Historical memory

...now browsing by tag

 
 

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.

IMG_3006IMG_3013IMG_3015IMG_3018

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.

IMG_3023IMG_3027IMG_3030IMG_3033

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

IMG_3047

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.

IMG_3051

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.

IMG_3056

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.

IMG_3066IMG_3071

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?

IMG_3077IMG_3090

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.

IMG_3096IMG_3095

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.

IMG_3082

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.

IMG_3102

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.

IMG_3105

IMG_3106

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.

IMG_3115

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

IMG_3114

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.

IMG_2818IMG_2826

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.

IMG_2832

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.

IMG_2851

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

IMG_2862

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.

IMG_2865IMG_2881IMG_2895IMG_2902

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.

IMG_2907

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.

IMG_2908

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.

IMG_2910

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

IMG_2914IMG_2917

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.

IMG_2919

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.

IMG_2937

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).

IMG_2960IMG_2948

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.

IMG_2956

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.

IMG_2968

IMG_2973

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.

IMG_2988

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.

IMG_2981

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.

IMG_2400

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.

IMG_2412IMG_2426

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.

IMG_2433

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.)

IMG_2459IMG_2455IMG_2466IMG_2478

Alix in particular seemed to have a natural connection.

IMG_2487

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…

IMG_2509

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.

IMG_2516

IMG_2523

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.

IMG_2538IMG_2546

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.

IMG_2539IMG_2543

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.

IMG_2549

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.

IMG_2573IMG_2575

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.

IMG_2592

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.

IMG_2615

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.

IMG_2623

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.

IMG_2639IMG_2644

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.

IMG_2668

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.

IMG_2686IMG_2688IMG_2697IMG_2699

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.

IMG_2716IMG_2717

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.

IMG_2720IMG_2730

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.

IMG_2756IMG_2752

IMG_2783

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.

IMG_2787

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.

IMG_2807

IMG_2811

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.

IMG_2219IMG_2234

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.)

IMG_2248

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.

IMG_2254IMG_2260

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.

IMG_2288

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.

IMG_2293IMG_2295

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.

IMG_2300

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.

IMG_2312

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.

IMG_2315IMG_2317IMG_2319IMG_2339

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.

 

IMG_2343IMG_2346

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.

IMG_2368

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.

IMG_2379

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.

IMG_2388

The scenic consequences of progress

Written by Chaz on 28 September 2011

After our ordeal on Half Dome, we felt free to allow ourselves the luxury of sleeping in until a whopping 8:30 a.m on Saturday. Though I was skeptical of our (well, my) ability to pull off any physical activity that day, we nevertheless packed our bags for a hike in the park’s less-visted Hetch Hetchy section. After a relaxed breakfast at the campsite of cereal, fruit and coffee, we threw our things into Dorothy and set off for Hetch Hetchy, the route to which requires one to exit and reenter the park, passing through private land.

IMG_4299IMG_4303

Hetch Hetchy Valley is like a smaller twin to Yosemite Valley, nearly as dramatic if not on the same scale. But the steadfast march toward progress led the city of San Francisco to campaign for a dam in Hetch Hetchy to provide the city with water and power in the early 1900s. Over John Muir’s strenuous objections, the project was green-lighted, and so the first thing we saw as we descended on the winding road into the valley was the huge O’Shaughnessy Dam, which still provides water to San Francisco. The dam has since become a rallying cry for the preservation of national parks, and it’s extremely unlikely that another project like it could ever be approved. Though some people call for the restoration of Hetch Hetchy, it’s far more likely that we’ll just have to imagine what Hetch Hetchy Valley would look like were it not flooded.

IMG_4316IMG_4327IMG_4329

We hiked a couple miles along the northern share of the manmade lake to Wapama Falls, where we stopped for lunch, our leftover tortellini. Each time we stopped and started again, my legs cried out in protest.

IMG_4341IMG_4344IMG_4350

After we hiked back to Dorothy and bid farewell to Hetch Hetchy, we took a short driving tour up the Tioga Road, which leads to the eastern part of Yosemite. Though we had dinner reservations that prevented us from going all the way to Tuolomne Meadows, we made it as far as Tenaya Lake, stopping at Olmsted Point for a beautiful view. Though we had enjoyed blue skies all morning, storm clouds were rolling in and we got hit by heavy rain and even some violent hail as we retreated west.

IMG_4394IMG_4395

We drove back to the valley through the very visible scars of a huge forest fire, beautiful in its own eerie way.

IMG_4407IMG_4410

As we headed towards dinner, we took off our outdoor trekking hats and got ready for something more refined.

Reflections on historical memory: Singapore

Written by Chaz on 6 July 2011

Of the places we visited, Singapore struck me as having perhaps both the least and the most sense of historical memory. On the one hand, the tiny city-state pays the past no mind, forging ahead as a free agent economically and politically. On the other hand, this drive to succeed is fueled by a keen awareness that all of Singapore’s growth is thanks to the nation’s own deliberate action.

IMG_3113

Singapore is a little island with few natural resources and a whole lot of people. As a result, it’s relied on human capital to grow its economy. Since the second world war, the country has built itself into a economic powerhouse. And this hasn’t been an accident. Singaporeans are very aware that they have the careful planning of the People’s Action Party (PAP) to thank. Though it’s hard for me to ever get behind a truly one-party system, Singapore is the best argument for it. If it weren’t for creative ideas strictly applied by the central government to make exactly the society they envisioned, Singapore wouldn’t have come as far as it has. This isn’t a secret, or even particularly insightful. It’s a fact of life in Singapore.

IMG_3084

It’s so widely accepted, in fact, especially among the generation that remembers a different, poorer Singapore, that it’s particularly impressive that opposition parties managed to garner 40 percent in this year’s national election. Because of the structure of national representation, the opposition only got 8 out of 89 seats in parliament. But if I were the PAP, I would be quaking in my boots. The older generation won’t be around forever, and it’s the younger generation currently paying the highest tax of all: two years of their life, for mandatory military service.

IMG_3213

The pragmatism of the discourse in Singapore reminded me of Sweden, actually, even though their political systems couldn’t be more difficult. Perhaps I give the two countries too much credit, but the two countries seem to take the same approach to national problems: identify the best solution and implement it. Just like Singapore, Sweden was relatively poor until the second half of the 20th century, and its economy today is built entirely on an educated, competitive workforce.

There are differences, of course, in their means. Singapore, for example, bans most public discussion of racial issues, an effective solution to a certain variety of problems but a clear encroachment on free speech. (I hope it doesn’t apply to commentary on the ethnic origin of delicious food, because we might be in trouble.) Meanwhile, Sweden remains effective despite a liberal democracy standing in the way of getting things done. The PAP should take heart: If Singaporean elections stop reelecting them, all hope is not lost for the country’s future. It’s also a distinct possibility that the PAP is quite safe as long as they keep producing results.

IMG_3130

Singapore also evoked some of the same feeling of Hong Kong, of course: an oasis of developed Westernness in a third-world desert. But the fact that it is its own nation, and one that has been independent for a relatively long time, changes everything, giving it the added feeling of a nimble, dynamic free spirit that has a clear idea of what it wants. Much more so than any of the other places we visited, I’ll be fascinated to see where Singapore is in ten or fifty years.

Reflections on historical memory: Hanoi

Written by Chaz on 4 July 2011

Much more so than Thailand, Vietnam seemed to wear its past on its sleeve. When you think about it, the country has had a series of particularly unfortunate circumstances, between the French and American interventions. It’s pretty easy to see how those historical circumstances could lead to a strong sense of collective nationalism, resulting in the communism that tore the country’s economy apart in the ’70s. Though the government has taken a China-like tact since then, liberalizing the economy while maintaining tight authoritarianism politically, the nation’s socialist identity was evident from the moment we got our visas, which proudly proclaimed that we were welcome to one visit to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. (It’s also worth noting that Vietnam was the only country that required us to get a visa.)

IMG_2505

On our first morning in Hanoi, during our first walk through the city, we walked by a statue of Lenin on our way to a museum celebrating the great things Ho Chi Minh did for the nation, leaving there for a museum of party-approved Vietnamese art. Though we didn’t appear to have minders watching us, it was still a pretty surreal feeling. The most interesting part to me about all that is that the value system it reflects: above all else, communism — but above that, communist leaders. Sure, the nation Lenin was running didn’t turn out hugely successful, but at least everyone was equal. Well, except for Lenin, who was even more equal. It’s a different sort of truth. Uncle Ho did do great things for the country, in a certain sense. Vietnam was able to become an independent socialist nation, and if that’s your standard of evaluation, then he did an excellent job.

Similarly, at the Hanoi Hilton, the total denial that the Vietnamese soldiers did anything untoward to their American prisoners isn’t exactly doing the country’s reputation any favors. We haven’t forgotten that terrible atrocities were committed in that prison, even if the prisoners did leave alive, and lying about it is repugnant as well. I’m not exactly sure what they should say in their little museum, but perhaps that’s why you shouldn’t torture people. Much of the prison has been demolished to make way for a high-rise; maybe they should have demolished the whole thing.

IMG_2855

Unfortunately, the country, which is the world’s 13th most populous at 90 million, appears to have remained totally underdeveloped. As soon as we drove away from the airport when we arrived, we were surrounded by rice patties separated by dense jungle reminiscent of any Vietnam War movie. Hanoi sprung up out of nowhere, starting with a few ramshackle buildings and growing into the dense center of the city, which wasn’t all that much more finished.

IMG_2812

Interestingly, this apparently proud and defiant national identity didn’t seem to be reflected in the city’s restaurant scene. We found that the best, most authentic Vietnamese food was to be had on the streets, not in the city’s fine restaurants. Perhaps this is just because the nicest restaurants are funded by outside investors with the purpose of attracting outside tourists, but it didn’t suggest a culture of exalted national cuisine. In fact, I get that impression more from Vietnamese restaurants back home, which very much embrace the idea of bringing out the best from Vietnam.

IMG_2481

Our time in Vietnam was fascinating in a very different way than any of our previous stops. Hong Kong and Thailand are changing, even dramatically, but neither had quite the sense of truly being at a crossroads that I got in Hanoi. As I read the latest from each of the countries we visited, I’ll have a very different perspective on all of them after having been there, but I’m particularly intrigued about what lies in Vietnam’s future. In the meantime, I’ll have great memories of some delicious food.

Visiting Hanoi’s past

Written by Emmy on 29 June 2011

Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a complicated web of 36 winding streets, linked together to form a thriving marketplace. Unlike the wide boulevards in the newer part of the city — near the monuments and large hotels — the Old Quarter is crowded, hazardous to pedestrians, and filled with the sights and scents of local life.

On Thursday we took a walking tour to get a better feeling for the more traditional part of the city. We never found a map as great as our Thai ones, but the one advantage Vietnamese street signs have over their regional counterparts is their use of Roman script. Though we still found ourselves lost a few times, we could at least sound out the names of the streets where we were. The use of the familiar looking letters stems from Vietnam’s longtime colonization by the French, but they managed to throw in some of the strangest looking accent marks I have ever seen.

Our walk wove through tiny side streets, each specializing in the sale of a different product. One street sold tires, another sold toxic-smelling paint. We perused a row of stalls that all sold paper money for burning in religious ceremonies. Some streets were entirely dedicated to fruits, others to crabs and still-flopping fish. Many of the saleswomen were wearing my new favorite outfit, complete with a rice hat. And while making our way through the many shops, we narrowly avoided several encounters with rogue motorcycles.

IMG_2791IMG_2772IMG_2790IMG_2787IMG_2788IMG_2813

On one block, we saw three iPhone vendors and a small child being bathed in a basin on the street. It was contrasting moments like this that really reminded us we were in a developing nation. The exhaust streaming out from the motorcycles, the open air meat markets and uncovered fish, and the women carrying baskets of pineapple across their shoulders were also signs of the economy of yesteryear.

In Bangkok, we had been offered rides on a tuk-tuk at every turn. In Hanoi, locals were equally eager to get us onto their motorbikes. We declined, but everyone else in the city seemed eager to hop on board. Entire families on one bike, with small children sitting on the handlebars and babies crammed between two seated adults, were pretty typical. Though we saw an impressive number of adults wearing helmets, very few children were outfitted for safety. I read in one of our many online guides that ambulances in Hanoi can take at least 45 minutes to get to roadside emergencies because of the insane alleyways and motorbike traffic. Yikes. But despite the sheer insanity of the motorbike driving and their people-weaving skills, the whole system seemed to move pretty smoothly.

IMG_2809

In addition to our streetwalking, we also perused a large market. The first floor was filled with all sorts of interesting foods: entire stalls devoted to different mushroom varieties, barrels and barrels of dried shrimp, more raw meat, and beautiful, bright-colored fruits. The upstairs was packed with wholesale clothing and make-up, reminiscent of many of the other markets we’ve seen on our Asian journey.

IMG_2796IMG_2799

IMG_2841After spending the whole morning in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, we paid a visit to the Hanoi Hilton in the afternoon. The Hoa Lo Prison was given its nickname during America’s war with Vietnam, but it was originally built by French colonists to imprison the local political opposition in the late 1800s. The French used the prison through the mid-1900s, keeping large numbers of Vietnamese men and women in — according to the Vietnamese — subhuman conditions.

Much of the prison was recently demolished for new development projects, but the wing that remains has been turned into a museum. The exhibits show the small cells that the Vietnamese were forced into, as well as evidence that they were abused by their French captors. The museum honors the many local political heroes who spent time in Hoa Lo.

During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese army repurposed the prison to jail, torture and interrogate American pilots who had been shot down. From the museum exhibits, you would think the Americans — John McCain among them — were in summer camp. They made Christmas cards, wrote poems, played cards, joked with their captors and received excellent medical attention.

IMG_2846

From the Vietnamese perspective, it seems that life in the Hanoi Hilton was rather bucolic for the American soldiers. Memoirs written by the American pilots in the decades since would probably disagree.

It was also interesting that the Vietnamese took a prison that had jailed so many of their own people, and repurposed it for their own uses (and abuses). It definitely gives the whole establishment a bit more of an eery feeling.

IMG_2848

Reflections on historical memory: Chiang Mai

Written by Chaz on 26 June 2011

Chiang Mai was very different from Bangkok, and not just in its northern food. The differences became apparent the moment we landed and our hotel picked us up. The ride from the airport to the hotel did not feature any traffic, and took about five minutes, a nice change from the 45-minute stop-and-go trip we had just had in Bangkok. This proved an apt symbol of the differences between the two cities. Though the drivers were no less aggressive or insane, Chiang Mai was much smaller and more parochial. As a result, it was much easier for us to get around, especially compared to Bangkok.

IMG_2261

But oddly, in central Chiang Mai, the ratio of Westerners to natives was much higher than in central Bangkok. Chiang Mai is apparently an expat center, which was surprising and a little unsettling. Here, deep in the hills, 370 miles from Bangkok, how did a thriving expat community develop? The concentration was especially stark at trivia night at U.N. Irish Pub, which was in English and didn’t seem to have a single Thai contestant. There is apparently also a push to make Chiang Mai a conference destination in southeast Asia, which was evident at our rather large, corporate-feeling hotel.

As a result of this community, as well as the strong tourist trade, Chiang Mai had something of a Disney World feeling to it. Nearly every business in the city, including our cooking school, every restaurant we went to, the many bars around town, the night bazaar, and even the wine cart we enjoyed, is predicated on the influx of dollars from Europe and America. The string of go-go bars near our hotel was not fueled by locals needing to blow off some steam.

IMG_1833

This made it a little harder for us to explore northern Thai cuisine, since most visitors don’t want it, preferring the Thai food they know from ethnic restaurants back home. Of course, we still managed to find it (and we ended up concurring with the rest of our tourist companions in our preferences), but its presence was much more muted than I would have expected.

Our trips outside Chiang Mai gave me much better insight into life in most of Thailand, outside its large cities. In Chiang Mai’s case, unlike sprawling Bangkok, we barely needed to leave the city limits to find ourselves in an extremely rural, underdeveloped area. As we wound our way through the mountains around Chiang Mai, we passed through areas formerly dominated by the opium trade, which has been all but eradicated by a program run by the central government to sponsor the growing of less socially harmful crops. Eating culture in the hills didn’t seem too disparate from that in the cities — we saw many of the same street-side restaurants made of plastic chairs and a wok.

IMG_2084

Northern Thailand was very different than Bangkok in pace and scale, but many of the same elements remained. Delicious food still thrust itself at us, sometimes literally, at every street corner. But, especially in Chiang Mai, I felt the sense of needing to escape the tourist influence whenever possible. I never felt that way in Bangkok, where it was much easier to do without even trying.

Reflections on historical memory: Bangkok

Written by Chaz on 21 June 2011

One of my mantras lately has been that all life is an expectations game. That is, we’re only really able to judge things in relation to our previously-held expectations. We can be delighted by something about which we had low expectations but disappointed by the same thing if our expectations were too high. So in thinking about Bangkok and about Thailand in general, it seems like I have to start with my expectations.

First, as I wrote before, I really didn’t have too much of a frame of reference for Thailand, so in terms of specific expectations, I didn’t have many. But broadly, I expected a developing country that’s been doing much better than many of its neighbors, aside from recent political instability. I expected a flourishing native culture, impacted by Western influence but never colonized. And, naturally, I expected to find out why people have called Thailand the “Land of Smiles.”

IMG_0708

All of my expectations proved reasonable, both in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and as a result, I had a terrific time in Thailand and really enjoyed the country. But, from the perspective of historical memory, there were plenty of other things we observed in the country that came as a surprise or were otherwise remarkable.

The biggest thing that struck me right away about Bangkok was what a huge city it was, both by population and area. Our hotel was at the western end of one the Skytrain’s two lines, and the city went on for miles after that. As we finally figured out once we got a good map, the city was full of different neighborhoods, all busy and worth exploring. Every day of the week, the train was packed, and as we learned the hard way, the roads are terribly congested to the point that driving is nearly futile. Taking a cab is less luxury and much more torture.

IMG_1664

The city’s sprawling development seems to have gotten away from it, and though bandaids like the Skytrain and river ferries have helped significantly, there will still need to be significant investment before Bangkok is easy to get around. As the New York Times wrote, if you can’t reach place on the river or the Skytrain, it’s hardly worth going at all. The problem is compounded by how difficult it is to walk even short distances, because the streets and drivers are so unfriendly to pedestrians. Such improvements will become easier as the country continues to develop, but there will need to be careful attention paid to planning as the city keeps growing.

From a food perspective, as the city has exploded in size, the native cuisine has remained intractable. From the streets to the finest hotels, Thai food is everywhere. This is a very different feeling than a place like the U.S. or even much of Europe, where “native” cuisines are common but are just one of a wide range of choices. Though both Bangkok and Chiang Mai had plenty of world cuisines all over the place, it seemed very clear in both places that globalization hasn’t yet erased or even really watered down the country’s cherished eats.

IMG_1588

Even so, I did also get the sense of a proud kingdom that has translated itself poorly into the modern era. At Jim Thompson’s house, we got a picture of the kingdom of Siam, a prosperous, well-run society that held its own against intruding cultures and even inspired newcomers to stay awhile. Today, after a few politically tumultuous years, Thailand will hold a national election on July 3 in which the sister of an exiled leader will run as a proxy candidate amid royalist opposition. We saw literally thousands and thousands of campaign signs all over the country with huge pictures of the candidates, but it’s unclear to what extent the election will be seen as legitimate by the Thai people and world observers. Last year’s protests appeared to call for a serious discussion of the issues, and glamour-shot posters and military crackdowns on demonstrations don’t foster that.

The monarchy’s continued influence also adds an interesting dynamic to Thai politics. Even should the election turn out fairly, it’s hard to take modern democracy 100 percent seriously in a country that posts pictures of its monarchs on every street corner. At the National Museum in Bangkok, the exhibits ended with a gushing gallery about the royal family and the great things they’ve done for the country. In a democracy, royals don’t usually get to take much credit, and propagandistic museum exhibits reflect a naive approach to making the country appear modern and productive. Though perhaps that kind of thing plays well at home, it’s unlikely to inspire confidence especially in the Western world.

IMG_1633

Criticisms aside, Thailand absolutely trounced my expectations. There’s construction all over the place, both from private industry and public infrastructure, and it often feels like a very developed country. Some of the roads we drove on were significantly nicer than America’s crumbling highways. Thai culture and food felt both historically rooted and rapidly developing, yielding delicious fusion food like at Eat Me and more traditional fare like at the Mandarin Oriental. Bangkok was a vibrant, lively city, and I’ll be extremely interested to visit again in a few years to see how it’s changed.