The Supermarket Chronicles XII: Shuck and Slurp

Cigna's first oyster. Sarah's not much of a raw shellfish fan

Cian’s first oyster.  Sarah’s not a fan

Faithful readers may recall a couple years back my sister’s fiancé’s daring initiation into Cape Cod cuisine.  That particular post was featured on the Cape Cod Times website and to this day is still one of my most viewed articles (you’re welcome, Nathan!).  Clearly, my family has an unusual fondness for seafood.  Now, you may not feel that landlocked Vermont would be the ideal venue for shellfish experiments.  We were visiting the Green Mountain State to enjoy winter sports (post coming soon), and the Powell clan descended on The Farmhouse Tap and Grill in Burlington for a sumptuous New Year’s Day dinner, including $1 raw oysters from choice New England beaches.  If you’re trying to navigate the array of downtown Burlington restaurants, The Farmhouse comes highly recommended.  My father and I sucked down a half dozen oysters each before our meal, and intrigued by the process, Cian wanted to try one (he’s our more adventurous eater.  There are only about seven foods Áine deems acceptable).  Since consuming raw shellfish in Nigeria is, um, not suggested, we thought we’d give it a go.  Tender, sweet and cheap, it was the perfect opportunity, and Cian was feeling brave.

 

Signs of a New Year III

Another amazing year abroad, another weird sign safari year.  2016 features gems from Nigeria, Norway, and the USA.  If you’re new to Domestic Departure, please also check out the Signs of a New Year collections from 2015 and 2014.

Happy New Year, folks!  As always, thanks for reading and we wish you an adventurous and inspiring 2017!

Why We Do This

In December, I’m reminded this expat lifestyle comes with some sacrifices.  When I was young, the only more special night than Christmas Eve during the Holiday season was the night we decorated the house, a day chosen with purpose by my mother.  She would carefully set aside the year-round knickknacks and replace them with Holiday decorations, and my father would fight and cuss for a couple hours at the tangled tree lights.  My sister and I were in charge of decorating the Christmas tree with baubles passed through generations and dilapidated ornaments made in our elementary school classes, as my parents enjoyed a glass of cognac and watched in the glow of the Christmas tree.  A draft of cold, clean air would gust into the house when another log was retrieved for the fire, and old carols played from the stereo.  They were magical evenings, rituals honoring hearth and home that held a domestic comfort of glow and warmth despite the stinging chill outside.

Oh, Tannenbaum

Oh, Tannenbaum

I’ll be honest- our attempts to recreate this here in Nigeria have been only marginally successful.  To make the morning special, Cian and Áine switched between helping Sarah make Holiday French toast and decorating the tree.  The multicolored tree lights only flash, and the ornaments are cheap, plastic facsimiles of traditional decorations.  Sarah found a collection of carols, but they were renditions we thankfully didn’t recognize.  The whole thing was over in a half hour, and afterwards I put on shorts and went for my tennis lesson and the kids went swimming to stave off the African heat.  Perhaps it is only self-induced disappointment that my children are not getting an experience similar to the memory I treasure.  After all, this is what they know, the kids thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and Áine is very proud of the tree she decorated (but then, eventually so was Charlie Brown).  There just seems to be a loss of tradition, a lack of that magic.  It’s fleeting, but for a moment I felt a tinge of nostalgia for chopping wood, drinking warm apple cider and watching the fire wafting in the wood stove on a cold winter’s night.

A shipwreck along the shore

A shipwreck along the shore.  Photo by Megan Bagdonas

Like my Jewish friends in the States who order Chinese food and hit the movie theater on Christmas Day, the Id Holidays back in September or the one coming up next weekend sends us nonMuslim expats to the ocean.  Earlier this year, a group of us were invited to the US Consulate beach hut, a 30 minute boat ride down the lagoon and out of Lagos.  Despite the thick line of rubbish marking the high tide line and the dangerous surf that makes swimming prohibited, the kids were still able to get ridiculously sandy, and we enjoyed a day out of the city among the palm trees and ocean air.  With coolers of beer and trays of potluck food to accompany the barbecue, we lazed under the thatched pavilion and watched the waves crash onto shore.

Squatting like he was raised in a developing country. I love it.

Squatting like he was raised in a developing country. I love it.

Every once in awhile, as we move through this crazy international life that we’ve created, there are moments that remind me how truly extraordinary it all is.  They are heart stopping moments, when goosebumps ride up my arms, and they are moments of clarity, when the everyday washes away and I step out of the routine box and realize what we are truly experiencing.  At one point on the beach back in September, Cian and his friend Matteo went missing.  With riptides strong enough to drown adults, it was a moment of panic.  Adrian and I raced onto the beach scouring the horizon for the boys.  In the distance were a group of Nigerians chanting, pulling on a thick rope from the sea.  There in the middle of the African cluster were Cian and Matteo, their white skin in sharp contrast to their new friends as they tried to help drag in an enormous fishing net.  After the wave of relief and anger for going astray without permission, I had one of those moments.  As the fishermen tugged on the nets to the beat of their chants, Cian and his friends, trying to help, were pulled along the rope’s length, falling in the sand on a random beach in western Africa, laughing and being helped up by the Nigerians.  It is these moments, when we may not be experiencing anything grand, but participating in our adopted culture and people, I’m reminded why we do this.  We may not have chestnuts or Jack Frost, but what we do have is also something special.

 

Nigerian Culture Day II: Celebrating the South South

NigeriaPerhaps as a backlash to the reactions when outsiders hear we live in Nigeria, perhaps because of occasional life obstacles we face, our international community is defiantly proud to call Nigeria our home.  Therefore, students count down to our Nigerian Culture Day in the same manner as Christmas.  It is a whole school, all day event, and our PTO, teachers and community pull all the stops.  Stalls of Nigerian food fill the basketball annex, a traditional crafts market covers the tennis courts, and throughout the school, there are workshop sessions, cultural lessons and a variety of entertainment.  Our Nigerian faculty and staff relish the day as well; even the housekeepers from our campus apartments come out to witness the school’s transformation into a celebration of all that is Nigeria.  I saw Joy no less than three different times rummaging just through the food stands.  Despite our host country’s dangerous reputation and plummeting economy, this expatriate tribute glimmers with hope, and the Nigerians of our community rightfully swell with pride.

At the assembly

At the assembly

While last year we celebrated the Fulani and Hausa people of northern Nigeria, this year’s focus was the southern region, known in Nigeria as South South.  The predominant tribe is Igbo (pronounced ee-bo), who have a culture, dress and language distinct from the Yoruba, the tribe native to the western region of Nigeria, including Lagos.  During the late ’60’s, parts of the South South attempted to secede, creating the state of Biafra.  After a three year civil war and an import blockade that killed hundreds of thousands to millions from starvation, Biafran forces surrendered and the region was reabsorbed into Nigeria. That independent strength of the Igbo people, however, is still present.  The South South is also home to the Niger River delta, one of the largest wetlands in the world and the source of Nigerian oil,  which comes with a host of environmental and political issues.  The once verdant delta is too polluted to support its wildlife, and many residents consider the oil business a form of modern colonialism.  As a result, regions of the delta are now more dangerous than the northern districts infested with Boko Haram, and we regularly hear of sabotage and kidnappings in the South South.

Despite this, Igboland is still rich with culture and tradition.  White shirts are traditional, with distinctive black hats, wrap, and walking stick for men and beads with ornate head scarves for women.  Our students wore them with flair.  As I wandered around campus chaperoning my students, I would get an occasional glimpse of my own kids, also decked out in Nigerian garb with their schoolmates, whose nationalities span over fifty countries.  It was a profound reminder of how influential and extraordinary living abroad has been for our family.  At the American International School of Lagos, diversity is the standard, yet on Nigerian Culture Day, for just a few moments, we celebrate the adopted Nigerian spirit in all of us.

 

Glitches and Changes

For those of you following Domestic Departure, you may have received an email link to a site that brought you nowhere.  I came up with all sorts of excuses, but what really happened was I hit the “publish” button instead of the “save” button in a moment of exhaustion typing late at night and sent out my incomplete rough draft to the entire world.  The completed Morocco post is below this one- sorry about that.

On another note, I filled my limit on blogging for free, so I bought my domain for more space.  Welcome to http://www.domesticdeparture.com!  Hope you enjoy the new digs, more updates on their way.  Stay tuned- lots to come!

On deck

Captivated by Marrakech

Into Jardin d'Issil

Into Jardins d’Issil

About twenty minutes outside of Marrakech, at the end of a dirt road separating the Moroccan desert from long aisles of olive trees, is Les Jardins d’Issil.  The twelve acres of meticulously landscaped and maintained gardens are the backdrop for a series of Lawrence of Arabia-style tents, complete with toilets, showers, beds, and air conditioning.  Butterflies drift across the paths between flowers, and birds chatter in the arches of bougainvillea.  Jardins d’Issil has a ten hole mini golf course and a pool, but our preferred place to relax at the end of the day was the restaurant’s patio (which caters amazing meals) with a glass of red wine surrounded by the soft glow of Moroccan lamps as the sunlight dwindled on the horizon.  The combination of sun and wind create the perfect temperature during the day and nights cool down enough for long pants with a short sleeved shirt.  Sarah called it “glamping”, glamorous camping, and that’s just what it was.   Continue reading

The Supermarket Chronicles XI: Discovering the Tastes of Morocco

As you know, the Supermarket Chronicles showcase the restaurant or grocery store treasures of our travels, ranging from the unappetizing to the bizarre.  I jot down a brief description, throw in a picture or two, you read it in horror, and I sit back and laugh like Bram Stoker’s Renfield.  It’s really a great relationship.  This episode of the chronicles, however, is going to take a 180° turn, perhaps just this once.

That’s because we just returned from Marrakech, Morocco, and my perspective on dining has done a 180° turn.

Lunch of chicken tagine and Moroccan bread

Lunch of chicken tagine and Moroccan bread

Tagines simmering at a traditional restaurant

Tagines simmering at a traditional restaurant

I don’t cook much, even less now that we’re living abroad, but I was raised to be at the least food savvy, so you can imagine my shame when I knew next to nothing about Moroccan cuisine.  Most meals are centered around the tagine, a large terracotta dish with a cone-shaped lid that originates from the indigenous Berber people of Morocco.  You load the dish with meat, veggies and spices, put it under a low heat, replace the cover, and let the whole thing stew.  The lid traps the evaporating water so precious to desert dwellers, while the terracotta gives a slight earthiness to the dish.  Like a slow cooker, the process makes the vegetables tender, the meat pull apart with a fork and the flavors blend for unbelievable results.

Each sunset was enjoyed with a bottle of luscious Moroccan wine, peanuts, and the only olives I've ever enjoyed, so fresh some still had stems.

Each sunset was enjoyed with a bottle of sumptuous Moroccan wine, peanuts, and the only olives I’ve ever liked, so fresh some still had stems.  Photobombed by Aine.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Breakfast was a refreshing assortment of traditional Moroccan breads, yogurt, fresh fruit and cheeses.  We were so impressed by our “hotel’s” restaurant (not really a hotel- I’ll explain in the next post), we never felt the need to venture out for dinner.  Each evening we put the kids to bed and relaxed for a delicious three course meal; those meals that, despite being full, you keep eating anyway because the taste is irresistible.  As a former French colony, France’s expertise in the kitchen combines with Moroccan exotic and fresh ingredients, resulting in sheer brilliance.  There was only one set menu per night, often a dish that I would never have chosen regularly, but each evening was more fantastic than the last.  Let me show you some examples:

Stay tuned, faithful readers, because there’s a post coming soon about our Moroccan adventures.  It’s just emotionally difficult to type now that I’m home scrounging my kids’ uneaten chicken nuggets and trying to exercise off the five pounds I gained on vacation while dreaming of my next tagine.

Morocco

A National Geographic Moment

Vicious kitties

Vicious kitties

We were just getting the kids to clean their plates and complete their nightly routine.  Suddenly, Sarah leapt supernaturally from the dining room table, wrapping the corner in midair and landing in the hallway, levitating the children with her, screaming, “John, do something!” I looked up from texting blankly, trying to figure out what was going on, when I saw the cats looking very suspicious.  They had caught a gecko from the porch and herded the poor thing into the house.  For anyone who has lived in the tropics, geckos are ubiquitous residents, usually found stuck to the walls and loitering around lights at night, quick to nab an unsuspecting insect.  Our cats spend much of their time climbing the bars of our porch to get at the many lizards in our backyard.  This time they were successful.

Desperate to escape, the gecko slipped between the cats’ paws, scurrying across the ground, but the cats were faster.  So, the lizard tried another tactic- it dropped its tail.  Like a nature documentary, Boris and Natasha were distracted by the thrashing tail as the rest of the gecko dove under the table.  Miraculously, I managed to clap a bowl over the speedy lizard and put him outside.  I could now rescue Sarah, bravely locked up in the bedroom with the kids.  Ten minutes after wrestling the tail from the cats, it still continued to twitch.

Behind Handlebar and Steering Wheel: Across America

Reserved motorcycle parking in our Connecticut drivewayMy love affair with motorcycling began as a coerced blind date.  I used to think bikers were a bunch of self-absorbed douche bags who cut you off on the highway riding a direct extension of their dicks.  Sarah’s brother (not a douche bag) has anywhere between 6 and 11 motorcycles in various states of repair, and he prodded me years ago to “just give riding a try”.  Half-hearted promises put me one evening at the local community college for the motorcycle safety course.  The first day was like an out-of-body experience, detached from the goings on as I wondered what the hell I was doing there.  It was in the parking lot, when the instructors put down cones for us to weave between, that I felt it.  I can’t quite describe the ‘it’- bike and body melding together, leaning into turns over the moving road, defying gravity- ‘it’ made the blood drain from my face in exhilaration.  At the end of the exercise, I ripped my helmet off and looked in astonishment at my instructor.  A trained motorcycle racer who noticed my previous scepticism, she nodded at me knowingly.  I bought myself a Suzuki V-Strom soon after and began commuting, touring New England, and riding through all four seasons while my truck stayed parked and abandoned in the driveway. Continue reading

Life, Great and Small, on the Salt Marsh

Salt marsh house

Salt marsh house

As we pulled our anything-but-chic rental van down the secluded gravel driveway to the house, we knew we had landed something special for the summer.  Flanked by the thick Northeastern coastal forests native to much of Connecticut, the lawn flared out on either side of the drive in a V, with the house settled in the center.  Through the multi-paneled front door was a breathtaking view into the house and out the back wall of windows to a vast tidal salt marsh.  As we got out of the van we were gobsmacked, awkwardly catatonic as the owner of the house sat inside waiting for us to enter.  The kids, however, a bit too accustomed to house rentals, ran inside screeching with delight before us, helping themselves to an excited and rapid self-guided tour.  Fortunately, our gracious hostess patiently smiled, as she was happy children would appreciate her home we rented for the summer.  After a few lessons on the house’s ins and outs, the owner left us and we found ourselves wandering around the property trying to take it all in.  “Well, it looks like your wife really came through for you,” said Sarah, who found the home on Airbnb. Continue reading

Sacré bleu! Canalboat Part Deux

Aine fighting off a fever on the train to Agen

Aine fighting off a fever on the train to Agen

Here was the plan, simple and elegant, designed by veteran travellers- Sarah, the kids and I would arrive in Paris at 6:30AM and sort out transportation to Agen, France, while Adrian’s plane comes in at 10:00.  Adrian Vibers me once he’s landed, we rendezvous at the train station, and we’re off to Agen where we meet my parents who guide us to the canalboat for a week excursion.  Wine, cheese, and salty, cured meats on deck while we coast through locks and canals of southwest France?  Mais oui!  Here’s what really happened- both kids were running fevers (Áine threw up on Sarah in flight), Adrian’s plane arrived an hour late, the internet was not working in Charles de Gaulle Airport for Viber, the annual French strikes stopped the trains to Agen and every transportation alternative was different and undecipherable depending on who you ask.  Zut alors!  Here was the solution- I procured directions to another Parisian train station, power-walked the airport to scour for Adrian (only to find him headed my way), scooped up the family and headed to a minibus that whisked us to Gare Montparnasse, hoping to catch a train there.  And here, mes amis, is the coup de grâce- we made it to Montparnasse at 12:20, racing for a 12:25 boarding and were informed that the train was full and we would not be allowed on.  So with a wink from the conductor, we rammed our oversized luggage onto a train we were 70% sure was going to Agen and hopped in without tickets. Soon, we were speeding south through the French countryside.  My parents never heard from us that day, so it was with fleeting hope they waited at the Agen station for the last Paris train to arrive, from which we disembarked, disheveled and exhausted, but intact and ready for a glass of wine.   Continue reading

This Summer’s Blockbuster

I’m sure like you, faithful readers, it’s been a busy and adventurous summer with lots to regale. I would tell you I haven’t had a moment to write, but somehow I did find hours of editing time to put together another movie trailer with Cian and Áine (you may remember last year’s award winner).  Posts on boating in France, an intrepid trip across America, and life on the Connecticut shore to soon follow.

Without further adieu, the kids and I humbly present to you this summer’s film drama.  Just soak it in.

The Supermarket Chronicles X: The Joy of Cooking

Not ordering from here (the blurry picture is because I took it covertly)

Not ordering from here (the blurry picture is because I took it covertly)

I don’t blame myself for avoiding Nigerian food.  Although street sellers are everywhere, fillets of raw meat sitting in the sun and covered with more flies than a Save the Children commercial isn’t that appealing.  There are many Nigerian restaurants as well, but when we’re eating out, we tend to eat where we can ease our homesick taste buds.  I do have the occasional shawarma, which is not Nigerian, and I’ve ordered the suya from our school’s cafeteria, but that isn’t anything more than spiced meat on a stick.  Before I left for the summer, I wanted to have a genuine Nigerian meal without getting intestinal worms.  So, I turned to Joy and the sanitation of my kitchen.

Preparation

Preparation. That log at the side is a yam.  Please disregard our mountain of laundry Joy can’t work on because she’s making me lunch

Our housekeeper has worked with expat teachers for years, and cooks for the Western palate well.  The pizza Joy baked last week was outstanding.  Joy and I have a great relationship.  I love to poke fun at all things oyingbo (white people) and make her laugh about things she’s not supposed to, and we joke that I take over for her as the night shift (this is true- my nightly chores earn me dart playing rights).  When I asked her if she could make me a Nigerian lunch she agreed, but I could tell she was suspicious of my motives.  Why would I ever want to do that?

Serving

Serving

The Nigerian staple is the yam, not to be confused with sweet potato we in the States sometimes call yam. The enormous tuber accompanies many Nigerian meals, boiled and sliced or pounded into a mashed potato-like paste and eaten with your hands.  Joy decided on a simple Nigerian food warm up: onion, tomato, piri-piri and egg mixture with sliced yam.  Piri-piri is a hot chilli pepper pervasive in subsaharan African cuisine, which Joy cautiously toned down for my lunch.  She said it was too hot for oyingbo.  As the yam boiled away on the stove, she fried the vegetables in a bit too much oil and let it thicken before adding the whisked egg at the end.  The starchy yam disks were lightly salted and delicious, especially when eaten with the vegetable/egg relish.  I made reticent Sarah try a forkful, and suddenly I had to defend my plate from her having “just one more bite”.  I’ll admit I didn’t have much promise for Nigerian cuisine, but this beginner’s lunch put me ready to explore more when we return in August.

Yam with vegetables and egg

Yam with vegetables and egg

Loose Ends

On the beach in Cape Town

On the beach in Cape Town

I gave my last final this past Friday  and a suitcase in the corner of our bedroom has started to collect things to go home for the summer.  Suddenly, our first school year in Nigeria is finished.  Living abroad, my feelings of heading home for a couple months have always been bittersweet- while many of my fellow teachers have been counting down the days (as I used to when teaching in the States), I find myself more content.  Don’t get me wrong; a couple months visiting family and friends at home, having a break from my rowdy and rambunctious seventh graders, and enjoying more than one bagel sandwich and coffee from Dunkin Donuts will be glorious.  What’s gone is that feeling of desperation for a break.  I enjoy living this adventure.  Lagos may be a dump, but it’s my dump.

We’re off for a return trip to France and another canalboat this weekend, then to the Connecticut shore in a house rental for the remainder of the summer.  There will be some excitement and surprises these next couple months, so stay tuned!  In the meantime, here’s some picture odds and ends from the year.  As always, thanks for reading, folks!

For the full lesson, be sure to watch the whole video:

Nigeria

Along the Fjord: A School Trip to Norway

Norway

Leaving School

Growing up, the one thing I knew I would never be was a teacher. Watching my mother grade until one in the morning, volunteer evenings for endless nonsense celebrating mediocrity and take phone calls in the middle of the night when a student was killed in a car accident was not my idea of a blooming career.  After working in Malawi and returning home penniless, however, I substituted at my mother’s school system to get my life back in order and before I could stop it, I was blindsided by a teaching certificate and now I’m on my 15th teaching year.  One of my biggest motivators for going into education was to bring students abroad- I can’t describe what it’s like watching a student experience a new part of the world for the first time.  It’s pure magic and a reminder of the wonders of travelling.  After leading four trips from the States to Costa Rica, an adventure with students in Sumatra and a journey to Lombok, I feel like I have my chaperone feet well in the sand.  Taking privileged, Western students from a modern country to the developing world is a no-brainer, but where do you bring kids when you live in Nigeria? Continue reading

Into Africa’s Rugged Interior

Looking out onto the Congolese jungle

Looking down on the Congolese jungle from the air

Rwanda.  For my generation, the name still conjures horrific images of a ferocious civil war and the genocide of what many estimate a million people.  After a military victory ended the brutality, Rwanda seemed to drop out of the media and fade from attention.  Unsurprisingly, this small, central African country has never come up on my travel radar until living in Nigeria, where a few intrepid teachers and expats have returned with wondrous stories of mountainous landscapes and exciting creature encounters.  The weeks of school since winter vacation were monotonous enough to be devoid of blog fodder, and we were desperate for a commercial break from Lagos. Our travel agent this trip was our friend Darlene, who researched a number of tours until she landed one that would fit our group of five adults and four kids.  Soon we were flying east over the rainforests of Africa, which began as a vast ocean forest of green, then wrinkled into the central African mountains, spread below our plane like a disheveled emerald blanket.  I swear Adrian and I had every intention of looking through the itinerary before we left, but the frowns of disapproval from Darlene and Sarah when we didn’t know what we were doing day to day were worth it.   Continue reading

Winter’s Glamour

Cian, Aine and cousins Tavia and Lexi testing the sleigh

Cian, Aine and cousins Tavia and Lexi testing the sleigh

“I can see my breath!  It’s white!” Cian said excitedly after he walked out of Logan Airport a few weeks ago and, purposefully puffing, entered the New England Winter.  Our last Christmas in the States was in 2012, Áine was almost two and Cian was just entering the Age of Santa.  That year was a brutal winter, brutal enough to ensure our move to tropical Indonesia.  In fact, we couldn’t attend the international teaching job fair in Cambridge, MA that February because of an impenetrable three foot snowstorm, leading to our sudden and exuberant acceptance of the jobs in North Jakarta via Skype.  A stoic Nutmegger, I used to brave the four seasons with a certain gusto.  I vehemently refused the hydraulic log splitter and snow blower, because dammit, I could split wood with an axe and shovel snow like my ancestors with a shovel.  Now, with my return to New England just at the Solstice, when the days are gray and brief, my faux smile was put on for the kids and my feigned excitement for bitter, stinging, cold weather was a thin, pale veil of my current dread of winter.  It fucking sucks. Continue reading

Signs of a New Year II

Yes, it’s that time of year again.  My more sophisticated readers may find this post improper and immature, but then, so am I.  As we meander around our globe, I’m always on the lookout for some innovative use of the English language, misconstrued innocent mistakes, and the just plain weird.  At the end of this post should be a link to last year’s vibrant collection.

Another unbelievable year abroad!  Thanks for reading, folks, and Happy New Year!

The School Village: Life on Campus

A moment of peace

A moment of peace

I’m typing this cornered on my family room couch with six kids running around at top speed through the house.  They’re wearing masks and costumes, holding parasols for shields and using an assortment of proddy-type things as swords.  The boys have just stolen “The Treasure”, a random African gourd maraca, from the girls, and they are all swashbuckling their way around our pirate ship apartment.  Suddenly, there is a hunger emergency, and I find myself making six helpings of the latest food fad, peanut butter with butter sandwiches on toast.  One of the girls comes into the kitchen every 2 minutes to ask if I’m done yet while smoke is coming from the toaster and I’ve got peanut butter up to my elbows.  I enter with a stack of plates to a huzzah of “Yes!”, there’s about two minutes of quasi-quiet while their mouths are gummed up with peanut butter, then back to buccaneering.  A few minutes later one of them yells, “Let’s go to the Big Toy!!” (that’s the school playground), and they all drop their weapons and race out, slamming the door behind them, papers seemingly drifting down from the ceiling in the abrupt silence.  Whether after school or the weekend, this is the typical crazy because we all live together. Continue reading

Nigeria Through the Eyes of PBS

Below is a link to a recent PBS series on Nigeria, in which they discuss the growing financial disparity in the country, the effects of Boko Haram, and the progress and setbacks in the face of rapid, unorganised development in Africa’s largest growing economy.  It’s a fascinating look at the country, its hopes and its fears.  Many of the scenes in Lagos are shot on or near Victoria Island, our neighborhood.  These are places I jog by in the afternoon when school is done or pass on the way to the grocery store.  We have been watching the development of Eko Atlantic (and the subsequent destruction of Bar Beach, a once integral part of Victoria Island) since our arrival. Get an inside look into this pivotal time of Nigeria’s history.  Well, if for nothing else, the pictures and video are far superior to the blurry crud posted on this blog ;-).

Nigeria:  Pain and Promise

A Different Diaspora

IMG_5117This past Wednesday evening, I was Skyping with my parents about nothing in particular when something detonated loud and close to our apartment.  I glanced over at Sarah, who looked back puzzled, but we didn’t think much of it until the next explosion a minute later, just as loud and close.  Sarah’s puzzlement turned to panic as thoughts of Boko Haram and Islamic insurgents filled the unspoken space between us and the sounds continued.  “Mom, let me call you back,” I said, cutting off the phone call quickly.  I put on my shoes to investigate, while Sarah started to put the apartment in lock down.  She was going to bolt the door behind me and would only unlock it with a secret knock she demonstrated on the coffee table.  It seemed dramatic, but I went along with it.  I made my way to the nearest campus security guard, stationed at the gate that leads to our cluster of teacher apartments. Continue reading

Cape Town: At the Edge of the World

Getting out of Lagos was a Homeric epic.  Traffic and the airport was our Scylla and Charybdis, and Penelope, our stewardess, awaited us in the airplane, fearful we would never arrive.  We weren’t sure, either.  After a two and a half hour voyage across Lagos (for what should have been thirty minutes), it took us three and a half hours to traverse the airport’s line labyrinth and board the plane.  Nigeria has perfected the art of airport frustration.  The wait for the check-in counter alone was 90 minutes, and the technology they were using seemed no different than when I flew to Disney World in the fifth grade.  The Herculean labor of reaching the maroon uniformed woman at the entrance to the check-in corral was crushed by something very unexpected: as of June 2015, children travelling into or out of South Africa must come with an official copy of their birth certificate.  Without this, you cannot fly into the country, no exceptions.  No one had mentioned this new regulation, and we were scheduled to board the plane in mere hours.  For a moment, there was a silent panic between Sarah, Adrian, and I.  I looked beyond the check-in guard to a South African woman ahead of us, a mom of one of my students, who had been eavesdropping. “You’re fucked,” she whispered knowingly.   Continue reading

Shameless Selfpromotion

IMG_1217

Jeeping in Cambodia

Ashlee Brown Blewett over at Youshare Project surfed by this blog a couple weeks ago and asked me to contribute a piece about our adventures abroad.  The Domestic Departure story is now featured at Youshare, and a second article on my experience with traditional tattooing will appear November 3!  You may recognize much of the writing (because I severely plagiarized myself), but what an honor to submit our story.  Jump over and check it out, and be sure to read some of the other articles they’ve published, featuring “true, personal stories about life-shaping events or experiences”.  It’s a fascinating network that connects the human spirit, something our world is starving for.  If you like an article you’ve read or find one provocative, give it a heart and/or a comment at Youshare Project- these are the discussions that need to happen!

Thanks, Ashlee, and thank you, faithful readers, for keeping up with Domestic Departure- if you weren’t reading, I wouldn’t be writing!

The Supermarket Chronicles IX: Where’s the Beef?

While in Cape Town, South Africa this week (more of our vacation adventures soon), we were exploring the city’s scenic waterfront looking for something to tide us over in the afternoon before dinner.  In his typical Britglish, Adrian was feeling “peckish”.  We bumped into the exceedingly trendy Waterfront Food Market, a large, open brick building with a number of artisanal food venders.  You know, the type of place where hipster sellers are tripping over themselves to be food cool and try to outdo each other with words like “vegan”, “organic” or “raw”.  Spinach and artichoke heart samosas, homemade ginger and lemon yogurt, Indian dal empanadas, fancy infused vinegars in oddly shaped bottles, blah, blah, blah.

Cooking on the braai

Cooking on the braai

In the back corner, however, was Kubu, a kiosk specializing in venison, which in Africa means game meat.  Adrian and I immediately ordered one of everything and Sarah, appalled, diverted the kids to get ice cream so they wouldn’t see what cute African animals we were about to eat.  They grilled our selections inside, and the large amount of meat cooking at the same time soon fillied the lower part of the building with smoke.  We smiled devilishly as venders selling vegan desserts frowned with disgust.  The meat was served with chakalaka, a spicy South African vegetable relish.  We met up with Sarah and the kids moments later at a picnic table outside and dined under the bulk of Cape Town’s Table Mountain, beginning our survey of African meat.  Here’s a quick gastronomic review:

Ostrich:  More dense and steak-like than chicken, but with a chickenish taste.  One of my favorites.

Crocodile:  Rubbery and tough.  Not one of my favorites.

Zebra:  Filled with sinew and not very flavourful.  Lots of chewing with difficulty swallowing.  May not have have been the best cut of meat.

Warthog:  Tender and delicious, like a gamier flavor of pulled pork. My top choice.

Springbok:  A moist, flavorful steak.  For those of you that don’t know, we’ve been avidly following the rugby world cup.  As a Wales fan, I ate this cut of meat like a rabid dog after last Saturday’s game.

Kudu:  More dense and gamier than springbok.  Also very good.

Impala:  Very dry- I had to swill it down with sips of water of each bite.

By the time I had finished, I was full enough to feel like I really had eaten a safari.

This fearless gull kept trying to steal something from our plate

This fearless gull kept trying to steal something from our plate

Nigerian Cultural Day

Our middle school assistant, Mrs. Agnes

Mrs. Agnes

We’ve been living in Lagos for almost three months, and although we definitely feel like we’re in Africa, we haven’t really connected with the spirit of Nigeria.  Like any other large city in a developing country, Lagos’ desperation to become modern, especially here on Victoria Island, superimposes on its culture, particularly those practices that appear “uncivilized”.  Like we witnessed in Jakarta, the result is a city of people who are disconnected and shun their society’s traditions and beliefs in an effort to appear more Western.  For example, you will notice scar lines on the cheeks of many Nigerians.  Part of a rite of passage, individuals are marked with distinctive patterns to designate their tribe, an important identity throughout subSaharan Africa.  In terms of body modification, it’s not much different than putting holes in your ears for earrings or getting a tattoo.  Nigerians from Lagos, however, are discontinuing the practice, severing some of their tribal obligations.  It’s an unfortunate and inevitable loss in the blind race towards development.  Ironically, there are now individuals in more developed countries straw-grasping to retrieve or preserve the cultural practices of their ancestry lost through moderization.

My advisory

My advisory dressed for Nigerian Cultural Day

We had a taste of our host country’s vast cultural diversity last week during Nigerian Cultural Day, sponsored by our PTO.  Nigeria is home to over 500 ethnic groups, with an equivalent number of languages. The focus at our school this year was Northern Nigeria, inhabited by the Hausa and Fulani tribes.  Predominantly Sahel in environment, the peoples of the north are intrinsic in their dress, traditions and beliefs.  It is a fascinating area of the world mostly unvisitable due to the capricious violence of Boko Haram and other terrorist organizations sequestered in the region.  Although we knew Nigerian Cultural Day was approaching, we were unprepared for its extravagance.  Students arrived in brilliant traditional dress.  The morning assembly included processions, native dancing, and performances by Nigerian singers and the attendance of other famous Nigerians from the north.  We were able to taste and learn about northern foods, shop in a makeshift marketplace, watch horse racing, and break into small group sessions to make drums, raffia hats, get Henna tattoos, and try our hand at a host of other traditional customs.  It was inspiring to see our students from around the world take such pride in their host country, as well as to see our Nigerian students and staff being honored by our school.

Beachcombing in Lagos (?!)

Note:  Some pictures for this post were appropriated without consent from other beachgoers and are published here without their knowledge.  I’m ashamed enough to admit it, but not ashamed enough to remove them.

A typical Lagos Lagoon shoreline.  We're not swimming here

A typical Lagos Lagoon shoreline. We’re not swimming here

It’s traditional for the Muslim religious leaders and the Nigerian government to battle out the placement of the other week’s holiday, Eid al-Adha.  The confusion comes from trying to merge the lunar Islamic calendar with the solar Gregorian calendar.  The clerics wanted Wednesday and Thursday, and the government, probably for efficiency, preferred Thursday and Friday.  Nigerians (and us teachers) were talking more about which days we would have off than the unfortunate recent bombing in the northeast state of Borno.  On the Tuesday, it was decreed it would be Thursday/Friday, and due to the last minute decision, it was difficult for anyone to take advantage of this extended weekend and set off somewhere.  However, everyone needed something to do. Continue reading

imovie Retrospective

This is just a quick post to share with you a project the kids and I worked on this summer.  While we were on Cape Cod, Sarah had to head back to Connecticut for a few days to settle some emergency accommodation for our overpriced cats.  That meant I had the daunting task of having the kids by myself, with only a couple hours of sports camp to break up the incessant “When’s Mama coming home?”  In truth, our parenting and household chore skills had slightly gone the way of the couch potato while having a nanny around.  Like repeatedly opening an empty refrigerator hoping something will appear to eat, calling for help from Iin while sitting in America looking at the pile of dirty dishes in the sink and my kids eating sand out in the back will do no good.  As all parents know, the best way to keep kids out of trouble is to keep them overly busy until bedtime.  What we needed was a project.

How about a movie trailer?

I suppose since this is a blog about living abroad, I should probably throw in something a little more global nomad-ish.

Last November in Indonesia, teacher friend Ari organized a student trip to Lombok.  Brent, Darlene and I accompanied him on the trip as chaperones.  Here is a video collection of our adventure made by Brent.  Due to the blatant musical copyright law infringements, this video couldn’t be seen on Youtube until now.  Although, I’m not sure why the music is less infringed now than it was nine months ago…

I’ll be back soon with more from Nigeria!

Plastic Makes It Possible

Cian has fencing on Tuesdays. Touche!

Cian has fencing on Tuesdays. Touche!

There is very little to do in Lagos, especially for kids, so our school often becomes the AISL community’s hub of life.  A huge percent of our student population stays after school for sports and activities each weekday, and Saturday mornings have more sports and scouts.  Sometimes, however, when the shipping containers haven’t yet been unloaded with goodies and the limited supply of stock at the local stores feels more limited than usual, you have to get creative.

Like most developing countries, Nigeria does have a plethora of plastic water bottles.  Drinking tap water is suicide by diarrhea, an unfortunate and, I might guess, messy way to go.  So, when life gives you water bottles… make boats!  AISL has an annual plastic water bottle boat race at the pool.  The rules are simple- the only materials allowed are plastic water bottles, string and tape.  Each team has to bring two people (a rower and a passenger) across the length on the pool, drop them off at the other end, put two new people onto the boat and row back.  The only propulsion allowed is with the paddle. Continue reading

Book Two: Nigeria

Gigi with the great grandchildren: Cian, Karl, Cruz, Nina, and Aine

“GG” this summer with the great grandchildren (clockwise): Cian, Karl, Cruz, Nina, and Aine

“You are going to be the one to tell your grandmother,” my mother informed me after the dreadful silence over the phone last January when I admitted our next teaching post.  I already figured I was going to tell her, but hearing I had to spoke volumes about the whole situation.  My grandmother was raised in a remote Hungarian village until the age of 18, when she left for America alone, her appendix busting on the voyage over the Atlantic Ocean.  We’re convinced she is healthy at 95 because my grandmother is stress free knowing she’s absolutely right about everything.  If she gets irritated, my grandmother can give you a look that could down a charging bull, even to this day.  I have more admiration for her than almost anyone else on the planet, but the thought of telling her our next teaching post in person was, um, unpleasant. Continue reading

The Supermarket Chronicles VIII: Cape Cod Cuisine Customs

Chatham harbor

Chatham harbor

While spending the summer on Cape Cod, our vacation destination since childhood and a place that owns a part of our hearts, we trialled the area as a potential future home base in America.  Our rental cottage became a hub for visiting family and friends, such as my sister Jen and her exceedingly patient boyfriend Nathan (patience is an absolute necessity for dating my sister and spending time with the Powell clan).  Cape Cod requires the indulgence of certain delicacies, and Nathan has only been to the Cape a couple times, so it was our responsibility to provide an authentic experience.  Little neck clams raw are somewhat advanced for the uninitiated, so we started with them lightly grilled and topped with a bit of lemon juice, melted butter and Cholula sauce.  Apologies for the blurry pictures, but we were laughing so hard Jen couldn’t hold her phone still. Start at the top left picture for the unfolding drama.

A traditionally well documented rite of passage in the family is eating your first lobster, and when my parents came to visit for a few days, it was decreed by the current reigning matriarch (my mother) that it was time for Cian to attempt this milestone.  The kids had enjoyed going to the local Falmouth fish monger and peering into the lobster tanks, but actually bringing one home to cook was something else.  We adhered to the normal, strange and perhaps morbid customs of naming, petting, and racing the poor ocean bugs before unabashedly guillotining them lengthwise for the grill or dropping them live into boiling water.  Cian only had a few bites, but it was all that was needed to induct another member into the tribe.

How funny that we dignified Americans are disgusted by the “bizarre” foods of other countries.

Dear Indonesia,

Sleeping to Doha

Sleeping to Doha

Two years ago we came to you, a wayward orphan family escaping American suburbia to start a new chapter in life, and you took us in.  We brought little and had few expectations, and you generously nurtured and provided for us.  Our children now consider you their home.  Because of a job offer we couldn’t refuse, it’s time for us to move on.  I typed this to you on our flight back to New England for the summer.  Sarah and the kids were sound asleep with the rest of the passengers under the dim, backlit glow in Qatar Airway’s fuselage.  Just a few hours before we had our last meal with friends at La Piazza and said a tearful good-bye to our Indonesian family, Iin and Atik, after rushing to fit the last of Áine’s stuffed animals into the empty corners of our eight oversized suitcases and get to the airport on time.  When the plane took off, I couldn’t get myself to look out the window as you faded into the distance. Continue reading

Gili Air: One Last Indonesian Getaway

 GoPro footage courtesy of Caitlin Doonan and Brent Wingers.

What Gili Air is all about

Sarah has become both our financial advisor and our travel agent, which make for strange bedfellows.  We were looking in the face of our last vacation in Indonesia, an extended weekend holiday for the Ascensions of Jesus and Mohammed, just days away.  Our decision on what to do had become something of a cold war- I wanted to get out of Kelapa Gading and Sarah was advising against it.  We have big plans over the next few months, and Sarah’s purse strings were tightening.  Brent and Caitlin had already booked for their stay on Gili Air and what a better way to ruin a pre-wedding getaway than to invite a family with two overactive kids.  The more I tried to convince Sarah, the more she hesitated, so I resorted to my secret weapon- I sent Caitlin and Brent to sell the idea in the library while Sarah was working.  By the end of the day, we had plane tickets and a place to stay. Continue reading

The Supermarket Chronicles VII: Hook to Plate

On our recent island hop to Gili Air (one of our favorite trips this year; more on this soon) with friends Brent and Caitlin, restaurants used a brilliant strategy to lure in customers eager to take advantage of the fresh seafood.  Their catch of the day was displayed along the shoreline road that ran through the main tourist area of the island.  You pick from the array of fish, kebabs, fish steaks or shellfish, then relax at your table on the beach while they prepare and grill your choices.  The kids would play in the water and sand, taking small breaks to grab a snack, while the adults sat back with a beer, listened to island music and gazed over the beautiful aquamarine waters and the islands beyond.

Cian, however, still processing the “we eat dead things” concept, wasn’t quite sure how he felt about looking eye to eye at his forthcoming dinner.

Processing

Processing

Connecticut Yankees in a Jakarta Court

It was unspoken; we had to dress sharp, yet not over the top.  Our venue was the Ritz Carlton, Jakarta.  We got our bearings in the vast atrium lobby after stepping out of the only taxi arriving at the hotel’s porte cochère.

The Ritz Carlton Hotel

The Ritz Carlton Hotel

Past the trees decorated with cascading orchids, across from the hotel’s shoppe and through the featured temporary exhibit of artwork done in pressed gold, we made our way through to the grand staircase.

The medium is gold

Title: Horses Medium: gold

We were here for a kid’s birthday party.

Cian’s kindergarten friend Russel has a younger brother, George, who just turned one.  As soon as we arrived and posed for the customary picture at the photo stage, we dissolved into the hundreds of other guests.  Popcorn, cotton candy, chocolate, and candy stands, games of chance with prizes, a train ride and a clown and juggling performance on a custom designed theater filled the reception room.  The back wall’s buffet had choices ranging from traditional Indonesian dishes to salmon coulibiac and chicken cordon bleu to ice cream cake with a topping bar.  Cian quickly found his infamous posse of pseudo-naughty kindergarten friends and disappeared into the party, his face covered in blue cotton candy.  Aine, overwhelmed at first by the sounds and crowds, preferred to quietly spend her time dipping pink marshmallows in the chocolate fountain.

The disparity in this country never ceases to amaze me.

 

Indonesia Leaves Its Mark

Tau Taa Wana man from the remote forests of Central Sulawesi. Photo taken in 1997

Tau Taa Wana tribesman during a treck in the remote forests of Central Sulawesi. 1997

In a seeming intervention of Fate, Indonesia has repeatedly woven into my life.  My foreign exchange student experience here during high school was a rite of passage and a first sip of international travel.  After living in rural Malawi, Indonesia served as a staging ground, a familiar yet still developing country to catch my breath before Western world re-entry. I scuba dove the Celebes Sea, explored the jungles and highlands of Sulawesi, and immersed deeper into Bali.  Today, I type this in my family’s apartment overlooking the north Jakarta night, as undulating highway lights snake through a perpetually unfinished, dystopian skyline.  Almost unsurpassed in the world, Indonesia is blessed with the most attractive attributes I look for in a country.  Biology could have been one of my first words out of the womb, and a lifelong spiritual quest into ancient beliefs lends me an envious interest and a mission of reconnaissance with surviving indigenous people.  Malawi may have stolen my heart, but Indonesia owns my soul.   Continue reading

Mimi and Pa’s Epic Indonesian Adventure

Surreal- my parents at Tortuga!

Surreal- my parents at Tortuga!

There’s possibly no better way of rekindling your admiration and adoration for something incredible than sharing it with someone else.  The weekend before March Break, my parents arrived for a two week excursion through Jakarta and Bali, and we were about to share our Indonesia.  With the vacation careening towards us as we finalized grades and prepared for parent/teacher conferences, Sarah used her travel agent expertise, honed from our trip over Holiday break, to design a complete Balinese experience, and I threw something together for Jakarta the week before their arrival.  My parents have had to endure my retelling of Indonesian stories when I was a foreign exchange student here in high school and again during my backpacking days seven years after.  Now on our second year as expats, it was about time they came and made some stories of their own to tell.  More importantly, as the person who ripped their grandchildren from their clutches and moved them as far as you can get outside of the moon, I wanted to show them why we believe it is all worth it.  Even at my age, I’m still haunted by my desire for parental approval. Continue reading

Life’s Traffic on Our Jakarta Street

Jalan Gading Kirana

Jalan Gading Kirana

This year Sarah, Cian and I pass up our school’s shuttle and walk to NJIS, while Áine heads to her preschool with our nanny a bit later.  It’s about ten minutes from the apartment complex to our school along Jalan Gading Kirana (jalan is street in Indonesian).  At the halfway point we cross the treacherous Jalan Raya Boulevard Barat, a major Kelapa Gading artery connecting the toll road and the rest of the Jakartan megalopolis to our three shopping malls.  It’s a Frogger game of speeding vehicles heavily spiced with motorcycles and mopeds haphazardly weaving between cars.  In now unspoken ritual, I hand over the lunch bag to Sarah and pick up Cian, who holds out his hand in an attempt to stop the oncoming cars.  The crossing is part strategy, part “step off the curb with our breath held”, trusting someone will let us through.  There seems to be no Indonesian consensus for pedestrian rights. Some cars stop, others swerve around you without slowing.  Some flash their lights to let you pass, others flash to let you know they’re not stopping.  Add the driver-distracting variable that we are a bule (white) family doing the crossing, and it can get interesting.  Fortunately, the return home in the afternoon is less thrilling, as the traffic by that time is so congested we can walk right through the gridlock. Continue reading

Seeking Solace on Indonesia’s Secluded Island Jewel

KeiWhen you are getting battered from all sides long enough, a small voice tells you at some point its time to stop swimming upstream, step out of the river and get your head together. As Chinese New Year approached, a four-day weekend for our school, I was mulling around a few travel options. Sarah had already decided to stay home with the kids but was graciously encouraging me to go somewhere, perhaps tag along with some friends and sort myself out. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on what I needed. The morning before vacation began, I woke up with a nagging urge to just drop off the planet. I opened my computer, dove to the Lion Air website (a cheap Indonesian airline that covers much of the archipelago), clicked on their routes map, and looked for their most remote destination.  Straight across the country from Jakarta, just south of the Papuan Bird’s Head Peninsula and on the northern edge of the mystical sounding Arafura Sea, was the word “Tual”. The spick of land was so small, the labeling dot spread completely over it.  Damn it, that’s where I would go.  After getting clearance from Sarah, who was already rubbing her hands together at the potential for reciprocity through Internet shopping, I bought my surprisingly cheap tickets after work to fly out the next night. Continue reading

The Mainland Trilogy 3: Thailand

The juxtaposition that is Bangkok

The juxtaposition that is Bangkok

My last visit to Bangkok was in 1997.  I was backpacking my way home east after a two-year stint in Malawi and meandering south through Thailand, heading down into Malaysia to then drop off the edge of the peninsula into Indonesia.  My fellow wayfaring friends and I were staying in the Bangkok backpacker haven Khaosan Road.  I was immersed in my 20’s and lacked anything remotely resembling responsibilities.  My arrival into Bangkok this time was not quite the same.  1997- hoisted up my backpack, bring it on!  2015- limped a cart overflowing with luggage and a ripped bag of snacks, leaving a Hansel and Gretal trail through international arrivals with two peanut butter-faced kids being corralled by two disheveled parents. Continue reading

The Supermarket Chronicles VI: Scarves and Snacks

Yep- Vietnam strikes again.  We were touring a silk factory, watching women laboriously boil silkworm cocoons in large, metal tanks, then expertly thread the cocoons onto a spinning machine.  Doing so, the cocoons bob and spin like tops floating at the water’s surface as their silk quickly unravels onto the spool above.  What’s left is the brown, alien looking pupae, which are skimmed from the surface and set aside.  I asked Mr. Chien what happens to the pupae once the process is complete.  You know that feeling when you’re shutting a locked car door while looking at the car keys laying on the driver seat?  As my mouth was asking Mr. Chien the question, my brain was screaming to shut up.

“We eat them as a snack,”  Mr. Chien said.  Of course you do.

Quickly I changed the subject to the next stage of silk production, the weaving machines, but the jinx had already been placed.  On our way out of the factory, just as I started to feel safe, I encounter this at the door:

Not roasted peanuts

Not roasted peanuts

Damn you, Supermarket Chronicles!  I liked this series better when I wasn’t doing any eating.

(Actually, I ate a few.  Warm and salted with a cold beer, they wouldn’t have been half bad.)

The Mainland Trilogy 2: Vietnam

IMG_0991I’ll admit it.  There are a number of places I’ve wanted to see in Southeast Asia, and Vietnam has never been a top priority.  In this region of the world, touring Vietnam is currently very fashionable, and despite the historical significance of the country for me as an American and the positive feedback we’ve heard from friends who have visited, it has never been on my radar.  I think part of the reason for my indifference was I knew nothing about where to go or what to do, so when Sarah announced Vietnam was one of our destinations this trip, I had no idea what to expect. Continue reading

The Supermarket Chronicles V: Seeking a Smoother Cup of Coffee

Vietnam has supplied me with a lot of Supermarket Chronicle material, and this isn’t the last one.  You’ll forgive me when some of these chronicles happen outside of a supermarket- you get the idea.

During a tour you’ll hear about later, we stopped at a small, family-owned coffee plantation.  One of the processes the family has perfected is known in Indonesian as kopi luwak (I’m not sure of the Vietnamese name).  I have been intrigued by this “flavor” of coffee for awhile, but have hesitated to indulge since it’s difficult to be sure the coffee is genuine in Indonesia unless you actually go to the source.  For the price, you want to make sure its genuine.  Here on the family farm, I was buying the real deal.

It’s probably best to explain the process step by step:

  1. Get yourself a civet cat.
  2. Feed coffee berries (beans inside) to your newly acquired civet.
  3. Let the civet digest the berries and shit the beans out.
  4. Collect said shit and dry it in the sun.
  5. Wash and roast the dried beans, then brew into coffee.

Traditionally, the civet shit was collected on the grounds of the coffee plantation, which is morally preferred over the “civet in a small cage” method.  The theory goes that the digestive enzymes of the civet work to break down the bitterness of the beans.  The civet also only chooses the best beans to eat.  This combination produces apparently superb coffee.  I’m embarrassed to say that a cup of kopi luwak at the plantation was the equivalent of $10, but for the Supermarket Chronicles and my dedicated readers, it had to be done.

Now, I was brought up in a gourmet home, where my mother would apologise if she made us hamburgers for dinner, so if someone is selling gastronomic snake oil, I’ll call it snake oil.  This was, hands down, without a hesitation of a doubt, by far, for a fact, dead sure, unquestionably, the most knock-your-socks-off unbelievable cup of coffee I have ever tasted.

It had better be, because I just spent $10 to drink cat shit.

The Mainland Trilogy 1: Cambodia

Aine enjoying her paparazzi moment as she gets her visa pictures done

As mentioned previously, in an act of sheer selfish efficiency we deceived our darling children into believing that Christmas was December 20th because we (by this I mean the royal we, since Sarah planned the whole trip) were on our way to mainland Southeast Asia.  This gave them a day to play with their new toys before we ripped them from their clutches early the next morning to head to the airport.  Despite this, the kids were excited about their “next adventure” and handled it well- especially when our once streamlined luggage became behemoths with the new toys that just had to come with us.  Our journey was a daring, some might even say a reckless, undertaking:  3 countries, 9 flights, and an overnight train ride in 20 days with two kids under 6.  Understandably, it was easy to get carried away with the planning- this area of the world has so much to offer.  We trusted that the kids were travel-weathered enough to endure it, and the parents were travel-clever enough to survive. Continue reading

Signs of a New Year

Warning– Some things in this post are unapologetically inappropriate, dirty and in poor taste.  (Enticing, isn’t it?)

In honor of the upcoming new year, I humbly present to you a collection of signs, advertisements, and billboards during our time overseas.

I was told by an anonymous source (that rhymes with Barah) to provide instructions for any anonymous readers (uh…) who may be unaccustomed to the picture format.  Click on the top left picture, then once its loaded, click on the right arrow at the right of the picture.  Then you can click through all the photos.  Happy New Year, folks!

The Supermarket Chronicles IV: For What Ails You

There we were, in Hoi An, Vietnam, rummaging through one of the many local shops for a few toys to keep the kids preoccupied so we could continue to tour the amazing, ancient city.  Right between the bracelets Áine was trying on and the miniature tuk-tuk Cian was crashing through the rest of the knick-knacks, I come across this bottle, which the young lady, desperate to have us buy something, holds up:

Oh, how sweet.  What's in that bottle?

Oh, how sweet. What’s in the bottle?

Upon closer inspection, I see this:

Oh, my God!

Oh, my God!

Yes, submerged in the equivalent of Vietnamese vodka and surrounded by ginseng roots, that would be a young cobra holding the tail of a large, black scorpion in its mouth.  The label on the other side says it should be taken daily in small doses to “cure lumbago, rheumatism and sweaty limbs”.  Now, I don’t think I have lumbago because I don’t know what that is and I’m thankfully still just shy of the age for rheumatism, but sweaty limbs? Shit, I live 6º south of the equator! I have sweaty limbs daily!  Maybe a morning shot of scorpion/cobra juice is just what I need to stave off those chronic limb sweats I suddenly realised I suffered from.

Cian is playing with the tuk-tuk on the hotel bed now, and Áine looks in the mirror every five minutes to make sure she is simply divine wearing her new bracelet.

The bottle is still with the young lady.

Semester in Review

At Prambanan Temple, Jogjakarta, wearing the required traditional sarong.

Prambanan Temple, Jogjakarta

Well, we’re alive and still abroad, just impossibly busy.  Running the upper school while trying to teach four classes has been challenging- my hardest teaching year so far.  I’m enjoying seeing education from both teaching and administrative angles, but it gives me little leisure time outside of a regular visit to Tortuga in the evening once the family is asleep.  Finally we are on a more substantial break, and I’m typing this on the balcony of our hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, 7 km from the Angkor Wat temple complex, a location that has been deep in my bucket list.  I won’t spoil the report on that just yet. Continue reading

The Supermarket Chronicles III: Heads Over Heels (Special Welcome Back Double Edition)

As this year’s upper school liaison, one of my charges is to lead new teacher orientation.  Yesterday, I brought our Indonesian newbies to the grocery store to stock their new apartments with some essentials.  And who can’t move into their new apartment without…

...butter, eggs, bread, chicken heads...

…butter, eggs, bread, chicken heads…

We finished our shopping excursion and the new recruits dropped off their groceries at home.  I would have done the same with mine, except Sarah had accidentally bolted the door and fallen asleep with the kids (well, she tells me accidentally, anyway).  After pounding on the door, redialing her cell phone and having the bellman call the landline a few times without wake up success, I brought my groceries to one of the new faculty member’s apartment.  We stashed them in Daniel’s fridge and went to find some dinner.  Daniel had already been exposed to this blog, and I showed him the above picture as my new Supermarket Chronicles post.  Ha, ha, ha, we laughed.

Since I had already taken the new faculty to Tortuga their first night (of course) we decided to try another one of our regular haunts, the Korean/Italian Barbecue (a natural combination, right?).  One of the dishes I love to order at this place is a pile of boneless, crispy fried chicken which comes with a cheesy, spicy sauce on the side.  Daniel loves spicy food, and despite the warnings from his wife via email (Andrea will arrive in Indonesia from the States in a few weeks) that I was responsible for restricting Daniel’s spicy food intake, I assured him this was a meal not to be missed.  While I was away in America, the restaurant had rearranged its menu.  Not to worry, I found chicken with spicy sauce on the menu in Indonesian, complete with a blurry picture that looked like the meal I usually order.  What came was…

A pile of chicken feet in a soup of red stuff

A pile of chicken feet in a soup of red stuff

After the horror had subsided, we made a courageous effort on the meal but couldn’t even begin to figure out what to eat and what not. When the waitress came back to our table with an empty bowl and plastic gloves, we were even more confused.  Fortunately, I handled the situation like any professional orientation leader and travel guide would have- I faked a work call on my cell phone to sound as if I needed to do something immediately, asked our waitress to pack the two dinners for take away (so sorry, mbak) and we quickly made our escape.  We went directly down the road back to Tortuga, gifted the chicken feet to the wait staff there, and ordered beers to recover from the shock.  Welcome to Indonesia, Daniel.

Our Own Tour de France

Almost all of my experiences abroad have been in Third World countries, so I’ve always been a little intimidated by European travel.  It seemed so organized and sterile, and I felt like developing countries would be much more forgiving of a bumbling traveler than some chic, stiff European city.  My two brief skirmishes were years ago- a day in Hampton Court, England on my way to a 2 year position as a Parks and Wildlife Officer in Malawi, Africa (I ate plate, chips, and peas and drank cider) and on another layover occasion, a day in Amsterdam (which doesn’t really count because I don’t remember anything). Continue reading

The School Year’s End

Mother's Day at a restaurant in the Jakarta district of Ancol.

Mother’s Day at a restaurant in the Jakarta district of Ancol.

Along with the usual “family with two young kids living in a foreign country” bedlam, we’ve been moving nonstop since the beginning of May.  Sarah was busy closing shop in the library for the summer, and I was holding up my regular teaching requirements while picking up tasks as next year’s upper school liaison.  Not to mention juggling end of school and graduation events, a last-minute vacation, and prepping for our trip to France and the States.  I finally have a commercial break from our current whiplash-inducing American tour to look back at the end of the school year. Continue reading

A Visit to America via France

Cian didn't even make it on the taxi ride to the airport in Jakarta.

Cian didn’t even make it on the taxi ride to the airport in Jakarta.

Our last day of school was Friday, June 13 and it ended in a whirlwind of grades to complete, events to attend and goodbyes to endure, as all school years do.  Adding to that the sorting and packing as we prepare to return to the States after two weeks in France for summer break gave me no time to write about the last month’s experiences.

We arrived in Paris today after a 12½ hour flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia this morning.  From the airport we took a bus to the 12th arrondissement of Paris, close to the famous Gare de Lyon train station, where we will spend a couple days in a rented apartment before heading (as long as the train strike is over) to Carcasonne in southern France.  We’re meeting my parents (known to the kids as John Deere Mimi and John Deere Pa, named by a younger Cian as they own a riding lawn mower) and sister for a week houseboat cruise on the Canal du Midi, then fly to America from Toulouse.  We return earlier than expected to Jakarta, August 3, so I can run new teacher orientation as Upper School Liaison next year (lingo for grades 6-12 vice-principal while still teaching), taking over for Adrian who is moving to the American School of Lagos.  More on this and the rest of the end of the year to follow.

A view of our very Parisian cafe where we had lunch.

A view of our very Parisian cafe where we had lunch.

Paris is beautiful and the streets and architecture are exactly as you would picture them, but this tropical family is stunned by how cool the temperature is for June: 70ºF if the sun hits you right while today’s forecast for Jakarta is 89ºF no matter where you’re standing.  We had to return to the apartment to find warmer clothes as the kids were crying that they were freezing (secretly, so was I).  We walked around the neighborhood a bit before dropping into a cafe to enjoy escargot, fondue with a baguette and various cured meats, wine and other delicacies we can’t find in Indonesia (I’ve already mentioned Indonesian “cheese” and a bottle of cheaper wine, say Jacob’s Creek, starts at $22 on a good day in Jakarta).  The kids, despite doing well on the trip over, finally gave into jet lag and travel exhaustion, so back to the apartment for sleep.

Our oh-so-French breakfast at a patisserie around the corner from our apartment.

Our oh-so-French breakfast at a patisserie around the corner from our apartment.

I will be back here at the end of the month to regale you on the end of the year’s events and rest of our trip in France, so stay tuned in a few weeks!