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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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A truly South American city

Written by Emmy on 29 February 2012

After our time in the countryside, we flew north to the bustling capital metropolis of Santiago.

First order of business was — not shockingly — lunchtime. As previously mentioned, sandwiches are like a religious item in Chile. And so we headed to one of their sanctuaries, Ciudad Vieja, a tiny sidewalk cafe in the artsy part of the city well-renowned for what its able to put between two pieces of bread. The menu was widely varied and we took advantage of its many options.

Chilean Spanish has many vocabulary differences from the Spanish I know, and a large number of those differences can be found on menus. So I ordered a sandwich whose ingredients I could not quite identify, other than chicken and bread. What I got was a spicy Chilean rendition on a chicken salad sandwich filled with onions, peppers, avocado and several other veggies. It tasted a lot better than the pictures would lead one to believe.

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The dishes ordered around the table incorporated a bevy of different tastes. Alix had the carnitas, seasoned beef served with corn and guacamole, and my mom had a quinoa burger. Quinoa may be the trendy food du jour in fancy New York restaurants now, but its place of origin is more or less exactly where we were sitting.

The sandwich portions, like every other dish experienced thus far in Chile, were positively enormous.

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We spent the rest of our first day exploring the city and getting our bearings. Santiago is not really a museum city and is one better explored by walking. The balmy summer weather didn’t hurt the efforts.

We were staying slightly up the hills in one of the artsier neighborhoods and so we trekked down toward the more thumping city center. The neighborhoods are divided by a flowing river, which looked to contain more mud than water…

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IMG_7975Downtown Santiago was filled with an entrancing mix of old colonial buildings, new construction and artistic rebellion. I’ve been to Buenos Aires before and was shocked by how European it felt. I’d conjured up an image of South America but felt like I was in France or Italy. Santiago, on the other hand, matched that once-conjured image. It’s quirky and artsy, with pockets of high-rise development and neighborhoods that look like they haven’t changed in centuries.

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We spent the whole afternoon exploring the city’s sights and walking to rebuild an appetite. We had planned to investigate another Chilean epicurean standard for dinnertime: seafood. But what’s somewhat odd about seafood in Chile is that it breaks a cardinal rule I’ve always been taught to observe: seafood and cheese do not go together. But in Chile, it appears they do.

We tried two noted specialties at dinner: clams baked with parmesan cheese (manchas a la parmesana) and a crab cake (pastel de jeriba). Now, a crab cake is a known entity to me. And that’s what the Spanish on the menu directly translated to. But this was not a baked cake; this was a cheesy, gooey casserole — closer to the crab dip that aunt makes in the Chesapeake than to crab cakes in the way we think about them normally. Mmmmm delicious.

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The next morning we went on one of my most favorite kinds of adventures: a trip to the local market. This particular one — la Vega Central — is home to all the fruit in the city and there is just so much of it. Avocados and cherries are two of my favorite things, but in the winter are so expensive. The reason why? They’re imported from Chile — where they are literally sold by the wheelbarrow (and for mere pennies).

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Not too far from the fragrant fruit, it starts to smell like ocean. Not because you’re near the sea per se, but because the fish market is mere blocks away and is heaping with squirmy little guys.

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We also visited a flower market, but flowers are far less intriguing than a pile of octopi.

IMG_8053We left the markets and headed to one of the less central neighborhoods of the city. A 15-minute cab ride made a world of difference in our surroundings. Bustling graffiti-filled streets gave way to wide avenues, fancy cars and extensive greenery.

Though Santiago is not, as-previously mentioned, a museum city, one of the newer and more noteworthy landmarks is the Museo de la Moda. At first, we were all sort of suspect of a museum dedicated to fashion. But it turned out to be far more interesting than that.

Chile does not exactly have the most sunny history. It was as recent as 30 years ago that the country lived under tight political control with few personal liberties afforded to the general population. When Pinochet was overthrown in the 1980s, the entire country changed — just as the music, fashion and culture of the world was changing.

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The museum was fun and lively — when’s the last time you listened to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” while browsing an historical exhibit? The exhibits gave us a real sense of the oppression of the 1970s and the youthful liberation that followed in the 1980s. There was far more to it than a place called “Museum of Fashion” would have led you to believe.

Later that day we sat down to some more Chilean cuisine. The predominant items in all restaurants we visited were fish and wine. And so we continued to partake. We visited a restaurant called Como Agua Para Chocolate, like the book and movie (which I was exposed to in high school Spanish class).

We sampled a few different fish items (plus one meat one). My seared tuna (bottom right) was served alongside a corn-basil gratin, which was unbelievable.

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Part of what was so nice about our trip to Chile — in addition to all of the delicious food – was how much time I got to spend with my family.

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The next morning — our last day in Santiago — we decided to explore some of the city’s higher points. The city is dotted with hills, the highest of which are best reached by funiculars. The Chilean funicular is a little more open air than others I’ve ridden before, making both the ride and the destination filled with a beautiful view.

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We walked around the Santa Lucia hilltop before seeking shade below. Coming from mid-winter New York weather, it was still hard to adjust to the balmy 90-degree days in Santiago.

Before long, it was lunchtime. We decided to take a break from our sandwiches and go for another set of traditional Chilean dishes. And in line with all the prior lunches we’d had, there was definitely a go-big-or-go-home mentality to the dishes being served.

We sampled a few lunchtime stews traditional to the region. My stew (on the left) contained chickpeas, cinnamon, onion, tomato, coriander and turkey. It was amazing and flavorful. The other stew sampled at the table contained chickpeas, white beans, corn and a series of other spices. The two dishes were incredibly different, despite their similar appearances and ingredients. Both were delicious and extremely filling, but felt a bit more healthy than the colossal sandwiches of the days prior.

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The city of Santiago is unbelievably colorful, painted from top to bottom with graffiti. Some of the graffiti is overtly political in nature; others are more benign. One street has houses painted entirely in solid bright colors, each a different shade than the next. We walked the streets and played in the colorful playgrounds.

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After carousing around the city for the afternoon and basking in the summer sunlight — we enjoyed a bit of pool time each afternoon — we took an evening stroll on our way to dinner. Two parallel streets near our hotel seemed to be lined each night with table after table of people out drinking. What was amusing was that the first street was filled entirely with underage drinkers out with their friends, while the second was packed with adults out with friends. It seemed that the locals just graduate from one street to the next.

We chose a dinner spot on the adult street. We started with shrimp empanadas (again, breaking the seafood-cheese “rule”).

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The house special of the restaurant we chose was fish “a la lata” — fish grilled under a brick with tomato, onions and zucchini. I had pictured almost a sauce made of the vegetables (sauces are very big in Chile), but instead it was fish grilled with the actual vegetables themselves.

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Our three days in Santiago were delicious, colorful and cultural. A visit well spent.

Right back where we started from

Written by Emmy on 22 October 2011

Staying in L’Eixample put some of Barcelona’s most beautiful buildings right at our fingertips. Cerda’s streets were lined with trees and filled with spectacular examples of architectural innovation. The majority of the buildings emerged in the late 1800s and early 1900s and follow the modernismo style. (Elsewhere in Europe it’s called Art Nouveau, but Barcelona likes to be different.) The main thoroughfare of the neighborhood, Passeig de Gracia, includes several houses from Barcelona’s patron saint of architecture, Antoni Gaudi. But Gaudi is not the only one to have made a name for Barcelona modernismo, and the buildings of L’Eixample have stood the test of time. Even the sidewalks in the neighborhood are highly stylized!

IMG_6745IMG_6763IMG_6769IMG_7463Clockwise from top left: Gaudi’s Casa Battlo, an apartment building, photographed at night; Gaudi’s other noteworthy apartment building, La Pedrera, also known as Casa Mila; the elaborately designed sidewalk tiles found throughout the neighborhood; a wide tree-lined avenue in L’Eixample with rounded buildings on the corner.

Barcelona was a fantastic place for Jessica and I to visit together because while I caught up with old friends, she explored areas I had seen before. After gawking sufficiently at the buildings on Passeig de Gracia and Rambla de Catalunya, which turns into Las Ramblas further south, she headed to La Pedrera to take a tour of the building and I made my personal homecoming to the CASB building.

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The program I studied abroad on has the obnoxious full name of the Consortium for Advanced Studies in Barcelona, but we only ever called it CASB (or “the consortium,” said in a pompous accent when we were feeling cheeky). CASB is a partnership between seven American schools, of which Brown is one, and three universities in Barcelona. American students enroll directly in Spanish classes, braving Catalan-speaking students and highly disorganized university systems. The program is masterminded by the on-site director, Juanjo, who also teaches one course each semester. I absolutely loved the program: it was the perfect balance of no-holds-barred immersion and support. I could go on and on in my ode to CASB, but that’s a subject for another post.

IMG_6475I visited Juanjo in the very familiar office where I once sat panicking about registration and details lost in translation. It was a strange sensation to be on the other side of the desk as several current students came in to do exactly that.

After catching up (and admiring the photos of my CASB class hung on the wall of Juanjo’s office in a beautiful collage), we headed to lunch. Lunch is the meal in Spain. The way we take salads to go and eat sandwiches in the car is effectively sacrilege to people on this side of the ocean. Children go home from school and adults pause their workday in order to eat a substantial and relaxed midday meal. However, that can obviously cause some disruption to the workplace. The solution? Menu del dia. Most restaurants in the city offer this price fixe option that generally includes a first course, second course, dessert, wine and bread. Usually at an affordable price, menu del dia ensures that lunch will not be compromised, even for the working adult.

IMG_6486Juanjo and I walked around the corner to Moon, a small restaurant I had been to before for CASB-sponsored events. One of the new CASB co-directors joined us, as did Teresa, who was Juanjo’s second-in-command when I did the program, but who now runs Boston College’s Barcelona program. Teresa and I both started with the ensalada de queso fresco, a salad with fresh cheese and nuts, while the men went for arroz cubano, a dish I have never quite understood — rice covered in tomato sauce and served with a fried egg. The popular main dish was a Catalan stew of meat and vegetables. In danger of entering a midday food coma, we all opted for coffee rather than dessert.

It was a real treat to see Juanjo and Teresa. My CASB class remained particularly close after our semester abroad and my friends were quite jealous of my mini reunion. However, next year is CASB’s five-year anniversary and a celebration is in the works. I suggest Juanjo fly us all to Barcelona, but it’s a bit more likely that he’ll come stateside for the event. As long as the vino is flowing…

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After lunch I headed to Estació Sants, the city’s major train station, to pick up our train tickets to Valencia for Friday. You can purchase them online, but in my experience, if you can conduct a Spanish business transaction live, you should.

I caught back up with Jessica and we returned to El Raval, this time during business hours. Raval was historically a bit of a seedy neighborhood and not the kind of place two girls would want to be walking around alone. However, it has cleaned up tremendously in recent years and, as is often the case, is now occupied largely by young hipsters. There is also a substantial population of immigrant families and many residents fight to demonstrate that El Raval is no longer a de facto red light district. Signs hung from apartment balconies translate to read, “We are a dignified neighborhood.”

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Situated at the top of the neighborhood is the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, or as it is more commonly known, MACBA. The modern art museum is closed on Tuesdays, but that actually makes it the most interesting day to visit. The museum houses a pretty bizarre collection of art, but its mirrored exterior and large courtyard make for a great people watching location. The entrance ramps and open plaza are filled with skateboarders daily, but they multiply in number when there are no museum guards around to bother them.

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From the museum we continued into the heart of the Raval, which is filled with vegetarian restaurants, vintage stores and tons of graffiti, much of it political. Barcelona has always had a precarious political situation and it seems to have only intensified since I was last there.

The Catalan people settled in Barcelona centuries ago and built a city with a vibrant economy, language and culture. In the earlier days of its development, the Iberian peninsula was filled with several independently ruled communities who coexisted peacefully for the most part. But with the strategic union of Ferdinand and Isabella and their aggressive reign in the late 1400s (think Columbus and the Spanish Inquisition), a Spanish unification movement began to grow. Catalunya maintained its separation and independence, but in the early 1700s, fell prey to a siege and was placed under the Spanish crown. The Catalan people celebrate September 11 as the day they lost their independence, a holiday with a bit of an ironic tinge.

For the next few hundred years, the Catalan people were permitted to maintain their cultural independence under the rule of Madrid. The strong economy of the region bought its people their linguistic and cultural liberties. But as political tensions swirled in the early part of the twentieth century, the Catalan people began to suffer. The region was the last hold-out against Franco during the Spanish Civil War and so when his dictatorship began in 1939, Catalunya was punished. Because it hindered national unity, the Catalan language was banned from public use. Street signs were changed to Spanish all over the region, some of which still hang alongside their Catalan counterparts today.

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When the dictatorship fell in the 1970s, the Spanish people were charged with rewriting their constitution and redesigning their government. As penance to the slighted regions, the new federalist system granted a great deal of self-rule to those parts of the country that wanted it. Seventeen autonomous communities were drawn, Catalunya being one of them. (The region is actually spelled Cataluña in Spanish, but no self-respecting Catalan would ever spell it that way.) While some of the autonomous regions came to rely heavily on Madrid, others took on as much independence as was allowed.

The Spanish federalist system is fraught with problems and resentment. In the Basque Country, this has translated into an extremist terrorist movement fighting for independence. In Catalunya, there was always a cultural movement and a drive to maintain the Catalan way of life, but it was never quite so political. However, that has changed dramatically in the past few years. It’s no secret that the Spanish economy is a total mess. Unemployment for kids my age is nearing 50 percent. But in Catalunya, the economy has remained relatively strong. The region pays taxes to Madrid though, and does not see its money returned to the Catalan people. Instead, many Catalan people feel that their hard-earned dollars are going to support regions with no economic engine that are entirely dependent on the central government, like Andalusia and Extremadura.

The once small independence movement has grown in size, particularly among youth. I watched fights break out in my classes as students called for their peers to rise up. It is not uncommon to see “Catalunya is not Spain” written across public buildings. Demonstrations and protests are constant with locals calling for self-rule for the Catalan people.

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It seems that the movement has gotten stronger and more vocal even in the two years since I was here. As Spain continues its economic free fall, it will be fascinating to see what happens in Catalunya.

After our lesson in politics — many thanks to Jessica for enduring my musings on catalanismo throughout the trip — it was time for a snack. We visited Juicy Jones, a colorful juice bar at the southern end of the Raval. The small cafe is perhaps more noted for its decorative walls than its beverages, but my drink was pretty good too. I sampled a homemade lemonade with mint (advertised as having no sugar, it was quite tart) and Jessica tried the apple banana strawberry juice.

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Juice in hand, we walked through the Barri Gotic, stopping to peer into art galleries and take samples at an artisanal wine and cheese fair. Once we had sufficiently circled the whole area, we headed back to L’Eixample for dinner, selecting one of the many tapas bars with outdoor seating.

We had a spinach salad with goat cheese and chickpeas (so good that we ordered a second one for dessert), a chicken brochette, grilled vegetables, a shrimp and mushroom brochette and cod baked with white beans.

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Another great — and delicious — day.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Seafood by the seashore

Written by Emmy on 5 July 2011

Food plays a very large role in Singaporean culture. (What, have you not been able to tell thus far?) When locals want to do quality eating, they head to hawker centers. A hawker center (pronounced “hawka centah” in Singlish) is an open-air complex, filled with stalls and stalls, each peddling a different food product. The hawker center we visited on Tuesday night is called Lagoon and is right on the water. As a result, Lagoon is best known for its seafood dishes, which I was extremely excited to try.

We were joined again by Ivan, as well as his girlfriend Cindy, and George, another friend of Vernie’s from secondary school. Vernie had a couple food items that were non-negotiable for us to try, and so we ran around collecting them from different stalls. Her friends got really into our whole food quest and started to pick out items as well. Suddenly we had a very full table, filled with a whole array of delicious items.

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Since our primary mission was to eat seafood, we ordered a whole slew of items from the seafood stall Vernie’s dad had recommended. The first item, which turned out to be one of our favorites, was sambal stingray. The stingray, which tasted like a flaky white fish, was coated in a red curry and complimented by a light citrus sauce. It was spicy, but tangy, and almost a little reminiscent of some of the flavors of Thailand.

Next up was oyster eggs. This was probably my least favorite item on the table, but there was more than enough to eat on our heaping picnic table.

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The main event — and my favorite dish we ate while in Singapore — was chili crab, one of Singapore’s best-known entrees. Two crabs were served in a large bowl of chili sauce and we went at it. Though I have experience taking apart crustaceans, there is nothing like opening up a crab with chopsticks. Thankfully we also had crackers for opening the shell. The crab was served with soft rolls, which were meant to be dipped in the chili sauce once all the crab meat was gone.

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Other items included beef and chicken satay, served with a peanut sauce not entirely dissimilar from that in Thailand. (The Singaporean version was a bit thicker.) We also had a noodle dish called hokkien mee, thin noodles with egg and vegetables.

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We tried a few other items, but it quickly became too dark for a food photoshoot. One of them, popiah, was described to us as an uncooked spring roll. The outside tasted like a whole wheat wrap and the inside contained crab and several vegetables. There was also porridge, which I did not try.

Dinner at Lagoon had been pretty hyped beforehand, and it did not disappoint. The crab was just so good.

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The locals also suggested we try two pretty typical drinks: sugar cane juice and coconut juice. Neither was quite my style, but I can see how they would provide a good contrast to spicy food.

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Once we had finished stuffing our faces, we all got to know each other a little better. It was interesting to compare our educational systems and experiences and the different political systems we grew up under. What was most fascinating to me was the boys’ military experience. Singapore has a mandatory military service for all males, and so after junior college, Ivan and George both trained, were sorted into particular units and served for two years. They are both now in university, and as a result of their service, the boys are all two years older than the girls. (Vernie told us that this male-female age gap is meant to encourage marriage and breeding, a topic for another conversation.)

In a picture-perfect moment, as we were beginning to discuss the merits of mandatory military service, the Singaporean infantry marched past Lagoon along the water, chanting a tune that all the men present recognized.

The conversation began as one of whether or not the Singaporeans (and particularly those at our dinner table) think there should still be mandatory service. The short answer? Yes. While the boys may not personally love the experience — and many do not — it is still needed from a policy perspective.

Singapore is tiny. (The entire country can be circled in two hours, provided there’s not too much traffic.) And the countries that are just a stone throw’s distance away? Not the greatest of friends. Singapore, a small Chinese state, is surrounded by Indonesia and Malaysia, two large Muslim nations, and the political relationship between them has not always been friendly. Singapore has allies in high places, including the U.S., Australia, and England. Singaporean generals train in Israel. But Singapore is a tiny island, surrounded by potentially volatile enemies, and they need to be prepared.

It was an eye-opening conversation and the perfect end to a stomach-filling meal.

IMG_3570From left, Cindy, Ivan, Chaz, me, Vernie and George

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Safe sex: it’s what’s for dinner

Written by Emmy on 12 June 2011

When I think “delicious dinner,” the next word of association is not usually “condom.” However, every single guide — from Let’s Go and Lonely Planet to the New York Times’ 36 Hours in Bangkok feature — and everyone we knew who had been to Bangkok recommended we check out the famous restaurant Cabbages and Condoms. Serving a good cause and unbelievable food, the restaurant is known throughout the world for its mission and its success.

IMG_0818In the early 1970s, former government official Mechai Viravaidya founded a nonprofit organization to address the growing health crises and overpopulation problems in Thailand.  The Population and Community Development Association initially focused on family planning throughout Thailand, educating communities and distributing condoms and pills. As Thailand became one of the most AIDS-ravaged nations in the 1980s and 1990s, PDA continued to work with local organizations to stem the spreading of the disease. To help fund and advertise the organization and its mission, PDA founded a chain of restaurants throughout Thailand called Cabbages and Condoms — speaking to Viravaidya’s hope that condoms would become as ubiquitous and commonplace as cabbages in the marketplace.

The restaurant today is widely renowned and a major hotspot for Bangkok tourists. We had made a reservation to sit outside in the restaurant’s beautifully decorated garden on Thursday night — well, the woman at our hotel made the reservation for us, because communication, as previously written, is problematic — but a surprise late afternoon monsoon forced our dinner inside. However, that meant we got to sit at one of the restaurant’s more colorfully decorated tables.

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In addition to being extremely informative, our dinner was also incredibly delicious. We started with prawn and banana spring rolls. Most people who know me know that bananas are generally one of the only foods I refuse to eat, but in the context of a tangy roll with fresh shrimp, simmered to sweet perfection, I was actually pretty happy with them. We also had betel leaf wraps with shrimp, peanuts and other fresh ingredients inside. Betel, which we have seen pop up in several other dishes here, is in the pepper family and is widely used in Southeast Asia. The wraps were garnished with spicy little peppers and a delightful tangy sauce.

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IMG_0812For the main course, we had chicken panang, which is like a thick red curry. I personally prefer this to straight-up red curry, which I often find too liquidy. I’m slowly trying to convert Chaz. We also had a yellow crab curry, which could have been spicier, but which I loved anyway because you could taste just how fresh the seafood was.

After dinner, we inspected some of the more educational properties of the restaurant. On one of the walls was a map of the world, color-coded based on abortion laws, and a chart, detailing the specific family planning policies of each of the world’s nations.

IMG_0817I never realized just how badly afflicted with AIDS Thailand was. Organizations like PDA are responsible for beginning to change the landscape of the disease in this part of the world. The whole array of posters was fascinating and pretty eye-opening.

We picked up a couple funny postcards (parents: I hope you appreciate the condom art) and headed back into the monsoon. Our check did come with a couple rainbow-colored condoms… different approach than after-dinner mints, I suppose!