Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Learning what it is I do - in Swahili

People in Africa really are as curious about us as we are, them.
Travelling in Africa taught me many things, and sometimes the lessons had to be repeated more than once for me to learn them.

The people there seem to have a real curiosity about others, a real desire to interact and learn about people from other places. 

I saw this on several occasions during a month-and-a-half, seven-country overland tour through East and Central Africa, but the most shining example I saw of this took place on the road in Tanzania between the Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire National Park.

During our travels there, the main highway through the country was a dirt road; the only paved roads we encountered during our entire journey from one end of the country to the other was in the larger cities. We spent many of our nights bush-camping, either on the side of a rural road or in a schoolyard (with permission). 

Roadside or schoolyard, it made no difference. The minute we pulled up and began setting up camp for the night, local people would appear, almost as if they’d been invisible and decided at that point to show themselves to us.

Most of the time, the people would just would watch and smile. Occasionally they would whisper to each other, laughing quietly from time to time. I can only imagine what they were thinking about these strange visitors from another place who obviously were very well off – but who chose to cook on open fires and sleep on the ground in pup tents.

Every now and then, one or two would reach out to us – or sometimes we’d reach out to them – and a connection would be made. 

In most of these attempts at connection, we often found their English to be limited - but it was still usually better than our “phrasebook Swahili.” If I wanted to say anything other than a hello, ask for beer or thank someone, I had to look it up.

As it turned out, I found out how to say something in Swahili I never expected to learn – but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

We always had plenty of interaction whenever we stopped to look at souvenirs produced by local craftsmen, and it was always lively, interesting, and entertaining - especially when clothes like hats, sneakers, and colorful T-shirts entered into the mix and became more valuable than currency, which they often did.

It is the nature of merchants to be gregarious, particularly in the bartering culture we encountered so many times during our travels through Africa. They truly enjoyed the interaction, the give-and-take, as much as making an actual sale. It was a social event. And I’m sure they often felt they got the better deal – just like we did.

On one particular day, we were driving along the road after leaving the Crater and saw several road-side stands that offered African carvings, shields and spears, drums, masks – everything that said “Africa.” The lorry we travelled in pulled over and out we poured, 20 of us from North America, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, ready to do business in the African bush.

The craftsmen had some wonderful merchandise, and the biggest difficulty was not finding something we liked, but rather limiting ourselves to a reasonable amount of goods. After all, we did have to transport this back to North America at the end of our trip. We already had accumulated quite a collection during our travels through Central Africa and Tanzania, so we had to try to exercise a bit of restraint.

No restraint? you end up with lots of Africa art in your home.

Myself, and my long-time travelling companion the Divine Ms. K, I found ourselves caught up in several negotiations for several different pieces. She is just as good a negotiator as I am, and once she set her eyes on a pair of Masai figures carved out of ebony wood, she was not leaving until she had them

But she had no intention of overpaying, either.

Once the man she was negotiating with realized this, once he figured out this might take a while, he motioned to someone, and a short, hand-carved wooden stool appeared by Ann’s side. He set it down, smiled broadly and said to her, “Here, this is for you – please, sit,” as he patted the well-worn top of the stool.

Sit she did, and then the bartering got really serious.

It was at that point that Russell, our tour leader, came over and said, “Some of the others want to go back down the road a couple of miles to another group of souvenir stands we passed. But it looks like you’re going to be a while.”

I looked at the negotiation, grinned and said, “Looks that way.”

“Do you feel comfortable being left here on your own for a while so we can backtrack down the road to the other stands? We won’t be more than 30 minutes, then we’ll pick you up on the way back to continue on our way to Tarangire.”

To be honest, I didn’t feel that comfortable. We were pretty much in the middle of nowhere, although there looked to be a few buildings across and down the road a bit, within walking distance. But Ann was having a great time and I didn’t want to be a spoilsport; however, I couldn’t keep the group there, either.

So I nodded, and said “Sure. See you in a bit.”

I had to fight down a bit of nervousness as I watched the lorry pull away, leaving the two of us alone at a roadside craft stand in the middle of the bush in Tanzania.

I overcame some of my nervousness by turning to watch the negotiations for the figures. It had continued unabated during my chat with Russell, and it had drawn quite a crowd by this point. Everyone was enjoying this entertaining new spectator sport: “Memsahib Ann” vs. “Trader Kwanza” in a five-round, no-holds barred, bartering spectacular.

(My occupation was showing. Again, more on that in a bit.)

“Someone should sell tickets for this,” I thought to myself.

Eventually they reached an agreement, both smiling, both figuring they had got the best of the other – but not by too much. Helpers moved to wrap and package the figures she’d purchased along with the items I’d already acquired in the “preliminary bartering bout.” They thanked us, as other merchants tried to persuade us to look at their wares. However, at this point, we were done. Besides, we only had so many arms to carry all this stuff.

This South Africa market is a bit more upscale than the ones we found in Tanzania.

Now – where was that lorry?

Two or three young men of high school age had been watching the proceedings and enjoying the show. They saw that we looked a bit lost at this point, a bit uncertain about what to do next, since there weren’t any bus stops or roadside pullouts where we could sit and wait for the group’s return.
“We would very much like to buy you a Coke,” one of them said in Swahili-accented English. “We can go into that place over there,” he pointed across the road to one of the buildings. “You can sit and wait for your friends and have something cold to drink.”

Of course, ever the paranoiac, my internal alarm bells went off immediately. I was hesitant, a bit leery of accepting the invitation. Could this be one of those cases where we became a news story about two overly trusting white tourists being mugged in Africa?

I tried to hedge my bet, saying, “Well, I don’t know if we have time, the lorry might be back any minute…I don’t want them to drive by without stopping, they might forget about us if we’re not there by the road…”

Ann, of course, had no such qualms.

“We’ll be fine, they won’t leave without us,” she chimed in, still flush and elated from her trading frenzy. “We can probably see the road from the confectionary and run out if it looks like they’re passing us by.”

“Well, I don’t know…”

But as the conversation continued, we continued to drift down the road and then across it, with our new companions. I didn’t want to insult them if they were genuine, but I didn’t want to put us at risk, either – or tip my hand that I thought they were up to something, if they were.

“C’mon, I’m thirsty, I could use a Coke,” she said.

So off we went. Myself, a bit reluctantly.

“Well, at least I don’t have all my camera gear with me,” I thought. “That makes me a less desirable target.”

It turned out my fears were completely unfounded. Like the vast majority of people we met in small communities along the way all through Tanzania and Malawi, they just wanted to be friendly, to share their culture, and learn about us and ours.

They insisted on paying for the Cokes, refused to take anything from us.

It did come with a price, though.


They peppered us with questions.

“Where are you from, the United States?”

“No, we’re from Canada, it’s above the U.S. if you look on a map or globe of the world.”

“Where do you live in Canada?”

“We’re from British Columbia.”

“Is that near Colorado?”

And on the conversations went as we sipped our drinks. Suddenly, it wasn’t so important for the lorry to return so quickly.

The most curious and talkative one of the group, the one who offered to buy us drinks originally, asked me what I did for a living. At the time I was a sports writer, and I explained to him what it was that my job involved.

“Would you like to know how to say that in Swahili?” he said.

Of course I did.

He said it, once, then twice, as I tried to repeat it. We all laughed at that. He then wrote it out for me: “Michezo mwandishi.”

Better check that phrase book, again...
I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t find that in any phrase book.

We chatted a bit more, then before we knew it, the lorry had come back and was slowing down just past the souvenir stands where they’d left us to look for bargains elsewhere.

It turned out, we got the best bargain of all, and it wasn’t something you could wrap up in paper and ship home.

We said good-bye to our new friends and climbed aboard to head off down the road to more adventures.

Aside from learning how to say my occupation in Swahili, I took much away from that encounter.

All throughout our journey, we met people who had a hunger for knowledge – knowledge about the world outside of their own, a thirst for learning about other people, a craving to connect. That was never more evident than that particular meeting, where a young man - whose family probably made less in a year than I did in a month - insisted he treat me, a visitor, to a cold drink in the local confectionary.

And despite having so little material wealth, they all seemed to be so happy and so friendly and so eager to connect.

That human connection is so vital to our well-being - whether it’s connecting with someone in Africa, or just making a connection with your neighbor down the street.

It also taught me that the secret to happiness is not how much you have or how much you can buy or barter for, but how you relate to others, the richness that comes from sharing…sharing a Coke, sharing a joke, sharing language, sharing experiences.

At times throughout the years since, I’ve struggled to remember that, to maintain it. Sometimes I succeed, other times I fail. But when I’m in one of those downer funks, sometimes it helps me to think back to those young men in Africa, and how happy they were just to buy a treat for a visitor that they knew they would probably never see again.
Sometimes that helps lift me out of it. And I think how no price could ever really be put on that invaluable Coke I sipped in rural Africa so many years ago.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Brewery, distillery tours have come a long way, baby

"Brewery Tour!" Almost as good as "Road Trip!"  (Or better).
Back in my university days, the words "brewery tour!" were like a magic phrase that, translated
loosely into student-ese, meant "free drunk!"

Essentially, that's what they were, at least when I attended the University of New Brunswick.

Part of the reason for that in that particular province was the result of a total ban on any kind of advertising on TV, radio, or print media for any kind of alcohol. So the breweries had to come up with some different schemes to promote and market their products.

For university students, it was great. It meant we got a lot of free stuff - posters, hats, mugs, etc. with beer logos on them. The Schooner Van could always be seen at campus events. Not all the beer was free, but I do recall getting some great deals.
We also got to go on brewery tours.

The first time I went on one of these my freshman year, it was organized by the social committee of our UNB residence, MacKenzie House, back then a men's dorm (now I guess it's co-ed). We signed up, piled into a bus and drove from Fredericton to Saint John, the location of the Moosehead Brewery.

I was a bit surprised. We didn't actually tour the facility; they took us into a hospitality room, showed us a 20 minute film about making beer while drinking it and eating an endless supply of peanuts. The drinking continued for another two hours, then we got back aboard the bus in various states of inebriation and drove back to the campus.

Who wants a Kichesippi Natural Blonde with lunch?
I didn't go on another one until I toured the Granville Island Brewery during a visit to Vancouver in 1988. This really was more of a tour. Guides took us through the facility, and at the end, we got to sample a few of their brews in small glasses. I think I still have the logo beer mug from that trip - but unlike the ones at university, I had to pay for this one.

As I began travel-writing, I found myself on more and more of these: a visit to Columbia Brewery (makers of Kootenay Mountain Ale and Kokanee Lager) in Creston; the Alexander Keith's Brewery in Halifax (where I enjoyed beer pairings during a three-course meal); Steam Whistle Brewing in Toronto; Ottawa's own Kichesippi Beer Company; and, most recently a tour of Big Spruce Brewing in Cape Breton.

The last one is a fairly new company, and it's a craft beer, made in small batches at one site. Like the others mentioned above, an actual tour does take place, one where you go behind the scenes at the facility, see how it's made, find out details about its young history, and learn about possible plans for future endeavours.
Getting ready to sample a bit of Big Spruce beer.

I'd actually sampled their brews throughout the first week of my fortnight's visit to the island, and it was nice to finally see the place where they were brewed (and sample a few more, as well!)

Let's head for some whisky at Glenora Distillery.
Less than a week later, I was sampling a different kind of product: single malt whisky, at the Glenora Inn & Distillery on Cape Breton. I'd never been to a distillery before. It was a nice visit, we stayed overnight at the inn that's part of the facility, and enjoyed some of their whisky-enhanced meals during supper.

The next day, we were sipping single malt during a tour of the facility, learning about their battle with Scotland over the right to call their product Glen Breton (not Scotch - and Glenora won), and about the nuances of enjoying a single malt with or without water.

By the way, Glenora is not only the first single-malt whisky distillery in Canada, it's the first in North America.

Flash forward a few more weeks and I'm on the opposite coast, enjoying a similar experience at Shelter Point in Vancouver Island's Comox Valley. This distillery is the second single malt producer in Canada, and in fact, it's so new, their first offering of whisky has only been available since the late spring, now.

Time to sip some Shelter Point whisky.
They also distill vodka at the facility - plain and in several flavours.

Yes, I'm really starting to enjoy the pleasures of single malt whiskey.

As for comparing the two...

I'm not copping out, but the fact is, my palate is not refined enough to really determine the difference between one single malt and another (especially when separated by two weeks between tastings.)

I'd drink either in a pinch. Or even if I was not in a pinch.

Needless to say, these tours are certainly different from the ones I experienced during my UNB days. Probably just as well. While there is a certain amount of tolerance for young 20-something drunks staggering around full of beer on campus, I don't know that a group of drunk travel or food-and-drink writers would be as acceptable.

Besides, we have to have somewhat clear heads to shoot photos/videos and write stories.

Now (and even though it's Irish whisky) - hand me that bottle of Writers' Tears.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Island magic never seems to disappoint

How much fruit can an orangutan eat?
So I'm headed off to Vancouver Island for a short
two-day trip today (Thursday) in the Comox area. I hope to see some seals, whales, maybe a dolphin or two, and definitely some sea-going birds (no sea parrots - a.k.a., puffins - on this trip though!) with Vancouver Island Marine Tours and Adventures.

It's certainly not my first trip to the island, and certainly won't be my last.

Thinking about it got me thinking about all the incredible island destinations I've visited. Of course, I just got back from one last week, and I'm wondering why it took me so long to visit Cape Breton Island. Nova Scotia hospitality always seems to shine, and that trip was no exception.

While I've been to many of the "must-do" islands, I've also been to some less renowned islands. But it doesn't seem to matter which category of island I'm on, as they always seem to produce a magical trip with memorable experiences.

So, without further ado, here's my Top List of Island Experiences I've enjoyed through the years, in no particular order.

1. Borneo: hanging out with primates. During a trip to the Malaysian part of the island, I visited not one, but two orangutan sanctuaries, facilities set up to act as a halfway house for re-introducing captive primates back to the wild.

Then I also saw not one, but two completely wild orangutans while cruising up and down the Kinabatangan River on wildlife safaris. While on the island, I also had the chance to see proboscis monkeys along that river as well as at Bako National Park.

2. Hawaii: swimming with sharks, diving with dolphins. In a two week trip to Hawaii, I was able to climb into the shark tank at the Maui Ocean Center and scuba dive with sharks, rays, and some other fish for about an hour. Really cool experience.

Then a week later on the Big Island, I went on an excursion out onto the Pacific Ocean and snorkeled with a pod of wild spinner dolphins. Equally cool.

Let's go hang out with the sharks.

3. Belize: cay-hopping and snorkeling. While this is not an island country, there are plenty of cays along its coast, and my first international trip of any kind (outside of Canada or the USA) involved a five-day paddle out to the barrier reef, camping on various cays along the way. It was also my first time kayaking (I'd been only a canoeist prior to that) and my first time snorkeling. Still one of my best snorkeling experiences anywhere.

Spotted this happy-looking parrot on the Mastic Trail.
4. Cayman Islands: parrot-spotting in the rainforests. There is plenty to do in the water in the Caymans, but also plenty of cool stuff to do on land, especially if you like birds. I got to see a flock of Grand Cayman parrots on the main island's Mastic Trail, then saw a few mated pairs of the very rare Cayman Brac parrots in the forests of the island those birds are named after.

5. Cape Breton Island: puffin tour. There is much more to do on Cape Breton than eating lobster (although it is scrumptious!) One of the main highlights of my tour there was being able to see puffins on Bird Island, with Donelda's Puffin Tours. There were plenty of other birds to see there, as well, but seeing puffins really made my trip.

6. Canary Islands: seeing the rarest of all parrots. During attendance at the 2006 Loro Parque International Parrot Convention, I had the opportunity to tour the private aviary and saw several pairs of Spix's macaws. Up until recently, they were extinct in the wild, and Loro Parque is working to make sure they don't disappear completely. For those unfamiliar, this the species that inspired the Disney movie, Rio.

7. Quadra Island: canoeing the ocean. A small island off the east coast of Vancouver Island near Campbell River, I've visited this island twice. During my visits, I had a chance to canoe in and around Heriot Bay, spotting eagles on the island where we lunched and plenty of seals on the rocks nearby. Oh, and plenty of jellyfish (the kind you want to avoid) floating around on the ocean.

Sunset in the Ten Thousand Islands.
8. Ten Thousand Islands, Everglades National Park, Florida: kayaking in the 'Glades. This series of mangrove islands on the southwest Florida coast are not what most people picture when they think of the Everglades. Located on the Gulf of Mexico, it was more like cay-hopping in Belize, than swamp paddling (which I've also done.) What did we see? What didn't we see, would be more appropriate. We saw ospreys battling overhead, dolphins swimming under our kayaks, sea turtles, egrets, herons, raccoons. Great trip.

9. Vancouver Island: falconer for a day. One of my favourite experiences on Vancouver Island was spent learning about falconry with Pacific Northwest Raptors. And it was all hands-on, working with the birds, experience. We got to walk with them, then fly them, just a wonderful way to spend a day.

10. Joe Island, Joe Lake, Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario: canoeing. Another of the "lesser-known" islands (unless you happen to be a regular park paddler) it marked either the start or finish of many a multi-day canoe trip in the park. It created many fond memories that I still treasure - including the time we awoke to find a raccoon unzipping our tent door because it smelled food inside the tent! Glad it wasn't a bear...

Of course, there are some honourable mentions that didn't quite crack the Top 10:
  • Spirit Island in Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park, Canada (you can't actually camp there or even land on the island, but it's an inconic Canadian image)
  • Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick (kayaking and hiking adventures)
  • numerous other unnamed islands in Algonquin Provincial Park
So...what are some of YOUR favourite island experiences? Please let us know in the comments.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Lobster here, lobster there - a tasty crustacean everywhere

My first whole lobster this trip - served up on the beach.
No doubt those friends and followers who regularly see my posts on my Facebook pages (personal and business) and Twitter are aware of all the lobster I consumed during my two-week stay on  Cape Breton Island the past few weeks.

I believe I ate more lobster during my two weeks there than I had the previous two years. Or maybe even the previous two decades.

And I never enjoyed it more.

I also learned a lot about lobster, too - how to tell males from females, the optimum weight for a tender and tasty crustacean, how to get a lobster to do lobster yoga ("downward facing crustacean" is the best pose), and numerous other interesting tidbits about lobster.

I learned, too, that you can serve it in just about any form, and it will be good: lobster eggs benedict, lobster sauce on halibut, lobster poutine, lobster mac'n'cheese - it's all good.

Funny, I was never really a huge lobster lover. Oh, I'd had it on several occasions and it was good. But for some reason, this time around it just tasted better, in all its renderings.

The first time I had it was in 1979, at a spray camp/airfield in New Brunswick while working for Forest Protection Limited. Once a year, every summer, the company would fly in fresh lobster for the pilots, crews and others stationed there. My work partner Joe kept raving about how good it would be, explaining how the claws were the best part, especially dipped in melted butter.

Well, it was good - but obviously it didn't make a huge impression on me. Later that fall, while broadcasting a football game between the University of Prince Edward Island and the UNB Red Bombers in Charlottetown back to Fredericton on CHSR, I didn't order it for supper that night after the game, even though our meals were completely covered. My dad, a huge seafood fan, couldn't believe it when I told him during our weekly phone calls between Toronto and Fredericton.

After that, I didn't eat it for many years, and when I did, it never seemed to set off taste-gasms in my mouth. (I guess that's because I always seemed to eat it at a Red Lobster in Calgary. Good, but not great.)

That started to change in 2008.

That was the year the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia hosted the annual TMAC conference. The awards dinner that year was a lobster-fest, complete with plastic lobster bibs. Well, that year I threw myself into the festivities with abandon. I ate at least two, maybe three crustaceans. I also remember turning the bib around so it hung down my back like a cape, and declared myself to be "Lobster-Man!" Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately!) the photos taken that night cannot be found.

I had finally started to appreciate lobster, it seemed.
The lobster at Doaktown, NB was really fresh.

I enjoyed it again thanks to TMAC during a pre-conference tour in 2012, at O'Donnell's Cottages (since changed to Storeytown Cottages), in Doaktown, NB.

It was the first day of the lobster season, and the catch was as fresh as an inebriated Grade 10 at his first senior prom.

 And that brings us to June, 2016. (It seems I'm destined to only enjoy good lobster every four years...)

It began with the first day of our pre-tours. We were treated to an incredible breakfast of lobster-benedict at the Hearthstone Inn in Sydney. Quite the way to start a tour.

Later that night at the Keltic Lodge in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, I enjoyed a meal of halibut (my favourite fish) served with a lobster ravioli that did cause taste-gasms.

And it just kept getting better.

The next night, we were treated to a lobster boil on the beach, courtesy of Parks Canada and some of the local staff. There, our tour leader - kayaker and paddling musician extraordinaire Angelo Spinazzola - taught us how to really chow down on the treasured crustaceans.

We were not only taught lobster biology, we were serenaded by fiddler-chef Scott Aucoin. 

While the lobster cooked, the chef fiddled...

But believe it or not, we had still only just begun...

We really hit the jackpot the second night of the conference proper, (thanks again, in large part to Parks Canada) with a lobster dinner set inside the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. Cooked to perfection, served up (to those of us who aren't oenophiles) with ample portions of Fortress Rum and plenty of other good food. (It topped off a perfect day for me, as I'd spent the morning watching sea parrots - a.k.a. puffins - during a three-hour tour. The lobster feast made an A-grade day into an A+ day.)

But wait - there's more...
Lobster kicks poutine up a notch or three.
There was great chowder with lobster in it at the Red Shoe Pub ... ditto at the Castle Rock Country Inn, the final night of our tour.

The real test came after a three-hour whale-watching excursion when we went to the Rusty Anchor

I was waffling between two different dishes that included lobster. Luckily, I managed to convince another writer to order lobster mac-and-cheese, while I ordered lobster poutine - and we switched halfway through so we got some of each.

Mac'n'cheese, already good, gets better with lobster.

Could ordinary dishes like these use lobster and be as good as the other renderings already enjoyed?

Yep. There were multiple taste-gasms, that night. Just picture Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally" - except she's eating lobster instead of deli cold cuts.

So, after all this, I can only assume there must be something special about Nova Scotia lobster - especially Cape Breton lobster, since it seems to taste better than any I've ever eaten anywhere else. It could also be the company, or maybe it's the freshness ... but I think there's also a little bit of Cape Breton magic there, as well.

That magic, that special warmth that seems to be everywhere on the island, that alone is good enough to lure me back there again, some day.

Plus I want a whole lobster poutine to myself.