Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Cultural Paradise

The first time I traveled out of the country I exchanged the sandy beaches in Australia for the tropical shores of Bali, Indonesia. With sweaty hands and a sense of adventure I landed at Denpasar Airport, and made my way to a resort in Kuta, Bali’s tourist hotspot.

Gravel roads swarmed with motorcycles weaving between drunken tourists, mostly Aussies and Kiwis. Mangy dogs hung their heads, foraging in the garbage piles for scraps. Hawkers out the front of restaurants touted their menus and shops charmed punters in to buying a sarong or t-shirt with misspelled slogans in English. And the air hung thick with the aromas of peanut and chili, mixed with the kerosene burners the street vendors used to cook snacks and meals. It was utter chaos and I loved it.

In contrast, the resort was clean, almost sterile, relaxing and… well… boring. Outside the high walls lay an island that begged to be explored. A culture rich in history and religion was waiting to be discovered. It didn’t take long before I cancelled my reservation, packed my bags and headed out to explore the real Bali.

In those two short weeks I climbed up Mount Batur and into the crater, taking care to dodge the pockets of steam pouring out of cracks in the rocks. I snorkeled on a deserted beach on the north of the island and cycled for miles along empty roads with nothing more than rice paddies to keep me company. I ate food I couldn’t recognize and had the displeasure of discovering what Bali Belly really is. But it didn’t matter how sick I got, because I was out there, learning about a new world and in the process of changing my own.

On Lovina Beach I met Ketut, a lovely woman in her early twenties with a smile that radiated from deep within. We befriended each other and she took me to her small village about an hour inland. I met her family and we spent the afternoon laughing and enjoying each other’s company with the help of Ketut’s translating skills. I learned a lot about life in Bali, the culture, beliefs and people and I left the tiny village with a stronger sense of what life could be like outside my own country. This experience catapulted me into a life full of wanderlust and I haven’t regretted it for one moment.

That was more than twenty years ago and Bali has changed a lot since then. The one thing I am positive that hasn’t altered is the essence of the people. Friendly faces greeted me everywhere I went, polite questions were asked with genuine interest and an undercurrent of hope ran through the veins of these people. By the time I landed in Australia, I was already planning my next adventure.

My first overseas trip made me realize I wasn’t cut out for the cushy resort-style holidays. Sure, a bit of pampering every now and again doesn’t go astray, but if I wanted to sit in a resort all day, I might as well head to Port Douglas in Australia. Adventure is an essential part of my being as is my desire to learn about other cultures. I need to get off the beaten track and put myself out there, even if it means getting into dicey situations every now and again. I choose to live the experience, rather than sip a cocktail and watch a BBC documentary (although there have been many days on the road when this has been very appealing!).

So how about you? What did you learn about yourself or the world on your first time out of the country?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Journey to Persia

The first time I located Iran on the map, the country had recently tossed out its shah and was embroiled in a bitter revolution. As I watched crowds of bearded men and women veiled in black shouting “Down with America!” on my TV screen, it never occurred to me that this troubled nation would one day become my favorite travel destination.

My next encounter with Iran came two years later when, as a student at an East German university, I roomed down a dormitory hall from an Iranian graduate student named Ali. He lived like a hermit, rarely venturing out of his small room at the top of the stairs, yet everyone was terrified of him. Ali had a reputation for being a mean drunk who’d once tossed a Finnish student down the stairs in a rage, which resulted in a serious head injury.

When I first met Ali, he was far from the drunken lunatic the stories made him out to be. Slight of build, with wire-rim glasses and a neatly trimmed goatee, he almost always had a friendly smile on his narrow face. Later, I learned that the Finnish student had indeed tumbled down the stairs and sustained a serious head injury. He’d been falling-down drunk at the time, and Ali had been nowhere around.

It was another two decades before I set foot on Iranian soil, but my first encounter with that country went much like my meeting with Ali.

“You must wear a black scarf,” the Iranian-born photographer advised me when he took my picture for a brand new Iranian passport. “And cover every strand of your hair.” The picture made me look two decades older and rather like the witch from Hansel and Gretel. But at least I wouldn’t be breaking any rules.

“If they detain you at the airport, act more devout than the ayatollahs,” said a concerned Iranian friend, who also suggested choice passages from the Koran for me to quote as proof of my piety.

But when I arrived at Tehran’s Mirabad airport, the passport control officer couldn’t hide his amusement at my horrible photo. And no one detained me; they didn’t even search my luggage. Instead, the customs official waved me through the line with a friendly grin and a cheerful “Welcome to Iran.”

Before I ventured into the street the following morning, my sisters-in-law fussed with my appearance. “You need more makeup.” They dabbed at my eyes with the mascara wand and searched their cosmetics bags for a brighter shade of red lipstick then turned their attention to my hejab (head covering and loose-fitting coat). “You look too Islamic,” they decided and loosened my scarf, pushing it toward the back of my head to reveal a wide swath of hair.

Iran is a country that never fails to surprise me. It’s a place where ancient traditions coexist comfortably with modern life and 7th century laws clash much less comfortably with 21st century attitudes. Where pre-Islamic Zoroastrian fire worship is reflected in angled mirrors on the walls of Shiite shrines, catching the light until they sparkle like diamonds. Where polygamy is legal, yet socially unacceptable. Because I never know what to expect, even after many visits, I just look around, camera and notebook at hand, and absorb the sights, sounds, and smells. For I know that no matter what happens, it will be an exciting adventure just waiting to be turned into a new story idea.

What was your first encounter with another culture? Did you have any expectations and were they met?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Off the Beaten Track: Passions Kindle'd – Real Books Still Got It

Our guest this week is Lavanya Sunkara, an Indian-American freelance writer who lives in Long Island, New York and loves traveling to exotic places. Lavanya is currently working on her first novel; her work also appeared in Yourtango, The Frisky, Voices from the Garage, and NY Resident. When she is not reading or outdoors with her dog, Lavanya is organizing volunteer events, exploring New York with her friends, and planning her next journey. In this post, Lavanya shares her passion for books and the power they possess.

If I were stuck on an island and had to choose between my mother’s delicious Indian food and a good book, I would be in a bind. Staying true to my roots, I eat with my right hand, licking every bit of rice and curry off my fingers, and relishing the taste. The feeling I get running my fingers through an old paperback is equally ecstatic. And the decadent smell of a new book is akin to the aroma of sambar right off the stove. My love affair with books began while still being hand fed by my mother when we lived in a small southeastern Indian town. I remember carefully wrapping my school book covers in brown paper, pressing flowers among the pages to dry them out for decoration, and hiding peacock feathers for good luck. Today, at 30 and living in New York, while still taking in the simple pleasures of books, I have been finding comfort and guidance in the pages that become a part of my life.

With everything from classics to chick lit digitalized in recent years, I began to wonder if I would ever succumb to the e-book revolution. Books are such an intrinsic part of my life that I read them on the train, when traveling, while walking, and even in my dreams. My first summer in America fifteen years ago, I spent afternoons at the library checking out every young adult work I could get my hands on. At Fordham, I majored in Philosophy and learned from great works by Sartre to Irigaray. Later, I fell in love with magical realism through works by Salman Rushdie and Yann Martel. Other books, from feel-good fiction to self-help, kept me company in good and bad times, near and far from home.

So it was quite a shocker when I ended up on a remote island off the coast of East Africa without a book. The year was 2004, and all the books I carried for my month-long adventure were devoured during the first part of my trip, and not by some hungry baboon. Desperately, I scanned the shelves in my host family’s house, as a lioness on a hunt. The bright yellow-red cover of Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone caught my eye. As if finding a rare gem, I quickly grabbed it. Surprised with my choice, my host ventured, “Are you sure you want to read a book about the terrifying ebola virus while you’re in Africa?” I innocently responded, “Why not? What better book to read than one set here? Besides, it looks like it had been read a few times, so it must be good!” Perplexed, she gave up. It didn’t matter that the book I chose was horrifying. I was happy I had a book at hand. So, there I was, swinging in a hammock on the shores of Zanzibar, reading the dog-eared pages of a real-life thriller and savoring every single bit of it, even if it kept me awake for the next few nights.

With traveling came the awareness of environmental issues plaguing our planet, especially the damage caused by the destruction of forests for paper. So when books were turning up on e-readers, I became curious. I wondered if scrolling the Kindle’s keys could replace the joy of browsing library books on warm summer days, or if an iPad could bring back memories of a far-off island. The plastic smell of these gadgets certainly can’t replace the scent of an old-fashioned paperback. No matter how many books these electronic miracles hold, they all still look and feel the same. The books I have read are unique, and each one of them reminds me of a memorable time or a place I've visited. The Piano Tuner in Baja, The Notebook in Oaxaca, Ishmael in California, Siddhartha in India, and more recently, Five Men Who Broke My Heart, which helped me get through a breakup.

Earlier this year, a novel by Amulya Malladi, Serving Crazy with Curry, inspired my passion for cooking. It’s about an Indian-American woman who cooks delicious meals to deal with life’s issues. I began experimenting with the help of cookbooks. My masala pasta and coconut brown-rice biryani got rave reviews from my family. I can't possibly imagine using a Kindle in the kitchen where chances of spices and water spilling and damaging it are high. The recipe guides, on the other hand, will gladly absorb the smells and the occasional spills and become a part of my library of books and memories.

What books remind you of adventures you’ve embarked on or inspired you to go on one?

Would you imagine your life without real books?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

We are taking the day off to enjoy turkey and all the trimmings with family and friends. But we'll be back tomorrow with another Off the Beaten Track adventure. We hope you'll drop by and find out what part of the world we'll be visiting with our next guest.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Sour cream for a Russian is what tomato sauce is for an Italian. We eat our blintzes with sour cream. We toss spoonfuls into soups – be it borscht, mushroom, or uha, a fish consommé. We add it as a condiment to our salads – if you’re out of mayonnaise you can’t go wrong with sour cream. We dip our meat, potato, or cherry dumplings in it. Boiled potatoes accompanied by a small bowl of sour cream always made an easy supper in my family. It was quick to make yet produced no complaints even from the most fastidious eaters. And to this day, my mother plops a little white glob onto every potato latke she shakes off her pan – even though I think latkes are so good they don’t need an accompaniment. Hey, my father spreads sour cream on bread instead of butter. I used to do it too. Nothing better than a silky smooth smear of smetana.

Smetana is a rich in fat, a dairy product made by fermenting regular cream with certain kinds of lactic acid bacteria. The bacterial culture, introduced either deliberately or naturally, sours or thickens the cream. In English, the name comes from the production of lactic acid by bacterial fermentation, which is called souring. In Russian, it derives from the words smetat or metat, meaning to shake or to whip. In either case, the taste of sour cream is only mildly sour; if it tastes very sour, your smetana is bad.

In Russia, you can buy a glass or half a glass of smetana for lunch, and, depending on what variety you end up with, either drink it or eat it with a spoon. Or pour it over your stuffed cabbage dish. I have been to restaurants where pelmeni came with sour cream and vinegar. I have seen recipes in which herring was served with sour cream and horseradish. The famous Beef Stroganoff is beef cooked in sour cream, and so is mushroom stew. One of my absolute favorites, a winter salad made of potatoes, carrots, pickles, minced meat, and eggs, is best with a sour cream dressing rather than mayo. Years ago when I was into baking, my top number was a six-layered cake with cream made from smetana, honey, and walnuts.

Russian sour cream differs in its taste and consistency from its American cousin. Less starchy and often more liquidy, it is in some ways akin to American yogurt. It is smoother, creamier, and definitely fatter than any Breakstone or Friendship brands. While commercially produced American sour cream often contains extra thickening agents such as gelatin, rennin, or guar, the traditional Russian smetana-making techniques frown upon the “weird and unnatural” additives. Neither do Russians believe in low-fat or fat-free sour cream. Smetana is simply too good and life is too short to count the calories. Therefore, whenever I end up on Brighton Beach, the famous Russian enclave of New York City, the real smetana – thick, rich, and incredibly smooth, is definitely one of the treats I bring back. And, while most members of my American family prefer to eat their French crepes with whipped cream and Nutella, I smother mine in smetana. Old habits never die – and why should they!

And what about you? Do you have a favorite, irreplaceable ethnic ingredient?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Cerviche Wars

Photo by Manuel González Olaechea y Franco
The warm wind rustled the paper table cloth, and soft sand oozed between my wiggling toes as I waited for the dish that would cause my taste buds to have a fiesta. Gazing at the azure waters of the Pacific Ocean, I couldn’t think of a better place to be -- Mancora, on the far north coast of Peru, is a haven for foodies, especially those with a penchant for devouring plates of cerviche.

Popular in most coastal regions of Central and South America, this seafood dish has been the centre of a dispute for many years. Made from fresh raw fish and marinated in lemon or lime juice, it is spiced with peppers, onion, salt and usually accompanied by sweet potato, lettuce, corn, or avocado (depending on which region you’re in). The juices cook the fish, but beware – only eat cerviche early in the day or else you’re likely to end up with a nasty bout of food poisoning. Unfortunately, I found out first hand why you don’t eat cerviche late afternoon, but it still didn’t put me off one of my favourite dishes.

Many nationalities have laid claim as to who invented cerviche. Central and South Americans and even some Polynesian islands in the South Pacific have all put their hands up as the creators.

Every former Spanish colony has its own version of cerviche. The Spaniards stocked citrus fruit on their ships to prevent scurvy on long voyages, and some historians believe the recipe was brought to Peru by Moorish women from Granada, who accompanied the Spaniards, and the recipe morphed into the cerviche as we know it today.

Those in the Polynesian camp say the Spanish encountered this dish on their voyages through the islands. The Spanish sailors enjoyed it so much, the recipe spread through the its colonies, and each region put their own spin on it.

But perhaps the strongest argument is for Peru and Ecuador. Archaeologists have discovered evidence that documents cerviche was eaten by the Moche civilization in northern Peru almost 2,000 years ago. Some say banana passion fruit was originally used to marinate the fish, and when the Spanish arrived the indigenous people preferred to marinate their fish in limes and lemons.

Depending on who you talk to, you’ll get a different story and reasons why a certain country did, or didn’t, invent cerviche. Many a time, I’ve inadvertently become embroiled in a heated discussion between a Peruvian and Chilean or Ecuadorian as to who created the original cerviche. At times, I felt like I was back in Australia, debating with a New Zealander as to who invented the pavlova, but that is a whole other post and sure-fire way of getting our New Zealand readers offside. (I jest!)

I’ve eaten cerviche in many parts of the world (including an Australian version), but today, I’ll post the Peruvian recipe.

1 ½ pounds of mahimahi, ono, or bluenose bass, diced
½ red onion, slivered
¾ cup lime juice (make sure it is a highly acidic type)
1 habanero chili, seeded, halved, and thinly sliced (optional)
1 tbsp of ají amarillo sauce (available pureed or in jars in most Latin markets)
½ cup cilantro leaves, chopped
1 orange sweet potato, peeled, boiled, cooled, and sliced
1 cob sweet corn, boiled, and sliced into 1-inch pieces
4 butter lettuce leaves

Rinse diced fish and slivered red onion in cold water and dry thoroughly.

In a large glass bowl, combine fish, red onion, lime juice, salt, habanero chili, and ají amarillo (if using). Cover and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Just before serving, stir in the cilantro. Place lettuce leaves on the plate, sweet potato, and corn to the side and spoon the cerviche on top of the lettuce leaves.

Eat and enjoy!

To be honest, I don’t care who invented cerviche. All I know is whenever I hear the word, smell lemons and limes, or eat the dish, I’m instantly transported back to a thatch-roofed hut on a deserted beach in Peru. My stomach rumbles, I can sniff the salty breeze and my mouth waters at the thought of diving into a dish that can cause heated debates between so many nationalities.

What food takes you back to a special time or place?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Vintage Garlic

In my pantry stands a glass jar filled with what looks like tiny twigs poking out of slimy black mud. Not an appealing sight. Yet it is the most precious item in my kitchen—seer torshi (pickled garlic). Heaven on a plate.

The first time I saw the nasty-looking black mess, I eyed it with deep suspicion. Whole round bulbs of garlic, darkened with age, lying in a viscous liquid. Surely no one actually ate that and lived to tell the tale.

I sniffed the jar. It didn’t smell too bad. In fact it had a pleasant, woodsy odor, like last year’s leaves after a snow melt. One with a slightly vinegary bite. Once, the garlic had been white and the vinegar clear, but over the years it darkened to black, the papery skin covering the cloves disintegrating and thickening the liquid. It put me in mind of little mummies, their wrappings falling apart with age.

My mother-in-law explained the condiment’s origins. Her grandmother had made the seer torshi forty years earlier, and every time the family ate it, they could feel her presence with them. Sure, I thought, doesn’t everyone have some item that reinforces an emotional bond with a long-gone loved one? Usually it’s a handmade quilt or a knitted sweater, not something you're supposed to eat.

I remembered the way my mother used to can our garden’s summer bounty. Packing vegetables into jars and processing them in a hot water bath then testing the lids for a proper seal. These garlic pickles had surely never seen the inside of a canning kettle. Thanks, but no thanks.

It took me several years to work up the courage to try the seer torshi, as its age marched relentlessly on toward half a century. We serve it a couple times a year, on special occasions like Persian New Year—the perfect accompaniment to the traditional holiday meal of grilled fish and herbed rice. But for a long time, I was certain that one bite would send me directly to the emergency room. Despite concrete evidence to the contrary.

I’d watched my husband and his relatives scrape the tattered remnants of skin off the cloves, lick black vinegar from their fingers, and pop the cloves into their mouths, savoring every bite. Maybe they had developed an immunity to the microbes that had to be lurking in that murky liquid. The way that Mexicans can drink their tap water without falling victim to Montezuma’s Revenge.

It was only a matter of time before curiosity banished caution, and I tried one small clove. Just a nibble to begin with. I was hooked from the first bite. Smooth and buttery, with a mild vinegary tang on the tongue, as though most of the vinegar’s sting has evaporated over the years.

Seer torshi is easy to make; you don’t even need a recipe. Just take a gallon-sized glass jar with a tight-fitting lid and wash it thoroughly. Fill it two-thirds full of garlic bulbs, hard stems removed. You can separate the cloves, but leave the skins on or the garlic will turn to mush. Cover with vinegar and toss in a tablespoon of salt. Then cover the jar with plastic wrap for a tight seal before replacing the lid. Wait seven years and enjoy. Preferably longer because, like good wine, seer torshi only gets better with age.

As our supply of great-grandma’s pickled garlic dwindles, we serve it only at Persian New Year now. And when we sit down to the meal, it’s like the old lady is sitting beside us, smiling and murmuring noosh-e jaan. Bon appétit.

Do you have a special food tradition, recipe, or dish that brings back memories of relatives now gone?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Off the Beaten Track: A Paper Grave and a Red Sea

Our guest today is mystery author Zoë Ferraris. Zoë moved to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the first Gulf War to live with her then husband and his extended family of Saudi-Palestinian Bedouins. She has an MFA from Columbia University. Her debut novel, Finding Nouf, was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction and has been published in twenty languages. The sequel, City of Veils, was released in August 2010. She currently lives in San Francisco.

I had never heard of a ‘paper grave’ until I started doing research for City of Veils. In 1972, archaeologists in Yemen unearthed "an unappealing mash of old parchments and paper documents" – a thousand codices of what many now consider to be one of the earliest copies of the Koran.

Some Muslims believe that old copies of the Koran cannot simply be thrown away but must be disposed of properly – either buried or cremated. Or, in this case, walled inside a loft in the Great Mosque of Sana’a. (I found this idea very touching and subsequently decided that I would like to be buried with my favorite books.)

Anyway, what seemed remarkable about the find was that many of the texts varied slightly from the Koran as it is today. In the Christian part of the planet this doesn’t seem odd. How often has the Bible gone through permutations? People edit! But orthodox Muslims claim that the Koran today is the word of God exactly as it was when it was first written down. Exactly. In thirteen centuries not a single diacritic mark has been changed. The Koran is the perfect embodiment of God’s word, and humans shouldn’t go messing with it.

So the discovery of earlier “versions” of the Koran was a little upsetting.

In City of Veils, a radical filmmaker named Leila Nawar goes in pursuit of this explosive story and winds up dead. She’s kind of like Molly Norris - someone who sticks a cattle prod into a tangle of hyper-sensitive religious issues and gets a shock.

Leila’s body is found in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, not far from the Tomb of Eve (yep, the Eve who was married to Adam). According to Muslim tradition, Eve is buried in Jeddah, and she was over 100 meters tall. (It’s a very long gravesite.) In Arabic, the name “Jeddah” means “grandmother” and is a supposed reference to Eve, the grandmother of all. I even met a militant feminist once who insisted that the Red Sea got its name because although Eve was dead, her menstrual flow was not. And when the Red Sea turned red (which it occasionally does) it was a sign that Eve was still procreating the human race.

Investigating a murder is a little bit like archaeology – but at least with murder, there’s usually someone still alive who can tell you the truth. As the investigators in City of Veils discover more about Leila, they find other reasons that someone may have wanted to kill her…

You can find Zoë online at http://zoeferraris.com/ and Pilgrimage.

And the winner is...

Thank you to everyone who left a comment on last week's Off the Beaten Track post by Anna Jacobs. Anna drew a name at random and the winner is Lavanya.

Lavanya, can you please contact Alli (email address on profile) and advise your postal details. Thanks to everyone who entered and a special thank you to Anna for giving away a copy of Farewell to Lancashire, the first book in the Swan River Saga.

More contests are on the way!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Call of the Red Desert

Unknown to the Western world until the early 1800s, Petra was first depicted by an English poet as “a rose-red city, half as old as time." A few years ago, UNESCO described the site as "one of the most precious cultural properties of man's cultural heritage. The BBC dubbed it as one of "the 40 places you have to see before you die."

None of it is an overstatement.

Petra derives its name from the Greek word petrae, meaning rock, an apt word for this reddish-pink city that looks as if it were carved by hand from out of the sandstone in the great rift valley east of Wadi Araba, about 60 miles south of the Dead Sea. Getting to Petra is as exciting as being there. The access is through a Siq – a deep, narrow gorge that meanders through the rock until a narrow opening suddenly looms ahead, signaling the city entrance. The passage is rather long and can be quite a hike, especially due to the desert heat. If you choose to do it by foot like I did, stock up on water. If you opt for a camel or donkey ride, which the local Bedouins gladly offer you for a few bucks, you’ll save some vim, but may feel akin to a well-whipped milkshake after riding the ancient pavement.

Once inside the city, you can spend the whole day wandering from Al-Khazneh – The Treasury, with a beautifully chiseled well-preserved front, to The Temenos Gate, which once was an entrance to the city’s main temple to the “Roman” theater, which was built by the Nabateans and is not Roman at all. There is also a monastery – the second most famous building in Petra. It sits on a mountaintop and requires quite a steep climb to reach.

Nabateans, a trading race of Arabic-speaking Semitics who controlled the trade routes stretching form Africa to India to China, settled in the Petra Siqs about two thousand years ago. In 1,200 BCE, the area was known as Edom (red) and was populated by Edomites, known for their wisdom, writing, textile, and ceramics industries as well as their skilled metal work.

Nowadays, the city and the nearby area are inhabited by Bedouins, namely a tribe called Dulles, which, after the UNESCO’s proclamation, found its simple life suddenly disrupted by thousands of camera-snapping tourists eager to climb the rocks and explore the gorges. Dulles’ elementary school kids speak English well enough to converse with tourists about donkey rides and prices of rustic jewelry. Older teenage boys try to flirt with Western girls. Blanched from time, grandmas eye the foreigners with malcontent – many of them do not welcome the invasion of the Occident. Neither do they welcome the recent government offer to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and move into subsidized houses. More so, the ancient city hasn’t yet adjusted to tourists: there are only a few small hotels in Petra, and the nearest city that offers lodging is far away.

It’s hard to tell what I found more exciting about Petra – the sites or their inhabitants. The flocks of children in mismatched clothing covered with unavoidable reddish dust, the young striplings patting their camels, and the old grandmas twiddling their prayer beads were just as picturesque and enigmatic as the pink stones they leaned against. I wanted to put myself in their shoes, minds, and headscarves – just to see life through their eyes, perpetually squinting in the sun. I tried. And I succeeded. In my head, I brought back home a story of a Bedouin woman who, by a noble gesture of the Jordanian government, was moved from the goat hair tent she lived in all her life to an apartment with running water. Only she didn’t see it as a blessing for she could no longer watch the sun rise over her beloved red cliffs. I titled it "The Call of the Red Desert" and didn’t think the world would like it as much as I did, but it won first place in a literary contest at Moondance this year.

Sunrise in Petra is praised as the most unforgettable sightseeing moment, because the rocks gradually change color in the sun’s evanescent rays. Knowing that lodging was scarce, I booked my room months in advance, but the Jordan Royal family interfered. The king and his entire entourage decided to stay in Petra on the same night, so every hotel canceled its other reservations and, with profuse apologies, relocated the disappointed globetrotters elsewhere. Alas, it was too far to see the sunrise over the Pink City. Which only means I have to make another trip. And bring back more stories.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Great Flow of History

Everyone’s heard of the Ganges, but earlier, there was another mythical river considered even more significant and sacred. The river Saraswati dried up thousands of years ago, yet it not only plays an interesting role in my cultural history but is also making exciting news in modern times.

Modern archaeologists have confirmed that the Saraswati was real, and that the region around it was one of a few great civilizations, known as the Harappans, that thrived from about 5,000 B.C. till about 2,000 B.C., in the time of Sumeria, Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, and the Indus Valley. The Saraswati flowed down from the Himalayas throughout India and into the Arabian Sea. The region near the base of the mountains flourished for thousands of years with rich, fertile agriculture, domestic and international trade, and a society that used science and mathematics.

One of the holiest sites in India, Triveni Sangam marks
the convergence of two of India’s most sacred rivers,
the Ganga and the Yamuna, and what is thought to be
the spot where they originally met the mythic Saraswati
river. All three are named after Hindu goddesses.
Silver ornaments, for example, are among the fascinating discoveries at
one Saraswati site in the state of Haryana. It’s notable because, unlike gold which also held high value in those times, silver does not appear in pure form but must be extracted from other metals such as copper. This means the original Saraswats who lived around the river in those times, performed an advanced form of metallurgy sometime around 3,500 B.C., a historical feat that isn’t recorded again until around 700 B.C. in Mesopotamia.

It’s believed that Saraswats are the original authors of the Rig Veda, also known as the Vedas, a collection of sacred Sanskrit verses. Estimates vary widely, but historians place the Vedas anywhere from 2,000 to 8,000 years old. Either way, it survives as one of the world’s oldest religious texts in any Indo-European language. And it’s still in use—Hindus continue to chant Vedic hymns in modern religious ceremonies.

The text itself provides detailed insight into the river, including its precise location, history, people, and so forth, much of which scientists and historians have been able to use to study the earth and ancient societies.

Between the 6th and 8th centuries, the
Japanese began worshipping
Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of
wisdom. They called her Benzaiten,
which in Japanese, also represents
anything that flows—water, words,
knowledge, music.
Some time after the Vedas were written, tectonic shifts and climactic changes began taking place on earth, resulting in among other things, massive droughts, changes in wind circulation patterns, uplifted tributaries, and eventually the river drying up. It's thought that these geophysical changes marked the decline of all the ancient civilizations. Saraswats essentially became nomads, settling throughout India, in Kashmir, along the western coast, and in the south.

I’d always thought it the stuff of mythic legend until one of my college history professors, more excited about the connection than I had been at the time, confirmed an interesting tidbit for me: the Saraswat community I hail from was one of the five original communities that once lived along the banks of this river, making ours one of the oldest communities in India, itself one of the world’s oldest civilizations.

Fast forward to present day, as scientists try to solve water shortages in arid northwestern India. Take the western region of the state of Rajasthan, once a green, fertile area in Vedic times, and later, when the Saraswati dried up, a vast desert. Using data from French and American satellites and the latest geographic information system (GIS) and remote sensing technology, geologists have been able to tap into 3,500-year-old Saraswati riverbeds and explore the stunning possibility of providing pure, ancient groundwater to residents in this desert region. In the neighboring state of Haryana, scientists discovered another portion of the river when water began oozing out of a dried riverbed (known as a paleochannel) near a temple. Construction on a 50-kilometer channel is now underway there, which means a portion of the Saraswati will soon flow again.

What have you discovered about your ancestors that has amazed you?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Indiana Jones, Tikal, and Me

Temple V - Photo by Chris Chafer
At school, history was a bore. I mean, really, what's so interesting about studying dead people? But then a man with a battered hat, bullwhip, and a lopsided smile swaggered into my life. OK, it was onscreen, but still, Indiana Jones impacted the way I viewed the ancient world and literally, changed my life.

History became exciting. The people who lived in ancient civilizations had invented cool stuff. They made me realize we owe a lot to our ancestors for what we have today. And from the first moment I saw Indy swinging with his bullwhip across a chasm, I decided to go on my own crusade and discover ancient cultures.

One of the first that fascinated me was Tikal, one of the largest archaeological sites of the pre-Columbian Mayan civilization. Located in the lush Petén Basin in Guatemala, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most impressive, mysterious places on earth. Thick jungle surrounds the ruins and howler monkeys chatter overhead, accompanied by the lyrical songs of 410 species of birds.

Bound by rivers, the park containing Tikal provides protection for ocelots, peccaries, toucans, and jaguars, just to name some of the exotic wildlife that live in the shadows of the jungle. So far, only 3,000 sites have been uncovered, and there’s a further 10,000 waiting for archaeologists to unearth. It’s been 50 years since the first dig at Tikal, and given the expanse of the area, it could take many lifetimes to fully discover the history and secrets beneath the soil. The Mayans believed in reincarnation, and I wonder if archaeologists wish it were true, so they could continue with their discoveries.

In its heyday, Tikal was home to 90,000 people and covered close to 75 square miles (120 square kilometers).  Because of its geographical location, the Mayans needed to conserve water, and management of this precious resource was vital for the survival of their city. Surrounded by wetlands, the Mayans devised reservoir systems for water diversion and storage, taking advantage of the seasonal rainfall. Roads were paved with lime-based cement, and flint was readily available, providing the Mayans with a valuable stone to make spear points, arrowheads, and knives.

In 700 B.C., Tikal was a commercial, cultural and religious centre but by the mid-4th century, Tikal had morphed into a city of people who’d adopted brutal methods in warfare under the rule of King Jaguar Paw. It is still not known exactly what killed off the Mayans but the latest report in National Geographic suspects climate may have had a lot to do with their demise. Yet another reason why learning about history is so important – we have the opportunity to change our ways based on what our ancestors did, or didn’t, do.

The most striking features at Tikal are the steep-sided temples rising above the jungle. The plazas have been cleared of trees and vines, and the temples are partially restored. At times, great distances exist between sites, and one can stroll under the dense canopy, take refuge from the sun, and enjoy the rich, earthy scents of the low-lying vegetation. Even at peak tourist season, it’s possible to escape the throngs, step back in time, and imagine what life may have been like.

Translated from Itzá Maya, Tikal means “place of voices”, and it’s easy to understand why. Whispers from the past echo through the deserted corridors and around corners. The skin prickles, and hair stands on end with the feeling of not being entirely alone.

It’s a long, hot climb to the top of the temples but the view is worth every rasping breath. Temples tower above the dense forest, dotting the vista, and the great height of the monuments can cause giddiness. Star Wars buffs will note Temple IV was used for a scene of the Massassi Outpost on the fourth moon of Yavin. Even 1970s Hollywood saw the allure of such a magical place.

Tikal is shrouded in mystery and magic. It begs to be explored and the mind wanders, trying to create theories of how people lived and died. Maybe all the questions will never be answered. But what I do know is Tikal will always be a place I treasure, thanks to an intrepid fictional adventurer named Indiana Jones.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Off the Beaten Track: Life in Two Worlds

This week's contributor is Anna Jacobs. Anna writes in two genres nowadays, historical sagas and modern novels. She’s had over 50 novels published and happily produces three more each year. In the past she was also published in SF/F as Shannah Jay and those books are now available as ebooks at Smashwords. In fact, she freely confesses to being addicted to books, both writing and reading. She and her husband live in Australia for 7 months of the year and in the UK for the other 5, thus avoiding winters. How sad! No shivering over her computer.

I was astounded at how adventurous the writers running this blog are. I’ve never been adventurous, and I have multiple food intolerances, which make moving around as a tourist difficult - and frankly, not worth the risks.

But I didn’t want to stay only in one small corner of the world, so at first we tried house swapping. Trouble is most people want only a month’s exchange and we wanted two or three months. And let’s face it, there are risks in house swapping - some places were wonderful, in others we didn’t get what we’d been promised.

So three years ago my husband and I bought a house in the UK where we now spend the northern summers. It’s the perfect solution.

As for my writing , well, I’m addicted, so I’m still producing three long novels a year, and the move has, I believe, enriched my stories and settings.

Neither of us had lived in Wiltshire before, but it was on a line we drew across the map of England from my sister’s home to my husband’s family. We wanted to see them often. And the house we found was perfect, homes with a security service and access to a golf course.

We’ve loved exploring Wiltshire: Stonehenge, Avebury, Salisbury Cathedral, the magnificent Steam Railway Museum, picture-book villages, old pubs, friendly people - and more crop circles than anywhere else on earth, to name but a few of the attractions.

I write both historical and modern novels. The historical ones are mainly set in Lancashire and Australia, so my first Wiltshire novel was a modern story, ‘Saving Willowbrook’, in which my heroine battles to save her ancient family home from developers, with the help of her new guy, her disabled daughter and the friendly family ghost.

But since I love history, I started looking into Wiltshire’s fascinating past just out of interest and inevitably found myself writing an extra story set there in 1910. ‘Cherry Tree Lane’ has just come out in hardback, paperback next year.

I try to write my Australian novels while I’m at home down under, as the research is easier. Don’t be misled into thinking Sydney and the convicts are all of the story. Western Australia, where I live, is as far from Sydney as Moscow is from London, and was not convict founded.

I found that when the American Civil War cut off supplies of cotton to Lancashire in the 1860s, they sent 60 starving cotton lasses out to Western Australia as maids. Naturally I pounced on that titbit of history and began researching further. I found the memoirs of a lady who travelled out on the same ship - and I was soon writing my Swan River Saga, beginning with ‘Farewell to Lancashire’. The second book ‘Beyond the Sunset’ (my 50th novel published) came out this year, with the final part ‘Destiny’s Path’ due out early next year.

It takes a lot of organising to live in two countries, but it’s greatly enriched my own life and (I hope) my writing too. And really, the past is another country - I continue to travel backwards often as well. 

Anna has kindly offered to give away a copy of Farewell To Lancashire, the first book in the Swan River Saga. The contest is open to anyone who leaves a comment on this post (NA bloggers excluded, of course!). Closing date for the contest is Thursday,18th November 11 pm EST (New York time). The winner will be drawn at random and we'll announce the lucky winner on Friday, 19th November.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Black Cats and Baby Showers

I was a home-schooled child so I was primarily exposed to Jewish superstitions, although I don’t recall too many. However, I remember that my clean freak of a grandmother wouldn’t wash clothes or dishes or carry out the garbage for as long as someone was en route, whether it was a major travel involving flying across the country that spanned over eight time zones or a simple train ride from town to town. Cleaning the house while kinfolk peregrinated was bad luck. When someone was embarking on a trip, we all had to sit down closely together for a few minutes so that his journey would be easy and pleasant. When one of us took an exam, my grandma sat in her chair diligently badmouthing the person while keeping her finger smeared in ink. Supposedly, that brought good luck. And better marks.

My best childhood friends were two Tatar sisters, whose aunt scrubbed the house till it shined regardless of the family voyages. When she was done, she meticulously replaced the blue eye trinkets to their dedicated corners. “Keeps Shaitan away,” she revealed to us, her own brown eyes shining earnestly. Shaitan was sort of a cross between a man and a spirit, akin to a jinn. No one have ever seen them, but they were known for their bad deeds.

I was six when I read a story about a boy who had a terribly misfortunate day because he fell victim to his superstition of a black cat crossing his path – and opted for a circuitous route, which led him into trouble. Black cats weren’t part of the Judaic belief system so even after I re-read the story three times, I still couldn’t understand why the kid was so scared of the poor animal. I asked my mother.

“It’s a superstition,” she explained, mentioning something about omens, premonitions, and the weird folk who believed cats and devils were one and the same. “Some people think if they see a black cat, they must turn back and take a different route.”

I didn’t fully understand the explanation but the superstition took. Not only would I turn back seeing a cute black kitty, but I’d scurry away if I saw an albino one with a speckle of gray. It didn’t matter that the story actually made fun of the boy and denounced the irrational belief. I was hooked. I never took after my grandma’s customs of leaving the dishes in the sink until the plane landed, but the feline fear was settled deeply and solidly. 

Luckily, one day a brilliant girl in my school told me there was an antidote to the catty spell: I simply had to spit three times over my left shoulder and knock on a tree. Perhaps, I became too obsessed with the Christian superstition because I completely missed the very intense Jewish one, letting it lay latent for twenty years. I was totally unprepared for it.

“I’m having a baby shower,” I happily told my mother over the phone. I was due in a month and I expected her to share my excitement about the party.
“Are you out of your mind?” she shouted at me instead. “Jews don’t celebrate until the baby is born. Jews don’t buy gifts until the child is delivered. It’s a bad sign! Something will go wrong!”
“My American Jewish friends had baby showers and their babies came out fine,” I tried to argue, but my mother was unrelenting. To her, the tradition of celebrating a baby before it was brought into this world was a heresy, a sign of bad luck and the worst misfortune an expecting mother could inflict on her unborn offspring. She wasn’t relinquishing her belief, I wasn’t giving up my party. We had a deadlock.

Our impasse took two weeks to resolve. The agreement was – I got to bask in my prenatal glory, peek into the lavishly stuffed gift bags, and shake the colorful boxes with wrapped-around ribbons holding them to my ear – to guess the contents. What I couldn’t do was to take all that coveted cutesy gear home. When my party ended, my mother packed her car to the brim and drove away with all my baby garb, which she diligently arranged and kept in her basement until her grandson arrived into this world safe and sound. Needless to say she didn’t bring a single present to the party, but ever since she could hold the little blue-eyed human in her arms, she showered a bounty of gifts on him to the point I had to start sending some of them back.

The funny part is – Jewish by ethnicity and an atheist by upbringing, the only real superstition that still bothers me is the proverbial black cat!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Don’t Eat the Chicken Feet

If you read Heidi’s post from Monday, you already know a thing or two about this topic. There’s also wearing garlic around your neck to ward off evil spirits. And eggs with two yolks being good luck. Every culture has its food-related superstitions.

In China, they say don’t cut noodles else your life will be cut short. In Judaism, keep something, anything, even a piece of wood, in your oven to avoid going hungry. The Greeks use garlic and sometimes cactus to ward off the evil eye. If you don’t have garlic, you can simply say skorda (garlic) and spit three times on yourself to get the same results. In Japan, don’t stick your chopsticks into your food, especially your rice, because rice with chopsticks stuck into them is traditionally placed at funeral altars. (Side note: I recently started using black sesame seeds for certain East Asian recipes, which worries my mom; black sesame seeds are used only during funerals in India.) The Sudanese sacrifice a sheep on Ramadan and distribute its meat to usher in good luck. Filipinos believe keeping a round grape in your mouth at the stroke of New Year’s is good luck. In Romania, nibbling off the corners of a slice of bread ensures better relations with your mother in-law. Hawaiian fishermen believe that if they carry bananas on their boats, they won’t catch any fish.

In our house, we scoff at such old-fashioned customs, but we follow them anyway. For example, you’ll never find anyone in this house directly passing salt shakers or chilies in any form—cooked, pickled, or raw—to one another as it could cause discord. When someone says, please 'pass the salt' around here, we pick it up, move it near them, and place it down. They can just pick it up themselves.

As well, when we bought our first house, we grudgingly took the advice of elders and boiled milk on the stove so that we would always have plenty of abundance in our home. But then we panicked when the milk wouldn’t boil over as it was supposed to, no matter how much extra we kept adding to the pan. Turns out skim milk doesn’t boil over. Needless to say, there was a quick run to the store for whole milk. (New and old customs don’t always mesh conveniently, right?)

There’s another savory custom that I haven’t yet tried but have seen performed on my kids a time or two. It involves roasting dried red chilies, throwing salt onto them, cooling the concoction for a bit, then pinching them together and circling it around the body of the person from whom to ward off the evil eye (typically, a baby or a bride). Then the chilies and salt are thrown into a burning coconut shell. At least I think that's what they do. There are several variations of this practice, yet I’m hoping burning other ingredients in my kitchen meets the general requirements. If so, my cooking has warded off a lot of evil over the years.

So why shouldn’t you eat the chicken feet? In some parts of Thailand, it’s believed that avoiding them could improve your handwriting. Not sure about this one. I’ve never eaten chicken feet, but my handwriting is mediocre at best.

Do you follow any age-old customs related to food and, if so, were you satisfied with the results?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Living Dead

Halloween always brings back fond memories of my time in Peru. It’s not uncommon to find groups of kids dressed in costumes on that day shouting “Halloween, Halloween” (they don’t yell “trick or treat”) and scrounging for goodies. But it’s the two days following Halloween that intrigue me the most. Myths and superstitions abound and it’s these Incan and Peruvian traditions that are the inspiration behind my current novel, Vestige.

The Incas believed ancestral spirits shared the world of the living. Mummified kings and queens were treated as though alive, and were consulted as seers who bore messages from the gods. The descendents of royalty gave the mummies food and drink and took them to visit other mummies, linking the worlds of past and present.

Sharing the cosmos with the living and dead were the gods and spirits of the landscape. Mountain peaks, rocky outcrops and springs represented ancestors and guardian spirits. Many festivals were held in their honor, with the hope the living would receive their blessings for a bountiful harvest. And for the buried ancestors, it was usual for the graves to have built-in conduits so libations could be offered easily.

Steeped in history and religion, modern-day Peru is constantly blending the old and the new. Cuzco is a classic example. Downtown is a labyrinth of cobblestoned streets and centuries old buildings containing Internet cafes and bars. Buses and cars zoom past immaculate post-Colombian architecture built on Incan foundations. Modern holidays are observed, but ancient traditions are also celebrated.

My favorite holidays are held the first two days of November. Nationally, All Saints Day is followed by All Souls Day, but in Cuzco, there is a slight variation. November 1 is Día de Todos los Santos Vivos (Day of the Living Saints) and is celebrated with delectable delights such as tantawawa (breads shaped in the figures of babies and horses), lechon (roast suckling pig), sugar cane, and chicha (fermented maize that can have the saliva of the makers in it – yes, it seriously can). This momentous day is quickly followed by Día de los Santos Difuntos (Day of the Deceased Saints) when families honor their ancestors with visits to their burial grounds.

I was lucky enough to experience Día de los Santos Difuntos at the invitation of a colleague of mine who grew up in Cuzco. We bought flowers at the stall next to the cemetery and made our way into the grounds. Hundreds of people milled around the walls that contained 2-foot-by-1.5- foot niches representing their relatives’ final resting places. In Peru, when a person dies they are only buried in the ground for ten years, then dug up and cremated with the ashes being placed in the wall at the cemetery. For the wealthy, though, the ashes are put in marble tombs that are big enough to contain the whole family.

The niches for the deceased had spaces large enough for each family to make a diorama within them. Inside the glass enclosures were figurines, paintings, and photos that signified the ancestor’s life. For example, if the deceased was a football fan, football paraphernalia might adorn the space. A musician may have a CD of their favorite music or a miniature of the instrument they played. The attention and creativity that goes into creating these dioramas are a testament to the adoration the families have for the deceased person.

Coming from a country where death is a reverent affair, it was hard to adjust to the celebrations around the cemetery. A band had formed at the cemetery gate and the musicians beat drums and blew trumpets, the tune becoming more discordant as the day wore on and as more alcohol was consumed. Dancing, singing, and storytelling were in abundance and the atmosphere had become electric. Every now and again, a cloud of sadness would float through the crowd, but the general feeling was one of fond remembrance for the loved one.

Although our group didn’t make it through the whole night, family members stayed with their ancestors to greet the new day. When I finally walked away with my friend, my view of death had changed completely. One’s life should be celebrated – whether the person is alive or dead.

What books, movies or experiences have touched upon a superstition or tradition and made you reassess your values or look at life differently?