Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Real Spirit of Christmas

There's a voracious vibe hanging in the air. Eyes flicker with the sentiment of more! more! more! It must be Christmas time. It's difficult to uncover the real, charitable focus of the season under all the materialism but you can find it if you decide not to be distracted by all the other nonsense. I don't enjoy shopping at all but I do get a kick out of choosing gifts from my favorite charities.  Instead of trolling through aisles filled with plastic doodads and electronic gadgets, I browsed through vaccines, mosquito nets and water kits for children all over the world. The Unicief  Inspired Gift program allows you to purchase these life-saving supplies on behalf of a friend or family member. They also get a card with a photo and description of the gift. I also perused chickens, rabbits, pigs and goats for the perfect present. Women in war torn countries learn to rebuild their lives through animal husbandry, farming and work initiatives provided by Women For Women International.. The Gifts That Give Back program supplies women with gifts of animals, farming tools, and education to help them become self-sufficient.  My mom's not a huge fan of animals but she'll like the rabbit that I gave in her honor. In light of the natural disasters that have been hitting all over the planet, I like to make donations to Doctors Without Borders to help out. Their Tribute Donations program allows you to commemorate the holiday or other special occasion with a tribute letter mailed to your person of honor. So if you're still stuck with a gift list at this point, please consider these ideas that capture the real spirit of Christmas.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sand Dollars, Skeletons and The Season

I've just finished decorating my Christmas tree, which always inspires me to think about the origins of many of my ornaments.  Glittery, beaded, balls from India are favorites, as well as embroidered bells from Italy. But the most unexpected decoration is a pure white sand dollar I got from St. Croix. Sand dollars make elegant Christmas ornaments and are commonly used in coastal areas and the Caribbean. The pretty sand dollar-covered tree above was captured in Eleuthera, with echos of the sea right outside. I never realized that sand dollars are fuzzy sea creatures similar to starfish. The sand dollars that wash ashore are actually skeletons.  Decorating a tree with skeletons gives a whole other perception that doesn't quite fit with the holiday season but I still think they're pretty. Will you be decorating with any souvenirs from your travels this season?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Genips and Sea Grapes and Figs, Oh My!

I love tropical fruit, the more exotic, the better.  Whenever I travel to the Caribbean, I make a point of visiting the local markets or vendors for local fruit. In St. Kitts, genips, shown above, are sold on almost every street corner of Basseterre. Genips are like lychees, you peel them and suck out the pulp, around the seed which is slimy and slightly sweet.

Figs are what Kittitians call the miniature bananas pictured above. I don't like bananas but I do enjoy figs, which are sweeter and creamier than the bananas grown in the U.S.

Sea grapes grow on towering trees that tend to grow near the sea. This sweet fruit is also sold by many street vendors in St. Kitts. There's nothing like nibbling on a juicy bunch, as the sun warms your shoulders. Do you have a favorite fruit that you discovered on your travels?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Chocolate Chicago

I am recovering from a chocolate hangover. Like a love hangover, it has no cure.  It all started when I grabbed a Groupon for Chicago Chocolate Tours. Chicago boasts a long candy history and naturally, I'm very familiar with most of it but my husband isn't ( he just likes chocolate, not sugar in all forms). So we signed up for the Gold Coast Chocolate Tour and met are tour guide Jenny, above in the lobby of Bloomingdale's. Even though I possess a serious sweet tooth, I confess that I was not equipped to down pounds and pounds of chocolate over 21/2 hours.

We started at More cupcakes, a tiny gourmet cupcake boutique aimed toward cupcake snobs, which includes me.  As you can see from the display above, the shop carries a dazzling array of flavors, including savory versions like maple bacon, goat cheese basil and blue cheese walnut praline.

We sampled a tasting size of the chocolate fudge cupcake that was rich and moist. We planned to head back to stock up on red velvet, salted caramel and passion fruit cupcakes after the tour but little did we know, the thought of more desserts would not be at the top of our lists.

Next, we visited Chicago's only Belgian Bakery, Hendrickx Bread Crafter. We crowded into the kitchen where the owners demonstrated their old world techniques. We tasted fresh bread, chocolate croissants and a raisin and walnut roll that melted in my mouth. I admit, I questioned their sanity when the owners mentioned that they had moved their business from the Bahamas when they tired of the weather but insanity clearly creates amazing baked goods.

The chocolate for the croissants was whipped up from blocks of Belgian chocolate. It was heavenly but the real test of a good bakery? When the kitchen floor is slippery from all the butter used.

When we arrived at Sarah's Pastries, I was feeling a tiny bit of chocolate fatigue. We had also toured Harry & David, where they plied us with chocolate truffles,  chocolate and caramel moose mix popcorn, chocolate covered cherries, and a chocolate mouse so adorable, I couldn't bear to eat it. I crammed most of it into my purse because I just didn't have the strength for another bite. At Sarah's, we tasted chocolate peanut butter drops and something else that's a cocoa-covered blur.  The cookies above, were so cute but not cute enough to tempt me to eat one. My resolve to taste every sugary morsel offered had disappeared.

When I saw the sparkling Christmas display at Teuscher Swiss Chocolate, I perked up. The chocolates are flown in weekly from Switzerland and since my memories of eating fresh Swiss chocolate everyday in Lucerene remain fresh, I gathered my strength to nibble the champagne truffle, pictured above.

We were instructed to down the truffle in two quick bites, in order to savor the flavor of the Dom Perignon flowing through the chocolate.  It was good. I'm sorry I can't offer more details because by that point, my taste buds were starting to protest.   I wouldn't have agreed before but there really is such a thing as too much chocolate. My husband lounged on a bench as  I gazed glassy eyed, at the decadent chocolate arrangements. We had been defeated by chocolate.
The tour wasn't only about munching chocolate, however. We learned valuable chocolate facts such as, when chocolate was so valuable it was used as currency, pirates would make counterfeit cocoa pods by  removing the cocoa and stuffing them with a fake substance!  Chicago became a big chocolate center in the 1800s because the frigid climate is perfect for preserving chocolate. Did you know chocolate is a good remedy for coughs? I will be trying that this winter. I selected the Gold Coast tour because I love the landmark architecture. That's the John Hancock building, which used to be one of the world's tallest, rising into the sky above.

With all the chocolate, we did manage to pick out some favorites, mine was the cupcakes but my favorite memory was of these people above. They stood in the cold in front of the historic Water Tower offering free hugs. I watched several children take them up on the offer, while most adults were wary but I thought it was a lovely idea. You can have too much chocolate but you can never have too many hugs.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Touch The Sky on Brimstone Hill

If you ever visit St. Kitts, it's an official requirement to visit Brimstone Hill Fortress. Not only is it the island's most recognizable landmark, it's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the best place to grab heavenly views.

Constructed between 1690 and 1790, the fortress rises almost 800 feet in the air. Which means you must climb the stone path up to monument, way up on Brimstone Hill. Sturdy shoes are suggested.

The climb is well worth it because beyond the cannons, bastions and citadel, a striking panorama of  an impossibly green landscape unfolds. It really looks like you could reach up on your tippy toes and touch a cloud or two.

Most of the fortress is  built with volcanic rock. I felt like I heard echoes of the centuries of history stored in those rocks. After decades of being passed between British and French colonialists, the flag of independent St. Kitts finally flies from Brimstone Hill Fortress.

The fortress is the one of the best preserved historical fortifications in all of the Americas. I spent hours exploring the officers quarters, magazine bastions and barracks. High up in the hills, it's easy to be transported into another time and place.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Bush Tea Adventure

Most Americans down mugs and mugs of coffee everyday but I love tea. Technically, I don't drink the black tea leaves that are commonly considered tea but herbal infusions that are really a collection of herbs, flowers and spices. In the Caribbean, this is called bush tea and I always order a cup on whatever island I visit. There's just nothing like fresh bush tea. In St. Kitts, I ordered a pot at the Spice Mill restaurant and this earned me some surprised looks. Not because it was a hot, 90 degree Kitttitian afternoon but because few Americans know about the joys of bush tea and they didn't expect anyone to order it.  After much bustling and questioning, my waitress stepped outside the restaurant and plucked some lemongrass and thyme from the garden. You can see the tips of the plants in the photo above.

I savored the spicy smell when she brought the pot out and sipped on cups and cups for over an hour. Bush tea is typically drunk for medicinal purposes and lemongrass, also called fever grass, is usually prescribed for fevers and colds so that might be another reason I caught the puzzled looks. I wasn't sick but a good pot of bush tea definitely makes me happy. My happiness must have been palpable because when we prepared to leave, I was presented with a bunch of the fresh herbs to take home, pictured above. I was touched by the gesture but I explained that live produce is usually a no no when traveling from country to country. They insisted and I wasn't about to argue so I  took the herbs back to my hotel and packed them in a plastic bag, at the bottom of my suitcase.

When I was in the airport, sure enough, my suitcase was chosen to be inspected. I held my breath as the security attendant rummaged through my clothes. He pulled out my box of Off  insecticide towelettes. No liquids in that, I explained. He placed it back in my suitcase and closed it. And I flew out of St. Kitts with enough lemongrass to enjoy for months. I'm actually drinking a cup right now.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Red Snapper Redo

I love red snapper. There's no other fish that inspires the joy and anticipation that this mild, flavorful aquatic dish provides for me. I can not resist ordering  fresh red snapper whenever I'm in the Caribbean or Latin America. Served with rice and peas, plantains or yucca, red snapper is the equivalent of  a comforting embrace, spiked with bursts of laughter.  I have a difficult time ignoring it whenever I see it on any menu so I was faced with a bizarre dilemma in St. Kitts. Every single restaurant I visited for dinner, featured a tempting version of red snapper.  So when I sunk my toes into the sands at Mr. X's Shiggedy Shack beach lounge, I just had to order the red snapper grilled with lemon and thyme, above.

When I dipped into the gorgeous, sun-dappled Spice Mill restaurant, I just couldn't ignore the spice-rubbed red snapper, topped with pineapple salsa, above.

When I joined with the gang  for dinner at the swanky Blu seafood restaurant at the St. Kitts Marriott above, the steamed red snapper was just calling to me. By the fourth day, I had munched on the tasty fish four days in a row and although I never grow tired of it, I felt that I was missing out on a potentially sensational Kittittian dish by focusing on red snapper. So I forced myself to not order red snapper on my last night in St. Kitts. Part of the problem is that I don't eat red meat or shellfish so my choices just weren't as exciting as red snapper for me. But I did it.  Rafael, a gregarious Dominican chef whipped up a special dish just for me. What was it? Another favorite mainstay, pasta. It wasn't very Kittitian but it was good. Do you have a favorite food that you just have to eat during your travels?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Cool Ruler Ends His Reign

It doesn't get any better than listening to Gregory Isaacs' smooth vocals on a balmy Jamaican night. His voice glided over lyrics, caressing them gently, like a Caribbean breeze.  I first heard him live at a concert in Mandeville, Jamaica and I've been a fan ever since. Decked out in custom-made suits with a fedora tipped rakishly to the side, he earned the name of the Cool Ruler, King of Lover's Rock, which combines the melodies of roots reggae with dancehall riddims.  Producing 500 albums over his 40-year career, he won a loyal following not just because of his singing skills but because of the vulnerability he displayed. He battled drug addiction for most of his life, entering rehab, losing teeth, and facing arrest constantly but he always managed to come back, his voice still lovely. Gregory died at 59 yesterday, from lung cancer, refusing any operations. His presence will forever be missed but his music lives on. The video below is of one of my favorite songs, "My Only Lover," which was Gregory's first hit in 1973. Listen to the Wailers band back him in this magical reggae ballad:

Monday, October 18, 2010

Biking in Basseterre

I'm a punk. I admit it. I love a good travel adventure but  in the end, St. Kitts managed to kick my butt. I'm a big biking fan, as my weekly rides on my tricked out, pink Raleigh attests. But I just wasn't prepared for biking in St. Kitts.  I trotted out for an early morning ride with my press comrades and quickly crumbled. What could be so tough about biking through a tiny and lovely little island you ask?

Well, for starters, we have the heat.  You'll never hear me complain about the sunshine and I adore hot, tropical weather. It's just that, a  95 degree temperature is not all that ideal for bike riding. See the wilted look on my face in the photo above? Notice the sweat glistening on my arms? That was was just the first 3 minutes.

Then we have the gorgeous Basseterre landscape. I was surrounded by verdant green vegetation everywhere I looked. The Caribbean Sea beckoned  over the hills. Hills. I somehow had forgotten how hilly St. Kitts is. You can't go two steps without encountering a hill, mountain or volcano.  Love climbing them but riding?  Let's just say that although I recognize the overall physical value of the escapade, I did not turn down our guide's offer to let me ride in his truck for the remainder of the two-hour ride.  The rest of my comrades stayed strong on their bikes and I watched proudly from the window of the truck as their muscles pulsed and the sweat poured.

We rode past the cemetery, which I declined to go through but the backdrop provided a stunning vista.

We rolled past the Government House, residence of the Governor General of St. Kitts. The armed guard allowed me to take a photo but he was serious about guarding the house, as you can gather from his expression.

This is the Government House, where the Governor General was not in residence at the time but that still didn't keep the guards and their guns from guarding it.  It's "protocol" we were told.

We rode into downtown Basseterre to the Circus, which is my favorite part. Modeled after London's Piccadilly Circus,  St. Kitts British colonial influence is prominently displayed with the bronze Berkeley Memorial Clock and the surrounding roundabout.  The ride back uphill was of course treacherous, I felt every steep incline radiating under the seat of the truck.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sailing St. Kitts Sky Safari

Zip lines may look like the latest travel torture trend but it appears a lot scarier than it is. Imagine flying above the trees, sharing views with birds and monkeys.  You get so captured by the sights that you forget that you're thousands of feet in the air. I've zipped through plenty of rain forests and tree tops but St. Kitts Sky Safari was a slightly different experience.

That's Kelly in the photo above. He helped my group cover our bodies in the pounds of required equipment. Unlike other zip lines, Sky Safari uses a carriage that you actually sit on, making it more comfortable and secure. The first contraption was a bodysuit/harness that would do any super hero proud. This was topped by a helmet and trolley carriage that we toted on our shoulders.

Here, Jody models the sexiness of the entire getup. With Mt. Liamuiga looming ahead of us, we flew through the rain forest at 1,350 feet. The first zip line is dubbed The Boss and it towers 250 feet above the rain forest.  That little line was nothing compared to Mango Tango, which measures 1000 feet in the sky. The platform is framed by a massive mango tree, which is where it gets its name.  Next there's Brimstone Blast, overlooking the historical Brimstone Hill Fortress and then River Rocker, which sails above Wingfield River.

The two-hour adventure supplied me with gorgeous panoramic views of the entire island.  Lush scenery surrounded me everywhere and I felt like I was connected to every aspect of St. Kitts natural elements.  It was a beautiful feeling and experience.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Hiking The Himalayas With A Suitable Boy

I've been away for awhile, immersed in the vivid details of India. The Indian Himalayan mountain ranges are the loftiest in the world and though I've never witnessed them in person, I feel like I have an idea of what it might be like to scale them.  At 1474 pages, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, is one of the longest novels of the last century and the longest one -volume offering in the English language. It tops War and Peace and Ulysses in length and in the intimidating heft of the tome, which is saying a lot.  A Suitable Boy  is exhaustive in its scope of 50s era Indian life, examining everything from politics and castes, to religion and food.  I feel like I've spent weeks in India, observing ceremonies, talking with families and learning it's complex history and I'm both enlightened and tired from the experience.

Set in the early 1950s, shortly after the Partition of India and Pakistan and during the first elections after independence, the novel offers insight into the current challenges of the region as well as a well-developed perspective of arranged marriages and extended families.  A Suitable Boy chronicles the intertwined lives of four families as well as the search headed by Rupa Mehra to find a suitable husband for her 19-year-old daughter, Lata. Although it has been called a soap opera and the title implies a romantic tale, it is neither. Seth is neither sentimental or melodramatic with his characters and I appreciate that.  Of course, I identified with independent-minded, soft-spoken Lata, a college student who longs for the totally unsuitable Kabir, a handsome and poetic suitor who is Muslim and therefore not a good match for her Hindu background.  There's also Amit, a glamorous Brahmin who is a celebrated, if whimsical, poet who's also not from the right caste. Instead, her mother chooses Haresh, a socially awkward, gauche shoe-maker who wears flashy shoes 20-years out of style and speaks English with a comical accent. But Haresh is kind and thoughtful and most importantly, the right caste. It's easy to get upset by the rigidly narrow caste system and the unfairness of it all. Lata rebels and fights for her right to choose whom she will marry.  However, by the end of the book, I grasped a deeper understanding of how and why the system was adopted and why Rupa refuses to ignore it.

I also gained an in-depth look at Indian classical music, the courtesan lifestyle, land reform and the struggle for Muslim women's rights. Seth didn't use many literary flourishes, the writing is direct and at times pedantic.  But he makes up for it with rich detail: the characters love to sip nimbu paani (a drink of fresh lime juice and soda) eat musammis (a sweet orange) plucked from trees and douse themselves in candy-colored dye for the joyful celebration of Holi, the Hindu festival of colors.  The only real problem I had with A Suitable Boy is that although Seth provides family trees for the four families, there is no glossary for the hundreds of Indian terms he scatters throughout the book.  I not only had to scale the Himalayas during this literary journey but I had to do it with a local phrasebook in my hand.  All in all, it's well worth the trip.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Gratitude Kittitian Style

It's easy to take things for granted. Especially when you have been blessed to live in a place that's filled with tropical lushness and a lovely rolling landscape. I quickly learned that Kittitians are a very thankful people. It's evident from their graciousness, to their eagerness to share their beautiful island. But I was taken aback when I saw this display. Who paints phrases on a house? Apparently, a very thankful Kittitian who was provided with a government-funded home.  It wasn't enough for the owner to lovingly deck out the place with sky blue hues and painted roses. They wanted to always remember the source of their good fortune. It made me stop and think about how grateful I was to even be in St. Kitts, admiring the beauty of the island and its people. What are you grateful for?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Reggae Beach and Wilbur The Pig (Island Time Rush Slowly)

If you haven't figured it out by now, I'm a beach person.  Nothing soothes me more than salt water kissing my skin, sand covering my toes and an ocean breeze.  St Kitts is blessed with many lovely beaches but the most interesting is Reggae Beach, located on Cockleshell Bay.  It's a pretty stretch as you can see above but that's not what makes it memorable.

People flock to Reggae Beach because the Reggae Beach Bar serves the best BBQ ribs on the island.  There's also a festive, relaxed vibe that attracts people.

They also come to see Wilbur, the pig. Originally bought  for food, the owner of the bar developed an affection for the pig and decided to save him and let him live on the beach. For anyone that's ever read the children's classic Charlotte's Web, you know that naming a pig Wilbur probably means that it will never end up as pork chops on the dinner table.

Wilbur weighs in at 700 pounds and enjoys guzzling beer as well as eating cheeseburgers from the bar. He apparently spends much of his time lazing in the shade. I never saw him even flutter an eye open, even when a dog came over to nudge him.

The beach also shelters an abandoned goat who shares a large cage with his best friend, a monkey.

The monkey loves riding on the goat's back but they moved too fast for me to get that photo.

Reggae Beach Bar promotes the slogan, "island time, rush slowly" and I think it sums up the whole experience. You have no choice but to slow down and adopt island time when faced with a 700 pound pig.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Basseterre Bus Buzz

Public transportation can be torturous in many bustling meccas but it doesn't appear to be a problem in St. Kitts capital city of Basseterre.  You see, the public transportation consists of privately-owned mini buses lovingly painted with slogans and names that reflect the owner's sensibilities. How can you have a rough ride when the bus is emblazoned with "honesty? " I think just watching these moving murals is enough to brighten your day.

I'd hop in this angelic white van just because I believe that its name would bring only good things.

This is my personal favorite, because the heartfelt emotions of this phrase resonates in all cultures.

This flashy display makes me think that the owner is a gregarious extrovert.

The owner's name hovers over the slogan  of this bus in a way that suggests that perhaps he's joined the cut-throat competition.

This says a lot about the owner's outlook.

I really like the style of this slogan because whether you're driving a bus or not, you always want to stay in the mix!