Cusco Characters: Lina (la empleada)

When my daughter and I first arrived in Cusco at the Chavez’ home we were unaware that they had an empleada (domestic maid/cook). After some initial unease (on our part) interacting with a domestic servant, we quickly warmed up to Lina, who was a very good cook and served as our introduction to Peruvian food. The first meal that she cooked for us was a Palta Rellena (avocado half stuffed with diced vegetables) with Papa Rellena (beef, egg and vegetables inside deep-fried mashed potatoes) and Chicha Morada (purple corn drink). Simply delicious.

Lina is a plain yet attractive 45 year old woman with clear, dark eyes, jet black hair and a small birthmark below her right eye. She wears the same floral apron every day and the same blue handkerchief pulling back her medium-length hair. She has an extremely deferential manner but is not afraid to ask direct questions like “Do you believe in god?” “Is the United States a dangerous country?” and “Does everyone eat fast food in the United States?” She and her husband, who do not have children, both originally come from a small village about 6 hours from Cusco. When I asked her, “What do you do on your day off?” she replied, “I clean our house, I read the bible a lot and sometimes my husband and I go to a park or something.”

While Lina definitely has a handle on Peruvian cooking, she is interested in other cuisines as well. When my daughter decided that she wanted to make California Roll sushi (with canned tuna fish substituting for crab meat), Lina observed every step. She giggled with delight when my daughter began rolling the nori with a zip-loc freezer bag instead of the traditional bamboo mat. She was excited when we offered to cook Mexican Tacos for the family…and visibly disappointed when we had to postpone a few times. She offered to do the shopping and helped us with the prep work.

Lina has the household on a tight but sensible meal schedule. She arrives every morning (except Sunday) at 7:30 am to get breakfast started, having taken a colectivo (shared taxi) 45 minutes from her home. I always know when she has arrived when I hear the whistling teakettle in the kitchen. Breakfast is usually papaya or pineapple juice with bread and butter and either avena (oatmeal) or huevitos (eggs). Lunch is the biggest meal of the day and she has it ready around 1:30pm. She pretty much hits every item on the list of classic Peruvian dishes: Causa, Rocoto Rellena, Aji de Gallina, Lomo Saltado, Sopa de Quinoa, Chicharrones, Chicken Milanesa to name a few. Everyone comes home for lunch and partakes of the large afternoon meal. There’s lots of banter and many jokes as the family unwinds from the first half of the day. Once the meal is over, the Chavez’s retire to their bedroom for the afternoon siesta and Lina starts to clean up. Before she leaves at 4:00 pm, she puts plates of segundos (leftovers from lunch) into the refrigerator to be heated up in the microwave for the light evening meal when she’s gone.

It is hard not to like this eating regimen. A light breakfast followed by a large lunch at home with the entire family followed by a nap. By the time dinner arrives, you are not hungry for much more that a snack. It is healthy, brings the family together and it reduces stress. When we return home, we’d love to institute this schedule, but – despite the best of intentions – we’d probably revert back to normal very quickly. Perhaps we need a Lina in our household.


Cusco Characters: Miguel Angel

In some ways, Miguel Angel is much like the city in which he was born. The 28 year old Cusqueño with a cheerful countenance and easy manner seems torn between the same two worlds that divide Cusco: the world of the traditional and world of the tourist.

Miguel Angel was named after his father, the Italian translation of which echoes the name of one of the world’s greatest sculptors: Michelangelo. Miguel Angel’s father is a well-known wood carver and sculptor who makes pieces of wood come alive with intricate and detailed workmanship. The father makes altarpieces, armoires, picture frames, headboards, doors (see photo) and all types of furniture. As I write this I am sitting in one of his chairs, a beautifully carved, high-back dining chair. He is particularly well-known for his altarpieces which adorn many churches in Cusco and one of his best sits in a museum in Denver, Colorado in the United States. The father has been able to support a large family through his work and they live very comfortably by Cusco standards. He’s done well enough to build 3 floors above his house to rent out: we live on the third floor. I’m guessing that there is some degree of pressure on his sons to follow in his footsteps: Miguel Angel carries on the Michelangelo name and his older brother is named David, after one of Michelangelo’s greatest works. I occasionally see Miguel Angel working on small pieces, just like his father; the other day he was gold-leafing a small carved picture frame downstairs. He’s also shown me a large painting that he’s done that is pretty good.

Like Cusco, I think it’s been hard for Miguel Angel to resist the allure of tourism and the money it brings in. One of the University of Cusco’s most popular degree programs is tourism, which combines history, language (English), cultural anthropology, archeology and business. The number of travel agencies in Cusco and the number of Cusqueños who speak some English has increased greatly since I was last here 23 years ago. Whenever I talk to someone working in a travel agency and ask them where they learned their English, they usually reply “in university.” Miguel Angel and his cousin have had plans to start a travel agency for some time now, but it has been slow getting off the ground. They have an office space downstairs with desks, phones, printed literature and some large posters of the various sites in and around Cusco. With his personal charm, good looks and ease around people, I think he would be very successful.

One of the pre-requisites of running a successful travel agency is being able to speak English. Miguel Angel was studying at a language school for a while but had to postpone his lessons in order to help his father build out the apartments upstairs. When I asked him about this, he smiled quickly, shrugged and said “My father needs my help.” Now that the apartments are finished and rented out, it will be interesting to see which direction he takes: the world of the traditional or the world of the tourist.


Cusco Characters: Señora Nilda

As the director of the Centro de Textiles Traditionales de Cusco (CTTC), Señora Nilda plays an important role in preserving traditional Andean weaving techniques. CTTC is the NGO where I work and it supports over 400 weavers in 9 communities around Cusco from its museum, store and office location on Avenida Sol. Around the office she commands complete respect; people there are typically referred to by their first name – Domingo, Sonia, Amparo – but everyone refers to her as “Señora Nilda.” She wears her hair pulled straight back into a jet-black ponytail and usually wears somber, dark blue pantsuits…ironic attire for someone whose life revolves around traditional weaving and colorful indigenous patterns.

Señora Nilda’s story is well documented. She grew up in the local village of Chinchero and learned traditional weaving from the elders while most everyone else was cranking out woven goods made of synthetic fibers and dyes. She did very well in school and was the first girl from her village to attend university, where she studied tourism. During the turbulent 1980’s and early 1990’s, when the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) was terrorizing much of Peru, Señora Nilda continued her studies and taught others the weaving techniques that she’d learned as a young girl. In 1996, with the help of many friends, she founded CTTC and its influence continues to grow each year.

The amazing thing about Señora Nilda is that she, more than almost anyone else, made high-quality, traditional textiles cool again. In the 1960’s and 1970’s indigenous highland people were drifting away from traditional weaving, opting for machine-made textiles from cheaper synthetic dyes and yarns. These days, being able to weave in the traditional way is a source of pride. As Nilda put it, “For many people who had these traditional weaving skills, it was a way to show status in their community…something to be proud of…and it was good for their self-esteem.”

In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, when the Sendero Luminoso terrorized Peru, tourists were afraid to visit Peru, young people went to Lima looking for jobs and it was a very unstable time in Cusco. In the mid-1990’s the timing was right to start CTTC as tourists were returning and Peru was much safer. According to Señora Nilda, “Yes, it was the right moment. When we started the center in 1996, political turmoil was behind us, tourists were coming back and the market was ready for us. It all came together

At an office picnic a few months ago, about 25 of us sat on the ground and ate roast chicken, beet salad and quinoa. Señora Nilda was the gracious host, making sure that everyone had napkins and enough Inca Cola to drink while her puppy Sombra rambled about. Señora Nilda talked with everyone in the office with warmth and charm. It’s the type of charm that makes you feel important – only later do you realize that she only talked with you for 2 minutes. She is a powerful woman who has a busy schedule and this was her time to connect with the people who make the office go.

As I’ve talked with various people about my work at the center, I’ve occasionally heard comments that imply she controls too much of the local textile industry in Cusco. Whether these comments are well-founded or professional jealousy is not relevant to me. It’s nice to see an indigenous woman with power.


Cusco Characters: Señor Alcides

Señor Alcides picked us up in front of the Cathedral in the Plaza de Armas in a beat-up, red Volkswagen beetle. He graciously got out of the car to open the passenger-side door for us (we soon learned that this was the only way it could open). My wife and kids piled into the back and I got in front. Señor Alcides is the director of an afternoon shelter for kids in Cusco called Colibri, where our kids have been volunteering for the past few months. Colibri is a safe place for kids to do their homework and relax after they’ve been at school and work during the day. Most of the kids are street vendors – boys who shine shoes, girls who sell chicle (chewing gum) or woven finger puppets – who need to work to help support what are typically single-parent households. Our kids help them with math and English homework, play board games and head to the playground to play soccer with them.

Our Volkswagen rolled out of the Plaza and we headed south to the town of Oropesa, where Señor Alcides would show us the orfanato, his orphanage for 11 boys in the Valle de Sur. Señor Alcides is about 5’6”, with smooth brown skin, clear eyes and a receding hairline. He smiles easily and has a very calm demeanor. This calmness may come from working with battered women and children at the Cusco Police Department for 27 years. While the police department does not provide any money to Colibri or the orphanage, they do allow Señor Alcides to knock off every afternoon to work on both projects.

Once we arrived in Oropesa we turned down a muddy unpaved road with full of holes and small craters. Miraculously, the Volkswagen beetle did not get stuck in the mud or bottom out. If anyone needed a four-wheel drive truck – not only to negotiate the road but to transport goods for the orphanage -- it was Señor Alcides. We arrived and were greeted by dogs, geese, chickens, a parrot and several smiling boys. We got out and took a tour of the orphanage. The main structure, where the boys study and sleep was a plywood-walled, corrugated-roof building elevated 2 feet off the ground. While we were meeting each of the boys inside, wind shook the building and the windows, many of which were covered with plastic. The boys were shy, polite and very interested in their visitors. We briefly toured the garden, the kitchen, and the outhouse. We were also shown the well, which took Señor Alcides and his family a month to complete, working every evening and weekend. One of the older boys, clearly mentally challenged, told me everything he knew about World War II…about the “Germans and Italians being on the same side” and about “France being occupied.” He explained that he learned it all from a DVD he had seen “many, many times.” Señor Alcides smiled and put his arm around the boy and it was time for us to go.

On the way back to Cusco, we stopped at the bakery to buy the boys some chutas, large sweet bread loaves that are famous locally. While driving back, Señor Alcides told me about balancing Colibri, the orphanage, his police work counseling battered women and his wife and four kids. As he was talking, I was asking myself, “Do I believe him? Is he really a saint or is he a really good fundraiser?” He talked of the challenges of raising money for both projects, of the Dutchman who raised and sent $1,500 from Holland only to have it get “lost” somewhere in the police department. I decided that I believed him, not because of what he said but because of what he drove. I figured that anyone who needs a 4x4 truck as much as he does…and drives a beat-up Volkswagen from the 60’s...must be an honest man.

You can find Señor Alcides and Colibri every afternoon at Calle Resbalosa 410-A in Cusco. Stop by and ask him if he needs some help.

This post is part of See Simi's travel blog carnival "Feel Good" Travel.


Doing Without

When we compare our daily lives here in Cusco to our lives back in the United States, there are definitely gaps. These gaps are of two types: Things we have in Cusco but not back home and vice-versa. On the plus side, there is far less stress, less of a frenetic schedule, more time to read books and each day brings something new, unexpected and refreshing. For the things we don't have here in Cusco, it's interesting to note how we’ve coped. To illustrate, here is a sample daily schedule, highlighting the things we have gotten used to doing without:

7:00 am: TAKE A SHOWER (without reliable hot water and good water pressure). Back in the U.S., I would rely on a hot shower first thing in the morning to wake me up. With our electric shower heads capable of giving us a shock, we need to be wide-awake prior to taking a shower. Refer to Peruvian Culture Shock for more detail on this.
7:10 am: SHAVE (without hot running water). While it is possible to shave in the shower, in order to do it properly, I have to boil water on the stove and bring a bowl of it back to the bathroom. Is it any wonder that I’m currently growing a beard?
7:30 am: PREPARE BREAKFAST (without a toaster). The range of things off the breakfast menu include toasted bagels, freezer waffles and buttered toast to go with our eggs. On the plus side, there are tasty fresh-baked bread rolls available at local tiendas every morning.
7:45 am: WASH DISHES (without hot running water, garbage disposal, or a dishwasher). Without these conveniences, we start by tossing food scraps into the bin by hand, boil water and pour it into a bowl with soap and a scouring pad. After washing and rinsing, plates are placed in a sink-top drying rack.
8:15 am: CHECK EMAIL (without a fast, reliable internet connection). We have an internet connection about 80-90% of the time and when we do, it is pretty slow. For example, watching a video on YouTube is not possible without a frame re-buffering and stalling every 3-5 seconds. Occasionally, when we Skype family and friends back home, their faces start to break up like a cubist painting by Braque or Picasso.
9:00 am: COMMUTE TO WORK (without a car). All we have to do is walk or take a taxi. This is undoubtedly an improvement over commuting in a major metropolitan area.
2:30 pm: CLEAN CLOTHES (without a washing machine or a dryer). This inconvenience is mitigated by having a lavanderia around every corner. For about fifty cents per pound, any one of them will wash, dry and fold our clothes.
3:00 pm: DRINK WATER (without potable tap water). This requires a little advanced planning. To avoid the expense and environmental-unfriendliness of buying drinking water in plastic bottles, we’ve chosen to boil our drinking water. In order to have cold drinking water, we boil water, let it cool in a glass pitcher, pour it into a plastic bottle and put it in the refrigerator.
6:30 pm: PREPARE DINNER (without an oven). Dinner can be anything that can be cooked on a propane-powered range-top or warmed in a microwave. That means no pizzas, roasted meats and, perhaps most tragically, no chocolate chip cookies.
7:30 pm: BE WARM (without central heating). This inconvenience has lessened as we move away from winter and towards the summer months. In June and July, we wore fleece jackets and alpaca wool slippers around the house.
10:30 pm: READ IN BED (without a good bedside reading lamp). Since the reading lamps that came with our furnished apartment are barely strong enough for us to find our way to the bathroom, if we want to read in bed, we wear our miner’s flashlights on our heads.

One of the inconveniences we started with was the matrimonio-sized bed for my wife and I in our apartment. While negotiating the rental agreement, I was assured that matrimonio was the largest size possible in Cusco. Once we moved in we learned that the Peruvian matrimonio was what would be called a “full” sized bed in the U.S. We tried to sleep in it for a week but it was impossible. We asked our landlord what it would take to get a larger bed and he came back with a true “king” size bed for an additional cost. We asked him where he found it and he said he had it shipped from Lima. There are some things a family just can't live without.


Peru: Then and Now

Midway through the current term for Alan Garcia, Peru's president, approval ratings had him in the mid-20's (actually up from 19% in the later part of 2008). This displeasure mirrors public sentiment during my 1986 trip to Peru, when the same Alan Garcia presided over an economy that experienced one of the highest yearly inflation rates on record. During his term from 1985-1990 the average inflation rate was often over 100% per year but in 1990 it climbed to an astronomical 7,482% (World Development indicators Database). During this time there were limits on the amount of food that a family could buy and the thinly-stocked markets changed their prices by the hour. In one of many efforts to control inflation, the Peruvian government changed the currency in 1985 from the Sol (Spanish for "sun") to the Inti (Quechua for "sun"). Just as the underlying translation of the currency's name didn't change, neither did the economic outlook. In 1991, the government changed the currency again, introducing the Nuevo Sol ("new sun") and valuing it at 1,000,000 Intis to the Nuevo Sol. (note the image of a 5 million Inti note below)

While Peru's embattled president is the same from my trip 23 years ago, many things have changed. Most importantly, the terrorist activity by the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru (MRTA), who during the 1980's controlled perhaps a third of the country, has been quelled. Peru is much safer now than in the 1980's. In 1986 I remember curfews in place in Lima and I remember being afraid to go out after dark in Cusco. The few travelers that were visiting Cusco banded together for safety. Anyone who ventured into the Mercado San Pedro came out with razor blade slashes on their backpacks. In 1986 I was afraid to hike the Inca Trail but in 2009 our family did it and we booked it online. In 1986 there were car bombs, hijackings, kidnappings, power outages and endemic drug trafficking but in 2009, the closest thing to violence I've seen in Cusco was a heated-but-peaceful street demonstration of campesinos protesting water privatization.

As Peru has become safer, more and more tourists have ventured here. Cusco's population has increased three-fold from 1986 and today is close to 350,000. There are far more restaurants, hotels, and tour agencies catering to the foreign tourist today than there were in 1986. At that time I don't recall anyone offering me a massage; today it is impossible to walk by the Plaza de Armas without a young woman offering one. The quality of the textiles is much better. I remember mostly machine-made sweaters and chullos of synthetic-fiber and day-glo colors. Today the variety and quality of hand-made alpaca goods can be extremely good. Aguas Calientes (today called "Machu Picchu Village"), the town at the base of Machu Picchu, has grown exponentially; in 1986 it was a few guesthouses huddled near the railroad tracks. If you wanted to go out to dinner, all you had to do was walk across the railroad tracks to find 3 or 4 shacks offering food. Perhaps the greatest symbol of all this change is the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. For $700 a well-heeled tourist can have a single room at the site of the ruins overlooking the ancient Inca citadel. Even though the unpopular president hasn't changed, Peru has come a long way in 23 years.


Peruvian Culture Shock

We have been in our Cusco apartment for three months now and have gotten used to its idiosyncrasies. There are many pluses to living in Cusco, but not many of them reside in the bathroom. Most of the inconveniences are minor, such as having to put the used toilet paper in the trash instead of the toilet bowl (Peruvian toilets can’t process anything but human waste and water). Another inconvenience is not being able to swallow the tap water while brushing your teeth (Peruvian tap water is not potable). In our San Blas apartment, water often explodes out of the taps after a second or two, causing it to splash everywhere. In our kids’ bathroom there is also a strange smell to the toilet water; the kids say it "smells like crap."

The biggest adjustment has been getting used to the electric shower heads. Most of Latin America uses them as it is a very economical way to heat water. They work by taking water as it passes from the (cold) water supply and heating it with electric coils located in the shower head. In our bathrooms, the shower system has the additional feature of a wall switch where the electricity can be turned on and off. The first time my son got in to take a shower, he got a pretty good shock from the metal knob, such that he would not use it for weeks afterward. When my sister-in-law visited us from Los Angeles for two weeks, we looked forward to visiting the Sacred Valley if for no other reason than to stay in a hotel with a functioning hot shower. Half the reason we scheduled massages after hiking the Inca Trail was for the hot showers that came with it. For the first few weeks we just avoided the showers. My wife would boil water and pour it into a plastic tub and take an Indonesian-style mandi, sluicing the water over herself in the shower basin. Likewise, when I needed to shave for work, I boiled water. I began to wonder if the people at work noticed my lack of hygiene.

We talked to our landlord about it several times and he eventually got around to looking at the showers. Our landlord and his family are great people but they definitely lack a sense of urgency. As soon as he walked in to one of the bathrooms he looked at the shower head and said “no tierra” (not grounded). Evidently, the electrical mechanism was not properly installed. He came by the next day and fixed it. With the showers now properly grounded, our family slowly started to take showers again, but the water was just not hot enough. Since water is heated inside the shower head, the water is hotter if there is less of it passing through. My wife and kids gradually found the right amount of water flow that would provide optimal heating.

While the rest of the family was beginning to accept the electric shower heads, I still had trepidations, as I was sure that I felt a slight buzzing sensation when touching the knob. As a result, I had a convoluted set of steps to follow when I took a shower. Making sure the wall switch was off, I would turn on the cold water to the desired flow from outside the shower, dry my hands, turn the wall switch on, and wait until the water got warm. If it was not warm enough, I would dry my hands, turn off the wall switch, turn down the water pressure slightly and try again. Sometimes I did this four or five times before I got the temperature right.

After a month or so of lightly tapping the knob while showering and convincing myself that I did not feel a buzzing sensation, I was able to enjoy hot showers like the rest of the family. Additionally, we have come to appreciate the water and energy conservation benefits of heating water only when you need it (instead of heating a large water tank continously). We've become accustomed to our electric shower heads and no longer dread a trip to the shower. We are also a lot cleaner.


Inca Walls

One of the pleasures of living and working in Cusco is my daily commute walking past several beautiful Inca walls. The walls I like best (called Cyclopean) are enormous "pillowy" limestone and granite stones that seem to flow the entire length of a city block. They're made from large, smooth polygonal stones with rounded edges that are joined perfectly into irregular jigsaw patterns (see photo). Jose Maria Arguedas, the Quechua novelist, poet and anthropologist, wrote about the walls in Rios Profundos (Deep Rivers), referring to them as "undulating and unpredictable." Ernesto, the book's (autobiographical) protagonist observes, "The wall was stationary, but all its lines were seething and its surface was as changeable as that of the flooding summer rivers which have similar crests near the center, where the current flows the swiftest and is the most terrifying." The analogy to a river is a supreme compliment considering all the manual work involved in cutting, shaping, transporting and positioning these stones.

The Incas had no metals stronger than copper or bronze with which to cut the stones. They often drove wooden wedges into rock fissures, then poured water into the resulting cracks and waited for it to freeze, expand and split the rock. Most of the time they used slightly harder "hammer stones" to shape the stones and then used smaller stones to sand them. Many of these stones and boulders were transported over several miles from the quarry sites to their eventual location. At the ancient fortress of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, boulders were transported from a quarry almost 4 miles away, across the swift Urubamba river and up a ramp to the fortress site. Bear in mind that the Inca's only beast of burden, the llama, could carry a maximum of 75 pounds and many boulders weigh over a ton, so this was all done using ramps, log-rollers, ropes and the labor of many men. The most amazing feat is the positioning and fitting of the stones within the wall. The strength and skill required to suspend a one-ton boulder directly above where it is to be placed, while shaping and sanding the joints to accommodate their placement, is mindboggling.

When the Spaniards conquered Cusco, they repurposed many of the stones for churches and administrative buildings. Walking through the streets of Cusco, another repurposing of Inca walls is evident; they are often used as public urinals. Whenever we walk the kids to their afternoon volunteer job, we walk past Ladrillos alley and the smell of urine is overpowering. We refer to the walls here as "stinka." Around the city, it's not uncommon to see a man stopping to relieve himself against a wall in broad daylight.

After the conquest, the Spaniards themselves constructed walls, but the difference in quality and strength is evident. Over 4,000 miles into his 1952 South American motorcycle odyssey, Ernesto "Che" Guevara got this response when asking which walls were Inca and which were Spanish: "We, as a joke, call this one the Inca wall and that one the wall of the Incapables, those were the Spanish." The difference is clear to my daughter, who when she sees a wall made by the Spanish, calls it a "finka" (fake-Inca) wall.


How to Eat Well in Peru: Eat Peruvian Food

It was the best of food; it was the worst of food. This tale of two cuisines details our gastronomic ups and downs while dining in Peru. After only a few weeks of eating all kinds of dishes, a pattern began to emerge: Peruvian food is really good and most (Peruvian) attempts at “international cuisines” (i.e., Italian, French, Mexican and American) are pretty bad. That Peruvian food is really good should come as no great surprise. The Economist (1/29/04) observed that “…Peru can lay claim to one of the world's dozen or so great cuisines.” Everyone has heard of ceviche (chunks of fish marinated in lime juice) and some will have heard of Lomo Saltado (beef tenderloin, sliced and sautéed with onions, tomatoes & French fries) or Aji de Gallina (chicken stew of hot peppers, cheese, cream and peanuts), but what has been surprising is the depth and number of consistently good dishes.

For our first 7 weeks in Cusco, we lived with the Chavez family whose house servant Lina is a very good cook. My introduction to Peruvian, as well as Andean, cuisine started when Lina began to whip out one great dish after another. The mouthwatering Palta Rellena (Creamy avocado half stuffed with diced vegetables) was to be followed by a light and fluffy Causa (mashed yellow potato squares sandwiching chicken or tuna) which in turn was followed by a spicy Rocoto Relleno (Hot aji pepper stuffed with chopped beef, eggs, peas, carrots & potatoes). The secret to Peru’s culinary prowess is twofold: Its biodiversity and its immigration history. Peru’s distinctive geography gives it 28 of the world’s 32 known climate zones, making it one of the world's most ecologically diverse nations, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Peru boasts 1,500 miles of coastline, offering a plethora of seafood and 250,000 square miles of Amazon basin with its plentiful fruits and vegetables. The many ethnic groups who have immigrated to Peru – Spanish, Basque, African, Chinese, Japanese –have mixed with indigenous Peruvian flavors to create a very diverse cuisine.

These facts alone should have convinced me to eat only Peruvian food, but when one is away from home, one craves the familiar. A few days after arriving in Cusco, I ordered a hamburger at a restaurant on the Plaza de Armas. The hamburger meat was infused with huacatay, a green, pungent Andean herb one normally finds stuffed inside cuy (roast guinea pig, an Andean delicacy) and I could not finish it. In fact, I haven’t ordered a hamburger in a restaurant since.

After a couple weeks of living in Peru, my daughter and I were greatly missing Mexican Food. We’d tried nachos, quesadillas and enchiladas at various restaurants around the Plaza, but all were a disappointment. One day I passed a restaurant on Plaza Tupac Amaru called “Tex-Mex Tacos” and I looked inside. It looked and felt authentic: bright colors and pictures of Pancho Villa and Emilio Zapata on the walls and authentic selections like horchata, chilaquiles and pozole on the menu. We excitedly looked forward to our first visit and ordered tacos and after a few bites looked at one another, shaking our heads. The tacos were greasy, the tortillas broke in half and the margarita I ordered was far and away the worst one I’ve ever had. It was no surprise to us that two weeks later the restaurant closed down.

Another disappointment in Cusco is pizza. I ‘d ordered pizza a half dozen times and each one had an inferior crust, a funky Andean cheese that barely melts and terrible sausage and ham that reminded me of the baloney in my lunchtime sandwiches in grade school. After each pizza, I swore that I would not eat another. While at a festival in Paucartambo, a small town halfway to the Manu Biosphere, we looked for a place to eat and everyone agreed on -- you guessed it -- pizza. A pizza was brought out very quickly and I labored through two undercooked slices and lost my appetite. That night I was violently ill with food poisoning and remained sick for 4-5 days. I still can’t think about a Peruvian pizza without my stomach starting to turn.

I have learned my lesson: stick with Peruvian food.


Bolivian Sojourn: Potosi, By the Numbers

The story of the town of Potosi and its Cerro Rico ("Rich Hill"), the mountain of silver that bankrolled the Spanish Empire for two-and-a-half centuries, is one that can be told with numbers:

13,420 = The elevation (in feet) of Potosi, the highest city in the world, almost two and a half miles high.

1544 = The year (according to legend) that llama-herder Diego Huallpa, while keeping warm one night after searching for a lost llama, lit a fire at the base of Cerro Rico and saw liquid silver running from underneath it. The Spaniards soon were mining the mountain.
1572 = The year that Spanish Viceroy Francisco de Toledo, in an effort to boost sagging productivity, instituted La Ley de la Mita, whereby all indigenous and African workers over 18 would work 12 hour shifts, not leaving the mine for 4 months at a time.
1672 = The year a mint was established in Potosi in order to coin the silver.
1825 = The year of Bolivian Independence.
1908 = The year that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ventured to southwestern Bolivia to rob mining companies’ payroll accounts.
1987 = The year UNESCO named Potosi a “World Heritage Site” for its legacy of riches and misfortune.

14,000 = Population of Potosi in 1547, a few years after the Spanish learned about the silver within Cerro Rico.
200,000 = Population of Potosi around 1672, at the height of its wealth and population. For a time it was the richest and largest city in the Americas.
10,000 = Population of Potosi in 1825, at the time of Bolivian independence, once the silver had effectively run out.
140,000 = Population (approximate) of Potosi in 2009

0 = Number of experts who agree with each other on the amount of silver extracted from Cerro Rico during the colonial era. Here’s a sampling of estimates taken from the web, for varying time periods: 70,000 metric tons, 2 billion ounces, 45,000 tons, 62,000 metric tonnes, 137,000,000 pounds and 60,000 tons.
86 = Number of churches in Potosi at the height of its wealth in the late 1600’s.

8,000,000 = Estimated number of miners who have died between 1545 and 1825, mainly from silicosis pneumonia and accidents.
30,000 = Estimated number of African slaves imported to Potosi to work in the mines during the colonial era
115 = (Degrees Fahrenheit) routinely experienced in the 4th and 5th levels of the mine. To breathe easier, miners take off their protective masks, which further increase their chances of contracting silicosis pneumonia.
10-15 = (Years) Range of life expectancy of miners after starting work in Cerro Rico. Few miners live beyond 40.

1,124 = (US dollars) Yearly Gross Domestic Product (per capita) in Bolivia in 2006 (IMF)
3 = Rank of Bolivia amongst the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. (IMF; nominal GDP 2006)


Bolivian Sojourn: Amazon Basin

Our 45-minute flight from La Paz to Rurenabaque was a short but perception-altering experience. Had we not decided at the last minute to visit Bolivia’s Amazon basin, we would still be associating Bolivia with bowler hats, shortness of breath, llamas, woven alpaca textiles and extreme temperature swings on the altiplano. Our 19-seat, twin-engine propjet “bumped” down on Rurrenabaque’s dirt runway amid clear jungle skies -- according to Lonely Planet’s web site this was one of Bolivia's 1,068 airports with unpaved landing strips. Arriving in the Amazon basin, we entered a different world; a world of canoes, insects, humidity and hammocks.

We checked into our hotel, jumped into our hammocks and the difference from the altiplano was immediately palpable. The breathlessness that accompanied physical activity on the altiplano was gone, our skin and hands were no longer perpetually dry and we welcomed the cacophony of birds, bugs and frogs calling in the night. Rurrenabaque is the jumping-off point for river trips into the Amazon basin; we had picked a 3-day tour of the pampas, the vast wetland savannah with rivers teeming with wildlife. The night before departure, we bought some last-minute provisions: water, snacks, a miner’s flashlight and batteries. I also needed a khaki long-sleeve shirt to keep the mosquitoes at bay. We checked at a local market by the river and some of the shops on the main street selling predominantly used clothing, many items still having a Goodwill tag. I bought a beige shirt that looked very similar to one that I donated to a local Goodwill store many years ago.

The next morning we took off in our jeep for the 3 hour ride to our lodge on the Rio Yacuma, a distant tributary of the Amazon. Along the way we spotted toucans, storks, herons and one sleepy, leaf-munching sloth. The moment we arrived at our lodge, a pink river dolphin jumped out of the water to mark our arrival. We settled in to our rooms and the kids immediately found a frog family living in the tank of the toilet. After lunch we set out in our 20-foot long canoe and watched turtles sunbathe while caimans of various sizes eyed us from the banks of the coffee-colored river. Within minutes we saw about a dozen capybara, the world’s largest rodent, milling about near the shore. These brown “water-hogs” are about 2 feet high and 3 feet long and are plentiful because no man or animal wants to eat them. In Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, he describes the appearance of the capybara: “Both the front and side view of their head has quite a ludicrous aspect, from the depth of their great jaw.” Later in the day we viewed several types of monkeys before heading back to the lodge.

The second day we toured a different section of the Yacuma. We navigated a bend in the river, glided near a dense thicket of trees and were immediately beset upon by small, gold-colored monkeys, who boarded our canoe without permission and liberated us from our oranges. There were about 15 of them in total and they were extremely curious…that is until the oranges were gone. In the afternoon we went piranha fishing. While the kids caught many river sardines and a few catfish, our guide was the only one to catch a piranha. None of the fish were suitable for a meal so we threw them all back. That night after dinner, we got our flashlights and went looking for caimans. Orange eyes peered at us from both sides of the river as insects were magnetically attracted to our flashlights. We observed the Southern Cross up in the sky and watched fireflies glitter in the larger trees, making them look like Christmas trees.

On day three we swam with pink river dolphins. We found a deep spot in the river where a couple dolphins were swimming and waited until our guide got us comfortable with the idea of swimming in piranha-infested water with zero visibility while 10-foot caimans watched from the shore 25 feet away. Wilber, our guide, explained to us that the caimans are afraid of the dolphins and that we were safe from the piranha as long as we were free from cuts or blood. After about 20 minutes we got up enough courage to jump in. To our surprise, the dolphins stuck around to swim with us, playing with a ball we tossed to them, gliding in and out of the water and at one point giving us a big splash of water. These dolphins once swam in the Atlantic, but changing geography and 25 million years of evolution have changed them into blind, freshwater, bottle-nosed creatures with smaller dorsal fins. Obviously sight was not needed in muddy water but Wilber explained to us that the longer nose and smaller dorsal fin enabled them to more easily reach into bushes for crabs and small shore animals.

Earlier that same morning we also went on an anaconda hunt, getting out of our canoe and walking along an elevated dirt road for a few hours. We didn’t spot any anaconda, but getting out of the boat put the pampas in its proper perspective – flat, endless, wetland savannah for thousands of miles. While life along the river is more interesting, this view was more indicative of the pampas. Just as our trip to the Bolivian Amazon (which comprises two-thirds of Bolivia’s land) gave us a more representative picture of the country, getting out of our canoe put the pampas in perspective.