Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Traveler's Secret

I travel a lot. I love the whole experience of travel, from packing to hanging out in airports, but I have a secret. I'm prone to motion sickness. Fortunately, it never happens on planes but boats, trains, cars? Big worries. I know every old wives tale and trick to prevent it. Don't read, make sure your eyes can see the horizon, eat salt, eat ginger, stay in an upper level cruise cabin. Sometimes these work, sometimes they don't. This poses a nasty little problem for a travel writer. I refuse to miss an experience because there's a chance I'll get sick. That means that I have clutched the railing of a sailboat, reeling with nausea as I gazed at a sublime St. Lucian sunset. I have curled up into a ball on a stunning Belize beach because I was retching from the big cruise ship(I hate cruises, this is just one reason) that brought me there. I barely made it through the 2 hour car trip through Brazilian coffee plantations before I was overcome with dizziness.

What I have learned is that it makes a big difference if you prevent motion sickness rather than try to cure it. So I purchased two acupressure bands that press on the points in your wrist that prevent nausea. They work if I remember to put them on before I get sick. I rarely do. Partly because they are ugly, dirt-colored bands that never coordinate with my ensembles. But I've just discovered a fly solution to my problem. Psi Bands are acupressure bands with style. They are waterproof, sleek and adjustable bracelets that come in bright colors and graphic designs fit for a fly girl. You can get them at Rite Aid or at Somehow, I think I'll remember to wear these before I get sick. What motion sick remedies have worked for you?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Taste of Gullah

Gullah food wraps the richness of the culture into dishes heaped with flavor. As descendants of skilled rice planters, the cuisine focuses on rice, rice and more rice. A typical Gullah restaurant will serve at least three kinds and I'm not taking about white or brown rice. There's red rice, a mixture of tomato sauce and pork, a mini meal of rice, chicken, shrimp, sausage and vegetables called Gullah rice and the famous Hoppin' John, which blends rice with field peas. At Gullah Cuisine Restaurant, just off Highway 17 in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, owners Charlotte and
Frank Jenkins (pictured above left) serve up country charm along with the rice.
The extensive menu offers okra gumbo, shrimp & grits, fish head stew, oyster salad, fried flounder, collard greens and macaroni and cheese. Charlotte hovers over customers like an indulgent mother and the eatery envelopes guests with friendliness. I couldn't finish all of my flounder and Charlotte whisked it off to put in a to-go bag, making me promise to finish it all the next day. The spices are what distinguish Gullah food and I couldn't quite put my finger on what they were. Charlotte shot me a demure smile when I asked her about her recipes. "Why, there's good stuff in there, history and things."

At Gullah Grub Restaurant in St. Helena, South Carolina, the chef, affectionately known as Mr. Bill (above right) is just as particular about his dishes. Mr. Bill explains that the preparation and natural seasonings is what separates Gullah cooking from traditional soul food. After spending hours in the restaurant, which resembles a quaint Southern living room, with shelves of knick knacks, I understood what he meant. The fried whiting, collard greens , corn bread and rice that I sampled looked like typical soul food but didn't quite taste like it. It was less heavy and greasy and the spices left a tingle in my mouth. I bought some of Mr. Bill's packaged spices to cook fish with and it transforms my seafood with a melange of flavors that I can only identify as Gullah.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Of Pigeon's Blood and Rose Gold

I write about most lifestyle and arts topics, including travel, fashion, art and culture but they don't always connect to each other. Occasionally, they relate in ways that are mind-boggling. I was assigned to write a designer profile for the jeweler's trade publication, JQ International. When I cover fashion, I expect to focus on the designer's artistic process and inspiration. For Miami-based designer J.R. deBellard, travel, art and culture turned out to be all a part of his process. Born in Venezuela and raised in Paris, J.R. mixes fascinating elements of his interests and background into his jewelry. His Ghana collection, featuring Adinkra symbols, sharks teeth, bear claws and rubies, blew me away. I studied the necklaces for a long time, trying to figure them out but I never did.

J.R. had to break it down for me. He only designs in yellow or rose gold because that's what he remembers elegant ladies wearing on the French and Italian Riviera when he was growing up. He has followed African politics for a long time so he chose Adinkra symbols, which are ancient Ashanti designs from Ghana, to adorn each piece. J.R. also loves English Victorian history and how aristocrats would bring back mounts and animal pieces like bear claws and sharks teeth and wear them engraved with flowers. Finally, he's also interested in the Brazilian candomble religion, which uses talismans like the figa, a clenched fist image, to ward off the evil eye. You'll see the fist all over Brazil but it's usually carved from dark wood. He dangles the pieces from black leather and often highlights his favorite stone, the Pigeon's Blood ruby.

So you have representation's from three continents and three different culture's --Ghanaian, Victorian and Brazilian, all in a striking and unlikely mix. It's sensual and deep jewelry that goes way beyond pretty. "I try not to design for a simple mind," I'm making jewelry with meaning," says J.R.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Chocolate Travels

From salsa-tinged Humboldt Park, to jollof rice-scented Uptown, Chicago offers some great cultural experiences. You don't have to hop a plane to absorb some of the sensations of India, Mexico, Puerto Rico or Nigeria. Although I love the neighborhoods that supply these escapades, I have to admit that one of my favorite Chicago cultural experiences doesn't involve an actual area or just one culture. Katrina, the genius/diva behind Chicago-based Vosges Haut Chocolat, combines her love of world travel and sustainable chocolate so seemlessly that I swear I didn't notice that I was munching on candy that represented my favorite places until last week. I stop into the purple swathed (always a good sign) Vosges boutiques about once every 6 weeks to stock up on my fave $7-$8 chocolate bars. They happen to be deep milk chocolate and smoked almonds sprinkled with fleur de sel grey sea salt, for the Barcelona bar. Then there's the dark chocolate spiked with Mexican ancho and chipotle chillis, topped with Ceylon cinnamon for the Red Fire bar. Last week, I discovered the addictive crunch of Ecuadorian plantain chips in deep milk chocolate of the Habana bar. Each bar conjures up a heady, sensual explosion of flavor. Each bar also represents places that I either already travel to frequently (Mexico) or have longed to visit (Barcelona, Havana). A coincidence? I don't think so. Traveling through chocolate is one sweet escape that I can't stand to miss.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Gullah Speech and Spirit


My first introduction to Gullah culture came with Julie Dash's seminal 1992 film, Daughters of the Dust. The film showcases the languid beauty of the land and the language. Set at the turn of the 20th century on St. Helena Island, the movie tells the haunting story of three generations of Gullah women. Since the tale took place in the early 1900s, it never occurred to me that the culture was still alive until I stepped onto the dusty roads and marshy landscape of St. Helena myself. The lyrical dialect of the Gullah people floated around me and it drove me crazy. I have a pretty sharp ear for language and what I heard sounded like Jamaican patois, but not quite, like Nigerian Yoruba intonations but not completely, like the sing-song melody of St. Croix Cruzan speech but not totally. When I was told that it was Gullah language that I was hearing, a light went off. I had heard Gullah semi-recently but never realized it. My daughter loved to watch the Nick Jr. children's TV show, Gullah Gullah Island during the mid to late 90s. Somehow, I never connected the snappy songs and amusing folk tales that the show's creators, Ron and Natalie Daise, used to illustrate Gullah speech and customs with the ancient culture I had glimpsed in Daughters of the Dust.


But as I explored more Sea Islands, including Hilton Head and Beaufort, I discovered that Gullah culture is vibrantly alive on many levels. One of the highlight's of my trip was meeting Ron Daise
and witnessing Gullah culture firsthand. Ron is one of the leading experts on Gullah culture and dialect and he acted as the dialect coach for Daughter's of The Dust. Hearing Ron roll melodic Gullah words and sing Gullah songs brought everything to life for me. We visited the Spanish moss draped campus of Penn Center, the first school opened for freed slaves in the South.

Founded in 1862, Penn was also where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to strategize and meditate in the 60s and where Daise's parents and grandparents studied and became educators.
The school closed in 1948 and changed its focus to community service. The site now hosts dorms, homes and a museum, whose small gift shop is full of plaques with Gullah sayings, handmade quilts and calendars by prominent Gullah artist Jonathan Greene.

Whenever I asked how to sum up Gullah culture, spirituality was always the first response. So it makes sense that the most significant representation of Gullah culture is the Gullah Bible. Called "De Nyew Testament," the bible was translated by the Sea Island Translation Team, of which Ron Daise was a member. The team translated the bible in 2005, entirely in Gullah with translations in the margins. Here's a verse:

"Dem Wa Bless Fa True. Wen Jedus see all de crowd dem, e gon pontop one high hill. E seddown dey, Jeddus staat fa baan um. E say, dey bless fa true, dem people wa ain hab no hope een deyself."
Don't recognize the passage? It's Luke 16:20-23. In the five Gullah Baptist churches on Hilton Head alone, the singularity of the language flows through the pews. (I visited one but didn't quite make it through the required 3 1/2 hour service.) That lyrical dialect also represents the spirit that sustained the Gullah culture for over 200 years in tact.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Gullah, Sweet Grass and History

Learning about a destination's culture and history are important aspects of the travel experience for me. I enjoy gathering insight into a place from a cultural perspective. One of the most fascinating culture's I've ever encountered is Gullah culture. This week, I have a feature story about Gullah culture in Travel Muse. The piece focuses on Gullah history in Hilton Head and St.Helena, South Carolina but the culture extends way beyond that.

The Gullah trace their heritage directly to the skilled rice farmers of Sierra Leone, West Africa. They were enslaved specifically because of those skills and were transported to work on rice plantations in South Carolina, Georgia and parts of Florida. The swampy conditions and malaria that went with it, made it uncomfortable for the plantation owners to live so they left the Gullah people to work the plantations mostly unattended. The isolation allowed Gullah dialect, customs and art to survive undiluted for 100 years. One of the hallmark's of Gullah culture is sweet grass basket "sewing" which mirrors Sierra Leone's centuries-old basket weaving tradition. Jery Taylor, pictured above, represents the fourth generation of her family to create sweet grass baskets. Jery has had her creations displayed at the Smithsonian and I quickly bought one of her designs, not just for the beauty but for the significant culture and history that it symbolizes.

Monday, February 2, 2009

St. Croix Colors

All of my favorite places host some kind of arts and cultural scene. If there's no art, museums or music, I'm not going. One of the reasons why I love St.Croix is because of the vibrant art work that fills most spaces in Christiansted and Fredericksted. Colorful landscapes, smiling children and kinetic carnival scenes jump out of St. Croix artwork, the best of which can be found in Christiansted art galleries. One of my favorites is Twin City Coffee House and Gallery, which showcases a host of St. Croix artwork every month. Cozy and blazing with color, from the tapestries on the tables to the woven pillowcases on the couch, the bi-level gallery is run by local artist Diane Butler and Theresa Calpano. "African Dance," a striking portrait of a kneeling naked woman with a scarf on her head and a background of dancers by Kendi Peguero captured my attention as soon as I walked in. I didn't walk out until I bought two hand-painted ceramic tiles
that portray St. Croix scenes.