The traveler’s Instagram guide to understanding Jamaican slang

Other than the gaudy floral shirt, straw hat, ankle socks and sandals combination that so many people visiting the Caribbean seem to love, nothing screams TOURIST to us Jamaicans quite like the museum-worthy phrase – irie mon.

Are you guilty of either transgression? Here’s a friendly tip: It is way past the time to drop those two little words from your lingo. And please, go donate the Hawaii Five-O wardrobe castoffs to your closest charity right now!

So as not to leave you hanging, I’ve compiled a few phrases to help you ‘kick it’ with us locals, and impress the people you meet on your next trip. In each instance, I’ve also added Instagram posts from popular Jamaicans to help you get a better understanding of local context.

1. What a gwaan? OR How yuh stay?

Pronunciation: For what a gwaan – as it reads. For the second, use  a short ‘u’ sound.

Meaning: How are you? What’s happening?

Context: Use in conversation as a general greeting with someone who would be your peer.

Usain Bolt: World's Fastest Man
Usain Bolt, World’s fastest man

2. Parri OR bredrin

Pronunciation: Paa-ri and Bread-drin

Meaning: A buddy; friend. Parri Is gender neutral while bredrin is specifically used to refer to men. The female equivalent is sistren.

Context: You can show your street savvy by referring to your friends (old or new) and travel companions this way. Please note that if you’re speaking to Jamaicans under 30, it’s best to use parri. If you are engaging with persons older than that, bredrin or sistren is more common.

Kaci Fennel: Miss Jamaica Universe 2015
Kaci Fennel: Miss Jamaica Universe 2015.

3. Shampoo and condition OR looking sharp

Pronunciation: As it reads

Meaning: Well-dressed, nicely styled, looking good

Context: Out at a local bar or beach and feel like flirting? You can use it to compliment the object of your desires. (It’s likely that you will win a grin but don’t be surprised if the response to that might be, “yuh have lyrics, ennuh”, which loosely translated means “you are full of compliments but I am not sure they are genuine”.

Dutty Berry: Popular YouTube Vlogger
Dutty Berry: Popular YouTube Vlogger

4. It sweet

Pronunciation: As it sounds

Meaning: This is really good

Context: This phrase can be used in many settings – to refer to the feel good vibe you get  from a delicious meal, a good party, an outdoor concert, your favorite sports match etc.  For additional emphasis. add “yuh fret”.

lisa
Lisa Hanna: Miss World 1993 and current Government Minister of Youth & Culture

5. Mek wi reason

Pronunciation: As it sounds

Meaning: Let’s talk; as in have a heart-to-heart discussion

Context: A sit-down chat with friends or a group of people. Typically, this conversation will take a little time; it is not a quick exchange. It also can be used in reference to a discussion with someone senior and more experienced. Use it as a conversation starter with your hotel staff. It should bring a smile to the face of your tour guide on a day-long excursion, or the watersports team whose job is to entertain you on a long boat trip.

Tessanne Chin: Winner of NBC's Season 5 of The Voice
Tessanne Chin: Winner of Season 5 of NBC’s – The Voice

6. Big up

Pronunciation: As it sounds

Meaning: An indication of praise

Context: This phrase can be used to show thanks to all the hotel staff that made your stay wonderful.  Did the concierge give you great restaurant suggestions for dinner? Tell him, “big up my yute the food did sweet“. [My yute is equivalent to my compadre, my colleague etc.]  Did your housekeeper have your room cleaned on time?  Earn extra towels in your room the next day with a simple “Big up mi sistren”.  You can add “nuff respect” for emphasis.

Finally, Big up yuself (yourself) for completing your first Jamaican slang tutorial! Nuh seh nutten mi sistren or bredrin. (i.e. All is well)

Christopher Martin - singer
Christopher Martin – singer

Note: Jamaican slang changes frequently, as it is heavily influenced by our dancehall culture. So my Jamaican peeps, I know that this compilation is only the tip of the iceberg. Tell me, what are some of the good ones that I missed?

 

 

8 facts you probably didn’t know about Hong Kong…and should

I spent 48 hours in Hong Kong prior to a mainland China trip a few years ago. The stopover was part of a birthday gift to myself and I maximized every single minute of my time there. I liked it…and oh, how I wish I could have done more! Its pulse and vibrancy reminded me of Manhattan, New York – on more hilly terrain.

Hong Kong Skyline
Hong Kong Skyline

Here are 8 random things that I learnt. Depending on the purpose of your trip, they could impact your business or personal travel plans:

1. Just over 7 million people live on the island named for a “fragrant harbor”.  So when you think population compared to geographic size, think DENSE. That’s about 6,000 people per square mile! Of course, such a big city implies tons of traffic, crowded spaces – the works.

2. Due to its British colonial history, English was the country’s official language from 1883 to 1974 and several of the hospitality staff and persons in the business community speak it well. Outside of that, most people speak Cantonese.  (Mandarin is the main language in China).

Shopping area
Shopping area

3. The number eight is held in very high esteem. It rhymes with the Cantonese word for fortune therefore people associate it with good luck.  And they take it seriously! Everything with eight carries more prestige. What that means is, if you’re in town for a long stay don’t even think about renting space on the 8th and 18th floor of a building unless you’re prepared to pay a premium.

4. Looking to impress someone while there? Choose your wardrobe and gifts carefully. The color white symbolizes death. When in doubt, go with red.  Red means good fortune and joy.

Worker at a jade factory setting a ring.
Worker at a jade factory setting a ring.

5. According to locals, jade brings energy so bear that in mind when picking souvenirs for any of your friends or business partners that need a picker-upper (lol). The country is one of the leading exporters of jewelry; 2nd in the world after Italy. You can get many lovely pieces there.

HK currency
HK currency

 6. Try not to get confused by the currency. Three different banks issue the HK notes; hence the lack of uniformity in appearance.

7. Jackie Chan, possibly one of Hong Kong’s most famous natives, has a beautiful house in Repulse Bay (House #99). Don’t go looking for a Hollywood type tour though, you’ll only get as far as the gate.

8. Feng shui, the art of aesthetics that brings about harmonious balance is extremely important in Hong Kong’s culture. You’ll see it in the décor around you, and businesses who ignore its principles suffer as a result.

View from Victoria Peak on a cloudy day
View from Victoria Peak on a cloudy day

My tour guide told us a story about a restaurant owner whose patrons had access to excellent food in a great location that boasted breathtaking views of the city.  Sounds like a perfect scenario for a full house every night, right? Well, it was not. The owner nearly had to close his doors because of a lack of meal-seeking guests.

When he did some research to find out the source of the problem, he found out that the white color of the building and its candle shape were deterrents. People saw those elements as bad luck and refused to patronize the business for those reasons. He later consulted with a feng shui expert who told him to change the color and build a swimming pool on top of the restaurant. That balanced out perceptions and the place was abuzz with activity after that. GO FIGURE!  [That’s why learning about different customs and traditions is so fascinating to me]

Editor’s Notes:

During my short stay I saw some of the Old Territory. I also went to catch the view from Victoria Peak, and see Aberdeen Fishing Village, Repulse Bay(named after a British battleship) and the Stanley Market. Along the way, I stopped at a jewelry factory and saw a floating restaurant that can seat 2,600 people at capacity.

Floating restaurant
Floating restaurant

I enjoyed my scenic ride through the hills and asked why so much of the hillside was covered in concrete. The answer? It helped to prevent landslides in monsoon season.

My ride on the traditional sampan (water taxi) in Aberdeen and views of Deep Water Bay Beach were the most unique parts of my trip. You should try that.  The sampan took us through a floating village where wooden boats and fishing were, and still are, the order of the day. I read that the area was traditionally home to the Tanka and Hoklo clans who originated from the mainland coastal areas of Guangdong and Fujian.

Traditional sampan (water taxi)
Traditional sampan (water taxi)

Easily recognizable by their large-brimmed hats, these boat-dwellers were once forbidden to live on land or marry land people. They gave birth, married and died aboard their sampans and junks. Since the early 20th century they have had equal rights with land-dwellers and most now choose to live on land in the high-rise apartment blocks for the benefit of their children’s education. But some still remain on houseboats in the harbor. [Source of Aberdeen history: hongkongextras.com]

Brazilian Futebol & Steak

My short stay in São Paulo passed in a blur of business meetings, conference sessions and networking events. Granted, I went there to work and achieved what I set out to do. But after a nearly eight hour flight, I couldn’t help being disappointed that I didn’t get a chance to squeeze in more sightseeing time.

There I was, in the largest city in South America and by many accounts the world’s seventh largest city overall, and all I got to do was skim the surface of the place. AAArgh!

Still, the trip remains memorable for three things.

  • The unusual architecture of the conference venue (Hotel Unique)
  • Getting to experience a high-energy “partida de futebol” in one of the greatest football-loving nations of the world
  • My first meal at an authentic Brazilian steakhouse

Here are a few pictures that show what I mean.

Hotel Unique Exterior Shot
Hotel Unique Exterior Shot
IMG_1716
Another outside angle

Hotel Unique was designed by Ruy Ohtake, a prominent Brazilian architect. It defines luxury and boutique in the city’s dense landscape. Part of its unique features include a huge inverted arch supported by concrete columns with round porthole like windows.

The interior decor was done by another Brazilian, designer Joao Armentano, and is a mixture of spacious and ultra contemporary elements.

Lobby area
Lobby area
Library
Library
Lobby Bar
Lobby Bar – Isn’t this something else?

Futebol

According to the country’s most famous player, Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pelé), “Brazil eats, sleeps and drinks football.” I got to see a much anticipated Corinthians vs Ponte Preta quarter final match while I was in town . It aired live on ESPN. Did your see me? lol

These are scenes from what Brazilians call the beautiful game…

Game in progress
Game in progress
Nation of more than 30 million crazy people…
Fans are fans; rain or shine
Fans are fans; rain or shine

Meat, meat…and more MEAT!!!!!!

I always knew about South Americans’ love of red meat. I got a glimpse of it in Buenos Aires but I didn’t truly partake in the true Churrascaria dining experience until I got to São Paulo. At the famous Fogo De Chão, I ate my fill of a variety of rotisserie meats carved table side by Brazilian gauchos.

Steakhouse
Steakhouse
Through the glass
Through the glass
Choose your cut
Choose your cut
Not a morsel more, please!
Not a morsel more, please!

What are your most memorable tidbits from Brazil?

Havana, Cuba: A lesson in authenticity

Ever since the 1961 US embargo, Cuba has held a hint of mystique for the Western traveler. Call me silly but I always likened its allure to the attraction that a girl next door feels for the brooding and mysterious “bad boy” who drives her a little lust crazy.

All my female readers past puberty will understand the magnetism of which I speak.  You know that slightly cocky, risk-taking, cigar smoking and motorcycle riding James Dean lookalike who, at some point in our lives, was maddeningly close yet still out of reach.

Boy meets girl
Boy meets girl

Then finally, one day the unexpected happens. You meet him and the two of you get to spend a little time together. And reality trumps perception. In fact, it turns all your preconceived notions upside down.

That is how I felt when I visited Havana. Next to the sense of stepping into a 1950s time machine, the second biggest impression I got was how devoid it was of swagger. By the end of my stay, I realized it was truly one of the most unpretentious and authentic destinations that I had ever been to.

While walking through the streets I saw families sitting at their dining tables talking and eating with doors wide open. On a bus tour, I passed kids who probably never heard of PlayStations and tablets playing contentedly with very rudimentary hand-made toys. Plus, some women even walked to the store with their hair still in rollers. There were no touristy costumes or hustles.

Boys at play
Boys at play

The very lack of pretense displayed also highlighted the country’s resilience. Architecturally stunning buildings that told of former glory days stood majestically tall despite being in dire need of paint and restoration.

Locals drove brightly painted Oldsmobile Rockets, Chevrolet Bel Airs and other classic American cars that were buffed to perfection and ran like well-oiled machines. The condition of those vehicles served as further evidence of the resourcefulness and skill level of Cuban electricians and tradesmen. They had to adapt engines and keep up with repairs without access to factory-made spare parts.

Classic Car
Classic Car

So if I were to sum up my 36 hour Cuban experience in one word, it would be “real”.  Real people, real stories, real struggles, real need, real strength in the face of adversity, real beauty, and abundant warmth and hospitality.

If you go for a short visit, here are five suggestions for things to do.

1. Take a leisurely walk through the old town

Like Venice, Old Havana is a walking city. Our cab driver couldn’t take us all the way to the hotel front door because of the narrow streets and pedestrian only zones, so we had to pull our carry-ons part of the way.

Street in Old Havana
Street in Old Havana

Built in the early 1500s, this part of the town showcases buildings from the colonial era. Many border either the Plaza Viaja, the Plaza de la Catedral or the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis. (Click here to see panoramic view of the Plaza Viaja) The level of detail on the buildings is incredible and they form the perfect backdrop for memorable photographs. When you get tired, you can stop to have coffee or grab a meal in any of the local eateries along the cobblestone-lined streets.

If you are free, return in the evening to enjoy some of the Cuban nightlife. Beautiful melodies are always in the air!

2. Stock up on local music and art

If you enjoy listening to Latin jazz, salsa and mambo, or collecting inexpensive originals from local artisans around the world, you can’t leave Cuba without stocking up on some of its distinctive music and art.

Street vendors
Street vendor

Ask your hotel concierge for the location of the nearest street market where you can buy compact discs, oil paintings, watercolors, wood carvings, basket work and hand-made jewelry. Warning: be prepared to negotiate for that extra special item.

3. Visit the Museum of the Revolution

If you are interested in Cuban history, a visit to the Museum of the Revolution is a must. Located on Calle Refugio 1, this museum’s artifacts are housed in the former Presidential Palace once used by ousted leader Fulgencio Batista.

Museum of the Revolution
Museum of the Revolution

The displays are on different levels, ranging from the country’s pre-Colombian culture to its current communist regime. Many exhibits pay homage to the Cuban Revolution and the War of Independence that the country waged with Spain. Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto “Che” Guevara are all prominently featured, and you will see everything from blood stained military uniforms to downright silly and satirical commentary on former US presidents.

Statue depictiing a scene from the Revolution
Statue depictiing scenes from the Revolution

Across the street, you also can find open air exhibits such as tanks and vehicles, a part of an alleged American spy plane, and the yacht Fidel and Che sailed on from Mexico.  Go at the right time, and you might catch the changing of the guards.

4. Book a day trip to the Viñales Valley

About a 3-hour drive out of Havana, a ride through the hills and into the Viñales Valley offers you a breathtaking view of one of the most popular areas for tobacco production and farming.

View from Look Out Point
View from Look Out Point

On the way there, you can stop and have lunch at the Mural de La Historia, a 120m-long painting on the side of Mogote Dos Hermanos.

I was told that Cuban painter Leovigildo González Morillo designed the mural in 1961 and it was painted by local farmers. The dinosaurs, sea monsters, snail and humans in the painting symbolize the theory of evolution.

Naughty girl! lol
Naughty girl! lol

On my trip, I also visited a rum factory, a small limestone cave called Cuevo del indio, and we stopped at La Casa del Veguero. The latter is a restaurant with a secadero (traditional tobacco drying house) and a live demonstration of how to hand roll Cuban cigars. (Click here for video)

5. Sip afternoon cocktails on the lawns of the Hotel Nacional

No trip to Havana is complete without a visit to the Hotel Nacional, one of the oldest properties in Cuba. Reportedly, it was the host hotel for a notorious mob summit – The Havana Conference of 1946 –attended by leaders of the United States and Sicilian Mafia who converged on the island to discuss transnational mob policies, rules, and other notable “business  interests”.   It is likely that the resolutions and agreements made in that pivotal meeting were implemented and observed by crime families for many decades.

Lawns of the Hotel Nacional

The hotel’s lawns overlook the waterfront area and you get a peaceful and relaxing view of the locals’ evening activity. If you wish, you also can check their event listing and go to see their lively cabaret show.

_

Now that Cuba’s doors are more open to US travel – albeit within specified categories – I expect a rush to the border. So book early! If you plan to participate in athletic, cultural, religious, educational or humanitarian activities, it should be easy to get a license to travel.

Editor’s Notes:

1. Take Canadian or European currencies as foreign exchange transactions involving the US dollar attract a surcharge. (Aug 2015 update: Due to the devaluation of the Canadian currency, I’ve heard that it is not being as widely accepted as before)

2. I saw far more billboards and iconography of Che than I did of Fidel Castro. Given that he was an Argentine transplant and second-in-command, I was completely taken aback by the degree of his popularity.

3. Order a pork dish somewhere… especially one prepared for the non-tourist palate.  The “cerdo” I had in the countryside was one of the best tasting meals ever.

An unforgettable visit to Robben Island

I follow a popular blogger who recently tweeted this travel tip: “You can’t understand the present if you don’t know the past. Read up on the destinations you are visiting.”

A section of the maximum security prison.
A section of the maximum security prison.

It’s a simple reminder that is extremely profound.

For that reason, I recommend that you read or listen to an audio version of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, “The Long Road to Freedom” if you intend to visit Robben Island when you are in Cape Town.

Will it be emotional? Yes.

Will it also be educational? Yes.

Will it add depth and texture to your experience? Oh, yes!

(For this post, I decided to share excerpts from Mr. Mandela’s recollections of Robben Island that will help to provide greater context to your visit. It enhanced mine.)

___________

AT MIDNIGHT, I was awake and staring at the ceiling–images from the trial were still rattling around in my head–when I heard steps coming down the hallway. I was locked in my own cell, away from the others. There was a knock at my door and I could see Colonel Aucamp’s face at the bars.

“Mandela,” he said in a husky whisper, “are you awake?”

I told him I was. “You are a lucky man,” he said. “We are taking you to a place where you will have your freedom. You will be able to move around; you’ll see the ocean and the sky, not just gray walls.

He intended no sarcasm, but I well knew that the place he was referring to would not afford me the freedom I longed for.

That is how Nelson Mandela described the night he was told he was being moved to Robben Island – the stark, cold place that robbed him, and others, of simple freedoms many of us take for granted.

On the bus tour, I found out that in its heyday the island was ‘the most iron-fisted outpost in the South African penal system.’ It also served as a leper colony, an animal quarantine station and a hospital before it became known as a place of banishment and terror for activists opposed to apartheid.

Leper Graveyard. Robben Island
Leper Graveyard. It shows that beautiful things can grow in even the most unfavorable conditions.

We landed on a military airstrip on one end of the island. It was a grim, overcast day, and when I stepped out of the plane, the cold winter wind whipped through our thin prison uniforms. We were met by guards with automatic weapons; the atmosphere was tense but quiet.

I was bundled up when I stepped off the ferry – in sweater and scarf with long jeans – and the brisk wind still gave me goose bumps. I can’t begin to imagine what Mr. Mandela and his colleagues must have felt when they landed that day and were stopped to be processed.

Prisoners arriving
Wall mural depicting the arrival of a batch of prisoners.

We were driven to the old jail, an isolated stone building, where we were ordered to strip while standing outside. One of the ritual indignities of prison life is that when you are transferred from one prison to another, the first thing that happens is that you change from the garb of the old prison to that of the new.

The prison was divided into two distinct areas.  There was the general prison, known as sections F and G, which contained communal cells, and a quadrangular shaped area with single cells known as sections A, B, and C. Those cells and a guard station bordered a courtyard.  Mr. Mandela was placed in cell 466 on Block B.  Each cell was outfitted with a bucket, a cup, one dish, and a blanket. There were no pajamas issued, and none of today’s basic prison necessities like bunk beds or sheets.

Communal cell that housed up to 60 inmates.
Communal cell that housed up to 60 inmates. The mat on the ground is an example of what they slept on before the bunk beds arrived.
Nelson Mandela's Cell.
Nelson Mandela’s Cell.

Apartheid’s regulations extended even to clothing. All of us, except Kathy, received short trousers, an insubstantial jersey, and a canvas jacket. Kathy, the one Indian among us, was given long trousers. Normally Africans would receive sandals made from car tires, but in this instance we were given shoes. Kathy, alone, received socks. Short trousers for Africans were meant to remind us that we were “boys.”

Our tour guide, a former political prisoner himself, explained that there was differential treatment for other things as well.  Meals, for example, varied for blacks and coloreds. (Only Africans and Indians were sentenced to spend their terms on Robben Island; women and Caucasians were sent elsewhere). Persons also were placed into one of four categories: A to D. Those in groups A and B were allowed four letters per month while the Cs and Ds only got one.

Segregated Meal Charts
Segregated Meal Charts

That first week we began the work that would occupy us for the next few months. Each morning, a load of stones about the size of volleyballs was dumped by the entrance to the courtyard. Using wheelbarrows, we moved the stones to the center of the yard. We were given either four-pound hammers or fourteen-pound hammers for the larger stones.

Our job was to crush the stones into gravel. We were divided into four rows, about a yard-and-a-half apart, and sat cross-legged on the ground. We were each given a thick rubber ring, made from tires, in which to place the stones. The ring was meant to catch flying chips of stone, but hardly ever did so. We wore makeshift wire masks to protect our eyes.

Picture that captured men working in the courtyard.
Picture that captured men working in the courtyard.

The guide told us that the task gradually advanced to eight hour days spent breaking stones in a limestone quarry. Prisoners were exposed to all elements of weather, and forced to work with the most primitive of tools under the supervision of 15 guards who had dogs.  Many ended up with permanent eye damage because of the harsh glare of the sun and the ever-present stone particles.

Symbolic pile of stones erected by a gathering of former political prisoners and friends to honor Mr. Mandela's release from prison, after 27 years behind bars.
Symbolic pile of stones erected by a gathering of former political prisoners and friends to honor Mr. Mandela’s release from prison, after 27 years behind bars.

On occasion, the men would relieve themselves in a small cave at the back of the quarry. It was the only place that they could escape the watchful eyes of the guards. We were told that they also carved out time to teach each other how to read and write in the dirt there.  It became known as their ‘prison university’ and ‘informal parliament’. I’ve since read that it is quite possible that a significant portion of South Africa’s current constitution was written in that cave.

The limestone quarry with small cave to the back.
The limestone quarry with small cave to the back.

Other noteworthy tidbits that I gleaned from the tour are listed below.

  • Wardens were replaced at regular intervals because some of them were swayed by the arguments
  • Prisoners in the communal cells slept on the floor and often huddled together for warmth on cold winter nights
  • Baths were allowed twice per week only; on Wednesdays and Sundays
  • Prisoners with blisters were not attended to by doctors yet they could not complain. They were forced to use every means possible, including the ammonia from their own urine, to try to achieve healing
  • Hot water and bunk beds in the communal area were not available until after increased pressure from the outside world
  • Today, only former inmates serve as guides for the prison segment of the tour

Given what you see and hear on the island, it would be easy to walk away from Robben Island a bitter, sad, or heavy-hearted individual. But thanks to Mandela’s unifying spirit, and the outlook of many of his fellow prisoners, you leave instead humbled and grateful for their sacrifice. The sign at the entrance and exit best sums up the legacy of Robben Island. It is pictured below.

A sign with a powerful message
A sign with a powerful message

Tata Mandela himself later expanded on that sentiment even more:

“While we will not forget the brutality of apartheid, we will not want Robben Island to be a monument of our hardship and suffering. We would want it to be a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil, a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness. A triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness.”

Statue of Nelson Mandela outside of the prison from which he was released.
Statue of Nelson Mandela outside of the prison from which he was released.

________

Editor’s Notes:

To get to Robben Island, you take a ferry from at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town.  Look for the Nelson Mandela Gateway that houses a museum shop, a restaurant, and a multimedia exhibition.

The boats leave on the hour between 9am-3pm, and the journey can take anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour depending on the weather. When you arrive on the island, you are taken on a bus tour that passes by the Lepers’ Graveyard and the tiny house where another famous political inmate, Robert Sobukwe, lived in solitary confinement for several years.  He was the only prisoner who was allowed to smoke, and he died of lung cancer at the ripe old age of 54.

You also get to see two of the oldest buildings on the island; the Irish church built in 1841, and the lighthouse that was built 25 years later.  There is also a guest house where President Clinton and his wife stayed when they visited with Mr. Mandela in the late 90s.

Of course, there is also the obligatory gift shop. Allocate about three and half hours for the complete tour.

My recipe for a Big Apple Cabtini (Shaken & Stirred)

 

New York Taxis (photo courtesy of the (Internet)
New York Taxis (photo courtesy of the (Internet)

Ingredients:

1 large apple, blended

Cocktail shaker (a.k.a. NYC cab)

Sour mix (as in, the disposition of the cab driver)

3 friends (filled with Caribbean zest and joie de vivre)

Vodka  (Grey Goose or Smirnoff, you choose)

Ice cubes (a.k.a. cool city temperatures)

Manhattan glass

 

Instructions:

1. After a late night in Manhattan, persistently hail a cab to get to Brooklyn.

2. Put 3 tired yet mellow friends, 1 part apple, and I part sour mix (i.e. obnoxious driver) in vehicle. Close the door, state destination, and lean back to relax for the ride home.

3. Jerk upright and hold on tight as the crazy driver zigzags dangerously down the street. Expect vigorous shaking and swaying to continue for at least 2 minutes. Quickly decipher that your cabbie does NOT want to go to Brooklyn that late at night and he is annoyed that you are already inside.

4.  Ask him firmly, and calmly, to slow down. Strain to hear his response as the unbalanced man turns his radio volume up to full blast.

5. Stir the situation by knocking on the partition and yelling over the music to STOP THE VEHICLE. For extra garnish, add with accented splash, “Do it NOW!”

6. Get out Manhattan glass – fast. Take the subway and enjoy a good girlie giggle on the way home.

_____

Master Blender’s Notes:

For a long time I thought that the taxi drivers in my home country, Jamaica, were uniquely unpredictable. In general, our roads are narrow and often chock-full of potholes so it takes special skills to navigate them safely.

But as I grew up and began to travel, I realized that we are not the only country or place that has public transportation issues. While the road surface may be better in some areas, the random craziness that emanates from cab drivers seems to be a common denominator wherever you go.

I’ve been taken on other wild and/or circuitous rides in big cities like São Paulo and Shanghai. And during one visit to Cairo, I noticed that the cars drove with their headlights off at night.  What’s more, the white lines in the road are a suggestion; not a strict guideline. The vehicles bob and weave across the line as they choose.

So while I filed that Manhattan ride as another “authentic big city experience”, I know that New York cab drivers can be zany but they don’t have the copyright on crazy!

Chinese Street Food

There’s an old saying that says: “The Chinese eat everything with four legs, except tables, and everything that flies — except airplanes.” I rolled my eyes and chuckled when I heard it. But when I saw dishes like sautéed frog, sweet and sour snake head soup, donkey and braised croaker (lizard) listed on hotel and restaurant menus, the laughter dried up – quickly.

So take it from me. Be prepared to see and experience the gamut of food choices when you set off on a Chinese street food adventure. Some of it may make your stomach yearn for more. But the more exotic delicacies? Think churn…or quiver?

Chinese noodles
Chinese noodle stall

If you opt to buy breakfast on the street as many locals do, don’t expect anything as mundane as scrambled eggs or cereal. Most Chinese eat steamed or fried dumplings with various fillings in the morning, or something sweet like doughnuts or buns – usually accompanied with a drink of soy milk. Egg pancakes, rice porridge and noodle soup also are common. I was hesitant to try any meat varieties, so I sampled the vegetarian dumplings instead. They were scrumptious (and filling).

Xi'an Street Food
Meat skewers in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter

For lunch and dinner, many roadside stalls display rows of skewered meats (kebabs), hand pulled noodles, and Chinese-style hamburgers that are shredded meat served between steamed bread. Other specialties include spare ribs, and simmering lamb or beef broth that you break chunky flat bread into. Several vegetarian meals are also available. You can lick your lips and linger; standing up, or sitting down.

Xi'an street food
Chinese flatbread

Xi’an is a great spot for street food. Once part of the famous ancient trading route of the Silk Road, it is now a modern city with craft/souvenir and retail shops,and interesting historical sites – the Terracotta Warriors being one of them. The Muslim Quarter, specifically the bustling Beiyuanmen Street, is famous for its food stalls.

For the faint-hearted epicureans like me, there’s also a nice Starbucks. I won’t lie to you. Its magnetic force was formidable. My warm ham and cheese panini sandwich, washed down with a steamy cup of hot chocolate, was just what I needed on a cold winter day.

Wangfujing Snack Street

If you’re heading to Beijing, you must visit Wangfujing Snack Street. Be warned; it’s noisy and crowded.  However, I was convinced that ‘the snacks’ were presented more for shock value than sustenance when I saw even some Asian visitors with mouths agape. It is must-see.

Your experience will depend on your spirit of adventure. All types of wriggling insects are displayed, just waiting to be cooked. Does hearing about centipedes, scorpions, spiders, bugs or sea horses get your gastric juices flowing? Well you’re in luck; chances are they’ll have it.

Insect varieties at Beijing Snack Street
Insect Varieties at Beijing Snack Street – Photo credit @ Stacy Wilkinson
Beijing Snack Street
Exotic options at Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing – Photo credit @ Stacy Wilkinson)

Are those snacks too tame for you? Don’t worry, you can order exotic meat as well – as in dog, cat, sheep’s balls, or frog on a stick.[ Sidebar: I wish I could see your face right nowAre you salivating (or barfing) yet?]

All my queasy compradres, there’s hope for you too. Some vendors also sell plain foods like dumplings, squids, noodles, and fruits.

Beijing Snack Street
Meat varieties at Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing

 I’ll end this post with one little word of wisdom. Whatever items you choose to try, please ensure that it is cooked before your eyes.

Beijing Snack Street
Desserts at Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing (Photo credit@ Stacy Wilkinson)

 Bon Appétit!

___________

Editor’s Notes: For full disclosure, I must let you know that the hotel menus also had regular meal options. Admittedly, my culinary experience was not the best I have ever had but some people in my group had no issues, and  I do know two families that came back from their China trips raving about the food. I guess it depends on where you stay, what you like, and where you eat. I can vouch for the Peking Duck and the dumplings. They were awesome.

Bimini daycation

Did you see the 1991 suspense thriller, The Silence of the Lambs? If so, do you remember when Clarice Starling answered the phone during her FBI Academy graduation party? Be honest, were you as spooked as I was to find out that it was Dr. Hannibal Lecter on the line?

“Hello Clarice”, he said. [Insert heart-racing pause here. Now go gravelly soft with the cultured, yet diabolical, voice impersonation]

“Have the lambs stopped screaming?”

OMG! Even now, I am getting goose bumps simply thinking about it.  I remember almost jumping out of my seat in the cinema.

That iconic scene was filmed in Bimini, one of the more than 700 islands, cays and islets that make up The Bahamas.  The island is seven miles (11 km) long and 700 feet (210 m) at its widest point.

I spent some time there recently; about five hours to be exact.

Because of its proximity to Florida, Bimini is an easy day trip from Fort Lauderdale or Miami. If you own a boat, or occasionally charter one to go big-game fishing, you can make the 53 mile (85km) trip on your own. I took the commercial route – the Bimini SuperFast.  The ship left Port Everglades at 9 a.m., and we disembarked to the sounds of sweet and rhythmic island music by noon.

The day trip package included free tram service to the Resorts World Paradise Beach or Casino where individuals and families could redeem vouchers for scuba diving adventures, snorkeling, or kayak tours. Persons also had the option of getting discounts on several water sports activities.  If you love water skis, water bikes, jet skis, banana boats, glass bottom boats or parasailing are your thing; you’ll be in haven. I prefer land-based activities, so I chose to explore historic Alice Town. Round-trip transportation was included for that option as well.

Our first stop was at Stuart’s Conch Salad Stand, where my fellow passengers got to sample a dish I’d been introduced to during my university years in Nassau. In this Bahamian specialty, the conch is taken fresh from its shell, cleaned and cut into small pieces. Diced hot peppers, onions, and juicy tomatoes are added, and then lemon juice is poured over the mixture to cure the uncooked meat, like in a ceviche. After that, salt is added to taste. It’s a spicy dish that can take some time to get used to. However, I was pleasantly surprised that all the conch salad first-timers loved it!

Stuart Conch Salad Stand, Bimini
Fresh conch being prepared at Stuart’s Conch Salad Stand

I enjoyed a few of my favorite dishes over lunch at the popular local eatery, Big John’s Bar & Grill.  It is an open air restaurant with a cool, laid back vibe. I hadn’t had authentic Bahamian food in years so the first bite into my conch fritters triggered savory memories of long-forgotten Friday jaunts with college friends.  Back then, a small group of us regularly passed the day leisurely in the many shops and restaurants along Bay Street.

But that was only the beginning. When the rich flavor of the conch chowder hit my palate, I found myself reminiscing even more. And the pièce de résistance of any Bahamian meal? In my book, that honor goes to a delectable dessert known as guava duff. My serving didn’t just invoke recollections; it summoned pleasure-infusing genies from the nethermost regions of my mind.

Bimini Gas Station
Bimini Gas Station

After lunch, I gawked at the island’s only petrol station, which was essentially two pumps on the side of the road. I also checked out one stretch of beach; and dodged happy-go-lucky golf cart drivers that careened noisily through the narrow street.

I skipped a full walk through of the craft market as a cursory glance didn’t reveal any unique items on display. But I braved the overgrown grass and rickety steps to enter the second floor museum across the street. It housed interesting tidbits and artifacts that provided colorful context for the island.

The Bimini Museum
The Bimini Museum

Inside those dusty and dilapidating walls, I learnt of Ernest Hemingway’s Bimini fishing expeditions. I also saw the immigration card that Martin Luther King Jnr. had signed when he visited the island in November 1964. The captions said that he composed his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech while staying there.

Snippets of life surrounding Adam Clayton Powell Jnr, the outspoken, flamboyant and charismatic US Congressman who generally was considered to be the grandfather of the civil rights movement, were also on display. He spent most of his 1967 term in Bimini – not New York – amidst much controversy surrounding his alleged misuse of payroll and travel expenses. Powell’s second wife, was jazz and classical pianist and singer, Hazel Scott. Interestingly, she was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and moved to the United States at the age of four.

School boys in uniform
School boys in uniform

If local folklore is to be believed, Bimini’s most significant historic tie to today’s generation possibly lies in the origin of the phrase, ‘the real McCoy’.  It is said that the island was a popular whiskey supply source during the Prohibition period, and while many rum-runners were forced to ‘water down’ their product, the Bimini–based William S. McCoy could be counted on to export the full-bodied brew to America. As a result, the term ‘the real McCoy’ was born. It is now used in many different contexts.

I rarely drink, and even when I do, rum and whiskey are not at the top of my list. But I checked, and there are local shops where you can sample Bahamian liquor to test its true potency. Cheers to that!

For the last hour or so, my Mom and I puttered around town. We also jumped on the tram and headed back to see the Resorts World hotel, which is still under construction. It will be gorgeous when it’s completed.

Bimini Resort
A section of the Bimini Resorts World Hotel

I’ll end by saying that Bimini is TINY, so outside of water sports, fishing, and the casino, there is not much to do. It is nothing like Nassau, or even Grand Bahama. But it has its unique personality and flair, so be thorough in your research to find things to do while there.

Now, I do wish we could chat longer but I have to go. I am meeting a good friend for dinner…

___

Editor’s Notes:

The Bahamas is special to me. I suppose it is because I spent two of the most carefree years of my life in Nassau, and made many lifelong friends. In addition to Nassua and Bimini, I’ve also been to Freeport (Grand Bahama), Andros, Eleuthera and Blue Lagoon. The currency exchange to the US dollar is 1:1, so bear in mind that your spending clout won’t extend as far as it might in other Caribbean Islands.

While there, be sure to try their signature drink, the Bahama Mama. It’s a blend of pineapple and coconut juice, and a touch of coffee with two types of rum. Be mindful of where and who you ask for it though because the phrase ‘Bahama Mama’ is also local lingo for a curvaceous and well-endowed woman.

One last comment. I visited Bimini in October 2014 and the condition of the museum and the pubic library below it, saddened me. Alice Town is being touted as a historic place but not enough care is going into the maintenance and upkeep of its buildings and artifacts. I hope that either the Bahamas Tourist Board, the new hotel, or private residents will take that museum on as a project. History needs to be preserved!

My South African Safari

Does music ever factor into your trips? I’ve found that it has an amazing ability to transcend language and cultural differences and connect people in a memorable way.  Plus, listening to my favorite songs at the end of an exhausting yet exhilarating excursion helps me to relax and reboot for the next day.

It’s also great to have access to earphones and a playlist-ready device when you’re on a long flight or a bus tour. Because at some point, you will need to drown out that annoying traveler who either talks too much or asks the most oddball questions.

Well, I didn’t take music on this trip but the mental soundtrack for my safari adventure included all the playful and infectious songs from the Lion King. I can sense that you don’t believe me. Read on.

Thornybush
Thornybush Nature Reserve, South Africa

As my bus driver navigated the bumpy dirt road from Hoedspruit airport to the lodge, I was silently humming and snapping my fingers to Hakuna Matata (click on link for audio). I’m being serious, for the duration of that ride, I also stole glances out the window and hoped for the real-life Pumba (warthog) and Timon (meercat) to appear. SA_PHOTO_BIG 1059

Later, when I met the enamored Texan honeymooners, Craig and Kristen, at our first bonfire dinner, it was the melodic strings from Can You Feel The Love Tonight that filled the air.

Keep rolling your eyes, there’s more.

The Stately Giraffe, Runway Model in the Animal Kingdom
The Stately Giraffe, Runway Model in the Animal Kingdom

During my first night ride, a leopard darted in front the jeep as she whisked her cub to safety across the dirt road. The driver pulled up; and every hair on my head and arms stood up. Why? At that point, yours truly was trying valiantly to drown out the menacing bush sounds with the soaring chorus of The Circle of Life.

The Elusive Leopard.
The Elusive Leopard.

No. I am not crazy. (Okay, okay…maybe I am just a little bit nuts )

I guess you’ve figured out by now that the Lion King is the reason that I agreed to a safari adventure when my sister decided to do something really different for her birthday. On an average day, I am quite possibly the most animal-averse person on the planet.

With several countries in Africa to choose from, initially it was a bit overwhelming to decide where to go. She knew that there was no way I was going to spend more than three days in the bush, so we had to find a location with other attractions to enjoy for the rest of our 10 day trip. After reviewing our options, Robben Island, and Cape Town sealed the deal for me, so we settled on South Africa. (I’ll share some of those highlights in another post.)

The Rooms at Waterbuck Game Lodge, with a balcony looking out to the wild
The Rooms at Waterbuck Game Lodge, with a balcony looking out to the wild

We opted to go to the Thornybush Nature Reserve, which is situated on private land adjacent to Krueger National Park. Everything at our hotel, the Waterbuck Lodge – fireplace, staff, and setting – was wonderful.

En suite bathroom with perfectly private views.
En suite bathroom with perfectly private views.

Our package included two game rides per day in an open Land Rover (at dawn and dusk); breakfast coffee and sundowner cocktail stops; delicious group meals; and cozy and intimate accommodations. The maximum number of lodge guests allowed at any one time is eight.

Another bonus to choosing the private game reserve option, is that our rangers were allowed to go into the bush to track the animals. Rangers in public reserves have to stick to the roadways. It was well worth the extra dollars because those spontaneous detours yielded many of our most memorable moments.

Rhinos on the run
Rhinos on the run

Imagine dodging flaying tree limbs as your driver and tracker pulled out machetes to hack away at minor obstacles. All in a bid to get the jeep into an area where vultures hovered over the remains of fresh kill!

Or picture being left unarmed and totally helpless in an open jeep while your guides got out of the vehicle to track the lions by their footprints. Those few minutes on our own felt like hours.

L-R: Loderick (Tracker) and Gareth (Ranger) tracking the lions
L-R: Loderick (Tracker) and Gareth (Ranger) tracking the lions

We also pulled over on the side of the road to allow rhinos to get to their watering hole, and got off the beaten track to see a testosterone led turf war. PRICELESS.

SA_PHOTO_BIG 1296
Testosterone fight.

Our ranger (Gareth) and tracker (Loderick) were excellent guides. Thanks to their bush savvy and persistence, we saw all of the Big 5: lions, elephants, rhinos, buffalos… and the elusive leopard. No safari can guarantee you will see everything, so we were lucky.

Over the three days, we saw a diverse number of wildlife as well. Animal sightings included giraffes; deer; zebras; antelope, and their sub-species: kudus and impalas; monkeys; baboons; wild boars; crocodiles; water bucks; hares; and civets, among others.

There were interesting species from the feathered family too.  I remember seeing a lilac breasted roller; guinea fowl; owls; grey heron; black bellied bustards; bald eagles; a blue reeve (female in the ruff family); and ducks.

The creepy crawlers weren’t left out either. We saw centipedes, large lizards, and a chameleon change from bright to dark green as Gareth plucked him from the side of the road and placed him in the grass. IMG_2694SA_PHOTO_BIG 1194

I will end by saying that the lions, the famed and feared kings of the jungle, were a bit of a let down. When we found the pride their bellies were full, so they were content and lethargic. It was a real-life case of The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

Sleepy lions
Sleepy lions

Queue the drums and bass guitar here, and join me as I attempt that lovable high-pitched solo:

A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh) A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh) In the jungle, the mighty jungle The lion sleeps tonight…  __________

Editor’s Notes: I visited South Africa in November 2012 when the weather was just starting to warm up. The peak of their winter is June/July. However, I have heard that for optimal visibility, the best time to plan a safari in South Africa is between May and October – their dry season.

I got my malaria tablets as a precaution, although I was told that you did not need to worry about it there – unlike in some other African destinations. I booked my trip through South African Airways Vacations and the package included domestic and international airfare, some meals, accommodation, game rides and Cape Town tours.

The beauty of any trip is that you can choose what suits your personality and pocket. Even if it means going on safari in a public park, and sleeping in a rest camp that houses tents, caravans, or forest huts – with or without private bathrooms. It’s still an adventure!

Look out for my posts on CapeTown soon.

Snapshots of Trinidad & Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago is a twin island republic just off the northern coast of Venezuela. But its place in this world cannot be limited to geographic coordinates or size. Rather, its impact lies in the warmth and vitality of its people, its diverse culture, its soca music, and its oil.

Here is a brief look into the aesthetic beauty of these islands through the lens of talented photographer, Phil Sykes.

Clapboard views
Clapboard views
Relaxtion inlet
Relaxtion inlet

 

Peer flex
‘Peer’ flex

 

Paradise beckons
Paradise beckons
Balance
Balance
Man, woman, dog
Man, woman, dog
Multicultural roots
Multicultural roots
Journey's end
Journey’s end

BEHIND THE LENS: A brief chat with the photographer.

Phil Sykes
Phil Sykes

Phil, tell me about your love of photography. Would you describe it as a hobby, or a passion?

It’s both a hobby and a release. I have a high-stress job with demanding responsibilities and photography helps to relax me because it frees my mind. It’s the only thing in my life that is totally unstructured and therefore it allows me to be creative.

With my camera, all I ever have to think about is ‘f stops’ and shutter speeds. (An ‘f stop’ is a quantitative measure of the size of the lens opening)

I’ve heard you say you feel naked without a camera. Is that really true?

Yes it is. I’m naturally an introvert but my camera allows me to be a part of an event and still remain an observer. Sometimes my equipment even acts as a conversation starter. Wherever I am, I look at the environment around me as a potential photo opportunity. I am constantly assessing light, shape, patterns and compositions so when I see something awesome and I don’t have my camera with me, I get MAD.

How does your smartphone factor in, if at all?

Because I always have my iPhone on me, it has become the quick fix solution to that feeling of nakedness that I described. Thankfully, with a few quality apps, you now can take pictures that come close enough to a shot from a Digital Single-lens Reflex (DSLR) camera.

You’ve mentioned that you’ve started experimenting with different special effects apps. What is your favourite, and why?

My current favourite ‘gimmick’ is a processing technique called High Dynamic Range (HDR). It allows me to manipulate a picture in a way that better mimics what the eye actually sees. The eye is much more powerful than a camera lens as it instinctively adjusts to large variances in shadow and bright light, and then processes that data.

HDR is a method of combining a number of shots of the same scene, each taken with a slightly different exposure setting. The end result is a photo that balances shadow and light in a more natural way, which ultimately brings out an amazing level of detail.

The technique is frowned upon by some in the industry because they claim it relies too much on technology thus taking away from the skill of the photographer. I disagree. I believe that HDR complements and enhances the photographer’s skill. It has its place as one among many photography techniques.

What subjects do you enjoy shooting most?

I have two preferred subjects; family and friends in a controlled studio type environment, and travel and landscape photography. Both are very different and require separate skills.

I know you’re British and that you travel extensively. But you’ve been to this destination several times. Do you feel a special connection to Trinidad and Tobago?

The country has a special place in my heart not just because my wife is Trinidadian and my daughter was born there. Both islands have stunning landscapes and spectacular natural light. From beaches to mountains, rainforest to coconut tree plantation, and inner city life to Hindu Temples in the sea – there is so much to see and shoot!

Living in Dubai, I am used to very flat, dull light that is super bright. And there’s usually no clouds in the sky. Very often the visibility is also very poor. When I go home to Trinidad I can’t help but notice the clouds and the skies, the light, the very changeable weather, the cleanliness of the air and perfect visibility. Those elements create so many more opportunities for eye-catching photography.

You strike me as a gadgets man. So if your family and friends are reading this post, tell them what’s on your photography wish list for Christmas.

I do like me a good gadget, and photography has an awful lot to choose from. Honestly though, I’ve tried quite a few and then left them alone. I am a bit of a minimalist now. Check my gear bag and you will see that it is not that heavy. Two or three good lenses is all I really need.

The one thing I do need more of, is time. Time to practice and time to enjoy my hobby. Also, as photography is an ongoing learning experience I would welcome a gift of enrolment in one of the many specialist courses that are available. I am no expert, and my quest for knowledge is real. Anything that would allow me to continue to grow and get better at my craft would be appreciated.

____________

To look at his portfolio, you can visit his website at http://philipsykes.com. Or, to purchase high resolution versions of his Trinidad & Tobago images, and many others, you can email him directly at Phil.Sykes3@gmail.com. (He has so many stunning photos, it was HARD to select only eight)