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No menus: A spontaneous weekend in Milan

Written by Emmy on 25 March 2014

Originally written in February 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Full and content, we went to bed.

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

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

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

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…and some beautiful architecture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Past and present in the city of Cusco

Written by Emmy on 6 March 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 marathon trip to London

Written by Chaz on 26 November 2012

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

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

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

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

IMG_7188IMG_7203IMG_7210My aunt Jan, cousin Maggie and I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open-air entertainment

Written by Chaz on 21 August 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweden once again

Written by Chaz on 9 August 2012

Nearly three years ago, I was leaving to spend a semester studying abroad in Stockholm. It was awesome. And so about a year ago, I was again leaving for Stockholm to spend a week with my contact family and reacquaint myself with the country I missed so much. I returned from that trip with renewed affection for the place. So it was only logical that, when it came time to plan my first real vacation from work, I decided to return to Stockholm. This time I wasn’t as curious to see whether it would be as wonderful as I remembered it in my head — I was pretty sure it would be — so I was just looking forward to relaxing, seeing my family, enjoying the sun and having time off away from work.

I arrived at the Stockholm airport early on a Saturday morning after an easy flight from Boston through Amsterdam, where immigration and security couldn’t have been more efficient. My Swedish family picked me up and before long we were on the way to their summer house in Lögla. We made a quick stop along the way in Rimbo to pick up some groceries, and after a little breakfast at home during which I remembered how delicious Swedish cheese is, we took a walk by the shore.

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Though I knew I shouldn’t for jet lag’s sake, I was dying to take a nap, so I closed my eyes for a bit. When I woke up, a major blueberry pie operation was underway, so I jumped in to help pick the stems off a ton of freshly picked berries.

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Shortly afterward we sat down to a delicious dinner of salmon, potatoes, and salad, followed up by the blueberry pie, fresh from the oven. Over dessert, we discussed the difference between kanelbullar, the famous Swedish cinnamon rolls, and other kinds of pastry bollar. Boll, which is the word used for such treats as chokladbollar (chocolate balls), translates to ball, but bulle, the root of kanelbulle, doesn’t really have a direct translation. And the large sugar that goes on kanelbullar, known as “pearl sugar” in Swedish, is barely known in America. This led to Nils imitating a Swede trying to buy pearl sugar with half-English in an American grocery store: “I am a foreigner and I need sugar for my balls!”

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After dinner, we took a walk down to the dock to enjoy the late Swedish sun.

IMG_6276IMG_6277IMG_6279Left to right: Torbjörn, Nils, Karin, Anna and Erik.

When we got home, it was time for “Grattis kronprinsessan!“, literally “Congratulations, crown princess!”, a television show that airs every July 14 to celebrate the birthday of Victoria, the crown princess and next queen of Sweden. The show featured performances from several well-known Swedish musicians and raised money for the princess’ fund, which benefits sick children. It was, to say the least, incredibly Swedish.

IMG_0013By the end of the show, I was already falling asleep again, and even though I was in bed by 10, I slept until nearly one the next day. Clearly I was not only jet-lagged but also a bit behind on sleep. After a light breakfast and an afternoon relaxing and reading, we had a dinner of herring and gravlax and packed up to drive into Spånga, outside Stockholm. We stopped along the way to pick up some groceries at Coop, which was an exceptionally Swedish experience. We loaded specially made baskets onto a specially made double-decker cart and proceeded to scan each item we chose with a handheld scanner that automatically totaled our purchase at the register.

Arriving home, Erik, Karin and I walked to the pendeltåg, the commuter rail, to head downtown and walk around a bit, since we still had a few hours of light. We alighted at Karlberg station and walked down to the path along Karlbergskanalen, strolling down towards Stadshuset, the city hall where the Nobel banquet is held.

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Turning east, we continued onto past the Swedish parliament onto the island of Gamla Stan, up to the picturesque Stortorget at its center.

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Walking down through Slussen, we headed up to Monteliusvägen, a walking path that has incredible views across Lake Mälaren to Gamla Stan, Kungsholmen and Norrmalm. The city looked radiant in the late evening sun.

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We returned to Spånga via a pendeltåg station on Södermalm that I never knew existed, after a very warm welcome back to Stockholm.

A night in the white dunes

Written by Chaz on 30 July 2012

IMG_1943Eric and I continued our journey east from Las Cruces through the Organ Mountains, headed toward White Sands National Monument. Based on a bit of Internet research I had done, we took a short driving detour through the Organ Mountain National Recreation Area, which sits just east of town on Bureau of Land Management land. It turned out to be a perfect detour on a hot desert day: a one-way scenic drive into the small but dramatic cluster of mountains that looped right back to the highway.

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White Sands National Monument is encompassed entirely by the enormous White Sands Missile Range, the largest military installation in the United States and the site of the Trinity nuclear test. Fortunately, lawmakers had the foresight to carve out the most beautiful portion for protection as a national monument. But the rest of the missile range remains in some mysterious use by the military, and in fact the park and the highway through it are closed from time to time to allow for unknown military exercises. Already, from the Organ Mountains drive, we could see mysterious government buildings out to the east in the middle of the desert, and we were warned to mind our business by a rather ominous sign.

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Returning to the highway, we pushed east toward the monument, stopping only briefly at a Customs and Border Protection checkpoint that was nearly 100 miles from the Mexican border. I had no idea that these internal checkpoints existed, much less that they could possibly be constitutional, especially since the only check performed seemed to be whether the occupants of each car were white. But there it was, and of course, Eric and I were waved through the absurd checkpoint without even a question.

The entrance to the national monument lay just beyond, and we pulled into the visitor center to register for the backcountry permit that would allow us to hike and in spend the night. At 4:30, only three of the 10 campsites had been reserved, so we had our pick of sites, choosing one that was a little further in so that we would be less likely to see other campers. The park ranger also gave us a stern warning about unexploded munitions that could still be scattered around the park from military tests of yesteryear. Given that the park is sand dune after sand dune, the chance that you would actually be able to avoid stepping on an unexploded munition seems low. Fortunately, we ended up emerging alive.

We stopped to apply sunscreen, since even in the late afternoon the sun was still roasting the desert, and were then ready to begin exploring.

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Our first stop along the eight-mile Dunes Drive was the Playa Trail, a short walk into a desert playa, essentially the remainder of what was long ago a lake. Though the park’s trademark white sand dunes were visible in the distance, we were not quite there.

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Our second stop was at the Dune Life Nature Trail, a loop trail that took us deeper into the beautiful white dunes. Our walk was narrated on a series of signs by Katy the Kit Fox, who explained that not very much wildlife is able to survive in the dunes, because there just isn’t anything to eat — not to mention the lack of water.

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But, as the signs explained, some things can survive in the dunes. Two struck me as noteworthy. In some places in the dunes, there are actually cottonwood trees growing right out of the sand. Cottonwood trees thrive near riverbeds, and because they need so much water, that’s usually the only place they can be found. In fact, the last time I saw them was along the Virgin River gorge when we were in Zion National Park. How, then, can they possible exist in a place as dry as White Sands? Apparently a generous aquifer is just a few feet below the surface in some places. You’d never know it from the surface. But these trees have their roots essentially in a riverbed, just as they like it.

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The second amazing bit of wildlife was three species of lizard that have all evolved, only within White Sands, to be white instead of their original darker colors so that they can avoid predators. As the dunes are only about 6,000 years old, this evolution is much, much faster than you can usually find anywhere else, and as a result, the lizards have gained national attention. The darker lizards must have been simply unable to survive at all.

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Returning to the car, we made one more stop at the Interdune Boardwalk, a short promenade into the dunes where we asked a stranger to take a picture of us.

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We drove the rest of the Dunes Drive around to the backcountry camping parking lot. On the way, we saw people engaging in what is apparently one of the most popular draws of the park: sledding. In a flat place that won’t get much snow, the dunes are a fun place to sled year-round.

The backcountry campsites are arranged around a loop trail, each about a mile’s hike from the parking lot — somewhat closer to the car than my last backcountry experience. We stopped in the parking lot to get our things together before heading into the dunes. It was a bit more organized than in the parking lot of the North Kaibab Trail, starting with the fact that we had actual backpacks.

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Along the mile-long walk to our campsite, we began to hit the true unadulterated beauty of White Sands. The unblemished snow-white dunes were unreal in their scale and grandeur, especially as the sun began to hang lower over the desert. If you visit White Sands and do not opt for the five-mile Alkali Flat Trail, I highly recommend the backcountry camping trail as a much shorter but equally beautiful alternative.

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We arrived shortly at our campsite and set up our tent in our incredible surroundings.

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Though our tent was in a dune basin, we climbed to the top of the closest dune to make dinner and watch the sunset. We had brought freeze-dried chicken and rice for dinner. Expiration date: “lasts for years.” We set up the camp stove and began to boil water as the evening light fell over the endless ridges of white sand that surrounded us.

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After we resolved some technical difficulties with our camp stove, the water boiled and we poured it into the plastic bags of dried chicken and rice. A few minutes later, our delicious feast was ready.

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As we watched the sunset from our position atop the dunes, we could see a forest fire raging far in the distance. Little did we know how close it would end up being to Eric’s vacation house in Ruidoso.

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We rose at 5:30 on Saturday morning and struck camp, stuffing everything back into our backpacks for the short hike back to the parking lot. The dunes looked radiant in the early-morning light.

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We had a quick bite to eat at the car before driving to the trailhead of the Alkali Flat Trail, a longer five-mile jaunt into the dunes. We rose early to avoid the extreme desert heat that the day would bring, and sure enough, the temperature had not reached 80 degrees by the time we returned to the car at about 8:30. Our 6:30 start also meant we were the only people on the trail, as the gates to the park aren’t open until 7:00. The only way to be inside the park earlier than that is to spend the night.

The Alkali Flat Trail, which guided us using a series of plastic orange posts that sometimes were not as evident as one might like, took us nearly to the edge of the dunes, where the sand fades into a large alkali flat. Off in the distance we could see more military buildings.

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We returned to the car, tired but accomplished, and logged our time-out in the trail register in the parking lot, presumably used to make sure no one is lost in the dunes.

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Though we didn’t meet Katy the Kit Fox during our time in the park, we did see evidence of plenty of wildlife. Seemingly around every turn was a new set of footprints, some apparently from mammals or birds, others from a creature we had been warned about at the visitor center — the stinkbug.

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I had wanted to visit White Sands for a while, since I realized how close it was to Eric’s vacation house in Ruidoso, and my eagerness grew when I discovered you could spend the night deep in the dunes, which sounded like a particularly exciting way to experience the park. The adventure didn’t disappoint. White Sands was absolutely beautiful, and spending the night under the stars among the dunes rated up there with our night in the Grand Canyon. As we explored the park’s trails, each fresh vista of dune after white dune was breathtakingly different from anything I’d seen before elsewhere.

We drove out of the park and turned east again, toward Alamogordo and lunch.

Across the border

Written by Chaz on 15 June 2012

My friend Max, whom I met studying abroad in Sweden and who showed up a couple times on my abroad blog and again on this blog, moved to Detroit after we graduated to do Teach For America. Max is passionate about education, but that decision seemed to me to encompass a couple of pretty big sacrifices, not least of which was living in Detroit. I always enjoy visiting friends because I feel like I leave with a much better sense of what their life is actually like, and I was especially curious to find out what life in Detroit is like. My visit to Detroit coincided with a visit from Jeff, Max’s best friend from Wesleyan who now lives in San Francisco.

With few exceptions, Detroit was about as desolate as I was expecting. I quite frankly did not know there were places like it in the United States. The number of abandoned buildings is out of control — not just homes and offices, but even public buildings like an enormous former Amtrak station that was sold and then abandoned. There are some hints of life among the empty hulks, but the reality is that there’s no real path to recovery once you have so many unnecessary buildings. Detroit is a city of 700,000 that once held 1.8 million, and it shows.

So on Friday afternoon, we made a spur of the moment decision to ditch the Motor City and drive four hours northeast to Toronto. I was able to get hotel rooms on points at a moment’s notice, and about 90 minutes after conceiving the plan, Jeff, Max, Max’s girlfriend Amelia and I had hit the open road. We stayed outside the city on Friday night in Missisauga, a thriving suburb, before driving into the heart of the city on Saturday morning — stopping, of course, at Tim Horton’s for breakfast on the way. When in Canada, eat breakfast with the Canadians.

Toronto was booming — the opposite of Detroit’s bleakness. As we were driving in, Max commented incredulously, “What’s with all the construction?” Someone’s been spending too much time in Detroit.

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After checking into our hotel, we took a long walk down to the waterfront of Lake Ontario and returned to the city center past the CN Tower. Our hotel was right across the street from City Hall, a hulk of a concrete building that is fronted by an equally unattractive plaza containing a skating rink — full of skaters on this Saturday morning.

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We also stopped in a few boutique shops along Queen Street and began to get a sense of Toronto.

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In the afternoon, we got a free walking tour that took us to some of the sights near City Hall and our hotel, ending in Eaton Centre, an enormous shopping mall that several parts of the city underground.

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Thoroughly chilled, we retreated to our hotel for a drink in the hotel lounge. From the 43rd floor, City Hall didn’t look quite so bad.

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We walked to dinner at Campagnolo, which got great reviews online but was in sort of a random part of town and was too new a restaurant to even show on Google Street View (it showed instead a Coffee Time, apparently a Canadian coffee chain). Little did we know what laid in store for us. We ended up having one of the best, and most fun, dinners I have ever had.

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After laughing our way across Toronto all day, we were all in a celebratory mood, and we started with a few great cocktails before proceeding to our food, which was equally terrific. Our waiter was super fun and spent a good deal of the evening joking with us about the difference between the U.S. and Canada. We had long since detected a strong hipster vibe in Toronto, and our waiter could not have confirmed it more perfectly when he told us he was very curious about living in Portland, Oregon. We enjoyed a smorgasbord of delicious items from the very creative menu to share, none of which photographed well in the dim restaurant.

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The trendy area in which to go out has apparently migrated progressively westward in Toronto, from West Queen Street to an area that became known as “West Queen West,” then even further west onto Ossington Avenue, where we moved from hipster bar to hipster bar, more than confirming Toronto’s extensive hipsterdom, before calling it a night.

On Sunday morning, we took another long walk before stopping for brunch, at which we shamelessly and ignorantly quizzed our waitress about the Caesar, a Canadian cocktail that’s like a spicier bloody Mary.

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In the early afternoon, we returned to our car and set off back for Detroit. Though I have visited Montreal a couple times, it was my first time in Toronto, and I was very impressed. A Canadian couple had told me at a street wine stand in Chiang Mai that Montreal is Canada’s cultural capital while Toronto is its more soulless business hub. I definitely agree, but much like my hometown of Philadelphia, Toronto struck me as a city that is likely fantastic to live in, even if you can cover all its tourist sites in a short weekend visit. And more importantly, I had a fantastic time with Max, Amelia and Jeff, and Toronto was a great backdrop for it.

Southwestern charm and cuisine

Written by Chaz on 18 March 2012

After Christmas, my aunt, uncles, grandmother and I went exploring in both of New Mexico’s most well-known cities. First, we drove into Albuquerque and split along gender lines — my uncles and I drove just west of downtown to Petroglyph National Monument, where we took a short hike through ancient rock drawings that also afforded us a great view of the city.

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Albuquerque is well-known for its annual balloon fiesta, and while I have never made it for the festival itself, we got a glimpse of what I’ve missed as we were driving away from the monument.

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We drove into Albuquerque’s historic center, the Old Town. The business hub of the city moved east many years ago with the arrival of the railroad, but the square is still fun to see for the old San Felipe de Neri church. We stopped in at a nearby restaurant, the Church Street Cafe, for some chips and margaritas, which were fine but not as great as we were hoping.

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My uncle was very amused by a dog on the roof of a shop, spotted as we walked back to the car. Dogs were always on roofs when I spent four weeks in a small Mexican town several years ago, but my uncle still loved it.

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The next morning, my uncle whipped up some delicious huevos rancheros, a common breakfast dish, to fortify us for the day’s travels.

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We drove into Santa Fe, beginning our visit at the city’s central square, which probably looks nicer in summer.

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We headed over to the Georgia O’Keeffe museum, which was very cool but not that big. O’Keeffe spent much of her life in New Mexico and drew inspiration from its landscapes. We then walked over to the Loretto Chapel, famous for its miraculous spiral staircase. The church had originally been told it was not architecturally possible to build a staircase to its choir loft, until a mysterious carpenter came into town, built it, and left before he was paid. That’s a very nice story, but the staircase is nothing special, I thought. It has no visible support structure, which people think is miraculous in and of itself, but obviously staircases can be built this way or this one would fall down.

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We couldn’t get into the best Mexican place in town for lunch, so we headed to a little place off the square for tortilla soup and enchiladas.

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On the way back to my uncle’s house, we stopped in Madrid, N.M., for a drink at the Mine Shaft Tavern. Madrid, pop. 149, has become something of an artists’ colony, with galleries lining the small highway. The bar was actually pretty hopping.

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I had to work the next day, but my grandmother and cousin spent some of the afternoon make pizzelle, which we all enjoyed.

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My uncle grilled mahi mahi for tacos for our final dinner in New Mexico, with some shrimp to go with it. We had all the fixings, and I made margaritas to accompany them.

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The resulting tacos were light but full of flavor. Fish tacos are one of the best things about the success of my seafood odyssey.

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The next day, my uncle drove my grandmother, my other uncle and me to the airport for our flight out of town. We got one last photo together in the airport lobby to commemorate a wonderful and very memorable holiday together.

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