Monday, March 22, 2010

Next Stop: Rock City

I'm headed for the lovely sands (that's Magens Bay above) and relatively (for the Caribbean) fast-paced streets of Rock City, also known as St. Thomas. St. Thomas carries the Rock City nickname because of its rowdy night life but I won't be catching much of that scene.  This press trip will focus on eco and volunteer travel so I'll be snorkling in the Mangrove Wildlife Sanctuary, kayaking to Hassel Island to clean beaches and trails, as well as checking out Saint Peter Great House and Botanical Gardens. I also hope to get the chance to volunteer at a school for an afternoon. Other than that, I'm most looking forward to feeding iguanas!  I'll be gone for the rest of the week, taking in a side of Rock City that I've never experienced. I promise lots of pix and posts on my adventures when I get back.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sunset on Eleuthera

The Caribbean reaps lot of attention for golden sun, powdery sand beaches and turquoise water.  And it's true, all of these elements  offer enough beauty to soothe your frazzled soul.  But there's one Caribbean attraction that I think deserves more notice.  It's the sunsets. There's nothing more gorgeous than a blazing sunset over a stretch of water. I make it a point to capture a sunset on every island I visit. The drama of it all is enough to make me forget the sun and just come out at sunset.

I captured this setting sun in Eleuthera, at the Cove resort.  The property boasts a lookout tower just to watch spectacles like this.

Watching the sun gently dip over water, with palm trees casting shadows, is one of my favorite island activities.  What's your favorite way to enjoy the beauty of a destination?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Michelangelo of the Caribbean

They call him Michelangelo of the Caribbean but that's not how he was introduced to me.  Tall and genial, with flashing gray eyes, Sir Dunstan St. Omer was introduced to me as St. Lucia's leading artist and cultural expert.  I later discovered that he represents much more than that.  I made the mistake of trying to interview him during the St. Lucia Jazz Fest.  We walked through the fest and every three minutes, he was stopped by men and women hugging him.  Finally, we had to be escorted by security to a private tent, which was the only way I could talk to this beloved icon undisturbed. I thought a photo of Dunstan next to the vivid St. Lucia flag, above, made a powerful image. I later found out that it was Dunstan who designed the flag, with it's cerulean blue representing St. Lucia's sky and sea.  Along with Derek Walcott, Dunstan St. Omer symbolizes the genius of St. Lucian culture, which boasts the highest ratio of Nobel Laureates in the world.

A painter noted for his altarpieces and church murals that infuse St. Lucian hallmarks with traditional Catholic figures like the painting above, which appears in a St. Lucia cathedral. Dunstan explained to me exactly what makes St. Lucia so special.  "It's the culture that creates the genius," he says.  "Of all the islands, St. Lucia had the least amount of slavery. Colonialists fought over this island 14 different times.  In the process of all the fighting, there was hardly any time for slavery to take root.  We are so peaceful and creative because we aren't vexed. We are free."  At 81-years-old, a father of nine and grandfather and great-grandfather to 21, Dunstan St, Omer also acts as a father figure to St. Lucia, displaying and documenting all of her natural and cultural beauty.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Righting History

Julia Alvarez knew exactly the significance of  the history she was tackling when she wrote In the Time of the  Butterflies.  She unearthed the pain and terror of a regime that few outside of the Dominican Republic knew about.  As historical fiction, In the Time of  the Butterflies chronicles the oppression of  Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo's 31-year-reign as well as the details of daily life for the  revolutionary Mirabel sisters.  The story doesn't just document history but it connects readers to the legends of the Mirabels, also known by their underground code name "The Butterflies," revealing their legitimate place in world history.

I read this book with a firm knowlege of its importance but I have to admit, I wasn't all that eager to delve into Trujillo's cruel world and the Mirabel's suffering. The Time of the Butterflies is not a quick, breezy read.  It flashes between the three sisters, Minerva, Patria and Maria Teresa, using diary entries and childhood memories to show what their life was like before they became revolutionaries. A fourth sister Dede, is the sole survivor who lives to tell their story. I read it all with trepidation because I knew what would happen to these women after they married, had children and established their adult identities.  They would be martyred.

Alvarez demonstrates chilling skill as she introduces Trujillo through the sister's adolescent eyes.  First he pounces on a classmate at the girls' convent school. When she gets pregnant and his wife finds out, he packs the teen off to Miami.  At a Trujillo-sponsored dance, the sisters know not to drink anything because of  the dicatator's habit of drugging and then raping girls. When he becomes interested in the rebellious and outspoken Minerva, her father is jailed when she refuses him and the family comes under surveillance from then on. Of course, it gets much worse.  Trujillo killed anyone who disagreed or criticized him.  The sisters joined the underground movement to overthrow Trujillo and they were jailed and tortured.

The compelling point of In the Time of the Butterflies is that the small details were fictionalized but the overall story is real.  At a time (1940s-1960) and in a place where women were not permitted to control much more than their children, the Mirabel sisters helped organize and lead a movement that would free their country. November 25, the day that they were beaten, strangled and their bodies thrown in cars down a cliff to make it appear like an accident, has been declared International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in the Mirabel sisters honor.  They left behind six children, the oldest of whom, is now a prominent figure in the Dominican government.  Julia Alvarez has said that she wrote In The Time of the Butterflies because she was haunted by the Mirabels. Her father had been active in the same underground organization as the sisters but escaped with his family to the U.S., four months before the Mirabels were murdered. They gave their lives for freedom and Alvarez has made sure that history will remember the Mirabels.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Pomegranates in Paradise

I've always loved the deep crimson and overall weirdness of pomegranates. What other fruit comes in pods like that? As a child who devoured Greek mythology, the fact that Persephone ate six pomegranate seeds that would doom her to six months in the underworld with Hades, added to the drama. But I'd never actually seen a pomegranate tree until I was in Eleuthera.

The ancient pomegranate is native to Persia and the Himalayas but occasionally grows on some Bahamian islands.  Persians (Iranians) believe that it was a pomegranate that tempted Eve, not a boring apple.

I got a kick seeing pomegranates growing on spindly trees, surrounded by hibiscus, yellow elder and Royal poinciana tropical flowers. It truly looked like the garden of paradise.  Have you spotted any surprising plants or fruits on your travels?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Taste Trippin' Part Six (Francais)

I've complained about Chicago's long, brutal winters but when it really grows unbearable, I just take off to the warmest place I can think of.  That would be Senegal, West Africa, by way of Chicago's only Senegalese restaurant, Yassa. Senegalese food mirrors the culture in general.  It's warm, colorful and very spicy.  Family run and oozing with welcome and graciousness, Yassa offers the perfect tropical escape.

With African tapestries and pictures on the wall and two rooms filled with wooden tables and chairs, Yassa feels like your favorite Senegalese aunt's living room, complete with music and tales of village exploits. I go to Yassa as much for the atmosphere as  I do the flavorful food.  Live bands play jazz or R&B and the expansive Gueye family floats about, waiting tables and supplying African anecdotes in free flowing French or Wolof.

And then there's the food.  Hearty doesn't even come close to explaining it.  Yassa's menu lists an authentic array of Senegalese specialties, from the eponymous yassa chicken cooked in lemon and mustard sauce, to the national dish of thiebu djeun (cheb u Jen), a mouth-watering display of a whole fried tilapia stuffed with parsley and  spices, cooked in tomato sauce and served over jollof rice, also cooked in tomato sauce, pictured above.  Carrots, cabbage and plantains accompany this tasty concoction. As you can see, the heaping portions are barely contained by the large platters.  I wash it down with glasses of bissap, the Senegalese version of my favorite sorrel or hibiscus drink, or creamy baobab juice.

Awa Gueye, one of Yassa's owners pictured above, is always laughing and smiling, displaying the joyful Senegalese spirit which makes the restaurant such a memorable experience.  This post is part of Wander Food Wednesdays.  Go check out some  of the other traveling cuisines.