Friday, January 30, 2015

Tipi Tombo and Two Toucans

I'm sitting up in bed in our little cottage in Trinidad, writing this post. One of the things I find so amazing is that there is no glass in the window behind me. A bat just flew in and flew out the french door at my side. I'm inside a mosquito net in a sleeveless gown, barefoot and very comfortable after a shower. It was a bit warm today, maybe up to 85 or so, but we rarely felt it since we are under the canopy of large trees and our deck is on the north side of the house. I painted out there today while Yata wrote a song in the study, a room with another glass-less window overlooking the plains and mountains to the north. This sort of lodging wouldn't be for everyone; in fact, Nick, our son, asked me how we kept the rats out. Actually, we have a resident guard cat Lulu and two dogs besides. There are too many dogs in our neighborhood, a common problem on many of our trips to less developed countries. But regardless of the bats, and such, we love being in such comfort and submerged in nature. We spend about an hour a day bird watching still. One day while I stood at the kitchen window doing dishes I looked up and there was a pair of Toucans or should I say two Toucans. Also saw a pair of parrots.

Alert! Food blog next.
So we've been very adventurous with food here. We actually live in an area that is mainly inhabited by East Indians who came historically as indentured workers. So there are Roti shops and Trinidad is famous for the Doubles that they make. A roti is a fluffy wrap filled with choice of meat and a mash of yellow lentils and spices (I think.) Double are really great too. Again a bread pocket (two/double) layered with mashed chick peas and topped with various pepper sauces or chutneys. Another food item Trinidad is known for is the Bake and Shark most famously served at Maracas Bay beach on the north shore. This is deep fried bread pocket filled with fresh deep fried shark or Kingfish and then you have a bar of condiments to smother it with: shredded cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, onion dressings, hot sauce and a tangy sauce made from a local tree fruit the Cythry (this may be spelled completely wrong). We've had Sorrel, a drink made by steeping the pods of the Sorrel bush in hot water and sweetened. I even enjoyed a Sorrel Shandy. These are all things we've tried out of our own kitchen but we've been adventurous on our own as well.

I go shopping with Rory or Bunty our hosts and they know of my interest so they'll point out a new item at the green grocer and say something like, “ these are the Tipi Tombos, and they are only available during this season. They are a lot like waterchestnuts.” So I bought a pound or so not really knowing exactly how to prepare them. They look just like little new potatoes. I boiled them longer than potatoes and then found that they were much harder to peel due to their tough skin, much more so than a new potato. Inside the 'meat' is just like a water chestnut. Next time, I'll pass and buy a can of water chestnuts. Another challenge was the Chataigne, or Breadnut. A green prickley looking fruit about the size of a cantelope, again Bunty said, “these are really good”. So I bought one and did look up a bit of instruction online to have some idea of what to do with them. Chataigne, by the way is french for Chestnut and I think the french named the plant thus since it reminded them of their Chestnut back home. You tear the fruit apart to find these nuts, about 50 to a fruit. You then boil the nuts to remove the fibers around each shell. Then you have to remove the hard shell which breaks and peels fairly easily, but the final paper thin layer that clings to the one inch creamy nut is the pain. Since I thought the flavor was like artichoke heart, I made some into a semblance of that artichoke heart dip that was so popular for a while, with the mayo, cheese, garlic and baked.
Pretty good but a lot of work....

Monday we took a trip with our friend and driver Shammy to the north east coast of the island. It was beautiful and a fun day. We had a lunch at a little local cafe: stewed chicken with noodles and callaloo.
Calalloo is another food that is typical of Trinidad. It is considered Creole food. It is made from the young leaves of a particular plant along with okra and coconut milk into a stew. It's really yummy and in fact tonight I made a quick supper by putting shredded chicken and cassava root into the callaloo and heating that up. Speaking of cassava. I've always heard of it and so had to try this 'Ground Provision' as they call the root crops here. It's shaped like a yam, is harvested this time of year and is pretty much like a potato. You could use it in all the same ways. The skin is tougher and a bit harder to peal than a potato.

While on our trip to the north coast I noticed a fish market so we stopped and bought a couple of fresh fish. A Carite and a Kingfish. Both excellent. I did my traditional fried fish with lemon butter sauce, made a ceviche out of the odd parts like the tail fin sections and then made a stock from the scraps and heads with bay leaf, garlic and onion. I later made an Asian broth from this by adding lemon grass from our garden as well as soy/ginger sauce, more garlic, mushroom and fresh ginger root. I served the broth over fresh thin sliced green pepper, the Tipi Tombo (water chestnuts) and noodles.

As I've mentioned before, we live in a four acre tropical garden and this climate is ideal for growing fruit so we have an endless supply of grapefruit, lime, banana and these wonderful oranges called Portugals. They are dark green but inside they are similar to a mandarin orange in texture. Very seedy but the juice is great. I contend that it is the only citrus juice in which you can actually taste the flavor of the orange blossom. So instead of lemons in a recipe, for example, I would use Portugal juice, awesome!

Well is that enough food for one post? One more thing. Today on the way to the Wild Fowl Trust we stopped for fresh doubles, a street food to try at home some time. On the way home we stopped at the grocery with Shammy and he helps us understand some of the food customs. For example: we bought a hunk of tea chocolate. It is mixed with cloves and nutmeg and other spices. You grate it into boiling water. Strain the tea and serve with milk and sugar. Cocoa is a native tree of Trinidad so we've had some great gourmet chocolates from CocoBelle a local chocolatier who combines the chocolate with the local fruit and spice flavors such as sorrel, passionfruit, coffee, etc.

Enough about food, onto birds …. again! Yes we went to to the Point a Pierre Wild Fowl Trust, on the site of a huge oil refinery on the west coast. Yes you read that right, an oil refinery. When you are at the trust you don't even realize there is a refinery near by. It is a beautiful sanctuary, oasis for the wild fowl like the Purple Gallinule, the Wild Muscovy Duck and many more. We languished there for a couple hours walking slowly around the body of water at the center, painting, taking many pictures, bird-watching and being educated about the local trees by Shammy. A nice day!

We just booked a flight to Tobago for next week. We'd like to see it and maybe do a little bit of beach time. They're supposed to have a good snorkeling reef I'm looking forward to.

Little Blue House at Blanchisuesse, 16 x 20 acrylic

The Pan Man, 36 x 36 acrylic

Violaceous, 36 x 36 acrylic

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Violaceous Euphonia and the Scarlet Ibis

We've been here for over two weeks now. There is a really thriving art and music scene here. Almost daily we meet more artists: painters, musicians, potters, writers, film-makers and more. Rory and Bunty took us to a concert at the National Academy of Performing Artists for a concert of the faculty and some visiting faculty from the US. We followed that up with a trip a few blocks away to the “pan yard” of Phase II, one of the favorite Pan drum Orchestras. They were in “practice-mode” preparing for the first phase of competition which will culminate in a huge show, Pandemonium, in the main open air stadium downtown Port of Spain in less than a month. Pan orchestras are something really exceptional about Trinidad. They are made up of up to 125 players playing anywhere from two to nine drums at a time. Each drummer's drums are positioned into a metal rack on wheels. They practice their one song that they will compete with each year, specially composed for them, over and over again; maybe as many as 100 times a night; night after night for about a month in advance. The leaders are celebrities in their own right, with stories of last minute 'saves' in the competition. There is a documentary called Pan Odyssey which tells about this phenomenal thing.

On the other end of the day we wake surrounded by bird song and sip our coffee with a binocular in one hand. I've mentioned the hummingbird but some of the other highlights have been the Turquoise Tanager, the Orange shouldered Parrot, Violaceous Euphonia (love that name) and the Toucan. But the most spectacular bird on the island is the National bird of Trinidad, the Scarlet Ibis. To see them we booked a tour into the Caroni Swamp where the birds come at sunset to roost in a particular grove of trees. Thousands of bright red large birds all congregating on a small green arborial island. The world's largest Christmas Tree! At the base of the island, the skirt, are flocks of the Snowy and the Cattle Egret, both intense white. Place this all against a steel blue sky! WOW!

Recent paintings:
Ruby Topaz, 36 x 36 acrylic

Trinidad II, 36 x 36 acrylic

Rainforest, 16 x 20

Monday, January 12, 2015

With Love from W.I. To WI

Trinidad I
Yes, we are in the West Indies, Trinidad to be exact, having come from frosty Wisconsin (WI) we are lavishing in tropical warmth, barefoot. Sorry to incite any envy, but how else can I tell you what we are doing without mentioning this. The weather is one of the main reasons we leave WI in the winter. But the weather has been interesting here. It's supposed to be the beginning of the dry season but instead the rainy season is lingering into January. What that means is that its been raining a lot! A couple days this week it rained in sheets most of the day and all night. The ground is soggy and the air is humid to say the least. We tried to go for a walk but got rained on and came back to our sweet cottage. The cottage is situated on a four acre tropical garden in the center of the country, in the countryside. We have a deck off the kitchen which looks out towards the hilly grasslands and to the mountain range in the north. Trinidad is also a bird watcher's heaven and we've been enjoying the birds and butterflies. Rory and Bunty, our hosts, loaned us a good binocular. I could sit all day and look for birds and then look them up in the bird book. Our closest neighbor is a Copper rumped Hummingbird who lives in the tree just off our deck. He has inspired my large painting of the week, the 3 ft by 3ft canvas. Another circle, titled Hummingbirth.
Hummingbirth  36 x 36 inches acrylic

We haven't gone far except to the grocery in Port of Spain and to the local market in the nearest town. So I've been enjoying cooking. Today I made an eggplant curry and Caponata (my favorite Italian eggplant relish). I also made a beet salad with green apples and feta cheese. Tonight we had beef stroganoff with portabello mushroom, yummy. The only exotic food (unique to us) we've had so far is Breadfruit. It is a large tree fruit that when cut up looks like starchy uncooked potato. When boiled it makes the best 'mashed potatoes' you've ever had, almost like you added some cream to the potatoes/breadfruit. You serve it with butter. The garden we live in produces unlimited grapefruit, limes, bananas and mandarins. The local beer Stag, is a great lager, Yata and I are impressed with it.

In fact, overall we are impressed with Trinidad. It's a very developed country. Good education and standard of living. The mixture of Muslim, Hindu and Christian seem to get along well, as do the races. But, the country is only seven miles from the coast of South American, Venezuela to be exact and that brings gang/drug crime. The crime rate is up and people are concerned. The world is not a particularly safe place these days but we refuse let it keep us down. We will continue to be cautious, do our research and try not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In some ways we feel as if we are home here. Bunty and Rory feel like long lost friends. They are artists, Bunty a talented artist and she has many artists friends just like I do back home. I have a feeling it's going to be difficult to leave here, seven weeks from now.

Stay warm and keep the creative juices flowing! Jean and Yata   

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The traveling painter and musician....?!

Trinidad Tobago in the south eastern Caribbean was our destination. We were flying out of way sub zero Wisconsin. The morning we left to catch our airport shuttle to MSP it was 17 below zero Fahrenheit. So cold that when you drew air in to breath, it actually made your cold-sensitive teeth ache. That was a first! But we could put up with that knowing we'd soon be in a steady equatorial climate, warm and humid, for two months!

I was transporting artist's materials (warned not to tell TSA that they are paint) acrylics to be exact. I have been a watercolorist – the easiest to travel with, an oil painter- not so easy- and a pastel artist- the pastel sticks show up on the xray machines looking like bullets or shells as they are composed of heavy metals such as cadmium and cobalt-which need to be left out like a lap top if carrying through security.

I have recently started using acrylics which have the advantage, or disadvantage of drying quickly. I hadn't had the time in the studio in the last two years to work on the large scale series of semi-abstracted plant forms that I had started and thought, 'that's it, I'll do that in Trinidad'! I imagined I could take the pre-primed canvas, broken down stretcher bars, tacks and painting supplies and stretch the canvas there, complete the painting, untack it from the stretcher bars and roll it up to return home where I would re-stretch it. I wanted to work large, four by four feet or so. Trying to imagine how to do this I thought of using a golf travel bag to transport all these things. Eventually I got the 'bright idea' to use a ski travel bag which I borrowed from a friend. It was over six feet long and about twenty four inches in circumference. Perfect. NOT. It was so heavy and cumbersome, once loaded, that I realized that it was highly unlikely that the airlines would allow this.

(Warning: this paragraph is about dealing with the airlines customer relations and if you might find this tedious, skip over it!!) In fact, I spent quite a few hours on the phone or waiting in the American Airlines phone queue and reading the fine print on the airlines baggage policy. On the Sports page of the baggage policy it allows a ski and boot bag to count as a checked bag. But, and this is the kicker, in the fine print it says that the bags can only be used for the intended purpose: golf clubs in a golf bag, skis in a ski bag, etc. But, three times I called customer service to see if this was strictly enforced. The first two times, the staff were very easy going, 'sure you can take art supplies in a ski bag', until I'd mention the fine print and then they'd back off, possibly contact a superior, try to contact MSP American Airlines ticketing to eventually say, 'we aren't sure'. The third time I got a definite 'no', from the resolutions department. So I cut my canvas roll from sixty inches long to 40”, eliminated my four foot long stretcher bars and found a former tent bag that I thought I might be able to use. I kept most of my paints, carefully repackaged in plastic tubs or zip-lock bags, a bin of brushes and such intact. I unrolled the canvas from it's core, cut some of it off, rerolled it around the three foot stretcher bars and then rolled that with shrink roll. The airlines also have a limit on weight and size. Fifty pounds, and 62 inches. So if I understood the size limit correctly, I could have a forty inch bag with a twenty two inch circumference. I took the plastic shrink roll along in case I needed to 'shorten' the tent bag which was about sixty inches long and eighteen inches in circumference, to eliminate the $200 oversize charge at the check-in. We got to the counter plenty early-in fact we took the 3:07am shuttle to have plenty of time to spare. The attendant asked suspiciously, 'what's in here'? I said 'artist's materials'. She started to get excited....I said ' but they are acrylics; they are not flammable!' She settled down and put the bag tag on. Away it went to Port of Spain,Trinidad. The tent bag was oversized, but not such that it was charged and it went to special handling but made it to POS thankfully. Phew!! I'm gonna' be painting!!

One other concern about acrylic paints is that they don't like to get cold. They can turn to 'cottage cheese' if they get below about forty degrees Fahrenheit or so. The tent bag with the paints in them road in an unheated cargo trailer from Menomonie, Wisconsin to Minneapolis/St Paul airport, about an hour and a half ride at about 15 below zero Fahrenheit. Would I have usable paints in Trinidad???

I can happily report that I'm am now sitting in my cottage in central Trinidad, having just checked the paints to find that they are still in good form....sigh of relief!

But what about the Musician you ask? He, Yata, wanted to travel with two guitars, supposedly so I could 'jam' with him. I play the bass unprofessionally, he's a professional singer and rythmn guitar player. We've traveled the globe with two guitars. One great find was an inexpensive guitar we picked up in Antiqua Guatemala years ago, an Aranguez, a nylon stringed sweety, only about two feet long with a cut-away neck. And Yata bought himself a Christmas gift of a Yamaha tenor guitar, another nylon stringed smaller sized guitar (nylon is better in a humid environment-they can't rust). So again, the airlines....they are pretty lenient with small guitars if they fit in the overhead compartment. No problem.