How to “Get” the Peruvians And Get What You Want From Them

Or the Cultural Intelligence Guide to Peruvians, or cross-cultural communication (to use the 1990s term for it). All this may be different now that COVID has erased some norms of meeting people in the same physical space. But, post-pandemic, I’m sure that these norms will return. (Note: First, the whiter, more male, and better looking that you are… the easier everything will be for you.) Now, on to the game!

If you really want to maneuver Peruvian society, and Peruvians themselves, the thing to know is… RESPECT. Not like how Aretha sang it, which was respect my human rights and me as a person. But, more like respect the societal rules, or the rules of deference. Peruvians know their place in their society and which class they belong to. They expect you to be respectful enough to treat them accordingly, and to behave in a way that reflects that you know the rules of Peruvian society. Capische?

Class structure. Understand how the Peruvians understand each other’s position in society. The class structure in Peru is by letter: A, B, C… (most people will say that they are B class as in B- but in reality they may be C++ class). As a foreigner, this will not really affect you but it’s useful to know how they deal with each other. When Peruvians who do not know each other meet, they ask three questions to help them figure where they belong in society.

1. They will ask you your full name to see if you have any connections. Peruvians have two last names from their father and mother, and if those names are distinctive, then they know WHO you are (imagine if you will that your name was Isabel Carmen Aliaga Varela — the Aliaga part could mean that you belong to the one of the original founding families of Peru. The Varela part could mean that you belong to one of the old money families of Lima).

2. Where did you go to high school. Most Peruvians do not go to university including the upper classes (even as recently as 20 years ago, upper class women were not encouraged to go to university — as they would not need a degree for a good marriage). If you went to one of the private schools like San Silvestre, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (the nouveau riche school), Italian School, Newton, and so on, then they can easily place you in society. Maybe they went to the same school. Then they have an instant connection with you. If you went to university abroad, in the U.S., England, or Spain, then you could be moving up in society. (Note on moving up in society: Education and overseas living experience are ways to move up in Peruvian society. Some families will send their children to public school 90 minutes away so that they have a better chance of moving up through the system. For example, a typical family of hairdressers and welders living in San Juan de Miraflores, a “conos” (projects or in some places shanty towns — squatting is a viable way to become a homeowner in these areas) housing neighborhood, will send their child to school in Miraflores, which is actually “San Miguel de Miraflores” but no one ever says that. By sending their child to public school in Miraflores, they are giving them an up and in into moving from C class to B class. Then the child studies abroad for university. When that person returns to Peru, they are now B class. To move from B to A class is a lot harder. A class tends to be families of old money and power. Even fame does not really help you move into A class).

3. Where did/do you live in Lima. As mentioned in the point above about school, your geography will determine your place in society. Peruvians who meet outside of Peru will ask where they lived in Lima. If the answer is San Isidro, Miraflores (not San Juan de Miraflores. Some will say this even if they actually grew up in the infamous one), La Estancia, then the other person knows that they are at least B class. Hence, everyone says Miraflores. If the person says San Borja or Barranco, it could be harder to tell. Even if the person lives in Lince, they may say San Isidro because it sounds better (people will even get dropped off in San Isidro and then walk the two blocks to Lince to make it look like they live in San Isidro… yes, it’s that important in Lima society).

Race. The color of your skin and your bone structure will also tell the other Peruvians where you are in society. Like in many other parts of the world, the women straighten their hair in Peru so that they will have less curly hair, but it can’t be too straight because then it’s too indigenous. But, they rely less on this than the aforementioned three questions. White, blue-eyed, and naturally blonde is upper class or foreign.

Another thing to understand about Peruvian society is…

Sycophancy – “pegajosa” or “sticky” is the closest word that I was given when I asked about brown nosing. But, since it’s not a bad thing -– it is simply the MO, modus operandi — way of conducting business -– it doesn’t have the same connotations that it has in English when accusing someone of being a a brown-noser. Peruvians don’t really talk about brown-nosing. It’s so normal for them that they don’t need to talk about it. There’s really no word for brown-nosing in Peruvian Spanish (sort of like how there is no word for privacy in Italian). It’s just how things are done. If you need something, it’s all — all — about who you know. It’s relational.

Peru is an extroverted culture with a preoccupation with “respect,” propriety, and formality — with obvious external audible and visible forms expected. The Peruvians are talkative people. They will ask you about your family, whether you are married, your age, and so on. Nothing is told in confidence. They feel free to share this information and to talk about you. Similar to brown-nosing, they may not really see this as a bad thing. They might just think they are being respectful to you by showing an interest in you. (Not that everything is benevolent. Peruvians seem to enjoy seeing slapstick or the failure of others.) Even if you don’t tell anyone anything about yourself, they might gossip about you anyway, even to you! Understanding that Peruvians gossip makes it easier for you to realize that this is part of the game of life in Peru.

Now, how to get what you want… here’s the secret! Make them feel that you are respecting them! Well, of course, you do, dahlin’. Make them feel like they are doing you a favor, even if they should just do their job. Always, always, make them feel like they have the upper hand. Then, make sure to thank them effusively, as in “muchisimas gracias” or “you saved my life” or some such hyperbole. These little thank yous will help you maintain the relationship for the next time you need something. It really is that simple. Be sort of sickly sweet. For men, just lower your voice a bit. Actually, men being men in a chauvinistic society, don’t need to kiss-up quite so much… depends on the class of the two actors.

Yes, really. This is the secret.

Now that you are in the know, here are some easy things you can do to make your way in Peruvian society easier. And to get what you want from Peruvians.

Speak Spanish. It’s respectful. Actually, the Peruvians speak “Castellano” or Castilian. It was the language of 12th century kingdom of Castile and Leon in Spain. The people of modern day central Spain speak this language to this day. Many South American countries call this form of Spanish Castilian. Of course, in Peru, there are colloquialisms. If you want to fit in, always use the term, “palta” for avocado. When giving directions, “siga defrente” or “sigue defrente” for “go straight” — I usually add a frantic chopping motion with my arm. If you mention “derecho” at all — at all,  the driver will start turning right. So keep “derecha” for your discussions of human rights. To sound friendly and intimate, say “porfa” for “por favor.” Also, Peruvians almost never use the word, “hola” when greeting people. But, they might say, “ciao” when departing. But it’s spelled, “chaw” if you are going to write it, but it’s better to use an emoji in Whatsapp.

Good day greetings — kissing on the cheek. Peruvians do one air kiss on each side, usually start on the right. If it’s a formal situation and the greeting involves a male, you can shake hands. But the cheek air kisses are okay too, while grabbing each other’s shoulders in a manly way. Most importantly, greet everyone! Seriously. Everyone. In stores, elevator, entering a conference, checking in, everyone. Every day at work, go around and greet all your colleagues, even if you saw them that long lost yesterday. At parties or events, you must personally greet everyone and say goodbye to everyone, individually. Peruvians are a people who want you to acknowledge them, each and every one, and that includes when entering a room. Even with your family. The way to deal with this is to show up on time for parties. So if the party is at 8:30 p.m., show up at 9 p.m. Then everyone who comes in after you, will have to come say hello to you. If you show up late, you have have to walk around and greet everyone. Then, stay till almost last. This way you won’t have to go around and say goodbye to everyone. Saying goodbye is an equal drama and it can take a long time. If you want to make a quick getaway, hug and kiss the hosts before giving the room a general wave and “Sorry, we have an early morning. We don’t want to cause a stir.” Then exit quickly. There will still be gossip, but at least you got away. The word for gossip is “chisme.” Women will sometimes start with “chisme, chisme, chisme…” when they want to tell you gossip.

Critically, start every interaction with a greeting. In shops, in email, on Whatsapp, on the phone — always start with a greeting. Always. On a somewhat related note, don’t barge straight into whatever you need or want. Even in a Whatsapp chat. Well, maybe if you are on fire, but I still think a Peruvian would start the call with, “Good evening, hope you are well. Could you be so kind as to help me? I’m on fire.” So, as I said, always start with a greeting. If not, you will look like a disrespectful boor.

Calling and Whatsapp. Lots of it. Use it. Use Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Whatsapp to communicate. Do it a lot. Peruvians like to feel the attention of those communiques pinging and vibrating on their phones. Preferably call. Peruvians want to feel the human interaction in every interaction. Nothing can be done quickly in Peru. There is no running in to buy a banana or a coffee. NO, no, no, NO. Peruvians would feel that they were denying you a respectful interaction if they did it too fast. They are not Scandinavians, who are famous for being efficient, if cold. For example, getting Internet set up in one’s home takes many phone calls and hours, sometimes days…

Dress and grooming. This is easy. Dress like Hans Solo. In winter. Google it. Or whatever the fashion dictates. A few years ago, every woman was showing up in white rabbit vests with gold accessories. In the summer, you can wear flip flops but really only when at the beach. Shorts are okay for men during the summer but best left for the beach town. Women are dressy. (A note: when you invite a Peruvian to an event, be it a food fair or theater outing, they will want to know the dress code. Peruvians are formal in terms of dress. Only in the last ten years have Peruvians allowed themselves to be seen outside a gym wearing sneakers. Yup.) Invitations will always state the dress code and for everything else, dress up rather than down. Wear jewelry. Critically, have your hair groomed and coiffed. Salons are open early (7 a.m. is very early to the nocturnal Peruvians) so that women can get their hair “blown” for the day. Women do not wash their hair every day (don’t be grossed out — they are clean) and they often go to the salon a few times a week to get it “done” for the next few days. Most women wear their hair long if they are younger and even if they are older. But, at some point, women of a certain age (no, older than that) will go for the short winged look in a shade of sandy chestnut color. I once sat at a salon and watch in amazement as the in house “blow-out queen” blew out woman after woman who came in looking like drowned rats… and then left looked like coiffed empresses ready to be driven in their Bentleys. Most importantly, women are coiffed when they go out. They will even carry a brush in their purses so that they can do a quick brush out if needed. Men generally have short hair but it’s okay to have a ponytail. I see few comb-overs in Lima. When bald, men in Lima seem to accept the baldness. Men can wear earrings as well (Back in the 1980s, men wearing earrings was a controversy — look how far we’ve come) but so far, most do not wear makeup (it’s a thing, it is — call it “tinted moisturizer” or “bronzer.” But, I digress.) Also, oddly, I’ve noticed some men who manage to make the white sock with birkenstock look okay. Wait, what am I saying?! Only Germans can pull off this look, and even then, not really. Peruvian men wear leather dress shoes or sneakers (as do lots of women). Again, word about sneakers. Until 2010 or so, no one wore sneakers outside of a gym. Now, everyone wears them.

Time. Most Peruvians will be late for parties or gatherings, even meetings. I find this a conundrum because being late is disrespectful. It wastes everyone’s time. The way to get around this is to be late yourself… no. One way to get around this is to host things at your own place. Or share a taxi to wherever you are going. And, have your phone loaded with other things to do… like Whatsapping all those folks you are brown-nosing, um, I mean, “chatting” with. If you are wondering how late to be for a restaurant meal, around 15-45 minutes is quite normal. For a private party, 30 minutes to an hour is normal. For business meetings, 10-15 minutes late is not late. Being late is all about “making an entrance” and the bigger a blowhard you think you are (but, I don’t think you’re reading my blog…), the more of an entrance you want to make. Drama!

Back to the idea of “formality” — yes the Peruvians are a formal people as I explained earlier. But when they mention “informal” — they are not talking about “casual” as in shorts and khaki. When Peruvians use the term, “informal,” they are talking about blackmarket or “under the table” prices or economy. But, if you ask a Peruvian, they will never use those words. It’s always the “informal” market. Peru leads in counterfeit (60 percent of things/ideas are “fake” or counterfeit in Peru). The informal attitude to copyright is part of the dichotomy that is only equaled by their sense of time. Unless one thinks of it as a form of flattery. About 70 percent of Peruvians work in the “informal” economy — from domestic staff to illegal commerce.

Finally, now that you know how to “get” the Peruvians and how to get what you want from them, remember this — don’t talk about this to them. Just as they don’t talk about the class system (yes, they have one), Peruvians, for all their talkativeness, don’t talk about their modus operandi. It’s not proper. Not polite. Shows a lack of respect.

Anyway, have I got a bit of juicy gossip for you… chisme, chisme, chisme…

Criolla Food in Peru

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Papa rellana ready for frying, above bags of choclo. 

Peru is also a “melting pot” and the Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Italian immigrations added to this pot. But what did the Peruvians eat before?

The original inhabitants of Peru ate the foods that today are called “criolla” or creole. I think of “queso y choclo” — cheese and corn — when I think of local food. The “queso fresco” or fresh cheese is just that, non-aged cheese so think feta but not salty or sour (which feta should not be, but that’s a whole different discussion.) Some creole dishes are tacu tacu (refried hash), beans, habas (roasted fava bean snack), rice with duck, papa rellena (large stuffed mashed potato croquette), tamales, soups (sopa criolla is a noodle soup with cubed beef and milk), butiffara (a pork sandwich), and anything with an egg on it. Every single restaurant will know how to make a delicious home made soup called “sopa dieta” which is what would be called “Jewish noodle soup” in other places. It’s a soup that can cure all.

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A word about “dare” or “scary” foods. Guinea pig or “cuy” in Peruvian is convenient and easy to raise. A Peruvian told me that traditionally you would only be served a portion — not the whole thing with head frozen in its death scream. Cuy, pronounced “koo-wee” is more common in the mountains. Yes, one can also eat alpaca, llama, vicuna, and other camelids. And, the one that people always seem to “dare” tourists to eat — the suri worm or maggot. Maggots are fatty sources of protein (According to experts, bugs could be the protein of the future). Many cultures eat bugs — crickets, grasshoppers, ants, and so on. But, you don’t have to eat it. Many modern restaurants will serve cuy or llama in a way that you might find more palatable. At Astrid and Gaston’s, the cuy is served as a mini Peking Duck bite. My “word” about scary or dare foods is that you don’t have to eat them. Many Peruvians don’t. There is so much available that is much more delicious.

The weirdest thing I ate in Peru (no, I didn’t eat the maggot) was a vegan “jerky” stick. So odd. I don’t know what was in it, but it wasn’t criolla!

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The Best Things About Expat Life in Lima – Or, It’s Always Avocado Season

In celebration of Peru’s independence days, “fiestas patrias,” (July 28 is independence day and July 29 is a holiday for the armed forces and police), here is my posting about what I think is great about living in Lima. As I did for some of the other places I have lived, I have already written about what I don’t like about living in Lima. Before living in Lima, I had visited more than five times as a tourist. The first time was immortalized in this blog posting. Now that I’ve been here for more than a food-frenzied weekend, the following things are what I like about living here.

The food scene: The restaurants. It seems like every week, there is a new restaurant opening, and thanks in great part to Gaston Acurio, the culinary scene has become part of the national identity. There are fancy-foamy-intellectual dining establishments, fast food franchises, family-run restaurants, neighborhood favorites, and hole-in-the-wall secrets.

The immigrants: This is one of the reasons that the food scene in Lima is great. Thanks to the Chinese (Chifa is a normal word here for a Chinese food and restaurant, and it is as ingrained in the local food choices as hamburgers), the Japanese (Nikkei is the word used for both the food style and the Japanese Peruvians — this month celebrating 120 years in Peru), the Italians, the Lebanese, and all the other immigrants who have been been contributing to the deliciousness in Lima. Thank you to the newest (those two Thai restaurant owners, those Pakistani and Indian guys, that American with the chocolate shop, and those three Swedish ladies, that Mexican guy, and the Venezuelans, and all of those others whom I have yet to discover… I’m looking at you, shawarma palace!). Plus, many of the Peruvians are domestic immigrants — from somewhere else in the country (bringing things like their delicious cheeses… which I’m told is called “country cheese”).

The Palta Fuerte (the palta fuerte is too delicate and buttery to be exported, I’m guessing): It is always avocado season. When buying an avocado, the vendor will ask the day and time that you plan to eat it so that they can sell you one that will be ripe at the precise moment that you plan to enjoy it. “Palta” is the word for avocado in Peruvian Spanish. No one in Peru says “aquacate” even if they may know what you are talking about. At a restaurant, you can ask for a side of palta and it’s totally normal, like asking for butter (but better).

The juice (plus fruit and produce in general): the lemonade (they offer it made with pureed lemongrass at most places), the passion fruit, the orange juice, the blackberry juice. Plus, the pineapples are delicious and the mangoes have a season (like Edwardian socialites). The Edward mango is especially yummy as it has fewer fibers.

The chocolate: Go to El Cacaotal. That is my one must-do for visitors, for newbies, for chocolate haters… now serving hot chocolate and coffee!

The cultural offerings and activities: cooking classes, chocolate tasting lessons, Cordon Bleu courses, surfing classes, dance schools, wine tasting lessons, the circus, theater productions, gyms, yoga, concerts, archery sessions, wine and paint classes, museums, open studio nights, expos, marathons, fairs, farmers markets, and almost any other activity that you can imagine in a metropolis (there is always something to do). Even comicon.

The walkability: they even have ciclovia. Yes, you can walk here. There are sidewalks, parks, and hiking trails.

The neighborhoods: I like that there are actual neighborhoods, farmers markets, barrios, districts, parks, malls (mega ultra modern and local “centro commerciales”), and the coast (its own microcosm).

The positive attitude toward expats/foreigners: Generally, as a foreigner, I don’t feel hate or suspicion from the locals. The Peruvians are,  generally, pro-American culture, and certainly pro-European culture. While most Peruvians don’t approach/talk to foreigners, they also don’t harass them and follow them around (as would happen in other countries where I have lived)… It’s funny, the little things one appreciates. As a foreigner, one can have a life here without being a circus act.

The security: I am completely amazed to see people out jogging, with headphones on, at night. Granted this is along the more patrolled streets but I am still amazed. Utterly. Amazed. Every. Single. Day. Really. Still. Ah-maze-ed.

The view of the ocean: Yes. It’s amazing. Beaches too. If one likes sand.

The public toilets: Almost all grocery stores and malls have public toilets. One has to remember to not flush the toilet paper, but, at least they have toilet paper, although, not always in the actual stall — so get it beforehand.

Delivery: Like in Bogota, almost anything can be delivered.

The taxi prices: $2 for a basic short ride of a few miles. Sometimes $7 for an hour’s ride.

Help: there is always someone to carry the groceries, the taxi drivers help with luggage, the doormen help with stuff, and domestic help is a normal part of life here. I’ll write more about that in a separate posting. Aside from the domestic cleaners, there are nannies, gardeners, drivers, porters, dog walkers, DJs, caterers, dishwashers, movers… you name it. I have an “event tech” whom I hire for parties. I may change that title to “event engineer” as engineer seems to be the new generic term for “trained” (I was chatting with a taxi driver who told me that he used to be a “production engineer” — he potted yogurt in a lab. He chose to drive a taxi because the yogurt potting only paid $670 per month, double the minimum wage, but he makes double that as a taxi driver, even though he works double the hours. But, at least, he is his own boss).

The prices for dental care: as with most things, one can pay lots of money for dental care, but one can also get good dental care for $17 (cleaning and checkup). But, if one wants to pay $170, one can. Many of the dentists have trained in other countries and their certifications in those countries may not be valid here.

The prices in general: from picture framing to groceries, to clothing alterations, to the above mentioned items.

And, did I mention the palta?

Kuelap – 10,000 Monumental Steps!

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IMG-5725Kuelap is nearby and one can take Peru’s first cable car or “teleferico” up to the base of the archaeological site. One takes a bus to the cable car, then the 20 minute cable car ride over the ravine, then a three kilometer walk up flat stone steps. If you have good knees and are relatively fit, you can get up to the citadel and through in a bit over an hour. If you have bad knees, you can also take a horse up to the base of the citadel. If you want to walk all the way up and have bad knees… it can take two hours. There are many rest stops and nice views along the way, but it is an uphill walk. All the way.

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IMG-5718But, at the base at the end of the cable car ride, where you buy your tickets, is a cafe, a museum, souvenirs, and lots of walls at just the right height for sitting on. The cafe may have one of the best views around but they don’t seem to advertise that.

IMG-5711There are many things to see in the Chachapoyas area including the famous Gocta Falls, but more about that another time.

 

Trini Food – Trinidad and Tobago Foods

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Pepper (said, “pehpah”) sauce: made from pureed Scotch Bonnet chili peppers. In the lingo of the today, “they don’t play” in “scoville” here. This pepper sauce is flame-thrower hot. Tread lightly. When ordering pepper sauce, it’s “light, medium, and heavy.”

Doubles: this is the most famous of Trini foods. It’s eaten for breakfast and is comprised of two (hence the name) pieces of fried flatbread topped with cooked chickpeas (garbanzos) in curry, with sauces (see one in hand in photo above). Some of the sauces are pepper/chili sauce and some vendors have their own tamarind sauce to add a sweetness to the mix. At most doubles stands, there are two lines. One for eat-in and one for take-out. The take-out line takes longer as the doubles are wrapped in wax paper. The eat-in line is faster partly because some people will eat six to seven doubles at one time. Now, apparently, there are places serving “triples.” You pay after you have eaten.

Buss up shut: A dish of Indian origin with a large stretchy roti in two layers (inside is a think powdery layer inside) which is ripped up to resemble a ripped shirt. Hence the name.

Roti: is a flat stretchy bread. Eaten with curry (curry goat, curry chicken, etc.).

Callaloo soup: Also very popular. Callaloo is a vegetable. The soup is fairly thick and looks a bit like stewed collard greens.

Crab and dumpling (it is a large pasta piece, no filling). See below. In a curry sauce.

3o1c6kXt2yvG80I1bXZDYx3GhkA1NgNhXBNYIMoy7tORy6EbnZE5WR0FYAUCBobfFISTjinHLMSsu68p6c0leuzRx58DWXQ9vGc1nGbseVQh6FhJIWumRT3MmxQMdQ7eOJd84uB18y-doDV7gTyt1k4B2JmUqOUpYWW7anfv_JeKA9jjG6eghaAjjrBodi: is the Indian name for long green beans.

Channa: is lentils.

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Fry Bake: is fried flat bread usually served as a breakfast sandwich with dried salt cod or smoked herring. Both taste slightly fishy so I’d recommend getting them with a good amount of pepper sauce.

Pl8SeAZ0KtSUysAl90Cn-pUP4y7Ctcw_oJHuDan0DdZavcR-yqk2mudunhojJyQLINBL67E7jV5LYCvXCHfPeaZ8CSnS8Opvbm98wpOw3Kdu0qk5tEwQEc8YQTrGYK5-kBrW4Nd166TtV_U_ycSEM-64w5a3NWIRNxDVFR2y3VV_4Q_ToPx8nit9rdBake and Shark: is a fish sandwich like a po’ boy in the U.S. The most famous place for this is Richard’s in Maracas Bay. Stop for some pineapple chow.

Chow: is fruit in a slightly spicy brine.

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Macaroni pie: like mac and cheese but cut in squares.

The drinks of Trinidad and Tobago are plentiful. They drink rum and more rum. I was told that the best rum here was Angostura. They also have a ‘punch’ which is made up of all kinds of other alcohol so strong enough to punch you down for a day or two. One person I talked to told me that he had something to drink that was so strong that it made him stop drinking! Again, the national pastime seems to be “to lime” which is to hang out somewhere to drink.

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I did not have cow heel soup which is also a famous Trini food. It’s a thick soup made with cow hoof.

Ten Canadian Foods

When thinking of Canadian food, it’s hard to describe all the foods of the various first nations and immigrant groups that make up modern day Canada. Here are a few to try (some have similar counterparts “down south” in the USA).

Poutine: French fries covered in cheese curds and gravy.

The Caesar: that drink that I had fling with for a week.

Nanaimo bar: a fudge-like bar.

Bannock and Beaver tail: fried dough, a dish common in some first nations. When the dough is shaped like a beaver tail, then it’s called a beaver tail. (Timbits: donut holes from Tim Hortons, Canada’s mainstream coffee chain.)

Peameal bacon: Canadian bacon (which is ham, really. Well, the Canadians do have a history of preserving the loin by rolling in pea flour, hence the name).

Game and fish, smoked and dried: from salmon jerky to whale blubber.

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Montreal style bagel: a chewy, yeasty, smaller, free-form bagel.

lobsterNova Scotia lobster roll: like a New England “lobstah” roll.

Maple syrup: in candy, on pancakes, and on bacon…

Mine, Mine, Mine — Personal Space in Bogota

Personal space in Bogota is very different from in the U.S. Like in many places, MIGHT is right. But, what happens more often than not is that everyone walks, drives, and moves like they have the right of way.

So, to my friends, if you notice me moving into your “air space” and not saying “excuse me” every time I pass within five feet… sorry.

 

Tenth Day – Tsechu Festival in Bhutan

The plaza outside the "dzong" in Thimphu with tsechu crowds.
The plaza outside the “dzong” in Thimphu with tsechu crowds.

Dzong… dzong… dzong. That’s the deep basal reverberating sound that the Bhutanese alpine horns make during the “tsechu” in the “dzong” which is the building where the festival takes place.

One year later, from a completely different mountain range (Bogota and Thimphu are at the same altitude) on the other side of the world, I remember the tsechu I saw when I went to Bhutan. “Tsechu” is the word for the “tenth day” in Bhutan.

Boys wearing formal wear.
Boys wearing formal wear including the kabney scarf.

In Bhutan, the second largest “tsechu” festival of the year takes place in April in the town of Paro. The biggest festival is held in the fall in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. The tsechu festival is extremely complex which is evident from this sample itinerary:

“We can continue attending the Thimphu tsechu day 2 where you will get to witness Chamms (religious associated dances) like The Black Hat Dance (Shana), Dance of the 21 black hats with drums (Sha nga ngacham), Dance of the Noblemen and the Ladies (Pholeg Moleg), Dance of the Drums from Dramitse (Dramitse Ngacham), Dance of the Noblemen and the Ladies (Pholeg Moleg) and Dance of the Stag and Hounds (Shawa Shachi). Not all dances will be performed in the morning but we will be able witness at least two.”

Bhutanese women covering their hair from hot sun while watching the tsechu.
Bhutanese women covering their hair from hot sun while watching the tsechu.

Although I didn’t understand most of the stories being told, I enjoyed the colors and costumes. For the Bhutanese, the very act of watching the dances is good for their souls. It’s also educational. The monks who perform the roles of the gods and demons must be in excellent shape as the dance is a marathon. Also, of note, is that the costumes are never washed because washing them would wash away the spirits. After being used, the costumes are immediately packed down until the next time they are needed. No airing out allowed…

A Black Hat dancer.
A Black Hat dancer.

A popular dance is the Black Hat Dance which tells the legend of how the wrathful gods (good guys) draw out the demons by inviting them to a dance. Then during the dance, while the demons (bad guys) watch, the Black Hats take the bows and arrows from their large sleeves and kill the demons.

Everything, from dates, numbers, directions, hand motions, shawl knots, etc. have Buddhist significance in Bhutan.

Another thing that I found interesting about the festival, and Himalayan Buddhism, is that embarrassment is a tool used to  open up the spirit to enlightenment. This was evident at the tsechu with the lively antics of the jester. The jester wandered around making lewd overtures and gestures, including climbing on to the laps of foreigners. I’m sure that his antics made for many a Facebook photo.

And speaking of embarrassment leading to enlightenment, my friend and I had our own enlightenment experience. My male friend and I both bought the cream colored large sash called a “kabney” that the men wear as part of the their formal attire with their gho (see photo). Then we went out in public wearing our kabneys as scarves. This caused embarrassment and my friend was “talked to” by some Bhutanese men. They were embarrassed on his behalf that he was wearing the sash without the proper traditional clothes under it. As a woman, no one said anything to me because it was clear that I was a clueless foreigner… after all no Bhutanese woman would ever wear this piece of male attire! We quickly packed them away, to be worn outside of Bhutan.

Happy tsechu to my Bhutanese friends!

The jester with phallus in hand and phallus hat.
The jester with “enlightenment” tool in hand and matching mask.

A Day at the Races

At Pimlico.
At Pimlico.

Recently, I went for a day at the races. Not having grown up going to the horse races, attending the Preakness was all new to me. I wasn’t sure if it was all about the hat (or my new fascination — the fascinator), the horses, the betting, or the concerts. It turned out to be a bit of all of it, a sort of combination country fair, concert, picnic, tailgate party, and excuse to dress up and drink cocktails at 11 a.m.

This is the sign above the betting windows...
This is the sign above the betting windows…

I’m not sure if I would go to a horse race again, although maybe in Colombia, as the actual races are very short (a few minutes) and it all goes by in a blur. But, the people-watching goes on all day!

Father and son in matching seersucker.
Father and son in matching seersucker.

One of the hats for sale was about two feet across and cost $496. Yes, almost $500 for a hat. Speaking of fashion, I enjoyed the variety of men and boys in seersucker suits and the ladies and girls in their dress and hats. Also, people were super friendly out at Pimlico in Maryland.

The Preakness.
The Preakness.