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Goa… Goa… Gone…

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As the sub-continent days pass, we move steadily southward, and our journey nears its end, we shed layers of clothing bit-by-bit like strippers in a sticky barroom.

The flight from Mumbai International Airport – a bright, modern facility with a nice selection of latte shops (see where my priorities lie?) – to Goa is only 2 hours with an added 3 hour delay… due south.

Mumbai was warm.

Goa is hot. And humid. And tropical. And lush. And Christian looking.

It’s jarring to see Catholic churches and cathedrals after almost 2 weeks of historic Hindu temples, palaces, and Muslim mosques.

There’s something for everyone in India.

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Goa still exhibits the cultural influence of the Portuguese, who first landed in the early 16th century as merchants and conquered it soon thereafter. The Portuguese oversaw Goa for about 450 years until it was finally re-taken by India in 1961.

Goa is India’s smallest state by area and the fourth smallest by population and is also India’s richest state with a GDP per capita two and a half times that of the country.

Slipping along the smooth 4-lane highway in an air-conditioned van from the airport to our resort near the beachfront, we enjoy sparkling beautiful hilly vistas filled with coconut palm trees, lush agricultural fields, new-to-us birds, and ocean views.

The population here is obviously less crowded and so the chaotic driving is, yeah, still chaotic, but relatively calm in comparison to crazed Delhi and Mumbai. You can almost breathe normally in this organized disorganization.

As the mango sun melts into the Arabian Sea, our first evening is spent on the enormous – accompanied by heart-thumpingly loud music and laser-trinket vendors – wide open beach where we have our first fresh seafood meal of the trip, taken under the crescent moon and stars.

Make mine Kingfish please.

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Sunset on the beach in Goa

The following night, smiling chef Pascoal, sweat beading on his brown forehead, prepares and shows us two curry dishes that both include fresh coconut.

The basis for all Indian food comes, as we’ve discovered in our three earlier cooking demonstrations in Jaipur, Udaipur and Bijapur, in the curry sauce. Hot oil, onions, ginger garlic paste, coriander, tomato, turmeric, cumin.

A few other spices come and go depending  on the locale and the tastes of the cook. But the basics remain the same.

The big difference in Goa is the pleasurable addition of coconut to the mix.

Earlier in the day we wandered through a forest-like spice plantation encountering a full kitchen cupboard of spices growing under, on top of, and over the ground.

The meandering trails we ambled in the sticky heat were lushly replete with vines of black pepper, striped orange roots that looked like ginger but were in reality turmeric, cinnamon bark trees, vanilla orchids, green cardamom, bitter-nut, and nutmeg. A wake of flavour.

Finally, the taxi to whisk us to the Goa airport for our long trek home belatedly arrives.

Quietly taking in the scenery en route allows us to daydream and reflect on the cornucopia of experience and sensation.

Reflect on the friendly faces we’ve seen everywhere; the enthusiastic children, some begging, but most merely enthusiastically aroused by an out-of-the-ordinary white face in their village.

Reflect on the many encounters in the streets and markets, the folded hands and Hindi namastes in greeting.

Reflect on the treasured Indian chai, the soothing drink found everywhere that takes on a slightly different tinge of flavour in each region, a bit more ginger here, a little more cardamom there.

Reflect on the haunting Muslim calls to prayers that ring out across towns and cities in the early morning dawn.

Reflect on the roads thronged with placid sacred cows, plodding majestic camels, motorcycles, tuk tuks, transport trucks, cars and more cars, horns in ceaseless use.

Reflect on the sight of rambunctious pink-bottomed macaque and Hanuman langur monkeys scampering along fence lines where round discuses of cow dung dry for later use as cooking fuel.

Reflecting on the inner knowledge that twice or three times a day curry dishes is just too much intense spicy flavour for our western palates.

India is a maelstrom in our minds.

Colours, textures, sounds reverberate in our heads.

The level of input and arousal is often too fast-paced, too great to assimilate in any reasonable way, like trying to breathe air under a gushing waterfall as it washes over you.

The Airbus A-320 lifts gracefully away from the Goa tarmac and the lengthy flights begin.

The emerald green forests, lush views of palm trees and sparkling ocean below are quietly soothing, like a warm milky cup of chai, fragrant steam wafting gently upwards to the clouds.

NAMASTE!

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Leaving On That Midnight Train to Mumbai…

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Our milky white-faced group within the walls of Amber Fort of Jaipur

 

It’s easy to lose your head in Mumbai (Bombay until 1995)… not to mention an arm or two.

More on this in a second.

Mumbai is a huge metropolis on the western coast of India.

20.5 million souls surrounded by ubiquitous smoky haze and skies.

Honestly, all of India that we visited in late January was grey with a pall of smoke haze.

I had naively figured that when we decamped congested Delhi, the winds would gently sweep the atmosphere of smoke, and the skies outside of the city would be small-town clear and pristine.

Nope. Blurry haze followed and hung over us from Delhi to Agra, Jaipur to Udaipur, Mumbai to Goa.

Sorry, I lost my train of thought. Must be the smoke clouding my brain.

The metro system of Mumbai is efficient and well-used.

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But the young men of Mumbai, like young men all over the world, like to impress young ladies and friends with acts of derring-do. Apparently, this daring to impress includes hanging head and body limbs outside the wide open doors of rapidly moving metro cars.

Unfortunately, metal poles and other trains pass perilously close by to the metro cars. Despite signs inside the cars cautioning riders in Hindi and English to stay completely within the cars, young men continue to pay more attention to the young ladies than those prescient warning signs.

And, unfortunately, each day 10 accidental deaths occur on the Mumbai rapid transit system.

Every day.

Efficient at transporting. Efficient at killing.

……………

The overnight train from Udaipur to Mumbai is described as a first class, air conditioned, comfortable sleeping car arrangement. Sounds pretty good, right? Can’t wait.

Walking along the late-evening platform to the stationary train, baggage rolling along behind, there is a grimy sense that we’re traipsing alongside a 1918 version of a Russian cattle cart for the poorest of the revolutionary Bolsheviks. Old… worn… dirty… bars over the windows.

FIRST CLASS SLEEPER is written on the side of the train cars.

We clambered aboard and found our assigned seats as many other passengers squeezed by with heavy suitcases and bags, to locate their seats. We jammed our luggage beneath the bench seats as best we could.

Sitting down on two brown vinyl, straight-backed benches facing each other, a few tears in the fabric, 3 passengers per side, we looked around at the milieu that promised pretty high and delivered pretty low.

When were the walls and windows of this train last washed?

As the train quietly pulled away from the station right on time, each of us assessed the apparent sleeping arrangements. The benches we sat on were the lower bunks for 2, the seat backs folded up and made a mid-section set of bunks for 2 more and finally, another bench folded down from the ceiling making a 3rd set of bunks of the remaining two.

Rudimentary bathrooms with rickety metal doors were located at the end of the car, one washroom set up Indian-style (squat toilets) and the other a Western-style seated toilet. Caked in grime. Neither facility looked remotely appealing even before they had been used by 30 or 40 souls for the following 16 hours.

Spoiled westerners that we were, we gasped, shrugged and gamely tried to make the best of an uncomfortable situation.

Maureen and I volunteered for the top bunks since one of our British travelling companions was suffering intestinal discomfort – a middle bunk made more sense for her need to have easier access to a toilet. Two very pleasant young Indian passengers returning to Mumbai took the bottom bunks.

Each passenger was given a sealed plastic bag containing two white sheets and separately, a roughly-folded beige woollen blanket with tattered edges and seams.

After sleepily awaiting a visit from the train’s officious purser to check our tickets and passports, we threw our carry-on bags up to our bunks and climbed the metal rungs at the end of the bench bunks to the upper reaches.

Very little space remained between the bunks and the ceiling so we wiggled and wormed our way forward onto the platforms that would be our resting place for the night.

Sitting up wasn’t an option. Movement of any type was barely an option. Making a comfortable bed to rest was challenging with the limited space and a carry-on bag taking up much of the room available.

But manage we did.

My legs needed to remain bent for the night so that my feet didn’t impede passersby or prevent the door to the train car opening.

After finding a small nest of reasonable comfort, no desired bathroom break could be reasonably contemplated or envisioned for the reminder of the night given the work effort to find a way out of the straightjacket and then to return again.

Morning finally arrived. But we couldn’t escape our pods until the other younger members below decided to awake. Prisoners on a shelf.

16 hours after pulling away from Udaipur, we descended from the sleep car into the humid heat of Mumbai.

Travelling is about accommodation and acceptance of the good and the less than good, and so accommodate we did.

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Mumbai as I said is a sizeable city on the west coast and, as a financial centre, consists of that confusing mixture of great wealth and sublime poverty. Beautiful modern skyscrapers co-exist with destitute families sleeping roughly on the sides of heavily trafficked roads through the city.

Our first morning journey in Mumbai was to the world’s largest outdoor laundry facility… Dhobi Ghat.

The flyover bridge of Mahalaxmi railway station gives us a bird’s eye view of the huge outdoor laundromat stretching far off into the distance.

Rows of open-air concrete wash pens are each fitted with their own flogging stone, filled with men and women handwashing the clothes.

Whole families live within the washing compound that lies next to the Mahalaxmi railway station. Long lines of sheets and men’s white shirts hang languorously in the sunshine between the wash pens.

The washers, locally known as Dhobis, work in the open to wash clothes from Mumbai’s hotels and hospitals, businesses and private citizens. Like the incredible organization of Mumbai’s lunch box deliveries, no laundry is lost or misdirected.

Descending the bridge stairs, we soon find ourselves ensconced in the labyrinth of washing pens where Dhobis stand in the fibre-stained waters, washing, rinsing, thrashing the clothes and bed linens on the stones like medieval torturers, then hanging them to dry from twists of rope in the open air.

Children and small cats appear in occult doorways, darkened rooms reveal men pressing clothes and sheets with large, red hot coal-filled irons.

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……………..

Travel tells us stories of history, some ancient, some recent.

Not always nice stories.

As we arrive at the massive India Gate, an Arc de Triomphe-like edifice on the Mumbai waterfront, Chandrajeet, our local guide, reminds us of the terrorist attacks that took place here only a few years back.

In November 2008, 10 members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamic militant organisation based in Pakistan, carried out a series of 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks lasting four days across Mumbai. The attacks, which drew widespread global condemnation, began on Wednesday, 26 November and lasted until Saturday, 29 November 2008, killing 164 people and wounding at least 308.

We wander across the clogged-with-traffic roadway to the Taj Hotel, where world leaders such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have stayed, and also where, 32 died during the terrorist attacks.

We pass through stringent security to enter the lush hotel. The inside is beyond description, lavishly rich and sumptuous, filled with enormous bouquets of flowers, floors and walls lined with marble and glass.

We glide up a wide, romantic staircase under stunning crystal chandeliers before spilling into the dignified-as-all-hell Sea Lounge for traditional Afternoon Tea.

The Sea Lounge is filled with old colonial charm and a live tuxedo-clad pianist, highlighted by a spectacular view of the Arabian Sea.

Rocky, one of our Australian travel companions and I – sampling far too many sweet treats –  try to quickly outguess each other as the pianist starts into another musical movie theme… My Fair Lady! The Sound of Music! Dr. Zhivago!

The high tea features an elaborate buffet spread of classic English delicacies as well as local Indian favourites smoothed down with a selection of fine teas. The artistry of the display is sumptuous to the eye well before it intoxicates the palate.

The complicated blend of deadly tragic events and sophisticated high-life magic settles over us in a puzzling, somewhat unsettling way.

………….

There is always a time gap in my travels where my mind assimilates and digests the monstrous volume of input. I always feel so overwhelmed and slow to absorb at the time.

Sights and sounds, scents, tastes, images and textures settle and mingle for days, weeks and months after we return.

This trip to India is no different.

Travel allows us to learn about other places, other cultures, other stories. Travel brings us understanding – not always agreement – but understanding of the people and their ways.

Travel teaches us something about ourselves, an exploration of the outerward journey but also the inner journey, sneakily revealing our strengths and weaknesses, the stuff we’re made of… the good, the bad, AND the ugly… who ME?

Namaste !

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Cooking With Surfer’s Momma … Starry San Juan del Sur Nights …

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Teodora takes us to the markets to find the fresh ingredients needed for Indio Viejo …

Are You Hungry?… Me Too … Let’s Eat!

If you stop by my house for a meal, be prepared to dine on the cuisine of my latest travel venture:

  • Aji de Gallina from Cusco, Peru …
  • Moros y Cristianos from Havana, Cuba …
  • Chicken Tajine from Marrakesh, Morocco …
  • Tapas from Barcelona, Spain …
  •  or in today’s case … Indio Viejo from Teodora’s kitchen in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. 

Just a few days ago, we spent a few hours in the steamy (31 degree C) markets and kitchen of Teodora, a friendly lady who’s spent her entire life running restaurants and hostels in San Juan del Sur, on Nicaragua’s northern Pacific Coast.

A quaint little tourist town, San Juan has fantastic wide, white sandy beaches and lots of tiny T-shirt shops and seafood restaurants overlooking the beach and the sparkling ocean. A grand white statue of Jesus looks down over the town and ocean from atop a nearby hill.

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SOYA… a hostel owned by Teodora and the name of her vegetarian restaurant … today’s meal breaks the house rules and uses beef …

After introducing ourselves to Teodora, and asking her to please speak slowly in Spanish (“despacio, por favor”) so that we can understand, we toddle behind her into the town’s streets – market stall to market stall, neighbour to neighbour – sourcing the needed items for preparing a classic Nicaragua beef stew dish called Indio Viejo (yup, The OLD INDIAN)

First we locate a tiny wood-shack tortilla shop where we pick up a small plastic bag of Masa (corn flour dough for making tortillas, but today it will be used as a thickener in our stew) from an elderly woman in the smoke-filled shack.

We meander further along the noisy, bumpy street and step into a busy set of market stalls.  Moving from one stall to the next, Teodora selects fresh cilantro, tomatoes, onions, sweet peppers, garlic, and sour oranges, passing a very few Nicaraguan Cordobas (local currency) to each of the lady shopkeepers.

Vegetables in tow, we head back into the streets and trundle along a few blocks, stopping once in a while to have a friendly visit with local ladies pushing their sweet children in little “car”-shaped strollers – lifelong friends of Teodora’s. Of course, their Spanish chatter is too rapid for us to gather more than a few ideas of where the conversation is leading.

Our final stop is at a glass-fronted Carneceria (meat shop) where we pick out a couple of small pieces of res (beef) that are bagged by the young boy behind the counter.

All the ingredients we need now are in our bags, so we head back – in the typical tropical plodding walking pace – to SOYA, the hostel-restaurant owned by Teodora.

It’s time to start cooking.

Entering the hostel’s front opening, we pass through a dark, narrow hallway into the back area that blossoms into a small square that opens to the skies. On the perimeter of the square are rooms cheaply available for rent to tourists, and from what we can see, mainly backpackers of varying ages.

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In the centre is a square room with a door that opens into a congested kitchen – the room jam-packed with pots, pans, bags, coolers, vegetables and fruits – there is scarce room for any sort of food preparation.

Teodora, accustomed to the conditions, shows no signs of concern, and pulls out a ceramic soup bowl to place on the little bit of space by the sink. She also places a large teflon-lined pot on the stove, strikes a match to light a propane burner underneath, and begins explaining the preparation details of this dish.

Along with the essential cooking directions, Teodora includes little snippets of information about her sons (her one son Saul – she affectionately calls him Saulito – was actually my surfing instructor on Playa Hermosa the day before) and grandchildren, often flashing a bright gold-toothed smile, showing her pride in her family.

She talks quietly as she washes and cuts the beef, the vegetables, the sour oranges (I’ve placed the recipe ingredients and details at the bottom, so I won’t get terribly detailed here). I love it when we add a toothpaste-sized lump of rust-toned achiote paste to the masa dough and the entire stew takes on a rich orange-brown colour.

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There’s barely a square inch of space available amid the pans and dishes and clutter … Teodora cuts vegetables right in a bowl by the edge of the sink…

After about an hour of cutting, boiling, stirring, and sautéing a salsa garnish, the finished dish is ready to sample.

Each of Teodora, Maureen and myself, scavenge up a bowl amid the counter clutter and scoop a ladleful of the rich, thick stew into our bowls. We squeezed our way out of the tiny kitchen – two other travellers, one Romanian, the other Mexican, had begun preparing their own meals alongside us as we chopped and stirred.

We plunked ourselves down on a long concrete bench that runs along the length of one of the inner walls of the compound and try our first taste of Indio Viejo.

Mmmmm … the tangy sour orange combined with the strong garlic, corn flour, and cilantro flavours to make a full-flavoured, heat-free dish with tender chunks of beef that I’m looking forward to recreating in my – just slightly less cluttered – Canadian kitchen.

So, please drop by and we’ll enjoy some together.

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Nighttime in San Juan del Sur

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The brightly lit 24 metre-high white statue of Christ of the Mercy peers out at us from the north hill overlooking little San Juan del Sur.

Stately coconut and royal palms rise over this resort town that attracts tourists – mostly beautiful young things – by the throngs.

To a lesser degree, it’s a bit like spring break week in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. At night, pairs and groups of people migrate down the middle of the narrow, uneven streets into bars and restaurants pumping out loud music in styles of jazz, or salsa, or rock.

The town is a living organism with a heartbeat that picks up as the night moves on.

This evening, there’s a touch of magic in the warm night air – delight in eating fresh seafood with our group while sipping fluffy rum drinks and cervezas in the wide beachfront restaurant … a romance in the night sky as Jesus looks down over us, stars twinkling overhead. Our travel mates laugh and play in a light alcoholic haze around a circular table perched right on the beach sand.

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Dinner on the beach at San Juan del Sur …

 

It’s a great group we’re travelling with, although – full disclosure, I have to say this as some of them might just read this! But, honestly, we blended pretty harmoniously.

Travel company gAdventures thrust us together as we arrived in Granada, Nicaragua from regions around the globe.

Before we knew it, we were meandering throughout hot and humid northern Nicaragua as a troop containing an even 10 of us – 5 Canadians, 1 American, 1 Belgian, 1 Aussie, 1 Brit, and 1 Costa Rican (Esteban, our guide).

It was a wide-ranging selection of nationalities, genders, accents, ages, religions, and interests. And yet we somehow came together and melded well despite our differences.

Many activities we experienced and saw as a group … at other times we headed off in diverse directions as our interests and palates differed.

And I’m going to share a secret with you after this latest journey… come closer and I’ll whisper …

I don’t usually enjoy travelling in groups.”

I like taking odd detours and finding side streets with local interest that draws me in – group travel is usually just too regimented to provide the freedom and flexibility that I crave. And, for sure … there always seems to be a personality or two that drives me bonkers. Although, to be totally fair, it might be MY personality that gnaws at the others!

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A nighttime visit to see glowing lava inside the Masaya Volcano, near Granada …

 

One of the small joys of travel, for me, is that I often find myself meeting people that I may not approach or stumble upon in my own little circle, my town, my country.

I like to believe that many travellers are explorers seeking to open their minds and hearts to what the world has to offer, as well as discovering hidden parts of themselves that they don’t really understand just yet. There are minute-to-minute stresses and challenges that enlighten us about ourselves.

Travel is both an outward and an inward journey of discovery. 

…………………………

As the jets thrusters roar up for us to make the final taxiing turn onto the nighttime runway, I look out the small airplane window, soaking in the final views of a foreign landscape, and I ask myself,

How many vistas are lovelier than a lit runway at dusk, cold blue and warm yellow lights leading off into the far distance, hinting at a destination exotic and far off … or … just reminding me that I’m coming home.”

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INDIO VIEJO RECIPE:

Ingredients:

  • 1 and a half pounds of beef (or chicken, pork, or … tofu even)
  • 1 pound of corn flour or “masa” (pre-made corn flour dough)
  • 2 yellow onions
  • 2 bell peppers
  • 3 tomatoes
  • 1 bunch of fresh cilantro
  • 1 bitter orange (you can use lemon as a substitute)
  • 2 or 3 tbsp. olive oil or butter
  • Achiote or annatto (needed for coloring, although you can use sweet paprika as a substitute)
  • 6 garlic cloves
  • Approximately half a gallon (2 liters) of water

 

Cook cubed beef in the olive oil with garlic, diced onion, tomato and julienned bell pepper.

Add the water and boil with the lid on the pot until the meat is soft (about 1/2 hour).

Add some water to the corn dough in a bowl and mix until the dough is blended into a smooth paste. Add a tablespoon or so of achiote or annatto to make the corn dough slurry look slightly red. Add this to the beef/vegetable pot and mix it all together on medium heat.

Add the juice from the bitter orange, and let it cook for another 5 to 10 minutes until the mixture is thickened and boiling with large bubbles.

Serve with rice, and/or fried plantain.

The Dog Days of Nicaragua

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Diakachimba!!

The days start hot as soon as the sun rises along with the humidity here in Leon, Nicaragua. The air is slightly oppressive, filled with sun-scorched temperatures and steamy humidity. And still this isn’t the truly “hot” season yet.

The crumbly patchwork streets – a mix of some asphalt, some concrete, some cobblestone – are quiet this early other than the occasional woman who starts work early or the numerous slightly emaciated dogs that wander the neighbourhoods hoping to come upon a scrap of food… anything left behind by a late night drinker or a bag of garbage left untended.

On the surface and in many ways, Nicaragua is hard to distinguish from other Latin American countries.

There are ramshackle houses and vendor stalls made from tin and scrap pieces of salvaged wood… the kids play games in the streets … young Moms wander the narrow calles, sweet brown babies held snugly to their chests in light cotton wraps … bicycles loaded with entire families glide over the bumpy streets … Spanish voices float loudly in the air filled with diesel fumes …  scents of stale urine mixed with caffeine add to the melange.

But not everything is the same. There is something different here in Nicaragua…

The kids and moms and dads of Nicaragua just don’t understand the nature of the hard sell that any other Caribbean nation has known for years. Marketing your goods in a third-world country doesn’t just happen.

Nicaraguan sellers quixotically think that “No” means “NO”.

Most other Caribbean, Latin American, South American countries know this is patently false. You need to push and press and hold each rich tourist, it’s like a WWF fight, anything and everything goes. Take no prisoners, leave no tourist wallet unturned until you’ve captured the mighty US dollars from deep in the pocket.

Street vendors are just so polite in Nicaragua… and unlike Cuba, for example, no government officer or policeman is enforcing their polite distance. They just don’t know any better.

Only the dogs get it here in this Central American locale… maybe they have an international code by which they know the skill set needed.

The dogs are far better beggars than the children.

They have the hangdog look down pat as they stare at you from a few feet away in a head-bowed manner.

Then painfully slowly, one slow-motion paw in front of the other they approach and rest their scratched nose or scrawny-furred jaw on the edge of your leg and rest silent, unmoving. The eyes are sad, almost haunted, irresistible.

Once fed a small scrap or ignored for too long they turn and wander, ever so slowly back to their sleeping tribe on the edge of the pavement… laying in a circle nearby the black dog, and the tan dog, and the white dog with the black patch circling his eye.

…………..

Nicaragua is still in the early stages of its tourism industry and will take some time to develop along the lines of its other Caribbean neighbours. It’s not a bad thing… fewer people speak English in the hotels and street stalls – it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to practice Spanish.

So often when we travel, hauling out our rudimentary language skills, English is spoken to us in return, making it easy for us, but not so good for making the mind work hard to find the right words.

But in Nicaragua, we can work our skill set – or lack of one perhaps – as few people in this just-developing nation have studied English.

……………

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Nicaraugan street dinner in Leon with our group of Canadians, American, Belgian, Brit, Aussie, and Costa Rican

You might want to call it “Nici” time.

Eating in a restaurant in Nicaragua is a test of the typical Westerner’s patience. Prepare for long waits between each step of the eating process.

Menu arrives…. wait …
Drink orders taken… wait …
Drinks arrive… if you drink wine, don’t expect glasses or an open bottle for some time yet , yup… wait…
Food order taken… now the need for patience really begins… after 15 or 20 minutes expect the waiter to return to tell you that the lamb or soup you ordered is not available today (there are plausible rumours in our group that lamb has never been seen in Nicaragua despite appearing on every menu).
Wait for a menu to be brought again in order to make your next choice of meal.
The drinks will have been long exhausted before any food arrives, and liquid refreshment will not be replenished unless a waiter is forcibly made to listen to the order.
Once the usually delicious meal has been brought to the table and thoroughly enjoyed… it’s time to settle in and wait for la cuenta (the bill) to come…

In Nicaragua, a quick lunch or dinner is an oxymoron just waiting to be tested.

…………..

It’s a rich, cacophonous mix of sound at 6 am in this tiny village of Los Angeles on Ometepe Island, in the middle of huge Lake Nicarauga.We’re doing a 2 night Homestay with a local farming family. Our house Mom is a 60’ish divorced lady called Midea who needs the small income that we tourists provide.

As the morning arises, it feels like I’m in a blender swirling with loud whistles and whooshes of wind high in the trees- the palms, the eucalyptus, the ceibas.

The wind circles lower into the smaller trees and bushes- the sour oranges, the mangos, the bougainvilleas and hibiscus – and then begins to rustle the rusty tin roofs of houses and sheds creating shudders and bangs, then wooden doors swing on hinges, roosters crow from all directions, blue and yellow birds sing and squawk, and in the far distance a speaker pumps out a bass beat of mi-doh-mi-doh-mi-doh music, a horse whinnies… and finally I can feel the strong welcoming rush of the wind penetrating the gaps of the roof and walls running over my white cotton sheet – it feels fresh and comforting as I nod off to its caress.

……………
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Volcano boarding on Cerro Negro

One of 7 still-active volcanoes in Nicaragua, Cerro Negro beckons with the unique chance to surf or slide down its long, gravelly-smooth black front surface … it’s a novel experience that comes along so rarely that it would be crazy to pass by, right?

And it’s safe too, the volcano hasn’t erupted since 1999, so what are the chances it will erupt today?

A narrow, twisting dirt road outside Leon leads to the base of the beautiful conical volcano. After signing in at the official volcano office – they need sufficient information from you to pass on to your national authorities should you perish – it’s just a short drive on to the base parking lot where you look up to the 728m. high peak of Cerro Negro.

It’s an impressive sight, especially when you peer up along the north spine and catch sight of the small ants that are other boarders climbing to the peak for their rapid descent down.

The dozen or so of us -Dutch, Aussies, Americans, Canadians – are given a small backpack to carry with coveralls and protective gear, and then a plywood ‘toboggan’ with a square patch of thick linoleum on the underside that acts as the slippery surface for sliding over volcanic ash.

We’ve all been given the option to stand ‘snowboard style’ for the run downhill, but Dennis our guide informs us that there is little control on the upright boards and it quickly becomes extremely dangerous as speed increases. Hmmmmm. Each of us chooses the ‘sit-down’ version happily.

All set with water bottles and slathered with sunscreen to protect against the penetrating sun, we head off in a long line like marchers heading off to the first base camp of Mount Everest.

The early going isn’t very steep, but the size of the black rocks and boulders is fairly large – at one point a young American fellow dislodges a boulder about twice the size of a basketball that tumbles down and just misses the climber below.

The footing is a bit tricky at times, but mostly all goes well as we move higher and higher and the vistas grow more lush and appealing.

At the halfway point about a half hour in, we stop for water and rest and capture the scenery and each other on cameras… all the big lenses and iPhones are pulled out and smiling hikers’ visages preserved for bragging rights later on.

The cross breezes are becoming quite strong at this elevation, so our guide instructs us to carry the board in a horizontal way so that we won’t catch a draft and be pulled off the side of the mountain.

The climb is now a steady incline but smooth and gravelly underfoot as we mount the spine of the hill… now we are the ants that can be seen from far below.

A slight scent of volcanic sulphur permeates the air and the winds are becoming substantial – then in just a few moments we come over a steep rise and the sight of other ‘boarders’ in their sliding coveralls greets us – we’ve made it, we’re at the peak.

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Jesse... a co-traveller from Calgary looks ready for the big slide...

The verdant valleys stretch out in all directions below us, but the sight we’re most interested in is the one straight ahead – the flat, black expanse that drops off like a Black Diamond snowy ski run below.

Before pulling on our sliding gear, guide Dennis scrapes the gravel surface where we stand as on the backside of the black sliding surface is the interior of the volcano. We can see small steam and gas clouds rising up from below in the crater. As he scrapes a few inches into the surface of the volcanic rim, steam appears and, holding my hand close by I feel a glow of heat emanating from the ground.

We take a few fun photos, then begin to strap on knee and elbow pads, and pull on the well-worn coveralls over our own clothes. Gloves and protective eye goggles are next.

As we dress, Dennis instructs us that the toboggan is narrow and that it’s easy to fall off. We’re to keep our legs well outside of the edges and use them to balance ourselves and also use our feet as brakes, particularly as our speed increases towards the bottom half of the run.

We’re given a reminder that this isn’t a race and that although boarders have been ‘clocked’ at 120kph, we’re not here to kill ourselves. I look around me – everyone in the group smiles and nods. There doesn’t appear to be any heroes in this group.

It’s time!

We all climb that last few metres to the top and survey the run below.

Dennis sets us into one of two start paths, then he runs down down down the hill so that we can barely see him in the far distance. His job now is to signal us when it’s safe for the next boarder to start – he can see the bottom of the run and will know if the last boarder made it to the end safely.

Two by two we slot into the start ‘troughs’ and once the arm signal is given by Dennis below, the first pair (a Dutchman and an American) push off. They begin hesitantly, the toboggans gripping the gravel a bit, but then momentum kicks in and their speed increases. A long dust cloud forms like a vapour trail behind each sledder.

Now it’s my turn…

Clumsily I trudge over to the start slot and toss the toboggan down into the hot, black sandy-gravel. It’s as if I’m a space astronaut… all moves are slow and clunky. I plunk my ass onto the back of the toboggan and wiggle back and forth until I’m centred properly.

The hand signal from below comes and I push off with gloved hands – my speed increases faster than I anticipated. Loud grating noises of the board scraping gravel grow in volume and a cloud of volcanic ‘smoke’ trails behind as I go faster and faster.

Soon I’m at the halfway point and I see Dennis the guide waving excitedly at me. No way am I letting go of the reins that hold me onto this speeding sled. My will to live is too great to stupidly let go and wave.

By this point, there’s a constant upwards spray of black dust and gravel forcing itself into my nose and mouth and I fear I’ll swallow a big mouthful of gravel that is attempting to choke the life out of me.

I can see the bottom of the mountain approaching, but just barely through the dust cloud… the sensation of bumping, bouncing, gravity pressure, and loud noise feels to me like what I see in movies of astronauts blasting off a launchpad.

Then, in only about a minute and a half, the run comes abruptly to an end and all is quiet except for the excited voices of those who came down ahead of me.

I stumble up and off the toboggan and shake a pound or two of dust and gravel off the coveralls… I feel exhilarated and can still feel the bump and buzz in my bones, the gritty dust between my teeth.

In two or three minutes time, my group of fellow travellers in Nicaragua – Costa Rican guide Esteban, and Canadian compatriots Pierre and Jesse – high five each other and take photos of each other’s blackened faces, hair and necks. Our smiles stand out white against the black on our faces.

It’s been a good day!

The only way to describe it is in the lingo of excited Nicaraguans…

Diakachimba!

(Next week we’ll play out the final week of this Nicaraguan adventure)

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The Zen of Travel and Bucket List Maintenance …

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Map of the United States-4

12 Days … 8 States… a “taste” of many places and sights… Nevada (blue surrounded by red) will have its own stop one day later on …

Why don’t you go on west to California? There’s work there, and it never gets cold. Why, you can reach out anywhere and pick an orange. Why there’s always some kind of crop to work in. Why don’t you go there?
 The Grapes of WrathJohn Steinbeck

 

Salinas, California – Huddled gangs of male, dark-skinned immigrant workers sway swiftly, expertly in the skin-searing sunshine. Salty drips of sweat glisten on their faces as they creep steadily forward, feeding the machine.

It’s a synchronized dance – bent over at the waist, quietly swinging their arms and hands back and forth, cutting off the lettuce head at its base, then flipping the green, leafy bundles upwards to the hungry motorized contraption that semi-automates the harvesting of vegetables.

A quiet mix of Spanish chatter accompanies the work train as it inches, like a fuzzy caterpillar, over the landscape.

Women workers sit crouched under the shaded canopy of the moving machine, catch the lettuce head tossed their way and rapidly strip any stray or dirty leaves before layering the head into a waxed cardboard box that is whisked away across the country to your neighbourhood supermarket or restaurant.

 

Harvesting Romaine Lettuce in Salinas, California

Harvesting Romaine Lettuce in Salinas, California

Hundreds and thousands of store shelves are filled with heads harvested every day in this very same way, using the inexpensive sweat of a Mexican worker’s brow.

If you had a salad this week that crunched with lettuce, chances are it came from this field, or one just like it in California’s famed Salinas Valley. 80% of the lettuce consumed in North America is grown in the seemingly endless trench of flat, fertile farmland south of San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

On the dirt roads that line the edges of the field are mobile Porta-Potties… 5 to 10 upright pee and poop houses pulled on wheels like a wagon train behind dusty pickup trucks that follow the workers from field to field.

Field after crazy long field look the same – endless rows covered with leafy greens stretching off to the far-distant hills.

It’s a modern, ghost-like vision of the 1930’s Depression-era John Steinbeck novels Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden.

Of course in the 1930’s harvesting was done with the grunt labour of the displaced mid-western sharecropper forced off his land by drought and dustbowl conditions.

Today, the Mexican labourer is the standard-bearer for the 30-40C hard work while his American counterpart drives an air-conditioned Hybrid-powered Prius to work in Silicon Valley’s shiny Apple and Adobe office buildings just a few miles north of here.

Reading Steinbeck’s stories of the Depression and the Salinas Valley was a treat for me in high school – his detailed, painted descriptions put me in the hot field alongside the poor emigrant farmer from Cimmaron, Oklahoma or Dallas, South Dakota.

Depression workers in field

……………………………………

We’ve been off driving through 8 western U.S. states for the past two weeks – absorbing the stunning views and the sounds, smells, and tastes of the country and its people – a fast-paced 14 day “tasting” tour.

This journey is another slice of the pie that makes up my bucket list goal of visiting each of the 50 American states – a slice bitten into and consumed in years past has been walking the roads of each Canadian province and territory.

Of course, this one blog post can’t bite very deeply into such a large pie. And so I’ll share with you an appetizer “taste” from each state we passed through of the larger impressions and themes that swirl in my head from such an odyssey.

But firstan important starter.

Music.

I always find a way of cementing a trip like this or any other into my mind, is to choose one song that somehow connects with the memory and impressions of the scenery and the people. We all know a certain song heard years later re-immerses us in the sights, sounds and smells of a moment in time.

With the exception of California, the musical sounds of the western America’s radio airwaves are dominated by country station after country station, while the talk radio is all evangelical scripture and deep-voiced preacher types.

One song played over and over again each day that I couldn’t resist singing like my hair was blowing long and unfettered in the breeze – Bartender – sung by the trio Lady Antebellum –  a harmonious blend of voices, pop-country beat and great banjo picking at the end of the chorus (I even enjoyed the song before I’d seen the video featuring blond eye-candy Kate Upton — BONUS!!). This song will project a clear vision of the highways of the western U.S. onto my interior TV screen for years to come.

And so now, my quick and dirty impressions:

  • WASHINGTON – Known as a huge apple-growing state I was taken by surprise to find a prairie landscape on its interior roadways. The stretches of blacktop between Spokane and Grand Coulee Dam were surrounded on both sides by monstrously huge grain and hay fields stretching into the distance. It only seemed appropriate to eat a COW PIEmashed potatoes, corn, crumbled meatloaf smothered in gravy – at the Cowboy Cafe in Davenport. YeeHaw!

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    Where are the apple trees?

  • OREGON – Sparkling sun interspersed with fog and mist along the twisting bends of craggy shoreline, azure sea and royal-blue sky. Scents of salt and slightly fishy breeze had me dreaming of the next serving of clam chowder and crab with each step along the long, sandy beaches.
  • CALIFORNIA – Towering redwood and sequoia forests made tunnels every few miles along the weaving highway north of San Francisco. When you entered the grove, the air became damp in the dark and cool, as if someone had turned out the lights in the room. The car danced between the trees that hugged the edge of the roadway. Deep, vertical striations in the bark of the grand trees lead your eyes upwards, straight up like pencils because the trees have no signs of any bend in them. There was no branch growth going up for 40, 50, sometimes 100 feet.

Further south and west of L.A. – beyond Palm Springs and gargantuan “wind-turbine farms”, the hot, dry, desert highways were lined with mile after mile of plantations of almond and pistachio orchards.

  • ARIZONA – Scrubby desert, McDonalds billboards, and 44C temperatures led us to the precipice of the striated, colourful Grand Canyon. Despite being the “shoulder season”, licence plates from across North America jammed the numerous parking lots leading to the Visitor Center and the edges of the immense canyon. Yes, it was GRAND!IMG_4562
  • UTAH – 80 mile-per-hour (135kph) speed limits carried us northward like a strong tailwind. Evenly-spaced green grass clumps speckling the wide valleys like a measles epidemic collided with hillsides of red soil and rock. And then the white white granite architecture of Salt Lake City arose, the spotless homebase of Latter Day Saints. Immense, shuddering musical notes emanating from the colossal pipe organ inside the Mormon Tabernacle leave me breathless and at an unexplainably heightened spiritual level.
  • IDAHO – Highways that in most areas normally rumble along with a happy mix of auto and 18-wheel freight truck traffic, are taken over by heavily-laden potato trucks running just-harvested tonnes of spuds to markets and storage depots and french fry processing plants. Yes, Idaho really does grow potatoes, lots of potatoes. I pulled out a bottle of ketchup and began to salivate as I drove alongside.
  • WYOMING – Yellowstone Park has an amazing landscape of geysers, steamy outbursts, and bubbling mud flats. And then, of course, each 90 minutes, Old Faithful, the lover that never tires, recreates its explosive show over and over. It attracts tourists to its ritual performance, like a popular Broadway play in New York City, or, for a trip like this, like the Grand Canyon’s quietly impressive presentation further south.IMG_4711
  • MONTANA – This is truly big cowboy country. Lacy, translucent mist in the valley bottoms with sun that streaks the upper surfaces and hillsides in the early morning dawn. Smooth-sloped hillsides that are grassy on one side, and furry with evergreen trees on the other side like a man’s unshaven back. Montana is replete with big skies, big fields, seemingly ubiquitous casinos and big, huge bellies. It’s a surprise to me that I haven’t encountered it before, but Montana is the first U.S. state where I’ve eyed the modern-day stereotypical American we all hear of with a huge appetite and belly to match.

…………………….

The road trip journey just ended has added another 8 states to my list and left me with a lifetime count of 22 states sampled. Yes, I’m not yet halfway finished in my search to make a call on all 50 states. It’s a dirty job …

But I’m carrying out my wanderlust pilgrimage by free choice and personal desire.

I look on John Steinbeck’s depression-stricken characters like Tom Joad; or today’s Salinas Valley, filled with desperate immigrants working for meagre pay – all impressive in their resilience and strength, carrying out their own journeys to survive – a necessity for existence.

For all of that, I feel myself so lucky, so fortunate, to live in a place and time where I’m not scrabbling hopefully, desperately, across the landscape searching for a meal and a dollar to survive.
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Next time you’re in Utah, drop by my new enterprise!

 

A Moment of Sweetness at the Scotia Inn

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I pulled open the glass-fronted door and entered the Super 8 Motel in Fortuna, California, just south of the state line from Oregon.

The “Tasting” Tour was 3 days in. Lots of driving and little stops here and there for a taste of what the area has to offer … and then off down the road once again.

There’s a certain sense of relief when you reach the end of a 12-hour day of a road trip. The sun is close to settling down and the muscle memory of twists, turns and rises in the asphalt is still buzzing inside, like the sensation you feel when you dismount from a horse and the movement hasn’t quite stopped yet.

A young, red-faced man sat behind the high counter in the tiny, cramped lobby and when I began to speak, he immediately began nodding his head, preparing to speak before I could finish telling him that I had made a reservation earlier for the night.

“Yeah, I’m really sorry, I just called Booking.com to tell them that they reserved you a room that I don’t have. We’re full. There’s a bikers’ gathering in town and everything’s filled right up. You could try a few of the other places nearby, but I think you’ll find the same everywhere. I’m real sorry.”

………..

Early morning that day, descending the last bit of hill to the coast and the town of Cannon Lake, Oregon was a real transition, leaving the warm sun behind at the top of the hill, falling downwards on the bending road, finally finding cooler and heavy misty-damp air at the bottom.

It took a couple of hours, driving past numerous scenic pullouts – why pullout to look at the soupy greyness greedily enveloping all of the scenic beauty? – one after the other until the sun finally pushed and burned its way through the foggy mist and the Oregon coastline finally announced its arrival.

Sandstone cliffs overlooked bay after bay where jagged rocky outbursts pushed out of the ocean floor – the salty scent of the water wafting in the gentle onshore breezes – sun speckles twinkling on the azure blue ripples of the sea.

All of the oohs and ahhs of those I had spoken to about the Oregon coastline finally meant something real to me.

…………………………..

An hour and a half later I groaned, dropping myself like a sack of potatoes into the overstuffed antique sofa in the expansive, high-ceilinged lobby of the Scotia Inn. It was a friendly haven to find after being rejected at the Super 8 in Fortuna.

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There were some streaky, orange signs of sunset through the expansive front windows, but for all purposes, night had now claimed its place – along with some grey damp fog-  in this tiny town called Scotia, about 20 miles south of Fortuna (or UnFortuna, as I like to think of it) just off Highway 101.

In the quiet, semi-darkness of the hotel lobby, I watched a 40-something man move toward the front desk. He was bent slightly at the waist as if he too had been driving in an uncomfortable position all day.

In his hand he held out a long-stemmed daisy, extended to the pretty 30’ish blond sitting behind the counter.

She smiled, a crinkle setting in the corner of her eyes and stood – “is that for me?”.

She was the girl-next-door type, pretty-faced even with no makeup and a gentle voice that told you you were at home here.

At a distance, I could see a faint blush in her cheeks. What I couldn’t discern was if her smile was a nervous, “oh my God, how do I handle this poor guy”, or perhaps, “isn’t it nice that someone is paying attention to me.”

In a nervously halting deep tenor voice, he said – “thanks for telling me about that restaurant, it was good.”

“Oh, you liked it? It’s really the only Italian food you can get in this little town, and I enjoy it there.”

The Scotia Inn is a throwback of a grand Old Dame. Built about 100 years ago, it’s fine white expanse of building was a pleasurable sight when we pulled up a half hour earlier.

Standing in front, looking up at its gables and 2nd storey windows feels like drawing back in time to an era when cars filled with men in suits and spats drove up with lovely girls in frilly dresses that their mothers would have never approved.

Cigarette smoke would drift lazily in the early evening air and the men would hurry around the car to open the door for their dates who just smiled, knowing they looked delicious, tempting but never willing to offer too much.

The blond girl at the counter took the flower, licked her lips and glanced downwards a bit shyly.

Scotia was a small quiet town and she probably saw little that would make her heart beat a bit faster.

A smatter of male attention was likely going to be the high point of her week. She would look over at the flower sitting in its vase from time to time and dream of worlds and exotic men waiting out there for her.

And as the man with dark, receding hair turned way from the counter and the winsome blond who stood with her satisfied smile, I could see that he also was slightly flushed and pink-faced.

His eyes too were a bit misted over, just like early morning Oregon fog, a dream and a smile settling into his head for the night.

Clap Along If You Feel Like Cookin’ …

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Man-cooking

This is definitely not ME! Paying close attention to recipes is not in my playbook…

Why do I feel so damned Pharrell Williams “HAPPY” when I’m cooking up a storm in the kitchen? Even if the kitchen isn’t “a room without a roof“?

What kind of a real man eschews the world of sliding under cars to manhandle greasy gaskets, or watching blood-spattered UFC supermen, to “perform” on the stage of culinary arts?

I think I must be what you would call gastrosexual.

Cooking and food – as we all know –  is really a metaphor for the warm and soft, fuzzy aspects of our lives.

Food provides calories, but isn’t just sustenance, would you agree?

Food means sharing, friendship, family, love, sex, laughter, discussion.

Throw a bottle or two of wine into the equation and it also means political arguments, RAUCOUS laughter, louder talk, dysfunctional families, wine goggles, raunchy sloppy sex.

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A typical Sunday night at my house…

……………………

Sometime during the 1980’s I remember a great heated discussion in the (now defunct) Canadian back-to-the-earth magazine Harrowsmith about the cover photo of a woman holding a hot steaming loaf of bread, fresh from the oven.

The blush and shiny glow in her cheeks hinted to some readers of a post-orgasmic flush and maybe even a hot-and-ready yeasty bun in her own personal oven.

To naive little me, it looked like a woman proudly offering up a beautiful loaf of bread, but I’ll admit that sometimes a cigar isn’t just a cigar. Yes, once again, sex rules the media, and it’s everywhere.

Switching to the movies, one of my favourite “family” cooking scenes from cinema comes from none other than big John Candy and little Macaulay Culkin in Uncle Buck.

Whenever my kids are home and I’m stirring and chopping away in the kitchen, inevitably, one of them will whisper the classic line loudly, “Dad’s cooking our garbage“.

Now you might prefer the more serious-toned Julie and Julia for your film cooking chops. This is all well and good but makes cooking and cuisine a job to be wrestled into an organized round of beginning, middle, and end.

DING, the round is over … the recipe has been followed exactly … there, done!

Damn, forgive me. I keep getting sidetracked from the message I’m here to talk about today.

Which is … that I have a different approach to edible art.

The Alternate Zen of Cooking

Aside from the obvious connections between cooking food and family and love in its various forms … for me, cooking also means musical themes, and exploration and travel.

How so, you ask?

Cooking can be regimented and stiff, or, if you’re like me, free-form like jazz.

I know that for some, food preparation is a rote symphony – you measure every quarter note and 1/4 cup to the T… you place every rest and teaspoon in its perfect momentary place. The cuisinary maestro is to be strictly adhered to for the music and vittles to sound and taste so sweet. This is fine, I suppose.

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In Marrakesh, Morocco, Karina ensures I measure everything for a Tagine dish just so …

I was told by Karina, my cooking guide in Morocco this spring to:

 Respect the Recipe”

Bahhhh… I want to play my cooking-style like uplifting jazz, using a recipe only as a guideline where a list of ingredients is important but amounts vary from time to time, and my imagination allowed to summon up a flavour that I favour on that day.

More lemon today, more ginger tomorrow, less oregano and cumin this time around. Maybe quinoa in place of rice.

Cooking is like playing in the sandbox with the kids, it’s fun and learning all mixed together in an agreeable mess.

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Lugme, a delightful Cusco friend, stacks our freshly-baked guinea pigs into a container for the short walk back home from the community oven … a tasty Peruvian delicacy…

A wonderful bonus of today’s connected world is the availability of ingredients from every region of the world, all of the time.

Any day of the week, I can choose to eat Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Peruvian, French, Spanish, Caribbean, Hawaiian, or whatever style of food you can name with one quick visit to the local supermarket.

Is this a great world, or what?

I can hear you already. You might believe strongly in the 100-Mile Diet.  I get it. I want the local grower to do well too. But, I figure that the peasant farmer in Quillabamba, Peru or Wenchang, China or Ladysmith, South Africa deserves a livelihood as much as my friendly orchardist down the road. I support both. ‘Nuff politics, OK?

Even if I’m not travelling, cooking transports me to other worlds and exotic locales.

A special meal is like catching a plane and taking a vacation in your own home – a STEAK’ation if you will.

We can create recipe sex in our own homes where Thai meets Italian meets Brazilian and an incredible taste explodes for us like an atomic bomb in our mouths.

But at some point I grow tired of staring at the map on the wall and making dishes from afar.

The true measure of great cooking, eating, and enjoyment is to settle in the dust of the region where that food originated.

Just put a forkful (or chapati-full, or chopstick-full) of locally-cooked, flavour-laden food where the street sounds and smells encircle you … music floating on the evening air… then close your eyes and absorb all that surrounds you.

Here, I’ll take you on a short cooking-style trip right now… hang on… it won’t take a lot of your time or money!

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Oscar showing us Spanish-language students in Cusco how to prepare “Ahi de Gallina”.

I’ll throw a great little Peruvian peanut-chicken stew recipe at you here from my Cusco, Peru master-chef amigo Oscar? Listen for the pan flutes playing through the thin, cool Andean air.

Oscar makes lovely gourmet-style meals for large groups using only a 2 burner propane-fired hotplate. Try this in your own kitchen and feel free to adjust the amounts.

Ahi de Gallina (Serves 6 – Oscar gave this recipe to me in Spanish, but I’ll make it a bit easier with translation)

Ingredients:

  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 100 g white cheese (mozzarella or cheddar or monterey jack)
  • 1 1/2 onions
  • 4 aji peppers (any small hot pepper will do)
  • 1/4 litre milk
  • 50 g roasted, ground peanuts
  •  150 g chicken stock
  • 1 litre chicken stock
  • 150 g water crackers
  • 4 garlic cloves

Preparation:

  • Boil the chicken breasts in 2 litres water with a clove of garlic, some salt and pepper for 15 minutes
  • Drain the broth but reserve 1 litre of the cooking liquid and hand shred the chicken into small strands
  • Chop 1 onion, garlic and peppers into small pieces (remove and discard seeds from hot peppers)
  • In a large frying pan on medium heat, saute the chopped vegetables in a small splash of oil, add salt and pepper to taste
  • After a few minutes, add the milk slowly in equal portions to the crushed water crackers
  • Add cubed cheese, the peanuts, and the chicken broth and stir for a minute
  • Pour the entire mixture into a blender and liquify until smooth
  • Cut the remaining half onion into julienne strips and add to the frying pan and saute for a minute before adding in the blender mix and the shredded chicken
  • Stir over heat until it reaches the boil point and add more milk or broth for a smooth consistency
  • Serve over rice or potato, accompanied by olives and hard boiled eggs

…………………..

Now when I travel, I want to spend time in the company of local cooks and learn their magic with local traditions and foodstuffs. Few things in life bring us more warmly, more peacefully, together than cooking and sharing a meal.

And I’m just at the start of this journey. Morocco, Peru, Spain, Cuba, China, even Newfoundland and the Northwest Territories of Canada … the list will grow and recipe sex will make the spicy ambience of life a bit richer.

So it might seem crazy what I’m gonna say but I’m just gonna put on my Pharrell cooking hat and keep pirouetting and gyrating my Happy-dance as I blend the fusionary, culinary, provisionary, sometimes flavourful, sometimes disastrous kitchen concoctions and dream my way to the furthest corners of the world.

CSI – PEI … A Return to the Scene of the Crime

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PEI’s iconic Anne of Green Gables never looked so good …

I’m traveling and enjoying the postcard scenery of Canada’s Prince Edward Island this week.

And as always, I’m reminding myself to look for some meaning, some deeper reality that doesn’t just dust the surface. There’s more than meets our eye everywhere in life, but you have to keep your brain tuned to the vibrations.

PEI is the iconic home of author Lucy Maud Montgomery’s red-haired urchin orphan, Anne of Green Gables.

And since it’s not yet true tourist season, there is a delicate stillness on the island like when dark clouds lie on the horizon waiting to lay havoc and siege the barricades. There’s an inevitability to it.

The island’s endless, quiet roads are lined both sides with red-clay coloured fields that, like great crimson seas, roll into the far off distance to meet the horizon.

It’s just days, maybe minutes even, before potatoes will be planted and so the long-as-airport-runway fields have all been vacuumed and tidied, looking their best before the tractors come out to lay down and bury the seed of another season’s promise.

Crispy potato chips and hot salted french fries are an oasis mirage in the distance that will become reality in just a few months before another snow cover lays it all to bed.

But aside from the red hair and similarly red-soil waves of potato-growing fields, there is a long-time-gone memory for me that lays uncomfortably beneath the covers of the bed on which I lay here in PEI.

Maybe you’ll think it strange, but 32 years ago, I was a young newlywed enjoying PEI’s Cavendish Beach, when on a blazing bright, summer afternoon, in view of the azure waters and pillow-soft sand dunes, I was a victim of sexual molestation.

Me, a man. Me, an adult man.

After coming out of the salty crashing surf, I retreated over the hot sand dunes to the back edge of the beach and entered the mens’ outdoor change room to get back into my shorts and T-shirt.

One other fairly rotund fellow, late 20’s, maybe early 30’s, and I chatted about the beautiful weather and where we had travelled from. It was a pleasant interaction although it seemed a smidgeon strange that he was lingering in the change room just to chat. He was fully clothed and ready to leave from the moment I entered.

I stripped down to shower off the salt ocean residue. Chattering sounds of songbirds flittering in the small pine trees outside played through the walls.

I was back to a state of semi-dress when he approached me quietly from behind and wordlessly clasped a hand over my underwear-clad genitals.

His other hand held my shoulder in a tight vice-like grip. Even today, I can still feel the pressured squeeze of his strong, meaty hand on my shoulder.

It was a moment of total surprise and shock, like the minutes after an unexpected car accident when the world takes on a surreal quality. Nothing looks the same suddenly, and everything bogs down in a slow-motion muddle. I felt like a man going over a waterfall with no lifejacket.

You know, I spent a long time after wondering if I had given off some vibe that said I was interested.

I had shown no signs of sexual excitement… None.

If anything, the chill Atlantic waters had given to me what George Costanza of Seinfeld-fame once famously described as “severe shrinkage”.

So what in the world made this dude think he could place his hands on my junk?

Honestly though, I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I pushed him away in anger and shock. I quickly grabbed my belongings and, underwear-clad, I exited the change room, stopping only in the outer doorway to pull on my shorts.

Yikes … All I needed was for a little girl to be standing at the outside entry as I rushed out in my underpants. How ironic would it be if I was charged by the local authorities with indecent exposure and sexual harassment of a minor?

I wandered around for a few minutes in an angry, fuming haze, trying to decide if I should follow up with the police.

Momentarily, I even considered grabbing my firewood-chopping axe from the yellow VW camper van and exacting a violent revenge with the blunt side of the axe head.

As my heart rate lowered, I took the easy – perhaps cowardly – decision to do or say nothing. I think my hesitation in reporting the occurrence to the police was that they would laugh at me for being such a wuss. It felt like it would be telling the teacher about Johnny tripping Mary in the playground… No one wants to be a little snitch.

I eventually returned to the van in the beach’s parking area and my new bride and I drove off for more of life’s adventures.

……………..

I’ve thought about the PEI event many times in the intervening years.

Not about the damage that had been done to me (for there really was none), but the potential for some other, less physically-capable person to defend themselves against an attack.

Truly, I don’t think I was in any REAL danger from the guy. But the next victim might not be so lucky. What had I done to protect a future fellow in need?

……………

As I stare out the window of the rented van at the orange-pink sun ball going down over the ocean on the north shore of this bucolic little island, this island of red sand and red soil and red Anne of Green Gables hair, I’m thinking quietly to myself.

No matter how beautiful a scenic vista … a day … a woman, there exists a subtle danger in seeing only its surface beauty.

The ocean is delightful on its lightly rippled surface, but deadly in its roiling undercurrents.

The blazing sun is warming and healing, but consumed to excess leaves a painful, stinging reminder of its power.

A beautiful woman, or friendly man, despite a placid, unthreatening demeanor may harbour darker thoughts that lead us into unsuspected danger.

I gained a love of the simple, aching beauty of this Prince Edward Island 32 years ago. Little has changed here over the years since then… the friendly people, the wonderful seafood, the amazing farmlands.

But long ago, in the warm sands of Cavendish Beach, I left behind just a few grains of my young man’s innocence and naivety.

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What’s Cooking in the Baths of Marrakech?

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I’m loathe to admit it, but I must be only moderately attractive because he obviously wasn’t aroused when he showed me his … you know … stuff.

OK, raise your hand if you’ve ever found yourself sitting naked except for your Hanes’ boxer underwear on a hot, wet, polished cement floor, surrounded by men, young and old, who speak only Arabic.

Then one well-proportioned young fellow looks directly at you, right at YOU, and discretely lowers the band of his shorts displaying his junk with a come hither look.

But seriously, this was the admittedly surreal vision in front of me as I sat in a traditional Moroccan “Hammam” (Public Bath) within the Souk of Marrakech.

Let’s move on, we can come back to this later.

………………………………….

A Day’s Journey

Our day began bright and clear, the temperature sitting at perhaps 6C or 7C in Fez as we headed out with an early start.

The full-day driving journey from Fez to Marrakech took our group of 5 Canadians, Moroccan guide Redouane, and driver, Fouad, over the Middle Atlas Mountains through a schizophrenic set of agricultural fields and orchards. Our trek morphed from huge lush green fields of hay and orange orchards, to dry scrub land with prickly pear cactus in abundance.

As we climbed the grey morning hills, the air grew cooler and cooler, and then … surprise, we were in snowy terrain.

Maureen looked out the van windows and pointed out to us the spray of almond blooms hanging pretty pink, like delicate earrings in the trees, with white snow clinging to the branches and as a backdrop. Well constructed, rocky fences surrounded fields almost as if we were in the highlands of Scotland.

We stopped for a short break of cafe con leche in a white-enshrouded alpine town called Ifrane. Some of us frolicked, and froze our unprotected hands in a cold and wet impromptu snowball fight and then participated in the classic Canadian winter ritual of pushing a powerless car down a hill for a jump start.

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Not a scene we had anticipated in Morocco …

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Moroccan guide Redouane and I get our morning workout!

Within 15 minutes of leaving Ifrane, we were back into the green, sumptuous farm land we were more accustomed to – and had expected– in Morocco.

Sometimes small, often enormous flocks of sheep, scattered either side of the road, always, always, always accompanied by a solitary shepherd. One flock, one shepherd.

Concave, concrete water flumes, like the ones used years ago in our Okanagan Valley here in Canada, lined the fields for irrigation.

We were surprised to encounter our one and only visit to squat toilets at a fueling station along the day’s journey. My expectation in travelling to Morocco had been that the “western” porcelain toilets would be the exception, not the rule. And I admit to you, porcelain was a pleasant surprise for this comfort-seeking westerner, especially so for the women!


It was a full day of driving in the Mercedes van over good quality, but mostly winding two-lane roads that brought us into the early evening sunset and heavy traffic of Marrakech, the hometown of our eager young driver, Fouad.

Warm, Moroccan sun beamed bright orange through the front window of the van as we pulled up to the elegant entry doors of the hotel in the central modern core of this city.

Across the street was the impressive Gare, the train station. Far off in the western distance there was a hazy view of the snowcapped High Atlas Mountains, looking very Rocky Mountain’ish.

Pleasant, dry windy gusts blew warmly as we edged stiffly from the van after the long day’s drive. Tall, friendly palms waved as the sounds of busy traffic motored past on the spacious boulevard at front. I fondly remembered how special and exotic palm trees looked to me when I flipped through travel or National Geographic magazines as a kid (see, I noticed more than the naked Black women!).

As in each of our nightly stops in Morocco, the hotel was large and modern, like any 4-star European hotel. Even though they all lacked some small’ish detail such as functioning heat and air control systems, or occasional leaking bathroom fixtures, the beds were good, and the rooms were clean and well-appointed.

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Marrakech in the early evening sun with High Atlas Mountains in the distance…

Now We’re Cookin’!

The temperature when we awoke the following morning was warmer than we had experienced so far in Morocco. It was a delight to feel the sun and the low 20C temperatures, rather than the low- to mid-teens.

Maureen and I stood in front of the Cafe de France in Marrakech’s spacious main Jemaa el-Fnaa Square as carts of supplies and local trucks and vendors whisked in all directions to set up the small stalls for the day.

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Congestion in Jemaa el-Fnaa Square…

We waited, taking in our surroundings for a few moments, then a young woman approached and introduced herself.

Karina, dressed in jeans and blouse, jacket and knit scarf, was to be our Moroccan shopping and cooking instructor, charged with imparting the techniques of tagine cuisine to just us Canadians. On some occasions, she has conducted a class grouping of 18 people, but today, it was a private tagine session.

Oh, sorry, if you didn’t know already, tagine is an historically Berber dish from North Africa that is named after the type of earthenware pot in which it is cooked.

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Tagine cooking pots in Marrakech souk …

After our introductions, we walked out of the main open square and entered the souk, or marketplace. Much like the crowded and buzzing Fez Medina, but not so claustrophobic and tight, we zigged and zagged along the huge avenues of stalls and little foundries of metal workers pounding silver and tin over anvils and smoking coal fires.

Shortly we entered the “food” section of the souk. The first small stall we approached had a high glass-fronted counter – in behind were cages filled with live, clucking chickens.

Karina spoke to the small man behind the counter in Arabic. The fellow nodded, opened a cage door and grabbed one of the squawking birds and retrieved it and placed it onto the white surfaced weigh scale sitting just in front of us. Karina shook her head NO … too big!

He put the bird back in its cage and pulled out another, laid it on the scale where it sat pathetically and limply resigned. This time Karina was satisfied, and gave him the go ahead nod of her head. She turned to us and explained in English that a 1 kilogram bird was all we needed.

“We can go get vegetables and come back and it will be ready in a few minutes.”

Within eye-shot we spotted a vegetable “stall”, a patch of open ground on the side of the pathway where a selection of fresh produce was laid out.

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Karina grabbed a plastic basket from the shopkeeper man and asked us to begin selecting good tomatoes, onions, green peppers, lemons, oranges, coriander, and parsley. Rubbing elbows with a few elderly ladies, we chose a selection of produce, paid for it with just a few Moroccan dirhams, then returned to the meat stall for our now freshly killed, eviscerated and plucked chicken friend.

The butcher tossed the fowl into a plastic bag and we continued onwards for a couple more stops where we purchased some typical Moroccan flat breads, fresh mint, olives, bottled water, saffron, and olive oil.

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Paying for the just-selected live chicken …

Now, fully loaded with everything needed to make a chicken lemon tagine, we walked 2 or 3 minutes more to a riad (traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard) on the edge of the souk.

Along the souk’s passageway we came to a beautifully-carved wooden door- the entrance to the riad.

We crossed the threshold into a bright hallway lined with framed photos of typical Moroccan scenes that led to a terra-cotta tiled courtyard. The inner courtyard was open in the centre to the sun and blue sky above.

Around the edges of the main patio radiated a large dining section, some stairs leading to upper floors, a smaller dining area with a square table and bench seating, with a small galley-style kitchen to its left. At one other side of the courtyard was a small, deep pool, like a fishpond, but empty of water and filled with potted plants for the winter months.

Karina led us into the kitchen with our fresh supplies where she had us cover up with pressed and pristine white aprons, and then set each of us up at a small workstation with a cutting surface and a short, sharp knife.

Karina chatted happily away in well-honed English about her single Moroccan woman’s life and a young man she was corresponding with in England whom she hoped would become a more serious connection someday soon.

But before we got down to serious cooking work, we returned to the dining table where Karina showed us the preparation of sweet mint tea. We had seen many small cafes in our Moroccan travels where tables filled with men (yes, never women) sat, facing the street, and sipped mint tea as the drink of choice.

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Karina prepares the mint tea …

We went through the multi-step process of making the traditional tea using loose green tea, a large handful of fresh mint and two sizable chunks of white sugar. Soon, Karina began pouring the steaming hot liquid into small glass cups from-on-high style. We sipped the final result and enjoyed the sweet, hot, spearmint flavour.

Tea time over … back to the kitchen.

The orange-clay tagine pots sat before us and we began chopping vegetables and piling the chicken and vegetables into the flat centre of the container. With each ingredient we chopped – just as she had in the souk – Karina had us learn the Arabic word:

Tomato- matisha, onion – basla, chicken – djaj, saffron – zaafron, olives – zitoun, lemon – hamed.

What probably surprised us most in making the tagine dish was the sheer volume of spice added. For each of our small, one person tagine dishes, a full teaspoon each of pepper, coriander, cumin, ginger, and salt were ladled into the mix. Finally a 1/4 teaspoon of saffron, a handful of olives, fresh and preserved lemon, a few tablespoons of pungent olive oil and then a careful turning and mixing of the entire blend completed the dish.

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A work of pre-cooked art …

It surprised me further when we placed the tagine pots directly over the stove’s propane flame for the dishes’ 1 hour cooking.

While the tagine heated, we moved on to the prep of a Moroccan salad.

Each noon meal we’d had on our Moroccan journey consisted of a collection of extremely-fine chopped salads. Today’s salad would be no exception.

Karina had us mince garlic and red onion and tomato so that it appeared almost like a Mexican salsa in consistency. After charring a couple of green peppers directly over the stove’s flame burner, we removed the blackened skins and minced the soft inner flesh as well. The spice blend was lemon and garlic and mint.

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Our salad creation…

In my own personal cooking style, I have a tendency to freelance and use a recipe only as a general guideline. A splash of this, a dash of that.

But today I was in a room of pragmatists, and as I added my spices just a bit haphazardly, Karina sweetly and playfully reminded me that, “You must respect the recipe”.

“You Must Respect The Recipe.”

When the words came from her mouth it sounded like a much deeper life lesson somehow. I’ll have to ponder that over a glass or two of wine someday.

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Karina and Larry “Respecting the Recipe” !

We laughed and joked in English, sometimes in broken French, but always sharing in the fun of a cross-cultural experience with a woman who lived in a Muslim world that bridged a historic past and a western-influenced future.

The scent of the cooking tagine enveloped the riad and the mix began burbling over the clay lip of the pot so Karina tilted the lids to allow steam to escape as if we were boiling potatoes on the stove.

Finally, she declared the tagine meal fully-cooked and sent us off to wait at the dining table that she had set with placemats, a flower, and a small plate filled with the round flatbread that we had bought earlier in the day.

Moments later, she carefully placed our individual tagine pots in front of us, steaming and smelling exotically fragrant. We raised a glass of water to toast (alcohol wouldn’t have been appropriate in this Muslim culture) our creation and then settled in for the tasting.

I could describe the character and quality and the impressions of the dishes, but instead I’ll just let you use your own imagination to absorb and enjoy the complex blend of flavours of our wonderful tagines.

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…………………..

A Visit to the Hammam

Alright, it’s time we returned to the Hammam, the Moroccan public bath, I mentioned at the beginning of this story.

The hammam is found deep within the enclaves of the souk marketplace, and could be easily missed if you didn’t know what to look for.

Redouane, my Moroccan guide, showed me the small, open hole-in-the-wall where I would enter. He came inside the front entrance with me to negotiate with an old man in Arabic, the terms of my visit. I paid about $8 Canadian and was assigned a young “assistant” (I’ll call him Akeem) who spoke no English and only the tiniest bit of French.  From there on, it was just me and the Hammam.

As instructed earlier by Redouane, I took off all of my clothes except for my jockey shorts, hung them on hooks on the side walls of an open room and then was led forward by Akeem.

The hammam was old and steamy. We passed through two tiled rooms with domed ceilings, filled with nearly-naked bodies of Muslim men, young and old. In the third and final room we found some floor space, and Akeem gestured with hand signals for me to sit on the floor.

I gazed around, feeling the warm and wet polished concrete floors, looking up to the grey-white plastered ceilings arched 20 ft above, stained with brown rivulets of who-knows-what.

Lining the walls were long blue and red painted pipes, insistently dripping with piping hot or cool water from which he filled a bucket from the cool pipe and placed it in front of me.

Hammam Fez

It kinda looks like this inside the Marrakech Hammam…

He looked at me, said “dix minutes” (10 minutes), turned and left the room.

I sat there, trying hard and failing miserably to look inconspicuous as the only obviously white westerner. I was growing warm quickly so I started to slosh bits of the cool water from the bucket over myself, much like some others were doing.  I took a few yoga-type breaths and relaxed, feeling the humid heat, letting it penetrate my pores for what seemed like a long, long time.

It was during this heating period that my young friend mentioned at the beginning of this story showed me his private parts.

I had been aware in my peripheral vision that he had been sitting about 6 feet away from me, washing and scrubbing a little and glancing over frequently. Finally, when I turned to look directly at him, he extended his personal invite.

OMG! I instantly shook my head in refusal.

It’s funny, but it took a few minutes for me to absorb the nature of the little interaction. Initially, I thought he was just a friendly, slightly horny young fellow who found me attractive in a sexual way.

But quickly I came around to the more probable truth that meant a single westerner in a hammam might just be seeking out male prostitutes to have some exotic and inexpensive fun. DUH!

My little naive mind grew up quickly.

He wasn’t persistent, but I was casting a closer eye on all of my fellow sweaty roommates now, even the ancient, elderly guy with the torn, old underwear and the sadly sagging scrotum that protruded through the rips.  And now I was getting a tad nervous about the next stage in the hammam experience.

Ten minutes and more had passed before Akeem returned in his tiny, tight little shorts to do the hard part of exfoliating my skin.  He led me into a slightly cooler second room and then gestured that I should lie flat on my back, and he prepared to start with my arms.  I closed my eyes, trying to pretend there was no one else in the room, and determined to enjoy being washed and scraped, only to have them fly open again in shock when the scrubbing began.

This little guy put on the Kessa abrasive glove and started in – it felt as though he was rubbing me down with coarse sandpaper!  After a long few minutes I got used to the pressure and pain, and actually started enjoying it. I was a little mortified at how much dead skin he was stripping from me as he scrubbed every single inch of my flesh outside of my protected shorts area till it was red raw. But he didn’t seem surprised or bothered, so I tried to stop worrying and just enjoy. Plus I figured with all of that skin gone, I had discovered a tried-and-true way to rapid weight loss!

Once my front was done from top to toe, he had me flip over and repeated the process for my back and sides, using black olive-based hammam soap.  He even scoured my face and almost ripped out my eyes, and I was certainly radiating pink all over by the end. At one point he leaned his knee into my lower back and lifted my arms into a painful stretch as a bit of a massage.

Finally, with wads of skin on the floor and lots still clinging to me, he took me to one last room where he scooped little ladles of cool water all over as a final wash.

I exited the hammam with a tingling all over, mostly from the scrubbing.

But maybe, just maybe, a little bit of nervous tingling too, came from the unexpected encounter with a young man who had hoped to make a few extra dirhams in the hammam that day.

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Our Moroccan/Canadian group playing in the snow…Redouane (guide), Fouad (driver), Larry, Sydney (Toronto), Maureen, John (Half Moon Bay, BC), and John (Toronto)

The Beauty and the Beastly Smells of the Fez Medina

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(NOTE: A more complete version of this with photographs can be found at :

http://www.travelblog.org/Africa/Morocco/F-s-Boulemane/Fes/blog-828790.html)

There is mystery and music and intrigue for me in the names Fez and Marrakech. They sound exotic and foreign and romantic. Maybe even a touch dangerous or threatening.

I feel some excitement at the thought of seeing, feeling, hearing, even tasting the experience of locales that have only been names until now.

Both of these Moroccan cities have been immortalized in popular songs of my era:

• “The Fez” by Steely Dan in the 1970’s which is actually using fez as a slang term for condom,

• and Crosby, Stills, and Nash 1969 song “Marrakech Express“, written by Graham Nash after a 1966 train ride from Casablanca to Marrakech.

And so I arrive in Fez with a mission – to acquire a “fez”, the round red hat with the flat top that you’ll see Shriners wearing in parades and festivals.

The first morning in Fez – our guide and driver Redouane and Fouad meet us early at our modern hotel and we start with a couple of quick stops high above the massive white and tan-coloured city to get an overview.

The next visit is at a local pottery school. There, a young worker convinces me to try my hand at molding and kneading the stiff, grey clay, laid out in a big wet lump on the floor, next to the artists spinning their wheels producing tagine pots. The skin of my palms becomes greyer than the hair on my head.

By the time we finish there, I walk out with a beautifully painted tagine pot in my possession. I figure that this is just part of my early preparation for a tagine cooking class we will be taking a couple of days later in Marrakech.

And now, here we are in the entryway to the Fez Medina (walled city) that transports a person back in time into a remarkable marketplace that has been the lifeblood for dozens upon dozens of generations of Moroccans. There’s a touch of Alice Through the Looking Glass entering the hole, the tunnel that may or may not let us out of its grip.

This morning as our group prepares to enter the medina, Redouane, once again dressed in his cloak-like djillaba, introduces us to a young fellow. Aladdin, an unemployed, yet well-dressed local man, will accompany us through the labyrinth to ensure that none of us becomes lost in the narrow, twisted alleys.

Within seconds of leaving the open square and entering the medina, an acrid, pungent smell hits.
We are surrounded by hustling, rushing people pushing their way through cramped, narrow corridors. There are scattered bits of overhead roofing some of the time, although the passages are so narrow, it feels as if we are indoors the entire time.

The first market stalls we encounter are laden with animal carcasses, mostly lamb, sheep and beef, and some wicker baskets filled to the brim with live shrimp or tai-chi slow moving snails in their shells. There are dozens of snail baskets stacked back deep into the shops. These are obviously a popular local delicacy, and something we’ll see a lot of little stalls selling later, hot and prepared in the souk of Marrakech.

The pinched passageway rises up and down and bends around corners, the floor sometimes smooth, but more often bumpy and cracked. Every 10 or 15 seconds a push cart or scraggled donkey heavily laden with food or fabric or animal hides – cement even – approaches from behind and the Arabic word “belek” is shouted…”move aside”.

There is constant movement and interaction between the sellers and the men, women, and children who live their lives inside this encapsulated city.

Small emaciated cats sit amusedly or run hither and thither, collecting any tiny stray scraps of meat or white bits of fat dropped to the ground by merchants. In the Muslim world, cats are considered clean and can be touched and held, whereas dogs are believed contaminated, and after touching one, it is important to wash and cleanse oneself, almost as if you were entering a mosque.

Some of the shops appear to be long ago dug into the dirt hillside, dark and primitive, while next to them, others have lovely ceramic entryways and bright lights. Still stranger are the doorways that open into a modern looking bank or a restaurant, a mosque, or even the world’s first university.

This is a place of huge diversity, with a whole lot of curiosity; for example, when we entered a leather tannery factory.

At the dark, claustrophobic entryway, a small, old, bearded man hands each of us a branch of fresh, leafy mint. Nice smell, OK.

We climb two flights of cramped wooden stairs where we are greeted by a middle-aged semi-toothless fellow who speaks English with a southern twang, who ends his “s” words with “sh”…”Welcome to Fesh”.

It’s hard not to stare at his yellow-mottled, peg teeth as he tells us he once lived in Cold Lake, Alberta, flowering us with compliments about Canada. Then he launches the tour of the tannery factory inside the Fez Medina.

Leading us one floor higher, we walk into a sizable, dull wood-floored room with a long opening on the far side looking out over the Medina. When we approach the edge to peer out, it’s as if a scene from Dicken’s industrial age is laid out before us.

Far below is a huge square filled with perhaps a hundred round, concrete vats, each maybe 6 or 8 feet across looking like small hot tubs. They’re filled to the top with dye liquids of varying colours.

Dozens of grizzled men work around and inside them. Some are carrying heavy loads of raw, untreated hides that they toss into the “baths”.

Others are swimming in the vats up to their waist in dye water, mixing the hides to take on the stain: the yellow, the brown, the black, the red and many more. All to make the coats and purses and leather briefcases we find in our houses somewhere in the world. Some of the men walk about with legs tinted the same colour as the coats we admire later.

Immediately, it’s obvious why we were handed the mint. The stench is overwhelmingly nauseating in the way it burns into your nostrils and lungs. Holding the mint to your nose helps to lessen but not obliterate the rotting, putrid smell.

There’s a constant flow of hides entering and leaving the area; the tan or white hides coming in flung over the shoulder by the dozen, and dripping wet, coloured hides carried away for the next stage in the process.

After observing the trip back in time for a few long moments, we’re taken the standard tourist route through the many displays and showrooms of all of the leather products: coats, handbags, valises, suitcases, belts.

Sydney, one of our Canadian co-travellers shows an interest in a handbag, if it’s not too expensive.

An hour later and after intense negotiations that could have bought and sold a major Canadian corporation, Sydney sheds $300 on a handbag and a red leather jacket, bargained down from the $700 starting point. Maureen was brought in to the negotiations partway through to lend some supportive, female strength, and then later, Sydney’s husband John was dragged in to approve the final purchase.

Tired, dehydrated and hungry, we all shuffle off for lunch, stumbling along the snake-like passages and then abruptly swinging right through a doorway. Down some rickety stairs, a high ceiling-ed chamber opens up before us – the room is filled with diners settled at round, wooden tables surrounded by benches lined with bulging, over-stuffed cushions.

It is dimly lit, and had it been filled with smoke, we might have thought we had entered a den of iniquity from Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.

Our group settles in and soon has a table filled with multiple plates of finely chopped Moroccan salads, followed closely by a chicken tagine mixed with our first sampling of couscous. No alcohol is served here in the midst of the Muslim surrounds, but lots of hot, sweet mint tea washes down the spicy dishes. A final course of fresh bananas and mandarin oranges leaves us recuperated and refreshed for further medina meanderings.

Getting out of the restaurant is as difficult as finding our way through the rest of the medina.

A few of our small group are held up by the other 3 of us who take a wrong set of stairs and begin climbing upwards, and then more upwards, attempting to find an exit. “Funny, I don’t remember passing this office room when we came in here.”

Finally, a kind server of the restaurant escorts us few lost sheep to the correct staircase that leads us back to the twisted paths of the actual medina. We carry on visiting other alleys and shops, and small factories until our feet are sore from the ups and downs and all arounds.

Like the 19th hole of a golf course, or the sports bar after the hockey or football game, our group returns to the hotel where we gather later for dinner and relive the day that has stimulated all of our senses with the sight, sound, touch, taste, and yes, especially, smells, of life behind the walls of the medina in Fez, Morocco.

In the next blog post, we’ll take you through the Moroccan countryside and to the exciting city of Marrakesh and its Souk (market), a tagine cooking class, and a visit to a Hammam (traditional Moroccan public bath). You won’t want to miss it!

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