Thursday, April 23, 2020

No Inside Voices in Nigeria

We were in a sea of people and luggage, sweaty and despondently huddled together, running into one another and shoving at shoulders and waists to get through, like a mosh pit of a pugnacious punk show.  The scent of overheated bodies in the sweltering Nigerian winter unpleasantly drifted into my nose.  The lack of airport A.C., and 90 degree weather meant that I was perspiring hard, feeling the beads of sweat on my forehead, and my neck, dripping down to the crook of my back.  I was being pushed by the wave of angry (predominantly) men around me, being forcedly moved forward and backwards, side to side, swaying in the sea of aggression which ever direction the current carried me. 

The people of Nigeria were in the middle of a socio political protest after their gas subsidies were removed.  Prices of gas doubled overnight, affecting all aspects of their life. Daily staples such as rice, bread, and oil, and gas generators, used frequently as back up due to unreliable energy, became almost impossible to afford. With the majority of the Nigerians living on less than $2 a day, this made a difficult life, a struggle, and with this, people took to the streets hastily fighting against this new unsustainable deck they’d been dealt.

The airport workers looked exasperated.  Things were getting progressively out of hand.  Overweight luggage was being hurled.  Flights were getting canceled.  People were getting hurt.  There were limbs being broken,  gurneys housing bodies floating high above the crowds.  I panicked internally, unsure of what else to do but just continue to go with the literal flow I was in.  It was loud, and I could understand nothing but the frustration and anger in the voices of the people, but the volume was nothing new to me.  There are no inside voices in Nigeria.   

I was here in this warm in all of the ways country, because of my uncle Tiger, who married into our large jewish clan.  Two weeks prior, we were picked up in a chaotic flurry of excitement and love from his family in Lagos at this same airport we stood in now surrounded by a very different chaos.  We visited the cities where his family lived, and the remote village where he grew up.  I saw first hand the inconsistency in electricity, and how at night, when the TV would go out mid show, and the light would disappear, his brother would run outside, using the guidance of his eyes in darkness to feel his way around their generator in hopes of a few more hours of entertainment.  

We’d sit around, and dip sweet white bread into even sweeter coffee, and watch Nigerian dramas.  His siblings, son, nieces and nephews yelled at each other over the speakers, using their hands to speak nearly as loud, just barely missing knocking over their full drinks in a slapstick array of movements to get their points across.  It was noise overload.  Background music, the tv, honking cars, revving motorbikes, and dogs barking.  There was the yelling; inside of the house, outside of the house, over one another, one louder than the next.  No one ever hearing anything but the sound of their own voice, somehow in an incredibly zig zagged route, everyone understanding at the end.  And for a brief moment, the yelling turned to laughter.  Loud laughter, none the less. 

The volume of joy, and the volume of anger was the same.  And I thought of this the whole twelve hours to our gate, barreling through the rollercoaster of Murtala Muhammed International Airport in the midst of this demonstration. Through the hoards of fury, I listened for glee.  Their knack for turning a distressing situation positive, was one that they had unfortunately grown accustomed to, but an attitude I admired. 

Salt dried sweat marks stained our clothes as the heat subsided.  I closed my eyes greeted with the slightest second of silence as everyone decompressed the stress of the day.  It didn’t last long as yelling commenced from one end of the gate to the other, continuing onto the plane.  Not an inside voice could be heard through all of the yelling. 

Kismet

“No, you have to come up this way!”  He yelled throwing a tray of ash over the side of the snowy hill from the opposite rooftop.  I had arrived to Goreme unprepared for the climate. I was wearing several layers and could feel the chill through each and every one of them.  He was sporting long blue socks and white strapped sandals, a thin beanie, a worn t shirt, grey joggers, and an unzipped hoodie.  His cheeks kept warm with facial hair at its spikiest point of growth, slowly on its way to becoming a beard.  His chest hair so thick I could see it peeking through the neck of his shirt from the rooftop I stood on.  He yelled something  I couldn’t hear and disappeared.  

The snow was melting into grey slush, and I could see my panting breathe in the air, like a heavy smoker exhaling their first lungful of nicotine.  He met me at the bottom of an incline with a foot wide path and led me up the slippery slope, showing me how to walk correctly in the snow to not fall down.  I lacked snow legs, bunglingly trampling up like a new born baby goat.  He showed me to my room, a trail of water from the snow melting off our shoes behind us towards the bed as I set my bags down.  He took a seat, shuffling his sandals to the intricately gold-inlaid red cushion lined sofa in my room.   I asked his name.  
    “Mustafa” he said through grinning red stained teeth of a boy who started smoking at the age of 8.

I met him later in the common area for tea.  The wood burning stove in the center of the room keeping both the kettle and our bodies warm.   He invited me for dinner and I sat along side him and his friends as if I had always been a part of their lives.  Turkish hospitality wasn't a myth.  

We had vegetable soup and a communal bowl of bright green salad dressed with lemon juice and Turkish olive oil.  Mustafa grabbed a loaf of bread out of the basket and ripped pieces off for each of us.  They shouted at one another in Turkish before his friend got up and ran back and forth to the kitchen, grabbing condiments out of the fridge, disguised as cheese in their repurposed plastic feta tubs. Olives, a few mystery pickles, and a 6 quart jar of what I thought were green beans.   
    “Be careful, they’re spicy.”  Mustafa warned me, but I wasn’t one to say no to spice. Tiny tangy crunchy green chilies fermented in red chili paste.  I ate one, and then another, and then another, unable to stop myself.

    "These are incredible!”  I screamed.
    “Yes.  My mother made them.  She made all of this.” He gestured with his hands to the the condiments.  “She never buys anything.  She grows it all, and preserves and pickles it.  She makes jams too.  And food for me because she knows I love it.”  
    “I think I love your mother!”  I said to him.  
    “Yes.  Everyone does.  Try this.”  He handed me a piece from one of the feta containers.  “It’s unripe melon, pickled in salt.”  It was acidic, refreshing, full of texture.
    “When it’s ramadan and the poor families have nothing, she puts together boxes of things she’s made for them.  She loves doing this.  She even knocks on the doors of the rich and tells them to give her money for the boxes and she’ll make them a box too.  And they do it, because they love her foods.”  He went on to tell us more about this inspiring woman.  How she was married at 14.  Moved to Kapadokya from a small town hours away.  Started a farm in what is now the hotel where we stay.  

I was still munching on chilies,  completely captivated with every new bit of information I learned about his mom.   For the first time in ages, I felt like I was right where I was meant to be.  I wanted to know everything about her.   
    “What’s her name?” I asked.
    “Kismet.  You know this meaning?”  I knew the feeling.



*His face kept warm with a spiky shag carpet of growth, not yet a beard.

Calderiada de Chocos

I woke up in the backseat of our 3rd rental car this week to my adopted Colombian family yelling about parking and hearing the word “bacalao” several times.  I fell asleep in the middle of a sadly true political story on This American Life, and my neck hurt from the position I had left it in for the last hour leaning against the the side of headrest.   I don’t usually nap because I wake up in funk, but I turn into a baby in a car and drift so easily asleep.  I was hazy eyed, bloated, and sick of sitting in the car after 4 hours knowing we had another 3 to go.  I wasn’t hungry, and definitely just wanted to make it to our final destination of Porto, but that wasn’t completely up to me traveling with 3 others.  They were hungry and in need of a break.  I slowly got my shoes on and made my way out of the car to a town of one main street, and a sky filled with smoke.  It was cold, and my eyes weren’t fully open yet.  

“Where are we?” I asked rubbing my eyes again yawning for what seemed like the 5th time in a minute. 
“O Bacalhau!” Papito Joe responded, his mustache fully covering his upper lip as he smiled.  He had been researching where to eat along the way since before I nodded off, looking at reviews and carefully zooming in on the map to see which of our highway routes connected.  It came down to this place, and one more about a half a block up.  We checked both, the other being a tiny cafe, and after turning the corner passing what appeared to be a semi lost senile old man who stared at us with a fiery confusion unsure of who we were or what we were doing in his unburdened by tourists town, we settled on O Bacalhau.  

The chalkboard menu outside was a mix of writing that hadn’t been changed in the last 10 years, and layer upon layer of poorly erased chalk, making the “Prato do dia” and what type of meat they had, mostly illegible.  It was 1pm and this being the main restaurant of the town, it was packed.   After a lot of googling about the area, I found what led me to believe that Tremês as it was called, has between what Portuguese wikipedia says is a population of 1981 inhabitants, and French Wikipedia says is 2146.  My mediocre reading of Portuguese suggests that it is a town of ceramics, and as far as I could see, the main clientel and passerbys were single old men, construction workers, olive oil factory workers, and elderly couples.  We were the youngest, and by far the most unfamiliar faces that had walked in that day, if not ever.  It was a scene out of a movie where the bustling restaurant filled with people merrily eating, chugging down carafes of wine, and chatting, suddenly stopped, looked up, and stared at us.  Antonio the owner, whose name was written on our paper place mats, gestured at a table for 4, and I sat back to back with a construction worker dressed in his bright yellow uniform, on his lunch break eating a pound of steak, and drinking a liter of wine to himself.

This place was old, and classic.  It was cold.  The tables were all black rectangular, and one step above cheap plastic, reminiscent of a once a week church dinner.  The bathroom didn’t have a lock, or a toilet seat, but somehow remained clean with the line of old ladies waiting their turn to pee.  There was a glass case next to the kitchen with pieces of fruit you could order for dessert like slices of melon and pineapple, or a whole apple or banana. Fruit sat directly next to slices of cake dry looking cake.   

Couples finished up their meals, put their coats on, and went to sit at the bar to chat and have their after lunch espressos.  Huge cazuelas of potato stew, metal platters of meat with unsalted crispy yet soggy fries, lightly dressed salad with large rings of raw onion, and grilled fish with boiled potatoes flew by our faces, as either of the two front of house workers rushed across the restaurant to bring and clear dishes from the 50 plus people currently occupying the space.  In the kitchen was one older woman, wearing a uniform of all white with baby blue trim ruffles on the sleeves, a bonnet, and a pair of heavy paned glasses attached to her neck with a metal chain.  They must have constantly been fogging up from the amount of steam and smoke back there.  She was holding down the entire kitchen alone, grilling bife to a perfect bloody rare, charring fish with the most pristine of grill marks, and scooping up what I later found to be my favorite bite of Portugal, their Prato do dia; Calderiada de Chocos. 

Our table got set one person at a time as Antonio hopped around the restaurant collecting single place settings from empty tables any time his  hands were free.  
    “Were we supposed to grab our own?” Dani asked chuckling.  When he finally got a minute to hold his head above water, he came over to our table and used his limited patience to try to figure out what the hell we wanted with our broken Portoñol.  We got a carafe of vhino verde, a bowl of bread and olive oil, salt brined olives, Calderiada de chocos, salmon, and when Joe asked between the ribs and the beef, Antonio grunted “Bife, bife” and walked in a sluggish hurry back to the kitchen.  The front door to the restaurant opened, and in came the old man from the street, still looking confused, but relieved to be inside of somewhere familiar.  He sat at the bar with the rest of the regulars, only after making direct eye contact with our table.  

Our food came surprisingly quickly for how busy it was and how long it even took to get the table set up.  We had enough food to feed a family of 6, and I’m glad my hunger came back when it did.  I didn’t want the meat as good as it looked, or the salmon, as surprisingly medium rare I hadn’t expected it to come.  I didn’t care about the fries, or the boiled potatoes.  I was after the stew.  Potatoes cooked in the rich tomato based soup, thickened the broth and broke apart with a stab of the fork.  Huge thick pieces of cuttlefish lay atop them, and chunks of tomatoes, onions, and peppers were strewn throughout it all.  I scooped a decent amount onto my plate, and soaked up some sauce with a piece of bread.  It was salty, acidic, rich, hearty from the warmth and the potatoes, light from the seafood.  The cuttlefish cut with ease, and I had never had one so tender and enveloped in flavor.  Sure it could have been hotter.  But I was so surprised at how insanely flavorful something so simple could be that for maybe the first time in my life, I didn’t even care that I didn’t burn my tongue. 

I was so happy!  Surrounded by happy families, by this particular family, and to top it all off, a slightly tipsy Dani’s mother gave me a hug and told me how happy she was that I was part of their lives, that I was the best thing to happen to their daughter, and that she was so glad I was there.  I began crying in the middle of the busy restaurant, tears of relief and joy, so filled with love after a tough year of loss.  Dani and her father looked up from their intense discussion about what to order for dessert to see me tearing up.  
    “What did you do to my friend mom!” Dani jokingly yelled.  

Dani and Papito Joe attempted to order dessert from what they had seen on the chalk board outside upon entering.   
    “Un budin, y un mousse de chocolate” Joe said to Antonio.  Antonio looked at him with a blank expression, scrunched his nose, and gestured with his hand as he sternly told us “No, no no!”  Joe asked what he recommended, and Antonio pulled him up, smiling for the first time with us, led him to the glass case in the back, and pointed at something. 
    “What did you get?!” I asked excitedly.      
    “I don’t know?”  Joe shrugged. “He said this was the best, so we shall see.”  

I watched as Antonio opened what looked like the container for a store-bought cake and scooped a slice of something onto a plate.  A tartshell filled with almond paste and topped with almonds appeared, and Lyzeth cut it into pieces for everyone to try.  I drank my coffee down quickly, and looked around at a now empty restaurant minus the 3 men sitting at the bar with their flat caps and their shots.  The chef came out to relight the wood burning chimney to heat the restaurant, and helped clear plates from abandoned tables before sitting down to lunch for herself and the other 2.  
    “Oh! So expensive!” Joe said to us.  “A whole 8 euro a person!”  He laughed.  We got up, thanked them, and they smiled before taking a bite of their food.  “Obrigada! Obrigada!”  We got back in the car, and set the GPS for the rest of our trip to Porto.  My heart and my stomach were full.  

In the week I’ve been in Portugal I’ve found a few things that I entirely love about their eating culture.  Service is painstakingly slow  and lacks patience to start off.  You can sit for a half hour without even an acknowledgment that you’re there, and when they come, you had better be ready.   They’ll scoff, and try for a maximum of about 30 seconds to answer any questions, or explain any confusion, but the effort is minimal.  Sometimes the food is quick, but when they’re busy, you wait.  But I like that.  It means that you have to make an effort to talk to those around you, your loved ones sitting with you at the table.  To connect, instead of sit on your phone rushing to get through your meal to get back to your busy life.  Wine and bread are important.   They come, and the bread absorbs the alcohol as you chug it down, impatiently beginning to get hangry as you’ve waited for ages for just your order alone to be taken.  By this point, you’re drunk and everything is just dandy.  You’re talking nonsense, and giggling, and ordering another liter of wine for 3 Euro, and then the food arrives, and portions are a plenty!  A plate for one can easily be shared amongst 3, but that doesn’t stop the Portuguese from inhaling it all themselves.  And there’s a theme in their dishes, and it involves potatoes!  Every plate had a form of potato, from the stew, to the fries, to the boiled.   Their braised dishes start with onion, peppers, garlic, and tomato, and then what ever meat, bean or starch gets added to that.  And their salads are dressed simply with vinegar, Portuguese olive oil, and salt.  Nothing is complicated, or overbearing, or intense.  It’s simple, and rugged, and heavy, and perfect in all of its imperfections.  I think I like it here.  

My Oaxaca Market

I had gone to the same vegetable woman everyday for the past month since I moved north in the city.  She sat elevated behind a mountain of vegetables directly next to, and across from two other women selling the same exact product, but I chose her.  Something about the way her tomatoes shined in the flickering light burning out above her that first day caught my eye and instead of battling in my mind for a half hour about who and how to choose, I followed the glow of the light.  That being said, I’m not sure she was happy I did.  She’d skip me when I was waiting patiently, and charge me a different price everyday for the same product I had paid a peso more for the following afternoon.  But like a bad relationship, I went back for more, hoping, thinking, she’d change. At this point, I thought it might piss her off more if I went to either of the other women, so I stayed safely by her side.  

After filling my bag with vegetables, I’d walk a few stalls down to the cheese woman.  She also wasn’t too keen on me, but she had the herby queso fresco, and the good quesillo, so I needed her, more than she needed me and my addiction to her salty rolls of Oaxaca string cheese.  She too would  over charge me, make me wait, shake her head or ignore me when I’d ask a question, but I kept hoping one day she’d learn to like me. 

I’d go up the stairs to get my fruit, the woman there always chit chatting with the dried goods man behind her,  telling me what was good, and giving me the best deals because she knew I bought a lot!  Mamey, ripe papayas, sweet baby yellow Mexican mangos that dripped juice from your mouth and down your arm as you’d bite into their sweet golden flesh.  I would always walk in and grab a few things and she’d convince me I needed more with a slice off of something or a speech about another.  She was always right.  I needed it, I needed her and her supply of fruit.  

After fruit, I’d walk left where sometimes an indigenous woman from a town an hour or so away would be sitting on the stairs with woven baskets filled with various snack items.  Big chapulines spiced with chili and lime, fried peanuts with whole chili de arbol, crispy garlic, and lots of salt, and my most favorite; crispy chickpeas with chili and spices.  I’d buy what was supposed to last me a week and eat it in a few days if it even lasted me that long, knowing I was taking a risk since she had no real schedule.  

Back down the stairs, was the other dry good man, where I’d get bulk rice, beans, nuts, and dried fruit.  He had large sacks of dog food, medicinal herbs, flowers, and every item one needed to make various moles.  A recipe containing every item in your pantry and then some, one can imagine the quantity of jars, sacks, and containers he had splayed about.  At prime time he had a line of abuelas waiting to get their goods   He was pretty popular, and incredibly talkative even with a line of impatient women yelling at him.  He would always show me something I had never heard of and explain it’s origin and how to use it.  I appreciated him.  He took the time to educate me, and had the patience to listen to me and my slow progression of Spanish language skills. 

I’d go past my veggie and cheese women again who paid me no attention, round the corner where the poultry stalls lay. The eldest chicken butcher with one lazy eye would always stare out and nod at me.  He had the sweetest young boy he brought under his wing, teaching him how to pluck feathers from a warm body, break down the corpse, and debone the parts.  The young boy would stop, look up from what he was doing, smile leading into a giggle, blush, and never utter a single word.  He’d focus his eyes from my blonde hair back down to the blood on his board and hands, quickly getting back to work before the old man noticed he was distracted. 

This is when we hit the line of indigenous women selling bags of prepared foods and blandas, or the largest burrito sized Oaxacan corn tortillas that they used for everything, including plates and napkins.  “Que le damos guera!” They’d all yell in a choir of one starting and then the next and the next, so that 6 women were at different points of asking me what I wanted at once.   Every item laid out on their color full tablecloths in pre-portioned plastic baggies. When I was lazy I’d get a bag of cactus salad, and some cooked black beans , flavored with the leaves of the local avocado tree, and pureed.  They were my favorite.  They’d offer me more things, sometimes so cheerfully forceful in their approach I couldn’t say no.  A bag of rice, some scrambled eggs with green beans,  a few blandas, still steamy and warm.  

I’d go to my juice stall next.  Super Jugos Angelita, where Angela herself would serve me, making my favorite juices in the city. Most days I’d go simple with a jugo verde; freshly squeezed orange juice blended with celery, parsley, and pineapple. She’d pour it into a plastic bag, stick a straw in, and do some sort of dizzying tie with the plastic and her fingers.  On other days, I’d tell her how I was feeling, and she’d whip me up a juice for cramps, headaches, hangovers, periods, anything I ever needed.  She was my juice doctor, and I came everyday.  

My hands full, my stomach grumbling, I’d take a sip of my juice, and head home up the steep hill to my little house.     I’d meet my roommate,  and we would talk about our day while spreading black beans on crispy tostadas, crumbling queso fresco on top, and adding slices of avocado.  We’d cut up chunks of ripe tropical fruit, and take shots of mezcal before heading to bed, dreaming of what juice we would get for breakfast the following morning at our Oaxaca market. 


Monday, May 7, 2012

A SLEEVE STUFFED WITH STOLEN TOILET PAPER


THURSDAY MAY 3, 2012, A SLEEVE STUFFED WITH STOLEN TOILET PAPER
It was another terrible night’s rest.  I barely slept from the constant coughing, and sneezing going on in our room...and when I was just at the point of dozing off again, one of the Dutch girl’s who had been having a late night conversation in the room the night before, decided to jump off of her bunk, bang into things, and scream “FUCK” in a loud whisper.  I was aggravated to say the least, and it seemed that fast as I fell asleep, two hours had gone by and I, alongside the rest of the room, was quickly woken up when Dutch girl #1, got out of bed and decided a little before 7 would be a good time to pack up all of her shit, giving little care to anyone else in the room.
There was zipping, crinkling, more zipping, more crinkling, the ruffling sound of clothes being packed and unpacked.  Violent throws of trash loudly thudding into the tiny plastic bin.  It was ridiculous.  Then Dutch girl #2 woke up.  She yawned and stretched; a loud cry from the pleasure of a morning stretch.  I understand, but when there’s 6 other people sleeping, it’s the time to keep your mouth shut, no?
She proceeded to get out of bed, in her lacy black undies, and as she bent over to pack up her stuff, I opened my eyes, to see a black piece of string tucked away into her ass.  What a way to really wake up!  When the two were done talking, slamming lockers, packing, coming in and out, and finally gone, it turned out that they just sat downstairs for an hour or so, not even needing to pack at that ungodly hour.  With everyone in the room awake now, we decided to get up and maybe do something.  
Eefke and Kirsty met up with a guy from the hostel who was going to look into overnight treks in Colca canyon, and I stayed behind and did a little writing.  When  I felt I had enough, I went downstairs, meeting a nice English girl named Rosa, and had a bit of a chat with her before Pete (the sick and sneezy one from our room) joined us.  He had showered and was feeling much better.  We sat there waiting for at least an hour, before we all started to get antsy and decided we were going to meet the girls at the market.  Just as I began to write them a note however, they returned and we set out in a giant group, adding one more before we left, for a total of 6.  At the market, while we all sat drinking juice, Nancy (overwhelmed by the number of us exceeding her amount of allowed chairs), began juicing.  A man from our hostel spotted us and sat down with us to have a chat.  His name was Salva and he was from Spain.  A few people not wanting to wait, went to other women, while Kirsty, Eefke and I stayed loyal to our favorite mujer de jugos, Nancy.  
Pete ordered first, We told her to give him something for his cold.  She added “alfalfa” leaves to his juice, different from the alfalfa I know, it was just a flavorless green leaf.  Then she added honey, and some different fruits and handed it to him.  He let us all try it.  It was delicious!  And would hopefully help heal him.  I asked for a few things, in which Nancy responded and asked if I had ever tried guava.  I nodded, and she made me a special one with that.  Sweet and filling, I was quite happy with my last juice, and said good bye to Nancy until the next time, asking her to remember me.  She nodded and we walked away. 
The boys headed back to the hostel, while we girls decided what we wanted to do.  Just as we were walking out however, we noticed some of the sales women at the exit eating something wrapped in plastic that looked quite delicious.  It was fried yucca stuffed with different fillings and after Rosa got one with some green herbs and cheese, Eefke got one solely stuffed with cheese, and we were all hooked.  I got one to share with Kirsty, asking the woman to put a little salsa on ours.  She warned me that it was hot, I smiled and told her it was ok, and about a third of the way, Kirsty, full from her empanada and her juice, left the rest to me.  I was full, but it was so delicious, I couldn’t help resisting and ate the whole thing.  I slightly regretted it after as the dense fried ball of carbohydrate and fat sat in the pit of my stomach, but my head was happy from the sensations my tongue was sending it, and it all evened out. 
We walked for a bit in a direction we hadn’t yet gone, and after going a few blocks, a woman waved us down, and came close to us to talk.  She warned us the neighborhood was peligroso (dangerous) and to take cuidado (caution).  She asked where we were going and when we told her it was just a walk, she told us it wasn’t the place, it was not safe.  We walked back down the street we came, seeing her at the corner telling us to turn, thanked her, waved goodbye, and continued in our path.  We had just come up the street and nothing had happened, we would be fine.  
We stopped into a little shop where I noticed some locks and asked how much.  The old woman sitting there  simply told me no. 
“No puedo comprar este?”  I asked, pointing to a lock I saw.  Once again she told me no.  Did I do something to offend the old women in the shops here?  Did I smell?  Did they just not like tourists?  We walked on down the street looking for more where I stopped into the next shop.  A teenage boy was behind the counter helping an elderly woman and I waited patiently until he could help me.  
I held up Eefke’s lock and asked if they had any like hers.  He shook his head.  
“Este?”  I said pointing to a small black lock. “Cuanto Cuesto?”  He pulled the lock down and handed it to me. 
“2.50” he said.  It was a done deal.  I now had a crappy black lock, but a lock that could fit the lockers at that.  Rosa now deciding she may want one, stopped into the next store spending 50 sol cents more than I, to buy a far better lock.  It’s ok, I liked my shitty one.
We walked back to the hostel, where we sat for a bit, before I went with the girls and their tall Russian friend Andre, to go check out different prices for the trekking trip.  When Andre and Eefke had nearly finished booking theirs at one place, Rosa and Kirsty went to check out another.  I stayed with Eefke and Andrew in hopes of visiting the church, however not wanting to pay to see their museum, we’d have have to wait until later when we could just check out the church for free!  We went to get some coffee while waiting for the girls.  Let me tell you, the Cusco coffee company swirming with tourists serving Starbucks like drinks, could kick their ass.  Their coffee was far far tastier, as I learned from drinking the (highly reccomended by Eefke) cinnamon frappe.
If I wasn’t full enough from juice, and a fried yucca stuffed with cheese, I was now about to burst from the cream and sugar syrup in my coffee drink.  Hopefully we’d walk it off!  Andre talked about going to the cinema.  He listed all of the movies out, and said there was a theater in Cusco.  Neither Eefke nor I really enthused with the idea, we tried to sway him away from it. 
“How about a movie at the hostel?”  We asked him.  He was not sold.  Back at the hostel, Kirsty and Rosa walked in just after us, and after discussing it, none of us wanted to go to the movies, but rather the supermarket, so they could stock up on goodies for their trek.  I just wanted to walk.  We broke the news to Andre that there probably would be no movie, and he wasn’t too thrilled; though he did come to the supermarket with us.  Rosa, who didn’t want to join us, in the end decided to come, complaining the entire time about why we were walking so far, why didn’t we just go to a little street stand, and finally when we were in the store, about how she liked the small stands better.  Well, then love, ya shouldn’t have come!
While the girls went straight for energy bars and cookies, Andre headed for his water and vodka.  We shuffled through the store until everyone had gotten their goodies, and headed back to the hostel to watch a movie someone had put on.  "Burn After Reading" ended ubruptly and had me saying “WHAT THE FUCK DID I JUST WATCH?” when it was over.
The girls went out for dinner and I sat on the couch, waiting the longest hour for a taxi to come and pick up Rob and me.  Though his bus was a half hour later, he decided sharing the taxi was the best idea for him, and even thought about trying to change his time to my bus; we’d sort that out when we got there.  When 6:45 came, the girls were not back, and our taxi had not arrived.  The woman at the front desk called, and I saw her face sitting there in disgust as the guy put her on hold, and then never bothered to pick back up.  
“Creas que es mejor se vamos aya?”  I asked pointing to the street.
“Si.”  She said.  Then proceeded to tell us it would be cheaper too, but to make sure he was actually licensed and had a a radio.  We walked to the street corner, stood on the edge of the sidewalk and waved down every taxi, that eventually drove past us.  Finally, the tiniest of taxis that ever could be, stopped and we tried to fit our bags in.  Rob didn’t see a radio or a license, though the rosary beads hanging from his front mirror made me feel ok about him, however the fact that Rob did not, also paranoid me, and being that we were having trouble fitting our bags in, and were now scared, we let him go.  We now had even less time.  
We continued the waving down process, finally another small car stopping for us.  He had some sort of number on his windshield. That probably counted for something.  Rob was not sure of the situation, but being that the guy had stopped his car, gotten out to help us put our bags in, gave me the price I wanted without having to barter, and we were running late on time, I told him it’d be fine and we hopped in. 
“Radio?”  Rob asked the guy, using his hands to show a walkie talkie like radio being held in his hand and going to his mouth.  
“Si!”  the driver said enthusiastically as he raised the volume to his Peruvian folk music.  I couldn’t help but laugh. 
I figure if you start conversations with people and make them like you, you have less of a chance of being hurt in the end, because whether or not they want to “drive you down back alleys” as Rob had told me, they still have a conscience. 
I asked him about traffic and Peru; if he was from Arequipa, and if he’d traveled anywhere.  His name was Hilberto.  I liked him.  I watched Rob’s face as we went down narrow streets.  His entire body tightening up in fear of us about to be slaughtered, our organs sold to feed Hilberto’s family.  Once again I laughed to myself.  The best was when we turned a corner onto a dark dirt road.  It was right before we hit the station.  I knew this because I went the day before.  Rob however was quivering inside, I just knew it.  To calm his nerves, I made sure to make it clear.
“Estamos aqui, no?”  
“Si.”  Hilberto responded.  “Es aqui!”  He said as he pulled up beside the side of the station. 
“I could see ya getting scared.”  I evily laughed as I said to Rob.  At the station with a good amount of time to spare, we went inside to Cruz del Sur to ask about changing Rob’s ticket.  He was told he’d have to pay extra, but the seat next to mine was free.  He paid the extra 28 sols, and it was done.
Why was it, that I had been sacrificing myself of water all day to prevent myself from having to pee on the ten hour bus, but as soon as we got to the station I had to pee like a whale about to give birth?  With everything done and out of the way, we wandered around aimlessly looking for the bathroom, Rob finally telling me it was upstairs.  I trudged myself up, out of breathe from the altitude by the time I got to the top, and headed to what looked like a ticket office window.
“Necessito que pagar?!”  I questioned. 
“Si.”  The man behind the window said. 
“Pero, tengo una boleta. Yo pagado!”  I said, telling him I had a ticket that I had paid for!
“Dame, puedo ver.”  He said. I took out my ticket, he took a quick glance at it, handed it back to me, and with a slight cocky smirk, his hand gesture led me to the stalls.  I no sooner realized why I had to pay.  There was no toilet paper.  Good thing I too had none.  I did what was only natural, drip dry, and went back to Rob who was standing there, holding his massive bag as he waited.
We walked now to the terrapuerta, or the bus terminal where I assumed we would wait for our bus outside in the cold parking lot with a group of other people.  I was wrong.   Instead, it was an organized actual station area. There were barely any Peruvians as we had taken the more “expensive”, supposedly secure line, living in luxury for our 10 hour ride.  
We walked up when our bus was called, and our tickets were checked.  However we had forgotten (aka not known) to buy a tiny pink ticket to staple onto our bus ticket, as proof of our leave.  Just another gimmick for money really, but we spent our 2 sols to get it and headed back to the man at the Cruz del Sur counter.  The man checked our tickets, looked into our bags a bit, and we headed to a waiting room with the other passengers.  
It was unlike anything I was expecting, or really ever experienced.  This waiting room was filled with comfy couches, a place to fill up your water, and bathrooms, free of charge, and wait for it, get this, toilet paper!  Yes, an unlimited (well... I shouldn’t go that far)  but a great supply, of toilet paper!  I was overly joyous.  I pulled a backpacker, and stole a bunch of toilet paper for the ride.  And soon enough, we boarded the bus.  Little to my expectation, it was 2 stories.  Yes a 2 story, double decker, stacked bus.  I sat on the bus, in the last row, on the isle in between Rob and the bathroom.  I had withheld myself of water for the entire day just to prevent myself from having to pee, and here I was, a sleeve stuffed with stolen toilet paper, next to a clean bathroom.  I began to rehydrate.  On top of everything, our seat nearly pulled out into a bed, we had a footrest, and like a transformer, our foot rest could fold up, and embedded into it, was a stationary table in which we could take out and put back for use when food was served.  What was this magical bus we were on?!
I pulled my seat out immediately into it’s bed, and lay down.  There was a blanket and a pillow, and in unwrapping it, I found it smelled like the best flowers ever.  I immersed myself in it, in hopes of it maybe making my sweaty self smell better.  
Within the first ten minutes of leaving the station in Arequipa, a skinny, high strung bus stewardess began handing out bingo cards.  From what I understood of what he was saying as he handed them to us, the winner got a ride back to Arequipa, but seeing as we were for the most part travelers and backpackers on this bus, I didn’t understand what the point in this was but I decided to play anyway.  After a few calls of numbers, I had bingo.  I called out and the long fidgety guy working the bus standing behind me calling out the numbers grabbed my blue bingo card from me.  He read over his numbers and mine, and realized I had won.  Then the question was asked.
“Pero vuelves en Arequipa?”  he looked at me with a raised eyebrow.  
“No.  Pero me voy a Lima, puedo usar para este?”  He shook his head and went on to call more numbers.  After another 5 people had won, none of which were returning to Arequipa, I asked him again.  Saying something along the lines of “C’mon man, just use it for Lima!”  He didn’t find my humor as amusing as I did, and went on to yet again, call more numbers.  Finally someone won who could actually use the ticket, and the game was over. 
A movie with the ever so talented Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz was put on.  I sat and glimpsed at it every so often, Rob playing on character, me the other, voicing what we thought they were saying.  We talked for ages, realizing we were the only people actually having a conversation on the bus of quiet people, and finally getting tired, decided to try to sleep.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

RIPENING CHEESE IN THE SUN


WEDNESDAY MAY 2, 2012,  RIPENING CHEESE IN THE SUN
It was a better night’s rest than that of the day before, though still not spectacular.  I had no plans of anything today other than going back to the market and trying some more local food, and so, there was no rush of any sort.  I got up, took my time getting ready, and Eefke Kirsty and I headed out to Mercado San Camilo.  Inside we went straight for the food stalls.  Stall after stall, older peruvian women serving the same items to hungry comers.  One stall was particularly crowded today, but being that the day before they were all equally packed, we figured they would all be delicious.  We settled for one with people that was not too squished, and ordered a rocoto relleno; a stuffed pepper.  The woman behind the stall asked if we wanted the ever abundant potato with it, in which we all agreed, no.  We had been in Peru, all of us no more than a week, and had already had enough potatoes.  
We stood behind the stools lined with people in front of the stall, leaning on empty stall behind us, next to an old woman with no teeth who sold cheese.  
“Hay queso!  Queso fresco!  Hay queso!”  She’d yell softly.  While we waited for our pepper, I asked her about the cheese; What the differences between the rounds of cheeses were.  She told me a whole explanation, half of which I could not hear, gathering very little of what she was actually telling me but acting as if I had gotten it all.
Our pepper was handed to us over the tops of the heads of people by the curly headed woman with painted eyebrows who ran the stall, and we dug in.  A small round red pepper (rocoto), stuffed with meat, onion, spices, olives, eggs, a hint of nuttiness, topped off with one of the quesos from the old woman’s cheese stall, was all it was, but the simplicity of the dish was what made it so delicious.  Eefke and I both noticed however, that a lot of Peruvian food that we had tasted so far was quite salty, and the same went for their sweets, which were insanely sugary.  They had a heavy hand at both, but their food was none the less, bueno.  
After sharing our pepper, we walked to get some juice from our new friend Nancy, who smiled and told us to be patient, as 4 out of her 5 stools were being taken up at the moment.  A couple sat and leaned into each other sharing juices.  Two old businessmen looking types sat as well, eating fruit salad topped with a pourable strawberry yogurt and honey.  When the couple left, we charged at the seats and ordered.
Eefke got the fruit salad, as it looked incredible from what we saw.  I ordered Kirsty a strawberry, banana, and mango juice and I got a mango, banana and cheramoya juice.  She sliced everything up by hand, placing it into the blenders, and a few minutes later, we had juice.  When I finished my first cup, she filled it up again and 2 1/2 cups later, I was full of juice and refreshed.  I showed the girls to the empanada stand, where they each got one and we walked out of the market.  
Then I remembered, I hadn’t gotten the giant cheese from the Peruvian mountain woman of yesterday.  We went to look around, but she was not there.  Luckily enough though, as we went out another exit, there was another quite plump old woman, in traditional garb, long pig tail braids and hat. She sold  a few kind of cheeses in different sizes from a cooler she left in the sun.  I asked her for prices and found a small queso fresco wrapped in a leaf, I had to try.  I was overly joyous to have found a replacement for yesterday.   
We carried on now, going for a bit of a wander and then back into the center, to the tourist office, to ask if there was anything we HAD to do.  We were told  to go to Mirador de Yanahuara, and from there we could take a taxi to an even higher look out, Mirador san Carmen Alto.  We headed off for the first point overlooking the city, walking across a bridge, up into the other side of the city until we hit another big street.  From there we looked at a map and realized it was the street we were originally supposed to take across for a cleaner cut path.  Now we needed to find the cross street,Calle Misti, but where it was, that was the question.   We asked a young guy, and he pointed us across the busy street and one block up. 
When it seemed as clear as it was going to get, we ran across through a good deal of fast moving cars to the center of the road, and then again when the other side was clear.  Now where was it from there?  Eefke went and asked an old man at the corner, who told us to go straight and then turn left.  He told her it was quite far, and when she questioned him asking how far, 30 minutes?  He shook his head and said less.  It was not THAT far, in our opinions.  A security guard watching us from above at a Peruvian chain chicken restaurant came down to help, and the 2 gave us different directions and sent us on our way.  Who to listen to?   We saw a lost looking tourist and a camera in front of us who was asking questions to a local, and decided to follow him, but ten minutes later when he turned down a small street and entered a hotel, we went our separate ways.  We stopped into a small store where Eefke asked the saleswoman for directions, and we turned around, went 2 blocks, turned right and saw the Plaza.  Up a small hill and a set of stairs and we were all out of breathe when we reached the top.  The altitude was killing us and it wasn’t even that bad.
We took some pictures of Arequipa’s dormant volcano, El Misti, and walked around. A large tourgroup of older white women in poker hats arrived now, coming to the view point of Mirador de Yanahuara, to take up the entire space.  I asked one of them if she could take our picture, and she began speaking to me quickly in French to which I’d respond in Spanish.  She took our picture, obviously understanding nothing of what I said.   We thanked her, and she walked back to her other French friends.  
A mother was taking a picture of her son, and I asked if she wanted one of them together.  She was thankful and handed me the camera, her son afterwards asking if he could have one with me, pulling Kirsty over as well.  We smiled for their camera, and then the mom switched places with her teenage son, squishing herself in between me and Kirsty, and smiling proudly.  
“Con la gueras!”  I said to her.  They thanked us again, and we walked off to find Eefke.  We went across to the church, which was closed, meeting up with a girl who had stayed at our hostel the day before.  I spoke to her, she said she left as the hostel was too English.  I remember her screaming “FUCK” the other day as she burned her hand on a fork she had stupidly left in a hot pot.  “Metal conducts heat idiot”  I remember thinking.  She gave us a glare, as she walked away.  Nice to see you too!   
A few more pictures and we were ready to head to the next look out point.  A few taxis sat in front of the church, however only one contained a driver, and we went to him and asked for a price.  He gave us the honest answer instead of trying to rip us off, and we took it immediately.  When we got to Mirador San Carmen Alto, it was just a hillside view, close to the volcano, overlooking the entire hill of the city and the farm land below.  We asked our driver if he would wait for us and he in turn smiled and parked the car.  We asked if he could take a picture for all of us and he happily got out and came down the hill to help us.   Then he asked if he could have one, pulling Eefke in with him; he wanted a memory.  He went back up to his car and drove it down to us, slowly following us in the automobile, getting out to explain things about the land and volcano.    He took a picture of the 3 of us for another memory and we drove back into town, giving him a good tip (he made out quite well from the 3 of us). We said good-bye to Edu, our favorite new taxi driver.  
We walked back to the hostel.  I went straight for the kitchen to cut some of the queso fresco, which didn’t smell so fresh at this point.  I scraped off the pungent smelling rind.  It tasted fermented and I hoped the cheese inside would be better.  It was chewy and filled with air pockets, salty and smooth.  I put it in some bread the hostel had left out from breakfast and brought it to the girls to try.  We all liked it, had a little snack, and sat for a bit to relax.
It was around 4 pm when Eefke suggested we go look at an exhibit about a preserved Inca girl, and we set out in search of El Museo Santuarios Andinos (Museum of Andean Sanctuaries).  It was in the vicinity, though we weren’t entirely sure as to where.  On the way, my tummy rumbling, I decided to stop into the fruit shop that helped me with directions the first night and get a few baby bananas.  The man, nor his wife or daughter were there.  Just an old woman with a down expression and glazed eyes.  Her skin was dark and wrinkled and she refused to look me in the eye.  When I brought her back 5 bananas, she slowly counted them in her head 
“Cincuenta.”  She said.  
“Cincuenta?”  I confirmed.  She glared directly at me, though still not looking me in the eyes.
“Gah, she looks evil!”  Kirsty softly murmured.   I laughed and the 2 of us scrambled for 50 cents so we could get the hell out.  The man of the store, most likely her son entered now, and she pointed to him in an act of “give the money to him”.  I handed him the coin and we walked out. 
“Cincuenta?!”  She yelled. 
“Si, es cincuenta!”  I answered back.  She made another hand action as if telling me to get out, she wasn’t talking to me, and we left as the man nodded to his mother.  If the old woman had been there the first night, I probably would not have returned.  
Up and around the corner, we realized the museum was even closer than we had expected.  We walked in, bought our tickets and waited for the English tour to start.  15 minutes later, we, as well as several large groups of French people were brought into a cold room to watch a film about the girl.  Were we on the right tour?  Everyone around us was speaking French.  We waited, and as the film started, English was spoken, with French subtitles.  When the film ended, they broke us into two groups; French and English and toured us around, showing us artifacts, giving us information, and finally, allowing us to see Juanita, a tiny tiny little girl, enclosed in frozen glass case. 
The story of Juanita, also known as The Inca Ice Maiden, and Lady of Ampato in short , goes a little something like this.  Around mid to late 1400s, a young girl between the age most likely of 12-14 was killed as an offering to Incan gods.   When found in 1995 by famous anthropologist Johan Reinhard on Mount Ampato, it caused a positive stir in the scientific world, because of how well preserved the body was.
However I had a problem with the story.  It said that these children willingly sacrificed themselves themselves for the higher power of their gods, but how did we actually know this was true.  They were led up a treacherous climb, nearly starved, given drugs and fermented corn alcohol known as chicha,  and then when they were really out of it, they were bashed over the heads.  Does that sound like something a tween or teen would really do?  At least not in this day and age.  But enough of my opinion. 
After the tour, we asked the women who worked there for a suggestion on a typical non-touristy restaurant.  The began speaking back in forth in spanish. I heard one say to the other, 
“Pero es turistica, no?”  The woman shook her head.  And they pointed us in the direction of it.  She had told us it had a good view, which made me a little suspicious of it if were really a touristy place.  The locals don’t care as much about the view, we all know that.  After walking a short distance from Plaza Arma, we began to be the only tourists within site, and it seemed as if things would be good.  But when we reached a hotel with a fancy restaurant (that was closed) overlooking the town with the same name they had written down for us, we both had to skip it.  That being said, it led us to where we ended up having our fantastic dinner.  
A few steps more from the hotel, on the right hand side of the street, we noticed a man cleaning a grill.  Behind the grill situated on the sidewalk, was a small restaurant.  No one was inside, but we decided to go for it.  We asked if it was open, and the man gave us a big smile and led us in.  He told us what he had for that night, and asked what we were interested in.  I told him we just wanted to try a few different things.  He was quite excited by this, smiled some more, and scurried off to the kitchen. 
He came out holding a plate with 6 skewers on it and ran to the grill.  His wife (or at least I think it was his wife)  came to escort him, holding a bowl filled with what looked to be oil with some herbs, and an herb bunch of some sort of floral looking plant (perhaps huacatay) which he used to brush the oil onto the meat and grill.  His wife brought us 1 glass of chicha morada (the purple corn drink) and I, being the only one of us 3 that had already tried it, had the other girls taste it.  They were hesitant at first, but finally took a sip.  Then 2 more glasses came out, and we all had to drink our own.    
Before our food was served, Pasqual brought out a greenish brown salsa to our table.  I took a taste.  It was so familiar, and yet so different from anything I had tasted.  There was a taste I was unsure of.  I questioned Pasqual, who intrigued by why I was asking, told me how he made it and the ingredients he put into it.  Huacatay,  was the stumper.  I later learned it was an herb.
Pascual himself, brought us each a plate containing 2 skewers, a piece of their giant corn and grilled potatoes.  He smiled at us, told us it was antichuchos, and walked away to prepare our next item.  I thought it was heart, I was sure it was heart, but while talking about it before the food came, Kirsty grew nervous that it might be, and I told her it was just beef.  I asked his wife as she came over to us, what part of the animal it was, and she touched her chest and proudly said “corazon”.  
“It’s the shoulder.”  I told Kirsty with a smile on my face.  I was a terrible liar.  The meat was a bit chewy, but it had tremendous flavor from both the marinade and the grill.  The next course was nearly ready.  He brought us each a large breast of chicken, in which it looked as if he had squished down with a weight.   It was sweet, and had the same underlying herbal tones as the heart.  I asked him what was in it.  He was again, overly joyous, and a little confused to my questioning him so much.  It contained a bunch of ingredients I knew, but then again a stumper.  Aji Colorado.  Thanks to a bit of googling, I learned it was a pepper.
A third and final course came to us, once again served with corn, but without potato (thank goodness).  This time it was a very thin steak, marinated in the same mix as the other meats.  It was chewy and hard to cut, but the flavor was once again amazing.  He brought to our table, an extra steak on a small plate, and we all sat there staring at it, trying to figure out what exactly to do with it.   We cut little pieces off, put it on our plates, and pretended to have eaten it.  We were full, and hoping we had no more coming. 
“Basta?!”  He asked.  We agreed.  “Quieres una cervecita?”  He asked me?  Now normally when ‘ita’ is added to a word in Spanish, it means something small.  But seeing as the night before when we were asked if we wanted ‘sopitas’ and giant bowls of soup came out, we were a bit hesitant.  I didn’t want one, but taunted by his words, Kirsty’s face lit up, and he brought our 4 large beers to our table.  
“No no no! Solo uno!”  I said enthusiastically.  He laughed and placed the ‘cervecita’ (LARGE BEER) in front of me.  I put it in front of Kirsty and we sat there talking finishing our drinks, while Pasqual cooked for some new customers now, cheering us with his beer.  
When we were finally done, I took a quick picture with Pascual, we said our goodbyes and we walked home.  We were full and smiling like Pascual, walking down the street stinking of BBQ smoke.  
“Can I smell you?”  Eefke asked me, after smelling both herself and Kirsty, compared the smokiness.  We laughed, and decided to walk to the supermarket to get some candy to eat while watching a movie at the hostel.  Neither the store, nor any of the little shops on our way back had anthing we wanted, so Eefke decided to share her Dutch candy (salted licorice and other chewies) while we watched The Change Up. As I sat there, I attempted to sew up my hole ridden leggings.  
By the end, we were tired and went to bed, or at least tried in between an English bloke’s constant sneezing, and the Dutch girls who came in late and decided inside of our room would be the best place to have a 15 minute conversation.  Even my ipod couldn’t help me now.
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