Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Living here and there

So many of us are living in more than one place at one time. It is especially pronounced with expats, who on paper already have two addresses, permanent and present. But even for those of us who commute to work (which in North America can easily be 1-2 hours one way) or who work in one city, have a house in another and daycare in a third, our lives can feel split among many locations.

After a year of traveling and moving around, I am working to reestablish a residence somewhere and that somewhere is currently in Rome. We have an apartment in Rome, but I don’t yet have a visa to stay. So I am leaving again next week. I am going back to see family in the US, settle some things in Canada and regroup before probably coming back out again. I am partly living in Rome, but I am partly living in Canada where we have our own apartment and citizenship status. And I am partly still living in the US, where I have a history and an address that is on my driver’s license, credit card, mail etc, but which is only valid until my parent’s sell their house, an imminent occurrence.

It is as if little parts of me are residing in a multitude of cities, as if I am living everywhere and nowhere at the same time. This is the downside of living like a tourist.

I find it great fun to come back to somewhere like Rome, somewhere that I have known for over 15 years and for which in many ways is home, but still do all the touristy things to make me remember what a great city I am in.

Pizza at Cave Canem: Yes, I still take pictures of my food
Each time I come back to Rome, I have to get a coffee at standing at one of the many bars and a biscotto della nonna gelato at La Romana, thick pizza at Da Grottino or La Focaccia and thin pizza at Cave Canem or Baffetto 2, cacio pepe in Testaccio and have at least one plate of cicoria (chicory) wherever. I have to see the Colosseum during the day and Pantheon at night. I have to run along the Tevere (Tiber) river at sunset. And now, just not to tempt fate, I have to throw a coin in the Trevi. If it is summer time, I need to get a granita di caffe (coffee slushie) at Tazza d’Oro, if winter, a zuppa ai ceci (chick pea soup) at Ai Balestrari. And of course, I have to drink as much wine as I can, particularly of Primitivo, Ripasso di Valpolicella, Nobile di Montepulciano or Lacrima di Morro, varieties that are harder to find outside of Italy.

Charming Rue St. Denis, Montreal
Whenever I go back to any city, I have particular habits: get a bagel and half a poutine (I can never finish one) in Montreal, walk around the Old Port and St. Denis, run along the Lachine Canal. In Baltimore, I make it a point to have Old Bay on something and see the Inner Harbor, go to an O’s game and get a local brew in Fells Point. In DC, I get Julia’s empanadas or falafel in Adams Morgan. I go running on Rock Creek Parkway and see one of the many DC museums (most of them for free!). I walk on the Mall to see the Capitol and the Washington Monument. If I go in the spring, I like to see the Cherry Blossoms (with the other two million tourists who come to DC for this as well).

It is nice to be back in these cities and be a local in the sense that I know where everything is, I have friends there, I have memories there, I know all the things I have tried and liked and all the things which I tried and didn’t like. Yet, I still get to be a tourist, visiting everything with new eyes and retrying certain things in case it, or I, have changed (salted caramel ice cream in DC for example… I like it now).

Mandatory Colosseum picture taken in August. Guess I will need another soon.
At the same time, it is a weird predicament. I am always back for a limited period of time; that period of time is sometimes a year or more, but sometimes that period of time is 2 weeks, like it will be now. So am I still a local or am I just a visitor at that point? I am neither living there nor here. Does that make me a tourist everywhere or a local everywhere?

I don't know the real answer to that question, but I try to be both. I try to live everywhere like I am a local, but take advantage of the city like I am a tourist. I try to make the most of my time in any one place because I never know how long I will be there. Like any of life’s dualities, it is both a kind of sad and a kind of great way to live. But I remind myself that it is the lifestyle I have chosen, so I choose to focus on the great.

I'll miss my husband but I will get to see my parents. I will miss my kitty, but I will get to see my cousins. I will miss my Rome-based friends, but will see my Balti-DC ones. Our lives are all split, (yes- some more than others), but you just have to focus on what you have in each place, not what you are missing in it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The end of a Sabbatical

It was about June last year when we were discussing the concept of this entire plan.

“A year? You want to take a year off?”
“At least.” he said.

Where is this coming from? I said more to myself than to him because I knew his answer would be, I don’t know. He is not the introspective type. But despite where it came from, the pebble was rolling and quickly picking up weight on the way down. By July, it was a boulder and there was no stopping it.

I was hesitant. I was very hesitant. Italy felt more and more like home. I finally lived in an apartment of my own furnishings and decoration. I had a job where I felt needed. And though it had been a hard year for a variety of reasons, I was more in the mindset of keep your head down, and work harder. I had been doing that for months.

Most of the time, when there's a will, there is a way. But sometimes willing it, is just not enough. I couldn’t change all of my circumstances by willing them. So I finally agreed to stop the current tide and start something new. Who knew, maybe it would create a different, welcomed ripple in our future.

Our emptied apartment in Rome
So in Summer 2015 we told our work places that we were leaving Rome. We gave up our apartment, sold our car and furniture, packed up most of our possessions, threw out the rest, closed our bank accounts, shipped 400 kilos of stuff to North America, put it in a U-haul towed it 10 hours to Montreal to set up a new condo that we had bought in pre-construction, bought new furniture, unpacked the 400 kilos of stuff and probably another 100 kilos of my childhood things. Stopped everything and went to Vancouver, then came back to Montreal, then back to Baltimore. Went onto Central America: Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, then went back to Baltimore, collected my cat, drove back up to Montreal, finished setting up our condo, drove back to Baltimore, dropped off my cat, flew to Haiti, attended a wedding, then went down to South America: Cartagena, Bogota, Buenos Aires, Colonia, Santiago, Valparaiso, Vina del Mar, Mendoza, Santiago, Lima, Pisco, Paracas, Huacachina, Lima, Cusco, Aguas Calientes, Machu Pichu, Cusco, Lima, ended the trip with a week in Charleston, SC. Drove 10 hours back to Baltimore, picked up my kitty, drove another 10 hours back to Montreal, put up the last frames and touches on the apartment, and then undid it all to pack for Rome and start a shipment to go back to Italy.

Unpacking the shipments

Which is where we are now. 9 months later, it is all over. We went full circle and are back in Rome once more. Mind you, that was not the intention. The intention, as aforementioned, was to do something new after this sabbatical.

But fate had stepped in to say what our next step should be. While we were still on our travels, my husband got a call for a job in Rome and it was a hard one to turn down. We discussed it at length and, as I do, I thought about it even longer. But the answer was ultimately, yes.

Fifth time back, but still love pictures in front of the Colosseum
When you decide to take a year off, you think that you have so much time. Surely, a sabbatical would allow you to accomplish everything you wished you had time to do: write a book, learn Spanish, visit all of Central and South America, catch up with old friends, spend time with family, find a miracle vet to cure my cat’s cancer, discover a new home, uncover my calling, reorganize everything I have ever owned and still have time to do yoga, a couple marathons and maybe learn croquet. (Just kidding about the croquet part, but you get the point). It doesn’t work that way. I made headway in a little of all of the above, but, as you can imagine, I did not complete any of the above.

I am not exactly fluent, but 4 weeks of Spanish is a good start
I will admit that I hoped it would be the eat-pray-love year that would turn my entire life around and lead us to a whole new reality: a new city, a new job, a new career, a new calling... a type of prize for having taken a leap of faith and trusting in life and fate. But maybe fate handing us back our old life is the prize. And maybe it is not our old life at all, but the newness we were craving. I hope so.

So despite everything that we tried to do, I am back in Rome for the fifth time. And the truth is, I am happy about it. I have proven that no matter what I do,  Rome will never be out of my system.

All roads lead to Rome. I couldn’t put it better myself.

I keep throwing coins in the Trevi Fountain. That must be the problem!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Peruvian Surprises

El Parque del Amor in Lima, very Gaudi like
Peru was probably the greatest surprise of our trip. Unlike Chile, I had no inner attraction calling me to visit, and unlike Colombia, I had no preconceived, albeit wrong, judgement detracting me. I had seen the ubiquitous postcards of lush Machu Picchu and grazing lamas just like everyone else and had thought: sure, it would be a nice place to go. However, my rebellious Aquarian nature (I’ll blame it on astrology) always makes me skeptical of fads. Machu Picchu seemed like the latest booming one.

Machu Picchu- you've undoubtedly see this shot before
Regardless, we couldn’t go to Peru without going to the Lost City of the Incas, and we made it the last stop in our trip. I should clarify that, although it was nice and symbolic to end our trip on a “high note” with the infamous Cusco 11,000 feet elevation, Machu Picchu was also our last stop because logistically it had to be. This part of the trip was by far, the most convoluted and difficult to plan. One of my next posts will be on just the tricks we wish we had known when planning our Machu Picchu adventure, because it is scarily easy to miss out on much of that experience and we very nearly did.

Aside from Machu Picchu though, Peru has so much to offer, and to contradict one of my earlier statements, even though we didn’t want to miss out on Machu Picchu while in the country, Peru is still worth a trip even without including this wonder of the world. Peru kept us guessing at every turn. There were so many things that we did expect from it and were awed by.

Sand dunes outside of Huacachina Oasis
One of the first surprises for us was that Lima is in a desert. You drive just a few miles outside of the city and hit sand dunes. I had no idea. This Middle Eastern looking landscape is a far cry from the lush valleys and green hills you see in those famous Machu Picchu postcards. But coastal, northern and southern Peru are comprised of three deserts, the Sechura, the Coastal and Atacama deserts, that stretch all the way down to Chile. In fact, according to one site I read, Lima is the second largest desert capital city after Cairo.

Another surprise is that Peru really lived up to everything people told us about it. Machu Picchu really was magical. And the food really was extraordinary. Throughout our travels, as we explained our itinerary which ended with Peru, people, without fail, would say, “Oh, you are going to eat so well in Peru!” The first, second and third time, we smiled and said, “Ah yes, ceviche. We love ceviche.” But the enthusiasm of friends and strangers alike on Peru’s gastronomy had us very curious indeed by the time we got to Lima.

Cebicheria Rosita - everything you dreamed about when thinking ceviche
Of course, as with any hype, we expected to be let down, but our first meal had us hollering Amen to all the chants that Peruvian food is heaven. Restaurant Cebicheria Rosita had the best ceviche we ever tasted, and it wasn't just the ceviche. We tried Arroz con mariscos a la LimeƱa (seafood rice), Chicharron de calamar (deep fried calamari), Leche de tigre (citrus marinade) … all amazing. It was probably the best meal we had in any of our Central or South American trips.

Chupe de camarones
I also discovered another dish called chupe, a type of seafood stew, that was one of the most diverse sets of ingredients I ever had: shrimp, evaporated milk, one sunny side up egg, a local type of mint, rice, corn, cheese, potatoes, green peas, tomato paste, a lot of other things and a bunch of spices. It was a completely surprising taste that reminded me of a mix of Thai, Caribbean and Latin food all at once. If I didn’t think it would take me 30 hours to make and come out tasting like play-dough, I would make this dish at least once a week.

Huacachina Oasis
Peru also provided us with the chance to see a real oasis, Huacachina, and to climb a sand dune to watch the sunset. It offered us the opportunity to go off-roading in a natural reserve where the desert literally stopped dead and plunged into the Pacific Ocean.

Paracas Natural Reserve
It gave us the possibility to spend the night in a trailer park; its status as not-quite a hotel, an eco-park they called it, allowed for it to be the only accommodation on the reserve. Hundreds of flamingos (again not what I would expect), hundreds of thousands of pelicans, and other colorful birds flew around the coast line or small lakes that had somehow formed within the desert.

We got to go to a small fishing village, Pucasana, hidden among sand dunes, where we were definitely the only tourists. We found a winery that was like stepping out of the desert and through a worm hole to another part of the world where the hills are rolling, the land is lush, and the soil is fertile. After driving for hours on highways with only sand in sight, it was like discovering life on Mars. Peru is fascinating like that.

Tacama Winery, offering another type of oasis amidst the desert surroundings
As promised, my next post will talk more on Cusco and Machu Picchu, the two being true highlights of our trip, but I was happy that we had also scheduled in an extra week before even getting to Cusco. Though Lima had its charms, (the aforementioned food, its very grand and beautiful main square i.e Plaza Mayor, the Kennedy park which is a refuge for stray cats, Miraflores’s uppity elegance along the coast and Barranco’s mellow hippy-ness a little further south), 2-3 days was ample time there and we quickly reorganized ourselves to see more than just the capital. This extra week, which many tourists may not factor in, let us discover so much more about Peru, and its truly surprising nature. We never knew what to expect and it always turned out to be a good surprise.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Stuck in my head: Santiago, Chile

There are some places that get stuck in your head. You want to visit and you don’t really know why. They have mixed reviews, or people say to skip them altogether, but, no, you want to go there. 

Going to Chile has always been something I wanted to do
This was Santiago de Chile for me. I had always wanted to visit this capital despite the warnings of smog, the recommendations that the country side is nicer, the statements that the city is just a modern city with nothing much to offer tourists. I didn’t care; I wanted to go. My husband was also on board as he had friends there from a long time back and they had offered to host us.

Downtown Santiago
When you can visit friends on your travels, the whole experience turns into something different, something amazing. You don’t try to live the local life, you just do it. You have real conversations about the real day-to-day issues and realities of the country. You know what people really eat on a daily basis not just was is "local," you end up seeing what the real work day hours are, and you experience where people chose to live and their reasons for it.

Buying fruit at the local fruit market, where locals actually go
Staying with locals in a country is like being accepted into a secret society... without having to go through the acceptance rituals of moving there. I love it. And these friends, although not originally mine, were as if I had known them for years. We met the full wonderful family, mother, father, daughter, son, grandpa, grandma, auntie, doggie, and kitty.We hung out with them all, and enjoyed our time with them all.

Concha y Toro Winery
They took the opportunity of having us there to, “live like a tourist” as I might say, i.e. to do some touristy things that they would not necessarily do on their own in their own country, but things that they enjoy anyway: the Concha y Toro winery, salsa dancing, dinner at Peumayen restaurant (which serves native Chilean food), going to visit one of Pablo Neruda's famous houses (Isla Negra) etc.

One of many homages to Chilean writer, Pablo Neruda
We know this phenomenon very well from our visitors coming to Rome. On the one hand, it can be annoying to go to the Vatican museums for the 7th time, but on the other, visitors always give you a chance to relive the enthusiasm of being a tourist: throwing a coin in the Trevi fountain, eating pizza near Piazza Navona, getting gelato twice a day, going to see the Pantheon at night ... it is a great excuse to be excited about your city again.

Costanera Center, the tallest building in Latin America

We didn't subject them to doing all the touristy stuff though; we saved some of the super touristy things to do on our own. We went to the top of the Costanera Tower (Sky Costanera) for the view, visited all three of Pablo Neruda’s houses (inside and outside of Santiago), went to the artisan market in the center and walked through the sculpture garden with a view of the skyline. I had a so-called terremoto (i.e. earthquake) drink, which was so sweet that it can cause an internal earthquake, and a much-contested Chilean pisco sour (Chile and Peru are in a century-long battle over the Pisco Sour). We also went to most of the historical sites in the center, including a church modeled after the Sacre Coeur in Paris (Parroquia Santisimo Sacramento).

Stunning resemblance to Sacre Coeur, Santisimo Sacramento Basilica

Though we didn't have time to go to the far reaches of Chile like the Atacama desert in the North or Patagonia in the south, we went to the much more accessible coast, specifically Valparaiso and Vina del Mar. The former is like Tim Burton meeting Bansky for a chat on urban design, the latter is like the setting for a sunset drink between George Clooney and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Chile's Napoli, i.e. Valparaiso, for all of its good and not-so good, connotations 

In our Italian frame of reference, we also deemed Valparaiso the Napoli of Chile and Vina del Mar its Sorrento. Valparaiso vs. Vina del Mar was like industrial vs. elegant, raw vs. refined, chaotic vs. organized.

Vina del Mar, Chile's Sorrento if you will
Both towns were fascinating, particularly in their juxtaposition against one other along the coastal highway. It takes a little longer to see Valparaiso’s charm, especially if you visit the city amidst the rain and gloomy skies, but it definitely makes an impression and it is definitely worth a visit. Vina del Mar is a classic pretty coastal town, and is worth the visit as well, if for nothing else than a comparison point to its neighbor.

A Chilean Pisco Sour at Sunset. I could get used to this
On my “I could live here scale” Chile certainly ranked very high. I think that becoming a local though would require at least three significant feats: 1) I would have to get used to the idea of regular earthquakes. Locals are able to joke about therm regularly, 2) I would have to get my ear (and my tongue) accustomed to the very different Spanish spoken in Chile, and last but not least, 3) I would have to once and for all declare my allegiance to the Chilean Pisco Sour. Otherwise, my adaptation would not go so well. On point 3, I might be OK, but I still have some work to do on one and two.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Home away from home: Buenos Aires

Argentina's White House = the Pink House, Casa Rosada
When we left Rome on December 1, it really felt like we left home. This shouldn’t have really been surprising to me, considering how much time I have spent living there and how four years ago I finally declared Rome my home. Yet, somehow, it was surprising. It was even more surprising to realize how many people we were saying goodbye to, not just friends and colleagues, but to neighbors we got to know, to our dry cleaner up the street, to our Porter, to my aesthetician, to the priests who married us in Spello, and all the other people that we saw regularly in our life in Rome that we wouldn’t see after December. It felt like a final goodbye this time, even though it was my fourth goodbye to Rome. Perhaps it would not be a real goodbye, like the three times before were not, but it felt different, scarier, this time and there was a large part of me that feared that this one was for real.

Outdoor cafe in la Boca area
Five months later we landed in Buenos Aires and even in the airport, I felt like I was in Rome again, for all the good and bad reasons. There were about 5 ATMs in the airport, none of which worked, the rationale: it was Sunday. Yes, we could have been in Italy. The resemblances just kept popping up throughout our entire stay: The cashier's resentment at getting a large bill. The mega long lines and peculiarly slow check-out at grocery stores. The 4 dollar bottles of wine that were better than the North American 30 dollar ones. The protests ever couple days. The blocks and blocks of yummy pizza and gelato restaurants. The coffee culture.

Famous traditional cafe, Cafe Tortoni
The similarities ranged from small things like the pits in the olives on pizza and the bidets in the hotels and apartments to big things like being able to sit outdoors in cafes during the mild winters and receipts that were wrong or change that was missing. To me, even the way people speak Spanish is reminiscent of Italian; Argentinian Spanish has the same beautiful, sing-songy inflections and dramatic tones as Italian.

Random Gondola
Of course, there is an obvious reason for all of these similarities.  A huge percentage of Argentina's population has Italian heritage (up to 62% according to some sources). Most of these immigrants came over about 150 years ago, in the late 19th - early 20th century, around the same time that they went to New York. To a much greater extent than the Big Apple though, Buenos Aires really felt like it has carried on the culture and feel of the mother country.

Pizza at Pizzeria Guerrin, one of the many famous spots
Don’t get me wrong, Buenos Aires was very un-Italian in many ways too: broader, grander boulevards like those of Paris or Madrid, a much farther-reaching, organized and cheaper metro, avocados on the streets, tango clubs and radio stations, bold, shiny Latin-looking buses, more legitimate parking options and churches filled on Sundays, to name a few. Argentina very much has its own culture and national identity, one that they are proud of, and should be.

Gardel's ubiquitous portrait
We didn't stay in Argentina long enough to get into the real subtleties of the culture, but we did have time to take in the local life. We had rented an apartment for those 12 days in Buenos Aires, so at least for that short time, it felt like we were properly living there. We went to the grocery store every day and to mass at the corner of our street. We used the metro to get everywhere and went running in the nearby parks. We did laundry in the building and then at the nearby laundromat when the laundry machine broke (… also like Italy). We cooked meals with the local ingredients and had coffee in the neighborhood cafes.

lovey sight from the BA metro's open doors
Yes, in many ways it felt like being home, but in others it felt far from it and far from friends. I had visited Buenos Aires once before in 2004 and I had loved it. It was the one other city aside from Rome where I could see myself living. Now I know why. Back then, I don't think I had picked up on all the similarities. This visit was a little bittersweet for me; I still loved it now, but it felt a little like dating a boy that reminds you of your ex. It might ease the pain, but it is not a great reason for being together. Buenos Aires reminded me of my ex and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it this quickly after the break up. Perhaps it was too soon.

One of the many elegant buildings found across Buenos Aires

Monday, June 6, 2016

Don't judge a country by its travel guide: Visiting Colombia

I am not even sure how we ended up in Colombia. Last I remember, we were struggling with how to cut down our large and ever growing list of countries to visit on this sabbatical. After a not-so enthusiastic review in our travel book and the realization that our friends who were in Colombia were no longer there, I remember opting to leave it out on this particular tour of South America. Then we somehow realized we would fly through Colombia anyway en route to Argentina and it was back on the list. Colombia ended up being one of my favorite countries yet on this trip. So it goes to show you how impressions (and travel guides) can be wrong.

Colombian Colors
Cartagena was the first of two stops in Colombia, Bogota the second. Completely different in climate, temperature, elevation, character and almost everything else, it was hard to see them as part of one country. But this proves the diversity of the large countries in South America.

We arrived from Haiti to Cartagena to face even hotter and more humid temperatures than the island we had just left. Cartagena is steamy alright, and there is nothing to do about it but get used the constant perspiration and rehydration cycle. But you could hardly care about that when you are wandering the old colonial streets of this enchanting city. You are surrounded by color: on the buildings, in the flowers, the artwork, flower pots, door and window frames, murals. Everything catches your attention, eye and heart in this ode to color. Like admiring a peacock, just watching this fanfare of hues can make you happy.

Cartagena's Bocagrande skyline
Cartagena was a great mix of modern and traditional: skyscrapers in one direction, fortified walls and canons in another. With its heat, tones, coastal front walkway and seaside sounds, the place screamed summer, vacation and relaxation. Cartagena is the place you dream of in the middle of winter after 3 months of cold gray skies… or perhaps the place you dream of when living in Bogota in April.

New England-style: Brick buildings and side walks in Bogota
Funny enough, our next destination, Bogota, could have easily been the site of one of these aforementioned gloomy dreamers. April in Bogota is 10-15 degrees Celsius, cloudy, threatening, rainy and gray. It has English or Irish weather. And the similarities to England didn’t stop there. Actually Bogota reminded me even more of New England in the US. The city was a sea of red bricks: buildings, neighborhoods and streets filled with them. Many of these red brick buildings were pubs. Beer was advertised everywhere. You could tell instantly that beer is a large part of the past-time in this particular city. Many artisan beers were featured on billboards, but even the national beer, Aguila, made quite an appearance. Restaurants and bars were set deep inside these brick houses creating cozy, dim settings with bars and benches of wood. Bogota could have been Cambridge, Massachusetts or London, England. A far cry from the hot, Caribbean feel of its Colombian sister, Cartagena.

Bogota Beer Company
In both cities, the people were hard working and courteous. The food was excellent; breakfast like the Central American ones, heavily featured eggs, plantains and a meat of sorts. The juices were thick with tropical fruit. Both cities had massive grocery stores with everything you could want and coffee stores that demonstrated their tradition of coffee.

I kicked myself in the end for being swayed by a book’s opinion and wish we had included other Colombian cities, but we already knew that this trip would be a small sampling of South America, not an exhaustive experience. Cali, Medellin, even Cartagena’s islands and surrounding towns would have to wait for another time, but I was more than happy with the time that we did allot to this country. Like making the acquaintance of someone that you had not expected to get along with, I had made a new friend with Colombia.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Ayiti cherie

Jacmel beach

Practically since we met in 2006, a good friend of ours has been urging us to come visit her country, Haiti. So since then, Haiti has been on our minds. In 2010, my husband was deployed to the country for the emergency response. That year, Haiti was in everyone's minds.

We finally made the trip last week. Reflecting on my recent 10 days there, I originally started to write about how the country seems after the earthquake, how it looks, how the people are. I was so concerned and interested to hear about it all after having only had second-hand stories. However, thinking twice about this post, I decided against this. I did not go to Haiti for work or for a journalist assignment. I went to Haiti to attend a wedding and to visit friends, happy occasions that led to a joyous trip and I don’t want to boil Haiti down to those terrible 30 seconds in January 2010. There is much more to the country than that.

Here are some highlights:

Yes, this cake is real.
Nothing is too fancy 

Haitians love to dress up and I knew even before landing in the country that despite my cocktail dress and new black heels, I would be one of the least fancy people at the wedding. I was correct. For any Haitian event, but particularly a wedding, you bring out the long dresses, big jewels, elegant purses, fancy hats, and of course sexy shoes. It was truly a feast for the eyes to see the men and women so elegant and stylish, many of the women, of any age, pulling off dresses that I could only dream of.

It helps when a friend has a waterproof go-pro
Hidden, but seriously hidden, gems 

As an outsider, it can be easy to lose sight of what Haiti has to offer when just looking around. Haiti is a very poor country. There is no escaping that fact and that kind of poverty is not subtle. There are slums covering the hillsides; there are dry river beds completely filled with trash. There are people everywhere looking for a way to survive, making a dollar or two for food. These parts of Haiti are obvious to any visitor. The parts that aren’t so obvious are some sites of exceptional natural beauty. Don’t get me wrong, some of Haiti’s natural beauty is obvious. It too has the idyllic Caribbean beaches that cruise ships have been exploiting for years now. However, some of the beauty is quite hidden indeed. One such place is Bassin Bleu. Bassin Bleu is a series of waterfalls that fill turquoise basins at different ground levels. And when I say this is not obvious it is because even with a guide and 4 other Haitians in the car asking locals in Creole for directions, we still just barely found it. This was the definition of a hidden gem. But the trek made it more of an adventure and it was worth it to finally jump into the stunningly beautiful, freezing cold water, which we had completely to ourselves. Another advantage of hidden treasures: exclusivity.

My husband dreams about this lobster
The food! 

Food for me is part of culture so I love it for that, but I am not a foodie when it comes to researching dishes, restaurants or specialties of a place. So maybe this fact is well known, but I was not expecting it: Haitian food is AMAZING! Everything is flavorful, savory, even spicy (especially when you add the standard pickliz, i.e. spicy cabbage accompaniment.) Fish, lobster, conch (lambi), shrimp, everything from the water is well made. Plantains adorn most meals or come in the form of a tasty snack: Papitas, i.e. plantain chips. The local peanut butter, Mamba, is extraordinary. At the supermarket, it comes in all different ways, some creamier, some darker, some spicier, but of course, the best is the homemade Mamba that makes other peanut butter, especially non-Haitian varieties, seem like processed goo. Fresh mangoes, coconuts, sour saps, all of these are standard fruits that you find at breakfast or as juices. They are usually even just hanging in the trees above your head.

Barrels of Booze

To get a little buzz on, you have at least two incredibly good alcoholic choices: Prestige beer that is the standard national beer, but it really tastes much more flavorful than your typical lager, and Barbancourt rum, that has won all sorts of awards and has its die-hard followers (one of whom was on the trip with us). We even went to see the Barbancourt distillery to learn as much as we could about its details, production, varieties and distribution. In this private tour, we had the full attention of our guide and seeing our enthusiasm for his rum, he indulged us with our requests, questions, comments and photo-taking. Our accommodating guide even let us peer into the resting room for the prestigious 15 year Barbancourt and let us have a taste of the "forgotten barrel of rum" laying among the others. It was a special tour that made the enthusiasts of our group even more enthusiastic.

The temple of rum
Haitian hospitality 

The people were amazing. This goes without saying for my friend’s family and all of her friends who went out of their way to drive us around and show us a good time in their country, but it also was true for others, like the head of HR who exceptionally gave us a tour of the Barbancourt distillery when his colleague was not available. And the wonderful staff at the hotel in Jacmel who helped us with anything we threw at them and then went even above and beyond that to turn their lobby into a movie theater for us (the only guests) moving chairs around, setting up speakers and even making popcorn. I had never seen such hospitality and such honest desire to be kind.

Of course, there is a flip side and you have to be understanding of the fact that our hotel room in Jacmel, for example, didn’t have water for a day: so no shower, toilet or sink to use; that when there are demonstrations it can take two hours to get across town; that people will ask to help you or sell you something for money, because they have to; that is the only way they have work.

View over Port-au-Prince
Haiti is an amazing country and I wish with all my heart that both its internal problems, like rampant corruption, and its external problems, like being in the path of natural disasters, let up and allow the country to take advantage of all its bounty and richness, both of land and of spirit. It would be great to know Haiti again as the Pearl of the Antilles, not as the poorest country in the western hemisphere or the country devastated in 2010.


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