This community we have created

I have some amazing friends. I say that I don’t have many close friends and yet the older I get, the less true this becomes. Being avid travellers, Blondie and I have crossed paths with so many people, befriended many of them and even picked up a few very close friends along the way. The kind of friends that are always friends despite our sometimes hectic travelling lifestyle and their own hectic lives! We started out our travels with very good friends from way back when, and some of them have lasted the distance. It’s not easy being friends with travellers who hardly ever make it home to see you, who haven’t met your significant other, family or kids.

I have known my best friend since I was 10 years old. We went to primary school together. We lived together when we were in our late teens and early twenties. And I have hardly seen her in the past few years. We have briefly lived in the same country but that was as close as we got. She has been to hell and back recently and I wasn’t there to help her. She has always done her absolute best to be there for me despite the distance and vice versa. And she is very firmly still my best friend. I adore her for the amazing person that she is and I also admire her for still being my friend despite the fact that I haven’t been to see her in years.

And this is what most of my friendships look like. My friends are scattered across the globe, from small town New Zealand to London-town and everywhere in between including Dubai, Ho Chi Minh, Nanjing and a darling girl that I adore who currently lives on a cruise ship in the Caribbean! I am someone who loves travel, loves new experiences and believes in following my heart. As a consequence, I tend to be drawn to people who have similar beliefs and dreams, people who travel, people who don’t travel and live far away from me, people who also value strong connections over distances. So how do I maintain these friendships with people I haven’t actually seen face to face for YEARS?!

When I first moved away from the town where I met and went to school with my best friend, we would write in small notebooks (3B1 we called them in New Zealand) that we would staple together when the first ones filled up. When I had written my letter in the notebook, I would send the whole thing to her, and vice versa. We filled up many notebooks with our teenage ramblings and quirky little drawings. We both lived in smallish towns that weren’t too far away, so sending notebooks was easy when we were in high school. Decorated in drawings made in vivid (the most common brand of permanent marker in NZ) and twink pen (the Kiwi name for white correction pens!), pages dog eared and well loved, these notebooks were a fabulous way to keep in touch with one of the only persons I knew back then who was as weird as I thought I was! And we still saw each other every now and then. When she moved to where I was living to go to university, the need for the notebooks disappeared and because we had kept in contact during the years, we easily slipped into back to being face-to-face friends. And this was a transition that happened back and forth many times over the years. One of us would move away and the other would eventually follow, creating a connection that distance could not severe. Even when we live on opposite sides of the globe!

This is where I am insanely thankful for the worldwide web. Tattered posted notebooks have made way to Facebook, Snapchat, email, Instagram, Skype, WeChat… All of these platforms make the world much smaller and make communication across oceans much easier. Seeing a snapchat from one of my girlfriends back in New Zealand with her drop dead gorgeous sons makes my heart melt. WeChat conversations between my parents, Blondie and I that are days long and full of sarcastic cheeky quips at each other. Seeing a memories post on Facebook about that time when we were long boarding down our street with some very talented videographers and our favourite Scottish wench.  The emails between my best friend and I are just as scattered and raw as our face to face conversations are. Making the effort to send little pressies to my cousins kids, and then she sends me pictures of the kids wearing them makes me feel a little bit closer, despite the fact that I have only ever seen her kids on a screen.

Having friends and family so far away but still maintaining relationships with them takes effort. And sometimes I am not the best with this effort. Then out of the blue, I am faced with a reminder of why I love the people that I love, of how lucky I am to have such incredible, genuine, beautiful people in my life and I resolve all over again to be a better friend, a better daughter and a better cousin. This is the ever developing, ever changing, always amazing ebb and flow of me and my most treasured relationships. Sometimes I miss them so much it hurts. I have moments sitting alone in whatever apartment is home at the time when I am dead sick of talking to Blondie and I crave a conversation with my bestest friend in the whole wide world, because no one else can have multiple conversations with me quite like she can. I have moments where all I want to do is call my girls and meet them at Library Bar in Wellington, order fabulous cocktails and giggle over stupid things.

When we can, travelling and seeing our loved ones face to face is beyond amazing. Being able to fly to Melbourne to see one of our closest friends marry the love of his life was incredible! Drinking wine in a dark apartment with one of our cousins who is like a little sister to us, hearing about all of her achievements and heartaches just like we used to do when she lived with us, filled our hearts up. Being able to visit our friends when they move to scary exciting new cities, seeing them in action, watching them learning about and navigating their new homes really demonstrates to us what remarkable people our friends are. Having friends make the effort to visit US where ever in the world we are is equally awesome. Being able to share with them the little nooks we have found makes us very proud. And these times reiterate to me why we have created this scattered community, and why we continue to add to this community with more extraordinary weirdo’s. If variety is the spice of life, then our life is hot, hot, HOT with all of the wonderful variety that we have amongst our close circle of friends. Here’s to you guys! The hard-working, ambitious, absurd, lovable bunch that we are lucky enough to call our community and family.

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It’s been a few months since we were in Dubai!

I haven’t written a blog post in a loooooong time! We left China months ago and I have started numerous blog posts that still sit unfinished. It’s not that there is nothing to write about. So much has happened. I just seem to have had writers’ block or just a lack of motivation to write.

We flew out of Nanjing back in May and headed to Dubai to visit two very good friends of ours who relocated to Dubai in February this year. Such a huge move! Dubai was never on my list of places I wanted to go, but then neither was Croatia or China and look at how those countries worked their way into my heart. I didn’t know much about Dubai, and what I did know about this desert city wasn’t very favourable, so I really didn’t have very high expectations and was mainly excited about hanging out with Matt and Belinda.

Dubai definitely wasn’t as illustrious as I thought it would be. Maybe because we didn’t stay right in the middle of all the bling. Maybe because my expectations were low to begin with. Whatever the case, I definitely was not prepared for Dubai. I wasn’t prepared for the heat. I wasn’t prepared for the cultural mix of people’s and I certainly wasn’t prepared to like any of it.

Landing in Dubai at 11pm, I was hella intimidated. Call me ignorant and uncultured, but I have never seen so many men in dishdasha’s or women in abaya, niqāb and/or hijāb! (And yes, I had to google those words, such is my ignorance!) All of a sudden my outfit felt so immodest and I felt completely under dressed, despite there being other women who were wearing far less than me! Standing in the queue for customs, I was hot, sweaty and feeling very self conscious. I had been up since 7am Nanjing time and it was now well after 11pm Dubai time (which is well after 3am Nanjing time). We hadn’t slept much on the plane so I was incredibly tired and I didn’t really know anything about Dubai or what to expect on the other side so I was a tad apprehensive. And then to be confronted with yet another world that is totally and utterly foreign to me was pretty overwhelming. Boy was I glad to see Matt and Belinda’s faces as we walked out of arrivals. I barely even remember the drive from the airport to their apartment in Business Bay. I was so tired and spaced out, it’s all just a blur!

The next day I was a little more coherent. The view from the apartment that Matt and Belinda are living in is… Immense. That is the word that comes into my mind to describe the view. Immense. Being up on the 58th floor, you can see for miles if the haze allows you to. From the corner of their lounge, you can see the Dubai Mall and the famous Dubai Fountain. That was the first place I went in Dubai, the mall. I was desperate for some tights, we all wanted to get breakfast, and going from the lobby to a taxi then the taxi to an air-conditioned mall was a nice ease into Dubai’s intense heat. Funny thing is, we could have walked to the metro station in the heat, then walked past the metro station and to the Dubai Mall via air-conditioned walk ways. But Matt and Belinda were kind to us! A taxi meant much less heat and MUCH less walking. Also, Belinda being very organised and knowing where the shops were that I wanted to go to saved on the walking too. Dubai Mall is HUGE!!! I have seen huge malls in China and this was certainly on a very similar size scale with far more bling in every direction. Without Belinda’s guidance, I would have walked for hours, not found the stores, gotten grumpy and still not have found tights to buy. There is a huge aquarium in the middle of the mall which makes me cringe. I just had to not look at it whenever we had to walk by it. And honestly, I was bracing myself to see much more in Dubai that makes me cringe than just an aquarium. So far, to me, Dubai Mall was just a fancier, more high end version of any other iconic city mall, filled with all sorts of different kinda of people holidaying, shopping, eating or just hanging out.

 

Matt had talked about the city being built in the desert, before they left and again when we talked after they had arrived. I understood on a theoretical level (“Dubai is geographically located in the desert, Dubai is a city built in the desert.”) but I didn’t really comprehend what this actually meant on a daily basis. Pretty much all of the cities I have been to and known have been developed and expanded from smaller cities or towns, added to and thriving on some kind of culture based in this particular spot. Dubai isn’t like this. It’s almost like a city of lights and opulence built on a sandstorm of the past 30 or so years. Of course, Dubai has a rich and complex history, certainly very different from any other city I have ever visited, with trade routes, pearl diving, nomadic peoples, tribal wars, and many, many immigrants from countries such as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and the Philippines. And oil. You simply cannot talk about Dubai’s history without at least a mention of oil and the money that came from it. And the power that comes with oil and money. Not really a conversation that I want to get into, to be honest.

We didn’t do much sight seeing in Dubai. Staying at Matt and Belinda’s was pretty blissful in that the bed was comfy, the air-conditioning was heaven and we slept A LOT! Matt took us to a place called the Arabian Tea House Cafe that Belinda found out about. Apparently they did Emirati breakfasts and oh boy did they what! We were totally infatuated with the fabulous breakfast trays (Ummmm hummus and haloumi for breakfast?!?!?! Oh hell yes!) And as a direct result of that breakfast, I got seriously hooked on dates dipped in tahini. YUM!

Matt took us to Dubai Museum and got us an abra up Dubai Creek, which was cool. We are suckers for water craft and Matt knows that! The abra took us from the silk souk, up the creek, back down the creek and then we got off on the other side of the creek to see the spice souk. The Dubai open air souks totally overwhelmed me to be honest. I have never been good at bartering or at the witty banter that Nick is so good at when being sold to aggressively as vendors open air markets usually sell. Also, we had literally no money to spend so anything I saw that I liked was only teasing so I pretty much powered through saying no to everyone that tried to put cloth and scarves and dresses and trinkets in front of my face. The spice markets I was more interested in but, again, aggressive sales tactics make me introverted and awkward so I didn’t actually stop and look as much as I wanted to. Not to mention, that day was HOT. Like, cook an egg on the side walk kind of hot. Matt had gotten us out of the apartment relatively early that day, and it was hot enough when we left. By the time it was lunchtime, we were melting and waning all over the show. Going back to the air-conditioned apartment for a nana-nap was voted as being the best idea!

During our time in Dubai, Nick and I also caught a taxi to Jumeirah Mosque where we were hosted by the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding and had the opportunity (for 20AED) to not only enter the mosque but to also ask questions about the mosque, the Muslim faith and anything else any of us may have had questions about. And we checked out the Green Planet, a man-made rainforest enclosure. I am never sure how I feel about these zoo/rainforest kind of places, but I was mesmerised by the amazing birds flying about my head. Nick held a snake and was pretty chuffed about that. I stayed well clear of the snakes! Matt and Belinda also took us to an indoor, air-conditioned souk, which felt so posh and stuck up. We were there early, before tour groups and crowds began to pour in. It was amusing wandering around before most things were open and watching people set up.

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If you are looking for other things to do or eat in Dubai, check out Belinda’s blog 58th Floor for more expat recommendations and wisdom. She has some great tips for anyone either visiting or relocating to this illustrious jewel amongst the sand dunes! As well as many other cities she’s been to and reviewed.

And wish me luck as I work through the many other unfinished blogs I have stuck in my drafts folder, in the hope that publishing this blog will fix my writers block!!!

 

 

An oven, clean bathrooms and white sheets!

My hair is clean, soft, curled and full of hairspray. Sitting in Song’s Enzuo Salon on 程阁老巷 (Chenggelaoxiang) waiting for Song to finish Nicks hair. We fly out tomorrow. I have tried my hardest to not think about. Moving Mum and Dad helped. Boy was that a mission! Nick and I saw the new apartment on Thursday without Mum and Dad, an emergency trip to the NZ Embassy in 上海 (Shanghai) meant that Mum and Dad didn’t see it until late night Saturday, and they were sold! We asked for the contract to be prepared so that they could start moving in on Sunday. Talk about everything happening at once!!! And then we had to move them… I knew how much of a pain in the ass it was for them to simply move from one building to another within the same gated community. Moving them from 星雨华府 (Xinyuhuafu or Silver Rain Mansions, a gated community thats definitely not as illustrious as it sounds!) on 集庆门大街 (Jiqingmen Street) across to the other side of 建耶区 (Jianye district) to Somerset on 青奥北路 (Qing’ao North Road) was a mission and a half! It is times like these I am very thankful that Chinese apartments are mostly furnished. Each time we had suitcases, boxes and desks piled up at the north gate of their old apartment community, we would send Dad to the other side of the road to wave down a cab. He would them jump in, drive down to the intersection, do a u-turn and drive to where we were waiting. The taxi drivers were always very hesitant about all the crap we had stacked on the side of the road. Language barriers meant that we couldn’t tell them that we would put what we could fit into one cab and what we couldn’t fit, we would simply put into another cab! The language barrier also meant that we could feign ignorance when the driver would try to tell us we couldn’t load up the cab. Not speaking the local language has it’s pro’s and it’s con’s!!!

Pretty much after that first run of loaded-to-the-hilt cabs (three cabs FULL of Mum and Dad’s crap! And that was just the first load!), Mum refused to leave the new apartment. She loved the cleanliness of their new two bedroom, two bathroom apartment and was quite happy to unpack and potter about finding places to put everything. She had tried so hard not to get her hopes up. Because, like me, if she lets her guard down and gets her hopes up only for the deal to fall through… Well let’s just say we don’t deal well with it. She taught me to be cautious and not to celebrate until it actually happens. So there was my Mum, in the midst of suitcases and boxes of crap exploding all over their new apartment, finally able to get excited and celebrate this win. She kept going from room to room reliving what she liked about each one. And it’s funny the little things that we find exciting. The kitchen, although small by our Kiwi standards, was clean, bright and new with a small dishwasher and an oven. Yes, they finally had an OVEN!!! Traditionally, Chinese do not have ovens in their kitchens, so all of the other apartments that they had previously rented were sans oven. And as a Kiwi who grew up cooking most of our dinners in the oven, not to mention baking galore, not having an oven was a difficult adjustment for Dad to make. Now he has an oven again, he almost has to reteach himself how to use it!!! Bet Mum is looking forward to that!

The master bedroom is spacious, with a lovely desk and a comfy desk chair. The TV in their bedroom not only gets some English channels, it also has a range of movies for them to watch, in English, Chinese and I think there are a handful in other languages too. Dad has struggled with streaming movies ever since they moved to China. Now he doesn’t have to! He has heaps of them to watch in his bedroom AND they change every month! Talk about spoiled.

The bathrooms are nice and big and CLEAN. Yes, clean is a reoccurring theme for excitement. The shower in Mum and Dad’s ensuite is huge and the wall opposite to the glass door is a big window, making the whole bathroom very bright and open. And they have a proper vanity, with proper cupboards under it. Like I said, it’s the little things!

As seems to always be the case here in China, the main bathroom is smaller than the master ensuite. Good thing about this apartment is that the master ensuite is pretty big, so the main bathroom being a little smaller doesn’t mean it’s small as such. The spare room (our room!) has heaps of space for Mum and Dad to store all of their papers and programs and books and STUFF, whilst still having plenty of room for guests.

The lounge has the usual Chinese covered in balcony, with a washer and a dryer out there. The balcony looks down onto the restaurant that Mum and Dad are already regulars at! We joked about Nick rigging up a pulley system for delivery, because it is actually that close. Mum loves watching the trucks and construction going on across the way, as the whole area is still very much in development. A short walk through lots of statues of Olympic athletes, there is a tram the you can catch to more shops, to our favourite coffee shop Ink or to the metro station. While it’s not as convenient as living so close to 河西万达 (Hexi Wanda) was, it has it’s own conveniences. Like the pool, the gym and the yoga room, all brand spanking new facilities. Or like the bi-weekly cleaner Mum gets as part of the rent! We arrived at the apartment and it was all totally furnished, like a hotel room with everything including cutlery, glasses, robes, plates, coat hangers and linen! We made a pile of things that we already had and were bringing from the old apartment, for the housekeeping manager to take away with her. Mum didn’t want to be responsible for their wine glasses and she thought she didn’t want the beautiful clean, fresh white sheets that were provided… Until she slept in them a few times! The sheets stayed.

I have to say I struggled with the apartment they were in when we arrived back in 南京 (Nanjing) a month ago. If you have been to China, you’ll know what I mean if I say it has the China smell… It is an apartment that has not been very well looked after prior to Mum and Dad moving in. There were holes in the doors, flooring that was coming up, a window pane in the balcony that was not fixed at all and just sitting loose in the window frame… And the landlord was a real dick to deal with. It was the kind of situation that I watched my Mum do what she has done all my life: make the best of it. So It was about bloody time that something went her way. And I am just super glad that we were there to help make it happen. Knowing that they are in a clean apartment with amazing staff at reception (we made friends with the staff before we even moved in!) makes it a little easier to leave. A little.

煎饼培根鸡蛋 (or Pancakes bacon and eggs!)

Dad was shown this fabulous little local eatery by a student of his and when we arrived, he was keen to share it with us. I was super impressed at Dad’s Chinese that he used to order not just his and Nicks pancakes, but mine too without the egg. My Daddy is well on his way to speaking Chinese!!!

Nick has been working hard on his video skills and he put together this cool little video of us getting pancakes. Click on the photo below to see the video!

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I loved being able to choose a tonne of vegetables and I could pile my bowl up with potato, cabbage and carrots!!! The bowl you get given has a number and you have to remember that number cos when you hand your bowl in to be cooked as pancake filling, it’s that number that they call out to tell you yours is ready.

We got LOTS of looks, three large sized foreigners waiting for our pancakes with the locals. Nick was filming and I was poking my nose into what they were doing where ever I could. The pancakes were HUGE and we had so much trouble eating them cos they were so hot!!! Which made for a hilarious breakfast and more stares from the tables around us as well as the staff, who had by that point just decided that we were the morning’s entertainment. Which was fine by us, because we were too busy munching down clumsily on these huge as savoury pancakes that were totally delicious. A new favourite for sure!

Eating my way through Dalmatia/Croatia Part 2 – Pršut

I arrived in Dubrovnik during a storm in June 2016. Almost a year ago! The bus from the airport deposited Nick and I near the old town gates and it looked like the IMG_6171entire city had been washed clean overnight. The sun was out and all of the surfaces were soaking wet. I was tired (oh SO tired!), having flown in from Nanjing via Frankfurt and Zagreb. I missed China something awful and I was so overwhelmed at being back in Europe that I literally could not string together a complete sentence, which Nick found endlessly amusing. I couldn’t decide whether I was rapt to be back in Europe  (where the air was crisp and clean, the streets still smelled like fresh rain and even the Croatian accent felt familiar despite the fact that I had never been to Croatia before!) or whether I was still overcome with sadness at leaving behind China with it’s buzzing crowds, slippery subway stations, weird smells and wonderful people who stared at me a lot! So I really wasn’t much use. NIMG_7755ick deposited my large pack at my feet as I stood in the square called Brsalje and went in search of somewhere for us to get breakfast. It was still early, about 8am I think or maybe earlier, and we could see the various restaurants around us beginning to open up and set up their tables and chairs outside. The wait staff at a restaurant called Dubravka 1836 agreed to let us sit down out on the terrace while they finished setting up for breakfast. We didn’t mind waiting. From our table, I could see the wall to the old town. It was so… Impressive. I couldn’t do much more than stare at it, taking in all the details of the old stones it was made up of, of the moss growing in some of the cracks and the birds flitting up and down and round and round. I was overwhelmed! Even when one of the staff came over asking what we wanted, I just looked at Nick vacantly. Whatever he ordered for me, when it came out, I was VERY happy. The first thing to come out was the coffee. Oh the coffee… Even a year later, I can still feel how wonderful it was as I sipped on this piping hot molten GOLD. As much as I love Nanjing, good coffee is very hard to find. And the way Croatians like their coffee is very much how I like mine. Thick. Dark. Bitter. Sweet. And hot. No milk to taint it. Just pure, unadulterated caffeine heaven! Next the orange juice came out. Freshly squeezed, BRIGHT orange and chocka block with pulp. Then the waiter brought out the food. I think I smelled it before I saw it. Fresh croissant, Dalmatian pršut, some kind of hard cheese and bread. Simple. And effective! I dug in with my fingers and still, no words would come.

That first breakfast in Dubrovnik was my first taste of pršut. Of course I have had cured ham before. Prosciutto, various kinds of salamis, cured ham from back home… And I love the hardiness of pršut. It feels just that little bit thicker than prosciutto. More robust in flavour and not so delicate. It’s the kind of cured ham that you eat with your fingers, slice by slice! Or is that just me?! During our time in Croatia, pršut was a staple in my boat galley pantry. When I couldn’t get anything else, I learned which super market brands were the best, and when I was lucky enough to be able to buy it, I liked to treat the guests on the boat to locally bought pršut from a lovely vendor and his father who sold their cured meats and cheeses on the boulevard in Vis town.

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Now many will tell me that pršut and prosciutto are pretty much the same thing. And yes, I know that they are definitely derived from similar traditions that brought us the wonderful Italian version of finely sliced cured ham. But just like prosciutto can vary depending on what region in Italy it comes from or which family recipe it is made with, the pršut that is made on the eastern side of the Adriatic has it’s own individual characteristics originating from variations in things like the wood that is used to smoke the ham, the salt that is used prior to washing the ham and even the air that the ham is hung in. All of these regional differences produce subtle flavour profiles that set pršut apart from being a mere copy of prosciutto.

Pršut can be used anywhere you would normally use prosciutto. It is great as a side to fresh vegetarian dishes like a warm vegetable frittata, laid out in a salad with salty capers, creamy cottage cheese and tomatoes or even as a breakfast food served along with cheeses, fruits, jams and croissants. At almost every restaurant in Dalmatia, you will find it on the menu as a very simple dish served with cheese and bread. I particularly love tearing up pieces of pršut to serve on a cheeseboard with local hard cheeses, fresh summer figs, bright red currants and some fresh crusty bread. The rich saltiness contrasts nicely against the sourness of the currants, the sharpness of the local hard cheeses and smooth sweetness of the figs. Can you tell that I love contrasts?! Almost as much as I love pršut!

 

Rude drivers who don’t get the job vs wonderful drivers who become friends

Of course as soon as we hit Nanjing, my darling mother is all about what work we can do and where we can go and lets DO IT ALL NOW!!! Luckily, we are totally down with her being a crazy lady so when Mum and Dad told us we all had to be at Nanjing Nan train station at 6am on Thursday morning, we just rolled with it. Unfortunately, the new Starbucks inside the train station terminal didn’t get the memo and wasn’t open when we arrived. They weren’t due to open until 7am but our train was scheduled to leave at 7am and we NEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEDED coffee! Luckily we had Nick to sweet talk the girl behind the counter and convince her to make us drinks early enough for us to race back to the gate just as it opened to let us down to our platform and we made it onto our train in plenty of time with coffees in tow. First mission of the day successful!

Mum had scheduled two workshops for Thursday and Friday in two different cities, Rui’an (瑞安) and Cixi(慈溪). Now when we travel with Mum and Dad for work, we usually stay at the local Intercontinental Hotel. We are all Club Members which means we get benefits, upgrades to Club Lounge and the food at Happy Hour is a great free substitute for dinner! Turns out there are no Intercontinental Hotels in either Rui’an or Cixi. Mum presented in Ningbo (宁波) a month or so ago and loved the service at the Ningbo Intercontinental. And since their rates were so reasonable and it wasn’t far from Rui’an and Cixi, we decided to stay in Ningbo. Which was great because it meant that after we had finished working, we had the weekend to explore Ningbo. I had done a little bit of research and I found that the XueDou Temple and the surrounding area (雪窦寺), just outside of Xidou (溪口), was an interesting place to explore. And after a pretty decent sleep in and buffet breakfast on Saurday, Dad asked the concierge to help him order a driver on IMG_3881his Didi app to take us to XueDou. Communicating on the app, the driver quoted a price (I think from memory it was about 150RMB), Dad accepted and the driver came to the hotel. Upon arrival at the Intercontinental, the driver all of a sudden wanted more money! Apparently, between Dad accepting the ride and the driver seeing us Westerners waiting for him, the price went up to over 300RMB! HA! I really felt for the young porter who was a timid looking Chinese guy whose English really wasn’t up to translating Mum’s arguing in English or the drivers very aggressive Chinese. And there was no way that we were paying the inflated price unless he gave us a good reason. Which he didn’t. So we told him to go away. It always amuses me how you don’t need translation to tell someone to go away. Body language definitely suffices for such kinds of communication!

 

So Dad heads back into the hotel to organise another driver with the concierge. Cue more waiting and then another car turns up. He had a nice smile, Dad said the concierge checked with him that the price would not change and he checked with us before using the highway (which incurred a toll charge). During the drive, he tried to interact with us a little. He drove us through the gates to the attraction after a discussion with the guards that we think was about private cars not being allowed through. He pointed to us a lot during that conversation which we interpreted to mean that he was explaining to the guard that he was hired by these crazy Westerners so he should be let through. Whatever he said, it worked and we were allowed through the gate! Seems he had never been to XueDou Temple either, cos he made ‘wow’ noises along with the rest of us as the huge (HUGE) Buddha Maitreya statue came into view. Instead of just dropping us off and driving away, he arranged with Nick and Dad to wait for us and drive us back after for 250RMB total. Which was such a great price! And once we had paid for our entrance tickets and were inside the complex, we laughed as we kept bumping into him! Through WeChat messages and gestures, he got us to take selfies with him, which he promptly posted on WeChat Moments.

Unfortunately, Mum badly sprained her ankle before we arrived and even though she was stubborn enough to walk up all those stairs, her ankle got really painful and tired once she finally made her way down. We were all tired as well anyway, so we didn’t get the chance to explore Xuedou mountains other offerings, which sound absolutely amazing.

Driving back to Ningbo, he was much more animated. Using our rudimentary Chinese skills, we learned that his name is 井振华 (Jing Zhenhua to us!). He laughed when he couldn’t understand what the hell we were talking about and was very careful to only use WeChat messaging to communicate with us when he was stopped at a red light. Which made a change from one of our old drivers in Nanjing, who would scare the crap out of my by paying more attention to Wechat than he did driving! Back at the hotel, Nick gave Zhenhua 300RMB and it was actually a big deal to take it. Normally Chinese drivers don’t like to take a penny more than the fare agreed upon. It’s a pride and a respect thing. And Nick was very careful to demonstrate to him in a respectful way that we really appreciated how helpful he was and that we enjoyed his company. He handed the extra money to him with both hands and Zhenhua graciously accepted. I think it also helped that we then invited him to be our guest in the Club Lounge. It was Happy Hour so we were able to share with him the benefits of free drinks and free food that was laid out in a small buffet. We kept talking to him, with the help of WeChat (thanks goodness for WeChat’s awesome translation functions!) and we learned more about him. Originally from Hunan, he lived in Ningbo with his wife and two kids. He asked us how we knew each other, where we lived and how long we would be in China. Dad got to practice his Chinese and told him that I was his daughter. It took a few goes but he eventually understood! He ate a certain Chinese fruit (in English it’s called the longan berry and in Chinese it’s called龙眼 or long yan) and showed me how to peel it, and spit the pip out. He offered to take us anywhere we wanted later that night for no charge, “We are now friends.” When I expressed interest in street food, he said that there was lots of colourful and local street food near Tianyi (天一) Square. So that’s where we went. He seemed quite content to play tour guide for us, he laughed at how much I loved chestnuts (板栗 or ban li) and helped us to buy a bag for me to munch on. I had fun getting lost in the maze of little shops in an open-air mall kind of place, as Nick and Zhenhua both tried to avoid the stench of the smelly tofu that wafted in the air! We were right underneath the Tianfeng Pagoda (originally built in the Tang Dynasty) and even though it was not open, it cast an impressive shadow across the night sky. Nick was particularly stoked that Zhenhua understood his rusty Chinese when he asked about a particular kind of boiled dumpling that he loves (水饺 or shuijiao, which is literally water dumpling). Zhenhua even found us a little place to buy shuijiao from. And they were yummy too!

It really made our time in Ningbo to have met Zhenhua. How glad are we that the first driver was so rude because otherwise we would not have had the chance to meet the lovely guy who drove us around and laughed at our terrible Chinese!

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Eating my way through Dalmatia/Croatia Part 1 – Peka

“There is no love sincerer than food.” And my love for Croatia and the Dalmatian coast is firmly entrenched in this sincere love of the homestyle, generous, seasonal cuisine that this area is renown for.

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On the Dalmatian coast, the food influences are decidedly Mediterranean, due to the heavy historical influences of the Romans and Greeks. Plenty of olive oil, capers, cured meats, local cheese, grilled vegetables, and pizza, pizza, pizza!!! I was even told more than once that Croatian pizza is better than Italian pizza… A statement that I let linger as opposed to getting into an argument!

What is not arguable is that there is one Croatian dish that stands out to most foreigners who visit this new/old country. A dish that, even if you cannot for the life remember the name of it, you simply describe how it looked cooking in the open air wood fired oven, you describe the ingredients and flavours, how the meat fell off the bone, and anyone who has been to this part of the world will know immediately which dish you are so enthusiastically referring to! There is no other dish like Isopod Peka.

This traditional Dalmatian dish is cooked in the outdoor kitchen (crna kuhinja or black kitchen) that most Dalmatian island restaurants have, and many homes as well. This is the kitchen where the messier food prep is done, where a large stone open fire is the central focal point. It is also a great place to socialise as the chef works his magic. The wood fired aroma that these outdoor kitchens give off creates such homely, relaxed atmosphere, perfect for kicking back with a bottle of local red wine as your peka cooks! (Hot tip: Ask your host where the wine comes from. It is highly likely that he/she will tell you very proudly that it comes from his/her family’s vines or from the island that he/she hails as home. And there is always a good story involved!)

Essentially a slow cooked dish that is baked in the open fire, peka is easy to assemble. Meat and vegetables are put into a large flat pot or tray, and the pot is covered and cooked. At least that’s the short version! Getting the mix of ingredients right is where the skill lies. And the mix differs from island to island, village to village, family to family. As is with most Dalmatian home cooking, the meat and vegetables tend to reflect what is available seasonally and what is fresh. The meat component can be anything, from veal to octopus, pork to cuttlefish. The vegetables are also determined by what is in season and locally available, courgette (zucchini!), onion, garlic, carrots, capsicum (peppers)… And potatoes. You simply cannot forget the potatoes. It is often said by the local people that peka must be made with love and patience, as this is what makes it so most waveringly delicious. Nothing to do with the seemingly instinctive use of local herbs (rosemary grows wild EVERYWHERE and is incredibly pungent and fresh!), olive oils and wines to complement the flavours of the meat and vegetables!

The defining feature of cooking peka is the črpnja, the special shaped lid that you put over the pot of food. The unique bell shape of this lid allows it to fully cover the pot full of food. The English term for peka, “Under the Bell” is derived directly from this particular piece of equipment.  Some črpnja even allow you to cover the top of the lid in hot embers. Then, the peka cooks for at least 3 hours, until the meat falls apart and the potatoes melt in your mouth.

Although these days, peka is more often made in cast iron dishes, traditionally it was a dish that was cooked in earthenware. The kind of meal that all the family would come over to share, and in Dalmatia they still do! The kind of meal that I revel in, with a table stacked with fresh bread, bottles of local olive oil (so green it seems as if the plant is still very much in the oil!) and vinegar, maybe a salad or two of beets, onions, cabbage and cucumber. And the peka as the crowing glory.

All of the guests that we hosted during the summer of 2016 all agreed that peka was an epic part of Croatian cuisine that they are glad they had the chance to try. And we cannot wait to head back and explore more of the Dalmatian cuisine that we miss so much. There is still SO MUCH left to explore!

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