Lovin’ Some Llama (and Alpaca) Time

Being raised in rural Idaho, my family always had a small menagerie of animals around. At various points in my childhood, our backyard/field was home to chickens (and an evil rooster), a variety of pheasant breeds, rabbits, dogs, cats, cows, and llamas. Yes, llamas. I must have been in upper elementary school when my parents bought the first three and the herd expanded from there. Throughout the years, we took them to nursing homes and schools, walked them in holiday parades, and spent the most time with them as 4-H entrants.

Unfortunately, my prime 4-H llama showing (and judging!) skills don’t hold a lot of weight in Washington D.C.

One would think that with so much llama-time under my belt, seeing a few in Peru would not have been a big deal, and yet, you’d be wrong. As any semi-regular reader of this blog’s travel writing knows, I am a sucker for an animal. I’ll suggest a rather out of the way side trip (as in a plane ride away) to *hold* a koala rather than just pose near one; I’ll put extra efforts into organizing an official consulate trip to the panda reserve to get as close as possible to those dumb, yet adorable, creatures; I’ll risk life and limb to reach out and touch whatever fuzzy critter might be native to my current location. I recently heard a rumor that sloth-sightings are possible at our next post. I now want to put “possibly of sloth encounter” as my number one request on our housing survey. Family negotiations are not complete on this point yet.  If it is an option, I’ll do it. (I once tried to bribe our guide in Terengganu, Malaysia to find me a tapir. I was totally willing to pay up too, but unfortunately, there was no tapir to be found that day.)

Anyway, cuddly digression aside, I was thrilled with all the llamas and alpacas in Peru! (This is not the place for lesson in the differences between llamas and alpacas- let alone guanacos and vicunas- but let me just remind you all they are different and pretty easily recognized with a bit of Googling.)

Lima itself, being at sea level and on the coast, didn’t have any llamas, but they did have endless stores of llama-themed items, everything from hats and scarves to pens and dolls. You want something with a llama on it? This is your place!

Cusco- now that is where the animal action is at! As the jumping off city to Machu Picchu, people usually spend a day or two in this fantastic town acclimating to the elevation. (At 11,500 feet above sea level, the altitude is no joke.) Lots of tourists taking it easy means lots of tourist traps, many of these being in the form of older women dressed in traditional clothing with brightly colored pouches slung over their shoulder, each containing an adorable lamb, and trailing behind them was often an alpaca on a lead. For whatever price you deemed appropriate (for me this ended up being all the random change in my pocket at the moment), you can get a photo with this woman and her small petting zoo.

Yes, I know it is a racket.

No, I don’t care.

If you are giving me the chance to snuggle up to a ridiculously fluffy alpaca for a handful of coins, there is no way I am going to walk away.

Which I did not.

Multiple times.

I could chalk it up to fuzzy thinking from the altitude, which was a bit of a strange sensation, but most of you would see right through that excuse. Lack of good oxygen was not at the root of my experience. I just never pass up the chance to pet/nuzzle/play with an adorable critter.

In all fairness, I do think I need to make one disclaimer before wrapping up this post about my inability to walk away from this delightful tourist-trap found on every corner of the city. The alpaca-on-a-lead was not my only run in with the species.

I may have had alpaca stroganoff for lunch.

I did it.

I couldn’t not.

I grew up with a field of llamas behind my house and I spent the day petting as many alpacas as I could before my change ran out.  Curiosity got the better of me. (For the record, alpaca meat isn’t bad. It was a bit tougher than beef, but in a stroganoff, I’m not sure you’d recognize it as not-beef if you weren’t told otherwise.)

Out of politeness, after my meal of alpaca meat, I did steer away from the street-corner critters for the rest of the evening. I was terrified they’d be able to smell their cousin on my breath!

It felt a bit like coming full circle, after having a field of llamas behind our house growing up to visiting them in their native Andean habitat. They’ve been to my place. I’ve been to their place. We’re just a lovely circle of life now.

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On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta by Jen Lin-Liu

On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta by Jen Lin-Liu

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Noodles, stews, pilafs and pizzas, oh my! Jen Lin-Liu’s newest book is not the book for you if you’ve just started a new diet or are hungry in the least- it’s like shopping on an empty stomach. From China to Italy, she covers follows the Silk Road in a quest to find where noodles originated, but along the way also discovers ties that bind women together across geographic boundaries and just how central food is the any given region’s history and culture.

When I first picked up this book, as a non-foodie (I’m about as far from it as one can get, as I would gladly subsist on cold cereal for the rest of my life), I was worried that the focus on meals would not hold my interest for an entire book, but as it turns out, that wasn’t a problem at all! While the food is the core of the book, with each chapter including several well-laid out recipes, the tale weaves a story of travel, a first year of marriage and thoughts about what it means to be a woman in our 21st century world.

I was particularly fascinated with Lin-Liu’s time in Iran, as it is a place we hear so much about in the news, but almost always it is portrayed in a negative light. To hear the stories of women creating lives there and providing for families there was a fascinating look into a world that is normally off-limits to westerners.  This same ideas rings true throughout the book, as the author has the opportunity to weave her way into the lives of the women she visits, giving her a much more intimate look at each culture than a traveler would get if they were just passing through the country on a tour or visiting the highlighted sites of the land. I think it is that intimacy of the stories, both her own and that of her subjects that makes this book most appealing.

On Noodle Road is an eclectic mix of travelogue, food writing and memoir, crossing genre-created boundaries in a way that draws in loyal readers from each category. While I am partial to the travel/memoir sections of the story, Jen Lin-Liu bring something to the proverbial table that nearly everyone would enjoy. (Okay, if she brought dumplings to literal table, we might all be even more thrilled.)Because I appreciated the genre-bending nature of the book and really loved traveling the Silk Road with Lin-Liu, On Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta earns a solid:

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Once Upon a Time, In the Land of Waffles and Books…

Once upon a time, not so much during my Peace Corps service, but much more as I’ve been living in Chengdu with the Foreign Service, I’ve heard mythical-sounding tales of a land called Taiwan. The fairy tales from this far away land include mentions of easy access to western food, an abundance of bookstores and streets where one can walk without needing to be on high-alert for slick phlegm deposits.

I didn’t buy into the story. A princess can’t kiss a frog and end up with a prince, nor can she slide her foot into a glass slipper and live happily ever after. (Although, there are some beautiful heels that I have often thought could grace my closet and at least make my wardrobe happy until the next season.) And, in no world, make-believe or real, can China possibly be spit-free.

Yes Virginia, there is a Taiwan. It took only three days to turn me into a believer.

Taiwan was beautiful and I feel like we barely scratched the surface of the wonders it has to offer with our short long-weekend trip.

On the first full day we were there, our wonderful hosts took us to waffles (mine slathered in peanut butter and bananas) for breakfast and then to a local grocery store where the dairy section had not only several types of cheese to choose from, but also milk that required refrigeration.  That was followed by a bike ride where waiting at crosswalks to cross a road was the norm and everyone stuck with the right-hand side of the street. Our little adventure took us to a frozen yogurt parlor and then on to a fabulous bookstore where I meandered through aisles of various volumes, fanning them in front of my face to smell the gluey, musty paper smell that can only be created by a book. The evening included dinner at an Italian-style pizzeria and then a stroll through the night market where I bought a sundress (we had just learned that morning of our new posting to KL, so my mind was on equatorial-appropriate outfits) and a bag of fun-shaped waffles. (I’m not sure what it is with the Taiwanese and their overwhelming affection for waffles, but who can argue with pig and elephant shaped mini-waffles?)

Day two saw us visiting Taipei 101, a giant building in the center of town that has a 91st floor observation deck and is home to the world’s fastest elevator. (I could really use one of those in my apartment building! It would make the daily trip up and down from the 24th floor so much quicker.) Oh, yes, and another trip to a bookstore that was filled with English-language books. The luggage weight allotted to Mainland la jiao sauce for Lulu was quickly replaced by book weight. It’s a fair trade!

After passing on the opportunity to ride the dazhi (a Ferris wheel on the top of a building), we hit up another night market, where again I indulged in some fun-shaped waffles. (This time I went with a motorcycle and a gun. I must admit, eating a gun waffle is pretty awesome. I wonder if I could qualify for NRA membership…)

To round out our weekend in Taipei, John took us to the city’s public library. That’s right! I’d nearly forgotten what one of those was. The building was six stories of stories, including an entire section of English books. (He even had his own library card and favorite reading nook!)  Not only that, but outside the front door of the main entrance was an amazing invention- a book vending machine! It was filled with books on a spinner. Using their library card and the touch screen, patrons can choose a book and have it dropped into the delivery slot, making for a quick literary getaway!  (Looking back, this paragraph is filled with way too many exclamation points, but I was that excited by the availability of books in Taiwan. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” I understand the sentiment, but to be fair, I am not sure he ever lived for two years in a place without easy access to libraries and bookstores. I would like to think he’d understand, and forgive, my enthusiasm.)

Three days of Taiwan meant three days of beautiful blue skies and sunshine, three days of fabulous food (and probably at least three gained pounds), three days of literature-filled outings (and many more than three books purchased.)

But, most importantly, Taiwan meant a weekend of happily ever after with our great friends John and Lulu, living the Foreign Service fairy tale.

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