Monthly Archives: August 2014

How’s that historical novel going?

Hahaha, I am losing my mind, I am so frustrated with my progress. It is pretty slow going when you have to stop every three sentences to check on a fact. On the plus side, I love history? I’m reading a lot? Maybe I’ll get better at plotting?

I also find that I’m having pretty good ideas for things to write that are not this novel (mostly for novels that are not set in history), as my brain obviously works best when it is trying to find ways to procrastinate. I feel like my editing of old short stories is going super-well what with all these new ideas and this strong will to not be working on the novel, so there’s that. 



Peru Diary: Days 16-18, Lima!

I almost forgot to blog about Lima, and what a shame that would have been. Lima is urbane and cosmopolitan, with all the attendant traffic and chaos of an important Latin American capital, but that isn’t why you visit. You visit because the food is amazing. Yes, the Museo Larco, but ceviche. Yes Barranco and Miraflores and San Isidro, but Astrid and Gaston. You get the drift.

Lima is an incredibly wealthy city. It’s definitely a land of haves and have-nots, but it’s also a place where prosperity is growing for all economic classes. Peru is now the 5th largest economy in South America. I was really interested to hear how time has altered opinions on Alberto Fujimori, Peru’s notorious president of the 90s who is currently sitting in jail, but who is also pretty much responsible for putting an end to the terrorism that bedeviled Peru for decades. We had a cab driver one night who told us he’d been driving a cab in Lima for 20 years, and that he’d been mugged 5 times in the 90s, and had a bullet in each leg. He said that sort of thing never happens nowadays. That it’s a different place.  

But back to the food! We ate at five places that I would highly recommend: Saqra and La Lucha in Miraflores, Al Toque Pez in Surquillo, and Astrid and Gaston and El Mercado in San Isidro. At Astrid and Gaston–the culinary high point of probably the whole time we were in Lima–we had a shockingly delicious entrecote that we shared among the three of us. It was a fusion of classic French cooking and Peruvian flavors. For desert we had this thing called a Chocolate Bomb, which turned out to be this delightfully weird giant orb of hard chocolate which you cracked with a spoon to get at a bunch of candy shrapnel and fennel ice cream. Oh, also, the best dessert I have had in recent memory was at this place called Pescados Capitales: a rice pudding creme brulee with shredded coconut and vanilla ice cream. I MUST MAKE IT. On our walk through Barranco, we stopped at this really fun store called Dedalo, which I highly recommend for fun jewelry, scarves, and gifts. 

The Museo Larco was very worthwhile. In addition to a hilarious collection of ancient erotic pottery, it was the only museum I went to that managed to clearly contextualize Incan art within a South American tradition. By the end of the trip I kinda felt like I didn’t need to see any more Inca stuff, but I was 100% wrong. Also, they have this gold jewelry–maybe regalia is a better word–that really brought these Inca and pre-Inca people to life for me. Ancient architecture, I have to admit, always leaves me a little cold (if thoroughly impressed), but I find the objects of people’s day to day lives, objects that were close to the skin literally and figuratively, poignant, understandable, and somehow much more evocative. 



Also worth the trek is Old Lima: the Plaza San Francisco and Plaza de Armas, all the way to China Town. That part of town has a faded grandeur on par with Paris. Well, parts of Paris, anyway. Every time I went to take a picture of my mom she would scream, “a solfie?!” And strike a pose.

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Ever since she got on pinterest, she is basically a hipster. 

We stayed in Miraflores, which I give a thumbs up to. To save a little money we rented an apartment, which was fine for me, but my parents were cold the whole time. It seems like the only buildings in Peru with built-in heating are hotels that charge upwards of $200/night/room. Otherwise you’ll get a space heater or (in the apartment) nothing. If I were to do it again with parents or children, I’d try to book earlier (often, the matter of hotels was decided by availability) and spend a little more on hotels in Puno and Lima. 

Worth It

In case you come to Peru, here are some tips:

-Hiking in the Colca Canyon is great…plan to stay at least three nights. Also, if you can afford it, visit the Colca either by private car with a driver, or in a spacious minivan rather than a big bus.

-Visit Machu Picchu; if I were to do this again, I would want to hike in or take the opportunity to visit some more obscure Inca Ruins…Choquequirao maybe?

-Best hotels: The Killawasi Lodge in the Colca, the Hotel Mercado in Cusco, the Tierra Viva in Arequipa.

-Puno is not the place to get a value hotel. Definitely spring for the fanciest place you can afford.

-Best meals: Tanta and Zig Zag in Arequipa, Huacatay in Urubamba, Hearts Cafe in Ollantaytambo (lentil soup!)

-Everyone here (including me) is wearing technical pants because it is dusty as hell and you’re going to want to at least rinse them off like every other night. Jeans are great if you’re going somewhere urban and not very sweat-making, but if you’re going to be doing any hiking or anything you would deem “adventurous,” jeans are nonsense. I got the kind with the zip-offs, and now I regret it, because I want to wear these pants every day for the rest of my stupid life, they are so comfortable and flattering and pocket-y. I might get a pair without the zips just to wear in life. So good. I might try these, also. Yes, between technical pants and a real walking shoe you will look like a tourist, but you’re probably doing a terrible job of blending in anyway.

Peru Diary, Days 14 and 15

I’m so happy we made the effort to shorten our stay in Puno by one day and lengthen our stay in Arequipa. What a great place to have ended up after the stress (and wonderfulness! But also stress!) of our bus ride through the Colca. I have reached the point that comes during long vacations when you’ve seen so much stuff that you just can’t handle it anymore and you sort of wish you were home already. You start getting the sense that people at home have forgotten about you as you stop receiving the usual emails and text messages. At the same time, you don’t really want to go home…or possibly what I don’t want is to go back to Charlotte, the world epicenter of boredom and single most creatively uninspiring place on earth (small exaggeration). Arequipa made me so excited to get back to my novel! For reasons I’ll try to explain…

We got in on Friday, and took showers to get the Canyon dust off ourselves. Some of us (my mom) obsessively cleaned our sneakers and suitcases with an old toothbrush…this is what being on a bus tour does to people. OCD strikes! That done, we went out for a delicious dinner at Tanta, a place my plane-friend Ken had mentioned to me. I tried anticuchos (beef heart skewers), and they are my second favorite new food I’ve had in Arequipa. My no. 1 food is queso helado, which I plan to make at home.

Saturday, we toured the Monastery of Santa Catalina (actually a convent), a tiny city within a city that has been operating continuously since 1579. In those days, wealthy families would pay the equivalent of $10,000 dollars to send their young (12 or 13 years old) daughters into this cloistered convent, where they generally stayed, their only responsibilities prayer for their families and handicrafts, until they died. Even then they were buried on site…they literally never left. These little novices were not necessarily willing, but they were mostly very young and could not read or write, so bully for them. For the first three years, they lived in a private room off of a courtyard with 6 or 7 other novices. After that, they would move into a little house within the convent walls with 1 or 2 other nuns and sometimes a servant. It was considered a very exclusive situation, and the sorts of people who would send their daughters here were really the wealthiest…since we are talking about the colonial period, this also means they were often The Worst: encomenderos, mine owners (see: Potosi), and what not who felt the need to buy entry to heaven by essentially sacrificing a child to the task of continuous prayer. The other things these women did were: household chores when a maid was not provided, decorating little saints with their own hair and handmade clothes, and making vestments for various church officers. On the plus side, they lived to be like 80 years old…twice as long as the average woman outside a convent. More time to wish you were dead, is the grim way of looking at it. On Sunday, we went to see Juanita, the Inca human sacrifice found frozen up on Ampato. She was the same age as these girls who entered the convent. It’s hard to say which of these two uses was worse. To be corny and get back to what I said about the novel, I like the idea of trying to give a voice to girls and women from this period of history, when they had none.

On Saturday afternoon, we went to a local market (San Camilo) to buy some fabric for a little project I want to do when I get home. This was such a fun thing to do. We walked south through the impressive and stately Plaza de Armas, and into a neighborhood clearly less focused on tourists and much more on locals. The market itself sells everything from live chickens to fabric to art supplies to olives. It was huge, crowded, loud…I highly recommend it. I wish we had had the nerve to get some food here, but we’ve already had one case of digestive distress and aren’t willing to risk another like it. The fabric stalls were tiny and stuff was stacked floor to ceiling everywhere. There were all kinds of people buying; my favorites were the few incredibly dapper gentlemen looking for suiting material (I imagine).

A little later, we had the BEST dinner at this place called Zig Zag, where we also went on Sunday. Meat served on volcanic rock slabs and the best mashed potatoes. What else happened on Sunday? We went for a super-long walk across the river to Yanahuara, where we had lunch at a picanteria…they brought us an obscene amount of food. Obscene. Great day, all in all. Tomorrow we leave for Lima in the morning (last stop!)

Peru Diary, Days 12 and 13

On Thursday and Friday, we visited the Colca Canyon. Our bus picked us up super early Thursday from our hotel in Puno and drove us up into the altiplano. The first part of our drive took us through llama and alpaca country. We made stops at Laguna Lagunilllas, Laguna Salinas, and Laguna Sakakani, where we saw some Andean flamingos and Andean geese. At some point we entered the Pama de Toccra, part of the National Preserve of Salinas and Aguada Blanca. Except for the llamas and alpacas and their wild relatives, this was some of the most desolate land I’ve ever seen. It was nearly a desert; part of that is the altitude (we got up to 4910 meters at the Paso de Patopampa, where we could see something like 8 volcanos), and part is the season. There were little rivulets we would run across sometimes, and between that and the wind there are some truly weird rock formations up here. One very common one looks like a bunch of jagged teeth poking up out of a ridge. Very eerie.

Around one in the afternoon, we got dropped off at our hotel in Yanque (the Killawasi, which was excellent, and which I would love to come back to someday to spend a few days at). The hotel organizes daily hikes into the Colca, and we joined the 3 o’clock one up to the ruins at Uyo Uyo. There were two other guests, a Spanish father and his Chilean daughter, both of them down from NY. He was a hotel critic for a Spanish magazine and once you got him going he had some very strong and well-informed opinions about hotels and restaurants throughout the world, not all of which I agreed with (example: the only thing you can eat in NY is a burger). I feel like we lucked out on hiking companions because they were such nice people and because they spoke Spanish, which allowed our guide Edwin—in the running for the nicest person I have ever met in my life—to really cut loose in terms of talking to us. It was beautiful in the canyon, of course, and at some point I hope to add some pictures to these posts, but what I enjoyed most was being able to learn about how people have traditionally lived in the canyon. The whole thing has been terraced for hundreds—if not thousands—of years, and farmers still work the land pretty much the same way their great-grandparents did (they plough with bulls…uncastrated bulls, weirdly). Uyo Uyo is the ruins of a Collagua town burned down by the Spanish in order to encourage resettlement of its citizens in Yanque, where they could be properly supervised to make sure they had converted to Catholicism. One thing Edwin mentioned is that the citizens of two separate villages were relocated to Yanque by the Spanish, and that to this day they keep apart. One group farms lands in one area of the canyon, and the other group farms lands in another. Their water comes from different sources, and each has their own irrigation channels, which they clean every year around this time (in fact, Edwin was headed up to the big cleaning/festival in the mountains after dropping us off… a six hour ride by donkey). Edwin told us an extremely charming folktale about a fox and a condor, which I wish I could remember but can’t.

Friday, we got picked up early again. I stole someone’s seat on the bus because there was a total bullshit situation going on wherein people got to pick their seats for the whole trip on the first day and since we got picked up last we got the worst seats, all spread out everywhere. I was sitting in the middle seat in the very back, smack dab in the middle of a family of four. They were ok, but it’s always awkward when people are talking over you, so on the second day, when they left the bus, I took one of the windows and pretended to fall asleep. Part of me was guilty, and the other part was giving everyone on this bus the finger. Basically, buses are the only feasible way to see the Colca, but if I ever were to come here again, I’d make damn sure I was in a super comfortable minivan where there are just two seats per row and everyone gets a window. Travel!!

Anyway, our main activity for the morning was a two-hour stop to see the condors. They’re very impressive, although on the other hand they are also just giant birds. It’s fun to see up close how they use the thermals in this massively deep part of the canyon. Also, the walk up to the observation area is lovely (and dangerous; apparently one year a woman got dizzy watching the birds circle overhead and plummeted into the canyon…in the second weirdest thing to happen to her that day, she got caught on a branch, which saved her life). Once I got back on the bus, I started to feel like a real sourpuss. I don’t know if it was all that time on the bus or what, but from then until we got dropped off in Arequipa around 5, I must have rolled my eyes 500 times. The only thing I didn’t roll my eyes at was when the guide claimed highland people who raise llamas marry them to each other. I really want this to be true.

The drive to Arequipa passed through a town called Yura where there’s a massive cement factory. What a blasted landscape that was. Coming out of the Colca, where people have lived for hundreds of years in balance with their surroundings, to this environmentally devasted place made me quite sad and anxious. What a wretched place. Arequipa itself, however, would turn out to be lovely.

Peru Diary, Days 10 and 11

Traveling is a great way to spend your time if you enjoy oscillating wildly between a state of boredom and discomfort and one of total wonder. These past two days, I’ve been in Puno, a place I’ve heard described as “squallid” and “charmless,” and I have to admit that when I first got here, it felt like those descriptions were right on the money. It’s very dirty and pretty cold, too, and no one seems to have central heating, least of all our little hotel (we have a space heater). Also, the hotel has the weirdest bathroom situation: the neighbor’s bathroom has a high, frosted window that looks into our bathroom, and another that looks into our room. We can hear errrrthing. But, Puno improves upon further acquaintance.

Yesterday morning, we walked down to the water. The part of town we walked through is completely modern, all built in a style that I guess is common to all poor countries, where unpainted cinder block reigns supreme. Lake Titicaca viewed from the shore of Puno is sort of underwhelming. You get no sense of the vast size of the lake, and the water is crowded with decrepit little pedal boats and decrepit, big tour boats. We took a nicer one of these to see the floating islands of Uros, which have for hundreds of years been made of reeds by the people who live on them. It’s the most precarious, strangest existence I’ve probably ever seen. Everything is made of reeds: houses, beds, the ground. The reeds are also an important food source (the Uros trade some of the fish they catch for pretty much everything else they need). Walking onto the island is like walking onto a water bed. The Uros are fishermen and hunters, although nowadays they mostly live off the hordes of tourists that come to have a look at their islands. They are extremely well-organized in regards to the tourists. They have a rotating schedule of houses open to visitors, and they do a great job of explaining their own history (very basically, they started living on the water in order to escape being subjugated by the Colla and later the Inca) and how they live. Even with all the tourists and how well-managed the community seems, the Uros are unlikely to keep up their traditional life-style in the long run. Children who go off to high school and college on the mainland rarely come back. But the whole thing is a wonder. The floating islands are unique; the sort of adaptation to an environment that seems so far-fetched it’s like something from a story. Last year, I read an Ursula Le Guin novel where there was a group of people living on a series of connected rafts out in the ocean, and I remembered loving this idea, and also finding it totally untenable. But they sort of exist in real life!

In the afternoon, we got back to Puno and went to a delightful little museum where I absorbed absolutely nothing, except that there were three mummies from this place called Sillustani. After that, my Dad and I went on an aimless walk south of the Plaza de Armas, to a part of town we hadn’t visited yet. We were vaguely climbing, and we were both kind of apprehensive because both our guidebook and the hotel clerk had warned us against wandering too far from the central part of town (due to muggings). It turns out, though, that if you leave the center of town, suddenly the streets are much cleaner, and the houses are older and poorer, but imbued with something special: what my dad calls wabi-sabi. There were so many lovely, crumbling mud-brick houses, walls hunched almost as deeply as the old ladies that suddenly seemed to be everywhere. I mean, I saw one old lady who was at least ninety making her way effortlessly up a hill that probably would’ve killed me if I’d been going up it instead of down. We walked around for about an hour, and by the end of it we were feeling a little more at home. I almost feel bad for people who come to Puno and get shuttled all over the place in vans, or stay at resorts and never see the city. There’s something really endearing about it. Every night, the entire population seems to spill out into the street in their best clothes, and a brass band appears out of nowhere and strikes up a plaintive Andean something or other in the Plaza de Armas. It’s chaotic, but familiar, friendly. There’s a real community life here.

This morning, Wednesday the 6th (for those of you keeping track…me from the future), we went to visit the village of Chucuito, which is just outside Puno and which is best known for the ruins of a highly suspect Incan fertility temple. Is it real? Is it not? Don’t ask, says the NYTimes. Anyway, it made for a lovely outing. The town was very small and quiet, and although there were a few old cars parked along the streets, we didn’t actually see anyone in a car while we were there. The only sounds were those of pigeons flapping up into the belltowers of the two closed churches (both colonial), and a radio playing cumbia (?) from a food stall along a short street lined in little metal stalls with plastic chairs out on the asphalt. It was before lunch, so no one was eating yet, though it did smell like delicious pork. There was a beautiful lookout over Lake Titicaca, the shore of which is confused by a profusion of totoro reeds, bright green against the dark blue water.

In the afternoon, we went to see the chulpas at Sillustani. Chulpas are burial towers constructed by both the Inca and the Colla people. Aside from how impressive the towers themselves are, with their enormous stones (the Colla people supposedly taught the Incas the secret of fancy stonework), the setting was spectacular, on a peninsula jutting out into a lake, surrounded by steep, flat-topped hills. Like elsewhere in the Altiplano in winter, the landscape was very yellow, all covered in dried-looking scrub and grasses and pale, reddish rock. We drove back to Puno as night fell. The sky was just that shade of violet in which trees stand out stark and black as cut-outs. An apple truck had overturned on the narrow road to the city, and as we drew near it, we could see people running to where it was, and coming back with the fronts of their sweatshirts loaded down with apples. The city was beautiful when we came to it, in the dark. The lights twinkled all the way down to the edge of the lake, which reflected the last light of the day, and ranged up the steep hills at the edge of town.

Peru Diary, Day 9

A travel day! We flew from Cusco to Juliaca, and then took a bus over to Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. I am happy to report that we are all feeling much better after our sojourn in Cusco, and neither of my parents has even needed oxygen for the altitude in the last day. Puno is the highest point on our journey, at 12,556 feet, but I am hopeful that taking it slow with the altitude will mean we don’t all wake up with horrible headaches tomorrow. I guess there is always coca tea if we do.

The landscape here is so arid and harsh that just looking at it makes me want to chug down a gallon of water and then spill another one over my head. It all looks like the setting of a Spaghetti Western…someone should make an Andean western. We haven’t been down to the shore yet, because we arrived at dusk and the guy at the front desk at our hotel advised us that it was dangerous after dark. My guidebook tells me hiking up to the lookout points above Puno is also dangerous. Not my favorite. I was looking forward to taking in some of the scenery on foot, but it looks like that’s not going to happen…not on the shore anyway. There is an island where you have to climb like 550 steps, so I guess that will be some exercise? 

The little town of Puno is..lively but exceedingly plain. If it were a literary character, it would be a girl in a Jane Austen novel who ends up married to a farmer.