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!

For the love of flying

Flying over the Amazon river basin
Flying over the Amazon river basin – photo by E Jurus

I collect airports. Not as in so-rich-I-can-buy-them, but as in so many strange adventures in them. My first-ever jet flight was to California to visit friends, who arranged for us to take a side trip to Las Vegas, so buy the time we returned home I was a veteran of 6 different plane trips. It didn’t take me long to discover that I love flying. I’ve always been intrigued by airplanes – the magic of how these huge machines can get in the air, and the speed of takeoff. When I was 16 I cadged a ride on a small prop plane – a 4-seater twin-engine Cessna. A Hamilton company had brought several of their small  planes to a local air show for display, and I was there working in a Kiwanis food booth. I found a kindred spirit in one of my co-workers, and because our booth was the farthest out and had little business, we had some time to check out the planes. The organizers closed our booth for the Sunday of the air show, but we still had our passes to get in, so we both returned on Sunday and chatted up some of the pilots for the aircraft company, who offered to let us fly with them to Hamilton and back as they returned all the small planes to their home base. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever done to that point. We even got to help pull the planes from the grass to the airstrip – we felt very cool! That adventure stayed with me for many years, and was perhaps my real introduction to making my bucket list dreams come true (although the ‘bucket list’ concept wouldn’t make an appearance for another 34 years. After our trip to California, the next flying adventure that my hubby and I shared was on our honeymoon, and that really was an adventure. We flew the now-defunct Eastern Airlines from Buffalo to Puerto Rico, where we had a connecting flight on another now-defunct airline, Prinair. Prinair was a small island-hopper service that at the time was the main access to the Caribbean islands. The flight to Puerto Rico was fine, but as we waited in line to board the final leg from there to St. Thomas, we could hear a businessman behind us talking about how many times Prinair had crashed in the ocean. When we boarded the plane, a small 18-seater with just 2 rows, we both noticed that the door to the cockpit was shaped a fair bit like a casket. After everyone was aboard, our pilot seemed to be channeling Mario Andretti – he taxied to the main runway, we’re guessing looked both ways quickly, gunned the engines, turned onto the runway and lifted off without any preamble. By now we’d started to laugh hysterically. I became quiet, though, when partway into the flight I looked out at the wing on my side and noticed that not only were all the bolts in the housing rattling around but some were missing entirely. My newly-pronounced hubby noticed my lack of conversation and finally coaxed out what was bothering me. He tried to reassure me, but we were both intensely relieved when we started our approach to St. Thomas. Great view out the window of the magnificent blue-green waters surrounding the island, but because St. Thomas is essentially just a mountain in the Caribbean, like a slightly melted giant chocolate chip, the plane then had to land quickly and jam on the brakes before we drove into the mountainside. I came very close to kissing the ground when we disembarked. Since then we’ve had all kinds of interesting departures and landings around the world. We probably had the most concentrated amount of fun when we visited Southeast Asia in 1994. Our first stop was Hong Kong when the original airport was still in use. The landings at Kai Tak were also onto short runways, so jumbo jets had to skate in just over the roof tops  – we could wave to people hanging out their laundry – before touching down and jamming on the brakes. Leaving from there to Bangkok was equally entertaining: we walked out of the hangar to board a shuttle bus, which then proceeded to drive around for 45 minutes looking for our plane amongst a bunch of airplanes parked together like cars. The driver would pull up to an aircraft, look at the number on it, shake his head and move on. We started laughing hysterically for that one too. On our approach to Singapore, in the ‘welcome’ announcements by the flight attendant, she finished off by telling us that in Singapore the penalty for smuggling drugs is Death. Alrighty then! We didn’t see anyone make a mad dash to the washroom before landing though. Our landing in Jogjakarta was the most fun of all. There was a single runway that we rolled up and down along like a low-level rollercoaster. The arrivals building was essentially a large shed with a rectangular hole in the wall, through which the baggage handlers tossed luggage onto about a 6-ft long belt that spit the suitcases off onto the floor where we were all standing around waiting. Thank goodness all our souvenirs were well wrapped!

A real African adventure: taking a small bush plane to a fly-in camp in the Okavango Delta - photo by E Jurus
A real African adventure: taking a small bush plane to a fly-in camp in the Okavango Delta – photo by E Jurus

Africa has long been a challenge – flights funnel into just a handful of main hubs. For our first safari, to Botswana in 2007, we spent about 2 days getting there, with an 11-hour layover in London, England before a 10-hour flight to Johannesburg and then a 2-hour flight to Maun in Botswana. From there it turned into a real African adventure as we boarded small bush-planes to reach our first 2 safari camps in the Okavango Delta, which could only be reached by air. The bush planes chug along at about 1,000 feet, sometimes feeling like they aren’t moving at all, but you can watch the African landscape unfold below you as you go, sometimes catching glimpses of elephants or giraffes for your first introduction to the wonderful wildlife you’ll soon be getting much closer to. When Mike and I planned that safari, we originally wanted to visit Botswana and Tanzania, but it was next to impossible to travel between the 2 countries without a great deal of complicated maneuvering as well as lots of extra time and/or money. Now, however, a low-cost carrier based in Tanzania, fastjet, is introducing ‘international’ flights to several other countries in Africa. This is momentous news in the world of safari planning because people will finally be able to get from southern Africa to eastern Africa relatively easily. Visitors will be able to fly between Dar es Salaam and either Johannesburg in South Africa or Lusaka in Zambia for fares are expected to start at only around $100US, opening  up lots of new options for safari enthusiasts. Guess that means Mike and I will just have to go back to Africa once again to check them out!