Alternative Christmas Dinners from Around the World

Alternative Christmas Dinners

It seems like our choice of Christmas dinner can say so many things about us. Each year, January through November, my grandmother mentioned our English and Welsh heritage once, maybe twice. Living in the Southern US and descended from West Virginian coal miners, we knew that having a British Isles background wasn’t exactly a rarity. When the time came around for her annual Christmas Dinner, however, she was suddenly quite boastful of her heritage, and was adamant that we will not have a stereotypical American Christmas. It was time for a traditional Christmas dinner of standing rib roast of beef, Yorkshire pudding, and potatoes, finished off with a trifle.

Christmas dinner preparations 1931
By Mears, E.H.; Contributor(s): The Queenslander [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Whether you’re an ancestral-opportunist like my grandmother, or just someone who is tired of the same old Christmas dinner they’ve had for years, these Christmas dinners from around the world will be sure to change up your meal-time. These foods vary drastically from country to country, and can be closely linked to the particular rituals and traditions that are carried out during the holiday. You’ll be saying “Hyvää Joulua!”, or “Nadolig Llawen!” and eating Pavlova or drinking glögi in no time!

It’s almost impossible to talk about Christmas without mentioning Finland—according to Finns, Santa Claus lives in Lapland! A theme park called “Christmas Land” is situated near where they say he lives, delighting Finns and tourists alike. Needless to say, the Christmas holiday is very important to Finns. On Christmas Eve, rice pudding and plum juice are consumed in the morning, followed by tree decorating. That night, a large display of food called a Joulupöytä, or “Yule Table,” is set up for the traditional Christmas dinner. The Joulupöytä consists of foods such as Christmas ham and mustard, salted salmon and whitefish, various types of pickled herring, and an assortment of casseroles. Liver, potato, rutabaga, carrot, and turkey are just a few of the ingredients you might find in the number of casseroles on this table. For dessert, Finns might have gingerbread, rice pudding or porridge topped with cinnamon, sugar, and milk. Glögi, or glogg, is a mulled wine and quite popular in Scandinavia; it is drunk along with Christmas beer, red wine, or even sour milk!

If you’ve ever wished for more desserts at Christmas, then I would suggest moving to Provence! This region in France practices a tradition called the “Thirteen Desserts,” in which Christmas dinner ends with not one, not two, but thirteen dessert items. Representing the twelve apostles and Jesus Christ, these desserts are set out on Christmas Eve and will remain on the table for three days. As different regions of France have different types of terrain and harvest yield, Christmas dinner varies as well. These meals can include anything from oysters, smoked salmon, and foie gras, to goose, crëpes, and chestnut-stuffed turkey.

Other desserts from France include le pain calendeau, a Christmas bread from the south of France, part of which traditionally goes to a poor person, and the bûche de Nõel, a log-shaped cake made of chocolate and chestnuts. But nothing says going overboard for Christmas like thirteen desserts!

Some countries historically affiliated with colonial English rule still maintain a great deal of English tradition in their Christmas dinners, but at the same time, some dishes are created that are fully unique to their country. For example, in New Zealand, a lighter-than-air, meringue-based dessert called Pavlova is served. Have you ever heard of the famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova? It is believed that the dessert was created after she toured Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s. Pavlova is made from beaten egg whites and corn flour, which gives the dessert a crisp outer shell and a soft, marshmallow-like inside.

Additionally, Pavlova is often topped with whipped cream and fresh fruit such as kiwi, passionfruit, or strawberries. Although Pavlova is eaten throughout the year, especially during the summertime, a Christmastime Pavlova can be topped with Chantilly cream and pomegranate seeds to display a holiday festiveness.

Photo By Gui Seiz (Flickr Creative Commons)

Fish soup is a common Christmas Eve or Christmas Day meal in many Eastern European countries. In the Czech Republic, for example, Christmas Fish Soup is Vánocní Rybí Polévka, is made with carp, onion, and other vegetables, and is eaten on Christmas Eve. In Hungary, hot and spicy “Fisherman’s Soup,” or halászlé, served with lots and lots of paprika. In Poland, fish soup is served in addition to zupa grzybowa, a forest mushroom soup, and żurek, a soup made of soured rye flour and meat (usually boiled pork sausage). Carp plays a big role in Christmas dinners across Poland, as well as other Eastern European countries.

Here it can be served as a fillet with potato salad, in aspic, or in soups. Pierogi are also served at this meal as well, filled with white cheese, potatoes, sauerkraut and forest mushrooms. A Polish Christmas can’t be complete without poppy seed cakes called makowiec, or a jam-filled pastry called mazurek.

Moving West, the common Christmas fish moves from Carp to Codfish—more specifically, to bacalhau in Portuguese. Technically, the word “bacalhau” simply means “codfish,”  although it is more often than not dried and salted. Along with cabrito assado and borrego assado (roasted goat and lamb) and polvo cozido (boiled octopus), a number of variant “King” or “Queen” cakes are baked. Bolo Rei is the original “King Cake,” and is a gorgeous, colorfully decorated fruitcake. Bolo-Rei Escangalhado, or “Broken King Cake” is a traditional Bolo Rei with cinnamon and doce de gila (chilacayote jam). Bolo-Rei de Chocolate is the chocolate version of the King Cake, and Bolo-Rainha is a “Queen Cake” that has only nuts, raisins and almonds. Finish these cakes off with vinho quente, or eggnog made from boiled wine, egg yolk, sugar, and cinnamon, and you’ve got one tasty Christmas!

Although we’ve only just scratched the surface of Christmas dinners from around the world, these dishes should give you some ideas of the variety of traditions that exist in other countries. Whether you celebrate on Christmas Eve or Day, whether you have fish as a soup, or salted and dried, or whether you name your dish after a famous Russian ballerina, you are sure to create wonderful memories with your family as you try out new Christmas traditions!

Protecting India’s Heritage – The Conservation of Wildlife

The uniqueness of any region depends upon its vegetation, animals and culture, and it is paramount that these regions are conserved to protect against any dangerous and lasting damage. Although progressing times have called for a modern “face-lift” to our societies the world over, one should remember how distinctive their country’s habitat and inhabitants remain. Over the years, there have been many wildlife species that have been hunted or killed, either within the law or unlawfully, and this has pushed many species to the cusp of extinction. India is the proud home of rare animal species – such as the Bengal Tiger – and other animals which are scattered throughout its land, that need to be protected so that their kind does not become extinct and the future citizens of India can also  appreciate these rare species that make it one of the most prestigious places for wildlife spotting.

Why the Need for Conservation of Wildlife in India:

Illegal poaching is one of the paramount reasons why wildlife conservation has gained prominence over the past few years. The Indian elephant was hunted for its ivory tusks, as was the Bengal Tiger for its skin – which was used in making luxurious fur coats. These, and other species, have been hunted for their meat as well. As these activities have been carried out on such a large scale and in multiple states, there has been widespread killing of these species, and their numbers have drastically been reduced in a short time. This has prompted many official and unofficial organizations to spring up and actively voice concerns for the protection of various wildlife species and to curb these poaching activities, which has resulted in the formulation of many animal protection programs and establishment of wildlife conservation parks and sanctuaries.

Wildlife Sanctuaries and National Parks:

Wildlife sanctuaries have an area that is demarcated by the government, where killing of animals is strictly prohibited unless the official authority controlling the sanctuary gives permission otherwise. On the other hand, national parks conserve flora and fauna; and conserve the natural habitat of places to create a thriving environment for various species as well.

Currently, there are 398 sanctuaries in India and 69 national parks, which cover around 4 percent of the total geographic area of the country. There are further plans in the pipeline to increase the number of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, and to increase the area covered by these to around 4.6 percent.

There exist wildlife sanctuaries in India which house multiple animal species within their borders, such as the Kaziranga Wildlife Sanctuary which is located in Sibassa in Assam. It is home to elephants, wild boars, rhinoceros, pelicans, leopards, storks and eagles. On the other hand, some wildlife sanctuaries such as the Manas Wildlife Sanctuary and Tiger Reserve, which is located in the Kamrup region of Assam, are specifically dedicated to protect specific species.

Projects Aimed to Protect Specific Species:

There are many ongoing projects in various states which have been targeted to protect the rarest animal species in order to increase their numbers and provide them with adequate protection as they are really threatened to be extinct. On the positive side, there are a lot of successful projects – such as Project Tiger, which was initiated in 1973 and was used to collect data about various tiger species; it aimed to protect their habitat and increase their numbers over a sustained period of time.

Indias Project Tiger Wildlife conservation

In 1992, the Ministry of Environment initiated Project Elephant to protect the Asian Elephant; it covers the elephant population throughout India. Elephant habitats and elephant corridors have been specifically targeted and significant amount of financial assistance has been provided to ensure the safety of these animals and to protect their sustained growth.

Apart from land animals, there are many aquatic species which are also in danger of becoming extinct. These include many species of inland and marine fish. This has prompted setting up of many fisheries in both inland and marine areas in order to protect the number of fish available and control unrestrained fishing. These fisheries have also been recognized to generate many local jobs and to develop rural areas. As a result, state and centre governments have been active proponents for their development and sustainability. Institutes such as the Central Institute of Freshwater Agriculture have been developed to provide carp fishing training and aid in the development of aquaculture.

Overall, there have been many successful wildlife conservation projects initiated throughout India over the years; however, still more needs to be done. Illegal poaching needs to be curbed and there needs to be more awareness among people to start protecting their environment and the various species that make India so unique on the global stage. These animal species are a part of the identity India has forged abroad over the years and thus should be protected so they can thrive in their natural habitat. This is a plan for the future and must be protected at all costs.

San Sebastian – What Would You Say ?

Photo By (CC) on Flickr

What would you say if I told you there was a cozy, little city tucked away in a crevice of Spain where you could find sparkling, pristine waters only yards from gourmet eateries and trendy clothing shops? A city with modern luxuries but a secluded atmosphere, a place where you can be snorkeling in the ocean in the morning and dancing on the bar by evening; this is San Sebastian.

Water Fun

San Sebastian is a beach city. In fact, it is said by many to have the best in-city beaches in all of Europe. The waters are clear and sparkling blue. The powdery sand beaches beckon sunbathers. There are several beaches in San Sebastian, three in the city itself and several in outlaying areas. Each offers an amazing experience in swimming and surfing are big attractions.

San Sebastian harbour
Photo By Oneras (CC) on Flickr

Zurriola Beach is especially popular with surfers because of its unpredictable and sometimes violent waves, Hendaia Beach is also a popular surf spot. Other beaches, like the Getaria Beach, are located near a fishing village and suitable for all ages. There are even lifeguards, restrooms, showers and restaurants nearby.

San Sebastian Attractions

The city has an amazing aquarium, El Aquarium-Palacio del Mar de Donostia-San Sebastián that boasts sharks and other marine life native to the area. It is an amazing feeling to look through the hazy glass and come eye to eye with a being from all the way across the world. There are many exhibits featuring modern marine life as well as artifacts and fossils of beings past. The aquarium offers educational lectures and courses to learn about the marine life of Spain and San Sebastian. Don’t leave without a walk along the transparent, underwater walkway.

When you leave the aquarium, travel along the Paseo Nuevo. The Paseo Nuevo is a wide walkway that goes almost completely around one of the two mountains that the city is nestled between. The Bay of Biscay provides a stunning panoramic view to this breathtaking ride.

There are several museums to visit as well. Each offers its own historic exhibits and educational portals to learn about the culture and traditions of Spain and San Sebastian. The San Telmo Municipal Museum tells the heritage of the Basque Country in multi-disciplinary centre’s set in an old 16th century convent. The three sections of the museum, Fine Art, History and Archaeology, are explored through exhibits in drawings, painting, sculptures, ceramics, music, metalwork and so much more.

San Sebastian Shopping

This city may be small but it’s mighty in the shopping arena. The culture of the Basque civilization is rich and colorful. Many of the stores and shops reflect that culture and its many traditions in the wares they stock. Much of the clothing sold in the city is traditional and meaningful to the culture.

Designer boutiques with major labels also dot the area and satisfy the discerning shopper. Louis Vuitton and Ferragamo share shelf space with local designers and handcrafted jewelry. No vacation is really complete without taking home a special souvenir.The busy Parte Vieja district is where you’ll find many boutiques and shops but don’t count out the smaller districts. Calle Narrica and Calle Puerto also have lots of great little locally owned shops along the streets.

San Sebastian Dining

The Basque culture of San Sebastian, Spain has its own very unique taste and flavors. This city on the sea offers seafood that goes far beyond expectations. It has often been said that San Sebastian has the best food you’ve never heard of. This is so because of the distinctive flavors of the Basque culture. It’s unlike anything from anywhere else in the world.

Statistics show the Basque community spends more than twice what Americans do on food and meals. Common sense tells us they also spend a lot of time preparing food and eating. With so much money and time being spent on food it is no wonder that so many amazing tastes are born here.

There are gourmet restaurants, and little sidewalk cafes. There are bars and taverns and locally owned pubs. There are breakfast, lunch and dinner places. There are places for coffee and places for cocktails. You won’t go hungry in San Sebastian.

This little ocean front city may seem like a dream but its real. Best of all, it is attainable. It has all the bells and whistles of the luxury hotspots but not of the pretention and arrogance of other beach destinations. The seclusion of the mountains on both sides of the city and the miles of clear water beaches gives the city a feeling of uniqueness.

The Basque culture and the exceptional landscape of San Sebastian make it a one in a million vacation spot. It’s surprisingly affordable but gives plenty of options for over the top luxury.

The Skinny on Shiitake

Shiitake mushrooms seem a mundane option within the salad bar and grocery store, but people who select this fungus eat wisely. They aren’t only enjoying great chow- they’re enjoying one of nature’s most nutritious offerings.

See, shiitake mushrooms are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and chemicals that boost the immune system, fight cancer, and improve organs. Not only that, shiitake do one other thing- keep you ripped. That’s a whole lotta benefits packed into an edible, most particularly one that grows on rot.

Shii-watza? (Background)

Shiitake were first cultivated in the Far East upwards of 3 millennia ago. Believed to facilitate vital energy, medicinal experts throughout China, Korea, and elsewhere prescribed dried or powdered shiitake for many ailments, including fatigue, respiratory problems, and cancer. Already a food common from Thailand to Japan, plenty of ailing patients readily upped shiitake intake during meals, not to mention used the dried and powdered forms.

The ‘shroom is quite easy to grow. So long as a fallen tree is near a log with shiitake mushrooms or spores, there’s a good chance the fungus will spread. Traditional Japanese shiitake farming consists of merely downing shii trees and placing these close to vegetation already facilitating shiitake.

shiitake mushrooms

Currently, shiitake farming is a big business. Many farms grow the mushrooms from sawdust and other organic compounds. Those that want to avoid such origins grow their own, usually with the aid of ready-made kits. Be warned though- the growth process can take upwards of two years.

Shiitaki: Lean, Mean, and Eritadenine (Muscle Benefits)

Shiitake don’t exactly replace the whey protein shake. While filling thanks to its fiber, this fungus is primarily good for cutting fat. In fact, shitake is very effective at cutting fat- just check out this recent study conducted at University of Wollongong, Australia. The research group fed four groups of rats a high fat diet along with a certain amount of shiitake supplements. Those rats that received the highest amount of shiitake also had the lowest weight gain, around 1/3 less than rats fed the fatty diet without shiitake. That’s both visceral and adipose fat, folks. The study hypothesized three reasons why shiitake might be such an effective weight suppressor:

Lentinan – Shiitake is rich in beta glucans. In fact, the mushroom is practically 30% of the stuff. This fiber is widely known for being tough to digest, if digestible at all. The end result is the stomach being less effective at absorbing fats.

Enzymes– Rich in lipoprotein enzymes, shiitake may reduce nonesterified fatty acid- a chemical widely known for contributing to fat gain within adipose tissue.

Eritadenine– This chemical that potentially prevents the liver’s release of triacylglycerol, a chemical used to break down fats. Shiitake has plenty of eritadenine. If the body can’t break down the given food then it’s discarded as refuse and ends in the toilet.

Regardless of why shiitake works to prevent weight gain, one thing is certain- the fungus is good for something. Looking to maximize lifting capability? Don’t go shiitake. Looking to show off sinew? Go shiitake- and after one serving go ahead and eat some more. The best part? Based on the study, people can moderately indulge. Shiitake doesn’t exactly provide an excuse for clocking through a pint of ice-cream, but nothing really does. Seriously, don’t be gross. That voiced, the mushroom apparently does prevent the worse of adipose weight gain.

Shiitake & Your Health (Other Benefits)

Shiitake has been long revered in East Asian culture for good reason. As mentioned, shiitaki is an excellent source for nutrition and lots of benefits:

Cholesterol- Looking to live longer but not willing to sacrifice hamburger? Consume shiitake en mass. Eritadenine not only prevents weight gain, but also fights bad cholesterol. Those dealing with the likes of thrombosis should definitely make this mushroom part of their daily diet, as it also helps against blood clots and the like. While no excuse to indulge in saturated fats, shiitake lowers cholesterol like no other.

Immunity– That same lentinan which potentially stunts weight gain provides a major boost for the immune system. Those who eat shiitake can feel assured their nutritional staple is suspected to be more effective than most antibiotics at dealing with everything from HIV to influenza.

Iron– A mighty mineral, iron is necessary for our blood and energy. Those dealing with iron deficiency anemia would do well to include shiitake mushrooms in their diet.

Cancer- Lentinan not only boosts the immune system, but also helps prevent cancerous tumors from developing. Overall, studies demonstrate that cancer patients administered lentinan survive longer and feel better.

Shiitake Intake Options & Problems (Shiitake Supplements & Risks)

Shiitake aren’t exactly truffles, but they aren’t cheap either. Those serious about shiitake can find supplements that range from 500 mg to 1000. The supplements aren’t candy, though. Too much of any mineral, vitamin, or acid is either useless or bad for you, shiitake included. Most particularly, overdoing shiitake can result in:

shiitake cultivation

Gout– Shiitaki contains purines, which is broken down to form uric acid, a known cause of gout. Those susceptible to purines or already dealing with gout should steer clear of shiitake, but it would take an incredibly large amount of the fungus to give someone this ailment.

Kidney Stones- Like gout, kidney stones can result from uric acid. Also like gout, it takes a whole lot of shiitake to develop kidney stones. However, those already dealing with the issue would do best to avoid the fungus.

Dermatitis– Shitake can also result in temporary dermatitis. Generally, this results if lots of shiitake is consumed undercooked or raw. Lentinan causes the rash, which is too bad- as mentioned, it’s a known immunity booster, tumor buster, and fat fighter. Such reactions are rare. In fact, it’s suspected that only 2% of the population should avoid uncooked shiitake.

All in all, most anybody can enjoy shiitake or take supplemental extracts. Just know your preexisting conditions- but seriously, who doesn’t notice something like gout?

4 Alternative Barcelona Travel Resources

Travel guidebooks, no matter the publisher, are frequently filled with pages about the art, music, literary icons and food of their chosen destinations. Almost all travellers to a given city will name at least one of these three as a prime motivation for their trip. But just as there are often vast discrepancies between a guidebook’s description of a place and the way each person actually finds it there are very different things that can be learned from utilizing these culture points as the guides themselves. This is true of many parts of world, but none more so than the city of Barcelona where a brief survey of artistic representations of the city, and study of the foods created there can be a far better guide than any you’ll find in a bookstore’s travel section.  This is alternative Barcelona.

 The “King of Spain” Concept

For a quick glance at this art as guidebook theory I’ll stick to three main works specifically picked for a traveller/outsider preparing to visit Barcelona: one song, one novel, and one film. Though still relatively unknown the solo singer/guitarist Kristian Matsson who performs under the moniker The Tallest Man on Earth gained a devoted following from his second album, The Wild Hunt, which features a track entitled “King of Spain.” I should mention that Matsson is Swedish and the song is far about the singer/narrator than about Spain itself, but his reflections and impressions of being an outsider in Spain are a good starting place to begin thinking about your trip. The chorus of the song proclaims, “If you could reinvent my name…I want to be the King of Spain.” Matsson is really expressing two concepts that are uniquely in sync in Barcelona: a desire to transform/change and a sense of command and ownership of your time there. Barcelona is very welcoming and very insulated at the same time. Locals are proud of their Catalan identity and can be unforgiving of being referred to as “Spanish.” Yet the large sidewalks lined with quaint tables and chairs where patrons sit and dine so late into the night you could almost call it early in the morning are nothing if not inviting. Waiters and Chefs, who are without a doubt eager to please for a tip, are genuinely proud of the food and culture and happy to make you a temporary part of their lives. Feeling as though you are forced to assimilate—“reinvent my name,”—and the star of your own little story—“the King of Spain”—is an apt way to prepare yourself for your adventure here.

Beauty at Every Turn

These late night dinners and quaint outdoor settings are the main stages on which Woody Allen’s film Vicky Cristina Barcelona takes place, which adds a visual element to the guide started with Matsson’s music. The film, again centering around two outsiders spending a summer in Barcelona, may be satirical but the sometimes overblown beauty of the setting, landscapes, and architecture has some spot on advice for the beauty-seeking traveller. Only a small amount of time in the film shows the more “standard” aesthetic stops (the Sagrada Familia, Parc Güell, etc) and they are far from the most visually striking scenes.

barcelona panoramic

The concept here is clear and accurate: much as you may want to see the landmarks, and well you should, Barcelona is a city with visuals to take in on nearly every block that should not be overlooked just because you are en route to get in a two-hour line at Guadí’s church. The “King of Spain” mindset runs deep with locals for who beauty is something to create for themselves not merely let happen around them and giving yourself plenty of time to simply take in your surroundings will be just as rewarding as the more planned out attractions.

A Different Kind of Travel Book

Though still keeping away from traditional guidebooks, the abstract feelings about Barcelona found in Matsson’s music and visual appetite wetting of Vicky Cristina…all come together with real, meaningful insights into a traveller’s experience of the city in Colm Toibin’s novel The South. The story follows an Irish artist who moves to Barcelona and the writing is as alive as the city itself with depictions of the people, places, food, and culture you’ll encounter today despite being set in the 1950s. I wouldn’t want to spoil your experience of reading the novel with too many details but do take this novel into consideration as you map out your time in Barcelona. Another book you may find even more informative is Barcelona by cultural critic Robert Hughes, which despite being nonfiction still carries a great story and beautiful writing to its detailing of the city and mirrors many of the points we’ve seen and heard from the music and movie—“It is possible, some days, to see the whole of Barcelona with your feet on the ground,” the book begins. Guidebooks are so quick to mention the artistic highlights in informative but often dry descriptions. Use more of your planning time to find cheap flights to let yourself get lost in a great read during rather than plot every moment of your time on the ground. Do not discredit what music, film, and literature have to say about a city where art is a main attraction.

Catalan Cooking

Guidebooks will always offer great advice on the best places to savor the local flavors of any city, but in Barcelona doing some of your own “homework” with regards to food can go a long way. Food is an integral part of Catalan identity, so much so that the first ever cookbook written in any of the Romance languages was in Catalan. While you may not find yourself doing a large amount of cooking while travelling it can still be beneficial to study up and even try making some Barcelona favorites at home to get a feel for food culture. A large staple of the cuisine is centered on the concept of Mar i Muntanya—sea and mountains—frequently featuring combinations of chicken and shrimp or related land and sea delights. Mixing the sweet and savory is also very common in stews, pasta sauces, and soups. Additionally, presentation will go a long way in your understanding of Catalan cuisine, of which the most well known practice is tapas.

catalan cooking

Tapas is more than just a fun way to try many different dishes and learning to eat in the manner of a local can be as important as eating the foods themselves. As we’ve seen in Toibin’s novel and Woody Allen’s film meals are large and late affairs but the days starts no later in Barcelona than anywhere else. While American and British culture may have adapted tapas into appetizers right before a meal, the tapas portion of the day in Barcelona (generally around noon between lunch at 2-4pm and dinner at 9-11pm) is an important social aspect to Catalan culture. Work, politics, and preparations for the rest of the day/evening are all integral discussion topics during tapas dining. Getting used to the kinds of food and ways of eating common in Barcelona can give you a leg up on what to seek out, how to identify authentic cuisines from microwaved tourist traps (as I unfortunately found myself on my first day in the city), and how to map out your day to integrate yourself with the local crowd, conversation, and culture. Follow the food, not the restaurant.

In truth there is so much to see and do in Barcelona that you can choose any of a hundred different ways to research and spend your time there and the artistic and edible route is by no means an all-encompassing view of the city. But some universally applicable food for thought (pun intended) is that travel guidebooks are meant to do just that, guide your travel, not dictate it step by step. So long as you don’t stray to unwelcoming or unsafe parts of town, Barcelona is a city with so much beauty to see, hear, and eat as well as a place where getting lost can offer a special kind of beauty to the traveller seeking line-less sightseeing and a slice of local life.

3 Ways Out of the Airport: Who is at Fault and How to Get Flying Fast

There are thousands who can relate to the news over the past two weeks of Edward Snowden’s Moscow Airport excursion. Few, I would hope, can relate to being on the run from the United States government, but life at the airport is something even the most moderate traveller can speak to. For those who have experienced cancelled, delayed, missed, or overbooked flights, it would be hard to imagine Snowden faces a more severe punishment than such a purgatorial existence. There are essentially three major cases in which most travellers find themselves stuck in limbo and navigating you’re way around each is an important part of any sojourner’s toolkit.

The Airline’s Fault

The first most common cause of delayed or missed flights is decidedly the most frustrating but can be the easiest to navigate around: blame the airline. These are most often maintenance-related delays and due to the belt-tightening by airlines in recent years, using fewer planes for stranger routes, these can and often do occur with absolutely no warning until you are in line at the gate. If a delay looks like it’s going to cause you to miss a connection, composure and quick communication is key. Before you open your mouth the only problem is your missed flight. If you approach a desk attendant with rage and anger your mood becomes a new problem to solve first. This is both human nature and standard customer service procedure. Most airlines will rebook you onto a new flight plan or even endorse your ticket to another carrier at no charge so that you can make your arrival at your final destination relatively close to your expected time.

Sounds easy enough, right? Still there are several key details to this strategy you MUST keep in mind. According to the US Department of Transportation airlines do not guarantee any flight times and there are absolutely no federal regulations regarding what airlines can or must do in the event of delayed and cancelled flights. For example, United Airlines’ policy states that they will try to rebook you if you are delayed more than two hours but makes several exceptions to this: “when the delay of cancellation is due to something beyond our control we typically do not rebook customers on other airlines.” They also go on to state that rebooking on other airlines is not typically done in Chicago, New York, Newark, San Francisco, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Guam, Washington DC, Denver, or Cleveland. Not like a lot of people travel to or through those places anyway…

Researching as many possible flights and airlines as you can before your trip will help you avoid the shock, if not the frustration, of being caught in this situation. It’s also important to remember that airlines go out of their way to make sure you can’t communicate with the people who are really able to say what’s going on. The customer service representative you deal with is not a pilot, air traffic control operator, or maintenance worker. Think of this as a collaborative problem solving, not a “me vs. you” situation and you’re bound to have better luck making your case.

More on Airline Responsibilities: Check out author Andrew Thomas’ thoughts on “Rule 240”  


The Traveller’s Fault

In the second case of airport detention, your humility will beat out any research or logical argument you can make. Hard as it is to admit traffic, long lines, and security delays are considered your fault as far as missed flights are concerned. If you thought airlines had no actual responsibility when delays where their fault, wait till the blame falls on you. Few if any airlines are willing to do much beyond tell you when the next available flight is and ask for your credit card if you miss a flight. But there’s another way to view what seems like the easiest way to lose a few hundred dollars. If there’s no policy requiring an airline to help you it means there’s nothing restricting them from helping you either. Booking a standby ticket can be scary for some, unless you have access to the flight manifest and can tell how full or empty a plane may be; not all one-way flights are automatically grouped together to build a flight plan on airline websites unless they are profitable enough for the airline to sell; airline mergers are a common news topic these days but frequently only the big names get attention while there are many smaller airlines whose flights can be booked by the big guys even though the general public may not be aware. All this information is something that may be hard for the self-directed traveller to find but airline desk attendants can readily tell you the manifest for most any flight, what other flights are running that day, and what other airlines they are partnered with. Take advantage of the freedom of this policy-free area of airline regulations and again make your desk attendant a comrade, not nemesis.


Look at’s Hacker Fares for help here as well          

“Acts of God”

The most vague aspect of traveller rights, airline responsibilities, and all around travel planning is what’s commonly referred to as an “act of god”. Weather, mechanical failure of an unrelated plane stuck on the tarmac, or even problems at your arrival airport, potentially halfway around the world can stall your plane’s departure. These instances are neither your, the traveller’s, fault nor the airlines and so knowing who to contact and how to go about rebooking can be tricky.

In addition to calm and friendly communication and proper planning, these instances will typically involve a bit more flexibility on your part than the other two. Jennifer Alford of the business travel service provider Concur said on their blog, “in my experience, the airlines will do all they can to ensure that you are back in the air as quickly as possible,” and that airlines frequently do not charge passengers to rebook due to weather-related issues. But this courtesy will likely only extend to flights within that airline and it would be rare you’d be the only one vying for a new seat so standby on potentially overbooked flights is a real probability.

There are still some options that while not ideal, can take a little of the edge off. Hotel/flight packages are common in the travel industry these days and if you can relinquish your need to get on the absolutely first flight you can, you may be able to find a great deal with the help of a desk attendant and pay significantly less for both the plane and hotel room than you would jumping from gate to gate waiting standby until the last plane leaves you with no recourse but to book a room anyway. Additionally, as opposed to instances of traffic or single flight delays, “acts of God” tend to affect most if not all the passengers in the airport who all have different flight plans and time restrictions. Look to your fellow groundlings to see if someone has to give up a seat on a flight you yourself could wait and take. Don’t forget to give as much as you receive in these cases, when you have little else to go on, karma can’t hurt.

airline responsibilities
Photo credit: TheeErin

You don’t have to be dodging treason charges to feel caught between a rock and a hard place when flights are delayed or cancelled. Some final thoughts to keep in mind as you plan and prepare for your trips: you are in worse shape than someone else at the airport and someone else is in a lot worse shape than you are, always, every time. A depressing way to look at it may be that when it comes to air travel things can always get worse but I prefer to see the glass as half-full: you are never in as big of a bind as you think. It’s also important no matter of which of the three instances mentioned above you find yourself in that due to the unpredictable nature of flying, there are no hard and fast rules. Depending on whose fault a missed flight is an airline may be more likely to use certain practices over others but nothing is set in stone.

Use fellow travellers, compassion for those trying to assist you, and a wide view of what possibilities may exist rather than take a black and white approach to missed flights. Finally, know that for financial and logistical purposes it is far less in an airline’s interest to keep you on the ground than to get you on a plane as quickly as possible. You’ve already paid for your seat so the quicker they can get you out of a line and get new customers in, the better. Be an opportunist rather than an antagonist and take the best course of action to get you on the quickest course towards your destination.

The Ugliest Place on Earth

The ugliest place on earth lies between two places that are always, inevitably, far more appealing than this one. The only reason to ever visit this place is to get to one of these other places. If the ugliest place on earth becomes a destination it loses everything ugly about it and then there is little reason to see it at all.

It starts about an hour west of Austin, Texas. Or an hour south of Santa Fe, New Mexico; an hour east of Tucson, Arizona. It’s a place that is many places, places without names and often without any people in it. When I discovered it I was on I-10, the highway that runs from California to Florida, clear across the southern tip of the United States. It’s West Texas, it’s coal country Pennsylvania, it’s eastern Oregon, it’s Southall outside of London, it’s Dharavi in Mumbai. It’s all the places of the world that the world has selected to fit this category. For me, it was West Texas.

Texas is often noted for it’s massive size, for the seemingly endless swath of time you can spend just travelling from one end of the state to the other. On I-10, it is just under 1,000 miles end to end; a third of the entire country ocean to ocean. But what is seldom mentioned is what happens to the landscape as you make this trek. On the eastern edge, bordering Louisiana, Texas is a swamp, green and lush but thickly green not crisply green like in the Northeast or Pacific Northwest. west texas landscapeLeaving Central Texas, most easily identified as Austin, you enter Hill Country and you are for the first time assured that you are distinctly in Texas now. The rolling hills are a quiet kind of yellow, sanded and scorched but not quiet desert country, and they are dotted with a combination of Southwestern Prickly Pears and more lush Fragrant Ash trees. It’s a quiet back and forth that even the most nature-resistant traveller can’t help but take note of.

Eventually, we come to the towns. Again in a wholly unique and uniquely Texas manner each town looks exactly like the one before it yet either by their individual nature or their cumulative volume they tell a story as big as the state itself. They all look as if they once offered large promises and aspirations for new residents and in a funny way, even in their dilapidated states, they still preach that gospel of possibility. Each town’s colors tend to mirror the part of Texas they inhabit rather than complement or balance them out. The further west you go the more yellow and scorched the gas stations and houses, always a few boarded up, look. The entire towns are always very low to the ground, almost as if to appear born straight from the earth itself. But compared to parts of the country far more lush and irrigated, these places are entirely man-made. There is no soil to seed or tree to tap. For a house to stand in these towns it must always be in battle with nature; trying to cool the unbearable heat and quench the thirst of the air and inhabitants alike.

These towns start out separated by about fifty miles but become far more infrequent. They do not grow in size, they do not offer more for the long distance traveller and for this reason what they do offer becomes more and more valuable. The convenience store you passed two hundred miles back until you could find a more recognizable chain becomes more than welcomed by the time you get around Van Horn, Texas. It’s not even convenience anymore, it’s dinner. For many, this is the ugliness in full force, travel becoming survival. But baseline survival can be an incredibly rewarding style of travel. It can make the unwanted, embraced and the ugly something to marvel at.

where is west texas located

There’s certainly something voyeuristic about viewing your travels like this, embracing beauty in “ugliness” and finding other people’s daily life as a form of survival. Part of it is truly the burden of necessity with so few routes to take you the full 1,000 miles and so few reasons to seek out these places as destinations in their own right. To combat this approach to West Texas or any of the other ugliest places on earth while still maintaining this openness and appreciation for that which makes it worth at least passing through, try to think of the destinations you get to on this route (New Orleans, Austin, El Paso, Las Cruces, Tucson, Los Angeles) as much as markers of how far you’ve traveled as destinations to get to. These in between places, particularly the “ugly” ones are more reflective of you—neither here nor there, unknown and often unknowable—than the cities or landmarks you think you’re seeking out. Be like the low yellow houses of West Texas and mirror your surroundings rather than cover them up. You might be surprised how much beauty you encounter.

By Jake Sorgen

There’s Something Fishy in Tokyo – Tsukiji market

The wondrous Tsukiji market

When westerners get in their cars every morning, it’s safe to say very few think actively and empathetically for the assembly-line workers who built the machine; the burns, cuts, or scars production may have caused them, or even their deteriorating health from years in factory life. The same could be said for construction workers who build our homes, or even the ER nurses working forty-eight hour shifts to make sure we are healthy. What doesn’t fit into this category, what is increasingly scorned and mourned publicly, is the toll that is taken on all those associated with the food we eat. We have become, on a general level, much more conscious of what goes into our bodies and how it gets there.

Who is harmed or treated unfairly to put this slab on our plate? How are the original sources (the cows, pigs, and yes even the soil contaminated to make vegetables grow larger and quicker) being abused? These issues surround no one food source more than the Japanese fish trade, which in Tokyo at least comes to a head as a world-renown destination and darkly-viewed ground zero for these issues.

Tsukiji market  Tuna

This issue is so vast, and our time to travel and explore is often so limited that we’ll restrict our view into Tokyo as a travel destination and learning opportunity through the eyes of my personal favorite kind of fish: sushi. One of the first things you’ll notice, or at least should be on the look out for, is how much of the fresh authentic sushi that you’ll find in almost any restaurant is more likely to have been caught ten miles from your home than it was even one hundred miles from your restaurant.

Nearly a quarter of all Bluefin tuna imported into Japan comes from the United States, and that’s just one fish. The sushi trade has been as lauded as it’s been criticized for it’s comparatively pure reliance on supply and demand. As governments have more and more protected the Bluefin tuna, its demand has gone up. Early this year, one Bluefin sold at the famous Tsukiji fish market auction for $1.8 million USD.

But this is meant to encourage your exploration, not discourage your sense of what makes Tokyo sushi authentic. The Tsukiji market’s Outer-Market is loaded with retailors for personal consumption while the auctions and wholesale trade takes place in the Inner-Market. Browsing through the market it seems there are two ways of seeing the fish before you: you can hold firm to the irrationality of these tuna flown in from New England to sell to locals, as well as New England tourists, a food that forty years ago was considered disgusting by most Americans and Europeans.

Or you can see what is still beautiful about the Japanese relationship to these fish. Many of the markets that import from around the world send “tuna techs” as they are known to New England, Spain, Croatia, and the other tuna exporting countries to teach fisherman how to properly catch, cut, and determine which fish are of the proper quality to be sold at Tsukiji. It may seem neurotic or controlling but it is neither. It comes from a place of pride and respect for the fish and consumers alike.

Auctioneer at Tsukiji market

Locals and in-the-know activists will surely have their own views on where to travel to get the “truth” about the international fish trade but for curious travelers and non-ideological investigators, Tokyo should be embraced specifically for the range of views one can take away from it. Moving beyond the market, an important part of any investigatory trip is to view your subject “in action.”

The small restaurants Daisho Siusan, Tonsui, and Sushi Sawada are frequently praised as the best of the more traditional end of the sushi spectrum. Also make sure to carve out some time to visit restaurants featuring the distinctly Japanese, kaitenzushi method of serving. Also known as “conveyor belt sushi” these restaurants often have no menus and very few servers.

Instead a long conveyer belt with plates of one or two pieces of sushi roves its way throughout the restaurant and patrons pick and choose the bites they want. The plates are often colored different to represent the price of each piece. This is as entertaining an experience as it is eye opening.

The lack of westernized sushi entrees like the ubiquitous  Sushi/Sashimi Combination For Two is reflective of the respect for the fish themselves and the food as its own cultural institution. Sushi is to be savored not merely ingested.
More “contemporary” approaches to the cuisine can be found almost anywhere but I recommend seeking out those who hold as true as possible to the ancient ethos of sushi culture to get the best understanding of how this fish is regarded and, perhaps, why some are willing to do almost anything to keep it available.  The catching and trading of sushi-grade fish is not a perfect system but not all those involved with the trade are out to do harm to consumers or the fish themselves. It’s a complex relationship that is best understood on the personal level.

Spending time at the Tsukiji market and taking several hours to eat one piece at a time will if nothing else bring you closer to understanding, if not totally approving of, the journey these fish take throughout our physical and cultural lives. And for many, that is precisely what sushi in Tokyo is all about.

There’s Something Fishy in Tokyo (And It’s American Made)

By T.S. Allen

OMG Flying Snakes!

Animals and creatures that live in a very specific environment have adapted over the centuries to survive and thrive in these treacherous milieus. The rainforests of the world are one such place. Creatures here have learned to fly, or actually glide, from tree to tree as a means of transportation.

The Flying Snake, or Chrysopelea, is one animal that has adapted to a life in the trees by gliding. The fact that this tubular animal can fly when it clearly should not be possible has kept the world amazed for centuries. However, there are many more interesting facts about this graceful flying snake that first meets the eye.

The appearance of flying is made by flattening out their bodies into a thin ribbon shape that actually pushes air around and down, causing a lift not unlike an airplanes wing. They use the speed and velocity of the freefalling air and the specific contortions of their body to glide through the air for hundreds of feet, turning and changing direction as they go.

flying tree snake

Seeing one of these flying snakes is nothing short of miraculous. Since their contortions and body movements allow them to glide for so long and actually change directions the appearance of flying is very realistic. They are both frightening and majestic simultaneously.

The flying snake is found in the rainforests of Asia, from Indonesia to India. There are only five species of flying snake throughout this entire area and one, the twin barred tree snake, is rare. They range in size from two feet to over four feet and spend their entire lifespan living in the tree top canopies of the rain forests.

Life in the canopies of the trees in the Asian rainforest is unlike any other life. The lush treetops are so verdant and thick, a whole world of creatures lives every day without touching the ground. These various animals are called gliders. They have adapted through centuries of evolution to glide among the tree tops and live successful lives.

Gliding takes so little energy and effort. The gliders often eat less than most other animals of their size because they require less energy. Flying snakes are diurnal. Diurnal animals hunt during daylight hours. They hunt and eat small vertebrates living in the tree tops of the rain forests. The specifics of what they eat are dependent on the areas they live in. Rodents, lizards and small birds are an average meal. They use their gliding ability to catch prey that is also arboreal.

Flying snakes do have fangs, they do bite and they are venomous. While all of those points are definitely negatives, it isn’t as bad as it sounds. Contrary to most types of snakes, flying snakes are opistoglyphous, which means they have rear-facing fangs that are fixed or immoveable. While many species of snakes have hollow fangs, these snakes’ fangs have a small groove that runs the length of it and allows the venom to run down it into the prey.

Their fangs are small because they are fixed and if larger would puncture the snakes’ mouth. Their small, rear facing fangs and mildly harmful venom makes them harmless to humans. It works perfectly for them, however. The way the venom comes out and the placement and type of fangs allows them to kill only small prey and only inject venom that is well inside its mouth.

ornate flying snake

So quiet and timid are this snake that very little is really known about them. Breeding habits, for instance. Little documentation exists. All that is known is that they lay 6 – 11 eggs with hatchlings that are 15 – 20 cm.

Chrysopelea ornate, the ornate flying snake, is the largest of the species growing up to four feet long. They are considered weak glider because of their larger size. They come in a variety of colors even though one of their common names is the Golden Tree Snake.

The twin barred tree snake is the smallest of the species. It is black with red and yellow bands. It rarely grows larger than two feet long and although small is not considered the best glider. That distinction goes to the Paradise Tree Snake.

The Paradise Tree Snake is a stunningly beautiful creature and sought after as pets in Europe. They are a rich, shiny black color with flower shaped scale patches along its dorsal area from neck to tail. They are considered one of, if not the, best gliding snake in all five species.

The flying snake is an amazing creature with still much to teach us. It’s fascinating capability to adapt to the world it lives in is a lesson in wildlife, in biology and in the way of the world. Seeing this amazing creature in flight is breathtaking. It may not be real flight but it is definitely really amazing.

Birds Of Paradise – The Feathered Prima Donnas

Prima Donnas in the world of birds, Birds of Paradise are some of the world’s most vibrantly beautiful birds. There are over 3000 species of Birds of Paradise in the Paradisaeidae family. They are known not only for their bright plumage but for the length of their feathers and colossal head plumes. Some species display bountiful breast plates or head fans. They are located in Indonesia for the most part but also Australia and New Guinea.

Birds of Paradise Plumage

The various species are adorned in many bright hues but vary just as widely in size. The King Bird of Paradise is the smallest on record, measuring a slight 16 cm long.  Its bright crimson wings are tipped in a florescent orange. The males have blue feet and long curling streamers from its tail with bright green green fans at the tip. The Curl-crested Manocode is one of the largest at 43 cm long. Its glossy black and purple head feathers curl and blend with dark, shiny green feathers.

This fantastically beautiful family of birds spends their lives in rainforests and swamps and moss forests.Wilsons Bird Of Paradise All but a few species live in New Guinea. Those that aren’t are the Silk Crow and the Standardwing and the Manocode which live in Australia and The Maluku Islands.

Birds of paradise eat fruits and bugs indigenous to the rainforests and swampy areas they live in.  Birds of Paradise need to eat two different types of fruits in order to survive, simple and complex. Fruits like figs, kiwi, mangos and bananas are simple fruits that are high in carbohydrates. Apples, pears and berries are complex fruits which contain higher levels of fats and proteins. Birds of Paradise require both sets of nutrients to survive and thrive.

This fruit eating requirement makes the Bird of Paradise especially important to the ecological system in New Guinea. In most other parts of the world, mammals eat tree fruits and as the seeds make it through their digestive track undigested, they are deposited in the ground and can sprout seedlings. In New Guinea, it is the Bird of paradise that takes on this important job. The few species that don’t make fruits their main dietary object prefer insects, particularly spiders.

Birds of Paradise have elaborate and time consuming mating rituals. They prefer solitude and will usually only come together to mate. Mating is where all those fantastic colorful feathers come into play. As with most species, it is the male who is the most colorful and elaborately adorned. The male Bird of Paradise uses this display of feathers and colors in conjunction with a mating dance to attract females.

The males use a Lek mating system that entails many males of the species gathering in one spot to compete for females using their dance and appearance. They also use loud vocal displays like crowing and cawing. This is done each day of the mating season in the same place and in the same manner.

Most species of Birds of paradise are polygynous. They mate with more than one female. Only nine species are monogamous and mate with one female, often for life. In these species, the males and females are both drab in color and do not have the elaborate plumage of the other species of Birds of Paradise.

Once the female has chosen her mate she retreats to her nest to hatch and raise her chicks alone. Females make nests in trees, as other birds do, but also in thick foliage and on the ground. The build soft and thick nests of vine tendrils, fern leaves, moss and slender grasses. Birds of Paradise usually only lay egg clutches of one egg, though some of the smaller species will lay two to three eggs.

There is no doubt about it; the Bird of Paradise is an amazing creature. From its importance in the ecosystem to its elaborate mating rituals to the brightly color feathers so artfully arranges on its body, it is obvious why hunters and poachers have begun to threaten the existence of this fine bird.  Native tribesmen also hunt the birds for the ceremonial use of their feathers, feet and bones.

birds of paradise New Guinea

Some of the species are near extinction because of the hunting. However, recent legal provisions have recently been made and the Bird of Paradise enjoys special legal protection from hunters. Only a small amount of hunting can be done by native tribesman for religious purposes only. Humans are the Bird of Paradise’ only natural enemy other than when they are small chicks and preyed upon by larger birds and mammals.

Loss of habitat may be the more realistic culprit for a decline in this bird’s population. In recent times, large quantities of the rain forests in New Guinea and Australia have been converted to farm land or logged for profit forcing the birds out of the area. With less places to live there are less Birds of Paradise. An unjust fate for so regal and elegant a bird.