Gastronomical Exchange: Gingerbread House

As I mentioned in my recent post, when I returned to Peru after my brief vacation in the U.S., I made sure to bring back a LOT of goodies. Notably, I brought lots of candy and my cremas (Ketchup, BBQ sauce, & Ranch), but I also brought some gifts & knick-knacks for my host-family.

One of these presents was a Gingerbread House kit. Now, I’ve made a few Gingerbread houses in my day, but for my host-siblings this was their first one ever. At first, they weren’t too sure how to put it all together, but once I arranged the basic frame and cemented it in place with the icing, they took it from there.

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A few minutes later, I returned to find this beauty sitting on our kitchen table.

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I think they did a pretty good job for their first ever Gingerbread house.

Unfortunately, in the days following its creation, the house was slowly devoured, never to be put to use by a little Gingerbread family.

Until next time,

MGB

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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

Gastronomical Exchange: The Whole Ensalada

Returning from my brief holiday stint in the U.S., I made a decision to be more active in sharing U.S. culture with my host-family. So, in January after seamlessly readjusting to my life here in Perú, I decided the easiest way to share some more U.S. culture was through food. Perhaps my cravings for more  U.S. dishes also played a part in my decision to focus on gastronomical exchange.

Now, like any good Peace Corps Volunteer, I didn’t return to Perú empty handed; my luggage was absolutely full of candy and other food stuffs. One of the prized possessions I brought with me to Perú was Ranch Dressing, my favorite salad dressing.

Consequently, the first U.S. “food” I prepared for my host-family was a salad, or ensalada. Now, they do eat salads in Perú, BUT the difference being that salads are not a regular component of one’s day to day diet. In fact, at least here in the sierra, the day-to-day diet mostly involves rice, potatoes, and occasionally vegetables cooked to death in the daily soup. If anything, salads are a side, and would never be considered a legitimate meal. And at least in my house, the term ensalada refers to sliced avocado, red onion, & tomato with lemon juice (still tasty, but missing some of my favorite veggies). Well, I decided that I wanted to eat more vegetables and I wanted my host-family to do so as well, and so shortly after returning, we made a simple salad of lettuce, onion, tomato, and carrots.

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Dicing the carrots
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The washed lettuce
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The finished salad (just missing its Ranch)
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Lunch with my fresh salad

While I don’t think I convinced them that a salad can be a meal, I at least got everyone to try it, and everyone, except my 5 year-old host-brother, really enjoyed it, especially with the Ranch Dressing. I wasn’t too upset my host-brother hated the salad, because what 5 year-old really enjoys vegetables anyways.

Here’s to more gastronomical exchange in the near future!

Until next time,

MGB

S’more Cultural Exchange: 4th of July in Perú

The Peace Corps has 3 goals:

  1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained Volunteers.
  2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Simply put, each Peace Corps Volunteer’s responsibility is to provide technical support and training to the people of the country where he or she works, as well as to promote cultural exchange in said country. Consequently, a large part of my work involves teaching Peruvians about the United States, sharing my experiences of growing up there, and correcting misinformations, such as “all U.S. citizens live in mansions”. Teaching about the U.S. is known among Peace Corps Volunteers is known as Goal 2, and this goal can manifest in many ways such as teaching English, teaching a geography class, starting a Frisbee team, or, in my case as of yesterday, celebrating the 4th of July.

For the uninformed, the 4th of July is Independence Day for all U.S. Citizens, marking the day in which we signed the Declaration of Independence and officially declared independence from Great Britain way back in 1776. Nowadays, the 4th of July is celebrated in various ways all across the country, but generally with some sort of cookout (meat, desserts, and alcohol obligatory) and accompanying fireworks. Now, Peruvians obviously don’t celebrate U.S. Independence Day (they have their own independence day on July 28th), so in order to share a bit of my U.S. traditions with my host-family, friends, and neighbors, I organized a good-old campfire in my backyard. And what campfire could be complete without the ultimate campfire dessert, S’mores?

Around 5:30pm, some of the neighborhood kids started appearing and we got to getting the fire started. None, and I mean none of the kids, not even my host sister, believed I knew how to start a fire, but thanks to my brief stint in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, I proved them wrong, to their disbelief.

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Gathering wood for the fire.
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I more or less made a log cabin fire lay, but let my host-sister light it up.
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After a short while, the fire got going and so the S’more prep began.

So in case you don’t know, to make a S’more, you need 3 basic ingredients and 1 specialized tool. The 3 key ingredients are Marshmallows, Chocolate, and Graham Crackers; Marshmallows and Chocolate were easy to find here, but with the Graham Crackers I struck out, and so we substituted sweet vanilla crackers instead (they worked quite well). Now, when you have your ingredients all ready, the next step is to find the specialized tool, aka the ideal stick; you want the stick to be decently long, but slender at the end so that it can pierce the marshmallow easily.

Now, to get started, you grab a marshmallow, pop it on the end of your cooking stick, and then warm the marshmallow over the fire. Personally, I prefer to cook my marshmallow by rotating it over the coals until it obtains a nice Goldy-Brown color, but others, including some of my neighbors, prefer the fast approach in which you just shove the marshmallow into the flame until it catches on fire and turns into a black ball of gooey sugar.

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Friends and neighbors roasting their marshmallows.

Now, once you have your marshmallow nice and golden, you place it on a cracker, put some chocolate on top, and then top it off with another cracker to complete the perfect S’more.

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The first S’more of many of the night.

Now, while many people are purists and prefer the straight up S’more of marshmallow, cracker, and chocolate, I like to experiment a bit. Personally, I enjoy substituting the chocolate for a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup (try it, it is glorious!), and yesterday we experimented even further buy coating one of the crackers with Peanut Butter before adding the marshmallow (just as good!).

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So, while I didn’t celebrate 4th of July this year in typical U.S. fashion, I had a fantastic time sharing a bit of my U.S. traditions with my friends and family here in Perú. The S’mores were incredibly well received by the neighborhood kids, with responses ranging from dancing and hopping around the yard, to tiny voices screaming “Mark, Mark, regálame otro” (Mark, Mark, give me another one), to my host-brother crying when I wouldn’t let him have more until everyone had eaten their first. All in all, the kids made their way through 2 bags of marshmallows, two packets of vanilla crackers, and 3 bars of chocolate.

Activities such as making S’mores with my host-family and neighbors are just one of the many, many reasons why I love my Peace Corps service here in Perú. I mean, who else gets to say that making S’mores with children in rural sierra Perú falls under their job description?

Other PCVs, what plans do you have to celebrate 4th of July with your host-communities?

Until next time,

MGB

Carnival Huaylino 2016

In the month of February, for anywhere from 1 week to 1.5 months, the celebrations of Carnival commence all across Perú. According to this article, Carnival originated as a time for indulgence prior to the arrival of the solemn time of Lent. Essentially, here in Perú Carnival is celebrated via lots of parties, a lot of drinking, a lot of water shenanigans, and a lot fallen trees. The biggest Carnival celebrations occur in Cajamarca, another department of Perú, but I thought we had some great celebrations here in Caraz.

The beginning of the Carnival Huaylino was marked by a series of different activities, a summary of which you can watch below in a video produced by my municipality.

One of the first activities was the selection of the Shumaq Shipash (“beautiful girl” in Quechua) via a sort of beauty pageant in which girls from different barrios of Caraz compete in events such as evening wear, Q&A, speaking Quechua, and performing a traditional dance. The winner earns the title of Shumaq Shipash and achieves a spot of honor for the Carnival festivities. The Shumaq Shipash competition was really interesting, and two other Volunteers and I were almost roped into performing a sort of half-time show when the contracted entertainment backed out. While I am not a huge fan of beauty pageants in general, the Shumaq Shipash competition is different because it serves as a way to remember and honor the sierra culture of Caraz.

The following day was the principal Carnival activity, a.k.a. the Rompecalle (literally road breaker). Essentially, the Rompecalle is a giant parade in which the municipality and many community organizations participate. Each participating group dresses in some kind of traditional attire, and then constructs a tablada (think portable shrine), upon which they tie foods such as noodles, cookies, bread, beer, wine, candy, etc. The tabladas are carried throughout the parade and then judged at the end to determine who made the best one. My gerencia made a triangular tablada, and my contribution was a bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups; I’m fairly certain our tablada was the only one in all of Perú with that special ingredient.

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Our tablada with my Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

Just like all of my co-workers in the municipality, I dressed up in some traditional sierra attire that I had rented for the Rompecalle. While the parade was long, it was a ton of fun to dance to and sing along to Huayno with my passionate fellow Caracinos. Check out a video of the dancing below:

However, apart from the length, the Rompecalle was also very HOT. Fortunately, an important component of Carnival celebrations is water, usually in the form of water balloons. Throughout the entire parade, there was no shortage of kids (and sometimes their parents) dumping buckets of water or throwing water balloons upon the parade-goers from the heights of their homes. Personally, I found the water quite refreshing, and frequently told them to give us more, and more water is just what I got, however not from a kid.

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Carnival selfie in my traditional attire.

As we reached the end of the parade, we were met with a wonderful surprise in the form of a fully stocked fire engine, whose hose was aimed straight at my fellow municipality workers and me. If you are wondering what it is like to get hit by water streaming out of a fire-engine hose, you are in luck, because I recorded the entire experience on my camera.

Now, while the parade was probably the principal event of Carnival for the whole city, another important component for Carnival celebrations are the Yunzas. Essentially a yunza is a party in which a family cuts down a big tree, generally a molle, “replants” it in another location, and then decorates it with lots of goods like blankets, sheets, bins, clothing, etc. Now, as the party progresses and everyone has a good time, you draw closer to the principal event. At some point near the end of the evening, a special yunza song is put on and then people pair up, and take turns swinging an axe at the decorated tree in an attempt to fell it. Generally, it takes quite some time for the tree to fall, but once it does, it is a mad rush to quickly gather as many items as possible from the fallen tree. Per tradition, the pair that deals the final blow is to provide the tree and the goods for the following year’s yunza.

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For this yunza, the tree was “planted” in the middle of a soccer field.

At the yunza I attended, I managed to grab 3 plastic bins and some hangers from the branches of the fallen tree. I just wasn’t quick or aggressive enough to get the treasured mantas from the flourishing hands of the mothers.

And that’s really it. While the main events only lasted about 1 week here in Caraz, there were Yunzas and parties for Carnival going on for well over a month after the main events had passed. As I said, many Peruvians like fiestas, and plenty of fiestas there were.

While I had a great time with the parade and yunza, my favorite Carnival memory came via my neighbors. One Tuesday after the Rompecalle, I was riding my bike back from the school to my house, and I discovered that my neighbors were throwing water balloons and buckets of water at cars and moto-taxis as they drove past. Unfortunately, they let me pass without a word, and so of course I yelled at them asking why they didn’t drench me with water like everyone else. So, I did what any reasonable person would do, and went back to my house, changed into shorts and a t-shirt, and then came back and MADE them give me a solid drenching. I think they were really confused, but I had a grand old time.

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The scene of the Great Water War, Carnival 2016

I can’t wait for Carnival 2.0 next year.

MGB

1 Year Later

Well, with the arrival of May 7th, 2016, it has officially been 12 months since I first touched foot on Peruvian soil, and also 12 months since I last touched foot on U.S. soil. It has been a year full of highs and lows, a year full of changes, a year full of doubt, a year full of new foods, and a year which has showed me that I made the right choice in applying for and joining the Peace Corps.

I know that I am not the same person I was when I left the US 12 months ago. Yes, I still am a nerd, yes I still love nature, and soccer, but what I mean is that Peace Corps changes the way that you view the world. In this past year, I have been immersed in a new country, culture and way of living that has challenged many of my beliefs and made me reevaluate how I view this world. I’ve come to realize that many of the beliefs and habits I hold are not universal, and that in just accepting and living within our comfort zones, we miss out on the incredible diversity of thought that exists in this world. There is no right way to do something; we only just think there is based on the beliefs we were raised with and hold onto.

My first year in the Peace Corps in Perú has been quite unforgettable, and I am looking forward to seeing what these last 15 months have in store for me. When I took the leap to join the Peace Corps, I was frightened of what my future held, but I’ve pushed through my worries to come out empowered and more confident in myself and my capabilities. Here in Perú, I’ve made great friends, projects are coming together, and I’m really excited for all of the highs and lows yet to come, for even more arroz y papas, and for many more memories made with my friends and family here in Perú and abroad. To commemorate this special occasion, I decided to create a short list of ways my life has changed since coming to Perú, as well as share a photo gallery with one photo/month of time here in Perú.

Changes:

  • It’s been over 1 year since I’ve had a Frosty from Wendy’s or sesame chicken from a Chinese Restaurant, but it has only been hours since I’ve eaten a US-week’s worth of rice and potatoes.
  • It’s been 1 year since I’ve pet and hugged my dog Cody, but only a few hours since I’ve played with my new puppy, Hazel.
  • It’s been 1 year since I’ve held one of my pet lizards, but only a day since I saw 3-4 lizards running around outside my house in the morning sun.
  • It’s been 1 year since I last used shampoo, but only minutes since I reaffirmed to myself its uselessness.
  • It has been 1 year since I’ve driven a car, but only a few hours since I used Perú’s unique and controlled chaos that is the public transit system.
  • It’s been 1 year since I sat in a hammock under a tree in my backyard, but only 3 days since I planted some trees with my host-family.
  • It’s been 1 year since I departed for this Peace Corps adventure, but only minutes since I’ve been thankful for what I have gained so far.

Photo Gallery

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So with 12 months, down, I’ve still got 15 left to reach the title of Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, or RPCV in the omnipresent Peace Corps abbreviations. Who knows what the next few months have in store, and while that would have worried pre-Peace Corps Mark quite a bit, current Mark is excited with the uncertainty.

Let’s do this!

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