While it’s pouring chaotic amounts of rain here in Rio and I can’t get over the sweet tooth Easter seems to bring us, all I can think of is… dessert.
While my thoughts are dripping with sugariness, in Barcelona, lovers of all things sweet indulge.
It is in Barcelona where the world’s first dessert restaurant was created. Espai Sucre is the true antidote of a conventional restaurant, featuring four menus, one of them being an ode to chocolate.
The ingredients vary from the traditional strawberries and chocolate to dark beer, pepper, mint, saffron, ginger, hazelnut, truffles… the list goes on.
*Picture from the website
If after treating yourself to a sweet and visually appealing meal, you wish to take these creative recipes home, all you have to do is sign up for a cooking class at the restaurant and show off at home with innovative desserts.
Places like this, after comings and goings to Madrid and Barcelona, make it harder to decide which city is my favorite between the two. No doubt it is an ongoing pleasure to uncover inspiration through Catalan innovations.
Calle Princesa 53, Barcelona – Espanha
An Indian lobby group has created an unconventional way to attempt to fight corruption: a zero rupee bill.
What could be possibly done with a zero rupee bill? What is it for?
It’s a protest note. A piece of paper, colored as a 50 rupee note, with a picture of Gandhi (like all other Indian rupee bills) with no monetary value.
Its purpose is to reject India’s baksheesh culture and to serve as a response to corrupt officials as they ask for bribes.
The idea came from an expatriate in the US, a University of Maryland professor, who was astonished with extortion demands when he visited his country. He used the zero rupee note with officials as a polite way to say no.
Vijay Anand, president of the NGO 5th Pillar embraced the idea and decided to make good use of it. The notes were first distributed among students as an encouragement to eliminate the bribing culture.
25,000 notes were printed and distributed to mobilize an opposition towards corruption. More than one million notes have been circulated since 2007.
Simple, creative ideas not always work when the fight is against government officials in countries where corruption is deeply rooted. It is, however, a step forward to change social norms that nourish corrupt acts.
The zero rupee note might not have monetary value, but it surely has moral value.
During my ultra zen carnaval days in Itacaré, Bahia I had the chance to see the release of baby sea turtles. Now when I say release, I don’t mean that they were captured or anything, by all means. They were in their eggs, in a hole, where their mother laid them. A biologist from the TAMAR project, created by Brazil’s Environmental Institute for Marine Conservation, monitors their development and makes sure no one destroys their “nests”.
After the eggs hatched, the biologist walked towards the shore with a plastic container full of baby sea turtles, looking completely lost. Some of them already initiated movements towards freedom and tried to climb out of the container, while others had either given up or were simply sunbathing.
After a quick explanation about how the turtles lay their eggs, their life cycle and a shocking, jaw dropping statistic, we released the little animals on the sand.
Sea turtles have very sensitive and highly developed senses. They must have. With eyes of the size of a pin head, fragile flippers and length of a human’s palm, how can they find their way, lost in the infinity of sand and water? They must have keen vision, scent and hearing, and a great sense of direction to find their way towards the ocean.
As I observed the first tiny movements, fighting towards the friction they encountered between sand and water, I mentally placed those movements in context. I realized how long it took them to go forward and how far they had to move to get to the first waves, which would be a second obstacle. A lot of them were swept far on the sand once again as they reached shore. Like any other group of animals, some were faster than others; some had better direction than others.
What about their mothers? Where were they? Why were those little creatures alone? That was all I could think of, among other things.
The ones that successfully make it to the ocean and are able to surf the waves, all the way to deep sea, must find small pieces of seaweed to feed on. Anything that floats through water is interpreted as food: seaweed, microorganisms, leaves, plants, plastic bags, cellophane. So then comes one more stage in the fight for survival. If they happen to go for plastic bags they die asphyxiated or with the worst indigestion of their lives.
The jaw dropping statistic is that one in every one thousand turtles will reach adulthood.
So next time I think about a life surrounded and suffocated by objectives, ideas, longings, troubles that come and go; every time I think about the barrier between what I am and what I want to be, about the weary everyday, about sleepless nights, about empty pockets, about emptiness… I will remember the long, solitary journey of baby sea turtles, paddling with delicate flippers.
And if tears fall, I’ll remember them yet again. Sea turtles also cry. As they drink sea water, they absorb large quantities of salt. To get rid of the excess salt, which can be lethal, they eliminate salt through their tears.
I had an epiphany moment on my flight back from Ilhéus, Bahia to Rio.
I had finished the book I had with me “Desde Cuba Con Cariño” by Cuban blogger Yoaní Sanchez, and so lacked reading material. Flipping through pages of the GOL airline magazine I came across one of those celebrity profiles: astrological sign, favorite book, what other career would have followed, what plays on their iPod, what sport they play, marital status, favorite movie, a remarkable trip.
That’s my favorite one – what trip was a significant one.
I’m always in doubt when having to reply to that question, and it’s often that I end up on the spotlight when the subject appears in a conversation. I’ve been asked where to spend a honeymoon, what I country I would go back to, which country I liked best, where I would like to live (as if I didn’t ask myself this question often enough), What city? What country? Where? When? Why?
I don’t know. Truth is I have no idea. I liked all places I´ve been to. There’s always something good, appetizing, striking, delightful, cheap, unique… I´ve had culture shocks, plenty of them, and still do.
When I lived in Miami I missed Washington DC´s public transportation system. When I arrived in Valencia (Spain), I missed American pharmacies and supermarkets (CVS, Whole Foods, Target, Walmart). I looked for thank you cards and resume paper and couldn’t find them. I also missed Staples. I later realized they weren’t that important after all. I started enjoying and actually seeing a bit of charm in buying fruit at the fruit shop, bread at the bakery and fish at the fish store. None of that one-stop-shop life. When I arrived in Larnaca (Cyprus), I missed Valencia’s bus lines and America’s efficient customer service. When I arrived in Rio, at first, I didn’t miss anything. But every now and then I do. A little bit.
Where would I go back to? Everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The planet is huge, life is short. I only have 30 vacation days total. There are 192 countries (recognized by the UN). And my curiosity is infinite and insatiable.
How to define the best trip? What are the parameters and standards?
The destination? The exoticism?
While traveling alone in Asia for thirty days I remembered the phrase from the movie Into the Wild: “Happiness is only real when shared”.
Is it defined by company then?
What about the mishaps? Getting sick on the road, having to pay a fine on the subway, an overpriced cab ride, the feeling of being in the wrong neighborhood… Do they make a trip less pleasant? And thus fall in the travel rank?
It’s always hard for me to categorize and rank my trips, not because of quantity, but because I always see beauty and richness wherever I go.
So then which is the best trip after all? That was my epiphany moment.
The best trip is the last one I went on.
Carnaval in Brazil is usually about going out in the streets, drinking large amounts of cold beer under the burning sun or the bit cooler night, drenched in sweat, flirting and making out, wearing a costume or an “abadá” (purchased clothing for participating in certain street parties). There is a brief phrase in Portuguese that says it all: samba, sweat and beer. Sometimes it’s axé (music style from the northeastern part of Brazil) and not samba, but there’s always sweat and beer.
This year, despite I have been away for the past 10 carnavals or so, I decided for a much more relaxed five days. In Rio, most people have five days off, starting on Saturday until Ash Wednesday. In Salvador some people start their long holiday as early as Thursday. Since the celebration days happen according to the Catholic calendar, the dates change every year and it officially ends on Ash Wednesday. Unofficially parties can go on as far as the following two weekends. So yeah, some stereotypes do prove to be true – Brazilians like to party.
So what is celebrated during carnival anyways? The largest party celebrated by Brazilians is about a big feast before lent, a time when people give something up, traditionally meat. The word carnival comes from the word carnelevare or “raise meat” or remove meat. So why not go all out right before we deprive ourselves of something, forty days before Easter.
Clothing, ways of participation, music and rhythm vary greatly among the different regions of Brazil. In Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo the samba schools resembling huge parades happen in a closed area, a stadium like arena which you pay to either watch or be part of the show.
In Salvador, huge trucks called trios with a band and singer on top lead the way through main avenues with people dancing behind it. They have paid a fee for their abadás to be part of that party, which is sort of a smaller parade called blocos.
In Rio, many blocos are for free and different from Salvador, people wear costumes; real costumes like clown, pirates, jesters and there are, most of the time, small bands instead of huge trucks.
Back to MY carnival, in the small town of Itacaré in Bahia… This little treasure hidden in the southern part of the state, characterized by the cocoa plantations is the perfect beach getaway.
The long beaches have plenty of sand space for long walks with the postcard supplement of surrounding coconut trees. But it’s not only the pristine beaches that attract visitors and surfers to Itacaré. I’ve heard it is the best place for surfing in Bahia, but since I’m not a surfer myself, I’d rather not affirm that. It also offers the perfect scenery for adventure sports (rafting, climbing, paragliding, zipline), nature walks, waterfalls…
At night, most people walk around the village center to visit restaurants, bars and handcraft stores. But if you are really in the partying mood, there are places with different music styles, from “forró” to samba to electronic music. Restaurants also vary from the very simple mom and pop kitchen with wooden tables to trendy, colorful places.
No matter what mood you are in – dancing, just drinks, walk around or taste local food; it’s a simple place where all you have to pack is loose, comfortable clothes, flip-flops, maybe a closed-toe shoe if you want to go hiking.
What was fun and touching on this second trip to Itacaré was seeing recently hatched sea turtles on their long journey from holes in the sand – their “nests” until shore, but that will be on the next post.
As I prepared to go back I realized what an effort I had to make to put on jeans and shoes. It was time to go back to reality and the city.
You know you’ve been away for a long time when you
Walk in your old home and examine photographs in the living room as if you were a first time visitor
Wander in the kitchen and can’t remember where the glasses, plates and silverware are
Find great pleasure in soft sheets and wonderful smelling towels
Have uncontrollable desires for typical delicacies and coconut water
Feel like a tourist in your own city, forget the routes and street names, but think it’s all so beautiful, everything has changed yet it’s all the same
Forget your friend’s phone numbers, have to look up names in an old address book you have to update
Get emotionally touched when you visit someone or get a long hug Want to hear the same old family stories as if it were the first time (and laugh and cry as in the first time you heard them)
Seek the revival of childhood tastes and memories like yucca cake, lavender smell and sleepovers at grandma’s
I’ve learned a thing or two about stereotypes to write here that Lebanese are a certain way or act in a certain manner. So I’m here, once again, regurgitating thoughts and observations based on the conversations I had and heard while in Lebanon.
I should mention that I was hosted by a lovely and caring Christian Maronite family, one of the eighteen religions present in the country. I can only imagine that if I were staying in another environment these observations would be different.
What I remember thinking and feeling is that it is a country very dissimilar from its neighbors. It’s like an oasis. It’s complex, intense, green, alive and rooted. Words escape me. Its neighboring countries have vast deserts, while it has green hills, the cedar – the country’s symbol, present on the flag. It has snow capped mountains and the sea.
I heard one night in Beirut that some Lebanese define themselves as resilient.
I also remember thinking that the political situation is close to incomprehensible or simply lacks a solution. At the same time it’s quite an achievement to maintain eighteen religions conducting the country simultaneously (does it really happen that way?).
I was told that there is a law that the country’s President must be a Christian Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the head of Parliament a Xia Muslim. The head of ministries are divided into members of other religions, with quotas, in an attempt to represent all of them (utopia?).
After the war that ended on 1991 (to speak about “the war” in Lebanese history can be vague and redundant), which lasted around fifteen years, all militias (there were many, of different religions) were extinct, in other words, they became political parties, without arms, with the exception of the Xia Muslim militia called Hezbollah, created in response to the Israeli invasion in 1982. I was told Hezbollah is beloved by the Xia because they are responsible for various social services like the construction of hospitals and schools. However, it is seen as a terrorist group by the US.
Political opinion in Lebanon is divided basically in two groups, favoring two different movements: the 8th of March and the 14th of March. It all began with the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri in 2005, and those movements were sort of a response to the event. In sum (I’m not a fan of politics) one is in favor of Hezbollah, while the other completely loathes it. As a consequence, one is with the US and Europe, while the other is with Syria. (Really simplifying it, or so I try…)
Apparently there is no human way to disarm Hezbollah. The Lebanese army keeps its distance; after all, it is a militia. So they kind of watch the scene more like spectators, less like actors.
With all this religious “diversity” in a country where religion is deeply rooted in its culture, of course there’s conflict. An example of the rooted religion in Lebanon is that there is no such thing as civil marriage. If you don’t want a religious ceremony for your wedding and you are Lebanese, you better go to Cyprus. Every marriage in Lebanon is a religious ceremony and status.
The interesting thing is that with all the conflict, I saw plenty of Lebanese living life with intensity and vivacity. Beirut’s nightlife is quite famous, compared to New York, London and Paris. Minimalistic and modern looking restaurants, pubs and lounges are packed every day of the week. Women work, dress up, look sharp, have kids, go out at night and truly juggle it all. (It’s true though, that like in Brazil, they have housekeepers, maids and nannies to help out, but still…)
“If we don’t live that way, we can’t live” one of the cousins said as she sipped her drink.
Her cousin quickly replied “The ability to live happily in the midst of conflict is good in a way, but it can also be a negative thing – we quickly forget what’s happening around us.”
I completely understood her point. I sometimes feel that in Brazil we also get numb to social problems that surround us, but while we have cold beer, a TV to watch soccer games and a beach to relax at, we keep going and hardly ever speak out.
Later that night I heard “you can’t live in it, but you can’t live without it” (about Lebanon). I could relate to that once again. That’s how I feel sometimes about my own country, except facing different fears – in Lebanon they fear bombs in Brazil we fear mugging, assault, robbery.
I kept thinking about that phrase and how I once thought I would not go back to Brazil or at least for a while, until I realized I needed some time in it.