Sunday, February 07, 2010

Bests and Worsts

While sitting in a little bungalow in Kerala reflecting on the sad state of my recent manicure, I decided to reflect on some of the best and worst things that I've learned while traveling these past 15 years. In no particular order:

Best Manicure and Pedicure: Boston Day Spa in Addis Ababa, 2009:  My manicure lasted for almost two weeks – a lifelong record! I was served hot tea, had a massage chair, and nice ambience. Not too expensive either!

Honorable Mentions: Washington DC, 2003 - 2007: The pedicure place across the street from my house on 18th and T streets was reliable and fast and not too expensive. Downside: Constantly trying to make you feel bad and insist that you needed facial waxing.

Singapore, December 2009: In a mall somewhere with Suzie. I have never had such shiny toe nails. And they lasted almost two months.

Worst Mani/Pedi:
(Three-way Tie Amsterdam/Mexico City/Delhi)
Near Nieuwmarkt, Amsterdam, 1999:  They scrubbed my foot so hard they cut it open and I bled, and poured such hot water on my feet that they scalded me. I could barely walk afterwards.

Zona Rosa, Mexico City, Mexico, 2005: Again, the pedicurist believed that my right big toe just needed a good digging to get the nail bed to right itself (it’s never been the same since I dropped an ice bucket on it at Garibaldi’s in South Carolina). Not only did it hurt like hell and bleed, I got an infection and had to lance it with a needle and a match in Guanajuato a week later.

Defence Colony, Delhi, India, January 2010: I could still see through the nail polish after two lackluster coats of varnish and the lady painted over my cuticles. On the way home from the salon, it began to chip.

Best Journey in a foreign country: Train from Fort Cochin to Alleppy, India, January 2010.Inside: chai salesmen, sleeping business men in the bunks above me, and an ambience unchanged from the 1920s. Outside: Water buffalos and green palm trees and canals and bridges.

Drive from Port Elizabeth to Cape town, South Africa, October 2003Most spectacular sunset ever seen somewhere  between Mpmulenga and Knyssna, riding along the Garden Route, riding an ostrich for the amusement of German tourists in Outhoorn, drinking a Castle beer at Ronnie’s Sex Shoppe in the Klein Karoo, crossing the Drakenberg Mountains, coming down into Cape Town to see Table Mountain.

Riverboat ride north of Bangkok, April 2002.Trees so filled with fireflies that they seemed to glow and levitate, heavy smell of dark brown water of South East Asia, green jungle on every side.

Worst Journey in a foreign country: Car ride from Nyala to Kass, South Darfur, Sudan, October 2004We were shot at and it broke out a window. Old pimped out hoopty that we rented broke down and the Janjaweed helped us get back on the road. Lots of tales about bandits that got all the cars on either side of us but not us. Potholes. Tense and frightening. Two weeks later we heard a woman from USAID was shot at the same point we were at. She lost her eye.

Motorcycle Ride from Sigiriya to Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka, September 2005Styrofoam helmet, aching back from too many books in my backpack, scared out of my mind by the weaving and dodging traffic, screaming buses and 18 wheelers. “A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again”

Car ride from Port-au-Prince to Gonaives, Haiti and Gonaives to Cap Haitien, Haiti: February 2005A backbreaking trip across the moonscape of a devastated land, it took four hours to go about 60 miles.  The 2nd part of the journey was over an extremely treacherous mountain pass with no guard rails, potholes and people in every treacherous hairpin turn. Afterwards, the driver informed me  about the brake problems in our car.

Best meals in foreign countries:Side of the road from Boguila to Bangui, Central African Republic, March 2007A piece of freshly caught fish grilled over a charcoal flame with hot peri peri powder and tomatoes and onions, washed down with a cold coke, eaten with fingers. It might have been made better by the fact that I was on a 10 hour land rover trip squashed in the front seat with another person and with a big barrel that reeked of oil behind me.

Beirut, Lebanon, August 2006:
Everywhere we went, we would get some sort of street food and it was ALL divine - from zataar filled croissants to labneh to zataar pizzas with fresh goats cheese on them to the Arabic and Italian ice cream parlours where we conducted our meetings. At night, we went to divine little bars and drank "Malcom Lowry's" and ate fresh Ceasar salads prepared by beautiful men while listening to the latest lounge music. All war zones should be so gorgeous.

Le Quartier Francais, Franschhoek, South Africa, October 2003: Freshly caught salmon trout grilled and served on a plank of wood accompanied by a divine South African Sauvignon Blanc by the glass in a beautiful old French Huguenot farmhouse overlooking a vineyard. Downside: My traveling companion had a stomach virus and couldn’t even eat her broth although she tried valiantly.

Califa del Leon in the Colonia Condesa neighborhood, Mexico City, Mexico, May 2006: My first Taco al Pastor - roasted pork served with cilantro and pineapple on a fresh tortilla. All you can eat until you can’t eat anymore. Washed down with a cold beer and eaten on the street corner in a beautiful neighborhood in Mexico City on my first night there.

Camel Market, Khartoum, Sudan, December 2005:Freshly slaughtered lamb purchased and then brought to Sudanese women who stir fried it over charcoal briquettes with salt and pepper -served with a leafy green like arugula, tomato salad, freshly baked bread, and peanut sauce. Washed down with lukewarm plastic bags of water while sitting on plastic garden chairs and swatting flies away in the mid day heat of Sudan. Sometimes the setting isn’t that important.

Malabar House, Fort Cochin, Kerala, India, January 2010: Seafood Uttalpillum (?) – a spicy mix of freshly caught Sea bar, tiger prawns, and squid cooked in a spicy tomato curry sauce with tapioca mashed potatoes served with sparkling water and a Kingfisher beer in the courtyard of the Malabar House next to a Sitar and tambla concert under a full moon. I sat under a mango tree next to a pool of water.

Somewhere outside of Saint Johann in Pongau, Austria, May 1998: I fell off the meat wagon and was trying to get back on. My boyfriend at the time wanted to stop at a famous place for Frankfurters dipped in mustard and grated horseradish. Even though I was a vegetarian, I couldn’t resist. It was delectable and I’ve never looked back since.

Pave d'Auge in Beauvron-en-Ange, Normandy, France, July 2009: A Michelin 1 star – foie gras,  a chilled red Sancerre, divine fish, vintage calvados, exquisite service

Castelmuzio, Tuscany, Italy, August 2009:
My first taste of pecorino cheese dipped in truffle honey served with a Vino Nobile. To die for! Eaten in a small little apartment overlooking the hills of Tuscany, an olive grove, and the abbey from an English Patient.

The Royal Thai restaurant at the Cinnamon Lake Hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, September 2005:Thai Seafood Green Curry with Joel. “Make it how it should be made” he answered in response to do you want it spicy. We sweated and ate and sweated and ate until we almost passed out and had to stagger back to our hotel rooms. We came back the next night for more.

Hotel La Cayenne, Les Cayes, Ha├»ti, 2001-2003 :
Poisson au gross el or Lambi Kreyol for dinner. Served with a big boiled plantain and spicy rice and beans and cold Prestige beer. Or Spaghetti with avocado and hot sauce for breakfast. Something about that hotel and the food brings back good memories.

Little restaurant near a great small Fado joint in Alfama, Lisbon, Portugal, February 2008:Grilled sardines, a bottle of vinho verde. Divine!

Worst Meals in a Foreign land:
Saclipea, Liberia, December 2004:Boiled cow head with hard rice in eaten out of a communal bowl with five Liberians and a Congolese. “That white woman can’t eat that hard rice!”

ICRC party in Nyala, Darfur, October 2004: Ate nothing but rancid “La Vache Qui Rit” cheese and sandy bread for three weeks, came to a party at the ICRC rooftop and lined up for the barbecue. My mouth was literally watering. The par-cooked goat meat that I swallowed almost without chewing was bad. I had to decide whether to make myself vomit then or hope for the best. I hoped for the best and got food poisoning. That’s when I learned about Oral Rehydration Salts thanks to my friend Mamie and the MSF clinic.

Most Monotonous Diets in foreign lands:
Everything at our hotel in Pretoria, South Africa, March 2004:
All you can eat buffet. You had to fight off hordes of German tourists to get to the food and then it was bland, over cooked, and sauced with what seemed to be paste. Terrible in its nothingness particularly compared to what I knew South Africa was capable of.

Traveling through Kinshasa, North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri, DRC , May 2005: Almost every day we ate beef brochette, pommes frites, and a beer. By the end of three weeks, I was dying for vegetables and was pretty convinced that I had “trigger finger” from gout.

The MSF Cafeteria, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 2007-2010:Every day you have your choice of dried out breads, processed mystery meats and cheeses packaged in plastic wrap or odd salads such as canned beans, celery, canned corn, and olives in mayonnaise or red peppers, canned black olives, fake tofu/feta, celery, and raw onions swimming in olive oil with no vinegar. Deep fried cutlets that when cut open are made of spaghetti. Soups that are either grey or brown and taste vaguely like paste or canned beef flavor. Buttermilk or milk to drink. “But it’s free!”

Worst book to read in a war zone:
David Rieff’s Bed for the Night in Darfur in 2004. Will kill any sense of hopefulness that you might have and replace it with despair.

Best Book to read in Haiti before the earthquake:
The Comedians by Graham Greene. I was reading it all night and woke up in La Cayenne hotel to open my door to the blinding bright Caribbean light. Outside was a Haitian man in mirror shades, a red speedo, with a big gun. I thought it was the tonton macoute. I closed the door and splashed water on my face. When I reopened the door, he was still there. Turns out President Aristide was coming to the hotel and he was in the advance body guard team.

2nd best book to read in Haiti before the earthquake:
The Comte de Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas – French. Rackish. Dumas was rumored to have black blood. Keeps you endlessly entertained and is long enough that you don’t have to carry another one around with you.

Best Song to enter a war zone to:
Rock the Casbah” by the Clash. I listened to this as I drove overland from Syria to Beirut during the August 2006 Israel-Hezbollah clash.

Best song to dance to in a refugee camp in Sudan:
African Queen” by 2Face Idiba  – at the Bulls eye night club in Kakuma Refugee Camp near Lokichoggio, Kenya.

Song I’ve heard on every continent that I’ve traveled to:
"Aisha" by Khaled. Sung live in a nightclub in Cairo, innumerous car radios in Beirut, on an iPod at a Save the Children party in Darfur, at the nightclub in Honduras, at a house party in Papua New Guinea, at a hotel party in Mumbai, India.

Books I didn’t like about places I’ve been to:
The Catastrophist, Kinshasa, Congo. All I remember is that the author kept describing the so called irresistible woman as having extremely thin hair. What woman wants to be described by a man who is obsessed with her as having thinning hair? Why did that even occur to the author as a way to describe the heroine? There was something in there about someone spitting in someone’s face. Everyone was annoying and I wanted everyone to die by the end of it.

The God of Small Things, Kerala, India. At this point, I don't know why I didn't like it but I recall not liking it.

 Books I did like about places I’ve been to:
Anil’s ghost in Sri Lanka
The English Patient in Tuscany, Italy
The Comedians, Haiti
The Heart of the Matter, Sierra Leone
Country of my Skull, South Africa
Berlin by Anthony Beevor, Berlin, Germany


  1. Yasmin11:57 AM

    Is that you, dear Sarah M?! This blog popped up on my Google alert and I could not stop reading this entry!! Very entertaining AND: I'VE BEEN TO BOSTO DAY SPA! And I regret almost, that we fly between Boguila and Bangui now, which made me miss out on that fish...
    U back home from India, sweety? If so, I see you next week and we can have some soggy canned cellery or spinach salad in the cafeteria! Cheers, Yasmin

  2. My god girl, some day they'll have a camera that can capture virtual experiences and they'll have a website that can upload them, and then I'll definitely want to virtually experience your top 20 (though I'll be happy enough to READ about your bottom 20).

    One point of clarification: the Haitian man was wearing NOTHING but a red speedo, mirror shades, and gun? What the f@#$%???

  3. Reading your "favorite food" posts, my eyes welled with tears---seriously.

  4. @Jennifer - yes the man was wearing ONLY those items! Tres chic!

    @ Yasmin - let's skip the lame MSF cafeteria and go to Soup and Zo... much nicer!

  5. Miss Sarah,

    This is a great you mind if I borrow your idea?


  6. Go for it, Patti... would be interested to hear your bests and worsts.

  7. Sarah, What a gift you have to write so succinctly and descriptively at the same time. Beautiful post!

  8. Anonymous1:07 AM

    I confess, I'm a little disappointed that there is not one single mention of AC/DC in any of your music-oriented best/worst lists. I have always believed that "Highway to Hell" was the consumate disaster/war zone aid work anthem...

    Like your blog!