Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Minus Two on the Charm Scale

Sunset at Picard Beach
I think that AirBnb and other travel sites should have a category in their rating system for charm. After you’ve stayed in one of their member accommodations you are asked to rate them for location, accuracy, cleanliness, communication and value.  We’ve had a strange run here with AirBnb.  Maybe it isn’t designed for old folks like us.  When you read the reviews of sites, they are often young travelers, rarely people like us in our sixth decade.  

The garden at Sister's Sea Lodge
But this run of bad luck in Antigua, and now in Dominica, brings back memories of some of the other less than pleasant lodgings we’ve stayed in over our last eighteen years of travel.  For example there was the tent in the Masai Mara while on safari, that was riddled with mosquitoes, a sagging cot and a spare bathroom attached at the back. There was the hovel in Isla Mujeras that was so grungy I had to drink a few shots of tequila to be able to sleep in restless ignorance; the little motel in San Juan de Atitlan Guatemala where I was accidentally locked into the bathroom with no way out short of removing the hardware. Speaking of hardware; the bathroom shower was an instantaneous hot water shower head that could have been an instantaneous electrocution device, with electrical wires running directly to the shower head a few inches above your head.  I could go on ….  but here in Dominica we finally decided we’d had enough of subpar accommodations.  The room looked ok in photos and the reviews were five star, albeit, with only a couple reviews over the course of two years. In reality it was a small apartment in a sixteen unit four story concrete monstrosity set in a complex of dozens of other concrete abominations.  Turns out it was mostly rented to students at Ross Medical University just a block away.  We had to ask for new pillows — the old ones stunk — kitchen towel which were actually a cafe curtain panel and a pillow case.  Not a lick of art on the walls, a long fluorescent bulb above the bed as the only light in the room, etc.  But there was Wifi so I quickly got on the computer and found a place nearby on the beach that looked like our style, Sisters Sea Lodge. But they were closed until the next day until 9am.  So we made the appointment and contacted the manager and cancelled the week remaining in the concrete gulag. The manager wasn’t happy about it but seemed to understand when we told him honestly that, “ It wasn’t what we expected” and that we “Wanted something nicer”.  He even drove us to see the Sisters Sea Lodge the next morning. 

We loved it, just our style. On the beach, the tiny resort included a huge tropical garden with cabins built by an Italian owner. It reminded us of our first winter travel destination, Villa Los Mapaches at Isla Hotbox. The cabin has stone walls with wooden ceiling and furniture.  This is a bit larger and more substantial than the palapa —thatched huts — of Mexico and it  has survived at least one major hurricane — Erica, just two years ago.  

Already we’ve had a great lunch of fried Lionfish with fries and salad and a decent French Rosé in the house restaurant sitting here on Coconut Beach.  Life is good!

So, on a 1 to 10 scale, last nights lodging, rates a minus 2 on the charm scale and tonight’s looks closer to 8.

Donkey and the Lost Cell Phone

One day while in Dominica we decided to take one of the local buses, a van, to Scott’s Head at the southern tip of the island, where the Atlantic and the Caribbean meet.  There is a striking promontory at the very point that we wanted to hike and scope out for future snorkeling. 

From Scott's Head looking north up the Dominica coast.
We rode there from the next village, Soufriere, where we were staying for the week. We were deposited in the small town center and were heading toward the point when I saw a good photo subject and, reaching for my phone, realized that it was missing.  Panic! Then ,”No I probably just left it on the table back at the apartment”. But we saw another bus driver across the street so I thought maybe he could just check with the other driver. This is a pretty small island and I figured he probably knew who that driver was. Sure enough, Donkey, as his name was lettered in large silver foil across the top of his windshield, did know who that last driver was since he had just passed him enroute.  He immediately called him but his phone ran out of time just that moment.  Because he had tried to call, the other driver, called him back. 

Meanwhile we were climbing up the rocky isthmus when a van pulled up at the base and began honking and flashing his lights at us. We ran down and there was Jean Claude, aka Donkey with my cell phone.  I was so relieved and a bit surprised since I really thought I had left it at the apartment.  So we tipped him and talked to him about driving us to Portsmouth when we  moved to our next accommodation.  We told him where we were staying and got his number and agreed to Sunday morning at 10:30.  I tried calling him using WhatsAp the Wifi phone application that so many people use internationally.  But I couldn’t reach him to confirm. So the day before departure I I got the number for another driver and made other arrangements.  But Saturday evening as we were sitting in the kitchen eating the best Potato Lentil soup I’ve ever made, Donkey pulled up beside the window and honked.  He hadn’t heard from us — turns out he doesn’t use WhatsAp, so we canceled the other driver and were all set for the next morning.

I sat in the front passenger seat next to Jean Claude because the roads here are, at times, quite winding and nausea inducing.  We had about an hour to share stories and Jean Claude was an interesting guy.  He owned his own van proudly and kept it very clean and in good order; although I noticed the tires were getting a bit thin.  He dressed sharply and wore his hair in an unusual style. It was cut short except on top where it rose straight off his head in a flat topped muffin shape.  He was forty-one and said he loved to work and had aspirations to expand the taxi business. He acquired his first van by driving for a woman who paid him based on a percent of revenue.  He tried to hire another driver to expand business but that driver stole from him and he claimed he’d never trust another person again. The woman for whom he’d driven told him that her husband had told her, “While they were in bed one night” that Donkey’s van was paid off but didn’t want to tell Donkey. So the woman told Donkey, “ Don't tell my husband I told you, but your van is paid off.” The man had to pay him back payments for which Donkey had overpaid.  Donkey also said that he had moved away from his parent’s home when he was thirteen. It sounded just like a Cinderella story without the prince and the slipper or the stepmother. He was the oldest child of six. The parents made him do so much work and didn’t allow him to play or go with them when they took the others for enjoyment.  And so he just left. I asked where he lived and he said he rented a place and worked.  He also dropped out of school at that age and never went back.  

The view from our verandah in Soufrier, Dominica
Jean Claude seemed very honest, kind and respectful, in fact he also had the word RESPECT in large silver foil printed on the he side of his van.
This world is such a sad and glorious place at the same time.  We’ve met grouchy or sullen people, drunk prostheletizers, opinionated bores, sweet innocents, forgetful lighthearted optimists, greedy or desperate vendors, proud artists and gardeners, philosophical taxi drivers, wary youngsters, warm local passengers, vain teens and openhearted travelers.
It takes all kinds! Like I’ve said in the past, “Meeting new people as we travel is one of my favorite things about this wandering lifestyle.” And I suppose if everyone was a perfect citizen of the world it’d be a Steppford-like existence, boring and unsustainable.

Pumpkin Lentil Soup
2-4 servings

2 T oil
2 cups butternut squash cut into 1/2 cubes
1/2 onion diced
2 cloves of garlic chopped
1 T fresh grated ginger
1 T curry powder
2 cups vegetable broth 
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup lentils
1 T demerara sugar
1 T lime zest or to taste depending on strength
Juice of half a lime (1-2 T depending on strength —Caribbean limes are strong)
salt to taste

Heat oil in pan and sauté onions, garlic, curry, squash and ginger
Once all is browned nicely, about four minutes, pour in the broth.
Add lime zest, ginger, sugar, chicken broth, coconut milk and high simmer until lentils are cooked, about 30 minutes. Test for tenderness.
Add lime juice to taste as well as salt if needed. 

So much of this recipe seems to rest in the quality of the broth.  I never throw away perfectly good flavors. Years ago when I worked in a kitchen I saw the chef making broth incorporating even the onion and garlic skins.  Why not, and what about the nutrition in the kale stalks and the subtle tang of the lemon grass stalks.  I think I even used a bit of the bones of a split chicken breast in the broth so it wasn’t strictly a vegetable broth, but you get the point. 

Just before the cell phone was recovered.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Dominica, Paradise?

This flag of the Commonwealth of Dominica features one of two parrots that live in the rain forests of this tree clad mountainous island.  We are staying here at Soufriere, the southern village on the leeward (west) side.  
 There are sulphur springs with pools to bath in and on the shore there are hot springs seeping into the sea on the edge of the beach. Bubble Beach just below the church has a small natural spa by damning up the hot water coming out of these springs and letting it mix with the sea water where you can sit and soak. The nearer you sit to the spring the hotter the soak.  Too hot, just ease toward the sea.  We went snorkeling and found out why it's called Bubble Beach. Pea sized bubbles wobble their way to the surface as the gases are released from the ocean floor sparkling like liquid diamonds.  

Bubble Beach Spa

View from our veranda
We had a lovely Valentine's dinner last night at Cocoyeah! Fried Red Snapper with pan sauce ( to die for ) and rice/veggies, provisions finished off with fancy icy cream dish.  Wine selection wasn't great so I had a good glass of local guava juice.  It was romantic, al fresco dining inside the stone walls of an old fort or colonial structure. After dinner we went to 'hang' with some fellow visitors we had met on the island: Michael a mycologist/botanist/sustainable farmer from northern Florida, who sold me his travel binoculars cheap since he is leaving tomorrow after a month backpacking around this island; Bjorn and Laura, Danish backpackers sharing a house with a couple of young travelling German women. And also at the gathering were Derek the twenty something Dive master, Jayni, also a Dominican diver and finally John, a Brit who is managing a small eco-resort here and who is a Free Diver.  I picked his brain about that after folks talked about his death wish.  He does seem to be attracted to risky occupations as he worked on a snake farm in Africa with many poisonous snakes including the Black Mambo. Trivia: you can swallow the venom and if you have no ulcers , the venom won't harm you.  Free Diving is the sport of diving to depths while holding your breath, without dive tanks etc.  John can hold his breath for over three minutes and has dove to 240 feet of depth.  He talked about the body's challenges and how to do it. He said that when you relax and push past the initial urge to draw a breath, the urge subsides and if you can equalize under the pressure of the depth, you can stay down longer.  My only exposure to Free Diving was an article many years ago about a competitive Free Diver who died by pushing beyond what is reasonable.  John said her practises of assisted submersion (with weights or a motorized device) are no longer used.  In some ways it is safer than scuba because there is no need for decompression stops on the way up and no build up of nitrogen. 

The jam last night was pretty funny as Bjorn and Yata made lyrics about John the Deathwish Diver and Derek the 3D diver; Derek the Dominican Diver.

Roseau is the capital of the island and only about fifteen minutes away, up the coast.  We took a bus/van in on Monday to stock up on groceries and get the lay of the land.  It's classic small, old Caribbean style with some of the older structures draped with hundreds of electric cables.  We found
 a nice little lunch place after asking a local young man for his recommenations. Gouyae, a lunch counter that was serving Corn-crusted Mahi Mahi with rice and provisions.  Excellent!  So good we ordered an extra serving of Mahi for only $3!  Groceries here are quite high priced.  While Antigua had subsidized chicken, this island doesn't seem to offer that but it has more access to seafood. So we've already had great fresh from the sea meals.  No great meals from our home kitchen. Although the pictures on the AirBnB listing made the kitchen look as if it was going to be a chef's dream, instead it is one of the most poorly equipped kitchens I've ever used. No blender, masher; bad pans, etc.   Oh well, that forces some creativity.  While in Roseau we found the local vegetable market and bought amongst other things, a bunch of passion fruit.  This yellow/red fruit opens to find an orange tangy pulp surrounding small edible seeds.  It's tart and needs a bit of sweetening but is a great flavor.  I'll have to see what more I can do with it other than putting some on our yogurt for breakfast.

We plan on doing more snorkeling while we are here and some hiking. There is a hiking trail that traverses the island from this southwest corner to the northeast corner and goes through the Kalinago Territory which is where the last living native Caribbeans live.  Bjorn hiked through that area and said what should have taken six hours took two days because 'people kept giving  us things'. They were very friendly and generous apparently. Derek said they are friendly to tourists but don't like the native Dominicans.  Hmmm, I'm sure there is some history behind that.  I'd like to hike this area and meet these people.  Apparently they look more like south and central Americans indigenous people, the Maya, Aztec, and such.

Oh, and is this paradise? Pretty close. Perfect climate if you like mostly warm and sunny (we do). Lush land with an abundance of free food; plants and seafood. Little or no mosquitoes!  No poisonous or dangerous animals or reptiles.

We are here for a few more weeks and should experience Carnival here. Stay tuned.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Villa Dysfuncion

Week five Antigua. Feb 5th-12th

This is our last week on Antigua. Sunday we fly to the country/island of Dominica.  Sounds quite different than this island, a tired money-laundering (historically) over used tourism country.
Out for an evening walk

Do I sound a bit jaded.  I know it may sound like all our travels are fun and games, lying in a hammock strumming a guitar or cooking up some gourmet creation but one must take the bad with the good.  We love this style of travel;  booking rooms, apartments, cottages and all the unique travelers and hosts that we meet from around the world.  But of course once in a while you get the bad that I mention.

This home we are staying in is lovely, on the internet, on AirBnb's website. It shows a swimming pool through a pair of palm trees, a large bedroom and modern bathroom en suite as well as a large open plan living room, kitchen.  It is surrounded entirely by a ten foot wide veranda and it is up the hill a ways and has a nice view out to sea as well as sea breezes most of the time.  But, it should be called Villa Disfunction.  I recall my first impressions as we came in, walked up the unswept stairs, saw the dog foot prints all over the deck and chewed up cardboard scraps lying around the deck that I thought....hmmmm.  Then inside, the white painted cupboards all finger printed and in need of scrubbing.  Our bedroom though, has always been an oasis. We have a very comfortable king size bed with good linens which Yata launders at least once a week.  And we have pretty good wifi so we can take care of work and communications handily.  And even watch a Netflix movie once in a while. (The Art of Cia Qhoung, sp?) was an inspiring one.

Twice in the last three weeks the water quit and it takes nearly 24 hours for someone to come and repair it; apparently air gets into the line and then needs to be bled and the host, Adrienne hasn't learned how to do this.  So we use water from the swimming pool to flush the toilets and we have bottled water for drinking and cooking. But one of the most annoying things are the two stray dogs Adrienne has adopted who are mostly starving for attention, left chained on the deck and when released run and wrestle and harass each other and us. They are completely untrained and bark at all hours, often waking us from a deep sleep.

There is more, but I'll save that for the AirBnb review.  That's the thing, you can usually depend on the reviews in AirBnB and Adrienne had at least four top rating reviews. But in hindsight, they look as if they were young travelers who wouldn't notice the lack of cleanliness and were just out to party. Like Adrienne said, 'when I pick them up at the airport, they want to go to the bars before they even head to the house.'

Besides meeting CJ the Aussie who took us to a Cricket game and taught us the rules, we've also had Filip and Anna as fellow guests.  Filip, about thirty years old, is a salesman for a Heating and Cooling business from Prague, Czech Republic and Anna is his Russian girlfriend.  They were diligent about practicing their English and going to the beaches, everyday, of which there are many on this island that boasts 365, one for each day of the year.  We shared a driver to the beach a couple times and enjoyed meeting them and the driver, Denzel.

Denzel is probably the best driver we've ever had, in any of our eighteen years of travel. Nice van, slow pace, and very punctual. Often times, he would come even earlier than we said, 'just to be sure'.

Let's finish this blog with a recipe:

Kohl Crop Salad with Turkey Bacon:
3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon spice (either Garam Masala, Cajun, West Indies curry, take your choice)
Broccoli  1cup cut into florets
Cauliflower 1cup cut to same size
Kale leaves, 3 cups, destemmed and ripped
1 cup of cooked garbanzo beans
Six strips of turkey bacon, cooked and torn into 1 inch pieces

1 large clove of garlic, in the skin, slightly crushed
2 Tablespoons Mayonnaise
2 Tablespoons Plain Yogurt
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1- 2 Tablespoons fresh Lemon Juice

In a bowl combine olive oil, garlic, broccoli, cauliflower and spices
Mix to coat, pour onto baking sheet
Roast in a 400 degree oven for 10-15 min, turning periodically.
Add kale leaves, stir and continue to roast five minutes more.
Remove from oven set aside. Remove garlic clove and add to the dressing ingredients.

Meanwhile blend in food processor: all the dressing ingredients adding the de-skinned roasted garlic clove.

Salt and pepper to taste.   Pour dressing over vegetables add garbanzos and bacon pieces and mix.
Serves 2 as a main course, four as a side dish.

Self Portrait, watercolor

Just above our rental here on Buckley Heights of Antigua is a large home of grey unstained wood. Its large veranda overlooks the island to the north and out to sea. This is the home of Jan Farara and her husband David.  I looked her up online and was impressed with her strong colorful acrylic paintings depicting island life. I gave her a call and she invited us up the same day to meet.

She grew up in England, sailed the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic to work in the Charter Sailing business of the Caribbean. Eventually she settled on this island, ran a restaurant for years and in the last decade or so has gone to art as a career.

Jan is an attractive woman in her seventh decade with the energy of a thirty year old. She is outgoing and generous.  Her husband, a gentle quiet man, David is a few years younger than Jan, as she often reminds us and seems dedicated to making Jan and her art become a success.

Jan sells most of her work to the 1% crowd that lives on the Jumby Bay Island,  a high end resort and villa  packed islet just off the north coast of Antigua.  As she says, "it's just chump change to them".
We've learned that many of these people are temporary as many of them are in exile from legal states. In fact financially people on this island are in a banking purgatory where they can't make many financial transactions due to the offshore gambling and money laundering that occurred here in the past and was shut down by the US government.  So often one will hear of a person who came to the island, invested or enticed others to invest and began a large scale project only to be stalled when they ended up in prison.  Unfortunately an far too common occurence.

But life goes on amongst us 99% and we enjoy life regardless of the mechanations of the economic elite.  Tonight we had a most wonderful time and fabulous food and wine on Jan and David's veranda. A rain storm passed over the island creating a double rainbow and

We had walked up to Jan and David's since it is literally just above our home.  Teddy the little white fluff ball of a dog like young cheerleader, all bouncy and bright greeted us at the door.  Yata entertained us with some songs while Jan sang a few as well. A bit later Carol and her husband Arthur joined us. They've had a winter home here for decades.  These Americans talk about what this island was like twenty eight years ago, how people still transported goods on donkeys and women carried baskets on their heads.  There were very few cars. On the other hand, this year alone has seen a 40% increase in the number of cars on the poor quality roads.   

Jan set a lovely table. 
The main entree was an amazing bowl of Seafood chowder. I picked Jan's brain to learn about her process after they mentioned a number of times how difficult and how much time it took to make the base.  Apparently they take the lobster carcass, pound it into pieces, oil it and roast it with onions and garlic. Then on the stove top cover the roast lobster with broth is, sherry, white wine wine, mirapoix and whatever and then simmered  with fish broth until it is quite concentrated and strong.    Strain it through a sieve squeezing out juices. This can be frozen for future use.
To make the chowder, simmer this concentrate with cream, fish broth, fried bacon, potatoes, mussels, sauted garlic and onion, brandy, salt and pepper. 

Jan served this fabulous dish with french bread. I contributed a salad and fresh baked coconut macaroons. 

I have finally broken my art slump and have been busy painting the last week.  Here area  a few examples:
Bougainvilla, acrylic and watercolor on paper

Bouganvilla and Fern, watercolor and acrylic on paper