Big bags of jewel-like berries, which are made into concoctions ranging from beer and conserves to pies and shakes. Big bags of the iconic and inventive Jauja ice cream, whose modest, flagship storefront boast flavors like dulce de leche with blackberry, calafate with goat’s milk, mate, local raspberry with marscapone, and rose hips. And big bags of South American backpackers. Lots and lots of bum backpackers.
My dad wrote me a brief email about El Bolson, stating that the town was a hippy hangout in the 60s. As far as I can tell, nothing’s really changed in 50 years. Gangs of backpackers maraud about the town, sporting “I Dream of Jeanie” pants, untamed dreadlocks, disheveled clothes, filthy feet, beaded jewelry, and tattoos. They set up camp in the town plaza, shanty towns of tents and drum circles. “I’ve never seen so many mullets and rat tails in my life,” observed Yvonne, one of the three Canadian women we met on the bus from Bariloche who served as our companions during our time in El Bolson.
Maikael and I spent an entire morning on a green park bench lining the plaza, making bets as to who were the real bum backpackers and who were the rich kids pretending to be bum backpackers. As we were doing so, a gangly hipster backpacker, wearing a too-tight T-shirt and a dingy hoodie, walked briskly towards us, looking slightly strung out. He said something too fast, something I couldn’t understand, and was gone as quickly as he had come. I asked Maikael to translate. “I think he asked me if we had any nuts,” responded Maikael, perplexed. “Like, as in walnuts?” I asked. “Yeah, I think so,” said Maikael. Our immediate thought was that “nuts” must be an Argentine bum backpacker code word for drugs. We watched to see if he asked anyone else for “nuts,” but he breezed by the couple with three kids and kept speed walking (no pun intended) through the plaza. Yeah, “nuts” definitely weren’t nuts.
Within minutes, a cute, petite young backpacker skipped up to us, and in her sweetest voice asked, “Hola, chicos, would you like to buy some nuts?” “No, thank you!” we responded cheerily. We exchanged a look of genuine surprise, beginning to wonder if there was a nut conspiracy in town, and watched her make her way around the plaza, heading straight for a family having a picnic in the corner. We craned our necks to see the transaction. She zipped open her backpack, producing plastic baggies of…nuts.
In order to make money, bum backpackers engage in all manner of money-making activities, from hocking handmade jewelry to, apparently, selling nuts. There is a great deal of chocolate produced in the area, requiring, I suppose, vast quantities of fresh nuts. (Later that afternoon, we noticed a sign in a chocolate shop that stated, “We buy nuts.”) It’s the perfect bum backpacker job, requiring zero overhead and 100% profit. Bum backpackers also have a penchant for earning a living as street performers. In other words, there are a lot of clowns in El Bolson, some better than others. A tightrope was constructed in the town plaza, and a garage band played on the sidewalk, all the members donning red clown noses. One guy was pretty talented, carrying out his clown act in front of Jauja and garnering a bulging crowd (I’m not sure how much money he netted, but it was enough to buy an ice cream cone when the show was over). Another bum backpacker, who was considerably older, decided to earn some pesos by contorting his body into yoga-esque shapes. Looks of horror washed across the faces of the crowd as he hitched up his soiled sweatpants, the elastic long gone, between poses.
Perhaps the greatest draw to this hippy haven is the artisan market, one of the largest and most famous in Argentina. Although the town only numbers 18,000 residents, over 320 registered vendors hock their wares, ranging from organic greens to chess sets depicting battles between the Spanish and Mapuche indians, three times a week under canopies surrounding the plaza. The only stipulation is that all products must be handmade, from the roquefort empanadas to the knitted rastafarian hats. I fawned over leather purses and hand-carved wooden journals and drooled over mammoth wheels of local cheese and the largest Easter lilies I’d ever seen. In the end we settled on homemade Belgian waffles, each square filled with shiny, just-picked berries with a smattering of cream and powdered sugar atop. We washed it down with fresh raspberry juice, the ruby seeds settled at the bottom of the giant glass, for US$1.25. Then we sampled local chocolate, creamy corn empanadas, sweet boysenberries, and a Patagonian lamb sandwich, the delicately spiced meat tucked between soft pillows of homemade bread, reveling in the bounty.
The bum backpackers were in heaven, too, making a killing on their bohemian wares and capturing legions of fans in a poor man’s Battle of the Bands. Everyone was happy in The Big Bag.No comments
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
We knew we would hit Argentina at the peak of tourist season – we just didn’t consider that nearly all the tourists would be Argentine.
While the northern hemisphere is currently dodging snowflakes and bundled in layers of wool, Argentina’s cities are emptying, their residents seeking refuge in places like The Lake District, where cooler climes, verdant forests, and glittering blue lakes provide the perfect getaway for summer’s swan song. There are dozens of resort communities that dot the lakes, the season transforming sleepy hamlets into towns buzzing with activity…and bursting at the seams with masses of humanity.
We began our Lake District adventure in Bariloche, Argentina’s quintessential summer fun center. Originally settled as a German colony, Bavarian-style buildings grace a town ringed by deep woods, looking like a postcard from the Black Forest. At least, that’s how it probably used to look. What’s immediately apparent is that Bariloche has grown too big, too fast. The town’s central avenue is a mile-long strip of shops screaming for your attention, from tacky souvenir kiosks to the upscale chocolatiers that Bariloche is famous for. It’s also clear that the tourists are as diverse as the stores. Well-heeled portenos throw their pesos at decadent steak dinners, flowing heavily with velvety malbec, and cushy boat tours. Hotel Llao Llao, Argentina’s most iconic resort hotel, sits perched on the edge of a glistening lake, offering rooms and food as decadent as the views. Meanwhile, the emaciated, grungy South American backpackers, toting Doite backpacks, Quechua tents and spewing pitchouli in their wake, lounge in various states of repose in any available public space, crafting hemp bracelets, smoking heavily, and sharing vast quantities of mate.
It’s interesting that a town like Bariloche brings these two factions together, like some sort of battleground state. As an international tourist, it was a curious place to be in: we didn’t belong to either group, so we floated between both. During the days we took long, sunny hikes with the backpackers, summiting towering peaks that provided incomparable views of the jewel box lakes below, spread over the land like a collection of sparkling, sapphire rings. We spent our evenings in the midst of the portenos enjoying some of Argetina’s finest cuisine, the usual standbys of steak and pasta executed with exceptional skill, all washed down with regional red wines. Bariloche also offers Northern Patagonian specialties, including local lake trout, grapefruit-colored salmon, and tender lamb (and every shape of ravioli you can imagine stuffed with these succulent meats and fish). German dishes abound, with menus touting goulash with spatzel and buttery kuchen for dessert. After rich fondue and glasses of ruby wine, we groaned heavily as we walked home at midnight after dinner, back on Argentime.
Regardless of financial circumstances, Bariloche is one big cream puff, a South American Disneyland that offers escapism from everyday life. It’s a hard town to take too seriously. Between eating and shopping and lounging on the lake shore, every evening erupted into a flurry of activity. The Tren de Alegria, the Happiness Train, rumbled through town, a giant, cheery grin slapped on the face of the engine. People from all walks of life gathered around the impromptu bands that assembled on the sidewalks and squares, as electric tango and homegrown tunes drifted through the night. We giggled as one particularly good band, a group of men donning zany wigs, crazy clothes, and women’s dresses, captured a whole crowd’s attention with their music. A woman with purple butterfly wings weaved through the group blowing bubbles, as a band of kids danced like maniacs. A man with six improvised arms and faded pink leggings skirted the crowd, surprising people from behind. The backpackers were there. The portenos were there. Even we fit in.1 comment
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
The one thing we really wanted to do in Uruguay was visit an estancia, essentially a large tract of open farmland where livestock roam and gauchos rule the roost. In recent years a number of tourist-oriented estancias have opened their doors, in the hopes of giving visitors an intimate understanding of rural life. Uruguay boasts over 200 government-designated estancias turisticas (Argentina offers even more), but many of them offer subpar experiences, pushing hundreds of tourists through 20-minute pony rides and bad parrilla buffets.
We were looking for the real deal. We wanted to ride alongside real gauchos, the ones with floppy berets and baggy jodhpur pants whose job was wrangling cattles, not posing for photos for Linda from Pismo Beach. We wanted to sing folk songs from the campo, cook tender cuts of meal over a roaring campfire, and recline on a nappy wool poncho while sipping mate under a canopy of stars. While we’re not plucking hay out of our hair, we found the next best thing at Estancia La Sirena, which we soon discovered was one of the three oldest estancias turisticas in the country, having shown farm life to city folk like us for nearly 20 years.
After a four-hour bus ride from Montevideo to Mercedes, a rural hamlet on Uruguay’s western border, we were collected by Juan, sporting blond curls and piercing ice-blue eyes. Much like Argentina, Uruguay was largely populated with Europeans in the 1800s, leading to people looking more Anglo than their indigenous neighbors to the north. On the bumpy ride in the pick-up truck to the estancia, another 20 kilometers down dusty lanes, Juan told us that the bus station had burned down. What he didn’t tell us was that the bus station had burned down the day before, and that trying to buy an outbound ticket would become a difficult task in the coming days.
When we finally pulled up to La Sirena in a plume of dust, we were greeted with a gorgeous sand-colored manor house that looked like something straight out of New Mexico with its Spanish colonial architecture, a jumble of adobe, wrought iron, tile, wood, sweeping portals, and chunky vigas. The guestrooms abutted the main house: there were only six rooms, and only one other guest staying the first night. A lazy windmill sat in the center of the yard, surrounded by a battalion of rustic lounge furniture. At the edge of the yard sat a crumbling stone shed, which had been converted to an outdoor parrilla. Wheat-colored farmland stretched as far as the eye could see, the only sound for miles a cacophony of birdsong.
A delicious homemade lunch was served: wedges of vegetable empanadas; rolls of tender pork stuffed with red peppers; delicately roasted baby potatoes and carrots, dotted with the ubiquitous Uruguayan mayonnaise; a fresh chopped salad of soft lettuce and ruby red tomatoes; and fruit for dessert. Always fruit for dessert. Full and happy, we took an afternoon siesta, then enjoyed afternoon tea with fluffy, fresh-baked butter cake.
As we munched, we were greeted by Lucia Bruce, the matriarch, who runs the estancia with the help of her husband, Rodney Bruce; between the two of them, speak excellent English, French, and, of course, Spanish. Lean, lithe, and tan, we weren’t surprised to learn that Lucia had been a tennis champion in a former life; in fact, the whole family seemed to be accomplished sportsmen. The evidence lain in the den, whose shelves were crammed with tarnished metal cups and fading photographs extolling countless victories.
After getting to know one another, Lucia provided us a tour of the property. The house, which once belonged to Rivadavia, the first president of Argentina, was purchased and carefully restored nearly 12 years ago. She pointed out hidden nooks and crannies, magical spiral staircases, trap doors, and decorative details, all with a history. Lucia shared information about the country’s history, too; the Rio Plata, which translates as the Silver River and connects Uruguay and Argentina, was believed to be the passageway to Inca gold in Peru and beyond.
It was time to set out for our first horseback ride, personally guided by Lucia. After hoisting ourselves onto the animals – it had been quite some time since either of us had ridden, and our legs would pay the price the next day – we began to meander through the fields. Our horses ambled up beautifully parched hills, the cotton clouds floating overhead through an impossibly blue sky. Lucia stopped frequently to identify local flora and fauna, relay anecdotes about local history, and share some of her own personal history. We eventually made our way down to the cobalt river, where lazy burnt sienna cows grazed and glanced sideways at us. After a long, hot day, the water was inviting, and after changing behind a stand of trees we plunged into the cool water and floated dreamily in the late afternoon sun.
The sun dipped low in the sky, and we began our homeward journey, the horses trotting a little faster. “They know they’re going home,” Lucia said. As we mounted that same grassy hill, the sky was perfectly clear, pale blues bleeding into soft tangerine. I have heard people talk about big sky county, hinterlands where that great canopy seems to stretch like a canvas to the ends of the earth. Until then, I never understood what a big sky felt like. I found myself memorizing this moment, something I don’t often do, but it was one of the most exquisite sunsets I’ve ever witnessed. We enjoyed a crisp beer as the sun made its final descent, nibbling on local sausage and cheese as fireflies danced through the yard. After handcut pasta and a bottle of Uruguayan wine, I went to bed with a single thought planted firmly in my mind, one that I haven’t had much these days: I can’t believe this is my life.
The next day brought more beauty. It was a scorching day, so Lucia arranged to take us to the river. She drove her battered, ancient Mercedes to the water’s edge (I completely delighted in the fact that she drove a Mercedes in the town of Mercedes), and we edged ourselves into the bracing water, fighting our way through the current to the pebble-strewn sandbar in the middle of the river. Here we began a simple but surprisingly fun routine: walk to the edge of the sandbar, let the river carry you downstream to the other end of the sandbar, and repeat until sunburned. After lunch and a siesta, we headed out on horseback back to the river, where Rodney met us with his boat. We motored to another section of the placid river, breezing past deserted beaches and reedy shores. Frolicking in the sand of a tiny strip of beach had never been such fun: these were truly life’s simple pleasures. As we trotted back towards the house at twilight, I found myself singing, “Home on the Range.” Even Lucia joined in.
Back at the ranch, we had requested a traditional Uruguayan parrilla, which our hosts happily arranged. A fire roared in the massive outdoor oven over a system of steel ramps, where slabs of meat sputtered under a tent of corrugated tin. Angel, La Sirena’s talented cook, explained the unique Uruguayan style of grilling as he flipped the meat and shoveled glowing orange embers from under the oven’s elevated fire and transferred them to just below the meat. The meat is grilled on an incline, wherein the fat runs down a plank and not on top of the simmering coals, which would create a direct flame. “This is nothing like an Argentine parrilla,” Angel assured us. “They use charcoal. It’s a totally different taste.” By 11 o’clock the extended family was assembled and we were ready to start dinner. First, grilled salchichas, fat medallions of country sausage, were presented on a wooden trencher. When those were polished off, multiple courses of meat were served, from beef tenderloin to rack of lamb. Great spoonfuls of chimichurri were dabbed on the meat, an especially popular Uruguayan condiment of chopped parsley, coarse garlic, and oil and vinegar: potent but delicious. Potato salad and green salad rounded out the meal. “A very typical Uruguayan parrilla,” confirmed Rodney. Over dinner we talked about politics and the US’s relations with Latin America. We talked about our trip. We talked about how we met 11 years ago. It was a real family meal.
People often ask us what have been our favorite countries that we’ve visited on this trip. It’s an impossible question to answer. Rather, there are certain experiences that we’ll never forget: this is one of them. As we sat waiting for our bus that would take us from Mercedes to Buenos Aires, the burnt shell of the station to our backs, we were grateful that Lucia had spent hours the day before procuring tickets on our behalf, as a ticket counter no longer existed. Sure, we didn’t see any gauchos at La Sirena, but as we waited a man in flannel shirt tucked into baggy forest green pants, an alpine-looking hat perched on his salt and pepper head, hopped onto a bus. “Look!” I cried to Maikael. “A real live gaucho!” It wasn’t what I expected. It never is. But it was good enough for me.No comments
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Why does everything have to be so hard?
This is the opening lines to one of my favorite songs from Avenue Q, and every time it shuffles through my iPod, I’m reminded that I’m not the only one who poses this question to myself on a regular basis these days. As much as we love traveling and experiencing new places, our energy for this trip is flagging. It’s not the traveling part as much as the planning for the traveling. Ours stars must have been out of alignment in recent weeks, because at every turn we have been met with resistance. Everything has been hard.
It’s a million little things that add up to something big. We are tired of simple tasks, like a phone call, taking hours to complete. We are tired of always thinking ahead to the next task that needs to be completed. We are tired of making a million choices a day and being wracked with indecision. We are tired of feeling constantly disoriented. But perhaps what I’m most tired of is dashed expectations. Nothing ever turns out like I think it will, and I guess I’m a fool if I haven’t learned this lesson yet. But my frustrations were illustrated beautifully at lunch yesterday.
We sat down under a shady umbrella on a cobblestone street in Colonia for lunch. The menu del dia had attracted me with its reasonable prices and multiple, fresh-sounding options. I ordered the spaghetti, expecting a steaming plate of pasta dressed with some sort of tomato sauce. You know, your average spaghetti. I was shocked when I saw the waitress carry out a plate with a mound of yellow. atop As it was delivered to me, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There, in front of me, sat a huge plate of pasta with a pittance of shredded cheese atop. There was no butter. No salt. No pepper. “You got Noodles Jefferson,” said Maikael. He was referring, of course, to The Daily Show episode in which Jon Stewart reported that the diet of Gitmo prisoners had been called into question on Capitol Hill; fears were quelled when a communique stated that the prisoners were served Noodles Jefferson on a regular basis, a fancy pants name for buttered noodles with cheese. “Seeing as though I have no butter on my noodles, this isn’t even as good as what prisoners get,” I responded. Maikael insisted it wasn’t a conspiracy laid forth by the Uruguayan government, but I had my doubts.
I can’t wait until I can sleep in my own bed, take a bath when I want to, make a phone call without serious effort, trust that the faucet will produce warm water, and order spaghetti and know exactly what I’m in for.7 comments