About Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor's, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn't really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.


Latest Posts by Jessica Festa

A History of Paris In The Wake Of Charlie Hebdo

March 4, 2015 by  

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history of paris

The Marche Républicaine at Place de la République.

Paris, to me, is a city that always feels like itself. Even as it changes, it always feels the same, au fond, deep down. But what do I know? I’ve only lived here eight years.

I’m not French, not Parisian, and likely never will be. France isn’t in my blood, but it’s in my spleen, my heart, my liver, and all those other organs the French like to attribute with properties they may or may not have.

En gros, I’m a fan. And this is my story, my history, of Paris.

The June Uprising: My First French Revolution

When I first arrived in France, I was disappointed.

There, I’ve said it. Even though today, I make fun of those who imagine Paris to be what it’s not — men in berets on bikes with baguettes, playing accordions and drinking wine morning, noon, and night — I’ll admit that I showed up with expectations, albeit different expectations, and they were dashed.

Most girls show up in Paris hoping to be seduced on the Pont des Arts, chauffeured around the quais de Seine on the back of a moto-scooter, kissed in the Tuileries while the sun sets behind the Arc du Carrousel. Most, it goes without saying, end up utterly disappointed.

I, meanwhile, mourned an impression of France, the country I thought it would be. It was an impression I got from a song that was inspired by a book written by a Frenchman in exile, a song that came from an operetta composed by the English.

In 2007, I was expecting to arrive in Enjolras’ Paris. An unfairer expectation could not have existed.

My connection with Les Misérables is something that’s followed me throughout my life, the thread of a history that starts with one of my favorite stories. In it, my parents, two days before I was born, went to see the show on Broadway, and my mother’s feet were so swollen that she had to wear her father’s shoes. My vain German grandfather walking down New York City’s sidewalks in argyle socks is a sight I wish to this day I’d seen.

I went back to that theater ten years later; this time I was somewhat more cognizant. I didn’t know enough about French history to be able to place or explain any of the events that were being acted out before me, but “Red and Black” still left me in tears. Still leaves me in tears, no matter who sings it.

It’s not surprising that when 15 years later I had to pick a literature thesis topic, Victor Hugo was on my list — 19th century Paris, for me, was the only place that I could find the values of the French Republic, easy to perceive through fiction. Today’s French motto, liberty, equality, fraternity, was once written liberty, equality or death; that was what Victor Hugo was showing me — people who were willing to die for Republican values, for their Republic.

history of paris

Eiffel Tower and Champ de Mars seen from Trocadero Palace, Paris Exposition, 1889. Photo courtesy of Everett Historical via Shutterstock.

I went from fan to fanatic, dragged my poor boyfriend to see Les Misérables in the theater and covertly pointed out all the mistakes. The more I learned, the more I mourned a Paris I was sure I would never see, but this time, I realized I wasn’t missing out on fiction but on an old reality that had fizzled with time. Romanticized, of course, but Enjolras’ Paris, Hugo’s Paris, a Paris that wanted something so badly it was ready to die for it — a senseless death like that of the June Rebellion — was not the Paris I lived in.

While I’m well aware that Patriot anti-Loyalists aren’t wandering my hometown either, the American Revolution doesn’t seem quite as dead and buried. Case in point: my boyfriend’s first shock upon arriving in America were the flags. “You’re so nationalistic,” he said.

“Patriotic,” I corrected, though the nuance meant nothing to him yet. In today’s France, I’ve found, the words are nearly synonymous. I had never seen anyone fly a French flag unless they worked at a prefecture — until this year.

history of paris

Photo courtesy of conejota via Shutterstock.

Charlie Hebdo: The New “Where Were You?”

I was 14 when two planes hit the Twin Towers in my hometown. Echoes of news reports still reverberate in my brain; I can repeat, “Another plane… has hit… another building” in exactly the tone being used by the journalist we were watching, crammed into the English classroom as we saw the second tower fall. September 11th was my generation’s “Where were you?” Our event — like JFK being shot or Apollo 11 landing on the moon. It was also, at 14, the first time I became truly aware of the world around me.

I wondered for weeks afterwards when things would go back to feeling “normal;” the short answer is that they never did.

I didn’t think that something else could shake me that hard again; after all, I’d already been shaken. On January 7th, 2015 — the day two armed Islamic terrorists forced their ways into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper and fired 50 shots, killing 11 and injuring 11 more — I was proved wrong.

I was at work this time, but the series of events followed the same pattern. Instead of switching channels on the tiny TV in my childhood bedroom, I covertly followed Twitter feeds and listened to France 2 news through my work headphones, clicking over to the BBC now and again. Friends from home sent messages, via Facebook instead of AIM — “Are you all right?” “What’s going on?” These same friends asked me to buy the next issue of the paper, which people said would still be coming out the next week. Friends who had never heard of Charlie Hebdo, foreigners rallying for a cause they didn’t understand. How could they? I had been living here for years, as “integrated” as they come, and I didn’t understand.

That night, I watched the gatherings at Place de la République from afar, not sure where I should be.

But it wasn’t until the following Sunday that I felt the full effect of what had happened.

history of paris

Marche Républicaine at Place de la République.

On Sunday, my boyfriend and I went to the Marche Républicaine, the same one you’ve see photographs of, heads of state marching in a straight line across the road. We stood still for two hours before we could even begin marching; we couldn’t move for the throng. I sang the Marseillaise until my throat hurt. We cheered for policemen standing on rooftops.

No one cheers for the French police. At least, no one used to.

history of paris

The Marche Republicaine in Paris.

I, for one, had never seen the French rally this way. Sure, there are protests and marches, and they’re fantastic at striking, but I never expected to see quite so many people, so many flags.

history of paris

The Marche Republicaine in Paris.

The following week, I tried valiantly to buy my copy of Charlie Hebdo, asking at at least five or six newsstands, always slightly proud when I heard they were already sold out, though I sometimes wondered if I had the right to that pride.

I finally managed to get my hands on one the Tuesday after it was released, six days after publication. My local newsman had promised to put one aside for me, and even though he didn’t get a delivery, he managed to wrap one in Les Echos so that it wouldn’t get stolen.

That was a thing, people were stealing Charlie Hebdo to get their hands on one.

Every morning, coming into work, we talked about how many they were planning to print: 1 million, now 3, now 5, now 7.

I mostly kept my eyes on the flags — they were at half-mast for days.

history of paris

The sign for the exposition at Musée Carnavalet on Paris liberation photography.

Enough White Flag Stereotypes: Pride in Resistance

I’ve heard the joke a hundred times. “If it weren’t for us, you’d be speaking German.” I may have said it once or twice; I don’t say it anymore. Not after seeing the way that my boyfriend reacted at the Normandy beaches.

It’s strange, how the year that I was learning all about the French Resistance turned out to be the year that I saw France’s spirit come to life, the one that I had thought was lost to fiction, to the past. There are people still living who saw the fervor of the Resistance and the Liberation — I have met them. Victor Hugo may be dead, but Enjolras’ Paris isn’t quite as long gone as I thought.

Last weekend, I went to an exhibit at the Musée Carnavalet, the museum of the city of Paris. I’d been wanting to go for months, long before Charlie Hebdo, but I’m glad I waited.

As I wandered through, my camera regrettably switched off and at my side, I saw images plastered over one another, black-and-white evidence of the world in color I had seen just a few weeks before. Place de la République, empty and fenced in with barbed wire, a sign stating that if you go further, you’ll be shot. What a stark contrast to the relatively peaceful protests of the weeks before at the same place, and yet what a warning — if you go further, you will be shot. Isn’t that what was promised by the terrorist groups who attacked the newspaper?

I see people at windows overlooking the boulevard, holding Molotov cocktails instead of the flags I saw at the march, ready to fling instead of ready to sing. And the newspapers, they’re present too — women on the Place de la Concorde or Invalides, selling German titles with the Nazi flag flying behind them. I know that the important papers were circulating, too, amongst a select few; you can see them in one photograph littering the street, the secret missives amongst the Resistance.

And once the Liberation is over, the New York Herald Tribune, announcing in English what everyone already knows. Did you have to seek out one of those as well, get it wrapped in paper from Le Monde before you could carry it home?

Of course the comparisons must not be pushed too far; that’s something I’m well aware of. I sat in shock as, the night after the march, a local news station played a “recording” of a phone call with the prophet Mohammed and shook my head. I couldn’t speak. I read about the “invisible foreign participants” in the Resistance, the ones who do not figure in the photographs. The expo is keen to mention that there are North Africans amongst them, the way that the French news did about Muslim Frenchmen who marched alongside their fellow citizens, marching against violence, united.

Images of Paris under fire, bodies littering the sidewalk, resemble the horrible images I saw last month, I had to turn off last month. I have to remind myself of the ends sought in each case. Do the ends ever justify the means? And who decides?

And does it matter whether the body on the ground is German or French? Ahmed or Cabu?

The crowds in the streets in these photographs are made up of German soldiers surrendering, their hands clasped over their heads as they march silently. The signs posted on walls and buildings read Kommandantur; jubilance is brought by tearing them down, not putting them up.

In a video interview, Axel Kahn explains that the Liberation united everyone: Communists, Gaullists, Christians. Everyone was present that day. These things help us remember to believe in natural unity, he says.

“Are the traits of this time passed down to us?” He’s talking about epigenesis, about the increased occurrence of diabetes and hypertension amongst babies born in post World War II Holland, but I’ve already ventured elsewhere. Are the traits of this time passed down to us? Are the red and black part of French blood? Do you have to be born here to inherit it, or do traits like these, non-genomic, come through some other vein?

Degaulle leading the victory procession looks like that now oft-photoshopped image of the heads of state. There are no women present, but that’s not photoshopping, not in this case. Some things have changed; some things have not. Sometimes, it’s hard to know what, exactly, is different.

history of paris

Photo courtesy of alexskopje via Shutterstock.

Where Do We Go From Here?

This week, I used “French-born” as an adjective in front of a French person. He balked and called it racist. I’m not saying it’s not — but I am saying that it describes a general feeling that exists here and permeates nearly every conversation, and that’s what I was trying to evoke when using it. Freedom of speech, unless it twists the knife.

When I have the misfortune to be at a table full of French people — French “de souche,” of the stump, of the log, of the root — talking about the immigration “problem,” they always turn to me and say, “but not immigrants like you.” I’m left to wonder what that means. What is “like me” in this context? Not woman, for France still remains extremely patriarchal. That all-male assembly wasn’t so long ago. But is it a reference to my whiteness? My Catholicism? My European background? My nearly unaccented French? I’m integrated, is what they mean. Oh, what a word.

But in the days and weeks that followed the Charlie Hebdo attack, I noticed open discussion for the first time in a long time. People trying to make sense of what had happened, willing to put their personal beliefs on the table to be examined and explored, evoking words they had never thought to define for themselves. Liberty. Equality. Fraternity. They’re printed everywhere, on the fronts of schools and police prefectures, but what do they mean?

I thought I knew. I did, after all, spend two years defining them. But like in the weeks after 9/11, I found myself in a fog. I got in trouble with my boyfriend for saying that it was important to be responsible with one’s freedom of speech. I got into an hour-long argument at a party, as a man in front of me — completely serious — asked me why, if second-generation immigrants from Algeria hated the French so much, they didn’t just go back and rebuild the country the colonists had destroyed.

I knew where I stood, or at least I thought I did.

Everything seemed to be spinning out of control, and the roadmap I had, the one I’ve cultivated over years of American values and American media, in spite of my French address, betrayed me — my French may have been unaccented, but my opinions were foreign.

I had found it easy to be an authority on the 19th century, even as a foreigner; after all, that history is past. This history is happening before our eyes. I’m watching it. I’m bathing in it. But I’m separated by a gossamer curtain, a veil between me and France. No matter how long I seep in it, it isn’t fully mine.

by Emily Monaco

 

How To Have Fun in Asia Using Airbnb

March 2, 2015 by  

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Eight months ago, my fiancée, Jacque, and I left home to tour the world, starting in Cambodia. We were over 30, unemployed, clueless and out of place. We knew only one thing for certain: staying in hostels and guesthouses was our cheapest bet for accommodation. Conventional wisdom said that hostel private rooms provided a little privacy without the cost of hotels. For nearly a month in Cambodia, we stuck with hostels that were questionably clean or in the middle of a swarm of vicious tourist touts. We assumed that we were doing the right thing.

As we prepared to board our bus for Saigon, Jacque suggested we try Airbnb. Before leaving home, we rented our place a couple times using the service, and our experience as hosts was positive. Jacque found a room in a big house in Saigon’s District 1. It was far from the tourist area of the city, but the host seemed friendly. We took a risk and booked it for a week.

And it changed everything.

how to use airbnb

Sunset over Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Magical Traveling Scarf.

Our week in Saigon was a travel revelation. The room was cheaper than a private room at a hostel. The location was nowhere near the notoriously aggressive touts of Vietnam; the locals in the area were interested in us rather than interested in ripping us off. An, our host, was one of the friendliest people ever. She invited us out swing dancing, took us out for a delicious snail-filled dinner, helped us find a local gym, and let us use the washing machine. Our stay in Saigon was everything we’d been missing without knowing it.

Since that first experience, we’ve stayed with Airbnb hosts in Asia, India, Africa and South America over the course of seven months. Our hosts have showed us a side of their city that we wouldn’t have found otherwise.

You should be using Airbnb for couples travel. Here’s why.

how to use airbnb

Sunday market all day with arts, crafts, food, and delicious beer in Joburg’s Maboneng district. Photo courtesy of Magical Traveling Scarf.

Location, Location, Location

True Airbnb hosts live in a local part of town. There’s a good chance that you won’t see a single foreigner upon walking out your new front door, so the locals see you as an approachable real person. In Kunming, China, we stayed in an apartment in the suburbs. On the sidewalk one day, an old man came up to us. We eyed him warily, expecting the sales pitch, but he only wanted to show us his collection of coins. It was genuine interest from a man who may never have seen a white person in his neighborhood.

Staying with an Airbnb host is also a great way to discover hidden gems. Without Airbnb, we never would have known about the Maboneng district of Johannesburg, an artistic, restaurant-filled, multi-cultural gem in the middle of the city.

how to use airbnb

Trying to avoid total lethargy in Kunming at the apartment building. Photo courtesy of the Magical Traveling Scarf.

Privacy And Comfort

Once we hit the wrong side of 30, hostel dorm rooms became less attractive overnight. Jacque and I were accustomed to having our own space. There’s just something nice about being able to cook breakfast in your underwear without looking insane or German.

Many Airbnb hosts rent their entire apartment. Though it may cost a bit more, there are deals out there: we found an entire apartment in the trendy Nakameguro neighborhood of Tokyo for $60 per night. That’s less than most hotels or hostels in Tokyo. Plus it includes your own bathroom, a kitchen, space to hang out and read? Pure underwear-lounging heaven.

how to use airbnb

Save money on amazing sushi in Japan: buy it at the grocery store and eat at your Airbnb rental! Photo courtesy of Magical Traveling Scarf.

Save Some Moolah

Since most of us rich foreigners have $100 bills just falling out of our pockets – I use mine to light cigarettes – tourist areas charge a premium. Local restaurants and shops charge less because their customers hardly have 100 baht to their name. Airbnb hosts live near the latter, and for travelers with a budget, it’s a relief to find a fair price on everything from veggies to taxi rides.

Then there’s the kitchen. Almost all Airbnb hosts have kitchens available to their guests, whereas hotels and guest houses usually don’t have one at all. Hostel kitchens are hit or miss; they can be fun, but there’s always the hypothetical risk that someone will take a big bite out of a block of cheddar that I was saving for a delicious meal. Put that Thai cooking class to use and save some money!

It’s possible to spend a nearly unlimited amount of money on an Airbnb luxury apartment, but it’s also easy to find inexpensive hosts. Shared rooms – that is, your own room in an apartment or house – tend to cost less than private hostel rooms across the world. The quality of the spaces is better, too, with air conditioning and very clean common spaces.

how to use airbnb

Best. Hosts. Ever. Photo courtesy of Magical Traveling Scarf.

Meet & Support Locals

The hosts make Airbnb great. It takes a certain type of person to welcome a foreigner who may or may not speak their language into their home: they’re open, inquisitive, friendly, curious about the world, and enthusiastic about their city. Our hosts have taken us out for kaiten-zushi in Tokyo and helped us navigate the local buses of Jaipur. They’ve listened to our stories and taught us how to count to 10 in Vietnamese. They’ve invited us to cook dinner in Zanzibar with their ex-pat friends and trusted us to treat their home with respect. They’ve picked us up at train stations in an antique Jeep or a new Kia. They helped us discover the weirdly enjoyable magic of numbing Sichuan peppers, the gooey mess of Japanese Natto, and the hand-eaten blandness of Tanzanian ugali. They’ve even included us for a Cape Town Christmas roast, our first away from home, and an Indian wedding celebration. And they do it all with a smile on their face.

But it’s not all rainbows and butterflies…

Nothing is perfect, and of course it’s true of Airbnb as well. Hostels, despite their many shortcomings and cheese thieves, are wonderful places to meet other travelers. Sharing stories is a time-honored tradition in hostel common rooms, and after a couple weeks away from their warm glow, we find ourselves missing other wanderers. Staying in a hostel from time to time is a perfect way to balance the scales.

how to use airbnb

Lots of cockroaches in the kitchen, but a nice pool at our Kuala Lumpur stay. Photo courtesy of Magical Traveling Scarf.

Then there’s the flat-out bad hosts. In Kuala Lumpur, we had a kitchen that was covered in cockroaches. In Delhi, the apartment was over an hour from downtown by train, and the plumbing didn’t work. Cold bucket showers and long commutes affected our view on the city. Let’s just say that our reviews for those hosts were brutally honest.

How do you avoid making the same mistakes we did? Easy!

How to use Airbnb effectively – 5 Tips!

1. Only stay with offline-verified hosts, and get verified yourself

Airbnb will verify that the person is who they say they are using a few methods. Make sure your host is verified offline. Note that “reviews” for hosts are different than “references,” which can be written by anybody. Verifying yourself using any of the Airbnb-recommended offline tools is a good idea: hosts are more likely to accept you.

2. Make sure to select and pay in the local currency

I don’t know how many times we made this mistake before we realized it. Airbnb charges a service fee for each stay; that’s their business model. If you want to pay in anything other than the local currency, they’ll also charge you a currency conversion fee. Dig into the settings and pay in the listing’s local currency. It’ll save you a few percent on each reservation.

how to use airbnb

“Enjoying” a Chang from our balcony with a view over Chiang Mai. Photo courtesy of the Magical Traveling Scarf.

3. Read reviews really, really closely. Read between the lines. Then read them again!

On Airbnb, reviews make the world go ‘round. Reviews are often the best way to find out about the neighborhood, the amenities and the space itself. Our bad stays could have been avoided by carefully reading reviews for the listing, the host and the host’s other listings. Avoid places with no reviews unless you’re willing to take a little risk. Trust your gut.

4. Spot and avoid traditional accommodation posing as Airbnb hosts

As Airbnb grows in popularity, hotels, guest houses, hostels, and inns are listing their rooms on the site.

how to use airbnb

Trendy, hipster-friendly house in Cape Town

5. Know the city before reserving

Hotels and hostels are near something interesting, or they wouldn’t have survived. Airbnb hosts, on the other hand, could be in the boondocks. Use a map to make sure you understand where the listing is before reserving.

6. Bonus tip: Bring a small gift from home

Most hosts are truly curious about the world, and a small gift of your home will likely be well appreciated. That is, assuming your already-overloaded backpack will fit one or two more things…

Have you had success in Airbnb or other non-traditional accommodation? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

Contributed by Paul Levidy Adams.

A Whole Lotta Adventure and Culture in Punta Cana

March 1, 2015 by  

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punta cana

Let me preface this article by saying Punta Cana is very much a resort destination. In fact, the area is owned by PUNTACANA Resort & Club – who purchased and built it up 45 years ago — including all of the hotels in the area, not to mention the ecological reserve, stores, beaches, village…even the airport. That being said, while I half expected to find a Cancun-style free-for-all waiting for me when I landed, I was pleasantly surprised by the relaxed vibe, not to mention the beautiful beaches, ecological initiatives and bits of local culture woven into the experience.

There were two main places I came to love in Punta Cana (along with my Tortuga Bay Hotel accommodation): Playa Blanca, filled with locals and tourists partaking in water sports, and the Punta Cana Ecological Reserve, a true escape without actually leaving the resort.

punta cana

They don’t make beaches like this in Brooklyn…Looking out over the Caribbean Sea in front of Tortuga Bay.

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A peak into the living room of our beachfront Tortuga Bay villa.

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A view of Playa Blanca from the Caribbean Sea

Playa Blanca

Playa Blanca was the site of Kite Fest Punta Cana, the event that attracted me to the destination in the first place. I spent my days on the white sand beach — paddle boarding, snorkeling near shipwrecks (so close they’re visible from the beach), and savoring fresh catch and “Passionfruit Mojitos” at the waterfront Brassa Grill & Bar.

After lunch, I’d post up on the beach and watch the 50 local and international kitesurfers, standup paddle boarders and wakeboarders compete for their relative titles. While I love stand up paddle boarding — it’s seriously my meditation when I’m at a beach destination — kitesurfing makes my palms sweat a bit. The mix of aquatic and aerial adventure, as well as the faith they put into the wind is truly inspiring.

One day I would love to learn, but it isn’t a quick tutorial type of activity like SUP or windsurfing. In fact, I was able to take a lesson on the beach; however, there’s no getting into the water until at least six hours of training. Kiteboarding is no joke, and it’s not hard to break a bone or get hurt if you don’t understand the technical aspects of it.

What you’ll really need to do to get started, funny enough, is tap back into your childhood kite-flying days, and literally get re-acquainted with the skill of flying a kite. Well, a really really big kite…that will be strapped to your chest…while your feet are booted onto a board. Gulp.

Indigenous Eyes

For the time being, I stick with what I’m good at. The highlight Caribbean Sea experience is a paddle boarding trip to the Punta Cana Ecological Reserve (you can book this on the beach), encompassing 15,000 acres, 45 acres of which is the Indigenous Eyes Ecological Park (yes, there’s a lot of ecology going on!). The park is a unique forest trail that explores a sub tropical transition zone forest and 12 freshwater lagoons fed by the Yauya River as it flows underground to the ocean, three of which guests can swim in.

Shockingly, aside for my group there are about three other people total on the trails to the lagoons. I can’t believe we’re less than 10 minutes from the beachfront and it’s this quiet.

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The Indigenous Eyes…can you see it?

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Exploring the lagoons underwater. Pure calm.

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Hiking around Indigenous Eyes Ecological Park

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Swimming in the crystal waters of the “Indigenous Eyes” in the Punta Cana Ecological Reserve

In Pre-Columbian times, the indigenous Taino Indians of the Dominican Republic believed these lagoons looked like eyes when the sunlight streamed through the trees and created a glimmering effect on the water’s almond-shaped surface. For this reason, the lagoons are known as “Ojos Indígenas,” or Indigenous Eyes. It’s also believed by some the waters have medicinal properties. While I’m not sure if this is true or not, I can say that one dip in these serene waters will immediately wash away any stress or negative thoughts that may have been plaguing you beforehand.

If you go to one lagoon, it should be Guamá Lagoon, the deepest at 26 feet (8 meters), which you can dive into from a platform. When it’s my turn to jump, I hesitate. I’m always afraid the water is going to be freezing. Plus, it’s so deep there’s no way I could stand or tip toe across the bottom to keep my shoulders dry. But, the soft waves and clear-as-glass water beckons me forward (as does the fact I really want to capture this moment with my GoPro, see above).

I’m so enthralled by the natural attraction I use my complimentary bike transport from the resort to visit again, cycling the paved pathway along the beach to reach the trailhead. The reserve is just as impressive the second time around, with only a few more people there than last time. Again, I’m not sure if it’s because this place is lesser known or the tourists are too busy at the beach, but I’m in awe that I have such a pristine place practically to myself.

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Wandering around the Ecological Foundation grounds, I came to this bit of serenity.

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Palm trees and goats, an odd sight combo for this New Yorker

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Agriculture happenings at The Punta Cana Ecological Foundation

Punta Cana Ecological Foundation

To enhance the experience even further, I cycle across the street to the Punta Cana Ecological Foundation to learn more about what kind of sustainable projects are being spearheaded by PUNTACANA Resort & Club. The trail- and garden-filled grounds are full of well-marked signs so you can understand what you’re looking at, even without a guide, although staff are happy to enlighten you.

“Our mission is to protect and restore the natural resources of the Punta Cana region and contribute to the sustainable development of the country,” explains Jake Kheel, Environmental Director, Puntacana Resort & Club. “We do this by researching, designing and implementing projects that provide solutions to some of the countries most challenging environmental problems like waste management, water, coral reef protection and coastal management.”

Wandering on my own, again I feel completely at peace. There’s absolutely nobody around, and I’m able to completely lose myself in the local ecology. The only sounds I hear, aside for some farming machines, are the island winds, birds chirping and farm animals from the local petting zoo, part of an interpretive trail that explores the cultural and natural history of the Dominican Republic. It allows guests to see some of the animals that were brought to the island during the colonial period and have played an important role in the development of the country. I’m happy to see the animals have wide open spaces and no cages are involved.

As I’m walking, I come to a giant pit full of enormous iguanas, Rhinoceros Iguanas, to be exact, which can grow to be 54 inches (135 centimeters). Indigenous to the island of Hispaniola — the name for the entire island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti — these iguanas were once abundant; however, due to human poaching, habitat loss and the introduction of non-native species like cats, dogs, pigs and mongoose, they are in danger of becoming extinct. The Punta Cana Ecological Foundation has enclosed 16 Rhinoceros Iguanas for protection and breeding, to be re-introduced into the wild. They have a similar program for the endemic Ridgway Hawk, one of the world’s rarest birds.

punta cana

Rhinoceros iguanas are named for the three bumps above their nose.

I also find the Worm Composting project fascinating, as the Foundation has created a solution for organic fertilizer for local golf courses. Local resorts give their organic waste for India Blue Worms — which can consume their own weight in organic material and lie in rotting vegetation and compost — to eat and digest. These worms turn the compost into fertilizer, which can then be used as a healthy alternative to chemical fertilizers — which also protects the local oceans from toxic runoff.

Lionfish — a non-native species that are killing local fish and destroying Caribbean reefs — are also being controlled, as the Punta Cana Ecological Foundation purchases these fish from local fisherman and sells them to Punta Cana restaurants for healthy and delicious meals (Seriously. Delicious. No fishy aftertaste). They’re also taking things one step further, and empowering local women by having them stuff the meat-less fish to be sold as handicrafts.

Along with the programs, I see numerous themed gardens: medicinal plants, desert flora, fruit trees, palm trees, a historical sugar cane exhibit telling the history of Caribbean multiculturalism through agriculture (when Spanish colonizers began bringing over African slaves to tend the sugar cane, they changed the demographics of the Dominican Republic, creating the multi-cultural island you see today). Interestingly, “Punta Cana” translates to “Tip of the White Cane Palms,” paying homage to the area’s cane palms.

A beekeeping area also turns the over-abundant local bee population into a working honey farm, with the honey changing color and flavor with the seasons, depending on what local flora is in bloom for pollination. I savor this honey at breakfast each morning, and can vouch it tastes much, much better than that over-caramelized, chemical-filled honey bear garbage you buy at the supermarket.

A Perfect Weekend Ending

Cycling back to Tortuga Bay takes less than 10 minutes, and as I enter the property I notice that the feeling of being the only one around is still present. Despite being at a resort, all is quiet. It seems that most of the “action” happens at Playa Blanca.

Which is probably why it is where the weekend culminates, with a sunset Kite Fest Punta Cana beach party. Locals and visitors alike hold beers and pina coladas, dancing in the sand and lounging on sun chairs, listening to the DJs on the waterfront stage. I also noticed almost everyone at some point had some kind of cigarette or cigar in their mouth.

punta cana

Punta Cana sunrises and sunsets are so colorful. Here is the sunrise as seen from Tortuga Bay.

Cigar & Rum Pairing

Which reminds me, there is one other place that I have neglected to mention that I absolutely fell in love with: the Don Queco Cigar Bar. Situated near The Westin Puntacana Resort & Club pool, the venue features a long bar with plush couches and bar stools and, the highlight, a separate enclosed space showcasing cigars from around the Dominican Republic and beyond laid out in beautiful humidors.

I’m not really into smoking of any kind; however, when Victor, my now favorite bartender in the world, leads me through the cigar room to smell and learn about the origins of each one, I’m astounded. Who knew cigars could be as complex as wine, actually having a body, aromas, age-ability and even terroir. When Victor tells me he would be able to pair a cigar with a local drink for me, I was sold. Plus, I can never turn down a cultural experience.

When in Rome Punta Cana.

punta cana

Don Queco Cigar Bar

Victor explains their are many drinks that tend to go well with cigars, Port, Cognac, scotch and even rum, especially when in the Dominican Republic where they make their own. Which is exactly what we have, as Victor sets us up outside by the pool with our cigars and a glasses of local cask-aged Brugal Rum, known for being smooth and dry — not to mention sustainable, as they recycle their steel and use any old wood for biofuel.

The mild woody cigar pairs deliciously with the vanilla, caramel and oak of the drink, helping me to relax even further into the setting; the heavenly taste of local culture enhanced by the starlit sky.

I’d be lying if I said Punta Cana was the perfect place to escape the tourists and immerse yourself 100% in authentic Dominican Republic culture; however, if you’re looking for a luxury beach resort getaway that weaves in responsible tourism, natural serenity and a bit of Dominican flavor, Punta Cana is a pretty sweet choice.

Have you been to Punta Cana or the Dominican Republic? I would love to hear about your experience in the comments below.

 

Top Places to Sip Coffee in Iceland’s Reykjavik

February 28, 2015 by  

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Photo courtesy of Alexander Jensen via Shutterstock.

Iceland may be one of the most isolated spots in the entire world, but Reykjavik is a surprisingly worldly city. Perhaps it’s the limited sunlight, the chilling cold or simply the Scandinavian culture, but despite its small size, Reykjavik boasts a fantastic range of cafes.

Here are five of the finest cafes in Reykjavik’s for your sipping pleasure:

Laundromat Cafe

Photo courtesy of The Laundromat Cafe.

The Laundromat Cafe

With its map wallpaper, warm lighting and bar filled with books, the Laundromat Cafe has a lovely, cozy atmosphere. Right in the center of the city, with plenty of comfy seating, the Laundromat is one of the best places to warm up over a latte.

Photo courtesy of C is for Cookie.

Photo courtesy of C is for Cookie.

C is for Cookie

Friendly, warm and brightly-colored (if only on the inside), C is for Cookie is a sweet little cafe that offers hearty, warming breakfasts along with its coffee. They also made delicious cakes and pies and excellent espresso coffee. The perfect spot to lounge in the warmth.

Photo courtesy of Te & Kaffi.

Photo courtesy of Te & Kaffi.

Te & Kaffi

If Laundromat and C is for Cookie are cozy, Te & Kaffi is sleek. A purveyor of ground coffee and beans, Te & Kaffi is not just a shopfront, but a beautiful, modern cafe. This little spot takes their coffee very seriously, and the result is delectable.

Photo courtesy of the Kaffismidja Islands.

Photo courtesy of the Kaffismidja Islands.

Kaffismidja Islands

There’s nothing quite like the quaint-yet-minimalist perfection of Scandinavian design. Denmark may be king of furniture and Sweden may be queen of fashion, but Iceland has perfected the ideal Scandinavian cafe style (who else could make wooden crates look so good?) And Kaffismidja Islands is the ideal spot to enjoy this Icelandic ambiance over a hot, creamy cappuccino.

Photo courtesy of Stofan Kaffihús.

Photo courtesy of Stofan Kaffihús.

Stofan Kaffihús

Perfect pastries, rich cakes and creamy coffee in the heart of the city: Stofan Kaffihús (which sounds so adorably close to “coffee house” I can hardly bear it) has it all. The staff are more than happy for you to bring your work and lounge or type away at their tables. The vintage decor is perfect too, making it one of the finest spots in Reykjavik for a caffeine hit.

What’s your favorite of the cafes in Reykjavik? Please share in the comments below.

By Gemma King

Top photo credit Photo courtesy of Alexander Jensen via Shutterstock.

 

Responsible Travel and the Magical Northern Lights

February 27, 2015 by  

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It seems fitting that the most prevalent color in the Northern Lights is green. As nature’s greatest light show plays across upturned faces it serves as a gentle reminder as we let that we need to be aware of the impacts of our holiday on the fragile Arctic landscape.

But the green can also be misleading; it’s not just the environment that’s fragile here. Home to traditional cultures slowly being eroded by the modern world, whether our travels support or exploit Sami communities should also be of real concern. Responsible Travel’s two minute guide to Northern Lights Watching offers some handy tips and advice:

Plan Ahead

Seeing the Northern Lights has become one of those horribly-named bucket list things to do, and consequently makes a tempting last-minute escape or spontaneous surprise. But the lights, the landscape and the people who call it home deserve your planning time; research responsible tour operators which work sensitively with local people and be aware the best accommodations and activities book up quickly. Make sure your experience is more than a series of coach trips. Not only will you have a much more memorable time, but a much better impact, too.

northern lights

Serenity in Norway. Photo courtesy of Natalia Davidovich via Shutterstock.

Forgo Faking It

Often marginalized and at risk of cultural erosion as modern life seeps its way into Europe’s northern reaches, the Sami populations of Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden are becoming more dependent on tourism as a vital source of additional income. Sharing their unique ways of life, knowledge and deep connection with the Arctic landscape with visitors is a key way to keep this culture alive; however, as demand for holidays to the Arctic regions increases, so does the opportunity for exploitation.

Attractions often have non-Sami staff dressed up in Sami clothing, and ‘Crossing the Arctic Circle,’ a popular ceremony for travelers touted as an authentic Sami ritual that has no significance in traditional culture.

So what can we do? Choose a tour operator that uses local Sami guides. Not only will they be able to lead you through the beautiful Arctic landscape, but through culture as well, telling genuine stories and tales deeply rooted in the landscape and the lights. Alternatively, staying with a Sami family offers unique insight into local life while directly benefiting their community.

Traditional Sami handicraft, Duodji, abounds in these regions, with artists still active in Sapmi carrying on traditional skills passed down through generations. Look out for the colorful ‘Saami Duodji’ label, which marks out authentic crafts from mass-produced, cheap reproductions.

Savor The Silence

While snowmobiles and 4x4s are essential to everyday life in the Arctic, traveling here also offers a chance to find peace within the silence of the snow. Forgo unnecessary noise and take to snow-shoes or cross-country skis to discover the winter world with a local guide – a slower, more environmentally-friendly form of travel which gives more time to let your surroundings sink in.

Husky sledding provides added adrenaline, and longer trips often include overnight stays in wilderness cabins, away from other tourists and with pristine conditions in which to see the Northern Lights. Moreover, you’ll have a chance to look after your own team of dogs for a traditional Arctic life.

northern lights

Husky sledding. Photo courtesy of Sirko Hartmann via Shutterstock.

It’s Not All About The Aurora

Remember, there are no guarantees that nature’s greatest light show will dance across the skies. Even if you time your trip perfectly, it’s more important to plan an enriching, once-in-a-lifetime holiday which immerses you into real Arctic life: snow-shoeing or reindeer sledding with local guides during the daytime, meals full of delicious, seasonal local food; berries, elk, wood grouse, hazel hen, and evenings spent listening to traditional folk tales. Let the lights be the icing on your very own icy, Arctic cake.

The Northern Lights. Photo courtesy of V. Belov via Shutterstock.

 

The Adventure & Cultural Guide In & Around Medellin Colombia

February 24, 2015 by  

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Once touted as the world’s most dangerous city, Colombia‘s Medellin today is one travelers from all over the world can appreciate. That being said, what attracted me most to the city was its nearby experiences. From hiking to paragliding to immersing myself in Colombia’s famous coffee culture, there are many experiences to be had.

day trips from medellin

Medellin as seen from the high point of the cable car ride

day trips from Medellin

My friend, Blaine, about to zipline over a lake in Arvi Park

day trips from medellin

Relaxing in Colombia’s Parque Arvi

day trips from medellin

Riding the cable car up to Arvi Park

1. Parque Arvi

This is a great day trip for those who don’t have a ton of time or are lat risers. While technically in Medellin, specifically the rural zone of Santa Elena, you’ll be getting out of the city and high into the surrounding mountains. Hop on the metro — a true source of pride for the city — and take it to Acevedo Station (1900 COP/about $1 USD). From there, you’ll switch to a cable car, which is free until Santo Domingo, where you’ll pay (4200 COP/About $1 USD).

As the cable car ascends up the mountain, you’ll slowly leave the bustle of the city, gliding over small rural communities until you finally reach the top and enter Parque Arvi (Arvi Park), encompassing 1,761 hectares (4,351 acres). Here, you’ll be 1,800 to 2,735 meters (5,905 to 8,973 feet) above Medellin, Colombia’s second largest metropolis. Once in the park, browse the small farmer’s market and typical food stalls. From there, you can choose to go the free route: walking 30 minutes over to the scenic picnic area or taking a complimentary park tour. You can also choose to go to the other parks within Arvi Park to do different activities: horseback riding, cycling, zip lining, paddle boating, hiking, visiting nature museums and other adventures. It’s a great way to spend a day exploring the more natural side of Medellin.

My day: I opted for Piedras Blancas, which was less than 10 minutes by bus from El Tambo Restaurant (a 10 minute walk from the park entrance). From there, I paid about 4200 COP (about $2 USD) for admission and about $4600 COP (about $2 USD) to do a seated zip line over a lake before wandering around the lake with my camera and paddle boating. In total, I spent $4 USD — plus 1,000 COP (about $0.50) for a delicious papas rellenos — for an active day outside the city.

day trips from medellin

Kayaking in Guatape. Those cables above the water are ziplines.

day trips from medellin

Guatape is extremely colorful, and makes a great location for fun and vibrant photos!

day trips from medellin

2. Guatape

Guatape is a pueblo about 90 minutes from Medellin, known for it’s 740-step monolith that you can climb to look out over bright crystalline lakes, lush green islands and beautiful country landscape.

Activities abound for the outdoor adventure enthusiast, like cycling around the lake, kayaking, peddle boating, hiking, swimming and more. Most water sports cost 15,000 COP (about $7 USD) per hour or 10,000 COP (about $5 USD) for 30-40 minutes. Alternatively, you can rent a bike and cycle around the pueblo or to La Piedra Del Peñol, also known as El Peñón (about 30 minutes).

To get there take a taxi to “Norte” station. You can also opt for the metro, to stop Caribe. You’ll have two options for getting to Guatape: take the bus (1200; about $6 USD) or a personal taxi (we paid 60,000 COP (about $30) for four people, or 1500 COP (about $7 USD) per person).

My day: Sadly it was raining, as reflected in the above photos, but was still beautiful and worth the trip, especially as it’s budget-friendly. On the way there, we opted for the taxi, which, with four people, was a tad squishy, especially when the driver zipped rapidly through the winding mountains and we were all tossed from left to right. Once I arrived, I paid the 10,000 COP (about $5 entrance fee) and made my way up the winding steps, which took about 20-30 minutes with photo stops. At the top, I grabbed a beer and enjoyed the expansive view, chatting with some new Dutch friends I met on the way up.

Part II of the journey included exploring Guatape, a colorful pueblo with neon colored buildings and beautiful stone reliefs. In fact, a highlight of a visit — aside for Guatape Lake and its water activities — is seeing locals carving and painting the whimsical stone designs, which range from milk jugs to horses to local scenes. After spending an hour kayaking and enjoying the serenity of the still water and surrounding mountains, I went to a local eatery for some Bandeja Paisa. This national dish of Colombia is a must when traveling to Medellin and its surrounds, originating in the Paisa district and including beans, fried egg, chorizo, chicharrón, morcilla arepa,, avocado and sometimes other bites. There’s also a chill bar literally on the water where you can grab a beer.

Fun photos after paragliding

paragliding in Medellin

Paragliding over Medellin

paragliding in medellin

Paragliding over Medellin

paragliding in medellin

Paragliding over Medellin. Nice view, huh?

3. San Feliz

For those craving true adventure, paragliding in San Feliz will have your stomach doing somersaults as you glide 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) — sometimes even higher info the clouds — strapped to a parachute. The view over the valley is superb, and you’ll see Medellin looking like a Monopoly board enveloped by mountains.

To enjoy paragliding with Aeroclub, the company I used, you can just show up to the Casa Kiwi Hostel in El Poblado at 8am any day, although I’d double check with the accommodation the day before to make sure. The cost is 80 COP (about $40) for the experience plus transport to get there. I took a taxi for a flat rate of $70 COP (about $35) round trip, and shared it with the other gliders. The taxi ride is about 30 minutes, while the flight lasts 20-30 minutes.

My Day: After a heavy night of partying in El Poblado the night before, I somehow rolled myself out of bed at the 7am alarm and got ready for the flight. Once I paid (cash only), they called the taxi for the group (extra time for a hammock nap!) and we were on our way. The drive up the mountain was beautiful, as we coasted through a small farm trail.

Once the paperwork was filled out and I was weighed, we walked up a steep set of stairs for about 10 minutes before emerging onto a hill overlooking the valley, colorful parachutes, big black birds and bold clouds dotting the sky.

My guide strapped me in and, without warning, started running — me attached — off of a cliff. It was probably a good thing I didn’t quite know what was going on, as I didn’t have time to second-guess my (insane) decision to throw myself into a valley from deadly heights (if there weren’t a parachute of course). Once in the air, my guide pumped some house music to set the energetic mood, and the wind tossed me around, providing different angles of the scenery. Let’s just say I wasn’t tired on the way home.

Tip: Opt for the GoPro to capture beautiful images and videos of your flight. It’s 15000 COP (about $7 USD) for the GoPro and 15000 COP  (about $7 USD) for the memory card. Also, dress warm as it can get chilly in the sky.

day trips from medellin

View from Parque El Salado lookout point

day trips from medellin

Fabian teaching us the best ways to make coffee, like with a French press

day trips from medellin

Learning about the different types of coffee beans at Cereza Cafe in Envigado

day trips from medellin

Exploring the coffee fields in Envigado

4. Envigado

There are two great reasons to do a day trip to Envigado, located less than 10 minutes outside of the city. One is the beautiful El Salado, an ecological park filled with hiking trails as well as activities like ziplining, wall climbing and swimming. Coffee is another reason to visit, with one recommended “finca” being Cafe Cereza, a small coffee farm with a passionate owner — who’s also a world champion race walker — named Fabian.

Visitors will first sip on medium roast coffee, the best kind due to its caffeine retention and smoothness, before learning about the coffee-making process from seed to cup. Fabian hand-picks all of his coffee cherries, also called cerezas, with only 2% of his 5-hectare (12-acre) harvest going to padilla coffee, the worst kind used for domestic production.

Fun fact: Coffee is a lot like wine, even having a terroir, with the main factors affecting its quality being soil, amount of sunlight, rainfall and altitude. Make sure to bring your camera on the tour, as there are many beautiful jungle and valley views to be had. Moreover, hiring an English-speaking guide is recommended. I used Landventure Travel for this, who were great although a bit pricey.

Both the park and coffee farm are easily reachable by inexpensive taxi ride. For the park, one can also head to the metro station Envigado and take a bus for about $1 USD to the park entrance. Admission into the park is 3,000 COP (about $1.50), although you’ll pay extra for many of the activities.

*All photos courtesy of me, Jessica Festa.

Do you have any favorite day trips from Medellin? Please share in the comments below.

 

 

Behind the Scenes With The Ever So Delicious French Macaron

February 24, 2015 by  

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Every few years, a new dessert seems to become particularly trendy. A couple of years back, it was all about the cupcake. For a bizarre, dazed moment in time, the most popular pastry seemed to be the cronut. In Paris, the choux, or cream-filled profiterole pastry, is having a moment (fans should head here for the perfect one). But perhaps the most enduring, fashionable little dessert is the macaron.

Pastel colored and perfectly rounded, with a smooth casing and melt-in-your-mouth center, the macaron is dainty and indulgent. A simple design, the modern macaron consists of two symmetrical  almond biscuit meringues, held together by a thin layer of cream or jam. Traditional flavors are pistachio, raspberry, chocolate and vanilla, though present-day artisans like Pierre Hermé are famous for such masterpieces as chocolate and foie gras or candied chestnut.

You probably know the macaron is French. But how did this luxurious delicacy come to be?

macaron

Some stories insist the macaron has been around since the seventh century, though most claim Catherine de Medici, of the famed Medici dynasty, brought the recipe with her from Italy when she married Henry II of France in 1533. Though accounts vary widely, it is agreed that the original macaron consisted only of the outer biscuit, made from almond flour, sugar and egg whites, and did not feature any form of cream.

While certain French towns, such as Amiens, Nancy and Montmorillon (which boasts a dedicated macaron museum), have a storied history of producing the delicate dessert, it’s unclear where exactly the macaron first became popularized. Though  Nancy is particularly prominent in macaron folklore, for its famed Soeurs du macaron, a group of 19th-century nuns who made a living selling the sweet almond discs to survive after their convent was closed down.

macaron

These days, the macaron is more closely associated with Paris, thanks to the famed macaron makers based there. In fact, it was not until the early 20th century that the macaron we know today was invented, as the bakers at the decadent Paris pâtisserie Ladurée decided to glue two shells together with ganache to create a petite, sandwich-like confection.

Looking for the perfect place to enjoy a macaron in Paris? Perhaps the most special spot is still the stunning Ladurée, on the rue Royale in the 8th arrondissement. Ladurée now has a number of locations around the city (including the tourist trap of the Champs Elysées) but none can compete with the rococo-style, pink and gold wonderland of the rue Royale location. There, you can savor traditional macarons on their own, or try a glorious macaron tart, replete with fresh raspberries and pistachio cream. But the macaron is not confined to such fancy establishments; almost every neighbourhood boulangerie offers up their own range of traditional flavors.

In fact, the macaron has become such a French pastry staple, it has its own dedicated holiday. Since 2005, pâtissiers across the whole country come together each year on March 20 for the celebratory jour du macaron, or Macaron Day. On this hallowed day, humble bakers and macaron artisans alike produce macarons in their thousands, often in creative new flavors, and donate many of their proceeds to charity. Being in France on the jour du macaron is a dizzying, but glorious, exercise in indulgence.

By Gemma King

 

 

On Indian Food and Culture, From Masala Vada & Spices to Chai

February 18, 2015 by  

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indian culture

Being an expat Indian, my husband and I are on the one hand, thankful for the experiences and adventures our son gets to have at such a young age. On the other hand, we sometimes rue that he doesn’t fully appreciate his roots, as he is a bit alienated from the riot of colors, sounds, smells and flavors that make up everyday life in India.

So, we take him to visit his grandparents regularly. How fun are those trips for him and for us. It is so endearing to see him run around at my parents’ huge house. The little one who spent his toddler years in a sterile apartment is suddenly handed the freedom to do pretty much what he wants.

“He may fall, he will scratch his knee,” I bemoan.

“Let him be, he’ll be fine,” quips grandma.

“Do you want to select fish for lunch?” she asks.

We live in a small city down south, cradled by the Arabian Sea on one side. We still have those old-school fish mongers who bring the day’s catch straight to our doorsteps. I remember when I was little; these men came walking with fish-laden baskets on their heads. Now they come on 150cc motorbikes and I can see how the pace of modern life is definitely catching up. Nevertheless, this is a huge treat for the little one. The fish monger throws in a couple extra for the little guest; he lets him touch a few fish. My son giggles when he feels their slimy skin.

Indian culture is all about the sensory experiences.

indian culture

Exploring India by train. Photo courtesy of Amlan Mathur via Shutterstock.

Exploring India By Train

For me, a big part of life in India was the numerous train journeys I went on. Growing up, we lived far away from our grandparents and extended family. I went to college in a faraway city. Later on, I got a job in another city. All this time, I heavily depended on this lifeblood of India.

Indian Railways is like a large coiled beast, crisscrossing the length and breadth of this vast country, making travel accessible and easy for the common folk. Trains are a true testament to Indian culture and local life. There are the unreserved compartments for the poor who cannot afford any form of travel at all or for the unfortunate last-minute travelers who didn’t book tickets in advance. The more fortunate and well-prepared folk get to spend their journey in air-conditioned cars with wide berths and private compartments.

Much like domestic air travel in the US, the Indian railways are a well-coordinated, albeit slightly more dusty machinery. For an enterprise this huge, the safety rate is exceptionally high. But I digress.
The real charm in these journeys lies in sights you see, the places you whiz past, the numerous nondescript and important places you encounter on the way to your destination. Train travel is very common, yet very romantic for Indians. And like any other event, we look forward to the food. Mothers and grandmothers pack delicious food for the journey in dabbas or tiffin-boxes. But the best food comes right from the railway platforms.

indian culture

A small village in India. Photo courtesy of FiledIMAGE via Shutterstock.

Railway Travel With An Authentic Dining Twist

Any time a train pulls into the station, you will be bombarded by the sight and sound of vendors shouting chai-chai, kapi-kapi, vade-vade, samose, idli-vade, even the ubiquitous Indian biryani makes an appearance. Don’t be fooled by the double names, the vendors simply seem to repeat them in a sort of chant-like tune, luring you with their exuberance and urgency of tone.

The train may have stopped at a small station in some village that doesn’t even exist on the map or at a large metropolis. But one thing remains the same: The food is almost always fresh, piping hot and delicious.

The coffee and tea are dispensed from samovars these vendors carry with them. There is no nonsense of fat-free, skinny, sugar-free or anything of the sort here. You drink what they brew. We South Indians are especially fond of both these dark concoctions, so don’t you dare question us how we make it.

Indian culture

Various Indian teas, an important part of the local culture. Photo courtesy of Africa Studio via Shutterstock.

Next up are the snacks. In South India, the most common snack of choice is vadai or vada. They come in a couple of different varieties. Some are crunchy on the outside and soft inside, with a hole in the middle, almost like a savory donut, called methu vada. Some others are crunchy throughout and a bit spicy, called masala vada.

Transactions are conducted through the window bars, the vendor handing you piping hot vade on a paper plate. Talk about biodegradable packaging. The tea or coffee too comes in small, thick paper cups. Indians brew a strong cup of coffee or tea, with full-fat milk and sweetened with lots of sugar. So a small cup goes a long way. It energizes you and wakes you up like no fancy latte could ever do.

I remember a journey with our little one. He couldn’t believe he was allowed to swing his legs about and even run around inside the large train compartment. He watched in amazement while the train whizzed past varying landscapes. We left the large city, passed through fields and went over bridges. He seemed to doze off a little. Then we pulled into a station. Mom said this place was famous for their vada and tea. I remember my son picking one vada up and pretending to steer an imaginary car.

“Vroom vroom,” he said in his baby voice.

“Take a bite,” prodded his grandma.

“Spicy?” he asked concerned.

“No, it’s delicious,” she said.

He took one bite and was hooked. I saw my mom pouring a bit of tea into his cup and cooling it. “He’s never had tea, ma,” I said. “Nonsense, it doesn’t hurt,” she replied. No, of course it doesn’t. I grew up on all these and isn’t that what I wanted for my son too?

If you ever plan to explore India, you can be rest assured you will have to rely on the great Indian Railways at some point or the other. It will take you where you need to be, when you need to be, rather efficiently. The north, south, east and west of India may be quite different in landscape and attractions. But they are truly unified by this great system. As a train thunders past, you will pause and wonder whither it came from and where it may be off to; what new smells, sights and tastes it will lead you to.

A Taste Of India At Home

Find the recipes for those delightful masala vada and traditional Indian cardamom tea below. Tea brewing in India is an art form, though a very simple one. We use black tea dust for a strong flavor, kadak or cutting chai as it is known in the sub-continent. My personal favorite blends are Darjeeling black tea and Nilgiri black tea dust. You can also use tea leaves, though they are less potent than tea dust. Try to get your hands on either of these authentic blends. But please do not ever use flavored “tea” blends. It’s just not right.

indian culture

Masala Dal Vada (Indian Spicy Lentil Fritters). Photo courtesy of Anjana Devasahayam.

Masala Vada (Spicy Lentil Fritters)

You Will Need: (Makes 12 vada or fritters)

• Mung dal (dehusked green gram) – 1 cup
• Whole dried red chilies – 3, de-seeded (use just 1 for a less spicy version)
• Onion – 1/4 cup, finely chopped
• Ginger – 1 tbsp, grated or finely chopped
• Curry leaves – 6 large leaves, chopped
• Salt – 1 tsp
• Rice flour or chickpea flour – a few tablespoons (to be used if the dough is watery)
• Oil – for deep-frying

How To:

• Wash mung dal in cold water a couple of times, just like how you would wash rice before cooking it. Soak the dal in water for at least 2 hours. After this time, the dal would have almost doubled in volume and softened. Drain water completely and proceed to the next step.
• Coarsely grind the dal and red chilies in a blender or food processor, pulsing the dal so that they are just broken down. Do not add any water at all; the mixture should be fairly dry.
• Transfer to a mixing bowl. Add chopped onion, ginger, curry leaves and salt and mix well. You must be able to form small patties with this dough. If it seems runny, add a few tablespoons of rice flour or chickpea flour and try again.
• Heat oil in a large pan or fryer. When the oil is hot, just under smoking point, drop in a few patties, reduce heat to medium and fry till fritters are cooked through and golden brown. Remove onto a paper towel lined plate to drain any excess oil. Fry the fritters in batches depending on the size of your fryer.
• Serve hot with a cup of Indian chai. Recipe follows.

Notes:

• You will easily find all necessary ingredients at your friendly neighborhood Indian/Asian grocery store.

indian culture

Photo courtesy of Anjana Devasahayam

Elaichi Chai (Cardamom Tea)

You Will Need: (Serves 6)

• Milk – 2 cups, full-fat preferred
• Water – 2 cups
• Green cardamom pods – 3, crushed (you can use 1 tsp cardamom powder instead)
• Sugar – 3-4 tsp, heaped
• Black tea dust – 3 tsp

How To:

• Heat milk, water and cardamom in a deep saucepan.
• When you begin to see bubbles at the sides of the pan, add sugar and tea dust. Stir and simmer for a few more minutes.
• Remove from heat when the tea just begins to boil. Strain tea into a clean teapot or another saucepan using a fine-mesh strainer.
• Serve tea piping hot in small cups.

Notes:

• To achieve the froth over the tea, simply pour the tea into the cup from a reasonable height. Attempt this over the sink till you get the hang of it. It’s fun, I promise!
• You can add other Indian spices like a small cinnamon stick, 2-3 cloves, a big piece of ginger and a tiny pinch of crushed black pepper. This masala chai is said to have numerous health benefits as well.

Contributed by Anjana Devasahayam.

Top photo credit: Indian spices. Photo courtesy of aboikis via Shutterstock.

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