Sunday, August 31, 2008

Adventure in New York State

Michael and I had an impromptu mini-day trip today to Orange and Rockland counties in New York State. Our goal was to cram in the summer experiences we didn't have this year, and it was a success!

We discovered some cute little towns: Nyack and Suffern, went to the Orchards of Concklin in Pomona and bought locally grown fruit, drove the alluringly titled Seven Lakes Parkway through Harriman State Park, and took a walk around Lake Sebago.


There's me out in nature!!! So refreshing for a city girl like myself. Even though it was only for a few hours, it definitely helped recharge my batteries.

Who knew that you could get to a state park in about an hour's drive from us? We'll definitely have to return sometime in the fall, hopefully for some apple and/or pumpkin picking to boot.

Michael and I had some tasty eats along the way. In Nyack, we had Lunch Part I at The Runcible Spoon Bakery. We saw how popular the place was (cyclists -- whom we had seen all along the beautiful drive up -- were spilling out of it), so we decided to give it a try. I had a positively scrumptious half wrap sandwich with black bean hummus, red onions, roasted red pepper, and lettuce, and Michael had an egg, cheese, and sausage sandwich on a fresh baked croissant.

Then, after building up an appetite from our walk along the lake, we found a restaurant for Lunch Part II: Doña Maria Mexican Bistro in Suffern. This was a narrow, old-fashioned diner that had been converted into a Mexican restaurant, complete with bold red walls, sombreros, colorful wall hangings, and more. We indulged in delicious brunch fare, including fiery chilaquiles. Mmmm.


It was a perfect day: almost cloudless skies, temperatures in the low 80s, and a buffer day ahead of us and behind us shielding us from work. Unfortunately, Michael is still on call; but thankfully, the pager did not ring.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Soldier update...and how you can help deployed service members

You'll never believe the surprise I got yesterday! I found an email from Spc Timothy Roy, the generous soldier I featured in my last post. Here's what he wrote:

Holly,
I wanted to thank you for linking to the article about me in your blog. It is really neat that it was so well received by so many people. I never figured it would make front page on the DOD and army.mil web pages when they interviewed me. I googled it and it popped up on a handful of sites like yours :) I definitely plan on more volunteer work when I get back from this deployment. Well thanks again and keep up the good work yourself.
-Timothy


I'm constantly amazed at how the internet can bring people together. How great to hear from him!

This reminds me of a resource of which I want to make my readers aware. AnySoldier.com is a website where you can hear first-hand from service members abroad about their lives and what they and their units need.



Some of the entries are short, but other service members write lengthy accounts of what it is like to be over in Iraq (without giving away any security information, of course) and include photos of things like their units, celebrations, etc. It's really interesting stuff!

Here's how it works, according to the website:

We have volunteer Soldier "contacts" on the "Where to Send" page. Click through the names and select the one(s) you wish to support. They list what the folks they represent want and need. We even have a search capability so you can easily identify what the troops need most.

All the Soldiers involved in this effort are military volunteers stationed in areas that are in harm's way. You send your support (letters and/or packages) addressed to them and when they see the "Attn: Any Soldier" line in their address they put your letters and packages into the hands of Soldiers who don't get much or any mail first. Everything is shared.

We have "What to Send", "How to Send" and "FAQ" pages to help you properly send letters and packages, please read these. Be sure to also read our "New & Stuff" and "Success Stories" pages. This effort is 110% voluntary. You send your support, and maybe some stuff, directly to whatever unit or units you want, you don't send us anything.
Take a look! These men and women are working so hard for our country. Please try to remember them this Labor Day!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

An inspiring story

My friend, Kristine, recommended I feature this story on my blog. What a role model! I'm just amazed at the depth of this soldier's selflessness.

Face of Defense: Soldier Donates Money, R&R Time to Needy
By Army Spc. Evan D. Marcy
Special to American Forces Press Service

CAMP VICTORY, Iraq, Aug. 27, 2008 – Whether it involves time with their families, their personal comforts or even their lives, the duty of soldiers eventually requires sacrifice. Certain soldiers, though, go beyond that call of duty and give more.

Army Spc. Timothy Roy of 5th Signal Command’s C Company, 44th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, has made it his personal endeavor to provide his time and money for those in need.

During his two-week rest and recuperation leave while serving a 15-month deployment in Iraq, Roy and his parents volunteered their time preparing and serving meals at a soup kitchen and shelter near their home in New Hampshire. He also donated $1,000 to the soup kitchen and convinced a large corporation to match his contribution.

“My parents always taught me to put others before myself,” Roy said.

He also became involved with the Make-A-Wish Foundation by donating $3,000 to grant a wish that was tied to his own interests in computers. His donation was matched with a 17-year-old girl afflicted with lupus, a life-threatening, inflammatory disease. She used the money to buy computer equipment, allowing her to continue her education from home.

“What Specialist Roy did was really remarkable, and shows how much of a good guy he really is,” Army 1st Sgt. John Willis, C Company, 44th ESB, said. “Soldiers usually take deployment money and spend it on themselves. I was surprised by how much money came out of his pocket.”

Roy said he hoped to set an example. “I figured if people saw me giving back, it would encourage them to do the same,” he said. “When they see a soldier trying to give back, when they are already selflessly serving their country, they want to be a part of it as well.”

The specialist said it simply feels good to give. “To know that you can make a profound difference in someone's life is a wonderful feeling,” said Roy. “I got a letter of thanks from the first child and her mother that I sponsored [through Make-A-Wish], and she said she was moved to tears by my kindness. There's no feeling like that; it's hard to put in words how that made me feel.”

[read the whole article here]

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Your response is requested!

I can't believe it, but this is my 100th post! I started this blog March 13th of this year in response to my involvement with the great organization, Mayan Families, and as a way to start making a change in my own life. And here I am now!

I would like to thank my readers very much for taking the time to peruse my posts and features. I really appreciate all of the comments and emails I have received. They have kept me going and encouraged me to be the best blogger I can be for you.

Now I'd like to take this opportunity to solicit your feedback. What do you like? What don't you like? What would you like to read here? As I get ready to start my next century of posts, I would really appreciate your thoughts, so I can better tailor the content to my readers' needs and desires.

Please leave me a comment or email me at gonnamakeachange@gmail.com. It would mean a great deal to me.

Thank you again for reading! I've got some exciting features in the works for the weeks ahead, and I can't wait to share them with you!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Feeding the hungry in Guatemala

Ok, I thought I had wrapped up my Celebration of Food/raising awareness for hunger feature for the time being, but I just read some great news on my friend Tricia's blog.

For those of you who have been reading "Gonna Make a Change" for a while, you might remember my June post about Tricia and the Christmas party she is organizing for an orphanage in Guatemala this December.

Tricia's plans are full steam ahead for her Christmas goodwill tour, and you can check out her amazing itinerary here.

Today she posted this:

"Our December trip to Guatemala continues to grow & expand into exciting directions.

I am really excited to share about another organization called Feed The Dream.

Their mission is to establish and oversee nutrition programs that provide food, vitamins, health education, hygiene and enrichment to children under 5 years of age and women of reproductive age in impoverished rural Guatemala.

They have previously donated $10,000 to the feeding program of Mayan Families, and, how awesome is this....they have generously donated $5,000 to the annual Christmas Tamale Basket program, as well!"

How exciting is that?

I am really hoping Michael and I will be able to join Tricia in Guatemala for part of this trip. At this point, it just depends on whether I will be able to get the time off from work. I would so love to be part of this...and record my experiences here for all of you! I'll keep you posted.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Celebration of Food recap

To my faithful readers, thank you very much for following my Celebration of Food feature the past two weeks. To those who have just stumbled upon my blog, this is a recap of my posts celebrating the joy of food and raising awareness for the global food crisis.

Here are the links to my Celebration of Food posts.

My intro to the series:

Stories about food:


Resources and tools about hunger:

If you haven't made a donation to your favorite hunger-related charity, it's not too late! While my series on this topic is ending for now, the food price crisis is not. Please remember that!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Kellari Taverna -- let your imagination take flight

It's time for me to wrap up my Celebration of Food in honor of the hungry. The purpose of this feature was to celebrate food not as a commodity, but as a special joy of life -- something that helps us to stop and appreciate beauty and taste, relationships, and moments in time. Food is more than just sustenance; it is culture, family, and art. It is the stuff of lifelong memories.

Unfortunately, many people around the world can barely afford even the most basic foodstuffs because of the global food price crisis. My aim with this series was to raise awareness of that fact and encourage my readers to do what they can to help. Even if you only have a few dollars to give, that money can make a real difference, especially in the developing world.

For my final piece, I will tell you about one of my favorite restaurants in New York City, the Greek seafood restaurant, Kellari Taverna -- http://www.kellari.us/.

I believe it was fall 2005/winter 2006 that I first caught a glimpse of Kellari Taverna. I often would walk down 44th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues, on my way to work, as I liked to pass by the historic Algonquin, as well as the other fancy hotels on the block. At that time, I noticed a storefront past the hotels and closer to 5th Avenue was under construction.

As the days and weeks went by, details started to emerge. First there was the light-colored wood of the facade. Then the large windows started to reveal a black marble bar with blonde wood shelves and wooden wine casks overhead. I was fascintated. Just the hint of this place spirited my winter-weary mind to fantasies of a Mediterranean island.

A sign appeared: "Kellari Taverna," as well as gauzy white curtains at the windows, and a plaque above the door reading "Enter as strangers and leave as friends." When the restaurant finally opened, I passed by after work and saw it in action. I peeked in the door and saw candles, light wood, white walls and curtains receding into the back of the restaurant. At the bar were heaping trays of olives and cheese. I could just imagine the cool taste of a cocktail, sitting there at one of the bar stools.

Even before I ever ate there, Kellari Taverna was a feast for my mind. It was as if, when I passed this tiny pocket of New York, I was no longer even in the US, but rather in a dreamy state where you could imagine the sea and the pleasure of relaxing the evenings away with beautiful people speaking foreign tongues. On my way from Kellari to the bus, I would spend some time in this dream state and think about how I could plan a trip to the Greek islands.

I finally had my opportunity to dine at Kellari Taverna in March of 2006, when I took my Uncle Charles here for his birthday. I don't remember exactly what we had, but I do know that it was delicious. The meal started out with little snacks for the table, including olives, radishes, and a dip for bread. We had a prix fixe meal, and by the time dessert arrived, I could barely fit it in.

The owner came by and asked how we were enjoying our food. He gave us his card, asking us to please contact him if we ever needed anything.

At that time, the restaurant had recently opened, and it was relatively quiet that night. So my uncle and I took some time after we ate to walk around and look around the space in detail. I remember seeing the lavish display of fresh fish by the kitchen, the reds and silvers of their scales glistening on a bed of ice. Aside from the bright light here, everything in the restaurant was bathed in a cozy, yellowish glow. It was indeed that magical place I had imagined. If only I could stay on and on.

I have gone back for drinks and a few lunches since then, including one with my dad a few weeks ago. It was just as good as I had remembered. This time I had the delectable vegetable moussaka, and my father had an elegant salad with grilled shrimp. The only thing was, now this place has been discovered, and it is quite busy.

The prices make Kellari Taverna a special treat, rather than an everyday splurge. But that experience of walking by, peering in the windows, and letting your imagination take flight is both free and priceless.

***

If you enjoyed my Celebration of Food the past two weeks, I ask you to please consider making a donation of money or time to your favorite hunger-related charity. Thank you for reading!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

An airport food experience with CLASS!

Hi, all. Sorry I wasn't able to write a post yesterday. I had been in Detroit on a business trip, and I didn't get home until very late.

I'm planning on wrapping up the Celebration of Food focus soon, but I keep getting inspiration for food-related topics!

Last night, I was in the Detroit airport for over three hours. But guess what? It was probably one of the most pleasurable times I've ever spent en route.

Why? I came across a place in the terminal, post-security, called Vino Volo -- http://www.vinovolo.com/. This is a wine lounge featuring wine, small plates, and comfy leather chairs. It is the polar opposite of the typical airport fast food kind of place. Here is culture, beauty, relaxation -- through wine. To add to the experience, the lounge faces huge windows to the west. As I sat there, the sun came through in the most beautiful shades as it began to set.


First I enjoyed a "California Kings" wine flight. Three glasses were brought to me on a narrow metal tray, underneath each glass a description of the respective wine. I got to taste a very nice Merlot, Cabarnet Sauvignon, and Old Vine Zinfandel. With that, I had an order of their tasty ziti gratin, made with three cheeses and truffle oil -- grown up mac and cheese. Then I tried their Italian wine flight and a small chicken sandwich. Mmmm...Montepulciano.

All the while, I was able to sit back and relax, savor the wines, and pretty much forget I was in the airport...except for seeing the travelers gliding by on the moving walkways. I had a great phone conversation with my parents, and I was able to just enjoy the moment.

The atmosphere reminded me a tiny bit of my favorite Italian cafe/restaurant in Berlin, Artusia on Ernst-Reuter-Platz. Artusia was another part of that August of 2002 in Berlin. During the day, when I was researching at the Technische Universitaet library, I would take a break every once in a while at Artusia. They had just opened, so they had a number of wonderful special offers, including Caffe Machiato for 1 Euro. (And this was real Italian coffee -- not Starbucks attempts! Imagine that, priced perfectly for a student!) I met Tanja there sometimes, and occasionally, we would have a light lunch with a glass of wine and an amazingly fresh salad. There I learned the secret for simple, incredible dressing: high quality olive oil drizzled on, followed by balsamic vinegar (from Modena, of course), some salt, and fresh ground pepper. These ingredients were brought to you at the table, so you could dress the salad yourself.

Even though Vino Volo wasn't the same as Artusia, it brought back memories I had not thought of in years. And it was wonderful in its own right. There are branches in select airports around the country, so next time you travel, keep an eye out!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How to find a hunger-related charity

This past week, during my Celebration of Food, I have asked my readers to consider making a donation to their favorite hunger-related charity in recognition of the worldwide food price crisis. I have highlighted a few different charities, but I realize not everyone may have their own favorites picked out...or even know where to look.

So I'd like to do my part to help anyone who is looking for resources.

There are two great websites that rate charities according to various criteria:

Charity Navigator - http://www.charitynavigator.org/ - This site gives charities a star rating, from zero to four, based on organizational efficiency and organizational capacity. This is a great resource for articles, such as "Top 10 Best Practices of Savvy Donors," and lists, like "10 of the Best Charities Everyone's Heard of." You can search for charity keywords or browse by categories for thousands of different organizations.

American Institute of Philanthropy - http://www.charitywatch.org/ - This site also rates charities, but it does not cover as many organizations as Charity Navigator's site or include as many additional articles. AIP, however, emphasizes their independence and their own financial evaluation of the charities, rather than relying on charities' self-reported information. Charities are given a letter score of A to F, and there is an index of "Top-Rated Charities."

Together, I find these sites to be excellent tools to learn about some the different charities that exist, how they measure up, and how to give wisely.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Food dreams in New York

I got a wonderful surprise last night: an email from a former co-worker of mine with whom I had not spoken in a very long time. Alana was someone I hired shortly after she had finished her Master's degree, if I'm not mistaken. She came down to New York City from upstate New York for several interviews, and there was just something about her that made me think she was destined for great things.

As it turns out, she is still with that company, though in a different capacity, and this spring, she started her own business!

Now, there are two reasons I wanted to write about this. 1) My blog focuses on three major things: travel, change, and making a difference. I try to write about things that encompass at least two of those categories. This story is definitely about travel and personal change. 2) I'm finishing out my Celebration of Food week, and this story is also very much about celebrating food.

So let me tell you about Alana's new business! After realizing she was good at taking friends and family around New York City, Alana decided to start her own walking and food tasting tour company, Ahoy New York -- http://www.ahoyny.com/. These tours go on a culinary journey through Chinatown, Little Italy, and the East Village.

Alana told me, "I like the idea of tasting foods versus only walking around and learning the history of the neighborhood. I find learning about NYC is learning about the different cultures that live here. So by tasting the respective cultures' foods one is really learning quite a bit."

According to her website, Alana's "background not only includes a degree in International Studies and language but also additional training from the NYC's Institute of Culinary Education. She has spent time learning how many ethnic foods are made and gaining further insight to their respective cultures.

Not only does Alana pride herself on her unique tours, her goal also is to help her customers adjust to the pace, culture, and diversity of NYC. She welcomes each individual with the hopes that upon their return home they have had the ultimate NYC experience."

I am so excited for Alana. She is a smart, warm, and witty young woman whom I can totally see as an excellent tour guide. She's got a fabulous, informative website, as well. It is such and inspiration to see that she has discovered her dream and made it happen.

So, if anyone is looking for a unique guided tour in New York City, please check this out!

Fighting hunger in the Philippines

My friend, Kristine, who is originally from the Philippines, asked me if I could help publicize this:

"I have been researching for reputable organizations that specifically donate food to the Philippines but have had no such luck. Hunger and poverty have always been major issues in the Philippines -- and moreso malnutrition, but from my experience, large corporations and non-profits (who barely have the funds to run themselves in the first place) donate food only when there is a critical situation (such as typhoons or earthquakes).

Perhaps your blog can help raise awareness about the needs in the Philippines. If readers of your blog find a non-profit in the Philippines that they are intersted in working with, I am willing to see if it is a reputable organization and be their point of contact. They can email me at kristine.cortes@gmail.com."

Here's an article to refer to:

Unrest and Hunger Threaten Philippines Stability
http://www.bloggernews.net/116911

... Right now, it's "hunger season": The farmers have planted their rice, but not yet harvested it. Usually the price of rice is higher and many of the farmers, having sold the previous crop have run out of their stored rice and may go hungry. This is not as bad in our area, where we irrigate in the dry season, but farmers in higher fields and unirrigated area face dire hunger.

At the same time, the huge increase in the price of rice means that many cannot afford this staple.


Part of this is weather related, and seasonal. But worldwide, there is a growing problem of food shortages due to increased use of grain for biofuel and diversion of crops to to feed animals. At the same time, there has been a lag in research and development of agriculture. Fewer new hybrids are being produced because there is less money invested in research. There is also less money spent on infrastructure development for irrigation, fertilizer, pesticide control and drying facilities.

The increase in the rice price has been terrible for those with low incomes.

We have seen rice, which two years ago ranged from 18 to 28 pesos a kilogram go to 32 pesos to 40. (exchange rate is 44 pesos per US Dollar).

... So there are a lot of problems simmering here, but the main anger right now is from the inflation that makes it hard to buy food for one's family, while rumors of multimillion dollar bribes to businessmen and government officials are discussed daily on the many talk radio programs.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tantalizing tapas -- the real experience

I spent five weeks in Spain in the spring of 2002 when I was between my exams for my Master's degree and writing my thesis. During that time I took an intensive Spanish class at Giralda Center Spanish House in Sevilla. My teacher was Begoña, whom I see is still teaching at the school. [BTW, she was great. If anyone lands on this site because of Googling Giralda Center, I would completely recommend the school and Begoña herself!]

There's so much I could say about my time in Sevilla, but as my focus this week is on food, I must stick to that.

Even though there are not a lot of vegetarian options in Sevilla (I eat mostly vegetarian), I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, and it gave me a great new perspective on how to look at dining. Here is the US, especially in New York, many places offer their variation of Tapas or small plates. However, nothing is like experiencing the real deal in Spain.

I learned about the evening tapas ritual (ir de tapas) the first week I was there. It was in an evening excursion led by one of the Giralda Center teachers (I think it was Jose Carlos) that I discovered the practice of going to a bar with friends and ordering a drink along with a tapa (very small appetizer). Everyone would eat and drink one round, then move on to the next bar to do the same, and over and over.

I would often get red wine -- so delicious in Spain -- served unpretentiously in a plain glass, like a small juice glass in a diner. It was usually 1 Euro per glass back then! The tapas I got to know and love were Tortilla Española (thick omelette with potato), slices of Manchego cheese, olives, Patatas bravas (pieces of potato with a tangy sauce), and my absolute favorite, Espinacas con garbanzos (sauteed spinach with chick peas). The latter had such a bouquet of spices and flavors that you were definitely reminded of Andalusia's Moorish past and that Morocco is Spain's next-door neighbor to the south.

Spaniards love bread. I remember my good friend from high school, David, an exchange student from outside Madrid, explaining that to me. So the small plates were often accompanied by thin slices of bread or picos (miniature breadstick-like crackers). It was a meal in miniature...waiting to be repeated at the next stop.

After learning the ritual, I wound up going out most nights to take part with my friends, which conveniently allowed me to practice my Spanish and actually get quite good for a pure beginner after a few weeks. See, where else is going out at night doing your homework?

One of my friends' and my favorite places to go was La Carboneria, a large bar where they have tapas and live music, including flamenco, every night, late into the night. I found some good descriptions of the place here: http://www.travbuddy.com/Behind-the-Red-Door-La-Carboneria-v187979

I was absolutely thrilled to find a website describing some of the best tapas places in Sevilla, complete with pictures. You must check out http://azahar-sevilla.com/sevilletapas/ . If you are considering a trip to Sevilla or you just want to take a trip in your mind to a magical place filled with bar/restaurants decorated with tile and old wood, bottles of wine and sherry, ham legs hanging from the ceiling, and an array of delicious small plates, take a look.

***

As part of this week's Celebration of Food, I ask my readers to please think about those who cannot afford to buy food because of sky-rocketing prices and strongly consider making a donation of any size to your favorite hunger-related charity.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Recommendations from friends

I have been so happy to hear from some of my friends/readers in response to my Celebration of Food theme this week. I thought I would share some of the great recommendations they passed along.

First, from Shannon, a "stranger-friend" of mine from Mayan Families:

"I was catching up on some online reading while my little ones were sleeping just now and thought of you. There is a blog called Kitchen Parade that sends out great recipes but she also is working on a series right now called How to Save Money on Groceries that I thought you might like. It’s about real changes in habits and thoughts related to food, not just clipping more coupons. You can find the intro at http://kitchenparade.com/2008/07/how-to-save-money-on-groceries.php, and the first two installments (out of five) are already online. You can also sign up to get her recipes and this series delivered to you by email if you like. Nice and simple, not overwhelming. I like it a lot."

For some inspiration, my best friend from high school, Rachel, clued me in to this Sarah McLachlan video for her song, "World on Fire." http://www.worldonfire.ca/ Rather than spend the usual $150,000 on a music video, McLachlan spent $15 and donated the money she would have spent on it to various charities around the world. The video documents how much certain aspects of the video would have cost and how that money was instead put to work for humanitarian causes. For example, a production supervisor would have cost $3500, but instead the money went toward the schooling and support of 70 children of war in Sierra Leone. Check it out!

Recommended reading

Check out the World Bank's focus on the Food Price Crisis at http://www.worldbank.org/html/extdr/foodprices/

Some facts I learned from the site:

-High food prices are a matter of daily struggle for more than 2 billion people.
-High prices threaten to increase malnutrition, already an underlying cause of death in over 3.5 million children a year.
-An estimated 100 million people have fallen into poverty in the last 2 years.
-Prices are expected to stay high through 2015.
-Poor families spend up to 80% of their budget on food.

I found this site through a great article on the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging website.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Flavors of Guatemala

What really got me started with this blog was my introduction to Mayan Families earlier this year. Michael and I had just sponsored our two students, Juana and Candelaria, and I was inspired by the blogs of other Mayan Families sponsors. Over the past months, my blog has expanded to cover various topics, but Guatemala is still at its heart.

Patti, who sponsors Juana and Candelaria's brother, Rafael, also traveled to Guatemala this spring. I asked Patti if she could write about some of her food-related experiences during her trip. What's particularly interesting is that this was her first time outside the US. Here are some of her recollections:

"Sounds of laughter carried through the Guatemala City Zoo. Brilliant colored flowers danced as the breeze tickled their stems. My son, Hunter, and I were very excited to visit Guatemala. It was the first time either of us visited outside of the great United States of America. Our trip to Guatemala was no ordinary trip. It was a humanitarian trip, one to see a wonderful organization, Mayan Families, in person to see how they really operated.

Before going to Panajachel, where Mayan Families is located, we went to the zoo in Guatemala City. Here, we watched beautiful animals such as lions and monkeys parade around in natural-looking environments. We watched small children and adults alike enjoy the zoo.

After walking around for quite some time, we decided it would be nice to sit down, have a cold drink and a snack. This was the first time we would encounter fried plantain. At first, the two of us were unsure of the plantain; however, with every bite, it grew on us. My son drank a Coke that came in a glass bottle as he enjoyed the plantain. I gulped down a refreshing bottle of water, perfect for the hot day.

This would be the beginning of wonderful experiences for our taste buds. Throughout the next week, we tried different types of rice, beans, seasoned chicken, and the list goes on.

One of our favorite drinks from Guatemala was the homemade hibiscus tea. In fact, we enjoyed it so much that just last week I ordered two pounds of hibiscus tea off of the internet. It's very delicious, and tastes like punch!

After visiting Guatemala City, we were on our way to Panajachel. What a difference three hours of driving can make. We encountered very poor families. Children lay on the sidewalk, too weak to move. During our stay in Panajachel, we were very busy running here and there, helping when we could at Mayan Families. We met wonderful children and families who appreciated every little bit of food they had.

So many times, our family has taken food for granted. We have over eaten, and we are also guilty of throwing away our leftovers. After visiting Panajachel, our lives have changed. We are trying to be a bit more frugal. We are saving up our money, so the rest of our family can go visit and help others.

In America, we could spend about five dollars on a value meal at McDonalds. Did you know that most families in Panajachel do not make five dollars for an entire week of work? Just imagine what we could do if we all worked together."

You can read Patti's blog here: http://www.operationobligation.blogspot.com/

***

During this week's Celebration of Food, I respectfully ask my readers to consider making a donation of any size to the hunger-related charity of their choice.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

An ode to bread

This is a continuation of my Celebration of Food this week. Again, I ask my readers to please think about those who currently find it hard to afford even the most basic food and please consider giving a donation to your favorite hunger-related charity.

***

I love bread. I also love drinking water, as opposed to soft drinks or other beverages, so some of my favorite meals in life have consisted, honestly, of bread and water. Bread takes many, many different forms across the globe, and I have been lucky to try a number of them on my travels.

One of the best places for variety of healthy bread is Germany. Germans love their Vollkorn or whole grain bread. It takes a while for us Americans to get used to. The inside of a good loaf of German bread usually ranges in color from gray to black. White bread rolls do exist (and are delicious), but they are often referred to as Sunday rolls - a special treat.

Sunday breakfast in and of itself is a special tradition in Germany with certain specific conventions. Here's what I have learned: First you go to the neighborhood bakery to buy fresh rolls. Now, mind you, for a long time, Germany had strict store opening hours; however, bakeries could be open for a few hours on Sunday morning. Any self-respecting establishment will have at least 10 different varieties of rolls: whole grain, more grain, wheat, sunflower seeded, poppy seeded, etc. You make your selection and bring your rolls home to put in a basket on the table. Then you set the table with plates of butter, sliced meats and cheeses, tomatoes and cucumbers, jars of preserves and Nutella, and individual egg cups to be filled with the ubiquitous hard- or soft-boiled egg. You and your friends or family sit around the table, take rolls, one by one, slice them open, and select items from the spread to place on top. Oftentimes, a white roll with butter was so satisfying for me, I could barely bring myself to try other variations.

If you live in a place like Berlin, the third largest Turkish city in the world, perhaps you will add pieces of Fladenbrot, an unbelievably delicious Turkish bread with a thick and almost spongy feel, to your feast. Yogurt is a favorite accompaniment, both from a large glass jar or small plastic cups. And Muesli or corn flakes is also a possibility - as a cereal-raised American, I enjoyed that probably more than most Germans. Of course, you need your coffee, tea or hot chocolate to sip. And perhaps you will have a glass of O-Saft, orange juice, or Mehrfruchtsaft, a multi-fruit juice. The sheer number of plates and vessels on the breakfast table lend an air of everyday decadence and richness to the gathering, whether it is for two people or ten. We would sometimes place tea lights on the table, and we would often have music playing in the background.

Breakfast could last for hours. And in a place like my dorm in Berlin, it could keep going and going, as different neighbors woke up or came home, and the party expanded.

There are a number of other places in the world where I've had delicious bread - artisanal baguettes in Paris come to mind, as do thick slices of homemade oatmeal bread in a tiny diner in Maine - but the ritual of bread as featured in the German breakfast is something I miss more than anything.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The August that changed my food life

As part of my Celebration of Food Week, I ask you, dear readers: If you enjoy my story below, please think about those who are finding it extremely difficult to buy food right now. I ask you to please consider donating to your favorite hunger-related charity.

***

Six years ago was my last summer in Berlin, where I was studying at the Free University. Berlin was the center of my world for a number of years and for various reasons. One reason it was so special was because of the life lessons I learned there...and this is one of the best.

Berlin, generally speaking, can be a gray and rainy place. The first ten days or so of August 2002, while I was writing my Master's thesis, were no exception, filled with downpours and gloom. But then, around this time in the month, the skies cleared, the sun took center stage, and it became hot and balmy.

I was living in a dorm complex, as I had been the last few years, with a mix of friends, old and new, from countries all over the globe: India, Georgia, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Ireland, Spain, China, Pakistan, and many more. My two closest friends were Tanja from Germany and Ivana from Serbia. Ivana was back home that month, and many of our other close friends were away, so Tanja and I banded together for our evening meals.

Dorms in Germany differ greatly from those in the US. Students of all ages (my floor had an age range of about 18 to 34) live together with a shared full kitchen, common room, and bathrooms. Often, people live in the same room for years, as I did. Cafeterias are located at the universities, but often student housing, like ours, is not. As a result, we had no meal options in our dorm except for the food that we ourselves shopped for and cooked.

Nightly meal preparation had been a highlight of my time there since the beginning. Through cooking, I learned more about other countries' tastes and customs. And we had had all manner of multicultural potluck dinner parties with the residents on the floor.

But this time in August was different. My evenings with Tanja were effectively a master class on the philosophy and technique of cooking as a way of life.

Tanja is an excellent cook. Somehow, whatever she puts her hands to turns into a delicious dish. Tanja is also a very spiritual person, someone who likes to search for meaning and beauty in all that she does. We cooked dinner together every night that hot part of August, and it became ritual.

As students, naturally we did not have a lot of money. However, what Tanja helped me to discover was that it's not just what you prepare, but how you prepare it. Quality was paramount: Buy the best that you can afford.

Even if it meant having a simpler meal, we bought Barilla pasta and fresh tomatoes, almost bursting at the seams. I splurged on a small piece of Parmegiano Reggiano, and we would always have a bottle of Rioja or Navarra. (I'll never forget the lesson I learned from a Spanish floormate early on: "Always buy Spanish wine; it's the best you can get here for a low price.")

The dinner ritual began earlier in the day, when we would phone each other about what we wanted to do for our meal. We would each then shop for ingredients to bring that evening. I would go to the supermarket, examine the vegetables and look for the most beautiful and fragrant specimens. They were the raw materials for a work of art, and I laid them out carefully in my shopping basket. Bunches of arugula, large white mushrooms, single carrots. I would look for surprises, like a thin bar of dark Belgian chocolate -- the brand most Belgians actually buy, as I had learned from a friend from that country. For the rest of the day, I would think about how we would transform this into our feast.

When evening came, I would bring my bag of bounty with me to Tanja. We would talk and laugh as we prepared the food and Tanja instructed me on how to slice and how to season. One night it was the pasta with fresh tomatoes, just a bit of fresh basil and Parmesan shredded on top. "Frischer geht's nicht," said Tanja -- "It doesn't get any fresher than this!"

My room had a balcony that looked onto the river. But more often we cooked in Tanja's kitchen. She was living in another building in the dorm complex -- a high-rise -- and she was on the 10th floor. We would eat dinner on her balcony and watch the sun set and planes take off and land at Tegel Airport in the distance.

I wondered each day how long the fine weather would last, and each day it continued, into the beginning of September. It was as if even the atmosphere was saying this was an important time in my life: Pay attention! I got used to our tradition of "das heilige Essen," food that was so conscientiously prepared that it really felt sacred, feeding both our bodies and spirits.

Food was no longer a commodity. Every ingredient was precious.

I have found no photographs of our dinners that August, so I must rely on my memories. The specifics of every evening have naturally grown fuzzy, and I am left with a melange of images, words, and sensations from those weeks.

Even though I am far away from those glorious last days of student-hood, and even though I often find myself cooking something frozen after work (if I cook at all), when I do set out to prepare a meal with every ounce of myself, I think of Tanja and that August.

"Einfach das Beste" or "Simply the best," as Tanja said. That is what food can be, if your approach is right. It can be a celebration of life, of the earth, of whatever money you have to create a work of art and a way of living.

***

If you enjoyed my story, please think about those who are finding it extremely difficult to buy food right now. I ask you to please consider donating to your favorite hunger-related charity. Let me know what you think!

Thank you, Tanja, for your friendship and your inspiration. And thank you, Michael, for helping edit this piece.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A celebration of food...for the hungry

You don't need to open a newspaper or hop online to know that food prices have been rising incredibly this year. I'm sure everyone has noticed the difference at the supermarket and your favorite restaurants. Heck, even McDonald's will likely be increasing the price of its Dollar Menu.

I love food, and I have definitely felt the pinch. I bemoan how expensive even simple things like milk and bread have become. But despite the fact that food is taking up a bigger portion of my paycheck, it still is not having a tremendous impact on my life. I have not had to go hungry or decide between food and rent.

However, many people are - both here in the US and around the world. What is an annoyance to me is becoming a matter of survival for so many others.

This started to dawn on me when I heard a few months ago from one of my favorite charities, Mayan Families, that the price of corn had become too high for indigenous families in Guatemala to bear. And when I was in Mexico last month, the top news story was that the price of tortillas was going up.

Guatemala has one of the highest childhood malnutrition rates in the world...and that's before the current food crisis. Many of the children that Mayan Families helps subsist on tortillas and salt, and some do not even eat every day. It's hard to fathom what the food price explosion is now doing to their lives.

Here in the US, there are many - the elderly, the sick, the working poor - who are being severely impacted by the crisis. To add to the perfect storm, donations from companies and individuals have slowed down because of the difficult economic times. So when food pantries are most needed, their shelves are often empty.


In order to draw attention to the crucial issue of hunger, both locally and around the world, I am going to have a Celebration of Food this week on my blog, Gonna Make a Change.

I will be writing some articles about my favorite food experiences, and I will feature a guest blogger or two who will also tempt your tastebuds.

If you like what you read, I ask you to please consider making a donation to your favorite hunger-related charity. The Web makes it so easy to give donations of any size, and you usually can get your receipt for tax purposes within minutes.

I also invite you to spread the word about your charity of choice by leaving its name and URL in a comment. Feel free to explain why it is important to you. If you've got a story to tell, let me know, and I may do a feature on it in a later post!

Now I'm going to go and make a donation to my two favorites, Mayan Families and Community FoodBank of New Jersey.

I'm looking forward to taking you on my food journey starting tomorrow!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Mexico Roundup

Here's a collection of the blog entries I wrote about my trip to Mexico last month.

Days One and Two: Arrival in Tlaquepaque
-Greetings from Mexico

Day Three: Tonala and Tlaquepaque
-Monday in Mexico

Day Four: Tonala and the highway

Day Five: Guadalajara

Day Six: Tonala

Day Seven: Lake Chapala


Where I stayed:

Project Amigo:

Mexican folk art:

Assorted features:

I'd like to thank all the great people I met for making my trip unforgettable. Thank you, as well, to everyone who read my entries. I'm looking forward to documenting my next trip for you!

Addendum 8/15/08: To get another perspective, see my friend Irene's blog, http://picturepoet-irene.blogspot.com/ -- particularly, her account of our failed trip to Tequila.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Postcard from the road

As my Uncle Richard says, sometimes you don't have to travel far to get a good picture. Here is a beautiful shot he took near his home in Halifax, Massachusetts.

In those parts, lakes are known as "ponds," and this one is East Monponsett Pond. According to Uncle Richard, "Many people in Massachusetts don't know where this town is! When I say I'm from Halifax, they think I've come a long way --from Nova Scotia."

There are many little-known or little-documented places just around the corner from everyone. Travel is truly a matter of perspective. That is why I blogged about my walks in my neighborhood earlier this summer. Speaking of which, it's probably time I do another photo shoot!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Making a difference while on vacation

Everyone needs a vacation once in a while. There have been a number of recent news articles, like this one in the USA Today, stating the importance of vacation for one's mental health. I strongly believe in that.

My trip to Mexico that I have been documenting here in this blog was a vacation. I want to stress that. While I am extremely interested in humanitarian work while in foreign countries, sometimes you just need a vacation when you can focus more on your own needs and wants.

A relaxing lunch at Casa Fuerte in Tlaquepaque, Mexico with some of the great fellow travelers I met.

However, what I have found is that I am no longer satisfied with just sightseeing, relaxing, and food tasting, even in the most exotic locales. I started to feel something was missing. I kept pushing and pushing at that feeling as I began planning our trip to Guatemala this spring.

I realized what was missing was a connection with the people, a sense of not just consuming, and, yes, making some small difference.

For me, it's like the dramatic mind-shift that came after I first visited the developing world. Even though I did not want to go, once I went, my world was forever changed. From then on, my appetite for travel could only be sated completely by adventures to places in what is known as the Third World.

Now I feel the same way about adding some sort of change-making element to all my travels. Without it, my journeys have an emptiness to them.

So this entry is for anyone out there who has felt that emptiness, but couldn't put their finger on what exactly it was or how to fix it. These are my thoughts, now over half a year into my journey of figuring out what I can do to make a change.

How to make a difference while on vacation

The first step is realizing that you want to do something. It can be small or large. You need to decide what is important to you - what you need to have on your vacation and what you want to do.

Vasquez son by his family's kiln and handmade vase - part of the artist studio tour in Tonala.

As for me, my trip to Mexico was planned only a month in advance, while I was moving into our new home, so I did not have the time to make highly detailed plans. I knew I wanted to relax and have the flexibility to spend afternoons taking naps, should I choose. I wanted to see new places without lengthy travel days. And I wanted to be able to give something back.

When I read the reviews about Casa de las Flores on TripAdvisor, I realized that something very important to me was being able to meet fellow travelers, as well. So I pounced and booked a week there.

Then I started researching nonprofit organizations in the Guadalajara area. I Googled all sorts of things, like "donations," and "volunteer" along with "Guadalajara." Unfortunately, I did not find much. So I emailed Stan, the host at Casa de las Flores, and asked him about whether there were any local organizations I could help and asked what I could do.

Stan directed me to Project Amigo, which I have highlighted before on my blog. He told me I could bring down donations that they could pick up. I took a look at Project Amigo's website and was relieved. Here was my opportunity!

Now, if I had done some more research before I had booked, I could have arranged for a side trip of a couple of days down to Colima, to visit Project Amigo myself. However, it was too late. Plus, my vacation would have started to become a bit hectic in the week I had, which would have undermined my goal of relaxation.

Two key points: you've got to know what you want in order to get the experience you desire, and you've got to do your research!


So, as you know, if you've been reading this blog, I brought down some donations for Project Amigo, and I had a very rejuvenating vacation. I needed to recharge my batteries, and I was able to do that, but I also was able to do a little something that whetted my appetite to do more, be more active once I got home.

In April, Michael and I went to Guatemala. I had found out about an organization called Mayan Families; we became donors and sponsors of two girls; and we re-shaped our trip around this group. It was fabulous. We were able to see two of the towns where Mayan Families is helping the poor, indigenous population, and we were able to see and participate in the works of the group first-hand. Not only that, but we also got to meet our sponsored girls and their family. [You can read all about our experience here.]

Michael and I visit the elementary school in San Jorge, Guatemala.

If you can connect with a group or someone who knows a group that is doing good, it's amazing what is possible. I honestly had no idea!

So these are some initial thoughts on why you might want to make a difference when you're on vacation and how you could go about doing so. This is a theme I will be exploring in detail over the course of my blog entries.

I'd like to hear what you think. What would you like to do on your vacation to create change? What lessons have you learned? What do you wish other people knew? I'm looking forward to starting a dialogue.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Jalisco How-to: Part I

If I have whetted anyone's appetite for a trip to Jalisco (that's the name of the Mexican state that Tlaquepaque, Tonala, Guadalajara, and Lake Chapala are in), I'd like to give you some tools to plan a vacation of your own.

When to go: the area has a spring-like climate all year round, so just about anytime is a good time to go. July is technically part of the rainy season; however, it did not rain very much while I was there. I found the weather very pleasant and could see why it's such a popular place to retire.

How to pick a place to stay: I, of course, recommend Casa de las Flores wholeheartedly. But don't just rely on my advice! Check out reviews on TripAdvisor to see what hotel or B&B would most appeal to you. What will really enhance your stay is if you can get personal attention from your host or the concierge, so they can help you plan trips and arrange for a driver or whatever else you need. Ask what services they offer! A driver can often double as an interpreter and for a relatively reasonable price take you wherever you want to go. Luis charged $20/hour with a minimum of 4 hours.


What to wear: as Stan at Casa de las Flores says, the biggest danger in Tlaquepaque is the uneven pavement and streets. So pack some sturdy walking shoes. I bought a pair of Keen Carmel sandals for this trip, and they worked fabulously. I wore short sleeved shirts and jeans for most of the trip, and I felt both comfortable and appropriately dressed. You can dress casually (neatly, though) like you would at home. Pack a sweater or light jacket for the evenings, though, when it can get cool. To not look like a target, don't wear flashy jewelry or an expensive handbag. I swear by using a PacSafe bag for peace of mind.



Language: basic knowledge of some common Spanish words and phrases ("Buenos dias," "Gracias," "Cuanto cuesta?" "Donde esta el bano?") will go far. In high-end restaurants and shops, people will speak English; however, be prepared to communicate in Spanish - at least a little bit - with vendors in the markets. Knowing numbers in Spanish is often necessary for shopping, but you can also gesture for the seller to write down the price on a piece of paper. If you have no Spanish whatsoever, don't worry! If you use a hotel like Casa de las Flores, for a reasonable fee you can arrange to have an interpreter.

Food safety: everyone knows you're not supposed to drink the water. You also need to watch out for ice and any fruits or vegetables that have not been cooked or peeled. But that doesn't mean you can't have fun and eat well! Here are my ground rules: I took chances (had beverages with ice or tried the pico de gallo) only at the best restaurants in town, where they catered to international tourists and well-heeled Mexicans. Prices there are still reasonable by American standards. Street/market food is generally safe to eat if is steaming hot, right off the stove.

These are some initial tips, especially geared towards those of you who have never traveled to Latin America. Stay tuned for some more!