Friday, September 30, 2011

Food Travels-South Africa

A safari in Africa is up there with my ultimate dream of visiting Southeast Asia. Although I have been to Africa, it was North Africa (Morocco) which is nothing like Sub-Saharan Africa. I admit I'm a bit apprehensive of the flight namely due to my fear of contracting phlebitis which is an inflammation of the leg or arm veins caused by prolonged inactivity. (Twenty-two hour flights will definitely fall under the prolonged inactivity category; my uncle had phlebitis after his return flight home to New York from Johannesburg.) However, long flight or not, I definitely wouldn't let that deter me from a trip that would include seeing the "big five" or Table Mountain.

This week in the mail I received my two travel magazines I subscribe to, Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel  and National Geographic Traveler. I was immensely excited when I saw in National Geographic an advertisement on food and wine travels in South Africa. What was even cooler was that it included a recipe for a famous entree so naturally my destination for this week's food travels was an easy pick.

Bobotie (ba-boor-tea) is the national dish of South Africa consisting of spiced minced meat baked with an egg-based topping. I made the dish long ago from a children's cookbook of global foods but never forgot its distinct name. It was just as good as I remembered if not even better since this recipe was for grownups and not 10 year old cooks.


2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 onions, peeled and sliced
2 1/4 pounds minced beef or lamb
1 thick slice of white bread
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons salt
freshly ground pepper (about 1/2 teaspoon)
3/4 teaspoon tumeric
1 1/2 tablespoons malt vinegar
1/2 cup seedless raisins
2 tablespoons fruit chutney
2 bay or fresh lemon leaves
2 eggs

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Heat oil in pan and sautee onions over medium heat until transparent. Add minced meat and cook until lightly brown and crumbly. Soak bread in half the milk, squeeze out the excess liquid and mash with a fork. Pour the squeezed out milk back into the remaining milk and set aside. Add the mashed bread, curry powder, sugar, salt, pepper, tumeric, vinegar, raisins, and chutney to fried meat and onions and mix. Spoon mixture into a greased baking dish and press bay or lemon leaves on top. Bake in oven for 50-60 minutes. Beat eggs with milk and pour over the mixture approximately 25-30 minutes before the end of baking time. 

To accompany the bobotie I made ntomo krakro (sweet potato fritters). My only complaint is that they were extremely messy to handle when shaping into balls. Other than that, it was a nice tasting fall dish.

Ntomo Krakro (Sweet Potato Fritters)
4 sweet potatoes
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon flour
2 tablespoons butter, melted
enough water or milk to think the mixture into a fairly soft dough
2 large eggs, beaten
breadcrumbs for coating
oil (for frying)

Peel and boil the sweet potatoes until tender, mash them well. Beat eggs and add them to the sweet potatoes along with the flour, butter, dash of salt, and water (or milk). Shape mixture into balls, dip first in beaten eggs and then coat with breadcrumbs. Fry in hot oil until golden brown. Drain well and serve hot. 

I had planned to make a dessert from Mozambique that involved papaya but due to my local supermarket not having any ripe ones I wasn't able to make it tonight so there will be a part two for this week's food travels. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Group travel-"oh what a nightmare"

If you've ever seen the 2009 film My Life in Ruins starring Nia Vardalos, you'll know exactly why I tend to steer clear of group travel-the potential for obnoxious fellow travelers in your group, mediocre (read: nightmare) hotels, too little time spent at the actual sites, too much time spent shopping at stores where your tour group company most likely gets a commission. Although the film is a highly embellished comedy, Hollywood screenwriting at its best, it still touches on a lot of the problems that exist when participating in group travel. And so here are my main two reasons why for the most part, I avoid group travel.

Reason #1-I the traveler make the decision on everything when it comes to my trip
If there's one thing I hate when traveling, it's having to miss out on seeing a particular attraction or site that I don't know if I'll have the chance to see again. On my first trip to London I was on a group tour and desperately wanted to go on the London Eye. Well the famous Ferris wheel was not part of the itinerary and I never got to go on it. I returned to London two years later, but naturally the London Eye was not in operation then as it was undergoing yearly routine maintenance work. I'm still mad over the fact that I literally walked right by it and wasn't able to go on it. Of course had I been in London on my own, I naturally would have ridden it because I would have been the one setting the itinerary.

Reason #2-Group travel involves too many "commission" stops
I love to shop, I'm the first to admit that. But if I've traveled somewhere for the sole purpose of climbing ancient Mesoamerican ruins or visiting an area that has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, I don't want the majority of my trip spent in an artisan shop that most likely has paid my tour group's company a sizable commission for bringing a busload of tourists to shop and unload their wallets there. When my dad and I visited Toledo, Spain, we went as part of a group on a day trip from Madrid. Although we did get to see many of the key sites in the old city (the Alcazar, the cathedral, and one of Greco's most famous paintings,   The Burial of the Count of Orgaz), we had no time to independently walk the streets of what is a charming medieval Spanish city. While on our walking tour we passed by several small shops that looked like they contained many stunning artisan wares but we weren't allowed to stop. Instead we were herded back on to the bus so that we could "leisurely" take our time at a workshop where of course there was a "discount" offered. It was much the same way on the day trip my family and I took to visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadeloupe and the Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan outside of Mexico City. By the time we finally got to the ruins portion of the trip, so much time had been spent at "select shops" that we literally walked away from the guide's talk just so that we could climb the pyramids. As it was, we only were able to make it to the first landing on the Pyramid of the Sun before we had to return to the van.

However, there are a few merits to group travel.

1.) If you're traveling somewhere that you don't speak the language  and don't feel many people speak would speak much English to at least get by. While I was in Korea, I often had a difficult time with the language, but in Seoul I could always find someone who spoke at least a few words of English to assist me. However, I know that if I had traveled to more rural areas of the country, I would have had an entirely different experience. There are definitely benefits to traveling in a group in which you'd always have the assistance of a native speaker.

2.) You simply would feel safer, more relaxed traveling in a group. I would have no problems whatsoever traveling to Europe or Latin America with D or even just by myself. However, I know that countries in the Middle East or India have entirely different cultures and mindsets, and different ways of doing things. It would be nice to have all travel details taken care of for you from start to finish. It certainly would help in lessening any culture shock.

I'm not entirely opposed to group travel, especially if it's a tour with the Adventures by Disney  or Abercrombie & Kent, two luxury tour outfitters. But for now, I'll be sticking with me as the planner and tour guide.

For anyone reading this, do you have a preference when it comes to travel? Do you prefer traveling in a group or doing it alone and arranging the details yourself?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Trip Tips-Costa Rica

1.) There are two international airports in the country
If your visit to Costa Rica has you based in the more northern parts of the country, it might be worth investigating flying into Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport of Liberia, more commonly referred to as Liberia International Airport. Not only will flying into the Guanacaste region airport save you travel time (i.e. more time spent at the beaches or on flora and fauna walks in the rain forest), prices for plane tickets are often comparable to what they are when  flying into the country's capital airport, Juan Santamaria International.

2.) If your time is limited, don't be overly ambitious with your travel planning
Although Costa Rica is a small country, due to poor road conditions traveling from one location to another can sometimes take double what it should be. If you only have a week in Costa Rica and two of those are for  arrival and departure, five days is not a lot of time if your plans include visiting the Central Valley, Manuel Antonio, and Arenal. Your most vivid memories will be of the inordinate time you spent traveling to the destination, inside of the vehicle that transported you. Decide if you want more of a beach trip or one that involves volcanoes and cloud forests for starters.

3.) Don't be afraid to try the local food
Even though many tourist areas in Costa Rica are fast becoming over developed, featuring mega resorts complete with upscale restaurants serving global cuisine, the country offers visitors a simple yet hearty fare. Unlike in other Latin American countries where it is advised to avoid drinking the water, in Costa Rica it is safe to do. So one can partake in the many different types of batidos (milkshakes) that are available without worrying over becoming sick with a stomach ailment. In the four months I lived in Costa Rica while studying there in college, one of the best meals I had was at a small soda (the Costa Rican version of a diner) in the town of La Fortuna, where I feasted upon a delicious casado, a typical meal comprising of a meat or fish selection, a salad, fried plantains, and beans and rice. A meal at a fancy restaurant is always good but so is sampling local foods.

4.) Save yourself a potential headache and avoid renting a car
Although the benefits of renting a car are innumerable, the inferior conditions of many of Costa Rica's roads would frazzle even the toughest of drivers. Consider hiring a private driver to transport you from point to point, or for a less costly alternative, book ground transfers through a company like Interbus. Van sizes are usually limited to eight passengers, they travel to many tourist destinations in the country and will drop you off and pick you up at most hotels in those areas.

5.) Discover a whole other culture on the country's Caribbean coast
Many people aren't aware, but Costa Rica is home to a sizable West Indian population that lives along its Caribbean coast. Many came over in the late 1800s and early 1900s to work on the railroad being constructed at that time that was to link the Caribbean coast with the Pacific for transporting its king crop, bananas. When the railroad was finished, a good number remained and settled in Costa Rica. As such when you travel to towns like Puerto Limon and Puerto Viejo, you'll hear Jamaican music, see Bob Marley images, and find menu dishes like Jamaican jerk chicken.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Food travels-Magnolia Bakery (New York City)

I've never been but have always heard a lot about the famous Magnolia Bakery in New York City. Although there are now six locations, including one in Dubai, undoubtedly its most exotic one, it originally began operations at 401 Bleecker Street in the West Village with the intention of being a small neighborhood bakery. Needless to say it didn't stay that way for long.

Last month I picked up a copy of the complete MAGNOLIA BAKERY cookbook by original owners Allysa Torey and Jennifer Appel. The recipes sound delicious, but the pictures will make you wish you lived around the corner from one of the bakery's four New York City locations-lemon icebox pie, pumpkin cheesecake with gingersnap pecan crust, Magnolia's vanilla and chocolate cupcakes with vanilla butter cream. 

The first couple of sweets I made from the cookbook were cookies-iced molasses cookies and orange vanilla chip cookies which the authors write "they're rather unique and remind us of eating Creamsicles" (and they really do). But this past weekend I decided to venture into the cupcakes and layer cake chapter and made lemon layer cake.

I apologize for the quality of the pictures but the cake really did come out a vibrant yellow.

Needless to say I'm hooked on the cookbook and can't wait to visit the bakery. 

Lemon Layer Cake

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups self-rising flour
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 
Grease and lightly flour three 9 x 2-inch round cake pans, then line the bottoms with waxed paper. 
To make the cake: In a large bowl, on the medium speed of an electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar gradually and beat until fluffy, about three minutes. Add the eggs one at a time. Combine the flours and add in four parts, alternating with the milk and lemon juice and zest, beating well after each addition. Divide the batter among the cake pans. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into center of cake comes out clean. Let cakes cool in pans for 10 minutes. Remove from pans and cool completely on wire rack. 
When cake has cooled, spread the icing evenly between the layers and over top of cake. 

Lemon Buttercream

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, very soft
8 cups confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

Place the butter in a large mixing bowl. Add 4 cups of the sugar and then the juice and the zest. Beat until smooth and creamy. Gradually add the remaining sugar, 1 cup at a time, until the icing is thick enough to be of good spreading consistency. If desired, add a few drops of yellow food coloring and mix thoroughly. Use and store at room temperature. 

(This yields icing for one 2- or 3-layer 9-inch cake) 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Disney Dream-Dining Review

A cruise vacation is almost always synonymous with good eating and plenty of it. The Disney Dream is no exception. Dining options are bountiful morning, noon and night, ranging from a variety of sit-down table service spots to the less formal, counter service eateries, all Disney themed in some manner.

One of the more unique features of a Disney cruise is the rotational dining program, which allows passengers to dine at each of its three main restaurants for dinner. There's not just the opportunity to dine somewhere new each night, but you also have the same servers at every meal as they accompany you throughout your rotation. It's a nice way of getting to know some of the staff in a personal and individualized way. An added bonus was that D and I had our own table at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This was very nice considering that on other cruise lines, couples are not guaranteed their own table.

There are two dinner options on the ship, the first at 5:45 PM, the second at 8:30 PM. How it works is that if you have the first dinner seating, you will see the show after dinner, and if you have the second dinner seating you'll see the show before your dinner. D and I opted for the first seating as we thought 8:30 was a bit late to be eating a four course meal. Seating preferences are made at the time you book your cruise and just as a forewarning, the first seating tends to book up faster than the later seating.

Guests are given the option of an appetizer, soup or salad, main entree, and dessert. All of the menus at the three restaurants feature Disney Cruise Line favorites as denoted by an image of a miniature ship, as well as lighter fare options featuring a Mickey Mouse symbol. Baked salmon and oven-roasted chicken breast are available upon request.

For our first night we dined at the Royal Palace, which features a French inspired menu. The decor is reminiscent of main dining rooms on other ships, the noticeable differences being the exquisite floor length paintings of some of Disney's classic princesses-Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Belle from Beauty and the Beast, and a bread basket in the shape of Cinderella's coach. All of the courses at the Royal Palace were excellent and the portion sizes just right (no course is too large so you're able to comfortably enjoy each one). Highlights for me included my main entree, a pan seared tofu with grilled vegetables atop a bed of Israeli couscous and my dessert, Tahitian Vanilla Creme Brulee with a macaron. Soup and appetizer selections included Belle's French Onion Soup with Gruyere cheese and a Spinach Cheddar Souffle. My only critique of the restaurant was that with it being so large and filled with hundreds of people, it was extremely difficult to enjoy conversation.

Our second night of dining was at the Animator's Palate, a restaurant inspired by Disney animation. The chairs feature a distinct red, black, and yellow color scheme with a trademark design, Mickey Mouse pants with two bright yellow buttons each. Character sketches, maquettes, light boxes, computer work stations, and other tools of the animation trade serve as the restaurant's decorations. Scenes and characters from popular Disney films adorn the walls and actually interact with diners (Nemo from Finding Nemo paid us a "visit" while there). Although the look of the restaurant was extremely innovative and memorable, D and I found the food at Animator's Palate to be the weakest link of the ship's restaurants, good but not great. Menu selections include mushroom risotto, potato and cheddar bacon soup, trio of veal, and a no sugar added lemon mousse which was terrific.

As we had reservations at Remy, an adults only restaurant and our cruise was just three nights, we didn't get to dine at the third main restaurant, Enchanted Garden, although we did eat there for breakfast and lunch, both of which were buffet style. I especially enjoyed lunch because, in addition to the hot and heavier fare, there were numerous cold cuts and vegetables. (I reasoned that it would behoove me to eat sensibly at lunch since I would be eating so much and possibly less healthier at breakfast and dinner.) Lines for the buffet could get long but it was just something you needed to deal with and queue up when there was a break. The interior of the restaurant is stunning, similar to the Royal Palace in terms of striking elegance, but in a more relaxed and casual way. It has a color palate comprising whites, light greens, light blues, and light pink. The theme of the restaurant is modeled after French country gardens and at the center of the room is its piece de resistance, a seven foot tall cascading fountain topped by a cherub Mickey Mouse. Looks wise, this was my favorite place on the ship.

Other places to eat at on the ship included Cabanas, a casual spot that serves a buffet breakfast and lunch, and a table service style dinner on deck 11. It's labeled as an alternative spot to the ship's main three restaurants. For counter service options there is Flo's Cafe, also located on deck 11 and themed to popular characters from the Pixar film Cars-Luigi's Pizza, Tow Mater's Grill and Fillmore's Favorites. Selections there include burgers, chicken tenders, pizza, fresh fruit and salads. It was perfect the one day when I wanted something light and quick before dinner, and I found just that with some cut up melon.

There is the option of ordering room service, available 24 hours a day at no extra charge, however, sodas are not free (soft drinks and juices are free in the restaurants and from dispensers on deck 11 but not from room service). D and I never ordered room service simply because there wasn't enough time to do everything.

Dining on the Dream was spectacular; it was probably one of my favorite parts of the cruise. Feeding thousands of people at all times of the day, with dozens of different things is no easy feat, but Disney Cruise Line succeeds beautifully and at least to guests, effortlessly.  The Dream will not disappoint from a foodie perspective.

(Note: I will be posting a separate review of the adults only restaurant Remy. It was simply too excellent to post it with the other dining spots.)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Food travels-India

This past Monday I started having a major craving for samosas so I knew that India would most likely be the location of this week's food travels. What's funny is that I really didn't start eating Indian food until my senior year of college; I had just always shied away from it due to the stereotype of it being a very spicy cuisine. I've since then discovered that it is possible to eat Indian food without having your mouth burn off (one merely requests their dish to be a "one" on the spice level chart). Years ago on a date (with someone other than D) the guy took me to an Indian restaurant and it was from that point on that aloo gobi and I became best of friends. (Aloo gobi is a delicious dish comprised of nothing more than potatoes, cauliflowers, and a blend of spices.) I've never made this dish at home but it is usually the one thing you can always count on me to order when dining out at an Indian restaurant.

I started things off by making samosas. Although they are a bit time consuming (similar to the time and effort it takes when making empanadas), for my first time at making them I thought they came out pretty good.

The before picture (pre-frying)

And the after


1/4 cup chopped onions
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground corriander
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 medium potato-peeled, chopped, and cooked
1/2 cup peas, cooked
2 teaspoons lime juice
1 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup all purpose flour
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
6-8 tablespoons plain yogurt

Oil for frying

1. Melt the butter in a skillet and cook the onions till tender but not brown. Stir in the ginger, coriander and cayenne pepper. Cook for a further two minutes. 
2. Add the potatoes, peas, lime juice, garam masala and salt and mix well. Reduce heat to low and cook for five minutes, stirring from time to time. Remove and allow to cool. 
3. Combine the flour and salt together. Cut the butter into small pieces and rub into flour mixture until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add yogurt and form into a ball using your hands. 
4. Divide the dough into 6-7 balls. Roll each ball out into a five inch circle on a floured surface. Cut each circle in half. 
5. Place a teaspoon of the filling on each semi-circle, brush edges of dough with water and fold dough over the filling. Seal with the tines of a fork. 
6. Place 4-5 inches of oil in a medium pot and heat to 375 F. Cook a few of the samosas at a time for 1-2 minutes or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately, with mango chutney. 

(Makes 12-14. The recipe was from an Indian cooking class I took this past winter in Pittsburgh.)

For our main course I made Green Lamb Curry from Madhur Jaffrey's cookbook At Home with Madhur Jaffrey. She writes that it is a "most delicious curry from western India that may also be made with chicken." The pictures aren't the best as it was a lot greener in person. I served it on a bed of jasmine rice. 

Green Lamb Curry

2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 packed cups chopped cilantro
One 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
4 good-sized cloves garlic, chopped
3-4 fresh hot green chiles (such as bird's-eye), chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground tumeric
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons olive or canola oil
1/2 teaspoon while fennel seeds
1 medium onion, chopped
1 1/4 pounds boneless lamb, preferably from the shoulder, cut into 1-1 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 cup coconut milk from a well-shaken can

Put the lemon juice, 1/2 cup water, chopped cilantro, ginger, garlic, chiles, tumeric, and salt, in this order, into a blender. Blend thoroughly, scraping down the sides, if necessary, with a rubber spatula, until you have a fine paste.

Preheat the oven to 325 F. 

Pour the oil into an ovenproof pan and set over medium-high heat. When hot, put in the fennel seeds. Two seconds later, put in the onions. Stir and fry until the onions turn brown at the edges. Add the meat. Stir and fry on high heat 7-8 minutes or until the meat is lightly browned. Add the green sauce from the blender and bring to a simmer. Cover and place pan in the oven. Bake for 60-75 minutes, then test to see if the meat is tender; if not, return to the oven for 15 minutes. Take the pan out of the oven and add the coconut milk. Stir it in. Reheat gently just before serving. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Top Five Restaurants at Walt Disney World

One of the things I look forward to the most when going to Disney World is dining at the incredible array of restaurants found at its four parks and hotels. Although all the ones I've eaten at (and I've eaten at many over the years) had their own merits and charms, I decided to list my top five in no particular order.

San Angel Inn (Epcot's World Showcase)
Cuisine: Mexican
This is one restaurant that I've eaten at on just about every visit to Disney World. When I was younger, my brother and I were each allowed to pick a restaurant and following the summer I spent in Mexico as a teenager the San Angel Inn was always my choice. Its location inside the Mexico pavilion (which is situated inside of a recreated Mesoamerican pyramid) is phenomenal. Located at the lagoon's edge on the promenade, the setting makes for an intimate meal. (The restaurant is billed as a top spot for a romantic meal.) While the menu does feature your typical "Mexican" cuisine such as tacos and nachos, it also features more exotic fare that includes mole poblano (grilled chicken breast served over a bed of chicken morsels, carrots, chayote chiles, with the classic sauce of spices and a hint of chocolate) and sirloin con chile relleno (grilled beef sirloin with chile ancho sauce, served with beans and cheese stuffed pepper, poblano rice and fried plantains).

Akershus Royal Banquet Hall (Epcot's World Showcase)
Cuisine: Scandinavian
I've only dined here once but it was a fantastic experience. Although my parents and I were a bit hesitant over an entirely Norwegian meal (thoughts of there being nothing but herring consumed us), we were pleasantly surprised by the endless bounty of delicious offerings. Akershus does offer a Disney princess character breakfast; however, I recommend eating at lunch or dinner where you can partake in the Royal Feast, an all you can eat buffet. Selections include deli meats, salads, and cheeses as well as entrees like fresh poached cod, braised beef short ribs, venison stew and a multitude of dessert options. The best though was a miniature viking ship made entirely out of chocolate.

The Supercalifragilistic Breakfast-1900 Park Fare (Grand Floridian Hotel)
Cuisine: American
There is no shortage of character breakfast options at Walt Disney World, but the one held at the Grand Floridian Hotel is perhaps my favorite. As its name denotes, it's hosted by Mary Poppins along with Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter, and friends. The restaurant itself is elegant and the highlight of the decor is undoubtedly Big Bertha, a band organ built in Paris over a century ago which sits 15 feet above the floor in a proscenium. Breakfast selections are standard, although they are a bit more upscale than at other character breakfasts which is no surprise considering that the Grand Floridian at Disney World was modeled after a a grand 19th century hotel  in the Orange State.

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano (Hollywood Studios)
Cuisine: Italian
I think of Italian food as offering "reliable comfort" for one's stomach and Mama Melrose's does exactly that. Flatbreads are the specialty at Mama Melrose's and are prepared in a wood-burning oven along with pasta, grilled fish, and vegetarian options that also grace the menu. The real winners are the items found on the dessert menu, which include crema limone-lemon custard topped with with fresh whipped cream and berries, and honey-hazelnut and ricotta cheesecake.

Liberty Tree Tavern (Magic Kingdom)
Cuisine: American
I've only eaten here for lunch but had a terrific meal. The Liberty Tree Tavern is colonial themed (decor that looks like it belongs at Colonial Williamsburg graces the walls and rooms) and its menu features dishes that complement it such as New England clam chowder, New England pot roast, and the pilgrim's feast which includes traditional roast turkey and herb bread dressing, mashed potatoes, and a garden vegetable. (Dinner is an all-you-can-eat buffet.)

Note: All of the restaurants feature a children's menu. It is highly recommended to make reservations in advance at most Walt Disney World sit-down restaurants.

San Angel Inn-image courtesy of

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Attraction review: The Mezquita

The Mezquita (Cathedral-Mosque) of Cordoba
Cordoba, Spain

The attraction: What originally began as a pagan temple, then became a Visgothic Christian church, then a mosque,  and then a church once again, the Mezquita is one of the most visited and well known attractions in the region of Andalusia. Its origins date back to 600 when the building was errected as a Christian Visgothic church. After the Islamic conquest of the Visgothic kingdom, the Muslim workers gradually redesigned the building as a mosque with work beginning in 784. The mosque would see many changes but the building reached its current dimensions and sizes in 987 with the completion of the outer naves and courtyard. Of course with the Reconquest of Spain from the Moorish rulers, the mosque was turned back into a Christian church, with many of its Islamic religious symbols and features being reacquistioned as well (the minaret of the mosque was converted into the bell tower for the cathedral).

Pros to visiting: Prior to studying in Spain for the semester I looked forward the most to visiting the Alhambra in Granada. I was anxious to tour the Mezquita but not nearly to the degree I was for the famed Moorish palace in the Sierra Nevada foothills. However, after having visiting both, I enjoyed the Mezquita more than the Alhambra. I felt that the Alhambra was such a talked up destination and that it simply didn't live up to my expectations for it, whereas with the Mezquita it was the complete opposite. I would think it would be that way for a lot of first time visitors to Spain. The architecture is beyond stunning, especially its giant arches, with 856 columns of jasper, onyx, marble, and granite.

Cons to visiting: The Mezquita is incredible, though the old quarter in Cordoba is not nearly as charming as that of Seville's. However, it's still worth a trip from Seville (if you happen to be based there as my dad and I were) as the train on the high speed line AVE gets you there in roughly 70 minutes.

Summary: I haven't been back to Spain since I studied there in 2006 but when I return, I definitely want my visit to include Cordoba's Mezquita. It is such an incredible structure, not just in regards to its architecture but also its history. Spain's Moorish history is found throughout the country but for me it was most striking at the Mezquita.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Five timeless experiences

1.) Taking a Bateaux Mouche ride on the River Seine in Paris
I've been to Paris three times and each time I've gone up in the Eiffel Tower. Were I to visit again sometime within the next five years, I would probably opt to skip it, not because it doesn't offer fantastic views but more because I don't see going up in it as a timeless experience. The crowds can be horrendous, the lines to queue extremely long and that just puts a damper on it for me. I much prefer the open excursion boats that take visitors to the City of Light up and down its most famous waterway. I love to view the city's most iconic landmarks from the water for it provides an entirely different viewing perspective. Last September D and I took a Bateaux Mouche dinner cruise and it was fantastic. The boat glided effortlessly up and down the Seine and landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, the Musee d'Orsay, the Louvre and Notre Dame looked stunning all lit up. Night or day, it's an experience I always enjoy.

2.) Having authentic salsa in Mexico
Salsa in Mexico simply cannot be beat. Although there are plenty of authentic Mexican restaurants in the United States, eating salsa in the land where it originated is an entirely different experience. When I think back to all of the places I've lived and visited in Mexico (Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Cancun, Queretaro), memories of salsas always come to mind, including mouth numbing spicy ones. At Casa Hidalgo, a terrific restaurant across from the Palacio de Cortes (Cortez's palace) in Cuernavaca, I sampled a salsa from one of three that are placed on each table. I had never tasted anything so spicy before; my mouth felt like it was on fire and there were tears welling in my eyes from how hot it was. A forewarning: although it's said to help, bread, for me at least did not cool my mouth down.

Image courtesy of

3.) Visiting the monuments in Washington D.C.
They're free admission, they're outside, and they're simply majestic all in their own right. I enjoy the moving yet simple nature of the Vietnam War memorial and the more in-depth scope of the Franklin Roosevelt memorial, which depicts his four terms as president. I find the location of the Lincoln Memorial stunning, overlooking the National Mall, all of the nation's capital at one's feet. I've only been to the World War Two Memorial once since it opened, but the presence of the military veterans makes it that much more of a humbling experience.
Image courtesy of
4.) Gazing out at the sparkling blue waters of the Caribbean
I've gazed at it innumerable times, but the crystal clear color of the Caribbean Sea never fails to captivate me anew every time I see it. When D and I visited the Mexican beach resort of Cancun in 2008, we had had an extremely early flight and by the time we arrived in Mexico, we were both exhausted. However, as soon as I caught sight of the Caribbean just beyond the massive glass windows of the hotel lobby, I felt less tired and more relaxed. I could have gazed at it for hours and never grown tired. Although there are countless other bodies of water in the world that I have not seen, some perhaps more striking than the Caribbean, that is still one of the most gorgeous and intoxicating ones.

5.) Relaxing at a cafe in Europe
If there is one thing I've learned from my experiences in Europe, it's that the Europeans take their time whether it's eating a meal or just sipping a cafe. They're in no hurry to leave and the waiters and waitresses could care less if you rush right on or linger for hours. Coming from a country whose restaurant culture promotes the check being brought to your table without your having to ask for it, and the more diners you bring in the better, it was quite an adjustment to go to a continent whose culture  for the most part does not promote the check being brought to you (it's considered rude). And even when requesting it multiple times, it still may not always appear. But with time, I have grown accustomed to this, and frankly have come to greatly enjoy it. Sometimes there is nothing better than just relaxing with a chocolat chaud and a warm flaky croissant.

Image courtesy of

Monday, September 19, 2011

Cairo Time-a movie analysis from a tourist perspective

Countless movies are filmed abroad each year but none are as enticing to me as the ones whose protagonists are tourists. The 2009 film Cairo Time by director Ruba Nadda is one that fits into that category.

The character of Juliette (played by the always phenomenal Patricia Clarkson) has come to Egypt for a vacation with her husband Mark, a UN official working in nearby Gaza. Mark is delayed by work and so he asks his longtime friend and Egyptian native Tareq (played by Alexander Siddig) to watch out for Juliette until he arrives.

Although Juliette is a fiercely independent woman back home in New York, she finds her new role as tourist in a heavily dominated male world to be decidedly different. Tired of the confines of her hotel room (even though it features a veranda complete with a spectacular view of the Nile River), she sets out to explore the streets of Cairo only to discover that her blond hair and fair, bare arms make her an easy target for inappropriate comments and a flock of harassing followers. However, it is Tareq who takes her under his wing, accompanying her around the city, offering not just the security and comfort that is often needed for foreign women traveling alone, but also a cross-cultural friendship, something that many travelers never have the privilege of acquiring when abroad.

When Juliette asks Tareq why there are no women at the coffee house where they are, he informs her it is because it's a men only coffee house. Towards the end of the film, Juliette jokes that the first thing she will do upon moving to Cairo is open up a coffee house just for women. When she compains about the moral and social wrongs of Egyptian children working long hours in a rug factory, Tareq becomes annoyed with her imperialist-style thinking, the Western world playing the role of the heroic savior to the "other." In time however, Juliette becomes at ease in hot and chaotic Cairo, due mainly to Tareq. She walks the streets with him relaxed, smokes apple cinnamon hookah and even travels with him to Alexandria to attend the wedding of his former girlfriend's daughter.

What I loved most about the film were the scenes in which Egypt was the principal star and Clarkson and Siddig were in supporting roles. At one point Juliette travels to the famed White Desert, an area that features  massive cream colored chalk rock formations that have been created as a result of occasional sandstorms. After returning in the early morning hours, they travel to a nearby pyramid, content to watch the blisteringly hot sun rise from the shadows of the desert. There is no dialog in this particular scene, simply them, the desert, and an ancient pyramid.

Cairo Time was filmed long before the famous revolution that took place in Egypt earlier this year. I wonder, would things be different for Juliette the tourist if she were to travel there now. I've read that since the revolution, tourism has been down in Egypt, with many tourists afraid to return. Yet insiders say now is perhaps the best time to visit the country. Just like when Tareq and Juliette had a gorgeous sunrise to themselves from atop a pyramid, you could too. But if your bank account doesn't allow for an impromptu visit to Egypt at the moment, renting Cairo Time will suffice, because it is truly that wonderfully beautiful and poignant a film.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cooking with Julia

Since I was away last weekend I didn't have the chance to go on any food travels so needless to say I was anxious to get back to the kitchen this weekend. I returned to Julia's Mastering the Art of French Cooking as the temperatures in the northeast had dropped considerably and so the cookbook's heavy and rich recipes no longer seemed "off limits" as they were in the throngs of summer's warm weather. It also seemed the perfect ode to our delicious French meal we had while on our cruise.

I started out by making aigo bouido (garlic soup) which I was slightly disappointed by. Julia writes:

"Enjoying your first bowl of garlic soup, you might never suspect what it is made of. Because the garlic is boiled, its after-effects are at a minimum, and its flavor becomes exquisite, aromatic, and almost undefinable."

It was one of those dishes that smelled a lot better than it tasted. She recommends serving it with rounds of hard-toasted French bread and grated Swiss or Parmesan cheese.

For our main course I made ratatouille, an eggplant casserole with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and zucchini.

"Ratatouille perfumes the kitchen with the essence of Provence and is certainly one of the great Mediterranean dishes. Happily a ratatouille may be cooked completely the day before it is to be served, and it seems to gain in flavor when reheated."

I've never made ratatouille before but both D and I enjoyed it immensely. I didn't have any fresh parsley to use or I'm sure it would have even tasted better than it did. It yielded a lot and I'm already looking forward to leftovers for lunch during the work week.

And for our sweet finish I made my first ever sweet souffle, souffle a la vanille (vanilla souffle). I was slightly nervous before making it, since souffles are definitely the "temperamental" sort in the cooking world. But I read through the recipe multiple times prior to beginning to make sure I fully understood each of the steps. It came out quite well I feel.

Bon appetit!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Hotel Review-Springhill Suites Asheville, North Carolina

Marriott Springhill Suites
Asheville, North Carolina
Date of stay: May 2011

When you're a hotel rewards member, and two of your three nights accommodations are free, I really didn't  mind not staying in the downtown. Besides the obvious cost savings, it was only a five minute drive to the downtown and convenient to Biltmore, most people's primary reasons for visiting Asheville.

Located on Buckstone Place along with two other hotels, the Springhill Suites offers greater degrees of privacy and quiet due to its slight removal from the development and congestion found along Interstate 70. Although there are few places in the Asheville environs where you wouldn't be able to spot its famed Blue Ridge Mountains, the fact that the hotel enjoys a slightly elevated position due to its being situated on a hill only makes you feel that much closer to nature.

I've only stayed at one Springhill Suites before this trip, but I've always thought in comparison with Marriott's other brands, the Springhill Suites has an almost futuristic look to it. Featuring contemporary chic furniture, its lobby resembles an Apple retail store. Also present were two computers and a printer, along with a pantry selling a variety of cold beverages and snacks.

Our room was located on the third floor (the top) and offered an uninspiring view of the parking lot. The room was spacious and even featured a kitchenette complete with a small refrigerator, microwave, and sink. The room also offered free Internet, either through the hotel's wireless network or an ethernet cable that they provide. I had brought my laptop with me so it was convenient being able to upload photos I had taken while still on vacation (one less thing to do after returning home).

My only negative critique of the room was the layout of the bathroom. Although it was extremely large, for some reason the toilet was literally right next to the shower,  offering very little room when either stepping in or out of the shower.

Two nice hotel perks that I took advantage of were the indoor pool which was open nightly until 10 PM and the free breakfast that was offered each morning. It's always an added bonus when you can eat breakfast at your hotel in your slippers if you so desire.

All in all an enjoyable stay in a visual masterpiece of an area.

2 Buckstone Place
Asheville, North Carolina 28805 

Friday, September 16, 2011

A cooking vacation-is it really that, a vacation?

I have always dreamt about doing a culinary vacation. As I've gotten older and become more "entrenched" in the cooking world in my spare time, my zest for traveling to a foreign country and doing nothing but cooking local dishes and shopping at local markets for ingredients native to that country has only increased. However, as much as I adore cooking, after a couple of hours being in the kitchen on my feet, I'm often exhausted by the time it comes to eat the meal.

When I took a cooking class earlier this year on Indian cuisine, I was looking so forward to it. After the class was over, I didn't have the fantastic time I thought I would due to the immature and arrogant antics of some of my fellow classmates, many of whom were easily 15 years older than me and had apparently never grown up, Also, I along with another woman, had been in charge of making the samosas. I love to eat them but boy, they took a lot of hard work. While others in group had two if not more cooking assignments, I only made the samosas because that's literally how long they take to make-the preparation for the filling, the making of the dough, the assembling, the frying (of which I sustained multiple oil burns since they are deep fried). It was after that night of my Indian cooking class when I wondered to myself, would a culinary vacation really be a vacation? Would I come home  with fond memories after having spent a week in Italy or France or would I just be happy to be out of a kitchen setting, content to eat nothing but microwavable meals for the foreseeable future?

Culinary vacations are very expensive; week long ones in Western Europe easily range from the high two thousands (USD) and upward. Since D is not a cook (he has perfected his boiling water skills though), it would be entirely too much money to spend on something that only I would get enjoyment out of. However, I have looked into day long and half-day classes at locales around the world that I have either been to or would love to visit one day. I figured that attending a half-day cooking class would be a fraction of the cost it would be be for a week long culinary vacation, not to mention I hopefully wouldn't come home wanting nothing to ever do with a kitchen again.

Here are three cooking schools I have researched and hopefully one day might attend.

1.) Cook'n with class-Paris, France
I looked into this school while researching unique things to do while in our honeymoon to Paris last September. While the idea of attending a cooking class in Paris of all places sounded like a dream come true, I ultimately decided against it due to our short time in the City of Light. The thing with cooking classes is that they are never an hour or two affair, always much longer, and I knew there were things that D really wanted to see since it was his first trip there. The school offers an assortment of classes ranging from a morning/evening market class to a French baking class (this is what I was interested in, the idea of learning how to make my own delectable French pastries seemed fantastique) to even something as neat as a macaron class. Prices are on the expensive side (185 euros for their morning market class), especially for American tourists since the euro is still beating the dollar, but I would like to think it would be a worthwhile experience.

Image courtesy of

2.) Seasons of My Heart-Oaxaca, Mexico
Since I was a young teenager, I have always wanted to visit the southern colonial city of Oaxaca. Its name alone fills my exotic seeking void. When I found out about chef Susana Trilling's school there, I added it to my always increasing bucket list of places to visit. Although culinary tours are offered (they last approximately a week and are focused on a particular state or region in Mexico), I am much more interested in her cooking school. There is a half-day option along with a day class that visits a local markets. At only $50 for a half day class and $75 for the full day, Seasons of my Heart seems like a good deal.

Image courtesy of
3.) Ban Thai Cooking School-Chiang Mai, Thailand
It is a dream of mine to have unlimited time to travel throughout Southeast Asia. And in that dream it includes a cooking class in a country like Thailand or Vietnam (I've read that cooking schools in Laos and Cambodia are not as extensive as those in their neighboring countries). I first came across the Ban Thai Cooking School after reading a post on that listed the 9 top cities for culinary schools and culinary vacations, and Chiang Mai was one of them. As it's Southeast Asia, prices for classes are extremely low (roughly $28 USD for a day course, $22 for an evening course) so all the more enticing. Each course whether morning or evening includes a market tour. Morning tour participants make six dishes while those in the evening make five.

Image courtesy of

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Disney Cruise Mini Recap

It's already been a week since D and I embarked on our three night Disney cruise on their newest ship the Dream. The ship sailed from Port Canaveral, Florida and made two stops in the Bahamas-the capital city of Nassau and Disney's own private island, Castaway Cay. We had a fantastic time from start to finish. I'll be posting reviews and pictures soon but here's a sneak preview in the meantime:

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Five "Miss" Attractions

1.) Atomium-Brussels, Belgium
Although there are numerous attractions on the outskirts of Brussels, for some reason D and I chose to visit the Atomium and I really wish we had gone somewhere else. Not only did getting there involve an extremely long ride on the metro, but it was quite expensive (11 euros) too, all for one of the most lackluster attractions I have ever visited. Built for the 1958 Brussels World's Fair, the monument stands 335 feet (102 meters) tall and has nine steel spheres connected so that the whole forms the shape of a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. Although it's a neat photo op, traveling from sphere to sphere was less than thrilling (travel is done by way of escalators) and the exhibits found inside the spheres were also low on riveting content. For the time in which it was built the Atomium was a "modern innovation," but today it seems more of a historical relic.

2.) Palatine Hill-Rome, Italy
This site can be visited on the same ticket as the Colosseum, otherwise I would say skip it. Although from a historical context it holds much importance, being one of the most ancient parts of the city, the large open-air museum of ancient Roman ruins is a let down after visiting the Roman Forum which is 40 meters below. I found Palatine Hill, the centermost of the Seven Hills of Rome, to be nothing more than a green, peaceful respite from the craziness of Rome. Five years after I visited Italy, I remember vividly the look of the Temple of the Vestal Virgins and the Arch of the Septimius Severus. However, I don't remember anything distinctly from Palatine Hill.

3.) Ernest Hemingway Museum-Oak Park, Illinois
Although I am a self-professed Hemingway die-hard, the museum in his hometown left me wishing for something better, something more professional for one of one of America's most famous writers. The museum contains a multitude of his personal effects ranging from his childhood to his later years in Cuba and Idaho, but they're organized and laid out in a nonsensical sort of manner (exhibits jump around from the early 1900s to the 1940s to back to the 1920s, which makes me wonder about the curators). A visit to his home in Key West, Florida is a much better way to learn about Papa Hemingway.

4.) Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe-Mexico City, Mexico
I visited this en route to the Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan, otherwise I would have skipped it. It's a Roman Catholic church, minor basilica, and National Shrine of Mexico, built nearby the place where Our Lady of Guadalupe is said to have appeared to Juan Diego, an indigenous peasant in the 16th century. Although it is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Catholicism, I found it to be overrun with hawkers selling every sort of tacky religious souvenir imaginable, thus decreasing its symbolic feel. Our Lady of Guadalupe and Juan Diego are two extremely important figures in Mexican history and yet if you're not Catholic, it doesn't seem to be an attraction to seek out on its own.

(The old basilica, a new one was built in the 1970s)

5.) The Teleferico-Madrid, Spain
For some reason, I am mildly obsessed with cable cars. So when I was looking for more "unique" things to do in Madrid when my dad was visiting during my semester of studying in Spain, I came across the teleferico (the Spanish word for cable car). Although it's billed as a chance to see the city from another perspective, the only landmark you could easily make out was the Palacio Real (Royal Palace). Other than that, it was a high up ride. To make matters worse, my dad and I had arrived just as it had closed for the traditional siesta. I thought we wouldn't have ton worry about it being closed seeing as how it is definitely more of a tourist attraction than anything else, but alas we weren't. We ended up getting overcharged for bocadillos (sandwiches) at a nearby bar, so my memories of the afternoon we rode on the teleferico are less than memorable.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Attraction review: Chimney Rock State Park

Chimney Rock State Park
Rutherford County, North Carolina

The attraction: Located 25 miles southeast of Asheville, North Carolina, Chimney Rock is a state park. It offers a variety of hiking trails for all skill levels, spectacular vistas, a waterfall, and perhaps its most recognizable feature, the 315 foot (96 meter) rock formation, a granite monolith, Chimney Rock. It operated as a privately managed park for more than a century until 2007 when it became a state park.

Pros to visiting: There's no denying that all of the Asheville area is gorgeous in terms of natural scenery. At Chimney Rock it's even more so because you're even higher up, that much closer to "heaven." From serious hikers to those who regard hiking as more of a recreational pursuit, there are a total of five different trails, including one designed with children in mind (Great Woodland Adventure). There's also a 404 foot waterfall (Hickory Nut Falls), which is one of the highest waterfalls east of the Mississippi River, reachable by one of the park's more leisurely trails. The park has also been featured prominently on the big screen, most noticeably in the 1992 film Last of the Mohicans staring Daniel Day-Lewis. Most of the final scenes of the film were shot at the park including the fight between Uncas and Magua, Alice's decision, and the climactic fight scene between Magua and Chingachgook. Although I didn't realize it at the time, my dad immediately recognized the area upon seeing my photos, I can instantly picture the scenes from the film in my head. The view from atop the "rock" is also spectacular, one of the prettiest sights I have ever admired. On a clear day, views of 75 miles away are offered.

Cons to visiting: Although there is a lot to do once there, park admission costs are somewhat on the expensive side especially for a family. (Adults 16 and over cost $15, children between the ages of six and 15 cost $6.) I am all for supporting state parks but for a group of four or more, a visit to the park can end up eating a large portion of your traveling budget. Starting in April of this year, Chimney Rock began a series of improvement projects resulting in the closure of the elevator that takes you to the top of Chimney Rock so I wouldn't recommend a visit right now if you or anyone in your group is unable to climb to the top. (It's at an elevation of 2,280 feet which equates to hundreds of steep steps.)

Conclusion: Most people come to Asheville for Biltmore and yet a morning, afternoon or even a whole day spent at Chimney Rock State Park is time well spent. The Blue Ridge Mountains are some of America's prettiest and are easily accessible for a lot of people. Finally I really enjoyed the ride to Chimney Rock that was full of curvy roads around mountaintops that you literally had to take at 20 miles per hour for how hazardous they were. Driving through the small community of Chimney Rock, you observe a way of life that didn't look like it's changed in hundreds of years. It was like taking a trip back in time, living the fictional world that was created on the pages of Charles Frazier's North Carolina based Civil War novel, Cold Mountain.

Monday, September 12, 2011

How about a a war-torn country?

I am a staunch believer in tourism serving as a catalyst to reboosting a country's economy and image. The Central American nation of Nicaragua had been torn apart from civil war and strife in the late 1970s and 1980s, but since then its tourist industry, although still fledgling, increases in size and scope each year. Nicaragua has often been equated to what Costa Rica once was for visitors, still somewhat of a hidden and unique gem. However, were the Sandinistas and Contra factions still battling it out, I would have had no desire to visit the country due to the principal mantra of travelers, which is to be safe at all times. Moreover, I also feel that one travels abroad to see and experience a country at its best, not its worst, and war torn times would undoubtedly fall into the latter category.

A recent article by Michelle Baran in Budget Travel magazine regarding vacationing in Afghanistan left me mildly bemused. It reported that a Canadian tour operator would be offering tours to the Central Asian nation this fall because "the demand was there." The article went on to say that the demographic who would be interested in such a tour "is aware of the risks and are ready and willing to take on the challenges the destination presents." Apparently the tour company also specializes in travel to other "challenging" destinations such as North Korea, Iran, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq, all destinations that in my opinion people would be foolish to travel to at the current time given the state of affairs in these countries.

I know there exist some travelers who feel they are invincible until they discover in one fleeting moment that they actually aren't. They discover the enormity of their situation when they are jailed in a country in which their native country has no diplomatic relations. They discover that war is being waged within the boundaries of the country they are traveling in, and death or injury is not limited to the natives. One of the tour guides for the Canadian company was quoted as saying that "we avoid any military installations and military sights." Are the whereabouts of the Taliban, at one time a ruling government of Afghanistan but now an insurgency movement, so easily known, especially when traveling in the country's rugged and mountainous terrain? Hasn't Kabul's Green Zone, the so-called "safe spot" for NATO military and diplomatic personnel, still been subject to bouts of violence? As an example of what can happen, in March 2001, the Buddhas of Bamiyan, two monumental statues of standing Buddhas carved into a side of a cliff in the Bamiyan valley, were destroyed after the then Taliban government  declared them "idols." Two culturally and historically significant treasures and destroyed just like that.

Some may feel that Mexico is a war-torn country.  I don't. Although the war being waged between the Mexican government and the drug cartels has cost thousands of lives, it hasn't crippled the lives of its citizens or stopped tourists from visiting. For the people who refuse to travel to Mexico on claims that it's dangerous, they are uninformed, preferring to remain ignorant rather than knowing the truth. The violence that plagues the country is generally contained to the border areas and certain states near it, not where tourists would (or should) be visiting.

Mexico is a country that developed its million dollar tourist industry from the ground up and it shows on many levels. Although it would be wonderful one day for Afghanistan to have a tourist industry, it is nowhere near that point. The lives of its citizens are not safe. How safe would it be for tourists? How could one vacation in a war-torn country knowing that people are being stoned to death for crimes that in the free and peaceful world wouldn't be considered such? It wouldn't be a vacation, it would be a sobering experience.

There are enough exotic locales in the world to visit. Travel to those destinations and leave any war-torn nations unchecked on your places to visit list.

The destroyed Bamiyan Buddahs-image courtesy of

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Finally...a trip!

I won't be posting for the next couple of days as I'll be sailing on the high seas with Mickey and his friends. D and I booked our Disney cruise way back in January so it's very exciting that the day has just about arrived. I'm looking extremely forward to crystal blue waters, exquisite food, and utter relaxation.

Until next time!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Five Somber Experiences

1.) Shoah Memorial-Paris, France
The Shoah Memorial is the largest research, information, and awareness raising center in Europe on the history of the genocide of the Jews during the Holocaust. Located in Paris' historical Jewish quarter the Marais, the Shoah Memorial offers visitors a look into Paris and France's darkest days. Security to gain admittance is strict, but once through you again pass outside to the Wall of Names where the names of 76,000 French men, women, and children who were deported to death and concentration camps in eastern Europe are inscribed on its pillars. Of this large number only 2,500 survived deportation. The memorial says that "the wall restores identity to the children, women and men the Nazis tried to eradicate from the surface of the earth." Seeing all those names there was sobering, especially the names whose year of birth clearly indicated they had been children. The other tough moment for me when visiting was towards the end, where  the photos of all France's child victims of the Holocaust were displayed.You are surrounded by the living ghosts of children whose lives ended entirely too soon.

2.) Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)-Korea
 The most heavily militarized border in the world. A 160 mile (250 kilometers) long  strip of land that has been on the brink of war for more than half a century. Although I learned much of modern Korean history prior to visiting the DMZ during the summer I studied in Seoul, nothing could actually prepare me for being there in person. I viewed a border that has divided a people for so long, that has taken so many lives and caused so much pain and suffering for individuals on both sides of it. It's easy to think of the Korean War as just another event in history, something to read about in a classroom textbook. But it's not. The Korean War has never officially ended and the DMZ is the most vivid reminder of this.
Image courtesy of
 3.) Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo)-Buenos Aires, Argentina
 Tango and Eva Peron may be the two things that most people think of when the country of Argentina is mentioned, but the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo are equally important. It is an association of Argentine women whose children "disappeared" during the Dirty War of the military dictatorship, between 1976 and 1983. For over thirty years, they have tried to be reunited with their abducted children, many whom were tortured and then killed. In protests, they wear white head scarves with their child's name embroidered, to symbolize the blankets of the lost children. The name of their association comes from the location in Buenos Aires (Plaza de Mayo) where the mothers and grandmothers first gathered seeking answers. For the last decade, they have continued to meet there every Thursday, although today they meet to protest in support of action on other social causes. But the majority of the women still go without answers as to the fate of their sons and daughters, the whereabouts of their bodies never known. I was fortunate enough to have seen these valiant women when I visited Argentina in 2007.

4.) Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen)-(Madrid environs, Spain)
The thing that haunted me the most from my semester in Spain was the legacy of the country's most infamous dictator, Francisco Franco. Nowhere is this felt more than at the Valle de los Caidos, near to the famous palace of El Escorial on the outskirts of Madrid. It is a Catholic basilica and memorial that was conceived by Franco to honor and bury those who died during the Spanish Civil War, a conflict fought between those who supported democracy and free ideas and those who didn't. I would go on to write my undergraduate dissertation on a topic related to the Franco years through the analysis of three modern day Spanish films so I know that the valley was not intended to memorialize the losing side's dead of the war. Although the valley contains both Nationalist and Republican graves, the tone and feel of the monument is distinctly Nationalist and anti-Communist, Franco's side. Ten percent of the construction workers for the memorial and basilica were convicts, some of them Popular Front prisoners (soldiers who had supported Spain's short lived Republic) . Franco, the man who ruled Spain with an iron fist for more than 30 years,  is also buried there, making the entire area highly controversial.

5.) Gettysburg National Battlefield-Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
The United States has not borne witness to fighting on its own soil for almost 150 years. However, in the mid-19th century it was the site of the country's most horrific battles, Gettysburg being one of them. The battle is often said to have been the turning point in the American Civil War, but it was also the battle with the largest number of casualties in the entire four year conflict. Everywhere you walk in the battlefield is in some way  sacred ground, for even if a solider is not buried there, someone may have died right where you were stepping. The row after row of mass graves in the National Cemetery is especially poignant, for it contains the graves of thousands of men, young and old, who died in a span of only a couple of days. It is a cemetery completely filled from the one of the costliest battles in American history. And saddest of all, contains the graves of hundreds of unknown soldiers.

Note: I have personally visited all of the five experiences I wrote about.