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?