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Science and Christianity meet at the Vatican
On our first invitation to the Vatican in 2013, we came unprepared not knowing that our accommodation at Domus Sancta Marta would allow us to share every meal with Pope Francis. 2016 has been an eventful year with the World Food Prize ceremony and another invitation to go to the Vatican. Since the first trip in 2013, our trips to Italy have never been the same. Although we will not be staying at the Sancta Marta, with less likelihood of seeing the Pope, I thought I would have more freedom to document this visit without over exposing the privacy of the Pope. The irony of being with in the Pope's personal space while in Sancta Marta was not being able to bring out your phone and do a selfie or start taking pictures during his private moments.
cardiovascular disease. Yes, he is the reason why this white pill for fever is being used as a blood thinner. Another prominent character, famed even before the movie The Theory of Everything became an Oscar winning moving, Stephen Hawking gave a talk on Theory of No Boundaries. Not my favorite topic but it was fascinating presentation in an event sponsored by the church that teaches Creation as written in the Book of Genesis. After his presentation, my mind went blank! Dr. Vallani was also newly installed member of the academy. I first saw him during lunch break sleeping on the floor in the coffee area. I thought he was one of the servers taking a cat nap but when he took his seat, I saw his name plate and decided to look him up on Wikipedia. You can't miss him with his unusual silk tie (something Prince would wear) and his fist size spider brooch. Then there's Prof. Steven Chu from Stanford University, whom we shared table over dinner and lunch. The whole time we were talking to him, I thought he looked so familiar. No, I did not know he was Nobel Pease Prize Laureate for his work on "cooling and trapping of atoms with laser light". Oh yeah! He was Secretary of Energy for the Obama Administration. These men may not be celebrities in common terms, but they have had much impact on the lives of many!
Pope on Monday, November 28 (spouses and other relatives included!). This meant waking up early and taking the bus with the group to the Casina Pio IV where the conference was held. After the self-presentations by the newly appointed members of the Academy, we walked to the Hall of Consistory, at the Apostolic Palace for the audience with the Pope. As we walked through the halls of the Palace, we were greeted and guided by the Swiss Guards (they somehow seemed shorter than the other guards we met during the first visit but just as young and pale). The building was covered with bricks, and nothing decorative. But the interior, like Casina Pio IV, and the even the Sistine Chapel, was decorated with painted ceilings and murals on the walls, and centuries old statues of the Virgin Mary, the Holy Family, and the what I assumed was the Papal Seal. There were so many rooms, you could easily turn to one and be lost in history, but the ushers and the Swiss Guards made sure everyone walked in one direction. In a group of big wigs of science, everyone seemed small in the Palace that is home to the Pope (although he prefers to reside in a more humble dwelling as the Domus Sancta Marta). Even the smartest people can be captivated by the awesomeness of the Palace and its religious art, and more important, by this celebrity Pope, whome everyone came to see even if they aren't Catholic! And so we were seated in the Hall of Consistory like disciplined students in a classroom. A white oversized chair obviously for the Pope was situated front and center of the Hall under the Papal Seal. Seating for the audience (meaning us) facing the Papal seat was divided by a center aisle. Naturally, everyone wanted a front view of the Pope, or at the very least the aisle seat for an easy access to a photo op. Unfortunate for those who claimed the prime seats, they were moved to the back to accommodate the members of the Academy, and the special guests. It reminded me of Luke 14:7–14 “When you are invited by anyone to a marriage feast, don’t sit in the best seat, since perhaps someone more honorable than you might be invited by him, and he who invited both of you would come and tell you, ‘Make room for this person.’ Then you would begin, with shame, to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when he who invited you comes, he may tell you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
After waiting in anticipation, it was almost like a surprise appearance when Pope Francis walked in so casually like he we have all met before. He gave his address in Spanish but we were given copies translated in English (Click here for the Address of His Holiness Pope Francis, 28 Nov 2016). Finally, the opportunity everyone was waiting for, the hand shake with the Pope! We queued row by row, with some individuals cutting the line, leaving the usher in wonder! Most were obedient and patient enough to wait for their turn. I was trying to think of something pleasant, or smart, or religious to say to the Pope when my turn came, even though I new we wouldn’t be able to understand each other. It was like when we encountered Pope Francis in the elevator at Sancta Marta, my husband who is usually articulate, and myself usually polite, were both left tongue tied. As I got closer to the Pope, I tried to forget the head cold that was clouding my brain function (not that it is ever functional), and overcome the guilt that I might pass on a cold to the Pope with a simple handshake. I had my Green Cross 70% alcohol ready to sanitize myself, less I risk being excommunicated from the Vatican for making the Pope sick! The person in front of me took her turn and quickly walked by to give way for me to come face to face with Pope Francis. As he took my hand to shake, I wondered if he remembered me from the elevator some 3 years ago (wishful thinking!), he said something in Spanish, while Mgr. Sorondo was trying to give some introduction (also in Spanish) which I did not understand (regrets of not taking College Spanish seriously). While the Pope and I shook hands (he had smooth hands btw!), what came out of my mouth was "Pray for us" as he would always tell his audience. I figured, he would understand that! At that moment, Mgr. Sorondo said to the Pope "Catholica". I guess he meant, "she must be catholic". At that point, I felt our visit to the Vatican was complete although there was still a day of the conference left.
After a group photo with Pope Francis, we were ushered back out of the Palace. We somehow walked back a different route and ended up in different rooms and saw more religious art that we did not see while walking to the Hall of Consistory. While everyone was taking pictures with their smart phones, the Swiss Guards and ushers were patiently trying to get rid of us. You gotta hand it to the guards and ushers for being very patient and polite to visitors. The understand the impact of being inside the Palace on visitors.
Back at the conference for more presentations, then lunch at Casina Pio where the conversation turned back to science. This particular lunch would have been the highlight of our visit, if not for the audience with the Pope, because the biofortified vitamin A orange maize was featured as a side dish. This is was part of the reason why my husband was invited to the conference to talk about his work on biofortification and HarvestPlus.
I didn’t think this visit to the Vatican would be as meaningful as the first visit when we had more close encounters with Pope Francis. At that time, we were so mesmerized and elated with our accommodation at Sancta Marta, where Pope Francis resides and to be able to share every meal with him. He didn’t eat out! Which made you want to eat in as well and not try the Italian ristorante in the neighborhood. There something about this trip, or perhaps there is something about being within the walls of the Vatican that makes every visit special.
We were provided accommodation by the Pontifical Academy of Science at the Casa Bonus Pastor. Its physical structure and interior is as modest as the Domus Sancta Marta but this time we were provided one room with 2 single beds next to each other instead of two adjacent rooms with a single bed in each room. There is hardly any facility for vanity, there are no full length mirrors in the room, the iron and ironing board were in a common area, and the hair dryer was not made for hair styling.
After checking in to our room, I decided to get a cappuccino and a pastry for breakfast while I wait for my husband to arrive from the US. Luckily there was a café just outside the gates of Casa Bonus Pastor. The café was as local as it can be. It was the place were old men take their morning coffee and read the newspaper and strike conversation with other patrons and the people running the café. No one talked to me because I was obviously a foreigner, they "no speak English". It was no Starbucks but they had the last piece of sugar coated donut with Nuttella filling and a cappuccino made from a machine that was in dire need of cleaning. The steamer was thick with milk residue, but it made a perfect dry foam. Both the donut and a cup of cappuccino was Eur 2 (US$ 2.13). What a deal! When I tried paying Eur 1 for my second cup, the barista looked at me strangely, wondering why I was giving him money. Perhaps the coffee was free but he took the Eur 1 anyway.
When I landed at Fiumicino Airport early morning, it was raining cats and dogs. We passed a couple of flooded roads and the traffic was slow as we drove into the city. The rain finally stopped while I was having my coffee. It turned out to be an unusual warm fall day. We had lunch at Casa Bonus, where we were served a bowl full of ravioli as first course and a basket full of bread - high carb diet galore! If you're on paleo diet, it was sure to fail. While some people pray for food, we prayed that that the ravioli would be the only food because it made me full to the stomach just by looking at it. But then came the salad, which was manageable, but then came generous slices of veal (on a no meat Friday) as what we hoped to be the final course. We were so stuffed that we had to refuse dessert, much to the disappointment of the server. "But why?!?" he said his Italian accent. It was almost sacrilege to refuse.
After a full lunch of carbs, we were off for a long uphill walk to the Pontifical Academy of Science. We walked down Via Aurelia along a busy road with a narrow sidewalk, then up Rampa Aurelia where we entered the Vatican walls. As we entered the gate of the Vatican, the site of Domus Sancta Marta was reminiscent of our first visit. Although we do not have the same visual interaction with the Pope as the first trip, there is still something to be said about being able to walk within the walls of the Vatican, especially the uphill path to the Academy of Science and walking along the garden and the residence of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Once you reach the top of the hill, the dome of St Peter's is almost at the same level, its image so grand and massive. At night, the dome is lit up, glowing against a clear evening sky.
The The conference at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences was a star studded gathering of scientists. Some of them have been practicing their field of expertise for 60 yrs, while others are Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. It was a variety of scientists, physicists, mathematicians, medical experts, economists, etc. I was particularly fascinated by the life story of Dr. Salvador Moncado, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate 1998 from Honduras, one of the newly installed members of the Academy. He is a product of a Spanish father and aJjewish Ukranian mother who had to flee Europe to Honduras during WWII. Their family eventually moved to El Salvador where he started his education in Medicine. Because of the conflict between Honduras and El Salvador at that time, he had to flee El Salvador while his wife, who was El Salvadorian, had to stay behind. With the help of a colleague from Guatemala, Dr. Moncado was able to connect with John Vane in Manchester University, where his research career flourished. He is known for his work on Aspirin and its use
Accommodation at Casa Bonus Pastor.
Dome of St. Peter's Basilica.
Howdy and Stephen Hawking.
You cant miss mass at the Vatican even if you're stuck at a conference. The Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Science, Msgr. Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo celebrated the First Sunday of Advent in a small chapel at the basement of the Casina Pio VI before dinner. It was a small group of Catholics enough to fit in the tiny chapel. The mass was a combination of Latin and English, it was solemn, short, and simple.
The conference was scheduled for four days. Imagine having to sit through all 50 presentations, that really had nothing to do with me because I was just an observer! Not everyone, were present for ALL the presentations, but everyone made sure to earn their right to the audience with the
Left: Chapel at the Casina Pio VI. Above: Missal for the First Sunday of Advent celebrated at the Casina Pio VI. Right: Chef at Casina Pio VI preparing for the next meal.
Left: Pope Francis addresses participants of the Plenary Session of the Academy of Science.
Above: Lunch at Casina Pio VI, with biofortified vitamin A orange maize as side dish.
A village called Soroti
My most memorable and meaningful trip to Africa was in Uganda because I lived in tiny village called Soroti.
Soroti is 302 km east of the capital Kampala by way of nicely paved roads. From Kampala, a bus will take you to Mbale where you transfer to a minibus taxi or matutu going to Soroti. Back in 2007, the bus service was “open air”. There may have been other types of bus service with air conditioning but I was on a low budget trip and settled for economy class. If you watched the movie the Last King of Scotland, the bus that Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James Mc Avoy) rode with a local girl in the early part of the movie was exactly like the bus I was on going to Mbale. It was a pleasant trip with other passengers in different forms and sizes, from huge man with a white suit, women in colorful African garb, roosters and hens and a goat taking up the middle aisle of the bus.
From Mbale I transferred to a matutu, capacity of 8 but loaded with 25 people, excluding the driver and the livestock. Like the bus from Kampala, it was conditioned with fresh air with a sliding door that did not close because of the possibility of not being able to open again. Besides, the door could not be shut long enough because in between stops were short, and more passengers got on (never off) and managed to fit themselves in every nook and cranny, either in or out or on top of the matutu. The rooftop seemed to be the prime spot compared to someone else’s lap. Everyone seemed to be on their way to Soroti!
The matutu stop in Soroti was near the market, also the central part of the village. I found my hotel where two of my colleagues from New Zealand have been staying for a couple months. They were my source of cross cultural orientation to the village. But even before my trip, I had a lot of tripadvisories about living conditions in the village. First, be careful of the mosquitos and be religious in taking your malaria pills; second, power and water outages are likely; and third, BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper). Coming from the Philippines, power and water outages were not new to me, while mosquito bites was something I was exposed to while growing up. I was, however, curious about BYOTP. It wasn’t because there were no toilet papers in Uganda, they were just “different”, in such a way that my supervisor used them as packing materials for equipment that were shipped back to Washington DC.
For internet, we went to the “internet café” similar to the internet cafes in the Philippines, which did not have café service (at least back then). The internet service had a few units of desk top computers, but mostly it was BYOC (bring your own computer), which you connect with a cable with several other customers connected to a single modem with several ports. It worked fine, it served its purpose of fast speed communication across the globe, and it came with fine customer service!
I felt at home in Soroti especially during times of power outages. It happened quite often during the day when you had to get some work done. At night, it was more complicated because all the restaurants relied on electricity to cook. If the power was out, dinner was out too! But you can never really grow hungry in Soroti because there was always freshly made samosa being sold on the street.
We could have cooked but it was a bit complicated. I wanted to show off my chicken adobo to my New Zealand friends but they were not too excited about cooking chicken because we would have to cull it ourselves, as in slit the throat, bleed it out, and pluck out the feathers!
One of the best produce in the market was the mango, however, my loyalty is still with the Philippine mango! It was a bit pricey at UGS 500 per mango!! The vendors probably knew I was not local because I had different hair(style), and a slightly fairer complexion, making bargaining a bit difficult. The Ugandan mango is round, with reddish skin, which was thicker and a littler hardier than the Philippine mango. The flesh was
bright yellow, juicy, very sweet, and with very little fiber. It is almost like a bigger version of the Indian mango during its ripening stage. Mango trees were everywhere in the village. Children were free to climb the trees and harvested as many mangoes as they wanted. It was a very nutrient dense snack for kids who did not have much to eat.
Sundays in Soroti (and possibly in all of Africa) was a day of devotion, a devotion to soccer! People convened in restaurants, the market, and wherever a 21” TV set with an antennae was plugged in. The conference room of our hotel and the restaurant downstairs accommodated very serious soccer fans, both men and women, who watched the games all afternoon. This is serious stuff! If their team was winning, the cheering would fill the empty streets of Soroti. If it was not doing well, the village was like a dead town.
The religious kind of devotion was scheduled in the morning. My ride to church was a bicycle without a side car but an extra pear shaped seat behind the driver, who was very skillful in maneuvering the bicycle on uneven soil ground at full speed. The rule was to sit sideways, not facing front with both legs hanging on the side of the bike. The rule (I assume) made the ride a little safer because you can easily jump off the bicycle should it decide to collapse, or fall to the ground.
The Catholic Church was built with unpainted cemented foundation on the outside, whitewashed on the inside, and was covered with galvanized corrugated metal roofing. It had no signs of European influence with no ornate pillars, and painted glass windows, but it was sacred and the service included a lot of singing, dancing, and audience participation! It was great experience even if I did not understand the service half of the time because it was either in
Luganda or Swahili, with some English interjections. But I knew when to kneel, stand, and say Amen!
I felt at home in Soroti even if I did not have the comforts of home. Uganda is miles away from my own country, literally and figuratively and yet, there are so many famliar things that I could easily relate to, especially the warmth of the locals. Soroti is not a tourist destination but the locals are used to having foreign visitors in tansit for field work, and the locals appreciate their guests. Like other African and Asian countries, the country has its own history of power struggle among its tribal groups, but I hope Soroti stays as peaceful as I remember it to be.
At The Vatican
“So the last will be first, and the first last” – Mathew 20:16
That is definitely Pope Francis! Being a humble man, does not submit to the frills of the Catholic Church, but now holds one of the most important religious leadership in the world and was voted as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2013!
Raised as a Catholic, I first learned about what the “Pope” during the death of Pope Paul VI in 1978. Then Pope John Paul became leader of the Catholic Church. Since then, my impression of the Pope was a holy man, with emphasis on the MAN.
When my husband was invited to speak at the Vatican by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the first thing that came to mind was meeting the Pope! Yeah right! Like that would happen in my lifetime. I have walked around New York City a couple of times, and never crossed paths with a famous person! The Vatican is a city within a city and we had assumed that we would be staying in a hotel outside St Peter’s Basilica. I have lost the habit of reading Lonely Planet or Fromers travels books on places we visit, so I had no idea what the Domus Sanctae Marthae was when we received information about our accommodation. Apparently, The Sanctae Marthae is located behind St Peter Basilica and houses the College of Cardinals who participate in the Conclave. Meeting one of the College of Cardinals who happen to be there during our stay would probably be the closest thing to meeting the Pope!
Accommodation at the Sanctae Marthae is only for single occupants, more specifically male priests! Even with accompanying spouses, you end up with two rooms with single beds each. Before arriving at the Vatican, we tried to imagine how the set up would be, maybe the wives are assigned in the women’s wing possibly at the monastery with religious sisters, while the husbands stay at a separate wing with the seminarians and the rest of the priests. Having seen the Vatican as a tourist before, and seeing the elaborate and marble filled St Peter’s Basilica, and the art filled Sistine Chapel, the gold trimmed interior of Catholic Cathedrals and Basilicas are known for, we tried to visualize our future rooms at the Sanctae Marthae to be just as “grand”. But knowing it would be single beds only, we may end up with a very modest, basic, brown interior, and antique wooden furniture.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by Swiss guards (qualification: Swiss, pale complexion, young, male, long legs, and good looking!), as we entered the walled city. There were many layers of security but they seem to know whose coming to dinner, no fuss and no questions asked.
We were greeted at the desk by a Filipino staff named Niño (like the Christ child! How appropriate). Not surprising that a Filipino holds this critical job at the Sanctae Marthae because they speak English well, adapt to the local language as if it were their own, they are gracious, polite, and very efficient. The other hotel at the Aventina where we usually stay in Rome is mostly staffed by Filipinos too. Needless to say, service is excellent!
Niño gave our “his” and “hers” keys, instructions for dinner, and directions to our rooms, which were next to each other and not on separate wings. As we prepared to enter our “own” rooms for the next six days, my husband and I agreed to meet for dinner, like a date, at 7:30 pm. We opened our doors, entered our rooms, and lo and behold we were in two rooms with a common door that opens up the two adjacent rooms and ended up seeing each other from opposite side of the rooms. However, we still had to contend with single beds. One thing I was right about was the wooden furniture and the simplicity of the rooms. Nothing fancy but very cozy only basic and functional furniture that the College of Cardinals would need. No wifi but cable internet is available for Eur 3.00 per day, a 21″ flat screen TV with CNN and BBC as the only English channels. Just as I imagined, the ceilings are high, white washed walls, and the windows open wide overlooking a courtyard. The windows have three layers of closures, sliding wooden shutters, glass shutters that swing from the inside, and internal shutters to cover the glass shutters. That’s enough to keep the room warm during the winter.
The rooms were designed for male occupants (there are no female cardinals, yet). There is no dresser, nor a full length mirror, and a trash bin in the bathroom to dispose female sanitary pads. Only an office table and a chair, drawers, and wardrobe cabinets generously filled with hangers. As expected, there is a crucifix above the single bed, and a picture of The Mother and Child on the other bed in the adjacent room. What was missing was a Holy Bible which you usually find in most hotels. Even the hotel in Muslim dominated city like Dhaka had one placed on the side table.
After getting settled in our rooms, we proceeded to the dining area for our first meal at the Vatican. Again no frills, immaculate white linens with complete table setting, red and white wine for each table, and a buffet set up for salads and fruit. Servers were well groomed, uniformed with a bow tie, white shirt, and an off-white vest and dark pants. It may sound formal but everything was very low key as the interior of the Sanctae Marthae. We shared a table with a German guest who was at the Vatican for The XII Festival Internazional Di Musica E Arte Sacra and was kind enough to give away tickets for the different performances during the week. We were then joined by two American women from Massachusetts, one attending the Brain and Bread Conference organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The other lady was very discreet (more like vague) about her purpose of visit but seemed to be a regular and had access to the most private conversations and areas (I mean geographical and not anatomical sense) in the Vatican. Then came a very friendly lady from Argentina, who has been good friends with the Pope since he was a priest. She recently published a book on Human Trafficking and is participating as an observer at a Trafficking Conference also sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
About 15 minutes into the meal, the central wooden door opened and a couple of priests entered quietly. The door remained open until the Man in off white robes discreetly entered the dining hall. Because I was hungry and was busy with my food and talking with the other diners, it took awhile for me to realize who just walked in to dine with the commoners. For one thing his garb blended with the white washed walls and the table linens! Once you realize the importance of this figure, you slightly choke on your food, spill your drink, and lose your poise as you try to stand and acknowledge his presence. As I clumsily try to stand dazed with food in my mouth, the reflexes of my esophagus become just as confused on whether to push the food down or back upwards. Not good timing for motion sickness! As people say, the “first is always special”…. And the first siting of the Pope was AWSOME!
As explained by those “on the know”, Pope Francis prefers the simplicity of the Sanctae Marthae than the actual residence assigned to the Pope (where Pope Bennedict and Pope John Paul and other previous Popes lived). He also appreciates dining with the rest of the Vatican Staff and visitors. During meals, the Pope sits at the round table at the center of the dining room where he is served by the same staff as other diners. He eats the same food, and drinks the same wine. During dinner, everyone is served with food straight from the kitchen. During breakfast, it is buffet style. The pope has his own buffet table near where he sits but he too gets his own breakfast from the buffet (some wives might think he would make a good husband).
As we settled at the Sanctae Marthae, we felt more at ease knowing that the Holy See is under the same roof. Until one day when the elevator stopped on his floor and I had a (not so) wishful thought of Pope Francis getting on the elevator with us. What do we do? Run? Get off the elevator?? Kiss his hand??? Kiss his feet???? Look invisible????? The elevator doors slide open, and true enough a tall Italian man in a dark grey suit gets on the elevator followed by the Pope! ….My instincts told me to RUN!!! He was friendly and greeted us with a nod (no parla ingles). Like a neighbor in our condo building getting on the elevator, Pope Francis was very casual. His greeting was more like “How’s it going?” than “May the Lord be with you.” We politely greeted him back, then decided to stare at the floor until he got off the elevator.
There are several guests at the Sanctae Marthae on a daily basis, mostly men in black. Some seeking audience with the Pope, or attending other meetings at the Vatican, while some are on retreat. It is the dining area where everyone gathers for a one hour meal. Breakfast is from 7:30 to 8:30, lunch is from 13:00 to 14:00, and dinner is from 18:30 to 20:30. And if you share every meal with the same people for a full week, you somehow form a bond. Except with the Pope! You even get to know the dining staff. Not everyone will speak English nor Italian but somehow interesting conversations ensue with hand signals and facial expressions. It is a very informal setup which is influenced by Pope Francis, the most important resident at Sanctae Marthae, but the sense of formality is brought on by some guests. Some in good ways, some in an over emphasized manner. With social media, it has become a norm to document ones experiences, especially those that are as important as dining with the Pope. However, there is an irony about being in close proximity with the Pope on a daily basis. Although there are no formal nor written rules about cameras, taking pictures in the dining area during meals seemed inappropriate and taking pictures of food (as many of us do today) seemed like an embarrassing act, thus a missed opportunity to document a once in a lifetime experience As my aunt would say, “In the old days, we’d pray before eating, today, we take pictures of our food!” The best I could do was to take a photo of his back while he walked to St. Peter’s for the Cardinal’s mass, and as he got on his Popemobile for the Wednesday audience.
This trip to the Vatican is an experience to remember. I tried to capture as much as I could by memory during our stay even with the lack of pictures. However, it was so much better “being in that moment” than fiddling with a camera. As a friend of mine told me recently, we sometimes lose that connection when we are preoccupied with taking pictures.
Since seeing Pope Francis in person, I have a better appreciation of what he is trying to do for the Catholic Church. All that good stuff we hear about him on the news are all true! He lives by example, by being humble, compassionate, and tries to spread the love. His presence and the aura he brings is all that!
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Peru is gastronomically memorable. I can very much relate to the history of Peru because, like the Philippines, it was colonized by the Spaniards for a couple of centuries. The incas encountered Pizzaro, while the malays in the Islas of the Philippines fought against Magellan.
However, much of the incas heritage and culture are well preserved, especially in Cusco, Ollyantambo, and the Sacred Valleys of Urubamba, Pisac, and Moray leading up to Machu Pichu. While walking along the narrow streets of cusco, you will encounter quechuenos and quechuenas in their colorful traditional garbs and are most willing to pose for a 'foto' for un soles (0.40 cents US). You will also be surprised at how well they can speak English with clear diction and proper grammar. Not surprising if one day call centers will sprout in Peru, because the cusquenos and the Quechuans are potentially better English speakers than most call centers I have dealt with!
I tried my best (but my best was not good enough) to learn Spanish and practice it with my Latino friends in the USA in preparation for my trip to Peru. I took lessons during one of our trips to Colombia but mostly retained the bad words. During a previous trip to Ecuador, locals expected me to speak Spanish because I come from a once upon time Spanish colony. I received an occasional frown and an accusing look for refusing to speak Spanish. Unfortunately, I was the first batch of college students in the Philippines deprived of the compulsory Spanish class because the Aquino Government, back then, thought it would be more nationalistic to only speak Tagalog, hoping to make the country just as progressive as China because the Chinese did not or could not speak English! Well, "look at them Chinese now, Tita Cory!"! Who knows if some one actually did a peer reviewed study on this theory but in my experience, knowing a second language (not English!) like Spanish (ok, maybe French too) is certainly an asset. However, knowing un poco of spanish was not that useful especially if you are in the most touristy parts of Peru with a bunch of white Americans who were more than able to speak Spanish. They were good, and I felt like crap!
According to one of our guides, Elias, Quechuan dialect once experienced threat of extinction because it was associated with lower class society. To speak Spanish was considered more of an advantage. Today, the Quechuan dialect is being protected by the government and has been included in the educational system, but Spanish remains the main language in Peru.
During our tour of Cusco, our guides Zacharria and Diego promised us packed lunches. I imagined it to be rice and beans, possibly with corn, and a meat dish, or maybe just chicken sandwich and chips in a "eco-friendly" styrofoam box, packed in a paper bag, and will most likely be consumed in the van or during one of our stops. Instead, they dropped us off on the side of the road, made us walk along a dirt road surrounded by eucalyptus trees until we reached a small open area with newly mowed grass or so it seemed. Here, Jose, the chef (yes a chef in the midst of the Andes!) and his team set up tents and a long table with crystal wine glasses, and silverware and white linen. Appetizers of fried orange sweet potato and fried corn were passed around with cerveza. My embarrassing idea of lunch was replaced by guacamole on fried wonton for starters, salad greens with capers, sliced avocados, and cubed Andean cheese, broccoli soufflé, braised beef with mushrooms, and finely, mashed yellow potatoes, and long grain rice possibly cooked in beef broth. Jose and his team made a repeat performance at the Sacred Valley with fried breaded chicken, aborigine soufflé and lucuma dessert, then another repeat performance in Maras!
Aside from the fascinating ruins of the incas and the colonial architecture of the Spaniards, the flavors and aesthetic qualities of Peruvian cuisine is a major take away from visiting the country. Traditional foods have evolved with modern cuisine and is highly dependent on the innovative skill of the chef. The suspiro ala limenia, a dessert made of the lucuma fruit was served as a simple orange pudding, ad on another occasion, with toasted and sweetened bulgur wheat. Bulgur wheat reminds me of a PL480 food assistance item given to poor people, and is usually unpalatable, and inedible!!! But Jose did magic with it and the result was esta muy buena!
Trout is the most common seafood in inca country, it makes a great ceviche better than tuna or tilapia, which I am used to. In Ollyantambo, the restaurant (which I cannot recall the name) served an interesting trout dish called Andean nuggets. Cooked with quinoa, and served with fried mashed papas, the andean nuggets is light on the belly and goes very well with a glass of pisco sour. It is probably better off as a happy hour dish than a meal.
Aside from the pisco, chicha is another local drink. Made from fermented germinated corn, with a slight fermented smell, the chicha is not as appealing as the pisco. Adding strawberries to the fermented liquid gives it a more aesthetic pink color and acceptable flavor.
You can have corn in many different ways in Peru. For un soles, you can buy salted fried or popped or roasted maize from the evening street vendor. For 9 soles, you can have a nicely packed picante fried maize. Both boiled and roasted maize are also added to ceviche to add crunch to the dish. The purple maize is served for dessert or as a drink.
One cannot miss out on causa, which was served as a cold appetizer. It makes a complete meal on its own but it is difficult to refuse lomosaltado once it is presented to you .
The alpaca is not only good for warm clothing but it also makes a delicious chunk of medium rear steak! No apologies here to my vegan friends, but the alpaca meat was more appetizing than USDA beef, and without the foul beef odor. A less beefy and more poultry in flavor and texture is the fried cuy. Surprisingly, the fried cuy is not a regular item on any menu. While visiting the weaving village right about lunch time, the vice president of the village was kind enough to share their lunch of fried cuy and boiled yellow and white potatoes. Seasoned with salt and pepper, deep fried in oil of unknown origin, the cuy loses its form so it can be anything you want it to be. They make cute pets while they are alive but are very good source of nourishment.
The tuqueno con guacamole in Pisac is an appetizer but was so filling that it left no room for an entree or even the orange quinoa soup with jullienned carrots. The tuqueno is fried wonton filled with andean cheese served with guacamole.
What is Andean cheese? This is white, lightly salted, firm, heavier (I think it has more cream) type of cheese. At the Casa Andina, andean cheese was served plain for breakfast and as part of their unlimited tapas (andean cheese in oil) during happy hour.
The Horseback ride through towns of Huicho, Huayllabamba, and Urquillo was amazing, although my horse was a bit cranky. The old town, the horses and the locals in cowboys hats made me feel like I was in a Western movie. All we needed was John Wayne to suddenly appear!
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