Friday, December 16, 2011

Food wars: Putting 'exotic' into perspective

You've heard of Alien vs Predator, now how about sticking some monster food into the ring? Blindfold your cultural bias and see which food wins.

Durian vs Camembert

Common ground: Both have a stench that is tirelessly compared to old socks.

In the left corner: Durian. It grows on a tree, needs no preparation or additives and is choc-full of vitamins and minerals.

In the right corner: Camembert. Cheese is old milk that has been digested by bacteria. It's high in fat but also high in calcium and protein.

Bugs vs pork

Common ground: Both are used as insults to insinuate that a person is slovenly and disgusting.

In the left corner: Cockroaches. These bugs can live almost anywhere on essentially anything and can be raised in vast numbers. With 37% protein plus plenty of fatty acids, iron and calcium, they are very nutritious indeed. For cooking ideas click here.

In the right corner: Pork. Pigs are highly intelligent, mammals. Most pork we eat comes from pigs raised in such tight quarters they aren't able to change position through most of their adult life. To reduce infection from the pestilence in which they live, the animals are pumped with antibiotics. Meanwhile the massive amount of waste produced by the animals pollutes the air and may seep into the ground spreading health problems.

Kava vs beer

Common ground: Both dull your mental state and are used for relaxation and hanging out with the bros.

In the right corner: Kava. A bitter, muddy drink with a taste that improves as your mouth gets numbed by it. It's about the mellowest high you can imagine that's often described as an 'extreme well-being.' It makes you chilled out, no one ever fights. It's so imbedded into some Pacific cultures that a complicated ceremony has grown around it.

In the left corner: Beer. It can taste pretty awesome especially when chilled on a hot day. Ceremonially you say 'cheers' or maybe buy someone a beer as a nice gesture. But it makes some people violent and stupid. I'd hang out with a bunch of guys I didn't know drinking kava, but not beer.

So who won? I'm not about to eat bugs for dinner but I could go for some durian and a beer about now.


Friday, December 9, 2011

Searching for the Perfect Fijian Island

It was a tough job but somebody had to do . . . OK who am I kidding? Covering the remote islands of Fiji was possibly my most fun gig out of my seven years of working for Lonely Planet. Why? Well, it's not for the reasons you'd expect. The weather was terrible - I saw the sun maybe three hours in four weeks and I only got in the water five times; I drank about six beers total, had flights cancelled and skipped several meals due to my over-full work schedule. This wasn't your cliché fun in the sun voyage. No, the reason it was so great was for intangible factors that escape tourist brochures: the real, ever-present smiles, the way everything happens in the present (so forget planning or dwelling on anything), kava drinking at night to songs everyone knows, feeling safe all the time, a red hibiscus flower behind the ear, the list goes on. Fiji, to put it straight, is as heavenly for its culture as it is for its coral gardens and rainforests.

My first stop on this trip was Labasa, a landlocked sugar industry center that the guidebook describes as dusty and of little interest to travelers. I got off the plane after about 20 hours of flying and transfers, got my bag and found a taxi. The driver was a plump Indo-Fijian woman who, within five minutes of chatting, invited me to stay at her house. I didn't take her up on the offer because I'd already booked and paid for a hotel and I was too tired to want to worry about the politeness it requires to stay in someone's home, but I was touched by her gesture. Then stuff like this kept happening - and Labasa was the least friendly place I visited.

On the boat to Taveuni I met a woman with three children who invited me over for lunch. She was a school teacher. The house had three rooms without one piece of furniture although the walls were lined with giant sheets of brown painted tapa. We sat on woven pandanus mats and ate boiled eggs, toast and milky tea, laughed and chatted while the children gazed at me, intrigued - then her husband drove me to my guesthouse so I didn't have to pay for a taxi.

My job looking at hotels the next day was probably the most pleasant I've ever experienced. I saw about 10 hotels and guesthouses on foot and each one I stopped at (whether they had any idea what I was doing or not) invited me in for food or drink and I ended up sitting and talking with them all at least a half hour - way more time than I usually allot. Although I'd never met any of these people before it felt like I was visiting old friends. When I walked down the street random people would come up and just start talking to me, pleasantly and without any motive beyond being natural and nice. And this went on everywhere I went.

Towards the end of my trip I met another woman on a boat who invited me to stay in her village - which happened to be near several places I needed to visit. This was a highlight as anyone who has stayed in a Fijian village will tell you - I could write an entire blog post on this alone. The point is, you get invited, everywhere, and it's safe, fun and all warm and fuzzy.

When I hired a boat man to take me around islands he caught a bunch of fish and gave them all to me just because I said I liked fish. When 16 locals were drinking kava at night and playing music, they would make sure that every few songs would be an American song I'd probably know so I could sing along. They would figure out my music tastes without asking as the night wore on and would be able to dig up classics I not only knew but liked (4 Non Blonds' What's Up was a personal fave).

In the meantime five minutes anywhere became an hour, flights were cancelled constantly so tourists were missing international connections and I lost two work days because of airplane malfunctions. And nobody, not even the most uptight looking tourists with business meetings to get to, cared. Anyone who has been in Fiji more than a week knows that there's no point in fighting 'Fiji time' and you just gel yourself into the moment where, hey, you're in Fiji, so enjoy. Stress seems silly. The Internet never works so email becomes irrelevant. No one wears makeup or fashionable clothes, there are rarely mirrors anywhere and you begin to forget what you look like. Someone everyday will beckon you in for a bowl of kava and if you don't like kava just go in and sit with them anyway and it's OK. Fiji is that place where all the world's crap has been raked away to expose a clean and shiny humanity. It's refreshing and mesmerizing and it stays with you after you've left.

I spent my last few days on Viti Levu where I learned quickly that my pure Fiji experience unrolled the way it did because I was in the outer islands and not in the main tourist center. I got pick pocketed, ruthlessly hit on by beach boys and saw every other female I met get as aggressively hit on by hotel staff and local surfers to old Chinese shop owners. It was a transition back into the 'real' world, on the way to LAX with it's unsmiling TSA agents. Luckily my home is a good place and I've been tackling work with less stress than I usually do. The happy Fiji feeling will fade, this I know, but the lesson has been absorbed and I will try to remember that all this modern stuff is nothing compared to a smile and a shared cup of tea.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Passports With Purpose Round Three: Pearls for Libraries in Zambia

The day before yesterday Passports With Purpose (PWP) launched its third fundraiser, this year to build two libraries in Zambia. I was on a boat, a bus and then a plane on the day of the launch through last night (making my way from a remote isle in Fiji back home to Portland), so please excuse my tardiness, it has nothing to do with lack of enthusiasm for this annual project!

I do admit however that when I first heard that PWP was going to build libraries this year I was a bit disappointed. Yes I love books and learning and want the world to have access to this magical realm but aren't there other things that are more important like food, shelter and freedom from violence? As usual, the universe came and answered me. About four days ago, whilst on that small island in Fiji, I met an English woman who told me this story:

Angela was traveling through East Africa by bus. At a random dusty stop she heard a little boy very loudly and confidently proclaiming: "Public service announcement! Bananas contain potassium and are very good for your health! I have bananas for sale, get them here."

She found this adorable but she didn't like bananas. The little boy stopped at her bus window and asked her where she was from.

"England," she said.

"What part?"

She told him the town which was somewhere near South London.

The little boy then asked her what she thought of her local football team who he had seen play in a match on TV over the weekend - he knew the score. They chatted a little about football including the boy's favorite underdog team that happen to be the home team of another English couple sitting at the front of the bus.

"Here," said the boy after a few minutes. "Have a banana."

It was free gift but Angela didn't want a banana or get a freebee from this boy who surely needed the money so she refused.

Another boy nearby said innocently, "You don't want to be his friend?"

So Angela took the banana. With a quick thought, she decided to give the boys a magazine from the bus. The two boys immediately lit up, set down their bananas and poured over the magazine under a tree.

"All they wanted to do was read," Angela told me on that Fijian island. "I wished I could have given them a library's worth of books."

A light went off in my head; this is exactly what I was about to help do with PWP, except we're giving Zambian children two libraries worth of books. No it's not saving lives but it's certainly enhancing them and who's to say what's more important.

Now about my prize.

The "Mana Necklace" is Kamoka Pearls' signature adventure and travel jewelry and something I've worn on the road for years. Everything is sustainable from the pearl, grown with care in Ahe Atoll's lagoon in the Tuamotu Archipelago, to the kangaroo leather which is taken to quell over population in native stocks (it's also some of the strongest leather in the world).

The prize is a necklace on leather with a 10mm semi-round silver pink grade B pearl (great luster and two very small, nearly imperceptible blemishes) and an anklet with a 9.5mm medium tone grey-green-gold baroque grade B pearl (again very good luster with only a minor, scarcely visible scratch). You can see the details of the necklace line at but the anklet is a new product that isn't online yet - so this is a special pre-launch gift! The necklace is normally priced at $130 and the anklet is expected to be priced around $100 making the set worth around $230.

And if you're new here I might add that Kamoka Pearl is my family's farm run by my charming husband.

So please head over to the PWP website, bid on my prize and help build those libraries in Zambia!!!


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