Archive for June, 2014

June 25, 2014

Cuba’s Culinary Revolution

Arroz-con-Pollo

Arroz con pollo — a Cuban staple

Currently in the middle of an exciting cultural shift that will someday be a notable chapter in world history, Cuba is an intriguing place – to say the least. Its increasingly celebrated cuisine serves as a microcosm of this momentous shift, and of the curious little island nation’s culture in general.
At its core, Cuban food is a medley of elements from cultures around the world, much like the Cuban identity in general. Its flavors are influenced by the culinary traditions of the island’s indigenous Taínos (a branch of the Caribbean’s native Arawak people), colonial Spanish settlers, the large population of people brought from Africa, and other more recent additions. As in many Latin American countries, rice and beans are common staples, as are chicken, beef, and pork. Many dishes also feature plantains and one of several varieties of root starches like yuca or potatoes. Soups and stews are also favorites, and the fact that Cuba is an island results in a heavy dose of fresh, deliciously prepared seafood.

The Republic of Cuba has seen its share of government restrictions. Those restrictions, while certainly still there, have been loosening lately – making way for some remarkable changes in the art, music, tourism, and gastronomical scenes. For a long time, the supply of ingredients was rigidly controlled by the government, as well as who was and wasn’t allowed to own and operate private restaurants. Given the tropical crops found on the island and the cooking influences from all over the world, the potential for a top-notch culinary scene was always there, but until recently, your family would have had a much easier time finding tasty Cuban food at an expatriate-run restaurant in Miami than in Havana.

Well, the doors are opening now… Varied meats and produce that recently weren’t available are now plentiful, herbs and spices are finding their way into local dishes, and the paladares (private restaurants typically operated out of families’ homes) are increasing their once-limited selections. Talented chefs that left Cuba for more professional freedom in other countries are returning to be a part of this culinary revolution, and more Cubans are choosing to pursue cooking careers in their native country. There are countless factors that make right now a thrilling time to discover Cuba – with the transforming world of Cuban cuisine undoubtedly high on the list.



June 16, 2014

Brazil: More than Soccer and Supermodels

Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro

Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro

With the World Cup underway, Brazil is very much in the global spotlight. The choice to host such an enormous international event here is a controversial one that has drawn plenty of opposition. Regardless, all this attention is a reminder that there’s a lot to love – and a lot to learn – about Brazil.

Brazil is a vast nation boasting a rich history and an astonishing degree of cultural diversity from region to region. Before the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500, there were a very large number of distinct indigenous groups, lumped (in very general terms) into four major overarching groups: the Tupi (speakers of the many languages in the Tupi-Guarani family) and the Tapuia inhabiting the coastal regions, and the Carib and Nuaraque peoples in the interior.

The Brazil of today is an amazing melting pot whose vibrant culture benefits tremendously from a convergence of ethnic influences including indigenous Amerindian, Portuguese, African, and more recent immigration from all over the world. The friendly people, renowned for their striking looks, boast skin tones and hair colors of every imaginable hue. They dance to the rhythm of samba, jazz-inspired bossa nova, indigenous wooden flutes, Afro-Brazilian drum beats, and so many other fascinating styles. They parade down the bustling streets of tropical Rio de Janeiro in elaborate costumes and bring the spirit of Carnival alive. In the vibrant state of Bahia and its capital of Salvador, they carry on the captivating tradition of capoeira – a martial art full of movement and dancing invented by Brazilians of African descent.

The people of Brazil eat delicious and immensely varied cuisine influenced by indigenous crops, animals, and cooking methods, European and African recipes and ingredients, and so much more. They eat their national dish of feijoada (a stew of beans, salted and smoked meats, and vegetables cooked in a clay pot), a savory cheese bread called pão de queijo, and churrasco, an assortment of barbecued meats known for fueling the work of the South American cowboys known as gauchos.

Brazilians are a welcoming, resilient people who make up for the financial riches they may not have with the heart and personality that radiate from their kind souls.

In addition to its wonderful population, Brazil is home to unforgettable landscapes and wildlife. The city of Rio de Janeiro has quite deservedly been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with an urban landscape nestled snugly between forested mountains and blue bays. There’s no better place to people watch than on the lively beaches of the Copacabana waterfront. Nearby, in the lush Atlantic Forest outside Rio, primate conservationists work tirelessly to reintroduce endangered golden lion tamarins to their natural habitat.

Then there’s the Pantanal, a different world altogether. This enormous tropical wetland harbors a stunning array of creatures; the vast expanses of open grasslands here actually provide far better wildlife viewing opportunities than a place like the Amazon, because the abundant animals aren’t hidden by high, dense vegetation. This is the perfect environment to ride on horseback like a pantaneiro – a cowboy of the Pantanal – and spot wildlife at every turn.

And at Iguassu Falls, hiking trails and catwalks offer views of these mighty natural wonders that are higher than Niagara Falls and wider than Victoria Falls.

Long story short, there’s a LOT more to Brazil than could ever be captured in a blog post… you may just have to come see for yourself.



June 5, 2014

Spotlight on a Stellar TFA Family

Larry zip lining in Costa Rica

Larry zip lining in Costa Rica

Since Thomson Family Adventures first came into existence over 15 years ago, it’s been clear that our adventures attract a special breed of family travelers. Thomson travelers are the type of families open to new and exciting experiences; they love to learn from the great, big world around them, and they’re committed to the people, wildlife, and natural landscapes of the countries they visit.

I’d like to highlight a man whose family epitomizes that special something TFA clients have, and the reason we love what we do: Larry Taylor. Larry and his wife, Mina, brought their teenage grandson on one of our adventures to Costa Rica in March of 2013 – a trip that provided us with one of our all-time favorite photos of Larry zip lining through the jungle. We just received another batch of fun photos from the Taylor family’s recent trip to Belize, along with some heartwarming anecdotes of cross-cultural interactions with local Maya children.

Larry and his family are the type of people that have that inspiring spirit of adventure we love to see. I had initially intended to make a quick Facebook post about one encounter they had in Belize, but decided instead to go a little deeper and give the consistently cooperative, enthusiastic Larry Taylor a call to find out a little more about him and his family and how travel and adventure play into their lives.

The Taylors live in San Diego, which has proven to be the perfect location for a family as physically active and ecologically conscious as they are. Larry walks two miles every morning, and loves to meet friends at a café by the beach at the end of his walk. His wife runs six miles every other day, spends two hours at the gym on her “off” days, and has been known to run marathons– not exactly a couch potato! The mellow, 17-year-old grandson they brought to Costa Rica and Belize is a true Southern California boy who loves to surf, snorkel, swim, and lifeguard.

Larry was born in California and lived all over the U.S., growing up in an Air Force family. He met Mina after she moved out west from her hometown of Brooklyn, New York, and it didn’t take her long to evolve into a lover of the outdoors amid gorgeous West Coast weather and scenery. They’re an ideal pair of world travelers; Larry’s a naturally curious history buff, into the people-to-people politics of things, geography, culture, nature, and geology (which is actually what his undergraduate degree was in). He worked in government for 18 years, taking measures to eliminate air pollution. In his personal life, Larry is still admirably active in fighting the ill effects of climate change and trying to protect the environment – he’s currently working to install solar panels in his home, and he recently ripped out his front yard and replaced the grass with rocks as a way of saving water.

Mina worked as a clinical psychiatric social worker in a hospital, helping patients who were going through crises, so she’s very much a people-person. Ever since she retired from that career four years ago, they’ve made it a point to travel as often as possible, and they never miss an opportunity to get out there and meet the locals, snorkel the reefs, test out the zip lines, and seek out those truly special travel moments that happen organically and unexpectedly. Larry loves both the structure and flexibility of our Thomson Family Adventures, as well as the unique chance to bond with his grandchildren while someone else handles the logistics and arranges a solid collection of activities for them to engage in together, instead of just dropping the grandkids off to do their own thing.

He shared several phenomenal examples of that togetherness making for some special memories, and of the beauty of unplanned events during his past family adventures. In one such anecdote, Larry told me:

“In Belize, the local guide took us out to a reef (all three of us love to snorkel; our grandson is a surfer and a lifeguard, so he’s a great swimmer, and we still love to get out there and join him!) He took us out to a spot where he said he’d show us some turtles, but what we didn’t know was that when we got there, the ocean floor would be covered with literally thousands of conch shells under the 40 feet of crystal clear water. The guide dove down and grabbed two conch shells and started banging them together. He told us that works as a dinner call for the loggerhead turtles, because the fishermen pound them against the decks and sides of the boats to get the meat out, so the turtles know when they hear the banging that bits of meat will fall out into the water for them to eat. The dinner call worked, and some beautiful loggerhead turtles showed up, and soon after eight to twelve harmless nurse sharks came over. That type of knowledge is what’s so great about the local guides we’ve had on Thomson trips — they can take us places and show us things non-locals wouldn’t know about.”

It’s those surprises – the unforgettable occurrences that can’t be written ahead of time into any itinerary – that keep the passion for travel alive in the Taylor family, and in all the wonderful families we’re lucky to have had on our family adventures.

The family ready for action in Belize

 

The Taylor family in Costa Rica

The Taylor family in Costa Rica

Maya children in Belize

Maya children in Belize

Teen grandson canyoning in Costa Rica

Teen grandson canyoning in Costa Rica

 



June 3, 2014

Cap and Gown—and A Map of the World

rodica daughter graduation

Rodica and Emily at graduation

As I watched my daughter Emily walk across a flower-bedecked stage in New York last week, dressed in cap and gown and surrounded by fellow students and professors, I flashed back to her very first steps… taken in her grandparents’ backyard at a barbecue, to the similarly excited applause of our family. Twenty years between these two momentous “first steps”—–a blink, it suddenly seemed.

We traveled a lot as a family during Emily’s childhood and teen years—to national parks, Alaska, the Sea of Cortes and Baja, Costa Rica, and to Europe to visit family. My work took me traveling, too, and whenever I could, I brought her with me. It was part of my goal as a parent to show her that she was part of a larger world, that travel builds bridges and friendship, and that the goodness of people prevails in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

A few months ago, she told me that she and a friend were planning a trip to Thailand shortly after graduation and when I asked if there was something I could contribute as a graduation gift, she grinned at me sideways and said, simply: “miles.” Girl after my own heart!

It made me so happy that our earlier travels together whetted her appetite to explore and learn more about our big, beautiful world… those of us addicted to wandering share a special secret: the world doesn’t get smaller the more you travel, it gets bigger. Traveling with our children opens up their world to them—with the added bonus for us of that tried, and ultimately true, cliché, “a lifetime of family memories.”

There are many milestones between that first step as a child and the one that leads to the edge of the known world that Shel Silverstein so marvelously described as, “where the sidewalk ends.”  And that’s where I expect my own daughter’s story awaits to unfold … where her imagination meets the horizon, somewhere out there on the map we all call home.