Sunday, June 24, 2012
My loyal readers have heard me speak of my garden, and those who follow me on Facebook have seen some of the photos. I love my garden, and perhaps that is a product of living in South America, or perhaps it is a product of age.
Peru has a growing season which is continuous, and while different plants do well at different times of the year, it is difficult to be a bad gardener here, which may explain why I enjoy it so much.
More so, perhaps, the thing that I enjoy most is the tendency of a garden to present its owner with a sudden reward. It’s not like fruit, it comes as a surprise when I wake up to find something beautiful, like the seven-inch blooms on my orange hibiscus pictured here.
There is nothing like watching a child with a new hobby, and Youngest has taken to the garden. Her various projects are pictured below – a giant sunflower, which unfortunately met its demise shortly after her attempt to repot it. Next to it in the pot is the top of a pineapple that we bought at the market – if planted and kept watered heavily, the pineapple top will eventually grow, although it appears to stay dormant for a long time. The one pictured is two months old, but the one right behind it was planted just more than one year ago.
Of course the cast-iron sink in the back is full of ferns, which started out as one half of a dying one, rootbound and underwatered. Once I separated it out and packed dirt around the individual parts, it has just exploded.
As we reach the halfway point of our time here in Peru, I finally have my yard looking the way it should. You can see more garden photos here.
For an even more exciting plant story, check out my friend’s Night Blooming Cereus, a special flower that blooms for only a single night, and wilts by morning.
Plant something. Watch it grow. Water it, prune it. It's good for the spirit.
Saturday, June 16, 2012
I was faced with a problem that seems to confront most women every couple of weeks, but only bothers most men about once every five to ten years.
I needed to buy clothes.
Men buy clothing using a much different formula than women use. I refer to this as the replacement method. One of my pairs of blue jeans is worn out, so I need another pair of jeans. I will then discard one set of jeans, and rotate the next best one out of the “this is my nice pair of jeans” position, and then MAYBE I will discard the worst of the bunch.
The replacement method is also used for dress shirts, shoes, and basically anything that men wear. Today I was going to use it to replace a very special section of my wardrobe, something that allows me to express myself in a way that only clothing can.
I speak, of course, of T-shirts – the kind that say something…witty. It’s a delicate balance between childish and trashy, but they have to fit the mood just right.
I was trading in Sponge Bob, a tourist shirt from Cape Cod, and a Father’s Day present from 2002 that said “Control Freak.” Sponge Bob just seemed a little too much given that I no longer have small children, I’ve never been to Cape Cod, and there is no defense for the third, but they were full of holes, stains, and thin spots. It was time to express myself anew, something more appropriate to my age and station.
Of course, I journeyed to that great Mecca where people go to find the perfect fashion expressions of personality. I speak, of course, of Wal-Mart. I immediately found something suitable.
After picking up a red shirt with a giant “Angry Birds” logo, I decided it was time to stop playing around and get serious, so I paid up, and headed to the old standby store, the place that used to make us point and giggle as kids, since I’m not even sure we were allowed in until we were old enough to vote. Thank goodness, 30 years later, the store is still there – Spencer’s.
As I sorted through shirts looking for those not displaying obscenities or body parts, I was lucky enough to find one, just one, of the must haves. I had never seen anything like it, printed on both sides of the fabric.
So you see, friends, I couldn’t NOT buy this. I find it also hilarious to show it off to my daughters’ friends. I will in fact display its special feature to anyone who reads it, and doesn’t quite get it.
Here’s to ten more years.
Let me start this entry out with a geography lesson. The Ozarks, where we grew up, is absolutely nowhere near the ocean. I didn’t see the ocean for the first time until I was 24 years old, and it didn’t count because I was at the back of a small bay. It was a couple of years later before I looked out to the horizon and saw nothing but water.
My wife had tasked me with going to the market to buy clams. Since Lima is right next to the Pacific, the seafood at the markets is fresh, and often still live.
Last week, I found clams already shucked and ready, and bought 350g, or about ¾ pound, for the equivalent of $8. I have no idea if that is a good price or not, but the chowder was phenomenal.
Today, the market was different. We have already established that I know nothing about clams, but those who know me will say I will never miss a chance at a bargain. Clams still in the shell seemed to be cheaper than those already shucked, so I bought 20 of the little guys, still live. It doesn’t get any fresher than that, I thought, and I spent the same $8 on a much larger bag of clams. I would save a dollar or two by shucking them myself.
I chose my tool for the task, a large metal spoon, and thought, how hard could this be, just get them out of the shell, right?
It turns out that clams don’t want to be shucked. It was unanimous. Redneck determination being what it is, I did eventually get them all out of their shells and onto a cutting board, but not without cost. I had cut myself slightly a couple of times, on pieces of broken shell.
If clams had teeth, I would have been bitten four times. These guys did NOT want to be turned into chowder.
Then of course, came the task of separating the actual clam meat from the rest of the alien being. Having zero knowledge of mollusk anatomy, I still managed to remove anything that looked like clam-poop, and called it good. Almost an hour after the ordeal began, I placed my cleaned-up clams on my wife’s small kitchen scale.
By shucking my own, I had scored two extra clams. Some people would say it isn’t worth the time and effort involved, and they might be right.
But I still got two clams for free.
I’ve never been very excited about the sport of fishing, but I must admit that a new element of excitement is added when the fish have giant teeth and could eat a cow down to the bone in a couple of minutes.
Roger probably wasn’t our guide’s real name. It was probably Boola-boola or something similar, since he had grown up in one of the local villages on the Amazon River. Roger spoke fluent English, German, Spanish, and Qechua, all self-taught, so he is a pretty smart guy.
Except perhaps, for leading a family of Gringos into the still, dark water to fish for piranhas. We had tried a couple of spots before we found a good one.
Our boat guy, Joe, cut the engine and coasted us into a quiet cove, where the water was black and silent, ominous even. I was sure it led straight down to hell where the fish came from. He chopped up a chunk of old beef roast with a screwdriver, and insisted on baiting our hooks for us. Seriously, Inca Joe, we’re hillbillies, my daughters need to bait their own hooks.
While normal fishing involves quiet and patience, seeking the devil fish requires none of this. Plop the hook loaded with a piece of bloody meat into the water, then splash the water with the end of your pole, so the devil-fish think something tasty fell into the water, and wait for the fun to begin.
One can watch the meat sink slowly against the blackness, but after a couple of feet, it will pitch violently six or seven times and disappear. The trick is, the fisherman needs to set the hook within this time frame. There is no sitting and waiting, there is casting and the baiting of hooks.
We hadn’t had much luck with the catching part, although we were amused when a native in a dugout canoe rowed by us. Inca Joe traded some of our bait for the temporary use of a knife to cut the rest. The native handed back about half of what Joe offered, as it was more than he needed. He was going to boil the Gringos in a big black pot tonight anyway.
Just when we started to run low on bait, Roger caught a couple, and both my daughters caught one on their last piece of bait. We ended up with six, which cost us two pounds of beef - not too efficient. I was wishing I could wash the beefy blood from my hands from all the hook baiting, and started to rinse my hands in the river – but I resisted the urge - it just seemed like a bad idea.
Piranhas are not just full of teeth, but they are angry. They will chomp over and over as they suffocate in the air, trying one last time to take a bite out of one of us. I learned that their gums secrete an anticoagulant causing their victims to bleed more and attract more guests to the piranha party.
We returned to the lodge, where I could finally wash my hands in a sink (I did check it first), and we waited for Inca Joe and Roger to fry up the day’s catch.
These little guys are not too big, and there isn’t much meat, but what there is tastes sweet and isn’t fishy tasting. We ate them with a side of fried yucca and rice, but it was more the idea of it than anything.
I am eating you, Mr. Piranha. I am the top of the food chain.
Thursday, June 14, 2012
The sun was up, but still below the trees as the short, squarely built man cut the throttle on the small boat. He bore no expression, his features looked much like the old totems that pre-date the Incas by a century or two.
The morning light revealed movement on the shore, as small brown humanoids gathered, adding to their numbers two or three at a time. Some of the group stood still and watched us, while others were rapidly in motion, darting from side to side. The tiny craft slid up onto the bank with the whoosh of aluminum on soft mud, and we stepped out.
I had never seen so many monkeys outside of legislative session. Monkey Island, a primate refuge on the Amazon River near Iquitos, Peru, contains about 75 monkeys of various species, roaming freely, and ready for interaction with humans.
I soon met Felipe, a common wooly monkey, after he held out his hand to me as if to shake it. Once he had my hand, he immediately vaulted up my body and landed on my shoulders. I then began exhibiting symptoms of an interesting speech defect that only occurs when one tries to hold a monkey: I began repeating the words, “Monkey, stop it, monkey, no, monkey, quit” in some variation over and over. Since Felipe effectively had four hands and could hang on with his tail, within the first five seconds he had grabbed by sunglasses, my hat, untied one of my shoes, and explored every one of my pockets. I managed to keep everything, but had I sneezed at the wrong moment, Felipe might have robbed me blind. Once Felipe decided I didn’t have anything he wanted, he settled down and let me hold him like a child, even though he tried to bite me a couple more times when I stopped paying him constant attention.
As we walked along though the gaggle of hilarity, I got the bright idea that I could hold a second monkey, a spider, in my other arm. Apparently this violates some law of quantum monkey physics - two monkeys cannot occupy the same space at the same time. The two decided to engage in a full-blown monkey fight, without actually dismounting the human (me). A third monkey cheered this on, and he looked a lot like Don King.
My youngest daughter, 11, was having fun of her own. Too small to hold a monkey, she was being led around after a spider monkey discovered it could use its tail to hold on to her arm.
After a brief tour and some free time in the exercise yard, we were brought inside a small structure, where a tiny, diapered baby monkey was passed around and snuggled.
While I could have stayed here for a week, it was soon time to stop monkeying around and move back to the boat. I looked around for Felipe, but he had already moved on, so we headed out to the next chapter of our Amazon Adventure.
Sunday, June 10, 2012
On occasion, I must readily admit to my own ignorance. The world is a big place, and it’s impossible to know everything. I’m not at all embarrassed about this, because everyone hears this stuff the first time. I am fairly surprised that it stung me at this particular moment, though.
The invitation came from one of my colleagues, whose boyfriend, Jorge, is from Mexico. Since he is here in Peru at the moment, she extended an invitation to a small dinner party. I don’t remember the exact words, but this was the phrase that got my attention:
…You are cordially invited to a dinner of Mexican Mole…
And of course an image went straight to my head and refused to leave.
So…I guess the Mexicans eat it, and according to the invitation, it’s kind of a big deal, with regional recipes and everything.
I’ve eaten possum, squirrel, raccoon, and guinea pig, so I suppose if there is a place that wants to eat mole then that’s okay, I would be willing to try it if it was offered.
I kept wondering, though, how would you cook it? Would it be fried, roasted, barbecued on a stick, or what?
I decided to Google it.
Okay, so there it is. Mole (pronounced mo-lay) has nothing to do with small blind rodents –
(Mexican Spanish, from Nahuatl mōlli, "sauce") is the generic name for a number of sauces used in Mexican cuisine, as well as for dishes based on these sauces. (Wikipedia)
Photo by Alejandro Linares Garcia
So to make a long story short, we went to dinner, and we ate this stuff over chicken enchiladas, with cheese and raw onions on top. It’s spicy, but also has a chocolate flavor to it. Not something I would eat every day, but I’m glad I tried it.
I am also glad that no rodents were harmed in the making of this sauce. Now, my redneck friends - you know, too.