Memories of travel food

Lunch at a bush camp in Botswana - photo by E Jurus
Lunch at a bush camp in Botswana – photo by E Jurus

One of my favourite things about travel is the cultural immersion, and a large part of that consists of the food we enjoy in different countries. What we’ve consumed has provided some of my most powerful memories over the years.

I can’t tell you much about the 400-year-old pub we had lunch at in Stratford-upon-Avon many years ago, apart from the creaky floors that dipped alarmingly on the second floor where the washrooms were, but I can recall in great detail the incredible chocolate cake we had – three layers of intense dark chocolate goodness piled with a velvety chocolate frosting, and drenched in rich pale-yellow pouring cream. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!

In Egypt, on chilly nights on the top deck of our boat on the Nile, after dinner the crew would bring out an enormous battered steel kettle of steaming hot tea, which they served with hot frothy milk and lots of sugar. There was nothing better than being bundled up in our blankets, sipping this wonderful tea and eating digestive cookies at the end of an amazing day of sightseeing.

On the island of Bali, we hired a vehicle and driver to take us to see the rice terraces that were currently under cultivation – a spectacular experience, like being inside a giant emerald – and after a long day of touring with still over an hour to get back to our resort in Denpasar we asked him to find us a place to stop for dinner. He asked us what we like to eat, and then after a few minutes he pulled up in a tiny town at a place that looked like an old mechanic’s garage. We were a bit startled, but Wayan assured us that the kitchen was clean and the food was safe to eat. We decided that it wouldn’t be beneficial to him to kill off his customers, so we went in with him and let him order for us. We were the only non-Indonesians in the joint, which had only one big table where we were slowly joined by a few men from town who trickled in. We had a very spicy vegetable stew, rice and some bottles of pop. The men from town paid us some attention, but mostly chatted amongst themselves. At one point Wayan stepped out to buy a live chicken caged in chicken wire, which he put in the back of his small van. The entire meal for all three of us cost $8. The mother who was cooking and her daughter came out to meet us, so we asked Wayan to tell her how delicious everything was, which earned us a big smile.

Our camp cooks in Africa have been able to produce some of the most amazing food on a tiny stove rigged up on top of pop cans over an open fire way out in the bush. We’ve had everything from cheddar and bacon pizza to steak to pears poached in red wine with chocolate cake. Eating out in the open, under the African stars, with the sound of hippos bellowing in the distance, is an incredible experience.

You can’t plan for experiences like this – you stumble upon them, and they stay with you forever. They represent an entire culture on a plate. Forget tracking down a MacDonald’s or something that reminds you of home; that’s not why you’re there. Enjoy a memory that will make you smile on a cold winter day when you need some cheering up, and even better, bring home the recipe from that distant land and make it that day!

A slow boat up the Nile

Our first view of the Valley of the Kings - photo on slide by E Jurus
Our first view of the Valley of the Kings – photo on slide by E Jurus

Have you ever had one of those days where you wished you were somewhere else, doing something wonderfully exciting instead of sitting at your desk? Today was one of those days for me. I found myself dreaming of being back in Egypt, on a slow boat chugging up the Nile River. I’m not sure what made that pop into my head today, but I tend to wax nostalgic about trips I’ve been on during the months that they took place, and in November 1989 I was in Egypt.

That trip was the first big adventure that my hubby Mike and I undertook, and it was quite a journey. Our tour company, Transglobal, gave us a lot of information ahead of time about what conditions would be like, how to pack, etc., but we still had no idea what to expect about actually being there.

Cairo was chaotic, noisy and fun. To see King Tutankhamen’s famous gold mask in the Egyptian Museum was like a dream. We spent a day out on the Giza Plateau — touring the very first pyramid at Sakkara, gazing at the enigmatic face of the Sphinx, frog-walking up the Grand Gallery inside the Great Pyramid and wondering what all those strange passageways were designed for – and then visited a papyrus-making enterprise, where Mike and I bought one painted with the statue of Anubis just like the one we’d seen in the museum.

We rented striped cloth shoe-covers to explore the magnificent mosque at the Citadel, overlooking the jumbled rooftops of Cairo, and had lunch in a dim restaurant where the smoke from huge frying pans of falafel patties wafted upwards to form clouds on the ceiling.

We had a day to wander around by ourselves, so Ron from Holland joined us to explore the crazy, exotic Khan-el-Khalili Bazaar, up and down the dusty stone-floored passages filled with spices, coloured skeins of wool, perfume, leather goods… Mike and I bargained over bottles of pop (sharing a beverage with the owner was an essential part of bargaining in Cairo) for a brass hookah in a murky shop at the end of a lane – then had to try to find our way back out of the maze of streets again.

But it wasn’t until we stepped onto our small boat on the Nile that we felt we were slipping the bonds of time and voyaging through history. We watched scenery that seemed unchanged from thousands of years ago pass by along the river – boys leading donkeys laden with bundles of reeds along the sandy banks, men casting fishing nets from shallow canoes, thin stretches of palm trees beyond which the endless rolling dunes of the Sahara stretched away toward the horizon.

After lazy hours of chugging up the river, we’d pull over, tie up and visit an ancient temple, or a camel market. At night we’d enjoy dinner on the open top deck, wrapped up in blankets against the night chill, and attempt stick-dancing with our crew. One night we sat around a fire on the beach and sang songs under the stars with a local farmer. It was a truly magical experience.

Halfway through our wild camel ride in the Sahara at Aswan - photo on slide, property of E Jurus
Halfway through our wild camel ride in the Sahara at Aswan – photo on slide, property of E Jurus

We did many more incredible things on that trip – seeing the hills of Valley of the Kings for the first time was breathtaking, and we watched the rising sun gild the massive statues of Ramses II that guard the entrance to the temple at Abu Simbel. We rode a camel out to a long-abandoned monastery in the desert at Aswan and held on for dear life, laughing hysterically, when our  mount decided to charge back down the sand dunes to the waterfront.

Going to Egypt was our first taste of real adventure, and we’ve been hooked ever since. On days when I’m stuck doing paperwork, I remember that amazing journey and travel back there in my mind for a little while.

Great opportunities

Walking with lions at the African Lion Encounter, Zimbabwe - photo of E Jurus
Walking with lions at the African Lion Encounter, Zimbabwe – photo of E Jurus

Our modern world is so full of opportunities! You can live out just about anything you might want to put on your bucket list, or try out any type of job experience.

Although it wasn’t originally on my bucket list the first time I went to Africa in 2007, as soon as I came across the opportunity to do a bush walk with lions in Zimbabwe near Victoria Falls, I jumped at it. We’d be spending 9 days on safari first, looking at lions from the safety of a game-drive vehicle, but to actually be able to touch a lion!

It was an intense and absolutely amazing experience. I can’t describe to you what the sensation was like of being able to interact and even touch these powerful, regal beasts. The lions that you walk with aren’t completely wild — they’ve been rescued as small cubs and habituated to humans — but there are strict rules to follow, and you never forget that they could destroy you with a paw swipe if they so chose. To be able to safely get that close is a rare privilege.

Both times that I was lucky enough to be able to do the Lion Encounter (click here for more info), I observed volunteers working with the staff — yes, you can go to Africa and spend weeks with the cubs, helping to feed them and conduct behavioural research.

There are many organizations around the world that offer volunteer experiences, both with people/communities and with animals. Many opportunities are just for personal growth, but there’s an organization called Worldwide Experience that offers some fantastic opportunities for work that would look stellar on a resume. One of their newest packages is the Wildlife Veterinary Programme: 21 days working with the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust. You’ll combine adventure and some unbeatable work experience! Visit the website for more info on this programme and all the other terrific opportunities they offer. As with any such opportunity, do your research to make sure it’s a good fit and that the organization resonates with you, and send me a message if you need any tips about travel to Africa.