Recently, I’ve been on the trail of vanilla, the magical spice that flavours our cakes, custards and ice creams. Along the way, the trail took me to Madagascar, where they produce the finest vanilla in the world. It’s called ‘Bourbon vanilla’, after the former name of nearby Reunion Island.
Did you know that vanilla comes from an orchid (vanilla planifolia)? That its flower has to be pollinated by hand in order for the vanilla pod to grow? That the pod must be picked on a particular day of its growth, and then go through various stages of conditioning for almost a year before it is ready to use?
I didn’t know any of this; I didn’t even know what a vanilla pod looked like, but I found out pretty quickly before boarding a plane to Antananarivo (better known as Tana), Madagascar’s crazy capital.
I started tracking down vanilla in the city centre, at the huge Analakely Market, which was teeming with produce, and I went bananas shooting images of the vendors with their artful displays of bell peppers, shredded carrots, shellfish, succulent strawberries and gleaming tangerines. As for vanilla, after a careful look I was able to distinguish top-quality beans (long, slender, dark, glistening) from the cheaper stuff, which was short, stubby, lighter in colour.
I had to be on my toes all the time, because—as just about all Tana’s citizens keep reminding you—this is one dangerous town. Thefts and muggings are regular, which may have something to do with the fact that about half the population have no work or income. Fortunately I emerged unscathed, and was even brave enough to join the crowds at the annual Madagascar Carnival—wow, those Malagasy can dance!
In the kitchens that I visited to see what chefs are doing with vanilla in Tana’s top restaurants these days, it was invariably the top-quality vanilla pods I saw stored in tall glass jars. I got to photograph (and eat!) some amazing dishes, such as chicken escalopes with vanilla sauce and pork and sweet potato with vanilla. And much as I enjoyed these exotic dishes, nothing could beat the vanilla soufflé for its uncompromised vanilla-ness.
Before leaving Tana, I bought a few bunches of vanilla pods to experiment with at home. Now I’m a vanilla addict and each time I head for the kitchen I’m dreaming up new ways of adding it to any dish. Its sweet, creamy and smoky aroma has got me under its spell.
Y'all know Wikipedia, dontcha? That wonderful bastion of philanthropy, the so-called ‘free’ encyclopaedia staffed by selfless sharers of essential information—one of the world’s ten most popular websites, written by the people, for the people?
Well, I got news for you—Wikipedia is wicked, and I don’t mean that in a ‘so bad it’s good’ way. I mean wicked, as in nasty, calculating and, worst of all, corrupt.
How do I know? Well, one of their regular contributors just tried to sell me a page about myself on Wikipedia…for $910, non-negotiable. Ali Khalid tried to hook me in with the tempting thought that…”These days, anyone who is important is on Wikipedia. It shows people that one is popular and credible”.
So, just how credible is Wikipedia? Ali sent me links to the Wikipages of a couple of satisfied customers, who had paid the going rate to be deemed important, popular and credible. Lyn Mikel Brown, it appears, is an American feminist and Nancy Cruickshank retails beauty products.
I’ve no doubt that there are still a few well-intentioned souls writing for Wikipedia who want to warn us of the dangers of fracking (or whatever their obsession is) without receiving a cent for their troubles, but it seems there are richer pickings to be found by dipping into the endless supply of real-life people who want to be considered important or notable.
Fancy a go? Then here’s what to do. Write a few (free) biographies for Wikipedia of little-known but notable dead poets/musicians/artists/etc, in order to establish yourself, then market your talents to the millions of semi-successful people on this planet who would happily part with $910 for a taste of notability. Soon as you know it, you’ll be rolling in clover.
"Goodbye hello!”…reminds me of an old Beatles song, but the website hola.org is something much more insidious than anything we knew when we used to go round singing “I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello”.
A friend recommended it as a useful site that would enable me to watch programmes on the BBC iPlayer, which is generally not available outside the UK, as well as any other websites that are generally blocked in the land where I live—Thailand.
Being a sucker for anything that makes life a bit easier or more fun, I downloaded it and for a couple of weeks enjoyed my new-found freedom—watching the final of Wimbledon tennis and a few insightful documentaries—but then the trouble began.
The Ebola virus has certainly captured the world's attention, especially now it's moved into Europe and the USA. The first outbreak of this deadly virus occurred in 1976, when it was more commonly known as the Green Monkey Disease, since it was thought to have originated in a particular type of monkey. I happened to be travelling in South Sudan at the time, and was devastated to find many villages deserted, their inhabitants either struck down by the disease or having fled to escape its contagious grip.
Some years later, when I was preparing a book of short stories as part of my M.A. in English (Creative Writing) at San Francisco State University, I used my visit to this obscure part of the world as the basis for a story called...
THE GREEN MONKEY’S TALE
The truck ploughed to a stop, sending clouds of red dust swirling into the dense jungle of the Central African Republic. As the haze cleared, a small boy became visible at the roadside, holding out the body of a dead monkey by the tail. He squinted at the driver and shouted.
“Hey, mister! Fresh shot today! Only fifty francs!”
“Let me see,” the driver responded, a gleam in his eye. “Fifty francs, hey? Well, take this for it.” He pushed three ten-franc notes into the boy’s hand, and swung the corpse onto the dashboard of the cab. The boy ran off into the undergrowth, pushing the notes into his ragged shorts, while the driver pulled away again, grinning at Chris, his English passenger.
“Hey, man, now we have a feast tonight. You eat monkey before?” he asked, his white eyes shining from the deep caverns of his cranium.
“No, Emille,” Chris answered, wincing at the thought. “I’ve eaten some strange things lately – snake, elephant, locusts – but never monkey.”
The tiny skull of the animal seemed to sneer at him as it rocked on the dashboard like a stuffed toy. Its minute hands still clung to an imaginary branch and its green fur bristled.
Restoration at My Son
The My Son complex of Cham temples located in a lush valley around 40km from Hoi An is one of Vietnam's World Heritage sites and brings a steady stream of visitors every day to view the ruins of a once-powerful civilization. However, many of the ruins were in such a decrepit state that they gave little idea of how the site once was. Now a sensitive restoration project by UNESCO has brought back to life Group G of these temples, and ongoing work is transforming the ruins of Group E, which dates back to the 8th century.
You might think that in a Communist society, the government would want to take from the rich and give to the poor, but in Vietnam, it's the other way round. Take the case of...
I was nearly finished with my update of Danang for the new edition of the guide. I had checked out the Cham Museum and Cao Dai Temple to make sure there were no major changes, I had carefully marked on the map the location of new bridges crossing the river, including the spectacular, fire-breathing Dragon Bridge, and had stood on the 20th floor of the new Grand Mercure and Novotel hotels, listening to PR reps wax lyrical about the benefits of spending £150 a night to sleep in their rooms perched high above the city. I had also found some new restaurants that cater to Westerners' tastes, and a couple of reasonable mini hotels to recommend for people looking for mid-range accommodation. All I needed was a hostel or some cheap lodging to list for backpackers, who are now visiting Vietnam in droves, before I could head off to Hoi An, one of my favourite towns in the entire country.
‘Tis a strange island, shaped like a pregnant woman dipping her toes in the sea, where I happened to be born.
It seems especially strange to me, having lived in voluntary exile abroad for nearly 40 years, and only popping back for short visits to see family and friends every few years. I always leave bemused by recent developments and wondering where this country is headed.
This visit is no exception. Though the climate and countryside is familiar enough, the towns and people wandering the streets are oddly alien. The high street of Maidenhead, my home town, is a commercial wasteland, a windy corridor bordered by charity shops and empty premises, which are now brightly decorated with artwork extolling the town’s merits, compared with white-washed windows on my last visit. Meanwhile the people I pass are speaking Polish, Romanian, Urdu, Hungarian, Russian or Chinese—anything, it seems, but English.
As the world waits anxiously for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in June to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s 60 years on the throne, our budding blogger reveals a crack in the psyche of the so-called United Kingdom. It’s called
THE BRITISH MONARCHY SCHIZOID SYNDROME
We Brits are an odd bunch when it comes to our views on the Royal Family. On the one hand, it’s not unusual to hear us ranting in pubs or at parties about the preposterous privileges that they enjoy, or how they should know what it’s like to do a hard day’s work or to do their shopping at Sainsbury’s. On the other hand, when a Royal Wedding or Jubilee comes around, we go all gooey and gaga, saying silly stuff like “Isn’t she sweet? Doesn’t she look lovely?” No doubt the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, from 2-5 June 2012, will be another such occasion, when we all bury the hatchet for a few days, smile at our neighbours and act like life’s one big party.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.