bah habah lives up to its rep!

we spent the second last week of august in bar harbor, maine. it was everything we had heard about – beautiful, pristine landscape with its own eco-systems, lots of outdoorsy activities, acadia national park’s easy accessibility and a lovely downtown area replete with new england charm. having lived in connecticut for seven years (my first taste of america) i fall for new england easily, every single time. it’s hard to describe. it’s the opposite of nouveau riche. not tacky or too self-consciously granola. simple elegance and old buildings, breathtaking autumns and brilliant gastronomy. it’s culture in pastoral garb.

i took this picture at 2 cats (an outstanding place for breakfast in bar harbor) – it epitomizes the magic of new england…

small fountain at 2 cats

since i was committed to making this a truly active vacation, the first thing i did after we got to the bar harbor motel (where we were staying along with our friends), was to go for a brisk walk. there was a small pathway from the motel that opened onto a quiet carriage road. i felt refreshed. we ate that night at a restaurant right on the pier. obviously i went for the lobster roll. we decided to walk back to the motel instead of taking a shuttle – this is free, clean, reliable transportation bar harbor style. the following day was whale watching day on a 140 feet long catamaran – okay, so boat rides are never painless for me (i spend quite a lot of the time just praying not to pass out or throw up), but i did get to see some whales – 3 of them up close and personal. humpbacks are sleek and quick and can be identified by the unique patterns of black and white on the underside of their tails. we met sonogram and his mother P.D. we also saw some dolphins.

after whale watching we took it easy. dinner consisted of picking up some pizza from anthony’s – service was too slow and the kids didn’t enjoy the bland meatball. over the next one week, we went to cadillac summit and sand beach in acadia park, hiked along beautiful jordan pond and went kayaking in the ocean. we savored an expansive sunset from blue hills overlook and took a million pictures. there was also a biking trip in the rain and lots of shopping downtown. on the way back we stopped over at a small art store and bought dangly silver earrings made by terry strickland and “black-eyed susan” prints by charlotte bridges.

we spent a night in boston and took the kids to our old haunts – quincy market and the boston harbor. some things had changed dramatically. the highway and parking lots have disappeared underground (thanks to the big dig – which took $15 billion and a dozen years to complete) so after years and years of going to boston, we still needed a little bit of help in getting oriented.

back from dc

after studying much american history both my kids had their own personal lists of things they wanted to see in dc, our nation’s capital. we were successful in checking out everything on their lists.

saw the white house (from a distance, never had the urge to go inside), the washington monument (hard to miss when you’re in dc – it’s always somewhere on the horizon), the world war II memorial (built in 2004, am guessing probably after “saving private ryan” and HBO’s “band of brothers” came out), the lincoln memorial (always stunning), the library of congress (had never been inside but my artistically-inclined daughter was interested in the painted ceiling – it was absolutely gorgeous with excellent exhibits about the history and significance of america’s founding documents, the uneasy relationship between native americans and early europeans and finally jefferson’s own library – his books displayed beautifully on concentric glass shelves), the u.s. supreme court, the capitol (very freaky to be surrounded by uniformed gunmen with their fingers literally and figuratively on the trigger), the national gallery of art (always a lovely retreat), the air and space museum (thronging students on school trips, long lines but still way cool flight simulator), u-street (neither hip nor hopping but good food at ulah bistro), the national aquarium (small and mediocre), the spy museum (a total commercial rip off complete with tie-in merchandise but the kids enjoyed some of it – like a tunnel that leads you back to the same room (???) and a james bondish aston martin), the nationals park (guard said people were not allowed to photograph it even from the outside (???) – he had some problems with people just looking at it even though the pope and his entourage had long been gone).

we had chinese food in chinatown, real pakistani food at ravi kebab (glebe road, arlington) and met with some family in dc and virginia. the metro was great and the people very friendly (or maybe it was just the contrast with nyc). on our way out of dc we stopped at old town alexandria to visit the torpedo factory lined with artists’ studios and an art school. the artwork was way out of my budget but i appreciated it no less.

on our way out of virginia i spotted an antique store – it was a dream. there were old doors and windows, furniture and pottery, mirrors and chandeliers – everything was timeworn and reasonably priced. the store sprawled over a large area with things scattered around in tiny houses and unassuming sheds or just on the lawn. it was such a kick to search for things i could use in my work – found objects, frames, tiles. promised myself i would return with appropriate girlfriend! have to give credit to my husband and kids though, for waiting in the car for one hour, en route to ny, ready to go but with one family member missing – someone a little tipsy from all her antiquing!

world war II memorial in dc

snorkeling at laughing bird caye

belize is located in the southeastern part of the yucatan peninsula. it is home to the 200 mile long belize barrier reef, the longest in the western hemisphere and the second longest in the world.

the beautiful laughing bird caye is only 11 miles off the coast of placencia. the abundance and variety of coral habitats and marine life make this isle truly unique. in 1996 the belize barrier reef reserve system was inscribed on the world heritage list with laughing bird caye national park designated as one of its most closely protected areas. the isle is long and narrow and truly breathtaking.

laughing bird caye

on our way to the islet, after hitching a boat ride in front of our house right off of the beach, we saw some dolphins. we changed into our gear and went snorkeling in the warm salty water. it felt like being in an aquarium. the coral comes in indescribably vivid colors, the sea fans quivered delicately underwater, and the schools of fish we encountered felt so close it was magical. unfortunately my daughter’s equipment was too big for her so she kept getting salty water in her eyes and mouth. she was a good sport about it but we decided to cut short our exploring to get her to shore. my son scraped his foot on some coral reef and bled quite a bit. thank god the park ranger had some antiseptic ointment and band aids. we had a delicious picnic cooked on the beach (grilled chicken – jamaican style, potatoes roasted in a cheese sauce, sweet coleslaw and fresh pineapple. what a treat! although we could not take any conchs or shells with us i took plenty of photos. we also took some footage of brown pelicans diving for fish. the water was a myriad different shades of blue, each more delightful than the other. it is one of the most beautiful places on earth.

conch and shells

mayan ruins and swimming in caves

our next trip was to toledo, the southern most district in belize. this is mayan country and we were first headed to the mayan ruins of nim li punit. discovered in 1976, this site is situated along the top of a ridge in the foothills of the maya mountains and has a stunning view of the coastal plains below. 25 stelae, 8 of which are carved, were discovered here. stelae are stone slabs, sometimes 50 feet long, with hieroglyphic inscriptions and carvings depicting the lives of mayan rulers. placed within the ceremonial centers of cities, they now provide us a rare glimpse into mayan life. one of the largest structures is a ball court. the mayans played with a hard and heavy rubber ball and the victor was honored with a beheading. for people who believed strongly in the after-life there could not be a better reward.

after the mayan ruins we went for lunch at our guide juan’s home in the village of punta gorda. the trip had been arranged through robert’s grove and they had packed us an “american” lunch – chicken wings, roast chicken and potatoes, watermelon, brownies and a huge salad. of all the lunches we’d had so far this was the least appetizing. juan’s daughter had made some fresh tortillas and these became instant favorites. the bathroom was surprising – let’s just leave it at that.

after lunch we began our rigorous trek through the jungle to the blue creek cave. the trek could have been a little easier if we had not been carrying backbacks, towels, cameras and life jackets. you definitely need both hands to make it without getting hurt. it was hot, the trek was arduous and we were sweating profusely (i had forgotten what it was like to sweat – the suncreen makes it worse by melting on your face). after all this effort it was a shock to suddenly come upon the glistening waterfall and gushing waters of blue creek. this is where the río blanco emerges from the side of a mountain, becoming blue creek – home to an extensive cave system.

we changed into our swimsuits, put on our life jackets and water shoes, adjusted our headlamps and leapt into the freezing waters of blue creek cave. what an experience. the ground under your feet is treacherous to start with (you might be heading for a huge rock or be in rather deep water) but it all becomes easier as you swim farther along into the cave. once we were quite a ways inside we orchestrated a complete blackout by turning off our headlamps in unison – it was pitch black! the cave is quite deep. juan told us it takes three days to swim across all the way to the other side. we didn’t want to find out. after a fun swim and explore we headed back. it had started to drizzle outside and the rocks were getting slipperier by the minute. i tried to jump from one rock to another but my shoes lost their grip and i landed against a rock on my leg. thank god there was no bleeding, just a nasty bruise. my husband was not so lucky. he was carrying 3 life jackets and when he slipped he got pretty badly scraped. but we all made it in one piece. the 2 hour drive back to placencia and the boat ride to seine bight were tiring but it felt good to have had this great adventure!

at the beginning of it all we had met this tourist family who’d been to blue creek. they had recommended the trek but the guy had added ominously “mind you, there will be blood” – i guess he knew what he was talking about!

toledomayan ruins

peace in belize

there is a popular t-shirt you can find in just about every souvenir shop in belize – it says: “where the hell is belize?” and is followed by a map of central america. formerly called the british honduras, belize gained independence in 1981 after a century of british rule. it is bordered by guatemala and mexico. with heavy forestation in the north, the maya mountains in the south, some 450 islets or cayes along its carribean coast and a tropical climate, belize is rife with biodiversity (marine, terrestrial, flora and fauna). human diversity is not bad either. check out this population mix: 50% mestizos (spanish+indigenous american), 25% kriols (african slaves from jamaica), 11% mayan, 6% garifuna (african+indigenous american), and a small percentage of german mennonites (amish), east indians, chinese, other central americans, and whites from the u.s. not bad for a country of 300,000!

our destination was placencia, south of the country in the stann creek district. we stayed at the bahia laguna in seine bight, a small garifuna town. the bahia laguna is a large bungalow and we had use of the spacious apartment on the ground floor. it had everything we could have asked for: kitchen with large refrigerator, dishwasher, even a washer and dryer. there was a swimming pool in the back with a cool slide and the sea was just footsteps away.

after our last vacation i had appreciated for the first time the joy of cooking with local produce and ingredients. we did just that and apart from a lunch at the coloful “purple space monkey” we ate at home everyday. we’d use our complimentary bikes to go to the tiny chinese grocery store in seine bight and buy everything we needed for the next couple of days. we made easy food like hamburgers and mac & cheese but also spicy chicken karahi and okra with lots of fresh tomatoes.

madalon, the owner of the bahia laguna, has a mayan couple living in the other apartment on the ground floor. delmacio works around the house and he and his wife conceptiona are a great addition to the household. conceptiona made some fresh tortillas for us. they were absolutely fabulous and very close to what we in the sub-continent would call tandoori roti. they went beautifully with the curries we cooked.

you would think that there isn’t much to do in belize (and that’s a perfectly good way to spend a vacation) but in fact there’s lots of adventure just waiting to happen. first we embarked on a water safari to explore the environs of the monkey river. our guide terry showed us a lot of exotic plants and birds whilst we sped along in a motorboat. our main stop was the jungle so we could track down some howler monkeys. man, those monkeys are fierce – their howling sounds a lot like screams in a horror movie. we spotted them perched in tall trees, hanging from their prehensile tails. we were lucky to find an entire family of monkeys and i got some terrific footage on my video camera. for lunch we headed to monkey river village and had some fresh fried fish with a sweet potato salad and rice and beans – a staple in belize. it hit the spot.

on our way back home our guide showed us some manatees. these seal-like creatures are herbivores and can weigh up to a ton. they create such a big commotion that they can be easily spotted by the mud they dislodge from the bottom of the sea as they partake of water plants.


the mean bus driver, cioppino and chicken mole

we had dinner at a nice restaurant that offered a fusion of french-southeast asian cuisine. it could have been any nice restaurant in nyc (no mexican angle) but the food was good especially the sate and the delicately flavored shots of creme brulee that came in a friendly trio. after some down-time at our cousin’s apartment we were off to the hotel. the next day the kids registered for the sheratoons (the local kids club) and made some awful smelling cookies. they also swam and took it easy.

we decided to go to the city for lunch and thought the local bus would be an adventure for the kids. we got tickets and even though kids tickets were half the price, the driver charged us full price. i didn’t care much. we told the driver we wanted to get off in the center of town – centro – that was one of the bus’s regular stops. when we got to the city and tried to get off, the driver wouldn’t let us leave. thrice we tried to disembark but he told us to stay put – he knew where we had to get off. my husband trusted him. i was more suspicious. the city of puerto vallarta is tiny (just a couple of main streets) and it was obvious that we were out of the city now. the bus began to climb a hill. it turned a corner and there we were, bang in the middle of pv’s slums. there were no cabs here, no tall american tourists with flashy sunglasses, no shops crammed with talavera pottery or huichol art. this was the ghetto outside of puerto vallarta and well-meaning tourists are not supposed to see it. there were fewer and fewer people in the bus and i began to panic. i didn’t want to go wherever this guy was taking us. maybe we should just get off anywhere. but how would we get back? finally, after an hour of chugging along, we reached the end of the bus route. the bus driver asked my husband to pay for tickets if we wanted to get back to the city. so that’s what it was all about! i was furious. i refused to pay. my husband tried to explain in spanish but the driver insisted. “non comprende” was the way to end the argument and so it was that we were finally dropped off in downtown pv.

one night, after a day of shopping for pottery and rugs, we had dinner at our cousin’s apartment. her friends, pierre and hillary, were excellent company. pierre made some delicious cioppino with fresh fish and shrimp. cioppino is supposed to be san francisco’s answer to bouillabaisse and since our cousin and her friends are all from the west coast, it figured. the kids had a relaxed evening – lazing around, watching tv, and eating fire-roasted chicken, avocados, and french bread dipped in cioppino, with mango ice cream and guavas for dessert. it was a lovely evening.

we ate out on our last day at a mexican (mariachi and all) restaurant. i had some chicken mole. although the mole sauce was dark and rich and delicious the chicken was hard to tackle. it looked like pv was gearing up for new year’s eve but we were off early next morning, back to rochester and some mind-numbing below zero weather. mexico had been one helluva holiday!

huichol art

andee’s blog: mylifeinchacala

our stay in chacala was fabulous – it was the real thing. fewer tourists, more interaction with local people, excellent food. there was a certain simplicity and charm to it. initially we had planned on staying at mare de jade, a beautiful retreat that offers both accomodation and meals. when that didn’t work out i began to look on the web. i found a blog called “mylifeinchacala“, a treasure trove of facts and information, with colorful pictures and personal recommendations. it was written by an american woman called andee carlsson. i emailed andee a couple of times and finally decided on casa monarca – i had read about it and seen the pictures on her blog.

while writing my posts about mexico, i went back to andee’s blog. the first thing i saw was a picture of her. i scrolled down, more pictures. i was surprised. having navigated andee’s blog in quite some detail while deciding on a place to stay, i had noticed how there were no pictures of her anywhere. i even tried to imagine what she looked like.

as i read on, i was shocked to find a post by her son, saying that andee had passed away on jan 16. we were in chacala last december and i had regretted not having had time to seek andee out and say hello. i guess that was not to be. even though i never met her, i was touched by andee’s sweetness and i just wanted to acknowledge that.

rest in peace andee, under chacala’s beautiful blue sky.

chacala’s blue sky

chacala and puerto vallarta

our first morning in chacala we went to the beach for breakfast and then on to the local market, video camera in hand. my son was my guide throughout this trip and did a wonderful job of navigating mexico complete with fun-facts and witty commentary. our first stop was a small souvenir shop where the guide in question purchased some flip flops. i had suggested as much while packing for the trip back in rochester, but mr middle school didn’t want to wear flip flops. we had settled on water shoes, luckily at hand from our lake house. however, in his haste to return to his psp, mr middle school had picked out 2 left shoes from the bunch – one was his own and one was his dad’s. since it is never advisable to have a guide with 2 left feet we decided to take care of that first.

we just strolled down the tiny bazaar. i bought some pottery. we tried authentic burritos, made on a stainless steel surface. they were good but would have been better if we had been allowed to try the sauces – my husband was at it again, making sure we only ate things that were steaming hot. after lunch we took it easy at casa monarca. my daughter spent several hours intermittently swimming in the pool and swinging in a hammock.

casa monarcareal burritos

i had read on the web that chacala is always in need of school supplies, so i brought a bagful of school supplies and toys with me. kate told me to take them to mary ann day, co-founder of cambiando vidas (“changing lives”), a non-profit that provides academic support and social enrichment to the chacala community through a learning center, scholarships, computers and internet access, etc. mary ann lives on the top floor of casa aurora. my husband and i decided to walk there. we chatted with mary ann for quite a bit. she told us about the building boom beginning to take root in chacala, thanks to american developers looking to capitalize on chacala’s beach front potential. many of the bigger houses she told us belonged to americans. “i told the local people not to sell their land. i told them the gringos were coming – i ought to know, i’m a gringa!”. it will be a shame if chacala’s present way of life gets lost in the gated, shiny and greedy commerciality of big-ass hotel chains and resorts. mary ann believes it’s only a matter of time.

after some savory dinner (shrimp cooked with chunks of garlic – it had a definite kick) we got back home and began to pack up for our trip back to puerto vallarta the following day. i made the unpleasant acquaintance of a tiny gecko inside our house. it reminded me of pakistani lizards and i wasn’t too happy. thank god my husband is not afraid of anything and he took it out for me. the kids were very concerned for the gecko’s safety so the extradition process was a delicate affair.

we left for pv on thursday, which was perfect. thursday is farmers market day. en route we stopped at la penita mercado. what fun! the market was swarming with sellers. there were rugs, jewelry, pottery, wall hangings, paintings, and lots of fresh produce. i shopped to my heart’s content, trying to keep track of how much i would be able to squeeze into our suitcases. after the mercado we drove to pv, returned the car and took a cab to our hotel – the sheraton. my kids were visibly relieved by the sheer size and shininess of our new abode. the view from our room was stunning. the hotel was literally on the beach, just footsteps away from the sea. after escaping the hotel personnel (they were bent on making us all kinds of rich offers if we agreed to give them 1 1/2 hour of our vacation time to check out the hotel’s rental property) we had an excellent lunch at one of the many restaurants located within the resort. the kids were off on an explore. my son was soon remarkably well-versed in everything that had to do with the hotel – he had the lowdown on the sheraton.

later that evening, my husband’s cousin arrived. she was the reason we had made this trip. a frequent traveler to mexico and especially to pv, she was going to take us to town. we got into a cab and went to the apartment she had rented along with some friends. the apartment was built on top of a hill and looked deceptively like a big villa. it was in fact an entire building full of apartments that sprawled vertically along the slope of the hill and provided amazing views of the city at many different levels. the interior was beautifully decorated and replete with mexican craftwork. we were now ready to walk down the steps from the apartment, to the city of puerto vallarta!

ola mexico!

we went to mexico over christmas break 2007 and what a terrific vacation that was! the weather was perfect, the food was flavorful (and quite different from the rather tepid fare passed off as mexican at most american restaurants), the people were friendly, and the places we visited were lovely.

we landed in puerto vallarta a little after 1pm and rented a car to drive about 1 1/2 hour north to chacala, a small fishing village. just take highway 200 in the direction of tepic. we stopped at rincon de guayabitos for some lunch and found this sleepy seaside town to be charming. we ate at this small family-run restaurant where the owner sat comfortably under the shade of a colorful awning, playing cards with her friends. it looked like she had spent a good part of her day doing just that. the food was delicious but it took the longest time for it to get prepared. it was obvious that our american-style dependence on time and efficiency, units of work produced per unit of time, would look embarrassing here. it’s better to go with the flow and enjoy each languorous moment of the day.

after following a long dirt road into chacala we finally got to kate’s house, casa monarca. kate is american, her husband is mexican. they have just finished building this beautiful house in chacala – tangerine-colored stucco, a pool with shimmering spheres of mediterranean blue, friendly hammocks and colorful wicker rocking chairs. it was a feast for the eyes. the family lives upstairs and rents the lower portion of the house. after settling down a bit we decided to walk to the beach and get some dinner. the most tourist friendly restaurant with the most extensive menu is the one with all the flags on it. it sits right on the beach. but instead of eating at the restaurant we decided to try a pineapple from a little fruit stand. it was an elaborate affair.

the top of the pineapple comes off first, before the fruit is cored. the core is moved to a small bowl filled with grenadine. the inside of the pineapple is then scraped and grated so as to make it drinkable. fresh lemon juice is squeezed into it and so is fresh orange juice. sea salt and chili powder are carefully stirred into the concoction. finally the fruit’s core is replaced into its center along with cucumber and orange slices. it’s a thing of beauty and perhaps the best tasting treat i had in mexico. my husband, the doctor, was praying that the chef and sous chef had duly washed their hands before embarking on this culinary project. all i can say is that it was well worth the risk! after this tasty and unconventional dinner we lingered on at the beach and experienced a stunning sunset. for the first time in months, i felt completely relaxed and carefree.

chacala pool

chacala sunset

cafe colonial and the goog

while in nyc last february we had breakfast every morning at cafe colonial, 276 elizabeth st, at houston. the freshly squeezed orange juice, delicious omelets and fruit salads were a great start to the day. the decor is brazilian and the ambience very french. i highly recommned it.

we got a chance to see the “el greco to picasso” spanish painting exhibition at the goog. the guggenheim is stunning museum space. the exhibition was extraordinarily extensive and unique in how the artwork was displayed – rather than being chronological, the display was thematic and had no qualms about mixing up 5 centuries of spanish art. only when you see juan sanchez cotan’s classic “still life with fruits and vegetables” hanging right next to the modernist “still life with newspaper” by juan gris, that you begin to see the similarities. who would have thought that pablo picasso’s portraiture was somehow rooted in velasquez. it’s amazing how juxtaposition can lend a completely new meaning to art. it was the first time that we saw picasso not as a french painter but as an artist closely aligned with the spanish aesthetic.


richard foreman

while in nyc, my friends and i went to see richard foreman’s “wake up mr sleepy! your unconscious mind is dead” at the ontological theater at st mark’s church. what an experience. first we were late (it took us a while to figure out how to navigate the nyc subway system). we literally ran out of our cab and rushed to the theater. after a couple of wrong turns and missed theater entrances, we finally got in. it was exactly 8pm. however, there had been a strong directive to arrive at least 15 minutes before the start of the play. as we tried to present our tickets, an old professorial-looking, bespectacled guy told us we were late and couldn’t get in. i tried to argue that it was 8pm sharp. he was adamant. we should have come earlier. one of my friend chose the “appeal to sympathy” approach and told him we had come all the way from rochester to see this play. finally he recanted. he told the usher to seat us on the narrow stairs, in between aisles. we were happy to sit anywhere. we later found out that our tormentor had been mr foreman himself.

the play was a multimedia, multi-layered work of art. my friend sarita likened the experience to stepping into an abstract painting.

in foreman’s own words: “will i be punished if i tell the truth about my motives? i want above all, to make a play that escapes what i see as the tunnel vision of unified subject matter – creating instead a play about ‘nothing’ except the evenly distributed grid of all things at once.

most plays are built with events, adventures, ideas. but i believe this focus has locked us all in a psychological/spiritual isolation chamber, fixated on the limited plateau of always inherited, second hand desire and experience.

i want instead –
TO MAKE A FASCINATING event that – through multilayered filigree of sound, image, light, verbal statement, gesture – makes that ‘texture’ be, all by itself, a new way of ‘being’ that creates or evokes a self no longer in need of the false ‘kick’ of events, no longer needing to latch onto focused intention. but a new self that can be energized in simply HOVERING over the field of total, evenly distributed ‘multi-possibility’.

does this sound like denying what has been the very basis of theater? so be it. but this is my aesthetic obsession, my love – to make ‘theater’ that spreads in the mind, spreads the mind itself, spreading evenly until there is… ‘nothing’? and yet one is thereby vibrating, and fulfilled.”

here’s the ny times review by ben brantley.

wake up mr sleepy!

the blue note and nyc

listening to wynton marsalis reminded me of going to the blue note. three of my friends and i went to nyc for a weekend in feb 2007. we rented a small apartment in the village and spent our first evening at the blue note, legendary jazz club and greenwich village institution. we had to stand in line for an hour, in spite of reservations, but it was worth it. the mulgrew miller trio performed first. miller has played with the duke ellington orchestra, under mercer ellington, and is an accomplished pianist. the donald harrison quartet was next. harrison’s confidence and ease with the sax were immediately apparent and so was his knack for badinage. the atmosphere was intimate and convivial. some of harrison’s young band members stood out. grammy-nominated christian scott was amazing on the trumpet. esperanza spalding is this beautiful young bass prodigy and vocalist who blew everyone away. i was interested to find out later that she opened rochester’s international jazz festival this year.

esperanza spalding

la tunisie – part 3

yasin dropped us off at hotel khamsa corinthia in gammarth. that evening we met badi again. the kids (and i – i have to confess) were dying for some american food. badi took us to champs, which was a pretty good rip-off of the original. there were huge plasma tvs with loud sports events (a soccer match), and gigantic coke bottle and plaster of paris replicas of football players. the food was awesome – we all had hearty cheese burgers with fries and lots of ketchup! it hit the spot. the kids were finally satiated and up for anything. we went to a shisha cafe next and tried some apple-flavored tobacco. i just had one puff. the best part was spending some down time with badi. what a great finish to a really long day!

on april 12th we had a leisurely breakfast, followed by a trip to the hotel’s indoor pool. for lunch badi took us to a hip little restaurant (very manhattan in look and feel, but way more mellow). the food was fantastic. next on our agenda: sidi bou said.

sidi bou said

la tunisie – part 2

on april 10, 2007 we left tozeur to visit the oasis villages of chebika and tamerza tucked away in the jebel en-negueb mountains, near the algerian border. these berber villages were roman defense outposts. in those days berbers used to communicate with mica mirrors thus the roman title “castle of light”. chebika means spring. this earthen village follows the contours of the mountain, rising and falling elegantly to accomodate pretty gorges, waterfalls and palms trees. the kids headed to the streams and waterfalls to catch tiny frogs and geikos. we climbed rocky staircases carved into the side of the mountain to access different levels. the town must have been enchanting. both chebika and tamerza were abandoned in 1969 after freak torrential rains resulted in a literal meltdown. we had tasty grilled lamb on skewers for lunch at hotel tamerza palace. this beautiful hotel, brought to life by a profusion of colorful berber rugs, overlooks the old town of tamerza.

that evening we left for nefta and for a rollercoaster ride along shapely sand dunes. the remote ong jemel (camel’s neck) was the location for films such as the english patient and star wars. one star wars set thrives still in the middle of the desert and attracts numerous tourist buses. we ran into a group of japanese tourists several times that day and were in turn amused by their face masks (the desert heat probably takes care of most airborne viruses) and impressed by their high tech wireless earphones which connected them to their guide. the desert sand was incredibly fine. it was cool on the surface but still warm underneath. we took our shoes off and let our feet sink into the sand. the sunset was vast and magnificent. the desert puts everything in perspective.

on april 11th we checked out of our hotel in tozeur and almost missed our train, le lezard rouge. this historic train passes through the selja gorges. the track was originally used for mining phosphates. the landscape we encountered was stunning: vertiginous crags, surprising waterfalls, precipitous ravines and quiet streams enfolded in vegetation. we had lunch at hotel gafsa palace and then began our long journey back to tunis (about 6 hours).

le lezard rouge

la tunisie – part 1

badi picked us up at the airport on april 7, 2007. it was wonderful to see him after so many years. he looked good. he took us to a hip little restaurant in gammarth for lunch. gammarth is a quiet suburban town by the sea, about 20 km from downtown tunis. after lunch we left for sousse to visit badi’s mom in kalaa kebira. we stayed at hotel el-mouradi palace where badi’s ex-wife and kids were also spending the night. badi had offered to take us out for coffee or shisha in the evening but we were tired from all the traveling (more than 12 hours from toronto to milan to tunis) and decided to crash after dinner. the next day badi took us to port el-kantaoui in sousse and then on to his house. his mom had prepared a sumptuous seafood lunch – there was grilled tuna and sardines and harissa (hot chili paste) and couscous (that tasted a lot like chicken biryani less the rice plus the couscous) and pasta for the kids and mussels (which gibran discovered and devoured with relish). it was a grand old feast. badi’s youngest sister sausan was there and so were his brothers nizar and saif. we had tunisian mint tea (which is intensely sweet) and talked about our lives. sausan spoke fluent english – she and i acted as translators whenever needed. my son played soccer with all the boys and managed quite well with his 6th grade french.

badi introduced us to our chauffeur/guide later that afternoon and we were off to the south of tunisia. we stopped at el-djem to see one of the best preserved roman amphitheaters. it had already closed down for the day so we couldn’t go inside but it made an impression anyway. late at night we reached matmata and stayed at a hotel i had read about on the internet, “les grottes de matmata”. it was supposed to be “cavernous” (like the caves matmata is famous for) and have a local feel but what we found was that it was simply run down and rather dirty. thank god we only spent a night there! the next morning we went to see the caves. for thousands of years these underground caves were used by berbers as homes and for safely storing their possessions while they were out on mercenary missions. subterranean homes stay cool and are obviously very useful in the desert. these are built around artificial craters 5-10 m deep – it’s a virtual moonscape.

after exploring the caves of matmata we began our journey to tozeur. en route we stopped in douz. we got a chance to ride camels at ofra (one of the country’s largest and most accessible sand dunes) for about an hour and a half – not the most comfortable of rides. the kids loved go-karting in the desert. we had lunch at hotel saharien in douz and then left for tozeur. on the way, we were amazed by the brackish water of lake chott el-jerid. it was pink on one side of the road and a rich turquoise on the other side. there was absolutely no vegetation anywhere – not even a lonely cactus or two. it was easy to see how the steamy heat from the sun could beat down on fine desert sand and create a mirage. we experienced a few ourselves.

tozeur has its own distinctive architecture. rectangular yellow brick is used in all construction and arranged in beautiful geometric patterns. we checked into hotel palmyre – a terrific hotel in the middle of the desert. the kids jumped at once into the hotel’s dreamlike swimming pool – a huge bean shaped pool surrounded by palm trees and overflowing with sparkling blue water.

in the evening, we took a horse and buggy ride through tozeur’s green oasis. 400,000 dates palms, pomegranates, bananas, peaches, apricots, citrus fruit, figs and fragrant arabian roses in a 2600 acre oasis irrigated by 200 springs and artesian wells. water is shared by different land holdings under a system developed by imam ibn chabbat in the 13th century. our “caleche” driver and guide told us how female date palms have to be pollinated with flowers from male trees – share croppers climb the long palm trunks barefoot and pollinate about 30 trees a day. he also pointed out the marabout of sidi aguili (shrine to a holy man), an important tozeur landmark. the oasis is lush, lavish, luxuriant and (unfortunately for me) abuzz with the whining sound of hungry mosquitoes! we had to get out of there, fast!

our next stop was chak wak, a historic theme park. this is their spiel, in their own words: “marchez sur les traces des ancêtres de l’humanité, au coeur de tozeur, dans la plus grande palmeraie de la planète. du big bang, au hommes préhistoriques, jusqu’aux grandes civilisations, vous allez redécouvrir le mystère des grandes religions. un voyage qui vous fera parcourir des millénaires d’évolution hunaine, dans le cadre enchanteur d’un jardin botanique oasien”. the kids enjoyed the giant dinosaurs. before returning to our hotel, yasin took us to the local bazaar. i looked at some rugs (the store manager was particularly ingratiating, starting and ending each sentence with “dear gentlelady”). i bought a beautiful berber rug. my daughter was feverish so we decided to call it a day and not go to the dar cherait museum.

tozeur brickworktunisian rugs