Saturday, December 15, 2012

Sitges and Vilanova i la Geltrú (Spain)

Sitges is a charming seaside town not far out of Barcelona. In fact, if you ask Barcelonins what beach you should frequent, the mere mention of Barceloneta, the city beach, will reap you shaking heads and snorts in disgust. Go to Sitges, they'll say. And so we did.

A scant 45 minutes on the train takes you to this little gem of a town. Meandering streets with the occasional touch of Catalan modernisme architecture take you downhill from the station to the beach. A wide and immaculate promenade takes you past gorgeous sea-facing villas and sailing clubs along the smooth, golden sand beach. Restaurants serve up paella and fideua (a very Catalan dish similar to paella but made with short noodles) to the hungry hordes, but there are plenty of low-key spots along the boardwalk, catering to sandy bodies and selling bocadillos (like a sub sandwich) and grilled combination plates.

The stretch between Sitges and the neighboring town of Vilanova i la Geltrú has a lovely trail offering stunning views of the turquoise Mediterranean and rocky outcroppings. On a sunny day, you can see from the top of a cliff to the sea bed. While you'll get the occasional topless beach-goers in Sitges, as you go further away, the tiny coves along the trail become populated with more nudes. Sitges is very popular with the gay community so don't be surprised if you come upon well-muscled and oiled bodies trysting. Pepper interrupted some sunbathers in a tranquil inlet by bounding up and down through the waves and stopping for a poo 20 feet from their blankets! Mortified, we cleaned up after her and got out of there as quickly as possible.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Wine and cava in the Penedès region (Spain)

One of the highlights of living in Spain is the wine! You can get quality wines for low, low prices. If you're drinking at home and want to go the ultra-cheap route, bring a clean bottle to your local bodega and get it filled from one of the small casks for about 2 euros. When you ask for wine with your menu del día (= lunchtime set menu), in some of the more generous places, this results in a whole bottle being plunked down on your table. And then there's my personal favorite: in Barcelona, it's not uncommon for restaurants to sell cava (Spanish sparkling wine, or "xampany" colloquially in Catalan) by the glass. In fact, the tiny, narrow cava joints are among the most regularly packed bars in the city, and at 1.50 euros/glass, who wouldn't want to be drinkin' this Cristal?

While Spain's most famous region for wine is La Rioja, the Penedès region (appellation: Penedès DO) is not a far runner-up. It is centered around the towns of Vilafranca del Penedès (also very famous for their human tower-building castellers) and nearby Sant Sadurní d'Anoia, around 60 km west of Barcelona in a car. Since we don't have one, we explored the region with the rest of the guiris (Catalan for "foreigners") on a coach bus tour. In our defense, there were at least a couple of other local couples - including Catalans! - who also opted for the tour, sharing our drinking and driving concerns.

Our first stop was at the Bodega Jean Leon, whose original owner made his fortune as the proprietor of La Scala restaurant in Hollywood. Most of the wines produced on this estate are French varietals, and they gave us a too-young Merlot (bleagh!)  to compare with the full-bodied reserve Cabernet Sauvignon later. I should mention that "taste" in Spain is a bit of a misnomer. Receiving closer to half or even nearly full glasses of wine for each one, we felt it was all the more reason to get someone else to drive.

In contrast to the smaller estate, we also stopped at Torres, a global behemoth whose estates flourish not just all over Spain, but in California and Chile also. Does Sangre de Toro ring a bell? A covered tram brought us all around the vineyards and winery, showcasing their green building and sustainability commitments. We tried three wines paired with typical cheeses, and one Moscatel-Gewürztraminer blend made us reconsider our usual prejudice against white wines.  

Friexenet, our final stop, is no small potatoes either. In case you doubt its status as one of the largest producers of cava, the tour winds you through the deep levels of caves where barrels upon barrels hold the wine during the first fermentation and stacks of shelves store the millions of bottles during the all important cava-making second fermentation. Another three glasses of the effervescent gold (ok, so one was more of a rosé) met us at the end of the tour. Featuring blends of the three traditional cava varieties (going by super-Catalan names of macabeu, parellada and xarel·lo), they were delightfully refreshing and paired well with the bounty of tapas arrayed before us. Carquinyolis, a sort of Catalan almond biscotti, made for a delicious ending to our lovely day!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

PortAventura in Salou (Spain)

Back when Rich was a kid, if his birthday fell on the weekend, he always thought it'd be fun to go to the theme park to celebrate it. Alas, in such climes, they were never open by the time the auspicious date rolled around. Not so in sunny Spain!

Just outside Tarragona in the town of Salou is the theme park PortAventura. They've been running their annual month-long campaign to draw visitors in with their Halloween-themed additions and deals. The promotion through the Rodalies de Catalunya (the regional railway service) is a pretty good one, considering the train stops only a short walk from the gates and the total price for transport + entrance is the same as entrance alone. The Halloween theme was also very prominent with jack-o-lanterns galore, ravens roosting in trees, and cobwebs draped in all the rafters. The psycho-killers jumping out from shadowy areas did lead to quite a few screams from unaware folks and nervous laughs from their friends. The long line into the Mayan Curse experience was transformed with such haunted house-style antics as fog and zombies that it did make me jittery. Even the dead-eyed one who bore a passing resemblance to Bono was pretty creepy.

PortAventura has many of the run-of-the-mill attractions you'd expect to find in a good amusement park in the States. The designers did seem to do an above average job in the quality and details of the differently themed regions. For example, a rainforest in Polynesia was manifested not only in flora but in a microclimate of humidity, and the Great Wall wraps around an Asian-style garden in China. The biggest draw in 2012 is the new roller coaster (which is, in Spanish, literally a "Russian mountain"). Shambhala, now Europe's tallest coaster and also boasting the tallest drop, is fittingly billed as a Himalayan expedition. It gets a thumbs up from both of us... and a special mention for the curiously free, big air feeling that comes from dangling feet, the lack of an over-the-shoulder harness, and an unobstructed view throughout the ride. Dragon Khan goes for loop-de-loop gold with its 8 inversions (very disorienting afterwards), and Stampida brings you back for old timey, rickety wooden thrills in a dueling roller coaster race. But the best on-board roller coaster photos have got to be from Furious Baco. The individual cameras trained on each rider catch precious expressions on video as you get launched, reaching a speed of 83.9 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds! Sorry, mom and dad, in the shock of the moment, most of my video was the stream of expletives also being launched from my mouth. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Tarragona (Spain)

After a little over an hour on the express train from Barcelona, we arrived in Tarragona. We'd heard nice things about this town in southern Catalunya so we thought it would make a nice day trip during the public holiday of All Saints Day. 

The town is ancient, with the ruins of the Roman "Tarraco" having been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. You can wander around the old town looking for the 30 locations marked along the urban archaeological route from the tourist information center. Some of them have beautiful mosaics and intricate scale models for you to really appreciate the Roman heritage. Or so I've heard. Unfortunately for us, many of the museum sites were shut for the public holiday... in direct contradiction to the opening days and times posted on the doors themselves, I might add. We had to content ourselves with the sections of ruins visible from the roads and other public spaces. Since these included Roman walls, towers, and a fairly intact amphitheater with a stunning view of the Mediterranean, it wasn't such a bad consolation prize.   

Like Barcelona, Tarragona has its own highlights of Catalan modernisme architecture. Delicate, intricate ironwork shows up here and there, and even an old slaughterhouse was done up mighty stylish. Probably the best example, though, is the fantastic tomb of King Jaume I inside the Ajuntament (City Hall). The architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner worked his mosaic magic again to house the Catalan king's remains in a gorgeous boat flanked by angel sculptures.

More stone figures appear in the form of apostles on the edifice of the Cathedral of Santa Maria. You can count on the church to be open on a holy day. Despite a few dark chapels along the edges, the interior of the 12th century cathedral was actually quite light and expansive. We also took a walk along the quiet cloisters, but we couldn't quite bring ourselves to disturb the peace in the lovely interior garden. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Munich (Germany)

Work brings Rich to Munich sometimes, so this time around, I thought I'd join him for the weekend. We just missed the hordes visiting for the city's most famous festival, the 16 days of beer-drinking known as Oktoberfest, but there were still plenty of chances to check out Bavarian culture.

The Viktualienmarkt is a huge outdoor market selling all manner of fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, flowers, and honey. Many stalls do a roaring trade of food and drink over busy counters and picnic tables. We opted for the Munich tradition of weisswurst (fresh white sausage), pretzel, and sweet mustard. By midday, the drinking was already going quite strongly, and we quietly edged away from the bellicose elderly German gesturing wildly with his beer stein at the other end of our table.

The House of Wittelsbach, which ruled Bavaria for hundreds of years, built the Munich Residenz. The lovely court garden (Hofgarten) is free, and for a scant 7 euros, you can also visit the inside of the palace. Some of the spaces might seem a bit sparse after the damage done during World War II, but with over 100 rooms open to the public, no visitor could leave without an appreciation for the scale and grandeur. The rich furnishings and architectural elements would provide a veritable feast for an Antiques Roadshow enthusiast with the audio tour continually dropping words like Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical. In case the gilded clocks and brocade drapery still weren't immersing you in the history, you might be fortunate to catch a performance in one of the salons by musicians and dancers in period costumes. Be forewarned though, the lead dancer and sometime narrator looked a lot like Captain Hook!

For a more contemporary take, visit the Deutsches Museum on the bank of the Isar river. Though its name might imply differently, it is less about Germany itself so much as celebrating the pride of that country - German engineering. Hall after hall is devoted to pistons, pumps, and all kinds of mechanical devices. There's even a room on robots! Unfortunately, many of the exhibits we would have liked to see running were not (e.g. the model train set, the miniature brick-making factory, and the Frankenstein-looking electrical contraption that begged you to call out "It's alive!" in your best mad scientist voice). Luckily, the waterwheel was going, a glassblower was hard at work, and an old man was resetting the pendulum that indicates the rotation of the earth.

Besides the world's largest museum of science and technology, Munich is also home to one of the world's largest urban parks. The Englischer Garten (bigger than New York's Central Park) is a huge greenspace with little footbridges, small waterfalls, great open plains, and quiet wooded trails. Though the picnickers, footballers, and drum circles packed the lawns, the biggest hubbub could be found at the Chinese pagoda-style tower. From the second floor, an oom-pah band played some traditional tunes before devolving into a swing band, including a rousing rendition of Bei Mir Bist Du Schön. The crowds at the bustling biergarten below and the surrounding horse-drawn carriages were highly appreciative.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

La Mercè 2012 in Barcelona (Spain)

Another year, another La Mercè. Barcelona's major festival is in honor of its patron saint, Our Lady of Mercy, and it was interesting seeing it this time through the fresh eyes of our visiting family. They gasped as the human towers of castellers climbed higher and higher (and had to stop watching after seeing a tumble or two), flashed photo after photo of the dancing gegants and capgrossos (giants and big-headed figures) during the processions, and thought all of Barcelona mad as the diablos of the correfoc (or "fire run") shot rounds and rounds of fireworks into the crowds. The accompanying wine and cava festival was set up by the Arc de Triomf, and we all got a little carried away with our tasting of the local vintages.

Finally making it up to Montjuic, circus-style performers from the invited city of Montreal showed off their magic tricks and acrobatics just outside the walls of the 17th century fortress that overlooks the city. The Canadians could be found down over in the Parc de la Ciutadella, too. A pair of artists channeling Daft Punk danced in sophisticated lighted robot suits to electronic music. Another performer drew scenery and characters with sweeps of sand on a lighted display, which when projected, produced a fascinating kind of shadow puppet theatre. For a more interactive event, there were all sorts of steam punk-style machines - or movable sculptures? - spread throughout the park, and a big stage featured alternately dancing tutorials (even lindy hop!) and some loose kareoke.

While the Ajuntament de Barcelona (the city council building) again featured an entertaining light show on its edifice, it was clear that this year, the pièce de résistance was saved for the city's most iconic building - Sagrada Família. Even without adornment, everyone can agree that the facades of Gaudí's masterpiece are impressive. But putting a perfectly executed, three-dimensional light show onto the Nativity Façade was absolutely mind-blowing. The extravaganza highlighted the intricate detail of the carvings, and all the world's creatures seemed to flow forth from the Tree of Life sculpture. The building itself was a chameleon, shifting convincingly from molten gold to crumbling stone to an Eden-like waterfall and even to an under the oceans view. The production was so faultless and so vivid that everyone watching had a minute or two of stunned, jaw-dropped silence before erupting into raucous applause. It was truly one of the most amazing things I've ever seen in my life. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Paris (France)

The fast train that goes under the English Channel can get you from London to Paris in a scant 2 hours and 15 minutes. High walls obstruct your views of a lot of the English countryside, but the ride was very smooth, and the security obligations were much less onerous than any airport.

In another railway station, the beautiful Musee d'Orsay houses mid-1800 to early-1900 art. The Impressionists and post- artists (Monet, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, etc.) were out in full force, and though the place was still fairly humming with visitors, I prefer the atmosphere and artwork here than at Paris's most famous museum. The Louvre, aka home of the Mona Lisa, is simply overwhelming. The place is a 12th century palace with all the ostentation one might expect of housing royalty for 500 or so years, and that's just the architecture! Once you pry your eyes away from the ornate ceilings, gallery after gallery holds the roughly 35,000 objects on exhibit everyday. Even with an art student leading another guy and us on a 3 hour crash course tour, we barely saw all the headliners.

For a country so renown for food, we had quite a few so-so and subpar meals, including some truly awful crepes (pre-cooked with underdone eggs and canned mushrooms). This was entirely our fault. Strolling in the crowds along the chestnut-lined Champs-Élysées and realizing suddenly you are all hungry is a deck stacked against you. Our two best meals were from proper planning and spontaneity, respectively, and above all, following the cardinal rule of eating in regular neighborhoods - or arrondissements as they're known - away from the tourist sites.

Luckily, our plans included a safeguard for Parisian patisseries. We took cooking classes! For 3 hours, we labored in the high art of croissant-making. Our floury, handwritten notes and diagrams covered both sides of the recipe sheet. Hint: The dough requires not a pat, but what could only be described as a whole frickin' tile of butter! The results were golden crisp on the outside and flaky soft on the inside. Besides your plain ol' croissants, we also made them with fillings of chocolate (the ever-luscious pain au chocolat) and almond (the divine croissant aux amandes). Another day and another cooking class saw us preparing our own Cafe Gourmand, which is a fanciful way of saying dessert tasting menu. We had fun with the blowtorch, making our tiny dishes of crème brûlée, and got messy coating chocolate onto our madeleines. The shell-shaped Proust favorite is actually a little cake, not a cookie as many Americans might think.

With so much butter and cream in our system, it's a blessing that Paris is a lovely city to walk. Magnificent churches like Notre Dame and Sante-Chapelle rise with glorious stained-glass windows, and the beautiful basilica of Sacre Couer towers over Montmarte, which fans of Amélie will recognize from the film. Of course, most visitors to Paris will want to check out that most dominant feature of the  skyline - the Eiffel Tower. But for a different look, the Tuilleries Gardens are a fantastic greenspace and sculpture park along the Seine, and if that doesn't do it for you, surely you'll find at least one of the 37 bridges over the river picturesque. 

Saturday, September 29, 2012

London (UK)

Built in the 11th century, the Tower of London is a massive palace and fortress smack in the middle of the city. A lot of the big names in British history have been associated with it. Richard III was rumored to have killed two princes in the White Tower; Anne Boleyn was beheaded on the Tower Green; and various luminaries - William Wallace, St. Thomas More, Sir Walter Raleigh, Guy Fawkes, and Elizabeth I, to name a few - were imprisoned within the walls when their causes fell out of favor. You can learn a lot from the colorful commentary of the Beefeaters, as the yeoman warders are popularly known. Although their costumes may make them look silly, these tour guides are actually all officers with over 20 years of honorable military service. They also guard the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London so prepare to be dazzled by the serious bling on show.

Tower Bridge, otherwise known as the pretty one that everyone thinks is London Bridge, was still gussied up from its prominent place in aerial shots of the Olympic Games. For a spectacular, non-helicopter view of the city, there are some beautiful panoramas from the slowly rotating wheel of the London Eye. Just across the River Thames (pronounced "temz") lies the Houses of Parliament. The iconic Big Ben is technically a bell within the clock tower, not the the tower itself. We took a walk around to Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace... or as my folks know them, "where Will & Kate got married" and "where they kissed on the balcony," respectively. Picadilly Circus, which my sister calls the Times Square of London, was abuzz with lights and crowds. In such a tourist trap, we despaired of finding anything decent to eat, but struck gold in a special at the Criterion Restaurant. Amid opulent neo-Byzantine decor, we indulged in an upscale version of that great British tradition - Sunday roast dinner. The beef was aged and tender, the roast potatoes were golden outside and fluffy inside, and the crisp Yorkshire pudding (a batter thing similar to a popover) was excellent in the rich gravy.

For a taste of that other English tradition - gardening, we visited the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Boasting the world's largest collection of living plants and one of the largest herbariums, the place is enormous. It must take an army to keep the hedges trimmed, the beds consistently in flower, and the lawns so pristine. Even if the weather isn't cooperating, big and elegant greenhouses ("glasshouses" in British English) dedicated to the different regions or zones ensure there are still plenty of things to see. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Windsor, Upwaltham, Chichester, and Brighton (UK)

Although they have crisscrossed the continent on coach tours and pilgrimages, my folks have never actually been to Paris or the UK. Hoping to not end up like some National Lampoon outtake, we organized a family vacation to remedy this.

A quick vocabulary lesson for the uninformed: U.K. is short for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is the island on which the countries of England, Scotland, and Wales lie (whereas Northern Ireland is on the same island as the Republic of Ireland). This is why you normally see sports teams from those individual countries compete in international events... and why it was also a kerfuffle when they had to join up and enter as Team GB for football in the Olympics. Make sense?

Arriving into Gatwick Airport, we promptly departed the city so that these Americans could see, at least a little, that there is more to the UK than just London. About 25 miles west, Windsor seems like a charming town out of a storybook England with its Union Jacks flying merrily. The castle is where the Queen spends most weekends, and we were there in time to see the Changing the Guard ceremony in the Lower Ward. The band that accompanies them tried to steal the show with such an ebullient rendition of "Puttin' on the Ritz" that we half-expected them to break out with jazz hands. Inside, the Royal Apartments are sumptuous and with enough weaponry and suits of armor to fulfill any role-playing game fantasy. You can also see Queen Mary's dollhouse - complete with functional plumbing - and visit the stunning Saint George's Chapel, where Henry VIII, among other queens and kings, is buried.

We headed south to Rich's roots in West Sussex. The sun was shining on the South Downs, and we stopped in to see family before popping by the church at Upwaltham. Rich's family has been coming for generations to this tiny 12th century construction... just check out the spooky upright tombstones in the graveyard outside. Chichester is an old place, too, dating back to the Romans and home to a medieval market cross and cathedral. But the high street has all your newfangled favorites - HMV, Marks & Spencer, et al. - and we enjoyed a traditional afternoon tea (scones, jam, clotted cream, cakes, finger sandwiches, and tea) in a decidedly more modern setting next to a contemporary art gallery. 

We met up with more family in Brighton in East Sussex. Having long been a fashionable place by the seaside, I was sorely disappointed the first time I visited to find the famous beach was not sand, but stones... stones about the exact size and shape to encourage ankle-twisting. Strolling by the sea (or rather, the English Channel) in this case is relegated to the long boardwalk, or "prom" as the Brits say. Brighton today is known for its arts and culture and home to arguably one of the best club scenes in Europe. The box we were ticking, though, was fish and chips. The iconic British meal is best served from a greasy chip shop (or "chippie"), wrapped in newspaper, dashed with salt and malt vinegar, and eaten with an ineffectual wooden fork in the sea air. With the wind a tad too chilly, we had it in a restaurant. The "fish" can be cod, plaice, or haddock, and I opted for that curious accompaniment popular in the north of England - mushy peas... pretty mushy and very, very bland.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Girona (Spain)

Girona, northeast about an hour and 15 minutes on the train, makes for a popular day trip outside of Barcelona. An ancient city, it seems like lot of history's heavy hitters - Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Charlemagne, and Napolean - conquered and ruled Girona at one point or another. Today, it means there's some beautiful architecture. There are cobblestoned, narrow streets and grand churches. Brightly-colored facades of houses overhang the Onya river as it lazily winds its way through the center. The Passeig Arqueologic takes you through some beautiful gardens, and you can actually walk along the battlements of the ancient fortress walls, some of which date back to the 9th century. The Banys Arabs look older, but the baths are actually a 12th century Romanesque construction.

We also popped into the local CaixaForum for some impressionist works. One of the things that never ceases to amaze me in Europe is the abundance of masterpieces very casually available to the public. Entry is free, there are only a few rooms, and yet any one of the Gaughins or Monets in this one collection would be the centerpiece of an American gallery.

As visitors to Girona, we happily played into the role of tourists and ate in one of the many restaurants lining the sunlit Plaça de la Independència (even though we studiously avoid doing such things in Barcelona's similarly picturesque Plaça Reial). Luckily, we managed to find the one place with a reasonably priced menu del día (lunch with multiple courses at a set price), and the gazpacho was wonderfully cooling in the heat. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Catalan National Day in Barcelona (Spain)

September 11th is an important day in Catalunya but for very different reasons. It is the National Day of Catalunya. On this day nearly 300 years ago, Catalans suffered a defeat when backing the losing side in the War of Spanish Succession. Nowadays, the holiday is a lot like Independence Day in the States (day off work, flags flying, parades, etc.)... except imagine if the U.S. hadn't actually gotten independence yet and was still under the thumb of the British Empire. Because that's how a lot of Catalans feel. Although it is an autonomous community in Spain, Catalunya too was once its own empire. It has its own language and culture distinct from Castillian, aka what most people outside of Spain think of as Spanish language and culture. You don't have to drive far to see graffiti with "Catalunya is not Spain" in giant letters. Within Spain and even within Europe, Catalunya has been very strong economically with big industries and tourism, but with what many locals see as paying too many taxes back to the capital in Madrid and without getting much back. The Catalan independence movement has always been at least simmering in the background, but with the Spanish economy and government tanking, calls for secession have grown even louder.

There is always a big parade/protest for the National Day of Catalunya in Barcelona so we decided to take a look. Near Arc de Triomf, dozens of stalls were selling everything you need to show your national pride or support: t-shirts, bandanas, placards... even Catalan cola! The red and yellow stripes of the Catalan flag are a pretty common sight any day in Barcelona, but man, were the independence flags, sporting the extra white star on a blue triangle, really flying off the shelves! A very popular fashion choice is what I am calling The Superhero, tying the full-size flag with strings around your neck like a cape... a sort of Captain Catalunya? The Parliament of Catalunya building was open to the public so we had a wander around inside. Interestingly, the building and the park it is in (Ciutadella) was originally part of a fortress built, not to protect the city, but to maintain control of the rebellious Catalan population after the aforementioned War of Spanish Succession. We passed a troop of soldiers in re-enactment-style costumes with drums and muskets, but the real show was the parade. Whole families - from babies in strollers to grandparents with walking sticks - were chanting protests and singing nationalistic songs. Every road or alley we passed was packed with people streaming to or from the march. Final numbers vary, but an estimated 1.5 million people marched in Barcelona. When you consider the entirety of Catalunya is only 7.5 million, this meant that 20% of the population was there. Absolutely staggering! 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Final Thoughts on Australia

For a country as vast as Australia, it would be impossible to say we did anything more than form some impressions during our visit. But here they are anyway:

- Someone told me that they say that [American] students who choose to do their study abroad in Australia do so because they don't want to actually live in a foreign culture. I can see why. For all its history as a former British colony (and there are plenty of "Poms" i.e. British folk), Australia feels much more American - big cars, big roads, and a lot of strip malls. The Gold Coast itself with its good weather, built up beach towns, theme parks, and retirees could be Florida.

- It is expensive. You'd have thought that living in Europe would have insulated us a bit from it but not so. Food prices were probably the biggest shock where even a bag or two of basics like cereal, sandwich fixings, etc. at the supermarket would easily set us back 60 Australian dollars (39 pounds, or 49 €). This might explain why Australia has one of the highest minimum wages in the world (~ 16 AUD). You almost always have to pay for internet, even Wi-fi, and it's usually capped. Does anyone even know anymore how much 20 MB gets you? Even when it is unlimited, service providers don't hesitate to block high bandwidth sites like Google maps, which, you know, could be useful for the people actually staying in the hotel. Probably the most egregious charge, however, was during our layover in Sydney airport. We had a connecting flight, and it cost 5.50 AUD per person to take the bus from the international terminal to the domestic one!?! The alternative, which we did consider, was an hour long walk along hot, smoggy roads with multiple lanes of traffic.

- As Rich likes to say, Aussies like to put an "ee" sound on the end of words. Common abbreviations we heard in the accent included: Brissie, nervy, pokies, rellies, and rashies. That's Brisbane, nervous, poker machines (and possibly casinos in general), relatives, and rash shirts, respectively, in Aussie-speak. Bonus: For those Americans out there, "thongs" in Australia are not the Sisqo-approved underwear, they are flip flops.

- The wildlife was awesome! We had some high expectations, but we got to see quite a few of the weird and wonderful creatures unique to Australia. We still couldn't tell you the difference between a kangaroo and wallaby, but who knew that wombats (mammals that look like rodents of unusual size) or echnidas (spiny anteaters) could be so funny and cute? Our only disappointments were not seeing a duck-billed platypus or many of the strange insects that inhabit the continent.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Brisbane, Part III (Australia)

We returned to Brisbane and met a racist on the train. In less than 15 minutes, a conversation Rich was having with a random old man turned from his recent holidays in Europe to the state of the Spanish economy to how the immigrants are all to blame. Uh, what?! The man merrily went on about the blacks [the indigenous Aborigines] and the boat people [Asian immigrants] being a drain on Australia (curiously enough, a couple of our Australian friends had recently posted some statistics refuting these on Facebook) and how Australia should be only for Australians. Whatever assumptions the man could have made about Rich, what I found even weirder was his expectation that I - clearly of Asian descent - would be in agreement! We had heard others talk about coming across racist Australians, but never did we expect one would be so openly vocal... and to complete strangers no less. It boggles the mind.

We had a couple of days to kill before the departure of our long flights home. Avoiding the masterpieces on loan from the Prado (well, we had devoted a whole day there when we were in Madrid), we wandered around the paintings from Australian artists in the Queensland Art Gallery. Next door the Gallery of Modern Art also had a fantastic exhibition on sculpture involving everyday objects, including Vespa scooters customized to look like stags, a mesmerizing set of whirling car wash brushes, and inner tubes suspended like clouds in the air. In the same neighborhood, the Southbank Parklands Lifestyle Market featured probably 100 open air stalls selling arts and crafts, clothes, and decor to peruse.

Taking advantage of the availability of theater in the English language, we managed to score tickets to one of the last performances of "The Harbinger" at La Boite Theatre. It's an adult fairytale about an old man with his dreams and memories featuring live actors and... puppets! (Oh, how we miss the annual giant puppet shows in North Carolina!) The Australian company goes by the clever name of the Dead Puppets Society, and the themes were considerably darker. We enjoyed it thoroughly. The only downside was that our slight age difference meant that Rich got a substantial discount, and I had to come to terms with paying the much higher old people's price!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Final Thoughts on New Zealand

We had a lovely time in New Zealand. We saw such a beautiful and widely varying landscape that we only scraped the surface of outdoor activities we wanted to do. Most of the hostels we stayed in were very comfortable: well-equipped kitchens, cozy wood fireplaces, and even free warm chocolate cake! People were incredibly friendly and helpful, especially the rental car guys who quickly organized a car for us a day early when we got our North/South Island schedule mixed up. We liked it so much that we would probably consider moving there if it was closer... maybe even still will, Rich threatens. Without further ado, here are some - admittedly biased - final thoughts on New Zealand:

- The country is pretty empty. The stereotype that there are more sheep than people in New Zealand holds true - 10 per person. While a "city" may not be more than a town by our standards, this also means that huge swaths of national forests and long stretches of golden beaches are also very quiet. Time and again we marveled at how some idyllic spot would have been completely built up and invaded by tourists if it was in the U.S. or Europe.

- Since we don't own a car any more, it's been a long time since we've been on a road trip. Old habits die hard, and we did get some funny looks when we would park and walk 20 minutes into town. Parking lots would practically overwhelm us with choices. Rich enjoyed driving, particularly on the left side of the road. Roads were not as busy in the winter as we've heard they can be with summer tourists. This could make a big difference since what passes for a motorway in New Zealand usually only has 1 lane in either direction, and getting stuck behind a slow camper van or RV favored by holidaymakers could really add on to your travel time.

- New Zealand felt much more English. It helps that some parts of the countryside looked like they had been transplanted from the South Downs where Rich grew up. Food-wise also, meat pies and sausage rolls and curries abound. Funnily enough, many fish and chips shops also do Chinese food, and the scones are often made with dates instead of raisins. Since we happen to quite enjoy British cookery (despite its detractors), it was great to get these tastes of home.

- Although many would argue that more progress is still needed, it was interesting to see how integrated the indigenous Maori people and Maori culture was. The national anthem sung at the rugby match has both Maori and English lyrics, all New Zealand schoolchildren learn some Maori, and a solemn and moving haka was performed by infantrymen to salute the bodies of three New Zealand soldiers brought home from Afghanistan.

- Things often don't turn the way you think they should. We would normally expect to lock a door by turning the knob towards the side of the the door opens, e.g. clockwise, if the door is hinged on the left and opens on the right. This frequently is not so in New Zealand. To make things more confusing, it can be inconsistent. Rich came back from the shower in the men's room to tell me that hot water is towards the right, and when I go, its towards the left in the ladies'... in the same hostel! Sadly, we got nowhere on the myth that the toilet flushes in the opposite direction in the Southern hemisphere because, in eco-conscious New Zealand, they were all low volume toilets, which shoot in multiple directions!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Kaikoura, Part II, and Christchurch (New Zealand)

After our exhilarating experience swimming with dusky dolphins, we were already happy to give Kaikoura our seal of approval. But there's a bit more to see - actual seals! All the tourists know about the seal colony on the beach, but a short drive outside of town and a shorter walking trail brings you to a semi-secret waterfall and pool where the youngsters from the colony frolic and play. While their mothers are out hunting at sea, these pups are learning to socialize in the relative safety upstream. Their adorableness is almost overwhelming.

We can't say much about Christchurch, the biggest city on the South Island. Earthquakes and severe aftershocks in 2010, 2011, and 2012 destroyed large parts of the city, most significantly, the historic building downtown. All around are construction sites and looming cranes, and a huge chunk of the center is roped off as a no-go red zone. After 2 hours of driving around looking for a hotel room, we gave up and headed straight towards the airport. A motel in the outskirts would have to do, and Christchurch would have to wait until next time. We played a round of miniature golf for fun and did some last minute shopping before catching our flight out of New Zealand at 4 o'clock in the morning. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Kaikoura (New Zealand)

Zigzagging across New Zealand is not an ideal route, but we headed northeast anyway because we didn't want to miss Kaikoura. In a country chock-full of beautiful views, this stunner was worth the detour. Shimmering, turquoise waters surround the peninsula, and the waves crashing on the big, dark boulders make for a striking contrast with the snow-capped mountains in the distance. A deep underwater canyon and an upwelling of currents off the peninsula combine to attract a variety of marine life... and the tourists who flock to see it. There is an easily accessible seal colony, over a dozen species of albatross, and crayfish the size of lobsters! Whale-watching though is what really put Kaikoura on the map since since sperm whales can be seen year-round not far off shore and humpbacks reliably pass by in the winter. Rich and I, however, planned to get a little closer to our marine life of choice than just a boat ride and a pair of binoculars. We were going to swim with dolphins!  

Wild, dusky dolphins hang out in big pods off the coast near town. Dark on the top (hence the name "dusky") and lighter on the underside, these guys are about our size and famous for their acrobatics. You can go out on a dolphin-watching cruise, and if the conditions are right, swim with them, too. Donning the mountain of neoprene apparel (wetsuits, hoods, gloves, etc.) wasn't going to dampen our enthusiasm... even though it should have clued us in to how cold it would be. We boarded the vessel and went searching. Once located, the crew carefully monitors the wild dolphins' behavior to decide if they are up for a closer encounter. For example, are they curious about the boat, circling back toward it or playing in the wake? If so, the skipper gives the signal to jump in with them. Sadly, in 3 hours on the water, we only saw one small pod with about 6 dolphins. They quickly shied away so the crew aborted the swim just as our feet touched the icy water. Even though pulling out showed how much the company respects wildlife and is concerned about safety - for which we totally applaud them - we couldn't help but still feel a little heartbroken. Especially on the heels of our failed glacier heli-hike. The good news was that the company offered us a deal that meant we could try again the next morning without any additional cost!

Taking them up on the offer, we were well-rewarded for our persistence. Scarcely 15 minutes into our second cruise, the skipper told us to suit up because we were about to converge on a large pod of over 150 dolphins! Slipping right into the teeming waters, the temperature at 10 C (or 50 F) was a shock. You soon forget this in the excitement and chaos of realizing that dolphins - DOLPHINS! - are streaming all around you. No touching is allowed, but honestly, it's so crowded that most of the time you worry they will run into you. Singing or making sounds (slightly challenging with a snorkel shoved in your mouth), diving down, or swimming in circles attracts their curiosity. It's actually a little disorienting. The cold water, the adrenaline, and singing "here fishy fishy" while swimming in ever-tighter circles to try to keep pace with a marine creature is pretty hard on the human body. But how many people can say they looked a dolphin in the eye and played with it for a while? It was frickin' amazing!! Eventually, the pod outswam us. So we hauled ourselves onboard, the crew steered the boat back up to the front of the pod, and we were right back in the action again. And repeat. For a total of 5 times. What a truly awesome - and I say that in the truest meaning of the word - experience!      

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Arthur's Pass and Oxford (New Zealand)

Once you start heading down the west coast of the South Island, there aren't really too many options to cross over back to the east coast. Arthur's Pass seems to be the main highway through the Southern Alps. The transition from the wetter rainforests in the west to the drier sub-alpine east makes for dramatic landscapes. Kea, a species of mountain parrot, attack camper vans of unsuspecting tourists who appreciate the photo opportunity initially and then realize the birds are tearing at their door seals. The Devil's Punchbowl trail is a nice opportunity to stretch your legs along the way and check out another waterfall.

Not far out of the mountains, Oxford doesn't even exist in the guide books, but the nice little village is home to more family. Rich's cousins own a small farm, and we got to admire the gardens and meet their Clydesdale and Lipizzaner horses. The Shetland ponies followed us around, but it was the alpacas that really stole our hearts. With no regard of personal space, they stick their furry faces right up in yours, look deep into your soul with their big eyes, and give you a solemn sniff to greet you. Hilarious!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Greymouth and Franz Josef (New Zealand)

About 4 hours southwest of Abel Tasman National Park lies Greymouth. A quick glance around reveals its claim as the biggest city on the west coast doesn't really mean much, but after days in the backcountry, we were pretty happy in any place with a real bed and hot showers. The old mining settlement on the Grey River is home to a few shops showcasing quality jade carving. The green stone is highly prized in Maori culture, and though occurring naturally in this region, trade and the working of it is tightly regulated in New Zealand.

One thing we've enjoyed here is the availability and variety of craft beers. Restaurants and pubs around New Zealand prominently display their allegiance to different breweries, and you can be sure going into one that the full range from that brewery will be on tap. Monteith's is one of the most popular, and Greymouth just the happens to be the home of the original brewery. At first, the 30 minute tour seems a little pricey at 20 NZ dollars (= 10 pounds or 15 €), but then you get a 12 oz. pour of a brand new beer, tickets for an additional 3 glasses on-site, and a coupon for a free pint off-site. The brewers are experimenting in 3500 liter batches, and as visitors to the brewery, we got to try the new india pale ale and a truly fantastic apricot hefeweizen. Their black beer and winter ale also were quite tasty, and Monteith's Original – the oldest recipe and still the biggest seller – gets a thumbs up from us, too. After all the free alcohol, it's a good thing the in-house cafe also serves hearty fare like a luxurious seafood chowder.

Three hours further south of Greymouth is glacier country. There are two to choose from – Franz Josef and Fox. We had booked many months in advance and were very eager to hop on a helicopter and be whisked up onto the blue ice. Unfortunately, just as we started to suit up, the heli-hike was cancelled due to low cloud cover and poor visibility. We were gutted! The consolation prize – a free walk to the face of Franz Josef glacier – was much less impressive so we washed away our tears with a visit to the hot pools in town. Later, we blew some of our substantial refund on a lovely dinner of New Zealand lamb shanks and stayed to cheer on the national rugby team in a 22-0 defeat of their rivals, the Australian Wallabies. The All Blacks team are the pride of New Zealand, capturing the most recent Rugby World Cup in 2011, and it was great to see their awesome skills and watch them perform the haka (a traditional Maori warrior challenge) on their home territory.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Abel Tasman National Park (New Zealand)

Abel Tasman National Park, smallish by this country's standards, is located on the north coast on the South Island. We were there to hike the Coast Track, which has been designated one of New Zealand's 8 Great Walks. The entire track can be done in 3 – 5 days for backcountry hikers. Water taxis at several points and a bus at one end make it very accessible, and therefore, also popular with day visitors. The well-maintained trail itself is not very strenuous or technical. Marshes lead upward to the native bush of scrub land and rainforest. Secluded waterfalls and majestic tree ferns delight the eyes and add more beauty to the landscape. Isolated, golden sand beaches meet turquoise waters and white granite outcroppings. In summer, we've heard it can feel like a traffic jam on the track, but in the winter, we practically had it all to ourselves. Seeing half a dozen other hikers on the trail one day felt busy, and another night we were alone in a hut that sleeps 32 people. The huts are reserved through the Department of Conservation (or DOC), and though pricier than we're used to in North Carolina, they all had thick mattresses, wood stoves, and the hallmark of civilization – flush toilets with seats and toilet paper!

The one factor that does make the Abel Tasman Coast Track challenging is the tides. There are several spots along the trail where you need to cross tidal streams or estuaries. This involves a lot of head-scratching as you compare tidal charts, sunrise and sunset times, the estimation of your own speed (laden with your pack), and how deep you're willing to wade in chilly, often fast-flowing waters. At one point, several groups of hikers were sitting around for over an hour on a sandfly-infested beach waiting to cross a 3 meter stream. Eventually, boots came off and everyone rolled up their pants in their impatience to keep going. Further complicating these issues, we found the DOC estimates for completing a trail section to be, shall we say, ambitious… to the point where we started referring to them as “in New Zealand time” (= it will take us 1.5 times longer).

We did see a wide array of New Zealand fauna as well. Coastal birds like oyster catchers, cormorants, and ducks made regular appearances in Abel Tasman. Our favorite little birdies though were the fantails, which flit around picking up insects in the soil disturbed by our passage and flashing their white fan-like tails. The waters around Abel Tasman are part of the Tonga Island Marine Reserve so we got to check out some seals and blue penguins from our water taxi on the way back. The 3.5 days we spent in Abel Tasman National Park was a real change from the rest of our trip, and we really enjoyed this gorgeous corner of the country!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Wellington, Nelson, and Motueka (New Zealand)

If Rich thought Auckland felt like a proper city, Wellington is where all the cool kids must hang out. We didn't get to spend much time there, but the center seemed to have a lot of cool restaurants and bars filled with the artsy fartsy and hipster crowds. There's a film school, and it's the base of the New Zealand film industry. You can visit the Weta Workshop, too, responsible for much of the special effects and costumes in Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, and other films.

Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand, has to be the best free museum ever! Although, like everywhere downtown, you do have to pay for parking. The exhibits are well-organized, creatively presented, and highly interactive. With New Zealand's location in the Ring of Fire, the awesome power of nature features prominently, including experiencing a mock earthquake inside a house. There are exhibits highlighting the flora and fauna with an outdoor native bush area and a scary, preserved colossal squid  (that's the real name). You can learn more about Maori and New Zealand history and culture even stepping inside a whare, or a traditional Maori meeting house.

We had a smooth crossing on the ferry from the North Island to the South Island. Later we heard horror stories detailing rougher ones with 3 meter swells, and the boat running out of the entire supply of seasickness bags. Passing the misty, forested outcroppings of desolate smaller islands in the Marlborough Sounds reminded us of the approach to Vancouver Island in Canada.

After picking up our South Island car, we headed straight for Nelson in the dark, finding it to be quite a charming town by daylight. The little shops all seemed to be staffed by friendly people, and we got to catch up with another friend in a nice pub that inexplicably was playing an old North Carolina favorite tune “Wagon Wheel.”

The road out of Nelson towards Motueka is quite picturesque as, in addition to the ubiquitous sheep on the hill, it is also wine country. Pinot Noir grows particularly well in the Upper Moutere region, but the wineries also produce Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurtraminer, and Riesling from grapes sourced locally or elsewhere in New Zealand. Wine tastings were very reasonable, ranging from free to 4 tastes for 2 New Zealand dollars (= 1 pound or 1.50 €). Such generosity tends to lubricate the wallet, and we picked up a nice reserve Pinot Noir from the Woollaston vineyards for later and had a nice lunch from the wood-fired oven at Kahurangi Estates. Other stops along the wine route also included a glassblower's gallery, a fruit stall selling bags of kiwifruit (kiwis are only the people or the flightless bird in New Zealand), and a woodturner's studio with a gnarled, cross-eyed old man with the air of a chatty grandad.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Waitomo and New Plymouth (New Zealand)

Two hours west of Rotorua is the village of Waitomo, famous for its limestone caves and glowworms! These bioluminescent beauties are the larval stage of a fungus gnat. They produce a mucous-y silk that hangs down in strands to catch their prey of small flying insects, which are attracted to the lights in the dark. You can view the caves on a relaxed walk-and-boat ride or you can go what I'm calling the EXXXTREME ENTOMOLOGY way. Donning thick wetsuits, neoprene socks, and very fetching white boots, we headed into the caves armed with headlamps and inner tubes! We had to do a practice jump beforehand – backwards off a platform into the freezing waters 3 meters below and landing on our inner tubes. An Irish couple didn't fare well in the practice run (Rich said you could've mistook the guy's cold shock for a heart attack), and they backed out completely once they saw the rushing waters in the first cave. Heavy rains in the area meant the water levels underground were very high. One section called “the limbo” was really more of a duck and dive job since there was less than 6 inches of head space between the water level and the rock above. Caving with the inner tube was actually a little cumbersome because if you weren't actually on it, the fast currents will drag it – and you – even more. The currents did make for some fun tubing, especially through the narrow passes where we joined up in a chain and turned off our headlamps to enjoy the starry sky-like glow of the worms. The ambiance was made complete by our group's rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in the echo-y caverns. We all managed the jumps and slides fine, and the guides challenged us to a game of “Find the Exit” by going dark and following only the trail of the glowworms above, floating solo until we all eventually emerged into the sunlit rainforest. Awesome!

New Plymouth, another 2.5 hours southwest of Waitomo, is usually not a place for tourists. A good-sized town, or “city” by New Zealand standards, it is mostly known as the home of the oil and gas industry. We were there, however, to visit friends. Oddly enough, one of Rich's friends from college  (a Brit) and one of my friends from grad school (an American) both just happened to have moved to this exact corner of New Zealand this year. We had a stroll along the waterfront (where volunteers were scanning the coast for missing and presumed drowned climbers) and peeked into the local museum. We tried several times to get a shot of the nearby mountain Taranaki (so perfectly cone-shaped, it's sometimes a movie double for Mt. Fuji) though the persistent rain and clouds were conspiring against us. But mostly in New Plymouth, we enjoyed the simple pleasures of life: an excellent tea and scones in a cafe, the ancient art of prowling for secondhand CD's in a record shop, and drinking good beers (Rich's friend unveiled a particularly fine stout he homebrewed).

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Rotorua (New Zealand)

A flight attendant recommended waiting until daylight to drive the 2.5 hours southeast from Auckland to Rotorua in order to appreciate the scenery. We had to admit it was a pretty good rendition of idyllic pastoral beauty. Rich thought it looked like England, but stretched on the z-axis. Blue skies – check. Rolling mossy green hills – check. Fluffy sheep and placid cows dotting said hills – check. As one person put it to us before, it's almost too perfect to be real. All it needed was a Christmas nativity or a model train set in order to convince us otherwise. No wonder director Peter Jackson decided to use one spot in the area for Hobbiton in the Lord of the Rings films. To cap it all off, we saw 4 rainbows in one day!

Rotorua is the one of the North Island's biggest tourist destinations. It is one of the world's most concentrated and accessible geothermal sites, and we checked them out a couple of ways. Wai-o-tapu is a park of multi-colored geothermal pools and geysers. The pools, rocks, and even plants are covered with layers of strange residues, e.g. reds for iron oxide, yellows or greens for sulfurs, etc. While most of these areas are too hot to even walk on (use the platforms for safety), there are other pools which you can sink right into at the spa in town. The rotten egg smell seems to pervade all of Rotorua, but somehow you manage to forget this and all your other cares in the steaming mineral baths overlooking the serene lake and surrounding hillsides.

Rotorua and the lake are important places for the indigenous Maori people. You can visit Maori village sites to learn more about the culture. Although most Maoris live integrated into modern life, the presentation showcased such important aspects like traditional greetings, songs, warrior canoes, and weapons training. Although obviously directed towards tourism, it doesn't feel forced or inauthentic. It's clear that the people are eager to share and preserve their culture. Visitors most look forward to the hangi, the traditional special meal buried and cooked over coals for hours. The lamb and chicken were very tender, the potatoes and kumara (a type of sweet potato) were wonderfully smoky, and the inclusion of stuffing showed the influence of British settlers. Yum!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Auckland (New Zealand)

The curse of the discount airlines struck down our plans to reunite in Auckland for a day of sightseeing. With Julie stuck in Sydney for an extra 24 hours, I was forced to go it alone. Unfortunately, being accustomed to being under her boot, I was unable to fully let my hair down and spent most of the day walking around aimlessly.

The decision to walk rather than drive got some strange looks from the hostel staff, but I'm glad I did. The half hour walk to the city centre was a nice one with good views of Auckland and the iconic sky tower all the way in. I also stopped in at a Asian-run Italian coffee shop that baked pastry shipped frozen from France. To my surprise, it was the best coffee I've had so far this trip. They also recommended I go to the port to check out the seafood market (see Julie's previous post regarding Asians and seafood). Although it was nice to see, it made me appreciate how lucky we are in Barcelona to have bigger seafood markets in every barrio!

My only other adventure was going to the Auckland Art Gallery. The new gallery (completed in time for the 2011 Rugby World Cup) showcases the best of Kiwi contemporary art. A big surprise came while I was puzzling over the toilet seat glued to the ceiling next to a row of framed O's. A tall, well dressed, and very excited man (who later turned out to be the museum's curator) came running through the exhibits telling people to get upstairs as quickly as possible. An award winning performance artist was coming on a surprise visit and about to do an impromptu show! I sauntered upstairs trying to pretend I was too cool be be excited about such things. Only when I got there did I read that this artist tries to “explore the relationship between artist and audience.” I think it's clear to everyone what that means. Yes, we would be called upon to “do stuff.” I hid quietly in the corner and prayed that she didn't pick me for some kind of embarrassing act, and prayed harder that the person next to me wasn't some kind of secret performer that was about to jump up and cause the crowd to look in my general direction. Fortunately, I was let off the hook, free to ponder the artist-audience relationship that arises from shoulder wrestling to the strains of an upside-down string quartet. Hmmmmm.

All in all, I had an interesting day in Auckland by myself. I was glad to pick Julie up later that evening, though, so we could continue our adventures together.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Sydney, Part II (Australia)

Sydney's Fish Market is the second largest in the world behind Tokyo's. As a seafood lover and hobby cook, I couldn't resist the Behind the Scenes tour, despite the 6:45 am start time. The demographics of the tour group were particularly amusing – a bunch of Asians and a couple of Frenchmen. But really, who else would be eager to get up so early to look at fresh caught fish? Fisherman in Australia are now required to land 100% of their catch so the Fish Market Seafood School and other outreach programs have been working to educate Sydneysiders (as the locals are known) and visitors on how to prepare and appreciate all the riches of the sea. The seafood is sorted, weighed, graded, and crated on the floor, and various suppliers and buyers can wander through examining the lots before the auction begins at 5:30 am. The auction itself is complicated, and the big screens, stadium seating, and panel of buttons at each place look more akin to an off-track betting operation. Most lots are sold in reverse auction (or “Dutch” auction since it was popularized for selling tulips), where the price starts high and winds down on the screen until someone presses “stop” and wins. Other lots start high, wind down, and then confusingly go up again as interested buyers outbid each other. Weaving through the stacks of crates, the tour guide picked up interesting specimens, explaining how they are caught and giving tips on buying and preparing them. In the sashimi pavillion, we saw the big fish that would be auctioned as single lots: gorgeous sushi-grade tuna, swordfish, and even a couple of mako sharks!

Though the city is known for its life on the waterfront, Sydney's greenspaces are nothing to be sneezed at either. Hyde Park, named for the one in London, is centrally located and home to the Anzac Memorial. At various times, but most significantly in World War I, Australia and New Zealand troops (or “Anzacs”) fought for the British crown... often it seemed with devastating consequences under their British commanding officers. The Royal Botanic Gardens and the adjacent Domain also had their origins in colonial times but now are big, beautiful parks with prime locations in downtown Sydney. Many of the Brit expats (a.k.a. “Poms” in Aussie-speak) were so homesick that the section that grows plants native to their “green and pleasant land” was and continues to be one of the most popular in the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Sydney (Australia)

Rich pushed on with work so I headed down to New South Wales to play. Sydney is Australia's most famous city though it isn't the capital (purpose-built Canberra is). Conceptually, I knew it was a harbor town though I was still unprepared to find it riddled with wharfs, harbors, and quays.

Circular Quay (pronounced “key”) is the main dock for the green and yellow public ferry system as well as home to the famed Sydney Opera House.  Jørn Utzon, the Danish architect who submitted the winning design, fell out of favor with the city when the build took 10 more years and 14x the amount of money that he estimated. He died, never seeing the completion of this Australian icon.  Opposite the Sydney Opera House are The Rocks district (the first settlement in Sydney and now home to artsy cafes and boutique shops) and the impressive Harbour Bridge.

The 18th Biennale, an international art festival that happens every two years, provided a good opportunity to get on the water. There was a free ferry to Cockatoo Island, the site of a former shipyard run on convict labor, where the industrial buildings of the museum were transformed into a contemporary art walk. With an Alcatraz kinda feel – and maybe I've watched too many movies - some of the impromptu galleries were a little eerie... like an abandoned warehouse that would be the perfect location for the someone to be tied up in a chair and tortured by the bad guys. More exhibitions were free (!) to the public at the excellent Art Gallery of New South Wales as well as the Australia Museum of Contemporary Art for the Biennale festivities.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Cairns, Port Douglas, and the Great Barrier Reef (Australia)

Domestic flights in Australia are reasonable with the discount airlines. We hopped on a plane rather than embarking on what would be the 20+ hour road trip northwest from Brisbane to Cairns, even though they're both in the state of Queensland. There isn't a whole lot to do in Cairns city. It has a weird Midwest-suburbia-combination-beach-town vibe (shopping mall sprawl and bars advertising fruity cocktail specials)... which is all the more strange because there is no actual beach! Instead, Cairns has a man-made shallow lagoon for mostly kiddies and a boardwalk called "The Esplanade" from which you can gaze upon the natural mud flats.

With travel agencies and information centers on every corner, one quickly realizes that Cairns is merely a base for the 600+ tours of the region. You can visit rainforests or vineyards, hot air balloon or sky dive, go caving or whitewater rafting, and the list goes on and on. But these are all secondary pursuits. Cairns's claim to fame is as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. 

Our first trip to the reef went directly out from the port in Cairns. Michaelmas Cay (about 30 km east) has only a tiny segment of beach for visitors since the rest is off-limits as a migratory bird sanctuary. It was nice for easing back into snorkeling since the water was quite calm though chilly. We were glad for the wetsuits and the hot tea after! Hastings Reef was farther out, and the waves were stronger. The site was larger and deeper. Beautiful parrotfish, butterflyfish, anemonefish (a.k.a. Nemo and cousins),  and countless others swam all around us in the gorgeous corals. On the way back to port, we even caught a glimpse of the spray from some humpback whales as they were migrating to their breeding grounds!

For our second trip, we decided to go with a boat out of Port Douglas, which meant getting up before dawn to catch the transfer to the town 70 km north. We were hoping that getting away from the Cairns-based hoards would mean more pristine reef, and the gamble paid off. During our first mooring in the middle of Opal Reef, Rich and I both had trouble believing we weren't swimming in an aquarium. The corals were so brilliantly colored, and the fish were so abundant in number and variety, that I kept expecting to turn and see a treasure chest opening with bubbles floating out! The other sites at Long Bommie (a bommie is the high point of a reef) and Tongue Reef were also very good. We could have gone with the bunch that the marine biologist was leading to Turtle Bay, but our choice to go off independently had its own reward. We didn't even notice that a turtle was so close until it zipped by right in front of us!

Back in Cairns, we splurged at one of the chic restaurants in order to taste some Australian wildlife. Rich finally got to try Moreton Bay Bugs, a prehistoric creature that looks just like a lobster tail with eyes. The verdict was disappointing: shrimp-like, but without any of the sweetness of a lobster or tiger prawn. I opted for what seemed like Australia on a platter: crocodile (slightly fishy chicken with a texture somewhere between breast and shrimp), kangaroo (really tender beef steak), emu (a little tough beef steak - but maybe it was overcooked since even medium rare is pushing it), and the popular Australian barramundi (nice, flaky white fish). I could imagine some of these could be strong and gamey, but this place did a fantastic job balancing the flavors and paring them nicely with a bed of potato/sweet potato mash and braised baby bok choi. I would definitely go back for seconds! 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Brisbane (Australia)

Our first impression of Queensland's capital and the third largest city in Australia was muddled in the jetlag of arrival. Saying goodbye to Rich's cousins and the outskirts, we headed back into the city proper to take in more. Most of the sights are easy walking. A stroll along the Brisbane River brings you past several museums and artsy cafes. We ducked into the Queensland Museum to learn a bit more of the state's history, including sheep ranches, sea cucumber fishing, and lots of mining. This could explain the sort of old Wild West vibe we've felt. I guess gold rushes will do that to a place. Further down river, the South Bank Parklands has pretty bits of rainforest, outdoor eateries, and the occasional monument from Brisbane's twin cities or various other cultural connections. But the real winner for greenspace has to be the City Botanic Gardens, where the huge fig, pine, and macadamia trees that shade lovely stretches of soft grass – real grass for our deprived Barcelona-selves! – made us wish we'd brought a picnic.

Heading up the pedestrian mall of Queen Street, we passed pubs and restaurants, clothing stores, souvenir shops, and money exchanges. It finally hit us that UGG boots are actually a product of Australia after passing countless outlets claiming to offer the best deal. We didn't buy any footwear, but we were quite happy to open our wallets for the farmer's market/food stalls at the end of the high street. Then again, we never could resist grilled sausages or kettle corn. It was a bargain compared to most of the meals we've had in this country, where even one takeout dish can set you back 16 Australian dollars (~ 17 USD or 14 €) - and that's without rice! 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Beerwah (Australia)

Steve Irwin fascinated millions as the Crocodile Hunter on his Animal Planet television show. While you may disagree with his methods, the Australia Zoo, which bears his name and likeness (and the likenesses of his entire family in a huge merchandising empire), in Beerwah is home to many of the continent's most intriguing creatures.

One advantage of visiting in the winter was that we and the other handful of tourists pretty much had the run of the zoo. The enclosures seemed reasonably sized and almost natural to our untrained eyes. The animals were very active. Echnidas (cute little porcupine things that catch insects with their long tongues) and cassowaries (prehistoric-looking giant flightless birds) were moving around so much that all our pictures were blurred.

Though the cost of admission was still dear, as the Aussies would say, zookeepers seemed to be around every corner with an animal you could meet. There were dingoes, baby alligators, and wombats (marsupials which look like rodents of unusual size... and adorableness). One exhibit was dedicated to native snakes with increasing levels of venom. Naturally, the focus of the stage show in the “Crocomuseum” was the saltwater crocodile. When the park staff in true Steve Irwin-style taunted Charlie the Crocodile, not comfortable with the ethics of such tactics, we were both secretly rooting for him to take a chunk out of one of them.

For us, the real highlight of the Australia Zoo were the koalas and kangaroos. So many koalas were in the trees that we half wondered if some of them were just planted teddy bears. After all, they sleep for 20 hours a day, digesting the toxic eucalyptus that is the mainstay of their diet, so it'd be hard to tell from the motionless balls of fur. Rich was lucky enough to catch one awake and snacking with a baby in its pouch! Being there on a school day was great, too, because the kangaroos were still hungry enough to eat from our hands. They weren't too grumpy so we could spend quite some time hanging out with them, and if the roos got tired, they could wander back into their own private rest areas.

Rich was disappointed there weren't any duck-billed platypuses, but all in all, we had an excellent visit to the Australia Zoo!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Brisbane, Beenleigh, Mount Tambourine, Surfers Paradise, and Burleigh Heads (Australia)

When we were barely newlyweds, Rich got sent off to Australia for work for almost 2 months. I had wanted to go visit him, but that whole wedding-and-honeymoon business had already used up a lot of time and cash. When he told me he was going for work again – let alone during August a.k.a. the month that all of Spain takes its vacations – there was no way I was going to miss this second chance!

If you drew a line from Spain straight through the center of the Earth, you would end up in Australia. This explains both the shockingly high airfare to Brisbane and the fact that the flights, strangely enough, show you could go in either an easterly or westerly direction. We'd heard good things about Emirates... but let's face it, everybody in economy just wants to get off the plane after watching 5 films and eating 6 meals... even with regular hot towels and tea service.

Rich's cousin was kind enough to pick us up when we landed at 2 a.m. and generous enough to let us stay with her family at their place in Beenleigh, a suburb of Brisbane. Our introduction to the land of Oz (as the Aussies call it) came the next morning when we were drinking tea on the back porch and a wild cockatoo landed in the big palm nearby! It's winter here, but you wouldn't know it during the sunny days, whose warm temperatures equal those of an English summer. Brightly-colored lorikeets stopped by later, and ibis(es?) and bush turkeys are so common they're almost pests... especially if the bush turkey decides to build his nest – basically a huge compost pile – in your yard.

We went for a drive – left side of the road, folks! - up to Mount Tambourine. There were gorgeous views of the lowlands (lots of horse country), and we watched a para-sailer ride the thermals below. The wineries were closed when we got there, but we did have a lovely coffee with views of the Gold Coast and Surfers Paradise to the strains of terrible country music. After about the 10th kookaburra, we stopped taking so many pictures of the birds each time we saw one.

Surfers Paradise up close is a flashy, touristy cluster of high-rise hotels, casinos, and clubs. However, just a little further south, Burleigh Heads is a quieter beach town with a nice little National Park. We took a stroll through the eucalyptus forest, with a slightly faster pace in the rock fall danger zone! Whales are sometimes spotted off the coast here, but all we caught were surfers. Lunch was at a restaurant at a life savers (life guard) station. Rich's cousins are members, so we were privileged to partake of their excellent fried seafood and what was the best seafood chowder ever! We've been talking about it ever since.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 12-14 Kedougou, Tambacounda, Dakar, and Goree Island (Senegal)

I was very disappointed that I was too sick to do the final day of training in Dar Es Salaam. We left the training materials with KEOH, who will do the follow up with the women's groups. After wrap up sessions with KEOH and the USAID-Yaajeende office in Kedougou, we said our goodbyes and hit the road again. My volunteer coordinator and our driver kindly arranged to break up the long haul back to Dakar with an overnight stay in Tambacounda so as not to overtax my recovery. It ended up being a good idea for everyone involved since traffic into the capital added an extra 2 hours onto the 9 hour journey.

Dakar is big and sprawling with 2.5 million people calling it home. We passed open markets selling all manner of goods, and should you not want to bother getting out of the car, quick-footed salesmen dodge traffic to sell cashews, bags of water, and a yellowy green fruit (very tart, good when juiced and mixed with sugar, and popular with the monkeys in the bush) at your window. Our neighborhood was mostly other hotels and government and NGO buildings. Dinner was at a lovely seaside venue, where I had yummy shrimp beignets and juice from the fruit of the baobab tree (creamy, sort of pear-banana-custard apple flavor).

I had an extra day to see a bit before leaving Senegal. We headed out to Goree Island, a settlement just off the coast. For many years, it was a major trading stop. The colorful architecture and balconies are reminiscent of New Orleans. You can visit the House of Slaves, where many Africans taken during the slave trade passed through the Door of No Return on their way to the New World. For less grim thoughts, Goree seems to have become a popular beach for day trippers. There's also a good view if you climb to the top of the island and look out the old gun turrets that used to defend it. Learning a tiny bit more about Senegalese culture and history made for a nice way to finish up my assignment.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 10-11 Dar Es Salaam and Kedougou (Senegal)

At one point in time, I considered joining the Peace Corps. One of the things that scared me off was an elective innocently called "Medical and Veterinary Entomology"... or as I liked to think of it, "101 Reasons Not to Join the Peace Corps." I'd always been fascinated by relationships between diseases and their insect vectors, and I thought, hey, malaria is pretty interesting! But then you learn about West Nile and dengue and yellow fever (all mosquito-borne) ... and African night time sleeping sickness (tsetse fly) ... and let's not ever forget the horrifying flesh-eating pictures of Leishmaniasis (sand fly). Seriously, DON'T google it. It's one thing to study these things in a vacuum. It's another thing to share the class with a couple of students - and former Peace Corps volunteers - who piped up with the occasional, "Yeah, I know someone who got that"... or worse, "They eventually found a doctor, who removed 21 larvae from his sinuses." That one still keeps me up at night.

Fast forward to the present, the Farmer-to-Farmer Program lets me try out that old Peace Corps dream... within the comforts of a shorter term commitment, a coordinator who speaks the local language, and travel insurance that covers medical evacuation. This assignment has allowed me to go and teach small farmers how to better feed their families in remote villages in Africa. How cool! Then that Peace Corps nightmare reared its ugly head.

It had started out with stomach cramps. I mostly ignored it, being somewhat of the opinion that your luck will run out eventually when traveling in the developing world. We had driven 2 hours down bumpy roads and puddles. Was it car sickness? We were in a field outside the village of Dar Es Salaam, looking for insects and diseases, handling plants, and chatting with the growers for about 20 minutes... until we found out that this field had just been sprayed with insecticides!?! Every pesticide has a restricted entry interval, or the time period after spraying when no one can enter the field without the appropriate protective equipment. We were still well within the dangerous period so I insisted that everyone exit immediately. I washed as best as I could at the time and encouraged others to do the same. We interviewed the growers about their practices and problems, feeling a little sorry for the fellow who applied the pesticides. He probably felt like he was being interrogated. They passed around mint tea in communal cups. Was this the reason for my digestive tract issues? Was it the pesticide exposure? I removed the contaminated clothing, had a cold shower, and washed my shoes as soon as possible. But as I lay at the hotel with a headache and severe body aches, my inability to sleep for 10 hours was plenty of time to review all I could remember about exposure symptoms (from another class - on insecticide toxicology). The scientist in me couldn't help but see the irony - and wax philosophic - about potentially being accidentally poisoned by the exact substances that I had researched for years under the strictest of safety protocols. I was almost relieved when the high fever set in, since it pushed my diagnosis towards something infectious. A bad night of mosquitoes a few nights back before we got a new bed net got thinking about new questions, like "What were the symptoms for those diseases?" and "What were their incubation times?" In the end and most fortunately, the well-stocked pharmacy that is my first aid kit managed to get me through the night. Having endured some exasperated looks from Rich at its bulk while backpacking, it really came through for me this time. Even the thermometer! Within 24 hours, I was feeling decidedly better.

The volunteer coordinator did offer to take me to the doctor or the hospital, but frankly, it was fatiguing to even walk the 3 feet to the bathroom. Of course, I would have gone if I hadn't improved the next day. Alls well that ends well!  

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 7-9 Saraya (Senegal)

Saraya is a village about 60 km northeast of Kedougou. Since trucks from the gold-mining industry and trade to land-locked Mali travel the same route, the roads are quite good to this remote village. We went to the hut of the president of one of the women groups to introduce ourselves, and all told, we ended up stopping by two more places to greet other important members of the community. The president and a couple of other ladies led us to the fields where we got the lay of the land.

One section is farmed by over 100 growers with the women's group Benk Hardy, and the other section has plots for over 40 growers belonging to another group, Tessito. The layout and organization are similar to the fields in Fadiga, but many of the same crops were further along here. They were probably benefiting from the extra rain in the area... but so were the weeds. This causes hefty competition for space, water (mentioned by many growers here as the biggest limiting factor), and other nutrients as well as creating reservoirs for diseases and insect pests to survive and increase in. In addition to the crops seen elsewhere, the Saraya fields have tomato, haricot bean, and sorrel (the source of that tasty drink I had in Tambacounda). Many of the same insects and diseases we've seen earlier occur in Saraya, too, but are present in differing degrees. On the positive side, termites aren't an issue - yet! - and the growers have been doing a better job keeping out the livestock (cows, pygmy goats, sheep, chickens, and donkeys), which tend to roam pretty freely all over Senegal.

Taking the time to visit fields in every location is really important. It helps you start to build a relationship with the growers, allows you to tailor training and recommendations to their specific concerns, and reinforces the importance of monitoring for good crop management. One village had access to chemical fertilizer. Another had big problems with what was only a minor pest in other fields. In Saraya, growers there had experience preparing homemade pesticides. They already knew how to make a solution out of the leaves of the locally-growing neem tree, the extract of which, in the developed world, is sold commercially as an effective insecticide/repellent.

Training in the village took place in the local school, where the more formal setting would help minimize interruptions and distractions. Other challenges we've faced throughout this assignment are language and basic literacy. While schools are taught in French, there is still a strong preference for the local language, and probably only 1 in 10 growers seemed comfortable conversing in French. Also, almost all of the growers were women, and it is not uncommon for girls to marry young in rural Senegal, so finishing school may be up to the discretion of their husbands. As such, my English words got translated into French by the Farmer-to-Farmer coordinator and then again into the local Pulaar by the KEOH representative. Besides everything taking three times longer to say, there were also gaps in understanding and approximations that had to be made. I worked out simple analogies with eating and human health to relate to crop protection. I thought hard about how to present highly technical concepts like relative differences in susceptibility, systematic scouting, and plant taxonomy. I consciously limited writing any words down. Instead, I relied very heavily on those English-teaching standards - miming and drawing pictures! My pathetic excuse for a leafhopper made me wish I'd taken that insect illustration class at Purdue. Hope the growers could make sense of my doodles! Fortunately for me, a few local "linkers" were in the audience. Similar to agricultural extension agents in the U.S., they - along with the KEOH rep - will be the ones following up in Saraya as well as going on to other groups to share my training and recommendations... and drawings. Eek!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 5-6 Fadiga (Senegal)

We returned to the village of Fadiga. The fields we had visited the day before belonged to a group of women growers (over 100 in their organization). Each woman has a small plot, similar to a community garden in the States or an allotment in the U.K. We started off with training on integrated pest management, or IPM, in a sort of open shelter under a thatched roof. IPM is an ecologically-based approach to managing insects and diseases in a crop using a combination of monitoring, prevention, and control practices. It should be a good fit for these women even with the limited resources at their disposal (e.g. watering cans and simple hand tools). Identification of the problems, crop rotation, seed bed preparation, and homemade pesticides were some of the topics we covered.

The training was not without hiccups. Our timing was a disadvantage. The rainy season is just beginning in Senegal, which means that all these growers who have been waiting for the first drops for weeks are now eager to get their seeds in the ground. In the States, I don't think anyone holding training during planting season could hope to have much attendance. In Fadiga, the women are no less busy. In one session, a couple of the growers were participating in the training AND shelling peanuts for cooking AND breastfeeding all at the same time. How is that for multi-tasking?

Secondly, Senegal is a predominantly Muslim country, and we are in the final stretch before the holy month of Ramadan begins in mid-July. Naturally, folks are trying to get ahead on their work - and their celebrations - before the tough times of fasting from sun up to sun down begin (Catholics, think of it like a hardcore Lent). For example, it's a Senegalese tradition to hold a naming ceremony for a baby a week after he/she was born. Everyone in the village as well as out-of-town friends and family are invited to a big celebration of food and music. While naming ceremonies still are permitted during Ramadan (unlike weddings), one can imagine they're a much more somber affair... so one was taking place in Fadiga one morning we were there. Since it is also an important sign of respect to greet everyone you meet upon arrival, people in their party clothes kept coming by the hut to shake hands. Really a lovely custom, but a tad bit disruptive in the training.

One of the days we visited Fadiga also was a Friday, the Muslim holy day. Men and old women in the village normally go to the mosque for prayers in the afternoon. Luckily, we were able to adapt and do the scouting session (i.e. make observations) in the fields with the women another day. Despite all the hitches, the growers received solid training in crop protection concepts and techniques, and I got some insights into the local culture!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Farmer-to-Farmer Program, Day 3-4: Kedougou, Fadiga, Thiankou Malal, and Dindefelo Falls (Senegal)

Kedougou is the name of the town and region where I will be based for my assignment. The region has a border with Mali to the east and Guinea to the south. There are more foreigners in town, too, because of international investment in the gold mining industry as well as activity by the U.S. Peace Corps and NGO's. Although the official language in Senegal is French, and most Senegalese speak Wolof (the largest indigenous language) as a native or second tongue, Pulaar is the language of choice in this region... Explaining to visitors that they'll hear Catalan, not Castellano, in Barcelona seems a lot less confusing. As a side note, Catalans might be amused to know that "nyam nyam," as in the sound you make eating calçots, has Wolof roots!

Conversations in the USAID office here in Kedougou happen in all 3 languages. I mostly sit back and wait for someone to explain. While USAID has several programs around Senegal, including the Yaajende Development Project for improving food security, mine is the first Farmer-to-Farmer assignment working in this region. The office supplied us with useful information and lent us some training materials (e.g. a backpack pesticide sprayer). We also went to meet the host contacts/beneficiary organization KEOH (Kedougou Surrounding and Guidance for Human Development) at their headquarters, where we discussed scheduling training and field visits.

Two KEOH guys came along in the truck the next day as we headed out to visit some fields. We stopped in Fadiga to look at fields where the women in the village grow crops to feed their own families as well as to sell at market. Vegetables like eggplant, hot pepper, and okra grow in small plots alongside mint and another leafy plant used in cooking called boro boro. Despite lacking much formal education and training, it's clear that the women are on to some good ideas. Building on these, I have hopes that I can provide them with solid techniques as well as give recommendations for their pest problems. Likewise in Thiankou Malal, we saw positive practices and challenges in the fields of the village's chief. Similar crops were growing as in Fadiga, albeit on a much larger scale and with access to much more upscale resources (e.g. an animal-driven plow). It never ceases to amaze me what experiences I have had that will come to inform an assignment. One of the problem insects in Fadiga was flea beetle, which was my first research project in entomology... way back in high school! Another blast from the past came when I asked the grower in Thiankou Milal which okra variety he was planting. He pulled out a empty can of Clemson Spineless - the one we used to grow in North Carolina!

We'll be working hard through the end of my assignment (no stops for the weekend!) so we decided to do a tiny bit of sight-seeing in the area for an hour. Not far from the last field we visited lies the Dindefelo Falls. Located in Niokolo-Koba National Park, first there is a 2 km walk through bush and woods, lovely and cool after the heat of the day. Sporting greenery in the crevices, two vertical rock faces meet in a corner, and the water falls from a lush wooded plateau 100 m (~ 30 stories) into a clear pool below. It's a beautiful and tranquil spot even now, and I imagine it only grows more impressive as the rainy season continues.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 1 - 2 Kaolack, Tambacounda, and Kedougou (Senegal)

After a French breakfast of coffee and croissant, we head out for some administrative business at the USAID office in Kaolack. The city is about 3 hours southeast of Dakar. The roads are remarkably good for the most part. The land is flat and parched and red with clay soils. One of the small towns we pass has capitalized on this with many of the roadside stalls displaying ceramic tiles as wares. A common sight in the dry land is the baobab tree, whose enormous girth threatens to give those California redwoods a run for their money. Along with the lion, the mighty baobab is an important symbol of Senegal. We didn't see any lions, but that might have to do with the huge tracts of land cleared and already marked as parcels for new construction. As we neared the Saloum river, shallow stretches of water appeared on either side of the highway, along with big white mounds where locals have been harvesting salt. Different sections are worked by different people, and the harvest is so plentiful that salt dominates the cargo of the semi-trucks that pass us. Some is destined for neighboring Mali, and some even gets to Europe for salting roads.

Delays at the bank meant we needed to stay overnight in Kaolack. The upside was getting a fantastic meal at place nearby. A typical Senegalese meal is some kind of meat or fish in a generous sauce on a heap of rice or couscous. It sounds simple enough, maybe even boring, but it is not! My first foray was thiou kary, a sort of beef stew with all the love and tenderness of hours of slow-cooking. It brought back memories for me since it basically was a dead ringer for that Filipino favorite mechado. The only difference being the occasional chunk of a sweetish yam. Now that sounds like comfort food to me.

Another morning, another drive brings us to another USAID office in Tambacounda. It's really just a pit stop on the march eastward. Lunch is in a real local place for local people. Butchering is happening roadside and everything. Maafe is on the menu: some kind of red meat and African eggplant (texture like our eggplant, but maybe looks more like a mini-pumpkin and has very faint bitter taste) in a tomato and peanut (aka "groundnut" in many parts of Africa) sauce on a bed of white rice. I also got to try sorrel, a delicious and refreshing reddish-purple drink made from steeped leaves. Another win for Senegalese dining!

The scenery changes gradually as we continue onward. The rainy season has come just a tiny bit sooner this way, and shades of green go from just faint patches on the ground to full blown carpets. More shrubs and leafy trees appear, competing with the giant termite mounds in the landscape. As we near Kedougou in the far southeastern corner of the country, the road rises and falls into actual hills. Though Kedougou was our destination all along, it was great to be able to see the full swath of Senegalese countryside.  

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 0 Paris (France) and Dakar (Senegal)

My journey started with a leg to Paris, which is somewhat fitting as Senegal was formerly a French colony. I waved my boarding pass in front of an electronic kiosk, which told me my connecting gate – K49. It was all very handy until I realized I only saw signs for Terminals A through G. Luckily, my layover was long enough that I could ask at information (so you're telling me K is in Terminal E?), stand in the ridiculous queue to go through customs and security again (harried passengers engaged in the most bold and unrepentant line-cutting I've ever seen), and look over the dismal yet expensive options at the food court. There was a chic boutique selling a rainbow of macarons, but such feathery delicacies don't really make for a solid lunch. I found a better selection at a takeaway place further down, which also offered 5 or 6 fruit tart options!

Dakar, the capital of Senegal, lies on the west coast bordering the Atlantic Ocean. In the U.S., it made my radar only as the place where the NPR lady with the cool accent (Ofeibea Quist-Arcton) usually reports from. Europeans mostly know of Dakar as the finish line for the Dakar Rally, an off-road race which ran annually for 30 years from Paris to the Senegalese capital. I was hoping that my stay would expand on my knowledge of the city, but arriving late, my experiences were limited. The immigration line was long, flanked by imposing military guards in berets, but it was nice they opened a special one for families traveling with children. I was a little disappointed that they didn't examine my yellow fever vaccination book. I've been carrying that thing with me for years since it records all my other vaccinations, but this time I actually had the yellow fever stamp! But the mosquito netting in the hotel room - and the little beasties trying to get in - reminded me to still be cautious. Oh my medical and veterinary entomology course, what would have I done without you? Yellow fever and dengue and malaria, oh my!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: the Trilogy

Agriculture happens all over the world, and yet after a while, you come to realize - it's a really freakin' small world. There's everyone who used to work for the same company (and the string of legacy companies behind it).... There's everyone who knows your major advisor... And let's not forget, in my particular case, my unintentional stalker R., who - unbeknownst to either of us - belonged to the same tiny department at Purdue, got a job in the lab next to me, and moved into the same apartment complex. Thankfully, she became my very good friend also.

But here is the final example of how small the world of agriculture is, a closing argument if you will: Earlier this year I sent an e-mail to one of my old managers just to keep in touch, and I just happened to mention I would be heading to Senegal. A few days later, he replied. He was writing from Senegal, as a volunteer with the same program, and traveling with the same coordinator that I will be with!?!

The Farmer-to-Farmer program is part of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and it has projects that seek to provide agricultural extension and advisory to farm groups and agribusinesses in developing countries all over the world. If this sounds at all familiar to you, reader, it may be because last year I completed two assignments in Nicaragua and Mozambique with the same program.

In Senegal, the Farmer-to-Farmer Program is administered by NCBA/CLUSA (that's the National Cooperative Business Association and Cooperative League of the U.S.A., respectively). My role as an Integrated Pest Management Specialist will be to provide technical training and consulting to millet (a type of cereal) and vegetable growers. I will be updating the blog with my experiences in the third installment of the Farmer-to-Farmer series if you want to read along...

To read more about my first assignment in Mozambique, you can start reading here:

My second assignment in Nicaragua begins here:

To learn more about the Farmer-to-Farmer program, visit the USAID and NCBA/CLUSA websites: