Book review: Basque History of the World

Basque-History-of-the-World-The-Mark-Kurlansky

The first and (for now) only in-depth text I’ve read about the Basque people, but it will certainly not be the last! I had heard about a mysterious people somewhere in northern Spain who maintain their solidarity, their culture and their strange language. Now Mark Kurlansky has introduced me to unusual and exciting dishes, traditions and a history both extensive and incredibly active. It sounds wonderful and magical – even the original roots of the Basque people are contested… some theories put them in Basqueland even before the Indo-Europeans. For a culture as young as post-colonial South Africa this seems like a depth and richness of history that we have not yet reached.

Probably Kurlansky writes with some bias, even if he tries to be absolutely objective, because from his tone it seems that he admires the Basques, even their quarrelsome , ethnocentric nature. Even so, Basqueland (and on reflection, Catalonia) have moved way up my ever expanding list of “places to visit asap”. Since food features very heavily in how I experience other countries & cultures, Kurlansky’s recipe inserts and their context in history left my mouth watering and with more than a little curiosity – baby eels or fish cooked in only oil, garlic and peppers… Oh my gosh… and the creamy gateau de basco. What on earth could go wrong?

Of course, the people are what make them Basque – their language, their expression of their culture and what makes them feel distinctly Basque; these are things touched on in a Basque History, because I am sure that this is how the author experienced their culture and their identity. However, no amount of writing or reading about this can be a suitable substitute for the original! It is in talking to people and spending time in their space that you would get to know their reality and maybe also a little bit of what shaped these people and their identity. This reminds me of an acquaintance who went to Basqueland and asked someone to “please say something in Euskera”, to which he got the angry reply “I’m not a monkey, repeating little phrases to tourists!” So… there’s a way to go about it and a way not to. 🙂

As to the language, as Kurlansky writes, it seems like Euskera is one of the vital parts of Basque identity (as Afrikaans is to descendants of Dutch colonists in contemporary SA – I just mention this again because this is my frame of reference). It seems completely out of context in the sea of romance languages (Spanish and French), but it continues to flourish through education, cultural socialization and literary production. Kurlansky writes that they even require their leaders and elected officials to be fluent in Euskera.

In conclusion, this book was engaging, interesting and so well researched, from the mysterious roots of the Basque people, through the age of the Visigoths, the Vikings and the Roman Empire. In terms of modern history, their fight against and suffering under Francisco Franco is also examined in detail. It is a failure of my historical and geographical education that I always thought Guernica is a city in Spain… Another world has opened up to me and I intend to explore it!

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Carnaval 2015, em Ouro Preto!

Recentemente foi celebrado o Carnaval de 2015 – meu primeiro carnaval no Brasil! Claro, a maior festa de carnaval que vêm à mente é no Rio… As escolas de samba, as baterias e as garotas que usam as fantasias únicas de carnaval… E logo, uma outra imagem vem à mente: as ruas cheias e a possibilidade grande de não encontrar vaga em um hotel ou hostel. 
Eu e Kiernan começamos planejando um pouco tarde: depois do ano novo é a época que todas aqueles que não planejaram “acordam” para o carnaval. Então, a segunda opção que decidimos foi ir a Ouro Preto.

Morros e morros! Subi, desci, subi e desci de novo.

Morros e morros! Subi, desci, subi e desci de novo.

A cidade de Ouro Preto é pequena e compacta. Há muitos morros e de qualquer morro pode ver pelo menos três igrejas antigas! A gente não pode entrar em todas, mas os interiores delas são muito parecidos. A natureza em volta da cidade é maravilhosa! Árvores e espaços verdes… Ainda tem as cachoeiras entre Ouro Preto e Mariana, a cidade vizinha.
Nós ficamos em Mariana: de ônibus é trinta minutos de Ouro Preto. Todas as tardes/noites nós fomos a Ouro Preto, para as festas e celebrações de carnaval (os ônibus funcionaram em todas os horários) 

Houve as maiores festas aqui.

Houve as maiores festas aqui.

A prefeitura de Ouro Preto organizou muitas bandas para tocar as músicas deles e de carnaval na cidade – em qualquer lugar pude escutar alguma banda. Não só teve bandas de samba, também teve rock, eletrônica, música popular e outras que eu não conhecia. Tinha vendedores das bebidas álcoholicas em cada rua, latas de cervejas jogadas em toda parte e também tinha barraqinhas de junk food. Apesar de lixo nas ruas, cada manhã as ruas estavam limpas! Deve ter tido limpadores das quatro horas da manhã até as nove horas para parecer limpo assim – muito impressionante!

Vi desfiles únicos e interessantes! Alguns têm uma bateria, alguns têm os cantores, alguns têm os manequins como acima.

Vi desfiles únicos e interessantes! Alguns têm uma bateria, alguns têm os cantores, alguns têm os manequins como acima.

Nas manhãs nós exploramos uma parte de Mariana ou Ouro Preto – caminhamos e subimos muito. Mariana tem uma linha de trem antiga, entre ela e a cidade irmã, que passa ao lado de uma montanha. Acho que tem uma vista deslumbrante dos vales. As igrejas são bonitas e eu fiquei surpresa que ainda usadas. Umas igrejas estão recebendo reformas, mas outras funcionam. 
As casas e os prédios das duas cidades são charmosos e singulares – a construção verdadeiramente me faz pensar em colonialismo e no mar também… Não sei porque o mar; talvez é porque eu, frequentemente, as casas similares nas cidades litorâneas na África do Sul.
Eu acho que as coisas mais bonitinhas são as fontes – elas ficam em lugares muito aleatórios, todas elas não têm nada de água (exceto uma), e têm aparências terriveis (terriveis no significado antiga da palavra) com as cobras espiraladas e os dragões. 

Eu estou muito feliz, porque neste tempo matar dois coelhos com uma cajadada só – visitar as cidades históricas e participar de um carnaval muito divertido! 

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Leg 8: Sodwana – Richards Bay

From under the water’s surface to on top of it… for more gifted people at least 😉 I can’t surf (yet?) and sitting on the beach at Richards Bay, this suddenly feels like a serious deficiency. Richards Bay may not be as recognized as Jeffrey’s Bay, but surfing academies abound. The strong winds I’ve experienced there may be good for surfing (or maybe not, what do I know?), but if this is an obstacle in your beach-lazing, there are plenty of beaches on the same stretch of coast where you can find some little respite. You can also retreat to a beachfront café; not a bad spot to catch up on some reading, or people-watching. Crashing surf from one side, warm coffee or a tangy cocktail in hand sound like just the thing to allow my fingers to unwrinkle from spending almost a week on the beach, if not in the water. The last time I was in this area I visited a restaurant with food so mind-blowing, my mouth was watering even after I was stuffed to the brim! Now that I try to find out where exactly it is, Google is letting me down… I could swear it was called The Moçambican, situated somewhere between Richards Bay and Balito. Unfortunately that’s all the info I have, but the finger-licking creamy coconut curries with jasmine rice are enough to make me drive any conceivable road it could be on, hoping that some kind of bloodhound sense would kick in.

A little ways inland from Richards Bay, there are plenty of nature reserves to be found; I’ve never visited these, but the pics look great! 
Now… the absolute must-visit-I’ve-been-dying-to-go pin is dropped at Zululand Brewery! I have been hearing about them and their famous Zulu Blond craft ale for years, but only once been close enough to smell the fermenting barley… and they were sold out 😦 Right now, in South Africa, you can only find the Zulu Blond at the George’s Hotel and evidently you have to be an early bird indeed. No beer before noon? I’m pretty sure somewhere in the world it’s considered breakfast! As long as I can get my fingers curled around the brightly colored sticker on the bottle, still sweating from the fridge, all’s well that ends well. 
I couldn’t get in touch with them in order use a picture of their unique ale, but visit their website for a quick peek: Zulu Blonde

The George’s Hotel and Zululand Brewery are in a tiny little town called Eshowe; however small Eshowe may be, there is more to do than sip on golden nectar… The Dlinza Forest has an aerial boardwalk 20 meters off the ground from which to enjoy greenery, fresh air and wild (if small) animals – think birds and spiders. 🙂 The boardwalk is only 150 meters long, but who rushes in and out. Sit down. Breathe.

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Here’s to butchering the beautiful language of Portuguese… ;)

At the recommendation of my Portuguese teacher I am attempting to communicate on my blog, in Portuguese. If anyone reads this and understands, good luck to you 🙂 I promise to revise and correct after my patient teacher or Portuguese-speaking friends have given me some notes.
(Corrections have been made 🙂

Feijoada accompaniments

O primeiro sabor do Brasil

Brasil é um país muito grande (na verdade é enorme), então é lógico que aqui também tem muitos tipos de comidas…

O Nordeste é conhecido pelas comidas apimentadas e quentes. Além disso tem um alimento muito famoso chamado “moqueca“: é um tipo de ensopado/guisado com caldo denso, com sabor rico. Moqueca me lembro de “bouillabaisse” da França, porque os dois usam frutos do mar (gostoso!). Mas bouillabaisse tem mais água.

Tem as pessoas que falam que os alimentos de Minas Gerais são melhor que todas as outras locações. Eu ainda não visitei este estado, então ainda não posso julgar. Por agora a única comida de Minas que eu provei foi “pão de queijo“, mas eu espero que pão de queijo autêntico seja melhor que alguns que eu provei. Logo eu vou à Minas Gerais, e depois vou te dizer o que eu penso.

Uma outra culinária que eu gosto muito é a do sul do Brasil. As pessoas do Rio Grande do Sul (especialmente duas de Porto Alegre😉 ) têm orgulho do churrasco deles. Churrasco é bastante similar ao “braai” na África do Sul – os dois usam carne de alta qualidade (como picanha ou contra filé), misturam com temperos particulares e preparam na grelha. A grande diferença entre churrasco e braai é: no churrasco a carne já preparada está cortada, e logo todas as pessoas comem juntas descontraído os pedacinhos; no braai os peços de carne inteiro são preparados e logo todas as pessoas pegam as porções de carne, vegetais e pratos extras, para juntas desfrutarem o alimento.

Fim.

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Where do people fit in the picture?

Why do people exist?
Why were people created?
Why did they evolve?

From the point of view of progressive evolution, what made meta-consciousness a survival advantage? Why did that develop, why only in people? Are we broken? We have meta-consciousness but no tools on how to manage it. We know how to destroy, sometimes how to preserve, but never anything more. Before us nothing needed fixing; are we then our own reason for living if we are designed/fated for an endless cycle of destroy-fix-destroy-fix? And in fact we can never be any good at this because anything we fix is deficient/different/faulty from the way it was before us. So this purpose is meaningless.

We can barely preserve/maintain anything without destroying some of it or consuming some of it. And besides, the world around us maintains itself much better, much more efficiently and beautifully without us. Here, too, we are at best a hindrance, at worst a disaster.
Were we meant to create? Why have we come this far without creating anything superior to ourselves? Or at least something that has meaning outside of the meaning people give it? I concede that perhaps this is our purpose – we are simply here to usher in the next, superior form of existence; perhaps a form of consciousness or meta consciousness that is an improvement on our own design. In other words, we are not necessarily creating anything, but we might be the catalysts / vehicles for the next evolution… We are not ‘finished’, our design is not as we are now, but something contained in the next step of evolution/design. Perhaps something that goes beyond our meta-consciousness into the fourth (fifth?) dimension.
If this is the case, my own individual birth means nothing. I am one part of an evolving organism, but the sum of the progress of my species is not influenced by my individual actions, enjoyments or disappointments; again, I am the only entity giving those things meaning.

If this is the case why are we individuals? Surely our purpose is furthered by a collective consciousness? By a hive mentality?
How inefficient that millions of breathing, shitting people are born, in order for a handful to further humanity’s purpose. How trivial and base are our worlds of love, affection, fornication and death.

What an anticlimax one life is…

But, if we were/are created by a god, I believe that now we are truly alone.

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Leg 7: Ponto Malongane – Sodwana Bay

From one ocean paradise, straight to another! More soft sand and warm sunshine; I consider Sodwana to be the best diving spot in South Africa. Actually, even after diving in parts of Southeast Asia I maintain that Sodwana has the best diving, ever! Oh yes… you think Mozambique sounds and looks amazing? Sodwana is by far #1 on my list and I’m not alone: Wikipedia insists that 35 000 people flock here every year to ogle at Indian Oceanic marine creatures who are making big fish-eyes right back at them. Bearing in mind that this exact number is not verified and probably made more unreliable by the sheer number of other websites that recklessly quote this same number without proof, it gives you a rough picture of the Sodwana’s appeal. There are beautifully technicolor reefs and coral, and they stay this way because of strict conservation practices.

Picture by Matt Kieffer licensed under Creative Commons

Picture by Matt Kieffer licensed under Creative Commons

Sodwana Bay is a national park, inside the iSinangaliso Wetland Park [1] which means you’ll have to pay a permit fee to be able to dive there (they check every permit!) and on entry to the nature reserve you pay another R10 per vehicle. The permit is R85 and can be bought at Post Offices; it's valid for a full year (as far as I remember; this may have changed recently). On individual level the permit fee isn't super high, and it funds nature reserve facilities and infrastructure, as well as the personnel. Reefs are further protected by limited group sizes, strict no-touch rules etc. If you've seen what devastating effects big crowds of uncaring, uneducated, protection-insensitive divers can have, you fully appreciate these efforts in Sodwana, even if it costs a bit.  Continue reading

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SA Leg 6: Swaziland – Mozambique

From bosveld to blue ocean! The Mozambique of my memories is a paradisical wonderland of soft, white sand, turquoise-green-blue water and good times around a fire as well as under the water!

Admin first… The road from Pretoria to Ponta Malongane via the Kosi Bay border post is notoriously Swiss-cheesed with potholes! And I mean it – drive 10km/hour if you want to keep rims intact. Often it’s necessary to weave all over the place just to find road to drive on. Construction is under way to fix this, but don’t hold your breath; construction has been consistently under way for at least 10 years, and serves to back up traffic more than lay any new asphalt. Apparently the road between Swaziland and Mozambique through the Lomahasha-Namaasha border post, is in much better condition (not a difficult feat, but still: yay!) 
It’s only 130km from Mlilwane to border control, and another 185km to Ponta Malongane, but as with any border control I’ll err on the side of too much when budgeting time to make border payments and submit to inspections if necessary. I could enter simply having my passport with me, but since Kiernan is from the “land of the free”, he is expected to pay a gouging US$110 to get a tourist visa; driving across the border also requires inspection of original vehicle registration and licensing papers. 

Picture by Etimbo made available under the GNU Free Documentation License I think this is actually on an island just off the coast of Mozambique, but the white sand and wonderful water is quite representative, I think.

Picture by Etimbo made available under the GNU Free Documentation License
I think this is actually on an island just off the coast of Mozambique, but the white sand and wonderful water is quite representative, I think.


Continue reading

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First taste of Brazil

Well, not Brazil actually… just São Paulo so far 🙂
After four months in Sampa, as it’s called, we’ve had one or two opportunities to try something new. The first two things that Brasileiros mention when I ask about eats to try is Feijoada and Brigadeiro, both of which I think are an apt representations of Paulistanos (people born in São Paulo), if not Brazil: welcoming and sweet.

Feijoada is a thick, stewy, meaty dish served with rice, ground mandioca and fragrant couve. Besides the rice, everything else on the plate was a new experience the first time… The stew was traditionally made of throw-away bits of meat, and while you can still find that the modern version has tender red meat and bacon bits. Kiernan and I were invited to a birthday party where they had both the traditional and more popular version; they were both super tasty! One thing that is a staple of Brazilian food and always plentiful in a Feijoada pot is beans; since the pot of food is literally stewed for hours you get a thick, tender dish out of it that, to me, whispers “comfort food” in a voice like a soft blanket 🙂
Wednesdays and Saturdays are “feijoada lunch” days and I would not be surprised if people really eat this twice a week, every week. It even encourages your social, sharing side, since a meal of feijoada served at lunch restaurants (or lanchonetes) are big enough to feed two grown men, comfortably!

Feijoada pot

Feijoada accompaniments

Brigadeiro is like caramelised, chocolate condensed milk, rolled in more chocolate sprinkles! Yes, it’s very sweet… one bite is quite enough to give you a tweaky sugar high! 🙂 the first Brigadeiro we had was at a friend’s house – his girlfriend threw together a can of condensed milk, a tablespoon of butter and a generous helping of cocoa powder and kept stirring at it on the stove til it was thick and sticky. Yum!! I tried my own version of this, but in an effort to survive with all my teeth, I witheld cocoa powder and rolled the white caramelised condensed milk in cinnamon powder – nice and spicy. 🙂 and very nice with a glass of velvety red wine.

Sweets in Brazil tend to be very sugary and very sweet! It seems like a substantial portion of the population likes chocolate (not just girls); I routinely see people (guy, girl, old, young) polishing of a huge slab of chocolate on the metro! At another birthday party last night they had about four jars of nutella on the counter, spoons jutting out invitingly of the creamy chocolate spread; one jar was being passed around enthusiastically and all indulged 🙂 True, this is merely anecdotal of one sweet experience (pun intended), but I’ve heard that many foreigners complain that sweets here are indeed super sweet.

This was bought at a bakery as opposed to homemad.

This was bought at a bakery as opposed to homemad.

Soft, sweet, creamy brigadeiro

Anoter big activity here is churrasco (like BBQ, and actually surprisingly close to braai, especially in the south). Chunks of spiced, marinated meat are threaded on kebab sticks and roasted over a fire; yum! We have yet to try the traditional version of this, but we have had really good meat in Brazil! Not really at restaurants, but at people’s homes or at get-togethers.

The next couple of foodie must-do’s we’re aiming to cross off our list, are trying food from Minas Gerais and Bahia – two places with their own, unique and distinct food cultures. These are just Brazilian eats; São Paulo is well-known for the city you can find any kind of food. While that’s not totally the case (they don’t have biltong, but that may just be nit-picking;), Kiernan and I have had the most deliciously mouth-watering “African food”, in a mostly Cameroonian restaurant; dainty, light and refreshing Columbian cerviche & arepas. The closest you can get to sushi is a fusion of California rolls, cream cheese & fruit… I’m not kidding: cream cheese and strawberry or mango, wrapped in rice & seaweed. o.O ok. It wasn’t bad, but it’s not sushi! 😀

Cameroonian restaurant

The drinks, cocktails, beer and wine are in a world of their own; perhaps I’ll get enough letters together to write about that soon…

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SA Leg 5: Kruger National Park – Swaziland

I’m preparing myself to be most surprised by the Kingdom of Swaziland… For being a country inside the borders and surrounded by South Africa, I know precious little about it. I mean, I know that it’s still a kingdom and I expect that the fauna & flora probably wouldn’t differ too much from our own (after all it’s not a large country…).  Other than that I’ve only seen tourist brochures touting the life-changing experiences people have had visiting traditional hut-villages.

Websites like Tripadvisor weren’t much help in telling me what I wanted to know, having asked completely the wrong questions. My absolute disinterest in shopping malls and luxury spas left me with limited inspiration for this part of the trip. However, social inquiry rapidly put me on the right track: there are three major wildlife reserves in the kingdom, all managed by the same non-profit wildlife trust to promote environmental education, preserving wildlife and giving people the opportunity to get closer to nature[1]. These parks are Hlane, Mkhaya and Mlilwane, this last being home to Sondizela Backpackers, where you can set up your own tent for R80 /night. 🙂

Other than wildlife viewing (which in its own right is awesome here), other things which caught my attention are exhilirating outdoor activities: abseiling and white water rafting are booming businesses. Similarly popular are multi-day hikes[2] or the challenging but none-the-less attractive Ngwempisi Day hike[3]. The Ngwempisi trails cover 33km, from the rim of the gorge, to the bottom and out the other side.
Still another experience up for offer is an outing of evening caving[4] that includes a walk through the forest, a serious & strenuous trek/climb/scoot/squeeze through the Gobholo caves, topped by dinner and a dip in ‘hot springs’. o.O I don’t know about you, but this seems like the perfect balance between exertion and leisure! 🙂 The whole affair lasts 5 hours and the two of us would pay R1700 total.

Now it seems like there is too much to do for the time we will be spending in Swaziland :/ We will be spending one night here, and if Ngwempisi really does take the whole day, we may need to come back to do the caving/hot spring-ing another day.

Riveting references
[1] Big Game Parks/a> Accessed 10 September 2014
[2]The Kingdom of Swaziland – Hiking accessed 10 September 2014
[3]Visit Swazi Accessed 10 September 2014
[4]Swazi travel: Adventure Caving Accessed 10 September 2014

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Book Review: Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz

Even though the title simply says “Wild Fermentation”, this book tries to be much more than a simple fermentation guide / recipe book. The recipes and techniques described in the books are very interesting! Some of them are definitely easier than I thought, and I’m quite excited to try sourdough, plus some of the trickier wine ferments.

Like I said, this book does not solely consist of recipes though. The author starts out with a history of fermentation and a description of what makes wild fermentation different than aided or chemical ferments. This is an interesting melding into the narrative of his recipes and attitudes towards fermentation. Furthermore Katz gives a little bit of his own personal history and situation, which helps to make the book feel authentic and sincere.
However, there are some digressions and almost ranting chapters that get a bit out of hand. For example, after reading the first pages, then scanning some more, on his subjective opinion on GMO’s, I decided to skip forwards to something more meaningful.

The introduction to microorganisms and its influence on fermentation is awesome and engaging, but then he gets a bit lots in the maze of homogenization of food crops and the evolutionary melding of culture in general; he loses the plot by quite a wide margin, with socio-economic consequences of agriculture through the centuries… and then he brings slavery into his fermentation book… All of these topics are worthy of being explored, discussed and written about, but perhaps a fermentation book is not the best platform. I understand that Katz believes in what he is saying (he really takes issue with global culture being oppressive in his opinion), but I didn’t expect to be getting a rally talk when I picked up a book on how to make miso, you know?

Anyway, four chapters later we’re back on track with clearly described, flexible approaches to wild fermentation. I like how Katz gives household alternatives to potentially expensive equipment as well as explaining their roles in the whole process.

I think I will experiment with easier ferments that have a faster yield (bread, cider, kombucha) and later on I’m looking forward to the more complex processes (wine, miso, etc).

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