A is for Ackee


One of the first things I noticed on the fruit stalls around Kingston was this odd-shaped fruit:

ackee1ackee4

They are easy to spot from a distance with those distinctive black seeds busting out of what looks like an overripe casing.  What on earth were they?  I learnt quite quickly that they are the treasured Jamaican ackee fruit, which is used to make the national breakfast dish, Ackee and Saltfish.  More on that later.

Then I started to notice Ackee trees around town.  The unripe bell shaped fruits hang from trees everywhere.  They aren’t ready to be picked until they split open and the black seeds are on display, as they are poisonous before they’re ripe.  I understand that you can’t buy them fresh (or canned even) in the US as the FDA have classifed ackee as poisionous and even the canning process doesn’t destroy the toxins if the ackee being processed were picked underripe.  However, this is not a concern here as locals know very well how to pick and process them.

ackee2

The trees aren’t native to Jamaica but come originally from West Africa, probably along with the slaves that were also imported from there.  Fruit grows abundantly and can produce a harvest all year long.  I’ve read that the wood is termite resistant, so perhaps that’s another reason that so many people have them in their yards.

Preparation of the national dish, Ackee and Saltfish, starts by removing the fleshy arils from the open husks (taking care to also remove the toxic red membrane) and boiling them until they’re soft.

ackee3

Shucked  arils ready for the pot

The arils look a little scrambled eggs when they are cooked and have a similar mild flavour and texture.  They are mixed with flaked salt cod, onions, tomatoes and green peppers to make the famous dish.  I’ve tried it a couple of times and its pretty good!

ackee5

Ackee and Saltfish – ready for your Jamaican breakfast

News from Jamaica


I’m not sure if its fair to say that life in Jamaica has been the only reason that my blog has been so neglected the last six months.  But it has certainly been a significant factor.  The city is small and much of it is off limits to me, and I feel the fish bowl effect often.  My initial curiosity about the place has not been replaced, as it so many other countries, with a growing appreciation and knowledge of where I am.  The reason why is not a simple explanation, but the subject of a longer blog post for another day, perhaps.  For now, let’s just say I just haven’t made the usual connection with the place.

Glancing back at posts from other places we have lived, I’m amazed how many memories come flooding back from the smallest things and I think that in future years I will regret adding such a small Jamaican chapter here.   To break the silence I’m going to try a vehicle used by others:  A-Z.  Its a way to cover small things that remind me of Jamaica with the alphabet as my guide.  I’ll start tomorrow with A for Ackee…but in the meantime…some news…

The Foreign Service bidding season has kept us busy and we finally know where we are going next.  The news is good and we are very excited to give the following clue on where we will be living next summer:

flag

Any guesses?!

 

One Year On


S0479158

Earlier this week, April 25 to be exact, marked the passing of one year since the Nepali earthquake.  The anniversary was covered a little in the media if you watched carefully, and referenced in the coverage of the more recent earthquakes in Japan and Ecuador. But, it has largely been forgotten by most. Facebook reports from friends in Nepal focus on how little has been achieved since the first wave of humanitarian help, and after donations from all over the world poured in to rebuild homes and infrastructure, the news I hear is not good.  Reconstruction projects are tied up in red tape.  Little has been achieved. Villagers who lost their homes and possessions still live precariously in tent villages waiting for help.  For many the aftermath of the disaster in frozen in time.

One year on for me, its a very different story.  I can hardly believe its been only a year…a particularly challenging one too..with so many changes. New country, new job, new home…in a completely different corner of the planet.  Yet a big part of my heart remains in Nepal.

Among the many reminders of our time there is a tapestry project that I worked on during the crisis.   I’ve made a tapestry cushion in several of the countries that we have lived, picking a subject that appealed to me, as well being symbolic of my time in that country.  After a long online search, I picked a beautiful peacock in shades of blue and purple.  Its a memory of my time in Chitwan where we watched wild peacocks running around on the jungle floor.  The plan was to slowly work on it, especially during all the travel required before we reached Jamaica.  I started work on the tail, a little every night.

We spent the first two nights after the earthquake sleeping on Robert’s office floor.  As we headed over to the safety of the Embassy, I grabbed a little overnight bag, a book, and the tapestry for something to do. In the days that followed immediately after the earthquake, I worked on the tapestry almost non-stop.  There was something extraordinarily calming about the repetition of the “needle in, needle out”needlework stroke, giving my hands something to do and occupying the motor skills function of my brain, which handled the task of deciding the direction of stitching and what section to tackle next, leaving the rest of my brain to work on processing what had happened.  I guess it was kind of a meditation.

Ironically, I was unable to finish it before we left.  The kit I purchased had been mispacked and I had reams of purple and blue leftover, but ran out of the background colour.  The manufacturer in England had gone out of business and I had to search online until I could track down the wool brand, identify the particular shade of white, and find a supplier that could mail it to me.  After several months of unsuccessful tries, I was able to source the wool and finish the tapestry here in Jamaica.   Yet the project is still not complete.  Its yet to become a cushion and now I have to figure out where to buy sewing supplies in Kingston..the hunt goes on!  Its tempting to somehow symbolically connect the project with my personal journey from Nepal to Jamaica, how all the little stitches over time form not just a picture, but their own tapestry of memories, challenges and unresolved issues that have been part of any big change in life, but especially this one….or something like that….

S0469157

And then I ran out of yarn for that lower left-hand corner.

DSCF1782

The finished tapestry.  Now where to find a fabric and notions store?

Pelican Brief


S0111421These strange, prehistoric-looking birds are pretty common in Jamaica.  I find them fascinating to watch.  Painfully awkward and gangly on land with impossibly large heads, balanced on the nearest fence they look to me like they may just topple over.  But they are as graceful in the air as they are clumsy on land, and its really fun to watch them swoop overhead, scanning the water for their next fishy treat.  Once a target is spotted, they dive head first into the water with a very loud splash and reappear seconds later bobbing on the water’s surface.  We watch closely to see if anything is caught.  There’s a pause, spilling water pours from the upward-pointing beak, and then comes the gulp.  Success! –in fact, there’s rarely a miss.  Then its back over to the favorite lookout spot for a 20 minute break before the hunt begins again.  Its become a favorite pastime for us too.

pelican fishing

Target spotted

S0161461

the big dive…

S0141444

S0171470

Yum!

S0211492

S0271507

WPC: Life imitates art


A tough photo challenge this week for me.  I was kind of stuck until my son reminded me of this wonderful photo that was taken when he was 14.  The lighthouse peninsular on Spetses hosts about a dozen metal sculptures hidden among the pines trees or out on the rocks.  Interacting with the art is a given.  You want to pose with the mermaid or crawl on top of the chain mail sheep. Here’s my entry this week:

latham mermaid

And a few more just to show off the uniqueness of the place:

DSCF7210DSCF7212DSCF7223DSCF7236

WPC: Time


I considered lots of approaches for this week’s challenge: clocks, ancient places, ancient faces, timeless graces…  but I think I like the idea of the passage of time the most.  Every year Latham and I take a picture for his birthday at the gate of our Greek home.  Here is the passage of time over twenty years.  Time indeed waits for no one.  And what a story it tells!:

Sign Language: Put on the Red Light…


DSCF1239.JPG

Its been a while since I’ve found an interesting subject for Sign Language until I spotted this one. There’s a small town called Red Light on the road half way up the mountain towards Holywell, one of those very respectable “blink and you miss it” places gathered around a small community church. If you look closely you will see this double-sided sign on the roadside, serving as both a welcome and a goodbye notice to drivers passing through on the narrow, windy road. Now I have to ask myself “why is this Red Light district” and not “Red Light town” or simply “Red Light?”  Is this a nod to the history of the place, or an innocent coincidence? The charming care that someone has taken to decorate the sign with flowers adds to the intrigue a little when you realize that the flowers illustrated are the indigenous “hot lips” (see my earlier Holywell post) because they resemble a sexy woman’s lips.  Mmmmh.   Is there a connection?  Did the town really get it name from ladies of the night?  Or some other way?  How intriguing to see a sign that seems to focus on its shady history and encourage visitors to “walk, drive & ride safely” at the same time.  Someone needs to explain this to me!

Blue Mountain Trails


DSCF1237

As a kind of part two to my earlier post about our stay in the blue mountains, here are some favourite photos from the trails around Holywell. They were much too interesting not be awarded a post of their own, and it was a great excuse to use my macro lens.

DSCF1165

Many of the Holywell trails are steep and up and down paths that cut through the hillside.  Either side of you are jungle, shady nooks and mossy banks, which make the hikes pleasantly cool.

DSCF1218

The minute we entered on to the cabin grounds, we were approached by a salesman selling raspberries. I had heard they grew up here and was planning on picking some myself, but when I saw how I would have to scramble down steep trail banks to get them it certainly seemed worth buying them rather than getting a broken ankle.  This went against my hunter-gatherer instinct but it was probably a smart decision.  When I told the sales guy that picking them looked a bit risky, he said, “I know what you mean. That’s why I have my own plants at my house!”

DSCF1171

January felt like a kind of Spring here, with baby fern shoots everywhere.  I wonder if you can eat them like fiddlehead fern soup?…

DSCF1176

…in fact ferns cover most of the jungle floor.  I loved how they made cooling, shady umbrellas.

DSCF1184

And you know when you’ve reached a certain elevation…there they are: pine trees.

DSCF1192

A typical view across from the trail.  I want to go and visit that house!

DSCF1193

What looks like some kind of bearded moss parasite draped trees everywhere on the mountainside.  It added a spooky air, but it did make me worry about the health of the trees?

DSCF1229

One of the Holywell cabins is called “hotlips” and of course my mind went to Major Hoolihan from Mash.  In fact, the cabin wasn’t named after what might go on inside, the name hotlips actually comes from a local plant whose flower looks like a pair of lipsticked lips.  See the resemblance?

DSCF1175

How Much?!!!



It is crazy expensive here.  We were warned.  Its easy to think of things like French Chevre or other luxury food items as being understandably pricey.  However with less fancy items like apples, celery, leeks, potatoes – items that we think of as being inexpensive nutritious foods that we like to eat everyday–it becomes a lot harder to accept.  But the import gods make no such distinction.  You want it? Then thou shalt pay anyway… and through the nose…Paying for the privilege of maintaining expat standards is par for the course when you live outside your home country (whichever country that is – I lose track.)  If you want peanut butter in (fill in your current country name) you pay.  Which is not unreasonable as someone had to ship it here, pay import taxes, and find a niche market that buys it.  And we accept that these are treats and, like all treats, they are an occasional expense that we justify as a reward for homesickness or little crutches to help with the challenges of adaptation.  There’s not really much I can’t live without these days:  maybe good tea, good coffee, healthy cereal (a great comfort food), cheese…  but nothing I have to have.  But oh I start to miss the variety and choice elsewhere!

I have long cherished the idea that it is good to eat local foods — at local prices — and to learn how to benefit from delicious cuisine that the locals enjoy without the extravagance and expense of expat imports.  However, in practice, I’ve only had limited success.  As I am a vegetarian, the quality of produce is of the highest importance and Jamaica and our previous two posts haven’t done very well in this respect.  The Philippines had fabulous produce grown in the Northern part of Luzon, but after they trucked in down in unrefrigerated trucks for 10 hours in the searing heat and, after leaving it lying around for another 10 hours until a vendor bought it, by the time it reached our kitchen it was often putrefying from the inside out.  I feared what I might find oozing in my vegetable bin after only 12 hours in the fridge!  Local meats and poultry were tough and stringy. Fortunately, fish and fruit excelled.

In Kathmandu local, seasonal fruits and vegetables were sometimes very good, but many were imported from India and made the same sad journey to our table.  Worse, bad sanitation made the consumption of fresh local produce dangerous without bleaching. Salad in the winter was a no-no because of a microscopic parasite.  Yet, with some good kitchen management, it was my most successful attempt at eating local.  Our housekeeper would shop from the local market, sanitize the vegetables and cook local food, which I had nearly every day for lunch.

Here in Jamaica I find a lot of the local food is not for me.  Most vegetables are the starchy root variety, which have often been fried, so I head to the supermarket produce aisle for imported vegetables.  I buy local produce there whenever I can, with mixed results, as the quality and freshness of local produce is often not there either.  The imported vegetable prices are skyrocketedly crazy:  $17 for a tiny, withered cauliflower.  $20 for a punnet of yellowing mushrooms.  A small bag of apples can cost $15.  I just can’t do it most of the time.  And I can’t get to the local markets which I am suspicious carry a better selection at better prices, so I am now actually looking at canned and frozen vegetables as a supplement to the overpriced “fresh” produce available to me.  There are some imported quality brands available at reasonable prices. Its a quite exciting discovery and a new low at the same time.

Probably my biggest sell out on the subject of eating and buying locally is the move to Walmart online shopping.  They ship orders over $45 for free and this opens a huge world of savings for items like mayonnaise, toilet paper, washing powder.  If they can ship it, we can have it at one third to half the price that it costs in Kingston.  A significant saving.  The sellout comes when I think about principles of shopping local, how much jet fuel it took to fly my bread flour here.  But then again, the same jet fuel was burned to bring these items to the local shelves where I pay 2-3 times the price, and the difference in cost is not supporting organic practices or paying carbon footprint taxes.  So,  I reckon that if I can’t live without it at all, and honesty I can’t–at least not without some of it–then I will continue support the exploitative practices of the Walton empire to get at their cheap prices, and will continue to burn jet fuel doing it.  It doesn’t make me proud but it does make life happier.

On a more positive note, we are discovering the blue mountain farms that deliver fresh organic produce to Kingston.  Getting it has been challenging between delivery dates, communication problems and junk mail filters…but hopefully next week we’ll get our first delivery. How exciting would it be to be able to buy good, fresh produce that supports local farmers? And hopefully doesn’t cost an arm and a leg either…  More on this to follow (I hope!)