Come for the food, stay for the magic by Amy Thibodeau

Photo of San Sebastian by Dan Zambonini

Photo of San Sebastian by Dan Zambonini

By Amy Thibodeau

A few weeks ago, I had a once in a lifetime meal at Mugaritz, currently rated the sixth best restaurant in the world. It’s located in the green foothills on the edge of San Sebastian, a little surfing bastion in Northern Spain.

This is Basque country where the border between France and Spain blends together to form a unique culture of people with their own language and a history of fighting for self-determination. The food is rich and unpretentious: meat cooked over open fires, fresh seafood and stews. Meals are long and food is usually shared and enjoyed with friends and family. Bars serve plates of pintxos, tiny bites of fresh food consumed between beer and cold glasses of kalimotxo.

I love food, but I tend to favor classic, comfort foods. I cook spaghetti bolognese nearly every week in the tradition of my mother and grandmother who made it when I was growing up. A few years living in California made me love tacos with fresh, limey avocado and homemade salsa. Marriage to a Brit and living in London made me embrace the tradition of Sunday lunch, which isn’t complete without a puffy helping of Yorkshire pudding. These aren’t elegant tastes but they’re connected to moments that feel like home.

The food at Mugaritz was the opposite of comforting. Each plate was like trying to solve a puzzle. Some things were more pleasing to look at than they were to eat, particularly a dish called “beef candy”, a bone marrow cracker filled with a cube of coagulated beef blood. Or the bright pink mackerel, beetroot and horseradish, delightful on the plate but such a combination of strong tastes that I had trouble swallowing it. The unfamiliarity heightened every moment as we resolved to take bite after bite of almost 30 courses.

At nearby tables, I noticed waiters regularly offering to replace dishes when people seemed unwilling to eat. But there was no half-way business for us. Before we arrived we decided that we would put ourselves in the hands of the kitchen, set aside preconceived ideas about what we like, and eat everything offered.

This approach resulted in a few surprises. It turns out that I like “grilled and bathed sting ray” and “asparagus with scarlet shrimp essence”. But my favorite taste of the evening was the innocuous sounding “fried raw peas”, tempura filled with fresh peas that exploded with the most intense pea flavor of any pea-like thing I’ve ever eaten.

But the real revelation of dining at Mugaritz had little to do with the food, the cava, the wine or the service (impeccable). Instead it was a feeling of intense presence in the experience and most importantly with my dinner companion. As each beautiful plate arrived, my husband and I looked at it, looked at each other, touched the food, smelled it and then slowly, slowly, worked our way up to tasting. For particularly daunting plates, we’d debate who would take the first bite, or we’d decide to do it at the same time. Everything was tactile, from the crunch of the tiny anchovy bones in our mouths to the delicate porcelain plates that were crafted specifically for each dish. My husband, a design junky, ran his fingers across their edges and turned almost each plate over to inspect it once he’d finished a course.

For three hours we were completely there, in a simple wooden building, nestled in tropical hills outside of San Sebastian in the middle of a rain storm. The food, which was strange and unfamiliar to us, was only the anchor that held us there.

Everything else, including the cab ride back into San Sebastian through the black night and the rain, was pure magic.


Our menu:

I.

Grilled fennel with goat
Cod tongues, with a syrup of spices
Crunchy pork rib
Fried raw peas
Marine cold cuts
Vegetal bestiary
Gelatinous salmon mille-feuille
Asparagus with scarlet shrimp essence

II.
Oyster and young garlic warm omelette
A thousand leaves
Bovis máxima: vive la France!
Mackerel, beetroot and horseradish
Grilled mochi
Grilled and bathed sting ray
Glazed mille-feuille of lamb
Beef candy
Beef with hazelnut praline

III.
The cheese
Whiskey pie
Anis waffle
Glass: Sugar and cocoa as a cookie
Cream of chocolate and cured ham

IIII. Seven deadly sins (mostly chocolate related, served in a literal puzzel box): pride, envy, wrath, gluttony, greed, lust, sloth

(This post was first published on Medium)

North of Myself by Mackenzie Kulcsár

Lac La Ronge
Photo by MacKenzie Kulcsár

Photos and text by Mackenzie Kulcsár

My earliest memory is of my father, my uncle and myself canoeing across Lac La Ronge while I ate sunflower seeds between the gunwales and sent the shells spinning into the eddies of my father’s paddle strokes.

Some places make me feel at home; some places make me feel like a stranger. There is one place where I feel like both. Imagine that: it’s an uncomfortable feeling. Imagine: being on the fringe of belonging to a place, where some people are in, others are out, and you’re somewhere in the hazy bits in between. La Ronge, Saskatchewan is that place for me. Like an unrequited love between two people, I have a love for the place, and while the place doesn’t not love me, (it’s a place after all), I can’t help but feel that if the north were a person, it would merely tolerate me. Six hours north of where I call home, is a place that is indelibly part of me but which I cannot call my own. My extended family lives here, but coming from the south, I sometimes feel I need to remake myself to fit this place; to make myself worthy of its unreciprocated love.

Photo by MacKenzie Kulcsár

The town of La Ronge is a northern community in the boreal forest and Canadian Shield of the province of Saskatchewan, on the shore of Lac La Ronge. Taking its name from the French verb “ronger” (“to chew” – most likely from the prolific beaver chewings of that abundant northern resident), the name fits a place established by chewing itself into existence from the harsh landscape into a hardscrabble settlement of fur trading parentage and voyageur idylls. Canadian history books would have you believe that the fur trade is dead – killed off by the anti-fur movement and the ignorance of southerners. In the north, the fur trade continues and the people of La Ronge and the surrounding area, although they may be outside of the fur trade directly, are indirectly affected by it.

Maybe it’s the simpler notion of living with the land that makes me love the north. Likely it’s also this essential fur trade that makes me feel on the fringe of actual belonging as I wonder if I’d measure up to the rougher realities of life in the north. Every winter, we make a journey to La Ronge, to celebrate the New Year with our family. Every year I make a mental list of the things I love about the place. La Ronge is permeated with the smell of wood smoke. That’s what winter smells like to me. La Ronge rings with the calls of ravens, a bird which has always held my interest as a tricky, adaptable creature, and beautiful too. Northerners call them scavengers. Yesterday I saw a raven the size of a small dog breaking into a tub of becel in the Co-op parking lot. On a previous trip I saw one flying down La Ronge Avenue with a pizza box grasped in its beak. True story.

I love the stillness of the night. I love that you can count on snow. I love the sound the trees make as they rub against one another. I love the shades of greys that delineate islands from the frozen lake, rocks, trees and horizon. I love that the perfect circle my coffee cup made in the snow on the deck banister is investigated but untouched by the squirrel that left its tracks around it, as though it knows that the circle, like me, is unnatural in this place. When I stand alone in the north, I feel how I suppose Canadian explorers felt when they traded through and eventually settled this place. I see the landscape as a character in the writings of the Canadian north, just as authors of Canadian literature have for years – willing to tolerate your presence, and also completely able to obliterate you. In the words of the Hudson’s Bay Company “Pro Pelle Cutem”, the north demands sacrifice – a skin for a skin, and probably your own. John Donne once wrote that “[n]o man is an iland, intire of it selfe…”, but I’d ask you to consider this anew in the north.

Photo by MacKenzie Kulcsár

My grandfather was the pioneer writer, editor and publisher of the La Ronge newspaper, aptly named, The Northerner. Part of my appreciation of the north lays here I suppose. A man of words, of art and intellect, my grandfather lived through The Northerner as other men lived through the war. It defined his purpose in the north. Through his diligence, The Northerner was brought forth, lived and remains, although today, sadly, it is a pitiable rag unreflective of what the north means to the northern people. If my life in the south ever falls irreparably apart, I will come north, repair myself and repair The Northerner. North of myself, is the self I could be – the sacrificial lamb of my southern skin for a tougher northern one.

Two days hence I will begin the journey south, to my home on the plains and await the next New Year when I find myself north of myself once again.

How to find off the beaten track destinations by Robyn Vinter

Photo by Neal Sanche

Photo by Neal Sanche

By Robyn Vinter

“The first I heard of the beach was in Bangkok, on the Ko Sanh Road.” goes the first line of Alex Garland’s The Beach. In the novel, and subsequent film, if you’re not familiar with it, a traveller acquires a map to a legendary secret beach community and follows it to a paradise, untouched by tourism.

The book encapsulates a feeling amongst travellers of finding something new, experiencing something authentic and raw. One of the things that many serious travellers have in common is the urge to discover, to see things that others have not seen.

For those, the idea of this kind of travelling is intoxicating.

With 196,939,900 square miles of the earth’s surface to explore, why would you want to visit the same old touristy places?

But how do you go about finding these unmissable experiences?

Whilst there is no solid answer to this question, here are some tips to help you make the most of opportunities that come your way.

First of all, throw away that guidebook. You won’t need it where you’re going. Wherever that will be. Instead, keep an eye on travel blogs for up to date information by real people. Most travel bloggers are more than happy to help you and pass on any contacts they might have in the areas you are visiting.

Talk and listen. Converse with as many people as you can, both fellow travellers and locals. Your travel comrades will have been to places you haven’t and will be able to tell you which places to avoid and which are worth a visit. Whilst everyone is eager to share their stories, resist the urge to one-up them with your own amazing travel adventures and instead listen to what people have to say about where they’ve been. Get some contact details for people you meet, should you want to speak to them again.

Whilst speaking to your fellow travellers is essential, you need to chat to the locals to find out where they go and what they do in the vicinity. If someone asks me what there is to do in my home town I cannot resist giving them a run down of the best places to visit, hidden treasures they don’t know about and where to avoid. Not everyone is like this but if this sounds like you, you’re not alone and many people in the places you’ll visit will be the same.

Be flexible. You’ve just found out about some beach huts where you can live for free as long as you help out painting them for a couple of hours a day. Trouble is, you’ve already booked flights to move on to your next destination. Whilst planning is essential for some things, you don’t want to have a rigid schedule if you can help it. Have an idea of where you want to go and when, but don’t let this dictate your travels.

Similarly, be up for anything and remain open minded. I know it’s easier said than done and when you’re exhausted or jetlagged after a long flight. You might not feel like speaking to new people in your hostel or going to explore the locality but say yes to invites, take up opportunities and converse with everyone as you just don’t know where it will lead you.

Despite this, be prepared for tough times. Sometimes the great place you’ve heard about isn’t as good as the guy in the hostel made it sound or the seven hour bus ride squashed up against someone’s armpit doesn’t seem worth it. You have to be prepared to take risks, not all of which will pay off.

Keeping in mind these tips, however simple they may seem, can help you create unique memories and once in a lifetime experiences that few others will have.

Do you have any other tips to add to this? Where have you been that’s off the beaten track?

Robyn Vinter is a travel blogger and content writer for Looking4Parking in Leeds, UK. Having graduated with a first class degree in Journalism from Leeds Metropolitan University, she has written for numerous local and national newspapers and magazines in the UK. Her passion for travel is usurped only by her passion for writing, neither of which she feels she could ever do enough of.

The Trials and Tribulations of Writing a Book While Traveling by Dan Zambonini

A home made laptop stand

Photos and text by Dan Zambonini

I started a year long sabbatical from work in May 2010. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to write the technical book that was bursting out of me – the accumulated experience of growing a successful web company for ten years. It didn’t sound particularly difficult. 75,000 words is certainly a lot, but surely even a slow writer can muster 1,000 words a day and complete the manuscript in an easy three months? Okay, perhaps four months if the travel gets in the way...

Suffice it to say, that eighteen months later I’ve just completed the book (A Practical Guide to Web App Success), at an average of about 100 words a day. It turns out that traveling and writing aren’t made for each other, no matter how much Mark Twain’s writings had convinced me otherwise.

After a short relaxing start in Arizona, we headed south. Six weeks in a secluded Mexican fishing village sounded like the perfect getaway for a budding author. No distractions.

Also, however: no air conditioning. In July and August.

Before we arrived, I had pictured myself in a Twain-esque white suit, reclining on a wicker chair as I cheerily tapped out multiple chapters on my thoroughly modern MacBook. The reality [warning: remainder of sentence contains scenes that some readers may find disturbing] found me sitting on a plastic picnic chair in my underwear, with a t-shirt under my wrists to stop the steady stream of sweat from getting into the laptop.

Mexican Kitten
Mexican Kitten

The humidity would rise at night, making it impossible to sleep. Even on the ever-so-slightly cooler nights we would be tortured by the a cappella lizard family that lived in our wall, and the stray kitten who would bring us millipedes, egg-sac-endowed spiders, and whatever else she could find for her entertainment.

Sleep deprivation and extreme heat aren’t a good combination for accurate technical writing. I have a feeling that some of those early chapters originally sounded like Hunter S. Thompson reciting a Microsoft DOS manual from memory, before my skillful editor thankfully rescued them.

It didn’t improve much as we headed to South East Asia.

Laos became one of our favourite countries of the trip, but it’s not the best place to write a technical book. It’s one of the poorest countries in the region, with more than three quarters of the population living under the international poverty line of $2 a day. Deforestation is quickly destroying their spectacular environment, and unexploded ordnance contaminates more than half the country’s land.

Obviously I feel utterly ridiculous following those statements up with a complaint about not being able to effectively write my book while temporarily visiting their struggling country, but with that self-realisation and caveat in mind, I’ll continue.

The main problem for authors in Laos is not the heat or the sparsely sprinkled internet access, but the beer. For a start, it’s good. Beerlao Dark, in particular, is wonderful. And strong.

So what?”, you might say, “Georges Remi managed to knock out a few Tin Tins in his time and he lived in a country with an abundance of strong beer.” (Note to self: the phrase “knock out a Tin Tin” sounds usefully multi-purpose.)

The real problem is that not only is the beer good, but it’s also nearly always cheaper than bottled water – and it’s best not to drink the tap water in Laos. When you’re ordering lunch in the midday sun and you can quaff a huge bottle of delicious beer for less than the price of a small bottle of water, it’s difficult to decline. And that makes it impossible to get much done for the rest of the day. In my defence, we were there over the Christmas period, so it wasn’t quite as decadent as it sounds.

Amy and some Beerlao
Amy and some Beerlao

We spent the last two months of our trip in Thailand.

Bangkok is a technologically advanced city, with some of the largest shopping malls in the world. Of course, we decided not to spend the majority of our time in Bangkok, but on the outskirts of the jungles in the North.

This is a place where our local ice cream shop was technically open for twelve hours a day, but they would run out of ice cream about two hours after opening, every single day. They then proceeded to try to sell you some kind of ice cream ‘alternative’ - most often, a hamburger.

What I’m trying to get at is that it wasn’t particularly easy to buy things. The narrow desk in our room wasn’t designed to comfortably fit a laptop and keyboard, so we went looking for a laptop stand. Fat chance. I ended up balancing my MacBook on three toilet rolls – certainly the cheapest (and most environmentally friendly) laptop stand I’ve ever used.

A home made laptop stand
A home made laptop stand

It got to the point where, unable to find appropriate clothing to buy, Amy was making t-shirts out of… pillowcases. I’m not evil enough to post the photos, but the rectangular nature of pillowcases inevitably meant that the shoulders would have two large points sticking out of them, like a bad Gary Glitter costume. And the last person you want to be mistaken for in Thailand is Gary Glitter...

Now, go check out the book!

4 Tips for Traveling Without Reducing your Neurotic Parents into Nervous, Gibbering Wrecks by A Tramp Abroad

Photo of Vietnam by Amy Thibodeau

Photo of Vietnam by Amy Thibodeau

By Mike Curtis

“Mum, I’m going to go to a Malaria hot spot, strip naked, create several open wounds, and then I’m going to play football, hopefully in a minefield. I may also take time to snort the local chicken droppings before attempting to undermine a violent dictatorship with nothing more than a megaphone and my cheeky personality”

Not actually what I said – I actually just told her that I’m going backpacking across Asia – but judging by her reaction, this is what she chose to hear.

Now, this is by no means an unusual reaction in my neck of the woods – I grew up in deepest darkest Norfolk, England. Which, for those who have never heard of it (everyone) is historically remote farmer country. I’m quite confident that Tolkien based his Hobbits on us. People from London are considered ‘strange and exotic’, and anything further afield is viewed only by most through the prism of Rupert-Murdoch-o-vision. So, of course I was going to get off the plane and immediately get SUPER-SARS and die instantly.

So, for those of you who want to travel half the world and nearly get married by accident (that’s another post) but don’t want to make your Mummy cry while your doing it, I’d like to provide my handy little guide.

1) For gods sake, remember birthdays

Ironically, considering her concern for my safety, if I forgot my Sisters birthday, my Mum would fly out east and kill me herself, to hell with local dangers. Hallmarks Personalised Birthday Cards bailed me out, when all other hope was lost.

2) Finally accept that Facebook request

It’s not like your folks are going to know how to use it, anyway. That picture of you passed out in your Yom Tom at 7am in Vang Vieng goes from embarrassing to effortless proof that you live. Sort of.

3) Skype

Not to actually use, mind. But when your Mum can’t get the video call working, she’ll automatically assume it’s her fault. And not that you completely forgot and aren’t online.

4) Leave a bit of emergency money

And instructions for how to use a moneygram service. They’ll feel better if you have some means to help you out, even if you don’t need it.

Mike Curtis returned to Merry old Blighty after spending 3 months being very, very lost in Asia. He now works for Uswitch, comparing gas and electricity prices. Forever.