Saturday, November 28, 2009

Taste Trippin' Part Four

It's November in Chicago. This is the time my mind turns to thoughts of island life, not that it doesn't most times but now is when I really focus. So I grabbed a quick excursion to Jamaica. Of course, I'm not talking about a physical jaunt but a gastronomical trip to the South Loop's Utopia International Caribbean Cuisine. Outfitted in rich tapestries and bordeaux velvet sofas, the place doesn't conjure up any images of Jamaica at all. That's because it used to be an upscale tapas lounge. That concept apparently didn't work for them so a few months ago they switched to Jamaican fare. Now, as you'd expect, I'm pretty particular when it comes to Jamaican food. All the jerk chicken joints that populate this city do not necessarily qualify as authentic Jamaican cuisine. I have my criteria and my check list that an eatery must pass before I'll try them but mostly I send my Caribbean friends to scout it out. I called Utopia personally when they opened and they failed my test miserably. I don't go near any Jamaican place where the staff doesn't know what ackee and saltfish is, which happens to be the national dish. At the persistent urging of my friends, I decided to give Utopia another chance. I scheduled an afternoon lunch interview with Chicago-bred actor and comedian Erica Watson (catch her in the film Precious) and hoped for the best.

Bob Marley singing "Kaya" in the background was a very good sign. Erica ordered the jerk catfish shown above,a specialty created by the executive chef "Papa Jay." Accompanied by a generous helping of rice and peas, plantains and hard dough bread, the spread looked like a hearty Jamaican lunch.

I ordered the classic Jamaican dish, brownstew chicken but when I opened the cute ceramic pot, I was surprised to discover ox tail stew, pictured above. Erica and I immediately discerned the difference but the kitchen prep assistant clearly did not. Since I don't eat red meat, a mistaken nibble of the ox tail could have made me sick. The waitress was aghast and assured me that the chef would come out to rectify things. Well, that's exactly what I was waiting for. Before Papa Jay even opened his mouth, I could tell from his artful stride and bemused expression that he was Jamaican. He apologized and explained that none of his assistants knew the difference between the two dishes but he had prepared my chicken and presented a plate of jerk chicken wings in the meantime. He sat down and that's when our Jamaican meal began. You see, a large part of an authentic Caribbean meal is the conversation. And I don't mean small talk. Papa Jay recalled his life in Ocho Rios, how he met his American wife and offered suggestions on potential love interests for Erica.

By the time my brownstew chicken arrived above, we were all good friends, downing glasses of ginger beer and Ting with healthy does of spicy talk and food. By the time we finished 5 hours later, Papa Jay's work shift was over and waiters were setting out tea lights for dinner. I raced home, happy that I had managed a quick Jamaican visit that didn't involve air fare.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bahia Bounty

I've never been a fan of shopping as a travel activity. Generally, I'm quite allergic to shopping malls, department stores and the special hell that's called warehouse clubs. I don't experience any pleasure from wading through mounds of generic, mass produced merchandise and I despise it even more in another country. If it isn't distinctive and doesn't reflect the nuances of the culture, what's the point? You can probably buy it anywhere. Now an outdoor market, on the other hand, offers the sights and sounds of a particular country as well as the experience of bargaining and bartering. Once in the Dominican Republic, a vendor admired my husband's yellow polo shirt and he exchanged it for an ebony sculpture. Whenever I look at that sculpture, I remember the story of how we gained it.

In Bahia, the vibrant culture shines through everything, including the Mercado Modelo. From the capoeiristas chanting and kicking outside, to the smell of sea and moqueca wafting through the aisles, it was a totally Brazilian experience. The small paintings above reflect the orixas Xango and Oxum, deity of thunder and lightening and beauty and fresh water, respectively. I negotiated and haggled for 30 minutes to get them, they not only represent the importance of the candomble religion in Brazilian culture but also my perseverance!

I really like Oxum and her fly representation of femininity so when I saw this hand-painted shirt in an art gallery, I was thrilled. Then I discovered they didn't take credit cards and left disappointed, only to discover that Claudia, my candomble historian, surprised me with it at the end of my trip. I think of Bahia and Claudia whenever I wear it.

As you've probably noticed, candomble and its orixas play a significant role in Brazilian culture. References of this African based, syncretic religion pop up everywhere,from music to clothing. Brought from Africa over 350 years ago, forms of candomble have sprouted all over the African Diaspora. Ancient Yoruba deities were melded with catholic saints so that uprooted Africans could continue their spiritual practices in the face of persecution. The deities or orixas, all have corresponding saints, colors and days of the week. In candomble, Saint Joan of Arc becomes Oba, the fearless fighter, Saint Lazarus is Omulu, deity of healing and Saint Michael is Logun, deity of polarity.

Everywhere I went in Brazil, in restaurants, airports, shops and bookstores, I observed elements of candomble. T-shirts with images of all the orixas sell in boutiques and corner stores. Restaurants, key chains and bronze statues of Imenja, the mermaid deity of the ocean, appear wherever there is a body of water. Even the all-important soccer teams have their own orixas. Despite candomble being outlawed for much of the 20th century, the religion remains a visible part of Brazilian culture. I bought this t-shirt showcasing the 12 main orixas for my husband and I think of how entrenched they are in Brazilian culture every time he wears it.

These doll magnets represent Iansa, deity of the wind in pink and Nana, deity of swamps and unfathomable wisdom in purple. I snapped them up at Mercado Modelo where these cute magnets and key chains were piled into every stall. They both overlook my kitchen, peering out from my refrigerator, overshadowing all the other magnets.

I collect crystals and stones and I was immediately drawn to the vivid rose hue of this pink quartz. Brazil boasts lots of mines so precious and semi-precious stones sparkle everywhere. I bargained for this quartz at the mercado and now it sits on my desk, reminding me of Brazil's natural beauty. How do you feel about shopping while traveling and what kinds of souvenirs do you look for?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Browsing through Bahia's Mercado Modelo

I think the term "shop til you drop" was created with Bahia's Mercado Modelo in mind. Over 300 handicraft stalls cram three levels, along with a colorful collection of bars and restaurants. Although the Mercado is filled with authentic Bahian culture, from baianas selling acaraje, to capoeira performed at the entrance, the place was clearly created for tourists. So it you're like me and can't stand to go near any silly tourist traps, don't pass up the Mercado. You'll have to haggle and the sheer number of souvenirs, along with huge crowds and echoing noise is overwhelming but its worth the experience.

The paintings reveal a riot of vivid colors and talent. Most of the vendors aren't aggressive and you can browse without being harassed. I think it helped that I was mistaken for a local Baiana, even though my Portuguese is horrifying. I haggled for two small orixa paintings that now hang triumphantly in my hallway.

For music and instrument fans, there's never ending displays of handcrafted drums, flutes and berimbaus, the traditional stringed instrument played during capoeira. This pile of drums was just one of many creative arrangements that I saw.

Ceremonial masks are also popular at the Mercado. Some were imported from Africa and some were carved in Brazil, in honor of various orixas or deities.

Because the African/Brazilian religion of candomble permeates every aspect of daily Brazilian life, figurines and statues of candomble orixas are found everywhere. Here, Xango, deity of thunder and Yemanja, deity of the sea, tempt art lovers and candomble worshippers alike.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bom Dia From Brazil

Brazilian creativity is legendary, fresh ideas and innovations just seem to flow with the ease of samba on a sunny day. So you think Brazilians would speak on ordinary public phones? Please. Brazilian phone booths are called orelhao (big ear) because of the function and rounded shape but they hardly resemble anything close to a boring, old phone.

In Bahia, I was excited to see phone booths looking like big, green apples but that wasn't all.

Some perched on corners in the form of gigantic swans.

Others beckoned with the bright petals of the sunflower.

Or the imposing beauty of the rose.

And this duck character, I can't explain who he is, probably the cooler, more stylish (check out the carefully coordinated hat) cousin of Daffy.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Mounting Mayan Ruins

I like to climb. Hills, mountains, volcanoes or anything offering a scenic backdrop inspires me to scale untold heights. I never seem to feel the same inspiration for climbing stairs. I think my legs are spoiled from climbing so many stunning structures. A climbing standout was in Belize, at the Xunantunich Mayan ruins. The site is a classic period (300-900 AD)ceremonial center adorned with large plazas and pyramids. The tallest, El Castillo, rises 130 feet. I watched barefoot children scamper up the crumbling stones and I eventually followed them. The climb is steep and the sun blazes down mercilessly. I was rewarded with a gorgeous panoramic view of the jungle canopy, Belize River and a glimpse of Guatemala just over the border.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Anti-Terrorist Fashion

With the Taliban hovering in the background and located just two hours from al- Qaida headquarters, Pakistan hosted its first fashion week in the cosmopolitan city of Karachi last week. It might seem like a frivolous choice at a time when violence and religious oppression affects most of the country but I think its a signal of bravery and hope to Pakistan's women. "This is our gesture of defiance to the Taliban," said CEO of Fashion Week Pakistan, Ayesha Tammy Haq. Although the fashion show displayed traditional Pakistani tunics and veils, bared shoulders, legs and midriffs were also on view. The event had been re-scheduled twice because of violence and security concerns and some models admitted that they were afraid of Islamic militant attacks but they strutted down the runways nonetheless.

Showcasing a mix of traditional Pakistani influences and contemporary style, Pakistan's top designers demonstrated the vibrant culture that's too often overshadowed by political upheaval. Most of the designs, like the fashions in Western shows, were too outrageous for Pakistani women to actually wear but they represented a broad spectrum of freedom and choice for the future.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

London Love and Thornton's Toffee

I love London. The energy, the quirkiness, the music, the markets, excite me. I never sleep when I visit, there's always something happening and some place to be. I also rarely eat when I'm there. If there's no curry shop or Jamaican eatery nearby, forget it. British food is my least favorite thing about London. You can only eat fish-n-chips and do high tea so many times before you crave real food. And well, there really is none. There's a saying that British colonialists really weren't trying to to take over all those countries, they were just looking for a good meal. On my first trip to London, I ate maybe once a day, usually scones or fish n-chips. I never saw much food that looked appetizing to me. Then at the end of my visit, I discovered Thornton's toffee. My discriminating sweet tooth went wild. I can not explain the joy, the chewy, rich, deliciousness of that experience. Forget food, I could live on a good batch of Thornton's toffee for weeks. The next time I visited London, the first thing I did was stock up on Thornton's toffee. Unfortunately, despite its richness, it doesn't last very long with me. I had friends mail me supplies. I pestered anyone going near London to bring me back a box.

When friends grew weary of my obsession, I discovered Thornton's online and ordered twice a year, at ridiculous prices but it was worth it. That's how I've survived over the years. What passes for English toffee in the U.S. is nonsense. It's upsetting to even look at the hard slabs of sugar that's supposed to be toffee here. Proper toffee is chewy, even after it hardens. Since the euro-dollar conversion rate has grown even more ridiculous, not to mention the weeks I have to wait for a shipment, I've discovered the British Food Shop, based in California. Now I can order anytime and not worry about import costs and long waits. Last week, I ordered three bags of Thornton's toffee and I have it today. Just one bite takes me back to strolling through Camden Market or watching the street performers on Piccadilly Circus. For me, Thornton's toffee from London beat's Laduree macaroon's from Paris or Mozartkugeln chocolate from Salzburg. What's your favorite travel sweet?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Blues From The Blue Men

Last week, half of my CD tower collapsed. It covers an entire wall and holds hundreds of my lovingly collected CDs. The CDs crashed to the floor. Some are cracked, some are scratched. To say that I'm sad about it is an understatement. I haven't been able to deal with it at all. I just look at the piles of music and turn away because I can't bear to go through them and see what I've lost. Today I realized that it was the left side of the case that collapsed. This means that all of my American music genres--blues, jazz, rock, soul and hip hop are in piles on the floor. My global music--Latin, reggae, soca, calypso, African, Celtic and everything in between, rests safely on shelves in the other half of the tower. I haven't figured out what this means but for now it means that I only have access to my global music.

The feeling of loss and regret that hovers over me has created a hankering for the blues. I can't reach for B.B. or Buddy or John Lee but I can listen to Tinariwen. As a group of Tuaregs from Mali, they translate the feeling of personal longing and nostalgia like nobody else outside of the Mississippi Delta. Tuaregs are a nomadic ethnic group that have been forced out of their Sahara Desert region and nomadic lifestyle because of drought, war and oppression.

Covered in sweeping, indigo –dyed, (hence the name blue men) robes that obscure their faces, Tuaregs have existed since antiquity. For centuries, they have crossed the Sahara desert that runs across northwest Africa and established a rich culture noted for military ability, silver and gold craftsmanship, and veiled men instead of women. Political turmoil related to drought and government apathy, led to fierce Tuareg rebellions in Mali and Niger during the 90s. The uprisings created a community of exiled Tuaregs, separated for the first time from the desert culture that had sustained them from the beginning.

Tinaiwren (which means desert in plural) was created as a response to this separation. The six-member group of exiled Tuaregs formed in Algeria in 1979, driven by the need to express the realities of life in exile. Their repertoire includes a raw, rolling, sound that captures the pain of their vanishing culture and their hope for the future. These Sahara songs are dominated by pure electric guitar riffs, spare percussion and moody vocals, which echo American blues with uncanny clarity. This isn't mere coincidence however, since the origins of the blues can be traced back to the region around the Niger River, where it turns south after flowing through the desert and towards the coast of Nigeria. It's an area where the Tuaregs have lived for centuries, so this blues legacy is as much a part of their culture as camels, robes and sand dunes.

Tinariwen just released their third album, Imidiwan:Companions (World Village. It's filled with the feeling of assuf, which loosely translates to the blues. Despite the association with sadness, blues is also about rebellion and revolution. All the best blues artists, from Robert Johnson to Koko Taylor, defied society and expectations to play the blues and push for change. Tinariwen continues that tradition and I'll be listening to them as I go through my CDs and face the changes I'll have to make: