14 April 2011

A Spoonful of Ceviche...

Different day, different continent.

As we slowly woke up this morning to strong cups of black tea (me) and black coffee (S), S and I tried to shake the strange South American jet lag and past 24 hours of Los Angeles decadence from our bones.

Racked with indecision regarding our plans to spend three and a half weeks solely in Southern Peru (some people do five countries in this time) and chewing on a European style breakfast of dry bun, jam and butter (my eyes had darted hopefully around the area for eggs or cheese or? Nutella? anything? Bueller?) I was feeling wary of this city.

And not just because I'm tired. Sure, I've only just completed the most intense semester of my life a few days ago. And sure, it was only last week that I was part of a team organizing not one but two massive events. And hell - I submitted my first post for a bi-weekly column I'm writing just yesterday as I dashed off to LAX. But none of those ample reasons for being weary were the real reason that I was wary.

I was scared.

See, for the first time since setting my Haviana'ed foot onto the cyclone soaked land of Manila, I was in a city - Lima - that is known for crime, corruption, murder and rape. The Lonely Planet, normally filled with level headed travel advice, has an entire chapter on how to not get killed in Peru.

This wasn't like my independent trip to Jamaica where I naively thought everything was going to be reggae and Red Stripe and Rastafarian wisdom, only to leave my hotel and end up terrified an hour later - this was different. This morning I was scared to even leave the hotel.

Until, of course, I met Francis.


Francis likes maps. Francis likes food. And what Francis likes more than anything is to gather a group of travelers around the breakfast table, armed with highlighters, to map out - in the most meticulous detail imaginable - the food of Lima, the culinary capital of Latin America.

Ruins? Churches? Museums? Afterthoughts! The real Lima, according to Francis, is to be found in mouthfuls of hot chiccarones sandwiches (pork cracklings layered with fried sweet potato and onions) in slippery bites of citrus-y ceviche (shellfish marinated in lime juice) and in chewy pulpo al olivo (grilled octopus bathed in rich olive oil.)

As he described each dish, his mouth visibly watered. He quivered. He repeatedly stopped mid-sentence, pausing in perfect religious ecstasy as he recounted the baked scallop and cheese dish "conchas parmesanas - oh yes. You will have this and you will be loving it. You will be having a really nice time."

Ominous orange highlighter warns of scary death.

Francis used his highlighters to mark up the double-sided map to the point that it was packed with notes; partial menu entries scrawled in the margins and particularly important hellados shops underlined in green. My fears of random assault and violence subsided, replaced with food-porn fantasies and happy dreams of spicy food con mucho aji! That's when Francis pulled out the orange highlighter.

"Ok, now we're gonna see where you not going, ok? You be having a really nice time if you not going - NOT EVER GOING past these orange lines, ok?" I nodded. S nodded. The other 4 Lima virgins at the table nodded.

"Now you gonna need to know how to get a taxi, ok? Now, you never gonna taking a taxi with the driver has big scar across his face, ok? Also never if the driver missing arm or leg or finger, ok? And you never gonna take a taxi that isn't have no proper license plate ok? And then you be having a really nice time." I nodded emphatically, mentally compiling this list. I was going to have a really nice time. I was not going to go with any..... wait. He was still talking.

"Ok, now, when you getting in taxi you both better be sitting in the back, ok? You sitting in the back so that if driver pulls out a gun, you are punching him in the head, ok?" We nervously laughed. Francis didn't.

"Ok - now you go and have a really nice time!" It was noon. I was still scared, but the food - the otherworldly buffets of fresh fish and farm cheese and mashed potato avocado salads that Francis' had described - they danced in my head and motivated me. I wanted to eat my way through Lima, and that bun wasn't gonna cut it.

Popcorn can kiss my white ass.

After wandering through Miraflores, the wealthy beach community where most travelers stay, and visiting some pre-Incan ruins we built up a huge appetite. Strolling toward the ethereally beautiful cliffs of the Lima beach, we found one of the restaurants that Francis had recommended with gusto, Punta Sal Seafood.

After snacking on some cancha (huge roasted kernels of corn), to which I am now addicted, we decided to try everything - literally. We created two sampler platters of three items each - all for around 60 soles (20 dollars CAD).

Hmmm. I'll have the trio of seat-wettingly good fish dishes. Kthx.

Mine? Causas cangrejo, a mashed potato and avocado salad stuffed with fresh crabmeat, a ceviche loaded with red onions and carpaccio of thinly sliced white fish in a citrus and cilantro broth.

I probably shouldn't eat octopus. They're smart. But with all the pork I don't eat, don't I get a gimme?

S has the causas camerones (the same potato salad, but with shrimp), a portion of ceviche and the pulpa al olivo, absolutely bursting with olive-y flavour.

I took one bite of each dish and smiled, a huge grin ear to ear. "Oh, S" I practically purred, "Peru and I are going to get along just fine. I am having a very. nice. time."

It's like an entire country asked me what my favourite foods are and then decided to make their national dishes out of these ingredients. (Well, except one. The most famous Peruvian dish is cuy - roasted Guinea Pig. But when in Rome, am I right? This little piggie is going to have to try one.)

Causas - If you love them so much why don't you marry them?
I actually already have the paperwork in process.
The honeymoon could get messy.

Causas, those primary coloured potato-y works of art, are now seriously in the running (along with serious contenders poutine, paneer butter masala, perogies and salmon sashimi) for my favourite food. Of all time. Ever. There is a causa restaurant a few blocks from here, and tomorrow I will be seated hungrily at its counter.

Which brings me to my point. I left the hotel this morning like a shivering little sissy, afraid of the big bad men of Lima - a feeling of helplessness that is foreign to me. No other city has ever intimidated me quite so much, has ever disempowered me to the point that I wanted to crawl back into bed, pull the covers up over my head and sleep through it.

But it wasn't Lima that was assaulting me - I was assaulting myself. I believed the hype, believed in the fear of this place and I let it get to me. Don't get me wrong - as Francis and his "taxi-cab parade of death lecture" has made perfectly clear - this is a dangerous city. This is not a place to flash money around or absentmindedly wander past the orange Xs - you must be smart and savvy and aware.

And sister, let me tell you - I am those things. I am smart and savvy and aware, but for a few hours I let myself forget and I doubted my ability to travel.

Today, all it took was the simplest of human art, the most basic gesture of kindness and humanity - food - to bring me back down to earth. Bring me back down to this place that yes, may have crime and danger and guns but also has kind people, amazing sights and some of the most delicious seafood on the planet.

Anita and the vat of Arroz con Leche that she served to me for 4 soles.

Which brings me to dessert, the sweetest part of my day. As we walked through the main square of Miraflores, past a church inhabited by cats (I went on a petting spree!) I gasped and pulled S' arm. "Look! Dessert cart!"

It was emblazoned with the words "Dulces Limenos" which I immediately deciphered with my Mexican resort Spanish to mean "Sweet Lemon."

"Come on, S! Let's have a sweetie!" I presented the woman, whose embroidered smock identified her name as Anita, with a 5 Soles coin (approximately 1.60 CAD). She looked at me, puzzled, and spoke in slow deliberate Spanish. I smiled, shrugged my shoulders and gestured as if to say "whatever you think!"

She filled a bowl with Arroz con Leche (rice pudding), topped it with coconut and splashed it with sweet condensed milk, presenting me with dessert with a big smile. We sat a few metres away and slowly spooned up the sticky confection, the taste of cinnamon and peppermint and nutmeg on our lips, Christmas-y somehow, here in this dangerous city below the equator.

I read the name of the cart again. "Dulces Limenos. Dulces Limenos. Hmm." It dawned on me.

"S, Limenos isn't lemons! It means Lima residents - Lima-enos." The literal translation? We were sitting in the 25 degree sunshine eating 'the sweets of the Lima people.'

People smiled at us, helped us to cross the hectic streets with them and they put up with our poor Spanglish and our lack of comprehension at even the simplest sentences. How silly, how xenophobic to be afraid of place where people sit and eat rice pudding in the park! Where they have an entire cart of sweeties named after the residents of a city!

My fear burst at that exact moment, like a bubble. The shortest route to my heart in Lima was through my stomach.

So while I'll exercise caution, use my head and "keep my money in safe place" (thanks Grandpa) I'm no longer afraid of Lima. But I do want to eat a whole lot more of it.

S and me overlooking the Miraflores cliffs - and a Tony Roma's. Not on my list. Although....onion blossoms...

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