Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Year of Return: My 2018 Travels

2018 was really some kind of year! It was filled with unexpected situations as well as familiar scenes and there was a clear pattern to the year's travel. I embarked on new, unforgettable journeys to countries that start with "G": Greece, Guadeloupe and Ghana.  And I returned to beloved, familiar destinations; St. Lucia, St. John, Tobago and Montreal, for a whole new perspective. "The Year of Return" is also the theme for Ghana's year-long commemoration of 400 years since the first enslaved African arrived in the U.S.. A celebration of the resilience of the African spirit, the 2019 Year of Return welcomes all the Diaspora to return home and re-connect. That's exactly what I did during my life-changing trip to Ghana. From the time I stepped onto the streets of Accra, I was welcomed like a daughter returned from a long trip. I cried during most of my time at Cape Coast Castle, shown above, the site where thousands were imprisoned and then shipped off to the Americas during the brutal Transatlantic Slave Trade. It wasn't easy, but I re-traced the steps of my ancestors, through the "door of no return" and back again because I had indeed returned.

I had returned to re-connect to African people and culture and to also discover my ancestral heritage. Thanks to African Ancestry, I was presented with the results of my DNA test in front of the infamous door of no return. I learned that I came from the Mandinka people of Senegal, a culture that I've always felt a connection to, especially with their tradition of griots who are storytellers who pass down history through songs and poetry. I walked through the door of return a different person with a different identity.

Ghana's official launch for the Year of Return featured music, shown in the video above, pageantry and theater.  The trip was the highlight of my year. Other highlights included a return to St. Lucia for the St. Lucia Jazz Fest, which has totally changed from when I attended nine years ago when Amy Winehouse was the headliner. The focus has switched to true jazz performers with a smattering of Soca musicians, including  the "Queen of Bacchanal" Destra Garcia, who  I enjoyed  watching as she headlined the last night. Dancing to Destra under the stars on Pigeon Island, eating and whining my way through Gros Islet Jump Up  and shopping at Caribelle Batik  are memories I'll always cherish.

St. Lucia's beauty is unrivaled as you can see with the iconic Pitons above. St. John is another island famous for its beauty and I was thrilled to find it recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Irma. As you can see below, Love City, as St. John is called, retains all of its tropical loveliness.

Montreal is one of my fave cities and I'd visited in every season except winter. I decided to ignore my aversion to the cold and check it out in February. Snow and ice blanketed the city and outlying towns but it was still beautiful and exciting. I attended winter festivals, enjoyed jazz clubs and toured the dynamic street art scene. You can see a mural of  Leonard Cohen peeking out over a building below.

I returned to Tobago after a long 18 years and found it mostly unchanged. The people were still friendly, the landscape was still stunning and the small island culture was just as intriguing. I visited parts of the island I had never seen and reveled under a sunset over Pigeon Point below.  In 2018, I experienced different kinds of travel, wrote for different kinds of publications and viewed familiar locations from different angles. Here's to a new year of growth and travel!

Friday, December 21, 2018

Banku and Waakye and Palava Sauce: The Glory of Ghanaian Food

Despite the stereotypes, African food is as varied and amazing as the continent itself. I'm lucky that I live in a city that offers an array of West, East and North African cuisine so I arrived in Ghana expecting to enjoy classic dishes like waakye (black eyed peas with rice), banku (fermented corn and cassava dough formed into balls to accompany fish or meat) and heaps of fresh fish. What I wasn't prepared for was the sheer variety and complexity of Ghanaian cuisine. Yes, there were the classics that I was familiar with but there were also variations according to region and city as well as modern interpretations and fusion meals. I was overwhelmed with the culture and history that I experienced in Ghana and I was also overstuffed with food every single day of my travels. I ate a lot. I discovered that my favorite was palava sauce, a  savory sauce made with kontomire greens that are little like mustard greens and bitter melon seeds, served with fish. Here's a small list of what else I ate in Ghana:

The capital of Accra sits on the Gulf of Guinea so fish is a mainstay but in Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti region, we visited Ike's Cafe and Grill, which boasts fish tanks for selecting your personal meal. On my first night, we dined at Ike's and you can see the before and after pic for the catfish above and below.  The setting at Ike's is lovely, with tables under thatched umbrellas lining a lagoon.

Another traditional dish is jollof rice with chicken, pictured below.  Jollof rice, which is rice cooked with tomato paste and various spices, is a staple all over West Africa with each country claiming to make the best.  Jollof rice wars throughout West Africa are very much a thing and I got into trouble for voicing my very informed opinion about what country prepares the best so I'll just leave it at I tasted Ghanaian jollof.

Groundnut soup below, is another classic dish that's made with peanuts, tomatoes and spices. 

It wasn't just about traditional dining in Ghana. We visited restaurants that served international cuisine and  menus with a surprising combination of influences.

Toro Tapas Bar is a chic restaurant in Accra owned by a Spaniard who serves up authentic Spanish small plates like patatas bravas, croquetas, octopus salad and even paella. I loved the aubergine chips with feta cheese and honey shown below. Toro is located in an open air courtyard that features live music and salsa dancing, the high energy was palpable.

The Coco Lounge was another trendy restaurant we tried. The menu featured a crazy mix of dishes including Accra style pizza with gravy style sauce typically used for jollof instead of Italian pizza sauce, lamb burgers, black bean fried rice and waakye with spaghetti and chicken sausage. I sampled arancini balls with jollof rice, chicken and cheese, pictured below.  Coco Lounge is a glamorous spot that doubles as a lounge and nightclub. So I felt compelled to try a cocktail; the Coco Colada in the large painted glass below.

You can also find straightforward comfort food if you want that. On our last night we visited The Gold Coast Restaurant, a lively, sprawling place with an eclectic menu so big it was literally a book. The seafood platter pictured at the top of the post is from Gold Coast but they also offer wood-fired pizza. I'm from Chicago, which makes me a bit of a pizza snob. Ok, a big pizza snob, I don't generally order pizza outside of Chicago but I wanted to try Ghanaian pizza. As you can see below, they supplied a beautiful,golden crusted pizza. And it tasted as good as it looked.

And if you want to go ultra traditional, you can take off for a  traditional village, like I did. Just outside Koforidua, located in the Eastern region of Ghana, I enjoyed fish stew cooked over an open fire. Like everything else I ate in Ghana, the stew was tasty and filling. Exploring Ghana's cuisine is as important as learning about its history and culture. You can taste so much about the country in every bite.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Turks and Caicos Kombucha

I don't discuss it too often but I'm kind of, sort of, a healthy food fan. I don't drink coffee or anything caffeinated, don't eat meat and rarely indulge in fast food. I'm basically a pescatarian who sometimes eats poultry. So aside from my love of sugar (which has lessened over the years) I try to keep it healthy. On most of my travels, I like to sample the local cuisine while keeping it as fresh and wholesome as possible. While I was in Turks and Caicos, that meant fish, veggie patties and salad since I wasn't able to try the national dish of peas and grits. But I was lucky to discover another local specialty; kombucha in exciting tropical flavors was being hand crafted by the owners of my Airbnb.

Kombucha or booch, as locals call it, is fermented tea with loads of probiotics and health benefits.  As a tea connoisseur, I love drinking kombucha as an alternative to my regular teas. Regina and Jack run Island Raw to create juices and kombucha from local fruits and spices. I sipped the hibiscus ginger and felt immediately energized. I also tried the pineapple turmeric ginger, strawberry lemon and sour sop!  Drinking fresh, tangy kombucha with the backdrop of Grace Bay was a soothing and memorable experience. You can pick up Island Raw kombucha at local stores around Providenciales or directly from the shop in Grace Bay.  Are you a kombucha fan?

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Path to Grace Bay

In Turks and Caicos, it's all about the beach. Beach culture and water sports  are the main focus for travelers and there's no beach more significant than Grace Bay. Famous for being listed by various travel publications as one of the world's most beautiful beaches, Grace Bay is a pristine, three-mile strip along the northeast coast of Providenciales.  Every day during my stay on Provo, I walked a 10 minute path to Grace Bay.

I stepped along the gravel road in front of my villa to get to the nearby beach access. I quickly discovered that flip flops aren't enough support against the sharp rocks and had to switch out to sturdy sandals to walk the road comfortably.

This small sign marks the beach access path, which runs through a small grove of trees and bush.

I loved walking through palm trees and plants, even though I heard lizards rustling in the distance every time I strolled by. At least I hope they were lizards. There were also different sized conch shells strewn along the path and I had to scoop up a small one to take home.

At the end of the path is a small plaza with a few shops and The Patty Place, which is a must for every visitor. The Patty Place sells authentic Juici Patties shipped in from Jamaica, as well as Devon House ice cream.  I was excited to see The Patty Place because I love patties and because Turks and Caicos is a really expensive island. It's rare to find any kind of meal under $10 so I grabbed two $3 patties (veggie and curried chicken) every day after I left the beach.

Crossing Grace Bay Road and walking a short path will lead you directly to the beauty of Grace Bay.  This was my first glimpse of it in all  of its cool turquoise glory. I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. I don't know if I agree that it's the most beautiful but Grace Bay is certainly one of the most serene beaches.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Where in The World Is Turks and Caicos?

I didn't realize just how confused people are about the Turks and Caicos islands.  Before I traveled to Providenciales, the most developed of the eight main islands, I promised my blogging students that I would discover enough about this island nation to explain exactly where it is and what it's like. But it wasn't only my students that didn't know. When I tried to put a travel advisory on my credit card, the customer service confused Turks and Caicos with Turkey. And that was after I spelled it! Very few of my friends and family knew where the heck I was going so here it is:

The Turks and Caicos islands consist of a group of 40 islands and small cays, with eight of them inhabited. The country is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and located southeast of the Bahamas and East of  the island of Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic. ) Currently, the Turks and Caicos is a British Overseas Territory. (Although the American dollar is the official currency.) The island wasn't under direct British rule until the 2009 corruption scandal with former Turks and Caicos Prime minister Michael Misick. Honestly, I thought Turks and Caicos had entered the public awareness when Chicago actress Lisa Raye married the prime minister in a fairy tale wedding in 2008. Clearly not. The Turks and Caicos is noted for its sublime beaches as you can see above. My photos show Grace Bay, a 12-mile stretch of pearly sand and turquoise water that consistently tops lists for most beautiful beach. But what is there beyond the beach in TCI? Well, this wasn't exactly easy to discover because the focus is really on sun, sand and sea.

Photo courtesy of Turks and Caicos Tourist Board

I found out that the national dish is peas and grits, often served with conch or fish. Rice was never grown on the island so locals made grits or hominy from the corn that grew. It wasn't easy to find a restaurant that served the dish because its generally offered only on weekends in non- touristy areas. What I did find was delectable Juici Patties from Jamaica.  My villa was near The Patty Place, which ships patties and Devon House ice cream directly from Jamaica. It turns out that large populations of Jamaicans, Dominicans and Haitians live in Turks and Caicos, adding a lot to the island's cultural mix.

One defining Turks and Caicos experience I had was at the iconic Da Conch Shack beach bar. The restaurant is laid out on the beach so I kicked off my shoes and listened to the live band. The reggae rhythms were soothing but I quickly recognized the unmistakable sound of Rake N' Scrape music. I had heard rake n scrape on Bahamian out islands but didn't realize that this folk music is also the national music of Turks and Caicos.

I was lucky to meet the "Rip Saw Man", as he's called around Turks and Caicos. He played and danced for hours at the beach bar and I was excited to see an authentic reflection of the island's culture. The locals, called "Belongers" are very friendly but I found that the Turks and Caicos culture wasn't clearly defined. The influences from other cultures seem to overshadow the island's original essence. I will have to return and visit the country's other islands to get a real sense of Turks and Caicos.

Photos by R. Cummings-Yeates

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Next Stop: Turks and Caicos

Where in the world is Turks and Caicos? That's the question I often get when I mention this island nation of eight main islands and 40 smaller islets and cays. Some people also confuse it as a Bahamian island. Well, Turks and Caicos is located Southeast of the Bahamas but it's a separate country. The country was self-governed until 2009, when former premier Michael Misick resigned in the face of corruption charges. It's is now a British Overseas Territory.  Turks and Caicos is famous for swoon-inducing beaches, most notably, Grace Bay, pictured above, which is consistently listed as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. I will be investigating the appeal of Grace Bay during my stay in Providenciales next week. I'll also be discovering more about Turks and Caicos, including JoJo the Dolphin, the wild ,Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin who freely interacts with people as the official mascot of the island and symbol for marine conservation and Cheshire Hall Plantation ruins, which are the remains of a  17th century cotton plantation established by a Loyalist planter from Florida. I will be posting pix and videos to fully explain Turks and Caicos as well as its small Chicago connection soon!

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Easy Living on the East Coast of Barbados

Barbados is an island noted for upscale dining and luxury hotels but there's another side to "Bim.".
I ventured out of the busy capital of Bridgetown and took a hiking tour of the untamed East Coast of the island.

I immediately noticed a difference between the hilly landscape of the East Coast and the South Coast, where most of the hotels are located. Nature grabs all the attention here. There are few hotels or even people to distract from the beauty. Everywhere I looked, spectacular views of the Atlantic commanded attention.

The East Coast is where Barbados agriculture is centered and I spotted fields of bananas, passion fruit bushes and almond trees. The panoramas of lush green and sparkling blue ocean waves really made me think I was on another island. Barbados is famously flat so I wasn't expecting all the hills I had to hike under the unrelenting Caribbean sun. The tour is called Hike, Grill and Chill, so I was really happy to relax in the shade after my three hour hike. Bridgetown captures most of the attention but I highly recommend visiting the East Coast of Barbados for another perspective of  Bajan life.

All photos by R. Cummings-Yeates

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Next Stop: Back to Barbados

It's been a while but I'm happy to be returning to Barbados for the annual SATW Travel Writers Convention. I'll be in meetings for a big portion of the trip but I will still find time to visit the legendary Oistins Fish Fry, take in a beach and rum shop, as well as hike along a nature trail. I'm also scheduled to check out the fabled Cin Cin By The Sea with al fresco dining and views of the west coast of the island. Stay tuned for pix and videos!

Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Royal Experience at the Kumasi Grand Durbar in Ghana

Tales of African kings and queens are popular with the African American diaspora. It's an important way to acknowledge and reclaim our history but it never occurred to me that I would one day witness this living history. When I slowly moved through the crowds and colorful revelry of Ghana's historic Grand Durbar in Kumasi, I found myself surrounded by Asante and Akyem royalty.

A Grand Durbar is a celebration of when kings and high officials come together for different occasions.  This one marked the 75th anniversary of the passing of Okeyehene Nana Sir Ofori Atta I, a highly influential traditional ruler who died in 1943. I was dazzled by the procession of over 100 royals and their courts, complete with golden chairs, staffs and embroidered umbrellas.

I learned that this was a particularly historic event because the Asante and Akyem clans had not come together in over 200 years. Before the two kings arrived to be carried through the adoring crowds, the Asantehene ruler of the Asante Kingdom, arrived in a Rolls Royce Phantom and the Okyeman, ruler of the Akyem Kingdom, waited for him seated on a glistening golden throne. It was a spectacle that I was amazed to see.

Each procession featured  royals wearing luxurious, hand-woven Kente cloth, with each pattern and color symbolizing different meanings.

Ghanaian royal families are matrilineal, and it's the Queen Mother who nominates a new chief, so I was excited to watch a procession of royal women stroll regally through the mobs of people. There are dozens of protocols and traditions that took place during the durbar, like shooting off shotguns to ward off negative spirits, which you will hear in my video below. Attending this Grand Durbar was one of the most unforgettable and significant experiences I've ever had during my travels. Have you ever had an unforgettable experience while traveling?

Photos by R. Cummings-Yeates

Sunday, September 9, 2018

An African Greeting in Elmina, Ghana

Despite research, photos and personal stories, there's really nothing that can totally prepare you for Ghana. From the moment I set foot on the reddish earth, I was dazed and excited. There's nothing like returning to the home of your ancestors. Everything seemed familiar yet unlike anything I've ever experienced. We were welcomed with warmth and enthusiasm everywhere we went but I was taken aback by all of  the required revelry and protocols when we greeted the traditional chiefs in every town we visited.  In the South Coast town of Elmina, we were met with a large group of singers and dancers as well as an impressive council of chiefs and queen mothers. I thought I could just sit back and enjoy the music and dancing but I should have known better. African  music and dance is all about participation. When this adorable little girl pulled me up to dance, there was no way I could refuse. Spirit is everywhere in Africa and I definitely felt it as I danced and twirled to the drum rhythms.

Photo courtesy of Tammy Bender

Friday, August 17, 2018

Next Stop; Ghana!

In all my years as a travel writer, I have never anticipated a journey as much as I have for my journey to Ghana, West Africa. I will be taking my first steps on the African continent but this is an extra special trip for many other reasons. I will be on assignment for Ebony Magazine , covering preliminary activities for Homecoming 2019, which is the historic commemoration of the African Diaspora returning to Africa exactly 400 years after the first recorded landing of a slave ship in Virginia. Thanks to the efforts of The Adinkra Group, a cultural resource organization, I will meet the President of Ghana, Nana Akufo Addo at his official residence, Jubilee House. I will also meet Chiefs and Queen Mothers in Kumasi, Cape Coast and Accra. If that's not enough excitement, I will have my DNA revealed by sponsor African Ancestry at the Cape Coast Castle, which was the main British hub for the horrific transatlantic slave trade from 1665-1807. Ghana was the first African nation to declare independence from a European colony in 1957 and the country's significance for African Americans is boundless. I will be sampling the Ghanaian dishes red red, kenkey and fried fish, banku and tillapia and especially, kelewele.  I'll be dancing to afro beat at clubs and also taking in the local art scene at the Chale Wote Festival.  In other words, I will be embracing as much of Ghanaian life as possible. Please stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Night-time in Nafplio, Greece

Some places have a totally different atmosphere at night, transforming from one thing during the day, to another at night. Nafplio, in the eastern Peloponnese, is one of those places. This waterfront town is a lovely, sun-splashed paradise during the day, with palm trees lining the streets and horse drawn carriages. But as the sun dips, you see why it's considered one of the most romantic towns in Greece. The sunset over the ocean was hypnotic and the town looked like a twilight fairy tale.

Walking through the small courtyards and eating at a sidewalk cafe with the sea breeze wafting over me was thrilling. Nafplio  also boasts some mythical magic, it was reportedly founded by Poseidon's son Nafplios. My favorite experience was hearing a live opera singer in the square. Check it out in my video below for a taste of Nafplio night-time mystique:

Photos by R. Cummings-Yeates

Monday, July 30, 2018

Aegean Blue

I love large bodies of water. The waves, the salty sea breezes, the colors are all very soothing for me. In fact, just looking at these pix has totally relaxed me. I've dipped into many oceans and lakes but I can't remember being as excited as I was to swim in the Aegean Sea.  As I traveled all over the Peloponnese region, I learned a lot about Greece's geography. The country is actually made up of  roughly 6,000 islands and only 227 are inhabited. About 1,400 are clustered around the Aegean.

The Aegean is actually a long embayment of the Mediterranean Sea.  I've seen the Mediterranean from many countries and perspectives and it has never looked like this. The blue is a mix of turquoise, sapphire and cobalt and the different shades seem to flow into each other.

You can glimpse the Aegean all around the Peloponnese but I was lucky enough to visit several beaches and actually immerse myself in its beauty. It was cold but also very peaceful, none of the beaches were crowded and the waves gently splashed over me. The current Aegean coastline dates back to 4000 BC and I felt a special vibration while swimming. Water is always healing but I think that there's something extra in the Aegean.

Photos by R. Cummings-Yeates