Otis and the Pisco Sour

The woman walked toward me with a plate of green balls.

No story should begin that way. It’s the type of lead that conjures nightmares, or at the very least, pornographic guilt. And yet, this was my path.

I am in Lima, Peru, a place unlike any I have been before. It’s one of the top 20 most populous cities in the world. A city of eight million people, the denizens of Lima are squeezed into blocks of nearly 8,000 people per square mile. It’s a multicultural place, made up of Mestizos, Caucasians of Spanish and Italian descent, and just about every other kind of person you could imagine seeing.

“Do you speak German?” the man asked me in English.

“I speak English,” I said.

“I am from Germany,” he said. “I took a shuttle from the airport, and I lost all my luggage. Can you help me?”

He was homeless, maybe German, and looking for a handout. He probably had more worth in his hands than many of the native people of Peru. Things are so bad for some folks here, they literally try to catch the ubiquitous winter fog with big nets so they have clean drinking water. They know little of the big green balls, ad this is where it’s evident I’m more fortunate than I should be.

A news conference had just finished and the waiters (yes, there are waiters at the news conferences I attend now) were handing out Cusquena beer and some sort of purple squid mousse. And big green balls.

I told myself that I would try one of everything here in Peru. I’ve been many a place and tried many a thing, but in just my first 20 hours here, I’d run across a multitude of things I’d never tried. Before it was all said and done, I’d quaffed spicy green balls, purple squid mousse, and some odd combination of fish and hominy that I intend to replicate with a South Carolina flair some day. It was all fairly exotic for a guy who gets off on ribs and beans.

While the waiters were plying us with the green balls, the drink guys brought around a tray of green cocktails with orange dots on the top. I was hoping my partner Shamus would try one for me. I forgot he doesn’t drink. When the waiter told us what it was, I heard “whiskey sour.” Well, I thought, I’ve tried one of those. No need to add it to the list of everything else I’m trying.

A couple of hours later, we went to a party where grown men breakdanced with giant musical scissors in their hands and Mestizos with trays offered an array of things I’d never had before. Sure, there was your typical ceviche and fish on a stick that you’ll find in any South American coastal town. There were empanadas and the like. But then there were those whiskey sours that the Peruvians seems to hold with so much pride. Finally, I stood closer to one of the waiters and truly heard.

Pisco sour.

I had two or three at the party, each time thinking it tasted like a combination of a whiskey sour and a margarita. By the time I felt like leaving (shortly after the guys with the scissors disappointingly ended their dance without slicing each other up), I knew that my first Google search upon my return would be to learn what I’d been drinking.

It turns out, a pisco sour is comprised of pisco, citrus juice, egg whites, simple syrup, and bitters. All of that made sense, except for the fact that I’d never heard of pisco either. I learned it’s a South American liquor made of grapes. Not all that exciting, eh?

Well, it wouldn’t be except for the fact that the pisco sour is one of the more controversial drinks of South America. See, the Peruvians and Chileans (both fantastic people in my estimation) aren’t each other’s biggest fans. What’s more, they both claim the pisco sour as their drink. Here in Peru, they actually have a Pisco Sour Day. They play the Peruvian national anthem, and it’s disrespectful to not finish your drink before the song ends. The Chileans, meanwhile, take some umbrage at the fact their nemesis nation claims their drink. It could probably get really ugly. Even Anthony Bourdain, one of my personal heroes, stepped in it pretty deeply a while back when he essentially declared the Chilean pisco sour to be inferior to the Peruvian version. One wikipedia tale was even better.

Adal Ramones, a Mexican television show host and comedian, made a reference to the Pisco Sour when he expressed his opinion in regards to the 2009 Chile-Peru espionage scandal: “What do the Chileans want to spy from Peru? How to make a good Pisco Sour?”

I have now been in Peru for 24 hours and I’ve now tried at least five things I’d never had before. Most of them were pretty good (although the cocktail con leche wasn’t really my speed). Tonight as I get ready to get some rest before four hard days of work, I’m struck by the fact that my dalliances with the green balls and pisco sours are the reason I dig my job so much. Sure, I love the people I’m around, and I enjoy the action and adrenaline of high stakes poker. The real joy of it, though, is being in a place I’ve never been, a place most people I know will never see, under skies that look different than they do at home. It’s the ability to have absolutely no idea what I’m eating and enjoy it for the pure mystery that it is.

This is how I know I’m lucky. Like most of you, I work in a relatively thankless job, work long hours, and sometimes wonder if it’s all worth it. Unlike most people, though, I get the opportunity to experience the absolute unknown on a regular basis. I’m not relegated to a world of Pizza Hut and Bud Light. I’ve been very lucky that my life has put me in a place that my job picks me up out of South Carolina and drops me on South America’s Pacific coast or some other weird and exotic place. It’s never for long enough, but it’s more than I ever expected to experience.

Oh, sure, maybe it’s the pisco sours talking. Here in about nine hours, I’ll be wishing I was sitting in my easy chair at home and getting ready to take my boy to the pool. For now, though, I feel fortunate that life remains interesting. If it stays this way, things won’t end up too bad.