Tag Archives: memories

On Learning How to Scuba Dive

It’s been a busy summer, friends. In the space of just a few short months, I set foot in thirteen states. We jumped out of a plane. And for good measure, I learned how to scuba dive. Why not? You only live once.

Before skydiving, I was nervous. Jumping out of a plane just didn’t feel natural. In fact, I hardly saw the point. Why strap a parachute to yourself and hurtle to the ground at 9.8 meters per second squared? It just didn’t make sense, not until I actually jumped out of the plane and felt the utter exhilaration. The view was amazing, but the adrenaline rush was something that I’ll chase for a long, long time. Now I get it.

Scuba diving, on the other hand, made sense to me. It was something that I’d always wanted to try. I love water – being in it, around it, on top of it – and I love marine life. Diving is the best way to experience all of that, with the additional benefit of feeling weightless and floating underwater.

Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on how you look at it – you’re not just allowed to don a scuba mask, strap on a tank, and jump into the ocean to swim with the fishes. Before the fun stuff, you have to get through scuba school. For me, scuba school was one long weekend divided between the classroom and pool time. Like a good neurotic student, I read the textbook in advance, endured the teacher’s ramblings and rape jokes, then rocked the test with a 96. The pool sessions were much more enjoyable. After getting hands-on experience in assembling scuba equipment, we learned “skills” like what to do when your mask floods with water and how to control your buoyancy.

After scuba school, you must complete four “checkout dives” in an open-water environment. For me, these dives took place at Lake Jocassee in South Carolina. We went through The Scuba Shop and I’d recommend those guys to anyone. The staff is incredibly awesome. They went above and beyond in getting my paperwork from the original scuba school, even when that owner (see ‘rape jokester’ above) proved to be less than helpful. And when we finally got out to dive with them, both Xavier and I had a blast.

Getting suited up for scuba diving is no joke. The first thing to be concerned about is your temperature. Your body loses heat up to 25 times faster in water than in air, so you want to be sure you’re wearing a thick wet suit to ensure comfort. Since we’d be doing a lot of floating around in cool water, the instructor gave me a 7mm neoprene suit for my checkout dives. Putting that thing on was the most challenging part of the whole weekend, requiring maneuvering and contouring like the sassiest music video you’ve ever seen. After the suit is finally in place, you’ve got a BCD: a vest that fills up with air and allows you to float. This vest has a little hose with a button that adds air and another that deflates it. You depress the deflate button to descend underwater for a dive. The descent is aided by the weights that you wear, strapped to your waist by a thick webbed belt. And of course, you’re carrying your tank, your fins, and the regulator hose that winds around your shoulder and allows you to breathe underwater. It’s definitely awkward, adjusting to wearing so much bulky equipment.

I was incredibly excited for my first open-water dive. When my class and I clustered around the buoy and obeyed our teacher’s instruction to sink, mine was the first index finger to deflate its BCD. I waited to sink with bated breath. Nothing happened. I released the breath and its buoyant properties. Still nothing.

Three minutes later, my first scuba experience took place after my instructor hauled me down the rope by my ankle, imploring me with a raised palm to stop flailing. Apparently, my little kicks had no effect in helping me swim down to the bottom – I was supposed to wait patiently and allow the fifteen pounds of weight strapped to my hips to sink me. But finally, I made it. I was greeted by a cloud of lake silt, 20 feet below the surface.

Lake Jocassee is gorgeous from above. But underneath, everything looks golden-brown and muddy. For a first dive, it was awesome. The lack of scenery gave me a chance to focus on the task at hand: performing my skills so I could earn my certification.

In clouds of silt, we demonstrated “skills:” removing our scuba masks, replacing them, and clearing them of water. We swam to the surface without air, simulating an emergency ascent and exhaling lots of little bubbles the whole way up. We breathed from our buddy’s alternate air source, pretending we had run out of air. And after we’d demonstrated that we could handle emergencies, our instructor led us through fun swims in the underwater world.

Breathing underwater with scuba gear is really one of the coolest things you can ever do. I think it’s the closest most of us will ever be to the weightless environment of space. Imagine what it feels like to effortlessly hover above the ground. If you want to rise a little higher, simply take a deep breath and feel yourself float and glide. It’s simply amazing. I can hardly imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to do dive.

(On that note, the biggest concern I’ve heard is that people are afraid of underwater life. To that, I say: that is the other amazing part of diving! Do you love going to the aquarium and watching the fish interact? Imagine being a part of that. As long as you don’t act like a jerk and intimidate the big guys, it shouldn’t be a concern. [Provided you’re not diving somewhere like Australia, where a thumbnail-sized jellyfish can kill you in three seconds with its venom]).

Anyway, despite Lake Jocassee being cloudy and less than ideal for seeing amazing fish, it was still a great experience. I saw a sunken boat (with ‘Dive Naked’ written on the window) and practiced swimming through a little field goal. Also, the lack of external stimuli allowed me to focus on adapting to the whole experience. The lake wasn’t completely lacking in life. I did see the occasional sunfish, and remembered myself as a kid, fishing them out of the lake at camp.

How funny to be on the other side of the fishhook.

Earning my open water certification was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. It literally opened up an entire new world for me. The next weekend, we would explore that world for the first time. Stay tuned!

(All photos are mine – if you want to use them, just ask!).

The Time We Went Skydiving

Me, falling from the sky

I don’t have a bucket list. The majority of things I want to do are impulsive, either done immediately or quickly forgotten. That being said, the idea of jumping out of a plane has never appealed to me. For one thing, I’m afraid of heights. Footbridges freak me out. Adding 14,000 feet to the equation is just terrifying. For another, I’m simply not that adventurous. Roller coasters are great, but I’ve never felt the need to push my luck much more than that.

That changed this past weekend. For an assortment of wonderful reasons celebrating one of our own, a group of my coworkers organized a trip to Skydive Atlanta. With the combination of a great price and peer pressure encouraging me, I made reservations for Xavier and I to join. For the three weeks leading up to the dive, I vacillated between apathetic and nervous. I felt there was no real reason to ever jump out of a plane. I wondered why I would put my life at stake. I wondered who would take care of my dog if something happened to me. These questions kept me from getting excited.

And then the designated weekend came, and we drove out to the airport and prepared to leap from a plane at 14,000 feet. To add to the adventure, it was an incredibly hot Georgia day in late June. Ground temperatures were measuring up to 108 degrees Farenheit. I was overheated and sweaty: nowhere near enthusiastic. After signing our lives away, all we could do was wait for the load schedule to be announced. This took a couple of hours. We were able to play foosball for a while during the lag time, which was a fun distraction.

Xavier and I waiting in the  hangar for the jump

Finally, training began. I’d heard horror stories of six-hour ground schools, but the session was remarkably quick and put me at ease. It took ten minutes, tops. We learned about the parachute, the harness, and how to position our bodies during the jump. Once I heard that there was a secondary parachute that activated automatically at a certain altitude, I resolved to relax and let my instructor take care of things. As my friend Marie said, “You could throw a dog out of the plane with a parachute and it would land just fine!”

Then we suited up, which was remarkably awkward. We had dressed for the heat, expecting to be provided with jumpsuits and safety gear. But the weather was so extreme that the staff decided we would jump in whatever clothing we were wearing. Skydiving in a tank top and shorts sounded like an awkward proposition. The harnesses were comfortingly complex, with tons of safety straps and buckles, but had the tendency to dig into sensitive areas. Everyone walked bow-legged to the loading zone.

Once we were in the plane, we had a moment to relax while the instructors did the work. Each instructor harnessed their jumper, having us sit in their laps for a moment to make sure we were literally attached at the hip. It was awkward, but the jokes and laughter sort of calmed everyone down. Everything still felt surreal. I was relaxed, except when I looked out the plane’s window at the patchwork of Earth below and thought “I am JUMPING out of this thing!” Then I was a little scared.

When we reached 14,000 feet, things began to move quickly. The plane’s door opened, filling the plane with a deafening rushing noise. Then a solo diver jumped. Then the camera guy. It’s a weird feeling to be on a plane that’s slowly emptying out. It’s not like watching people get out of a car and stretching out, knowing you have more space to stretch out.

One of the worst feelings of my life was watching Xavier jump first. Seeing your boyfriend disappear from the plane at 14,000 feet is creepy to say the least. At that moment, I went from cautiously relaxed to full-on-freaking-out. I tried to think about how much fun my boyfriend was having in that very moment, but was immediately distracted by my instructor jamming his hips into me from behind to scoot us up the bench. It was almost our turn to jump.

Things happened fast. We positioned ourselves in the doorway, and I saw the farms and fields and trees below us. Everything looked so far away. I felt the instructor’s taps on both shoulders, which meant it was time to lean out. At this point, I don’t remember if we leaned or if I arched my back the way I was supposed to: all I know is that I was screaming a terrified-but-thrilled obscenity as my feet left the floor of the airplane.

That first second was insane. I remember seeing the ground below us, and then looking to my right as the plane dove out of sight. And then we just fell. Warm air blasted my face and I tried to keep my hands up like a flying squirrel. The fall was exhilarating. There is no other word for it. It felt like floating and flying all at once, especially if you forgot the rapidly-approaching ground below. All of my fears melted away as I enjoyed the rush. There was no time to assess the landscape, or how much closer it was getting, and then suddenly the parachute was open. It was comforting to be scooped up by something much more powerful than myself, but it jolted a little. The fall slowed down. “That was a little rough,” my instructor yelled into the wind.

(Time for an aside. Ladies, if you’re skydiving, before you go up, please pay careful attention to where your instructor places the chest strap. If you happen to be well-endowed in that area, make sure the strap is placed comfortably. It won’t bear any of your weight when you’re attached to the parachute, so you’re going to want to make sure it’s not in a position where it will press uncomfortably into your boobies during that portion of the jump. If this happens, it will definitely distract you from the awesomeness that is skydiving. Be prepared).

My instructor let me steer the parachutes for a minute. Then he took over, confirmed that I didn’t get motion sickness, and we did some spinning. It was like riding the best roller coaster in the world, except the ground was rapidly approaching. We landed on our feet, taking just a few steps to regain equilibrium. And then we were done. The whole jump took maybe four minutes.

Would I skydive again? Yes, absolutely. Despite not having any interest in it beforehand, the experience was so amazing that I am definitely going to try it again at some point. We decided that you’d need at least two jumps to really appreciate the experience. The first one is so amazing that you can’t take much in. By the second, I think you’d be able to enjoy the surroundings and notice a little bit more. We wished we’d scheduled two jumps in the same day.

Immediately after the jump

So, that was The Time We Went Skydiving. I don’t know what we’ll do next weekend, but it probably won’t be as exciting.

All photos were stolen from my former coworker, and now friend, Matt.

chinese wedding banquet: fourteen courses of awesome

At the risk of sounding corny, I’m going to make a bold declaration: there is nothing more fun than celebrating love with amazing people. My friends Shelah and Simon got married last week in the Outer Banks. It is so incredibly exciting that they are now married, because not only are they completely adorable and perfect together, but because they are both amazing people and it’s really cool to see how happy they make each other! Unfortunately, we couldn’t make it to their formal ceremony. Fortunately, they also held a traditional Chinese banquet in Philadelphia that we were able to attend. It was so incredibly cool to celebrate with these people! I really love and miss all of my friends from Philadelphia, and I could go on for hours about how great they are. But instead, I’m going to write about the food. Because that’s how I roll.

We enjoyed a 12-course banquet meal and you’re about to see all of it. Please note, the photos are shot on the fly from my iPhone. While sitting at a table of ten people who are all excited about digging into platters of lobster and the like, you can’t do much better than that. Here we go.

The first course was a bit of a mystery when it arrived. It looked like Chinese charcuterie. Slices of what appeared to be ham and fish surrounded a pile of sesame-dusted noodles. The noodles were the most interesting. My vegetarian friend Anthony dug in, thinking that the noodles would be one of the only things he could enjoy that evening. Well, these noodles had a snappy but tender texture and a faintly briny flavor that suggested the sea. Turns out the noodles were actually jellyfish. Vegetarian fail. But on the bright side, I can report that I tried a new food, and jellyfish doesn’t taste like much of anything.

Next, we were served egg-drop soup with tofu and shrimp. It was yummy, but I tried not to eat much of it. At this point, we thought there might be six courses ahead. I love soup and didn’t want to fill up too early in the night.

Next came something that made my heart sing: duck! Duck is by far my favorite meat. Our table was split on this subject, with a couple people saying they were timid about eating Daffy, and a few who agreed that Daffy makes a great sandwich with those steamed buns, hoisin sauce, and julienned scallions. This duck was served with slices of meat and crispy skin separated, so you could customize your sandwich.

Up next? Deep-fried squares of tofu stuffed with shrimp mousse. In the middle of the platter were wok-fried snow peas with calamari. The tofu was incredibly delicate inside, some of the best I’ve tried. But it didn’t hold a candle to the calamari, which was cooked absolutely perfectly. You know how calamari can get rubbery and chewy? This squid almost melted in your mouth.

Until this point, our vegetarian friend Anthony had been gazing wistfully at the meat-laden platters. We were excited when a vegetable platter appeared for him. It consisted of stir-fried everything, but mostly mushrooms. There were even thin mushrooms that looked like noodles – but after the jellyfish incident, we knew that what appeared to be noodles would probably not be noodles after all. While I didn’t try any of the veggies – taking vegetables from a vegetarian during a Chinese banquet is like taking candy from a baby in terms of cruelty – Anthony reported enjoying them very much.

The next course consisted of whole lobsters, cut up and fried with shells on. After separating shell from meat, we could eat tender and delicious chunks of lobster tail and claw meat. The claws were somewhat difficult to extract, at which point people began using their fingers to dig in. We’d been drinking consistently until then, which probably helped with the decision to abandon chopsticks. Getting messy was worth it. The lobster was great. I’ve never ordered lobster at a Chinese restaurant before, but after tasting this, I’d definitely do it in the future.

Since we were on a seafood kick, it wasn’t surprising when the next dish consisted of jumbo prawns in walnut sauce. These shrimp were huge, fresh, and perfectly tender. I loved the sweet walnut sauce, and even made sure to eat the accompanying steamed broccoli to offset the large portions of fried food. Because, you know, eating a healthy piece of broccoli cancels out fried stuff. Obviously.

My instinct is to say that the next course was my favorite of the evening, but everything was so good that I can’t really make that decision. However, soft-shell crabs are always beyond amazing. Some people at the table were a little squeamish about eating crabs with their shells on. As much as I wanted to encourage them that the crunch of soft-shell makes the crab that much tastier, I couldn’t be that convincing. Because if they were scared, that meant more soft-shell crab for me. I’m a glutton when it comes to soft-shell crab. Guilty as charged.

At this point, everyone was getting full. We’d had seven courses, which is a lot even if you’re sharing a platter with ten people. But the food kept coming, and it kept getting better. Our final seafood course was black bass steamed with ginger. It was really fresh, hardly tasting of fish at all, but fresh ginger. Our server used his spoon to heap piles of fish, skin and all, onto our plates. The skin wasn’t as crispy as I might have liked, but after a dinner of heavy fried food, I can’t complain.

I’m always sad to see the last of seafood, but the next dish was delicious enough that I didn’t mind. We had beef short ribs with peppers and onions. The servers actually placed two on our table at first, then came back, yelled at us for having two, and removed the second. The beef was a little fattier than I’m used to, even with the short ribs that I’ve cooked at home, but it was so tender and flavorful that it didn’t matter. At this point, a couple of the guys were very excited to get knives (pictured in the photo below) in addition to the chopsticks and forks we’d been given. They were much more effective in the whole separation-of-meat-from-bone process than a chopstick might be.

We weren’t done with meat. Next came pork with pineapples. I love this combination on tacos with cilantro, onion, and lime, but a Chinese variation was equally awesome. The sweet pineapple was a great contrast to the rich pork. Texture-wise, the pork was similar to the beef of the previous course; you might call it well-marbled, or at the very least, rich. We were so full by this point that it was all I could do to try a bite of this.

Stuffed though we were from ten – yes, ten! – courses, the food kept coming. The next one was Xavier’s favorite of the night. I’m going to have to ask anyone reading this if they can identify the dish so we can order it next time we go out. It was a noodle dish with bok choy and perfectly cooked seafood – shrimp, scallops, and squid. The noodles were cooked somewhat al dente and crunchy. The whole thing was served in what might have been lobster sauce. It was clear and thick, reminding me almost of savory Jello. I began wishing I had another stomach.. or six.

Not done yet. Next came fried rice with brown sauce, vegetables, shrimp, and scallops. I was excited to see more shellfish! Even though my stomach was about to burst, it could handle more seafood and rice. Aside from that, I don’t remember much about how this one tasted except it was fine.

And with that came the last course: dessert. The Chinese desserts I’ve tried have always been either really great or completely not to my liking. I love sesame balls, for instance, and that coconut-flavored Jello that is served at many dim sum restaurants. Unfortunately, this dessert wasn’t one that I loved. It was tapioca and taro soup, and after everything we’d tasted, it was just a little bland. Still, though, it was something that I’d probably never order at a Chinese place on my own, so I was happy to try something new.

And thus concluded the Chinese banquet, at which point we terrorized the bars of Philadelphia for a while. That, however, is a post in itself. It is also a post that will likely never be written, because I need to preserve my dignity sometimes. And sharing with the world that you imbibed in so many intoxicating libations that you couldn’t make it out of the car when you got back to the house? And then slept in your mom’s driveway all night? That would be private information. (For the record, I didn’t drive home. That would be utterly ludicrous, and that’s another reason why Xavier is hands-down the best boyfriend ever: not only did he drive me home in my time of need, but he slept in the car with me. I love him).

But I would definitely recommend that you find yourself a Chinese wedding banquet to attend, and that you do it as soon as possible. I loved sitting around a table with friends old and new, trying things I’d never be exposed to otherwise. And when that good time is in honor of the marriage of two amazing people, it’s just that much more special. So go forth, find someone of Chinese heritage, and encourage them to marry as soon as possible. The effort will be worth this very special meal.

Have you ever been to a Chinese wedding banquet? What was your experience like?

On Learning How to Drive a Five-Speed

My first car… the Toyota on the street, that is.

I’m so jealous of anyone who can drive a vehicle with a manual transmission. If you are one of the lucky few, congratulations: you deserve a high-five and a cookie. For the last few months, I’ve been making my best attempts to join the exclusive club of stick-shifters. The learning experience has been traumatic all the way through.

We started in an empty church parking lot on the west side of Atlanta, conveniently situated on an hill. Since it was Saturday, the lot was empty save for stragglers collecting stray cans from the ground. I knew the basics: start in first, don’t ride the clutch, skillfully maneuver your feet. I also knew the approximate locations of the gears in relation to the shifter, thanks to a high school boyfriend who sometimes let me shift while he worked the clutch. I say ‘sometimes’ because those fun times ended when I accidentally put the car into reverse instead of fifth on the highway. Despite the utter lack of success, from my past experience, I thought learning would be a piece of cake.

The lesson began: turn on the car and get it to move.

“What do you mean I have to remove the clutch slowly?” I screamed by the fifth time the tires screeched, the car rocked, and the engine went dead. “I thought you took your foot off the clutch when you hit the gas!”

Eventually, after stalling almost a dozen times, I got the hang of the footwork. We sputtered and shook as the car shivered into first gear, but it happened. We headed straight across the asphalt. There was just enough time to hit second gear before we reached the edge of the lot.

“Stop! Stop!” begged my instructor. I slammed on the brake. With another mighty shake, the engine stalled. Of course I’d forgotten to hit the clutch.

After an hour of variations on this theme, I could successfully get the car in motion on a flat surface. I could put it into second gear and then come to a stop: my favorite part of the ordeal.

It was time to learn how to start on a hill.

We cruised over to the parking lot’s incline, only stalling once or twice on the way. I stopped, moved my right foot to the accelerator and left to the clutch… and stalled. We slipped backwards down the hill, narrowly missing one of the scavengers. My instructor grabbed the emergency brake and halted us for dear life. I opened the windows and turned off the ignition. We leaned back in our seats, breathing hard with fear (instructor) and frustration (me).

“Hey, wanna buy some walnuts?” asked an unshaven and likely homeless face in the now-open window.

“No, we’re good,” I demurred.

By that time I was completely fed up with driving stick, and decided it would be best to save the rest of the instruction for a new day. The next few lessons were held at night, on the open road. When midnight hit and Atlanta’s Midtown streets were quiet, we stuttered around in a little Honda, brakes squealing and engine rocking. It wasn’t bad. I understood the footwork – sort of – and shifted when told to do so. We even attempted the reverse gear, and despite getting stuck in a parking lot, things weren’t so bad.

Next came a few daylight drives. Supervised, I dutifully drove to work and out to a restaurant. Things were looking up. My instructor managed the emergency brake when we were on a hill and with his help, I avoided murdering anyone. With success came confidence, and with confidence came a longer evening drive to really test my skills. From my Midtown home, I drove onto the highway and up through Buckhead. Shifting like a champion, I offered to show my instructor some really cool houses in the Vinings area. (We both appreciate fine architecture, so it felt like a good idea). As I came to a stop at a traffic light, I noticed that we were on a hill. Going up. And behind me idled a BMW SUV, right at my back bumper and ready to go.

The light changed to green. I rolled backwards. Stalled. Laughed nervously.

After turning on the ignition again, I did the usual: slow lift-off from the clutch, quick slam on the gas. I was nervous and feeling the pressure from traffic idling behind me. We stalled again, the car shaking with indignation and clutch abuse.

Lather, rinse, repeat – five times. Horns honked. The light turned red. The BMW started to drive around me, windows down to extend a hearty curse in my direction. And I had a complete panic attack, so the only logical next step was to vault over the gear shift into the front seat and make my instructor drive me home.

It took a few days before I was ready to try again, but when I did, my instructor was really racking his brain for something that would make me understand what I was doing. Although I could technically operate the vehicle, it wasn’t by feel or intuition, but simply following orders. And then he told me a little trick: when you’re starting, pull your foot just a little bit off the clutch while accelerating, then when you feel the car starting to move forward, ease off the clutch slowly.

For some reason, this was the secret that I needed. But the experience was still so stressful that my instructor took to videotaping my aghast facial expressions as I practiced manipulating the clutch on inclines. So now I’m somewhat capable of driving the thing but it’s still stressful, and the car still shakes sometimes for reasons I can only guess at.

But I’m getting a new car in July when my lease runs out, and you better believe I’ll be trying to find a six-speed!

locro de papas receta/recipe

I was in Ecuador and, thanks to food poisoning, hadn’t eaten a solid meal for approximately 60 hours. Jello and crackers were all that I’d been able to keep down. When we arrived at Xavier’s dad’s house for lunch, I was toeing the fine line between real hunger and abject fear of eating.

We sat down for the meal, beginning with a primero of ceviche de camaron: shrimp in a mixture of lime juice, tomato, and onion. It’s served with popcorn, which adds just a little bit more crunch. I ate tentatively, enjoying the food but still scared of retribution from the gods of food poisoning. Next came mellocos, tiny potato-like vegetables with a texture that can only be described as slimy at first and slimier still as you chew. They definitely weren’t my favorite. We also tried habas, boiled fava beans that are dipped in salt and squeezed out of their shells with your fingers.
Then came the next course, and all of a sudden my appetite returned with a vengeance. It was soup. But not just any soup. Steaming-hot potato soup and on top, a huge slice of avocado. Within, slivers of queso fresco melted into the creamy mixture of broth and potatoes. Is there a person in existence who can resist a bowl full of potatoes, cheese, and avocado? Avocado is like the bacon of the vegetable world. It makes everything better. And when the flavor of avocado is dancing around your mouth with little bursts of cilantro over a lush background of potatoes and melted cheese? It’s perfection. Locro de papas… a revelation.
I finished my bowl quickly and made a huge dent in a second before I was too full to continue. The soup was so good that I refused to let anyone take it away from me. For the next few hours, I waited impatiently for the feeling of fullness to subside; as soon as it did, I launched myself mouth-first at the remaining soup. It was that good.
Before we left Ecuador, I tried another version of locro at a restaurant in the Cotopaxi region. It was great, but much thicker than homemade soup I’d loved. It was more like loose mashed potatoes. In my opinion, locro de papas is best when its texture is distinctively broth, enriched with potato. When we got back home to Atlanta, I made it my mission to recreate the bowl of my dreams. Using what I learned from Xavier’s stepmom about her recipe and all the recipes I found on Google, I came up with a my own version. And after we had sampled my creation, even my Ecuadorian roommate agreed that it was a taste of home – “better, even.”
It’s not hard to make. Here’s what you’ll need.

There are two ingredients that might be unfamiliar: annatto seeds, and queso fresco. For the annatto seeds, if you don’t see them marketed by Badia brand in the spice section of your grocery store, you can definitely find them at an ethnic grocery. It’s also sold as a powder. Queso fresco, or fresh cheese, seems to be pretty popular these days. It’s in the Mexican section at the Kroger next to my house. But you can likely find it at an ethnic market.
You might also notice that those potatoes are of the ginormous mutant variety. Here’s one next to an iPhone to demonstrate how huge they are. Apparently potatoes are on steroids these days.

Anyway, you’ll make a pretty orange-red base for your soup by heating the annatto seeds in vegetable oil. After you strain the solids out, you’ll saute diced onions in that red oil.

Since the oil is so brightly colored, it can be hard to tell when the onions have changed color and are tender enough to proceed. Just wait until they start bubbling a little bit. That’s usually a good indicator that they’re nice and soft.
You’ll add cumin and salt to the mix, then water and potatoes. Lots of potatoes.

Having misjudged the quantity of soup you’d be preparing, you will find that the mixture threatens to overflow from the saucepan and sabotage your freshly cleaned stovetop, so you’ll have to curse loudly and switch to a huge Dutch oven at this point. Or… not.
The potatoes will simmer until nice and tender, then you’ll mash them against the sides of your pan with a wooden spoon. The idea is to completely pulverize some so that they dissolve into the soup, getting it nice and thick. But you’ll want some pieces to stay chunky, for texture.
Then you’ll add milk and cilantro. The soup will simmer for another ten minutes, thickening into amazingness from the effects of dissolving potato. I may have let mine simmer for about 20 minutes while we walked to the store to swap Redbox selections. The additional time really helped to thicken things. As it wasn’t even close to the loose mashed-potato texture of before, I loved it. But some might prefer their soup to have a clearer delineation between broth and potato. Keep an eye on your pot, and taste throughout so you can stop cooking when you like the texture.
Every recipe I’ve found in my research calls for adding cheese at this point as well. In Ecuador, we were always served cheese on the side so we could add as much as we wished. For your own soup, it depends how gooey you prefer your cheese. If it goes in now, it’ll be nice and melty. If you wait, it won’t be as soft, but there will be fun little nuggets of cheese in your bowl.
We have reached the most important part of the recipe. All of your work until now comes to fruition at this moment. Ladle the locro into bowls. Top with cheese (if you haven’t already) and sliced avocado. Enjoy!
Here’s the recipe.
Locro de papas
serves 4-6 as entree, 8-10 as appetizer

2 tsp annato (achiote) seeds
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 white onion, diced
1/2 tsp cumin
2 1/2 tsp salt
7c  water
3 1/2 lbs Russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and chopped
1c milk
6 oz queso fresco, cubed
Small handful cilantro leaves, minced
Avocados to taste, for garnish

In a small saucepan over very low heat, heat the annato seeds and vegetable oil. When the oil turns red and simmers, remove from the heat and let it rest for 10 minutes. Strain out the seeds with a fine-mesh sieve; you can throw them away.

Heat the oil on moderate-high in a large saucepan. Add the onion and cook until tender, stirring frequently – approximately five minutes. Next, add the cumin and salt; cook for about a minute, stirring frequently, then add water. Bring to a boil. Add potatoes, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook until potatoes are tender – about 30 minutes. When tender, mash potatoes into the broth until potatoes are mostly dissolved, but there are still some small chunks; you want the broth to stay thick and creamy, but studded with pieces of whole potato.

Stir in milk, cheese, and cilantro. Raise the heat to medium high, letting it all simmer together for another 5-20 minutes (depending on how thick and puree-like you want it). 

Remove from the heat, top with avocado, and enjoy!

And as always, all photos are mine (but a couple were snapped by the ever-supportive and helpful Xavier!).