Monday 13 May 2019

Peru and our first foray into South America - Part 2

Part 1 of the Peruvian adventure is here.

Back from Machu Picchu, it was back to Cuzco and onward to our next adventure, in the Amazon rainforest.

Imagine flying to an airport called Puerto Moldonado. It's nothing but a large, asbestos-roofed shack and the minute you step out of the building, you just know you are in the tropics. The air is warm and sticky. It is a sea of green all around. The bus you are asked to get on in painted with bright toucans, jaguars and caimans :) 

The bus took us to the Rio Madre de Dios, which flows across Peru and Bolivia and is a sub-tributary of the Amazon. This river looks pretty powerful and impressive so I immediately wondered what the mighty Amazon would look like!

The journey had just begun. We were on a motorboat for 2 hours, in the middle of the Madre de Dios with lush and impenetrable green on both banks. The odd fishing boat was the only sign of any human habitation. Later I discovered that the rainforest occupied 60% of Peruvian land area and held only 5% of its population (no surprise there).

Our lodge was a large one and stuffed to the gills with European guests. It didn't have phones, mobile signal (there was a radio set for emergencies) and electricity would be available from 5-10 pm every night. There was limited electricity at other times, powered by solar panels. Three square meals a day in the communal dining room were fresh, local and delicious. We thought we would relax in the lodge after our busy schedule in the Andes, but that was not to be. Between long and short hikes and caiman-spotting excursions, there was barely time to snatch a few moments here and there to lie on a hammock and read.

One of the hikes was exhausting, the air still and stultifying, thick with humidity so that in minutes we were soaked with perspiration, our sunscreen and insect repellent-coated skins taking on an additional sheen of sweat :) The sun beat down on us so that we would be relieved whenever we were able to move into a patch of shade. We didn't see as much wildlife as we expected to, although always there was the slightly menacing sense of something breathing and observing us from behind all the thick foliage. Maybe it was just my overactive imagination!

The Amazon jungle is massive, majestic and utterly fascinating. Full of things (flora and fauna) that can bite, sting, cut and kill, it is also full of things that can heal and restore, as our guide demonstrated to us time and again. 

I was so glad that we saw two very different sides of Peru on this vacation, from the sublime and lofty Andes to the splendid Amazon. There remains much more to explore in this beautiful country, and hopefully we go back some day. 

Peru and our first foray into South America- Part 1

If Costa Rica and Peru are even a little bit representative of Latin America, I see a long love affair looming! So colourful, geographically diverse, beautiful and friendly! We choose Peru for our first South American foray for the simple reason that it doesn't require a visa for Indian citizens so long as you have a US or Schengen visa. Also, we wanted to see what the big fuss around Machu Picchu, was all about.

Now Peru, like most big countries, is a 10-15 day trip. I know people fly in to see Cusco and Machu Picchu (MP) and fly out, but that's a bit like seeing Delhi and Agra and pretending that's all there is to India. A nice taster and appetizer, but not the whole meal! The kids had the week off for spring break, and with the weekend on either side, we would have 9 days. Given the time taken to travel (with flights and layovers, we were losing a day on each side), I decided to pull them out from school for 2 days so that we would have 9 days in-country.

As it turned out, both kids went down with the flu one after another just the week before our departure and ended up missing the entire week of school. It was exhausting running up and down the stairs and to the doctor and pharmacy, dealing with fever, cold, pain and vomit for 2 kids, maniacally disinfecting all common surfaces and areas and praying that S and I don't catch the flu. Fortunately, since the kids had had their flu shots in the fall, this infection was not as bad as it could have been, and they were recovered well in time for our trip.

We flew to Lima on Copa Airlines via Panama city. We left at 10 am EST and reached Lima at 7.30 pm CST (Peru just being an hour behind DC time). Annoyingly, after such a long flight, we couldn't find our pickup/driver and after waiting for 30 minutes, decided to take an airport taxi to our hotel in Lima, where we had dinner and called it a night.

The next day, dawned bright and sunny. I had planned a self-guided walk along the cliff overlooking the Pacific ocean, and that occupied a couple of hours after breakfast. It was supposed to be a longish walk, but we had to cut it short because of the heat. I had packed for fall weather, with full sleeved tops and pants, and the warm weather caught me unawares. Poor Y kept asking me - "Why didn't you pack SUMMER clothes? I am so hot!!!"

The ocean views were pretty, and the parks were clean and crowded with fitness enthusiasts (it was nice to see a large group of women boxers).

The cliff path with a view of the Miraflores lighthouse

Relaxing at the "Love Park" 

After a quick lunch at a pizzeria where they served us with amazing veg pizza, we were off to a walking city tour led by Urban Adventures. We were the only people on the tour so it became a private walking tour. Our guide Paola led us through a food market, where we got to see and taste many of Peru's distinctive fruits and vegetables.

Chrimoya, a sweet and fleshy fruit

Granadilla, from the passion fruit family

Walking through the market 

A stop for gelato!

I had the lucuma gelato, which was a bit like tutti frooti and very yummy 
Some of the other Peruvian favourites, were toasted and salted corn (yummy!) and Inka Kola..and of course, the national drink, Pisco sour (alcohol content between 38% and 48% so definitely not my thing).

A crowded bus drive brought us to the Plaza de Armas, the main square in Lima, filled with gorgeous buildings- the Presidential Palace, the Basilica of San Pedro, the Archbishop's Palace etc.

We had a hard time getting back to the hotel. Apparently, Friday night traffic is not a problem only in Bangalore! It took ages to find a cab and we got caught in an epic traffic jam before being dropped at our hotel, settling in for an early night before our flight to Cusco the next morning.

Cusco (or Cuzco, Qusqu being the Quechua spelling) was the capital of the Incan kingdom for about 3 centuries until the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century. A gorgeous city with the ubiquitous Plaza de Armas, it took our breath away, quite literally (as it's the same altitude as Leh, around 3400 m above sea level!). 
Very few of the original Incan or pre-Incan buildings remain as the Spanish invaders razed everything to the ground. The pre-colonial buildings that remain are in ruins, some partly restored, a mute and sad testament to the ingenuity and technology of the Andean kingdoms that were native to the Sacred Valley (or Valle Sagrada). 

The kids and I missed the city tour as Y and I got a touch of altitude sickness and we stayed put at our hotel drinking copious amounts of coca leaves tea and staying hydrated. But we were fine the next day, which was good because the next 72 hours were super hectic as we whizzed through the Sacred Valley, covering Pisaq, Ollayantaytambo, Chinchero, and Machu Picchu, marvelling at the Anden civilization's mastery of astronomy, architecture, engineering, agricultural techniques and of course the sophisticated art and craft forms.  

I didn't quite know what to expect at Machu Picchu. You know the feeling when you've seen a place and read about it innumerable times? One is always anxious whether the real thing will live up to its promise. When we climbed up to the caretaker's hut, I almost let out a gasp. There it was! The "classic" pic of Machu Picchu, seen countless times in magazines and travel blogs. If possible, even more stunning in reality (though S went back the next morning and brought back more outstanding photos of the citadel in the mist and rain). 

But I go too fast. The train ride to Aguas Calientes (the base to pick up buses for Machu Picchu) is itself beautiful. The panoramic windows of the train allow for mostly unrestricted views, over a landscape of gushing water and high mountains, green (in April) with foliage.

The rest, contd in Part 2.

Sunday 12 May 2019

A lesson on being your true authentic self

My heart trembled as Ads bravely walked into his new school last August. There were no histrionics or drama in the run-up to the first day of school. What happened that first day, I still don't know. I worried about bullies, mean kids, sitting alone during lunch time (horror of horrors!). He seemed to have taken it all in his stride. 
My heart broke when he told me - "I sit alone during lunch sometimes. People like to sit with the popular kids and I'm not popular."
(Later I realized that he didn't really care whether he was popular or not. He was issuing a bald statement of fact) 
My heart surged with pride when he made it to the Honor Roll (straight As), one of a tiny handful among the 400+ kids in 8th grade.

In his 13th year, Ads is very much his own person. Unbothered by his peers, somewhat aloof, impervious to what's in and what's not, he rarely bends to accommodate the trends of the day. 
Everyone is on Fortnite, Instagram and Snapchat? Let them, he reads the Scientific American to relax!
Everyone talks about football and baseball? Let them, talk to him if you can talk intelligently about cricket. Or neuroscience. Or particle physics :) 
IPL the current craze? Hmm...ok, maybe for some....but test cricket is the real thing!

My boy makes his own rules. An introvert in a world of forced extroverts, an avid reader in the social media age, a dinosaur in a world of screens and devices, a cricket purist in the age of IPL.

I wish you would develop better social skills, laugh more, and loosen up more. 
I wish you would bend your own rules every once in a while.
I wish you wouldn't hold me and everyone else accountable to your own sky-high standards!

But never ever lose this gift you have, of knowing who you truly are, and giving a damn about the rest! 

Wednesday 8 May 2019

Of food, and mother's love

My earliest gustatory memory is potatoes. Boiled, peeled and sprinkled with salt, my carb/vegetable fix as a toddler. Non-spicy and oh-so-divine. Later, the weekly Sunday lunch of fragrant basmati rice, aromatic chole and fried papads, eaten while watching one of the Sunday serials on Doordarshan (Mahabharat?). Numerous memories of cold curd rice with naarthagai (most of them associated with recovery from bouts of viral or suffering through morning sickness, when it was the only meal I could retain). My mom’s koottu is, in my humble opinion, world-class, and I am yet to replicate the exact same taste in my kitchen.

My kids (who call my mom, Naani) had the good fortune of being at the receiving end of her cooking almost every day, for 5 years. Even now, my teenage son will view a simple sandwich prepared by me with great suspicion. "Is it naani sandwich?”, he will ask, to my fuming self. Naani sandwich, naani paal (milk), naani dal are the gold, nay, diamond standards, as far as my kids are concerned.

I used to ask my mom, in great frustration, how it was possible that the humdrum Bournvita milk tasted better than the one prepared in my home. Apparently, my kids could detect a quality difference! What was the secret ingredient? Her answer was shattering in its irritating brevity. “Love”, she said. A retort designed to elicit a manic eye-roll from me, and much glee from my husband. Months later, as the latter churned out a perfect roti in the kitchen and I asked him how he managed it, he smiled and said: “It’s made with love”.

In my 40s, I have come to accept, if grudgingly, that it may indeed be love. Love - which is nothing but a judicious blend of infinite care and patience, tossed with generosity, seasoned with comforting familiarity. My strategy of rushing into the kitchen with the sole objective of rushing out in the shortest possible time, is usually adequate, rarely excellent.

When I was growing up, my friends from school/college used to troop in at all hours. My mother would press a meal on them, every time. It wouldn’t be fancy, just whatever we were eating at the time. If tiffin time - rava upma, bondas, idlis, dosai, or vermicelli - washed down with hot coffee or tea. If lunch or dinner - rice with rasam/sambar and a curry. But no one went away without a full stomach. She would even remember to call my friends if she was making something she knew they liked. After many years have passed, old friends will ask about mom first thing, fondly reminiscing about a meal they ate at my home.

I often wondered where she hid the Akshaya Patra which I was sure was around somewhere in her very Spartan kitchen, so effortless the whole undertaking seemed. She has always maintained she is “very slow” in cooking and expressed wonder at how "fast" others are. Yet for decades, she has fed her children’s friends, her relatives and random others who trooped through our house. Unfailingly generous, uncomplaining, she seems to consider it her duty to keep her family and friends well-fed and watered.

This obsession with food and eating well seems to have ended with that generation of mothers. I used to be alternately amused and annoyed with my grandmothers’ unrelenting focus on food. “Saaptiya?” was the usual greeting when one arrived home, whatever the time of day! Our mothers thought nothing of heading straight to the kitchen after a long day of work or returning home after a trip, or in the middle of the night when someone landed up from the airport and demanded food. In any of these situations, my generation (I am sure there are honourable exceptions) will either order out or fall back on Maggi!

The food was (and is) a proxy for - yes, you got it - love! Not one to hug or kiss and be otherwise demonstrative, this is the only way mothers would show their love and affection for their children and families. With my mom, in particular, it is just symptomatic of her endless generosity, empathy, selflessness and grace. Just as I remember my own grandma’s exquisite cooking, I am glad that my children will remember their Naani’s food with nostalgia and affection. Not just the complicated festival fare or the sweets, but also the humble dal and milk and sandwich!

To be sure, one of the biggest highs from a few months ago was when my son noted that my dal tasted just like my mother’s dal! Sadly, he hasn’t made the same observation again but it gives me hope :)