Tuesday, September 21, 2010

High places

As vacations go, this one was pretty revelatory. You can't help but see the world differently when you wake up to mountains every morning. Their faces change a thousand times over between sunrise and twilight, so your eyes do as well. As does your breathing, and mine came more easily those two weeks I spent in Peru.

Ok, that's a lie. At least partly. Something else those mountains bring is a quicker heart, shallower breaths, when you're actually up inside them -- navigating a two-foot wide path with steeper drops than you've seen from planes, only a rare barricade to fix you to the ground. I didn't just look at the mountains on this trip. I trekked my way through them. I'm a pedestrian by choice most of the time, but these were very different walks for me, and every day brought a new set of anxieties. Higher altitudes, narrower paths, steeper drops.
Oh my.

One thing I learned is that fear is an unpleasant place for me. Some people get exhilarated by standing on the edges of things. John's one of them. Not me. Not even a little bit. But I walked seven miles of the Inca Trail (by some accounts, the toughest seven miles of the trek) along the edge of the Andes mountains. I got up the next morning and took a white-knuckled bus-ride up and up and up, to look with amazement over Macchu Pichu at daybreak, then climb its rocky staircases, stand on its high terraces, and meander my way through masonry that's withstood hundreds of years of winds, mudslides, earthquakes, El Nino, snows, Spanish conquest, abandonment, excavation, and more recently tourism -- all a mile and a half up from sea level without a single drop of mortar to hold it together.

We didn't stop there. We trekked to the top of a mountain waterfall, stepping out of the way when a group of three enormous, untended bulls needed to pass in the opposite direction. We spent a day hiking the surviving structures of Pisac, and another -- this one so windy it tore pieces of the tile roof from our guesthouse -- at Ollantaytambo, a set of ruins designed in the shape of a llama, which you can see if you climb up the mountain across the way, which we naturally did, resulting in deep intakes of breath and not looking down (something I'd mastered by that point).

We took rides in cabs that passed on the wrong side of the road and invented lanes between lanes. We flew in a 60-seater through the Andes, which shook and tossed that little plane just enough for me to start thinking how lucky I was to have had this experience, just in case it was my last.

And of course, we rested. In the tiny town of Huaran, in what we both agreed was the most pristine and beautiful place we've ever stayed -- one that allowed enough time for profound reflection. Holy Pachacuti! I did that. Me -- a person who can barely breathe when the el train turns a corner too quickly, who can't live in the country because a frog or toad might cross my path.

Peruvians have no fear of heights. They grow up around those mountains. They walk them, farm them, and build their houses on their steep inclines. They tend their animals there, and their animals learn to run across those paths like they're a thousand feet wide. Peruvians, despite abject poverty for many and unforgiving weather for most -- lengthy stretches without rain, and then lengthy stretches with rain alone -- are also some of the kindest, most generous-of-heart people I've ever met. I have to believe it's got something to feeling so tiny in the world, compared to everything else around you.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Peru: Early impressions

In some ways Peru has one of those other-side-of-the-world effects: Far, far from home, at least in a psychic sense . . . though it's closer than other countries I've visited, like Russia, which felt like something lodged in my memory even before I got there.

It's strange not to be able to drink the water. Or eat a salad. Or scale a short flight of stairs without feeling out of breath from the altitude. It's strange to look out the window and see not tall buildings, but mountains, the very things that surely inspired Chicago's skyscrapers, yet seem almost primordial compared to all that glass, steel, and limestone.

But these very challenges are the things that give this place its sense of place, which for me, is the singular litmus test for a corner of the world worth visiting.

Parades spring up like dandelions here. We followed one down the cobbled streets in front of Cusco's Plaza de Armas this morning -- women in ornate skirts and tiny bowler hats that rested impossibly on top of their heads, men in flashy yellow costumes with epaulets and sequins, still others inexplicably in gorilla suits, and a full brass marching band bringing up the rear. They nearly collided with a second parade that prompted us to shift in the opposite direction. This one was a protest march with dozens of children, parents, and teachers chanting in Spanish about the right to an education without violence. Amazing.

Fireworks and roosters wake us up every morning at 5. That and the sound of barking street dogs. They rove in packs, looking for discarded food and making us fantasize about ditching the contents of our luggage to tote a couple home, cure them of their worms, and give them the homes they surely deserve -- the same homes they'd hate for the forced confinement and order.

And of course there are the ruins. The pre-Columbian, mortar-free masonry that's endured for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years. We've visited Lima's 4th-century Huaca Pucllana, with its vertical "bookshelf" brickwork, and Cusco's stunning Saqsaywaman (pronounced "sexy woman") at the highest point of what's purported to be the highest city of the world. Machu Picchu still remains a few days away. It'd be stupid for me to try to say something about these sites that hasn't been said before. Just trust me: Everything you've heard is true.

We've experienced the kindness of strangers on this trip. The wobble of mild altitude sickness, the vibrant color of uninhibited cities, the incessant solicitations of street vendors (who gently and kindly take no for an answer), the bumps and tugs of flying over the Andes, the pride of a Spanish word well-used, the fear of traffic with a different set of rules, the awe of other people's religion, the tummy trouble of an altered diet, and the tart pleasures of a Pisco sour.

We've also looked with surprise on the higher grade of American tourist this country seems to attract. Kind and reverent people. People with respect and curiosity. People who speak in a quiet voice. John said it best when he playfully cursed Peru for taking the best of us away from home, where we could collectively be doing some good.

As for us, we continue to amble along, eyes and ears wide open, awaiting the next adventure. This might take the form of a trek along the Inca Trail, or it might be as simple as understanding an overheard phrase in Spanish, or having my stomach steeled for alpaca. Regardless, it's an awfully nice way to celebrate ten years together. Happy anniversary, love. Thanks for seeing the world with me.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Unluckiest Restaurant in the World

My heart goes out to this earnest spot. My palate too: Their food is unequivocally lovely. A few years ago the owners bought and refurbished their brick building in the middle of a crummy block. Lots of empty storefronts, little foot traffic, frequent gang skirmishes in the area.

The foodie community embraced this little-restaurant-that-could (the photo above is from those early halcyon days). They hailed the fresh seafood and inventive moles. They honored them with awards and put them on the map. But it was a rocky map at best.

"Meet for dinner? Over there?"

Sure, we neighborhood folks embraced the place, but it couldn't sustain itself as a destination for visitors, and the prices were a little too high for this working-class area to keep them afloat. Last fall, the fate we'd both dreaded and expected came to pass: The owners locked the doors, turned their sign to Closed, and concentrated on their other spot in a north-side neighborhood with far more passersby, and a heap more purchasing power.

Then, surprising news. The place was reopening with a new concept. Inexpensive gourmet tacos with a slew of homemade salsas for customizing. I had the best bowl of pozole of my life there once, and it seemed like all was right in River City.

We did what we could to talk the place up. We got a few friends there, but in fairly short order, the quality declined, the salsas ran out, they pozole was 86'd, and paper was over the windows again.

Three days later, a favorable review ran in the Sun Times. Foodies sought the place out again, only to find it shuttered. Really?!

Just as we made our peace with them being gone for good, a shocking announcement: The place was reopening yet again, going back to their roots with bright, earthy moles and plates large and small. Oh, did I mention their reopening date was two short weeks after the grand opening of the new record store across the street? That weekend featured nonstop live music and hundreds of visitors to the area, many of whom were probably looking for something to eat. The taquerias got their business. The opportunity got missed.

Now, with a rehabbed menu and brave face, they manage to turtle along with maybe four or five tables on a good night. Almost everything I've ordered there has been delicious, though my last visit started having those markings of a restaurant in decline. My tamale was dry, and I'd brought a friend along with me, only to have her notice a rat scurry along the outdoor seating area. This is the city and these things can happen, but why do they always seem to happen to this place?

You have to wonder. Is this one of those right time, wrong place scenarios? A splendid concept with poor execution? Maybe a restaurant on autopilot, with nobody driving the train?

Or maybe it's like that really nice guy we all know: The one who seems like such a great catch but is always unlucky in love. The one we'd love to set up our little sister with, if our little sister were still single. But our little sister isn't single. She's already got a great guy. So we try to entice our single friends, but they're a little cannier than we are. Where we see heart, they see awkwardness. Where we see potential, they see unfinished business. Where we see fragility, they see impotence.

The best this place can probably hope for, I fear, is a few more months in remission. I block out what I imagine their staff meetings to be: Heavy sighs, staff reductions, hanging on for dear life -- maybe even saving up newspaper for the windows. I try to hope for the best, but I fear I should grab my huitlacoche while I can.