Sunday, August 20, 2017

PERU: THE LAND AND THE PEOPLE


Years ago, I met a couple who said they were getting ready for a trip to Machu Picchu as part of their backpacking tour of South America. I think I had barely heard of it and was really not quite sure of which country it was in. They made it sound impressive. Of course, not wanting to risk looking stupid, I asked an open-ended question about their travel itinerary and pieced it all together. (I Googled it later.) One of the most iconic places in South America, this ancient Incan city is now a World Heritage Site. 

 
The name Peru is most likely stemmed from Birú; however, who Birú was referring to is somewhat disputed in history. Some believe he was a local ruler who ruled from what is now Panama, but other theories implied that he was a just an Indian crewmember on a ship that belonged to the governor Pedro Arias de Ávila. Regardless of its origin, it eventually changed over to Peru.


Peru is located in the northeastern corner of South America. It borders Ecuador and Colombia to the north, Brazil and Bolivia to the east, and Chile to the south. It also has a long coastline along the Pacific Ocean to the west. The Andes Mountains run down the coastline, dividing the country between the mountainous region and a highlands region. The Amazon rainforest extends itself into Peru as well, and many of the rivers that vein their way through the country are actually extensions of the Amazon River. Because of this immense change in scenery and altitude across the country (along with being near two major ocean currents), Peru has quite a wide biodiversity.



The earliest people in this area were of an agricultural-based society. During the 15th century, the Incan Civilization gained prominence in the Andes, growing to be the largest civilization in the Americas during the pre-Columbian era. With their capital in Cusco, their empire spread pretty much for the entire western seaboard of South America. However, they were no match to the Spanish Conquistadors. They pretty much exploited the people in their search for gold and silver and anything else they thought could turn a quick buck. And the Spanish brought quite a bit to the area: African slaves for labor, diseases, Catholicism, and the Inquisition. It was like a hellish Christmas. By the 18th century, several rebellions and reforms have taken place, but most were suppressed. Much of Central and South America was swept up in the mass independence movements during the early part of the 19th century. Peru was able to gain theirs through the help of Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín and their military power. As a new country, they worked to expand the railroad system and a number of other infrastructure improvements that ended up nearly bankrupting the country. There were a number of conflicts between Peru and its neighbors throughout the latter part of the 19th century and 20th century, several of which ended in many deaths on both sides. Today, the country is working toward a better human rights record, peaceful elections, and more transparency in government. (Most of the rest of us can strive for this, too.)


The capital city of Lima is not only the largest city in Peru, but it’s also one of the largest metropolitan centers in South America. It was named after a famous oracle (Limaq) who lived in the area. The capital city is located along the Pacific coastline about halfway between the borders. Lima (and not the Spanish word for lime, mind you) houses the center of the federal government as well as being a center for commerce, finance, and education. The National University of San Marcos is the oldest continuously functioning university in Latin America, opening its doors in 1551. It’s a global city, holding numerous international competitions, conventions, and events.


Peru’s economy is one of the fastest growing ones in the world. The World Bank classified them as an upper middle income, and they also have a high Human Development Index to match. Inflation is generally low, and unemployment rates are falling. Agrarian reformation and income redistribution has helped with some of this. Services account for more than half of the GDP, followed by manufacturing. Trade has increased through free trade agreements, especially with the US.


Roughly 97% of Peruvians are Christian, with about 80% of them being Catholic. The remaining 3% are non-religious. However, there are also a number of indigenous spiritual traditions that people also adhere to even if they are Christian, and sometimes they merge the traditions of the two. Some of the Incan festivals, such as Inti Raymi, are still celebrated to this day.


Peru lists three official languages: Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara. In areas where other indigenous languages take prevalence, those languages will also have a quasi-official status for that area. Spanish is used as the language of the government and in education and is spoken mostly among the coastal regions. In the mountainous regions and other areas, Quechua and Aymara tend to be spoken more than Spanish, especially in the Amerindian communities.


Lima has made great strides in recent years at really creating a name for itself as one of the global leaders in the culinary scene. Rivaling much larger cities, Lima has several restaurants that have made the list of Top Restaurants in the World. One of the key elements that many of Lima’s restaurants encompass is to embrace its multiculturalism: its demographics include Incan and other indigenous/pre-Columbian cultures, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Lebanese, and several other immigrant cultures. And not only do they embrace it, they blend it and merge it and create something that is quintessentially Peruvian. I’m really excited to venture into this and find out more.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, August 13, 2017

PARAGUAY: THE FOOD


It’s taken a long time to come to this meal. I took one of those rare breaks because the kids started back to school, and I spent the entire weekend that I was supposed to be cooking running around trying to get them school supplies and school uniforms. Plus, sometimes you just need a break. But it’s good to be back at it again. 

The perfect accompaniment to pretty much any meal.
So, today I started with the Sopa Paraguaya, or Paraguayan Cornbread. I dragged out my blender and put in 1 ½ c of frozen corn (that had been thawed) and blended it until it was smooth and poured it into a bowl. In that bowl, I added 1 ½ c of yellow cornmeal, 2/3 c of milk, ¼ c olive oil, 1 ½ c of grated muenster cheese, and 1 tsp of salt and stirred until it was all mixed together and smooth. I sautéed some onions in oil until they were transparent and soft. I put the onions into the corn mixture and stirred them in. In a small bowl, I beat 3 egg whites until they formed peaks and set it to the side while I beat the 3 egg yolks until they were thick. I carefully folded the egg yolks into the egg whites and then added this to the corn mixture, making sure everything is mixed well. At this point, I preheated my oven to 400ºF and greased a 8-9” shallow baking dish with butter and 2 Tbsp of grated Parmesan cheese, shaking the pan slightly to spread it evenly. Once I poured the batter in, I drizzled the top with 1 Tbsp of melted butter and baked it for 45 minutes. I absolutely loved this. It was thick and cheesy at the same time, but because I used muenster cheese, it was a subtler flavor. I think I left mine in the oven until the last possible second—any longer, it would’ve been burnt. But it was good.

Not quite exactly what I envisioned, but I should try it again and do it correctly.
The main dish for today is Pan de Carne, or Paraguayan Meat Loaf. My dad would be so happy knowing that I’m making meat loaf.  This is pretty easy to make. In a large bowl, I mixed together all of the main ingredients: 2 lbs of ground beef, a little flour, a pinch of nutmeg, chopped onion, parsley, thyme, ground cumin, garlic, an egg, salt, and pepper. On a baking sheet, I laid out a sheet of aluminum foil and spread out my ground beef mixture on the foil. Down the middle of the mixture, I spread out my pieces of shredded carrots, sliced green pepper and 3 hardboiled egg that I sliced up. Then I used the foil to help roll up the meat into a log shape. I used the foil to help keep it closed, and I baked this in a 350ºF oven for 50-60 minutes. There were a couple of things I did without thinking of the consequences that kind of messed this up. First of all, I had this sitting seam-side down, so all of the juices leaked out into the baking sheet. And because it did this, it turned out pretty dry, and a lot of the spices I feel leaked out with it because it was also on the bland side. Lesson learned.

Actually, this was quite refreshing. Quite a nice salad for summer.
To go with this, I made Ensalda de Mandioca. The first thing I did was peel the skin off of the yucca roots (also called tapioca or manioc or mandioca). I chopped it into smaller pieces and boiled it with some salt until it was soft. When it was cool, I combined it with some soy sauce, olive oil, garlic, and capers (in lieu of chopped onions). I arranged endive leaves on a plate and put this mixture in the center. Then I mixed together some grated carrots, black olives, and tomatoes together and topped it with parsley. I spread this around the outside of the yucca mixture. And to finish this off, I placed avocado slices on the outside of the plate, drizzling them in a seasoned sauce of olive oil, sesame oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. This was pretty tasty. It was my first time cooking yucca/cassava and eating it in this way. It almost had the consistency of a potato but a little reedy. The soy sauce overpowered any of its natural flavor in this dish. I actually kind of liked this. It was a nice counter dish to the richness/heartiness of the meat and cornbread.

Overall, this turned out to be a really good meal. I really loved this.
Once again, the news has me thinking and overthinking. All day yesterday and today, I couldn’t escape reading about the violence in Virginia from those damn Nazis and white supremacists. Living in a conservative state, it makes me nervous when I hear about this kind of stuff. Especially seeing how I’m married to a black man and have two mixed-race children. I think our educational system has failed us. And it’s failed us all. This is all the result of selective education, hand-picking what they want us know, leaving out the bad parts, telling us we wouldn’t be able to handle the truth, and undermining the entire educational system on a whole. When you have generations of lessons that aren’t based in fact and misconstrued truths, this is what you get. We’re more alike as humans than they care to know. We are better than this.

Up next: Peru

Saturday, August 12, 2017

PARAGUAY: MUSIC AND DANCE


The folk music of Paraguay is deeply rooted in European musical traditions. One of the styles that has become iconic in Paraguay is the polka. However, what’s different between Paraguayan polka and European-style polka is that European style is based on more binary rhythms and Paraguayan styles combine binary rhythms with ternary rhythms.


Another popular form of folk music is the zarzuela, a Spanish-influenced form that blends operatic lyrical music with dance. The Paraguayan form drew in elements of Paraguayan polka and Guaraní music (and the Guaraní language). 


Many of the instruments commonly used in Paraguayan music were brought over from Europe, like the Spanish guitar and the harp. The harp was one of the first instruments introduced to the native Paraguayans and has been in use since the 1500s. It was far more practical to use in religious services rather than an organ or harpsichord. Typically, it’s made of mahogany or other tropical woods, and the number of strings can vary between 32-46 strings. Although it stands nearly 5’ tall, it is fairly light in construction. The Paraguayan harp is often considered the national instrument. 


I had already mentioned that polka was a popular form of music, so it’s not hard to imagine that the polka dance is also a popular dance form as well. Another dance that is known throughout the country is the bottle dance; it’s signature move is that the performer dances around while balancing a glass bottle on their head. There isn’t a specific musical style associated with this dance, so many different forms can be used to accompany this dance. 


As far as trying to find some bands that were from Paraguay, I had to do a little more digging around than usual. Typically, Wikipedia has been a great resource for listing a bunch of bands or musicians from a country to start with, and I’d go look them up on Spotify. But this one was lacking. However, I did manage to find a few. First of all, I listened to the band Flou. I loved them from first listen. Definitely in the nu metal category, they were loud, but their instrumentals were driving and clean. They kind of reminded me of Disturbed a little bit along with a bunch of other bands. However, they do have a slower, more melodic side to them that I also liked.


Revolber is another hard rock band I listened to. I liked what I heard from them –at times they have almost a punk or ska sound to their music. I think it’s pretty catchy stuff. They remind me a little of Los Rabanes from Panama.


Paiko is a rock-pop band. I listened to several of their songs, and they have quite a range in styles from rock to reggae to almost a country sound. I’m not a fan of the country sound, but the other stuff was decent.


By now, you should know I have a penchant for punk music. Area 69 fell into this category, and I quite enjoyed it. It was more of that pop-punk style, but that didn’t matter. I still thought it was kind of fun.


I also listened to Kchiporros. It’s hard to explain, but it’s very much Latin pop mixed with reggae. I really like it a lot. It’s very danceable. I found myself listening to it longer than some of the others – although I’m not exactly sure how to pronounce it.

It was hard to find any rappers or hip-hop artists from Paraguay. Not too many popped up for me. However, I did come across one called Rapper Soul. I listened to a few of his tracks. He’s got the rap-rock thing down – kind of in the style of Rage Against the Machine (one of my favorite bands). And like Rage or even Red Hot Chili Peppers, they also incorporate elements of funk into their music as well. I seriously wish I could find more of their stuff.

Up next: the food

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

PARAGUAY: ART AND LITERATURE


The indigenous art of Paraguay is fairly diverse as far as crafts and utensils are concerned, but they are more known for their basket weaving and featherwork. The baskets were used for a variety of purposes and came in a number of different styles. Most of these baskets are woven using the fibers of canes, and not only do they weave baskets, they also weave mats, shades, fans, and the piri (a type of hat worn by country folk). Many of these products are also made with leather (or are made entirely of leather as well). The related art of wickerwork also uses a number of different kinds of palms. 


Featherwork was also used as a part of their fashion and accessories. It was mainly used in bracelets, anklets, and collars. However, it was also used in headdresses (often used in ceremonies) and even cloaks, like what was worn by Guaraní medicine men. Embroidery and other textile arts are also very common. The Jesuits and Spanish introduced different techniques to the Guaraní that they built upon. One style of embroidery that is widely known from Paraguay is Ñandutí. I love the shading they use here; it creates quite a dramatic effect.





Like most other cultures, ceramics were an important part of their development. Most of their ceramics were divided between two purposes: functional (cooking, food storage, medicinal) and ceremonial (funeral urns). Ceramics is an artform primarily learned by women. Wood carving is also a traditional art. Smoking pipes, chairs and other pieces of furniture, and wooden masks are some of the items that are most commonly carved. Animals and anthropomorphic characters were often carved out of wood and gourds.

 
"Meditacion" by Olga Blinder

Today, there are many Paraguayan artists who work in a variety of mediums: Julia Isídrez (ceramics), Juana Marta Rodas (ceramics), Ricardo Migliorisi (painter, architect, scenery designer, costumer), Jenaro Pindú (architect, sculptor, cartoonist), Félix Toranzos (architect, artist, graphic designer), Edith Jiménez (engraving, plastic arts), Pedro Di Lascio (engraver, painter), Serafín Marsal (sculptor), Olga Blinder (engraver, sculptor, painter), Hermann Guggiari (sculptor, engineer), Elsa Wiezell (painter), Lilí del Mónico (painter, artist), Juan Sorazábal (painter), Ignacio Núñez Soler (painter), Josefina Pla (painter, art critic), Livio Abramo (engraver, sketcher), Feliciano Centurión (plastic arts), and Mabel Arcondo (artist, painter).

 
"Cristo" by Hermann Guggiari

Paraguay has a diversely strong literary history, despite many authors finding it easier to get published in other South American countries. The vast majority of literature is written in Spanish. Juan Silvano Godoi was a political journalist during the mid-1800s and rose to prominence while helping to rebuild the country after the war.


Gabriel Casaccia

Gabriel Casaccia is often considered the father of modern Paraguayan literature. Although he started out studying law, he jumped into journalism after he graduated (I’m sure his parents were thrilled). He ended up writing for a few magazines and literary journals, and eventually wrote his own fiction novels, short stories, and even a play.

 
Hérib Campos Cervera

As far as poets go, Hérib Campos Cervera is one of Paraguay’s more important poets. He was quite an outspoken poet, especially against the government and leadership. And because of his Marxist viewpoints, making him a political target, he had found himself on the run a couple of times in his life.

 
Roque Vallejos

Another poet, Roque Vallejos, actually started out as a forensic surgeon before he became a poet and essayist. (Less chance of killing someone that way.) He was part of a literary group called 60 Generation, which was a well-known group of writers who focused mainly on socio-political issues of the time.  



Up next: music and dance