Pai, Thailand: the latest town to be ruined by backpackers

pai-thailand-sucks

Sitting in Pai, Thailand, I have a sense shame as a traveler by being associated with backpackers.  On the one hand, traveling breeds business opportunities and distributes money to places where there’s very little of either.  Backpackers have flocked to this town since Chiang Mai is more “touristy” nowadays, making Pai a busy little place.  On the other hand, the locals will start providing the things that sell to the tourists even if these things aren’t good for the people.  This can lead to situations like Pai where there’s weird perversions of culture.  It’s not the perversion of culture that has lead to the sex trade found more in Bangkok and Phuket, but Pai has been turned into a non-Thai town.  Backpackers complain about locations getting too westernized, so I was eager to see firsthand what all the fuss was about.

We’ve experienced this phenomenon in other cities as well such as Cusco, Peru and Cairns, Australia.

Locals are outnumbered by tourists

filled-bars-pai
The town is basically bar after bar filled with backpackers

White people, white people everywhere.

For locations that are supposedly off the beaten path, why are these backpacker towns so damn full of tourists?  Cusco was shocking in this way too, where the entire town could have been in middle America I probably wouldn’t have known any different.  So far, the most authentic places we’ve been on this round the world trip have been to the large cities.  In Lima, Bangkok, Buenos Aires, and Santiago it’s very easy to find local culture just by walking a few blocks away from any tourist attraction (you know you’re there when no one speaks English).  In Pai, even the street vendors understand English just fine, and many of the locals are fluent.

It’s hard to take backpackers seriously as people that get deep into the culture when this is the easiest town to travel yet.  If a local here doesn’t understand English, just ask one of the infinite tourists where or what something is.  Why did they come all this way if they just wanted to be with other westerners?

The food in this tiny Thai town isn’t Thai

Metal bar in Thailand
Because why wouldn’t there be a metal bar for Euros in a tiny Thai town? Obviously.

Breakfast in other countries tends to suck pretty bad.  In Pai, American breakfast is everywhere and often served all day.  The only place we could even find breakfast served in Bangkok was at McDonald’s, and that was to break up the monotony of eating hard boiled eggs every morning.  So I can understand that breakfast places would become popular in areas with a lot of western tourists.  I’ll give the backpackers a pass on supporting breakfast.  For the rest of it, no free pass.

European style cafes are everywhere.  There’s a reggae bar, a metal bar, and a dance bar all within a block or two of each other.  The popular restaurants are burger joints and Italian places.  There are even smoothie stands and street vendors selling pizza.  Oh, and there’s a god damn steak place here.  The entire country might have 100 cows total, and there’s a steak place in a small town in north Thailand.  The reviews for the steak restaurant are all terrible.  It’s not hard to know why: this isn’t their culture, and they don’t even have the beef to make good steak possible.

Basically there’s very little Thai food being served here, and that’s for an obvious reason: the backpackers don’t eat it.  These people travel halfway around the world just to eat food that’s available and better made back home.  You can’t make up something this stupid.

The WiFi is amazing here

Everywhere we go in Pai, the WiFi has been excellent and free.  And I mean excellent as in “excellent by US standards”.  By Thai standards we are in internet heaven.  Again, this didn’t just happen by accident.  We’ve been to several countries where the WiFi has been atrocious.  Good WiFi cropped up in Pai because people support places with good WiFi.  I’m not going to look down my nose at someone for wanting constant internet access.  I think it’s the greatest invention since the printing press and it should be considered a basic right for everyone, after things like clean drinking water/safe roads/police/etc.  But it’s really hard to believe that backpackers are striving for authentic experiences when this is yet another indicator they don’t engage with the culture itself.

tourists-renting-cycles
God I love seeing tourists rent bikes they’ve never driven in places they’ve never been. There’s a good amount of tourists limping and heavily bandaged in Pai from cycle accidents. Darwin award material.

Backpackers just want their own culture for bargain prices, and are using 3rd world labor to accomplish that

That’s probably the most cynical view of the situation and certainly not true for some backpackers, but it’s really hard to argue with when you see these backpacker towns.  Hostels are just dorms where backpackers can mingle with their own kind for next to nothing per night.  Sure they are meeting other travelers, but these places are overwhelmingly frequented by other westerners who look and act the same.  Same styles of bags, same tattoos/piercings, same hair styles, same clothes, go to the same places… for people who claim to be so counter-culture or anti-establishment, it looks like they have a prescribed uniform and rulebook that they follow to the letter.

Maybe I just gave backpackers too much credit

pai-thailand-sunset
The town had some charm to it now and then

My view of a backpacker was someone that blazed trails into unknown cultures that the rest of us could follow.  Someone that abandoned corporate culture back home to do something more meaningful than chase promotions.  Maybe some backpackers are like this.  It’s possible.

What I overwhelmingly see is a group of people who are failures back home who just want to get drunk every night and not actually experience the culture they’ve traveled so far to be surrounded by.  And when we get here and the locals think that all we want from them are burgers, beer, a room, and sex (all for incredibly cheap prices)… that makes me ashamed to be a traveler.  I came to Pai to experience small town Thai culture, only to find that the backpackers stomped it out and set up burger joints.

Hobbiton, New Zealand: Tourist Farm

Hobbit hole in Hobbiton, NZ

The Shire sets from Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies are available to visit in Matamata, New Zealand. It’s located on a farm and surrounded by other sheep and cow farms. The interesting part is the sign out front that says “Tourist Farm”. Because I don’t speak Kiwi (it’s English but it’s not English. That’s a bit of cricket, yeah?), I can’t really tell if they are trying to be funny or not. Whatever the case, the sign is pretty accurate: they grow tourists here.

Hobbit hole in Hobbiton, NZ
A typical hobbit-hole on the set.  They were even assigned to different characters from the film as their home even though it was never mentioned on-screen.

The tour is relatively well planned out. The guides give a lot of background information about the making of the films, the set, and the people that worked on it. Unfortunately for us, our guides were not great at their jobs. We had to edge closer to another group because their guide was far more informative than ours. The bus driver couldn’t seem to speak without getting horrible feedback through their microphone, so the bus ride vascillated between silence and screeching. What we were able to hear or get was pretty good.

full Hobbiton set
Here’s a look over the majority of the Hobbiton set. We are standing in the lower gardens looking up to the Party Tree (left) and Bag End, Bilbo’s house (middle farthest tree).

The Hobbit holes come in three sizes: 60%, 90%, and 100% scale. They use the smaller ones to make Gandalf look bigger when he’s in the Hobbits’ home. Fun fact: Gandalf bangs his head on the light in the home, but then smashes into the doorways’ beam as well. The first was in the script, but the second was not. Peter Jackson left it in because he thought it was funny. The normal sized homes were used with the Hobbits onscreen to make them seem normal size to them. It’s good to think that in a movie filled with CGI, they still use old fashioned movie making tricks.

hobbit hole from hobbit height
Hobbit hole, from Hobbit height!

The attention to detail was also on display. Clothes on the drying lines were changed daily to wear in natural walking paths from the home to the lines, so if the washing every came into the shot it would look as natural as possible. All of the wood around the Hobbit holes was chopped into Hobbit-sized pieces over the course of two months. It was someones’ full time job to chop wood. The wood was then aged with vinegar.

fake looking fish
We took this picture because these fish look incredibly fake… in person. Here they look pretty real. With a little lighting, they’d work just fine.
Hobbiton party tree
On the right is the Party Tree, named because it is where the large party takes place before Bilbo leaves the Shire. It was this tree that chose the location for the movie set. The producers flew over the country looking for a large tree as described in the books. They saw this tree, and went to talk to the owners of the farm.  Gandalf enters the shire in the movie from the corner in front of the row of hobbit holes.

Peter Jackson had many problems with trees around the area. First, the tree above Bag End (Bilbo’s Home) is fake. It is made with steel, foam, rubber bark, and 250K fake leaves. The Hobbit series was filmed after Lord of the Rings. This is a slight problem because in the LotR universe, the events of The Hobbit take place 60 years earlier. So they made the tree above Bag End to look a bit younger than it was in Lord of the Rings. Also in the books there are many references to Hobbits sitting underneath apple and plum trees. Well, Peter Jackson didn’t like the scale of these trees in relation to the hobbits so he dismantled them and pieced them back together in the size he wanted. In New Zealand, trees over a certain age or of a certain type cannot be removed. Here are NZ palm trees that were hidden with the leaves of other trees and/or cut out of the film. Middle Earth doesn’t have New Zealand palm trees, you know. And lastly, the party tree. This was what lead the team to pick this site for the set. It was spotted by helicopter, and then the crew went to find out who owned the land it was on. They soon struck a deal.

green dragon inn, hobbiton
Outside the Green Dragon Inn

The wildlife caused some headaches as well. Middle Earth doesn’t have native New Zealand wildlife. So there was a trained American Eagle and handler that were tasked with keeping the local birds and rodents away from the set. In the man-made pond, a crew of frogs took up shop. They were quite noisy and had to be removed from the pond. But since New Zealand is hippie country, someone actually housed the frogs in their bathtub during the day and put them back in the pond at night. HIPPIES!

bag end hobbiton
This is Bilbo’s house of Bag End. The tree above is made of foam, steel, and fake leaves.

The original set was actually made to be temporary. After the success of LotR, Kiwis came out to the farm to see the set. This tipped off the owners there was money to be made. So for The Hobbit, the sets were rebuilt and made more permanent. And since the first movies were such a success, barbed wire had to be put around the farms to insure curious fans didn’t sneak in. But now you are able to visit the Shire any time you’re in New Zealand, and maybe have Second Breakfast in their cafe.

Becoming a PADI Certified Diver while traveling

Alicia & John - Great Barrier Reef - GoPro underwater Selfie

Diving has become one of our favorite activities.  It’s actually not too hard to become a certified diver while on a trip!  Getting an Open Water diving certification can take between 2-4 days depending on how rigorous the course is and how much you want to cover.  Here’s what we experienced to become PADI Open Water divers.

We are PADI Certified Divers!

Cairns, Australia

We knew we wanted to do it in a more developed country.  While we love places like Thailand, they usually do not have very high safety standards.  Or any thought to safety at all.  As one Brit put it: “The Buddhists believe in fate, so they don’t plan things out.  If it’s meant to go badly, it will.  If it’s meant to go well, it will.”  That’s terrifying.  SCUBA diving does entail some risks, especially for those unfamiliar with it.  But good training in the beginning can go a long way towards keeping you safe and making sure your future dives are enjoyable as well.

diving-classroom-training

First up, there’s some book knowledge you need

I know, I know.  Who wants to be in a classroom on vacation?  But learning the theory behind what you’re doing can go a long way to making it more fun as well as much safer.  That’s what I really like about the diving community: it’s a safety culture first and foremost.  You’ll learn and practice safe diving over and over again.  By the time you get certified, you’ll be very comfortable with what to do if something goes wrong.

The dive shops that we’ve been to have been mostly staffed by younger people looking for a fun career in the sun.  There’s a lot of 20-somethings that are effectively guarding your life when underwater.  When I was in my 20’s, I wasn’t exactly the most responsible person out there nor did I have a ton of attention to detail.  And I still had a bit of the “live forever” mentality from my teenage years.  This is a really long winded way of saying: PAY ATTENTION TO THE SAFETY PART OF THE CLASSES.  While all of our divemasters have been outstanding, at heart they are still young adults who came to this life to party and night and swim during the day.  Don’t test their limits.  Expand yours.

pool-play-time

Pool play time!

After learning some theory about how to dive safely, it’s time to get in the water and practice some techniques in the kiddie pool.  It’s only mildly embarrassing that you signed up for SCUBA lessons and are using flippers in the shallow end.  Don’t worry, soon you get to the good stuff.

scuba-in-pool

Diving in the pool

Here’s where it starts to get good… and scary.  Sorry for no underwater pictures here, but they don’t allow the GoPro along while training.  I think this is fantastic as it keeps the focus on the training.

The scary part is necessary to learn how to deal with potentially dangerous situations.  They have you remove all of your gear and put it back on underwater.  Off goes the mask and your air.  You have to put them back on yourself.  There’s also the practice of running out of air and having to share your buddies air.  I’ve had my mask and regulator (mouth piece) kicked off underwater by another diver, so it certainly is important to learn these skills so you’re comfortable using them when off on your own.

After all of the pool work (sometimes these are done in the shallow parts of the ocean or lake instead of a pool), it’s off to the real fun: completing your certification in the open water!

dive boat australiaOn board the dive boat

The other nice thing about doing it in Australia is the wonderful accommodations.  This dive boat costs millions of dollars and drives itself by GPS.  Learning on a Thai longboat wouldn’t have been terrible, but in Australia there were so many staff members willing to help as well as space on board.  When learning something like diving that can be stressful, disorienting, and tiring, it’s good to have the little things taken care of.

underwater-certification

Getting your Open Water certification

Everything that you practiced in the pool, you do in the open water.  In the above picture, a class is gathering on an underwater frame before practicing their descent down the descend line.  Did I mention how amazing this boat was?

If you can do it in the pool, you can do it in the open water.  The Great Barrier Reef was a wonderful choice as there was no current to deal with.  When we were in Thailand getting certified on our Advanced Open Water, the current made some of the exercises much more difficult.

alicia double ok

Yay!  We’re certified!

Diving is a wonderful experience and we highly recommend it if you’re even slightly intrigued.  While the certification can cost a fair amount, subsequent dives can be very cheap.  In Thailand, each dive only cost $20!

We’ve gone on to get our Advanced Open water certification to dive deeper, we’ve done night dives, and even dove a wreck!  Diving is a wonderful life-long skill and I’m so glad we did it.

fish overload
Reefs are filled with marine life: it’s like swimming an aquarium!
wreck diving
Diving a wreck in Thailand: they had Western toilets down here, but not on the boat!
night diving coral
Several of us shining light on a coral while night diving

Dining with Hookers

dining-with-hookers

I travel to learn about myself and the rest of the world.  Sometimes I learn things that aren’t pictured on most travel brochures.  Like prostitution.  I’m going to admit straight up that I don’t have first hand experience with it, but we see it all around us when we travel.  Usually at dinner.  The guys will bring the working girls to eat before they presumably go somewhere more private.  And I just have one question: why is dining with hookers so common?

dining-with-hookers

How to spot it

It’s generally pretty easy as it almost always starts with white male and native female.  That can’t be the only factor because obviously people of different ethnicity get together all the time.  It becomes more likely when the two are pretty far apart in age and/or attractiveness.  The clincher is when there’s a language barrier.  A 50 year old eating with a 20 year old and neither are talking?  That’s not some old family friend coming to visit… (Bonus points if only he is eating)

The First Time We Saw It…

…was in Jamaica.  This was our first international trip together, and it wasn’t going smoothly on our first night there.  Everyone and their brother kept offering us drugs, our room was a shit-hole crawling with bugs and lizards, it was hot as hell even at 10 pm, and we were hungry.  Our cabbie took us to a run down place the locals frequented that had the most mediocre food I’ve ever eaten.  And then, sitting at the next table was an aging hippie with two girls that couldn’t have been older than 20.  Neither of the girls were eating, no one was talking, and he was not in any hurry.  All I could think was: Jesus this country is hell on earth… we have how many days left here?

It wouldn’t be the last time we saw Dining with Hookers.  We are in Thailand at the moment, and here they have made working girl dinners into an art form.  We are staying in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok which is a trendy area for tourists to be.  We are a few BTS stations down from Nana plaza which is widely considered to be the hub of prostitution in the city.  Next to us is a collection of tents that is it’s own makeshift mall.  In typical Thai fashion, people set up their shops/bars/restaurants wherever there’s an open piece of cement.  Inside this tent-mall, the clientele is predominantly tourist.  The tables are usually some combination of white guy(s) and Thai girl(s).  There are Thai women dressed in what we’d call “clubbing gear” back home, just whiling away the evening looking at their cell phone or nothing in particular.  Eventually a guy will show up, and they’ll sit to have the ritualistic silent meal.

It got better!

A couple of days later in Jamaica we walked by the restaurant we’d visited on the first evening where we’d had such a bad experience.  One of the working girls we saw before was talking and laughing with a group of friends.  The drug dealers who are on the beach in Negril were playing a pick-up game of soccer.  It was very humanizing to see them this way.  If someone is in abject poverty or a real hopeless situation, it can seem like they are just doomed and you can get an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.  But seeing people enjoy the simple things in live was very uplifting.  I even mentally forgave one of the drug dealers for threatening my life the evening before.

tourist-information-full-service
In Thailand, many places you might not expect are “full service”.

Refreshing Honesty

Livingthai.org (not safe for work!) is a fantastic website around the sex trade in Thailand, written by a purveyor.  In his own words, “a pimp”.  Warning: if you have strong moral objections against prostitution in any form, just don’t go there.  If you want to learn about a sub-culture you might have not known existed, it’s a fascinating read.  In many ways it’s a lot more honest than what goes on back in the US.  In between learning about the sex trade, you’ll see people struggling with racism, wanting to create a meaningful life, and building a community.  It’s a fun experience when after reading an article about the best brothels in Chiang Mai there’s an article on how to succeed in building your business.  Surreal.

Getting rid of the demons

I think it’s pretty easy to sympathize with the people who have sex for money.  Maybe they have no other choice or other options are even worse than selling their bodies for sex.  I don’t really know the situation.

Seeing the guys take them out for dinner reveals a less common thought: maybe it’s not even about the sex at all.  Maybe it’s just sheer loneliness.  I mean, these guys fly halfway around the world just to pay a girl to have dinner with them.  When the best option available is to travel thousands of miles just to pay someone to talk to you… It’s difficult to see the guys as sex tourists and easier to see them as social pariahs.

Watching the working girls operate is interesting: they have a method

The working girls typically operate from a few areas in Thailand, namely go-go bars and massage parlors.

Bar girls usually stand in front of the bar to drag in western guys and get them to buy the girls overpriced drinks.  Seriously, the drinks are like double anywhere else nearby.  As long as she has a drink in hand, she will talk to the guy.  It’s sometimes funny to overhear the guys not quite understand what is going on (“Dude, why won’t she talk to me if I don’t buy her a drink?”), like these guys have the most amazing lives that the Thai girls who barely speak English just have to hear about.  After a few drinks, the bar girl is free to negotiate with the guy regarding other services.

The massage parlors are everywhere in Thailand and they are actually more honest than the go-go bars.  If you want a massage for the listed price, that’s what you get.  If you want something else, that’s what you get.  Like the bars, the girls sit out front and offer massages and other services to passersby.  When I’m walking with Alicia, there are only offers of a massage.  When she isn’t with me, that’s when I hear offers for other “hands-on” activities.  On Phi Phi island, where there is a large backpacker presence, the working girls are even more forward.  They walk right up to the guys and grab their junk.  Even the most clueless guy can figure it out.  If he refuses, they even challenge his manhood: “Are you chicken?”.  You can see the wheels turning as he mulls it over while she has him firmly by the nuggets, thinking “1500 baht is like… $45… that’s less than taking a girl to the movies back home”.

I don’t know what to think anymore

Before the trip I would probably have come down on the sex trade much harder than I would now.  On the one hand, I certainly agree with one of our tour guides: “It’s bad for the Thai people.  The culture”.  On the other hand, seeing the clientele doing it out of severe social isolation makes it difficult to condemn them as well.

So now I just roll with it, politely letting the working girls know that I’m not interested so they can go grab the junk of the next guy.  And maybe, even have dinner with him.

Bagan, Myanmar: city of temples

bagan-myanmar-balloons

Bagan, Myanmar is known as the spiritual center of the country with it’s miles of pagodas and terrible food.  Fine, most people just think of the temples.  The Burmese have a saying that you’re not a real Burmese unless you’ve gone to Bagan.  It’s a location that attracts tourists from all over the region in addition to international travelers.

ruins-baganThe ruins were built in an explosion of religious fervor during 800 AD – 1200 AD.  There used to be over 13,000 temples in this region, but the number dwindled to around 1,300 recently due to the normal reasons: invading Mongols during the 12th century, earthquakes, protests, and general wear and tear.  The pagodas are still in use today.  Many of these have monks that live right next door and pray every day in them.  There’s a small community of monks that live behind the ruins above.

Going to see the sights in the old fashioned way

John Horse and Cart in BaganSure there are motorbikes and electric bikes available for rent everywhere, but it seems more fitting to ride behind a cart pulled by a horse to go and view thousand year old ruins.  Besides, the roads are quite sandy and traffic laws are more like traffic “suggestions”.  After seeing the litany of leg injuries that tourists had in Thailand from scooters, we decided this would be safer and charming.  Until the horse started peeing and some was splashing back.  That took away a tiny bit of the charm.

bagan-pagoda-close up

You may differ, but I like the fish-eye effect the go pro gives this pagoda when close up.  The area feels surreal in a way that’s hard to be captured by photography.  Well, at least with my limited skills.  There is great attention to detail in the stonework.  Engraved in this pagoda are various spirits, gods, and snakes.  To protect these sites, a government worker is assigned to them to make sure people don’t desecrate them.

steep climb pagoda
It’s a steep climb to the top, but the view is worth it!

miles of temples baganThe landscape is very similar to this: miles and miles of temples dotting the landscape.

It’s not all spiritual harmony…

There’s “New Bagan” and “Old Bagan”.  The old city is near the waterfront and dead-center in the sprawl of pagodas.  In ’88-’89, the government told the citizens of the town that they had to move 4 miles to the south so that they could better preserve the pagodas (presumably).  Did the people get money for their trouble?  Nope.  The government just said: LEAVE.  So they did.  Asking the locals about it, there’s no complaining.  People aren’t really comfortable criticizing their government very much.  But New Bagan seems to be doing OK.  There’s even a large complex going up that will become the new center of town market.

The Burmese don’t have a lot

burmese-bamboo-homeThis is the inside of a Burmese home.  The walls are made from thatched bamboo, and the roof is either bamboo as well or made of sheet metal.  If I got a running start at the wall, I’m pretty sure I could take down the entire building.  The table is where the living room used to be a week before we got here.  This person had so much business that they needed to move next door and turn this building into a dedicated hosting space.

The average person in Myanmar makes $40 per month.  Please, for the love of god, don’t try and haggle for 50 cents.  Sure, if the cabbie is trying to charge you $5 on a $1.50 fare, that shouldn’t fly as they are just grossly taking advantage.  But when a vendor on the street charged me 300 kyat (30 cents) for a bottle of water that should be 100 kyat (10 cents), who cares.  Tourism has helped with money coming into the country, and the people running tours and classes have more of the modern accouterments such as smartphones and cars or motorbikes.

Abandon all hope when it comes to the food

burmese-food
One of our cooking classes. The milk curd (middle left) nor the tomato salad (middle right) are safe to eat though I did anyway to be polite. The chicken soup in the middle with the bamboo is just bland. The vegetable dish middle-right is just oily fried mushrooms and kale. And the two side dishes are loaded with fish paste and dried shrimp. Burmese food just isn’t our thing.

We’ve tried for weeks to find something that we enjoy in the Burmese cuisine, and just haven’t found anything.  For the first time on our trip, we are actively seeking out Western food instead of local.  After taking a cooking class in Bagan, a food tour in Yangon, and trying local restaurants or street food for every meal. While we did have some good food on the tour it was only accessible if you speak the language or had a guide with you – half of what we ate was not even listed on the menu. We give up.

There are a few big issues I have with the food:

  1. Fish sauce/paste – they put this on seemingly everything, and it gives the food a dead-fish smell that’s hard to ignore if you’re not used to it.  They do it in Thailand too, but both the spice and sweetness balances it out.  Burmese food isn’t spicy nor nearly as sweet, so even chicken dishes come out tasting like week old fish.
  2. Lack of protein – Being a poor country, meat is just hard to come by.  Thailand is the same way, but there you can have fried eggs a la carte to add protein to any meal.
  3. Dried shrimp – If the fish sauce wasn’t enough, they also add tiny dried shrimp to dishes just in case you actually taste something other than rotting seafood.
  4. It’s either all fried or dangerous – most things are fried in lots of peanut oil, giving the food a greasy taste and texture.  If it’s not fried, it’s likely not safe to eat since the water isn’t even safe for brushing your teeth.

End on a high note

bagan-myanmar-balloons

The highlight of our time in Bagan was certainly taking a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the fields of temples.  We went with Balloons over Bagan, a company that has been doing this since 1999.  When they started, they did 280 passengers with one balloon.  They’ve since grown and are on pace to have 20,000 passengers this year!  They are a wonderful organization and everything went off without a hitch.  They believe in giving back to the community, paying their crew higher wages than normal.  There were roughly 20 balloons in the air taking off just before sunrise, creating a pretty spectacular scene.

The hour long ride was pretty quiet as everyone was just in awe of the surroundings.  So instead of too much typing, here’s just a bunch of hot air balloon porn!

inflating balloon
I never put any thought into how these actually fly. So imagine my surprise when there will be that huge flame near our heads.  They gave us baseball caps to protect us from the ambient heat.

Ballons over bagan sunrise square

truly amazing views from the hot air balloon at sunrise

sunrise over Bagan from hot air balloon

hot-air-balloon-over-baganWe’d get close enough to temples where you could reach out and touch them.

aerial-view-bagan-temples

Pagoda Close up Vetrical

alicia over bagan

 

 

Argentina Travel Tips

Argentina can be tricky for tourists, so here are some Argentina travel tips.  We stayed there for roughly a month over a few locations, and had a pretty good of how to get by.

Getting There

You do need to pay the reciprocity fee or you won’t even be allowed onto the plane.  This fee can be paid online and must be printed out before your plane boards.  Show up at your gate early as they will call your name over the loudspeaker and/or come around to verify you have this completed.  We saw several people not be able to board the flight because they didn’t have it!

Where to get money in Argentina

If possible, try to bring USD with you before going to Argentina.  Their inflation is 20% per year (yikes!) which means no one wants their currency.  A black market has cropped up around USD: everyone there wants it and is very eager to give you pesos in exchange.  You will still need to convert to Argentinian pesos for general use, but the higher priced items/services are going to want USD.  Bringing it avoids the conversion fees in the first place.

The official exchange rate in Argentina is going to be the worst that you can get.  This will be the one given to you by ATM’s and banks.  Sometimes it’s a necessity to withdraw from an ATM, but most of the time you’ll want to exchange on the black market.

Don’t worry!  The “black market” isn’t quite the seedy operation that it sounds like.  Well ok, it kind of is and it kind of isn’t.

There are two ways to go about exchanging money: one is to simply walk around the city and listen for the people saying “cambio! change!”.  Don’t worry, you will find them around malls and tourist attractions.  These are money changers that will give you pesos in return for USD at a greater rate than the official rate.

The better way that we found was to use xoom.com.  It does the same thing, but without going to a sketchy looking guy in the street.  Use it like Paypal: input your bank information, request the amount to withdraw, and then go to one of their approved locations and pick up the money.  Their approved locations aren’t always the most convenient, but they are typically numerous and in safe areas of the city.  This way you can avoid doing back-alley deals.  We check for fraud diligently, and Xoom is legit.

Eating in Argentina – Time of Day

Time of day is very important in Argentina.  They are on their own clock and it can be very confusing for tourists.  Lunch is around 1pm-3pm, and dinner is from 8pm-12pm.  Picadas are from 5pm-7pm.  Restaurants are often completely closed at other times!

First: breakfast isn’t really a thing here.  If you find a place that serves breakfast, great.  Don’t count on it.  You’ll probably be able to find a coffee shop that serves some bread on a consistent basis.  Having a hotel that serves breakfast may impact your decision.

Next, lunch is a little bit later than normal.  Some will start around noon, but don’t expect to eat at 11am.  When 3pm rolls around, the kitchen will usually close.  So don’t roll in at 2:50 and expect to be served.  They will shoo you out the door.

“Picadas” in Argentina are appetizers and drinks.  Think of it as happy hour food.  Typically they will be a meat, cheese, and olive tray.  This is to tide you over until dinner.

Dinner in Argentina starts late and ends late.  It’s possible to arrive for dinner around 8pm, but this is like going to dinner in the US around 4pm: you will be the only ones in the restaurant.

What to eat in Argentina

Argentina is very proud of it’s Italian heritage, and the cuisine reflects that.  The food is meant to stay simple and true to itself.  There will very little preservatives or spices in the food, making it quite healthy even when eating out.

I swear the menus all look the same here: big and confusing.  In the US, the menus are grouped by item and the options (onions, pickles, cheese, etc) are underneath.  In Argentina, each option is listed separately as a different item.  For example, a sandwich without onions will be listed as a completely different sandwich as with.  So the entire page will be basically the same sandwich, but with different cheeses/breads/etc.  Don’t get discouraged.

Meats and vegetables, grilled – this will be the go-to large meal.  Their specialty is beef, but all other meats are on offer as well.

Milanesa – This is simply breaded chicken, and it’s very common in both the restaurants and grocery stores.  I’ve tried it all over the place, and I can’t figure out why it’s so popular.  There doesn’t seem to be much special about it.

picadas in Buenos Aires
Picadas – a meat/cheese/olive tray served around 6-7pm

Picadas – a meat, cheese, and olive tray that is typically served around 6-7pm to tide you over until dinner which can be as late as 11pm.  There will often be specials and it can be a very cheap way to eat dinner since they can be quite large.

Pizza – There are literally two varieties: cheese, and cheese with onion.  In short, the pizza here is terrible.  They want to keep it close to the basics as possible, so the pizza is invariably just cheese bread with no sauce.

Empanadas – These are meat and cheese pies that are available all over.  They will be good cheap eats.

Napkins in Argentina

worst-napkins-ever-argentina

Why do I mention these?  Because they the worst napkins in the entire world.  They feel and act like wax paper.  If you try to soak up water-based liquid with them, they will fail horribly.  You’ll just be smearing it around.  Their one and only use is to soak up grease-based spills.

What to drink in Argentina

While Quilmes is an OK beer, you really should drink the wine to the exclusion of all else (except water).  In the local stores, great bottles of wine can be found for under $2 USD!

coffee-argentinaCoffee in Argentina will come with a few side items that we aren’t used to: a shot of soda water and a sweet treat.  They are welcome additions and you’ll miss them when you leave.

Where to shop for food in Argentina

Make it a point to stop in the local stores for one simple fact: it’ll be cheaper.  The government regulates the price of certain items such as eggs, but only on the large retailers.  The little shops don’t have to follow these rules for whatever reason.  In Buenos Aires they are referred to as “Chinos” as they are typically run by people of South East Asian descent, and they can be found all over the city.

Hotels / Airbnb in Argentina

It’s no secret that we are big fans of Airbnb.  We have gotten entire apartments for under $40 USD per night in great locations.  However, there are some caveats:

You might have to squeegee your own floors.  The apartments in Buenos Aires are often old and leaky.  The host will tell you if you are expected to mop or squeegee the floor.  Don’t worry, it’s not too bad.

The showers are all terrible.  There’s mediocre water pressure anywhere, and poor tubs abound.  So if your host expects you to squeegee your shower, don’t be too surprised.

Having said all of that, if you just keep your expectations a little lower than everything will be just fine.  Charming, even.

Look where you’re walking

The sidewalks aren’t exactly well maintained.  Moreover, in Buenos Aires there’s a large problem: dog poop.  It’s everywhere.  You are nearly assured of stepping in it at some point during your time there.

Do they speak English in Argentina?

Not a lot.  I was kind of surprised by this, but they seemed to speak less English here than in Chile or Peru.  Even in Buenos Aires, you’ll encounter a lot of people that don’t speak a lick of English.  Heck, the English is far better in Myanmar than it is in Argentina.

If you want to study up on some survival Spanish, here are my recommendations on words/phrases to learn:

  • Numbers
  • How much?
  • Food items to read menus.  Learn the names of common meats and vegetables.
  • Push, pull, open, closed, to-go

How to make it easier if you don’t speak the language

Try to bring things up on your phone before you set out somewhere.  This way, you can point on the map where you want to go.  This is very handy with taxi drivers especially.

Get an app called “Word Lens”.  It translates signs just by pointing your smartphones’ camera at them!

Argentina can be more difficult to travel than other countries, but with these ideas in mind it can be fun

No doubt about it: Argentina can seem like a crazy place to tourists due to their unique eating and sleeping schedule.  Add in the financial side of it and the language barriers, and it can be tough!  But don’t worry, Argentina will be a great experience with a few days of practice.

Sydney, Australia: A chic cityscape

sydney-australia

Sydney, Australia has a good reputation among travelers as a “must go” destination but no one ever explains why.  Most Americans look at Australia and think Crocodile Dundee, Steve Irwin, or wild animals that will likely kill you.  We arrived in Sydney to find a vibrant and modern city, and managed not to have a dingo eat a baby.  We had no real expectations going in, so Sydney was a great surprise.

sydney-skyline

The city is well curated, with parks and and attractions for everyone throughout the city.  Not far from the place we were staying was: a collection of parks, the opera house, a botanical garden, and a block party being hosted by the government that weekend.  It’s a great walking city with several neighborhoods set up for casual strolls.

sydney-australia

The opera house is an iconic image of Sydney.  I’m not sure we ever saw an actual opera being held there, but it’s always a busy spot.  Lined alongside the harbor is a row of bars and restaurants that are popular with the working crowd for the evening’s happy hour.  Once the sun starts going down, the city comes alive with people getting off of work and trying to enjoy the last few hours of daylight.

bondi-beach-sydney-2

Bondi Beach is the popular local hangout on the weekends.  It’s mostly populated by very fit individuals to match the well manicured city.  It’s one of those beaches where you’d go if you wanted to be seen rather than have a relaxing time.  Crowded to the point where it’s hard to move, the beach still offers good people watching and the opportunity to work on that dark tan that many of the Aussies seem to cultivate.  It’s sometimes difficult to tell when you’re near a beach, because Aussies don’t wear a whole lot of clothing at any given time.  It is pretty darn hot down here.  We were even pretty surprised at what some women were wearing to work: very skimpy outfits, just to deal with the heat.  All these fit people made me feel quite fat and out of shape.  Oh, and super white.  I blinded a few people when I took off my shirt.

australia-alcohol-sucks

I do have one quibble with the country: their booze is completely sub-par.  Enjoying the local alcohols is something I like to do from country to country.  It’s often a deep part of their history and helps acclimate the taste buds to the local cuisine.  However, the beer in Australia SUCKS.  There’s no other word for it.  It is hands-down the worst of any country we’ve visited.  Take an American light beer (which people only drink because it’s fewer calories than regular beer), then instead of 4% alcohol give it 1-2%: that’s Australian beer.  Now, strong alcoholic content isn’t a sign of a good beer.  But when trying to make something like an IPA (which was made specifically because the high alcohol content allowed the beer to survive long voyages at sea) and give it 4% ABV, that’s just a joke.

sydney-waterfrontMost of the attractions are going to be along the waterfront.  It’s a great place to relax and watch the big ships go by while drinking some form of imported booze.  It seems to be a very active city.  By that, I mean that people are out and about quite a bit enjoying the town.  There are some places we’ve been to that are more for work and become dead once work hours are over.

kangaroo-fillet

The food in Sydney was very good, but not quite in the way we expected it to be.  When we asked our Airbnb host about real Australian food, he suggested things like Vegemite, meat pies, and kangaroo.  We’ve had the first two before, but not the third.  Vegemite is a weird yeast that is spread on toast.  They love it, but to us it was just terrible.  Meat pies seem to be common in most non-US places, so we’d already encountered those.  Think of a pot pie.  So on the last evening, we grilled some kangaroo on with vegetables.  The taste and texture reminded me of a flank steak, but what was evident was how I could really taste the cuteness of the kangaroo.  MMM, MMM, good.

Most of the food that we enjoyed while there tended to be Thai, Chinese, or Japanese cuisine rather than traditional Australian.

sea-lion-sydney-zooWe hit up the Sydney Zoo while in town, but not just for the zoo itself.  To get there, we had to take a ferry across the harbor where we were able to soak in the city while bobbing along.  The zoo was just a fun little diversion when we got to the other side.

alicia-stuffed-koala

 

 

Overall, Sydney is a wonderful place to visit.  It’s picturesque, easily accessible by walking around and using public transportation, and there’s plenty to do.  Just stay away from the Vegemite!

Mendoza, Argentina’s Lujan de Cuyo wine region: Oh god my liver hurts

winery-lujan-de-cuyo

It’s not a secret that Alicia and I are wine fanatics.  Some of our favorites come from Mendoza, Argentina’s wine region.  We went on a few tours of the popular Lujan de Cuyo area and Uco valley over the span of three days.  There we had some of the best wines we’ve ever tasted.  The wineries are somehow all picturesque little cottage style operations made gorgeous with the backdrop of the Andes mountains.

Mendel Winery Vines
Quaint rows of vines in our first stop, Mendel winery

We booked our tours with Trout and Wine, but it might not make a difference where you book from.  Most of the tour guides are hired guns and generally not put with any one agency.  Depending on what wineries and languages they know, they will be picked up by different tour companies’ needs.  We were very happy with our guide, a native Argentinian who knew 5 languages.

Mendel winery cellar
THE CUTENESS BURNS MY EYES

The wineries are disgustingly cute.  Like they were built in a secret underground government cuteness lab to use against terrorists.  How old would you guess this winery is?  Brick cellar, old barn, weathered wooden posts for the vines… That’s right, a little over 10 years old.  The wine industry in Mendoza didn’t really take off under after 2000.  Sure, the vines around here can be a hundred years old or so, but that’s due to bringing them from Europe and/or immigrants growing them long ago.  But the variety of grapes around here that really thrives are Malbecs.  I can’t remember when we discovered them, but after that there was no going back to California Cabernets.

Rose bushes vineyards
The “canary in the coal mine”

Rose bushes are often seen at the ends of the rows of vines.  They offer a sort of early warning system for the wine maker.  Since the grapes and roses are susceptible to the same diseases, why not pretty up the vineyard with some flowers while keeping tabs on the grapes?  We are told that this is mostly an old technique and not incredibly relevant in today’s world.  The plants are sprayed regardless of infection because if the vines get sick, the disease spreads so quickly.  We saw some bushes infected, and it decimated several acres before it was found and stopped.

Vine hail protection
These hail nets are down for the moment, but can be extended above the vines if there is a chance of hail

Oddly enough, the largest natural disaster that could occur is hailstorms.  We find that funny as this is nearly a desert.  But hail happens every few years and wipes out the vines.  These nets are expensive, but I suppose necessary.

Renecer winery
An aerial view of the Renecer winery, taken with my DJI Phantom 2 in the short time we traveled with it

Oh look!  Another improbably charming winery!  The Renecer winery was a good stop for us to make as we drink their wines back home in Minnesota.  One of their Malbecs named “punto final” is a reliably good and inexpensive (~$15) bottle that’s nice to pick up when we can’t decide on a wine.  This mildly puzzled the wine folks there that they had such distribution in a state they don’t know much about.  I’m not sure why they were confused: they just got done bragging about how much they export!

Make wine Renecer
Note the vial with which to mix, and the unlabeled bottles

At Renecer they had a nice touch that we hadn’t encountered before: make your own blend of wine.  The Mendoza region is interesting for wine making because the soil and climate can vary drastically even a few miles off of the mountains.  The Lujan de Cuyo region has very fertile and earthy soil, giving the wines more of a “fruit forward” taste.  By comparison, Uco valley is more arid and rocky which gives a distinct mineral taste to the wines.  The result: I have saved millions of my future earnings by knowing any future wines I would make would be awful.  I took two wines that I liked, mixed them, and somehow ended up with something I that went into the spit bucket.

Oak Barrels

Yes, even their cellars are cultured to create that perfect ambiance.  Because why not custom design lighting for barrels that are just going to sit there?  Obviously.  I remember visiting a Minnesota winery (stop laughing!) and it was just kind of a pole barn where the wine sat stacked in the corner.

Overall, visiting the wineries in the Lujan de Cuyo region was great.  I’m not sure I’d do a repeat tour of that particular area before seeing all of the other areas in Mendoza, but we did have fun while there.  When we got back to our place around 5 or 6 pm, we were sleepy and a little tippy.  Perfect!  That’s siesta time in Mendoza anyway.

Cusco Cooking Class

Cusco Peruvian Cooking Class

Once upon a time, Cusco used to be the capital of the Incan civilization.  Now it’s primarily a rest stop on the way to Macchu Pichu.  But with that much history behind it, there’s certainly some fun things to see and do here.  When we travel, we like to experience the local culture.  Something different from the typical tourist experience and not just attractions.  There are many ways to do this, but we have some favorites.

Cusco Peruvian Cooking ClassFirst, cooking classes give some insight in how the culture has used what was available to them.  For example, in Peru there is a dish that is popular called “ceviche”.  This is fish that is left sitting in citrus, which “cooks” it without the necessity to heat it.  Both fish and limes are prevalent in the country and it’s an interesting dish that is best tried in Lima or another coastal city.  Another case is the local liquor: Pisco.  Pisco is a hard liquor made from grapes, which also grow in country, which is roughly a brandy.  It originated when the early European immigrants wanted to send wine back to Europe.  To make sure the wine didn’t spoil en route, they added alcohol and sugar to it for the voyage.  At some point they preferred the liquor that way and have been making it ever since.  It’s neat stories like these add flavor, history, and background to the country.  All while eating great food!

Fredy, Peruvian Cooking Classes Chef
Fredy, Chef at  Peruvian Cooking Classes in Cusco

The cooking class in Cusco was run at a little place off of the plaza.  We opted for one that was run by locals rather than a full featured production in a manufactured kitchen straight out of Pottery Barn.  Our class was lead by Freddy, a former English/French teacher turned chef.  He got out of teaching and into cooking just because he loves it.  And he has to love it, because he works from 8 AM to 10 PM 6 days a week.  He makes me feel bad about myself with how hard he works and I’m typing this at 10 AM barely ready to face the day.

Another thing we love about cooking classes is trips to the market.  When we went to Thailand and took a cooking class, we were absolutely amazed.  There were things that we didn’t even know existed!  The markets in Peru were no different.  We actually went to two different ones, a market in Cusco and one that is real local outside of town.

san-pedro-market-cusco

san-pedro-market-cusco-inside

Now, there’s some things you should know about these markets.  First, the levels of sanitation and refrigeration aren’t exactly top notch.  All manners of raw meat sits out in the open air on the dirty tables allllll day.

cuy-cusco-marketDon’t quite like the conditions?  No problem, Peru offers something I hadn’t seen yet: live animals you can buy and take home with you.  Can’t get any fresher than that.  Oh right, that’s a guinea pig.  Remember when I said cultures use what they have?  Well, the guinea pig is a local delicacy.  They call them “cuy” (pronounced “qwEE”) for the sound they make.  Typically the cuy just run around the kitchen until they are cooked: the little guys don’t run away.

chicken-multiple-eggs

Interesting sight: this chicken was cut open and inside was un-laid eggs.  I’m not sure why they kept it around.  They probably thought it was interesting too.  I asked our guide if there was any special dish that was made with this, and she said No.  It was just something unusual they couldn’t sell.

Back to the cooking class. The menu for the cooking class included an entree/starter, a main dish, dessert and a traditional Peruvian cocktail.

We made Aji de Gallina with rice for the main dish. It is kind of like a Peruvian hotdish but with more flavor.  There’s potatoes on the bottom with yellow chili pepper sauce and Andean cheese over pulled chicken.  It’s a nice bit of comfort food that I didn’t expect.  While we went to Peru initially for Macchu Pichu, we were surprised that the cuisine is excellent across the country.  Bonus!

aji de gallina

purple corn puddingFor dessert we made purple corn pudding.  There are multiple types of corn here, and most of them seem very unlike the type of corn back in the ‘States.  One type of corn is “choclo”, which is white corn with kernels as wide as your thumb.  The type of corn we are using for the pudding is “morada”.  It’s purple and somewhat sweet.  This type of corn makes “chica”, which can be a type of soft drink or wine depending on what region you’re in.  I can’t tell if they like chica or not.  “Chica” is also a synonym for “cheap”, local variations are everywhere, but I never actually see people drinking it.  Anyway, back to the pudding.  This purple goo tastes exactly like the insides of a Hostess fruit pie.  Exactly.

The entree we made was a soup called Crema de Moraya. Moraya are freeze dried potatoes that are easily found in any Cusco market. Similar to corn, there are endless types of potatoes found in the markets here. We used a mortar and pestle to prepare the moraya for use in the soup. The soup also contained diced beef, egg, onion, garlic, cumin, and cilantro. Alicia enjoyed the soup but it was not my favorite dish.

And what Peruvian meal would be complete without Pisco Sours?  Pisco is a type of brandy that originated in Peru (or Chile, depending on if you’re talking to a Peruvian or Chilean), and a Pisco Sour is a sweet and frothy drink that is served all throughout South America.  It’s a solid end to a great class.

pisco sour and souppisco-sour-cooking-class

 

 

Stuck in the past: Peru

john-alicia-peru-mountains

We went on a “day in the life tour” of a native Peruvian.  There were some downsides to the tour which I already detailed, so we’ll concentrate on the good parts. The theme of their lives seems to be that they acknowledged the outside world had moved on, and that was OK with them.  I asked our guide if there was any “keeping up with the Joneses'”, and she assured us there was not (more on this in a second).  She went on to describe it as difficult to keep native Peruvians employed, because there were very few worldly possessions they wanted.  If they wanted to make money to afford a radio, they’d work for a month and then stop showing up.  Since many of them had a plot of land on the family farm, what need was there to earn more money?  They already had shelter, food, and community.  Truthfully, it’s very authentic living.

inca-ruins-peru
Peru’s economy is mainly based on tourism, from ruins made hundreds of years ago.

Back to the part where our guide said competition with your neighbor wasn’t a big thing here… Our guide later contradicted herself.  While she was driving in Cusco, she mentioned that even being able to drive a car was a status symbol among the people.  Having a car was seen as affluent.  Since we’re on the topic of driving, riding as a passenger in other countries is terrifying.  In Jamaica, our cabbie was tail-gaiting a cop car (literally a few feet from his bumper) and honking the horn until the cop pulled over so we could pass.  I’m sitting there thinking to myself, We totally have weed in this car because the driver just offered it to us minutes ago, and the cop is going to be super pissed and pull us over and find it and hold us hostage…  Only that didn’t happen, because there are weird traffic customs in other countries.  In Jamaica, you can tail-gate cops.  Good to know?  Anyway, in Peru they honk their horns as a signal that they are going to do something stupid pass/merge, and God help the person who gets in their way.  Seriously, once that horn sounds, all bets are off: the aggressor is assuming that the car in front of him heard his horn from 100m away and will do everything in their power to get out of the way.  Alicia didn’t think anything of the driving as she usually got stuck where she couldn’t see anything.  I soon made it a point to sit as far back as possible.

making-shingles-peru
Making clay shingles by hand.  Notice that the “bucket” to the left is a construction hard hat.  They use what they have.

Overall, native Peruvian lives are astonishingly old fashioned.  Clay shingles are still in use all around the country and made exactly the same way they were made hundreds of years ago.  There’s a mud brick oven that burns bamboo to bake the clay shingles.  The mud for the shingles is cut out of the hill where they operate, stomped and broken up by hand and foot, and then water is added to make the clay.  The shingles are made in a mold and laid out to dry.  It’s hot labor and for every 5,000 shingles bought they receive roughly $140 USD.  It takes about two weeks to make the shingles, and they still have to pay for the delivered bamboo that fires the oven.  They make around 40-50,000 shingles per year.

adobe-home-satillite-peru
A very common sight in Peru: mud brick home with a satellite dish

And it’s time to rant.

I appreciate keeping heritage and culture preserved, but there has to be a better way to do it.  Generations grinding away in back-breaking labor just seems like a waste.  Peruvians are still doing things the same way the Inca did hundreds of years ago!  They are still using Ox and wooden yokes to plow their fields, ancient Inca aqueducts for irrigation, shucking corn by hand, and making their homes from mud and straw.  Now, I don’t expect them to hop on Amazon and purchase the tools that could drastically speed up the process and make their lives easier.  Aside: I did hop on Amazon and find simple and cheap tools they could afford that would greatly reduce their workload.  However, I do expect that somewhere between Incan civilization and Amazon Prime that there would have been ONE improvement along the way.  One!  These people are the extreme version of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

animal-rights-peru
Mini-rant in picture form. These animals are tied up.  Often with very little rope to the point where they can barely move. Cages where the animal can’t even move at all are certainly more cruel, but let’s not pretend that other societies treat animals a whole lot better. We saw plenty of livestock that were simply stuck in place.

We head up into the hills to meet a local Peruvian family that has their own farm.  Again, they are in the hills because the Inca’s were pretty good at primitive irrigation.  The water that comes off of the mountains is channeled through rock gutters.  This water flows through houses like ancient plumbing and can be steered through fields with little concrete gates.  Sometimes the channels get a face lift through concrete, other times they look as old as they are.  It’s shocking how many of them are still working with ancient stone.  Because I’m a moron, I actually drink from one of the springs that feeds these aqueducts.  Thankfully, I didn’t get sick even though I drank 2 liters of it.

john-cuy

There are a few things wrong with the above picture.  First, that’s a guinea pig that is desperately trying to escape.  One problem is that they don’t really go anywhere: they are so domesticated as animals that they just cower in the corner of the dirt floor kitchen squealing even though the door is wide open to run away.  The second thing is that we are about to eat food from a mud oven, yes the oven is literally made of hardened dirt, and the kitchen is dirt-floor to go with the mud walls.  (Counterpoint: Alicia can testify that while it’s entirely dirt and mud, it’s still cleaner than any kitchen after I’ve cleaned it.  It’s a good point.)  The final problem is that I’m allergic to nothing more on the planet than guinea pigs, and start sneezing my head off after this.  The last time I’ve actually encountered one was a decade ago, and I had completely forgotten!  Where did I run into one?  My sisters had one, called “Snowflake”.  They were quite appalled at what was to come next.

alicia-cuy

Yep, that’s “cuy” on the right (at least his lower half).  It’s considered to be a delicacy.  The green-speckled thing is fried egg and spinach(?), and the other two are some huge potatoes.  Guinea pig tastes kind of like dark meat chicken.  That is, when you can actually get to the meat of it.  It’s pretty hard to eat because the little buggers don’t have a ton of meat on them to begin with, and you’re cleaning it as you eat it.

john-donkey-peru
Stupid gringos.

And here’s where I feel like a stupid tourist that is insensitive of other cultures.  We can’t eat this.  Sure, we try to get through the cuy, but it’s not going to happen.  It’s just too far out there for us, so we have to give it away to the other guests.  Second, there’s no way Alicia or I can go through 2 whole potatoes and that huge omelette-like thing.  So we have to pitch a fair amount of it, which feels especially bad considering our tiny hosts (4’10”) plow through even more than is given to us.

We leave with a wide-eyed impression of what they go through.  I’m not sure we fully understand their lifestyle, but they seem very content with it.  It reminds me of the story of the American businessman who vacations in Mexico.  The businessman happens upon a Mexican fisherman and asks the man his story.  “Senor, I fish a little each day, take a siesta with my wife, and spend my evenings playing guitar and playing with my children.”  The businessman claims that the Mexican can greatly improve his fishing business by putting in 10 years of hard work, and then retire wealthy.  “But what next, Senor?” asks the Mexican.  “Well then”, said the businessman, “you could take siestas with your wife, and spend the evenings playing guitar and playing with your children…”