Archive | March 2013

Arepas

So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being. ~ Franz Kafka

I remember when I first started dating Juan we met some of his friends at a Jazz fest and they started talking about traveling throughout South America.  One particular woman was so excited about the arepas in Venezuela that she was salivating.  Me?  Well I was instantly put off by the name.  A-repa.

Juan's mom's arepas.

Juan’s mom’s arepas.

Less than a year later I was in the land of arepa.  You’re probably asking yourself, what exactly is an arepa? I thought it might be time for a little explanation seeing how it’s part of my blog name. It’s made from a finely ground corn flour, shaped into puffy disks and can be eaten with just about anything, at any time. The easiest way for me to put it into context would be to say it’s as important to Venezuelans as bread is to the rest of us. Think of it as their equivalent to the sandwich, albeit the savory kind.  Most arepas are filled with cheese, shredded beef, plantains, beans, avocado or a mixture of all the above.

Juan's mom makes arepas with lightning speed! Once I've tried to round out one, she's on her 10th.

Juan’s mom makes arepas at lightning speed! By the time I’ve tried to round out one, she’s on her 10th.

Once here, I was excited to try it.  I mean it would be part of my daily diet and the possibilities sounded endless. I tried it and much to everyone’s surprise, didn’t like it.  Juan’s mom just couldn’t wrap her head around the reason why.  I don’t know, there was something about the texture I didn’t like; it was soft and spongy.  That  was it, I didn’t eat another one for the remainder of my time here.  It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s kind of like going to Asia and never eating noodles. Well all of that changed  2 years later when I’m sitting at a friend’s place (in Montreal) and her brother in law sets down a huge basket of arepas to accompany the best tasting cilantro garlic chicken I’ve ever tasted in my life.  These little corn discs were crunchy on the outside and a little doughy on the inside.  Good thing for second chances because the little arepa was redeemed!  Oh the irony.

They don't skimp on the cheese here. This cost about $3.00

They don’t skimp on the cheese here. This cost about $3.00

Areperas (arepa restaurants) here are like Subways or MacDonald’s. There is one on every corner and they’re cheap! They’re the go to meal/snack. They’re also something that you eat and it keeps you full until your next meal.  I can only ever eat one; that’s how filling they are.  My favorite is filled with the humble avocado.

The rich, creamy texture of the avocado is perfect for the crunchy arepa.

The rich, creamy texture of the avocado is perfect for the crunchy arepa.

If you live in a multicultural city, you can find “harina pan” and make your own. If Just follow the directions on the bag and your dough will be perfect. Well almost, you need to add a bit of salt. Juan’s mom, like all good mom cooks, doesn’t measure anything.  So until you’re a pro, I’d stick with the instructions.

Harina pan translates as bread flour.  This is the only brand in Venezuela.

Harina pan translates as bread flour. This is the only brand in Venezuela.

After making the pucks, the best thing to do is to fry it on both sides in a tiny bit of oil until crispy and then put them in a warm oven. Having made these for over 70 years, Juan’s mom taps them to know if they’re done. Apparently if they sound hallow, they’re cooked. To be on the safe side, I’d say bake them for about 10 minutes. Experiment with fillings and enjoy something new.

Juan likes his fluffy and I like mine flat.

Juan likes his fluffy and I like mine flat.

And if you are lucky enough to live in Montreal, check out La Arepera du Plateau.  My friend’s brother in law opened his own family run Arepera with huge success.  I can tell you first hand that the food is authentic and the arepas are fantastic.  Buen provecho!

Photo courtesy of Arepera du Plateau.

Photo courtesy of Arepera du Plateau.

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I’m a Head Banger

Efficiency is doing better what is already being done.                           ~ Peter F Drucker

Living in a country that is not your own really puts the magnifying glass on one’s character. You get to discover if you’re a Type A or B personality? I’m on the obsessive A side.  What brings you joy? Nature and  food.  Are you an understanding  or compassionate person? Yes, I am. What annoys you? The list is long.  And what would truly push you over the edge? Not much. There are times when I think I should go over to a wall and bang my head, but of course, in the end, the only person I’d be hurting would be myself. What is this magnifying glass showing?  It’s glaringly obvious that I’m impatient.  It’s my Achilles heel. I really appreciate and need efficiency. I crave it like chocolate.  Maybe I was Swedish or Japanese in another life.

People here complain about inefficiency all the time.  It’s a topic of conversation, much like the weather is for Canadians.

DSC03408

A dreary Montreal day.

We really got dumped on last night, didn’t we?

Yea, another 30 cm of the white stuff’s coming.

God, when will winter end?

I don’t know; yesterday was the first day of spring.

Sound familiar?  You can always insert rain for snow if you’re living in Vancouver.

A relatively small line up.

A relatively small line up, inside and out.

In Caracas the conversation goes something like this:

Aarrgghhh, an audible sigh, immediate look of despair, eye rolling commences. Turn to the guy that just came up behind you. The line up for the bank/check out/pharmacy counter is horrendous.

It’s always like this. It doesn’t matter what time of the day you come.

Yea, I know.  Hey, hold my place in line. I’m going to see if the other line is moving faster.

Sure.  If your line is moving faster, I’ll come over.

20 minutes later……… you’ve moved up 3 spots, but look on the bright side, you just made a new friend.

No explanation needed.

No explanation needed.

So yesterday Juan had to go to deposit 2 checks at one bank.  We take our place in line and within seconds, 15 people were standing behind us.  There is one teller open and every 30 seconds someone is going up to the teller to ask for a deposit slip while a client is trying to do their banking.  Yes, you read that right.  It’s 2013 and they’re still using deposit slips.  Here is one of the problems, the bank won’t leave any on the counter because people take them.  Really?! Well of course they take them!!!!  They don’t want to waste their time.  Your banking takes twice as long because of the constant interruptions and of course after you picked up your slip, you have to go to the back of the line to fill the damn thing out.  Head banging commences.

We waited our 25 minutes, I go ahead of Juan to ask for deposit slips (you know for next time). I leave so the guy doesn’t see through our thinly disguised plan.  A couple minutes later I see Juan standing in line for the bank machine.  He tells me the teller will only deposit one check and not the other because it was under a certain amount. WTH?  My second bout of head banging  is in full swing.  Our turn comes up and the machine is temporarily out of service!!  Of course it is. Now I know you’re asking, why didn’t he just use the machine in the first place?  People don’t trust them.  If a check goes missing, the bank has a “it’s not our responsibility” attitude.  It’s risky.

There was another branch on the other side of the mall so we decided to walk over.  Guess what?  That side of the mall was closed and wouldn’t be open for another hour and a half. This head banging session is coming to a close and the head shaking in disbelief starts.

Of course, I always having a running commentary with Juan about using bank cards instead of deposit slips, streamlining procedures at the teller, efficiency, etc.  And although he concurs, I think he’s tired of me pointing out the glaringly obvious.

Here’s a perfect example of inefficiency, if you deposit a check you have to have your photo taken and you need to give your thumb print.  The teller to camera  ratio is about 2 to 1, and it’s required for ALL checks.  So if you deposit 10 checks, that means 10 photos and 10 thumb prints are taken.  All of that takes time. Can you feel the pain?  Oh and talk about Big Brother!  But that’s a whole other post.

Anyway, that was the first of three banks we had to go to yesterday; they went just as smoothly.

Line Up, Queue, Cola…

I have a very sharp tongue, I’m very impatient, and it’s a lifelong struggle. ~ Karen Armstrong

Line up, queue, cola, whatever you call it, it still equates to time wasted.

Life is funny.  It seems like I’m constantly challenged to work on one of my worst qualities, impatience. It rears its ugly head at certain things like waiting for summer to arrive, being super excited to go somewhere (I’m not the road trip kind of gal), or waiting for Juan to find his keys and put on his shoes when we have someplace to be and I’ve been ready for 10 minutes.  So isn’t it a bit ironic that I move to a place where I think they invented line ups?

Line up for the bank.  A great way to start the day.

Line up for the bank. A great way to start the day.

I understand that I’m living in South America and they have different ways of doing things; and I get that Caracas is a very large, somewhat disorganized city, but people here dislike line ups just as much as I do.  Some days are filled with dread because you have more than one thing to do. You constantly have to consider how much time will be spent waiting.

Rush hour.  Can you see the organization with traffic going in three directions at the same time?

No, this isn’t a parking lot.  This is rush hour. Can you see the organized flow of traffic going in three directions at the same time?

It goes something like this: I have to go to the doctor’s office.  Um it’ll take me 45 minutes to an hour to drive there, try to find parking (always a challenge) wait a minimum of 3 hours for a 10 minute appointment, go to the bank, but  try to find parking again, which can be around 20 minutes depending on where the bank is located, wait up to an hour in the bank.  There is no swiping of the debit card here.  Everything is still pretty much paper driven; you know, how it was 20 years ago when you had to fill out the withdrawal or deposit slip, plus your photo is taken and you have to ink your thumb print if you’re cashing cheques.  People are very weary of bank machines and won’t really use them if they’re situated outside of the bank. No matter, there are line ups for those too. Next, get some gas and pick up groceries on the way home.  Four seemingly small errands can take up to 6 hours, not very efficient and incredibly frustrating.  Of course the time will vary slightly depending on the order and the time of day you do your errands.

People waiting to insure their cars.  This line up is two people deep.

People waiting to insure their cars. This line up is two people deep.

Can see my problem? There are even line ups for line ups!  You think I’m joking, but it’s very common for government offices to employ this.  You stand in line for 45 minutes to an hour (seems like the magical number) to get the information of where you’re supposed to go, only to find the right place and wait another hour  for less than five minutes with the person you need to speak with.  Ah, bureaucracy, you got to love it.  Not!

I'm waiting for Juan waiting at the Notary Office.

I’m waiting for Juan waiting at the Notary Office.

Of course all of my Latino students laugh at me. They employ the “Silly Kim, you should know better” conversation.  I’m glad to know that my frustrations are their amusements.  They give me tips like bring a book or magazine; pack some water and something to snack on. These are good, but wouldn’t it be easier if things were just a tiny bit more efficient?

This is not traffic.  This is a line up to get to the gas pump.  It does affect traffic, though.

This is not traffic. This is a line up to get to the gas pump. It does affect traffic, though.

I know complaining doesn’t solve anything, but some days it sure helps to vent a little.  I’m learning to deal with it, but trust me when I say it’s challenging.

Up We Go…..

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books. ~ John Lubbock

This past Sunday I did something I’ve never done before in my life.  I hiked a mountain from bottom to top! No, not the Canaima like in the animation UP, but the Avila.  It’s a beautifully lush mountain range  that divides the city from the sea.

A view of the Avila from my friend's condo.

A view of the Avila from my friend’s condo.

I’m not sure why we accepted the invitation except to say that it was something to do on a Sunday.  We went with Juan’s sister and a few of her friends.  At the beginning of the hike we were told that it had some steep parts, but the overall hike was smooth.  Note to self, consider the source.  The women who told us this are quite experienced hikers.  Having hiked all over the world, this would seem like nothing but a stroll. One thing I learned is this,  what one person considers a smooth easy hike, another person considers a small private hell.  Now not all of it was challenging, but man, there were some parts that I didn’t think I could climb.

We started our journey at around 8 am, and although the start of the hike was laborious  I was excited to be surrounded by the trees and the cool damp air.   I love being in the woods, smelling  the earth, listening to the quietude, and admiring the various colors of brown and green. It shouldn’t have surprised me  that there were a lot of people on the trail, but there were.  Young and old alike took to the sky.

A view of Caracas from the Avila.

A view of Caracas from the Avila.

There were viewpoints, such as the one above, that made me stop and gape with my mouth wide open at the size of Caracas.  This is just a small part of this immense  city.  It’s quite pretty from above, wouldn’t you agree?

One hour quickly turned into two.  I wasn’t really complaining at this point.  I still had a lot of energy and my childlike curiosity kept me well occupied.  A couple of things that I saw, but was unable to get  pictures of, were butterflies and parrots. It seemed like every time I took my phone out to snap a picture, they flitted or flew away.  Sigh

At one point we came across a hill so steep I thought it would have been more effective if I crawled up it.  The hiker beside me was just as discouraged.  Somehow that made me feel better.  At least I wasn’t the only one in pain.

A little treasure.

A little treasure I found on my way. I’m amazed that only the veins remain.

After three hours, I was at the point where I dearly wanted to sleep.  Fortunately for me, we came upon a resting point with a shack.  Thank god!!  I would have walked right past this shack because the window was tightly closed and the door slightly ajar.  Had there not been anyone milling about I would have lost the opportunity to try something delicious.  On the menu (a piece of  paper with three things written on it) was jugo de tomate y mora (tomato and blackberry juice).  I confirmed this with a fellow hiker (Juan was further behind me so I couldn’t question him). Really?  Tomato and blackberry?  I needed to try it!  To say it was refreshingly divine is an understatement!!  Man, oh man, that was surprisingly good. Nope, no picture.  I was too tired to take my phone out of my bag.  But trust me, it’s worth experimenting with.  I think you need to remove the seeds and skin of the tomato and then puree it with the blackberries and some ice.  Super simple!

The other thing I had there was frozen passion fruit juice (one of my favs)!  It was kind of like a freezy in a cup.  I wanted to lay there and eat this all day.  The promise of the upcoming view was hardly tempting.  I was already in my own little heaven.

Juan at the shack.  Can you see the menu?

Juan at the shack. Can you see the menu?

Although my rest was well deserved, I knew better than to stop for a long period of time.  I was actually afraid that my bones and muscles would seize and I wouldn’t make it up or down.  I was promised just one more hour and then I would be rewarded with the most spectacular view.  This last hour was killer.  There were parts on this path that were so narrow that there was yellow “Peligroso” (danger) tape stretched across two thin bamboo trees. One little misstep and I was going down, way down.  I grabbed a few gnarled roots and push myself ahead. The last leg of the hike was a bit cruel.  It was tough and I was tired.  There were no more resting places.  If I stopped, I line of people behind me had to stop because no one would have been able to pass.  Ah, the pressure!

Finally, I made it to the summit.  I wanted to collapse.  My legs were like jelly. I had such a sense of pride and the feeling of accomplishment.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to turn back at certain points. And as cliché as it is, I kept seeing the hike as a metaphor for life.  You know, the ups and downs, the struggles and the triumphs.

Woo Hoo

Woo Hoo

The irony of all of this was that I had seen the spectacular view three years earlier when Juan and I were here last.  The joke was on me!  Ha ha.  We took the cable car up.  But this time around it was more special, somehow I felt like I was more deserving.

My reward.  Galipan, the place where the sea meets the sky.

My reward. Galipan, the place where the sea meets the sky.

There was a woman who came up right after our group.  To say she was inspiring is an understatement.  Her name is Teresa and she’s 81 years old.  YES, 81!!!  Apparently she’s a regular.  Every weekend she does the hike in under 3 hours.  She put me to shame.

Teresa

Teresa on the right, joined us for lunch.

After lunch we all decided it was time to head down.  We took the cable car.  Good thing because I would have had to have been carried.  Heights kind of freak me out.  I’m not sure when I developed this, but it’s a bit unnerving when I’m swinging around in a little car high above the ground.  I had to look way ahead to take the picture.

A view of Caracas from the cable car.

A view of Caracas from the cable car.

When I look at the picture above I really can gauge how far I came.  It was a fantastic day.  As much as I struggled, I know I want to go back and do it again.

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