Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Venezuelan Roadside Food or How to Make a Pancake with a Machete

Using a machete to flip cachapas at a roadside stand in Maturin, Venezuela (photo by Luis Bastardo)

I am a huge fan of street food. Some of the best meals I've ever eaten have been consumed standing on a steamy, noisy street somewhere in India, Thailand, Cambodia or Bali, dodging motorbikes and cows, with messy, delicious juices dripping from my food onto my clothes. Now that's living. There's something authentic and satisfying about eating freshly made regional specialties in the open air, while everyday frenetic life goes on around you. In Venezuela's capital city, Caracas, there is the usual array of city-style food kiosks, offering canned soda, candy and snacks, but you can also find "batidos", a type of colorful, delicious smoothie made with water and a mixture of fresh tropical fruit (banana, mango, papaya, nispero, sugar cane, etc) blended to order. Made with whole milk and/or condensed milk, they are known as "merengadas". The flavors are creative to say the least and include mixtures of several tropical fruits and vegetables meant to add a super vitamin boost to your diet or rather unusual recipes to increase male stamina or with general aphrodisiac qualities, including ingredients such as quail eggs or bull's eyeballs (seriously). My thought was that if you were daring enough to drink bull's eyeballs, you probably had no problem with your male virility in the first place. As exciting (pardon the pun) as all that sounds, the real food adventure begins outside of Caracas.

A highway-side grill serving wood-roasted meats in Merida, Venezuela (photo by Luis Bastardo)

One of my favorite foods in Venezuela is the cachapa, an oversize yellow cornmeal pancake filled with queso blanco (a semi-soft fresh white cheese) or queso guayanesa (a mozzarella-type cheese). It is a thick, sweet, coarse pancake with a similar taste to the American south's cornbread, but with a softer texture. The mild, soft cheeses add a good textural and taste balance. Most Venezuelans order the family size cachapa and slice it into sections for sharing. Another delicious option made from white cornmeal is the ubiquitous arepa, a smaller, denser type of bread, similar to an english muffin, but much heavier. They can be fried or baked in an arepa pan and are served for every meal and filled with almost anything: scrambled eggs, cheese, Underwood Deviled Ham (a hugely popular food item in Venezuela and know locally as "diablitos" or "little devils"), beef, chicken, ham, etc. Closely related to the arepa is the empanada, a type of turnover filled with meat, chicken, fish such as cazón (school shark), guiso (a type of meat or chicken stew), white cheese or vegetables. While Argentine empanadas are usually make from wheat flour and baked with crimped edges in a form similar to the English cornish pasty, Venezuelan empanadas are normally made from cornmeal, fried, and have a smoother, more uniform shape.

   Venezuelan-style fried empanadas (photo by Simone Cannon)

Throughout the country, grilled meats and fish are widely available and the tempting smells wafting from the smoky grills are hard to pass up. Chorizos (sausages), costillas (ribs), carne asada (marinated beef), pollo (chicken) and cerdo (pork) are on offer. The meats can be ordered alone and served with an avocado-based condiment called "guasacaca" or as part of a platter called "pabellón criollo", which is usually marinated shredded beef, "caraotas" (black beans), rice and sauteed plantains or fried yucca (manioc). Nearer to the Caribbean coast and on Isla Margarita,  there are many fishing docks where you can buy fresh fish directly from the local fisherman who often set up a fish market just a few yards from their boats. A vendor will let you select the fish, tell him how you want it prepared and he will fillet it and cook it for you on the spot. It doesn't get much fresher than that.  

Preparing "levantón andinos", smoothies meant to increase mail virility, which include fish roe, quail eggs and bull's eyeballs, Merida, Venezuela  (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Brasilia, Brazil: Capital City Planned for Urban Designers, Not People

Coconut water vendors in front of the cathedral,  Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Let me say, right off the bat, that I didn't like Brasilia. Staying in the cheerless capital city of Brazil was an especially jarring experience after spending a week in the lush Panatanal, the beautiful, vast, more or less untouched wildlife reserve and wetlands of the state of Masso Grosso. Brasilia is a planned city of 3.5 million people and, in common with the Pantanal, is a UNESCO World Heritage site; it is also the home to the Brazilian government, numerous foreign embassies, as well as many of the headquarters of large Brazilian companies, such as Eletrobrás and Banco de Brasil. It was planned in 1956 and designed by Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, who seem to have been so enamored of their own designs that they didn't realize that living, breathing people would be populating their city. Brasilia was designed in the shape of a bird with its wings spread (which may be symbolic of the only life form able to traverse the city with any degree of efficiency). The city is vast and flat, with grey, unadorned buildings and monuments surrounded by huge, unshaded, empty concrete lots, almost devoid of any pedestrian accommodations or places to rest such as paths, benches or groups of shade trees. To walk across these spaces with the sun beating down is exhausting and many tourists were crowded under any shade they could find.

 The memorial to Juscelino Kubitschek, Brazilian ex-president (photo by Luis Bastardo)

 To be fair, the city does include many interesting, albeit often Stalinist-style, grey, poured concrete structures, such as the National Congress Building, the Cultural Complex of the Republic and the Supreme Federal Tribunal. Purely from a design standpoint, the city is architecturally important and  innovative and we did our best to appreciate Costa's and Niemeyer's vision, but to no avail. Although we tried to visit all of the buildings, only a handful of them were generally open to visitors and were closed the few days that we were there, often for unspecific restoration work or other nebulous reasons. Even the most well-known structure, the national cathedral, Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida, was closed for unclear reasons. The cathedral's priests kept telling visitors to return at 2pm, then when it was still closed at 2pm, to return at 6pm, but when we returned again, it was still closed and, after three days of trying to get inside, we finally gave up. Local residents told us that Brasilia was designed for governmental administrative purposes and was never meant to be a tourist-friendly city and, indeed, we found that many building administrators could not even fathom why we wanted to visit their buildings.

  The National Congress Building and one of the vast plazas that link buildings and monuments throughout the city (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The city's streets were designed to alleviate the traffic congestion that plagues other Brazilian cities and in that, the plan has succeeded. The traffic moves quickly and generally efficiently, at least in relation to other South American (and for that matter, North American) cities, but the consequence is that pedestrians have few viable walkways or places to safely cross roads and highways. It is a city built for cars. Attempting to cross a street requires ice water in your veins and a mad dash from one side of the street to the other when there is finally a three-second break in traffic. Children and the elderly had an especially difficult time of it and were often left standing on the shoulders of the roads (there are few sidewalks) for at least 20 minutes waiting for an opening. We also had some difficulty finding places to eat and only chanced upon two restaurants, both overpriced chains: TGI Friday's and Fogo de Chão. Out of desperation, we ended up eating at an office cafeteria, settling for white bread sandwiches and bottled soft drinks...not exactly the authentic Brazilian food experience we had in mind. So, no, I didn't care much for Brasilia. It didn't take long to decide to move on to the colorful, spicy, bright and African-influenced northeast coast of Salvador de Bahia!

  The Cultural Complex of the Republic situated in the middle of yet more open space (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Real Cuban Food and Havana Restaurants

Tempting Fried Empanadas (photo courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empanada)

In the last few months, the Obama administration has been working toward reducing the Cuban economic embargoes and relaxing the travel restrictions to Cuba for US citizens. Even though it will be a while before Americans can visit Cuba more freely, this seemed like a good time to get a head start on becoming familiar with and appreciating Cuban food and restaurants. Cuban food is an especially interesting cuisine, as it has both Caribbean and Latin American influences. Cooks and restaurants in Cuba are, unfortunately, severely limited by a scanty and unpredictable food supply. Although, out of necessity, this situation has created many creative and talented cooks, dining choices for tourists are generally limited to government-run restaurants, which can be uneven in quality, and home-based family restaurants known as "paladares". Government restaurants are ubiquitous, but paladares are seldom advertised and are generally found by asking locals and following vague directions until you arrive at what looks like it couldn't possibly be a place to eat. This is usually a private residence at the end of a dimly lit alley, which you enter through a crumbling doorway, until you find yourself in a tiny room with a few mismatched tables and chairs (paladares are not allowed to have more than 12 seats). These places seldom look very promising, but often serve some of the best, most original and freshest food in Havana.

A Plate of Boliche (photo courtesy of  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Boliche.jpg)

Although Cuba is famous for its 50's era cars, it is sadly also known for its 50's era restaurant offerings such as Boeuf Bourguignon, Sole Veronique and Chicken Kiev. Not that there's anything wrong with these classics per se, but in the hands of unmotivated and generally unenthusiastic government-employed cooks, they usually appear at the table overcooked and over sauced. They also offer tourist standbys such as pizza, cuban sandwiches of ham, cheese and pickles, and lots of cheap Cuban rum (presumably to make you forget about the food). At the paladares, you're more likely to find the Cuban classics well known to North Americans: Carne or Pollo Asada (meat or chicken marinated in sour orange juice and cooked slowly over a wood fire), Ropa Vieja, meaning "old clothes" in Spanish (marinated and shredded beef or occasionally, pork), empanadas (meat, fish, chicken or cheese stuffed turnovers) or Pescado Grillé or Frito (grilled or fried fish). Learning to make a sofrito, a mixture of onions, cilantro, peppers, garlic, oregano and parsley is essential to Cuban cooking, as it is the base for many of the aforementioned dishes. Traditional side dishes include moros y cristianos, meaning Moors and Christians in Spanish (black beans and rice), fried yucca (manioc) and plantains.

In addition to these standbys though, you are likely to find very interesting and imaginative dishes, as the cooks at these home kitchens have few government-imposed creative restrictions other than food availability.  It is possible to eat wonderful, fresh, delicious and inexpensive meals at paladares, including rich and creamy soups made from local mangoes and calabazas (pumpkins), Boliche, a kind of garlicky pot roast and sausage dish, and a plate of picados (a tasting platter of various appetizers), tasajo (dried beef), fried malanga and Yucca (edible tubers) and tiny fried whole fish with a delicious spicy dipping sauce.  Cuban desserts and breads are also delicious, made fresh daily, and use two things that are plentiful in Cuba: rum and sugar. My favorite dessert, Torta de Tres Leches (cake with three milks), is a fantastically rich and moist dessert, soaked in evaporated, condensed and whole milk, then doused with dark rum. Another popular dessert choice is creamy flan (caramel custard), made with coconut, rum and served surrounded by fresh tropical fruit. These family run restaurants are especially impressive given the limited food supplies, unpredictable electricity and water services and the challenges of preparing meals for many customers in small dark kitchens, but Cubans have learned over the years to overcome such challenges, and the result is a meal that reflects their insuppressible spirit and sense of inventiveness.

Juicy mangoes for sale (photo by Luis Bastardo)  

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Pantanal, Brazil, Piranhas, Caiman and

Piranha waiting to be filleted in the Pantanal...hopefully, teeth removal is first (photo by Luis Bastardo)

On our last day in The Pantanal, we opted for the horseback riding and piranha fishing excursions, in that order. Unfortunately, we  couldn't combine the activities, which in my opinion, would have made for a much more interesting excursion. Instead, we saddled up at the horse ranch in the morning since it was supposedly easier to catch piranhas in the late afternoon or early evening. I haven't been on a horse since I was in my 20s, back in the first century, so that fact, combined with my height-challenged status, made it a little awkward trying to even get my foot in the stirrup, much less mount the horse. With the help of the wildly amused guides, I managed it eventually though and off we traipsed in a line of horses on yet another wildlife safari, this time through the wetlands.     

        My horse deciding in the middle of the swamp that he'd walked enough for one day (photo by Luis Bastardo)

We slowly rode through open fields filled with swooping wood storks and herons, shallow wetlands with caiman watching us cautiously from under the roots of mangroves, and groves of tall, bare trees with squawking scarlet macaws high in the branches. The horses, of course, had walked this trail hundreds of times and were used to inexperienced riders, but they also seemed to have a sense of humor, stopping in the middle of swamps for no apparent reason or suddenly breaking into a gallop just to scare the hell out of their newbie riders. Interestingly, the entire ride, I was closely followed by a very young Brazilian girl (she still had braces on her teeth) on horseback. She was very sweet and chatty and I supposed that she wanted to practice her English and have some female company for a change. She was sharing a room with a much older pale, balding, overweight German man on a business trip. Being as naive as I am, I thought they were just an  oddly matched couple traveling together, but the guides laughed when I asked if they were married and replied "well, for the next three days they are!" Apparently, another optional activity at the lodge was renting a young woman for a few days so you had something to do between piranha fishing excursions. I read later that Brazil has now surpassed Thailand as the up and coming (sorry...) sexual tourism destination. The business has moved to Brazil, in part, because of new, stricter laws governing the Thai sex trade. I guess sexotourism will always thrive somewhere in the world...  

          Luis trying to catch a piranha before the alligators below his feet beat him to it (photo by Simone Cannon)

After lunch, we left the lodge to find a good place to go piranha fishing. In the late afternoon, we finally found a spot on the river that the guide said was teeming with piranhas. Unfortunately, it was also teeming with caiman, who had the same idea that we had, as well as snagging any leftover bait that the guides threw their way. The guide joked that if we didn't catch anything, we wouldn't eat that night, and after an hour I could tell it was going to be granola bars for dinner. A few people, including Luis, caught some fish, but I didn't even get a nibble. Finally, between us, we at least had enough for a hearty appetizer, which the cook fried up for us when we returned to the lodge. We ended the evening by taking one last sunset trip to watch the birds returning in noisy droves to nest in the trees before dark. As the sun set in beautiful shades of pink and violet, they flew over our heads in large swarming flocks, thousands of them filling the evening sky with the sound of their different calls and songs. What better way to leave the Pantanal?     

      Luis just a little too excited about the fruits of his labor (photo by Simone Cannon)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Argentine Parilla (Barbeque) and How to Order

A parilla restaurant in Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Beef, beef, beef. If you're a vegetarian, this is probably a good time to stop reading to avoid auto-implosion. Argentinians love their beef, almost as much as they love their yerba maté (a type of herb tea) and their Malbec. Parilla (pronounced par-EE-zja in Argentina) is popular in many South American countries such as Peru, Ecuador and Brazil, but in Argentina, it is almost an obsession. Parilla restaurants are everywhere, not only on every corner of the city of Buenos Aires, but in the rest of the country. Beef is a serious subject and Argentinians are justifiably proud of their beef industry. Every year, for 124 years, in Buenos Aires, La Exposición de Ganadería, Agricultura e Industria Internacional (The Exposition of Farming, Agriculture and International Industry) is held in La Rural, a convention center near Plaza Italia. This year's exhibition just wrapped up and was a two week celebration of South American farming life, including horse riding competitions, rodeos, farm equipment demonstrations, traditional dancing, food and wine sampling and, of course, livestock competitions, including a prize for the largest cow and bull. Argentinian cowboys, known as gauchos, are the original beefeaters, often eating little else (which is no doubt why maté is so important: it provides the necessary plant life and liquid to keep their digestion moving).

Gauchos preparing a traditional asado (courtesy of http://www.therealargentina.com/)

The parilla is actually the wood-fired grill on which the meat is cooked and asado is the cooking method, but most restaurants serving this fare are referred to as Parillas, Parrilladas or, occasionally, Asadores. The parilla is a mixed grill, which may include lomo (tenderloin or filet mignon), bife de chorizo (similar to a NY strip steak), falda (skirt steak), asado de tira (short ribs) and other parts of the cow that are not widely served in North American restaurants, such as the liver, kidney, mollejas (sweetbreads) and chinchulines (intestines or chitterlings). Also accompanying the meats are sausages such as spiced pork or morcilla (blood sausage) and potatoes or vegetables with the ubiquitous condiment, green or red chimichurri, a type of lightly spicy salsa. No one will ask you how you like your meat cooked; much to many non-Argentinians chagrin, it is always well-done. It is a shared meal, often cooked at home for parties or long weekend celebrations (of which there are many in Argentina). Living in an apartment building is no barrier to grilling asado, as many buildings have a central chimney and each apartment unit includes an individual BBQ pit. 

In Argentina, even in a fast food court, you can get parilla: Galerias Pacifico, Buenos Aires (photo by Simone Cannon)

The home parilla is taken very seriously and represents a whole segment of culture or perhaps the art and science of choosing the best cuts of meat, the preparation of the meat and the side dishes, the building of the wood fire, the selection of the wine and, of course, the grilling of the meal itself. Most home asados are grilled using wood, a method called "con leña". This is used in restaurants also, but more commonly, the more efficient and less expensive "al carbón" or charcoal is used. The most important aspect of grilling meats the Argentinian way is "fuego lento", using a slow fire to retain the flavor and tenderness of the meat, a point of pride with many "asadores", the main grill chef. The order in which the meat is cooked is also important: sausages first, then the larger cuts of meat, then thinner items like matambre (rolled meat and vegetables with an egg in the center). The meat is served to guests as it is ready, one item at a time, rather than waiting for all the meat to finish cooking; that way, everyone can enjoy an interactive, hot, delicious meal. The parilla is not just about food, but about friendship, fun and family; in other words, the heart of Argentine society.  

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Pantanal, Brazil: Monkeys, Tarantulas and Giant Otters

A capuchin monkey checking us out from the trees, Pantanal, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)

That night after dinner, about twelve of us piled into the open pickup truck that the guides had outfitted with long benches and roll bars and headed out for our Pantanal "night safari". Our guide sat on top of the cab with a large search light scanning the ground in front of us and the branches of the trees for interesting wildlife as we drove along. All of a sudden, he yelled down through the cab window for the driver to stop, who immediately obeyed, slamming on his brakes and sending us all tumbling forward. "Shhhhhhhh!!!!" the guide hissed at us. "Over there, over there!" We all looked in the direction of the search light, but couldn't see a thing except shadows and outlines of trees in the darkness. We looked at him questioningly. "Look for a set of small green reflective eyes!" We all peered into the night until someone yelled "I see them!" Down at the base of the tree where he was pointing, sure enough, there were a tiny pair of emerald green eyes shining up at us.

Our "night safari" tarantula spotting (photo by Luis Bastardo)

 The guide quickly swung the search light around and we clearly saw the owner of the eyes: a large male tarantula, running our way. Our guide told us that they like to drop from the trees onto people below, then yelled something else at the driver and we took off in a cloud of dust, much to every one's relief. I think he was kidding, but just to be on the safe side, I quickly borrowed Luis' baseball cap. Along the way, he told us to also look for glowing red eyes (caiman, a type of alligator) and white eyes (marsh deer or capybaras, the world's largest rodent) and we were able to spot several of each animal. The air smelled intensely of jasmine and our driver jumped out of the cab to cut some fragrant night-blooming waterlilies for us, which made up somewhat for scaring the bejesus out of us with the attacking tarantula.


   One of our constant swimming companions on our river tubing expedition (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The next morning, we walked down to the river for our riverboat and rubber inner tube rafting expedition. The guide pointed out different birds and animals: comorants catching small fish, caiman, toucansRinged Kingfishers, anhingas and what he described as Giant Otters. He told us that these otters are nothing like the cute little otters that we were used to up north, that swam on their backs and cracked open oyster shells so tourists could snap adorable photos of them. "Oh no, these otters are ferocious, large otters who can grow to six feet long, with long sharp teeth who attack swimmers for no discernible reason", he said smilingly, "Okay, who's ready for the rubber tube rafting?" When nobody responded, he looked back into the boat to find ten wide-eyed, pale passengers moving away from the edge of the boat. Luis, as always, who has a fear of absolutely nothing, volunteered to go first (also the guide was speaking English, so Luis might not have gotten the full gist of "long, sharp fangs attached to psychotic man-eating water mammal"). 

Our clearly evil guide sending us off knowingly to an imminent giant otter attack

Since I hadn't planned on being a widow so soon, I resignedly volunteered to go next; perhaps I could fight off the attacking otters by whacking them over the head with my inner tube. Others decided to bravely join us and we floated and paddled in front of the boat in a tight group, keeping an eye on the caimans sunning themselves on the banks and the toothy piranhas coming up to the surface to investigate. Our guide had told us not to move our hands or feet much so as not to atract the attention of the river carnivores. Just when we were beginning to relax, our guide and those who opted to (sensibly) stay on the boat starting screaming and waving their hands at the group in the water. I couldn't hear what they were yelling, but it sounded like "Ought to, Ought to..." "I ought to what?" No, wait, it was "Otter! Otter!". A couple of giant otters watching us from the shore had decided to take action and had begun swimming rapidly toward us. When they dove under the boat and re-emerged on the other side, baring their teeth, everyone in the boat panicked and starting hauling us aboard, tubes and all. I always thought it would be romantic to die in a kayak going over Angel Falls or in the fangs of a Great White Shark, but had never imagined that my obituary would read "Remains of Clueless Floating Tourist Found in the Stomach of a Giant Otter". How humiliating.  

A toucan watching our progress (photo by Luis Bastardo)


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Foods of Brazil: Acarajé, Sauteed Shrimp and Vatapá

A beach picnic of acarajé in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)

As Luis and I walked along the white sand beach of Salvador de Bahia, the center of African culture situated on the northeastern coast of Brazil, looking for a good spot to put down our pareos, my stomach started to grumble. Although, there were several beach side restaurants with formal menus, I wanted something more casual and less expensive, that we could eat as a picnic lunch while soaking up the sun and watching the crashing waves. Luis spotted a kiosk with a large umbrella near the road and went to investigate while I unpacked our things from the beach bag and staked out our territory on the sand. He returned with two plates filled with what looked like an extremely large hushpuppy topped with unpeeled, un-decapitated and still-tailed shrimp, next to a scoop of thick orange paste and a few spoonfuls of a viscous, brown, lumpy glue-like substance. Yum. 

"What the hell is that?" I asked, with my usual level of subtlety and discretion. "Acarajé" he replied, as if the only reason that I couldn't identify it was that the sun was in my eyes. "Which is?" Luis looked at me as if I had just beamed down to the planet this morning. It was one of the many instances that our South American/North American cultural differences become glaringly apparent. It was the equivalent of Luis asking what a hot pastrami sandwich and cream soda were, had we been lunching at the Carnegie Deli in New York City

     Acarajé beach kiosk (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Turns out that acarajé (pronounced ah-car-a zjay, accent on the zjay), which is actually quite delicious and addictive, is the ubiquitous street food of Brazil, but is especially prevalent in Bahia due to the African roots of the dish. The hush puppy-like fritter is actually made from peeled and mashed black-eyed peas, deep fried, then served either alongside its accompaniments or split and filled with them. The fillings usually include different pastes made from shrimp or cashews, a fresh tomato salsa, strongly flavored sauteed whole shrimp (most often dried, but occasionally fresh) and vegetables such as green tomatoes, peppers and onions. The side dishes include vatapá, a paste made from bread, shrimp, coconut milk, peanuts and dendê oil (a type of palm oil that gives Bahian food its distinctive taste and orange color, similar to the effects of adding annato or saffron) and caruru, a condiment made from okra, onion, shrimp, dendê oil and peanuts or cashews. The food is often served by women known as "Baianas", who dress in traditional voluminous, lace-trimmed white dresses, strings of beads and turbans or headscarves.  

A Salvadoran Baiana far from home in Petropolis, a hill town near Rio de Janeiro (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The name "acarajé" is actually a mistake. The original African name of the food was acará, which is the name still used in Nigeria today. When the women who sell the street food called out to potential customers, they would shout "I have acará" in their native language, which is "acarajé", so everyone just assumed that the food they were selling was called "acarajé". Most of the Baianas today are related to female freed slaves, who, although they had obtained their liberty, were not permitted to work or own property such as a shop or restaurant. They were also denied education which would have allowed them to develop marketable skills, so consequently they turned to what they knew best: cooking their native African dishes. Since they had no property rights, they cooked and sold their specialities from portable carts, which could be moved easily if they were being harassed by white citizens or local authorities. The practice of cooking and selling food at these carts became a tradition and the methods and ingredients that these women employed years ago continue to influence the food of Brazil today.      

Luis with two Baianas in the historical district of Salvador de Bahia (photo by Simone Cannon)

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Pantanal, Brazil 1: Howler Monkeys, Caiman and Peccaries

Traffic jam in The Pantanal (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Finally, it's time to travel to The Pantanal! As much as we loved spending time in beautiful Bonito, we needed to move along fairly quickly as the area of the Pantanal was drying up quickly. It was the time of year when the rains stop, the dry season starts, and many of the birds and animals move to wetter climes. We reserved two seats on a minibus through the Hostelling International hostel in Bonito, along with a young Canadian and four young Dutch travelers, that took us along a combination of bumpy dirt tracks and smooth paved roads for about four hours, stopping periodically for police-escorted cattle drives. When we reached a river crossing, the minibus driver told us that was as far as he went and that we would have to cross the bridge on foot carrying our backpacks. A pickup truck on the other side would take us the rest of the way, so off we trudged in the stifling heat and brutal sun to the other side of the river to wait for our second ride. We arrived in a very small town of about 20 buildings, but luckily, with lots of shady trees and a snack concession run out of someone's kitchen window that sold ice-cold beer. After about a half an hour, the truck appeared and we continued our trek, icy beers in hand.

  Sim trying to work out how to get into the truck without dropping her beer (photo by Luis Bastardo)

We arrived at the Pousada Santa Clara late in the afternoon, where they checked us in, advised us of the schedule for the next four days, then showed us to our cabin. The schedule included nature walks, nighttime nature "safaris", bird-watching, horseback trekking and the much anticipated piranha fishing excursion. We had a couple of hours before the twilight nature walk began, so we dropped our gear and plunged into the very inviting swimming pool. The pousada (meaning inn or hotel) was more like a ranch, open and spacious, and along with the sparkling clean pool, included well-kept grounds with thatched tiki-type huts filled with hammocks for napping, which sounded really inviting, but it was almost time for our hike. The surrounding fields were filled with cattle and goat corrals, horse stables and various tame and semi-tame animals. Pecking around the place, we discovered colorful and vocal parrots and blue and yellow macaws squawking in the tree branches and feeders, peccaries (a type of wild pig very distantly related to the wild boar) tiptoeing delicately through the shaded areas, storks alighting softly on the fence railings,  gentle capybaras (the world's largest rodent) lounging in the grass and the usual array of cats and dogs.

    Sim making new porcine friends (photo by Luis Bastardo)

At dusk, our guide rounded everyone up for the nature walk and off we went into the brush for a look at the local wildlife. Our first glimpse was of a yellow armadillo scurrying through the fallen leaves, followed by a pair of capuchin monkeys high up in the trees, who, according to our guide, are the only two that lived in this area of the Pantanal. No one had ever seen a baby though, so he speculated that they were either both of the same gender or gay. Now there's something you don't see every day...gay capuchin monkeys. Living in the trees with the capuchins we saw more typical monkeys such as howlers and lower down the trunks, large, hairy, scary-looking tarantulas. The Pantanal is also home to more than 700 species of birds including the crested caracara, which looks and moves a bit like an accountant (sorry, Luis) with a bad toupee. Dusk is an excellent time to spot birds and we also were lucky enough to see kiskadees, bare-faced curassows, rheas, anhingas, ibis, and the magnificent jabiru storks. We wanted to stay and look for more birds, but the sun was starting to go down and we just had time to eat a quick dinner before setting out on our nocturnal wildlife-spotting safari.

 The Crested Caracara with his bad rug (courtesy of http://www.thedailygreen.com/)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

How to Order in Spanglish and Menus Lost in Translation

The main square of the romantic city of Cuzco, Peru (photo by Luis Bastardo)

When Luis and I visited Peru for the first time, we fell in love with Cuzco, the ancient, touristy, yet intensely romantic town just outside of Machu Picchu. In order to avoid the crowded main square and tourist-oriented restaurants with their English-language menus, we climbed up the town's crumbling stone stairways and wandered through the dimly lit and loosely cobbled streets in search of more authentic fare. We finally stumbled (literally) upon a traditional looking family restaurant and decided to try it out. Once inside, we realized why the place was tourist-free, at least of the English-speaking variety: the menu was almost indecipherable. The owners tried, bless their hearts, but the menus must have been translated by a very sight-impaired or very drunk person or both, with a small print dictionary in a dimly-lit room.

Dinner offerings in Cuzco, Peru if you don't have a translator (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Underneath each item's Spanish description was a semi-understandable English translation. At the time, I was just starting to learn Spanish and Luis was just learning English, so he was unable to translate for me, but, as I understood it, what was basically on offer was the following: Stringed Worms on a Mattress of Curd; Fried Daddies (I later learned that this was meant to be Fried Potatoes or French Fries. Apparently, some confusion arose in the dimly-lit room, since the word for potato is "papa" and the word for daddy is "papá", hence, Fried Daddies); Arm of Broasted Chick; Long Fish of a River Kind; Smashed Roots of Tapioca with Hamster. The hamster turned out to be guinea pig, Peru's national dish known as cuy (pronounced koo-ee), and the restaurant had a pen full of them in the back so that you could pick out the one you wanted, kind of like a lobster. As tempting as that all sounded, I decided to take the safe route and order whatever Luis was going to eat.

Dubious offerings at the alligator sandwich restaurant (photo by Simone Cannon)

Anyone who has traveled internationally can feel my pain. At least with Spanish, there is an outside chance that you can learn a few words and figure out some basic options. Not so with Chinese, Japanese or Thai, at least not for me. While traveling through Asia, I quickly gave up trying to decipher menus and just started pointing at symbols on the menu, hoping for the best. I would often end up staring at a plate full of tiny birds no larger than a sparrow that the waitress would insist was chicken. Boy, they must have some really undersized chicken in China. Once I accidentally ordered a slithery looking plate of jellyfish in Beijing, but actually, it turned out to be really delicious. Who knew? In Brazil recently, while trying to order a late-night snack in a sandwich place, we came across these menu descriptions: Alligator Cheese, Cheeseburger Alligator, Cheese Alligator Fashion (which described itself as consisting of Bread of Burger, Grilled Alligator Bait (don't ask), lettuce, tomatoes and special sauce) and Hot Joint, Hot Joint Light and Special Hot Joint Light. Those last ones sounded promising, but, sadly, only turned out to be french bread, ham and cheese (which is generally what you crave after a hot joint). In El Calafate, in the Patagonian region of Argentina, there was an ice-cream parlor named Helados Tit, which Luis was very excited about, especially when he found out that all the flavors had "tit" in the name: vanilla tit, chocolate tit, rum raisin tit and were naturally doled out in, shall we say, curvaceous scoops.

Luis' favorite ice-cream parlor (photo by Simone Cannon)

To be fair, English speakers are hardly blameless. In Florida, there used to be a Mexican restaurant chain named Chi-Chi's that had, as one of it's "authentic" Mexican food items, "Burro Frito con Queso". Translation: "Fried Donkey with Cheese". Not many takers, I'd bet. Maybe that's why they're out of business.