Monday, June 5, 2017

5 Pros and 5 Cons of Lima, Peru

I can't believe the time has come to write my Lima pros and cons list, or how long it's been since I last blogged! The truth is, since I've been here in Lima, almost all of my free time goes to writing fiction, not blogging. I've written two novels in the last two years, not including rewriting a different book and months and months (and months) of revising. Back when I started blogging, it was the way to be involved in the writing community, and was almost expected of new writers. Those things don't really hold true anymore, but this site is like a diary of our adventures overseas, and I'm not ready to give it up completely.

So, without further ado, here are my 5 pros and 5 cons of being posted to Lima, Peru, as an American expat with the U.S. embassy (including some of my favorite places to eat/visit/explore):

FIVE PROS OF LIFE IN LIMA (in no particular order)

1) The culinary scene
Lima is touted as the culinary hotspot of South America, and it's not hard to see why. There are some true world-class restaurants here, and while they might not be for everyone (see my review of Central here), there's no denying that chefs in Peru are creative, ambitious, and use the fresh ingredients available here to take traditional Peruvian cuisine to new levels.

I'm married to a foodie (albeit a gluten-free foodie with weird eating habits) so we've been to some of the most renowned restaurants in Lima. We both hated Central (too experimental, even for John), but he loves Maido, a Japanese restaurant consistently ranking in the top 50 world-wide. His favorite dish  - maybe ever - is the sea urchin ceviche. Our favorite restaurant in Lima, both for food, service, and atmosphere, is Rafael. Not as well known as places like Astrid y Gaston, but just as good (according to John), it has a side menu that changes constantly, as well as MY favorite dish in Peru, the brown butter scallops. We're going there for our last dinner out in Lima, if that gives you a hint of how much we love it.

Closer to home, aka La Molina, we really like Nanka, although their menu is getting old after so many visits. I love Burrito Bar and La 73 in Barranco, and for home delivery, EVEN IN SOL DE LA MOLINA, you can't beat Highly recommended.

As the saying goes, it's all relative, and if you haven't been posted to a place with really bad food (aka Russia) or you don't happen to like seafood, Peruvian food might not be for you. But if you like fresh fish, exotic ingredients, and affordable meals out, you'll be thrilled with Lima's cuisine.

Maido and it's iconic rope ceiling

2) The people

Once again, maybe it's because we came from Russia, but we have found the Peruvian people to be generally friendly and helpful (as long as they're not behind the wheel of a car). I've heard it said repeatedly that making good friends with the locals is difficult for expats, but I think that depends on who you're trying to be friends with. For me, I haven't made good Peruvian friends mostly because of the language barrier and the class difference (the people whose children go to the American school are living in a different world than we are). But I blame that more on my own issues than the locals. We've been invited to playdates with friends of both Jack and Will, and have been welcomed into many Peruvian homes for birthday parties. And I love my Crossfit La Molina coaches! I think if we'd been in Miraflores and I had spent more time out amongst the locals, I would have made more friends. But in terms of general interactions, I have no complaints. Even out where we live, where not many people speak English, I've been able to communicate and accomplish everything with very few "expat moments." I'm grateful for that (and for my four years of high school Spanish!).

3) The travel

Traveling within Peru isn't always easy, but we've seen some amazing things in our time here. Highlights for me are the Sacred Valley (one of the most beautiful places I've ever been), Colca Canyon, and the rainforest. Huaraz was also amazing, but very challenging with small kids. Altitude affects everyone differently, and it's even affected me differently on different trips to the same altitude. So take the Diamox if you can, stay hydrated, and no matter where you travel in Peru, be careful about what you eat. Intestinal troubles have definitely put a damper on a few of our trips here. But enjoy the cheap regional plane tickets and reasonably priced hotels!

This pygmy marmoset in the jungle was one of the highlights of Peru for me

4) The weather

You'll hear Americans complain about the weather in Lima, particularly if they live on the coast where it's gray 9 months out of the year, but I have been so appreciative of Lima's consistently pleasant climate the last two years. Again, it's all relative (see: Yekaterinburg), but never needing a coat or rain jacket or having to stuff my kids into snow gear has been a blessing. I'm going to miss that in Serbia! We've also had few problems with hay fever (even for Jack, who developed asthma last summer in Montana but has never had an attack here!), probably because there aren't a lot of plants growing out here. Lima isn't the prettiest city - lots of dirt hills and cactus - but I have certainly appreciated not being on year-round allergy medication.

Barranco is by far my favorite part of Lima!

5) The cost of living

Personally, I think Lima is really affordable. Being with the embassy certainly helps - hello Amazon Prime! - but even the fancy restaurants are cheaper than their American equivalents, by at least 10 percent, sometimes more. Groceries cost us about the same as they would in America, and travel within Peru has been very reasonable. Gas is insanely expensive, but you're rarely driving more than a few miles (even if it takes two hours). Taxis are cheap and plentiful. My Crossfit membership is about a third of what I'll have to pay in DC. And domestic help is very affordable. Having an empleada has been life changing.


1) The traffic

Oh, the traffic. This is far and away the biggest con for me. I never imagined in my life that it could take two hours to go ten miles, or that it would be considered normal. Unless you live near the embassy in Surco, you're in for an awful commute. The only saving grace for us has been that John can ride his bike to work, but the route is over a giant mountain, and as he's nearly been run over several times (and hit three times), it's not exactly a great alternative. It has taken people up to two hours to go the six miles from where we live to the embassy. After the summer, when school was back in session, it was taking me more than 30 minutes just to go 2 miles. It can be infuriating if you're trying to get anywhere at a certain time. I avoid going to Jack's school like the plague because it can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour and is right next to the Circle of Death, aka the world's worst cluster f*ck of a traffic circle. I swear I've lost a year off my life every time we've driven through it. Fender benders are pretty much inevitable, and you can expect the other driver to get out and berate you for money even if they're at fault. Taxis are cheap but consistently bad, even with Uber. No air conditioning or seat belts, drivers who have no business using a manual transmission, and horrible exhaust fumes are all standard. It's a toss up of what's worse - risking an accident in your own car, or putting your life in the hand's of a taxi driver. It also drives me insane that people don't use car seats (or even seat belts) for their children, even infants.

2) The pollution

The air quality in Lima is bad, no two ways about it. There are no emissions tests or requirements here, and even though diplomats can't bring in cars more than five years old, some of the hoopties I've seen literally held together with tape have to be 30 years old or more. I don't want to think about the amount of crap John has inhaled on his bike commute over the last two years.

Dirt hills aren't pretty, but they can be fun to hike!

3) La Molina

Hindsight is 20/20, and as I've complained here before, I will forever regret living in La Molina. Granted, I didn't know we would be in the furthest reaches of La Molina, or that the traffic would be so horrible, or that there would be few restaurants and virtually nothing to do out here. But I've learned my lesson. I will be visiting Belgrade prior to moving there so this doesn't happen again. Everyone has different priorities, and I have friends who love living in La Molina, but if you care more about being able to walk to a cafe or get together with friends or visit museums than you do about having a yard (and ours is pretty small and pool-less anyway), live anywhere but La Molina! When I think about all the things we missed out on by being so far away from the culture and vibrancy that make Lima a great city, I want to scream. Not to mention the trips out there just to see friends on a Saturday night (those two-hour horrific cab rides I mentioned). The kids and John weren't as affected by it as I was, considering they're at school or work all day, but for me, it's been miserable. The only good thing about La Molina is that I have a couple friends who live out here, and Crossfit La Molina!

4) The food

While Lima's culinary scene may be fantastic, grocery shopping kind of sucks. We have gone two or three weeks without being able to find fresh milk (we aren't ultra-high pasteurized folks). Things like bread and bananas might be unavailable for days at a time. And the produce, though plentiful, is not always great. Forget about the broccoli (worms). I once thought there were no bad avocados in Peru. Turns out we'd gotten here during avocado season. Most of the time they're not great. The "pre-washed" spinach is a lie. The dearth of good frozen options has me longing for Trader Joe's. If you can handle the chaos and smells of the mercados, you can get a lot of produce for super cheap. And I will miss the fresh mangoes and everything passionfruit-flavored. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't freaking thrilled at the prospect of shopping in an American grocery store again.

5) The cost of international travel

We had really hoped to see more of South America during our time here (or, uh, any of it outside of Peru) but international travel here is expensive. $500 a person to go to Chile or Argentina was just out of our budge as a family of four. I recommend doing what our friends did and using an R&R cost construct to get around South America.

So there you have it! We leave in three weeks and will spend two months traveling across the U.S., a year in Alexandria, VA, and then it's off to Belgrade next August. Thanks, Lima, for being our home for two years. It hasn't always been easy, but I will miss you all the same.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Nightmare of Third Tour Bidding, And Where We're Going Next

Well folks, today marks the culmination of quite possibly the most stressful six weeks of my life, give or take. I had no idea bidding for our third tour was going to be such a nightmare. Give me the sheer terror of Flag Day over third tour bidding any time! Fortunately, our tale has a happy ending, but I'd like to share with you a little of what the process is like.

First comes the bid list. Unlike first and second tour bidding, when you get a massive list of jobs and pick your top 30, then pray the decision makers are feeling generous that day, third tour bidding is much more focused. It's also much more based on who you know - connections are everything. John was looking at 03 political jobs, which narrowed things down significantly. My preference was for something that didn't require language training, just to save ourselves the extra move, but we really wanted to go back overseas, so we only bid on two DC jobs. Everything else was EUR (except for Tokyo). And let me tell you, those jobs were in high demand. When you've got 30 people bidding for a single spot, coming in second or third might as well be 30th, because not many people are going to turn down London or Brussels. And unfortunately, that happened to John for multiple jobs.

Most FSOs end up in DC for their third tour, which gives them a leg-up in their chosen bureau (ie the part of the world you want to work). We could have done the standard thing and gone to DC, then immediately started to lobby for the next job. And this might have worked out, but it also might have meant getting stuck in DC, or getting an overseas job with a language requirement, which could add another year in DC. And for financial reasons, as well as just wanting to live overseas because it's way more interesting, that wasn't our preference.

John got *this close* to Tokyo and London, and Brussels seemed like another strong possibility. But in the end, he wasn't the first choice, and he wasn't offered those jobs. Keep in mind he was bidding against people on their fourth or even fifth tours, so he was at a disadvantage from the get-go. In the process, John had multiple interviews with several different posts (about 12 interviews altogether) and that was super stressful in itself. And then there's the fact that posts can ask you to commit to a job before the official deadline, in which case you might have to gamble if you're in second place at another job (if #1 turns it down, the job is offered to #2, and so on). There was a lot of strategizing and arguing over what should be our first choice (telling a post you'll definitely accept a "handshake" if it's offered can help), a lot of me nagging John to make sure he was on top of things (it's not that I don't have faith in him, it's just that I was terrified), a lot of worrying about schools and housing and language and finances. It really was incredibly stressful for a few weeks, and I am dreading the next bidding cycle.

Fortunately, that won't be for another three years. In June of 2017, the Rutherfords will be returning to DC for a year of language training, and then we head out for three years in...

Belgrade, Serbia!

John will be the political military affairs officer, a job he is super excited about. Not only is the work meaningful and relevant, but it should help him build his career in the direction he wants to go. For me and the kids, Belgrade sounds like a great place to live. It's Europe on the cheap, with affordable food, entertainment, and household help. The schools are supposed to be great, it doesn't take long to get anywhere in the city, and we will be in an awesome jumping-off point for the rest of Europe. In case you don't know exactly where Belgrade is (because I didn't before we started bidding):

Greece, Hungary, Turkey, and Italy are all within an hour or two by plane! We can drive to Croatia for a three-day weekend. It may not be London or Prague, but for our family and taking the job into account, I don't think we could have asked for better (and believe me, we are VERY lucky to have gotten anything at all! A lot of people will walk away from this process without anything locked in, and will have to continue to fight for what's left). A year in DC means we'll get to spend more time with Sarah, and language training is relatively laid-back, which means John will have more time to spend with the kids. It seems that we are destined to live in places I would never have imagined, and I'm good with that. We chose this life for the adventure, and I think Serbia will have plenty of it. And if you don't feel like visiting us there, we'll meet you somewhere else in Europe. Chances are it's only a short flight away.

Click this link for a recent NY Times article about 36 hours in Belgrade.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Housing in the Foreign Service

Foreign Service housing is one of the most talked-about benefits in this lifestyle. Complain about any aspect of FS living and someone will likely remind you about the "free housing." And the truth is, it's pretty awesome. When we live overseas, housing is one thing that we really don't have to worry about, at least as far as expenses are concerned. The rent, the utilities, and any upkeep are all paid for. Anyone who lives in the DC area knows how much money that's worth. It's one of the reasons we hope to stay overseas for our next post. Housing in DC is insane and diplomats are on a government salary, after all.

But for every FS perk there's usually a downside. And to me, the hardest part about having your housing provided is that you have no control. I don't just mean in choosing the house (I'll get to the housing survey in a minute). I mean that if you're given a house with zero bathroom storage, for example, you can't hire a carpenter and have some built. If you have a washer and dryer located outside, exposed to all the elements and pigeon poop, there's not much you can do about it. If something breaks, you can't just buy what you need and fix it yourself. What you *can* do is put in a work order.

Our laundry area for the past 1.5 years (not pictured, cockroaches)

Every embassy and consulate has a staff responsible for facilities. So, when your water cooler starts leaking all over, or your oven stops working, you enter a work order online. The process is a little tedious but not a big deal. Generally, if it's an emergency like an overflowing toilet, someone comes quickly. Your oven or water cooler will probably get fixed that day or the next. This is awesome, because it's free! The local facilities guys have always been pretty great (except for the guy who hung our pictures, another thing we aren't allowed to do ourselves). But if it's, say, the bathroom storage or the exposed washer and dryer...well, they might never get fixed. Because now it isn't just the embassy involved. If it's something that costs money, the owner of the house (here in Lima all the housing is owned by local Peruvians as far as I know) has to approve it. And there is nothing that says they have to approve it.

I have yet to get that bathroom storage, despite two carpenters coming on two separate occasions and measuring for it (the quote was crazy and the owners said no). This is an annoyance, but one I can obviously live with. As for the covered laundry area, I asked for it the first week we moved in here, and last week, almost a year and a half later, they put in a cover. Huzzah! No more pigeon poop and puddles where we wash our clothing! But yeah, I like to think I'd have taken care of it a little sooner if it had been up to me.

Our recently-installed and much-appreciated cover.

As far as housing itself goes, we do get to have some input, generally. In Yekaterinburg, there was a tiny housing pool and only one apartment big enough for a family, so it wouldn't have mattered if we wanted to live in a house with a yard outside the city or a smaller apartment near the embassy. We simply didn't have a choice. Here in Lima, things are completely different. And if you take anything away from this blog post, hear this: RESEARCH. Don't take someone else's word for it. If at all possible, visit the post. If not, ask around until you find someone whose opinion you trust with your happiness for the next 2-3 years. Believe me, where you live can make all the difference.

The "housing survey" asks you to pick your preferences, without ever having been to the city (unless it's somewhere you've traveled on your own in the past). Questions have to do with things like having a yard or a pool, a house versus an apartment, proximity to school and embassy, etc. Imagine having to decide where you want to live without ever having visited a place. And keep in mind that wherever you pick, you will be assigned a house sight unseen (you get photos after your house has been chosen). There is always a worst house in the housing pool, and someone is going to get it. I have seen houses here that are enormous modern homes with pools and immaculate yards, and I've also seen cramped, older homes with spider infestations. Sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes you don't.

There are three housing locations in Lima, for the most part: Miraflores, or the "touristy part" of Lima, on the coast; Surco, which is near the embassy and the American school, but isn't very pretty; and La Molina, or the suburbs. When we filled out our Lima housing survey, we asked for a house in La Molina. It was the advice we were given by multiple people (granted, not people we knew well) because it was supposedly close enough to the school and embassy, in a safe neighborhood, and we'd get a nice big house with a yard. To my infinite regret, when the survey folks came back to us and asked if we were sure we wouldn't like an apartment in Surco, we said no thanks (someone told me it wasn't a good area and the apartments weren't great. Having been in said apartments, I can now thoroughly disagree, but I didn't know this at the time).

Sadly, a lot of La Molina looks like this

One thing you can't appreciate from looking at a map is traffic. La Molina is a huge area, and we got housed on the very outskirts of it. We're one of the furthest houses from the embassy, in fact, in a neighborhood called "Sol de la Molina." Sol, because it IS sunny a lot. But unfortunately, it's also a cultural wasteland. We can't walk to anything (although they did build a grocery store on our street this summer which has helped immensely). My first three months here, before our car came, were really difficult. Cabbing with two small kids to get groceries sucks. And Jack gets picked up by the bus at 6:30 am for an 8:00 school start time. If I had it to do over again, I'd have chosen any other housing option. While we do have a beautiful house, we are so far from everything there is to do in Lima, and when you've only got two years somewhere, that's a real shame. It takes us an hour and a half or more to meet our friends in Miraflores for dinner. It's only ten miles away.  Ten miserable, trafficy, smoggy, dear-god-please-don't-let-us-die miles away. I knew the first week we were here I didn't want to live here, but that's where the whole "control" thing comes in. We couldn't move. Trust me, we asked. Even though our stuff wasn't here yet (and wouldn't be for quite a while), assigning housing is a very complicated process, and there wasn't a free apartment in Miraflores to move us to. Sigh.

The view from a friend's balcony in Miraflores

You live and you learn. From now on, if we go to a post with vast differences in housing options, we will either visit ahead of time if possible, or make sure we talk to a VERY trusted source for advice. I have learned that I'm a city person, especially in a foreign country where driving isn't always as civil as it is in America. I like to walk to cafes to write and meet my friends and not have to invest half a day just to get lunch with someone. It's a tiny knife to the heart every time I sit on one of my friend's balconies overlooking the ocean in Miraflores, where there are parks and restaurants and museums all within walking distance. But I've got a safe, lovely house, with plenty of room for guests - who generally don't want to stay way out in the boonies. But hey, it's free.

(John thought I should mention that the cycling and running are better out where we live. I think this really depends on the person. I would much prefer to run along the ocean than on the sidewalk-less streets in our neighborhood, but John is willing to put up with the dirt hills and wild dogs because he can ride for hours. He also bike commutes, but he's one of maybe two people at the embassy crazy enough to do so. He's been hit by cars three or four times now, and the hill he has to go over is insane. But it is possible, so there you go.)

Friday, September 2, 2016

A Day Off in Lima at Parque de la Amistad

One of the perks of the Foreign Service is that you get American holidays PLUS the host country's holidays off, which generally adds up to about 20 days per year (not including vacation days!). My favorite ones are the American holidays, since the kids still have school and John and I get to hang out alone, but the Peruvian holidays aren't bad either. We had Tuesday off and knew we wanted to do something with our friends, who suggested the Parque de la Amistad. It's in the center of Lima, so relatively convenient for people living on the coast or in the Andes like us (that's sarcasm, mostly).

Jack dressed "handsome" for his girls on Tuesday.

Parque de la Amistad is a sort of mini-amusement park, with a lake with paddle boat rides, a steam engine that goes around the park, playgrounds, and other various amusements like face painting. It was crowded due to the holiday, but not too crazy, and the kids had a great time until it was time to leave, at which point we all became the worst parents in history. Before the park, we went to one of two Thai restaurants in Lima, Siam. It has decent Thai food, if you're looking for a change of pace.

John is the one waving. Will was obsessed with this train.

Entry to the park is free, but you pay for each attraction separately. It was 10 soles (around $3) for face painting, and I think the boat ride was a dollar or two per person. As in Russia, these types of parks are usually a little run down. They had to bail the water out of the paddle boats before we got in. I laughed when Jack said, "Look Mom, a baby fish! Oh, never mind. That's a piece of trash."

Will was probably worried we were going to capsize.

All in all it was a fun time for the kids. It got a little tough with Will, who hadn't napped and did not want to get off that steam train. The playground was also crowded enough that it was hard to keep an eye on the kids, and I do get a little nervous about that (Lima is a relatively safe city, but a friend had a scary incident with a stranger at a restaurant, so I prefer to have the kids in my line of sight at all times). Being there reminded me a little of the post-apocalyptic Disneyland in Yekaterinburg (John's nickname for Mayakovskogo Park - see very sad, very empty train below).

Note the animal statues for decoration.
Sure, it's no Disneyland, but it was a fun way to spend an afternoon in Lima, even in the middle of "winter."

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Available Now: A Cup of Culture and a Pinch of Crisis

I'm so proud to be a part of this book, which features essays from Americans living abroad (many of them fellow EFMs), specifically involving food. My essay, Maslenitsa, Or How I Found Warmth in a Russian Winter, is about the pancake festival we attended in Yekaterinburg to welcome "spring." In March. It's a humorous essay that also touches on some of the challenges of living in Russia. Plus it features a blini recipe that I tested myself.

Here's the link to the book on Amazon:

And the beautiful cover:

I hope you'll check it out!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Restaurant Review: Central AKA The Emperor's New Food

For my birthday a couple of weeks ago, John made a reservation at what is considered by many to be the top restaurant in Latin America, Central. It's #4 on The World's 50 Best website and was voted #1 in Latin America by San Pellegrino. I hadn't researched the restaurant much, but I knew it was going to be a 12-course tasting menu. Disclaimer: I am not adventurous when it comes to food. As it is, I only started eating fish because I needed more to eat in Russia. Before that, I'd been a vegetarian for 15 years. But after a very positive experience with a set menu at a restaurant in Toronto a couple of years ago, and knowing Central's reputation, I tried to go into this meal with an open mind. Unfortunately, sometimes that's just not enough.

I'll start off with what I did like about Central, because it certainly had some good points. The restaurant is located in an unassuming building with no sign, and we managed to get there in about 35 minutes on a Saturday night, which is a small miracle coming from where we live in Sol de la Molina. We met a really sweet American couple outside while we waited for it to open. It was their first day in Lima, and I thought it was adorable that they were staying in a hostel but were coming to Central for dinner. They'd made reservations months in advance (I sure hope their experience was better than ours!). We chatted for a few minutes before going in, where we were escorted to our table in the center of the dining room.

Enjoying my champagne and trying not to freak out about the menu.

I really liked that we could see into the kitchen, and the head chef, Virgilio Martinez, was there the whole time, when he wasn't presenting dishes to the guests himself (to be honest I had no idea who he was until John told me - he looks like a 35-year-old hipster and was completely unpretentious, which was odd because his restaurant kind of is). I actually hate to give a negative review because I watched these people cooking and could see the pride and passion that went into their work. Everything was presented in a very unusual and creative manner, and each course was brought out by a chef or waiter and explained to us (in English, which was also nice).

The open kitchen. Martinez is hidden by the woman in the checkered shirt.
The wine list was excellent. John was thrilled to find some of his favorite wines on there, and while it was as overpriced as one would expect, he was genuinely happy with his drinks. Alas, a quick glance at the menu told me I was in trouble - I don't eat things like snails by choice, and while the dishes aren't exactly explained, the ingredient list was scaring me. Be warned: on Saturday nights there is no option to order a la carte, which I think may have been part of the problem with this meal for me. If I could have chosen foods that were recognizable and appetizing (to me), I would probably have had a much better experience.

The menu

From the first course on I had a hard time eating the food. In addition to the strange ingredients (and I don't just mean exotic, but strange, ranging from "bark" to "clay" to "bacteria"), the food didn't taste good. And at the end of the day, that's what matters to me. Unique presentation and "experience" be damned, it's food, and I want it to be delicious! Most of the dishes were too salty, so I didn't get any nuance of flavor. The bread that Martinez presented to us smelled and tasted like marijuana. I think it was cooked with smoked coca leaves, which may explain it, but again, it just wasn't good to eat. Even Martinez admitted that the flour they used wasn't the best, but that it was native, which I think is what really matters to him as a chef. The butters that came with it were probably the highlight of the meal for me. John really liked the octopus course, and one of the meat courses. I had two potato dishes to replace the meats, but both were so salty I couldn't taste the potato (the little bacteria balls on one of the dishes were also rather unappetizing).

The leaf covered with snail paste was probably the low point, or maybe it was the smoked tuber that tasted like what I imagine licking a hearth would be like. John had a gluten free menu, and I didn't have meat, so a few of our dishes varied. But John's dessert was inedible (some kind of cocoa ice cream topped with a crispy herb cracker - and whatever the herb was, it was extremely bitter). When the waiter could see he didn't enjoy it, he brought us both another course, and by that point I was just ready for the meal to be over. We did appreciate the gesture, however.

Leaf, fish (I think), and snails. Nope.

The tuber was another major miss for me.

Somewhere around the fifth or sixth course, I started to pay attention to the diners around us. They all seemed awed and impressed by the food. I could tell they considered Martinez a celebrity, asking him to take a photo with them and gushing over their meals. And I couldn't help but feel a little like this was the emperor's new food, that everyone believed they were *supposed* to love the food, so they did. While I can't deny that it was an impressive meal in many ways, I left wishing I'd gone out for pizza instead. I wasn't full, but I could barely stomach the "solar mucilage" - a drink that tastes pretty much exactly how it sounds - and chamomile gelatin that came with the last course. I understand that this kind of cuisine isn't for everyone, but John is a foodie, and even he was incredibly disappointed. Part of me wishes we'd gone with friends. We probably would have laughed about it and enjoyed the experience more. But I couldn't keep a straight face while eating some of the food, which made John feel guilty about choosing the restaurant, which made the entire experience an unpleasant one for both of us.

If you go to Central, I suggest you go with more than an open mind; a sense of humor (and a large snack beforehand) might serve you better in the end.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Getting to Know More of Peru: Arequipa and Colca

Hello all! Now that I've finished drafting my new novel, I'm taking a couple of weeks off to wait for feedback from critique partners and hoping that means I can catch up a bit on blogging! It's been a hell of a couple of months. In January and February, we had family visiting for four weeks total. It was awesome and kind of exhausting, especially because the plague descended on our house in the form of a stomach...thing. I can't say exactly what happened, because I'm pretty sure the local lab screwed up my results, but John had both a bacterial infection AND a parasite at the same time. I think I had the bacteria. My poor parents were both sick for a couple of days while they were here. My sister, Amy, and her husband both had mild stomach issues (and so did I, even after I thought the plague had left). John and I both lost a significant amount of weight (which was NOT the plan) while we were ill, and now I'm once again struggling to get healthy. It was a very effective reminder that this is still a developing country in many ways, and even though we think we're careful about what we eat, our systems still haven't adjusted to being here. All I can say is I'm going to Vegas for a writers conference in April and I plan on making the most of the all-you-can-eat buffets!

But despite all that, we've done some great traveling this year, and I wanted to share some photos and travel tips for other families who might be looking to explore areas outside of Lima.

I knew my sister and her husband wanted to go to Cuzco and Machu Picchu when they came, so I researched other trips for my parents' visit. I had heard that Arequipa is a beautiful city with great food, and that Colca Canyon was a side trip not to be missed. One challenging thing about traveling within Peru is that many places are at a high altitude. Arequipa is only around 8,000 feet, but Colca Canyon is at 12,000, and the road there goes over 16,000 feet. Let me tell you, when you live at sea level, that's a BIG change. Huaraz was also tough, going straight to 12,000 feet, and we all felt the altitude there, even though I was on Diamox (a medication that helps prevent altitude sickness). After taking the kids to Cuzco last year and then Huaraz, I was well aware that Will does not like high altitudes, so we decided to leave him in Lima with our nanny. Jack has done great on all our trips within Peru, fortunately.

Arequipa has a lovely city center, but I'll say up front it's not as beautiful as Cuzco. The terrain is much drier than in the Sacred Valley, but we were lucky to have great weather while we were there, with only the occasional passing rainstorm. We had a few things working against us on this trip. First, John and I were both still quite sick at that point, and it made it very difficult to appreciate the food and the sightseeing. And then John had to return to Lima for one night and ended up having his return flight canceled, so he missed all of Colca Canyon, which was the real highlight of the trip. I'll tell you one thing, we have NOT been impressed with the Peruvian airlines. Almost all of our flights have been delayed or canceled. Ugh.

On a bus tour of Arequipa (John and Jack recommend the "queso helado")

Colca Canyon is beautiful. We stayed at Colca Lodge, which has wonderful grounds, thermal springs, and the cutest alpaca farm in the world. Jack and I had a blast there, and the trip out to see the Andean condors flying in the canyons was truly special (we were lucky to see any condors, because we went during the rainy season - I'd say to avoid traveling to Arequipa/Colca from January to March because of this, although as I said, we got lucky).

Colca Canyon - it's like a golf course in Jurassic Park, or something.

A random woman's finger helpfully pointing to the condor.

On the way back to Arequipa, I did come close to passing out going over the pass. The Med Unit here gives out enough Diamox for four days, the logic being that you should be acclimated at that point, so I hadn't taken it for a day when we hit 16,000 feet. If you go and have any sensitivity to altitude, I'd suggest staying on the meds. But that's just my two cents.


Escaped baby alpaca!

A village in Colca - I love the colors!
Due to illness/general tiredness, we missed seeing the Inca Ice Maiden (who, by the way, is not on display from January to April, although a different mummy is apparently displayed). We did go to the Santa Catalina Monastery (what we would call a convent), which was very beautiful and interesting. Definitely a highlight of the trip.

Santa Catalina Monastery

Overall, this was a fun trip, though a challenging one. I wouldn't recommend more than two nights in Arequipa, and I wish we'd had three nights in Colca instead of two, just because it was so beautiful and peaceful there. It would be the perfect spot for a writers retreat. Next time, I'll write about my second trip to the Sacred Valley and Cuzco, and my first time to Machu Picchu!