Tuesday, September 18, 2007
My first experience with food borne illness that I can recall, happened 3 years ago in Thailand. I was heading back from Chang Mai to Bangkok on 12 hr train ride at night. Earlier that day, I had taken a Thai cooking course, and I thought it was a bit strange that I hadn't washed my hands, in fact, nobody had washed their hands in my class. Oh well, we happily consumed a 6 course meal without much thought. Until later on that night., at about 11pm on the train, I started to feel a bit ill, and very warm. I got down from my bunk and headed for the washroom. There I broke out into a sweat and felt the nausea crawl up my throat. With one hand I held on to the rocking side of the train to steady myself, as I emptied the contents of my stomach. I stumbled all the way down the corridor back to my bunk to lie down. I cannot imagine a worse place to be sick than on a rocking train, except maybe going a merry go round or a roller coaster. Every 20 minutes I would have to climb down from my bunk and walk down the corridor to throw up. To make things worse, I started to sweat orange on my clothes, as my body rejected the fake tanner I had put on the day before. ( I was embarrassed to come home white after 3 months of travel, so I applied a fake tanner). I decided to give up on cleanliness and opt for practicality, and sat outside the bathroom door. At this point one of the train conductors was rightly concerned. He asked me in broken English, if it was a baby. I said “No Baby…Food poisoning” So he produced charcoal of some sorts and I took it because nothing could be worse then what I felt. He also offered me his make shift bed that he was resting on, right across from the bathroom, and I gratefully took it. I arrived at Bangkok airport exhausted and presumably smelly, and then I took a flight to Malaysia where I fell asleep as soon as I sat in my chair on the plane.
Another episode happened a few years later when I was working in Cape Town, South Africa. This time I think the culprit was Shish Taouk (the Labenese shaved chicken on pita with yummy garlic sauce). My second day in Cape Town I woke up not feeling so good, but I assumed it was because I had sun burnt myself the day before. So I got a bottle of water and hailed a cab and headed for work, to inspect the kitchen. The car ride was not pleasant and my nausea continued. When I arrived the kitchen I informed the quality manager that we maybe shouldn’t go in to the kitchen just yet, because I was unsure if I was sick. So we spent the morning looking at records. At one point I was feeling better so I said lets go into the dry storage area and look at the food. The moment we walked in there, the heat of the storage room immediately brought back the nausea full force. I was ill a few times, but wanted to keep working since I had a tight schedule, so we went back to looking at records. After eating a few bites of bread, and throwing up some more, I decided it was time to pack it in and go to my hotel. I realized that I would have to see a doctor or else I couldn’t return to the kitchen. Luckily my hotel was 5 star, so they had doctors that could come to your hotel room, instead of waiting 6 hours at a local hospital. The next morning a doctor came to my room (a very handsome doctor I might add) and he diagnosed me as having some food borne illness and prescribed antibiotics. I also made sure to get a note saying I would be safe to return to the kitchen to continue my inspection in two days, so they couldn’t try to refuse me.
The last time I was sick,was this year in April, when I was working in Lima, Peru . I spent four days with my friends in-laws, who graciously cooked for me, and played tour guide. Although we ate out a lot, I think the root cause of my illness came from my friends mother in-law. She would leave stew out overnight, and one time I saw her leave cooked rice in her rice cooker for a few days. Which I believe she later served to me, because it was cold and I hadn’t seen her prepare any rice that day. So I tried very hard not to eat any of the rice, but I couldn’t appear to be rude either. The next day I was working at the flight kitchen, I was telling the quality manager all the Peruvian foods I had tried, she was amazed that I hadn’t gotten sick. I think I may have boasted that I was immune or something like that. But that wouldn’t last long, as I was soon running for the toilet. I had to fly out right after work the next day, you can only imagine how I was looking forward to flying for 9 hrs to Amsterdam, having a 4 hour layover and than flying another 7 hours home. My stomach was constantly gurgling and producing the most foul smelling gas. I spent most of the flight going back and forth between the washroom and my seat. When I landed in Amsterdam, I sought out a pharmacy and bought some diarrhea pills for the flight home. This worked quite miraculously on the way home, and led me to falsely believe I was well the next day. It took me a week to finally see a doctor and get some antibiotics. It will always be remembered as the week I couldn't have any coffee, or good tasting food (at least without any drastic consequences) and it seemed to last an eternity.
The moral of the story is, eating out in general (at home or abroad) is like playing Russian roulette. When your numbers up, it's up. But you might as well enjoy the good run while it lasts.
Monday, September 17, 2007
Thursday, September 13, 2007
A ride in a taxi may seem like a trivial thing to write about, but it’s a huge part of the whole travel experience. Its usually your first introduction and first impression to a new country. Taxis' can be a source of local information, where to eat, shop or what to see. It can also be a source of stress and anxiety that may cause frequent gripping of the door handle so tightly your knuckles turn white. Specifically, this might occur when your cabby (wanna be formula 1 racer) drives double the speed limit, zig zags in and out of traffic, barely stops at the stop signs, and oh yeah, you don’t have a seat belt.
One of my very worst taxi experiences occurred during the second month I started working as a Quality Assurance Auditor (a.k.a Food inspector) for airline kitchens. It happened in October 2005 in Rome, Italy. I had just landed at Fiumicino airport from an 11 hour flight from NRT-Tokyo at around 9pm. After collecting my baggage I went outside and grabbed the first taxi I saw. My hotel was located in the city center, near Vatican City, and I had no clue how much the taxi cost would be. When we got to my hotel, the price on the meter read 90 euros! I only had about 50 euros on me (the price the taxi should have been, how he fudged the meter I don’t know) but I didn’t know any better. I asked if he took credit card, but of course he didn’t. So we stopped by an ATM machine, so I could take out more money. My laptop bag was in the back seat, and I never thought to take it with me while I took out money. So, after I paid him and asked for a receipt, I tried to turn the light on, but he said it didn’t work. I got out of the taxi, and immediately realized my laptop bag was lighter. I shouted a few obscenities as you can only imagine, but he was gone, and I didn’t get his cab number. The cherry on top of it all, was when I realized he had given me a fake receipt. It read Chica Chica Boom Boom Lap Dancing club. I guess you can say I got screwed twice, he took my laptop and charged me double. But at least I got a free lap dance!
My biggest gripe about taxi drivers is that for a profession that is based on driving people around, they sometimes don’t have maps, cell phones, or are incapable of listening to verbal instructions given either by myself or the hotel (when I don’t speak the local language). I remember a time in South Africa, where I had written instructions that told the driver when to turn left and right on street names, and he still went the wrong way. Other drivers would stop half a dozen times to ask for directions, meanwhile I am being charged by the minute for their in aptitude to listen to instructions.
I get particularly annoyed with taxi drivers in Montreal, Quebec because the taxi drivers hate taking credit card as a method of payment. It clearly states at the airport taxi stand that they take credit card. But, they always try to get you to pay cash, and make a huge deal about taking out there little credit card machine. Of course they make sure to keep the meter running while they slowly take it out of the glove compartment, and try to find a pen.
Another interesting taxi experience was in China, specifically Beijing, Dalian and Xian. The taxi drivers do not speak any English, and you must give them cards written in Chinese so you can find your way to tourist spots, or your hotel. I have actually managed to haggle the price a bit in Chinese, with my Mandarin vocabulary consisting of 20 words. (Basically I asked how much was the price, said it was too expensive, and gave him my price). Sadly, sitting in traffic inhaling fumes, listening to all the cars honk their horns like mad, (even if no one can go anywhere, and honking is futile) can really dampen that Zen feeling. Also, for some reason the taxi drivers think they have a right to be fussy about their fares. I once flagged down a taxi in Beijing to take me to my hotel, but he told me to get out because the ride was too short, and I was at least 30 minutes walking distance from my hotel. How can no money be better than a little bit of money? I hope they give the taxi drivers a little etiquette 101 before the Olympics start in 2008.
To be completely fair, I have had some novel experiences with taxis. For instance, in Japan the drivers where cute little white cotton gloves, and in Cyprus, your regular cab is a Mercedes and not a Ford of Hyundai like in Canada. In Venezuela, my cab driver knew that I liked the music group Aventura that he was playing, so he pumped up the music, and actually gave me his C.D. I have also had a lot of good conversations with taxi drivers, about their country, about my country, the world and politics.
Unfortunately, I think its human nature to remember the bad things more than we remember the good things. Maybe its because they make for better stories, I mean who wants to hear about the really polite driver, that drove the speed limit, and charged you a fair price? Boring. I don’t for a second think that they have an easy job, as a driver, you have to have a lot of patience dealing with customers, other drivers and traffic. So I respect them. All I ask for in return is that you get me to my destination in one piece, that you don’t screw me over too badly, and you leave my laptop alone.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
From my perspective, the people and business's that started to suffer after all the tragedy, were the airlines. A combination of people being afraid of air travel and the cost of increased security measures hit them hard. Airlines had to cut costs somewhere, so they started to cut back the food served on the airplanes. Since I inspect airline kitchens for a living, I have heard first hand from them how they have suffered since 2001.
I have visited many dilapidated kitchens where the atmosphere was grim, and I see that wistful look that says, it wasn't always like this. Before, kitchens used to cook meals..now, maybe if your lucky, a frozen pop out is put on the plane, otherwise you can buy some peanuts or a sandwich. Slowly air travel has come back and is even stronger than before, but the airline kitchens haven't been able to make that same recovery.
If we continue down the line to the people effected, we arrive at the modern world traveler. The world has really become small, with people traveling more than ever for business and pleasure. Over the last two years, I have had to endure removing my shoes and belt, being patted down/frisked/ groped in front of people, my belongings searched, interrogated for an hour before even checking in, had my hair mousse confiscated, and forced to stuff beauty products into a tiny zip lock bag. When I think of travel now, I think of how long it will take me to go through security, how long will I have to wait at Passport control, and how delayed my flight be.
My first hand experience with enhanced security measures/nightmare happened last August 10 2006. When England had discovered plots to blow up planes using liquids. This basically turned London airport into Chaos, and they canceled a ton of flights. When they allowed plane to start landing again, they decided to put in tougher measures. I happened to be flying to England two days later, and I was forced to check everything I had, including my laptop. When I landed, as luck would have it, my baggage was lost, so I had absolutely nothing except my wallet. There were police everywhere, and the lines for check-in extended outside the airport.
For a few months after August, security was very strict and they wouldn't allow any liquids on the plane. I remember one time I bought a water bottle from Starbucks near my gate, and they took my cap away, so I couldn't bring it with me on the plane! Eventually they loosened up a bit, and started to allow liquids as long as they were less than 100ml (3oz) and in a clear zip lock bag. I have pretty much given up on carry on's, after having my contraband gels or mousse thrown out in front of me.
So, if you think you have not been affected by 9/11 and the surrounding events, think twice. Next time your hand cream is thrown out, the next time your frisked like a criminal, the next time you have to buy a sandwich on board your flight instead of getting a free meal...you can thank the terrorists in this world. In the end though, those are small concessions in order to be safe. I say to the terrorists out there, have fun in your all men anti-American training camps, I am still going to Hawaii.
Monday, September 10, 2007
I was given the low down on how these Cypriot weddings work, and let me tell you big does not adequately describe the wedding. Apparently, everyone you know has to be invited to the wedding. This can include the plumber who fixed your pipes last year, or your annoying neighbor who you cant even remember his name. The reason the wedding are so large is, in the old days, they used to invite the whole village from the brides side and the whole village from the grooms side.
Fortunately, the Greeks being as clever as they are, devised a plan. The people you don't know to well (or don't like to much) are invited for cocktails after the wedding, but are not invited to the supper. The good thing is that they still give you money, but you don't have to feed them much. Shake their hand, give them a few meat balls and pita with hallumi cheese and send them on their way. The other guests will come for supper after cocktails, around 9pm.
We were in the latter category, so at 9 pm we showed up at the hotel where the reception was taking place. The couple had to stand and greet all the guests that came, I can only imagine that after shaking 600 peoples hands that they were tired. Around 9:30 people started to file into the dining room, and immediately headed for the buffet. I was a little surprised that half of the guests had eaten before the bride and groom even entered the room. But I was informed that a lot of people will just eat and then leave right afterwards.
The food was pretty good, with Greek salads, a variety of meats, calamari, tzatziki, rice, potatoes and baklava for desert. As I ate my food, I couldn't help but remark the extremes of the dress attire. You had some men in jeans, some women in prom dresses, other women wearing their lingerie, and others who prefer to show their greatest accessory, cleavage.
After supper we watched the groom dance the "drunken dance" which is a solo dance, which involves a lot of stumbling and tapping the floor. The men circled him and knelt on the floor while they clapped their hands. The best men danced after the groom, and then the father and one of his friends all took their turn to show off. You can't help but feel the energy, with the Greek music in the back ground and all the clapping. I did participate a bit in the Greek dancing, but I was quite grateful when they played a few songs I knew, so as to not completely embarrass myself.
At 1pm, the DJ pretty much stopped playing music, and only a handful of guests remained. We thanked the bride and groom for a great party and wished them all the best. As we were driving back to the apartment, my friend asked what I thought about the wedding. My response was that was that was a huge wedding. Apparently, that was considered a small wedding, and some can be up to 3000! I remember with my wedding reception that I was stressed out with 60 guests, so I give props to all the Cypriot/Greek brides out there.
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
Two years ago when I first started traveling, I could easily adjust by walking around the city during the day and then go to bed early the first night. Yesterday, after a ten hour flight and four hours of sleep I was literally a Zombie when I got off the plane. I wanted to fall asleep right away at 4pm in the afternoon. But I forced myself to walk around the city, have something to eat and adjust to the time a bit. By 9:30pm I had stayed up as long as I could, armed with a set of ear plugs and an eye mask I went to sleep. I woke up a few brief times during the night, but I was shocked when I woke up at 10:00am the next morning.
It seems as though I have gotten too much sleep yesterday, so now I am paying the price tonight. The worst apart about Jet Lag is that by the time you get over it, it's time to go back home again. I guess the good thing about Jet Lag (if there is a good thing) is that you aren't that hungry for the first few days. Your body is like you don't want lunch, its only 5am, you want sleep.
Right now, I am very envious of the agoraphobics of America. It's very tempting to just give up on international travel. Who needs Jet lag, the ridiculously long lines at security/passport control and that damn strong Euro that puts the dollar to shame? But I am not ready just yet to pack in my passport and buy myself a kick ass camper van. Although, if I did have a camper van, I would probably be asleep right now.
Monday, September 3, 2007
My first day in Mauritius, I took the public bus to go to the Pamplemousse Gardens. It took about an hour to get there (by car it might have been 20 minutes), but it was nice experience and cost less than a dollar. The gardens were really nice, and the temperature was great for walking. I saw some pretty lethargic tortoises and large amazonian lily pads.
The second day I booked two scuba diving excursions in Trou aux Biches. We took a small boat out on the water and dived in two different spots. The fish and coral were great, and I finally got to see some lion fish. But I couldn't believe that our dive instructor not only fed the fish, but touched and handled the fish! This is a huge no no, and in my opinion very irresponsible of that diving company. Please allow me to rant for a second... those of us who dive because we love nature and appreciate it, are not down there to see a show, we merely want to observe life as it is!
So whats the big deal about feeding a fish you ask? Here is a quote directly from the PADI Ten Ways a Diver can Protect the Underwater Environment "Avoid touching, handling, feeding or riding on aquatic life. These actions may stress the animal, interrupt feeding and mating behavior or provoke aggressive behavior in normally non aggressive species." The dive shop should know this information, since they have this exact poster on the wall in their dive shop. For your information, if anyone is going to Mauritius, and is an avid scuba diver/underwater love, the dive shop is called Atlantis and its located in Trou aux Biches...I say boycott them.
So enough about scuba ranting, and on to ranting about the local men. The majority of places I go to in the world, I do not get a second glance (or at least not one that I perceived) however there are on occasions where I feel a bit uncomfortable. This was one of them.
I can understand why I would be a target for the local men, I am a young woman traveling alone. Mauritius is a tourist destination, and I am guessing not too many women who are 25 (and look 20) would be going all that way for business by herself. So that I get; it's annoying but I understand. But what I don't get is the persistence even after I say I am married.
One night I went to an Indian restaurant called the Taj Mahal, and the waiter made some joke about he knows one way he could get to Canada. So I jokingly say "well it wont be by marrying me, since I am already married" That should have been the end of our bantering, but it wasn't. I was the only person eating in the restaurant, and for the next 45 uncomfortable minutes he kept making comments about me being his girlfriend, that I should leave my husband, and that we should have drinks that night. Oh, he also mentioned his wife and kids, but they were away that night.
It would seem that every night that I sat down for supper, I would have very dedicated waiters who hung around my table trying to talk to me, a lot. One night a waiter asked me in French with a smile " so is it Madame or Mademoiselle?" I was quite exasperated, not by him but in general, that I quickly let him know that I was married, here for work and my husband was at home. Besides the over eager waiters, I even had a police car pull up in front of me and honk! The officers got out and gave me a grin. The icing on the cake was when the manager of the hotel called me at midnight (five hours before I had to get up to catch my flight home) to ask if I wanted to have a drink.
I am not sure in the end which paranoia got the better of me; men thinking I was a single easy tourist looking for a local, or that everyone felt sorry for me because I am on vacation alone.
To be completely fair, I think the experience would have been much better if my husband was there with me. The temperature was great, the beaches and water were stunning, and the food was very Indian inspired. Then the local guys could smile at me all they want, I have my 6ft2 husband with me.
My first ever travel experience to another country, (not counting Vermont and Maine, USA) was when I was a young 18 year old freshman at Univeristy. For some unknown reason, I had a horseshoe up my ass my first year of school. While “studying” I would listen to the radio, and constantly call in and win free stuff like movie tickets and C.Ds.
One day my roommate and I were listening to the radio, and they announced a radio contest to win tickets to Rock in Rio, a huge concert that takes place in January. I told my roommate Krista immediately upon hearing this, I said quite confidently, I am going to win this contest. While attempting to study, I heard the radio ask for the 9th caller through to register for the Brazil trip, and I quickly pressed my speed dial (yes, I had the radio stations number on speed dial ) and I was the 9th caller through. All we had to do was wait a few weeks for them to randomly pick one of the qualifying names.
When that day finally came, Krista and I were up at 7am listening to the radio, to see if we had won. When the phone actually rang, and my roommate answered the phone, I couldn't believe we had actually won the contest. I was so excited I could barely maintain my screaming elation. I had to share the news with the dorm, so I ran out in the hall screaming I won, I won… but sadly at 7am, nobody really gave a shit.
So this was it, my big break, my chance to finally travel and see the world! This trip was pretty significant, since it was a lot of firsts for me. My first time getting a passport, first time on an airplane, first time seeing palm trees, first time in the ocean, first time in a place where no one spoke English, first time burning my ass so badly I walked like I had hemorrhoids.
Krista and I left the first week of January for five lovely days in the sun. The radio station paid our flight, hotel, concert tickets, and gave us a bit of cash for food. We flew for 8 or 9 hours, with a stop over in YYZ-Toronto.
The drive to the hotel was amazing for me, its like realizing that the scenery does exist, and is not made up in some Hollywood studio. Our hotel was across the street from the ocean, and was in a quiet area outside of Rio. I had never stayed in a nice hotel before, and I remember there was a time I would be excited to stay in a comfort inn. We had a balcony facing the ocean and the hotel pool, and a basket of fresh fruit. I immediately called my parents to tell talk to them. I was the only one in the family to travel so far.
After we unpacked, we decided to make use of our complimentary drink coupons given to us by the hotel. I ordered a Pina Colada, and settled down in my chaise lounge by the pool to enjoy the southern sun. Like all one track minded Canadians, I was hell bent on returning to Montreal with a tan. But, I do not tan I burn and get freckles. This is a lesson I have never quite learned, or simply chose to ignore. So, I skipped on the sunscreen and turned a fashionably red color, with the pathetic justification that some color is better than none.
For supper, Krista and I were very adventurous and had spaghetti at the hotel restaurant. I mean its got to be exotic because we are eating it in another country right?
The next morning we enjoyed a continental breakfast of fresh papaya juice, orange juice, pastries, and lots of fresh cut fruit. After eating we headed to the beach. I think I immediately fell in love. Staring at the ocean reminded me of a campfire, that same hypnotizing and soothing feeling you get. I could get lost in the movement of the waves as they rush onto the shore. After admiring the crystal clear color, I headed into the ocean. While swimming, I comment to Krista how salty the water tasted and how my eyes were burning, which is a forgivable remark if you are used to swimming in fresh water and pools only.
After a while we headed back to our hotel, to get a liquid lunch. Since we were poor college students, we devised a scheme to save money. Instead of eating lunch we would drink, and eat at breakfast (which was free) and pay only for supper. That way we wouldn’t have to sacrifice experimenting with new cocktails for the sake of nutrition. Besides, it doesn’t require much energy to lay around and BBQ yourself.
The pool was perfectly set up for us, a bar right in the pool. So, every few hours we wound jump into the pool, cool off our scorching skin, drank a bit, and carefully swam or wadded back to our lounge chairs. I even saw Dave Grohl and his drummer from Foo Fighters in our pool, they were playing at the Rock in Rio concert that we actually never did go to. The price of the taxi to the concert was really expensive, so we decided to spend the money wisely and see the big Jesus statue and take a tour of the city.
It may not have been the most cultural trip I ever took, but it was fun and a great introduction to traveling.
Since I was a little girl, I always dreamed about traveling the world. I was fascinated by stamps of the pyramids, I would watch travel shows and drool. I think I equated travel with adventure, and was always eager for adventure. Believe it or not, there was a time when I lived in New Brunswick, I was so excited to drive over the border to Bangor, Maine just for the day. Those days of such tiny pleasures are long gone, but the sheer thrill of being in a new country still remains with me.
Currently, I have my dream job. I get paid to travel all over the world to inspect kitchens that prepare the food for the airlines. Before that, I indulged in a three month Australia and south East Asia backpacking trip. Where I spent all my money on scuba diving in the first month of my trip, and was forced to pick tomatoes, so I could continue to spend more money on scuba diving.
My first trip outside of North America was at 18 to Brazil. I have since been to 35 countries in 7 years. With the majority of those countries being visited in the past two years. I have had some good times, bad times, and worse times, but when I look back on it all, I can't help but smile.