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No menus: A spontaneous weekend in Milan

Written by Emmy on 25 March 2014

Originally written in February 2013.

Spending the early part of 2013 in Switzerland had its ups and downs. The frequent flights were long and tiring, and being so far away from home had its drawbacks. But being in Europe is really nothing to complain about, and part of what makes it so wonderful is how close to the rest of Europe everything is.

So on the first weekend of February, I hopped on a train from Basel to Milan — a four-hour journey through the beautiful mountains and met my boyfriend Michael in the Northern Italian city for a quick weekend trip.

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Why Milan? Well for one, we could both get there. After my various traumas with flights in and around snowy Switzerland, I had a strong preference for a train destination. (And it was a good choice; it snowed in Basel that day and half the flights were grounded.) As a business metropolis, Milan also has frequent flights to and from the U.S. Milan also felt like the kind of city we would want to see in 36 hours — there would be enough to keep us occupied and interested, but not so much that we would be overwhelmed or feel like we had missed things. The allure of genuine Italian food didn’t hurt either.

Michael arrived early Friday morning, but I didn’t pull into Milano Centrale until the early evening. The train had been running with precision-like clockwork till we hit the Swiss-Italian border and then we seemed to putter around with no attention to schedule for a while, a true testament to the two nations’ stereotypes.

Determined to spend our few days as the natives would, we kicked our evening off with an apertivo. Italian bars traditionally put out a spread of appetizers, which a drink purchase entitles you to graze to your heart’s content. For many, this serves as a cheap alternative to dinner. We still fully planned to have dinner, but for experience’s sake, picked at a few different foccacias and antipasti while sipping our brightly-colored Campari cocktails.

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At the recommendation of an Italian friend of Michael’s, we found our way to the tiny Boccondivino for dinner. The restaurant is known for its incredibly expansive cheese selection, among other things, which was enough of an attraction for me on its own.

We arrived at the restaurant not entirely sure what to expect, were seated and immediately handed glasses of sparkling wine as a welcome gift. Our table was covered in a glass bowl filled with fresh vegetables — carrot sticks, bunches of celery, whole tomatoes. We were confused; was this decoration or consumable? We were promptly handed a small cup each, instructed to mix oil and vinegar in our cups, dip our vegetables, and repeat. (Passover-based jokes about dipping ensued.)

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Our waiter came over to greet us and more or less informed us that we would have no say in the food to come. He asked if we wanted to choose our wine; the right answer was clearly that we would leave it in his hands. When we responded by turning over responsibility, he smiled and told us we would enjoy our evening.

First, we were served a very large plate of cured meats. They were arranged in a specific order and they were explained, but that quickly went over both of our heads. Armed with a new bottle of wine, we dug into our meats. As I was struggling to finish my plate, our waiter came over with a new platter of offerings. And just as we started to make any sort of reasonable dent in them, he brought over an impressively large cutting board with a big leg of something on it, and artfully started slicing. I didn’t even know what to do at this point, but the wine helped.

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We digested our meat for a little while — one lovely thing about the dinner was that no aspect of it was rushed whatsoever — and continued to wash it all down with wine. After a short rest, the waiter came back with two kinds of pasta. One, pappardelle with lamb ragu, was served directly out of a parmesan rind — an innovative serving dish if I’ve ever seen one. The other came out of a normal chafing dish — a cheesy mushroom risotto. Both were rich and delicious, and a small serving of each provided a wonderful tasting.

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At this point, we were about two hours in — and it was time for the restaurant’s claim to fame. Out rolled the cheese cart, and I got extremely excited. (Anyone who knows me would not be surprised by this.) After ooh-ing and aah-ing over the spread, we took in two courses. First, the soft cheeses: burrata, ricotta and mozzarella.

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We picked out our own hard cheeses, selecting a gorgonzola (the local region’s claim to fame), a pecorino (because when in Italy…) and whatever else our waiter recommended. And yes, the cheese came with a new bottle of wine.

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By the time dessert came, we were thoroughly overwhelmed. We were first each given a small bowl of sorbet — a light palette cleanser — but that wasn’t enough. We were then given a saucepan, filled to the brim with small biscotti, and goblets of sweet dessert wine. We were instructed to give our biscotti a bath before eating them, which turned into a really fun activity, but after losing a good number of mine to the bottom of my glass, it was time for us to call it quits. We had originally had ambitions of going out after dinner, but nearly four hours after we arrived, it was officially time to retire for the evening.

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Waking up was a bit of a challenge the next morning. After we were finally able to get up and put ourselves back together, we headed into the old part of the city. Historic Milan was built hundreds of years ago, with stunning Gothic and Roman architecture; the rest of the city grew out around it and today serves as the center of business and industry for Italy. Despite the city’s overall largess, it was manageable to see in such a short time because we stuck to just the center.

Navigating down thin cobblestone streets with every designer label you have ever heard of, we made our way to the center, home to the Duomo and several other historic buildings — including a majestic mall with incredible architecture. So what if it’s filled with modern clothing stores now?

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We spent the morning getting our bearings, walking through the old cobbled streets – and through beautiful food stores. When we got hungry enough for lunch, we located Paper Moon, a classic lunch spot recommended by just about everyone we asked for Milan recommendations.

I ordered linguini with clams, delightful in its simplicity. It tasted just like linguini with clams is supposed to taste. I was reprimanded for even asking if I could have some parmesan cheese (it is, after all, a taboo to add it to the dish), and I’m glad I was disallowed.

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IMG_4182Michael ordered the margarita pizza, which also arrived exactly as it should — simple, beautiful, and delicious. But a bit more food than we were able to consume, and so we left Paper Moon with leftover food on the table, but a recommendation we were happy to continue passing on.

We spent part of the afternoon at the Museo del Novocento — the Museum of the Twentieth-Century. My sister Jessica has discerning tastes when it comes to museums; in her review of Milan from a past visit, she said she didn’t remember one of the city’s museums, but found the Novocento “surprisingly good.” Taking that as more or less a rave review, we paid the museum a visit.

The museum was tucked into a corner of the old square. A tall and skinny structure, we made our way through six or so little floors of artwork – among them, some of the more impressive names in European 20th century art. Its height and position also gave spectacular views of the nearby Duomo, which we planned to climb the next morning.

After looking at some art, we naturally needed a snack. Living like the locals, we picked up two cups of gelato.

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We spent the remaining daylight hours walking the city, blurring the line between the old and the new parts. On one street, you have majestic buildings and cobblestones; walk through an alleyway and you are surrounded by every designer you have ever (and never) heard of. We walked into a few stores, said “buongiorno” and looked around, but you need to be far more serious than we to shop among the Milanos. The most interesting stop we made was not at the native jewel Prada or at the hilariously named Car Shoes, but at a store-slash-gallery-slash-cafe called 10 Corso Como, where we browsed art books, extremely bizarre photographs, and fun modern furniture.

For dinner, we followed another suggestion of Michael’s friend, since night one had been such a success. Once again, we did not order any of our own food and we had a delicious meal, but it turned out to be wildly different.

We walked into Antica Hostaria della Lanterna and were greeted by an older man, presumably the proprietor, who was more or less just hanging out. We tried to explain that we had a reservation and he pointed toward his wife — who was running from table to table as the only server in the establishment — and went back to minding his own business. Every review we read had discussed how Signora Paula commands the entire establishment, so we determined this must be she.

After several minutes of waiting, she directed us to a table and left us for a bit. When she came back, she started to us in a rapid-fire fashion. Only problem? Neither of us really speak Italian. And to further complicate, she was speaking a local dialect — making my seventh-grade Italian knowledge particularly useless. Upon realizing that we did not follow a single thing she had said, she walked over to a large table of young Italians and asked them loudly if any spoke English. She located a woman who did, and dragged her over to our table to translate. After a bit of back and forth, we learned that we were each supposed to choose a pasta to start. To be fair, we had caught the descriptions of the pasta dishes — we had just been a bit mystified about the ordering procedure.

With that taken care of, we were soon served one penne bolognese and one gnocchi in a cheese sauce, alongside a small carafe of a table wine. I felt like how I would imagine eating in your Italian grandmother’s kitchen must feel.

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Both pastas were very simple — there were few frills to our dinner at all. But these were clearly Signora Paula’s home-cooked recipes. Both pastas were also very large — and yet, intended to be consumed as an appetizer. Looking around at the skinny Italians packing away their pastas and their main courses, we were amazed as we struggled to clear our plates. Still, do as the locals do. When Paula came back to clear our pasta plates, we made our best effort to communicate that we each wanted one of the main courses and that we would share. We had absolutely no idea what we had ordered, and only reasonable confidence that our order had been transmitted as intended.

And yet, after only a few more minutes, we received two heaping plates. With our translator gone, we were left to figure out what we had received. Based on my limited knowledge of the Lombardy region — the part of Italy that contains Milan — I knew we would encounter some heavier, almost Germanic food items. We deduced that what we had been served included a veal dish, sort of like a veal marsala, and some sort of meat stew, both with a side of polenta. We put them both in the center of the table and attempted to make a dent in the very large platters.

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When Paula came back to clear our plates and saw how much the two of us had been able to eat, she basically shook her head at us and nearly forbade us from ordering dessert. She conceded, but we were permitted only one item. (Truly — she had more options; she just didn’t trust we could do them justice.) She let us have a single tiramisu, which, OK, we didn’t even finish. But it was very good!

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Full and content, we went to bed.

We then started Sunday morning as any good Italians would: with cappuccinos and a pastry.

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Sunday turned out to be a beautiful day, making it perfect for climbing up the stairs of Milan’s duomo to take in a vista of the city. (I think duomo-climbing must be a required activity in any Italian city.)

On our way up, we encountered a few puzzling signs…

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…and some beautiful architecture.

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IMG_4242The climb was not all too strenuous — but everything else about it was pretty spectacular. Milan’s cathedral is the fifth largest in the world, and the largest in Italy. All of the old city was designed around the structure — and eventually the new city that grew out from it — putting us in the exact center of everything, and high, high above it. Streets radiated out from below us in every possible direction, with various religious figures looking out toward the horizon.

Despite having taken a train through them, I had forgotten just how close to the mountains we were. With the sky such a clear blue, we had a spectacular view.

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The top of the duomo was awfully spacious, and so we spent a fair bit of time exploring it along with all the other tourists.

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We eventually descended the stairs and strolled around square housing the duomo. We walked into Rinoscente, Milan’s major department store, where we zeroed in on the food floor, naturally, checking out homemade mozzarella, spectacular jarred vegetables and 100 euro bottles of water. (The bottles were covered in rhinestones, but still — we were confused.)

We waved goodbye to the duomo and Michael waved goodbye to Milan, off to the airport to make his way back to America.

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I had a few hours until my train back to Switzerland, so naturally, kept on eating. Given our wildly successful track record with suggestions from friends, I picked one last spot from our collective list, and one of the only open on Sundays. I navigated my way by subway to an adorable restaurant, filled with families coming from church. Not only was I the only solo diner, but I was the only person at a table smaller than six. But it still felt friendly to be among them. And to make it even better, I was once again welcome with a cup of crudite and instructions to dip.

I had been in the market for risotto — which Milan is known for more than pasta — but because it was Sunday, I was greeted with something slightly different. Risotto al salto is what you get on Sundays — it’s Saturday night’s risotto, packed into cake form, and pan fried till the edges get a little crispy. It’s a risotto latke! And mine came with sauteed mushrooms on top. It was not entirely what I was expecting when I went on a risotto hunt, but it was good all the same.

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Despite having just eaten my lunch, I was trained well. My departure was looming close and I had a four-hour train ride ahead, one that would land me in a country whose food I’m just less excited about. And so I sensibly did what my mother always taught me and got myself a packed dinner for the trip ahead. I headed back to Rinoscente and its spectacular rooftop food court, visited the Obika Mozzarella Bar, and got myself a to-go box. (One flaw: I forgot to get silverware and the train had none they would give me, save for a tiny spoon meant for stirring espresso. So I ate my cheese in very small bites.)

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As I sat in my train car, rolling north up through the Alps and passing spectacular landscapes before becoming blanketed in the darkness of the night, it was hard not to smile in reflection of a spontaneous, delicious and wonderful weekend.

Working my way across the ocean

Written by Emmy on 19 May 2013

When I took a job out of college that involved a lot of travel, I was not exactly expecting glamour. I had been braced for a few years of toodling around America’s best office parks in my stylish rental car. Still, I was excited about the idea and I reaped benefits even in the most unexpected places.

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But mixed in with innumerable journeys up and down the Jersey Turnpike, I’ve also seen my fair share of excitement, spending a fair amount of time in my own city of New York and jetting off to fun destinations like San Francisco. The particular relevance of my work experiences to this blog are the culinary experiences I’ve been able to have as a byproduct of my work at places like Slanted Door and Gary Danko on the West Coast and notable hotspots like PDT and Spice Market on the East Coast.

photo (33)photo (37)photo (35)Scallops, as interpreted by Slanted Door (left) and Gary Danko (right), and the delightfully colorful tomato salad at Gary Danko

Of note to my co-blogger would also be the two months I spent eating Wawa hoagies. I convinced my team to forgo the cafeteria in favor of the Philly-area favorite because of all that we could learn from their superior business acumen. (The significantly superior sandwiches helped.)

2013 brought the most exotic work destination as of yet, sending me over the Atlantic to Basel, Switzerland. Before I set foot in the country, I knew nothing of Basel other than the legislation that bears its name. (The first time I got there, I joked there should have been a “Basel: Home of Financial Regulation” sign, the way many U.S. towns welcome you with their sports team accolades, but no one else thought I was that funny.)

On my way to Basel, I traveled through Zurich, a city for which I think the best adjective is “sturdy.” The city runs like clockwork — and is punctuated by clocks at every turn — and is incredibly easy to navigate. It sits on the edge of a beautiful lake, and though I didn’t have much time in the city (and was advised there wasn’t much to see), at least walking by the water provided for a pretty view.

By day…

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…and by night.

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Basel, just an hour north from Zurich by train, has aspects of both a quaint European village and an industrial powerhouse. Walking its adorable cobblestone streets, you pass the beautiful old city hall and centuries-old buildings, made even more picturesque when covered in snow.

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On the other hand, a number of companies have corporate headquarters on the border city — Basel deals with the Swiss, Germans and French — and the city is lined with factories and office buildings. Despite its international surroundings, the city is Swiss through and through (or so I’m told). There’s a sense of formality and punctuality to all operations that is hard to find elsewhere, and the cheese selection is phenomenal.

Basel at sunrise

When I first got to Switzerland, we partook in local tradition and ate our fair share of fondue and raclette. Both dishes feature copious amounts of melted cheese, though in slightly different forms. Fondue is the more internationally known, and its incarnations outside of Switzerland are pretty true to original form. Essentially, you get a vat of cheese and a bowl of bread, and you dip.

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Raclette is less of an activity-based meal. At least in the restaurant where we had it, the cheese came to us melted and we ate chunks of the rich goodness with potatoes and pickles.

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After a week, I needed a break from the Swiss cuisine. To the Swiss, “light” eating does not exist. I tried to order a salad as-is one day and discovered my dressing applied more like pasta sauce — a very generous and creamy coating. So my colleagues and I quickly banned fondue from our dining repertoire and set out in search of Basel’s other offerings.

It took some digging, but we found them, in the form of Asica, an African-Asian fusion restaurant with pretty decent curries, and Aroma, a tiny Italian trattoria, and my favorite, Eo Ipso, a trendy ambiguously European restaurant built inside of an old warehouse.

photo (34)Dinner at Eo Ipso for the girl who can’t decide: fish on top of a ravioli on top of vegetables on top of meat

I also probably consumed my weight in chocolate, but that’s neither here nor there…

One of my favorite things about Basel was its airport. It’s one of the only truly international airports in the world; the structure sits firmly on the border of France and Switzerland (and just a 20-minute drive from Germany, too). When you land at the Basel airport, you have to very carefully choose your exit. Go out the wrong door and you’ll be in another country. The border is much more fluid than it once was, but there are still checkpoints; after all, Switzerland is not in the EU. The two sides of the airport take different currency and pick up different cell signals, and the cab lines are separated by a 15-foot-tall partition. The first time I landed in Basel, I was quite tickled.

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My love for the tiny airport dissipated quickly when I faced a flight cancellation one Saturday morning that stranded me in Basel on my way to Washington, D.C., for the presidential inauguration. I had planned to fly to the capital via Paris and found myself stuck when my flight to France was delayed, delayed, delayed and then finally cancelled. That late in the day, there was no way I could make it to the U.S., and I was nervous to try the whole proceeding again the next day. Fortunately, nothing is really that far away in Europe. So after spending a day in the Basel airport, I formally migrated from Switzerland to France by exiting out a different door from the one I had entered in, took a taxi to Mulhouse and boarded an express train to Paris.

Three hours later, I was looking at the Seine and found myself with a dinner invitation; one of my colleagues had family in France who graciously made us risotto and served us a traditional king cake. I did not find the prize, but was still permitted to wear the crown.

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I woke up on Sunday morning to a Paris blanketed in snow and a notification that my flight was, again, delayed. With an unplanned day in Paris, I decided to head to the one neighborhood I knew would be open (and that I knew I knew how to get to), the Marais. I trudged my way there as the snow continued to fall, pausing to have a café au lait and pain au chocolate to warm up. I easily could have taken the Metro, but it was a beautiful walk despite the cold. One thing I will say about Paris: nowhere else looks as pretty covered in snow.

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With just enough time to have lunch before heading to the airport, I stopped at L’Aus du Falafel, which I would reason has among the best falafel I have ever had. OK, you could argue there are many other culinary delights I could have taken in while in Paris. But this is the one I know, and the one I knew I would enjoy, and enjoy I did.

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Nearly 48 hours after I first arrived at the Basel airport, I finally touched down in Washington. I had sadly missed much of the gathering to which I was headed, though in the grand scheme of things, Paris is not too bad a place to be trapped.

However, I chose not to visit my formerly favorite little airport ever again.

The (belated) end to a Peruvian adventure

Written by Emmy on 19 May 2013

After departing the natural wonders of Titilaka and Lake Titicaca, we flew back to Lima and hopped into a van bound for our last destination. We were headed to the city of Paracas, an oceanfront town known for its natural reservation and spectacular wildlife. We drove south with the ocean on one side, and sparsely developed land on the other.

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Except for the occasional small town, the majority of the drive looked like this, exposing us to another side of Peru — the migrant farming communities that look abandoned or industrious depending on the time of year. Looking out on the arid land, it was hard to imagine who was farming what and when, but we were assured that more people lived and worked just over the hills.

The drive took a while, mostly due to the underdeveloped nature of the roads we were traversing. We watched as the sun beautifully dipped below the Pacific.

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When we finally arrived in Paracas, we found ourselves among a very different set of Peruvians than those we had spent the last few days with. Because of its proximity to Lima and its beautiful waterfront, Paracas attracts the moneyed crowd of the capital city, particularly around events like New Year’s. The traditional floral woven dresses were replaced with racy clubbing outfits and skimpy bikinis. Still, we were among very few foreign tourists, so it still felt very Peruvian — albeit a different side of the same country.

We finished off the evening with pasta at the hotel’s trattoria. Because of the ocean’s proximity (less than 100 yards away), most dishes were dotted with seafood. I enjoyed a squid-ink pasta with shellfish.

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We woke up early the next morning, ready to explore what the Reserva Nacional de Paracas had to offer. We boarded a boat and headed out to sea. Our first stop was a mysterious candelabra drawn in the sand. Though it looked from afar like it could have easily been blown away, the etching has in fact been there for hundreds of years. Indigenous tribes carved into the rock under the sand, creating a permanent fixture up on the rocks.

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This is very similar to the Nazca lines, a popular destination further south of Paracas. Indigenous people drew massive pictures in the sand and tourists flock to them; the only way to appreciate them is to take a small plane above the etchings. We had opted to skip this destination, so our mysterious candelabra served as substitute. It is suspected that the candelabra dates back as far as 200 B.C., a relic of the ancient Paracas culture and meant to symbolize the staff of an ancient god.

After boating through open waters for a little while, we saw something rising out of the ocean. As we got closer, we could see that it was a series of large rocks, each completely covered in birds. The stench was overpowering — the rocks have changed color over time from the sheer amount of bird defecation on them.

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Since the 1970s, these rocks out in the ocean have been under protection from the Peruvian government because of the many natural and cultural treasures they hold. Driving around, we saw a dizzying array of birds, including the hilariously named red boobie. (Okay, so we’re a little immature.) We also happened upon a large pack of sea lions.

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It was apparently mating season for the sea lions. This seemingly entails a lot of sleeping, though we were taught that each female sea lion was staking out her area on the beach. The males would later waddle around and start the courtship process. But for now, the large mammals were just hanging out.

Nearby on the rocks, we encountered the most exciting of the Paracas National Reserve’s residents. For reasons I can’t exactly explain, I have a deep fascination with penguins. I was extremely excited when I learned we would meet some of them on our trip to Paracas. While I had always learned that penguins require ice and snow, there are a couple species that thrive in the equatorial climate in Peru, Ecuador and Chile. They’re a bit smaller than their Antarctic brethren, but still very adorable. They do, however, smell terrible.

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We spent the next few hours weaving in and out of the rock formations, observing one interesting animal species after another. We saw many more sea lions, all of whom were either asleep or searching for a new nap spot. The variety of birds was endless — we made many more boobie jokes and spotted several flocks of pelicans. Though harder to spot, we did find more penguins. They were generally more sedentary than I was expecting, but perhaps that’s the influence of movies like Happy Feet.

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After spending a couple hours with the native creatures, it was time for us to head back to shore. We waved farewell to the napping sea lions, the waddling penguins and the very stinky birds.

IMG_3612Jessica and Alix, taking a cue from our sea lion friends

Back ashore, we revisited the ocean, but on our plates. Being able to see the water from our lunch table meant very fresh fish. For me, this came in the form of Peruvian ceviche, prepared in a style very similar to that which we had learned from Penelope earlier that week. This time it was a bit spicier, which I was naturally excited about.

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We spent the afternoon exploring our surroundings and taking it easy in order to prepare ourselves for midnight and the start of 2013. Many of our fellow hotel guests were partaking in a massive party on the beach, the entry ticket to which cost about the same as the annual wages of a salt miner. Truly, we had managed to see both ends of the Peruvian lifestyle spectrum over the course of a week.

We had a more low-key evening, but still managed to get dressed up and watch the fireworks light up the sky.

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We woke up to a calm and peaceful 2013 under the southern sun. After our hectic touring schedule of the earlier part of the week, we took the next two days to relax before heading back to work and reality.

We took bicycles out onto a path that very quickly became beach, working against the resistance of the wet sand. During low tide, we came upon the most remarkable creatures I have ever seen — jellyfish with bodies nearly as large as our bike wheels, dotting the entire coastline. They looked prehistoric in size and nature, and navigating around their tentacles added another challenge to the ride.

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We set sail, repeatedly, taking in the coastline from another perspective.

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Our proximity to the water also continued to give us access to a wealth of seafood dishes. Some of the native Peruvian items continued to perplex me, like causa, the boiled potato stuffed with crabmeat and mayo. Others were more redeeming, like the countless ceviches we continued to encounter. Some came prepared with the traditional corn-and-onion base; others artfully decorated seashells and came spotted with brightly colored peppers. I avoided the former and over-indexed on the latter.

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After our week of planes and trains and boats and drives and hikes, Paracas provided many quiet moments to sit and reflect on the trip.

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Peru turned out to be one of the more culturally fascinating places I have ever been. In one country, there were so many different cultures — not to mention languages – and each seemingly lived independently. Among all the Peruvians I met, there was a great sense of pride for their nation and for their people; the same sense of pride in Peru’s growth and confidence in the brightness of its future seemed to extend from the cosmopolitan residents of Lima, like Penelope, to the young weaver near Titilaka. In some ways, I found myself surprised at the underdeveloped nature of the country, but at the same time, it presented us with a richness that I have never seen elsewhere. Truly, colors seemed brighter in Peru, and I still see that now as I look through my photos.

The country and its residents welcomed us with open arms and let us explore what they had to offer, and we really saw just a fraction of the nation’s diversity. The food may not be as spicy as I’d like, and the roads may not all be easily traveled, but Peru is a country worth seeing, and one that I would love to see again a few years down the line.

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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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The ancient wonder of Machu Picchu

Written by Emmy on 8 February 2013

Just as we were growing accustomed to the Sacred Valley, we woke up early on Wednesday morning, packed our things together and (with very little time to spare) boarded a Peru Rail train. The colorful railroad company has a 90% hold on the market of trains bound for Machu Picchu; we were very much among tourists as we climbed aboard in a small town along Rio Urubamba.

The train chugged along with nice thematic music in the background and we were each served a morning snack in an equally thematic basket.

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When people say they are climbing Machu Picchu, what that means is that they are walking the Inca Trail — an approximately 100 km path that winds through the Andes and follows a route that the Incas are are said to have taken themselves. There are a couple entry points to the path — doing the full hundred isn’t mandatory — but regardless of where you start, you are required to take a guide and two porters with you. For even the most experienced of hikers, there is a worry about the 10,000+-foot altitude. Also, requiring you to hire guides and porters is a great source of revenue for Peru.

For those who opt to take the train (us), you take a winding path from the town of Ollantayltambo along the river and up the hills until you get to the town of Machu Picchu, which is still several hundred feet below the site.

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We pulled into the station at Machu Picchu, dropped our stuff and boarded a bus, taking a narrow and winding path up the mountains for about another 30 minutes. I can confidently say my eyes were closed the entire time.

We got up to the top and filed through the line alongside many, many other tourists. Over 3,500 people visit Machu Picchu every day — the government caps it at 4,000 for safety reasons — and they have their system down to a science. Passports are required to enter because so many people try to reuse tickets or manufacture their own. There was something lost in translation in the issuing of my ticket, which said I was 13 years old, but that somehow didn’t seem to bother border patrol.

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Once through the gates, we walked along a narrow path surrounded by rocks. And then suddenly, Machu Picchu appeared.

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It looked like a page out of my high school Spanish textbook. The shockingly tall peaks against the blue sky, alternating between clear and cloudy, with the perfectly constructed villages below was truly a sight.

Machu Picchu was accidentally discovered by Hiram Bingham in the early 1900s and has remained somewhat of a mystery ever since. There are a handful of competing theories as to its purpose — last hideaway from the Spanish, religious retreat, summer vacation home of the king — but none have been validated thanks to the lack of written record. We have many clues and there’s a pretty clear understanding of what purpose each individual structure served, but we’re left to imagine the broader purpose.

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We spent several hours touring around, climbing in and out of little houses. The wealthiest families had multi-room abodes, complete with what look like toilets. The lowest of the three classes had about five people sharing a space the size of my bedroom. (And my bedroom is not very big.)

Around the site, there are countless examples of the Incas’ scientific prowess — running aqueducts, sundials that could tell the time of day and time of year, original structures that have withstood many earthquakes, and complex systems for growing and storing resources.

The ingenuity of the place just seemed endless.

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When we completed our tour and came back through the gates, we noted a long line of people near the exit. Intrigued, we got up close and to my grand surprise, found a passport stamping pad. I felt immediate pangs of regret for not packing my NPS passport. But, I did have my real passport and so we followed the example of other tourists and all put Machu Picchu’s ink on our pages. There is a chance we may have all invalidated our passports as a result.

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We took the bus back down the mountain after having a touristy buffet lunch, and took a quick look at the town of Machu Picchu. There wasn’t much to see, so we retired to the hotel for a bit of rest and relaxation. We took in afternoon tea — the common coca tea, which is said to relieve altitude sickness, but may just have been getting us all slightly high. Either way, it seemed to have some soothing principles and kept any of our headaches from getting too bad.

At dinnertime, we migrated into the hotel’s dining room, where we were greeted with a number of delightful Peruvian specialties. To start, I enjoyed a creative take on a classic local dish. Called causa, the dish is traditionally a potato stuffed with anything from crab to vegetables to meat to fish. The hotel decided to put the potato on the side and stuff avocado instead. Yum. This rendition had veggies inside, though it tasted almost like cole slaw thanks to the mayo-like dressing.

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Other members of my family enjoyed quinoa soup and quinoa with local cheese and peppers.

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My main course was probably one of the better things I ate while we were in Peru: simply grilled tilapa over a fava bean puree with pomegranates. It was simple in preparation, but the combination of flavors was very well thought out and the result was excellent.

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IMG_2931Normally, I have a take-it-or-leave-it approach to dessert — I generally would rather just eat more food — but cheesecake happens to be a personal weakness and here it was offered with muña, the same local mint we had encountered in other dishes. It was not overly sweet, and quite enjoyable.

Many people do just a day trip to Machu Picchu, but given the distance and the sheer awesomeness of the site, we had opted to do a day-and-a-half. Our visit coincided with the start of rainy season and in Machu Picchu it rains 80+ inches a year, so we knew we were taking chances. Generally the weather rolls in and out though, so a messy morning is not necessarily a sign of a calamitous day.

But Thursday morning was indeed messy and so we slept a bit later than planned to try and wait out some of the dense fog. We didn’t want to waste our time at the site though, so we did board the bus in the drizzle and made our way back to the top, where we found ourselves essentially in the clouds.

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The day before, our guide had joked about it being Machu Poncho this time of year; we joined the ranks when we bought plastic ponchos in five different colors and put them on over our raincoats to better guard ourselves (and of course, the cameras).

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We had been deliberating over one of the area’s more intense hikes, but decided to skip it because of warnings of slippery, steep steps. Instead, we took a calmer route to an old Inca bridge, which supposedly boasted good views of the full area.

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Because of the altitude, it was actually amazing to watch the weather. The clouds were rapidly rolling in and out — but all below the point where we were standing. This only enhanced our usual intensity around photography as we all waited for the clouds to move to the perfect spot to enable the perfect picture.

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It wasn’t happening from our spot on the bridge, so we headed in the opposite direction on a different hike, toward the Sun Gate. This is the spot that marks the end of the Inca Trail, or the Intipunku, and it provides the first glimpse of Machu Picchu to those who do endure the three- or four-day adventure.

It also enables those doing just a day trip to envision what it would be like to have that moment; there were many posed photos to reenact that victorious ascent from the other tour groups around us. Okay, and us.

After taking one last foggy, wet look at Machu Picchu, we boarded the bus yet again and made our way to the bottom. We had time for a luxurious lunch before boarding our Peru Rail train, and so returned to the hotel for more fresh fish. This time I enjoyed a piece of trout cooked with local vegetables.

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IMG_2998We boarded the train and each plugged into our headphones and other devices, but quickly put them away once we realized there would be on-board entertainment.

First, we were introduced to an elaborately dressed (and somewhat disturbing) clown, who began dancing down the aisles to the tune of the festive music now blaring over the train’s announcement system.  He pulled people out of their seats to dance with him (including the Lissisters) and gave a sort of lap dance to those unwilling to get up and join him. The whole thing was a bit hard to comprehend, and no one in the car could keep a straight face.

After the clown went away, one of the train attendants announced that the crew would be coming around with the company’s line of alpaca goods. On the way to Machu Picchu, the crew had pushed a cart down the aisles with sweaters and scarves, much like duty-free sales on an airline. But today, the crew would be taking advantage of our rapt attention and began parading down the aisles in a fashion show.

This was also a bit odd and unexpected, but made even more extreme by the contrast of our surroundings. The train had stopped between two towns and so we sat on the rails near rundown homes and farmland. A group of young kids, who clearly knew the train would be there, had scampered down the rocks and were politely rapping at our windows, making mimes for money. And meanwhile, the train crew was strutting to the tune of very loud music inside our fairly luxurious train and trying to entice us into buying expensive woolen goods. The contrast of the two scenes — inside and outside the car — was a perfect encapsulation of the split between haves and have-nots in Peru.

Machu Picchu is the area’s pride and joy, and economic engine — entry to the site costs $45 per person (and multiply that by nearly 4,000 every day, 365 days of the year). But less than 12% of the money goes to the maintenance of the site and to the surrounding towns. The rest flows to Lima, creating somewhat of a bitter relationship. And so every day, countless train cars of tourists with money run through the riverfront towns, but none of that money ever really touches those towns. The windows on our train car were sealed, but there was a little crack at the top. Many of us with window seats pushed our Peru Rail snacks out the opening, where they were caught by the kids below. They waved goodbye to us when the train finally started moving again, but no doubt they returned to the same place when the next train came rolling through a few hours later.

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Into the Sacred Valley

Written by Emmy on 27 January 2013

On day two in Peru, we woke up very early and beat the Lima city traffic, weaving back through the downtown and to the airport. Like most tourists, we were on our way to Cusco. The national government would never allow an international airport to be built in the more frequented city or Lima would never get any visitors. So on a plane filled with others making their way to Machu Picchu and the valleys of Incan ruins, we made the quick journey, venturing further up than away. Less than an hour later, we landed in Cusco, a city over 10,000 feet high.

From the moment we landed, it was possible to feel how much thinner the air had become. So we started drinking copious amounts of water (I had been joking the whole week before the trip that I was pre-hydrating, but there’s a limited amount you can do in advance) and prepared to explore. On Sunday, we planned to bypass Cusco all together and head outside the city, with plans to return. But on our way up the hills, we paused for a panorama of the city.

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From this hilltop perch, we caught a glimpse of tents in the central square. We inquired and learned there was a Christmas market in full swing. Never ones to miss out on a market visit, we detoured into downtown Cusco to see what we could see.

The annual market attracts artisans from throughout the Sacred Valley, the region surrounding Cusco. Each displays its wares and sells as much as it can, though the true attraction is a contest. All items sold must be handmade and there are a series of judges who determine which handicraft is best. We saw many handmade dolls and an inordinate number of baby Jesus figurines. Peru is majority Catholic – we heard numbers varying from 70 to 90 percent. However, their Catholicism is of a unique variety. Because of the rich indigenous history in the country, the native religion and its traditions blended with those of the Spanish over time, creating somewhat of a blend of customs. Many Peruvians go to mass on Sundays, but then also make offerings to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth). So the baby Jesus figurines at the market have their own unique flair; for every booth selling a doll, there were four selling outfits for the baby. Families buy multiple outfits and dress Jesus up in traditional Peruvian garb inside the Catholic nativity.

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In the market, we also encountered a phenomenon we had been warned about. Once upon a time, when traveling in the Middle East, my family had come into contact with countless young children who would run up to us and pose for photos. With four of the five of us traveling with big cameras, we’re an easy spot and are all happy to take infinite photos. But then the children would demand money in exchange for the photos and follow us till we gave more and more. We knew this might be the case in Peru. This time we were a little more prepared though; at the suggestion of a friend, we brought a box of ballpoint pens to give out to children who approached us.

In Cusco, we were indeed approached by multiple children, many of whom were carrying baby llamas. They dutifully posed and then asked for a tip. We gave them coins and pens, but it wasn’t deemed to be enough and so they followed us around the market for a bit.

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I obviously took a photo, which in the moment seemed like a fun idea. But over the course of the trip, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the whole idea. It felt exploitative in many ways. We continued to give pens out to kids we met, especially those we interacted with in more meaningful ways, but stopped taking so many pictures. It just felt a bit wrong.

After our little trip to the market, we piled into a van and headed into the hills with a long list of sites to cover over the next two days. But on the way, we paused to visit a llama-and-alpaca farm. Ever since entering the mountains, we had been seeing animals everywhere; families and dogs herding sheep, cows mooing by the side of the road and a series of mysterious, but very fluffy, animals.

IMG_2445At the farm, we learned all about the native creatures of Peru. Llamas, alpacas and vacunyas dominate the landscape and have been kept by natives for centuries. Horses and other working animals are not native to South America; they were brought over by the Spanish. But our furry friends have long been companion to the Peruvians, helping on farms, but primarily serving as a resource. Sheared seasonally, the animals all make for nice blankets and sweaters. Each has a slightly different texture and fluffiness, easy to see when the coat is still being worn by the animal himself.

Allowed to get far closer to the animals than one would ever be permitted in the U.S., we became fairly personal and made some new friends. (We also assisted in the provision of an early lunch.)

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Alix in particular seemed to have a natural connection.

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We made friends with the young children who live at the farm. They begged to have their photos taken, but not for money. They were very excited about the prospect of seeing themselves inside the camera, and so we obliged. However, they also could not be convinced to stop eating for the camera. People do say you and your pets become like one another…

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From the farm, we continued driving up, up and away into the mountains. When the Spanish first came to Peru, the Incas and other indigenous tribes fled up into the hills. Though they had once settled inside the valleys along the riverbeds, they recognized those villages as the most vulnerable to invasion and conquering. Fleeing higher and higher gave them greater security. Despite being up in the mountains, they discovered another way to continue prospering agriculturally: terrace farming.

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Looking down from the sides of the eerily high cliffs and peering into the valleys, it’s almost inconceivable how the Incas could have ventured up so high and managed such extensive construction. Throughout the whole trip, I was constantly amazed at what a successful and intelligent civilization they had been. While Peruvian cities today fall prey to occasional earthquakes (the country lies dangerously at the intersection of a few faults), the Incan homes of the 1500s were built with anti-seismic construction practices. Water flowed freely to crops thousands of feet up in the air and remained safe from invaders (for at least a time). What’s especially puzzling though is the relative lack of record of the civilization. To the knowledge of historians today, the Incas never had a written language and therefore there are no real records of their relatively short reign. For that reason, most are still trying to uncover the secrets of that era.

We continued along the valley to the town of Pisac, which appeared quite large on the map, but turned out to be little more than a central town square and a handful of local artisans. We sat down for lunch, which true to its Spanish colonial heritage, is the largest meal of the day in Peru. The change in altitude and the relatively long morning had left us all quite hungry, so I was pleased to find the favorite local snack — roasted corn kernels — waiting for us on a pretty ceramic plate. We were also handed glasses of lemonade, the very typical lunchtime beverage. Mine had mint in it, which was especially pleasing.

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Our multiple course lunch started with soup, pumpkin or quinoa. I opted for the former, having already spotted quinoa on the menu as an ingredient in all three courses.

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Quinoa is grown all over Peru. Along with Bolivia, Peru grows the vast majority of the world’s quinoa. And as it becomes trendier in places like Brown’s dining halls (one of the first places I ever really encountered it), it only serves to benefit economies down here.

Quinoa grows in three colors in Peru: white, red and black. There’s some debate as to whether or not it’s a grain (the red is reportedly related to the beet), but nevertheless, it graces most menus in at least a few variations. In part because of a pretty steady immigration path from Asia to Peru, the local cooking styles actually take on a good deal of Eastern influence. My quinoa lunch was stir-fried with chicken, egg and vegetables, a sort of Peruvian take on fried rice.

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Our journey through the valley continued as we made our way toward a quieter town, the delightfully named Urubamba, where the river known by the same name flows. We pulled up to our hotel and we were immediately greeted by Angel, who offered to introduce us to the resident alpaca. Yes please!

Our introduction to the alpaca left him less than thrilled. Turns out the animal’s natural tendency is to be super aloof, and he turned his butt to us when we walked into his little hut. (It was about to rain and so the animals had been led inside; they normally just roam the hotel grounds.) However, his good friend, the llama, was definitely more friendly.

The llama was really interested in getting up close and personal, nibbling at my ankles and sticking his neck through Alix’s legs. Even though the alpaca seemed to be saying, “No touching,” the llama nuzzled himself right in there and went for a kiss or two. The alpaca was not impressed.

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We amused ourselves for a while longer, and then after seriously washing our hands, headed in for dinner. We started with an intriguing sounding idea, a local dish called panquitos. The appetizer consisted of little corn cakes, baked and served inside corn husks, and served alongside grilled cheese and a light sauce. It was a little less exciting than I was expecting — the corn just tastes so much starchier (and less sweet) than what I’m accustomed to — but it was still an interesting concept. And a local specialty, so of course we had to at least experiment.

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The main course was a lamb stew, served with, of course, mashed potatoes, and filled with veggies and nuts. I kept ordering dishes I half expected to be spicy, and yet, it was the spice that never was. But dinner was still very good and very local.

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We fell asleep to the sounds of Rio Urubamba, and woke early again to further explore the region. We were joined on our drive by several herds, who we continuously paused for on the road. While pedestrians have no legal rights in Peru (we were reminded and warned of this constantly), animals totally own the roads.

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IMG_2637We wound through hillsides and valleys, pausing to both take in the vistas and alleviate the nausea of careening around curves at 11,000-foot altitudes. Finally as we turned a particular corner, massive white puddles emerged on the grounds below. The unfamiliar site? Salt mines.

The salt mines of mountainous Peru have been an economic boon for centuries. The natives discovered white and pink salt hundreds of years ago and began mining it. Little known fact: the word “salary” is derived from the Spanish sal, for salt, because traders were paid in salt. And in a related etymological lesson, one of the only Quechua words to become part of international vernacular is “jerky,” for the salted meats that were cured in the Peruvian mountainside salt mines.

Today’s mines give you an understanding for why “back to the salt mines” is an idiom for a day of hard labor. Collecting salt is back-breakingly hard labor. About 300 families collectively own the salt mines we visited, though the fact that it was Christmas meant they were empty. On a normal day, multiple generations would have been knee-deep in the water and silt. School is mandatory in Peru, but that doesn’t mean much up in the hills where the average kilo of salt sells for one sol (about $0.40). Peru supplies nearly all of France’s and Japan’s salt from its mountainside mines, but the families working the land don’t earn nearly enough to move upward.

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After poking around in the salt a bit (one of my sisters may or may not have some hiding in her suitcase), we continued onward to Maray. These ruins, whose name translates either to mean “dehydrated potatoes” or “deep circles,” were only fully excavated about five years ago. We spent a lot of time discussing Peru’s recent political past with our guide, Maria Teresa, and learned more about the oppressive regimes of the ’70s and ’80s that bred terrorism. It was only when the climate became safer and the government more focused on the country’s general well-being that sites like Maray began to receive the attention they deserve.

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IMG_2675We walked down into the center of the concentric circles and joined hands in a prayer to Pacha Mama. We were feeling very meditative until another group loudly asked if we were also from New York. We took that as our cue to exit stage right.

We continued driving through the endlessly fertile valley. Many of the homes we passed were near shambles, lacking adequate roofing and doors, but with land to feed the families inside. Still, it was hard to imagine that many of these people had ever left their tiny villages, and so you had to wonder what they thought of our van rolling through with four of us sticking our cameras out the windows.

After not too long, we arrived at a site far more used to our cameras. In the hills of Peru, every tribe has its own weaving patterns and traditions, and here we were introduced to the Chincherro women. Trained from childhood, the women are all highly practiced in the art of weaving, dying and knitting, creating beautiful scarves, blankets and clothing out of alpaca. They showed us how each pattern was composed, what natural products were used to create each color and how to properly wear the garb. Most impressive is the piece of cloth the women wrap their babies in before casually tossing the whole apparatus over their shoulders.

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After our weaving lesson (and a solid bit of shopping), we were ready for lunch. We dined at an old hacienda; once a major plantation house, the mansion is now owned by the consul to Spain. He lives full time in Cusco and so rents out the space in his home as a restaurant when he’s not around. Filled with just a few tables, the place is teeming with antiques and overlooks the valley’s lush greenery. Upon sitting down, we were served full glasses of lemonade and potatoes from the house’s garden, served alongside a dipping sauce made from the mint relative native to the area.

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We also enjoyed a lovely salad from the same garden just outside, and then chose from a menu featuring what I would call the hallmark dishes of Peru — a piece of grilled trout and lomo saltado — and then a few other local surprises as well.

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We left lunch on the late side (our shopping had taken more time than our guide anticipated) and so attempted to beeline to one last historic site. But there was a slight hitch. As we entered the town we had to drive through to get to our destination, we saw that a parade had subsumed the streets. And said parade was not going to move, thus blocking the only road in the area that would have allowed us to move from town to town.

This was not the first time I had been trapped by a rogue parade. Similar to my prior experience, we made the only logical decision and decamped from our van, deciding that if we couldn’t move through the parade, we might as well move in it.

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Despite the policeman’s initial claims that passage could not happen for at least two hours, our van suddenly came honking through the crowd and so we hopped back in, waving goodbye to the pretty colors (and to the parked line of tuk tuks!).

We made it to the ruins of Ollantaytambo just as the guards were closing the gates for the day. We convinced them to let us inside and have a quick look at the Incan settlement, filled with temples, granaries (the Incas knew that a good year meant save so that there would be food in a bad year), small homes and other architectural marvels. We checked the time of day and year at the various sundials and stuck our fingers into a fountain that has ostensibly been running since the 1400s.

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IMG_2798In the small town just outside the ruins (which goes by the same name), we saw families herding their sheep and other animals down the street. We shared pens with the young children and said hello using the one vocab word we had picked up in Quechua.

We headed back to the hotel for dinner and tried an interesting variation on one of the Peruvian standards. I had croquettes with aji de gallina — the yellow chicken I had sampled in Lima — inside.

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The dish was an interesting concept and pretty good, but maybe a little unexciting.

As previously mentioned, Peruvian food is generally pretty mild and occasionally left me yearning for something just a bit spicier, but on the whole, the cuisine is pretty approachable. I don’t think I tried anything throughout the trip that I genuinely didn’t like.

After dinner, we said goodbye to the new friends we had made at the hotel — llama and alpaca included — and packed up our stuff to head out early the next morning. It was time for the grand adventure, the reason most people venture to Peru in the first place — the lost and mysterious city of Machu Picchu.

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!

A marathon trip to London

Written by Chaz on 26 November 2012

In early September, my mother and I joined my aunt Jan, uncle Ash and cousin Maggie on a whirlwind trip to England for my second cousin Stuart’s wedding. Though we were only on the other side of the pond for about three days, we managed to see, do and eat quite a bit — and, of course, we attended a lovely wedding.

I arrived early Thursday morning from Boston and met my aunt, uncle and cousin for a winding trip through the English countryside on several buses and trains to the small town of Guildford, our home base for the first few days of our trip. My mother’s flight had hit some snags, putting her arrival a few hours later — hours that I put to good use catching up on sleep.

After we were all arrived, rested and cleaned up a bit, we walked down to Guildford’s high street and met Cathie, my mother’s cousin and mother of the groom, for a light lunch. We were all ravenous, not having eaten since our flights, and I enjoyed a beautiful and tasty sandwich of brie, grapes, walnuts and greens.

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We spent the remainder of the afternoon walking around the town, the highlight of which is the ruins of an old castle. On the castle grounds, we found some exciting rounds of a game called “bowls” taking place. After our exploration, we met the British wing of our family for a great dinner in Guildford and retreated to our hotel.

IMG_7188IMG_7203IMG_7210My aunt Jan, cousin Maggie and I.

Never ones to let an opportunity pass by, my mother and I rose early the next morning and boarded an early train to London to see the Queen’s jewelry, on exhibition in conjunction with her diamond jubilee. This was not the so-called crown jewels, but rather the jewelry the Queen herself actually wears for important events.

Our train into the city was full of British schoolchildren in uniforms. Basically it was the Hogwarts Express. Before long, we had arrived at Victoria Station, just a short walk from the palace.

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The state rooms and the diamond exhibition were stunning. Unfortunately, photography was prohibited, but we saw quite a few huge rocks, including the tiara and necklace the Queen wore in her diamond jubilee portrait. The tour ended with a walk through the palace grounds.

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A short train ride later, we were getting ready for the wedding, which was followed by toasts, dinner and dancing. It was a terrific night with our English family.

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On Saturday, we packed up and returned to London, where we were spending the weekend. After dropping our things at our hotel, we tubed to the Thames’ south bank, where my mother and I explored the Real Food Market at Southbank Centre. We composed our lunch out of several cuisines from the market’s many stands.

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We walked along the river to the Tate Modern, where we saw the Munch exhibit — which, strangely, was almost entirely on loan from the Munch Museum in Oslo, which I had seen three years prior, to the point where I wondered if the museum in Oslo could even still be open. Returning to our hotel, we got in a short rest before leaving London again to join our family for a relaxed dinner in Teddington, home of the newlyweds.

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We rose early again on Sunday to meet my second cousin Elise and her husband Nadson to see the Paralympics marathon. Though the London Olympics had ended before our visit began, the Paralympics were still going on, so we were able to get a taste of the event that had captured the world’s attention a few weeks earlier. The route went right by our hotel in front of Buckingham Palace.

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As we walked back to our hotel across Green Park, we caught the wheelchair heat of the race. The whole event was very inspiring and captured the best of the Olympic spirit.

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Bidding farewell to Elise and Nadson, we picked up our things from our hotel and met Ash, Jan and Maggie at upscale department store Fortnum & Mason‘s Fountain Restaurant for brunch. I enjoyed a delicious pea soup while my mother opted for eggs benedict.

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After brunch, we took a cab to the train and were shortly on the train speeding toward Heathrow. It was a terrific short trip to England, and it was especially wonderful to be able to see our British relatives again — not to mention the sights we fit in between the festivities!

Crossing a checkpoint and ending an adventure

Written by Emmy on 23 October 2012

We woke up with the sun on Sunday morning and discovered why we were the only people staying in the woods of Fundy: fall comes early. We snuggled into our sleeping bags for a bit longer before emerging into the morning fog. Originally we had planned to hang around, make some coffee and have breakfast straight from the backpacks, but the chill overtook us, and so we quickly packed up and made our way back to the parking lot and to Adrienne.

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We started driving south, back past Saint John and then through long passes of rural New Brunswick with spectacularly well-paved stretches of highway. We came to a southern tip of Canada and boarded a ferry, the first of the day. We were planning to take the boat to Deer Island, where we would take another ferry, this one from Deer Island to Campobello Island. Campobello, the summer home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is home to an international park, co-managed by the U.S. and Canadian parks services. The island is actually part of Canada, but during the months when the ferry is not running, is only accessible by a U.S.-controlled bridge. It’s a bit of a brainteaser.

But given the season of our trip, we boarded the first of our two ferries for the day and hit the open seas.

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While on board the ship, I aimed to recreated what Chaz now claims was his favorite snack of America Part 1: Trader Joe’s multigrain crackers, sliced asiago and a spicy dip; in this case, it was the leftover spicy chicken salad. In keeping with tradition, I pulled out a cutting board and knife while the vehicle was moving. I like a little adventure.

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IMG_1865We arrived on Deer Island, which, as part of New Brunswick, has all its signage displayed in English and French. Because of the prevailing religious traditions and the fact that it was Sunday, we found very little to see or do on the sleepy island. We hadn’t planned to do much, truthfully, but were at the whims of the dual ferry schedules. So we meandered our way from one end of the island to the other, pausing to check out what is rumored to be the largest lobster pound in the world, and ending up at the largest whirlpool in the northern hemisphere.

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The lobster pound was uninspiring, but the whirlpool was very cool. The somewhat mesmerizing rush of the currents was captivating enough that we nearly missed our ferry, ending up last in line of the cars waiting to board a boat that looked like it hadn’t been replaced in about three decades, give or take.

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Seriously, the boat was really old. So old that the steering part detached from the car part. The ocean was looking awfully cold, but despite its creaky parts, the ferry ferried us across safely.

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We docked at Campobello and drove to the interior of the park, where we were directed to photo opportunities and to the house that FDR spent his summers in. We walked through an interesting exhibit about the history of friendship between the U.S. and Canada. I was most excited to see that friendship manifest in an international stamp for my parks passport.

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We weren’t interested in waiting for someone to come show us around, so we took the self-guided version of the FDR house tour, pausing of course, in the kitchen.

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We drove around the island a bit, but without planning to take a hike or bike ride, there wasn’t much to tour; we stopped at a few rocky overlooks to gaze out on the water and identify distant land masses. I was more amused by the traffic signs that pointed to “U.S.A.”

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After cruising around for a bit, we selected the only completely empty picnic spot and overlooking the water, emptied the contents of our cooler onto a table – of course using a Delta blanket as the picnic cloth. Using a couple different containers of already-ready ingredients, I whipped up sandwiches of turkey, grilled eggplant, and red pepper and feta spread.

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Once we had finished our sandwiches and packed back in all the cooking implements, we loaded the car and made haste toward the tip of Campobello. We made the requisite lighthouse visit before approaching the bridge to the other side.

We were briefly reprimanded at customs. Evidently, limes cannot cross the border between Maine and Canada because of some weird soil disease; we think the border attendant just needed a spritz for his drink. (This was not my first time being stopped at a border crossing for a citrus infraction, but this stop was a little less alarming.) We entered the U.S. into Lubec, Maine, the easternmost town in the country. The town itself didn’t have much going on, but we made a pit stop at West Quoddy Head lighthouse, noted for being the easternmost point in the country.

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IMG_1998Now able to say we’d dangled out feet over the eastern edge of the modern world (or, you know, something dramatic like that), we headed a bit south to the entrance to Cutler Coast. Cutler is an area of land preserved and maintained by the state of Maine, but in a much more rugged way than the national parks. Cutler’s waterfront campsites are first come, first serve, and you claim them by logging your name into a guestbook at the trailhead. But when we found a completely packed parking lot and a fairly empty guestbook, we were a bit confused. If we chanced it and found the campsites totally full, we would have to turn back – a challenging feat given threatening rainclouds, vanishing daylight (ok, it was 3 p.m.) and a relatively lengthy hike (almost 10 miles to do the full loop past the campsite and back to the lot). But if we gave up and found the campsites empty, it would have been hugely disappointing. So we decided to hedge our bets, assume most of the parked cars belonged to day hikers and charge forward. The only people who had signed the guestbook were a pair from New York, Adam and Jake, who we kept calling for as we hiked through the brush, assuming that they would take us in under their wing if all else failed.

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IMG_2015The hike took us almost immediately down to the water, where we could see several bits of Canada off in the distance. But mostly, we were just surrounded by the very vast ocean – a truly beautiful site. We could feel bits of rain beginning to fall from the sky, but luckily had brought layers and the majority of the trail weaved through trees, providing cover. The only catch was that the state of Maine seemed content to let the wild run wild and so maintains their trails a bit less than the NPS, leading to overgrown brush. I think that might explain the mosquito bites I later discovered in somewhat inexplicable places.

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As we hiked, we could hear a dim noise in the distance, growing louder and louder. Chaz was convinced it was an owl, but I was determined to prove it was mechanical. We had to round several craggy corners and summit many slippery rocks, but eventually, a lighthouse came into distant view. To keep myself entertained, I yelled back to it every time it yelled hi to us.

After the yelling, beeping and raining went on for a while, we found ourselves at the first campsite, where a woman was standing guard. We kept walking until we came to the second site, where we found Adam and Jake, setting up fancy hammocks in the trees. Excited as we had been to make friends, we abandoned the cause, and like Goldilocks, tried out the third campsite, which was just right. We set up shop and I began to prepare our gourmet dinner, beginning with a cocktail hour of G+Ts (yes, we had managed to import them), cheese, crackers, sliced veggies, and Annie’s bunnies.

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Dinner was going to be a fancy home-cooked affair, which required a series of spices. In lieu of bringing spice jars with us, we had mixed Thai spices in a ziplock bag, to which we added peppers, celery, scallions, cashews and spiced chicken sausage.

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As we dined, we enjoyed the bright, glowing sunset over the water. We could still see our lighthouse friend blinking and beeping in the distance.

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IMG_2146We awoke the next morning, rolled up our sort-of soggy tent and hiked the five or so miles back to the parking lot, which was significantly less full than it had been the prior afternoon. We started the drive back south, where we encountered a rather strange site – several towers looming in the near distance. Ever the journalists, we got closer to investigate, stopping just short of the “Property of the federal government” and “No trespassing” signs. We later uncovered that we had happened upon the VLF Transmitter Cutler, which provides one-way low-transmission communications with U.S. submarines. Having completed our journalistic mission of the morning, we picked up the scenic Route 1 and a bit of speed, making our way back down past the turnoff for MDI and toward new pastures. As soon as we regained cell service, I was hot on the pursuit of little-known and well-regarded lobster rolls, figuring I should get one more in before leaving the state. Our other major planned stop was to be Freeport, Maine, birthplace of L.L. Bean. Our attempt to stop at the famous Red’s in Wiscasset, Maine proved a bit fruitless when we encountered its 30 minute line. The food did look good from a distance. Just after Freeport we stopped at Cindy’s Lobster Rolls, which had been hyped on the internet for its lobster roll (what I was most excited about) and its fried clams (which Chaz had requested as a final item).

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IMG_2165We had a little fun at the kitschy roadside stand while we waited, but at 2 p.m. or so, we were among the stand’s only patrons and so our lobster roll, clams and mix of french fries arrived quite quickly. We dug into our seafood, hob-nobbed with Cindy’s eclectic owner and after not too long, hopped back into the car for the less scenic portion of our day’s drive.

From Cindy’s, we left behind the scenic highways of Maine and merged onto 95, making our way south through traffic-filled New Hampshire. But with shocking expediency, we found ourselves back in Boston. We undertook the great feat of unloading the car, making quite a mess of Chaz’s sidewalk in the process. We hadn’t been back in the urban world for long before Chaz walked me to the train, where I boarded my New York-bound Amtrak, and he walked back across alone. It had been nearly a year since we had bid each other farewell from our last road trip adventure, as we ran to our separate gates in the Detroit airport. We were older (definitely), wiser (debatable), and heading home to our grown-up lives and real person jobs. But really, we’re still the same people as when the checkpoint began. We’ve still got backpacks full of unnecessary electronics, eyes bigger than our stomachs, and a sense of adventure tuned to the open road ahead.