Wednesday, June 27, 2007

What the marmot saw

From his rock in Custer State Park, this yellow-bellied marmot seemed fairly unphased by his view. We'd driven by the area at noon and it wasn't burning. Coming back from Wind Cave at 3:30, it was impressive. Recent reports suggest the fire has consumed 22,000 acres and is half contained.

Why I Make a Poor Wine Critic

Two weeks (and over 3,800 miles ago), I sampled my first ever sparkling wine from Luxembourg. While it was offered as an aperitif, it was not opened until dinner was ready. Dinner, in this case, was kale and chorizo soup and fabulous from-scratch biscuits, prepared by the siblings-in-law. The meal was great. Along with the rest of the time we spent with them, the meal reminded me how much I like my siblings-in-law. My siblings-in-law, in fact, are one of the unexpected bonuses of my life. It's not startling that a great guy such as the mister would have a great family, or that my brother would have good taste, but the chances that both of my sisters-in-law would be vegetable-loving people I genuinely enjoy spending time with is fairly unlikely.
In any case, I left this meal thinking about the wonders of kale and lucky siblings-in-law. I didn't note the name of the wine, the price, or anything about it. I recall it being slightly pink, tasty, and not a great accompaniment to the hearty soup. Too many thoughts of friends and family and no thoughts of wine. Poor critic skills.


Upcoming on Sparkling Squirrel-- rodent games, prairie dog tourism, Luxemburgian and Hungarian sparkling wine, Hero Rats, and a mammal (non-rodent) spotted in the Black Hills which neither the Mister nor I had seen before. Any guesses?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

More Reptiles Than Rodents

As we have seen chipmunks and squirrels at the Chicago Botanic Garden, prairie dogs at Kanopolis Lake and around suburban Denver, and squirrels in my parents' backyard, it is probably untrue that we have seen more reptiles than rodents on our current roadtrip.

However, relative to the expected quantities of each, the reptiles are surprisingly abundant. More turtles than squirrels were trying to cross Kansas backroads. Rain on the prairie and foothills has apparently led to a bumper crop of small lizards both in Central Kansas and Roxborough State Park. Snakes at both sets of parents' places and warnings of many more. Good year for reptiles. And, thus far, not a ground squirrel (thirteen-lined, golden-mantle or otherwise) in view.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Bad Sparkling, Good Company

While in Chicago, the Mister and I found bottles upon bottles of sparkling wine we needed to try-- sparkling from Michigan, Luxemburg, Switzerland and a Lambrusco. We had the opporuntity to sample several of them last night at a "Woodland Evening" with our friends in Lawrence.
The Swiss sparkling was unexpectedly red and advertised as having hints of strawberry. It was definitely fruity, and the strawberry hint was the overwhelming smell of over-ripe (read rotten) fruit.
The Michigan blanc de blanc was dry and yeasty with an off-smell.
The Lambrusco was dark red and overtly grapey-- similar to sparkling communion wine or Andre cold duck done better.
Three bad sparkling wines in one evening, a total bust, except we were there to see friends, so it was wonderful.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Chipmunks in Suburbia

West of a certain point (perhaps Chicago), chipmunks indicate woods, and west of another point, (perhaps Lawrence), woods mean mountains. As a Coloradan, I still associate chipmunks with being in the mountains. Squirrels are suburban. Chipmunks are exotic.

This perhaps explains why I was so astounded by the number of chipmunks running around the Chicago Botanic Gardens looking very fat and very happy.
The gardens, by the way, are large and grand, and worth visiting, but not worth a large detour.

Thursday, June 7, 2007


"Shall we have an apertif before we go out to dinner?" asks one of the true intellectuals, my sister-in-law, while pulling out a bottle of French sparkling wine, some truly blackcurrant creme de cassis, and a chunk of "fruit of the goat" she picked up at the farmer's market.

It is immediately clear to me that I am not home in small town West Virginia, where apertifs are not part of our regular routine, mores the pity.

Apertifs represent the transition to my siblings-in-law world, which, to me, represents all that is cool about big city life. Their apartment is crammed with books and original artwork and not in the least bit cluttered. They have Gastronomica, The Journal of Food and Culture, sitting next to the guest bed. They discuss foreign films (and see most of them too.) And they have apertifs.

We've just arrived on a long road trip. Apertifs are served. Maybe it's all an act. I eat it up, and in the case of my sparkling apertif, drink it down.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Ecuador Post Reading

If you've come to read the Ecuador posts (or just see the Ecuador photos), I highly recommend starting at May 30 "The Best Laid Schemes" (click on older posts) and reading your way up. I posted the thoughts and photos in basically chronological order (starting with the broken leg, moving through eating guinea pig, and ending with the flight home), which makes them backward on the blog, although I am sure you all can handle it.
Please comment, too.

Prairie Dog Travels First Class

In the past I prided myself on being a traveller and not a tourist. Six weeks in Asia with my high school Chinese class convinced me that I would never again spend my days shopping at local "factories" or eating overpriced steak instead of Thai food while in Thailand.

Since then, I have recognized the fun in being a tourist, for a few days, in an American or European city. It was great to go to St. Louis for the weekend and hit the botanic gardens, the zoo, a prairie park, the art museum, a hockey game, Oktoberfest and several good restuarants without giving any consideration to "how people really live in St. Louis"-- we were there as tourists and it wasn't all bad.

This trip, however, confused me.

It would have been different had Happy Cricket been able to show us her Ecuador-- her community gardens, her non-tourist town, her local boyfriend. But, as it happened, we arrived as tourists. We don't speak Spanish well, we (relatively) have money, we wanted to see a lot in 11 days, we look like gringos, and, well, we are gringos. We're willing to spend $5 on a meal and we like warm showers.

We did some traveller things. We hauled our backpacks onto buses filled with locals. We walked great distances across towns rather than taking taxis. We drank fresh-squeezed green juices from glasses we knew couldn't be clean and sampled street and bus food. We ate a fabulous breakfast in a bus station.

But then, we did rich American tourist things also. We stayed at a resort with private hot springs pools and views of the Andes. We bought a piece of original art. We payed extra for the express tickets at the TeleferiQo. I made a young woman's day when I agreed to add a $2 manicure to accompany the complete $3 pedicure she was giving me. A pedicure and a manicure! What kind of traveller does that make me?

This confusion is further emphasized by the fact that we flew business class all the way. We flew on the Mister's accumulated airline points, so we did not pay for first class, and we could only get the dates we needed flying first class. Still, it was a different world. The Prairie Dog has been with us across the country and to Scotland in coach. Nobody has ever commented. In the front of the plane, Prairie Dog was the hit of the flight attendants. They cooed over him, asked his name, and took him to show other flight attendants.

On a Miami to D.C. flight where potato chips were selling for $3 in coach, the Prairie Dog was offered warm cashews and bloody marys.


Although they are not rodents, vegetables, books or sparkling wine (and thus technically don't belong on this blog), volcanoes are cool. And, in accordance with our modest plan, we did admire them. So I offer some images.In the order that blogger seems to have arranged them, these are
Volcan Tungurahua from Riobamba, Volcan El Atar from Riobamba, Volcan Pinchincha from the top of the TeleferiQo, Quito from the flanks of Volcan Pinchincha after riding the TeleferiQo to 4100m, agriculture on the flanks of Tungurahua near Baños, a log turned steps in the middle of a waterfall near Mindo, Volcan Chimborazo (highest point in the Americas) from the bus, Volcan Tungurahua from Baños (note the steep steps on the left side of the photo. We were thrilled to reach these as we had been following a trail just as steep for over a mile straight down the ridge.) and Antisana from Papallacta.

Cuy: Eating the Guinea Pig

To be completely forthright, I knew I was headed to Ecuador where cuy (guinea pig) is considered a treat before I selected the New Year's Resolution. So there was no way I was going to make it through Ecuador without sampling either cuy or gaunta (agouti).
Outside of the food market in Baños, I had my chance.
The Mister and I selected our purveyor of cuy based on three attributes: the meat smelled tantalizing while roasting, the place was packed with locals, and the window listed "cuy con papas" (with potatoes) so we knew we could order a plate meal rather than a whole pig.
It was tasty.
The next day we were at the Saturday market in Riobamba, an extraordinary affair that spills from the permanent food stalls, through blocks and blocks of specialty merchandise (one street all potato sellers, another all things made from used tires), and covering at least three other plazas. At what is the bus station on non-market days, we hit the live animal vendors. One could purchase a chicken at any stage of development, a rabbit literally pulled from a gunny sack, and adorable young guinea pigs. Unlike the bunnies and the chickens, who seemed oblivious to their fate, the guinea pigs all huddled in the corners of the cages, pretending that they couldn't be seen and whimpering in that rodent snort-whimper-squeal sort of way. I'm not totally sure I could have eaten one had I seen the market first.

Oh, yes, it did taste like chicken. Dark meat.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Whose Clues?

Giving tours at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, we spent a lot of time telling students to look for clues of wildlife, rather than planning to spot a wild animal. This technique served The Mister and me well as we took a guided hike up the valley from Papallacta.
On the hike we saw tapir tracks, wee Andean deer tracks, and a coati skeleton. We flushed a giant guan, ran into some large carnivore scat (there are spectacled bears and a few cats in the forest), and came across a large dead owl.
We crossed primary forest and paramo, watched clouds hide the volcanoes, and delighted in orchids, bromeliads, lupines, fire trees and hypericums.

We did see one live wild mammal on the hike: a Brazilian Rabbit in the hotel courtyard.

South American Sparkling

Prior to our recent trip, different varieties of Argentinian Chandon were the only South American sparkling wines The Mister and I had sampled. We were, therefore, anxious to try more, despite the warnings of Happy Cricket and the Lonely Planet Guide ("Local wines are truly terrible and should not be experimented with,").

At the supermerket In Baños we discovered the Grand Duval line of Ecuadoran sparkling wine. For only $2.80 a bottle (Ecuador is dollarized, so US currency is in use), we could have either the Quinceañera Rosado or the 45th anniversary special. Of course we bought the pink bottle to celebrate a quinceañera. Prairie Dog made of point of commenting that if we ever throw him a quinceañera, we will not be serving that swill. It was very likely the worst sparkling wine we have ever consumed. One might reasonably ask what we would expect of a $2.80 wine that includes water, musto, and raisin concentrate as the first three ingredients drunk at room temperature from a plastic hotel cup, but we've drunk some awful stuff. Being the worst is saying something.
Towards the end of the trip we found a bottle of Chilean sparkling wine at a Spanish Deli in Quito. While it was not as good as many cavas or our house sparkling, the Mister commented that if it were available in the US for $6.95 a bottle, we'd drink the Concha y Toro Brut on occasion.

On our last night in Ecuador, we splurged and ate at Mare Nostrum, a gothic-themed seafood restaurant where the fireplace, stained glass windows and pewter plates actually added to the evening, rather than just looking silly. We drank a bottle of Navarro Correas Extra Brut, an Argentinian sparkling that complimented the perfectly grilled octopus (the best octopus either of us has eaten), as well as the garlicky shellfish, the grilled wahoo and the taxo (a type of passion fruit) ice cream.

Big Animals

We did not encounter any capybaras in the wild, however, as they are the world's largest rodents, I forced the mister to photograph them at the Baños Zoo.We also encountered this tapir with a rather large part wandering freely around the zoo. Had you been in my invertebrate zoology class this last semester you would know that being hung like a tapir is nothing compared to barnacles, whose penises can be eight times as long as the rest of their bodies, or polyclad worms, which stab each other (they're all hermaphroditic) with their two protruding members. See, I did learn something this semester. . .people pay more attention when you throw in sex along with the ecology and books.

The Embarassement of Being Overfed

I've been thinking about food a great deal recently. Of course, thinking about food is not exactly a new pastime: I think I have thought about food a great deal all of my life. However, travel does make me think differently about food, as did the two books I read on the trip, Living Poor by Moritz Thomsen and Her Fork in the Road edited by Lisa Bach.
Thomsen spent four years in the Peace Corp on the coast of Ecuador in the late '60s. His chronicle is well written (Happy Cricket's long ago review points out some of the funnier passages), unintentionally depressing, and food obsessed. He reminds readers of the close relationship between food (particularly protein) and development, particularly intellectual. He finally realizes that his efforts to better the situation in the impoverished village he lives in fail not because of bureaucracy, laziness and cultural differences (which all play a part), but largely because for several months every year there is not enough food to support men working or children's brains developing.
Her Fork in the Road, is much, much different. The book is a collection of essays celebrating women eating and travelling; the kind of book my mother and I eat up. While in Ecuador looking at small people (knowing that most of adult size is nutritionally and not genetically determined) and being fed meat at every meal, I was not as impressed by the essays discussing eating as a passion of the senses as I usually am. I found myself drawn to the essays describing hunger (and Kelly Winters' descripion of hunger on the Appalachian Trail and Dawn Squires' essay about a food-less Solomon Islands feast are both spellbinding).
Overall, I concluded that being overfed is really an embarrassment. By eating too much (and having the resulting body), I am shamelessly flaunting my wealth, working against my environmental principles, and acting irresponsibly with regards to my own health. I should be ashamed.
This did not stop me from buying the local specialty, a layered homemade ice cream bar, as our bus ambled through Salcedo.

Both books, by the way, are highly recommended. I did have the impression reading Her Fork that I had heard a lot of this before. As a reader of MFK Fisher, Ruth Reichl, Elizabeth David, Frances Mayes and Isabel Allende, I had actually read much of it before. I also had the nagging impression that "I could write better." My mother, who believes in food writing and my ability to write more than I do, might have given me the book (twice!) to remind me exactly of that. If food (and plant) writing is my calling, why am I not doing it?

For those of you following along at home

As I jump around talking about books, sparkling wine and cuy (roasted guinea pig), I thought I'd best give some indication of where we actually were on this trip.

Aside from the unintentional night in Guayaquil (largest city in Ecuador, on the coast), we did not venture far from Quito (capital city in a high Andean valley).
Our trip was basically:

  1. Mindo (West of Quito towards Santa Domingo de los Colorados), cloud forest eco-tourism village at 1250m
  2. Papallacta (East of Quito towards Baeza-- in the Amazon watershed), hot springs in an old volcano crater, surrounded by high Andeas and some cloud forest at 3,300+ m.
  3. Tena, bustling city in the Amazon jungle at 518m (quite a bus ride from over 10,000 ft. to under 2,000).
  4. Banos (between Puyo and Ambato) tourist town on the "balcony" of a volcano at 1,800m.
  5. Riobamba, bustling city surrounded by volcanoes at 2,750 m and at the bottom of the little map.
  6. and back to Quito.

Maps provided by the CIA via wikipedia.