Chilling with the locals

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Past and present in the city of Cusco

Written by Emmy on 6 March 2013

We disembarked off of the Peru Rail train from Machu Picchu in the little town of Oyantalltambo and piled back into our van to drive to Cusco. However, we encountered a slight roadblock along the way. Turns out the typical-of-rainy-season rain we had experienced earlier that day was actually quite significant; one bridge on our planned route had collapsed and another was looking shaky. We cautiously detoured, and arrived in Cusco long after the sun had set.

We didn’t have much time in the city — which most locals would tell you is more exciting than Lima — so we used our limited stay wisely. Of course that meant starting off with a solid meal. We dined at Chicha, a recommended favorite of all those we spoke to.

The restaurant was somewhat tapas-style, intended for familial sharing, and so we obliged. We started with grilled octopus with tomatoes, quinoa-crusted shrimp, mushrooms baked with cheese, and a salad. I continued to find strength in Peru’s seafood dishes, preferring the first two appetizers.

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We split four entrees among the five of us: roast chicken with fried polenta, teriyaki salmon, fettuccine with mushrooms and chicken, and trout with fried gnocchi. The trout was my favorite; the fish had been cooked in a Thai style, with lemongrass and curry, and was very spicy. It helped cure any sense of the bland blues I might have been feeling.

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We went to bed full, but arose early the next morning, determine to make the most of our single day in Cusco.

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We met up with our guide for the day, Fernando, and set off for a whirlwind tour of the area. (I had a hard time asking our guide any serious questions. All I wanted to ask was, “Can you hear the drums, Fernando?”)

Once I was able to stop miming my favorite Swedish pop band, I returned my attention to the sites in front of us.

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Our first stop took us high above the city to the ancient site of Sacsayhuamán. The Inca and other ancient tribes designed Cusco to be in the shape of the puma, and this site was built to be the puma’s head. The ancient rock formation was used for special ceremonies, though the specifics have been lost to history. Some of the stones used in the structure weigh over 100 tons, but similarly, no record exists of where the stones came from or how they came to be placed in such a way.

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Like much of the other Inca construction, Sacsayhuamán was constructed to withstand earthquakes. As the city of Cusco was repeatedly devastated in the 19th and 20th century, residents of flimsy homes came up to the ancient site to poach rocks to build new homes. Sacsayhuamán used to be several layers taller than it is today. Only within the last 50 years has the Peruvian government begun to protect the site.

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We came back down the mountain and made our way to the highlight of every Liss family adventure: the local market. Cusco’s municipal market was at once organized and chaotic; there were people everywhere and the sanitation was somewhat questionable, but the market was systematically organized with an area for each type of food labeled in three languages. How else would we have known to avoid the innards section?

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We were surrounded at every turn by yellow flowers, which symbolize luck for the new year. And despite it being firmly breakfast time, locals were slurping down roasted chicken soup at long tables amid the market stalls. Similar to what Chaz and I found once upon a time in Singapore, the Peruvians seem to avoid distinguishing between which foods are appropriate for which meals.

The most bizarre thing we found in the market clearly illustrates the blend of the native and conquistador religions. While locals passing through the market would likely visit the enormous church nearby, they would also be sure to visit their favorite market stand for an important purchase: a llama fetus. The disturbing-looking carcass is used as a sacrifice to Pacha Mama, especially around the new year. Given the rapidly approaching festivities, the eerie-looking items were in hot demand.

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We did not make any carcass purchases. However, we did stop by the older women selling funny-shaped breads on our way out and picked one up.

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We spent the rest of the morning exploring more of colonial Cusco, the open plazas and churches that so clearly indicated the Spanish influence. Much of the beautiful tile work remains, and in certain more artsy neighborhoods, the old mansions have been turned to galleries and shops. Some of the older buildings still maintain their original shape and stay open to show visitors a glimpse of the past.

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Cusco was a much more beautiful city than Lima, built into the rolling hills, and simple in its layout and architecture. From high above, it almost made me think of Florence, with its low buildings and perfectly monochromatic roofs. The city stretches for miles and miles; urban sprawl dates back to the Incas, after all, who thought building out was the surest mechanism for protection.

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After running around the city for a few hours, we were ready for lunch. At Fernando’s suggestion, we popped into Inkaterra Grill, a restaurant serving local specialties just off of the central square. Sure enough, we were immediately greeted by more of the local mint we had come to love, this time as a dip for homemade chips.

I tried a dish that I could not identify based on its menu description, but decided was safe regardless since it was cleanly on the vegetarian side of the page. Tacu tacu, as it turns out, is a dish typical of the region, and it can be served with vegetables or with any of the local meats, like alpaca. The base concept of the dish is a large rice formation, made thicker by being cooked with pureed lima beans, and cooked plaintains flanking the rice pile. In the center of mine was a serving of very nicely stir-fried vegetables. The vegetables tasted a bit Asian, but the presentation and the starches were 100 percent Peruvian.

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That did not hold for all of the lunches on the table.

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An introduction to Peru

Written by Emmy on 6 January 2013

On a Saturday afternoon in December, just as snow was finally making its way toward New York City, my family convened at JFK to fly to summer. With my office closed for nearly two weeks and my sisters off from school for the eternity that is college winter break, we boarded a plane and headed due south. And though the time zone never changed, the scenery looked radically different when we deplaned in Lima, Peru eight hours later.

My family got onto a bit of a South American kick a few years ago with a trip to Argentina, followed by a voyage to Chile last winter. I knew Peru would be very different (particularly from Argentina, which feels more European than anything else), but I was shocked at how stark the differences between the neighboring countries turned out to be. We landed in Lima’s sparkly clean and new-looking international airport, but walked outside and found no highways, streets with limited signage and ramshackle houses underneath the airport billboards. And in lieu of a taxi line, tuk tuks! (But truly. They go by the same name in Peruvian Spanish as they did in Thailand, which I found perplexing and amazing.)

We thankfully got into a vehicle enclosed on all sides and made our way through the city sprawl. Home to nine million, Lima has very few high rises, so the formal boundaries of the city extend far beyond what one can see. We drove about 20 km from the airport to an area known as San Yisidro, primarily home to hotels, embassies and office buildings. We got into bed almost immediately upon arrival to prepare for the adventure of the days to come.

We began Sunday with an interesting breakfast and eye-opener into the country we were about to begin exploring. Over local fruits and very strong coffee, we met with two women from the local UNICEF office, who talked about the wildly fragmented country and the challenges in bridging divides, lingual and cultural, and helping to spur forward movement. The majority of Peruvians do not speak Spanish, but one of a large number of dialects, keeping primarily to their own communities. In one country, there are growing cosmopolitan centers (Lima), ancient tribal communities (throughout the nation), inaccessible jungles (the Amazon, in the east), mountaintop people (high in the Andes, north of 13,000 feet up), along riverbeds and nestled in valleys filled with Incan ruins. In the days ahead, we planned to visit many of these different environments in an attempt to begin to understand the country. Hearing about how dispersed the people and cultures are, it’s nearly impossible to imagine how the whole country can be governed and provided for in a seamless fashion.

With a bit more perspective in hand, we set out to explore the nation’s capital. Despite its political centrality, Lima is regarded by many tourists as a must-miss; most visit by virtue of logistics as it houses the country’s only real international airport. Rather than treat it as a fly-over destination, we spent a day trying to see what there was to see, reputation aside.

IMG_2185Yellow is considered an important color in Peru. I also consider yellow to be an important color

Exploring the historic downtown center of Lima, it was evident in every building that this had once been a shining gem of the Spanish empire. Conquered by the explorers in the 1500s, Peru had made peace with its conquistadors. When the South and Central American colonies began liberating themselves in the mid-1800s, Peru had resisted, hanging onto its connection to the crown longer than its neighbors. But ultimately, the nation was swept up in Simon Bolivar’s continent-wide quest, setting off a century and a half of questionable governance. IMG_2193

But much of the colonial downtown is a shell of its former self. Beautiful mansions in downtown Lima are all behind fairly aggressive fences and walls, leftover from the fear inspired by the terrorism-filled 1980s. Many of the elegant old Spanish buildings, previously home to theaters and banks, are now rented out by foreign companies. Peruvian Spanish is known to be clear and unaccented and so Lima has become a call center haven, a place where Chilean and Argentinian companies can pay lower wages by hiring locals. Many elegant old financial buildings are now filled with cubicles and hard-lined phones. But a few old gems, including the country’s congress building, remain true to form, and other businesses are starting to return to the district, bringing back some of its old vibrancy.

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Venturing into one of the city’s oldest churches, we went down into the catacombs where human skulls were lined up along the walls and bones were sorted into buckets by type. And just as we were starting to get hungry for lunch… On our way out of the cathedral we walked past street vendors cooking up local dishes, and while I’m usually one to partake, we had to resist due to concerns over water (tap water in Peru is not potable; locals boil it and foreigners avoid it) and questionable refrigeration. But we made our way to a restaurant filled with local specialities to have our first real exposure to the local culture.

I sampled the aji de gallina, a local specialty. Aji is a pepper typical to the nation; it comes in a vibrant yellow color, which it maintains when turned into a sauce, but it’s oddly not spicy. Instead, it’s almost more of a nutty flavor. Served over chicken, potatoes and a few vegetables, it’s always plated alongside rice. (Note: Nearly all Peruvian dishes manage to include both rice and potatoes.)

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Other members of the family tried spiced chicken brochettes, served with potatoes, enormous kernels of Peruvian corn and multiple salsas, and lomo saltado, a dish of stir-fried beef and vegetables found in literally every restaurant in Peru.

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After lunch, we met up with Penelope, a local chef, for our afternoon adventure. Penelope is a native limeño, so her culinary palette is all local, but by hilarious coincidence, she also went to college in Providence. She’s spent time living in the U.S., but has returned to her native city to help spread the traditional recipes.

We started our afternoon at her local market, where every stall owner was a good friend of Penelope’s. We stopped to meet them all, wish them a happy holiday and check out the wares of the day. At the fishmonger’s, we took a look at the insides of each potential purchase before settling upon our final choices.

IMG_2271IMG_2273The enormous gills of a fish nearly as tall as me, and the dark side of a multi-colored easily camouflaged creature

We learned about herbs that could cure everything from cramps to cancer, and pawed through shelves of fruits and vegetables totally foreign to our eyes. Some were closer to items I had seen in Thailand than to things I’ve ever seen in my Manhattan supermarket. Something about that subtropical climate… Penelope pulled out her sons’ favorite fruit for us to try, the granadilla. On the outside, it looked like an orange. But inside, it looked kind of creepy.

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Willing to at least give it a try, we slurped up the seeds from the granadilla halves. Despite the odd appearance and consistency, the fruit tastes like the child of a pineapple and an orange with the consistency of pomegranate seeds. It was actually quite good.

We saw more potatoes than one could have ever imagined. Some 400 odd varieties grow across Peru, making it the country’s greatest asset. Despite common misconception, the potato comes from Peru; the Spanish brought it back to Europe as a prize, and it was widely adopted on the old continent. We also saw deep black corn, which is used to make children’s drinks and the native version of beer.

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And of course, we had an introduction to the local peppers. While some crazy hot peppers do grow in Peru, one of the most popular is the bright yellow one that had flavored my lunchtime chicken. We bought several of the yellow aji peppers for use in the cooking exercise ahead.

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Since it was a bit too early to begin our cooking exercise immediately upon leaving the market, Penelope took us around her neighborhood. Called Barranco, it’s considered the Brooklyn of Lima. The neighborhood backs right into the Pacific and is filled with tall apartment buildings sitting atop the oceanfront cliffs. Its town center is filled with adorable galleries and artisan shops. We took a quick cruise through the streets, but many things were closed since it was Sunday afternoon. We had a quick coffee at a local shop (the neighborhood’s first Starbucks had opened not far from it, much to the chagrin of the residents) and stopped down by the water as the sun was beginning to dip lower in the sky.

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Back at Penelope’s apartment, it was time to start cooking. We donned aprons, washed our hands and were joined by her eight-year-old son Alonso, who volunteered to help with the cooking (so long as there could be intermittent eating). Penelope made us each a pisco sour, arguing that the drink had actually been born in Peru, not Chile as we had previously been told. And so with drinks in hand, we buckled down to start cooking.

First, we took raw scallops on the shell and turned them into an artistic masterpiece.

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IMG_2336The dish, known as conchitas a la parmesana, is a Peruvian favorite and a headlining item in Penelope’s home. You start with raw scallops, which here in Peru are sold on the shell with their bright red roe. (Penelope noted that during her time in the U.S., she could rarely, if ever, find them that way.)

We started by dapping each scallop with crushed garlic, followed by a healthy swab of paste made from the aji, a swig of pisco (used in cooking here like we use wine in our cooking), salt, pepper and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. I found this peculiar during my time in Chile as well, but I’ve always been taught that seafood and cheese are not meant to be cooked together. However, I am definitely not complaining.

The whole tray of scallops went into the broiler for no more than two minutes. The scallops came out browned from the cheese, but pretty soft and squishy underneath it. (The more squeamish of the group had their scallops returned to the broiler for a bit more fire.) Using a spoon, we peeled the scallops out of their shells and popped them in our mouths in one quick bite. Delicious.

 

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Next we constructed a version of ceviche, essentially the national dish of Peru. While you can make ceviche fancy and dress it up in any number of ways, we stuck by the original recipe. We used trout and shrimp and cut the two into little pieces. While it’s commonly believed that lime is used in order to “cook” the raw fish, that method requires a 12-hour marination and is favored in Mexico. The Peruvians took a note out of the Japan’s book; oftentimes, menus call it sashimi-style to indicate that the fish is raw. We covered the ingredients in a ton of lime, which does change the fish’s color (and add a lot of flavor), but it had about a 15-minute marination period.

We added a ton of julienned red onion, various local peppers, huge corn kernels (because of their size they taste more starchy than sweet) and sliced sweet potato, and put the whole thing atop a few lettuce leaves. It was tangy, a teensy bit spicy and very good.

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Though we were starting to fill up, the main course was still to come. A recipe Penelope inherited from her grandmother, we partook in a fishy stew with langoustines and grouper, served with potatoes and asparagus and (of course) with a side of rice pilaf. The stew had been made with a homemade fish broth and the flavors all came through strongly.

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Over dinner, we talked with Penelope and her husband Mario about how the country was changing. Both had been educated in the U.S. because those who could leave Peru in the 1980s did. They had subsequently lived in the U.S. because of work, but had wanted to come back five or so years ago because they missed their native land and didn’t want to miss out on watching economic development spur before their eyes. The country is in the middle of an evolution; over the last few years, it has seen higher growth than many other countries in the world as the nation begins to really invest in its infrastructure and local economy.

We ended the evening on a sweet note, with a dessert made from local fruits and topped with a fresh meringue. I was almost too full to eat any of it, but of course had to try at least a spoonful.

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Full of hot air

Written by Chaz on 29 November 2012

In early October, I made my third trip in the last year to visit my uncle Eric, aunt Teresa and cousin Madison near Albuquerque, New Mexico. My trip was timed to coincide with the legendary Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the world’s largest gathering of hot air balloons. Yes, it’s kind of an unusual thing, but it was a terrific excuse for more time with my aunt, uncle and cousin. I arrived late on Friday, and they met me at a hotel downtown so that we could stay near the fiesta itself.

We rose early on Saturday morning, the first day of the fiesta, and at 5 a.m. began a marathon journey up the interstate through horrible traffic to the fiesta grounds. Just as we finally arrived at the parking lot, we heard on the radio that the morning’s mass ascension — the fiesta’s pinnacle moment, in which upward of 750 balloons rise simultaneously into the air — was cancelled. So we diverted course and grabbed some breakfast. My aunt and cousin returned home, while Eric and I headed north to Los Alamos, home of the nuclear research lab and Bandelier National Monument, known equally for its desert scenery and its petroglyphs and cliff dwellings that suggest human presence as old as 11,000 years ago. The park is accessible only by a shuttle bus operated by the humorously named Atomic City Transit.

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We set out on the ruins trail and were soon surrounded by the scenery of Frijoles Canyon, passing cliff dwelling after dwelling. It was a beautiful October day.

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Bandelier was severely affected by the Las Conchas forest fire in 2011, leaving the park much more vulnerable to flash flooding after much vegetation was destroyed. As a result, the facilities are now more spartan, and documentation of flooding was everywhere.

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We continued past the simple nature trail on another longer trail to Alcove House, a cliff dwelling so high that is accessible only by four ladders rising 140 feet.

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We returned to the shuttle bus via the other half of the nature trail loop, where more fire and flood damage was evident. From Los Alamos, we beelined back to my uncle’s house for rest, relaxation and a delicious dinner of dry-aged steaks.

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After dinner, we debated our plans for the next morning, when the balloon fiesta had another mass ascension on the schedule. But the weather again looked threatening, and it would likely have been another grueling trip through heavy traffic, so we decided to scrap it. This, of course, guaranteed that the 750 balloons ended up making it into the early morning air, a sight we saw only on television.

But we had a backup plan, and Sunday morning found Eric and me on our way to Pecos National Historical Park, site of both more American Indian dwellings and a Civil War battle. The drive up to Pecos was beautiful, beginning on a dirt road that seemed even more rural than others my uncle and I have traversed and continuing past the autumnal colors of the desert.

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We began our Pecos visit with a loop trail through the ruins, which showcase both the native dwellings and the ruins of the buildings constructed by the Spanish conquistadores who moved through the area. The trail followed a ridge, giving us excellent views of the area.

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From the ruins trail, we drove over to the park’s newest trail, a historical walk through time that explains the Battle of Glorieta Pass. One does not think of New Mexico as a theater of the Civil War, but in fact it was, and the trail gave us a sense of how the area’s geography influenced the fight. Curiously, the trail is behind a locked gate, and we had to get the code from the visitor center. Perhaps as a result, we were the only people there.

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Making sure to lock the gate behind us, we began driving back toward Eric’s house but took a short detour over to the tiny train station in Lamy, New Mexico. As it turned out, the Southwest Chief was arriving shortly, so we stuck around to see the train — the checkpoint’s second viewing, in fact.

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After the train rolled out of the station on its way to Chicago, we realized we were both starving. So we turned the car around and headed north again to Santa Fe, where we waited for nearly an hour for a table at Cafe Pasqual’s, an adorable New Mexican restaurant. I opted for the mole enchiladas while my uncle had the green chile bison burger, which had caught my eye as well. The mole was outstanding, and was definitely something one doesn’t often find in Boston, making it well worth both the trip and the wait.

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After our late lunch, it was finally time for a visit to the main attraction of the weekend that we had failed to take in thus far: the balloon fiesta. Though we would not make it to an ascension, we planned to see an evening glow, in which the balloons inflate and light their burners simultaneously to create a sea of glowing balloons around the fiesta grounds. We arrived just in time for the launch of the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race, in which ballooners compete to see how far they can make it from Albuquerque before landing. The winners ended up making it 1,626 miles to the North Carolina coast.

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As the sun began to set, the balloons began to rise as they were inflated, and the main event was about to begin. Though it was no ascension, the evening glow was still very neat, and gave me a sense of the sheer number of balloons involved in the fiesta.

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And as it got darker still, balloons of every shape began lighting up all around us, creating an amazing evening scene.

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We left before the inevitable traffic began, my appetite whet for another more complete visit to the fiesta. I left New Mexico early the next morning, grateful for another terrific visit to the Southwest!

Long days of summer

Written by Chaz on 16 September 2012

IMG_6947After sleeping late yet again, I woke up to another breakfast of a Swedish sandwich and coffee and sat out reading for a bit. Torbjörn and I then set out on bicycles to the nearby town of Bergshamra, where there is a small grocery store, to pick up some food. It was a gorgeous day for a ride, and our route took us through a farm, down to the water to a marina and into town.

I learned at the ICA grocery store in Bergshamra that you can order alcohol that is otherwise only sold at Systembolaget and have it sent to a rural grocery store, so that alcohol is available in places too sparsely populated for a Systembolaget store. I guess that’s more convenient, and it just goes to show the level of dedication to keeping the monopoly and making it workable.

Arriving home, we walked down to the beach for a quick dip in the Baltic under the broad blue sky.

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After swimming, I sat out on the porch and shelled shrimp for dinner before making some more headway in my book. Dinner was pasta with shrimp, salad, and white wine, followed by a dessert of rhubarb pie with vanilla sauce and ice cream, and of course coffee.

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The light was so nice after dinner that we did a quick photo shoot to remember the trip by, and then, still not wanting to go inside, we took a very long walk down to another bay, where the sun’s last rays were especially beautiful.

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We woke relatively early on Sunday and immediately headed for the dock, where an early swim was especially cold and thus very quick. We cleaned up and had a very relaxing breakfast all together on the porch, with smörgåsar with spicy tomato-ginger marmalade, cereal, filmjölk, coffee, and orange juice.

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Anna, Karin and Nils had to return to Stockholm that afternoon, so we made a trip of taking them to the bus in Norrtälje. We walked around town a little bit and looked in at Akeba, a neat furniture and home goods store.

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We had a fika at Tre Praliner, where we had actually eaten three years earlier when my mother visited Sweden. We sat out on the deck with kanelbullar, chokladbollar and coffee.

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IMG_7034After our fika, we drove over to the bus station with more than enough time for their bus to Stockholm, and sure enough, as we walked up to the platform with 15 minutes to spare, the bus was pulling up. But as we chatted and said a long goodbye, the bus pulled away! It turned out that the buses actually leave for Stockholm every 15 minutes, so we had been looking at the bus before theirs. Another bus came along shortly, we repeated our goodbyes, and they were on their way.

Erik, Torbjörn and I drove over to Coop, the grocery store, where we recycled various things into several bins: plastic, metal, paper, colored glass and uncolored glass. A large sign proclaimed that light bulbs could not be recycled there, and believe it or not, we actually did have a light bulb to recycle. The whole thing felt like a scene out of Portlandia, one of our favorite showsthis scene, to be specific.

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After yet another grocery self-scanning experience, we drove back to Lögla, where we had a relaxing afternoon, reading on the porch and taking a long swim at the beach. We began making dinner, for which we had big ambitions.

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Round one of dinner, a salmon vegetable stir-fry with rice, was excellent, and very attractive in the cooking process.

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Round two came a bit later: chorizo with korvbröd, senap (Swedish mustard), ketchup, rostadlök (the Swedish fried onions), grilled halloumi, and beer. It was excellent in a very different way from the stir-fry.

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After dinner, we took one last long walk around Lögla. Throughout the trip, I had been remarking on how much the Stockholm archipelago reminded me of Maine, my favorite place in the world, and how my Swedish family ought to come visit us there. As we looked over the water at the sunset, Torbjörn turned me and said with a knowing smile, “Very Maine, right?”

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The next morning, we woke up very early and set off for Arlanda airport, where I said goodbye to Torbjörn and Erik, pledging that we would see each other again very soon. As I made my way through airport check-in, and security, and into the departure lounge, speaking Swedish at every step, I realized how far my Swedish language skills had come, and how much further even they had developed on my 10-day trip — not just in vocabulary or grammar but also in just feeling comfortable using it. I picked up a Stockholm newspaper in the airport, which appropriately enough contained a story about Providence. I also seized the opportunity to have one last Swedish breakfast.

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My flight took me through Amsterdam, where I saw a Lego model of the Amsterdam airport and enjoyed one of my favorite beers in its homeland.

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Yet another wonderful time in Sweden. The next one can’t come soon enough.

Exploring the countryside

Written by Chaz on 23 August 2012

We rose relatively earlier on my first day back in Lögla, having planned to make a trip to Linnés Hammarby, a botanical garden that was once the summer home of Carl Linneaus. Linneaus is the mastermind behind the modern system of categorizing plants and animals. It was another beautiful day in the Swedish countryside, and I felt a bit like the family in “Little Miss Sunshine” as the wide-open sunny landscape rolled by outside.

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We arrived at Linnés Hammarby and signed up for a tour of his house before walking around a bit on the grounds. There was a vegetable garden and a pasture of horses and sheep. Interestingly, the symbol shown on the sign below, also engraved on the command key of millions of Macintosh keyboards, originated in Sweden. The command key originally featured only the Apple logo, but Steve Jobs felt that was an overuse of the company’s logo. Its replacement is a Scandinavian symbol for a tourist attraction, and Apple designer Susan Kare found it in a symbol dictionary and decided to adopt it. The symbol thus took on a life of its own.

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We returned to Linneaus’ house, where we were led through its rooms by a very well-intentioned tour guide whose English left something to be desired. I think I could have understood her better had she spoken Swedish. After our tour into the Sweden of a few hundred years ago, we were ready, of course, for a fika. We returned to the cafe at the garden’s entrance, and were soon enjoying a platter of sweets: a chokladboll, or chocolate ball; a monster-sized kanelbulle that reminded all present of Cafe Saturnus; carrot cake; and a nut tart. And coffee all around.

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After our tasty stop, we took a walk through Linneaus’ own garden, filled with the many flowers that he so carefully categorized. The grounds were beautiful, and Anna suggested making a visit an annual tradition.

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Leaving the garden, we drove to the nearby city of Uppsala, home of Sweden’s oldest university, founded in 1477 and considered one of the best in Europe. Even though we had just had a fika, we beelined to Ofvandahls konditori for lunch. In spite of their extremely tempting pastry case, we all ordered baguette sandwiches — a few of salami and Brie and others of ham and cheese — and of course more coffee.

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We took a stroll through old Uppsala, and a guy from Denver picked me out of our group to ask me directions, hesitatingly asking me if I spoke English. I guess my cover was blown. It was especially amusing since he could have just asked any Swede, all of whom speak English nearly as well as I do.

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We walked up to the university library and stopped in at the exhibit of the Silver Bible, Sweden’s most valuable book and one of the best remaining examples of the ancient Gothic language. As we entered the exhibit, I realized it actually wasn’t my first time there. I had visited with my mother during my first visit to Sweden.

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After visiting the library, we returned to the car and set off in the direction of the archipelago, stopping along the way for groceries. We had a simple but wonderful dinner of korvar, the Swedish hot dogs, complete with fresh onions, peppers, roasted onions (very popular on korvar) and the delicious Swedish strong mustard. Though it wasn’t fancy, the meal was great, and at this point in the trip, the simple pleasure of another meal outside under the evening sun with my family was perfect.

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Nils, who had stayed behind in Stockholm to work, arrived after dinner on a bus, and we had a delicious strawberry cake (and coffee) once he got there. We sat around talking for a while over dessert, nearly entirely in Swedish.

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Anna had discovered that the only rebroadcast on Swedish public television of the Allsång performance we had attended was at 2:45 in the morning, so in order to see whether we had actually been shown on the broadcast, we dutifully stayed up to watch. We passed the time by playing cards — I tried to teach spades, but didn’t get very far — until the film “Little Children” came on SVT. After half-heartedly following the extremely creepy film, the Allsång broadcast finally began, and thanks to the fairly distinctive pattern of the shirt I had worn, I spotted myself not once but three times. (You can see the episode for yourself on SVT’s website.)

Tired beyond words but delighted to have become a Swedish television star, I headed off to bed shortly afterwards.

Open-air entertainment

Written by Chaz on 21 August 2012

The next morning, we met some of Erik’s friends at the natural history museum near Stockholm University, where I studied during my first visit to Sweden. We spent a few hours exploring the museum and had the “day’s menu” lunch in its cafeteria. Having had enough of the museum, we took the subway back downtown to Östermalmstorg, known for its food hall, which I also visited during my last stay in Stockholm. Erik and I stopped for a fika there.

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We walked from the food hall to the spårvagn, a trolley that connects downtown Stockholm to Djurgården, the lush island that holds the open-air museum of Skansen. As we had done a year before, we were planning to attend the evening’s broadcast of “Allsång på Skansen,” a nationally televised singalong, held on eight Tuesdays in the summer and hosted for a second year by Måns Zelmerlöw, who got famous after he was on the Swedish version of American Idol. The show, which features a mixture of traditional Swedish songs and more modern songs performed by each week’s guests, is a perfect example of something that’s culturally ubiquitous in Sweden but absolutely unknown elsewhere — in other words, world-famous in Sweden. I was especially excited to see the show again because among the guests were Markus Krunegård, one of the artists I’ve gotten to know from listening to Swedish radio at my desk — part of my strategy to keep my Swedish up; the Original Band, an ABBA tribute featuring members of the original backup band; and Miss Li, another Swedish artist.

Our trip on the spårvagn took us past the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm, which was hosting a stage performance version of Ingmar Bergman’s famous “Fanny and Alexander.”

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After we bought admission tickets to Stockholm, Erik and I had a bit of time before the broadcast’s rehearsal, so we walked around the museum a bit. The museum is a combination of traditional Swedish architecture and a zoo of Nordic animals.

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The Nordic animals were much more present than on any of my previous visits to Skansen, and we saw reindeer, brown bears, red foxes, lynx, and buffalo.

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Heading back to the Skansen stage, we met Karin, a friend of Erik’s from high school, and a few Japanese exchange students, and found a place to watch the Allsång rehearsal.

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We got a few korvar, Swedish hot dogs which are vastly superior to their American counterparts, for dinner after the rehearsal, and hurried back to claim our spot. The show was fantastic, and we had a great view of the action. By this point in my visit, I had already figured out with delight that my Swedish was much, much better than it had been a year prior, so it was fun to be able to follow along with the show much more.

IMG_6627Above, Måns Zelmerlöw, the show’s host. Below, the Original Band perform “Dancing Queen.”
IMG_6642IMG_6638Above: Miss Li, and the crowd at Skansen. Below: A celebration of fifty years of the Svensktoppen list of hit music, and Markus Krunegård.

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We retired from a great evening at Skansen to a pub downtown for a few drinks before heading home. After sleeping late again the next day, we were re-energized and headed back downtown for my last full day in Stockholm. I spent a bit exploring some of the stores in the central shopping district, including the trendy new Weekday.

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Erik and I had an early dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant near Odenplan called Tang Long Pho that, despite being written up in the newspaper, was just mediocre. We took the tunnelbana down to Zinkensdamm, on Södermalm, and walked up to Skinnarviksberget, a rock outcropping that overlooks the lake Mälaren over to Kungsholmen and Gamla Stan. Erik’s friend Koppen met us again and we watched the sun set. Even though the weather wasn’t great, we were far from the only people who wanted to enjoy the view of the city.

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We retreated shortly after sunset to Koppen’s and not long thereafter to Spånga. Stockholm had once again been very good to me.

Sun and water

Written by Chaz on 19 August 2012

The next morning, after sleeping very late again, Erik and I made our way back to the pendeltåg and rode it downtown, where we found a beautiful city bathed in fine weather.

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We walked down toward Kungsträdgården and spent a few minutes exploring NK, an enormous department store where we met up with Erik’s friend Patrik and walked across Gamla Stan to Södermalm. We turned left along Katarinavägen and watched the many enormous ferries down below. It was a truly beautiful day, and the view across the water was stunning.

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Meeting Koppen, another of Erik’s friends, we walked down a long staircase to Stockholm’s photography museum, which sits on the water’s edge. We ordered beers from the museum’s adorable cafe, outside overlooking the sea. Sitting on the shore, overlooking the city and sipping pale ale was one of the most memorable moments of my trip.

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We parted ways with Koppen and Patrik and took the tunnelbana back downtown, where we walked up to Hötorget to have dinner at a Scandinavian restaurant called Pyttirian in the Kungshallen food hall. I ordered pytt i panna, a traditional Swedish dish whose name means “little pieces in a pan.” It could have passed as a breakfast dish in America, though it was heartier and more savory: a hash of diced meat, onions and potatoes, with a fried egg, cucumber and pickled beets. Erik opted for a smörrebröd, a traditional Danish open-faced sandwich, of Brie cheese, bacon and sundried tomato. Both were very good, and different from other things I’ve had. Even though I spent four months in Sweden, I didn’t do a very good job of exploring the local cuisine.

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We had planned to meet up with Patrik again after dinner to sit outside and enjoy the Swedish evening sun with a few beers. In order to do that, we needed to get a few beers. And, of course, there’s only one store in Sweden that sells normal-strength beer: the state-run alcohol monopoly Systembolaget. And when you’re trying to buy alcohol at a reasonable after-dinner hour, nearly every Systembolaget has already closed its doors. Every evening, the Systembolaget across from the train station in central Stockholm, which has slightly longer hours than most, becomes one of the few stores in the entire country that will sell you alcohol. And very likely, you aren’t the only Swede who would like something to drink.

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Not only was there a long line both inside and outside the Systembolaget, but the scene inside was one of the most unruly and chaotic I have ever seen in Sweden. Apparently the bunch of Swedes who shop for booze at the very last minute in the last place in the country selling it are not among Sweden’s most rule-following. We selected a few beers, waited in the long line to pay and made our way out just before closing time.

We met Patrik again and walked over to Skeppsholmen, a small island in central Stockholm that has a bunch of green space and the city’s modern art museum. The island is one of my favorite places in Stockholm for its views from every side, and we picked a nice patch of grass to sit and enjoy the sun. We stayed until nearly eleven, when the light finally began to fade.

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Erik and I returned to Spånga shortly thereafter and again enjoyed a long night’s sleep.

Taking the subway to Singapore

Written by Chaz on 15 July 2012

In the middle of April, I went to New York to see a live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion with my mother and a few friends, as we do nearly every April and December when the show is in New York. The show was great — in fact, one of the best I’ve seen — but for blogging purposes, the events before and after were more significant.

On my way down to New York from Boston on Saturday morning, I was trying to coordinate plans with Vernie, who was planning to come to the show with us. She revealed that she was planning to spend the day at Singapore Day, an event for overseas Singaporeans being held in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The event even included chefs flown in from the most popular hawker centers in Singapore, Vernie said. I called Emmy right away and told her to scrap whatever she had planned for the day. This sounded like an event we couldn’t miss.

IMG_8892Singapore loses tons of its citizens to other countries, not least because it’s such a small country, and as a result, the government goes to great lengths to keep the diaspora connected to the homeland. And it appears to work. Vernie was super excited to go to Singapore Day, and as soon as we got there, it was clear she wasn’t the only one. People had come from all over the country for this event. In addition to hawker center chefs, the Singaporean government had also brought in Singaporean celebrities, who were performing on an enormous stage surrounded by exhibits about how great life in Singapore is. And lest you miss the point, the entrance gates to the event were modeled after the fare gates on the MRT, with big signs reading, “Welcome home.” Though Emmy and I were probably not their target audience, we nevertheless felt a bit like we were making a triumphant homecoming to our favorite tiny island nation.

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By the time Emmy, her roommate Dana and I made it to Prospect Park, the event was in full swing, and the food lines were already long. We immediately jumped in the roti prata line, which was one of our favorite foods in Singapore. Perhaps it was because it’s not actually a complicated food item, but it was just as delicious as I remembered it in Singapore, with a small fraction of the journey.

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Our next stop was at the penang laksa booth. We had only had this Peranakan dish’s cousin, katong laksa, during our time in Singapore. Penang laksa is more sour and less spicy than katong laksa, and even though I didn’t enjoy the flavor as much, it did take me right back to the plethora of noodle dishes we had in Singapore.

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Our next dish was rojak, which we had in Singapore as a side to the katong laksa. The rojak suffered the most from being 10,000 miles from home. I remembered it as crunchy in Singapore, but this was soggy at best, and rather than being spicy and sweet, it just tasted overwhelmingly of soy sauce.

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Our final dish, of course, was the mystery, the wonder: chicken rice. By this point in the afternoon, we were quite full, but we nevertheless recalled our professional training on assessing the quality of chicken rice and dug in. Simple in its elegance, chicken rice did not disappoint.

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After sitting for a while and enjoying the sun and entertainment, we headed back to Manhattan for a breather before heading to the show, where we met my mother. Afterwards, we made our way to Ngam, a new Thai restaurant that Emmy had chosen for us. At this point, we had been joined by Ben, Diana, her boyfriend, my mother, and a friend of hers, and had become a somewhat unwieldy group of eight — the benefit, of course, being that we could order more dishes. After a bit of an ordeal as we attempted to claim our reservation, during which we observed the open kitchen, we were seated.

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Emmy was quickly deputized with ordering for the entire table, and before long, we were showered with appetizers. Ngam is a Thai restaurant, but they take a bunch of liberties from tradition, which was immediately noticeable. Our appetizers included a crab cake, sweet chili chicken wings, a papaya salad topped with strawberries and cashews, “Chiang Mai fries” made from pumpkin and sweet potatoes, and spring rolls with noodles and mushrooms. Nothing was familiar, but everything was fantastic.

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After some ordering confusion with our main courses, we ended up with quite a selection. One of our favorite dishes in northern Thailand was khao soi, a spicy coconut milk curry that includes both soft noodles and fried egg noodles with which we had recently become reacquainted when we came across it in suburban Boston. Ngam had a new variation on the dish: instead of the more traditional chicken, they had prepared it with lobster. It was delicious.

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Our other dishes included curried vegetables, a curried duckling with lychees and pineapple, crispy chicken laab, and a shrimp pad thai that featured papaya instead of noodles. Everything was just one step away from a dish we were familiar with, making each dish a new, innovative twist on an old standby. For me, the lobster khao soi and the papaya pad thai were the real standouts. The duckling and crispy laab were a bit fried for my preference.

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We headed back to Emmy’s apartment for the rest of the evening, having reenacted a couple of the cuisines of our trip to Asia using only the New York City subway system.

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Christmas with the family

Written by Chaz on 6 February 2012

Though the real world usually makes it harder to spend time traveling, sometimes it makes it easier. I’ve spent much of the last couple months in Texas for work, and since I was going to be so close, I decided to spend the Christmas holiday at my uncle Eric’s house just east of Albuquerque, New Mexico. My grandmother was also coming down from Fargo, North Dakota, where my dad grew up, and my other uncle was coming with her from Minneapolis. So I was very happy to have the opportunity to join all of them.

I arrived a few days before Christmas, and had to do some work the day after I arrived, which was still a normal working day. Luckily, my uncle, who is an avid and proud hunter, provided his home office, which was more than adequate.

Chaz’s N.M. office

We had a ton of snow in New Mexico the day after I arrived, and our trip into Albuquerque to pick my grandmother and uncle Joel up at the airport was a bit dicey. They had even closed the interstate. But we made it there and back safely, and set to work immediately taking full advantage of the snow with my uncle’s ATV, some rope and a couple sleds.

Though probably not the safest activity I’ve ever engaged in (“Try not to fall off into a cactus,” my uncle said), it was really fun.

The culinary portion of my time in New Mexico began on Christmas eve, when my cousin helped my grandmother make some holiday cookies before my grandmother turned her attention to our family’s Christmas eve tradition: oyster stew.

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Oyster stew, it turns out, is very simple. You just cook the oysters until the edges curl and combine with butter and cream, then serve. It only took a few minutes before we were ready to sit down at the table.

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My seafood odyssey has come a long way, but oysters are still a little much for me. I didn’t object to the stew, though. What’s not to like about butter and cream? And I guess this is why they call them oyster crackers.

We woke up the next morning to a pile of presents from Santa Claus and a delicious egg bake prepared by my uncle Eric.

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After presents and breakfast, my uncles, my cousin and I tied the sleds back onto the ATV and headed out for some more sledding (if you can call it that).

Ever the outdoorsman, my uncle couldn’t conceal his glee when we found some bloody snow that had been the site of someone’s dinner.

We headed home to make the Christmas turkey, and my uncle and grandmother worked together for a while in the kitchen on getting things ready. My uncle had found his mother’s old kitchen apron under the Christmas tree, apparently salvaged from his childhood home, and was seen sporting it in the kitchen for much of the rest of the week. I love the traditional turkey meal (it’s a big part of why I love Thanksgiving), and it turned out wonderfully. Of course, there was a little familial strife in the kitchen along the way, but what can you do.

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We suited up the next morning to head out to Sandia Peak for some skiing. It was my first time skiing outside of the beautiful state of Pennsylvania, and the conditions were way better, just as everyone says. We were very fortunate to have gotten as much snow as we did. I read in the newspaper that New Mexico had the best skiing in the country that week.

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My trip was off to a great start!

Chilean summer in December

Written by Emmy on 2 February 2012

Never ones to sit still for too long, the Liss family took off for another adventure in late December. With everyone miraculously off from school and work for the week, we set our eyes south — way south. Very late on Christmas Eve, an evening when JFK is particularly concentrated with traveling Jews, we boarded a flight bound for Santiago.

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On our whirlwind tour of Chile, we planned to cover a lot of ground. We landed in Santiago early in the morning with plans to connect to a flight headed south. First we had to claim our bags, go through customs and re-check them. Simple, right? Well, as documented on many checkpoint adventures, a picnic basket for the plane is crucial. And the Liss family is always prepared. However, the Chilean border control was not so thrilled by our picnic basket of clementines. Our lengthy layover suddenly became a lot shorter once my father was finished with his official interrogation.

Finally we arrived in Puerto Varas in the southern lakes district, surrounded by mountains, volcanoes, lakes and national parks. We claimed our Chilean SUV and piled in, headed further south. Because Chile is so narrow, we passed as many signs for Argentina as we did for domestic cities (prompting my father to continuously sign the central refrain from Evita’s “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”).

We arrived in the picturesque town of Villarica in time for a very late lunch by the lake. Following our long day of travels, we all took a rest by the waterfront under the delightful summer sun.

The town sits under the shadow of the volcano by the same name, which is still very active. Even from a distance, once the light was quite right, we could see little sulfur clouds puffing up from the snow-topped peak. Our hotel was situated just between the village of Villarica and the slightly larger town of Pucón just a few kilometers away. We explored Pucón later that day, taking in some light fare at the adorably named Mamas & Tapas and contemplating our adventuring options for the coming days.

Despite its regular activity, Villarica is a very user-friendly volcano. During the winter it serves as a ski slope and during the summer as a place for climbers, though it always maintains a thin layer of snow and ice. Climbing the whole things is an ordeal largely because of the snow. You need to start very early in the morning in order to finish before the daily melt, which can be incredibly dangerous. Most people sled down after reaching the summit.

We opted to climb from the base just up to where the first snow could be spotted, walking next to the chairlift operational the other half of the year. One of my sisters likened the experience to walking up a ski slope (which we were, in fact, doing) because of how steep the brief climb was. The view of the Andes from the (semi-)top was incredible.

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We took a quick lunch break before heading out into some more nature. The region is filled with national parks and having explored the volcanos, it was time for the lakes.

Chaz and I noted while out west that America’s national parks had the bare minimum in signage; just enough to make it clear where you’re going, but not so much that it’s overbearing. Chilean national parks take a much more relaxed approach, by which I mean: there are no signs. No signs in English, no signs in Spanish, and only sheep to seek directions from.

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After several wrong turns, we found what sort of looked like a hiking trail. Once on it, the signage was still pretty unclear. We knew we were walking to a lake, but we had no idea how far it would be nor did we have any confirmation that we were actually going in the right direction. We hiked for a few hours, and it’s not clear that we found our intended destination, but the scenery along the way was still pretty breathtaking.

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After making our way back to the car — using not quite exactly the same route we had taken to get there — we returned to the village of Pucón for dinner. Chileans are big on grilling; most restaurants have a large sign outside advertising the parilla. We chose one such place and ordered fresh fish and steaks. I was served the largest, most aggressive piece of salmon I have ever seen. It could have easily served three people. My father took his extra steak back to the hotel to make it into a sandwich for the car the next day. We also had grilled tomatoes with parmesan cheese, which were excellent.

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The next morning we set off in our vehicle for points further south. During the early part of the 1900s, for economic and political reasons, Chile experienced a mass migration from Germany, Austria and surrounding nations. As a result, some of Chile’s little villages look more like they belong in the Alps than the Andes. Cafes offer German coffees and cakes served alongside little wooden bridges and lakeside cottages. We stopped in a few villages for sightseeing and refreshment.

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Our drive wound through the various lakes and volcanoes of the area and as the fog lifted, we could see Vulcan Osorno rising in the distance. Osorno is one of Chile’s largest, though it has not had an active eruption in a few decades.

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During the early part of our drive Osorno had been shrouded in clouds and so when it finally emerged, we were quite pleased and turned a little bit paparazzi.

We kept driving until we hit Puerto Varas, one of the larger lakefront towns in the region and where we would be staying that evening. We planned to keep driving a bit further to one of the more famous of the region’s lakes, but decided to pause for lunch while in town.

Chileans love empanadas, which I had assumed, given that this is their place of origin. So we had a few of those and they were pretty delicious.

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But what I was intrigued to learn upon our arrival down south is that Chileans love sandwiches. Sandwiches here are big and delicious and filled with things I love. Avocados are sold by the barrel down here (literally) and cost absolutely nothing compared to the going rate in the U.S. Chileans also seem to be pretty religious about their bread making. Pan casera, which translates to “homemade bread,” is found in warm, delightful abundance. Small rolls graced every table we sat down to and the larger versions were stuffed with sandwich ingredients, like my chicken, avocado, tomato delight from Dane’s in Puerto Varas.

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Like most food items we had in Chile, we discovered after ordering that we could have easily ordered half as many entrees and been, collectively, just as satisfied. There is definitely a go-big-or-go-home mentality to Chilean eating.

Fighting off our sandwich-induced food coma, we piled back into the car and headed to Lago Todos Los Santos, one of the largest of Chile’s lakes and a featured item in the New York Times’ must-see in 2011 list. (We squeezed it in just under the wire.)

We arrived at the lake, which is inside another large national park, and encountered the same scarcity of information that we had dealt with the day before. The welcome station was closed (despite signs indicating that it should be open), there were no brochures available and the one posted map had been all but destroyed. We found the park’s emergency medical clinic and I tried to extract some logistical information from the chief medic. Meanwhile, my father located the boat launching station and by waving a few bills and his key Spanish vocabulary words, secured passage for the five of us.

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The lake is large and beautiful, surrounded by the nearby volcanos and mountains. The lake is also quite long and if you sail its full length, will eventually find yourself in Bariloche, Argentina. However, that would have taken quite a few hours in our little motorboat and so we just puttered around a portion of it.

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Had we continued further south from Todos Los Santos, we would have come to the national park found on the island at Chiloe — the furthest point north where penguins can be found. I have wanted to see penguins in their natural habitat ever since “March of the Penguins” (and also “Happy Feet”), but Chiloe was several hours away. We decided to save the waddles for another visit.

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We headed back to the town of Puerto Varas for dinner. The majority of restaurants open for dinnertime bore close resemblance to the little cafe where we had eaten our colossal lunchtime sandwiches. We found a nice Mediterranean restaurant among the casual cafes and three-fifths of us ordered a stewed chicken with vegetables and a pea puree, served with the same familiar basketful of warm local rolls.

We retired to bed and early the next morning hopped back in our SUV, ending our brief, adventurous jaunt through the southern Chilean wilderness.

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