The Soul Takes Photos Too

 Five months ago, we were in New Zealand.  It is still so fresh in my mind.  Not like vacations that have no staying power, and what I mean by that is four days after you are home, you can just remember bits and pieces of your traveling.  You argue with your spouse about which town had the aqueduct or which city it was where we ate grilled octopus like it grew on trees. 

But, New Zealand has been different.  It’s as if my soul is not counting on the mind to remember everything, and it has made its own backups of all those amazing landscapes which, at times, could have been moonscapes like the geothermal town of Rotorua where steam shoots straight up in peoples’ front yards or a sidewalk suddenly changes course to accommodate hot steam shooting into the sky.  And, from the surrounding hills, when you look down on the city it looks like the whole place had been on fire moments earlier but a downpour put out the fire, leaving everything in sight to smolder white threads of steam.  Sometimes I think about New Zealand, and just have to stop whatever I am doing so I can watch a scene again in my head.  Like watching the waves at Urguharts Bay in the Whangarei Heads.  Or the two-story tall Maori carvings on the side of a rock cliff  on Lake Taupo, or the drive to Coromandel Peninsula when we pulled over and I cried for joy at God’s creation.  I still think about our tour guide in a working Maori village  and how proud she was of her heritage.  Physically beautiful and built like a “she-warrior”, she walked down the streets of the little village like the mayor.  Not a forgettable person and a woman with such strength and confidence you could trace it with your finger.  There is also the time we spent talking about world politics with the captain of the boat we chartered on Lake Taupo.  That time was special.  His struggles and triumphs sounded a lot like our own, which reinforces that no matter how wide the ocean or how tall the mountain separates us all, we always can find something about the other that bonds us as citizens of the world. 



Maps and Roads   Don’t let maps fool you. New Zealand doesn’t have an interstate system and only has divided highways in the immediate cities of Auckland and Wellington, and they are short and brief. So distances on your map can be deceiving. In some areas, 150 mile trip can take three hours because of all the hairpin turns you must share with large trucks and RV travel on the single lane roads. In the summer, a lot of tourists traveling in RVs are driving at break-neck wagon train speeds. While we were there, there was a fatal car accident involving an American tourist who was driving on the wrong side of the road, hit a local and killed that driver.  He was in jail when we left and was going to be charged with manslaughter.  You are starting to hear rumblings about all the accidents tourists are causing on their roads.  If you rent a car, I suggest taking the time to getting used to driving on the opposite of the road during a quiet time of the day.  Don’t head off in Auckland during peak traffic time unless you are used to driving like the Kiwis do.  Turning on your windshield wipers instead of the turn signal will be a daily occurrence.  Believe me on this one.

If a route looks like it has soft gentle curves like say a wisp of a baby’s lock of hair, think again. It will be more like a tight ringlet straight off of Orphan Annie’s head. Often, roads do not have shoulders or rail guards. An example of this happened to us after leaving Thames on our way to the Coromandel Peninsula. We were headed to Tairua where we had rented an Airbnb beach hut. Instead of taking a more direct route, we opted (upon my suggestion – something I was reminded of several times later) to take the scenic route along the water’s edge of Firth of Thames. The Coromandel Forest Park was on our right. A maniacal laugh is coming from me right now as I look at the same map we used that day, noting how relatively straight forward our route appeared on paper. We started getting used to blind curves and harrowing turns as the forest gave way and we felt less hemmed Vista views were not often, but we finally encountered one and when we got out of the car,  we both gasped at the Genesis-like view of God’s creation. I felt weak knee’d looking at it.   Turns out scary, scenic routes can be worth the extra time and unbridled knee-knocking . Take them and don’t forget to stop and take a real gander. Take it all in. Press it hard into your brain so you won’t forget it. Later, when you are home, you can squeeze your eyes real hard and remember that you were there.
Road Construction    New Zealand has a unique way of pouring asphalt. They pour gravel down on the newly poured pavement but instead of huge rollers pressing the gravel down, they leave the rest to helpless motorists and their vehicles. On one stretch from Hamilton to Auckland, my husband and I, along with an impressive and steady caravan of cars, zipped along at 29 miles an hour. We probably could have gone faster but when the natives are poking along as well, there must be something to the road signs warning you about windshield damage.  The noise from all the gravel was deafening, but everyone was so civil….mostly I suspect from resignation.  It lasted about 15 minutes and then it was over except for the sound of all the gravel in our hub caps and in the underbelly of our rental.
I suspect that early Fall is a big time for road construction because in certain areas we stumbled on it but it wasn’t a huge problem. We did lose some time, but as always, the scenery was fantastic as we crawled along.

Creatures, Birds, Plants and Trees    Frogs.  In New Zealand, frogs are among the most ancient. They were carried to NZ by the continental drift millions of years ago. They have no eardrums and do not call or croak. They use their mouth to catch, not their tongue. They lay small numbers of large yolky eggs in moist places but not underwater. Tadpoles grow inside the eggs and hatch as tailed froglets. Although, they don’t have a tail, they are born with tail-wagging muscles. (I wonder what happens when they get excited. Do those tail-wagging muscles react in some way?)

Black Swans.   New Zealand only has black swans which are native to this country. They are considered somewhat of a nuisance because of their numbers. We saw them many times all over the North Island and always in large numbers. They do not have white swans.

The Kiwi bird is nocturnal and very shy. We never saw one while there except the stuffed variety in museums. One hundred years ago, they were in the millions, but apparently, ‘they’re good eatin”. They were overhunted and new predators, especially dogs and cats, were introduced to New Zealand and now they are seriously endangered. Approximately 20% of the kiwi population is under management.
In management areas where predators are controlled, 50-60% of chicks survive. When areas are not under management, 95% of kiwi die before reaching breeding age. We saw several signs for managed areas. Sorry we never saw one of these unusual birds. They don’t fly, their feathers are like hair and they have nostrils at the end of their beaks. There eggs are very large and a new born chick has enough nutrition in its belly to survive almost a week without a feeding. They behave more like mammals and at times have been called “honorary mammals”. (I wonder how the other birds feel about them.)

Plants, trees and things I couldn’t identify   This is one of the aspects of visiting New Zealand which I had expected but when it happened, I felt like I fell into a crevice in the ground and ended up in Jurassic Park. New Zealand is a Disneyland of Weirdness (although I haven’t been to Australia yet and suspect they top NZ.) Fern trees abound, their trunks long and spindly. Then, there are the trees that belong in the land of Jack and the Bean Stalk. (I can say the same for the three-story tall stone cairn we saw in downtown Auckland’s Albert Park. I suggest avoiding it in an earthquake.)
I was fascinated by all the moss growing on trees. Often, they were thick like a hipster’s beard.  Other things grew on trees like jewelry, like these cranberry colored whatever-you-call-them. While on a track near the Huka Falls, I became obsessed with all these things I couldn’t identify. I wanted to know more. I realized a huge appreciation for botantists and dendrologists, and vowed to hire a guide next time we explored forests in New Zealand.

New Zealand is a geological wonder. You can drive in farmlands that are awash in the most vibrant green. I think God added extra pigment to the color green in the land of the Kiwi. And, to shake things up (literally), he made it a place of earthquakes and volcanoes. In those rolling hills of wheat, grapes, orchards, and kiwi fruit, you will spot small peaks covered in grass. In a drive from Rotorua to Lake Taupo, we kept noticing them everywhere. Then it hit us. They were probably dormant “vents” formed to relieve pressure from volcanoes nearby. If they were in the States, they would have been the playground for dirt bikes and land-altering vehicles of pleasure. Here, they were just part of the blindingly green landscape.


New Zealanders (also called Kiwis)   Since they are under the commonwealth of Britain, they have manners. They know how to stand in a queue which is something I totally respect after visiting Italy and Greece. They like order, something we noticed in particular at cafes, and New Zealand has a lot of cafes. You go to the counter and place your order. Staff will deliver it to your table. On your table, you will find drinking glasses with cutlery wrapped in a napkin and placed in the center. Just from observation, I noticed that staff was intent on keeping everything in order. Not just neat and tidy, but keeping a system in place. I suspect it is a system that has been in place for generations. If you put something back in the wrong place, it is quickly corrected. Not with judgment but out of necessity for their own sanity.

Miscellaneous Stuff about New Zealand  I never saw a mega cinema house like here in the States, but we never ventured into the suburbs of Auckland, the biggest city. There are small, 2-3 screen theaters in mid-sized towns. Where we went there appeared to be only two people working there. The cashier, a harried-looking woman, also worked the concession area. We saw her later cleaning up after the movie. From our one experience seeing a movie, all three movies started at the same time. We all queued in the same line. Then at the appropriate time, the other person working in the theater, made his appearance; yelled out the name of your movie (we saw Lion) and said anyone viewing that movie to come forward quickly. And, that’s what we did in an orderly fashion.  No stampede like when the airlines start their cattle calls based on your status, starting with cream of the crop to crumbs of society. [That is another topic for discussion some other day. The shaming of passengers based on status. Ugh.]  And, perhaps the most remarkable thing we witnessed:  no commercials before the movie.  Zip.  All I could think was “lost revenue”.



New Zealand-The North Island

West of Coromandel, on the scenic route along Firth Bay

I started planning for this trip to New Zealand five months ago and in a couple of hours, we will be boarding our flight to San Francisco, then on to Auckland, New Zealand.   I am having trouble wrapping my head around the fact that we are leaving tonight (Thursday) at 11 pm from SFO and will arrive in Auckland shortly after sunrise on SATURDAY.  Equally weird, on our return, we leave on a Tuesday at 2 pm and our plane touches down here in Austin the same day, an hour later.

I knew a little bit about New Zealand, but planning the trip was more of a challenge than usual because I simply didn’t know the lay of the land.  One of the challenges has been the names of  towns.  A large portion of the names are in Maori, an Eastern Polynesian language spoken by the Māori people, the indigenous population of New Zealand.  I did learn that the vowels are pronounced the same as in the Spanish language.  One major difference is WH Is generally pronounced like an F (the top front teeth and bottom lip barely touch).  A significant thing to know since a lot of towns start with Wh.

There is one name of a town in New Zealand that would stump most people and that is the longest name place of any in the world per the Guiness World Records.  Located near Porangahau in Hawke’s Bay (North Island wine country) is Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu”, which translates into English as “the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as ‘landeater’, played his flute to his loved one.” Locals simply call it Taumata Hill.  


What’s up today

Getting ready for a four-day trip to the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. We’re heading there for the wedding of Dean’s niece, Sian. We’ve rented an apartment just off South Street in the Old City area. Lots of restaurants and bars in this area and easy access to the city. Many years ago, I worked for over a month in Philadelphia at a client site, commuting from DC by train on Sunday night and returning on Friday evening. That was in the days of ridiculously lax expense accounts and I dined like a queen who didn’t carry a wallet.  Food never tasted so good.

Joining us are Alex and Caroline, Dean’s brother and sister-in-law, who we adore. They also live in Austin (which is one of the reasons we moved here). Anyway, looking forward to exploring the city together. First on my list, the Barnes Foundation, which is believed to be the greatest private collection of post-impressionist and early modern art in America.

I’ve been reading menus of restaurants and have zeroed in on a couple, most within walking distance of where we will be staying. Not certain if everyone will be on board with me, which is OK. There’s a bourbon pub/café nearby and I’m betting Alex (Mr. Bourbon) has already found it on the Web. Although, Alex is in China right now and arriving after we get there.   Perhaps he should be sipping warm water and not alcohol while recuperating from jet lag. Nah….

Yum Yum. I say num-num – Bon Appetit?

What the hell is going on with Bon Appetit magazine?  I have been a subscriber for decades.  (My yearly subscriptions was actually a tax write-off when I was a food critic in Ann Arbor.)  Now, I am questioning whether to renew my subscription, although I probably have paid ahead into 2030 because of the incessant renewal requests.

All of the sudden, the font is size 8 (or less) and often is almost the same color as the friggin background.  Yeah, I know.  BA is going after the younger audience, but hey, I still cook using new recipes.  I still want to crawl in bed at night with my foodie magazine and get so hungry I find myself in the pantry with a flashlight.

However, the most irritating and unjustified offense of the magazine:  size 8 font and often close to the same color as the background.  Right now, I’m looking at directions for making a classic martini.  Under Do the Twist (like in a lemon), the font is size 7, medium gray ink, with a similar background color.  I need a magnifying glass.  I need a martini.

I’ve always enjoyed going to the magazine’s r.s.v.p section.  This is where readers request the recipe of a favorite dish they had in a restaurant, and BA gets the restaurant to let them publish it.  It’s a good way to see what people are eating when they dine out.  This month’s r.s.v.p. section has recipes for stuff like  Tofu Yum-Yum Bowl (I say Yuck-Yuck), Lentil Croquettes with Watercress and Kefir  (Keifer Sutherland?),  Ham and Pea Pies, ….and this month’s dessert,  Miso Doughnuts.  For the love of God, where is this country headed?

More grumbling to follow.  There’s Food & Wine magazine…

The Easter Bunny is a Fraud but It’s OK. He’s the One with the Chocolate.

I’m kind of a grump when it comes to the Easter Bunny. At a very early age, my mother was instrumental in curing me of that holiday myth.  I was around 6 years old. A few of my friends in the neighborhood were over and we were getting ready to decorate eggs in our kitchen. While we were all waiting for the boiled eggs to chill down, my mother motioned for me to follow her out into the hallway. She put her hands on my shoulders, leaned in and said, “I want you to know something. There is no stupid Easter Bunny. It is just one more stupid American tradition that gives kids a bunch of candy.”  (I should also mention that she hated Halloween.) She was angry now, and said, “It’s when Christ died on the cross for our sins.  Americans always have to make religious holidays into something commercial. So, just remember, Christ on the cross, no Easter Bunny. Now. Go back to your friends, and don’t tell them what I said.”

So when I tell you this story, imagine a wide-eyed, curly-haired, skinny kid looking up at her mother who had a very thick Mexican accent. (I often had to translate to my friends what she was saying.) I accepted what my mom said. I had already become suspicious about the whole bunny story, but wasn’t quite ready to give up on an Easter basket full of chocolate. The hardest thing for me that day was going back into that room. Would they be able to tell what had happened by just looking at me? Would they pry out the ugly truth, burst into tears, then run home to their moms crying? My God. I would forever be known as the kid who killed the Easter Bunny.  My mother, well, she would have to leave town. Continue reading

I came for the powdered sugar and the butter.

Last night, my husband and I dined in the kitchen of the wonderful French restaurant and bakery, Artisan Bistro.  We weren’t alone. There were ten of us who signed up for a cooking class on a night when the restaurant is normally closed. Seating was set up around the wrap around bar facing an open kitchen. The area was intimate, cozy and romantic, with low lighting and beautifully arranged place settings. Most importantly, we all had a bird’s eye view of the chef at work.
The Executive Chef, Cesidio d’Andrea, is also the receptionist, chef, owner, sommelier, waiter, and busboy. I’ll get back to the reason for why Chef Cesidio is wearing so many hats in his restaurant, but for now, just know that he can multi-task as efficiently as any soccer mom caring for a family of five.
As our group arrived, D’Andrea was quietly taking care of final preparations, cutting slices of bread, bringing out bottles of chilled water with slices of lemon or fennel, checking off people’s names from the reservation list, all while we took seats at the bar and obediently waited to find out what was happening next. I was beginning to think this was going to be a mime performance, but, finally, he broke the silence by asking if any of us wanted to order wine. Expressions of relief appeared on everyone’s faces.  (No one likes a mime.) Continue reading

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

It seemed like a good idea, taking the Copper Canyon Train to Chihuahua.  The brochure said it had a glass-topped roof. I imagined myself watching the splendid gorges while sipping rice water in clay mugs.

The train was overbooked and I felt lucky to find a seat. An elderly woman, with hips that spilled over onto my seat, ate raw radishes and grilled onions. ChicharronesShe offered me crispy Chicharrónes with fried hair that glistened in the sunlight. I declined. She looked offended, heaved a sigh and her hips multiplied by a factor of ten. She had been holding back.

I tried to imagine being somewhere else, but it wouldn’t work. I got up and looked for the glass roof. My body moved between the swaying cars like a drunken crab. I asked about the glass roof. No one had seen it.

I started regretting giving up my seat. Where was this stupid glass roof.

Then I saw a man greedily sprawled out on four seats, one arm tucked under his head like a pillow. I approached the man and demanded he sit up like everyone else. Looking around at no one in particular, I yelled, “He’s taking up four seats”.

A woman leaned forward and placed her hand on my shoulder with the grip of a rock climber. Her eyes were so far apart that it was hard to stay put on just one. Maybe nature had made room for three, but somewhere in the womb, the Cyclops eye had been forgotten. I heard her say, “Leave him be. The poor soul fell over dead half way across the canyon.”

At that moment, not being able to look this woman directly in the eye was a blessing. All I could think was I had just yelled at a dead man. Someone needed to give me a hat with “jerk” written across the front.

I never found the glass roof that day and I don’t recall much about the train ride after my encounter with the dead guy. I do remember that I never found a seat again but, at that point, I didn’t think I deserved one.

Note to Reader:  Copper Canyon (Barrancas del Cobre) is located in the southwestern corner of the state of Chihuahua in northern Mexico.  It is larger than the Grand Canyon in Arizona and deeper in some areas.  The canyons were formed by six rivers which drain into the western side of the Sierra Tarahumara (a part of the Sierra Madre Occidental.)

Why I hate traveling with a purse (Part I)

I was running along the road leading to the airport’s parking structure, and the cold air was making my lungs ache. Snow was steadily falling, and I didn’t want to think what my hair looked like. Earlier, when I arrived at my gate, I realized my purse was in my parked car in the airport’s massive parking structure. The airline clerk told me I had only ten minutes before boarding.

I had brashly decided I could make the quick dash in time. So here I was pushing my middle-aged, out of shape body along a slippery roadway, my keys in my hand, ready to unlock my car, grab my purse and make one more dash back to my departure gate. A friend was waiting there where we had a flight to Chicago.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the white van coming from behind. Too late, ice cold slush and mud slapped one side of me as the driver carelessly drove too close to the curb. I cursed insanely but kept running. A pain in my right knee was quickly starting to creep up my left buttock. I was almost there, but to my horror, when I looked down at my keys, I realized they had slipped off the holder. I thought about crying but opted to retrace my steps. Half way back I found the keys where they had silently fallen in the snow.   No time to spare now.  The pain in my buttock was becoming debilitating. Some of the sludge had crept down my sweater and was melting into my bra.  The snow in my hair had long ago melted.  Lovely.

I was in the structure now and in sight of my car. Despite frozen fingers, I unlocked my car, reached in and grabbed my purse from behind the driver’s seat. I was literally screaming in my head the sole word, RUN, but my feet might as well have been bricks, and the pain in my buttock had become unbearable.  Then, I realized I was shamelessly massaging my buttock like a baker kneads his dough. I thought to myself, the IT band screwed up again. Argh. Running had now become out of the question, but if I didn’t I was never going to make it back in time. Then I discovered if I ran pigeon-toed, it didn’t hurt quite as much. I should emphasize, this was an exaggerated pigeon-toed run.  (On a scale of one to ten when it comes to walking pigeon-toed, I would say I was a #9) which also meant that my arms tended to fly around like, well, like a deranged person. I was now scaring people as I approached them. Some even gathered their children closer to them, their expressions revealing both fear and revulsion.  Others just stopped and stared.  Perhaps, somewhere on YouTube, is a video of a horribly pigeon-toed, crazed and mud-drenched woman with wet hair running through an airport with arms swinging in every direction.  In it you can hear a steady stream of profanity.

The sign read Gate 35. “Finally”, I breathed under my breath. My friend was pacing in front of the gate. The look on her face when she first saw me could have said it all, but she felt compelled to say, “You’ve aged ten years.”  Cancelled flights PixBut, I didn’t care about that. I was looking at the message board above me which read, “Flight delayed.”

Don’t Call Me Darlin’ Unless You Mean It.

Just back from New Orleans. Note to self: Make sure it isn’t spring break when you go any place, and especially if it is a town like New Orleans, where tourists, who have vocations like a pharmacist in rural Iowa or a seamstress in Spokane, turn into loud, obnoxious party animals the moment they land.

Aside from that, the city has definitely bounced back. Locals could probably point out failings that a tourist misses, although some things never change in Louisiana: The roads are still as silky smooth as any highway in war-torn Syria.   One thing that really resonated with me though is that architecture is being preserved at a level I’ve never seen before.   From the looks of it, this town must have superb craftsmen/women. St. Charles Street has always been a shining star in the town, but dive into the side streets and you will see houses being brought back to their former glory.

MenuThe food scene is bursting at the seams.  (Literally.  I had to let my belt out.)   There’s real talent out there and picking a place to dine is difficult if you are only there a few days.  I made reservations weeks ahead of time for lunch at Commander’s Palace. Our friends, Bruce & Kincey from Annapolis, had met us for this trip and I wanted them to experience Old South atmosphere, the best gumbo, and 25 cent martinis, Monday-Friday (lunch only). I prefer mine low down and dirty (which means a lot of olive juice with glistening slivers of ice). There’s a three-drink-per-person limit, which would be a disappointment for the  pharmacist from Iowa, but suited me just fine.  And, unless you have been living in a Louisiana pothole for the last couple of decades, Commander’s Palace has won enough awards that it could rest on its laurels for twenty years, but it isn’t that kind of place.

We went to Mother’s on Poydras Street, a local and tourist favorite, but honestly, my memories of it were much more favorable last visit. You are paying for nostalgia, like the servers who I bet started working there when the “big storm” then was Hurricane Betsy (1965), and not Katrina. You can’t go into that place without someone calling you baby, honey or darlin’.  Our server bounced from one table to another, always peppering her  conversations with darlin’ this and darlin’ that.  I suspect tourists eat that up (the more darlin’s – the better the server’s gratuity.)   There is a charm in it all, but I can’t help questioning the sincerity, like the boyfriend who starts calling you “my precious”, then you notice he calls his dog, the neighbor’s parakeet and his pet cactus “my precious”.  Is the food good?  Yes, but I wouldn’t say it was remarkable (or even memorable), although I will say going there is going back to the New Orleans I remember as a kid.  Go for just that, but in all likelihood, expect to stand in line. (more…)