19 August 2014

"That is cheesecake!?"

"If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion & avoid the people, you might better stay home."
-- James Michener

When calculating the amount of money to convert to both NOK a.k.a. Norwegian krona and ISK a.k.a. Icelandic krona, Mom & I were clueless how much to allot for meals.  We could not afford to eat like kings, but wanted to try the local cuisine.

We aimed for $30 USD per meal per day (with the intent to skip breakfast or have it at our flat) thus totaling $120 USD/whatever that equated to in krona. However, after our first meal in Reykjavík, Mom & I discovered dining out would be considerably more expensive than eating in.  For example, a stop at the ubiquitous 10-11 convenience store cost between $20-25 USD altogether, which was lofty considering we mostly bought soda & snacks.  However, a meal out averaged $90 USD in whole – quite a difference compared to gas station fare!  So we really tightened our money belts.  On the nights we returned to Welcome Apartments late, Mom whipped up something simple albeit hasty on the dual, over-sized Bunsen burners.

Usually, we spent just the evenings dining at restaurants near Reykjavík and Bergen’s city centre.  Our first full day in Iceland, ravenous and jet-lagged, we found deserted Skólabrú by wandering the streets.  I was unsure whether water or bread would be complimentary (given that it was not in Italy + Greece).   It turned out almost every restaurant supplied bread gratis.  Furthermore, the carbohydrates in Scandinavia were delicious & far better than anything I sampled in Italy!  There was such diversity too: warm sourdough; a bread with a pizza-tasting crust and thin, white center at Enhjørningen (Bergen), flavorless – but healthy – whole wheat with poppy seeds at Graenn Kostur (Reykjavík); fresh French bread with balsamic vinegar drizzled over top at FG (Bergen); plain bread with savory garlic butter at Einar Ben (Reykjavík); crusty bread coupled with tapenade + the best hummus I have ever tasted at Tapas Barinn (Reykjavík).
As one would expect from an island or coastal nation, seafood was plentiful in Iceland and Norway.  I consumed a few familiar foods such as Shrimp crepes and salted Cod, but most dishes were new: Salmon ceviche, Oysters and Bacalao.  I tried Sea Wolf which the waitress alleged was similar to Catfish, but it was much better and not bony! At Reykjavík’s premiere seafood restaurant, the hot, “pan-fried Blueling” flaked apart in my mouth.  Although I did not partake, Bergen’s touristy Fish Market area thrived with hot-off-the-grill Crabcakes, live Langoustine a.k.a. Lobster, every type of local fish, and Prawns a.k.a. Shrimp daily.  Ironically, the biggest draw to the marina was not a meal!  Hordes of children and adults surrounded the water tank where spindly-legged crabs the size of watermelons were piled.
Sadly, Minke (pronounced “mink-ee”) whale was on the menu throughout mainland Norway, Svalbard & Iceland.  Mom & I were more than pleased to sign a postcard on behalf of International Fund for Animal Welfare a.k.a. IFAW.org addressed to the Icelandic Minister of Fisheries, urging the government to prohibit hunting mammals.  Did you know that the refusal to cease whaling is part of the reason these Scandinavian countries are banned from the European Union? Ergo, the use of Krona instead of Euros.
There were other, eccentric animal dishes too.  I learned from a family that the national dish of Iceland was cured shark.  Basically, the fish was buried to ferment in its own urine for a few months.  The father from this same family also dined on foal in Reykjavik.  Although this past year I have oscillated between Pescatarianism (no meats except seafood) & occasionally-eating-meat, curiosity got the best of me twice.  I tried just a bite of my friend David’s Moose in Svalbard.  The filet was rather tough, but had a mild & bearable flavor.  I assumed the carnivorous gods could overlook my slight indulgence, but then, I committed the ultimate Pescatarian sin: I intentionally ordered “Puffin with blueberry Brennivin” compote.  Two bites assured me that Puffin a.k.a. Lundy should remain adorable, colorful and wild, instead of on a tapas plate.  The pieces of bird were a peculiar dark purple/almost black color, very salty, gamey and had the repulsive aftertaste of licorice.

Icelandic cuisine generated many questions as well.  For instance, what was skyr (pronounced “sk-eer”)? In short, it was yogurt.  Technically, it was the strained, floating milk clumps found in the yogurt process.  At a local Vegan restaurant in Reykjavik, the two salad dressing options were Basil Mint or Peanut Skyr.  I opted for the latter which tasted like watered down Ranch.  Also, what was mixed into the Forest Berry muffin my mother bought at a local bakery?  Was it simply a combination of berries one might find in an Icelandic forest?  I never found the answer (& for the record: I do not believe there are woods in Iceland).
There was one food item, sold in petrol stations & supermarkets alike, that bested Iceland’s Skyr and anything in the United States: Norwegian vanilla yogurt.

I was happily surprised that Iceland – an island the size of Portugal or [for you Americans] the state of Kentucky – had such diverse cuisine.   Their bubble gum came in unique flavors like Melon Mint, Sweet Licorice & Eucalyptus.  Kleina was the staple dessert of the country, served warm.  Essentially, it was a thick doughnut without the glaze, cinnamon, toppings, sprinkles, or fruit filling.  The doughnut was hearty but I was a diabetic, sugar-deprived American, so I craved more sweetness.  On the main street in Bergen, Norway, my blood sugar went low & lead to the discovery of the creamiest ice cream Mom or I have ever tasted!
My friend David – who sampled a new bottle of wine every night aboard the MS Expedition – was flabbergasted that I did not imbibe whilst on vacation.  In my mind, it seemed so logical.  I wanted to wake up every day healthy to make the most of it.  Traveling for a month was exhausting in itself; I did not need to add dehydration and a hangover to the mix.  I would opt to eat a delicious, foreign dessert rather than waste my money & the calories on wine.  Furthermore, I wanted to spend my money for once-in-a-lifetime excursions, not fancy drinks.

I did sip some of his wine throughout our week together & even downed a shot of Norway’s hallmark alcohol: Aquavit (pronounced “aw-qwuh-veet”).  Lorelei – whom I met on a lava tube expedition – raved about Iceland’s national alcohol made from its trees.  So Mom & I saved our ISK until the last leg of our holiday to purchase Björk a.k.a. Birch liquer and Birkir a.k.a. Birch snaps on the flight back to the U.S.A.  The Birkir was tolerable; the Bjork was not. I even tried eating the Birch branch preserved in each bottle, but it was leathery & probably for decorative purposes. I thought about purchasing green bottles of Brennivin -- sledgehammer schnapps made from potatoes & flavored with caraway -- with my leftover krona until I had a swig at the airport on an empty stomach.  It was so disgusting I had to force it down & deserving of its nickname – black death.
Another, unpleasant surprise was slicing peanut butter while eating brekkie a.k.a. breakfast at Preikestolen Fjellstue. It struck me as odd to have a mound of peanut butter, but I assumed this was normal for Scandinavian countries.  I put the peanut butter on my bread, but it would not spread since it was still cold.  After I tried a bite, my mother pointed out the tan slices were Norway's famed, Jarlsburg cheese.  Despite the unappealing tan color, the sweet cheese wasn't terrible, but I do not think I would eat it of my own volition.

Nowadays the best souvenirs people receive from me are postcards… except for my mom & grandmother.  At KEF I scoured the duty-free shop for a small, thoughtful souvenir for my Grandma Marilyn, but had no luck finding what I knew existed (I saw the gift when we flew to Norway).  I learned there were two duty-free stores at Keflavik Airport: one for departures to America & one for departures to Europe.  So, I doubled back through customs & security – which technically meant I left & returned to Iceland within 7 minutes.  Nonetheless, at the other boutique I bought my grandma a combination pack of jams with unusual names like Hrútaberja a.k.a. Stone Bramble berry, Bilberry, Rowan Berry, and Cloudberry -- a relative to raspberries. I also bought an assortment of salts, whose names sounded like everything inedible: kelp, Icelandic moss, blueberry, black lava, wild mushroom, and Icelandic crystal black beach sand.

So what was the best meal?  From a cumulative standpoint, I appoint Tapas Barinn in Reykjavík’s heart.  As mentioned previously, the hummus was to die for, the tapas were scrumptious & the dessert sampler featured the epitome of crème brulee, in addition to chocolate cake with fresh berries + chocolate “Fantasy” (similar to pudding) + white chocolate skyr with passionfruit coulee.
In my mother’s opinion, Reykjavík's Fiskmarkaðurinn a.k.a. Fish Market was the epitome of fine dining, proven by the fact a reservation was compulsory.  I admit it was on my top three meals, and certainly the most unique experience.  We feasted on tender Salmon tartar wontons + satay gratinated Blueling (as mentioned earlier) with coconut creamed barley and dates + salted Cod with lime zest, potato puree and sweet celery salad.  We wanted to splurge our last night in Reykjavik so we saved room for dessert.  I tried the “apple cake with foamy buttermilk, pears in beet root syrup & baked white chocolate.” Mom ordered  “white chocolate cheesecake with rice crispy merengue, passionfruit sorbet and sauce.”
What arrived at the table was definitely a work of art.  After the waiter set the desserts down and left, Mom & I inspected each other’s dish & simultaneously looked up at each other, perplexed. My treat resembled a granola bar in shape and grated texture with chunks of bread and pear inside.  I imagined the apple cake would be like American cake – fluffy and moist.  The blobs of white adjacent each piece was actually whipped cream, though it was unsweetened & nothing like the sugary Cool Whip in America.
That is cheesecake!?” I gawked.  Mom & I both laughed at the sight of “cheesecake” in a bowl with an egg atop.  One bite shut us up.  Although the dessert had the consistency of mashed potatoes and looked unappealing, it was delicious!  We deduced the pink & white things that resembled Bacon Bits were the rice crispies. They added a nice crunch to the mushy dish.  Mom found the passionfruit sorbet incredibly sour so I devoured it with the fresh berries.  I hated cheesecake, but this tasted divine!
Yes, the quail with bacon crumbles & Sherry sauce at Bergen’s Escalon was mouth-watering; G Adventures’ Pea Soup and Tiramisu was delectable; and I ate enough salted corn kernels in Svalbard to feed a small country, but in all truth, Iceland's cuisine initially set the bar so high that Norway never stood a chance.

11 August 2014

'13 going on 30


"Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares, and the slavery of Home, man feels once more happy."
-- Sir Richard Francis Burton

2012 proved to be one of the most difficult year’s of my life, employment-wise.  In the beginning of the year I had a dead-end job worsened by a pompous boss.  I frequently & facetiously said “a toad with one testicle could do my job” which was not a lie.  My hours, between 08:00 and 17:00, were filled with repeating the same three tasks. All day.  Every work day. Without end.

The creative side of me rejoiced when I returned to a position in my degree field: human services.  I was earning the most money ever in my life, but it came at a higher cost: thousands of miles on my not-so-new car, at least two 12 hour days per week, the pressure of meeting quotas and being attacked by hellacious children with behavioral disorders and/or terrible family structures.  It was grueling, but I was so busy with work, that time flew by and money materialized in my travel fund quickly.


Therefore, when I was laid off from that agency in November 2012, my cares instantly piled a mile high. Where will I find a new job a month before the holidays?  I desperately need health insurance. How can I make ends meet let alone buy Christmas presents?  I reverted to the only thing a single person in my situation could do: substitute teaching.  It wasn’t dignified and didn’t pay well but it offered health insurance and temporary cash flow.


Now 29, I started over for the umpteenth time, and was flat broke like when I first graduated college at 21.  Yet, unlike the days of my early twenties, I had a savings account laying dormant.


With intermittent employment in the schools, I lived feast or famine.  Some weeks I earned enough to get back on my feet, only to be followed by a week with only one day of work, wherein I once again slid into debt. I began selling the hundreds of children’s books amassed through college. Instead of recycling my soda cans, I hoarded them and braved Ohio’s winter weather to stomp them in my driveway in hope of eventually trading them for qui.


I continued to struggle financially – rarely breaking even -- and in March 2013, my mother & I researched the rates for a vacation overseas.  The Arctic, specifically Norway, was astronomically expensive (even on sale!)  Mom & I let the idea of this major purchase mull for a few days.  There were so many other things we could do with the money.  She recently had to acquire a new loan for a car & the electrical in her house badly needed an upgrade.  I racked up my credit card over the holidays and had no foreseeable income for the upcoming summer months.  To put the situation into perspective, we instead could have cruised to Alaska for 80% less than this journey to Norway.

I
n the months that led up to April 2013 (when a decision could no longer be postponed), I was more gung-ho than my mother about using my entire rainy-day fund for a trip.  The Arctic would be the fruit of our labor. The climax to the last two years.  But now that she had this enormous chunk of change, Mom – understandably – did not want to part with it in one fell swoop.

We also heavily weighed plodding on with day-to-day life while putting money away for the Arctic in 2015.


Two weeks after much trepidation & the initial shock of the cruise’s cost, I cashed in all my chips. I withdrew my entire savings…from four digits to zero in a single transaction.  I redeemed the cash rewards on every credit card.  I hauled eight, sticky trash bags of aluminum cans to the scrap yard.  I returned anything in my room with a price tag still attached.  I raided the house for “like new” items to sell on eBay.
What finally sold both my mom & myself on going to the Arctic – and going now – was we were not sure how much of it would remain in two more years.  With global warming and the human population growing out of control, the Arctic had already suffered.  In fact, every documented glacier on this planet has been retreating for the last 30 years.  The Arctic’s prognosis was and is abysmal.  In practically 100% of future scenarios, homo sapiens’ impact will negatively affect the Arctic environment… including the wildlife.  Mom’s house would wait for repairs – like it had the last five years.  Visa would persist to suck me dry with its interest rate.  “Home” and “Habit” and “Routine” would endure as long as we stayed put in Ohio for the summer.  So in the beginning of May 2013, months shy of turning 30, I committed to an adventure almost 30 days in length with Mom.  To venture into the unknown.  To reach far-flung latitudes.  To see polar bears in the wild. 

01 August 2014

Tribute

"I agree with the suggestion that the best way to witness your partner’s true character is to travel together. I’d add a couple twists. Travel with nothing more than a small backpack. Go somewhere remote, challenging.... Live with locals. Stay as long as you can. Then watch hidden personality traits appear, the good and the not-so-good. By the end of the journey, you’ll know. Bon voyage."
-- Franz Wisner  [How The World Makes Love]

Before this trip, my [now ex-]boyfriend and I typically spent no more than 3 days together at a time since we lived in different states. Each weekend we were together we were always together. When Sunday night arrived we reverted back to our single selves for the week – hanging out with local friends, work, errands, and doing whatever we wanted.

As mentioned previously, my boyfriend never owned a passport before the trip to Belize. Honestly, I would have been fine staying in a Belizean hostel or camping in our hire car, but for his first trip I did not want to shellshock him. So, I compromised and booked more expensive rooms with air-conditioning & private bathroom facilities.

Yet, before we even left the U.S.A. he started coming around. One night, he told me he was fine with taking the bus to our numerous Belizean destinations. That was a bit shocking coming from the man who insisted on driving his souped up Dodge Charger RT+ everywhere. The biggest surprise was when my boyfriend – who sleeps with the thermostat at 60º F year-round – admitted he did not require a room with air-conditioning!

He did have one major hang-up though: the cuisine. At home, my boyfriend rarely tried new foods and don’t even think about adding fruit or vegetables to a meal! Deep down, I knew he would love the fresh seafood on Caye Caulker and the authentic Belizean fare on the mainland. I was flabberghasted when he shoved a banana in his mouth at our first breakfast, saying “I haven’t eaten a banana in years.” He raised the bar again by trying papaya for the first time in his life. Throughout the trip he continued to venture out of his comfort zone by ordering barracuda, stone crab, curried rice and ceviche (he usually freaks out over raw meat). He sampled some of my meals too: coconut rice, conch, plantains and snapper with spicy/sweet orange sauce.
Since day one, we converted my boyfriend's backpack into a portable pharmacy. Everywhere we went, I had to tote emergency supplies: an extra insulin pump, vial of medicine, extra diabetic necessities, hypoglycemic glucagon shot & nausea medication. My boyfriend quietly and dutifully hauled all my crap across the country: to the middle of the Caribbean Sea, to mayan ruins, into a cave, and out of a sinkhole. I offered to share the load but he persistently refused which spawned his nickname for the trip. I frequently referred to him as “my little burrrrrrrrro a.k.a. donkey.”

Still, the most unexpected & best change I noticed in my boyfriend related to me. Whenever we conversed with locals, the question “where are you staying?” usually was asked. I was habitually cautious & gave an evasive answer or flat out lied. However, he was far more jovial than I expected for someone who had never left his homeland. I did not care to single myself out as an American, but he owned it proudly. To me, it looked like he thoroughly enjoyed sharing he was from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

My boyfriend was boisterous about other personal information too. I loathe telling anyone that I am diabetic because it tends to emote the pity look, an obvious but insensitive comment (i.e. “that sucks”), or the mommy effect (i.e. “should you be eating that?”). Yet for some reason, I didn’t mind when my boyfriend blabbed to our tour guides about my disease. I thought he should just shut up and let me handle the situation when it actually came to pass, but I quelled my irritability. After the third instance when he divulged my diabetes, I had to lasso in my pride because #1 this was simply his talkative nature; #2 it came from a place of love and concern; #3 I should get over my hang-ups. My fear of announcing my chronic illness (& the subsequent reactions) was only my fear. On the contrary, a few Belizeans found this to be a talking point with me.  The rest of the world -- at least Belize -- did not give me a second glance.
Since becoming a type one diabetic at age 14, I have always wanted -- so badly -- to fit in that I kept my disease hushed. I hated the looks/comments/mindsets so I endeavored to prove I was equally capable, but only now -- at 30 years old -- have I stopped pretending. I am not as well as others; traveling takes a massive toll on my body; I am kept alive by a battery-operated machine; I cannot booze all day with my friends; I am a slave to synthetic medicine.

Ironically, in my life-long efforts to exude independence & perseverance, I realize now they were overkill. As Ghandi declared, "my life is my message."  The essence of being strong is only begotten from struggle -- physical, emotional, psychological, it is irrelevant.  I have not stared death in the face & remained unfazed. My greatest physiological weakness has strengthened me the most.

Ultimately, my boyfriend was the catalyst who helped me open up to the world by embracing myself.