Thursday, September 30, 2010

Travel News and Alerts: Police Riots in Quito, Ecuador

Riots in the streets of Quito (courtesy of Rodrigo Buendia

Travel Alert: if you have plans to visit Quito, Ecuador or the Galapagos Islands, you should first check with your airline before heading to the airport. This morning, violent police riots broke out as a result of dissatisfaction with the government's alleged halting of police pay bonuses, promotions and related compensation. President Rafael Correa, who claims that the riots are actually a smokescreen for a coup attempt, has been hospitalized after being hit by hot water, bottles and other debris thrown by protesters. Due to the injuries sustained by the president and the reported mass looting and fire-setting, a state of emergency has been declared in the country and the military has taken control of the international airport. All international flights have been cancelled and the border between Peru and Ecuador has been closed for security reasons.

Latest links to the story:

Quito in more peaceful times (photo courtesy of )

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Easy Ways to Travel Green, Part One

One of the many majestic tepuis in Canaima National Park, Venezuela (photo by Simone Cannon) 

I've been asked my very dear friend, Preeta Sinha, to guest blog every week as the Travel Contributing Editor on her amazing blog, One Green Planet at It's a really interesting blog covering environmental and vegetarian issues and news, nature, animal rights and now, with my guest blogs, traveling responsibly. Preeta and her husband, Nil, are true adventurers, traveling the world, courageously speaking their minds and helping to educate others. Visit Preeta's blog for some really entertaining and enlightening posts. This is my first guest post:

Many travelers think that, in order to travel green, they must sign on with an organized ecotour or stay at an expensive ecolodge, but there are many other ways to tread lightly and responsibly when traveling and perhaps even help to improve the places that you visit. With many of the world's natural wonders disappearing or suffering the ravages of consumer and industrial pollution, it's more important then ever to act responsibly and at times, proactively, so that next generation travelers can also enjoy the incredible beauty of our planet. The assumption that places such as the tepuis of Venezuela, the Pantanal of Brazil, the Grand Canyon of the United States or the Great Barrier Reef of Australia will be here forever, untouched and preserved, is a way of thinking that we can't afford. The good news is that travelers, organizations and individual volunteers are making a positive difference every day. Sites of great historical importance, such as Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat and the Great Wall of China which have sustained damage both from tourist activity and environmental factors such as acid rain, are being restored by locals and volunteers from other countries. Traveling is one of the greatest pleasures and experiences in life, but with that adventure comes a responsibility to maintain the land and educate others, both at home and abroad. Luckily, there many simple things that can be done that, collectively, can have an enormous positive impact, save money and greatly enhance a traveler's experience:

On the Inca Trail, hiking to Machu Picchu, Peru (photo by Luis Bastardo)

1) Travel, Especially Globally

This may sound obvious, but in the United States, according to 2010 U.S. State Department statistics, only 22% of the population currently holds a valid passport. While it's true that many people travel within their own country, it's difficult for domestic first world travelers to understand the full impact of climate change if they haven't had the opportunity to visit affected global sites, especially in the developing world. Standing at the edge of a once enormous, now receding glacier in Argentina or hiking through a nature preserve with dried-up or polluted rivers which were once teeming with life, makes it crystal clear that environmental fears are not just rhetoric, in ways that no documentary or TV program can. Also, visiting developing countries can provide local organizations with much needed tourist funds in order to maintain and restore natural and historic sites, as well as motivating local governments, through the lure of maintaining and growing tourism, to invest money and labor in preserving those sites.

2) Buy Locally

A traveler may have the best intentions in the world, but giving money to international travel agencies or corporate giants such as global supermarket chains or brands, is misdirected. Very little of the money paid to buy a  bottle of Coca Cola or to buy sunscreen in a developing country's local branch of Wal-Mart stays in that country. To truly contribute to a local economy, it is important to do business with local vendors. An added bonus is that services such as tours, private guides (which are often unavoidable in places such as Machu Picchu or the Great Barrier Reef) and locally arranged outdoor excursions such as rappelling are often much more affordable, personal and educational than those services provided by one-size-fits-all corporate tour operators. Buying local handicrafts and foods, frequenting local restaurants and visitor centers that support indigenous culture will all positively affect the local bottom line. And, besides, who wants to eat a Big Mac when there are so many delicious and exotic foods to try?    

 Young monks take a break in the ruins of an Angkor Wat temple, Cambodia (photo by Simone Cannon)

3) Pick Up After Yourself

Your mother was right. It's not only good manners to clean up after yourself, it's socially and environmentally responsible. When hiking or touring, always take a bag or other container to collect any unwanted food or other garbage. Even seemingly harmless organic waste such as apple cores can adversely affect biodiversity or the eating habits of wild animals. Tread lightly so as not to damage natural or historical sites.  

4) Set a Good Example

It is not always first world inhabitants that are the perpetrators of environmental damage. Especially in developing countries, many local people don't always fully understand the global impact of their actions. Once when visiting Lake Titicaca in Peru, my husband and I noticed lakeside ditches overflowing with non-recyclable garbage such as plastic liter bottles and old DVDs. When we asked the guide about it, he told us that local inhabitants believed that by not collecting their garbage, they were creating jobs for local sanitation workers. When we asked why there was still so much uncollected garbage, he told us that nobody wanted the "created" job. We had a similar experience watching locals throw beer cans, soiled diapers and shampoo bottles overboard while traveling by boat down the Amazon river. Again, a crew member told us that locals regard the river as a bottomless garbage dump. It was heartbreaking watching the legendary Amazonian pink river dolphins trying to navigate their way through the floating debris and oil slick on the surface of the water. Tourists can help by not following suit or by offering to take garbage from locals. Respectfully and tactfully sharing information about the global impact of such actions and understanding local concerns can also be helpful. 

   Horses grazing in northern coastal Iceland (photo by Simone Cannon)

5) Use Public Transportation

Whenever possible, use local buses, subways, trains or trolleys or better yet, walk. Most public transportation both in the U.S. and in other countries is extensive, clean, incredibly cheap and efficient. Taking the subway, for example, is almost always faster and cheaper than taking a taxi or private car because the trains do not have to contend with traffic. In some places, navigating the public transportation system is more of a challenge, but it will always enhance your travel experience and add to your knowledge of the area and the people. When arranging tours or excursions, try to book a spot on a group excursion or recruit others to go with you in a shared minivan, rather than hire a private guide and car. In urban areas, walking is one of the best ways to see a city and to really get a feel for the culture and life of a place.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

New York Food-to-Go: From The Everything Bagel to Shawarma

An "everything" bagel with lox and cream cheese at Ess-A-Bagel, on 3rd Avenue (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

It would take years to fully explore the boroughs of New York City, filled as they are with museums, galleries, parks, restaurants, markets, shops, sporting events and a million other venues and activities. At some point in the odyssey, though, you have to stop to eat, which can put a kink in your plans. It takes time to search for a good, affordable restaurant wherever you may be, to come to an agreement with everyone in your group about what kind of food you would all like to eat, to finally settle on a choice, then to wait to be seated, waited on, receive the food, pay the check, all the while losing valuable touring time. Luckily, New York is also the center of the universe for take-out food, solving the dilemma by offering conveniently wrapped food-to-go on almost every corner. Just pick your lunch, pay and go. No need to wait or agree on any one cuisine as there is something for everyone. The multi-ethnicity and diversity of NYC is never more evident than in the city's food carts. Everything from Armenian to Vietnamese to the reliably good Philly Cheese Steak is available in every part of the city. Fresh, hot, cooked to order, cheap and delicious...what could be better?

     Delicious smelling grilled sausages, onions and peppers at a summer street fair, 43rd street (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Of course, it's not just the street vendors that offer food-to-go. Almost every restaurant and food market stall has a take-out menu and often has a separate ordering area to expedite the process. Again, the options are endless: hot pastrami sandwiches on warm, aromatic rye bread with crisp kosher pickles from a Lower East Side deli, succulent lamb and chicken kebabs with cool, minty tzatziki sauce in the West Village, crispy pommes frites seved in paper cones with exotic-flavored sauces from the East Village, steamed crab-filled dumplings from Chinatown, Sambuca-scented cannolis from Little Italy, steamed hot dogs topped with Gulden's Spicy Mustard and grilled onions in Central Park. In the summer, street fairs abound and everything from  tropical fruit smoothies to golden arepas filled with melted mozzarella or queso blanco to plates of Greek moussaka can be had for less than $5. In autumn and winter, it's hard to resist the comforting smells of hot, roasted chestnuts wafting from the street corner carts, or the fried sugar and cinnamon aroma of crisp, hot Mexican churros for sale in the subways.

        Enjoying a giant salted soft pretzel in front of the NYSE, Wall Street (photo by Luis Bastardo)

For breakfast, New Yorkers and savvy tourists head to H & H Bagels or Ess-A-Bagel for an "everything" bagel (topped with toasted onion, garlic, sesame seeds, poppy seeds and kosher salt) served with scallion cream cheese and lox (cured salmon). New York is truly the city that never sleeps and takeout food is available day and night. If you're not feeling all that hungry, you can always buy a snack instead of a meal. Warm giant soft pretzels, a NYC favorite, are available throughout the city. Craving something sweet? Try chocolate dipped fruit kebabs or dulce de leche filled crepes made to order. Venturing out to the boroughs, there is no shortage of portable food. In fact, the choices are even more diverse. Each neighborhood attracts a specific ethnic group, many of whose denizens were chefs in their countries of birth.

A variety of chocolate-coated fruit kebabs and candy apples at a street fair, NYC (photo by Luis Bastardo)

New Yorkers take their food vendors very seriously. Every year, the city hands out Vendy Awards to the best sidewalk chefs, with sub-categories such as best dessert and best rookie. Called by chef Mario Batali, the "Oscars of food for the real New York" , in 2010, the Vendy finalists included contestants from Venezuela, Mexico, Morocco, the Middle East and Austria, with the top prize going to Fares “Freddy” Zeidais, The King of Falafel and Shawarma. Ticket prices to attend the annual awards ceremony range from $85 general admission to $1000 individual sponsorships and every year, the tickets sell out. In multi-cultural, culinarily obsessed New York, food is everything and street food, the most democratic manifestation of that preoccupation. It's not necessary to visit Le Bernardin to eat well. Anyone can enjoy the fruits of the global and talented chefs in New York: just drop by your local food cart, no reservations needed.

Fresh cannolis filled with sweetened ricotta. Little Italy (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Introduction to New York City and Grand Central Station

Luis (without his Mickey Mouse ears) and Sim atop Belvedere Castle, Central Park, NYC

Our next trip isn't scheduled until December, when we visit Torres del Paine, Chile, so I am taking the opportunity to backtrack a bit and share our travel adventures from our trip to the U.S. last year. Luis and I crossed the country for three months, from September to December, visiting friends and family, cities, national parks and historic sites. Although I was born in England and raised in Canada, I have lived in the US for most of my life and for many years in Manhattan. Luis' only visit to the U.S. prior to this trip was many years ago, when his family visited Disney World, a trip apparently required by Venezuelan law since I have yet to meet a Venezuelan who hasn't been there. Since birth, South Americans, particularly Venezuelans, are inundated with images of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck (Raton Mickey and Pato Donald in Spanish) and all the other Disney characters, until Disney World becomes a kind of mecca that must be visited at least once in one's life. I thought that it was high time that Luis visited the rest of the country, as Disney World is hardly representative of the U.S. as a whole (at least, one would hope), so he left his mouse ears at home and we set out to explore places that were generally devoid of large, fuzzy talking rodents and waterfowl, like New York City and The Grand Canyon, that were closer to my idea of the "happiest place on earth".  

     Still loaded up with backpacks after a long flight, our first stop in NYC: Columbus Circle (photo by Luis Bastardo)

We decided to start in New York City, the most populous city in the U.S. with more than eight million people, and the place that I know best, so we flew into JFK, took the subway from the airport and emerged at the Columbus Circle stop near Central Park. New York is an easy city to explore due to the excellent and extensive public transportation system and the fact that the city is so walkable. Since the avenues and streets north of 1st Street are numbered, even someone such as myself, with no sense of direction whatsoever, can easily navigate New York. Although we were still feeling the effects of our long flight from Buenos Aires, we were anxious to start exploring, so we grabbed a cab to our friend's apartment situated in a great location in the Tudor City complex right across from the United Nations, dropped our backpacks, and headed out.

The view of the United Nations from our apartment in Tudor City, NYC (photo by Luis Bastardo)

I have to admit that, even though I love Buenos Aires, I can feel quite homesick at times for Seattle and NYC, the two places in the world where I feel most at home, so I was overjoyed to be walking Manhattan streets once again. Having lived in Argentina for four years, it took me a while to readjust to speaking English on a full-time basis again though; I kept wondering how to say what I wanted to say in Spanish, then remembered that in the U.S. I could just speak in my native language. Luis was a little nervous about visiting "Gringolandia" as it is known in Latin America, because he is a native Spanish speaker and is sometimes unsure of his English. It turned out to be a non-issue, since I was able to translate most things and practically everyone in NYC speaks at least some Spanish, so he felt right at home. 

Firefighters dousing a car fire, NYC (photo by Luis Bastardo)

One of the many things that I love about NYC is that there is always something interesting happening or about to happen. We started exploring by walking around the blocks near our apartment to orient ourselves and almost immediately ran into our first excitement of the trip, FDNY firefighters putting out a car fire. After watching for a few minutes, we visited the United Nations to buy tickets to the Spanish-speaking tour for the next day, then walked to Grand Central Station to visit the Oyster Bar for a quick lunch of Fried Oyster Po' Boys (a type of hero or hoagie sandwich) and an Olde Brooklyn Root Beer, two New York treats which Luis had never heard of, much less tasted. Most people don't like root beer the first time they try it, but to my surprise, Luis liked it right away and he thought that the fried oysters were absolutely delicious. He had never heard of anyone frying oysters and he couldn't wait to tell his family all about the exotic American food he had tried when he called them that night. I had to laugh at his excitement over something so banal, but then I realized that this was the first time that the tables had been turned for us: in Argentina, he is usually the language translator and I am usually the one excited about the exotic South American food, which is completely ordinary to Luis. We returned several times that week so Luis could get his fill of "ostras fritas" (fried oysters).     

Luis' first root beer and fried oyster po' boy, Grand Central Oyster Bar, NYC (photo by Simone Cannon)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sushi and More in Kyoto and Tokyo, Japan

A display of plastic food models in a restaurant window, Kyoto, Japan (photo by Simone Cannon)

When I first visited Japan, I expected to be met with a sushi-fest of biblical proportions, but much to my surprise, sushi was only a small part of Japanese cuisine. For one thing, sushi is treated less like a sit-down meal and more like a snack in Japan, much like grabbing an empanada in Argentina or a hamburger in the U.S. For another, the food options in Japan go far beyond sushi and are much more varied and interesting than I had ever imagined. Traveling by train across Japan, via my Japan Rail Pass, I was able to try a fairly good cross-section of regional Japanese cuisine. Although the elegant high-end meals that Japan is famous for were a bit beyond my means at the time, I was nonetheless able to keep myself well-fed with relatively little money. Japan overall can be a very expensive country in which to travel, especially when buying food. In high-end department stores and gift boutiques, it's possible to spend between US$60 and US$300 for a single perfect specimen of melon.

Display of gift fruit in Tokyo: melons for US$80 apiece and apples for US$12 each (photo by Simone Cannon)  

Luckily, cheaper choices abound and, even with limited funds, there are many delicious meals available. Aside from sushi (which is generally served in much smaller portions than in the Americas), it is possible to eat quite happily and cheaply: udon or soba noodles, okonomiyaki (a type of delicious egg-based shrimp pancake cooked on a griddle), gyoza (japanese dumplings or raviolis), yakitori (grilled chicken kebobs), korokke (the Japanese version of croquettes) or shabu-shabu (meaning "swish, swish" in Japanese and consisting of meat and vegetables cooked in a type of Mongolian hotpot). All inexpensive, delicious and filling.
Unfortunately, many Japanese don't speak English, which can present a challenging situation when attempting to order food. Fortunately, the Japanese in general are incredibly helpful and polite and, in urban areas, many of the menus have photos of the food, names printed in Romanji (Roman letters) and have molded plastic displays in the front window of the restaurant of each dish available, so the only skill a traveler needs is the ability to point. Traveling outside the cities is a bit more challenging since the menus are often only in Kanji (Japanese characters), but the wait staff or chef will often suggest things that you might like. If you have a good sense of humor and are willing to take a chance, the experience can be great fun and can break down the barriers between local and tourist.   

A cooking class learning to make tofu, Kyoto, Japan (photo by Simone Cannon)

Once when I was hiking through the forests of the Kyoto hills to visit hidden temples, it started to rain hard and I decided to duck into a local restaurant. The menu was indecipherable to me, but I was starving and didn't want to traipse around in the downpour looking for a place with a menu in English, so I decided to try my luck staying where I was. There I stood in the doorway, befuddled and looking like a drowned rat, when a kindly group of smiling Japanese women took pity on me and invited me to join them at their table. I only knew three words of Japanese and no one spoke a word of English, including the waitress and chef, so I had to mime everything from "chicken" (flapping my arms wildly by my side) to "beef" (using my index fingers as horns on my head and mooing) to "noodles" (don't ask). All the while, the waitress was smiling, nodding and commenting in Japanese to the other customers. I imagine it translated roughly to: "I can't wait to see how this crazy American is going to mime shrimp..."  My attempts at animal charades, combined with my total ineptness with chopsticks and soup-slurping (de rigueur in Japan) had everyone in stitches, but after the meal, I was given dozens of little gifts, invited to an Ikebana (flower arranging) class and had three invitations to visit restaurant customers in their homes later that week.

Shopping for fruits and vegetables in a Tokyo neighborhood (photo by Simone Cannon)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Incredible Salvador de Bahia, Brazil or Shimmering Churches, Impromptu Drumming and Offerings of Body Parts

The gilded interior of Igreja de São Francisco (Church of Saint Francis), Salvador, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)
The next day, Luis still hadn't satisfied his addiction to visiting churches and historical buildings, so we made our way back to the historical center to visit the famous gilded Igreja de São Francisco (Church of Saint Francis). We decided to hire a guide, which was an excellent idea, because there is so much history and detail in the construction of the church that could be missed, even with a guide book. The guides are volunteers who are paid in tips and we were lucky to find an especially knowledgeable and experienced one who had been giving tours of the church for 20 years. The spectacular church was built in the Baroque style between 1708 and 1723, but the interior decoration wasn't finished until 1755. According to our guide, most of the interior surfaces are decorated with carved wood covered by Gesso and gold leaf. The combination of the glow of the antique gold with the modern electric uplighting is spectacular.

     A blue and white ceramic panel of tiles known as azulejos in the cloisters (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The building was also used as a convent and the cloister walls still display the blue and white painted ceramic tiles known as azulejos, which are currently being restored. Most of the panels are still in good condition and tell the story of colonial life in Salvador during the 17th and 18th centuries. During the evenings, the church hosts a series of free classical music concerts, which are very popular with both tourists and locals. The city takes on another life in the evenings when the cobblestone streets fill with dancers, musicians and vendors. The brightly lit main square, Terreiro de Jesus, fills with music, laughter, food carts, caipirinha kiosks, tables of men playing impromptu cards and domino games and adults and children selling religious and tourist items. We, of course, sampled our obligatory nightly (and, let's face it, sometimes obligatory afternoon) caipirinhas, then wandered around the streets to have a look around and absorb the evening atmosphere.    

   The pastel houses and church spires of the historical center (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

The often steep cobble-stoned streets host restored colonial buildings, painted various pastel colors, towering church steeples, as well as shops, bars and restaurants, from the traditional to the über-modern. Each block has a different feel, from backpacker retro hippie to streets-of-Milan chic to local neighborhood block party. One evening, we heard amazing drumming and singing in the next street and went to investigate. The narrow street was filled with a large group of young women from a local music school, with various types of drums strapped to their bodies, playing along to the songs sung by their teacher. The rhythm was incredible: profound and earthshaking and we could feel it in our bones for hours afterward. It was impossible not to move to the beat and locals and tourists alike swayed and danced, transfixed by the mixture of Brazilian and African percussion.

Young women drumming in the streets of Salvador (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The next day, we took a bus to see the Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim (Church of our Lord of Bonfim or the "Good End"), which sits high up on the peninsula of Itapagipe. The church is the site of an annual religious ceremony and procession called the Festa do Bonfim (Feast of Bonfim), when church goers dress in traditional clothing, attend the mass at Church of Conceição da Praia in Salvador, then walk the eight kilometers (about five miles) up the hill to the Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim. Upon arrival, they wash the steps and plaza in front of the church, all the while singing and dancing. The event is hugely popular and draws thousands of people from all over Brazil (and the world). The church is believed to have curative properties and there is a Sala dos Milagres (Room of Miracles) where people leave wax or plastic representations of body parts and photos of themselves or loved ones as either an offering to pray for divine intervention or thanks for curing a particular ailment. Hanging from the walls and ceiling is a collection of plastic arms, legs, livers, hearts, lungs and other internal organs. The overall effect can be a tad jarring, even bizarre, but at the same time, there is a spirit of hope and gratitude that is inspiring and uplifting. All in all, it was quite a good place to end our travels in Brazil. Our impression of Brazil was also a mix of the exotic and the familiar, the shocking and the comforting. The poverty and bleakness of the favelas in combination with the beauty and diversity of the country and the optimism and energy of the Brazilians created a journey that we won't soon forget. 

Replicas of body parts hang from the ceiling in the Room of Miracles (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

Guide info for São Francisco church: Paulo Jose Jeao: telephone: (71)9981-8685

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Toronto, Canada: The Centre of International Cuisine

A glistening selection of poultry and seafood in a shop window in Chinatown, Toronto (photo by Luis Bastardo)  

Although I was born in England, I grew up in Toronto, Canada in the 1960s, well before the CN Tower or the SkyDome/Rogers Centre were built and long before the Harbourfront Centre was developed. Toronto was a very different city then, not just because of the massive urban development that has taken place since the 60s, but also in terms of the variety of food and restaurant options available. Even then, Toronto was an international melting pot (or perhaps it's more accurate to say it was a cultural Pu Pu platter with selections from countries all over the world). Toronto has long celebrated its multi-culturalism with popular festivals such as Festival Caravan, an annual all-city tour which allowed the residents of Canada to experience the sights, sounds and tastes of other cultures. But, despite that awareness, the food options were generally limited to specialty shops in specific neighborhoods (Italian, Chinese, Portuguese, Ukrainian, Polish) and weren't widely available in other parts of the city. Coming from an English West Midlands background, I didn't taste such exotic foods as Nutella, mozzarella or dark brown German bread until I was in my pre-teens. I didn't try pastrami, biryani or Peking duck until I reached my twenties. Back then, if our family went to a restaurant, there were very few "ethnic" options available other than the ubiquitous Canadian version of a Chinese restaurant featuring neon red, glazed short ribs or a beige, bland mound of chow mein. But oh, how times have changed.

Latin foods from Venezuela, Mexico and Peru in a Kensington Market store (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Canada's first immigrants, after the First Nations (Native Canadians), were the English, Scottish and French, followed closely by the Irish and Loyalist Americans, all of whom still influence the cuisine of Canada today. Between the two world wars and the 1970s, Ukrainians and Russians were the predominant groups migrating to Canada. In 1967, the Immigration Act was revised and many more immigrants flowed into Canada from all over the world: Jamaica, China, Japan, India, Pakistan, Latin America, Thailand, North Africa, the Philippines and Poland, to name just a few. These diverse influences have had an enormous impact on the cuisine of Canada, currently making Toronto one of the most important international food capitals of the world. Although many foodies think of New York City as being the epicenter of cultural culinary variety, major cities in Canada such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver shouldn't be overlooked as the food meccas that they are.

 Sampling Dim Sum at the Pink Pearl restaurant on the Harbourfront, Toronto (photo by Luis Bastardo)

In Toronto, neighborhoods such as Chinatown (Chinese, Japanese, Southeast Asian), Kensington Market (Jewish, Latin, Caribbean), Little India, Bayview and Leaside and Bloordale Village (Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Afghan, Bangladeshi), Cabbagetown (farmers' markets), Little Italy, Corso Ilalia (Italian), Danforth (Greek), Koreatown (Korean) and Parkdale (North African, West Indian, Tibetan) are just a few of the jewels worth unearthing in the vast culinary landscape of Toronto. It would take years to visit the food shops, restaurants and food festivals offering samples of the world's most interesting foods. St. Lawrence and Kensington Markets alone would take several wonderful weeks to explore. When Luis and I visited Toronto last year, in the span of just two weeks, we were able to sample Jamaican Meat Patties, Dim Sum, Bento Boxes, Paella, Curried Goat, Nutella/Banana Crepes, Peameal Bacon Sandwiches (a delicious soft, fragrant, porky bacon sandwich on a fresh, chewy roll; next to Peking Duck, one of my all-time favorite foods), Samosas, Moussaka, Sushi, Dragon Fruit, Lychees, Mamónes, Almond-filled Chocolate Croissants, Purple Cauliflower, Poutine (a French-Canadian concoction of french fries, gravy and cheese curds), ArepasDal Makhani and Maple Fudge. The choices are literally endless, as new restaurants are always opening and new foods are constantly being introduced.

Luis sampling his first peameal bacon sandwich outside St. Lawrence Market, Toronto (photo by Simone Cannon)

This food bonanza isn't limited to the city limits of Toronto either: it extends to the numerous surrounding suburbs and towns of Mississauga, Niagara-on-the Lake, Burlington, Hamilton, St. Jacob's and the many other food and wine regions within driving distance of the city. There is no shortage of wine options available to accompany all this delicious food, as the nearby Niagara Peninsula is home to 15,000 acres of vineyards, producing table, sparkling, dessert and fortified wines, including Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Baco Noir and Maréchal Foch. Toronto is one of the most diverse and interesting culinary cities in the world and luckily, one of the safest and easiest to navigate, with a fast and reliable public transportation system that allows foodies to widely explore the neighborhoods and taste the world.  

Toronto residents grabbing a quick poutine and kebab lunch at a mobile food cart (photo by Luis Bastardo)


Friday, September 10, 2010

Salvador de Bahia, Brazil: Baianas, Pelourinho and Capoeira

Simone and two Baianas in the streets of historic Salvador de Bahia, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)

After we'd had our fill of lounging on the beach (for the sake of sanity, "time to stand still" for a few days is mandatory on long trips), we caught the city bus for the hour and a half ride into the historic center of Salvador known as Pelourinho. We checked into our hotel and set off to explore. Salvador de Bahia, the first capital of Brazil (1549-1763) and the largest city on the northeast coast of Brazil, is situated on the Baía de Todos os Santos (All Saints' Bay) and is divided into two parts, Cidade Alta (Upper Town) and Cidade Baixa (Lower Town). Upper Town is where most of the historic sites are located and is generally the safest, most touristy part of the city; Lower Town is where more locals live and is home to the central market known as the Mercado Modelo (Model Market) which is now primarily a collection of stalls that sell souvenirs. The two sections of the city remained separate for many years because of the 279 foot difference in elevation and the lack of an efficient way to travel between them. In 1873, an elevator called the Elevador Lacerda was completed that turned an arduous trip into a 60-second elevator ride and the two areas have been integrated ever since. There is also a funicular tram that takes a bit longer but has amazing views.  

The renovated Elevador Lacerda connecting Upper Town and Lower Town (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Salvador's historic center is a UNESCO site, protected and preserved for its historic value. The first place we visited was the Catedral Basílica de Salvador (Salvador Basilica Cathedral), built around 1758 originally as a Jesuit church. We took a guided tour of the chapels, the sacristy and the Jesuit cloisters which included frescoes painted on Portuguese blue and white tiles called azulejos, which were being restored when we visited. The chapels are a mix of Baroque and Mannerist style art and altarpieces that date from the 16th century, carried over from previous churches built on the site. After visiting the main cathedral, we rode the elevator down to Lower Town to visit the Model Market and perhaps pick up a berimbau or some agogôs (Brazilian musical instruments). The lower section of Pelourinho has a very different vibe, more authentic in some ways. The Model Market is touristy, but the rest of the area feels more like a traditional Brazilian town, filled with street markets, shops, busy locals and motorbikes, whereas the upper section is mainly restored colonial mansions, gilded churches, music and shows specifically geared toward tourists.  

 Tourists posing with locals on the steps of Catedral Basílica de Salvador (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The market was colorful and interesting with lots of things to look at and food and drink to try and as we emerged from the rear exit near the bay, a group of young people were practicing their Capoeira moves, so for a few coins, we also got to see a great show. Capoeira is a type of Brazilian dance combined with martial arts, that was created by Brazilian/African slaves in the 16th century and is still practiced widely today. It's a combination of slow motion dance moves, kicks, acrobatics and play-sparring and is beautiful and exciting to watch. Young men and women often perform together and it is usually accompanied by drums and a type of hypnotic chant-like singing. Luis and I had first seen it by accident on another trip in Porto Velho, Brazil, when we happened to be walking by a Capoeira school and heard the music. The instructor invited us in to watch the class and it was so interesting and different than anything we had ever seen, we ended up going back every night that we were there. Luis learned a few of the moves, but since I am what you would kindly call "athletically-challenged", I decided against it, to avoid a long hospital stay from the inevitable groin pull. Still, it's hard not to admire the beauty and creativity of the art form. 

Capoeira dancers in the historic center of Salvador de Bahia (photo by Luis Bastardo)


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Real Chinese Food in Beijing and Hong Kong

A plate of sea slugs in garlic sauce in the fishing village of Tai Po, Hong Kong (photo by Simone Cannon)

One of the many surprising things for me on my first trip to Asia was how different the food was from the North American versions. I shouldn't have been that surprised as I had experienced the same thing in other countries such as Mexico and Italy. Once you leave the tourist areas, the food becomes almost unrecognizable as what I had thought of as "Mexican", "Italian" or "Chinese", and I must say, much more diverse and delicious than I ever imagined. The difference is that in most countries that I've visited, even though I may not understand a lot of the language, some of the words are more or less recognizable, so I at least have an outside chance of picking something I've heard of. Not so in China. Generally, the authenticity and tastiness of the food was inversely proportional to the amount of English (and I use the term very loosely) that appeared on the menu. Consequently, when aiming for the truly authentic, I would inevitably end up in a restaurant filled with locals and waiters who spoke no English and whose only menu was a wallboard of mysterious Chinese characters. Generally, I would just point at two or three items, nod enthusiastically whenever a waiter asked me a question and hope for the best. 

A variety of snacks-on-a-stick at a Beijing market including scorpions and giant silkworm pupae (photo by Simone Cannon)

Occasionally, what appeared at the table was something I knew from the Chinese restaurants at home, items such as steamed crab, plates of noodles or rice with seafood or duck or fried pork balls. More often than not, though, I had only ever seen the particular lifeform lying on my plate at the zoo or aquarium: jellyfish, starfish, scorpions, the pupae of giant silkworms, sea slugs or sea snake. Whenever anything in bird-like pieces appeared in front of me, I would try to ask the waiter what it was and usually received as an answer the only English food word he seemed to know: chicken. Oddly enough, when I tried to reassemble the "chicken", it never quite measured up to standard chicken size and usually came out looking something like an emaciated sparrow. Like I said, better not to ask questions sometimes... 
 I only started to learn what I was eating when I began meeting fellow travelers in China who would join me for dinner. Just as well, since I might have hesitated to try some really delicious foods. Jellyfish, for example, tasted nothing like I thought it would. I imagined a slimy, gelatinous heavily-flavored creature, but in fact, it was delicate and sweet with a fresh sea flavor and a texture similar to caviar, that burst in your mouth when you bit into it. Starfish was easily identifiable and had a crunchy, fishy flavor.

  Bags of sea snake and dried starfish for sale in a Hong Kong food market (photo by Simone Cannon)

My favorite (aside from my all time favorite Chinese food, Peking Duck) were the sea slugs. Despite the off putting name, they are wonderful, similar to a large tender clam, but with much more flavor. Sea snake was another surprise. It can be served grilled, steamed or sauteed and is very similar in taste and texture to eel. Most of these foods are also available at street market stalls if trying to order in a Chinese restaurant becomes too intimidating. The version of Chinese food served in Beijing is a combination of the styles imported by immigrants from other parts of China such as Hebei, Shangdong, Lower Yangzi River area, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. Lately, there have also been influences from the Americas, Japan and Europe, driven largely by tourists and expatriates, but also by the Chinese themselves as international travel has increased greatly in the last thirty years. In Hong Kong, the food leans toward the Cantonese style, but with many of the same international influences as Beijing. Seafood and fish dishes are more prevalent in Hong Kong, due to its location on the South China sea. Chinese food is one of the most diverse cuisines in the world, albeit unfamiliar to many Westerners. When visiting China, the best way to have a true culinary adventure is to take a deep breath and jump right may be pleasantly surprised. At the very least, you'll have daring food stories to share with your friends and family when you get back. For more on Chinese food and Asian cooking in general, see the wonderful blog Hunger Hunger (A Daily Obesession), complete with interesting commentaries and gorgeous photos of authentic Asian food :

Fresh bok choy drying in the sun, Tai Po, Hong Kong (photo by Simone Cannon)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Salvador de Bahia, Brazil: Beaches, Surfing and Samba

Coconut water vendor on Praia de Buraquinho  (photo by Luis Bastardo)

I couldn't get the melody of "Mas que Nada", the quintessential modern Bahian song out of my head the entire time we stayed in Salvador de Bahia. It just seemed to fit the mood. The old city is filled with color, from the traditional outfits of the Baianas, the Brazilian women who walk the streets in large hoop skirts and African headdress to the numerous food stands featuring bright orange, red and yellow seafood stews known as moquecas and multi-colored acarajé fillings to the pastel-colored facades of the preserved Portuguese colonial buildings in Pelourinho. The wind-swept beaches host brightly colored kites, windsurfing boards, beach umbrellas and food kiosks. The area is a riot of exotic color, sounds, smells and tastes. Although much of the atmosphere has been preserved and is exploited for tourists, it nonetheless has the desired effect, to impart a feeling of living in the modern world, while honoring the traditional by keeping alive Bahia's African and Portuguese roots.

Windsurfer taking advantage of the strong afternoon breezes (photo by Luis Bastardo)

For the first few days, we stayed at a family-run pousada called Oasis de Luz (Oasis of Light) within walking distance to Praia de Buraquinho (Buraquinho Beach) so that we could relax on the sand for a few days. It was out of season, so we had most of the beach to ourselves, except for the surfers and windsurfers who flock to the perfect waves and breezes of the northeast coast of Brazil. The swimming was somewhat limited because of the strength of the current, and we were warned by the lifeguards not to venture out very far, so we spent much of the time watching the surfers and kite fliers. Most of the owners of the beach side cafes and restaurants allow you to buy food and beer and take it back to your beach towel as long as you remember to bring back their glasses, plates and coolers, so were able to spend much of the day soaking up the sun, splashing in the surf, drinking cold beer and sampling local freshly grilled fish and vegetables. Life can be tough sometimes.

Enjoying having the beach (more or less) to ourselves (photo by Luis Bastardo)

When we returned in the evenings to the pousada, the family was generally in full party mode, Samba music blasting and kindly asked us to join them, offering us cold beer and snacks like boiled, salted peanuts, which I soon became addicted to. Every night, the family seemed to expand and we were constantly introduced to new cousins, in-laws, aunts and uncles. On the last day, there must have been more than 40 people coming and going and I lost track completely, aided by the fact that almost everyone bore a strong family resemblance so that, in the end, I couldn't tell one cousin from another. It didn't seem to matter though, especially since neither Luis nor I understood more than a smattering of Portuguese and no one in the family spoke a word of English. We had to rely on the universal language of smiles, laughter and cold beer, but despite the language barriers, we left smothered in hugs and kisses and the impression that we had made lifelong friends.  

Young local beachgoers test the water (photo by Luis Bastardo)