Thursday, June 27, 2013

CREOLE FOOD - A MEETING OF WORLDS


Where roti forms part of what’s called Indian food, because of the curry and the typical ingredients and names (dhal, channa, etc.), the opposite of that – culturally speaking – is Creole food.

It’s traditionally the food of the black population, the descendants of the Africans brought by Spanish, French and British colonists to work on their plantations. Of course, there are (almost) no boundaries between these two primary parts of the population today – real or imaginary. Still, you’re more likely to find a plate of ochro rice and saltfish in a black household than a plate of curry chicken, dhal and rice. Most of it is mixed, as most people are mixed. Which is wonderful, especially for food lovers – you get it all.

Creole food, now, that’s special. It combines the worlds that collided when people from Africa were brought to the Caribbean and it combines the then and the now as well. Additionally, new influences have made their way into the creole kitchen because of the new groups of immigrants that have made their way to Trinidad over the last decades. 



What you see in the above picture is the tiniest of fractions of what you can get when you go to a restaurant that specializes in creole food, or to a local friend’s mom’s kitchen. Things like stew chicken or pork, barbecue, baked or jerk chicken and more ‘extravagant‘ dishes like, for example, stew pigtail (extravagant, because when you’re from a country where ‚extra bits‘ and intestines don’t feature in the local cuisine, well, then those things require a bit of courage to try for the first time) dominate the meat portion of the creole buffet.

Sides are pretty heavy on the carbs most of the time. The number one side dish is macaroni pie (it is NOT mac and cheese), closely followed by potato pie. Or so I’ve been told. You can get all kinds of what’s called provision: cassava, potatoes, sweet potatoes, plantains and the likes, all fried or stewed or boiled or steamed. Then there’s usually a variety of rice available, from plain white to fried with veggies. And of course, where there’s rice there’s also beans, so you will almost always find beans and lentils as well. Salads include (surprise) potato salad and macaroni salad, but you can also get plain green or coleslaw, just depends on where you’re looking. And there’s always that one big pot of ‚chunky veg‘ for those of us who don’t want to literally stuff themselves with pure carbohydrates.

My favourite food to accompany whatever I get, however, is callaloo. I don’t know why I can’t find a picture of callaloo right now, but it’s easy enough to describe: it’s green. Like a thick soup, it is the best thing to dip your potatoes or rice or veggies into to make it all tastier and to make sure you don’t choke on it if you’ve chosen the sauce-free, dry versions. It’s a bit like spinach and the seasoning you taste most strongly in it is garlic, but I strongly advise that you just go and try it. Trust me on this one, you won’t regret it.

There’s a place called El Pecos on Ariapita that is very good for trying and tasting a variety of creole dishes, because you don’t have to settle on one plate off a menu, but can put together your own mix in a self-serve buffet and then pay by the pound. I’ve eaten there myself a few times and it was good every time and I have friends who take all their international visitors there to allow them to eat themselves through the myriad creole dishes like The Very Hungry Caterpillar through all that fruit and candy. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

ROTI


This one is especially for all you vegetarians and vegans, I’m convinced you’ll love it. You can have this with meat, of course, but this is the vegetarian food, so that’s the aspect I’ll focus on. 

The term ‘roti‘ really refers to the pancake/crepe-like, bread-like thing that accompanies various curried or stewed vegetables and legumes. It’s big, thin and there are three versions of it (that I know of). Dhalpourie is large, round and it consists of two layers, with ground dhal (split peas) in between them. It’s very yummy and my personal favourite. Uncommon Caribbean has a nice and very heart-warming article on how it’s made. Buss up shut is the next version of roti, it’s pretty much the same as dhalpourie but without the ground dhal in the middle. It’s also very good, but I find it’s heavier than dhalpourie, maybe because it’s a little thicker and it's also made with more fat, so it's greasier. The last one I know about is sada roti, which is often eaten for breakfast. I believe it’s smaller in diameter than the other two and it’s dryer, but I’m not sure [This has now been confirmed and it's dryer because it's the one with the least fat in it - but when it's well made it's fluffy, so now you know!]. I haven’t had that one myself, but it must be really good. I know a guy who once said he wouldn’t marry a girl unless she knew how to make sada roti (and not just make it, it would have to be good too, of course).

There’s a whole variety of what you can eat with your roti: Channa, a thick and creamy chickpea concoction with pieces of potato, almost like a very, very thick soup. Bodi, that’s green beans cut into small pieces. Pumpkin, which tastes somewhat sweet and is one of my personal favourites. Lentils, mango amchar, chatigne, bhagi callaloo, fry alloo and many other things. Really, there’s a wide variety.

And for the meat lovers out there, you don’t have to go all vegetarian, because there’s also the option of adding curried or stewed meat to it, like goat, chicken, duck or sometimes even shrimp. What you have to keep in mind here, though, is that the meat is not – I repeat, NOT – boneless. Unless you ask for boneless and pay extra, usually you will have to pick bones and sinews and all that fun stuff out of your food, and that’s assuming that the „boneless, please“ option is available at all. Kinda makes you rethink the whole eat meat idea, right?



My last roti lunch before I left Trinidad, dhalpourie with channa, pumpkin and bodi. 

As for the way to eat this, it is definitely easier than with doubles, for example. That’s because here you have options, which, with doubles, you don’t. If you get roti, you can choose between three ways of enjoying it.

You can get your roti in a box or on a plate, according to where you’re eating and if it’s for take-away or not. This means that you get all the fillings onto the plate or into the box and then you get the roti on the side. You then tear pieces off the thing and use said pieces as your cutlery. Yes, you eat with your bare hands. It’s a little messy, but I have yet to find a restaurant that sells roti that doesn’t have a sink right there for you to wash your hands when you’re done (really, right there, not even behind a door or anything). So you don’t have to worry about getting your hands clean again after you finish your meal. And let’s be honest, when you eat with your hands, food tastes just so much better. It’s the primal instincts that are awoken in the process, I guess.

You can get your roti in a wrap. That means you choose what kind of fillings you want and then you get those wrapped in the roti and can eat it like a big sandwich that you have to be super careful with, because it could fall apart at any moment, like a woman with hysterical tendencies that’s been under a lot of stress lately. This option is pretty handy when you want to eat your roti on the go, because with this you can kind of walk and eat at the same time. Don’t do that, though, it’s not good for you. And the activity would distract you from how good your food is, we don’t want that.

Last and definitely not recommended at all option: you can be uber-civilized and get your roti (open or in a wrap) with a knife and fork. Then you can carefully dissect it all and make sure you don’t get any sauce or grease on your fingers and you won’t have to wash your hands or your face after. But you’ll be on your own with that one, I’ll pretend I don’t know you.

There are hundreds of roti shops all over Trinidad and you also get roti in other places in the Caribbean; I’ve had it in Suriname and in Grenada, for example. It’s very wide spread. I’ll still recommend one place to you because it’s one of my favourites in Trinidad and it’s great when you’re out exploring the island and you want to stop for roti on the way from North to South or from South to North. Very close to Freeport, right on the Solomon Hochoy Highway, there’s the Hi-Way Roti Shop. It’s easy to spot from the highway and not too complicated to get to (you can’t stop right on the road, of course, you have to exit and drive there from the other side) and it’s very good. Their dhalpourie with goat is said to be extremely good, my personal favourite there is the vegetarian, because they almost always have pumpkin.

Pepper, of course, is important when eating roti – well, it’s important with almost every kind of food you’ll get in Trinidad. If you get it in a wrap, ask for the amount of pepper you want to put right inside. If you get it open, there’s usually pepper sauce you can put on your plate so you can dip your food in bite by bite. If you order with knife and for, you can ignore this paragraph, because you probably can’t handly pepper anyways.

Sorry, but silverware is for sissies. I’m strict on that one.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

STREET FOOD


Next up, STREET FOOD: DOUBLES AND PIES

Unless you’re a Trini or have been to Trinidad, you’re probably a little confused right now and wondering if I’m just saying random words at you to mess with your head. No. I wouldn’t do that to you. Doubles are sold on lots and lots of street corners in the morning and at night. You won’t find them at lunchtime or in the afternoon, or at least you shouldn’t. I was told that if you find a doubles man in the afternoon then his doubles are probably already cold and not very good (which is why he still has some left to sell that late). That goes for all the doubles vendors in the North, at least, I’m not sure about Central and South, because I’ve had very good doubles there in the afternoon as well. I guess they get them from a different source.

They’re breakfast food. And drunk food. The same goes for pies. Those are also sold on street corners, by the same guys who sell the doubles: alloo pie (potato), baigan pie (eggplant), etc. There are lots of varieties and they take lots of different forms, but they have one thing in common: They are so incredibly bad for you! But you’ll still eat them. 


The top doubles has channa and chadon beni, the bottom one has those two and mango sauce. Both are with pepper. 

The pie is alloo (potato) and is filled with channa, chadon beni and slight pepper. 

Doubles are little, deep-fried pieces of fluffy let’s-call-it-bread-because-I-don’t-know-what-else-to-call-it made from white flour and chickpeas. They’re topped with channa, chadon beni, mango sauce and sometimes other condiments. And pepper. It’s very hard to explain to you how best to eat them, but I always tell people to see it as a game. You get points for everything you actually eat, minus points for what lands on the ground or on yourself and you win if more than 50% actually ends up inside of you. Pies are usually easier to eat, but it’s also a very messy affair. It’s all greasy, flavourful and – depending on how much pepper you asked to get – it’ll set fire to your insides. For beginners, I recommend ‚no pepper‘, you might get some looks for that, but don’t worry about that, it’s your body and your health, after all. If you like hot and spicy food, but you’re not sure how much you can handle, ask for ‚slight pepper‘. That’s my standard order, because even though I love hot pepper, I don’t want to injure myself. If you’re really hard-core or you’re sick and nothing has been able to clean your sinuses, go for ‚heavy pepper‘. But, really, don’t. I saw a big man eat a doubles with heavy pepper three days ago and I saw him sweat and cry. Really, just don’t.

All that grease and (possibly) hot sauce are what make doubles (and pies) the perfect night food. 

Here’s why:

You were at Shaker’s or at Frankie’s (or anywhere else on the Avenue), drinking with your friends and arguing heatedly about whether or not the Prime Minister is doing a good job and what’s going to happen to the Trinidadian arts and music scene over the next years if the rewards system doesn’t change. You sang along falsely to a lot of the songs you heard (they’re all your “faaaaaaavourite“ that night) and even got up to dance like nobody’s watching two or three times, now you’re hungry. So you stumble out of the bar, onto the street and you see a small congregation of equally wobbly people on the next corner. Hallelujah! You can barely make it there and you can barely count out the eight dollars you’ll need for your two doubles, but you just so manage to get there and then you order your doubles, one you just stuff straight into your mouth and the other is hovering in front of you in the hand of the vendor (who knows that you need that kind of assistance, he sees this all the time and he won’t judge you). As soon as the last bite of the second one is swallowed (because the second one you don’t wolf down, that one you actually chew), you feel better. The world isn’t spinning anymore, you’re feet are really and for sure touching the ground again and you know that you’ll make it home and into your bed without any incidents. Unless you go back to Shaker’s or Frankie’s (or anywhere else on the Avenue), that is.

This explains why they’re good for the post-lime hunger, but I said they were also good as a breakfast food. And it’s true. When you’re out to get a taxi or a maxi to go to university or work, a doubles or two (or even more if you’re that hungry) is the perfect option. Various food groups combined in a small meal, handy (kind of) and cheap at only four dollar a piece – it’s great. And the best thing about them is that they’re for everyone, because doubles as well as pies are vegetarian!

No, that was a lie. Yes, they’re vegetarian but that’s not the best thing about them. The best thing about them is taking somebody out to eat a doubles for the very first time and taking tons of hilarious pictures of their struggle.

It’s really funny, seriously.

My go-to doubles vendor on the Avenue (Ariapita in Woodbrook, that is) is the one on the corner of Cornelio and Avenue. The main reason for that is that he’s right by Shaker’s, which is on the opposite side of Cornelio, on that same corner. But he’s also very good, so that’s another plus. In Saint James, there’s a very good one that usually sets up his stand right in front of the Standard on Western Main Road. And there’s another good one a few blocks further towards town, on the corner with Benares, I think, or Agra. If you’re in Chaguanas, the little doubles stand in the far right corner of the market is very good, but that’s for during the day, while the market is open.

Pies, as previously mentioned are usually sold at the same place where you get doubles, at least in the morning, not sure about the middle of the night. And then you will get people walking the streets or squares of Port of Spain yelling „hot pies“, but beware. Those are different kinds of pies, pastry pockets filled with meat, cheese, potato or even sausage – not like the ones I described above.

Next time you’re out early and haven’t had breakfast yet, or you feel for a little snack or you want to prevent a bad hangover after a night out on the town, think of me and get some doubles! You can thank me later.

And if you’ve tried doubles, but they’re just too hard to eat, you have a whole range of other options for street food: the Middle East is very present in Trinidad nowadays, because of the Syrian and Lebanese (and other, but mainly those) immigrants. What does that mean? Gyros, gyros, gyros!

Monday, June 24, 2013

BAKE AND SHARK


First and most importantly: BAKE AND SHARK – a treat unique to the island. 

You know why this is the first item even though it’s not as wide-spread as all the others. You know, because you have heard about this before. From me. You’ve either read about it on this blog and already seen pictures of it. Or you’ve heard me proudly talk for half an hour about how Richard from Richard’s Bake and Shark got to know and recognize me and knew what my ‚usual‘ was because I’d become a bit of a regular at his beachside place during a time where I went up to the North Coast almost every week. Or you never needed to hear or read anything, you understood it all fully when you saw my eyes glaze over and my mouth form the faintest, most blissful little smile at the mere mention of Maracas Beach, where Bake and Shark is freshest and best. 

And now you want to try it too. 

So you take a car and you drive up to Maracas, away from the gulf and into the Northern Range and then down towards the Caribbean, to go on a quest for a sandwich of your own. You park your car and walk over to the little row of huts opposite the white(-ish) beach, where bellies roar opposite where the waves roar. You get in line at Richard’s. It’s a long line, but it’s worth it, it’s just more proof of how high the quality and how heavenly the taste are. Now it’s your turn. You order a bake and shark. Fried pieces of shark filet in a fluffy piece of fried bake. Sounds like a lot of fried stuff? Well, maybe. But you don’t eat this every day (more like once every few months if you’re like me, or maybe even only once ever if you’re visiting) and don’t worry, you’ll get to freshen it up in a second. So you’ve got your sandwich now, you paid the 30 dollars TT (What a steal!) and you really want to bite into it already, but instead you turn around and get into the next line. The one that snakes around the dressings and condiments. A whole array of sauces (like mango, garlic, tamarind, ketchup and hot pepper) and add-ons (like lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber slices and chunks of pineapple) the size of a dining room table. All for you! Last, you get yourself a drink. Then, finally, you go sit down somewhere private, where nobody can disturb you and your sandwich, and you dig in. Bite after bite after bite of everything that’s good in this world channelled into your lunch. Yes. 

I usually get shark without the bake and then accompany it with just ketchup and hot pepper, lettuce and cucumbers and, if there is any, chunks of pineapple.


I may be biased, but I swear I’m not exaggerating. Okay, maybe. But just a little bit. Go try it for yourself. If you’re concerned about the fact that you’re eating a shark and sharks are an endangered species, well there are options. I was told that it’s not a problem, because local fishermen do the fishing, there’s not many big fisheries who empty the seas at ridiculous speeds. And you can always just try it once and then never again, just for the experience. If you don’t want to do that, I fully understand. In fact, I thank you for it. Because it means you’re environmentally conscious and that’s great. Or, maybe, you just don’t like fish, that can be an issue too. Well, right behind Richard’s, there’s Asha’s. They have other kinds of fish for those who don’t like shark and chicken for those who don’t like any kind of fish and plain portions of fries for vegetarians and vegans. And you can get a plain bake, or bake and veggies or bake and cheese at Richard’s too. So don’t worry. You won’t starve at the beach. 

I really do recommend trying it at least once. It’s worth it. 

EATING TRINI


“Eating Trini“, not “Eating Trinis“. No ‘s‘ there! I’m not advocating cannibalism; I’m not that nuts (yet). No, this post is about all the delicious local Trinidadian food you will find when you are on the island. It surrounds you, it can be obtained almost everywhere and at almost any time, as far as my experience goes. And, really, it’s very good. 

It is also very intense. In terms of flavour and calorie content. Therefore, other very appropriate names for this post might have been „Weight Watcher’s Hell“, „How to gain 20 kilos in under a month“, or „No, I’m not hungry, but, yes, I will eat“. 

I’m extremely lucky that I have, over time, developed a lot of willpower when it comes to eating – or not-eating, really. Otherwise I probably would have gained a lot of weight and I would have overeaten every single time an opportunity presented itself. 

What I want to tell you about are some of the most typical Trinidadian foods, the ones you will find on many, many street corners, in every city, town and village. The ones everybody loves. Or should love, according to me and many of my friends. I will not mention every single dish there is, because I haven’t eaten every single dish there is and I think I might get you obese and diabetic by just making you read about the bulk of it. So, I’m limiting this to my favourites combined with the essentials. 

Also, this is food only. No drinks. You’ll have to wait a while for the rum and the juices and the rum and the coffee and the rum and the soft drinks and the rum. 

Another disclaimer: I am not including fast food in this, unless you count the street food as fast food, which I don’t. I’ve mentioned before that KFC and Subway are hugely popular in Trinidad – the KFC in Independence Square, Port of Spain, is said to be among the busiest in the whole world. Other fried chicken chains include Royal Castle Chicken, Church’s Chicken, Jap’s and Chirpee’s and on top of that there are hundreds of small non-chain fried chicken places. Yes, fried chicken is super important. And then there’s Mario’s and Boomer’s and Burger King and there are even two McDonalds, so no matter where you’re from you’ll find something that you recognize. Even chains like Wendy’s, Pollo Tropical, TGIF, Pizza Hut and Ruby Tuesday’s have made their way to Port of Spain. BUT that is not special to the island. It is the case all over the Caribbean and this here is about Trinidad only, so I want to concentrate on the food that is local not international, traditional not completely new and – most importantly – good not low-quality. 

Let’s get to it. 


Sunday, June 23, 2013

PASEO DE OLLA - in Austria!


Here's the explanation you've been waiting for. How did a Colombian end up in Hell? This post will unravel the mystery. Although, maybe, it'll just open up even more questions than we all started out with... who knows? 

Leo is in Austria to do a course at the FH Technikum Wien so he can be the best and the smartest and the most well-informed of all in his field of work. While in Vienna, he's staying with two very good friends of mine, Iris and Wolfgang, who agreed to host him in their apartment. But I told you this before, so I'm not going to tell you again. Well, technically I already did a second ago. Shut up. Just keep reading! 

Iris and Wolfgang are going to Peru on Monday to travel around for a while, her for the umpteenth time, him for the first. I'm excited for them because I'm sure they're going to have a wonderful few weeks there, but I'm also a little sad because I just got back and now they're already leaving so we didn't get to do much together. Leo is leaving as well, but we'll still have next weekend, so that's not so bad. 

Still, to make the most of the time that we're all in the same country at the same moment, I invited them to come visit me in Illmitz while I was there. It's an immensely beautiful place; all of Burgenland is wonderful, but my Seewinkel (the area where my two villages are) is especially precious. The weather forecast had promised sunshine, high temperatures, a light breeze and no rain until the evening for Saturday, so I proposed they drive down to meet me at my grandma's house, from where we could go to the lakeside to enjoy the weather and swim in what's often called "the sea of the Viennese" ("das Meer der Wiener"). 

To get Leo on board I said we could make it into a paseo de olla and he picked up on the idea and actually made it possible by cooking for all of us! 

A paseo de olla, or Pot Road Trip as comedian Andrés López Forero translates it, is a very Colombian thing. On colombia.travel it is described saying "donde haya agua en Colombia la gente se mete, se moja (hasta con ropa), cocina y come". That means that wherever there is water in Colombia, the people get in, get wet (even with their clothes on), cook and eat. Weekends and holidays are when the paseo de olla typically happens: the whole family (parents and children, aunts and uncles and all the cousins, even the grandparents) gets into the car and drives out to a close-by river or to the sea, if they live on the coast. They bring a lot of food with them, sometimes prepared already but usually to be cooked on site. One of the dishes most typical on a paseo de olla is the sancocho, a hearty soup that consists of the following: caldo de gallina (chicken broth), presas (pieces of chicken, preferrably gallina vieja), herbs and spices (most importantly cilantro and ají), papa (potatoes), yuca (cassava), plátano verde o maduro (plantains) and mazorca (whole cobs of corn). It's good, let me assure you of that. Addicionally, there can also be things like rice to eat on the side or add into the soup and then you can also get aguacate (avocado) or hogao (a thick salsa made of tomato chunks, onion and garlic - typically caleño, from Cali), among other things. It's all up to your taste and preferences. The sancocho is transported to the river in a big pot - hence the name of the activity. You also bring plates and spoons and forks and knives, more food, drinks, fruit and sweets. And a football (maybe even a frisbee or badminton gear), camping chairs and towels, whatever else you might need or want. It's a pretty full car, to be sure.

Our version was a little lighter. Here's what we had: 


Sancocho de gallina con arroz, mazorca, aguacate y hogao. Fresh bell peppers, gummi candy and biscuits. Local cloudy apple juice, water and beer. Plates, spoons, napkins, a picnic blanket. Our swimming stuff. And lots of sunshine.

We found a spot in the shade to set up our picnic and then proceeded to enjoy the wonderful lunch prepared by Leo, our Colombian ambassador for the afternoon. It was a taste of home for him, a taste of a home for me and a glimpse into what Colombia is like for Iris and Wolfgang, because they haven't been to Colombia. Yet. 

My plate: sancocho de gallina with rice, corn and a lot of hogao, no aguacate because I don't like it.

The three wonderful people I got to spend that afternoon with.

I'm really glad those two not only took time out of their busy schedule (packing and getting ready for their big trip) to come spend a few hours with me by the lake, but on top of that drove about 100km each way to do so! They're awesome. 

A little while after eating - but definitely NOT half an hour - we all got into the lake. It had been a long time since the last time I swam in it. The last times I went it was either wintertime or I went to just walk around or sit in the sun, never to actually get in the water and swim. I can't believe what I've been missing, I'm such an idiot for not having taken better advantage of living right next to this piece of paradise! 

The first moment was one of great difficulty, because the water seemed very cold. Leo got in much quicker than the rest of us and he was really "kind" and "helped" Iris and me into the water, getting us accustomed to the temperature by splashing us. Gotta be honest, though, it really did help! And the rest was fun and enjoyment. At least for me, although I think the three of them really liked it too. 

Neusiedler See is an incredibly muddy lake, because it's so shallow, so that's something you have to get used to if you haven't been in it before. But the water is generally clean and has really good quality, even though you can't see anything if you dive and open your eyes. You need trust to swim in that lake, but it is definitely worth it. 

So, that was my little piece of Colombia in Austria - the paseo de olla austriaco. 

Now that I think about it... yes! It's also a piece of Trinidad at the same time, because Trinis also like driving to the beach or to a river to bathe and cook and eat and listen to music and play around. A little thing that now unites my three favourite places: Trinidad, Colombia and Austria. 

I hope that more of these paseos will happen in the future. 


PS: So how did the Colombian end up in Hell? Had to send him there, because he splashed me with cold water. --- And it helped me make it into the water more quickly, so I paid him back by showing him something beautiful!

GO TO HELL!!!


Have you ever wondered what hell is like? Where it is located? What you have to do to get there? 

The internet, of course, offers various answers. 

Merriam-Webster defines hell as "a nether world in which the dead continue to exist", a "place or state of misery, torment, or wickedness" or a "place or state of turmoil or destruction". The Urban Dictionary tell us that hell is a "place where you get poked with pitchforks by red men with horns and goatlegs and listen to the Village People sing for the rest of eternity" or a "computer equipped with Windows 95 and missing the Ctrl+Alt+Delete keys". Usually, you'll be told that hell is located in the depths of the Earth and that you have to be a very bad person to get there. 

I am going to tell you something different, something that might surprise you. 

What is hell like? Hell is a very nice place. It's pretty flat, no hills or even mountains. It lies at the border of a very shallow but very large lake and itself contains a few small salt water lakes, regularly dried-out biotopes that are (almost) unique and very important to that region. It's a natural paradise, partly because of the small salt water lakes, partly because it's one of the spots that migratory birds visit on their journeys and partly because of the climate. It's not as hot there as typical images of Hell would have you believe. Instead, it's warm in summer and mildly cold in winter and almost always sunny, it doesn't rain a lot there. Wine grows in Hell, as well as wheat and corn and lots and lots of trees and flowers. There's also a restaurant and wine tavern there and it's a very popular area for bycicle tours, long walks and even fishing and kite flying as well as surfing. Yes, Hell truly is a very nice place. There's no denying it. 

Where is hell located? It is located in Burgenland, Austria, in the territory of the village of Illmitz, which is the largest village in Burgenland, by area. If you look for it on Google Maps, you'll see. If you don't want to look for it, here are two screenshots of the map so you can see it while continuing to be a lazy bum (you might go to hell for being so lazy - if you're lucky). 

 Illmitz, Burgenland.

Hell in German is Hölle. That's what you'll see on maps and signs. 

That very shallow (median depth of 1 metre) and very large (approximately 315km² at the moment) lake I mentioned above is the Neusiedler See, the second largest endorheic lake in Europe (after lake Balaton in Hungary), part Austrian and part Hungarian, but one hundred percent beautiful. It is the largest lake in Austria and not only is it (including the area around it) a National Park, the area surrounding it was also proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. That means that Hell is considered by the UNESCO to be "of special cultural or physical significance". Makes sense, right? 

What do you have to do to get there? You might be expecting an answer like "You have to live a life of sin." But no. What you have to do to get there depends on where you are right now. If you're somewhere other than Austria, you have to take a plane or a train or a ship or a bus or a car to Austria first. If you're in Austria already, you have to make your way to Burgenland, specifically to Illmitz. From Vienna and by car, that would mean driving south on the motorway A4 and then taking the exit Gols/Weiden. Then you go straight at the big roundabout, pass right through Podersdorf and Illmitz is the next village. If you go all the way, you'll have passed Hell, which lies a few kilometres outside the village itself, to the North. If you're already in Burgenland, maybe even in Illmitz, you can take your bike to hell. It's really not far at all. Or the bus, Hell has its own bus stop. That's how nice it is, people really want to go there! 

Now let's look at this more closely, at its implications. If you consider the fact that my family is from Illmitz (partly, the other half is from Pamhagen, just around the corrner) and I grew up there and Hell is a part of Illmitz... well... basically... you could say: I am from Hell. 

Don't be scared of me now, though. I'm still the same person you know and (hopefully) like. Just because I come from hell doesn't mean I am a demon. It just means that whenever somebody gets mad at me and tells me to go to Hell, I get to say things like "Sure, can I borrow your car?" or "Good idea, I haven't seen my grandma in a while anyways". It drives them even madder! 

With it being part of the village but not being located inside, but next to it, I haven't spent all that much time there over the years. I have, however, gone there twice this weekend. After spending almost a year away from here, I wanted to (and had to) go visit my family as soon as the opportunity arose. That was this Friday and Saturday. And because a friend of mine, Yunus, who I met in Puerto Rico almost a year ago, happened to be in Vienna this weekend, I invited him to come along. Before taking him to the train station in Neusiedl yesterday afternoon so he could go meet another friend in St. Pölten and see more of our beautiful country, I put him through Hell. 

But don't worry, he loved it! 

And now he can tell everybody that he's been to Hell and made it back out alive. Without even a hint of a lie in it. Take that, all you people who think you have interesting travel stories. 

Later that same day, I did it all again. I also took Leo, who I mentioned in the last entry, to see Hell before we went to Vienna together. How did the boy from Colombia even get to Burgenland in the first place and how come he deserved to be sent to Hell? I'll tell you just now. And, yes, he loved it too. 

I hope to go again soon, because for some reason I failed to take pictures the two times I went this weekend. The only picture I have is this one of some vineyard rows. It should give you a pretty good impression of what Hell is like, though. 


Dear everyone, GO TO HELL!!!

Settling in again - slowly!


Being back in Austria has been really interesting so far. Not that there's anything new that I didn't know from before, but I'm re-adjusting and re-learning it all. 

It's the small things that get you, you know? I went to the supermarket on Wednesday morning and was feeling a little weird on the way there, like I was doing something wrong. Because I didn't have any euros, I had to pass by an ATM on the way and take out some money, but I couldn't for the life of me think how much would be a good amount. Arriving at the supermarket I realized why I'd been feeling a little weird - because my hands had been empty. I used to always go shopping with a basket or a bag of my own so as not to have to get any plastic bags, but I never did that in Trinidad and so I forgot. And the money question also dissolved itself into a moment of realization and a quick thought of "Oh gods, I'm such a dork!", because I never, ever used to take out money to go shopping. I never brought cash to a supermarket, just paying for everything with my card. Remembered that too late. 

But all the memories are coming back now, the machine is re-adjusting itself, re-wiring the bits and re-configuring the software to go from OS-Trinidad back to OS-Austria. 

One of the first things I did that same day was to do some laundry. I didn't have much so I got to throw in my bag that I hadn't washed before, mainly because I was scared it would break. I'd made it myself, after all, with no previous experience in bag-making. Now you can surely imagine how surprised - shocked, almost - I was to see that it came out perfect! 


Machine-washed: no broken stitches, no loose threads!

I know you're not supposed to feel proud of yourself, but I admit that I do. I'm proud that this thing that I made myself without any experience whatsoever is still in perfect condition. No matter what I put in there and how heavy and stuffed it was, it held. No matter if I used it in the blazing sun or in the rain, it held. And now I washed it in the machine and then hung it out to dry and it's still holding! And all I can think is "wow, I made this" and I'm just baffled. Success and celebration! 

Wednesday evening took me to a different part of Vienna, where I visited some friends at their house. That included a great surprise for another friend of mine: Leo from Cali, Colombia! He's in Vienna at the moment for a course he's doing to better his career options and staying with my two friends who graciously agreed to host him for his three visits to Austria when I asked if anybody had some space for him a few months ago. A big bunch of awesome and lovely people, all of them. We had some dinner with more people and then all went to the beach. 

But, how? Austria is a landlocked country! 

Yes, but Austrians are very resourceful people and we make things happen even where others couldn't. So we might not have any access to the sea, but we still have beaches. One of them is called Sand in the City, a place where in the winter we skate on ice and that's filled with sand and little cocktail bars and lots of chairs and tables in the summer. We had wine and beer and cocktails (well, each had one of those things, we didn't all have everything) and enjoyed the sand between our toes for a while. Then it was time to head home, because it was late and - almost didn't remember that either - the metro does not run all night during the week! 

Thursday took me to a next beach, kind of. A natural one; no sand, just grass. But unlike the fake beach at Sand in the City, this one actually was by the water. You know that the Danube flows through Vienna, right? We have the Old Danube and the New Danube and just off the old one there's a little body of water called Kaiserwasser where some friends of mine went to swim in the water and chill on the grass. After I got all my chores and errands done for the day, I joined them there. 


Kaiserwasser is right by the so called UNO City, where the UN has its seat in Vienna.

It was supposed to be the hottest day of the year so far, with temperatures of up to 38°C, but they didn't rise all that high in Vienna. We only reached 35°C, or maybe 36°C. Still, it was very hot. Therefore, a little space in the trees' shade for our things and our towels - and by extension ourselves - was very much appreciated. Then my friend Josef and I just spent about two hours chatting about the year gone past since last we met, what had happened and what was new and joining the others for a swim in the cool water.  

After, instead of going straight home to take a shower and wash nature off my skin (euphemism, meaning bits of flowers and trees, algae, earth and dog hairs - blegh), I packed up my things and went downtown. When I say downtown, I mean the first district. In this case, specifically, Stephansplatz. 

There, I met a next friend of mine, Jakob. We went to have ice cream at one of the favourite places of the Viennese: Zanoni. It's located on Rotenturmstraße, right between Stephansplatz and Schwedenplatz, between the centre of downtown and the Donaukanal river, which forms the border between the first and the second district. 

It was there that I realized that even though I'd been gone for a while and had many things to remember and re-learn, there was also a lot of Vienna left inside of me. Walking to places without looking around much, doing or saying certain things without having to think about them before, just knowing. That was a relief, because it means that, yes, I really am still at home here. 

I might still make mistakes, like thinking I could go shopping whenever and being completely thrown off when told that the supermarkets all close around 7 or 7.30PM, or even almost holding my hand out and giving a little wave at the bus driver when I see the bus pull up to the stop (Pulled my hand back at the last second, that would have been embarrassing!). But I'm getting there and the truth is that I really already am there with one foot. 

All is well, Austria is welcoming me back and it's good to be here again. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Long Way Home


There is no melancholy in this, maybe a little bit in the story, but definitely not in the title. It has nothing to do with Norah Jones either. This is just me telling you, in as matter of fact a manner as possible, how I traveled from Trinidad to Austria, via the USA and Germany. 

On Sunday morning, superlucky me was picked up from home at 8.45AM by my dear friend Andrew. I already knew what a great guy he is, but now you have the official proof too: he got up very early on a weekend just to drive me to the airport. Kwesi also came with and when Andrew had to turn right around after dropping me off to get back to his place and take his Dad out for Father's Day brunch, he stayed with me and waited while I checked in so we could have breakfast together. 

Bumpy check-in and bumpy breakfast. First, the people at the counter wouldn't give me a window seat and instead gave me an aisle seat for the 3.5hr flight from POS to FLL. Not a problem, you say? Well, unfortunately, it is for me, because the way I cope with claustrophobia on planes (induced not by small spaces but by being surrounded by too many people too closely) is to just pretend that the sky is also part of my seat and then proceed to lean very far away from the other people and just discretely ignore them unless they strike up a conversation. That way, I can meet people on planes and chat nicely, while not being bothered by shoulders, elbows or knees touching my shoulders, elbows or knees. It works. The second one is a very long story that involves Subway employees and mayonnaise and it wouldn't have been half as much of a problem if I hadn't been completely stressed out and already anxious about the aisle thing. And about leaving, of course. 

That's where Kwesi's being there went from nice to fortunate and pretty much life-saving. Figuratively speaking, of course. Let me try to find a nice picture to paint for you here. He wrapped himself in a blanket of calmness and covered his face with a scarf of reasoning and then walked into the dangerous sandstorm of my anger (about the sandwich, I know that it's ridiculous) and anxiety (about the flight, which triggered that anger), the whipping bitch-winds lashing at him and tugging at his covers. But instead of backing down and just leaving me to stew in my own bad feelings, he kept going, bravely and stubbornly, until he made it all the way to me, past the storm. And he took me out with him. As in, he calmed me down. Thanks to him I got to have a pleasant last morning in Trinidad, instead of a gruesome one, weighed down by not unnecessary but unnecessarily prolonged negativity. 

Okay, enough with the mental pictures.

How about a real picture? 


This cool guy is printed on the Rituals coffee cups. I call him Beano Suave. 

After a sandwich, a coffee and a brief good-bye, I went through security and walked to my gate. I did, however, not walk off looking as elegantly and chill as Beano Suave in the picture. I'm still learning. Also, I don't have shades. 

Once at the gate, I decided to just ask again about getting a window seat. At the counter I'd been told that the flight was completely at capacity and every window seat had been previously reserved (how, I don't know, it didn't work when I tried) and therefore it was impossible to change my seat. At the gate, however, they simply took my ticket, typed something into the computer and changed my seat for me. Without any question. No hassle. It took like 20 seconds. 

Curious... but who cares, it's behind us now. 


 This is the last picture I took in Trinidad.

The flight then went very smoothly, we landed on time, the queue at immigration was short, the queue at customs was inexistent and I got a trolley for my backpack so I didn't have to carry it. And because Andrew is not only sweet himself but also has sweet friends, he got me in touch with his friend John, who came all the way to the airport to pick me up. We met there, then he took me to my hotel (I booked a room for myself this time, not a bed in my usual hostel) and then waited for me while I checked in and changed into a new shirt. And then, with a quick detour through his office where he still had to finish a few things, we went to one of the best places you can eat in all of town: Chipotle! Yes! CHIPOTLE! It's so good... hmm. I got a salad bowl and he got a burrito and then we sat in silence and enjoyed our food, only continuing the (super pleasant and also funny) conversation afterwards. 

Cool thing that happened there, when I paid the girl at the check-out admired my wallet, saying it was "really cute and really cool" and wanted to know where she could get one for herself. Yay! 

After dinner, John took me back to the hotel and then headed home himself, because it was already after 7PM and he had to work again the next day. I went for a little walk and bought two big things (a can and a bottle) of Arizona Iced Tea in the convenience store of the gas station a few blocks from the hotel, then went back to go online and let everybody know I was in Miami, as planned. The place itself, Miami Springs Inn, was surprisingly nice for something listed as a motel. I'd never stayed in one of those before and only knew them from TV, so I didn't know what to expect. But it was adequately equipped, clean and as close to the airport as they had advertised. 

The next morning I got ready, packed everything back up, checked out and then took a taxi to the airport, because even though it was close, I didn't want to take the bus with all my stuff. 

Once arrived at the right departures area, I checked to see if the airberlin counters were already open and then headed to the Starbucks for breakfast, because they were not. 


Sorry, Rituals, you know I love you, but I was really happy to get Starbucks coffee again. 

I played around on the computer for a while to kill some time and then headed back to the airberlin counters where I was informed that they would be open from 11.55AM, in about 20min, but that I could get in line already if I wanted to. I was the only one there, so I dumped my bags at the front of the line, sat down on the ground and got the laptop back out. 20 minutes later, right on time, check-in began and I got my boarding passes. Two, because there was one for the flight MIA-DUS and another for the flight DUS-VIE. Window seats for both. Success! 

Then I wandered around for a while in search of a bookstore, because not being able to load a new book onto your Kindle is the perfect excuse to finally buy a real book again! And the girl at the bookstore also loved my wallet, which made me really happy - for the second time in under 24h. 

After going through security I tried finding the gate D-twenty-something (I had it written down, but I don't have that note anymore) because there's a Juan Valdez there. I really wanted to get some Juan Valdez coffee, to drink if it was a café or to take with me and make at home if it was a shop. Sorry, Starbucks, you know I love you, but comparted to Juan Valdez you're Rituals. Unfortunately, after walking for 15 minutes towards that gate I came to a sign that said to take the airport train from there - no other way of reaching it - and I decided to abort my mission, because that was too far to stray with a transatlantic flight to catch. Sad moment. 

Instead, I strolled back to my own gate area and had a small lunch there, then sat down at the gate itself to wait with my new book. 

Another calm flight, only slight turbulences, good entertainment selections, enough food and lots to drink - I can definitely recommend airberlin for long-distance flights. Airplane food is usually not something to talk about, but when you fly with a European airline after spending almost a year outside Europe (and also not in the States or Canada), well then you get a little nostalgic when you see things like 'real' cheese again. 


Président. I almost cried.

The only downside was that for some reason I couldn't sleep and only managed to for about an hour a bit before landing. The other 9hrs I stayed awake, watching movies and doing this: 


I didn't have internet to post straight away, but I prepared a few things that I will post over the next few days.

The waiting in Düsseldorf was short and before I knew it, I was off the ground again and on my way to Vienna. On my way to Vienna! ON MY FREAKING WAY TO FREAKING VIENNA, FREAKING AUSTRIA!!! OMG! Although, actually, that's not how I felt. I was calm the whole time. Very calm. Only when I looked out the window and actually saw the city below me as we approached the airport from the Northwest, I started feeling a little anticipation. Or something like that. I remember looking down and thinking "Hmm... interesting". I don't know what that means. 

Then it slowly started to change as I made my way out of the airport, towards the arrivals area where my mom was supposed to wait for me. I had the weirdest feeling of everything suddenly going too quickly as I walked under the first sign marking "Exit Vienna" the first time. 


"Wait, whoa, wait. Are you sure? Are you sure? Are you sure? Really? Whoa... wow... hmmm... ... whoa..."

And I say supposed to wait for me like she didnt, but there she was, sure enough. Running through the arrivals hall, excited like a twelve-year-old at a Justin Bieber meet and greet. It was really nice to be received like that, it's always great to come back to a place after a long time and see how somebody's happy about it, happy to see you and have you close again. And she's not even the only one, the rest of the family and my friends are already in touch as well - homecoming worked out well. 

Or something like that. 

Because, actually, I didn't come home straight away. From the airport, we went to a shopping centre to get a phone card and a pair of shoes (because I still only had the flip flops) and some other essentials and then the most important thing of all, which had been number one of my ToDo list for coming back: eat a Tschisi. 

Tschisi is an ice cream that was highly popular when I was a kid, vanilla flavoured and yellow and in the shape of a piece of cheese, because 'tschisi' is how you would write 'cheesy' if you assumed it was German, not English. But for some reason it was discontinued a long, long time ago. Only there have been protests, petitions and lots of angry as well as pleading letters for years and the popsicle was brought back to freezer shelves this year. While I was gone! Oh no! So, of course, the first thing I did was to go into a supermarket, head straight to the frozen goods section and get that ice cream. Pay for it and eat it. Right away. No pictures of the ice cream itself, because there was no time!!!, but I have a picture of the wrapper, which looks the same as it did all those years ago. 


First meal: a piece of my childhood.

After all the shopping was done and I had a week ticket for the public transportation system and we had been to the bank and to the supermarket, we finally went home. No relaxing yet, though, because I still had to unpack, hand over gifts and get back online to inform people I had arrived, this time not in the States but in Austria. 

Later in the afternoon I went to see my dad as well and we got food together. It had to be something - like the cheese and Tschisi - that I couldn't get where I was before, so I settled on something very Austrian, very Viennese. Something that, usually, I don't eat very often, because it's unhealthy and I don't eat that much meat, but that was perfect for the evening after arriving. Leberkäse. Incidentally, and I do see a pattern here, that translates to 'liver cheese'. It's not, though, as far as I know made of liver or cheese. I don't know what it is, really. I don't think anybody knows, but it's good. 

 "Leberkäsesemmel mit Ketchup und Gurkerl"

After that I finished unpacking, prepared the laundry for washing the next morning and read some more in my new book until I finally felt tired enough to sleep, at about 10PM. Pretty late considering I'd only slept for one hour since Miami, but I felt it was better to stay up late than to sleep during the day and allow my inner clock to go crazy. By doing that, I woke up this morning at 7.30AM (no alarm) and have been feeling well all day. 


Did I have to take such a long and complicated trip? No. Were there shorter options? Yes, of course. But it would have been way more expensive, and this was fine. Can't spend too much, because I want to keep on moving, right? 

Long days, eventful days, days of change. 

Which I'm now slowly adapting to. 

Memories are coming back, life in Austria is slowly starting to make sense after an initial culture clash and a few (quiet) moments of confusion. But all in all it's good. And it's good to be here, if only for a while. 

But I'm off now, Vienna is waiting!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

RECAP - PART TWO


A little longer than planned, this commercial break. But I have an excuse! My excuse is that I got really entranced in this book I'm currently reading and I just was not able to put it down even for just a minute, much less for however long it would have taken me to write this while being distracted by every fibre of my body screaming at me to go back to reading. You understand, right? Of course you do. You're on this blog, that means you like to read too. 

Let's continue the blast from the past now. 

SEPTEMBER 2012 

SAINT LUCIA: September started out in Trinidad, but only really began when I hit the first new island I went to after my time on the mainland and the return to Trini. Well, really might be an exaggeration. Begin, too. Why? Because I was sick. Somehow, and I'm not sure how this is happening, I am sick around the time I leave Trinidad almost every time. This January was the only time I left healthy. All the other times - 2011, 2012, now - I was/am sick either right before leaving and during the trip, or it started while traveling and then I'd be sick in the new place. Usually, that's not much of a problem, because when I say 'sick', I'm really only talking about a cold, a little fever is the maximum. But in St. Lucia I wasn't that fortunate and "Ah, it's nothing, I just can't breathe properly" doesn't work, because St. Lucia is all ups and downs! I had one friend there, who lived in and around my little cottage  - because my room in the guesthouse was really a mini version of a house. Unfortunately, the majority of my time in St. Lucia wasn't as great as it could have been if I'd been in better shape - health-wise, that is. 

BARBADOS: The beginning of my time in Barbados showed some improvement, I wasn't sick anymore and the island is so flat, even if I had been it would have been less troublesome. And the place where I was staying was right next to the beach, as opposed to on the top of a high and steep hill, like in St. Lucia. But, because life isn't that simple, I encountered a whole new kind of trouble there. However, I still did my best to experience everything that was good about the island and can now say that yes, after several stopovers at BGI during previous trips (and we already learned that stopovers don't count), that time I finally really did visit Barbados. 

JAMAICA: Yes! That place was great! I had a really good time there and I'm so grateful for it because it was really necessary after the two low-energy places before it. Not that it was the places' fault, but... you know. Thinking about what had happened and where I was - because apparently Kingston is oh so dangerous -, I decided then to write a little bit about traveler's common sense. So, back to what was great. In Kingston, Jamaica, I finally got back to doing things my own way. My style of traveling. I stayed with a CouchSurfer (P, one of the coolest guys ever), who I got on with really well, we just clicked. He took me along when he went to hang out with friends and even when he went to spend time with his family and I went to explore the city while he worked. The rest of the time we spent at his place enjoying the pool or playing cards, both with rum. No hotels, no touristy things, no hassle. Just seeing the place with and through the eyes of a local person, which is my favourite thing to do when exploring. 

And then, after Jamaica came...

THE END. 

Of course, The End doesn't really mean the end. If you get what I mean. The trip wasn't even close to over at that point, but the trip part of the trip was. If you get what I mean. I didn't go back to Austria from Jamaica, I went to the US for another layover and then to Colombia and then to Trinidad, but it was different because I went to stay and live, not to visit. I left home (Austria) to travel around the Caribbean and then ended my crazy zigzag to go home (Colombia). And then I left home (Colombia) to go home (Trinidad and Tobago). And now I'm going home again (Austria), leaving home (Trinidad and Tobago). If you get what I mean. 

I'm still in reminisce-mode, still thinking back, watching all my adventures like little movies in my mind (I know, like a lunatic!). It's incredible how much I saw, how much I learned and how much I managed to grow in that time. I'm truly blown away. 

And now, 337 days after beginning that epic journey across three continents I am preparing for it to end. Only, of course, it won't. Not by a long shot. 

Where to next? 

I have no idea.