Friday, September 30, 2011

Off the Beaten Track: We Are What We Eat

Our guest today is food coach Susan Marque. Resolving her own health issues gave Susan a wealth of knowledge, as well as a deep reserve of compassion that led to 15 years of coaching. Susan makes nutritional-based modification fun with her easy recipes and hands-on approach. She created Revitalize, Slender Living and UPLIFT seminars along with Beyond Weight Loss. She lives in New York, speaks around the world, and is working on a memoir.

I did not set off to become a food coach, which seems to be the way with most of the great coaches I know. Food coaching was barely a profession when I started. I had grown up ill and almost died in college. I had to quit school and find a way to be well, and I also needed to do something with myself. Living in L.A., I chose to become an actress. While working hard on getting auditions, I spent far more time on researching, taking classes, and finding out about the connections between food and health. It was working. Everyone who saw me noticed the difference in my body, energy, and outlook. I was getting lighter inside and out, radiating so much vibrant energy that people were drawn to ask what I was doing or how could I possibly eat so much and stay so slender.

That was how it started. I began to teach those who were pestering me with questions. Even my teachers told me to go and teach. But I didn't want to give up on my dream of acting, so many years passed before I took the coaching more seriously than a side gig.

The acting taught me about human behavior, and I found I was adept at unhooking people from their stuck places. It made for a great combination because most of us with food issues have other, related issues. My clients began to find that not only could they start letting go of the obstacles they had with their bodies, but they could also start thriving in every other area of their lives. For myself, I find that my own life just gets better and better. I am continually amazed that there is no limit to how great you can feel if you practice things that take you there.

Now that the weather is starting to turn cooler, we get to enjoy a wonderful variety of produce - both the tail end of summertime veggies and the beginning of winter ones. I'm currently enjoying the last of the wonderful peaches and can't wait to go apple picking!

Apples contain acids that inhibit fermentation in the stomach. This makes apples one of the easiest fruits for us to assimilate, and like all fruits they digest quickly. Green apples are especially nice for helping cleanse the liver. Apples can also ease thirst. I always like to have an apple during or after airplane travel, and since they reduce fever, apples will help keep you cool.

Now is also a perfect time to enjoy sweet, organic corn. (Please get organic as all other corn is GMO – genetically modified.) Corn strengthens overall energy and can be useful in the treatment of heart disease. It's the only grain that contains vitamin A, and according to Asian theory, corn brings out joyfulness. Not bad for something that is so much fun to eat.

Another good source of vitamin A and potassium is the persimmon. I love this seasonal fruit when it’s fully ripe. Persimmons are terrific for those who live in dry climates as it helps to counter dryness and also can curb bleeding, helping those who suffer from bleeding hemorrhoids. If you have persimmons that have become overripe, don't fret. Slice them in half and freeze them for a wonderful and easy treat. The skin becomes the cup, and the flesh of the fruit turns into something very much like sorbet.

While you can find dandelion greens all year round, at this time of year they seem less bitter to me. With their incredible health benefits for just about every organ in the body, I'm enticed to find ways to utilize them in salads, stir fry dishes or where ever I can. Dandelion greens reduce inflammation, improve digestion and are anti-viral. So they can keep you from catching a cold or even ease that back pain. High in Vitamins A and C, they also have more calcium than broccoli, and that's saying a lot!

What would fall be without all of the fantastic, sweet winter squashes that come into season? They are some of my favorites. Filling, sweet, and satisfying, these warming vegetables are medicinal for the spleen, stomach, and pancreas. They help with energy circulation and digestion. I am particularly fond of kabocha squash, sliced and steamed. It's the only variety where you can eat the skin for an enjoyable, satisfying experience. Winter squashes are also great in soups, roasted, and tossed into many dishes from casseroles to desserts.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

STALINA: The Survival Expert

Russians have a peculiar habit of naming their young after poets, scientists and war heroes. Yet, it must’ve taken a special inspiration to christen one’s daughter Stalina after the ill-famed Soviet tyrant. Or, it may have been a brilliant attempt at survival: even Stalin wouldn’t send a Jew named after him to Siberia. While this cultural subtlety may not have been apparent to an American ear, it interested Emily Rubin, a New York writer, broadcast professional and stage manager, who herself had Russian roots. 
Emily met Stalina while teaching an Oral History class to Russian expatriates at the Brighton Beach Community College in 1997. Her students, the former USSR citizens in their 60’s and 70’s, told intense and vivid stories of the World War II, Stalin’s regime and life in their old country. Emily asked her students to tell her about the person for whom they were named. Each student’s account brought up stories of war heroes, scientists, painters and poets along with dreams for future generations. Among the Yuri’s, Anna’s and Tatiana’s there was a woman named Stalina. She stated very simply that she was named for Stalin.  With her name, she explained, she carried her country’s painful history. Emily said that in this stoic and alluring woman, she had found her main character.
A sixty-something émigré, Stalina became Emily’s inspiration for the book.  But, Rubin was interested not only by the woman’s life journey, but also by the Russian history and its citizens’ exodus of 1990s. To research her book, Rubin joined the Summer Literary Seminar’s program in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2002, where she conducted interviews, visited historical sites and read at the legendary Stray Dog Café frequented by many famous Russian writers and poets, including Anna Akhmatova, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetayeva. She also attended writing workshops at The New School.  It took her several years to finish the book, and her unexpected breast cancer battle had slowed down her progress, but she was determined to see her work in print.

Rubin’s vivid description of Stalina’s 18th birthday instantly deposits us into the Leningrad’s reality of the 1950s.  Stalina is allowed to invite only three guests because Stalin is dangerously sick, festivities are banned and citizens are holding vigils at their radios. Seasoned survivors, Stalina and her friends find a way to celebrate without music and laughter: they agree to interact like their favorite silent movie star Charlie Chaplin. The talent of surviving with a smile becomes Stalina’s most distinctive quality. It carries her through the journey of leaving her motherland with a bag of bras and porcelain cats, and helps her make her American dream a reality as she transforms a short-stay Connecticut motel into a fantasy destination. It also fuels her revenge on the high-rank government official, who, years ago, was responsible for the disappearance of her father and her childhood dog Pepe. Once a professional chemist trained by the Soviets to “make things smell like what they are not” Stalina knows neither fear nor limits when it comes to choosing her weapons, including her mother’s ashes.

Stalina is a journey into an absurd world that nonetheless was reality for more than one Soviet generation. It won’t necessarily explain why Russians think the way they do, but it will put you into a Russian mindset for the duration.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Around the World in About Six Hours

In between a few short but fun holidays and catching up on the season's latest mystery novels, I went on a foreign-film binge this summer, watching all the highly acclaimed cinema I’d missed over the past few years. Here’s a quick rundown of my favorites.

Storm (2009) is a stellar political thriller and courtroom drama that is so realistic, you will feel like an insider to some of recent history’s most shocking crimes, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and the mass rape of Bosnian women.  You'll also feel privy to how the Hague International Criminal Tribunal really works. (Not very well, if the filmmaker got his details right.)

A German-made film that’s mostly in English with smatterings of regional Slavic languages, Storm is the story of two women battling impossible odds. Hannah Maynard (played by New Zealander Kerry Fox) is a female prosecutor at the Hague, whose key witness commits suicide before she can finish building her case against Serbian war criminal, Goran Duric. The deceased man had been one of the few victims, the only one in fact, willing to testify against Duric. The man's death threatens to derail Hannah’s entire case. When she finds out the witness’s sister had also been a victim of Duric’s brutality, Hannah tries to persuade the woman, Mira (played by Romanian actress, Anamaria Marinca), to testify against Duric instead.

But Mira is reluctant to revisit the past, not only because of her deep emotional scars but her fear of speaking up and against criminals who mostly walk free. In the midst of this, Hannah travels to post-war Bosnia to research Duric’s crimes, where she is met with stone-faced resistance and in some cases direct threats. Before long, the lives of both women are in danger, and the case threatened further by bureaucracy, corruption, and politics, the office variety as well as international. The women have to decide whether ultimately the price of justice is worth it.

The film is a first-class thriller, both gripping and startling, with the realistic feel of a documentary, covering an important but tragic chapter of our modern history.

The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos), a noirish psychological suspense from Argentina is also a kind of love story. The winner of both the prestigious Goya award in 2009 and the Oscar in 2010, the film tells the story of recently retired criminal investigator Benjamin Esposito (played by Ricardo Darin) who’s writing a novel based on one of his unsolved cases, the rape and murder of a young newlywed woman, in the 1970s. For about as long as he’s obsessed over this case, Benjamin has held a torch for his old boss, Irene Menendez Hastings, now married and a federal judge. 

At the start of the film, Benjamin visits Irene at work to let her know that he’s writing about the old unsolved case and asks her to read some pages of his early draft. He also convinces her to reopen the case. At times, the two story lines overlap, both unresolved issues from the past that continue to haunt Benjamin today. After reading pages from his novel, Irene disputes part of his theory about the identity of the real killer. You can’t read a person’s secrets through their eyes, she tells  him early on, ostensibly speaking about the killer. Benjamin disagrees. Much of what they want to say to each other, too, is conveyed through their eyes. 

The title of this quiet, haunting movie, alternating between past and present, is apt: The history of the case becomes a sort of metaphor for Irene and Benjamin’s own personal history. The film is finely written and directed, and the acting is achingly beautiful. Often, I’m left scratching my head with hyped-up award winners, but in this case, the judges got it just right. So too, it seems, the public: The Secret in Their Eyes is the second top grossing film in Argentina.

The movie I least expected to enjoy was 2009’s Sin Nombre (Without Name). Most of the story takes place on a train moving north through Central America on its way to the United States (though the film was shot in Spain). On this train are a motley group of refugees fleeing their difficult lives in their homelands in the hopes of a fresh start across the border. The storyline sounds familiar, right? Remember the landmark El Norte (1983)? Yep, I wasn’t sure this movie was for me—we all know how difficult it is to get across this border, how hard their lives really are when they finally reach – if they reach at all. But Sin Nombre is a stunning surprise. In part, because it’s director, Cary Fukunaga, is a native Californian, born to a Japanese father and a Swedish mother. And yet he traveled the very trains he brings to life in the film, took scrupulous notes as he did so, and risked his life to learn the hardships encountered by those attempting this daunting journey. The result is breathtaking and brutally real.

The story tracks Willy, a Mexican gang member (played by Edgar Flores), whose violent and unpredictable gang leader, instructs him and his cronies to help rob stowaways on the train for cash and jewelry, and Sayra, a Honduran teenager (played by Paulina Gaitan), whose family hope to reach New Jersey. When Willy’s and Sayra’s paths cross, the story takes a new trajectory, one I don’t want to spoil as the film’s journey is as adventurous and surprising as the one it conveys. Another deserving award winner, Sin Nombre won prizes for directing and cinematography at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

Here are links to the trailers for all three movies:


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

What if? The Story Of Joe Simpson And Simon Yates

West Face of Siula Grande -- Photo by J. Bryndell

A lot of great ideas for memorable stories start with “what if?” What if a young farm boy is destined to save the galaxy and his job is to kill his enemy, who happens to be his father? What if a robot is sent from the future to kill the mother of a future resistance leader? What if a couple of climbing buddies have an accident and one of them has to make the decision – cut the rope and save himself or stay with his friend and they both perish? They’re all interesting premises for stories, right? But what if I tell you the latter happened in real life? What would you do if you had to make this choice? 
Touching the Void is Joe Simpson’s account of the ordeal he and Simon Yates endured in 1985. Determined to be the first team ever to summit the west face of Siula Grande, a mountain in Peru, Simpson and Yates set out on an adventure that ultimately changed their lives. After summiting successfully, they descended via the north ridge, and that’s when the trouble began. Simpson slipped down an ice cliff and broke his tibia and knee joint. As their expedition had taken longer than expected due to bad weather in the days prior, they were dangerously close to running out of fuel for their stove, which meant they couldn’t melt ice to water, a necessity for keeping hydrated at high altitude.
Dark skies announced another bout of stormy weather and daylight started to fade, along with their hopes of surviving another night on the mountain. They needed to descend 3,000 feet to a glacier below, but Simpson’s injuries made it a very difficult, and dangerous, task. The quickest way was for Yates to belay Simpson down, so they decided to tie two 150 feet ropes together. When the knot on the rope refused to feed through the belay plate, their problems increased ten-fold. Darkness surrounded the men, and the increasing winds whipped up ice particles, obscuring their vision. Yates found a way to continue lowering Simpson, but it took a while before they realised Simpson was dangling over a massive cliff face. Simpson tried to work his way back up the rope but because of badly frost-bitten hands, he couldn’t tie the knots needed to successfully ascend. During his attempts, Simpson accidentally dropped one of the cords needed to get back up the rope.

With stormy conditions, his climbing partner hanging over a cliff, and equipment not working properly, Yates had a myriad of obstacles to overcome. The pair remained in the same position for some time, but snow gathered around Yates’s belay, and it became obvious his strength and equipment were about to give out. Yates had to make a decision – cut the rope and save himself, or stay tied to Simpson and both of them be pulled to their deaths.

Yates cut the rope.

Simpson plummeted in the dark and landed in a deep crevasse. Yates dug a snow cave, survived the stormy night, and descended the mountain the following morning. He found the crevasse Simpson had fallen into, called out numerous times for his friend, but didn’t receive a reply. Assuming Simpson had died, Yates continued on to base camp.

Unbeknownst to Yates, Simpson had very much survived. He’d landed on a small ledge 150 feet down in the crevasse but had lost consciousness, which is why he hadn’t heard Yates. After he’d come to, he realised Yates would have presumed him dead and moved on. The only way for him to make it out alive was to abseil to a thin ice roof further down the crevasse and traverse along the glacier. The five mile journey took three days and without food and virtually no water, Simpson crawled and hopped to base camp. He reached camp a few hours before Yates had intended to leave for civilisation.

In Touching The Void, Simpson takes the reader a traumatic journey that blows the mind of most people, including climbers. His captivating writing helps us understand his emotional and physical challenges and why he doesn’t blame Simon Yates for cutting the rope. Simpson has said in many interviews that had he been in Yates’s position, he would have done exactly the same.

During many of my own climbing expeditions, someone has inevitably brought up the, “What if you had to cut the rope?” question. The debate would rage on for hours with some fellow climbers saying they had no qualms about slicing the rope if they had to. Hearing this the night before I was due to rope up and climb a mountain with them left me a little nervous, to say the least.

When I first stepped into the world of mountaineering, I learnt very quickly that this sport is undertaken by nature lovers, risk-takers, and people with wills of steel. Spending weeks, and sometimes months, in the wilderness with a small band of people creates a camaraderie I’ve not experienced in any other situation. The friendships that are made are deep, in the moment, and will continue on long after the climbing gear is packed away. With the elements working against us a lot of the time, there’s nothing to do but rely on a fellow climber and at times, put your life in their hands. Even now, after numerous expeditions, I find it extremely difficult to imagine what Joe Simpson and Simon Yates went through.

Since Touching The Void, Joe Simpson has written the sequel, This Game of Ghost. In Ghosts, Simpson bares his soul and tries to analyse what pushes himself, and others, to the limits, and why he takes the risks he does. Simpson has a tendency to get into all sorts of strife while climbing, and he’s had many more close calls since his fateful trip in Peru, but none of this has slowed him down and lucky for us, he documents his adventures beautifully in fascinating books. His other titles include The Beckoning of Silence, Dark Shadows Falling, and Storms of Silence. They all follow Simpson’s amazing life and delve into his deepest thoughts and emotions. Reading about Simpson’s adventures makes one wonder at how resilient the human spirit is.

You don’t need to be a mountaineer or to have camped in a tent to be enchanted by Joe Simpson and his stories. I can guarantee once you’ve read Touching The Void, you’ll be hunting down more of his books. Who knows, you may be inspired to undertake your own adventure. His books are addictive, and the ease with which he weaves a story will leave you emotionally exhausted and playing your own game of what if

I have to ask. If you had to make a choice between saving your friend and living, or both of you perishing, what would you do?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Afghan Rain

“The United Nations estimates that Iran now hosts 1.5 million Afghan refugees. Most of the younger generation was born in Iran and has never been home.”

These words fill the opening screen of Baran, a 2001 film about undocumented Afghan workers in Iran. Directed by the Iranian filmmaker, Majid Majidi, Baran tells the story of a 17-year-old Azeri-Iranian laborer named Lateef who works on a construction site as a tea boy, fetching bread and cooking simple meals for the crew. He’s a tough, streetwise kid, a troublemaker and always eager to pick a fight – especially with the Afghans, who work illegally for little money and no respect.

Lateef’s troubles begin when an Afghan boy turns up one day to ask for a job. Fourteen-year-old Rahmat has come to replace his father, who was injured in an accident on the job and is now unemployed. Rahmat is small, frail, and too shy to speak a word with anyone, clearly not cut out for the hard labor the job requires. But he earns points for effort.

The site foreman takes pity on Rahmat and gives him Lateef’s much easier job. But this means that Lateef must do the heavy lifting now, hauling bags of cement, mixing concrete, lugging cinderblocks about. In his resentment, he performs small acts of revenge: dumping bowls of scummy water over Rahmat, sabotaging the cooking pots and kitchen supplies.

Until one day, Lateef discovers Rahmat’s secret and why he never utters a word. He’s really a girl named Baran, desperate to do whatever it takes to feed her crippled father and four younger siblings (her mother is dead). There is something about this lovely girl and her fierce sacrifice that awakens compassion in Lateef, and instead of betraying her secret, he becomes her protector, guarding her honor when other men try to get too chummy, risking his own safety when the authorities come to arrest her for working illegally. Without ever exchanging a single word with Baran or even touching so much as her hand, Lateef falls in love.

Director Majidi has the eye of a poet, able to see beauty and joy in the bleakest of environments. The love story in Baran unfolds in silence. Neither Lateef nor Baran can express their feelings for each other. But their love is clear on their faces as they share surreptitious glances, and in small acts of kindness. Baran leaves glasses of tea in the spot where Lateef likes to take his break, and she thoughtfully arranges the sugar cube on a piece of paper rather than leaving it on the dusty cinderblock. And in one scene, where Lateef is hiding behind a bridge piling, watching Baran struggle to haul heavy rocks out of a turbulent, icy river, the tears rolling down his cheeks are utterly heartbreaking.

In the hands of a lesser artist, this poignancy could easily fall into sappiness. But it feels perfectly natural in the world of this film. Lateef is helpless to come to Baran’s assistance in any direct way because to admit that he knows her secret would be an unforgivable violation of the strict moral codes that govern his world. And she can’t acknowledge his awareness of her situation without putting herself and her whole family at risk.

In both Farsi, the dominant language of Iran, and Dari, the Afghan version of Farsi, Baran is not just a woman’s name. It means “rain,” and the wintry world where the story unfolds has its share of downpours – and snow and blustery wind. The unfinished building, still lacking outer walls, is open to the elements, the only warmth provided by open fires burning on every floor.

Life is a daily struggle in this gritty environment. The construction workers are a mixed bag of Iranian minorities: Kurds, Lurs, Persians, and Turkish-speaking Azeris like Lateef. Ethnic tension is always simmering under the surface.

Most of the men live on the construction site, in rooms separated by ethnicity, a joyless existence without the comfort of families or wives. Only the Afghans, who are not supposed to be there in the first place, must make long treks twice a day from a nearby village. Whenever the building inspectors arrive, someone yells “Afghans, hide!”, and half the crew dives for cover.

Baran tells a universal love story (who doesn’t remember the tingling joy of first love) against the backdrop of human hardship that, unfortunately, is equally universal. Like Iran, every part of the world has refugees, people who have been driven from their homes by war, famine, or economic desperation, and must struggle to survive in a country that offers them only grudging welcome.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Allison Rushby

Today's Off The Beaten Track guest blogger is the very interesting and lovely Allison Rushby, an Australian author of nine published novels.  She can generally be found writing furiously on her laptop (read: making procrastinatory purchases on etsy, or tweeting about nothing at @allison_rushby).  Her books include women’s fiction titles such as allmenareabastards.comHating Valentine’s Day and Wrong Way, Go Back and young adult titles such as Blondetourage and the Living Blonde trilogy.  In 2011 she moved to the UK with her husband and two children where she will be writing a travel memoir and blogging at

You write the very entertaining blog Keep Calm and Carry Vegemite. What inspired you to write this and how do you keep finding new material for your posts?

When we decided to move to the UK for a while for my husband's work (read: when my husband came home and told me he'd applied for a job in the UK and the interview was tomorrow…), I thought it would be a good idea to write a travel memoir about our experiences.  A friend suggested I keep a blog to keep me on track, as it would take some time to gather the material and form it into an actual manuscript.  At first, I worried about finding material, but it's been surprisingly easy.  When you're thrust into a new situation, all kinds of bits and pieces pop up every day that are worth discussing.

For those who haven’t been lucky enough to try Vegemite, can you explain what it is, why it’s so important, and how it is totally different to Marmite?

I think unless you're brought up on Vegemite, it's never going to be a foodstuff that makes any sense to you.  When you take a step back and think about it logically, a black, salty Vitamin B paste isn't all that appealing.  But when you're 18 months old and a picky eater, white bread, butter and a tiny smear of something salty is pretty good.  I'm sure this is why we all love it – it's ingrained.  Marmite might be another yeast-based spread, but that's where the similarities end.  The British marketing slogan is 'Love it or hate it'.  I hate it.  Enough said.

Allison, you’re an accomplished writer in fiction and you’re used to writing intensely on one project over a short period of time. How difficult is it to write a memoir over a longer timeframe?

I have to admit, it's quite difficult!  I find that I'm not writing steadily, but taking a lot of notes and then writing a number of chapters at a time.  And, of course, there's the blog to keep up with, which is a different beast entirely.  I can't really write any other way, however, because I need to live the experience before I write it!
You’ve received a lot of great media coverage about your move from Australia to England. Does this publicity find you or are you actively out there, promoting your blog and work?

I've been doing a little bit of publicity – when I remember!  Some of the pieces that have run have been due to media contacts asking what I'm up to and others have been chance – for example, the first time I went to the hairdresser in Cambridgeshire, I ended up seated beside the editor of a local magazine who passed my details on to the local newspaper.  As for the blog, I did take the time to list it at a couple expat websites and so on, but other than this, I've just been going on word of mouth and my trusty Twitter and Facebook friends.

Moving to a new country with a young family is always a challenge. What advice do you have for people contemplating something similar and how do you keep your sanity in the process?

Start planning early!  Things actually went very smoothly for us (while we watched other people at my husband's work have their visas rejected and so on), but this is only because we checked and double checked everything and started planning well over a year before our actual move.  The paperwork involved in an overseas move is simply unbelievable and I think the only way to keep your sanity is by doing a few forms a week.  We simply diarised things month by month and, at the start of each month, would begin checking off the tasks that needed completing.  It sounds boring, but it's the only realistic way, especially when you're travelling with two kids who need schooling and have different schooling needs.

People from other English-speaking countries find the Australian accent and word usage a tad difficult to understand. When that happens, what do you do? Pull out the crayons and start drawing stick figures to get your message across?

Truthfully?  Yes.  Just last week I had to actually write down what I was saying for a Scottish guy in a pharmacy, who simply couldn't understand me.  I'm not sure why (I could understand him).  Other times, I find I just give up.  Like the time I needed 'dry ginger ale' to add to my scotch and asked for it in the supermarket and a staff member left me standing in front of the crystallised stuff.

How long do you expect to be in the U.K. and what’s next?

We'll be here until 31 July next year, when my husband's job ends.  Hopefully we'll be able to do a little travelling on the way home.  If we have any money left, that is!  I think we just haemorrhaged most of it during a week in Paris.

You have a book release coming up early next year. Can you tell us more?

28 February will see my first Young Adult US release hit the shelves.  It's called Shooting Stars and is about a sixteen-year-old paparazzo.  I had an absolute ball writing it – I got to buy piles of trashy celebrity mags and read fantastic paparazzo autobiographies.  There's a sneak peek at (and pre-order buttons!  Yes, I'm shameless…).

Quick! Here’s a list of questions we’d like you to answer with the first word or phrase that pops into your head:

What do you miss most about Australia?

Dropping in for coffee with friends (okay, it's really wine, not coffee, but you know what I mean).

What has surprised you most about England?

The density of the population.  It sounds silly, because you know the population is greater, but it isn't until you're living this reality that it hits home.  When you're not used to having so many people around you, it feels very odd indeed.

Apart from Vegemite, what other Aussie food can’t you do without?

Pav.  Natch.

Which English food have you become addicted to? (And why are we asking so many food questions?)

That's easy.  Cider.

Have you learnt to make real English tea yet?

I'm still working on it.  I may perfect 'builder's tea' yet.

Who would play you in the movie of your life?

Toni Collette.  I used to get asked if I was Toni Collette from time to time.  But then she went all Hollywood and got hot.

Who would play your hubby?

Mr Darcy, of course! Oh, I mean, Colin Firth.  I always forget he has a real name.

Can you give us one word to sum up your experience in England so far?

Frantic.  Or maybe Paperwork! 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sacred Land

About forty years ago, the government repossessed the land on which one of our ancestral homes in India sat. The state, it turned out, took the land back to run a wider road through the area. Obviously, the family had little say in the matter, but they weren't very happy about it. Neither were the construction workers once they started demolishing the house.

It turns out they discovered a tulsi plant, also known as Indian basil or holy basil, growing wild in the middle of the property. As tulsi is the most sacred of all plants to Hindus, the workers demolished the house around it but carefully left the plant itself intact.

The tulsi plant holds an illustrious place in Hindu history, myth, and folklore. The plant is considered an elixir, something that brings balance and calmness to its surroundings as well as good physical health and spiritual well being. 
It is mentioned in the ancient scriptures of the Puranas and Vedas. Supposed to be a favorite of Lord Vishnu, it is ceremonially wed to an idol of the Hindu god during the holy month of Kaarthik, around mid-October, a festival that kicks off the marriage season in India. Many Hindus start their day with prayers that include placing a garland of tulsi leaves at their prayer spot in the home, many of which keep a tulsi plant somewhere indoors or in their courtyard. Rosaries are also often made from the wood.

Tulsi also has amazing healing properties, its extracts commonly used for a number of natural Ayurvedic treatments, from the common cold, headaches, stomach aches, insect bites, and other types of detox, to heart disease, diabetes, malaria, and stress relief. It’s so effective as an insect repellent that when the gardeners who were landscaping and planting the famed Victoria Gardens in Bombay in 1861 complained about all the mosquitos, the government instructed them to plant tulsi plants around the entire boundary surrounding the gardens. It’s served as an effective mosquito repellent at the popular tourist spot ever since. 

Today, you can find tulsi in the form of seeds, powders, even health supplements. Tulsi herbal teas have become popular too – they're easily available in my local grocery store here in suburban D.C. And in recent years, tulsi in India has become a common culinary substitute for Chinese or Italian basil.

When the demolition crew refused to disturb the tulsi growing wild at our ancestral home, a great uncle of mine recalled an unusual memory from his childhood. It seems many years prior, a well-regarded local swami happened to come to their house, welcomed but uninvited, and asked to pray there. He said the site was a resting place of a great sage from the past. The presence of the wild tulsi confirmed my uncle’s belief that it must be so. And in fact, over time, the roots of that tulsi plant eroded the cement structure around it, leaving it crumbling. Could this old story have been true?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Wandering Eucalyptus

As a kid in Australia, I spent many a day climbing eucalyptus trees, dangling from precarious heights, and scraping arms and knees on the rough branches and bark. Gum nuts would fall on my head and get tangled in my hair, and my clothes would be stained with sap and reek of eucalyptus oil. These precious memories have stuck with me, and it’s always a surprise when they spring up out of the blue. Many times I’ve trekked in countries like Peru or Turkey, and I’ve smelt the distinct aroma of eucalyptus then I’ve turned a corner and come across hills covered in these beautiful trees. 

With over 800 species of the plant endemic to Australia, there’s no surprise these trees have spread their branches around the world. Eucalypts are renowned for consuming a lot of water, and it’s not uncommon for people to use them to dry up swamps. By doing this, the breeding grounds of mosquitoes disappear and the risk of malaria is eliminated. 

When the Trappist monks planted eucalyptus trees at their Tre Fontane Monastery near Rome, Italy, in 1870, they not only removed the risk of malaria in the surrounding area, but they founded a new cottage industry. Trappist monks produce goods that are sold to provide an income for the monastery, and after they discovered how to cultivate the bees and honey using the pollen from the eucalyptus trees, they found a new profitable endeavor. And to prove how resourceful these monks are, there is a Trappist Liqueur de Tre Fontane that is distilled from the leaves of eucalyptus trees. I’ve not yet sampled it, but it’s on my list of things to do in Italy!

What surprises me the most though, is the recent discovery that eucalypts may have flourished in South America millions of years ago. Scientists have found fossils of leaves, flowers, fruits, and buds in Patagonia, Argentina, and they believe these are the only scientifically validated fossils that prove the eucalyptus existed outside of Australia without humans transplanting them. The fossils date back to 52 million years ago and represent a sub-genus of eucalyptus known as Symphypmyrtus, making this the oldest eucalyptus fossil ever found. Patagonia is a haven for fossils and dinosaurs, so it’s interesting to contemplate if any of these creatures ate eucalyptus leaves or flowers as part of their regular diet.

When most people think of Australia, they imagine the not-so-cuddly Koala (no, it isn’t a bear!), sitting in a gum tree (also known as a eucalyptus), stoned off its head. These lazy creatures love to loll about in eucalyptus trees, sleep 18 hours a day, and spend another 3 hours chewing on toxic leaves that would kill most animals and humans. The eucalyptus leaves are low in nutrition, but the koala’s bodies are designed to slowly metabolize the toxins, which is why they sleep so much. Next time someone tells you koalas get high on eucalyptus leaves and they sleep because they’re stoned, you can tell them it’s a myth, and their sleepiness is due to them conserving energy so they can digest their food. Bummer, man.

With people turning to greener products, eucalyptus oil is making a comeback. Eucalyptus oil has anti-bacterial properties and can help people with respiratory conditions. There’s nothing like a dab of eucalyptus on a handkerchief to help relieve one’s cold symptoms. Eucalyptus oil is a great insect repellent, stain remover, odor remover, and a few drops in the wash of stinky gym gear can do wonders. If you have a niggling headache, rubbing a few drops on your temples can get rid of that pain quickly. Oh, oh, I’m starting to sound like an advert, but I promise, it does work!

Those who have been to California may be familiar with the eucalypts there. With a similar climate to Australia, the eucalypts thrived after they were imported in the 1850s during the American Gold Rush. The Californian government encouraged plantations with the view to use the timber for construction, furniture, and railroad ties. Unfortunately, eucalyptus bark tends to twist while drying and made it impossible to hammer rail spikes into the ties. What the importers also didn’t realise at the time is that the young trees in California were no comparison to the centuries-old eucalyptus trees in Australia. The older trees didn’t warp or split, and it didn’t take long before the eucalyptus industry in California took a nose dive. Today, eucalypts provide windbreaks for highways and farms, and are used as ornamental trees in cities and private gardens. The eucalyptus tree however have come under some heavy criticism because they don’t support native animals in California, and the trees have been classified as a fire hazard. With a naturally high oil content, the trees can combust and turn into fire balls if there’s a bushfire.

Even though eucalyptus trees can be found in just about every corner of the world now, I still associate these wonderful trees with my birth country. One of the most photographed and visited sites in Australia is the Blue Mountains, just outside of Sydney. If you’ve ever seen photos or visited, you’ll understand how they got their name. Originally called the Carmarthen Hills, this beautiful piece of paradise underwent a name change to the Blue Mountains because of the dense population of oil-bearing eucalyptus trees. When the atmosphere fills with fine oil droplets and combines with dust particles, water vapor, and the right light, a mysterious blue haze settles floats through the trees and above the rivers. Spectacular is the first word that comes to mind. 

Every now and again when I travel I feel a little homesick, so it’s nice to get a surprise and find a crop of eucalypts gracing hills in foreign lands. I can close my eyes and breathe deeply, let the strong eucalyptus scent wash over me and imagine being back home amongst the gum trees where the lazy koalas sleep and kookaburras laugh.