Thursday, August 28, 2008

Where people are friendly and relaxed

Yesterday I called a bike shop in the Pennsylvania Laurel Highlands to reserve a bike for my husband. The man I spoke to said he needed to attend his grandson’s football game on the day we want the bike, but that someone would be around. He asked my husband’s height and said he’d leave two bikes out for him to choose from.

“Does the rental include a lock?” I asked.

“Oh no, we don’t need that here,” he said. “Our rental bikes sit out overnight and there’s no problem.”

I asked how we’d arrange payment since he wasn’t sure if he’d be around when we gave for the bike.

“Oh, we might meet up when you come. If not, maybe we’ll meet up when you return.” Although he had said we could bring the bikes back anytime that evening.

His laid-back, friendly attitude that assumed honesty and safety made me think this vacation destination is even better than it sounds. We’ll be spending three days there – doing some biking, hiking and visiting of Frank Lloyd Wright houses. I’m looking forward to it.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A New Love

I have a new love in my life and it’s an heirloom tomato. I received two pounds of them at my organic farm this week. I heard the farmer’s wife comment to someone that she had a new favorite tomato. She recounted how her husband had brought some home from the field one evening and made a tomato salad that blew her away. So when I picked up my two pound allotment, I reached right for the ones she had been speaking about.

They are fragile, with cracked, greenish-brown tops. But inside, they are a deep, juicy red. I cut one up and put it in a bowl with some cottage cheese. I couldn’t believe the flavor that exploded inside my mouth when I took the first bite – sweet, rich, tangy, wholesome – a sharp contrast to the smooth, bland taste of the cottage cheese.

Barbara Kingsolver wrote about heirlooms and how some people treat the seeds, passed down through the generations, as collectors’ items. She mentioned that they taste better, much better, but I couldn’t really imagine how great the difference is.

I never looked forward to a tomato as a treat – ice cream, chocolate or cookies were more likely candidates. But now, I’m rationing my heirlooms, eating one per day, and enjoying them tremendously.

The Virgen of Urcupina

During the week-long festival of the Virgin Quillacollo, pilgrims walk the 14 kilometers from Cochabamba, Bolivia to Quillacollo. There, they ascend the nearby Calvario hill, where the Virgin supposedly appeared, and use hammers to break rocks that represent money. People carry the rocks home with them, as a loan from the Virgin. These are said to help people earn money during the year. They must bring the rocks back the following year or bad things will happen to them.

When I went to the Calvario hill myself, I saw that pilgrims weren’t the only people to come collect rocks. People of varying levels of faith and physical strength, some with no faith at all, joined the gathering. By 9:45 a.m., when I took a taxi there, traffic was bumper to bumper and the hill already teemed with people. The land below was made into impromptu parking lots, charging $1.25 for 8 hours parking. Yellow and blue tents dotted the hillside, making it look like a shantytown.

I followed the crowds and moved slowly through the dense masses. On either side of those ascending the hill, vendors sold fake money – “Dollars! Bolivianos!” they called out, “$1000 for one boliviano!” – models of houses and stores, and toy cars. These represented people’s wishes for the next year (notably I didn’t see any dolls or babies, I guess this isn’t a fertility rite). People bought these items on the holy hill, carried them with them as they collected rocks or obtained benedictions, then took them home until next year with the hopes that they would become reality.

The website of the Virgin’s festival warns of the dangers of seeing the festival as an opportunity to ask for more and more material goods. It urges people to renew their compromises with the demands of the faith, especially the call to love one’s neighbor as one loves thyself.

However, the popular impression is that the religious faithful are in the minority. “Twenty percent of the people who go there are faithful,” my taxi driver estimated. “The other 80% are there for the celebration, to drink and have a good time.” A banner hanging over the toll booth entering Quillacollo read “Let’s Celebrate Without Excess,” and urged people to avoid too much alcohol and to take care about sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS.

Celebratory materials – hats, confetti, streamers and notably, firecrackers – filled the hillside. Indigenous men wearing woven hats with earflaps burned herbs over charcoal, sprinkled on some streamers or confetti, and enjoined people together with rope as they gave benedictions. Then there was the food – cotton candy, ice cream, giant vats of chicken parts cooked in oil, donuts, chicha, beer. The scents of sugar, bouillon and fermentation mixed with the scent of earth and wool.

The further up the hill I moved, the more consistent became the pops, bangs and plumes of smoke from firecrackers, like shots of gunfire ringing out all over the mountain – or like dynamite breaking apart the rock and revealing riches. Dust from breaking rock floated into the air and settled on my tongue.

As I reached the top, I realized the land was divided into pits. Families would select a pit where they’d hang out for a while. There, they used the hammers available for rent to bang apart the rock. They poured beer onto the ground and drank the remainder. They used their confetti, streamers and fireworks to light off a signal of thanks. Sometimes they used the services of a nearby drummer or band. Forming into a circle, they danced to the music.

Locals had warned me to go in the morning, had told me people became drunk, and the environment dangerous as the day went on. At 11 a.m. I already saw some drunk people and could feel how the population was likely to slowly lose control as the sun grew hotter. All around me, I could hear the hollow bang of hammers against rock, with the sudden grapeshot of exploring fireworks. I walked through scents of beer, of sweet fried food, and foul sewage, coming from homemade bathrooms constructed from sticks and flour stacks, manned by entrepreneurs with stacks of bright pink toilet paper.

After taking in the sights, smells and sounds of the experience, I left. The city of Cochabamba was virtually abandoned. An official holiday was declared. The taxi drivers on duty told me almost everyone had gone to Quillacollo. On some streets, there were more dogs than people, with up to ten large mutts hanging around the streets, like so many gangs.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Minnesota Summer

Every time I visit MN I’m reminded how wonderful the lakes are – the smooth, shimmering blue waters, the green that surrounds them, the houses and cabins, that range from tiny boxes to million-dollar mansions. Everyone is equal on the lake. People gather to enjoy the beautiful views and the warm summer waters.

I drove a jetski across the waters, seeing the vivid blueness all around me, pulling two children on tubes behind me, who laughed and screamed as they careened across the waves. Those are the experiences childhood memories are made from.

Each morning I walked with my father to the coffee shop. Golden grasses and small swamps lined the path we walked. Clouds of grasshoppers hopped from side to side. Their greenish-yellow bodies bounced off of River’s fat, white legs. Black and yellow butterflies flew among them and orioles perched upon branches. I thought back to the time of Laura Ingalls Wilder and how she must have encountered the grasshoppers on the plain.

One find from this visit to Minnesota is Doolittles, in Eagan - an upscale café with a comfortable outdoor patio, heated in cool weather. Smell the juicy rotisserie chickens roasting as you enter. The fried walleye fingers are flaky, juicy and flavorful. Friends and family recommend trying anything with the rotisserie chicken (one option is a cranberry chicken salad). Good wine selection. The key lime pie can be skipped.

Another recent favorite is Rudy’s Red Eye Grill in Lakeville. You’d never guess that a restaurant located in a Holiday Inn would be a hidden gem, but this one is. Delicious, modern cuisine is served in a warm, inviting atmosphere with rich wooden benches at reasonable prices. The Sunday buffet is a hit.

If you want to hang with the real Minnesotans, try The Red Fox Tavern in Lakeville, a perfect place for a burger, a beer and dancing to small-town music.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Incredible Edible Iowa City

I last visited Iowa City six years ago. When I found out I had the opportunity to return, even though it was shortly after the devastating floods, I was thrilled. Iowa City is the ideal university town. Small enough to be safe, friendly and walkable, large enough to have a variety of shops and restaurants. As a bonus, it’s intellectually stimulating but not pretentious and has a GREAT selection of food.

On this visit, I stayed at a historic house, formerly belonging to a University President, located about a 15 minute walk from the center of town. The beautiful and gigantic house, which includes an elevator, is on the market for about $700,000 and can’t find a buyer. I can only imagine the sum it would fetch on either coast.

I love walking along the red brick streets lined by leafy green trees. I like the bright gold cupola of the central Historic Capital Building and the wonderful selection of shops and restaurants. There is a used bookstore on Linn Street that sells stamps as well as bottles of cold water for 25 cents. Another shop is meant for crafters. They have space to sew, cut and create as well as buy fresh baked cookies. The Java House Coffee shop lines the walls with portraits and offers dim lighting and lots of tables and armchairs for working. Prairie Lights Bookstore is one of the best independent bookshops in the country, with an unparalled periodicals sections.

Here are some of the highlights I found during my week there:

The town is easily accessible via a shuttle service (1-800-725-8460) that runs between the Eastern Iowa airport and Iowa city. The shuttle will wait for the last flight to arrive and they charge $65 round-trip.

Enjoy a relaxing massage or back facial (never heard of it? Try it) in a cave-like environment and pay bargain prices at La James (227 East Market; Brewery Square; Tel: 319-338-3926), a cosmetology school/spa. Skip the nail services on offer since the law in Iowa prevent cosmetologists from cutting nails.

Savor rich varieties of local ice cream (made in Moline) at Whiteys (112 East Washington St; Tel: 319-354-1200). This is where the locals go for a cone, choosing from the many flavors for a reasonable $2-5. The low-fat chocolate shake tastes fully fat.

Savor a gourmet burrito at Atlas World Grill (127 Iowa Ave; Tel: 319-341-7700). The sweet fruit salsa on the Jamaican chicken burrito is good. If you are one of those people who can’t eat a whole burrito, the lunch special, offering a half burrito with a side salad, is a good combo.

Enjoy top-notch barbeque – such as pulled pork with a sweet and spicy sauce – at The Pit Smokehouse (130 N Dubuque St, Iowa City - (319) 337-6653). Take-out, or sit at one of the few little tables inside. Prices are very reasonable.

Locals recommended the Linn Street Café to me. The ambience is very nice and the menu mouth-watering. I stopped by for lunch and got the grilled cheese, which I found only mediocre. It may be worth trying something more substantial. Look on the walls for books written by University of Iowa educated authors.

Devotay uses “local food, worldly flair” as its motto and the restaurant lives up to that, with creations as unusual as elk pastrami and trout mousse as well as worldy specialties like Spanish paella. They offer brunch on Sundays. It’s a fun plan to gather with friends.

Locals say Pagliai's Pizza (302 E. Bloomington, 351-5073: 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. daily) makes the best pizza in Iowa. It’s fun to watch the pizza-makers in tall white hats twirl the dough in the large window.

Oasis is a little hole in the wall, specialized in affordable Middle-Eastern food – falafel, hummus and kebabs are among their offerings. Cheap prices, quick food and free wi-fi make this a popular choice.

One Twenty Six is a small, intimate restaurant with probably the best food around. It’s a good deal for lunch, where you can enjoy gourmet salads and sandwiches (the tuna salad and the steak sandwich are both amazing), using local, high-quality ingredients. The Monday night prix fixe dinner is a good way to sample the food and the wines. Only downstairs is the sometimes snooty service.