Six Things You Didn’t Know About Maple Syrup!

I guess the “when in Rome” expression would apply to maple syrup when in Northern Minnesota, right?

I think so!

I took that sentiment and ran with it this past weekend in Vergas, Minnesota where they were holding their annual maple syrup fest. I left with a saturated sweet-tooth to say the least, with over 30 syrupy sweet submissions for tasting. What I wasn’t expecting was to get my Nerd-Girl on, and leave with a super saturated noggin as well (yeah I said noggin and nerd-girl in a sentence… what of it hehe). Moving right along, I have to share with you what I found to be the most fascinating things I learned about maple syrup at the Vergas maple syrup fest, and through the live demonstrations at the Maplewood Sate Park.

 

1. It can take anywhere from 25 to 70 years for a maple tree to grow large enough to tap

Maple trees should be anywhere between 8-12 inches before they are tapped, and depending on the growing conditions, such as over-crowding and access to nutrients, it can take a very long time before trees are ready to give up the goodies. Next time you enjoy that sticky goodness, think about the fact that it came from a tree that just might be older than you!

 

2. Warm days and freezing nights are the recipe for syrup success

It isn’t simply cold weather that maples need to flourish, unbeknownst to me, they need cold nights combined with warm days. The best conditions for maple tapping are temperatures that get around 40 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and just below freezing at night. This narrow temperature window is what gets the sap “running”, basically the sap settles during the night and as the temperature rises, the sap moves through the warming tree. If the tree is tapped for sap collection, that the sap will more readily flow out of the tree… and eventually into our bellies.

FullSizeRender 6

Lovely Graphic of the Maplewood State Forest 2016 Sap Collection

 

3. The original method for turning sap to syrup was boiling with heated rocks

FullSizeRender 7

Original Method of Maple Sap Processing

One of the coolest things I got to see was the original method of processing maple sap into a finished product! When the Native Americans first discovered the deliciously sweet liquid that comes from the maple tree, they had to figure out not only how to process it into a consumable and transportable product, but they had to do so without the metal modern contraptions of the maple industry today. The water-like sap was collected into hand carved vessels most likely made from cottonwood trees. While the sap was collecting, stones were being heated on an open fire. Once the stones were burning hot they were moved into the vessels containing sap, and the stones heated the sap to a boil. As the stones cooled they were exchanged for freshly heated stones, and that cycle continued until it was thick as syrup. The original product didn’t stop there though, because native people had nothing to transport runny syrup in, they continued heating it until it solidified into sugar cakes. Those syrup cakes were the first finished maple products!

 

 

4. Native people used a maple product to flavor their meat

Those maple sugar cakes that native people created as a final transportable product from the sweet sap, were used as a flavoring element in cooking. When meats or other foods were boiled, a piece of the sugar cake would be broken off and added to the water.

 

5. Making candy from syrup can take hours

IMG_9562

Cooking Up Some Candy!

To my dismay, I discovered that making maple candy is a full day affair! When I arrived to the festival, this particular batch had been cooking for over an hour and it wasn’t even finished before I left the festival. It must be cooked very slow and consistently to prevent burning, until it reaches about 240 degrees Fahrenheit.

 

 

 

 

6. Syrup is DELICIOUS on freshly churned ice cream

Okay, okay… this one won’t come as a surprise to most of you, but if you haven’t had the pleasure of trying this decadent combination, DO IT. Like right now, do it!

FullSizeRender 9

Hard at Work!

I had a blast at the maple syrup fest, and I hope you enjoyed all my fun facts! Now I want to hear from you. What is your favorite way to eat maple syrup? Comment below, and let me know.

 

Advertisements

Road Trip Checklist: Top 5 Tasks

If you are currently planning a road trip, or even just daydreaming about one, then this post is for you! Organizing travel can sometimes feel a little daunting, but preparing for a road trip is a special kind of hectic. Take your travel plans, then add a car into the mix, and you quadruple the “what if” factor. It’s far from an impossible feat though, and it doesn’t even have to be that stressful. People say the key to success is preparation, and this holds so true for travel, especially of the road trip variety. Below I have laid out the bare-bones list for the absolutely necessary tasks to complete before the pedal hits the metal. This is just the start for many, but if you, like me, can get easily overwhelmed by an excessive amount of tasks… then just start here.

1- Get your car serviced

If you ask me, the scariest part of a road trip is that I have a giant unpredictable hunk of steel tagging along when I am used to it just being me and a pack. There are so many things you can’t control out

Ready, Set, GO!

there on the road, but you can at least ensure that your vehicle is as prepared as possible for whatever comes your way. This means getting any outstanding mechanical work done, possibly a tune up, checking all the fluids, getting an oil change, and stocking your car with an emergency kit. Some great things to keep in your trunk are a can of Fix-a-flat, extra windshield wiping fluids, flashlight with batteries, a blanket, and reflective tape are a few things I personally like to keep in my car. If you aren’t driving, then get that car rented ASAP to get the best prices.

 

2- Budget

Don’t get caught with all your eggs in one basket!

Once you have all the crucial work completed on your car, then you can take a look at what’s left in your piggy bank… or wherever the kids keep their pocket change these days. Budgets do not have to be as detailed as you might think, especially if you aren’t on a super tight budget. I always round my costs up because it’s way better to be under budget than to run out of money on the road. The typical criteria for my budget is a daily food allowance, lodging allowance (I almost always stay with friends), expected gas expenses, souvenir allowance, and account for any specific activities you already know you want to do like rafting or city tours for example.

 

The actual allocation of funds will be different for everyone, but those are the 5 core elements to budget for. Typically my lodging, activities, and souvenir budget is almost zero, as I like to bring back just postcards and photographs, but I will research ahead of time to find the best local watering holes. The last two important aspects of a road trip budget are always having access to either a credit card or a savings just in case of an emergency, and accounting for any bills that will be withdrawn while you are away. Be careful not to double spend your money in the bank.

NOW FOR THE FUN PART!

3- Pick Core Stops

Got Georgia on your mind?

There are as many ways to plan a road trip as there are to… (Is there another colloquial phrase aside from the “skin a cat” saying, because that just freaks me out). Anyway! I think its best to first decide if you will do a loop, or rent a car one way and fly back. Either way, you need to pick some core stops, which are the places where you will absolutely be stopping. I am sure some of you are saying part of what makes road trips great is the spontaneity, and I agree. I usually only pick a few stops in cities where I know someone and plan to spend the night. It is important to factor in how much driving per day you realistically can do, and often that defines where your stops will be. So pull out that handy map, or hit up The Google and get excited!

4- Research Weather

Not too shabby…

My favorite! I get so excited to look up the weather in all my stops, especially if I am heading south. This is important beyond picking which swimsuit to pack, knowing the weather forecast is critical for planning out time. Be sure to give yourself extra time if you see the weather will be particularly bad. If you check the weather often before you leave and see rainy days ahead, you should have enough time to reroute a few of your stops… if you happen to be chasing the sun like myself.

 

5- Copy and Share Vital Documents

Once I am pretty much all set with my itinerary, I do this final step, which is far from least. It is really important to share your potential schedule with someone at home, even if it is a loose outline. I like to email a copy of my route and potential stops to my mom (I knoooow, but she is my BFF), and it helps that my loud mouth is forever on social media. In addition to my itinerary, I also make copies of my driver’s license, and I keep in my glovebox and another copy in my bag. This is also a great time to double-check you have current copies of your insurance and registration in your car. Lastly, be sure to write down contact info for a few people close to you and keep that in your car. I know with cell phones hardly anyone memorizes phone numbers anymore, so in the off-chance you need to make a call without your phone handy… a pen and paper might just be what saves your behind!

Top 5 Reasons To Experience The Winter Farmers Market

Ithaca, NY (my current home base) is amazing for oh so many reasons! Many of those reasons I can’t wait to share with you in the soon-coming category on my blog called “Hey From HomeBase.” I’ll just start with my personal favorite thing to do in Ithaca, the Farmers Market! Ithaca’s Farmers Market is renowned, I have met people who have no idea where Ithaca is but they have heard it has an amazing market, and they heard correct. The Farmers Market is a pearl of our community; while not completely representative of all facets, it reflects the funky, eclectic, and homegrown vibe the town of Ithaca exudes. Although the Farmers Market is a local staple, some of us have no idea that its still around during the winter months. In the words of our local farmers, “YUP, we still grow food in the winter!” Here are a few reasons why you should check out the winter market this year!

IMG_1773

Crooked Carrot and Blue Heron Farm

Reason #5: Warm up with a cider

This is a secret obsession of mine, hot cider with a cider donut from Littletree Orchards’ stand. I love an ice cold lemonade on a hot summer’s day at the market, but all year I secretly can’t wait for it to be cold enough for hot cider! It is hands down the best, and there is nothing like it to make me feel cozy on the inside when there is snow on the ground right outside the door. They still make donuts in the winter, and they are the BOMB DIGGITY (yes I am proudly stuck in the 90s), try dunking them in a cup of cider if you want to experience what living really tastes like… enough said.

IMG_1820

Littletree Orchard apples

Reason #4: Plenty of time to meet the farmers

Our local farmers always try and make themselves available, but with the volume of people attending the summer market it may be difficult to get their ear for more than just a quick question. The small crowds and indoor space at the winter market allow for more opportunities to have a lengthy chat. While getting my groceries for the week, and researching for this article, I got to chat with farmers about everything from recipes for their products to what their eldest daughter and I have in common… farmers can be a chatty bunch ;). Get to the winter market, and get to know your farmers!

IMG_1795

Michael Burns of Cayuta Sun Farm!

Reason #3: You can enjoy it at your leisure

There is no denying that summer time is the busiest time of the year for the Ithaca  Farmers Market. On summer weekends we often have visitors from all over the country here to experience summer in the Finger Lakes, and at those times the market can feel a little overwhelming for those inclined to move at a slower pace on a Saturday morning. The winter market provides a smaller and more intimate setting, where you can peruse the different farmer’s tables several times without ever feeling rushed or crowded.

IMG_1783

My friend Kash’s beautiful family helping out for the day at her Balance Aromatherapy booth.

Reason #2: Get a quick summer-vibe fix

If it is cold outside, the sky is grey, and there isn’t enough money in your bank account to hop on a plane straight to Miami… the next best thing: The Winter Farmers Market! Seriously, stepping inside The Space @ Greenstar (the indoor location for the winter market), is like being served up a slice of sunshine. All the familiar summer market faces serving up your favorite market goodies with a smile. If you are a market fly, like myself, then just being in that space amongst that community, canvas tote in hand, will have you thinking summer thoughts. Every Saturday for 3 hours (11-2pm), you can shake off those winter blues!

IMG_1818

Can’t beat the winter market deals!

Reason #1: Cash in on those cruciferous veggies!

When you think winter market, I am certain a cornucopia of root vegetables and an array of squash come to mind. The winter market is host to the usual suspects, and so much more. The often overlooked cruciferous veggies, are in full force at the winter market and can be some of the healthiest vegetables to eat during the winter. While other vegetables’ prime season occurs during the summer, this family of plants actually protects itself from the cold by creating and storing excess sugar, putting their most peak season for flavor in the cooler months! In addition to being tasty, these veggies are also known for their wide array of potential health benefits, from cancer-fighting glucosinolates to the immense amount of vitamins they contain. Some examples from our market; radishes, rutabaga, cabbage, bok choy, kale, brussels sprouts, and broccoli!

IMG_1777

Cruciferous Goodness!

 

From markets flowing with a rainbow assortment of veggies, to handmade craft stands, a local market can be a window into the most subtle and intimate parts of a culture. A market is the place to meet the people, taste their food, and hear their music. I truly believe that to know a place, you must walk its markets. When traveling to a new place the first decision I make is what in the world to do, and typically my very first Google search is when and where are the local markets. When anyone asks me for advice on visiting my home base in upstate NY, I always point them straight to the Ithaca Farmers Market! If you are in New York, join me this Saturday at the winter market in Ithaca. Starting in April you can catch me at the pavilion market down on the waterfront, summer is just around the corner!

Three Tomatoes, Two Bags of Rice, and a Can of Tuna 

I recently spent 5 days camping in the Amazon, this is the tale of my culinary journey through the jungle. I was definitely not planning on having a global gourmand story come from my camping trip, if anything I was hoping to lose a few lbs after eating my way through Lima for 2 weeks, but to my surprise it would prove to be the foodie trek of a lifetime!

Disclaimer before I begin… I have so many amazing vegetarian and vegan friends I love and deeply respect, and so I would like to just take a minute to alert anyone who would be offended, that there are photos in this post of fresh uncooked wild game. If seeing this would make you feel uncomfortable, but you would still love to learn all about the delicious fresh foods I enjoyed in the jungle, message me and I will send you the article without those photos.

Onward!

To paint the scene of what I was expecting to be eating on my trip, I have to get a little into the details of the tour I signed up for. This jungle trek was an unusual offer, it was by far the most rugged and pure experience available. Most multiple-day tours of the Amazon in Iquitos take your group of 2-6 people to a lodge with the majority of amenities you would find in any rustic retreat. Obviously there is no wi-fi… But there are beds, and running water, and a bathroom, and maybe even electricity. Yeah the trip I opted for… Not so much. Although I must say I am rather partial to a bed, I knew I wanted a more unadulterated experience in nature. We sat down with the organizer for the trip in his office… aka his mom’s house (who I sat and had some juice with… Turns out she is 96!), and he basically asked my friend and I how much we could spend and how “authentic” we wanted this trip to be. He showed us where most tours go, where all the ones we had looked into had lodges, and explained its just a river lined with lodges and a few villages nearby who keep jungle animals as pets to insure that every tourists who visits gets to “find” and “touch” a wild animal. According to him this area is commonly referred to by the guides as “Gringolandia”. He offered us a 5 day trip that goes to a different river and deeper into the jungle, where we will have the chance to see primary forest and waterfalls. He let us know that it wasn’t going to be comfortable living, and that when it comes to animals he can’t guarantee a thing… because it isn’t someone’s backyard filled with pets. A little rugged trek in the wild was just what the doctor ordered, I was sold! In total there were 4 of us, my friend Trent (who I met on the 5 day river boat), Humberto our naturalist guide, and Manuel our local guide (and medicinal plant specialist) who lives with his family in the jungle close to where we began our adventure.

Along with modern comforts like refrigeration, went the potential to bring with us much in terms of fresh produce. When we met up with our guide we did some last-minute shopping in a small town along the river. For the couple of nights we would be sleeping on the jungle floor, he picked up 3 tomatoes, 2 bags of rice… and a can of tuna. As I thought of the different combinations of those ingredients I decided I wanted nothing to do with any meal that resulted. I was set to turn this trip into a 5 day cleanse… fasting, exercise, the whole 9 yards.

Our first task, after settling in, was to set out our net or “trampa” to catch tomorrow’s lunch.

Seeing as we just set the nets I was dreading that the first meal would surely involve that can of tuna. When we got back to base camp I offered to help in the kitchen, as I stood there chopping a single tomato for our “salad” Manuel came in beaming. He tells us he is giving us a gift for dinner, he will be selling the rest of this “gift” at the market but for us he saved a piece… and then right next to me he slaps down a foot…

… A very scaly foot.

Manuel had caught an alligator in his trampa at home, and by the looks of his foot it was a sizable one. I’m not into eating possibly overfished jungle animals… but it would be really rude not to accept this gift, and I am always preaching about eating local. (I actually don’t eat meat at all unless I am traveling, and I do so then mostly to gain the most out of a cultural exchange… and to make situations like this enjoyable rather than awkward or culturally offensive). The alligator which I thought was called a caimán is locally known as lagarto. The funny part about it all was I  couldn’t for the life of me remember why the name lagarto sounded so familiar, until we sat down to eat it… and then I realized it was what I had for dinner in town the night before we left, and I had been raving about how delicious it was to Trent all day! I was told it was a type of “pescado” at the restaurant, which means fish NOT reptile. Fried up over an open flame in a jungle kitchen, or served gourmet in a complex cream sauce… lagarto is one of the most delicious meats I have ever eaten. 

The menu for the following day would consist of what we could find in our trampa… which I was praying wouldn’t be an anaconda. The good news when we pulled out the net was that we would be getting to try piraña… the bad news was there wasn’t much of a variety of other things, thanks to the pirañas. It looked like our net had become a piraña “all you can eat” buffet! The few that did manage to survive were bokchico, lisa, and a few pirañas.

On the way back to our base camp, another critter almost ended up on the menu. As we floated downstream Humberto spotted something in a tree… an oso peresoso (a sloth)!! Of course it took me like 10 minutes to find it, and by then we were so close I could just about touch the tree he was hanging out on. Manuel insisted on pulling it off, which did not make Mr. Sloth a happy camper. It was only until I started taking photos that i learned the true reason we got it down from the tree. “Mmmm, vamos a comer” says Manuel… “Ummm I don’t think so” says I. No way I was eating a sloth, “ok, princessita” Miguel said as he grudgingly put him back. I don’t think the sloth was very happy about posing for pictures (I could tell by the growling), but it was that or the grill so I think he got the good end of that deal.

Side note: All those adorable photos you see of people with “jungle” sloths on their hips hugging them close… Pets! If I had turned this guy around so his arms could reach me I am most certain I would have some pretty awesome scars to show for it.

Lunch was delicious fresh-caught fried fish with tomato salad, plantains… and of course bread with another kind of bread because carbs are always served with more carbs in Peru.

IMG_2292

After lunch we set off for the deep jungle, and a wilder side of the menu. After a 2 hour or so walk into the jungle we stopped to make camp and began our hunt for supper. First on our list was piwaillo, it is the fruit of a palm tree and comes red, white, or yellow. Manuel fashioned a hook-shaped stick to another stick with some vines and we all took cover as he plucked the fruit down from a lethal height. To be honest I’m not sure if these are fruits, veggies, or something else entirely but they were pretty tasty. We boiled them up and pealed the skins, which revealed a fibrous starchy inside. The taste was nutty with a slightly bitter aftertaste… which totally could have just been the bug spray on my fingers… Let’s hope otherwise. This is commonly called jungle bread,  I said before Peruvians need their carbs typically two a meal but we had to compromise being in the jungle and all.

Next for some churo and chonta! Churo is a commonly eaten jungle snail… Yes I ate a giant jungle snail! I actually ate quite a few of those yummy things, and Humberto made an awesome necklace out of the evidence. We waded through the muddy flooded areas near a stream to find the churo, which were the exact same color as dirty wet leaves and thus quite impossible to find. Humberto’s strategy was to stomp and smack his machete around until he heard something like the crunch of a shell, which I didn’t like very much… despite the fact they would all be dinner soon. The churo was reminiscent of conch with a less sweet ocean flavor and a more murky mud-puddle taste… to be honest it was pretty delicious, basically jungle escargot! We also hacked up a fallen wacrapona tree to look for suri, a grub worm that makes its home in the wood causing the center of the tree to be soft and sweet-smelling. Although the center of this tree is soft, the outer ring is some of the hardest wood in the jungle, we used it to carve traditional spears later that day. “Unfortunately” we only found one tiny suri, which Trent was brave enough to eat. Suri and churo are both served grilled on sticks in the surrounding jungle towns and even in the big jungle city of Iquitos.



We also got some chonta for our meal, or as you most likely know it… heart of palm. It was nothing like I expected, practically tastes like it’s of no relation to the final product pickled in a jar that I am accustomed to. It had the most delicate flavor and a delightful texture, soft and slightly sweet. Humberto peeled it thin like a pasta and… unfortunately cooked it with the damn can of tuna! It actually didn’t turn out too bad considering it was canned tuna. Overall I have to say my dining experience was quite nice… and the meal was well-rounded, aside for all the bugs doing nose-dives into my food… more protein right?

From there we trekked onward to the next site about 3 hours away… in a torrential downpour.

Yes I am wearing a hot pink poncho… and I love it, I can still be girlie and kick-butt hiking in the jungle! My nickname became princessita… Not because I acted like a princess, but because I could get down and dirty in the Amazon and still look like one 😉

Most of our other meals were composed of fresh fruit. One of my favorites was granadilla, an orange fruit resembling a maracuya (passion fruit) in structure, a shell outside with small seeds surrounded by jelly inside. It has a much milder taste as opposed to the sour bite of a passion fruit, that is until you crunch down on the seeds… each one erupts into a sharp citric explosion on your tongue.


Also there was mame, a red fruit with an odd shape but the tree blossoms the most incredible neon-pink flowers. The fruit was the texture of an overripe pear with a gently sweet watered-down taste, reminiscent of a fruit from my childhood in the Caribbean. I am pretty certain it is the same fruit we commonly call cashew on the island of St. Croix.

Another favorite of mine was chari chuelo a little yellow ball bursting with flavor, honestly if I could get these at my local grocery store I would never buy candy again. The perfect balance of sweet and tart, these reminded me of sucking on a jolly rancher… without that toxic unknown element taste.

To my surprise we stumbled across a random pineapple… I couldn’t believe pineapples were growing wild in the rainforest, but then I saw another and another. 

What the hell, I began to feel like I was in The Truman Show… we had been told we were deep in the jungle but maybe in reality there were condos around the corner filled with locals having a laugh at our “jungle expedition”. I questioned Humberto, he laughed at my suspicions and assured me we were at least 3 hours from any other people… that would be a really creepy statement if it weren’t the answer I was looking for. He explained that farmers hike 2-3 hours into the jungle to make small plantations, otherwise their crops would all be eaten by their neighbors. I thought to myself, that going that far just to hide your crops seemed a little excessive… that was until we turned the corner an came across a small patch of sugarcane, Humberto must have been reading my mind because as I stood there mouth-watering he handed me a freshly cut piece. Then I realized why it was all the way out here, if I was going to plant a field of candy sticks I’d prob have to hide them from my neighbors too. While I stood there sugar juice dripping all over my face, I heard Manuel scream from some distant bushes something about guaba. My heart skipped a beat hoping he was referring to the delicious “guava” I grew up eating in the Caribbean… and then he walked out with an oversized green bean 😦 Despite my initial disappointment, this guaba quickly became my new favorite jungle fruit! To get inside you simple wring the pod as you would wet clothes and vuala! Inside are giant purple beans that are all beginning to sprout, each bean is surrounded by a fluffy white coat of deliciousness! These white clouds of awesome are just thick enough to make you feel like you are actually eating something substantial, but airy enough to be reminiscent of cotton candy… so juicy and sweet I couldn’t get enough! Due to my horrible self-discipline, between all the guaba and sugarcane I ended up eating, I spent the rest of the walk feeling as if I had been drugged with amphetamines.

On the final day, as we said a few sad goodbyes, we loaded our packs with mounds of fresh jungle fruit for the boat ride. Never in my wildest dreams would I have suspected all the tantalizing flavors awaiting my taste buds in the jungle. This was a culinary experience unlike any market could provide, it was a deliciously wild ride in La Selva… that I can’t wait to taste again.

Bucket List Weekend – Chincha and El Carmen

The first stop on my journey was El Carmen, a tiny town in the district of Chincha known as the hotspot for all things Afro-Peruvian. The only way to get to this town is to go to Chincha and take a taxi or a much cheaper combi (also known as colectivos, these are cars or minivans that carry multiple people to a designated area for a very small set fee… aka the human tetris game. I took a combi from the airport and paid 4 soles ($1.50), rather than the taxi fee of 40 to 60 soles ($20), and I shared that ride in a minibus smaller than most SUVs… with 25 other people! That got me some serious “street-cred” with all my Peruvian friends). I got a rather late start to my day on Thursday, so I decided to take an afternoon bus to Chincha and tour El Carmen in the morning. My bus left Lima around 3pm and took about 2.5 hours, getting me there close to sunset. I went with the company Soyuz, which is a middle of the road quality bus, and it cost me 23 soles ($7.50).

About bus travel: I was all about taking the cheapest option and was planning to disregard my friend’s pleading for the contrary until, very unfortunately, shortly before my trip there was a tragic bus crash here in Peru resulting in the loss of 37 lives, apparently it is not an unusual event. The danger is not about the safety of your belongings, it’s about your life… and for that reason it was not worth the risk to go any cheaper on bus fare. That said, buses are absolutely the way to travel through most South American countries, just be wise about the company’s reputation for safety.

Chincha is not much of a “destination” it’s very busy and congested, and no matter what you do to not stick out… you will. I usually try to arrive in a new place well before sundown, especially if I have nothing booked as was the case with this trip (mom don’t freak out!), but I was cutting it pretty close. After a long bus ride I step off the bus to the typical onslaught of aggressive taxi drivers, brushing them off like I actually knew where I was going I continued out the station and onto the main road. I needed to figure out where the “centro” was, the central plaza of the town, usual the place to go if you have no idea where you are going. My “go to” lineup for people I ask to give me directions, in this order, are traffic police (which is absolutely an oxymoron in Peru), fruit vendors with the movable wagon stands, really old men, and women with children… trust me its fool-proof (despite the fact they are known for not liking to ask for directions, men are remarkably good at giving simple directions. Women on the other hand, tend to tell you the color of every house along the way and the name of all the stores on every corner you need to turn at… by the time they’re done I don’t even remember where the hell I wanted to go in the first place!). Also be sure to ask multiple people, if I am really lost I typically ask someone new every block to be safe. For example, someone tells me its 4 blocks away and I walk one block, ask again, and that person tells me its 6 blocks from there… not a huge concern at least the consensus is that it’s straight ahead… somewhere. Now, a crossing guard tells me its 4 blocks ahead and then a vendor tells me its 8 blocks to the left… that’s when I start looking for an old man.

After quite the walk, where miraculously I was almost run over ONLY twice, I reached the central plaza. Peru has the craziest traffic I have ever seen, hands down, it’s like every driver seeks to break every single traffic law known to man at least 30 times… every time they get behind the wheel! Unfortunately for me, the central plaza is under construction so not only are there no vendors or old men hanging around to give me directions but the giant wall of building material makes it impossible to see the other side… so I end up circling this plaza 3 times looking for a hostel before I decide it’s getting too dark and I need to get some help. I break my own rule and just ask the nearest person, who happens to be a young waiter at a restaurant just opening for dinner… apparently everyone working here is under the age of 20. “Do you know where there is a hostel named La Posado?” I ask, in Spanish of course… he stares at me as if I am literally starting to sprout a unicorn horn out of my forehead! “Do you know of any hostels nearby?”…again in Spanish of course, again with the unicorn-horn stare. Ok I am really regretting breaking my own rule at this point, I’m not fluent by any means but my Spanish is not THAT bad, you would think I was asking him where I could find a flying cow! Finally his face begins to look slightly less alarmed, and more pensive. “Si!” He tells me, and I can’t help but roll my eyes. “Aqui” He says as he points out the door. I quickly glance up and down the street not a hostel sign in sight… “aqui where?” I plead. “Aqui”, he reassured me, again with his finger pointing in some arbitrary direction now slightly to the left… “On the corner? On this street? How many blocks?” I ask in Spanish, frantically… his answer to all those questions is a very nonchalant “si” (apparently the teenage tendency toward monosyllabic answers is a global phenomenon…), and I give up, replying with a rather defeated “gracias”… Never again will I ask anyone under the age of 30 for directions… ever!

I finally track down La Posado hostel, after using a stranger’s computer to find that no address is posted online and then trying to follow obscure directions given by the owner after calling from a payphone. I got there and was told it costs 50 soles a night, with an incredulous look on my face I began to haggle it down (not that I really had another place to stay, but I have a really great poker face). I finally get her down to 40 soles ($13), and call it a win. They have wifi and it appears to be reasonably clean, then when she takes me to the room all the craziness becomes worth it. Fellow backpackers will know how hard it is to come by privacy when trying to travel cheaply, I personally have been sleeping on a couch since I arrived in Peru. The room had a glorious full size bed, and a private bathroom… not to mention cable with movies in English! HEAVEN. Needless to say, I slept like a baby!

Bright and early I hauled tail out of Chincha and got a colectivo into El Carmen. It was a short but beautiful ride of about 30 minutes, breaking away from the loud and restless Chincha. The enchanting yellow flowers of cotton plants line both sides of the dusty dirt road, mirroring the Afro-Peruvian culture of this area as it has also blossomed into something of incredible beauty after such painful beginnings. El Carmen is a sleepy little town, apparently slightly more animated on weekends and teaming with life for the Christmas holiday. The people were friendly and curious, everyone wanting to know where I was from. It’s interesting the comfort that comes when looking into faces that resemble yours, even though I someone who loves to explore new cultures and is often the only person who “looks like me” in the room… I still notice the comfort level and familiarity of others when I am around faces that physically resemble mine, even when they belong to a culture so different. It really made me ponder how alike we all are at the core; no matter our differences in language, skin tone, or features I believe we are getting closer to recognizing our global culture. A culture that respects and includes all, one that revels in cultural exchange rather than fearing it.

The people of El Carmen were all shades of brown, most are darker than the typical Peruvian, with the beauty of African genetics written all over their bodies and the familiar sound of Peruvian Spanish on their tongues. I found my way to the one location for information, a “tourist center”, which was really the living room of Guillermo’s house. Guillermo, the keeper of culture in El Carmen, welcomes travelers into his home to share the history, art, and culture of his people. Guillermo and his family were some of the warmest people I have ever met, and I sat for over 3 hours listening to him tell stories in Spanish of the African slaves brought to Peru, their revolutions, their reformations, and their cultural renaissance in the town of El Carmen. There are videos on my Instagram and Tumblr of Guillermo and his son playing the violin and the cajon, a percussion instrument found in Afro-Peruvian music.

I only wish I had been there when the resident zapateo teacher was in town, so that I could learn a few moves from one or two of the traditional dances. The zapateo is a dance reminiscent of tap-dancing, full of life and joy but the meanings of most songs and dances are of somber memories. Most of the dances and songs are written to recall the times of slavery, some even depicting dance moves symbolizing whippings and being shackled. The music, art, and food of El Carmen was all such a treat to experience, and the open hearts and doors that met me upon my arrival were what really made this place special. This was an amazing once in a lifetime experience, I highly recommend taking the time to make the short journey into El Carmen… especially if you are already on your way south.  

Next stop Paracas!

Bus: Soyuz Bus

Hostel: La Posado- listed in lonely planet

El Carmen: Tours El Carmen- on Facebook

The Dish That Won My Sol

Tiradito
Today I visited the highly recommended Canta Rana in the Barranco District of Lima, Peru. I ended up going all out and spending 48 soles on lunch ($16), rather than the usual 9 soles ($3). This dish was worth every Sol spent! Tiradito, a formidable cousin of the traditional ceviche with just a few notable differences. Compared to a ceviche, this dish is composed without the typical onslaught of raw onion and rather than chunks of bite-sized pieces, the actual “meat” of the dish is sliced thinly and usually the bottom layer beneath some delectable sauce or a more traditional citrus marinade. This particular variation of tiradito was topped with a aji chili cream sauce, avocados, and calamari. Having a slight onion allergy, I have always had a love/hate relationship with ceviche. When I stumbled upon this culinary masterpiece it won both my heart and my Sol!

I Live 2 Eat

In this world, there are folks bitten hard by the travel bug who just live to travel. They don’t care much how they get there, comfort, or other worldly pleasures, they just want to explore… to adventure into the new and unknown. I know this type of person very well, for I am a proud member of that irrationally wanderlust prone community. Yet, there is another radical and at times irrational community I hold near to my heart, those that live to eat. They go to bed dreaming of their next meal, and daydream of mouth-watering and whimsical flavor combinations. The worst of these folks could care less about anything other than a well-composed plate of food, and would rather nibble on artisan cheese all day and then splurge on a tiny plate of some new age gastronomy for dinner, than to eat three square meals. I am fortunate enough to be afflicted with both of these all-consuming obsessions. Both a travel junkie and a foodie, I am the epitome of a Global Gourmand.
As an avid traveler with little means to do so, before every trip I must take into account my intentions for the trip and thus budget my meager funds towards the appropriate activities. For example, I recently took a trip with my younger sister to Costa Rica for her spring break. On this trip we set our intentions on a rather adventure-touristy track, we saved money by surviving the 10 days on not much other than rice and beans and staying at humble yet homey hostels. Where we splurged was on 10 hour hiking trips, and ziplining through the jungle. Setting intentions are critical for the budget traveler, and even beneficial for those traveling with endless funds at their disposal. This trip to Peru is quite longer than 10 days and, because of this, my trip will cycle through several intentions. Yet, there is one overall theme and that is to share my nomadic journey with the world, and thus I must bring more technology than is typical for me. Due to the extra gadgets I am bringing, I need to place an emphasis on an extremely safe place to stay. The cheapest option I have found that offers the most safety for your belongings is couchsurfing. There is a site for couch surfers where hosts are rated and you can find comments from fellow couch surfers concerning safety and comfort https://www.couchsurfing.com/. Utilizing this site, with a bit of time put into research and communicating with hosts you can get your accommodation costs down to almost zero!
The beginning leg of my trip is in Lima, Peru, and I was fortunate to arrive just as Lima was putting into action their very first food week. During the first two weeks of my trip, I have placed intentions toward my foodie passions. I have spent next to nothing on housing, I take the local “combis” and buses for somewhere between 50 cents and a dollar, leaving the majority of my budget for exceptional nights at Lima’s many fine dining restaurants! Yet, there isn’t a need to break the bank or venture into a fancy restaurant to taste delicious Peruvian food, here in Lima the average café or dulceria offers delectable examples of both traditional dishes and popular fusions for under 5 dollars. In posts to come I’ll share with you my gastronomic adventures in Lima from eating the common Peruvian/Chinese fusion “chifa”, to having 3 course meals with drinks included for a grand total of $4.50, and of course tasting some culinary masterpieces by world-renown Peruvian chefs.