This is a transcription of Episode 20 — Peru: Andes Adventures, Fusion Food, and Piles of Gold”.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to Episode 20 of Strong Sense of Place. Today, we get curious about Paru.
Melissa: I was introduced to Peru, I think, the first time when I read the book The Clue in the Crossword Cipher, which is a Nancy Drew mystery. It’s the 44th Nancy Drew Mystery by Carolyn Keene. I remember really loving it when I was a kid because Nancy goes to Peru with her friend, and they go to Machu Picchu, and they get chased by a bad guy called El Gato. They fly over the Nazca Lines and they ride on alpacas — this is blowing my mind when I was, like, eight years old. So I recently read it to prepare for the show. Wow.
David: It doesn’t hold up as well as you might hope.
Melissa: Wowee, wow. It doesn’t. But I do appreciate that it introduced me to the idea of the magical things in Peru. Maybe we’ll just leave it at that.
Melissa: The other data point I have on Peru is the singer Yma Sumac. Do you remember this?
David: I do remember Yma Sumac, and I remember that the moment that she was introduced into my life.
Melissa: It’s pretty unforgettable. We were on a road trip from San Francisco to Las Vegas with 10 other people in a 15-passenger van. And we had made a rule that whoever was driving could choose the music.
David: We were on our way back.
Melissa: Yes. So tired.
David: Yes, people had been hitting it pretty hard.
Melissa: So our friend, it was her turn to drive. And she might be one of the worst drivers I’ve ever encountered in my life. It was terrifying.
David: I think that’s true. I think she probably is the worst driver I’ve ever been in a car with.
Melissa: It was very windy going across the desert, and we were in this 15-passenger van that did not feel structurally sound in the wind that was buffeting it. And then she put on this music.
David: So imagine, dear listener, that you’re on your way back from Vegas. You’re perhaps a little hungover. You’re hanging out with your friends. Think about what you’d want to hear and then imagine hearing this.
[clip of dramatic singing by Yma Sumac]
David: So, yeah. Now that we’ve besmirched our old friends —
Melissa: And Nancy Drew.
David: And Nancy Drew and Yma Sumac. Do you want to get into the Peru 101?
Melissa: Ok, first, let’s get oriented. Peru is located on the west coast of South America. Visualize a triple layer cake and flop it over on its side. The bottom layer of Peru is beachfront dessert right on the Pacific Ocean.
Melissa: The middle layer is mountains. These are the Andes Mountains. They are the second highest mountain range in the world. And then finally to the east, the top layer of the cake, is the dense Amazon rainforest. Parts of the rainforest are so remote that some scientists believe there may be tribes there that have never had contact with the outside world.
Melissa: Yes. I, of course, love this factoid.
Melissa: There are three official languages, Spanish, as you might expect, and then also the indigenous languages of Quechua and Aymara. The capital of Peru is Lima. It’s located on the central coast. The naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Let’s just think about his name for a moment: Alexander von Humboldt. He said, ‘Peru is a beggar sitting on a bench of gold.’
Melissa: Peru is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of natural resources. They’ve got gold and silver and copper and zinc, lead, and iron, as well as oil and natural gas reserves.
Melissa: Yes. But as we’ve seen in some of the other countries we’ve talked about, jobs are very scarce and Peru is one of the world’s poorest countries. Same tune, different words. Let’s talk about history to understand why.
David: Does it have anything to do with colonialization?
Melissa: It does!
Melissa: The earliest inhabitants of Peru arrived there about 15,000 years ago. But what we recognize as a society emerged about 5000 years ago on the coast and then spread inland. Those people established Cusco and that eventually became the Inca empire. The Incas came to power in the 1400s and 1500s, and the word Inca means king or emperor, and they believe that their ruler was descended from the sun God Inti. So they conquered Peru, as well as big swaths of Ecuador, Bolivia, and northern Chile. So the Incas kind of conquered the other native tribes that were in that area, and their empire consisted of about 20 million people.
Melissa: The Inca empire at its peak was larger than the Roman Empire.
David: That’s hard to get your head around.
Melissa: Isn’t it? Yeah, it had more than 24,000 miles of road and the Incas were masters of administration. So what they did was they created a chain of communication and hierarchy that stretched throughout their territory. And they had runners who were called chasquis, who basically passed information like a baton in a relay race. And that’s how they communicated across this massive territory.
David: That’s amazing.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s pretty mind blowing when you get into it.
David: Like, 25,000 miles. That’s back and forth across the United States eight times.
Melissa: And guys were just out there running. They also conducted the first census because how else are you going to collect taxes from 20 million people spread across mountains and rainforests? And they were very, very good at astronomy. And some of the main streets in Cusco are actually designed to align with stars at certain points of the year.
Melissa: One of the things that makes understanding the Inca history very challenging is that the Incas did not have a written language. They used quipus to communicate, which were colored strings with knots that represented numbers and words. Everything we know about the Incas is fairly recent and open to broad interpretation.
David: The knot language itself is amazing and really hard to think about. That you would basically knot a string in somebody and hand to somebody else they’d be, like, ‘Oh yeah, I understand how many bushels of wheat this represents, how many potatoes this is about,’ or some of those things were one string and some of those things look like a mop.
Melissa: And scientists are still trying to understand everything they represent. In addition to all of that, they had gold, so much gold. Which brings us to the Conquistadores. The first book I’m going to talk about goes into great detail about Francisco Pizarro and his marauding band of conquistadors. So I’m not going to get into that too much right now. But just to set the stage for the rest of their history, the Inca empire came to an end in 1572.
David: Dramatically and suddenly.
Melissa: Yes. After the fall of the Incas, Peru became a viceroyalty of Spain, which meant it was ruled by the king in Spain and the indigenous people basically had to work for them. They also tried to convert everyone to Christianity. So now Peru is about 60% Catholic, but people have also held on to their connection to the spirituality of the Earth. So they’ve kind of merged the two.
Melissa: Peru gained its independence in 1821. But since then, it’s been a series of presidents, coups, dictatorships, internal terrorist attacks. There is currently a president, but there is still tension dating all the way back to the ’80s of internal terrorist attacks. Let’s jump ahead to now and why you might want to visit Peru, because there are so many good reasons to visit Peru.
Melissa: The one that everyone is probably most excited about is, of course, Machu Picchu. This is a mountain top Inca settlement that dates from the 15th century. The name Machu Picchu means old mountain or old peak. And experts are still arguing about what the purpose of Machu Picchu was and why it was abandoned.
Melissa: Beyond its magical appearance and really stunning setting, it’s also an architectural marvel. Every stone in each building was cut so precisely that they fit together without mortar to hold them in place.
David: Yeah, they kind of interlock like the pieces of a puzzle, and they sit on top of each other. One of the books that I read suggested that it helps them weather earthquakes, too, because the stones rock and they shift a little bit, but then they settle back down into the position they were originally intended to be in, which is—
Melissa: And what makes it even more phenomenal is that Machu Picchu sits at almost 8000 feet above sea level. That’s 2400 meters. But the stones were excavated from the River Valley below.
Melissa: And they didn’t have wheels or iron tools or animal power to cut those stones or move them up to the top of the mountain.
David: What happened?
Melissa: What happened? And we don’t know because it’s recorded in knots on strings that we can’t read.
David: And it’s like a four-day walk up the mountain.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s an intense walk. Yeah. In addition to all of that, there are also the Nazca Lines. This came up in the Nancy Drew book and blew my mind when I was eight years old. And it’s still amazing to me.
Melissa: These are a collection of enormous designs that are etched into the coastal desert outside of Cusco. The lines that make up the images are about a foot wide, and they were created by scraping away 12 to 15 inches of rock to reveal the light-colored sand underneath. And they’ve been there for about 2000 years. They get so little rain and so little wind that these lines that were drawn in the sand 2000 years ago continue to exist.
David: And they’re huge. Like, you can only really see the image from the air.
Melissa: There are 300 simple geometric shapes: triangles, rectangles, spirals, arrows. But then there are also about 70 animals. A spider.
Melissa: Seventy. A hummingbird. A cactus, a monkey. A whale. A llama, of course. And in October of 2020, a new one was discovered. They found a cat etched into the side of a hillside.
David: Oh, that’s cool.
Melissa: Scientists think that the cat is older than any of the other glyphs previously found in Nazca.
David: My theory is that there was an ancient amusement park there, and they had a ride that would lift you up into the air so that you could see the birds and the lizards and such.
Melissa: So they drew the pictures as entertainment.
Melissa: Would it did surprise you to learn that experts have a different explanation?
David: It would, a little bit. I don’t see what’s wrong with mine.
Melissa: Some people think that the designs are related to astronomy. Some people say aliens or ancient astronauts. Others argue that the Nazca people created them to be seen by deities in the sky.
Melissa: Other reasons to visit Peru, once you’ve exhausted the places that Nancy Drew went in her book. You could visit the Amazon jungle. You can go on a guided night-walk through the jungle.
David: YOU can. [laughter]
Melissa: One could. There’s also a canopy walk on bridges suspended in the treetops.
David: Whoa, that’s cool.
Melissa: And the cities of Peru are well worth visiting. Lima, Cusco, and Arequipa are all very cosmopolitan. They have world-class museums, nightlife, amazing architecture —
David: And delicious, delicious food.
Melissa: Yes! We’re not going to talk about the food too much right now because I have two food books that I’m going to be talking about. But Peru is a foodie heaven. Here are two amuse-bouches to whet your appetite.There are more than 3000 varieties of potatoes and Peru, all different shapes, colors, sizes, textures.
David: The potato came originally from Peru, which blew my mind. There’s no Irish potato famine without Peru.
Melissa: I’m kind of into a side-by-side taste test of 3000 potatoes. Gimme!
David: [laughing] That would take a while.
Melissa: And a very popular source of protein in Peru is the guinea pig.
David: Mm. I’m not sure I want the amuse-bouche with the guinea pig.
Melissa: I know. I don’t want to be a white-person-judgy of eating guinea pig. But it’s a little hard to not think about my best friend when I was growing up and her pet guinea pigs. One of the one of the cookbooks that I read, the author said that his grandmother kept guinea pigs under her stove and they were super-happy and warm and cozy and almost like pets until it was time to eat them. And then she would just bring out the fattest one and cook it for dinner.
Melissa: That is a very matter-of-fact relationship with the animals in your life.
David: It is. Thanks, gramma.
David: Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: I will do my best.
David: OK, I’m about to read three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is a lie. Mel does not know which one is the lie. Here we go. Statement one: Some music critics contend that punk rock was born at a movie matinee in Peru in 1965. Two: There is a secret door in Machu Picchu which may never be opened.
Melissa: That needs to be true.
David: And three: The most expensive coffee in the world is from Peru. It’s made from beans that have been eaten and then pooped out by the local version of a raccoon.
Melissa: OK, I know that last one is true.
David: The last one is NOT true.
Melissa: It’s not.
David: It’s not true.
Melissa: Darn it.
David: There’s a coffee that’s made by beans eaten and expelled by the coati. The coati is Central and South American animal that looks a little bit like a raccoon with a sort of a long nose. It’s said that they only eat the freshest coffee ingredients and that the beans ferment in their digestive system along with other things that the coati has eaten. And this makes for a particularly delicious cup of coffee. Before we go any further, I am very skeptical of this idea.
Melissa: Yeah. [laughter]
David: And while their coffee is expensive, somewhere between $20 and $60 per kilo, it’s not the most expensive.
Melissa: Darn it, you got me on the technical details.
David: For that, you have to get coffee that’s made from beans that have been eaten and pooped by an elephant.
Melissa: Oh, for heaven’s sake.
David: It’s called the Black Ivory Coffee. Probably because ‘elephant poop coffee’ didn’t test well. It’s made in Thailand. You can get a single packet of this coffee, 35 grams enough, for one cup or about $100. If you want to pour yourself an expensive cup of cappuccino, there’s a store in Texas that’ll help you out. We’ll put a link in the show notes. Poop coffee is a global phenomena. People have also made coffee from beans that have been through the digestive tracts of civets, which is a very cute relative of the mongoose from Southeast Asia, and Juca birds, which are native to Brazil.
Melissa: My mouth is just hanging open. I don’t even really know how to respond to the poop coffee phenomenon.
David: Yeah, why? Why everybody?
Melissa: Does it really taste that much better?
David: I can’t imagine that it does. Which means the other two statements are true. Let’s start with the —
Melissa: Punk rock!
David: Punk rock. So it’s 1964. There are four guys who want to start a band. They live in Lima. Their instruments are pretty subpar, but they are also not very good at them.
Melissa: The perfect ingredients for a punk rock band. My guitar sucks, and I don’t know how to play it.
David: Yeah, but they have drive and they have swagger and they call themselves Los Saicos.
Melissa: It’s beautiful.
David: Isn’t that lovely? And they start playing small venues. One of the places they played was a cinema matinee because theater owners used to hire bands to bring in more people. Most of the bands did bubblegum pop covers, but not Los Saicos. Here’s their biggest hit. It’s called ‘Demolition.’
[audio of punk rock music]
David: The lyrics there start with: ‘Let’s tear down the train station. Let’s tear down the train station. Let’s tear down the train station. Demolish, demolish, demolish.
Melissa: Right on.
David: Yeah. They had other songs that featured prison breaks and funerals. They were detained several times by the police, mainly for speeding, but also for taking a sledge hammer and ax and TNT to a railway station to shoot the cover for demolition.
Melissa: How old were they?
David: 17, 18, I think.
David: Yeah, they were huge to their songs went big. They hosted a daily TV show for a while.
David: Yeah. And then they collapsed in 1967.
Melissa: As all punk bands must.
David: As all punk bands must. If you’re interested, there’s a documentary about these guys on YouTube which is definitely worth a watch.
Melissa: This is why our research takes so long. You probably sat there and watched that entire documentary, didn’t you?
David: Yes. It’s only like 20 minutes. It’s really good. I should mention that the lead singer of Los Saicos, Erwin Flores, went on to move to Washington, D.C., where he got a degree in physics, and then he worked for NASA for a number of years.
Melissa: Wow, that’s so cool.
David: Isn’t that so awesome?
Melissa: Punk rocker and rocket scientist!
David: So that’s true. And then —
Melissa: The magical door in Machu Picchu that may never be opened.
David: Yeah, it’s true. In 2014, there’s a French team of archaeologists, and they’re investigating Machu Picchu. They’d heard about a strange door located at the foot of one of the main buildings, long ago sealed by the Incas. They put together a team armed with the latest in electromagnetic equipment and using scanners, they found some hidden stairs leading to a chamber behind the walls. They also use something called a geocoder, which discovered a huge amount of metal in that chamber.
David: Yeah. So. I have trouble getting past that moment because it’s so — it’s such a movie. How are you, as an archeologist or an anthropologist, not just losing your mind? This is the moment. And they go to the government, the local Ministry of Culture, and they want to open the door and reveal the riches there, and their request is denied.
Melissa: I kind of like that.
David: The ministry is worried that the excavation could jeopardize the stability of the entire structure. They point to other past excavations which have done that same thing; they’ve caused partial collapses. They thought the French guy was more of an adventurer looking for treasure and not a scientist looking to find the historical truth. They said no.
Melissa: Good for them.
David: Yeah. The door is currently off limits and nobody knows what’s behind it.
Melissa: That’s kind of perfect.
David: It kind of is. That’s Two Truths and a Lie.
Melissa: Thank you, Peru.
David: Yeah. Are you ready to talk about books?
Melissa: I am.
David: Let’s do it.
Melissa: My first book is The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie. This is a narrative history of the 36-year war between the Incas and the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. This is about as nonfiction as nonfiction gets, and I was into it.
David: Wow, that’s unusual.
Melissa: I know! That’s surprising. This story has everything. It has Shakespeare-level drama and intrigue. It has almost unimaginably large piles of silver and gold. Inca warriors. Really greedy conquistadores, guerrilla warfare, and lifelong friendships that implode in a moment of betrayal.
Melissa: [whispers] And it’s all true. [laughter]
Melissa: Even though the story is almost 500 years old, the author makes it super-suspenseful. So, let’s talk about what was happening, and then I’ll talk about how he tells the story. So it’s 1532 to Francisco Pizarro has landed in Peru. He is 54 years old, which is old for a conquistador.
Melissa: And he is feeling the pressure to make a name for himself. He’s from a very poor area of Spain, and he has a massive chip on his shoulder because he’s 54 and he hasn’t made his name yet. His goal, his life goal was to conquer part of the new world, claim a bunch of gold for himself, rule over other people, and never have to work again. This is what he wants.
David: Kind of sad that this is the guy who wins.
Melissa: Yeah. So something I didn’t know about the Conquistadores is that they were not government emissaries. They were basically freelancers who formed a little collective to go and steal stuff from other people. It was almost like a cobbled-together corporation, and Pizarro was essentially the CEO, and the Conquistadores who went on the mission with him contributed some things to make the mission happen. And then they had contracts where they would get back payment in return for what they had invested in the expedition. OK, so that’s the Pizarro’s side of the equation. Meanwhile, in Peru, the Inca empire is just humming along. The emperor Atahualpa was ruling, like, 10 million people and it’s going smoothly. The runners are going back and forth. As we mentioned before, they were very sophisticated and had their whole administration worked out. Things are just humming along. And then Pizarro shows up.
Melissa: He has 167 men with him. The Inca empire is 10 million people. But in the first battle, the Battle of Cajamarca, Pizarro’s men, 167 of them defeated 80,000 Inca warriors.
David: Wow. Because guns?
Melissa: No, because the Incas were a little smug, and Pizarro’s men were super-motivated, and they just kind of out-strategized them. Shortly after that battle, they captured Atahualpa, and he offered them a massive ransom in gold and silver so that they would let him go. He literally offered them a room full of gold. They filled a room with gold and then slowly transported that to them.
David: That’s one of the details that I remember from grade school. He put his hand and he was like, ‘I will fill this room to this level with gold and twice with silver.’
Melissa: Yes. And so the Spaniards said, ‘OK, that sounds good.’ And then when the gold showed up, they executed him anyway. And that set off a war that lasted more than three decades and ultimately meant the end of the Inca civilization. So this book tells the story of that battle almost moment by moment and everything that came after it in really riveting detail. And it almost unfolds in real time. You are getting a day-to-day account of what was happening during these battles and somehow he makes it really suspenseful.
Melissa: The approach reminds me a little bit of Erik Larson’s books like The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts. It it feels like a novel. They’re using primary sources and then using novelistic writing techniques to put you into the middle of the story.
David: I love that kind of nonfiction where it’s about the story.
Melissa: Yes, that really works for me. It kept me engaged in turning the pages. The book actually opens with the author explaining how challenging it is to write about this time period, because, as we mentioned, there aren’t a lot of written accounts of what happened. The written records that exist now are mostly from letters and reports written by Spaniards. So they’re written with a bias of a conqueror and sometimes they were trying to sell themselves to the king, so they’re puffing themselves up a little bit. There are also three indigenous chronicles, but they were written after the action took place.
David: It’s the history is written by the winners problem.
Melissa: Yeah. There is one really impressive chronicle written by a Peruvian native who had lived in the Inca Empire. He spent almost his entire life writing a 1000-page manuscript that also had 400 illustrations. And he basically carried this thing with him throughout the empire, interviewing people to get their stories of what they went through during this 36-year war.
David: Wow. So he spent is a good chunk of his life walking around with his big journal. Trying to get the story.
Melissa: Yes. OK, and when he was 80 years old, he put the only copy of it that exists on a ship to Spain. And apparently that manuscript never made it to the king and it was lost to time until 1908, three hundred years later.
Melissa: A researcher discovered it in a library in Copenhagen.
David: I mean, I suppose that at the time he never would have expected to hear back anyway.
Melissa: He would not necessarily have expected to hear from the king.
David: I can’t imagine putting your life work on a boat and not making a copy. OK, I’m just going to put this on a book and go over there and sit down now.
Melissa: And hope it gets to someone.
Melissa: The happy news is that illustrations from this manuscript open each chapter of The Last Days of the Incas. So his information eventually did make it to people, just not in the time frame he might have wanted.
David: Thanks, unknown writer.
Melissa: One more fun fact before I wrap up. The conquistadores only goal, as I mentioned, was to make a boatload of money so they could all retire as rich men. They just they did not want to work anymore. So each of the 168 Spaniards that were on this mission to Peru became very rich. A horseman, so just a regular guy is part of the expedition, was paid 180 pounds of silver and 90 pounds of gold, which they melted down into coins. So their haul from that original battle, that first battle where they defeated the 80,000 Incas. Their haul from that battle was worth about 180 years of their regular salary.
Melissa: That is the rare nonfiction book that I read for this show. That is The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie.
David: My first book is Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams. I’m going to tell you the setup for this book, and it’s going to sound like a buddy film, and it kind of is. It’s a non-fiction book.
Melissa: I’ve been very curious about this book. This was one that I considered.
David: There’s an editor who works for National Geographic Adventure magazine out of New York City. He’s 43. He spends all day tied to his desk. He doesn’t own hiking boots. He hasn’t slept in a tent since high school. He’s never hunted or fished. And he can’t start a fire without matches.
Melissa: That sounds familiar.
David: Yeah. He got the job because he was a lit major, and he got an internship at Outside magazine and things kind of unfolded for him that way. One day he gets fed up with himself. ‘I’m going on an adventure,’ I imagine he says. And he decides that what he’s going to do is follow the footsteps of Hiram Bingham, the man who’s credited with finding Machu Picchu for white people in 1911.
Melissa: Thank you for putting in the ‘white people.’ [laugher]
David: Yeah. So he’s going to walk a hundred miles through some of the most beautiful and challenging terrain on Earth. And the first thing he does is he hires a guide.
Melissa: That was probably very smart.
David: That, I think, was perhaps the smartest thing he does in this book. He hires Australian explorer John Leivers, who, based on his description, is somewhere between Indiana Jones and Crocodile Dundee on the ‘men who sweat leather’ scale.
David: Yeah, this dude is for real. He’s an adventurer. He’s been around forever. He barely owns a phone. John is maybe a misanthrope. He’s in his early 60s. And like I said, he’s been doing this forever. Together, they hire a bunch of porters and llamas and a cook and they get to go out on this multi-week trek chasing Hiram Bingham. And that’s the story.
David: The book is far better than it needs to be. It could have just been a sort of a fish-out-of-water story. And that’s what I was expecting, based on basically the jacket copy in the title. Instead, you get that, but you also get a solid write up of Hiram Bingham, his life and adventures. You get a summary of why people think Machu Picchu exists. You get the development of the author’s relationship with the guide and the crew. Adams really gets his ass kicked in Peru, but he also sees some amazing things.
David: And because he’s such a visual writer, you kind of get that, too. He said that he likes to storyboard out his books before he writes them.
David: Yeah, I love that idea. The book also gives you an exploration of Peru, and its customs, their history, and their politics. And their very loose relationship with time and their food and their culture. There’s a there’s a lovely bit I want to read you. Adams is in the middle of his first trek. They’ve been walking for a few days and they go into a small village. It’s got a school, a shop that sells rice and Inca cola, and a few small houses. It is the largest outpost of civilization that they’ll see for another week or so. The author runs into some children and this is what he says:
‘Quechua kids are famously adorable because they have coal-black eyes and perpetually rosy cheeks. And these two were no exception. The boys didn’t have much to do. Their teacher, who taught all the children in the area, had gone off for the week to a festival up the valley somewhere. Fortuitously, a promising source of entertainment had wandered into the yard: Me. After about an hour of stalking me from a distance, as I laid out my laundry to dry in the waning sunlight and clawed at my ankles, the older boy screwed up the courage to ask a question. ‘What do you come from?’
‘I’m from New York.’ I might as well have said I was from the planet zabulon.
‘Have you heard of New York?’ I ask. ‘No.’
‘Have you heard of the United States?’ ‘No.’
His brother shook his head dubiously in support.
‘Have you heard of Machu Picchu?’
‘Yes, of course.’
Big smiles.’ Well, I live north of Machu Picchu.’ This seemed to satisfy them. Then the younger one thought of another question. ‘Is it true that Michael Jackson is dead?’
I tried and failed to come up with the Spanish words to say the king of Pop will live forever in our hearts.
So I just nodded. Yes. And tried to look sad.’
David: This book is perfect for a Strong Sense of Place. It’s nothing but that. That said, the book did not make me want to go to Peru. I feel like the bug bites alone would make me wonder why I had made the choices that I had made. There’s a line in the book, quote, ‘At a certain point you resign yourself to the fact that there are at least three bugs on you at any time and that one of them is going to bite you.’
Melissa: That would be really challenging for me.
David: But it gave me a lot of respect for these guys and for Bingham, and it did make me want to see the stars over a dark part of the Earth. Men’s Journal selected this is one of the 50 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time.
David: Yeah. His most recent book, Tip of the Iceberg, is about his travels around Alaska. I should also mention that there’s an article in The New York Times where Adams maps out his journey and gives us his advice about how to travel to Peru. And we’ll put a link to that in show notes. That is Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams.
Melissa: I’m cheating a little bit.
Melissa: My next pick is actually two cookbook’s: Ceviche by Martin Morales and _The Fire of Peru) by Ricardo Zarate. And as I mentioned in the intro, food is a thing in Peru. And both of these cookbooks are filled with really delicious recipes, plus lots of stuff about life in Peru and its history and its culture, all told through the lens of ingredients and family.
Melissa: So the first book is Ceviche. The author of this book has been cooking since he was 11, and he’s the founder of the Peruvian restaurant Ceviche in London. The thing that I like about this book is that it comes from a home cooks perspective, even though he owns a restaurant because he is not formally trained. He was born in Lima and he lived there until he was 11. His mom was from a remote village in the Andes, but his father grew up in Leicester, England, and he was very close to his two great aunts, Carmela and Otilia, and they taught him how to cook. It sounds like they gave him all of the grunt work in the kitchen when he was little. He talks about cleaning rice, peeling potatoes and mangoes, taking fava beans out of their pods.
Melissa: And the book opens with a quote from his aunt Carmela that says, ‘aquí se cocina con cariño,’ which means ‘here we cook with loving care.’
David: That’s nice.
Melissa: Yeah. So the book is filled with these little reminiscences he has about food and family. He talks about going to the beach with his father and sitting on the sand and eating fresh ceviche from the food stalls. So ceviche is raw fish that sort of cooked in a combination of citrus juice, salt, and spices. So it’s kind of like South American sushi, would be a way to think about it. Everyone has their own way of making it, and there are lots of varieties in this cookbook. At tis most basic, it’s just fresh fish that’s been marinated for a short time in what they call ‘tiger’s milk,’ — it’s not from a tiger — It’s the lime juice, salt, and chile. And then sometimes garlic and ginger and cilantro are added. So as our audience knows, we generally talk about how colonization is not the nicest thing to happen. Obviously, there are lots of things about it that are problematic. But it is really, really good for food culture because it brings other influences into the cooking and that makes for a very vibrant flavors.
David: If your country has been conquered many times, your food’s probably pretty good.
Melissa: Yes. So there were four kind of waves of, let’s call them ‘immigration’ that influenced Peruvian food. First you have the Spaniards, of course. And yes, they brought war and disease, and stole all the gold.
David: And destroyed a culture.
Melissa: And killed Atahualpa. Yeah, but they brought citrus fruit, cilantro, onions, garlic, ginger, as well as pigs, chickens, and cattle. That’s a lot of good food stuffs.
David: That is a lot of good food stuff.
Melissa: But they also brought slaves from Africa. Downside. Upside: pumpkin and stews because African cultures, as we saw in Nigeria, built around soups and stews. And another dish that is super popular, street food now, right this minute: beef heart anticuchos. The beef hearts are marinated in vinegar and spices and then put on a skewer and grilled. Very popular street food. The cuisine was also influenced by waves of migration from China, which created a dish called soltado, which is using Chinese stir-fry technique with Peruvian ingredients. And you’re going to like this, Dave.
Melissa: This stir-fry is usually served alongside rice and french fries.
David: Oh, nice.
Melissa: I love a double-carb plate. And then finally, there is another wave of immigrants from Japan, and that created the Nikkei Peruvian food movement, which incorporates Japanese flavors like mirin, ginger, and soy into Peruvian ingredients. So that’s where we see ceviche that has mirin and ginger, in addition to the lime juice and salt.
Melissa: So there’s a lot of stuff about that, right? About the culture and how it was influenced by the waves of migration. But the thing that most stands out in this cookbook is how much the author Martin Morales associates food with family and love. And that comes through so clearly.
Melissa: The second cookbook is The Fire of Peru. And he also shares a lot of personal stories in his cookbook. He grew up in the oldest district of Lima in a big Catholic family with 13 kids.
Melissa: And they had a tradition in their family that the older siblings were responsible for helping the younger ones get established in life. So when it was his turn, his older brother and sisters sent him to culinary school.
Melissa: His father had always wanted to open a restaurant and Ricardo decided that he was going to take on that dream and make it a reality. So I like the contrast between these two cookbooks, because in the first, Martin Morales is not formally trained and his recipes are very accessible, and ‘I’m making this in the kitchen with my aunt.’ The recipes in this book are also well-explained, easy-to-make, but do you have more of a restaurant feel to them.
Melissa: His first job was as a dishwasher and a Benihana restaurant in London. And he eventually worked his way up to cooking on the hibachi. And then he moved to the United States, and he eventually opened a lunch stand in a Hispanic market in Los Angeles. And now he has seven restaurants in L.A. and one in Vegas.
David: That’s amazing.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s a really good story. One of the best things about this book is that his headnotes are two to three times as long as you usually see in a cookbook.
Melissa: For people who are not familiar with that term, because we are cookbook authors, the headnote is the little story that shows up at the beginning of a recipe. They’re usually about a paragraph, maybe. His are a little bit longer and very conversational and weave in personal details about why he’s including this recipe, his history with it, why you might like it, as well the history and cultural notes of the ingredients. It’s really nice. I want to read you a little example. This is from the recipe for Andean popcorn.
Melissa: Popcorn is one of my favorite foods.
David: What do they do that makes it Andean?
Melissa: Well, it’s those big kernels that you get when you get corn nuts.
Melissa: OK. ‘My uncle Lucio on my mom’s side of the family was from the mountains, a man of pure Incan blood. In addition to Spanish, he spoke Quechua, the traditional language…’ and then it continues: In the Andes, herders stash the dried and toasted kernels in their packs as fuel for treks up the mountainside, and restaurants all over Peru serve the crunchy corn as the traditional side for ceviche.’
Melissa: So I love that you’re getting the personal connection and then also —
David: The serving recommendation. ‘Put it in your pack or eat it with your fish.’
Melissa: Both of these books offer amazing recipes with personal stories, full-page color photos, and lots of interesting details about life and food in Peru. So if you were going to pick, I loved them both. I’m not going to recommend one over the other. My advice would be to look at the recipes and see which one appeals to you the most, or you could just get them both. You get the full picture of Peruvian food scene when you read both of them.
Melissa: That is Ceviche by Martin Morales and The Fire of Peru by Riccardo Zarate.
David: My second book is The Boiling River: Adventure and Discovery in the Amazon by Andrés Ruzo. So, the author grew up in Lima and he heard a story when he was a kid from his grandfather. He heard the story of how the Spanish came to the Incas and how much they wanted gold. He included this bit that I’ve never heard anywhere else. He said they demanded so much gold that the Incas thought the Spanish ate gold. When the Incas had had enough of the Spanish, they tried to get rid of the Spanish by telling them that there was gold in the Amazon.
David: Yep. There’s a giant gold city right in the middle of the jungle if you look hard enough.
Melissa: That’s so good.
David: Isn’t it? And the Spanish went off to look for El Dorado. A few came back. And the ones that came back talked to the miseries they’d been through. They said they’d seen powerful shamans and silent warriors with poisoned arrows and spiders who are big enough to eat birds and snakes who swallowed men hole and a river that boiled.
David: And all of those things are true. [laughter] So the author gets older and he’s studying to be a geophysicist at Southern Methodist University in Texas. And he brings up the story with his professors, right? He says, is it possible that there’s a boiling river in the Amazon? And the professors say, ‘Well, no. There are boiling rivers, but they’re heated by volcanoes. And the nearest volcano to the Amazon is 400 miles away — 700 kilometers. One of his professors even says, ‘Stop asking stupid questions. You’re making yourself look bad.’
David: So Ruzo the author goes back to Lima and he’s having dinner with his family. And he says what the professor said, that there is no boiling river, that it’s not possible. And his aunt says, ‘But I’ve been there. I swam in it.’
David: And then his uncle backs her up and he says, ‘Yeah, you can only swim in it after a heavy rain. It’s protected by a powerful shaman.’ And then the uncle adds, ‘Your aunt’s friends with the shaman’s wife.’ And Ruzo shakes off his shock, and then he goes looking for the boiling river. This is the story of that quest. It’s sort of a geothermal thriller.
David: It’s a short book. It’s about 145 pages. I listened to it. There’s an audio book that’s available on Audible and Libro.fm. It’s two-and-a-half hours, I think. And the author reads it. So, it’s personal. It’s his story. And here I’ll play a bit.
‘It’s early June 2011. I’ve been in Lima with my wife Sophia for two weeks, preparing for the next few months of fieldwork in the oil fields of the Talara Desert in northwestern Peru, where we’ll be temperature logging abandoned oil and gas wells for the geothermal map of Peru. We’ve been staying at my Uncle and Aunt’s this house, and this evening they’re having a small farewell dinner for us. I find myself sitting next to my aunt. “Andres, it feels like you just got here,’ she says, her Spanish marked by her native Brazilian accent. I assure her we’ll be back in Lima in a few months. ‘You’ve been at your research for two years now,’ she says, ‘have you found anything that has really surprised you?’
David: There’s an even shorter version of the story, if you want that. There’s a TED talk, which is how this book started. He gave the talk and the TED people thought it was so good, they convinced him to do a book.
Melissa: That’s a nice story.
David: Yeah. One of the surprises of the book is that the emotional impact is so positive. Andres Ruzo is just a big science geek. He just loves this stuff. He loves talking about it, and he loves sharing it. So a big chunk of the book is his enthusiasm for the work that he’s doing. But he also brings in this theme of exploration. He toughens up the idea that we don’t know everything there is to know about this planet. And he points out that he heard a legend, a legend that was denied by experts. But it was true. And if it can happen to him, it can happen to the rest of us. The world is still full of wonder and amazement. And as he says, we still live in a world where shamans sing to the spirits of the jungle.
Melissa: Oh, that’s really beautiful.
Melissa: I can only hope he sent a signed copy of his book to the professor who told him he was asking a dumb question.
David: Yeah. So just a lovely little book. Nice little trip into the Amazon. It’s The Boiling River: Adventures and Discovery in the Amazon by Andres Ruzo.
Melissa: My final recommendation is a novel that is in my top ten favorite books right now.
David: Of all time?
Melissa: It’s called The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley, and it’s sort of a historical fantasy novel. I read it about a year ago, and then I reread it to prepare for this show, and it was even more impactful to me this time.
David: That’s so nice when you read a book again, and you’re, like, ‘Oh, this is even better than I remember.’
Melissa: So the novel begins with a set up of an action-adventure story. Our hero must accept a dangerous mission, but then magic and emotions start to creep in. And almost without you noticing, it becomes this really moving and engrossing story with romance and adventure and the biggest feels at the end.
David: All of them. And they’re huge.
Melissa: Yes. The ending is really, really — oh, she lands the ending so well. OK, back to the back to the set up.
Melissa: Our hero is Merrick Tremayne. It’s 1859, and he’s at his family’s crumbling estate. Literally, the house is falling down around his ears in Cornwall, and he’s recovering from a serious leg injury. But mostly he’s kind of hiding out from the world and licking his wounds because he used to be a super badass opium smuggler for the East India Company.
Melissa: He was sly and strong and really powerful and everyone respected him. And now he’s in pain all the time, and he walks with a cane. And this is really destroyed his personal identity. Who is he if he can’t go off on adventures? And what is he going to do with the rest of his life? This beginning is, of course, like catnip for me: crumbling family estate in Cornwall and someone at a turning point in their lives.
Melissa: He lives with his brother and they have a very contentious relationship. And his brother’s answer to what is he going to do with the rest of his life is that he is arranged for Merrick to become a person in a nearby village.
Melissa: So before Merrick was injured, he was meant to go to Peru on an important mission to get his hands on the cinchona tree.
David: On the cinchona tree!
Melissa: Cinchona tree. Cinchona is the national tree of Peru, and its bark contains quinine. It’s the world’s only source, natural source, for quinine and quinine is used to treat malaria. This is all true. The malaria situation in India is terrible in the late 1800s and Peru has a monopoly on the trees with the ingredient for the treatment of malaria. So this is going to be Merrick’s big shining moment. He was going to go to Peru, get some cinchona cuttings and save the British in India.
David: So he set up to be this big explorer hero. He’s going to go get the clippings and save the world.
David: Instead —
Melissa: Instead, he’s got this injury and now he feels like the trip is out of the question. He’s moping around the estate and odd things begin to happen in Cornwall, like there’s a tree in the garden and it explodes.
Melissa: Yes. He thinks the statue near the greenhouse has been moving. His brother accuses him of madness.
Melissa: And Merrick isn’t sure. Like, one moment he’s like, ‘No, that statue moved 15 feet’ and then he’s questioning himself.
David: So the statue is moving not while he’s watching it.
Melissa: Correct. OK, so he’s hitting his rock bottom. His brother thinks he’s crazy. He wonders if he’s losing his mind. He doesn’t want to go live in the parsonage. He’s in pain. Things are bad. And one day his old friend Clem shows up with a map and a bunch of promises and a bottle of champagne, and he is going to convince Merrick that they can go to Peru, they can find the cinchona tree. They can be the heroes who save the day. He says to Merrick, ‘I will get your body there, just bring your mind.’
Melissa: And so they’re off. They’re going to a village in the Andes Mountains of Peru, limp, cane, and all. They’re going. And that’s where the big adventure really takes off. I’m not going to say any more about it because that would ruin the surprises. There are many good surprises. As I said, the tone of the beginning is very adventure story, but it’s kind of like a turn-of-the-century, backslapping, private club members, ‘We’re going on an adventure, old boy’ kind of thing.
Melissa: It almost has the feel of, like, a madcap 1930s movie. You can see it playing out in black and white in your imagination.
David: And it’s got a little — it approaches fantasy.
Melissa: A little bit, yeah. These are experienced smugglers who’ve escaped danger before, and they’re not jaded, but they are very pleased with themselves. They are convinced they’re going to be successful. But once the action moves to the mountains and some stuff happens, the tone shifts a little bit and it becomes a little bit more introspective. And we go on this really emotionally rich ride with Merrick and the people he meets in the village.
David: When you say ‘stuff happens.’ This is adventure stuff happening?
Melissa: Dramatic stuff.
David: Emotional stuff!
Melissa: Both. Natasha Pulley’s writing is amazing because she puts us in the center of this big, brash, swashbuckling action. And while you’re all caught up in that, the things that are happening in the plot, she also has a lot to say about friendship and loyalty.
Melissa: And then, there are these magical things happening that seem like they can be explained by science. And for a while they are. And then you start to wonder, ‘Wait a minute. Is this magic after all”’
David: That happened in the book that I read about the boiling river, too. Things are happening where, even to a scientific mind, you’re not entirely sure what you’re looking at right now.
Melissa: Yes, I love that. So a lot of these magical aspects of the plot are drawing on traditional Inca folklore, and they play really pivotal parts in the story. So, for example, a lot of the characters speak Quechua, and they communicate with the quipus. So those are the strings that are knotted to tell stories or keep track of numbers. And all of this is seamlessly woven into the narrative in a way that is essential to the plot. It’s not just window dressing.
David: Whoa, that’s cool.
Melissa: Also, the descriptions of the mountains and the forests are just devastatingly beautiful. The writing is, as I mentioned, really, really beautiful. And it’s nice to kind of luxuriate in it on the page. But the second time I listen to the audio book and that was also really good. If audiobooks are your thing, I can recommend this narrator because he does a really nice job creating distinct characterizations for the voices. I love everything about this book. I can’t recommend it any more highly than that. It’s a travelogue. It’s an adventure story. It’s a friendship story. It’s a coming of age story. It’s got magic that’s maybe science that’s maybe magic.
David: Everything you want from a grand adventure book.
Melissa: That is The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley.
David: Those are five books we love set in Peru.
David: Six because Mel likes to cheat. You know, what you should do is visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com.
Melissa: This one in particular is going to have so many good videos in it. I mean, Yma Sumac. You want to see that. The documentary on the punk band.
Melissa: You want to see that.
David: It’s true. It’s true. I think all of our show notes are really good.
Melissa: You could pick a show notes and spend a Saturday watching every video and reading every article, and it would fill your day and transport you to a far-flung destination. Just saying, a little armchair travel.
David: Yep. So, Mel, can you tell us about the blog posts you wrote for Peru?
Melissa: For food and fiction, we’re sharing two recipes. I wish we could share more because there are so many delicious ones. I’ve also rounded up some really good Instagrammers in Peru. Because it’s a stunningly beautiful country.
David: Yes, it is.
Melissa: And really good looking people and alpacas and llamas. So we’ve got lots of delicious eye candy. And finally, we’ve got a post about a really beautiful library in Lima.
David: As always, if you’re looking for more of us, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Melissa: I run our Twitter account. I frequently share cute animal videos, even though they have no connection to books and travel. I just like them. I have to say, I have curated a pretty awesome collection of people that I follow, and I share what they’re sharing. So lots of good links to articles about books and travel and gothic stuff. So join us on Twitter. Yeah.
David: Where are we headed for our next episode?
Melissa: We’re exploring the most romantic way to travel: trains.
David: I love a train. Thanks for listening, and we’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Hans Luiggi.
Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!
Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.
If you like the work we do, you can help support us through our Patreon! That'll unlock additional content, too — like Mel's recipe for Banh Mi Bowls, and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.
This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.
We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.
This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.
Content on this site is © 2021 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.