Thursday, January 7, 2010

SAIGON (2009)



     Riding into town from the airport in Ho Chi Minh City (hereafter Saigon, as many still call it) I was struck by the modernity of it all. Glitzy stores named (in English) Love Affair, Itsy-Bitsy, Peek-a-Boo, Splash and Soho appear amidst old-fashioned Vietnamese shops and food stalls, run by village women wearing conical straw hats. Expensive condo developments entice you with names like The Lancaster, The Legend, and The Heritage. The sidewalks feel as though they’re being laid in front of you as you walk. There’s construction everywhere, a surge of economic uplift (which disappears quickly as you leave the city) along with aggressive mercantile energy.  There’s little feel of Communist severity here these days. It’s a lively place, bordering on the chaotic, but the mood is upbeat and the place is colorful--many buildings are painted blue and pink, red, yellow, and green (it looks like Mexico City from the air). 

     When I think of Saigon, I can’t get the traffic out of my head.  It’s one of the most fascinating displays of human adaptive behavior I’ve witnessed anywhere, a fusion of stock car racing and ballet. Motor bikes—thousands and thousands of them-- far outnumber cars (the few you do see are often exceedingly expensive BMWs, Mercedes and bulky sport vans). The city is filled with constantly flowing traffic, helmet-clad drivers beeping and honking ceaselessly like a flock of flatulent sheep. 

     The traffic moves like a school of fish heading downstream, tilting, veering, swarming, speeding up and slowing down, sliding in and out, directed by an unconcious voice of the collective. I saw a man holding his infant son with one arm as he drove, engraving the motion into the boy’s body.  People hop on, side-saddle, and zip off with ease, like slipping on a pair of flip-flops and going for a stroll. I saw no accidents (except my own, when I got knicked by a bike going the wrong way), few applications of brakes, and a paucity of traffic lights to control the frenzy. It appears to control itself. The show is amazing, especially at traffic circles.

     Crossing the street or riding on the back of a motorbike provided some of the thrill of being in Saigon, something akin to the mixture of fear and fun that you get in an amusement park. At many intersections, one must simply walk into a gap in the traffic and hope that the waters will part as you inch your way across the street. My technique was to stand near a sturdy local, take a deep breath and enter the fray with them.

     On Saturday night along the park the kids line up their scooters, front wheels pointing toward the street, and hang out around their bikes near the Ben Than Market. As many people undoubtedly live in tightly confined spaces, one’s motorbike can become an extension of home. Even when it pours, thin plastic hooded raincoats come out, and the traffic roars on. Few people walk, and pedestrians have minority status.

     The visceral thrill of the traffic make Saigon’s other attractions seem tame. Most of what’s interesting to tourists is located in District One. It’s surprisingly fancy, with designer stores, swanky high-rise hotels, and small, well-kept parks. The old Rex Hotel was fun for a drink; you can imagine Saigon in it’s colonial days. But we found a more intriguing view of Saigon outside the center. We hunted for a street market we’d noted on the map and ended up at Cho Ng Th.Trung (off Dai Lo Tran Hung Dao in District 5). Passing by an area of casket makers, their shops decorated with colorful funeral adornments, we saw a woman making paper lanterns, carefully painting their caligraphic images, and we saw enough nurseries to suggest that house plants are a popular here. We had one of the best meals of our stay at this neighborhood market—a noodle soup brightened with a pile of mixed aromatic herbs heaped on just before eating. The fact that the fresh noodle factory was just across the street guaranteed their freshness.


     Although there seem to be hundreds of tour companies offering trips outside the city, we opted to visit the Cao Dai Temple, about 3 hours north, on our own (with the help of a hired car and driver).  There are no expressways in Saigon, so it took almost 2 hours of driving before we reached true countryside. The blur of urban construction was fairly uniform and modern, its most distinctive feature being sheer expanse.


      Cao Dai, founded only in 1926, is an eclectic mix of religion, philosophy and mysticism whose deities incude Jesus, Joan of Arc and Victor Hugo. It claims millions of adherents and at one point was so powerful that it had its own army. We arrived in time for the daily noon service, in which hundreds of white clad men and women chanted in unison amidst gaudy, Disney-goes-Hindu décor.

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     The mania for learning English makes it fairly easy for western travellers in Saigon. We met Kim, a 24-year old health insurance salesman, who also runs a small guest house where he hosts a weekly English club on his rooftop terrace. He urged us to come as it was Halloween and he wanted help with decorations and make-up. I sat next to four bright eyed thirteen-year old girls with black Halloween smudges on their faces.  Their English was impressive. “So what do you think of Obama?” I asked. “I like Bush better,” one of them answered. “My aunt lives in Missouri and she told me he was better because he sends out a lot of Christmas cards.” I don’t know how I missed that fact during the presidential debates, but I tried to suggest that maybe thinking about a dishonestly begun war and the deaths of thousands would provide a better standard of judgement.  Her eyes opened wide and she replied, “Yes, maybe I should think about that.” While most of the English students were quite young, I sat next to one older woman who was missing a few teeth.  She is a maid who cleans the house of a couple from Bulgaria. I wondered how many maids in other countries were learning English. 
 
FOOD
 At Quan Loan (at the corner of Hai Ba Trung and Ly Tu Trong) we sat on little plastic stools along with other guys drinking beer and downing snacks.  The pickled vegetable fried with garlic, grilled okra and whole fish with miso dip, the beef satay, and the shrimp “sweet leaves” salad were all expertly prepared. So good, in fact, that we didn't notice the fumes of passing motorbikes.
Quan An Ngon (160 Pasteur) is an attractive and popular (with tourists and locals) upscale restaurant  where you can see the food being prepared, street stall style. It's a good place to try traditional dishes in a nicer-than-market setting.
Dín Ký (137 C. Nguyen Trai) restaurant is worth a visit just to read the menu: crocodile, chicken testicles, ox penis and deer tendon were just a few of the oddities you’ll find. We ordered the 'black chicken' which came whole in its truly black broth in a little crock.
     Other Saigon food highlights include the already-mentioned Ben Than Market, which has numerous food stalls with photo menus. One stand offering an amazing variety of shellfish served juicy scallops tossed with chile and herbs that was outstanding.

     Ché cháp cam (“sweet soup”) was another market treat—we had a different one each day. These colorful drinks combine coconut with a wide array of small additions: tapioca pearls, sago buttons, beans, corn and more providing curious textural contrasts. 

HOTELS
We first stayed at the Sophia Hotel (about $50 per bnight) which was clean and neat, rooms a bit small but well appointed, nice bathroom, free internet. Later we switched to the Duna Hotel.  The top floor room 901 has great views. The free tube of toothpaste at the Duna was the smallest I've ever seen, barely one good squeeze, its color  a frightening emerald green, the texture a mix of window putty and gummy bears. But how surprised I was to see it, tucked into its white cardboard carton along with a perfectly serviceable toothbrush, at a $25 dollar a night hotel.  The place had charm, if not elegance.  I liked the area better than that of the Sophia.

 A few other highlights of Saigon are:
The Reunification Palace, designed by Paris-trained architect  Ngo Viet Thu is a designer's dream-come-true of high 1960’s style.
The Museum of Fine Arts is notable for its fine colonial architecture, but the art collection itself (especially the newer stuff) is almost a joke. 
Check out Nguyen Trai street at night for a glimpse of what young, trendy Saigonese are up to. 
The  zoo and botanical gardens offer atractive relief from the steam heat. 

While Hanoi definitely trumps Saigon in terms of charms, I found the brassy energy of the place extremely seductive, the food great, and the people, as all over Vietnam, warm, welcoming, and inquisitive.  
 

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

BANGKOK


BANGKOK

Jim's Bangkok Tips (updated Jan. 2017)

Important! Check that your passport has 6 months left on it from the date of your arrival in Thailand, a requirement for entry.

Get the app MAPS.ME on your iPhone, then download the map of Thailand. I just discovered this recently and found it incredibly helpful getting around Bangkok, a very complicated city.

Get Nancy Chandler’s map of Bangkok on Amazon. The graphics are a bit cutesy but it’s full of great information.  Updates--lots of good info--are posted here:  http://www.nancychandler.net/bangkok-updates.html

At the airport, ignore anyone offering you taxi services and follow signs downstairs to 'public taxis'. Tell the dispatcher where you're going. You get a ticket and will be shown to a metered cab. You pay 2 tolls in addition the the meter fare if the taxi takes the freeway (say yes if he asks). Give money to the driver at the tollbooths (around 40 baht each).

Check www.kayak.com for flights to Asia, www.airasia.com for cheap flights within the region; also www.silkair.com and www.nokair.com—these small airlines often do not show up on sites like Travelocity.
www.fireflyz.com.my is a Malaysia based airline serving smaller towns in SE Asia.

A good website about Bangkok—
http://www.thaizer.com


Drink lots of water and have a good supply of moist towlettes--it's hot and humid there.


WHERE TO STAY

Check this website--http://www.thaizer.com/accommodation/where-to-stay-in-bangkok/ which describes the various areas of Bangkok with hotel recommendations.

Check www.asiarooms.com for all hotel bookings in Asia. www.agoda.com is another hotel site I frequently use. Booking online is almost always lots cheaper than just walking into a hotel.

When booking a hotel, try to get something near to public transportation--the Skytrain (known as BTS, which, when spoken as in English, most taxi drivers will understand), metro or the riverboat.

You may have heard of Khao San Road, but don't stay there unless the idea of a non-stop international frat party sounds good. For single travelers, it might be fun.

We've stayed all over town, but we often return to the Bossotel, which is close to both Skytrain (Saphan Taksim stop) and river boat (Sathorn stop), reasonably priced and quite comfy, with a pool and nice breakfast--around $50/night. Hotels in Bangkok can be great bargains. Make sure to get a room with windows facing the street--some face interior airshafts. 
Another charming place we liked, near to the Grand Palace is the Baan Dinso, in an old wooden house. (Make sure it's the Baan Dinso on Trok Sin--they have a branch nearby but not as good). 
Staying in Chinatown is fun, especially since it avoids the trouble of getting a cab out of there at night---drivers are notorious for overcharging. The area between Yowarat Road and the river is great for exploring. We stayed here and loved it: https://www.shanghaimansion.com
We liked the somewhat old fashioned, large Asia Hotel, near to Siam Square. You can walk directly from the hotel onto the skytrain. The area behind the hotel is good for exploring. http://www.asiahotel.co.th/asia_bangkok/
Right across the street from Wat Pho is the Royal Tha Tien Village---nothing royal about it, but it's quite nice (lots of wood) and a real bargain--great coffee at their nearby café. http://www.theroyalthatien.com/en-gb/

I plan to stay here on my next trip:  www.loylalong.com I've noticed this old wooden house perched over the river for years, and now it's a B&B. And it's located inside the grounds of a Buddhist temple!

TRANSPORTATION

Taxis are very cheap, but you might spend lots of time sitting in traffic. Tuk-tuks are fun once, and then you realize they cost way more than taxis, you don't see much because of the low roofs, and you get to breathe in all the exhaust fumes. The above ground Skytrain (BTS) and underground metro (MRT) are very useful as is the riverboat.

SIGHTS

Any guidebook will give you the greatest hits (Grand Palace, Jim Thompson House, Chinatown, e.g.), but here's my list than includes some Top 10 stuff, plus other off-the-beaten-track suggestions. What I love to do most in Bangkok is just wander through different neighborhoods. There is always a surprise. (Find these all on google maps or maps.me)

Don't miss Wat Pho, the best of all the temples (you'll be templed-out fast) which is covered in ceramic tiles. 

Not far from Wat Pho is the lovely Saranrom Park for a chill-out moment.

One of my favorite things to do is to take the public canal boat from behind the Golden Mount (also known as Wat Sakhet) along the klong (canal) Saen Saep to the commercial shopping district (Pratanum stop). 

Shopping malls: I can't imagine recommending a visit to a shopping mall anywhere else in the world, but those in Bangkok are exceptional--like going to an amusement park. My favorite is Central World (be sure to visit the supermarket in the 7th floor!), which is best approached from the Chit Lom sky train stop. You can enter the mall from the elevated walkways--very sic-fi. 

Behind Central World is the Centara Grand Hotel, whose Red Sky Bar has amazing views--go before sunset. Very James Bond. 

The Erawan Shrine, across from Central World is a Buddhist shrine where you can see traditional dancing around 6pm every night. It's quite a sight, right in the midst of the busiest part of the city.

Pak Klong Talat is the wholesale flower market, which comes to life very late at night--nice after-dinner outing. 

Don’t miss the Bangkokian Museum, in an old house—a slice of the past. 273 Soi Charoendrung 43, Bangrak (open Wed.-Sun. 10 to 4). If you’re lucky (and she’s still alive) you’ll meet the elderly owner. This was our favorite of the old houses.
M.R. Kukrit’s house is another good one, more elegant, as is Jim Thompson’s house.


Bumrungrad International Hospital is a stop on the 'medical tourism' route, and where you should go if you have any health problems.

FOOD

After years of experience, we've learned that the best Thai food is found on the streets. We have never gotten sick. You will see food being sold all over. My advice is--if you seem something tempting, try it! At worst, I've had some dull food, but often it's great. Something I eat every day in Thailand (sometimes twice a day) is green papaya salad (som tom), sold from pushcarts on the street. They will ask how many chilies you want--my limit is two (and I like hot food, but those Thai chilies are HOT!).

Lots of places set up a night with tables and chairs on the street--ask at your hotel for best street food areas, or you will just see them--if it's busy, it means it's good. 

The Chatuchak Weekend Market is fun for craft-y shopping (get there before noon). There's lots of food here, but just a few blocks away is the Or Kor Tor Market , an amazing display of all kinds of food, which you can eat there. It's right at the Kamphaeng Phet metro stop (the underground metro is known as MRT). 

In terms of 'real' restaurants, I can't think of one that has truly impressed me. Many Thai restaurants seem to be mostly for tourists (I think when Thais go out they want Italian or Chinese food) and it's often 'dumbed down' (less spicy). We did have a good meal at Baan Chiang, not far from the Bossotel--in an old wooden house. 

Check out this article: https://www.eatingthaifood.com/best-restaurants-bangkok-2016/


BEYOND BANGKOK

We finally went to Ayutthaya, the former capital of Thailand, on this last trip and loved it. We took the train (90 minutes). The best part of the visit was staying at this hotel:
Ruen Tub Tim, is on a no-car island just a short boat ride from the main attractions. It was a magical experience to stay in this old Thai house (some attached rooms are new but in the same traditional style). The food at the night market at the boat stop was fantastic. If you go by train, call ahead to arrange for them to meet you at the riverboat dock, which is just a block away from the train station. Arrange for a boat ride around the big island to visit the old temples and palaces.

A FEW USEFUL WORDS

SOI means alley or small road. Important roads (Samsen, Charoen Krung, Silom, Sukhumvit) have lots of sois off them in numerical order--odd numbers on one side, even on the other, so an address might read ’12 Samsen soi 4’, which means building number 12 on the 4th soi off Samsen Road. Most address just have the soi number, not the building number—you just head down the soi until you see what you are looking for.
THA means pier.
THANON is another word for road
TALAT means market








































Tuesday, January 5, 2010

PHNOM PENH, SIEM REAP, January 2006

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A few hours after we arrived Nick was ready to leave, but Cambodia’s capital did eventually grow on us. There is no visual allure, apart from some very gorgeous temples and the royal palace, so the appeal is in trying to figure out what’s going on here. Being aware of the devastation wrought by the Khmer Rouge creates a soft spot in the heart which encourages curiosity. When the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, the entire population was forced to leave the capital, and there is a sense of recovery from that harrowing time. There are some beggars with a variety of missing limbs, or no limbs at all. The city is low and spread out. The French built wide streets and there are long walls protecting government buildings and foreign embassies, making walking in the heat and humidity no fun. Luckily you can rent a tuk-tuk (like a golf cart) with driver for $15 a day. Unlike Bangkok, where the traffic is so bad that a tuk-tuk ride is a torture, here it is a pleasure, at just the right speed. Traffic, like in Hanoi, is creative. No one (but me) seems to mind a direct turn into the oncoming lane.
We stayed at the Casa Hotel (www.casahotel.net or look on www.asiarooms.com which will probably have a better rate) which was clean, comfortable and quiet ($40). Ask for a room facing the river. There is a pool on the 4th floor and some sort of weird casino/club/bordello (we never really figured it out) on the 3rd floor. One day we walked in and saw a man praying at a small Buddhist shrine in the lobby.
The Silver Pagoda is the main tourist sight in Phnom Penh, very beautiful. We didn’t visit the Khmer Rouge reminders of the Killing Fields or the Torture Museum, but bought some books and DVD’s to take home. There are not a whole lot of major attractions here, but we enjoyed riding around the city in the tuk-tuk. The shopping is not bad. The Central Market is a big deco-style dome that looks like something out of a 1930’s sci-fi movie. You can find clothes with DKNY and Calvin Klein labels (they use the cheap Cambodian labor) at very low prices. The so-called Russian Market has the best shopping for tourist goods—silk, lacquer items, Buddha sculptures. (We also ate one of our favorite things at a stall there—an omelet-like thing with bean sprouts and pork) The shopping highlight for me was The Mat Shop (No.5 Street 108, Sanghat Wat Phnom, near the river) which sells beautiful straw mats, used in houses and temples, in lots of colors and designs.
Cambodian food is similar to Thai, but less spicy. We ate twice at the Khmer Kitchen
(no. 41 Rue 310, corner of Rue 57)—be sure to go upstairs in this old wooden house.
We also ate well at Goldfish River Restaurant (on the river opposite Ph 106)--order the fish amok, the national dish served in a coconut shell
We also liked the Bali Café (379 Sisowath Quay) which has good Indonesian food on a balcony overlooking the river.
In general, the riverside scene, which sounds so nice in the guidebook, consists of a lot of foreigners sitting in wicker chairs drinking beer and limbless beggars pleading for a little piece of bounty. Rarely have I felt so rich and privileged, grateful and uncomprehending, as in Cambodia.
One night along the river we encountered a large crowd paying homage at a small Buddist shrine. Lots of flower and food sellers (including crispy cockroaches and tarantulas),beggars, and bird sellers (you buy one to set it free). Further down the river was an amusement park (near the Hotel Naga) with all kinds of rides and games and dozens of small eateries with only hammocks to sit in.
The other fun thing we did was to go to the movies one hot afternoon. We were attracted by the melodramatic poster outside the theater. This Cambodian-made film seemed to be a fairy tale about a village girl possessed by the spirit of a horse who manages to marry the local prince. It was full of great location scenes in Cambodian peasant villages contrasted with luxurious fake interiors of the royal family, all to a soundtrack of traditional music.
After 3 days in Phnom Penh, we were driven to Siem Reap (almost 5 hrs. away, $45 for car and driver). The ride was fascinating, passing through small villages and seeing only wooden and reed houses along the way. We went there on New Year’s Even to meet our friends Val and John and their 4-year old daughter, Ivy. Ivy was born in Cambodia and they were planning to visit the remote village where she was born.
In Siem Reap (the town nearest Angkor Wat) we stayed at the Bopha Angkor Hotel (book on-line through www.asiarooms.com)--a delightful place with lush gardens, a teakwood restaurant and a crystal clear pool. To visit the ruins, get a car and driver. I also recommend visiting the nearby “floating village”, a riverside community on/in the water—very poor, but fascinating. The ruins of Angkor Wat are amazing, but I felt that I might have been just as happy with a really good episode of the Discovery Channel. I guess I’m just not a big fan of ruins. We had a much more exciting experience last year renting bikes and heading out of town in the opposite direction a few miles, following the river and crossing over a bridge to ride along the dirt road and see the village life of rural Cambodia.
We flew back to Phnom Penh for one night and then back to Bangkok (check www.airasia.com for cheap flights in the region)

PERU (Lima & Arequipa) 2007


A country whose primary food is the potato, and whose economy is largely based on bird manure has an uphill battle to market itself. Everybody dreams of going to Macchu Picchu, but Lima, a 3-hour flight from Panama City, gets bad reports from just about everyone—ugly, dirty, dangerous, boring. Two Peruvian friends practically begged us not to stay in the old part of town. We spent a week there anyway and loved it. It is both ugly and beautiful, dirty and clean (no trash thrown around like in Mexico), dangerous (lots of warnings) and safe (nothing bad happened to us). We took the warnings seriously, however, and went out with little money, no passports (I never do) and the camera hidden in a front pocket.

Lima was the most important Spanish city in South America until the wars of Independence changed the whole ballgame. It has the feel of a place where more important things were happening in years past. Few visitors are likely to fall in love with the city. While it has beautiful things, the overall look is gray and plain. The bad air and daily fog that rolls in from the ocean allow for no gleam or glisten here. There is color, but it tends to be of earthier tones or to look duller because of the light quality—no hot pink!

Although the streets are bustling with people, there is a graphic simplicity to Lima, especially after having gotten used to the visual mayhem of Mexico City. There are few billboards, posters, store signs, not even much graffiti, no glitz, no mess, few street peddlers, and not many tall trees. I found myself looking for laundry hanging out of windows to liven up the view. But then, turning a corner, would be a colonial building with its intricately carved Moorish wooden balcony, or an old eatery with elaborate and colorful mosaic floors, worn smooth or partly eroded, or a bakery displaying a 5-tier birthday cake in the window, with frog-green icing.

But what we look for when traveling, we found here—it feels different. More than the touristic sights, what fascinates me most is what my friend Kathy calls ‘the museum of the streets’—a sense of how people live, what gives a place its sense of identity. In a taxi we heard a radio station where the announcer kept using the work ‘Peruanidad’—‘Peru-ness’ to describe the program. About half the population in Peru is indigenous Indian, the other half a mix of European, African and Asian—not so different from Mexico. The economic statistics are pretty similar, too—more than half (guess which?) lives beneath the poverty line. The Catholic church plays a major part in Peruvian society as well. In spite of these similarities, I knew I was not in Mexico. In our one-week trip, we barely scratched the surface of what that means, but I left happy with the introduction.

We stayed at the once grand Gran Hotel Bolívar, built in 1924 where I kept expecting to see Maggie Smith coming down the hall with a feathered hat and 16 suitcases. Many stars of the past stayed there: Ava Gardner, Maria Felix, Pedro Infante, and the Rolling Stones. It has been refurbished (not remodeled) and still retains its old world charm. The lobby has a stained glass dome, the rooms are huge, clean and comfortable (if you like hard mattresses as I do). Our $70 suite (there are cheaper rooms) had a big living room with sofa, 2 chairs and a writing desk, the bedroom was just as big, the bathroom tiles and tub had been re-surfaced to look new and clean. A balcony overlooked the side street (avoid the rooms facing the noisy Plaza San Martín). Staying at this hotel was one of the highlights of the trip. I was not happy with their (included) continental breakfast, and went out to El Comino for much better café con leche (it’s under the arcade to the left as you exit the hotel) a couple of mornings.

Another place we looked at, but did not stay in, was the Hostal España ((Azángaro 105), a cheap option for backpacker-types that was very charming, and retains its fabulous mosaic floors. There is a nice rooftop terrace area full of plants.

The Plaza San Martin is completely surrounded by white buildings that look a bit like 19th-century Paris. It is connected to the Plaza Mayor by a pedestrian street that was full of people day and night. This area has the highest concentration of colonial architecture, as well as lots of 19th-century buildings and even a few Art Deco (the best one now houses a MacDonald’s).

Within an hour of arrival in Lima we were in the Central Market so Nick could eat ceviche, practically the national dish here. Apparently very few tourists go to the market and people seemed glad to see us. In general, we found the people friendly and open—more so than Mexicans. There is a Barrio Chino behind the market area that is the biggest in Latin American (although much smaller than New York’s). We spent a lot of time wandering streets between the market and the Plaza Mayor, full of old stores and restaurants, many conserving their wonderful tile floors. Don’t miss the Palacio Torre Tagle (Ucayali 363).

Other noteworthy sights within walking distance of the hotel are the Museo Riva-Aguero (Jiron Camaná 459), a museum of popular arts in a very interesting colonial style house, The Museo de Arte (near Parque de la Exposición), with excellent pre-Hispanic ceramics and (don’t miss!) textiles. We stopped for a drink and the best fried squid ever at El Cordano (Ancash 202, just off the Plaza Mayor, facing the beautiful facade of the old Desamparrados train station), which has been around 100 years and feels like it (in a good way). Another evening we had pisco sours at Aires Peruanas (Ruffino Turrico near Emancipación), a ‘peña popular’ where people come after work to hang out, have a beer and dance to live cumbia music. We arrived at 7pm and got the last table.

On weekends at Plaza Italia (a block behind Chinatown) there is a Festival de Sabor Peruano, an outdoor food fair (see below for more food info).

The huge Metro supermarket (Emancipación at Lampa, near the hotel) was fun for people watching and learning the names of unusual fruits and vegetables. The large cubes of compacted beef lung were curious but not tempting--the inexpensive Argentine and Chilean wines were.

The round Plaza Dos de Mayo (which we only saw from a cab) was striking for its identical 19th-century buildings—all painted blue—and the musical instrument stores that filled each one.

Be sure to get a shoe shine in the centro—bring a book to read as it takes about 20 minutes—your shoes will never be cleaner or shinier. Our neighbor Dolores who flies with Aeromexico to Peru had recommended this, and she was right.

Do not be tempted to buy one of the Lima city maps being sold all over the centro—they are useful only if you have a magnifying glass.

A double-decker tour bus that leaves from Plaza San Martín is another way to get around town and save time—there is even a night tour. The website is www.mirabusperu.com. We discovered this too late to make use of it, but it looked like a good idea, esp. if your time is limited.

A short cab ride from the centro is the Museo Larco (Bolívar 1515 in the Pueblo Libre neighborhood) with an excellent collection of pre-Hispanic art. It is famous for its display of curious erotic pottery.

Aside from the centro, the other area of Lima that we enjoyed most was Barranco, the most charming part of town, with a village feel, cafés and restaurants on the cliffs above the ocean, and at least one very good museum, El Museo Pedro de Osma (San Pedro de Osma 423) in a remarkable old private mansion with a good collection of colonial art. We spent an afternoon in Barranco, walking around the main plaza and the more residential area around Plaza San Francisco. If I lived in Lima, it would be here.

The Miraflores area of Lima is sort of a mix of Polanco and the Zona Rosa in Mexico City, but not as interesting as either in my opinion. Most of the city’s best hotels and restaurants are here, as well as several craft malls along Petit Thours where you can pick up a decent alapaca sweater or blanket. We had planned to switch hotels after a few days and stay in Miraflores, but changed our mind after visiting during the day—it all looked too familiar for me. Clean, civilized, upscale, predictable—who cares? We took a one-hour Mirabus tour (see above) of the place and that was enough. The Larcomar shopping mall is impressive, however, for it’s ocean views and good bookstores, although it feels more like Santa Monica, California--but we did eat well in this part of town (see below).

Without Macchu Picchu, I wonder if Peru would be known anywhere in the world. Tens of thousands of tourists flock to the ruins each month, so we decided to avoid them and headed to AREQUIPA, Peru’s second largest city, a 90-minute flight over the Andes from Lima, where we spent 2 nights. It has an attractive colonial center and many old buildings made from sillar, a local white volcanic stone—Arequipa is called La Ciudad Blanca. The city is strikingly situated, surrounded by three (non-active) snow-capped volcanoes, and is a pleasant place to stroll around for a few days. It is primarily a jumping-off spot for the rural Colca Canyon—next trip!

We stayed at the Casa de Melgar, (www.lared.net.pe/lacasademelgar) a converted old house with lots of charm- our huge room had its original fireplace/stove and rustic old furniture. The woman at the desk explained that mostly foreigners stay there as national tourists tend to prefer modern decor.

Highlights here included the central market (of course) where we had some of the best food at a simple stall: the papa rellena and the ceviche were winners. We skipped the jugo de rana being sold—a health drink made by boiling the skin of a frog (the frogs were live). The variety of potatoes available here is staggering, including little white stone-looking dried potatoes.

Curiously, one of our best meals here was in a Turkish-fusion restaurant (on Calle San Francisco, where you will find lots of new up-scale restaurants).

Our taxi driver from the airport ending up giving us a tour of the surrounding area, at half the price of the tour agencies which are all over town. The sights, including the hacienda of the town’s founder and an old mill, are not very interesting. Arequipa, we discovered, is the first stop for many travelers heading to Macchu Picchu, so the place was surprisingly touristy. If you are there, call the driver, Rafael Valdivia Díaz, on his cell phone 997-1906. (There were various warnings about taxi crime here, too.)

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PERUVIAN FOOD: Peru has a real food culture, lots of weird stuff to eat, some of it quite delicious. I ate my first tripe here (a stew called cau-cau), and my first grilled beef heart (anticucho).

Seafood is the real highlight of Peruvian cuisine, starting with ceviche, supposedly invented in Peru, and the best we've ever had anywhere. You will see cevicherias all over. Traditionally, it is eaten only at lunch (in pre-refrigerator days the fish wasn’t fresh after that). It is served with choclo (corn on the cob—huge kernels!), cancha (roasted kernels, like unpopped popcorn but a better texture, that are a common snack food), a chunk of cooked sweet potato, and marinated red onions. The pieces of fish tend to be larger than in the Mexican version and there isn’t as much chili or cilantro.

We ate twice at La Red (La Mar 391, Sta. Cruz, Miraflores, tel 441-1026 ) in Miraflores--open for lunch only. Perfectly grilled salmon was served on a bed of tacu-tacu, a delicious rice and bean mixture browned in a small pan. The sudado de mariscos was a rich seafood stew like their version of bouillabaisse. The mama, who founded it 25 years ago still sits at the counter counting the dough, while her son manage the kitchen. If we had more time we would have gone back to this place again.

In Chinatown, we ate well at Salon Capon (Jr. Paruro 819).

Here are some of the traditional foods we tried in various restaurants, street stalls and markets:

Causa – mashed yellow potato with various additions on top

Tacacho – a mash of platano and corn, usually served with cecina, cured pork.

Juanes - A sort of tamal

Chupe de Camarón - a hearty seafood soup

Papas a la Huancaina - potato with a yellow creamy sauce on top

Chicha Morada - a sweet drink, non-allcoholic, made from purple corn

Chicha de Jora - similar to above but thicker and fermented

Inca Cola - acid yellow soda pop, tasting of Bazooka bubble gum, but beloved by Peruanos

Suspiro Limeño - custard with dulce de leche – Nick’s favorite

Pay de Limón - pretty close to Lemon Meringue – Jim’s favorite

Gaston & Astrid are Peru’s most famous food couple, with restaurants in several Latin American countries (one just opened in Mexico City) and lots of cookbooks. Tireless promoters of Peruvian cuisine, they may rank as Peru’s number one cultural export at the moment. We ate at their main restaurant in Miraflores (Calle Cantuarias 175, Miraflores, tel. 444-1496 ) and paid a lot of money ($140 for two with a good bottle of Chilean wine—a small fortune in Peru) to be fairly underwhelmed. We had some of the same dishes at simpler, cheaper places, or in markets, and were much happier. This place does get rave reviews from most diners, however—maybe we just ordered the wrong things. I confess to being a peasant at heart when it comes to food.

T’anta (Pasaje Nicolás de Rivera el Viejo 142, just off the Plaza Mayor in the centro) is a mid-range offshoot of Gaston & Astrid in central Lima, and it made us happy that they are promoting the renaissance of the historic area. We found the food, a fusion of Peruvian, Asian, and whatever, more enjoyable than at their fancier place in Miraflores.

La Mar is another G & A production, this time an upscale cevicheria.

As mentioned above, El Cordano (Ancash 202, just off the Plaza Mayor), has excellent fried calamares, and I also had a tasty tortilla de espinacas, like a frittata with spinach.

Chifa is the name given to the Peruvian-influenced Chinese food that you see everywhere. Simple rice and noodle dishes, and stir-fries, like saltado de res (which, aside from beef, had french fries in it) are cooked to order, sometimes by a chef working frantically out front—a great show. The food is very cheap, filling, and on the couple of occasions we tried it, quite satisfying.

Note: Serving sizes everywhere were enormous, usually big enough to share (and we can eat!)

Overall, we had a successful trip but our short visit to Peru leaves us with more questions than answers; another visit is definitely in order.