Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tea Trippin'

I am an American anomaly. I do not do coffee. In this land of latte-laced days and frappachino-fueled nights,I prefer the gentle ritual of tea. Not the Brisk or Lipton nonsense but aromatic, expertly blended leaves and spices in a decorative cup. The tea should be preferably accompanied by cinnamon scones with heaping dollops of Devonshire cream and melodic classic jazz but that's besides the point. I have a cabinet dedicated to my tea habit and it holds at least 50 varieties. I lean towards Indian teas and herbal tisanes that aren't technically tea at all. My favorite is Madagascar Vanilla Red tea. It's a deep burnished red color layered with vanilla and rooibos flavor. Rooibos is a South African plant that's also called red bush. It's noted for it's healing properties and antioxidants but I just love the rich flavor.

Red Chai Masala is another stand-out for me. It's chai without the caffeine, loaded with ginger,nutmeg, clove, chicory and black pepper for a spicy morning drink. It's also blended with my favorite rooibos leaves so it's a pretty ruby color.

India spice tea features a classic blend of cardamon and cinnamon and is probably my all-time favorite. You'd think that regularly sipping tea from several different continents would make me realize the cultural and travel aspects in my tea ritual but it never occurred to me. Then I had a conversation with my Facebook friend Eka. Eka is Indonesian and we're both in a Facebook group called "A Cup of Tea Solves Everything." We always shoot messages back and forth about the tea we're drinking at the moment. I never thought about the cultural aspects of tea outside the British, Chinese and Japanese traditions until Eka kindly schooled me.

The picture above shows traditional Indonesian tea or teh. According to Eka, Javanese people love sweet tea but the Sundanese people prefer hot tea with no sugar. Eka's fave is vanilla tea, which is the yellow box pictured on the right. The Minang people are known for their vanilla tea and serve it for free in their restaurants. Eka is Javanese so she loves to drink sweet tea in the morning and rose-flavored rosella tea for the rest of the day.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Dominican Divas and One Divo

You can't explore Dominican culture without mentioning the island's influence on fashion. In an industry that's rigidly European-centered, the Dominican Republic has managed to make a strong enough impact to be dubbed "the next Brazil." Brazil has been supplying the industry with a bevy of supermodels lead by Giselle Bundchen, for the last ten years. All the Brazilian beauties display the requisite pale skin, flowing hair and Anglo features but the Dominicans are adding much needed visibility for models of color. Sesilee Lopez, featured above with Tyra Banks, has been splashed all over Italian Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Elle and American Vogue for the last two years. Known for her pout and sassy Dominicana attitude, she's just signed a Calvin Klein fragrance contract and has been listed as a top model to watch by industry insiders.

Arlenis Sosa was discovered on the streets of Santo Domingo a few years ago and has quickly blazed a fierce fashion trail that includes walking almost every major fashion show and spreads in Italian and American Vogue. Noted for her stunning cheekbones, she's just signed a coveted Lancome cosmetics contract.

Only 17, Austria Alcantara is the newest Dominicana on the scene. She's been featured in Teen Vogue and has walked in shows for DKNY, Marchesa, Cynthia Rowley an d Alberta Ferretti for Philosophy.

And the grand divo is of course, Oscar De La Renta. A major fashion industry icon who's been awarded the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America Lifetime Achievement Award, he's the most globally known Dominican. Usually noted for his sumptuous evening gowns like the one above, he's lately become known as the designer whining about how Michelle Obama ignores established designers. Hopefully he'll get over it and realize that with four decades of prominence, it's time for new designers to be recognized. He has rallied for Arlenis Sosa, insisting that she open and close his Spring show and shows concern for his DR home by building a school, daycare center and a fashion museum that was closed for the day when I visited.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Afro Cuban Azucar (CD/DVD Giveaway)

In honor of my 60th blog post, I decided it was time to celebrate! For me, celebrations always include music and one of my favorite genres is addictive,hip-swinging Cuban music. The Cuban sound draws much of its foundation from complex West African rhythms, with Latin melodies layered on top. This creates a joyful and sophisticated blend of music that is instantly recognizable. I've never heard anybody represent the music as vitally as bandleader, producer and musician Juan de Marcos and the Afro Cuban All Stars.

As the man behind the Buena Vista Social Club, he skillfully demonstrates the vast generational appeal of Cuban music. You get stylish jazz melodies, funky beats and hot, soulful singing all at once. The CD and DVD set, Absolutely Live, was re-issued to promote the group's 2009 Spring American tour, the first since 2002, when Cuban musicians were routinely denied work visas for U.S. tours. That's changed now as we look forward to a new era of U.S. and Cuban cultural exchange. Let's kick off the exchange here! The DVD shows footage of the group's live Tokyo concert and the CD is an unreleased recording of a performance at The Hague's North Sea Jazz Festival. My favorite is the classic, "Chan Chan" but all the songs will sashay around in your head for days.

Here's the deal: If you haven't already, follow my blog on the Google friend connect widget. Leave a comment explaining how music has opened your mind to a specific culture, country or language. I'll pick the best answer and send that person a copy of the Afro Cuban All Stars, Absolutely Live CD/DVD. That's four generations and 32 musicians all under one banner. Enjoy a taste here:

Friday, April 17, 2009

Santo Domingo Sci Fi

Literature always provides great insight into a culture. As I've explained before, reading a book by an author representing the destination is an essential part of my travels. Besides Julia Alvarez, Junot D`iaz is the Dominican Republic's most notable author. I snapped up The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao long before it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. I was familiar with Junot's kinetic, brash, writing from his short stories and decided that I would read his first novel on the beach of La Romana. Despite an array of engaging characters,Oscar Wao is not easy-going beach reading. In fact, I would not have been so puzzled and thrown off by Dominican culture if I had read this book before I visited the island.

Junot created his first novel to represent the chaos, fragmentation and romantic illusions of the Dominican Republic. Therefore, Oscar Wao is a chaotic and fragmented read, with characters and history and story lines whipping around with the force of the Caribbean sea. It's not an easy or accessible story but it is brilliant. Oscar,the protagonist, is a "ghetto nerd" from New Jersey. Fat and lacking the requisite Dominican swagger, he's shunned for loving comic books,science fiction and sword and sorcery novels, more than bachata and parties. In fact, the sci fi and comic book references are so deep and obscure, that I had to get my husband, a well-versed comic book, sci-fi and sword and sorcery fan, to translate entire passages. And he could only explain half of them. It's telling that the forward includes quotes from the Fantastic Four and the Caribbean's (St. Lucian) poet laureate, Derek Walcott. As Oscar explains, "What's more Sci Fi than Santo Domingo? What's more fantasy than the Antilles?" Apparently, not much.

Junot weaves the convoluted and brutal history of the Dominican Republic and the entire island of Hispaniola, which Haiti also shares, with the first generation immigrant stories of Oscar, his sister and mother, with colorful skill. Oscar's voice is an authentic mix of Spanglish, street vernacular and sci-fi phrases that manages to illustrate the timeless struggle for identity. We learn in the very first pages of Trujillo's bloody, American-backed regime that reigned over the island from 1930-1961. That infamous dictator's influence still seeps through Dominican culture, from his 1937 massacre of Haitians living along the capitol city of Santo Domingo's border, which fuels the current Dominican/Haitian resentments, to the political system of bribery and intimidation. Even though he appears mostly in the thick footnotes, Trujillo is as significant a character as Oscar. Oscar explains Trujillo this way: "He was our Sauron, our Aawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up."

The fact that the long dead dictator of the Dominican Republic plays such a vital role illustrates the real core of this novel. Even though it follows Oscar through New Jersey streets and the lonely halls of Rutgers University, the essence of the story takes place in DR. Oscar travels to the island to visit his relatives and learns the cruel background of his angry and abusive mother. We see sugar cane fields, Trujillo-affiliated gangsters,a magical mongoose, rusted zinc shacks and plates filled with chicharrones. We see Oscar finally lose his virginity to the retired prostitute living next door to his grandmother's house and we see the cost he pays. We see the DR in all its glory and complexities. There's a devilish sense of humor that laces through the dark passages of the book that I believe personifies Dominican culture. The curse that hovers over the story after all, is called fuk`u for exactly the reason that you think. I learned that a Dominican sensibility is playful and threatening at the same time. And it all goes back to the island's history.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Ethical Travel

The thing about me and the Dominican Republic was that I was initially very leery. I had consciously avoided the island because the country has been charged with many human rights violations, not to mention forced slavery of Haitians working on plantations. That's not the kind of scenery that I want my kids exposed to. I feel very strongly about supporting abusive governments with travel dollars. So I never considered traveling there until I kept hearing about all the new construction. Besides scads of new hotels and resorts, the Dominican Republic is constructing a commuter train system. New developments typically mean a rise in the standard of living for many people living in the booming areas. But does that mean the abuses have lessened?

I checked the latest Amnesty International reports and the findings for 2008 appeared to better than 2007. There was no mention of slavery and assaults and violence against women had decreased. But I was still skeptical. When we traveled to the DR I was on the look out for anything that smacked of discrimination or abuse. What I found were charming people and genuine warmth wherever we went. Interestingly, many people assumed we were either Dominican or Haitian but I detected no negative undertones with either assumption. My children frolicked on the beach, rode horses and scampered through caves and up mango trees in the country side. We were embraced by cooks and vendors and receptionists. We had special meals prepared for us at the insistence of our waiter. At the airport, when our flight was cancelled, the reservations agent upgraded us to first class. This wasn't a courtesy that I saw handed to the other passengers. So were we given special treatment because they thought we were Dominican or Haitian American? Or was this just regular Dominican expansiveness connected with class expectations?

It's difficult to get a true feeling for a culture as a tourist so I made a point of talking to every Haitian that I met. It was not good. They told me that discrimination against Haitians is widespread. Immigration officials and police routinely beat Haitian and Dominican-Haitians. The border patrol is particularly brutal and often send Haitians back even if they are in DR legally. Many Haitians are afraid to go home because they probably won't be allowed back. Amnesty International migrant worker reports confirmed all of this. Yet, I detected very little bitterness when my Haitian acquaintances told me their stories. They were just glad for an opportunity to work and send money home.

The ethics of traveling to a place that routinely allows such abuse still makes me queasy. Of course, these abuses also take place in the U.S. and all over the world. I loved my Dominican trip and the culture provided a rich experience for our family vacation. I know that our presence did make a psychological and financial difference to many who suffer in the DR but knowing what I know now, I don't think that I could go back unless it was to volunteer to help change the inequality.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

To Die Dreaming

Dominican food is famous for it's tastiness. I've inhaled quite a few Dominican dishes in New York but it rose to a whole other level in La Romana, Dominican Republic. First of all, the sheer freshness of the ingredients made the flavors dance. Dominican cuisine is a mix of Taino Native American, African and Spanish colonial influences. This is a combination that you find on a lot of Caribbean islands but Dominicans put their own spin on it.

The dish pictured above is mangu, which is mashed green plantains served with onions,avocado, fried eggs or salami. We found this dish everywhere we went and it's an important staple for the Dominican diet. This meal is so rich and so filling, that I never seemed to finish it.

La Bandera, pictured above, is the national dish and earns such an essential place in the Dominican diet that most eat it for lunch five times a week. It features stewed meat, rice, beans and plantains or salad, arranged to resemble the red, white and blue of the Dominican flag. The red and white is there but don't ask me about where the blue is. I didn't try this dish because it was almost always served with red meat, which I don't eat. My husband loved it, especially when the meat was stewed goat. It seems that Dominican goats munch on wild oregano bushes and the meat has a highly marinated flavor. My personal fave was boca de chica, a grilled fish platter that comes from the Boca Chica area of the island. It's seasoned with a medley of spices called sofrito and I think I had it for lunch every day.

For all of us, the hands down best thing we all loved was Morir Sonado, or to die dreaming. It deserves an award just for the name alone. It's basically what we used to call a dreamsicle; orange juice, cane sugar, milk and ice. Sitting on the beach and sipping one of these is dreamy indeed.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Diving Into Dominican Culture

My idea of a family vacation always involves some cultural immersion. I don't go for that walled resort, only guided tours, eating -the-same food-you eat-at home stuff. You never get a true sense of a place if you only experience it from such a limited perspective. So I was pleased as I watched my 11-year-old daughter splash around in Dominican turquoise water with a new friend. They jumped out of the sea and decided to hunt for seashells. Next, they head to the hotel's theater to watch movies. It could be a typical family beach vacation except that my daughter's new friend Madeline is from Lyons, France and doesn't speak a word of English. Neither do most of the staff at the Oasis Canoa Resort in La Romana-Bayahibe, Dominican Republic. My daughter and the rest of my family were forced out of our cultural comfort zone and into the welcoming aura of Dominican friendliness.

Nestled into the Southeastern corner of the Caribbean island of the Dominican Republic, La Romana is a town steeped in sugar factories, baseball games and gorgeous beaches. Located 20 miles from La Romana, Bayahibe is a charming fishing village booming with tourism industry attractions. Unlike the more popular and party-focused Punta Cana, the La Romana area adopts a slower pace and attracts mostly European and Canadian families. We chose to stay at the Oasis Canoa because it offered the best bargains for our family of four as well as easy access to nature preserves and excursions into the surrounding towns. We not only lounged on beaches but we talked and ate with Dominicans and Haitians, bartered with vendors and got up close to snakes, crabs and turtles.

The cultural immersion started as soon as we stepped off the plane. The La Romana area is almost two hours away from the Santo Domingo airport so we booked a local transport company for the transfer to the hotel. I coaxed my husband, son and daughter into brushing up on their Spanish and that opened the door for lots of experiences. Our driver didn't speak much English but we managed to communicate and were rewarded with a tour through major league baseball player Sammy Sosa's hometown and a stop at a craft emporium filled with vibrant carvings and paintings. We walked by the whizzing motor bikes that everybody seems to drive and sipped coconut water from fruit plucked from nearby trees. My son was invited to join in a local baseball game and we were all greeted as long lost compadres.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Taste Trippin' Part Dos

I've been hanging out in Spain and the Mediterranean region lately. Nothing captures me like a rich culture full of history displayed with vivid visual and musical traditions. I love flamenco, tangines and kebabs so I headed to Alhambra Palace with my friend Avis and her crew of Florida explorers. I don't mean the historical landmark in Granada, Spain. I'm referring to the grand, 1000-seat restaurant/theater in Chicago. Alhambra Palace boasts marble archways, ornate Spanish tiles and hand-crafted furniture imported from Morocco, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. With spice-colored,velvet curtains draped over entrances and hookahs hanging from the bar, the place drips with drama. We sat in the dimly lit main floor, close to the stage. The menu offered typical Middle Eastern dishes like Baba Ghanoush, Dolmesh and Falafel. I sampled spiced olives, lentil soup and chicken kebabs served over rice sprinkled with pistachios, raisins and toasted almonds. The kebabs were marinated with turmeric and other spices with bell peppers, eggplant and olives. It was okay but the real excitement was on the stage.

Four women in flouncing skirts with embroidered shawls tied over them, stomped and twirled and clapped. A guitarist and singer joined them for a medley of traditional flamenco tunes. The fervor and passion was contagious and I was mesmerized. As I've said, I'm a big flamenco fan but have never been moved to consider lessons. That performance actually had me thinking; "would all that stomping make my feet hurt?" "would I be able to gracefully use my hands and click castanets in rhythm?" "would I be able to improvise like in salsa dancing?" All I know is that I wanted to be out there swirling and stomping and clicking along with them.