Chiclo con queso with a side of George Eliot

I’ve been elbow-deep in research for my fast-approaching trip to Peru, and had little time to do any other reading. (There’s a stack of Neil Gaiman books awaiting my attention, tempting me to set aside my more productive reading. Alas, I know the importance of a well-planned trip and have resisted Gaiman’s sweet, sweet literary temptation. So far.)

You know the phrase, “I can rest when I’m dead”? Well, I can read when I’m in Peru, though I have not yet attacked the all-important task of choosing my travel books. I usually save this step for two to three weeks before my departure, theorizing that my mood then might be different than my mood now. I might be craving something contemporary, or a story set on the high seas, or, in the case of my trip to Alaska, a book set in a cold climate. Which is how I discovered Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. I am absolutely convinced that fate has a hand in my selection of certain travel books over others. I read A Confederacy of Dunces in Morroco, Moby Dick while staying on a friend’s yacht in Barcelona, Don Quixote in Ireland, Middlemarch in Italy, and The Best of Roald Dahl in Norway. I fully recognize that thematically there ought to have been some James Joyce in Ireland—I did attend the Bloomsday Festival in Dublin, after all—and the Don Quixote ought to have been read in Barcelona. But I selected Roald Dahl not realizing that his parents were Norwegian, and had no idea that Dorothea Brooke honeymoons in Italy when I chose Middlemarch. What can I say? It’s about whatever book happens to be beckoning me at that particular time. I’m curious, and terribly excited, to see what books will accompany me to Peru.

It’s worth noting that Peru has been at the top of my travel list—along with India and Ireland, the latter of which I crossed off my list in 2011—since I was a child. My brother and I used to play four corners, a game in which LP_PERU_cparticipants hide in a corner as silently as possible and whoever’s it attempts to guess their location. My dad would dim the lights and play Peruvian pipe music softly in the background. I’ve dreamed of alpacas and ruins strewn across the Andes ever since. And the fact that I’m actually going to be there makes me giddy with joy. And the remarkable luxury of traveling validates every decision I’ve made as an adult—however questionable to others, especially my impractical career as a journalist.

But it is not my intention to assuage my wanderlust at the expense of my literary responsibilities and projects. In fact, I’ve found that traveling is the best possible fodder for my imagination. My second book, which I’m currently in the process of writing, was conceived on a trip to Rome, and there are many elements of Scourge of the Righteous Haddock that were directly inspired by other cultures and landscapes. If you’re in the business—or hobby, in my case, as I’ve yet to make any money off it—of creating fantasy worlds, you don’t have to look very far for inspiration. In fact, you don’t even have to look beyond our own planet to discover rich, foreign customs and foods, architecture and lifestyles. Depending on your reader, the fantasy world might just be our own seemingly-mundane reality, a point I tried to make in Scourge of the Righteous Haddock with a character for whom hamburgers are an exotic delight.

Fantasy worlds abound. Adventure is out there. And if you hit it just right, your days, weeks, months, years globe-trotting can be some of the most intense of your life. While I don’t necessarily think there’s a wrong way to see the world—actually, I take that back because as I was typing a vision of the Ugly American Tourist filled my head, yelling loudly in English at some poor shop owner in a country that speaks another language. I’ll amend my statement: there are many different ways to see the world. I prefer traveling to vacationing. I don’t necessarily have a definition for the two terms, but think of vacationing as a trip that involves a resort, pale beaches, lots of time to lounge, and alcoholic beverages with chunks of pineapple. Traveling can involve a few of these elements, but it also involves hostels, hiking, food from street vendors, exhaustion, and, to be perfectly blunt, a good stock of Immodium. If traveling sounds stressful, it’s because it is. And if it sounds exhausting, well, it’s that too. But it’s a rush. And it’s one of the few things that has turned out to be exactly as good as I thought it would be when I was a child day-dreaming about foreign lands and peoples.

I drew on these experiences while writing Scourge of the Righteous Haddock. The exotic beverage consumed in the Hvshi—airag—is an actual drink I learned about while researching a trip to Mongolia (which, sadly, I have yet to take, but it’s on the list). This is what a Wikipedia search on airag turned up.

Airag, also spelled ayrag, the Mongolian word for fermented horse milk; see kumis, the name under which it is more widely known throughout Central Asia. It is an alcoholic spirit.

Rather than greedily hoard key facts and anecdotes about this incredible country I will visit in October (maybe November?), I’ve plucked some of my favorite excerpts from Lonely Planet Peru to share with anyone who happens to be curious, or simply has an appreciation for the surreal, absurd, mouth-watering, and exotic:

Mythology (a club in central Cuzco): “After midnight the dance floor dependably goes wild, to the sound of ’80s classics, Latino dance favorites and the guy next to the DJ whose job is apparently to shout encouragement to the sweating hoardes.”

Drinking and Entertainment in Peru: “beware the word ‘nightclub’—it is often used in Peru to indicate a brothel.”

Cuzco cuisine, Anticucho: “The Peruvian answer to the lollipop is beef heart on a stick, with a potato on the end for punctuation.”

Choclo con queso: “Choclo are the huge, pale cobs of corn that are typical of the area. Served with a teeth-squeaking chunk of cheese, it’s a great, cheap snack—look out for it in the Sacred Valley.”

El Ayllu: “Beloved by Peruvians for its pastries, especially lengua de suegra and sandwich de cerdo, El Ayllu is a slow-paced, high-ceilinged taste of another time. Most of the solemn, suit-clad staff have worked here for decades. At time of research, to the dismay of the entire population of Cuzco, El Ayllu had just been evicted from its historic home in the Plaza de Armas. Starbucks is said to want the space for its first branch in Cuzco and the Archbishopric, which owns the premises, its inclined to hand it over.”

“The precious crucifix, called El Señor de Temvlores (The Lord of the Earthquakes), can still be seen in the alcove to the right of the door leading into El Trifuno. Every year on Holy Monday, the Señor is taken out on parade and devotees throw ñucchu flowers at him—these resemble droplets of blood and represent the wounds of his crucifixion. The flowers leave a stick residue, to which the smoke of countless votive candles lit beneath him sticks: this is why he’s now black. Legend has it that under his skirt, he’s still as lily white as the day he was made.”

Chucuito: “Its dusty grounds are scattered with large stone phalluses, some up to 1.2m in length.”

Juli: “Past Chucuito, the road curves southeast away from the lake and through the commercial center of llave, best known for its livestock market and a lively sense of community justice, the most famous manifestation of which was the lynching of the town mayor in 2004.”

Late Titicaca Eating & Drinking: “On a cold morning, head to the market for a cup of api—a hot, sweet purple-corn drink.”

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