FOOTSTEPS IN PERU

A SOLO TRAVELER'S JOURNEY THROUGH south america

The adventurer Steve Fossett once said, "The good thing about flying solo is this: it's never boring." We tend to agree. Although heading to the departure lounge with nothing but a passport and a prayer can be a bit scary, the one thing it isn't going to be is lame. This is the story of one solo traveler. Writer and photographer Marianna Jamadi.

Marianna traveled through Peru on an Intrepid group tour, along with a photographer, videographer and a few travelers from all over the world. She stayed with potato farmers in the Peruvian Andes, learned the delicate art of Nikkei in Lima and visited the floating villages of Lake Titicaca. She did it all solo, but not alone.

This is her story.

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

The right side of my mouth goes numb as coca leaves swish around my molars and cheek. Our local guide Angelito passes a plastic bag around the van so we can spit out the numbing remnants.

14,000 feet and it feels like I have a herd of alpacas sitting on my chest. My breathing is labored and anytime we make a pit stop, my walking pace feels like I’m going one step forward and two steps back. After landing in Arequipa and piling into a van with my fellow travelers, my body is slowly acclimatizing. My eyes are doing the same with the view. I can’t tell if I’m feeling dizzy because I’m flirting with hypoxia or if it’s because the landscape is so breathtaking.

As we barrel down open roads and passages filled with vicuñas, alpacas, and llamas, a vastness fills my window. We’re headed towards Chivay Valley for lunch before we continue to our homestay for the evening in Canocota.

We arrive in the afternoon to a small village tucked in the Andean mountains. Our hosts Señor Pedro and Señora Julia are awaiting our arrival to welcome us into their home. They’re in their sixties and are happy for the company – their kids have moved into the city and left them empty nesters. We’re escorted into a living room of sorts and greeted in the native Quechua language. Our hosts, dressed in their beautiful, colorful native garb, extend their welcome. They say they may not have a lot, but their house has a big heart. As I found out throughout our stay, this couldn’t be more true.

I settle into my room which feels like the perfect mountain hideaway. I mosey to the front gate with camera in hand where I see a group of kids trotting up the path. As they near, I greet them with “Hola!” and they quickly engage with me. While my Quechua leaves something to be desired, I am thankful I know enough Spanish to actively communicate and connect. I take a few pictures of them and they huddle around my camera as I show them the snaps. Here I am in the Andes, surrounded by a group of kids I didn’t know ten minutes ago, but by now I know all their names, the age of every one.

Once their mothers call for them, I head back into the house where Señora Julia asks myself and fellow traveler Michaela if we would be interested in borrowing traditional wear for our next activity that would have us tending the land. I jump at the opportunity as I’ve been admiring her dress and hat ever since I arrived. She has outfits laid out for the both of us and we take turns getting dressed with her help. Being fully dressed in the local attire suddenly makes me feel closer to Senor Julia, closer to the land, and deeply connected to the culture. By fully embracing the external aesthetic, I was internally feeling grateful for the ability to connect.

We set out for their farm and it’s Señor Pedro’s turn to show us a few things. In the field he hands us sickles and shows us his technique for clearing potato lines. I am in a dress, battling altitude sickness, sickle in hand, and suddenly I have a new appreciation for the work that is done here daily. My potato-clearing technique isn’t quite as good as Señor Pedro’s, so he kindly comes over and shows me some serious sickle skills. As my hands get dirty and I stand to survey the landscape, I realize that my feeling of connection to the land is just as real as the connection I was making with the locals. I feel so grounded while savoring the soil under my nails. It’s like I’m a part of Andean life. While we’re busy on the potatoes, Señor Pedro and Señora Julia gather fresh vegetables for dinner.

We finish work as the sun sets and it’s time to get to work in the kitchen. While Señora Julia prepares soup, she puts me to work on peeling fava beans. I spend a few minutes alone with her and we get to chatting. I ask her what she likes about living where she lives, and she’s quick to talk about how her life is simple and beautiful. She does not have very much, but that she has everything she needs. I’m reminded how far removed I am from my food. I go to the store to buy packaged products and Señora Julia has her own organic grocery store at her doorstep. They care for the land and the land provides for them. They are deeply connected to the earth and I find myself envious of their simplicity.

My fellow travelers join in and peel potatoes at a neighboring table. Here we are in a house that now feels like a home, preparing dinner like a family. Our appetites are huge, having put in some serious toil in the field, and we gather around a table to enjoy the fruits of our labor. I’m always amazed at how a meal around one table can create an unrivaled kind of intimacy. Yesterday I didn’t know these people and now we’re all sharing in conversation, stories, good food, and good company.

I go to bed with a full belly and we wake up the next morning with one last activity before we leave. Yesterday we cleared crops and today we’re planting them. We head into the field which we share with two large bulls. They’re the ones doing the real work as Señor Pedro guides them across the soil. I get in front of the bulls (trying to push the thought of getting gored from my mind) and let seeds fall from my hand as the earth devours them. I realize that I’ve seen the full circle in two days: planting, harvesting, and consumption.

As I disconnected from WIFI and cell service, I reconnected to very human feelings of togetherness. The following day, when we parted, I felt like I was saying goodbye to old friends. Even though my bags and body only spent one night in the home of Señor Pedro and Señora Julia, the huge heart Señora Julia’s house had absolutely permeated mine.

The writer traveled on Intrepid's 21-day Peru Encompassed tour, a round-trip out of Lima that includes 33 meals, a homestay in the Peruvian Andes and the wisdom of an expert local leader.

flavors of nikkei

When I think of Peruvian cuisine, I think traditional. Juicy lomo saltado spiked with aji amarillo chillies. Tangy ceviche and a hit of chopped cilantro. But sushi? Not so much.

One of my favorite things about traveling is diving deep into a culture and tasting the local flavor. Food is such an intimate experience. Every where you go, people put their stories on the plate. So it was a surprise for me to discover Nikkei, a culinary style I'd never heard of. One that combines the best of Japan with the best of Peru.

When you learn the history, it's not so strange. After Brazil, Peru has the second-largest Japanese population on the continent. And that cultural heritage has permeated into the food, fusing Japanese techniques with Peruvian ingredients to create something totally new. Nikkei. Think fresh fish and sashimi, but spiked with lime juice, grilled corn, aji peppers, yucca and any of the dozens of potato varieties indigenous to the country. That's Nikkei. My two favorite cuisines in one: why didn't Willy Wonka come up with this sooner?

Our Intrepid groupI head to Hanzo in Lima, one of the city's hottest restaurants. It's the home of Head Chef Eduardo Fujihara (great name), who gives us an introduction to Nikkei cuisine. Our first stop? The local market. It’s obvious as we walk through the bustling stalls that Eduardo is well known in these parts. Fish vendors vie for his attention, calling out prices and the catch of the day. Eduardo makes his selections carefully; he's adamant that Hanzo uses only the very best ingredients. The freshest, whitest squid. The most blushing, tangerine salmon. Eduardo says the quality of his work is dependent on the quality of these ingredients. There aren't any shortcuts. We stop at a stall to admire the local fruit. Eduardo points out a lime that looks to me like any other lime. "That is native to this country," he says. "It has a unique flavor. It's essential to Nikkei." Nikkei is such a particular and unique palate, that even the legendary Nobu Matsuhisa was inspired by it, adding touches of Nikkei to his own dishes. I can see why.

When we return to Hanzo, Eduardo heads into the kitchen and we start to clean and fillet the fish. We work carefully to clean a large tuna fillet while the pumping beats of reggaeton echo through the kitchen (Eduardo likes his music). Even the environment feels like a fusion. There's a mix of culture in the air, and I realize I'm starving. We sit down for lunch and watch Eduardo and chefs prepare the delicate Nikkei dishes. First, I clear my palate with ginger. My mouth salivates. The ginger is so fresh and full of zing that my mouth needs a double take. The next thirty minutes are like a foggy dream; I feel like I'm in some sort of food trance. Sushi rolls with tones of Peruvian ceviche, delicate salmon seared on an open flame and buzzing citrus notes all have my mouth watering.

Fresh Japanese sashimi and lashing of Peruvian tang is a mix my mouth has never experienced. Judging by the faces of my new friends around me, I don't think they have either. It’s these subtle overlaps, this cultural alchemy, that has the potential to create something bigger than what either cuisine could do by itself. As the meal is ending, I'm already experiencing Nikkei withdrawal. While Nikkei is slowing making its way onto the food scene back home, I know the experience I had with Eduardo from the market to that table will be one I will never forget.

GOING SOLO

I realized something on this trip. I am most comfortable when I am uncomfortable. When I'm off balance. Unsure. When I'm vulnerable. Basically, when I'm traveling.

Throwing yourself into the world with wild abandon is exciting, terrifying and (if you're doing it right) life-changing. Especially if you're doing it by yourself. When you travel solo, you move through borders and different cultures, picking up scraps of language, trying new food, experimenting, seeing things you’ve only seen in history books. Seeing things you never knew existed.

Those are the external benefits. But it’s the internal ones that last the longest. It’s self discovery that keeps your roots grounded and your branches growing. You don't just learn about places. You learn about the way in which you react to them, how you fit into the world. How do I feel here? Anxious? Comfortable? Where will I be tomorrow? How do I get from A to B?

When you travel solo you feel vulnerable, and it’s through that vulnerability that you become strong. It’s just you.You've got to depend on yourself – and sometimes put up with yourself. You have to carry your own bags (the emotional ones too) and day-in and day-out it's you that's at the helm. It’s a constant balance of fear and freedom. Where do I want to go? What do I want to do? You realize that you're answering and catering to your own dreams and desires, and that's a pretty liberating feeling. It’s not to say that it’s all a breeze. You will stumble, be challenged, and probably want to give up. You might get tired of your own company (or just flat out tired). Travel pains are part of the deal. You can’t get strong if you're never sore.

It's also good to know that traveling solo doesn't necessarily mean traveling alone. When you have the freedom to be yourself, you find yourself in situations with like-minded people, people you'd never have met if you traveled with a friend, or stayed on the couch at home. You'll stumble across a person, a family, or a community that you embrace, and that embraces you back. It’s through these chance encounters that we understand the power of connection and the importance of human experience. The gap between you starts to diminish. You may not speak the same language, but you all have a story to tell, affection to share, and lives that matter.

The universe has a funny way of putting good things in front of you when you take risks. I'm sure glad I took this one.

The writer traveled on Intrepid's 21-day Peru Encompassed tour, which includes 33 meals, accommodation, lots of activities and the wisdom of an expert, local Leader. If you're after a short introduction to Peru's food scene, including Nikkei, check out Intrepid's 3-day Bite-Size Break in Lima.