Monthly Archives: March 2020

Vacation from the Vacation

Friday, August 2 – Sunday, August 4

We went to the airport, and took a short flight up to Medellin.  The flight was smooth.  “Some thunderstorms, nothing to worry about” said the captain.  The flight path led over the western reaches of the Amazon jungle, which will look like West Texas within the lifetime of some reading this.  Maybe even most.

At Medellín, we were met by our dear friend Tibi, who drove us through town, down the valley to Barbosa.  We stopped for empanadas.  Val and their son Marco met us there.  Then he drove us up the hill he lives on.

We were introduced to Tibi twenty years ago when he was in high school in Silicon Valley, and stayed in touch as he moved around, finally settling in Medellin where he’s been for the last nine years.  Several years ago he and a business partner bought a huge plot, and built a little cabin on it.  After a falling-out, he bought another small plot (only 5 acres!), met Val, a beautiful woman (who was also an architecture student), designed a nice house (4 bedrooms, each with its own bath, party deck on top), and built it in a year and a half with the help of two of his neighbors on the hill.  

About six months ago, Tibi and Val had a son, Marco, and this house gives them the space that they need.  It was awesome, after all that touring, to just sit in this house, drink wine and beer and not aguardiente, smoke some homegrown, amuse ourselves with the antics of Marco, and their cat and dog, and relax.  It was a vacation from the vacation.

Over the course of the three days, we did get out a bit.  We went to a trout farm up the road, which had several ponds.  There are sticks with fishing line and a hook, you put a blob of food on the hook, dip it in the pond, jerk up when there’s a bite, and put the resulting trout in a bucket.  When you have enough, you bring the bucket to the staff, who grills the trout and serves it to you on patacones, which are essentially thick tortillas made out of plantain.  Rice on the side, of course, and delicious salsa.

We also went to a neighboring house which grows coffee beans.  After we arrived, Tibi’s friend poured 5 lb of coffee beans into a huller.  After the hulls had been removed, the beans were put into a roaster.  Meanwhile, they served some filling snacks.  When the beans finished roasting, he put them in a bag, and I took them home.

Tibi’s next-door neighbor turned 77, and had a party.  We went for awhile, but our little shot glasses were constantly refilled with aguardiente (made out of water, 29% alcohol, sugar, and anise), and we’re not really very good drinkers.  Also, there was constant dancing with women of all ages, and we’re definitely not dancers.  After awhile we went back to the house.

We went and saw the cabin on Tibi’s original large plot, which seems to cover half a mountain.  He hasn’t actually seen much of it, it’s so large.

It was a most pleasant way to spend three days, and it was inspiring to see the life Tibi has created for himself.  Traveling with Val and Tibi, I felt very explained.  Passers-by saw: a pretty, very young looking girl with a baby, a slightly older handsome man, and whichever two guys were with them, wouldn’t have mattered if we were giraffes, we were all contributing to the ongoing social organization of the villages of Colombia, and there was nothing to doubt or object to or wonder about.

(When it’s just us and Tibi, we are dating so far above our level, that to discerning eyes, it must seem like a transaction.)

Monday, August 5

We had a full day of flying to Panama, Houston, and home. The taxi to the airport arrived about dawn.  Tibi had arranged it in some village fashion.  There are people within a thousand meters of his house who can do almost anything required to sustain life.  During the years of smuggling and revolution, they had to.

An hour’s delay departing from Panama because of thunderstorms, but our connections were not tight.

There was a crazy girl on the last leg of the flight, to San Francisco.  She stood up in the aisle most of the way, singing “Beat It” and “Billy Jean” and chanting “go to hell,” and “God is great.”  She became extremely restive when anyone asked her to sit.  Eventually a veteran with enormous reserves of empathy and composure talked her down.  When we got to the gate, a flight attendant announced, “Please remain in your seat while the paramedics…”

We last saw Maya strapped to a gurney screaming in the arrivals area, surrounded by about ten cops and her mother with an “Again…” expression.   Tom Cruise made the correct decision, agreeing not to take Dustin Hoffman on an airplane.

A Gastronomic Capital

Wednesday, July 31

We were first off the bus, staying at Casa Fanning in the trendy Barranco neighborhood, south of the more-visited Miraflores area. It was pretty late by the time we got there. 

Lima turns out to be a foodie destination.  It has two of San Pellegrino’s “world’s best 50 restaurants”, and the Eater website has made a list of its 38 Essential restaurants. We took Uber down to the nearest Essential restaurant. (There were alternative services, but I would have had to get their app, create an account, etc.)  It was too late to order food there, and we walked to a Nearby Open Now place which had some tasty basics like barbecued chicken gizzards.  (One of the problems with Google and Yelp listing “business hours” is that the business hours for a bar/restaurant are the entire time the doors are open and drinks are served; kitchen hours are usually much more limited, but never listed separately.  We have often been foiled by this.)

Thursday, August 1

Our hotel was two blocks from the Museo del Arte Contemporaneo, so we walked there and looked around.  It turned out to be a rather tiny museum, but they had some cute things, especially a large wicker-and-water artwork that children were jumping around on.  Most serious things are improved by jumping children, especially their parents.  Other images in heavy rotation were ayahuasca-induced hallucinations.

From there we Ubered up to Huaca Pucllana, the ruins of an ancient Inca pyramid buried under a mountain.  A quite elaborate structure was unearthed, and excavations continue.  The bricks are laid next to each other upright, like books on a shelf.  The people at this pyramid ran out of shelf space long ago, but have hectares of books.

We walked back from there toward the hotel, passing through the Indian Market which had that Shenzen look about it, even if it had been locally crafted.  We stopped at an Essential sandwich restaurant.  We then Ubered back to Barranco for a Free Walking Tour.  It wasn’t nearly as professional as the one in La Paz; it was just some guy taking us to his favorite places, and talking about how the street art was influenced by ayahuasca.  The street art was still pretty great.  I’m glad he wasn’t starving.  He had come from Cuba some years ago — I think I remember his saying that a girl figured into this decision, but even if I don’t remember it, it’s a good guess.  As always, we ended up at a shopping venue.  If you don’t pay for the product you are the product.

I only ever see the handicraft women at these places sewing hems.  I bet the fabric is made elsewhere on giant machines by slave Uighurs.

We’d made a reservation at El Señorio de Sulco, another Essential Restaurant.  We had ceviche, and also their version of an Ancient Incan pork dish made in a clay oven called a Huatia, and smoked trout causa, and purple corn pudding, and everything was quite good.  The wines and Pisco were good too.  Some of the wines we’ve had on this leg of the trip have been more on the Broadening and Educational axis.

The Poor Man’s Galapagos

Wednesday, July 31

We signed up for two tours suggested by Peru Hop.  Peru Hop doesn’t actually conduct the tours.  They have small liability swales to run the tourists through the riskier bits.  The first was a boat trip to the Islas Ballestas (the “poor man’s Galapagos”) which did not involve getting off the boat.  There were thousands of nesting Peruvian boobies and Inca terns, plus a few Humboldt penguins waddling around. We took lots of pictures, and after about 30 minutes, returned to Paracas.  Some pelicans were happily accepting food from some tourists, which was fun to watch for awhile.  We had some more lovely generic fried fish at a different restaurant.

Humboldt Penguins
Inca terns

A street seller approached the Peru Hoppers standing in front of the hotel with a little cart filled with green seed pods nearly as long as your arm.  The Peru Hop lady bought some and passed them around, saying we had to try them.  They are from the Amazon, and English speakers call them “Ice Cream Beans”.  I took a segment, and ate the pulp, which tasted like ice cream in the Dairy Queen tradition, and ate the bean, which was crunchy.

And then the tour guide said I wasn’t supposed to eat the bean.  I looked it up on Wikipedia (Inga edulis) and found the beans were Poisonous.  Right.  So here I am in a small South American town and poisoned.  How can I do this?  Eating food I’ve never heard of from a street vendor without even asking how to go about it?  Wait, that’s what we do.  But on the incomplete advice of a tour guide?  So much for their avoiding liability by not personally conducting tours, but I am sure they have other ways out.  What’s with poisonous plants named “edulis” anyway? 

A poisonous locust named edulis

enticed both the careless and sedulous

This isn’t going anywhere.  I did what anyone would do, I kept looking up stuff on the Internet, and eventually determined to my satisfaction that the bean was a protease inhibitor, just like Lima beans (and look where is the next stop) and it would only interfere with my digestion of proteins until it was used up.  Who knows, maybe it’s a diet pill.  Attention parents, Lima beans not only taste mealy, but you are poisoning your kid.

In the afternoon, there was a tour of the Paracas National Reserve, a large area of sand dunes with great views of the ocean.  El Catedral, a natural arch which was one of the main attractions, fell down in an earthquake some years ago.  It’s like that, on the coast. 

Finally, we were back on the bus and headed to Lima.  We took one diversion, to Hacienda San José where a complex of tunnels once used to smuggle slaves is now a tourist attraction.  I wonder what the other tourists were thinking.  You have to have some opinion about human indecency.  

Lines in the Sand

Monday, July 29

The bus to Nazca was scheduled to arrive at 6am, which would give us time to get to our 8am Nazca lines flight reservation.  But once we were on the bus, the guide was concerned that there would be another blockade around 1:30am.  Fortunately, that didn’t happen.  It arrived just after 6am as planned, and we walked to our nearby hostel, who we’d warned that we’d just be using for a few hours during the day.  For some reason, we were the only two people on the bus that actually got off at Nazca, everyone else continued to Huacachina (with a stop at a tower where they could view three of the Nazca figures).  We took with us all the junk food that had been given to us by the bus company, that they had stockpiled in case there was a labor action and an arbitrary delay.

Aeronasca picked us up at the hostel, and took us to the little Nazca general-aviation airport.  There must have been a dozen little companies doing Nazca lines flights.  We weighed in, paid the airport tax, went through security, and got into a Cessna 207 with four other passengers.  They gave us little maps, and explained that they would go over each figure in a right curve so people on the right could see it, then they would go back over it in a left curve.  It was quite a delightful flight, and interesting to see not only the figures, but all of the other triangles and spirals that were out there.  Definitely my favorite Peru Hop tour so far!

We went back downtown, and met at Mom’s Cafe to catch a shuttle Peru Hop had set up at 1 PM to take us to Huacachina.  The bus driver had a favorite bpm.  He played the actual “Beat It”. I think I had only ever heard Weird Al’s version, as with so many movies of the 1960’s that I knew only from MAD parodies illustrated by Mort Drucker.  Disco is an OK art form, if you don’t hear it more often than once every fifteen years.

Somebody was fencing off the desert-paved desert.  It’s hard to imagine what out there needs containment.  Nothing for cows to eat.

It was nice to be in the tropics again. Three hundred meters, 15°S, and in the 20’s. 

It took about two hours to get to Ica, and then maybe a half-hour to go the final kilometer to Huacachina, a crazy little oasis outside of town.  There are big sand dunes with a lake in the middle, and somebody decided to build a bunch of hotels and restaurants around it.  It was the day of parades after Peru’s Independence Day, and the area was teeming with locals in addition to the usual flow of tourists.  People go walk on the dunes, and slide or “sandboard” or take buggy rides on them.  They paddle board on the lake.  What Lonely Planet was to Gen X, Peru Hop is to Gen Z, and this is their demographic and their chosen South America Experience.

I wasn’t optimistic about finding any good food, but as I walked around scouting restaurants I noticed a dish I hadn’t heard of, “calacabra con sopa seca”.  We ended up going to Huacafuckingchina, the restaurant of the Sand & Lake hotel, and ordered that and anticuchos de corazon, the beef heart skewers we’ve often had at Peruvian restaurants elsewhere.

Tuesday, July 30

Our bus to Paracas wasn’t until 7pm, but we were kicked out of our room at noon, and there were no “day rooms” available.  So we sat by the pool, blogging and writing postcards, our clothes drying in the sun.  A bright orange little bird was flying around, which turned out to be a vermilion flycatcher.

The bus ride was fairly short, and we were picked up by our Airbnb host who took us to his businesslike condo configured as a full-time four-room Airbnb space.  We went off to a lovely generic fried fish restaurant along the beach.

Above the Condors

Friday, July 26

The Peru Hop bus to Arequipa drove over a high pass.  There was ice on the inside of the windows.  We arrived around 3:30 am.  The bus sat there with the engine (and air-conditioning) off for two hours.  Ray wrote and complained.  They wrote back and said that their contract with the people who actually drive the buses, is that the air conditioning is always supposed to be on.  Finally they took us to our hotel around 6am, where we had a delightful breakfast on the third floor with a view of some rooftops.  Hotel Los Tambos is modern on the inside, although being only a half a block off the square, they are constrained to keep the original façade.

At every major stop that Peru Hop makes, we scheduled a tour.  This is how you’re supposed to use a hop-on hop-off bus.  In Arequipa, that tour was to have a look at the Colca Canyon.  We chose a short tour — you can spend an arbitrary amount of time.  There are trails into the canyon.  But juggling everything that I wanted to do, a long walk didn’t make the final cut.

We left the big pieces of luggage in storage, and took the small ones as we got picked up for the 9am Colca Canyon tour. 

The first day of the tour took us up into the mountains, with many volcanoes visible all around.  One of them, Sabancaya, actually spurts ash and gas pretty continuously.  (Another smaller one, Ubinas, had had an eruption a few days earlier, but nobody was concerned that it would interfere with getting to Arequipa to Puno.)  We ended up in the town of Chivay, where we had a dumb buffet lunch.  We did little in the afternoon, going for a walk around sunset, wishing that we’d have done it earlier.  We had a minimal dinner since we were still full from lunch.  

The plaza at Chivay, and even the smaller towns around, is decorated with large statues, brightly colored.  If the country weren’t Roman Catholic, you’d swear they were pagan deities.

I’ve been taking lots of pictures of people taking selfies on this trip.  It’s the last moment to do that.  No, selfie people aren’t disappearing from style.  The absence of them is disappearing, and to be ubiquitous is equally the cloak of invisibility.  We will soon not be able to see them.

Two decades ago, in Australia, I was impressed by the vast quantity of signs there were, everywhere, advising the public that they were being surveilled by video.  I took pictures of those, too, because it was obvious that cameras would be everywhere in the world, soon, and there wouldn’t be signs, you would just assume, everywhere you were, that you were being photographed.

Does being watched increase the incidence of suicide attacks?  It seems that criminals would be more discreet if they thought they might get away with it.  But the GINI for crime is doing the same as the GINI for money: there are billionaires and paupers, and there are mad bombers and terrorized petty-criminals-manqué.  Involuntarily Law Abiding.  Should be an identity.

Saturday, July 27

In the morning, we drove along the rim of the canyon, stopping at a little town.  More statues, more dancers.  The dancers, who were children in large part, didn’t get it.  They scowled and turned away when you got out your phone to take photos of them.  Frowning at the camera fits into a narrative, if it’s a native woman in a market in La Paz who only wants to sell her 12 varieties of potato and go back to their barrios, but these dancers wouldn’t even be here, if tourists weren’t taking pictures of them.  They’d be home on their Playstations.  I guess they didn’t want to dance at all, and weren’t getting any money from it, and were sabotaging the whole scene.

Our guide told us that church ladies are divided by hat color. He says. Black and white. Different churches.  I bet he was kidding.

Pretty soon we stopped at a place where about a dozen Andean Condors (Vultur gryphus) continuously flew around.  At this point, the canyon started to get pretty deep.  The stops continued at viewpoint after viewpoint, culminating at Mirador Cruz del Cóndor (there’s even a commemorating cross), where you may gaze 1200 meters down to the bottom of the gorge, or 15 or 20 meters in any direction, at the condors.  If you look over the edge, you can watch them from above, as they soar against the backdrop of the black basaltic dropoff.

The condors have made their peace with the camera-intoxicated tourists.  It is an exercise in co-evolution, or maybe just operant conditioning. The condors make dramatic approaches and swoops and aerobatics; the tourists follow them with their cameras over the cliffs, and the condors now have carrion to eat. The most photogenically performing condors therefore have the most food and reproductive success.

Colca Canyon is a pretty place but the only way it’s the biggest anything is by conflating the definition of watershed and canyon, pretending there’s a distinction.  Except for a couple of gorges, it’s a broad agricultural valley.  You might as well call the Amazon Basin a canyon. If you can’t afford to come to Peru, visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Bring an Andean Condor feeding puppet. 

After a few hours we returned to Chivay for another lunch.  Most people seemed to bail on the lunch this time, as did we — we split an Arequipa sausage sandwich in a little shop instead.  The tour returned to Arequipa the same way, and we actually checked into our charming hotel, Los Tambos.  

We walked to the Plaza de las Armas and were immediately accosted by a crowd of Venezuelan exchange students or tourists, in costume, and shouting “Selfie!  Selfie!”  They must have been students.  Tourists don’t pack masks and furry suits and togas.  All the photos they take must be on Facebook or Instagram but you can’t find them, for privacy reasons.  Make up your mind what you want, people.

We walked a little around the plaza at sunset, past the chain stores on the walking streets nearby, and to a restaurant I picked out, Picanteria Benita de los Claustros.  They have menus of eight or four dishes, somewhat scaled down, but the menus of eight were said to be too big for two people, and those of four didn’t have the things we wanted.  So we ordered three things a la carte, two of them involving the local crayfish (a “soup” and a “salad”). The other dish was the local stuffed hot pepper.  It was all delicious, and the menu described it as typical of Arequipa food.  I always suspect that genuine local people go home or eat at Five Guys.  Their loss, if they do.

Sunday, July 28

We set the alarm and got up in time for the 5:15 pickup for the bus to Nazca.  We found out that the arriving bus had been stopped at a blockade, and received an email as we sat there informing us that the bus had been rescheduled to 8pm.  (They also called the hotel.  Peru Hop is extremely communicative, often replying to emails within minutes.)

That gave us a day to walk around Arequipa.  We were able to move into another room at the charming hotel for the day, and to get another hour of sleep.  Unfortunately, it was a Sunday, and everything was closed (and it’s not a big museum town anyway).  (It was also Independence Day, but we didn’t hear any anthems being sung or anything.) 

We went to Yanahuara, a neighborhood said to have interesting architecture, and whiled away a bit of time.  There was a glass platform up in the air with people wearing harnesses.  We were hoping they’d jump or bungee down, but no, it was just an observation platform.  A store nearby sold post cards of Old Peru that were too nice to send.  A row of manikins representing historical figures was set up for people to take selfies with, together with QR codes to scan, for further information.

Back at Plaza de Armas, four more Venezuelan students wanted photos with us.  They did not have costumes. The one who approached us was tall and extraordinarily handsome, and had two girls hanging off him while his mate had none and looked resentful in the photos.

Around 4 we started looking for dinner, and ended up at Victoria Panteria de Democratia, which is a sister restaurant of Benita.  I was surprised it was open, since Google had said it would be closed, but the waiter said they changed that a month ago.  I let Google know.  So we had two more things a la carte from the menu of 8 things, a local salad, and “adobo”, pork in a nicely spicy sauce with an even spicier pepper. 

The restaurant had a sign on the wall, among all the restaurant old stuff artifacts, slightly misquoting the French critic Eugène Viollet-le-Duc of the 19th century:  “It is not to preserve it, to repair it, or rebuild it; it is to reinstate it in a condition of completeness which could never have existed at any given time.”  The original quote was about buildings, but I suppose they were thinking of making traditional dishes.  There was also a copy of Hal McGee’s book, “La Cocina y los Alimentos”.

We returned to the hotel, and got picked up and taken to the bus.