Warning: this post involves pineapples and I am well-aware that pineapples are a divisive fruit. Particularly they split the electorate when it comes to pizza. Some folks feel strongly that pineapple should be a pizza-topping staple, while others see it as a defilement of their go-to Friday night dinner. (Personally, I am not a fan of cooked fruit of any kind, so my desire for pineapple-free pizza has more to do with the cooking issue than it does with the specific topping itself. Fruit pies are a no-go in my book as well.)
But, when one visits a state known for its pineapple production (although levels have dropped considerably in the last decade), regardless of personal feelings about its pizza appearances, a tour must be taken. To be fair, I’ll take a tour of nearly anything! Give me the chance for a behind-the-scenes look at a factory, a ship, a warehouse…anything really, I’ll be the first to sign up and pay my money. As a non-drinker, I’ve been on countless tours of breweries and distilleries and then subsequently choked my way through the complimentary booze at the end. I credit (or blame?) Mr. Rogers with my love of factories. While I always enjoyed seeing his cardigan/canvas shoe combo for the day and visiting King Friday on the red trolley, the episodes where he popped in the film and we toured a crayon production line, a violin workshop, or a toilet factory were always my favorites by far. I needed more of those and less sidewalk chats with Mr. McFeely. Something was just off about that postman…
But back to pineapple tours!
Maui Gold Pineapple Company has a pineapple growing operation that is open for public viewing. (I know that “pineapple growing operation” sounds awfully clinical and removed, but I tried out various other nouns and none of them seemed right. My preference is “pineapple ranch” as I love the image in invokes of wild pineapples being lassoed into submission by pineapple cowboys, hopefully sporting boldly colored Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops. But, I figured it was just a bit too ridiculous, regardless of its appeal. Pineapple plantation has a nice alliterative ring to it, but a not-so-nice historical vibe, so I quickly ruled that one out. Pineapple farm might be most accurate, but coming from Idaho, it just feels odd to think of farming pineapples. My mental landscape for farmland is filled with sugar beets and corn and potatoes and wheat.) For a more-than-nominal fee, one can board a bus and head out into the pineapple pastures. If said rider has a good ear, s/he can learn loads of information about the history of pineapples in Hawaii, the growing stages of the plant, and the backbreaking work done by Maui Gold employees to make sure that each pineapple is picked at its height of acidic perfection. For those with less auditory skills, a confusing drone of words and mumbles over the bus loudspeaker will accompany your picturesque view of the fields.
The best part of the tour isn’t the pineapple sing-along or the bus dodging the insecticide spray, or even the endless sidelong remarks about how terrible Dole pineapples are, but rather when the driver pulls over and everyone (a grand total of about twelve) hops out for some straight-from-the-field pineapple samples. Our driver/tour guide had a machete that meant business and soon got down to said business of cracking into fruit after fruit, handing out samples for as long as we would keep taking them. Originally, I was all in and had plans to eat pineapple until the guide called it quits. I may have talked too big of a pineapple game. The first few slices were amazing- so juice and sweet. (Although, I do have to admit a preference for refrigerated fruit over ambient-air temperature. I would never have admitted this to our dedicated pineapple steward of the day.) Then, things started to slow down for me. By slice four or five, there was an uncomfortable tingling in my mouth that I should have respected.
So I kept eating.
I think it was probably around the sixth slice, one bite in, when it all came to a screeching halt for me. My mouth felt like it had been stripped raw. I am fairly certain I lost a good percentage of taste buds that morning, just burned entirely off by acid. Tongue, gums, lips…it was all just pins and needles. With my head hung in shame, I passed the rest of my slice off to Thad, who was still going strong with the pineapple consumption. For me, the gig was up. I tapped out- not only of tour-pineapple, but I avoided it for days to come. My mouth had a bit of pineapple PTSD. Even the thought of a chilled pineapple juice or some sliced pineapple (we each got a free pineapple to take home!) made my mouth burn.
As a conflict-ridden food-item, pineapple has a tough row to hoe. Loved by some. Loathed by others. The internet has dedicated way too much space to the discussion of when/where pineapple is appropriate. Few other fruits undergo such scrutiny in the modern age. (Maybe durian, but really, that should not really be up for debate. It smells like dirty middle school gym socks. It is not meant for human consumption.) Pineapple, I feel your pain (literally!) and I want you to know that after visiting your place of birth, I will always be on your side. While pineapple on pizza isn’t for me, it is easily picked off, so enjoy pineapple-loving friends. Friends, order your Canadian bacon and pineapple pizza. (And remember, the biggest takeaway from the Maui Gold tour was that Dole is the worst…)
“Be a pineapple: Stand tall, wear a crown, and be sweet on the inside.”
There is always a straw that breaks the camel’s back.
You would think it would be the fact that we have been in Caracas for three months now and still do not have a car. (As a matter of fact, our car hasn’t even left Miami yet. That *might* happen this week. Fingers crossed. Long story, but right now the goal is to have our own wheels by Valentine’s Day.) Or you might think it would be the fact that we spend more time sorting out banking issues than we ever have in our lives. (How many bolivars can I get for $1? The answer to that changes twice a day. I feel like I need a degree in economics just to go to the market in Venezuela. And then factor in the DICOM rate vs. the black market rate and the rising prices in the stores and the math becomes overwhelming in very short order.)
But no. It is neither of these things.
For me, the straw came on Friday afternoon in the embassy cafeteria. As I stood in line, holding my tray and looking down the line of options, I struggled to stomach another day of a pounded flat chicken breast and a side of rice. For a moment, I thought I had gotten lucky with a pasta option, but as it turned out, the macaroni with a strange sauce also contained strings of vegetable, but not edible vegetable. These were the parts that one would normally peel off before cooking. (As my faithful readers may know, I’m not a huge veggie-fan to begin with and then veggie that is more ruffage than substance? Not a great option.) My only saving grace on Friday was the Jell-O. A cup of red Jell-O was my lunch. (To be fair, purple was also an option. In retrospect, I probably should have just gone double-Jell-O.)
Now, it is hard to be too dramatic about my daily serving of chicken because I am WELL aware how lucky I am to have a chance to each chicken EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Many Venezuelans would jump at the chance and so I have tried hard not to grumble about it with my local colleagues. I get it and try to be outwardly chill about the whole thing.
At the same time though, I hit the chicken wall on Friday.
All I really want is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. Maybe a side of applesauce or a pudding cup. And I have almost all of these things in my pantry, thanks to a hefty consumables purchase.
So what’s the problem?
It is not easy to find anything resembling sandwich bread here.
I thought I had hit the bread jackpot when I spotted loaves of it at our embassy’s Wednesday market. I quickly bought a loaf and carried it home, ready to for a week of PJ and J. My dreams of an elementary school cold lunch were going to come true.
Inside the loaf was more hole than bread.
There was a good crust and then where the bread itself should have been was probably 1/3 air. Just a giant hole. (Needless to say, I crafted a ridiculous sandwich anyway, not willing to let even a holey loaf go to waste, but once again rethinking my sandwich-making options.)
So, as I pushed my weird pasta around my plate on Friday, I decided it was time to just bite the bullet and start making my own bread. I have a bread-maker that Thad bought me when we were living in Chengdu and I was having a whole different set of bread issues (if I remember correctly, it was again the desire for peanut butter and jelly, but instead of no bread, I could only find what I lovingly called “shit-in-the-middle” bread- bread with bean paste cooked into it. Not ideal for sandwiches of any kind.) I brought some bread mixes with me in our consumables shipment, but when I was in D.C., I was struggling to find any “normal” mixes. They were all Italian herb and cheese or 490834-grain bread. (Okay, maybe 9 grain, but sometimes it feels like an awful lot of oats in those hearty breads!) Both of which I like, but neither well-suited to crunchy peanut butter and strawberry jam. I’ve sporadically looked online for some normal wheat or white options, but have either come up empty handed or found them at a price I was not willing to pay. (Side note: I’m super annoyed with Amazon’s change where most food items are now party of Prime Pantry. I already pay too much for Amazon Prime and now they want an extra fee for food items? Nope.)
But as I said, the final straw settled on the camel’s back on Friday, meaning cost was no longer an impediment. With just a hospital serving of red Jell-O in my belly, before I embarked on my afternoon to-do list, I went online and paid (too much?) for white bread mixes. (Before those of you who have some semblance of domestic skills asks, yes, I suppose I could order the flour and whatnot to make bread from scratch, but let’s be honest- the box mix is pushing the limits of my kitchen-skills.)
Starting Monday, I’m going to be a “cold lunch” kinda’ girl. Until my bread mixes arrive, I plan to jimmy together options from what we have: pretzels, pudding, apple sauce, etc. My lunch is going to look like some harried mother let her 5-year old loose in the pantry, but I don’t even care. Sides for lunch it is!
I just can’t face the pounded chicken breast one more day.
Now that we are living in Caracas, my college Spanish gets me around town sufficiently (it definitely could be better and has some weirdly Chinese quirks to it!) but there are times that it utterly fails me. Friday night was one of those nights that a mixture of cultural confusion and language nuance left me in the lurch- or in this case, a near diabetic coma.
The night started out great. It was our inaugural Taste-Testers outing, a monthly dinner scheduled through the CLO office to get folks out and about to new restaurants in town. For the first one, we decided to stick fairly closely to home, at a place just down the hill from the embassy. With a reservation limit of 16, we were pleased to get nearly a full house. Dinner was fine. It started with a variety of appetizers, including ceviche and spring rolls (both of which I passed on, but I did enjoy the herb butter and bread that also showed up on the table) and then moved in a rather timely fashion (not a service to take for granted) to main courses. Around the table there was everything from pastas to fish and chicken dishes and I think I even saw a burger at the far end of our group. Overall, the restaurant was good (although I must admit to liking the one we went to, directly across the road, last week better) and the company was great. It was nice to get out of the embassy and spend time talking about life beyond work.
After dinner, as the ubiquitous discussion of how to best pay the bill was happening, a side-conversation about dessert was also taking place. (By the way, the bill discussion was not at all about how much to pay, as that wasn’t a big deal, but more the actual method of payment, as this is a perpetual issue here. Do you pay with your debit card? Who has already hit their daily limit on their card? Is cash even possible? What about the tip?) Some of the group sorted out the split and the tip (paid on different machines, because “it’s Venezuela”), while the rest made plans to walk across the road to an ice cream/pasty shop.
This is where my issues begin.
I always have room for dessert. As a matter of fact, I am fairly sure that biologically I am created for a sweet treat after meals, as I am a firm believer in the “dessert stomach.” I may be full of pasta or steak or pizza or what-have-you, but I can always find room for cake or a doughnut or a brownie on top of dinner.
The sweets shop we went to was enormous, with a huge selection of gelatos and baked goods. The way it works is you decide what you want after drooling over the offerings beautifully displayed in glass cases and then you go to the cashier to pay, taking your tiny receipt back to the food counter to get your actual order. While Thad went with a mini-strawberry pie thing, I decided I wanted ice cream. There were these cute little waffle cups on display, which I figured were the perfect size for a single scoop of ice cream. So I pieced together an order for a waffle cup in Spanish and was a little surprised at the total that popped up on the register. It seemed rather pricey for a single scoop, especially in Caracas where I just paid about $13 for a fine dining dinner and drinks across the road. But, whatever. Expensive for Caracas is normal (or less) in D.C.
With my little slip of paper in hand (little slips of paper are pervasive here- you get a receipt- or two- for everything and that’s IF your debit card is accepted on the first try), I went to the ice cream counter to get my goodies. The girl asked me what THREE flavors I wanted. Three? I told her I was just one person and one scoop was enough, at which point she told me that the little bowl I had ordered was actually a three-scoop undertaking. A bit shocked, I explained that it was just for me, so please make them little scoops (less scoops was not an option), and ordered Oreo, brownie, and chocolate chip. (For the record, I am pretty sure all three of those were actually the same thing.)
Fine. I have a three-scoop bowl coming to me. Not the end of the world.
I was wrong.
It wasn’t just three scoops. It was three scoops of ice cream and then dessert art on top.
Watching my after-dinner snack come together was like watching the creation of a sculpture. It started with the three scoops in the waffle bowl. From there, the girl added florets of whipped cream over the entire structure. (It is basically a mini-mountain at this point.) Obviously, this is not enough sugar for one human being, so once it was fully covered in a thick layer of whipped cream, a healthy amount of unhealthy sugar-syrup-coated strawberries were added to the pile. But, strawberries are not a finishing touch. That was still to come. On top of the strawberries went drizzles of both chocolate and caramel syrup and then, as a flourish on top, the entire thing was covered in sprinkles.
As I became more and more horrified watching this thing that I had innocently ordered take shape, the other gal at the counter told me to go ahead and sit down and that they would deliver it. Apparently, it is too much to self-carry. (Everyone else in our group just got their small, little treats at the counter and took them to the table themselves.)
A few minutes later, my mammoth dessert arrived at our table. What I pictured in my mind and thought I ordered was a far cry from what showed up in front of me. So much for a little Friday night treat! This thing was enough to feed a small family and definitely enough to put someone into diabetic shock.
Needless to say, after scraping off the outer layers to get to the ice cream (the thing I actually wanted), I passed the remains around the table for others to sample, and no, I did not clear that plate before leaving the restaurant. There was just no way that was going to happen.
Looking back, I am still not sure where the communication broke down. I looked in the glass cases and decided what I wanted. I went to the cashier and ordered that thing. I ended up with Mt. Vesuvius recreated in sugar. But, I did learn an important lesson. From now on, when ordering, I will always ask “how many does it serve?” because my dessert debacle was served with three plastic spoons! If only that had come up earlier…
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.
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.
Photo credit: Thad Ross