Gastronomical Exchange: Quesadillas

Once I realized the salad was a big success, I dared to dream even further. This time with my host-family, we embarked into the great world of Mexican food. Although, given that I am not Mexican, nor have I ever learned to cook authentic Mexican food, we made the best impression of Mexican food that we could.

Fortunately in Caraz, we have a wonderful supermarket called “Comercio Trujillo” where one can buy anything from pasta sauce to oreos, from pizza crust to “Mozzarella cheese”, and for some reason, flour tortillas. Now, way back in November I purchased a pack of flour tortillas and some Mozzarella cheese but due to vacation & the end of the school year, they were quickly forgotten about in the upstairs fridge. That is until, upon returning to Perú, that I happened to go upstairs and rediscover my purchase.

So, after months of waiting (and forgetting), I finally gathered my host-family one evening to make our quesadillas. Now, I wasn’t going to just make cheese quesadillas, if we were going to make them, we were going all out. And so, we bought some chicken, Peruvian cheese (it wasn’t a lot of mozzarella), and the necessary supplies to make guacamole; palta (avocado), tomate (tomato), culantro (cilantro) & lime (limón).

With all of the ingredients assembled, we set to work.

First, we ripped open the bag of tortillas and carefully laid them out on the table.

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Once the tortillas were assembled on the table, we began the process of cutting the cheese.

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Left: mozzarella cheese                      Right: queso fresco (fresh Peruvian cheese)

We shredded the cheese to the best of our ability on top of the tortillas, and then added some shredded, boiled chicken which my host-mom had previously prepared. Then to top it off, we added a dash of taco seasoning from a care packing from long ago.

Since we don’t have a “press”, we settled to pan-fry the quesadillas with a little butter in a frying pan, to great success if I do say so myself.

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Now, after teaching my host-family the general process of quesadilla preparation, I set to work making the important accompaniment; guacamole. Honestly, this was my first time ever making guacamole, but I think it turned out quite splendidly.

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Once all of the quesadillas had been properly cooked, we were finally able to eat.

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Overall, quesadilla night was a HUGE success. The only criticism of the night was that of the Mozzarella cheese; my host-sister was not a fan. However, when she tried one with only Peruvian queso fresco, I got a clear “this is the best thing I have ever eaten” response. Success!

Apart from eating the quesadillas, my favorite memory of the experience was when my host-mom offered a quesadilla to one of our neighbors, however placing it inside a roll of delicious Peruvian bread. I couldn’t help myself but chuckle seeing a quesadilla being eaten inside bread like a sandwich.

Until next time,

MGB

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Kutu: the Cat-mom

So when I left in December for my vacation in the U.S., we had 5 dogs at my house; Scooby, Negra, Fido, Chase, and Kutu. Scooby lives with the pigs, Negra chases the chickens, Chase a small, dachshund-sized white dog picks on Fido, the larger male dog with a crooked smile and submissive tendencies, and Kutu is the matriarch of the bunch.

Kutu is about 5 years old and she is the boss. Whenever strange people come to the house, she warns us of their presence with her strange yodel-yelping woofs. Whenever other dogs come nearby, she fearlessly runs out to scare them away and show who’s in charge. Whenever Negra comes into heat, Kutu snarls at her for bringing all the boys to the yard. Kutu is the boss, the “Alpha-female”, the Presidente, and all the household dogs know it.

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Here’s the fierce beast curled up asleep inside a cubeta. Kutu means tailless in Quechua.

So call me surprised when I return to Perú to find out my family has gotten three kittens, and that mean, tough, dominating Kutu, has adopted them as if they were her own puppies. I didn’t believe it until I saw them huddled up sleeping together on several occasions. But the most unbelievable part is that not only does Kutu sleep with the kittens, she also suckles them. Perhaps Kutu has adopted the kittens and feeds them because she can’t have any puppies of her own, I’m not sure, but all I know is that every time I see the kittens suckling, my heart warms and I chuckle a little.

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Live long & prosper, Kutu.

Until next time,

MGB

Foto Friday

So this is the second of the weekly themes that I am now incorporating into my blog, the other having been Martes de Música.

On Foto Fridays, I will post a photo I’ve taken here in Perú, along with a brief explanation of the story behind the photo, or its significance.

For the first installment, we have a photo of my host-brother during his 5th birthday this past February.

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So right off the bat, I’m sure you notice that his face is covered with icing, and in my opinion giving him the appearance of a cat or a raccoon. Now maybe you are thinking the explanation for his icing-face is that he is a little kid and just couldn’t wait to try some of that sweet, sweet cake. However, you would be mistaken with that line of thinking.

In Perú, there is the widespread tradition of the birthday boy or girl taking a bite out of their cake. However, what usually happens is they go in for the bite, and someone else either pushes the cake into their face, or their face into the cake. I’ve personally witnessed this happen at least 5 different times, and have no doubt that when my birthday rolls around next month, I will meet the same fate as my host-brother.

Again, this is another tradition that I think we should adopt back in the US. What could be better to liven up a birthday party than a face full of cake?

Let me know if you try it out at your next relative’s cumpleaños.

MGB

Peace Corps Pup

So about 2 weeks ago I decided to join the long line of Peace Corps Volunteers before me by getting a pet, in my case a puppy.

When I got back from my great Lake Hopping adventure at Laguna Parón with some other Peace Corps Volunteers in Áncash, I headed straight home to my host family.  I was pretty tired, so I ate some food in our kitchen before going up to our tienda to just relax a bit.  When I was up in the tienda, a few of the neighborhood kids came into the store to buy some food; eggs, tuna, oil, limes, tomatoes, gum, candy, etc.  One little girl was holding an adorable brown puppy, but despite my questions, she shyly avoided telling me its name or even where she had found it.  My host-mother eventually came up the tienda (store) and got the little girl to talk, and found out they had just found the puppy on the street, presumably abandoned because she was an hembra (female).

Then, surprisingly, the little girl thrust the puppy in my host-mom’s arms and said “Tómala, mi mamá no la quiere” (take her, my mom doesn’t want her around).  My host-mom turned to me, handed me the puppy, and said “Mira, acá está tu perra” (Look, here is your dog!).  I had been wanting a puppy for sometime, so I was thrilled by this unexpected turn of events.  The funniest part of this moment however was when my host-mom decided to regalar a la chica (give to the girl) a huge bag of mangos; I got a puppy in exchange for mangos.  Only in the Peace Corps would something so odd and funny happy haha.

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First night with a new family.

She was very shy for the first few days, skittering away at any noise or sudden movement, but over the next few evenings I would sit outside reading my Kindle with her on my lap to try and get her accustomed to my presence.  She was a shy little girl, but in time she began to come out of her shell.

When I first saw her, I was just drawing blanks about what I would call her.  She looks like a chocolate lab mix, so I wanted to avoid all of the chocolate lab cliché names like chocolate, hershey, mocha, etc., but I couldn’t think of something that seemed to fit.  Finally, after about 3 days of thought, I settled on a name for my new pup: Hazel Leia (had to get a nerd reference in somewhere with her).

Now almost 2 weeks later she is quite well adjusted and no longer runs at every noise and sudden movement.  For the first 2 weeks, her diet consisted of food scraps/bread, but she is now making the transition to real dog food, despite the questioning glances of my host-family.  I fed her the dog food for the first time last night and she immediately ate it without hesitation; she was extremely hungry.  She is a little underweight and seems to have some fleas, so as soon as she puts on some weight, I will be off to find a vet and some anti-flea shampoo in Caraz so I can get her happy and healthy.

I plan to document her growth over the next 18 months on this blog to the best of my ability.  But in the meantime, I plan to just get her healthy and properly trained.

Until next time,

MGB

 

The Clay Dinosaur

If you were expecting a blog post about a clay-mation adaptation of “The Good Dinosaur”, then you have come to the wrong place.  If you came without expectations, then you are right where you belong.

My host dad makes bricks, but he’s not alone. In my neighborhood, there are approximately 15 brick factories, or ladrillerías. Now you might be asking, “Why are there so many brick factories in one neighborhood? Wouldn’t they just be saturating the market or something? Why don’t they spread themselves out a bit more?”. All good questions, which are quickly resolved with two words: clay deposits. The soil in my neighborhood here in Perú has a ton of clay, and I mean a TON, and it just so happens that clay is a vital ingredient to making the adobe/mud bricks that are ever so abundant here in Áncash. Coincidentally, the vast clay deposits were likely the reason some Pre-Incan societies inhabited the area: they used the clay to make pottery and other ceramics.

While this clay is of huge economic importance to my site, it can also be used to satisfy more artistic needs. One day, my host-siblings and I collected some clay and set to work making some figurines. I decided to go with an prehistoric animal theme, sculpting a long-neck first.

Second up was a sharp-tooth, followed by car and late some dinosaur eggs, made by my host-sister.

I haven’t played with clay in quite a long time (probably since middle school), but all of the little tricks/tips I learned in art class slowly came back to me as I worked on my dinosaur friends. I’m hoping to improve my clay-sculpting abilities over the next 2 years, but we’ll see how that goes.

Until next time,

MGB

Batalla de Agua (Water Battle)

When I joined the Peace Corps, I certainly had no ideas or expectations for what my living situation would be like, although I will admit my first thoughts went to a small  hut in a forest where I would have to walk long distances to find water to bathe, cook, etc. While I think I could have lived in such a situation, I am very fortunate to be living with a wonderful host family in a nice house that has running water, electricity, etc.

Now, even though we have running water, being an Environmental Volunteer, I don’t really like putting water (or really anything) to waste. However, one day, at the prompting of my host siblings, I made an exception. On that day, the third of December of 2015, I engaged my host siblings in an epic water balloon/water battle.

My poor siblings had no idea what they were getting themselves into, because the threat of imminent drenching awakened my immense competitive spirit, leading me to “borrow” the first water balloons that my host sister had made prior to lunch. Post-lunch, the fun began with my host-sister convincing my host-brother to join forces with her to take me down, only to have the tides turned against her when I convinced my brother to join forces with me instead for the promise of sweet, sweet, American candy (thanks Mom!). Promptly, with the help of my host-brother, my host-sister was drenched, and myself only slightly damp. When the balloon supply ran out, we switched to plastic cups and buckets.  Honestly, plastic cups and buckets are much more effective than water balloons.

My host-sister had taken control of the outdoor sink and plastic cup supply and the situation looked dire, but with the threat of drenching her with the dirty pig-water (which I never would have done), I gained control over the precious sink resource, which turned the tide of the battle in my favor. Subsequently, the battle was fairly one sided with my host-sister emerging from the encounter as wet as a melting snowman, and myself emerging only as wet as a Shamwow. When the battle was good and won, and I had claimed my victory for all to see, my host siblings decided they weren’t wet enough and willingly drenched themselves in water while I documented the entire occasion, shutter-shot style.

While I did feel bad about using so much water for no other purpose than fun, I think it was worth it.

MGB

Ancash: they say it’s blue.

So unless you speak Quechua, you probably didn’t catch the significance of my title.  In Quechua, Anqa = blue, and adding “sh” to the ends of words adds the meaning “they say” or “se dice”, so Ancash (or Anqash) literally means “they say it’s blue” in Quechua.

So why kick this post off with a Quechua lesson?  Because Ancash in the departmento (state) of Perú in which I’ll be living for the next 2 years, and they speak Quechua in Ancash.  Specifically, as noted in my previous post, I’ll be living just outside the city of Caraz, in the Callejón de Huaylas.

So this past week was Site Visit week for all of the trainees of Peace Corps Perú 25, which means that we all got to spend a week at our future sites, to which we will be moving after we officially swear in as Peace Corps Volunteers in just 2 weeks.

For the Ancash volunteers, we got on a bus in Lima at 11pm on Saturday, July 4th, and arrived in the incredible city of Huaráz, which is the capital of Ancash, at about 6:30am on Sunday.  Upon arrival, we were greeted by 3 amazing Ancash Volunteers who took us to the Peace Corps approved hostel in the city.

After dropping off our stuff, we headed out to an amazing breakfast place called Café California, which is owned by an American from California, which means that they had US BREAKFAST FOOD!!!!!  I had my first pancakes in over 2 months and they were delicious.  In general, Ancash receives a lot of international tourists who come for the gorgeous hikes and mountaineering, which means there are a lot of expats, which means there are a lot of great international food places.

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Café California

After breakfast, we headed out on a scavenger hunt throughout the city which involved finding some locations that would be useful to us as volunteers, whether to nourish our stomachs or actually provide support in some other capacity.  One of the stops was the Huaráz market, to which I returned later to prepare a canasta (basket) as a gift to my new host family, who I would be meeting on Tuesday morning.

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The rest of the day was spent exploring the city on our own, and chilling in our hostel which has free wifi and HOT SHOWERS!  It is the best.

The view from the roof of our Hostel.  Mt. Huascarán is the tallest mountain in Perú.
The view from the roof of our hostel. Mt. Huascarán is the tallest mountain in Perú.

Monday was an important day, because it was Socio day, or the first interaction we would have with our future host-country counterparts.  I had two socios come, Edwin, a CTA (science-technology-environment) teacher in the school down the road from my new home, and Miguel, the jefe de Ecología y Medio Ambiente de la Municipalidad de Caraz (boss of ecology and environment in the Caraz municipality).  They both were great, and we spent the majority of the morning going over Peace Corps policies, the role of a volunteer in the community, and other such things.

Tuesday was the more important day, in my opinion, because that was the day we met our new host families, the people who would be housing us, feeding us, and forming our new Peruvian family for the next 2 years of our lives.  My host-parents are named Edwin and Elli, and we hit it off right from the get-go.  They are both incredibly nice, and not only do they speak Spanish, but they also speak Quechua, so I will have lots of time to practice all the Quechua I have been learning when I’m permanently in site.  Edwin makes and sells bricks, used to drive transportation trucks, and is the president of our neighborhood of about 450 families (I quickly learned that he seems to know everyone, and he is even good friends with the mayor of the town).  Elli works around the house cooking, tending the chakra (farm/fields), and also sells fruits once a week in the large market in Caraz.  Based on my observations throughout the week, they seem to have a great relationship and divide the household labor fairly evenly, which isn’t always a common sight in Peru.

After we finished family orientation, we hopped on a colectivo (van) and began the ~1.5 hour journey from Huaráz to Caraz.  The journey was incredibly scenic, with giant snowcapped mountains to my right, and imposing mountains to my left.  When we arrived in Caraz, and eventually to my house, I knew I was in the right spot.  The climate is perfect (warm during the day, not too cold at night, and the water from the faucet is naturally warm).  When we got to my new house, I met the rest of the family which consists of a 9 year-old sister named Cielo, and a 4 year-old brother also named Edwin, who we just call Junior.  I was also happily surprised to discover that my host-dad had four children from a previous marriage who ranged from 21 to 28 years of age: more friends!

My host-brother, Edwin, in our backyard.
My host-brother, Edwin, in our backyard.

The rest of Tuesday was spent settling into my freshly painted room, meeting our 6+ dogs and various farm animals, and enjoying some wonderful food as I got to know my new family.  I hit it off with Cielo and Junior right away, and from the first meeting I knew that we were going to have a fun 2 years together.

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On Wednesday, the work began.  The purpose of the site visit wasn’t only to meet our new host-family, but also to start to get to know our community, which means doing lots of presentations.  My Wednesday morning kicked off with a visit to the Caraz Municipality, where I thought I was just going to be introduced one-by-one to some of the important directors.  Boy was I wrong!  When I arrived, I was guided into a room full of municipality workers, and given a seat at the table in the front of the room.  After a few minutes, a vey formal presentation began, during which I was asked to give a speech about Peace Corps, my role as a volunteer, and what I hoped to accomplish.  It was a tad overwhelming, and the whole thing was filmed/photographed, so there very well might be an article published about me sometime soon in Caraz.  However, I think it went over very well and the workers seemed to resonate with my words.

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View from my room; bricks, mountains, and all.

After that, the rest of the week ran rather smoothly.  I visited 3 local schools, of which 2 seemed very receptive to working with me on environmental education.  I also quickly realized that everyone, and I mean everyone, wants me to teach English. The schools, the municipality, my host-dad, etc.  I am happy to help out with English classes when I can, and to work with the English teachers to improve their pronunciation, but I made it very clear that I was not a teacher, and that my environmental goals take priority.

In addition to visiting schools, I visited the Health Post in my community of Yuracoto, where I met the doctor in charge and offered my support for any work they might do in the schools, such as with sex ed, promoting self-esteem, or environmental education.  I also met the director of the UGEL, which is an organization responsible for overseeing the schools in each community within Perú.

Some other highlights of the week were:

  • Sharing meals with my host family.
  • Eating Manjar Blanco, an incredibly delicious milk-based cream spread.
  • Watching Ben-10 with my host-brother and Combate with my whole family.
  • Feeding our chickens and ducks.
  • Eating ice cream and a snow-cone equivalent in town.
  • Visiting the municipality’s vivero (tree nursery) at which I hope to plant lots of trees (hopefully with students).
  • Visiting the municipality’s “zoo” which has ostriches, a monkey, and some farm animals.
  • Seeing my office space in the Office of Services to the City which happens to be in the town’s soccer stadium.
  • Seeing the stars and the Milky Way every night.
  • Learning some new Quechua words from my host-parents.
  • Visiting some ruins within Caraz and seeing some ways to spruce them up a bit.
  • Picking up my host-sister from school and meeting her friends, who kept asking me how to say certain things in English.
  • Finding a great potential new socia who is an English teacher in my host-sister’s school, and who already has a TON of ideas about how to make the school much more environmentally conscious.  Plus, she has a son who runs a tourism-by-bike business in Caraz, which I want to check out.
  • Finding toad eggs & tadpoles in my backyard, and teaching my 4 year-old host-brother about the life cycle of a toad.  I’m hoping we can raise some in the house when I get back, and possibly use them for a school project.

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Overall, Caraz is absolutely beautiful and I’m really looking forward to my tranquil lifestyle on the outskirts of town.  I really have a wonderful set-up in my site, because there are SO many opportunities for work, both in the city and in the surrounding rural areas.  The municipality needs a lot of support in promoting their environmental programs, the schools need a lot of support, and there is a lot to be done to promote environmental advocacy and eco-tourism.  I’m really excited to get back to my site in two weeks, so I can finally get started with my work.  There is still a lot to learn about my site, and still a lot of preparations to complete before getting started, but I know now that I’m ready for this, and that this is what I’m supposed to be doing.

-Mark

P.S. I expect lots of people to come visit me, because Ancash is gorgeous.